[This article first appeared under the title “In the Final Hours of Larry Norman” in Greater Than Magazine.]
First Baptist Church on Haight and Octavia in San Francisco 1952
Larry Norman stood up out of his seat and started for the altar. At the end of the row his father tried to stop him…
“Larry, where do you think you’re going?”
“To meet Jesus.”
“You’re five years old, now sit down.”
“Dad, I know what I’m doing.”
Salem, Oregon 2008
I got a phone message from Charles Norman, telling that if I wanted to see Larry before he left this world that I should come soon. I called back planning to tell him I would fly up from San Francisco the next weekend. Charles’ wife Kristin answered instead and said that I better come sooner. A few hours later I was on a flight to Oregon.
As I drove from the Portland airport to Salem, Oregon, I thought back to the time I had spent with Larry; the late night meals at all night restaurants where Larry spoke to complete strangers about the love of Jesus, the house church meetings in San Jose and Hollywood where he always seemed to be the one closest to the heart of Jesus.
There he was. Larry Norman in a black t-shirt, propped up in bed, his long hair gone. His arms and legs swollen and bandaged; he looked like a man whose organs were shutting down. But his eyes were the same. Bright with that only-visiting-this planet shine. Larry looked at me like I was the very person he had hoped most in the world to see. This is the way he looked at all the people in his circle of friends. When you were with Larry, you never saw him glancing at a clock or looking around for someone more interesting. I wanted more than anything to be that person Larry remembered me to be. I quickly repented of the complacent man I had become, but I only saw love in Larry’s eyes. Larry smiled at me and then apologized for how startling he must look.Then he asked me how I was doing. How I was doing. I muttered something. Larry then asked if I would read the Bible to him. I opened one of the Normans’ Bibles -it must have been 100 years old- and a couple of pages fell out and floated to the floor. I felt compelled to read from the Book of Revelation. Forgive me Jesus and John, but I left out all the beastly verses. Larry sighed and smiled when I read about the throne and the One on the Throne and the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.
There was definitely some otherworldly fearlessness about Larry Norman. A Christian who was not afraid of to use a medium created by blacks to wake up the white church to their sinful racist and hawkish ways, writing songs against the war in Vietnam and the KKK. Larry Norman. There he was praying without ceasing, He was laughing in his sleep. He was singing black gospel songs and Beatles songs. He was forgiving and grateful. He thanked me for every little thing. And when Kristin was in the middle of telling him that he was close to the end, he motioned her close and gently slipped a loose strand of her hair behind her ear. We read the middle of Matthew and the end of Revelation. We marveled at Joe Cocker in Across the Universe.
When we returned from the emergency room on the night Larry died, Larry said “can we pray before I go home?” And even though we were right in front of his house where he had not been for weeks, Charles and I knew what Larry meant. Charles asked him, “Do you mean your house here in Salem or your home in Heaven?” Larry said, “Both.” I honestly can’t remember a single word we prayed except that we all ended our prayers in Jesus’ Name. Charles, for the hundredth time, lifted Larry out of the van, and I moved the wheelchair into place. Charles, Kristin, Silver and Kristy, Nancy (and many others) had spent many days changing the whole layout of Larry’s place, so it would be wheelchair accessible. Longtime friend Rick van Dyne, who also worked tirelessly on the remodel, came out and helped us get Larry into the house. As we rolled him up to his door, Larry began praising God, – Jesus thank you for the sky and the stars and the moon and the little boy with the bubble on his head (a stone statue of a young boy holding a glass fish bowl on his head stood in the middle of the yard). Inside the house the carpet was gone and the new laminate wood floors were sparkling. As we navigated Larry toward his old room he said, “Everything is so beautiful”, and again I was wondering if he was seeing both worlds. We put him in his bed, and soon Larry was asleep. We all went to our rooms and fell asleep.
Around 3:00 AM Kristin knocked on my door. Flemming, wake up. Larry is dying. I rushed into Larry’s room where Charles and Kristin were holding Larry in their arms. “Larry, are you okay?” Charles said.
“I am perfect,” Larry replied and departed for another land.
Larry committed his life to following Jesus when he was young, like many of us do. Being in love with Jesus as a child is one thing. To keep your love for Jesus strong through all the years is another. This was the real thing. Not faith from a story in a book or rehearsed words from a pulpit or on a TV screen. Larry Normans faith stood tall in the face of certain death, before his mother, before his brother and sisters, before his friend of thirty years: a safe haven to share doubts or fears. No fear. No doubts. Faith alone. The same faith, the same truth, the same unabashed love for Jesus, that Larry had declared from the altar when he was five, then from the stage and on the streets, he declared from his death bed.
I met Larry Norman in the late 1970’s, and we continued to be friends for the rest of his life. I saw Larry Norman day after day after day in a hundred different situations. I knew him when he was broke and when he was stuffing hundred dollar bills into his visitors coats that were hanging in the closet, during the L.A. earthquake and the Rodney King riot. I was with him in Cedars Sinai Hospital after his first heart attack and in his home in Salem after his last. Larry Norman really was a true follower of Jesus. I can easily see why Frank Black said that Larry was “the most Christ-like person I ever met.” Larry Norman committed his life at five years of age and followed Jesus for the next 55 years, and in his final hours he had no concern about his own soul. For him the destiny of his soul was decided in 1952.
Larry knew he was in his final hours, And just like every other day of his life, what he wanted to talk about the most was Jesus and now the wonder of seeing his Lord face to face. When I stepped into his room three days before he died, Larry apologized to me for how difficult it must be for me to look at him. This was so typical of him, his concern for others. “Make sure the children I support through Compassion International continue to be supported, find Steve Scott and tell him this, or Mark Heard’s widow and give her that, some woman loaned me that scarf, please have it sent to her . . .” And his prayers were similar, focused on Jesus and others.
For me, a seminarian doctoral program dropout full of doubts, Larry Norman was a walking apologetic for the existence of God. For those of us who really knew him, what comes to mind first when we think about Larry Norman is and always will be his undying love for Jesus Christ.
ALLEN FLEMMING. FEB 24, 2010