Today, as I begin this article, it is April 8, 2018 – one day after my son Bryan’s 50th birthday. I spoke in a part of the Dallas East Region of the Dallas/Fort Worth Church, a part that has most of our East campus students in it. Our oldest grandson, Bryce Gordon Ferguson, is a part of this campus ministry. I asked for the opportunity to speak because I had some things on my heart that I thought were especially important for young people who are in the process of making major decisions about their lives. The lesson is entitled, “Life Choices, Purpose, and Eternity,” and the audio of it can be heard on this website: dfwchurch.org.
The outcome of the lesson surprised me, for it clearly exceeded my expectations regarding how it hit me emotionally and how it hit many of those in the audience. It was another of those “God moments” where he honored his promise to do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us (Ephesians 3:20).” God has stirred up the gifts he has given me so many times in similar ways that I sometimes wonder why it still surprises me. I know it must be because it is so obviously him and not me; sometimes him in spite of me. At any rate, it was one of those times when I am left drained emotionally and touched spiritually beyond words. And yet I write…
A Strange Book
The biblical basis of the sermon was the Book of Ecclesiastes, a strange book as I explained in introducing the lesson. It is strange in that much of it sounds really pessimistic and faithless. It was written by King Solomon as an old man, who, after having started his reign in such a good spiritual place, ended up in a bad spiritual place. In the book, he described his search for the true meaning of life. He went down at least four dead-end streets and described them as “meaningless” and a “chasing after the wind.” The word meaningless is found 35 times in the book.
The pessimism of the book is explained pretty well by the phrase, “under the sun,” which is found 29 times. In other words, Solomon is describing life as it appears from only a human perspective – without God in it. Of course, at times, he puts God in the equation and when that happens, life is seen differently. The streets he took in his search for life’s meaning are very familiar ones, the same streets humans have been traveling for centuries, including our own. They are: wisdom (including education in order to obtain it); pleasure; possessions and accomplishments; and finally, power and position.
At the end of his failed and frustrating searches, he shared the reality of what really matters in these words: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).” Many times during the previous chapters, he mentioned that we will all die – rich and poor, wise and foolish, servant and master, young and old – all die. Now he concludes by stating that the only thing past death is meeting God in the Judgment Day.
Old Guys and Their Musings
I’m not surprised that he thought a lot about death. Old people do. I do. Our candles of life are nearing the last of the wax and about to be snuffed out. Of course we think about the “end game!” We are no longer at the back of the line or the middle of the line – we are near the front of it and our number is about to be called. That being true, the certainty of the Judgment resides in our hearts and minds pretty much daily. If God is in the middle of our priorities, that is a good thought; if he isn’t, that is a scary thought. Hence the reason for the sermon, to help the young realize the brevity of life and how important their choices are. Most choices are inconsequential. Others are very important because they are developing our characters one decision at a time. Some are ultimately important because they significantly determine our direction in life and our destination in eternity. Solomon made many bad choices, choices that I desperately want my fellow disciples to avoid at all costs, particularly the young ones.
Within the lesson, as I moved toward the conclusion, I explained how I had tried all of the same four searches for meaning and succeeded in all of them at a very early age. My life has been blessed with many successes, in both my pre-Christian days and especially in my Christian days. As I thought about what I had said, I started thinking about the specifics involved. A couple of passages came to mind in my contemplation, passages written by two of my greatest biblical heroes, David and Paul.
You give me your shield of victory, and your right hand sustains me; you stoop down to make me great.
I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles.
Now I realize that applying these passages to oneself can seem arrogant and presumptuous. Point taken. It would be true if you were looking at them “under the sun” from merely a human perspective, but I am most decidedly not doing that or anything close to it. It is all about God and what he has done in my life – more in spite of me than because of me. My gifts are just that – gifts, from beyond me as a human being. When thinking about God stooping down to make me great, I don’t mean great in the eyes of men or great in my own eyes. Quite the contrary. I mean great in comparison to what any sane person might have expected of me, given my background and life without Christ, and definitely in comparison to what I would have ever even imagined of myself.
That’s why it all continues to be surprising. I know who I was without God (a total mess) and who I am with God (often still a mess). But as Derik Vett put it in his response to either my message today or to the communion sharing by a sister today, “our mess becomes our message.” And that is what I am trying to describe. Without God I am nothing and with God I am still not much, but in both cases, he can still do his wonders, which means that he receives all of the glory for using flawed mortals to accomplish his purposes.
As to what Paul said, I did advance beyond many of my own age in both my pre-Christian life and in my Christian life, just as Paul did. With both of us, God gave us all of the gifts we possessed and all of the opportunities to develop them and to use them. It was, and is, all about him. “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature (Romans 7:18).” “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).”
Paul said that he was set apart from birth to be God’s messenger. That included the days when he was a fire-breathing dragon of a persecutor of God’s people. I believe that I was set apart from birth to be a preacher of the gospel. That includes my degenerate days when I was far, far from God, having no desire to be any closer to him. Therein lies the wonder of it all. God has a plan for each of us, you included. How many thousands (far more, likely) large and small miracles does he have to work behind the scenes to get us there? Only he knows, but the number must be a staggering one. That is why a Christian cannot really believe in coincidences. Instead, he or she believes in divine interventions as God’s means of carrying out the destinies he had planned for us before we were even born. Is that so hard to believe? Not if you believe the Bible. “Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be (Psalm 139:16).”
God needed to have Paul go though legalistic Jewish training in order to become the apostle to the Gentiles and the greatest expounder of grace the world has ever known. God needed to have me go though worldly successes in order to discover the emptiness of those successes. Only then would I have been open to his plan for my life to become a preacher and teacher of his message and to adopt the way of life described within it. He made sure I got those fruitless searches out of my system at an early age, and by the time I was 25, it was done. At that point, he put a thought in my mind from which I could not escape: “Is this all there is to life?” I remember every detail of the day when he put it there. It remains one of my most vivid memories, a memory now 50 years in the past.
A Long Drive in the Countryside
After arriving home today, I let Theresa out and went for a long prayer drive through the remote countryside nearby. I thanked God for the surprise today, his working in and through me in ways beyond my expectations (although I had prayed for him to use me). I drove slowly for some miles expressing my wonderment at how he keeps working in my life. Then I started just talking through my life with God, recounting the ways that he has allowed me to be raised up beyond any reasonable expectation. The idea that he had done so much quite early in my life just to stop me from looking for answers in all the wrong places became clearer and clearer. Given my background as a redneck bricklayer’s kid raised on the wrong side of the tracks in a highly dysfunctional immediate family and extended family, failure upon failure would have been a much more realistic expectation in my case.
So what about the successes that came my way? Recounting them today in my long talk with God was revealing. Some might explain them as me being more talented than I really was, or being in the right places at the right times, or just being flat-out lucky – but God and I know better. It was all his doing and a part of his plan to develop and use me for his glory. It wasn’t about me; it was about him – from start to finish. If this account sounds like a bragging session, it is – a bragging session about how God can use otherwise weak and sinful humans to honor himself and show his power. To connect anything good in us with “life under the sun” (our own doing) is not simply a disservice to God or an insult to him; it is a sin. Anything that robs or diminishes his glory is a sin.
A Stroll Down Memory Lane
In recounting how God blessed me in spite of me, I started with my earliest years. My parents married just a couple of years after the Great Depression ended, a worldwide economic downturn that began in 1929 and lasted until about 1939. It was the longest and most severe depression ever experienced by the industrialized Western world. Because of the economy, we lived with relatives for the first several years of my life. We were poor, by anyone’s definition. My parents had a terrible early marriage, including a legal separation for a couple of years, which ended when I was five years old. After they got back together, times were still hard. For whatever reasons, we moved from house to house often when I was in elementary school. One or two of the little houses was purchased and the rest were cheap rent houses in not-so-nice neighborhoods. I attended seven different elementary schools.
Most aspects of my life were pretty unpredictable and often pretty unsettled. I had a problem with wetting the bed as a young child, suggesting some emotional problems arising from my environment. My father spanked me for the very problems that he had a major part in causing. My parents both had emotional issues and they passed them on to me. However, I wouldn’t trade my early life with its problems for anything. It was a part of God’s orchestration of making me who I am. Working through problems has made me stronger and prepared me to help others work through their problems. I don’t blame my parents for the damage with which they inflicted me. They were raised in dysfunctional families as well, during very hard times in our country and simply didn’t know any better.
I am sure that they loved me and wanted me, and I am equally sure that they didn’t quite know what to do with me. They had no examples of good marriages or good parenting techniques to imitate. Why blame them for what they really couldn’t fix in themselves? Thankfully, with time and maturity and God, I came to peace with both my past and my parents. For most of my adult life, I had very good relationships with them, by God’s grace. I see it all now as a part of my spiritual preparation. I honestly wouldn’t trade it. I have grown substantially in having to laboriously work through it all, and besides, I have a plethora of wild stories to tell. Some of them aren’t too pretty, but some are downright hilarious. Believe me, in looking back, there is definitely some fun in dysfunctional! See!
“God Things” in Those Early Years
Most of my earliest years don’t contain much that stirs my memory, but here and there were some of the high points that I believe God must have been using to prepare me for higher points in the future. We moved to a small town about 50 miles from my hometown when I was halfway through the third grade. We moved to a new neighborhood near the edge of town just before I started the fourth grade. My parents bought me a (cheap) horse and we had a lot behind our house in which to keep her. No other kid in the small neighborhood had a horse, but the other kids thought I was cool with my horse, and at least a half dozen persuaded their parents to buy them a horse by the time we moved at the end of the school year. I had a definite influence on my friends, and I in retrospect, it involved a rather latent leadership gift inside me.
I also had a teacher that year who figured into the equation. I saw myself as just an average student, at best. I also saw the danger of ending up as a student in Mrs. Carter’s class. Her reputation preceded her, as expressed in “Whatever you do, don’t get Mrs. Carter!” She had a big paddle with holes drilled in it, and she reputedly was quick on the draw and knew how to move the blood from your hind parts up to your face with that paddle. Unfortunately, I got both Mrs. Carter as a teacher and her paddle on my behind. However, because I was afraid of her and that infernal paddle, I applied myself to schoolwork perhaps for the first time. Prior to then, I was known as a “goof-off!” At the end of the year, Mrs. Carter told my mother that I was her best student in the class. That was a first and a shock, but somewhere in my cranial matter, that point got filed away. Maybe there was more to me than I thought, and more than others thought.
The fifth grade was pretty nondescript. I was bussed away to a school on the other side of town, located in a neighborhood a notch or two below my own. It was a seriously poor area, but like all other years, that year passed and I passed – not with the flying colors like when in Mrs. Carter’s class, mind you, but I passed. That teacher (whose name didn’t stay with me) didn’t have a paddle, so my goofing off stage returned. In my family, grades were never much of an issue with my parents. Mother finished high school and Daddy may have. Years after he died, his brothers (my uncles) told me that they thought he had been kicked out of school for gambling or fighting (he did both) just prior to his graduation. Oh, well!
In the sixth grade, at a new school just built in our area of town, God’s apparent intervention began picking up speed. Mrs. Teacle, my teacher, told my mother early in the school year that I was shy and withdrawn and that she was going to draw me out of myself. Whatever she did must have worked. By the end of the year, I had been sent to the principal more than once for “coming out of myself,” so to speak! The female principal had a paddle too, by the way, and didn’t hesitate to use it on me. I have never forgotten Mrs. Teacle, not because of anything that I recall her teaching or even doing to me, but because of what my mother told me about her decision to help me change. I think she succeeded enough to start a leadership gift ball rolling.
God and a Teenager
Then in the seventh grade, I had a number of different teachers each day. Life was certainly different in junior high school. I do remember one of those teachers better than most, whose name was Mr. Renfro. The main reason I remember him is because one day he stopped me and my friend, Everett, in the hall and fussed at us. He said in a frustrated tone, “You boys are capable of doing tenth grade work and you are not even doing seventh grade work!” I honestly took that as a compliment. I didn’t change and start doing even good seventh grade work, but I remember a teacher seeing more in me than I saw in myself.
My approach to school was primarily doing well in subjects that I liked and just doing enough to get by in the ones I didn’t like. Six weeks into the school year, my mother persuaded me to become a band member. The son of a family we knew well was already excelling in band, since he had started the program two years prior. So, we met with Mr. Simmons, the band director, and he said that he could make room for a trombone player, but not another trumpet player (the instrument my friend played and I wanted to play). Thus, I ended up playing trombone. My parents sacrificed to give me private lessons with Mr. Simmons so that I could catch up. To my amazement, I took to it like a duck to water. In a matter of weeks, I was promoted to the concert band (the top band). In a matter of months, I was the “first chair” trombone player (the best one in the band). I had hated my attempts to learn to play the piano a few years prior, but somehow band was clearly my thing. I excelled at it.
When in the eighth grade, I took what I believe was called the “Kuder Interest Inventory.” I looked it up on Google and it is still around, now called the “Kuder Occupational Interest Survey.” It shows where your greatest interests lie, interests that might indicate a suitable career path for the future. Being a Louisiana outdoorsman, I scored 99% in the outdoors category. Next came music at 95% and my interests dropped considerably after that. Math was third, at about 67%. I remember giving the test results a good deal of consideration. My reasoning process led to this thought (and yes, I still remember it well): if I go into some outdoor line of work, I will lose the music side of my life; if I go into the music field of work, I can still hunt and fish on weekends. On this basis my decision was made. I wanted to become a band director just like Mr. Simmons. Once decided, I never wavered from that decision and ended up as a junior high band director upon graduating from college with a degree in music education.
My leadership gift was about to be stirred up much more. In retrospect, it was already functioning in an informal way for years. My friends looked up to me as a leader, although I never thought of it that way. I was the one whose ideas were taken most seriously. What I wanted to do was generally quickly accepted by my circle of friends. I didn’t connect it with being an opinion leader; I just thought that we all had the same opinions and the same preferences.
In the ninth grade (the last year in my junior high school), I was selected to be the drum major in the band. I thought at the time (as did most of my fellow students) that I should have been selected the year prior, but I was fine with waiting another year. Once selected, that event identified me as an up-front leader, and I rather cherished the role. It seemed natural to me, and I was quite confident in it. I look back on it as preparation, not to one day be a band director, but to be a spiritual leader in God’s band. Odd, the details that God works out in our lives, dots that we do not connect except in retrospect.
Another little tidbit was likely a piece of the puzzle that God was assembling in my life during that ninth grade year. I was about the only boy in school that turned 15 while still in junior high. The age requirements were different in Texas, where I started the first grade, than they were in Louisiana. I had to wait until I was almost 7 to start school. Thankfully, in those days in Louisiana, you could get a driver’s license at 15, and I most certainly did. I had already been driving for a couple of years prior, especially when visiting my grandma and uncle in the country. My uncle, who was single and only ten years older than me, virtually gave me the keys of his new ’55 Chevy when I was visiting. Obviously, he was a really good uncle in my eyes – my favorite! When I received that driver’s license in October of my ninth grade year, I was automatically a more popular guy with both males and females. It was indeed a good year! And unbeknownst to me, God was assembling a puzzle with me in the middle of it.
High School – God Was Still There
Then came my entry into high school. But we cannot leave those junior high years without mentioning one thing that is far more important than anything else I described. I met Theresa Ann Clemens in the seventh grade, and because we were both band kids, we had many classes together. We didn’t like each other in any way, and it might be said that we repelled each other. Five years later, however, that was all going to be reversed 180 degrees. Let it suffice at this point in my young history to just say that God was working all things together for good (Romans 8:28) in providing me with the perfect wife for the role that was yet many years away.
I loved my high school years, and band was at the center of it. I started taking private trombone lessons with Mr. Minnear, my new no-nonsense military style band director. I became drum major in my junior year and served in this role for two years. I was a featured soloist at a number of band concerts, and generally excelled in my budding music career. Looking back, I don’t remember anyone else playing solos on that performance stage other than me. Perhaps there were, but I don’t remember it. Although Mr. Minnear would never have shown it, I must have been one of his favorites.
For some reason, I decided a month or so into my tenth grade year to join the Junior ROTC program, a program that at least half of the male students chose. Perhaps the reason was the memory that my mother’s older brother was the first Lieutenant Colonel of the same program back when the school was new. I had seen photos of Uncle Victor in that uniform, with presentation sword hanging at his side – an impressive figure was he! Although I entered the program late, I earned regular promotions, and near the end of my second year, I was in the highest ranking group for Juniors. In the beginning of my senior year, I was promoted with those in the top tier of the Corps. I was told that I would have ended up in the top staff group except for the fact that I was by far the most qualified to be the Company Commander (Captain) of the Band Company. I had been the drum major for that unit the previous year, and now ended up in the Captain’s role.
She Wasn’t An Angel, Or Was She?
God obviously had a plan to use that role for much more than leadership development. Every officer had a female sponsor, and sponsors were elected by the student body. It was basically a popularity contest for the young women. My sponsor was Theresa’s best friend, and Theresa was the sponsor for my Exec officer. We had been in band together, and in many other classes through the years, yet were not even friends. However, when I introduced her to the Company in that white summer sponsor’s uniform, a spark was produced that started a little flame in each of us – a flame that grew in size and intensity within weeks. By the time I turned 18 that October, I believed in my heart of hearts that I had a new girlfriend who was destined to become my wife. Many of my teenage emotions were quite off-target, but that one was spot on accurate!
However, just why she was the ideal choice of a mate would never have entered my worldly mind at the time. A finer preacher’s wife could never have been prepared for me, in retrospect. God has used her in my life in amazing ways, ways without which I would not be going to heaven. She may be human, but she is as close to an angel as I have ever met.
Mediocrity and Excellence Mixed
During my high school years, I may have excelled in band and ROTC, but not in much else. My pattern of doing well in subjects I liked and not putting forth much effort in those I didn’t continued. I don’t remember what my grade point average was, but it wasn’t enough to get me into the Honor Society with Theresa, that’s for sure. Oddly, I still was selected by the faculty to be one of the school’s 10 or 12 representatives at Pelican Boy’s State. Those slots were normally reserved for students with outstanding grades, and considering that our graduating class was about 550, I never understood how I was selected. I suppose it was on the basis of leadership qualities, for it definitely wasn’t based on my grades. That occurrence still seems odd to me. Obviously, my teachers saw past my mediocre efforts in general to view other qualities that I didn’t recognize in myself. God was still in the middle of it all, as he always is.
Then on to my college years, where my choice of schools was determined almost entirely by Theresa’s choice of schools. We entered Northwestern State College (now Northwestern State University) in the fall of 1961 and graduated together in late May of 1965. We crossed the stage together, for we had gotten married in January prior to graduation, between semesters. Getting married while still in college was a dream of mine, although I couldn’t figure out how to do it financially until the summer, a few months before the start of our final year in school. I had saved up as much as I could through my summer construction jobs, and out of nowhere, my mother suddenly remembered a small insurance policy that they had taken out years prior to help with my college costs. It was a small amount, but along with my savings and frugal approach with money, it helped put us over the hump. We ended up having to take out some school loans, but that wasn’t a lot of money. The whole situation aligns with my early life in general, in that things seemed to break my way if I wanted them badly enough.
My study habits improved after we married, and for the first time in my life, I made the Dean’s List. Up until then, I was still in my lazy days of having fun and not sweating the small stuff, and most everything fit into the small stuff category. I went through most of the first two years with a gambling addiction. I played cards almost all night every night, and with a couple of hours sleep, somehow made it through my classes. About 3 days a week, I didn’t sleep at all except in a couple of carefully selected classes. My friend, Ben, who was already married, picked me up between 4 am and 5 am on those days and we went fishing or hunting.
Most of those days, we made it back in time for my first class, but not always. The requirements for attendance were very strict, and I ended up on attendance probation nine straight semesters. If I had missed one class without an approved excuse after that, it would have meant expulsion for the remainder of the semester. How I walked that tightrope is another mystery, given the sleep deprived near-stupor I lived in for the first two years. My grades were none too good, but I managed to pass all of my classes. I had a lot more academic ability than I would have thought, an ability I didn’t fully realize until I was back in a school for ministry training years later.
Characteristically, I only did well in subjects that I liked, and those in my music major curriculum were the only ones that fit into that category. I was selected as drum major as a freshman and that meant four years of being in front of the band. It turned out to mean being up front in more than one way. I was obviously in front leading the band during halftime shows at the football games, but often during most of the rest of the game in the stands, I was directing the pieces we played there. Our band director hated everything about the band’s role at games, and he pretty much left everything up to me. For all practical purposes, I was serving as a college band director on those occasions. I relished it all and did it well. From God’s perspective, it was all spiritual leadership training, something I could not have come close to imagining at the time.
God and the Next Phase
Theresa and I both graduated with education degrees, hers in upper elementary and mine in music. We were hoping to find positions back in our hometown of Shreveport, but we heard nothing from that school district in the time period that most were finding jobs. We went to interviews in several places in the state, and were offered jobs. Just as we were about to accept the offers from a school in the southern part of the state, we received a call from the school board in Shreveport. In fact, the first call from them came we were traveling back from the interview I mentioned, intending to call and accept their offers upon arriving back at our college home.
The Shreveport folks were by then trying to track us down rather urgently, and when they finally got in touch with us, they apologized for being so late to the hiring frenzy. I forgot what their excuse was, but the timing involved a whole series of fortunate events. Remember that cell phones were yet far in the future in those days, and quick communications were anything but easy. They offered us jobs on the spot, without interviews. That part still seems a bit strange. Theresa started teaching at her old elementary school, one block from the house she was raised in. I started teaching at a relatively new junior high school, located only a few blocks from the house where I was raised. The timing and the circumstances left us a bit incredulous.
I was fortunate enough to begin my teaching career with one of the most outstanding educational professionals I have ever known, Stanley Powell. He ended up in a very influential position with the school board. His influence on my life was significant. I started teaching at age 22 and Theresa at age 21. The school I taught in was located in what most called, “the working man’s part of town,” a way of describing neighborhoods of blue collar workers. The year I started teaching there, a new junior high school opened that was located close to my school, and most of the suburb students left my school for the new one. The band, which had been very good the year prior to my arrival, had been nearly decimated. Almost all of the best players had gone to the new school, a fact I discovered on my first day of teaching.
A Unique Training Experience
My best hope was to recruit the best candidates from the incoming seventh grade students, and really start teaching them well and in earnest. I was fortunate to be able to recruit an even dozen from the accelerated class students, one of whom was my kid sister, Pam. She had always called me “Bubba” (still does), and my insistence on being called Mr. Ferguson did not sit well with her, to put it mildly. I think she has forgiven me by now! I worked long and hard to teach all of my students, old and new, the fundamentals. Many band directors just focused on teaching a few numbers for the annual music contest, hoping to get the top rating of “Superior.” I knew that shortcuts would hurt me, the students, and ultimately the program itself. I didn’t cut corners, and that took perseverance with a capital P.
While we did manage to obtain a Superior rating at the spring music contest, another part of the program that also received a rating didn’t go so well. That part was the “sight-reading” part. The band was given a newly published piece, hot off the press, and then both director and the band were given only about 10 minutes to look it over before playing it for a rating. My band failed miserably, even though the piece was actually quite simple. Every band besides mine received a superior rating. When all of the band directors met after the contest to officially evaluate it, I made the statement that the sight-reading piece had been too easy for the junior high level. The laughter that erupted was loud and it lasted embarrassingly long. But I stuck to my guns.
The year between then and the next contest found me working extremely hard, still trying to instill music fundamentals into my young students, many of whom had only been playing an instrument for a year or less. But I pushed them hard and they learned fast. The good thing about kids that age is that they don’t know what normal is, other than what you tell them. Telling them that they can do something means more than the actuality of reasonable expectations. That was a marvelous lesson for me to learn as a leader.
The next year when the contest rolled around, my band had developed in a way that shocked even me. I asked experienced high school directors to come in and work out my band. Most of them were very pleasantly surprised by how well my group was playing. Earning a superior rating in the part of the contest where you only performed the three pieces that you had been practicing for a long time was a piece of cake for us. The judges were blown away. I was blown away. How could kids with at most 2 ½ year’s experience play like that? My best players (the “first chairs”) had been playing only a little over 1 ½ years. But they were not limited by reasonable expectations, for that didn’t know what those might be. They didn’t know any better than to do what I told them they could do. Sweet!
The sight-reading section of the program is where the real drama took place. The powers that be had responded to my comments the year before during our official evaluation, and the sight-reading piece was a doozy. I started sweating as soon as I laid my eyes on the score. It was difficult, really difficult, for a band at that level. But I acted confident, talked the band through the piece, and told them it was a piece of cake. They believed me evidently, for they were the only band who played straight through the piece without stopping. We received a superior rating. Only one other band received a similar rating, but it was a superior minus rating, and the only reason they squeaked that out was because the judge was the former college professor of the director of that band. It was a gift in their case, but not ours.
I employed a similar approach of having great expectations a few months later as we prepared for the big downtown parade in which bands of all levels participated. Soon after the contest event, I passed out a John Phillip Sousa march that was clearly at a high school level of difficulty. I had never heard of a junior high band playing it. But it was one of my favorites, so I passed it out to the band, and treated our first exposure to it much like the sight-reading contest. I explained it fairly briefly, raised the baton and started them playing. They didn’t do well, which was actually understandable, given the difficulty level. But I stopped them, told them that this was unacceptable and that they could play it. I gave them a bit more explanation of the details of the march, raised my baton and started them again. They amazingly played it straight through. I was shocked, but didn’t let them know it. At that point, I told them to memorize it and that we were going to play it as we marched in an upcoming spring parade, which we did. All of the band directors who heard us, junior high and high school directors alike, were simply incredulous. I still remember some of their comments. It was something to behold.
Success begets success, and it also opens doors. Advancements in the band directing field track about the same as those in the school coaching field. The best directors and coaches advance the quickest. The Supervisor of Music, Dr. Lee, asked me to supervise a federally funded summer program after either my first or second year of teaching. He was scheduled to attend graduate school to either finish up his doctorate or to do post-doc work, and I was serving in his place. He granted me the use of his office in the school board facility, and while I was there I rubbed shoulders with the big shots. That was almost like an out-of-the-body experience for a neophyte like me. I visited all of the schools with these summer programs, in the city and in the small outlying towns. I met with the teachers of the programs and wrote up evaluations of how I thought they were doing. It was quite the heady experience.
Perhaps my relationship with my astute principal and my associations with many other administrators provided the motivation for starting graduate school in the field of supervision and administration at the high school level (that was the official title of my chosen curriculum). By the time I resigned from public school teaching after 3 ½ years, I was halfway to my master’s degree, with nearly all of my courses taken during the summer breaks. I was definitely ambitious in a worldly way, and my ambitions were being noticed and rewarded.
An Introduction to Failure
After my second year of teaching at the junior high level, two new high schools were scheduled to open in the fall, plus my old high school alma mater had an opening. Of all the junior high band directors in the system, I was given the choice of becoming the band director of any of the three schools. By that time, my life and priorities had changed, the preaching bug had bitten me and I really didn’t want to be teaching in public schools in any capacity. I yearned to somehow get training in the Bible and preaching field. I just couldn’t figure out how to do it yet.
In spite of my very mixed motivations at this point, my principal was, not surprisingly, tapped to become the principal at the most prestigious new high school. It was quite the showplace – three stories with a completely round shape! He wanted me to come with him and he pushed every button in me to persuade me. In the end, he succeeded in that task, in spite of my reluctance. Doing anything half-hearted doesn’t work well. My short stint as a band director in that new high school was one of my very few failures up to that point in my life, but a failure it was. I just couldn’t get my heart in it, try as I might. One of my fellow teachers actually called my preacher friend who had been used by God to inspire me and literally change my life. She told him that it was obvious that I was miserable in my job and wanted to be a preacher. I hardly knew that woman, but she was spot on with her observation.
I ended up doing something that teachers seldom did – I resigned at mid-year. I simply had to put my misery to an end and make way for someone more deserving of the job I vacated. I was left struggling with a very unfamiliar feeling, that of abject failure. I went from the mountaintop of having about everything I touched go well, to the valley of despair as I watched my world come apart at the seams. The mascot of that high school was fitting for Louisiana – a Gator. One of my closest friends at the time, also a band director, said behind my back and to my face (with purposefully poor grammar) that “Old Ferg got ate by a gator!” I could hardly argue with his conclusions.
I tried sales of various sorts but failed at all of them too. The one I seemed to be succeeding in, with promises of quickly making some seriously big bucks, came to a sudden halt when the Attorney General of the state put the company out of business as a pyramid scheme. I made some quick money alright, but doing so really hurt some of the people whose money I essentially took in the company’s scheme. Failing in one thing wasn’t enough; I evidently needed to experience failure upon failure. God put Moses through 40 years in the wilderness to figure out his life and role in life; he only put me through one year, but it was a very long and painful year.
Boasting – About God!
Why do I mention those experiences, especially the successful ones? To brag? As a non-Christian, I’m sure that was why I selectively talked about the good ones. Now, from a Christian perspective, I see God’s hand in it all, teaching me life lessons and particularly leadership lessons – both from unique sources. I learned that it takes hard work to accomplish worthwhile goals, a lot of hard work. God calls all of us out of mediocrity, out of a do-only-enough-to-get-by mentality. He doesn’t approve of his human creation doing less than they are capable of doing, and everyone is capable of doing more than they usually settle for.
I also learned that leadership works, and that expectations of leaders set the bar for the performance of those who follow them. People rise and fall according to the expectations of those to whom they look as leaders. My junior high band members did what I said I expected of them, even when I wasn’t fully persuaded that they could do it. Amazing lesson, that one. Any church, or ministry group within a church, or any group of churches will do what their leaders expect of them. Great expectations yield great results and low expectations will be rewarded in line with those expectations (using the word reward unusually). All of these early experiences of mine, good and bad, taught me important lessons and I don’t believe for a minute that any of them were mere coincidences. The lessons from my failures were the hardest to experience, by far, but they did a very essential part in paving the way to the life I was intended to live all along. Those lessons of long ago were all a part of a masterplan – God’s design and God’s doing.
My Next Two Lives
From that point on in my life, God came knocking on my door spiritually, in ways described in my book, “My Three Lives.” I won’t re-write that history of my spiritual development, but I do invite you to read that book and those stories of divine intervention into the early life of a none-too-cooperative sinner. God is never in a hurry in bringing us to himself and in developing us into the persons that he has planned. If he were, our free wills wouldn’t be really free, and that is a part of being created human. Robots cannot love and humans will not love easily. It takes a Potter, a potter’s wheel producing friction and pain, plus a piece of clay ultimately willing to be molded. Getting to that point of being even moderately willing was not easy for me, but God himself provides the greatest application of the bottom line definition of discipling someone, from beginning to end: “gentle pressure, relentlessly applied.”
One chapter in the book just mentioned is entitled, “Wild Adventures ─ Almost Too Young and Too Soon.” The first part of the chapter is important in showing that with God’s plan for us as individuals is tailormade for each of us. He knows us and he works on us and in us according to his complete understanding of who we are. Here is a part of that introduction:
God is not only totally unpredictable in how he chooses to work in our lives; he is totally adventuresome. He loves surprising us. He loves forcing us out of our small thinking boxes and narrow comfort zones. He knows how much we can handle, and he pushes us right to the edge of that limit. He recognized me as having a very fond appreciation of adventure and a very high capacity to endure it. I’ve done a lot of really crazy things through the years, enough to have already outlined a weird humor book that won’t require much embellishment at all. I’ve lived it from youth. The title of this chapter encapsulates the concept. God made me and understands me. He knows that I like adventure and get bored with the more mundane aspects of life quickly. I’ve often described my life with him as him jumping unexpectedly out from behind bushes and scaring me half to death. The key word in the chapter title is almost. Many adventures in ministry came my way almost too soon when I was almost too young.
My whole life has been an adventure in one way or another. Some of it was very challenging and hurtful in the short run, but still did its work of preparing me in the long run. Some of it was downright exhilarating as it occurred. The same two extremes are present today in my old age. I’ve not slowed down much, and don’t intend to. I’m running out of time, and I want to see my life end with me still swinging the bat for God. I made many bad choices in my early days, but more and more good ones as I have aged. God has used both kinds to make me who I am and both kinds to keep me on the Potter’s wheel so that I can become more like him.
Back to the Sermon
Now, back to the sermon and its final application. I used a movie illustration for the ending, a movie entitled “What If…” starring Kevin Sorbo. The movie is introduced with Sorbo’s character in a bus station with his girlfriend, a young woman who wanted more than anything else for them to get married and serve God together. He, on the other hand, reasoned with her that he would first go to the big city and make it in the corporate world, after which he would return and they would get married.
As he got up to catch the bus, he left behind the special Bible she had just given him as a parting gift. It was a sad scene to see her remain behind in tears. Many sad scenes were to follow. He is next shown as a highly successful business partner in a firm. He is a high-roller in every way. He has a very attractive fiancé, but attractive only in a worldly way, for she is as worldly as he now is. He buys a car costing about a quarter million dollars about the time he has to make a trip to his hometown. This gives him a chance to try out his new wheels. On the outskirts of the town, his car suddenly stops running. Shortly thereafter, a tow truck pulls up with a rough talking driver giving him orders.
It turns out that the truck driver is actually an angel in human form. He sends the big shot into an alternate life, the one he left behind and should have chosen. In a flash, Sorbo is in a house with his former girlfriend who is now his wife, and two children as a part of the scenario – one a teen girl and the other one a younger sibling. He doesn’t know the children but they know him. He is freaked out, understandably, especially to learn that he is the minister for the local church. In spite of his quick visit to the angel at the car repair shop and his heightened protests and requests to return immediately to his other life, the angel refuses to budge. He is stuck for the time being in this strange alternate life.
His first Sunday in the pulpit was a shocker. He knows nothing of the Bible and just shares his business ideas, which are anything but exemplary and commendable. The congregation was left reeling as was his family. That part of the movie is pretty funny. Seeing that he cannot quickly escape his present circumstances, he eventually starts studying that same Bible that he left behind years ago in the bus station. God’s truths start penetrating his worldly mind and heart. He begins to warm up to the spiritual world in an ever-increasing way.
About the time most of the dots start connecting, the angel comes back and informs him that it is time to go back to his other life. Frantically, he begs the angel not to send him back. He has just discovered the true meaning to life, and the idea of returning to the worldly life absolutely terrifies him. However, the angel says that the plan is irreversible. I will leave the last part of the movie without explanation in case your interest is pricked enough to watch it. I hope you do.
Realizations, Relief and Much Gratitude
I have watched that movie at least five times, never without crying. I look back at a point in my life and realize how close I came to being like this guy in the first part of his life; how close I came to being something besides a Christian and a preacher of the good news. The very thought that I would have given up what I have been blessed by God to be and to do is a nightmare of the worst kind. My tears always flow as I think of that possibility, but they are tears of appreciation to my God. He reached down and plucked me out of the fires, and he used a number of “angels” to accomplish his plan. Theresa was the best of the angels he sent, but others that I mention in my book were a lot like that truck driver in the movie.
My tears at that point in the sermon touched the emotions of most in the audience. I was deeply touched once again as my heart was being moved by what I was describing. That led up to the prayer drive in the countryside and the contemplation in all of this that I began writing after I returned. I didn’t finish until the next afternoon (and have edited a bit since), but the trip down memory lane give me a bigger picture of God and his plan. I understand much better some things in my past that I didn’t see as clearly prior to the praying and writing. It’s been a very uplifting exercise for me. I pray that it will have something of the same effect on you as you read it. Thank you for taking the time to read through it all. A currently highly popular TV show is entitled, “This is Us.” My trip down memory lane describes God and his angels producing another show, but this one is not fiction. It is the divinely directed story of “This is Me.” You would find it a helpful exercise to write your own story, looking through the lens with God in the center of it – all parts of it. Yes, I have indeed lost my faith – in coincidences!