The Passing of Calvin

In what feels like a long time ago and a galaxy far away, I was a divinity student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. About halfway through my time there a rumor floated around: Calvin Miller will be teaching here in the fall. It was breath of fresh air for me. Man does not live by Greek and Hebrew and Systematic Theology and Ethics alone; I needed some poetry for god’s sake. So along came Calvin, this Don Quixote character with beard and paintings and seersucker suits and all.

I took his Personal Evangelism class; that’s where I first heard the phrase ‘the rape of the Roman Road.’ I’d long felt that way about the wham-bam-thank-you-Jesus approach of my Southern Baptist fellows but Calvin articulated it in such a way that I’ll never forget. He also made mention in that class of his love for the music of Marty Robbins; this knit the man to my heart. However it was his Lewis/Tolkien class where he really shined. Sure, there was some hero worship going on, I won’t deny that for a minute. But beyond that was the experience of Calvin as an intersector, a man that lived at the crossroads of his love of Jesus and his love of this old fallen world. One story, okay? We were reading The Hobbit for a classroom project and I was doing research on themes, metaphors, symbols and such. A few scholar-heads made much of the fact that Bilbo’s sword was a phallic symbol. Now I was a pretty good Southern Baptist boy so even saying the word ‘phallic’ made me feel outlaw, like John-Cougar-Mellancamp. I made an appointment to sit with Calvin in his medievally appointed office and discuss this thread, convinced there were no doubt layers of meaning forged into that little man’s sword.

Me: Dr. Miller, do you think Bilbo’s sword is a phallic symbol?

Him: (fairly decent pause, scratch beard a tad) Well, it could be I guess. Ya know, I really think Bilbo’s sword was a sword. (another fairly decent pause)

He smiled at me, asked me about my wife and told me about his wife then asked where I worked and was I happy at seminary and had I seen any good movies lately. We talked for awhile about such things, things that had much more to do with life than aspects of Tolkien minutiae. Its not that Calvin didn’t love Tolkien, for he did, but I want to believe in that moment that Calvin loved me more, enough to in essence say don’t be so serious, John, sometimes a sword is a sword.

I had the distinct privilege last year to work with Calvin on one of his final books – Letters to a Young Pastor. I was his editor, though I didn’t edit too much for his manuscript was clean when it came in, it sounded like him – funny, old school, poetic. We had several phone conversations and he always concluded by telling me how very grateful he was for my advocacy of that book and its message. He’d say if I can ever do anything for you, John, anything, you just ask. He honored me by using a blog post of mine as an intro to one of the chapters in his book. I cannot tell you how much that meant to me, and still does.

And so I grieve the passing of my friend. He fought the windmills bravely in this life and is now living the impossible dream. I will look for him one of these days when I too lay down my sword and I will say thank you. For sometimes a sword is just a sword.

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  1. Diana Trautwein on August 25, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    What a beautiful tribute, John. And what a great seminary memory. And yes – sometimes a sword IS just a sword! Thank God. I’m struck by how much this picture looks like Eugene Peterson’s latest book photo. Almost eerily so.

  2. Janet Lee on August 25, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    I want to thank you for sharing your story and compliment you on this tribute. Beautiful is just the right word!

  3. Ann Kroeker on August 25, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    I just slipped over to his website and see that he passed away a few days ago. Your post here, that Leonard Sweet linked to, is the first I heard of it. Thank you for sharing how your lives intersected, and your sword story. Love the way he handled it.

  4. micksilva on August 25, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    So glad to know you saw and knew him, John. And now you get to carry a bit of his large mantle.

    I’m learning from that book: “Pastoral care is a world of unbearable pain. However high we lift our spirits in personal or public worship, it is good to remember that many in our congregations come and go from our worship with broken hearts. In some ways this is what is most wrong with public invitations. We ask all those who are shrinking back from life to come forward. But they are refugees from sociability. They want to hide; they do not want to come forward. They want to hide out, so pastors must go to their hiding places. We must come down from our soaring worship and agree to enter the world of unbearable hurt.”

    I always heard in him a singular man with a true heart for sharing the no-nonsense love of God. Thanks for confirming that with this tribute.

  5. chrishollysmith on August 25, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    Simply beautiful, brother. I couldn’t agree more about the sword.

    Praying for you in the loss of such a dear brother/mentor and friend. Looking forward to Heaven and knowing him!

    With love, Holly

    Date: Sat, 25 Aug 2012 16:27:59 +0000 To:

  6. chris seay on August 25, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    beautiful and heartfelt. thanks.

  7. Mark Grace on August 25, 2012 at 7:50 pm

    Beautiful and painful Im glad the two of you knew each other John.

  8. Winn Collier on August 25, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    I’m so glad you were the editor for that book. So glad. I wish I’d had a Calvin in seminary. The feeling that he loved you more – man, that says it.

  9. Cheryl Smith (@CherylSmith999) on August 25, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    I hadn’t heard of his passing, until now. It seems to me that someone just days ago posted a link to his old “A Taste of New Wine,” a book I read long ago. Now, maybe, I know why.

    What a fond read here, John and a more fond memory. Thanks for sharing.

  10. kjersten on August 25, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    Calvin Miller’s exquisit way with words pierced a place in my spirit and poured forth healing balm. BItter-sweet to hear of his passing, bitter for us… divinely sweet for him.

  11. marlee simms on August 26, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    Love your prose…you made Calvin come alive…once had a teacher at Berkeley who got standing ovations after each lecture..I can still hear the roar and see the rooms. He made Greek and Roman classic lit stay with me forever..marlee

  12. Lucille Zimmerman on August 26, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    Touching tribute to Calvin. I had a professor like this so I sent him this link. He brought me out of a caccon and he’s the inspiration for the book I wrote. It won’t be published until March. You know we share the same editor John 🙂

  13. marnatha1959 on August 26, 2012 at 10:10 pm

    A beautiful tribute. The more I hear of Calvin Miller, the man, the more I like him. I love his response to the Hobbit. “Sometimes a sword is just a sword.” what a practical approach to life he had. Thanks for sharing this!

  14. lvshope on August 27, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    I love this post, John. My familiarity with Calvin Miller is only through his writings. Your post provided a totally new dimension.

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