Now, trouble and me are no strangers to one another.
As a student in elementary and also in high school, I sometimes earned the reproach of teachers and principals. As a 7th grader, I was paddled by the principal for something crude a teacher thought I’d said to her. (It was close enough to being crude for her to think I said something worse than what I’d actually said, so I took the paddling without protest.)
In the 8th grade, a substitute teacher broke a pencil over my head, she was so frustrated.
As a high schooler, I was known to pop off to any authority figure if I thought it would bring a laugh. (Getting laughs was always big in my book and worth any risk.)
Principal Andy Davis stood before our senior class at Winston County High School. “There is entirely too much commotion going on in the hallways during the lunch period. And you seniors are the worst. If this keeps on, we’re going to cancel lunch break altogether and march you to the cafeteria and back to the classroom.”
He went on like that for a bit, making sure we knew how angry he was and how serious we should take this.
Then he paused. “Are there any questions?”
I raised my hand.
I said, “Mr. Davis, how long before you put us in balls and chains?”
Yep. I actually said that, then held my breath. (Hey, it had popped into my head, and without adequate controls in place, whatever occurred to me usually came right out of my mouth without a pause for anything.)
He said, “I might have known you’d have something to say,” and left the room.
As I recall, no one laughed. No one said anything to me. But I had bearded the lion.
I had enjoyed it, even if no one else did.
That’s my only excuse.
But in seminary, there was no excuse.
By this time, I was in my early 30s and working on a doctorate. I had pastored three churches and at the time was serving in a staff position at First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi.You’d think I had figured out this spiritual maturity business by now. And you’d think wrong.
I was in New Orleans during the week and home on the weekends.
One day I got an invoice from the seminary.
For one dollar.
That just struck me as absurd, an invoice from my seminary for one solitary dollar. I forget what it was for. The business office had cranked up their machinery, printed out that invoice, and spent good money mailing it to me, so I could write them a check (which cost something, I forget how much) and buy a postage stamp and mail it to them.
It was rather ridiculous, I felt, and therefore I was just constitutionally unable to keep my frustration to myself.
So, along with my check, I returned their invoice, on the back of which I wrote the words to an old Irish blessing. “May you be in heaven a half-hour before the devil knows you’re dead.”
That’s all I wrote.
The spirit of whimsy, with which I was born and which seems to be part of my DNA, was alive and well.
What I had not counted on was that the administration of the seminary at that time was completely devoid of a sense of humor.
I put it in the mail and forgot it.
A few days later, back on campus and in the classroom for an evangelism seminar, I was startled by Professor Eugene Patterson saying, “Joe, what did you mean by that note you wrote on the back of the invoice to the business office?”
Yikes. My first thought was, “Oh no. If he knows about it, who else does?”
What had happened is that the business manager showed my note to the dean who showed it to the president, who called in my faculty advisor and asked him to deal with it.
Dr. Patterson said, “Joe, the seminary cannot have someone graduating with a terminal degree who is angry at the school.”
I insisted I was angry at no one, that I was just having a little fun.
At his suggestion, on returning home, I wrote letters of apology to the business manager (Mr. McLemore), to the dean (J. Hardee Kennedy), and to the president (Grady Cothen).
I was 32 years old and it was beginning to look like I would never grow up.
I still love that little Irish blessing, incidentally. I just try to be more careful where I use it.
What exactly does it mean? Well, to be “in heaven a half-hour before the devil knows you’re dead” would indicate you had put one over on Beelzebub, that he was after you but you made it home safely.
Which is exactly the case, thanks to the precious blood of Jesus. “By one offering, He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14).
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Irish or not, I think you will agree that is some kind of blessing!