On the morning of January 1, 2015, I received a phone call that sent me into tears so overwhelming that I could not speak. For nearly an hour, I just sat in my bedroom looking out the window, trying to process it all.
From the time I was sixteen, I had been supported emotionally, spiritually, and at times, financially, by Lollie Cogswell. When I first met her in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Sherman, TX, I remember thinking how stunningly beautiful and thoroughly Texan she was. Tall in her high heels, perfectly coiffed and frosted hair, ever poised and proper, she was a doyenne of Baptist life. Her elegance only accentuated her inner strength.
She was solid steel wrapped in the finest silk tapestry. She was the kind of woman that could make William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy look up from their typewriters and say, “Wow. How do I capture that?”
When I went to Baylor, she called me regularly to ask how classes were going. When I attended the Criswell College, she came down to Dallas one day to attend chapel with me. When I moved to Wake Forest, she gave me $500.00 to help. When I graduated from seminary, she gave me some of her books on the Puritans. And when I moved back to Texas, we would have coffee almost every afternoon I was in town.
We’d sit and laugh with her sister, Lou, and we’d talk about politics, religion, faith, and the riches of our Texas heritage. I’ve cried on her shoulder many times, and I can still hear her near violent laughter. Head tossed back, mouth agape, and the unmistakable burst of sound that tapered off into a giggle.
I remember the day I showed up unannounced for a visit, and she answered the door with only one eyelash in place. It took me a minute, but finally I said, “What is wrong with your eye?” She turned and looked in the mirror and let out a scream and ran to the back of her house. Moments later she returned and made me promise never to tell anyone.
I just broke that promise. But I think she probably is smiling.
Lollie replaced Jimmy Draper on the Southwestern Board of Trustees when he went to the Sunday School Board, now Lifeway Christian Resources. She would call me when she was in trustee meetings, and sometimes when they were over we’d sit on her living room floor and look over some of the documents she was supposed to read. When she voted to fire Russell Dilday, the hate mail came pouring in. She’d read every letter, and then put it in a basket. I think she took some pride in being “reviled” for doing what she thought was right.
And she could get mad at me. Furious. Her temper could rage hot, and she’d tell me exactly what she thought about me and everything else in the world. And then, the bluster would subside. All the while, I knew she loved me.
She also knew my disgust with Paige Patterson, whom she considered a friend. It was one of those things where we always agreed to disagree. But we would hash it out, say our peace, and pour another cup of coffee.
When FBC Sherman got a rotten pastor, we worked together — a young seminarian and a 60-something laywoman — to push the deacons into action. She was formidable, and I learned most everything I know about how to fight a battle from her.
One of her crowning achievements, she believed, was getting to cast a vote to elect Paige Patterson as president of Southwestern Seminary. It represented, to her, the final act to secure the future of the seminary and the capstone of the Conservative Resurgence. When Paige got to the seminary, I was doing some coursework in preparation for a Ph.D. at Baylor University. I was also pastoring a small church in Arlington, and working part-time as a student journalist for the school. It fell to me, at times, to write for Baptist Press about Patterson’s leadership at the Fort Worth School. Like the time I had to figure out how to spin one of the dumbest, most inartful seminary slogans ever devised in the history of Christian higher education. I was also writing a blog.
Then one day, Paige fired me. He stripped me of my role as a grader for a professor in the School of Theology, and removed me as president of the student theological society.
My offense: I had used the word “crap” on my blog to refer to the materials sold in the campus Lifeway store.
Lollie sent me a check. For the following months, between Lollie’s encouragement and the regular cash gifts of another Southwestern trustee hand-delivered through the president’s office by means of his chief of staff, I was able to make it. Another student took over my grading responsibilities, and he gave me that money every month too.
It was a valuable lesson.
For the next four years, Lollie cared for her husband as he got increasingly frail. It nearly killed her to put him in a skilled nursing center, but she went almost every day to spend time with him. In 2007, she said goodbye to him and descended into a despondency that never seemed to break.
Before she died in 2015, Lollie and I had a long conversation on the phone. In that conversation, she told me something that crushed me, and we cried together.
When Lollie was a young woman fresh out of Baylor University and working as a public school teacher, a man in her life did something horrible to her. All her life, she’d carried the emotional scars of what happened. But she moved on. She married the love of her life, raised a son who made her proud, and supported the causes she believed in.
She was, in my estimation, the greatest example of “gracious submission” the Southern Baptist Convention has ever known.
Today, in the chapel at Southwestern Seminary, there is a stained glass window of Lollie. I think she would be horrified to see it — they are so cheap and tacky, after all — not because of its bizarre placement in the first place but because she’d reject any notion that her motivation was that she be honored in some way.
Early this morning, I received another phone call.
Paige Patterson was fired.
And I sat for a moment, and looked out my window and thought of Lollie, and how much she prayed for Southwestern, and how much she wanted to see its enrollment grow and its reputation increase and its students blessed by the example and teaching of godly professors.
In my personal files are numerous letters from Lollie. I have read through some of them today.
More than anything, I wish I was in my car this afternoon on my way to a windswept hill on Tate Circle in the southernmost acres of Grayson County to have coffee, and laugh, and argue, and sort out this whole mess.