When we look back at our life story, certain people influence particular chapters. God seems to place the right people in our path at the right time. I count Wesley Smith as one of those people.
Wes was a professor, college president, pastor, mentor and friend to many. My first interaction with him came in the fall of 2007. He taught Greek I at Valley Forge Christian College. We learned the Greek alphabet and began the process of translation. Yet, many of us enjoyed the stories he told during class. Biblical languages provide a firsthand lesson on perseverance. In the midst of all the rabbit trails and translation questions, he helped the Scriptures come alive.
The picture above is of that class in 2007. Many of us kept taking his classes and met with him outside of class. It was common for him to meet with students at the local Italian restaurants. We would grill him with questions and share our frustrations. He handled each and every conversation with calmness and graciousness.
After I graduated from college and started a job in Pennsylvania, we stayed in touch. Both of us had common ground in the city of Binghamton. His Dad actually pastored the church I grew up attending. Since he still had family in the area, he would sometimes ask me to drive him to Binghamton. Each trip included a stop at Little Venice. I thoroughly enjoyed the six hours of conversations in the car. We talked about life, theology, romance, education future, church and higher education.
When I received the news this week of his passing, I began to recount each class and conversation. Wes was always teaching, whether he stood at a podium or when he sat at a table. Here are three lessons I learned from Wes Smith:
1. Embrace the critics, cynics and doubters.
Those of us who entered Professor Smith’s classroom had questions and challenges concerning our observations of Christianity. He invited us to struggle without leaving us there. We felt safe enough to question certain beliefs without judgment. If anything, we experienced grace. Many of my classmates and friends would identify Wes as a significant influencer of faith. In the moments when faith seemed far away, his calm spirit reminded us of how Jesus was far closer than we could ever imagine.
2. Take time to let the Scriptures come alive.
I will never forget the Greek 2 class when we read Romans 5:1-12. The Greek in that passage gives a richer picture of Christ’s love for us than any English translation could ever communicate. We sat in a moment of silence reflecting on how God brought us near while we were still far away. Professor Smith had a way of slowing down to hear the Holy Spirit speak while reading Scripture.
3. “Make Jesus visible, believable and beautiful to every person you meet.”
Wes said this often to us. When he left the presidency at Valley Forge, the staff gave him a plate with this phrase on this. The way he treated us as students and friends, we could tell he lived out these words. After hearing of his passing, I shared his words:
Make Jesus visible, believable and beautiful to every person | Words from a friend and mentor, Wes Smith, who passed away yesterday.
— Peter Englert (@pdenglert) June 19, 2014
I am grateful to God for the influence of Wesley Smith in my life. He will be greatly missed. For those of you who knew Wes, feel free to share what you have learned from him as we celebrate his life.