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Archives for 102 – People Who Shaped Our Faith

My year old son’s name is Sawyer.

Although often asked, he is not named after the slick-tongued con man on LOST.  He is named in honor of a couple that, besides my parents, was essential to my development as a Christ-following young man.

I grew up in Dyersburg, a rolling-hilled West Tennessee farm town. Those of us who went through our congregation’s youth group during the 90s experienced youth ministry as “Jerry’s Kids.” That is, Jerry and Kathy Sawyer, who were our youth group leaders.

What made the Sawyers such a draw for me was not the keen sweater vests trending in the 90s youth ministry circles. Jerry had his own style, opting out of the trends, wearing SAS shoes instead. As I arrive into my mid to late thirties, those shoes look more and more appealing!

His mode of transportation was also not the attraction. In fact, true story. Jerry had a 19-something-or-other model Ford pick-up fueled by hopes and prayers that miraculously helped it arrive at its destination. It was accessorized with bullet holes and a moderately rusted exterior. My friend, Chris, who was also in the youth group, once drove the truck around the neighborhood. While driving down the road the stick shift stuck, the glove compartment blew open, and green fluid poured into the floorboard. A legendary youth group occurrence.

As a young guy who grew up on a struggling farm, this was more important for me to experience than I could know at the time.  Embedded within that season of my life was a desire to serve in ministry and also a desire to pursue a steadier financial life for myself. As you could guess, those two goals may at times be at odds.

Now I’m a minister who influences my family, college students, and others whom I am probably not aware. For better or worse, college students and my family follow me as I follow Christ.  This seemed to be the way of Paul’s ministry. We all follow someone as they follow Christ. We must choose our trail leaders wisely. I’m confident my teenage self did so. Jerry and Kathy constantly lived out Philippians 2 for me. “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…” Paul requests.

My wife and I now have two children and realize the challenge of balancing church with family.  Jerry and Kathy have four children and at that point in my life frequently opened their home to a significant number of energetic teens in their lives. We needed their spiritual space and time and time again they provided it. Jerry and Kathy bent low in service to us. They could have made more money and had nicer things but they committed to loving, teaching, and serving our youth group.

I also remember drilling Jerry with questions about faith and relationships in class and on youth trips. I was so thirsty for answers.  Jerry made me feel like questioning our faith was a strength, not a weakness.

Kathy always asked how my life was going. When I talked with her I knew I mattered. This was and is important for someone who has and does doubt himself at times.

I don’t recall all the answers Jerry gave me or all the questions Kathy asked about my week, but when I think of them the Maya Angelou quote rings true, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” When I think back about them, I feel I was with a couple that was with Jesus.

The Sawyer’s influence abides in the faith of “Jerry’s Kids” as well as in the name of my son, Sawyer, whom I pray loves God as much as these mentors did.

To read more of Rusty’s writing visit his blog at www.rustywoods.com

Rusty is husband to Rachel; father to Elliot and Sawyer; Scooby Snack provider to their dog, Samwise Barkley Woods.

He loves this world because he believes God made it worth loving. He loves its vivid colors, its vast and various terrains, its grandeur. Therefore you’ll find him jogging its Memphis, TN trails, snap-shotting its scenery, or eating its delicious Buffalo Chicken Quessadillas when he can.

He studied some books heavy in weight and theology at Harding School of Theology and is now a Master of Divinity from that great place. This degree title sounds like one from Hogwarts, but he assures you, he is no wizard with awesome powers…yet.

Young men and women are looking for heroes. The same is true for Christian young men and women.

We need heroes to admire and look up to. We need heroes who can inspire us . . . people who have gone ahead of us.

We need men and women of God upon whose shoulders we can stand. And in God’s mercy, perhaps see further than they did.

If you were to ask the average 20- or 30-something Christian today who their heroes are, they will most likely rattle off a few celebrity-pop-mega-church pastors. None of whom they know personally.

Some will mention Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Jonathan Edwards or Spurgeon.

Well, I’d like to introduce you to five people who served as my heroes when I was in my 20s and they still are today.

With the exception of one of them, these servants of God are unfamiliar to most Christians today. This is a travesty in my opinion because in my humble (but accurate) opinion 🙂 . . . each of them had more insight into Jesus Christ, the Scriptures, and God’s Ultimate Purpose than Calvin, Luther, Wesley, J. Edwards, and Spurgeon combined.

So much so that they are still my heroes.

If some of you who read this article will pick up some of the books I mention written by these choice vessels of the Lord, I’m confident that you will agree with me.

T. Austin-Sparks

This man’s book, The School of Christ, turned the late David Wilkerson’s life upside down.

Sparks was the man whom God used to recover the revelation of God’s Eternal Purpose to the body of Christ.

In all of church history, no one had talked about it in as much depth before Sparks.

His books The School of Christ, The Stewardship of the Mystery, God’s Spiritual House, and Prophetic Ministry are classics. You can get them all on discount here.

Watchman Nee

Nee was a contemporary of Sparks. In fact, Nee saw Sparks as his spiritual mentor. (Sparks was Scottish and Nee was a Chinaman.)

Some people have wrongly confused Watchman Nee with Witness Lee, but the two were very different and so were their views.

Nee was the Chinese version of Bonhoeffer, although his writings are much easier to read and less academic.

Nee’s ministry gave me a rock solid foundation in Christ and the Church.

Ruth Paxson

This missionary to China in the early 20th century had keen insight into the Scriptures.

Her books Life on the Highest Plane and The Wealth, Walk, and Warfare of the Christian are classics that few contemporary Christians know about.

You can check them out here on discount.

DeVern Fromke

Unlike the rest of the people on my list, Fromke is still alive. He used to minister with T. Austin-Sparks in the 1960s.

I have spent time with Fromke in his home and have had numerous conversations with him via phone and email.

In many ways, he’s been a mentor to me.

Because I want contemporary Christians to profit from his ministry, I’ve created a Box Set of his three best books: Ultimate Intention, Unto Full Stature, and Life’s Ultimate Privilege.

A.W. Tozer

Tozer is the most well-known among the spiritual giants I’ve listed.

Tozer drew from some of the names I’ve mentioned above. His ministry was prophetic, challenging, and incisive.

Some of my favorite Tozer books can be found here.

My ministry is called The Deeper Journey. That title owes much to the aforementioned people. It’s dedicated to digging below the surface and moving beyond the shallows in today’s Christianity.

FRANK VIOLA has helped thousands of people around the world to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ and enter into a more vibrant and authentic experience of church. He has written many books on these themes, including God’s Favorite Place on Earth and From Eternity to Here. He blogs regularly at frankviola.org.

KeithBrentonIt’s remarkable to me that, when the original editors of New Wineskins decided to move on to other projects, Keith asked to take over as publisher of the E-zine. At the time, the Churches of Christ had hardly any Internet presence at all. Cecil Hook and few other intrepid progressives were making some headway. A few congregations had websites, but not many. And a few conservatives copied their print magazine materials to the Internet, but most saw the Internet merely as a place to take orders for new subscriptions.

Moreover, New Wineskins had attempted to make a go of it as a paid-subscription service, while nearly all the rest of the Internet was providing content for free. That’s a model that doesn’t work for many even today, and there were far fewer potential subscribers back then. I’ve not seen the books, but I’m sure the E-zine was bleeding red ink by the barrel.

Nearly singlehandedly, Keith kept New Wineskins alive for many years — long enough to convert to a free-subscription model and to build up its readership.

Why does this matter? Well, I’m no religious sociologist, but it seems to me that movements and denominations are largely defined by their institutions. Today, the more progressive Churches of Christ aren’t held together by editors and personalities but by loyalty to the affiliated colleges and universities, by attendance at the lectureships, and by shared para-church organizations, such as MRN and Kairos.

You see, as a non-denominational denomination, we have no headquarters, no one to whom we owe dues, and no official publishing house. We have the Christian Chronicle to report “our” news, even though we are increasingly unsure just who “we” are.

Ask one of our more prominent preachers or authors what it would mean to “leave the Churches of Christ,” and you’ll get a bemused, uncertain look — because you can’t leave what you never really joined. You can only stop going to the lectureships and cooperating through joint mission and benevolence programs. Indeed, we’re held together with little more than “strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff” — and memories of a common heritage.

Anthropologists like to speak of “culture” being defined by “artifacts.” That is, a culture creates long-lasting things that help define what that culture is all about — the culture creates the artifacts and the artifacts create the culture. Well, religious movements are defined by their institutions — their means of sharing ideas, of doing Bible study as a group, and of doing ministry together when the job is too big for a single congregation. And these institutions tell us what’s important to that religious group.

Wineskins is not a means for doing benevolence or mission work, although we hope to find ourselves helping out more and more in those areas. But it is a means of doing Bible study together. It’s a way to share (and not impose) ideas. It’s even conservative, in the sense that it reminds us of our Restoration roots and sometimes asks us to think long and hard before abandoning the good and holy within the Restoration Movement.

Wineskins has never had a huge subscriber base. It doesn’t command a massive readership. But it does serve as one of the very few things that remain that allow many of us with deep roots in the Churches of Christ to identify with our beloved nondenominational denomination, to remind us that we are a movement and not a museum, and to push us to continue talk to each other — because there’s something in the Church of Christ as a community worth preserving.

Keith carried the ball for years, paying most of the costs out of his own pocket, and doing much of the writing himself. And it’s thanks to Keith that this precious institution still exists and continues to provide a subtle but extremely important influence on us all.

He carried the ball too long and too alone, and it’s time for Keith to bask in the gratitude and applause of those he served so well and so long.

Thanks.

Note from Matt: As many of you know Wineskins has undergone some recent transitions. As we have discussed the future of Wineskins one of the things that has come up is the need to appreciate where we have come from. One of the great difficulties of the last year with Wineskins was the passing of Angie Brenton and the subsequent decision by Keith Brenton to stop editing Wineskins. We have decided to dedicate this issue to him and to her legacy as a token of our appreciation as Keith enters a new season of life.

Here are a few words of encouragement as we dedicate this issue to Keith Brenton, former editor of Wineskins.

Keith, for years you served the Churches of Christ quietly and behind the scenes, you pestered and dreamed and cared and recruited and prodded and helped and edited people who you thought might have a word for God’s people.  You had a thankless job, but I’m very thankful you did it.

God spoke the world through words, I have no idea how many world were created or changed by your thoughtful prayer and consistent vision for what the Restoration Movement was and could be.

Thank you for your service and your humility,

Jonathan Storment

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Keith: For your years of faithful service – in time, in money, and in leadership – to the continuation of Wineskins magazine, many readers are thankful. For the hours spent commenting on blogs and articles, curbing less productive directions and encouraging more fruitful conversation, many writers are thankful. It is fitting that the issue whose theme is faith-shapers would be dedicated to you, since you have done just that for so many by helping to provide faithful and critical Wineskins content. Having passed the baton to the next runner, I pray that you have time to breathe, grieve, think, play, write, read, drink coffee, parent, walk the dog, laugh, cry, marathon-watch TV, or whatever else will bring you life. ~ Naomi Walters

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“Keith, through hell and high water, you’ve kept a passion for Churches of Christ to be a relevant part of the kingdom conversations happening in North America.” – Josh Graves

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Keith,  I’m thankful God allowed our paths to cross. I remember your zeal to continue Wineskins years ago and grateful you allowed me to be a very small part of that. Thank you for your encouragement and for showing us all that pain and heartache don’t define us but our love for the Lord and his Kingdom do. Proud to be able to call you friend and brother.

In Christ,

Paula Harrington

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Everyone who has enjoyed Wineskins these last several months and who anticipates a great future for Wineskins owes a debt of gratitude to my friend W. Keith Brenton. Owing completely to his selfless devotion to keeping the online magazine alive and thriving, we readers and contributors have been able to benefit from Keith’s untiring work.

Having observed brother Keith over time, he has earned my utmost respect. The way he dispatched himself as a webservant, the way he has dealt with the death of his dear wife, and his continuing ministry with his local church in North Carolina, make me happy to call W Keith Brenton my Christian brother and honored friend. I anticipate great things ahead for this good man.

Royce Ogle

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When Keith responded to my first query with interest, I was ecstatic — no actually, I was like, jumping up and down with excitement. Keith was always appreciative of each article I submitted, and he was never critical. I felt blessed contributing to Wineskins because Keith made me feel like I could write well and like I was his friend. I will be eternally grateful for Keith letting me write for Wineskins. I was deeply saddened during Angi’s illness and by her passing, and my heart still goes out to Keith.

Craig Cottongim

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“Keith, I am deeply grateful for your untiring devotion to Wineskins. I have especially appreciated your dedication to the inclusion of women’s voices on the pages of Wineskins.” – Sara Barton

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Keith, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate you brother. You have been selfless, a visionary and a leader in helping to guide the conversation via New Wineskins over the last several years. You are in my thoughts and prayers and I can’t wait to see what God is going to do with you next.

Blessings,

Matt Dabbs

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Thank you, Keith, for the selfless nature of giving yourself to the ministry of the written word. For enabling and fostering encouragement, discernment, learning, and growth. You have worn your new wineskin well. – Les Ferguson, Jr.

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In the magical kingdom called Internet one encounters all types of people. Over time you start to feel like you are ‘friends’ with these folks whom you’ve never met. Like the anonymous ‘pen pals’ of yesteryear (except much swifter) one comes to be known by their words and attitudes. I think it is fairly rare to find someone with such a genuine spirit that it shines through their posts and responses in such a consistently beautiful way. Keith Brenton is one of those rare finds. What good fortune (or blessing!) has been mine to become acquainted with this man of wisdom. I’m afraid he is a man of sorrows. He is a man of prayer; his tweets at the 3:00 hour reminding us to pray. He is also a man of humility who will eschew these words. His calmness when under fire reminds us to be patient. His self awareness in grief reminds us to hold our loved ones tightly. In many ways he reminds me of Jesus. His influence extends far, and that is a good thing for all of us. Through his tears and brokenness he continues to present to the electronic world, through which we are all connected, a peace that expresses the truth that this man has been with Jesus. And we all benefit from his faith. Thank you Keith. – John Dobbs

I have a lot of guitars. I’m at that awkward stage – more than I need but less than I want. When people see them they often ask “Which one is your favorite?” The fact is that I have a different favorite for each kind of music I want to play. They all have their own voices and I seek out the voice I need for the song of the moment. Truth be told, though, I do have a favorite.

My first guitar was a 12 string handmade by a master luthier named Yairi who crafted guitars on a mountain in Japan for Alvarez. You can still buy Alvarez-Yairi guitars – and they command a premium – but the master has passed on his craft to a team who carry on his traditions. The top is spruce that has aged to a deep honey brown and the rosewood back and sides have a hint of ruby showing through. Guitars, when played regularly, get better with age. The pores of the wood open up, the top gets more sensitive, and the wood finds its voice. This sounds like Zen or nonsense to anyone who doesn’t play an acoustic instrument but those of us who do know it to be true. A lot of science goes into choosing the wood, glue, bracing, and how it goes together.

My guitar was signed by Yairi in December 1977 and I bought it a few months later. I’ve only met one other guitarist who learned on a 12 string – it isn’t advisable. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I was playing that guitar around a campfire in the Rocky Mountains in 1978 when some other families pulled into the remote, “no facilities” area. A beautiful young girl came out of one of the pop-up campers and sat down by the fire to listen. Her name was Kami and I married her just over a year later. Many of our early dates were her sitting at her dining room table doing homework while I played across from her. She doesn’t play but she loves that guitar as much as I do.

So why is this in Wineskins? For those who don’t play – you are going to have to just take my word on this next part. Those who play, know. Sometimes I will be playing a classical guitar or my Taylor 8 string or even a regular old six string guitar and I will look up and see the 12 string sitting there. I then set the guitar I’m playing aside and go over to the old guitar and lean close…and hear it already vibrating with the chords I was playing. With daily work, play, and companionship that guitar has opened up so much that it vibrates with whatever music is in the area. It is as if it is ready to sing along, happy to join in with whatever I am doing.

I have often prayed that my heart will be like that with God. I want to be God’s 12 string guitar, ready to vibrate with whatever song He wants to sing in my life. I think of that when I wake in the morning and ask God what He wants to do that day. I think of that when I enter a room and wonder what song He would sing there, who He would bless, who He would listen to, who He would touch.

Unplayed, a guitar will slowly harden and close. You can still play it but it won’t sound very full or sweet. It needs close, frequent contact with the master or it becomes just wood and steel and bits of ivory or plastic locked away in a cardboard case. But played…it becomes something magical and wonderful. I know I have the tendency to be “me” centered, withdrawn into my own corner but deep down my heart wants to be picked up by God…and already singing whatever song He wants to sing in that place, in that time.

PatrickMead12String

For over twenty years, she has loved me well.

When I was a college student in Searcy, Arkansas, I met a woman who would capture what it means when one Christian sister covenants to love another and keeps that commitment of love for over twenty-five years. While doctrine and teaching profoundly affect our faith, I find it’s often the people who embody those teachings that shape us the most.  Perhaps love molds our faith more powerfully than any other force; at least it’s true in my experience.

When John and I, along with eight friends, made the decision to move to Uganda as missionaries, it was this woman who gave generously to make it happen.  Money.  Velveeta cheese.  The latest movie out on VHS.  Brownie Mixes . . .. When we wanted something, she made it happen.  She and her husband once disassembled A LAWN MOWER and brought it to Uganda in checked baggage. If I was embarrassed to ask someone else for something I wanted, like a copy of People magazine, I knew I could ask her and she wouldn’t judge me.

She taught me how to cook from scratch when I naively thought its definition included cream soups and packaged mixes. She gave me a copy of More With Less Cookbook, and from it, I gained my first spiritual discipline, cooking whole foods with consciousness of a hungry world with limited resources.

When we needed her, she came. All the way to Uganda. She came during culture shock and reassured me that I could do it. I could be a missionary. From her, I learned never to limit my definition of hospitality. In the New Testament, Jesus embodied a reverse hospitality, profoundly teaching people about hospitality in their own homes, and that’s what this hospitable woman taught me. Whether in her home or in mine, she embodies seemingly limitless hospitality.

As a young mother, when I wondered how to parent my children, I looked to her as my guide. Her relationship with her children was one I admired and hoped for in my own family. She has a son and a daughter, and eventually, that’s what God gave me too. And in raising them, I often thought of her example, hoping my children and I would have the healthy measure of friendship and respect I saw in their relationships.

Later, after my missionary days, when I began ministry stateside and faced inherent challenges, it was this sister who was the first to encourage me. From her home in Searcy, Arkansas, she encouraged me the first time I preached. When I wrote my book, she read the manuscript and gave wise advice. She bought copies for her friends.  She even loved the bad parts.  When I taught at the Pepperdine Lectures, she was in the audience, with tears in her eyes, proud of me when I needed someone to be proud.

If I’m looking for a good book, I ask her because she is a connoisseur of books.

If I want a fun evening, I can count on her because she knows how to commune around a table.

If I am insecure, she teaches me about confidence.

If I need marriage advice, I trust her.

Margaret Formby Blue. 

Worthy of respect.  Temperate.  Trustworthy in everything.

My faith has been profoundly shaped by her faithful love and service.

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In the past and in different venues, I have written about the people who have helped shape my faith.

In that regard, I have been extraordinarily blessed.

College and grad school offered amazing opportunities to learn from folks who were intellectual giants. Even today, all these years later I remain humbled by the ability and knowledge of many of these people.

Some of them I knew simply from a classroom setting… or in the worst case, sitting in their office being redirected, chastised, or encouraged.

My grad school professors at Johnson University were some of the most caring and compassionate people I have ever known. In the middle of my distance learning program, Hurricane Katrina destroyed our way of life in Coastal Mississippi. In the blink of an eye, there was no time or room for school. The patience and concern those instructors and staff exhibited towards me during this difficult time was both refreshing and challenging.

My paternal grandmother, Lillie Ferguson, were she alive today, would claim all the credit for my becoming a preacher. She was a mighty woman of faith. I suspect in heaven, she is still reminding the Father of the influence she had on me.

And as I have written before, so much of my faith was molded and shaped by the lives and teaching of two special men. One of those men is my father, Les Ferguson, Sr. At the age of 72, he just retired from the pulpit to give himself more time for his beloved mission work in Mexico.

Dad was an amazing preacher and father. I am blessed to have had him in my life. I always knew he was a rock and fortress of strength. In the aftermath of the murders that changed our lives forever, he was bent and bowed. But through it all, he still evidenced a strength of character and faith that we needed so desperately. And still do.

I know he was rocked by the same questions he heard me speak over and over again. In return, his comfort was never cliched or made to be anything other than the quiet strength and dignity of his faith.

I owe him much.

By virtue of Dad being Dad, I was also introduced at an early age to the May family. Several of the May siblings have remained friends for the vast majority of my life. Their father, Cecil May, Jr., had an incredible academic and spiritual impact—even my manner of preaching was for years this weird little combined imitation of my Dad and Cecil.

I am blessed.

But spiritually speaking, my greatest influence was a young man who could not read or write. He couldn’t with any consistency differentiate between a quarter and a nickel and his speech was very hard to follow. His capacity for big topics would not be given much consideration in any kind of an academic world.

Although he was given a certificate, he never graduated High School in the traditional sense. His school days were spent in special education classes and trying to learn rudimentary life skills. Based on quarters and nickels, he didn’t do that very well.

But spiritually speaking? His theology of love was as Christ-like as any could be. When faced with a father who was not nearly as patient and kind as he should have been, he was all love and compassion. When dealing with those at school who were hurtful and mean, he shrugged it off and said in his broken way of speaking, they don’t understand.

And they didn’t. In fact, not many of us realized as quickly as we should that being in his presence was pretty close to being on holy ground.

I have no way of proving it—no way of testing my hypothesis, but I believe this young man was in daily communication with the God who loved him. I believe it was a two way communication. I believe he was here to show people the nature and character of God.

And he was my son.

My son.

Trevor Cole Ferguson.

Evil took him from us far too quickly, but while he was here, he taught me more about God than I could have ever learned from a book or class. His trust of God was astounding. My faith has been irrevocably shaped by him.

Trevor Cole Ferguson.

My son, my son.

cole

Les Ferguson, Jr.

Vicksburg, MS.

http://lesfergusonjr.com

An article regarding people who shaped my faith cannot begin anywhere but at the beginning: that is, with my parents. Both my mother and father were the first people in their families to become Christians. As such, they worked out together what it meant to raise my younger brother and me in a Christian home. Similarly, the preacher at the church where I grew up, who was also the youth minister during my time in youth group, modeled commitment to scripture as instructive for daily life.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention Sara Barton, who was my minister, my mentor, and my boss while I was at Rochester College, and is now my friend and my colleague in the D. Min. program at Lipscomb. It seems strange to write an article about a fellow author, so I will just say that Sara is the person who first modeled for me engagement with scripture as the story of God’s work in the world.

Myriad professors both at Rochester and at ACU should also be mentioned, and I could write an article about how each of them has directed and influenced me for the better, without whom I may not have ended up on my current path: David Fleer, Greg Stevenson, Ken Cukrowski, Doug and Linda Foster, Stephen Johnson, Brady Bryce, Rodney Ashlock, and others. Each of these professors hold in common the ministry of presence; they took the time to talk, or more accurately, to listen.

But no one has modeled the ministry of presence for me more than Eric and Natalie Magnusson. My last two years of college were difficult (or seemed to be at the time, which might not be any different) for a variety of reasons. It was during this time that I met Eric and Natalie, who both worked at Rochester. Their friendship and support was invaluable. They gave me a place to sleep off-campus when I just needed to get away, a listening ear for my confusion and venting, an appropriate amount of probing and challenging, and they had the discernment to know which to offer at any given time. They were the tangible presence of Christ for me.

When my core group of friends and I began to realize that we were about to graduate and go our separate ways, we didn’t feel like the spiritual level of our relationship was as formed as the social level. We felt that, in order to continue our relationships, we needed to put some serious effort into forming our spiritual connections. We approached Eric and Natalie and, essentially, made them start a small group for us. I’m not sure how they would have said no, but the grace with which they said yes was another example of their ministry of presence – especially since they had just had their first child. (Now that Jamey and I have a baby, I think they might have been crazy to be as hospitable to us as they were!)

In this small group, Eric and Natalie brought our spiritual lives into conversation with each other, facilitating our relationships with wisdom, laughter, and coffee. That year, my spiritually was in “recovery mode” and was based mostly in that small group. I began to feel God’s presence again in community. Since my relationship with God had recovered in that group, when I graduated, I was nervous (scared, sad, etc.) about leaving that group – and Eric and Natalie – behind. On the drive from Rochester to Abilene, Eric texted me: “There is no end, but addition.” These words were timely and thoughtful, as Eric and Natalie’s words always are.

As with many mentors, our relationship transitioned over time to a friendship – and weaves back and forth between those two categories as needed. I hope and seek to pass on this ministry of presence (and wisdom, laughter, and coffee – of course).

There is no end, but addition: the trailing
Consequence of further days and hours,
While emotion takes to itself the emotionless
Years of living among the breakage
Of what was believed in as the most reliable-
And therefore the fittest for renunciation
~T. S. Eliot – Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages, II

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.

I’ve written extensively on my father and his role in my faith. You can find my favorite article here. The next person who had a measurable spiritual impact came into my life at another formative time.

I was a 20 year old mother with no parents and in a crumbling marriage. I was well acquainted with the church of Christ. I knew all the right answers and could spit them out without hesitation, but I was only vaguely familiar with the Christ of the church. 

When I became a mother I knew it was time to get serious about my faith (or lack thereof). I also knew I needed a family of believers for this journey but wasn’t sure which congregation to begin that walk with. The little one where I had grown up and where my father had preached was 40 minutes away. The congregation where my grandfather had preached was closer but filled with older Christians.

For my new start, I decided to go to a place I had never been. A large, local church near my home in Paducah, KY. I packed the diaper bag and my six month old and set out. I was terrified.

I’ll never forget how surprised I was to see familiar faces sprinkled throughout the large lobby. Several people from that little church where I had grown up were in attendance. And I can’t tell you how much I appreciated the tended nursery. I could actually listen and pay attention to the sermon. That was huge to a young, exhausted mother. Not only was it my first Sunday at the Lone Oak church of Christ, it was Mike Tanaro’s, as well.

Mike had a way of making the Bible come alive. His preaching was real. It was deep yet practical and simple enough to understand. He had a gift for words that made me want to learn more. It was during this time that I sat down and actually read the Bible. I believed that he believed what he spoke. And more than any of that, Mike introduced me to grace.

Coming from a strict, conservative background and spending much of my childhood in an unstable, chaotic household, I needed grace. I needed to know that I wasn’t too far gone.

My father had died from ALS when I was 9. Mom was a preacher’s daughter who continually battled depression and addictions. I had been a wild, rebellious teen who was finally trying to take that reckless life and give it to someone and something that mattered.

Several years later when I was a struggling, single mom and had met a wonderful, struggling, single dad, it was Mike who we sat down with for counseling. He spoke truth into a difficult situation advising us on the best way to blend a family, “keeping God in the center is the only way to be successful”. He was right, by the way. And when we decided we were totally committed to each other and our children, it was Mike who did the officiating.

My family was running late to Lone Oak one Sunday evening so we whipped in to a local congregation which happened to be only 2 miles from our home. With several children there, we decided we wanted our kids to be able to attend school with their church friends. Because of this, we stayed with this congregation. It wasn’t an easy decision but we have no regrets.

It’s been over twenty years since I walked into that lobby with that sweet baby and I still can’t help but smile when I think of how much I needed to be there.  I’m grateful to the Christians at Lone Oak who took in a young mother and walked alongside her on her journey and grateful for the beautiful words spoken by Mike Tanaro in a time I needed them most.

 

 

 

 

Faith doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is sown, fertilized, and harvested in community. Every single one of us owe much of our faith development to faithful men and women who have walked alongside us at various points in our lives. Some of those people are well known and others are people you have never heard of. There are many unsung heroes who are doing the difficult work of discipling and we are going to make room in this issue to express our appreciation to the mentors (past and present) in our lives.

There are two reasons this is a vitally important theme. First, this issue is about expressing our appreciation and gratitude toward those who took time to mentor us and make an eternal difference in our lives. Second, it is important to hear how and why these people made such a difference. What did they do? What did they say? What was it about them that shaped our faith? Last, just as important, what can we do to imitate their example?

As we listen to the stories of those who have done it we are listening and learning how to more effectively develop those God has placed in our lives.

Charlie Britnell
CBIn closing I want to tell you about a man named Charlie Britnell. When we moved to North Alabama when I was 11 years old he took a real interest in my brother Andrew and I. He would take us with him to do VBS in small country churches around Colbert and Lauderdale counties. Charlie took us out to lunch and always had something to teach us.

He not only taught us scripture but he showed us how to do what he did. Honestly, I had no idea what he was doing until reflecting on it over the last few years. He was being a role-model for us…teaching us to live more like Jesus through his example. I will always remember Charlie’s example. When I think of him it encourages me to do for others what he did for me.

What did I learn from Charlie? Charlie reminds me that even at 11 years old, people aren’t too young to be mentored in meaningful and powerful ways. He planted seeds in my life that didn’t come to fruition for well over a decade but the impact he made on my life was profound. Charlie taught me that it doesn’t make you any less of a man to be real and show your emotions (something I have had to do a lot of recently). That man couldn’t make it through a sermon without crying…not because he was trying to pull on your heart strings but because thinking about Jesus genuinely pulled on his.

I love you Charlie Britnell and I love how you submitted yourself to the Lordship of Christ in order to be the kind of example to us that you always were…never a complaint, never a cross word, always positive and always Christ-like. I still have much to learn but I have examples to draw from. Praise God for providing people like Charlie.

As we open up this issue we are going to discuss those who have shaped our faith. As you think about those people in your life…who are they and what did they do that was meaningful to you?