Friday, June 20, 2008

The Eulogy I Delivered at the Memorial Service of Dr. Howard Giddens

Twenty-nine years ago I stood in the pulpit of Midway Baptist Church over in Lamar County and said a few words at the funeral of my father, Champ Ruffin. I was a twenty year old brand new Mercer graduate with a brand new wife and, I figured, a long life ahead of me. I tried to say something appropriate about the man who had, more than any other person, been responsible for who I had become and was in the process of becoming.

Today I stand here to try to say a few words about my other father, Howard Giddens, the man who has, more than any other person, been responsible for who I have become since my father died and am in the process of becoming. They were very different men. My first father was a high school graduate, a Navy veteran, a deacon in a rural Baptist church, and a textile mill worker. Dr. Giddens held a doctor’s degree, he was a pastor and a professor, and he had a much more cosmopolitan experience. But both of them would quibble with what I have said about them. Both of them would insist that it was the good Lord who has been responsible for the development of my life. They would be right about that, of course, but it is nonetheless true that the Lord worked through them to touch and to shape many lives, including mine.

There is a place in the Old Testament where it says, “In those days there were giants in the land.” From my perspective, this is the last of the giants. Now, he did a lot. Some of his achievements and accomplishments have been documented in his obituary but to tell the whole story would have taken the whole newspaper! But, as the Bible teaches and as Dr. Giddens emphasized, what you do matters most when it reflects who are. Dr. Giddens was a giant mainly because of his integrity. He was who he was and he was who he was all the time and in all circumstances. He had a genuine humility that emerged from a clearly defined center. He loved and accepted and embraced everyone he met because of the grace that permeated that center.

I took Old Testament with Dr. Giddens in the fall of 1975. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Never had I listened to anyone who had such a grasp of scholarship but who at the same time had such a genuine love for the Scriptures. He showed me that is was not only possible but necessary to respect and to believe the Bible in a way that took seriously the reality of the Bible. Dr. Giddens so clearly and transparently loved the Lord, the Bible, the Academy, the Church, and his students. He modeled for me and for many others the way that biblical scholarship should be done—namely, with a goal of telling the truth in a way that builds up rather than tears down.

Dr. and Mrs. Giddens took many young people under their wings and served as parent figures and mentors to them. I needed that as much as anyone and maybe more than most. My mother had died just before I started at Mercer and my father died less than a year after I graduated. Dr. and Mrs. Giddens became my parents in almost every sense of the word.

Three months after my father died Debra and I moved to Louisville so I could attend Southern Seminary. The year was 1979. Toward the end of that first semester, the telephone rang in our Seminary Village apartment. It was Dr. Giddens. He said, “Mike, I guess you’ve been keeping up with how our football team has been doing.” I affirmed that I had. They had just finished an undefeated season and were headed to the Sugar Bowl to play Notre Dame. Dr. Giddens said, “Would you like to go to the Sugar Bowl?” “Dr. Giddens,” I replied, “We don’t have any money. We can’t go to the Sugar Bowl.” He said, “Well, do you believe in Santa Claus?” I answered, “If it’ll get me to the Sugar Bowl, I do!” He said, “If you and Debra can get to Macon, you won’t have to worry about anything else.” It was one of the greatest trips of our life.

As is well known, Dr. Giddens made an annual pilgrimage to Florida to watch Spring Training games. The group that had gone had gotten whittled down to Dr. Giddens and his brother Holmes. Dr. Giddens had been trying to get me to go with them for a long but, as is the case with most young adults and I say now to my shame, I was too busy. Finally, in the mid-1990s, Dr. Giddens called me and said, “If you don’t go, I’m going to have to stop going. I need you to drive.” So I drove. And for about ten years, I accompanied Dr. Giddens on his Spring Training trip. We talked so much during those trips. He shared his life story with me. I learned about his growing up years in Berrien County. I learned about his college and seminary experiences. I learned how Mrs. Giddens and he got together. I learned about his philosophy of church leadership and his philosophy of life in general. We talked about baseball, about books, about our families, about the Lord, and about anything else we wanted to talk about. It was wonderful. Some friends and I continue the tradition, but I readily confess that it’s not been the same since Dr. Giddens had to stop going a couple of years ago.

I could—we all could—tell so many stories. I’m glad that we have time and opportunity to share them with each other even after today.

Dr. Giddens used to tell a story about the funeral of Dr. George W. Truett, another of the giants. At his funeral a speaker pointed at Dr. Truett’s casket and said, “There lies the conscience of Dallas!” Dr. Giddens was at various times the conscience of the churches that he pastored, of the cities in which he pastored, of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and of Mercer University. His spirit, his ethics, and his standards make up much of the framework of the conscience of all of us who have been influenced by him. Sometimes I think I should wear a bracelet that says “WWDGD” because, when I am confronted with a hard choice or a tough issue, my brain wonders, “What would Dr. Giddens do?” I’m glad that, even though he has left us, he taught us his ethics so well that we can’t help but be guided by them.

Dr. Giddens, thank you for loving Debra and me and our family. Thank you for teaching us and for being there for us. Thank you for showing us how to be whole and how to have integrity.

Now here at the end of my words I will speak the deepest truth that I can speak. Dr. Giddens, I love you.

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