Wednesday, September 28, 2011

In Memoriam Neale Pryor

There is no greater eulogy for a man than those who carry on consciously indebted to his life. In view of this, there is perhaps no man with a greater living memorial than Neale Pryor, who through a profound commitment to teaching and preaching has touched innumerable lives. Those who were fortunate enough to have known him gather today, in body and in spirit, to commit him to the ground for a time and to God forever.

Neale Pryor began preaching at the prodigious age of twelve and dedicated his life to the ministry. His sermons at countless churches, lectureships, university chapels, and Gospel meetings represent a body of biblical wisdom which few preachers can ever hope to match. His plainspoken, unpolished speech was both endearing and affective, giving the impression that you were not being preached at so much as having a candid conversation with a trusted friend. He would walk with you hand-in-hand through the tapestry of Scripture, navigating it by memory and gently guiding you toward the conclusions that a lifetime of study and experience had taught him were right. His preaching was lavishly sprinkled with anecdotes from his life and insights into his character, and so it is perhaps uniquely appropriate to remember him as he revealed himself in his preaching.

In particular, I have in mind a sermon he delivered at a recent Harding University homecoming Sunday before the early service at the College Church of Christ. The aptly titled "Coming Home" addressed in broad strokes the theme of what home was, the universal sentiment of homesickness, and the joy we feel at going home. Yet, as expected, as much as we may be moved by the man's treatment of the theme, we are equally touched by the man who is so self-revelatory, and therefore so self-sacrificial, in his message.

This comes out particularly in his candid humility, whereby he reveals his unashamed humanity. Well advanced in years, he recalls over the course of his sermon what it felt like to be a young man, hundreds of miles from home, in a foreign and unwelcoming place.

I know you would probably be greatly shocked to hear this. I've never confessed this before, so for you this is a first I guess, but my first day here at Harding was not all that much fun. I packed my bags in a '47 Chevrolet--which isn't as old as it would be now but it was old--and putted all the way down here. And I remember getting in to West dorm, one of the Hilton's of those days, there in that little room. And I remember that night, me looking at my roommate, and I said to him, "If I don't feel better tomorrow, I'm going home."

Willing to admit his weaknesses, he was also capable of owning up to his faults. He recounts another story of his early days at Harding when he encountered a new student, alone and clearly unhappy, and befriended him. The two would go on to be lifelong friends. His point is not to revel in the goodness of his action, however, but to lament how out of character it was. He said "it's to my shame" that "I seldom did that," because he can imagine how impoverished his life is for not having been as welcoming as he could. "I wonder how many potential best friends I passed by and never even took the time to say "Hi" to or tell them my name." I cannot express the profound effect it has to see a man who commands such respect and admiration admit his regrets. It has the dual affect of dampening our own feelings of regret and inspiring us not to share in his.

Yet, his own memory of how seldom he reached to people is betrayed by the memory of so many to whom he was so generous with himself. There are, certainly, countless warm and welcoming professors who walk the halls at Harding, but Neale Pryor alone was always Brother Pryor first and Dr. Pryor second. Offering more than just a cordial nod or a compulsory "Hello," he would gladly stop with anyone he passed and ask, "How are you" and leave with, "God bless you, brother." Even though you knew--though his mind was still capable of instantly recalling large passages of Isaiah--that he would have forgotten the conversation before he reached his destination, you were always equally confident that his interest was genuine and his love sincere. Even in the midst of self-deprecating humor, he tells of the night before the sermon was delivered when he offered his time to someone for whom Pryor represented home.

It's so interesting, I had a phone call last night, when I was trying to get this sermon ready and this fellow talked to me for thirty minutes. And I finally said, "Well it was good to talk to you, you know. Call you again some day." You know what he was? He was a former classmate of mine. He had gotten homesick, I guess, and he was calling me all the way from six hundred miles away.

That abundant love overflowed particularly for his wife Treva who he took every opportunity to dote on from the pulpit and the lectern. He probably would have shouted it on street corners if propriety would have permitted. During the course of his sermon, he never missed an opportunity to praise her, even above and beyond token references to what home meant for them. "I remember when we got married and moved to Illinois. And, of course, it was wonderful. Being with Treva is always wonderful, but you don't need me to tell you that. You already know that." Later, he recalls his disappointment at being young and single at Harding: "You know when I was at Harding as a student, I had my own circle of friends. I really didn't need would have been nice if I'd have had a good girlfriend, but the Lord was saving another one for me, so I'll not go into that."

Reflecting on a sermon about home is appropriate for obvious reasons, given the connection to our hope for an eternal home with God. Calling it one of the most beautiful passages in Scripture, Pryor quotes from King James Version of Isaiah 35: "And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." Certainly these words can be a comfort for those who reflect on his death much as they were a comfort for him during life. But the theme of home is more than merely a vehicle for reflecting on eternity. In his sermon, Pryor dedicates more time than anything to the earthly homes we make for ourselves, not disparaging them as transient but encouraging us to embrace and to perfect them. He speaks of the obvious homes we have with our parents and later as adults, perhaps with our spouses and our children. He also speaks of the homes we make in our universities and our churches, through the communities of faith and friendship that we construct. We can understand our homesickness for heaven, if you will, only because we have true homes on earth to long for. They are the places whose foundations are a common love and a common memory which we can never be too far from, no matter where we are.

Near the end of his sermon, Pryor confronts his audience with this: "It makes a great deal of difference to answer the question 'When I die, am I leaving home or am I going home?'" He leaves the question unanswered, hanging ominously in the air. I would like to believe that he would say "Both." While I certainly hope to see Brother Neale Pryor some day beyond this land of parting where the ransomed of God have a home forever, it seems undeniable that he has left a home here on earth, a home full of people who loved him, who were changed by him, and who will never forget him.

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