Mr. Odell lived down the street from the parsonage.
His first name was Odell, but being 24 and in my second appointment, and being taught some manners in life, I couldn’t bring myself to call him Odell without a courteous title.
His wife, Miss Erma Jewel, was a member of one of the three churches I was serving at the time.
Mr. Odell came to church with her, but wasn’t a member. He was among the cadre of men who gathered on the front porch of the church, shootin' the bull, smokin' like chimneys, and laughing as the "preacher" (that's what they called me, not "the" preacher, or Rev'd Jeffords, or even Johnny, just "preacher) was breaking a few speed limits trying to get to church on time haven't just finished services one and two at 9 and 10 o'clock, respectively.
Mr. Odell and Miss Erma Jewel were always there when the doors were open, and very supportive of a then single, student-pastor learning as he went through Divinity School.
Being neighbors as we were, it was not uncommon for them to check up on me, neither was it uncommon for me to go see if I could borrow a tool or something. They were on up in years, and Mr. Odell’s health was poor. He had emphysema brought on by a lifetime of smoking – a habit he couldn’t break.
Now, in middle Tennessee, the predominant church influence, especially in the country, is Church of Christ. The church you went to might say “Methodist” or “Baptist” on the sign, but the vein of Church of Christ doctrine ran deep, even in the doors of a different church with a supposedly different understanding of the Gospel.
All of which is to say, that Miss Erma Jewel, as sweet as she was, and as committed to Mr. Odell as she had been for all their lives, was convinced that unless he joined our church, he was going straight to hell.
I believed in evangelism, though not the kind of evangelism I’d later understand as truly authentic to the gospel. So in my naivete’, I decided that I’d make Mr. Odell my project. I was going to bring him to Jesus
It was a few weeks before I was going to be graduating for Vandy, and accept my first appointment back home in the Memphis Conference. It was time for me to make my move. He was over to the parsonage one day helping me by holding the ladder so that I could clean out my gutters, which is really funny, because I'm like twice his size.
The conversation, to the best of my memory, went something like this:
I’m up on the ladder. “Mr. Odell?”
“Yea, preacher,” looking up at me.
“Mr. Odell, I was looking through our church roll (not true, but a clever device to get the point I wanted across), and was surprised to see that you weren’t a member of the church.”
“Well, I know that Miss Erma Jewel has been a member for such a long time (like 50 years), and I was wondering why you’ve never joined.”
With raspy, wheezy voice, he said, “Well, I tell you. I haven’t joined the church because it’s just not my time to do it yet.”
This was hardly what I was expecting.
I was certain I hear something like, “because you Methodists are to damn liberal,” or, “you don’t really baptize, you just sprinkle,” or “I just go to church because that’s where my wife goes.”
But, “It’s just not my time to do it yet?” My whole evangelism plan was shot.
I asked, “Well, when’s it going to be time?”
He said, “I don’t know, but when it is time, I’ll just know it.”
"Mr. Odell, you know Miss Erma Jewel wants you to join in the worst way, and since my last Sundays are upon us, it would be a great going away present to me. Why don’t you just come on and do it?” (In hindsight, and after years of reflection, that had to be about the dumbest, most disingenuous of approaches I could have taken.)
With firmness, he said, “Because this is my choice, and if I do it at all, it’ll be when I’m ready.”
He wasn’t mad at me. In fact, I think he was surprised that I hadn’t asked him about it much sooner, and it made me wonder if every other preacher who'd lived in that house, just down the road from his, had taken their shot.
But I figured the “I’m about to leave” strategery was magic. No such luck. And I didn’t bother him with it anymore.
Eight or nine years ago I was reading a newsletter from that church, and saw the pastor’s article about Mr. Odell. He had, in his mid 80’s, made a profession of faith and joined the Church. When the pastor asked him what took him so long, he quoted Mr. Odell as saying, “it was time.”
Well I'd be dadgum.
I remembered my conversation with him. In retrospect, I’m so glad he didn’t join when I attempted to manipulate him. See, we, who are of the body of Christ, do things not in moments of our time (chronos), but in God’s time (kairos). Had I been more attentive to him and his needs then, I would have known that.
Are you keeping time? Who’s time are you keeping? If you’re living in the world of your own agenda, you’re rarely, if ever, available for the manifestations of ‘kairotic” moments.
A few months after reading the inspiring account of Mr. Odell joining the church, I read the newsletter posting sympathy for his death. Was he hell bound had he not joined the church?
He was a good man who believed and lived his life well. But it offered great solace to his beloved Miss Erma Jewel.
St. John’s - let’s put down our agendas, our watches and listen…be aware of God’s time in our midst, and follow.