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.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

They Deserve Better

         This past Wednesday approximately 20,000 educators from across North Carolina gathered in Raleigh on a rainy day for a “March for Students and Rally for Respect.”  This was the largest political rally by teachers in North Carolina’s history.  The importance of education was proclaimed loud and clear.  I applaud their actions. 
        The story of our nation’s founding is filled with many recognizable names:  Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Patrick Henry, George Washington, John Hancock, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and many more.   But mention William Small and most Americans don’t have a clue who you are talking about.  He didn’t serve in the Continental Congress or write the Declaration of Independence, but his student did.  And Thomas Jefferson was quick to say that it was Dr. William Small, his mentor and professor at William and Mary, who “probably fixed the destinies of my life.”  He said Small was like a father to him and for “his enlightened and affectionate guidance of my studies while at college I am indebted for everything.”  
        For every Thomas Jefferson there is a William Small.  For every great leader there are dedicated teachers who have been influential and transformational; teachers who have recognized great potential, providing affirmation and guidance as they have gifted their students with the resources to discover their God-given greatness.
        I probably would have never been a public speaker without the persistent guidance and encouragement of my 3rd Grade teacher along with my grandmother and great-aunt, both of whom were retired educators.  They drilled me on the art of public speaking, helping me to work through a speech impediment, instilling confidence and courage with each speech I delivered to my class.  Even though I was assigned an inordinate number of speeches compared to the rest of the class, those 3rd Grade orations provided the foundation of every speech and sermon I have ever delivered.
        I am grateful to my 6th Grade teacher for helping me to believe that I could be anything I wanted to be.  My 10th and 12th Grade English teachers opened the doors to creativity in writing and speaking.  My New Testament professor in college opened my eyes to a new world of Biblical interpretation as I came to realize that I didn’t learn everything there was to know about the Bible in Sunday School.  My Philosophy professor taught me that a minister of the Gospel should be filled with kindness, humility, and respect for all.  My seminary professors challenged me and demanded more of me than I thought possible.  I learned how to love God with all of my mind.  The intellectual disciplines were liberating, and the truth did indeed set me free.
        The eloquent wordsmith of the Declaration of Independence was convinced that the education of the common people was foundational to the security of a free society—and not just the education of the wealthy and the elite.  He believed that nothing was more important in government than providing an education for all citizens, “from the richest to the poorest.”  I have no doubt that Thomas Jefferson would have approved of the rally in Raleigh on Wednesday.  
        The Apostle Paul said we must “study to show ourselves approved of God.”  But how shall we study without a teacher?  And how shall they teach unless they have adequate resources?  And how shall we provide the resources unless we are committed to education?
        Public education must be a top priority for our state and our nation.  It is not right that teachers have to pay for classroom supplies and snacks out of their own pockets.  Teachers are gifted professionals who have answered a calling to lead their students on a pilgrimage of truth and discovery.  They deserve better.  

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Heartbeat of Lexington

Where would you think the heart of our fair city is found?  Is it the Square with the monuments and the majestic old courthouse?  Is it the business district with charming old buildings and inviting shops?  Or would you say the heart of our city is found in our spiritual homes, our churches?  Considering the fact that I am a preacher and this is my blog, you know my answer.  And if the churches are the heart of our city, where is the heartbeat? 

        Five of our downtown churches are clustered together between 3rd and 5th Avenues.  Nestled between these churches you will find one of the greatest blessings in our town, the J. Smith Young YMCA.  If our churches are the heart, the YMCA is the heartbeat—both symbolically and in many cases, quite literally. 

        I love the YMCA.  When I first moved to town I felt like God was trying to tell me something by placing the YMCA right next door to my church.  Even today when I pull into our parking lot and see that great old gymnasium, I feel a tinge of guilt if I haven’t taken time to work out at the Y in a while.  Well, it’s more than a tinge—it’s a slap in the face.  “There it is!  All you have to do is get off your (insert King James word for donkey) and walk across the street and do something about it!”  I get the message!

        Our Y is unique in many ways.  We have a huge gymnasium that used to host college basketball tournaments, Saturday night “wrastling,” and Elvis!  There is the vintage bowling alley, the food services, a beautiful event center that serves as a community gathering place, and what’s not to love about our world class natatorium named in memory of a true hometown hero, Josh Harris.   We also have first-class fitness equipment and a dedicated and trained staff eager to help us keep our heartbeats strong and sure.          

        But the Y is so much more.  When Gene Klump became the CEO he said he wanted to emphasize the C in YMCA.  First and foremost, the Y is a Christian organization.  There is a beautiful chapel when you walk into the front door, a prayer request board downstairs, an inspirational thought of the day, an annual prayer breakfast, and one of the highlights of my week is the men’s Bible Study that meets every Thursday morning at 7 a.m. 

I see the Y as an extension of our church’s ministry.  The Y provides many different programs for children and youth—after-school programs, summer day camps, teen programs, and leadership development.  No one is denied access because of financial hardship.  Scholarships are available thanks to the generosity of local citizens and the United Way of Davidson County.  

The Y enables us as individuals to keep ourselves physically fit.  Physical fitness is a spiritual discipline.  Our body is a gift from God and we have a sacred responsibility to keep our body healthy so that we can serve God with all of our heart, mind, and strength! 

Our community is a much healthier one because of the Y, and not just in the physical sense.  The Y provides the heartbeat, bringing diverse people together in community, touching the lives of children and young people, giving senior citizens the resources to stay active, and encouraging all of us to be the best God has called us to be, as we build healthy spirits, minds, and bodies.  And through our support and involvement in the Y, we help maintain this remarkable facility for everyone in our community to enjoy. 

God bless the YMCA—the heartbeat of our community!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Surely The Lord Is In This Place And I Did Not Know It

        What is it about this place that pulls us into its presence?  How do we explain this mysterious force that draws us, this mystical call that beckons us, this ethereal conviction that persuades us to go to a country where there is a constant travel advisory and family and friends worry about our safety?  Why do we pay thousands of dollars to fly 6,000 miles to a troubled land full of jagged rocks, barren wilderness, and intense political division?

        Of all the places on the face of the earth, why this land?  The answer is found not in where we go, but why we go; not in our destination but our determination, for we go not as tourists, but as pilgrims, we are not on holiday but on a holy journey.  We travel to Palestine, not because it is the nation of Israel, but because it is the Holy Land, the land of the Bible. 

        To understand the power that draws us to the distant land, we must understand the nature of holiness.  We stand on the Mount of Olives not merely to marvel at the beautiful vista, but because the crucible of the Passion is played out before our very eyes.  Our physical eyes see the glowing Dome of the Rock, but our spiritual eyes see the majestic Temple of Jesus’ day.  We can visualize the palm fronds and hear the shouts of “Hosanna” as the humble man from Galilee rides a donkey through the Golden Gate into the Holy City. 

        We walk into a Byzantine church, stand in a menagerie of jostling humanity, listening to a cacophony of languages, all clamoring to reach one spot that rests down steep steps through a narrow door in an ancient cave.  We kneel down to touch a slimy rock as millions have done before us, touching the rock in Bethlehem where God knelt down to touch the earth 2,000 years ago.  And when we do—we feel the power, we are overcome with the mysterious presence and we know why Simon Montefiore wrote that this land has become “the essential place on earth for communication between God and man.”

        Isn’t God everywhere and can’t we communicate with God anywhere we may be?  Of course we can.   And for that very reason I resisted traveling to the Holy Land for many years.   But when I did make my first journey over 20 years ago, I experienced the reality of “Sacred Space,” of what Montefiore calls “Holiness.”  

        As we sailed in a little boat on the Sea of Galilee a gentle breeze caressed my face and suddenly I was overcome with a powerful sense of contentment, fulfillment, and peace—what the Bible calls “Shalom.”  I had the strange sensation that I had been there before.  Then I realized that indeed I had been there on the Sea of Galilee my entire life.  From the time I was a small child in Sunday School, to a teenager on a mission trip, to a college student studying religion—this was my spiritual center.  I had traveled half way around the world to come home. 

        Montefiore wrote:  Many atheistic visitors are repelled by this holiness, seeing it as infectious superstition in a city suffering a pandemic of righteous bigotry. But that is to deny the profound human need for religion without which it is impossible to understand Jerusalem. Religions must explain the fragile joys and perpetual anxieties that mystify and frighten humanity: we need to sense a greater force than ourselves.”

        And that is what two dozen of your friends and neighbors recently experienced; “a greater force than ourselves,” as we traveled to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage of faith.  From a stirring sunrise over the Sea of Galilee, to the cold waters of the Jordan River rejoicing in baptisms, to the lonely and chilling pit where Jesus was held at the house of Caiaphas hours before his crucifixion, to the tomb that remains as empty today as it was 2,000 years ago, the force of life and light inspired and illuminated our dynamic pilgrimage.  And we echoed the proclamation of Jacob centuries ago, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”