A few hours ago, my grandfather, Dr. Warren Wiersbe, breathed his last breath in his earthly body and took his first breath in glory. Here’s an irony: I’m writing about this man, my Grandpa Wiersbe, who was himself a prolific writer. As I write, I can’t help but imagine him hovering in the background and trying to find a way to edit what I’m writing so that it reflects a crisp tone with active voice and genius alliteration. (Grandpa mutters the phrase, “write for the ear, not for the eye!” but what does that even mean?!)
The words I want to spend on his behalf cannot do justice to the legacy he has left behind. I’ve often thought about this moment, what to say and how to feel. Our family has watched life change for him these last few years, despite his doctors curing all sorts of ailments in his life. At every juncture, the words from another sage pastor, the guy who wrote Ecclesiastes, rings in my soul that “time and chance happen to all.” (Grandpa strikes out that part to make sure I know it was Solomon who wrote Ecclesiastes. “What did they teach you at Moody?” he laughs.)
The metaphor for his life is rather simple – he wrote it in his autobiography – he was a bridge builder. When he said it, he meant that he had a knack for filling leadership roles as the interim between giants. The hallmark picture of this has always been his tenure as senior pastor at the historic Moody Church in Chicago. (Grandpa high-fives that I mention the historicity of the place.) The outgoing pastor, George Sweeting, had just been installed as president of Moody Bible Institute. Enter Wiersbe. After a handful of years of faithful preaching, leading the church out of debt and setting the congregational chaos into order, my grandfather kept “arranging” for a young professor named Erwin Lutzer to preach on Sundays. (Grandpa recites the line I’ve heard him say most of all, “You know the best thing I ever did for that place was leave so that Lutzer could pastor there.”)
The bridges I’ve seen him build are far more impressive. His preferred tools were words, his blueprints were the Scriptures, and his workspace was a self-assembled library. Grandpa knew he was a bridge builder, not a home builder, nor a museum builder, but a bridge builder. Bridges are functional, yet only some are remarkable. I think he had the writing chops to weave together his own Buechner-esque fairy tale, but he stuck to expounding Scriptures, practically helping people move closer to the destination of Christlikeness. He wrote over 150 books. I don’t think anyone knows the exact number. (Grandpa whispers a joke about his publisher’s royalty check sizes reflecting this truth that nobody knows how many books he’s written or else he’d be paid more.) But bridge builders don’t do it for the money, they always build bridges with the utilitarian purpose of helping others get to the other side.
Grandpa built bridges from the world of the Bible to the world of today so that we could get to the other side of glory in Jesus. “There’s not a passage in the Bible I haven’t first looked up what Wiersbe has said on the topic,” most pastors tell me. In multiple languages, his words have helped many handle God’s Word with some sense of accuracy and fidelity.
Grandpa was a bridge-builder across cultures. I’ve always been fascinated by how a German Swede whose favorite entertainer was Jack Benny and whose idea of the perfect vacation was traveling to England could have possibly found a way to bridge the black/white divide in American Christianity, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. But one of the greatest gifts my grandfather gave me was a collection of his early sermons and radio shows (think podcasts) where he would rail on hippies for not loving their neighbors who don’t look like themselves. He wrote a very good book with E.K. Bailey called Preaching in Black and White and his ministry always carried with it the sense of grace toward one another regardless of race.
But the bridge I am most grateful that he built is the bridge that I’ve walked across myself, and which I’m reminded of tonight. It’s the bridge of family heritage. One of Grandpa’s favorite verses was Psalm 33:11, “But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” My Grandpa was a generational bridge builder. Many generations came before him who prayed for the generations of our family to love Jesus and serve him in preaching the Word. To the best of my knowledge, my Grandpa Wiersbe was the third generation of preachers in our family. (Grandpa jumps in, “Beware of the third generation, they mess everything up…”)
When I was in high school, I recall feeling this burning passion for knowing God’s Word and for preaching it. I deeply sensed I was made to help people understand the beauty of God and his surprising gospel of redemption. When I told him I was going to study to be a pastor, he said to me that he wasn’t surprised. He actually prayed for my generation of the family for over 40 years that one of us grandkids would grow up to preach the Word, and that he was simply carrying on the prayer of his great grandfather who prayed the same thing. At that moment I realized my future depends on the prayers of those who have come before. And I’m soberly grateful for the hundreds, possibly thousands of prayers Grandpa prayed for me.
Grandpa taught me what it is to pray. I think it was only two or three years ago this month that I spent a weekend with him. At many junctures along our days he would stop me and say, “let’s have a word of prayer together,” and he would acknowledge the Lord. I got the sense from him that he knew Jesus better than I even thought possible, and his life was lived in daily, sometimes hourly admission of his need for Christ in prayer.
But the best part for me is the part he didn’t get to see. Because when I shared the news with my older two kids that my Grandpa had died, my kids, who are just 5 and 4 years old, they comforted me with the sweetest reminders. “Daddy, I feel so sad for you,” my little daughter said to me. “But is Grandpa in heaven?” “Yes, Grandpa is in heaven because he loved Jesus and I am certain he is in heaven.”
And then with all the theological prowess of a prophet, my little girl told me, “Then daddy, if Grandpa loved Jesus, then Jesus is welcoming him home today. Because Jesus died on the cross to forgive our sins, we can be right with God, and when we die, we know we will live forever with him in heaven. That means Grandpa is finally able to see what Jesus looks like and meet him face to face. And I love Jesus too. I’d give Jesus 10,000 stars if I could.”
I think it serves his memory well that his great-granddaughter heard her great-grandpa died and was moved immediately to preach the gospel to her daddy. Because the bridges my Grandpa built didn’t just span little creeks or rivers in time, but rather, he built overpasses that stretch back to the beginning and show us how to find eternity. He built bridges that connect us to the narrowest, but most important road. He led me and my family to Jesus.
So I write these words tonight reminded of the way my grandfather would end his letters, “The best is yet to come!” But I know the best has come.
From a grateful grandson. (In the background he whispers, “To all generations.”)