For years, my wife and I kept saying, "we really ought to take a swing through the south and return thanks to some key people who influenced us in our early years of marriage and ministry". We finally did it, and have returned from the 'return thanks' trip and we are both very 'thankful'. We started by returning to return thanks to my kids in Nashville for marrying and living so well. What a joy to see Daniel and Catherine (and spouses), serving the Lord and growing in relationship. Daniel is making a name for himself (a good name) in the music world and as a 'trim carpenter'. Catherine is preparing for her year at Curry Ingram Academy, and we were able to see her classroom and meet some of the staff. It is beyond words to express thanks to God for his grace extended to all my kids. The feast at "Loveless Café" was pretty sweet as well. Visiting the locations of their spouses employment and to witness their own gifting and work ethic created a huge, "thanks be to God", moment. It was hard to leave.
We then travelled south to Montgomery, Alabama and see Mrs. Gibbons. The Gibbon's family reached out to us as a young married couple, trying to figure out life and how to raise our first child. They also fed us very well, and to this day, I am always disappointed when I order fried chicken, as Mrs. Gibbons cooking is really the best. (She cooked up some of her famous fried chicken, and tons of good southern sides, and it was so nice to sit at the same table that meant so much to us 28 years ago). Mr. Gibbons has passed into his eternal rewards and to this day, always think of him and his wisdom when I see a semi-truck pulling a gas tanker as that was his profession. It was so refreshing to meet all the daughter's spouses and children, and see how much we all have in common though we haven't seen each other for 28 years. We drove by First Assembly of God on Bell Road and were surprised at the emotions that surfaced in both of us. The first place of active, full time ministry was filled with hundreds of positive memories and it was hard to pull away from the church. We then drove into the neighborhood of our first house and remembered the first ministry of picking up children and bringing them to church. I will always remember the street (Raintree), that the first children responded to coming to church and giving their lives to the Lord. That season of bus ministry combined with children's ministry, combined with TV. ministry, combined with visitation ministry, combined with 'whatever the pastor dreamed up' ministry, still remains my most favorite moments of ministry.
We then traveled west to Atlanta passing through many towns, we haven't been in for decades. Atlanta has grown a bit, (14 lanes of traffic on I-85) and on the north side of town, we met with Donna Keener (used to be Barker). As a young man she took me under her wing, and would 'edit' my children's sermons and to this day, I always think of her helpful 'edits', that still form the frame work for communication of the gospel. She mentored me into puppet ministry and we laughed out loud at all the things we did. We shared both the blessings and tragedies that we have been blessed to face and overcome. We were privileged to see her ministry of "Living Recovery" ( http://www.livingrecovery.org/), and to help her get started on 'blogging' and establish a web site and domain name for her writing ministry, "Creative Prayer Renaissance" (http://www.creativeprayerrenaissance.com/). We found it difficult to leave, and were thankful that we could express thanks to this woman of God for all she is and has done for us.
I called my step dad, Red Gregory to see how he was doing, and discovered he was less than ten minutes away at his wife's daughter's wedding. We reconnected and spent the night at their home in the Smokey Mountains, and filled in the blanks of some of the events that have occurred in the last few years. Red, or as I refer to him, Pawpaw, married my mom, (the day after I was baptized in the Holy Spirit) (another story), and was a faithful husband through her long, multi year battle with Lupus and Emphysema. He kept us laughing with his wit, and one of a kind insights into life. He can and has built anything, and he awe's me with his various projects that he has successfully completed. His wife of 20 years, Jo has been a source of encouragement in my writing and she always has good insights and ideas. As we pulled away early Saturday morning I really hoped I can return with my grand kids and let them get to know and be influenced by this giant of a man.
The trip to return thanks has filled Brenda and me with even more reasons to be thankful.
Thanks be to God for allowing us the opportunity to be influenced by so many good people.
It is both the people and the places that have shaped our lives. Brenda and I are thankful for the opportunities and challenges we have been called to experience.
And, there are some more people and places that deserve a 'return thanks' trip. Something to look forward to.