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Jason Locke: In memoriam of Larry Locke, my father

By Jason Locke • Updated May 1, 2018 at 12:00 PM

My dad, Larry Locke, took his final breath Sunday afternoon. He was in the comfort of his own home in Lebanon. It was as beautiful a spring day as Middle Tennessee can provide. Lovely breeze. Chirping birds. Blooming flowers. But dad had been unable for weeks to notice the glory of God’s created world. He was ready to go and be with the Lord forever.

In the last two-plus years, Larry had struggled with dementia and previously undiagnosed depression. A lifelong runner, he had never spent a night in the hospital prior to this sickness. The loss of his vitality was a blow to all who knew and loved him. While his first hospitalization returned him to a level close to his old self, subsequent declines and hospital stays left him a shadow of the man we knew. His time for this life would number 76 years.

Larry Locke was born in 1942 in Shelbyville. His father, W.H. Locke, owned a small diner. His mother, Pansy Worley Locke, had done office work but as a mother was mostly gripped by anxiety and fear. Pansy’s poor mental health likely contributed heavily to W.H. becoming a workaholic who drank and smoked heavily. He died of a massive stroke when my father was just 17.

Several men in the local Church of Christ took an interest in helping my father. They steered him to David Lipscomb College where he enrolled in the fall 1960. In daily chapel he met my mother, Carol Waller, a preacher’s daughter from Ohio. They married in August 1963.

Larry wanted to be a preacher. His first church was the Bethlehem Church of Christ at Tuckers Crossroads near Lebanon. It was a Sunday-only job and helped put him through college. After they married, he and my mom went on to minister for churches in Burns; Delphi, Indiana; Louisville, Ohio; Morgantown, West Virginia; and for the College Hills (Street) Church of Christ in Lebanon since 1977.

The dominant ministry model when he started preaching was to learn “the truth” as professed by our movement and to communicate it as well as possible. There was a triumphalist spirit at work in our churches back then. The great Ira North, one of the most prominent preachers of that era, would join campaigners who were knocking doors or evangelizing. His plane would touch down while all the campaigners came to greet him at the airport, rolling out the red carpet. Many church leaders had some sense that ours was a manifest destiny to plant and build great churches everywhere.

My dad certainly bought into the importance of communication. He went on to get his master’s degree and then doctorate in communication from the University of Akron and Kent State University, respectively. He studied the rhetorical skill of Richard Nixon and learned how to draw his listeners in. He became a master at telling the personal stories of people within his church, a style that focused his energy on strengthening his church rather than on opening doors to become a traveling preacher.

Somewhere along the way, however, Larry started to question the focus on excellence and “right doctrine” that dominated church thinking. Things likely came together for him in the 1970s. One stimulus was the abuse his father-in-law took for a public stance that the sin of divorce and remarriage was a forgivable sin, just like any other. Another key factor was the healing ministry they felt from a Methodist chaplain, Stacy Groscup (a Methodist), who prayed over my folks while their 3-year-old child lay near death in the intensive care unit at West Virginia University Hospital.

Perhaps the capstone element was my dad’s “accidental” involvement with Alcoholics Anonymous. When our family moved to Lebanon in 1977, a couple members of the church were recovering alcoholics. They needed a preacher to pray with a dying alcoholic, and my dad went to the bedside at their request. This jump-started a 40-year ministry focused on reaching those who experienced marginalization in various ways and turned to drugs and alcohol for escape. Ministry to the hurting and recovering blossomed in that 200-year-old church. His congregation became known as a place that welcomed drunks, divorced people, recovering legalists, single moms and others – alongside many who were wealthy or middle-class and seemingly successful.

It’s not a stretch to say that Larry became the pastor for Lebanon for a season. He must have conducted thousands of funerals – not just for church folk, but also for people from all walks of life in the community.

One of his last, major initiatives was to work toward racial unity. The legacy of slavery and segregation still looms large, and barriers exist to this day that block full integration. Together with the much smaller African-American Churches of Christ in Lebanon, they began an annual day of unity – held in rotation by each of the churches.

These might seem small accomplishments, but they illuminate a legacy of working to bring real change into the lives of individuals and communities. Larry Locke never wanted the red carpet rolled out for him. He bemoaned the fact that too many churches and Christians went wild over great speakers just as previous generations venerated those who could defend our creedless creed better than all others. The great loss for our churches, he believed, was that folks were often missing out on the real power of the gospel to transform lives in simple yet profound ways.

There are stories to be told. Like how he was trapped on the Kent State campus the day of the tragic shootings but was rescued by a professor who helped him and other doctoral students slip out before the violence. Like how he sent a screeching, shanked golf shot directly into the shin of his father-in-law. Like how he was accosted at a hotel in Port Harcourt, Nigeria by a prostitute who wouldn’t stop knocking on his door. Like how he got lost jogging in Prague in 1990 and then ran the Prague Marathon a decade later. Like how he couldn’t carry a tune to save his life.

And then there are those who would wish to share their testimonials. There will be time for all those stories and more in the life to come.

In the meantime, wouldn’t it be ironic if the red carpet he never wanted was being rolled out for him now?

Thank you, Lord, for blessing us with this life well lived. Comfort those of us who will miss him. May his legacy of missional living carry on in our lives and in our churches. Amen.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Jason Locke is a preacher and serves with the College Church of Christ in Fresno, California.

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