Wednesday, August 27, 2008

One of My Favorite People

I've recently seen a couple of different writing contests that involve writing about life events or a personal story. I don't know that I really feel like entering a contest, but if I were going to write such a story it would be about a man named Gene Rainwater.

I first met Gene when Chris and I moved from Northwest Indiana to St. Louis. I was a new disciple at the time and pretty much devouring everything that I could to "catch up" on what I had missed. I was in my early twenties and little kids knew more scripture than I did. I listened to radio preachers whenever I was in the car (which was often since I was selling insurance at the time) and tried to figure out the differences and similarities between the Catholicism I had grown up with and Evangelical Christianity.

Chris and I found a home at Christy Park General Baptist Church in South St. Louis City. Gene was the Sunday School Superintendent and in spite of his tall stature, was a very unassuming man. He was quick to laugh, full of grace and a man of quiet dignity, deep integrity and the kind of person that everybody loved to love. I don't know what Gene Rainwater saw in this arrogant young man (probably somebody that needed a lot of help) but he decided that I needed a mentor and that he was going to be that person. Although the Sunday School Superintendent had never had (or needed) an assistant before, Gene convinced the powers that be that he needed one and that he needed for it to be me.

At the time, I thought that Gene had given me a lot of freedom in this new role. Looking back I can see that he was always there--suggesting, guiding, letting me think that I was coming up with ideas that were his all along. Just spending time with Gene was an adventure. He had a great family and Chris (Christine to Gene) and I were invited to their home or family gatherings often. It was as if we were a part of the family.

Gene always seemed to have a project person or family. I can't say how many times he told me of somebody that he was helping with a place to live, a job, a car--you name it, Gene was there to help. These weren't people that he dragged to church--that was never a condition for receiving his help. He would invite them, to be sure, and always told them of Jesus--it was just his nature. When he talked to me about them it was different than what you would expect from a "church" person. He was never judgmental. He was never boastful. He was always concerned. I don't think that he ever even asked me to pray for them. It was like he just expected that I would want to pray for them (and him) after we talked.

Gene modeled Jesus. He was a tall, lanky country boy that really loved God. Even after we moved away from St. Louis, Gene influenced my life. I don't think that I ever really told him how much of an influence that he was or how often I have told people his name when speaking of my "heroes of the faith." I can't think of a person that had more of an impact on my Christianity than Gene. He was probably the least surprised person in the world when I told him that I felt God's call to preach the Gospel. I think that God had let him in on His plans all of those years ago when Gene became my self-appointed mentor.

It was around that time that Gene was diagnosed with cancer. I can't tell you much about what kind of cancer, but I can tell you that even as he battled cancer he remained positive, determined and was still the kind of person that you would want to be around. We made a quick trip to St. Louis just to see him a short time before he died. He was in the hospital, mostly incoherent, and just a shadow of the giant of a man that I had grow to love so much. I was crushed the day that he died.

Here's what I remember about that day:

A nearby church had scheduled a gospel magician to come for their Sunday morning Children's Church. He would be flying in on a private plane Sunday morning. The weather for that day was forecast to be stormy and so the magician canceled the engagement the day before. The pastor called my pastor and then they called me at work to see if I would be available. Now this was Saturday morning for a program the very next day. At this point in my ministry I had never done anything like this. As a matter of fact, I had to use every effect that I knew to fill the time that they wanted me to fill. I was up late at night and early in the morning to prepare. I was excited and nervous and counting on God to help me through the two morning services.

Sunday morning came and as forecast, it was a cloudy, dreary morning. The program went well. For some reason the first one seemed to be better than the second, although I expected it to be the other way around. When it was over I received a check that was for more than I ever expected it to be! And to top it all off, by the time I was ready to leave the sun had come out and it looked like a beautiful day. I called Chris (she had gone to our church with the kids) and told her of my good fortune and we decided on a restaurant to meet for lunch. Several other church friends were there and I was on top of the world.

When we got home, there was one message on our answering machine. It was Glenda (Gene's wife). She had called a couple of times without leaving a message but knew that she may get busy and didn't want to forget later. She apologized for leaving the news on our answering machine but told us that Gene had gone home to be with Jesus.

I was numb. I knew that this was coming, but I was numb just the same. I went back outside and stood in the sun. Chris came out to ask if I was okay. I don't remember what I told her. I just remember her touch and then she left me alone. I don't think that I was mad at God. I don't think that I had any questions for Him. I knew that the way of all living things is to die. I just knew that I was going to miss my friend and I hurt inside my heart. I don't remember how long I stayed outside or anything else about that afternoon...except...

I remember that I must have had a meeting at the church that afternoon--one of those before the evening service meetings. I know that I left early for church and drove by myself. Do you remember how the day had started out rainy and gloomy? There were still some showers throughout the day in areas all around us. I think that we were in the sunshine all afternoon. The sun was shining brightly in the west as I drove to church in the late afternoon. The rain had moved off to the east and the sky was dark over there. I could see that it was raining.

And then...there it was. It was the brightest rainbow that I had ever seen. The kind that makes you want to stop and admire it. The primary rainbow was incredible and even the secondary bow was brighter than usual. I smiled. It was as if God was sending me a personal message. He was saying, "John, I'm still here. I'm still in control. I'm still sovereign. I'm still God."

I looked back to find it again and it was quickly fading. By the time I had driven the few miles to church it had completely vanished. In my own thoughts I think that Gene had something to do with that. He was always giving; always concerned about people with hurting hearts. It would have been like him to pause in the midst of the celebration of seeing his Savior to ask if there wasn't something that He could do to ease the hurt of his friend.

Today, when I see a rainbow, I think of Gene. I remember that God is still God and I smile. I always smile.



Amanda said...

John, this was a wonderful story about Gene. I like how you called him a "giant of a man".

Kevin said...

Thanks. Very nice.