Earnestly seeking the father-in-law I wish I’d known

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 9, 2009

It was 60 years ago this week that I was deprived of the father-in-law I never met.

He never had the chance to walk his two daughters down the aisle, or hug his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He never had the chance to explore our beautiful Alberta foothills and mountains with his two sons-in-law. He and I never had the chance to draw close together over dark roast at one of Cochrane’s friendly coffee houses.

The only way I’ve come to know the father of my wife, Mary Anna, is through her childhood recollections and family legends – and through the manuscript he wrote for a book that holds increasing importance for me personally.

Ernest Beuter was born in western New York State soon after the end of World War I. He was a reflective, deeply committed Christian man who had a special bond with animals.

I’ve often heard the story of his pet crow. As a teenager, Ernest had a rural newspaper route and the crow would ride on his shoulder, say a few words – Ernest had trained it to talk –, take brief flights around the neighbourhood, then perch once more on the shoulder of its faithful companion.

One day while Ernest was delivering papers, the crow flew off as usual on its routine scouting mission, but this time it did not return. Ernest heard the crack of a rifle a short distance away. He didn’t look back.

Nor, on the brighter side, did Ernest look back some years later when he experienced a call into the ministry. After taking theological studies, finding a wife, having two daughters, and pastoring a couple of country churches, he and his young family relocated to Haiti as missionaries. There they served for two years among a marginalized community not far from Port-au-Prince.

Upon their return to the States, he pursued his academic interests, writing a textbook on biblical theology (the study of God according to the Bible).

He had long dreamed of teaching biblical theology, and he was about to realize his dream by accepting an invitation to teach at an institute for Scripture studies in Georgia.

He and the family packed their belongings into two vehicles and set out from New York State for their new home.

On Dec. 7, 1949, the eighth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, they were passing through West Virginia when all their dreams changed in an instant. Mary Anna, eight at the time, recalls the moment:

“My sister and I were reading comic books in the front seat of the car Mom was driving. Leading the way, our father was driving a truck containing most of our earthly possessions, when Mom suddenly exclaimed, ‘Oh, Ernest!’

“We looked up to see the truck over an embankment, with books and household goods scattered all over and our father lying on his back, moaning. (This was long before seat belts were in use.) Next thing I knew, my sister and I were riding in the front seat of an ambulance. My father was on a stretcher in back and my mother was beside him, calling his name. We were sitting in the waiting room of the hospital when a doctor came and told us that our father had died on the way.”

Thirteen years later, after Mary Anna and I had met and were engaged to be married, her mother brought Ernest’s manuscript for First Principles of Theology to my attention. At the time, I was taking graduate studies in biblical theology, and the subject matter of his book interested me and my professors. But try as we might, we were not able to interest a publisher in the book back then – the first and only book by a deceased author didn’t much grab publishers’ imaginations.

Thus, for the past few years, Mary Anna has taken it upon herself to ready First Principles for private publication – for limited release, hopefully in 2010.

On this, the 60th anniversary of his death, and in honour of the father-in-law with whom I never sipped coffee, I’d like to share a quote from the Preface to his book – a statement on a discipline that is becoming more and more important for me the older I get. About “the science of God,” and in particular, the systematic study of the Bible, Ernest says:

“In every age men will demand an answer to the basic queries, Why are we here? Where are we going? and What must we do with our sins? No other matters can compare in importance with these, and nothing but the knowledge of God will suffice for their solution. Not the study of nature, not the formulation of moral codes, and not even the construction of reasonable hypotheses concerning the world of the spirit; but only the sure and absolute truth from God Himself which can serve as the basis for a personal acquaintance with Him.”

Thank you, Father-in-Law. At last, I’m getting personally acquainted with you – through your heart and mind.

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

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