I was up hiking today and happened to check my Facebook and saw that a hero in the faith for me had passed and graduated to heaven. Keith Elder was such a larger than life person for me, literally and figuratively, when I was growing up in Montana in the Assemblies of God. I was heavily involved in my church and their Royal Ranger (Christian Boy Scouts) program as well as the youth group when I grew older. I can remember the first time I shook Keith’s hand. It was like I only had a wrist because his hand was so big that I couldn’t even see mine.
Growing up, there were three people in my life that helped me know and then “seal the deal” that I wanted to be a pastor. My 3rd grade Sunday School teacher Carol Davis, my youth pastor and best man at my wedding Lee Terry and Keith Elder. As I reflect on the impact of Keith in my life, it is interesting to see how God allowed me to interact with these three people at important times that formed me into the person I am today.
My greatest memories of Keith were in Hungry Horse Montana at Glacier Bible Camp every summer through my Junior High and Senior High years. It was always fun to see my dad and Keith hug whenever we would get to camp because they both had such big bellies! From Keith calling all of the kids at camp “suckas” to his super low voice when he was warning the girls and boys to stay out of each other areas of camp. His explanation of the “hand holding rule” at camp was always hysterical and epic. He would explain that you held the pinky on Monday, then two fingers on Tuesday and so on until you had bliss in your heart because on Friday, when you got to hold the whole hand. I remember sneaking out of our cabins at night when I was at camp. Keith had a “Big Bear” Polaris 4-wheeler (funny because that was his Royal Ranger FCF name and nickname) and we would know we were safe to goof around the camp until we heard the roar of that engine in the night driving to the guy’s area and we would either hide or run to our cabins. I have so many great memories of friends from Montana and our shenanigans.
One of the most impactful moments of my life, and something that would shape how I dealt with students through the years and deal with adults now, came in a staff chapel when I was attending summer camp as a counselor. There was someone asking Keith about how to deal with kids that were getting out of hand and causing problems and Keith said the most profound thing. He said, “Always remember that kids don’t cause problems, they reveal problems.” Then I remember him starting to cry in the way that only Keith could cry. He had tears absolutely streaming down his face and his voice would never ever break or even quiver. He would go on to explain that the camp was often the only time that kids acting out would have away from the dysfunction and often horror of living at home. I truly believe that Keith was a man with a heart that was larger than the physical size of his body. Seeing him love on kids and their lives being changed at camps were hallmark moments in my life and caused me to hunger to do the same for youth when I grew up and to help people see Jesus in me.
I can only hope that someday, when I am dead and gone, that people will not remember me for my love of technology or my laugh or my multi-colored socks. But they would remember that I loved people like Jesus and took the time to not only talk like Christ but actually act like him as well. I pray for his wife Marlys and kids D’awn & Kent and their families mourning his loss on this earth, but I can also hear Keith at the pearly gates saying in his low-tone Fat Albert voice, “Hey, Hey, Hey…I’m finally home.”