Monday, February 13, 2012

Thank God for the "giants" in our lives

When my two kids left home for college - the first in 2000, the second in 2004 - I gave each of them the same final word of advice, which was some variation of the following: "Be sensitive to the presence of 'giants' in your life - those people who care enough to invest themselves in you - and welcome their contribution, the difference they can make in your life."

I hope they've taken that advice. From the growth that I've seen in both of them over the years since, I believe they did - intentionally or not.

I gave that advice to them because I'm very much aware that I would not be the person I am today if it were not for the presence of such "giants" - or whatever you want to call them - in my life over the years.

Of course, my family has given to me much more than I could ever give back to them, especially my Dad, to whom I wrote a tribute in this space last year. And I can't imagine my life without my wife, Joanna. The love, encouragement, and companionship she has given me for over 35 years now - what a gift from God! Our wonderful children, Alison and Travis, their spouses Adam and Christy, and our grandchildren. My sister, Patsy, and her husband, Palmer, and their kids and grandkids. God has blessed me beyond measure.

Beyond my family, there have been many, too many to name in the time and space allotted to me here. But, since my advice to my kids was given as they prepared to enter college, I'll just name a few who were instrumental during my college years. After all, my college years were where my journey of faith - on which I'm still traveling today - really began, where the faith that I experience today really took root.

When I was a student at OBU and underwent a severe faith crisis - one which wound up lasting beyond my college years - a friend in the next room, Ron Russey, shared with me that he understood my doubting and questioning, because he had experienced the same thing. Through many late-night "bull sessions" in Brotherhood Dorm, Ron and my roommate, Cary Wood, helped me to begin the process of confronting - and thinking through - my questions and doubts . . . the process of struggling with the great questions of faith and searching for something I could accept as truth.

Ron pointed me to another who became a "giant" in my life, Jerry Barnes. Jerry had been Ron's pastor when Ron was growing up in Hobart, Oklahoma. When I lost my faith, Ron knew where I needed to go. By this time (November 1970, my sophomore year), Jerry was pastoring right across the street from the OBU campus, at University Baptist Church, Shawnee. Ron told me I needed to go see Jerry.

I was very honest with Jerry, telling him that I had completely lost my faith in God or any belief that Jesus was God's son. Jerry asked me to join University Baptist Church. Some pastors . . . probably most pastors . . . even if they had been willing to counsel me, would have surely barred me from joining the church. But Jerry wanted me in church, where I could be challenged to keep digging for the truth, and I'm sure Jerry knew that I would be a lot more likely to be in church regularly if I were a member.

So I joined, and I met with Jerry in his office about once a semester for my remaining years at OBU. I would share with Jerry where I was in my "search" or "struggle," and Jerry would listen patiently and then try to help me take the next steps I needed to take on the journey. And that's not to mention his sermons that challenged me to dig more deeply into Scripture than I had ever dug before.

One of the most gracious things that God does for us is to put "giants" like Jerry Barnes in our path right when we need them . . . and "giants" like Ron Russey in our path to point us to the Jerry Barneses.

I would be remiss if I didn't back up for just a moment and name two "giants" that preceded my college years. Two people who believed in me and invested in me when I had a hard time believing in myself. When I was growing up, music was my great love, and I planned to go into the music ministry before my faith crisis short-circuited that dream. Both my decision to go into the music ministry and my decision to attend OBU were inspired by my respect for my minister of music when I was in Youth Choir at Bethany Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO, in the 1960s.

Joe Dell Rust invested in me, both as my music minister and as my friend. When I was not quite 14, he put me in a boys' quartet he was forming. Even at 14, I was already singing bass. By the time I was 16, Joe had me singing solos in Sunday School classes and even in worship services. The summer before I left for OBU, Joe and I would sit in his backyard on Saturday mornings, where he gave me something of a "preparatory course" in music theory. Music Theory, which so many students found intimidating, wound up being my best subject at OBU. Though I didn't wind up with a career in the music ministry, I spent many years singing in church choirs, and even 9 years directing - and singing in - a mixed choral ensemble. The musical training I received from Joe - and OBU - didn't go to waste.

Joyce Stuermer was the music teacher at Oak Park High School in Kansas City. She learned early on that I could read music and could sing. She encouraged me to try out for A Cappella Choir - the premier vocal group of the school, but I was scared to death to audition in front of that 70- to 80-voice choir. I just didn't have much confidence. During my sophomore and junior years, she began bugging me whenever she saw me in the hallway - "Bill Jones, you'd better come try out, because I'm not giving up on you!" I finally auditioned and became a member of A Cappella Choir at the beginning of my senior year.

In the spring, we began rehearsals for The Music Man. She had given me a one-line solo in the song, Wells Fargo Wagon. But shy Bill was singing it too timidly for her taste. She wanted me to push my way through the crowd and "let 'er rip"; so one night, in the middle of rehearsal, she stopped everything, proclaimed it "Bill Jones Night," and showed me - in front of the entire company (well over 100 students) - exactly how she wanted it done, and demanded that I practice it until I had done it to her satisfaction. In the years to come, at those moments when I struggled to believe in myself, I found myself remembering one person - Joyce Stuermer - who refused to give up on Bill Jones.

But back to post-OBU. There have been many "giants" in my life in the ensuing years . . . too many to name. Just in the past 10 years, as my involvement in denominational life has grown, I've had countless (literally, countless) friends and encouragers - "giants," if you will - who have helped me take the next steps in denominational life, and in my faith journey, just as Jerry Barnes did 40 years ago.

We paid tribute to one of them last August. As I told the crowd gathered for dinner that night, David Currie has been responsible - either directly or indirectly (directly, in most cases) - for every opportunity I've had to serve in Baptist life over the past decade, from the BGCT Executive Board to the Baptist Laity Institute to the TBC Board to the TBMaston Foundation Board to my current position as TBC associate executive director. But then, hundreds of Texas Baptist laypersons could make similar statements about David's contribution to their lives. Truly a "giant" who has invested himself in the lives of many people.

My advice works both ways. Yes, be sensitive to the presence of "giants" in your life, be open to their influence and contribution to your life, and celebrate them with your life. But also be sensitive to the opportunity to invest in the lives of others. Give as you've been given. You can't fully know - and you might never know - the impact you will have in and through their lives. One day, some of them might look back on you as one of the "giants" in their lives.

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