Men who put Skin on Jesus: Dr. Steve Harper and Dr. Reg Johnson

Called into ordained ministry in the winter of 1983, Karen and I left for the Wilmore, Kentucky campus of Asbury Theological Seminary the following fall, in 1984. I arrived believing I was there to prove I was ready to do the work God had called me to rather than understand I was rather there to PREPARE for that work. I was driven yet I felt little and unready at every turn. I imagine others felt this way as well, but not many discussed it. In addition to school, I worked as a travel agent.

Our 300-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a two-story, cement block unit sat about 20 feet from the train tracks and faced an identical building across the small street. The trains punctuated conversations, interrupted phone calls and dinner. The building shook as they barreled past and their whistles split the night. Our friends, David and Donna Smith, lived directly across from us. One morning, I saw David with a cup of coffee in his front living room reading and praying. It was a tableau of the devotional life I craved and believed I lacked. Small-minded comparison was deeply ingrained within me. Rather than fixing my eyes on Jesus, I kept fixing them on David or others and felt diminished within.

That first semester of school, God had taken out a trowel and begun to dig into my heart. With patience, God began to uncover my soul. I took a Spiritual Formation class on suffering and the spiritual life that semester with Reg Johnson and Steve Harper that first term. For it, I kept a daily journal. As I wrote, God encountered me and exposed places of hurt within me.

One day, in October, I wrote:

Jesus, I have to study Greek, but my mind and heart are racing and my body feels as if it is going to fall asleep! What’s going on? What’s wrong with me? How do I combat this?

I’m thrilled to be here. It is a privilege to learn Greek. But what is defeating my heart before I start? Why do I feel as if something is very wrong? Everything is frustrating. I am not listening well to Karen. I change the subject when she mentions the doctor. I am striving to win but am losing. I feel like bursting out — escaping, running, screaming, shouting. My gut is tense.

Where is all this coming from? I am desperate, so very desperate.

So, Lord, here I am — shaking, angry, frightened, a child before you.

Suddenly, there in my journal writing, I was in a memory.

I’m wet from the water. But where am I? A beach? No, I’m beside a pool. I feel fat and ugly. Who is this boy? What is your name?

Brian. I’m 10.

Why are you still wet? Didn’t anyone give you a towel?

No. Everyone is off playing. They left me alone.

Journal, October 1984
Photo by Mohammad Danish on

What followed as a long journal conversation between me and a 10 year old interior part. It was a start to heal.

Again and again, I recorded the voice of Jesus in the journal’s pages. Clearly, since I was so negative toward myself, this affirming, loving Voice clearly came from a different source. Once after I wrote

“I feel rotten! I pout, Loud! What a little brat I am, or so I feel! I’m just a little kid: moody, indignant. Tonight I burnt the stew and my whole life felt burnt with it. I’m emotionally unstable. I don’t flow with your Spirit, but slosh and kick through mire. Why do you put up with me?”

November 1984

And I heard and wrote this response:

“Yes, my son. I’m rejoicing in a child who is learning to express and talk. A child learning to be. I love you.”

Drs. Reg and Steve each met with me on many occasions that semester. One of them wrote to me in response to the journal, “Good work and depth in this journal. Use care that journal writing does not become burdensome. You put much into it.”

Far from burdensome, the journal was one way I learned to process and hopefully release the burdens I encountered daily within. Once begun, I journaled throughout my seminary career and have continued to do so since then. Steve and Reg taught me to pray, to listen, to trust the Voice I heard and follow. They both exhibited deep, listening relationships with the Lord and shared their insights and experiences with the class.

Over my seminary career, these two men became sources for advice and support. They were both a constant encouragement. Through them, I learned how to schedule my days, approach pastoral work, and lead others in their own spiritual growth. In addition, through them, I found my home in Wesleyan theology.

Toward the end of my time at seminary, Steve helped me put the whole of my four years into perspective. He described how the Masters of Divinity lays a foundation in many disciplines. Not all of these will remain prominent throughout my career. For some, the use of Greek might remain like mountain height whereas for others that might be pastoral care or preaching or teaching or leadership. Not all subjects will receive the same emphasis in ministry. This was the most life-giving thought to me, for it seemed every professor spoke of his or her craft as only taking 10 minutes a day to perfect. There were not enough daily minutes to keep up with them all! Because of Steve’s advice, I was able to freely emphasize some areas and deemphasize others.

One mountain height in my over three decades of ministry was pastoral counseling. Through this vehicle, God freed many, many lives. Perhaps because I have always been a needy case, myself, I had a deep empathy for anyone struggling for emotional wholeness.

God seems to use our points of weakness as a means of strength for others.

Have you seen this very thing happen in your life as well?

Photo by Sagui Andrea on

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