Jul 17, 2009

H. John Blann: 1920-2009

We have had more than our share of mega-watt celebrity pass away in the recent past. Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Billy Mays, Karl Malden, Steve McNair, Walter Cronkite. Each one of them would receive a huge amount of press. Some, like Jackson, would receive a send off as if he was some sort of world-reigning royalty. It is a shame, when people who became famous for singing and dancing and jiggling around and selling stuff and saying yes get such recognition, but when truly amazing people pass on nothing happens. Well, for one person I am not going to let that happen.

H. John Blann passed away today. He was 89 years old. He was survived by his wife, Eva; his four children, Rosie, Paul, Lois, and Richard and their respective spouses; his close-as-a-child friend, Nila; seventeen grandchildren and their spouses; and twenty-five great-grandchildren (with a 26th coming soon). I am the spouse of one of the grandchildren and dad of three of the great-grandchildren. I married into this family in August of 2000. And I have been blessed every day to be a part. Grandpa was a part of that. Actually, he was a huge part of that - the foundation of it. The way that Grandpa and Grandma lived their lives was the model that everyone followed. It was why the family is so special. As I think back on my experience with this amazing man, there are some things that jump out at me. And since I am a Baptist pastor, I always organize my thoughts starting with the same letter.

It was truly a blessing to be able to spend so much time with Grandpa. Not many of his grandchildren had the opportunity to do that - since the family was scattered all over. But thanks to the way things unfolded in 2001, we ended up living across the street from them. So for the last eight years, every time we went to visit Heather's parents we got to see Grandpa and Grandma too. That led to many discussions over Sunday lunch and while eating ice cream. (We shared a love for ice cream - I don't think either of us ever turned it down.) He and I would sit and talk about all kinds of things. Now to understand why that is a big deal, you have to understand my personal history.

My dad's parents died when I was 10 and 15. My mom's dad died when I was 16. My dad passed away when I was 25, and my mom's mom died five years ago. I never really had big talks with my grandparents. When I did talk to my mom's dad, it was not a deep conversation. We couldn't have been more different. And I think I talked to my dad's dad maybe five times in my life. (He lived in Vermont.) We were not very close to our extended family, except my mom's mom. I have been able to establish some stronger relationships with some of those people later in life - but growing up there was not much there. So to marry into a family where the ENTIRE family was involved in everything was shocking. Heather's cousins came to her wedding . . . from Connecticut. Heather knows how many kids each of her cousins have. I don't even know how many cousins I have. (Seriously. I don't know.)

So sitting down with this older man and talking was a wonderful experience for me. The fact that he had served as president of a Bible school, missionary, pastor, and teacher made it even better. He saw in me a rough draft of a minister, and he wanted to help hone that. So he did that in our talks. After the scarring events of my first church job, and the failed efforts to find a second church job, he would gently encourage me (and sometimes chastise me) to keep my attitude right. He was so kind, but his words carried power. I would listen to him pray, and just be blown away by his sweet and powerful offerings. (My kids say one of their favorite things about Grandpa is the way he prays.) I wanted to be like him.

He and Grandma had a little book of prayer requests. They had every single family member listed and would pray for all of them every single day. If you asked them to pray for something, they did. They made friends everywhere. They knew the manager at the Wendy's. The lady lit up when they came in. That was just their way. I remember that one year Heather's family celebrated Christmas in our home in Orlando. My brother came and joined us too. Grandpa took a bunch of time to sit with Chris and talk with him. He just felt drawn to him. For months he would ask me about Chris and how he was doing. He asked for Chris' address and email address. That summer when we all were at the beach, Chris came up to spend a day. Grandpa again made sure he had time to spend with him. This was my brother - and Grandpa was invested in him. It was truly telling they way the "in-laws" in the family felt about him - we loved him like he was our own grandfather, maybe even more.

When I started Defender Ministries, I sat down with Grandpa and Grandma to talk to them about what I was doing. I kind of wanted their blessing - and their prayers. I explained how big the internet porn issue had become worldwide. I told them about what we wanted to do - how we planned on helping people deal with things, with technology. They sat there and cried. They told me that the problem had never affected them, but they knew how big of an issue it was. They had read about it in a Christian magazine (and they saved me every article they ever found after that). And they knew how I had struggled with things - and had prayed for me for years after I had shared that with them. As I worked getting Defender going, I found much opposition from pastors and churches - people who didn't want to deal with the problem or admit there was one. Church members would kind of raise their eyebrows at me about it. But these two people in their 80s, who I can believe never ever had seen a piece of pornography in their lives, knew that it was something that needed to be addressed.

One of the earliest and deepest connections I had with Grandpa was over books. I remember that Grandpa and Grandma were visiting before they had moved to Florida. They were reading books and I offered to let Grandpa borrow a book that I loved - Philip Yancey's The Bible Jesus Read. Grandpa thanked me, but said he wanted some lighter fare for their trip. I said I understood. A couple hours later, he came and apologized and said he would love to read it. He had realized I was trying to reach out to him and he didn't want to lose that chance. He plowed through the book and then came and told me how much he loved it. He said that he had learned some things he had never thought about. What!?! This was an octogenarian who had spent the better part of sixty years in a ministerial role - and he got things out of a book that I had recommended? In fact, Grandpa went out and bought several other Yancey books and read them too, discussing them with me.

This was not uncommon. The love of books runs deep and strong through Heather's family and through mine. (Yes, our kids devour books like other kids go after video games.) There is a story Heather has told me about when her older brother, Andy, was in school. He had to read The Fountainhead for class. Grandpa wanted to know what that was about, so he went out and bought it and read it - just so he could help Andy with it. A 70 year old man read a 700 page book on secular humanism to help his grandson understand it. That still blows me away.

Another year, I was reading a book by a popular Christian author. I liked some of what he said, thought it was interesting. I bought a copy for Grandpa for Christmas. He read it and then gave it back to me. I told him it was his. He said he didn't want it. He disagreed with much of what the man said and he didn't see that he would ever read it again. He explained what he felt. I was a little offended and frustrated. I went back and looked at the book and then read the Bible concerning the book topic. And, you know what? Grandpa was right. The book was wrong. It had misrepresented things. In my place in life, I didn't examine it like I should have. The emotions resonated with me, and it nearly got me in trouble. I almost headed down a path from that book that would have been very dangerous and wrong. If Grandpa hadn't been willing to hurt my feelings, I never would have even known.

A mentor of mine once taught that after the age of 18, the things that can really change you are the books you read and the people you hang around. I have seen the truth of that statement. When you find someone you can read books with, you do twice the good, I guess. As the years went by, Grandpa and Grandma started to give us their books for Christmas. I now have a treasure of old commentaries and devotionals that I got from them. And when I say old, I mean over 100 years old. What a tremendous gift.

No story about John Blann would be complete without mention of the epic Balderdash game that played out in Heather's parents' kitchen one holiday season. Heather and I, her parents, her brother Andy and his wife Michelle, and her brother Mike sat down to play Balderdash - and invited Grandpa and Grandma. They agreed and a truly classic event was set in motion. For those of you who don't know, Balderdash is a game where there are cards with obscure and bizarre words. You are supposed to write definitions for the words - they aren't right, just supposed to sound right. All the definitions, including the real one, are read and you hope people vote for your definition. This can get to be very funny. Usually, there are several times in a game where you have to stop and just laugh at a stupid definition. (Crenulate - what a mother tells her son named Crenshaw when he gets home after the street lights come on.) In this game, Grandma laughed more than I had ever seen her laugh. But to win, you have to be able to fool people - lie in a convincing way. I am VERY good at the game. Grandpa was NOT.

There were three problems with the way Grandpa played Balderdash. First of all, he knew too many of the words. These funky words that sound fake - he knew a bunch of them. He would just write down the correct definition. So he would get points each time he did that. But when he didn't know the word, he didn't quite get how to write a fake definition. So it was obvious that his was not right - and that it was written by him. They all had a similar quality. So he never got points there. The last problem was when it came to his turn to read the definitions. He collected all the pieces. As he read them, he commented on them. Now, the reader is supposed to be stoic - just reading the words without facial expression or comment. They are supposed to read over them so they don't trip over words. Grandpa took a different approach. He would read one and say things like, "Whatever" or "I have no idea what that means" or "I can't read what this person even wrote." We all just sat there and stared at each other, trying not to bust out laughing. Heather's brother, Andy, is so sweet. He tries to be very kind and careful with his words. He just kept going, "Wow. Uh. Wow." Finally, he just looked at all of us, shrugged, and said, "Well, um, I guess we should just not count that round. Sound good?" None of this should have come as a surprise to any of us. He was brilliant, straight forward, and honest. He was funny too - with a whip fast wit. But we all should have know he never would be good at a game that is based on leading people astray - his whole life was lived doing the opposite.

I have a blog. Grandpa read my blog. He wanted to start his own. And this began a two year process that never did come to fruition. He was fascinated with technology. Both he and Grandma had computers and spend lots of time on them - surfing the web, emailing, reading the Bible. He used to take great pride in his Jornata - a fancy PDA that he received as a gift. We would chat about computers. I would show him some of the things I designed and printed - something he loved to see. This was especially cool to him because he used to use the OLD SCHOOL printing presses - and he was just amazed at what I could do now. Even as he slipped over the last year, one of the things he remembered was that I worked at Apple. He asked me every time I saw him if I still worked at "the computer place" and how it was going.

He never quite could get the blog, though. He wanted to put his journal online. But it never worked right - he never got it to do what he wanted. I would sit with him for hours and we would get things to work, but when I left he couldn't duplicate it. This was when I knew he was starting to slip. As a person ages, the things they learned last seems to be the first to go. And his love for technology was where I first saw the erosion. He would have lots of problems with his computer - mostly due to his making mistakes on it. He asked me every time I came (sometimes multiple times) about what computer Bible I used, if I had tried e-Sword, if I could help with the blog. He finally abandoned the blog hope.

One of my last big memories of Grandpa - and one of his of me - came on a weekend when Heather's parents had gone out of town. Heather and I were going to come up for the weekend to help check on Grandpa and Grandma. They had moved in by this point, but they had not all moved to their new bigger house. Grandpa was starting to have a lot of memory problems. And the computer issues were becoming greater. In between when Heather's parents left and when Heather and I got up there, his computer stopped working right. He was beside himself. "When is David coming?" he kept asking Heather's mom, Lois. When I got there, I went in and started to work. It was a minor thing - actually a lot of minor things mostly caused by user error. I got everything up and running and streamlined some things to make it easier for them. He sat there watching everything I did. For months and months after that, he would thank me for my help. It was one of the biggest memories he held on to as things slipped away. It seemed fitting that it came over the computer - the place we had forged so much of our relationship.

I have written about Grandpa and Grandpa before. I did that when I did because I wanted them to be able to read it when they were still lucid enough to appreciate it. This post was for me. We spend so much time lavishing worship on people who don't deserve it. We are obsessed with athletes and celebrities. Every meaningless iota from their lives become headlines. If they get their hair cut or forget their undergarments or go on a date, the world just drools at the details. I wish that we spent half as much time looking at people who really make a difference. How many actors really change anything? A few have gotten involved in projects that change lives - people like Paul Newman and George Clooney. But most are self-absorbed egomaniacal babies.

We spent millions of dollars and hundreds of hours gushing about Michael Jackson. This was a person who refused to grow up, who was incredibly selfish. He was weird. He was linked numerous times to seedy activities. But people acted like a saint died when he passed away. They talked about the change he brought. But the only song they could even mention that was meaningful in an inspirational way was Man in the Mirror. In the long run, how many lives did he truly change?

I've always been a person who felt we disrespect our teachers, our nurses, our military, our public servants. These are the people who really make a difference in our world. They get no money, they get bad hours, they get ridiculed. Good students are steered away from those careers into "more profitable" and "more important" jobs. But without those people, the ones who invest their lives in others, this world would be a terrible place. H. John Blann was one of those people. He touched countless thousands of lives through his life. The way he poured his life into his family has affected all the people they knew. When I went to the Wesleyan General Conference in 2008, there were tons of people there who remembered him. They lit up when they found I was his grandson (in law). They shared stories about him. He was a giant. His entire life was spent reaching out to others and loving people and glorifying God. And this world has a big hole in it without him here - even if they don't know it.

Because I know it. I know he is in a better place. He is up in Heaven. He doesn't hurt any more. His mind isn't failing. He finally gets to see what he lived for his whole life. Maybe he is going to meet my dad - and my dad can thank him for loving me. I'm glad for all of that. But, man, it hurts down here. Thank you, Grandpa, for loving me - when you didn't have to. Thanks for reaching out to me and changing my life. God, thanks for letting me have him in my life.


Anonymous said...

David, thank you for a beautiful tribute to a wonderful man.
Harriet Chapman
(Rosie's sister-in-law)

Peg said...

Thank you, David. Reading this was a wonderful journey.

Peggy Phifer, John's niece, daughter of his brother Bill (William).

Anonymous said...

Thanks to your dear Mother-in-law Lois, I just visited here for the first time, to read what tribute you wrote in honor of precious Rev John Blann - your wife's Grandpa!

My pastor husband Paul and I were privileged to pastor on the same district with Rev and Mrs. Blann in the early 80's. They both were quickly special to us and to our children! Their nature was of gentleness, meekness and strength that made them ones to be trusted, respected and looked up to! We will always be thankful that we knew them, received their love and loved them back!

You did a very special synopsis of your years spent in knowing Rev. Blann...being affected by his trusted and Godly influence!

We are holding all of the Blanns and extended family in prayer as you journey through living with this great personal loss in these next days and weeks! This is the time to really cherish those memories!! Thank the Lord for giving us all the gift of keeping memories!

Sally and Paul Sheets

Rick and Joyce said...

Thanks, David, for your wonderful insites about my uncle. We are so blessed to have the heritage we have through him and his parents and siblings. I thank God for the Christian examples that we have to follow.

It is sad for me to know that he is the last one of the A E Blann family to go home. We will miss the wisdom and example that he provided for us.

God Bless you!

Joyce Coburn, daughter of his youngest sister, Mary Louise Blann Hightower.