“This book is my Midrash.” With these words, Father Jim draws us into his life story full of laughter, tears, and service. Among Friends is a compilation of short stories and insightful lessons experienced on his many travels as a clergyman and motivational speaker. Whether recounting his sobering flying experiences, meeting the Pope, his encounter with the “Weed Man” or telling us about his “lead foot,” Father Jim teaches us lessons through powerful storytelling. As he takes us along on his journey from getting kicked out of seminary to hosting celebrities, such as Dolly Parton, Harry Connick Jr., Martin Short, Bill Cosby, and former First Lady Laura Bush, at his small Kentucky parish, Father Jim shines a light into the corners of the human heart to expose our need for God and the love He alone can give us. You will laugh, cry, and be taken back by his honesty. In all, Father Jim shows us what it means to love God, love others, and live life Among Friends.
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It has been several years ago now that I received a rather peculiar donation to our foundation along with a note left at the hostess stand at my restaurant, August, familiarly written by a Father Jim, whom I didn’t recall ever having met. The note, more or less a modern-day epistle, explained how he had been on a mission trip to my home town and had subsequently profited from his preaching and wanted to donate it to a great cause in the New Orleans area, where he had attended our Notre Dame Seminary. The epistle reminded me that we are all called to be stewards of our gifts. What struck me as impressive was that Father Jim, a priest who constantly gives of his time, energy, and talents, did, in fact, feel obliged to share his meager wages among the community that he was evangelizing. Admittedly poor with names, I began exploring my mental Rolodex of priestly friends, and, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember ever meeting a Father Jim. Without a business card or much of any contact information other than what was on the Richmond, Kentucky, bank check, I had no clue as to who this generous fellow was. Before I had the chance to draft a proper thank-you, I spoke with my mother, Imelda, as I do every morning. She began recalling uplifting and entertaining stories of this Father Jim, a former thespian and opera singer, whom she had heard at a Lenten workshop given by my very own St. Luke the Evangelist Parish. She went on to tell me that, as this week-long retreat progressed, Father Jim would entertain the congregation with recounting each and every course of food he had dined on at several of our restaurants — along with the interactions between him and my staff — while in town. Using these seemingly everyday occurrences, he conveyed the teachings and lessons of Christ that are alive and everpresent in all of our lives. Though Imelda and I visit every day, and spirituality is often a favored topic, I’ve never heard Mother so enthused — or, for that matter, entertained — by a guest speaker at church. As it turns out, Father Jim and I would eventually meet and become great friends, not through the obvious church connection but, rather, through food. By breaking bread at both my family table and his, I have been blessed to share a sacred bond with him, his family, and his adoptive family in Kentucky. This dynamic and entertaining teacher, even while at a table among friends, has a way not only of challenging us to be the Christians that we are called to be but also of comforting us with the love of God — knowing that, although none of us are perfect, we are loved by the ever-so-merciful Father. I am fortunate to know this man who, through the everyday comedy of his life, brings us closer to the spiritual realities of every story in our lives and the way we are called to address them. John Besh Celebrity Chef and Restaurateur
Ancient Jewish Rabbis put together books called “Midrash.” These books consisted of stories, reflections, and speculations on the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament for Christians). The teachers wanted people to read these stories and reflect on them to find deeper meaning in God’s word. This book is my Midrash. In addition to being a priest for fifteen years, I’ve traveled all over the world. I’ve preached to many different cultures and people. I’ve learned to say prayers in different languages. Although I can’t claim the wisdom of the ancient Jewish sages, I’ve learned a lot through my own mistakes and crazy experiences. Along the way, I’ve met a lot of people (especially Highway State Troopers), and listened to their stories. I’ve included their tales, my experiences, and God’s word in my talks. People seem to love them and I love seeing their reactions. I love moving people to tears, laughter, and watching them embrace a deep sense of joy found in God. Somehow, He uses my life to transform people and help them find His Good News in the person of Jesus Christ. Really, what more could I want? For many years, people kept telling me I needed to write a book and put all my stories in one place. Finally, I broke down, opened my computer, and hammered it out. I discovered a newfound admiration for those who can turn a phrase on the printed page. As I sat at my desk, sweating, drinking vast amounts of water and looking at a dictionary, I realized God didn’t call me to be a writer. I’m a preacher, and I admire people who can string words together and make sense. Still, as you hold this book in your hand – via old-fashioned print or a new-world e-reader or tablet – you know I made it through alive. As I learned in every part of life and ministry, no goal is ever accomplished alone. This book, Among Friends, is a product of hard work with my own personal scribes, Chas Allen and Jonathan Ryan, both authors and fantastic writers in their own right. Believe it or not, I taught Chas in ninth grade at a Catholic high school. Years later, our paths crossed again when Chas got involved in an art heist. One of the largest art thefts in history, Chas found himself on international news outlets, and I recognized him as a former student. Although I prayed for him on a daily basis, I couldn’t visit him during his six-year sentence in federal prison. He told me later about the isolation, embarrassment, and humiliation. Still, he drew closer to Christ through the experience and repented of his sins. After Chas paid his debt to society, our paths crossed once again, and we began communicating. His knowledge, rooted in the journey of his faith, and gift for the written word impressed me on all levels. A published author himself, we started talking about my book. He offered to help me in writing up my little Midrash for people to take home after one of my talks. I met Jonathan through a parishioner’s daughter who is now my literary agent. He just completed a horror mystery novel that will be in bookstores October 2013. His natural ability to spin a yarn on the page made him a natural choice to help me hone my stories. Just know, unlike his book, mine won’t keep you peeping around the corners and sleeping with the lights on. And, so, the journey began. Allow me to give you a word of advice for when you read this book at bedtime or in the morning at the coffee house. Don’t read it straight through like a novel. You’ll notice that I jump around, tell stories and give personal reflections. I did that on purpose. I want you to enjoy the book by reflecting on it, talking about it, and letting it transform you. You might even disagree with much of it, and that’s great. Just tell everyone why. Like the Midrash of the ancient Jewish scholars, I hope it prompts you to talk about God’s word, His love and the mystery of His presence. Many of the stories are just as they happened. Many are imaginative retellings of real events. Some are just plain made up to make a larger point. And what is that point? As a priest in Christ’s church, I hope it draws you closer to the One who rules our lives, made the world and died for our sins. So, let’s reason, laugh, cry, and walk together through this Midrash. Amen? Amen.
I love stories. I’m thinking I’m not alone in that, either. Billions of dollars are spent on novels, movies, and even video games. Why? God made us to function through story. Not only did He reveal Himself in the greatest-selling Book of all time, but He made story a vital part of how we communicate with each other. Think about it. We are a storytelling people. From the moment we are born, growing up through school and beyond, we love hearing stories being read and told to us. We love sharing experiences that we have lived, seen, or heard. For me, as a storyteller, preacher, and speaker, stories provide the opportunity to communicate in a powerful way with people in everyday language with down-to-earth tales. I think back to my own days at St. Mary Catholic School in kindergarten and how we loved to sit in a circle and listen to Mrs. Richard read to us. We learned from the plot, the characters, and their actions. She read with a passion and belief that captivated our little minds. Most importantly, the stories struck at our hearts. Why do you think Jesus told stories to make His point? Indeed, He is a master storyteller in all of His parables found in the four Gospels. He would use everyday situations that people understood. He used characters that people would recognize in themselves and others. Even more interesting, Jesus didn’t always provide the answers. He let people figure out His meaning by telling them, “He who has ears, let them hear.” God gave me a very interesting life story, as you’re going to see throughout this book. I like to think He gave me this life so I could tell stories from my journey. As you might guess, when I travel to speak at different places, I am often asked two questions. First, “Are your stories true?” and, second, “How do these experiences always happen to you?” My answer is simple: Yes, the stories are true, and yes, they do happen to me, and they happen to you! The real question that needs to be asked is, “Do you and I have the eyes, the ears, and the hearts — not to mention the minds — to recognize the wonderful opportunities and teachable moments from the experiences of our day?” Through sorrow, pain, joys, and exultations, our experiences teach us; they stretch us. For me, stories empower and illumine the life of Our God who is ever present with us on this journey through our experiences that we call “Life.” Allow me to tell you a few…