I began ministering full time back in 1973. Those were the Nixon days.
The season of Watergate, John Denver and Welcome Back Kotter.
My first futile attempts at ministry took place in the Petunia City and Ronald Reagan hometown of Dixon, Illinois.
Having moved there directly from Harding College with my head full of sermon ideas and a determination to set the world right, I began my work with confidence that I would get this little church on the fast track to growth and success. I had been thoroughly instructed on the dangers of liberalism and took a hard line on preaching on sin and its consequences. I considered it my responsibility to caution people on what not to believe in, what not to participate in, and that for which we are not even to associate.
Deb and I quickly made friends with Jim and Linda Priddy, who were members of this little corn-belt church. From the first Sunday and countless afternoons afterwards, they invited us to their house for a delicious meal, a game of Rook and stimulating conversation.
Linda had grown up with a strong Christian faith and possessed a seasoned and sensible appreciation for scripture. Jim, on the other hand, was only recently baptized and truly a novice as a Bible student.
So it was, that on one of those lazy Sunday afternoons, the girls retired to talk about whatever it is, that women talk about in those hushed and giggly tones of theirs. Jim and I walked outside, lifted the hood of my car and examined my worn spark plug wires. As he closed the hood, he took a cloth, wiped his hands and started to talk.
“Gary”, he said, “I’ve enjoyed listening to your sermons over these few months you’ve been our preacher.”
“You talk a lot about the things we don’t believe in…..things we consider unscriptural”. “You’ve talked about some of the sins we are not supposed to engage in.”
Jim took a jar of hand cleaner off the shelf and finished wiping his hands. Now, you have to understand this about Jim. He was meticulous about most anything he did. The attention he gave to wiping his hands was no different. He wiped between each individual finger, several times, I might add, and long after I would have thought them clean, he scooped one more small amount of the hand cleaner and rubbed each finger nail to remove the remotest sign of grease from his hands. He then wiped his hands with the cloth and folded it and placed it on the shelf. Even now, 34 years later, I remember it in vivid detail. Watching him wipe his hands clean was like listening to a symphony or appreciating the art of a master painter. Jim was that way, he transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary. I’ve never known anyone quite like him.
So anyway…with hands clean, he continues speaking about my sermons. “Gary, you have a knack for telling stories and using illustrations that make what you are saying easy to understand.” He then told me about something he learned in his business using the acronym, “KISS”. “It stands for ‘keep it simple, stupid’ “. “And you have a gift for expressing things in a way they are easily understood. “ “But that’s not what I want to say.”
With one eyebrow turned slightly upward, he said, “I don’t think it’s so important to tell people what we don’t believe in as much as I think we need to know what we DO believe in.” “In other words, I think you’ll have a better response if you put a positive spin on it.”
I instantly began sifting through my mental files to cite passages where Jesus taught his disciples not to be like the Pharisees, not to trust in their possessions, not to hate etc. etc. But I stopped short in my defensiveness.
Jim was speaking the truth. He was not one to say something to be hurtful or condescending. To be certain, he could, at times, be abrupt and without tact, but never with intent to harm.
I thought long and hard. I don’t know if I even responded verbally to what he said. I was probably evasive and said something like, “So, when can you help me change those spark plug wires?”
But I didn’t forget what Jim said. Sure, he was a new Christian and I had spent four years in college studying and preparing to preach. But what he said was just what I needed to hear. Truth be known, I had already grown tired of the negativity of issue-centered preaching. From that day on, I made a change in the way I preached and did ministry.
From that time until now, I speak passionately about what I believe in. I will most assuredly, tell you about some things I don’t believe in, if the situation requires such, but mostly my platform of faith is what I believe and not what I don’t believe in.
God the Father, Jesus the Son, the Holy Spirit, Grace, Love, Hope, Heaven, the Kingdom, Sacrifice, Perseverance, Hard work, Kindness to Children, Justice for the oppressed, Food for the hungry, Comfort for the bereaved, Joy in the small things and all things made possible though the promises of God.
Time and other ministry challenges eventually separated Jim and I for months, even years at a time. During those years when we were blessed with time together, it would be as if we had only been apart for moments rather than months. One such time was in Wisconsin during a hot summer day as I served as a director of a youth camp for kids. Jim had driven up from Illinois and entered, unannounced where I sat at a table in the dining hall. Coming up from behind, he put his hands over my eyes and said, guess who? I knew who it was in an instant. Could it have been the smell of hand cleaner on his fingers? No, I know it was his voice and the distinctive way he always said my name.
He removed his hands, I turned around. We embraced as friends do and we took a short walk together. Mostly I listened, he talked. That’s Jim and to a degree, that’s me. He refreshed me and revived my spirit. Even in that moment he helped me celebrate what I believe in. You see, in the midst of that camp session, I was already questioning whether I believed that we were making a difference in some of the camper’s lives. Jim jolted me back to belief. He reminded me to think of the positive. He stayed only a short time but he made a difference.
So Jim, I know, someday, by His grace, I will enter God’s great banquet hall and join you. You’ll know I’m there in short time. I’ll be the one who comes up from behind, covers your eyes and says, “Guess who?”
Heaven became a little more real with your passing.
And I believe in heaven, now, more than ever. Thanks buddy.
July 5, 1943 – May 20, 2007