When I was a kid I had a number of heroes—people I looked up to, admired, and wanted to emulate. I wanted to have the calm and cool mind of Joe Montana, who could run the two-minute drill without breaking a sweat. I looked up to Greg “Pappy” Boyington, World War II Marine Corps ace and winner of the Medal of Honor. He was brave under fire and succeeded in war in unconventional ways—he was a scrapper. I also liked Jack Ryan, the fictional character created by novelist Tom Clancy. I liked the mix of brains and courage exhibited in the character and particularly liked Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him in the movie version of The Hunt for Red October. I still hold these men, fictional and real, in high regard but the older I’ve become I have added a new group of men to my pantheon of heroes.
When I went to seminary my interests naturally changed. I’ve always admired physical abilities but as a student I began to esteem mental prowess and theological acumen. I am still amazed when I look over the Corpus Reformatorum and see how many volumes bear the names of Melanchthon and Calvin—how productive they were in their ministries. Calvin preached some five thousand sermons in his twenty five-year ministry. And while there is too much neo in Karl Barth’s neo-orthodoxy, his massive fourteen volume Church Dogmatics is certainly a titanic accomplishment. But I will never forget getting the chance to sit with William Still (1911-97), pastor of Aberdeen’s Gilcomston South church. He was sitting all alone at the front of the church one night after evening worship as the congregation was busy fellowshipping and consuming tea and biscuits. I grabbed my cup of tea and my two biscuits and took the opportunity to sit down and talk with one of the Reformed faith’s greatest living Scottish pastors.
I asked Pastor Still a number of questions but was curious what things brought him happiness. As tears welled up in his eyes he told me, “It brings me the greatest joy to be able to prepare and deliver my sermons each Lord’s Day. It’s such a tremendous blessing.” Right then and there God gave me the gift of a new hero. While men may be praise worthy for their feats of strength, courage under fire, or their towering intellect, God gave me a new way to measure heroics—humble and faithful service, even way beyond the so-called age of retirement. Pastor Still could have retired in his late sixties and taken the easy road, but he served quite literally until the very end of his life. Quarterbacks eventually retire because the game is too physically demanding and their bodies grow weary; wars end and old soldiers “fade away,” as Douglas MacArthur once wrote. And the fictional heroes that once enthralled a young mind lose their luster in the face of the godly heroes like Pastor Still.
The new heroes of my pantheon include men like Pastor Still, who preached until he was no longer able, or my former colleague Derke Bergsma, who retired and then returned regularly to teach at the seminary until his second retirement some twenty years later. Just because the so-called age of retirement hits doesn’t mean I have to hang up my cleats. I’m grateful, therefore, for godly heroes like Pastor Still and Dr. Bergsma who set the bar high for younger men like me.