I remembered Samuel Johnson today and I was revived.
The Samuel Johnson I remembered was not the English author – I did not pick up a copy of Boswell. I met this Samuel Johnson almost fifteen years ago during a hot summer week in Orangeburg, SC. He and I have been accompanying each other in the Communion of Saints ever since.
On Palm Sunday of that year, in a quiet grove of trees about eight miles outside of Orangeburg, the Butler Chapel AME Church burned. Four young men admitted responsibility for the fire, although they maintained that it was accidental. The fire did not totally destroy the church. It did cause enough damage that the church could neither be used nor repaired. After a season of prayer and discussion, the members of Butler Chapel determined to build a new church.
Volunteers came from across the country to work on the church; their labor coordinated by the Church of the Brethren. That August, a group of us went to Orangeburg from Cleveland; some of my friends from Louisville joined us. We spent a week working in extreme heat. We installed insulation and drywall and windows. We finished drywall. We laid brick. Each day was a little different. Each day had some elements in common – mostly the people of Butler Chapel – the wonderful people who welcomed us and fed us, prayed with us and worked beside us. Among them was Samuel Johnson.
Samuel Johnson was a big man. Once he had been a strong man. A long-time member of Butler Chapel AME Church, Samuel had attended school in the building as a child. Samuel worked throughout his life. Worked well and hard. . . as a farmer . . . for the gas company.
When I met him, a stroke had stolen much of his strength. He walked with a cane. He walked better when he can use his cane and someone’s shoulder. I remember. A couple of times he used mine.
Although the stroke had taken much of his one arm and leg, it did not take his mind or voice or spirit. Unable to stay away while his church was being rebuilt, he came to the work site as often as he could. He watched. He visited. And from time to time, his eyes filled with tears of frustration as he wished that one more time he could swing a hammer.
Toward the middle of a hot afternoon (they were all hot – I can’t remember which one), I was working alone on insulation. A friend’s voice interrupted me. “Mark, go to the fellowship hall.”
“I’m busy.” I said. “I want to get this finished.”
Bob persisted. “Mark, stop what you are doing. Go to fellowship hall. You have to see what is going on. Take a camera.”
Reluctantly I got up. I found the camera went to the fellowship hall.
There, on a 2” x 10” board that rested on two overturned five-gallon paint buckets, sat Samuel Johnson. Around him, on the concrete slab, sat many of the young people of our group. Softly and slowly, Samuel spoke . . . telling them of his life . . . his family . . . his work . . . telling them of Orangeburg and his beloved church. As he spun stories and answered questions, tears filled my eyes. I was helping build a physical church; Samuel was building Christ’s body.
Why did I remember this story today? Who knows?
Perhaps it is because I have been thinking about the hurts of God’s people – the violence in Gaza and Israel, the children who flee Central America to come to the United States, bombing in South Kordofan, hunger around the world particularly in South Sudan and North Korea, gunfire on our country’s streets, on and on the list goes. It does not seem to end.
In the face of such violations, suffering, and pain, my efforts seem so small and insignificant. But Samuel Johnson reminds me of the importance of perspective.
I can look at life in terms of what I do not have – what I lack – what I cannot do. This is the view of scarcity.
In the case of Samuel Johnson, such a view has little time for an older man whose physical abilities appear to have been limited by a stroke. It would say he no longer has much to offer.
Alternately, I can choose to look at life in terms of what I have – what I can do – what I can share – the gifts I bear. This view is the view of abundance. When viewed in this way, the incredible gifts that Samuel has and shares leap into view. Samuel’s presence is an inspiration; Samuel’s prayers a source of strength; Samuel’s stories create and nurture community.
For me, the assumption of abundance frees me from working about what I cannot do – to focus on doing what I can – whatever that might be.
Remembering Samuel renews my spirit and challenges me to look at the gifts I have and figure out how to use those gifts. That work has begun and will continue and I expect I will bump into Samuel and a whole bunch of other saints as I do.