There we sat, a cluster of six. A stubby orange candle burned at the center of our table, flickering eerie shadows across our faces. One spoke; five listened. Every question was handled with such grace, such effortless ease. Each answer was drawn from deep wells of wisdom, shaped by tough decisions, and nurtured by time. And pain. Mistakes and mistreatment. Like forty years in the same church. And seasoned by travel. Like having ministered around the world. And honed by tests, risks, heartbreaks, and failures. But like the best wines, it was those decades in the same crucible that made his counsel invaluable. Had those years been spent in the military, he would have had a chest full of medals.
His age? Seventy-two. His face? Rugged as fifty miles of bad road. His eyes? Ah, those eyes. Piercing, as if they penetrated to the back of your cranium. He had seen it all, weathered it all—all the flack and delights of a flock. Outlasted all the fads and gimmicks of gullible and greedy generations, known the ecstasy of seeing lives revolutionized, the agony of lives ruined, and the monotony of lives unchanged. He had paid his dues—and had the scars to prove it.
This is not to say he was over the hill. Or to suggest that he had lost his zest for living, his ability to articulate his thoughts, or his keen sense of humor. There we sat for well over three hours, hearing his stories, pondering his principles, questioning his conclusions, and responding to his ideas. The evening was punctuated with periodic outbursts of laughter followed by protracted periods of quiet talk.
As I participated, I was suddenly twenty-six years old again. A young seminarian and pastoral intern, existing in a no-man’s land between a heart full of desire and a head full of dreams. Long on theological theories but short on practical experience. I had answers to questions no one was asking but a lack of understanding on the things that really mattered. In momentary flashbacks, I saw myself in the same room with this man thirty years earlier, drinking at the same well, soaking up the same spirit. Back then, however, I was merely impressed . . . this time I was deeply moved. Thirty years ago he had been a model; now he had become a mentor. Thoroughly human and absolutely authentic, he had emerged a well-worn vessel of honor fit for the Master’s use. And I found myself profoundly grateful that Ray Stedman’s shadow had crossed my life.
In a day of tarnished leaders, fallen heroes, busy parents, frantic coaches, arrogant authority figures, and eggheaded geniuses, we need mentors like never before—we need guides, not gods. Approachable, caring souls who help us negotiate our way through life’s labyrinth. Invisible partners, whispering hope and reproofs on the journey toward excellence.
As we said good-bye to Ray that evening, I walked a little slower. I thought about the things he had taught me without directly instructing me, about the courage he had given me without deliberately exhorting me. I wondered how it had happened. I wondered why I had been so privileged.
A nostalgic knot formed in my throat as I forced myself to realize that, at age seventy-two, he didn’t have many more years left in this world. I found myself wanting to run back to his car and tell him again how much I loved and admired him.
But it was late. And after all, I was a fifty-five-year-old man. A husband. A father. A grandfather. A pastor. To some, a leader.
But as I stood there alone in the cold night air, I suddenly realized what I wanted to be when I grew up.