Fred Norris passed away last week. Fred was one of my teachers at Emmanuel Christian Seminary. He was a really smart man; his PhD was from Yale. But the first thing a person would notice about Fred was not his learning, but his laugh. Fred had a large laugh – and he was very liberal with his laughter. He spread it everywhere, to everyone. You knew Fred Norris was coming down the hall, because his laugh preceded him. It exploded out of his lungs, with such force and feeling that it was obvious: he simply couldn’t hold it back.
Fred knew a lot of stuff, but his specialty was history and world Christianity. And with 2000 years of church history, that’s a lot of material for a guy with Fred’s sense of humor. So Fred delighted to tell us about the time the reformer Martin Luther heard a sermon from a guy he didn’t care for. Luther’s response? I’ve heard a sow fart before.
Then there was the day Dr. Norris sat in on a class led by another professor. In the context of class discussion, a student asked a question, and the teacher had to admit he didn’t have an answer. I don’t know, he told the student. To which, Fred replied, Another dumb question! – as he burst out laughing.
As much as I enjoyed Fred’s laughter, I appreciated his insight and wisdom even more. He didn’t first love history; he first loved people. Once, he told us of “a wonderful spiritual woman” in a congregation he served in Oklahoma. She never once took communion, and he thinks that she probably went to her grave not having taken it. Why? Because she didn’t feel worthy – in part, because she had been left by her husband. Fred grieved over how difficult it was for this woman in his church to know and experience grace.
In a more serious moment, Fred said it this way: “Don’t let yourself get to a place in ministry where grace and mercy sit as an apostrophe somewhere.”
Fred Norris was perhaps the first person to introduce me to the phrase Credo ut intelligam – “I believe so that I might understand.” Inherent in this phrase is the idea that faith seeks understanding – not the other way around. Learning about faith helps, no doubt; but it’s living it that truly leads a person to understand what faith is all about.
Perhaps all that I learned from Dr. Norris can be summarized by a story he told in the early 1990s when I first had him as a professor. In class – one that no doubt focused on some point of theology or doctrine – I remember how he talked about some guys coming over to his house to work on his truck. They got talking (and laughing, no doubt), and learned that Fred was a minister/teacher. They asked: What kind of church do you go to? As in: You’re not like any ministers we’ve ever known. We want to see what kind of church someone like you must be in.
But as Dr. Norris told the story, he ached. And his jovial demeanor quickly turned sad, even tearful, as he reflected: They wouldn’t feel at home in my church. Fred’s congregation was a good, faithful church, but consisted of mostly educated folk. And these guys were decidedly blue collar. And so, Fred grieved at the distance between the beauty and power of what we believe, and the common man on the street who needs to experience it. And how hard it is to bring those 2 together.
Of all the things I learned from Fred Norris, that’s the most abiding lesson. The gospel is for everyone. Faith believed must be faith lived. And we should never stop finding ways to make our faith come alive with joy – in our churches, in academia, and out on the streets.
Thanks, Dr. Norris, for teaching me that unforgettable lesson. I look forward to seeing you again, where there will be no more tears – but, I am convinced, plenty of laughter. You’ll be in the middle of that, for sure. And, no doubt, I’ll hear you before I see you.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21.3-4, NIV)