In this June 23, 2009 photo, Evangelical pastor Rick Warren speaks to about 800 people under a large tent at St. Vincent’s Episcopal Cathedral Church in Bedford, Texas. (AP)
LOS ANGELES – Nearly four months after his son’s suicide, popular pastor Rick Warren returned to the pulpit Saturday afternoon at the Southern California megachurch he founded.
Warren, dressed in his usual casual black T-shirt and jeans, took the stage at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. with wife, Kay Warren, and was greeted with a long standing ovation by the congregation.
A shout of “We love you!” came from the crowd before Warren began.
“I love you, too,” a smiling Warren replied. “Have I told you lately that I love you?”
It was the first time Warren had taken the Saddleback pulpit since his 27-year-old son Matthew shot and killed himself on April 5.
In the sermon, first in a series called “How To Get Through What You’re Going Through,” Rick Warren said he had the perfect role model for his struggles.
“God knows what it’s like to lose a son,” Warren said.
He remained mostly composed, but choked back tears at times, including when he thanked his surviving two children.
“How proud I was of Amy and Josh, who for 27 years loved their younger brother,” Warren said. “They talked him off the ledge time after time. They are really my heroes.”
He delivered a formal, prepared speech with notes and quotes from Scripture but often broke off to talk frankly about his son.
“I was in shock for at least a month after Matthew took his life,” Warren said.
But, Warren said he was grateful to come from “a family of spiritual redwoods.”
“Satan picked the wrong team to pick on,” he said.
Warren has been an essential figure in the modern, megachurch brand of Christianity.
His multimillion-selling book “The Purpose Driven Life” made him a national star in the realms of religion and self-help, and he delivered the opening prayer at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
Saddleback, the church he founded in 1980, has grown to 20,000 members, according to Warren’s biography on the church’s website.
But in April, Matthew Warren, after a lifetime of struggle with depression, shot and killed himself in what Warren at the time called “a momentary wave of despair.”
“For 27 years I prayed every day of my life for God to heal my son’s mental illness,” Warren said.
But Warren said Saturday that he intended to turn his grief into a message of service and hope.
“God wants to take your greatest sorrow and turn it into your life’s greatest message,” he said.