By Bart Cannon

Sometimes I just hate to answer the telephone. Perhaps those innumerable “Oh no!” calls from distressed teenagers made me gun-shy; or maybe it’s because that plastic nemesis seems to ring with a louder, harsher tone when bad news waits at the other end — like it did on an otherwise humdrum day in late November 2008.

The caller ID said, “One Way Ministries,” so I lifted the receiver and clicked the “Talk” button. My former pastor, Buddy Axley, dispensed with the pleasantries and got to the “meat of the cookie,” as he often said. “I thought you’d want to know. Brother Willis went to be with the Lord.” Buddy revealed few details, except that a stroke claimed the life of the Rev. Elbert Ray Willis after 75 memorable years.

The first time I heard Rev. Willis’ voice was on a cassette-taped sermon, “Prepared for the Master’s Use,” from 1982. Buddy had been so impressed with the message that he distributed copies to just about everyone in the church. At first, I pictured him as one of those Hollywood movie star ministers. He must be the ministerial equivalent of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood in the church realm — someone I would admire from a distance without ever knowing personally.

Within a few months, Buddy announced to the congregation that Rev. Willis would soon make a cameo appearance at our little country church. How could such an obscure flock like ours attract the interest of a big-time preacher? Asking that question proved that I knew nothing about this man from Fill the Gap Ministries in Lafayette, La.

Rev. Willis rolled down Highway 18 toward our Rock Hill Road meeting place in one of those big-box Cadillacs — a Sedan deVille, I think. He liked to arrive early and set up his book and tape table near the rear exit. Back in those days, he preached twice on Sunday at his home base, the Christian Center Church, then itinerated along one of several circuits that led back to Lafayette in time for the next Sunday. Over time, Rev. Willis’ network extended across America and around the world.

When Rev. Willis started to preach, teach, and testify, the man stood before us in one of those light grey business suits, white shirt and tie, with spit-polished dress shoes. He was the total package. Perhaps his stage attire was a throwback from pre-ministry days in the finance company business.

Hardly anyone noticed whether he was wearing a business suit or not. Nor did anyone care. He could have preached in a Japanese kimono or Hawaiian luau shirt with shorts and sandals without causing a stir. We were locked onto his every word. His powerful presence spell-bound us and opened our minds to the biblical truth he proclaimed with the intensity of a sonic boom.

By the end of his message, every saint within earshot was ready to walk on hot coals, if the Lord so directed. Some of my cohorts probably wished the Lord had asked them to walk on hot coals instead of following Rev. Willis’ prescription for holy living. In most cases, he admonished his hearers to stop bragging about God saving us from vices, such as “cussin’, clubbin’, and Keep Movin’ cigars.” After all, “Those things were killin’ you anyway,” he claimed.

Rather, this dynamo from the swampland suggested we repent of our unfocused existence and spend more time reading, studying, and meditating on “The Word.” Rev. Willis believed that regular doses of the Bible and prayer would transform us into soldiers “prepared for the Master’s use.” That’s why he kept those hand-scribbled scripture cards with him everywhere — in the car and along the jogging trail.

Rev. Willis made no apologies for hitting congregants with brass-knuckled messages — with one caveat, “I can skin you, gut you, and have you laughing about it.” Rev. Willis single-handedly showed me how to incorporate humor to make otherwise sobering truth more palatable — a bit like your mother masking foul-tasting medicine in a spoonful of honey.

As God’s “End Times Preparation Prophet,” Rev. Willis felt compelled to challenge God’s people to live for the kingdom of God and reach out to others, rather than squandering God’s blessings on themselves. Truth hurts sometimes, but many of us are better people, better Christians and better prepared for the Master’s use, because of the Rev. Elbert Willis.

Who will fill the gap now that he’s gone?

Bart Cannon is a Cleburne resident and can be reached at the Cleburne Times-Review

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