Gathering At The Flagpole
The Hanson family had prepared for the first week of school to be a challenging and emotional time. Last year they lost their twelve-year-old daughter, Stephanie, to suicide. After the incident they moved from Cartersville, Missouri to a midwestern suburban middle-class, two-story house in Millisville, Missouri after tragedy had struck their household. Brian Hanson is not your typical youth minister at the United Methodist Church in his community. The middle-aged man is on a mission to solve the problems with today’s adolescence.
Pastor Hanson woke up on a lovely, sunny Monday morning on the first day of school. After taking a warm shower, he gazed into the mirror only to realize the signs of aging with a few hairs turning gray and wrinkles on his face. The slight aging of his appearance reminds him he is pushing forty. He then got dressed and walked over to the children’s room where they were still sleeping. Brian approached their sixteen-year-old son’s room when he overhears the jarring sound of the alarm ringing out at 6:30 in the morning. As Pastor Hanson knocks on his son’s bedroom door he can hear the rustling noise of Patrick kicking the covers. “It’s time to get up, son.” Patrick asked, “Dad, can I hit the snooze button for just five more minutes?” Brian opened the door and said, “You’d better get up. You don’t want to be late for school.”
Patrick woke up, rolled out of bed and walked towards the restroom to get ready. Brian approached Gloria’s room when he heard the sound of running water coming from the bathroom and knew their seventeen-year-old daughter was getting ready. Gloria is a brilliant, cheerful, spunky, beautiful teenage girl on the Junior High cheerleading squad.
The Hansons are like any other typical middle-class couple struggling to get their teenagers up and ready for school, a task that can be a real challenge sometimes. Then he casually walked down the stairs and asked his wife Susan, age 38 and a brilliant tenth-grade history teacher, what she was preparing for breakfast. Mrs. Hanson said, “Pancakes, eggs, and bacon.” The smell of bacon sizzling on the stove filled the kitchen as he walked into the room. Susan said, “Brian, can you go upstairs to check on the children?” Mr. Hanson reached the top of the stairs when he heard Patrick pounding on the restroom door and yelling, “Dad, Gloria is taking too much time in the bathroom!” Brian said, “Patrick, stop banging on the door. Gloria, you need to hurry up in the bathroom and come downstairs for breakfast.” Gloria replied back and said she was almost finished drying her hair. Brian said, “All right Gloria. Would you hurry up so Patrick can get ready?” He then headed back downstairs.
At 7:00 a.m., Brian heard the kids running down the stairs into the kitchen and sitting down. Brian blessed the meal and they ate breakfast together as a family. Pastor Hanson asked the children if they were excited about their first day of school. Patrick was concerned about making friends and Gloria confided she was a little tense about her classes.
Brian said, “Don’t burden yourself about being nervous on the first day, Son. You’ll make new acquaintances and meet new classmates. The important thing to remember is to be yourself and it will take time to make new friends, just be patient.” Pastor Hanson turned and looked at his daughter and said, “Gloria, I’m sure you’ll be okay in your subjects because you are a smart young lady. Don’t worry about your studies. You will be all right. However, I’m proud of both of you for being honest.”
The Hanson family had just finished eating when they were interrupted by a telephone call from the school principal. Mrs. Jackson was calling to tell Pastor Hanson that he had permission to speak to the students every morning around the flagpole. After Brian had hung up the receiver he helped the kids gather all their supplies and finish getting ready.
Pastor Hanson arrived at the flagpole on the morning of the first day of school. While he was getting ready to speak to the students, he glanced over and saw a boy sitting on a bench next to the front entrance of the building. The young boy was wearing headphones and drawing a picture of the group of students gathered around the flagpole. Brian observed other classmates talking with each other and walking by without speaking to or even acknowledging him. The boy was slender with brown hair and thick glasses. The youth was wearing a t-shirt ripped in several places, baggy stained jeans and weathered tennis shoes.
After they had sung a few songs, Brian began the morning’s devotional. Pastor Hanson said, “Good morning students. My name is Pastor Brian Hanson.”
“I will share a devotional today on life’s directions and I’m glad everybody can support each other around the flagpole! First, I would like everyone to please bow your heads to pray.” After this introduction and prayer Pastor Hanson continued with the message, “When you think of lifetime’s direction, what comes to mind? I believe the course God wants every person to follow is the way that leads to salvation – to Jesus. Yet we Christians sometime stray away from wholehearted dedication to Christ in the salvation we enjoy and not from deliverance itself. To avoid this, we need to focus our eyes on Jesus and keep going in the way God wants for us. Think of a way in which we, as believers, can live our lives by allowing God to direct our path.”
“I believe the only way to achieve the right direction is to continue moving forward while trusting Jesus to lead us. Whatever our own goals may be – whether it is graduation, reaching out to other students, finding a job, attending college or even getting married and having a family – we must trust in God. No matter what direction or path you are pursuing at the moment, put your trust in God to lead you and direct you.”
“Everyone should ask themselves where this road would take us. If your answers to this question are - to Jesus Christ, to salvation or to heaven, you’re on the right track. If your answers are - I’m not sure or to destruction, you may need to change the direction in which your life is going. Only you can answer according to what’s in your heart. The time to change course is now before time passes you by and it’s too late to change. God wants the best for you and He loves you very much.”
“When we take our eyes and focus on something else besides Jesus, we may have tendencies to sink deeper into our sin until we turn our eyes back to Jesus. Christians may not see what God is planning for us. All we can do is to love one another and stay on the right path in the direction he intends for us. The way God expects us to take is the path to salvation.”
“Christians can’t allow Satan to distract us and lead us away from our destiny, which is to reach out to one another. Christians have a choice to make - to take the broad path, which leads to destruction or the narrow path, which leads to Jesus. The choice is yours to make. Only you can decide for yourself to follow Jesus and ask him into your heart to help find your life’s direction. This morning you can make the first step, walk God’s path for yourself and turn your life around.”
“In closing, I would like you to find someone you don’t recognize and invite him or her to come and join us around the flagpole. Help them provide direction for their life and discover how God’s love can change them and how the decision you make can change you. The power to change lives is your choice to make if you allow Jesus to work through you. Let’s ask God to enable us to continue to follow our life’s real direction and become leaders in this school. Let’s be a positive influence upon other students.”
The next morning the same boy scrutinized us as we gathered around the pole. This time Pastor Hanson walked away from the group in the hope of finding out his name and asking him to join them. Alysia Sanders said, “Pastor Hanson, where are you going?” Pastor Hanson turned around, glanced back at Alysia and replied, “I am going to talk to this young boy and invite him to come and join us.” Pastor Hanson casually approached the young boy when he witnessed some students teasing him because of his appearance and his clothing. The pastor got closer when they scattered leaving the boy with his head hung low as other students passed by laughing. The pastor explained, “I am constantly amazed at how cruel kids can be to their peers.”
Pastor Hanson walked over to where he was standing and asked the young man his name. He responded in a soft low tone, “My name is Johnny Goodwin.”
The boy wiped the tears away and Pastor Hanson asked him if everything was all right. Johnny said, “I’m fine.” Pastor Hanson knew he was not fine. As he walked away he remembered that he forgot to invite him to join the group. Pastor Hanson called out and asked Johnny if he would like to pray with them. Johnny turned his head and responded, “I’m not interested.” Pastor Hanson turned to leave and said, “I understand, but you are welcome to join us anytime.” Pastor Hanson thought about his daughter Stephanie, who had previously taken her own life as he walked away. The pain and suffering she had endured because of others must have been unbearable. Pastor Hanson soon realized what Johnny was going through and the pain he was experiencing. The youth minister needed to help guide him in the right direction and give him a reason to smile again. The pastor couldn’t bear seeing another child hurt by other students. Pastor Hanson thought to generate a challenge to help Johnny before something bad happened and it would be too late. Mr. Tom Blackford and Mrs. Sue Rawlings walked over and asked if everything was okay because Pastor Brian Hanson must have looked worried. The pastor had a blank look on his face when he told them everything was fine. Pastor Hanson explained to them that he had been thinking about their young daughter Stephanie and how much he missed her. Pastor Hanson rejoined the group for a final prayer, adding a prayer for Johnny. Afterward he asked the group why other kids were teasing and laughing at Johnny. Patricia Miller, a sweet yet outspoken student, informed the pastor that none of the students liked him because he was strange and different from other students. The teenagers noticed that he didn’t keep himself spotless and he wore the same clothes every day. Pastor Brian said, “Johnny is in need of a friend. I would suggest each student take a minute to speak to Johnny and invite him to join the group. The youth pastor also told the group of teenagers how important it was to stand up for others such as Johnny who was being bullied. Also, they should let school officials and the principal know what is taking place. All the pupils agreed with nods as the pastor scanned the gathering.
Pastor Hanson arrived to gather with the teens the next day. Johnny was in the same area as the day before only this time he wasn’t alone. George Dillings from our group was typically shy so speaking to Johnny was a milestone for them both. George came rushing over and he told us that Johnny didn’t say anything to him. The boy seemed to be disinterested as he sat on the bench and lowered his head while watching other students pass by. Pastor Hanson told George not to give up, but to please keep talking to him and inviting him. The pastor also told George how proud he was of him for taking the first step. George said he would continue to ask Johnny to worship with them around the flagpole. The youth pastor also encouraged the other kids to invite Johnny to join them and be their friend. George was determined to make sure someone would care. The others agreed to help George and continue to encourage Johnny.
Pastor Hanson and a small group of students gathered to sing songs and listen to a message of encouragement. After speaking, Pastor Hanson became even more proud of his son who wished to share his touching and heartfelt testimony.
Patrick started his testimony by introducing himself and said, “My name is Patrick Hanson. I’m on the sophomore soccer team in the left wing forward position and I’m a sinner. I struggle with being truant from school and skipping classes. Also last year I was charged with possession of marijuana for being at a friend’s party when the police came and arrested everyone in the house. I was released because I didn’t smoke the pot, but I was with some of my friends who did. When my father arrived at the police station, I looked up and saw the pain on my dad’s face and how disappointed he was in my behavior. I was put on probation and did community service for six months.”
“While sitting at the police station, I realized I needed to change. I gave my heart over to the Lord on that night at the police station. When I got home my father and mother lectured me and grounded me for a month. I turned my heart over to the Lord and was baptized the next Sunday.”
Pastor Hanson was almost in tears as he listened to his son talk about what he’d been through. Listening to his testimony was refreshing, a promise of knowing that God was looking after him. Pastor Hanson and the group of students said a final prayer around the flagpole. They asked God again to look after Johnny and to continue to be in every sinner’s heart.
Patrick came over and gave his father a hug and thanked him for allowing him to share his testimony. Then he also thanked his father for loving him and his sister. As we broke our embrace, Gloria rushed over and poured herself into her father’s arms. Pastor Hanson told them he loved them both and said, “You need to get to class.” After everyone had left, Pastor Hanson took a trip back to Cartersville to visit Stephanie’s gravesite. The youth minister left a message at the school office for his wife to call him during her lunchtime. Then he stopped by the florist to pick up yellow carnations to place on Stephanie’s grave. Pastor Hanson also called his previous pastor, Jim Walters, to ask him if he could come by for a visit while he was in town. The youth pastor was planning on getting a few ideas about how to help Johnny. Later that day Pastor Hanson arrived and met Pastor Walters at a diner.
“How is your family, Pastor Walters? And everyone at church?”
“Fine, fine. And how are you and your family doing?”
“Well, thanks. I’m a youth pastor and the high school has allowed me to share devotions around the flagpole every morning. There’s this one boy, Johnny, who seems to be an outcast. How might I encourage Johnny to take part with the other students?”
Jim Walter said, “Try to connect with him and get better acquainted with him as a person. Another suggestion could be to talk to the school and ask permission to share your story with the other students at a school-wide assembly.” Walter also said, “Keep trying to encourage the students to be friends with him.”
After we had finished eating, Pastor Hanson stopped by the cemetery to drop off the flowers and remembered special times he shared with his daughter Stephanie. The pastor took Stephanie’s picture out of his wallet and kissed it. Pastor Hanson said, “Remember when I took you out on your twelfth birthday for a father and daughter day? First, I took you to your favorite restaurant and gave you a locket. Stephanie, your eyes and smile just sparkled and you hugged me in front of everyone. Next I took you to a movie then bought you this pink, red and white dress with flowers and a white bow around your waist for your birthday party. Then we did our father and daughter dance at the party to your favorite song. I remember the smile on your face and all your friends at your party.”
Pastor Hanson placed her picture back into his wallet and dropped to his knees and cried. Pastor Hanson was angry and upset as he reached up to God with both arms stretched up to the sky and said, “Why did this happen? Why didn’t I realize she was hurting? Why, God?”
Pastor Hanson got up off the ground, lifted his head up towards Heaven with tears pouring down the side of his face and said, “Stephanie, you don’t know how much I love you and miss you.” The trees began to blow and Pastor Hanson felt a cold breeze come over him. He then felt at peace.
On his way back home Susan called. Pastor Hanson explained, “Susan, I visited Pastor Walters and then went to Stephanie’s grave. Would you like to go visit my parents for the weekend to commemorate Stephanie’s passing?”
Mrs. Hanson took a deep breath and said, “Yes, of course I would.” So Pastor Hanson called his mother, Emily Hanson, to confirm a visit with her and to let her know they were coming.
On Saturday morning around 8:00 a.m., Pastor Hanson loaded everything into the van and they left to go to his parents’ house. The children were excited to visit their grandparents. The Hanson family spent most of the morning sightseeing and shopping along the way. When they arrived Gloria and Patrick jumped out and rushed over to hug their grandma. While Emily Hanson and Susan were in the kitchen fixing lunch, Brian and his father, Richard Hanson, were watching the football game. The children were playing outside in the backyard.
While sitting on the couch Brian and his dad were having a discussion talking about a student being bullied at school. Brian and Richard also discussed Stephanie and why he linked none of the signs that she’d been having problems. Pastor Hanson wondered that if he had examined her behavior closer maybe he could have stopped her from killing herself.
Richard turned his head towards the window and asked Brian, “What do you detect out the window?”
Brian responded and said, “I can view my children playing tag in your backyard.” Richard asked, “Do you love your kids?”
“Yes!” Brian replied with a hint of disbelief in his tone. “Where is my father going with this?” Pastor Hanson thought. “I love my children.” Taking Brian’s right hand, he looked straight into his eyes. The aging eyes of Richard were full of compassion and understanding. “God our Father loves you in the same way.” The words hung between them for a long moment and Brian didn’t know what to say. Richard then patted Brian’s hand and said, “My son, you need to give your problems to God. God will help you work through the issues you’re dealing with.” Mr. Richard Hanson smiled and perhaps he detected something outside of the window. Brian remained unconvinced. “Let’s take a walk. I’d like to show you something else to help you understand.”
Brian and Richard walked down a path in the woods and Pastor Hanson listened to his father talking as they were walking. Richard and Brian sat down on a bench in an open, grassy area surrounded by trees.
Richard turned his head towards his son and explained what Brian didn’t understand about the view from the window. Richard said, “Son, I know how much you love your children. The time you spend with your children reflects on you as a father. I want you to take a hold of this Bible and show me where it says life is going to be easy. Brian, we can’t focus on what we did in the past because we can’t change what has happened, only that we can learn from our mistakes. The view from the window resembles the reflection of your life as a man.” Brian looked at his father and said, “Why didn’t you tell me at the house instead of out in the woods?” Richard said, “My son, we are only here a short time and it is important to take the time we have and spend it to share God’s love with our children. The Bible has all of the answers to your questions,” Richard said. “I knew the message I shared with you would be more meaningful if we talked with no interruptions.” Richard took Brian’s hand and said, “Let’s pray together and ask God to reveal to you what you need to know as a father.” After they had finished praying, they headed back to the house and Brian reached over, hugged his father and said, “Thank you, Dad.”
On Sunday morning they all got ready for church and ate breakfast. The Hansons attended their respective Sunday school classes. Before the church service their pastor asked, “Pastor Hanson, would you be willing to play special music on the piano for the congregation?” Pastor Hanson told Pastor Walters that he would love to. After the service they stayed for a potluck luncheon. While the Hanson family was having a wonderful time of fellowship, they visited with other people from the community. Pastor Walters prayed over the meal and all the children ate first taking their food to various classrooms, followed by the adults who ate in the fellowship room. Susan and Brian ate with the pastor and his wife. Afterward, the men played games such as cards and dominoes. They then took down the tables and chairs while the women took care of the dishes.
The members of the church would leave the fellowship lunch by around 3:00 p.m. But today Brian said, “Mom and Dad, we want to go to the cemetery to take flowers and we will meet you back at your house.” When they arrived at the gravesite, Brian and his family placed flowers on the grave and hugged each other. Susan put the flowers in a vase as they cried and talked with Stephanie, telling her how much they missed her. Gloria walked over, kneeled down and put a rose on her grave. She started telling her sister how much she missed her. Patrick walked over and placed a rose and told his sister how much he missed his little sister.
Afterward, they piled back into the van and headed back to Brian’s parents’ house. Brian again loaded the van as they said their goodbyes, while hugging and kissing each other.
When they got home, they unloaded everything and went inside the house. After the kids had gone up to their rooms to do their homework, Brian turned on the TV for a while and Susan went into the kitchen to fix the evening meal. After they had eaten they went into the living room and did Bible study time as a family. Then they played Monopoly, Trivia and Clue.
While Brian was setting up the board games he asked Patrick and Gloria, “Did you have fun at your grandparents’ house?”
“Yes, we did,” they both said in unison.
Pastor Hanson asked, “Is there any indication I’m making a difference around the flagpole every morning before school starts?”
Patrick said, “Yes and we’re excited about it.” The children reinforced their father with compassion by putting their arms around him and hugging him.
Gloria spoke up and said with enthusiasm in her eyes, “Dad, you must realize you are creating an impact and if we’re patient with Johnny, he’ll change his life.”
After they had finished playing the games, Pastor Hanson gave his kids a kiss on their foreheads and hugged them. Pastor Hanson gathered all his documents, took the time to study the Scriptures and wrote any previous notes down before beginning work on his next flagpole devotional.