Last night, one of the people who has shaped me the most passed away of a sudden heart attack. Ken Neller was a Bible professor at Harding University. He was one of the most academically accomplished people I’d met. Everyone knew he was brilliant, but not because he let you know that.
I remember how I was preaching in Chapel on Galatians, and I took him to lunch to talk about it. I remember him talking about the Grace of God in that book, and feeling like I was hearing something that was true in the deepest sense of the word. I remember taking my Greek final and him telling me that my translation reminded him an awful lot of the NIV. I remember him talking about never cheating your family to serve the church. I remember taking his preparations for ministry class (what he called the Marry and Bury class) and him telling us that the Kingdom of God was alive and well today, and we could serve it by these practical ways of serving the local church.
He taught me how to do ministerial finances, how to do weddings and funerals and how to read the Bible. He taught me how to use redaction criticism to write a sermon, but to never say redaction criticism in one. But the greatest lesson he taught me was one that only really makes sense now.
He was teaching us about how each of us have a canon within a canon. That is, everyone who reads the Bible, privileges certain verses over others, and it’s important to acknowledge which passages we lean into. Because, he said, this will affect the way you do ministry and the way you view God.
And that’s when he told us something that has blessed me every since.
He told our class that his hermeneutical center, the verse that meant the most to him was Matthew 25:21. When Jesus tells his people Well done, my good and faithful servant.
And then Dr. Neller teared up.
Which was not what any of us in class saw coming. He wasn’t the crying type, but you could tell that this was embedded deep in his idea of what it meant to serve God and to teach.
And then Dr. Neller went on to tell us that we each had no idea what we were about to step into, the amount of criticism we would face, and the temptation that we would have to be people-pleasers, but that this was not a big enough dream to give our lives for. And then Dr. Neller said this, “When I realized that God was the only one I really wanted to please, I realized what it meant to serve a church.”
I read recently that 94% of college professors said in a survey said that they thought they were “above average” teachers. Dr. Neller would have been in the rare 6%. He blessed me and so many others so much because he had nothing to prove, he was able to say hard and loving things to us because he loved us more than he cared about being thinking he was loving. He was able to serve us and the Kingdom of God so well, because he only cared about the approval of God.
Dr. Neller’s passion was to prepare generations to come behind him. And in so many ways, his influence has just begun.
I want to say thank you to Dr. Neller and to Barbara and Collin and Seth for sharing their lives with so many students for the past two decades. I want to say to Dr. Neller well done. But he was never working to hear that from me.
But I’m pretty sure he finally heard it from the only one he ever hoped to hear it from.