Lyrics to the hymn, “Like a River Glorious,” have come to mind as I’ve reflected on my friendship with Robert Parham.
“Like a river glorious is God’s perfect peace / Over all victorious in its bright increase.”
I lost a great friend in Robert, and it’s hard to minimize just how sobering the moment is for me.
He taught me a great deal as I simply observed his actions; now he’s teaching me through his entry to the Kingdom of God.
Robert was a Kingdom kind of guy. He was attuned to injustices where many would turn a deaf ear. He applied heart-felt application to Jesus’ words of “when you’ve done it to the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.”
I had nothing and everything in common with Robert. Born months apart, we came from radically different places – an oil town in the Texas Panhandle and Ogbomosho, Nigeria. He was a missionary kid, and my dad worked in a refinery.
But we had everything in common too. The Sewell family’s Christmas offering for missions helped support the Parham family, who were 6,748 miles away from the Texas oil fields.
We were both curious types who loved to learn about other cultures. And we were convicted about making a difference in the world, pursuing the compassionate way to treat others.
By virtue of his upbringing as a missionary kid in Nigeria, Robert could cross the cultural barriers with ease. He found good in all kinds of people.
Robert was a true world citizen who knew “in Christ there is no east nor west, in Him no south nor north.”
I first met Robert back in the mid-’80s at an annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Kansas City.
We engaged in spirited and quite pointed give-and-take with the upstart cadre of Baptists. We could both see changes in the wind that led to the start of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Robert thought for himself. He possessed a sharp, analytical mind. But he wasn’t pompous. In fact, he constantly wanted to know what others thought before offering his wellspring of insights.
He was a life-long learner, always asking me questions during our long conversations. Many times in the midst of dialogue, I thought I should be the one asking more questions.
During many phone calls with Robert, I would mention something and there would be a long pause of silence. At first, I thought I had upset him.
Finally, I figured out he was just absorbing the idea in a most perceptive and cogent way. His initial quietness would always springboard to balanced, insightful statements.
Robert was cool and calm when dealing with tense situations among Baptists. His measured, thoughtful words were hard to refute and would speak volumes to many issues Baptists faced in the ensuing years.
“Perfect, yet it floweth fuller every day / Perfect, yet it groweth deeper all the way.”
I’ve never seen a better picture of courage than I found in Robert. During the Baptist World Alliance in Durban, South Africa, he calmly mentioned that doctors in the U.S. were monitoring his heart from afar, ready to advise him at a moment’s notice to rush to the local hospital.
How many of us would venture halfway around the world for a Baptist meeting when our lives were in the balance? When it came to his calling, Robert held nothing back.
Robert understood the role of the prophet and embodied it in a day when few were courageous enough to take on such a formidable responsibility.
Robert ventured into areas that others conveniently set aside or ignored. He led the Baptist Center for Ethics to develop historically faithful Bible study curricula for goodwill Baptists. He focused on race relations and stewardship of creation when others were silent.
Robert highlighted ministry to the undocumented at our Mexico border when many found that topic to be politically incorrect. Simply put, Robert sought Jesus’ approval; he never accepted the job of pleasing certain crowds of people.
“Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blessed / Finding as He promised, perfect peace and rest.”
My heart is heavy. We have all lost a rich relationship of a kindred spirit. Thankfully, by God’s grace, my consolation is three-fold.
First, I am challenged to double my leadership efforts where we bind wounds in Jesus’ name through Faith in Action Initiatives in the Baylor Scott & White Health System.
Second, I’m a better person because of my friendship with Robert. When I carry out ministry actions, a redemptive part of Robert will stick with me and will inspire me along the way.
Last, by faith in the costly grace of our Savior, I plan on seeing Robert someday, “bright shining as the sun.”
We’re going to have spirited heavenly conversations – just an oil patch boy and a missionary kid having the time of our lives.
Editor’s note: A press release about Parham’s life, work and legacy is available here. A reflection by EthicsDaily.com media producer Cliff Vaughn is available here, a reflection by managing editor Zach Dawes is available here, and a reflection by Emmanuel McCall is available here. Parham’s funeral service will be held at noon Monday, March 13, at First Baptist Church, Nashville. A visitation will be held beforehand from 10 a.m. to noon.