It’s been way too long since I’ve written you about some of the people who’ve influenced my life, but that ends today. Though to my shame the cause for my return is the death of a beloved mentor. Perhaps you’ll believe me when I say that this was nearly the acknowledgement I wrote first; but I suppose in the providence of God, I can see a little more clearly now that he’s gone from this earth… for the time being.
His name is Paul, and he was a great deal older than me. With a thick grey mustache and wrinkled face, he had eyes full of bright light. He had known Jesus, and loved him dearly.
I met him while in high school. I had only recently started attending church of my own volition, and decided to join the Sunday school class for youth. That first meeting would set a trajectory for the rest of my life. I remember he pulled out a small book and called it the “Shorter Catechism.” I thought to myself, “Aren’t we supposed to read the Bible?” in addition to “I thought somebody else [younger, cooler] was going to be teaching us.” He read question and answer #2: “What is the chief end of man?” “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” My 16 year old self sat there in that cold classroom thinking, “What is this? A book of questions, but they give you the answers… what good is that?”; “What does ‘chief end’ mean?”; “What does glorify mean?”; and “Enjoy God? I’ve never heard that before… who enjoys God? This sounds like some [sentimentalism].”
But there, and then, through this man, a whole new world of faith opened up before me. Little did I know he had been reading from the Westminster Catechism, a centuries-old document that had guided the faith of Christians across the world. Little did I know that this man was the chairman of our church’s elder board, or that he and several others would have to leave the church because of certain theological persuasions. Little did I know, that I would purchase the same catechism and keep it always in easy access for use as my own devotional. Little did I know that this small question and answer would help me clarify my own life purpose through high school, college, ministry and marriage. Little did I know I would end up quoting these words countless times to youth ministry I oversaw, and college ministry I worked alongside… fondly remembering and too often forgetting the faith and diligence of this man who took and old text and taught some ignorant and haughty 16 year olds.
I remember that he continued on for some time, monologuing on the glory of God and the enjoyment of his glory. I don’t know how long. In my recollection it was maybe five minutes, but those Sunday school sessions lasted an hour, and although I remember him transitioning to another question, I also halfway recall having to stop not far into its explanation. Maybe he did spend 50 minutes explaining Q/A #1. Oh, how I wish I could return to those minutes and hear them all over again!
I don’t think it was a conscious shift of mind, but that doesn’t make it any less certain. In the weeks and months to come… without ever realizing why, I began to hope for Paul to be teaching Sunday school. I remember being disappointed when he didn’t. I remember being sad when I stopped seeing him around, but I never knew why he had stopped showing up. I remember only a few occasions over the next few years when I actually had conversations with him. In fact, who knows… I can only count 6 times I actually remember being with him for any significant time or conversation: that first time, one other Sunday school session, Starbucks once, another church’s Sunday school, my wedding, Starbucks twice. Surely it had to be more! And yet... maybe it wasn't. But if I were to weigh the significance he’s had in my life, you would be hard-pressed to find something heavier. I consider him a mentor, but I wonder: how did he consider me?
He’s died now. Cancer. And despite the number of times he was actually in the hospital; despite the number of times I determined: “I will go see him,” I never did. He had a loving family and some great grandkids; I’m under no illusion that he needed me, but I wish I could have spent a few more minutes hearing his wisdom. He was a prison guard most of his life; he retired a few years ago, and he’s been spending most of his time reading books and drinking coffee, teaching Sunday school or preaching; and visiting his grandkids up North. He’s a true example of the well-lived Christian life; the guy whose life is a ministry even while he’s not employed by the local church. I wish I loved Jesus as much as I could see that he did.
He’s experienced the sting of death now, but one day he’ll return alongside Christ. And Jesus will recreate the heavens and the earth. Then we’ll all be able to glorify God and enjoy him forever.