Thursday, May 21, 2009

An Apology to Preacher Bill

Guilt is an ugly thing; there is a fine line between accepting responsibility for your actions and beating yourself up over some past mistake and I have crossed that line too many times to have any desire to step over it again.

Having said that, I write today to apologize for a decision I made thirty-three years ago. While, as I hope you will see, I was not intentionally hurtful in what I did I think that I was nonetheless hurtful; while I was not intentionally disrespectful I think that I was nonetheless disrespectful.

Herman J. (Bill) Coleman was the pastor of my home church, Midway Baptist Church, located some four miles outside of Barnesville, Georgia, during my growing up years. Everybody called him Preacher Bill.

My home church was a blue collar church; with few exceptions, the people with whom I worshipped during my childhood were mill workers and their families—I would dare say that 90% or more of the people who went to church at Midway worked at either Aldora Mills or Carter’s Mill. So far as I can recall, we had one physician who worshipped there (the esteemed late Dr. Henry, among whose claims to fame is the fact that he attended the birth of one Mike Ruffin!), no attorneys, no school teachers, and precious few small business owners (Roscoe Berry owned the Amoco service station; I can think of no others).

Preacher Bill, then, being a blue collar pastor, was appropriate for Midway. I don’t think that he finished high school; he was a grown working man when he felt the call to preach. His grammar wasn’t particularly sound and he was very loud and boisterous in the pulpit. I doubt that he ever read a serious book of theology or anything about hermeneutics; he probably never took a class on public speaking or preaching; he had no training in pastoral care or psychology. I’m not aware that he had anything approaching a personal library.

Preacher Bill preached mail order sermons; I know this for a fact because, on the Sunday in 1974 that I stood my fifteen-year-old self up in front of the Midway congregation and announced that I had been called to preach, Preacher Bill came up to me and told me that he would give me the address from which he ordered said sermons. I think that Preacher Bill’s idea of “studying” was to take those mail order sermon outlines and retype them, making what changes he deemed appropriate and putting them in his own words.

Preacher Bill was who he was. In addition to being a rough-hewn, uneducated, mail order sermon preaching man, Preacher Bill was a loving, dedicated, committed, warm-hearted pastor. He loved the Lord with all his heart and he loved Midway Baptist Church and the people who made it up with whatever was left of his heart after he gave it all to the Lord. He loved my parents. He preached the funerals of both my mother and father. Preacher Bill loved me. He baptized me. He nurtured me. He encouraged me. He helped raise me.

And then one day I left Barnesville and I left Midway and I left Preacher Bill.

I entered Mercer University in the fall of 1975 and when I did I entered a world of which I had not even dreamed; nothing in my experience prepared me for what I would encounter at Mercer. It was like heaven and earth and all they contained had been turned upside down and inside out.

Standing in the middle of that brave new world was a man named Dr. Howard P. Giddens with whom I took Old Testament Introduction during my first quarter. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Dr. Giddens loved the Lord as much as Preacher Bill did and he loved the Church as much as Preacher Bill did—but Dr. Giddens was also educated, cosmopolitan, and erudite—and he, with no intention of doing so, swept me off my feet. I, within five minutes of hearing Dr. Giddens teach, wanted to be like him when I grew up.

And so it came to pass when, in the spring of 1976, the Pritchett Memorial Baptist Church of Jugtown, Georgia, the precious congregation on which my first attempts at regular preaching and ministry were inflicted, requested that the Midway Baptist Church, the precious congregation that had produced and raised me, ordain me to the gospel ministry, I asked Dr. Howard P. Giddens to preach my ordination sermon.

I did ask Preacher Bill to do something; I think it was the “Charge to the Church” because I believe that I asked Preacher Key, under whom I was working at Pritchett Memorial, to do the “Charge to the Candidate,” although it may have been the other way ‘round.

It never occurred to me back then how it must have made Preacher Bill feel when I asked a man whom I had known for all of nine months to preach my ordination sermon rather than the man who had been my pastor for my whole life. Actually, I still don’t know how it made him feel because I never asked him and I can’t ask him now because he has been with the Lord since he was killed in an automobile accident over twenty years ago.

Now, as my wife is good to remind me, “It is what it is.” The fact is that I was going to be a minister more in the mold of Dr. Giddens than in the mold of Preacher Bill. The fact is that the words that Dr. Giddens said in my ordination sermon were probably more appropriate to who I was and to who I would become than the words of Preacher Bill would have been. The further fact is that I do not regret even one little bit asking Dr. Giddens to preach my ordination sermon. He became my father in the ministry and, after my father died in 1979, my father in every other sense of the word that matters; outside of my father, no man has meant more to me and has had more influence on me than Howard Giddens.

Still, there was Preacher Bill. He was there in the beginning; he was there for the formative years; he was there for my parents; he was there for me. It was his love for the Lord and his love for the ministry that I first caught and never got over and I owe him more than I could ever say.

If I had it to do over—and I am very aware that I don’t—I would have had “co-preachers” that day—I would have both Preacher Bill and Dr. Giddens preach my ordination sermon; I reckon I could have flipped a coin or cast lots or something to determine who would go first.

I doubt they read blogs in heaven and even if they do I doubt that Preacher Bill would leave his favorite fishing spot to waste his time sitting in front of a computer, but just in case, I want him to know that I am sorry that I hurt or disrespected him. He was in his own way, which was a wonderfully unique way, a great man and a great minister—and I loved him.

Bless you, Preacher Bill, and thank you.

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