A Tribute to Calvin Miller: A Man Who Sang the Lord’s Song in a Foreign Land

I was first introduced to the writing of Calvin Miller on a bus from Lexington, KY to Tuscaloosa, AL.  I was a new believer attending the University of Kentucky on a baseball scholarship, and we were traveling to play Alabama in the spring of 1987.  My baseball coach, Keith Madison, gave me a copy of Miller’s book The Singer.   

As a new believer, this book resonated with me. Miller’s poetic style communicated for me the life changing power of Jesus Christ. As I read, I was touched by how he expressed the compassion of Christ in the face of human brokenness.  Having just tasted that the Lord was good through the new birth, reading The Singer was a revival for me. On that bus ride, I was overcome by the love of the Savior who had redeemed my life from destruction and had crowned me with lovingkindness and tender mercy.

Soon after, I was given a copy of Miller’s work Once Upon a Tree, which is a collection of essays on the cross. As a new believer, he made statements in this book that had a profound impact on my worldview.  Having been nourished at the fount of secular humanism, I can remember for the first time having a redirection of actually seeing history through the lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

A sense of equilibrium came to me when I read Miller’s words, “History is nailed together! Literally it is! The story of man from its beginning to the present, is so varied and disconnected that it had to be nailed together to give it continuity. Since the nail was driven, human history reads more smoothly.”

When I graduated from the University of Kentucky, my wife and I packed all our earthly goods and drove to New Orleans where I began my seminary training.  I soon discovered that Calvin Miller had also written a homiletics book which I read right away.

When I began doctoral work, because of previous exposure, I was naturally drawn to the preaching ministry of Calvin Miller.  His 25 years at Westside Church in Omaha was quite a story in Church growth as Miller began his pastoral labor in 1966 with ten people, and in 1991 when he retired there were 2500 members many of whom he had personally led to Christ.

In time, I wrote to him expressing how his writing and ministry had encouraged me greatly, and that I was very interested in studying his preaching as a part of my doctoral work. As a preacher of some years, I can now understand the hesitancy he expressed by that exposure.  What living preacher would want 25 years of pulpit work examined by a doctoral student?

However, he was very clear that he would support me, and support he did. He allowed me access to his life and sermon files. He gave me extensive interviews and extended incredible hospitality to me. His dear wife Barbara was a significant part of that ministry to me. She picked me up from the airport and treated me with such generosity and kindness. A hotel was not an option. They insisted that I stay in their home.

As I have now finished 24 years in the pastorate, and 19 years at the same church, it makes me smile when I think of how Calvin Miller and I are almost polar opposites. He was artsy and creative, while I have been bestowed with the creativity of vanilla ice cream.  He was innovative in his preaching, and me? Well, not so much.

During his Westside pastorate, he removed the pulpit from the platform.  He was told that he couldn’t do that because the pulpit represented authority to which he quipped, “So does the Berlin Wall!”  There were further protests that the pulpit was part of an estate bequeathed to the church.  Miller’s recollection to that objection was, “So, we compromised and put it in the basement.”

For me, I stand behind the wooden desk Sunday after Sunday, and am not driven to be creative in the discharging of my preaching duties. Having been impacted by the Puritans and the Reformers, my approach to ministry and my theology are much different.  However, my gratitude for the deposit of Calvin Miller into my life brings tears of appreciation.

Twenty years have come and gone since the completion of my doctoral work. When I heard of Dr. Miller’s passing on Sunday, August 19th, 2012, my heart was mixed with a mingling of joy and sorrow. I was reminded again of how God brings people into our lives to whom we owe unpayable debts.  I am also reminded that everything precious to the believer is heaven, and we are heading to that place where in His presence is fullness of joy and at His right hand are pleasures forevermore.

I thank God for how He used Calvin Miller in my life and in the lives of countless others. He was a preacher who sang the Lord’s song in a foreign land, and as he did we saw the beauty and the hope of Christ. (Psalm 137:4) His love for Christ, and for others, will be an enduring legacy, especially in the life of this preacher.

 

FAVORITE CALVIN MILLER QUOTES:

*In recounting his early years of poverty, he commented on how his mother seemed “to give dignity to thrift” and that in spite of their poverty they viewed life in this way,  “With never so much as a goose of our own for Christmas dinner, we all felt sorry for the Cratchits.”

*Calvin Miller was winner of souls and had little tolerance for “Churchianity” as he called it.  Moved by the spiritual state of the lost, he commented on misplaced commitments of the church and Christian organizations, “Apathy bakes casseroles for church fellowships while battles rage….And turnpike-wide, they drive forward like lemmings into hell. Churches don’t cry. Seminaries don’t cry. Book stores don’t cry. Only God cries!”

*Having grown up in central Florida next to one of the largest passion plays in the country, I appreciated his statement on the cross, “Golgotha is not a Bavarian passion play where the actors only mimic the final chapters of the book of Matthew for so much per seat.  It was God, caught up in the violence of life and death, extending the new agreement of life and death.”

*“There is no way to God that does not depend upon nails, thorns, ropes, and wood. There, where the soldiers gambled over garments, and the priests mocked a dying carpenter, is the very place where God makes His new agreement with man.”

*In a personal conversation, he admonished me to be about the winning of the lost, not only for God’s glory in salvation, but for the needed discipline to keep ministry in line with God’s priorities, “It is my observation that pastors who are committed to winning souls seem to have a protective covering over their lives and ministry that keeps them from a hundred sins.” 

*I once kidded him that he could write a book faster than I could read one.  He lived by this conviction that “God never champions the lazy mind.”

*“Designed to bear the power of God, we are haphazardly filled with the trivia of our world.”  

*He was very committed to the nurture of one’s inner life with Christ. I was helped by his counsel that finds biblical warrant in Philippians 2:1-11, “Christifying is consciously viewing the people and circumstances in our lives with the eyes of Christ. Ordinary events become cosmic when seen this way. Ordinary people explode with meaning as we see their potential salvation and service to the Holy Christ. In Christifying, the whole world will speak to us and shout to us of the reality of God.”

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