Tom Elliff
Oklahoma City, OK

After pastoring for forty-two years, Tom Elliff served the International Mission Board, first as Senior Vice President for Spiritual Nurture and Church Relations from 2005-2009, then as President from 2011-2014. Tom served pastorates in Arkansas, Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma and as an IMB missionary in Zimbabwe. Tom also served as president of the SBC Pastor's Conference and two terms as president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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Avery Willis — Finishing The Course

By on July 31, 2010

Early Friday morning, July 30, 2010, Avery Willis stepped from this world and into the waiting embrace of Jesus. His death was actually no surprise to his friends and family. Nor was it a surprise to his Master who had already written the millisecond of Avery’s departure in His book even before Avery’s earthly conception. As a doctor friend of mine said recently, “No one, not even the finest physician, can prolong a man’s life one second beyond what God has written.” “All we can do,” he continued, “is assist in making his journey comfortable.”

Those of you who know me well, know that Avery’s life has had a profound impact on my own. We share the same birthday, although he had a ten year edge on me, and for over thirty years, wherever in the world we were, we contacted each other on that date, February 21. But the impact of Avery’s death has been no less significant. In his death, I have witnessed what it means to “finish the course” (2 Tim 4: 7).

Let me explain.

In the final months of his life, whenever we spoke together, Avery made it quite obvious that he had work to do, and that he was pursuing that work avidly…sometimes even furiously. Like many others, I have received in these days countless emails containing information to be passed along, opportunities to be availed, and thoughts about future projects he felt would advance the Kingdom through witnessing and discipleship. A few weeks ago, after a visit in Avery and Shirley’s home in Bella Vista, Arkansas, I laughingly commented that some things just never change. I arrived for a time of fellowship, and left with an assignment!

On the Sunday before Avery’s death, two of us sat with him in the hospital room for almost two hours. After speaking together about the issues of orality, discipleship and intimacy with Christ, there came that moment when we knew we must depart. “Before you leave,” said Avery, “let me share with you several things I believe you must do.”

In the four telephone conversations we had together, each of the following four days, including a conversation just fourteen hours before his departure, Avery continued to speak of the importance of focusing our efforts on discipleship. I received an email from him, in fact, less than twenty-four hours before his death. And of course, we all saw his final note on the “Caring Bridge Journal” written a mere eight hours before his death, a message ending with these words: “Will update more tomorrow.”

I have met many men who died in their spirit long before they died in body. Facing the inevitability, or perhaps the nearness of their own death, they crawled into a cave of despair where they sat in introspective immobility, selfishly pondering what could or should have been. They quit before the race was over. Turning their face toward a wall of self-centered resignation they gave up long before their bodies gave out.

But not Avery Willis.

Avery Willis finished the course!

Thanks Avery, for your friendship, love, leadership and exemplary life. And thanks for modeling to the end what it means to finish the course.

May God give us all the grace to do the same!

Rejoice evermore!

Tom Elliff

2 Tim 1:12

Be much in prayer for Avery’s dear wife, Shirley, and all the others in the wonderful family he loved so much. Visitation is at the Bella Vista Baptist Church, August 2, 2010, 5-7:30 pm. Funeral service is August 3, 10:30 am, Bella Vista Baptist Church.

  • RBW

    Yes, Avery was a man after God’s heart. I was blessed to travel with him and to fellowship with him on several occasions. Thanks Tom for posting this.