Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I am Thankful for Roasted Marshmallows

One of the great mysteries of the universe is who invented marshmallows. There should be a statue of that person somewhere and the faithful campers of the world should be required to make a pilgrimage to pay homage at least once in their lifetime. Next to the statue, engraved in granite, there would be a list of persons who claimed to be the first to roast the blue collar delicacy in a campfire.

Parents and grandparents would gather and place flowers at the base of the statue, their progeny in tow. Off to the side would be dozens of camp fires ringed with children excitedly holding coat hangers tipped with puffs of sugar dangling into the flames, each giggling as the treats burst into flames.

We were there this evening. I built the fire in our back yard. After we put fresh hay out for the cows and gathered the eggs, Charlie and Camdyn roasted the marshmallows. Simple pleasure, simple dessert, golden memories, for these I am thankful.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 30, 2010

Monday, March 29, 2010

I am Thankful for …..

Today I give thanks for Cheryl’s return home and a visit by Justin, Camdyn, and Charlie. They arrived late last night. Charlie was up around six. The kids have petted the horses a couple of times, checked for eggs several times, visited the cows, and spent the afternoon at the Tennessee Aquarium with Cheryl and Justin. Tonight Camdyn beat us all in a Wii bowling tournament.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 29, 2010

Sunday, March 28, 2010

I am Thankful for a Good Day at Church

We had a beautiful worship service this morning. The children did a processional with palm leaves. The theme was Palm Sunday as the already and not yet of the Kingdom of God. Darkness and light were fluctuating. Worship in song was powerful. The offertory included a video that had pictures of our members ministering around the world. Dr. Hollis Gause brought a powerful sermon. (If you want a copy let me know.) This evening we had a beautiful prayer and praise service. I am thankful.

As you might note my creative well has run dry.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 28, 2010

Saturday, March 27, 2010

I am Thankful for Trustworthy Friends

I am blessed with many friends. There are a host of people who would come to my aid in an hour of need, at least I think they would. But, I am a male Johns and we are blessed with a healthy delusion of self-sufficiency. Asking for help is just not in our DNA. My friends seem to understand this and press through to my aid when I need it.

There are friends who help when your ox is in the ditch and there are friends who you turn to when it is you who is in the ditch. They are the friends who listen. One difference in the two types of friends is trust. I doesn’t take a lot of trust to ask for and accept help with a practical problem. It takes great trust to open up and share inner hurt and struggles, to be vulnerable.

I have learned that trust is a precious gift that cannot be returned. It remains for as long as it lives in the hands of the one trusted. It can be nurtured or ignored, but not given back. The validity of trust is determined not by the one who is trusting but by the one being trusted. It is established by the receiver’s commitment to the giver. If the giver is loved the trust will be cherished. If the receiver has ambiguity or disdain for the one who placed the trust it will be diminished or destroyed.

Most of us have very few friends whom we trust with our vulnerable selves. We have learned to keep the number small through the pain of betrayal. Yet we hunger for someone with whom we can entrust our innermost selves. I am grateful to have many friends who I believe to be trustworthy and a few who have thus proven themselves.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 27, 2010

Friday, March 26, 2010

I am Thankful for my Friend, Dr. Douglas Slocumb

Yesterday we inducted my good friend, Dr. Douglas Slocumb, into the Hall of Prophets here at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary. Doug is a long term teacher at the Seminary. The Hall of Prophets serves the dual purposes of honoring faithful Church of God Ministers and building the scholarship endowment of the Seminary. Inductees must be deceased or at least sixty five years of age and have had a ministry in the COG of distinguished faithfulness. Most are prominent ministers of past. Several are relatively unknown but faithful servants of Christ.

I was honored to be one of the speakers at Doug’s induction. I offer here an edited version of my speech.

“Doug it has fallen my lot to tell you the real reason we are here today. We have not come to honor you. We love you. This is an intervention. You need help. You have CTD, Compulsive Therapist Disorder. We are all here because we love you and we want you to get the help you deserve.

Doug, admit it. You wake up in the morning thinking ‘There’s somebody out there I can help.’ It’s the last thought on your mind before you go to sleep. If you’re not counseling someone every few minutes you get ill. I’ve seen it on your face in faculty meetings. You begin to fidget, your throat and mouth go dry. Then your hands begin to shake. I’ve sometimes feared you were going to have a seizure. As soon as the meeting adjourns you dart out into the hallway, grab a hurting student you’ve stashed away in some corner, and drag them into your office for a session.

Doug, you need help.

You are annoying in public. I go out to lunch with you and it takes forever to leave because you have to visit every table and talk. People who don’t know you think. ‘Oh, it’s just another Church of God Minister campaigning for the Executive Committee.’ But those of us who know you know the truth. You’re not shaking hands, you’re feeling pulses, looking into eyes for pain, scouting out fixes for your addiction.

Doug, you need help.

There are signs you can no longer afford to ignore. You have that phony sliding scale of fees on your door. We know you ignore it and refuse payment from most people. We’ve got it on good sources you even give people money. If you get caught there will be ethics charges, you’ll lose your license, friend.

Doug, you need help.

We all know you skip lunch several times a week just to work someone in for a session. How many cans of tuna can anyone eat in a week and not go crazy.

Doug, you’ve got a problem. You should know the signs. You teach in this area. Remember your lectures on birth order and family systems. You’re the first born son. You are driven to find approval. You feel responsible for everyone. Why else are you always the last to leave the offices. Why like a good pastor must you turn off the coffee maker, the printers, the lights and walk down the hall to flush the toilets before you can go home.

Doug, you need help.

Do you want to see yourself in thirty years. Look right down there on the first row. That’s right look at your father. He’s in his nineties and he operates a food and clothes closet for the poor. Then he visits the old folks in the nursing home. Doug if you don’t break this generational curse of compulsive care-giving that’s your future. We want something better for you, shuffleboard on a beach in Florida.

Addressing the Audience

As you can see from your program, I am here representing Doug’s peers in education. But I am really here for the same reason each of you is here. Doug Slocumb is our friend. Or more accurately, Doug has been a friend to us and we desire to in some small way to be his friend. Deep down we want to be a friend like him.

Without reservation I can say that outside of my family, Doug Slocumb is my best friend in the world, my counselor and confidant.

No one in the history of this school has garnered more love than Dr. Slocumb. No faculty member past or present receives more phone calls and emails than Doug. Some contact him because they are facing a crises and they know he will guide them through it. Others call because they want to share good news with a trusted friend.

Some things you might not know about Dr. Slocumb are that he is a left-brained ESFJ. The left-brain identifies him as imaginative. The E refers to “extroversion.” Who would have ever thought that. The S is for “sensing.” He’s given to experience, no surprise there given all of his lectures on sex. The F refers to “feeling” which uplifts his traits of humaneness, mercy, and compassion, the very root of his CTD. The J is for judging, he is goal oriented and he wants to select the best thing and then experience it. No comment.

In brief, while he is very fond of telling everybody I am a field marshal, I have never heard him confess to his own classification as “Softly authoritative and quite (not quiet) decisive.” “He respects hierarchy,” right, if he is the hierarchy.

Seriously, Dr. Slocumb is gifted to the level of clairvoyance in observation, analysis, and diagnosis of human behavior. He has an intuitive ability to read a life and the forces influencing it in a matter of minutes. And he is right all of the time, except with me.

Doug is an outstanding educator. I recall something Dr. Charles W. Conn said to me when I was a student at Lee College and he was President. He said the mark of a truly educated person is not knowing all the answers, it is knowing where to find the answers. Visit Doug’s office and if you can look past the stacks of folders and papers you will see an extensive library on marriage and family and all other areas of Christian ministry. What many of you do not realize is that they are stacked two books deep. He knows what’s in those books and when a student or client needs extra guidance he knows just which book to lend them.

Here at the Seminary we emphasize the integration of head, hart and hand. Faith and life must be woven together and expressed in behavior. No one does that better than Doug Slocumb. Every lesson he teaches demonstrates the integrity of this fusion. Every principle he expounds has been weighed against the word of God.

I am blessed to teach a course on family ministry with him. It is one of my most enjoyable teaching experiences. We have different personality types and learning styles, but we just fit together like yen and yang. Plus we both like to tell stories. I’m more analytic and he’s more common sense and imaginative. In other words, he chases rabbits and I count the ticks on their back.

We are all blessed to have Dr. Doug Slocumb in our lives.

Doug, we love you but you need help.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 26, 2010

Thursday, March 25, 2010

I am Thankful for Sugar Donuts

There was a time before seat belts and child safety seats, you know, when no one locked their doors and children walked or road their bikes to school. Henry F. Kite Elementary School was a couple of miles from our house. I road my bike or walked every day. Lunches were 25 cents and for a nickel you could get dessert. I was a “School Patrol Boy”; It was also a time before we knew the word “sexism.” In that roll I went to school early, stayed late and served as a crossing guard for others. It was cool; we wore badges and had long polls with red flags and we got to stop traffic. In the sixth grade I was the Captain of the patrol, the senior officer who made out the work schedule. I digress.

Just a couple of blocks out of my way, OK, two or three, there was a bread outlet store. They sold a bag of “Sweet-Sixteen” powdered sugar donuts for 25 cents and there was no tax on food in Florida. Every week I saved my dessert money for a Friday trip to the bread store. It was not a difficult decision, hard as brick brownies, burnt chocolate pudding, stale carrot cake, something they called butterscotch pudding, or a sack full of delicious donuts. Donuts won every time. Or for variety I could get two mouth watering honey buns for 20 cents which I liked even more but the donuts seemed a better buy. The honey buns were gone within three or four blocks. The doughnuts made the whole walk home a touch of heaven, one doughnut per block. The only catch was sneaking the bag into the trash at home without being seen. The fact that Momma usually shopped on Fridays helped me keep my addiction secrete.

I believe in healing, entire sanctification, killing the old man, and plucking the sin up by the root. I’ve cried and tried but I can’t get free. I’ve gone for months even two years without giving in to the temptation. The shame is more than I can bear. When I walk by them in Food Lyon I tell myself “the children are watching.” But then I’m alone, no one to help me and a voice whispers, “you haven’t seen any children in the store tonight.” And I tell myself, “I’ll discipline myself, just one or two a day. Jesus wouldn't condemn me for that.  He knows I have needs." Mysteriously, I seem to always pick up two bags; It’s an accident, I promise. Standing in the checkout line I wonder what the clerk will think of me. If she asks what will I tell her – “I have grandchildren!”

The twelve step program is too puny. I need four more digits; Sixteen is such a sweet number. I am thankful my vice of choice is legal and cheap.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 25, 2010

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I am Thankful for my Aunt Eula Mae Stephens (O’Quinn)

There was a time when people walked not for recreation or pleasure but as a primary mode of transportation. That time was not so very long ago. In fact it is still here in many parts of the world. When the Church of God arrived in the southeastern corner of Georgia in the early 20th century people walked to church, not a few blocks, they walked for miles.

My Aunt Eula Mae, who was my mother’s oldest sister, somehow ended up in a revival service at the Bachlott Church of God. The church was meeting in the old community school/church house. Bachlott was a turpentine village at the time. There was a still there for processing sap gathered from pine trees into turpentine. A small village of shacks for the workers had developed around the still. The land where the church building sat had been donated by my Great-grandfather, George Washington Johns, to the Methodist Episcopal Church of the South. He had also donated the adjoining family cemetery to the community. The Methodists had abandoned the building and it served various community purposes until the Church of God set up shop. My mother’s family lived about seven miles away through swamp land and flat woods.

Young Eula Mae was saved, sanctified and filled with the Holy Spirit. When my Grandfather heard about it he forbade her to return to the holy roller church. She said, “Papa, you had may as well go ahead and spank me cause I can’t not go back.” She told me that story herself.

For a while Grandpa would walk her through the woods to church. He even snaked the logs for the new church building. But he got offended and quit which left my Grandmother to walk Eula Mae to church. Soon the whole family, minus Grandpa, was attending. Well, Grandma and her daughters attended the services, while her sons got into mischief with the other boys outside.

I owe my spiritual heritage as a Wesleyan Pentecostal to my Aunt Eula Mae. I also owe her a portion of my image of God and my vision of the global character and mission of the church. For several years Uncle Frank and Aunt Eula Mae lived in Jacksonville and Mom would take us to visit Aunt Eula Mae frequently. I think they met to pray about once a week but I was usually in school. Momma prayed with great fervency, like she had to fight her way into the presence of God. Aunt Eula Mae prayed like God was sitting next to her and they were carrying on a conversation between friends. From my mother I learned the awesomeness of God’s gracious power. From Aunt Eula Mae I got a glimpse of Him as gentle, loving Father.

On one of our visits she lent me a book published by Church of God World Missions, Herman Lauster: One Man and God. That book changed my life. For one thing, I actually read it from cover to cover. But primarily it introduced me to the global nature of the church. A second biography on the life of Paul C. Pitt expanded that vision.

I am deeply thankful for my Aunt Eula Mae. She had the courage of David, the devotion of Daniel, the wisdom of Samuel, and the graces of the Holy Spirit. Because of her our family was brought into Pentecost and my mother was mentored into maturity.  Today, she's walking the street of gold.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 23, 2010

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

I am Thankful for my Uncle Vernon

Uncle Vernon was Dad’s youngest brother. He was the prototype of the Southern baby boy. He never married, spent his adult life on the family farm with his mother and cripple sister, worked hard but not too hard, just enough to keep things going. With most of my aunts and uncles I knew who I was; I was “Speck and Teens youngest boy.” With Uncle Vernon I was Jack. He made eye contact; he smiled; he winked. He had a twinkle in his eye that said he never forgot what it was like to be a child. When I was young he let me ride on the running board of his 53 Chevy pickup as we inched through the woods. (He held my arm.) I have fond memories of topping tobacco, breaking corn and dipping turpentine with him.  Trust me, the memories are much better than the experiences.

After I grew up I always went by to visit him when I went home to Mom and Dad’s house, usually as a brief stop on my return trip. No matter what he was doing he took time to stop and sit on the front porch and talk. He asked about my life, the places I had been and my friend he had met. He took an interest in me.

Vernon Johns had that distinctive Johns look. There was no denying our family resemblance. He was thin and bald (thank God the resemblance ended at the forehead – no comments needed on the thin discrepancy either). His distinctive was not in appearance but in speech. He stuttered severely. I have never thought of it until this moment, perhaps that was our connection. Perhaps he had empathized with me over my speech impediment.

His coping mechanism for stuttering was profanity. When he got caught on a word he let a superfluous “God damn” or other profanity, as in “pass the bre-e-e-e-e-e God damn bread.” These expletives were laced throughout every conversation, but because he wasn’t angry and the emphasis wasn’t on the profanity no one seemed to notice them.

I preached a revival at my Grandmother O’Quinn’s church when I was in my early twenties. I visited Uncle Vernon and asked him to come. He did attend a couple of nights but he didn’t come to the altar. As usual I stopped by his place on my way home; I was wanting to seal the deal. I really wanted him to get saved. I presented the plan of salvation and asked him to accept Christ as his Lord and Savior.

He responded, “I haven’t seen it yet.” This puzzled me; I assumed he meant he had not seen the need to repent and believe. As Cheryl and I drove down the lane away him on his front porch, my education kicked in. He was expressing the hyper-Calvinism of our family tree. He had not yet seen a revelation that he was one of the elect.

It was breast cancer that ultimately killed Uncle Vernon. He was a five-year survivor of the first treatment but it returned 1984 or 85. I made a special trip from Cleveland to see him in the hospital in Waycross, Georgia. God was gracious and Uncle Vernon prayed the sinner’s prayer with me before I left. He never came home from the hospital died less than two weeks later.

On my way out of the hospital that day I stopped in the hallway to talk with my Dad’s Aunt Trudy and her daughter, Alma. They were coming to visit Vernon. Aunt Trudy said, “It’s a shame about Vernon, but we never expected him to live long. He was a sickly baby.” It was surreal, my 90 something year old great aunt alluded to my fifty something year old uncle in reference to him being a baby. It was in that conversation she pointed to the connection between the stuttering and the profanity and she confessed in a soft, raspy voice I can still hear, “We probably shouldn’t of laughed at ‘em, but he was so cute trying to talk.”

I am thankful for my Uncle Vernon, for the attention he gave me, the conversations, and the opportunity to lead him to the Lord.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 23, 2010

Monday, March 22, 2010

I am Thankful for Skyping With my Grandchildren

Today’s entry is short and simple. I had a very rough day: extreme allergies, little sleep last night, issues without end. There was one very bright spot. I got a call and when I picked up the phone I heard, “Papa, this is Camdyn. Can we talk with you on the computer tonight?”

A few minutes later we connected. They were exuberant. It was great just to see them and Alethea so very happy. They caught a couple of frogs today. Camdyn is going to read to me when they get here next Monday. Charlie is giving Camdyn a hard time about her boy friend. Isn't life great?

I am thankful for this burst of sunshine on a rainy/snowy day.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 22, 2010

Sunday, March 21, 2010

I am Thankful for my Enemies

For the record:  I posted this at 11:55 P.M. in time to be a daily post.

I know its hard to believe, but there are people who do not like me. Currently, I don’t know who might fit in that category. I delude myself into thinking I am generally well-liked. In years gone by there have been people who set out to destroy me professionally. I have had several people try to get my ministerial credentials. The first was a State Youth Director with whom I innocently got caught in the middle of one of his lies. Since the lie affected me I approached the powers that were to clarify my innocence. The youth director proceeded to fabricate a whole set of accusations. I considered pressing charges, but took the Overseer’s advice to “let it lie.” A couple of years later that youth director was in federal prison for some illegal financial scheme. I’m glad I let it lie. It is so much better to be vindicated by God.

In one of my worst experiences I had been promised a pastoral appointment by my State Overseer. What I didn’t know was that a prominent pastor had misheard something I said directly to him and gone to the Overseer to report my supposed transgression against him (the pastor). I had actually said the opposite of what he heard. The Overseer did not have enough integrity to tell me of the accusation; he just kept promising to present my name at a church but never did. When someone told me of the pastor’s concerted efforts to block my ministry I went to see him. He admitted he had talked to the Overseer, explained his reason, and refused to accept my truthful clarification of what had happened. When I asked him why he had not come to me first as the Scriptures teach he responded, “I would rather walk around the block backwards seven times than confront someone with a conflict.”

Forgiving that pastor was very difficult. For a couple of years every time I saw him around town if just at a stop sign, I would find my fist clinched. I forced myself to then pray for him. “Lord, bless ______ _______, may his later years be greater than his former. Bless his family. Bless his ministry.” It took great effort, but I was sincere. Then one day I bumped into him on a hospital visit. We chatted a while and as I was walking away I remembered his transgressions against me and I became aware my fist had never clinched. I had felt no struggle. It was wonderful to realize God had helped me to forgive my enemy.

The enemies who are most difficult to love are those with whom you have to have a relationship. I have such an enemy. He has done more harm to me than anyone else. Yet he presents himself as my friend and proclaims how much he has helped me. He is fond of boasting of our long standing friendship and using it to garner my support. What he doesn’t know is that I have considered him my enemy for a long time. Circumstances and concern for others prevents me from confronting the individual. His gift to me is that he serves as a constant reminder our Lord taught us to love our enemies and do good to them. I have taken that command seriously. I have done my best to be a friend to this person. He comes to me for counsel and advice and I give him the best advice I can even at times to my detriment.

Lest I sound too full of myself, I must confess he is proof for me of God’s grace to help us do the right thing even when it is difficult and/or we don't feel like it. He is also proof for me that I am not entirely sanctified. On occasion, when I think about some of the things he has done and the skill with which he has avoided culpability I imagine myself confronting him, and not with words. In that scene one or both of us requires assistance getting out of the room. What can I say? I am my father’s son. [By the way, I have never been in a fight in my life unless you count my brother and my cousin Albert. OK, add Shirley to the list.]

I am thankful for my enemies. They are an occasion for the grace of God, a context for spiritual growth, and a reminder of my ongoing need for true holiness.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 21, 2010

Saturday, March 20, 2010

I am Thankful for Leadership Theories in the COG

 [Please note that the following in no way reflects on the exemplary leadership I currently experience in the Church of God. MGHMOMS – personal acronym]

Some of the most entertaining and amusing sayings I have ever heard about leadership have come from leaders in the Church of God. We had a guest lecturer in a class on leadership I took with Martin Baldree at Lee College. He was a prominent lay leader in the church and of course a highly successful (wealthy) businessman. He offered the quintessential capitalist definition of leadership, “My definition of leadership is quite simple. A good leader is someone who knows how to get others to do for them what they do not want to do for themselves.” What a wonderful definition. As a graduate of Lee I don’t have to worry about ethics, values, mission, vision, authority, or power. It is all about me, narcissistic pragmatism.

At one point in my ministry I worked under an unnamed (to protect this not so innocent writer) school administrator who gave me two phenomenal statements. On one occasion we were attending an accreditation meeting. As we were walking into the convention hotel lobby he mused, “I love these annual meetings. Everything I know about running a college I learned at these annual meetings.” Now that breathes confidence into a faculty member. Our school is being administered by someone with advanced training in convention loitering.

The same administrator offered this helpful observation about administration/leadership. “My philosophy of leadership is to stop everything that crosses my desk. The things I can’t stop I accept as the will of God and I just get out of the way.” You can’t make that up. He was as serious as a heart attack (not a clue as to his identity). And he practiced it. The school librarian told me how he had petitioned that President multiple times to convert the library from the old Dewey Decimal system to the Library of Congress catalog system. The President vetoed it every year. The frustrated librarian fell back on that old adage about forgiveness and permission and proceeded to make the change anyway. The next year he was at the accreditation meeting where a session was held on the need for libraries to convert to the Library of Congress system. Our librarian was amused at the gusto with which our President bragged about our school being ahead of the curve on this one.

One of my favorite leadership concepts is more recent. A former General Overseer tried to change the denominational model of leadership by “turning the pyramid on its head.” Now think about it, an upside down pyramid. I would go to Egypt to see that, but you wouldn’t get me to stand in its shadow no matter how hot the day. Perhaps we could create a department of gyration responsible for spinning the upturned pyramid like a top. That would keep it up for a while, but how do you chart its course? I can just see the masses running to escape the colossal tornado before it crashes on the unsuspecting. Pity the Overseer with the whole denomination resting on his head.

Now you know the secrets of my success in ministry, I listen to my elders. Without such great counsel I would never have risen to such prominence as a mega-church pastor; I would never have become the mover and shaker that I am.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 20, 2010

Friday, March 19, 2010

I am Thankful for Grace

[Note: this is not a reproduction of my January 2, 2010 entry “I am Thankful for the Grace of God.]

I confess, if I am not in a church setting and I hear the word “grace” my mind goes to Grace Kelly. I am too young (I don’t hear myself say that very often any more) to remember the actress turned real life Princess well. I do have an image of a strikingly beautiful blond with an air of sophistication, poise, style and elegance. This image captures the modern understanding of grace for me.

It is sad that we have reduced a powerful theological term to a shallow social descriptor. In the Scriptures grace is “unmerited favor.” At its core it conveys the sense of a gift that flows from the heart of a generous giver. The receiver has done nothing to warrant the gift. It originates solely in the disposition of the benefactor.

A related term is “mercy.” Mercy is grace in the face of guilt. It is the unmerited gift of forgiveness. Mercy reduces the punishment to something less than the crime dictates. Mercy is largely a legal term. It is also a reference to power and authority. Mercy is bestowed by the powerful on the powerless.

Although grace encompasses mercy, the two words are not synonyms. Grace is a much broader concept. Grace speaks of abundance and deprivation, of possession and want or need. The Apostle Paul understood. Buffeted by a messenger of Satan with a “thorn in the flesh,” Paul sought God three times for deliverance, but what he got instead was a promise, “my grace is sufficient for you.” In this case grace has nothing to do with mercy that delivers from the consequences of sin. Here, grace has to do with survival in the face of pain.

Properly understood, all grace, like all truth and life flows from God. It is by grace the heavens and earth and all they contain were formed. By grace we draw our breath and all that is is sustained. Grace holds back the power of sin to utterly destroy even the vilest of sinners. It is never passive. It is always actively engaged in the redemption and fulfillment of its object. Grace is a force that breathes life into the dying, a force that will not rest until all is wrapped in the arms of God. This grace is best seen in love reaching out to the hurting and needy. It is not defined by finesse of presentation. This grace gets dirty, is often wounded and has little concern for image. This grace finds beauty not in itself but in the objects of its affection.

Cheryl kindly allowed me to name our second daughter Karisa, a lose transliteration of the Greek word for grace. OK, it was not so amicable a process. We had agreed on Karisa and Gabrielle. Cheryl wanted Gabrielle Karisa Johns, with the plan to call her Karisa. I insisted Karisa should be the first name especially if that was what we were going to call her. When the nurse came in to fill out the birth certificate we had a loving disagreement. Finally the nurse said, “You don’t have to decide right now. But you will have to agree before she goes home.” With little grace, I prevailed except that Cheryl, also with little grace, called her Gabrielle for the longest, especially when they were alone.

Karisa has always been my angel (Gabrielle) of grace. She embodies all of the nuances of the word. She could be a model: beauty, poise, charm. She is a giver; she sees a person with need and does something about it. She can ignore her own needs to a fault and doesn’t mind getting dirty if it will add to the wellbeing of another. Her responses are appropriate to the situation. She was a social worker and her clients discovered her to be compassionate, but tough as nails when grace required it.

I am thankful for grace. It will not leave us alone. It will make us miserable, teaching our hearts to fear in order that it might “all our fears relieve.” By grace we are wounded that we might be made whole. Grace is God’s love, unwilling to settle for anything less than the best for the objects of His affections, His creation. Grace is God giving Himself to us and for us.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 19, 2010

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I am Thankful for the Truth

One of my professors at Wheaton, a pastor who taught part time, had just completed his Doctor of Ministry degree. His project was titled “Truth or Truthfulness.” It was my first introduction to systems theory which seemed way above my head at the time. His thesis was that the modern church has mastered the art of speaking the truth while avoiding being truthful in its relationships. The gospel requires the church to be a truthful expression of what it means to be alive in Christ. It is not enough to speak the truth we must live the truth. A couple of years after graduating I heard the he had an affair with his secretary and left his family. Truthfulness must be more than a theory.

I learned about truth from my Dad. Although he never verbalized the concept, he taught me that the essence of truth is integrity. This first dawned on me helping him with building projects. “Son, I need a 2X4 out of that stack. Make sure it is true.” I asked what it meant for a 2X4 to be true. He explained that it was straight, didn’t have knot holes, wasn’t broken, and was the same thickness and width all the way down. It was a true 2X4.

For my Dad truth was the defining characteristic of an honorable man. “Son my Pa always said, ‘if a man lies to you, you had better watch him. If he lies to you he will steal from you.’” Truth and truthfulness are inseparable. Integrity is the union of word and deed consistent with image and thereby exposing character. My dad was a true gentleman, with emphasis on “man.”

In my undergrad Greek class I discovered another flavor for truth and truthfulness. For the ancient Greeks truth, like for my Dad, was an ultimate good. Truth is that which conforms and expresses that which is real. Truth relates to aesthetics (beauty), ontology (being), and ethics. The word for “truth,” alethea, was sometimes used to convey “beauty.” That which is beautiful is that which reflects the good, the ideal, the really real. Before Cheryl and I got married I asked for a commitment that we would name our first daughter Alethea. She is a beautiful woman, true to her name.

There is of course an even better definition for truth. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Truth is a person, the person who brings grace, direction and life. Truth is God giving Himself to His creation. Thus truth can never be reduced to an idea or abstract concept. Neither can it be properly described as the absence of duplicity, deception and lies. It is always relational, always dynamic. Truth is the power of God establishing righteousness.

My grandfather was right. Liars are thieves. They steal, kill, and destroy, if not literally, relationally. Deception not only misleads the deceived, it robs him/her of the truth and reduces the capacity for fulfillment. But the truth sets us free; it empowers us to fulfill the beautiful design of God for His creation. I am thankful for the truth, the Truth incarnate, the truth revealed, the truth that overcomes darkness. Truth and truthfulness are inseperable, Truthfulness is but the evidence that the Truth abides within.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 17, 2010

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I am Thankful for my Sunday School Teachers

It was in my Junior age (4th, 5th, & 6th grades) that my Sunday school teachers became very important in my life. I was growing up and like all children that age I was beginning to understand who I was apart from my family. When I was younger I felt connected to my teachers through my mother. They were wonderful, loving, Godly women who loved all of us children.  But they were all friends of my mother and I was her child. In the Junior Department the boys and girls were divided during class time. My teachers were men who I didn’t connect with my mother: Brother Grant - 4th grade, Brother Hutto -- 5th grade, and Brother Ellington -- 6th grade. They were my teacher in a new kind-of-way.

Brother Grant was a lawyer. His conversion and membership in our church was something of a milestone for the congregation. I believe he was the first professional with a graduate degree to become one of us. Up to that time Sunday school teachers had to be filled with the Holy Spirit, but an exception was made for Brother Grant. He had to be seeking to be filled with the Spirit. For several years I watched him seek and he was serious about being filled with the Spirit. He would frequently pray in the altar, weeping and sweating profusely, until he became like a drunk man. Sometimes, for reasons I did not and do not understand, a couple of men would get him up and walk him around the sanctuary, one under each arm, praying as they went.

On the first Sunday of the school year Brother Grant told us he had a goal for us for the year. He wanted us to memorize the names of the books of the Bible in the order they appeared. He would help us and test us each Sunday. Within a couple of weeks we had all memorized the names of the books and he announced a new set of goals involving a lot of Scripture memorization: the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, etc.

He also started us on a pattern of engaging the Scriptures looking for meaning. His method of teaching was simple; after giving us an opportunity to recite from memory the assigned memory verse we started the lesson. We each took our turn in the order in which we were seated reading one verse and commenting on its meaning. After each there was an open discussion. He would guide the conversation and add other points. Mostly, he affirmed our opinions and questions as important. Occasionally he would refer us to our parents (“What is circumcision?” “What does it mean ‘Abram knew Sarai’?”) He was learning with us. More than once I overheard him say “Those boys are teaching me more than I am teaching them.”

Grady Hutto was a burly, brick mason who had become a building contractor. On our first Sunday that year he announced he had a goal for us. His goal for the year was that we would all be baptized in the Holy Spirit. He encouraged us to seek for the baptism. He prayed for and with us in the altars of our church. Before the year was out we each had powerful experiences with the Spirit.

Although he never said so, Brother Hutto also set out to involve us in ministry. He would periodically take us, one or two at a time, out on visitation. We would visit the homes of boys our age who did not attend church. I am not sure where he got the names and I can’t remember any of them coming to Sunday school but I remember the long walks to the front doors. He also took us fishing a couple of times that year.

Brother Ellington was a smaller, quiet, piano mover. He had recently married Sister Jones, a widow with two sons a few years older than me. On the first Sunday he also announced a goal for us. He shared that when he first got active in church as an adult he became an usher and one Sunday the Pastor asked him to pray over the offering. He had never done anything like that and couldn’t get the words to come out. He wanted us to be able to pray in public. Every Sunday we had multiple opportunities to pray: the beginning of class, for prayer requests, and at the close of the class. We became comfortable praying in public.

The boys with whom I went to Sunday school during my Junior years grew up to serve the Lord, most as pastors. Timmy Hicks and his cousin Calvin Hammontree are Church of God pastors. Danny Smart and Aubrey Dykes (Aubrey was actually a year older but often attended our class) became Assembly of God pastors. I have lost all track of David Spencer although the last I heard about him in young adulthood he was an active church member. Gerald Jones joined our class sometime around the middle of the fifth grade and to the best of my knowledge has remained an active church member. A few names slip my memory.

I have little or no contact with the men those boys became. I lost contact with most of them when as I entered the 7th grade the church split over a relocation plan and my family went with the new congregation located closer to our house. About a decade ago Timmy took a class I teach at the seminary. I have bumped into Calvin a few times at church meetings. I periodically see Danny’s younger brother David, a graduate of our Seminary who is a career military chaplain for the Church of God. Perhaps more than any other group outside of my family these boys helped me sort through whom I wanted to become. They were mirrors of what it means to discover God in the presence of discovering myself. By God’s grace, with the influence of our families and a loving church, we resolved together to be faithful followers of Christ.

I have often reflected on the influence of these three Sunday school teachers on the Kingdom of God. None of them ever became famous or even well-known outside their families and local churches. But how does anyone measure their influence? Collectively that small Sunday school class of boys has grown up to touch tens of thousands with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have traveled around the world, married and raised children to serve God. We have preached unknown numbers of sermons, given Godly counsel, performed weddings and funerals. At our best we have extended the ministries of these three Godly men by becoming co-learners with others on the journey toward Heaven. They helped point us in the right direction and deserve to share the credit for anything we have done for God. The true giants of the faith are those who serve faithfully, give themselves to others, and risk being transparent in their own search for fulfillment. I expect to see Bros. Grant, Hutto, and Ellington sitting in the honors section of heaven. I'll spend a few hundred years thanking them for their influence on my life.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 17, 2010

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I am Thankful for Sunday School

[The next two entries are a reprint of a piece I wrote in January of 2009 on the Family Johns blog.]

I am thankful for my childhood experiences in Sunday school. When I was young Sunday school was important. At the Springfield Church of God more people went to Sunday school than attended morning worship. In Sunday school I made friends, sang, learned a lot about the Bible, and got to know adults who loved Jesus and me.

Sunday school started at 9:45 with “Opening Session.” In smaller churches like my grandmother’s this was a time when everybody gathered in the sanctuary for an official opening for the day; the Sunday school superintendant presided over a reading of the “golden (Scripture) text”, prayer, and announcements. Since Springfield was larger with several hundred attendees we had our opening session in age graded departments: Kindergarten – ages 3 to 5, Primary – grades 1 to 3, Junior – grades 4 to 5, etc.

I seem to recall that younger children went straight to their classes. I first remember opening sessions when I entered the first grade and joined the “Primary Department.” I felt big going to Opening Session. We met in the Fellowship Hall on the first floor of the Education Building. Shirley and her friends were there. My mother’s best friend, Evelyn Bayer, played the upright piano for us to sing. We sang songs like “I’ll be a Sun Beam,” “The B-I-B-L-E,” “I’m in the Lord’s Army,” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children.”

One Sunday I was sitting behind Shirley while we stood to sing. Her best friend Terry Heath was standing next to her. When she went to sit I pulled the chair out from behind her and she went down, a gag I had seen somewhere. Sister Juanita Jones, a friend of my mother, told her what I had done. “I never would have thought Jackie would have done such a thing. He’s always such a good boy.” I was just having fun but suddenly I was caught in a moral dilemma, fun can be bad but feel so good. People had perceptions of who I was, a good boy, and I liked that. I doubt those lessons were in the printed curriculum.

In the 4th grade I went upstairs to the Junior Department. We were crowded into a smaller room. It was often noisy. Bigger kids talk to each other a lot. In the Primary Department we sat with our teacher and class. In the Junior Department we got to sit wherever we wanted. I liked to sit on the back row. There I could watch everything. I was becoming self-conscious of myself as a social being. I didn’t feel like I fit in although I had friends. But I loved to sing; we sang songs like “Only a Boy Named David,” and “V is for Victory.”

Sunday school was one of the greatest social forces in my life. It brought together my unfolding self as a social being and a spiritual being. It said to me, whatever you are becoming, in is shaped in the nursery of others like you and the Word of God.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 16, 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

I am Thankful for the Hope of Healing

We all come into this world as damaged goods. The sin of our first parents destined us to be born dying. And then things get worse. The sins of the world become ours. Even under the best of circumstances we are wounded in every facet of our being and we become the wounders, sinners by birth, sinners by choice. For this Christ came into the world that we might be forgiven and we might be healed, the double cure.

I am so very thankful for the assurance of salvation. When we repent, believe and confess Christ as Lord we are washed clean, forgiven, justified, and regenerated. I don’t recall any of that initial experience, yet I know it is true. I was so young when I gave my heart to Christ I cannot remember not being a Christian. I know the new birth is true because I live in a state of repentance and redemption; I live with full assurance of my salvation. The Spirit bears witness in my soul. I am forgiven.

Healing is another matter all together, or is it? I believe Christ died not only for our cleansing but also for our wholeness. He arose victorious over death, Hell, and the grave not just so that we might go to Heaven but also that sin might not rule over us. He gave Himself for our sanctification. When the power of sin is broken so is the curse of death. Thus, in His atonement is healing for all our brokenness: physical, emotional, and psychological. We receive healing by faith in Christ, it is a gift. Yet in this time between times, the already but not yet, we know the healer while waiting for His return. The promises of His Kingdom are breaking in on us even as we anticipate their full arrival. Healing is provided for all in the atonement of Christ even if not everyone receives their healing before His appearance.

This year I have already given thanks for my general good health. Physically I have little to complain about. That does not mean I am unscarred in my soul. I bear in my inner being the unspoken pains of broken promises, betrayal, deception, and other ailments common to the human race, those hidden realities that go unnoticed by the closest of friends. I have swum in the bitter, cold waters of disappointment. I have wandered aimlessly in the dark night of the soul. I have despaired for my life. And I preached some of my best and most uplifting sermons in those times.

This I have learned, the hope of our salvation and the hope of our healing are inseparable. We have One Lord, one faith, one baptism. There was but one atoning sacrifice and it covered all our sin and all our brokenness. And so we wait, not in despair, though racked by pain, but in hope. The hope of our salvation is the hope of our healing. The assurance of our salvation is the assurance of our healing. This I proclaim, I am healed by the blood of the Lamb, by the stripes that He bore.

Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 15, 2010

Sunday, March 14, 2010

I am Thankful for my Great-grandmothers

In this age of transience, many younger people know little to nothing about their ancestry. I am blessed to have known two of my great grandmothers: Martha Lee Nettles (1863-1963) and Arilla Crews Harris (1881-1974). I can’t say I had a relationship with them and I doubt they knew my name. I was one of Speck and Teen’s boys. I can say I was in their presence multiple times and I felt the touch of their hands on my head. Both were strong women who were widowed early in life.

GGM Nettles was my paternal grandmother’s mother. Her early life was spent on Billy’s Island in the Okeefenokee Swamp where she was adopted into the local Indian tribe (although family tradition held she was a descendant of Chief Billy Bow Legs). She was a foot-washing, shouting Primitive Baptist. Primitive Baptists are hyper-Calvinistic. The elect are predestined to salvation and should have some spiritual confirmation of their election (often a dream) before presenting themselves for church membership. They only had church services once a month, but they had home prayer meetings often. On the Sundays they did not have service they visited other churches in their Association. Every spring after the crops were planted each church in the Association had an “Early Meeting” followed in the fall after harvest with a “Latter Meeting.” These were week-long times of fellowship and worship. Members of other churches would stay with host families for the meetings. My Grandmother, who was not one of the elect, hosted large groups for the closest congregation. Of course many of the guests were relatives.

Grandmother Nettles loved her church, the Corinth Primitive Baptist church, but they disfellowshipped her a few years before she died. She had moved some distance away to live with a daughter and could not attend services. It was reported she was listening to gospel singing and preachers on the radio, an offence to her church family. When she visited my Grandmother, my Grandmother always arranged for a prayer meeting. Her church concluded that if she was strong enough to travel to my Grandmother’s house and lead singing at a prayer meeting she was strong enough to come to church services. They disfellowshipped her for non-attendance. She was received into the Bethlehem Primitive Baptist church shortly before her death. That is where her funeral service was held on a cold day in early February, 1963. Corinth did allow the family to be bury her next to her husband.

Dad loved to quote her. My favorite quote was from when he asked her why she never remarried; Her husband, Martin Nettles (1870-1927), died 36 years before she died. She responded, “Son, a woman only needs a man for two reasons. You don’t need to get married to talk and I’m too old for the other.” As a child I wondered what the “other” was, but it had to be funny because Dad always chuckled when he told the story.

GGM Harris had the appearance of a granny from Li’l Abner. She was stooped, wore an oversized sun bonnet, and a long, calico dress often covered with a white apron. She didn’t smoke a pipe but she did dip snuff. Her husband, King David Harris (1878-1921), was reportedly a heavy drinker who physically abused her. He died fifty three years before her. Once we went to visit her when Darlene was still a preschooler. It was a cold day with a fire in the fireplace of the little shanty where she lived. We were listening closely to hear her soft voice across the small room when Darlene, standing next to Mom, blurted out, “Momma, why does Granny Harris have chicken poop in her mouth?”

GGM Harris was a little superstitious. She called tomatoes "love berries" and kept them as flowers in her yard but wouldn't eat them. My Grandmother O’Quinn told me that when she got saved, her mother, GGM Harris, told her to not go back down to that church anymore, “they’ll put powders on you, mesmerize you, take your snuff away from you and you want never be the same.”

Granny O’Quinn, with a grin from ear to ear, continued, “It weren't powders; it was oil. They didn’t take my snuff away from me. I threw it away. But she was right; I ain’t never been the same.”

My great grandmothers were strong women who were widowed young in life and raised large families. They not only survived, they thrived. Both took charge of their lives and left their children, grand-children, and great grand-children the example of an overcoming spirit. The thing that most stands out to me is that they were loved and respected. Deference was given to them. In an age that caters to youth I witnessed first-hand what it means to honor your elders.

Their presence put me in touch with my history. They knew and remembered well the 19th century. Granny Nettles was born when Robert E. Lee was leading the fight against northern aggression. In their lifetimes automobiles, electric lights, telephones, and airplanes were invented. To know them was to better know from where I came and to believe I can endure; I can overcome.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 14, 2010

Saturday, March 13, 2010

I am Thankful for a Pleasant Visit with Thelma

Yesterday I had a pleasant trip to South Carolina to visit with Cheryl’s mother. It was great to go for a drive even if the trip over was marked by heavy fog with drizzle and the trip back was blanketed with thunder showers and punctuated with multiple traffic jams due to accidents.

I had lunch with Josh and Bethany Bridges, Cheryl’s nephew and his wife. They are such a blessing. It’s refreshing to be with young people who are in love with Christ and involved in church ministry. Josh is the Youth Pastor at a Pentecostal Holiness church. They just completed a youth retreat with a real spiritual breakthrough for the youth of their church.

Thelma was a delight. I found her scooting along in her wheelchair way down the hall from her room. She recognized me immediately and seemed very glad to see me. She wondered where Cheryl was and remained confused about this throughout my visit.

It was cool for her to introduce me to all of the staff we passed. “This is my son-in-law.” Once she continued “He’s married to (pause), never mind, he is my son-in-law.” I guess I am married to “what’s-her-name.”

She asked me to take her home, “but not today, I’m not up to it.”

I asked if she wasn’t feeling well and she responded that she was fine, just getting over the flu (which was true).

I complemented her with “Well, Thelma, you sure look good.”

She grinned and replied “I didn’t ask you to say that (pause), but you did tell the truth. I look good for 100 and eight children.”

She’s 93 and only had four children -- that we know of.

She is in constant slow motion, pushing herself around in the wheelchair. Even when she was talking with me she was pushing back and forth. In a moment of clarity she realized her motion and said “I keep rocking back and forth.”

I asked, “Why do you think you are doing that?”

“It might be because my knee is hurting.” While rubbing her knee and without any hint of duplicity she continued, “I think my knees are going to give me problems when I get old.”

At one point she looked at me and  said, "Cheryl will tell you what to do.  (pause) Well she want tell you what to do, but she will tell you what she is going to do."  No one has ever describe our marriage better.

She told me over and over how glad she was I came to visit and she continued “I love you; I have always loved you.” A couple of times she added as evidence of her love “I worked hard for your wedding; I worked hard for two weeks for your wedding.” And I thought, my wedding to “what’s-her-name.”

I am loved and remembered by a 93 year old with dementia who had refused to use my real name for the first fifteen years she knew me. I don’t know if God is blessing me or punishing her, or both. I suspect Thelma is living evidence of the grace of God toward all who call on His name. May her final days blossom more and more with the love of God and may she find inner healing for all her wounds.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 13, 2010

Friday, March 12, 2010

I am Thankful for my Motorcycle

As Jimmy approached his fourteenth birthday and the promise of a learner’s permit to drive he became obsessed with getting a motorcycle. A learner’s permit would allow him to drive a motorcycle. Honda had just popularized small engine cycles, “you meet the nicest people on a Honda.”

Dad’s response, “Son those things are dangerous. If you had seen the young man I saw in Daytona Beach, his bike was wrapped around the front axle of a semi and he was lying right beside it. I don’t know if he was dead, but he sure looked it. I don’t see how he could have survived.”

Jimmy was persistent. He left pictures of happy, clean-cut young people on Hondas all over the house. He taped one to the bathroom mirror.

In exasperation Dad finally blurted out, “Son if you never mention getting a motor scooter (sic.) to me again, I’ll buy you a car when you graduate from school.”

Never have more fortuitous words been spoken. They would eventually cost Dad a lot of money, four brand new cars for graduation presents (although Shirley deferred hers because she and I were in college at the same time). Dad was a man of his word. He believed there was no honor without truth. “Son, if a man will lie to you, you had better watch him. If he will lie to you, he will steel from you. That’s what my Pa always said.”

In addition to always being truthful, Dad was consistent. There were only a few things he disliked; Masons, long-haired-hippie-draft dodgers, and motorcycles headed the list. He truly disliked them and he was fond of telling people so. Masons would lie to protect each other; they had sworn to do so. Draft-dodgers weren’t raised right. Motorcycles were too dangerous. That sums it up.

I had always wanted a motorcycle, but it wasn’t an obsession. And I knew they were dangerous so I wouldn’t consider getting one until Alethea and Karisa were grown. There was also the problem of money. I couldn’t justify spending thousands of dollars on something I wasn’t certain I would like. As Karisa approached graduation from High School I found myself dreaming about getting two things: a tractor and a motorcycle. I wanted both, but the tractor was more reasonable. Cheryl wanted a pop-up camping trailer which also sounded nice to me. I weighed the three options and decided we should save for the pop-up.

I had begun squirreling away for the camper when Dad died. By the time our inheritance was divided I had just about enough for the trailer. Suddenly I had a moral dilemma. Could I use money I had inherited from Dad to buy a motorcycle? As much as Dad hated motorcycles, I just couldn’t bring myself to do that.

Then logic burst forth in all its brilliance. I could use my pop-up money to buy a motorcycle and Dad’s money to buy a camper. Dad would approve of his hard earned money being used to buy a camper. He had bought one for Mom. I love it when a plan comes together.

There was just one problem. Cheryl disliked motorcycles as much as Dad. We had long ago agreed we would not make any major purchase without agreement between us. I presented my case. Cheryl thought for a few days and came back with a proposal. She would agree to the purchase if both of our girls agreed.

I knew I had Karisa on my side. She had just turned eighteen, entered college, and taken up sky diving.

Cheryl was certain Alethea would veto the plan. She was in medical school and talked a lot about motorcycle accident victims in the ER. Motorcycles are “caskets on wheels.” Cheryl called and I listened on the speakerphone, “Mom, he’s almost fifty years old. If he is ever going to have fun he had better start now.”

With that personality profile (ie., cerebral, analytical, entertainment deprived, dull), I won an opportunity at a life-long dream. Who knew being dull would ever pay off.

I found a used Yamaha V-star 650 on e-bay in Knoxville. When I went down to buy a helmet, on a whim I bought one for Cheryl. I thought I should at least give her an opportunity to ride. Little did I know the Biker Babe I was unleashing. She said she would go for one ride just to say she did it. She was hooked from that first ride. She wants to go every day the weather permits. It has become our favorite form of relaxation. In fifteen minutes we can be in the mountains. Most days we just take a country ride, for twenty to thirty minutes. After a hard day at the office you can feel the stress drifting away as the wind whistles in your ear.

I am thankful for my motorcycle. Who knew what it could bring out in a person.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 12, 2010

Thursday, March 11, 2010

I am Thankful for Glimpses of Heaven

“Can’t you hear them? They’re singing. It’s so beautiful. Sh, be quite. He’s here. Can’t you see Him?”

“Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord. But I want to go with you. Yes, Lord, I’ll stay.” Her conversation with the unseen guest was actually a little longer, but that was the essence of it.

Shirley and I were sitting on a chest/bench at the window facing the foot of her bed and Mom was seated with Darlene in a chair up near her head. It was a small bedroom and I had grown accustomed to sitting still, passing notes and whispering with Shirley. Mom had picked us up from school and brought us with her to sit with Sister Brown who had recently been sent home from the hospital to die. Sitting with the sick and dying was something neighbors and Christians did back then.

I was a third grader and I puzzled over the reality of what I had witnessed. Was she delusional or was Christ actually there with singing angels who we couldn’t see or hear? A few days later Sister Brown was well and we didn’t go to sit with her again. I have never doubted I witnessed a believer’s encounter with the resurrected Lord.

Fast forward seven years and I’m sitting alone on a bench in the hallway outside the operating room in the Eastlake Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. My mother is in surgery with a kidney stone. Shirley is downstairs in the waiting room with Darlene. Jimmy and Iris are in route. Dad is on the road, not knowing a thing about what’s going on. The doctors had told us a year earlier the stone would eventually move and with her diseased kidneys she probably would not survive. She was so pale and swollen when they rushed her past me in route to the ICU. I did not recognize her without a second look. Neither did I know she had died on the operating table and was shocked back to life.

Sister Blodchet, a member of our church, was a nurse in the operating room. She later told us how Dr. Duggan had completed the surgery and stated “She’s in God’s hands now.” He went to a corner of the room and prayed. Sometime during the operation Mom went to Heaven, a beautiful walled city with glorious lights radiating above the walls. She heard the most beautiful singing and the Lord came to her and talked. He told her she had more to do and she couldn’t enter the city yet. She remembered wanting to stay with Him.

Fast forward again and we are in South Carolina with Cheryl’s Dad who was dying of congestive heart failure. He struggled to breath and mostly slept. When he was awake he was feeble but coherent. Cheryl and I were sitting with him when he spoke, “Dying is such hard work.”

Feeling he must have some unresolved issues I probed, “Are you afraid to die Sam.”

He raised his head slightly for just a moment looking intently at me with a gaze of incredulity that asked “Are you crazy?” His words were more kind, “No, you can’t be where I am and see what I am seeing and be afraid. There’s nothing there to be afraid of. It’s like I’m standing in a doorway and I just can’t go through.”

I wanted to know what he was seeing but I felt he needed to talk more about the reasons it was difficult to step through the door. By the time we completed that train of thought he was exhausted and I let him sleep. I never got a chance to ask him what he was seeing. But there is no doubt in my mind he was glimpsing into Heaven and the face of God.

The doubtful can search for a host of explanations for these people’s experiences. I was there; I know they were in touch with life beyond this world. In the face of death they were fully alive. They saw Heaven and looked into the face of God. I am thankful for the hope of Heaven, not a place but the face of God. If you look close enough you can see it in the eyes of the saints as they approach death.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 11, 2010

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I am Thankful for my Mother-in-Law

Most people who know me know something of my relationship with Thelma Bridges, Cheryl’s mother. I must say Thelma has been a great source of happiness. I am happy when I tell humorous stories and Thelma has provided me with a host of them. She is the quintessential mother-in-law and the perfect foil.

The first time I met Thelma was Thanksgiving, 1973. Cheryl and I had just started dating and her parents came to Lee for a visit. Standing on the sidewalk in front of Cross Hall, Cheryl introduced me to them. But I can’t say I met Thelma at that time. Cheryl said “Mom, Dad this is my friend, Jackie.”

Thelma mumbled “Hello” as she was in motion to turn her back to me and walk away, leaving no opportunity for me to respond. My first true exchange with her came the next spring when Cheryl and I were getting serious. I took her home for the weekend so that I could meet her family. It was a Friday evening and already dark when we arrived. Cheryl jumped out of the Pinto and ran into the house. I got the suitcases out and proceeded to the front porch where I could see Thelma sitting on a glider/rocker in the dim light. I started lowering the cases to greet her properly when she spoke her first real words to me, “Sonny boy, your hair is too long.”

Before the bags could touch down on the cement floor, I stood upright and responded, “Sister Girl, yours is too short.” I turned and walked into the house. Thus began a lifetime of give and take with Thelma Bridges.

Thelma is a force to be reckoned with. She overwhelms most people. Few can be as charming and bombastic in the same minute as she often is. I have witnessed her being cruel in an effort to prove her point and get her way. I see her as a person who failed to develop the ability to see the world through anyone else’s eyes but her own.

I instinctively knew from that first night that if I was going to fair well in a relationship with Thelma I had to keep my integrity and be respectful while not allowing her to run over me. Honestly, I have truly enjoyed that challenge much, if not most, of the time. I have felt that she and I developed our own d├ętente of mutual respect based on unspoken assurances of mutual annihilation. The irresistible force and the immovable object met and both survived if only in an alternative universe that allowed each to believe their own victory was intact.

I have grieved and been angry because of the verbal pain I have seen her inflict, the kind of pain that is woven into the spirits of children for the rest of their lives. And yet I marvel at the good that has been born through her life. Because of her I have learned I am not as good a person as I sometimes delude myself into thinking. She has offered me multiple opportunities to wrestle with my theology. Concepts about God and truth forged in the challenges and conflicts of human relationships serve as better anchors than those produced in the leisure of philosophical speculation, at least for those who desire to know God truly.

The last time I visited Thelma at her home before she entered long-term care as a result of vascular dementia, the struggle was still there. I was in the living room when she barked out an order for me to go outside and take care of something for her. I got up, walked into the kitchen where she stood, put my arm around her and said, “Thelma, you’ve known me long enough to know you can’t boss me around. Ask me and I’ll do anything I can for you. But don’t tell me what to do.”

She looked up at me with a puzzled look of frustration, paused, and then chuckled. “All right then, will you go outside and …” I did as she wished.

I am Thankful for Thelma. Without her there would be no Cheryl. Without her I would have dozens fewer stories to tell. Without her I would think myself more sanctified than I am. Without her my faith would be less tested and less certain. She has been a blessing to my life.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 10, 2010

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

I am Thankful the Bradley County Sheriff’s Department Caught the Vandal

I am very late with today’s post. The reason being that the vandal struck our church last Saturday and again last evening. I spent the whole evening at the church with the deputies. We were able to provide the deputies with some video tape of him on his bike. They canvassed the area this afternoon and picked him up. He confessed.

Now I have to get estimates on repairs and navigate the legal system. Join me in praying for the boy (he’s just 12) and his family.

I should also say I am thankful for Kim Belcher and Brian Dalton coming to help clean up the mess last evening and Richard Rutherford for working today to close the window openings.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 9, 2010

Monday, March 8, 2010

I am Thankful for Good Flight Connections

Traveling by airplane use to be so exotic and carried a sense of privilege. “Stewardesses” were very attentive. I liked getting the free playing cards and all the coke and peanuts you wanted. Then President Carter (if I remember correctly) began deregulation of the airlines (which as a conservative I am obliged to support). Smaller cities were no longer guaranteed flights and the use of hubs reduced the prevalence of direct flights within regions. Competition brought some prices way down while others skyrocketed. It also led to smaller seats and fuller planes.

Of course 9-11 forever changed it all again. Way back when, you could arrive fifteen minutes before flight time, check in, walk to your gate, kiss your loved ones good-by, board, and be considered on time. Now you have to arrive an hour before flight time (30 minutes in Chattanooga) and be at the gate at least fifteen minutes before flight time. Security is such a hassle; take your shoes off, your computer out, your toiletries (in a clear quart size bag) out, and your change and place them all in plastic crates. I have to also get my CPAP out and put it in a crate. Then you have to put it all back together as fast as possible or hold up the line.

Long lines, cramped seating, crowded waiting areas, faulty air conditioning, pitiful food and snacks, and charges for everything that is the state of air transportation today. And yet none of those or any combination of them is the most frustrating. The reasons I avoid flying if at all possible are the cancelations and constant delays resulting in missed connections and late night arrivals.

On my trip to Minneapolis this week I was supposed to leave Cleveland at 7:37 and have a two –hour layover in Memphis. When I checked in they complained I was less than 30 minutes before my flight and might not make it. I responded my flight wasn’t scheduled to leave for 45 minutes. They said I was wrong it was to leave at 7:20. Flash forward about three hours and I am waiting for my flight to board in Memphis when I get a courtesy call from Delta informing me my flight from Cleveland had been rescheduled to leave at 7:20 and that this would not affect my flight from Memphis to Minneapolis scheduled to leave at 3:30. I immediately go at a Delta staff person for an explanation who checks in the computer and lets me know I still have a seat on the 10:20 flight. Returning to my gate I hear an announcement that my flight will depart from another gate. When I get there I see the board has a message stating my flight will be delayed four hours. The pilot come out and explains a plain scheduled to fly to Tampa had a mechanical problem and the powers that be decided to give them our plane. We would depart as soon as the part and the mechanic arrived on different flights. The good news is that I arrived a few minutes before Cheryl and she got to meet me at the gate. How romantic.

I am very thankful that when I arrived with Cheryl at the airport yesterday we both were able to get earlier flights with great connections. I got home five hours earlier than my original flight schedule. Memphis was perfect, just enough time to get a barbeque sandwich with friends. Flying days like today just don’t happen very often, at least not for people coming in and out of Chattanooga. What we use to take for granted was indeed a gift from God.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 8, 2010

Sunday, March 7, 2010

I am Thankful for the Day of Little Things

When God called me to preach His Word my frequent prayer was for an anointing and to be a “soul winner.” I specifically asked to not be called upon to serve in denominational leadership. I promised I was willing to do whatever He wanted me to do and to go wherever He wanted me to go, but I preferred to be involved in the ministry of the local church. My early dreams were to plant a church that was thoroughly committed to holiness and the fullness of the Spirit. I envisioned going somewhere in the mid-section of the USA, planting that church and staying there for my entire ministry.

God had other plans for my life and ministry. I had always assumed I would eventually do a doctoral degree, but that graduate school would be spaced out over a career. As I moved toward graduation from Lee I had a growing awareness God was sending me directly to grad school. I agreed but grumbled in my spirit the whole time, “Lord I want to pastor.” I had a constant inner ach to preach. As graduation from Wheaton grew close I was approached by to Bible colleges, Emmanuel in Franklin Spring Georgia, and Northwest in Minot North Dakota, to teach. I wasn’t desirous of either. I felt too young at 22 and too inexperienced to teach, but I knew enough to pray about going to one of them. It became clear we were to go to North Dakota. While there we were blessed to simultaneously serve two wonderful but tiny congregations, the Butte Assembly of God and the Kief Baptist Church. As we entered our third year at the Bible college and pastoring, we again felt the nudge to go back to school for our doctorates. I agreed by silently grumbled. In 2003 while still in my doctoral program I got to serve the Middletown Church of God as pastor for one year. We were then led by God to Cleveland where I served as Minister of Education at the Westmore Church of God, hungering to pastor the whole time.

In 1989 we planted the New Covenant Church of God in Cleveland. Cleveland was the last place I wanted to plant a church but that’s another story. Our dream was for a church that was faithful to our Pentecostal faith and experience and cutting edge in ministry. We wanted to be diverse (ages, socio-economic, racial, etc.), covenantal/relational, and intentional. It was important that children and youth know they belong and are given voice. I envisioned becoming a church of several hundred but not a mega church. I wanted to grow to the place where we would plant churches. I have always been critical of ministers who are driven by statistical increases. Mega churches have their place, but I suspect they are handicapped when it comes to authentic Christian community. Wonderful expressions of the Body of Christ can be found in all of them, but you have to work to find them and work even harder to become a part of them. Smaller churches force people into “know me” encounters. Honesty dictates that I on occasion dreamed otherwise and strategized on what a large church with authentic community at its core would look like, but those were fleeting dreams.

Growth to even a medium size was not God’s plan. We began with an emphasis on helping people find healing. Very early on it became clear that our dual roles at the church and the seminary were going to put us in a special place to receive students and send them out. It also became clear that these two ministries were not well suited for church growth. It takes a lot of time with people to help them find healing. It also takes a lot of time with people to help them become equipped to go out into ministry.

I was frustrated with putting so much into ministry and feeling stuck at around fifty to sixty people. God was not moved with compassion to end my frustration. Instead he sent an evangelist/prophet, Faye Whitten. Fay, who is now retired and a member of New Covenant, preached several revivals for us. Her special gift is in personal prophecy. I have seen God use her to speak powerful, precise, revealing words to people. Once we had a van load of students from Columbia Theological Seminary stop by on a trip. These were Presbyterians, Lutherans, and other mainliners. Fay gave a word to two of them that included “You have said to yourselves…” I watched the two of them burst into tears. Afterwards they shared the word from God included exact words from their conversation in the van earlier that day.

Fay’s words were almost always encouraging words with promises, except to me. In every revival she would call me out and speak a word that addressed the innermost struggles of my ministry. They almost always addressed a conversation Cheryl and I had shared that day and began “The Lord says, despise not the day of little things…” Through her our Heavenly Father reminded me that He had raised New Covenant up for His purposes and that we were to be a place of healing and equipping.

Today we are a congregation of about 100 if everybody shows up at the same time which is rare if never. We have members of our little church in ministry in Zambia, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Germany, and many other places. Dozens call us home who are scattered across this country as well. I have come to know that it is in the day of little things that God digs deep foundations. He does not require success, just faithfulness. In the day of little things He gets the glory.

Minneapolis, Minnesota
March 7, 2010

Saturday, March 6, 2010

I am Thankful for the SPS

The Society for Pentecostal Studies is an academic society dedicated to study Pentecostalism and issues related to Pentecostalism. It was founded 40 years ago by a handful of Pentecostal scholars wanting to work together to promote scholarship among Pentecostals. At that time the Charismatic movement was burgeoning and the society quickly opened to them and others interested in Pentecostalism.

I attended my first SPS meeting in 1973 on the campus of Lee College. It was vibrant and intense as classical Pentecostals struggled with how to respond to Charismatics. I believe it was Ray H. Hughes and Francis Martin who had the most lively discussion about Mary. I started attending as a regular member in 1989 and have only missed a couple since then.

On a carnal note, SPS is an opportunity for Cheryl and me to get out of town, stay in a decent hotel, eat some nice meals, and see some places we have never been to before. We got to take the girls to a few meetings, especially Karisa making it a family trip. She fit right in.

I enjoy seeing old friends and spending time with some of my Cleveland colleagues. It is different to fellowship on a trip. There are always a few former students, some of whom were members at New Covenant.

It is also interesting to be engaged with scholars from a variety of backgrounds. The largest groups are the Church of God and Assembly of God, but there are representatives of all of the Pentecostal denominations in North America, a host of Charismatics, and a good contingency of scholars interested in what makes us tick. We have a few members from other regions of the world as well. It is a great blessing to build friendships with people from other denominations.

I have learned a lot at these meetings. I always leave invigorated and excited about my role in theological studies. My creative juices are stimulated both in the sessions and in the hallways.

We always have some sessions of worship. Often these include local choirs and worship leaders. Thursday evening was a wonderful celebration as we were led in worship by an official of the Church of God in Christ and a praise team. They were followed by a choir from North Central University, the host school for this meeting. It was as Pentecostal as an academic society might be expected to ever be. More exuberance than most of our middleclass churches, less than our history suggests is important to us. There was liberty for all, at least as much as anybody was willing to take.

Minneapolis, Minnesota
March 6, 2010

Friday, March 5, 2010

I am Thankful for my Father-in-law

It is no secret that Thelma Bridges wanted her oldest daughter to marry “good” and that meant marrying someone who was going to be prominent in the Pentecostal Holiness church, preferably a particular someone who was going to teach at Holmes Bible College. Thus, it was no secret she did not approve of me. She never called me by my right name until Cheryl and I had been married a dozen years or longer. In her mind I wasn’t even Pentecostal; I was “Chuuch of Gawd.”

Sam saw this coming long before they ever met me, I’m sure. He proceeded to bend over backwards to let me know I was welcome and he thought highly of the Church of God. He didn’t have to but he told me story after story of how the Church of God had ministered to people he knew. Most significantly Earl Paul, Sr. had worked to get Sam’s niece and nephews into the Church of God Home for Children where they were well treated, educated, and the boys grew up to be Church of God pastors.

He didn’t stop there. He was free with his criticisms of the PH church of his youth, all the young men who were hurt by the legalism, no ball playing in particular. Sam, who was raised Baptist, had played semi-pro ball himself. It was clear his point wasn’t to belittle his own denomination; he was an elder in the McNeely Memorial Pentecostal Holiness Church at the time. No, he just wanted me to know he understood and he didn’t look down on me for my denomination.

I spent a lot of time talking with him, mostly listening to his stories. He wasn’t the kind to force a narrative on others, but if I asked he would freely share. I asked. I’ve written some of those stories elsewhere (see http://familyjohns.blogspot.com/2008/12/conversations-with-sam-you-cant-see.html & http://familyjohns.blogspot.com/2008/12/conversations-with-sam-dying-is-such.html). I’m certain I’ll write more about him later. For now, I just want to restate that I am thankful for Sam Bridges. He was a gentle spirit, true friend, a welcoming soul, a good father-in-law, and a faithful follower of Christ. I miss him greatly.

Minneapolis, Minnesota
March 5, 2010

Thursday, March 4, 2010

I am Thankful for my Sister Darlene

Baby sisters are a mystery. In my generation that mystery began long before she arrived. Why did Mom get big especially around the middle? Back in the Victorian Age of my childhood proper southerners didn’t use vulgar words like “pregnant.” Women were “in the family way” or “expecting.” All I knew was there was less room to lay my head down in Mom’s lap.

The second mystery was waking up to find Grandma O’Quinn at our house and Momma gone, gone “to get your new baby sister.” What baby sister? I didn’t ask for a baby sister. I just want my mother back. Granny fixed breakfast, fried eggs, grits, bacon, and toast. Exactly what Momma fixed, but nothing like what Momma fixed. It was darker and seemed burned. I didn’t know who this baby sister was but she was already messing up my life, big time.

A few days later they brought her home. I must say she was cute. Everybody scurried around and fawned all over her. I had a simple job, leave her alone. That was easy enough. I had Shirley to play with. But boy could cry.
By the time she was a toddler, Jimmy found a good use for her at church, babe magnet. Before long we all discovered other uses for her, manipulation. Dad would give her almost anything. For years driving home from Georgia we had asked for a coke only to hear, “We have cokes at home.” As soon as Darlene could make the request we would coach her and Dad would answer “Sure baby, we can stop. Anybody want a hamburger?” Wow, she was good for all kinds of goodies.

This baby sister thing was not bad. Not as effectively, but it worked with Mom too.

Darlene was a real joy to be around, easy going, happy, cooperative. But then we moved to Alabama when she was entering fifth grade and Alabama wasn’t good for her. The teachers were not helpful with transitioning from what she had been taught in Florida to what they thought she should have been taught. She seemed depressed, and then pre-pubescence struck and she seemed angry. I was her worst enemy. I didn’t mean to be, but I had no idea what she was going through.

Momma told me to be more understanding. She couldn’t help her mood swings. I quipped, “Mood swings or not, sin is sin. There’s no excuse for her behavior.” Boy was I ignorant. I thought what she needed was cheering up, when what she wanted was to be left alone. In that context she became one of only two people to suggest to me that I should sojourn in a permanently warmer climate. I will never forget the look of anger on her face as she expressed the sentiment. It was for me a transforming moment, my sweet, innocent baby sister was growing up and had a vocabulary we were not supposed to use. I also gained a great resource for blackmail. “Are you sure you don’t want to get me a glass of ice tea? Momma, Darlene has something she would like to tell you.” It worked for a few weeks.

Flash forward a few years and I am standing in front of my home church about to perform my first wedding. I’m nervous, the groom, groomsmen and bridesmaids are all in their places and my Dad steps through the door with the most beautiful bride on his arm. As they slowly moved down the aisle and approached the altar I found my right hand drawing into a fist. “Who is this guy who wants to marry my baby sister? I don’t know if I can do this.” But I did.

As I reflect back on it, being asked by Darlene to perform her wedding was one of the highest honors of my ministry. She may have felt obligated (we’ve never discussed it) but it was a great moment in my life.

It has been rewarding to watch her go through life. She has had more than her share of challenges and dealt with them with courage, grace and strength. She is an excellent wife and mother and a doting grandmother. Surprising to me, she is quite craftsie. The baby who everybody took care of grew up to take care of everybody. As our parents loved us each equally, we each equally loved them. But when they retired it was Darlene who went to check on them most often. And after Mom was gone it was a great comfort to know Darlene who at an hour’s distance was the closest, was looking out for Dad. Did I mention she’s a great cook; it’s genetic.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 4, 2010

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

I am Thankful for My Brother Jimmy

Everybody should have a big sister and a big brother. It takes a lot of pressure off. Jimmy was the first born. Mom was just seventeen and Dad was going on twenty three. The first child is an experiment. They have the great advantage of being the center of the universe. They have the great handicap of being the center of the universe.

Parents have such high expectations for that first child and so little confidence in their abilities to raise that next Einstein, or Abraham Lincoln, or Billy Graham. The results are typically a high achieving workaholic who is always seeking approval, or a manipulative underachiever who feels they can never get approval.

Those of us born in the middle have the great advantage of watching someone else walk through the minefield of parental expectations. We get to choose who we want to be and how to navigate the challenges. More than all other children, the firstborn must live their lives against the backdrop of their parent’s hopes and dreams. I am so glad I am not a first born; it’s tough enough being married to one.

Never the less, firstborns have the opportunity to develop a special relationship with their parents. Parents tend to trust them more. They charged them in childhood to watch out for their younger brothers and sisters and they expect them continue doing that long after they are gone. That’s a heavy burden to bear, especially because younger siblings don’t want anybody looking over their shoulder. We want to do it for ourselves.

Growing up, Jimmy was a great older brother. He was often our baby sitter but it never felt that way. He busied himself cleaning the house for Mom while Shirley and I played and or watched TV. (When we got older we had chores to do before she got home.) Mom often commented on how Jimmy was such a great help, especially since as a truck driver Dad was gone a lot . 

Like most older brothers he knew how to push the buttons of his younger siblings. We enjoyed rough housing and he knew just how much pain to inflict without causing harm. He incited the event that came closest to getting me a spanking from Dad. We had been instructed by Dad, at Mom’s urging, to never play ball in the house. We knew Dad was going to be home soon and we were wrestling in the house when I got hurt. I saw a ball, picked it up and threw it as hard as I could at his head. He ducked and the ball broke the window in the upper corner. Naively we pulled the curtain so it couldn’t be seen. It never crossed our minds the broken window was exposed on the outside. We were lounging in the living room when Dad entered. Setting his satchel down and inhaling deeply, broadening his shoulders, he spoke, “how did that window get broke?”

With fear and trembling I stammered out, “I broke it throwing the ball at Jimmy.”

“I thought I told you boys to never play ball in the house.” You could see the fury in his eyes.

“We weren’t playing ball Dad. We were wrestling and he hurt me. I threw the ball because I was angry.”

Pausing a moment to think and weigh carefully his response, he picked up his bag and said,

“You’re not going to throw a ball in the house again, for any reason, are you?”

“No, Sir.”

“OK” And he walked through to the back of the house.

I guess anger at your older brother was something Dad could understand.

If we weren’t at the house or working on the farm, I didn’t get to hang out with Jimmy much. I was the kid brother. I did draw strength from his reputation. He was my big brother and I was confident he would look out for me. He was my ticket to security in the world beyond the safety of Mom and Dad. Boy was I naive.

There is a lot to respect about my brother. He is thoughtful, considerate, compassionate, conscientious and dedicated. He loves God and He is a faithful friend. He is loyal to a fault. He is highly respected by all who know him. Think of the ideal Boy Scout all grown up, that’s Jimmy. I am always proud to say he is my big brother, even if he is wrong when he disagrees with me.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 3, 2010

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

I am Thankful for my Sister Shirley

My early experiences in life were not the most pleasant. The obstetrician had cold hands. The room was even colder. The bright lights nearly blinded me. They kept taking me away from my only comfort. Then my parents took me home and things got worse. My very first day, I was minding my own business, lying on my parent’s bed when “GI Jane” attacked, pulling me off the bed. That’s how I met my sister Shirley. She kept insisting they take me back. She is fourteen months older than me and she has never forgiven me for robbing her of her position at the center of the universe.

It wasn’t long until she fell for my charm and adopted me as her very own animated doll. As soon as I could walk she drug me every where she went, when allowed. We were inseparable. I did everything she wanted to do or else she beat me up. Thus began a lifelong fascination with strong women, and some skill in relating to them.

I had a severe speech impediment and she was my coach/therapist. Mom gave her instructions to help me and she accepted the challenge with glee.

“No, no, no, it’s not Shu-wee. It’s Shir-lee, Shirley. Now say it again.”

Over and over again she drove me to try to enunciate her name until I would burst into tears and run to my mother. She was my playmate and my constant antagonist. If I didn’t do what she wanted she would smack me. I’d cry and go running to my mother.

I could take you to the place, the exact spot, where that all changed. We were just in front of the steps to our house on Harrison Avenue. I was five or six. She hit me for not doing what she wanted, the tears swelled up in my eyes and I was ready to turn and run to Mom when a light came on. “I don’t have to cry. I don’t have to take this anymore.” An inner strength gathered in my stomach, I drew back and punched her right in the breadbasket. The shock on her face was priceless. When she burst into tears a second later I was forever liberated. In that instant we became the truest of friends.

Other than Cheryl, Shirley has been my best friend and confidant throughout life. She knows most of my secrets and I suspect I know most of hers, which is not a lot to say since we are both children of Ellis Johns. What you see is what you get.

On the continuum of human goodness there are the nice, the good, the very good, and then there is Shirley. She is thoughtful and compassionate. She’s the one who remembers everybody’s birthday, especially the children. She’s the annoying one who spends too much on Christmas gifts for them making the rest of us feel guilty.

She teaches high school science and really cares about her students. We all thought she was going to be a doctor. She certainly has the intelligence for it. We were inducted into the National Honor Society together. Her undergrad GPA was higher than mine. I guess I should not have insisted she be the nurse when we were little, “Girls can’t be doctors.” I’ve spent a life time trying to undo that lie.

Don’t get me wrong, she has not perfected all of the social graces yet. Don’t ask for her opinion unless you want it. She’s a scientist and can blurt out biological facts no one cares to hear during a meal. Don’t draw her into an argument unless you have plenty of time on your hands.

I guess you can see why we get along so well. We share the same since of humor and I never laugh as much as when I am around her. One of our favorite past times was pushing the buttons on our mother’s puritan scruples. In jest we would discuss some aspect of nature just to hear Mom cry out, “Lord I tried to raise em right. I did the best I could. I did. I really did.”

I am thankful for Shirley. She has been a true friend, and a great source of joy. I am blessed by her generosity, compassion, and listening ear. She’s not a bad cook either.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 2, 2010

Monday, March 1, 2010

I am Thankful for my Protective Mother

Mom was a strict disciplinarian. “You had better not misbehave at school. If you do, I’ve told your teacher to spank you and when you get home I’ll spank you and if what you did was bad enough I’ll tell your Dad. There’s no telling what he’ll do. But you don’t want to find out. Do you hear me?”

On a few occasions she added, “Even if you haven’t done anything wrong, don’t you disrespect your teacher. You tell me and I’ll take care of it.” She meant it too.

I was in the seventh grade when I missed a day of school. That was a rare occasion. Mom had a simple cure for sickness. “If you’re sick enough to stay home, you’re sick enough to go the doctor and get a shot.”

It seems to me it was about nine o’clock when the call came. I heard Momma’s side of the conversation. “Hello.”

“Yes, this is Mrs. Johns.”

“There must be some kind of mistake. My son don’t skip school.”

“Well you had better check again because I tell you he is there.”

“I’m coming down and I’ll find him where he is supposed to be.”

“Jackie, get dressed. We’ve got to go find your brother. They say he’s skipping school.”

Now I didn’t much feel like getting dressed. After all, I was sick enough to stay at home. But she didn’t give me a choice, and even if she had I would have yanked IV tubes out of my arms to see what was going to happen at that school.

When we got to the office Mom was polite but direct. “I know you said you checked and he was missing, but I want to know where he is suppose to be. I’m going to check for myself.”

“Well Mrs. Johns we’re just starting a pep rally in the stadium and he’s suppose to be there, but he’s not. I’ll take you so you can see.” He was confident.

Momma marched through the gate, scanning the bleachers as she went. Sure enough, about a third the way down and two thirds the way up there he sat with his friends.

“Jimmy, get down here.”

“That’s my boy. I told you he would be here. If he skips school or does anything wrong, I want to know about it. But don’t accuse him of anything unless you’re sure he did it. That’s all I expect.”

Rumor has it that Jimmy had been skipping and made it back just in time. I don’t know. What I did discover that day was that my mother would fight for her children. She had my back, unless I was in the wrong. Then it was another part of my anatomy she had.

It was all confirmed a few years later after we had moved to Alabama. As I wrote in an earlier post, the church in Birmingham had a little difficulty adjusting to my sister Shirley and myself. In their eyes, we looked like parolees from juvy or something. Shirley with her short hair and me with my long hair – it touched my collar.

It all broke loose when we incited lasciviousness among the innocents by suggesting to our youth leader that showing some Christian movies might be a way of attracting other young people. -- He asked. We answered.

A few days later my mother over heard the pastor telling some of the members, “I’m not going to have no Stokeley Carmichael’s taking over my church.” (Look him up.)

Mom, walked around the corner, looked him straight in the eye and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but if you’re talking about my children there’s something you need to know. If my children aren’t happy, I’m not happy. And I can find a church where they’ll be happy.”

Now I don’t think she would ever change churches just to make me happy. But he didn’t know that. I am confident she would die to protect me, under most circumstances. But that’s a different story.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 1, 2010