The Small Huge Gift: A Remembrance of Ken Korby

ImageIf they’d made a movie about this pastor, only John Wayne would have sufficed to fill his shoes. He was a cigarette-smoking, authoritative-preaching, no BSing shepherd of souls. I could easily imagine him walking boldly into the mission field with a Bible in one hand and an ax in the other—the former to preach with, the latter to chop down any trees that the local pagans had divinized. I had a single, two-week class with him in the spring of 1997, when he was a guest lecturer at Concordia Theological Seminary. And though I had studied four prior years at that institution, the one course I had with him shaped my pastoral care more than any other. Ken Korby was this pastor’s name, and when I grew up, I wanted to be just like him. Of all the monumental things I could tell you about Korby, the one I’m about to recollect might seem rather inconsequential. Were you to ask him, he’d never remember it. But me, I’ll never forget his small act of generosity.

Like all students, I was strapped for cash. But sitting on the shelves of the seminary bookstore was a volume that made my mouth water. My heart was set on it. It was a Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament bound together in one thick volume—the entire Holy Scriptures in their original languages. Korby had overheard me lamenting to my classmate how desperately I wanted a copy, but the price, being prohibitive, put it beyond my reach.

Later that day, outside Kramer Chapel, I was walking along the brick sidewalk when I saw Korby walking toward me. As always, he was dressed in his black suit and clerical, a crucifix hanging from his neck. And, of course, he was puffing on his trademark Marlboro. Korby stopped in front of me. Pulling out his wallet, he opened it. There was nothing but a ten dollar bill inside. He said, “I heard you wanted a book, but you can’t afford it. Here,” he said, pulling out the bill and putting it in my hand, “maybe that’ll help you a little.” And then he walked on, leaving me there in silent gratitude.

It did help. I scraped together the rest of the money and soon the Biblia Sacra was off the shelf and in my hand. And I treasured it. Every time I labored over a text that I would be preaching on when I served St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wellston, Oklahoma, I used that Bible. A few years later, it was with me every time I taught Genesis or Isaiah or Hebrew at Concordia Theological Seminary, in the same classroom where I had sat at Korby’s feet. And still today, it is within arm’s reach, on my desk, as I get ready to teach Bible classes at Crown of Life in San Antonio. From student to pastor to professor to teacher, that book has served me well. And every time I open it, I see Pastor Korby’s face.

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I remember all he taught me. I remember him encouraging us to sing Luther’s hymn, “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord” every day, as a prayer for the church. I recall him admonishing us that even though the church seems crazy, she is still our mother, and we are called to love and honor her as such. And I remember what he, no doubt, soon forgot: that he emptied his wallet to help a struggling student buy a book.

I’ve had people tell me, years after the fact, that they appreciate such-and-such that I did for them. Sometimes I recall the instance, but most of the time, I have no remembrance of doing for them what they said I did. But they do. They’ll never forget. It’s a simple reminder for me, that in our daily vocations, whatever those might be, we encounter opportunities to do something for people—seemingly little, inconsequential acts of love—that are anything but little to them.

That’s one more thing the sainted Ken Korby taught me. May he, who served our church well, and who served me in that small but huge gift, rest in peace round the throne of God and of the Lamb, whose kingdom has no end.