I spent some time writing this piece about the mentors I have had and posted it nearly 10 years ago. I hope it will remind you to thank the people who have been a positive influence or role model for you. I also hope this might inspire you to be a mentor to someone who needs a role model or constructive influence. I find young people often enjoy those older folks who take an interest in them. Our best chance for making a better future is through the one-on-one relationships we build with younger generations.
Speaking of mentors, I discovered William F. Buckley when I saw him debating Gore Vidal during a presidential election back in the 50’s . I don’t recall the candidates; I just remember their banter. Buckley was probably my first introduction to political conservativism. I associate the word “insouciance” with him, and apparently I share a similar aloofness at times. I love his dispassionate intellectual approach to whatever he discusses, even though I sometimes had trouble with his vocabulary! Some people, mostly liberals I suspect, resent those who are wealthy or who live in a different social circle. Reading Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography definitely showed me Buckley to have been in a different world than mine, but I thoroughly enjoyed the visit! Perhaps sometime I will write about other authors who have influenced me.
My Dad died before I was 20, and I missed out on having an adult relationship with him. I have 3 younger brothers who were under 16, 13, and 5 and finished growing up without a father Older brothers don’t usually become surrogate fathers, but I realized I could help other young men whose fathers were gone. In time, I figured out that most boys, especially in their teens, benefit from having a mature older friend, particularly during that phase when they may be at odds with their own fathers. I watched for opportunities and became a mentor to a number of young men.
The best place to be is between those who have been mentors and those for whom I have been a mentor. The former have been significantly influential in my life. The latter, I hope, have benefited from having my influence. For me, being a mentor has meant being a listener, a tutor, a counselor, and a friend, someone a young friend can trust, and a person who is “shock proof” (an idea I learned from one of my mentors). Sometimes, it meant hearing complaints about their parents and, at the same time, helping them understand their own parents better. If a father was gone, then I might be a surrogate, of a sort; otherwise, I always have as a goal turning a son back toward his father, in time. Trust is a precious thing, and I always hope to be a wise and godly influence, despite my own weaknesses.
My mentors may not have been as intentional in their influence. I don’t really know since I never asked them, and they have never told me. Still, I want to acknowledge their contribution to my character and my development as a man. Besides my Dad, they were a grandfather, 3 pastors, a Sunday School teacher, 2 professors, a co-worker, and a friend/partner in ministry.
My Dad was rather gruff, and I never felt any particular affection from him when I was growing up. I measured his love in his providing for his family, being a fairly strict disciplinarian, and keeping us connected to our extended families. Growing up, I knew and saw, somewhat frequently, all of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and many of my great grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and second cousins. Something about him and this family environment gave me a strong sense of who I am and a belief in myself.
I remember one time Dad complaining about the “creative” Sunday School curriculum being brought into our church. He asked why we couldn’t just use the Bible. That idea, also supported by grandparents, may be part of why I have been so strongly committed to the singular authority of the Bible, all my life.
When I was younger, I had some trouble with a couple of bullies. One rode on my school bus and tormented me as much as he could. I don’t recall what happened, but I have a strong impression that my Dad wanted me to stand up for myself or, in other words, fight. I was bigger than this particular bully; if I had wanted to fight, I might have been able to beat him. I just didn’t want to fight. I have always hated fighting of any kind and still hate conflict, to this day. I tried to ignore the bully, but bullies don’t like being ignored.
Then, one day at school, he tried to trip me in the hall. I really was bigger than this guy, and I had been working hard at not letting him provoke me. The result, on this occasion, was that the bully tripped himself. He hooked his leg around mine, he yanked, and he went flying across the floor. I just kept walking down the hallway. I think my Dad’s encouragement to “stand up” for myself worked out pretty well, if not quite in the way he may have intended.
One last bit of influence occurred after his death. I was helping my Mom take care of his clothes and things. In his wallet, I found a newspaper articles and picture of when I won the 8th grade spelling bee. He had been carrying it around for 5 years. I never had a clue, until that moment, that he was proud of me. I have carried that memory with me, ever since. A father can never give a son anything better than his love and pride.
Harold was the pastor of our family’s church at the time of my Dad’s cancer surgery. I skipped school to be with my Mom, but I didn’t really know what to do. I had no experience with that sort of thing. The surgery was long, and he was in recovery a long time, too. The day started early and ended late, and I was 2 hours away from college, without a ride (I never even thought about how I was going to get back!). Harold stayed with us all day, helping us navigate the hospital’s surgical routine, especially when we got worried about how long things were taking. Then, after all of that, he drove me back to college. His day had to have started at 4 or 5 a.m., and I doubt he got home before 1 or 2, a.m. I’m sure he prayed with us, but I remember his being so helpful. His example made a permanent impression that influenced my hospital visits, later on.
My Grandpa Green defined for me what a Christian man was like. He was a hard-working farmer, who started and ended every day on his knees at the conclusion of family devotions. I never heard him speak in anger. He was a Gideon, and an elder in his church. At that, all of my family was German or Scots-Irish, who rarely expressed love either verbally or physically. So, what happened the day my Dad died was unforgettable.
Dad had cancer, a kidney removed during my first year of college, and a good year after. He began sliding during my second year and died just before Psalm Sunday. I worried about what was happening, but they tried to keep from upsetting my studies, I think. Friends came to take me home for spring break. My only warning that the end was near was when I was told to bring home my “good suit.” My Mom and I talked a few hours after I got home. My Dad was in a hospital bed provided by the Cancer Society, and he started breathing hard and then stopped. Mom said he hung on till I got home. The next morning, I had the responsibility to tell my brothers.
My Dad’s folks came over. Of course, they were devastated; he was their only son. I don’t think I ever saw two sadder looking people. I shed a few tears alone, but I really didn’t know how to handle my feelings. Then my other grandparents came to the door. Grandpa didn’t say a word; he just put his arms around me and hugged me. He taught me more about comforting the bereaved, in that simple act, than anything else I have learned since then. His influence shaped how I later acted as a pastor.
I became a Christian, early in my life. When I went to college, I sought out a church and campus Christian groups. Eventually, I visited a Baptist church where a number of my friends attended. I thought Baptists were “holy rollers.” My first impression was that their church smelled funny (I’m not sure what I thought that meant! I later found out the smell came from soap or disinfectant used to clean the floors). Nevertheless, I gradually shifted my participation fully, mostly because of Vern, the college class teacher, and Dr. John Balyo, the pastor. Both attracted me to their no-nonsense Bible teaching.
Vern peppered his lessons with stories and illustrations from C. S. Lewis. With my love for science fiction and fantasy, I soon discovered Lewis’s space trilogy. I enjoyed them and followed with the Narnia stories. I read The Great Divorce, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and Surprised by Joy. I became a dedicated C. S. Lewis reader, and today I own a complete set of his works. I don’t quote Lewis as much as Vern did, but I have been greatly influenced both by Lewis and by Vern, who introduced me to him.
Dr. Balyo was the finest preacher I ever heard. I enjoyed his preaching for most of my college years, until he moved on to become a seminary professor. A few years later, I went to seminary, where he was my faculty adviser. I had become friends with his son and became a frequent guest in their home. I took several of his English Bible classes, as electives, so that I overloaded almost every semester I was in seminary. I learned more practical ministry in those Bible classes than in the formal classes I was required to take. I also took his preaching classes.
Dr. B. influenced me in several important areas. His preaching was Biblically focused, so that, in hearing him, a person grew in their own understanding of the Bible text. He was fun to hear and supported his ideas from lots of other worthy sources, but he never just taught ideas. He expounded Scripture. The end result was, for me, a better sense of what the Bible said, such that I could read the Bible and let it speak for itself. I am not as good a preacher as he was, and my preaching doesn’t sound like his. However, he influenced me to become a preacher who allows the Bible to speak for itself and equip hearers to be able to read and understand for themselves.
John and and his wife Betty exemplified hospitality. Since I never married, I haven’t been able to open my home in the same way, but I have invited church folks to meals and given a place for people to stay. Of course, I have had regular roommates, but I have also given several people a place to stay when they were in need, including one entire family of four. I also allowed a band to practice in my basement to keep a father and son from fighting about it. I hosted 5 exchange students and took in a young man from a local Asian community most recently. I’ve also taken in a homeless man struggling to get back on his feet after being ripped off by his business partners.
Dr. B. also taught me common sense in helping the needy, especially those who come looking for a hand-out. Giving cash is never a good idea because you have no way of assuring it will be used for the need presented. Dr. B. had lots of experience as pastor of a large city church. He suggested buying gas instead of giving money for gas, paying for a room instead of handing over money, and providing a meal rather than giving cash for one. In this way, a pastor or an ordinary Christian never risks turning away a genuinely needy person for fear of supporting a drug or alcohol habit. His wise influence kept me from wasting money, but it sure revealed some clever scams. You wouldn’t believe the stories people can invent to get money or how quickly their need disappears when they cannot get cash. I am grateful for Dr. B. being my mentor. One of the most difficult moments in my life was reaching the point of choosing to reject his specific advise, on one occasion. I realized then that I had to be responsible for my own life and choices, but I will never forget the mark he has left on my life and ministry.
After Dr. Balyo left our church and before I went to seminary, a man came to talk about his ministry to our college group. I am embarrassed to say that I cannot recall his name. He was a school teacher as well as an ordained minister. He told us about his ministry in 3 local bars. He went there, drank Cokes, and got to know the people who came there. Many were street people—prostitutes, pimps, one guy who would get you “anything for a buck!” Others were ordinary folks, blue collar and white collar workers. I went with him, one Friday night. Later, I took over a vesper service at a low-income, government funded apartment complex, where mostly elderly, black folks lived. My friend talked about and demonstrated the idea of being “shock proof,” of accepting the surprising, unexpected things that people may say or do, without being offended or becoming upset. I saw it play out as I met some of those bar denizens. My audience tested me, the first time I sang at a vesper service, by singing along, even when they didn’t know the song, standing up, and responding in other ways. I had other opportunities at places like the rescue mission and even in my own room, with an unusual, rather shocking admission by a roommate. I am sorry I can’t remember my mentor’s name, but his influence has been invaluable and unforgettable.
Dr. Carl Hoch was my Greek and New Testament professor. He was committed to “the text.” In other words, he pressed us, as his students, to understand what the original author meant when he wrote the words of the Bible, in the context of the times and culture and in the context of the surrounding ideas of the Bible itself. Students would often ask him his opinion, and he would tell them that his opinion didn’t matter: “What does the text say?” Looking back today, I also appreciate his humility; he never used his superior knowledge and expertise to critical or dogmatic, as so many are prone to do.
On one paper, I came up with what Dr. Hoch regarded as an unusual interpretation. He told me that he had never read it in any of the commentaries. I had fun reminding him that he always said, “What does the text say?” I stood up for my interpretation. A number of years after I was out of seminary, I went to visit him, and he asked my if I ever wrote that book. “What book?” I asked, and he reminded me of my original interpretation, which had come up again when I was taking a counseling course. The guest teacher was basing his ideas on a series of books that had taken the alternative to my approach to great extremes. These books had become almost a little cult for a time, and Dr. Hoch was no more pleased about it than I was. At that time, I had expanded on my thoughts since writing that earlier paper. After seminary, I incorporated them into my own teaching, but I had never thought of writing. Dr. Hoch is gone, now, but maybe some day I’ll write that book.
I took an elective summer course on Greek exegesis in Ephesians with Dr. Hoch. This was a very careful study of Paul’s letter based on the original Greek text. Part of the requirements was that each student had to exegete and teach a passage. Ephesians is my favorite book, and I had to teach from chapter four. As I explained my understanding of the gifts given to the church—prophets, evangelists, pastor-teachers, he asked me which was my spiritual gift. I was in the pastoral training course at a very non-charismatic (that is, they did not believe in spiritual healings or speaking in unknown tongues) seminary. Most people regard prophets as some kind of fortune teller or seers of the future. So, with a bit of fear and trembling, I said that my gift was prophecy. I explained that I believed that “prophets” spoke God’s word in His name to His people. While, at times, His word might be spiritually revealed, I said that a prophet brought God’s revealed word, the Bible, to bear on critical issues of the times. Like the prophets of old, a modern prophet’s words might not be popular. God’s people get comfortable and don’t want to hear that God expects them to move out of their comfort zone, but I believed that was the gift God had given to me, even more than pastoring or teaching. Dr. Hoch, to my amazement, agreed!
As I approached graduation, I was struggling with discouragement because of the actions of others. My future seemed to be at risk, and I went to talk with Dr. Hoch. I couldn’t understand why people were treating me the way they were. Dr. Hoch identified my problem: “You’re an iconoclast.” To my puzzled expression, he responded: “It’s Greek. Figure it out.” An “icon” is an image, and “clast” means break; therefore, and iconoclast is an image-breaker or a non-conformist. Suddenly, things clicked for me. In the sixties and seventies, many of my peers had tried to be non-conformists. All I saw were bunches of hippies who all looked alike, did the same things, and agreed with each other, just another kind of peer pressure. I thought they were stupid. That’s what I thought of non-conformists, that kind anyway. I realized, at that moment with Dr. Hoch, that my Dad’s “Stand up for yourself” my trust in the Bible, and my confidence in interpreting it, along with a healthy sense of self-confidence, had turned me into an iconoclast. In fact, I just realized today, isn’t that what I meant when I said my gift was prophecy? Dr. Hoch’s influence settled me on a path that I knew God had given me. He’s in heaven now, and I hope he knows how very much I appreciate what he did for me. And, yes, I’m still an iconoclast.
Dr. Leon Wood was our Hebrew and Old Testament professor. He wrote several Old Testament commentaries including one on Daniel, and I had an unusual opportunity to study Daniel with him. My first year of seminary, Dr. Wood returned from an archaeological expedition and was diagnosed with ALS, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s Disease. From being an active tennis player, he moved around campus with visible weakness. My second year, he taught us Hebrew from a wheelchair and retired from teaching at the end of the year. To give him a chance to continue teaching, the school arranged to offer an elective course on Daniel, which he taught at his home. Only a friend and I took the course, and I talked him into it.
Dr. Wood was completely paralyzed, and we found him, each visit, seated in a recliner where he was able to control a few devices with a switch and the one finger that he could still move. Our weekly class gave his wife a break from constant care. It was sad to see such a vital man so quickly and completely diminished. Yet our times together were not morbid in the least.
Dr. Wood began every session with prayer and these words, “Father, we thank you for your goodness and for being so good to us.” I will never forget those remarkable words, coming from one who might easily have complained, and I often use them when I pray. My life hasn’t always been pleasant, but I have never suffered like that. We watched him continue to fail to the point where he could breathe only with an almost painful lifting of his shoulders; it was probably as painful for us to watch. He had a microphone hooked up to a stereo to amplify his weakened voice. Sometimes it picked up radio chatter, and I recall the time we all broke out in laughter when it did. Only Christians in the presence of a truly godly man could have laughed in the midst of such apparent misery!
We finished the class and Dr. Leon Wood died, shortly after. I sang in the chorale at his memorial service, and the hymn “It is Well with My Soul,” so appropriate, always reminds me of him. The story of God taking up Elijah came to my mind vividly, and I felt a little like Elisha, his student who took up his cloak and his mission. Of course, I didn’t become an Old Testament professor, but I hope his godly influence of contentment and faith in God in the midst of adversity remains with me until I see him one day in heaven and thank him for it.
I look back now and realize that many of my mentors were my Dad’s age. I don’t like Father’s Day, personally, because I have no Father and no children. Someone should start a Mentor’s Day. I bet the card companies would get into it, if they thought they could create a market for more cards! Anyway, Ken worked at the radio station where I worked for nearly 15 years. He was a nice guy, and we had some interesting conversations. Sometimes, I think maybe he saw me as his mentor, in ministry in a sense, even though he was older. He got me to try a product that eventually enabled me to lose more weight than I ever did in any other way. I regret now giving it up.
When I left the pastorate to work full time in radio, I didn’t have much money, wasn’t making a very large salary, and had no savings as I moved out of a parsonage. I hoped to buy a house, but I didn’t have much in the way of resources. Ken found a benefactor who “loaned” me enough money to clear my finances and make a down payment. I always suspected it was Ken himself or someone in his family. I was never able to pay back the loan, and he never brought it up. He died, a few years ago, and I regret never telling him, well after the fact, how much his kindness meant to me.
Jim was probably the closest thing to a surrogate father I was blessed to have. He was a good friend, and I enjoyed many, many long and enjoyable hours of conversation with him. He happens to be a “James Roger,” just like me (I never expected to find any others). His heritage is Scottish, as is a big part of mine. His background includes business, the military, history, theology, and law, while mine is science, mathematics, ministry, broadcasting, and peacemaking. Yet, we tended to see the world in much the same way and come to many of the same conclusions, despite very different backgrounds.
My own father was never able to give me much in the way of a material inheritance, and I am fine with that. I have made my own way, and I have been blessed with a good life. For a time I thought Jim might finally be the one, however, to give me what my own dad could not. My Dad tried to start a berry farming business, which kept us busy for several summers. He dreamed of a family business and even mentioned my being a part of it. I still feel bad about telling him, no, because I was going to college. I wasn’t wrong; it was just a hard thing to have to say. Dad was gone, only a few years later. Jim and I worked on something together, but then it and the relationship ended rather abruptly.
Unlike most earlier mentors, I can’t name Jim’s specific contribution to my thinking patterns, character, or personality. Jim has came along as someone who confirmed and supported who I had already become. Since I was well into my journey as a man and minister, I appreciated having a friend who saw my life in a positive way, even though I hadn’t earned much money and still don’t have much of anything to show, by way of accomplishment, in a material sense. I was never acclaimed a great preacher, Bible scholar, broadcaster, or community activist. Many of the things I have done are small, and only a few people are aware of them or benefited from them. Jim is one of a few who understood my desire to help people, and he reminded me that I’m not a failure for having served God in this way.
I doubt any of my mentors could have imagined where I am today because I never imagined it myself. For 15 years now, I have been tutoring refugees, recent immigrants, and international students. In a sense, I have fully embraced being a mentor. Driving a van as a taxi has become my tent-making enterprise, although I see it as a ministry, too. I’m always watching for those I can love and influence, whether it’s a passenger who becomes a friend or a barista at a local coffee shop where conversation becomes more than chat. Inevitably some students seek more than help with English or their homework. Plus I try to stay engaged with former students and others as their lives move on. I’ll never be rich or famous, but I hope my life is a tribute to the mentors who’ve shaped my life and thinking including the greatest Mentor of all.