However, years later — again as I describe in the letter — I realized what Dr. Perry was really up to: he was giving us a strong foundation for sermon construction that I am sure he knew we would gradually shape for ourselves. But at least we would know how to put a well-crafted sermon together. When that "revelation" hit me, I determined to write Dr. Perry and thank him for how much he had influenced my life as a preacher. Sadly, before I got around to doing that, Dr. Perry died, and I felt sad that I had never thanked him.
But today I met someone who not only knew Dr. Perry but knows his widow well (she's 95), and he gave me her address. So I just wrote her the following letter:
Dear Mrs. Perry,I was a student of your husband’s at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1969 and 1970. And, I must tell you in all honesty, he drove me crazy. As you know, he was extremely meticulous in how he wanted us to construct our sermons; and while I never had the courage to tell him this personally, I thought he was forcing us into some sort of artificial sermonic straitjacket! And, for a while after I graduated and was pastoring my first church, I rather prided myself in NOT preaching “Perry Sermons!”But as time went on, and my sermonic preparation (and humility!) improved, I was somewhat shocked to realize that, more often than not, my sermons were beginning more or less to follow the approach that Dr. Perry had taught us. But more than that, I began to understand that what he had been doing was not inflicting on us a not-to-be-tinkered-with absolute system of sermon construction, but rather he was giving us this wonderful tool for approaching the Biblical text that he expected us to take and shape and make our own.At that point, I decided I needed to write Dr. Perry and thank him for the amazing foundation for preaching that he had so patiently instilled in me (and maybe even apologize for all those thoughts I’d had as a very young and inexperienced student, way too proud for his own good!). But, sadly, in the busyness of that time in my life, I never got around to it. And when I saw the notice of his death in the Trinity newsletter, I felt terrible that I had never written him.I am in his debt for so many aspects of my pastoral ministry, not just preaching. To this day, I tell young pastors not to make any changes in their church during the first year of their ministry and to figure out who the “church boss” in their congregation is (I found mine within hours of my arrival at my congregation — fortunately a good man who didn’t abuse the power that people had conferred on him. But I knew I needed to make him my friend if I wanted to get anything done). By contrast, every time I don’t wear a white dress shirt on Sunday morning, I think of Dr. Perry and wonder if he’s frowning! And it took me years ... years before I would wear anything but a formal suit on Sunday morning. I still wear a suit or sports coat — I can’t imagine what he would say if I tried to get away with what some are wearing in the pulpit these days. And you will be pleased to know that I never step into the pulpit with unshined shoes! I say all this, of course, with such warm feelings for my old mentor, and am consoled by the thought that from his present perch he is able to laugh with me — or, more likely, to be so distracted by his conversations with Jesus and others that he scarcely has time to think of his former students or life at TEDS. But I still felt badly that I had never taken the time to actually thank him for what he had meant to me all these years.So when, by “chance” I met Dan this afternoon, and he asked me what seminary I had gone to, and I mentioned TEDS, he said, “Did you ever know a Dr. Perry?” I exploded with memories, as I’ve shared with you, and told him that I’d always regretted not sending that letter of thanks to him. And then when Dan related that he had known Dr. Perry and you — and knew your address — you can’t imagine how excited I was!Your husband was and is such a formative part of my pastoral life, that when I retired earlier this year after 42 years of ministry, including 37 years at my last church, his book on sermon construction was one of a very few that I kept. (Tears are coming as I think of him even now.)Most of the other books — about 3/4 of them — I gave away or sold. But two books, one by your husband and a signed copy of a Romans commentary by Richard Longenecker, I kept soley because I cherished the memories of those fine and influential men and so appreciate their effect on my personal and pastoral life.You know, far more than I, what a gracious and caring man your husband was. He was not just a brilliant scholar and teacher but a warm Christian gentleman who wished that his students bring a measure of “class” to their pastoral work. I shall always be grateful that he was my teacher, and I am so thankful to be able to share my memories of him with you.I pray that our great God will continue to bless you in abundance!