On a cold, icy day back in January 1982, I brought my new bride, the few possessions we had in a tiny U-Haul trailer, and our old cars to Fort Worth, Texas. And two bicycles, although one was soon stolen. I was on crutches from a surgically repaired knee. Michelle and I both would soon be in school. More broke than Job’s turkey, we lived in a furnished apartment (because we had no furniture), and had very little in the bank.
Yet we were excited, happy, and ready to see what God had in store for us in our new life as seminarians.
When I started at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary that spring of ’82, I had never heard of evangelism professor Roy Fish.
When I left there years later with both a Master’s and a PhD, I knew I would never forget him.
Dr. Roy Fish, who passed away earlier this week, will be laid to rest today. As I gather with a multitude of others on the Southwestern campus to celebrate his life well lived, many emotions and memories come to the fore. Last night I saw his colleagues and my former teachers – Bill Tolar, Leo Garrett, Dan Crawford, and others. I saw new faculty members who cherished the chance to know him.
I remember hearing of Dr. Fish (he is the only man to this day I have never been able to call by his first name—he will always be Dr. Fish). I quickly heard of his reputation as a teacher, leader, evangelist, and as a man of God. I longed to get to know him. Southwestern was in her glory days of explosive growth — we only secured housing days before we move — and classes closed faster than a fire swept across a Kansas wheat field. But I finally got to take him for a class near the end of my master’s study. Only then did I really begin to get to know this man.
I was one of the first to earn a PhD in the field of evangelism at Southwestern, and as I moved to the dissertation phase I knew Dr. Fish was the man I wanted to supervise my work. His seminar on the great awakenings will be a spiritual marker on all of us who participated for the span of our lives. Many of my closest friendships for decades now were forged in that seminar with men like Doug Munton, John Avant, Preston Nix, and Steve Gaines.
Roy Fish taught the subject of evangelism to more students who formally trained for ministry than any man in the history of the church. That will likely never be surpassed. For decades Dr. Fish was used of God to inspire, convict, equip, and propel a generation into churches and to the nations for the gospel. Only God knows the extent of his influence. He was a teacher beyond peer, but he was more. He served as interim pastor of some of the most significant churches in the SBC, spoke at more conferences than one could count, and inspired multitudes with his keen balance of gospel boldness and personal humility.
My classmate Tim Beougher and I had the rare honor of editing a festschrift in his honor years ago. Leaders from Rick Warren to Robert Coleman lined up and volunteered eagerly to contribute a chapter. Few men I have ever known have been loved and admired more than Dr. Fish.
If you knew Dr. Fish, you knew this to be so. If you did not know him, let me try in a few words to explain the significance of his life. His impact cannot be measured by simple chronology, as others have also taught for decades at one school with far less influence. But his tenacity to stay a teacher when offered so many other roles should not be overlooked. Megachurch pastorates, school presidencies, agency headships all came his way, but he remained true to his calling to teach. He was never to be confused with the opportunists so common today.
He had nothing to prove, just Someone to please.
But no, the secret to Dr. Fish was not in his longevity, nor was it contained in his excellence as a teacher or as a preacher. In our day of celebrity-by-podcast ministry leadership, Dr. Fish could preach with the best of them. But you could never understand his greatness with a podcast. His greatness lay in something more than the ability to communicate, or the mind of a scholar, or even one who had the heart of an evangelist. He was a statesman at a time when such were rare, but yet there is more.
Dr. Fish was different for this reason: he was above all else a man of God. More than a professor or author or statesman or evangelist, he epitomized what most think of when we envision a man of God. A list of characteristics, a resume of accomplishments, or a heritage of students simply cannot illustrate what you could only truly understand by knowing the man personally.
Who he was far exceeded all he had done.
I often tell my students that the way you can tell a leader is by spending time with a man and then thinking, “I would follow him.” But you can tell a man of God by spending time with him and thinking, “A holy man of God has passed our way.” (II Kings 4:9). I never spent time sitting with Dr. Fish at a meal, at a conference, or discussing my thesis without leaving with a desire to honor God more. I know of no one else who has had such an impact as that.
Everyone is replaceable. But today, while we celebrate the life of Dr. Fish, many will realize we have lost a holy man of God from our generation. I am surprised at the sense of loss I have felt this week, and I have spoken to others who share that. We rejoice at his home going even as we remember his impact.
When a young George Whitefield met an older Theodore Frelinghuysen in the early flames of the Great Awakening, Whitefield recorded this impression of the older minister: “He is a worthy old soldier of the cross.” Dr. Fish, you too have been a worthy soldier of the cross. May we be renewed in our own hearts to walk more closely to Christ, that we too might honor our Lord as my hero did so well.