As I have been reflecting about this occasion over the last couple of months, I have noted one of the peculiarities of our human experience. So much of our history is personal. Our histories are continuous in terms of our own experiences from birth to death—though we certainly may have lapses of memory that remove many of the experiences from our consciousness. At new junctures in life, we find our experiences intersecting with new actors on the stage. People enter the stage on which the drama of our lives are being acted out. These people come from off stage, where the history of their off-stage experiences often are unknown to us. As long as the stage lights are on, the interactions, the dialogs, the exchanges, the experiences of togetherness are noted, remembered, celebrated, cherished, and sometimes memorialized. As actors move off the stage, they move out of the spotlights and out of the shared “stage” experiences. Their voices are no longer part of the dialogues. Their lives continue off-stage, out of the common experiences, away from the script of the on-stage dialog.
The imagery I am drawing on is a little unsettling. For any of us to claim a stage on which we act out the core story may seem very egocentric—but in reality, this central consciousness of self is the way most of us live. If other characters only pop on and off the stages that are our lives, they easily become bit-players who exist only to make the main character (ourselves) the star. But all of us know that there are parents, friends, guides, supporters, spouses, encouragers, enablers that have laid the solid foundations upon which we have built our lives; and without even one of these, our lives would have taken different directions or would have suffered from the faulty foundations of self-interest.
I could name six people who played especially supportive roles for me during my Baptist Sunday School Board/LifeWay experiences. These people opened vocational doors for me to come to the Sunday School Board. They affirmed me, my gifts, and my work. They opened the doors for advancement and greater responsibility. They took risks to support, encourage, and even protect me in the changing culture and new directions of a new regime. Max Caldwell was one of those six people; and he himself suffered some of the consequences from which he and others had protected me.
When I entered the stage called the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1978, several main characters were already on stage. Harry Piland had recently become the head of the Sunday School Department, the area that was central in the mission of the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. By coincidence, I was attending a conference in preparation for writing a series of teaching materials for the Adult Life and Work Bible study curriculum when Harry Piland was being elected Director of the Sunday School Department. Coincidently, Harry’s wife, Pat, was at that writers conference and was assigned to write the teaching materials for the very set of lessons that I was writing. Harry and Pat were major actors on the stage of my life as I transitioned from being a professor at Campbell University to becoming a curriculum design editor at the Sunday School Board. By further coincidence (or God’s providence), the manager of the Adult Life and Work section was Ernest Hollaway. Ernest had served as a missionary in Japan; and during the summer between my junior and senior years in college, I visited in his home in Japan as I was traveling to Taiwan as a student summer missionary. The editor who enlisted me to write, Clifford Tharp, had been one of my closest friends in college and seminary.
If God had been preparing me for my transition from college professor to Sunday School Board employee, Harry, Pat, Ernest, and Cliff were central actors on the stage at that time. One of the other major actors, who made his first appearance on the stage from out of the blue, was Max Caldwell. I confess that I have very little knowledge of where Max came from in becoming the director of the Youth-Adult Group at the Sunday School Board. I think Max had been a Sunday School field service consultant. I vaguely remember having a brief interview with him when I visited the Sunday School Board in view of an invitation to accept a position as design editor in the Adult Life and Work Section. Knowing little about the organizational structure at the BSSB, Max was just another new face to me. Later, of course, Max became a central character in developing my role at the Sunday School Board.
A little more than three years after I came to the Sunday School Board, a major organizational change was made in the Youth Sunday School area. Two editorial managers were shifted out of their positions, and the two editorial sections were merged into one section. While I had taught a couple of courses in youth ministry while at Campbell University, I certainly wasn’t a “youthie” by any means; but Max made the decision to move me into the editorial manager position for all Youth Sunday School curriculum materials. Frankly, I think I was chosen to gain managerial experience for an approaching retirement of my Adult Sunday School curriculum manager. Max, however, trusted me with this new level of responsibility; and for the next three years I worked with some wonderful youth specialists like Myrte Veach, Josephine Pile, Judy Wooldridge, Becky Martin, Louis Hanks, Ken Parker, and many others. Of course, behind all of this change, Max was facing critical issues that I’m sure kept him awake at night. As the conservative leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention began to focus on its institutions and agencies, Youth-Adult Sunday School and its leaders, like Max Caldwell, were the focus of many conservative concerns. Some of us were shifted to less visible and less influential positions. Some, I assume, like Max, were given exit packages. It was a difficult time, and the long-term impact generally has been negative for the Sunday School Board—now LifeWay Christian Resources—and also negative for many of its employees. Max was an exquisite example of a Christian servant who suffered humbly and quietly in the face of changes that significantly impacted his life. Unfortunately, those who followed him made choices that have weakened the institution we all sought to grow and strengthen. Today the institution into which we invested our lives is but a shadow of what once was; but the pride of those like Max who invested themselves in the work of serving the churches and seeing them grow and thrive should not be overlooked. Max has now received the final commendation cited in Matthew 25:23: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness.” My hope, for Max, is this: that one of the things for which he has been put in charge in heaven are those 18 holes on the Everlasting Golf Club laid out beside the still waters.
And to Max’s family, I leave this familiar Old Testament blessing:
The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine upon you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)