I have been blessed with a handful of wonderful mentors in my life. One of them was Haddon Robinson. On July 22, 2017, Haddon “fell asleep” in the Lord after battling Parkinson’s Disease for about three years. Haddon served as a Professor of Preaching at Dallas Seminary, and later at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Boston. In-between, he served as President of Denver Seminary. Ironically, though I was a student at Denver while Haddon was President there, I never met him until later when I became a doctoral student under him at Gordon-Conwell. Haddon wrote many books, but he is best known for his book Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages—first published it in 1980. This book is still the gold standard for training preachers.
I am eternally grateful that the Lord allowed me to get to know Haddon. Here are a few things I learned from him:
- He taught me how to preach
In 1996 a Baylor University poll named Haddon one of “The 12 Most Effective Preachers in the English-Speaking World.” The first time I heard Haddon preach was at a commencement ceremony at Denver Seminary. I was mesmerized. It was an exposition of the parable of the sheep and the goats. I still remember his big idea: “There are going to be a lot of surprises at the judgment. A lot of surprises.” Hearing that sermon, I knew I wanted to learn everything I could from that man about preaching. About 15 years later, he accepted me into the Doctor of Ministry program in preaching at Gordon-Conwell. He taught me that a sermon should be more like a bullet than buckshot — one single idea that encapsulates the thrust of a passage of Scripture. He taught me the importance of story, and not just to tell a story but to live it. He also tried to teach me not to use any notes in the pulpit, which I have never managed to learn. No matter how hard we all tried to preach like him, he was unique.
- He taught me to be available
Over the course of my friendship with Haddon, I made three invitations to him. First, I invited him out to lunch to ask him some advice as I was considering a change in my ministry. A few years later, I asked him to come across the country to meet with our elders and preach at our church. Finally, I asked him to come to California again and speak at our Men’s Retreat at Mount Hermon. The amazing thing about Haddon was that, to my great surprise, he said, “Yes” to all three requests. It may sound like a small thing, but he was at a stage in his life when he really didn’t have to agree to any of those requests. But Haddon was a man available to God and to others. The people of my church still talk about the time Haddon Robinson came and preached to them from the book of Philemon in a sermon called, “Put That On Master Charge.” He also continued to be available to his doctoral students as we met with him to hone our preaching skills at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin for many years after receiving our degree. Reflecting on Haddon’s availability to me and others, I am reminded that each time he said, “Yes” was like a personal affirmation of my value to him. Perhaps more than anything else, that affirmation changed my life.
- He taught me humility
Haddon was not full of himself. When asked about the honor of being named one of the 12 best preachers in the world, he shook his head and asked, “How in the world do you come up with a conclusion like that?” As he has famously said: “There are no great preachers, only a great Christ.” As you might imagine, a man of stature like Haddon Robinson had a few critics. For example, I have heard pastors and scholars accuse him of not preaching expositional sermons. But I never heard Haddon speak unfairly or harshly about his critics. For me, his humility was best exemplified in his prayer life. To listen to him before the throne of God, was like eavesdropping on a private conversation between a beloved servant and his honored master.
Needless to say, I will miss Haddon Robinson. Please pray for his wife of 66 years, Bonnie; his daughter, Vicki Hitzges, a motivational speaker; and his son Torrey Robinson, Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Tarrytown, New York.