To Die at Easter

Here’s a ministerial secret: most pastors, given the choice, would choose to die in the pulpit with their “boots on” preaching.

Second choice: die at Easter, the time when Christians worldwide celebrate the essential hope of our faith, the resurrection.  Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me will never die.”

So it is fitting, and very Sculleresque, that Robert H. Schuller, founder of the famed Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, and TV pastor to millions around the world via the “Hour of Power” would die, not on Easter Sunday, but pretty damn close.  Schuller died at the age of 88 after fighting cancer earlier this Holy Week.

I met Schuller in New York when I had a church in the South Bronx and the “Hour of Power” had just come on in New York City TV markets, the first time it had been seen outside of Orange County.  I wanted to get across the idea that New York City, and the South Bronx in particular, was a whole lot different from what Anaheim, California was back in the late 60s.  So when Bob was in New York to meet with his publisher, I convinced him to let me pick him up in Manhattan and bring him up to the Bronx and show him around.  Henry Massa, a former drug addict who was working at the church with me at the time, and I showed Schuller the South Bronx.  We traipsed across roof tops, took him to a “shooting gallery” where addicts shot up with heroin, and at one point prearranged to “desert” him on a street corner.  It was an eye-opening experience for Schuller, one which he would sometimes refer to in years to come.

I once picked Schuller up at the airport in Milwaukee.  Billy Graham was supposed to speak to a Salvation Army fund-raising banquet and had to cancel at the last moment.  I was able to get Bob to fill in.  On the way from the airport, checking into the hotel, and riding up on the elevator, folks recognized Schuller and at least a dozen people said something like, “Dr. Schuller you changed my life!”  Schuller’s ministry had that kind of impact on people.  His books, and at times corny sayings … “Inch by inch, anything’s a cinch,” “tough times never last: tough people do” and others … changed my world and my outlook and did the same for others world-wide.

Unfortunately, and for whatever reason, the Creator did not create a perfect world, nor perfect people.  Schuller had his flaws.  Deep down I think he was still the gangly farm boy from Iowa who didn’t quite fit, whose nose was funny, and I believe he had an insecurity complex.  He needed you to know that he “knew people” … and in fact, he did know people … everyone who was “anybody”!  Dr. Basil Jackson, a Milwaukee psychiatrist, who also had a ThD, was my doctoral advisor.  Jackson was impressed by how Schuller described his meeting with the famed psychotherapist Viktor Frankl saying, “Frankl knows me” instead of the way in which one would normally drop a famous name, “I know Viktor Frankl.”

Schuller wasn’t perfect.  He got caught up in his own success ordering bronze statues cast of the world’s greatest preachers, not including Jesus, who were, according to Schuller, Norman Vincent Peale, Bishop Fulton Sheen, Billy Graham and, of course, Schuller.  As the popularity of “Hour of Power” grew and the money rolled into a secure “donation room” in Garden Grove, Schuller surrounded himself with the trappings of success.  He’d arrive by limo Sunday morning into a special underground area of the Crystal Cathedral where there were “green rooms” of various sorts, depending on your status and importance, all decked out with catered food, etc., just like a rock stars.  There were hairdressers and make up artists and it was all very “Hollywood.”    Schuller knew he was important and was very impressed by it.

Amazingly God uses imperfect people, present company included, to do his work and achieve his purposes.  The Old Testament prophets were often very confused and imperfect folk, as were the disciples.  It’s Holy Week: look at Peter!  So for all of his imperfections, God used Bob Schuller in a tremendous way.  He had a message from God at a time when the world needed that message and he leveraged emerging technology to communicate that message around the world.

On the surface the Schuller’s portrayed an ideal family life, as prominent clergy usually do regardless of the realities.  Some of those who knew Schuller and his kids have described them as “a bunch of spoiled brats.”  I never knew his kids so I don’t know first-hand.  I knew Bob Jr. from Reformed Church denominational meetings.  He’s a nice guy and left to his own devices I thought he was a terrific preacher.  Unfortunately the powers that be at the Crystal Cathedral, including I suspect Arvella Schuller who was in many ways “the power behind the throne,” tried to re-mold young Bob into his father’s image.  Had young Bob been left alone I think the church and ministry would have morphed into something different, but it would have continued to have a vital impact.

It’s not easy being a preacher’s kid.  I know since both my wife and I are “PKs.”   I remember when my kids were growing up at one point one of my little girls began to think that because she was our kid, the preacher’s daughter, that she was more special that the rest of the kids in the church.  We quickly clamped down on that idea.

It’s harder when you parent is a famous celebrity or minister to millions and when you come from a family where failure is not an option.  At any rate at the Crystal Cathedral huge sums of money were involved, millions of people had contributed millions of dollars … and an enterprise of faith had evolved into a big business with tons of hangers on and people who, regardless of the facts or what they really thought, told Schuller what they thought he wanted to hear.

When Bob retired the kids couldn’t get along, squabbled and openly fought and drug their failing parents into their conflicts.  End result: the kids managed to totally destroy what their parents had created.

I felt sorry for Arvella and Bob in their final years.  It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t what they deserved or what rightfully they had earned.  I rejoice in the fact that pain and suffering now being ended, they have gone to be with their Lord.

Arvella got there first, and I think she was probably surprised to find that in heaven they are using HER much improved words to the great old hymns of the faith.  And Bob was probably surprised, but maybe not, to be met at the gates of the pearly city by the Boss himself with arms outstretched saying, “This is the day the Lord has made!  Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

If you’re on another device, this clip of Schuller is well-worth watching and the best tribute I know of to Bob and his ministry  And the words, are Arvella’s rewrite, now the “official” version in Heaven!   (An angel told me!)

3 thoughts on “To Die at Easter

  1. Thanks for the insight about one of several pastors who was prominent in Orange County where we lived for many years. We mortals have our imperfections, but, thankfully, there is ultimate hope for an eternal state of perfection and joy through forgiveness of sin.

  2. A very honest realistic tribute. Having grown up in Orange County when the Crystal Cathedral was built, and my father attending his church in his later years, I was very much aware of Schuller’s ministry, the good and the not-so-good. In spite my concerns about Schuller’s own faith, but as you wrote, he wasn’t perfect (none of us are), getting caught up in his own pride. But God used him nevertheless. And now hopefully he knows God’s true peace.

  3. As a member of a growing Reformed Church of America congregation in Auburn, California, before moving to Panama, I am watching first-hand how a growing ministry runs head first into the problem of more money. Many of the original members who went through the desert more than once since the church was first formed 25 years ago, are being left behind and their sacrifices are being forgotten, which is a shame. As more paid staff are added, because money is now available, the lay people who worked so hard for nothing for so many years are being shunted aside without even a decent thank you, just a Sorry, but your services are no longer needed!

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