A Society of Friends: David Elton Trueblood
Late in the evening of December 20, 1994, Elton Trueblood's breathing evened out and became so softly tapered that no one could be completely sure of the precise moment when his unconquerable soul slipped away. Born in the nineteenth century (1900), one of Elton's whimsical hopes was to live until 2001, and thereby claim a life that would span three centuries. He would tell you with a twinkle, "Well, I didn't make it." But I know differently. And so do thousands of others.
When Rudolf Otto sat down to write his classic, The Idea of The Holy, his greatest challenge lay in somehow describing humankind's uniquely innate gift of wonder. His goal was to firmly hold the quicksilver of the human spirit. He could not do it. He could only fall back on the stumbling ancient Latin allusion mysterium tremendum. Gigantic mystery!
So, too, is the task of probing the lock of friendship. And its power. Gigantic mystery! There is no way I can adequately encompass the significance that the friendship of Elton Trueblood showered on my life. But that will not keep me from trying.
It's been forty years now since I was on an airplane flying from my home in the high plains of the Texas panhandle, back to my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana. I was going to spend an entire week in my family home with none other than Dr. D. Elton Trueblood.
He was an absolute legend to my generation of American churchgoers. And on that day, at the age of seventy‐seven, Dr. Trueblood had become the dean of practical theology and church renewal across the entire denominational landscape of our country as well as most of the English‐speaking world.
At the age of thirty‐two, as a journeyman pastor in a small county‐seat town, I'm ashamed to tell you that all I could think about was: "What smart and impressive thing could I say?" I wanted to dazzle him so that he would like me. D. Elton Trueblood! Imagine that! He was my hero in the faith.
Months before, I had given my mother a copy of Trueblood's great book The Incendiary Fellowship. She was electrified by it. She telephoned and said she must write him and tell him so. My answer? "Mom. You can't write D. Elton Trueblood!" She did. And then she called me back the next week to tell me that she had received a handwritten letter directly from that great man. I couldn't believe it!
She then said, "I'm going to invite him to preach at our church." That embarrassed me for her. "Mom, you can't invite D. Elton Trueblood to come to our church in Shreveport, Louisiana!" Two weeks later, she called to tell me that Trueblood was coming and insisted on staying at our house!
I was flying to meet him, thinking, "What smart thing can I say?" I got in too late. He had already retired for the night. But the next morning, I could hear his deep resonat voice downstairs, and I knew that I had to hurry to get ready for the day and get down there as quickly as I could. I wish I would have lingered. But fools rush in, and I went on down.
Shortly after introductions were made, a small prayer group gathered. Dr. Trueblood said to us, "The American churches are doing many good things, but they are not stopping the disintegration of our society! And we must find an effective means to do so."
This was my chance! I responded with my smarts: "Yes, Dr. Trueblood we do live in a sick society." That's it! That's all I had. Whereupon Dr. David Elton Trueblood leaned forward (Oh how will I ever forget it!) and said, "Young man, what do you mean by ‘society'?" I had thought he was going to say, "sick," so I was ready with a litany of dysfunction to show what I meant. But he didn't say "sick," and my brain had an immediate whiteout!
I learned through Toynbee, through Elton, that society can only be renewed through the intentional and systematic renewal of our relationships.
I had given no thought to the nature of "society." I just lived in it. And stupidly I said, "Why Dr. Trueblood, that is too deep for words." He just looked at me and then quietly said, "Young man, don't ever say to me anything is too deep for words. If you can't say it, then you don't know it." I had completely forgotten that Dr. Trueblood had a PhD in linguistic analysis from Johns Hopkins!
Over the week, he lifted my head. And at the end he told me, "Mack, I want to come to Hereford. I want to meet your people. I want to see if God is using you to produce in their lives the Word you are presenting." And so began the next seventeen years of walking together until he passed from our seeing.
Now we all remember that the process of osmosis takes place when a liquid with a higher concentration flows through a semi‐permeable membrane into a liquid with a lesser concentration. That's how it was with Elton. Here was his incredibly rich life concentration of intellect, experience, proficiency, depth, and initiative willingly pressing heart to heart with so many of us and showing each of us in turn and all of us together that friendship is the osmosis of the soul.
I share the story above because it illustrates that transcendent principles and means must be utilized to grasp us and to transform us. We cannot grow to maturity alone. We can only grow through our willingness to embrace and to be embraced. Elton lived by the principle that "the greatest heresy is to make small what God intended to make large." To Elton, every person was large, and to diminish any was abject heresy. He typified Ruskin's great dictum, "The most valuable jewel to emerge from a mine is the miner himself."
So Elton answers a letter from an unknown. He sees a willing heart in an invitation. He comes to a city steeped in separation. Elton mentored my mother. He even took her along with a few others to England to spend days with the great Malcolm Muggeridge. He befriended me. When he said, "I will come to Hereford," I felt like a twentieth‐century Zacchaeus.
I could share all of the trips he made to be with me, the trips I made to be with him. I could share the letters he wrote, the long walks we took, and the Purpose that commanded in each meeting. And I grew because he placed a crown of praise over my head. As James Martineau said, "The human being is the only creature capable of growing into the praise he or she is given."
Every mind must be made large, Elton believed. Just look at the entire span of his authorship. He wrote everything from textbooks to biographies to sermons to even his "Hymn of Fire," in both Catholic and Protestant hymnbooks today. He constantly called for renewal. Elton fundamentally believed that one must read "the classics," and he had a list that he provided for all of the members of his association, "Yokefellow International." Once I asked him rather vapidly, "But Dr. Trueblood, shouldn't we keep abreast of the times?" "Of course!" He shot back. "But first you must get abreast of the times, and to do that you must go up the broad rivers to their springs which few behold."
And, of course, Elton believed every single heart must be made large. He had the heartiest laughter in the world. And his joy overflowed to everyone. He was always ready to tell some self‐assured preacher what the great Quaker mystic and philosopher Rufus Jones was once told by a little member of the Society of Friends: "Dr. Jones, Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep not my giraffes!" We must have joy and empathy for all, because all are bearing a burden, he believed. He would tell me, "Mack, there is a broken heart in every pew. And your task is to ‘comfort ye my people.'"
Within four years of our meeting, Elton led me to Arnold Toynbee's work A Study of History. In volume 3, Toynbee defined society as "a system of relationships." And when I read those words, on October 27, 1981, a switch in my life was flipped. Elton had not forgotten our first meeting! Two years later, I committed the rest of my life to the renewal of our cities, nations, and world. I learned through Toynbee, through Elton, that society can only be renewed through the intentional and systematic renewal of our relationships.