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New Horizons

My Memory of John Skilton

David G. Barker

I did not have a close, long-standing relationship with Dr. Skilton, and therefore even hesitate to write these words. No doubt others could much better express our collective praise and thanksgiving to God for Dr. Skilton's work and his love for God, man, and ministry. But I cannot resist the opportunity to pass on what has been for me a lasting memory.

I first met Dr. Skilton during my freshman year at Westminster Seminary in 1979. He had come out of "retirement" yet again, to teach New Testament introduction. The first of many things that struck me about the man were the prayers with which he opened every class. I confess that, due to the animation of his praise, I even peeked once and discovered that he prayed "full body" as well.

As I continued through four years at Westminster, I would, of course, come across Dr. Skilton from time to time. But I learned most about him through all the lore regarding the beginnings of the OPC and the history of the seminary. I came to know and appreciate and revere this man like many, many others—more from a distance than face-to-face.

Many years later, I was living in Amsterdam, New York. (I have been the pastor of Covenant OPC there since 1985.) Our presbytery was holding a singles retreat and had chosen Amsterdam as a central gathering place. But Covenant Church had yet to obtain its own building, and so I arranged for the ladies to be housed in a home that I knew to have a large, comfortable basement, and for the men to "rough it" in our unfinished basement—cement floor, bare lights, you get the picture.

Well, the numbers of singles that actually showed up for the retreat were way out of proportion to what we had expected. Only four ladies showed up that Friday evening to share a spacious and comfortable facility. But we, on the other hand, were inundated with guys! They quickly filled up our basement and then spilled over up the stairs and into whatever space we could offer them. They filled up our living room, one of the two children's bedrooms, and the hallway. We felt like we were living in Grand Central Station. Now, don't get me wrong. The fellows were all gentlemanly. They offered food and assistance, and were quite pleasant—which made the overwhelming (and amusing) situation at least survivable.

At one point, I went out to get some needed supplies. When I got home, my wife, Janet, met me at the door with a perplexed look on her face. "We have another single man for the weekend," she said. That hardly seemed newsworthy at the time, and I shrugged my shoulders. Then she said, "It's Dr. Skilton." I commended her for being able to keep her sense of humor during this bizarre period.

Then I went into the kitchen, where I stopped short and stared. There, sitting at the kitchen table, talking with a handful of other "single guys" and not feeling the least out of place, was Dr. Skilton. He wasn't even the center of attention for many of the men. If Janet had not spoken to me, it might have been hours before I discovered him!

For some reason, this just seemed incredible—probably all the more so because, as I said, I really did not know this man other than at a distance and as a legend: the last of the old greats, a man who had rubbed shoulders with "Das Machen." And yet, here he was in my home. He didn't know he was in my home. He didn't know where in the world he was, and he couldn't care less. He had just tagged along for a singles retreat. He wasn't the speaker or anything—just another "tramp" figuring to camp out on my floor!

I scrambled to work out adequate accommodations for him. Before he came, I had put all of our children into one room because of the overflow, but now I woke them up and relocated them on the floor in our own bedroom so that this one man—who didn't want to be a bother—could have a room to himself.

Then I began to get greedy. I not only felt obligated, of course, but was eager, to have Dr. Skilton preach to my congregation the next Lord's day. What an opportunity this would be! What an amazing blessing! I would have to explain to my congregation "after the fact" who this man was, but at least they would get to hear him preach. And they would get to hear him pray.

But before I got the opportunity to make my request to Dr. Skilton the following Saturday morning, it was taken out of my hands. He informed me that he and his companion would have to leave that night to drive to another church, where he had already been asked to preach. And so, that evening after the singles retreat, Dr. Skilton climbed into the passenger side of an old, beat-up, overloaded car that leaned dangerously to the right, and allowed himself to be taken down the road several hours to his destination for the following morning.

Somewhere else, Dr. Skilton would make another late-night appearance. But there he would be expected and received with gracious hospitality. He would be the center of attention and have a place of honor—none of which would matter to him in the least. And his visit would indeed be a blessing. As I watched them drive down the road, my prayer was just that the car would make it there. I felt helplessly responsible. Furthermore, it struck me that if our arrangements had been reversed—if we had housed the girls and sent the guys over to the other home—Dr. Skilton probably would have come and gone without my ever being aware of it.

"No one will ever believe this," I said to my wife as we watched the car disappear. She laughed and gave me a hug. "Everyone will believe this."

Reprinted from New Horizons, October 1998.

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