Robert “Bob” Stephenson passed away on Friday, March 20.
Besides my immediate family, Mr. Stephenson and his wife, Norma, changed the trajectory of my life more than anyone. They are some of the most wise, kind and generous people I have ever met.
For 11 years, I had the privilege of being Bob’s pastor. We knew each other long before I accepted the call to NorthHaven Church, as we fought the spread of fundamentalism across Baptist life.
Along with giants like John Baugh of Texas, Bob had a great sense of justice and decency.
Bob detested fundamentalism’s nature to control others with rigidness, as well as its tendency to place women in a subservient role in the home and church.
He invested his time and resources in efforts to keep Baptist institutions free, empowering them to be true to conscience and to practice their faith unimpeded.
Free and faithful Baptists owe him a debt of gratitude.
As much as I learned from Bob during the days of combating fundamentalism, the more significant lessons came from times sitting with him and Norma in their living room.
Over a Sonic Dr. Pepper or glass of tea, I came to know Bob as an incredibly intelligent and insightful human being. More so, I found him to be merciful, compassionate and funny.
For instance, after selling our house in Texas much faster than expected, our family made plans to spend a few days in a hotel while waiting to close on our new home in Norman.
However, due to mortgage and title company delays beyond our control, we were facing the possibility of several weeks of hotel living.
At the end of week two – with our boys both very sick and our patience thinning – Bob offered a solution.
“I’ll just buy the house,” he said. While most of us would think this a crazy idea, Bob was absolutely serious. He knew how frustrated we were, and he knew he could help – he wanted to help.
That’s the Bob I knew – the man who wouldn’t think twice about paying cash for his pastor’s home so he could go about the business of ministering to the church without the added stress of a mortgage company dragging its heels.
On another occasion, Bob quietly paid the legal expenses of a family associated with the church so they could adopt a child. Some may have never known Bob in this way, but as his pastor I saw it time and time again.
Bob was also quite the character.
Walking into the house one day, I came upon him watching Fox News. Anyone who knew Bob knows he was not a “Fox News” kind of guy.
Pointing to the television, I asked with a wry smile, “Really, why in the world are you watching this nonsense?”
Without missing a beat, he retorted, “It fuels my hate fire.”
When I scheduled a meeting with Bob to discuss an investment he made in the church, he quickly stopped me as I got started.
“Mitch,” he said, “please know you have no obligation to give me reports for every dollar you spend. When I voted for you to be the pastor of NorthHaven, I trusted you with the spiritual well-being of my friends and me.”
He continued, “As long as you keep leading the church with openness and transparency, you will always have my full support. You don’t have to report to me.”
Then, with a smirk, he added, “Of course, if you become a fundamentalist, then you’re toast.”
Bob always pushed me to have faith beyond my comfort levels.
When we were trying to decide whether to build a new education wing at NorthHaven, I was struggling with the idea.
The church desperately needed more space. I knew we could raise the money to build a new facility but was terrified we would not be able to maintain it afterward.
Sitting in Bob’s living room, the wise teacher taught his pupil.
“Mitch, I’ve been an oilman most of my life. I cannot even begin to count the number of wells we have drilled,” he said.
“Before we decide to drill any well, as a geologist, I made certain we conducted exhaustive research. We examined and reexamined many data points. We poured over maps and geological studies. We were 99.9% certain there was oil or natural gas beneath the surface.”
He paused for effect, then continued, “However, even though you gather all the research you can, you will truly never know if there is oil in the ground unless you stick a bit in the dirt. Life is full of risks. You do everything you can do to minimize those risks, but in the end, you have to decide to place a bit in the ground.”
I thanked him for his advice. At that moment, I knew what the church needed to do. We would build a new facility.
As I stood to leave, Bob stopped me. “On the other hand, though,” he sheepishly chided, “there is nothing worse than a dry well.”
Slapping me on the back, he finished the lesson. “However, as disappointing as drilling a dry well can be, it never stopped me from sticking another bit in the dirt.”
As long as I live, I will keep that lesson in my mind and heart.
The world lost a giant last week. Bob had a significant influence upon my life, providing lessons and wisdom that I have already passed on to my boys and congregation.
May God’s grace and peace be upon him, as he now sleeps to awake in heaven. May God’s presence be with Norma, as she continues to live a life of grace, kindness and gentleness.
On this day, I give thanks to God for letting me cross paths with Bob and Norma. They are genuinely God’s vessels changing the world for the common good of all.