Pickle Heaven Press-James R. Johnson

something to help you laugh and think about life with Christ

the bride price — July 10, 2019

the bride price

james ray johnson

How many goats is a person worth?   That was a question that my brother Mark was recently required to answer.  You see, a while back he met a lovely woman in Bahrain who is actually from Kenya.  They began to date which required my very American brother to commute from his then current home in Saudi Arabia to see his Kenyan princess who was still in Bahrain. 

All this international travel bewildered me.  I live in East Texas where we mostly just travel to Dallas to go to Six Flags to eat a smoked turkey leg.

But he burned up those frequent flyer miles and they fell in love and decided they should marry.  That’s when the story got extra complicated.

Elizabeth belongs to the Kikuyu tribe, and when it comes to marriage, the Kikuyu hold fast to their traditions.  If my brother wanted to marry her, he would need to negotiate with the village Elders over the bride price.

He made the long trip to rural west Kenya – arrived at her village and was soon taken to a room where he was left by himself.  He was only there for five hours. 

During that time the Elders and her parents discussed an appropriate asking price.  Having agreed, they then summoned Mark and the bargaining began – in Swahili. 

The bride price for a girl from this family was 120 goats (which is about $3,500 in U.S. dollars).  Mark countered and offered one chicken.  His possible future in-laws were not amused. 

The parents were willing to haggle, but the Elders said it was tradition and the price was non-negotiable.  But they did offer to let him pay it out in installments.  Every time he came to visit the family he could bring 10 goats with him.  Pretty nice deal really – a perpetual supply of meat and milk.  I wonder how you pay the interest on a goat loan? 

He agreed to the price, and decided it was actually quite a bargain, for such a wonderful bride. 

Then the celebration.  Mark was given Kikuyu wedding garb to wear.  Tradition required him to feed his future mother and father-in-law as a token of his ongoing support.  He carried out this tradition by pouring a can of Coca Cola into their open mouths.  Coke must have some kind of amazing marketing department. 

Mark was happy.  He was given the blessing of the tribal elders and her parents to wed his beautiful African princess. 

So how many goats are you worth? 

The Bible sometimes refers to the church as a bride with Jesus as the prospective groom.  The prophetic book of the Revelation says, “Let us rejoice and exult and give him glory, because the wedding celebration of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.”  Rev 19:7 -NET Bible®

Jesus, the Lamb of God, will one day symbolically wed the redeemed of all the ages as His collective bride.  It’s His way of expressing His deep and profound love for His church.

This love story began over 2,000 years ago when, like my brother Mark, Jesus left His home, to travel to a faraway place called earth.   He came dressed in the clothing of the locals, having added the flesh of man to His incomparable deity.   

But there was the bride price to pay.  In Africa, there is a well-known Swahili folk song about a young man who was desperately in love with a girl named Malaika – but they were unable to marry because he was poor and could not afford the bride price.

The cost to Jesus was even greater.  He was asked to shed His blood to satisfy the expectations of the Father.  It was non-negotiable!   He loved us enough, however, that He agreed to it – He chose to give His life on a cross in order to have His bride.

Oh how He must love us! 

In Kenya, the legal guardianship of a woman is passed from father to groom when the bride price is paid.  She becomes his.

This is true of the bride of Christ as well.  He has purchased us with His life and we now belong to Him – to have and to hold, from this day forward….   – thank You Lord Jesus!

Treat yourself to a tune “Your Love” by Bethany Bergman

my roughneck dental hygienist — July 3, 2019

my roughneck dental hygienist

jim johnson

A roughneck is a person who works hard with dirty calloused hands.  A dental hygienist is a person who sticks their hands in other people’s mouths.  The two don’t usually come together, but they did for me. 

I waited in the lobby for the sweet young lady who typically cleaned my teeth.  My eyes were buried in my magazine when I heard a deep, raspy voice say, “Mr. Johnson.”   

Oh no – my hygienist must have a cold.  That’s bad! 

I looked up to see a man – with a smock on. This may be worse!

He walked me back to the room while explaining that the former hygienist had moved on and now he was the man. (literally) That’s OK I can do change or so I thought.  But then he told me that he was an oil field roughneck who got tired of it and became a hygienist instead.  This was the first day of work in a dentist’s office.  Oh my – this could really be bad.

He put on his mask and gloves, tilted my chair.  Once I recovered from the whiplash, he took his pick attacked my gums like he was fracking a well.  With every muscular jab, my head rebounded.  I gagged when his big thick hands reached back for my molars.  

I suppose that everyone has their gums bleed a little during a cleaning.  But this guy hit a gusher.  

To clean up, he could have used the little sucker thing that sprays water and then vacuums it from your mouth.  He chose, instead, to cram my mouth with gauze.  He just kept jamming it in until I looked like a chipmunk on steroids. 

The dentist passed in the hall, and I cried, “Help me” but it came out, “mmmm mm.”

I learned a valuable lesson that day – when you are doing dental – you need to be gentle.

But maybe that should carry over into the rest of life as well.

I listen to the mean-mouthed politicians speak to and about each other and I wonder, “Is such vitriol necessary?”  How about a little gentleness?  The apostle Paul advised, “be peaceable, gentle, showing complete courtesy to all people.”  – Titus 3:2

We sometimes overreact when the kids disobey?   Can’t we be firm and yet gentle at the same time?  Again, Paul says, “If anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness…” Galatians 6:1

Boss – must we use our authority to bludgeon those we manage?  James asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct he should show his works done in the gentleness that wisdom brings.” – James 3:13

99% of the time I have been gentle in the way I speak to my wife.  She knows that, and yet, what she remembers is the harsh 1%.  This is what I need to remember, “A gentle response turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath.”  – Proverbs 15:1

The apostle Paul advocated gentleness 10 different times in the New Testament.  I suspect he did so because he was inclined to be harsh.  (father issues – who knows?)  Peter chimed in at least once and James twice.  Jesus told us that it would be the gentle who would inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5) and 1 Timothy 6:11 equates gentleness with godliness.

Should we ignore such a pervasive theme?  Or should we steal away for prayer, asking God to cleanse us from past failure in this area and asking Him to fill us anew with His Spirit that we might bear the fruit of gentleness.  (Gal. 5:23)   

Need a lesson in gentleness?  Jesus offered to be our tutor. “Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle…”  – Matt 11:29

If you struggle with being gentle, you might consider speaking to a pastor or a counselor.  Sometimes our harshness is rooted in the past and we may need a little help as we work through it.    

Well I survived my dental cleaning and on my next visit I found that my roughneck friend had moved on, probably recruited by the CIA to interrogate terrorists.   I was relieved to learn that He was replaced by another sweet young lady who practiced gentle dental.

(all Scriptures references are from the NET Bible®)

manatease! — June 27, 2019


Jim Johnson

The family was basking in the sultry waters off St. Petersburg Beach.  Our insatiably curious nine-year-old grandson was towing his Styrofoam boogie board through the surf.  His grandma was nearby to keep an eye on him.   

There was some commotion beyond him.  An aggregation of playful manatees had been spotted by some swimmers.  (An aggregation is manatee-speak for group – kind of like a congregation but better swimmers).  He began to furiously plow his way through the pounding waves, but then realized his grandma would love to see them too.  So, he yelled for her, “Mamo, there are some manatees.  Let’s go.”  He was all about manatees. 

On the drive to Florida we had talked about maybe seeing a manatee.  The family had fun exchanging original manatee jokes.  “How does a manatee start his car?”  With a manaKey!   “What does a manatee do for fun?”  ManaSki!  “What does a manatee do in the bathroom?  Wrong!  He takes a manaShower! 

A manatee really is something to see.  He is typically close to thirteen feet long and weighs about thirteen hundred lbs.  He has two flippers, a big paddle for a tail, folds of flesh, deep set eyes and a puffy forlorn looking face. 

An elephant, his closest relative, beats a manatee in the looks department hands down.   I sometimes wonder if the manatee was the last animal that God created.  Maybe He began with a big mass of grey flesh, shaped up its bulging form but then said, “I’m tired – that’s good enough.” 

One thing for sure, the boy was determined to see those creatures and to share the experience with his grandma.  She saw the people gathered near the manatees, but she also saw the relentless white capped waves that were coming her way.  She figured that they would be aggregating in Texas by the time she got out there. 

She tried anyway.  She pushed through the waves, wiping the salt from her eyes, while grandson bobbed around her like a cork on the water. But, it just wasn’t happening.   She stopped and began to turn in defeat when he pleaded, “Please Mamo, come on.  Please.  You can get on my boogie board and I will pull you.” 

Oh my! What a picture that conjures up?   An impossible task for him, to be sure. 

I wonder if that’s what Paul meant when he said, “love believes all things?”  (1 Cor. 13:7)  NET Bible® Out of his love for his mammo and the urge to share the moment with her, he believed he could and would tow her to the destination.   

An amazing love – the kind of love that may be the missing ingredient of life! 

Her husband was a hard man and she decided that she could not endure him any longer.  The marriage hung on for another 18 months, but it was really over the moment she failed to believe that things could change.  

He was a jerk!  He sure was, but what might happen if she were to possess a love that believed all things? 

What if she believed 1 Peter 3:1-2 which says that a wife can win a jerk of a husband over without nagging or coercion, but by the Christlike way in which she relates to him? 

What if she believed that the presence of Christ within her, could empower her to love him even though it felt impossible?

What if she were to accept by faith that God’s design for marriage is “till death do we part” and that God, the one who brought them together, would do His part to help them repair what was broken?    

What if she believed that her husband could become the husband and father he needed to be, once Christ took hold of his life? 

What if she were to believe the crazy idea that God could actually rekindle a fire in her heart for her husband? 

If only her love were to believe all things!

My grandson didn’t have the muscle, but he sure had the heart.  His grandma had a heart too and it melted before such devotion.  So, she turned and moved again toward the creatures but not before they began to move toward her.  And they met.  And they played together.  And then they moved on.  Texas was waiting.

His love prevailed.  Yours can too!

paper trail — June 19, 2019

paper trail

Jim Johnson

“God doesn’t care for me the way He used to.”  That captures my mood at the moment!

You see – I have grown accustomed to His love.  He was there to pick up this 19-year-old when I was drowning in sin.  He gave focus to my aimlessness and redirected me from a mission-project girlfriend to the girl who is now my amazing wife.  He led me when I was clueless and provided when I was needy.

He stretched me with challenges and then empowered me to meet them.  He answered my specific prayers and he gave me the blessing of 3 children which has exponentially grown to 10 grandkids.   God has been more than good to me. 

And YET today – today I feel like the kid who reached into the candy jar just once too often to have his daddy slap his hand and say, “Son – you’ve had enough.” 

My earnest prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling.  When I go to the Bible for a Spirit whispered word of encouragement I am met with an eerie silence. I watch with a little envy as God dramatically works in the lives of others, while I sit like a wallflower glued to a folding chair at the junior high dance.  I find my comfort in the company of John the Baptist in his prison cell.

Has it finally happened?  Have I reached the limits of God’s love for me?

Maybe my nephew can help adjust my perspective.

He was two at the time.  His grandmother had a cold.  She exploded with a sneeze that vibrated the china (in China).  She startled us, especially the boy.  He reacted by racing out of the living room – a junior germaphobe in the making – or so we thought.   

Moments later he returned with a gift – some toilet paper with which she might wipe her nose.  He couldn’t reach the tissue box on the counter, so he grabbed it from the TP roll instead.  So, so sweet!

But, he didn’t understand that he needed to tear it off.  So, trailing behind him – from bathroom to the living room was an unbroken, soft, scented chain of two-ply love.   He offered it to her with pride and affection.  She gratefully received it with a giggle.

God’s love comes to us in that way.

He once said to His people, “I have loved you with an everlasting love. That is why I have continued to be faithful to you.” – Jeremiah 31:3. NET Bible.    An everlasting love has no beginning or end.  It cannot be exhausted.  Before we were created He decided to love us. (Eph. 1:4) a decision from which He has never wavered.

The apostle Paul asked, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?”  Or to paraphrase, “Who or what is able to tear off the sheet of two-ply and break the chain of His affection for us?” 

He continued, “Will trouble, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?”  – Romans 8:35.   The answer to that purely rhetorical question is – not a thing can separate us from His love.  

He was sure of it for he went on to say.  “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  – Romans 8:35-39.  NETBible

An unbroken, soft, scented chain of His heavenly love.

Now do I always feel loved?  Well no!  But how reliable are my feelings anyway?   As a pastor I made hospital visits.  I sometimes empathized with the patient to the point to where I left their room having the same disease – or at least I felt like I had some of the symptoms.  “Oh man, I feel like my ovaries are enlarged too!”

Regardless of the way I read my circumstances, God’s love is ever faithful, always true.  As I draw from it, it continues to perpetually unroll at its source.   

There is hope in the unbroken expression of His love for me. 

What about you?  Do your current circumstances dull your perception of His love?    May today be the day that you relocate that endless, unbroken chain and grab it.  Giggle if you must!


Here’s a guitar instrumental to help you reconnect to the never ending love of God!

Blessed Assurance/Jesus Joy of Man’s Desiring: Guitar Jim Johnson
squirrel grit — June 12, 2019

squirrel grit

Jim Johnson – 745 words

When I grow up I’d like to be a squirrel, or at least be as determined. 

My wife and I love nature, but we have black thumbs.  Every bush we plant, lives a tortured existence and quickly turns to fertilizer.   So, we get our fix from a bird feeder instead.

I bought one, filled it with seed and suspended it on a pole.  We went out the next morning to enjoy nature, except there were no birds, because there was no seed.  There was however, a bunch of squirrels with gang tattoos, who had cleaned us out.

This aggravated me because the label on the bag said bird seed, not squirrel seed.  And they ate an enormous amount.  One of them looked like a little sumo wrestler without the diaper.

So then began my battle with the squirrels.  I put a barrier on the pole, but they easily bypassed it.  I improvised more attempts and they laughed.  When a barrier slowed them down they jumped from the trees with the greatest of ease.

But then I took a big trash-can lid and suspended it beneath the feeder.  O yeah!  There was not enough stretch in them to get past this one.  I finally won a round.

I spiked the ball in the end zone when I bought a sunflower seed mix.  This was too much for one of them.  He began to daily, gnaw at the trashcan lid until he whittled it down enough to bypass it

I was mad now!  I took a 5-gallon bucket and suspended it upside down. (see the pic) It was thicker plastic and there was 18 long inches to gnaw.  It took him forever – but he did it. 

Then I tried coating the rim of the bucket with Vicks VapoRub.  He would sniff it and run for the hills. Score another round for me (although he was grateful that his sinuses were cleared).

He countered by going for the motherlode which was in a sealed plastic bin in our garage.   One day we found him inside it luxuriating on top of 10 pounds of seed, like Scrooge McDuck basking on his mountain of gold.   

Only one solution left.  I baited a small animal trap with some enticing pecans.  The sneak couldn’t resist.  We caught and relocated him.  He is now a determined nuisance to someone else.

Such determination might look good on me!

Long ago I reported for my first ministry position as a pastor.  Before that I had been a printer, a broiler cook, taxi cab driver, printer, maintenance man and llama keeper.   I worked jobs where my value was measured by the volume I produced or how much money I made for the owner. 

But the work of a pastor seemed nebulous to me.  I didn’t like it.  At the end of that first day, I bought a newspaper to look for another job.  My wife was ready to club me. 

My response to difficulty back then was to cut and run – to give up and look for something else – to find a goal that was easier to accomplish.   So unlike Mr. squirrel. 

Jesus was at work in me though.  He said, “But as for the seed that landed on good soil, these are the ones who, after hearing the word, cling to it with an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with steadfast endurance.”  Luke 8:15 NET Bible®.   He tells us that the faithful, fruitful Christian is one who is marked by the quality of steadfast endurance.

The two are actually one word in the Greek language of the New Testament.  It means to remain under a great weight.  Think of a weight lifter who snatches 500 pounds from the floor and though tempted to drop it, he stands under it and keeps it elevated.  That is steadfast endurance – sheer determination. 

What might happen if God’s people were more determined? 

Instead of fleeing a problem-prone church, he might stay and become part of the solution.  Instead of abandoning a difficult marriage she might stick it out and find that the grace of God is enough to turn it around.  Instead of quitting a job in discontent, he might persevere and find that he gets promoted.  Instead of letting difficulty quench our faith, we could be steadfast and wait for God to show Himself.

Hey if a squirrel can do it – we can too!  We would please the Lord and amaze ourselves.  


I have included a link to a song I wrote, maybe one of my best, but certainly one of my most transparent because it highlights my weakness in this area.

It’s Always Harder Stayin’ Here – Written and recorded by Jim Johnson
lie medicine — June 5, 2019

lie medicine

Jim Johnson

My mom, Anna Johnson, moved on to higher ground last week after a full rich life of 88 years.  Thank you, by the way, for your precious thoughts in response to my brother Doug’s Facebook tag. Mom had just celebrated Mother’s Day, her birthday and her 67th anniversary with my dad who she left behind.  She was a wise and resourceful mother to five and my blog this week pays tribute to her ingenuity. 


Five kids – one crime – no one did it.  What does a mom do?   

My mother was a stay-at-home mom who possibly day-dreamed of being a stray-from home mom.  There were five of us kids and we were well-behaved (while we slept).   She ran a tight ship.  The wrath of mom was not something you wanted to risk.

So, it was, that one of us broke something that was dear to mom and then hid the damning evidence.  She eventually found it and growled, “Who broke it?” 

There were 4 quick replies, “Not me!”  We pinned it on Markie, the youngest.   He was too little to protest- the perfect fall guy.

Mom knew that one of us was lying – but who?  And how would she get to the bottom of it?   Dad had outlawed water boarding.  So, she introduced us to her mysterious “lie medicine.”  Lie medicine is a substance that identifies a liar.   It did not merit the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

She had each of us drink a liquid.  It tasted like water, but the label said lie medicine.  She told us that it would cause the hands of a liar to turn blue. 

This was frightening!  Each of us had told a lie at one time or another (probably within the last 12 hours).  If the lie medicine worked, then mom would become the mother of Smurfs.

But surely the stuff wasn’t legit.  Why hadn’t we heard of it before? No, she was manipulating us to get the guilty to confess.  So, we stood our ground. 

She pressed on.  Mom lined us up, oldest to youngest, and told us to hold out our hands, palms down.  She took my hands in hers and then flipped them over. Nothing to see but a little dirt and a wart.  I breathed a sigh of relief. Then onto my sister Sandy.  She too was clean. 

The suspect list had been narrowed down to Doug or Carol.  Mom moved on to Doug – her prime suspect.  She flipped his hands and there it was – a shockingly dark, blue stain.  He was terrified and swiftly confessed, providing every deceitful detail. 

We were stunned and scared.  The lie medicine worked.  Mom never had to use it again.  She had to only threaten to – and we broke.

Eventually we discovered her diabolical secret.  Mom had cunningly dabbed her finger in blue food coloring and touched it to Doug’s palm.

I must hand it to her, though, the thought of having our sins revealed, motivated us to be honest.

I wonder if that’s why Jesus has a similar plan for us? 

According to 1 Cor 3:10-15 and 2 Cor. 5:10, there will come a time when Christians will line up and Jesus Himself will check our palms (so to speak).  We will give an account then for what we did with our lives. 

It will be a time of gain, for we will be rewarded for our gold, silver and precious stone moments in life.  But it will be a time of pain as well – a time that we will likely meet with reluctance.  Paul associates it with the fear of the Lord.  (2 Cor. 5:11) 

Why reluctant?  Paul put it this way, “…wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.”  (1 Cor 4:5) NET Bible®

Jesus, on 3 occasions, also told His disciples that what is hidden now will be revealed then.  (Luke 8:17; 10:21; 12:1-3) The lies, the unseen motives, our embarrassing thoughts – all revealed.  Most of us will be singing the blues (and maybe seeing the blue too)

Good news though, mom never kicked us out of the family for lying and neither will the Lord ever reject those who have entered His family through their faith in Jesus.  But as was with my family – and most every family – there is accountability. 

Better to drag the hidden into the light today. Confess it to Him (1 John 1:9) so that there is nothing to reveal in the future.  Better to live in a way today – that creates a blueless tomorrow.   By His power and grace, we can do that!

sleepy follow — May 29, 2019

sleepy follow

Jim Johnson

She wanted to stop at the grocery store.  When it comes to food, I am highly motivated to eat it, inept at cooking it, and totally apathetic about shopping for it – but I love my wife, so I went along.  

She grabbed a cart and I grabbed my phone and began to follow her.  I was trying to text in my calorie count from dinner.  The app was aggravating, and I have the fine motor skills of an ape. To do all this while trying to follow my wife was torture, and yet more satisfying than searching for a can of cream of mushroom soup.

I kept her in my peripheral vision as we walked.  I didn’t want to accidentally wind up in the laxative aisle.   Back and forth she went, with me two steps behind, until we reached the rear of the store.  I hit the save button and pocketed my phone.

I then lifted my head and found myself nearly nose-to-nose with a bewildered Latino woman.  Her steely eyes were asking, “What kind of creep are you and why have you been trailing me for the last 5 minutes?”  (and by the way – you text like an ape) 

I was embarrassed.  I went and hid in the laxative aisle.

I lost the person I was following.  It happens!  It happened to Peter the apostle.

Jesus recruited him while fishing in the Sea of Galilee. It took a miraculous catch and the words, “Follow me” to move him from his boat to the ranks of the disciples.  For Peter to follow, he had to set aside his own agenda and make the person and the will and the work of Christ his top priority.    It meant dying to self and being with Him.

Peter followed fairly well, but he had his moments.  Just before Jesus made His ascent into heaven, the two of them were talking.  Peter was rebounding from a previous failure, so Jesus felt He needed to prepare him for the future.  He revealed that Peter would one day pay the ultimate price for his faith by execution.

And then, as if He knew that Peter would buck, He reiterated those familiar words, “Follow Me.”  (John 21:19)   Unfortunately, Peter didn’t hear them.  He stopped listening when heard the description of his death.  That would probably stop me too.

Peter didn’t want to die a martyr.  He was also greatly annoyed that Jesus made no such gruesome prediction about John who was his fellow disciple, former business partner and cousin.  “So when Peter saw (John), he asked Jesus, “Lord, what about him?”  (John 21:21) NET Bible®

Peter lost Jesus.  His eyes were cast downward – he latched onto and began to follow his fear and envy instead.  

Jesus replied as if he were speaking to a 4-year-old. “If I want him to live until I come back, what concern is that of yours? You follow me!” (John 21:22) NET Bible®    Ouch!  Tough words.  “Peter, I want you to stop looking around at others and keep your eyes on me.   Don’t follow your heart, or your fears, or your passions, or your Facebook friend or anyone or anything else but Me.”

He expects no less of us!

Beware though! We live in a day where being a follower is reduced to subscribing to someone on social media – someone like Cristiano Ronaldo who holds the current record for the most Instagram followers – 150 million of them.  I think I should probably know who this is, but I don’t. (just Googled it.  He is a Portuguese pro soccer star who plays for an Italian team)

It’s really easy to “follow” Mr. Ronaldo.  No commitment required.  You don’t even have to read the things he posts.  Following Jesus, however, requires exactly what Jesus asked of Peter. “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. (Matthew 16:24) NET Bible®

Take a moment to lift your head and look into the face of the person or thing that you have been following.  If it ain’t Jesus – you could hide in the laxative aisle or you could simply say “I’m sorry Lord.  May I join you again?


A special treat: Bethany Bergman singing what has been my heart cry – Nothing More, Nothing Less, Nothing Else.  

Nothing More: Written by Jim Johnson. Vocals by Bethany Bergman
apprehended — May 22, 2019


Jim Johnson

What does a bluegrass band and a homeless person have in common?  The answer?  Neither are welcome at the Ritz.  True – but both were welcome at the Highway 80 Rescue Mission. 

Dinner had just been served and the men knew they had to attend chapel if they wanted a comfortable cot for the night.  So, they begrudgingly trickled into the chapel building– men of every color, shape and size.  Each one different, but each one the same – bullied by circumstances that were beyond their ability to cope.   Bonded by a common sense of helpless hopelessness.

The East Mountain Bluegrass Gospel Band was in charge that night.  Every third Monday of the month, they sing the Gospel there. They say bluegrass is sung from the nose and not the diaphragm.  Maybe, but I know these folks and they sing from the heart.

The band looked out on a sea of about 70 faces – some enthusiastic, while others were painted with a vacant stare. 

The band finished one song and was moving to the next when 3 uniformed police officers entered the back of the room.  They paused and scanned the chapel with their hands on their weapons. 

They whispered to a staffer who led the somber trio to the front.  A younger man was tapped on the shoulder.  He saw the officers and slowly came to his feet.  They spun him around, slapped the cuffs on his wrists and led him out.

The band lost the crowd.  Every eye was fixed on the man in cuffs.   Living on the streets is a tough life and the law is often a casualty.  Most of those men had done jail time before.  It was his turn now!

Julie, who plays with the band said, “It hurt to watch.”  It was a moment when you just wanted to stop the show and cry, but there was still more Gospel to sing.  Still a chance that someone in the crowd might choose Jesus and a changed life. 

The set list called for, ‘Tis so Sweet to Trust in Jesus.  It seemed to be an awkward song for the moment.   Julie says she whined about singing it as they were planning the set.   But they kicked it off, and she sang as the tears fell from her chin to the bass guitar she played. 

After the service, the staffer approached the band and filled in the blanks. He said that the young man had recently decided to follow Christ thanks to the ministry of the mission.

Fantastic – except that the Scripture says that the person who comes to Christ should be made new.  “So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away – look, what is new has come!” 2 Cor. 5:17- NET Bible®   A true Christian is a new person – a person who thinks and speaks and acts like the Savior who indwells him.   If that young man had truly come to Jesus, then he wouldn’t be headed to jail.

And yet – – that was exactly why he was headed to jail.   The guy in cuffs was the snitch.  He had called the police that day to report himself and to tell them where they could find him. He had broken the law and he knew it.  As a new man in Christ, it was important to him to take responsibility for what he had done.  He wanted to be clean before God and man.

He knew they were coming for him that very night and He chose to be apprehended in the place where Christ had first apprehended him.  Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus! 

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An awesome story of grace and redemption!  I sure appreciate excellent redemptive ministries like the Highway 80 Rescue Mission. (http://www.hiway80rm.org/)  I am also glad for volunteer teachers and singers and such that put on the chapel services in these missions; like the East Mountain Bluegrass Gospel Band (http://eastmountainbluegrass.com/).  Above all I am awed by the Lord, who uses these folks in the lives of the hopeless to bring about new life – changed lives – on a regular basis.   

– – – –

PS: I loved the opportunity to tell Julie’s story.  If you have a story you might like me to tell – funny or sublime.  Go to the contact page of this blog, send me a note and let’s talk.

He knows my worn out name — May 16, 2019

He knows my worn out name

James Ray Johnson

The coach sometimes calls the little leaguers by their numbers.   “Way to go 10.”  “Good eye 32.”  “Grip the other end of the bat 18.”  It seems like a science fiction baseball team: the Cy Young Cyborgs.

A name is important.  When someone remembers and uses our name it tells us that we matter to them.  But we rub elbows with hundreds of people every day who don’t know us.  Some should – like my boss.  Does he really think calling me “bub” will do?   And why does my wife sometimes slip and call me Sam?  Hey, wait didn’t she used to date a Sam? 

When I served as a pastor, I made it a point to try to remember names. Some made us their church home only because I remembered their name from their first visit.

My name is ridiculously common: James Ray Johnson.  Take my last name for instance.  There are over 2 million of us.  It ranks second only to Smith.  My first/last name combo ranks #10. 

I, therefore, prefer to use my full name.  But the Dallas phone book once listed 27 James Ray Johnsons.  (NOTE: a phone book is like a paper contact list). 

Two of us lived in the same apartment complex with the same street number. I got a nasty note from a collection agency that was intended for him.  I told them, “That’s not me – my social security number is….”   Hey-maybe the coach was on to something. 

Add to those 27 listings, variations like James R.; J.R.; J. Ray; Jim; Jimmy Ray: Jim R.; etc. and you have thousands of people in Dallas alone who could be me.  The commonality can be a problem.   When I go through customs I occasionally get detained because one of us has robbed a bank somewhere.

But it has its advantages too.  When I send a friend request on Facebook, even to a total stranger, it is almost always accepted because everyone knows someone named James Johnson.  Plus – it might be coming from the one who plays for the Miami Heat.

Another advantage – no one is interested in stealing my boring identity. 

Some have tried to improve on my name.  I preached at a crusade in Haiti just after their president was violently ousted.  We arrived to find leaflets and banners plastered everywhere with my name and picture: Predikate’ Jim Johnson Bush.  (see picture above) The Haitian who organized the event chose to make me a member of the family of then president George W. Bush.  He hoped it would keep the nasties away.  It worked.  I probably ought to give old Bubba a call and thank him.   

My name worries me a little.  When the roll is called up yonder and they say, “James Johnson,” how will that work?  Will all 2 million of us rush the podium in a frantic panic to get in?  “Master is it I?” 

Without a doubt, the most important thing about my name is that Jesus knows it.  John 10:3 says, “The sheep hear His voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” NET Bible®. 

Back in Jesus day, shepherds named their sheep even as we name our pets, based on their appearance or personality or circumstances at their birth. 

In the morning the shepherd would go to the communal sheepfold and gather his particular sheep for a day of grazing.  He would summon them by name, “Come on fluffball and chipper. Let’s go stormy.” 

As names were called, heads would lift, and happy feet would move toward the shepherd who led them out of the filthy, cramped, barren fold into lush green meadows.

How sweet and utterly personal.  My shepherd knew my name before I ever entered His flock and He used it, my very name – to call me to Himself.  The person that matters most – knows my name.  It is recorded in heaven (Luke 10:20) and He is smart enough to know which James Johnson is which. (2 Timothy 2:19).

He knows your name as well.  Have you heard Him and followed? If you want to discuss it, go to the contact page on this blog and shoot me an email.  I promise to respond.  – Yours truly, James Ray Johnson.


Treat yourself to this classic Maranatha tune, “He Knows My Name.” 

what if God chewed tobacco? — May 1, 2019

what if God chewed tobacco?

Jim Johnson – 773 words

I was new to Dallas and had just landed a well-paying job as a casual – unloading semi-trailers. As a casual, I would call into work each evening and if there was enough freight that day, I was given the green light to come in. Being a casual was perfect because I was also doing school. Not a problem to skip a day at the dock because there was always another casual who was eager to work.

The foreman hailed from west Texas. He had a drawl that reached to Lubbock and back. My northern ears had not yet adjusted. On top of that, he typically had a plug of tobacco tucked in his cheek. It was easier to put socks on a rooster than to understand him when he spoke.

My first day, he handed me a clipboard with the number of the truck that I was to unload and then he spoke to me. It sounded like, “slurburshebedee.” I said, “What?” He repeated, “slurburshebedee!” I asked again and evidently crossed a line. There was fire in his eyes and a rivulet of tobaccy juice oozing from the corner of his mouth. I saved myself by saying, “Oh I got it,” as if I understood, and then went to my truck.

This became our ritual. He would speak a couple of words, and I would pretend that I understood. But one day, he came to my truck and wanted to chat. Oh no! He spoke – I tried to decode. When he paused, I figured he had come to the end of a sentence, so I would nod my head yes, or chuckle, or say “I bet.” He could have been telling me that his wife had just died, and I chuckled and said, “I bet.” Two minutes later he was gone. Looked like I pulled it off again.

The next day I had a test at school, so I didn’t call in at work. The day after, I did, and was given the green light. But when I reported to the foreman, there was fire in his eyes again. I got the message this time. That day in the truck, he had asked me to become a regular and work full time. I nodded yes, so he told me to report the next day – which I didn’t, and he was not happy. I kept my job as a casual, but only for a couple weeks more. My loss!

Soooo – what if God had a cheek stuffed with Red Man Chew? What if He spoke so that every one-syllable word had two? What if John 3:16 read as, “slurburshebedee?”

Fortunately for us, God spoke with crystal clarity in His Word. It is so clear that it is to be used as a precision tool, like a lathe, to shape us (2 Tim 3:16-17). Is there anything unclear about the words, “You shall not steal?”

Though clear, we still hear a muddled message. Jesus said of His disciples, “You have ears but are unable to hear.” (Mark 8:18). This is because we allow our preconceptions and self-centered conditions to confuse His message. We want God to say what we want to hear, which keeps us from really hearing what He has said.

The better way is to lay aside our personal baggage, take His Word at face value and respond in an appropriate way.

As a pastor, I found that a sermon on giving was about as welcome as an outhouse breeze. (We say that in Texas!) But I’m not a pastor now and I ain’t got a dog in this fight (we say that too!) So, let me use giving as an example.

God spoke about it in 2 Cor. 9. There He said, “The person who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the person who sows generously will also reap generously. (2 Cor 9:6) NET Bible® His point: The one who generously gives their money toward God’s purposes, will be generously blessed by God (and vice versa)

The truth is clear – but we muddle it up: “That’s not what it means” or “that was a promise given exclusively to the Corinthians” or “I can honor God in other ways” – or whatever.

Not cool. The better way is to lay aside our personal baggage, take His Word at face value and respond in an appropriate way no matter the issue.

It has taken some time, but now, not only do I understand a Texas drawl, I can speak it. Ya’ll hear? But with God, I am still working on listening clearly and responding fully.

And should my beloved former boss be a reader, may I say, “slurburshebedee!”

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