ON HEARING FRED CRADDOCK
[On the occasion of what would have been Fred Craddock’s 92nd birthday, I’m posting a selection from next book, LOVE ALL WAYS, forthcoming in late 2020/early 2021.]
Before I ever read his books or even met him, I heard Fred Craddock. Not in a worship service or at a church convention or at a preacher’s workshop. No, I heard him first on tapes. Cassette tapes. Some originated from the Thesis Theological Cassette series which were comfortably confined within the deep recesses of the divinity school library. Others came from friends who implored “Listen to this!”
I had been stupidly arrogant and mischievously opportunistic with the loosey-goosey arrangements of the divinity school curriculum at the time and had “forgotten” to take any practical homiletics course during my three years of preparation for pastoral ministry. Thus, after graduation, when I found myself having to prepare weekly sermons for a small group of the faithful at a Disciples congregation in East Nashville, I was reading my eyeballs out and listening my ears off to catch up with what my classmates already had taken in.
So I met Fred Craddock on tapes. And how salvific those tapes were. Not merely because they were saturated with inspiring stories (from his childhood, his early pastorates, his academic compeers, and his encounters with students) and not simply because they were laced with extraordinary interpretations of scripture. No, there was something else in those tapes, something that Howard Thurman might have called “the sound of the genuine.”
There was in those tapes the sound of a personable preacher, a faithful follower of Christ’s way, who listened with such intensity, such creativity, such authenticity to the call of the gospel and the lilt of God’s presence in all of life, that one was compelled to begin listening in a similar fashion.
As my familiarity with Fred Craddock grew – through reading his books, through hearing him preach at Regional and General Assemblies of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), through countless discussions with professors and other preachers about the homiletical revolution he set in motion with his emphasis on inductive preaching, and through listening to yet still more tapes and cds – so did my appreciation for the depth of his faith.
The initial oral introduction was transformed eventually into an epistolary connection. Once, while doing research for a sermon series on I Corinthians 13, I wrote to Fred Craddock to see if I was on the right track in my focus on the fascinating rhetoric and seemingly exemplary persuasiveness of Frederick Robertson, the 19th century divine and a brand new source of inspiration for me at the time.
His response to my letter was what I would later come to understand as “vintage Craddock”: “You have stumbled upon the person whom I consider the greatest preacher in the English language.” Again I heard him and this time on a more profound level. “Stumbled upon….” With those humbling, chastening words, he was challenging me to go deeper and broader and with a more thorough scope of the possibilities of preaching and preaching well. His esteeming of Robertson as “the greatest preacher in the English language” disclosed that great preachers are always and ever students of the art and craft of proclamation and that great preachers themselves have homiletical heroes whom they believe are the “greatest.”
In time Fred Craddock and I would become friends. I can’t remember the exact “first time” he came to preach at Community Christian Church in Kansas City, Missouri. But I do remember that I kept asking him back, and he kept accepting the invitations. Several of the occasions were for what we called “Spirit Fests,” since we were too progressive as a congregation (and the pastor too presumptuously elitist) ever to call a special three-day preaching series a “revival.” In all of the occasions, it was a delight to be in the presence of someone who possessed such natural, disarming humility and such obvious loyalty to the gospel and the Church Universal. In all of those dear occasions, one could also hear his “high” ecclesiology, that is, his reverence for the Church’s perduring, though not unsullied, history of embodying the grace of God. While he likely would not have been comfortable with a description of himself as “a high churchman,” he obviously had a “high” view of Church as a dependable vessel for the transmission of love, care, and empowerment.
I do remember one of the last times Fred Craddock spoke at Community, during a special service honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., “Requiem for a King.” In that occasion—which included a presentation by Rev. Emanuel Cleaver II on “King the Prophet” – Dr. Craddock inspired an enraptured congregation with his insights about “King, the Preacher” and what he heard in King’s extraordinary sermons and public addresses. In his declension of King’s essence as an “African-American Baptist preacher,” Craddock spoke powerfully about the African-American rootage of King’s oratory. He spoke winsomely, too, about King as a preacher above and beyond any other identity: “Not every venue in which King spoke was an actual religious edifice, but after he spoke there it had become a sanctuary.” And he also unveiled his understanding of King’s Baptist theology when he said that every address, speech, lecture, and sermon by King always contained “an altar call.” In all of his civil rights efforts, Craddock went on to conclude, King issued “an altar call…. to save the soul of America.” In that conclusion Craddock revealed astute, razor-sharp scholarship and his keen listening ear regarding the famed organization which King founded, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference whose stated mission was “To Save the Soul of America.”
In time I would no longer call him “Fred Craddock, “or “Dr. Craddock,” or “Professor Craddock,” but simply “Fred,” just as countless others would. By the time this personal familiarity had been reached, Fred and I were talking a lot about prayer. Like untold legions of appreciative others, I came to pray after Fred’s example, employing his daily recitative: “Gracious God, we are grateful for a way of life and work that is more important than how we feel about it on any given day.”
It was in the arena of prayer practices and spiritual disciplines that I heard Fred anew, with a still deeper plumbing of the verities of the Christian path and the core essentials of authentic faith.
There was in Fred’s demeanor and theological expressions a hesitancy to invoke the supernatural (what might even be called the “magical”) power of God, even in service of someone else’s benefit. Rather, Fred’s encounters with God were moments of waiting, discovery, always leading to gratitude.
In an extended phone conversation, Fred spoke freely and forthrightly about his personal prayer disciplines. It was a rare and true blessing to hear Fred reveal his heart-anchored grasp of prayer and the disciplining of one’s mind and soul: “Sometimes my study moves into prayer – at the moment of discovery. Not that I petition God for a meaning of a text, but that as the text unfolds, there is a discovery and I offer a prayer, usually a prayer of gratitude for an insight…. I don’t make a lot of petitions for myself in my prayers, though perhaps I really should…. I pray more as an intercessor for others; I have lists of people I pray for regularly…. In my preparation for preaching I set aside Friday afternoon and Saturday for a time of entering into a mood, a meditation mood; I don’t go to parties or to a lot of social events on those days; I’m trying to prepare myself and seeking God’s guidance so that I will be an adequate instrument…. During the week I read in the morning, sometimes moving through a book …. I’ve discovered that I ought to pursue what I naturally resist…. An encounter with Albert Schweitzer altered my approach to scripture…. Hermann Diem, professor of systematic theology, once asked me if I had read Kierkegaard, and I suppose that was a very significant, radical turning point for me…. In the end, I suppose gratitude is the main substance of my prayers, yes, gratitude.” (1)
“In the end … gratitude.” That, I suppose, is –and always will be – the undeniable theological trace at the bottom of the cup, the core essential, the sine qua non of who Fred was and what he offered so generously, what I recall with affection and fondness whenever I remember him, what I cherish most in all that I learned from him and what I heard from him.
“Listen to this!,” friends said, as they shoved a brand new cassette tape of Fred Craddock into my hands long ago. “Listen,” God whispered in my heart, whenever I heard Fred preach, lecture, or talk over a cup of coffee. “Listen and give thanks,” Fred said with his lips and his life. And so I have, and so I do now.
– Bob Hill
[A selection from LOVE ALL WAYS (Caroline Street Press, 2020/1).]
(1) Phone conversation, August 1999.