A few weeks ago a friend of mine handed me a commentary on Ephesians and said, “There is an interesting story about that book I want to tell you about.” Then he went to finish unloading his car of all that would be needed for his wife and two daughters to spend the night. While he was gone I looked at the book’s author. The name looked familiar. I read where he went to college and where he did his post graduate work and said to my wife, “No way! It has to be his son.”
The man I remembered was in his late seventies when I knew him at my church in Colorado over twenty years ago. Our friend returned and started to tell the story of how he came to know the author. I interrupted him and asked him if he looked like President Eisenhower. My friend said, “I don’t know about that, but he is 96 years old.”
It was the same man.
I had been his pastor in the early nineties; a brilliant man who has multiple degrees in Biology and Theology. He was always a gracious man to me. He offered to mentor me in theology since I had not attended seminary, but I couldn’t sit still long enough for that relationship to take root. I was restless and very ambitious. I wanted to grow a large church and make a name for myself as a leader in my denomination. I couldn’t see any utilitarian benefit of a mentored relationship with this man, I say to my great shame.
It was during this time that I was trying to transition a traditional Southern Baptist Church to a contemporary “seeker-sensitive” Church in order to grow. I was about growth, growth, growth in order to validate my existence. In the transition this man, his wife and many of their friends were caught on the teeth of the machinery I was creating to bring the traditional church into the modern times. No hymnals, no hymns, no organ, no altar call, no suite and tie on the preacher, ‘felt-need’ practical sermons, no Sunday night services, guitars and drums in the worship, loud praise songs, praise songs, praise songs.
On and on the seeker-sensitive machine rolled—right over the top of this man, his wife and his friends.
I handled the conflict that came about from the transition without anything that resembled grace and aplomb. I powered-up on everyone. I used the force of my personality, manipulation and the pulpit to coerce recalcitrant members to join or leave. Many left.
This man and his lovely wife left.
This past week my wife went to Wenatchee to visit our young friends and they arranged an evening meal with my ninety-six year old friend and his wife. It was great to see them. We caught up on our lives over the last twenty years. He asked about my sons.
He asked about my church. “Do you use hymnals?” he asked. No, I said. “How about adult Sunday School classes?” No, I said. He just smiled and didn’t say anything.
Our host asked, “Was Joe a good preacher back when you knew him in Colorado?”
Without hesitation he said, “No. He always made us feel guilty.”
That stung. Probably true, but it hurt none-the-less. I am certain that it isn’t the entire truth about my preaching or leadership back in those days—-but it was more truth than fiction.
Not too long ago Dr. Beal wrote me an email telling me that he was planning his memorial service and was writing out a his own funeral sermon. He asked me if I still had a good speaking voice and would I read his sermon at his funeral. I’ve been preaching since 1979 and I have never had that asked of me.
It reminds me of when God called Moses to lead the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage and Moses complained that he couldn’t speak very well. God scolded Moses and then granted him a mouthpiece—his brother Aaron. Moses was a man who lived a very long time. Moses was a man of grace and mentored Joshua, Caleb and countless others. His brother walked beside him all the way—and spoke for Moses when he was needed.
To read a funeral sermon a man wrote for himself is one of the strangest requests I have ever had. A 96 old saint trusting his words to flow over the tongue of a once antagonistic and arrogant pastor—that is grace.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. Numbers 6:22-26