Lewis B. Smedes

[1] Among the more precious possessions in my study drawer are the notes from the last sermon Lew Smedes ever preached. It was delivered from the pulpit in which I spend most of my Sundays. Lew left his little 5 x 7 sheets in the pulpit, pock marked as they were with a few words here and there scrawled in large print. That’s all his nimble mind ever needed to get a lecture or sermon going. Time and again he proved that elaborate phrases are not required to say great things. A few words were all it took to set the mind of this man in motion and create a torrent of grace-filled ideas for the hearer or reader. If it’s any clue to the well-honed character of his thinking, the first word on these sermon notes is “Non-Negotiable.” The last phrase on the bottom of the final page is “Love: Nothing else is enough.” Tucked between those bookends was a sermon for the ages.

[2] Lew Smedes, longtime professor of Theology and Ethics at Fuller Seminary, was as good as anyone in recent times for taking complex ideas out of the academic cloister and refitting them for meaning in the public marketplace. This large man with a gentle spirit was unafraid of tackling big subjects. His intellectual rigor and pastoral warmth combined in such an eloquent way that he could take “hot button” topics and push the evangelical world right out of its boundaries. In one piece of personal correspondence, when recommending a possible presentation title to me, he tendered the suggestion: “What do you think about: How the Bible Points the Way Through Today’s Moral Mess?” And then, as if to express his vigor for the task, he added, “I could start with the easy stuff like abortion and homosexuality.” He meant what he said.

[3] These topics were “easy stuff” for Smedes. As far as he was concerned they were too personally important and too theologically non-controversial to rank as “tough stuff.” His facility in addressing them was due in large part to his disinterest in certainty and his far greater attachment to the idea of confidence – confidence in the deepest sense of its root meaning: con fide, with faith. Lew Smedes viewed every subject that entered the cultural lexicon and human experience through the lens of faith. The deft way he went about this work was to mix and merge secular ideas with theological language and Christian hope. So he could write, for example, “The sacred trinity of feeling good, looking good, and making good are very good goods, but they make very bad gods. As gods they eventually leave us feeling like spent dreams on the soiled sheets of disenchantment.” This was part of a larger discourse on facing up to the sort of people we want to be inside the people we appear to be.

[4] Much of Smedes’ insights on theology and ethics were forged on the anvil of human suffering. A series of severe personal tests, including the death of his own son “who died before he had lived the whole of a day,” kept Smedes constantly focused on the face of God and invested in the eyes of those he encountered. In one he saw grace embodied; in the other he witnessed grace desired. “Grace is a mysterious power to live as if you know tomorrow will be better than today, even though common sense gives you odds that tomorrow will be the pits … Grace is amazing because it works against the grain of common sense … Realistic common sense tells you that you are too weak, too harassed, too human to change for the better; grace gives you power to send you on the way to being a better person. Plain common sense may tell you that you are caught in a rut of fate or futility; grace promises that you can trust God to have a better tomorrow for you than the day you have made for yourself.”

[5] As I pore over my Lew Smedes’ correspondence file from time to time, I’m struck by the many evidences of grace and humility, which for this man behaved like twins sharing a common identity. They were non-negotiables in his world, indispensable features of meaningful life well lived. In my better moments, I have found the same to be true. Life that is complete with grace and humility, ala Lewis B. Smedes, is a very full life indeed.