A couple of months ago, it was my privilege to be invited to the 90th birthday celebration of a man whom most of you will never know. He is gentle, articulate, and insightful. He served as a gunner and an Army chaplain in World War II, a pastor after the war, and a missionary after that. He was married more than 60 years to his only love before she went to be with the Lord last year. His name is John Dodd, and he is a hero in the Kingdom of God.
I first met John Dodd as an 8-year-old boy. At that time, in 1969, he was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Tillman’s Corner. On the evening of Saturday, December 6, the Lord was dealing with my heart and drawing me to Him, and my Dad knelt with me beside his bed, and prayed with me as I gave my heart to Christ. The next morning, it was my turn to do what I had seen my siblings and others do already—I had to walk the aisle. Brother Dodd finished his sermon, stepped down to the head of the center aisle, and stood in front of the pulpit. I eased one foot out of the pew and started toward him. I knew that all eyes were on me, and I had never done anything this public in my short and uneventful life. I felt like I was moving underwater. I glanced up and saw Brother Dodd’s kind face, though, and so I kept moving. Of course he already knew why I was coming, but he took my hand, smiled at me, and asked me to tell him what had happened in my heart.
I don’t remember what I told him, but I knew without a doubt that I had been forgiven of my sins, and I have never doubted it since. The whole experience of being saved, though, had shaken me. As I talked with my pastor, I began to weep. It is interesting to me now, though, that weeping is still the most prevalent demonstration of the touch of God on my life. It is not uncommon for me to choke up during any song that proclaims the gospel, and I usually finish the song in silence and tears. There was even one stretch of eighteen months when I couldn’t get through preaching a single sermon without weeping. I remember, though, that bright and cold December morning, as I wept in lingering repentance, and over the knowledge that I had been rescued by the mercy of God from a life and eternity without Him. John Dodd put his arm around my shoulder, drew me in close, and said, “Don’t cry, son. Today is a happy day!” I can still hear him whispering that in my ear as if he said it this morning. It helped set the tone for all that would come. My new life in Christ was to be celebrated. Shame and guilt were gone, hope and joy had moved in. “Heaven came down, and glory filled my soul.”
A few months later, a special Sunday arrived at the Wyatt home—Brother Dodd and his family were coming to our house for dinner after church. You have to understand, in the Deep South of the 1960s, this was still a very big deal, to have the Preacher sit at your table and share a meal in your home. So, on that day, the Dodds met us at our house.
We walked in, and like every Sunday, the air of every room was saturated with the warm aroma of a roast in the oven, a roast that had been cooking while we were Sunday schooling, hymn singing, choir listening, tithe giving, sermon hearing, and hand shaking. Soon, the scent of baking biscuits would join the fragrant symphony even as green beans were heated on the stovetop and potatoes readied themselves for mashing.
While this orchestra was being tuned, my brothers and I ran up and down the two flights of stairs that connected the basement/den to the main floor/living room, and then around a sharp corner to ascend to the upstairs bedrooms. On one such run, I was speeding up from the basement, fleeing from my brother Rick, who was a deadly shot with the string bow and the suction-tipped arrow that was now pointed at my back from the bottom of the stairs. Once, he shot our little dog with it and pulled a circle of hair off of its hide. Pepper had a bald spot for a month. I was not about to let that happen to me.
Without looking behind me, I could feel the arrow streaking up the stairs, homing in on the back of my crew-cut head. The instant my right foot hit the living room floor, I pivoted to the right to keep running up to the next floor. The very second that I turned my shoulders, I heard and felt the arrow whistle past me. Unfortunately, sitting directly across the room from that doorway, John Dodd sat on our couch, contentedly reading the Sunday paper– directly in the flight path of the incoming arrow. It would, undoubtedly, slap into his shiny bald pate and affix itself to his forehead with the smack of a high velocity elf-size toilet plunger. He never saw it coming. And yet, the Lord was with him. The very second before impact, Brother Dodd bent over to pick up a section of the newspaper from the floor. The arrow sliced the air above him and smashed into a picture on the wall, right where his head had been, showering bits of glass on the back of the couch. Unhurt, and thankful to have been spared a mark that some would have certainly interpreted as the Sign of the Beast, John Dodd smiled, helped clean it up, and Sunday dinner with the Preacher successfully concluded an hour or so later.
The next year, my family moved to a different part of the city, and we said goodbye to our friends at First Baptist Tillman’s Corner. A year after that, Brother Dodd invited a team of missionaries to come and speak, hoping that someone would sense the Lord’s calling to serve on the mission field. And someone did. Soon after, John and his wife, Norma, moved to Liberia, North Africa, to preach the gospel. He was almost 50 years old.
After a number of years in Liberia, they went on to minister in Kenya, where they founded and built a Bible College that thrives today. When I reconnected with John about four years ago, he was about to go back to Kenya to help them connect the electricity and prepare the building for a second story to be added. He was 87 then.
John Dodd’s family had been well-known in our city for years as the owners of one of the most popular nurseries. Years ago, the family business was sold and the siblings went their separate ways, and John now lives in the little house that once served as the nurery’s offices. He told me once that when he goes around town, people talk to him as if he is rich from the sale of that family business.
“But I’m not,” he said. “And then I show them where all my money from my inheritance went.” And he handed me a few simple pictures of a cinder block building set in the tall grass of the savannah, with classrooms down the side and scrub trees behind it. It is the Kenya Bible College. And he smiles like a rich man.
Norma spent her last years in an assisted living facility. Alzheimer’s had taken its toll on her, and she barely remembered or recognized anyone from one encounter to the next, though she could still surprise you sometimes. John had served in Italy during World War II, and his Italian name had become a term of endearment between the two of them. One day, about a year before she passed away, John walked into her room and she smiled up at him, and said with love what he had not heard in years: “Giovanni!”
He was there to hear it that day because he was there every day. He would drive all the way across town, even as his eyesight was failing him, to be at her side. He arrived every morning at 5:30 AM, and stayed until after she fell asleep in the afternoon. And on Sundays, he would go get her and bring her to worship with us.
When he returned from his last trip to Africa, John called me and asked about Deeper Life Fellowship, where I pastor. The next Sunday, they came in, John pushing Norma lovingly in her wheelchair. Though the Alzheimer’s was advancing, Norma smiled and sang and clapped better than any of us. And I became my pastor’s pastor. They continued to come, every Sunday, rain or shine, where they sat on the very front row.
This worried me a little, at first, because our worship style is very contemporary, and I know that the volume can be a little loud for some of our older folks, including me, sometimes. Without my prompting, though, John addressed my concerns. This 88-year-old man said, “Do you know one of the reasons we like your church so much?”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because Norma and I can actually hear the music!”
So now, when people tell me the music is too loud, I think of John Dodd. And I just tell them they’re not old enough yet.