Just call me Flo

Florence Rose Neal was born into a large and loving Norwegian family on Camano Island, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest, an idyllic spot encircled by Puget Sound and stately Douglas firs, and watched over by the distant snow crowned Olympic Mountains. Her hardworking parents spoke Norwegian and they all learned the hard language of living off the land.

flo's family copy
The Karo family. Florence is upper right.

While still a child, the family moved to Colorado where life was demanding and money was tight. At fourteen Florence went to work so her youngest sister, Peggy, could graduate from high school.

One day a handsome, young evangelist named John Neal drove up to the boarding house in Uravan, where Florence worked. He was ten years her senior, but his deep faith and snazzy new car won her heart. When John left town, the spunky and fair nineteen-year-old left with him as Mrs. John Neal, her name from then on.

John and Florence Neal 1939
Rev. and Mrs. John Neal

John was a warm hearted, charismatic man with black curly hair and dark Cherokee skin. He abandoned a lucrative career as a tool and die maker to follow his call to ministry, and for the next fifty years, Brother and Sister Neal became the spiritual force that would bring hundreds into the Kingdom in southern California, Oregon, and Washington. They had five children: John was first (after this dad was “John A” and son was “John R”) and the twins, Karon and Karl, arrived three years later. Peter and Rodney showed up twelve and fifteen years later, rather like a second family. Their ministry blossomed as the children grew. They built churches and potlucked their way into the lives of many who still cherish their commitment and uncommon hospitality.

john, flo, and kids copy
John R. standing up, the twins are on laps.

Those were the days when men were the breadwinners and made the decisions. Wives kept house, cooked, and raised their families. Pastor’s wives also ran the Women’s Missionary Society, the local PTA, sang in the choir, and made home make chicken and noodles for church dinners. If she could have played the piano, she probably would have done that, too.

Florence Neal (center) South L.A. Sunday school celebration 1951
Florence, center

Florence was the consummate pastor’s wife with her bubbly personality, outgoing hospitality, and overflowing love of people. Above all, she was a prayer warrior. She and John A., who also had a contagious, enthusiastic faith, saw many divine healings and marvelous salvation experiences. Many men and women credit the Neals with their call to ministry.

Change

As often happens, life became more complicated as the children grew up. John A. briefly changed careers and then moved into and out of a grueling pastorate unlike those of his early years. Karon and Karl had four different high schools. John R moved on. John A. and Florence maintained their pattern. An opportunity would come up and, although Florence prayed with him about it, John A. made the decisions and she followed. It wasn’t her place to question but to follow.

John, Mom, Karon, Dad, Karl, Pete, and Rod August 1965
Dave and Karon’s wedding day: back, l. to r: John R., Florence, Karon, John A., Karl; front, l. to r: Peter, Rodney

Lodi, California (where I met them all), Salem, Oregon, and then Seattle Washington ensued. There were rewarding milestones along the way as the older kids married and started having families, but pastoring was becoming more difficult and it was taking its toll. Peter and Rodney were growing up and in high school. In Seattle, Mom began working full time to revitalize a day care at the Seattle church. Frankly, she was magnificent! The day care flourished remarkably. With her eighth-grade education, state licensing could have been a problem. However, she so impressed the examiner with her know-how, administrative skills, and curriculum development that they approved her—and the Day Care—with flying colors. Meanwhile, Pastor Neal struggled with depression, frustration, and conflict within the church. Seemingly endless rain and the dismal gloom of sunless days weighed heavily on him and they returned to California. Brief pastorates followed there and in Nevada—with another declining day care for Flo to revitalize—but Dad’s age and fifty-three years of pastoring caught up with him, and they finally retired.

A second start

With minimal social security and an insignificant pension, they had to find an economical place to live with some way to earn additional income. Karl lived in Sierra Vista, Arizona, which was the perfect spot. They bought a few acres of land and set up a mobile home park that would support them. The freedom from pastoring, abundant sunshine, and the wide open spaces of the high desert brought healing. Florence (few people called her Sister Neal any more) worked as a nurse’s aide and did the bookkeeping for their business. Dad found derelict mobile homes in the classifieds and together they cleaned them up, and built porches. Dad clambered onto rooftops and repaired swamp coolers and Mom fumigated desperate appliances and restored them to a pristine and sparkling state. On Sundays Dad filled in as interim preacher. Life was good for the next few years.

John and Flo 1986 Dad's 75th birthday
John A. and Florence 1986, Dad’s 75th birthday

Failing health and bad knees eventually forced Dad off the roofs and they sold the mobile home park and moved to Tucson. This would be their last move together. Decreasing mobility from Parkinson’s disease and increasing dementia (Alzheimer’s was never formally diagnosed) crippled Dad. Mom barely escaped an emotional and physical breakdown caring for Dad, who no longer recognized her, referring to her as “that woman who works so hard.” She dressed him and made sure he always looked good. Weeks of little sleep and Dad’s unpredictable behavior pushed her to the breaking point, yet she soldiered on. It never occurred to her to find a facility where he could be cared for by professionals. She was the wife. It was her obligation. At the breaking point, she finally arranged for a hospice facility, but just one week after taking up residence there, he passed away. It was February 11, 1994. For the first time in her life, she was alone.

 Transition

For the next three years, Mom—like most widows—struggled to find herself. Profound loneliness descended upon her. She had always been Mrs. John A. Neal, and John A. was gone. Who was she? How would she survive? After a couple of years, she was floundering. Then, three years after Dad’s death, her granddaughter, Jodi, and her husband, Tom, invited her to live with them and help care for their two little boys.

TJ and Curtis 1997
T.J., left, and Curtis: 1997

It was a godsend; an important step in establishing her new identity. She had a family again and the little boys were a breath of fresh air each day.

Karon and Mom April 27, 2002
Karon and Florence at a welcome party in Anderson

In 2002 she moved across the country to Anderson, IN where we lived, and took an apartment at Harter House, a retirement community where two meals were provided and yet she had her independence. She established herself at South Meridian Church of God where we were pastors, and developed some strong friendships. During the next couple of years she became a vital and positive force in the Harter House community, but she began to realize that she was not ready for group housing and, when we moved to Columbus, Ohio as pastors at Meadow Park Church of God, she followed, renting an apartment overlooking a small lake and not far from the church.

 Just call me Flo

Columbus was a new place and Flo emerged from the ten years of becoming. It isn’t that being Mrs. John A. Neal was bad. It’s that she discovered a whole new person inside that was not tied to a profession or another person. As we introduced her to everyone at church, she responded with, “Just call me Flo!” She had been learning many things along that path. We watched in amazement as she taught us what she was learning.

It’s okay to be yourself. It’s all right to have an opinion and to voice your preferences. It’s okay to set boundaries. In fact, it’s critical to mental health. She learned to say “no” to those who would abuse her generous spirit, leaving her broke on more than one occasion. After so many years of squeezing into the role of pastor’s wife and putting the expectations of others ahead of her own needs, she chose to minister where she wanted, and not in the places others said she should. She was more than Mrs. John A. Neal now; she was Flo, pure and simple.

Not setting boundaries had almost destroyed her. Caregiving is exhausting and can be perilous. Mom’s generation grew up with a profound sense of duty, sometimes to the point of self destruction. There’s much to celebrate in this attitude, and many of us have benefited from those who have served us so faithfully. However, setting boundaries is crucial to mental and physical health, especially with loved ones. If we don’t take care of ourselves, no one will.

Mom discovered that certain things she had always done could now be done without the encumbrances of being the pastor’s wife. Her gift of teaching evolved into being an active participant in an adult Sunday school class. (She said she was too nervous to teach any more.) There she shared the spiritual lessons she had learned in a lifetime rich with experiences and wisdom. Many in the congregation benefited and grew to love her.

Always a prayer warrior, she enlarged her focus, keeping a three-ring binder jammed with handwritten requests that she jotted on bulletins and that people slipped into her purse. She especially focused on three areas: her apartment building, the youth in our congregation, and those who were discouraged or ill that could use a visit. She and a friend from church regularly visited those on the church prayer list. People began to come by her apartment for prayer, or bring others for encouragement. Over Scrabble, she counseled young mothers and new Christians. (That didn’t mean she would cut you any slack if you misspelled a word!)

Flo heard that the youth group needed counselors. She was the oldest person to volunteer! Of course, all-night lock-ins and paintball excursions were beyond her. She couldn’t sit on the floor anymore. But she could attend meetings and activities where she ate pizza and kept notes in her prayer journal. She invited some of the youth to her apartment on Sunday after church, where she had prepared special treats and introduced them to Scrabble (no doubt beating them soundly).

Her deep passion to win others to Christ was evidenced in her supreme joy of living, whether riding a roller coaster

Flo on ferris wheel Columbus, OH 2007
Flo at the Ohio State Fair

or greeting all of the employees by name at the local Kroger store. And at the bank.  And at the filling station. She felt that God was inviting her out of her comfort zone and she began to reach out to the many Asians moving into her apartment. Her unique introduction to a new resident was to take them a dish of Jell-o along with a big smile. Her bubbly personality and that Christ-filled smile overcame many a language barrier. Two young Korean men in Columbus enrolled at the Ohio State University became her adopted sons. She brought them to church and, when they graduated, was invited to the celebration dinner with their parents, who flew over from Korea (the only non-family present)! She took books to an elderly Indian neighbor who she was delighted to discover was not only a Christian but also an avid reader. All day long he had sat alone while his adult children were away at work—until Flo showed up, God’s sunshine to a stranger in a foreign land. She hosted a Bible study in her apartment and became friends with a young Japanese woman hungry for friendship. That young woman accepted Christ and later drove all the way from Cincinnati for her memorial service.

Flo, John, Karl, Karon, Pete, & Rodney 2004 60th b-day K&K 001
Flo and her five kids at Karon and Karl’s 60th birthday party; l. to r: Karl, John R., Flo, Karon, Peter, Rodney in 2004

In short, Flo, an eighth-grade graduate, a pastor’s wife with five children, a day care and preschool director who brought in educational curriculum that was the best in Seattle, a nurses’ aide in Veteran’s Hospitals, the local Florence Nightingale in her Arizona community, a beloved prayer partner to scores of people, a beloved grandma and great grandma (known simply as “Great”)—that Flo—became more passionate, effective, and loved in her eighties than most of us become in our entire lives.

December 20, 2007, was going to be a full day. She had attended two Christmas parties that week and was going to meet Karon to attend a third. But she never arrived. On the way she had a heart attack that allowed her to slow down, steer off the road, miss fire hydrants, cars, and telephone poles, and come to a stop on the grass across from the church where she stepped into heaven at the age of 86. At her memorial service, just three years after arriving in Columbus, over 250 stayed after the service for a potluck dinner (several brought Jell-o in her honor) where they took two hours at the open mike telling what she had meant to them. One gentleman concluded by saying, “Life is best when you ‘go with the Flo!”

“The world has yet to see what God can do with a man fully consecrated to him” is attributed to the great evangelist Dwight L. Moody, who lived his life with the goal of seeing what God could do if he were totally committed to him. Some of us were blessed to witness God’s light shining through another committed person: a woman named Flo, who wanted nothing more than to be a witness for Christ. And to win at Scrabble.

Flo Christmas 2006
Flo  at Christmas 2006

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Becoming Ageless, or the Purpose of Aging

Are you fascinated with how people age? I am. A popular Internet feature called, “Where Are They Now?” features photos of show business legends when we knew them and as they look now. Usually the changes are dramatic. After fifty years, some people are unrecognizable. Others look almost the same. Why is that?

Henry Winkler before and after
Henry Winkler as “the Fonze” on “Happy Days” and in 2015

Well, there’s genetics, skin tone, and, with the complexity of the human body, multitudes of reasons for this. Ultimately, does it matter? Some say yes. They feel that their looks are too important to allow nature to take its course, which explains the surging worldwide phenomenon of cosmetic surgery and why Hollywood stars seem almost ageless.

But only for a while. Clearly, growing old is inevitable. Our bodies were never intended to live forever. Have you noticed that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead once, but not twice? Lazarus died like the rest of us will. It’s inescapable.

The question is not “How can you look good as long as you live?” but “What can you learn about being truly ageless?” Being ageless is a matter of the spirit, not the body.

Becoming ageless

Becoming ageless is the exact opposite of looking as young as you can for as long as you can. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take care of yourself or that you should dress sloppily. Rather, we must change our focus from the physical to spiritual. Dr. Paul Brand, trail-blazing hand surgeon who did groundbreaking work with lepers in India, was son of missionaries. Long after most people would have retired, his parents stayed on in India. And, after his father died, his mother flatly refused to move back to England and take up residence in “one of those graveyards for old people,” remaining until her death in a remote village in India where she continued her loving work among those to whom she had given her life. In later years, she disliked how she looked as she grew older and so she removed all the mirrors from her house so she could concentrate on her beloved villagers. They never saw an “old person,” but only a woman alight with Christ’s love and the Holy Spirit who lived with them until she was finally carried out on a stretcher. She clearly was ageless.

How vastly different from those around the world today who are obsessed with appearance: looks, and above all, a carefully crafted public image. Was there ever a time when more people spent more time creating a facade that they think will impress people but which is, in fact, far from reality? Besides the political and entertainment personalities who do this, don’t many of us put pictures and information on Facebook and Twitter that we think will impress people? Not to mention dating sites, where 10% of dating profiles have been determined as fake, particularly from men.[1]

I am trying to pay less attention to the way I am aging, but I confess that I am way too aware of my wrinkles and loss of muscle tone. It’s vanity, plain and simple, and I’m working to shift my focus. This is what God is telling me: He chisels away our mortality so we can reveal his image. This has to do with aging, healing, sickness—everything. The purpose of aging is to abandon the physical. When we expend Herculean effort to look young and vibrant, we miss the purpose of aging, which is spiritual vitality. Have you considered that feebleness is really a gift?  We are given youth only long enough to learn that our bodies are not the place to invest.  The death rate is 100%.

As a pastor I was sometimes given a window into the true nature of the physical. I watched a beautiful young woman in her late twenties decline shockingly from aggressive cancer. As her abdomen swelled with the virulent malignancy, her muscle tone and body fat elsewhere was cannibalized by the awful disease until she became skeletal and almost unrecognizable. Just as extraordinary, however, was the spiritual growth that blossomed within her ravaged body. When I saw her just before her death, I could not hide my immediate dismay at her awful appearance. She smiled and said, “It’s okay, Pastor. I’m abandoning this house very soon for one that is both perfect and eternal.” She glowed with an inner light that moves me even now as I recall that sacred moment. I could almost see the exchange taking place as her spirit outgrew and displaced her body.  I have never forgotten this moment when the true nature of physical life was laid bare before me.

God makes everything new.

In the film The Passion of the Christ Jesus says to his mother on his way to Golgotha, “I am making everything new.” These words of Christ actually come from Revelation 21:5, although I found them deeply moving and fitting during this scene. It is the risen, glorified, and resplendent Christ who explains heaven in John’s vision.   This is not just an overhaul, or a sprucing up of things that need repair. No, this is absolutely new, never before witnessed creation, just like at the beginning of time. In this way Time Works Backwards.[2] All the way back to Genesis before the fall. Unspoiled. Unpolluted. Untouched by sin. Forever beyond the ravages of time, because time will be gone. Forgiveness, grace, acceptance, and healing will have finally and completely accomplished their purpose. And we will have a new body, not a clumsy remake!

“My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20).

“Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven….Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth.  For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3).

[1] https://blog.siftscience.com/2016/what-percentage-of-dating-profiles-are-fake/

[2]  Phrase from The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis