I write with deep affection for most of these folks who had contributed to my spiritual journey and to my various ministries. Certainly that is the case as I reflect on the ways Chuck Melchert has touched my life.

Chuck and I (and our wives) had dinner together just last week. Since we both left our positions at the former Presbyterian School of Christian Education, we see each other all too infrequently. But as is the case with the people we know and respect so well, when we do get together it is as if no time has passed at all. Conversation is easy. We all laugh a lot. But also share some serious conversation about the state of politics, the Church, and theological education.

Chuck and I met at PSCE, where he was professor of religious education and taught courses in Bible as well. I was on staff as Director of the Video Education Center. We worked together on courses and workshops that focused on the impact of television on contemporary culture. We’re not talking “educational TV” or “distance learning through video.” More like “Hill Street Blues,” “The Cosby Show,” and the “Simpsons.”

Chuck certainly deepened my own understanding of TV’s cultural values. I think we were a good team, with my providing a more pop culture approach and Chuck contributing deeper insights from the theaters of theology and pedagogy. Chuck’s gifts stretched my own, and his academic disciplines kept me honest. The  freedom and creativity of that special graduate school enriched the wider Church in its educational ministries, well beyond denominational bounds. Personally, I always considered it a privilege to have a place on that campus, not being much of an “academic” myself. But Chuck welcomed my input and encouraged my growth in the fruitful process of teaching/learning.

Chuck had a profound influence on my life beyond the academic. In one of those conversations that are so significant that you remember where they took place, even what the light was like in the room (I am not overstating this, by the way), Chuck invited me to join a “men’s group.” It was a Monday evening gathering of five or six men who would make their 90 minute meeting a priority for the week.

The men in the group were guys Chuck brought together from his own social circle, which included PSCE, but also his Lutheran church. We did not all know each other that first evening, but as the years went by, obviously we became a very close circle of friends. Chuck had made clear at the start that we’d have no agenda week by week, that is, no books to read, no announced topics to center on. We talked about national issues and personal lives, about marriage and about jobs, about God. I am so grateful for what that weekly commitment meant to me. If you ask me what it means to “bond,” I can speak from experience. A couple of decades later, I still miss the friendship we enjoyed in that group.

[I’ve often thought about starting one in Vermont where we lived for nine years, or in the Ithaca area where we lived after that. But even today, I’m hesitant to open that door, knowing how hard it would be to live up to what we had in Richmond. Still…]

Two stories related to that group… The first one is kind of silly. When we met the first time, Bob, at whose home we met, offered everybody a beer. I’d never actually had one before. So Bob came up with a can of V-8. Eventually the V-8 was replaced by a soft drink of some kind, while the rest of the guys had their beers. Years later, when the group had moved to Chuck’s house on campus, the guys were talking about some especially good English ale. I thought I’d take the leap, and this was quite a step for me. (In my mid-40’s and my first ale!) I didn’t expect to love it or hate it. I didn’t finish the bottle before the group ended, but I didn’t want to waste it, so I carried it back to my office at the school, drinking a little bit as I walked down the street. Someone told me later that that wasn’t a particularly acceptable practice. I should have had a brown bag, I guess. (Note: I haven’t had another ale, or beer, since.)

The other remembrance is far more profound. Word had come to campus that one of  Chuck’s sons, Mark, had been critically injured when a drunken driver had run into the back of his car on an Ohio highway. Chuck went to Ohio to keep vigil at Mark’s bedside. The men’s group met as usual, and though we didn’t routinely pray during our meetings, we certainly did that night. Chuck told us later that he had left Mark’s room for a short time, walked down a hallway and gazed out a window. In one of those holy moments that come to us in heart-stirring situations, Chuck felt the presence of our group and knew that we were keeping vigil with him. He happened to look at his watch and realized that we were meeting at that very time, and were very likely in prayer for Mark, for Chuck, and for the rest of their family. Bonding in spirit.

Yet, as was the experience of the Psalmist on many occasions, Chuck’s impassioned prayers were met with the stunning silence of God. With painful honesty, Chuck would write about that silence in a paper entitled “Suffering, Silence and Death.”

A few days later, the memorial service at First English Lutheran Church was a powerful celebration of a young man’s life and spirit, as well as a convincing (and dancing)  “witness to the resurrection.”  What comes to mind now as I write is something that William Sloane Coffin said: The abyss of God’s love is deeper than the abyss of death. If we don’t know what is beyond the grave, we do know who is beyond the grave. 

Though I could go on (as you well know), I express to Chuck my gratitude for his opening my eyes further to the wonder of wisdom. I so appreciated his lectures in classes and in seminars on the Wisdom Literature of the Bible, and I treasure his introducing me to one Jacob the Baker, whose stories I continue to tell to this day. I still have a manuscript of Chuck’s book Wise Teaching: Biblical Wisdom and Educational Ministry, and I have used its reflections in my own pastoral teaching situations, with deep respect for Dr. Charles Melchert’s scholarship.

Well, one more thing occurs. When my son Jim was a visiting professor at Franklin and Marshall College a few years ago, he found warm hospitality at Chuck and Anabel’s home, and just as importantly, at Chuck’s Lutheran church where Jim and Chuck sang together in the choir. (OK, suffice it to say that the formal name of the congregation is not “Chuck’s Lutheran Church.”) I am so glad they had a chance to know each other!

When we saw Chuck last week, I saw that the once full (very full!) beard was trimmed to a more modest cut, but his laugh was still robust and the light in his eyes still signalled friendship and affection. By the way, since this blog carries the title “Peace, Grace, and Jazz,” I must note that Chuck and I have that love of jazz in common. And I promised him a CD of some Chuck Mangione L.P.s now out of print. I’d better get on to that.

In the meantime, for his sage teachings,  I’ll toast him tonight with a glass of wine… from the Finger Lakes, of course.

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