Anyone walking by probably thought I was praying. Maybe I was. It was a crisp, warm Texas September afternoon on the sprawling pastoral lawn in front of the Southwestern Seminary Dome. I was kneeling down in a patch of St. Augustine growing around the base of a mammoth tree—my backpack abandoned a few feet away—quietly crying, my right fist gripping a giant pecan. “Thank you,” I whispered sincerely, though I wasn’t sure exactly who I was thanking—God, the Seminary, the pecan, the tree, or Homer Warren Shirley, Jr.
God called me to the ministry when I was sixteen. I publically made my decision to follow that calling at an evangelistic youth revival at my home church that featured an Elvis impersonator and a Christian rap band. In an unplanned, holy moment, my parents emerged as counselors the moment I submitted to the aisle, receiving me at the altar along with our church’s freshly-appointed interim preacher, Bro. Homer Shirley. Before my youth minister could make it into our huddle, the old preacher put his huge, heavy hand on my shoulder and said, “I’d like to disciple you, boy. I’d like to be your mentor. Would that be OK?” He was seventy years old. Homer was tall—every feature stretched out—and bore a resemblance to Jimmy Stewart. He was warm but firm, with a gravely deep voice. I always remember him in a grey worsted wool suit. He was never far from his wife, Mrs. Pauline, who was a “slapper.” Every time I would see her she would slap on my face—open palm—in Christian love, of course—as she sidled up for her hug. She called me “boy,” too, and would always remind me that her husband and Jesus loved me.
Until he got too sick, I would go and meet Bro. Homer in his office after school once a week, and soak up as much of his wisdom about ministry as a sixteen-year-old could. He told me the story of his calling—how he had been a farmer his whole life until God called him into ministry at forty. “If I had had my whole life to prepare like you do…,” he used to say, smiling and shaking his head as he’d look to the ceiling. Like Amos and Elisha before him, he obediently left his fields behind to serve the Lord—working a different kind of harvest. His first step of this new life was to relocate his young family to Fort Worth, Texas to attend Southwestern Baptist Seminary. While he took classes, his agricultural skills were put to use working as the foreman of the Seminary grounds crew. His labor on the campus allowed him to support his family as he got his degree. He used to tell me about the Pecan groves he had cultivated on the main campus. He loved pecans. He even shared some of his own personal harvest with me one time, boasting that the pecan trees in his backyard were planted from those same Texas nuts.
Homer would always close our meetings with his giant hand on my shoulder, saying, “God has his hand on you, boy.” It was the last thing he ever said to me from his hospital bed before he died that November, a little over a year after our first meeting. He had willed me his library and a collection of hand-written sermons from thirty years of preaching. And until I went to college, I would help Mrs. Pauline harvest the pecans in their backyard every fall. She would slap my face and remind me of how much her husband and Jesus loved me.
Five years later, on my first day of classes at Southwestern Baptist Seminary, I found myself overwhelmed with God’s mercy at the base of one of of Bro. Homer’s pecan trees. The fruit of his labor had come face-to-face with the fruit of his ministry. His last disciple knelt down and scooped up a piece of his earthly legacy. I felt his weighty hand on me again. “God has his hand on you, boy.” And I realized that had never really been Homer’s hand on my shoulder. He had given it up to God decades before. “Thank you,” I declared, placing the pecan in my pocket and collecting myself for my next class. You’ll never know what God will do with the things you plant with surrendered hands.