Among the people in my past I give thanks for most is the small parade of friends who loved me enough to confront me about some area that needed my serious attention.
As a freshman at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, two-thirds of a lifetime ago, I was approached by classmate Bob Cornell who asked if I would like to help him a couple of afternoons washing windows at the president’s home. I casually answered, “Sure,” and walked with him the next afternoon across the highway to the president’s mansion where we cleaned windows in preparation for an open house the school’s first lady had scheduled. Now, I grew up on the farm and certainly knew what hard work was, but washing windows was not the way I wanted to spend my autumn afternoons. So, the next day, I just simply did not show up, and thought nothing about it.
“Mrs. Bertrand wants to see you,” Bob said to me that evening in the cafeteria. “Me? Why?” I said, without a clue. “She says you had made a commitment to help me wash windows and you let us down.” I laughed and shrugged it off. To my way of thinking, I had agreed to help my friend wash windows that one afternoon, but I did not sign on for anything more, and I surely made no commitment to the president’s wife. I put it out of my mind.
A couple of days later, the hall phone in our dormitory rang and someone yelled my name. It was Mrs. Bertrand. “Are you busy?” she asked. “I’ll be by in five minutes. Meet me in front of your dorm.”
I was 18 years old and a high school graduate–even the valedictorian of our little school–but I will admit to you I did not have a clue why this important lady was coming to see me. However, I dutifully stood in front of the dormitory and when she pulled up in her station wagon, I got in.
“Joe,” she said, “I want to talk to you about responsibility.” And she did. She talked for the next 10 minutes while driving from our campus down a lonely wooded highway leading further back into the mountains where the college’s high school was located. Then she turned around and drove back. By the time she finished, I felt lower than a snake’s belly. And no, I never did offer a defense, such as not thinking I had made a commitment, or that I had made one only to Cornell. To tell the truth, I was honored that this distinguished lady would take such a personal interest in me. And I’ve never forgotten the lesson she taught that day.
By the time we got back to campus, she had offered me another assignment. For the rest of the school year, I became a chauffeur for her children, driving into Rome to pick them up after school, taking them to music lessons, running little errands for the family, and often taking the evening meal with the family.
The next summer, due to a family situation, I transferred to a college in Birmingham and lost contact with the Bertrand family, but I never forgot the time when the president’s wife went to the trouble to teach personal accountability to one of the world’s most clueless individuals.
I once owned a book titled “The Courage to Confront.” The title alone says it all. It takes courage to go to a friend and call him or her to task for some failure or fault. If you doubt this, when was the last time you told a friend he smelled bad or she needed a breath mint? I’ve been in both situations and chickened out, unable to summon the courage to say those difficult words.
I still get red-faced thinking of the times when my friend Jim emitted an unpleasant body odor. I never could bring myself to mention it to him. Then one day, a couple of years later, my wife pointed out to me that there was a certain “tired” odor coming from my body. “You need to get more rest,” she said. When I assured her that was surely not the problem, she said, “Have you been taking garlic tablets?” I had, and that was the culprit. I’m confident this was Jim’s problem also, and I wish I had been a better friend to him.
There’s a wonderful line from Proverbs that goes, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” (Prov. 27:6)
Soon after graduating from college and marrying Margaret, my first pastorate was tiny Unity Baptist Church in Kimberly, Alabama. It was an offshoot from the local First Baptist Church, so naturally they named it Unity. That’s how we Baptists are. They ran 30 on Sunday mornings when I came, and fourteen months later when I left, they still ran 30, so I didn’t hurt them any But they did me a lot of good. After majoring in history with plans to be a teacher, I’d been called into the ministry as a senior and began making plans to attend seminary to continue my education. In the meantime, I needed some pastoral experience and Unity consented to give me some. As we say in the Deep South, bless their hearts.
Now, bear in mind, I had no training for standing in front of the church and leading a worship service or opening the Bible and bringing a sermon. None, that is, other than seeing other people do it. So I gave it a try. A few weeks later, Mr. Carter called and asked if I would drive out to the church one evening so we could visit. Our small congregation had only one deacon and he was elderly, so Mr. Carter filled the void and gave us all the lay leadership we needed. That evening, he needed to help his young, raw pastor.
“I know you mean well,” he began. I wondered what he could possibly be talking about. “But you are using slang from the pulpit and it’s offending a lot of people and setting a bad example for our children.” Slang? Me? Evidently, I was, for Mr. Carter had a list of my offenses. “Gosh, gee, heck, golly, shoot. You probably know, Brother Joe, that those are substitutes for profanity.” They are? I didn’t know. Shoot, this was just the way I talked. For the next few minutes, this kindly man told me what each of those expletives replaced, and impressed on me the need for purity of speech. I was all of 22 years old, and the only thing I can think of to my credit in this story is that I took it. I did not argue with him, but agreed. And I began to pay attention to how I conducted myself and the language I used.
I’m 64 years old now, and it’s a lesson I never forgot. I wish I could tell you that was the last time any church leader had to call me aside and rebuke me for a failure. Alas, the examples have multiplied over the years.
Like the time in my first church after seminary–I was now 27 and should have known better–when I made some clever crack from the pulpit about someone looking like “a refugee from a polio factory.” I do not have the slightest notion what that meant or how it was intended. I do recall that I thought it sounded clever and that was good enough for me. That afternoon, someone called me at home and reminded me that Vickie Etheridge was sitting out in the congregation and had heard that comment. Vickie, wheelchair-bound ever since her bout with polio years earlier. Vickie, the sweetest and kindest young lady on the planet. Vickie, who never would take umbrage at anything her foolish pastor might say. Vickie, who four years later went on to become Miss Wheelchair America. Foolish me.
Same church, a year earlier. As the new pastor, I enlisted another driver–a teenager of all things–and we drove two carloads of adolescents to the state capital for a statewide youth gathering. Late that night, on the way home, he and I got into a race with speeds up to 80 and 90 miles per hour. Think of that now–two cars loaded with youngsters who are all looking to me, the pastor, to set the example, and I’m acting like the most immature kid on the planet. The next day, several parents came by to visit. None of them had any difficulty lacking the courage to confront.
It takes a lot of maturity to know when to confront someone about their behavior and when to let it ride. When to ask the pastor why he said such a foolish thing and when to ignore it. When to hold a teacher accountable for some questionable statement and when to leave it alone. When to insert yourself into some young person’s life for a lesson on accountabilty, and when to leave it to someone else.
You will be interested to know that a quarter of a century after my leaving Berry College, the church I was serving in Mississippi gave a “this is your life” day in honor of our tenth anniversary. A few months before, one of the ladies of the congregation interviewed unsuspecting me about the people in my life who had had the most influence. Among the teachers and leaders who stood out, I mentioned Mrs. Bertrand, the wife of the president of Berry College, and told the lesson she taught me on responsibility. Imagine my surprise that Sunday in January of 1984 when this distinguished couple appeared in my congregation to honor a student whom they barely remembered, if at all. They had driven hundreds of miles to be present, and would not be reimbursed for their expenses. I was–and still am–honored more than I can ever say.
I once heard Alex Haley give a lecture. The emcee him told how this author of the highly acclaimed “Roots” had received innumerable awards and honorary degrees. The list went on and on. Finally, Mr. Haley rose to speak. His opening words were: “Any time you find a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know he had some help in getting there.”
I’m not a turtle, and I’m not on a fence post, but I’ve had a lot of help in getting here. Some of those who helped me most inflicted a little pain in the process. But the wounds of a friend are faithful.