But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me. [Phil 2:25-30]
Everybody needs a hero to model and follow. Hebrews puts it like this: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” [Heb 13:7-8] My hero was my father, my preacher dad. In the opening pages of my book that is soon to be released, I wanted to honor the man who did the most to enrich my life and point me to the joy of serving Jesus. So, I wrote, “To my Father, whose love for Jesus and his Word set the direction of my life.” It has been almost twenty-five years since my father went to be home with his Lord. But, his life and faith still guides and gives me a model after which I can pattern my life. My dad was a man of God. He loved God. He obeyed God’s Word. He served God’s people. Paul tells us to “honor men like him.” [Phil. 2:25] I am trying.
Dad became a Christian as a teenager, when he attended a tent meeting revival. The next day he opened the Bible to John 14:1 and read “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God.” He had a serious heart condition from childhood that was life threatening. He reasoned that if God wrote something in the Book it must be true. Therefore, God didn’t want him to have a heart condition. He prayed and God healed his heart. He never had another problem with it until the day it stopped 62 years later. In spite of his poor exegesis, God honored his faith and instantly healed him.
His life was characterized by a simple faith. When he prayed, he expected God to answer. Whether he was praying for the salvation of his family or the healing of our dog’s arthritis, he was convinced that God heard his prayers and would answer them. He didn’t know a lot of theology but he knew Jesus. His prayers and his love for the Bible enabled him to impact thousands of lives with the Gospel. Above his pulpit, he put this scripture for his congregation to see every Sunday: “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.” [1 Samuel 7:12 KJV] His favorite phrase which we put on his tombstone was this: “Why live in God’s world without God?” He really believed that. God was sovereign and working his will in the world and in his Church every day and in every way, for the glory of His name and the good of His people.
A few years ago I was speaking at a church camp in Wisconsin that my parents had attended for over fifty years. While at lunch, one of the campers sat down beside me. He looked at me and asked, “Are you Bob Rieben’s son?” I said I was. He then told me that he knew my father before he was married to my Mom. He then volunteered, “Your dad was the most positive man I have ever known.” That was my dad. His confidence in the goodness and greatness of God would not allow any room for pessimism or defeatism.
At the age of 18, he felt called to preach the Gospel. He read his Master’s words, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” [Matt 28:18-19] so, he went. With little formal education, he felt compelled to obey the Lord’s commission. He would enter a small town, go to the town center, sing and play his guitar, and when a crowd would gather, he would begin to preach. At the close, he would point to an old abandoned store front and announce, “We are meeting there next Sunday. If you want to hear the Word of God, join us.” He would stay in that village until he had enough people to start a church. Then, he would call in a pastor to take his place and he would be off to the next community.
His lack of formal training did not affect his confidence in his call. The man who praised my father’s positive spirit was his superintendent at one time. He told me of a Sunday when he visited the church where my father was the pastor. The church had outgrown the building so that some people had to stand during the meeting. My father had tried to persuade the Church Board to move to a larger building. They refused. So, after the sermon, my father stood up and announced to the congregation that he would be at a larger building next Sunday and then added, “If you want to hear me preach, I will be there.” The souls of people were more important to him than the fear of controversy.
Neither was he afraid to be unconventional in his passion to win the lost. He made it a priority to reach out to the poor and forgotten of the society. He had a bus ministry before it was cool. He would go to the local housing projects and gather the kids and bring them to church on the bus. He also went way out into the “boon docks” to reach people nobody else cared about. He found one family who lived in a one room cottage with a dirt floor that included thirteen family members. He not only brought them to church, he supplied them with food and clothing. The kids that arrived by bus were dirty, smelly, poorly dressed and rather disruptive to the services. Some of the longtime members were less than impressed with the nature of this kind of church growth. My father didn’t care. Jesus loved the poor and so did he.
He was always ready to give even when it cost him. I had the privilege of speaking to a pastor’s conference in California. On three separate occasions, ministers came up to me after the service with stories of how my dad helped them when they were struggling young ministers back in the Midwest. I was not surprised. At one time, we had a steady stream of street people coming by our house for handouts. We couldn’t imagine how all of these people were finding our home. Then dad found out that the local parish priest would direct them to our house saying, “The pastor who lives there is sure to help you.”
On one occasion the local sheriff called my dad and asked if he could help a family that was stranded and without money. Dad told him to send them over. He took them out to eat and got them gas and then put them up in our church apartment. In the morning he went over to take them to breakfast but they were already gone, and so was the TV, a clock, the bedding and everything else that was not tied down. That kind of thing was not that unusual, but it did not keep him from continuing to help the needy. He was a servant of Jesus.
What really made a mark on my life was that he lived in the home the same way he lived in the pulpit. He was truly a man of God not only in words but in life. He always stood on principle. He was like a tree, not a weeping willow but a redwood. I watched him receive harsh and cruel criticism from some of his leadership and yet he refused to get caught up in bitterness. He continued to love them. Later in life, after he left the church, the very ones who treated him the worst had the nicest things to say about him. Someone has rightly observed that churches often build monuments to the leaders who have long gone with the very stones they used to throw at him when he was in their midst.
My father was also a crack-up. He had a great sense of humor and our house was always a place of laughter and fun. Although he was dead serious about his walk with Jesus, he showed us by his laughter that it was not a drag. Serving Jesus, following Jesus, suffering for Jesus, was not a sacrifice but a privilege. You could not be around him very long without your faith in Christ being strengthened.
Last summer I was attending my high school’s fiftieth reunion. One of the men attending was a member of our church when I was growing up. He has since denied much of the teachings he received from my father and the church. We had a spirited debate on the nature of the scriptures and the person of Christ. But, in a moment of reminiscence, he conceded to me, “Your father was bigger than life.” And I told him the reason: he loved God’s Word and His Christ. Another member of our youth group commented, “In all the pastors that we have had through the years, your Dad was the standard we compared them to.” Awesome!
My last moments with my father were a microcosm of his whole life. He had a heart attack and I hurried from California to Florida to be with him. When I entered his room he wasn’t there. I asked his roommate where he was. He said, “He is making his rounds.” I finally found him in his hospital robe, going from room to room, praying for healing for complete strangers.
When he got back in bed I asked him if he was afraid of anything. He said, “No” and then added, “I am concerned about your mother if something should happen to me.” I said, “You can be sure we will take care of her.” Then, trying to fulfill my pastoral role, I asked if I could pray for him. He replied, “No, I will pray for you.” He did and I will never forget that moment. It was the last words I heard from my hero. He ended his days the same way he had lived them throughout his life: thinking more about others than himself; trusting Jesus Christ to the end, showing me and my family what joy in Jesus is all about. I thank God for my father, my pastor and my hero, Rev. Robert A. Rieben.