They say home is where the heart is. And if you asked me where my home is, I’d have to say, “Chillicothe, Mo.”
Chillicothe isn’t a very big place, but it is a very special one. First of all, it’s the home of sliced bread. The first commercial bread slicer was installed in the Chillicothe Baking Co. in 1928, and our town sold the first-ever loaf of sliced bread. Our fair city’s renown as the home of sliced bread even made it as an answer on Jeopardy.
Chillicothe’s second claim to fame is that it is one of only two cities named in the world-famous song “Hooray for Hollywood” that opens the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards (The Oscars). I doubt many people can sing past “Hooray for Hollywood, hooray for Hollywood,” but my hometown is mentioned in that song.
Chillicothe is the place where I used to get up early in the morning and ride my bicycle across town, throwing the Kansas City Star newspaper in the morning and the Chillicothe Tribune in the evening. It’s the place where our family lived three houses away from the high school football stadium. It’s the place where I had my first kiss, first dance, first car, first job and first bank account. And it’s the place where I first became aware of God’s calling on my life.
This week, I’ve spent lots of time thinking about Chillicothe. I got word a couple of days ago that a dear friend, Fern Clifton, had passed away. Fern was my Training Union teacher. (For those of you who don’t know, Baptist churches used to have intense discipleship training on Sunday nights. We called it “Training Union” because its purpose was to train us to do the work of the Lord.)
Fern became my Training Union leader when I was in junior high. In those days, the lessons were divided among the students. Each week, Fern made sure I had a part in the next week’s lesson. As I stumbled through my part, she smiled at me as though I’d just won the grand prize at the State Fair.
Not only did she have me up in front of the class each week to present my part, but she also kept reminding me, “God’s going to use you.” I heard those words from her again and again during that frustrated, pre-pubescent, hormonally imbalanced season of my life.
I didn’t pay much attention to her, but as I look back, I realize she taught me something that I didn’t figure out until I became an adult: A person doesn’t believe in himself until someone else does first.
During that time of my life, God put some incredible people around me who would pat me on the back, look me in the eye and speak words of encouragement and expectation. I was so fortunate to have Fern in my life.
Not long ago, I made a journey to see her and her husband, Brother Harry (as everyone called him). They were both getting up in years.
Fern had many medical problems, but Brother Harry sat beside her, looking at her like it was the first time he ever saw her. Their love story would outdo anything that comes out of Tinseltown. Sixty-five years of marriage, and they still held hands like teenagers as they walked around.
As I sat in their house, knowing this was probably the last time I would get to see them, I tried to tell them how much they had impacted my life. Fern the encourager and Brother Harry the teacher had ganged up on this young boy and molded not only his life, but his heart as well.
As I sat there, they asked about my work and what God was doing in my life. Fern looked over at Brother Harry with that twinkle in her eyes and said, “Harry, I told you God was going to do something with that boy!” I don’t know how I held the tears back. Once again, God had used her to remind me He had a plan for my life.
That day, I didn’t do a good job at thanking the Cliftons. I stumbled for words the same way I did as a junior high boy. But they knew what I was trying to say: “You made a difference in my life.”
While the family gathered around, singing the hymns of old she loved so much, Fern went home. And I guarantee it wasn’t to Chillicothe, Mo., but to a place that’s much better than sliced bread. She went home to Jesus.
And that’s right where her heart is.