D’IBERVILLE, Miss. (BP)–The line of people and preachers stretched back 20 people at the altar at First Baptist Church, Dallas. It was the concluding service of the 1983 School of the Prophets. At the time, I was 20 years old and had traveled from my hometown of Cookeville, Tenn., with a friend. We had made the pilgrimage from Dallas in a ’70s-model Volkswagen for the school and to have our “Brush With Greatness” — perhaps a brief meeting with Dr. W.A. Criswell.
The week was an exquisite buffet of great preaching, teaching and conferences. Almost as if I felt the need to save the dessert for the last, I waited until the last night to receive an autograph from Dr. Criswell. So, I stood in line with all the rest of the autograph hounds just after he preached.
Standing in line, I silently practiced my autograph acceptance speech. “Dr. Criswell,” I muttered in practice, “my name is Joe Brooks and I am a preacher in Cookeville, Tenn. I want to thank you for your wonderful School of the Prophets.”
As the line slowly inched forward, I secretly feared he would only talk in Greek or Hebrew. Maybe he would ask my opinion on the soteriological and eschatological ramifications of the Christological perspectives of the apostles as found in the epistles! My mind raced for answers to these and all sorts of other theological questions for which I had no answers.
As the line cleared and I stood before Dr. Criswell, there was a strange tickle in my throat. Taking the route of wisdom, ala “even a fool when he is silent, people will think he is wise,” I stood there as an example of silent wisdom.
“Hello, Lad,” Dr. Criswell said, taking my large burgundy study Bible in his hand. As he opened the cover, he said, “That’s an awfully big Bible, Lad.” And then he signed the Bible. “Till he comes. W.A. Criswell.”
He handed my Bible back to me and then placed his hand on my shoulder. Then, as if speaking directly on behalf of heaven itself, he said, “God bless you, Son.”
I turned, walked away, still unable to speak. During the time I stood there, along with giving me his autograph, Dr. Criswell called me “Lad” twice, a “Son” once, gave me a blessing from the Lord and a touch on the shoulder. Surely, the Bible would never preach the same way again, and surely the shoulder would never need washing again. Surely heaven would respond with a soon-coming blessing.
Dr. Criswell has always been a larger than life character who filled the pulpit and his world with a bold, dedicated and scholarly heart. The long hours he spent in the study are legendary among students of preachers. Through his careful preparation of heart and mind, he delivered his sermon “with a Bible in his hand.”
Through the miracles of the Internet, some 1,600 of Dr. Criswell’s sermons are available to anyone today — preacher, student or church member alike at wacriswell.com. Over the course of the past couple of months, I have learned from Dr. Criswell in ways I would have never dreamed possible as a 20-year-old preacher.
The other day, I had just clicked out of the website where I had heard a sermon on the Great Commission. During the discourse, delivered in the mid-1980s, Dr. Criswell related how he wanted to be buried. “I want to be buried with my Bible in my hands,” he said, almost inaudibly, in tears.
After finishing my study, Lisa, my wife, came to me and said, “Joe, I just heard on the radio that W.A. Criswell died early this morning. ”
I met the news with a bittersweet feeling of remorse and rejoicing. Dr. Criswell’s absence in the flesh means he is present with the Lord. During his long and wonderful life, his presence in his pulpit at the First Baptist of Dallas has been as steady and as solid as the delicately patterned oak pulpit he stood behind all those years. To think of him as being absent from the earth is almost like removing some needed element from the ground beneath us.
As the clock ticked quickly toward Sunday, however, I was in the midst of preparing a message for my own congregation. Today, I am acutely aware that I am part of the next generation of preachers, called to serve God’s people and to preach “with a Bible in my hand.”
The Bible I used back in 1983 has long since retired. On Sunday as I stood in my pulpit with a smaller, newer Bible, I had a bigger love for the Word of God and the God of the Word in my heart.
Surely, that is the blessing of heaven I longed for. And for that, I thank our Lord for the life and ministry of Dr. W.A. Criswell.
Joe Brooks is pastor of Brodie Road Baptist Church, D’Iberville, Miss.