During my short time at Memphis School of Preaching, I was blessed with the opportunity to sit at the feet of wonderful servants of our Lord. One of them recently retired from the School, and this article is based on what I was blessed to say about our relationship during his retirement dinner. His name, Ted. J. Clarke, also known as brother T. J.
I know the admiration brother Clarke has for eagles. The Harpy Eagle is the largest, most powerful raptor in the Americas, bigger even than the Golden Eagle, and it is also the national bird of Panama. Sadly, we were unable to find any ceramic or piece that he can put on your shelves or desktop, but we bought him something that is very formal and used in important events in Panama, a “camisilla” which is very similar to the Cuban or Mexican “guayaberas”.
First impressions are important, right? There are some moments when you meet someone that gets stuck in your mind. Getting to meet brother T. J. Clarke was memorable, and yesterday we were talking with the Clarkes about it. Once we came to the School and were visiting the School building, brother T. J. approaches us and introduced himself, then, I told him, “Nice to meet you, I am Marlon Retana”, and the memorable part of that meeting was his reply… “Hmmm, that sounds like retarded”. When I shared this with the family, we are laughed as they said, “and you still love him after he said that”. But he was right, it sounds similar, at least for the first 4 letters and more if you add my accent.
When brother B.J., his son and Director of the School, was out of town because of gospel meetings or other events, brother T.J. covered his classes. He was always ready to teach and we knew, after the first time, that we will take home extra weight on our backpacks because of all the handouts he gave us during that lesson. There were times when we had valid questions to make in regards to the topic discussed, but, there was one classmate that liked to ask questions of topics that were not related to the class. On one occasion, brother T.J. replied to him something like, “that’s an interesting question, why don’t you do a 6-page research paper tonight and bring it to the next class to talk about it?” My memory might fail me, but I cannot recall anyone in our class who did an out-of-topic question after that, ever.
The class I loved the most with brother T. J. was the hardest of all, “Expository Preaching”. The text that was assigned to me was Romans 12:17-21. I am good at paraphrasing, but not memorizing, and, when it was my time to deliver my lesson, I was unable do it without my notes. When I finished, he asked, “Did you use your notes?” and I was like… “hmmm, I did not want to but… “ and then he look at me and said, “it is a yes or no question”, and I was trying to justify myself, until I finally said, “Yes, I did”. I felt embarrassed, not only because of what I did but because of disappointing him and my classmates. That was the tryout, so, I prepared myself for the graded one. When my turn came, I did not go up to the lectern but stood in front of it, with no Bible in hand, and no notes, hoping I was going to be able to remember everything. It took me a short moment of awkward silence to start, but I did, and by the time I finished, I looked at everyone’s faces and then I realize, ¡I did it, I was able to do it, I can do this kind of preaching! which, is the most common way of preaching I do, but with notes.
Some might think that the way brother T.J. teaches, as well as other instructors, might be tough or even rude, but all of them know very well what is to be in local work, and that the honeymoon between the preacher and the congregation is not usually long. The way they teach us helps us in being prepared for what will be days, weeks, months, and years of hard work. They have been there before, and they want us to be prepared for all those battles.
Brother T.J. has a big heart. When he found out I was diabetic, knowing that as international students we did not have any kind of insurance, knowing firsthand what it is to deal with chronic pain, and also knowing about the care that a diabetic must have for his feet, did his research and took me to a place where he bought me shoes specially designed for me, which helped me a lot for a long time. This was top secret until today, but I wanted to share it because he is a special man, and I am thankful to God for the blessing of getting to know him, and the relationship we built during all these years.
There was a time when my wife and I got discouraged at School and were thinking of quitting and going back home, and I know that is something almost every student had experienced, especially, foreign ones. One Sunday, after the invitation, we went forward and asked for prayers. The first two persons who came to us that day were Sherrie and Tish Clarke. They hugged Jacky for a long time. They let us know we are family. When we were told that sister Sherrie passed, I did not hesitate in leaving the classroom and run to our apartment to let Jacky know, because she needed to hear that from me first. When I was asked by the family to be one of the pallbearers it was one of the biggest honors I have had in my entire life. From the hundreds of students and friends you have, you picked me to do that, and I will never forget that. Thank you so much!
I want to close with some words to the current and future students. There are wise men in this world. There are humble men in this world too. It is hard to find both characteristics together in one man. But you find them in all the instructors here, as well as the elders and brethren in this congregation. Learn as much as you can from all of them, because they are not immortals, and your time in School might seem long but is a blink of an eye. May God bless us all.
“He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint”Isaiah 40:29-31, KJV.