Sermon tapes

Most preachers have accumulated enough sermon tapes over the years to fill a small volkswagon. Before the internet revolution, particularly, the buying and sharing of the great pulpiteers’ sermon tapes was the only way to hear the best of Southern Baptist preaching. Now, with the advent of streaming audio/video and podcasting, tapes are becoming more and more obsolete.

Last night I decided to sort through my file box of sermon tapes with the intent of discarding the ones that were of little use. But I found myself clinging to them, refusing to discard any. In that box are sermons of W.A. Criswell from the 50s and 60s, the very best of Adrian Rogers on the Lordship of Christ and Jerry Vines on the ascension, sermons by Charles Stanley on personal holiness, and sermons by Joel Gregory on depression.

I’ve got sermons of Junior Hill that make me laugh and cry, and sermons by John MacArthur that drive me deeper into Scripture. There are tapes of friends who have matured into exemplary expositors: men like Ben Durand in North Carolina and Frankie Melton in Kentucky. I have copies of my own first sermon, an abysmally dismal attempt to explain Joshua 24, and I have debates of Paige Patterson with Cecil Sherman and Clark Pinnock.

I have one tape where Patterson endorses the servant-calling of deaconesses, and another where Bailey Smith hints that Janet Reno is a lesbian. I have a brave sermon by O.S. Hawkins from Jude entitled, “A Clown in the Halls,” and another excellent challenge by Guidestone’s president on the fear of the Lord.

The most listened-to sermon in my collection is one by the late Homer Lindsey, Jr., on Acts 20:20. Dr. Lindsey wasn’t the best expositor, but something about his authenticity and integrity compels an audience with anybody who loves the Scripture. I have tons of sermons by Al Mohler, whose sermons always have a way of telling the old, old story of the gospel in ways that make me want to read and study and write with theological precision.

I have sermons preached by Miss Bertha Smith, Theresa Brown, Anne Graham Lotz, and Dorothy Patterson. There are a few sermons from some crazies, like a man that used to excoriate First Baptist Dallas as a “den of whoremongers,” and the various rantings of Jack Hyles and Bob Jones. There are sermons from the days when Jerry Falwell could get through a message without rallying the troops for some America nationalism or promoting Liberty University. There are sermons by Ken Hemphill that move the soul and by Johnny Hunt that prick the conscience. I have in my possession a veritable banquet table of the heavenly bread without which men do not live.

And then there was a sermon collection that I was given, but I had never opened.

The day of Dr. Criswell’s funeral was the date it was given to me. A pastor friend from North Carolina and I had flown into Dallas for the noon funeral, after which we traveled north to attend the mid-week services at Prestonwood Baptist Church. Arriving at the church shortly before the services began, we made our way to the book store and perused the sermon series of the church’s pastor, Jack Graham.

We had barely been there ten minutes when a blonde lady with a kind face approached us to offer her assistance. She greeted us warmly and asked about our ministries. We explained to her how we had come into town for Dr. Criswell’s funeral, but we had one more night in town and had decided to come see Prestonwood. She introduced herself to us as “Deb,” and asked us to wait for a few moments until she could return.

While we browsed the store, Deb retrieved four sermon albums of various messages preached by Jack Graham. When she returned, she gave them to us at no charge. She offered a quick expression of thanksgiving for our commitment to preach the Scripture, told us that she hoped the sermons would encourage us, and then went back to her responsibilities.

At the time, I knew who she was, but she never let on and I did not press her. She was unassuming and unpretentious, a perfect lady who took time to be a blessing to a couple of anonymous young preachers who were quite overwhelmed at the size of Prestonwood’s behemoth facilities. She put a welcoming face and a warm heart to an potentially intimidating place. Her ministry to us was that of a servant, and not what many people expect from a megachurch pastor’s wife.

So today I opened one of those tape albums given to us by Jack Graham’s wife, and listened while I drove to the sermons of Jack Graham that feed God’s flock at Prestonwood. For those wondering how a church can grow the size of Prestonwood, it is easy to understand when you hear the way that their pastor seeks to explain the Bible to them with simplicity, sincerity, empathy, and grace.

I intended to write Mrs. Graham back in 2002 to thank her for the gift, but as so often happens the busy-ness of ministry and the delay of time robbed my memory of her generosity and kindness. Last night, with sermon tapes scattered about my living room, I determined that it was time to say thank you…to a gracious Christian woman and her husband, who has had every reason to succeed in ministry with such a helpmate at his side.

The election of Jerry Rankin

Tonight I called Joel Gregory, a man whose counsel and friendship have been invaluable to me since I first sought him out in 2001, nearly a decade since his departure from First Baptist Church of Dallas. His book, Too Great a Temptation, was published during my undergraduate days at Baylor University, and I quickly devoured its pages. Soon thereafter, I began collecting every sermon I could find that was preached by Joel, and to my delight I discovered a box of sermon tapes being thrown out at the Criswell College library in the Fall of 1995. It took me several years to meet him in person, but by the time we eventually sat down for a visit I had listened to every sermon he’d ever preached at FBC Dallas, which was no small feat due to the fact that his sermons were not — at the time — available for purchase from the church’s media ministry.

Last October, our church had the privilege of hosting Joel for a day. We sent out letters. We made fliers. Some of my church members who attend Southwestern Seminary distributed them on campus. During the Fall trustee meeting, those fliers were distributed to a few trustees in an effort to discredit me for having a “known adulterer” in my pulpit.

I remember the day that something snapped inside me about Paige Patterson. The day I knew he was no longer my hero. The day I realized he would destroy people and lie about them.

Near the end of my studies at Southeastern Seminary, Patterson preached a sermon series on 1st Samuel. I had already stopped going to chapel by that time, choosing rather to spend my time with my pastoral responsibilities or just relaxing at home with a book. Very soon into Patterson’s series, he preached a sermon on the sex-sick sons of Eli and their sensual slip into sin.

I hate alliteration. Really I do.

After chapel that day, my phone rang. On the other end of the line was a friend of mine from Brazil, a fellow student, who was quite insistent that I get a copy of Patterson’s sermon for that day. Patterson had blasted Joel Gregory, he said, knowing of my friendship with the man. I quickly obtained a copy of the sermon and listened as Patterson proceeded for ten minutes or more to denounce Gregory in the harshest terms possible, using his personal pain as an occasion to illustrate the text regarding Eli’s sons. At one point, Patterson announced the title of Gregory’s book, telling students that he would require its reading if “it didn’t mean putting money in that man’s pocket.” Toward the end of his tirade, Patterson told the chapel audience that Gregory had “in the end” stopped believing the Bible.

I was disgusted. Angry. Frustrated.

Later, when I arrived at Southwestern Seminary, I was informed that Patterson had sent a directive to the Public Relations office that “no coverage” would be given in the alumni news to Joel Gregory.

I couldn’t help but think of Yul Brenner’s portrayal of Pharoah in “The Ten Commandments.”

“Let the name of Moses be stricken from every obelisk…”

Last fall I invited a group of SWBTS students to have lunch with Joel Gregory and me at Pappadeaux’s Seafood Restaurant in Arlington. For nearly two hours we sat around a table and listened as Gregory offered advice about pastoral ministry and preaching. At one point Gregory told the group the same thing he’s told me many times.

“I’m not able to be a pastor any longer,” Joel said. “But I can tell you some pitfalls and give you some pointers to make you better servants of Christ.”

“Lash yourself to the local church,” he told us. “The Kingdom of God is not built on the backs of anything other than the small-membership church.”

With all of this commotion about Patterson’s very clear opposition to Jerry Rankin’s presidency at the IMB, I thought it would be interesting to talk to Joel Gregory about it. So I called him, and we talked for 30 minutes tonight.

Joel Gregory, you’ll remember, was the chairman of the search committee that brought Rankin’s name to the board. At the time of Rankin’s election, Gregory had already resigned from FBC Dallas and was living in a small apartment on the outskirts of Ft. Worth selling cemetary plots. One night, Gregory told me, he received a phonecall from Charles Stanley, Adrian Rogers, and Paige Patterson. All three men were insistent that Gregory blockade Jerry Rankin’s candidacy.

Stanley, Gregory told me, explained that “Jerry Rankin is the most Christ-like man” he’d ever met. “But,” Stanley said, “he’s not one of us.”

It was at that moment that Gregory determined to buck the powers that be and allow Rankin’s name a fair hearing by the committee. When the 1992 convention rolled around, the IMB trustees gathered at Second Baptist Church in Houston, TX, for a closed meeting called for the purpose of electing Jerry Rankin.

The search committee was unanimous, but opposition to the recommendation was mounted.

With the committee members seated on the dais, Houston Judge Paul Pressler stood on the floor and raised opposition to Rankin’s candidacy. Every possible argument was raised. Every possible allowance was made by Gregory to let Pressler continue his speech.

In the end, only seven trustees voted against Jerry Rankin in a roll call vote. Once the vote was taken, Pressler made a motion to make the vote unanimous and report the unanimity to the press.

Rankin ascended to the presidency of the IMB, though his leadership has been frustrated at every turn by some of those who opposed him from the beginning. Joel Gregory retreated to the shadows of denominational life, his ministry and witness repeatedly victimized by rumor-mongering from some of the same men.

I remember the night in Patterson’s class on the Doctrine of the Church, back in the Spring of 2001, when the issue of divorced pastors arose. At a point in his lecture, Patterson spent considerable time addressing the pastoral qualifications of Charles Stanley, whose divorce difficulties had become well-known.

Patterson told us about a “conference call” he had with Stanley and Jerry Vines and a few others. On the call, Patterson explained, they had “agreed” that Charles Stanley could remain as pastor at FBC Atlanta so long as he kissed dating goodbye. I remember wondering who Patterson thought he was to interfere in the autonomy of a local church like that. And then I thought about Patterson’s interference with the IMB, and some things crystallized in my mind.

I think I could live with a Deist version of Paige Patterson, an architect or a clockmaker if you will, who wound up the conservative resurgence and then stepped back and let it run by itself. Instead, Southern Baptists have been left with an unmoved mover, an unseen hand, whose capricious tinkering has left the convention unable to define words like “autonomy,” “priesthood,” “competence,” and “liberty” in ways that our Baptist forbears would recognize.