“LIfe is short and we don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those around us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind.” -Henri-Frederic Amiel
Last week, I celebrated my 32nd birthday. Thanks to Facebook, texting, cellphones, a couple of special visitors, it was one of the best I’ve ever had. I am surrounded by the love of my family and the care of my friends. I hope to be as good to them as they are to me. My life is rich and full.
Then, on the day after my birthday, I was reminded again that life is short and we don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those around us. On the day after my birthday, I learned of the passing of one of my mentors, Dr. Paul Simmons.
After I finished college in 2009 I came home and began thinking about going to seminary. One day, my mom said off-handedly, “One of the professors at the Med School used to teach at Southern Seminary. His name is Paul Simmons and his office is just down the hall from mine. Maybe you could talk to him.”
My heart leaped in my chest. A real, live Southern Seminary professor? Right down the hall from your office!? Why didn’t you tell me that before? I had read about Paul Simmons. At the time, people like Paul Simmons were my heroes.
What you may not know is that Southern Seminary, right here in Louisville, was at the heart of one of the most contentious battles in Protestant life in America in the last century. The convention took a much more conservative turn throughout the 1980s and in its wake, presidents of the seminaries, professors and institutional leaders were asked to leave their posts. Most of them were not willing to go down without standing up for themselves and what they believed in.
These were the theologians and scholars and pastors who were willing to plumb the depths of theological exploration. They were unafraid to follow Jesus and their consciences to wherever they might lead. They weren’t boxed in by tired dogmas or binding doctrines. Guided by the Spirit, seeking for God and clinging to Jesus, they inspired generations of Baptists to follow the Way, no matter how risky or bold. And in the face of radical fundamentalism, they stood on their convictions and never wavered. They lost jobs, they lost homes, they lost their way of life. But they stayed true to what they believed was right.
Paul Simmons was right there in the middle of it all. He taught ethics at the seminary and, at the time, he was quite the lightning rod because of his provocative pro-choice stance on abortion. Dr. Simmons believed that the guarantees of academic freedom allowed him to seek truth wherever he might find it. Above all, he believed that the pursuit and the integrity of truth required that seekers be able to see all sides of an issue, to explore them through their own experiences, traditions, reason and holy texts and be able to come to their own conclusions guided by their faith. He clung to the Protestant ideal that “God alone is the judge of conscience.”
After years of dispute with the Board of Trustees, Dr. Simmons left Southern Seminary. He founded a new theological school, the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky, and then was asked to teach medical ethics at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. That’s how he came to be in the office right down the hall from my mothers.
When I first sat down in Dr. Simmons office in the second floor of the Med Center One building off Broadway, I had no idea what to think or what to say. Here was a man whose mind could run circles around mine. But he did not treat me that way at all. I told him that I was considering going to seminary and that I wanted to go to a place where I could learn from people like him.
One of the things that stays with me even now is how serious and stern Dr. Simmons face could be – and then how quickly the corners of his mouth would tilt up in a smile and then he would laugh. It was an infectious, joyful laugh. I remember a smile starting to form on his face and that joyful laugh as he said, “That’s excellent!”
Over the next several months, I met with Dr. Simmons almost weekly. I asked him about Southern Seminary and what it was like to be there. I asked him about people like Bill Leonard and James Dunn and Frank Tupper, people whose names won’t mean much to you unless you are a Baptist of a certain kind. But to me they were giants.
His views challenged me. I asked him hard questions about what the Bible had to say about same-sex relationships and abortion and religious freedom, and more importantly, how could we as Christians best live out the ethics of Jesus on these matters. He never judged me or talked down to me. As I look through my e-mail correspondences with him, he almost always said to me, “You are full of questions. Good! Keep asking them.” And so I did.
Dr. Simmons guided me through my seminary search. He even wrote me letters of recommendation for admissions and for scholarships that would help me get there. More than that, he ignited a spark in me: a desire to seek truth wherever I may find it, an ethic to do whatever was in my power to love my neighbor, and to find joy with those we are fortunate enough to travel alongside through life. I would not be the person I am today had my mother not mentioned to me one day that she knew someone who worked in the office down the hall from hers named Paul Simmons.
To most of Louisville, Dr. Simmons’ passing probably went unnoticed. But there are countless pastors and doctors who have been shaped by his brilliant teaching. And there is one in particular – a young college grad who sat down in his office nine years ago, who asked tough questions and was listened to with kind eyes and a joyful smile – whose life was completely changed by knowing Paul Simmons. Dr. Simmons, thank you for gladdening the hearts of those around you.