At the death of a mentor

Posted: April 14, 2018 in Uncategorized

It is inevitable that the ones who have mentored us will all eventually pass away. Of course that means we are soon to follow, that in the fullness of time we will all walk the same mysterious road. A friend of mine just did. He was full of years. His name was Robert Gartman.

Bob was my pastor when I was in High school and College at South Street Christian Church in Springfield. In his own subtle and not-so-subtle ways he called me out, provoked my own sense of destiny, and plied me with barbecue when necessary. I ended up teaching Sunday School, working with the youth, and as a most important aspect of proper initiation worked during college as the part-time night custodian. I really liked running the buffer in the hallways late in the evening when no one was there. But I did not like cleaning the bathrooms. Who does?

It was Bob who helped guide my pathway toward seminary. A discriminating theologian and pastor, he knew what kind of education was most suitable depending on what direction one was heading. I ended up choosing a school that combined serious scholarship with real-world preparation for ministry, Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth, Texas. I remember him brokering relationships with pastors and professors for me. He was probably the main reason I ended up doing a seminary-long internship at First Christian Church, Arlington, Texas, because his friend, Art Digby, was one of his good friends. In fact, Art became another mentor to me during that time. After interviewing me Art invited me to play tennis with him. I found out later this was more than recreation; he wanted to interact with me in that way to better gauge my real personality. Art is gone now, too.

In Bob I observed a seasoned pastor lead, teach, challenge, make mistakes, deal with unfair treatment and demonstrate spiritual resilience. Those are many of the same things I have done and passed through myself. It was a great gift to have someone do it first and with grace.

Bob always kept up with me no matter where I was living or what church I was serving. He read and listened to my sermons, writings, and books. On occasion he offered sage suggestions. But most of the time he simply expressed appreciation, much as a father can for a son. I knew that because during my own necessary losses and suffering he suffered with me. I will never forget that.

We all sport a certain denial that what we have pushed off into the indefinite future will never come to pass. But it does. We all lose our mentors. And perhaps that is the point, that we must lose them, perhaps by stages.

The first loss is direct mentorship; we move away, things change, and there is no daily direct influence. This is similar to leaving home and allowing our relationship with our parents to change. In time we even experience some role-reversal, the nurture heading back the other way, the insights of the young Spartans shared with the old dogs. For that to work humility is required on both sides.

And then, in the winter of it all, we place them into the arms of the great mystery which we cannot understand but which we trust. We give thanks, like I am now. This is not the deep sadness of personal loss as much as the somber reminder that all things are temporary, even those who have provided the interwoven story lines of our biography.

Thanks, Bob.



  1. Audrey Spieler says:

    I am even deeper into the stage of life where we lose so many who have meant so much. We get up close and personal with the great mystery and the eternity of stillness from those we have loved and who loved us. The loss is astounding. We saw it happening to those generations who have gone before us and now shocked that we are in the line-up to lose those close to us. My husband 4 years ago and my best female friend last year. Gone. How unfair to leave me to go on alone. Ah, but wait…rather I should see it as a blessing that I am still whole and can enjoy this paradise a few more years.

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