When I heard yesterday of the passing of a former colleague's father at 97 on the evening of Easter Day I told my wife, that's the way I want to go. If one has to die, what could be better, especially for a preacher in his old age, than to be at church for Easter, share a meal with the family and lie down and go to heaven.
Earlier this morning I heard that the great preacher Gardner Calvin Taylor also died on Easter. He was 96. Time Magazine once called him the 'dean of black preachers,' but that is to underestimate the power of the man's witness. He was the dean of all preachers. He could stand in any pulpit and touch the heart of the people. Yes he was a black preacher and as such a prophet calling the nation to address the inequities and injustices of the day, but he was more. He was also an instrument of healing and grace who transcended differences enabling all people to look to a better day and embrace a better way. We know from his own testimony that he was indeed the grandson of slaves, but we know also from our own experience that he was like a father to one and all. He was so humble and full of grace that the listener wasn't caught up in the great oratorial skill of the preacher or the tradition he represented, but swept away by the wonder of God's love for the whole of the world.
Dr. Taylor stood in our pulpit one Sunday morning and spoke of hearing the elders in the days of his youth in Louisiana speak of the promised land. The elders of whom he spoke, were the last of those who had been slaves in America, and he went on to tell us that when they spoke of the Promised Land, Canada and Canaan's land were intermingled in their language. We all felt the chills in our spine when he spoke, to think we could be part of the unfolding promises of God, part of the Kingdom and part of God's great work to redeem the world.
On the occasions when Dr. Taylor preached at Yorkminster Park we would always have a crowd. Once people had heard him they only wanted to hear him again and again. Someone who wasn't known especially for taking notes during sermons told me that he remembered every word of a sermon Dr. Taylor had preached in his hearing fifty years earlier as if it were yesterday. There was such warmth and grace and wisdom in Gardner C. Taylor we can't help but remember the things he said.
I was golfing with a retired well established business man one day and he asked, "Is there any way you can get that African American preacher from New York back to the church?" Now what would a business man whose life had been about making profits want with a prophet in the pulpit of his church? It was because Dr. Taylor had a way of making every preaching event feel like Easter. His message and his voice and his person all conveyed the new life of Christ's resurrection. He personified hope and it is something we all hunger for in this world. I find myself wishing we could have Dr. Taylor back to preach just one more time.
One Sunday after he had preached and we had stood at the door greeting the people we returned to the front of the church on route to my study. Dr. Taylor stopped and looked back at the church. My son, who was about twelve years old at the time asked, "Do you like our stained glass windows?" as Dr. Taylor seemed to be looking at them. With that Dr. Taylor sat down on the chancel steps and said to my son, "May I tell you something about those windows?" My son sat down next to him and was all ears. "Those windows are beautiful, but you have to be on the inside to see their beauty." He went on in a few sentences to talk about God and our life in Christ being so much more wondrous and beautiful when we come inside in faith. It was so simple and yet a lesson we will never forget.
He preached a sermon once on Jesus' words in John 14, "I am the way, the truth and the life," and he conveyed the love of Christ in his humanity so completely that while he was the grandchild of slaves, above all it was evident, Gardner Taylor was a son of the King of Kings and a prince of the church, who loved Christ deeply and loved Christ's church.
He once said to me that one of his prayers through the civil rights movement in the US when he was used so mightily of God, was that nothing in his life would ever get in the way of the gospel and that he would never hurt the church of Christ.
Hurt the church? Dr. Taylor? There are two stained glass windows in the tower of Yorkminster Park looking out onto Yonge Street that someone years ago had the wisdom to backlight so that by day they are visible in the church and by night in the world. Dr. Taylor was just such a saint. He was one of the rare ones through whom the light of God shone both into the church and into the world. And so it was that our friend, Milton Fletcher, of Detroit, sent me the notice of Dr. Taylor's death and with it an appropriate verse from Second Samuel, "Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man, fallen this day in Israel?" II Samuel 3:38. How can the church and even the world around not feel the same about the death of Dr. Taylor.
In its obituary the New York Times tells of the first professional longing of Dr. Taylor's youth to be a lawyer. He was called to the pulpit rather than the bar, but when he finished a sermon he would sit down with a persuasive dignity as one who had rested his case in the very hands of God. By dying after having been to church to celebrate the resurrection on Easter Sunday and then having eaten the feast among loved ones, Dr. Taylor at last truly rested his case in the hands of the One who has already won the victory.
What a joy and privilege to have known this great servant of the Lord. May the memory of his words continue to stir hearts towards the Kingdom of God and may he truly rest in peace.
Grace and peace,
The New York Times obituary notice can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/07/us/rev-gardner-c-taylor-powerful-voice-for-civil-rights-dies-at-96.html?_r=0
* Dr. Taylor is the second great preacher to die in recent weeks. To read my reflection on the passion of Fred Craddock go to http://peter.yorkminsterpark.com/2015/03/a-storied-preacher---fred-craddock---1928---2015.php