“Preachers with sermons and children with laughter, deacons with stories and relative disasters…”
(In the previous post “A few of my favorite things,” we referred to the Julie Andrews song we all know so well. That started this little series and accounts for the not-serious attempt at song-writing above. Now, one explanation: In what follows, I am leaving out my best-loved people on the planet, my wife and children, our eight grandchildren, and all of my siblings but one, Ronnie, who just had to be mentioned. Margaret says I’m going to slight some other well-loved friends by not including them. I assure her they will not mind, because anyone who calls themselves my longtime friend has been slighted by me so many times they’ve long since come to expect it, and nothing surprises them any more. So, why am I doing this list of a few of my favorite people? Answer: I have no idea. It just seemed like a good idea at the time. Next will be “A few of my favorite places.”)
I am what you would call a people-lover. I am gregarious by nature (Ginger, that means I love being around them) most of the time, although after a while I’m ready to shut down and be alone. In the words of a friend-now-in-Heaven, Dr. Frank Pollard, I’ve learned to enjoy my own company.
But I love people. I love to talk with them and hear their stories, love to laugh with them and share their tears. I love to make new friends and renew old ones. And, I love to amuse myself remembering conversations with friends of past years who are no longer around to defend themselves. Up in Heaven, they are visiting with the great story-tellers of the ages–imagine sitting in a cluster at the feet of Moses or Abraham or Peter or Paul for a few years–and then, eventually someone turns to them and says, “Tell us your story, about the time you fell in the pond when you were preparing to baptize,” and they’re off and running.
I can’t wait.
Chet Griffin is one of my main friends, the kind that if I could I’d move next door. If everyone who knows this good man were to list their favorite friends, he would make every cotton-picking list. He’s that good a friend to every person he ever knew. It’s a gift.
Chet and wife Eva Lee are friends of nearly forty years now living in a big lovely mansion just outside Washington, D.C. I had to put them on this list since we like to stay with them when visiting that part of the country and can’t afford to slight them in any way. (smiley-face goes here)
Chet is brilliant, funny, down to earth, encouraging and affirming, and never forgets something he heard you say three decades ago even when you wish he would. He is a keeper.
Jim Graham is a lot like Chet Griffin. For a brief shining moment in the 1970s they were members of the same church together–I was their pastor–but I doubt they ever met. That’s a loss for both. While Chet was a career Air Force man–graduate of the Academy, fighter pilot in Viet Nam, wing commander later, making full colonel–Jim was a top-flight salesman. He managed Haverty’s stores in various cities, and there is furniture in my house to prove it.
In the 1970s, Jim and I did community projects together in Columbus, Mississippi, while his Darlene and my Margaret attended the local college together, becoming best buddies in the process. They now belong to Andy Stanley’s North Point Church. Anytime you see me recommending something Stanley wrote, Jim had first called it to my attention.
Jim is a reader, one of the brightest people I know, whose conversation is always fresh, whose joy in the Lord is visible, and whose presence is refreshing. They live in the Atlanta area.
Ronnie McKeever is my oldest brother, my senior by five years. He is a preacher, having logged nearly a half-century in serving the Lord’s churches. He and Dorothy married when they were teenagers, so they’re not far from sixty years of wedded bliss (at this point, Ron would make a joke about marriage).
Ron is that combination of preachers that I love so much: he loves the Lord with every ounce of fiber, knows his Bible, does not take himself seriously, he loves to laugh and to keep everyone around him laughing, and he’s as smart as anyone you know. And like me, he does adore his grandchildren.
I recall hearing Ronnie get up in a tiny country church near our home (Nauvoo, Alabama) and give one of those forced-testimonies (anyone who has ever been in one knows what I mean). At the time he was pushing the envelope in personal behavior, trying to decide which side of the law and respectability he would live on, it seemed to me as his 13-year-old brother. Anyway, he stood and said one painful sentence: “I may be the last one to get to Heaven, but I’ll get there,” and sat down. At the time, I thought he had that figured just about right.
These days, our schedules sometimes coincide to meet at the family farmhouse for a few hours. He comes up to work in his garden behind the house we helped Pop build in 1954, and to visit our parents’ graves across the road from our church. Our favorite thing is to get into a discussion on a scriptural text we’ve both been preaching. We do not argue, but appreciate each other’s insights. I’m beyond proud to be his little brother.
Joel Davis lives just east of Atlanta, but it was in Birmingham during my college days he made the biggest investment in my life, and did it with the greatest of ease. For a few weeks in 1960, we lived in the same boarding house. I was a student at nearby Birmingham-Southern College and he had moved up from LaGrange, GA, to manage the office of a trucking company. I invited him to church one Wednesday night and we bonded almost immediately. When he just could not abide the landlady or her mediocre meals (as well as her carping about him leaving the newspaper on the floor when he finished), I came in from school one day to learn he had scoped out an apartment building down the street and learned we could rent a furnished apartment for what we were paying here. That’s how we became roommates. And how he became best man when Margaret and I married two years later.
Joel always worked in industry–Chicago Bridge and Iron comes to mind–but was never without a church somewhere that he was serving in some capacity, usually as minister of music. These days–he’s nearing 80 years of age–he is the longtime minister of senior adults at Annistown Road Baptist Church east of Atlanta. I plan to see him next week while in revival in Smyrna. Joel is married to Wilma Cooper and they’re coming up on a half-century together any day now.
Don Davidson was a gift to me from the Lord. One Sunday morning in 1996, I think, he and Audrey showed up in our morning worship at FBC Kenner, LA. He had just become a trustee of our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and because they loved this city–or wanted to get to know it, I forget which–they had arrived early to visit plantation homes and restaurants and they chose to visit our church. I took them to lunch that day, and our friendship was off and running.
Don pastors the FBC of Alexandria, Virginia, a D.C. suburb, and may be the finest pastor of anyone I know. There is a kindness and gentleness that comes through one-on-one as well as through his preaching. Don is bright and curious, an inveterate reader (not, Ginger, an invertebrate one, however!), and the best conversationalist of anyone I know with the possible exception of Jim Graham. Sometimes when I’m needing a conversation with him, I just drop in to www.fbcalexandria.org and read his journal. It’s the next best thing to sitting at a sidewalk cafe over lattes with him.
David Crosby was a surprise to me. In the summer of 1996, while I was recuperating from thyroid surgery, I watched on live television as David began his ministry at the FBC of New Orleans. The third Sunday, I was there in person. We’ve been friends ever since.
We have lunch together rarely, but when we do, we out-talk each other. He has the most active mind, the most sensitive heart, and the best touch of any preacher I know for communicating the love of Christ from the pulpit. I often urge young pastors to take off a Sunday and visit his services. (They start at 9:30 on Sunday mornings, so some pastors could be back in their own church in time to preach.) I tell them, “Get there early. Watch David as he circulates throughout the sanctuary greeting people, just loving his folks. When he stands to begin the service, his conversational tone is simply a continuation of what he was just saying to you in the aisle a few minutes ago.”
Ken Gabrielse, the longest-tenured of any staffer I ever served with. These days, Ken wears the august title of (ahem) “Warren Angell Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Oklahoma Baptist University.” But for some 15 years through the 1990s and into the 2000s, while chairing the music department at our seminary here in New Orleans, he served as minister of music at FBC Kenner. He brought a hundred things to this part-time position: a great work ethic, a strong integrity, much laughter, and truckloads of common sense. As tough as my years were leading this church, they would have been unbearable without his friendship, example, encouragement, and advice.
Ken is married to Jana, and their son-in-law Ron Laitano, married to Andrea, is now our church’s minister of music (as well as education). So, we still get to see each other once in a while, particularly as their oldest grandchild is here (and is soon to be joined by a sister or brother).
My Uncle Ed. I told Margaret I was going to include Ed and she laughed, “I thought you were just going to mention living people.” I said, “Well, since I’ve brought Uncle Ed back to life, the least I could do is include him in this list.”
My Facebook friends hear about Uncle Ed all the time. He is what is officially known as a literary creation, someone writers make up from whole cloth as a foil for their funny lines. In this case, Ed had plenty of funny lines for our family, so I did not have to “create” him, but merely resurrect him, so to speak.
His name was Edwin McKeever. There was a middle name, but no one remembers it. My dad Carl was the oldest of an even dozen children born to George and Bessie McKeever. Ed was maybe the fourth or fifth child. Something happened to Ed when he was a kid, I don’t recall what exactly. I remember Grandma talking about it. Some kind of accident, which left him forever just slightly off. Grandma Bessie, as we called her, was a fascinating mixture of mercy and law, and in Ed’s case, he got the full dose of mercy from her. She defended him from a rowdy family of energetic brothers and powerful sisters. Ed served in the Army in WW2, was married perhaps half a dozen times, and left a couple of sons behind when he died.
My brothers and sisters still talk about Ed and laugh over some of his antics. When he joined us in the family card game of rummy, you did not want him as your partner because he had rules of his own making and would drive you crazy while he had everyone else in stitches. I recall his telling of the time he needed a job, found out a factory was hiring electricians, and joined the queue outside the gate that was applying. Even though he did not know a kilowatt from a wrench, he got the job and kept it by doing one very smart thing: he watched the other men and did what they did. He could talk himself into anything and then out of the same deal.
So, when you read on my Facebook page something my Uncle Ed said or did, you may want to know two things: he’s been in Heaven many years now and never actually said or did these things, but anything I say he said or did is perfectly within character for him to have done or said. Got that?
In Heaven, they’re all scratching their heads wondering what he meant by some of the stories he is telling. And Grandma is standing alongside to comfort her boy. I can’t wait to get there myself.
So, what do all these friends have in common? I’m glad you asked.
Leaving off Uncle Ed, we have three preachers, two laymen, and two music/worship ministers.
1) They’re all smarter than I am.
2) None of them take themselves too seriously, but love to laugh.
3) They’re all better Christians than I could ever hope to be. Once in the 1970s when I had taken my sons (they were teenagers) to an Atlanta Braves game and met up with their Uncle Joel Davis there, Joel said to me, “Wilma and I pray for you every day.” I was stunned. He and I would see each other once a decade and talk perhaps once a year, and here they were interceding for me before the Lord every day. That’s what I mean by “better Christians than I.”
4) And, none are cartoonists, none do after-dinner banquet talks trying to be funny, and all like the fact that I am and I do.
That’s enough for strong friendships in my book!