Mr. Millson

March 12, 2009

I first met Mr. Sid Millson in the 8th grade. After breaking the tibia and fibula on my left leg playing cornerback in the fall, I decided to rehab my leg the following spring by running track. Mr. Millson was my coach. He asked me run the open 400, 4×4 relay, and 4×8 relay. I ran with a limp, but I still won most of my races.

I got to know him better my sophomore year when he was my Biology teacher at David Lipscomb High School. If someone acted up in class, he would say, “I oughta beat you like a red-headed stepchild,” until a kid named Carter raised his hand and said, “I am a red-headed stepchild, and that kind of offends me.”

Those are the moments you cherish later on.

He had a tragic story. His mother fell through a rotten dock while pregnant with his younger brother. She skewered one of her legs on an old piling. Their family was in a remote area, so Mr. Millson’s dad decided not to take her to the hospital that night. Her leg was already so infected the next day, the doctors later had to amputate it. That was the first of many surgeries for his mother, and the first of his many stories that broke my heart.

He also told funny stories. Some friends asked him to house-sit when they went out of town. While snooping around in a hallway closet, he found a Flowbee. He’d seen them on tv, a combination hair clipper and vacuum. The idea was to suck the hair away from the scalp, making an even cut possible. Either Mr. Millson didn’t follow the instructions or the device malfunctioned: it ate into his scalp and blood went everywhere.

Mr. Millson didn’t have much hair left by the time I was in his class. He kept it buzzed and for good reason. An older man in the congregation he attended growing up would go along on the youth functions. All the boys loved him because he still knew how to have a good time. They decided to go swimming one day. The older gentleman stripped down to his suit and dove in. When his head broke the surface of the water, Mr. Millson saw something he would never forget—a thick cord of hair attached just above the man’s ear. It was plastered down the side of his face and reached past his jaw. The man’s wet combover looked like a misplaced ponytail. On that day Mr. Millson swore that if he ever lost most of his hair, he would shave off the rest.

He designated special days for cooking. He boiled some crawdads that I caught in the creek. He tantalized us all year with descriptions of his Creamy Cricket Soup. It wasn’t bad. He made the best omelet I’ve ever tasted. Secret ingredient: heavy whipping cream.

My senior year, I had Mr. Millson again for Environmental Science. After double-checking the floor’s load-bearing capacity with the architects of the new wing of Harding Hall, he installed a plastic swimming and put tilapia in it. We were going to grow some tilapia and eat them. That same year, we took a field trip to a water treatment plant in Smyrna. That’s the only time I’ve smelled an odor so foul that I choked back vomit, but it was still better than sitting in a classroom.

Mr. Millson was humble, eccentric, and generous. He couldn’t help but be himself and in doing so, he gave us the freedom to be ourselves. He took me under his wing and gave me two pieces of advice that have shaped how I view and engage in relationships with women:

1) “Rather than ask what you’re going to get out of a relationship, ask what you have to offer her. Leave people better than you found them.”

2) “Become the kind of man who will attract your ideal woman.”

In Mr. Millson, I saw someone who had borne the worst life can pile on a man—abandonment by his father, growing up in an orphanage, divorce, single parenthood, his second wife’s cancer.

In Mr. Millson, I saw someone who didn’t blame God but rested in him. Mr. Millson shone with God’s love.

He discipled me. He poured his life into me. He was my first mentor.

Last night, I went to TribeOne to hear John Perkins speak. 

I first read the name John Perkins about a year ago in a book by Charles Marsh called Beloved Community. Doug Banister, a Knoxville-area pastor who helped found Fellowship but is now downtown at All Souls assigned the book to all the Knoxville Fellows. Six girls and five guys were trying and failing to establish intentional community in Sterchi Lofts on Gay Street.

 I came in believing that this group of people was going to be my family and closest friends for ten months. To a degree, that’s what happened, but I was also the victim of my own expectations.

Yet, if it weren’t for a decision I made in late Spring of 2007 to join the Fellows Program, I doubt I would have even been in Knoxville to partake of Perkins’s wisdom. One of the first things he said was this:

“The good news is the fulfillment of a longing, a dream… that’s why it’s the good news.”bearlake

His insight is so obvious, so simple, but it cuts, it incises, straight to the human dilemma. We can’t fix ourselves.

Perkins went on: “Success from God’s perspective is to identify with people in pain.”

How do we do that?

He shared his poem entitled “Go to the People” that outlines his strategy:

Go to the people.
Live among them.
Love them.
Learn from them.
Plan with them.

Perkins talked about Jackie Robinson: “Jackie Robinson didn’t open no gate. He tore the fence down. He took the hinges off the wall.” He quoted Jim Elliot: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” He recited Acts 1:8 and 2 Timothy 2:2.

In other words, he spent the evening raining quotable quotes down on us.

My favorite moment, though, happened when Perkins was talking about the white pastor who mentored him in California just after he accepted Christ. Perkins’s voice trembled with love and respect when he recalled “Old Man Leech”: “Dreaming his dreams in me—that’s what discipleship is all about.”

Dreaming his dreams in me. That’s what Jesus does with us by causing his Spirit to dwell within us. That good news is almost too much to bear.

Discipleship is what the Kingdom of God is all about, and Perkins helped simplify that profound mystery for me.

What do we do? How then should we live?

On the day of Pentecost, about two thousand broken-heart people asked Peter that question after the Spirit fell like fire and the apostles began speaking in tongues. Francis Schaeffer asked that question his whole life. The French thinker and philosopher Jacques Derrida asked that question the year he died. Of all the questions he tackled over the course of his lifetime, that was the one that still bugged him.

How then should we live? What should we do? 

Perkins has a plan that keeps a spring in his step even at the age of 79: 

1) “Get to know yourself and develop a philosophy for your life that becomes the music of your life.” The music of your life…beautiful.

2) “In order to be the people of God, we have to give up our power bases.” Truman talked about how human power corrupts. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that we can move up the ladder in this world’s power systems and still be earthen vessels.

3) Forgive the people who wound you. Perkins: “I think forgiveness is the greatest therapy you can get.” 

4) Build “islands of hope” by choosing one or two people to walk with and disciple.

You want to know what to do with your life?

Choose a few people who are in pain. Pour your life into them. Dream your dreams in them. 

Now are you living out the gospel.