By Michael Usey
When pastors retire, it’s not always a pretty thing. Some have had such a hard-fought go of it at difficult churches that their faith may be in tatters. Some retire from church-going all together; some retire from any and all discussions of theology and the life of faith. A few even retire from God, although I think gratefully that number is few. And I don’t judge anyone as to how they piece together their spiritual life after a life of service to the Christian church as a whole. Ministry is not for the faint of heart.
It’s also an inherent hazard of being a Christian minister in North America that one loses one’s true self along the way. This is actually way too common, and I believe the reason for it is this: Ministers let their public selves consume their private selves. In too many congregations, pastors may not be free to say exactly what they truly believe or what they think God is saying to their congregations. So, faith can become a performative virtue, a holy masquerade. I don’t know if the average church member can sense this charade, but other ministers can smell it a mile away.
So, what a gift it was when, in 2001, 22 years ago, the Rev. Paul Lowder began attending my church, College Park Baptist in Greensboro, NC. In his memoir, Paul said of our church that he “was amazed that in many ways it was what a church should be. They have a sense of community I haven’t found in any other church … I wish more churches could be like College Park” [p. 262]. He isn’t the first retired minister that I admired; but it was lovely to have a friend and congregant such as he was over the years.
While in prison in Rome and knowing his time was short, St. Paul (the Apostle—not our own St. Paul) wrote letters to his emissary, Timothy. [I know the authorship of this letter is disputed; so sue me.] He concludes his letter in part with these words:
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage with the utmost patience in teaching. … As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing [2 Tim 4.1-2.6-8].
What amazing words: I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. These are words that I think are so appropriate for Paul Lowder. His life was an attempt to live in God’s grace in the midst of heartache and struggle. As I was saying, it’s no small thing to keep one’s genuine faith and authentic self while being a minister. He was a deeply open and curious person, a sign not only of his intelligence, but of his carefully honed wonder for the world. He came from a provincial background and, to his credit, he always sought to climb past.
Paul Lowder was many things to me. But perhaps first and foremost, he was a careful and appreciative listener of my sermons. We both were educated at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, many years apart, and we both knew a good sermon when we heard it. Paul was always, always so kind when he was listening to my work, helping me get better at my craft. We sometimes chatted in person or via email about some idea I presented or someone I had quoted.
He was a keen listener, and that in itself is a spiritual discipline. We preachers are trained to listen critically, which is appropriate; but it takes going beyond that to listen to another preach, seeking within the words the voice of the divine. Paul could do it, and we both benefited from his spiritual practice. Sometimes my sermons were home runs; others were base-on-balls, with a few bunts and strike-outs; no matter how good or bad I was on a given Sunday, Paul was gracious.
I do take my craft of preaching seriously, and I’m not formulaic in the way many three-point sermons are, so not everyone gets my idiosyncratic style, especially evident early in my career. Paul definitely did, and it was a great pick-me-up and vote of confidence that he strayed from his own denomination. He said he found my sermons refreshing and creative, and that they showed thoughtfulness and preparation. He never knew how much his regular affirmations grounded me and made me feel appreciated. (Many church members don’t think to give their ministers regular feedback.) It was as though I could feel God patting me on the back through this elder brother in the faith.
Of me, he said I was “the minister that I tried to be” [p. 262]. He would come regularly to our services and then had to hightail it out of there for the Methodist service where he would fulfill his commitment to his own denomination.
Paul and I shared a deep love of reading and books. We occasionally talked at length about something we had both read. He noted some of the books that influenced him in the back of his autobiography. I counted more than 20 books that I would have listed as my favorites as well. Not only was he a reader, but he could remember much of what he read as well. We shared a love for Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian minister, whose non-fiction was articulate, vulnerable, tone-perfect and real. I often quote Buechner in my sermons. Paul was one of the few non-Baptist ministers that loved the writings of Clarence Jordan, the Georgia iconoclast who founded Koinonia Farms, an interracial community in rural Georgia. Jordan was also a scholar of koine Greek and published a translation of the New Testament called the Cotton Patch Gospel. Out of his ministry grew Habitat for Humanity.
Anne Lamott, C.S. Lewis, Will Campbell, Robert Capon, Annie Dillard: the list of writers whose books we both loved is long and always gave us something to chat about. Sometimes something I said in a sermon would spark something he had read, and he’d send it to me in an email. I always appreciated that.
Paul was always transparent and vulnerable with me when he talked about his life. He had a wealth of experience, as he had served churches in Harmony, Davidson, Irving Park, Maple Springs, Newton, Eden and Mint Hill. I have to say, and I think he’d agree, that moving around so often to so many different churches did not always help nor bless his ministry. I know he reflected that he and his congregations were not always a good match. Paul thought he was being moved from one congregation just at the point at which good things were beginning to happen, an aspect of Methodist polity that he felt fragmented his overall ministry.
Paul led churches for 40 years from 1954-1994; he was a talented preacher and pastor. Paul was quite candid with me with what he had done well and what he had overlooked or missed. This honesty gave me the space to be forthright with my own mistakes and areas needing growth. This too was a gift to a young minister such as myself.
Paul was especially good with people who were facing death and dying. Conversations with him helped me hone this aspect of my ministry. I realized after talking with him that I was too focused on not being trapped at a dying person’s death-watch, that I sometimes missed key moments when people were close to death, moments of confession and fear and love. He helped me linger at these deathbed holy moments, and not to keep such a firm boundary around my time.
Paul also loved to talk about his extensive travels to England, Italy, Turkey, Mexico and many other places. When we knew each other better, Paul shared with me about some of the significant women he had loved in his life. Paul knew, loved and was married to some remarkably strong women. Some of his relationships were wonderful; others were incredibly painful and ended badly. I felt that he had a strong spiritual energy that women found authentic and attractive. His autobiography helped me clarify and piece together his various relationships, some of which were difficult and ended in a far-from-stellar way. I believe that it took him a while to learn what hadn’t been helpful from his family of origin and to find a better, more holistic path.
Paul was my friend, and I treasured his friendship. He had a quick smile and was easy to talk with; he liked to laugh. There was a deep kindness in him that was so very evident in this final stage of his long life. I valued how observant he was about my own ministry and my congregation; but he was careful not to “kibitz” on aspects of my ministry unless I asked. And when I did, he was perspicuous, having a keen insight.
Paul awakened in my wife, Ann, a most beautiful thing: the allure of the subtle charm of the southern persimmon fruit. Ann hadn’t heard of it, so Paul promised to make her a persimmon pudding. We didn’t dream that he would follow up; but the next fall, he invited us to his townhouse for coffee and dessert. He had actually made a whole dish just so she would know this iconic little jewel of the south. We have several nearby trees that spill ripe persimmons every fall and since then, Ann starts harvesting a handful every time she dog-walks past persimmon trees near our park, inspired by his use of the fruit he would scout out each fall. In fact, I chuckled over several decaying overripe persimmons on the counter before I saw that her optimism about processing the fruit for baking slowly die. She admitted she wasn’t quite up for the whole nine yards: Paul had warned her that you had to squeeze the fruit pulp through a sieve to strain away both skin and pit, much like a peach. It showed what a labor of love Paul has gone through. Ann could never quite pick enough in one hike to make a whole pan, but she says she will forever feel a pang of sorrow and gratitude each fall, because that fruit now represents Paul for her. It shows how versatile Paul was, a renaissance man, yet humble in using his skills for others.
She also reminded me how stunned she was, when she told him how she longed to share with out-of-state family members a copy of an excellent documentary called “No End in Sight,” about the poorly planned war in Iraq. When she mentioned this, Paul asked simply, “How many copies would you like made?” She wished for 10 as she has a big family. Within a week, he produced 10 neatly labeled copies of the documentary on blank CDs he’d bought in bulk for just such purposes. She was struck again at his follow-through and desire to be of help.
Ann and I went to visit him for what turned out to be the last time in December 2019. We of course didn’t know then that Covid-19 would keep us from visiting for over two years. His memory had slipped; he knew who we were, but didn’t remember the specifics of our family. He was still reading, still hungry to learn about life and God and human experience. He couldn’t take in much new information; he couldn’t remember what he’d read only pages earlier, but he had a good-natured attitude about that. He said, “Well, it keeps what I’m reading fresh and new.”
Yet his long-term memory allowed him to speak with amazing recall about books he’d read much earlier in his life. So, the gap between his absent short-term memory and his long-term memory was painfully obvious. We realized he would not remember us the very next time we visited. But his attitude about life, his habit of happiness, was what stood out to us. Paul’s genuine gratitude and verve for life seem to hold him in a pleasant place. I want to be like that, if that is my fate; I want to be like Paul. There was some lovely karma, living a good final chapter because of the healthy habits he had crafted, despite many adversities along the way. We hugged, took pictures and told each other of our love and friendship.
My memoir of this remarkable man is a small snapshot of his long and generative life. Paul concluded his 2003 autobiography, entitled The Heart Knows What’s Precious, with a few regrets and things he’d learned. Some of you may have read it, but it would be good to hear those parts again. He wrote:
If I had my life to live over and had the wisdom (which comes only with age and experience if it comes at all), these are the things I would do:
These are some of things I’ve learned [Paul wrote]:
While I knew Paul, he lived these truths. And he concludes his musings with these good true words: We are in good hands! Having gone through thick and thin, it’s strengthening to hear that he could still affirm his steadfast trust in God as love and that God would hold him in that love. We are in good hands. We were always in good hands with Paul, and God’s love and kindness showed through his life with clarity and grace. For the life and friendship and love of Paul Lowder, I thank God.
— Michael Usey recently retired as pastor of College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro, NC.