Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Only a Few Things Really Matter

Back in the mid-80’s I served on the faculty of Midwestern Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. At Midwestern in those days, it was our practice to invite pastors to campus whom we felt would be good pulpit models for our students. In what we called "A Week of Preaching" these model pastors would preach each day in chapel, guest lecture in our classes, and have both formal and informal conversations about ministry with students and faculty. The speaker one particular week was Dr. John M. Lewis, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Raleigh, North Carolina, from which he was shortly to retire. I had no inkling at the time that I would someday succeed him in that pulpit.

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. 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 was twenty-five years ago, a quarter of a century, and I stand now where John was then. I turn sixty this year, and fulfilling a promise to my beloved wife, I have “retired” from full time ministry. That doesn’t mean that I’m just “sitting and rocking.” I still teach for Liberty University Online, but I don’t have to get up and get dressed and go somewhere to lecture, as I did all those years in seminary and university teaching. And I also still carry a speaking schedule. The difference is that I used to have to preach because it was Sunday; now I only have to preach when I have something to say.

I have a list, I hope it’s not a “bucket list,” but who knows? I have several books to write that got put on the back burner by more immediate obligations. I hope to get to them now. I took up nature and wildlife photography some years back, a concession to mutinous menisci that rebelled from my being a thirty-mile-a-week runner for thirty years. My wife thinks I’m actually pretty good at it, but she loves me, and so her judgment is suspect. I want to do more with that. I used to play piano but gave it up years ago when other obligations crowded it out; I plan to take it up again. I love to travel, having guided groups to the Middle East for twenty-five years, but I’ve missed some of the most beautiful places in the world right here in the US. I hope to correct that.

But most of all, I want to spend time with Cheryl, my wife of forty years. She was a “church widow” for much of my career, though she never complained or groused or whined about it…okay, she whined once or twice. I’m embarrassed that it took me forty years to discover that only a few things really matter. I take some comfort, I guess, in the knowledge that better men than I struggled with that too.

“So what have you learned, “ I asked, “after forty years of ministry?” Who knew that I was both asking…and answering…the question?

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