August 22, 2021, marked our 50th anniversary. It has been an interesting 50 years.
In 1971 Mike was an ordained Southern Baptist but was pastoring an Independent Baptist Church. The church’s main focus was the military because it was in a military town during the Vietnam War. I was just one of the girls in the church. If you have read my book, Created to Be His Help Meet, then you know the crazy story of how we came together in just eight days. I will have the office put it on sale so you can acquire a copy.
We were such an odd match that even the people we worked closest with didn’t believe it when we said we were getting married. One of the women at our college reunion said, “Mike was the hottest, most-sought-after hunk in the entire college.” God knew Mike needed a girl who had been raised by a mama who put up with everything. My dad was a fine man, but Mama surely did put up with a lot. Thankfully, she taught me well.
You would think that being a Baptist pastor would be a stabling influence, but it wasn’t. Shortly after we married, Mike left structured Christianity to seek a revival of the local church. I was very skinny and not because I was dieting. Once on our way to a commune in California we went frog gigging on the Rio Grande River because we were hungry and penniless. Another time we picked greens on a hill with a tornado just down the road after the homeowners fled to shelter. It was all quite thrilling with our travel trailer rocking and turnip greens cooking.
God knew I thrived on adventure and dreaded boredom, so HE blessed me with Mike—although I did pitch a few epic fits when things got to be too much. God was forging us together and discovering who we were and what we were made of. He was getting us ready. Hidden in every trying circumstance was an opportunity to build our faith and to see him move. Over the last 50 years God used all the stress, sickness, poverty, being forced to learn new trades, people trouble, family trouble, trouble with the law over homeschooling, and much more to forge into us his desire.
We spent our first year wandering, then settled down back in Millington, Tennessee, and continued to minister to the military through a different ministry he and three other men established. Mike made an income any way he could and I helped any way he needed. Once we painted three big church buses. He painted signs for stores. He built kitchen cabinets for a few years. The longest work he ever did was painting pictures and selling his art. For 15 Christmas seasons we rented a kiosk at a local mall and basically made our year’s living during those four weeks. The rest of the year we ministered daily. They were prosperous years and a good time raising the kids, ministering, and doing artwork, except Mike almost died a few times with various odd diseases. Thankfully I am an artist, too, so when he came down with his weird sicknesses, I could keep the business going.
During those years we loved the ministry because people were open to the gospel. It was exciting winning thousands of military men to Jesus—ten to twenty most weeks. Mike taught the new believers Bible classes several times a week. We still hear from some old, retired military guys every once in a while. Two of the men are still part of our lives and ministry. Mike did everything with the same intensity whether he was rabbit hunting or evangelizing. His biggest fault was lack of patience, and that is still his main hang-up. One of my office personnel was laughing about him just this week, saying, “I can’t imagine how he was when he was young because now that he is really old he still runs everywhere he goes and will not wait for anything or anybody.” I told her he hasn’t changed his gait at all. I am a lot slower.
About 33 years ago the military ministry was winding down due to the base closing. We had five children and were fighting the establishment to keep homeschooling. Mike decided it was time to head to the hills. We sold everything and bought one hundred acres of unimproved timberland. We spent every dime we made off the sale of our home in Memphis for land in middle Tennessee. My parents helped us move. It was a major chore. In the first week Mike built a 20’ by 15’ cabin for us to winter in. It was quite crowded with all those kids. We laughed and called ourselves “white trash.” Since we didn’t have a bathtub, the name fit us well.
Right off Mike started sharing the gospel with the outcast young people of the Amish and the local pot-smoking hillbillies. It was interesting to us to find that some of the smartest people we had ever met were right up here in these hills. Within a few weeks there were enough folks saved to start meetings and Bible studies in our home.
After three or four years of building a larger house and barns and ministering locally, a dear friend invited Mike to come to Texas to speak in a home church. While there, a lady asked how we had trained our children to be so dutiful and happy and how we had caused them to be interested in evangelism? Mike told her he would respond in a letter. One of the men of that church gave us an old 386 computer, the first computer we had ever seen. There was no such thing as Internet at that time—at least not where we lived. Mike tied into learning how to use a computer with the same intensity he does everything else. He learned to type in one week and started writing that letter about raising kids. He has always been long-winded so the letter grew to be over 150 pages long . . . and boring. He didn’t have any stories in it, and stories make the world go round, at least in the world of writing. I read it and gave him a story to include. I read some of it to the kids and they suggested other stories and told some of the things the Amish families did. He reworked his long letter, printed it, and I mailed it to a few people we had ministered to over the years. They returned it full of red ink, correcting all the misspellings and grammar. Mike worked long hours correcting everything and adding more and more stories. I read it and was amazed how interesting it was. I knew we had a book. I studied advertising from some stuff I had purchased at a yard sale and went to the library and read the magazines available there. I picked one out and sent off a very simple hand drawn advertisement. Uncle Bubba (brother-in-law) paid for the first printing. I sent a copy of our new book, To Train Up a Child, to 40 people we had ministered to over the years, people in a position to influence others. The advertisement came out about the same time. Within two months No Greater Joy was born and we were suddenly famous authors. We had a lot to learn as we eventually sold over a million copies of that first book in English, and many more copies in ten languages.
No Greater Joy Ministries has been like a runaway, steam-driven locomotive that we had no ability to slow down regardless of the mess we made. We were forced to clean up our writing style. We were pushed to write more and more books and keep the magazine going. There were times we both felt we were way out of our element. Mike’s natural drive was to teach the Bible verse by verse and to evangelize, but our readers needed child and marriage training. It was a labor for us to develop this side of the ministry. God was building the foundation of the work that was to come. Book followed book, some becoming international best sellers. We never took royalties, but we did start taking a low salary once the ministry was able to sustain us.
When God calls a man to do his work, usually the call goes out to others to help make it happen. Moses had his brother Aaron, David had Jonathan, and so on. God was very generous with us when it comes to loyal, lifelong, faithful friends. Over the years we have had some amazing co-laborers, people that God handpicked to help us do what needed doing. Most of what goes on in the office is above our pay grade. In the evenings after the office has closed and everyone has gone, we have walked from chair to empty chair in the office, laying hands on one and then the other, thanking God for bringing that laborer to No Greater Joy.
About 20 years ago Mike wrote and put together (along with the amazing professional artist, Danny Bulanadi) the story of the Bible in picture book format. From that point on it was crystal clear to us why God had raised us up. Our main focus since then has been to reach the entire world with the gospel using this book called Good and Evil. It is now in about 60 languages and reaches millions of people over the Internet. There is never a minute in the day that hundreds are not reading this Bible story. The Good and Evil book clearly tells God’s story of redemption. Muslims are especially open to reading it. It is available as a free download and we advertise in many different ways so people in closed countries can easily find it. And as an added bonus straight from the throne of God in answer to my youthful prayers, prisoners all over America get the hardcopy book for free. Your gifts and the sales of our literature support these endeavors.
Our staff shares our vision to get the gospel to the whole world while there is yet time. Without them we could do little. Pray with us that God will continue to raise up faithful laborers to this end.
I know most of you reading this know that over the years Mike has won fifteen World Knife and Tomahawk Throwing Championships. He was 72 the last time he won and that is quite amazing. He did the knife-throwing thing like he has done all of life—with all his might and then some. Winning the championship is like getting the gold medal in the Olympics. It is competing against folks from all walks of life and from all over the world. All the throwers have a handle or a nickname they use professionally. You don’t decide on your moniker; It just sort of happens as they get to know you. Somebody who didn’t know Mike’s name and needed to tell him something must have looked at his old worn-out hat, his long, shaggy gray beard, and his six-foot-four-inch lanky frame and yelled, “Hey, Hillbilly.” Some of the more sensitive knife throwers hesitated at first to call Mike by his new name, but that is all we are—just hillbillies from Tennessee that God breathed on to do a particular job.
When we were young I would fill out those sweepstakes things and pray as I mailed them, “God please give us a million dollars so we can buy Chick tracts to put in all the prisons over the land.” I believed with all my heart God would answer this call of my heart to get the gospel message out. God loves to bless abundantly. My vision was so small, so limited. God had a much greater, grander, and more glorious plan than I could have ever imagined. My advice for the young couple is to pray BIG. Dream BIG. Enjoy the ride. Have faith that God will deliver.
Mike will be 76 years old when you read this, so clearly our story is almost finished. We are tying up the last strings of life and thinking of glory more and more. I want to hear the Savior say to both of us, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. You were given one talent but you have multiplied it to ten.” And I will smile when he winks at me, “And Debi, you put up with that rascal, so you are receiving a special reward for being an overcomer.” But I know he knows how tenderly I have been loved.
So, happy 50th anniversary to us. It has been a grand adventure and the best is yet to come.