Gardner Taylor had me in his grip the moment he opened his mouth. I sat in my mother’s bedroom watching her television in a bit of an introvert’s withdrawal from all the family parading through with Christmas greetings. It was the only safe place for an introvert since no one dared into mama’s room.
Yet I didn’t want to be completely alone. I flipped through the television stations, investing only enough mental energy to quickly size up the program and push the up arrow for the next channel. On what must have been the 37th click of the remote (men don’t care what is on; they only care what else is on!) I landed on The Charlie Rose Show. I’d become something of a regular viewer and appreciated the always-intelligent conversations Rose had with his guests.
It was 1999. Christmas was in full swing and Rose was hosting a special Christmas program focused on Jesus. I’d been a Christian for about two years by that point and all things Jesus interested me. I shifted in my mom’s old recliner and strained to hear over the din of visitors as Rose introduced his guests.
I don’t know who else was on that show or even if there was another guest. But I do remember the venerable old man still carrying what we might have considered baby fat in his cheeks had it not been for the folds worn by decades of life.
The first thing I noticed was his bearing. Southern. The old variety, before people made idols of casualness. He was full of politeness with a gentle hint of formality.
Then there were his eyes. They twinkled. Not like you’d imagine St. Nick’s eyes to twinkle, but with the dancing light of someone who really knew what Christmas was about. He smiled a slow wide smile and his eyes flashed like he knew a secret, a secret he’d gladly tell you at just the right time so that your eyes would twinkle too.
I watched Gardner Taylor talk with Charlie Rose like they were old friends, like he’d known Rose’s father and perhaps bounced the younger interlocutor on his knee. He exuded ease.
Yet there was something else that captivated me about Taylor. He was a pastor and preacher. By the time of the interview, he’d retired from a 42-year pastorate at Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York. He was well-weathered and you had the sense that he spoke not from the authority of his own experience, as if all life were measured by his life, but with assurance and authenticity of experience, of a long walk with God in the cool of the day.
Then to hear what he said, or rather how he said it. Effortlessly, like a gazelle bounding through African plains, he moved from one rich phrase to another. The man painted with his tongue. He was eloquent. Not the eloquence Paul warned the Corinthians would rob the cross of power (1 Cor. 1:17), but the eloquence of a man who knew how language worked.
Thus began my appreciation for Dr. Gardner C. Taylor. Sometime later I acquired a copy of his book, We Have This Ministry: The Heart of the Pastor’s Vocation, written with his long-time friend, Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor. Taylor and Proctor stood as towering leaders, thinkers and activists for decades. The two have likely influenced more younger pastors than anyone in their era. This little book distilled much of their wisdom. In aiming at the heart of the ministry, they impacted my heart, a young man who at the time was wrestling with his own sense of call. The two of them were giving me a sense of the nobility of the pastoral vocation.
From there I found a set of The Words of Gardner C. Taylor, a collection of radio addresses, speeches and sermons from 1959. Since the printed page rarely captures the experience of listening to a sermon, I sought to hear him. The Lord gave Dr. Taylor a remarkable way of helping the hearer enter the story and discover inside the narrative more than the bare telling of events. Taylor, at his best, could transport you and then transform you.
A few years ago I had the privilege of reading a festschrift dedicated to Dr. Taylor. One testament to Taylor’s impact could be seen in the sheer number and diversity of persons contributing to the essays on preaching in Our Sufficiency Is of God. The breadth of authors remind us of Taylor’s ability to move between people from differing ethnic backgrounds with as much cultural fluency as he had with the English language. He crossed bridges even when some were marked “segregated” and others “whites only.” He knew the troubling voice of racism but never stopped to listen. As a consequence, he reached people who were never supposed to be touched by him.
When I look back on it, Taylor won me with just a few phrases offered with the mixed signals of shoulder shrug and twinkling eye. Like the time Rose asked him about preparing to preach. Taylor smiled a wide smile and tilted his head as if saying to himself, Here’s a pleasantly curious thing, and then called preparation for Sunday “that sweet torture.” I often think of that phrase when I’m striking the coal of scripture looking for some diamond for God’s people on Sunday morning. It’s said that someone in a homiletics class once asked Taylor how many points should a sermon have, and Taylor with wry smile and southern timing said, “At least one.”
Taylor retired from ministry at Concord in 1990 and moved to Raleigh, NC. For a decade, I lived within a few miles of his home. To this day I regret I didn’t put aside a young man’s timidity and approach this dean of the Black Church and of preaching. I wish I had met with him on his porch and listened to him tell me anything he’d want to tell me. I’m sure he could read the phone book and make me think the poets Wheatley, Hughes, and Cullen lived on his tongue. Taylor lived to be ninety-six, nearly one a century. It may take another century before we see or hear such a preaching gift again.