Words of Tribute to a Friend

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Some readers of ref21 may know that Derek Thomas, the Editorial Director of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, who also serves at the John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson and Minister of Teaching at the First Presbyterian Church is soon to move to Columbia, SC to become Associate Minister of the First Presbyterian Church (ARP), serving alongside Sinclair Ferguson in that historic congregation. RTS has recently bestowed on him the title of Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, and we are delighted that he will continue to be back in Jackson regularly to teach.

Today, he was honored in a special service held at Grace Chapel on the campus of RTS Jackson. Though I was unable to attend, Dr. Bruce Baugus, Dean of Chapel and Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Theology, kindly allowed me to write some words of appreciation of Derek and his ministry, and for Jeremy Smith (the Managing Editor of ref21; Executive Minister of First Presbyterian Church, Jackson and dear friend to both Derek and me) to read them to those assembled.

I post them here for your edification and as a public thanks and tribute to my friend, Derek.

Dear Honored Faculty, Respected Administration and Beloved Students:

Thank you for the privilege of saying a few words in honor of my friend and colleague, Derek Thomas today. I deeply regret being unable to attend this special service today, because my presence has been required of me at an important meeting of the Grace Presbytery at Belhaven University - to which I have been requested to report at this very hour.

I have known Derek Thomas for almost half my life. We first met in person, I think, when he looked upon a be-kilted American PhD candidate (yours truly) who was attending a wedding at his church, the Stranmillis Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Belfast, North Ireland. He was, no doubt, incredulous and bemused, but typically kind and polite (at least to my face).

Derek's reputation as a scholar and pastor had proceeded him, and I had been reading his writing and editorial work in the Evangelical Presbyterian magazine for some time. Even after I returned to the States to teach here at RTS in 1990, I continued to follow his ministry and correspond with him.

In 1995, it was my privilege to approach him on behalf of RTS to explore his coming to serve as Dean of Students, Dean of Chapel and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology. We talked and corresponded for a year before, in the summer of 1996, I was called as Senior Minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Jackson.

What I didn't realize at the time was, as I was recruiting him to come to RTS, and as I was being interviewed by the pulpit committee of First Presbyterian, he too was being pursued by First Pres. as their other final candidate for that post! That strange providence has knit our lives together in an extraordinary way for the past decade and a half.

Thankfully, for RTS and for First Presbyterian and for me, he accepted the call from RTS and joined the faculty in 1996. Almost immediately he began teaching at First Presbyterian, when he was not preaching in churches around the state, region and nation.

Then in August of 1999, he did the humblest thing I think I may have seen in all my years of ministry, he agreed to come to First Presbyterian Church as Minister of Teaching and to work alongside me, though he had very nearly been called as the Senior Minister just three years before. So began a new stage in our friendship and a unique and remarkable ministerial collaboration. Really, Derek, there is no way for me sufficiently to express what you did for us in this act of kenosis, nor adequately to thank you for how you gave yourself to us. But I shall never, ever forget it, and forever be grateful for it.

The ensuing twelve years have been an extraordinary blessing to our whole congregation, and to me. Derek has been a faithful, respected and beloved colleague. He has also become one of the great preachers of our time. To me, he has been "that friend who sticketh closer than a brother," as well as my pastor, for a dozen years. And I have not taken one day for granted.

I could go on and recount to you all what you already know: that Derek is brilliant and funny, demanding and tender-hearted, as tech-saavy as he is opera-saavy, a theologian of the first order and preacher of the highest rank, with a prodigious work ethic and a prolific pen, devoted husband and father, doting master of Jake, a lover of good coffee, the possessor of Diamond Medallion and Million Miler status on Delta. And more.

But I think what I want to leave you with is this picture. Of his character. It is Derek's grace-wrought humility and integrity, his love for the Gospel, the truth and the church, and above all for his Savior and Lord, that has led him to empty himself in ministry, making nothing of himself but much of Jesus, that I have had the privilege to observe up-close and personal over these past many years. It is real. And it is rare. And I have been forever changed by seeing it. For good.

Derek is not my gift to give, but if he were, I could not give a more expensive gift to the congregation of First Presbyterian Church (ARP), Columbia, SC, nor one more conducive to their edification. Let us pray for the Lord to do a great work, through Derek and Sinclair, in that congregation, and let us pray for Derek and Rosemary as they say many tearful goodbyes and prepare for a new field of ministry.

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