When Heroes Die

It’s difficult to watch our heroes die. People who have influenced us have a special place in our hearts and when their lives on this earth come to an end, we find ourselves feeling a bit lost. I find myself in this place as two men who have been very influential in my life have died in the past couple of months.

Dennis Kinlaw is one of my spiritual heroes. Out of the thousands of sermons I have heard in my life, Dr. Kinlaw’s sermons rank as high as anyone’s. I would walk miles to hear him preach. He inspired me. He challenged me. He taught me to think deeply and creatively about the Bible. But he was more than a preacher I heard, he was a friend I admired.

In seminary, he taught me the Old Testament and he mentored a group of us one semester as we made our initial excursions into the world of supervised ministry. He came to Houghton 20 years ago and spent time in our home. I had the privilege of picking him up at the airport and driving him back at the end of the week. Those hours in the car and seated around the dinner table are some of my most treasured memories. I soaked in everything I could from him.

In addition to his brilliance as a scholar, theologian and preacher, Dr. Kinlaw understood people. He cared about people. Despite his popularity and my insignificance, when I spoke to him he made me feel like I was the only person in the room. I had his attention. He listened. He made me feel valuable. I will miss him.

I met Haddon Robinson when I began my Doctor of Ministry studies in January 2003. I had heard recordings of Dr. Robinson preaching and I had read many things he had written. Now, I was going to be spending significant time under his tutelage. I was nervous, intimidated and a bit frightened in the presence of this preaching giant.

He was tough on us but he was also compassionate and caring as we wrestled with the ideas he was teaching us. When I finished my degree in 2006, I was a different preacher and in many ways a different person. His influence on me did not end at my graduation; I continued to read all that he wrote and to help others learn what he taught me. I will miss him too.

Even though I haven’t spoken to either one of these men for many years, I cherished our connection. When I heard that they had died, I felt a little like a spiritual orphan. But in my sadness, I sensed the Holy Spirit’s prompting.

I was prompted to gratitude. I am grateful to God that my life intersected these spiritual giants, however minimal that intersection may have been. My life is richer and fuller because I had the opportunity to learn from them, to know them, to consider myself a distant spiritual relative.

I was also prompted about my responsibility. I don’t feel worthy to shine their shoes, but I do recognize that I have a responsibility to honor their lives by how I live mine. These two men never stopped learning. I want to be a lifelong learner as well. When my energy is ebbing about trying something new, about reading another challenging book, about pushing myself to be better as a pastor and preacher, I remember their witness and give myself to the task at hand. I also want to share with others what I have learned. I want to pass along what these men taught me. I will never be them, but I can help others understand the many things I learned from them.

I have feeling that when Moses dies, Joshua probably feels like a spiritual orphan. This man of God who nurtures him and mentors him has now turned the reins over to him. The question is not what to do as much as will you do what you know to do? Are you willing to be who God made you to be to others as this great man was to you?

When you think about your heroes, I hope that you feel a sense of gratitude and a sense of responsibility. We might not measure up to the stature of our heroes. We seldom do. But we believe that as God used them to inspire us, he wants to use us to inspire others. May God’s Spirit fill us with grace to do just that.