My brain feels fuzzy and my fingers seem reluctant to type anything. This is just as hard as I imagined it would be. The past week has been a blur. A painful blur that seemed to ball up and lodge itself in my throat.
On Monday afternoon, my phone lit up with a text message. It was a message from a friend of mine telling me that our beloved professor and friend, Dr. Nelson, was running out of hours. I put it from my mind as I walked into class. I felt that it would be inappropriate to weep through a lecture on literature. However, I was lucky my teacher let us out early because I probably couldn’t have lasted much longer. On Tuesday night, my phone lit up with a message from the same friend and before I opened it I knew that he was gone.
There is a wealth of Dr. Nelson testimonials circulating the Internet right now. Hundreds of people telling stories and sharing moments they spent with the man who was larger than life. So, because of this, I thought I’d share mine.
It was the summer before my junior year in high school when I first heard about him. My mother came home from a teaching conference at our school singing the praises of a professor called Dr. Nelson. “Oh Elizabeth, he is the most wonderful teacher. He makes every story come alive. You have to get him for your UNA history class this year!” Unfortunately, that was not the case.
On and off through high school and my dealings with the Early Scholars program, I heard whispers and rumors of this great Dr. Nelson. My freshman year at the university was no different.
During the course of my freshman year, I became friends with Chelsea Keenum and Grace Oaks. While at their apartment one night, they began scanning through old pictures showing me this and showing me that. “Oh Grace, this was when___” or “Oh Chelsea, don’t you remember this?” I listened and laughed and reminisced on memories that were not mine. But one in particular made me pause. It was this famous Dr. Nelson again. They knew him. But they did not call him professor— they called him friend. A picture was shown to me of the two girls and their roommate standing in a neighborhood street, each next to a bicycle. “Oh this was when we went to Dr. Nelson’s house and rode bikes after dinner with him and Miss Verlie.”
Wait. Did I hear them correctly? They went to dinner at a professor’s house? AND they rode bikes? I was so confused.
Who was this man? I had no idea, but I knew that I already liked him and I wanted to know him.
However, the summer after my freshman year, Dr. Nelson was still just a myth. A ghost that everyone had seen but me.
If you’ve read my blog before, you know that during the summer before my sophomore year of college I lived for a month in the country of Botswana. The Sunday before we left, our team had gathered in the front of the sanctuary to be commissioned for the trip by our church family. My team members and our families stood around chatting as the sanctuary began to empty. “Dr. Nelson! Miss Verlie!” Chelsea had spotted the couple walking down from the balcony. They had come to see her off. I stood there dumbfounded and absolutely tongue-tied. The famous couple was most certainly not a myth anymore and I was beside myself with excitement.
Thus began my friendship with Dr. Larry Nelson.
On our trip Chelsea talked a lot about him and Miss Verlie. She told me that they had already planned to have dinner upon her return to the States and she asked if I would like to join them. UM, YES. Dreams really do come true, people.
A few months after the first “edifying gathering” that happened around the Nelson dining table, I was again invited for Miss Chelsea’s Birthday Celebration. Dr. Nelson opened the door for us and greeted each one with a hug and a greeting. When he got to me he exclaimed, “Oh Miss Elizabeth! I did not know that we would have the honor of your presence this evening.”
“Oh…um, I’m sorry…I thought Chelsea told you…I’m sorry, I would’ve asked…I guess I should have told you…I’m really sorry.” (I have an extraordinarily advanced case of The Excessive Apologetics, you see.)
But amidst my stuttering, Dr. Nelson bellowed, “No, no, no! Miss Elizabeth, we are honored you’re here. I’m so glad you could join us! Miss Verlie, look who’s here! It’s our friend, Miss Elizabeth! She’s here to help us celebrate Miss Chelsea’s birthday!” As we walked into the kitchen, I noticed the table looked especially celebratory, with candles and a sign that Dr. Nelson had printed. It had a picture of “Miss Chelsea” in the center with the guests’ names on the sides. My name was not on the list as I had been a surprise addition. As we chatted with Miss Verlie, he paced across the kitchen floor a few times, mumbling to himself about how he wished he had known I was coming. Chelsea insisted she had told him, but still, he looked very uncomfortable. He asked Miss Verlie how long he had until supper was ready. Before she had time to finish the phrase, “only a few minutes,” he had disappeared around the corner and up the stairs.
Five minutes later, he burst back into the room, looking much more jovial and satisfied with himself. “Look, Miss Elizabeth! I added your name to Miss Chelsea’s birthday sign!” Proudly he showed me the fresh new paper, and there was my name, included with all the others.
“Dr. Nelson, you didn’t have to worry about that! It wasn’t a big—”
“Oh yes it was! Yes it was! You are our very special guest and this is a very special evening celebrating Miss Chelsea! I want her to remember everyone who was here tonight!”
As if it were ever possible to forget an encounter with Dr. Nelson.
It was the simplest of acts but it spoke volumes about who he was. He was a man with an eye for the details. He never overlooked anyone. And he always called you friend.
Many Wednesday nights during that semester, I sat in the overcrowded Phi Mu common room, my face flushed in the dead of winter from the excessive body heat that filled every corner of the room. Sometimes I would get so hot my eyes would start to water. I squirmed in my folding chair and tried simultaneously to stretch out my legs and not kick anyone in the back. And sitting there, shoulder to shoulder with kids I had never seen before, I would listen with rapt attention to Dr. Nelson share the good news of the Gospel.
After one particular Bible study, my friend Betsi and I stayed until all the others had left. We wanted to talk to Dr. Nelson and Miss Verlie. “Dr. Nelson, this is such a wonderful thing you are doing! I think there were more people here this week than last week.” I actually knew it for a fact judging by how hot and red my face had become.
“Oh, well, Miss Elizabeth we are blessed. Miss Verlie and I feel so blessed that you all would spend your Wednesday nights here with us. You know, every Wednesday I never know if anyone is going to show up, and then every week I am blown away.”
“Of course they’ll show up, Dr. Nelson! People love you!”
I was incredulous to know that he could think otherwise.
“Well, thank you…but less Larry, more Jesus, Miss Elizabeth. Less Larry, more Jesus.”
This was the Nelson-ism that was carved onto my heart from the very first time I heard him say it: “Less Larry, more Jesus.” In four simple words, Dr. Nelson shared his testimony. As I grew to know him better, I learned that it was more than just an “ism.” It was the beat of his heart. It was embedded into the strands of his DNA. It was his life’s purpose. Less Larry, more Jesus.
That’s all he wanted in life. He wanted those who saw him to see Jesus. He wanted those he loved to experience the Creator of love. He wanted, more than anything, to look like Jesus to those around him. Less Larry, more Jesus.
This profound statement seeped a little deeper into my skin every time he said it. And he said it often.
When I found out that Dr. Nelson’s time here was almost through, I immediately thought of this phrase. I got the most powerful picture in my head of Dr. Nelson being ushered into the throne room of Heaven. Kneeling before the Lord of Heaven and he hears, “Well done, Larry Nelson, my good and faithful servant.” He is handed a crown of the most royal and exquisite beauty, but he doesn’t even see it. With arms outstretched, he lays his crown at the feet of Jesus and says, “Less Larry, more Jesus.”
Those four words embody so perfectly the life we have been called to live as believers. Less of us, more of Jesus.
I would be remiss (and absolutely chastised if he knew I’d done it) if I spent all this time telling you about the things I loved most about Dr. Nelson without sharing the One whom he loved the most: Jesus. There is no sweeter name.
As Dr. Nelson said, we all come with our empty beggar’s cup outstretched, our knees to the hard ground, looking for something. Looking for something to fill our cup. More time. More money. Validation. Security. Relationships. We cram all of these and more into our tiny beggar’s cup, yet there is always room enough for a rattle. It is never quite full. Nothing ever satisfies.
Until we meet Jesus. He is the only one who satisfies. Who leaves no space for wanting more. His grace is enough. It is sufficient for all your weaknesses. It fills in all the cracks. He makes all things new. All things. Even that thing that you see in your life as irreparably damaged. There is nothing he can’t heal or redeem. Isaiah 59:1 says, “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.” There is no pit too deep. There is no sin too great. There is no valley too steep that He cannot reach you. He is able.
There is no greater decision you can make than surrendering your life to the One who made it.
This is my prayer: that there may be less of me seen by the world around me and more of Jesus seen through my life.
“Less Larry, more Jesus, Miss Elizabeth. Less Larry, more Jesus.”
Yes sir, Dr. Nelson.
Less Elizabeth, more Jesus.
If you’re interested in reading more about Dr. Nelson, here are a few links to other blogs:
What Dr. Nelson Would Want Me to Tell You by Chelsea Keenum
A Forever Person by Kaitlin Chappell