When you spend time reflecting on the people that shape your childhood, the biggies are easy to see. The elementary school teacher that first engaged you in your love of history, the coach that would not let you quit and the piano teacher that withstood endless excuses for why you did not practice, all shape your journey in clear ways. There are also the less obvious voices. The ones that said or did something that they probably don’t even remember, but you will never forget. Three of these came to mind as I recalled my preparation for life.
The first was a man by the name of Mr. Mendenhall. Every Sunday, I would walk into church and he would be standing in the narthex (that’s a fancy church word for the foyer) with the bulletin of the day. He would hand the adults a paper and if you were a little too small to read, he would reach into his pocket and produce candy. I can remember that candy acquisition like it was yesterday. It was the hard candy with the loud wrapper that could get you into some trouble if you waited until prayer time to open it, but he never gave us instructions, only a smile. As I got older, I graduated to acolyte duty. He was always there, lighter in hand, to make sure we did not engulf the flowy robes or each other in flames. I don’t remember one time that I heard correction in his voice. He was the most endearing man. He taught me from a very early age the value of consistency in serving.
When I was in junior high, I had a Sunday School teacher by the name of Gary Smith. In this moment, I must pause and give thanks and praise for all of the wonderful souls that have ever taught a junior high class. This is a special age. One that requires laughter and love and very thick skin. Mr. Smith was the right guy for the job. He showed us how to read the Bible. He answered all of our stupid questions. He let us awkwardly try to navigate the woes and pains of junior high life and he did it all with a smile. My favorite memory was the day he invited us all to his house to make chili for the church chili cook off. God. Bless. It was a train wreck of female hormones and drama and a far cry from cooking. But not one time did he ever treat our ideas as anything but brilliant. He encouraged us to be ourselves and we were better off because of him.
When I think about the people that embodied grace and love, one man immediately came to mind. My high school Sunday School teacher, Tom Beasley. I have tears as I type this thinking about the way that he endured numerous RIDICULOUS conversations that we incited. There was not a passionate big haired, Houston area, Jesus loving teen of the early 1990s that did not have all of the wisdom and revelation thanks to the fact that God Listened. We knew it all. And on more than one occasion, we enlightened Mr. Beasley with our profound revelation of Biblical truth. Let me share his grace – he never, not once, told us we were wrong. He was a brilliant man, well read in matters of science and business and faith, and yet he made us feel like we knew more than he did. He would help us search the Scriptures and listen to our musings and never preached. We would bring in an idea or topic and he made us feel like our small insight was original truth. His patience and kindness and excitement for us was unmatched, and I am better for it.
As I reflected from an adult vantage point on the gifts these men offered me, I was struck by a common thread. None of them had kids my age. None of them did their ‘job’ for glory or fame or a pay check. They all served the kids and teenagers that were placed in their path like it was the most important job on the planet. Even more impressive, they made every single one of us feel like we were important. There is no doubt in my mind that the gifts that leaders like this gave me in my personal advent are the reason that I am who I am today. They formed in me the desire to reach deep and share my life with others in ways that they will never know. For these gifts, I am indebted.