We’ll Never Forget You, John Gates

The kids in Sunday School proffered their feelings of sadness as we opened class.

“I’m going to miss Uncle John.”

“Me too.” Another agreed. “He was always so nice.”

“He called me his grandkid.”

“He always cheered the loudest for me. I could hear him yell my name…”

They were talking about John Gates.

John came into our lives through a simple act of kindness. He was attempting to trim some overgrowth in his yard one day and Curtis happened to be driving by. John had suffered a stroke and was almost complete paralyzed on one side. This made it extremely difficult for him to maneuver the clippers. Curtis and his sons jumped in and were able to make short work of the lawn care.

As they talked, Curtis learned that John was in need a of a lawyer. After years of making payments on his home, he was being told that the checks were not owner-financed mortgage payments as promised, but simply rent. Instead of turning over a deed, the owner wanted to turn him out. Unfortunately, John had been on disability for years and did not have funds to pay for an attorney.

So that was how I first met John; When the Bostic Law Group took his case. Which, I might add, we won. John was in tears when he thanked us for our help. He got to keep his home and we got a new friend.

In fact, John began showing up regularly at church. Despite his severe limp, he would work his way down to the front to sit with the Bostics whom he called, “his family.” He would often then often join them at home for lunch, chatting with Jenny as she would finish preparations. The stroke had left him to struggling some for words and stuttering a little bit, but that didn’t stop him. The man could talk.

I hung around some too and heard him share about his life and background. As best as we could put together all of the pieces, it appeared he had a rough upbringing and some even rougher adult years. In fact, it seemed that the litany of health issues that he dealt with were partially caused by years of drug abuse.

But despite whatever the challenges of life had been, he had kept his tender heart and sensitive nature. And in very little time, the whole church started becoming his family. I remember when Curtis and Jenny threw him a birthday party.

His first birthday party.

Most people thought he was turning 70, but in fact, he was only in his early fifties. And he was as excited as a kid. We were celebrating his first birthday party, but he was celebrating his first family. I remember watching him cry as we sang to him in the law firm conference room.

I thought Curtis was a little crazy when he suggested taking John to Disney World. That generally isn’t where you take fifty-somethings who struggle to walk (even with a cane), have one arm in a sling, have no children or grandchildren, and have frequent health struggles.

But John said it was on his bucket list. So we loaded up and went to Orlando.

And we had a grand time. Curtis rented motor scooters for John which helped him get around and helped all of us get in the “short line” everywhere we went. I felt mildly guilty cutting in front of the poor vacationers spending their whole day weaving back in forth in the long lines. Don’t worry, the feeling passed.

We even went to Sea World, and Stephen got John’s picture on the big screen during the Orca pre show. I doubt he ever forgot that.

One of my favorite memories of John was when I got assigned to a dessert contest judging panel with him and one other guy. After talking about his judging responsibility for days (and telling everyone not to tell him what dessert they were bringing), the time finally arrived for us to taste the huge spread of delicious looking pies, cakes, and cookies.

That’s when he announced that he was allergic to all nuts, berries, and chocolate. So…my apologies to everyone who entered that contest. It was rigged. Sorry.

I think having more to life than watching TV did great things for John’s health. He even seemed to be regaining some of the use of his paralyzed limbs. Weeks before the big day, he asked me to spot him while he walked to the front of the church one morning because he planned to do it without his leg brace. It was a huge deal to him as we paraded to the front—him carrying his cane and me carrying his brace.   It was a good reminder to me of the little things we take for granted every day, like two good legs.

Over the years, folks at church helped John in various ways. Jay and Anita brought him meals. Jenny drove him to the hospital a few times. Families like the Sterretts had him over for meals. People included them in their Thanksgiving and Christmas plans. Mary Lou helped care for his dog and would take him to Walterboro to watch the young people from church show horses. He talked all the time about how much fun he had watching them win ribbons.

John wasn’t just a on the receiving end of love and attention. He liked to “pay it forward” as it called it. He took an interest in all the kids at church, but particularly fell in love with the Remember Hope Children’s Home. He sponsored two girls in Burma faithfully, sending small gifts or funds for them to purchase new school uniforms. He was very proud of his efforts to procure hundreds of pencils, pencil sharpeners, and erasers with the help of the fine folks at the Dollar Store.

Last Tuesday, Jenny hosted another birthday party for John. Little did she know, it would be his last. It was Mary Lou who found him lying unconscious in his home a few days later when she stopped by to give his dog some meds. He passed away quietly at MUSC.

He can walk without his leg brace now. And he doesn’t need me to spot him.

John didn’t leave behind a lot by way of worldly possessions, but as Curtis went through his things he found what was perhaps most important to him—letters and cards written by members of our church over the years. I’m so glad he didn’t die a lonely old man with nothing to do but watch a TV set. He died a member of a huge, loving family.

The next day, I sat with some friends who were explaining to me why they didn’t go to church any more—just watched a service on TV. I thought about Charleston Bible Church and the incredible way this body of believers welcomes and loves others whether or not they can pay it back or “pay it forward.” I thought of our meaningful worship, solid Bible teaching, and practical encouragement for godly living. These folks are missing out.

I told them I loved my church and a little bit of why, but I didn’t say enough though. Or perhaps I said too much.

I can sum up my feelings about church in two words: John Gates.

Shoveling Coal

You gotta love the gym. Where else can you be updated on all the evils in the world all at once? TVs everywhere on every channel can give you updates from 6 points of view simultaneously. War in Israel. Chaos in Iraq. Mess in Washington. Mayhem in Detroit. Ebola in Liberia. Actors killing themselves.

Good Morning, America! It’s another day in our broken, messed up world.

You can turn off the TV, but you can’t turn off the problems. They are there.

So…what is there to do? What to do but put your head phones in and run. Run.

I can’t fix the Middle East. I can’t fix poverty. I can’t fix drugs and depression. I feel like I should do something, but what? And what would matter anyway?

Despite trying to shut it out, I can’t help but keep asking myself those questions while I’m running. Yep, I’m watching six TVs playing six different channels, I’m listening to something else on my headphones, and at the same time, I’m trying to solve the world’s problems in my head. It’s little wonder I’m exhausted before I even break a sweat.

This morning, my phone was playing Kisses from Katie, the recent story about of young lady who is trying to “do something.” She moved to Uganda after high school where she has adopted 13 children and helps provide for 600 more through a non-profit organization called Amazima.

I have a lot of respect for Katie Davis and what she is doing to show the love of Christ in a destitute corner of the world. However, although she is investing her whole heart into the lives of needy orphans, she too confesses that she feels some days like she is trying to empty the ocean with an eye dropper. Every little drop takes resources, but it is just a little drop in a sea of sickness and poverty. Even with her every effort, the world doesn’t look much different in the grand scheme of things.

Katie opined that God didn’t create more people in the world than He provided for. And that’s true. Her conclusion was that those with more should share with those with less. And we should.

But I don’t think that’s the whole answer.   How many billions of dollars in aid has the US poured into remote parts of the world and what do we have to show for it? We can pump billions of dollars into the Middle East and Africa—as we have done—and it will still be a mess. In addition to giving nationally, we can give individually. But it’s kind of like dropping 8,000 meals on a mountain hiding 40,000 refugees…a good thing; but how long can you go on 1/5 of a meal?  

Katie has also worked to help Ugandans “help themselves” which is a good thing, but I noticed that, like many organizations, Amazima primarily derives its support from people who are in the US or by selling handmade jewelry to people in the US.

Stick with me here; I’m trying to solve the worlds’ problems and it takes a little time to explain.

We can’t all quit our jobs and move to Uganda. Because if we did, we would simply be one of the far too many starving Africans. We could all quit our jobs, move to Africa, and try to find work there, but that seems a little silly seeing as we had jobs here that we are probably better trained for and adapted to than what we might find in a village in Buziika. Not only would we all need Amazima, but there wouldn’t be an Amazima because there would be no one to give.

So the end result of that plan to fix the world has everyone starving. Cross that one off the list.

So, what to do about the world’s problems?

I’m convinced of a few things: We should stand with Israel. We should fight against radical Islam. We should try to help the sick and feed the poor. But frankly, more than anything, I believe that we should live ordinary lives. Go to work. Take care of our families. Shovel coal.

Hear me on this.

What the world needs is not another leader. Not a movement. Not an aura of peace. What the world needs is healthy families working hard and providing for themselves and others.   At the end of the day, that is what works. That is what stamps out poverty. That is what cures AIDS. That is what diffuses conflict. That is what would solve most of the policy debate in Washington.

If people around the world understood the concepts of family and hard work, it would go a long way toward solving the evils in the world. Of course, those are both biblical concepts, so most of the world is going to try to find a more modern way to achieve a peaceful, prosperous existence. But they won’t.

Some of us may travel to distant countries. Some of us may start organizations. Some of us may be leaders. But most of us will do the most good by showing the world that family and industry work— husbands and wives who love each other providing for their own and then a bit extra—create the most successful nations.

That means, for some of us, the most important thing we can do is to shovel coal. Go to work. Be productive. Come home. Take care of the people God has placed in our lives. It isn’t glamourous. It’s not exciting. It wouldn’t be a good plot for an Indiana Jones movie. And apparently, it isn’t good fodder for the morning news.

Don’t be ashamed to enjoy what the blessing of God and hard work have given you.  Share what you have. Give till it hurts. But enjoy the fruit of your labor.

Some of us have an eye dropper. Some of us have a coal shovel. If you have one, don’t rip on the person who has the other; cheer them on. We may not win over the rest of the world, but we can keep from becoming them only one way—working to provide for ourselves and our families and just a little bit more.