Following, is the transcript of my comments for the Memorial of my spiritual mentor and former pastor, Gerald Tidwell, delivered December 22, 2014 at First Baptist Church, Durant, Oklahoma.
Today, we remember the life of Gerald Tidwell, Pastor, Preacher, Church Planter, Husband, Father, Encourager, Teacher, Sports Enthusiast, Loyal Friend, Servant of God and Faithful Follower of Jesus. Thank you, Margaret, Todd and Michelle for the opportunity of speaking today I honor of Gerald. To have been asked by Margaret and Gerald to help celebrate the life of sweet Cindy was a privilege, but the highest privilege I have ever had is to preach today to celebrate the life of your husband and your dad. I came to faith in Jesus in this church under the preaching of Gerald. Gerald baptized me. He baptized my wife. Dana and I were married by Gerald. I surrendered to bivocational ministry under his preaching and he led in my licensure to preach. Gerald preached my ordination service. He was a great mentor and friend.
Death is a great enemy and it is understandable that we all experience a sense of loss with the passing of someone we love so much. Mourning is appropriate, but when a follower of Jesus passes, our grief is tempered by our greater hope and assurance of eternity and a place in the presence of love and celebration with the Savior. In John 14-1-6 we find Jesus comforting His disciples with these words: Let not your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going. Thomas said to Him, Lord we do not know where You are going; how do we know the way? Jesus said to him, I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.
As followers of the way the truth and the life, we believe this. Gerald staked his very life on this. So in the midst of our sorrow, we nonetheless are comforted by the words of our Master: Let not our hearts be troubled. We believe in God. We believe in Jesus. And as surely as He is coming to take us to the place He has prepared for us, we are comforted that Gerald knew the Way and is even now in the presence of Jesus, Cindy, family and friends like Dennis Huggins who when preaching Dennis’s funeral, I remember Gerald saying, “I’m a little jealous that Dennis beat me Home.”
In many ways, Gerald reminds me of the beloved disciple, John. Both stressed grace and mercy. They both were deeply loyal to friends. John, when some rejected Jesus, was ready to call down fire from heaven to consume them. Gerald too, would fiercely defend his friends and loved ones. Both John and Gerald held close friendships with Jesus. Both empathized with hurting people. John constantly encouraged others to give hope and cast out fear. So did Gerald. Both were deeply sensitive to loved ones. Both attracted people who were experiencing mental and emotional distress.
But there is another biblical character that I keep coming back to when I think of Gerald. It is Paul the Apostle, the church planter, the teacher and the mentor to young preachers and pastors. Like Paul, when Gerald made his decision to follow Christ, it was a moment of never turning back. It transformed him as it did Paul. And as Paul had done before him, Gerald spent time in preparation for the mission for which God had destined him.
Gerald, after graduating high school and having surrendered to the Gospel Ministry enrolled at Hardin-Simmons University. He took with him his newly married wife, Margaret. They had been high school sweethearts and I happen to know that in his attempt to get her to go on a date he bribed her with a promise to provide refreshments for a women’s meeting at her own church. Somehow he procured a sufficient quantity of watermelon and she finally went out with him. Theirs is a great love affair and serves as a model for family. Gerald taught me my first ministry is to my family and he modeled that in his love for Margaret, Cindy, Todd and Michelle.
They married right out of high school and spent their honeymoon in the dormitory for married students at Hardin-Simmons. Even with a few scholarships, they did not have sufficient money, yet both were determined to prepare for a life of ministry. Gerald had a wealthy aunt who had no children and she adored Gerald. She wanted to pay his four years of college but he turned her down. He wanted to do it on his own. There were few churches in the area and more preacher boys desiring to preach that the likelihood of finding a place to serve was slim. Yet, providentially, Gerald was called to his first pastorate as a Freshman in college. He was 18 years old. Years later he would remark that he hoped those church members would forgive him for some of the things he had preached.
After graduating, his call to preach was a call to continued preparation, so they moved to Fort Worth for Gerald to attend Southwestern Theological Seminary. Margaret taught math at Poly High School. Gerald took a job as a landscaper at the seminary and took great pride in his assigned areas, keeping them weed free and groomed with most beautiful flowers. That attention to detail and that meticulous attention would continue into his ministry and even his own love of having a manicured lawn.
His work ethic was duly noted and he was given the opportunity to work in the library and remained in that position throughout the remainder of his time at seminary. He was a noted scholar and became a grader for one of the seminary professors. He also began pastoring as soon as they moved to Forth Worth in a nearby small town. To no one’s surprise here today, he flourished and soon became a fixture in town, not just in the church but throughout the community.
Much like the Apostle Paul, Gerald became a preacher and missionary and church planter. Read with me a passage from Acts, in which Paul’s missionary journeys in Macedonia and Greece and Ephesus are being recounted by Luke. In Acts 20 verses 25-38 we read:
25 “And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will no longer see my face. 26 Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27 For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. 28 Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He]purchased with His own blood. 29 I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. 35 In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”36 When he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. 37 And they began to weep aloud and embraced Paul, and repeatedly kissed him, 38 grieving especially over the word which he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they were accompanying him to the ship.
In his farewell address to the church at Ephesus, we see a man who went about preaching the Kingdom and who didn’t shrink from declaring the whole purpose of God. We see a church planter and preacher dedicated to preparing his flock to stand firm against apostasy and heresy. We see a man who admonishes with tears and commends others to God and His grace. We see a man anxious for his flock to be built up and to be continually sanctified, to become givers and not takers, who was a prayer warrior. We see a man who was deeply appreciated and loved by those he admonished, those he taught, those he encouraged, those he built up, those he prepared for their own futures and ministries. We see a man of great humility. We see a man who others grieved about when others realized they would not again see him this side of Glory.
We see a man a lot like Gerald Tidwell. In the Bible I used when he was my pastor here at FBC, I have comments and notes from hundreds of sermons preached by Gerald written in the margins. On the pages next to this very passage, I have written: “Feed the flock. Be on guard against heretical teaching. Preach the Gospel. Give yourself away.” And Gerald did just that.
Like Paul, he taught and eventually became a missionary and church planter with Frontiers for Baptist Men in the northwest United States and on into Canada. He raised and helped start nine churches there. The group would provide a portable church building with baptistery then when the church was able to build their own facility, they would move the portable building to a new place and start a new work. Margaret recalled that one church was located as far as the wilderness had been cleared in Love, Canada. The local bartender there had a daughter who started attending the church and so he donated the land for the church. When Margaret and Gerald went there to dedicate the church they stayed with a member who had no running water because it was too cold and at one point saw bears in the front yard. These were productive years for Gerald and Margaret and working with Henry Blackaby they engaged in considerable mission work in Canada including assisting with the Canadian Baptist Seminary. The Blackaby family was a tremendous influence on Gerald and the family is honored that Barry Nelson, Vice President of the seminary is here today.
Eventually Gerald returned to Texas to pastor the large North Fort Worth Baptist Church. During that time, First Baptist, Durant invited him to preach a revival where this church body first heard him preach and were so impressed with his ability to open the Word clearly, boldly, and with an ease that belied the great amount of time and energy he spent in preparing, writing, editing, and memorizing each word for a flawless delivery. The church also had its first glimpse of a man who took great care in his appearance.
Gerald was the consummate professional. He took his assignments seriously and did things by the book down to his dress. He wore the most fashionable suits and ties. In the 1970s leisure suits and polyester were all the rage, so naturally that was his style. Dr. Henry Gold remembers that he preached that revival in a marvelous bright yellow suit. I remember that suit as well, because years later here in Durant, our college group roasted him with an episode of “This Is Your Life, Gerald Tidwell,” and Kevin Cunningham wore that same suit in one of our sketches.
Speaking of his meticulous style, Margaret relayed to me the story of how he always wore a suit and tie when he stepped into the pulpit. He considered the pulpit a sacred place and so he always dressed in his best. One Sunday, preaching in Seminole, Texas in the 1970s, he stepped up to preach wearing a rose colored polyester suit and announced, "If anyone says anything about my pink suit, I’ll hit you over head with my pink purse!” The family has put his ties on display in the lobby and for those who want one, they invite each family to take one. Whether you wear a nice one or pick one for a tacky tie and sweater day, remember Gerald when you wear it and smile. Todd says that there may be more tacky ones than anything as he’s already gone through and taken all the nice ones.
Years later, when First Baptist Durant began looking for its next pastor, Gerald was on their list. Dr. Henry Gold was on the Pulpit Committee and had gone to North Fort Worth to hear Gerald. He told me that he knew immediately that Gerald Tidwell should be their pastor. As I consider it, I find it remarkable that a man of his giftedness—pastoring one of the largest churches in Texas, where about 100 seminary students came each Sunday to study under Gerald, and where he had an ongoing ministry advising, counseling young seminarians preparing for ministry, and greatly enjoying the ministry he had there—should leave to come to a small city and a much smaller church, where he joked the deacon’s meetings were held across the street at the feed store.
Yet, this too points to a man of God who was not interested in titles or positions or places of great importance, but simply to obedience to God and faithful service wherever God placed him. I wonder how much better our churches would be if more preachers were as anxious to pastor where God wanted instead of pursuing ministry as if it were a career ladder to move on to bigger and bigger places of service. Gerald was the best preacher in America who hardly anyone has ever heard of outside those whose lives have been impacted by him. He was a minister content to pastor where God placed him and his humility is a model for us all.
Gerald continued his great influence in the lives of former seminary students from Fort Worth, and then countless young men and women here in Durant. He made a difference. He was a fixture in Durant. From Friday Men’s luncheons to establishing the Christian Counseling Center and the Medical Mission, he cared about his community and sought to serve here.
For those of us who ended up with preaching assignments, he continued to the end as a source of help and encouragement. When at my first church, I needed to do my first baptism, I called him and he had me over to walk me through the steps and offer inside tips. Like, if the baptistery doesn’t have a toe-hold, then have them bend their knees when you lower them into the water. "Otherwise their feet will pop up and they’ll float right in front of you and it’s hard fella, to get ‘em standing up right again." He told me a true story—whether it happened or not—about a large woman he was baptizing who lost her footing and starting floating and he bounced her around for several minutes in the baptistery before getting her righted. He told me it wouldn’t have been so bad had his organist not started playing the Tennessee Waltz.
He also had advice on funerals. Another true story, whether it happened or not. Preaching a funeral near Christmas time, he understood the widow’s request that at the conclusion of the service to have everyone sing her late husband’s favorite song, “Jingle Bells.” They did and the widow told him afterwards, “Oh preacher, I’m so sorry. I was just so rattled, but I meant for us to sing, “When They Ring those Golden Bells.”
The greatest admonition he ever gave me after becoming a bivocational preacher was to always stick to the Scripture, let the Scripture drive the message—not the other way around—and always, always hide behind the Cross. Other practical advice we just learned by observing.
When we started the television ministry here at First Baptist, many saw for the first time what went on in an evangelical church, and it was the first glimpse for many into the ecclesiological practices of those Baptists downtown. One of my favorite questions sent in by a viewer asked what was the sacramental practice our minister did after completing his sermon. They said at the end of the sermon, he would step down to receive new converts or others to pray and as he did, he would touch his mouth, usually twice, with something he retrieved from his pocket. I think they were disappointed to learn that it was simply liquid Binaca breath freshener.
So many of us could tell so many stories. He was a man of great insight, great intellect, and great humor. He took his responsibilities and his ministry seriously. But he never took himself too seriously. He loved to laugh. He could tell a joke. He was a marvelous person.
This, and I’m through. In the margin of my Bible I wrote these words from a sermon Gerald preached on Acts 19. In Ephesus the Gospel of Jesus spread mightily and powerfully. Gerald’s first point of his three points in explaining why the Gospel was so productive in Ephesus was this referring to Paul: "Because of the presence of a wholly committed man."
Like Paul, Gerald preached the whole counsel of God. Like Paul, he preached and wanted everyone he met to know the Way the Truth the Life. He preached the Cross. He preached Jesus, the Son of God, sent to live a perfect life, crucified on the cross in our place as the sacrifice for our sin. He preached Jesus the Savior who died, was buried, and rose again three days later. He preached repentance from sin, turning to God for mercy through Jesus. He preached Jesus the Victor over death, and the One who ascended into heaven with a promise to return, so that where He is now, and where Gerald is now, so we will be with Jesus one day. Gerald invested in other peoples’ lives. Gerald gave himself away.
Gerald, the high school track star, ran his race, kept the faith, and a few days ago won the greatest victory of his life. His life was well lived indeed, having walked worthy of the high calling of God in Jesus Christ. The Gospel was made manifest and powerful in our lives, in this church, and in this city itself, and our lives are richer and fuller and blessed because of the presence of a wholly committed man named Gerald Tidwell. To God be the glory. Amen.