“You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read” (Jones).
Nobody can say this with more certainty than a Christian. We’ve got books—the sixty-six that make up the Bible. We’ve got people—other followers of Jesus. Between these two forces, your Christian life is cast.
We’re used to thinking of the Bible as prime motivator. People, we think, are too problematic to actually be helpful. That might be what we think, but my experience has been the opposite.
Folks come and go, crossing your life path, bringing help and support and joy for a season, and then they do what most inevitably do—move on. But every now and then a few appear repeatedly at cardinal points. These are rare people assigned to you as a gracious bequest of God. Notice them. Value them.
They will not be perfect, but neither are their imperfections so pronounced that they lead in the wrong direction. Their flaws are not so deep that they turn into hypocrites. Their temperaments are not so unbalanced that they’re either bullies or negligent. They’re imperfect in the perfect way you need them to be.
Cleveland—I Didn’t Know What to Do
I think of Tom McNaughton. Passionate, brilliant, salty, kind, and imperfect. Exactly what another imperfect younger man needed one night in Cleveland, 1988. I had been trying to make up my mind about whether I should go into full-time vocational ministry. Knowing I was deliberating over this, Tom pulled me aside after a church meeting. He got in my face with that quirky blend of Richard Dreyfus, Robin Williams, the Marlboro man, and the Holy Spirit.
“Do you want to be full-time?”
“Yes, but I don’t have enough money and my wife is pregnant and…”
He put his hand up to silence me. “Brother, that’s not what I asked.” And with crisp diction as though talking to someone who was mentally handicapped, asked, “ Do…you…want…to serve…the Lord…full time?”
Again the hand went up.
“That’s not what I asked. It’s a yes or no answer. Now which is it, yes or no?”
“Okay, everything else will work out.”
That got through to me.
And by the way, everything else did work out…for the last twenty-seven years of full-time ministry.
Chicago and Detroit—I Didn’t Know How to Do It
But that encounter wasn’t all. Tom was going to be around for other seminal moments.
During a ministry workshop session in Chicago, I was still learning how to preach and not making much progress. That day, though, I had a breakthrough and developed into a personal style that felt right. The room came alive. But the feedback from the trainers said that I was undisciplined—gifted, but potentially more of a detriment to a church than a blessing to it. I felt utterly deflated.
Tom found me after the meeting.
“It occurred to me while you were ministering that you have an unusually effective speaking gift. Do you know what that means?”
I must have looked clueless, like the man who has been told he has won a Lamborghini, but thinks that means a plate of fancy pasta noodles.
“It means you have something wonderful, but you need to learn to handle it.
“During the Vietnam conflict, guess what weapon a soldier was most likely to have an accident with.”
“I dunno, artillery rounds, maybe?”
“No. The .45 pistol. It’s the thing a serviceman has strapped on his side all the time, so it’s the weapon he’s prone to be the most careless with. That’s why the standard issue .45 has three different safeties on it—so you won’t get overly comfortable with it and shoot yourself in the leg…kind of like what you did this morning at the front of the room.”
I didn’t forget that lesson and learned it even more in Detroit a few years later, when I was helping Tom give a conference there.
“We’ll let you open this evening, but you can only have fifteen minutes,” he told me.
I took twenty.
After the meeting, when everybody was thanking me for my awesome ministry, Tom found me.
“Brother, please accompany me to the other room.”
There, he pulled out a pocket notebook where he had jotted down many things. Wow. Tom had taken notes during my message. I was expecting a “You are hugely gifted” talk, like he’d given me in Chicago.
Then he started reading the notes: “John does not respect limitations. He puts himself first. He is careless with his gift and wastes it because he is full of godless chatter.”
I was stunned, tried to defend myself a little bit.
It didn’t work.
“I’m pulling you off the conference line-up,” he said.
But after a day or so, he penciled me back in. “Okay, you have fifteen minutes of the last meeting,” he told me.
I finished that morning in 14.57 minutes and put every bit of substance I had into it.
Tom found me after the meeting.
“You really had the anointing,” he said. “Good stuff!”
As I piled into the van to leave, I wondered what the heck had just happened. I figure I had learned something about the safety on a .45 pistol.
Laughing Along the Way
Tom didn’t walk around like the wise karate sensei all the time. But he did tease relentlessly. When I entered a room, he was likely to greet me with “Look, it’s Johnny Moooooore.” There were cracks about whether I was wearing socks. About my southern accent. A time or two I gave messages that were going so badly he sat in the back of the room directly in my line of sight, and throttled himself with his tie.
And on a couple of occasions I dared to use Greek studies in a message. He shook his head no, no, no while I was talking and shook it extra hard when he saw me looking at him, as if to say, “Please step away from the linguistics.” (Note: never try to teach the meaning of a Greek word to a man whose pocket Bible is in Greek).
“Who told you that word meant that?” he asked later.
I told him the name of the book.
“Did you order it through the mail, or did you buy it in the store?”
“I got it at the store.”
“Good, it should be easier to get your money back.”
On another occasion a man offended me badly. Tom was standing next to me when it happened. He knew I was quietly fuming, but loved to instigate, so he leaned over and whispered to me, “Have you apologized to him yet?” Me apologize? I blew up and then Tom lectured me on the evils of not having a right spirit.
I have to admit that it was all so funny I didn’t mind.
Though I haven’t personally seen Tom for the last six years or so, these past interactions don’t vanish. They just settle into your bones and make you who you are. It’s a gracious gift.
God has graced me with a number of other men I could write about. I guess I’m blessed that way. But for right now, I’m thinking about Tom.
We lost him this last Saturday night as he slipped away to be with Jesus.
Still, I don’t think I’ll ever completely lose him.