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Friend Lost, Influence Remains

I lost a former client, an exemplar, an encourager, and a friend this week.

Heaven welcomed another pilgrim, his journey on earth completed. We who remain behind mourn while the angels in heaven rejoice. We sorrow, but not as others who have no hope. Rather, we are encouraged to continue faithfully the journey before us by the example he left us.

Dr. Gerald Carlson had become my client when I was providing freelance editorial services and he was working for Positive Action for Christ, a publisher of curriculum materials for church youth programs and Christian schools. I had known of him before that, but it was while writing for Positive Action that I really came to know him. And I found him to be a great encourager and motivator. His entire adult life was characterized by service and ministry, both pastoral and educational.

He was born on August 17, 1941, and grew up in the Chicago area. He graduated from Pillsbury Baptist Bible College in 1963 and from Central Seminary with his Master of Divinity degree in 1967. From 1966-70, he was assistant pastor at a church in Normal, Illinois. He served as a senior pastor in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1970-78.

Carlson came to prominence in the national leadership of the Christian school movement in 1978, when he became Field Director for the American Association of Christian Schools (AACS). He eventually served as the organization's Executive Director until 1988, when he became Vice President for Administration and Development at Maranatha Baptist Bible College. He moved from Maranatha in 1994 to serve for the next year as President of Pillsbury Baptist Bible College.

In 1996, Carlson became the Director of Marketing and Development for Positive Action for Christ (also known as ProTeens), and he served there until retiring to Maranatha Village, Sebring, Florida, in 2014. Even in retirement, however, he continued to minister, serving the Village as its Director of Marketing and Development, offering ministry consulting services, and writing freelance until his death. His final project was publishing his semi-regular blog titled Grace Journey. Many of his posts discussed the people who had influenced his life and career and how he had seen God's hand at work in his life.

One day when I was still living in Tennessee and doing freelance writing and editing, Dr. Carlson called me to discuss the Positive Action's need for someone to help revise their various textbooks. I was curious as to how he, a high-ranking official in Christian education, even knew that I, a former teacher who had "deserted" the classroom to pursue literary projects and a relative unknown, even existed. That's when the extent of his vast network became evident to me.

Carlson, as head of the AACS, had no doubt read some of my articles in the organization's Journal for Christian Educators. He also knew the editor of that publication, Dr. Charles Walker, for whom I had also done a lot of editorial work. Moreover, Carlson's daughter had married Walker's son. Upon hearing Walker's recommendation of me, Carlson had contacted me.

At the end of our phone conversation, Carlson invited me to bring my whole family up to the Positive Action headquarters in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, to tour the facilities, have a more substantive interview, and see their operations firsthand. We accepted. They treated us like royalty, feeding us and providing a fully furnished house for us to stay in. We toured the operation, met everyone involved in it, sat for an interview with Carlson, and enjoyed a cookout at the home of Positive Action's founder, Frank Hamrick.  I was thoroughly impressed. Apparently, they were pleased, too, because I got the assignment.

Thus began a lengthy and productive association with Carlson and Positive Action. I revised several grade-level textbooks for them, and Carlson continued to ask me to do more, apparently pleased with the work I had done. Among the projects were the textbooks and teacher materials for their studies Proverbs, Behold Your God, Pilgrim's Progress, and others. Perhaps the most challenging task was revising the Pilgrim's Progress materials because they wanted me to rewrite John Bunyan's masterpiece, putting it into modern language. Throughout the process, I felt as though I were mutilating sacred text. But the people at Positive Action were happy with the final product.

Recently, while reflecting on Dr. Carlson's life and the influence he had on me, I had to conclude that of all the people with whom I've been involved through my writing and editing, two people have provided the greatest encouragement and motivation to my work: Charles Walker and Gerald Carlson. The day before Carlson passed, I was on the phone with Walker's son Brian, discussing yet another writing project for his publication Parent Update. We began talking of Carlson's imminent death, and I told Dr. Walker of how Carlson's life had impacted mine. I have no doubt that many others can admit having experienced and benefited from the same influence.

So I mourn the loss of a former client but more importantly a friend and source of great encouragement and motivation. I can only pray that in some way his influence will continue to make an impact on others through the writing and editing he encouraged me to do.

Who has been an encourager and exemplar in your own life? Have you expressed your thanks to that person for their influence? Are you living a life that would please and return encouragement to that person? If not, do so soon.

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