“Education isn’t filling a pail with information; it is lighting a fire in the spirit of a learner.” Haddon W. Robinson (1931 – 2017).
Haddon Robinson went to be with Jesus on July 22. While most of the accolades heaped on Haddon during his life had to do with preaching (he consistently appears on lists of the top preachers in the English-speaking world), I will remember him for us self-effacing demeanor, his love for Jesus, his passion for communicating the Gospel, and for his deep desire to train those called to vocational ministry to preach Biblically and effectively – to communicate in ways that are faithful to the Bible and which create a conversation between the preacher and the listener, engaging the listener in the Biblical story, and connecting the Bible to everyday life so that the listener responds to Jesus Christ. I will remember Haddon as an educator.
Haddon used to say that as a young man he wondered how some preachers could speak for 20 minutes and it seemed like forever, while others could speak for 45 minutes and it seemed like 20 minutes. Vickie and I could listen to Haddon for an entire day and it would seem like 20 minutes. If you’ve never heard him, the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary website usually has links to his messages, and there are others elsewhere on the web.
Haddon was warm, accessible, and funny – he could move from ironic humor to verbal slapstick – he once had a message on his home voice mail that was laugh-out loud crazy to listen to – people would call his home number just to listen to the message. While there were some professors who were professorial (whether by intention or by nature), Haddon was Haddon – whether in the classroom or at a Patriot’s game, Haddon was Haddon. Haddon was one of those people who not only taught by good personal examples, but he was quick to share his mistakes and errors in thinking in order for his students to learn. He opened himself up and said, “Read this, read my life, learn from it.”
He had a deep respect for vocation, whether it was in pastoral ministry, education, running a business, or driving a septic pumping truck. Haddon saw all legitimate work as a calling of God, as an avenue of worship and service to God, and as a means to serve others. This could put him at odds with other “theologians” and professors who might give lip-service to the Reformation idea of the priesthood of all believers and vocational calling, but who did not actually teach or encourage such thinking in their students. Haddon’s preaching had to do with life as we live it and life as we should live it in the grace of Jesus Christ. If preaching didn’t connect with Monday – Friday then why preach? In Haddon’s preaching classes if you didn’t connect with Monday – Friday then it didn’t make much difference what you said or how you said it – you weren’t communicating to change lives for Jesus.
I know that Haddon was frustrated at times with theological teaching that locked students into the ancient world without making the transition to the current age. Hebrew and Greek exegesis is important, but frankly if we can’t bridge the gap between Isaiah’s time and our own, and if we can’t do it in a way that speaks to our workplace, our family, and the other spheres of our lives…then what’s the point?
In a sense, I learned as much (or more) about exegesis from Haddon, and his associate Scott Gibson, than I did in other classes, they were rigorous in challenging us to find the ground of our text and to be faithful to it in our messages. They did not countenance sloppiness and they would push you to defend your thinking – so you had better have done your work. Scott and Haddon are two of the most encouraging people I’ve ever known.
When I enrolled in seminary there was one class I had no interest in taking, but since it was a core requirement I had to take it – preaching. I wanted nothing to do with a class on preaching. The preaching I had been exposed to was generally boring, pedantic, religiously formed (why use a different tone of voice?), sometimes manipulative, and often delivered with a superior attitude that reinforced the clergy – laity dichotomy and the sacred – secular dichotomy; both of which I consider dichotomies of death. Scott and Haddon’s effect on me can be seen by the fact that I took not only the core preaching courses, but also elective preaching courses – I loved those men and their training – it was stimulating and fun.
I am much the better communicator in daily life because of Scott and Haddon. They taught me to get to the point, to establish a communication goal and to focus on that, to prune away the extraneous, and to plan how you want the plane to takeoff and how you want it to land.
Being with Haddon one-to-one, or in a small group, was like wearing an old shoe – it was incredibly comfortable. He asked questions, listened, laughed – he was an uncommon man with the common touch. You couldn’t be with him without being better yourself. I think that’s called a “testimony”.