Sunday, August 1, 2010

Avery Willis remembered as a man who truly practiced what he preached

An old saying offers some sage wisdom: "He who lives next door to the temple soon loses his fear of the gods."

As a big-city newspaper reporter covering religious leaders of every label and denomination and later as a denominational employee working around some of the heaviest-hitters in the Southern Baptist Convention, I learned to understand clearly that old saying. From a distance, religious leaders can inspire and look terrific, but up close some of them turn out to be great disappointments because of their humanity—translated: at times, their arrogance, selfishness, self-centeredness, petulance, and hypocrisy that's often not seen from the pew or by the TV audience.

I thought about this again today after I read of the passing early Friday morning of Avery Willis, one of the few denominational leaders I knew who truly lived what he preached.

No one, except Jesus, is perfect; Avery would be the first to admit that he had his foibles. But despite some of those, I admired him because his talk and walk were the same. Known as "Mr. MasterLife", Avery was noted for helping individuals learn how to deepen and articulate their faith and then to share it with others. He and my wife, Kay, teamed up to write the "new MasterLife" which debuted in 1996 and continues to impact millions of people around the globe even today. Many times he was in our home to converse with Kay about the project as well as there, along with his wife, Shirley, for social occasions. And we were in the Willises' home many times for the same reasons.

However, the image of Avery that sticks in my mind to this day—some 15 years after it happened—is of a cab ride with Avery through the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He and I both were there to attend an international Baptist meeting. Riding in the back seat of the cab beside him, I listened attentively as Avery did his best to try and explain his faith in Christ to the person driving the cab. The cab driver was just another ordinary person, and Avery had no need to impress Kay and me as we rode the taxi with him back to our hotel. Impromptu, unrehearsed, and spontaneous all are words that describe Avery's actions that night.

At the same time Avery was a brilliant evangelism and missions strategist. He saw the big picture and looked for ways to reach the masses as well as individuals.

His actions were so out of character with many other leaders of all denominations that I encountered. In their big meetings, these leaders plotted and preached "strategy" for motivating others to help "win the world" to Christ; they talked a good game about what others needed to do. Somehow, though, some didn't seem to sense—as Avery did—their own personal responsibility in the effort.

Not only did Avery "witness" to the cab driver in Argentina, Kay and I saw him do the same thing in other countries and even back home in the States.

Remarkably, none of the instances I witnessed of Avery appeared to be done for show or because the person had an audience nearby. His actions seemed to express a heartfelt desire on his part.

After hearing of Avery's passing, Kay commented, "I imagine when he arrived at heaven's gates this morning, he was greeted by a whole host of people who shook his hand and told him they wouldn't be there had it not been for his efforts at witnessing to them."

Because she knew Avery even better than I—and better than most people—and was also good friends with Avery's wife, Shirley, I asked Kay to be a "guest columnist" to share her thoughts about Avery on this blog today. I hope you will enjoy reading her behind-the-scenes, in-depth perspective of a truly great man.

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By Kay Moore
co-author with Avery Willis of the four-volume MasterLife revision

Avery already has been, and will be for the days and months ahead, eulogized for many exemplary things. But I have yet to see any of those laudatory remarks zero in on a happening that I believe truly captured the man:

At 8:52 p.m. on the night before he died at 5 the next morning, Avery was updating his status on his CaringBridge website. Naturally the words were few; he may have been dictating them to a family member, although I wouldn't put it past him to call for his laptop to be brought to his deathbed.

But unlike many his age (76, though young by today's standards, still was advanced enough to stereotype him into a "geezerhood" category, as far as being tech-savvy was concerned) Avery always understood--and utilized--the most recent technology as a means of advancing the Kingdom. He always remained current on new tech developments; usually he was a few steps ahead of us--his much-younger employees at LifeWay Christian Resources--in staying abreast of what the Internet could do for our programs. He expected us to follow suit.

I use the term "us" because I once was privileged to have Avery as one of my "big bosses" at LifeWay, then known as the Baptist Sunday School Board. At the time I joined the Board, Avery was a head-honcho in the Discipleship Training Department, as it was known then. My job-interview process before signing on landed me in Avery's office for the last of a series of grillings (including many questions about my spiritual life) before I became an editor over church-based support-group curriculum.

Many applicants would have been quaking in their boots to realize that they would have to pass muster before the esteemed Avery Willis--renowned author of MasterLife, legendary missionary to Indonesia, and widely respected speaker, preacher, and revivalist. But before any of those thoughts of trepidation could flit through my head, Avery shook my hand sincerely and with the signature twinkle in his eye (a twinkle that I'm sure never left his countenance even at the end) put me at ease immediately. Approachable always was the word to describe Avery. He wanted to know about the work, sure, but he also always wanted to know about the family and later about the small groups I personally was leading and whether the MasterLife concepts ("I want you not only to write it but live it", he adjured me the day I contracted alongside him to co-author the 1996 revision) were finding a home in my heart.

I'll never forget the day he and I began outlining the revision for what was to become MasterLife Book 3, "The Disciples' Victory." After only a few sentences into spelling out his vision for the project Avery scooted back his chair as we sat at the dining table and looked at me squarely. The twinkle still twinkled, but otherwise he was somber. "You know you'll experience warfare once you take on this topic," he warned. Inwardly (probably a little bit outwardly as well) I scoffed. "Oh, Avery," I said as I mentally rolled my eyes. "Been there; done that. I know how to deal with temptation." Still dead-on serious, he shook his head. "You've never known warfare like you will when you tackle this," he continued. "Just be on guard and stay prayed up." I promised I would.

Wow, how right he was! The devil certainly didn't want Book 3 to ever see the light of day. I'm not talking big, heinous trip-ups that Satan arrayed in front of me, but I did experience many, many times in which the devil certainly showed he wanted to stop me from my goals. Little annoyances, such as wrongful charges on personal credit-card bills, inexplicable computer glitches, and other out-of-the-ordinary troubles were my lot the entire time Avery and I worked on revising Book 3. Of the four MasterLife volumes in the new order (our goal was to reorganize into four six-week, more user-friendly segments than the original 24-month MasterLife that had appeared in the two brown ring binders that many original M'Lifers remember), "The Disciple's Victory" was my personal favorite (most people say Book 2 "The Disciple's Personality" tops their list, but Book 3 was the book of my heart). But it had the most struggle involved in getting it into print.

Despite Satan's attacks that clearly went with that territory, Book 3 gave me the most valuable asset I had when I sent my firstborn away to college across several state lines. Although I often felt helpless to assist my son since I was so far away, one thing I could do for him was to pray the spiritual armor on him every day. As a mom, having that vehicle at my disposal was a daily reminder that God cared even more about my boy's spiritual well-being than I, as his devoted mother, did. My son is grown now but still lives across several state lines from me. Praying the spiritual armor on him still is a daily task of mine, even though he's 34, married, and a father of two; it probably always will be (once a mom, always a mom). I'm so thankful that Avery taught me--and believers around the world--about that handy exercise.

Now that Avery has been promoted to Glory and no longer is working on this earth (although I'm sure he's already working a mile-a-minute in heaven), I can reveal the true secret to working with Avery Willis--a secret that only a few of his co-workers ever discovered but once anyone did, he or she found it absolutely foolproof. I mention this now in no way to be disrespectful but to simply show what an immensely busy man he was and the extreme demands and pressures on his time. That secret?

Before a meeting, get to him last.

Often before a department-wide assembly of the LifeWay discipleship staff, I would think that he and I had an arrangement worked out on a plan he would be presenting for me. But once Avery took the floor and began speaking on the topic of discussion, I would scratch my head in puzzlement. What had happened to my proposal that he had seemed to be so keen on? Meeting after meeting this would occur. Then one day I had something under my contact lens and had to arrive late at a department-wide meeting after I spent a stint at the washbowl to get my contact clean. As Avery also arrived at the meeting late and right in front of me, I saw a couple of DT co-workers, who stood outside the meeting door, divert Avery for a moment and bend his ear. He respectfully listened, courteously nodded, and then walked into the gathering.

When the time arrived for new business to be introduced, guess whose projects were most ardently advanced? The two co-workers who had gotten to him last. The development seemed more than coincidental.

Next time I had a major need that was critical to my area of responsibility, I decided to give this system a try. What could it hurt? Patiently but determinedly I waited by the meeting door until Avery was about to brush by. As I gestured for his attention, he courteously inclined his ear. I briefly refreshed his memory about an earlier discussion we had had and what my section needed to achieve. "Oh, yes, yes," he nodded in agreement. Some 20 minutes later, when Avery had the floor, my project was pushed through without a hitch.

Avery was a busy, busy man with his mind on countless things. I had gotten to him last.

As early Friday morning I learned he had just departed for Glory, part of me wished I had been able to have one last good conversation with him before he stepped through heaven's portals. After pouring out voluminous thank-you's for what he had meant in my life, I would have added one postscript, "Give Jesus a big hug for me. And my mother and daddy, too." I would like to have gotten to him last--just one more time.

I know one thing for sure: Jesus had a big hug for Avery awaiting him when he got there.

I also know that I was one among countless worshipers around the world today who had Avery on their minds as they attended their houses of worship and who were imagining what Glory must be like with him now as part of the heavenly host.

On the eve of his memorial service Tuesday in Arkansas, our church's congregational hymn, "Worship Christ, the Risen King", had some lines that summed up my thoughts about Avery's Promotion and his physical body about to be laid to rest.

See the tomb where death had laid Him,
Empty now, its mouth declares:
"Death and I could not contain Him,
For the throne of life He shares."

These hymn lines, obviously, were written about the resurrected Christ. But when Avery's body--felled too soon by disease and death--is returned to the earth for burial, the tomb will not be able to contain his spirit, which already is safe in the arms of Jesus.

And with Jesus, whom he served, wrote about, and emulated (as Louis described above), Avery today is sharing that Throne of Life. In MasterLife, Avery taught us how to live. As Avery mastered life and triumphed over death--he showed us how to die with The Disciple's Victory.