Sunday, February 28, 2010

I am Thankful for Girl’s Preparatory School

“Ask me when they are thirty five, I should know by then.” That was my standard response to a frequent question, “Do you feel good about sending your girl’s to GPS?”

I usually continued with a comment about the high quality of their educational experience. I appreciated the classic liberal arts curriculum and the teachers who were clearly committed to their profession. Most had advanced degrees, even a few with doctorates in the fields they taught. The pupil to teacher ratio was quite low. They had the best technology and learning resources available. [I often wonder what our public schools would look like with the level of resourcing some private schools receive. Certainly there are thousands upon thousands of public school teachers who have the same passion, compassion, skills, and talents.]

It is impossible to visit the campus during school hours and not be impressed with the differences between this school and the public schools. The girls are all wearing the same uniform that looks not so much out of style as like something that never was in style. The dresses are the same basic design as the ones the girls wore when the school opened in 1906, only considerable shorter. They come in a variety of shades and colors, some quite hideous. The sleeves are slightly puffed. Petite buttons and pleats line the front. A thin belt hangs loosely around each girl’s waist. A black ribbons is tied into a bow adorning the neckline. At first sight one is shocked to see young women of today dressed in such an aesthetically challenged costume. A short time later, one is struck by how comfortable the girls seem in the uniforms. They are relaxed and happy, at least when compared to other institutional ghettoes for youth.

The environment of GPS is fraught with contradictions. At the heart of the community is the honor code. Girls must affirm on every assignment they have kept the code, “On my honor…. " The dress code insists on strict conformity to the uniform: bows, belt, shoes, etc. On the other hand, personal decorum is so loose as to be embarrassing. Girls plop down just about anywhere on the floor or grass, legs crossed indecently at times. Then it becomes clear they are just that, girls who are enjoying their childhood a couple of years longer than society likes to allow. They are not caught up in the pressures to artificially beautify themselves; they are not competing with each other for some boy’s attention.

Enter a classroom and you will first be impacted by the lack of order. Some girls are at desks or tables, others might be sitting on the floor. GPS was the first school I observed that integrated learning styles into pedagogy. Linger a few moments and you will be struck by how engaged with the lesson the girls are. Seeing them studying and learning, being friends, believing in themselves, is a beautiful thing to observe and a convincing argument for same sex education.

On the other hand, I had two problems with GPS. The first was my prejudices against the wealthy. I have never been comfortable with wealth. I grew up in a solidly working class family. My parents had grown up on small farms. I wanted my children to grow up in touch with their heritage and comfortable with the poor and middle class. I was concerned they would become elitists. What impact does it have on a girl to associate primarily with wealthy girls?

My other problem with GPS was the time factor. During the winter they left home when it was dark and got home when it was dark. The homework load was phenomenal. They studied constantly. There was little time for family activities. In short my vision of family life was challenged by the devotion they had to give to academics.

OK, there was a third issue. Sending a child to GPS is like paying for college, only it lasted for six years. [Five in Alethea’s case.]

What is evident is that both of my beautiful daughters are beautiful people. They are comfortable with all classes and groups of people, probably more than I. They are kind and compassionate. They are both committed to help the hurting across economic lines. I suspect GPS contributed to those traits, if in no other way, it afforded them a few extra years to relate to people as people rather than objectifying them as sexual objects. It also required community service projects of all the girls long before it became a national fad.  And after all, aren’t all people pretty much the same whether rich, poor or middle class? We all struggle with relational challenges, prejudices, and the same array of sins. We also all bring gifts and capacities to our relationships.

My concern for money and family issues were really one in the same. I don’t worry about the future. Money is only an issue with me if I can’t pay my bills on time – I got that from my father. I have more wealth than I ever imagined I would have, i.e., I haven’t bounced a check in years. Yet I live from paycheck to paycheck just like almost everybody else. GPS did govern our budget and eliminate what most would consider discretionary funds thus restricting vacations and recreation, but we managed.

In terms of what it provided my daughters, GPS was a great investment. I don’t regret one cent. It was a wonderful gift that keeps on giving. They wanted to go; they applied themselves and made the best of it. If we had it to do all over again and I knew what I know now and they were to ask, I wouldn’t hesitate to send them.

Yet, I retain a small nagging question about the overall impact of GPS on them, but that question is not really about GPS. It is about me. How could I have been a better father? How could I have made the most of the opportunity God gave us? How could I have had more faith and less worry?

Was it worth it to send them there? Was it worth the time, money, and challenges? Ask me when they are thirty five? It won’t be long. How could I have been a better father? Ask me when they are fifty five? We should know by then. I think they already do, but as they age their opinions vacillate. Isn’t that the case for most of us?

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 28, 2010

Saturday, February 27, 2010

I am Thankful the Accreditation Report has Been Mailed

Well it went to the wire. I thought I had finished at midnight last night. I went in to print off a copy to take to the printers early this morning. When I opened the file the pagination was all off and I couldn’t get it straightened out. I had entered a lot of page references last night that were all wrong. With the grace of God, the help of my student worker, and a good Church of God member working at the Kinko’s in Chattanooga, we got it done.

It is not my best work although I enjoyed the writing aspect. I was the director of the process and editor of the document, not the principle writer. Others wrote more than me, although I did have to write three chapters and edit the other chapters. The problem was that much of the material came in very late for a variety of reasons. It required a lot of help and God supplied it.

I am thankful it is over. I am thankful for my coworkers who rose to the challenge to complete the project, especially Trish Bell (Administrative Assistant to Dr. McMahan), Jeremy Lambert (my student worker) and Sabrina Evans (another student worker). They put in a lot of time and I hope we had a little fun along the way – just a little.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 27, 2010

Friday, February 26, 2010

I am Thankful

It is enough some days to just be thankful.  The accreditation report is coming to a close.  My brain is fried.  I am in a fog.  But it is good to be alive.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

I am Thankful I’m Almost There

I may not be as far along as I once thought, but I am still moving forward. We had a couple of setbacks yesterday. I will be working on the report into this evening and mail it off tomorrow. As the boy about to get a spanking in church said, “Pray Saints, Pray.”

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 25, 2010

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I am Thankful the Self Study Will Soon be Over

If all goes well, it will be in the mail in 36 hours.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 24, 2010

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I am Thankful for a List of Things to Be Thankful About

I have a long list of things to be thankful about. For the rest of this week, I have little time to write so I will just give a list of things I am planning to write about, not necessarily in this order. I am thankful for:

Accreditation (Not sure if this will be a satire or serious)
The Promise of spring
Girl’s Preparatory School
A Protective Mother
The Spanking I Got (A ten part series)
My Place
My Professors at the Church of God Theological Seminary
My Professors at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Cheryl’s Dad
Cheryl's Mom (Can't wait to read that one)
(Not Sure if I am through with Jonathan and Jennifer -- Digging up some dirt)
Other Family Members (Yet to be named)
Other Individuals

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 23, 2010

Monday, February 22, 2010

I am Thankful for Conviction for Sin

Today, and the rest of this week, I have little time to write so I will highlight last night’s homily. Psalm 51 is very significant for me. In verses 4 and 5 David acknowledges the greatness of his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah.

Against You, You only, I have sinned And done what is evil in Your sight, So that You are justified when You speak And blameless when You judge. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me. (Psalm 51:4-5)

His sin was against God – all sin no matter who it is directed toward is against God. That awareness drives David, the “man after God’s own heart,” to confess his depravity from conception. In that statement he was not excusing himself for having a nature to sin; he was owning it.

I am thankful for conviction of my sinfulness. The word "convict" means to unveil and reveal what was hidden.  It is not an emotion of remorse.  Remorse accompanies conviction as we see the true state of our soul, but conviction itself is the consciousness of our sin/sinfulness.

So often we settle for an unveiling of our individual transgressions in hopes of quickly making things right with God, a little adultery, one little murder, and “oh, I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” David was thrust by the gravity of his sins into the realization of his deep sinful nature. He saw himself as he was, unrighteous and unacceptable to God. This unveiling of our inner wickedness comes only by the work of the Holy Spirit who searches the deep things of the human heart.

In my experience the Spirit has two special tools to pull back the curtain on our inner nature, shame and the glory of God. It was shame in David’s case. The sins he thought he had covered were fully known to God who used the prophet Nathan to surface them, “Thou art that man.” It is a gift from God when our sins are exposed. Public shame can cause us to look more deeply into the recesses of our lives to find the source of our self-delusion.

The glory of God is my preferred source of conviction. In the presence of God sin cannot survive. In His presence, all that does not belong before Him is exposed and must be dealt with. I have found that the closer I draw to God the more I want to be pleasing to Him. In His graciousness He lets me see what I need to lay aside. Often it is not anything I or others would have considered sin, just weights that hinder. But as I wrestle with letting go of minor things I am gripped with an awareness of how far I am from full surrender. I believe in entire sanctification, so much so I have had to pray through to it many times. Then just when I think I have arrived God pulls back the curtain on my soul.

Right now I am thankful for the consciousness that I need to draw close to Him, have my sins revealed to me, and die to them. “Lord, help me draw close, cover me with your hand in the cleft of the rock (yesterday’s morning sermon from Exodus) until I am clean and I hear you speak Your name into my soul. Make me acceptable in your sight, I pray.”

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 22, 2010

Sunday, February 21, 2010

I am Thankful for Public Education

Free, universal, compulsory education is one of America’s greatest gifts to the world. The Northern Humanists recognized the need for universal education if their dream of God’s Kingdom on earth was to be fulfilled. Everyone needed to be able to read the Bible. They wanted it but they could not achieve it. They lacked the social structures and economic resources to attain the goal.

Coming out of the spirit of European humanism, the founders of the United States recognized the need for universal education. They understood a literate populace was necessary for the great experiment in democracy to survive. But it took decades before Horace Mann developed a workable system that made universal education a possibility. In short, communities were required to develop schools which were funded by land grants from their states. Local School Boards governed education under the oversight of state officials. The model was so successful it spread across the nation and was exported around the world.

There can be no doubt the development of free, universal education was the foundation for the spread of democracy around the world and that it was one of the greatest advances for humanity. Yet, it is not without its problems, but that is the subject for another blog.

I was blessed with some very good people who were my teachers in school. In Elementary School I had Mrs. Smith followed by Mrs. Clark, Mrs. Durbon, Mrs. Million, Mrs. McCaskel, and Mrs. Hunt. In Junior High Mr Thurman and Mrs. Robinson was wise and encouraging. In High School Mr. Harper and a couple of others fueled my interest in learning.

My point for this entry is simply that there are untold thousands of committed and compassionate teachers who serve the public good by teaching our children. It is a good but difficult vocation. Every day they communicate personal worth and the value of knowledge to children without regard to their race, gender, or social standing. They instill hopes and dreams to those who are offered so little by the rest of society. I am thankful for every public school teacher who maintains a positive influence in spite of unruly students, apathetic and abusive parents, bureaucratic paper work, and ever expanding expectations. In spite of the pressure to teach to the test they continue to understand they are there to influence malleable lives for the better.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 21, 2010

Saturday, February 20, 2010

I am Thankful for the Gift of Self Restraint

Flip Wilson made a fortune playing the character Geraldine and popularizing the phrase “The Devil made me do it.” It was funny, but it was a lie. The Devil has great power of influence but limited power of control. He doesn’t make people do things. He’s a tempter, not an absolute governor. God has blessed us with the gift of self restraint. I learned that from my Dad.

James Ellis (Speck) Johns was, as they say, an enigma wrapped up in a mystery, part Southern gentlemen, part good old boy, part Robert E. Lee, and part George Patton. Before he got saved in 1971 he could cuss up a storm when he hurt himself or things were not going the way he thought they should. But he would never use a foul word in front of a woman.

On one of our regular Saturday trips to the farm my Uncle Buddy asked Dad if he could borrow his tractor during the coming week to do some bush hogging. Now, Dad was quite particular about his tools and equipment. [“You take care of your tools; they’ll take care of you.”]

Dad responded to Buddy, “You’re welcome to use my tractor but I need you to take care of it and be careful to do a few things for me. First, don’t run it over third gear. It wasn’t made for this big a bush hog. Second, don’t try to mow down the palmetto bushes. Third, do you see this cross bar? You can’t raise the bush hog too high or the PTO drive shaft will rub against it and something will have to give. Can you be careful with that for me?”

“Yes, Ellis I’ll take good care of your tractor. You don’t need to worry.”

I knew the third gear promise was a no go. If Uncle Buddy was anything he was fast, fast in his car, fast on the tractor. On Friday nights you could hear the roar of his car for miles across the flat woods. I wondered if he would be careful with the PTO shaft.

The next Saturday Dad and I went to the tractor to take the bush hog off and he could see from a distance the shaft was marred. He began to mutter under his breath. Then things went downhill. The shaft was warped and welded so tight it wouldn’t come off the PTO. Murmurs became bad words followed by outright profanity. After twisting, pushing, and pulling a while he reached up under the tractor seat, retrieved a hammer and began to try to pound the two ends of the shaft apart.

Kneeling on his right knee, holding the shaft with his left hand, he began to hit it as hard as he could, cussing between every blow. What he didn’t see was my mother walking up behind him. She had apparently heard the commotion and came to check it out. I was slowly moving out of the line of fire when it happened. Dad missed his target and hit his hand right where the thumb and finger come together. He hit it so hard the indention of the hammer head could be seen in his flesh for years to come.

With one swooping motion he dropped the hammer, grabbed his hand, rose up on his left foot, began to spin counter clockwise, and let out a “God d…” The second word froze in his mouth as he caught a glimpse of Mom standing there. Spinning on his left foot, pushing off with his right foot like a broken propeller, the stalled profanity morphed into a rapid fire “help me Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, help me.”

Mom, standing with her hands on her hips and her head cocked a little to the side replied, “That’s right, You’d better be praying and asking God to help you clean up your mouth.” She turned and walked away without another word. No sympathy expressed. She, Dad and I knew her unspoken message, “You brought this on yourself, buddy boy, and God is right here in the midst of it.”

Later, when I was a young adult home from school, I was trying to explain to Mom why I couldn’t stay over an extra day and attend my cousin’s wedding. My excuse was pretty flimsy. The truth was I just didn’t want to go. Dad spoke with what I think was about his strongest rebuke for me ever. “Son, there’s no need to make excuses. The way I see it a man does pretty much what he wants to do.” That stung. The truth often stings.

The way I see it God has given each of us the grace to be able to choose good over evil. We have the gift of self restraint. Sin does not have the power to rule over us. We are responsible for the decisions we make. “The sting of sin is death and the power of sin is the law” (I Cor. 15:56). In sin we are not powerless to resist temptation, we are powerless to keep the law and fulfill righteousness. In Christ we are made righteous and empowered to resist all sin. “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:12-14).

I am thankful the Devil cannot make me do anything. I am free to choose. Good choices do not redeem me; they do not make me acceptable to God. They do bear witness to God’s grace expressed in His choice to offer salvation to whosoever will. I am thankful for the gift of self restraint. I don’t have to “dip, drink, cuss, smoke or chew, or go with the girl’s that do.”

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 20, 2010

Friday, February 19, 2010

I am Thankful for A Convicting Word

I love Cleveland and Bradley County. That was not always the case. Going to Lee and returning to attend the Seminary for one year introduced me to aspects of the region that I greatly disliked. I did not like living in headquarters city for the Church of God, all the denominational negatives from around the world flow into this town like sewage to a septic tank. I was bothered by ongoing racial segregation; Blacks were seldom seen in the public arena. Most troubling for me was the socio-economic divide. Cleveland was clearly a prosperous industrial town with a high concentration of wealthy citizens, both old money and new money. But literally on the other side of the tracks was abject poverty. I had been in homes inside the city limits that had dirt floors and no functioning plumbing (no longer the case). The mindset of the old mill villages was still dominant. Everybody knew their place and stayed there.

When we returned to Cleveland in 1984 our hopes were that it would only be for a few years and then we would return to the “real” world. We asked ourselves almost daily when was God going to let us get out of Cleveland? We didn’t hate it here; we just were not comfortable here. We were stuck. Cheryl was teaching at the seminary when I resigned my position at Westmore in 1988. The State Overseer had committed to place me in a pastorate within an hour’s drive of Cleveland. He did not keep that promise and I was left without a place of ministry. A few months later God spoke to us that we were to start a church in Cleveland, the last place in the world I wanted to start a church. At the time there were more churches in Cleveland per capita than any other community in America.

We started New Covenant in January of 1989 as a Bible study group in our home. By July we were organized as a church with 28 charter members, if my memory serves me well. Within a year we were averaging around fifty but began a season of ups and downs. I was struggling with why we were not growing, especially why we were not reaching the native Clevelanders. Pleading with God for answers one day I asked “Lord, why are we not growing? What’s wrong? What do I need to do?”

He answered, “You have to love Cleveland.”

Without hesitation I responded, “Father, I love the people of Cleveland. That should be enough.”

“If you don’t love the place where they live, people will have a hard time believing you love them.”

“Oh. Then you’re going to have to help me.”

It was a word of wisdom, a lasting insight. Place is important. It was also a convicting word. I came out of that conversation with God aware that I had been arrogant, like some kind of spiritual carpetbagger. I began to pray and a love for Cleveland/Bradley County began to grow in my heart. From time to time I remind God I am willing to go anywhere he wants me go, but I am happy to stay in Cleveland. It is a wonderful place to live.

We have had opportunities to relocate. Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary offered Cheryl a faculty position and me an administrative position. The president of Asbury Theological Seminary called and asked us both to join the faculty there. Cheryl has been approached about a host of positions all across the country; I could always find a pastorate.

Yes, our community has problems, all of the things I observed earlier and more. But it is a good place, full of good people working to make it a better place and I am thankful to live here. Did I mention the near-by mountains, streams, and lakes?

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 19, 2010

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I am Thankful for the Love of God

Just north of San Francisco, we were sitting at an upper tier table looking across the restaurant and out the panoramic picture windows at the sea lions on the rocks rising out of the Pacific Ocean. It was a romantic and memorable setting, except that a young Karisa was with us making it more of a Kodak family shot. As we were beginning to enjoy our meal a disturbing scene entered my peripheral vision. The hostess was escorting two men to the table directly between us and the ocean view. One was obviously in the final stages of AIDS, frail, emaciated, skin ulcerated, and dressed as if it was a cold day. His partner held his arm and balanced him as he moved gingerly toward the table. I was quite irritated. The scene was ruined; it was a time when we all feared the HIV virus was easily transmitted and the appearance of the man disturbed my appetite. I was not prepared to see the Face of God.

Abhorring their lifestyle, intrigued by their public conduct and trying not to stair, I was drawn into observing the two men. The healthy looking man lovingly attended to his partner, cutting his meat, picking up his dropped napkin, wiping his mouth, adjusting his scarf, tenderly expressing his devotion. It was a disturbing and transforming epiphany. True love, God like love, is not confined to the Godly.

There are those who bifurcate love, imagining one love that flows from God and another that rises from the human heart. God’s love is perfect; human love is a poor imitation. The best we can hope for is that our love become like God’s love. Let me suggest this approach to love is misguided and self defeating.

God is love and all love is from God, a sign of His presence. It is never generated by the human heart. Just as all life is from God, is sustained by God, and returns to God, love is a trait of human existence that evidences the very presence of God within every child of Adam and Eve. Love is the radiance of God’s face, the communication of His image. The fact that unredeemed people love is not evidence of differing types of love, one divine the other human. It is evidence of the grace of God to withhold the power of sin and maintain something of His image within the fallen race.

Love expresses the image of our triune God. It is the perfect affection of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for each other. It is their passion to embrace, edify, and serve each other. Love is the drive to contribute to the fulfillment/fruitfulness of the other, not to possess but to release. In love the object of our passion is the subject to whom we submit. Anything less is self serving lust. Lust is nothing more than the objectification of another being, relating to another person as if they exist to serve us.

In contemporary thought hate and love exist as two ends of a continuum. Hate is the opposite of love. But this perception distorts the essence of love as affection and reduces it to an emotion or an appetite. The opposite of love is not hate, it is apathy (which is closer to the Biblical meaning of "hate"). Love is not governed by feeling but by disposition.

One implication of what I am suggesting is that all expressions of “human” love are actually mediations of God’s love. Love is not redemptive any more than life itself is redemptive. It cannot impute righteousness no matter how pure it appears. (The fact that the two homosexuals loved each other is a testament to God’s grace, not to the condition of their souls.) Love rolls back the curtain so that we can get a glimpse of God. Thus, encountering the love of God does not require isolation from others. Indeed love between humans is a gift from God enticing us all back toward Him.

I am thankful for the love of God which He mediated through Himself in Christ. In love the Father sent His Only Begotten Son to die for us so that we might have life to the very fullest. In Christ He lifts us up in love and wraps us in His divine embrace. The Holy Spirit draws the redeemed into that unmediated encounter with God where His love permeates and transforms our being. In this encounter we become the mediators of God's unbounded love for His creation.  We love not as the World, but as God loves.  We love our brothers and sisters in Christ whom we have not met.  We love our enemies. We love all of God's creation.  Love ceases to be a mystery to be understood and possessed, and becomes a declaration of the mystery of the incarnation.  By this shall all people know that we are His disciples in that we have love which they can recognize but not explain.

I am also thankful for the love of God mediated through fallen humans. Marred by sin, it is none the less the love of God. To discern it is to discern the grace of God reaching out to all of us. Love is the fountain from which hope springs. It is a sign of God’s presence in His creation.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 18, 2010

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I am Thankful for Things to Do

Hello. My name is Jackie and I am a workaholic, at least that is what I have been told (stumbling over step one of the twelve steps). I come by it honestly. My dad lived as if work was the elixir of life. [Elsewhere, I have written about the beauty of work --]. Whenever I phoned Dad we had a ritual exchange. “How are you doing, son.”

“I’m OK, just too busy.”

“That’s good. Stay busy and you’ll stay out of trouble.”

That summarizes his philosophy of child rearing. A parent’s chief responsibility is to keep their children constructively busy. We worked on the farm. We had chores at home; mine included mowing the grass and taking the garbage out. We had projects, paint the garage, paint the outside of the house, paint the inside of the house, start the trilogy over. He didn’t let me get a job until I graduated from High School. “Son, I’ve got plenty of work for you to do.” And he did.

I am thankful for a life full of yet-to-be finished projects. I have been depressed. I have been stressed, exhausted, confused, and completely overwhelmed, but I have seldom been bored. OK, there were those times when I had to feign interest while Cheryl shopped, but usually I could find a Radio Shack, or some tools to look at. Thanks to Cheryl who freed me from Mall duty years ago. [Guys, I have a few copies of my bestselling book “Passive Aggression and How it Saved My Marriage” act now and I will send a free copy of the sequel “How Passive Aggression Freed Me From The Mall.” Send $9.95 plus $75.00 S&H.]

I have seldom been in trouble, at least my Dad never had to bail me out of jail.

I have a long list of things to do. They are all interesting and fun for me, at least the things I don’t have to do are fun. The things I enjoy doing the most involve manual labor. I would be miserable if I had to do manual labor for a living, but doing it because I want to is invigorating. It is problem solving without intense critical reflection.

I ramble, but then again writing this blog is on my list of things to do.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 17, 2010

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I am Thankful for My Pastors

[Much of this article appeared last year in my Family Johns blog.]

I am a pastor. That is my psychological identity. Regardless of where I am or what I am doing I think of myself as a pastor. In addition to my formal role as a pastor and my role as a seminary professor, that is my self-identity in all other situations. I have been a credentialed minister in the Church of God for 37 years. Of that time I was a student for 11 years, an associate pastor for 8 years, a full time professor for 18 years (part-time for 10), and a pastor for 24 years. Obviously I pulled double duty much of the time. For most of my adult life I have been the pastor of the church I attended.

I may not be the best pastor but I am a pastor. It is God’s call on my life. Once a church member called me up to tell me I was “the poorest excuse for a pastor” she had ever met. I replied I had no difficulty believing that since I had personally known many of her pastors, but that I was confident of one thing: I was a far better pastor than she was a church member. I may not be good, but I am quick on my feet.

I owe a lot to the pastors of my childhood and youth. They modeled well the core practices of effective ministry. The following is a set of recollections on their role in my life.

When I was young pastors were special people. For the most part I only saw them at church. They were always dressed in suit and tie and carried a sense of dignity and respect. They were professionals even if they did sometimes preach against professional clergy. Back then pastors in the Church of God were appointed to one-year renewable terms. Pastoral changes took place during the summer following Camp Meeting. The result was that I had several pastors when I was young: Brothers Thomas, Guiles, Ramsey, Pratt, and Braddock.

Brother Thomas, a fatherly figure reminiscent of Robert Young in Father Knows Best, was pastor in the time of my earliest memories. My recollections are visual images of him standing behind the lectern or greeting people out front. Later, Mom would refer to him as a Godly and compassionate man. He followed a personal rule of never being alone with a woman other than his wife. Yet, one hot day during her pregnancy with Darlene he saw her walking downtown and offered her a ride home. Then there was the visit to our house after Darlene was born. Dad was repairing a disassembled lawn mower on the front porch when Brother Thomas arrived. He gingerly stepped through the parts as he made his way into the house. Afterwards Mom asserted her place in the home and Dad never repaired anything on the porch again.

Cecil Guiles was the Assistant Pastor under Brother Thomas and when Thomas left a few months prior to his term ending Brother Guiles served as interim-pastor. I only recall thinking he seemed young and being confused about his shifting role. Later when I was a student a Lee College he was serving as General Director of Youth and Christian Education for the Church of God. When I introduced myself he reminded me of his role in my early life. He is truly one of the most compassionate and gregarious persons I have ever known.

H.B. Ramsey, a professorial figure who would have looked at home in a bank president’s office, followed Brother Guiles. He was short, bald, and wore thick rimmed glasses. Think a shrunken version of Mel on the Dick Van Dyke Show. I am not certain how long he served at our church; my guess is the years embracing my fifth and sixth birthdays. I recall him as a Bible teacher. Somehow when he preached I made the connection between preaching and the Bible. I knew he was expounding on the Word and it was very important. Until this very moment I have never made this observation and while I cannot recall a single point from any of his sermons, nor describe his style, it is that image of a pastor presenting the Scriptures with a passion for clarity that has most guided my own ministry as a preacher of the Word.

Years later we moved to Alabama and when I was sixteen I saw Brother Ramsey at the State Camp Meeting. I gathered up the courage and approached him between services. Asking him if he knew who I was, he responded “Yes, I believe your Ernestine Johns’ son from Jacksonville, Florida.” I was amazed at his skills of observation and his memory for names. No one every told me our current pastor (Herschel Gamble) had probably mentioned to him we had moved into the state so that the connection was already made for him. I prefer to delude myself into thinking he actually made the connections himself. At any rate he served the Church of God as a State Overseer for several states, retired in South Georgia, and lived well into his nineties.

Following Brother Ramsey was Lindsey Pratt. He’s the pastor who baptized me when I was six. He had to ask me my name while I was standing next to him in the pool. This bothered my mother. But he was a great preacher, if by great you mean effective, entertaining, persuasive communicator. He was an evangelist. He had a radio program that was listened to by masses of people. My Dad would never attend church, but he listened to Brother Pratt as did many of his truck driving friends. My impressions are of the preacher as story teller with a knack for one-two punch lines. My Dad came under great conviction listening to him; I recall him coming home one day and saying to my mother he thought he was going crazy and talking with her about the Bible. She told him he needed to go to church and get right with God. Unfortunately, before he responded to the Spirit’s drawing, Satan got in the way.

Lindsey Pratt had an acute stomach ulcer that in time required surgery to remove much of his stomach. During his hospitalization James Cross, then serving as General Overseer, flew to Jacksonville to minister at our church. His comments stuck in my young brain (not to mention the fact that he was the first person I knew who had actually flown in an airplane). He stated that as a holiness preacher who believed divine healing was provided for all in the atonement, he never would have believed he would say what he was about to say to us. He then voiced that on the flight down God had spoken to him to tell the congregation not to pray for Brother Pratt’s healing; we were to pray instead for God’s will to be done. There was an instant murmur of disagreement and during the prayer fervent intercession went up for his healing.

A couple of weeks later Brother Pratt came home from the hospital apparently on the road to recovery. A short time after that he ran off with Libby, the church pianist/singer/secretary. My Dad lost all interest in religion as did all of his unsaved friends. When they confronted the errant minister they found in his wallet a check my mother had written to him for his radio ministry; I had been the one commissioned to hand the check to him after church one night. Mom feared some thought the check implied impropriety on her part. I could not write about this if she was still alive and I risk here the wrath of my siblings to make the point that it always confused me why my sanctified, Spirit-filled saint of a mother didn’t discern there was a sin problem in paradise before she wrote the check. On the other hand this event may have been the catalyst for her intense spiritual maturity that followed. She took solace in the assurances of Aunt Jenny Williams that God knew her heart was in the right place, a willingness to sacrifice to support the preaching of God's Word.

Brother Pratt found his way back to God and became a Baptist Pastor, a testament of God’s grace. His example left an indelible impression on me of the power of sin to destroy. I could contrast his condition before and after his fall. When he was our pastor he was vibrant, happy, and he drove a 1959 Ford Thunderbird, a fancy sports car. The last time I saw him a few years later he looked like a skeleton smoking a cigarette, and he was driving an old, damaged VW Beatle. Still a child myself, I hurt for his small children who had lost their father and vanished from our lives.

The prominent pastor of my childhood and youth was F. L. (Bud) Braddock. He followed Lindsay Pratt and was the healing balm the church needed. On his first Sunday he announced “I am going to make you a promise. I am going to make everyone of you happy as your pastor. Some of you are happy I came. Some I’ll make happy while I’m here. The rest of you I’ll make happy when I leave.” And with that he led the congregation in a hearty laugh. There simply was no one like Bud Braddock. He’s the only person I have ever known who could demonstrably laugh and cry in the same instance. He wept over the plight of those caught in the web of sin and laughed to soften the sting of his chastising words. Humor was his oratory tool of choice and he preached with his whole body, holding his head high, moving out from behind the pulpit, accentuating his points with swift gestures, and for special exclamation points performing a brief buck dance, the kind where both arms swing down to the side and up to chest level while the feet and legs kick up and down with the torso remaining relatively motionless.

The content of his preaching focused on practical Christian living grounded in a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. In this he reinforced what I was learning from my mother and others, the Bible is a book to be loved and studied; it has the answers to life’s questions. There is nothing the Bible doesn’t address. He was the first pastor I knew who openly pursued higher education. He went to Bible college while he served as our pastor. [The significance of this cannot be over stated. Many Pentecostals preached against preachers getting a higher education.] I loved his preaching. His sermons were well structured and easy to follow. I still use some of his humorous illustrations.

The truth is I did not know any of my childhood pastors well. They only intersected my life within the dim glory of church. There they were the center of all that happened; they were the spokespersons for God. Everyone deferred to them. Yet, they were human, able to fall into the grips of sin. They convinced me God loves me, I need to know Him, His Word is a living book with the answers to life’s questions, and most of all Jesus Christ is God’s only begotten son who died for my salvation. I thank God often for these pastors and their gifts to me and countless others.

In 1968 our family moved to Birmingham Alabama and my experience with pastors underwent a metamorphosis. The biggest ecclesial change was the size of the congregation. From a church of hundreds where we were known but not important we settled into a storefront church of fifty or sixty people. All of a sudden we were important, at least my mother’s tithes were, and we got a lot of attention, not all of it welcomed. Apparently we were a threat; an infection of worldliness blown up from the liberal wasteland of the beaches. My sister’s hair was too short and mine was too long. We had radical ideas like showing Christian movies to the youth group. My mother overheard the pastor say “I’m not going to have any Stockley Carmichael’s taking over my church.”

We stayed at the church and we were gradually accepted, sort of. Mom and I (as a teenager) moved into leadership positions. I was teaching the Sunday school Junior High class when I was fifteen. The pastor, Herschel Gammill, was at the time a little flashy and very conservative; I understand he has changed in one of these areas. His gifts to me were (1) his intellectually engaging sermons, and (2) his willingness to let me serve in leadership positions. In spite of his early reservations, he did communicate to me that he believed in me.

He was followed by E.L. Bice. Brother Bice was more conservative and less skilled in exegesis and oration. Out of his deep convictions against women in leadership he sorely injured my mother in what can best be described as passive aggressive opposition. On the other hand he allowed me to be moved into teaching the senior high Sunday school class while I was still in high school. When no one else would direct the Christmas play he let me do it. In spite of his leadership flaws, he was a man of deep personal piety, whom my mother and I both came to respect.

After a major conflict with Brother Bice we transferred to the Trussville Church of God just north of Birmingham. There I came to know Ken Andrews as pastor. I am certain I will write more about him, so I will just note he was the first pastor I knew as friend. He trusted me to be Sunday school superintendent when I was still seventeen years old. He took me door to door visiting ever Saturday. He spent a lot of time with me mentoring me into ministry long before I accepted a call to preach. Ken was one of the ministers at our wedding.

I should mention Garland Mills. Brother Mills was our pastor for a little less than a year when we first got married and moved to Illinois. He brought Cheryl into the Church of God. He was a faithful preacher of the Word and an avid student of ministry, perhaps the best all round pastor I have known. Art Pettyjohn was our pastor in North Dakota. He and his wife were surrogate parents for us especially when our first child was born, with us being so far from home. They were a great gift and model in ministry. For sake of space I will stop here. I would take too long to describe Larry Higginbotham; he deserves a whole article.

I am thankful for all of these pastors. Like me, not a one of them is/was perfect. But each of them loved God, loved the Word of God, and loved the people of God. I learned something important from each of them. I was ministered the grace of God through each of them. I found something of myself in them. I am honored to be numbered among them.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 16, 2010

Monday, February 15, 2010

I am Thankful for Central Heat

Jacksonville, Florida is not the frozen tundra of the Arctic, but it does get cold there. Several times each winter it drops into the low twenties and even into the low teens and colder on occasion. During my childhood these frigid nights and mornings were not much more than an inconvenience for most people. Leave the outside faucets dripping, put the sprinkler on the citrus trees, and throw an extra blanket on the beds. But that’s not the whole picture, at least not the way I remember it.

It was getting into and out of bed that was the real challenge on frigid nights. Our house had no insulation, not in the walls or the ceiling. The only source of heat other than the kitchen stove was a kerosene heater in the hallway. Depression era parents saw no need to heat the house when everyone went to bed. To their credit they arose early to fire up the heater, most of the time.

On cold nights the challenge was getting out of my warm clothes, into my pajamas and into the bed; it was a race worthy of the Olympics. The sheets were frigid making the hair stand up all over my body. A Little heat could be generated by rapidly vibrating my legs between the sheets. The trick was to do it without raising the covers which would create a suction drawing cold air in and undoing the whole process. Then lie perfectly still and let my body heat do the rest.

When mom called and I awoke the next morning, if it was eighteen outside it was no more than twenty-five in my bedroom, or so it seemed. I would pull the spread off of my face and watch my breath rise toward the ceiling. Then I would pray for the rapture to take place before Mama called for the third time; it was the pitch in her voice that said you had better be up now that called forth the half-truth, “I’m up. I’m up.” Grabbing my stiff blue jeans and a shirt I ran to the heater. Place the cold jeans on the heater, warn one side a few seconds, turn quickly to warn the other, take a deep breath, pajamas off, jeans on with one movement if possible. Repeat the procedure with the shirt. Run back into the bedroom; grab shoes and socks, run back to the heater, finish dressing and wait for the call to come eat. And that’s the news from the Sunshine State.

I’ve lived in Minot, North Dakota in a drafty Victorian house when it was forty below zero and been more comfortable than I was getting up on a north Florida winter’s morning. I am thankful for central heat. Here in east Tennessee we have zone heating. I keep my three thermostats set on 65 except when I am in a zone for an extended period then I raise it to 68. We also have a couple of gas fireplaces that work well to heat the TV room and the den, leaving most of the zones closer to 65. There is a little of my depression era parents in me, but I do have a space heater in the bathroom. Call me crazy, but I want it warm when I change clothes, no matter what the cost.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 15, 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010

I am Thankful for the Masses Who Read This Blog

[For those who were expecting something special for Valentine’s Day, see my earlier entry, “I am Thankful for Finding my Pearl of Great Price” -- January 21, 2010.]

I started this blog a couple of years ago for a variety of reasons. I needed a creative outlet. I want to develop my writing skills. I have a compulsion to communicate – I have early childhood fixations on communication generated by a severe speech impediment. There were some things I wanted others to know about me that may have been lost along the way. I started this series on thanksgiving because I felt convicted that it was an area I needed to work on. I have found it a wonderful and helpful practice.

I never had delusions this would become a must-read blog. I do monitor the number of visitors. In recent weeks about ten different people look at the site on any given day. I know who most of you are and I am thankful for your attentiveness. The majority are close relatives and friends. I don’t know of any regular reader who doesn’t fit into one of those categories. Your complements whether spoken in person, over the phone, or as a comment on the blog are appreciated.

Thank you for reading. I would complete this series if no one read it. It is important to me that I finish what I started. It is critical for me to develop the discipline of being thankful. I have much more to learn about this basic Christian attribute. The exercise of articulating and communicating thanksgiving is a worthwhile endeavor that I would recommend to everyone.

Your comments, especially those that point to strengths in my writing are helpful. They also feed my ego. I will accept full responsibility for being humble, but I don’t think any of you have to worry about me being overcome with pride until my readership swells to at least double its current size and AP picks it up. In the mean time feel free to comment; you can even disagree or point out flaws. I’ll still love you after I block your access.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 14, 2010

Saturday, February 13, 2010

I am Thankful for Alexander James Harris

My nephew Jonathan Harris and His wife Jennifer welcomed their first child, Alexander James Harris, into the world yesterday -- 8 lb. 10 oz. 21" arriving at 2:50 P.M. Mother and child are doing well. The verdict is out on the father.

Our family has been blessed with generations of wonderful people. I attribute it to my mother’s and grandmother’s prayers. My Dad often said he was proud of his children. If he was speaking to Jimmy and me he would add “You boys never caused me any trouble.” For years I just swelled with pride when he said it. Later, I wondered exactly what he meant by it. A couple of years before he died I got the courage to ask. He responded, “Well I never had to bail you out of jail.” It suddenly dawned on me I could have gotten by with a little mischievousness and still kept my dad happy. Staying out of jail is not a very high bar to set.

On occasion Dad would also exert, “I think all of my children are good looking.” His eyesight was good but his sense of aesthetics was a little off. When the grandchildren began to arrive that observation shifted to them and became more frequent. His sense of aesthetics was improving.

Jonathan and his sister Christina are my baby sister Darlene’s children. They always lived closer to Mom and Dad than the other three grandchildren. Mom babysat them when they were small and that was a great source of frustration for her. She absolutely loved being with them but she was determined to love all of her children the same and all of her grandchildren the same. I once exhorted her to relax on that front and enjoy Jonathan and Chrissy, take them places, do something special with them. It wasn’t their fault Shirley and I lived far away. She insisted she could not do more for one than for the other. I have always been thankful for my mother’s commitment to equity, but I have also felt bad that she may have cheated herself and them of some wonderful memories.

My perception of Dad was that he never struggled with equality. He just loved and enjoyed. He let Mom keep a ledger of monies spent on Christmas and birthdays. That was easy, he let her worry with buying all the gifts anyway.

I have chased this rabbit to make it clear that my parents loved all of their grandchildren with an equal love. Having established that fact beyond reasonable doubt and with hopes of not offending anyone, I offer an opinion that Jonathan had a special relationship with my Dad. Mom said he reminded her of me when I was young, following Dad around helping him with his various projects. It has always given me great pleasure to think of Dad and Jonathan together. I know Jonathan filled a special place in his life and that he enjoyed his youngest grandson’s company very much.

Jonathan is a rare young man: responsible, hard working, faithful, dedicated, etc. He is well respected and well liked by all who know him. He’s a lot like my Dad. (Of course Darlene and Thurman have been the primary molders of his life – why do I feel like I am walking through a familial minefield here?) And he has persevered through some major challenges in life, most profoundly a detached retina that required multiple surgeries and left him with impaired vision in one eye. Jennifer is an equally blessed and stellar person. I have liked her since the first time I met her.

I remember well the days when my children were born. I felt like I was walking on air as I carried the weight of the world on my shoulders. With Alethea, as the firstborn, all of that weight was amplified by the uncertainties; where’s the instruction manual, the on button, the off button? It is exciting to see young couples go through that same euphoria blended with anxiety.

I am thankful for Alexander James Harris. He is going to bring so much happiness to his parents and grandparents. They are going to be renewed as they watch him grow and learn. It thrills my heart to imagine him playing and working with Jonathan and Thurman. I am excited for Jennifer and Darlene as I know they will soak up the simple pleasure of his presence in their lives. Finally, I am full of hope, as his birth is a promise that the Kingdom is on its way, the best is yet to come.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 13, 2010

Friday, February 12, 2010

I am Thankful for a Heritage That Included Inter-racial Friendship

“Son, stick out your hand and shake Ms. Rose’s hand.” I was about six or seven years old and that was the first of three times, as I recall, that my Dad instructed me to greet people properly; Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents, and the elderly were his special concern. Shaking Ms. Rose Bailey’s hand was one of the formative experiences of my life. There was a blue sky; we were driving through Folkston Georgia on our way to the farm; I don’t recall if anyone else was with us. I do recall Dad saying, “That’s Ms. Rose. Let’s stop and talk.”

I knew where we were. We were on the edge of town headed north on Burnt Fort Road. We were in “Colored Town.” (Or replace “Colored” with the “N” word.) As Dad quickly pulled off the street and stopped. I looked out the window in the direction he was nodding. On the front porch of an old shotgun shanty sat an elderly Black woman. She was wearing a Quaker style bonnet and a long gingham dress. She was waving a paper fan, the kind with a picture of Jesus on one side and an ad for a funeral home on the other. As we got out of the car and walked toward her she arose and met us in the small patch of sand between the street and the house. I noticed how wrinkled and leathery her skin was and I was captivated by the twinkle in her eye and the sweetness of her voice.

As Dad reached out and shook her hand pumping it with a childish excitement and a grin on his face proclaiming this is a special person, he asked, “Ms. Rose do you know who I am?”

“Lord, yes. You’re Ab’s boy, Speck. That’s you ain’t it.”

“Yes, Ma’m, that’s me.” That’s when I got my instructions and I shook the hand of an elderly, African American woman.

They talked for a while asking about family members, including my Mom’s family. When we got back in the car and drove away I asked, “Dad who was that?”

“Why that’s Ms. Rose Bailey” he responded as if that would mean something to me.

“Who is she?”

“She and my Pa were youngins together and she was the midwife for most of the babies born in these parts. She even delivered you’re Ma and her brothers and sisters.”

Over the years I asked more questions about Ms. Rose Bailey. I wondered how an elderly Black woman could have such an important place in my father’s heart? You see, I grew up in the Deep South. Jim Crow laws were in place. There were refrigerated water fountains labeled “Whites Only” and right next to them were non-refrigerated ones labeled “Colored”. I was once chastised by a woman I didn’t know for drinking out of the wrong fountain; I was too young to read the signs.

What I discovered was a story of friendship across racial lines. It seems my Grandfather and Ms. Rose grew up together. They picked berries together and worked in the fields together. My Dad remembered Ms. Rose and her husband always stopping at his parent’s house sitting in a mule drawn wagon on their weekly trips for groceries. Dad loved to tell the story of the time Ms. Rose asked, “Ms. Irene do you mind if I have a glass for some water.” To get the picture of what follows you have to understand the well was in the front yard. A common dipper hung on the well.

My grandmother responded to the request, “Rose, I’ll get you a glass if you want one, but why don’t you use the dipper like everybody else.” Over the years we stopped and talked with Ms. Rose a few more times and I learned more of this story.  I discovered my grandparents always encouraged them to “get down and sit a spell.” If it was dinner time they were invited for the meal and sometimes accepted. As a child I drank from that same dipper and I tried to wrap my mind around the conflicting images of “whites only” water fountains and sharing a common dipper.  I could see the black couple sitting on the same long benches, eating at the same table where I had often eaten. There are alternatives to a culture of hatred.

I am thankful for a heritage that demanded respect for all people regardless of race or social standing. Beyond respect, it offered a glimpse into genuine friendship across racial lines and that in an age of extreme bigotry. It would be misleading to not admit my parents and grandparents were not free from all prejudice; they strongly opposed inter-racial marriages. I never saw a Black person sit at our table when I was growing up.  But parents, grandparents and great-grand parents were willing to literally put their lives on the line to defend the dignity of others. I might write more about that later.

The thing that amazes me most about my grandmother and grandfather Johns is how they took a righteous stand toward others without the personal knowledge of salvation. During my Dad’s childhood, they had unregenerated hearts and yet the image of God glowed warmly in their attitudes toward others. I now know they were an example of God’s prevenient grace, that grace which prevents the full effects of sin from overwhelming the nonbeliever and keeps open the possibility of salvation. The same grace that afforded me the opportunity to shake the hand of an elderly black woman and realize through my Father’s eyes I had touched the hand of someone very special.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 12, 2010

Thursday, February 11, 2010

I am Thankful For Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches

Everybody has their comfort food. Mine is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I am a little picky about how it’s made, so much so I won’t waste my time eating one made by someone else except when social mores require it. The PB must be smooth and there must be the proper ratio of peanut butter to jelly. Some people apply the peanut butter like its mortar and they are building the Great Wall of China. Others are stuck in the Great Depression and spread the PB so thin a blue tick hound couldn’t find it.

As for the jelly it needs to be two to three times as thick as the PB depending on the type of jelly, flavor verses texture. The stronger the flavor of the jelly the thinner it needs to be spread. However, the greater the texture the more thick it should be, jams on thick, jellies on thin, balance the flavor and the texture. Typically, I prefer whole wheat bread, but on occasion I like white just for old time’s sake. (White-bread PB & J requires a glass of cold milk to wash it down.)

I love PB. It is a product of the south. It was invented by an African American, George Washington Carver, born into slavery in 1864 and one of the greatest minds of his time. Just the story of Carver adds to the pleasure of PB.

Did I mention it’s quick and easy to clean up afterwards. What more could I ask for at the end of a long hard day. OK, I can think of a few things, but not many when I’m home alone.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 11, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I am Thankful for Arrogant, Obnoxious People

I don’t like being near them. They are so self-centered; it is as if everything revolves around them. I am talking about the people who are rude to restaurant servers, check-out assistants, flight attendants, and other service workers. Those people who feel so free to speak disparaging words about others, usually as they move out of ear shot. They are know-it-alls, arrogant, self-serving, and egotistical. They are typically good at some things but not as good as they describe themselves. Their greatest skill is making themselves look good in the eyes of those who can contribute to their increases in fame, wealth and security. In short, they are those whose lives are marked by the works of the flesh.

Oh, I left out one other trait that combined with the above makes these people intolerable for me; it’s the ones who present themselves as super spiritual that most get under my skin. They are good at God-talk and love to speak of sanctification, but their hearts are full of bitterness. They have a compulsion to slander anyone who doesn’t serve their plan for self-aggrandizement.

I am thankful for these people because they expose my own failings. When they preen and exalt themselves at the expense of others I can get angry quick. Anger triggers creative juices designing methods for putting them in their place. “Who do they think they are? I’ll show them.” Wait a minute, I might be them. Am I caught up in my own pride?

Arrogant, obnoxious people may indeed be messengers sent to buffet me, but I am too easily influenced by them. In this they show me how imperfect I am and how much I need the sanctifying grace of God. There is a righteous indignation that abhors sin, especially sins against those of lesser social status. But if it is righteous it flows from the heart of God and cannot be tainted by the sin of pride. Thus, righteous indignation is not well suited for self-declaration.

I accepted a long time ago that I am required to love these people. I try to be a friend to them, help them in any way I can. I have given myself permission to avoid them as much as possible. Love does not require masochism. But they cannot be avoided. Cream is not the only thing that rises to the top. They are often in positions of influence throughout the church and society. Perhaps when I mature to the place I no longer over react to these people and their condescending behavior to others, I will be freed from their constant presence. Is there a nursing home that screens out narcissists?

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 10, 2010

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I am Thankful for Home Made Soup

When I was a kid my mother made huge batches of homemade soup. It was wonderful. I know it was wonderful because my Dad loved it. As for me, I never touched the stuff. She put all kinds of vegetables, fresh from the garden. She would can or freeze enough for the year. I couldn’t stand the thought of it. The corn, beef and beans were some of my favorite foods, but they were contaminated with tomatoes (I loved them raw but hated them cooked) and slimy okra.

Somewhere along life’s way I have learned to love fried okra. I don’t put it into my soup yet. I do put a healthy portion of diced tomatoes. I start with left over roast beef and whatever trimmings were cooked with it, usually potatoes, carrots, onions and mushrooms. I add extra potatoes and carrots, if needed, plus corn, and beans, etc., whatever suits my fancy. My special ingredient is dried hot peppers from my garden. Just add salt and black pepper to taste.

The beauty of homemade vegetable beef soup is the combination of tastes and textures. The various ingredients keep their individual flavors and feel to the palate. At the same time they offer up a combined flavor that is unique to each batch.

I will refrain from using soup as a metaphor for the church, but it’s there if you think about it.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 9, 2010

Monday, February 8, 2010

I am Thankful for Skype

Cheryl has a Mac and I have a Dell. I use Aimpro; she uses the Apple program for video conferencing. They are not compatible. On Saturday night Cheryl installed Skype; I had installed it on my computer earlier trying to connect with her Apple. Skype is great and it is free.

I don’t like talking on the telephone. I want to see the face of the person with whom I am talking. Verbal communication conveys words and sounds communicating ideas and to a lesser degree emotions. I need visual input to feel I am getting the entire message. Otherwise I am frustrated.

We have used video conferencing for some time with Alethea and her family – Mac to Mac. We can see Camdyn doing gymnastics and Charlie being Charlie. The downer is looking at myself on the little screen, not a pretty sight.

Saturday was an exhausting day. I am behind on work and I was pretty down. My brain just wasn’t hitting on all cylinders. Cheryl and I have talked several times a day since she left on Monday and that helps but the Video truly lifted my spirits.

They say that hearing is the last sense to go when a person is dying (I wonder how they know). That may be true but for me it is easier to remember what my parents looked like than to remember the sound of their voices. Perhaps all of the old photos are informing my memory. I would love to hear their voice but I would prefer to see their smile. Put the two together and what I really desire is one more conversation – some of Mom’s cooking wouldn’t be bad either.

I love to look at my wife. I still get a little embarrassed when she catches me staring. It is wonderful to sit and stair into each other’s eyes. True intimacy is allowing someone to gaze into your soul while finding yourself in his/her eyes, knowing that what you are in their eyes is what you might become in your own.

Video conferencing is the closest thing to being there staring into each other’s souls. All that is missing is the aroma of perfume and the comfort of touch. Come to think about it, video conferencing may also have its down side. For now, I am thankful for opportunities to bridge the miles and see the one I love.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 8, 2010

Sunday, February 7, 2010

I am Thankful for Grady McMahan

Yesterday I was honored to preach the funeral of Grady McMahan. I took as my text Matthew 10:42 (blessings promised to those who give to the little ones) and I Corinthians 15:51-58 (the sting of death has been conquered).

Grady was at most an acquaintance of mine. He was/is the younger brother of Dr. Oliver McMahan who is the Vice President for Ministry Formation at our seminary, a dear friend of mine. Through Oliver I became acquainted with Grady.

I titled the sermon “Grady McMahan: A Icon into the Image of God.” Grady was born with his intestines outside of his body. Emphysema scared his longs in early childhood and he suffered from asthma all of his life. He was severely hearing impaired and had the corresponding speech impediment.

Due to his pulmonary difficulties he lived his life on reduced levels of blood oxygen. Three and a half years ago a relatively minor work related injury triggered a near fatal reaction. When he awoke after days in the ICU the first words he spoke to his Oliver were of his desire to move to Cleveland and be with Oliver and Martha (Oliver’s wife).

I believe the image of God in which we were created is the Trinitarian nature of the Godhead, three persons eternally existing in perfect relationship. Humans are by design relational beings; it is our nature to be connected. But sin brought death which in us is at war with our nature to know and be known.

We live in a “culture of death” where there is little respect for life. This can be seen in part in the use of death as a tool for entertainment. There is currently an onslaught of movies and TV programs featuring vampires and werewolves, each glamorizing death. At the same time we have tamed death with images of an easy transition in which everyone simply goes into the light. All of this cheapens the reality of death. Death is our enemy, an enemy conquered by our Lord but our enemy none the less.

When we in our parents, Adam and Eve, entered into sin we received the curse of death woven into our very beings. Our enemy became part of us. Sin separated us from the face of God and death wounded the image of God so that we no longer could know as we are known. Our capacity for relationships was severely injured, not destroyed.

Grady McMahan offered to us an example of how the image of God could be retained in the face of death. He faced death from the day he was born and he refused to allow death to separate him from others. My childhood pastor, Bud Braddock, use to say “trials will make you bitter or better; the choice is up to you.” Grady made the choice in every setback in life to not be bitter. He was not envious of others who seemed favored by God with good health. He simply pressed on and made a friend of whoever he met, whoever was willing to connect with him.

During visitation with the family I heard someone give what may be the most powerful complement to Grady that I have ever heard. Some spoke of his forthrightness, his love for the grandchildren (Martha and Oliver’s), his peaceful presence, and his presence as an anchor. One person described him as follows. “Have you ever entered a room full of people and just sensed something was missing. You couldn’t put your finger on it but there was just some connection not being made. When Grady entered the room whatever that was always went away.”

What a powerful testament. The man with the hearing and speech problem filled in the gap between others. Somehow he helped people connect. He communicated something beyond words. In the words of the Bible he brought peace, shalom, meaning wholeness. The one who was broken brought a sense of connectedness and wholeness when he entered a room.

Another look through Grady into the image of God can be seen in the pictures shared at the visitation. There was a picture of him receiving his high school diploma, head and shoulders held high, striding across the stage. The biggest of the many smiles on his face was in a picture of him sitting behind the steering wheel of his truck. I especially like the one where he was wearing a children’s tinseled hat/decoration. But of all the pictures the thing that stood out to me the most was not his smile but the smiles on the faces of the children around him. He loved in a way that nurtured love. It is one thing to love children; it is another to love them in such a way they love you back, bringing love full circle. This is the love of God.

Much was said about Grady’s steadfastness, his faithfulness to his mother, family and church. It is as if the brush with death 3 ½ years ago triggered in him a desire to finish his race well as an example not only in how to live but also in how to die. He died what the old Methodists might have called a good death.

I believe Grady McMahan was a window into the image of God that we all share but struggle to see. He faced death and did not let it defeat his spirit. He would not let his challenges keep him from making friends and building relationships.

I remind us that death is our enemy but it is also a doorway through which we must all pass. Christ taught us that if we would live we must first die. If we die to sin we will have eternal life. If we do not, we will have everlasting death. Christ has already conquered the power of death for all who believe.

Grady has shown us a better way to live; Death, in its various forms, does not have the power to determine who we are. Here at the time of Grady's death may he be in our memories as he was in life, a healing presence reminding us of all that we can be with and for each other in Christ. May we be more like him.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 7, 2010

Saturday, February 6, 2010

I am Thankful for my Cows

My Dexters are a real source of contentment. I bought them primarily for the quality of the meat. Theirs is more healthy, at least that is what my research suggests. They fatten off of grass/hay and don’t need grains. This makes them high in omega-3 fats (the good kind) and low in the bad fats. It is also high quality in terms of taste.

However, if I only count the meat this is an expensive hobby. I have to buy a lot of hay and I don’t get that much meat each year, yet. Because they are small animals they harvest out at about 200 pounds per steer (300 lbs. dressed weight). However, if I count the value of the herd and they cows I will eventually sell, I come out ahead some day. They are an investment.

I would keep them even if I was losing money (some money), they’re cheaper than golf and most other male hobbies. I enjoy watching them graze and chew their cud. It is just exciting to see a newborn calf learn to stand, walk, nurse, and then run all in a matter of hours.

For the most part I choose how much time I put into them. There are days like yesterday when a calf was born earlier than I expected and I have to drop everything to separate the cow and calf from the others (in a pouring down rain). Otherwise, the only real downer is that I have to either be here or have someone I trust here to make certain they haven’t gotten out, they have hay, and they have access to water. I sometimes feel bound to them. In this stage of my life I would like to be a little freer to travel. Yet, there are good friends who check on them when I am away. For everything worthwhile there seems to be a price.

I am thankful for my cows. They are a source of tranquility, usually.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 6, 2010

Friday, February 5, 2010

I am Thankful for the Silence of Tranquility

I am one of the millions who suffer from tinnitus, constant ringing in the ears. I would describe it as crickets chirping inside my head. You might better identify it as the sound a car makes when the brake pads need changing. I never hear that sound, it just blends in with my invisible long legged friends.

Most days it fades in as background noise to the routine sounds of life. Typically, I only become conscious of the ringing when the world around me is quiet. Thus, the more I am removed from noise the louder the noise inside my head seems. Silence is never silent.

The ringing fluctuates in volume. There are times when it is oppressively loud; screaming into my consciousness no matter how much sound surrounds me. Nothing can drown it out. These variations can be triggered by excessive dryness in the air or my skin, fluctuations in blood pressure, stress, or exposure to sudden loud noises.

I don’t know when the tinnitus began. I suspect I have had it to some degree since childhood. I have always used background noise to help me concentrate. I believe I was already afflicted in childhood without knowing the ringing was abnormal. Even in elementary school I did my homework with the TV on. Mom objected at first but relented as I kept my grades up.

As a result of tinnitus I have a different perspective on silence. Silence is for me not the absence of noise; it is rather the harmonious blending of the inner and outer noises of life. Silence is like peace which by its very nature presupposes a dynamic positive interaction between forces. In order for me to enter into silence I have to allow the inner and the outer to cancel each other out so that neither demands my attention. Silence is not so much the absence of noise as the presence of tranquility.

There is so much noise in today’s world. Some call it noise pollution: radio, TV, automobiles, air conditioners, airplanes, people, etc.. Competing with the external is all of the inner noise of stress and tension making silence and tranquility illusive commodities.

For me the goal is to enter into tranquility regardless of all of the competing sounds of life. I know it is not good to try to live in such a state, but it is necessary to visit there often. I find that place while sitting at my kitchen table watching the birds at their feeder, or watching my cows chew their cud, or simply walking through the woods. I sometimes go there during my morning exercises. I have found the discipline of retreating to those places where tranquility is easier to find empowers me for those occasions when peace is so hard to find. And yet I am fully aware peace is a gift from God, a gift that may be received under any circumstance. I do not retreat in order to find peace. I retreat to become better accustomed to it, more comfortable with the silence of tranquility. In this I become better prepared to accept God’s gifts in the noisy times of life.

I am thankful for the silence of tranquility, not the absence of noise, the presence of shalom. It is God’s gift and cure for tinnitus of the soul.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 5, 2010

Thursday, February 4, 2010

I am Thankful for the Fellowship of the Saints

It was the day we buried my grandfather. After the internment we gathered at the old home place. Grandma had a weak heart and was lying in her feather bed with most of her eight daughters moving in and out of the room trying to comfort her. After a while one of them came and asked me if I would try; I was the preacher in the family (several of my cousins or their spouses have since entered the ministry), and I had graduated from “Bible College” (Lee College).

My plan was to get her talking about her early life with Grandpa. They had been married for six decades. But regardless of my inquiry her response always shifted quickly to the Lord and stories of His faithfulness. I finally gave in and let her talk about the things that gave her comfort. Before long she was laughing interspersed with moans and tears.

As she became more lucid her stories became more engaging. One was about the greatest crises of her faith. Early in her walk with Christ she had an altercation with a one of the sisters in the church. After service one Sunday a woman came up to her and told her another sister was spreading a story about her. It seems some of the boys had crawled under the church to look up through the cracks in the floor during the service, my uncles among them. The lie being told was a speculation my Grandmother had put her sons up to it.

Grandma said, “Something came all over me. I walked straight up to her. She was stepping up on the running board of her Model T and snatched her hat right off her head.”

With a twinkle in her eye, she continued, “But it wasn’t her hat I was grabbing for.”

“They threatened to turn me out of the church. At the meeting they said I had to apologize to her. They didn’t make her apologize to me for the lie she told, but I had to apologize.”

“Son, it was the hardest thing I have ever done (this from a woman who had twelve children). But I knew my Lord and my church were the most important things in my life. I apologized and I have never regretted it.”

My grandmother loved the church. It was for her the body of Christ. She could not separate fellowship with her Lord from fellowship with his saints. Well, maybe she could, but why would she want to. She had experienced something with those people that tied her to them in Christ. They wept together, rejoiced together, shouted together, and hoped for the return of their Lord together.

I am thankful for the fellowship of the saints. I am not certain I have ever known that fellowship with the intensity Grandma knew it, but I have known it. I have been in the depths of despair and felt the prayers of the saints hold me up, knowing my life was joined to them. I have felt my heart strangely warmed witnessing others receive their blessing from God. On the other hand, I have been lied to and lied about by fellow ministers; people have tried to destroy me and my ministry, and still I love the church and I am thankful for it.

There is more to my Grandmother’s story of ecclesial conflict. Maybe I’ll share it someday.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 4, 2010

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

I am Thankful for My Grandfather’s Sense of Humor, Mostly

Grandpa O’Quinn was a humorist by nature. Born in an age when families and communities had to entertain themselves, he developed a skill for spinning a yarn. He was a story teller in several senses of the phrase. Some of his stories were embellishments of actual events like the one about a childhood attempt to scare an uncle by tricking him into walking by a cemetery late at night; a few of Grandpa’s cousins were peppered with rock salt that night. Others were more hyperbolic images. “My Uncle Bill was so stingy he’d run a rabbit down and feel his ribs to see if he wanted to waste a bullet on em or not.”

His special gift was to entertain his grandchildren while we worked (and I presume his children before us). He understood that the most mundane and unpleasant chores would go better if you could keep people laughing, not belly laughs that would slow the work down. No, he just kept us chuckling, usually with a turn of a phrase or a mocking description of behavior. With a skill far beyond Dr. Phil he would throw in an occasional compliment for the one working the best or hardest, subtly introducing a little competition. He had a gift for making work fun and productive.

Grandpa had no reservations about tricking others for his own benefit either. One Saturday we were working at his place when a man running for County Commissioner stopped by politicking. He asked Grandpa if there was anything around his place the county might could take care of. “Well I could use a new cattle gap there at the road.”

“You vote for me and I’ll make sure you get it.”

“All right you got my vote.”

That afternoon another candidate for the same position stopped by and the conversation was identical.

As soon as he left my Dad asked my grandfather, “Mister Tyler, didn’t I hear you promise Mr. Roddenberry this morning you will vote for him and just now you promised Mr. Jones you would vote for him?”

“Yep, I sure did.”

“Well, why did you do that?”

“Oh, it don’t matter none. This way they’re both happy. They won’t know who I vote for and the best part is I’ll get a new cattle gap no matter who wins.”  A few months later the county installed a new cattle gap.

My Dad was not too impressed with that reasoning. He responded simply, “So, you lied to one of them.”

There is a close connection between deception and entertainment. A lot of entertainment is built on deception and I suppose there isn't anything wrong with it as long as everyone knows its entertainment. Grandpa instinctively understood that and opted to blur the lines between entertainment and manipulation. He seemed to have two objectives for most social engagement. First, tell people something they want to hear, make them laugh, and help them feel better about you and the situation. Second, do this and they will give you more of what you want, whether it was a harvested field or a cattle gap. For him humor with a little deception could be a win-win for everybody.

I have enough of my father and the Scriptures in me to wish Grandpa had drawn a straighter line of truthfulness in his political negotiations, but I have enough O’Quinn in me to enjoy the memories of his purposeful humor. I may have even inherited some of it. (But if you read anything in this blog it is absolutely 100% true, trust me.) The down side for me is that I have sometimes told a yarn myself thinking the listeners knew I was pulling their leg (entertainment), only to find out later they thought I was serious (deceptive).

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 3, 2010

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I am Thankful for Clean Water

[I am over extended at work and have little time for creative writing. For the next couple of weeks my entries will not doubt be less reflective but sincere none the less, mostly.]

I have never been without clean water. I can go to a tap in the kitchen and get a drink of chlorinated water that is treated with fluoride to protect my teeth. Occasionally I read reports of a water system with impurities and excessive particulates but I cannot recall reading a report of groups of people dying or even becoming gravely ill in America because of a contaminated public water system. We take it for granted. Millions of people get ill every year in other parts of the world because of unsafe water.

I have been thirsty. I have worked and sweated and craved a drink of cool water. I have gone on hikes without carrying enough water. But water has always been just a few minutes away. I have quenched my thirst by eating snow or drinking from a crystal clear glacial stream. I have drunk from artesian (flowing) wells of sulfa water; they smell like rotten eggs but the water refreshes just the same. In the swampy rivers of southern Georgia the tannic acid purifies the water so that it can be drunk without being filtered; just dunk a cup over the side of the boat if you are thirsty. I never got sick.

My favorite water is the water from shallow wells in southern Georgia. It is rich in minerals that give it a sweet taste. (Unfortunately, it also makes ice tea an abomination.) There is nothing better on a hot day of work than to go to the pump and draw cool fresh water. We would drink it straight from the spigot or share a common glass. Everyone took their turn. The ritual was to first wash the sweaty dirt from your face, neck, hands and arms. The purpose was more to cool off than to get clean.

There were styles of drinking from this waist high fountain of renewal. Some would bend over, tilt their head sideways, place their mouth directly on the nozzle and drink. Others would cup both hands together lean down and drink as the water ran into their self fashioned bowls. A similar maneuver was to use one hand to pool the running water. Older men were more likely to use one or both hans to raise the water up to their mouths. I generally used the two handed method; it was quicker.

While sweet to the taste, this water didn’t satisfy until you were full. Then, our stomachs swollen with the liquid of life, the original pause that refreshes, we would sit in the shade of a big old oak tree and glory in the progress of our labor, anticipating the return to the fields. A few minutes later, prompted by Dad or Grand-pa, we would rise for one more drink before returning to the sun drenched fields.

I should drink more water and fewer soft drinks. (I am cutting back.) Water is one of God’s greatest gifts within creation. Without it there would be no life. It is also one of His most abundant gifts and one of the most taken for granted. Perhaps I will be more truly thankful when I more readily recognize and no longer take for granted those gifts that seem available to everyone. They are none-the-less His personal gifts to me. Today, I am thankful for clean water.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 2, 2010

Monday, February 1, 2010

I am Thankful for Sunday Naps

I can’t quite recall when I started taking Sunday naps. It was a long time ago. It has become something of a ritual. Only rarely do I miss mine. Sunday morning worship, nice meal, a little work or recreation, and then the nap. I once heard that we have an internal clock that needs to be reset with a nap every seventh day. I have no idea if it is true, but I claim it as a nice rule to live by. Because I have sleep apnea, I have to nap in my bed with my CPAP. I would prefer getting a nap in a recliner, but that is not to be, at least not without some very painful surgery.

Every nap is a little different. My preference is the dive in and get out kind. They are much more refreshing. My least favorite are the sink to the bottom of the pool, slip unconscious, struggle to wake up, feel dazed, and wonder if I should have napped. Dreamy naps can be fun or frustrating depending on the content. I best like the ones with my Mom and Dad in them; it just feels good to have a few moments with them if only in my sub-conscious imagination. I guess I have some unresolved issues; thank you very much Sigmund Freud.

I once had a great dream in which Dad was riding on the back of a motorcycle with me. We pulled up beside two guys on a motorcycle having problems. Dad reached into the saddlebag, pulled out a few wrenches and proceeded to repair their bike as we continued down the road. What a contradictory dream. Dad was the kind of person to stop and help someone in trouble. He hated (and I do mean “hate”) motorcycles.

On very rare occasions I will take a nap during the week, such as when I am sick or stressed. Those are in my office; I lock the door, get a book for a pillow, and lie on the floor and nap. The book and floor ensure it doesn’t last more than five to seven minutes. I awake refreshed and sore, a good combination for productive office work.

The nice thing about Sunday naps is that you don’t have to lock the door or worry that someone will catch you, guilt free napping.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 1, 2010