SERMON: FUNERAL OF LARRY CHRISTENSON

(My mentor of 47 years, a man with an international reputation, died on December 26, two and a half months before his 90th birthday. He will be deeply missed by family and friends. Here is the message I gave at his funeral. Blogs are usually one page; this is three).

Dear Nordis, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, sister Joanne–we grieve with you for the immense loss of our dear friend and brother Larry. We rejoice with you in an exceptional life. Heaven has recorded the lives he influenced through fathering, praying, pastoring, speaking, writing.  “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116:15).

I called Larry a month ago. I was speaking at the House in Eagan, and they wanted to hear the stories about Lutheran Renewal and the Holy Spirit Conference. I asked Larry about his initial experience of the Spirit. It was August, 1961. He had a free Thursday night and Bethany Foursquare Church was having special meetings. He went up for prayer after the message. He returned home, went to bed, at midnight sat up and spoke in tongues for ten seconds, and fell back to sleep.

What Larry didn’t know was that God was touching people all across the country and around the world in similar ways.  God had mercy on mainline churches and began to visit them a half-century later than what happened in 1906. God was then using an African-American pastor to turn the tide of church history. William Seymour came to Los Angeles from Kansas and preached on the baptism of the Holy Spirit at a church on Bonnie Brae St. The next Sunday the door was bolted shut. He found a rented facility on Azusa Street and continued. God began to move, and people gathered. The LA Times wrote a critical article about strange meetings that were loud and bizarre.  Churches denominations scorned them, but God didn’t–and the movement took hold. Thousands were saved, healed, filled. The fire of God spread from Azusa Street all over the world.

The 1960’s were one of the most difficult decades in recent American history–the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, and Dr. Timothy Leary telling college students to tune in, turn on, and drop out. God answered by moving powerfully, both with spiritual renewal and the Jesus Movement. Prayer meetings began to spring up all over. Protestants, Catholics, and Evangelicals were being touched by the Holy Spirit.

Larry called Trinity members in one at a time after his encounter and invited them to say “yes” to the Holy Spirit. By the next spring he had prayed with the majority of the church, so he preached at Easter on Resurrection and Renewal and prayed for people who wanted to have a personal Pentecost. No split like some churches experienced, only ongoing unity.

The response of the American Lutheran Church leadership to what was happening with Lutherans around the country was cautious, as might be expected. Psychiatrist Paul Qualben was sent to Trinity Lutheran in 1972 to interview some of those who had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, because Trinity was one of the key churches in Lutheran renewal. There were two assumptions: one, that the people were unstable emotionally and two, that this would pass. They found the people that Larry had mentored and prayed with well-adjusted, happy, feet-on-the-ground Christians–just like Larry. The movement only grew in exponential ways, so that the same year of the interviews the first Lutheran Conference on the Holy Spirit was held at the Minneapolis Auditorium–and 9000 showed up!

I remember when we were at a Trinity Lutheran family retreat in the Southern California mountains. The majority of the church turned out for this once-a-year weekend. We were worshipping the Lord at an evening service. We sang the first verse of Beautiful Savior. Nordis Christenson sang a solo on the second, and we sang the last verse in a cappella. Then we begin to quietly sing in the Spirit as we sometimes did and as Larry had encouraged us. It was beautiful and and peaceful. Some people fairly new to Trinity said yes to the Holy Spirit as we sang, including Karen Luttio. The Scripture says, “I will sing with my spirit and I will sing with my understanding” (I Cor. 14:15b). She entered in–and never turned back!  

Increasingly, Larry was called upon to share beyond denominational lines. He connected with the Catholics and the Pentecostals, often at the same time. He helped to lead and spoke at the International Charismatic Conference at the Kansas City Chiefs stadium in 1977 on the unity of the Spirit, a conference that drew 50,000 people from all over the world.

Larry moved to St. Paul in 1982 to direct the work of International Lutheran Renewal, a ministry that took him around the country and around the world. His books continued to sell. I once visited Bethany Publishing House in Bloomington with him. As we came into one of the rooms of about fifteen workers, we could not see their faces. They all had copies of The Christian Family and were hiding their faces behind them. It sold two-million copies and was translated into many languages. Larry and Nordis did seminars around the country. He also wrote the The Christian Couple, with lots of help from Nordis.

Larry was a student of the Word, and he memorized large portions of Scripture. In one sermon he quoted the book of Hebrews, all thirteen chapters. It was a forty-minute message–I timed it. He was probably quoting Ephesians when he slipped and fell. That is the book that he had been reviewing, having memorized it years before. He used it as a backdrop for prayers on his daily four-mile walk. He had a list of fifty people he prayed for, including children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. He once told me, “I pray for all your children by name–every day.” I didn’t tell him, “Larry, that’s more than what I do.”

So what is his legacy? He helped people to understand the life of the Spirit. God used a quiet, introverted intellectual, one who knew that Word and Spirit went together. The Spirit authored the Word, and the Word breathed the life of the Spirit. Larry helped us to recover a forgotten truth that broke out at the beginning the twentieth century and decades later was received and appropriated by 650 million around the world. Larry’s three books on the Holy Spirit, Speaking in Tongues, The Charismatic Renewal Among Lutherans, and Welcome Holy Spirit (which he edited) have done much around the world to bring home this living truth. I just connected with the Lutheran leader in Norway. They are translating Welcome Holy Spirit into Norwegian, because it is the most solid theologically on the work of the Holy Spirit by a Lutheran. They have taken many of his books to India, where Lutherans, including bishops, have embraced the renewing work of the Spirit. Same for Tanzania.

When I served with Larry, we prayed every morning at 6 AM.  You learn something about a man when you pray with him daily for eleven years. I learned to listen. He taught that to all of us. We had a communion service once a month on Sunday afternoon from three to eight. Sixteen of us served (eight at a time at four different stations in the chancel) and after communion we listened, then gave what we felt were prophetic words. A young lady came to the altar one Sunday wondering if she was to stay in California, return to Minnesota, or go to Japan as a missionary. After receiving communion, Bud Hahn, one of the elders who had been mentored by Larry, said, “You are in the right place.” Three years later I married her. Bud knew nothing about her situation–but God did.

She felt as if God Himself were speaking right to her and giving her peace. Jesus said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13,14).

One reason Larry was such a good father is that he was a good son. He loved his dad, an athletic director and coach at St. Olaf College. A sports complex on the campus was named after him. One year Larry asked his dad, then retired, to come and coach the football team of our church school in which Larry’s son Arne was playing quarterback. We all loved seeing Larry with his son and his father talking strategy on the sidelines.

I wasn’t Larry’s son, but he sometimes treated me like a son. He said to me when I was thirty and had been at Trinity four years, “It’s time to get married.” So I listened and started the pursuit. A few weeks later he said that he and Nordis were going to Santa Barbara and asked if I wanted to go along. Then he added, “Karen may be going with us.” So I figured I should maybe talk with her.” He said, “I already did. Less that two months later I asked her to marry me. Larry didn’t, I did. That’s good mentoring. Larry and Nordis were looking out for us.

Nordis, you had an open door policy in your home.  You had the Mary Sisters in your home for a year. That launched their ministry in the States. Then you had young adult women who were serving in our church. That included three who married pastors, including myself. You and Larry team-taught on the family around the country. You made a great team. You took in Lilla, a widow, because she had no relatives and was slowly dying. You died to yourselves and lived for others, going the way of the cross.

Larry’s strongest message was on the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. But charisma without character is hollow. Paul calls is a zero: ”If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but have not love…”  It was character behind Larry’s message on the Spirit that made it true and powerful. It was self-sacrifice for others, quietly, consistently, daily. That is the way you both lived.

Today I say “thank-you” on behalf of the millions whose lives were changed by you and your husband. I close with two things I heard Larry say more than once: the first was, “Expect everything of God and nothing of man.” The second was a line from a joke. Larry enjoyed Norwegian jokes. He would point his finger and say with as thick a Norwegian accent as he could muster: “If Yesus tells yoo too doo someting, den yust doo it!” Larry was a man of the Spirit because he lived under the lordship of Jesus Christ, and “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ apart from the Holy Spirit.”

 

A PERSONAL TRIBUTE TO LARRY CHRISTENSON

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.