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Learning at the knee of a century-old pastor

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Column by David B. Whitlock

“You don’t seem like a preacher, at least not a typical one. You’re ‘the real deal.’”

The comment, coming from an inmate in jail, I took as a compliment, although I frequently ask myself if I’m really real.

His comment was followed by a question: “How did you ever get to be a preacher in the first place?” (I am tempted to ask: Do you think I should have been something else?)

Choosing to do what I do wasn’t something that came on sudden like — a flash of lightning followed by an etching in the clouds, “BE A PREACHER.”

More like a boy carefully crossing a shallow creek on stepping stones, round and slippery, I came to it cautiously, carefully sizing where to plant my foot next, yet still moving forward, if ever so slowly, until I hopped and finally skipped across stones to the bank, at last resting peacefully there at my place on shore.

I learned about Jesus while being rocked on my mother’s lap and watched Jesus walk through my house in the actions of my parents.

But when I ponder the answer to that question, how did you get to be a preacher?, I can’t help but think of the Rev. A.F. Whitlock, or as I called him, Great-Granddad.

Great-Granddad’s entry into the ministry, unlike mine, was born from the cauldron of despair. In the early 1900s, his daughter (my Great Aunt Byrcha) was deathly ill. In desperation, Great-Granddad cried out to the Lord, “God, spare her life and I’ll serve you with mine.”

God answered his prayer, Aunt Byrcha was miraculously healed, and Great Granddad sold his farm in Osage, Texas, enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and moved his family to Fort Worth.

Years later, while I myself was a student there, I found his picture in the library’s archives. There he was in the 1917 class photo: square jaw, youthful face, piercing, determined eyes that I could have sworn followed me as I looked at him from every angle; I think I could even feel his breath on my back as I turned and walked away.

When I knew Great-Granddad, he was far from young; indeed to me he was ancient — well into his 90s. But his eyes were still penetrating, his jaw still set, and though his steps were unsteady, he at least walked with deliberation.

“Who’s going to take Granddad a plate of food?” Grandmother Whitlock would ask after she had fed us ample portions of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob and fried okra.

“Can I go?” I always tried to be the first to volunteer.

His house was across the street and there I would find Great-Granddad sitting in his plain, cotton upholstered easy chair. A single light bulb hanging from the ceiling barely would brighten the room. During the summer I might find him tuned in to radio station KMOX, the home of St. Louis Cardinals baseball.

I often felt like Jacob or Esau when Isaac wondered which son was which, for Granddad’s eyesight was clouded by cataracts, so taking my hand he would ask, “Now, which one are you?”

“L.D.’s youngest boy,” I would say.

Having passed the identity check, I would start asking questions, simple ones at first like, “Can I help you with your knife and fork?” Or, “How are the Cardinals doing?”

Then as he nibbled, I would proceed, “Tell me what it was like back then, when you first started preaching? What churches did you pastor? What was it like to preach revivals? How did you make it through tough times?”

One time Granddad was with me as I once again peppered Great-Granddad with questions. Great-Granddad was 102 at the time, and his son, my granddad, was then 82. Having recounted the churches he had pastored, Great-Granddad paused, and Granddad interrupted, noting that Great-Granddad had forgotten one church.

Without missing a beat, Great-Granddad said, “Well, I never did like that church anyway.”

Another church had a few people who apparently antagonized Great-Granddad. “But I had helped work in their fields when they were short handed, when sickness kept some from bringing in their crops. They remembered that and weren’t about to let the troublemakers have their way.”

“Why do you still wear a suit every day, Great-Granddad?”

“I never know when I may be called on to minister,” my century-old Great-Granddad would tell me.

Not your typical 102-year-old preacher, I suppose. But then, how many second-century pastors do you know?

Chances are, if you find one at that age who is still dressed and ready if someone calls, you’ve found the real deal.

That’s for sure.

David B. Whitlock of Lebanon is a Baptist minister and author of the book “Life Matters." He can be reached at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com.