Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Pastor reflects on the chaotic childhood which helped shape his life

Review of the book All But Normal: Life on Victory Road

Disclosure: I have known the Thornton family since the early 1970s, attending Twin Branch Bible Church with them for years. While never experiencing first-hand the chaos of the Thornton household, I was blessed by the personal lives of John and Bev through the years, especially Bev's encouragement in my own ministry. I was licensed to the Gospel Ministry at Twin Branch in 1997. This review was recently published on Examiner.com.

Growing up, Shawn Thornton had no idea how God was going to use his chaotic home life to shape his future. The story begins before he was born. His parents, John and Beverly Thornton, had just begun to get acquainted when the seventeen year old son of well-to-do parents agreed to take the girl of fourteen on an expedition to Goldblatt's in the new Town and Country Shopping Center. John didn't see the truck as he negotiated his new 1962 Corvair into Miracle Lane. He woke up in the hospital later that evening, and his parents took him home. Bev would remain there quite some time, at first in a coma, and then facing some grueling physical therapy.

John continued to see Bev, and even picked her up for school when she was eventually able to return. However, beside the obvious physical disabilities, Bev's mental state had been permanently affected, and it was soon obvious she would have to drop out of school. John decided to join the military, but corresponded with Bev while he was stationed in Korea. They married when he was on leave in 1966. 

After the honeymoon, John was deployed to Vietnam, where he was when Shawn was born. (A brother, Troy, would come later.) His term of duty ended in June of 1967, just before the North's major escalation when the U.S. suffered its worst casualties.

But a war was already brewing at home. After the accident, Bev was prone to outbursts of anger since the day she awakened in the hospital. As the years progressed, her tirades escalated, involving salvos of both physical objects and vulgar profanity. There were even occasions when she tried to throw herself from the car at highway speeds. However, as the back cover of Shawn's new memoir puts it, "this same woman was also a devoted Bible reader, Sunday school teacher, and friend to the elderly, the poor, and the marginalized wherever she went. How the same woman could be a saint one minute and a nightmare the next was a constant source of frustration for the family."

It all came to a head one night as the police knocked at the door, and after a brief conversation, led Bev off in handcuffs. In one of her fits of rage, she had thrown nearly every loose object in the house, leaving broken glass everywhere. She would spend several weeks in the hospital mental ward. While she was there, she did learn some techniques to help calm herself, and John firmed up his commitment to do everything he could to keep peace, enlisting his two sons to help as much as possible around the house. Despite the changes, Bev was still prone to her outbursts.

As Shawn trained for the ministry, he was becoming sure he understood his mother's problem. He was convinced it had to be a problem with sin in her life she wouldn't let go of. During one Christmas break during his junior year of college, he confronted her. "As long as you have sin in your life like cussing and irrational anger, throwing things and threatening to kill people, you will never be right! Never!" [p.265]

At this point, his father burst into the room. "If you think this approach is going to help your mother, you're dumber than I thought you were. And you will never talk to your mother that way again. It's time you got off your high horse. You are not going to fix her with this stuff you're bringing back here. Now get out of here and never talk to her that way again."

As Shawn walked up Victory Road where they lived, he began to cool off, and started to change his tune. "God impressed on me that the issue was not just the combative spirit in which I approached her, it was that I was wrong," he writes. "Confession and repentance would not 'cure' Mom. Her problems were more complex than my simple formula." [p.266]

On another occasion, John shared with Shawn some research he had been collecting over the years about TBI—traumatic brain injury. At the time, this was a subject that was just beginning to be understood. We know now from research on NFL players more about what such injuries can do. Shawn was beginning to understand her mother's case was not a problem with willful sin, but had a physical cause. This knowledge has served him well in his ministry as senior pastor atCalvary Community Church in Westlake Village, California, affecting the way he deals with people. Combined with his experiences growing up, he is able to empathize and help people in a way he wouldn't have been able to otherwise.

It is so easy for those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, who try to order out lives by the words of the Bible, to get on our "high horse" like Shawn did that December day. We think we have it all figured out. But things are not always so simple as we think. Shawn's story will hopefully speak volumes to those who read it. The book has a Foreword by Joni Eareckson Tada and an Afterword by Nick Vujicic. Joni and Nick are both Christians who have what seem devastating disabilities, but have been greatly used by God to encourage others. Add Beverly Thornton to that list.

You can find out more about the book and pastor Shawn's ministry at PastorShawn.com.

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