Christians Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

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It’s been a very long time since I sat in a classroom in the Old Main building at Abilene Christian University and listened to Dr. Lemoine Lewis lecture on church history.

Dr. Lewis knew whereof he spoke. Harvard-educated and with more knowledge, wisdom, and experience in the tip of his little finger than I had in my whole body, his eyes sort of glazed over as he began telling stories as if he were seeing pictures from another world, though it wasn’t another world he was seeing at all— just another time and another place so real to him that he made them real to us.

It was like he was there, transported back almost two thousand years. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he had indeed been there and seen those things in person. He had been teaching at ACU since several decades before, when my mother and father had been students there (and Mom was 42 when I was born!).

Dr. Lewis must have graded on the most serious curve those halls of learning ever beheld. I always took pages and pages of notes, trying in vain to jot down names and dates but mostly trying to record the stories he told. When I took his tests, I knew for sure I’d failed miserably, yet somehow I always passed.

His tests scared the bejabbers out of me. But his stories enthralled me. I’ll never forget, for example, Dr. Lewis telling us the story of the martyrdom of Polycarp. Polycarp, a student of the Apostle John, later became Bishop of Smyrna.

Old Polycarp could have saved his own physical life simply (simply?) by denying Christ and swearing allegiance to the Roman Emperor, but, faced with that choice, this was his response: “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me wrong; and how can I now blaspheme my King that has saved me?” And he died, burned at the stake. As Dr. Lewis told the story, tears rolled down his cheeks.

I’m pretty sure I deserved to fail that class. The grade was a gift. But the best gift Dr. Lewis gave his students was in helping us connect to giants of our faith that we had never known. He inspired me to search for, to long for, more connection with giants across the centuries, and across oceans, and across denominational divides.

We are no smarter than were the ancient followers of Christ and certainly no more faithful. Only chronological snobbery of the worst ecclesiastical sort coupled with vast ignorance would make us think that Christianity has somehow arrived with our generation, or our denomination, or a group of folks fifty years ago, 200 years ago, 10 or 15 centuries ago, or whenever.

We stand on the shoulders of giants. And whether they’re named Paul, or Polycarp, or Martin Luther, or John Wesley, or . . . toss in many lesser known names of folks who’ve blessed you and lifted you up in your faith. Lemoine Lewis would be on my list. And G. B. Shelburne, Jr., and Joe Harbin, and Tom Langford, and Tennie McCormick, I’m so thankful for the way God has blessed us with their lives and their stories.


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Copyright 2014 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

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