A copy of Apples, Snakes and Bellyaches was given to me in 1991 while serving as a student missionary in Oregon. I stayed up half the night reading and laughing aloud at thought-provoking poems addressed to children, yet instructive to adults.
This was my first exposure to the writings of Calvin Miller. It would not be my last.
The next year at university, I came across the book The Table of Inwardness. I did not immediately connect the author of this book to the same man who wrote Apples, Snakes and Bellyaches. And why should I? Children’s poetry and Christian mysticism are completely different genres. To this day, Table remains my favorite book. I read it once a year.
Entering Southwestern Seminary, I made it a priority to meet Calvin Miller and take every class he offered, whether or not they were part of my course requirements. Along the way, a friendship was born. The greatest honor Calvin bestowed upon me, besides that of being my mentor, was the opportunity to serve as his research assistant. I learned as much sitting across the desk from Calvin as I did in many of my seminary courses.
It was also a privilege to be part of a small group that met at Calvin’s house on Tuesday nights to read through his final draft of Walking with Saints. There were five students in this group, and every one of us remains in ministry. Statistically, at least two of us should be washed out by now. I believe it was Calvin’s influence that prepared each of us for the trials of ministry.
During my last year of seminary, my research assistant responsibilities (in addition to being a full-time student, part-time pastor, and new husband) seemed overwhelming. One morning I stormed into Calvin’s office. I demanded he move his deadlines or I would be forced to resign. He looked at me with a steady gaze, and quoted Mother Goose: “One foot up, one foot down. That’s the way to London town.”
I stared back blankly. “I have no idea what you just said,” I said. But I did. Calvin’s words were a reminder that even the longest journey is conquered one step at a time. Years later, the two of us laughed at this event and I still draw strength from the truth of that saying.
Calvin authored Letters to a Young Pastor as his final literary contribution. I stand by every word of my endorsement: “We need more mentors who are weathered, not jaded, by the journey of ministry. Calvin Miller honors the centuries-old model of an experienced Paul speaking to a pastoral profession teeming with Timothys.”
A few weeks before his death, I called Calvin seeking his advice one last time. I repeated my appreciation for his leadership and echoed my opinion that The Table of Inwardness is still my favorite among his writings. On a whim, I asked which of his works he most favored. “My Symphony Trilogy,” he said. This trilogy of A Requiem for Love, A Symphony in Sand and An Overture of Light are his best works because (to quote Calvin) “This is my creative best and the gospel presented in its clearest form.”
How can one person possess the gifts necessary to communicate to children, convict adults, and creatively communicate mysticism? Calvin embodied the gifts of Seuss, Milton and Brother Lawrence. But Calvin was much more than the sum of these parts. Calvin was a Christ-follower first and foremost. Calvin was my mentor. Calvin is still my friend. To him, I simply say this: “Calvin, eternity was touched during our two-decade friendship.”
In honor of my friend, I am off to read Symphony Trilogy to see the gospel through Calvin’s creative vision.
Deron Spoo is the lead pastor at First Baptist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Calvin Miller served as a contributing editor for Leadership Journal. As we grieve his loss and reflect on his legacy, we want to highlight some of the wisdom he shared with our readers over years.
Our interview with Miller, "Preaching in Vulgate."
Miller's article on finding the "Best Titles for Sermons."
Miller's article, "Screwtape Targets Leaders."