People Are Breakable. Handle With Care.


Before rendering his verdict, the arbitrator in a church conflict case turned to the men sitting at both tables and said, “I remind myself that these are not sterile decisions I will be rendering. In making judgments about others, we are handling the fine china of human lives.”

Should Paul Hamm return the gold medal for men’s gymnastics, awarded him in error due to miscalculations of some judges? Some Olympic officials seem to think so. When asked why they could not simply award a second gold medal to the rightfully deserving Koreans, one authority replied, “We can’t do that.” Why not? The rules do not allow it. The Americans respond that, if it’s rules you like, Hamm followed the rules and received the medal. Stripping him of the gold might be a simple act to an Olympic judge, but it takes on epic proportions to a young person who has devoted years of his life to arrive at this moment.

Someone should remind the judges in every athletic event, Olympics to little league, that they are handling the fine china of human lives.

School teachers are back in the classroom. Coaches are now assembling teams for the gridiron and gymnasium. What a scary job these people have, handling the fine china of young lives.

Fine china. Precious and breakable. An apt metaphor for people, but particularly for children.

They arrested a policeman on the northshore above New Orleans this week. He is accused of fondling a 14 year old girl he had picked up. A student minister in another part of the country has been charged with similar contact with girls in his church youth group. A stepfather is arrested. A priest.

For breaking china.

I’ve been given an assignment to travel to the central part of our state and bring a conference on encouragement to a group of religious leaders. When asked if this assignment suited me, I quickly responded in the affirmative. As one who has been the recipient of a great deal of encouragement and support in my 64 years, I know the power of a kind word, a pat on the back, a note in the mail, and a few dollars slipped into one’s hands.

At the heart of the word encouragement is the Latin word for heart, “cor.” We see it in Richard Coeur-de-Lion, “Richard the lion-hearted,” and in the word “core,” the heart of something. To encourage someone is to give them heart. Discouraging them, we cause them to lose heart.

I shivered at the graveside services of a church member. A 20-something year old pastor, I was fresh out of seminary and learning how to lead a church and minister to people. The Mississippi winter had brought a freezing drizzle that day, and I could feel the cold wind through my thin suit. An hour later, I walked into the church office and found a package on my desk containing a London Fog overcoat. I wore it for years, but never without breathing a prayer of thanks for the encouragement of Ethel Keeling, a gracious lady in our church who decided to encourage her pastor.

During our years of seminary, my wife and I occasionally received notes of encouragement from her aunt, Winona Franklin of Eutaw, Alabama. She worked for a department store and Uncle Cornelius drove an oil truck. They had little of this world’s goods, but always, there would be a check for fifty dollars–a significant gift in the 60s–with the notation in the lower left corner: “For love.”

At the age of 30, I was recommended to join the staff of a much larger church in Mississippi. As we made plans to move from our parsonage with our two young sons, a neighboring pastor dropped by. He said, “I’ve bought some new clothes and wonder if you would be insulted if I gave you some of my old suits.” James Richardson of Leland, Mississippi, presented me with seven of the most beautiful suits I had ever seen. I wore them for years. And, if I do say so, looked great.

One Saturday morning when I was eight, my coal-miner father told me to get my coat and go with him. We walked down off that West Virginia mountain and up a valley along a railroad track to the town of Sophia, a mile away. There, in a variety store, my dad–who never darkened the door of a church, but recognized my love for the Lord and my spiritual nature–purchased a black Bible with a zippered binding for his son. It was the most welcome gift I’ve ever received in 64 years of life.

Encouragement comes in all shapes and sizes. A kind word. A small gift. A note. A phone call. A word of praise from a teacher.

As a new seminary student, I was fearful about my ability to do graduate level work. I had not been the most diligent student in my college days and worked for two years after college before heading to New Orleans for graduate studies. That first semester, I took Church History under Professor Claude Howe. When the first test papers were graded and returned, the class sat on pins and needles, afraid we had done poorly. Then, the professor’s grader, Buddy Shurden, said something that has stayed with me for these 40 years. “If you students want to see how to answer these questions, I suggest you look at Mister McKeever’s paper.” Bingo. Encouragement that lives in memory for decades.

No one knows who said it first. I’ve read it from ministers who said it hundreds of years ago. It’s still great advice. “Pastor, when you enter the pulpit, offer encouragement. Everyone in the pews is struggling with something.”

People. God loves them. Jesus died for them. Handle with care.

7 thoughts on “People Are Breakable. Handle With Care.

  1. Bro. McKeever, What a blessing this was. I shed a tear as I was reminded of the many sweet things, both great and small that other “jars of clay” have done…”for love”. Being in the ministry, or what I call any service position, brings with it burdens, people who are difficult and many who are loaded with problems. Those little “Loves” are what makes us smile when we think it not possible. I look at it as God’s way of saying “I am paying attention, and I am sending of my encouragers to let you know that I see you need a hug today.” Here at Ebenezer, we call them “Happys”! It may be a bag of green peppers, a love offering, or hand me downs, but it’s really what it does to the human spirit that makes all the difference. Thanks for helping me remember all the wonderful people who have crossed our ministry in these 32 years my husband/pastor and I’ve been together. God Bless you today, Shirley Williams – Wiggins, MS

  2. Thanks,Joe,for reminding me how important it is that people need to be encoraged. I will begin teaching a Ladies’ Sunday School Class in October and I needed this reminder from the Lord. I have not taught in about 15 years and I want to honor the Lord in every way. Please remember me in your prayers. I passed your greeting along to Kenneth during one our weekly phone visits. He sends his hello.

  3. Hi, Joe. Thanks again for one of many great articles you have written. To see Ethel Keeling’s and James Richardson’s names brought great memories to me of Emmanuel and Washington County. I thank Jesus for letting me preach/pastor at Emmanuel following your pastorate there, and I’m glad He allowed me to recommend you to that church. Your article was a great encouragement to me as it was to so many others. Keep up your work for Jesus. Hugh.

  4. Hi Joe,

    I wish I knew words adequate enough to express our love and appreciation to you. This was a great article and it brought back memories to me, too, of Ethel Keeling and Bro. Richardson. Please know that your email devotionals continue to uplift and encourage us, both Jack and me.

    May God continue to bless you and yours,

    Marian Smith

  5. Hi,

    I can’t tell you how much we miss you at church!!

    I wanted to let you know Mike’s mom passed on 8/11. She had a massive stroke. This has been very hard on Mike & his dad. His dad is now alone in Odessa, Tx. I stayed with him for almost two weeks after she died. It was very difficult to leave him. Please pray for Mike & his dad. They really need the comfort.

    Thank you,


  6. Hi, Joe-

    Thank you so much for writing this. It brought back a flood of memories of the encouragement and blessings which our dear church friends poured out upon us when Tara and I were first married and in seminary. You’ve reminded me how important it is to encourage others and inspired me to go find someone to encourage this week.

    Thank you for encouraging us, both through our pre-marital counseling with you and on our wedding day. God used you mightily in the early days of our engagement and marriage. We still look to those sessions w/you as being so formative and important when we were seeking God’s will for our lives.

    May God continue to bless you and your family.

    In His grip,

    Christopher A. Reed

  7. Brother Joe,

    It is interesting that you would write on encouragement. Even when faced with a no, it is sometimes better than no answer at all. God Bless.

    Jim T.

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