EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: Remembering Harry Reeder
When Harry Reeder stood up to preach, he sometimes took off his wristwatch and placed it on the podium before launching into his sermon.
But one Sunday morning, he was so focused on what he was about to say that he forgot to do that. He was well into his message before he remembered, paused, and took off his watch. A little boy sitting near the front of the auditorium blurted out, “Oh, no. He’s just getting started!”
When Harry told this story on himself, it never failed to get a hearty laugh. But when I remembered that story today, the day of Harry’s death at age 75 in an automobile accident, these words struck me differently. “Oh, no,” my heart cried out when I heard the news. “He was just getting started.”
It was, perhaps, an unreasonable response. Harry had, after all, lived his “threescore and ten” and then some. As a pastor, church planter and revitalizer, denomination builder, and mentor, Harry Reeder accomplished enough for three lifetimes. Still, the news hit hard. He may not have been just getting started, but neither did he seem to be nearly finished.
Harry Reeder’s impact on me began when I moved to Charlotte in 1993. I started a small journalistic venture called “The Charlotte Christian News.” I wrote most of the stories, designed it myself on a primitive Macintosh computer, and printed 100 copies of that first issue.
In God’s providence, one of those few copies landed on Harry Reeder’s desk. He was pastor of Christ Covenant Church, in the Charlotte suburb of Matthews. He summoned me to his office, told me what I was doing was important, and pledged his help.
As a result of that meeting, Harry became a regular columnist for our modest newspaper, faithfully submitting a monthly column and thereby lending his own credibility to the enterprise. He remained a columnist until he left Charlotte in 1999 to become pastor of Birmingham’s Briarwood Presbyterian Church, often called the “mother church” of the Presbyterian Church in America.
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During those six years in Charlotte, though we communicated regularly via phone, fax, and email, I did not see him often. When I did see him, it was usually outside the confines of Christ Covenant Church, often at Mecklenburg County Commission meetings, which I covered in my role as a journalist. For even though Christ Covenant had grown to megachurch status under his leadership, Harry Reeder did not insulate himself, as many megachurch pastors do. He was accessible, and he involved himself in local issues, speaking to elected bodies regularly, passionately, and wisely on matters he thought would impact the flourishing of our city.
One interaction with Harry sticks out in my mind. Early in the life of our newspaper, I had the idea of hosting a conference to discuss how we could apply a Christian worldview (what Harry often called a “Christian world and life view”) to local civic matters. I reserved a venue, and asked Harry to be one of the speakers, on a Saturday morning, to what I hoped would be several hundred people. He said yes.
As the date approached, it became obvious we would not have the number of people I had promised. A week before the event, only about 50 had signed up. I decided to cancel. I called Harry to apologize, and to release him from his obligation. But he would not hear of it. He reminded me of the biblical admonition to “despise not these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin,” and said he would be there, ready to speak, even if he and I were the only ones in attendance.
He was, and he did. He spoke on Mark 5, the story sometimes called “The Man of the Tombs,” or the “Gaderene Demoniac,” whom Jesus delivered from demons. I’ve heard and forgotten thousands of sermons in my life, but nearly 30 years later, I can recall almost every word he spoke that day.
What changed my life was Harry’s exposition of verses 18-20. When the demon-possessed man was healed and whole and “in his right mind,” he begged to go with Jesus. But Jesus would not let him. Jesus told the man he should stay in his home country and tell those who knew him before Jesus saved him what had happened to him.
Harry concluded, “Sometimes following Jesus looks different than we want it to look. In this case, following Jesus meant not following Jesus—at least not literally. It meant staying behind and doing what God had called him to do.”
Those few words have shaped both my journalistic career and my life, and I’m grateful to God and to Harry Reeder for them.
So the news of Harry Reeder’s death feels like a body blow. I console myself with the sure knowledge that Harry himself is the better for it. And I remember fondly the impact he had on me and so many thousands of men and women who are—like the Man of the Tombs—now faithfully following Jesus as a result of Harry’s own faithful life.
Harry Reeder has taken his watch off for the last time. The legacy he leaves behind, in the lives of those of us who were so profoundly affected by him, will last and, in God’s providence, will grow.
This knowledge causes the words of that little boy to take on a whole new meaning. “Oh, no,” we can now say with confidence, and a smile. “He’s just getting started.”