In the course of my 50 years, I have met and known thousands of people. They are all notable in some form or another, but there are three men in particular that stand out from the crowd. These men are big thinkers, inspired, cut from a different bolt of cloth. More than any other, they have made the most influence on who I am today. One is Troy Nesbitt, the inspiration behind the Salt Network movement that is rapidly spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout major college cities in the midwest. Another is my father, whose combined passions of evangelism and his research in the area of high-protein, non-GMO soybeans drive him to this day. The third man is the one I want to honor in this blog.
His name is Ken McElreath. Ken was my first boss, the one who hired me to work at Rockwell Collins in 1989. He is celebrating his 40th service anniversary this month. I don’t know anyone else who has worked at the same place for 40 years. Ken has had an illustrious career at Rockwell, receiving many awards, owning multiple patents, and being recognized as the inspiration behind Rockwell Collins’ success in the Flight Management Systems business. Before that, Ken graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and was employed eight years at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, in various fields of test and experimentation. He is one of few people who can say he has had an illustrious career in a field he loves.
He is fascinated by science and engineering, especially as it applies to transportation and navigation. He and his wife Marsha are both private pilots. He has an elaborate H.O. scale model train in his basement which my daughter, Gina and I went to see the other day. The diorama features Birmingham, Alabama’s heavy industry in the 1950’s–a favorite interest of Ken’s. He gave us the grand tour, pointing out the immense coal and coal by-product factories, steepled churches, taverns, bridges, and farms. The centerpiece of the display is actually not native to Alabama. It is a replica of the Union Station depot that formerly graced the lawn near present-day Green Square Park in Cedar Rapids (which was demolished in the 1960’s and replaced with a parking garage!…but that’s another story). But what was truly amazing was his demonstration, working the electronics to bring trains out into the scenery. He knew each train by name, knew its destination, and the contents of each car (he had trading cards with all of this information available in handy shelves along the sides of the diorama). The magnitude of planning and precision blew us away. It was clear that Ken was thoroughly enjoying giving us a show. This is one of those endearing qualities of Ken. He knows what he likes and he takes time to enjoy it.
Recently, I had the pleasure of accompanying Ken on a work trip to Dayton. We sat next to each other on the plane–me in the aisle and he by the window. As I labored to read the boring book I brought, I noticed Ken take out his aviation map, find our location, and look out the window to identify landmarks. I chuckled to myself. This is vintage Ken. He is not afraid to be alone with his thoughts.
Having lived in Dayton eight years while in the Air Force, Ken knew the place well. He took me to the Golden Lamb, the oldest active restaurant in the United States (they served John Quincy Adams during his presidency!). Ken was reminiscent, reflecting on his years at Wright-Patterson. He recalled attending a speech by Ivonette Wright Miller, niece of the Wright brothers. He remembered her telling of becoming the first woman to ever fly in an airplane while riding along with “Uncle Wilbur”, and how was able to describe in detail what she was wearing. He also took me to Carillon Park, a wooded, historical treasure featuring several notable homes and artifacts, including a replica of the Wright Brothers’ Bicycle Shop. As we walked together, Ken praised the ingenuity, creativeness, and skill of Orville and Wilbur, and of the generosity of the John H. Patterson, the founder of NCR, and the town’s savior during the Great Flood of 1913.
I enjoy talking with Ken about stuff like this. It’s these kinds of stories that color our lives and create context for us, give meaning to life and that highlight the value of knowing and relating to people.
I consider myself a sort of modern-day version of Ken. In no way am I suggesting I come close to his immense wealth of knowledge. I’m just saying that Ken and I enjoy the same things and in many ways, think alike. But unlike Ken, I have adopted some modern forms of communication and connectivity. Whereas I have an Galaxy 5S, a TomTom, and am a frequent user of Instant Messenger, Ken will have nothing to do with those silly substitutes for good ol’ face-to-face conversation, landmark navigation, and map-reading. The contrast in our styles made for some humorous slapstick comedy as I wove the rental car through the streets of Dayton following Ken’s directions.
I respect Ken in many ways, but what really makes him stands out, and the way he has truly impacted my life, is this: he is the greatest Bible teacher I have ever known.
Over the course of my life, I have heard lots of different Bible teachers and have seen many styles and methods. Some were engaging and thought-provoking. Others preached like milquetoast and put me to sleep. I like the preachers at my church today–they are smart, engaging, not afraid to call sin, “sin”, uphold the Bible as inspired and authoritative, and are consistently pointing me to Christ.
But no one can teach like Ken. No one has as comprehensive a grasp on scripture than he. He’s also fluent in the fields of engineering, mathematics, geography, history, literature, science, and culture, and he brings it all to bear when he dissects the meaning of each passage and puts things in context.
“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of God.” (II Timothy 2:15, KJV)
I used to think I understood what it meant to “study” God’s word. Ken took that notion and unraveled it, turned it upside down, and helped me see a more holistic approach to studying God’s word. He took “study” to another level that I didn’t know existed.
One of his main principles of study is that God’s word is a “closed system”, completely self-contained, not needing any propping up or colorful support from science or commentaries. Ken instills confidence in his listeners. He demonstrates that by becoming familiar with all of scripture–the ancient and the new–any reader can unpack any scripture thoroughly and accurately.
What Ken does better than anyone is draw out the timeless principles and meta themes hidden underneath the surface. He does it using the very words God uses, not catch phrases or over-simplified slogans. Ken is the only teacher I know that elevates the concept that the Kingdom of Heaven is something we can experience today when we submit ourselves to the Holy Spirit by crying out “Abba, Father” in desperate dependence. He is the only one I’ve heard discuss how it is possible for believers to suppress God’s truth, and as a result, experience God’s wrath and judgment in real-time (not just in the afterlife)–signs intended to wake us up, get our attention. He is the only one who sees the trials of James’ letter as everyday encounters with people which create opportunities for us to live by faith. I still remember many of his lessons because they “transformed my mind”, which I think is what Ken was after all along. He didn’t just want to feed my mind with God’s word, he wanted God’s word to affect it, to change it.
This new perspective has made Bible study exciting for me. It is a path to growing deeper into the knowledge of God that is adventurous, fulfilling, and limitless. I thank Ken for giving me that inspiration.
He is not afraid to take on more difficult, lesser-known scriptures, such as Job, Amos, and Malachi. Through obscure books like these, he is always able to reveal the great treasure found there–instruction that is vital to having a good marriage, relating to people rightly, and living by faith. You just don’t see that kind of intense, intentional study of God’s word these days, except in Seminary. Ken’s thought is that every believer should have more opportunity (and desire) to feast on meaty portions of God’s word, and not settle for sugary snacks.
Ken is the originator of a concept he calls “Corporate Bible Study”. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I think it has something to do with 1) getting the whole family together to hear God’s word taught, 2) systematically teaching God’s word as it is written, letter by letter, book by book, using a lecture-style format with a well-prepared lesson on a given passage, and 3) lots of opportunities for Q&A with the crowd. In his lessons, Ken uses a simple formula for proper study of God’s word, a formula he impresses on his audience. He often tell his listeners, “when you read a passage, you must ask yourself three questions:
- What does it say?
- What does it mean?
- How do I apply it?”
In contemporary Christianity, we often jump to step 3 before adequately addressing steps 1 and 2. We love simple application, which can be misguided when we don’t really know what God is saying, haven’t paused to consider what words He chose, nor understood what He meant. We become proud when we fall back on presumptions, on “the way we were taught” years ago. Ken tries to get his audience to read what the word says and act on that, not on what we learned in Sunday School.
Ken is not afraid to call a spade a spade. He’s not afraid to call out questionable practices and beliefs of contemporary Christianity, bringing them into the light and raising concerns. He will occasionally make a bold and obtuse statement for effect, to catch your attention, to make you think. That gets him in trouble. He has been targeted, spied upon (literally, I’m not making this up), and asked to stop teaching in certain circles. He has ruffled many a feather.
Church elders are not sure what to make of him. Pastors apparently don’t know what to do with him. From my perspective, Ken is just a guy who appreciates knowledge, hard work, careful analysis, and good discussion. He admires the finer things of life that many never pause to notice. He is not out to get anyone. You can search, but you won’t find a trace of malice in his heart. He has no time for that.
As we walked quietly through Carillon Park that day in Dayton, it occurred to me that Ken is a very misunderstood man. You can call him anti-church. You can call him dogmatic. You can say he’s not a team player. You can call him inflexible, bombastic, and egotistical. But you know what? Those same vices make him a great teacher. He is confident, and his confidence is just enough to unnerve you once in awhile, to make you question the validity of your position, and to think twice about it. He makes you think.
So, thank you, Ken, for your commitment to studying and teaching God’s word, and for helping me appreciate what it means to study it for myself.