I first met “Cal” in 1975, when I was home from college on Christmas break with my parents. It was Omaha, Nebraska. I wasn’t very happy to be in Omaha, and to be honest, I was not enthused to meet this guy. You see, my folks had just moved to Omaha. Now I was convinced my parents were supposed to stay parked in Northern Alabama, where I grew up. Not just for me mind you. Because I was sure that God did not want my family leaving a church behind in my hometown that meant so much to me – which of course meant that it meant so much to my parents, right? But here we were, in Nebraska. Was God even available that far up in the Midwest?
When I arrived home for Christmas mom and dad were enthused. “Calvin is really interesting – you’ll love him.” Ugh. Our pastors back home were terrific, I lamented. How could this “Cal” guy ever match up? “He wants to meet you.” Say what? Me? Why does your Nebraska pastor want to meet me?
Dr. Calvin Miller wanted to invite me out, to lunch. This was troublesome. So I did a little digging into his life. Turns out Calvin was a best-selling author, with his trilogy “The Singer”, a poetic rendering of the life of Christ. He was a physics major in college. Hmm. He started preaching at 19. Ok, interesting. He grew a twelve person Bible Study in Omaha into a mega church in the Omaha suburbs over ten years. He was a painter as well as a pastor, poet, husband, dad and, so, well…maybe I could have lunch with him, just this once.
What a lunch! The questions he asked! The interest felt real, and he remembered stuff I said. A man who had plenty else to do, took time with a brash college kid, to talk and to listen. I babbled a lot about stuff I did not know anything about, but he listened. He was cool. He commented, but not with cliches and pablum. His thought-provoking words resonated in me. They drew me out of my little world and into the rare air of having a discipler in my life. He was beautifully honest. Sometimes over the years he would lean in close and say “You’re really screwed up thinking/behaving/being like that.” He would always point out the better way, and expect me to think, then act on it all. He would call me on the phone from time to time. He wrote me! (Not emails – letters, with stamps and everything. I still have about forty of them, and I cherish all of them.) Some of the letters, mysteriously, were lines in a book he wrote a few years later called “The Philippian Fragment”, about a young believer’s counsel from an elder brother in Christ. Hmmm.
Cal poured into me – how a follower of Christ thinks about life, girls, philosophy, sin, science and of course, Christ. He played tennis with me, took me to movies he thought I needed to see and understand. He took me along in real life with him, to visit people in their homes where I was ringside as Calvin interacted and loved them, just like he did with me.
Calvin called me one Fall afternoon when I was at school. “I want you to come with me to Urbana.” (Urbana is a bi-annual Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship Christmas Conference). “We’ll drive there together and share a room at the conference.” What a trip. He told me things on that trip, he asked questions about me on that trip. We got to know each other. Real life, not a cosmetic facade. He helped me understand my brokenness as a man, my redemption by the man Jesus, my destiny as a disciple. I still remember standing there with him, in that big basketball arena singing “A Mighty Fortress” and “Crown Him With Many Crowns” a Capela with thousands of Christians. I had never experienced anything like that weekend. I had never experienced such a relationship in Christ. Cal unreservedly pulled me, a kid, into his orbit and made me a follower of Christ in ways I had never dreamed possible.
I remember my time with Calvin not so much for his pastoral skills and winsomeness – though there was plenty of that. (I took more notes when Cal preached than I think I ever have with anyone since.) Nor was it simply his written work, which made him famous or his wonderful and disarming personality. My deep transformation in those years was in life with an older brother in Christ, discipling me. Cal and Barbara invited me into their home, they fed me, they let their kids hang out with me. They loved me. Oh God, did they love me! I would long for semesters at school to be finished – just to get a few weeks of Summer or Christmas break, so I could hang with Cal in Omaha. Ironic isn’t it? What I wished least for in my walk in Christ became what I most wanted in a relationship with another believer discipling me.
I met some amazing people following Calvin around. Some of the names you’d recognize too. And I met a lot of people who did not know Christ when they first encountered Cal. I was right there with him as he gave questioning people an answer for the reason for the hope he had – 1st Peter 3.15. And I saw people surrender their lives to Christ, start following Jesus, all because Cal loved them and walked with them and invited them to consider who Christ is. Cal made disciples who make disciples that way.
Calvin would eventually leave Omaha to become a Seminary professor at two major Christian Universities, all the while writing, painting, speaking and enjoying life with Barbara until his death in 2012. I really miss him. In 2019 I was at Oxford University in England attending a series of lectures. Our speaker was recounting the author who had the most influence on him as a Christian. I was stunned as he opened his talk reading from “The Singer”. Here I was, forty-three years after my encounter with Cal, hearing his words again, deeply influencing an Oxford believer. Cal was a leader, and he was committed to modelling life for his people as a personal discipler. He set the bar for me in in thinking, in living, in discipleship. I shall rejoice to see him again, soon enough, when we’re with Christ. We have a lot to talk about Cal.
You do not have to be the Messiah or a world-renowned author and pastor/poet to be a disciple. But as disciples – we’re all commanded to reach out to people like Cal did, to be with them and love them and be ready to offer to them “Come check out Christ” as an invitation. A lot of people will opt out. A few will take you up on that deal. It’s a biblical thing. Every disciple is called to live life alongside a few people – all through our lives. So, whether you’re a pastor, parent, plumber or proctologist, you’re called to be a disciple, and to make disciples – which literally means to “make yourself and others progress as disciples”. This discipling thing is not an optional gig. Nor is it perfection-first then get started discipling. It is not a job reserved for the amazing few, and it is not waived off for you because you just don’t feel like it. Team up with others, run the race set before you, and invite people to “come check out Jesus with me” like Cal did for me.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Jesus, as quoted in Matthew 28.19 (ESV)
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