My favorite Dick Woodward story goes back to my days just out of college, about 25 years ago. Dick and I met for lunch at Taco Bell. After I had taken his scooter out of the car and we got into the restaurant, Dick immediately ordered five large tacos. I leaned over to Dick and said, “You know, I am not really in the mood for tacos, as I was just hoping to get a quesadilla or two“. Dick, in his most charming way, replied, “Well, actually I was just ordering for myself.”
The man could put away some food.
If you have not read John Paine’s tribute to Dick Woodward yet, I would encourage you to do so. Today, our church held a service celebrating the life and legacy of Dick Woodward. I have a few thoughts of my own to add…
Remembering Dick Woodward
The Four Spiritual Secrets, co-authored by Ellen Vaughn, is about the closest thing to an auto-biography that Dick ever wrote. I last sat down for a visit with Dick about last October, and pleaded with him to consider putting down some more notes on his life story. I simply do not have the time, but I sure wish someone would write a substantial, scholarly biography of Dick’s amazing life. But when I pushed the idea on Dick, he was so unassuming and self-deflecting that he simply was not excited about doing such a detailed project. Four Spiritual Secrets, for Dick, was just enough about himself that he felt was really important for others to know, and only because he considered these biographical details to be fodder for sermon illustrations. He only wanted to lift up the name of Jesus, never himself. I respect Dick’s perspective. Nevertheless, I would have to say that such a towering figure as Dick Woodward needs to be remembered. His life and work not only tell us about our Lord and Savior, he tells us so much about ourselves.
As a Bible teacher, Dick Woodward had a knack of putting things down on the lower shelf for people. In October, he told me that he was not an intellectual. But for someone who was not an intellectual, his mind was as sharp as a tack, something that could easily be overlooked by his winsome personality.
This high school football player from Pittsburgh met the Lord Jesus Christ at age 19 and then attended Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina with a growing sense of being called into full-time Christian ministry. As I was trying to reconstruct some of the details of his life (please correct me, if I missed something and got it out of place!), I recall that Dick eventually made his way to study at BIOLA, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, where he at one point met the famous dispensationalist Bible teacher J. Vernon McGee (1904-1988). McGee, who founded the Thru the Bible radio ministry, which is still popular even years after his death, hated driving his car around Los Angeles. Dick wanted so much to have McGee as his mentor that Dick offered to drive McGee around to some of his different speaking engagements.
Somewhere along the way in the 1950s, Dick experienced a severe crisis of faith (from which he later recovered). After finishing BIOLA in 1953, he started to work towards an advanced ministerial degree at Dallas Theological Seminary, the theological center of American dispensationalism. However, he was asked to leave shortly after beginning his studies there because Dick, as he put it, was asking too many questions. He never finished obtaining a theological graduate degree.
Allow me to pause to make an observation: Within the historical context of the mid-20th century, Dick Woodward straddled the gap between, as historian Molly Worthen might put it, the culture-isolating approach of “fundamentalism” and the growing movement of “neo-evangelicalism” that sought to engage the wider world of reaching out to the lost without compromising what are considered the essentials of Biblical faith. It was a curious tension that Dick felt between a confident faith that tended towards legalism on the one hand, and a more open approach to spirituality where you were never entirely sure where the boundaries were that could potentially wreck your faith. Dick had to work that out.
Dick’s breadth of favorite authors ranged from the Canadian-born, Plymouth Brethren Bible teacher, Harry A. Ironside (1876-1951) to the Welsh Reformed pastor Martyn-Lloyd Jones (1899-1981) to German dissident theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) to Episcopalian psychiatrist Scott Peck (1936-2005). Dick considered himself to be a theological “dinosaur”, wedded to the bedrock of a conservative evangelical view of the Bible, harkening back to his friend Paris Reidhead and this classic “Ten Shekels and a Shirt” sermon, but he nevertheless loved to preach sometimes from Anglican J. B. Phillips’ paraphrase of the New Testament and enthusiastically supported the addiction recovery methods of Alcoholics Anonymous. Dick Woodward simply defied easy categorization and labels. Instead, Dick eschewed the petty differences of traditional denominationalism, seeking to focus his faith and message on the person and work of Jesus Christ grounded in the practical teachings of the Bible. As he put it, he wanted “to get people into God’s Word so that God’s Word would get into them.”
Alas, I digress…Back to some more of his life story… J. Vernon McGee at one point sent Dick Woodward up to Palo Alto, California to serve as a youth pastor under another great Bible teacher, Ray Stedman. Stedman, another prolific pastor, helped to steer Dick Woodward back towards a confident faith in the God of the Bible. The combined influences of McGee and Stedman gave Dick Woodward the spiritual and mental framework to develop what would later on become the Mini Bible College, which apart from being a beloved husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, is Dick’s greatest legacy.
In and out of various ministry positions, having some extra graduate-level schooling, and doing social work, even spending some time in Florida, Dick eventually settled in the Norfolk, Virginia area in 1955, meeting Ginny in 1956, and soon started a family. Dick’s ministry became a dynamic part of the growing interdenominational network of “Community Chapels”, particularly Virginia Beach Community Chapel, eventually coming to Williamsburg, Virginia, to be the pastor of our then small church, when his health was just starting to decline. After going through the years of challenges of ministry burnout, theological questioning, parental anxiety, and various relational struggles typically associated with being an evangelical Bible pastor, all of those issues became miniaturized, relativized, and set in stark contrast when facing the reality of human suffering as his body started to crumple under the weight of the slowly debilitating, spinal degenerative disease that left him in constant pain from the early 1980s until his death recently in 2014.
Nothing focuses the heart and mind like the cross of suffering.
But as his son Dean Woodward, pastor of Grace Bible Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia, shared today, what continually amazed everyone who ever knew him was his constant upbeat attitude, a smile on his face, a funny joke to tell, and his genuine care for each person he was with. Dean shared that his dad exemplified what the fruit of the Holy Spirit are all about, particularly in Dick’s love, joy and patience. If you ever spent time with Dick Woodward as he lay on his hospital bed, unable to move anything below his neck, you never felt sorry for him.
Instead, you wanted to be like him.
Nobody would want his type of disability, but his demeanor and enthusiasm for life in the midst of his pain and suffering were so contagious that you simply wanted what he had. Dick Woodward knew what his cross was to bear, but he had a tremendous hope, a hope that only those who truly know Jesus can share.
He believed in the Resurrection of the Body.
You see, unlike those who would think that death would mean the final discarding of a wretched prison of flesh, Dick Woodward knew that the message of the Bible was the expectation of the full healing and restoration of all things in and through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:7-10). Dick’s hope was in the Risen Lord. Dick did not dispose of his body, instead he is gaining a completely renewed and incorruptible body. The “barbarian” kid who grew up as a football player in Pittsburgh would run again because of the hope he had found in Jesus Christ. Because of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we as believers have that same hope.
May those of us in the following generations, people like myself, embrace that same hope following Dick’s example. Thank you, Dick, for continually reminding us of the Truth of the Bodily Resurrection.