This morning in Ft Myers, Florida Dr. Gary Sowers stepped into the presence of his Lord. Though it has been many years since I last saw him, I am so thankful for his influence in my life and my family’s. He was the spiritual Dad of many, and he was mine, too. I would like to share how God used Gary to draw me to Himself.
I was raised in the South in a nominally Christian home. By that I mean I was encouraged to go to Sunday school and church, and I said the “Now I lay me down to sleep” night time prayer as a child.
Donna and I were high school sweethearts and married soon after I joined the Navy. We had a Christian wedding, and I usually enjoyed going to church with her during our Navy life. After discharge we returned to Orlando and began attending the church in which we were married. We were active in Sunday school and church life. Eventually, I was elected Sunday school class president, became chairman of the deacons, and drove the church bus every Sunday to pick up the elderly from the nearby highrises. There was a large problem…I knew I was not a real Christian, and the hypocrisy really gnawed at me.
I worked for the Orlando Fire Department, occasionally driving Tower 1, and picked up some of the firehouse language. My bad language stayed at the firehouse, but I was pricked in my conscience every time I used God’s name in vain.
One evening during the family dinner I confided to Donna that I was convinced that it would take a tragedy for me to become a true Christian. Later she told me that she was terrified at my admission and began to pray earnestly for my salvation.
I also became more interested in photography, and shortly after the above dinner conversation I decided that contact lenses should make photography easier. I mentioned this to Donna. Though she showed no visible reaction, she would later say this was an answer to her prayers. You see, her optometrist was a Christian. She scheduled an appointment with Dr. Gary Sowers.
There were two eye examination chairs in Dr. Sowers’ office; I was seated in the furthest from his desk. Just before the eye exam I overheard his phone conversation. He was discussing spiritual things with the other person and made no effort to hide what he was saying. During my examination he gently led me toward a spiritual discussion, where eventually he asked if I was a Christian. I said that I was not and told him that it would be impossible for a person to even hear how to become a Christian in our liberal church. He then asked if Donna and I would be interested in joining a couple’s Bible Study that he and his wife Susie were to soon begin. I told him that I would think about it and let him know.
About six weeks later Donna and I began a weekly home Bible study with about 10 other people, led by Gary. Over the next few weeks I learned the basics of the Christian faith: who Jesus Christ is, that my sin requires a serious penalty, and that Jesus loved me and died for me. Gary made it clear how I could transfer the guilt and penalty of my sin onto Jesus, the perfect sinless Sacrifice. All that was needed was for me to simply believe what He said was true and to trust Him as my Savior. It would be a legal transaction: He, the sinless perfect Savior, offered to pay the penalty for my sin and transfer to me His righteousness. In exchange, He was offering me forgiveness, peace, and eternal life. This was a great deal, but my pride kept me from grabbing onto the gift He was offering.
For six weeks, every night after the study Gary and I would step outside, and I would express to him that I just could not make that step of faith. He neither cajoled nor tried to convince me to make “THE decision”. He just listened and loved me and waited on the Holy Spirit.
During this time the movie The Hiding Place was to be shown at a local movie theater, and our Sunday school class decided to see it together on a Saturday evening and meet afterwards at our home to discuss the movie and pray.
The night of the movie Donna and I rode with another couple and arrived at the theater late. The only available seats were on the very front row, right in the middle. I planned to take notes during the movie so I could lead the group discussion after. Corrie ten Boom’s relationship with God and the life-lessons the movie taught really touched my heart. I cried throughout the entire movie but regained composure by the time we got to our house. After leading the discussion, we stood to hold hands and pray, but I was only able offer a tearful simple prayer of surrender, in a room full of people who thought I already was a Christian. I was glad that Gary was there. He hugged me second.
After God saved me Donna and I spent the next few years being discipled and learning how to invest in others. We spent countless hours with him and Susie. Here are just some of the things I learned from and about Gary:
- He was a patient man. I never saw him angry or offended. I believe I learned from him to “fly the flag” wherever I am and trust God for the result He wants. He was uninterested in notching his Bible. He was just interested in people and sharing Truth with them and helping them grow.
- He and Susie practiced hard evangelism. Why hard? They got involved with people, even the messy part of their lives. They were all about discipleship and disciple making. They spent 6 weeks with me before I surrendered to Christ. Then they invested several years in us watching us grow and learning how to teach others.
- He walked through life, sensitive to the Holy Spirit and looking for opportunities to share spiritual truths with whomever he came in contact.
- There was no separation between “work” and “spiritual things”. He acted the same at work as at church.
- He was the most generous man I knew, both with his time and his resources.
- Gary was never up tight or took himself seriously. After serving Florida Jaycees President he became very active in Rotary. I still remember him making fun of the “R-O-T-A-R-Y, that spells Rotary” song.
- Though he was a gifted and busy man he always had time for Donna and me. He bought me my first Bible, which he laddered (which takes a long time). He was even willing to ladder another Bible after I decided to switch versions. (Thereafter, he said I needed to learn how to do it myself!)
- He was a humble servant leader. I will never forget, after running and before our quiet time, he took time to pick up his neighbors trash, which some dogs had gotten into.
Gary would never say this of himself, but certainly this verse applies:
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.” 2 Timothy 4:7,8
Susie, I am so sorry I was unable to be with you yesterday. I know you were well-loved and prayed for.
We all lost a great man, but, boy, didn’t heaven rejoice today!!!