In Memory of Haddon Robinson
I knew I would learn how to preach from Haddon, but what I didn't know is I would learn how to love.
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Rich and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Bell Hall, nestled in the woods at the bottom of the "Holy Hill" on the campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. It was Thursday evening, and Rich was traveling for work. I was alone. As a woman in the MDiv degree program at GCTS in 1998, I often felt alone, even while sitting in a packed classroom. But now I really was alone. And I began to question my place at GCTS. What was I doing in seminary? What would I do upon graduation? What did other people think of me? Was this whole thing ridiculous? Can a woman really preach? I placed my theology book on the coffee table and I closed my eyes. I was at the bottom of the hill.
My rest was short-lived. A gust of October wind blasted the living room windowpane and forced itself through a sliver of screen. A plant crashed to the floor and startled me. My eyes popped open. I was still at the bottom of the hill.
But there was life at the top of the hill. Lots of it. Cars streamed in and climbed the hill to the chapel. A man named Haddon Robinson was being honored for 40 years in ministry. I had heard stories about him, but I had never heard him myself. Other students said that he "wrote the book," that he was intimidating, that he was an amazing preacher and teacher.
I sensed God's Spirit nudging me to the top of the hill. The wind howled, blowing leaves of orange, red, and yellow in a whirly-twirly dance of foliage. I zipped my L.L. Bean jacket and stepped into the dance. A leaf, about the size of my hand, smacked my cheek before sailing to the ground. I wasn't prepared for the impact of the wind at the bottom of the hill. And I wasn't prepared for the impact of the Word at the top of the hill.
I squeezed into a crammed chapel, somewhere in the safety of the center. The pulpit stared me down. Was it picking a fight? And then Haddon stepped up to the platform. That was the first time I heard his testimony. The basketball team at the church; the ice pick at the gang fight; the sermon preached by Harry Ironside; the infamous entry into journal that night; the scholarship to Bob Jones and the courting of Bonnie.
It seemed strange to be at a celebration for someone I didn't know. But I wasn't at the bottom of the hill anymore. I was experiencing preaching at the top. I couldn't go back to the bottom.
The next semester I was a student in Haddon's preaching course and I've been his student ever since.
Haddon wanted to be remembered as loving
I had the opportunity to study with Haddon again when I enrolled in his DMin course—The Preacher and the Message. It was during that time that he became president of GCTS. It was an enormous task in addition to his teaching load. He needed help with his courses. The lot fell to me. You might say I was in the right place at the right time or the wind was blowing in my direction. I was local. I was available. I was expository. Can you see me smiling?
This new relationship began with an invitation to Haddon's office. He would be preaching regularly in chapel, working his way through 1 Corinthians 13. He walked me through the passage. He told me that Paul demonstrates what love is by showing what love does. It's first of all patient and kind. I leaned in as he spoke, because his voice was gravelly and quiet and trailed off at the end of his sentences. He paused for a long moment. An uncomfortable moment. I knew what was coming next was important. Leaning back in his chair he looked off into some distant world. He said that if he were remembered for anything in life—he'd want to be remembered as loving. I recall that conversation because I was surprised by his admission. Other words raced to my mind before the word "loving." Preacher. Teacher. Writer. Witty. Intimidating. Loving wasn't the first thing that came to mind when I thought of Haddon. But then over the next five years, I got to know him.
I worked with Haddon when he was in his mid to late 70s. Although nobody knew it, Parkinson's had already grabbed hold of his body. He used the elevator to move from his office on the second floor to his classroom on the first floor. He had a bottle of Aleve at the ready for the pain in his knee. The mom in me carried some in my purse too. Just in case. His gait was often unsteady. But boy was he sharp. He engaged with the students and truly cared about their learning.
I sat through his preaching course ten times! Sometimes I taught classes with him. Sometimes I taught his classes for him. I prepped the room. I made sure his microphone was ready; I regularly stole away on a stealth mission to secure his favorite stool from an undisclosed location; I plugged in the very few PowerPoint slides he used. I graded papers. I reminded him to speak up when we couldn't hear his voice. He would often kick my chair when he wanted me to offer the sermon feedback to a student. Every morning I greeted him with a cheery, "Good morning, Haddon." And every morning he replied, "What's so good about it?" I responded with a smile. We had a good routine.
Haddon taught me how to love
Haddon was kind to me. He was interested in my kids. "How does Jack like the Brown school?" he asked. And then he added, "When I went to school it was called PS 92. Nothing fancy like Brown."
When he asked me to do something and I promised to get it done, he gently reminded me that my word was my promise. If I could accomplish the task in the given time he said he would "rise up and call me blessed" (Proverbs 31).
He prayed for me. One semester, I was pregnant with my second son. I had already had two miscarriages. My doctor told me I'd need a level three ultrasound because something showed up on the ordinary ultrasound. The picture revealed an entanglement around the limbs of the baby. If it was what we thought it was, the tissue would bind itself around the baby's feet and hands and neck and the result would be disastrous. Haddon prayed. A lot.
Our second child was born the day after Haddon's birthday, on March 22nd. He had ten perfectly functioning fingers and toes. His name is Samuel Haddon.
Haddon was also patient with me. He tossed me into the teaching ring and he coached me. Sometimes I lost the fight and left the ring a little battered and bruised. "That didn't work," he'd tell me. "Here's why," he said. Then he took the time to teach me and tossed me back in the ring again. I got a lot of "atta-girls."
One day I told him about a middle-aged man I had been asked to visit under hospice care. The man's family had been to a funeral at which I had spoken. That was the only connection. As I spoke to him about Jesus, his parents pulled me aside and explained that they were Jewish! I left not knowing what to say or what my role was. Haddon advised me to walk through the 23rd Psalm with the man. I still get tingles down my spine when I think of this Jewish man saying, "I want to trust Jesus to be my shepherd." He died the next day having confessed that the LORD was his shepherd.
Haddon prayed for me many times. When my mom was in the hospital with a lung infection, he prayed. She took a turn for the worse over the weekend and we thought we were going to lose her. When I came into school on Monday morning Haddon said he didn't get a good night's sleep and it was all my fault. He was up praying. He said he felt he needed to pray for my mom. I explained to him that she had almost died but turned a corner early that morning.
Haddon did much more for me than I did for him. But one day, I tied his shoe. He was becoming increasingly unsteady and his shoelace would often unravel. It drove me mad. One day after class, I used my mom voice and told him to sit down. I kneeled on the floor and I propped his foot on my lap. "Haddon," I said, "I need to teach you how to tie a quick release double knot. This is exactly how I tie my kids' shoes. It works." At his age, I figured he didn't want to fidget with his laces, picking at a double knot in his dress shoe. He needed the easy version. As I worked on his shoe, he looked down at me and said, "You are not worthy to tie my shoes." I replied, "Then I shall rise and you can call me blessed."
The next day I brought him a brand new pair of brown shoelaces. I showed him how the lace was flat and the texture made it more secure. You would have thought I had given him a million dollars. He called me that night to thank me.
When I think of Haddon now, one word pops into my mind and rises above all the rest. Loving. He demonstrated his love by his actions.
When I remember the night at the bottom of hill and the wind that woke me and whipped me on the cheek I can't help but think of Psalm 104:4: "He makes the winds his messengers." God's purposes were in the wind that night calling me from the bottom to the top of the hill.
When it came to preaching, Haddon was at the top. When it came to love, he was at the tippy top. Love is crucial to preaching. And that is why he was a great preacher. It was because he was loving.
I knew I'd learn how to preach from Haddon. What I didn't know is that I'd learn how to love.
I wasn't worthy to tie Haddon's shoes. But I was grateful for the small opportunity to demonstrate my love for him.
Patricia Batten is a Ranked Adjunct Assistant Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and serves as an interim pastor at Community Congregational Church in Billerica, MA.