A Remembrance and a Reflection on a Mentor: Pastor Louis A. Smith

Introduction:  On the Festival of St. Andrew, Apostle, in 2004, at a joint chapter retreat of the Society of the Holy Trinity in Hickory, North Carolina,  a dear mentor and friend, Pastor Louis A. Smith died. On the 29th, after Compline, we had our usual gemütlichkeit as Lou insisted that this be the name of our time of sociability.  Early in the morning of the 30th, around 3:00am, Lou was heard crying in  great pain, laying on the floor, unable to get up in his room.  The rooms at this retreat center locked automatically when shut and for a seeming eternity, we searched for someone with the key at the retreat center. He had suffered a burst abdominal aorta.  Later that morning, we were praying Matins and during prayer, someone from the retreat center came in to tell me I had a phone call. It was Lou’s Pastor, Jim Pence who was with Lou in the hospital.  Jim called me to tell me they were about to operate and as we talked the doctor informed him Lou had died.  I heard Jim saying over the phone, “What?  Lou’s dead?” I went back to the chapel to tell the pastors.  Jim told me that as they were about to wheel him into the OR, Lou asked, “Jim, are the promises true?”  “Yes, Lou”, Jim told him, “They are true”.  Not till now, have I realized that Lou died during the time we were praying Matins.

Most of you have probably not heard of Lou Smith.  He was an ELCA pastor.  His is the last essay, “How My Mind Has Changed”   in Women Pastors? edited by Pr. Matthew Harrison.  Lou was born in New Jersey and married to Helen.  They have four daughters.  Lou could preach in German, sight translate Greek and Hebrew and knew other languages. He was a campus minister, parish pastor, writer and spent three years teaching the Confessions in Namibia.  He loved British football.  He was also the funniest person I ever knew. For instance, one evening he told us every bagpipe joke that I think are in existence. He knew the Lutheran Confessions as he knew the stats for his beloved N. Y. Yankees…even better! He was a faithful pastor and theologian of the Church. Lou was the only person I have known that when talking on the phone, I would take notes. He is a major reason  I stayed in the Lutheran Church and returned to the LCMS.  The following quotes are either from Pr. Smith’s sermons and articles or from my memory of the many conversations with him. 

  • Note:  the NT Greek, episcopos, means “oversight” and which is translated “bishop” or “overseer”.  We were talking about bishops in the ELCA and Pastor Smith said:  “Episcopos” means oversight, not overlook.”
  • “Most bad theology begins with bad taste.”
  • Towards the end of her life, Pastor Smith’s mother lived with Lou and his wife Helen.  Mom was quite a handful for Pastor and Mrs. Smith because of her rather cantankerous personality.  Lou and I were talking about that and Lou said, “You know, it is really hard to keep the 4th Commandment”.
  • Me: “I’ve always had troubles with the “unity” or “Cana” candle ceremony in a wedding service and I can’t put my finger on why.”Lou:  “Note:  you don’t need two candles to light one candle, so yeah, something is going on here.  The physical element of the sacrament of marriage is the two become one flesh.  Since most couples have already done that and so the ‘unity candle’ has been introduced  and has  become  an ersatz ‘sacrament’”.
  • “I’ve told Church Councils at meetings about my salary, that when it comes to preaching, baptizing and presiding, I do this for nothing.  Church council meetings:  This is what I get paid for.”
  • Me:  “I usually am flummoxed when asked, When did the Lord call you into the Ministry?” Lou:  “When you were ordained, Mark.”
  • Me:  It is said that Lutheran Church is a “confessing movement” in the church catholic.  Lou:  “I was not baptized into a movement but the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”
  • “The interpretive task is not so much to understand the Word of the Bible as it is to stand under the Word of the Bible. It is, after all, not the Bible that is the puzzle that we need to solve. It is we who are the puzzle and the Bible that will solve us.” (from an address in my possession)
  • “…the Bible is clear…the Biblical writers say what they mean and mean what they say. This, of course, does not mean that we immediately grasp what they say and mean. But the fault for that does not lie with the Biblical text. It lies with us; and that for any number of reasons. We might not yet have learned the grammar. We might not yet have learned the vocabulary or the particular idiom of an author. Luther’s struggle with the “righteousness” of God might be an example. He had imported a foreign notion of righteousness into the Biblical text and so misunderstood the text; to his own great pain. And it took a goodly amount of reading before the Bible could straighten him out. But in the end, the Bible’s clarity won the day”(from an address in my possession)
  • “…both hunger and thirst make us aware of our mortality. Guess what? THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO! That is their theological meaning. Hunger and thirst are sacraments of our mortality. They are the felt reminders of the fact that we do not have life within us.” (from a  Lenten sermon)
  • “Proper (Godly)  repentance is not a sorrow or a terror or a vow to change, so that we can escape the divine death sentence. Proper (Godly)  repentance is to accept the rightness of the death sentence and to submit to it; to submit to being put to death under the law. And without the real Gospel that is never done.”
  • “…I finally discovered the difference between a eulogy and a sermon.  Forgive me if I tell you what you already know. The difference is this:  In a eulogy, one person who purports to know another, stands up and says some nice things that are not necessarily true about a dead human being.  In a sermon, a person authorized by the Gospel of Jesus Christ says some true things that are not necessarily nice about a living God.”(from  a Lenten sermon)
  • “God does not justify ungodliness but the ungodly.”

Reflection:  When the publication of the 95 Theses spread throughout Europe, then Luther was in middle of a raging storm.  He corresponded with his father confessor, Johannes von Staupitz.

On the twenty-fifth of November Luther sent word to Staupitz:

I am expecting the curses of Rome any day. I have everything in readiness. When they come, I am girded like Abraham to go I know not where, but sure of this, that God is everywhere.

Staupitz wrote Luther from  Austria:

The world hates the truth. By such hate Christ was crucified, and what there is in store for you today if not the cross I do not know. You have few friends, and would that they were not hidden for fear of the adversary. Leave Wittenberg and come to me that we may live and die together. The prince [Frederick] is in accord. Deserted let us follow the deserted Christ. (From Here I Stand by Roland Bainton)

Up until his death, Fr. von Staupitz, wrote to Luther and he to him.  We do not know if Luther’s dear mentor ever accepted the evangelical doctrine but he sure seems to have known them and lived them.

It is written in Proverbs 17: 17:

A friend loves at all times,
   and a brother is born for adversity.

And from Proverbs, 18: 24:

A man of many companions may come to ruin,
   but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

Fr. Staupitz epitomized those Scripture passages.  In The Smalcald Articles, of the Lutheran Confessions, Part III, Article IV, “Of the Gospel”, Father Luther confesses the 4 ways the Lord gives us the Gospel: 1.  the Preaching of the Word;  2. Baptism;  3. the Sacrament of the Altar; 4. “through the power of the keys, and also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren, Matt. 18:20: Where two or three are gathered together, etc.” (emphasis added).  The power of the keys, or absolution, are linked with “the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren” and rightly so, as the Lord did, recorded in Matthew 18.  I can only opine that Luther was taught this in the school of Holy Spirit, partly at least, because of his Father confessor.  Staupitz was obviously Luther’s mentor and with that Luther’s  friend and brother in Christ.

It is good to thank the Lord and remember before Him, the mentors He sent into our lives, who have been closer than a brother and a brother born for adversity and hung in there with you.  A brother who has heard your soul’s confession and offered Christ’s absolution as did von Staupitz, and as Lou Smith did for me and so many others. All the Facebook friends in the world do not one dear brother in Christ Jesus make but the Lord does in the crucible of adversity.  Between Martin and Johannes stood Jesus Christ and the dear Father Johannes showed Martin Jesus Christ so that Martin could see Him in the clear Word of Scripture.

Lou died on the Commemoration of St. Andrew.  According to tradition Andrew was crucified on an x-shaped cross. X marks the spot, as in map for buried treasure, the pearl of great price: Jesus Christ, crucified, risen and ascended.  Lou knew X marked the spot and through the Word, taught faithfully in the Lutheran Confessions, he guided me and many others to that place:  the Cross of Christ, His death, resurrection, ascension and coming again.We need guides and mentors in our lives.  Like Bonhoeffer wrote: The Christ in my brother is stronger than the Christ in me.    “Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word”, penned and sang Luther.  Luther was kept steadfast by his dear father confessor as a mentor has so done for you.  Fr. Staupitz knew the Word as he had been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12). As I look at the many people and events that led me back to the correct map of the Confessions showing us the pearl of great price, it was Lou above so many who so guided me. Lou fought the good fight of faith hard in the ELCA.  We must do the same in the LCMS.  If memory serves it was Lou who first told me about BJS, if not, nevertheless, this also was meet, right and so to do.

When we seek relief
From a long-felt grief;
When temptations come alluring,
Make us patient and enduring;
Show us that bright shore
Where we weep no more.

(“Jesus, Lead Thou On”, Lutheran Service Book #718, stanza 3)

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