Saturday, May 19, 2007

My thoughts on the passing of friend and pastor Jerry Falwell

Dr. Jerry Falwell (1933-2007)
My life's intersections with his

I must have been about my son Daniel's age when I met Jerry Falwell for the first time on October 11, 1976. My family and some close church friends had traveled on Yoder Bus to the Jaffa Mosque in Altoona for the "I Love America" program filled with much patriotic music and flag-waving. That's all I wrote about in my diary then, but particularly, I remember the highlight for me was Robbie Hiner singing "I'm Just A Flag Waving American". Afterwards, Jerry greeted attendees as they left. I clearly recall dad introducing us and Jerry, upon hearing that I was so close to graduation, told me he would soon see me in Lynchburg at his college, which at that point, was only five or six years old. Whether that statement was prophetic, visionary, wishful thinking, or just purely good marketing, it rang true as I set foot on campus to begin my freshman year in January 1979.

Having a great passion for music, I started off as Music major and quickly became involved in the concert choir. On Sunday mornings, the choir would join the Thomas Road Baptist Church Choir in order to provide a larger presence for the televised broadcasts of the Old Time Gospel Hour. This, combined with my physical fortune of a shorter stature, placed me directly behind Jerry as he preached to America. I had to make sure I was rested enough to stay alert – otherwise the cameras would capture the nod or closed eyes. As he entered the platform, Jerry would often acknowledge us with a nod or smile at the start of each service.
It was probably during my sophomore year that I decided to make radio production my major degree focus and move my music concentration to a minor. In 1982, I met a talented singer – and cute girl too - from Ohio, who would later become my wife of the past 22 years. In 1983, I completed this phase of my education and during commencement, received my bachelor's degree with a big and firm handshake from Jerry with my family in attendance.
A few years later as Laura and I were planning our wedding, we decided to see if we could schedule Jerry to preside over it. Luckily, the date worked out and he was placed on the schedule. We also included a favorite college professor to participate, in the event that Jerry would not be able to make it when the time arrived. We were very blessed that he was able to be there and officiate our ceremony. Actually, he had just flown in from somewhere outside of the city and was noticeably tired. Though he was on a plane twenty minutes earlier, he cared enough about his commitments, and his students, to follow through. A funny story... during one of the songs, he leaned over to the other pastor, Dr. Neal Williams, and asked, "what is the guy's last name again?"
In the mid-80's I was employed by WBRG, a radio station in Madison Heights. WBRG was the same radio station, which put Jerry on the air for the first time in 1956. Jerry would drive daily into Madison Heights to preach live on the air during the 7am drive-time hour. He had approached Stu Epperson, manager/owner, and worked out a $7/hour arrangement to air "The Deep Things Of God". When our station celebrated its 30th anniversary, I had the privilege to interview Jerry about those early days when his broadcast ministry was launched.
It was during the subsequent years while I worked as News Director at other local radio stations, that the 1988 lawsuit with Larry Flynt of Hustler magazine would take place. I had the opportunity to cover it in news reports, traveling to Federal Court in Roanoke. It seemed humiliating to see Jerry on the stand like that talking about his mother and defending her against the parody in which Jerry told of "the first time" he had sex - with her in an outhouse. Jerry sued for $200,000 and won, but the Supreme Court later overturned the verdict. At that time, no one expected (except maybe Jerry) that a friendship would develop between he and Larry. During these years, I also was part of the media pool that attended the PTL news conferences after the fall of the Bakkers, and was saw other rivals like Jesse Jackson come to town.
Laura and I attended Thomas Road for several years after graduation until God led us to seek out a smaller church where we felt we could be better plugged in to serve. We would still occasionally visit Thomas Road for special speakers or musicians. We saw Jerry to be a rock – always strong, steady, and full of conviction and faith! He was always a strong tower, an encouragement and a man with a constant vision and dream to fulfill God's calling.
Somewhere towards the end of 1991, our church, Cornerstone Community, moved from the Liggates Rd elementary school building into the old Park Avenue Baptist Church (then Faith Baptist). This was the same church building into which Jerry and his gang-friends walked one day, only to walk out as new creations with Christ in their hearts.
Jerry attended and spoke at our dedication service. Since he had given his heart to the Lord and been baptized in that very building, he encouraged us to "get the waters stirring again". It was about ten years later, but our son Daniel did get baptized in that building, in the same baptistry that Jerry was baptized in.
Perhaps living in Lynchburg since graduation and living less than a mile from the old Thomas Road church building for fifteen years allowed me to take Jerry, his ministry, and his influence for granted. I've recognized that this week and have begun to move past it, as I consider his impact on my life, on my faith, our family, our city, commonwealth, nation, and our world. Living in such close proximity to the church, before its move last year to the mountain, meant that I could always attend church somewhere – no excuses. Even if weather were so bad that other churches would choose to close – Jerry would always hold service and we could simply walk across the street to attend.
The campus growth that happened before our eyes is truly amazing. I had a better appreciation of that when a college roommate visited me last summer and I took him to see some of the changes at Liberty. It was so overwhelming that he could not take it all in and after a brief tour, had to stop. The changes were too many to even comprehend from his visit ten years earlier.
Lynchburg is not so big of a town that one would not run across Jerry from time to time in his big black SUV – license LU 01. He would always smile and wave, making eye contact. One day in the past year or two I pulled up behind him in the Sonic drive-through. I don't know what he ordered but I think Sonic may have been one of his weaknesses ever since the restaurant located itself just below the school.
Our most recent involvement with Jerry has been in attending the Board of Regents events, Alumni weekend and Super Conference. Typically, my family would come down from PA for the Board of Regents events and we would join them at banquets and gatherings. We had our picture taken with Jerry several times and this year with Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (photo attached), Republican Presidential candidate. Also this past year, Jerry Jr. was sick and in the hospital, so Jerry was not able to make it to all of the events, and pictures were actually taken with Jonathan. Maybe that was not so coincidental after all.
Some things you may not have heard in the national media:
  • Jerry preached on the "indestructibility of God's servant" just two weeks ago (the message may be downloaded free from iTunes or from the website.
  • His last message was on Mother's Day this past Sunday, which meant this the whole family was together, including daughter Jeannie, who lives in Richmond.
  • On the eve of his death, he asked Jerry Jr. to take him to the top of the mountain where a new gazebo has been built at the top of the huge LU letters in the side of the mountain. He posed for pictures and received the latest update on the ministry happenings. He told Jerry Jr. that there was a lot of good things going on. Jerry Jr. encouraged him to take care of himself so he would be able to see them become reality. He said, "yes, I'd like that".
  • The last baby dedicated on Sunday morning between services was Kendra Cook-Penn's (a soloist in the church for decades) and was a baby adopted from the Liberty Godparent Home.
  • That Jerry died at age 73 seems to echo God's confirmation that his work was complete as both 7 and 3 are two of God's favorite numbers – completion and trinity. Also interesting is that Jesus lived 33 years and fasted for 40 days, which added, equal 73. With God, I think numbers are less ironic than we make them.
Personally, I am saddened that Daniel will not receive his high school diploma from Jerry when he graduates in two years. I was also anticipating the day I'd receive my MBA in a couple years from Jerry as well.
As you can tell, I owe a lot to Jerry Falwell. Without him and the opportunities to attend his school, I may never have met Laura and thus not be blessed with my three wonderful children Daniel, David and Lily. I would most likely not have been working in Lynchburg radio to meet Jackie Howard who became my sister Tina's husband and father of Daisy, Isaac and Joshua – another three children who may not have been born. I would not have found J.Crew where I have given eighteen years of service and received much favor in my career. I would not have made some of the life-long friendships that I developed while a student and enjoy to this day. I would not have seen this strong Christian example lived out before my very eyes to encourage me to always stand for what is right and to strive to be a champion for Christ. Too often I fear that as Christians so close to his ministry that we relied on him to be our loud, boisterous, not-afraid-to say-it voice. Now, we must pick up the torch and do our part to impact our culture for Christ. We must speak up for righteousness. I pray that I will be able to do this – not for Jerry, but for Jesus. He calls us to make a difference, to be a light, a living letter, an ambassador for His sake.
I close with this song by Delirious? which God placed upon my heart this week:
Mountains High
Sorrow came to visit us today
Was the longest day, was the loneliest day
Sorrow came to steal our hope away
Only tears can tell
Of this holy hour
Sorrow came quicker than a fire
Was the longest day, was the loneliest day
I feel your hand, the warmth, your sweetest smile
But you slipped away, through the great divide
This mountain's high, too high for us
This mountain's high, too high for us
This mountain's high, too high for us
This mountain's high, too high for us
Oh yeah
You know I'll make it
Your ways are high, too high for us
Your ways are too high, too high for us
Your ways are too high, too high for us
Your ways are too high, too high
Only youonly youonly you can pull me over it
Only you only you only you can pull me over it
Pull me, drag me, hold me, keep me, walk me while you pull me over it
Take me, heal me, make me, break me, love me while you pull me over it
Take me, heal me, make me, break me, love me whileyou pull me over it

Jerry often said that each morning he would read Oswald Chambers "My Utmost for His Highest". The reading for May 15, his last morning before heaven, ends in this way:

May God not find complaints in us anymore, but spiritual vitality – a readiness to face anything He brings our way…we are here to submit to His will so that He may work through us what He wants. Once we realize this, He will make us broken bread and poured-out wine with which to feed and nourish others.

That is quite possibly the last thing that Jerry read before God called Him home. It is indeed what God has done in his life and now in his death.