Tuesday, May 15, 2007

When a Hero Finishes the Race

Today the announcement was made that Dr Jerry Falwell has passed away in Lynchburg, VA. As I heard the news of Dr Falwell’s death while at a staff lunch today, I was faced with a flood of emotion. Dr Falwell was without question one of my spiritual heroes. From the time I was in Junior High School, I wanted to be like him. I would watch Dr Falwell on the Old Time Gospel Hour every Sunday morning as I got ready for church. By the time I was a senior in High School, there was no question that I wanted to go to his school, Liberty University (Liberty Baptist College back then) for college and to prepare to be a pastor.

I had the thrill of spending four years in Lynchburg, VA, studying at Liberty and attending the Thomas Road Baptist Church, both of which were founded by Jerry Falwell. Those four years shaped me. It was during those four years that I caught a vision to do something big for God. It was during those four years that I received theological training that is second to none. There was never a dull moment on campus. During my four years at Liberty I was able to experience the Reagan election and the entire episode surrounding the PTL scandal.

Two of my greatest memories in life happened while I was at Liberty. The first occurred my senior year as I was selected as Preacher of the Year and had the thrill of speaking in chapel in front of a crowd of 6,000 students, faculty and staff including Dr. Falwell. In fact, my Grandpa Distler, who himself was a preacher for over 40 years, bumped into Dr Falwell during my graduation weekend and after telling Dr Falwell who his grandson was that just graduated, Dr Falwell replied, “That boy can preach!”

My greatest thrill in Lynchburg, however, was meeting my wife while we were both students at Liberty. Actually, we met at the flea market in town, but that is a whole different story. The truth is, though, that my ministry and my marriage have roots that go straight back to Lynchburg, Virginia and the ministries that were started by one of my spiritual heroes, Dr. Jerry Falwell.

I ended up in the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches in part due to Dr Falwell. When I left for college, my parents moved from Akron, Ohio to Hagerstown, Maryland and started attending a Grace Brethren Church. I knew nothing about Grace Brethren and hesitated to attend church with them. The Youth Pastor at the church they were attending was a man named Steve Peters who was a Liberty graduate and who had worked on staff for Dr Falwell leading one of his traveling musical teams. Steve contacted me and we begin a relationship that ultimately took me to be his youth pastor at the Grace Brethren church in West Milton, Ohio when he became the Senior Pastor there.

I am so thankful for the faith and vision of Dr Falwell. It is hard to believe that he is gone. My daughter, who is finishing her junior year of high school, is considering going to Liberty. It is sad to think that if she does, she will not have the same opportunity that her mom and I did to sit under the ministry of such a man of faith. He won’t be the one to shake her hand when she receives her diploma if she ends up at Liberty.

Dr Falwell just seemed kind of invincible to me. In fact, back when I attended Liberty there were multiple death threats on Dr Falwell’s life daily due to his involvement in the Moral Majority. He used to always say, “I am indestructible until God is finished with me.” I guess God is now finished with him. He has finished the race. I can only hope that I will finish my race with the same faith and commitment that he did.

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