I met Robert Parham when he was my grader in an ethics class at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, 40 years ago.
He didn’t like a paper I wrote and told me so, in no uncertain terms. I really didn’t appreciate someone pointing out what I knew was true: that I had made a poor effort and done inferior work.
The next day, I went by to see him and share my reaction to receiving a poor grade.
Robert was calm and nonreactive. Finally, he stared me in the eyes and simply said, “When you do better work, you’ll make better grades.” That was the end of the conversation.
While the conversation ended that day, a friendship started.
Over the years, Robert has been unswerving and unyielding in his straightforward, no-nonsense approach to ministry. He has epitomized a laser-like, singular focus blended with an entrepreneurial spirit as well as anyone I know.
His devotion to his wife and children showed that same unswerving and intentional focus as well.
The ensuing years found our friendship growing. He preached in each church I pastored. I was privileged to serve several years on the Baptist Center for Ethics board of directors and spent a term as the chair.
He was one of the first who encouraged me when we launched the Center for Healthy Churches and gave me valuable insight into the workings of entrepreneurial life.
We laughed together, lamented together, shook our heads at the antics of others and came up with solutions to most of the world’s problems and challenges. Over the years, he introduced me to people and situations I would have never known otherwise.
He could be inspiring, caustic, witty, profoundly wise and infuriating – all in a span of 30 seconds. I could not be more grateful for his life and friendship.
When leukemia and the ensuing decade of constant struggle invaded his body, I watched as Robert battled that insidious illness with the same calm, no-nonsense, intense approach that marked all of his life.
In the years since, we have talked for hours about his challenges and the way he has battled harder than most of us knew.
Proud and private, he carried on when the rest of us would have given up and gone home. Not Robert. His strength in the face of adversity was a thing to behold, for those he shared the struggle with.
I came away from every one of our conversations resolved to live my life more intentionally and thoughtfully.
Last Sunday evening, I had an urge to talk with him. I called him, knowing I’d probably get his voicemail and hopeful that he’d hear the message.
Sure enough, I left him a message telling him that I hoped he was feeling better and promising to visit him this week. I then texted him the same message.
Thirty seconds later, I got the first word that he had just passed. I was stunned and stricken that I had not gotten those words to him earlier.
Actually, I’m confident he got the message, and I know that Robert will live on in the life and witness of BCE and the lives of all those who have been touched and inspired by his life and words.
I know he lives on in me, for he pushed me across these 40 years to be a better version of myself and to try and accomplish things that seemed far-fetched.
For all of this, I can only say: Thanks be to God for this extraordinary man.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. His writings also appear on the CHC blog. You can follow him on Twitter @BillWilson1028 and the center @ChurchHealthy.
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, a reflection by Emmanuel McCall is available here, and a reflection by Don Sewell here. Parham’s funeral service is today, March 13, at First Baptist Church, Nashville. A visitation will be held beforehand from 10 a.m. to noon.