Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.
Robert John, Professor, Artist, and Guide
Robert John was an active presence in my life for many more years than any of the other Roberts. He was a treasure, greatly overlooked and underestimated by many of his professorial colleagues and not a few students. Because Bob did not have multiple advanced degrees, that put him further down the academic pecking order and, ultimately, hastened his departure from a rapidly shrinking seminary student body and faculty. When he left the faculty after 15 years in St. Louis, Bob said, “Well, it’s about time I went out to see if what I have been teaching for the past fifteen years actually works.”
I have thought often that Bob nailed that. Yes, every seminary professor should have to do a sabbatical in some rural community in the Midwest, on the prairie, or the Deep South, where no academics live. They ought to learn from pious farmers and factory workers what it means to be an ordinary Christian in daily life. Yes, some came from that milieu. But many forgot along the way in the echo chambers in which they live. Like many of the coastal elites, some are quite certain the hoi polloi need to be enlightened. That’s why a lot of first calls don’t go well. Pious lay people know when pastors despise what they believe.
Bob was a poet and a fantastic artist in every media. He had a wicked sense of humor and a childlike delight in discovery. He was the guest preacher on seminary choir tour. We were in Silver Spring MD and had just had supper at the church where we were going to give our concert set within Vespers. The smokers, of whom Bob was one, stepped out among the blossoming cherry trees for a smoke. Bob began to wax eloquent about something a colleague had discovered while on sabbatical in Israel. He said: “Little children fall into abandoned wells, and they have to cry out to their fathers for rescue. And…and…and…” We were so moved by his intensity and where the story was going. Then, all of a sudden, he said: “And my thumb is caught in this coffee cup.” Having had a glass of wine or two with supper, we fell down laughing. That was part of the joy of listening to Bob tell stories. You never knew where he was taking you.
After I was ordained and assigned to hospital chaplaincy, Bob took me on as his pastoral assistant at his parish in Irving TX. I preached once a month there and did some young adult ministry, all for the princely sum of $100 a month. Being around Bob was the gift, and when I began to serve a parish, he was always available as a listening ear and guide. I would call him up, and we would have a meal together and drive around talking for three or four hours at a time. He would constantly point out the presence of the cross in all kinds of places from telephone poles to street signs to playground equipment to restaurant booths.
In the fourth year of seminary, after vicarage, Bob taught every student a class entitled “Pastoral Theology.” The first day he walked into class and said in his native New York City dialect: “Every bad thing that has ever happened to you is a blessing.” After naming several tragedies, we were ready to toss him out the 11th story window. Then, he said, “God will bring good out of every tragedy and make you a better pastor to your people because of it.” Those who were wise shut up and listened and learned. Of all my seminary professors and pastors, Robert John was the most gifted. He was, as Robert Lee said, a very prestigious person. If you ever worship at Good Shepherd church in Irving TX, Bob designed it all.
Dear Father, thank you for Robert John and all the artists, poets, and mentors who guide young pastors in the way of beauty and vulnerability. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Pastor Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
St Matthew's Evangelical Lutheran Church
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.