Ten years have passed since I took an unusual phone call at home on Saturday morning, April 17, 2010. I was preparing for an incredibly intense Sunday when I would announce my resignation as pastor of First Baptist Church in Henderson, North Carolina, to become pastor of First Baptist Church in Athens, Georgia. The caller was Tom Graves, then president of Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. I walked out on our front porch as I answered. A decade later I can still hear Tom’s voice: “Cecil died this morning.”
“I was always challenged by his faithfulness, awed by the power of his intellect and strengthened by his friendship.”
Several years after battling for life itself against leukemia, Cecil Sherman had suffered a heart attack two days earlier, only a week after completing the final chapter of his book on the life and work of the pastor. A few weeks before that, Cecil and I had been together in Winston-Salem for the CBF North Carolina General Assembly in my home church, First Baptist Church on Fifth Street. Cecil had been the keynote speaker for the Friday night worship service.
The 82-year-old Baptist icon preached to a packed sanctuary and greeted many people in a reception afterward before returning home to Virginia. I had no idea, of course, that I had witnessed his final CBF-related appearance. I cannot imagine any more appropriate ending than for him to stand in that sanctuary and speak of his love for the church and his hope for our Fellowship in North Carolina and around the world.
It is widely known that Cecil was CBF’s first coordinator, elected in 1991. Many fewer people know that the early years of his pastoral ministry in the 1960s in Asheville, North Carolina, were devoted to racial justice and inclusion at a moment when such a conviction required extraordinary courage. In Asheville and later in Fort Worth, Texas, he led congregations toward seasons of thriving. He offered prophetic and courageous resistance to the fundamentalist direction of the Southern Baptist Convention. He gave the last years of his full-time ministry to building CBF. He gave his retirement to training pastors, serving congregations and walking beside his beloved wife, Dot, as she battled Alzheimer’s disease.
Cecil was a deeply committed Christian, a courageous and loving pastor, a convictional Baptist whose life was run through with a life wish for congregations.
On a more personal level, Cecil was one of my teachers in the Doctor of Ministry program at BTSR and a colleague during my years on staff there. He was interim pastor of River Road Church, Baptist in Richmond while I was a member there, so I had the opportunity to hear him preach many times. He preached for my pastoral installation at First Baptist Henderson and helped me discern the call to First Baptist Athens. I knew him as a mentor, a guide, a deeply committed Baptist, an exceptional pastor and a committed follower of Jesus.
Though he and I did not always agree (I think that is one of the definitions of being Baptist), I was always challenged by his faithfulness, awed by the power of his intellect and strengthened by his friendship. Today I thank God for his life, his witness, his honesty, his courage and his investment in me and so many others.
Not surprisingly, I have often wondered what advice he would give in these early months in my ministry as CBF’s fourth coordinator. There have been more than a few times when I have wished I could have a conversation with him. This has been particularly true as we have sought faithful ways to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and the extraordinary challenges it has created for congregations, field personnel, chaplains, Together for Hope practitioners and people all around the world.
In this week marking the 10th anniversary of Cecil’s death, I have re-read much of what he wrote about his years building and leading CBF. I must confess some of his insights have a power for me now that they did not years ago.
I have also remembered the sermon he preached at my first pastoral installation 16 years ago, particularly his charge that I “tell the truth, use good judgment and love the people.” In challenging and rapidly changing days, that counsel seems more appropriate than ever. I have hoped that I might have some measure of his courage.
“Now more than ever, we need to be compelled by a life wish for the church and the world God loved so much that God sent Jesus.”
I have recalled that “life wish” was a phrase he used often. I can’t even count how many times I heard him say: “I have a life wish for the Church.” “I have a life wish for congregations.” “I have a life wish for CBF.”
In the foreword to her father’s final book, To Be a Good and Faithful Servant, Eugenia Sherman Brown wrote about this phrase: “So many times I heard him say ‘I have a life wish for the church.’ This was his shorthand phrase for his deep-seated hope that the church, global and local, would live out the call of Christ Jesus – would grow strong in integrity, compassion, education and ministry.”
In these challenging days, I find myself aspiring even more to that kind of life wish. I want to make sure that we do all we can, even as the world changes and challenges us, to be open to all the ways the Spirit is calling us to courageous faithfulness for the sake of congregations and their leaders and an absolutely necessary witness in the world.
Now more than ever, we need faithful congregations. Now more than ever, we need to be compelled by a life wish for the church and the world God loved so much that God sent Jesus. Now more than ever we need courage and conviction. Now more than ever we need each other, which means we need a life wish for each other. As Easter people, we dare not succumb to Good Friday and death. We must be compelled by resurrection and life.
As this spring brings the 10th anniversary of Cecil’s death, we remember him and thank God for his life. This summer will bring the 30th anniversary of those inaugural gatherings in Texas and Georgia that led a group of Baptists, including Cecil, to take the extraordinary step of forming CBF. This summer CBF will conclude its journey of discovery and response titled “Toward Bold Faithfulness,” and we will embark on our next season of mission and ministry together.
Motivated by a relentless life wish for the church and the world, let us be good stewards of what we have received and faithful followers of Christ that we might be used for a purpose so remarkable and reconciling that it can only come from God.
Related opinion from BNG’s archives:
Daniel Vestal | Farewell to a friend
David Wilkinson | Lessons on love from Cecil Sherman
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