Last week, my buddy Rusty Burnett went to heaven. (More about that in a moment).
More than twenty years ago Rusty walked into Believers Tabernacle on a Sunday morning with most righteous mullet you’ve ever seen. He had come to church straight from Parallax (drug and alcohol recovery center). He had just completed a court-ordered 30-day stint for a DUI he had received. It wasn’t his first, nor his last.
Rusty followed me all around after the service that morning, asking if we had any work for him to do. He informed me he was a sheet rocker, a painter; had worked construction, even performed in the rodeo…and could do anything. He was hungry, willing to work for his food. There was a sincerity in his eyes, I knew that he could be playing me. I had been played before. But sometimes it’s difficult to discern intentions when Jesus compels us to help when we can.
Truth is...Rusty had come at the right time. We had begun renovations on our aging property and if he was serious, I could put him to work. And work he did.
I set him up in our dilapidated kids building. We had installed a shower in the boy’s bathroom, I found a bed and some other supplies, and the journey began.
I first had him paint the ceiling over our gym. Ninety gallons of paint later and countless trips up and down our rickety scaffolding and Rusty stood victorious…and the gym looked great.
Rusty was always respectful, kind, and eager to work. I mean…the man would work. He loved vanilla milkshakes from McDonalds. If we was tired, or getting frustrated I knew a quick trip up the street would fix all ills.
That entire church property has Rusty’s touch on it to this day. Later, my father-in-law and I were building a large shop on the back of my property. We hired Rusty…and his touch is all over that building as well. A few years later, while I was on staff at another church in town, Rusty moved in and helped again. Then after we planted The Altar, six years ago, there was Rusty helping me renovate the stage. After expanding the stage, he climbed the tall ladders and hung the rustic crosses that hang there now.
The funniest “Rusty story” I have is of those first few months at BT. It was just before Christmas as he had purchased a bus ticket to go to his hometown of Garden City, KS. Our youth pastor, Jeremy, agreed to pick Rusty up at 5:00AM to get him downtown to the bus station. After a knock or two on the door no one was answering. So, Jeremy took his key, opened the door and flipped the light on. There was Rusty, rolling out of his twin bed and a strange young woman was still under the covers. Jeremy was furious. How could Rusty think it okay to bring someone to the church, God’s house, and behave that way? He told Rusty to meet him in the car in 5 minutes. Rusty jumps in the car and says, “Listen Jeremy, you got to give me some credit. I gave up drinking…and drugs…and smoking cigarettes. I can’t give up everything all at once!” Jeremy was insisting I give him the boot…I broke out laughing.
The truth is…Rusty was a survivor. He often disappeared for months, even years at a time. He’d then pop back around, looking for work, completely broke. I can’t remember the number of bicycles we gave him…only to find out he pawned them, or probably traded them for a high. He once showed back up with brand new false teeth he had received while doing six months in El Dorado. It wasn’t but a couple of weeks later, his teeth were gone. I asked where they were. He said he had pawned them. What? Who pawns false teeth? He may have been lying…but I teased him relentlessly over that one.
I watched Rusty go very long stretches without using. He gave me hope at times that he would make it, get on a better path. But hope would often disappear, along with Rusty. Addiction will do that to you.
Rusty was a survivor. He did whatever he had to do…when he was desperate. It landed him back in jail more than a few times. Several times he called me or wrote from jail. He would tell me that a court date was approaching and asked me to come. I did. Every time. I stood before several different judges and pledged that I would take responsibility and to my best to keep him on track this time. I failed. Every time. I pulled Rusty out from underneath more bridges than I can count in Wichita. Once, he asked me to come pick him up the next morning at the QT, off of south Lincoln. He jumped in the truck and I asked, “Where did you sleep last night?” “Right back there, under the bridge…it was freezing cold.” he replied. I remember the Lord immediately asking me, “Are you okay with that Marty?” I told the Lord, “No, I guess not.” I set him up back at the church once again. He worked, he served, he helped out tremendously as usual.
I recall sitting in a board meeting one evening as we were discussing the Dream Center and its efforts to serve people. Rusty’s name came up…and not in a positive manner…and one board member spoke up: “Listen, Rusty IS the Dream Center. If we can’t help him, then what’s the point?”
Rusty was one of the most loyal people I have ever known. He had no reason to betray others. He had nothing to lose, he had already done that. But he was fiercely loyal to those who helped him along…especially me. After a difficult time nine years ago, someone wanted to speak unkindly about me to Rusty and he replied, “I won’t hear it. I’d be dead if it wasn’t for Marty Freeman.” When he told me of that encounter nearly a year later, he broke down and cried.
I don’t share Rusty’s struggles because I want to demean him. I share because no one was more open and honest about his ups and downs than Rusty himself. Rusty could be in the deepest, darkest hole and still believe he was coming out the other side. He could forgive others…and forgive himself quicker than most. I was always encouraged by his fortitude and joy for life, even while struggling the hardest.
About six months ago, Rusty again called from a hospital bed in Garden City. His kidneys had shut down and was now on dialysis three times each week. He was lighthearted, asked about the church…about Polly and the boys. He said he hoped he could come visit and see the church once again. We made plans for him to do that…plans that never happened. His health kept deteriorating. Every conversation, including our last, just a few weeks ago, ended with, “Rusty, keep trusting Jesus, keep praying, keep hanging in there!” He would agree and express how hard he was trying. Our last conversation took at turn toward eternity. I got honest with him…admitting that he may be near the end. I asked again, (for the 30th time in more than 20 years) “Do you know that you’re right with God?” He replied…” Yep! I know it. That’s all I’ve got left.”
When I receive word last week that Rusty had passed, I cried. I couldn’t shake him for more than twenty years. For some reason, he was that one that the Lord would never allow me to release. I’ve known lots of “Rustys” over the years, but he was different. Maybe I’m the only one who saw it…not sure. I knew Rusty deep down…and he knew me. And we both know…we will see each other again. That’s all that really matters in the end.
Thanks Rusty for the trust, the unconditional love, the hard work…and the many, many laughs. You may have given more to me that I ever gave you. Your heart was as big as your stories. I’m thankful you shared both with me.