Graceful Exits

I’ve never really understood why we would refer to someone who “fell from grace.”  I think I know what is implied – a person made a big mistake and it cost them a lot – but the grace of God never runs out.  Sadly, in human terms, grace for the “fallen” tends to be in short supply more often than we’d like to admit.

Such was not the case in the recent passing of two great men in our church.

First, Charles Powers, who succumbed to the effects of a massive stroke but only after hanging on for several days longer that doctors had predicted.

Then, last Friday evening, Tom Blankenship, who had a sudden, massive heart attack and died almost instantly.

These were great men for lots of reasons.

Charles and his family were known to me virtually all my life.  My dad and Charles met at Estes Park, CO at the first International Institute (now known as [NYC] Nazarene Youth Conference) in 1958.  They were later colleagues in ministry as Charles pastored the Norman Grace Church of the Nazarene while my dad was at Western Oaks in Oklahoma City.  Daddy was one of the speakers at Charles’s funeral and I was moved not only by how well he spoke, but also by the depth of a longstanding, almost 60 year friendship.

Charles was a WWII veteran who became a pastor.  His sons were my friends as well.  Charles is generally referred to by almost everyone as “one of the nicest, kindest men I’ve ever known.”  He was just four months away from his 89th birthday.

Tom Blankenship was practically joined at the hip to his wife of 60 years, Edna.  Tom and Edna had a house full of trophies for their prowess on the golf course and in the bowling lanes.  But they also have trophies in the lives of their family.

We know their family well, primarily because their daughter, Karan, went to college with us and married another of our best friends, Dwight Gunter.  Their two sons, Tab (Thomas A. Blankenship, Jr.) and Dan are dear to us as well.

The Blankenships lived all over the US and, I think, three foreign countries while Tom was in the military.  They eventually settled back in Nashville in 1972, where they’d first met, right across the street from Hunters Lane High School.  They also made themselves at home mostly at Grace Church of the Nazarene and then at Trevecca Community Church shortly after Dwight became the pastor there in 2002.

Most every Sunday for the last decade or so, TCC folks could count on Charles Powers to take his place each week near the front of the sanctuary to help serve communion.  Tom was always stationed just inside the rear middle door to the right, assisting folks with a place to sit and tending to the several members who used wheelchairs.

Neither man spoke very loudly with their voices, but their lives screamed consistency, kindness, and commitment.  Both also seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of grace for the fallen.

Last night at the visitation with the family and friends of Tom Blankenship, my wife and I watched as Ann Powers shared a poignant moment with Edna Blankenship.  Their husbands were both gone within days of each other and with no real advance warning.

They’ll need each other and they’ll need their families and they’ll need their friends. And they’ll need the grace of God to sustain them.

People make mistakes or commit grievous sins and we say they’ve fallen from grace.  What that actually means is that we’ve either given up on them or that we don’t think they deserve another chance at redemption.

The graceful exits from this life that I’ve observed in my friends Charles and Tom cause me to want to follow their example of extending grace to all, whether I think they deserve it or not.

Respect the Game

Coach Gibson Tribute

(Top left) Terry HS baseball field, Coach Gibson and Jim Hill assistant Willie Langdon, Coach Gibson, Jim Hill team photo from 1976-77 yearbook, Michael Johnson, 1978, MJ with Trevecca Nazarene University women’s golf team, September 2014.

When my family moved to Mississippi in 1975 a lot of things changed. Little did I know how much they were changing for the better.

We arrived in the heat of summer just prior to my sophomore year and my first contact with Jim Hill High School was when coach Dennis Awtrey knocked on our door. He was the head football and baseball coach and was quite a character.

Coach Awtrey was looking for a quarterback and, based on my transcript, he thought I should come out for the team. They already had almost two weeks of preseason practice under their belts. The 90 degree temperature was matched equally on the humidity scale and I lasted one day on the Tiger football team.

When baseball rolled around in the spring, I figured I would have a better shot. Coach Awtrey tried to make a shortstop out of me and he gave me a few innings here and there. But he also had an assistant coach by the name of Jerry Gibson.

Coach Gibson let coach Awtrey do most of the talking with the team, in part because coach Awtrey did most of the talking in whatever conversation he found himself. But coach Gibson had a way with his few words. They always seemed to hit home.

Jim Hill had a reasonably diverse student body if only because of the federally mandated desegregation laws. I drove to school each day into a neighborhood where the school had been placed. It was not a neighborhood to which I would have naturally driven, but I learned to love it.

I learned to love and appreciate my experience at Jim Hill, but not before trying out a “private Christian” school to the south of Jackson. I lasted two days. It was clear to me that students there were attending for reasons beyond a quality education. They didn’t want to be at a place like Jim Hill. I decided quickly that I did.

The first person I called after I told my folks I wanted to go back to Jim Hill was Jerry Gibson. Coach Gibson had been given the head coaching job for baseball and seemed glad to know I would be returning.

Coach Gibson got married right before the start of school in 1977 to Fredna Hudgens, the good looking art teacher, had an impressive wardrobe, including a dandy brown leather jacket, and drove a Porsche 911. I was in awe.

When it came to baseball, Coach was all business. He was really good with certain drills and would make us practice them over and over. It ended up really helping me in the field and I had a couple of scholarship offers for college after my senior year.

I ended up starting for most of my junior and senior years and we had a modicum of success. We played some great games against our archrival, Wingfield, but never could get past them for post-season play. Within just a couple of years after my graduation in 1978, Jim Hill and coach Gibson won a state championship. I was in awe again.

He had a couple of pet phrases that I remember well: 1) If we asked him what time it was during practice, he’d answer “Why? Are you taking medicine?” 2) If he ever heard anyone say “I can’t,” he’d always shoot back “Can’t never could!”

On Saturday, April 18, 2015, Terry High School will officially re-name their baseball field in honor of Coach Jerry Gibson. Judging by the number of responses from former players and their family members along with a host of students who never even played baseball, this will be a great celebration.

I really wish I could be there. I’d like to honor the “time” coach Gibson invested in me, and so many others, across the years. He coached high school boys from 1976-2014. He won championships along the way but he also won hearts.

Coach Gibson also demonstrated a “can-do” attitude that flew in the face of “can’t never could.”

He took things that didn’t previously exist and created success. He took high school age boys, full of angst and potential, and made men out of them. And he and Fredna took personal tragedy, as in the loss of their older son, Brad, and said, in essence, “I don’t know how, but we’re gonna make it.”

Lastly, another frequent saying for Coach was “Respect the Game.” He wanted the game of baseball to be a metaphor for life. He thought you ought to play the game by the rules, honor tradition, and respect your opponent.

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but I ended up coaching baseball, softball and golf at a couple of the colleges at which I’ve been employed.  Many of those moments with coach Gibson came back to life as I worked with my student-athletes.  His impact was both personal and professional.

Our society could use a lot more folks like Jerry Gibson. Terry High School recognized this reality and I’m grateful their field will carry coach Gibson’s name from here on out. For those of us who know him, that name will mean a lot more than just the location for a baseball game.

What Should I Say?

The summer of 2007 was cataclysmic and catalytic for me. My annual physical revealed an overweight, out-of-shape 47-year-old in July. An August visit to the dermatologist revealed, among other things, a malignant melanoma on my back. The short story is that the malignancy was caught early in a “shallow” state and there’s been no recurrence of the cancer, as confirmed by Dr. Rand again this morning.

I’ve made some changes over these intervening years. I’m still a little overweight and I have to take some medication for blood pressure. And, Dr. Rand had her assistant “freeze” some pre-cancerous spots today, but I’m in better shape at almost 55 than I was at 47.

While talking with Dr. Rand today, I was reminded of that in-between time following the removal of the malignant melanoma. Left untreated, that cancerous area could certainly have been life threatening.

The few days between the excision and the official “we got it all” were interesting for me.  It got me to thinking about what I would do if the prognosis was less positive.  What would I do if I found out I might not have long to live?

While I’ve had good intentions to actually pull a book together, the subject matter of said book would offer encouragement to say what needs saying now.

Two of my blogs over the last couple of years touched on the idea:

https://michaeltalj.wordpress.com/2012/11/23/redemption-shows-up-in-unexpected-places/

https://michaeltalj.wordpress.com/2013/04/10/the-last-time/

I thank God for the gift of life and another day to live it!

With so much anger and divisiveness in our public discourse, is there any way to break that cycle? I think we can. It starts with the words we use.

Is there something you need to say to someone today?

I’m Getting Older

I live in Nashville, Tennessee and, despite its “it city” status, our town has a lot of challenges common to any other growing city. This is especially true on our interstates – which were not originally designed for the kind of growth we are now enjoying.

So here’s one way I know I’m growing older. Okay, two ways. First, I’m just as likely to listen to Siriusly Sinatra or 70s on 7 on satellite radio as I am to listen to a sports talk show on my 16-mile drive in to work at my favorite Christian college. (I know I should be listening to The Message or The Fish or K-LOVE or WAY-FM or some preacher, but…)

The second way I know I’m getting older is how upset I get when people wait till the last possible second to get over into the lane they really need to be in but just think that their schedule is so much more important than everyone else’s! Whew!!! I don’t like long sentences, either, but this just gets me so fired up!

Part of the problem in Nashville is by design or the lack thereof. Our awesome city – and it really is amazing in so many ways – has three major interstate arteries that connect us to almost two-thirds of the US population. I-40 runs almost coast-to-coast; I-65 runs from Mobile to Chicago; and I-24 runs from Chattanooga to somewhere between Cairo and Marion, Illinois. These three interstates converge in downtown Nashville. It might be better to say “collide.”

What happens is that we have these entry ramps that are often in close proximity to exit ramps for the interstate or roadway you’ll need almost immediately. For example, one enters from the right and needs to exit on the left very soon. At the same time, another person is needing to exit on the right at almost the same time the other person is entering the roadway, but he/she wants to stay in the far left lane as long as possible because he/she sees traffic having to wait for the persons entering on the right. But the person on the right stays in the entry lane as long as possible until he/she rudely forces their way into traffic or a kind soul, usually reluctantly, waves them in.

And this left-merging-right and right-merging-left dance goes on almost all day. I know Nashville is Music City and there is some beautiful dancing to be found in our town.  However, this dance is more like a mosh pit in a too-crowded room with death metal playing in the background.

So, to counteract feelings like I just had when a guy barged his way into my lane even though he knew his was running out, I remind myself that occasionally I have driven aggressively and know that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t walk around naked – I mean, throw stones.

And sometimes when the traffic’s crazy listening to Frank Sinatra or Chris Botti or The Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose is just the tonic I need while I finish my commute and large cup of black coffee.

Pray for me!  I feel so old 🙂

Love to all!!

Do What You Can

I’m watching the news this morning and thinking. There’s so much that’s wrong in this world and sometimes, like today, I don’t feel like there’s much I can do to make it better, but:

  • I can be kind to everyone with whom I come into contact.
  • I can treat other people’s kids and grandkids the way I’d want others to treat my kids and grandkids.
  • I can let somebody in on the interstate even when my time is just as important as theirs.
  • I can tip the server well even when the kitchen messed up my order.
  • I can disagree completely with another’s point of view and still enjoy sharing a conversation.
  • I can forgive others, even when they’re not sorry.
  • And maybe a hundred other simple things…

There is so much that can divide us. What can bring us together?

Hate and mayhem bring people together for a moment but devastation is left in its wake. Love and kindness have the power to bind people for a lifetime, bringing hope and healing.

God, please help me choose love and kindness today.

I Saw God Yesterday

My dad with my grandson, Braden.

My dad with my grandson, Braden.

George Strait had a hit a few years back with “I Saw God Today.” It was his 56th #1 hit on the country charts and it struck a responsive chord with a lot of folks. I was one of them.

Last week, when my dad asked me if I’d be willing to ride with him the 70 miles or so to Cookeville (TN) to see his old friend, Charles Paul, I said yes. We decided that we’d go over on Saturday morning and try to be back in Nashville by lunchtime.

“Charlie” Paul is one of several folks who made deposits in my bank of childhood memories because he was a friend of our family. He was especially fond of my grandparents, W.T. and Helen Johnson, but grew close to my dad over the years, too.

I went for a couple of reasons.

First, my dad’s not just my father, he’s also my friend. We like to compare notes on a lot of things, so time in the car offers a good opportunity to chat.

The other reason I went is because Mr. Paul is now in a nursing home and doesn’t have a lot of visitors besides family. His lovely daughter, April, whom we met, arranged the visit.

I also went because the man had a phone in his car in the 1960s and could sing like a combination of Eddie Arnold and Ray Price. Charlie was a really good golfer and club maker, and he had the confidence of a Fortune 500 CEO. Back in my younger days, the man just fascinated me.

Maybe a third reason I went was because I wanted to honor my dad’s desire to go see about his old friend. I’m so glad I did.

Charlie’s short-term memory isn’t all that great but he lit up when he saw my dad.

“Talmadge, what in the world are you doing here?”

“Well, I saw your brother last week in New Mexico and he told me you were living here now,” my dad said. “I told him I was gonna come see you.”

“That’s real nice, Talmadge,” said Charlie. “Man, I sure loved your folks. We had a lot of great times together.”

There was talk of the good old days when Charlie would come visit us in Oklahoma. He and Daddy talked about golf and nice cars and church. He asked about my mom. He even remembered my brother, Jeffrey, and me a little bit.

Eventually, my dad said, “Well, Charlie, it’s about time we headed back. I just wanted to come over today and tell you I love and appreciate you. Mind if I pray for you before we go?”

My dad reached over toward Charlie’s wheelchair and grabbed his hand. And as my dad’s prayers often do, he began with “Our loving heavenly father…”

Daddy prayed and Charlie closed his eyes a lot tighter than I closed mine. As my father talked to The Father, I saw Charlie’s eyes filling with tears. It was apparent in that moment that Charlie’s heart and mind were as in tune as any of a thousand songs he’d sung.

We said our goodbyes and told him and April we’d be in touch, but not before Charlie had removed his “Proud to be a Christian” golf hat. He insisted my dad take it. Daddy resisted briefly and then put it on his head and we headed out the door to the car.

On the way home, we stopped by the Nazarene church in Cookeville. Daddy wanted to drop off the contact info so the pastor could maybe follow up with an occasional visit to Charlie.

But there was one more stop.

Chuck Witbeck and his family were terrific friends to us when we moved to Mississippi in 1975. Chuck and Liz live in the Cookeville area now and Daddy wanted to see him if we could. We decided that we could head back to Nashville AFTER lunch.

Chuck had already eaten but he met us at Cheddar’s and we had a lot of fun catching up. Chuck and Liz were my parents’ friends but they and their kids, Randy and Wendy, were true friends to my brother and me as well.

“I saw God” yesterday.

Yesterday, God’s hands sure looked a lot my dad’s!

A Love So Deep

About a year and half ago I wrote about the first grandchild that Sarah and I had the privilege of loving.  A Baby Changes Everything was inspired by our grandson Braden.  Brian and Ashley had Tenley in November of last year and she is equally precious.  It was fun to be with them last week in Savannah.

A couple of weeks ago we headed to Houston, Texas.  Reston Adams Johnson had been born into the home of our eldest son, Chad, and his wife, Amy, just a few weeks shy of their eighth anniversary.

Chad and Amy had long wanted to be parents, but certain physical complications made it inadvisable for Amy to carry a child.  Adoption was studied for a time – even to the point of initial paperwork and a brief foster-care experience.  Over the space of two years or more, the subject of surrogacy began to surface in conversations.  A cousin’s wife had been a gestational carrier for a couple so the idea was not foreign to our family.

So, without any idea about the special someone that might carry their baby, Chad and Amy began to pray and think and plan… They’re really good at all three of those!

Extra jobs were taken on.  Money was saved.  Lots of research about the science of in vitro fertilization (IVF) was internalized.  It was clear that the possibility was there.  If a viable embryo could be formed perhaps there would be a kind lady who could serve as the carrier.

My brother and I are very close.  It’s been well over 20 years since we lived in the same town, but we and our families have maintained a special relationship in spite of the physical distance.  Our sons and their daughters have been the best of cousin-friends, too. 

When Jeffrey and Julie moved to Houston, Texas in 2001 their daughters, Jenae and Jana, began making friends almost immediately.  Jana met Lareigh Francione when they were 12 years old.  They’ve been “besties” ever since.  And our family, by extension, felt like we were somehow related to Lareigh and her family because of that friendship.

Twelve years can make a lot of difference in the kind of conversations girlfriends end up having.  Lareigh and Jana had both obtained degrees from college.  They had jobs.  Jana had a husband and Lareigh had a precious three-year-old boy when one of their conversations turned to Chad and Amy.

It sounded something like this. 

Jana: Yeah, so you know Chad and Amy were looking at adoption but now they’re not so sure.  Knowing what Randa (another cousin) did for that family a couple of years ago, they’re thinking it might be worth trying to find a surrogate to carry a baby for them.

Lareigh:  I love Chad and Amy.  I’d totally think about carrying a baby for them.

Jana:  Are you serious??

Lareigh:  Absolutely.

Now, I wasn’t there and the girls didn’t have a tape recorder running, but the conversation was just about that simple.  And so the process commenced that ultimately led to May 29, 2014.

There’s too much detail and too little time to share all that went into the final results, but when Lareigh called Amy in the late afternoon on May 28, all the plans and preparations became a reality. 

Chad’s new job had him up in Pennsylvania.  Amy and her mom were in Salisbury, Maryland and they all needed to get to Houston as quickly as possible.  A Southwest Airlines flight was leaving Baltimore-Washinton (BWI) around 8:30 p.m.   They made the flight with little time to spare and spent a nervous three hours in a plane and almost another hour in the rental car before arriving at the Kingwood Medical Center, just north of Houston.

Already exhausted from the travel, they realized that Lareigh would not deliver during the night.  Sleep was next to impossible.  Excitement and fatigue were flailing away at each other.

But then at 11:42 a.m. (CDT), Reston showed up: just over eight pounds and 21 inches long.  He was a beautiful child and a beautiful gift! 

I know every family thinks their children are the greatest… And they’re right!  But little Reston seems so perfect and pleasant.  We are deeply grateful that he’s here now!

There is so much that could be said about how this child came to be, but one thing is clear.  This child was loved and prayed for long before that moment of his actual arrival. 

It will be our joy as a family, for years to come, to see our grandchildren grow up. But we’ll also be watching Lareigh’s family as the years unfold.  She has a child of her own and will soon be marrying a wonderful young man who obviously cares so much for her and Brinn.

The layers of grace, love and kindness that enfold the story of Reston’s birth are unmistakable reminders that God cares about us in ways that often exceed our understanding.

Among the many wonderful things shared via social media shortly after Reston’s birth, two stood out to me.

The first came from Brian’s wife, Ashley.  Underneath a photo Ashley wrote about Chad and Amy, “The baby in their hearts is now the baby in their arms.”

And in another thread where family and friends were sharing with Lareigh, her mom, Bridgette, said, “God, the maker, Lareigh, the pathway, and Chad and Amy, the blessed receivers. God is great!”

God is great, Bridgette! 

We are grateful for God’s provision, protection and providence throughout this entire process.  The joy of holding Reston was overwhelming in many ways.  The joy of seeing Chad and Amy holding Reston was greater still.

God blessed the meeting of two 12-year-old girls back in 2001 that resulted in a conversation 12 years later, and that conversation changed the trajectory of an entire family’s story.

Lareigh showed a love so deep in carrying Reston for Chad and Amy that…   It’s a love that only God could inspire.  The river of gratitude flowing from our hearts is deep as well and will never run dry!Image

The Last Time

Reposting some thoughts about how we leave lasting impressions… Like the venerable Howard Olds, longtime pastor at Brentwood UM Church used to say, “Make it a good day!”

The Space Between

We’ve heard it all our lives when someone has what may be termed a “near-death” experience – “I saw my life pass before my eyes.”  For me, this past Sunday was almost one of those.  However, I didn’t see a thing until the potential game-ender had already happened.

In addition to my work as an assistant to Trevecca president Dan Boone, I’m now in my 11th year of coaching the Lady Trojans golf team.  Sunday was very nearly my last day on the job – ANY JOB!!

I was at Hermitage Golf Course, one of middle Tennessee’s most beautiful pieces of God’s handiwork.  I was checking up our team’s practice round and chatting with a couple of coaches from other schools.  And that’s when it happened.

All that came between me, an errant tee shot from a Lindsey Wilson player, and a tee time in heaven was a thin piece…

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On Being Nazarene

Waking up this morning in Overland Park, KS in advance of General Board meetings for the Church of the Nazarene. My life is deeply rooted in the work of Nazarenes, but I also have many friends who are not Nazarene or who once were. This blog was written last summer, but I thought it appropriate to share again today. I’m praying for our church and every other branch of the Church today. Praying that we are all a part of God’s redemptive work in the world.

The Space Between

Most of my life has been connected, in varying degrees, with a body of Christians known as the Church of the Nazarene. There have been several meaningful associations throughout my life, notably in school and a couple of workplaces, but virtually everywhere I’ve been and everything I’ve done has had some sort of attachment to Nazarenes and/or their institutions.

At the outset, I could say – and probably should – that anything in which people are involved will offer the prospect of joy or pain or a little of both. That’s been my experience, for sure, even in my beloved church.

So, after 53 years of living under the shadow of the Nazarene wing of evangelical Christianity, I’ve been asking myself why I’m still there. It’s clear that many of my generation, and even more of those younger than myself, have left for other congregations or denominational affiliations.

Am I…

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When Vocation and Calling Get Hitched

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I work at Trevecca Nazarene University – a Christian university in the heart of Nashville.  I went to school here from 1978-82 and got a bachelor’s degree in communication.  Then I worked here from 1985-1992, went away for five years and have now been back on staff since 1997.  I even earned a master’s degree in education in 2003.  I guess you could say that I just can’t get away from Trevecca.

It is a great honor to have been associated with an institution and its people who’ve meant so much to me!

It hardly ever happens but lately I’ve been feeling restless.  Maybe it’s just that I’m about to celebrate another birthday in a couple of weeks.  Or, maybe it’s because I’m human and I am prone to forget that I have a sense of calling to do what I do here at Trevecca.  

Oh, I have a job description and a clear sense of direction from my boss, the president of TNU.  I’m trying to do my best to fulfill my stated responsibilities.  But every now and then, I benefit from experiences that are akin to a spotlight on a stage in a dark room.  And just a few moments ago, in a chapel service during our bi-annual Spiritual Deepening Week, I had one of those spotlight experiences.

Everything about the chapel service this morning reminded me of the essence of my calling.  Trevecca students and employees filled the room.  So did God’s presence!

As I watched hundreds of students come forward, along many other professors and staff members, to lay cards with prayer requests on the altars, I knew again that Trevecca was a special place.  I knew that I was doing what I was supposed to do where I was supposed to do it.

Although I’ve served in various roles at Trevecca during these 28-plus years as a student and employee, one thing has remained constant.  That is, I’ve done my best to spread the good word about TNU and why students should come here.  I’ve also tried to affirm those who invest in it financially.  I believe in this place called Trevecca.  I know there are other great Christian colleges out there, but I also know that Trevecca is worthy of support.  

Every time a local Nazarene church sends in its “education budget” payment, it is investing in the future of students from its congregation as well as students it may never know.  Every gift from wealthy donors or people who have very little combines to make it possible for a potential world-changer to sit in our classes.  And every time an alum or a friend or an admissions counselor encourages a prospective student to consider attending, there’s a chance that student could encounter moments like we just had in chapel.

Trevecca continues to grow and develop in impressive ways as an academic institution.  We are grateful for a beautiful campus with very fine facilities.  TNU is indeed located in the heart of Nashville, one of the “it” cities in the US.  We have a lot of things going for us!

But we are also still a place where students, faculty, staff and administration can still encounter each other in a place where the earthly and the heavenly mysteriously intersect.  And when that happens, all things are possible.

I thank God for speaking to me today through Dr. Carla Sunberg and the worship music led by gifted TNU students.  I thank God for the gift of life and the opportunity to share it with so many.  Trevecca has served as a bridge, a launching pad, and a safe harbor for me over the years.  Today, Trevecca was the place where God reminded me that “we can always come home.”