I met Peter Brinkman 50 years ago. He was the newly-appointed associate director of the Bethel Bible Study and I was the not-yet-official religion reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.
We quickly became buddies -- as did about half of Madison, I suspect. Anyone who claimed to be anyone in the religious world, from the Dalai Lama of Tibet to nuns at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical Center, had Peter on their speed dials.
Peter died Wednesday night of heart failure. He was 78 and he was, quite simply, the most Christian man I have ever encountered, which might not have been immediately obvious.
Peter didn’t glide along in pietist obscurity. He ate a lot. He laughed a lot. During the first quarter century of our friendship we drank a lot and smoked cigarettes a lot. During the second quarter-century we neither drank nor smoked, but we did play golf when we were supposed to be working.
Peter traveled the world for the Adult Christian Education Foundation, which sponsored the international Bible study program. He later served a decade or so as associate pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church. When he retired from Immanuel, the church sponsored a big dinner for him, during which he announced, “Some people think I won’t be able to stop working; just watch me!”
That lasted about a week, and then he became the associate director of the International Committee for the Peace Council and started traveling the world again.
Peter was always the associate director of something or another; he was discovered by charismatic people who asked him to put their dreams into concrete form -- and he did.
The thing about Peter is that he was an incredibly humble man, the kind of guy who was just as interested in the janitor’s thoughts as in the thoughts of a world-famed theologian.
He was always cheerful, except at those times when I was supposed to pick him up for lunch and I was late. Peter really didn’t like to be late for meals.
So why was Peter the most Christian man I have encountered?
I think because he just accepted joyfully the wondrous individual God created him to be. He didn’t feel any need to defend his faith; it was part of him. Nor did he feel any need to argue his religion with others. He marveled at the depth of faith he found in Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and a variety of faiths I never even heard of before I met Peter.
He wasn’t a perfect man. He and Pat were married for 55 years and often, when Peter and I had lunch, he’d shake his head and say, “You know, if Pat hadn’t stood by me when I was screwing up, I’d have lost everything I now find important and I’d have never even known what I missed.”
Which is the other reason Peter was the most Christian man I knew. He understood grace. He understood being the recipient of grace, and he understood being the giver of grace.
His biggest fear was that he would end up in the medical care “system,” ending his life in a hospital bed tethered to tubes and being unable to live and unable to die.
That didn’t happen. He managed to take yet another job in his 70s, as a fund raiser for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and he worked until days before his death.
In the end, Peter was the grand recipient of God’s grace.