It was late 1995 or so when I first became familiar with the Old Man. Somebody had a VHS tape of a chalk-talk preaching session he had done at the Bible Baptist Church in Pensacola Florida. The name of the message was ‘Hypocrites in the Church’. There were several other young military guys present that day, and the owner of the tape warned us all that some of us might not be able to ’handle’ the Old Man. Sure enough, as the message went on, one by one they peeled off and left. When it was over, I was the only one still sitting there. I was hooked.
About the same time, the man that was head over the street preaching ministry loaned me a book called Sure Word of Prophecy, jokingly telling me it was ‘required reading’. I devoured it. Over the next several years, I read everything I could by the Old Man. I watched dozens of his taped chalk-talk sermons, listened to hours of preaching, and read every book of his that somebody would put in my hands. He was caustic, and colorful. He was a military man, and unapologetic about it. He was sarcastic and sometimes a little crude, but he spoke and taught the Bible in a way that resonated with me. He was politically incorrect in a way only an octogenarian can be. I learned a lot of Bible from him. I found I agreed with some things, and disagreed with others. As the years went on I have found there are some things I disagreed with back then that I agree with now, and vice versa. He established in me that I could put faith and confidence, not only in the general idea of the Bible, but in the actual individual words I had on the page in front of me. That was huge for me.
Amazingly, I discovered that not everybody liked the old man. In fact, he was, and is a remarkably polarizing figure. Everybody either loved him, or hated him. Some people absolutely hated him. Some people devoted ridiculous amounts of energy to hating him. People established websites and wrote page after page critical of his doctrine, his personality, his family troubles, his choice of ties. The intellectuals hated him because, as intelligent and well-read as he was, he should have been one of them, but he passed himself off as a common man. The mild-mannered brethren hated him because he was too colorful, and too controversial. The ‘pretty boys’ in the ministry hated him because he openly made fun of them. The respectable Christian educators hated him because he showed no interest in being respectable. They shrieked and they howled and they dis-invited him from meetings and warned their students against him. The Old Man, being the thick-skinned infantry soldier that he was, found it all rather amusing that so much ink and air was being wasted on one poor old saved sinner.
But some of us loved him, even though we had never met him. He was the sort of preacher we wanted to be. We were called names for liking him, but we continued to pass around bootleg VHS and cassette tapes almost worn out from use. We were more than a little envious of those that got to attend his Bible Institute. My heroes in my old life were slick criminals and clever con men who always stayed one step ahead of The Man by their wits. My new heroes were preachers who stood against the spirit of the age in which they lived, even if it meant they stood alone. I realized the Old Man had the courage of 10 John Dillingers and the character of 100 Frank Abegnales.
The Old Man wasn’t an idol, far from it. I knew he was just a little bit crazy. I understood very early on, that associating with him carried a cost with it in certain circles. But as a young Christian, I needed men to look up to, and like it or not, he was one of them.
In 2000, my brother(ish) was getting married in a town in Florida. It just so happened that the Old Man was having a meeting at his church just a few hours away, and I knew friends I could stay with. I threw my fiancee on a plane with me and we flew from California with three goals in mind; introduce her to my crazy family, see my brother(ish) get married, and meet the Old Man.
I pictured his church as being bigger for some reason. I pictured it as the Independent Baptist Mecca, but it wasn’t. It was just like every other building I had ever been in. The family I was staying with (the same guy who had given me the book years earlier) recommended I audit a class at the Bible Institute for one night since as it turned out, we were going to miss the meeting due to this pesky wedding. I was elated at the idea. I was going to sit there, in person, while the Old Man taught the Bible!
In my mind, the Old Man was 10 feet tall and barrel chested. And true enough he was stockier than most people his age since at 80 he was still playing hockey ( which he continued to do until the church insurance would no longer cover him), but he was short. I mean, shorter than me, short. That’s short. The tapes I had seen of him were from the late 1980’s and although his fashion sense hadn’t changed (holding steady at zero), he looked older than I thought he would. He was like a saddlebag with eyes. So there he was, my hero, a short, gruff old man.
When class was over I ran up to him and asked if I could have my picture taken with him. He said “I aint got time for that, man. My family is waiting for me in the car. I gotta go.” He waddled off and I went “Huh. OK.” It wasn’t exactly what I had expected, but when I returned to California, people wanted to know what he was like, and I told them. They all thought it was a great story.
I saw him a few more times over the years, both in Pensacola and at other churches. One meeting in particular he was barely able to move, having injured himself playing hockey with the 20 year olds at his church. Watching him shuffle around, it occurred to me for literally the first time that he wasn’t going to be around one day. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think he was going to live forever, but he had just always seemed so much larger than life, and he had been a hero for my entire Christian life. Now it hit me that he was just a bag of flesh and bones like everybody else. I got a few more chances to talk with him that went better than the first. I asked him once about going to Bible Institute in Pensacola and he said “Well don’t go there for me, man, I‘m gonna die any day now.” Once I interrupted him eating friend chicken so he could sign my Bible ( I have 3 Bibles signed by him), and yes I did eventually get a picture with him.
I saw him just a few months back at a meeting in Jacksonville where he re-preached a message I’d heard him preach at least 3 times before, and did a better job than ever, in my opinion. He’s even shorter now, and getting pretty frail, and he’s deaf as a stump. He’s going blind, but going on. That gravelly voice is quieter than it used to be, and he's prone to say whatever pops into his head. Generally speaking he’s wearing out just like I am; except he has a 50 year head start.
I’ve never felt the need to apologize for my affection for the Old Man. Someday he’ll be dead, and everybody then will talk about what a genius he was, and the people that hate him now will have to find somebody else to hate. That’s the real weakness of hate, you know. You can still love somebody after they’re gone, but hate requires an active target because it has no life of its own. Life will go on, and the work will go on, and those of us that do chalk-talks because of him, or preach on the streets (partially) because of him, we will be his legacy and nobody should ever apologize for that.