We have all heard it said: “Children should not die before parents.” And that is most certainly true. Today I’m thinking that “the protégé should not die before the mentor.” Let me explain.
A young man named Kevin Collins came to an event at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church when I was the interim president of Knox Theological Seminary. I was seated at a table in the cafeteria of the church. Kevin came over. He was a long, tall Tennessean whose accent betrayed him as much as old Peter’s Galilean dialect. Kevin asked if he could talk with me. “Pull up a chair, Kevin,” I smiled and scooted over to make room. This East Tennessee boy began to tell me his life story. He was a salesman for the Bryan Foods Company. “Flavor of the South,” he announced with that beaming, playful Southern sing-song way which could often stretch even the most resistant mono-syllabic words into three. I told him that I, too, was once a salesman. That revelation caused him to break into (obviously well-rehearsed and often-repeated) salesman “war stories.” Non-sequiturs abounded as he moved from the subjects of Calvinism, UT football, jokes, and intentional hints at a testimony. It didn’t take too long for me to figure out this University of Tennessee Volunteer was a real “piece of work.” But after talking about his background in sales and my background, after that cultural dance and “ancient” linguistic code that Walker Percy used to write about when two Southerners first meet, unknown to others and mostly unknown to each other, Kevin cut to the chase. “Do you think God would call a man like me to pastoral ministry?” I looked right into Kevin‘s eyes and I replied, “Well, has he? And who is ‘a man like me’?” The two questions apparently jolted him instantly into the inner world of call and fear, clarity and cloudiness, certainty and doubt where the Tennessean had been existing. Kevin just moved his head up-and-down very slowly as if in the presence of a burning bush or standing on holy ground. Kevin asked me that question because of the pain of his past, mistakes that he had made as a young man, and a general feeling of unworthiness. He told me his family story; the death of his father, who was an older man when he was born; rocky relationships, another death of an infant, and some crumbled covenants. But he had heard Dr. Kennedy preach on Ephesians 2:8,9. Kevin began to see a Christ-centered framework of grace he had never known before. Dr. Kennedy’s Preaching led Kevin to Dr. R.C. Sproul’s writing. And that journey eventually led him to take a four-hour detour from a sales-call to be with me on that pretty spring Fort Lauderdale day. I listened. I could relate. In fact, Kevin and I could relate on a number of levels. We had a very good meeting at that table. We prayed. We got up and parted. And the meeting lasted for the rest of our lives. That meeting ended this morning.
Kevin not only went to Knox Theological Seminary and graduated with honors, but he became my associate minister in church planting apprentice at Kirk O’ the Isles in Savannah Georgia, in the Skidaway Island area south of the city. He was ordained there under the auspices of the Central Georgia Presbytery. I officiated the service and was joined by his professor and mine, the late Dr. Robert L Reymond. That service happened at Whitefield Chapel at the Bethesda Home For Boys. That was a good place for Kevin‘s ordination. Kevin, like George Whitefield, was really an evangelist. And he was able to speak to others out of the joyful transformative work that Jesus Christ had done in his own life. He knew the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Kevin Collins gloried in that Grace. I have never had a more diligent associate minister for outreach. If you knew him you knew that Kevin never met a stranger. And it was not an uncommon sight to see Kevin‘s head bowed, sometimes even holding the hand of the blessed fellow next to him, as they prayed for that man to receive Christ. Of course, with Kevin, there was usually a Chick-fil-A chicken biscuit in front of him. When the praying stopped the chicken biscuit started. We sent Kevin to plant a church and he did. The First Presbyterian Church of Pooler, Georgia was founded by the Reverend Dr. Kevin Collins, then associate minister at Kirk O’ the Isles. It was at that time that I was called as senior minister of my beloved First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga. During that interim season at Kirk O’ the Isles, Kevin picked up “the slack.” He sought to shepherd the newly formed pulpit committee at the same time he was planting a new church. He also did quite a lot of preaching at both churches. He came to my inauguration as senior pastor at First Presbyterian of Chattanooga. He told me, “I asked you to be my mentor, but I didn’t think you would do it this way!“ I told him that sometimes the Lord does things that we don’t expect to become the people we never imagined. I guess I learned that all over again today.
I received the telephone call from Mr. Brad Tisdale, the Chief Operating Officer of Reformed Theological Seminary. I let it ring unanswered thinking it to be an unwanted solicitation. When the same telephone number appeared within seconds I knew it was something more. Brad was very tender and very pastoral with me. He knew the news would land a solid blow. It did. Brad told me that Kevin died in a car accident, apparently the result of a sudden and deadly heart attack. Kevin had been working out in the gym. He was on his way home. Knowing Kevin, I suspect he was already planning for his next trip for the seminary. Or, was he in prayer? I imagine all of the above.
But let me not get ahead of myself.
When I was at First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga Kevin accepted a call to the PCA church at Hopewell, Virginia (there were two PCA churches there; Kevin was called to the larger one). Once again, I was privileged to have shared in another milestone ministry moment in Kevin‘s life. Mae and John Michael and I made the trip up to Virginia. What a wonderful day that was. I preached the installation sermon. Afterwards, in the fellowship hall, I watched Kevin and the People. I liked what I saw. Kevin’s pastoral ministry in that sweet, hard-working, blue-collar community was marked by Kevin’s love of the Reformed faith, the Reformed liturgy, and his vision to see souls saved and lives transformed. That combination is a beautiful convergence of worship and evangelism, reverence and joy, dignity and humility. I was honored to have been called on several times by Kevin and the Session to come to Hopewell and preach. Once I led a retreat for the officers. There were challenges. There always are. Those were difficult days in Hopewell, Virginia prior to the expansion of nearby Fort Lee. The economy was as bad as anyone could recall. Families suffered. Yet, under Kevin‘s capable and prayerful servanthood and as their minister and the community’s “Chaplain,” the church enjoyed a steady stream of visitors. There was a renewal of hope in Hopewell. There was something about that tall Tennessean in a pastoral robe, preaching “like a Baptist,” and teaching like a Presbyterian, that made folks want to come hear. A lot of those folks were younger people, which, it seemed to me from my visits, were in short supply and in urgent need. Kevin had that special touch as both a preacher, liturgist, and evangelist. On top of that he thought Tennessee barbecue could not be beat. He resisted entering the UVA-VA Tech rivalry, reasoning that “these are just small taters folks, and don’t even come close to UT football!” Tennessee “was in a whole ‘nother place altogether.” People grinned because Kevin would offer his “expert” commentary with an Irish Collins twinkle in his eye. The church stabilized. People began to say, “There is a future here.” They began to say, “Pastor Kevin loves us.” Those two things must happen in church revitalization. And it did.
When I was elected to become President – Chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary back in 2007 (I remained at First Presbyterian Chattanooga until February 2008) I saw the need to fill key positions in the RTS system. I eventually called Kevin from the Hopewell Church (and I suspect some of those elders are still upset with me — guys, I’m smiling as I write this, because I love you and I know you are hurting and I want you to know that your pastor loved you). Kevin, then, filled an interim pastorate in Mississippi. He loved it there. In fact, I thought I might lose him. He told me that shepherding the flock in Mississippi was healing. “I didn’t expect that,” he added. “But I will never get over these folks. I love ‘em. I just love ‘em.”
I called Kevin to come and serve in any capacity where he could be used. My idea was to hire this gifted young minister who had just completed his Doctor of Ministry degree from Covenant Theological Seminary and let others see what I had seen repeatedly. I knew that “the cream always rises to the top.” Kevin started in admissions at our Orlando campus. He was there, still waiting for his future assignment, when my medical retirement came way too soon for both of us. That was spring 2013. But I did not need to be around for “the cream to rise.” He called me when he learned the news that the Executive Committee had made the decision to grant a “compassionate retirement.” Kev “put on” his finest East Tennessee dialect (and poor grammar) just to make his point: “I can’t believe it! You done left me again, ain’t ‘cha?“ He paused. Then, he laughed. It was one of those male “jabs” that are designed to convey affection. It did. Of course, he was referring to my having left him to preach and to plant a church in Savannah while I went away to First Presbyterian of Chattanooga. Now, I had hired him on and “checked out.” After the inevitable and unavoidable talk about the University of Tennessee football coach, UT football statistics, UT football stories, and and Kevin’s (way too optimistic) forecasts for the season (It did not matter to Kevin whether you appreciated the Tennessee Volunteers; he would just go on talking if you were as interested and invested as he was) he prayed for me. After a post-prayer pause, I got back to his comment about leaving him after hiring him: “Kevin, I don’t need to be here in order for you to be the person God wants you to be. You are on that road already.“ In other words, we both just said the same old things we always said to each other.
In the year since my retirement in 2014, Dr. Kevin Collins was, indeed, given increasing responsibility within the RTS system. Kev would eventually lead all of the admissions for all the campuses as well as the doctor of ministry degree program. Since I try not to stick my nose into Ligon’s (and Brad’s) business, I would suspect, but I don’t know, that he was serving on several committees and filling various other roles for the seminary. He was a hard worker. He had an infectuous joy. He relished life. And I knew that “be-true-to-your-school” East Tennessee sausage salesman-turned-preacher would out work the best of them. He did. It is true. “. . . the cream always rises. . .”
Now, I better hold up right here. My chronology is just a bit off. I will blame that on the illness that afflicts me (yes, I “milk it” as often as possible). Or maybe, what I am about to tell you just deserves to stand alone, outside of the sequential order of events in Kevin‘s life story. A few years back, Kevin called me and announced that he had met the woman he was going to marry. He told me about Candice whom he had known years before as a very young man. Now a single mom with two daughters, she and Kevin were to be married. Candace wasn’t quite sure that Kevin was up for the challenge of an instant family. Kevin never had a second thought. That may be hyperbole. I’m just saying that he never told me anything but I am going forward. Candice was the love of his life and he would do and he would be whatever God, Candace, and those girls needed him to be. Once more, Kevin wanted me to be a part of his life at a milestone in his life. I really wasn’t physically up to going to Knoxville or anywhere else, so I figured Kevin and Candace would get another minister to do the job. But they didn’t. Kevin and Candice —oh, such a beautiful, gracious, sweet, and smart Christian lady — decided to counsel with me with the intention of being married here in Charlotte. They made the trip several times for pre-marital counseling. And “The day” came. They had researched several church facilities for the wedding but had, at length, decided on something different. They would be married in a garden in the forest next to the University of North Carolina. I will never forget walking around in circles wearing my black pastoral robe with a white Army Chaplain stole blowing in the early evening breeze, and Mae, hand-in-hand, running (literally) late (she in her heels) for an “afternoon” wedding, getting lost, wandering through the woods next to the campus of the University of North Carolina, trying to find that dad-gum “garden in the forest!” Before we discovered Kevin and Candace, beautifully arrayed to be married in the majestic “cathedral” of God’s own design, we came upon a nest of baby raccoons, a variety of flying insects—some obviously engaged for war—and a pair of romantically-inclined critters called “freshmen” and “co-eds.” Imagine getting “found” by a clergyman in vestments with the pastor’s wife! On we went. Then, we finally found a little fairy-land bridge erected over a fast-running creek that led to a green meadow now partially covered with evening’s shadows. Kevin and Candice were radiant, waiting to be married. And their’s was a most beautiful and unforgettable wedding. We have the photographs here if you ever come by. What was so obvious to me was that Candace was the woman who could reach the deep places of woundedness that my friend carried. I believe that all wives do that or have the ability to do that. Candace and Kevin said “I do,” and in that covenant-covered moment a new family was born. I would continue to counsel Kevin on learning what it would be to become a friend and a special person in the girls’ lives before he could become ”a father.” I believe those girls witnessed that transformation, and, perhaps, their own. Kevin blessed Candice’s heart by his commitment. She blessed him by her care.
Now, some of you knew Kevin and remember the ”old man” that he battled (i.e., Romans 7:14-20). Naturally, Kevin had his own private heart-ache stories and some of those were so deeply embedded that they gave him pain that could metastasize into personality quirks (and sin). His relationships, especially those closest to him, would see the symptoms without being able to locate the source. But our many years of mentor – protégé relationship had allowed me the privilege — and I absolutely mean “the privilege” — to examine the diseased parts of his spirit. I don’t say that to break pastoral confidences. I’m just telling you that Kevin was a man like I am a man. He was “already and not yet.” He was a redeemed man: “able to sin, able not to sin.” You don’t get through this life without some hits. Some of those incoming projectiles shooting forth out of the vicissitudes of life merely bounce off of us. Those are the times when our “armor” is well-placed. But some of the projectiles hit their mark and lodge deeply within the soft tissue of the human soul. At times, the missile explodes and the shrapnel—residual shreds of painful memories—tears away at the soul before coming to rest in one of the recesses it creates. The shrapnel can stay for a long time. Scar tissue covers some of it. But spiritual nerve-endings remain exposed, ready to recreate the hurtful moment, the desert days, or the sullen season, just like it was yesterday. Sometimes it “works its way out” or is mercifully extracted by the kind hand of our Great Physician. Other times, other people (sometimes we) carry the shrapnel of past-pain all of the days of our lives. When the wound festers it can smell like any other infection. But this kind of foul odor is not discerned with smell. The infected air is, rather, perceived by our other senses. “Look how he acts! So cold. So unfeeling” (Yes, it seems to protect against unbridled rage; and, I’m sorry, but he is “feeling” more than you will ever know); or “She is so nose-in-air” (yes, because it has been rubbed in the dung). When that pain-of-the-past flairs up, well, it metastasizes to the rest of our person. We say things we shouldn’t say. We can become impatient with ourselves if not with others. The gospel of Jesus Christ—the Person of the risen Jesus—soothes. Heals. Think, “Shalom.” The life of Jesus our Lord becomes the essence of the cure, a veritable heavenly steroid that keeps the metaphysical inflammation from creating even more pain or worse, a permanent disability. Kevin not only preached the gospel but he imbibed the gospel like a terminal patient lapping up the miracle holy waters of a cave-concealed shrine. ”Old Kev” and I got to talk about those things throughout our relationship. I saw great growth. I also know that there was enough scar tissue left over—even after the blessing of sweet Candace—for heaven to be the healing home he had always longed for. As I write on the day of his death, I can affirm: this morning when by a merciful glory:
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
I can still hear Kevin’s voice like he was in front of me. “You always ‘mentor me’ by leaving me. Then, you tell me, ‘this is the only way you will ever grow.’”
Oh fallen friend, now, I will have to learn that lesson, too.
[To Kevin‘s wife and girls, to Kevin’s sister and brother-in-law: Mae and I are heartbroken for you. We love you. we loved “Pastor Kevin,” as our John Michael called him as a child. Oh, I pray that the promise of our Savior will now become a perpetual reality until we all see our dear Kevin again: “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever” (John 14:16). And I recite the lines that Kevin knew, words from a sermon, by a fellow preacher, defiant at death’s door, and pointing to the empty tomb:
“Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so . . .
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.”
(Sonnet X, John Donne)]