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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Are You Good Enough?

.Seattle, 1958. Sunset Junior High School. Ninth grade gym class. Fresh from the West Indies and with a heavy British accent, I dragged myself to the locker room one more time for the usual embarrassment. I was 5’ 4’’ tall and weighed almost 170 pounds. My thick glasses helped me see but nothing had helped me understand American sports. My sister was sent away to school when I was seven, leaving me the only child of busy missionary parents who were always at their desks or their work. I played the piano, ate (some afternoons I consumed an entire can of Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk), and read. It was not only American sports that confused me. It was all sports. I had witnessed perhaps one basketball game, no football games, and not even a cricket match, which would have been more likely in Trinidad.

We suited up and filed into the gym. Our ruddy-faced PE teacher hauled in a large bag of balls and shouted, “Basketball this week, fellas!” All but one of the boys were excited and were soon shouting, joking, and shooting baskets. I, the foreigner, stood against the wall trying to make myself invisible. We lined up. Two of my classmates were named captains and chose their teams—I was always last—and the game began. Of course, everyone had his turn and my inevitable moment arrived. I had watched carefully to try to learn what to do. Suddenly someone threw me the ball. By this time I had figured out that I should get the ball and shoot a basket, and so I shoved the ball under my arm and ran to the end of the court. The coach’s whistle shrilled and everybody stared. “Schlitz!” (He never got my name right.) “Don’t you know you are supposed to dribble the ball?!“ Dribble? My face crimsoned to uproarious, hooting laughter.

A Childhood Experience Grows into Dysfunction.

By my senior year things were much better. I was losing the accent and understood most idioms of American life. But the feeling of not being good enough was still lodged in my mind. Years later and in my forties with a beautiful wife and three great kids, the feeling roared back. It had nothing to do with sports now. It was my Christian faith that was the bugaboo. By this time I had a graduate degree from seminary and had been both a pastor and associate pastor in several congregations. I was supposed to have the answers, to understand theology, how prayer works, and just what to say to the parents of the dying child in the emergency room. But I didn’t have all of the answers. Some days I wondered if I had any answers.

My flawed theology led me to label some vocations as more valuable than others. To my way of thinking, missionaries were number one and pastors were number two. Others were three or lower. I’m sure my parents made mistakes but they never shared them with me. Ours was a proud denomination certain of ourselves and our right doctrine. Everything was right or wrong. No minister or pastor that I knew ever slipped up. In fact, Every Christian was supposed to be perfect and live above sin, period. We were a well-intentioned but graceless group who defined ourselves by the things we didn’t do. We didn’t drink. We didn’t smoke. We didn’t dance. We didn’t play cards. We didn’t swear. We didn’t go to movies. You get the picture. When Christians we knew did these things, they were labeled a failure.

And now I didn’t have the answers. I struggled at times with temptation. For the first time I recognized my deep-seated anger against my parents for sending me away to school and against the denomination that sent them to the mission field. I was trapped. I was angry and Christians don’t get angry. I doubted my beliefs and Christians should have strong faith. I could no longer do the job and had never been taught it was okay to fail. I felt that I was not good enough. Especially was I not good enough to be a pastor, and way below my falsely created pedestal of missionary perfection. And so I left pastoral ministry.

When we’re not good enough.

So what happens in this environment? People pretend. We hide. We hide our true selves and display what everyone thinks we should be. People do this everywhere. We pretend we’re someone else (posting flattering photos on Facebook or dating web sites). We adopt an attitude of superiority to hide our feeling of inferiority (swaggering around in front of our friends to impress them). This is usually an unconscious response to not feeling good enough. In today’s mean-spirited society, we are particularly susceptible to bullying. We’ve all read the tragic accounts of teenagers who have killed themselves because of being labeled as losers. Our culture praises beautiful bodies and the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Who can compete? The Business world demands being super productive and twelve-hour days. It’s no wonder so many of us feel inadequate, marginalized, and useless. “I’m not good enough” becomes a lifelong personality disorder that torpedoes relationships and fractures marriages and families. It leads to depression—and even suicide.

What now?

  1. Examine your negative self-image. Where does it come from? Peers and parents are two powerful forces and either or both can make you feel wonderful or horrible. Who is telling you that you are not good enough? Is it you or someone else? If it’s you, why do you feel inadequate? What event, experience, or relationship is fueling your pain?
  2. Ask a trusted friend about your perceptions. How do they understand the triggers that launch your self-doubt? What good things do they see in you? What do they believe about you?
  3. Are you transparent? Are you real or do you put up a front that you imagine others want you to be? No one can live a lie. It’s okay to be who you really are. Jettison friends who require you to pretend.
  4. Failure is temporary. Life is a learning process and you are very resilient. Thousands of people we think of as big successes failed countless times in the pursuit of their vision. It’s okay to fail. How you respond to failure is a key to succeeding in life.
  5. Failure is not a sin. Everyone fails at some point. It’s the nature of life. Only God is perfect but He is also gracious, understanding, and loving.
  6. Comparison is corrosive. Comparing yourself to others breeds dissatisfaction, jealousy, envy, and depression. In truth, we often don’t even know the people to whom we compare ourselves!
  7. God has made you a marvelous and creative person. You are created in His image. He loves you as you are. He gave up Heaven to walk this earth in human form to teach us that He understands. He died for your sins and, if you accept him, He will live in you now and give you Heaven forever.

Epilogue

By God’s grace, my story did not end with my departure from pastoral ministry. In the months and years that followed, God revealed Himself to me with remarkable and uplifting encouragement. He immediately gave me three scriptures verses which extinguished my burning sense of ministerial failure.

  • The first was from Mark 1:11, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.” I foolishly reacted with some statement about this verse being for Jesus. God said, “It is my Word and today it is about you.”
  • The second was from Haggai 2:23: “I will make you like a signet ring on my finger, says theLord, for I have chosen you.”
  • The third was from Luke 22:31-32 “Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat.But I have pleaded in prayer for you, [David] that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers.”

I have learned that God was neither surprised nor disappointed by my struggle. It made no difference to Him that I felt that I had failed. He didn’t mind that I was angry at the church or wanted nothing to do with further ministry. Nothing I was feeling disqualified me in His eyes from His original call upon my life to be his boy.

The grace that I was never taught but experienced from gracious people like my adopted parents, L. T.  and Helen Flynt, my parents-in-law, John and Florence Neal and, of course, my wife and children, has become a permanent and healing part of my life. They from the beginning have loved me as I am and their love is unconditional and forever. Thank you!

God graciously used me in other ministry positions, including two wonderful pastorates and now in retirement. He continues to heal me from my need to be perfect and reminds me not to compare myself with others.

I pray that you, too, will find His grace and peace.

The Devastation of Depression

depressed man  It was 2002 and the first Monday of our keenly anticipated summer vacation when I noticed sudden, severe back pain. In less than a week I was in the ER, near death, and diagnosed with sepsis, double pneumonia, kidney failure, and bacterial meningitis. Four days later I woke up in ICU, beginning a long recovery with months of intravenous antibiotics and physical therapy. Miraculously, I survived, thanks to excellent medical treatment and praying friends.
In much the same way twelve years earlier depression blindsided me in the middle of a wonderful career as the pastor of a growing, exciting congregation. But whereas the meningitis is long gone with no after effects, the depression lingers after more than fifteen years of antidepressants, psychotherapy, and a loyal, loving, and incredibly patient wife. After a hiatus from pastoral ministry, I returned, but never regained my enthusiasm, joy, or energy. My wife tells me I have difficulty relating to anyone on an emotional level. It seems depression has permanently blunted my emotions and crippled intimacy on many levels.

Already an introvert, I only wanted to be alone. I avoided conflict and was (am still) unable to watch any movie or play with stressful relationships. People exhaust me and many days I could be happy staring at the horizon with only the dog for company. I can no longer serve on committees or take leadership.

How do I, a Christian, handle depression when all my life I was taught that prayer works and God heals? What caused this catastrophic emotional typhoon, the devastation of which keeps on robbing me and my family from the joyful companionship we long enjoyed?

Causes of Depression

 (Disclaimer: I am neither a medical professional nor a psychologist and only share what I am learning from reading, counseling, and personal experience.)

Actually, depression is a normal part of the ups and downs of life. For example, after a stressful tennis match, business meeting, or extremely busy event, the body goes into mild depression to help you recover. Too much stimulation causes adrenaline flow which, if left unchecked, can physically and emotionally damage you. But after a day off, a nap, or a vacation, you are recharged and ready to go.

Harmful depression is triggered by certain experiences that make you feel trapped. Depression builds when these stressful situations, relationships, or events occur so often or rapidly that there is no recovery time, creating a downward spiral of worsening depression which can become impossible to overcome. This downward spiral often builds over many years in which a person feels trapped by abuse, work, a bully, bad health, or family stress until suddenly your coping ability implodes and you collapse emotionally.

One counselor explained it to me this way. Suppose you are in a swimming pool and someone throws you a beach ball (stressful event) that you must hide. You hold it under the water with no problem. Then another beach ball comes. You hold it down. Then another, and another, and another, until…..you can’t hold them down (cope) any more. They shoot to the surface (you can no longer function). Depression becomes chronic when the chemical imbalance in your system caused by stress or your emotional triggers becomes permanent.

My depression developed both from experiences as a child of missionary parents and an obsessive compulsive nature that wanted to keep everyone happy. Pastoring a church places you in a wonderful place of being able to help, encourage, and guide people to a fulfilling, life-changing relationship with God. I loved that. What I did not know how to handle was conflict, disagreements, the stress of building facilities we no longer had money for, displeasing people with different theologies, and managing staff and volunteers with emotional needs I could not fathom. Added to this was a growing discovery of longstanding anger at my parents for sending me and my sister away to school while we were only children, resentment against those with impossible demands, and the fatal misunderstanding that a good Christian (and pastor!) should never be angry. Up came the beach balls and I was totally incapacitated.

Surviving Depression

When my depression slammed me to the mat, my congregation responded with grace, support, and love. They granted me a three-month leave and recommended seeing a counselor. Soon after I moved to a different career and began taking antidepressants, all which have been part of the survival process. In that time—and the many years since–I have begun to recognize the triggering events. I have read widely, counseled with some wonderful counselors, and asked my family to forgive me—a continuous process.

  • I am blessed to have an extremely supportive and loving family. They have stuck with me through thick and thin. Thank you, family!
  • Feedback from those who know you well and a good counselor will help you understand and recognize the triggers that set you off. Understanding your past and the causes of repressed anger is vital to coping as life continues. There are many excellent resources available and I have read many. Particularly helpful was the book Boundaries: When to say Yes, How to say No to take control of your life[1]. Personality tests, including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Personality Inventory[2], were a revelation to me.
  • Antidepressants are a lifesaver. Do not hesitate to talk with your doctor about these. The stigma surrounding these has largely disappeared, but some people still feel that you should get over your depression and get off the medicine. Not true. If you have high blood pressure, your doctor will tell you the medicine is for life. It’s the same with antidepressants.
  • As a lifelong Christian, it has been crucial for me to understand God’s grace and to accept imperfection. Many Christians still play the tapes from their childhood or particular denomination that condemn failure of faith and shun those who don’t fit the mold.
  • It’s okay to be who I am, even if I’m depressed.
  • The world is still beautiful. God’s love and grace are sufficient. He loves me—and you—the way we are, not the way we’re “supposed to be.”
  • Life is still meaningful, even with depression, and I am learning to sing songs again. I call them Night Songs.

[1] Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, Zondervan, © Henry Cloud and John Townsend. See www.zondervan.com.

[2] See www.myersbriggs.org