Monday, October 23, 2006

A Confluence of Mentors

men·tor (mĕn'tôr', -tər) n. A wise and trusted counselor or teacher.

Sunday before last was surreal. I don't know if the planets were in a particular alignment, or what, but it's a day I'll not soon forget.

In the congregation sat mentors from across the span of my life. It's not like they planned it. None of them live in Memphis, they found themselves in the city for different reasons, but at 11 a.m. on that Sunday, they found themselves in the Saint John's sanctuary.

I knew my folks were going to be there. They had been keeping our boys for the previous week during the kids' fall break. They were in town to celebrate my middle son's birthday.

For my mother, she's mentored me in ways she probably can't appreciate. But when it comes to church, I think of standing next to her and singing alto to great hymns of the faith. To this day, when we sing such hymns, I'm a child again standing next to her.

And then there's my dad. As much as mentor as parent, I've always found the time to be in conversation with my Dad, especially growing up, as a true gift. When you have theological questions aplenty, and you have a theologian in the house, there's much to talk about.

In high school, those conversations usually came at about 11 p.m., right after we had watched "All in the Family" reruns on Channel 3. Archie raised serious theological questions. I needed somebody to process those questions with me, and dad was a constant.

Seated next to him, an unexpected surprise, was Rev'd Dr. Jerry Carr.

My father and Jerry served together in Mayfield when I was a boy. I count Jerry as a mentor for many reasons. First, he was the first preacher, other than my father, who totally captivated me. His mastery of the English language is something, that, to this day, I could only hope to aspire. Together with dad, Jerry confirmed me in May of 1975. Jerry's service to the church, these many years, harkens back to the day when the United Methodist connection was really more vital than it is now. Jerry and his wife, Dot, were visiting as they tended to some family business in the city.

As I looked out from the pulpit and saw the two "Jerry's" seated together, two of the most influential theological presences of my childhood and youth, two who have handed the mantle of their ministerial work to my generation, it was an humbling moment.

I was especially moved when, as he left, Jerry offered me words that sunk deep.

Not, "Enjoyed it preacher." Or, "You did a good job today (I thought I really blew that morning)."

No, he looked me in the eye and said, "I'm proud of you."

I'm here to tell you - words matter.

But there was more - -

There, toward the back, on the lectern side, a familiar face, sitting with his mother.

- it was my seminary mentor, Harmon Wray.

I met Harmon in my 3rd year at Vandy. I had a Field Education requirement to meet, and as I browsed through the catalogue of opportunities, my eyes stopped on this one - "The Death Penalty Resistance Project of Tennessee."

Harmon was my mentor, my guide, my supervisor - my friend. He helped me hone a theological message around an issue I had always felt strongly about, but not a strong counter to the fear-mongering that those who believe that "fryin' the bastards" (actually heard that once, from a churchmember) is o.k. with God for the state to do.

Harmon comes to Memphis a couple of times a year. I always benefit from his presence. He was in town to participate in the book show. He is co-author of Beyond Prisons - A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System.

Just seeing him in the sanctuary is a reminder of my obligation to tell you that from a faith perspective, we cannot support the death penalty. Ever.

Through his mother, Celeste, a mentor in her own right, I was gifted a copy of his book. His inscription is as follows - "For my friend, Johnny, with appreciation for your intelligent, creative and faithful ministry." To have those words come from someone who's example in life judges my own, is a gift.

So, on this particular day - something happened. I was reminded of who I was, who I am, and what I'm called to be. All from this odd confluence of mentors in our sanctuary on October Sunday.

Of course, there are other mentors in our lives, too. Aren't there?

Isn't true that everytime we gather there are those whose lives and example give guidance to our own? I look out among you and I'm humbled by your witness, too.

This what is constant about the people of faith called the church. At any one time, as we look upon one another, we are reminded of the obligations and sheer joy of our discipleship. And we are called to do it, together.

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