October 23, 2017

What He Believed, He Lived: A Tribute to the Rev. W.O. Spencer

lilwo.jpgOn Sunday morning, January 9th, 2005, my uncle, the Rev. Willie Offutt “W.O.” Spencer came to the end of his earthly journey. He was 88 years old. Married to my Aunt Dot for 67 years, pastor of my home church- Hall Street Baptist- for 25 years, and active in the ministry for over 50 years. He preached to and pastored thousands. He baptized hundreds, and ordained dozens of young men into the ministry.

No human being on this earth placed more of an imprint on my life than my Uncle Offutt. His influence, example and legacy run deep into my life. How I think of God, what I know of Jesus, how I preach to my students and my church- all run back to what I learned from this man.

I was asked to say a few words at his funeral. Because I was standing in the pulpit now occupied by another man- a good man, I want to add- I was not able to say all I wanted to say. There wasn’t enough time, and frankly, speaking the truth about this unique individual puts most every other minister I know into a smaller suit real fast.

This is my tribute to my Uncle Offutt, my pastor, “Brother Spencer.” If you knew him, I hope it reminds you of the man in ways you may have forgotten. For those who never knew him, stop and ask the Lord to send His church the gift of more pastors like this unusual man.

He was born in Lee County, in the misty mountains of eastern Kentucky, the eighth and last of the children of Hargis Lee and Claudie Spencer. I never appreciated what it meant that my father’s family were mountaineers until I came to the mountains myself, and lived among these people. Their family home, and the little bend in the road called “Filmore,” is now gone, but the roots of my family go deep in those hills and hollers. I now understand where that strange sound in his preaching came from. I understand why he was so happy tramping in the woods, hunting and fishing. I understand the awkwardness of all the brothers in the cities they found themselves living in. I understand the simplicity in their worldviews and the suspicion of education that took you away from those simple things. He grew up among people who regularly stared poverty and even starvation in the face, and won out over those adversaries through love of family, hard work, sacrifice and reliance on the essentials.

He never stopped being that mountain boy, and though he was called to the city and lived his life far from the mountains, he carried that place and that culture with him every moment.

His father came from Welshmen, and his mother from Indians. They were big, hardy people, with unusual names like Olivene, Adair, Simma Lois (my dad), Matt Mcguire and Runie Golden. They were proud, but self-conscious, like so many mountain people. They loved their own kind, and knew they should love others, but didn’t always know how. They relied on guns, tradition, farm animals, and pioneer know-how. Church was the Methodists one Sunday and the Primitive Baptists another, and then only if the preachers could make it into the hollers. Their religion was the shouting, weeping, soul-converting kind, not the cool, intellectual Calvinism of the educated folks in the cities and towns. God was experienced, long before Hency Blackaby thought up the idea. God got inside you and made you different. He took away your drinking, your carousing and he made you a better man. His Spirit wasn’t something that was just talked about, but something that burned the power of God into your mind and heart. These were people who prayed more than they complained, and who believed in preparing for death in an uncertain and precarious life.

I do not know much of W.O’s story. He worked in the oil fields, like his brothers. (The oldest brother was killed in an oil industry accident.) He met a beautiful girl, Dorothy Patrick, who was a Christian. She brought him to church, and to Christ. He was saved, and deeply, profoundly converted, with an overflowing joy that never left him. When I last saw him, just weeks before he died, he did not know me, but he testified joyfully to his salvation experience all those years ago. He embodied the man of the Psalms who said the Lord had rescued him from the pit, given him a new life, and now he would tell others about such a God. The thought that Jesus had saved him would always bring forth tears.

Being called into the ministry was a mysterious experience for my uncle. All his life, he would speak of “surrendering to preach” in language that indicated great anguish of soul and true wrestling with God. He was suspicious of those who came to the ministry easily or cheaply. He much preferred hearing that God called, and the subject ran away like Jonah, only to be finally captured, broken, and remade into a vessel fit for the master’s service. Such was his experience, and it left him with an abiding sense that God chose His preachers in a way that permanently set them apart from other men. To be called was to be called away from normal life, to a life of prayer, to much solitude, and many tears. You were marked by the fire, claimed by the Spirit. Preachers- not “Doctors” or reverends- were men who had the love of Christ poured into their hearts, but who also had the fire of God in their bones, the tears of God in their eyes and the Word of God on their lips. That such a man would be ordinary, unspiritual or “professional” was incomprehensible to him.

That others might find him odd seemed to never matter to him. Some pastors desperately want to blend in; to never be known as a preacher. Not W.O. He was always a man called to preach and a man called out from other men. That was the fundamental fact of his existence, and he gloried in it, no matter what it meant.

He went to school at a two year program at a small Baptist college. I know he had friends from those days, but I never heard a word from him that betrayed a trace of a formal education. Somewhere he became a convinced dispensationalist. His seminary was his Scofield Bible. He gave me two books in my life, both dispensational volumes by Clarence Larkin. His lack of an education was, it still seems to me, a minor kind of loss in his ministry. There were times- very few of them- when he said things that were mistaken; things that might be noticed by educated people. His church members, though, were overwhelmingly blue collar, and didn’t mind that he wasn’t formally educated. He never premised his preaching on the knowledge of men, but always on the things revealed by the Spirit. Like the mountain preachers who would go out to a stump behind the church and pray to get that day’s message from the Lord, so my uncle came to the pulpit with the things revealed to him in prayer and the study. That was enough, and when he came to the pulpit, he sounded like a man with God’s authority.

There were times that lack of education bothered me, because education was important in my own journey and in my preaching. He could get distracted by things that seemed to take away his certainties, like new Bible translations. Because he did not know church history, he refused to accept non-Baptist churches as truly Christian. I listened to these things from time to time, and realized that, in a real sense, his sense of calling might have isolated him too much, but he was always the man God called and shaped, and he never discouraged any of his “preacher boys” from getting an education. He was never arrogant, and I wish I could sound as certain while being so humble. God made him what he was, and I think the Lord knew what he was doing.

I have heard stories of a family member who came back from university with questions about evolution, and my uncle’s answers didn’t satisfy. If true, while unfortunate, it doesn’ t surprise me. He counseled trust in scripture, not in science. That was the man. He could not understand why anyone would let go of the certainties of the Word of God for the speculations of evolution. If this kind of simplicity is a fault, it was a fault born of his conviction that God had spoken truthfully, and when he preached, he was speaking the truth of God. In a burst of enthusiasm, I once heard him say that the Bible was also the “Word of God in heaven,” almost a fourth member of the Godhead. It sounded odd, but I understand what he mean and what such statements meant to him. This book was inspired. Holy. Truthful. Dependable. Sufficient. You could live and die by it. In that sense, yes, he was a fundamentalist, but not a mean-spirited one. He was a simple man convinced he held a miracle in his hands and sure that he spoke God’s words when he preached from an open Bible.

He pastored small churches at first. Fordsville. Blackford. These rural people loved him, and the churches all grew under his leadership. I meet many older people today who hear of my relation to W.O. and tell me that he baptized them, and that he was their favorite pastor. He was a charismatic young preacher, with a beautiful, adoring wife, and no children. He made every church feel they had the best pastor in the world, and that God would fill their churches with converts if they loved one another, witnessed, worked and prayed.

God would not leave the mountain boy in the country. He had another place in mind. My uncle was destined to be a man who would touch the life of my hometown, and thousands of people in that community.

In the 50’s he came to a midwestern city, Owensboro, Kentucky, to pastor the Hall Street Baptist Church, a good sized congregation in middle class neighborhoods near the hospital. Within 15 years, the church would be close to a thousand attenders, and a new, beautiful sanctuary would face the larger street on the other side of the block. From that pulpit, he preached and ministered like no other pastor in the city. Hall Street would have become a mega-church, but the neighborhood would become inner city and other churches would move to the suburbs to take in the baby boomers and their children. Hall Street remains today, a congregation convinced God wants them in the city, and I believe that vision of a lighthouse church in the midst of a blue-collar, even declining community, was my uncle’s vision like it was Spurgeon’s vision for the Tabernacle.

My uncle would pastor Hall Street for 25 years, in two seperate pastorates. In those years, my life was shaped definatively, and there was never a day that his ministry in that church was not part of my world. For thousands of other people, he was a pastor, an evangelist and a caring, loving presence in the name of Jesus. Today, the body of Christ in that community, and many other places, owes much to all that happened in and through that church.

He had a philosophy of ministry. He believed in simple things, and simple things only. Worship was singing, praying, giving, preaching and the all important invitation. It was not entertainment. He had little patience with soloists or worship leaders grabbing too much attention. Preaching was the center of worship. Evangelism was the center of preaching. The invitation was the focus of every message. A church without an invitation was not a church, in his opinion. The pastor got his message from God; from spending time in prayer and time in the study. Not from books or outlines, but from the living God who gathered and created the church. You felt this urgency and presence with every message. His preaching was not polished or organized, but it was deep, personal, spiritual, intense, pleading, loud and strongly applied. You left the church feeling God had been with the preacher all week, and you had been with God the last 40 minutes.

For all the years he preached and led us, we feasted like no other congregation. To have been there, was to know that something special was happening. I can still recall the excitement of every invitation; the expectation that God was speaking to someone, and someone would respond. He would stand at the front, waiting, representing the God who had spoken to us, and waiting to rejoice, pray and weep with those who came.

There were absolutely no jokes in his sermons. Ever. I do not recall any stories. He was no friend of entertainment oriented preachers. Preaching was serious business. The preacher was engaging in “the foolishness of preaching,” a phrase he used over and over. He was always thorough with the truths of the Gospel: God, Creation, Sin, the Cross, Repentance, Faith. He believed that Christians were to be evangelists and soul-winners. Every Thursday night he went out visiting evangelistic prospects. I am sure he often went alone. He believed in humbly, quietly, kindly, sharing the Gospel all the time. He always told us that to be saved was to also desire the salvation of others. He knew what it was to be “burdened” for others, and though he was Arminian to the core, he prayed for a sovereign God to save the lost for His glory. His greatest joy was to see people come to Christ every week. Like Paul, his conversions were his “letter of recommendation.”

He believed in Sunday School visitiation, pastoral visitation, hospital visitation, shut in visitation and funeral visitation. I can assure you that the abandonment of pastoral care by the young “Purpose Driven” pastors of our denomination would not have impressed him at all, even if the cause was commitment to church growth. Pastoral care was his constant field for evangelizing the hurting and encouraging the body of Christ. He was welcome in every home, and was at ease in his presence if not in all his words. He knew who he represented, and he knew Christ would use him. He was no polished pastoral counselor, being quite awkward in personal conversations, and often rather nervous one on one. But he never shirked or neglected the opportunity to be in the hospitals praying, in the homes of the sick, in the nursing homes and in the funeral homes. He saw his shut ins weekly. He visited the widows and the poor. I stand deeply convicted in the shadow of this great shepherd. I cannot look at myself and say I am a pastor when I think of the thousands upon thousands of visits he made in the name of Christ.

He did not care about numbers and promotions. There were no gimmicks and no nonsense. He had no ambitions for himself. He was the pastor, and that was all the glory and recognition he needed. He loved the ministry. He loved being the pastor, and he loved being an ambassador for Christ announcing the good news of reconciliation. If he ever was looking to move to another church, I would be stunned. When he moved, it was because churches came to him, and he was convinced God was in it, but when he was there- as he was at Hall Street- there was never a thought of being anywhere else.

He was my uncle and not just my pastor. When our family went through tough times, he was there as a strong presence to remind me of God’s love. He was concerned for my soul. He took the time to witness to me. Many times. I now realize that his love for me and his love for Christ never took away the nervous shaking in his voice when he would tell me the Gospel and share with me my need to be saved. And when I finally professed Christ, was baptized and later “surrendered” to preach, he did not conceal his delight. He never showed favoritism- there were seven of us in ministry at the time I began- but he always found ways to tell me how proud he was of me. In a life that had to deal with the mental illness of my father, this was a great and important gift. Did my whole desire to be a “preacher” come from a desire to be like him? It doesn’t matter, and if it were the case, I can think of no better ambition. He was the perfect balance of an uncle and a pastor.

He was there Sunday mornings, Sunday nights and Wednesday nights. On Wednesdays, when we had prayer time, he would kneel behind the pulpit. For years, I had no idea where he was. It wasn’t a show. He believed kneeling was the best way to pray, and he was unashamed to kneel or to weep in prayer. He had a tiny office, that I never saw him in. He loved the church, but he was always either visiting someone who couldn’t come, or evangelizing someone who needed to come. In between, he showed up and preached. It was simple, but it was pastoring.

He had no latest plan from Nashville. He would not have done 40 Days of anything just because it was the fad of the times. He believed the church was a mission station, and that preaching, teaching, visitation, prayer and evangelism were the program. It was all in the Bible, and a called man could see it and would do it. Anything else that happened at our church- including a huge youth program- happened, I believe, totally without his concern or direct involvement, because he just didn’t see the need of anything beyond the basics. He wouldn’t oppose it, but it was mostly fluff, in his view. We had leagues and gospel sings and youth choirs. He was uncomfortable with it all. He believed in the main thing. The only tension I ever felt in the congregation was when one church leader wanted to promote some new program and criticized the pastor for not being more supportive. You could have heard a pin drop. It was like bad mouthing the pope for not replacing mass with puppets.

He was unique, but he also had his quirks and he wasn’t perfect. He wore a suit and tie at all times, to the point of legend. I once saw him mowing in a shirt and tie. He walked for exercise in a shirt and tie. Why the formality? I don’t know, since he wasn’t raised like that in the mountains. I believe he had an idea that the pastor was special and different. It was like a priest’s collar. It was simply his way of saying he belonged to Christ and to the church, and that he never took a break from that identity. Only when he was hunting, fishing or perhaps watching football did he take off that tie.

He always drove a big Buick and he didn’t mind having nice things. People were generous to him, and while he wasn’t materialistic, he wasn’t afraid for his wife or his house to have nice things. Some people talked about that, but he never seemed uneasy with the blessing of God or the love of people. He was a kidder and a teaser, but if your humor strayed into inappropriate areas, his eyes would shame you in a second. He might seem too serious, too intense for some people, especially if they had never been around this kind of preaching. He could react in odd ways. I was once travelling with him and wished that a few weeks would pass by so my 16th birthday would arrive. He became visibly upset and warned me never to wish away a day of my life. It disturbed me at the time, though now I realize that he wanted me to live every day with a sense of the purpose of God for that day. He could get very loud and hard to understand in his later preaching, and sometimes he seemed to lose himself in a message that only he understood. He was a Landmark Baptist, and he spent a lot of time preaching against alcohol. He was totally devoted to the King James Version. All these things together, doubled and tripled, amount to nothing in the overall character of the man. He was human, but he was filled with Christ. Christ fit him well, and I am reminded that God made us for himself. I never met anyone who didn’t like him because I never met anyone who didn’t recognize Christ in him, and the devotion the inspired among his church members lasts to this day.

He incessantly, constantly preached on love. It was his primary application of every text. Again and again, he would return to love of one another and love of the lost as the great manifestations of the Christian life. If there were problems in families or deadness in the church, he did not hesitate to preach directly to the need for Christians to actively love one another. He believed that the Spirit of God longed for the love of God to be made real in the life and witness of Christians His own life was full of love, tenderness and kindness. When I last saw him, he raised his arms to greet me, knowing he was loved and determined to show that he loved me. With very little left of his human faculties, he still overflowed with love.

Pastors like W.O.Spencer are still around, I suppose. I just don’t meet them or hear about them. Instead, I meet and hear from men who don’t love preaching, trust in gimmicks, follow celebrities and see the church as a business. They have no depth, and they measure themselves by polls and numbers. They are obsessed with success in their work, yet most of the work of the pastor is abhorrent to them if it isn’t directly related to church growth.

At W.O.’s funeral, there was a full row of his pastoral peers. Older men mostly. Pastors like himself, with his values and vision, but men who knew he was a master shepherd and a true undershepherd of Jesus.

Today’s wisdom says that my uncle’s ministry was simply the product of a highly Christianized Bible belt society where everyone went to church. According to these experts, he had it easy, because everyone already agreed with the Christian message before he ever said a word. His church and his preaching were just a manifestation of the social conditions and the times, not of the man. Today, skilled entrepreneurial church growth oriented pastors know how to communicate with the cynical postmoderns that won’t come near the traditional church.

This is patently ridiculous.

I think my uncle’s ministry was a manifestation of the basics of pastoral ministry that are rarely seen today. He was a spiritual man, a simple man, a man committed to preaching; committed to the church, evangelism and being present in the lives of his people. He studied, prayed, visited and proclaimed. His marriage showed all who looked at it what it meant to delight in your wife and how to love her as Christ loved the church. His constant love for the lost and for the flock reminded us all of what “spirituality” looks like at the bottom line. His devotion to evangelism was a constant illustration of what it meant to not waste your life, but to live as a dying man ministering to dying men.

My uncle wasn’t a saint in the exclusive sense of the word. He was a pastor. He was a saved man. A spiritual man. A shepherd and a seeker of lost sheep. A praying man. A zealous man. A man transformed by the love of Christ, a sign of Christ in this world and a gift of Christ to his church. I honor his memory, and I hope I can approach, even at a great distance, the example he left behind.

There were many times, I didn’t know where my uncle stopped, and Jesus started. I know I wasn’t alone in that. I believe, in the end, that’s how it all finally ended. My uncle stopped, and Jesus just kept going.

As we were preparing to go from the funeral home to the church, the funeral director, an old friend of my uncle’s, met with the pallbearers, including me. He said we would be carrying the casket up the front steps, and it would be a steep climb. I asked if there were a ramp, and he said yes, but that the ramp went to the back door. And then he said something that will stay with me the rest of my life.

“He came in the back door for 25 years. Today it’s the front door for him.”

W.O. Spencer was a man who came in the back door for 25 years. He was the pastor, the servant, the shepherd. The first man there and the last one home. The one who paid the price for a church to be an outpost of the Kingdom, for people to hear the Gospel and for the Bible to be preached. We took him in and out the front door that day, and as we took him out of the church he loved, I was aware of the passing of time, the shallowness of all that was around me, and the lack of passionate focus in my own life.

Looking at a whole life, completed, is an odd thing. There is a beauty about it that you cannot see in the life of any living person, no matter who they are. And in contemplating my uncle’s life, I realized something. Something, like him, profound and simple, but now obvious and certain.

You see, everything he believed, he lived.

Everything he believed, he lived. Such beauty is, for me, still only a hope. God help me to make it a reality.

From time to time, people tell me I look like my uncle. I tell them thanks, but I want to say “No, I don’t. Not at all. Not at all.”

Comments

  1. Thanks for putting into words all that I wish I could say about our Uncle Offutt. There is a certain wonder in reflecting on the heritage he has given our family and my ministry. Sometimes, when I find myself swimming upstream against the tide of pragmatism and programming so prevalent in the church, I think about my uncle. And I have begun to wonder if perhaps his very heart for pastoring a people has shaped my own DNA as a pastor–long before I knew I was called to be one. There was something inescapable about the sense of being “called” that he embodied in a unique way.
    I remember dating a girl in high school and bringing her to church with me. Her response after the service was to laugh with delight and say ” he looked like a king sitting up there.”– and she wanted to meet him. She simply meant that my uncle carried himself with a certainty and dignity that was magnetic. But I think it was the love she saw…
    Although my minstry is now far away, and I had not seen him in many years, I was shaped by W.O. And so his legacy in heaven is to delight to see–really see– the lingering impact of his minstry across time and around the world.
    Thanks again…

  2. I may not have known your uncle, but reading your essay about his life has made me see some of the dead wood in mine.

  3. This is a beautifully written story. Very inspiring and encouraging. Thank you!

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