This weekend we must say a final goodbye to David Adkins. I’ve been working on this goodbye for years, dreading it, avoiding it, running from it, trying to make sense of it. I have thought many times about composing a greeting card for him and his family, but words have failed me over and over and over. What does one say to a mere man who brought the voice of God so vividly, so consistently to an entire community? What is there to say about a dearly beloved pastor who lived richly in God’s Presence, who lavished that Presence on his congregants, and who, according to our human logic, should now be enjoying his retirement years, traveling, writing, being Papa to his grandchildren, hiking, painting, singing, resting from years of nurturing a church and the community around it? David could have served well as a pastor anywhere. With his credentials and expertise, one would think he would have landed in a large city, a huge church, or occupied a position that brought with it great prestige and renown. Instead, he chose to spend nearly his entire adulthood – more than 37 years of his career – pastoring a small church in a small, obscure city in the piedmont of southern Virginia. I believe he literally changed the face of this microcosm as he showed us what living the Kingdom of God is all about.
Since we served together on the same church staff for more than 18 of those years, I have a multitude of “David stories.” Many of them make me smile and laugh almost as much as when they first occurred. All of them are examples of who he was and Who God is in our midst.
Once, when the much of our church family went tent camping together (we took over most of the campsites at Fairystone Park), David offered to take the children on a hike to search for mushrooms. (He was passionate about mushrooms, and was an expert in finding non-toxic ones … and also was quite a chef when cooking them in the kitchen!) When the group returned with their earthy prizes, David challenged them to taste some of their specimens. He took one mushroom, broke it open (like he often did with the communion elements at church), ate a bit of it himself, and then offered it to the unsuspecting children…Too late, they realized that they had been had! That mushroom’s liquid was really bitter and tasted terrible!! Fortunately, I caught the mischief in David’s eyes, avoided this particular communion with nature, and gained a vivid memory of a pastor who lived an ordinary life in an extraordinary way…who understood that the most basic rule of leading any group of people is to love them first, without any reservation. To see in each person the very image of God. To know that God has a wonderful sense of humor and it was okay to laugh with his parishioners like family.
Besides being “Pastor,” David was also an Artist. (I remember asking him once, in the security of the office building, how he dealt with some of the downsides of ministry. He smiled and said, “I have my ways.” I would learn much later that, among other pursuits, he was a very gifted painter…) In the early days of our ministry together, I was asked to play the organ for the wedding of a young couple at the church. After the festivities, I had to return to the church to retrieve a forgotten item. As I re-entered the building, I could hear the organ … someone was playing a Choral Prelude by J.S. Bach! “Who on earth knows how to play such a piece….on the organ, no less….?” I wondered. I peeked in at the organ console, and there sat David! Pastor David!! Without saying a word, I backed out of the sanctuary, knowing instinctively that anyone with enough training to play Bach on a pipe organ would inherently know that I still had much to learn to play that instrument well!
The artistic David brought the Arts into our worship space. He challenged other artists in the church to create banners for all aspects of the church year. Working with other ministers in the church, he often brought graphic, visual arts into our worship space to help us focus on specific aspects of God. David’s creative approach to worship and to life itself tapped into the creative spirit of the congregation, growing us ever deeper into God’s Presence.
From David, I learned that “Ministry” may also be called “Bold Love.” Long before I was called to be a part of this ministry team, I wondered how on earth the church was so very stable. When I took my resume to apply for the organist position, I asked specifically about that stability. The answer to my query was strikingly simple: “David is very bold….” He was so cognizant of his church members that he would go directly to speak with those he understood would be upset by changes the church was considering. There is power in such love…
My most cherished memories of David are couched in those moments when we would stop to chat on the office steps. I struggled often with the demise of the SBC and was often angry with the treatment of professors and anyone else who stood their ground against the heresy inherent in the controversy. Lamenting the slowness of my own family to see the SBC controversy for what it was, I railed one day at being the “black sheep” in my family. In one of the strongest affirmations I ever received, David assured me that I was not off base and that once someone has seen through the façade of religious cultural “rules,” there is no going back. One cannot “unsee” the face nor the touch of God!
As David neared the end of his formal ministry at our church, he pushed for the church to ordain me to the ministry. While the formal recognition felt good, David had always included me as one of his ministry peers. His understanding, wise counsel, and mentoring stood me in good stead throughout most of my own adulthood. He called out the best in all of us!
My earliest memory of both David and his long-term associate, Gerry Robinson, is from a trip we all made together as part of an associational committee. I was new to the area and was serving as Minister to Youth and Children at a sister church at the time. It had rained much of the week before we left, so the shoulders of the roads were soft and muddy. We left town in Starling Avenue’s church van and after a few miles, we all realized that something was the matter with the right rear tire. These two ministers, dressed in their “Go to Meetin’” suits, ended up on hands and knees trying to jack up a van in the mud. I glimpsed that day, long before I was on the same staff as they, the specialness of Starling Avenue Ministers. They were not afraid of the most mundane of chores, determined to take care of those around them, all with a sense of humility and mirth. And therein lies the “secret” with which David Adkins lived his life among us. His love of life, his artistic bent, his humble determination to be at his best all made him stand head and shoulders above the rest. I can almost hear the voice of God saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Welcome home!”
Godspeed, David. You were made of dust and to dust you return. But your spirit is alive and well. Your soul, besides being finally with God, is imbedded in the lives of a church family that loved you dearly.