Thursday, December 20, 2007

"A Pastor's Passing"

I was thirty-nine years old when I came from the faculty of Midwestern Seminary to be pastor of the historic First Baptist Church of Raleigh, and in the congregation each Sunday was John M. Lewis, beloved, legendary pastor of the Old First Church who for more than a quarter of a century led that grand old congregation through some of the most tumultuous times in modern Baptist history.

I had actually met him some years earlier. At Midwestern in those days, it was our practice to invite pastors to campus whom we felt would be good models for our students to emulate. In what we called "A Week of Preaching" these model pastors would preach each day in chapel, be a guest lecturer in our classes, and have both formal and informal conversations about ministry with students and faculty. Our faculty had invited John to campus while I was there, and I had the high honor of playing host to him during part of the week.

I still recall the impression he made on me. He had just lost his beloved wife, Jean, and was obviously in grief, but that did nothing to diminish the quality of what he did on our campus that week. His sermons were brilliant and beautifully crafted; his classroom lectures were both practical and profound; and his conversations with the faculty in the Faculty Lounge were memorable and disarming. I recall one in particular. A group of us were in the Lounge picking John's brain when I asked him if he could summarize for us what he had learned in over forty years of ministry, nearly thirty of which with one congregation, amazing in light of the fact that the average tenure of Baptist pastors is less than two years. He thought for a moment, looked at me and said: "I guess I would say that after forty years of ministry I've learned that only a few things really matter."

That week and those conversations fluttered up in my mind when I took the pulpit of that great church where John had been simply brilliant week in and week out. He could have had me for lunch most Sundays; he could have made my life miserable; he could have undermined my ministry and done me in. He didn't. He was the consummate Christian gentleman, the personification of pastoral integrity, and the best friend a pastor could have had.

I miss him. I miss our talks. I miss his quiet wisdom. I miss his poetry. I miss his letters. I miss his deep, resonant voice. I miss his love of language and learning. I miss his Southern charm and Christian grace.

Baptists lost a legend last week. John M. Lewis died in Raleigh at the age of 86. We will not soon see his equal.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for this wonderful tribute to Dad. Though you and I had very limited contact, Zua (of course) has kept me informed of your continuing career and I have read some of your columns in Baptist Today, etc.

Jeannie, Austin and I had a few good days with Dad in Rex before he died Saturday night, his 86th. birthday.

Take care and thanks again,

David Lewis

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Your Dad was the "real deal," David. I've known maybe one, perhaps two, others in my life - George Balentine and Frank Stagg being the other two. Pretty elite company. I know this - I've never known a man with more integrity than your Dad. one...period.

Best to you, Jeannie, and Austin.


Anonymous said...

May we have more 'Southern Gentlemen' such as John M. Lewis. Men such as he come along occasionally and we are all the better for them.

I enjoy the posts and look forward to the new ones.
Thanks for taking the time.