Bernie later shared what happened that night. He had moaned “Oh God, I’m in the wrong place.” “But that night, under my mosquito net, I had a visitation from God - something like those shepherds must have had on the hills of Bethlehem. There were no angels, and no bright lights. But as I lay there in my hammock, desperately homesick, I felt I heard God say, ‘My son, this is what Christmas is all about. Jesus left heaven and on Christmas morning He woke up in the ‘wrong place ’, in a stable in Bethlehem. Christmas means leaving home, not going home. My only begotten Son did not come home for Christmas. He left home to be with you.’”
Bernie, cut off from his family, understood much more deeply that night what Christmas was all about. It was about celebrating and rejoicing that God gave His only Son Jesus who left His heavenly home to come and dwell amongst us, born in the humblest of situations. The Son of God while “away from home” died for us that we might find forgiveness and rose again to give us eternal life.
Bernie had become a missionary in an unusual way. Much earlier, in 1954 in Pennsylvania. Bernie and his wife Nancy had attended church one Sunday. In the service, Rachel Saint, who worked in jungle villages of South America as a linguist and alphabet-making missionary, shared how she and a small number of devoted colleagues had a vision to translate the Bible into every language in the world. Rachel didn’t end with a plea for money. Instead, she asked for people to join her in the jungle. Specifically, she needed a pilot and a secretary… “With stable middle-wage jobs, plans for a family, and only a recent return to faith, Bernie and Nancy didn’t consider themselves missionary types. Rachel Saint talked about all the languages in the world that did not have the Bible. Bernie said ‘I thought, well, I know that's God's agenda, but I'm not a Bible translator.’ But the work in Peru needed a pilot and a secretary. Well, my wife was a professional secretary, and I had gotten a pilot's license. And I nudged her and I said, ‘maybe we ought to do that’. And she said to me, ‘we're not the missionary type’. I said, 'well, maybe they won't notice’! So they left the town they had known all their lives, accepted the idea of raising their children in poor foreign lands, and committed their energies to bringing the words of Christ to places where those words had never been heard.”
Many years later aged 91 the 2022 Lifetime of Service Award was presented to Bernie at the Mission Leaders Conference in Orlando, Florida. He served as a pilot for 25 years, then he became director of Wycliffe USA. He helped to found the Seed Company, which had started with a vision to translate the Bible into 10 languages but went on to translate God’s word into more than 2000 languages.
Bernie’s philosophy is simple. “Our life is a gift from God. And as I look back on my life, I just see where God favoured me. I never intended to fly for a vocation, but I knew how to fly. I have been able to find out what God's agenda is and how I fit into that agenda. A wise friend once told me years ago, ‘Bernie, if you want to be successful, find out which way God's going and go with Him.’ So I'm just trying to be what God wants me to be at this stage of my life. Now that means finishing well.”
That Christmas vision in the Amazon jungle stayed with Bernie for the rest of his life.