Growing Up in the Church

September 18, 2019

I spent the formative years of my life as a member of the Progress Village Seventh-day Adventist Church in Tampa, Florida. Several memories stand out as pivotal to my social and spiritual development.

 

The pastors who served Progress Village were dynamic preachers. One stands out in particular. His name is Dr. Larry Johnson. He was my second pastor. I can still recall the communal angst at the news that my first pastor, Pastor Mack, would be leaving. Prior to this, I was not aware that pastors moved. I don't remember how much time passed between Pastor Mack's departure and Pastor Johnson's arrival. It probably was no longer than a few months though. Pastor Johnson would pastor our church and another church about 30 minutes away. His installation services was at that church.

 

In the African-American tradition, one of the first questions people will articulate when anticipating the arrival of a new pastor is, "Can he/she preach?" Well, for all of those present for Pastor Johnson's initial sermon the answer was a resounding "Yes!" Week after week, we received powerful, inspirational, challenging, and edifying messages. When Pastor Johnson preached on Noah's Ark and the flood, you could see the raindrops falling. When he preached on Elijah's fleeing from Jezebel, you felt the prophet's pain. Initially, I was captivated (and entertained) by his pulpit antics. My friends and I would imitate him in the church parking lot. Looking back, however, I see that The Lord used Pastor Johnson's preaching ministry to mature my appetite for the Word of God and, in a sense, plant seeds of homiletic possibilities within my psyche years before I accepted the call to preach. As a result of sitting under the preaching ministry of Pastor Larry Johnson, and others, I seek to make God's Word clear, Christ-centered, and compelling.

 

Pastor Johnson was more than a great preacher, he was an effective administrator. I recall my parents jokingly, yet constructively commenting on Pastor Johnson's concept of time. If he scheduled a 1-hour meeting from 10-11, you could be sure it would start on time and end on time. In listening to my parents rehearse this practice, I caught the sense that they appreciated a pastor who could keep time and keep his word. I strive to model this in my pastorate.

Participating in the children's choir is another golden highlight. Fundamental theology was communicated through memorable musicology. In other words, I learned about God through the songs we sang.

 

1. Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world (God's universal love).

2. Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so (God's individual love).

3. God's not dead, He's still alive (God's victorious power).

4. He's still working on me to make me what I ought to be. Took Him just a week to make the moon and stars, sun and earth, Jupiter and Mars. How loving and patient He must be. 'Cause He's still working on me (God's patience).

 

Our choir directors were no-nonsense, mothers of the church who made singing fun, but did not spare to emphasize the ministry aspect of music/singing. They also incorporated their personal testimonies into rehearsals. If they knew some of us were "getting out of line" at school or at home, instead of reprimanding us (ok, sometimes they did give us tongue lashings lol), they used their own narratives to illustrate the value of listening to wise counsel, making positive choices, and having a personal relationship with God. Their personal testimonies still grip me today.

 

Another core memory is near and dear to me because it represents an intimate connection between home and church. For as long as I can remember until the year my family relocated to Columbus, OH (2006), we picked up Mrs. Jean Williams every Sabbath (Saturday in SDA tradition) morning. This required us to leave our house early so we could pick her up, stop by the post office to pick up church mail (my Dad was the treasurer), and still get to church in time for Sabbath School. Ms. Jeanie (as we called her), was a seamstress by trade. She made the drapes for both of my childhood homes. She was good for bringing snacks with her to church, especially grapes. I loved that. She had a certain scent that greeted us when she climbed into the front seat of our family van. Funny how scents are connected to memories. What was most impressive about Ms. Jeanie is the fact that she had rheumatoid arthritis which caused deformity of her fingers and toes. But, she never complained. She lived as if her hands and feet were normal.

 

Ms. Jeanie reminds me that one may not have everything, but she can use what she has to God's glory. This is good news for a pastor of a small church too. Use what you have. The Lord will bless.

 

Preaching, music, and Ms. Jeanie...just three memories which warm my heart when I think about them.

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Richard D. Martin 2020