To Ron, My Friend and Mentor

I learned a lot from Ron.

The first sermon I gave was at a homeless shelter. I was in ninth grade. My youth group had gone there to serve dinner. Before the dinner, there as a small Bible study. Ron asked me to lead it. I was terrified. I had written my sermon out on pieces of notebook paper. By the time I stood to speak, the pages were wrinkled and wet from my sweat. The talk I gave was not memorable; but when it was over, Ron, put his strong hand on my shoulder, squeezed and said, “That was good. You need to do that again.”

Although it was quick, those few words were transformative. I knew that Ron wasn’t talking about the content of speech, but rather the act of sharing. In that moment, Ron gave me permission to share my thoughts publically, knowing that even if my offering wasn’t perfect, I would always have another chance to do it again. Those words of encouragement carried me through seminary and my first years of ministry. During those years, I faced a lot of discouragement, especially when I spoke in public; but each time I began to doubt what I was doing, I remembered Ron’s words, “That was good. You need to do it again.” And so I have. Again and again.

Ron gave me the confidence to share my thoughts in public. I learned a lot from Ron.

Next to the church I grew up in was a small house the church had allowed the youth group to use. It had a pool table and a ping-pong table and a bunch of couches. Ron would host routine game nights in it for anyone who wanted to come. I remember one night he was trying to open the game night with a prayer, but a friend of mine and I were too busy laughing and cutting up to hear him. To get my attention, he smacked the pool table. Making eye contact with me, he said in a loud and firm voice, “Mr. Elkins, we are talking to the creator of the universe. Show some respect.” I can still remember the loving fire in his eyes that burned behind his glasses.

That moment radically changed my understanding of prayer. I never took it lightly again. A few weeks ago I was leading a youth bible study in my living room and one of the Junior High boys was laughing during the prayer. I stopped everything and said, “Do you understand that we are speaking to the creator of the universe. Show some respect.” I think the exchange would have made Ron smile.

Ron taught me how to pray. I learned a lot from Ron.

I remember one night at a youth function, bringing one of my friends to Ron and explaining that my friend wanted to start following Jesus. Ron didn’t hesitate. He immediately began asking the teen questions and sharing with him what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. As they talked, I began to back away; but Ron caught my eye and told me to stay. So I did. I watched and I learned. At the end of the conversation, Ron led the teen in a prayer of confession and repentance. Afterward, we all hugged.

Since that day, I’ve had that same conversation with a lot of different people. I still do it how Ron did it that night. I ask them what’s going on and what they are feeling. I ask them what they want to do about it. Then I talk it through with them and we pray. Afterward, we always hug. There have even been times when someone has brought a person to me. Just like Ron made me stay, I make them stay; because I realize that is how we learn.

Ron taught me how to make disciples. I learned a lot from Ron.

I used to love to listen to Ron teach the Bible. We had youth Bible study every Sunday and Wednesday night. My parents had given me a blue Bible with my name on the front right corner in gold letters. I covered it with a black cloth cover that had a picture of an eagle on the front and the text of Isaiah 40:31. I remember filling the margins of that Bible with notes from Ron’s talks. I wrote phrases he said and points from teachings all throughout it. Ron taught the Bible with a rare mix of authority and humility, and he was always willing to listen to and answer my questions. He was passionate about me reading the Bible on my own and routinely encouraged me to do it. My junior year of high school, I decided to read through the entire Bible, cover to cover. Ron was the one that helped me make a plan and routinely checked in on how it was going. He set a standard for me that I sought to replicate when I went to college.

My sophomore year I began leading a Bible study in the dorms. The University Library had rooms full of shelves jam packed with commentaries; but the first, and sometimes only source I used when I planned what I was going to share was the notes I’d scribbled in the margins of that old blue Bible.

Ron taught me how to read the Bible. I learn a lot from Ron.

In general, I’m an anxious guy. I worry about everything, all the time. That might surprise those that know me because I’ve learned to hide it well. When I’m afraid, I tend to lean into my fear. The enneagram test labels me a Counter-Phobic Six. I tend to keep all my fear and stress on the inside and push through it with all my might. Few things were more terrifying for me than applying to college. My parents were Baylor legacy, and while they told me I could go anywhere, I knew they wanted me to be a Baylor Bear. I was so afraid that I would let them down. I didn’t believe I had anything to offer. I was sure the Baylor admissions board was going to see right through my mask and know that I was as worthless as I thought I was.

But then, Ron wrote me a letter of recommendation. This wasn’t just any letter. It was personal and filled with love and extravagant. In it, Ron described me as a leader who was going to change the world, and I could tell from the way he wrote it that he meant it. That a man like Ron would say something like that about me gave me pause and made me question how I saw myself.

Ron taught me to believe in myself by believing in me. I learned a lot from Ron.

When Wendy and I got married, we asked Ron to do the ceremony. We’d decided to take the Lord’s Supper in the middle of the service. Because of the role Ron had played in my life, it was important to me that he be the one who served it to us. When the moment for us to take the elements came, Ron, Wendy and I made our way to a small table that was set up on stage. On the table was a loaf of bread, wrapped in cellophane and an empty glass. In my nervousness about getting married, I’d forgotten to get everything ready. I looked up at Ron in a panic. He smiled at me and quietly unwrapped the bread. He broke it and gave us each a piece. We prayerfully took it and ate it. Then he handed us the empty cup and whispered with a grin, “Sometimes you just have to fake it. It doesn’t make it less special.” Wendy and I both started laughing as we drank from the empty cup.

I served as a pastor for fifteen years. It would be impossible to relay all the times that things didn’t go according to plan. Each time I thought about the empty cup and Ron’s smile, and I’ve said to myself, “Sometimes you just have to fake it. It doesn’t make it less special.”

Ron taught me how to be a pastor. I learned a lot from Ron.

Ron has been battling cancer for a long time now. I learned tonight that he is in hospice care and my heart is broken. As I write this, I’m praying for a miracle and weeping for this great man. I would give anything to take his suffering away and restore him to the powerful giant of a man I knew. He gave me so much. He helped mold me into the man I am. Even though we have been separated by time and distance, it is difficult for me to imagine the world without Ron. I am incapable of expressing how much I love him and how grateful I am for him.

My only comfort is that, if for some reason God does not provide the miracle I long for, there will come a day when I get to sit at Ron’s feet again, learn more from him, and marvel at the leader he is.

You taught me so much. I love you, Ron.

One thought on “To Ron, My Friend and Mentor

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.