I took a lot of classes at Lamar County High School during my years there (1972-75). While I benefited from several I was most influenced by two: Creative Writing I and Creative Writing II, both taught by Mrs. Vivian (JoJo) Key. I had already discovered that I could write before I took Mrs. Key’s classes but she helped me to discover that I not only could write but that I should write, a revelation that has since evolved into “I must write.” She nurtured my gift, challenged me to do something with it, and helped me to see the power in a well-turned phrase, in a well-expressed idea, and in a pleasing sentence.
She never could, despite her best efforts, teach me how to write a précis, but nobody’s asked me to write one in the forty years since she did, so that’s all right.
Mrs. Key guided me toward my love of writing, a love that has grown larger as I have grown older. Very early in my career I adopted the discipline of writing out my sermons; along the way I have written a dissertation, essays, articles, Bible Study lessons, and books—I’ve even completed the first draft of a novel (that still needs a lot of work) and I have ideas for several more. These days I’m focused on writing books, blog posts, prayers, and songs. (If you’re wondering if Mrs. Key influenced my songwriting, let’s just say that my lyrics are much better than my tunes.)
Mrs. Key even gave me my first assignment as an editor when she named me as Co-Editor of the literary “journal”—it was mimeographed and stapled— our Creative Writing class produced and so she planted the seed in me that has blossomed forty years later into my new position as a Curriculum Editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing.
So you can see how my vocation as a writer and an editor is largely Mrs. Key’s fault.
My vocation as a minister is also largely her fault.
Oh, Mrs. Key had nothing to do, so far as I can perceive, with my initial call to be a minister. She had a lot to do, though, with the kind of minister that I became.
Sometime during my junior year, I think when I was taking Creative Writing II from her, Mrs. Key asked me about my plans for college. I told her that I was going to be dually enrolled during my senior year; I would take a class or two at the high school (the 1975-76 school year was to be our first year in the brand new county high school and so my class would be the first class to graduate from the new school) and a few classes at Gordon Junior College. I even had a free quarter at Gordon coming to me because of a History competition in which I had placed second (first prize was a free year). After I finished Gordon, I told her, I would probably go to the University of Georgia to finish my college education.
“You should look at Mercer,” she said.
“I don’t want to look at Mercer,” I said.
“Well,” she replied, if you plan to be a Baptist pastor you should go to Mercer.” (Mercer was at that time the Flagship University of Georgia Baptists. The Convention has since divorced Mercer, a move that has worked in Mercer’s favor.)
“I don’t want to go to Mercer,” I responded.
“Why not?” she most reasonably asked.
I don’t remember what I told her but the truth was that I had heard some people say that Mercer was “liberal.” I didn’t know what that meant but it sounded bad.
“My father-in-law is a retired Baptist minister,” she said. “He graduated from Mercer and he wants to take you down there for a visit.”
“I don’t want to go to Mercer,” I repeated, which ended the conversation.
As I walked into our house a day or two later I was met by my mother who said, “Mrs. Key called me today.” I asked what she wanted. “She says that Preacher Key wants to take you to visit Mercer.”
“I don’t want to go to Mercer,” I (rather predictably at this point) said, fuming inwardly at Mrs. Key’s meddling in my life.
“You’d have to miss a day of school to go,” Mama said.
“You know, on second thought, I think I would like to visit Mercer,” I replied.
Preacher Key did take me to visit there and as a result of that visit I spent my senior year of high school as a full-time student at Mercer University. In fact, I spent the next few years there and graduated in 1978.
Had it not been for Mrs. Key I probably would not have gone to Mercer. And had I not gone to Mercer I might never have experienced the realizations that I could and should love the Lord my God with all my mind as well as with all my heart and that God in God’s grace loves me, accepts me, and embraces me in and despite my flaws, sins, and shortcomings. Those two realizations have shaped my life and my ministry more than any others; my ministry has been all about leading people to experience the grace of God and to love the Lord with everything they are.
Those two realizations each came to me through a book and through a person. The realization that I should love the Lord with all my mind as well as with all my heart came to me through the textbook Hear, O Israel! by James King West that was assigned to our “Introduction to the Old Testament” class by Dr. Howard Giddens; both the book and Dr. Giddens modeled for me how deep faith could and should be combined with intellectual integrity. Dr. Giddens would become my father after my father died the year after I finished Mercer.
The realization that my life was grounded in God’s gracious acceptance of me rather than in my character and accomplishments came to me through the book Living by Grace by William Hordern which I read for Dr. Robert Otto’s Theology class; such grace was modeled for and extended to me in a girl from Leary, Georgia named Debra Kay Johnson who I met at the beginning of my second year, to whom I have been married now for almost thirty-seven years, and who continues to be a physical reminder of God’s grace in my life.
I went to Mercer because of Mrs. Key. Because I went to Mercer I became the kind of Christian, the kind of minister, and the kind of person that I became. Because Mrs. Key caused me to go to Mercer I read two of the most important books I ever read and came to know, to love, and to be loved by two of the most significant people in my life.
So if you wonder why I am like I am—it’s Mrs. Key’s fault.
If you wonder why I’m leaving the full-time pastorate to become an editor and writer—it’s Mrs. Key’s fault.
All of which is just another way of saying “Thank you, God, for the gift of Mrs. Key through whom you have given me so many other gifts.”
It was forty years ago, right about this time of year, that Mrs. Key meddled in my life. I am so very glad that she did ...