REACHING THE GOAL
In loving and grateful memory of Charles P. Robshaw, S.T.D.
(July 17, 1915 - January 1, 2003)
By Mark A. Bayert, D.Min.
Back in my undergraduate days in Indiana, when I was forty years younger and fifty pounds lighter, I ran on the track and cross country teams. The toughest cross country course I can remember was at Hanover College, a small Presbyterian school on the banks of the Ohio River in southeast Indiana. You had to be prepared for anything during that four-mile race: it took you over rolling hills, down ravines, through rocky and wet creek beds. Near the end you had to climb a steep embankment and try to have something left for the final two hundred yards across a flat field to the finish line.
I donít know that Charles Robshaw ever ran track or cross country, but he was an athlete and loved sports and games of all kinds, from cricket to American football. In his youth he played soccer and as an adult he enjoyed tennis, my favorite sport. In the last few years, Charles and I sometimes teamed up for a doubles ping-pong match and we were pleased to beat our teenage opponents at Oak Grove Church.
Because of his interest in sports, some of Charlesí favorite Scriptures were those passages of St. Paul where the apostle compares the Christian life to an athletic contest. In I Corinthians, he writes, "Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath; but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified" (9:25-27). And to the Philippians Paul said, "... forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus" (3:13-14).
We are here this afternoon because Charles Robshaw, our dear friend and Godís servant, has finished his marathon race and has crossed the finish line, has reached the goal. We are here to celebrate his journey, to reflect on how he lived his life and on how he died.
Many members at Oak Grove Presbyterian Church, where I serve as pastor, were surprised and saddened yesterday to learn of Charlesí death. Others who happened to see the obituary in the Star Tribune were surprised to find out that he was such a great man. That in itself is a tribute to Charles. The fact that we did not know of most of his accomplishments was because he didnít think it necessary to talk about himself much. Part of his greatness was his modesty. Like Jesus, he did not lord it over others. He came "not to be served but to serveĒ (Mk. 10:45). Unlike so many other "tall steeple" pastors, he was not pushy and self-centered. In his retirement, Charles was content to take a subordinate role. He occasionally preached or assisted in leading worship at Oak Grove, but most of the time he was simply a faithful participant, happy to sit in the pew Sunday after Sunday, attend the monthly Sturdy Oaks meetings and offer his insights on our worship committee of which he was a member.
Until a few days ago, I wasnít aware of most of Charlesí accomplishments either. I knew that he had been senior minister of a prestigious church in Pittsburgh, but I didnít realize, for example, that he had been president of the board of directors of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, been selected as Man of the Year in Religion in Pittsburgh, or as a member of our denominationís Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations had had a hand in the formation of the Church of North India.
Yet I had seen and heard enough of Charles to realize that he was an outstanding person. To me, he was a model of the ideal Presbyterian minister. There was a quiet dignity about him. He was a gentle man, unfailingly kind and gracious, considerate and courteous. He was scholarly (thatís important to Presbyterians!), a person of vast learning and wisdom. Iím told that on a trip to Hungary, he and a Catholic priest he was visiting couldnít understand each otherís language, so they conversed in Latin!
Charles was a great preacher. He was eloquent as well as elegant. His sermons and prayers combined beautiful language with solid substance. He was not a loud preacher. Rather the congregation was drawn to his sermon as if it were a magnet because of his creative use of words and the sincerity with which he expressed them. Whenever he climbed the steps into the magnificent pulpit at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, he would see the words etched in stone, meant only for the preacherís eyes, "Sir, we would see Jesus" (John 12:21). And thatís what he intended to accomplish in his sermons, week after week-to introduce people to Jesus, to nurture their growth in faith. Yes, he took his responsibility as a proclaimer of Godís Word with utmost seriousness.
Part of Charlesí charm was, of course, his Irish accent. I loved to hear him talk. We Americans, though, whether we are from Massachusetts, Mississippi or Minnesota, are the ones with an accent. Iím told that the purist English is spoken in Dublin, Ireland and Aberdeen, Scotland. Charles loved his adopted country, the United States of America, but he was also proud of his Irish heritage. As a student at Princeton, he happened to meet Albert Einstein. Dr. Einstein commented that the Irish were a pig-headed race. "Do you mean intellectually or politically?" Charles wondered. "Politically," said Einstein. And although that was the answer Charles had hoped to hear, he was still a bit offended and justifiably so.
The thing that impresses me most about Charles, though, was his passion for social justice. During his twenty-three years at East Liberty Presbyterian Church the membership dwindled somewhat, not because of Charles but because of a dramatic change in the area surrounding the church. Soon after his arrival, urban planners began shutting East Libertyís streets to traffic in an effort to create a pedestrian mall. It led instead to boarded-up businesses and turned a former showcase neighborhood into a ghetto. "At times the appearance of the neighborhood has resembled that of a bombed out city, where block after block has been leveled," Charles wrote in 1969 essay for The Pittsburgh Press.
To his credit Charles Robshaw stayed at East Liberty instead of seeking "greener pastures." He chose to see the neighborhood situation as an opportunity for mission instead of as a threat. With other churches, he helped form the East End Cooperative Ministry to stabilize the neighborhood and East Liberty Housing, Inc., which used federal money to build low-income townhouses and volunteer labor to rehabilitate older homes. Under his leadership, a soup kitchen and homeless shelter were started. And he reached out to the new African American neighbors, accepting them not only as church members but as elders and lay leaders.
My friends, we have lost a great servant of God and a dear friend. But death could not have come more gently and peacefully. On New Yearís Eve, Charles and Vadis were watching the count down to 2003 at Times Square in New York City on TV. Then as was their custom, they had a prayer time together, reading from The Upper Room and The Global Digest. Before he went to sleep, Charles gave his wife of 60-plus years a big kiss and wished her "Happy New Year." The next morning Charles had his breakfast and played a game of solitaire on the computer. Then still dressed in his robe and slippers, he stretched out on the sofa for a rest. And thatís how Vadis found him. He died quietly without any struggle or pain.
Charles was ready to go. He and Vadis had occasionally talked about the fact that at their age death might come anytime. Like that earlier man of faith, Abraham, Charles died in "a good old age" (Gen. 25:8) with a sense of fulfillment and completion to his life. Like the Apostle Paul, he "fought a good fight" and reached the goal. And God, our Heavenly Father, has welcomed him, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
As the old hymn puts it,
Fight the good fight with all thy might;
Christ is thy strength and Christ thy right;
Lay hold on life, and it shall be
Thy joy and crown eternally.
Run the straight race through Godís good grace,
Lift up thine eyes and seek Christís face;
Life with its way before us lies,
Christ is the path, and Christ the prize.
Cast care aside, lean on thy guide;
Godís boundless mercy will provide;
Trust and thy trusting soul shall prove
Christ is its life, and Christ its love.
Faint not nor fear, Godís arms are near;
God changeth not, and thou art dear;
Only believe, and thou shalt see
That Christ is all in all to thee.
Copyright Mark A. Bayert, 2003