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May 15, 2007 , started like any other day. I awakened to a beautiful spring morning in Lynchburg, Virginia. As was my routine, I was up, showered, and ready to leave the house around 7:30 a.m. The first order of business was to deliver my four children to their school. As I drove, I thought about how nice this day would be -- the weather reports called for unseasonably warm weather, a welcome change.
After delivering each of my kids to their respective classrooms, I drove to my office for a full day of meetings. As usual, my first task was to check email. One message was from my dad. He had sent it the night before, just after 11:00 p.m., which was not uncommon. I read it quickly and fired off a response. More emails poured into my inbox, and another day was off and running.
I led several short staff meetings to discuss upcoming events at Thomas Road Baptist Church, where I had served as executive pastor since 1994 under the senior pastor, my dad, Jerry Falwell. Before my next appointment, I had a few minutes to gaze out my office windows and again appreciate the lovely spring day. The sun was shining brightly and there was not a cloud in the sky. I basked in that sunshine, unaware that just a few minutes after the next appointment, my life would change forever.
It began when my mother phoned to say that Dad was "missing."
Missing? I actually laughed under my breath. How could my dad be missing? As pastor of one of America's largest churches and chancellor of one of the world's largest evangelical universities, he typically had a group of people with him. Even when driving around campus "alone," everyone noticed him. How could he be missing?
I asked Mom to elaborate. She told me that Dad hadn't arrived at a scheduled meeting twenty minutes earlier, and she had been trying unsuccessfully to reach him on his cell phone. I wasn't overly concerned. Dad frequently did media appearances that required him to turn off his cell phone, and sometimes he simply forgot to turn it on again. I assured Mom that this was likely the case but that I would find him somewhere on campus and have him give her a call. If only that had been the way things turned out.
Less than a mile away, a drama was unfolding in my father's office. Moments before she called me, Mom had called Dad's longtime secretary, Kathy Rusk, to see if she knew where he was. Kathy hadn't heard from him either and thought it strange for him to be missing the meeting, as it was a regular weekly event. She asked a couple of guys who worked with my dad in the historic Carter Glass Mansion to go into his office to see if he was there. When they walked into the room, they found my dad lying on the floor. He wasn't breathing.
A Liberty University police officer who was in the building immediately began CPR. Emergency personnel were then called and quickly arrived on the scene; they continued CPR. At about that time, I called Kathy to begin tracking down my dad. Amanda Stanley, who worked with Kathy in my dad's office, answered the phone. With noticeable reservation, she said, "Jonathan, you probably need to come over here." I immediately sensed that something was wrong. Without asking what was happening, I dropped the phone and ran out of my office. I called out to a coworker that I needed his car right away, as a friend had taken mine to the shop. Together we ran out of the office and jumped into his car for the one-minute ride to Dad's office.
As we drove across the campus, my mind raced with images of what I might find. A couple of years earlier, Dad had experienced some episodes with his heart that resulted in his being placed on a ventilator for several days each time. I thought this might be a similar situation -- that he would be in the hospital for a few days and that we may need to get him to a specialist to find out what was really going on. My mind also went back just a few days to the previous Friday, when Dad, Mom, and I sat in the office of Ron Godwin, Liberty University's vice president, discussing his condition. Dad told us that he felt himself getting weaker: he had a hard time walking short distances without getting winded. I suggested that he go to the Cleveland Clinic right away for evaluation, but he decided to wait until after Liberty University's graduation the following weekend. "I can't let the students down," he said.
I didn't know what I would find at Dad's office, but I certainly wasn't prepared for the reality. As we were still coming to a stop, I leaped from the car and ran inside the office complex. I arrived at Dad's office to find him on the floor with several rescue personnel working feverishly over him. For a moment I stood in utter shock. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I wasn't expecting him to be needing CPR.
Staring dazedly around the office, I saw the worried faces of the men who had discovered Dad. The conference table that always sat in the middle of the room had been swiftly pushed aside, the chairs turned over as the rescue workers rushed to begin resuscitation efforts. The room looked as though a fight had broken out. Unfortunately, the only fight going on in that room was a fight for life.
I went to Dad's side, grabbed his hand, and began pleading with him to open his eyes. I'd never felt more desperate and alone in my entire life. On my knees, I called out to God, begging him to spare my dad's life. I continued urging Dad to respond, telling him that we needed him. I told him that we weren't willing to let him go yet. I kept talking to him, the same words pouring out of my mouth over and over. "Come on, Dad, wake up. We need you!"
Just then my cell phone rang. I tossed it across the room to someone who answered it and told me it was my wife, Shari. I reached for the phone and attempted to speak, but my words stuck in my throat. Tears were now falling, and I could barely talk. Shari laughed, thinking that I was playing some sort of joke on her. I tried again to speak, but the only words I could get out were, "Dad's not breathing; go to the hospital." She stopped speaking. A brief pause, and then, "Are you serious?" She said she would meet me there.
I hung up and turned my attention back to Dad. Looking into his face, I saw that he was not responding. I watched his chest for some sign of breathing as the CPR continued. But his only movement was by force under the hands trying to revive him. I decided to check his wrist for a pulse, but before I did, I prayed that one would be there. It wasn't. Tears began to stream down my face as reality set in. My dad -- my friend, my mentor, my valued adviser, my hero -- was dying.
More staff members rushed into the office, among them Dr. Ron Godwin, the man with whom Dad had worked for thirty years. Ron had met Dad for breakfast that morning at the local Bob Evans restaurant. He told me that he had been with Dad just a little more than an hour before, and he'd seemed fine. He came over to where I was kneeling and placed his hand on my shoulder. Though the CPR continued, we both knew it was over. I looked up at him as he bowed his head in disbelief.
More Lynchburg emergency medical services staff arrived and began performing other procedures on Dad in hopes of gaining a response. IVs were inserted into his arm. Monitors were employed to measure any change in his condition. For a brief second, they stopped CPR to see if there was any response on the screens. Still nothing.
I asked someone in the room to call Jerry Jr., my brother, and have him pick up our mom and meet us at the hospital. I sent for my sister, Jeannie, who was two hours away in Richmond, where she works as a surgeon. I asked one of our staff members to drive to Liberty Christian Academy, where my brother's and my children were, and take them to the hospital as well. I knew this would be a day like no other we had ever faced and realized that we needed to gather the family together quickly. We would all desperately need one another very soon.
Still more rescue personnel entered the room, now with a stretcher. As they moved Dad onto it, I again looked for signs of life, but in vain. I continued to hold Dad's hand. I continued to pray to God. I looked to Ron for encouragement, but he was lost in his own grief and shock. The medical personnel quickly moved the stretcher to the outside door of Dad's office. An ambulance was waiting just steps away on the lawn.
Outside, a crowd had already gathered. A local television station even had a camera crew there. I yelled out to one of the police officers to move the crowd; I didn't want them to see Dad this way. I didn't want them to know what was happening. In the dreamlike atmosphere, I felt that if others didn't know what was happening, everything would be all right.
I climbed into the front seat of the ambulance that would transport Dad to the hospital, and we began moving slowly through the campus streets. Eerily, a number of people lined the sidewalks, their faces drawn in disbelief as they watched the ambulance go by. No! I thought. This can't be happening.
As we sped along the streets of Lynchburg with sirens blaring, I watched, through the small window that separated us, the continuing efforts to bring Dad back to life. I asked the paramedics if anything had changed. One of the men shook his head. I continued to pray.
We arrived at the hospital just as Shari and her parents were walking up to the emergency-room entrance. She met me as I emerged from the vehicle, and we watched as they brought Dad into the ER. I walked alongside the stretcher, continuing to hold his hand, continuing to pray. There was no movement, no response on the monitors, and no positive words from the emergency medical services crew.
Inside the ER, twenty or thirty people stood in absolute silence. They were all looking at the man on the stretcher, the man they were used to seeing walk the halls of this same hospital to visit others who were sick, the man they saw regularly on television or in the pulpit. Now this larger-than-life personality lay lifeless on a stretcher.
Dad was rolled into an ER bay, and numerous medical personnel sprang into action. They attempted various procedures to revive him, but nothing was working. I knelt on the floor next to Dad, holding his hand, begging him to wake up. I watched the monitor on the wall...it never changed from a flat line. I looked around the room and noticed the grim faces of those around me. I looked down at Dad's hand and began to pray again.
One of the doctors then leaned over to me. "Mr. Falwell."
I stopped him before he could go on, sensing what he was about to say. "Can you please wait for my mom to get here?"
He nodded, and we waited.
Several minutes later, Jerry Jr. and Mom arrived. Mom came to the side of the bed where I was kneeling, tears streaming down her face. A nurse brought a chair so she could sit next to Dad. Mom tenderly held his hand, and we waited.
None of us knew what to say. None of us wanted to speak. All of us stared at Dad in our heartache.
At about that time, Dad's doctor, who had been elsewhere in the hospital, rushed into the room and said that he would like to try another procedure, but they would have to move Dad to the cardiac lab down the hall. Mom gave her consent, and we watched as they rolled Dad out of the room. In my heart, I had already resigned myself to the fact that Dad was not coming back to us.
A while later Jeannie arrived from Richmond, and we greeted her with hugs and tears. Soon the doctor returned and began to explain what I already knew. He had tried everything possible, but nothing had worked. Dad was gone. And though I really had known that when I knelt next to him on his office floor, at the finality of this announcement a rush of tears poured out of me.
It's been over a year since Dad died, and I will admit that the tears still haven't completely stopped. He was such a wonderful father, and so many things about him come to mind each day. I miss him more than I could ever adequately express.
Dad used to say, "The Christian life means living from one tragedy to the next." His death was a great tragedy for our family. And not long after he was gone, I found myself literally wondering what to do next. I felt as if a gaping hole had been ripped open in my heart. The pain was extraordinary; it gripped me like nothing I'd ever experienced. Strangely, the only thing that distracted me from the pain was fear of what would happen now that Dad was gone. I didn't know what I was going to do or how I was going to do it. And I literally wondered if I would be able to continue.
This is truly how I felt, and even I couldn't believe it. I had always felt in complete control of my emotions and that nothing could ruffle me or slow me down. How could I have been so wrong about myself? I began to think I was not up to the task for which Dad had trained me or to the calling God had placed on my life. And I began to realize some tough truths about myself.
I am weak.
I'm not nearly as strong as I had always assumed. Realizing this was in no way comforting. In fact, it increased the level of fear I'd already been feeling. And it would only get worse -- soon -- because in just a few days I would be standing in the Thomas Road Baptist Church pulpit for the first time after Dad had gone to be with the Lord.
My mind was racing. What would I say? What scripture would I cite? How could I possibly find something to share that would encourage the hurting people there? More fundamentally, how could I find encouragement for my own heart and soul? I had no good answers.
May 19, just four days after Dad's death...in less than twenty-four hours I would be required to stand up before more than ten thousand people, and potentially millions more through television, and comfort them. While my heart was breaking, I knew I needed to offer something inspirational to these people who loved Jerry Falwell. And I hadn't a clue how to do that.
I was drowning in grief. Dad has always been my hero, and I needed him now. But he was gone. How could I encourage others when I didn't even feel like talking to anyone? I didn't feel like helping anyone. I'm the one who needs help, I thought. I'm the one who needs to be encouraged. Yet this responsibility was upon me, and only hours remained until I had to meet it.
This was a day I had always dreaded, a day I'd almost convinced myself wouldn't really come. Although I knew that Dad wouldn't live forever, I wanted to believe he would. In recent years I'd seen him slow down a bit. He didn't walk as fast as he used to. He didn't have the mind-boggling energy for which he had always been known and admired. Although he still could preach with amazing power, he had slowed noticeably. Still, a part of me felt and hoped that he might live forever. I imagine many children who are close with their parents have felt the same. But life just doesn't work that way.
To me, Dad was superman. I always felt safe when I was around him. He was always in control. When he walked into a room, you could feel his presence, like a giant, friendly bear. He kept a grueling schedule, flying from city to city and speaking dozens of times each week. Never did that pace seem to bother him. It was a running joke among staff members that those who were years younger couldn't hope to keep up with him. But as the old song says, "The strongest oak must fall."
Funeral arrangements were in place. Schedules were set. Dad was lying in repose in the Arthur S. DeMoss Learning Center on the campus of Liberty University, and thousands of people had already visited in order to pay their respects to this amazing man. Television trucks and scores of reporters had converged on our church parking lot. Amid the hubbub, I still had no idea what I would say. The fear began to overwhelm me.
I sat at my dining-room table with Charles Billingsley, our church's worship leader and a dear friend, discussing the two services for the next day. We attempted to plan the service, but we were getting nowhere. We talked about what my sermon might be. I even pulled out a sermon Kathy Rusk had found in Dad's desk that he delivered fifteen years earlier, by his own account the message he would want to leave the world. Yet after reading it, we knew this wasn't the sermon that was needed the next day.
Shari joined us, and we continued talking about what words might comfort the thousands who would attend the funeral. Yet I still felt consumed by my own need -- who could say the words I needed to hear to comfort my aching heart?
Earlier in the week, Mark DeMoss, a longtime family friend and former assistant to Dad, had come to town to be with our family. He told me about what Dad said at the funeral of Arthur S. DeMoss, Mark's father's and one of my father's closest friends. Mark recounted how Dad stepped to the microphone and quoted Joshua 1:1-2. "After the death of Moses the Lord's servant, the Lord spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses' assistant. He said, 'Moses my servant is dead. Therefore, the time has come for you to lead these people, the Israelites, across the Jordan River into the land I am giving them.' "
I was struck by those verses because they suggested that even after the death of Moses, that dynamic leader who had led millions out of captivity in Egypt, God still had a vital plan for his followers. Could that be true for us as well? Could it be that even after the death of Jerry Falwell, God still had great things in store for those of us left behind to continue the ministry he began?
To me, it seemed those verses were what the church needed to hear. They undoubtedly were what I needed to hear. I began to see that if God had a plan for Israel following Moses' death, surely he had a plan for Thomas Road Baptist Church following the death of its founder. And he certainly had a plan for me. I started to allow God to envelope my heart, and I was comforted to know that he would not forsake me, especially at this time when I needed him most. And God began to reveal himself to me in ways I never dreamed possible.
As if a spark had been set off inside me, I announced to Charles and Shari that my first sermon following Dad's death would be from Joshua 1. God had given me a course of action. Charles and I discussed the music and order of service, and then he left. Shari and the children all went off to bed. I sat alone at the table. I needed to take those wonderful verses and apply them to my life in order to find inspiration for my soul. Only then would I be able to honor my father, honor God, and hearten the Thomas Road Baptist Church family.
A little while later I picked up the phone to call Ergun Caner, president of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, and asked him to look over the sermon I had written. I explained that I was physically and emotionally spent and was second-guessing my ability to think clearly. I emailed my notes to Ergun and waited for his response.
When his response came, his words changed my life. Here is what he wrote:
Jonathan, look at these words by Charles Spurgeon Jr., the son of Spurgeon, spoken to his church at South Street Baptist Church in Greenwich, England. They echo the same heart you have shown in your sermon....
"What my Father has been to me, to many thousands, and the world at large, none can ever fully estimate. There was one trait in his noble and godly character which, among many others, always shone out....His humility. Words of eulogy concerning himself were painful to him; his creed in this, as in all other matters, being 'Not I, but Christ.' "
There, in the midst of that quote from more than one hundred years ago, were the words I knew would guide me for the rest of my days. Those words, drawn from Galatians 2:20 (kjv), would help me to stand in the pulpit in a few hours and claim an everlasting promise. Four simple words had taken root in my soul: "Not I, but Christ!"
My heart began to stir with anticipation, replacing the fear that had stricken me for several days. Not only had my spirits been buoyed, but I knew God had planted within me the message I could share with our anguished congregation that so loved my father. I realized that God had a plan and was working it through me. What a humbling experience! God, who does not make mistakes, was active within me, molding me to accomplish his plan. I knew that as long as I focused on him and not on my feeble abilities, everything would be fine.
Just as I had felt safe as a little boy with my father, I now felt the loving arms of my heavenly Father embrace me. God was alive in my heart, and I had nothing to fear.
"Not I, but Christ" has become the hymn of my heart. I believe in, stand upon, cling to, and talk about this verse many times every day. It has become my passion. And since that night, when those words became real in my heart, nothing has been the same! © 2008 Jonathan Falwell