“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a lie. Words are far more damaging and their pain reaches deep within to scar the soul and the spirit in places where sticks and stones are powerless. Simple words strung together in sentences give voice to life or death. Their power rests in the motive of the speaker and the moment of the hearer.
Several months ago, Calvin Miller, a friend and mentor, finished his earthly race and stepped into the glory his mind and heart could only imagine. Dr. Miller was a prolific writer—a best-selling author of numerous books. He was a pastor, a gifted preacher and a creative communicator . But above all, he was a passionate teacher with a desire to spur his students higher—higher even than he had risen.
As a student at Beeson Divinity School from 1997-1999, I had the pleasure of taking several classes with Dr. Miller. One of those classes changed my life—literally. It was a defining moment. The class was an elective aptly called Creative Preaching. Dr. Miller’s job was to transform us into storytellers—speakers who could take a text from Holy Writ and put it into story form so that anyone could grasp, understand, and make application in their own life. I signed up with little hope of being very creative—just needing two more hours of credit.
I could not envision myself as creative since I felt more comfortable and at home in the analytical mode. Dr. Miller challenged my limited self-assessment and forced me to think with more than just half a brain. Our first sermon assignment was to take a text and breathe visual life into it by using props. This assignment stretched me, tormented my attempts to sleep at night, but eventually ripped down the wall I had carefully constructed between the left and right sides of my brain. It forced me to open the door of imagination and creativity that had been shut since childhood. Dr. Miller understood that within each of us is the power to create—to dream—to imagine—to see what others have yet to see. And he was determined to wring every last drop of creative juice from the folds of my mind and serve it up in the goblet of a sermon that would inspire and communicate the truth to anyone who was listening.
Eventually, I preached a sermon on the spiritual armor of Ephesians 6. My props were a stick for a sword, a brown lunch sack for a helmet, a sheet of cardboard for a breast plate, a rusty garbage can lid for a shield, and an old leather belt that held it all together. Thankfully there were no cameras that day, but it set me free to think about sermon preparation in a whole new vein—one in which imagination and illustration could play a vital role in communicating the timeless truths of God.
And yet, it was not the crafting of the sermon or my creative props that created that defining moment in my life. No, it was a simple statement Dr. Miller made a few days later. He always required that we manuscript the sermons we were preparing for classroom preaching. I hated it—it was such a chore to write it out. I was far more comfortable with a simple outline, plus it saved me a ton of time. But noooo! The manuscript must be turned in prior to its preaching or else. And when you are preparing to graduate “or else” is not an option.
I still replay the comment he made as he handed my manuscript back to me that day in the preaching lab: “Nelson, you are a very good writer.” His words stunned me. This was a man who had been published multiple times and paid handsomely for it—a best-selling author with countless awards and numerous reviews in his resume. And his comment was unsolicited—it was a real word of encouragement from the heart of a genuine expert in the craft of writing. My mind could not comprehend what my ears had just heard, but I said thank you, filed it away in my heart, and quickly left.
Over the next few years, I began to put pen to paper—to give utterance to the thoughts and concepts that swirled within me. I began to find my voice and allow it to speak—all because of one encouraging sentence that fell from the lips of Dr. Calvin Miller.
Several years later, at the encouragement of another friend, I took a dozen or so of my literary offerings to Dr. Miller for his personal critique. He promised to read them and get back with me. Unknown to me, he passed them to a friend who was well-known in the publishing business, who wrote him back with some very encouraging words for his student. Dr. Miller forwarded his email to me—again I was stunned, my eyes unable to believe the words I was seeing.
Today, thirteen years later, because of Dr. Miller’s encouragement and his passionate desire to stir up the creative ability that was languishing within me, I have had the privilege of writing two books and the honor of seeing both published (God’s Threshing Floor: Moving from Fruitful to Useful (2010) and Impact! Recognize and Maximize Your Defining Moments (2012). Both published by Jebaire Publishing).
Dr. Calvin Miller was the key God used to unlock a gift he had hidden away in me for such a time as this. That key slipped smoothly in, and with seven little words of encouragement a door of creativity I never knew existed popped open to reveal a new pathway on which I am drawn to walk. Hopefully, somewhere along the way, I too, can encourage another weary traveler to explore a gift that is as yet undiscovered.
My friend and mentor is now in the presence of his Savior, Jesus Christ. The amazing gift he used on earth to inspire is now being used in heaven to give praise to the One who is worthy of all praise. What an encouragement to continue in the craft of writing so that one day, I too, might put down the pen and with my lips do likewise. Thank you Dr. Calvin Miller! Your words still ring with the truth that continues to birth life!