Rev. Dr. Brent Smith served as the Senior Minister of All Souls from 1990 to 1999. He wrote these words in honor and in remembrance of the late Rev. Dr. John B. Wolf. Dr. Wolf’s family and All Souls community celebrated his life on Monday, September 25 at All Souls Unitarian Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma.
I greet you all in love from a physical distance, but with a closeness that time and place cannot diminish. I do not and cannot know fully what John meant to you, Barbara, and you, David, Cathy, and Aaron, and others of you who felt as close as family to him. I only know what John meant to me as my predecessor, colleague, companion, and friend.
He was not a saint and my experience of him was that he would denounce that claim. He was a contradiction as we all are, a complex mixture who like few others, was unafraid of the contradiction that makes us human beings. He embraced what he was, both lion and lamb as they lay down together in our nature. I saw him ferocious and I saw him gentle, incomprehensible as that might seem to many. Now, though, it is simple. I miss my friend.
John was both a theologian and a preacher, and rarely do you get both. Most theologians are boring in public and withdrawn in private. Most preachers air their drama in public, and are insufferably self-absorbed in private.
As theologian he knew the gods you wrestle write their names on your face, and he had a large forehead.
Why does religion preach love while practicing hateful exclusion?
Why do individuals use free speech to threaten those not like them?
What would many speak Jesus’ words and do what he would not ever do?
John knew how much of politics and religion are pathological.
We stake out virtuous positions until we unknowingly find ourselves justifying actions that destroy virtue. We love so fiercely that we extinguish what we say we love. John learned from his theological mentor, Paul Tillich, that to walk upright man must do so in humility. Yes, the lion that roared did so for those who could not roar, and abided in care with those who needed healing.
People mimicked his way of speaking hoping that his courage might become theirs; to walk in pain without being consumed by pain. But that’s faith and something you cannot borrow. John knew how “the good we would do is ofttimes interred with our bones,” and he rebelled against man’s indifference to man.
But that, my friends and beloved companions, is the power of the Spirit, and we who mourn do but bear witness to its glory, which shall rise again.
Rise up, O Spirit, into our hearts, that at the death of the one whom we held so dear, who gave of his life in honor to justice and love, our lives might be given a clear path towards a new birth of freedom.
Dr. Brent Smith
Senior Minister of All Souls, 1990-1999
Learn more about Dr. Brent Smith at drbrentasmith.com.