The Final Trust Walk of Steve Hayner

Leadership Journal, February 2015

What I learned from a man both “scary smart” and humble.

By John Ortberg

I first met Steve Hayner over a quarter of a century ago. He was the president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, scary smart (a Harvard guy, with a PhD from St. Andrews), but so humble that he made everyone he talked with feel like they had something genuinely interesting and helpful to say.

Mother Teresa used to advise people not to try to do great things for God, but to do small things with great love. That was Steve. He told about being a ministry intern; one of his mentors stopped him from sending out the thank-you notes he’d written to volunteers because the stamps on the envelope were too ugly, and “people who serve should be thanked with beauty.” So Steve went down to the post office to get stamps that had some beauty and class.

I can’t see a stamp without thinking about Steve Hayner.

After 14 years of remarkable leadership, he left Inter Varsity and looked forward to spending more time in the direct encouragement of others. “I feel like a Barnabas who’s been trying to be Paul,” he told me. But when he went to teach at Columbia Seminary, they ended up making him president. Like Al Pacino in The Godfather, Steve kept trying to pull out of leadership, but they kept pulling him back in.

Last spring he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; the same form that killed my father-in-law; the same form that killed Dallas Willard. For the past nine months, he has been teaching his friends and students around the world how to live while dying.

He wrote last week that the day on which he wrote that note might be his homegoing day. He signed the note: “joyfully,” which was always his word.

He went home on Saturday. In the note that his wife sent along with the news, she included a kind of spiritual parable, written by Steve Harrington, a family friend who had a special memory with Steve Hayner. It carries the hope of the gospel in a way that is unforgettable and irresistible. I will carry it with me for a long time:

Steve, my favorite unique memory with you was years ago at Wellspring Retreat Center. You remember we were given various iterations of the “trust walk.” In one of those exercises we were supposed to guide our blindfolded partner from behind using only our voice. You walked in front of me and I directed you with only words into a small thicket of woods. I had you stepping over logs and ducking down below strong branches. You went slowly and could feel dead wood snapping beneath your feet and all of the twigs on your face as you brushed past them. You knew that you were walking through a very thick and tangled terrain—a precarious path for someone blindfolded and having to trust only the words spoken to them.

Then I brought you almost out of the woods to the very edge of a large, flat, grassy field and stopped you six inches from the grass—you were still standing in the woods blindfolded (you remember, right?). You had no idea that all the tangles and tripping hazards and undergrowth and slapping branches and hard trees were behind you and that before you was only a broad, flat, lush field of green grass. You were imagining yourself still in the woods, stuck in the midst of all the tangles and hazards. Only I knew that before you it was all level and open and free of any encumbrance or danger or fear.

Then I said, “At the count of three, I want you to run straight forward as fast as you can. I counted to three and, with great trust, you took off running, charging ahead, screaming your lungs out, flailing your arms—worried that you were still careening through the woods but also suddenly laughing to find out that you were out of the tangled danger and running easily into a flat field full of soft and forgiving grass.

This is the journey ahead for you, my friend, whenever it is that you take it. The Word is behind you but also goes before you; the Word-made-flesh walks with you and is within you. And therefore all shall be well, and all shall be well—and all manner of things shall be well. The nausea and the discomfort, the fear and weakness, the tears and the treatments (the tripping hazards and the threatening thicket) will be over and you will run full speed screaming and laughing into the forgiving arms of grace and the healing heart of God.

“He gives strength to the weary,” the prophet says, “and increased the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;

But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

They will run and not grow weary…”

Keep running, Steve. We will catch up one day—all God’s children—and charge and scream and flail and laugh together.

John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership Journal and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California.