The Unexpected Journey
Chapter 3

Did You Guess?

You have probably guessed by now that I preach and teach.  I preach and teach about Jesus Christ.  Being a Christian is not what I do.  Being a Christian is what I am.  For me, preaching is not about declaring some rules and regulations.  Nor is it about seeking to control people’s behavior—controlling people is the game of power politics, the game of greed, and the game of training life forms that act by conditioning rather than by thoughtfulness.  Jesus Christ teaches me how to look at people, how to look at the world, how to look at life, and—most of all—how to look at me.

It would be impossible for me to separate the thoughts I share with you from the impact that Jesus has on me.  Literally, I am what I am because of Jesus’ influence on me.  I wish to share my experiences and journey, but there will be much that will not and cannot make sense to you if you do not understand that I am a Christian.  Being a Christian is not a means of support.  For me, being a Christian is a means of being.

To illustrate what I am saying, this writing will be placed on the Internet to be read at no cost by any person who wishes to read it.  I never have considered seeking to sell these thoughts.  Why?  That choice has to do with my view of people, which has to do with Jesus’ influence on me and my thinking.


My Early Years

I literally do not remember the time when I decided to preach and teach.  I come from a committed Christian family.  My mother comes from a committed Christian family.  My father became a Christian in his late teens or early 20s.  Neither my father nor mother challenged me to consider preaching.  My mother’s father at times was a part-time preacher and a congregational leader, but I had little contact with him because of the physical distance between him and my family.  There is nothing I can point to and say, “This is the influence that resulted in my being a preacher.”

I began preaching regularly when I was fourteen.  My father and a good friend named Ray Cope drove me to Sunday appointments to preach before I was old enough to have a driver’s license.  (You know the situation had to be dire for congregations to listen to a fourteen-year-old boy preach.)  In the area where I lived as a teenager, there were thirteen congregations, one full-time preacher, and very few part-time preachers.  Most of these congregations had no one to speak or teach on Sunday.  Therefore, most of them were happy to invite me to come.

When I was fourteen, I worked with three congregations.  Once a month, I went to two congregations.  Twice a month I went to one congregation (not on consecutive Sundays).  That arrangement continued until I went to David Lipscomb College (now University).

At the age of fifteen, I, by invitation, held my first gospel meeting.  Then, a gospel meeting consisted of the guest preacher speaking about forty-five minutes on the topic of his choosing.  The topic had to relate to conversion to Jesus Christ.  Two of us (the other was Jackie Fox, who was a year younger than I) alternated nights as we spoke to the Eastland congregation.  (My brother, Jack, [who is five years younger than I] has for years preached for the same congregation, and in recent years also has served as an elder there.)  By college age, I had conducted gospel meetings and had regularly spoken to congregations.


The College Years

When I attended college, I did not preach the first three years while in school.  I did teach an adult class at the Park Avenue congregation in Nashville, Tennessee my sophomore year.  However, weekend speaking was confined to my summers.  In the summers, I worked as a carpenter’s assistant and a mason’s assistant on weekdays.  Two of those summers I spoke on Sundays to the Mount Della congregation (near an entrance of Falls Creek Falls State Park).

Joyce agreed to become my wife the summer before my senior year in college.  We were childhood sweethearts who dated though high school and the first three years of college.  Because of a family situation, her mother never said anything negative about the church. Joyce was destined to get an “up close and personal” exposure to congregational problems and politics.  She jokes that she thought the church was perfect until she married a preacher! 

About the time Joyce and I became engaged, we and some other dating couples visited a mutual friend (Jackie Fox) as he spoke to the Hickory Flatts congregation near Holly Springs, Mississippi.  The man offering the opening prayer said that they were thankful for the young preacher who had come to practice on them.  Because of my age, I “practiced” on congregations a lot!  Once, while I was in college, a congregation hired me to work weekly for them. A male member who sat on the front seat slept every Sunday.  He stayed awake the first time I spoke—a factor in hiring me!  (He went back to sleep on my third week.)

The summer prior to my senior year in college, I was one of the few full-time preachers my home congregation had ever had, and that was for three months!  When Joyce and I went to Nashville for my senior year in college, I spoke for the Old Charlotte Road congregation.  I literally met relatives I did not know I had.  Joyce wondered how I could not know my own family—she had fifty-one first cousins and knew them all by name! 

We arrived in Nashville, Tennessee with all we owned in our 1955 Plymouth.  Ten months later, after graduation, I foolishly thought we had acquired nothing while in Nashville.  I was sure everything we owned would still fit in our 1955 Plymouth.  What a shock to discover it did not!

My dad was skeptical about me “earning a living” by preaching.  To do Sunday work was okay, but to do nothing but preach was, to him, a huge question mark.  We reached a compromise.  I would be qualified for a “fall back” career if we began to starve while I was preaching.  That accounts for my weird educational background—a B.A. degree with a major in chemistry and a minor in speech, and an M.A. in New Testament. 

Though Dad had huge question marks, he personally saw that we never starved.  For years he gave us beef he grew on my childhood farm.  His financial help made it possible for my three children to attend Harding University.  Mom never ceased to encourage him or us.


The Master’s Degree Years

Upon my graduation from Lipscomb, we moved to Tallahassee, Florida.  I accepted an assistantship to continue my studies in chemistry at Florida State University.  Dr. James F. Carr, a deacon at Call Street, and his wife, Stephanie, were immensely helpful to us as we settled in Tallahassee.  As I spent that summer grinding ragweed in an attic for someone else’s experiment, getting an M.A. in chemistry (which I never planned to use) made less and less sense to me.

The Call Street congregation was just over a year old.  It basically was a college congregation, a thought-out church planting.  It became our “church home.”  That congregation was in the middle of searching for a minister when Joyce and I moved.  I had not preached for a summer, and internally I felt a huge void.  I was permitted to preach one Sunday with the clear understanding that I was NOT “trying out” to seek the minister’s position.  They just needed someone to speak on an uncommitted Sunday.

That week they offered me the position. I promptly accepted and gave up my chemistry assistantship.

I worked full-time in that congregation for almost two years.  In that time, three significant things happened: (1) Joyce worked for the maps division of the library at Florida State University, (2) our oldest son Jon was born, and (3) I knew I needed more training.  I knew the kind of congregational work I wished to do.  If I was to do the work as I wished, I needed a higher level of training.  I knew graduate studies were necessary for me.

As a true act of faith, we moved from Tallahassee, Florida to Looxahoma, Mississippi to enable me to do graduate studies at Harding Graduate School of Religion in Memphis. 

Shortly after we arrived at Looxahoma, it increasingly became obvious that something was wrong and getting worse.  I discovered that the minister before me had left (in a kitchen drawer) a written evaluation of every member of that small congregation.  All the evaluations (but one) were negative.  When the members had prepared the house for our arrival, everyone had read his or her evaluation.

While I paid little attention to the evaluations, the members gave those evaluations a LOT of attention.  They decided those evaluations would determine what Joyce and I thought of them. Before we arrived, they “knew” what we would think of them.  Not until they understood that we would not use those evaluations to determine the basis of our relationships with them did the situation normalize and relationships blossom.

I graduated from Harding Graduate School of Religion in 1966.  Upon my graduation, we moved 6 miles to the Senatobia congregation.  In that move, we were introduced a second time to the strange dynamics of leaving one congregation to work for another.  I found it strange to be ministering to feelings of rejection and feelings of elation simultaneously!


The Years After School

I have no desire to talk about my life as a preacher, and you probably have even less desire to read about it.  From 1966 to June of 1970, we worked with the Senatobia congregation.  From 1970 to 1974 we worked with people in Cameroon, West Africa, with the Eastside congregation in Sheffield, Alabama serving as our “overseeing” congregation.  We began work with the Oxford congregation in Oxford, Mississippi in 1974 and worked with them for just over 22 years.  We began working with the West-Ark congregation in Fort Smith, Arkansas on November 1, 1996, where we remain.

It is my hope that this is enough background information to make what follows sensible.  If it is not obvious by now, let me say that I am blessed with an unusual woman as a wife.  In every endeavor I have been a part of, it has been an “us” work, not a “me” work.  She has been supportive and helpful in every adjustment.  She has never complained about anything—even when we had to make unusual adjustments.  I trust her strengths, and she trusts mine.  In the true sense of the word, we are and always have been partners in all things.  I never wonder if she is “there for me,” and I hope she never wonders if I am “there for her.”  In the crisis I will share, our relationship is a rich blessing.

Copyright 2010

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