Today I lost my best childhood friend, my greatest mentor, and the godliest man I ever knew.
I first remember meeting Dave Vogelsang (“Mr. Dave”) when I was seven years old and attending Anchor Baptist Church in Millersville, Maryland. I didn’t know the kind of impact that he’d have on my life and on the lives of countless others. I wish I could sum up all that Mr. Dave has and always will mean to me, but I can’t. The best I can do is write down several cathartic observations about a life well lived, at the very least to serve as personal reminders to myself.
He Had a Heart for the Next Generation
Mr. Dave taught the 5th and 6th grade Sunday School class at our church, and his was the class that everyone wanted to attend. And there was a reason. The reason wasn’t just the Tootsie Rolls that he generously gave out to all his students (he insisted that there would be no favoritism…everyone received and received alike)–although that was a definite perk. The reason was that Mr. Dave himself was the real deal. He cared about each of his students individually. He knew us and our parents. He made sure to visit the homes of his students at least once a semester. He wanted to know that we had a serious relationship with God.
I’ll never forget the day I was chatting with Mr. Dave after church and telling him about how much I wanted to be a pilot. He said, “You know, if you want to help me mow the church lawn on Saturday, I’ll take you to the airport and we’ll watch airplanes land.” Every Saturday for 4 years I mowed the church lawn with Mr. Dave. He (quite without my awareness) taught me how to serve. And then we’d grab Burger King and sit at the airport and talk. Not only could I identify every airplane and airliner at an impressive distance, but I also received the equivalent of a couple seminary degrees due to our extended theological conversations.
Over the years, even as college, marriage, seminary, kids, jobs, ministry, and so much more pulled our paths apart, I always knew that Mr. Dave was there in his little home on Alameda Parkway with Christmas decorations up year-round, praying for me. I never doubted that for a second. Sometimes he’d call and talk for no less than an hour. And he’d always send a Christmas card, with carefully selected poems and verses and a note scratched out in his ever-so-hard-to-read handwriting. Or sometimes it was a book–a love language we both shared. But I always knew he cared and that he always brought my name before the throne of grace–even when life got crazy and I forgot to call him back on far too many occasions.
He Had a Heart for the Nations
Mr. Dave’s Sunday School classes weren’t your ordinary classes. He taught the curriculum, but he always wanted to get to a missionary story. He would tell personal stories about his time with missionaries in Alaska (one of his favorite places on earth). He had an impressive grasp of geography and had instant recall of hundreds of missionary names, locations, prayer requests, and opportunities. He was the first to get missionary prayer letters and he always sent care packages (usually books) to our missionaries. He impressed on the minds of his students the importance of considering first if God would have us go to the nations before deciding to do anything else.
My call to ministry was directly impacted by Mr. Dave’s passion for missions. He knew my interest in aviation, so early in our friendship he handed me a book entitled Jungle Pilot in Liberia by Abe Guenter. As I read the book, my mind danced with the idea of serving God and doing something I was passionate about at the same time. Over the years, Mr. Dave would drive me to ground school and flying lessons. He would give me more books on missionary aviators. We would dream about what it would be like to land on a short dirt strip or on one of those pontoon planes that he loved so much in Alaska.
But more than that, Mr. Dave demonstrated his heart for the nations in his prayers. I remember the joy of praying with Mr. Dave on Wednesday night prayer meetings. He always prayed the longest (and loudest), but his prayers were always the most interesting. He would meander through missionaries I knew and didn’t know. He would pray for the kids of missionaries. He would pray for schools that trained missionaries. And he would pray for his little buddies like me to become missionaries.
One day Mr. Dave asked me if I’d like to go help out a church planter in inner city Baltimore. He helped me make the connection and regularly drove me into the city to serve alongside Pastor Fleck at New Southwest Baptist Church. Little did I know it, but Mr. Dave was a big part of awakening my vision for pastoral ministry and church planting.
He sparked the fires for Kingdom advance in little souls. And there’s nothing more he would have rather done than serve God on the foreign field himself. But there were reasons.
He Demonstrated Dignity in Suffering
At first all I thought was that he was just a little out of shape, and he walked with a cane at times. Eventually I learned that as a child he contracted the dreaded polio disease and his entire body was ravaged as a result. This weakened many of his muscles, but he was able to go on and recover significantly. He went on to serve in the US Postal Service until he took a bad fall and injured his knee. After some time sorting mail, he took disability and retired. During that time, he had married and his wife left him. In this chaotic series of events, there was a deep soul-crushing loss for him. There was physical loss–a lack of mobility that made travel and missions work challenging. There was an emotional loss–a spouse who deserted him, leaving him isolated and lonely. And there was a spiritual loss–for all of his passion for ministry, Mr. Dave believed that a divorced man could not serve as a pastor.
Over time, his physical trauma would only get worse. The first time I ever went to visit someone in a hospital was going to see my buddy, Mr. Dave. He had a standard knee replacement surgery and was hard at work doing physical therapy to try to get mobile again. But something went horribly wrong. One Wednesday night at church he told me about how badly his knee ached and that he needed to go in to see the doctor. When the results finally arrived, the doctors discovered that his knee had become infected and that there was no longer enough bone to re-insert a new knee. For the rest of his life on this earth (probably 20 years now), Mr. Dave would transport himself with a walker, his leg in a giant metal brace, and his foot in a shoe with a huge sole (to compensate for the lost length of his leg).
As the years went on, Mr. Dave continued to experience incredible physical setbacks. But it never deterred him from service. He would still climb up on the tractor and mow the church lawn. He would drive me around to all the shut-ins, and I would deliver audio or video tapes of the church services to them. He would come early and stay late for church services, unlocking and locking the building and running the sound booth during the service. And I’ll never forget probably one of his last trips outside of Maryland–when, probably against all the doctors orders to the contrary, he showed up at my wedding in Greenville, South Carolina.
He Valued the Life of the Mind
Mr. Dave is the person who first taught me that PhD really stood for “Posthole Digger” and that an expert was nothing more than a former (“ex”) drip under pressure (“spurt”). He loved passing himself off as a know-nothing and making digs at scholarly elitism. But I think part of the reality was that Mr. Dave had spent hours teaching himself the Word of God and reading Christian books. He could see through so much of the pretentiousness of academia, but he really did know its value deep down. What he lamented was scholarship for scholarship’s sake. He loved scholars who applied their learning to missions and international training; he loved scholars who wrote books that the rest of the church could read and apply. I acutely remember his theory that conservative scholars frequently didn’t write because they were afraid of getting attacked by fellow conservatives (a theory that has given me boldness in my present responsibilities).
A vast number of my first theological books in my library have an inscription from Mr. Dave. He took me to theology seminars and to free Bible college classes at my church (when I was still a young teenager). We would discuss Calvinism, Dispensationalism, substitutionary atonement, inerrancy, church history and so much more. We read Spurgeon together. He was the first person to tell me about “this excellent preacher and writer from Minneapolis named John Piper.” He urged me on to tackle ever-higher page counts in my yearly reading goals, pushing me to read systematic theology: Ryrie, then Thiessen, then Strong, then Erickson before I turned 17. He never left his house without a book in the bag on the front of his walker. To this day, alongside my desk sits a copy of C. H. Spurgeon’s We Endeavour, a short book with messages to Christian leaders. Mr. Dave gave me that book in 2002, and I read it roughly every year. And, in turn, I’ve purchased copies and given them away to young pastors and leaders. Undoubtedly, he passed on his passion to study the Scriptures and to draw on the insights of the church.
No matter how deep we could go, it always turned back to practical. I’ll never forget that urgency. You could see it in his passionate evangelistic activity even when laid up in the hospital. You could hear it in his “Amen” from the back corner when Pastor Counterman would begin to make his applications. You could feel it on the late night drives home from the airport when he’d lapse into one of the homilies he would deliver at the local nursing home. He knew his stuff, but he knew that it was more important to know the Savior.
He is the Kind of Disciple-maker the Church Needs More Than Ever
In his entire life, Mr. Dave never tweeted or posted on Facebook or wrote a blog. He never owned a computer, and his phone only made calls. He never had much money, and what he had he gave to missions. He served quietly on the periphery of the church. He prayed like I always have wanted to pray. And he knew his Bible backwards and forwards. His was a life of true piety, but it never stopped there.
He didn’t follow any disciple-making strategy that I’ve ever seen or heard of (besides in the first four books of the New Testament). There was no playbook, no leader standing over him telling him to invest in others. He had every reason to excuse himself from investing in the next generation. He could have allowed his pain and anguish over never getting to be a missionary or stand in a pulpit on a Sunday crush his soul. But instead, Mr. Dave cared enough to extend an invitation to serve in those little unseen ways alongside him. He overlooked the awkwardness of this quirky, geeky homeschooled kid to invite me into his life. It cost him a Whopper Jr. meal once a week and, okay, probably a decent chunk of book purchases on my behalf, but his investment will last for eternity. With absolute certainty I can say that I would never be the man I am today or serving God the way I am today without the life of Mr. Dave. And I’m not the only one.
I remember Mr. Dave’s frequent references to David Brainerd over the years. And one quotation from Brainerd that I suspect that Mr. Dave resonated with is this one:
“It is sweet to be nothing and less than nothing that Christ may be all in all.”
May our churches be filled with men and women who desire the sweetness of being less than nothing so that Christ might be everything to those who are far from him.
Mission accomplished, Mr. Dave.