Buckner Fanning died late in the evening Valentine’s Day. The four decade–long pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio, he was the closest thing to a parish priest Baptists will ever know.
Buckner took God and gospel with him wherever he went. If the mayor needed an invocation at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Buckner was there to offer it. If some tragedy befell the city and it was in need of prayer, Buckner was there to pray it. If the opening of some new San Antonio golf course needed a blessing, Buckner was there to give it. Buckner didn’t just lead a church; Buckner was San Antonio’s pastor.
Buckner was larger than life. Buckner was larger than life because he was possessed by something bigger than himself. He loved his wife, Martha. Boy, did he ever, each and every one of their 66 years together. He loved his family—sons, Mike and Steve, and daughter, Lisa, their wives, husband and his five grandchildren. The yearly Fanning vacation to Hawaii was sacred.
Buckner loved San Antonio, and he loved all of San Antonio, even when doing so wasn’t popular. Of course, this kind of love got him into trouble. Buckner had little patience for narrow-minded thinking. He had even less for hard-heartedness. Buckner loved without asking questions, without prerequisite and without regard. His love of people was not only infectious; it was out-and-out reckless.
At home everywhere he went
I first learned about Buckner’s irresponsible love as a poor, struggling graduate student. At the invitation of Mike, Buckner’s son and my friend, my wife and I spent a long weekend in Buckner and Martha’s modest home. On the Saturday night, Buckner suggested dinner at an Italian restaurant. Off we went.
Buckner waltzed into the busy bistro like he owned the place. It did not take long for me to realize he did. Buckner was at home everywhere he went. In God’s name and with God’s very presence, Buckner made everyone feel at home.
He went to the back of the building, waved his arms about, and several tables miraculously were drawn together into a whole. There were only six of us—to start with. Little did I know what was about to happen.
Sign up for our weekly email newsletter.
Soon, the tables were filled with people. Other patrons recognized Buckner, and our conversations were interrupted repeatedly. It was exactly the way Buckner wanted it. Buckner had many friends but knew no strangers. Food, wine. More food, more wine. Lavish, loud and full of laughter. Joy reigned.
It was an amazing night; one I have not forgotten. But for Buckner, it was just another chance to celebrate. Why just read about Jesus’ kingdom parables when you can live them?
20-year conversation about God
That was the first time I met Buckner Fanning. Happily, it was not the last. A 20-year conversation about God and God’s kingdom ensued. Though separated by miles and years, we exchanged many letters and books. His mentoring of my life made me, truly, one lucky dog.
Early in my teaching career, I became the interim pastor of a church in Stuart, Fla.—about an hour’s drive from my home in West Palm Beach. I had signed up for Trinity’s tape ministry, and thus each week, like communion, I would receive a cassette of one of Buckner’s sermons. On the way up to Stuart each Sunday, I would listen to his latest.
Anyone who ever heard Buckner preach knows. Buckner’s chiseled facial features formed a perfect mate for his long, flowing black hair. His olive skin needed no sun. He looked good in a suit. (Admittedly, he was more at home in a polo, shorts and leather Top Siders.) Buckner preached without notes. He preached without a pulpit. Buckner craved and thrived on intimacy and immediacy. Buckner owned preaching.
The timbre of God’s love
Buckner had the most melodic, warm, assuring voice. It sounded like thick maple syrup. It was as inviting as it was firm. There was nothing hesitant or halting in it. No, Buckner’s voice was rich. It reverberated with the timbre of God’s love.
One particular Sunday morning as I headed up I-95, I popped the cassette into my Honda’s dash. Buckner was preaching on the prodigal son from Luke 15. He preached about the prodigal son, yes. But the sermon really was about God’s prodigal love—how God loves recklessly, indiscriminately and forever.
I will confess I changed my sermon that morning. There was no way I was going to offer up the paltry thing I had concocted in my study. No. I shamelessly stole Buckner’s sermon. Truth be told, I have preached that sermon countless times over the last 20 years. His sermon on Luke 15 is my most-preached sermon.
“Don’t miss the party!”
Buckner ended that sermon with an image that serves a coda for his entire life. Buckner did not finish with easy rhetorical chestnuts about a younger son’s repentance, an older son’s resentment or even a father’s forgiveness. He focused on the overlooked party. Buckner described in detail that long, lavish party God wishes to throw for any and all. I can still hear Buckner whispering, “Don’t miss the party!”
Buckner sure didn’t. He reveled in it every day he drew breath. If his life was anything, it was 89 years of an open invitation to join him in living God’s party. Buckner was indeed larger than life, for Someone larger than life lived in and through him.
Late Valentine’s Day, I am pretty sure, he waltzed into his true home, waved his arms about, invited everyone in sight, and ordered up a table full of wine and food.
Buckner Fanning, God’s bandleader. Just like God always wanted it.
Carey C. Newman is director of Baylor University Press in Waco, Texas.