Thursday, March 04, 2010

Passing the Torch: Honoring the Preachers Who Were My Greatest Influences

My good friend, Les Ferguson, Jr., reminded me of another friend's blog challenge in which he asked for us to say a few words about preachers who have influenced us along the way. The only problem with this idea is that I'm sure I will forget someone. I've known a lot of preachers. Many of them have influenced me in some way or another, but I'll try to mention a few that stand out.

The first one I can remember, unfortunately, goes unnamed. I was in the first or second grade when he was preaching in my hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. I'm pretty sure his first name was Richard. I'm also sure that God will remember him. He had one of those deep, booming voices, though I don't remember that he yelled at people. It's just that his voice carried in the way that some orators manage even without sound systems. I remember two things about this man. First, I had my tonsils out and he came to see me in the hospital. Some might not think that so strange, but I was just a kid, and I could have surely gone unnoticed and nobody would have complained. But he was there. Second, I still remember his hand on my head, and in that deep voice he would say, "You're going to become a fine preacher one of these days, aren't you?" I would laugh and dash out of reach. But maybe, just maybe, a seed was planted.

The next preacher who had an influence on me was Cecil May, Jr. Cecil preached a meeting in my home town when I was a Junior in high school. At that point in time, all my friends at church were already baptized, but not me. I was the proverbial holdout! But in the spring of that year, I signed up for a Bible Correspondence Course from the Billy Graham Crusade, completed every lesson, and corresponded with my teacher in several letters. I had questions. The answers I got were not completely satisfactory. Then Cecil came to town and preached that meeting. I remember the conversation I had with myself, the struggle to choose, decide. Cecil's lessons that week helped greatly. He continued to be a major influence in my life. He sang at my wedding along with a group from the church in Vicksburg. He probably would have done the wedding, but my wife wanted the singers, so Cecil sang bass instead of doing the ceremony. A few years later, it was Cecil who encouraged me to drop my unrealistic desire to attend Harding University and opt for the White's Ferry Road School of Biblical Studies. Not that either of us had a problem with Harding, but by then I had acquired not only a wife, but two children, and financially it was smarter to go to White's Ferry Road. It was a great choice! Cecil has been a continuing influence on me since, in many ways. I'm glad he's been such a great part of my life.

I'm tempted to mention all the men who taught at the White's Ferry Road School of Biblical Studies, but that would take too much room. I will say that every one of them played a great part. I will mention two. Percy Keene was a wonderful teacher and mentor. I met Percy when he preached in Natchez, Mississippi. My brother and his family lived there and attended where Percy was the preacher. He was a kind, friendly man, but I didn't know at the time what a great influence he would be. Later, when I went to visit and check out the school at White's Ferry Road, I discovered Percy had become one of the instructors. Conversations with him proved to be the scale-tipper. Over the next several years, until his death, he was not only a teacher and mentor, but a friend I called on many times. He was full of stories, loved to laugh, spouted great wisdom, and believed that I could do far more than I ever thought possible.

The other instructor from White's Ferry Road is a fellow named Bill Smith. Students in classes ahead of mine would fill you with fear and dread of Bill Smith! I discovered a man who was a true student of God's word, and who challenged his students to think. I learned more Bible from Bill Smith than from anyone I've ever studied under. He killed a few sacred cows, and plowed new ground in my head. He introduced me to a kind of Bible study that I'd never known before. But he was never a source of fear. Those other students either didn't know him, or they were doing what many upper classmen do to the new guys, trying to spook them! Bill has always been a man who wanted his students to know God's word, and to be able to communicate it to others.

Thought I never studied under Richard Rogers in a school setting, Richard was another preacher whom I loved to hear. He taught sessions for something like 25 or more years straight at the Tulsa Workshop, and every year I made it a point to attend his lectures. I bought his audio and video tapes, and books. Richard was one of those men with the gift of teaching and I never heard him speak a word without learning something new, or seeing something old more clearly than before.

There have been many more. Ted Brooks, who preached in Riverdale, Georgia when I preached in Forrest Park was a good friend during a very bad time. We met weekly for lunch and Bible study. We sat together for hours and had those deep, personal discussions that produce a great deal of light. His personal friendship, encouragement and support has always meant more to me than I can fully explain.

I need to make a list because it's late and I'm tired, and I'm sure I could mention others. One thing I know. I've got some great teachers, mentors, and friends who have helped me learn, grow, and even recover from my own desperate mistakes. Without such men, I would never have known that Jesus came to save sinners like me, nor would I have ever been able to share that good news with others without their help.

So, "thank you" goes to many preachers. It just doesn't sound like it's enough, does it? Well, I'll let the Lord see to their reward. His will be far better than anything I could give them anyway.