Yesterday, a dear man left my life. Dr. F. Olden Pittman left this world and was welcomed into glory, “absent from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8). His death leaves a very, very big hole in my life, one that I think shows why biblical mentorship is so vital in our lives.
Allow me to walk you down the path of my life with him.
Laura and I were church-shopping when we moved to San Diego and visited a megachurch in Santee. It was full of friendly people, and we saw on their bulletin that they had a Sunday School class on parenting. We had two little ones (3 and 6 months at the time) and decided to attend.
The leader of that class was an elder in the church. Everyone called him Dr. Pittman, and I found out that he was a chiropractor. I was still hurting from a car wreck I had experienced in January, and his parenting class was very, very good. So I made an appointment to have my bones cracked. We enjoyed the class and he was very open and friendly to us.
While in the appointment we talked about church and got to know each other a little. We talked about parenting and I asked him for some advice on how to grow in my walk with Christ. He was very personable and open, and gave me some resources to get me started and pointed me in the right direction. I got those resources (a ministry that offered books and taped sermons at no charge) and started reading and listening and talking with Dr. Pittman about them during our appointments. How soon his wonderful wife would be banging on the door of the exam room to say that he had other patients waiting!
The real eye-opener was during a Saturday morning men’s breakfast the church put on. His son Micah came in and asked me if I had seen his dad. I pointed Dr. Pittman out, and Micah made a beeline for his dad. In this room full of men, Micah went to his dad and gave him a big kiss on the cheek, a hug, and asked him if he needed a cup of coffee. When I saw how this grown man loved and respected his dad, I knew that I wanted to get to know him better. I wanted a relationship with my son like he had with his. I wanted to know what he knew and decided to get closer to him to become a better man, husband, and father.
I never asked him to be my mentor. I just asked him for advice and direction, listened and applied, and came back for more. He started a weeknight Bible study and I attended. I started helping him with data entry at his office to thank him for his chiropractic care, and we spent a lot of time talking doctrine and how it made a difference in daily life. He was an elder in a large church, a businessman, a great parent, and had a wonderful outlook on life. I respected him very much.
After awhile I felt the need to find a title that appropriately showed the respect that I had for him. Everyone called him “Dr. Pittman;” I needed something to show him more respect than that. I racked my brain, and then one day I asked him if I could call him “dad.” He laughed and said that he would like that very much. From that time on he was dad and his wife was mom; to the kids they were grandfather and grandmother. I heard him joke with the butcher one day while we were picking up some pork he had butchered that I was his son, “as one untimely born.” (a joking reference to 1 Cor 15:8 and immensely flattering to me)
We continued to see each other three times a week for chiropractic care and mentorship, and on Sundays for church. He helped me learn how to parent, how to love my wife, and most importantly how to study the Bible for all it is worth. He instilled in me a love for the word of God and for the original languages of Scripture. He taught me to think critically and deeply about doctrine and to be passionate about Christ.
When the Navy was about to give me the heave-ho for my back, I planned to start a business to support my family. Dad was the one who, in the most significant interaction we ever had, told me that he thought I had the gift of pastoring and teaching. He said that I should go to seminary and become a pastor and teacher. I didn’t think it would fly with Laura, but all he had to do was say the word and she was on board. It was at his urging that I enrolled in seminary and we moved to Phoenix to pursue education and becoming a professional servant of Christ.
Oh how I remember the talks we had on the way home from my classes. I would call him at 11PM and recount what we had talked about in lecture, and we would bat the ideas back and forth. He was always so interested! He would ask questions and we would talk for the whole ride home, then offer his love to Laura and the kids. Whether the topic was atonement or bills, my marriage or my view on Phoebe in Romans 16:2 he was always there with a helpful question or sage advice. Whenever we were in San Diego he would make time for lunch at the Marie Callender’s next to his office so we could catch up. He listened to James talk about kenpo and lavished affection on all of the kids. He had a special affection for Laura and always gave her a huge hug when we were together.
When I graduated from seminary, he drove 6 hours one way to see me receive my degree. Then he had to drive 6 hours back home to make his appointments the next day. I was so amazed that he would do that; it spoke love to me so loudly that he would be there.
When I co-wrote a book on the nature of faith, I dedicated it to him and the influence he had on my life.
In the last two years or so, we had not been able to keep up much. I was frustrated about that; I wanted his time still. I would text and call, leave him voicemail when it wasn’t full. (he was notorious for not checking his voicemail) We would catch up occasionally, and he was so proud when I would call and tell him I got a new belt in kenpo. (he had a 5th degree black belt that he seldom talked about) He would occasionally text me back and tell me that he loved me and that he prayed for Laura and the kids and me every day.
I think I see now what he was doing. I think the most important and difficult decision that any mentor ever makes is the recognition that they have done all for a protege that they could. I think that he knew that he had helped so much and in so many ways that all he could do was love me, pray for me, and get out of my way as God led me in life. He saw my other mentors helping me and probably realized that his schedule was way too packed to continue a close mentoring relationship. So he gracefully and quietly let me grow as a man and kept praying for me.
What a fantastic impact he has had on me. What a great picture of biblical mentorship. He accepted me where I was, faults and all, and helped me grow into who I am. He sowed time, effort, and love into me without ever receiving in return. He never offered me a crutch, but always offered a sounding board and a few questions to get me on the right track. And when he had done all he could do, he loved me enough to let me continue to grow outside of his shadow. That is the heart of a biblical mentor.
I miss my dad. There is probably no one who has done more to shape my love for God than him. He welcomed me with open arms into his life, and for that I am beyond grateful. He now has eternity with the Lord he spent so much of his life focused on and serving, and I would be willing to bet that he has been busy tracking down the Apostle Paul to ask him why he chose to use a verb tense in Ephesians 3 or something.*
I now see the impact all the more clearly of what the author of Hebrews wrote in Hebrews 12:1-2:
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith…
I can see dad in the stands now, cheering me on in my race. Because he stands in that crowd, I must set aside anything that holds me back and run with endurance. I can’t keep my eyes on dad, though. If I look at the crowd I will stumble and fall. He would want nothing more than for me to keep my eyes on Jesus and run with everything I have.
He has sown so much into me, that it is now my race to run. One day, somehow, I hope that I can pass the baton to capable men who will think a tenth of me what I think of dad. I will run my race with endurance, dad, and see you when my work is done.
There are precious few people in each of our lives who have such a profound influence. None of us are guaranteed today or tomorrow, so take the time to pursue those mentoring relationships for all they are worth. Take the baton they offer and run your race with endurance.
*Do you wonder if Paul and Peter and Moses and other famous biblical figures need publicists in heaven? I wonder if they can welcome everyone who has questions and wants to meet them in person, or if they have someone whose reward in heaven is to act as their executive assistant and keep their schedule. “Apostle Paul’s office, Steve speaking. Why hello! Yes, we are excited that you’re here too. Sure, Paul would love to talk to you. His earliest appointment is in 10 months, but you’ll have so much to see and do between now and then that it will go by fast. Okay, you’re in his schedule!”