When Bill McGregor called me yesterday, it took me by surprise. We hadn’t talked in well over a year, maybe two. During this Lenten season, as I’ve considered the forty people who have had very positive influence on my life and ministry, I’ve not made any kind of list or ranking. But Bill has been on my mind from the beginning. And then, out of the blue, he calls.

A couple of years ago, I found out that Bill has always liked Anne Murray, the Canadian popular singer. I had done a “Celebration Rock” show featuring her songs “back when…” and I went into my tape archive to find the program and make Bill a CD copy. It turns out that both of us love the Anne Murray song “You Needed Me,” so Bill really liked the show. He loved the music, of course, but he also had very kind and thoughtful things to say about the script I had written around the song lyrics. And Bill’s positive critique and expression of gratitude meant a great deal to me.

That was true even (or especially?) when he told me what he thought of my sermons and worship leadership when he and Marilyn visited the Vermont church during their summer sojourns in the Northeast Kingdom. Sometimes folks mean a lot to us because they were good teachers or mentors. Sometimes it’s because they rescued us from some deep pit, or were a comforting presence while we suffered through some problem or another. But I add Bill to my list of forty because he was an honest critic, that is, as we used to say back in the 70s, he “tells it like it is.” And that frankness means so much to me.

Bill is a retired pastor and former Presbytery Executive. During the summers, our little church in East Craftsbury would swell with tourists and summer residents, including several visiting clergy. The first summer I was there, Bill and Marilyn came to worship with us as they had for some years before I was called there. Within a short time, Bill gave me a high compliment. I appreciated the comment both for the words and for who said them.  Modesty prevents me from… oh, what the heck: he told me I was the best worship leader in the denomination. Or, was it one of the best. Didn’t matter; it was high praise.

And, as usual, I smiled and disavowed his critique. But Bill has this steely stare right into your soul, and his determined demeanor said, “Listen to what I’m telling you, and believe it, Kellam.” On other Sundays, Bill paid me some compliments about my sermons, and/or how I preached them. His words were so encouraging and affirming, compared to what many preachers hear after church. “I enjoyed your sermon.” “I hope those visitors heard what you said.” “Nice work.”  No, Bill offered substance. And his eyes told you he was serious. So you didn’t discount his words.

What a gift this was, coming from one with so much experience, so much integrity, and such a strong theological foundation! Until that Sunday when he said after worship, “That really troubled me. Deeply.” I assumed he was talking about my sermonized critique of a worship service I had attended out in Indiana while visiting our son at Purdue. Joan and I had gone to church and felt like the service was more a TV variety show, pandering to pop culture and the congregation’s desire to enjoy church. I used my criticism to affirm the way we  do things here! Right worship. Not like those bozos in Indiana. (No, I didn’t say it that way, but good grief, that’s the self-righteous way it came across.)

Bill wasn’t expressing his displeasure with their worship, but with my sermon. It was my sermon that troubled him. Deeply. Now, the thing is, if you accept someone’s praise as honest and true and a gift of encouragement…well, then you also have to accept their criticism when offered from the same heart, and those same eyes of steel. I was taken aback. Bill explained how judgmental my sermon was, how narrow my view of worship (in spirit and truth) was, and how some sisters and brothers find meaning and spiritual strength in worship settings that differ from what we are used to.  Though it was hard for me to see at the time, as invested in my sermon as I was that morning, it didn’t take long for me to realize how right Bill was. My sermon was off-base, unkind, even sanctimonious.

See, telling the truth, in love,  is something we all need some instruction in, and some good examples to follow. In Bill McGregor that Sunday, I saw how helpful that kind of truth-telling is. Maybe it’s too late to avoid belaboring the point, but he hadn’t complained about what I had said; he simply reported how he felt upon receiving the message.

In the years that followed, Bill and I had many conversations about worship, and about creative preaching and about some of the preachers whose craft Bill truly admired. Bill continued to offer a learned, yet loving critique of my work in that congregation. When Bill went to Colorado to be the Interim Executive of the Presbytery there, I learned a thing or two from him about the changing shape of church polity and administration. He had (and still has, I suspect) a zeal for church leadership that leans forward (to borrow the slogan of MSNBC), and that moves in new directions true to the Reformed Tradition, but open to a reforming future.

Whenever Bill and I talked, whether around the table at his lake home in Vermont or standing there in the church narthex after worship, he spoke with an intensity born of broad experience and earnest dedication. And this first-solo-pastorate minister was glad to sit at that mentor’s  feet, drink from his cup, and, if the opportunity had presented itself, shine his shoes. Or, offer him a CD of Anne Murray songs.

That’s why he called yesterday. Their New Hampshire home was snowed in, and they put on that CD and enjoyed it once again. And then called to tell me that. Isn’t that thoughtful? It was fun to catch up. And good to be reminded how much we all benefit from words spoken honestly, forthrightly, and from the heart of love and respect.