When I began this exercise of reflecting on the people whose lives touched mine in significant ways, and who became my guides along the path of faith, I had in mind folks with whom I had a personal relationship: pastors, teachers, friends, colleagues. However, now and then a few people come to mind whose light shone from a distance. I will do my best to avoid certain authors whose art and theology have combined to bring spiritual growth in my life, for example Frederick Buechner.  But if our paths crossed more directly, they are fair game for this space. One of those would be William Sloane Coffin, Jr.

We met at least three times. Once was during the Worship and Music Conference at Montreat, NC. Coffin was the preacher for the week. Having enjoyed his writing and his powerful preaching style, and long in awe of his reputation for social action and peacemaking, I expected him to be inspiring there on the Montreat stage. And he was. But what I will always remember from that week was his loving and compassionate pastoral presence. A young woman, a conference participant, died suddenly mid-week. Joan and I hadn’t heard the news, but headed toward the huge auditorium that evening  for what had been scheduled to be a talent show. As we took our seats, we sensed that something was wrong.

Coffin led an impromptu memorial service, and preached to the thousand or so gathered in that space with a profound message of comfort and hope. He could well have distanced himself from the tragedy, letting the conference staff lead a service of scripture and song. But with a heart of compassion he warmly spoke to us of sorrow and resurrection. I don’t recall the date, so I can only assume that this service took place sometime after his own 24 year-old son had died in an automobile accident. (A month before that loss, Coffin’s mother had died.) It is clear to me now, however, that this former Yale chaplain, crusader against nuclear arms, fervent advocate for peace, and minister at New York’s Riverside Church — this man had the heart of a pastor, a good shepherd, and his grace that evening spoke to me as powerfully as his words.

[In a sermon preached at Riverside a week after his son’s death, Coffin proclaimed, “And of course I know, even when pain is deep, that God is good. ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Yes, but at least, ‘My God, my God’; and the psalm only begins that way, it doesn’t end that way.” And, “So I shall — so let us all  — seek consolation in that love that never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.”]

Another time I encountered him was in Richmond. He was at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for a Lenten series. My friends Bob Edwards and Bill Sachs and I were doing a weekly ecumenical cable TV show and Coffin agreed to sit down with us for an interview. I regret that my role wasn’t “on camera,” for I would love to have had the opportunity to sit beside him and conduct the interview. But that evening, my role was to run camera, and later to edit the tape (a copy of which I still have). Of course, considering the crew and the church, we were all pretty, um, liberal. so, Coffin was among friends and admirers. His personality was wildly winsome, his conversation full of exuberant candor and delightful (to me) wordplay. It was during the years of the Reagan presidency and the Iran-Contra debacle, and Coffin was loose in the room! I loved his heady confidence and appreciated his forthright and prophetic speech.

Pastor. Check. Prophet. Check. And sage. The third time I saw him was in Vermont, when my friend Bill Lingelbach and I drove to a church-sponsored program at which Coffin was speaking. He had aged so much since I saw him last. Feeble, and hard of hearing. But still, there was immeasurable strength of heart, and wisdom flowed from every sentence. I have a book that Coffin wrote late in life, and I’m sure a lot of the words in that book were spoken that night in Vermont. The book is entitled Credo, and I look in its pages almost every time I write a new sermon. I may not quote it, but it reminds me of the wisdom of a preacher I so admired. Sage advice, sometimes put into words too-clever, but always clear, honest, and deeply Biblical.

When it comes to people like William Sloane Coffin (there are so few, sadly), I am like Peter following Jesus on the night Jesus was betrayed. The scriptures say that Peter followed…at a distance. I never preached with Coffin’s courage, never, or rarely, with his conscience. I suppose my heart was as liberal in both love and politics, but I must admit that if he was one of the forty I followed, it was only at the greatest distance. I confess, and ask God’s (and my churches’)  forgiveness for that.