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W.A. Criswell’s life celebrated at corner church in the heart of the city

DALLAS (BP)–The man who wanted a church on the corner in the heart of the city was laid to rest Jan. 16 after a memorial service at the church he pastored for half a century. An estimated 2,700 people assembled in the downtown Dallas First Baptist Church and utilized several remote facilities to remember Southern Baptists’ most famous pastor-preacher, W.A. Criswell, who died Jan. 10 at age 92.

In the sanctuary where Criswell preached through the entire Bible, church organist Jerry Aultman played through the hymnbook, offering rousing tunes like “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” “Standing on the Promises” and “I’ll Fly Away” for those arriving several hours in advance. At mid-morning the auditorium was half-full, resembling a crowd gathering for Sunday worship as parishioners visited with friends and guests. For many, it was a return to the place they called home, having worshiped at First Baptist years ago. Some came to honor the man who had led them to the Lord. And many remembered when they traveled a long distance just to hear Criswell preach.

By 11 o’clock, the organist turned to quieter selections, playing “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” and the near-capacity crowd grew subdued. Mourners made their way past the open casket containing the body of their pastor, a Bible resting in his right hand. Longtime friend Jack Pogue was the last to view the body of the man whom he’d cared for during the last four years of Criswell’s declining health. He stepped back, nodding for the casket to be closed in preparation for the memorial service.

Half an hour before noon, dozens of fellow ministers and denominational leaders from across the Southern Baptist Convention filed in to be seated. The faculty of Criswell College followed wearing their academic regalia. Deacons and other church leaders made their way to assigned seats and the choir and orchestra assembled behind the platform.

At noon, First Baptist’s music minister, Keith Ferguson, invited the congregation to join in singing “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” as Criswell’s widow, Betty, and other family members entered. Senior pastor Mac Brunson called those assembled to follow a church custom of kneeling in prayer to begin the service. Many pulled out the kneeling rails that Criswell had installed under pews in the mid-’70s.

“Your church is gathered today, not in defeat, but in the celebration of victory, as we come this day to glorify the Lord, Jesus Christ, and to honor the life, the mission and the man, W.A. Criswell,” prayed Brunson, seeking comfort for the family and a grieving church. “As we think back how as a 10-year old boy he came to give his life to you, but all he longed to do was have a church on the corner in the heart of the city. And from that simple desire you took a man and used him around the world to shape this planet for the cause of Jesus Christ.”

Brunson said those present came to worship “not as those who have no hope, but knowing exactly where the pastor is — safe in the arms of Jesus. Use this service to reach the hearts of those who have yet to believe so, as able, even though dead, yet he speaks.”

After singing the first three verses of “Amazing Grace,” worshipers offered a more fervent testimony through the words of the final stanza, singing, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.”

The president of the college founded by Criswell compared the man to the fourth-century scholar, writer, pastor and preacher, Athanasius, “who rescued the church from the pagan intellectualism of his day.” Richard Wells, addressing Criswell’s dedication to the study of God’s Word, compared it to a description of the early church father. “The fear of the Lord,” Gregory preached, “is the beginning of wisdom. But when wisdom has burst its bonds and risen up to love, it makes us friends of God and sons,” Wells quoted, making application to Criswell.

Wells recalled his own conversion through Criswell’s ministry while, “as a lost pastor” he attended the School of the Prophets and heard Criswell preach on the assurance of salvation. “And as Dr. Criswell would like to say, ‘In the balcony . . . down one of these stairwells, in the press of people on this lower floor, a couple you, a family you or just one somebody you, come.’ And that’s how I became a Christian.”

Recognizing that nearly every member of the family could offer a personal testimony of Criswell’s influence, Wells turned to the expressions of family members and close friends. He told of daughter Anne Criswell’s delight at joining with Pogue to establish the Criswell Legacy Project as a means of watching her parents’ life work carried on to millions of people every day through the collection of sermons at www.wacriswell.com on the Internet.

Wells described grandson Cris Criswell’s appreciation to Mrs. Criswell for making family life possible as she raised him from birth, allowing the Dallas pastor to fulfill his pastoral calling. “Even though he was so busy, he made time for me,” Criswell said, describing regular Saturday outings at the golf course. “The effort he put into the lives of people is amazing to me,” the younger Criswell related, praising the elder’s “positive, never-give-up attitude.”

“A plane crash in the Amazon couldn’t slow him down. A fainting spell wouldn’t keep him from finishing a wedding from a folding chair. A pastor that tried to destroy this great church didn’t stop him. Even sickness and illness couldn’t bring him down at least until God told him it was time to go early last Thursday morning.”

Acknowledging that the pastor had no singing ability or athletic skill, Criswell added, “But what Dad could do he did better than almost anybody — he preached about heaven. He has already met Saint Peter and has entered through those pearly gates. He knew church history and he is talking to Luther, Truett, Calvin, and I know for sure he is having a blast with Spurgeon. He knew the Word of God and he is surrounded by Moses, Abraham, David, Paul and John. Dad loved to evangelize and he is visiting with people from the Amazon jungle to Alaska, from Israel to England. He loved the people here and he is talking to all the members of our families who have gone on before us to where he is now. Oh how much he loved the people and how happy he is now with them.”

Grandson Paul Jackson told of his continued amazement at Criswell’s “calm demeanor in our family while the rest of us would bicker or struggle over some small issue — Papa would just praise God and move on.” Though he had much instruction to remember from his grandfather, Jackson said, “The one message he would have me remember and pass on it is to always have faith in God and to pray continually.”

Pogue, who was led to Christ by Criswell some 30 years ago, pointed to Psalm 71 in remembering his pastor as one who continually praised God. “All he ever wanted to do was win souls for Jesus and his message was simple and life changing — you are saved by the grace of God in Christ Jesus.” Even in his sleep, Dr. Criswell was totally committed to the Lord God, Pogue related, even preaching an entire sermon one night.

Longtime family friend and fellow pastor James Semple said Criswell made each person feel important in his presence. “He moved with ease among the rich and famous, but never lost the pauper’s touch.”

Representing Billy Graham, Cliff Barrows shared a message from the evangelist who considered Criswell his own pastor. Graham praised Criswell’s devotion to Scripture that inspired thousands of young clergy from many denominations. “His gracious word, his gracious spirit and his love for the Lord will always be a great inspiration to us,” Barrows said. He urged the family and church to “be strong and courageous,” knowing that God is with them to “see to it that all the work is finished correctly,” quoting 1 Chronicles 28:20.

Brunson’s message described the kind of man God uses “in rare moments of human history” whom God anoints to a special task. “When W.A. Criswell drove into Dallas, no one had any idea — not the committee, not the church that called him, the denomination he would serve, not his family, and least of all W.A. Criswell — what God would do in his life and in his ministry through this place.” Brunson said it reminded him of an Old Testament prophet who appeared out of nowhere named Elijah.

Preaching from passages in 1 and 2 Kings, Brunson said God first looks for a man who is a defender of the faith. “A nation that has forgotten God needs a defender of the faith,” Brunson said, describing Criswell as one who testified of the one, true God. In addition to identifying God, Elijah acknowledged his position before God, Brunson said. “God reached down in this last generation and picked up a man who was willing to stand before a diet or denomination, before kings or counsel, before popes or potentates, and say this is the Word of God. W.A. Criswell was in our day the great defender of the faith.”

Brunson went on to note that God looks for a man who will stretch himself out for others through ministry, pointing to the example of Elijah in restoring the dead child of a widow. “When it comes to ministry, there are days when it feels like somebody has drained life out of you. You give and you give and you give,” Brunson said. Criswell, he said, was willing to give his life in ministry to God, providing encouragement in the lives of those he met.

God also looks for a man willing to fortify the truth for the future, Brunson said, noting Elijah’s influence during his final days in the life of Elisha. “Men that are dying don’t generally think about themselves, do they?” he asked. As Elijah recalled Gilgal, the place of beginning, Bethel, the place of an altar of prayer, and Jericho, a place of victory, Brunson said he went back to each “school of the prophets” to fortify those men with the truth and give them an example of a man of God. “W.A. Criswell in our day was God’s man to fortify the truth for the future.”

Brunson said he had not prayed to have Criswell’s position, fame, power or popularity, “but just to be a man of God like him.” He described his last conversation with Criswell two weeks earlier. “With all the strength and all the vitality of life, he looked up at me and took my hand, and he said, ‘Are you here for the revival?'”

He added, “Here was a man in the last days of his life, his mind clouded by medication, and yet he was so saturated with the things of God that he wanted God to bring revival. That was W.A. Criswell.” Brunson asked those present whether they were ready for revival, urging repentance and faith in Christ by those yet to accept him.

“Those crystal blue eyes that twinkled like stars in the dark firmament may be shut in death, but they’re closed for just a moment. That great booming voice that would crescendo and reverberate around this preaching palace may be silenced and dead, but only briefly. Those hands that reached out to sinners and saints and pled with people to come to Jesus Christ may have fallen in death. But, let me tell you, only for a moment.” Basing his conviction on God’s Word, Brunson quoted Isaiah 40:8, “The grass may wither, the flower may fade, but the Word of our God will stand forever and ever and ever.”
Listen to the W.A. Criswell memorial service at http://www.sbc.net/criswell/news.asp. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: HOMEGOING.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter