This past Thursday was an eventful day for me. Waking up at 6:00 a.m. is unfamiliar territory for a late-nighter such as I, and a morning commute to Fort Worth from Dallas is unspeakably grueling. Around 7:30 a.m. I called Wade Burleson on his cell phone to find out how far out he was from our 8:15 a.m. rendezvous location. To my surprise, Wade answered and explained how terrible airline delays had put him home in OKC at three that morning, and without his luggage, he decided to drive to Enid rather than come to Ft. Worth. Ever suspicious that God is sovereign, Wade confessed to me that the Lord clearly did not intend for him to be at chapel that morning, and we agreed to visit after the service was over via telephone.
I arrived at the Tarrant Baptist Association parking lot around 8:15 a.m., where I parked my car and walked over to the Leadership Development Center to wait for SBC President Frank Page, who was scheduled to meet me at 8:50 a.m. in order to walk over to the Tarrant Baptist Association building for a morning fellowship with Ft. Worth area pastors. While there, I had the remarkable and blessed opportunity to meet Dwight McKissic for the first time, and we visited briefly about our shared ministries. Dwight and his church, Cornerstone Baptist, are planning some bold evangelistic and church-planting strategies for the Arlington area, and I enjoyed hearing his ideas. We also visited about Baptist history, and I shared with him some passages from a book I had brought to read while passing the time. Dwight is among the sharpest minds in the Southern Baptist Convention, and I cannot express the degree to which he is an asset to our shared evangelical work. He is, quite truly, a rarity as a pastor-theologian, competent in the Scriptures and generous in both gracious disposition and Christian courtesy.
At 8:50, on the mark, Frank Page joined us in the LDC lobby and together we walked across the street to the Tarrant Baptist Association building. For the better part of an hour, our SBC President shared stories with the pastors who had gathered, and it was encouraging to see men from such diverse denominational perspectives joined together to pray for him and listen to his heart for the SBC. Frank Page is a man of courage and kindness. His words are well chosen. His countenance is friendly and warm. His charisma is authentic and unrehearsed.
At 10:00, Dr. Page left alone to walk to the presidential suite at SWBTS, while McKissic and I passed through the Lifeway Christian Store with a member of the North Texas media who fell into step with us. Once inside SWBTS, we were joined by TBA staff; when the chapel doors were opened, we made our way to a quickly-filling auditorium.
While standing in the foyer, I saw the unmistakable mug of Jeremy L. Green, a man who has carved a niche for himself in the blogging world with his resolute support for all things Pattersonian and his exuberance to pigeon-hole me as someone working to undo the conservative resurgence. At the first chance I had, I walked to where JLG was sitting and introduced myself. I greeted men like Drs. Thomas White, Malcolm Yarnell, Emir Caner, and several students whose days at SWBTS overlapped my own. For the entirety of the service I sat next to the TBA executive director, Dr. Tom Law.
I have to confess a sense of mischevious glee at watching the increasingly bald and portly Paige Patterson descend the western aisle, leading our convention president, a man whom Patterson worked diligently to defeat this past June in Greensboro. I felt a certain pride at the thought that Patterson had lost, and we had won. I also enjoyed seeing Dwight McKissic, resolute and unmoved, stand near the front of the room where his sermon had been censored just a few short weeks ago. The sense of boastful pride continued, even throughout the singing, until a few moments into Frank Page’s sermon.
It was then that I realized only God could have orchestrated the irony of that day. Frank Page, more than anyone else in that room, perhaps, was humble and gracious. Dwight McKissic, forgiving and joyous. My sense of joy was political. Theirs, spiritual.
This has always been my besetting vice, to mistake my personal political savvy for God’s sovereign hand. It is idolatry of the worst order, and I hate it in myself. Somewhere in the middle of Frank Page’s sermon, I was reminded of my great need for God’s redeeming grace; and for a moment, I loved Paige Patterson again.
Patterson’s charm is undeniable. He is both winsome and witty. Usually, in any given room, his personality will dominate, and watching the people who hover around him like moths to a flame reminded me of my earlier infatuation with the man. Standing at the front of the chapel, waiting for his arrival, were the men who admired him most. If they didn’t, the chances are they wouldn’t have the jobs they have. There were Oxford dons like Malcolm Yarnell, a sizeable man of remarkable intellect. There were budding Baptist historians like Thomas White, whose affinity with crisp, white pocket-squares betrays his approachable demeanor. There were men like Dean Nichols, loyal and tenacious. Men without whom the conservative resurgence could not have happened. Dorothy was there, red boots and all. And there was a palpable awareness in the air of something historic.
When Frank Page spoke, there was a sincerity to his face and an urgency to his tone. Standing in a pulpit where most men are quick to express accolades for Patterson and subtle acknowledgements that they owe their pulpits to him, it was clear that Frank Page owed his ministry, his position, and his moment to speak to God alone.
And Frank Page spoke to us about the dark days of our denomination. There were no fireworks. There were no shopharim. There were no bus tours and confetti. There was only time for a cautious word of warning, and an earnest plea. When a man who draws his paycheck from the Cooperative Program tells you that the convention needs saving, you can usually shrug it off as job security. When a man who owes nothing to the bureaucracy recognizes that the convention needs saving, there is an ethos that all the pomp and circumstance and thunder and Bible-thumping cannot produce. Frank Page believes that the convention is in trouble, but that it is worth the effort to save. For this cause he has put his name on the line, his hands to the plow, and there doesn’t seem any hint that he intends to turn back.
After the service was over, I stood around and talked with a handful of people, most of whom wanted my immediate “take” on the days events. Some wanted me to introduce them to Wade. Others wanted me to visit with them “off campus” at some point so they wouldn’t be seen talking to me. Later I would enjoy lunch at Southwestern’s student center, approached every few minutes by some kind soul wanting to thank me, or just to say hello. When you walk into a room expecting to feel like a leper, and folks treat you like a brother, it uplifts the spirit and refreshes the soul. For me to be thus received was Baptist equivalent of Gustavo Guterriez’s reception at the Vatican. Everybody knows what you’ve written, and they know what the boss thinks about it. But they also, somewhere inside, recognize that this little man might be doing and saying some things that need done and said.
When I walked back to my car, a moment of humor struck me. Ambling alongside the behemoth and exceedingly broad Dwight McKissic, accompanied by his youthful and strikingly lovely wife, we were met in the middle of the street by a shiny, blue Cadillac Escalade. Patterson’s SUV, had its driver wanted, could have solved a few personal headaches with a sudden failure in the braking mechanism. Never before, I thought to myself, have I been more thankful to have a 6’5″ 300lbs black man beside me. If the Escalade hit me, it would barely scratch the hood. If it hit Dwight, the impact would split the engine block in twain.
These are not the thoughts of paranoia. They are just the funny little things that run through my head at those strange moments of providence.
I called Wade on the way back to Arlington, as well as the seven or so people who had either called or text messaged me during the service. I sat in my office and wrote a letter to Keith Eitel that I will not send.
Of all the painful wounds of collateral damage from this current crisis, none has saddened me more than the distance between my beloved professor and me. I rejoice only in the thought that one day, when the dark stain of sin is erased from our natures, our reunion will be sweet before the throne of Christ eternal. Until that day I rest in the comfort that a man now leads our convention who, above and beyond what any of us can expect, has the chance to pull the family together again for final charge on the gates of Hell.
3 thoughts on “Reflections on a Thursday morning…..”
Ben, this is the best, most honest, most humbling post that you have ever written, in my opinion. This is tremendous! Both the apparent accurate description of the days events, and the wonderful transparency are so commendable.
I won’t be the first to tell you that you get a bad rap in many places because too many people see you as some sort of egomaniacal (sp?) ogre. They haven’t had the opportunity to see your transparency enough. I haven’t spent nearly as much time in conversation, or in person, with you as I wish I could have, but in my exprience your personal commitment to holiness and your dedication to God are second to none. Too often that doesn’t come across in your posts and therefore I find this one refreshingly clear.
Thanks man! I, for one, really apreciate this one.
First, probably least important, your writing style is beautiful and I finally “got you” Ben.
I was actually one of those who thought you might be on a “trip” all by yourself and was concerned about your agenda. In this post, your guard was down, it was refreshing and you no longer scare me :)
“This has always been my besetting vice, to mistake my personal political savvy for God’s sovereign hand. ” We should all see so clearly, my brother.
Even though I know this was written several months ago, I just ran across it; and I appreciated your transparency in what you had to say. Having known you and your beloved professor while all of us were at SEBTS, I must say….Ben, its not too late to send that letter.