I recently took a course through my now former employer entitled, "Crucial Conversations." It was a class designed to get you ready for the important conversations that will arise in your day to day life. The most striking fact I recall from the 10 or so hours of this class was that 93 percent of what we take out of human interaction is not the actual conversational quotes. That means that only 7 percent of what we take away from an exchange, albeit social, casual, or professional, is the actual quotable dialogue. We remember tone, intent, body language,and unspoken vibe.
True to this statistic, my pastor from 1989 to 2004, Al Gerhardt, left his mark in my life mostly based on his actions and the way he carried himself. Probably the most prevalent quote I can recall of him is his enthusiastic "Hey Joe" when he saw me. I can't really reiterate all the profound or exact words of hope he spoke to me over the course of 15 years. I only recall bits and pieces. What I remember so clearly however is the lessons learned from observing his conduct, kindness, and intense love for Jesus Christ.
He was gentle with me at times and firm in tough love at other times. But the common denominator was his portrayal of Christ's love. I feel unworthy of even writing about him, as I know there are hundreds of others who were closer to him than me. The following are a few memories and thoughts from observation and direct contact with the man most of us so eloquently referred to as "Pastor Al."
My memory of Al Gerhardt passes through two different eras of my life, as well as two very different perspective's of him; One perspective falsely concocted and one dead on accurate. The first 10 years or so I knew him were based off of reverence that I doubled as intimidation. The last couple years were merely based from excitement and appreciation just knowing the man.
"Here He Comes. He Can See Right Through Me. I Better Go the Other Way."
As a young child and right through my teenage years, I was scared of him. It was a self created fear. He was the face of God in my life, and quite frankly I was not sure how I felt about God, or how God felt about me. I didn't fear Pastor Al because of anything he did or said, but I was intimidated by what he represented.
In Mitch Albom's "Have A Little Faith",Albom describes his childhood Rabbi as someone that was a figurehead that embedded fear and quivering inside of him. It was only later in his life that he got to know him as a man first and a Rabbi second.
I could relate to Albom's portrayal because that was much the same timeline I had with Pastor Al. I swore he must have been able to see all the sins I had committed when he looked at me. Of course my imagination was erroneous looking back now. But all I saw back then was God when I saw Al. It's funny because later in his life I still saw the exact same thing in him, only my emotion changed from fear to peace. I think I had trouble relating to him in my youth because of the following fact: If I hadn't made friends with God yet, how would I make friends with the human face of God in my life.
His First Gift to Me
Somewhere around 1990, I received my first gift from Pastor Al. It was in the form of a Christian sports magazine called "Sports Spectrum." He sent it in the mail to me knowing my love for sports as a 10 year old child. These magazines would come with stories of Christian athletes and their fierce faith. They spoke life into me at a very young age and commanded my attention because they were a gift from the most Godly man I knew. Often times the subject of the magazine surprised me, leaving me saying "He is a Christian?” about the athlete on the cover. Magazine after magazine came in every month, Pastor Al renewing my subscription every year.......for six years.
His Sunday Morning Ambiance
I remember on most Sunday mornings, shortly after worship would start, Al would stroll into the sanctuary with his Bible under his arm. Did he come in alone and late in hopes of making a symbolic grand entrance? Hardly. I remember hearing once that he usually would walk in late because he put so much stock in prayer that he would pray for the service in a back room until he heard the worship music begin.
I remember he would usually turn around at some point during worship to see who was in attendance. The look on his face as he scanned the room could best be described as auspicious. I would describe it as an appreciative and humbled awe at what the Lord had entrusted him with. He always let the Holy Spirit move in his services,but also was always sure to bring some sort of word from The Bible even during mornings of spirit led revival.
Studying the Man's Unspoken Nuances
When I was a teenager I loved watching him conduct himself. I remember thinking to myself over the years, "Does his hair ever move?" and "What size shoes is that?"
I spoke in church this past May about overcoming my addiction to poker. Before I went up I knew I wanted to somehow mention Pastor Al's name and give him props. So I decided I would play Al's " Your testimony is going too long, how can I tell you this without getting up and grabbing the microphone" card.
I remember Sunday mornings where people would go up to the altar and give testimony about what the Lord was doing in their life. Al would sometimes mention the importance of brevity, but a lot of times that notion fell on deaf ears. I always had a timer in my head as people shared and tried to guess when Al would start squirming. I was pretty good at hitting the nail on the head in this category. I never wanted it to come to that but once it did I couldn't help but laugh at his antics. He would uncross his leg and switch over to the other leg, look at his watch repeatedly, and do a fake cough routine. Anything to get the person's attention and let them know, “Hey I got a tee time at 2 o' clock." Sometimes the speaker would get the unspoken vibe and other times not. But I loved the fact he was so human and to me at least, so funny about it.
So in May, after about five minutes of giving my testimony I decided it was time to deliver the Pastor Al line. I said to the congregation of which maybe less then half actually had known him, “I have to wrap this up now. I can hear Pastor Al doing his fake cough in my mind." I loved the fact I could acknowledge the person who made it possible for everyone in that room to be there. I loved that I got to drop his name in front of a full room....I loved that people were thinking of him and laughing.
“I Have to Mow his Lawn? What if I Miss a Blade?"
In the summer of 1994, I was 14 years old and my family found itself living in the same apartment complex as Pastor Al. He occasionally would pick me up and take me to church on a Wednesday night for revival meetings. During the 6 years we lived in the same complex, I was often volunteered by my Mom to mow his lawn. He had a small yard and a manual, non-engined mower.
The job literally took me about 10 minutes to do. I remember on one particular hot day, looking over as I was rolling the mower and seeing him standing at the sliding glass door. In my mind I was panicked and sure he was scrutinizing my work. I probably started mowing nervously in crooked lines as he stood there. After a few seconds of watching, he opened the door and said to me, “Don’t forget to come in for iced tea when you're done."...... The face of God had spoken. And strangely enough, he was more concerned about my well-being then his grasses cosmetics.
July 31, 1996
I don't know how I remember the date, I just do. My best friend Jim Carpenter and I were known for our petty, girlish fights. We would argue about the dumbest things as if they were life or death, then not speak for awhile afterwards. During this particular time period we hadn't talked in the longest amount of time we had ever gone. My mom set us up to get us back together. He came over to my house on this summer day and asked me if I wanted to go golfing. We set out to Webster golf course to play a round.
I remember we were still angry at each other and were bickering quite a bit still.As we headed towards one particular hole we saw Pastor Al up ahead of us, pulling his clubs with a hand cart golfing alone.We debated for a few moments whether we should go up to him and converse. I remember thinking," If he asks us to join,we won't be able to curse after a bad shot the rest of the day; and worst of all Jim are I are going to have to pretend that we don't hate each other right now."
We decided to hurry along and catch up to him to say "hi". He asked us if we would like to join him and we did. It was not long, before Pastor Al was displeased with one of his shots and started talking to himself. - "Al, You have got to be kidding me. What were you thinking? You are playing terrible golf."
Throughout the day he berated himself as such after a 'bad' shot. Jim and I laughed about it afterwards because we were so worried about not being able to beat ourselves up while golfing with the pastor, and it turned out he did enough self-scolding for all three of us. He must have beaten us each by 20 strokes and also through pastoral osmosis, Jim and I were getting along great.
Always There at the Lowest Points
When I was 17 years old I became plagued with a difficult digestive disease that left me bed ridden many a time. Over the next 5 years my mom would call Pastor Al on my most dire nights to ask for prayer. He would often head right over to my house and pray with me. Sometimes he would come alone and other times he would bring the elders with him.
One time in particular I was more depressed than sick. He came over and sat with me one on one in the living room. I lived in the basement of my parents house and I remember being so sick and depressed that I wouldn't come up for days.
I remember when I came upstairs on this day that the sun piercing through the blinds had made my vision distorted. I must have not seen the sun in weeks. I slept during the day and stayed up all night. I remember before I could even adjust my eyes to the light Pastor Al was speaking life into me. I don't remember exact words but the gist was “Do you believe God has something better planned for you? Do you believe he is able to save you from death?"
I want to say that the man always knew exactly what to say, but the fact I don't have a lot of direct quotes on him specifically makes me more apt to say this; the man always knew how to love you.
There was about a 5 year span where I was very sick, and it was only towards the end of my sickness that my childhood intimidation of him ceased. I worked at a deli in Webster where he shopped and sadly enough, I remember sometimes I would see him coming around the bend and I would hide in the back room. I figured I had nothing good or Godly to report to him, so what would I talk about?
It was towards the end of that period of time that I stopped hiding in the back room and started embracing him. I recall on more than one occasion asking my boss if I could take my break and going up to the diner to have coffee with Al. The man I had so hastily and erroneously labeled as overwhelmingly intimidating,was suddenly my friend.
His Second Gift to Me
I ended up being hospitalized a few times and the first one to join me there after my immediate family was always Pastor Al.
In 2001 I had a bad reaction to a drug and had a temperature of over 107 degrees, ending up in the intensive care unit of Genesee Hospital. He came down to pray with me in the unit and the next Sunday I gave testimony of how God saved my life.
Al prayed for me after my testimony and I still have the audio tape, one that I played last week for the first time in many years in preparation for writing this piece. It was my first time hearing his voice in so long and is my only documented audio of him.
He spoke words over me that 9 years later mean more than they ever have. He said “Joe, the Lord is asking you, do you love me? And you are saying 'Yes Lord, I love you.' And The Lord is saying to you “I love you Joe. Never have any doubt in your mind that I love you. I have always loved you. And I want to take you out of this place of sickness. But it's all contingent on you walking out this love relationship with me."
He went on to talk about how God promises to take me out of this wilderness of illness if I only will allow him to and trust him. As I listened to it recently I couldn't help but get teary-eyed. His voice was so gentle, and his passion so evident. It's fitting that the only documented audio I have of Pastor Al is him speaking in the role of Jesus.
His Third Gift to Me
Sometime during the years of illness, Pastor Al brought me a handkerchief. He told me that it was representative of the hem of Jesus’ garment as documented in the Bible. He said when I feel alone and overcome by illness I could hold onto it as if I was holding onto Jesus himself. As I write this, I am familiarizing myself with the story behind the garment in the Bible.
The story goes that a woman had had an issue of bleeding for 12 years. As the masses tried to get Jesus attention as he walked through the village, the woman reached out and touched the hem of his garment and was immediately healed. I am just realizing now that it has been 12 plus years for me dealing with a disease whose first symptom was loss of blood. I only last week, not having yet familiarized myself with the story of the woman in the Bible, heard God tell me to proclaim that I am healed of all digestive disease.(Five months after I wrote this I was indeed healed of Crohn's Disease, as a doctor told me he couldn't find a trace of it every existing in my body. Hallelujah.)
Looking back perhaps the handkerchief was a prophetic gift. I always held that handkerchief near and dear to my heart not only because it was a gift from Al, but it represented my hope in one day being healed. Sometime after he died I lost the handkerchief. I remember searching deep and wide for it many a time. To this day if I could find just one thing I ever lost it would be that handkerchief.
His Final Gift to Me
In June of 2004 Al Gerhardt passed away from complications of cancer. The sanctuary was so packed with people for his funeral that the church streamed the service on closed circuit television into another room in the church. As some of his grandson's carried out his casket, there was not a dry eye in the building.
A year or two after his death my mom had mentioned to his daughter, Joy, that I was having trouble seeing small print due to the years of steroid use affecting my vision. Joy asked her if I wanted a bible that had large print. It was a Bible Pastor Al had bought later in his life because of the larger print being easier to see. Joy gave my mom the Bible to give to me. I can't express my gratitude to be able to own one of the last Bibles that this ultimate man of God had owned.
In this Bible there is only one spot where he had hand written in it. It is written in pencil, with two verses in it at the bottom of Ephesians 2. Ephesians 2:8 and Isaiah 65:1, and they are as follows. Ephesians 2:8- "For by grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God." Isaiah 65:1 - “I was sought by those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. I said 'Here I am, here I am,' to a nation that was not called by my name."
Both verses are representative of how unworthy we are of God and how his grace is so precious. How appropriate that in the last years of his life, in perhaps the last Bible he ever owned in perhaps the last markings he ever documented in a Bible, his notes were in regards to how humble we should feel to be receiving God's grace. It is so fitting because when I had finally got past my false image of intimidation, what I found most in Pastor Al was a humble and thankful Christian.
I mentioned earlier that he used to get antsy when testimonies would drag on Sunday mornings and joked about him being late for his tee time. I think its important to point out he wasn't trying to move things along for his own reasons, but he was just always cognizant of keeping things in the realm of the Holy Spirit’s flow for the service. As I mentioned above, he was humbled by what God had given him and always aware of God's presence.
In writing this, I was thinking about when we get to heaven and if we get to request to be able to see and spend time catching up with certain people that have had an impact on our lives on this earth. If this is how it happens I have a feeling Al Gerhardt doesn't get many periods up there where he is not "looked up." The people whose lives he had an impact on are countless,as is I am sure are the amount of people he led to Christ that want to thank him for the glory that has been revealed through his outreaching.
I know when I get there he will be on the top of my list of people to look up. What will I do when I see him? Maybe just give him a gentle hug and a whisper of "Thank you." I will try to keep it brief, but who am I kidding, no I wont.
I guess I'll find out quickly if there are wrist watches and fake coughs in heaven.