The En-courage-ment of a Dying Elder’s Ministry: John Geiger of Eastwood PCA

A tribute to the vibrant life and testimony of PCA elder emeritus John Geiger.

As John made clear, everyone was dying, but what made him different was that he had a more definitive timetable given to him than others. Even the “gravel in his voice as the disease restricts his vocal cords,” as one writer put it, contributed something to John’s message as he pointed others toward the world’s only proclaimer of ultimate truth, Jesus the Christ, who was not to be found in the grave.

 

Sixty-year-old John E. Geiger – PCA elder emeritus; longtime, now retired, beloved headmaster of his church’s classical Christian school; with a history of ministry connections and family friendships as far away from his adopted home of Montgomery, Alabama, as California, Europe, Russia, and Pakistan – has been, for the past two years, slowly deteriorating in his “earthly tent” from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. But this dreaded affliction, with a 100 percent fatality rate, has by no means stopped his ministry.

In the summer of 2017, John and his wife, Dawn, learned, after extensive medical testing, that he was suffering from ALS. Beginning with his family, church session, and church school, they broke the news to each group with grace and gentleness, while continuing to express their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and in His compassion, wisdom, and sufficiency for their every need.

If his health permitted it, John wanted to finish up one final year both as the headmaster and as a teacher at Eastwood Christian School. He did so, leading and participating in – as he had done for 16 years – all of the traditional events that the school’s students and families, and faculty and staff, had enjoyed in the past and anticipated each year.

For certain events, the headmaster was known to appear in the persona of Zeus or Quasimodo, which technique John had learned gave him an attentive audience for the message he sought to communicate to his students. In one particular example of God’s kindness both to John and to Eastwood’s upper school students, a last-minute teaching vacancy provided John the opportunity to teach the required Bible course to every class of upper-class students, in what was to be his last year at the school.

An unusually gifted teacher, John poured himself into his students, many of whom probably were motivated to hear what he had to say, knowing his words were the conclusions and convictions of a man who loved them and God’s Word and whose earthly course was winding down.

Undoubtedly the high point of his last year with Eastwood school was a secretly planned (John claimed no knowledge of it), music-, drama-, and testimony-filled event held one night in early April 2018 that celebrated John’s life and ministry. Several hundred present-day and former students and families, and the church body, were encouraged in spending the evening together, and with John and his family, to honor him and most of all to be reminded of the promises of the gospel. The event was called, appropriately, “A Knight to Celebrate.”

Also during the 2017-2018 academic year, the Lord gave John the opportunity to speak to several dozen groups – mainly churches and private school gatherings but also civic groups – mostly in the Montgomery area but some in other parts of Alabama as well as Tennessee. His address, “Reflections of a Dying Christian,” began as something to be shared with his Eastwood students but when word got out about it, he and Dawn quickly found themselves with invitations to local churches almost weekly, some of which they had not even heard of. [Montgomery, by the way, has a lot of churches!]

John found the experience to be a wonderful outreach opportunity. His manner and approach, according to one pastor and friend, was quite “disarming.” Many attendees probably came into the event with a somewhat curious if not a wait-and-see attitude. However, as John spoke of his life, God’s gracious work in his heart as a young man, later as a husband, father, missionary, and teacher, and his willingness to accept his affliction in a manner akin to that of the British Army’s Brigadier Claude Nicholson who, in May 1940, on Churchill’s order resisted the Germans at Calais as long as possible without knowing fully why, some if not many seemed receptive, if not deeply affected.

As John made clear, everyone was dying, but what made him different was that he had a more definitive timetable given to him than others. Even the “gravel in his voice as the disease restricts his vocal cords,” as one writer put it, contributed something to John’s message as he pointed others toward the world’s only proclaimer of ultimate truth, Jesus the Christ, who was not to be found in the grave. As the Apostle Paul wrote two thousand years ago, He has been “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). And without the resurrection, as John said in a message in April 2018, “Hey, let’s go home.” But the resurrection, Jesus coming out of the grave, “That’s a game-changer.” He exhorted his believing listeners, especially the young adults, to focus on the “inner man” of 2 Corinthians 4:16 which – guaranteed by Christ’s resurrection – will one day be renewed in absolute perfection.[1]

But with the end of the school year in 2018, John Geiger’s ministry continued, despite the advancing symptoms of the disease which were causing him gradually to lose muscle, weight, and the clarity of his still-eloquent speech. By the early fall, John also began experiencing additional problems including chills and fever, especially at night.

Regardless, for five weeks in September and October of 2018, John traveled to no less than six countries overseas: France, Pakistan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, and Germany. The original intent for the trip was to provide John and his four brothers – all of whom lived in California at the time – an opportunity to visit the D-Day Beaches in Normandy, France, something they had talked about doing for years (John had visited there many times with Eastwood seniors on their class trip). It was to be one final “Band of Brothers” trip, and in a setting that emphasized brotherhood, sacrifice, and valor. But from that starting point, other providential opportunities presented themselves in short order.

In the end, John went from France, first, to Pakistan for the wedding of the daughter of a Pakistan Air Force family he and Dawn had befriended fifteen years earlier in Alabama; then, to Poland to reconnect with several former Eastwood students who wanted to see their headmaster and friend one last time; to Spain for a time of much-needed rest as well as a chance to fellowship with a family the Geigers had known years earlier from their missionary work in Russia; to Switzerland to reconnect with a teacher of John’s from Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri thirty years earlier, and to speak at an academy for students intending to go to the United States for their higher education; and, lastly, to the Black Forest of southwestern Germany, as the speaker for a three-day church retreat.

The pastor of the Presbyterian church who had invited John to speak, Stephen Spanjer, wrote:

It was a blessing for everyone. At first people from my church were shocked that I would ask this man to speak at our conference in his condition and found it all a little morbid at first. But by the end of the weekend people were in love with John and moved by his courage and faith. His name has come up so many times in our church since then and was even a massive comfort to one of our members in particular. . . . He had been having headaches during the retreat but thought it was just a migraine . . . [The day after the retreat, he flew to Cyprus]. He arrived in Cyprus and had terrible blurred vision and the headache was worse, so he went to the hospital and they immediately thought . . . [he was] suffering a stroke. Normally, he would have panicked, being so far from home and in such a life threatening situation, but he said, “I remembered John and thought, I’m ready to die if that is what the Lord wants.” He told this to the nurse and she was a little shocked at his calmness and confidence. After a few days of testing it turned out to be Bell’s Palsy and he returned to Germany.

Following the Lord’s Day morning worship, for which John preached at the youth hostel where the retreat was held, Stephen drove John and his younger son, Nolin – for much of the trip, Nolin was John’s manservant, Bible reader, and for the occasional word his dad could no longer pronounce, his translator – through a snowstorm to the Spanjers’ home. The next day, Stephen took them to the airport at Basel for a sad goodbye.

Several months later, in early 2019, John recalled that prior to the trip, “All the time I had an urgency in my spirit . . . to go.” “My body didn’t want to go,” John said, but he had an inner confidence that he was supposed to go. And for those five weeks in September and October, God gave John the energy to interact and talk with people in six different countries despite his losing weight on the trip and experiencing vomiting, diarrhea, and choking, aside from his nighttime afflictions during most of the trip. John recalled, “I saw the hand of God on this trip.” Clearly, it had been God’s will for him to go. The logic was simple: had the family, or John’s doctor, known just how sick he was at the time, any trip whatsoever would have been ruled out. Only after his return to Alabama did it become known that he had been suffering from a blood infection in addition to the symptoms of ALS. As this beloved brother and elder continues in his earthly tent as long as the Lord is pleased, may all of us remember this precious truth from Psalm 149:4:

“For the LORD takes pleasure in His people; He will beautify the afflicted ones with salvation.”

Note: the writer requests that any friends, associates, or former students with remembrances of John they are willing to share for possible use in a biography of John, to email him at [email protected] (thanks!).

Forrest Marion is a Ruling Elder at the Eastwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Montgomery, Ala.

[1] Marty Schoenleber, Jr., “Reflections of a Dying Christian,” ChosenRebel’s Blog, May 3, 2018; “John Geiger[:] Reflections of a Dying Christian,” Apr. 15, 2018, Eastwood Presbyterian Church sermons (currently, select block 10 of 39 under sermons), available at www.eastwoodchurch.org (accessed 6 Jul. 2019) (or on Google, search for “John Geiger, Reflections of a Dying Christian”).