Roy Exum: Rankin’s Goodbye To Ben

Sunday, November 3, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Rankin Wilbourne, a marvelous guy who grew up near New Orleans, is today the lead pastor at a huge church in Los Angeles known as Pacific Crossroads Church but it would hardly be a stretch to believe Chattanooga and its people had more to do with his meteor-like success than anywhere he’s ever been.

I first got to know Rankin about 25 years ago when he was still in college and a summer-camp counselor for Dick O’Ferrall at Camp Alpine down in Mentone. He was dynamic even back then and my son, along with the other campers, adored him. After college he became a corporate banker and was good at it but by then his soul had been stirred by Joe Novenson, the sensational Senior Teaching Pastor at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church, and Rankin decided to follow his heart into the ministry.

Unbelievably, his very first job after he graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary was on the staff at Chattanooga’s First Presbyterian Church where he was Minister of Teaching and Missions. Ben Haden, whose funeral was last week, had already retired from the church , which ironically allowed Ben to spend countless hours mentoring Rankin just as he has done with so many others.

So today I am going to turn my pulpit over to Rankin Wilbourne. What you are going to read is from his weekly blog and my prayer is that you’ll enjoy his goodbye as much as I did.

* * *


By Rankin Wilbourne, Lead Pastor

Ben Haden, former Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, died last week at the age of 88. Ben was a beloved preacher with a nationwide television ministry and the best evangelist I ever heard.

He was already retired when I started my pastorate in the same church where he served for over 30 years, but I used every opportunity I could find to spend time in the presence of this great man. For years, I had watched him on television, studied his mannerisms—his looking at his nails, his pauses, the pen in his hand. The pathos. And his trademark lines:

“The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” 
“You say, ‘Ben, but you don’t know what I’ve done.’ You don’t know what I’ve done, my friend.” 
“The woman writes…” 
“Write me today. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Tomorrow letters never get written.”

But I’ll never forget the first time we met. It was my first day and I’d been introduced to the church that morning. I’d politely declined all invitations to Sunday lunch, and was standing alone in the sanctuary when I noticed one solitary individual, standing near the front row.

“You the banker?” Ben asked, referring to my previous career. 
“Why are you here?” 
I was taken aback by the directness of his question. 
I paused and said, “Well, I guess because God called me.” 
Ben asked, “Do you think God can call a man out of the ministry?” 
I said, “Yes, I suppose so.” 
“Do you think He could call you out?” Ben asked. 
“How would you know?” 
And then after a pause, he laughed. Loudly.

That was the first conversation I ever had with Ben Haden, but it captured his boldness. Ben was bold, had a fire in the belly, and he would say things most preachers would never dare. I remember some lines from one of his most famous sermons, “Affliction.”

“Every time you and I see affliction, we ask the same question: ‘Why?’…The most awesome thing of all is that the Lord, in His own Word, and with complete frankness, takes total blame for all affliction. We would rather turn to heredity or mishap or circumstances. We would prefer to lay threats or terror at man’s door rather than at God’s door. And yet God, in His own Word, says, ‘Who maketh the dumb, dumb? Who maketh the blind, blind? Who maketh the deaf, deaf? Who maketh the afflicted, afflicted? Is it not I, the Lord?’

“When you clear away the cobwebs, all the rationalization, all the smokescreen of our thinking, the most difficult thing to stand…is affliction at the hands of the Lord. We are unwilling to leave the unfolding and the explanations and the terms of affliction in the hands of the Lord.”

Ben loved Jesus, and Ben loved people, especially people who didn’t know Jesus. If he were at a gathering, he had little time for “catching up” with people that he knew already knew Jesus. He would gravitate with purposeful direction and personal warmth toward someone he suspected might not know his Lord. How did Ben always know?

Ben had a gift relating to businessmen, who often find pastors impractical or the church unhelpful in the “real world.”  A former lawyer, newspaperman, and CIA operative, Ben related to strong and purposeful men, but Ben could also cry as easily as anybody I ever met.

Most people who knew Ben as the famous television preacher never knew that he was an even better pastor, who served others tirelessly and at all hours and never felt he was above going to the hospital or making personal phone calls. That’s why he was so beloved at First Pres. When the chips were down, Ben was there. He showed up. And he told me, “That’s what people remember. Not your sermons. But were you there when they needed you?”

Many pastors are like undertakers at hospital bedsides: grave and somber. Not Ben. Ben was kind but direct, often smiling, sometimes even laughing, but never inappropriately or flippantly. Ben was a ray of light in people’s darkest hours—the kind of gracious poise in the presence of heartbreaking tragedy that only comes from a deep personal familiarity with grief. This pathos was the secret of his preaching.

Ben was at his best at a funeral. No one could preach a funeral like Ben Haden, and it’s a shame he can’t preach his own. Befitting a former newspaperman, Ben would always “find the line”  on the deceased. Invariably, you’d find yourself saying, “That’s right. That’s what the person was like, but I can’t believe Ben just said that.” Refreshingly honest! Then Ben would weave that personal narrative with just the perfect Scripture verse or story. And always conclude with an evangelistic call to follow Jesus. “People come to a funeral who will never otherwise set foot in a church, but who want to hear something,” he counseled me.

Ben personally led thousands of people to Christ. He had a gift for evangelism, but a lesson I’m still learning from Ben was his fearlessness. Ben loved people, but Ben did not fear people or cater to their approval. He embodied this verse for me: “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).

And I’ll never forget the last thing Ben told me before I left for Los Angeles. We were sitting in his car at the hospital, late one evening. He had been to see Steve Bevil, who was dying, even though Ben had been retired for almost ten years. Ben told me, “Don’t feel you have to pretend that you’re somebody you’re not when you get to Los Angeles. People in Los Angeles can smell a phony as well as people in Tennessee.” And then his final words to me. His final sermon. “And don’t be ashamed of Jesus.” I’ve never forgotten that and think of it almost every day. “Don’t be ashamed of Jesus.”

A fitting epitaph for a great man who only wanted others to know how great another man is. Ben often ended his sermons with, “What a Christ!” And now Ben is saying that to the very face of the One of whom he always spoke. Ben Haden will be missed.

* * *

If you are ever in Los Angeles, Rankin would love to have you visit Pacific Crossroads Church and remember to say hello to former Chattanoogan, Hannah Franklin, who is the church’s top administrator.

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