I bumped into Arthur at Whole Foods yesterday. I was studying the label on a loaf of flax-meal bread when I heard his familiar voice. “It sure costs a lot to eat healthy, doesn’t it?” he asked, smiling.
“Yes,” I replied. “I have a buddy who refers to this place as ‘Whole Paycheck.'”
We both laughed, then Arthur said, still smiling, “That line would be a lot funnier if I actually had a paycheck.”
“I hear you,” I said. “Still, you look like you’re in a good mood.”
“I am,” he said. “I got a couple of emails yesterday that positively made my day.”
“Oh really?” I asked. “Who were they from?”
“Well, one was from a former student,” he said. “Melinda Martin. I don’t think you know her. She wrote to congratulate Ellie and me on our wedding anniversary. The other was from Helena Soderman.”
“Really? From Helena? How in the world is she these days?” I asked.
“Amazingly well,” he answered. “She keeps active, and her mind is as sharp as ever.”
“How old is she now?” I asked.
“Nearly ninety, I think,” he answered.
Helena’s late husband, David Soderman, had been a teacher at the Bible college Arthur attended more than forty years ago. Helena was the Dean of Women. During the summer after Arthur’s junior year, David and Helena left the college when he was called to be the pastor of a Baptist church near Richmond, VA. After Arthur graduated, David invited him to join the church staff as its first-ever Associate Pastor.
Arthur served with David for two years, and they became very close friends. Arthur often spoke fondly of those years and the benefit he derived from that experience. I knew that Arthur regarded David, who was nearly thirty years his senior, as a surrogate father, one of his most influential mentors and role models.
During his time at the church, Arthur lived in a small, studio apartment and often ate dinner with David and Helena. The Sodermans had three children, the youngest older than Arthur. All three lived away from home, either in school or pursuing their careers. Arthur seldom saw them, and he could tell that David and Helena were happy to have him join them for dinner two or three nights a week.
That was how Arthur came to observe the depth and quality of the relationship which the Sodermans had developed over the course of their marriage, which was in its sixty-second year when David died four years ago. That was also how Arthur came to understand that Helena was David’s strong right arm, as essential to his effectiveness in ministry as was David himself. Arthur often told me how much his own wife, Ellie, reminded him of Helena. And that was a very, very good thing.
“What did Helena have to say that put you in such a good mood?” I asked.
“Well, she did what she has always done so well,” Arthur said. “She provided some perspective.”
“Oh yeah?” I said. “Care to share?”
“Tell you what,” Arthur said. “Why don’t you stop by the house. I’ll open a couple of cold ones, and you can read it for yourself.”
“See you there,” I said.
Thirty minutes later, I was sitting in one of the wicker chairs on Arthur’s front porch. Arthur came out with a glass in each hand and a manila folder under his arm. He sat down across from me, removed a sheet of paper from the folder, and handed it to me.
“I last saw Helena at the college’s 75th Anniversary celebration a couple of years ago,” Arthur told me. “We had sort of lost touch. Since then, however, she has written to me every couple of months. I still find that amazing. Nearly ninety years old, and she uses email every day.”
Unlike most emails, which are sloppy, stream-of-consciousness ramblings replete with spelling errors and colloquialisms, Helena’s letter was carefully composed and formatted. This was truly a letter, not a note, and she had made use of modern technology merely as a delivery system for her correspondence. Here’s what she wrote.
My Dearest Arthur,
It is clear, from your recent letters to me, that you are having difficulty making sense of your circumstances, and this is causing you to question your vocation and, more regrettably, to doubt your faith. I find this lamentable while, at the same time, altogether understandable. You’ve been through a great deal over these past five years. You have every reason to ask the sorts of questions you’ve been asking.
I’ve known two great Davids in my life. I was married to one for over sixty years. The other wrote many of the Psalms in our Bible. Both of them questioned God, on occasion. Both of them were plagued with doubt from time to time. In the end, both of them would be regarded, by all who knew them, as a man “after God’s own heart.” You will be too, I know it.
As part of His sovereign plan, God chooses some special people to serve as models or examples for the rest of us. It’s not a pleasant role to play, being an example. But it is an essential role. Without examples who are subjected to severe testing and yet persevere, by the grace of God, where would the rest of us be? People like you make it possible for others to increase their confidence in God as they see you standing firm in the face of injustice and unrelenting discouragement.
There’s another factor which I want you to consider, dear Arthur. You are not only being subjected to testing yourself. You are being used by God to test the mettle of those to whom you have been sent and among whom you serve.
You are a no-nonsense Christian. You committed your life to serve Christ and His Kingdom more than forty years ago. You have never wavered in that commitment. And when you have sensed the Spirit of God leading you into a new and previously unproven area of conviction and practice, you have followed that leading, come what may.
I don’t think you understand how rare those traits are in the American church. Most Christians, including most Christian leaders, have never experienced such a depth of commitment, and they have difficulty relating to it when they observe it in somebody else.
Your life, with its stressful twists and turns, is giving the church an opportunity to test its powers of discernment and its spirit of servanthood. You are among them, just as Jesus was, as one who serves. But servants have needs too, and one who lives so close to the edge, with no safety net and no backup plan, requires the church to provide those necessities.
It remains to be seen whether or not the church will pass its test, in your case. In the meantime, I hope you take comfort in the knowledge that I believe in you, and you are always in my prayers. Stand firm, dear brother, and see the salvation of the Lord.
“Do you think she’s right?” I asked Arthur as I handed the letter back to him.
“It’s not for me to say, is it?” he replied. “I only know that, as long as someone like Helena believes in me, I should not give up on myself.”
Amen, Arthur. Amen.