I was finishing my last year at Luther Seminary, Larry’s alma mater. I was told that I could choose my internship. I had heard of Larry Christenson but had not met him. He knew my father, also a pastor. I wrote, “I am evangelical, conservative, and I speak in tongues.” He told the elders, “Sounds like we’re his last hope. We’d better take him.”
He took me to lunch on my first day and said, “People will try to separate us. Let’s not make that happen.” People did. I was thankful for the counsel and knew how to head it off. We had a rich and seamless relationship. He mentored me for forty-seven years. In later years it was mainly by phone or email, but still the same sound wisdom.
We prayed every day for eleven years at 6 AM with two elders, not counting weekends and holidays. Do the math, close to three thousand times. I had heard people say that prayer is two-way communication. I just never met anyone who took that seriously–until I prayed with Larry. About a third of the time was listening. I didn’t know what to do at first. Were we trying to think of something to pray about? He would sometimes write things down during the silence. I figured it was a note like, “Don’t forget to pick up milk.” I found out later that he was listening to God. Little by little I began to learn how to hear the voice of God. Larry had his feet on the ground, but his ears were attuned to heaven. Hearing the voice of God became one of the greatest joys of my life. He taught me more by what he did than by what he said.
A year after I came to Trinity Larry left for a year to do studies. He trusted this upstart enough at the ripe age of twenty-seven to lead the congregation. A missionary home on furlough helped to guide the ship. Ten funerals that year shaped my pastoral ministry–and regular calls from Larry.
He was the smartest man I ever knew, a true intellectual. He didn’t fit the caricature of a Holy Spirit person. People sometimes expected a charismatic leader to lean a bit on the emotional side. Wrong. Or maybe wear his religion on his sleeve. Really wrong. Larry was not religious. He took on this recovering Pharisee and worked it out of me. He had radar for pretense–and strong words.
I think he might have traded straight A’s and Phi Beta Kappa to be a football player. He deeply loved his father, who was an athlete, then a highly successful coach. The athletic center at St. Olaf was named after Ade Christenson. One of his best years out of the twenty-one Larry served at Trinity was when his son Arne played quarterback on the TLS football team as a senior. Larry did a lot of traveling, but he didn’t travel that year. Another father of two of our football players urged him not to travel that year–and Larry was listening. He stayed home to help his dad coach. A favorite picture is seeing grandfather, father, and son talking strategy together on the sidelines. (Normal length)
At thirty, I was extremely single. I didn’t have marriage on my mind–I had ministry. He changed that with one sentence: “It’s time to get married.” As best I could, I always listened to his words. Then some months later he strongly encouraged me to consider Karen Luttio. He asked one day if I was interested in going with him and Nordis up to Santa Barbara. He said that Karen might be going along. I said sure. So I figured I should probably talk to Karen. He said, “I already did.” When he asked Karen if she wanted to go, she answered, “I teach that day.” His response: “I’ve already taken care of that.“ He was the principal. So Larry asked Karen out on our first date. That was April 18. We were engaged in June and married in August. I asked her to marry me–Larry didn’t. But he was at the wedding upfront, along with my dad and her dad, my best man (a pastor) and the monsignor of the Catholic Church where we were married. Things were covered.
Karen had been living at his home for two years leading up to our wedding day, so you could probably say that he and Nordis got Karen ready for me. His guidance in my life was paralleled by his guidance in Karen’s. This is his greatest gift to me. Karen’s disciplined and vital devotional life was shaped by her parents–and her second parents, Larry and Nordis. I am often enriched by what comes to me from Karen’s daily look into the Scriptures.
When I read the two sexuality documents coming from the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) and his response that dismantled them piece by piece with his keen intellect, I said to him, “I’m sure glad that we’re on the same team.” He debated in college; I much preferred supporting him to debating him. People expected something different from a person leading what was to many a questionable movement, the charismatic renewal. They were disarmed and surprised.
He loved telling jokes, not often in messages but frequently at informal meetings or in conversation, like at our men’s breakfasts or at our weekly mentoring meetings. My questions that came scratched out on paper often directed the agenda. Larry’s answers were unpredictable. I would never get an “off-the-top-of-my-head” answer. It was a deliberate response, often leading me back into the Scriptures that he knew well or into prayer that he practiced often. He was a man of the Spirit. It often came back to that when I had discussions with him. Though he was brilliant, he would not trust his intellect–He trusted the Spirit of God and encouraged me to be led by the same Spirit.
Once I questioned whether I was coming down too hard on someone and needed to be more gracious. He listened, then responded, “Everyone needs to hear grace and truth. Only Jesus is full of grace and truth. What you are bringing is truth. Someone else will bring the grace.” I was grateful for his wisdom.
I had followed him as senior pastor at Trinity, when he moved to St. Paul to direct the work of Lutheran Renewal. I never expected to follow him again. We still have a gravesite in San Pedro. But he called in the fall of 1994 and wanted to know if I was sitting down. I said I wasn’t but could if I needed to. He asked if I would be one of the speakers at the Holy Spirit Conference the next summer. That was an easy “yes.” Then he said, “The Lutheran Renewal board would like you to be the next director.” So I sat down. It had never occurred to me–not once. I requested a month to pray about it. Halfway through, Karen said, “Shouldn’t we start praying?” I asked, “Do we need to?” She answered, “No.” It seemed right, but it meant leaving parents who had retired from thirty-seven years in Japan, and we had told them we weren’t going anywhere. But we did–with five of six kids and a moving van stuffed with stuff. (The idea of a Southern California Lutheran Renewal office didn’t fly)!
As I prepared to assume the responsibility, one of Trinity’s leaders said, “Don’t try to walk in Larry’s shoes.” That gave me an idea. I looked in shoe stores for the biggest pair and found nothing too impressive. Then Karen reminded me of the Timberwolves. I called Target Center, told them what I was doing and that if they gave me a pair of shoes, I would mention it in the installation. They said, “Come on down.” On the counter was a pair of size 18 Nike Airs. I probably could have purchased them for $300. I put them on when I was installed to illustrate that I couldn’t possibly walk in Larry’s shoes, a brilliant leader known around the world, a million-copy best-selling author, a true father in the faith.
But I followed Larry in other ways as well. After he lived many years at 1603 W. 7th Street, we bought the house and lived there for fifteen. We bought a car together and traded off using it, though I used it much more. After he wrote a book on the Holy Spirit, I did as well, though his sold many more.
What are Larry’s main legacies? Certainly the 1.2 million copies of The Christian Family, plus the seminars he and Nordis did around the country, impacting family life for many. An even greater legacy is bringing the Pentecostal movement into mainline churches. The Azusa Street Revival of 1906 was shut down by most denominations (shame on them), but in the 60’s it was revisited, and Larry was one of its primary proponents, both in speaking and in writing. Up to 15,000 came yearly to the the Minneapolis Auditorium for the International Lutheran Conference on the Holy Spirit in the 70’s and 80’s.
He was a Lutheran pastor and theologian, but he ran comfortably with Catholics and Pentecostals. He didn’t trip over theological differences, as long as friends were solid on the Trinity, the Lordship of Christ, and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. He didn’t mind sparring with them regarding Lutheran doctrines like infant baptism, but the friendships were clearly made of love, and doctrinal differences did not pull them apart.
Other than my dad, no man has influenced me more. And in terms of theology, “no one” includes my father. In some ways he was like a dad. Rodney Lensch, one of the leaders of the Lutheran Charismatic Renewal, once said to me, “We envy you, Paul. You get to be mentored by Larry.” I did–for almost half a century.