Tuesday, June 16, 2020

He Maketh Me to Lie Down

He Maketh Me to Lie Down

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul.

The soothing words of the 23rd Psalm come to my mind often, especially in times of difficulty.   As I reflected on these timeless words this week, the word “maketh” jumped out at me.  The shepherd has to make his sheep lie down.  They won’t do this on their own.  As much as they need green pastures and still waters, they depend on the shepherd to make them stop and rest. 

There is an old saying that God has to put us on our back before we look up.  Yes, we are stubborn and we get so busy with the demands of life that we have to be made to stop and rest and find nourishment for our souls.

I am not suggesting that God created this COVID crisis to teach us a lesson.  But it is true that the greatest lessons of life are learned when we are forced to stop, slow down, and lie down in the green pastures. 

I’m reading an excellent book by one of my favorite authors and esteemed Presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, titled: Leadership in Turbulent Times.  The book is focused on four great American Presidents who exhibited strong and exceptional leadership in turbulent times:  Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson.  

She highlights the common traits of leadership that they all shared and traces the development of these characteristics in their lives.  All four of these great leaders went through a traumatic time of personal crisis that prepared them for the later national crises they would each face.  

Abraham Lincoln went through a time of depression so severe that his friends had to hide knives and weapons from him because they were afraid he would hurt himself.  Theodore Roosevelt experienced the tragic death of his wife after the birth of their first child, Alice, and his mother died the same day in the same house.  He spiraled into a profound grief.  Franklin Roosevelt was crippled with Polio in the prime of his life and his family and friends felt that his public life was over.  He worked for years to overcome his personal depression and strengthen his diseased body.  Lyndon Johnson, the hyperactive and powerful majority leader of the Senate, suffered a near-fatal heart attack that resulted in months of convalescence and a personal and spiritual transformation.       
You can say that that the greatest characteristics of leadership that guided our nation through some of its most perilous times were formed when these future Presidents were made to “lie down.”  
There is no question that the COVID crisis has forced all of us to pause, to “lie down,” and reflect.  I know we are all anxious for life to get back to normal. We want to come back to church, to sing, to fellowship, to worship together.  But the good shepherd is making us “to lie down in the green pastures.”
I pray we will use this time to listen, to look up, to be renewed in mind and spirit.  I went back almost two decades to another time we were all forced to stop as a nation.  The week after 9/11, I wrote these words:

Have you noticed how the world has changed since September 11?  The haze has lifted and we see the world in a different light.  Now we see clearly the important things of life—the value of relationships, the priority of family, the significance of devoting our time and energy to lasting endeavors.

 I listen as the birds call out to one another.  Most of the time, I just hear birds.  Today, however, I listen closely and realize that each bird has a distinctive sound.  Every human is unique, individual and distinctive—like the birds. 

I listen and watch the birds as they sing their individual songs.  Yet, they have found a way to live together in peace.  They do not fight and destroy each other.  There is room in God’s forest for all of the birds.  Is there not enough room in God’s world for all of us?  Listen to the birds and learn from them. 

Friday, June 12, 2020

Defining the Defining Event

I stood before our high school graduates on June 7 at our annual Baccalaureate Service.  Our church is normally filled for this celebratory Sunday with teary-eyed parents, doting grandparents, smiling friends, and a proud church family.  The graduates are beaming as they march into the sanctuary while cameras and phones record the happy scene.  But last Sunday all of the graduates wore masks and the sanctuary was empty, except for immediate families who were social distanced. 

I shared with the graduates that every generation has a defining event.  The question is whether we allow the event to define us, or do we define it.  I talked about the Great Depression being the defining event for my grandparents, the Second World War for my parents, and the Civil Rights movement for my generation.  The masked graduates left no doubt as the defining event of their generation.

These young graduates actually have more than one life-defining issue on their shiny new plates.  They are not only graduating in the midst of a health pandemic, but also in the midst of a moral and ethical pandemic.  Over half a century after my generation wrestled with Civil Rights, we are still waiting for the day when people will be judged by the content of their character, rather than by the color of their skin.  

As people of faith we are grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition that believes in the dignity and worth of every human being.   Genesis announces that God made humanity in his own image, after his likeness.  The Psalmist proclaims that humanity has been created a little lower than the angels and crowned with glory and honor.  The Apostle Paul wrote that before the foundation of the world we were destined in love to be the children of God.   

Scripture also teaches us that we have distorted God’s magnificent creative order.  We have all sinned and fallen short of his glory.  One of the greatest sins is to disparage others and claim a false superiority over other human beings, denying them the dignity and respect they deserve as children of God.  

Slavery was justified by a horrible perversion of Scripture with ludicrous claims that the “Mark of Cain” and the “Curse of Ham” resulted in the servitude of the black race.  

Racism is grounded in the belief that all human beings are not created equal.  The theme of the last protest march led by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 was simply, “I Am a Man.”  The words plead for equality and respect.   Fifty-two years later the words, “I Can’t Breathe,” echo the same plea.  

The ancient prophet Micah condensed all of life and religion into three beautiful mantras:  Do Justice, Love Kindness, and Walk Humbly with your God. 

But what does walking humbly with God look like?   It’s doing justice and loving kindness.  Justice is founded on the equality of every human being.  Kindness is when we make it so.  

We can begin by treating others with dignity and respect, especially those who are different or with whom we disagree.  Hurling insults at others has become status quo in our society and that in itself creates an atmosphere for racism to thrive.

I told the graduates last Sunday that the greatness of America will never be found in “Trash Talking.”  But the greatness of America will be found in compassion, understanding, reconciliation, forgiveness and mercy.  America becomes great when we lift up the weak and bridge the gaps of inequality.  America becomes great when we welcome the stranger and share in the goodness of our land.  America becomes great when we treat everyone with kindness and respect and when we love one another as Christ has loved us.  

The defining event of a generation usually defines that generation.  My hope is that these young people who are embarking on their life’s journey, will not be defined by these perilous times, but they will define the times by transforming the darkness of our world into the light of hope and the promise of a new day. 

Monday, May 18, 2020

Special Statement Concerning Reopening the Church

We have been richly blessed by our YouTube Channel and our weekly radio broadcast.  This has enabled us to continue to worship even though we cannot physically be together in the sanctuary.   Yet, we are all looking forward to the day when we can be back together and worship in person once again.  

We have been following the Governor’s guidelines, but on Saturday a Federal Judge issued a temporary restraining order, allowing churches to meet again for indoor worship.  This has led to confusion and some misunderstanding as to why some churches are electing to have in-person services and other churches, like ours, are not.  

Our deacons met via Zoom on Sunday night for their monthly meeting.  We discussed the issue of reopening.  The deacons, based on my recommendation, unanimously adopted the following statement: 

First Baptist Church of Lexington will not reopen until the Davidson County Health Department informs us that it is safe to do so.

We adopted this statement for two reasons.  One, we do not agree that the Governor’s order restricting public indoor worship is a First Amendment issue.  This is a Public Health issue. I used the comparison on Sunday of our church being evacuated because of a gas leak.   Evacuating the church because of potential danger is not denying our right to worship, it is protecting the health and safety of our congregation.   The threat of COVID-19 is just as potentially deadly as a gas explosion.  

The second reason that we adopted this statement is because we care about our church family and feel it would be too risky to engage in pubic worship at this time.  Confirmed cases in Davidson County jumped almost 50% last week.  On Mother’s Day there were 199 confirmed cases.  Today there are 294.  The Health Department is reporting that the great majority of cases have come from people who have congregated in groups.  Considering the demographics of our congregation, we would be irresponsible and foolish to open our doors and place our people in jeopardy.  

When the Health Department informs us that we can safely begin steps to reopen, we will.  But I want you to understand that public worship will be much different than it was before.  When we return to worship in the sanctuary, we will encourage people to wear masks and practice social distancing.   We will not be able to pass the offering plate.  Every precaution must be taken to protect the health of our worshipers.  

Following each service of worship, the sanctuary must be sanitized by professionals.  The same is true of any activity in the fellowship hall.  We will probably open the doors of our sanctuary to worship before we open our educational space for Sunday School and small groups.   Most of our classrooms are not large enough to practice social distancing.  Any space that is used must be sanitized before it can be used again.  Churches that have had two worship services on Sunday mornings will not be able to do so anymore because of this requirement.  

One of the biggest issues in reopening is congregational and choral singing.  Saliva droplets are considered a prime vector for spreading the coronavirus.  When people are singing with passion and conviction, saliva droplets can carry well beyond six feet.   One of the first major outbreaks of the virus in March was a community choir in Washington.  Almost everyone in the choir came down with the virus.  As hard as it is to say, and as hard as it is to imagine, we may be returning to public worship without a choir to sing and without congregational singing.  This is already happening in Germany where churches are meeting again, without singing. 

I am sharing this with you because I want you to understand that reopening the church will not be as simple as opening the doors and welcoming people back in the sanctuary.  Public worship will look different, feel different, and sound different for a long time.  

On Mother’s Day a church in California decided to ignore the Governor’s order and meet for worship.  About 180 people gathered.  The next day one member of that congregation tested positive for COVID-19.   Today, the entire congregation is in quarantine. 

In Jewish law there is a concept of “pikuach nefesh” or mortal danger.  In cases of mortal danger, almost the entire body of the Jewish law can be put aside until the danger is resolved.  We find ourselves in a state of mortal danger.   Until this danger is resolved and we are convinced it is safe to return to public worship with restrictions, we will continue to worship only through YouTube and on the radio.  

This is the dark reality that we find ourselves in, but as I said Sunday, we can’t change the dark reality but we can change the darkness.  There are many ways to let our light shine.  Your continued financial faithfulness enables us to continue to be a light of hope and healing for our community.  

There are many creative ways we can continue to be the church.  If you have ideas of different ways we can minister and worship in this crisis, please share them . . . we are all in unchartered water together.  Or as a friend said the other day, “We are building an airplane in the air!”

One day we will all look back on this experience and reflect on the lessons we learned and the many different ways we saw God in the storm.  And we will give testimony of how we emerged from the darkness into God’s marvelous light!

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

One Of Our Greatest Christian Hymns Was Written in A Global Pandemic

It’s hard to believe that a year ago at this time I was in the middle of a three-month Sabbatical.  Joyce and I traveled to six different countries and eighteen different states in our memorable odyssey.  I look back now so very grateful that we were able to travel when we did, for none of that would be possible today.  
One of the great highlights of the Sabbatical was visiting Wittenberg, Germany, the home of Martin Luther and the Reformation.  We stayed in a 600-year-old inn that overlooked the chapel doors where Martin Luther nailed his revolutionary “95 Theses.” I studied Martin Luther, visited his home and museum, read books on his life, perused historical documents, and joined other sojourning Christians in the Chapel Church for a worship service that included singing his majestic hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”   
But somehow, I missed one of the most important events in his life that may not have seemed so important last year, but it really does today.  Martin Luther survived the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history—the Bubonic Plague.  He not only survived, but it inspired one of the greatest hymns in Christian history. 
The Plague first hit Europe in the 14th Century and killed an estimated 60% of the population.  It was highly contagious as it was transmitted through the air and also by fleas.  The Plague killed its victims in a horrific manner, leading to the name “The Black Death.”  Doctors and Priests were often the first ones to die, so most people faced this terrifying ordeal without a doctor to treat them and without a Priest to administer the last rites.

For over 300 years there were outbreaks of the disease, including the summer of 1527 in Wittenberg.  The entire university left town, most professors and their families fleeing the city—but not Martin Luther.  He felt God was calling him to minister to those dying of the Plague.  He was ready to do battle with the Prince of Darkness himself.  
Luther knew all too well the deadly power of this cruel enemy.  Two of his brothers died in the Pandemic.  In spite of the fact that his wife, Katie, was pregnant, Luther turned his home into a hospital to care for the sick and dying.  Writing to others about the danger of this mortal ill, Luther said that if you truly love your neighbor, you will self-quarantine to stop the spread of the disease.  
The personal strain of living in this world that was “devil filled” threatened to undo Luther.  He was slipping into depression, an ancient foe that Luther battled his entire life.  But he found great strength and solace in the Word of God, especially Psalm 46.  “God is our fortress and our strength, an ever-present help in time of trouble.”
Struggling with depression, Luther knew that he in his own strength could not prevail.  He put his hope and trust in the one who is our refuge and strength.  In the midst of a Global Pandemic as he battled his own personal demons, Luther wrote the enduring words that have lifted millions of hearts throughout the centuries.  “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing!”  
When you look carefully at the words of this powerful hymn, you can see many references to the devastating pandemic. “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill:  God’s truth abideth still:  his kingdom is forever.”
As we find ourselves struggling with a flood of mortal ills known as COVID-19, let us find courage and resolve in the words of the great Reformer:  “And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.”  It is Christ who will win this battle!

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

In All Things God Works Together for Good

Mr. John Henry was a plain-spoken, opinionated, and tight-fisted man who was a member of my first church.  He was a faithful church member and became a good friend, but sometimes he would say things that would make me cringe.  

He never had anything good to say about the government, civil rights, or equality and was generally opposed to any new, forward thinking idea.  He longed for the “good old-days” which had become idealized in his selective memory.   One of his favorite sayings was, “What this country needs is a good depression!”

I didn’t challenge Mr. John Henry very often, primarily because he was much older and his mind was always closed, not to mention the fact he refused to listen to other views.  But one day I said, “Mr. John Henry, you know you don’t mean that.  You really don’t think a depression would be a good thing.”

I must have caught him off guard, because he paused and gave it some serious thought.  Then he surprised me with his thoughtful response.  “No, I know we don’t need a depression.  But there were a lot of good things that came out of the depression that we could use right now.”  

The last thing this country needed was the Coronavirus Pandemic, but I believe there are some good things that will come out of this that will make us better people.  In a strange way, social distancing and “stay at home” has brought us closer together.  We realize how much we need each other and we are all finding ways to connect either through social media or an old-fashioned telephone call.  

Last Sunday, Easter Sunday morning, I stood in the pulpit of my church and looked out over an empty sanctuary.  It was so very strange, and so very sad.  I thought about Easter Sundays in the past when the sanctuary was full of faithful worshipers dressed in their Easter Sunday finest.  I will be so thankful to actually see people gather for worship again and I think people will be anxious to get back to church for corporate worship.  

 I don’t know about you, but I am noticing the little things more.  God has blessed us with a beautiful spring.  The azaleas and dogwoods have been stunning in their beauty.  We are watching Cardinals, Blue Birds, Gold Finches, Chickadees and Red Headed Woodpeckers visit our bird feeders.  The Hummingbirds will be here soon.  All of creation is celebrating the rebirth of nature and it reminds us that we will soon emerge from this “momentary affliction” to rejoice again in the goodness of God’s creation.  

There have been other blessings as a result of this crisis.  We are recognizing the sacrifice of our healthcare professionals who are serving on the front lines, putting their own health at risk to save others.  We are reaching out to the most vulnerable in our communities.  I applaud our school systems and the YMCA for finding ways to feed our children.  Pollution is down and we are learning that there are many things we can actually live without.

Romans 8: 28 reads:  “In all things God works together for good to those who love God.” It does not say that all things are good, but God can use any situation, even a Depression or a Coronavirus Pandemic to bring about good.  When life is good, when we are healthy and the economy is strong, we fall into a false sense of security, believing that we are in control of our life.  How suddenly it all can change. 

The Apostle Paul stood on top of Mars Hill in ancient Athens and proclaimed, “The God who made the world gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”  Yes, it is he who has made us and not we ourselves.  “We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”  We realize that truth now, more than ever.

No, we didn’t need a Global Pandemic, but God is working for good in the midst of this.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good News to Share!

Easter morning will be the 31st consecutive Easter Sunday that I have had the joy of sharing the glorious news of the resurrection with my church family.  It is also be the most unusual Easter!

Ten years ago, I wrote an article for The Dispatch the day before Easter.  I thought you might enjoy seeing it again—I think it speaks in some ways to our present situation.

Easter 2010

Good news, oh, the chariot's coming
Good news, the chariot's coming,
Yeah, I don't want to be behind. (Spiritual)

Dear sisters and brothers, this is one happy preacher writing this column. Why? Because good news is coming soon! It's coming in the morning! Easter Sunday morning!

Tomorrow morning, I will stand before the faithful, and a few who haven't been so faithful, and announce: "I have good news to share!" The economy is awful, unemployment is soaring, health insurance is unaffordable, but I have good news to share. In spite of sickness, tragedy, natural disasters and suffering, I have good news to share. The world is full of evil and hatred, wars continue to escalate, terrorism lurks in the shadows, but I have good news to share. The good news will reverberate from coast to coast, nation to nation, ocean to ocean, and continent to continent. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

I've always been excited about Easter. One of my earliest childhood memories is sitting with my daddy on Easter Sunday on a folding chair on the front porch of the sanctuary because there was no more room inside. I vividly remember the bright Easter sun, the singing birds, the budding trees, and the blooming flowers announcing the good, glad, glorious news of the resurrection much more powerfully and creatively than our pastor ever could; bless his dear heart.  He was droning away on the inside with a tedious sermon.

Tomorrow morning, I will have the great privilege of preaching the good news of Easter joy for the 21st consecutive year here in Lexington. Mercy, time flies when you're having fun.

I wasn't having much fun some 34 years ago (44 years ago now) in my first church when I learned that I would not be preaching on Easter Sunday. Dear Miss Louise, bless her dear heart, who had been the music director at our church since the Reformation, informed me that Easter Sunday was reserved for the annual Easter cantata—yes it was. 

In the spirit of the Reformation I started to protest, but she, in the spirit of the Inquisition, told me that all of those people who came to church on Easter didn't want to be bored with a silly sermon. No sir-ree! It was an Easter cantata they wanted and an Easter cantata they would get.

I cried that Easter Sunday. People thought I was moved by the cantata, but I was crying because I thought I would have to move in order to preach an Easter sermon. But the good Lord must have heard my cries because a couple of years later he moved dear Miss Louise. Bless her dear heart, he sent the chariot for her.  I guessed they needed someone to direct the Easter Cantata in Glory. (I wonder how Peter and Paul took the news that they couldn’t preach on Easter anymore?)  But with no one left to direct an Easter Cantata at my church, I knew I would get to preach my first Easter sermon!  Good news was coming at last!

For my first Easter sermon I went out and bought a stunning, three-piece polyester light blue suit with matching patent leather blue shoes that shined so much you could see yourself in the reflection. I worked up a mighty fine Easter sermon and generously applied the Old Spice to drown out the Easter lilies and some hair tonic to doctor up my hair. (The light blue suit, the blue shoes, the sermon, and my hair have all disappeared, but I think I still have the Old Spice.)

I was so excited I barely slept Saturday night.  The next morning, Easter Sunday, I stood in the pulpit looking a lot like an Easter egg and smelling like a barber shop, but I was just as happy as I could be. I couldn't tell you a thing I said.  All I know is that I had good news to share!

As people sniffed the air and looked quizzically at my bright blue outfit, they told me it was a good sermon. After locking all the doors to the church, I walked out into the brilliant Easter sun, heard the birds singing, saw the trees budding and the flowers blooming and I realized that all creation was announcing the good, glad, glorious news of the resurrection much more powerfully and creatively than I ever could, bless my dear heart!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! That's good news to share!

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Maundy Thursday

Dear FBC Family,

Today is Maundy Thursday, one of the holiest and most somber days of the year.  Normally, we would be having a Maundy Thursday service tonight, but that is not possible as we separate ourselves from the COVID-19 threat.  Since we cannot be together in person, I want to share some thoughts with you as you observe this most holy of days.

Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church said, These holy days are holy days because they take human suffering seriously. They were born in the crucible of hard times and suffering. That's a reminder that the God that we serve and believe in is a God who is always in the midst of life and in the midst of suffering and hardship, and together with our God, we can walk through this.”

Has there ever been a more relevant time in our life to observe this sacred weekend?  Every day we are bombarded with news of more deaths, more deaths than 9/11, more deaths than Pearl Harbor---before long we will have more deaths that Vietnam.  The Passion of our Savior is a story of suffering and death, of pain and loss, of separation and hardship.  

John, the Gospel writer, gives us a prolonged account of what took place in Jerusalem that night when Jesus gathered with his disciples to observe the Passover.  I would encourage you to read John 13-17—five chapters in all—it all took place in the Upper Room.

Read these powerful words, reflect on them, apply them to our present situation.  Here are some of my thoughts.

1)    In times of great danger, it is very important to observe the great traditions of our faith.  We call this meal “The Last Supper,” but John reminds us in 13: 1 that this was the feast of the Passover.  Jesus was a faithful Jew and his first priority was keeping the tradition.  We can’t gather for a service or a meal, but we can still worship together via the radio and streaming that will hopefully be ready by Sunday.  Even in times of social isolation, we can observe the traditions of our faith that bring a spiritual connection. 
2)   In times of danger and distress, we still must engage of acts of humility and service.  John tells us that Jesus knew his hour had come, yet he still washed the disciples’ feet—an act usually done by a servant.  And consider this, he washed the feet of Judas and served his supper.  (John 13)
3)   In critical times, the greatest thing we can do is love one another.  “Maundy” is the Latin word for mandate.  It was on this night that Jesus gave his disciples a new “mandate,” a new commandment:  “That you love one another, even as I have loved you.”  (John 13: 34)
4)   Times of loss create great stress and anxiety.  Jesus told his disciples that he was leaving them, but then reminded them that they believed in God, so they should continue to believe in him.  In times that create stress and anxiety, we should never give up believing in Jesus because he said, “I will not leave you desolate, I will come to you.”  (John 14: 18)
5)   In times of great uncertainty and anxiety, we can find peace (shalom) with God.  It is a peace that the world cannot give.  We know we can experience this peace because Jesus promised that the Father is sending us the Counselor, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit.  (John 14: 25-27)
6)   In times of fear and uncertainty, it is important to talk about what life will be like when the troubling time is over.  Jesus’ beautiful analogy of the vine and branches came in the midst of the fear of the Upper Room.  He was telling the disciples how life would be in the future, especially if we “abide in him.”  He calls the disciples his friends and tells them the greatest love is one lays down his life for his friends.  He continues to talk about the “new commandment” to love one another.   At a time of great fear and danger, he talks about joy!  (John 15)
7)   It is important in troubling times, to put everything in perspective.  This is what Jesus is doing in John 16.  He is helping the disciples to understand that this is all part of God’s plan.  He is leaving so the Holy Spirit can come.  He tells them that there will be times of persecution and travail, but one day it will all be worth it when we see Jesus again and rejoice and “no one will take your joy from you.”  (John 16)
8)   There is nothing more important in times of distress than prayer.  Jesus’ great prayer is recorded in John 17.  He prays earnestly for all of his followers, that we may know the only true God and that God would protect them in this evil world.  He also prays for unity, that we should all be one.  At the conclusion of this prayer for his people, Jesus leaves the Upper Room and crosses the Kidron Valley and enters the Garden of Gethsemane.

Wow—so much is there.  So much for us to contemplate today—Maundy Thursday.  

We are beginning to see a positive trend in the COVID-19 numbers that tells us the “Stay at Home” mandate and social distancing appear to be working.  Yesterday there were 74 reported cases.  The encouraging news is that 36 of those, almost half, have recovered.  But we still haven’t reached the peak, so please stay vigilant.  If you must go out into public, please wear a mask and carry disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer.  

 If you do get sick, the first thing you should do is call your doctor.  The majority of people who get COVID-19 get mild symptoms.  The authorities are saying that you should only go to the hospital in the event of “significant symptoms.”   When pressed on what exactly this means, Lillian Koontz (our dedicated Health Department Director) said if you are having difficulty breathing, that is when you should seek medical assistance.

If you go to Lexington Medical Center with respiratory difficulties, an alternative treatment center for possible COVID-19 cases has been set up between the Emergency Department and the Outpatient Entrance.  It will be well marked.

Let me encourage you to get your information on the crisis from reliable sources.  There are too many rumors and misinformation circulating online, and there are numerous scams.  Wake Forest Baptist has an information number 336-702-6843.  Novant Health has an information number 877-966-8668.  The official North Carolina link to current information is:   https://www.ncdhhs.gov/covid-19-case-count-nc 

Grace and Peace as we journey together,


Sunday, March 22, 2020

Waiting on the Lord

This is a message I sent to my church family on Sunday morning, March 22, 2020, the second Sunday of the COVID-19 Crisis.

       “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!”
       For the second consecutive Sunday we will “rejoice and be glad” in the Lord’s day without having the opportunity to attend church.  And to think that only ten days ago life was fairly normal.  
       We had been studying the book of Acts that tells the story of the birth of the church.  I am now seeing the first chapter of Acts from a different perspective.  Jesus commanded his disciples to “not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father.”  (Acts 1: 4)
       The story of the church begins with the disciples being on lockdown, they were mandated to “shelter in place.”  
       They had just experienced the resurrection and stood on the top of the Mount of Olives as Jesus ascended into heaven.  They wanted all the world to know this glorious news, but they could not go anywhere because they were under a mandate to “wait.”
       We learned in our Bible Study that the word “wait” in the first chapter of Acts is not the normal word for “wait” in the Bible.  Luke, who also wrote Acts, was the “beloved physician.”   He was a medical doctor who used many medical terms.  The word “wait” that is used in Acts 1 means to wait for the result of a medical test or treatment.  
       Most of you know about waiting for the results of a medical test—a CT Scan, a MRI, an Ultrasound.  It is often anxious waiting—fearing the worse, hoping for the best—waiting with uncertainty.  This was the waiting that the disciples experienced.  They did not know what to expect, whether it was going to be good or bad.  They did not know how long they would have to wait. 
       That is the situation we find ourselves in.  We are hoping for the best, but fearing the worse.  We don’t know how long this will last. 
       What did the disciples do while they were waiting?  They devoted themselves to prayer and they studied the Scriptures.  It wasn’t long before their waiting was over and the Holy Spirit came with power.  
       I invite you to join me in prayer during these uncertain days.  Study the Scriptures to find hope and comfort.  We need to reminded that God is still in control, that he is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble. 
       It is not easy to wait, but remember the powerful words from Isaiah 40:  “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”  

When the World Falls Apart We Won't Be Afraid

It took less than 24 hours for our world to fall apart.  We all heard about the Coronavirus, but it was a long way from us.  Life was going on as usual.  The ACC Tournament was back in Greensboro and Carolina finally played a complete game dominating Virginia Tech.  NC State was on the bubble, as usual, but showed great promise as they dispatched Pitt setting up yet another critical game with Duke.  
I attended a Minister’s meeting Wednesday morning and we talked about how the Coronavirus was beginning to change things in worship.  No more “passing the peace” in some churches and a couple of ministers said they were not going to pass the offering plate either, which I thought was a little extreme at the time.  We talked about plans for the Community Palm Sunday Celebration that would focus on the proposed “Unity Statue.”  I told the ministers that since we were rained out last Palm Sunday, I was confident April 5 would be a beautiful spring day!   We were getting a Children’s Choir together to sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”  It would be a grand celebration!
I was also planning for a great Sunday of worship on March 15.  I was preaching my “Census Sermon” that the city asked me to write.  We had invited the Mayor, the City Council, and City Administration to attend our worship.  Our wonderful Music Minister had enlisted a small orchestra and the music was going to be moving and powerful.  
Our Thursday morning men’s Bible Study met as usual at the YMCA and I went to Kiwanis at noon.  During the Kiwanis meeting I saw a news alert that the ACC Tournament had been cancelled.  Even though there was no basketball to watch, I was busy Thursday afternoon preparing for Sunday worship.  Then came the word that the Governor was requesting that there be no gatherings of more than 100—including churches.
My first thought was that since we had no known cases in Davidson County, that we should proceed as usual.  The Governor was just suggesting this guideline, it was not a mandate.  I decided to call Lillian Koontz who is our Health Department Director.  I really thought Lillian would say something like, “Ray, we need to be careful, but it’s not really an issue for us yet in Davidson County.”  But that is not what she said.  
Lillian told me that this was much more serious than most of us realized and it would get a lot worse before it got better.  She strongly recommended following the Governor’s guidelines.  
We decided to have our service on Sunday without a congregation.  Since our service would be broadcast on the radio, we would have a large audience.  We would have a choir and I would preach.   I went to bed Thursday night thinking that would be our plan.
Around 5 a.m. on Friday morning I got up and saw an email from my brother in Alabama.  My mother had been admitted to the hospital and was critically ill.  It didn’t look like she would make it.  
In less than 24 hours my world had fallen apart.  We cancelled services altogether on Sunday and replayed a previous service on the radio.  I was in Alabama saying good-bye to my mother.
The COVID-19 crisis is escalating every day.  Schools are out and no one knows when they will return.   Life for everyone has been turned upside down.   But in a strange way, sitting by my mother’s hospital bed and waiting for her to die was a reminder that God is still in control.  There is a time to be born and a time to die and it was my mother’s time.  I was with her on Tuesday when she took her final breath.  I knew I was on Holy Ground.  Her death is a blessing because she is released from the limitations and the awful curse of Alzheimer’s that has dominated her life in recent years.  
The 46th Psalm reads: “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble.  That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart . . .” (CEB). 
In these unprecedented times of great trouble in which our world is falling apart, don’t be afraid.  God is our refuge and strength.  He is with us.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Davidson County Has Every Reason to Celebrate Black History Month

        The month of February is celebrated as Black History Month because both Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14) had February birthdays.  But here in Davidson County we have our own remarkable reasons to celebrate. 

        Davidson County had a population of 16,601 in 1860.  This number included 3,076 slaves and 147 free people of color.  It is hard to believe that 160 years ago over 18% of our county’s population was slaves.  It probably will not surprise you to learn that nearly 2,000 Davidson County men fought for the Confederacy, but you may be surprised to know that many local people were opposed to the war.  There was a peace rally in Thomasville in 1862.  

        The post-war south was difficult for everyone, white and black, but at least there were schools for white children.  It was almost six decades after the war before black children had a school of their own.  Julius Rosenwald, the self-educated son of a German-Jewish immigrant had become a multi-millionaire as President of Sears Roebuck.   He wanted to address the inequality that black citizens experienced in the south by building schools.  There were 813 Rosenwald Schools in North Carolina, including Dunbar School on 4th Street in Lexington that opened in 1924. 

        Rosenwald’s next project was to provide public library services for black citizens.  The Davidson County Public Library opened in 1928, but was in serious financial distress.  The Rosenwald Foundation offered the county financial assistance on the condition that services would be provided to all citizens, regardless of race.  At the time around 10% of the county’s 40,000 citizens were black.  In the summer of 1929, two new branches of the Davidson County Library opened to serve the African-American population.  When this happened, our county became the first county, not just in North Carolina, but the entire south to offer public library services to all of our citizens—an amazing accomplishment!  And the first month the new branches were open, black citizens checked out 4,000 books.  That was one book for every African-American in the county!

        In 1951, Dr. Lacy Caple became the first African-American dentist in Lexington.  He was an early advocate for civil rights along with Harvey Henderson, Rev. A. T. Evans and Rev. F. D. Betts.  In 1958, Dunbar High School won the first of three state football championships under the leadership of Coach Charlie England. 

        In 1963, the Lexington “Race Riot” received international attention after a man was killed.  No one who was present that night will ever forget the fear that they experienced.  The News Media had already left town when only one week later the Lexington City Council ordered the immediate desegregation of all city offices.  A bi-racial council was formed to find ways to work together.  Four years later all schools in Davidson County were totally integrated.   

 Rev. Dr. Arnetta Beverly became the first African-American to be elected to the Lexington City Council in 1987 and in 2002 the Davidson County Commissioners voted to approve the Martin Luther King. Jr. Holiday. 

There have been many brave and courageous men and women of all races who have worked for equality and justice through the years.   There have been times of great progress and there have also been times that we have failed to love our neighbors as ourselves.  There will always be those who are insensitive and those whose hearts are full of hatred which is why it is so important for us to focus on our accomplishments and the positive efforts to bring about justice for all.  Light is always stronger than the darkness and love is always stronger than hate. 

I hope you will join me in celebrating the many wonderful accomplishments of African-Americans and others who have worked for racial reconciliation and unity.   No, we are not where we should be, but thank the good Lord we are not where we used to be.  We keep moving forward, even though there are setbacks.  We keep striving to reach the goal of a society where all people are respected because we have been created equal.  Every person is an individual of worth because all of us, of every color and every culture, have been created in the Image of God.  One day we pray we will reach our goal where there will be true liberty and justice for all!