This is my tribute to a man who had a great deal of influence on my life and ministry.
His name was Kelly Johnson. He was almost into his ninetieth year when I met him at the Pine Grove Church of Christ in rural Itawamba County, Mississippi. I was their new preacher and he was a church patriarch- and as it turned out one of the best friends any preacher could hope to have.
He was one of the most unique men I have ever encountered. He “courted” his wife, Miss Lilly, for over forty years before they married. (She only relented when, exasperated, he finally gave up and began visiting the parlor of another woman!) His family traced their roots back generations in the Church of Christ. Pine Grove had actually been originally known as Johnson School House Church of Christ. He was a man of the land and absolutely loved to garden. This is the backdrop of my story.
I quickly learned that it was expected of the preacher to garden with brother Kelly. It was not open to discussion, so I obliged. Turns out that brother Kelly did not believe in such modern innovations as a garden tiller. Nothing but a jenny mule would do. So there I was planting and hoeing as brother Kelly gee and hawed that mule up and down the rows. He only gave the reins over to me once and that was just for the length of one row. “You haven’t been preaching long enough” he proclaimed.
We worked a rather large garden on his farm in the country but he also had a garden at his home in Fulton. For that nothing but the jenny would do either. So we built wooden sideboards to fit my old long-bed GMC pickup and I drove into town with brother Kelly and the mule sharing the bed. Nothing in my college work ever prepared me for this kind of ministry. But that was just the beginning.
Not long after that trip I got a call from him. He asked me to drop by his farm, retrieve the sideboards and meet him at the courthouse square in the middle of town. The jenny had escaped the Johsnon yard for the greener pastures of the courthouse lawn and the city officials had not taken to it very well. So I met him there and we- much to the delight of all the amused onlookers (who all were well acquainted with brother Kelly)- loaded the ole gal back in my truck for a return trip to the farm.
Brother Kelly is in the presence of God now. Our adventures live only in my memories. To me he was a great man- great as the Bible defines it- a servant. And one of the best friends this preacher has ever had.
And when I think about trying to measure up as a man to him, I think his assessment of me still rings true. I just “haven’t been preaching long enough.”