There are three men from my childhood I would like to see again.
The first was the preacher at our church for about ten years. I can see him before me in memory, but I can’t remember his name.
Over the years I have known a lot of preachers. Some were weak men trying to do good; some weren’t worth much, no matter how hard you looked for goodness in them. The man I remember was what a preacher should be.
Our church was as tiny as our town, so we couldn’t afford a full time minister. This gentleman worked as a switchman on the railroad, in a yard in Tulsa, thirty-five miles away. He lived near his work and drove to our town every Sunday, come rain, sleet, snow, hail, or tornado. He preached the morning sermon, spent the day visiting church members, then preached again on Sunday night. Some church family invited him to dinner every Sunday after church, and that was about all the pay he got. The salary we gave him would barely cover his gasoline. Midweek, he drove up after work for prayer meeting.
Fifty years later, I still remember his sermons. They were hard, but they weren’t cold. He told of fire and Hell and the coming Armageddon in tones that would set your hair on fire, but his face was always full of kindness, sorrow, and forgiveness. When he said Christ would forgive, you could believe it when you looked into this man’s eyes.
One morning, he did not show up for Sunday service and word went around that there had been an accident. He worked between the cars, opening the couplers, and America’s rail yards have always been slaughterhouses. His hand had been caught between moving cars.
I was too young to visit him in the hospital, so I didn’t see him again until he returned weeks later. He had lost the outer half of his right hand, but he could still hold the Bible in it, and slap it down in emphasis on the pulpit. I was ten; I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I can still feel the bony oddness of it as we shook hands at the end of every service.
He preached a thousand sermons in that church, with one theme: surrender to the love of God or burn in Hell. I eventually surrendered, went down the aisle to where we sat side by side on the front pew with his arm around my shoulders while he prayed for my soul. It didn’t take, but if there were anything today that would make me change my mind about God, it would be that man’s unfaltering faith.