I grew up in a typical American family. My parents divorced when I was five. My dad remarried when I was 10. I have two younger siblings, a brother nearly 3 years younger and a sister just over 14 years younger. My Dad served in the Army, was a part of Operation Desert Shield/Storm. My moms worked. My parents had grown up with a bit of church in their lives, but as a family we didn’t go to church, pray, or even really talk much about God and faith. We went about our business of work, school, and living life.
As a high schooler in the early 90’s I was introduced to the theology of Garth Brooks. His music had a way of capturing my imagination and my thoughts of the time. I won’t forget how true I believed the song “Unanswered Prayers” to be. Probably more than any other thing I had heard up to to that point, Garth Brooks was shaping my theology.In my Junior year, my best friend got a bug to try out a church in town. I tagged along, because that’s what friends do. I was probably a bit too pious in my Brooks theology and nearly created a fight in Sunday School when I asserted the wisdom of “Unanswered Prayers” to a class of seasoned church goers. Needless to say, we didn’t go back.
Nearly a year later, I went with the same friend to a different church. He had been attending there for a few months without me. The church’s building was located close to a mile from my house. One day my friend invited me to join him for a Friday night movie at the church. I went; mostly because I didn’t have anything else going on.
After that night, I found myself returning to the church Wednesdays and Sundays. The 200 or so member church was led by Bro. Lanham. He was a distinguished looking guy with his finely trimmed mustache and silver hair. He would wear short sleeve button up shirts with a tie and a jacket on Sundays. I can’t recall ever seeing him wear a pair of blue jeans. He would preach every Sunday and often sing. He liked a country and western styled Gospel music. His wife, Sister Lanham, was the church secretary and leader of the women’s ministry. She was often found wearing a dress and a big welcoming smile.
On Easter Sunday, 1993, I went forward in the church and prayed. It is that day that I accepted Jesus’ work on my behalf and asked him to change my life.
In June of ’93, Bro. Lanham baptized me, my best friend, and our classmate who had led my best friend to attending that church.
Bro. Lanham was my first pastor.
I can’t recall anything special about what he preached. Nor is there anything special about the way he preached. He made it all seem pretty simple. He would remind us to love and serve God and be holy. Looking back, I think he extended a simple plea for us to be saved and sanctified, week after week. Bro. Lanham was never overly stern. He was gracious and humble.
Bro. Lanham was brave enough to let me cut my teeth in ministry. It started with mowing the church lawn. I’m sure it was really hard for him to give up that responsibility. Then I asked if I could change the marquee sign. When our youth leader left, I volunteered to teach the lessons on Wednesday. All the time, Bro. Lanham said “yes.” I am sure there is more to these simple memories on his side, but for me that is how it seemed. He even let me “sing” solos and gave me my first opportunity to preach.
Bro. Lanham had a first name. It was a long time before I knew it. Turns out, he didn’t even go by his first name. My guess is I learned his first name, not long after I learned the name he went by. But for me, his first name was “Brother.”
I am honored to have had Leslie Eugene “Gene” Lanham as my first pastor. His ministry at the First Church of God in Clarksville, Tennessee, shaped me in my earliest days. Like a baby learning to roll over, crawl, walk, talk, and run, Bro. Lanham was like a parent in my faith.
Today, as I sit here typing this out, I am still impacted by his life. You see, what I didn’t mention is that Bro. Lanham began praying for me before we even met.
One Christmas season, Bro. Lanham was working at the mall as Santa Claus. One of the ladies working as Santa’s Helper was a mom to two teen aged boys and a toddler girl. He prayed for that family and the oldest son wandered into the Church of God and moved out of the Brooks school of theology because God answers prayer.