Calvin Miller: Creativity in Preaching

John Duncan Articles

I first met Calvin Miller one fine day at a Christian bookstore. In 1983 my job at a Christian bookstore included stocking books and placing them on racks and shelves. I placed Calvin Miller on a rack of books near bookshelves. I placed three books, a trilogy, The Singer, The Song, and The Finale on a black, spinnable InterVarsity Press rack.

While filling the book rack and desiring a book to read besides a technical theology book like Otto Weber’s Foundations of Dogmatics: Volume 1, I noticed the colorful and creative book cover of The Song, read the first several pages of the poem, and set the book aside  to purchase later with my employee discount.

Before long I was reading THE SONG and those infamous lines:

 

“In hell there is no music-

an agonizing night that

never ends as songless as

a shattered violin” (XII).

 

I had never heard of Calvin Miller nor spent too much time reading poetry, poetic rhythm, or the creative writings of the like of Miller, Ray Bradbury, Emily Dickinson, Annie Dillard, Frederick Buechner, or Oxford/Cambridge literary scholar C. S. Lewis.

Calvin and the Christian bookstore where I worked introduced me to a creative, exciting, and voluminous world of literature. As time went on I heard Calvin Miller preach at evangelism conferences, read his books, and, finally, met him in person when we had lunch one day after he had moved to Fort Worth, Texas to teach at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

I never will forget the place we ate (Bennigan’s Irish Pub), his red car (Is this a Camaro?), the typed manuscript he showed me (Walking with the Angels published in 1994), the discovery that as an artist he also painted, and the funny story he told me.

“Some guy called me the other day,” he said with a wry smile, “and asked me if it was true that I had found the Philippian fragment on the Island of Coos.”

“No, it’s fiction! The Philippian Fragment is fiction, I told him,” Calvin said laughing. Then he repeated the word, “Fiction.”

After our meal Calvin drove me back to the seminary campus to the bookstore, bought me a copy of his book Guardians of the Singreale, and signed it in cursive:

John,

Thanks for the wonderful gift of your friendship…Calvin

He dotted the “i” on Calvin at the end of the “n” and did not dot the “i” in the friend of friendship. The excitement I felt then in meeting Calvin that day resurrects in me now as I write this brief essay.

Did Calvin and I become friends? Not really. We ate together two more times, he came once to hear me preach, and then took me and my family out to eat after church. “Good sermon. You didn’t bore me,” he remarked about the sermon. We exchanged a letter or two after that encounter. I have read all of author Calvin Miller’s books except Guardians of the Singreale, but friendship eluded both of us when he moved from Fort Worth in 1998. Still, I learned about Calvin, but more importantly about the Lord that he loved through his many books.

Calvin possessed many gifts: like Winston S. Churchill he painted on canvas as an artist; like the chopsticks and pianist Paderewski story he loved to tell in his sermon on Abraham and Sarah from  Genesis 18, Calvin liked music (Isaac, a.k.a. ‘Giggles,” as the ‘peek a boo surprise,’ see Preaching Magazine, “Marriage: Two-Part Invention (Genesis 18:1-15; 12:10-13; 21:1-7,” September 2012); he preached (I remember that sermon he preached…telling the story of the slot machine); wrote over 40 books; and, yet his best gift may well have been his remarkable creativity sprinkled with a unique ability to touch both the right and left brain as a hearer of his sermons or as a reader of his books.

Google “Calvin Miller” or go to Amazon and type his name and you can see the book titles that are too numerous to publish here. Five of Calvin’s books affected me in a wonderful way: (1) The Singer; (2) The Table of Inwardness; (3) Spirit, Wind, and Story: A Philosophy of Preaching; (4) Walking with the Saints; and (5) Life is Mostly Edges: A Memoir.

In The Singer I loved the poetic rhythm, the troubadour, the journey, and two striking lines: “Earthmaker leaves the scars, for they preserve the memory of pain” (XXIII) and “Life is the Song and not the Shrine” (XVIII). The Table of Inwardness was one of the first Miller books I read and introduced me to spiritual writers like Fenelon, Saint Francis of Assisi, Brother Lawrence, Spurgeon, and A.W. Tozer. “Inwardness is the great and silent witness to the magnificence of God,” Miller wrote (p. 14).

Spirit, Wind, and Story made sense to me as a preacher, combining God’s Spirit, the biblical text, Jesus’s use of story, and the mystery of God at work in the preaching event. Miller penned powerful words: “It is this last idea, the idea of God’s self-disclosure, that makes the sermon the special document of each member of the congregation” (p. 35). Walking with the Saints spoke to my soul: “Discipline is the believer’s part in the conversation of the holy faith” (p. 234).

            Life is Mostly Edges: A Memoir came to me during a difficult time in my life. I found deep encouragement, reality, and assurance in Calvin’s memoir. As for encouragement I found encouragement in Calvin’s journey as a pastor, preacher, artist, and writer. Life is a process, the progressive nature of God’s call, one experience building on another as God equips you to ministry to people, to preach the gospel, and to help others while Christ builds His kingdom. As for reality, his description of his personal trials, at times wrestling with himself, the biblical text, the church, the culture, and the challenge of writing, helped me. Heroes face adversity, too. Nothing in life comes easy. Pastors encounter complex challenges, even spiritual warfare.

I read the memoir during the difficult time in my life and his story of “The Softball Sabotage” (pp. 273-ff.) resonated with me. Showing up at a prayer meeting of people against you must not have been an easy thing to do. It never occurred to me that Calvin bumped against such obstacles, such mean-spirited-non-saints, and church travail. But life has its high-risk, high-wire, high-drama-moments and those tricky, difficult, and woeful times God uses to mold us, shape us, and weld us to him.

I would like to note three more thoughts here: (1) Calvin’s most neglected book by readers and yet one of his most important, in my opinion, was O Shepherd Where Art Thou? In this book he lamented the loss of the concept in our modern day of the pastor as shepherd under the Good Shepherd, the high rate of ministerial dropout, and, in a sense, gives a call to renewal, joy, and service to Christ and people in the building of the Lord’s kingdom and his church. Miller writes: “The terror of eternity is the edgy work of invading peoples’ lives at their invitation. It is carrying the important incarnation of peace into their homes because we ourselves have become his incarnation. These are the credentials of pastoral care, Jesus’s life in us” (Miller, O Shepherd, 60).

(2) Calvin worked hard and loved the church. Artistry does not come without a price. Love does not come without a price. (3) Calvin made you see what otherwise you would not see. Who else would think of When the Aardvark Parked on the Ark?

That’s why I loved Calvin Miller. He loved Jesus. He loved people, He used his gifts to glorify God and he, though fraught with imperfections like all of us, sought to lift up Christ, to point to the cross, and lived in the rapturous joy of resurrection. And while I cannot honestly say we were personal friends, what he wrote in the cover of a book one day Thanks for the wonderful gift of our friendship I can now reciprocate:

Calvin,

Thanks for the wonderful gift of your friendship…through your preaching, books, words, and pictures…John

I remember with clarity the day I learned Calvin had entered heaven’s glory in 2012. I sat in my office, stunned, saddened, and yet appreciative for his impact on my life. I pulled his memoir Life is Mostly Edges off of my book shelf and began to re-read parts of the book. I stumbled across what Calvin wrote on page 374: “Looking around more, however, does not mean that I want to quit serving the Lord. Vance Havner said of his final years that he wanted God to be the Lord of what’s left.”

Calvin finished what was left well, but in my heart I feel he was taken much too soon. I miss Calvin Miller. Heaven holds joy and Calvin now finds goodness and mercy in the house of the Lord, forever (Psalm 23).

 

“In heaven there is harmony and music-

A glorious day that

never ends as cheerful songs revel

in Jesus-joy amid a chorus of hymns

surrounded by the beauty of symphonic sound,

accented with stringed violins.”

 

Calvin Miller, put simply, and in his own words, was “a troubadour, singing a love song to his Lord” (The Singer). We would do well to consider the outcome of his life and imitate his faith in Christ (Hebrews 13:7). You would do well to read his books and learn from this past master.

 

John D. Duncan is the Co-Pastor of The Church at Horseshoe Bay in Texas. He is also a writer, an adjunct professor, and a fan of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. He can be contacted at 41jduncan@gmail.com.