Professor Keith McCaslin was the Homiletics (Preaching) professor at St. Louis Christian College for longer than many of the people reading this have been alive. He retired after 43.5 years of teaching–I wrote about that here. I was lucky enough to be one of four generations of students to have him as a teacher. I was even more lucky to have him as a colleague after I graduated. And luckier still to have him as a friend.
Today, Professor McCaslin died. The man who could never tell the Biblical story of Balaam’s Donkey without laughing is now experiencing full joy in the presence of the Great Shepherd.
As appropriate as it would be to simply write “Well done, good and faithful servant,” I want to do more to share Professor McCaslin with you over the next few paragraphs. He was a man of words, so I want to spend the time to craft some in his honor. Please join me in celebrating a wonderful preacher, teacher, and friend.
I. Professor McCaslin was a Preacher
If you knew him for more than a moment, you knew he was a craftsman of words. Even in conversation, his words were measured and effective. I have more than once had my opinion on an issue completely changed by Mr. McCaslin waiting until the right moment to patiently say the right words. This was a man who made a study of how to say things.
He told me once that in part, he became good with words because he used to have a potty-mouth. (I know that struggle myself. I’ve just given up on mine.) When he was a young man, he swore–those who were his students probably can’t imagine that! When he became convicted about his speech, he had to start choosing his words more carefully. His words became measured and he had to find new ways to make his language stronger.
Seeing Professor McCaslin in a pulpit was like watching Rembrandt paint. Rembrandt was known for painting right up to the edges of the canvas and getting everything he could out of each of his paintings. If those paintings were sermons, they’d be signed “McCaslin” in the corner. He thought through his subjects and worked diligently to lead the listener toward celebrating the glory he was proclaiming. He was as well researched and well supported as he was well-spoken. He was a wealth of information, and you could see the joy he got from sharing it–especially what he knew was the Truth of the Gospel.
It would be very easy to just talk about Mr. McCaslin as a teacher or as someone respectable. But to really get a sense of him, you had to hear him speak the Gospel. He preached every sermon knowing it might be the difference between Heaven and Hell for someone who was listening. He didn’t lose sight of that–even when he knew he was preaching to the choir. Thankfully, he made every effort to instill that into his students as well.
II. Professor McCaslin was a Teacher
I stated already that I was a student in Professor McCaslin’s classes. I came to SLCC in a second-semester transfer–I was something of an oddity in that way. I hadn’t been through the first-semester classes with the rest of my class and was just the new guy in the room. The very first class of my very first semester at SLCC was “History of Israel II” and Mr. McCaslin was to be the professor.
He missed the first day of class. I was new, and the first class I had on my first day had a substitute. Professor McCaslin, we were told, was out sick. I’d like to think that set the tone for the rest of my college career.
I didn’t know what to expect of any of my teachers, least of all someone who would teach “History of Israel II.” When I finally did meet Professor McCaslin, he struck me the same way he must have struck many of his students on first impression. He was older, with a Northern accent that had just barely faded after years in St. Louis, and I assumed he would be the stern, out-of-touch, fogey that he had earned every right to be. What I got instead was a man who genuinely CARED about his students learning. A man who was kind, compassionate, and whereas he expected you to do the work and gave you the grade you EARNED, he wanted the best of you. He had to deliver a disciplinary address in one Chapel sermon and he began by saying, “I think some of you think of me as a father figure…or maybe GRANDfather figure…” And he was right. He was grandfatherly–kind, but you knew if he laid down the law, he meant it.
Professor McCaslin had a grading practice I greatly admired. When he gave a test (or as he called it, when we had a “party” in class–each test was a “party”) he had the students sign the back of the paper instead of the front. That way he could grade without bias–if he did not see a name at the top of the page, he could not give preferential treatment to any one student or grade any other any more strictly than the previous. As a teacher, he was fair.
And maybe I just liked the guy, but I found him pretty easy to learn from. Even on stuff I didn’t care about, I did better than I might have under a different professor. We had to label the 12 Tribes on a map in one class and I was completely unprepared. I had forgotten we had a “party” that day and didn’t study at all. I didn’t even remember who the 12 Tribes WERE, much less their locations. I think I wrote “New Jersey” on there somewhere…but I still got six of them. Even unprepared, six of them stuck. That’s not just a good teacher; it’s a minor miracle.
The greatest lesson I ever learned from Professor McCaslin, though, combined his preaching with his teaching. I was in a class called “Church in the Scripture” and there was a session on the doctrine of justification. For that session, he directed the class to take no notes. “I’m not concerned with you getting the grade, I’m concerned with this changing your life.” And it did. I had already thought myself a student of grace, being familiar with the writings of Brennan Manning…but that day, in that room, upstairs in the Keystone Complex, for the first time I understood… I am absolutely guilty of being every horrible thing I’ve ever been. God knows I’m guilty. God SHOULD send me to Hell–I’ve worked hard and EARNED Hell… But Jesus steps in-between me and Hell. Jesus as judge makes his ruling: “Your sentence is suspended. I have justified you before the Father. Your guilt does not matter anymore.” Still guilty…but saved. I am glad that I took the time to tell Professor McCaslin what that meant to me.
If you get nothing else from this post, dear reader, please take that with you–I’m not concerned with you liking this post, I’m concerned with it changing your life. If I can relay any of the words of a man I knew as a great teacher, I would like those to be the ones. That YOUR guilt does not matter anymore. Some of you probably need to hear that.
I think that day was the day I decided I wanted to know Mr. McCaslin well. I started taking his classes at every opportunity. The one and only night class I ever successfully lasted in at SLCC was one of his. When I graduated, his was really the only hand I was interested in shaking on the dais. He pat me on the shoulder when I went by. I didn’t see him do that to anybody else. For some reason, he had taken a liking to me. He believed in me. He encouraged me. He had high-hopes for me in ministry. He became more than just a professor to me…
III. Professor McCaslin was…my friend.
Up until this point, I have been writing in the same format I was taught in Professor McCaslin’s Homiletics classes. With the above heading, I hope you will understand why I will now be abandoning parallel construction, etc, etc, and just writing…
Keith. I never called you “Keith.” Until the day you died, I never once called you by anything other than “Professor” or “Mr. McCaslin.” Despite the fact that we’d become colleagues. Despite the fact that you regularly talked to me about personal situations in my life. Despite the fact that I was even in a management position over your wife at one point! I remember the meeting where you took me aside and said, “Derek–you’re not a student anymore. You can call me Keith.” And I said, “I want to, but I can’t.” You laughed and understood. For me it was a sign of respect to call you Professor McCaslin, or Mr. McCaslin. That respect is still very present…but today, I call you Keith. Today, when you face glory and answer to only the call of your savior…today for some reason, I can call you Keith.
You were there for me when I doubted myself. You were there for me when I didn’t think I was going to pass Biology. You were there for me when I lost five friends in the same car accident. You were there for me when I lost my job at the college. You and Liz were there for me when I had my goodbye lunch. You were there for me when I needed a laugh or needed encouragement after a rough day or one meeting too many. We did not see much of each other these last years–time does that–but I know that if I had called, you would have been there and pointed me to Christ.
I would say that it isn’t fair that you’ve gone before I got the chance to talk to you again…but I can think of nothing more fair than for you to be in glory with Christ. You’ve earned the peace you now have.
It would also be wrong to say the clichéd, “The world is a poorer place without you.” The truth of the matter is that because you were here, the world is a far RICHER place than it ever could have been without the legacy you’ve left. You told me once that you could justify not preaching by knowing that you were helping to make other preachers…but then confided that with the low rate of people STAYING in ministry, you sometimes wondered if that wasn’t just a copout. Speaking as someone who didn’t stay in ministry, if you had any doubts…if you ever felt like what you did didn’t matter… Let me use one of your favorite words… HOGWASH.
You mattered. A lot. To a lot of people. I wish you could see the Facebook posts tonight. I wish you could hear the shake in my voice the first time I said out loud that you’d passed away. I wish you could hear that shake in everyone’s voice the first time they’ve said it–it’s happening all over the world, wherever your students have landed right now. You changed my life–OUR lives for the best. I am a better person because of you. I am a better Christian because of you. I think you know how much I respected you. But, I regret it if I never also told you how PROUD I was to know you and number you not among my teachers, but among my friends. There is no world in which you and I SHOULD have been friends! Only Jesus could have done that.
I do not yet know when your funeral will be. If it is open to visitors, I will move Heaven, Earth, and my lunch break to be there. I’m sure I won’t even get through the door before the opening hymn…
Thank you, readers, for indulging me in this post. Less than two days ago, I had glibly written on Facebook that I have had some rough Novembers. Last year on the 22nd, my friend Becca died. A few years previous on the 23rd, my college roommate Derrick died. Today Keith McCaslin died. But this is different. If I had my choice, I would have opted for it not to be so sudden, if only for Liz’s sake… But knowing Keith is in Heaven is a point to celebrate, even in mourning. Though moved to tears of sadness, some of them are also of joy, knowing he has reached his place on the dais, where I hope one day he will pat me on the shoulder as I go by.
Rest well, friend. Job very well done.