Pastor John, tell us this much. Where did you go to college?
Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.
I believe we have a picture from your time at Wheaton on the screen. I’m really hoping we do. There it is.
That’s later than Wheaton.
That’s later than Wheaton. That’s about six years after Wheaton. Probably more.
Yeah. I’m only a few years out and I’m very glad they don’t have pictures.
I wasn’t nearly that cool at Wheaton.
You weren’t that cool at Wheaton?
Wrong kind of glasses.
Oh, got you. Well, did you know when you graduated from Wheaton that you were going to want to pastor a church? Was that really the thought in the back of your mind? Because so many of us graduate and we think we need to know exactly what we’re doing.
No, I didn’t know either when I went to Wheaton or when I left Wheaton what I would be doing. My life has not been planned by me. It’s amazing how unplanned it’s been. I went to Wheaton thinking I wanted to be a veterinarian maybe or something like that because my hands shook too bad to be a real doctor. I thought if I killed a dog, nobody would care. Or maybe a cat.
Then God did something midstream to make me think, well maybe the doctor thing would work. So I took chemistry in the summer school of 1966, and at the end of that I got mono and had to drop organic chemistry. And heard a preacher on the radio and fell in love with exposition and thought, “Okay, I want to know the Bible.” When I was done with college, all I knew was I wanted to know the Bible. So I headed for seminary. But what I would do with it I had no idea.
Wow. One of the stories I love hearing you share is how God, during college, walked you through a fear, a very significant fear in your life. As I’ve been thinking and talking to students, and the sense that I get even now with just tonight and tomorrow morning is that so many of us in the room are struggling with fears. Whether it’s fears of really letting go and trusting our lives to Jesus, or whether it’s fears of knowing that our lives must change, or whatever it may be.
Could you tell us a story about public speaking, and your fear of public speaking and specifically how God walked you through that? I think it’s fascinating that you speak to thousands, tens of thousands of folks now, knowing and remembering that story that you shared before of how God walked you through those fears. In light of our fears, could you share that?
Starting at about the seventh grade maybe, something happened. I don’t have any idea to this day how to explain it, but my mind, my emotions, and my body would simply shut down if I had to speak in front of a small group, like a homeroom class or a larger group. I simply couldn’t do it. There was this unbelievable shame factor. There were places where I had to speak and I couldn’t.
I remember in the eighth grade one time, all you had to do was read one paragraph of your results from a little science experiment in front of the class. We were going person by person. As it came to me, I could see my shirt beating up and down. My heart was beating so hard I could see it. About two people in front of me, I got up, went to the bathroom, and just cried and skipped it. I came back and said to the teacher, “I can’t.”
In the 10th grade I said to Mr. Vermilion, my civics teacher, “I saw on the syllabus yesterday there’s an oral book report. I can’t do it Mr. Vermilion.” He said, “Johnny, you have to do it. You can’t get better than a C in this class if you don’t do it.” I said, “I’ll take a C. That’s it. It’s just not an option.” I couldn’t do it, which means I never ran for any office or anything because you had to give speeches and all that stuff.
It probably had to do with how bad my acne was. I was just so embarrassed all the time. I thought nobody could like me given how withdrawn I was and how mashed up my face looked to me. So I went off to college thinking, “Wheaton says it has a two-hour speech requirement. I’ll figure it out. I’ll transfer out. I’ll get everything but that and I’ll transfer out and go to some community college and get my degree or something. I just cannot do it.”
I mean, people talk about having butterflies. No comparison. My mama, who didn’t even believe in psychology in those days, took me to a psychologist. The psychologist showed me a bunch of Rorschach charts and asked me what I saw, these butterfly things. I said, “I don’t see anything.” After we were done for an hour, she suggested it might be my mother’s fault. Man, I walked out of there and said, “If there’s the one person in this universe who understands me, cares about me, has sympathy for me, gets me, helps me, it’s my mom. See you later. I’m never coming back here.” And so I didn’t get any help there.
Here we are now at Wheaton. In the summer of 1966 between sophomore and junior year, having navigated my way through any classes that would involve me saying anything, I was asked by Chaplain Evan Welch if I would pray out loud in the summer chapel. Summer chapel would be about 500 students. To this day, I can’t explain why, but I said, “How long do you have to pray?” He said, “30 seconds, a minute. Just open us.” I said, “Yes.”
If you ask me why I would say I don’t know why. I don’t know why except maybe it was just that I thought, “I’ve got to break through. I’ve just got to break through this.” I walked back and forth on the front campus that summer before that, and I made a vow to the Lord. I’ve only made one or two vows in my life. You know it was a real Old Testament “If you do this, I’ll do this” kind of vow? I said to the Lord, “If you will get me through 30 seconds, just get me through — I’ll hold onto this giant pulpit and I’ll memorize it cold — I will never say no to a speaking engagement of any kind out of fear.” I might have to for schedule reasons, but never for fear.
To me, that was just the riskiest thing I could possibly say to him and he did. He did. I took the speech class a year later and wasn’t at all sure I could do it, so I decided to do a demonstration speech with barbells. When I went off to seminary two years later, it had broken and I was able to preach. I was always nervous. I still get nervous. So I think the lesson is whatever feels impossible to you between you and your hope, your dream, it’s probably not impossible. Certainly it’s not impossible with God. There may come a moment, and you should ask him for this, where a crisis happens and you have to take a massive risk and throw yourself totally on him, totally, and wait for him to come through.
I want to ask you one more question. It’s a little bit a change of pace because I know this is pretty significant in your life. You recently wrote a book on racism and specifically racism between blacks and whites in America. Could you tell us what led you to that, and why you felt out of all the books you could have written, you chose to write a book on this at this time? Could you tell us a little bit about why?
Right. It’s called Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian. The term bloodlines means that there is a bloodline running from the cross. That is the dominant bloodline that should unite all believers of every race and ethnicity over every other bloodline that may feel so significant. That’s what is behind the title. I have lived in Phillips neighborhood, which is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country. There are 200 languages spoken in Phillip’s neighborhood and it’s the second-poorest neighborhood in Minneapolis after Northside. I have raised my kids in an atmosphere of crime and poverty and racial diversity of every kind.
Shifting from every five years or so, there’d be a new wave of Somalis that would come through, or Laotians would come through, or Hispanics would come through and be the dominant one, and then it would shift. Everything shakes around and moves around. The African-American presence is always there. The Native American presence is always there.
I live there knowing I have to navigate this. I have to think about this. I have to talk about this. For the last, I think, 17 years now, I have preached on the sanctity of life in January, which comes around January 22 along with the Roe v. Wade anniversary and Martin Luther King weekend. I have intentionally put those back to back because almost everybody in America thinks you choose between those two issues. One is Republican and one is Democrat. One’s a white issue and one’s a black issue. I said, “That’s not the way we’re going to do it. This is a blood issue. This is a blood issue.”
What I mean when I call racial stuff a blood issue, and I’ll maybe end with this from Revelation 5:9–10, “You were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
When I spoke at the Moody Pastors Conference on this issue, I said, “This is not a social issue. Racial issues in this country are not a social issue, they’re a blood issue because Jesus died to buy unity. He died to buy harmony and diversity with peace.”
I grew up a racist. I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina where separate water fountains, separate swimming pools, separate restaurants, separate bathrooms, separate everything. It was utterly demeaning and I felt like I had to say something out of my own experience, out of my neighborhood experience, out of the political-scene experience, and mainly out of the Bible experience about what Christ died to achieve.