I was 22 when I entered Stuart Hall and saw Professor Jim Loder for the first time. Our three-year encounter not only transformed me but continues to transform me more than 30 years later. Dr. Loder became the most important teacher in my adulthood. Most of us knew instantly that his courses were not about facts or tests or papers or grades. His courses were about our lives, our passions, and our beliefs. He raised the bar of spirituality just out of our grasp, or so we thought. We were always striving to become more.
Somehow Dr. Loder got to each of us who studied with him, didn’t he? It was just a matter of time. There was that soft voice, those deep, warm eyes, and that trick of time that made us believe he had known us for many years. No one used silences to make a point better than he did. Yet, mostly there was a sense of unknown adventure that awaited each class.
In my first course with him, I recall his lecturing about “The Authoritarian Personality.” As always, his lecture was exquisitely wrought. My friends and I nodded with enthusiasm after every point. We eyed each other with smug looks that said, “Yeah, I know guys just like that.” After class, we almost skipped back to Alexander Hall, where we shared with absolute delight stories about authoritarian people that we knew. And yes, Dr. Loder was so insightful; these personalities faced important personal and spiritual weaknesses.
The next day Professor Loder spoke about “The Achievement-Oriented Personality.” This time, we could not bear to raise our eyes from our notes. We avoided the gaze of his caring eyes, certain that he could see through us with what seemed like X-ray spiritual vision. Alexander Hall was quiet that evening. We each sat alone, reflecting on the lofty goals and ultradisciplined behaviors that had brought us to PTS and on our dreams that promised a dazzling array of lifelong achievements. On our desks sat long lists of things to do; they remained undone on that day. My friends and I understood, maybe for the first time, that we could not achieve our way through heaven’s gate. We stood convicted, yet, strangely, free of ourselves.
Then it came. The event in Dr. Loder’s life that would challenge our thinking forever. Many of you may remember the details better than I, but I will recreate the story as I remember it. Traveling down a busy highway in New Jersey, Loder and his wife encountered a woman stranded with a flat tire. They stopped, and he began to change her tire. After he had removed the flat, an out-of-control car rammed into the back of the woman’s vehicle.
The full weight of the disabled car came to rest on Loder’s chest.
As he was fading out of consciousness, he heard his wife, a woman of slight build, utter a prayer. She then placed her hands under the bumper of the car and lifted the automobile into the air. Professor Loder lost a thumb and more, but escaped with his life. His students would never escape from his story.
Immediately after he finished his account, hands flew into the air. “Your wife had an adrenaline rush! The chemicals allowed her to do the impossible,” one student said. “That is one viewpoint,” Dr. Loder conceded. Immediately, impassioned debate followed. Did God intervene or not? Does God act in our personal lives, or are we alone totally responsible for solving our problems? Did God act in Old Testament and New Testament history, or do people just need to believe a loving being is caring for them? Will it or not, our faith and doubts unfolded. Loder never told us what to believe. He knew that would do no good. He only shared his belief: Working through his wife, God saved his life.
Ken West, a student of James Loder in the 1970s and a 1973 PTS graduate, is professor of human development and counseling and director of the Center for Family Studies at Lynchburg College in Virginia. His most recent book is
The Shelbys Need Help: A Choose Your Own Solution Book for Parents.
My dorm stood next door to the Loders’ home. At suppertime, I once heard him call his daughter inside. The professor-turned-father came out into the backyard: “It is time to come in.” His child ignored him. In response, the father simply walked back inside. The youngster played alone for several minutes, looking from time to time at the back door. No one returned to force her inside. Finally, the child walked on her own up the steps and into her home. That was the way Loder taught each of us.
On the morning that Jim Butler, a PTS friend who teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary, emailed a note informing me of the death of our professor, I listened to the guest preacher at my church—an aging civil rights champion—share his personal beliefs. In terms of history and our personal lives, the elegant minister exhorted, “The best is yet to come.” My mentor probably smiled with assent. I believe James Loder had already climbed the stairs and entered his home.