Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A legend in my life passes on

Death is always difficult. Yet I'm one of those weird people who likes to read the obits in the daily paper. Now, mind you, in the past year, I haven't yet read the obit of anyone I know because I just moved to Utah ten months ago and haven't had the time to get to know very many people. Each day it seems that there are one or two obits published in the Salt Lake Tribune that stand out, so I read them in an attempt to get some answers. How did the person die? Who is he/she leaving behind? What accomplishments were there? Was their life well lived? Does it look like this person had any regrets? In other words, what was their story?

So just an hour ago I found out that a good man recently died on April Fools Day. Dr. Gordon Johnson was my favorite professor in seminary. I found this out minutes ago when I called his home phone number, as I occasionally did, to chat with my old professor. It was obvious something was up when I discovered his line had been disconnected. I wrote the forwarded number down, tentatively dialed, and then waited as Dr. Johnson's daughter-in-law answered. After stumbling around, she told me that, at age 91, he passed away peacefully a week ago Friday.

I guess this jolt didn't really surprise me--I had prepared myself when I dialed the new number. I always knew that, one day, my friend would no longer be able to give me advice, listen to me tell him about the latest sermon I preached, or give me updates about the two book projects he was working on, including an autobiography. The last time I talked to him, I encouraged him: "Dr. Johnson, you've got to finish writing those books." He said he was trying but added that maybe he tried to bite off too much. When I asked about the books, his daughter-in-law informed me that neither was finished. In his autobiography, he only got to age 25. Too bad because that's when the good part started!. I was looking forward to purchasing the first copy, which he promised me in our last conversation that I could do.

This was a special man who took an interest in me back in 1989 when I took him for "preaching" classes. You ought to know that I almost didn't get an M.Div. in 1991, as I was willing to settle for a lesser degree that didn't require three quarters of Greek and three quarters of preaching. These courses terrified me. The Greek professor was a translator of the NIV who was brutal in his old-fashioned teaching style! As for preaching, my first quarter of "Introduction to Preaching" was taught by a particular professor who, frankly, sliced, diced, and served back to us the gnarly mess we had dished out. It was intimidating and could not be considered a great start. I decided that I just didn't like to preach.

Then I had the privilege of taking Dr. Johnson for my last two quarters. Dr. Johnson had the ability to tell a person that the delivery was horrendous, the sermon was a stinker, and a child could have done better, yet you would hardly know it because he was so gentle and kind. He taught his students how to tell stories that enraptured an audience, a tactic I try to use with every sermon. And lo and behold, my attitude began to change. I started to "get it, " even earning an A in my final quarter. I was given the tools in crafting an intelligent, structured homily that could be applied by the audience to which I was speaking.

The next year, Dr. Johnson became the interim pastor at the local church where my wife and I attended. During this time, Dr. Johnson (he told me to call him "Gordon" but I just could never do it) and his wife Alta invested t in Terri and me. They had us over to their home several times and always made us feel like we were special friends of theirs. We were quite honored. In fact, they served as mentors to us during that year. His one year in the pulpit  included better preaching than anything I had seen before. Since that time, I have watched hundreds of preachers, but Dr. Johnson's style had the most impact in my life, bar none. He told stories that had the audience enraptured; it was impossible to daydream with this man at the helm. During the year at Clairemont Emmanuel Baptist, I learned a lot about story-telling. Today I still use his expository method.  His example also helped me in the profession I later chose, teaching. I can still hear him saying, "Eric, preach it well and they'll listen." He taught by example.

When I look at the obits in the Tribune, it does not trouble me to close the paper and walk away. The lives I just read about really won't make any significant impact on my life as I'll forget these people in a day or two. This can't be said for the life of Dr. Gordon Johnson. I'll miss him, but I know he's in a much better place, dancing with Alta in heaven. "Well done, good and faithful servant," is what I know he heard on April Fools Day. I look forward to the day when we can meet again around God's heavenly throne. Maybe he'll have finished his autobiography by then.

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