Thursday, April 30, 2009


Every other Wednesday morning I meet with three or four friends at our local Barnes and Noble store, where we sit in comfortable chairs facing each other across a large square coffee table, in a nook surrounded by cook books on three sides and racks of self-help books stretching out beyond us on the fourth side. We are an informal, unorganized and sometimes downright disorganized critique group, members also of the larger Baldwin Writers Group that meets one Saturday each month.

Though we enjoy each others’ company, the common interest that brings us together is that we are writers. We meet to critique and encourage each other in our writing.

We are a mixed bunch. Betty writes blank verse and reads two or three new poems each time we meet. Her quest is usually to find just the right word or phrase in a line or two she has not yet perfected to her satisfaction.

The rest of us write prose fiction, and we are seeking help with characterization, plot and writing style. Apart from our common interest, we share few similarities.

Nolan is leading us a chapter at a time through a fantasy novel whose major characters are members of a modern polygamy cult.

Phil’s novel takes us back to the antics of a 1940’s small-town baseball team and the tensions of a wife who doesn’t want her husband to play ball on Sundays.

I am struggling through an early draft of The Tattoo, a contemporary novel set in a Mobile megachurch.

Reilly, the fifth member of this group, has been absent of late, struggling with health issues. We miss him, for he is our severest critic. A writer mostly of short stories, always ending in an unexpected twist, Reilly also sometimes ventures a poem, and he is the only one among us who has a published novel for sale across the room on B&N’s fiction shelves.

Barnes and Noble doesn’t profit much from the four to six hours a month we spend in their comfortable corner. One of us may occasionally buy a book, but we do our more profitable business at their coffee counter.

Friday, April 24, 2009

All Those John Johnstons

Twenty years or so ago, when I was digging into my family’s history, I came to a dead end with the Johnstons. I could trace Dagues and Swifts, my mother’s side of the family, back to pre-revolutionary America, and the Miles ancestors of my father’s maternal line nearly as far. No such luck with the Johnstons.

My great-grandfather, John Johnston, came to America from Ireland as a young man in 1850. His father’s name was thought to be William, but I could never document that or get beyond it. When I looked at the surviving genealogical records for County Armaugh, the trail ended. I found some fifty John Johnstons (yes, all spelled with a “t”) and almost as many Williams. I could never identify which were my ancestors.

Though I have been called “Bert” all my life, I was named John Johnston at birth. That is how my doctors, my banker and the IRS know me.

A few days ago I checked into the Premier Medical Center, a large Mobile eye clinic with thirty or forty doctors, at least six or eight waiting rooms, and perhaps fifty examining rooms. After a short wait, a young woman called my name and led me through another waiting room to an examining room. Her first question was to ask if I was there for my post-op appointment, a puzzling question since it had been half a year or more since I had minor eye surgery.

“Aren’t you Dr. Duffy’s patient?” she asked.

“No. Dr. Vick did my surgery, but I’m here to see Dr. King.”

“You are John Johnston, aren’t you?”


“Age 62?”

“You flatter me.”

To everyone’s surprise, there were two John Johnstons (yes, both spelled with a “t”), with appointments at Premier Medical Center that morning.

Our family has been fond of the names John and William. There has been one of each in five consecutive generations since 1850. My father and uncle, my brother and I, and two of my sons carry on the tradition. It’s about to end, however. We have run out of boys in my sons’ families. I have a grandson named William, but no John.

The Premier Medical Center will be relieved.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Pensioners’ Lunch.

Last Wednesday two dozen or so retired church workers, their wives, husbands and widows met at Ivey’s Restaurant in Robertsdale, Alabama, for our annual lunch as guests of the Presbyterian Board of Pensions. Most of those present were ministers and their wives or widows. One was a retired church secretary who came with her husband, and one was the widow of the sexton who served the Spring Hill Church for thirty years. She came with her daughter.

We seniors look forward to this annual gathering for three reasons. First of all, it is the only time of the year when many of us see each other, and we enjoy this social aspect of the occasion. We are a compatible group.

We also come, let us admit it, because a meal at Ivey’s is worth the drive to Robertsdale. This year the restaurant offered a choice of three seafood dinners and one each of chicken and pork. Ivey’s is a few miles north of the Gulf of Mexico--but “south of the salt line,” as Eugene Walter would say--so fresh seafood is a specialty.

The real draw, however, is Clark Simmons, our host.
Clark is a tall, good looking and personable young man who is the Regional Representative of our Pension Board, i.e., “our guy” at the Board. He stands ready, twelve months of the year, to inform us or assist us with any question or matter related to our pensions and medical coverage.

Every year Clark reports on the financial solvency behind our retirement benefits. He’s a straight talker who tells it like it is and whom we always believe. He usually reports a “good experience credit” to our pensions. A raise, in other words.

This year Clark had good news and bad news. The bad news was no surprise. Though the Board’s investments did better than the market as a whole, their value dropped noticeably in the last year. Without a good experience in the market, there can be no raise this July, and likely not for several Julys to come. “Plan accordingly,” Clark advised us.

The good news is that there will be no cut. Our benefits are still adequately underwritten, our pensions still secure for years to come. That’s as much as we dare hope for in these lean times.

Hooray for the Pensions Board! I wish they were managing my personal portfolio.

And thanks, Clark, for the good lunch and report. I slept well Wednesday night.

~ Bert Johnston
Visit me at

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Wanderers and Householders

Recently the daily meditation in the devotional magazine our church distributes began with an appealing quote from Charles Haddon Spurgeon: “May we live here like strangers and make the world not a house, but an inn, in which we sup and lodge, expecting to be on our journey tomorrow.”

When I ran across this thought I was much attracted to it. It was a day in which I had been distracted and/or distressed by several concerns ranging from the security (or possible insecurity) of my retirement investments to the appeal (or possible lack of it) of the daily menu in the Westminster Village dining room.

Spurgeon’s words recalled to mind the revival hymn we sang with fervor in my young adult years: “This world is not my home, I’m merely passing through./My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue./An angel beckons me from heaven’s open door/And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

That’s soothing to the spirit, but dangerous to the soul. It suggests we are merely guests in this world with few responsibilities. We don’t even have to make the bed we sleep in.

Not so. We are guest workers, charged with taking care of this planet, sometimes with doing the dirty work of cleaning up its messes. We are stewards, responsible for the careful use of resources and the opportunity to use them for the good of others. We are brothers and sisters, living at home in the family of nations and charged to keep the house clean and live at peace with one another.

In the end, isn’t that more satisfying than to think we’re just wanderers on the earth, responsible for nothing more than to pay our board bill and tip the waiter?

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On Using the Followers Widget

Align Left
The bloggers system has widgets and gadgets. Darned if I know the difference, but today I want to call your attention to the “followers widget.” I’ve moved mine to the top of the sidebar where you can find it easily.

Several readers of this blog have told me they enjoy reading it—which is great, because I’m writing it to be enjoyed. At least one friend has wondered how long his subscription will last. Actually, there is no expiration date. You can read it as long as I write it, and I’m just getting up steam. I hope it (and I) will last a long time.

You can always read The View from the Back Pew by calling up my web clicking on the blog button. That’s easy, and you can make it even easier, once there, by clicking on your “Favorites” button. It saves typing in the URL each time.

The next question is, how can you know you'll see a new blog when you do that? Some bloggers post a new blog every day. Whew! That’s a tall order. The successful ones use guest bloggers to keep the content fresh. The others tend to get boring, for lack of something new to say.

Because I don’t want to bore you seven days a week, I
post a new blog every four to six days. If you don’t want to look every day for something that isn’t always there, the bloggers system offers up the “followers widget.”

I wish they had called it something else. To the Christian, “followers” suggests “disciples,” and I’m not asking for that kind of commitment. The followers widget simply offers you a way to follow The View from the Back Pew without checking in every day. Use the widget, and every time I post the blog it will be delivered to your computer like your weekly newspaper, only slightly more often.

That’s the benefit to you. What’s the benefit to me? A growing number of designated followers (regular readers) suggests an interesting blog and draws still more readers. And readers motivate
a writer to keep writing.

Telling your friends about this blog will serve the same purpose. If you do both, it will be like giving me a double dip of triple chocolate ice cream. I'll love you forever.

So find that widget, beneath my picture, and click on the “Follow” button. You’ll have a choice of following this blog publicly or anonymously, and there’s an escape button for the day (far off, I hope) when you’d like a way out.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough

P.S. Since today's is really just a housekeeping blog, I’ll follow it in a day or two with “Wanderers and Householders.”

Friday, April 10, 2009


Lately I’ve been letting two magazine subscriptions lapse, unrenewed. The persistence of their subscription departments has impressed me. Between the two, I’ve had six or seven “last chance” notices. “Last chance” doesn’t mean last opportunity to keep the magazines coming. It means last chance to take them up on this or that special offer.

The appeal that came this week said “4th notice” in 12 or 14 point red letters at the top center of the envelope. Much larger letters in the lower right corner, white on a blazing red rectangle, said “LAST CHANCE.” Then below that in smaller letters, white on black, “for our BIGGEST Savings.”

The persistence of these folks impresses me. I’m sure they’ve done market studies to determine the cost effectiveness of continuing to send out all that mail. Obviously, they don’t want to lose even one subscriber. In ways I can well understand, they will be a little poorer without my participation in their publishing endeavor.

In this Holy Week we are reminded of the Good Shepherd who risked it all so that not one sheep need be lost. Meaning one soul. The big differences are that no one but the Son of God could pay so great a price, that the One making the offer is the One who paid it, and that Jesus heads up a non-profit organization. Here’s a persistent offer to which we must not turn a deaf ear.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough

Monday, April 6, 2009

Professional Discounts.

Almost every week I find in my mailbox a pitch from some magazine company offering a fantastic discount to new subscribers. This week it was from Newsweek. They cited their annual cover price ($267.30, not counting sales tax) and offered a bargain one-year subscription for $25.

Now I’m smart enough to know that there is always a substantial difference between newstand price and subscription price but, whatever the usual subscription price may be, the $25 offer is an almost unbelievable bargain if you’re in the market for a weekly news magazine. Unfortunately for Newsweek, I am not.

In bright red letters near the top of the subscription form I read that “This 90% professional discount is adjusted to reflect your guaranteed low rate.” The “professional discount” offer raises two questions in my mind.

First, how did they identify me as a professional? I’ve never claimed to be one. I’m a retired clergyman who has always thought of my occupation as a calling, not a profession.

Second, I wonder if Archie, who tends the flower beds around my apartment at Westminster Village, merits the same price consideration as a professional? Maybe he does. Maybe gardeners are included in the ever-broadening term “professional.” Or does Archie get a different notice reading (in red ink, of course) “This 90% day laborer’s rate…”?

Perhaps Newsweek will run a note of clarification in their next issue. Pity I won’t see it.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell's Breakthrough

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

My Favorite Contemporary Poet

The Baldwin Writers Group, to which I belong, meets one Saturday a month at the Public Library in Daphne, Alabama. Betty Ivey is the club’s poet laureate. At our March meeting, she read two poems, each less than a page in length, each treating with imagination and insight some small slice of life that less attentive people, me included, tend not to see or think about until Betty puts the spotlight on them.

Betty called her first poem “Three Figureheads.” It begins “On the top deck of the cruise ship,/High above the prow,/A lounge with walls of glass.” In this cruise ship lounge Betty observes figureheads of a mermaid and Lord Nelson staring straight ahead “Out of their black painted eyes.” Then she sees the woman garbed all in pink, even to “A hat crocheted in pink,” who sits between them. She, too, stares into the distance, just as immovable, just as unaware of the life that stirs around her. Lord Nelson. Mermaid. Lady in pink. Three of a kind. Who but Betty would have noticed?

Betty’s second poem was “The Cow Left Out in the Hurricane.” Poor cow, we think. But after the storm, when all around her is found to be torn asunder and rain soaked, there “…by the pasture gate,/The cow stood chewing on her cud.”

Betty often injects a straight-faced humor into her poems. A recent one, without a title, begins with the line “My husband plays viola in a string quartet…” and quietly celebrates the day the wife forgets her hearing aid.

If Betty ever publishes a book of her poems, I’ll stand in line to buy three copies.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough