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Tribute to a Mentor Stanley J. Grenz 1950-2005

A beginning seminary student has many anxieties: am at the right school? Can I handle the graduate level study? What will God do to prepare me for the spiritual ministry of being a pastor? Countless other stressors lie beneath the surface. But on this warm September evening in Sioux Falls, S.D. in 1981 my anxiety was specific: Would I pass the Greek qualifying exam in the morning? I asked Dr. Stanley J. Grenz, the newly minted professor of theology who was setting up books in his office. He pulled a study grammar off the shelf and with pastoral warmth and that trademark smile, he loaned it to me. He reassured me that I would be successful and should have confidence in reviewing what I had already learned.

That was the first of countless assurances that Stan would give me in my journey in ministry over the past twenty-four years. Stan had a unique capacity to bring out the best in others; he loved to see emerging theologians take their first steps towards critical inquiry and independent thinking. He relished in the successes of those he mentored and he was constantly pushing his students to deeper reflection on God’s purposes in the world. He loved the Church; and he taught us to participate in the pioneer community of God. He was passionate about doing theology; and he taught us to pay attention to the contours of the inner life of God the Trinity. He was devoted to his vocation as a scholar and a teacher and we benefited from his erudition, his contemplation and his constant reflection on the shape of theology in the postmodern context.

It’s hard to put into words the meaning of a friendship like this. During an intense racquetball game in my second year of Seminary, I almost put out his eye; when he forgave me I knew our friendship would go far. At my ordination service, Stan Grenz gave the prayer of dedication; some twenty years later, Stan gave the prayer of dedication at my installation service as the Principal of ACTS Seminaries of Trinity Western University. Stan mentored me through all the stages of my academic career – writing letters of reference that would open doors to fulfill my doctoral work; suggesting my name to the Baptist World Alliance Christian Ethics Commission and as a suitable adjunct faculty member to replace him while on sabbatical. Stan believed in his students and took generous risks to make possible their progress in academic. Like other first time authors, Stan walked with me over the last three years on a book project that he believed in and was guiding towards publication.

Stan prayed with me when I was making significant career changes; he offered considered wisdom when the church I was serving as pastor needed a fresh and thoughtful perspective; he stood with me when, time and again, our daughter was in serious medical crisis. He showed me to how to explore the deeper questions. He inspired me and brought out the best in me. He opened me up to what God was doing in the world. I would have missed so much without my mentor.
This week I have begun to name some of the significant lessons learned from Stan
Grenz, as mentor and friend:

  • take risks – but to ensure those risks will honor God
  • make efforts to advance understanding – but keep in step with the Holy Spirit
  • receive criticism with grace – but don’t be governed by your critics
  • discipline your mind – but rely on the wisdom that comes from above
  • pursue excellence in everything you do – but walk humbly with your God
  • stay grounded in reality, but live with an eternal perspective
  • don’t do ‘whatever it takes’ but do whatever God asks
  • study the theology of prayer but don’t forget to pray
  • pursue the unique path of your life, but stay connected to the wisdom of the community

Parker Palmer reminds us that the season of ‘winter’ in life is ‘the most dismaying season of all’. The loss of a loved one is a cold and cruel winter. He speaks about how such winters of the soul move us to rely on a deeper grace that our ‘mentors’ in the spiritual taught us about. His words capture my own sense of what Stan’s sudden death means to me: “When my [mentor] was alive, I confused the teaching with the teacher. My teacher is gone now, but the grace is still there – and my clarity about that fact has allowed his teaching to take deeper root in me. Winter clears the landscape, however brutally, giving us a chance to see ourselves and each other more clearly, to see the very ground of our being.”

It is too early to process what Stan really meant to me. I don’t know why we laughed so hard when we were together but that laughter comforts me in a very deep place now. I don’t know why we confided our searching to each other but those holy moments of sharing and prayer ground me now in the reality of the infinite community of God. I don’t know why our lives were woven together in so many ways, but I am strengthened in the inner person by ‘ruthless trust’ in the future he articulated so well. I don’t know why God called him home in this terrible way but I am inspired to imitate the pattern of a life well lived. I don’t know why we have to grapple with the tragic moments of brain aneurysms, but I remain inspired by the vision he had of our certain future life with God.

This vision of our future with God was most tenderly expressed to my daughter Chelsey last February where she was recovering from a severe lung collapse in ICU. Having been prompted by me days earlier, Chelsey lowered the oxygen mask that was helping her inflate her lungs and asked softly, “What’s the eschaton?” You will recognize that Stan was seldom caught off guard with questions of theology. This was an exception. Realizing the sacred opportunity, he leaned in and explained tenderly, “The eschaton is the certain coming day when God himself will be with His people. God will fulfill all of His promises to us. God will live right with us and will wipe away every tear from our eyes. And there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” She placed her mask back on her face and nodded with a knowing grin and Stan knew he had just done his best theology ever.

Last Friday was a difficult day and the days following have been days of bewilderment, pangs of sorrow, coming to terms, and grappling for words to express what we glimpse lightly and know so deeply at soul. Edna, Joel, Corrina, on behalf of all of his students and all who benefited from his servant scholarship to the church we have gathered with you today, offering you our love and support for these difficult days. We do not “grieve as those who have no hope” (I Thess. 4:13) but we do indeed “grieve”. For me, today, there is not a single word to say this ache, this agony, this immense, vast sea of loss. Together, as the community of God, we cling to the hope of the resurrection and the certain confidence we share that we will meet again.

I would like to close my tribute with a brief excerpt from the book that Stan and I were working on together on the theme of God and suffering.

"To believe the biblical promises of hope requires a courage to face up to the mystery of suffering itself. It requires a confident assurance that the God who created this world is also the God who also suffers with us in the turmoil and uncertainty of the dark hours of life. The divine call is to share the journey of solidarity with the brokenhearted. As those who carry the name of the biblical God, we are called to walk by faith in the darkest corners of the earth. And we are called to wait for the consummation of creation in the completion of the divine promises. En route to that day, we travel as pilgrims, and as a pilgrim people we engage in the vocation of walking as faithful disciples in a broken world"
- Stan Grenz and Phil Zylla

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