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A country preacher, ALS, and the dash between dates

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I was introduced to Bobby Ward shortly after he moved to Dooly County in 1986 to pastor Riverview Baptist Church. He soon became my customer at Bank of Dooly as well as my friend.  

Bobby was usually wearing overalls when we visited in my office or took an occasional trip to Marise’s for fried chicken. While pastoring a growing congregation, he also drove an eighteen-wheeler. He’s a country preacher who juggled two full time jobs and had the boundless energy to do them both well.   

He was grinning mischievously the first time we met, something I quickly learned was a side effect of his incurable optimism. When I visited Bobby on August 29 to talk about his diagnosis of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), he was still sporting that same grin. Not everyone can smile when facing Lou Gehrig’s Disease. 

Dr. Glass at Emory University Hospital had given Bobby and his wife, Teresa, the news on July 30. It had been obvious for a while that something was wrong, but that doesn’t lessen the pain of learning it’s a problem that can’t be fixed.  

Yet, Bobby cheerfully responded with a slowly spoken question. “So, you’re saying I have about 20 years to live?” It took Dr. Glass a moment to appreciate Bobby’s sense of humor.    

It takes a lot of effort for Bobby to speak now, something that came easily before. Most of his years in ministry were spent at two churches, first Riverview then later at Victory Baptist Church. He preached twice on Sundays plus held Wednesday night prayer meetings. He’s delivered thousands of sermons and officiated at innumerable special occasions. 

Funerals are where I’ve mostly heard Bobby speak. He would read from Luke 12:15, “For a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” Then he would remind us it’s not our possessions that are important, but what we do with them. 

Several times I’ve heard Bobby tell how he enjoys visiting old cemeteries. He likes to walk among their silent guests and read inscriptions etched on weathered tombstones. On those unhurried strolls he is reminded that the dates of our birth and death are not what’s most important. “It’s the dash between the dates that matters,” said Bobby at countless funerals. Then he would tenderly ask those gathered at the graveside, “What are you doing with the dash between your dates?” 

It was only a few weeks ago that I mentioned Bobby in our men’s Sunday School class at First Baptist of Vienna. I hadn’t seen him in months and didn’t know he had ALS. I had talked about his gift for conversational witnessing.  

On the job with his fellow truckers he talked about Jesus, sometimes in more detail than they wanted to hear. Or chatting with a waitress he had met for the first time he would talk about Jesus. Bobby has been looking for opportunities to share his faith as long as I’ve known him.  

He gave me a card when I recently visited in his home. It has the same message he’s been passing along for decades  

“If we meet and you forget me, you have lost nothing: but if you meet JESUS CHRIST and forget Him you have lost everything.” He knows those cards sometimes end up in the trash. He also knows they sometimes find a place in the heart. 

Bobby and Teresa were passing through Lake City, Florida years ago and stopped at a Sonny’s BBQ to eat. A lady approached the entrance at the same time they did. Bobby rushed to grab the door handle with the intent of having a little fun. “I’m going to beat you inside!” he said. The lady made no reply. She walked past him and sat alone. 

Bobby discreetly paid for the woman’s meal and left a card behind. That was all he knew about her until five years later when she called. He learned that her son had been buried a couple of days before their brief encounter. She had kept Bobby’s card all that time, waiting to explain her solemn demeanor, waiting to thank him for his gesture of kindness.  

ALS is a hard road to travel, but until he reaches the off-ramp Bobby plans to keep grinning and sharing what’s most important. He’ll continue handing out cards. And he’ll keep posing a question that he knows one day we’ll each have to answer: “What are you doing with the dash between your dates? 

ALS, bivocational ministry, evangelism, legacy

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