The southwest portion of Wisconsin is within an area of the country called the Driftless. Tall bluffs, deep river valleys, evergreens and sugar maples fill this sparsely populated landscape. (The population consists mostly of cows and their farmers.) In the middle of this region is a town called Gillingham, which, if one was given the task to describe this unincorporated community, could be defined as “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). In this “poor in spirit” town is a “poor in spirit” man whom I had the pleasure of pastoring for two years. When Light + Life asked me to interview and write about someone who embodies “poor in spirit,” James immediately came to mind.
I called James and asked, “How do you define poor in spirit?”
“Well,” he said, “being sensitive to the Holy Spirit and humbling yourself before God; to be obedient to Him.”
I asked James about his experience in this area, and he replied, “I suppose that goes back to before I was saved. You know being poor in spirit means the Spirit is able to get your attention. It’s Him saying, ‘I was here before you.’”
James went on to describe his time in military service. While surrounded by other young men, drinking and parties, he felt drained and lonely. He began to pray to a God he barely knew.
“I would walk around and pray. I was praying to God, but not Jesus. I didn’t know Him yet.”
He talked about feelings of emptiness and unfulfilled desire. After he came back from duty, he sought out a pastor and wanted to be discipled. James was baptized and started his new life.
“After I was saved, I guess it was the little things really. You know, faith is all about learning to respond and be obedient to the little things God tells you to do. It’s all about being humble enough to obey the Spirit. It’s all about obedience.” James went on, “I remember when the [Richland Center Free Methodist] Church split, around 1983 or so. My wife and I went to another church for a while, and we were involved, but I wasn’t at peace.”
James said he drove past the Richland Center FMC one day, and “God told me, ‘That is where you need to go.’ It was as clear as if He wrote it on the windshield. I needed to serve there, and until I die or the doors close, I will serve there.”
James has served as a deacon for many years, and he has been the delegate on and off for the last decade. He does the “little” things.
As the former pastor of the Richland Center FMC, I remember several occasions when James would have a conversation with someone and would say something offhand, or he would respond sharply to something that was said. He would think on it for a while, seek that person out and clear any misunderstanding. By apologizing, or talking through the interaction, he made sure he and the other person were at peace.
“This just happened last month,” James said. “We were at Bible study, and we were joking, and Betty jumped in with a joke, and I responded — teasing her. Now, I thought for the rest of the night that it hurt her feelings. I thought she was acting funny. I thought about it and thought about it, and I was not at peace. So the next day I called her: ‘Betty, I was just teasing you. We were joking, and I want to make sure I didn’t hurt you.’”
He said that Betty replied, “Oh, James, I know you were teasing. I was going with the joke. There is nothing to worry about.’”
James told me, “Now I have to do this more than I care to. I know I have done that three or four times this year already. But you have to listen to the Holy Spirit and humble yourself and obey Him. It’s all about obedience.”
There is nothing especially remarkable about James. He wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. He isn’t wealthy or educated. But that’s what being poor in spirit is. It’s being unremarkable, so when remarkable things happen, God is the only one who can take credit.
“Can I use your name for the article?” I asked him.
“Well, that would defeat the purpose, I think,” James replied. “No, it needs to be about God and His work. Make up a name.”
Yeah, that sounds about right.1