Sunday, December 30, 2018

Another Year is Dawning

It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?  We are about to place 2018 in the history books and welcome a new year.  While the end of the year is naturally a time for reflection, looking back over what has past, it is also a time of looking ahead into a more hopeful and promising future. 

        I love the passage from the ancient Song of Solomon, “Lo, the winter is past; the rains have come and gone.  Flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come.”  We are about to plunge into the heart of literal winter, but in a symbolic sense the new year is a time to say goodbye to the winter of discontent and welcome a hopeful season of renewal and promise.

        With this in mind, I want to share three heartfelt commitments for the new year.  I hesitate to use the word “resolutions,” although that is what they are.  But a resolution can be most anything from major life changes to nitpicky details.  (I really want to find a better way to keep up with all my passwords—isn’t that a resolution?)  But a commitment is a deeper resolution that is grounded in my very being.

        My first commitment for 2019 is to live every day to the fullest and to savor every life experience.  In the second chapter of Genesis, God creates man by breathing into the dust of the ground the breath (the Hebrew word means Spirit) of life.  My existence is totally dependent on God’s life-giving spirit.  As my friend, Pierluigi, in Italy said, “Ray, we all live under the sky.  Life is a gift and so we must “carpe diem,” seize the day!”  I have been blessed to experience life for almost 65 years—I don’t know how many years, or even how many days, I have left.  I want to cherish every day and live each day to the fullest, glorifying God in all that I do.

        Secondly, I want to see the good in every person.  If we believe that every person is created in the image of God, then we must believe that there is inherent goodness, or at least the potential for goodness, in every individual.  Social media has made it too easy to criticize, to complain, and to focus on the negative.  We witness character assassinations at the highest levels.  My commitment is to build people up, not to tear people down.  Jesus had the remarkable ability to see the Godly potential in people who were rebuked and scorned by even the most religious and pious.  A woman at the well, a prostitute, an unethical tax collector, a thief who was dying on the cross—he said he had come to seek and to save the lost.  If someone is lost, it means they can be found.  I want to see the good, to lift up the fallen, and to share the way of light to those who are lost in darkness.

        My third commitment as we embark on this new year is to do all that I can to enrich the lives of others in redemptive ways.  I want to be a part of the solution rather than creating or exasperating a problem.   I want to make a difference in the lives of others, for that is what God has called us to.  Love God and love your neighbor—the two greatest commandments.  Jesus told us that the greatest among us are those who serve.  “Everybody can be great,” said Dr. Martin Luther King, “Because anybody can serve.  You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.”

        I wish all of you a happy new year.  I invite you to join me in making a few significant commitments for the new year that will enable us to proclaim:  “Lo, the winter is past; the rains have come and gone.  Flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come.” 

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Words Matter

Did you see where selected their word of the year for 2018?  The word they selected is not new, it’s been around since the 1500s.  The word they selected is not a surprise, because we live in a world where we have learned not to trust everything we hear.  The word is “misinformation,” defined as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.”  

        With the onslaught of social media, millions of people have the ability to share information with large audiences, whether it is credible or not.  It’s so easy to hit “share” or “send.”  It’s not so easy to determine whether what we share is true.  When we pass along misinformation, people can be hurt, careers can be in jeopardy, marriages can be destroyed—even if we are innocent in our motives. 

        The bottom line is that words matter, and words can make all the difference in the world.  We hear so many words today that are demeaning, degrading, and hurtful.  Do our words build up or tear down?  Do they hurt or heal?  Are they redemptive or destructive?

        So many people continue to carry the painful scars from hurtful and cruel words they heard as a child.  When a child hears, “I hate you.”  “You are worthless.”  “I wish you’d never been born.” --this creates a trauma that is often never healed.  But when we affirm our children and speak words of love and respect, when they grow up hearing positive and uplifting words, they have the confidence and positive energy to grow into a productive and successful adult. 

Did you see the movie, “The Help?”  Aibileen serves as “the help” for a white family and cares for little Mae, who often endures her mother’s harsh and unkind words.  But every day Aibileen looks little Mae in the face and says, “You is smart.  You is kind.  You is important.”  Aibileen who often endures degrading words of hatred and discrimination, understands the power of words and the need for little Mae to hear empowering words of encouragement and value. 

        I think about all the words I have communicated through the years.  I’ve been writing my Dispatch column for almost 28 years.  I estimate I’ve written well over 350 columns or somewhere around 250,000 words!   Mercy, that’s a lot of words!   And considering the fact that I’ve been preaching most every Sunday for over 41 years---well, that’s even more words!  

        I hope the great majority of my words have been words of grace, words of hope, words of kindness and love.  I hope that one day when people remember that old preacher from LA (lower Alabama), they will recall that his words lifted people up, gave people confidence and hope, brought people together and left them with a sense of peace. 

Words have great power.  The Genesis story of creation begins with God speaking.  Let there be . . .  It was through God’s word that the heavens and earth were created.  John begins his Gospel with the powerful proclamation:  “In the beginning was the word . . .”  The Word that was in the beginning with God is a word of love, a word of grace, a word of light and a word of life.

        This Sunday marks the beginning of Advent when we light candles of hope as we anticipate the day of celebration when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  John writes, “In him was life and the life was the light of humanity.”  My goal this Advent is to incarnate this living Word in my life so that I may reflect the light of God’s love and grace. 

        May my words speak of kindness and compassion.  May I always strive to lift people up, never to tear people down. May my words lead to reconciliation rather than division.  May I share truth and light through authentic information, rather than spread rumors and darkness through careless misinformation.   Most importantly, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in God’s sight—because, words matter.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

An Outsider Drinks the Water and Loves Calling Davidson County Home!

There’s an old legend that says back in the early days of Davidson County there was a well on Washington Square in Lexington.  (I don’t know why we dropped the name “Washington,” but I’m in favor of reclaiming it)  The story goes that if a stranger came to town and drank the water from the well, he would always return to Lexington.

        Almost 30 years ago I came to Lexington and drank the water—I’ve never left!  I love calling Davidson County home, although I am occasionally reminded that I’m really an “outsider.”  Evelyn Harris and I produced a big historical celebration for the City of Lexington back in 2003.  We were celebrating our 175th anniversary and Joe Sink, who was then Editor of the Dispatch, had secured a bunch of money from the New York Times to finance the festivities.  We were having a grand old time spending Joe’s money and the Civic Center was packed twice to witness a spectacular performance. 

        Not long after the event a lady stopped me in a store and in gushing terms told me how much she enjoyed the production.  Then she added, “It’s just a shame that an outsider had to come in to do something like that.”  Well, here’s an “outsider” who loves calling Davidson County home!

        Our county has one of the richest histories in the state.  Did you know that one of the early revolutionary movements in the American Colonies started here?  Benjamin Merrill led a large group of “Regulators” in protest to oppressive taxes by the British.  Merrill became an early martyr for freedom when he was executed by the British in 1771.  Four years later the town of Lexington was named by brave Patriots just weeks after the “Shot Heard Round the World” was fired.

        Did you know our county was a leader in race relations as far back as 1929 when the Davidson County Public Library became the first County Library in the entire south (not just the state, the entire south!) to open its doors to citizens of color?

        It is fitting that the most significant and distinguished landmark in our county is a historical treasure—our antebellum Courthouse.  Standing tall and proud, she is the shining light in our county, the symbol of our spirit, the herald of our history, and the visible declaration of our democracy. 

        Even greater than our rich history is our generous spirit.  I love calling Davidson County home because people truly care about others.  This is a community with a caring heart.  I’ve seen miracles great and small as Davidson County citizens have responded with generous hearts to Davidson Medical Ministries, the YMCA, Crisis Ministry, our Hospitals, the Community College, Cancer Services, the Hospice house, Pastor’s Pantry, our Children’s Homes, the United Way, and many more.  But by far the most amazing fundraising effort was the drive led by Ardell Lanier and Max Walser to build a chapel at the prison.  It was one of the worst times for our community economically, yet the true heart of our community emerged above every obstacle and conventional wisdom and today a beautiful chapel stands as a symbol of hope and forgiveness in the middle of our prison camp.

         There are times that living in Davidson County is like being in a Norman Rockwell painting, like stepping back in time, sampling a juicy slice of authentic Americana.  It happens every year in the third week of September at the Davidson County Agricultural Fair.  Where else can you find cows, horses, chickens, rabbits, pumpkins, pies, pickles, cakes, quilts, crafts, country ham, pinto beans, candied apples, babies, politicians, cotton candy, and a beauty pageant! 

        It happens every year on the 4th Saturday in October when close to 200,000 people descend on downtown Lexington to celebrate BBQ.  It happens every Friday night in the fall when high school bands play loud and proud and the football team runs on the field for another run at glory.  It happens on hot summer nights as a glorious sunset illuminates the sky above the baseball diamond while the crowd cheers their team and jeers the umpires.  It happens every summer when over 150 deserving children get to spend a week at Kamp Kiwanis thanks to the generosity of strangers.   

        Remember that old “outsider?”  Well, I get to bless the BBQ each year at the BBQ Festival, I get the take up tickets and work at the fair, and I get to share the joy of Kamp Kiwanis with those special children because I belong to the Kiwanis Club.  I have been privileged to serve on many of the committees and boards raising funds for caring agencies.  I was able to write a book on the rich history of our county and was honored to speak at the rededication of our historic antebellum Courthouse.  For over 10 years I broadcast American Legion Baseball games on hot summer nights and Lexington High football games on crisp football Friday nights with my dear friend, Harold Bowen.  And for almost three decades I have been able to share my thoughts and reflections through a monthly religion column in the Dispatch.  Not bad for an “outsider!” 

        And I didn’t even mention my day job.   My greatest joy is serving as the Senior Minister of the First Baptist Church of Lexington.  Did I tell you that I have been there almost 30 years?  This should not surprise you.  I’m only the third minister since the Second World War.  And guess what?  All three of us were “outsiders!”  But we did drink the water and that’s why we love calling Davidson County home!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Praying for the Day When Peace and Tranquility Will Return Once More

“I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness. I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

Anne Frank was only 15 when she mercilessly died from starvation and disease in a Nazi concentration camp. For two years before they were captured, Anne and her family were in hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam. Her diary that was published after the war has become one of the most powerful and profound commentaries on a world filled with hatred, violence and destruction. This young girl lived in a hate-filled, cruel world of anti-Semitism, and yet she found reason to believe that “peace and tranquility will return once more.”

Eighty years ago this month the Nazis went on a ruthless rampage across Germany and Austria, burning synagogues, destroying Jewish homes, schools, and businesses. On this terror-filled night that became known as the Kristallnacht, over 100 Jews were murdered and 30,000 arrested and deported to concentration camps. Hatred once again reared its ugly head when eleven Jews worshiping in their synagogue were slaughtered by a man who “just wanted to kill Jews.” This didn’t happen in Nazi Germany in the 1930s — it happened last Saturday in the United States of America.

Seventy-five years ago we fought a war to stop the evil force of hatred, discrimination and destruction. This war, which cost millions of lives (420,000 of which were American) was fought on the principle of freedom, equality, and the dignity and worth of every human being.

How soon we forget. Today, hate-filled and divisive rhetoric dominates the airways. We never know when another madman will storm into one of our schools killing innocent children. People of faith are not safe in their houses of worship. It seems that our world is being slowly transformed into a wilderness.

What do we do? How do we respond? Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” The answer to our dilemma can only be found in love. And it must begin on a personal level as we remember the “new commandment” to love one another as God has loved us.

If we believe that every human being is a person of worth, created in the Image of God, then we will treat that person with kindness and respect, even though we may disagree with their beliefs, their lifestyle, or their actions. Doesn’t Scripture instruct us to, “Be ye kind, one to another.”

Paul talked about the potential of words being destructive. He said: “Let your speech always be gracious.” He was very blunt in Ephesians when he wrote, “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that imparts grace on those who hear what you say.”

Yes, our speech matters. Our attitudes matter. Our actions matter. This is the beginning of restoring kindness, of respecting the dignity of every person, and of believing that I am to love my neighbor as myself.
Thirty-years ago George H.W. Bush was nominated by the Republican Party as their nominee for president of the United States. In his acceptance speech the soon to be President Bush said, “I want a kinder, gentler nation.” How we need to heed his words again today!
Young Anne Frank lived in a terror- and hate-filled world, yet she wrote from her hiding place, “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” I also believe in the goodness of people, for we are all created in the Image of God. But even more, I believe in the goodness of God. I believe that God always works together for good and I pray for the day when “peace and tranquility will return once more.”

Monday, October 8, 2018

We Must Not Forget the Flood Victims

The sleepy little town of Pollocksville, North Carolina only has around 300 residents.  Unless you travel to Emerald Isle by way of Highway 58, you may have never heard of this tiny Jones County hamlet.  I know Pollocksville well, not only because it is my wife’s hometown, but it is where I was first called as a pastor back in 1977. 
        The church stepped out on a limb when they called a young 23 year old inexperienced pastor.  I sure had a lot to learn, but they were patient and kind.  We loved living in the small town where we walked to the bank and the Post Office and lived next door to the church.  I was on the fire department and the rescue squad.  We got together for “pig pickins” and fish stews.  The three churches; Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian, worshiped together at Thanksgiving, Maundy Thursday, and at sunrise on Easter Sunday.  Everybody knew their neighbor and in times of need, you could count on friends and even strangers to help. 
        The biggest weather disaster while I lived in Pollocksville was the March 1980 blizzard that dumped almost two feet of snow on Jones County.  When the power went out, I put my fireman boots on and trudged through the deep snow to the church where I retrieved a gas heater.  The whole family slept together in the family room as the little gas heater kept us warm. The storm paralyzed the town for a couple of days.  We were all worried about the Methodist preacher’s wife who was expecting a baby any minute, but the baby held off and the snow melted and we soon returned to normal.  Three weeks ago Hurricane Florence dealt a crippling blow to my old town.  There may not be a normal to return to now. 
        It wasn’t just the almost 40 inches of rain that fell from the skies, but it was the Trent River that soon overflowed its banks and produced unprecedented flooding and devastation.  The town’s mayor was interviewed by a local television station with water standing behind him as far as you could see.  It wasn’t the river or a lake; it was Highway 17, the main traffic artery through the town.  The water was nine to ten feet deep in places.  It flooded dozens of homes, leaving them full of mud and debris.  My first church is located blocks away from the river, but it flooded along with the parsonage.  Many of the houses in Pollocksville have been destroyed and will not be livable until major renovations can be completed.  Some are fearful the residents will never return. 
        We quickly returned to normal in Lexington and Davidson County following the storm.  We’re getting ready for the BBQ Festival, Halloween festivals, and Sportsman Saturday.  But for thousands of our neighbors in the eastern part of the state, it will take years to recover.  
        Let’s not forget the flood victims.  There are many ways we can reach out and make a difference.  Many of our churches have connections to denominational disaster relief ministries that have boots on the ground in the flood damaged regions.  All of these ministries need financial support.  There are churches and schools that continue to collect supplies for those have suffered great losses in the flood.  And I know there are churches that will be sponsoring work teams to go and help with the massive clean-up effort.  Some can give, some can go and we all can pray.
        We were spared major damage from the storm.  Our neighbors down east were not.  I hope that our gratitude in our good fortune will translate into acts of compassion and mercy for those who are suffering.   Dr. Albert Schweitzer once wrote, “The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.”

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Oops! I've Been Banned from Uber!

      The first time I heard someone had taken an Uber, I thought it was a new vaccine—something to help with the gout.  But then I learned it was like a taxi service, only people use their private cars and you have to set up an online account.  Considering there is minimal demand for taxis in Davidson County, much less Ubers, I never gave it much thought—until, we planned a trip to New York City.
        It had been a number of years since my wife, Joyce, and I had traveled to the Big Apple.  We were celebrating our 40th Wedding Anniversary and planned a trip to take in some Broadway Shows.  I stay about 10 to 20 years behind in all things fashionable and technological (I’m still trying to figure out how to use my VHS player), so I told Joyce that we better catch up with the times before we traveled to New York.
        “What do you mean?” she asked.  “Well, we are going to get around on Uber,” I said.  “I don’t think many people use taxis anymore.”
        Joyce was concerned, and with good reason.  “You don’t do so well with that sort of thing,” she told me. 
        I went online and watched tutorials on how to use Uber.  I talked to my brother who travels a lot and uses Uber.  Even my grandson told me it was simple.  I downloaded the App, set up my account, and I was ready to go.
        We landed at LaGuardia and after retrieving our luggage; I said, “Now we call for an Uber.”  It just took a second to put the information in and a message popped up that said our Uber would arrive in 2 minutes.  Then my phone rang and guy with a funny accent (everyone in New York has a funny accent) told me he was our Uber driver and where to meet him.  We walked to the location he gave us and saw a nice man sitting behind the wheel.  He smiled, loaded our bags in the back of his SUV, and we were on our way.
        “This was much easier than I thought it would be,” I told Joyce.  “I think I like Uber.”
        That thought lasted about 3 minutes until my phone rang again.  “This is your Uber driver!  Where are you?”
        It turns out we were in the wrong Uber.  The Uber driver we were supposed to have kept calling me, demanding that we return.  The driver we had kept telling me to hang up.  I finally figured out how to go on my App and cancel the original request, although it cost me $5 not to mention the $60 cash I had to pay the guy who gave us the ride.  We finally arrived at our hotel and I said, “Well, I’ve learned a lesson.  I’ll do better next time.”
        Only there never was a next time.  I tried to call an Uber the next day only to be informed no Ubers were available.  When we returned to the airport I called for an Uber.  None were available.  Hmm, this is New York City and no Ubers are available?  That was when I realized—I’ve been banned from Uber!  Probably for life!
        It sure was good to get back to Davidson County.  When you make a mistake around here, at least folks will give you a second chance. 
        Getting in the wrong Uber is the least of our worries.  We make mistakes, we make bad choices, we hold grudges, we judge people without knowing the whole story, we mess up---it’s called sin.  All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. 
        Jesus is not in the business of banning people for life.  He prefers to forgive and move on.  To one sinner he said, “Go and sin no more.” 
        If Jesus was in charge of Uber he would give me a second chance.  Or maybe he would just say, “Go and Uber no more.”

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Somebody Has to Run the Clock!

Growing up way down south in the land of cotton there were two   major sports:  football and spring football.  Oh, we played baseball and basketball, but they were just designed to keep us busy until the month of August when practice for the real game began!

        Every boy showed up for football practice, it didn’t matter if you could play football or not.  It was a rite of passage to go out for the team.  There was no shame in not making the team; the shame came if you didn’t try.  I probably should have been cut the first day.  I wasn’t very good.  I was small for my age and it’s a miracle I didn’t get crushed.  But my dad was always out at practice and kept asking the coach how I was doing.  All he had to do was open his eyes and he could see I wasn’t doing well, but every father thinks his son will be the star of the team.  I was hoping I would at least be good enough to play end—that is, the end of the bench.

        I made the Junior Varsity squad as a halfback.  The best play of my entire career came during a JV game when I ran about 20 yards around left end.  I’m pretty sure several of the defenders missed their assignments, but after I was tackled I will never forget my coach saying, “Good run, Howell.”  A Papal blessing would not have sounded any better that day!

        The next year I tried out for the Varsity team, but my coach had mercy on me so he asked me if I would like to run the scoreboard.  He figured there was no danger in my sitting in the press box pushing buttons.  I also got to do the PA occasionally, so I was as happy as I could be. 

        I didn’t run the game clock.  Only a certified, bona fide, card-carrying clock operator could be entrusted with that critical task.  Most of the clock operators were old referees who had been put out to pasture.  They couldn’t see or hear very well.  In one important game I kept telling the clock operator to start the clock or stop the clock.  I guess he was trying, although he didn’t seem to care.  When a few valuable seconds ran off toward the end of the first half with our team driving down the field, everyone in the stadium could hear our coach screaming.  At halftime he ran up the stands and bolted into the press box.  He gave us all a tongue lashing and right before he left he looked at me and said, “Howell, you can do better than this!”

        We lost a close game and I felt like it was my fault, even though I didn’t have anything to do with the clock.  My feeling was confirmed on Monday morning when coach called me out of class and sent me to the Principal’s office.  I thought it was about to be expelled from school and banished forever!

        I sat down in the Principal’s office and the coach handed me a standardized test.  The cover read:  Alabama High School Athletic Association Clock Operator’s Exam.  “Here, take this and you better do good,” coach said.

        I must have done good because on Thursday afternoon coach called me to his office and gave me a referee’s uniform.  I had become a certified, bona fide, card-carrying clock operator!

        On Friday night I walked with the referees to the middle of the field.  When our team captains came to midfield for the coin toss, I heard one of them say, “Look ole’ Howell’s a referee now!   We got this game!”

        For the next few years I ran the clock at every high school game.  We still lost some games, but the clock was never an issue again. 

        The old gospel song says, “If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus and say, “He died for all.”

        If you can’t quarterback like Cam Newton, if you can’t shoot like Chris Paul, maybe you can run the clock and be an important part of it all! 

        By the way, I still carefully watch the clock each and every Sunday!  If I go too long, I’m afraid my old coach will bolt into the church screaming, “Howell!  You can do better than this!”


Friday, July 27, 2018

A Great Mission Trip? You Better Belize It!

        On January 18, 2016 during the MLK breakfast at our church, I felt my phone vibrate.  I saw the call was coming from Belize.  Since I was seated near the back, I slipped out the kitchen door and answered.  “Mr. Ray!” exclaimed the voice.  It was Heman, who is the director of the Baptist Training Center in Belize.  “Didn’t you say you were going to bring a group to Belize in 2018?  If you are, the camp is almost booked.  The only week I have left is July 14-21.”
        I told Heman to book the camp and I would mail him a check.  Two and one-half years later on Tuesday, July 24, a weary group of travelers finally arrived home in the wee hours of the morning after a thrilling and dynamic mission experience.
        This trip had many challenges.  The day before departure Meagan Smith, who was in charge of Crafts, became ill and informed us she could not travel.  Ashley Phillips and Hannah Finch quickly stepped up to the plate and took charge of Crafts.  The next morning as the group was checking in at RDU airport. Lee Mabe saw the agent’s facial demeanor change and she said, “Oh no.”   The flight had been cancelled.  Up until this point the only travel concern was a tight connection in Miami.  Now it looked like the group could not get to Miami at all.
        The next 36 hours became unscripted drama with the majority of the group scrambling to get through security while the airline held a flight to Dallas.  The remaining six members of the group spent the majority of day in Raleigh before flying to Dallas in the afternoon.  The first group spent all day in the Dallas airport, riding the sky tram for entertainment!  Late in the afternoon they boarded a very big plane to fly to Miami, but once they landed there was more drama as the agents worked to get them booked to Belize the next morning.  They finally arrived at a hotel at 1 in the morning.  They had been up for 24 hours.  The smaller group spent the night in Dallas, but the airline would not keep the storage containers with all our supplies, so they had to be carried to a hotel and back the next morning.
        Meanwhile in Belize another drama was unfolding.  Five of us went to Belize two days early to prepare for the big group’s arrival.  When we were going through Customs I was informed that a new law required me to pay a 38% tax on all the supplies we were bringing into Belize for Bible School.  We were looking at over $1,000 in taxes for all of our supplies and some gifts for an orphanage.  I tried to explain that these were all supplies we were using for Vacation Bible School and gifts for children in an orphanage.  We were on a humanitarian mission.  We were coming to Belize to serve the people of Belize, not to seek any profit.  Finally the Customs agent said, “The only way you can avoid this tax is to have a personal letter from the Minister of Finance.  You must have that letter when your big group arrives on Saturday.  Since you did not know, you can only pay $100 now.”  
        Some of the supplies we were bringing were cookies and snacks for Bible School.  She had been eyeing some of the cookies and added, “Next time, bring me some cookies.”   Goodness, if I had given her the cookies first, maybe she would have been easier on me!
        Relieved to only pay $100, I carried the papers to the cashier who was in a small office behind a glass window.  He looked at the papers and asked, “Are you teaching children the Bible?”   “Yes,” I replied. 
        “Then it is not right you should have to pay so much tax.”
        I handed him the $100 and he quietly slipped half of it back to me.
        Then a kindly porter named Clifford who was helping us our supplies told me that he would help me when the big group arrived.  I also ran into a friend named Mark, who works for Tropic Air, a local airline.  He said, “You are my friend.  I will do anything I can to help.”
        But neither Clifford nor Mark could get me a letter from the Minister of Finance. 
        Life is all about relationships.  In the 35 years I have been doing mission work in Belize, I have developed many relationships.   One is Brother Henry.  Brother Henry is a Baptist pastor and is a fellow director at the Baptist Training Center.  He also owns a number of vehicles, vans and SUVs that he rents at a very reasonable price for mission teams.  I contacted Brother Henry 18 months before our trip and asked him to reserve two vans and two SUVs for us.   Brother Henry only deals in cash, but it saves us thousands of dollars in rental fees.
        I called Brother Henry.  At one time he was the Fire Chief for the country of Belize.  If anyone would have any contacts with the government, it would be him.  “I will see what I can do,” he said.
        On Sunday morning I drove the airport not knowing what would happen.  Brother Henry met me with the vehicles, his Bible in hand.  He was on his way to preach.  I handed him the cash and he said, “I have something for you.”
        He handed me a letter from the Minister of Finance of Belize exempting us from the 38% tax!
        Our group was arriving on three separate flights, two from Miami and one from Dallas.  I found my friends Clifford and Mark.  They brought me into the Customs Hall.  With their help and a letter from the Minister of Finance, I was allowed to be in the Customs Hall for each flight.  That would not happen in the US! 
        A tired but happy group of Mission travelers arrived and by early afternoon, we were all piled into Henry’s vehicles on our way to Cheers for a happy celebration.  We were a day late, but as the group found our Mission T-Shirts hanging in the rafters from our three previous trips, we happily presented the new shirt with all of our signatures to Mrs. Tupper who owns Cheers.
        Monday morning we donned our bright orange “All For Jesus” t-shirts and drove to the Belmopan Baptist Church.  We had t-shirts for all the Belizean youth and they were thrilled.  We only had about 30 kids on Monday, but that is typical for Belize.   Bible School starts slow, but then it grows.
        Bible School grew each day and by Friday the church was bursting at the seams!   We were bringing children from all over the area.  One of our vans was filled with over 30 kids.  On Thursday when I announced to the children that the next day would be the final day of Bible School, there was a loud groan.  They did not want Bible School to end!
        We had been working with the Belmopan Baptist Youth Leaders and Pastor David Rowland for over a year as we planned for Bible School.  We asked our friends in Belmopan to develop the theme, and they did:  “All for Jesus!”  
        We then developed the Bible Stories, memory verses and themes for each day.  The five stories highlighting those who gave “All for Jesus” were:  Noah’s Ark, Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, The Four Friends who cut a hole in the roof, the Widow’s Mite, and the little boy who shared his lunch leading to The Feeding of the 5,000.   Our four teams:  Bible, Recreation, Crafts, and Music highlighted these stories each day.
        Even the refreshments matched the stories.   For Joshua and the Battle of Jericho the children received Graham Crackers and Peanut Butter so they could build a wall.    They had Animal Crackers for Noah and the Ark, Goldfish for the Feeding of the 5,000, and a Gingerbread Man for the man who was carried by the four friends to Jesus.  Mrs. Hanes Cookies did a special order for us of heart shaped sugar cookies for the Widow’s Mite with the verse to “Love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.”   The wonderful ladies at Mrs. Hanes were excited to be a part of our mission experience.  
        Friday afternoon we invited the youth from Belmopan Baptist to join us at the camp.  We had a great cookout with hamburgers and hot dogs.  The kids played games and had a fun-filled afternoon.  But the greatest thing was to watch young people from different countries and different cultures form lasting friendships.  When it was time to say good-bye, no one wanted to leave!
        Friday night we had an unexpected visitor at the camp.  Pastor David and several of the youth came and said to gather our group together.  Pastor David works for the US Embassy and was not able to attend Bible School, but he did drop by a couple of times.  His wife, Martha, was there every day and helped us in a great way.  Pastor David said she had shared what a great Bible School the church had experienced.
        With our entire mission team gathered around, Pastor David Rowland gave a heartfelt and passionate speech expressing his sincere gratitude and the gratitude of the entire church.  He told us that we would never know how much the Bible School meant to the church.  He then called Joyce and me to the front and presented us with a lovely gift.   It was a gift bag with a Belize plate, a Belize flag and coasters.  Then he asked all the adults to come forward and he had a gift for each one.  Finally, the youth were called and there was a Belize backpack for each of our young people.   I was overwhelmed and deeply touched.
        I told our group later that I had been going on mission trips since I was in high school, but I had never experienced such sincere gratitude and heart-felt thanks.  And the gifts---oh my!   The gifts were very nice!
        The final leg of our journey started Saturday morning, but we had yet another challenge.  One of our vans would not start.  It had been giving problems the day before and we thought we had it fixed, but now it would not start at all.
        We decided to leave all of our big suitcases at the camp and take only a small carry-on or a backpack to the island.  We had 12 people in the remaining van and 5 in each of the SUVs.  I talked to Brother Henry and he promised to send someone to fix our van, which he did.
        The Pelican Beach Resort has been a special place for our Belize Teams.  I came to Dangriga and the Pelican Beach for the first time 35 years ago.  We have dear friends who have been a part of this wonderful place for the entire time.  There is Mrs. Bowman, Joe B, Alphonso, Jackie, Terri, Leonard, and Kevin. 
        When Kevin was a child he was diagnosed with dyslexia.  Terri talked to us and wanted to know if we knew anyone who could help.  You may remember Jeanne Davis’s brother, Dr. Roger Saunders.  He preferred that we call him “Uncle Roger.”  He was one of the leading authorities and a pioneer in the treatment of dyslexia in our nation.  We put Terri in touch with Uncle Roger and today, you would never know Kevin ever had a problem. 
        Kevin was also critically burned in a grease fire a number of years ago.  Terri asked for our prayers.  Kevin not only survived, but today there is no evidence of the accident.  There were hugs all around when we saw Terri and Kevin for the first time in three years. 
        The first thing Terri asked me was, “Did you bring church with you?”  Three years before we had celebrated communion the last night on the island and invited the staff to join us.  They had not forgotten and wanted us have a time of worship and communion again. 
        “Of course!” I said.  “We always bring church with us!”
        I shared with our group that this small island, I call it Gilligan’s Island, is not just a special place, but it is a sacred place.   For here we not only close our mission with rest and relaxation, but it is a time of reflection and spiritual renewal.  It is also a time for baptism!
        Late Sunday afternoon we gathered at the beach and I shared the story of Philip and the Ethiopian from the 8th chapter of Acts.  The Ethiopian may have been looking at the Mediterranean when he said, “Look there is water.  What prevents me from being baptized?”
         We lifted up our eyes and saw the beautiful waters of the Caribbean Sea and I asked the question, “What prevents you from being baptized?”  
        I have been privileged to stand on Holy Ground many times in my ministry.  There have been weddings and funerals, moments of spiritual decision and celebration—but no experience is more powerful than baptisms in the Caribbean Sea or the Jordan River.  I will never forget the youth and adults who one by one confessed their faith in Jesus as Lord of their life and were baptized beneath the warm, salty waters.  And, when I had baptized everyone, they baptized me!
        Three of our youth were baptized for the first time.   What a joy!
        That night we gathered for our final time of worship with our Belizean sisters and brothers.  I shared a Scripture and made brief comments, then two of our youth shared what being in Belize meant to them. 
        I invited any of the Belize family to share.  Terri was the first one and shared a passionate and inspired message.  And then, her son Kevin,  who has been through so much in his short life, shared what God has done for him!  Joyce and I especially were deeply moved. 
        I can’t describe how powerful the communion service was.  As Lee Mabe held the chalice I dipped the individual pieces of Cassava Bread into the wine and offered the body and blood of Christ, “Given for you.”   We asked our Belizean family to come first.  They received the gift of communion with reverence and humility, many making the sign of the cross.   Then came our wonderful mission team.  One by one, the youth who had worked so hard, the adults who guided everyone so well, came and received the sacred bread and wine. 
        We formed a circle and started to sing.  Our group shared some songs first, then our Belizean sisters and brothers sang the Lord’s Prayer for us in Garifuna.   No one wanted it to end.  We finally closed with “Amazing Grace.”  Truly the presence of the Lord was in that place!
        The next morning we said good-bye and sailed to the mainland.  I knew that I would have to go out of the way to get the van that was now fixed.  I told Nathan Hall and Harrison to hold on, and they did.  I drove like Richard Petty down the Hummingbird Highway!  I bet Nathan was catching up with his prayer life!   Heman had the van loaded. 
        Lee Mabe’s vehicle was having some problems with a tire.  He had to return to Dangriga to find air, but once the tire was pumped up we were all praying they would make it okay, and they did!  We were finally all together again at the International Airport in Belize City.
        We had one final delay.  Our flight to RDU was delayed because they were waiting on a co-pilot.  But by this time we were not concerned at all.  God had seen us through all of the other challenges, this was a minor issue.  A co-pilot finally boarded and we headed for Raleigh, landing an hour late.  We were home!  And a  round 4 a.m. on Tuesday morning, we were all finally in our beds.
        The mission trip was finally over, but our lives will never be the same.  You better Belize it!

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

We Witnessed Human Compassion at Its Very Best

        The news flashes came quickly last Tuesday.  It was the Breaking News the world was anxiously waiting to hear that rapidly became headlines in papers, large and small, around the globe.  It had nothing to do with politics, or NATO, or war, or natural disasters, or the naming of a Supreme Court nominee.  Twelve boys and their coach were miraculously rescued after being trapped in a cave for almost three weeks.  And the world rejoiced!

        Seldom has one isolated event brought the entire world together with such unifying passion.  The first we heard of this incident was when the news came that a youth soccer team from Thailand had become lost in a cave and it did not look like they would be found.  Immediately our hearts went out to those boys and their families.  We could only imagine how frightened they must be in that dark, desolate world.  We felt the overwhelming sense of panic and loss that their parents must be experiencing.  Then came the amazing news that all of the boys had been found, alive!  But the celebratory mood quickly faded when we heard that getting them out was going to be next to impossible. 

        What happened over the next few days has been described as a miracle, as “Mission Impossible, as the “Apollo 13 of Cave Rescues.”  Officials said the complexity, scale, and risk of the operation was unprecedented.  It involved hundreds of experts from all over the world.  Dozens of courageous Navy SEALs risked their lives and one former Thai SEAL died.  Billionaire Elon Musk sent an engineering team and even offered a mini-submarine.  The rescue effort drew on global expertise in areas ranging from diving, to medicine, to logistics, to child nutrition.

        Isn’t it amazing that the entire world was willing to come to rescue these boys?  No one seemed to be counting the cost.  No one was concerned about the boys’ religious faith, their ethnicity, or their parents’ political views.  We witnessed human compassion at its very best.  The writer Frederick Buechner said, “Compassion is the feeling of what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin.  It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”  

        When we heard this troubling news, we put ourselves in the cave with those boys.  Our hearts were beating with those parents’ hearts, even though we live half-way around the world.  And we were praying for a miracle.

        I assume these boys are Buddhists.  In one of the early reports, I read that a group of Buddhists Monks were at the cave, praying for the boys. But they were not the only ones praying.  Prayers were offered in evangelical churches, in mosques, in synagogues, and also by the Pope.  With the entire world of faith, every faith, united in prayer, a true miracle was the result.  The predicted Monsoon rains held off, the divers and rescue workers accomplished the impossible, the water levels in the cave remained low, and every boy and the coach came out alive.  And just as the last boys were carried out of the cave, the pumps failed and the water levels rose dramatically to add an Indiana Jones type ending to this riveting drama. 

        A miracle?  I would say so.

        But the greatest lesson is what this tells us about ourselves.  We really do care about our fellow human beings.  In a world that is full of hatred, intolerance, and division, most people have a sense of compassion and decency deep within.  If only we could see all the children who are in danger with the same compassion—those who are hungry, those who are victims of abuse, those who are neglected, and those who are not loved. 

        Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”  When we learn to do this, we become more like Jesus.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

My Father's Sermon

        Every now and then someone will ask me if my father was a preacher.  No he wasn’t—he was a Sunday School teacher, a deacon, a faithful church leader, but he was not a preacher.  However, my father did preach a sermon one time and I remember it well.

        Our church had an annual Layman’s Sunday.  The men led the worship service, filled the choir, offered prayers and Scripture readings.  One man was selected to preach the sermon.  They asked my daddy to preach one year on that special day.  Even though I was very small, only seven or eight, I remember the sermon very well.  I remember it because he talked about me!

        He told the story of taking the family to an amusement park in Birmingham.  As we were leaving the park, I got lost.  I vividly remember that frightening experience.  I recall realizing that I was lost and crying hysterically.  A kind lady saw me and tried to calm me down, telling me not to worry because she would stay with me until I found my family.  My sister found me.  While I was fearful I would be in trouble for being lost, I remember my daddy picking me up and squeezing me with delight because of his joy. 

        When daddy told this story as part of his sermon that Sunday, I wasn’t very happy.  I was embarrassed by the incident and never expected it to be broadcast to the entire church.  I told my daddy I didn’t like him telling that story, but he said he did so to show how happy God, our heavenly father is when he finds his children who have lost their way. 

        The story had become a distant memory until last summer.  My mother is confined to a nursing home and my brother and I were cleaning out her house.  My brother found some old notebook paper and said, “You might be interested in this.”   There were sixteen handwritten pages, held together with a rusted paperclip.  I was holding the manuscript of my father’s sermon that he had written in cursive with a pencil. 

        My father started his sermon by calling out the men who convinced him to preach saying, “They will probably have to hold me up because I’ll be so afraid.”  He went on to talk about how he became a Christian saying, “I was brought to Christ through the influence of my Christian parents.”  I found this statement fascinating because daddy’s father died when he was six and he was raised by his aunt and uncle.  But he called them “his parents.”  He also shared what a positive witness the church had been in his life,  “This church has given me the opportunity to do something for God and thereby to grow as a Christian.” 

        He gave several examples of laymen who had made significant contributions for the cause of Christ.  Then, as his sermon came to a close---there it was---the story that I didn’t want my father to tell.  The story was almost exactly as I remember after all these years, but there was something in the manuscript that I did not remember at all.  I’m Ray III.  My daddy was Ray Jr.  But he often called me Buddy or Buddy Boy.  No one else ever called me by that name.  When my daddy called me Buddy, I knew that everything was all right.  It was a name of love and endearment. 

        When he told the story in his sermon, he called me Buddy.  He told the church that when they found Buddy, “I can’t describe to you the joy we felt. We were all tremendously happy.”  He closed his sermon by inviting people to come to Christ saying, “He will be even happier to have you come to him than we were to get Buddy back.”

        Daddy died 20 years ago. Sunday is Father’s Day.  I miss him.  But I know one day I will experience indescribable joy when I find him in heaven and hear him say “Buddy Boy” welcome home!  I know because I heard a sermon many years ago—and my daddy was the preacher.