A Personal Tribute to Allen Guenther
It is a privilege to write this tribute to Allen Guenther. It is based on many years of personal friendship, but also on the tributes sent to me by his friends, family, and colleagues. Many of these words are their words.
In Allen’s life we see God’s creative artistry blending wisdom, discipline, compassion, courage, and dignity into a distinctive beauty.
Allen and his wife, Anne, have been married for over forty years and have three sons. His life has been rich in study, experience, and human relationships. Yet in many ways Allen is now defined by two events: first, his move from Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg, Manitoba (now part of Canadian Mennonite University), to Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (MBBS) in Fresno, California, in 1981; second, the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in 1984. These are personal and public realities.
A THINKER AND WRITER
Allen has always enjoyed reading. Besides material in his field of study, his reading ranges from fiction to complex scientific theories. He sometimes reads his Hebrew Bible for devotions. Anne teases him that he reads too much Hebrew because he tends to look at signs or a series of numbers/symbols from right to left, rather than left to right.
Allen is both a careful and a creative thinker, researcher, and writer. He has done years of work on details of Hebrew grammar. He is disciplined. His teaching is well-organized and presented. He writes and speaks with precision and clarity. Yet, read his Hosea-Amos commentary in the Believers Church Bible Commentary series (Herald Press, 1998) and discover the freshness and vitality in his work.
He is creative and courageous. The article that he wrote with Herb Swartz about women in ministry (Mennonite Brethren Herald, 4 May 1973) was a very important signal of Allen’s capacity and commitment to rethink issues in new ways. The research and writing he continues to do on marriage and divorce is based on details of ancient biblical texts, but it is creative work that is published in some of the best journals in his field. And always there is a keen sense of the pastoral implications of these ideas. Whether he ranges from marriage to church leadership, from disabilities to discipleship, or from ancient Israel to the contemporary church, he is sensitive to the ramifications for the life of the people of God.
SERVICE TO PEOPLE
Allen has always enjoyed interacting with people. When he studied in Toronto in the 1970s he helped provide leadership for the small Mennonite Brethren (MB) congregation in the north part of the city. In Winnipeg he was active in the Fort Garry congregation and took significant interim leadership responsibilities during a time of pastoral transition. In Fresno he has been deeply involved in the Butler Avenue MB congregation, especially in pastoral care and visitation. He is a man of the church.
Parkinson’s disease has made his involvement with others increasingly difficult. When his illness forced him to withdraw from teaching in the late 1990s, he missed the interaction with people. Students felt the loss of an outstanding teacher and an expert in Old Testament; they also regretted the loss of a sensitive listener and wise confidante. But it was not a total loss.
In the years since he moved to a disability retirement status at the seminary, Allen has maintained regular office hours and has become a trusted counselor and advisor to many students. His compassion, generosity of spirit, and interest in others is cherished by those who know him. Allen has been a supportive and affirming friend to his faculty and administrative colleagues in Winnipeg and Fresno. They cherish his participation, for example, in the informal lunch table conversations that are the fertile seedbed of theological ideas, mutual care, and robust laughter.
The Parkinson’s disease has forced Allen and Anne into a different retirement than they had planned. Anne has continued to work as a reference librarian at Fresno Pacific University. They had hoped to finish their careers and then retire to do volunteer work with Mennonite Central Committee, Habitat for Humanity, or other such agencies. That is no longer an option.
But with these losses have come new opportunities. Allen’s disease was a door that he opened to touch many people with whom he would not otherwise have had contact. Soon after he was diagnosed in 1984, he became active in establishing a Parkinson’s support group. He has traveled to other groups to encourage them and to assist in their development. He refers to the people who attended the support group as his particular parish. Other people who have Parkinson’s disease and who have experienced his care and advocacy, praise his kindness, his determination, and his courage.
His seminary colleagues honored him a year ago by presenting him with a “mental health and integration” award. They acknowledged his contribution to Parkinson’s support groups, but also the way in which he personally has faced the challenges of this disease. He has aggressively learned about and experimented with new medications and procedures to lessen the symptoms and progress of the disease. Through it all he has been realistic. Some of the side effects have been difficult, some procedures or medications have not had the results he hoped for. He acknowledges these disappointments openly, without bitterness, often with a smile. Then he engages his new situation with tenacity and grace. He lives with illness and uncertainty in a positive and constructive way.
His present colleagues at MBBS have some vivid images of Allen that are the metaphors of his life. One is Allen listening with care to a lunch table conversation, engaging his friends with his encouraging, kind eyes and with fewer and more labored words. Another is Allen walking across the corner of campus with a wheelbarrow and some garden implements to care for the flower bed at the outer corner of the campus at Butler and Chestnut streets. It’s good exercise, he says. It is, and it involves great determination and discipline. For years there was also the common image of Allen returning from a racquetball game at neighboring Fresno Pacific University. His walking might seem uncertain, but that did not stop him from pushing the borders of his physical capacity to hold back as much as possible the relentless encroachment of the disease that was increasingly defining his life. And there has been his laugh, harder to generate with Parkinson’s, but hearty, good-natured, and welcome.
Allen has always loved working with wood. For some years he built furniture, and his wood of choice was mahogany. He built a captain’s bed for our oldest son, a desk, and numerous bookshelves. These were magnificent and substantial pieces with obvious quality and elegance.
Soon after Allen and his family (wife Anne, sons Ron, Barry, and Michael) moved to Fresno from Winnipeg in 1982, Allen decided to take up wood turning. He purposely did not use new wood for this, but was constantly looking for stumps, burls, driftwood, or firewood which had interesting grain. He became adept at fashioning unique pots, bowls, etc., out of various textures, sometimes gluing different pieces together before turning them. He was constantly experimenting with different methods of finishing for his creations. He used to draw an analogy with life: making something beautiful from “trash” or “garbage” just as God does with our lives.
God has done beautiful things with the life of this servant, our friend Allen. Not trash at all. More like the burl of wood, the place where a branch or a root produces a unique twisting and turning of the grain. The part of the wood that mass producers disdain and discard, and artists search for and cherish. In Allen’s life we see God’s creative artistry blending wisdom, discipline, compassion, courage, and dignity into a distinctive beauty. We receive this gift of God with gratitude and respect.