At our next Gathering, on Saturday, February 25th, 11 AM, our Presbytery has the privilege of hearing Dr. Pannell speak on the topic of “Living Joyfully in a Divided World” at San Clemente Presbyterian Church. I have no doubt you will hear a number of my favorite phrases from him including, “Can I get an Amen?” and “Mercy” but, even more so, I expect we shall be playfully and provocatively challenged from God’s Word to advance the mission of Christ with warm hearts and contagious joy.
I first met Dr. Pannell at Fuller Seminary many years ago. Six of us huddled around a table in a remote corner of the campus. We all signed up for the class but all worried aloud that somehow we each must have been admitted by mistake. That’s when Dr. William Pannell arrived wearing a stylish newsboy cap. He took out a few papers from a leather satchel and found his seat at the head of the table. His opening words caught me by surprise. He said, “So why is this class called Advanced Preaching? If you signed up then you might think you have to be an advanced preacher. As I look around this table, I know that’s probably not true.” Pointing to a spot on the table just in front of him he continued, “Here’s what I want to happen in the weeks ahead. Your preaching needs to go from here to here.” His finger moved an inch or two at most. “If you make forward progress, that’s advanced preaching.” And then he paused to look us each in the eye and in a melody that marks the beauty of African American preaching he roared, “Can I get an ‘Amen’?” And so began a relationship that has nurtured and challenged my ministry for more than 20 years.
These opening words put our class at ease but his playful and provocative style kept us on our toes for the next quarter. We were stretching to become the preachers we believed God was calling us to be. Dr. Pannell prodded and pushed us forward. The starting point was his genuine affection for us. He cared for his students but he also challenged us to approach the Scriptures with integrity. He once offered this feedback to a fellow student, “That was a lovely sermon. Too bad it didn’t have anything to do with that passage of Scripture.” As you can imagine, his words prompted a lively discussion (thankfully it wasn’t said to me). In the years since I’ve often reflected on his comment during my own sermon preparation. I try to avoid lovely sermons that offer nothing more than my own ideas. I believe my call is to invite the congregation to respond to God’s Word so that together we might learn to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). With a rare combination of warmth, wit and wisdom, Dr. Pannell helped our small class advance in that direction.
Can I get an Amen?