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David Powlison (1949-2019) died of pancreatic cancer on June 7. I knew him. He balanced my checkbook once in his front parlor when I was a widow. I don’t let just anyone balance my checkbook, but he started as a math major at Harvard, so it seemed safe enough.
I don’t suppose that moment will make it into an official biography. Nor will the official biography likely include that, when my single-parent friend’s daughter was a tad prodigal, he would drive over to their house in the mornings and chauffeur the girl to school.
No, you are doubtless more interested in David Powlison the counselor, author, internationally sought speaker, senior editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling, adjunct professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, and director of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. To each his own.
When I first stood in his doorway, calling on his wife Nan one day (she later worked with me at the seminary café), he opened the door and we exchanged pleasantries. I expected him to do the usual thing that important people do after the requisite perfunctory two minutes: excuse himself with the call of some pressing business. He didn’t. He kept talking to me, looking me earnestly in the eyes as if I were the only person in the room. Which I was. I finally had to cut it off: Hey, I have things to do.
A rumor going around the seminary was that David Powlison never sinned. If a bunch of people wondered that, it’s a good sign.
This trait sometimes got him into trouble—this “present in the moment” habit of mind that considered book publishing due dates as suggestions rather than drop-dead deadlines. Nan says his book on anger (Good and Angry) took so long to complete that it got everybody angry but him. That was brilliant, I think! A test that everybody flunked but David!
Jesus might have missed a few deadlines too. I’m sure it was passing annoying for the father of a 12-year-old dying girl who begged Jesus to come to his house, when the Healer got distracted on the way by some woman with her own medical issues. And the time He was four days late to heal Lazarus. And the time He should have sent 5,000 people home after His teaching, but, engrossed in the subject, ended up having to feed them all.
I said David started as a math major, but he switched to psychology, being of a bent of mind from childhood in Honolulu to seek the sense of his existence when he wasn’t heading his Harvard chapter of the anti–Vietnam War SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and winning letters on his college swim team. After graduation, he worked from 1973 to 1976 at a psych hospital near Boston, where he was impressed that the cleaning woman and orderly who stayed behind, after the doctors had gone home, did more good for the patients than the professionals with their Freudian or Jungian esoterica.
At age 25 David was converted one night when his best friend, after five years of heady philosophical sparring, told him straight, “David, Diane and I really love you, we respect you, but what you believe and how you’re living, you’re destroying yourself.” Is it any wonder that David the Christian counselor eschewed the overuse of “-ion” words and preferred the simple, the personal, and the pastoral?
In an article on the counselor-counselee relationship, David wrote of 1 Thessalonians 5:14, “The familial paradigm resists any paradigm for counseling that would inherently professionalize what happens. This is not an ‘expert-client’ relationship, based on the former’s expertise in supposedly neutral technique and supposedly objective theory. This is that form of love in which you care for your little sister, whether she is bratty, fearful, or retarded.”
A rumor going around the seminary was that David Powlison never sinned. That is more than I can say. But if a bunch of people wondered that, it’s a good sign. I know his wife didn’t complain, not at the café and not ever. “Hagiography” is mouthed with a sneer, but why should it when hagos means “holy,” and the man was by all accounts that?
If someone out there thinks he was stuck-up, you were probably talking at David’s left ear, which was stone deaf from childhood.