More than 2,000 people - including Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, and other well-known figures from the world of professional golf - filled the auditorium of First Baptist Church, Orlando, Fla., Oct. 29 to celebrate the life and faith of Payne Stewart. The forty-two-year-old, two-time U.S. Open championship winner was killed with five others in the Oct. 25 crash of a small jet.
Stewart was described by friends and colleagues as a man "comfortable in his own skin" with "the common touch," one who took time for his wife and children, who cared about others, and whose life was dramatically changed when he got serious about his relationship with Jesus Christ.
Among those offering eulogies was fellow golfer Paul Azinger, whose faith in the face of cancer inspired Stewart to move - in Stewart's words - "in a more spiritual direction."
Azinger brought both laughter and tears to those attending the memorial service, appearing in a tam-o'-shanter cap and pulling up his trousers to imitate the knickers Stewart was known for wearing on the golf course.
Accepting Stewart's death has been difficult, Azinger acknowledged, but family and friends are not without hope, "because the God of the universe joins us in our sorrow."
Azinger also offered words of tribute to sports agents Robert Fraley and Van Ardan, two Christians who also were killed in the crash with Stewart. Fraley and Ardan did many things to help Stewart professionally, Azinger affirmed, but "only God had the power to change Payne Stewart's heart."
Azinger recounted the change he had seen in Stewart's life after he came to faith in Christ. His "pride, cynicism, and sarcasm" began to soften; he began to care about people as much as he cared about winning; and he was "gracious in victory, gracious in defeat." People began to see in Stewart "what the Bible calls a 'peace that passes understanding,'" Azinger recounted.
Including an invitation to receive Christ as Savior in his remarks, Azinger urged, "If you feel the tug of God's Spirit on your heart, do not turn away."
J.B. Collingsworth, First Baptist's assistant pastor to young married adults, spoke of his friendship with Stewart and acknowledged the golfer's love for the church and for its Christian school, The First Academy, where Stewart and his wife, Tracey, had enrolled their two children, Chelsea, 13, and Aaron, 10.
"A lot of guys are afraid to express emotion," Collingsworth observed, "but not Payne. ... There were so many people in his life, and he loved them all."
Stewart changed because of Christ and gave the honor back to God, Collingsworth said. He recalled Stewart once told him he wasn't going to be a "Bible-thumper," but "I want everybody to know it's Jesus" who had made the difference in his life.
Stewart has "gone to get the big trophy" and it's "one you don't have to give back," Collingsworth reminded the crowd. All those attending the memorial service were presented with WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelets similar to the one Stewart had worn on his wrist while playing in tournaments.
"He wore that proudly," Collingsworth noted, "and he began to see the power behind it." Collingsworth asked the PGA golfers to wear the bracelets in Stewart's honor during the weekend's Tour Championship in Houston.
In closing remarks, Jim Henry, senior pastor of First Baptist, Orlando, said he will remember Stewart as a "cheerleader." He recalled watching Stewart and a group gathered around him perform a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday, Brother Jim" in the stands at one of The First Academy's football games.
Henry used an allegorical approach - picturing heaven as a golf course and Stewart seeking entrance into the tournament there - to present the plan of salvation, emphasizing that being a good family man, generous gifts to charity, or going to church "won't get you into the championship."
He pictured Stewart in "the gallery" of heaven, cheering "Yes!" as the angels declare "Worthy is the Lamb!" Using the acronym GOLF, Henry pointed out that each person must choose between "Go Out Lost Forever" or "God Offers Love, Forgiveness."
"Payne's in the gallery of God's children," Henry affirmed. "He'd like you to join him."
The service ended with a video montage, ranging from Stewart as a lad to his clutch 18th-hole victory at this year's U.S. Open - and an interview in which he had said, "I'm going to a special place when I die. I want to make sure my life is special while I'm here."
"I just want everyone to know, J.B. It's Jesus. It's Jesus that changed my life. I want everyone to know it's Jesus." - Stewart's tearful comments to pastor J.B. Collingsworth at a party celebrating his triumph in last year's U.S. Open.
Where's Payne? Payne's in the Gallery
The following is an excerpt of an allegory from the eulogy delivered by Jim Henry, Sr. Pastor, First Baptist Church, Orlando, at Payne Stewart's Memorial Service.
As they approached the gate, Payne noticed that it was a narrow gate, yet over the entrance it said, "Whosoever will, may come." Sure enough, there was a Gatekeeper there. He looked at Payne and said, "Payne, I've been looking for you."
"How long?" Payne asked.
The Gatekeeper responded, "From all eternity."
"You sound like God. Are you God?" Payne asked.
To this the Gatekeeper proclaimed, "I am! My Father and I are one. We designed this place for all who accept our invitation."
"Here I am. I'm ready to play! What's the fee?"
"Payne, it's been paid it for you."
"Who paid it?"
"What did it cost you?"
"What do you mean, sir?"
"I mean, Payne, it cost me my life. I died for you." With that he held out his hands, and Payne saw the scars of nails where they had been driven into a cross.
Bewildered, Payne asked, "Sir, why did you do that?"
Then the Gatekeeper explained, "Payne, because this is a perfect place, only perfect people can get here. And, Payne, we both know that you are not perfect. You have some moral hooks, slices, and missed putts that we don't need to discuss now. You have an inborn flaw in the swing of your soul, and there's only one way to correct it. I want to be your Life Coach - for the rest of your life. Will you let me?"
"Yes, sir, I will. But what must I do?"
"Only one thing. You've got to trust me. You've got to put faith in me. You trusted your earthly coach to correct your golf flaws. You must trust me to correct your spiritual flaws. I'm the One who can make you perfect by forgiving you. Payne, I love you. Do you invite me into your life?"
Payne thought about it briefly. He, with his trademark knickers, knelt, removed his Tam O'Shanter cap, and said, "Sir, I want to invite you into my life. Will you forgive me of my sins? Please take control of my life. Thank you for dying for me. I want to do what the Master would have me do for the rest of my life."
In an instant Payne stood up and found himself in the warm embrace of the Gatekeeper. After a few moments he caught his breath. It seemed like a heavy load had been lifted from his soul - like the release that is felt after dropping a pressure putt on the 18th to win the Open - except this had a much more enduring effect. Payne gathered his wits and heard the Gatekeeper say, "Come in, Payne."