The Common Good

Gordon Cosby: My Mentor

Gordon Cosby was my spiritual father, not simply a brother in Christ. This relationship continued for some 45 years until his dying days. In a time when egalitarianism defines nearly all relationships as the desired norm, it’s well to remember the role of mentors who maintain, purely through their own internal integrity and faithfulness, a spiritual authority in the lives of others. Gordon Cosby was such a person to me, and to countless others.

Kevin Clark/Washington Post/Getty Images
Gordon Cosby, founder, during his final sermon at the Church of the Saviour in 2008. Kevin Clark/Washington Post/Getty Images

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I first encountered Gordon when I was a young legislative aide on the rise in Washington, D.C., working for Senator Mark O. Hatfield and his legislative efforts to end the Vietnam War. Disgusted with the moral vacuity of the evangelicalism that had been my heritage, but searching for faith that was more than just following a progressive social agenda, I discovered the Church of the Saviour. Gordon’s insistence that following Jesus required a disciplined inner spiritual journey always expressed in joining God’s outward mission in the world captivated me then, and ever since.

But I needed this message of the Gospel to shape my life — a life then absorbed in the perennial idols of ambition and power that shape Washington’s political culture. The faithful commitment of time, money, and behavior asked for by this small church community seemed completely unreasonable. But Gordon was patient, taking under his pastoral care.

As daily practices of prayer, biblical reflection, and journal writing began slowly making inroads into my hectic and workaholic lifestyle, Gordon would meet me regularly for dinner, becoming my spiritual director. I’d race from my office on Capital Hill to meet for our appointment, and he’d simply ask me to read to him what I’d like to share from my journal.

Gordon crafted the sacred space for my inward journey to take root and begin to grow. He’d ask probing, discerning questions, and then listen, periodically making creative suggestions. Sensing that the emotional feelings of grace and love needed to be nurtured within me, he once suggested that I modify the traditional  “Jesus Prayer” and instead repeat, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, I love you.” I’ve never forgotten.

His sermons about seeking God, hearing God’s call to the poor and marginalized, and working for the world’s transformation that began in the life of one’s small mission group, always addressed me deeply. But it was those hours of patient listening to my inner wandering and yearnings that gave me the courage to try to follow.

When an incisive contemplative experience while on a monastic retreat unexpectedly opened feelings for a long dormant romantic relationship, Gordon again was there listening to the tumult of my heart. His sage advice:  “Call Karin and go to Japan.” Six months later he married us at the church’s Dayspring retreat center, lifting up in his sermon two words for us always to remember: “Grace and pain.”

Learning from Gordon the soul’s work of hearing God’s call on one’s life, I did so, leaving the canopy of his counsel and grace to serve the wider church. Decades passed with only periodic visits together. Then, 10 years ago, I came to D.C., meeting him for lunch at the Potter’s House to seek advice on a major vocational decision. His first comment was the only one that mattered: “Well Wes, how is it going with your inner spirit?”

A week before he died, I came to sit by the side of his now frail body, hoping my presence might minister to him. But again, his first question to me was, “How’s your spirit?” Then we talked together about the future of the church, which still consumed his constant attention.

My story can be repeated by hundreds of others. Early in the ministry of Gordon and Mary Cosby, when the Church of the Saviour was beginning to become nationally noticed, Gordon started receiving invitations to come and speak to various church groups. He tells how he heard with total clarity a voice or word from God which said, “Gordon, stay home and do your knitting.”

And so he did, knitting together the lives of people into the fabric of God’s grace, and knitting together a community of those whose inward and outward journey is having a transforming impact far beyond wherever Gordon could have traveled. My boundless gratitude joins with countless others whose lives have been radically intersected by God’s grace through the faithful ministry of Gordon Cosby.

The Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson is the former general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, and plays an active role in ecumenical organizations, including the steering committee of the Global Christian Forum. His forthcoming book discusses how The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church.

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