Praise the Lord and change the disposition! After a middle-of-the-night telephone plea and a follow-up letter from the Rev. Jerry Falwell, then-Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. overturned the decision of a high-level review board and approved a request to extend the active duty of a Navy chaplain affiliated with Falwell's Liberty Baptist Fellowship.

The subject of Falwell's concern was Lt. Gary L. Maxwell, 34. The urgency of Falwell's midnight phone call last Feb. 11 was dictated by the chaplain's scheduled separation from active duty on Feb. 20 -- a disposition decided on by the Chaplain Corps 1987 Extension Board of senior chaplains.

The review panel denied Maxwell's request to extend his active-duty status beyond the three years he had already served. Extensions are highly valued by Navy chaplains, and most requests are granted. But the board informed Maxwell that he was "noncompetitive," a judgment call that was not elaborated upon.

Maxwell appealed -- to Falwell. "I sent Dr. {Dennis} Fields {Falwell's executive secretary} a copy of the letter the extension board sent me, and I checked on an appeals process, but I was told there was none," Maxwell told our reporter Mike Rosenfelt.

Maxwell's decision to seek Falwell's help was a wise one. Fields told us that he initially tried to solve the lieutenant's problem by going through Chaplain Corps channels. But these attempts were unsuccessful. And Maxwell's release date was drawing near.

So on the night of Feb. 10-11, the big gun himself was brought in. Falwell, whose powers of persuasion are legendary, got on the horn to Lehman and also talked with Lehman's executive assistant, Capt. Joseph Prueher.

No one knows better than a television evangelist the importance of a follow-up letter. Falwell wrote to Prueher that very day, exuding reasonableness and humility.

"Thank you," he wrote, "for allowing our telephone conversation tonight. I apologize for calling you and the Secretary at the midnight hour. However, all other avenues have now been explored . . . .

"I am humbly requesting your intervention on {Maxwell's} behalf, because we believe he was unfairly evaluated . . . . His commanding chaplain was openly critical of Maxwell's denomination and our evangelical doctrine . . . .

"Lt. Maxwell is the only chaplain Liberty Baptist Fellowship presently has in the Navy . . . . As you well know, I have never asked this office for any favor. However, I sincerely feel that Chaplain Maxwell is being wrongly treated and deserves your intervention."

It's not possible to say with any certainty that Falwell's earnest plea did the trick. Lehman did not return repeated calls for comment, and Prueher is apparently now on sea duty and unavailable.

However, on Feb. 19 -- just 24 hours before he was to be released from active duty -- Maxwell was informed that Secretary Lehman had overruled the Extension Board's decision and would allow the chaplain to remain on active duty as Maxwell (and Falwell) had requested.