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Friday, June 30, 2006


It speaks for itself

President Bush Goes on Run with Staff Sergeant Christian Bagge
Click the photo to read the story

Click here and look for the video link

You could focus on the President, on the war, on the tragedy of a man paying a high cost to serve his country, of the beauty of a man paying a high cost for serving his country, or you could just marvel at the resilience and the tenacity of the human spirit.

All of that and a lot more is captured in this photo and the story. Make sure you watch the video.

Thank you Staff Sergeant Christian Bagge for your service and for your sacrifice; from a grateful American.

Now what's your excuse for not running this morning.

Until the next time
John Strain


Thursday, June 29, 2006


What is real; what is right?

I didn't have to run today, so I took Bear dog for a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. We have a little route where he sniffs, pees, and poops. Between 6:30 and 7:00 AM is a good time to do this, because the sun is just above the horizon and the heat is a few hours away.

It was especially cool this morning, 66 degrees. It is so peaceful and enjoyable to do this and it also gives me time to think.

This morning I was thinking about the peacefulness. Before we walked, I threw the football for Bear. He is so enthusiastic chasing that ball and bringing it back. Being with me and chasing a ball makes him happy and it seems to be enough.

I thought about the squirrels. I gave them a fresh ear of corn and they seemed to enjoy that. A little water in the birdbath and they enjoy a cool early morning splash. I passed a lady in a bathrobe outside with her little granddaughter. The girl was excited to see Bear. "Look at the puppy!" I met a jogger and exchanged greetings.

The pace is nice and easy and the word peaceful seems to take it all in. Now contrast the vitriolic rants on the morning news shows and the images of pain and suffering. A bombardment of bad things, angry people, and hopeless situations comes in unending sorties from the television.

The economy is in trouble, crime is getting worse, global warming is going to kill us all. Politicians and pundits talk about problems and blame them on the opposition, but no one talks about solutions.

Meanwhile, all over the world, people are going about their daily routine. They are taking morning or evening walks. They are laughing with their families. The world is full of people who just do their job. They are not on the radar screen of the media unless they become the victim of some horrible accident.

Goodness and goodwill are all around us. Beauty and peacefulness are right outside your door, but so is anger, hostility, betrayal, and violence.

Sometimes we can go through life and keep to ourselves and to the things we enjoy. Even with those best intentions, the other world has a way of breaking in on us. Sickness, crime, careless accidents, and bad luck will touch us at some time in our life; all the more reason to enjoy the peace you can find.

Reality is what we perceive for the most part. There is a Real and there is Truth. I believe there is Right and Wrong as well.

When the people who live by the letter of the law outnumber the people who observe the Spirit of the law, you get a very bad result. The law and statistics in the hands of ill-intentioned people can be a dangerous weapon. Power plays have been going on since people began living together in societies, so this is nothing new.

Our salvation is in the collective power of good people living by the values and principles they were hopefully taught as children. A child knows the difference between right and wrong. Adults learn ways to rationalize things to where up is down and in is out.

You have more power than you think. Your smile and kind word is more than disarming; it is healing. Have you ever seen anger dissolve from a face because of a smile? Do you know how healing an apology can be to you and another? Can you look outside yourself to try to understand the point of view of another and work toward a compromise? Do you know the joy of giving and helping? Have you known the release that giving up a grudge or granting forgiveness can bring?

All of these things are powerful tools we all have. Even unused rusty tools can do the job. Dust yours off if you haven't been using them. Let go of your anger and stress and enjoy the life that is before you before it slips away. Regrets, remorse, and missed opportunities will haunt your older years if you don't. Make those days joyful; it is within your power.

Until the next time
John Strain


Tuesday, June 27, 2006


A process and serendipity

I love to learn and it is even better when the lessons are unexpected. When I began writing about my life, I had intended to cover it in a couple of posts. My original purpose was to talk about my eyesight and to explain how being legally blind has shaped me.

The posts became longer and described smaller measures of time. What I learned was that writing about the past was therapeutic. I have realized many insights and gained even more gratitude and appreciation just for drawing air into my lungs all these years.

I have been blessed, cursed, and most everything in between. The task of writing makes one think and organize thoughts about the event so that they make sense on paper or the computer monitor.

If you haven't written your life story, do it. You will see what I mean. I am thinking about things I haven't thought about in years. I am gaining insights and perspectives that are new. The advantage of time and learning sheds new light on old events.

I am always fascinated by how life works. The older I get, the more fulfilling and meaningful things become, even the things I have already experienced.

Writing has been an interesting process and one with an ample dose of serendipity.

Until the next time
John Strain


Monday, June 26, 2006


My life Part XI: Learning patience and humility

Isn't it funny how the life we imagine is rarely the life we get? I had it all planned out. I would go to college and seminary, get married, and then pastor a church in a nice "Leave it to Beaver" kind of town.

Well, two out of three ain't bad.

The interview in Ohio didn't work out. For the near future nothing was in the works. At the time we were living in Dr. Johnson's Lakeview home while he was on vacation, but that was only a two-week arrangement.

Once back in New Orleans, I spoke with some of the professors at the seminary to see if they had any job leads. We were still awaiting appointment by the Home Mission Board, but we were open to anything. We had our resumes copied off and mailed them out to state offices and anywhere that might be looking for a good husband and wife team.

The two of us were a good deal; two for the price of one. We both had our college and seminary degrees, we were young, energetic, eager, and desperate.

On March 7, I went to an oral surgeon to check out a funny taste I was having in my mouth. Not good news. He told me I had two impacted teeth on my right lower jaw. A cyst had formed between them and was lying on a nerve. The taste I was experiencing was drainage from the cyst.

If I didn't have the teeth and cyst removed, my jaw would eventually just break. Removing the cyst could result in permanent damage to the nerve, which would leave my lower lip numb forever. I envisioned me as a drooler and I was not encouraged.

I needed a surgery to remove the two teeth, cyst, and my four wisdom teeth and it would cost $1600. Without a job, I had no insurance and I was about $1600 short. I was headed toward becoming a homeless drooler.

March 12 was a pretty good day. I called my mother to see if my grandmother might loan me the money. Fortunately for me, my grandmother gave me the money. She couldn't stand to have a homeless drooler for a grandson if all she had to do was write a check for $1600 to prevent it.

That same day, one of our friends called to say they found us an apartment. Someone in their church had a one bedroom apartment in a good location. It was right next to Brother Martin School on Elysian Fields Avenue. To top it off, Tim and Prisca had paid the first month's rent of $275.

They told us they had been praying and saving for us for a long time. We were overwhelmed and humbled by their generosity.

The next day we headed up to Vicksburg to collect our things and move them to New Orleans. It was a flurry of activity and we cannibalized Barbara's parent’s house. We got an old couch with a bright yellow slipcover that became quite a conversation starter.

Everything we needed from pots and pans to her grandmother's old kitchen table went into the southbound U-Haul truck. All of that stuff combined with all of our wedding gifts made a nice little home. It served us well and it will always be our first place.

They didn't give phones away in those days. I paid $80 for a slimline phone and had to lay down a $125 deposit. That was when phone ownership was just taking off.

Barbara was having "female trouble" and her doctor wanted to do a laparoscopy to see what was going on inside her. Her parents were able to get the surgery covered on their insurance, so there were no financial worries. We traveled to Jackson, Mississippi for the procedure.

The surgery went well and she was diagnosed with a mild case of endometriosis. She had to take Danazol four times a day for three to six months.

After spending the weekend in Vicksburg, Barbara was well enough to travel and we headed back to New Orleans.

Two weeks later, it would be my turn to go under the knife.

I may have bad eyes, but my teeth are good. I was 26 and never had a cavity. I was about to have my first experience with oral surgery. I told the doctor I wanted to do the surgery as cheap as possible. He said he could try to save a few bucks on the anesthesia.

If he only used Nitrous Oxide and Novocain, it would be a big savings over using Sodium Pentothal.

The day of the surgery, I was like a lamb going to the slaughter. I didn't figure the procedure would be any big deal. Boy was I wrong.

I hated the Nitrous. It made me feel dizzy and nauseous. I somehow thought the surgery would involve careful, precision cuts, but he just started scraping and gouging with some kind of instrument that resembled a screwdriver.

It didn't really hurt, but I felt this tremendous pressure. I think I left my fingerprints on the chair grips and into the tubular steel. I have a small mouth and he kept stretching it to the point I was about to ask for an episiotomy to give me some relief.

He got the first tooth out and started on the second. The doctor finally stopped and said, "I think I am going to have to give you the Pentothal." By then, I would have paid him a million dollars for it. "Sure doc, whatever you think." At least I didn't wimp out. I took the pain and my manhood was in tact.

That first night was rough, but after that I recovered quickly. I was able to return to work on Monday. No nerve damage; everything came out fine.

One week before my surgery, the transmission on the car broke and it cost $536 to get it fixed. I kept asking Barbara what sin she committed to bring God's wrath on us. That was a joke. I was starting to think Job had it easy compared to what we were experiencing. That was another joke.

What nest egg we had saved was gone, but we had opportunity. Someone Barbara worked for offered us $5.00 an hour to clean her house. Word of mouth got us more houses and soon we were busy all week cleaning houses.

It reminded me of the Children of Israel whom Moses led out of Egypt. God fed them daily with manna from heaven. They gathered their food each day. There were no stores or provisions to last them weeks or months.

It was the same for Barbara and I. We did not have money saved, but God provided us with opportunities to make money; and enough money. I would have liked more, but I was happy with enough.

So we cleaned houses and we waited for a job that matched our education and preparation. I was not above cleaning toilets. I joked about having a masters degree and working as a maid. To me, all work has dignity. When someone says they are too good to work at a fast food restaurant, I cringe.

I had my moments of frustration and impatience during those days, but I knew God had a plan. In the meantime, I was living in a nice apartment with someone I loved, I had enough work to generate enough money to live on, and I had good friends to enjoy.

If I had a million dollars, I wouldn't have been doing anything different. I would be with my friends and family enjoying a meal, laughing, and making memories. Happiness is a state of mind, not an alignment of outside conditions.

Change would soon come and we would get a job. We would have to wait until October though. We were living a seven-month course in humility and patience. More lessons were on the way.

Until the next time
John Strain


Saturday, June 24, 2006


My life Part X: Rolling with the punches

So far, Barbara and I had enjoyed a smooth ride. Our engagement, marriage, and honeymoon were great. I started to say, "went off without a hitch," but we were hitched. Anyway, since our honeymoon was close to where my mother lived, we swung by to have a day or two visit there in Willow Springs.

The good people of First Baptist Church had a shower for us and we racked up on gifts. I had written in my journal that we had $700 from all of the showers and envelopes received at the wedding.

Getting married was a lot like starting college. It is all fun at first and most folks are patting you on the back and slipping you cash. Sooner or later though, classes begin and the pressure of term papers and midterm exams loom. I didn't know it yet, but the fun was about to be laced with a few sucker punches from life.

The Home Mission Board had sent my file to a church in the Toledo, Ohio area. I phoned them from my mother's house and we decided it made more sense to drive from Missouri to visit them than to drive back to New Orleans and fly up there.

We weren't really dressed or prepared for winter weather, but we forged ahead anyway. On a Thursday I changed the oil in the car and studied road maps. Friday, February 25, 1983 we headed across Illinois, Indiana, and into Ohio. It began snowing just outside of Dayton and we stayed there for the night.

Saturday morning we got up and drove the remaining three hours to Toledo. Actually we were in a small town outside of Toledo, but I am withholding the name to protect the innocent.

Our directions took us to the preacher’s house and after sandwiches for lunch, he drove us to a church member's home who would be putting us up for the weekend. She was a nice lady and drove us around the area to help us get a lay of the land.

On Sunday, I would preach the morning sermon and we would be interviewed by their mission committee. This was all standard operating procedure for the hiring process.

My journal reads for Sunday, February 27, 1983; "Today seemed as though it would never end." I was up at 6:00 AM and studied a bit for the morning sermon. We went to church and attended Sunday School. I don't remember much about the sermon, but I did use my previously mentioned favorite text in Matthew 14:14. It was the perfect four point message. Jesus went forth; He saw a great multitude; He was moved with compassion toward them; and He healed their sick.

Have you ever spoken in front of a group and not felt received? That is how I felt preaching there. Normally, when you preach a sermon, there is a give and take with the congregation. An "amen" or two is nice, a chuckle after an attempt at a joke is considered polite, but these folks didn't do that. They were stoic and their silence was interpreted by me as disagreement or even disapproval. Maybe I was insecure, but maybe I was reading them correctly. The following events of the day would make it all too clear.

Lunch was at a cafeteria type restaurant and we were in a large group. Besides Barbara and I were the pastor and his wife, the lady who was putting us up, and the mission committee. I didn't eat much, but I should have, because I was in for the "Spanish Inquisition" of my life.

One of the hallmarks of the Southern Baptist Convention throughout history is their diversity. Theologically, there was no dogma or articles of faith to which everyone must agree. Instead they had a document entitled "The Baptist Faith and Message." The document was written in 1925 and has been through several revisions.
It summarizes key Southern Baptist thoughts in the areas of the Scriptures (i.e. Bible) and their authority, the nature of God as expressed by the Trinity, the spiritual condition of man, God's plan of grace and salvation, the purpose of the local church, ordinances, evangelism, Christian education, interaction with society, religious liberty, and the family. Source: Wikipedia

The beauty of it all was people could gather together not on the basis of a narrow view of God and the Bible, but on a much broader scale. Baptists were about doing things in their communities and in the world. We had a view of missions that, not only sought to tell people about Jesus, but to help them materially. Baptists had missions and ministries all over the world that fed the hungry, clothed the naked, healed the sick, and taught the children. The idea was to look at the larger picture of going out into the world more than policing the thoughts of individual Baptists.

The folks at this little church in Ohio saw it differently. They were separated from the community (sinners). There was a clear delineation for everything; no gray areas. You were right or you were wrong and they knew which one they were. Their minds were made up and did not want to entertain any new ideas. Why should they? If you know the truth, what else is there?

Here is another portion of my journal from that Sunday in February 1983:
After lunch, we drove to the mission and we were interrogated. It was miserable and on top of all of that, the building was freezing. To make a long story short, they were more like Independent Baptists. They were pious, arrogant, and strict separationists. They saw rock music as evil, the Bible was inerrant, the Second Coming according to Hal Lindsey, and if you did not believe exactly like them you were wrong, evil, bad, and a heathen.

Barbara and I were made to feel like heathens. The ordeal went on for two and a half hours.

Barbara and I sat facing the mission committee on the dais, which was as close as we could get to the heating ducts. The outside temperature in the daytime was only 20 degrees and the heat had been turned off in the church. It had to be in the low 30’s in that building.

The questions started out in a familiar way. I had debated and argued as sport in seminary. It was a good way to understand your own views on different topics and issues. I had argued with fundamentalists and this was another of those debates.

The difference was that these folks could give me a job. Do I tell them what they want to hear? Do I tell them what I really think? I tried at first to ride the fence. I wanted to answer the questions in a way to set them at ease, but not misrepresent my views.

It didn’t work.

They persisted in the questioning to the point I took the gloves off and said exactly what I thought about my opinion and theirs. I was respectful, but I wasn’t going to roll over.

It was nerve racking and I knew Barbara was uncomfortable. She was freezing and arguments tend to make her nervous. One of the lines of questioning that stands out is this one:

Them: What do you think about Christian rock music?

Me: Do you mean groups like the Imperials?

Them: I don’t know their names. (He said it as though I had accused him of frequenting a gentlemen’s club.)

Me: I like it. It was one of the things that got me thinking about God in the first place and ultimately led me to the church and now the ministry.

Them: Then you don’t think it has a demonic beat?

Me: Huh? Demonic beat? I think what makes music good or bad is the words, not the tune.

You get the idea. The questions were loaded. They wanted me to recite the party line back to them. I knew their party line and didn’t agree with it so I couldn’t give them what they wanted. In return they gave me their scorn and we were looked down on as those educated idiots from seminary.

They also questioned me extensively about my eyesight. They asked ridiculous questions having to do with day-to-day tasks. I was waiting for them to hold up their hand and ask me how many fingers they were holding up.

I later learned that the pastor complained to the Home Mission Board about sending a handicapped person for the position, but that is another story.

Journal entry:
After the questioning, we went to another church member's house for cake. Back to church and more talk, finally by 1:00 AM we were in bed. I was convinced this was not the place for us.

I guess this was another blow to my idealism and naiveté. I figured the important thing was the work, but not at that place with those people. I was sad, not just because the job wasn't going to work out, but because I saw it as an unnecessary waste of time. Folks spend so much time bickering about minute details most people couldn't care any less about.

When Jesus walked the earth He was always blowing folks like that out of the water, but they persist nevertheless. It is one thing to have a difference of opinion or another theological view, but it is altogether different to look down your nose at the person holding that viewpoint.

The next day we couldn't get out of there fast enough. We drove to Florence, Kentucky just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. I really didn't want to spend another night in Ohio. It was just a thing then. Today I hold no ill will toward the great state of Ohio.

We settled into our hotel room with some cokes and a nice warm Pizza Hut pizza and enjoyed the last episode of M*A*S*H on television. It was the end of the program's eleventh season and at the time, was the most watched single episode of a television program ever. Do you remember where you were during the last episode of M*A*S*H?

So life threw me a sucker punch. I would guard against that one the next time. Little did I know, there were more punches on the way. Left hooks and uppercuts I couldn't imagine, but Barbara and I rolled with each one of them. Somehow we survived, but it was a joint effort of our deeds, God's grace, and a lot of help from friends and benevolent strangers.

Looking through my journal about those days it is like my own version of the poem Footprints in the Sand. Problems would come, but solutions would too. I see it more clearly now than I did even at the time, but God was there; He always has been; He always will be.

Until the next time
John Strain


Thursday, June 22, 2006


My life Part IX: Just married

Barbara and I started dating in January. I proposed to her on Columbus Day and we were married the following February 19th, 1983.

Barbara was from Vicksburg, Mississippi. She had a younger sister. Her dad built oilrigs and her mom was a secretary. My family and Barbara's family got along great and still do to this day. Why wouldn’t they, they are all fine people.

We were married in Vicksburg on a beautiful, sunny, February Saturday, and surrounded by friends and family. Nothing about that day could have been any better.

Looking back, I can't believe we got married, when we had no job or a place to stay. Let me explain.

I had signed up for a program called Church Planter Apprentice. There was a lengthy application and interview process and Barbara and I had completed it. We were awaiting an assignment, which could be anywhere in the country.

The way it works is we select some general areas of the country where we would like to serve and the Home Mission Board would send our packet to churches in those general areas. So technically, I had a job, but we had not been assigned.

Back when we were approved, September of 1982, we were assured we would have an assignment soon so we were encouraged to go ahead with our wedding plans. I proposed soon after with the confidence of the Home Mission Board’s assurance of a position.

The Church Planter Apprentice program was a two-year program in which the apprentice was charged with starting a new church. The apprentice would work with another church dubbed the home church and work in a nearby community to start the mission church.

It would be difficult to make something from nothing, but we were up for the challenge.

I got a phone call from the Home Mission Board about a week before our wedding. There was a church in the Toledo, Ohio area that was interested in us. The decision was made to drive up there after our honeymoon for the interview. It seemed like everything was going to work out.

I had graduated from the seminary in May of 1982, but continued taking classes so I could stay in the dorm. Barbara hung around taking additional classes too, more to stay in the dorm than anything else.

I took a lot of education courses. My Masters degree was heavy in theology and biblical studies so I wanted to round it out. Barbara took more classes in childhood education because she ultimately wanted to counsel children.

For money, I was still receiving Social Security disability, working for the seminary fixing lawn mowers and pushing them on occasion. I also was taking care of Dr. Johnson's house in Lakeview. Barbara was working at a little shop in the French Quarter called the Lazy Bug. They sold some of the usual New Orleans souvenirs, but their big draw was hand painted tuxedo shirts.

Dr. Johnson was on one of his trips and offered his house to Barbara and I to stay at for the two weeks he would be away. The timing could not have been better; we had no place to go once we were married. We thought we would have been assigned a position much earlier, but the process had taken longer than we thought.

The two weeks at Dr. Johnson's would be enough time to transition from New Orleans to Ohio if everything went well. So although everything was not certain by the time our wedding rolled around, it seemed the pieces were falling into place.

As I mentioned earlier, the wedding was perfect. Everything went just as planned. All of the wedding stress was now a thing of the past and we were guaranteed good memories of the event without enduring any of the dreaded wedding disasters.

Here is a little tip to anyone who is considering getting married. Don’t attend any weddings with your fiancé any closer to your own wedding than a year or so. Barbara and I went to a wedding 3 months before our ceremony and all it did was convince her that we were way behind in our own planning.

She almost had a nervous breakdown right there in the church. Everywhere she looked there was something she hadn’t thought about. My laid back attitude did not seem to help her anxiety. As a matter of fact, it was more like trying to put out a fire by dumping gasoline on it.

At any rate, we survived it and soon we were driving north on Interstate 55 in Barbara's sister's car toward a little place on the White River in Arkansas called Gaston's, which would be our honeymoon destination. Our wedding night was spent in Grenada, Mississippi at the Holiday Inn. We ate at the hotel buffet for our dinner. I was beginning a pattern of nothing but the best for my wife.

We had picked a dry county for our first night together so there was no champagne with which to toast, but champagne was not the biggest thing on our minds that night.

February is the off-season in Arkansas. While I got good rates at the little fishing resort, nothing in town was open except a few restaurants and a few diehard gift shops . I ate biscuits and gravy every morning and looked out at Bull Shoales Lake. It was beautiful countryside.

Barbara and I walked into one shop that was surprisingly open. We talked to the elderly lady behind the counter who was starved for conversation or at least an audience. Houdini would have had trouble getting away from this gal.

I also remember not having any luck getting a fire started in our cottage. Imagine me, a former Boy Scout, not getting a fire started.

All I managed was to fill the cottage with smoke. My mistake had been not opening the flu in the chimney. I hadn't been inserviced on chimneys and it cost us the stereotypic romantic fire. That's life.

After a few days at Gaston's, we checked out and drove about two hours to see my Mom, Warren, and my sister Becky. We had a good visit there and we soon headed for the great state of Ohio.

Everything was falling into place. I was a newlywed and life held nothing but excitement and anticipation.

The trip to Ohio would have some unwelcome surprises, but I will talk about them tomorrow.

Until the next time
John Strain


Wednesday, June 21, 2006


Online Quiz

Q: Which city do you think will have law and order restored first?

A: Baghdad
B: New Orleans

Until the next time
John Strain


Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Freedom and responsibility

We have a lot of freedom in the United States of America, but it is being threatened by citizens who shirk their responsibilities. A society depends not on laws, but on individuals who observe certain morals and values.

A good citizen does not need a law to keep him/her in check. A good citizen will live a life exceeding the low expectations of most laws.

For some time now, it has been a trend in our society to blame someone other than the person who was directly irresponsible.

Fast food restaurants are blamed for people getting fat, tobacco companies are responsible for people getting lung cancer, bartenders are held responsible for the auto accident of an intoxicated patron, and teachers are held responsible for little Johnny not learning to read.

Let's take another current event; FEMA announced that 1.4 billion dollars in hurricane aid was distributed to people who either did not have it coming or who used it for things other than what it was intended. FEMA was blamed.

The people at fault were the ones who lied to FEMA to get the funds. People from all over the country saw an opportunity and went for it.

FEMA may have some issues, but they can't win. They were being blamed for not doing something sooner. They relaxed rules so people could get help more quickly. The sharks saw the opportunity and took it. I say hunt down every last one of the scum who got the money under false pretenses and make them pay.

Our society is in trouble when people think like this. What can I get for me? How can I get over?

Whatever happened to dignity and honor? Being honest is doing what is right even if no one will ever know. People who shoplift are part of the reason goods are more expensive, and lawsuits are one of the reasons physicians pay such high malpractice insurance premiums. Someone pays for the irresponsibility of others.

Just pay attention to the news and to conversations where social problems are being discussed. See if the individuals who are being irresponsible are being blamed or if it is someone else.

The Today Show had a segment this morning about a 10-year-old boy on a school bus who was beaten up by a 14 year old bully. The parents blamed the bus driver.

I know I am preaching to the choir here, but the crises our country faces would evaporate if individuals would just handle their responsibilities.

If you want to be a star at work, just show up on time; that will make you employee of the year. People are living down to the low standards of our society. Folks want a medal for holding down a job and taking care of their kids. Being an adult and a good citizen has inherent responsibilities. If you do them, then you are doing what is expected of you. No, it isn't easy, but it is satisfying and rewarding to meet your obligations.

If you want to be free, meet your obligations and responsibilities. Don't blame your misfortunes on other people, bad luck, or anything else. Accept reality as it is and work to change it more to your liking if it isn't already.

So many problems would not be problems at all if enough individuals decided to meet their obligations and responsibilities.

"I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul."

Until the next time
John Strain


Sunday, June 18, 2006


A dog named Sandy

(I am taking a short departure from my life story to tell you about a dog named Sandy.)

One of the things about my job that I like is getting to know people over years. Our patients have a chronic condition and for that reason come to the hospital at least once a year. We get to know them and their families pretty well.

One of our patients, I will call him Robert, I have known for seven years. Robert has a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. It affects Robert's mood and his thinking. He used to live independently, but due to some health problems and a general deterioration of his mental condition, he has had to live in group homes.

One thing Robert and I have in common is a love for dogs. He had a dog named Sandy and every time I saw Robert, I would ask him how she was.

The other day, I got a call from a group home where Robert was staying. Their doctor was sending him back to the hospital so that his medication could be adjusted. Marty and I went to pick him up. We don't usually transport patients, but sometimes circumstances make it turn out that way.

The distance between the group home and the hospital was about an hour and a half. On the way back I asked Robert about Sandy as I always do. Since Hurricane Katrina, he had to move out of his apartment and he had to put Sandy in a kennel.

He hadn't seen her since the hurricane. Robert was in the back of the car and nodding off a bit when I had an idea. I told Marty we should take Robert to see Sandy next week. He agreed that would be a nice thing to do.

As we drove I said, "You watch, one of the nurses will probably say we can't take him out of the hospital due to some Medicare regulation." Marty agreed. Then we said, "Why not go see her now?"

We had to drive within 5 miles of the kennel anyway. I asked Robert if he knew where the kennel was. He wasn't quite sure, but he did know the owner's cell phone number. Everything fell into place. The owner was there and he gave us directions to the kennel. He said it was perfectly all right to bring Robert by to see his dog.

We turned off of the Interstate and made a few turns on country roads. Finally, about half a mile down o little gravel road, we pulled into the Bed and Biscuit Kennel.

We walked up to the main building and knocked on the door, which set off a barking chorus too loud to hear the words coming out of the mouth of the owner - Jim, who opened the door.

Jim was a portly man dressed in a t-shirt and shorts. When the barking died down his thick Maine accent jumped out at us. That kind of an accent is rare in these parts. We shook hands and made the introductions. Jim already knew Robert. "Sandy has been doing great," he said, "come on, let's go see her." Jim turned and walked down the corridor of dog pens toward Sandy's place and we followed him.

Jim had several rectangular buildings that were framed out in such a way to have individual dog pens on either side with a walkway down the center. Each pen housed one dog and they could go out a little doggy door to an outside pen anytime they wanted. They had it made. They could go out into a nice sized outdoor pen or come inside and lap up the air conditioning anytime they wanted.

We got to Sandy's pen and she looked pretty good for a 16 year old mixed breed dog. She had long hair and was about the size of a Labrador. It took her a few moments, but she started wagging her tail and wiggling around in a display of recognition.

Robert petted her and they had a nice visit.

As we stood there, Jim talked about some of the other dogs he was boarding. A lot of them were what he termed, "storm dogs." Some of the storm dogs are abandoned and he is boarding them, while others are being boarded by their owners until they can care for them again.

Some of the dogs were going to Petsmart on Saturday and go on the block for adoption. I hope they found a home. There were some cute dogs who just needed a loving home.

So Robert got to see Sandy and we all know she is in a good place. I doubt if Robert will ever be able to live in a place where he can keep her again. It is sad that the only contact he will have with her are these brief moments.

That's just the way it is.

Until the next time
John Strain


Friday, June 16, 2006


My life Part VIII: I finally get the girl

By the time I met Barbara I was getting used to having my heart broken. I dated quite a bit in college and in seminary. Some girls liked me, but I dumped them. Some girls I liked dumped me. Sometimes we dumped each other and sometimes we were just friends.

Hooking up has a lot to do with timing and mutual relationship expectations. I was nearing the end of my studies and I was looking for someone I could marry.

At that time in my life, I was a good student. I studied and made A's in most of my classes. I was a runner and ran lots of races. My first marathon was in February of 1981 and it was across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. I ran 5K's, 10K's, half-marathons, and darn near anything. I had amassed quite a t-shirt collection.

I was into music and at the time I listened to jazz and R&B. Later when I started working in hospitals and worked around black folks, they were often amazed how a white boy like myself knew so much about R&B and soul music. I listened to WYLD in New Orleans a lot and one of my coworkers in the 1980's granted me the title of honorary brother.

I was also into plants. My room was filled with African violets and all kinds of plants.

I worked on the seminary grounds crew and loved the physical work. I was taking care of a doctor's house about 5 miles away from the campus. I did his house, yard, and pool. He paid me pretty well and let me use the house a lot. He was often out of town and preferred I stay there in his absence. It sure beat the dorm.

I liked dating, because it was a way to enjoy the city and female company all at the same time. I enjoyed the dates and if a relationship came out of it that was even better.

I had seen Barbara around that fall semester, but hadn't really talked to her. In January though, we found ourselves in the same class. It was Dr. Freeman's Introduction to Counseling. I remember the room and I remember sitting next to her.

My journal entry for Saturday, January 23, 1982 reads, "I got to talk to Barbara today, she is my next target."

Then my entry on Tuesday, January 26, 1982 reads, "Today was the first day of class. . . I asked Barbara out today and she said yes, so we are going to the Chart House Friday night." (I didn’t waste any time.)

The Chart House was right next to the Saint Louis Cathedral and they served a delicious red fish, before red fish was famous. After a nice meal, we took a buggy ride around the French Quarter. After that we went to the Hyatt for deep dish apple pie and coffee.

She begged me to have sex with her, but I told her I didn't do that on first dates. Just kidding.

We had a few dates and I felt like she was losing interest. I quit calling her and wrote her off. That was February. In April, I received some mail from Barbara. It was a puzzle with a message written on the back.

I am lousy at puzzles. After trying unsuccessfully to put it together, I took it to my friends Nathan and Judy. Judy always kept up with my love life and I told her about the puzzle. That was all I had to do. In about 5 minutes, she had it put together. She wanted to see what Barbara had written on the back of the puzzle as bad as I did.

It said, "John, I miss "counseling" with you." The counseling was a reference to the class we were in together. That was all the encouragement I needed. I called her up and we went out that night. We were never apart after that and in October I asked her to marry me. On February 19, 1983 we were married. That was just over 23 years ago.

Thumbing through my journal, I noticed I inquired to the Navy and the Army about being a chaplain. The Navy said you had to have 20/20 vision. The Army didn't say “no” right off, but they were not encouraging.

I sent out resumes to churches for the position of pastor, but eventually signed up for a program called, Church Planter Apprentice. It was a 2-year program where you are sent to an area with the task of starting a church.

The whole time I was preparing for the doctoral program as well. I had taken the GRE and qualified for the program with my score.

The future was unknown, scary, and exciting. I was about to finish my studies and start a new life with Barbara.

Until the next time
John Strain


Thursday, June 15, 2006


My life Part VII: The awakening of a dreamer

Maybe because I cannot see things as they are in reality so well, I create them in my mind's eye. In there, things have my own little twist to make them better or worse depending on my particular bent.

Little details escape my notice. Details that might give me a reason to abandon a dream or even take one up. The problem with dreamers is they wake up sometime and if they are not particularly light sleepers, they awake with a start.

This happened to me in the fall of 1981. I was about halfway through seminary. I had been preparing for the ministry for five and a half years and still had a year and a half to go. I felt ready then and another year and a half seemed an eternity to me.

On top of that, I was looking around and seeing folks preparing for the ministry who, in my opinion, were hypocrites. I saw people playing "the game" to get ahead. There were egos and politics in seminary amongst the next generation of ministers and those things should not have been there.

The institution itself had professors and administrators that, in my estimation, did not live up to their high calling.

I was an idealist. I was getting tired of preparing to do something and wanting to do it. I even saw some of the things I complained about in others, in myself. I was having a bit of a spiritual crisis. I wasn't questioning God or wondering if He existed. I was, however, a bit disenchanted and wondering that if all of this "stuff" were true, then why bother?

So I did what I do when I am full of questions and unsettled thoughts and feelings; I write. Here is what I wrote August 11, 1981

The mammoth chapel building loomed high overhead on one side of me, while on the other side, the last signs of day were disappearing and the veil of night was approaching. I was out walking. As I was passing through a grassy field, several thoughts came to my mind. The first thought was the opening lines of a poem which I have yet to write.

I like the evening when the sun is going down,
And in my head thoughts of the day are spinning 'round and 'round.

I tried to continue that thought but another one came to me, this one somewhat deeper.

When I think to when I started; the zeal that I had
And look at where I am . . . my attitude is bad.

Then I started thinking in prose. "What happened?" "What went wrong?" I asked myself the question, "Where is God?" Before my senses had a chance to respond, my theological training answered for me. "Why God is everywhere. You can see him in nature. He created this beautiful evening. He can be seen on the wings of a fluttering butterfly or in the smile of a little child. He can be heard among the joyful songs of birds and felt during a gentle breeze. His wonder can be experienced as you watch a mother cat nurse her young. God is everywhere."

I know all of this, but I don't always feel it. Again my theological training takes over. "You can't depend on your feelings - they will let you down." I know that too, but maybe I haven't taken time to feel enough. Why do I feel apathetic? Why don't I care about my classes? Why does the thought of going to church not interest me? Why am I highly cynical and critical, when I am no better myself? Why don't I give a damn? And why doesn't it bother me to use the word damn? Have I lost God or have I lost myself? I listened, but my theological training said nothing.

I really do care, but I am not caring, so do I really care?


I suppose that some of my frustration arises from observations I have made over the past seven years. I see church leaders and future church leaders playing a game. They use little magical phrases. Each one has been tried and tested for every situation in life. Tested for every situation except for perhaps reality and truth. Some would never admit they have doubts or bad days. Because once you come to Jesus He takes away all of your problems and affixes a permanent smile to your face. He is happy with you so long as you go to church at every opportunity, tithe, and tell everybody the four spiritual laws before you find out their name. You must also keep clear of booze, tobacco, and anything else you might enjoy. And by all means do not associate with anyone who might do these things. If you do get tangled up in these things, you must tell a group of people who have never experienced what you have, that you are sorry and you want to "get right." Of course these people never have to tell you that they too need to get right because while you were down they looked down their noses and hissed instead of helped. I could go on, but I do not want to sound bitter, because I really am not.

Although they do not teach us this game, but rather the fallacies of it - the game prevails. Many come playing the game and leave playing it better. Why? it is so obvious!

It would be so much easier to play the game, but the game is not real.

Still, the game can make you popular and comfortable. The game can give you a nice job, house, car, and kids. The game will even take care of you when you can no longer play it and must sit on the bench. I think the game can take care of almost everything. But the game is for a select group. It does not include truck drivers, disco dancers, or movie stars. And it does not include me. In its place, I suppose I play another game, which is no doubt another version of the former. I must never become satisfied.

So what? What does all of this mean? For me I think it has at least these future consequences.

If being a preacher means to be a team leader of a group of people in the game, being the community holy man who wears out of style polyester suits and white shoes, who prays at football games and luncheons, one who is equipped with all the answers and speaks with the mouth of God, one who must carry a note pad and pencil to write down sermon illustrations whild standing in line to buy a loaf of bread in the grocery store, using a special clergical language, one who must use every spare moment productively, like reading a book or a magazind, and constantly trying to think of a way to get more people in your church on Sunday morning than the Methodists of the Pentecostals; than I will never be a preacher.

But if being a preacher means going to a community to meet them, loving the people whether they go to your church or the Kingdom Hall, being a servant not a ruler, community minded, people oriented, and God powered (whatever that means), then I am to be a preacher.

I am ready now, but I must play the game, because it requires seven years of study or seven years of warming a seat anyway. I know the grass is not greener on the other dide, but my stomach is full from eating in this pasture and I must move on.

So maybe in reality, I haven't lost God or even myself. I think the game does that. I am with God and with myself.

(This paper is the result of my experiences with conflict. The conflict which arose from what I have been taught and told ever since I became a Christian and from that which I have seen. They are vastly different. In essence, I have not been struggling with my faith, only my participation in it.) - John Strain New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

In some ways, I enjoy a good crisis like the one I wrote about here. I know I will get through it and I know I will have learned something in the process.

I made an appointment with one of my professors, Dr. Rogers. Dr. Rogers was an education professor and I knew he would read my paper and give me some good advice.

I still remember our conversation vividly. He sat across from me at his desk. His hands were clasped and he spoke deliberately. After validating some of my points in the paper he said this: "You are in a desert of sorts and you are looking for water. You have come to me so that I might show you where the water is, but I cannot do that. I can tell you that there is water and that if you continue to look for the water you will find it."

What I took away from that meeting with Dr. Rogers was that everything was OK. My thoughts and feelings were part of my education and how I dealt with them would be a further part of my education and development as a person and as a Christian.

I learned that answers sometimes come over time, they are not looked up easily or handed out freely. Answers are dynamic and individual. My thoughts were signs of growth and a developing faith.

So that is how I reconciled how I thought things should be and the reality of how things were.

My angst disapated and I got back in the groove. In only a month or two I was going to meet my wife.

I was thinking about a year and a half of the same old same old, but my life was going to take an abrupt change in just a few months.

I'll talk about that later.

Until the next time
John Strain


Wednesday, June 14, 2006


My life Part VI: Seminary Days

New Orleans was enchanting. I was taken by its charm. It gave me a sense of romance, mystery, and adventure. Sometimes at night, I would be walking on the campus and hear a riverboat whistle. My imagination would take off into some kind of Mark Twain era dream and for a few moments I was back in time.

New Orleans exposed me to sights, sounds, and smells I had not experienced before. I was where I wanted to be and I would be there for at least three years.

I made friends quickly and fell into a routine in quick fashion. I lived in Hamilton Hall and my roommate was a married guy with three children from the Lake Charles area.

Seminary had a different atmosphere from college. People were more involved in life and they came to school to do their classes and then head back to their church field. Some of us did not have churches. I was a first year student just getting my feet wet. I didn't have any connections.

I got a job working on the seminary grounds crew. I worked about 20 hours a week for $2.90 per hour. The work was physical and hard. I swung sledgehammers to break up concrete, dug ditches to run electrical lines, and all of the usual lawn work.

I didn't drive the tractors due to my vision, but I could push a mower just fine. Eventually, I became the small engine mechanic and spent most of my time maintaining and repairing the mowers, blowers, weed eaters, and chainsaws.

Before I entered college, we went to the Social Security office to see if there were any resources for folks with visual impairments. The man said I could probably get disability benefits. I was confused, because I did not consider myself disabled.

After filling out forms and a lot of other red tape, I was granted disability benefits. I got a monthly check in the amount of $250 or so and I was put on Medicare.

This money paid for my college education and was now paying for my seminary education. Deep down, I was embarrassed to be receiving a check on the third of each month, but I don't know how I would have made it during that time in my life without it.

After I graduated from seminary and began working, I notified Social Security and my benefits stopped. I was classified "working in spite of a disability." I know for sure though that I have paid every penny back several times over in taxes.

I was more independent in New Orleans than anywhere I had ever been. The RTA or Regional Transit Authority had a network of busses, ferries, and streetcars that would take me anywhere I wanted to go. The problem was reading the sign on the front of the bus. Several lines used the same bus stop, so you couldn't just hop on any bus. I got around it by checking with the bus driver when I was getting on. "Does this bus go to Canal Street." Some were very friendly and would give me a smile and a complete answer, while others would grunt a yes or no.

I loved the busses, they were my car. I could go when I wanted, stay as long as I wanted, and come home when I felt like it. Poor vision made me humble in many ways, but the New Orleans RTA gave me back a measure of pride.

I had chosen to go to New Orleans in part to explore a different part of the country. Other people and other ways fascinated me. I knew people at the seminary who were afraid of New Orleans. They came to the seminary campus, went to classes, and then left. They wanted no part of New Orleans.

It was true, New Orleans was a big city complete with crime and other social problems, but it was also a beautiful city and interesting in so many ways. I wanted to go places, meet people, and experience what New Orleans had to offer.

The seminary curriculum actually offered just such an opportunity. We were required to take a class entitled "Field Work." Part of the class involved visiting ministry sites around the city. We got to see what was being done to help and minister to the people of New Orleans.

Another part of the class was getting involved in one of those sites. I chose the New Orleans Rescue Mission. It was a men's shelter on Magazine Street one block from Canal Street in the Central Business District (CBD).

This was your basic "last place you would ever want to stay" kind of place. The residents were your stereotypic "down and outers," alcoholics, drug addicts, and the homeless with nowhere to turn.

The mission opened their doors at 4:00 PM. Men would come by and sign up for a bed. There was an intake process, and then they went up to the living area where they could shower. A meager dinner of beans and rice or something along those lines was provided for them and then they could mingle, watch some TV, or just go to bed.

In the morning, the men are fed breakfast, but are then required to leave at 10:00 AM, unless they are in the substance abuse treatment program. This is a standard requirement at most missions. The men are encouraged to find work not lay around a mission all day.

Every night there was a worship service. The director of the mission sometimes led the service, sometimes volunteers would lead, and eventually, I would do the service as part of my time there. The first night, though, I was just there to observe.

Here is a portion of the experience from my journal:
The mission was definitely different for me. I will have to get used to that sort of people; a sort of people that God loves as much as anyone else. It breaks my heart to see people so down and out; to need a place like the mission.

The bunkroom reeked of stale vomit that had been disinfected many times over. I am so fortunate - God has blessed me so much.

At the chapel service a laymen, Willie Smith who is a New Orleans bus driver delivered the message. I talked to him for quite a while - he is a good man.
Saturday, August 25, 1979

In a couple of weeks I would have an opportunity to preach to the group. It was no easy task to thik of something to say. What do you tell someone who has nothing? How do you tell them that God loves them even though, they are on the streets? How do you give them hope? Never mind these men no doubt had some hand in their own demise, but what do you say to help?

My journal mentions the text I used for that sermon, but no other details. I used Matthew 14:14, "And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick." There is certainly a four point sermon in that text.

I. Jesus went forth
II. He saw a great multitude
III. He was moved with compassion toward them
IV. He healed their sick

An important theological concept is the church being the body of Christ. Jesus' body is no longer physically here (on earth). However, His followers (His Church) function as He did.

The work of Christ continues through His Church. When I do something in His name, it is as though Christ is doing it. Those in the Church are His hands and feet. If we do not do the work, the work does not get done.

I was representing Christ at that mission and everywhere I went because I was part of His Church. If you are a Christian you can say the same thing.

The Bible talks about this concept in I Corinthians 12.

I had only been in New Orleans for a month, but I had experienced a lot. I was happy and I felt I was where I was supposed to be and doing what I was supposed to do. I had new friends and I was experiencing new things. The future was unknown, but in an exciting, can't wait for the next thing kind of way.

What else is there? I would find out.

Until the next time
John Strain


Tuesday, June 13, 2006


My life Part V: A journey begun

My life had suddenly taken on a direction. I knew what I was going to be doing for at least the next four years.

Because I entered school at the last minute, I was placed as the third person in a two-person dorm room. It was a bit crowded, but within a few weeks, someone dropped out of school and I moved into the spot he left.

I settled in fine. I could walk everywhere I needed to go. My roommate had a car so I could hitch a ride with him if need be. In those days, there were plenty of people without cars so I was not an odd ball - at least where having a car was concerned.

It was no problem getting around. I could usually ride along with someone going where I wanted to go without asking them to make a special trip. I would kick in some gas money or buy them a meal and everyone was happy.

Southwest Baptist College was a liberal arts college, now it is a university and much bigger than when I was a student. I found the professors personable and helpful.

Often, they would approach me to see if there was some way they could help. I sat in the front of the class and sometimes I could read the board, but not usually. I did better writing fast and listening. If I missed notes, I just got them from someone in the class later. That was always a good excuse to call up a girl.

My first semester or two, I had to bone up on the fundamentals. I remember in my first semester, I took a class that required five, five-page term papers. When I got the first one back, it looked like it had been painted red. The professor began marking mistakes, but gave up about half way through and simply wrote on the paper, "Please see me." I was mercifully given a C-.

I did go to see Dr. Hunt and he told me that my grammar was very bad. I told him how I had gotten into school at the last minute and had not exactly planned on going to college, but I was going to work hard.

As a matter of fact, I never took the ACT. They waived that requirement since it was so near the beginning of school. I signed up for the entry level English and math. English 103 focused on grammar and I soaked it up like a sponge.

My papers improved in Dr. Hunt's class. I didn't make the same mistakes twice and my grades slowly climbed reflecting my progress.

As far as my vision is concerned, my greatest disadvantage is when something is new. If I am in a new area or doing something different, my eyesight slows me down. If I am given a chance to settle in though, I can figure out what I need to do to overcome whatever obstacles I have to address.

So my first few days of being at college in Bolivar were difficult, scary, and stressful, but that soon gave way to familiarity and routine. I learned that if I can weather the initial storm, the rest is as easy as playing out the string.

A job is the same way. I may be a slow starter, but I am learning what needs to be done and how I can do it more efficiently. In a short time, I am able to do the job as expected.

I have had to struggle more with what others think about me than what I really can do. Some folks would not even give me a chance, ruling me out because of what they thought my being legally blind meant. It is a struggle I always have when going for a job. How do I express to them that I have a visual problem and still get the job? How do I communicate to them I am not a liability? How do I tell them there is a problem, but it isn't really a problem? I have experienced prejudice and I don't like it one bit.

The thing that hurts me the most is when I do not get the chance to take my turn at bat based on what someone thinks I can or cannot do. It is one thing to strike out but much worse not to get the opportunity to swing the bat.

I do not expect employers to make performance exceptions for me. If you think about it though, at any office or job site accommodations are made for almost everyone. Employees are people and the job flexes a bit for the person. Employers are usually flexible about someone's hours to allow them to pick up their children from school. It all works out.

I don't expect my employer to buy me any special equipment or make any special allowances for me because I am legally blind. I only want what is coming to a normal employee and I expect to deliver at the very least what a normal employee would produce. In truth, I want to do better. I don't want to be an average employee, I want to be one of the best, most versatile and knowledgeable.

College teaches you a lot out of the classroom. My four years at Southwest Baptist College were good years of growth for me. It opened my mind and served as a bridge between childhood and adulthood.

Because of my grandfather's influence and my friend Bob, I was almost paranoid about becoming a pansy preacher. You know the type, they are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. I wanted to be a man, be cool, but also be a good example spiritually. I was struggling more with society's idea of what a preacher was than the reality of it.

John the Baptist and Jesus were no wimps. They were bold and controversial. Society on the other hand treated preachers like young children. The barber wouldn't tell any dirty jokes when I was in the shop and if anyone ever cursed or said something off color they would apologize to me. I hated that.

So to keep my feet on the ground and to make money, I worked in the summers with Gene who was a brick and block mason. The Missouri summers were brutal, but I liked working out in the sun. It was good exercise and I got a tan. The only problem was the tan was from the waste up.

I learned to mix masonry, supply it to Jean two scaffolds high with a shovel, carry bricks and blocks to keep him supplied, roll a wheelbarrow full of mud over a ditch on a 2 x 12 without dumping it, and to clean the mud joints. It was good hard work and I enjoyed it.

In the evenings I often rode in the patrol car with Bob. It was a real education too. I saw bad accidents, speeders ticketed, and drunk drivers arrested. I drank a lot of coffee at diners, police stations, and the weight scales. Bob and I had lots of discussions about religion and life and he was a good person for that.

I hung out with Bob a lot. He was always involved in some project or another and I tagged along. We talked and laughed and worked. Anything from remodeling a storefront apartment to digging potatoes I did with him.

In the winter, I would help him cut firewood. We would take the pickup out in the woods, fell a few trees, cut and load them on the truck, then come home for a hot meal his wife Donna had prepared.

Whatever work they got out of me, they gave it back in the food I ate. I was their adopted son for those years.

When I went home to Willow Springs I had transportation. I had purchased a Honda XL 250 motorcycle. At first I just rode around on trails and back roads, but soon I ventured out into larger circles. I avoided traffic for the most part, but with my familiarity of the roads, my eyesight was adequate; or so I thought.

Here is what I am talking about. The road going into town is a two-lane highway. I know where the city limits began and where the speed limits changed. I know where the stop signs were so I did not have to rely on seeing them first.

That just left me to see the oncoming traffic or people pulling out of driveways. So I got along fine and I had a measure of independence with the motorcycle. I had about two close calls where I came up behind someone who was stopped in the road. Before I realized they were stopped I was on them, but in both instances, slamming on the breaks and a little luck I avoided disaster. My mom had gray hairs over the motorcycle and my guardian angel had to work overtime.

Looking back on those days, I still don't think I was taking major risks, with the exception of driving without a license. I could see where I was going. I only drove when conditions were right. There were ways I could avoid traffic or other conditions that put me at a greater disadvantage. I was careful. I would never have a motorcycle where I live now the traffic is too heavy.

Another thing I did during college was to play the drums with a gospel quartet. Bob was the bass singer. The other members of the group were members of our church.

I showed up with my drums at one practice and they included me in the group. We had a piano player, bass player, and me on drums. Playing in the quartet was another vital part of my education because I got to visit so many different churches and meet a lot of people.

Some of the churches we played at were as small as someone's living room. They would be so far out in the country that sunshine had to be piped in. Then other churches were large and formal. We played in town on the 4th of July, we played at all day singing and dinner on the grounds events, and we played at gospel singings with many other groups.

It eventually came time for me to preach my first sermon. I think it was January of 1976. I was going to preach the Sunday night sermon at our church. I was scared to death. How could I talk for 30 minutes or so? How do you do that? Then I had to read scripture in front of everyone, which meant I would have to hold the Bible in one hand, my magnifying glass in the other hand and plant my face in the book. One thing I have had to do because of my eyesight is to get over being self-consciousness or to not do it.

Damage to my pride is one of the worst things poor vision has done to me, but the result isn't so bad - it is humility. I have to humble myself, to not look cool many times. It still embarrasses me to have to pull a magnifying glass out at a restaurant to read the menu. If I have to use my debit card at a store, I have to bend close to the little monitor with my magnifying glass and work the keys. I feel the people staring at me in line along with the cashier. It is all in my head, because they could probably care less, but those are my feelings.

I would rather not have to do things that make me stand out, but the alternative is not to do them, so I swallow my pride and do it.

It is funny how when I was a kid, everyone could see I was different because of the thick glasses. As an adult, people are usually surprised when they are told I am legally blind. That has its drawbacks too.

If I make an "eyesight related" mistake, it may appear to folks that I am just stupid or strange. I am often branded as a snob or stuck up, because I do not return waves or non-verbal attempts at communication. If I am at a counter with a crowd of people, I often miss my chance to get waited on because I do not speak when I am acknowledged. The sales person interprets my lack of response as a cue to go onto the next person. To avoid such embarrassments, I rely a lot on the people I am with to run interference for me.

I can get separated from the group easily too. In a crowd of people, it is difficult for me to maintain visual contact. At an airport or sporting event where lots of people are around I am at the mercy of who I am with. They have to find me if we get separated.

Once I got separated from my friends at a Saints game. I backtracked to the big clock in front of the Superdome and waited. Eventually, they realized I was lost and came looking for me. It is those moments I get close to whining about my poor eyesight.

Back to the first sermon, I prepared like a fiend and I wrote a narrative of 20 pages or so. I read over that text a million times and memorized it. My sister wrote out the text in magic marker for me so I could "cheat" if I had to.

Like everything usually does, it all went fine. I delivered the sermon and didn't even use the cheat sheet. I was nervous and I am sure the delivery was barely tolerable, but everyone shook my hand and told me how much they enjoyed it.

At some point, I hope I realized that preaching the sermon was not about me, but supposed to be about God.

I had a lot of firsts in those college years. In January of 1979 I took out a student loan and traveled to the Holy Land and got college credit for my trouble. That was an amazing 3-week trip to Israel, Turkey, and Italy.

I had started keeping a journal my senior year of college and kept it up for about 5 years.

The traditional training for a pastor includes college and seminary. Seminary is to the preacher what medical school is to the doctor. My last year of college was spent thinking about and exploring my options.

There were 6 Southern Baptist seminaries at the time. Golden Gate, New Orleans, North Carolina, Kansas City, Fort Worth, and Louisville.

I was leaning toward New Orleans, because one of the professors I admired in college had attended there. New Orleans had a romantic charm and a sense of adventure. After my New Orleans visit, the decision was not difficult to make; I was going to New Orleans.

New Orleans would be a new chapter in my life and I will talk about it the next time.

Until the next time
John Strain


Saturday, June 10, 2006


My life Part IV: Pivotal events and choices

This has turned out to be a Reader's Digest version of my life. I started out to describe how being legally blind affected me and how I dealt with it.

I am learning as I try to write about it that my vision is not a thing I can describe separate from everything else. It is like one of those brain tumors that weave throughout the gray matter and cannot be removed. Likewise, my vision or lack of it affects all of me.

It is an interesting exercise to summarize your life. A lot happens and it cannot all be described in detail in a few blog posts. In writing about these things, memories have been stirred and I feel the need to go back and write about them in more detail.

For now, I will complete the overview and later on go into more depth.

Now back to the story.

In 1970 my parents divorced. No one was more shocked than me. There was no fighting or any of the usual tip offs. I was 13, it was April, and it snowed the next day.

After I had gotten the news, I spent a sleepless night feeling what you feel when your life has suddenly changed for the worst. I had all kinds of thoughts running through my head. One of the thoughts was, "Now I am going to turn into a juvenile delinquent." But almost immediately I had another thought, "Why would I?"

I was finishing up my first year of junior high school. I didn't know anyone else whose parents were divorced. I was dealing with a lot of shock and embarrassment.

Time does not heal, but it takes time to heal. The right things have to be done. My parents made sure I knew the divorce was about them and not about us kids.

I realized they were still around and I still had a relationship with them. That year both of them remarried. My mother moved out and I stayed in the house with my dad. My life was not disrupted. I attended the same school and stayed in the same neighborhood.

Things were just different. Now I was the kid who couldn't see, who wore thick glasses, and whose parents are divorced.

It worked out. It wasn't long before I had lots of company. Today my son is in the minority because his parents are still together - go figure.

My junior high and high school years found me in the house alone. My brother had joined the Navy and my sister had friends, a job, and eventually married.

I was not pressured to succeed and excel academically and I lived up to the low expectations. As I said, I was an average student. The educational philosophy in the early 70's was to give the kids a lot of freedom and to let them choose their own educational path. I chose the easy way. I shunned English, math, and science. Instead, I took auto mechanics almost the entire last two years of high school.

My grandfather was a mechanic and I spent several summers in Missouri where his influence had quite an impact on me. I admired the fact that he could fix almost anything. He always knew the answer, he was a good storyteller, and he had a sense of humor.

He gave me my first drink of whiskey and told me not to tell my grandmother. He told me dirty jokes and shared stories about growing up on a Nebraska farm. He was one of a kind and his wisdom and mischief are still alive in my mind and in my own occasional acts of orneriness.

My eyesight was a problem in my attempts to be a mechanic. I could not see what I needed to. A lot of what I needed to see was at arm's length and surrounded by hot metal and tangles of wire.

It wasn't enough to know what was wrong and to understand what needed to be done if you couldn't get the wrench to the nut or see the timing marks on the flywheel. On some level, I knew I couldn't do it, but I forged ahead anyway.

I even printed up business cards that read:

John's Tune-Up Service
"The grease monkey who doesn't monkey around"

I got a few cars to tune up, but I usually needed someone to help me. I needed their eyes.

I liked mechanical things. I bought lawnmowers at garage sales and tried to fix them. I took things apart to see how they worked. I was into stereo and speakers. At one time I had about 10 speakers of different sizes positioned all over my room that I could play through one of my cassette recorders.

I was into recording music, reel to reel, cassette, and 8-track. I was the guy who bought the 8-track recorder. Not too many people can say that.

As it turned out, I had enough credits to graduate early, so I did. I was out in March. It hadn't occurred to me to take extra classes and learn something.

I wanted a better job so I could move out of the house and rent an apartment. Reality soon set in that a high school diploma didn't exactly max out a resume.

I was nearing a crossroad. I was 18 and had no real direction. As it turned out, I did have direction, I just didn't know it yet.

Since age 16 or so I began wondering about God. I had gone to church as a child and learned what they teach in Sunday School, but as I got older and eventually after my parents divorced, I stopped attending church.

I remember lying in bed one night thinking, "If God is real, it would be wise to find out what He wants from me – and to do it." I began a search. I listened to preachers on TV, I read the Living Bible, and I started going to church.

I liked how it made me feel. Even though I was only 16 or so, I had been going out drinking after work at Red Lobster for a year or so. I didn't feel particular good about myself. I felt like a good person who was doing bad things.

I had had some disappointments. My parents divorced, my stepmother was a classic bad stepmother, my heart had been broken by Mary Ann, and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life.

I remember the eye surgery I had while in high school. When I got home from the hospital I received a letter from my mother. At the time, she was living in southern Missouri. My grandfather had prostate cancer and she had moved to be with him during his last years.

The letter said that they brought my name up in church to pray for me, that the surgery would go well.

This really touched me. How could people who don't even know me care about me? I was looking for something and I was finding it. A lack of direction was turning into hope.

I don't remember exactly when it was, but I visited my mother and her husband Warren in Missouri. Their church was having a revival. A preacher and singer from Texas were there and their message was spreading like wildfire throughout the small town.

Every service was packed. The daily services were well attended too because some kids skipped school to come and some of the businesses closed their doors so that they could be present.

I was ripe for the picking and I hung on every word. There was no turning back for me. Life was starting to make more sense and I was beginning to find the direction I had been seeking.

It wasn't long until I decided to move to Willow Springs, Missouri and live with Mom and Warren. It was there I met Bob Ross and his family. Bob became one of my all time best friends.

Bob was a big man with a gentle voice. He worked as a highway patrolman and became my big brother. I learned a lot from him and he greatly influenced me. In the coming years, I rode a lot of miles with him in his patrol car through the Missouri nights.

He was a good reality check for me and I got to experience some of the "other side of life" from his patrol car. Bob believed it was his job to put some of my later theological teaching into perspective. He did that and it kept my feet on the ground.

To this day, I know that all I have to do is pick up the phone and Bob would do anything for me. It is a wonderful thing to have friends like that.

The summer of 1975 I worked at a little restaurant called Hillbilly Junction. I was actively involved in the little Baptist Church in town, but I wanted more. I couldn't see this as my life.

I decided to speak to the pastor about these feelings and he helped me to see that perhaps I should study to be a minister. I was flattered and frightened at the prospect, but the more I thought and prayed about it, the more it seemed like the thing to do.

I walked down the aisle one Sunday and dedicated my life to full time Christian Service. If you are a Baptist this makes perfect sense.

Brother Berryhill told me that I would need to attend college. Ulp, college? I hadn't exactly taken college prep classes in high school. He picked up the phone and called the registrar at Southwest Baptist College in Bolivar, Missouri.

The next thing I knew, we were all on campus taking a tour. I figured I would start in January, but the college representative said I could start in the fall - that was only two weeks away.

After a flurry of filling out grant forms, applications, and enough paperwork to gain the respect of a Washington bureaucrat, I was on my way to college.

I was nervous. College was for smart people and people who could see. The professors don't care if you can keep up or not. Could I make it? What would I do if I failed?

So in the fall of 1975 I began preparing to become a minister. I remember standing in back of Beasley Hall watching Mom and Warren drive away. I didn't know a soul there. I remember that first night staring up at the ceiling wondering what in the heck I was doing. Who was I trying to fool?

I'll stop here for now, but remember this, reach for that which exceeds your grasp. Stretch to reach it. This is how we grow. Great things are achieved because great things are attempted.

Until the next time
John Strain


Friday, June 09, 2006


My life Part III: All I want is to be a normal kid

The Kansas School for the Blind was good to me, but I was becoming more and more self-conscious about attending there. I was embarrassed when someone asked me where I went to school.

Them: Where do you go to school?
Me: The blind school.
Them: The blind school - are you blind?
Me: No, I just don't see very well.
Them: How many fingers am I holding up?
Me: Good grief.

I hated being different. I just wanted to be able to answer simple questions with simple answers. I wanted to blend in and be a normal kid.

My mother had begun a new job with the local school board. Her particular office employed some psychologists and other educators. I am not exactly sure how it came about, but my mother arranged an assessment of sorts. The psychologist would talk to me and make a recommendation concerning me attending public school.

Everyone was afraid I would not be able to keep up in a public school setting. I think they imagined all sorts of things, because you would have thought I was asking to juggle nitroglycerin in a room full of dignitaries. I was only eleven years old, surely we could take a risk, I would have the rest of my life to bounce back if need be.

I remember going to the meeting and my instructions from my parents were to be myself and just answer the questions honestly. I don't remember a lot about the meeting, but I remember the room it was held in. It was cluttered with boxes and stacks of papers and journals. The man who talked to me was nice and I felt at ease. I remember the last question he asked me. He said, "Why do you want to attend public school?" My response was quick, "I just want to be a normal kid."

It must have worked, because the next fall I was enrolled in our local elementary school for 6th grade. My teacher was the same teacher my sister had three years prior - Mr. Meyers.

School posed certain challenges for me. I could not read what the teacher wrote on the board, even when I sat on the front row. So I got what I wanted – to attend public school, and I got a few more things I hadn’t considered.

I managed to make the grade. I was an average student, but my lack of academic success was more a result of how little I worked at it than my poor vision.

I was lazy academically. I was more interested in sports and having fun with my friends. I made mostly C's with the occasional B or D. When I got to high school, I took a lot of auto mechanics and avoided English and math. I was an idiot.

It wasn't until college that I began to apply myself. I completed college with a 3.23 GPA or so and in graduate school, I earned mostly A's. It was a slow start, but a fast finish.

I did miss some of the benefits of the blind school, but I liked being where I was. Throughout school, teachers fell all over themselves to help me. Like a moron, I wouldn't let them help me. I declined many of their offers, because I didn't want to be a special case.

The pace was faster than I was used to. I did poorly on standardized tests in the beginning, because I read slowly. I read slowly, because the print was small, and I had not yet discovered magnifying glasses.

I was in a place for normal kids, but I was not normal. I was the kid with the thick glasses. What I really hated was when someone wanted to look through my glasses. Sometimes I would give them up reluctantly, the kid would put them on and exclaim, "Wow." Then he would try walking around bumping into things and making exaggerated movements. I am sure it was "a trip" to put them on, but I hated it. Usually, there was a crowd laughing and cheering the person on. Eventually, I would get them back and everyone went their separate ways.

In junior high school, it started all over again because I was around new kids. High school was the same way. I have no lasting scars though and looking back, I don't know if I would have changed a thing even if I could.

When I was in high school, a checkup with the ophthalmologist developed into an eye surgery a few weeks later. The doctor was surprised I still wore thick glasses. He recommended contact lenses. So I had the old traditional cataract surgery on my left eye and got fitted for contact lenses.

This was a major event in my life. When I got rid of the thick glasses, my confidence level skyrocketed. My eyes still wiggled, but I did not stand out like I did with the glasses. Girls were out of the question with the glasses, but without them, heh heh heh. Boy was I wrong.

I inherited a paper route from my friend Frank when I was 14. Later on I started working on the paper truck. When I was 15 I started working at Red Lobster as a bus boy.

Vision is a funny thing. I could ride a bike and get around to deliver the newspapers. It gave my mother gray hairs, but I survived. If I am familiar with an area, I get along very well, but put me in an unfamiliar area and the poor vision shows.

I could go on and on about this and I have covered a lot of ground. I may expand on some of the topics at a later date, but let me close with this story.

Age 16 was just another birthday. No driver's license for me. If I wanted to go on a date, I was going to have to ask a girl out who had a car. I was going to have to ask her out and ask her to drive.

In the early 70's, guys were supposed to drive, so I was going to have to do something different or not do anything at all.

One of the hostesses at Red Lobster caught my eye - her name was Mary Ann. She was nice to me and I enjoyed talking to her. I made her laugh and I began thinking about asking her out. She seemed within reach. Long story short, one of the waitresses asked Mary Ann if she would go out with me if I asked her. She said yes.

It was all set up, but I was still as nervous as long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. I think I waited until the last minute. Mary Ann was about to leave, but I finally approached her and after some stumbled over words and phrases, I asked her out. She said yes and I felt like I owned the world. What a feeling, do you remember your first date?

In the next post, I will talk about life after high school and some more eye surgeries. I even had two motorcycles. More gray hair for my mother.

Until the next time
John Strain


Thursday, June 08, 2006


My life Part II: How'd I get here?

Congenital cataracts. That's what got me. The speculation as to cause was that my mother had some sort of virus during the seventh month of pregnancy. The mother always gets the blame.

So I was born with cataracts in 1957. My mother knew something was wrong, but it took the doctors a while to agree with her. In those days, eye surgery wasn't what it is now. A "needeling" procedure was done which amounted to puncturing one of the cataracts thereby letting in some light. There were no more surgeries until I was in high school.

The brain needs information from the eyes to develop normal sight. In my case, the brain was deprived of that information. The result was two eyes not working together, poor vision, and nystagmus or dancing eyes.

I'm not sure when I was aware that other people could see better than me. My life has been "normal" in most ways. Where my eyes hindered me, I found another way or realized a limit.

What were the limits? Playing little league baseball. I loved baseball and not being able to play is probably the worst thing poor vision has done to me.

That is not intended to be funny. The reason I say baseball has more to do with my age at the time. Now, I know what I can and can't do. I know where the fence is so to speak. Growing up, I had to learn my limitations. I did not always accept them and I usually got a baseball in the face to remind me.

One of the best moments in my young life was when I was visiting my grandparents in Missouri. I had a friend there named Mike who played little league baseball. He had a game and a spare uniform from the year before.

I wore the spare uniform to his game and sat on the bench during the game. That day I was a baseball player. I don't know if I have ever felt more proud than I did on that day.

In retrospect, I see how every experience in life is a double-edged sword. We can learn as much from disappointments as we can from successes. Some children are indulged and never experience "not getting their way" until much later in life. There were things I wanted my parents could not give me and in many ways - that turned out to be a good thing.

So I grew up with wiggling eyes, wearing thick glasses, and being the kid who couldn't see. I suppose I could have become bitter, withdrawn, or learned to deal with it.

Much of my life was normal, but a lot of it was different. When it came time for school, I had to attend the Kansas School for the Blind. I was different and needed to be in a school for different kids.

These days, everyone goes to the same school. I think both settings have their advantages and disadvantages. In my case, I was a partially sighted student at a school for the blind. The man with one eye is king in the land of the blind. I was king.

There were sad cases there. Many of the blind children had other problems as well. I was only dealing with low vision; many of them had physical and mental problems to boot.

The result is I grew up feeling lucky at school, but humbled when I was home and playing in the neighborhood. My brother and sister took advantage of me when we played Monopoly. It was usually too late when I discovered they had landed on my property to collect the rent. I learned that whining loudly or crying brought my mother in to hammer out justice.

That last bit was intended to be funny. My family was great. They made sure I was included. They all became adept at play by play, because they were always called upon to describe to me what I could not see – and that was quite a bit.

They became good with directions. Let's say I was looking for a checker that rolled off of a table. It was like a game of "hot and cold" to get me to it. They would say, over there . . . no the other way. . .no back. . .right there. . .to your left. . .NO TO YOUR LEFT!. . .finally.

I adapted as a person, my family adapted with me, my friends adapted to me. and it all worked out to what I think was a regular upbringing in a typical Midwestern family and town. We are all different in many ways; one of the ways I was different was my eyesight.

I attended the Kansas School for the Blind from K-5th grade.

My friends walked to school.
I was picked up by one of the teachers and commuted 30 minutes each way.

My friends went to school with kids like them.
I went to school with kids having all kinds of handicaps and varied backgrounds. My Kindergarten teacher was blind. Some kids were in wheelchairs. Some kids were black. Some kids lived at the school and only saw their parents on holidays.

Again in retrospect, I think my early education at KSB was a good thing. I was exposed to diversity, I was one of the fortunate ones with partial sight as they called it, and I got closer attention from the teachers there than if I had been at a public school of that day. I learned to read, rite, and do rithmatic.

They tried to teach me Braille, but I kept picking the paper up to read instead of using my fingers. Eventually, they gave up and stuck with the large print textbooks.

I was the recipient of some nice things by attending the Blind School. Every year, the Shriners took us to the circus. Not only did we attend the circus, but they bought the cotton candy, popcorn, and cokes to go with it. It was an annual treat to which I always looked forward.

To keep my foot in the other world, my folks got me involved in scouts. Our whole family was involved. My mom was a den mother for my brother when he was a Cub Scout and she was a Blue Bird and Campfire leader for my sister. My dad was a scoutmaster when my brother was a scout and he pulled another tour when I reached that age.

Scouting was a good thing in those days. I met other kids outside of my immediate neighborhood and had lots of great experiences. We went on campouts and traveled to New Mexico for hiking and to Minnesota for a canoe trip. Every week we met for a meeting and a time of games and activities.

I was teased a lot by people, but I doubt if it was much more than any kid experiences. Think about your own childhood. What did you get teased about? Maybe you had red hair, a big nose, a funny voice. Maybe you were tall, short, fat, or skinny. Kids hone in on what makes you different and laugh at you.

My parents were good at helping me to see that I was no special case where it came to teasing. They also helped me see that I could win people over by not getting so upset by it. Humor became my tool of choice. I took pride in making my teaser laugh.

Usually the kids who teased me just didn't know me. After a while, I was just the kid with the coke bottle glasses. I seem to remember many more friends than teasers.

Tomorrow, I will talk about my transition into public school and the act of congress it took to get me there.

Until the next time
John Strain


Wednesday, June 07, 2006


My life Part I: The way I see it

I was standing outside watching Bear the other morning. He was about 30 feet away from me when he hiked his rear leg and let her fly. I saw the yellow stream of pee sparkle in the sun.

No big deal right? Well, for me it was unusual to see something like that. I am legally blind or 20/200 corrected. My entire life, people have asked me how well I could see.

The less sophisticated upon hearing I am legally blind often held up a few digits and asked me, "How many fingers am I holding up?" Others were more clever with their query, but it was always a difficult thing to convey.

I don't know how well "normal" people see so I have nothing of which to compare to my particular affliction. Sight has many nuances and me being able to see Bear's pee stream from that distance was because the lighting was perfect. On a cloudy day it would be a different story altogether.

My poor vision has shaped my character. I have had to do things out of necessity I never would have chosen otherwise. I have been challenged and forced to find other ways to do what most folks do "the easy way."

People with normal vision often marvel at what I can do and how I overcome the handicap. I appreciate their recognition, but it is also a bit embarrassing. I am only doing what I want to do. A person with no arms learns to do things with their feet. Handicaps are just extra hurdles one clears on their way to accomplishing a goal.

So back to the stream of dog pee. As I saw it, I reviewed some familiar thoughts. The process is circular. I begin by wondering what it would be like to see better - normally. I think about how my life would be different. Then I think about how my life has been different because of the way I do see. Like rehashing a bad call in a football game when it is over, the score does not change. It is what it is and I see what I see.

Poor eyesight worked out for Claude Monet. He saw things differently and because he could paint, others got to see a kind of beauty they did not know existed.

I look at my own level of vision similarly. My humor and thoughts are composed from the data I have at my disposal. My senses construct a certain image and my mind goes from there.

I can't make eye contact like most people do. I can look at you, but I am not locked onto your eyes. I might miss a wink or a subtle movement, but is that so bad? Some folks interpret such communications and stop talking or change what they were going to say. I forge ahead running stop signs I didn't even know were there.

I have had to grasp the concept of "different." There are different ways to do things. The most obvious ones are not always what I can do.

I am thankful for many good friends throughout the years. They have chauffeured me many miles and read restaurant menus to me quietly and discretely so I wouldn't stand out like a sore thumb. They have made fun of me - thank goodness and one friend even gave me a nickname. The BMF or blind mother "you know what." What would we do without friends?

One of my good friends Linda, who reads this blog for lack of anything better to do, even tipped me off when there were good looking girls around.

Guys tend to point out to each other any desirable members of the opposite sex for what we'll call group admiration. Well there was this one girl at work we frequently admired. Linda played along. We were sitting in the cafeteria one day and this particular girl walked in. Linda told me, "John, there's your friend and I think its cold in here to her." She explained that she felt obligated to share that with me since I couldn't see it and the usual guy friends weren't around. This way, I could report to them that so and so was showing. . . I mean felt cold in the cafeteria.

So you see poor vision has not kept me from becoming a pervert. Sure I miss seeing things like what women will do in New Orleans to get beads. But; and it is a big but, sometimes I am thankful I cannot see very well.

Some of the things I have seen at work are bad enough without being able to see them better. I won't elaborate, but suffice it to say, poor vision sometimes has its advantages.

Like I said yesterday, life is too short. Life is certainly too short to become bitter and mad at the world for something I cannot change. Life is too short not to use the eyes I have knowing that some folks cannot see anything at all.

Eyes do not affect vision and even blind people can have 20/20 insight.

Tomorrow I will explain just what is wrong with my eyes and a bit more of my story.

Until the next time
John Strain