Monday, June 18, 2012

A Journeyman's Training, Part II

There was a time when I would have said that the most important part of my training was books.  Books have been massively important in my life; this is obvious from what I have said in part one of this story.  But, to live in books is to live in the world of ideas, to live inside one's own head, and this is a large part of what is wrong with the Church in our time and place.  Life is more than ideas.  Life is about human beings shaped and formed by ideas.  But, more fundamentally, life is simply the gift of being in the community of others.  So while my formation has come from ideas, these ideas have most profoundly molded me from my intimate interactions with other people.  These are my friends.

I have through all these long years, forty-five or sixty, been surrounded by people who loved me, cared for me and shaped me.

Of course, of first importance are my family and the family I came to have because of Kathy, my wife.  I hope to write about Kathy's family, and especially about her noble father, the Rev. Paul Cooke, in a future post.  I have already written much about my own family.  Those I wish to remember in this posting are friends outside my family.

From the beginning of my Christian life and to this day I cannot adequately express my debt to the Rev. Clyde Billy Spann.  A native of West Texas, a USN vet, Baptist pastor and high school English teacher, Clyde Spann befriended me, a young, eager, and ignorant boy, from the time he met me in the mid-sixties.  His love for language and books attracted me.  (He was also a rigorous disciplinarian; he gave me the worst paddling I ever got in school, when such things were still countenanced.)  He gave me books, encouraged my writing, and counseled me in my personal life.  He also introduced me to the Christian Faith, baptized me, and gave me my earliest training in doctrine and preaching.  He used to patiently sit in the empty sanctuary of the Thackerville Baptist Church, while I, the preacher-boy, stood in the pulpit and practiced my sermons before him.  He gave endless hours to me and bought me numberless hamburgers, while talking and listening at the Curtwood Restaurant in Gainesville, Texas.  He taught me to tie a tie and gave me clothes from his own fine collection (he was an immaculate dresser).  He took me once to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and on the same day bought me the first seriously scholarly work I ever read, Shepherd's Christ of the Gospels.  When I got into some pretty serious trouble, he helped me out, restored me, and encouraged me to carry on.  (And when he went through some particularly bad times, I was there visiting him in the Veterans' Hospital in Ft. Worth.)  Some of the things I remember from him are

"Humility, Tommy, in its most basic sense, is teachability."

"The same sun that melts wax, hardens clay."

"Always stay with the (Biblical) text."

He called me, "the Poor Ignorant Soul," publicly and privately.  This reflected the tough sense of humor of his West Texas origins.  I never took offense at this, you might say, because I was too ignorant.  But, he admired my gifts and feared where they might lead me without correctives.  He would never let me read other people's sermons, because "you have the ability to develop your own style and that might be 'clipped' if you read Spurgeon and others."  He hated the Scofield Bible and when I secretly bought one, I had to sneak it around him like it was a girlie magazine.  He cautioned me about theological extremes and once when he heard me preach quite powerfully on the cry of dereliction (My God...why hast thou forsaken me?") thanked me for the sermon and then quietly said, "God was in Christ, Tommy, reconciling the world unto himself."  It was this same quiet way that he often used to correct and direct me.  He was remarkable for his learning and wisdom, highly educated for his time and place.  He, more than any other, gave me an early love for scholarship.  He also taught me to speak and write correct English.  He had a wonderful sense of humor, but could, like other West Texas Baptist preachers, cuss if profoundly provoked.  He hated pious talk and what he contemptuously referred to as "Euphemisms!"  He lived an worked in obscure and sometimes crushingly discouraging circumstances, but with an intrepid faith and wry sense of humor.

My whole life has been formed around the mold he gave me in those early years.  He had a liberal mind, though he was a conservative man, and this, too, he imparted to me.  He watched my career, loved my preaching, helped me financially, assisted at my wedding, and never did anything his whole life but encourage me.

In his last years, he enjoyed nothing more than studying the Biblical text, especially the New Testament in the Greek.  We would talk by phone occasionally and he would ask for my recorded sermons.  Years passed between our last talk and when I called him on the final occasion.  His wife, Janie, answered.  We visited a while and then I asked for "Brother Spann."  "Oh, Tommy, didn't you know?  Clyde died late last year!"  I was dumbfounded.  I still miss him.

To have had Clyde B. Spann as my mentor was one of God's finest and most lasting gifts in my life.  A blessing be upon him in heaven, his memory, and upon his living children and grandchildren.

I think that "Poor Ignorant Soul" is a good attitude for the Christian, at the beginning, the middle, and the end of our journey.