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FIRST-PERSON: Making evangelism good news again

COCHRANE, Alberta, Canada (BP)–I grew up privileged.

How so?

My father loved the Gospel.

Bert Johnson was a humble, bivocational pastor. He moved to North Battleford, Saskatchewan, in 1950 to take a temporary pastoral assignment. He remained for 55 years.

Dad was driven to share Jesus. The Gospel had changed his life. He was determined it would change others.

Dad slipped into eternity last month, worn out, an 88-year-old senior. We celebrated his life in a funeral honoring the God who honored him.

I’m preoccupied these days, reflecting on Dad’s life and ministry. I’ve studied him for decades. I know my dad’s flaws and faith. We all have the former. Thankfully, Dad had both.

Two passions consumed my dad’s life. He loved the Gospel; he loved people.

I must confess that Dad often embarrassed me as a child. I remember times when I wanted to disappear, wanted to die, wanted to slide off the cafe chair and under the linoleum.

Why? If you moved and breathed, Dad would chat with you. Very soon -– I knew this sure as sunrise -– Dad would bring up God. He lived to introduce others to Jesus Christ.

Over time, my childhood chagrin molted into adult admiration. Now I seek to imitate him.

Dad loved others enough to give them the best gift he could, Jesus Christ. Many listened. Some accepted and were changed by the gift.

Here’s a story I first heard at Dad’s funeral:

Patricia grew up on Red Pheasant Indian reserve, 50 kilometers from North Battleford. I recollect visiting her family home, with its dirt floor, wood stove and mud-chinked log walls. Her childhood would be a bleak study of abject poverty.

Pat’s dad was Leonard. Their family name, Nicotine.

Twelve children, few options, no job. That was reality for an Indian man in Saskatchewan during the 60s. It was a desperate existence.

Dad and Jack Newsham, his best friend, began Bible studies on the five reserves surrounding the Battlefords. Thanks to them, the Gospel came all the way to Leonard.

I occasionally accompanied these good men. My motives? Hardly spiritual. I got to drive.

No one made Jack and Dad do this, nor paid them. Love compelled them. Here’s what Pat remembers when Leonard heard the Good News and trusted in Jesus:

“I heard my dad’s first prayer after becoming a Christian. He thanked God for our meal. Dad had snared a rabbit and made a broth with it. It wasn’t near enough for all us kids. I still remember Dad’s prayer: ‘God, I haven’t enough food for my family. Please help me feed my children. Amen.’

“As we lifted our heads and opened our eyes, we were startled by a knock on the door. Dad peeked out. There stood Bert and Jack. Their arms were full of groceries! And they were all gift-wrapped!

“I realized,” Pat said, “that the God my dad had trusted in answered his prayer! Even more, God started answering it before Dad prayed, because Bert and Jack had to drive an hour to get to our place. That did it! I knew God loved us! My dad’s God cared enough to help our family!”

Pat is now a sister in Christ. “Your dad baptized me when I was 12,” she said proudly, adding, “I love the Lord to this day.”

Jack and Dad loved the Gospel and loved the poor. They set their hearts to bring the two together.

There’s another story that defines my dad. This one’s a Grandpa story from my son Luke.

After university Luke worked for a non-profit organization, fielding requests. One morning he responded to an inquiry from a student living in Edmonton, Alberta — a First Nations woman. She was attending the faculty of law at the University of Alberta.

Luke did his best to help her research a current moral issue. As they talked, she mentioned she was from Saskatchewan.

“Near North Battleford,” she offered, “that’s where I grew up.”

“North Battleford?” Luke responded, “I lived there for eight years!”

Surprised, she asked, “What’s your name?”

“Johnson. Luke Johnson.”

“Johnson? Do you know Bert Johnson?”

“Of course I do. He’s my grandpa.”

“Your grandpa? How lucky you are! Bert’s my hero.”

She recounted her story.

Eleven years prior, while just a girl, she’d gotten into trouble. She was pregnant. Panicking, she decided to abort the baby. Somehow she confided in Luke’s grandpa.

“Don’t have the abortion!” Bert urged her. “You can come stay with Greta and me and have the baby.”

She paused, collecting her emotions.

“Now I live in Edmonton,” she told Luke. “Here I am, a law student! And now I have a daughter, a 10-year-old girl. Your grandpa’s my hero.”

The Gospel changed Dad’s life. Even better, my dad’s Gospel touched others, transformed others.

Me too.
Paul Johnson leads the evangelism team for the Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists.

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  • Paul Johnson