Dr. LeRoy Lawson is originally from Tillamook, Oregon. He has served as President of Hope International University in Fullerton, California, as senior minister of Central Christian Church in Mesa, Arizona, and most recently as Professor of Christian Ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee. He has a Ph.D. in English. This is one way to introduce him, by formally hitting a few career and education highlights.
Another way might simply be to say: with his positive disposition, his stories, and his knack for brightening a room, he’s the sort of guy people want to be around.
In March 2016, I heard him speak at the Journey Lectures, which are given by retiring faculty members at Milligan College. I loved his talk, his attitude, and his plans for retirement — he and his wife of 56 years, Joy, will be traveling around the world for the next one or two years. The following interview was done this summer.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a native of the small coastal town of Tillamook, Oregon, best known (except among Wisconsin partisans) for its cheese—so famous, in fact, that it has now been served on five of my transatlantic flights! You can’t help wondering how so few cows from such a small county can be supplying extraordinary cheese for the world.
I grew up in a vital, inspiring home church which majored in good teaching and devotion to children and young people. I felt even in my pre-teen years that I was called to be a preacher, a calling I have followed for a lifetime while at the same time answering a second one, to teaching. So I planted a church in 1959, began teaching high school in 1962, and have been both pastor and educator ever since. This apparently schizophrenic but actually integrated career has blessed me in ways I never imagined.
My parents, good people who in time couldn’t live together and divorced when I was in high school, individually encouraged all three of us children to become what we felt called to become, letting us freely choose and pursue our own path.
What do you like about being older? Do I remember correctly that you said being older is more liberating that you expected?
I like almost everything about being older. My body is betraying me more and more, but with its diminishing reliability I am discovering spiritual and emotional strengths that as a younger man I knew nothing about.
Yes, you remember correctly. The most liberating aspect of all came when we made the decision to sell or give everything away and spend the next year or two living for a few weeks or months at a time in chosen locations on earth. I now own only one key. Our house has been sold, I have turned in the keys to my offices at the seminary and the church where I’ve been serving as ad interim minister, and our neighbor now owns my car. The remaining key belongs to Joy’s car, and within the next few weeks we’ll hand it over to our grandchildren. We are living out of a suitcase and carry-on apiece. That’s it. This is genuine liberation. Jesus was right about storing up treasures in heaven “where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.”
On a related note, what age do you feel right now, and why?
I feel 78 physically, 78 spiritually (it has taken me this long to put some things together—and will take even longer to finish the job), 78 emotionally (some of my lifelong emotional battles are getting easier), 18 psychologically (the dreams, visions, and enthusiasms of a teenager are still with me), and 56 matrimonially (this is how long we’ve been married—and we’ve needed every one of these years to grow me into a barely acceptable husband).
Tell us something about your trip. Most retirees don’t pack up their house and take off quite like this. Why are you?
It started with a bucket list, of course, and the realization that if we’re ever going to get serious about it we’d better do it soon, while our increasingly demanding and decreasingly reliable bodies will let us; if we’re going to do this thing we’ve got to do it now.
About divesting ourselves of house and furnishings? We don’t want to be in India, for example, worrying about our house and belongings. In the course of our marriage our homes have been robbed, suffered three internal floods (broken pipes, etc.), and two fires. Now we have nothing that can be damaged. We won’t even own a car.
Further, without rent or mortgage payments or other costs associated with home owning, we have money to pay the rent as we live in various countries and to travel from one country to another. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that we have generous children who have invited us to stay with them.
What was one of the most defining moments in your life?
When visiting missionaries were speaking at my home church, I dedicated my life to missions. As I remember, I was in the early years of high school. I had earlier felt called into a preaching ministry. My life trajectory didn’t go the way I anticipated at that time—I couldn’t pass the required physical exams, and so it was concluded that I’d be a liability on a mission field requiring rigorous stamina. I became instead a lifelong supporter of missionaries and a minister and teacher.
Who do you most admire in life?
Obviously, Jesus. I’m still trying to probe the depths of his teaching and example. My youthful heroes were people like Albert Schweitzer, Robert Moffatt, David Livingstone, Peter Marshall, Mahatma Gandhi in addition to the significant personal influences like Aldis Webb and Jess Johnson (pastors in my home church). In later years I’ve admired Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and several men and women without widespread reputation who restore my faith in human nature.
What is one of the more beautiful things you’ve seen?
I’m writing this after spending a long, rare, sun-drenched weekend in a conference at Camp WiNeMa on the Oregon coast. I moved from Oregon in 1965. Every time I come back in the summertime, I think, “What kind of fool would move away from this state?” Its beauty cannot be captured in words. For balance, though, I have to admit I don’t have the same feelings when I return here in the rainy, dreary wintertime! Still, this state is unsurpassed in natural beauty.
What is one of the more ugly things you’ve seen?
I just finished reading a biography of a man I’ve known and admired most of my life. It turns out he was a pedophile. He was also a Christian leader. The double life, unknown to most of us, is ugliness personified. I can hardly believe what I read.
What brings you joy?
I’ve finally learned that Jesus was right: there is more joy in giving than in receiving, more joy in serving people than in accumulating goods, more joy in helping another along the way than in being helped. Just as people have brought me my greatest grief in life, they have also brought me my greatest joys, and the joy far outweighs the grief.
What do you fear?
Many years ago there was a category of pop psychology called the “Imposter Syndrome.” A person afflicted with this syndrome lives with the fear of being found out, believing that people give him credit he doesn’t deserve, that he will eventually be exposed as a phony. Since most of my life I’ve held jobs for which I haven’t felt qualified and have received praise I knew I didn’t deserve, I have felt like an imposter. I guess my greatest fear is still the fear of being found out!
If you had a chance for a do-over in life, what would you do differently and why?
I would take more chances. I’ve lived pretty cautiously. For a quarter of a century I was a biker, riding Honda motorcycles until retiring from Central Christian Church in Mesa, when the church’s retirement gift was a Harley. They were enabling my habit! I never enjoyed solitary riding as much as riding with a group of bikers. My favorite place in the lineup was the number two position, right behind the rider who could best set the pace and choose the route.
That pretty much symbolizes my approach to life. I’m not the trail blazer, the lone pioneer. I can build on another’s foundation, perhaps even improve on the initial blueprint (how many metaphors can I get into one paragraph?), but I am too timid to build from scratch. My caution stems in part from a fear of failure and in part from a pretty realistic self-appraisal. I’m not a good innovator.
If you could travel anywhere, where would you go and why?
I like this question, because the truth is we are about to travel to lots of places. Why these particular places? Because they are there! The next few months look like this: August, Mexico. September, England with a week in France. October, Ireland with another week in France. Mid-November to mid-January, Australia. Mid-January to mid-February, India. That’s as far as we’ve planned, but not nearly as far as we’ve dreamed.
What was an embarrassing moment in your life?
There are so many.
What are three books you like, and why?
Sorry. I can’t answer this one. My list of favorites is too long and too diverse. To pick just three would be unjust to the unchosen ones.
You may know I write a monthly column for Christian Standard called “From My Bookshelf.” Each month I review three or more recent reads. I’m in my ninth year. I can’t even select three favorites in one year, let alone for a lifetime.
You’ve spent a lifetime working in the church or church-related institutions. What do you wish more people understood about the church?
I wish more people understood the church is about relationships and not organizational structure, polity, and programs, that the people in the Body are more important than the church’s reputation and prestige, and that our mission really is to introduce people to Jesus and help them become better acquainted.
I wish more people had had the positive experience I’ve enjoyed as an active member of the church. I know it well, warts and all, but I do not know of any other body that could have done for me what the church has done, and not just for me but for people all over the world. If I had my life to live over, I’d still want it to be lived in this company and for this cause.
What does “home” mean to you?
Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s a few of us Milligan College professors (my role was a minor one) created the Humanities Program that in time became the signature course of the curriculum: a two-year, 24-semester-hour romp through Western Civilization, from prehistory to the present. It has since been substantially modified, but the philosophy and basic design of the course remains.
In those days we had three one-hour lectures each week and three hours of small group discussion based on the lectures. One of my regular assignments was Homer’s Odyssey. I zeroed in on Odysseus’ refrain, when landing in a new place, announcing himself as Odysseus of Ithaca. Then I personalized these words: “I am Roy Lawson of Tillamook (Oregon).” In those years I was feeling very much the transplant, uprooted from my hometown and replanted in the alien hills of East Tennessee. I was convinced that if I lived in Tennessee 50 years and died there, on my tombstone the natives would etch, “Here lies Roy Lawson, from Oregon.” An outsider.
Since then we have moved several times—to Indiana, to Arizona, to California, back to Arizona, back to East Tennessee, but not to Oregon. In all those places, though often feeling like an alien, I knew who I was and where I really belonged: I was and am Roy Lawson, from Tillamook.
Many of our students were from elsewhere. Not only were they geographically alienated but they were in those “Sturm und Drang” years of adolescence and early adulthood. I wanted to say an encouraging word about being grateful for their roots even as they were taking wing. In Odysseus’ self-identification Homer touches a human universal. To know where we’re from helps us to know who we are.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
I’ve talked too much already!