December 30, 2020
This past Sunday, James said "bye bye." He sat on those steps in a mostly empty sanctuary, bereft of worshippers because of a pandemic, and he said "bye bye."
It was an instant "Lamkin-ism" if I've ever heard one--and I've heard enough to know. The child-like words evoking the simplicity of his own origin story, his first words were bye bye. And his last words to us, those hardest to say, were bye bye. That's Lamkin, I said through tears. That's Lamkin.
James Lamkin is full of Lamkin-isms. Our conversations overflowed with them, and I almost always met them with childlike surprise and laughter. Usually, it was an elaborate and esoteric metaphor worthy of Shakespeare. He would keep unraveling it until the logic would twist back on itself, and I would gently lead us back to terra firma.
Or so I thought. The "firm land" of our mentoring life together more often than not was actually in those stories and metaphors. This is why Jesus taught in parables, apparently. You can't convey the truth through just blurting it out. The human mind is too fragile, too prone to over and misinterpretation. Better to tell the truth, as Flannery O'Connor said, slant.
Please understand that Lamkin's parabolic ministry unsettled and uprooted my training as a lawyer. We were taught to say "The witness saw the defendant at the intersection of Broad and Main Avenues." Plain, simple, propositional truth. Just the facts, ma'am.
But ministry doesn't work like that. The deepest ministry comes through the patient sifting of our life's stories in parable, suggestion, metaphor, and most of all...presence. That is why I believe that James Lamkin is one of the deepest ministers I have ever known, in the company of other deep clergy who have dedicated their lives to following Jesus in this strange calling.
In the first few weeks of our mentoring, I used to translate Lamkin-isms real time in my mind. Oh, by this metaphor, he means such and such, I'd think.
I no longer need such translation. I hear Lamkin-isms as a native speaker might their language of origin. Terrifying, I know.
Myriad examples teem and pulsate at memory's edge. But, this one will suffice. I asked him for counsel on a course of action recently. Well, he said. You could try that. But it would be like landing a C-130 in a duck pond.... He let the ellipsis hang in the air. Other, less-experienced ministers would have arrived at the truth of this through an hour of half-starts and rambling thoughts.
Another Lamkin-ism I love: Let me talk for a minute until I figure out what I believe. Ministers are often called upon to weigh in on topics as mundane as the HVAC system to the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine. Humility is required to say that one is not sure about how to answer. Grace is asked of the listener. Let me talk out loud for a minute so I can get clear.
Along with that humility came an uncommon grace for encouraging maturation and growth in other ministers. Only rarely would James tell me what to do with direct and uncompromising language.
"Don't do that," he said. I didn't. I don't even recall the occasion, I just remember thinking there it is.
He knew the boundaries, and if I was getting too close, he would tell me. But mostly, he would tell stories and weave metaphors, and let me grow in my own way. That was, and is, the greatest gift he gave me.
Well, almost the greatest gift.
The greatest gift he ever gave is the one he gave NDBC for the past 23 years. The gift of self. James never put on the skin of other preachers. Many do. He loved Fred Craddock and would often imitate his voice, but he never tried to be Fred Craddock. He always tried, and always worked hard at being, just James.
To be comfortable in one's own skin is a rare gift. I'm sure James struggled with it over the years, like all mere mortals do. But, he was comfortable. And the thing about being around leaders like that is they encourage similar development.
There is more to say, and we'll have more time to say it. But for now, to my brother James, bye-bye. (Now, give me a call later this afternoon, I want to hear your voice).
With great love and gratitude for a deep friend, pastor, and mentor...
Rev. Daniel Headrick
Prayer for James Lamkin
Oh God who calls pastors to uncertain and joyful service,
We thank you for calling your servant James here to be with us for these past 23 years.
For James’ open heart, which has grown and stretched over the years, and helped us grow and stretch too—
A heart that learned to worship with Jews and Muslims,
Which learned to find the deep common ground between those who call upon your name,
For a heart which loved gay people, straight people, and street people,
And taught us to love all people too.
For James’ uncommon grace, we give you thanks,
Grace which came in meeting people where they are,
Grace that came without the sharp bite of shame and judgment,
Grace which permitted and forgave and allowed and embraced.
And which he first learned from you, O God, that great giver of grace,
From whom all grace flows.
For his love of words, O God, we give you thanks—
You spoke Creation into being with words,
And gave us tongues rich with language and poetry,
But more than that, you allow us to name the deepest realities of our lives
And James has worded us over the years.
Metaphors and poetic imagery, alliteration and puns, the carefully chosen word, and also the playfully chosen word.
And all to your glory, and all in service to you, O God, who creates with words, raises from the dead with words, and blesses with words.
In the name of Jesus, the Word, Amen.
Blessing and Benediction
May you climb every tree that you’ve ever wanted to climb
May you read every book that you’ve ever desired
May you stop reading a book that you discover you don’t like
May you write that book you’ve been wanting to write
May you travel and enjoy and turn off the phone
May the love that carried you to ministry
Carry you through retirement
Through Christ our Lord
Who also retired, from being a carpenter,
And who blesses us all.