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

1 comment:

Dr. Ron said...

Thanks for taking the time to write about these dear men. We're often seen as religious objects or spiritual images; rarely as people. When we are seen as human beings, it's to dismiss the spirtual responsibilities we've been given. Thanks again for publicly remembering those who sacrificed their lives to teach you God's Word and instill His heart in you.