Seven things I learned from my friend and mentor

By Dr Matthew Elliott, President, Oasis International

This article is dedicated to my friend and Operation Mobilization (OM) co-worker Vera – George Verwer’s faithful ministry enabler for over 40 years. This amazing life was possible because of your dedication and sacrifice. Thank you, from all of us.

I knew George was dying. I still hoped to see him in person on my trip through London in late April. I knew it was his time, but that was OK – my visit would be a holy celebration of a life lived for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. A reason to rejoice, not weep.

I wept anyway. As I tried to work in my office chair, as I tried to fall asleep that night, I knew that I was weeping for George’s death. But why? It has taken me a couple days to figure out the answer.

If you read tributes, like I have the last few days, you will see a list of some amazing accomplishments: things George did, radical things he said, the number of workers OM has been involved in sending, the story of ocean-going Gospel ships, and the fact that he may have mobilized more international workers than anyone in his generation. Although incredible, these things have almost nothing to do with why I am weeping for the loss of my friend and mentor, George Verwer.

The reason I am weeping for George is that I loved him. After I graduated from college nearly thirty years ago, I became one of George’s traveling “gophers.” During that year, a gopher was probably with George more than he was with his wife, Drena. I’m talking 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No walls, no pretense, no façade. What was the most difficult for me was that in that entire year George never slowed down, looked me in the eye and said, “Matt, how are you doing, what are you thinking, how can I pray for you?” It was not like any Paul to Timothy relationship I ever heard about – just all action all the time. But I can look back and say my life was forever changed.

The real genius of George Verwer—and something that I’m not reading in the tributes—was that he loved God with all he had, with every flawed bone in his skinny body. He was totally and absolutely convinced that everybody needed to know the God who had poured out such grace and life on a sinner like him. His belief was so strong and his life so vibrant, it was fully and absolutely contagious.

As I’ve reflected recently, I realized that many of my core values come straight from George’s life. In honor of the numbered sermons George always gave, here are seven things I’ve learned from my dear friend:

1. My message is second

George always started a message with several books in his hand. “These books changed my life,” he would yell from the front. “This one is for a backslider like me. This one helped me learn how to defeat temptation.” He knew the main points of his message would probably pass quickly for most, but a book could be read, reread, underlined, and meditated on. This mindset is totally radical – to start every message by saying that these other people’s messages are more important than mine.

2. Nobody is too small to do great things for God

For George, this was not merely a recruiting method or a slogan. He believed it. I’ve probably heard his testimony a few hundred times – it was a part of every other message he spoke. Every time, a lady who prayed for George in high school took center stage. She prayed that George would come to know Christ and that he would become a missionary. There was a reason George made this the core of his story – he was telling us that everything we did mattered, that God could use us no matter where we were or how small we seemed. Without the prayer of one faithful woman, OM may not exist.

3. It doesn’t matter if you drive, as long as we’re going in the same direction

George had no ego, no horse in the race, no care for who did the work, as long as it got done. Of course, OM had a special place in his heart, but George was just as excited if another ministry did the needed gospel work or got the credit. He wanted to find what God was doing and empower it, first and foremost. Once, in our early work in Nigeria, Oasis was in trouble and perhaps would have gone under. George gave us a container of books to get us through – the first of many! OM had book ministries around the world that could have taken every book he had to meet legitimate needs, but George gave to all without partiality.

4. God uses flawed people who love him greatly

George’s messages almost always highlighted his personal failure. He was an open book. One moment he could talk about being a natural backslider—and the next he was talking about a radical example in his life of giving it all for Jesus! George would concentrate on his own flaws and God’s triumphs right next to each other. He did this because he knew that you were seriously flawed just like him, and if God could use him, he could also use you. There are few people who actually live like they believe that.

5. You can be mega-motivated through to the end

By the end of his life, George was one of the most well-known mission leaders in the world. But despite his high standing, he still passionately gave individual challenges to individual missionaries he knew and loved. His excitement for the gospel and passion for the lowly stayed with George to the very end. Even into his 70s, George zealously led small groups and nights of prayer to petition his Heavenly Father for the salvation of unreached people.

6. The Gospel comes before everything else

George knew the power of a saved sinner. He believed that a man or woman redeemed by God’s grace and fully committed to Jesus is the most powerful force in the world for justice and mercy. The Gospel was central in everything George did. Nothing was more important.

7. God cares about your emotions

When it came to getting my PhD in New Testament, George was not openly critical, but he wondered aloud something like, “Do you really need that kind of degree when you could be a tent-making missionary in Uzbekistan, doing something nobody else is doing?” Emotion in the Bible was my topic. But even here, George’s life-on-life discipleship helped me understand that God is interested in what you love, why you feel joy, and what makes you angry. God wants your emotions to align with his heart for the world, the poor, and the lost. George’s example helped me realize that emotional transformation is at the heart of loving God and neighbor well.

He was like the Energizer Bunny after drinking five shots of expresso. He was the anti-brand – never on message, but always on point. He pursued the Gospel straight from his heart – no matter what it took, no matter who was doing it, no matter what it cost.

George did not build OM. God built OM through George’s great love and his pursuit of Jesus’s commands. This love gave George a radical others-centered humility that spread the Gospel wherever he went. George’s secret was a holy contagion for loving Jesus that people, like me, caught from George Verwer. That was his method of discipleship.

I had the privileged to know and be known by George, and somehow, through the messiness of life, I was discipled. There are a couple people in the great cloud of witnesses I sometimes think of on a prayer walk or during a difficult time. I think, “Are you watching me? Did I do that OK? Did I honor what you taught me?” Now, I have three men I will look to in this way the rest of my life – one is named George.

George called his way of life “redeeming the time” (Eph 5:15). His every moment was lived in the radical pursuit of proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ to the world.

George’s race is run. Now he can enter his rest.

So let’s be careful how we live. Let’s make the best use of the time.

As George Verwer would say, “Are you ready to go?”

Dr Elliott’s passion to help leaders in Africa develop and access ministry tools, with content addressing needs in their contexts, has driven him to lead Oasis International for over two decades. Click here to learn more about Dr Elliott.

Learn more about the work of Oasis and how you can support discipleship through publishing African voices, here.

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