My Mentor Bert

A tribute to a man who never failed to balance serious and humorous, big-picture and minutiae, faith and uncertainty.

The week that Bert Witvoet died, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and Canadians began hoarding toilet paper. 

“At last!” I imagined him saying. “No toilet paper? This could be Christian Courier’s moment – people will need newspapers again!” 

The joke might look a little bald here, but I’m pretty sure Bert could carry it off. After all, this was the man who had a nicely framed poem called “In Praise of Sphincter Ani” in his bathroom. Like Bert himself, the poem was both serious and hilarious, and might just inspire the reader into new territory when next giving thanks to God. 

When I first met Bert, he was 74 – nine years past the age of retirement in Canada – with the vigour of a man decades younger. He had come out of retirement to keep Christian Courier running after the death of Editor Harry der Nederlanden, and then stayed at the helm another year as a mentor. For six years after that Bert Witvoet gave me advice, encouragement and perspective – the tail end of a Psalm 90- fourscore years’ worth of strength, all poured out into Kingdom work. Like many other people, I am grateful for the years that my story overlapped with Bert’s. 

Wit and wisdom
Editors have two conflicting tasks – to understand and report on major news trends and events while also keeping an eagle eye on minutiae like word counts, headlines and typos. I had no problem with the production side of things; it was questions about content and context that I kept sending to Bert, at least at first. As I slowly shaped CC to fit my understanding of its mission and vision, Bert always, always backed me up – to irate readers and, sometimes, to irate writers (remember when columns were over 900 words each?!). He went to every Board meeting, even after his stroke in 2015. Now and then, during the more heated discussions, he’d wink at me across the table, as if to imply that things weren’t as serious as they might seem. He pulled me aside during the coffee break of one Board meeting, according to my journal from 2012, to say firmly “Stand your ground.” In an email from that same year: “Don’t let [so-and-so] get you down.” These were like cups of cool water half-way through a marathon – just what I needed to keep going. 

At age 81, he wrote an editorial defending satirical cartoons after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, noting that Jesus used satire but did not poke fun without reason. Bert had this way of taking heavy topics and writing about them with a light touch. He could ratchet down the tension on a controversial topic at lightening speed, usually with something witty. He was humble enough to accept changes to his own work. And I’m certain these two characteristics – humour and humility – are linked; he saw humour as a way of keeping us all from getting too self-important. 

I remember calling him once, furious, shortly after I’d been appointed Editor-in-Chief in 2010. Christian Courier’s financial picture was grim enough to make it look like I’d be Editor of exactly nothing in a few months’ time. 

“Why did you hire me!?” I demanded. And while I don’t remember his exact response, it would have been along the lines of “We don’t know the future” and “It was worth a try.” Whatever it was he said, I didn’t quit and CC is still here, 10 years later, so he must have made some good points. And probably made me laugh at the same time. 

It’s not that life isn’t hard, as Pastor Woody said during Bert’s funeral service. It clearly is, and COVID-19 has only made it harder. And it’s not that life isn’t serious. We all know it is. But don’t forget all the beauty and grace and laughter mixed right in. God knows everything that keeps us up at night. And tells us, in Matthew 6, to stop worrying about it so much. Not everything is as serious as it might seem! We don’t know the future. But God does. 

This is what I learned from Bert: make the Lord your dwelling place, as Moses prays in Psalm 90, and then stand firm on that shaky, holy ground.

Memorial Service

You can still view the Memorial Service for Bert Witvoet online by looking up Jubilee Fellowship on Facebook. You’re also invited to see photos, read stories and leave a note for the Witvoet family at forevermissed.com/bert-witvoet. And check out the grey Psalter Hymnal for hymn #4, “Lord, Hear Me When I Call to You,” written by Bert!

Read more in memory of Bert

CC writers & readers from coast to coast share memories of Bert Witvoet

A Poem for Bert

Beloved former CC Editor Bert Witvoet dies at 85

  • Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

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