They say that preachers help form churches, but the reverse is true as well. Churches form preachers. Preaching is a product of a hundred senior ladies coming up with a word of encouragement.  It is the culmination of dozens of different people being kind, when they just as easily could have been harsh. It’s loving people when they are off, because you trust God could form them into something more than they currently are.

On an average Sunday morning, our congregation consisted of Bro. Foy, the patriarch of the church, who was more than a little mentally unstable. Not a joke, but he is the reason I’m a preacher, because mentally unstable makes interesting sermons, and passionate preaching.

There aren’t many memories from my church childhood that don’t involve Bro. Foy. The first funeral I ever did (I was 14), he wrote for me. I remember sitting up behind the pulpit with him, and him telling me that I was going to do just fine.

Mrs. Ruby, the widow who sat on the third row and sang alto, until we had to start taking communion to her house. Eventually she lived with my family for a few months toward the end of her life, and also managed to get me hooked on Days of Our Lives as a teenager (anybody know how Beau and Carly are doing?).

There was Marquieth, an African American young man was always there. He lived with Bro. Foy. Because Bro. Foy, after recognizing that he was a racist,  had moved into an all black community and started teaching 5th grade math. Marqueith was a

Then there was Simran, the Sikh, who came straight from Chennai, India  to Benton Arkansas as a High School graduate. He came to America to study, but he became family. Simran never became a Christian, but I learned so much about what it meant to be Church, by watching this little group of Christians welcome him in like family. Simran became my Indian brother, who served us communion from time to time even though he didn’t take it.

There was Brian, my friend who also had down syndrome. He’d lead a few of the songs every single time we met, even though one of us had to start it for him. Nervously, we begin asking him to say some of the prayers for church, until we realized he just might know God better than any of us, then he prayed every Sunday.

There were my parents, who had the wisdom to know that just because a church doesn’t have a youth group doesn’t mean that it’s not good for their kid to be there.

Hospitable, inclusionary, they were convicted and tempered with kindness. Patient and Generous to me in every way, and they loved the Bible, and they loved to build bridges.

Words like liberal and conservative couldn’t be used to describe us, and we never used them ourselves. Those were words of politics and they just didn’t fit what we were doing there.  We argued, like any human community, and there were tense times (like when Foy started preaching against women wearing pants), but we apologized and forgave quickly.

We had too, after all we took communion together.

I saw the beautiful thing that is a community of reconciliation, and you’ll never convince me that this is not something worth giving my life for.

After finishing High School, I was content to just keep working construction and preaching at different churches from time to time. But Bro. Foy thought my life could be more than that. So during my senior year, he drove me to Harding University, and he offered to pay for my first semester.

I found out later that he had to take out a loan to do that, but he never complained. I heard one inner city kid tell about how Bro. Foy had co-signed for his first car. He died with hardly anything, but a full auditorium of people.  Because his investments weren’t in Merrill-Lynch, they were in people, people like me.

Chances are you don’t recognize any of these names, but I do, and I recognize now what they were doing, and just how much it really cost them.

Cloud of Witnesses

Since then, I’ve had so many great heroes in my faith. From Monte Cox teaching me that the Kingdom of God was bigger than I’d even imagined, and the message of Jesus was better than I’d ever dreamed. To Rick Atchley teaching me how to talk about God and how to care for a local congregation, and mobilize her to serve God and bless the world.

I once heard the preacher Tom Long point out that the Gospel of Luke opens up with the elderly. You’ve got Elizabeth and Zechariah and Simeon and Anna, people who are well into their AARP benefits. But then Long points out that these older people pass off the gospel to the younger people and then trust God enough to trust them with it.

And the rest of Luke and Acts, is young people taking the gospel all over the world. It looked different than the senior saints could have ever imagined, but it was exactly what they had always hoped for.

And these senior saints could do that, because they trusted that God was bigger than any one generation.

In writing this article, I have once more overwhelmed with just how good God has been to me. In surprising ways, and through surprising people God gave me the Gospel not as an idea as much as a people.

I feel a bit like the Hebrew author who, after listing a few names of some heroes of the faith just had to give up, and say, “There are a whole cloud of witnesses…I don’t have time to tell you about Duane, or Nathan, or Donna or Tina or Nina and Al or Bert or Bub”

There are more to name. but even if I did try and name them, the whole world might not have enough room for the books.

But they are my cloud, and with every sermon I preach I still know, they gave me witness.