Tuesday, December 29, 2020

47 Years Ago--The Human Moment that Turned Darkness into Light

 On New Year’s Day the sports world will be focused on the College Football Playoffs.  The first game has the Number One ranked Alabama Crimson Tide playing the Number Four ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish.  I will be pulling for my native Alabama to win, but my heart and my mind will be going back 47 years to December 31, 1973 when Number One ranked Alabama played Number Three ranked Notre Dame for the National Championship in the 40th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic in New Orleans.  


The game was played in historic Tulane Stadium, the world’s largest double-decked steel stadium.  The official capacity of the stadium on the campus of Tulane University was 80,985, but on that night the venerable old stadium set an attendance record that was never surpassed; 86,598, of which I was one.  


It was billed as the “Game of the Century,” featuring two of the greatest coaches in college football history, Paul “Bear” Bryant and Ara Parseghian.  The game was so big that ABC brought in their Monday Night Football star, the legendary Howard Cosell, to help with the broadcast. It was the first time that the two legendary schools with the richest football traditions in college history ever met on the gridiron and Super Bowl tickets were easier to find that year.  Which made it even more remarkable that my Daddy was able to come up with the tickets to the biggest game of our lifetime. 


The reason that my heart and mind will go back to the 1973 Sugar Bowl has nothing to do with the game itself, but it has everything to do with my Daddy who was sitting beside me on that drizzly New Year’s Eve night in that massive stadium as we witnessed history together.  


People who didn’t grow up in Alabama can’t really understand the significance of Alabama football.  It’s not just a game, not just a sporting event. . . it is a defining exercise in life that teaches the importance of dignity, respect, equality and, most importantly, relationships.  


In the 1950s and 60s, the state of Alabama was often the laughing stock of the nation.  We were behind almost every other state in education, industry, and opportunity.  We had a governor who was on the wrong side of history.  People looked down on the state of Alabama, but there was one place where we excelled.  There was one area where we were not number 50, but Number One.  


My mother dressed me in a coat and tie to attend my first Alabama football game in 1963.  When I asked her why I had to get dressed up just to go to a football game she responded, “But you are not going to just a football game, you are going to see the Bear.”


Bear Bryant brought dignity and respect back to the state of Alabama on the football field.  He was revered because he lifted us all up when everybody else was tearing us down. He did it with homegrown talent and without superstars.  His winning football teams were the product of hard work, discipline, sacrifice, and teamwork.  


Daddy was a hard-working man.  I know my parents struggled to make ends meet.  But somehow, he always managed to get us tickets to Alabama football games.  We would sit there in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa or Mobile, proud as we could be, rain or shine, as we watched the Bear take down another giant and pull off another miracle—they said he could walk on water and we believed he could—we were there. 


When Alabama won, order was restored to the universe.  Righteousness and justice were vindicated.  Losing, which didn’t happen very often, was a reminder that chaos and disorder could still invade our fragile world.  That was when we would cling to every word from the Bear who would explain what went wrong and promise that it would be corrected through hard work, pain and sacrifice, so the good guys would prevail once again.  


We looked forward each year to games with our local rivals:  Tennessee, LSU, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and of course, Auburn.  We would venture outside of our region for bowl games when we would play schools like Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.  All of these schools had great football traditions.  But there was one school that seemed to be beyond reach, outside of our orbit . . . and that school was Notre Dame.  If there was one school with a greater football tradition than Alabama it was Notre Dame, but the two schools had never met on the football field.  For years, Notre Dame refused to go to bowl games.  There was little opportunity to play.


For the Alabama faithful, Notre Dame was the Darth Vader of the football world.  Alabama fans were still fuming over the 1966 season when Ara Parseghian famously played for a tie with Michigan State and was awarded the National Championship anyway, even though Alabama was 11-0 and destroyed Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl.  If the two schools ever had the opportunity to oppose each other, it would be a colossal clash with apocalyptic implications.  


I didn’t miss an Alabama home game in 1973.  This was one of Bear’s best teams ever with running back, Wilbur Jackson, an African-American who was welcomed to the family by the Bear with open arms.  “I don’t have white players or black players,” the Bear said.  “I have football players.”  The Bear advanced racial equality in the state of Alabama when the Governor was trying to tear it down.  


We were on a mission as we made the long drive to New Orleans.  My brother, Robert, and I rode with my Daddy.  My sister, Nancy, was a student at the University and also attended the game.  The night before the game Daddy saw a friend, who was also friends with the Bear.  “He’s worried about this game,” his friend said.  Our anxiety increased exponentially with this revelation. 


It was one of those games we should have won.  Alabama missed an extra point, gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown, and let Notre Dame out of deep hole on a long 3rd down pass late in the 4th quarter. Notre Dame won by one point.  We were shocked and stunned.  This was not supposed to happen.  Darkness descended.  Chaos ruled. 


We drove back to Tuscaloosa in silence.  Nothing could be said that would make things right.  The earth had tilted on its axis and it didn’t look like anything could correct it.  Alabama always found a way to win games like this one.  It was not just that we lost or how we lost, it was the fact that we lost to the arch-enemy, the ever-present nemesis, the long-despised antagonist of the football world. 


We stopped in Tuscaloosa to pick up my youngest brother, Jon, who was visiting with our great-grandmother.  Daddy thought it would be good to have lunch at a steak house.  We found a booth and looked at the menu.  The mood was still somber, the atmosphere heavy with grief and regret.  A rotund waiter who called himself T-Bone came to our table and asked what we would like to order.   What happened next has lived forever in the annals of the Howell family history.  


I don’t know how to put this delicately, but there was a sound.  It could not be described as a gentle breaking of the wind, but more of a turbulent flatulence, the rush of a mighty wind.  In the words of the Apostle Paul, “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comprehension.”  


At first, we thought T-Bone was the culprit, but then we realized it was our benevolent father.  The whole world stopped.  


Now, you must understand that we had all been schooled in our grandmother’s academy of proper decorum and table etiquette.  Such an action at the dinner table would have resulted in solitary confinement for any of us children.  My father would have been banished for an indefinite time if we had been at home.  


But it happened and just like that our universe that seemed on the verge of extinction, had come alive again in the most unexpected, improbable and serendipitous manner.  My brother and I started laughing and we couldn’t stop. T-Bone also thought it was grand entertainment.  We laughed through our meal and all the way home.  


There were times when my Daddy was larger than life.  My memories of him are tied to our love for Alabama football.  But for one moment in time, my father was fully human.  Suddenly, the game that had seemed so important didn’t matter as much.  Life went on, at least for a while.


That’s why I will remember that game 47 years ago.  Football is not just a game, it is grounded in relationships.  Daddy died some 23 years ago.  My brother, Robert, is also gone along with my sister and my Mother who attended the 1948 Sugar Bowl with my Daddy.  The Bear and Ara Parseghian are now coaching on the celestial gridiron. My youngest brother, Jon, and I are the only ones left in our family.  I don’t know about T-Bone.  But 47 years ago, when we were all together, there was one human moment that turned our darkness into light.


An interesting sidelight to this story was that while the football game was the main event, it was not the only event.  The Sugar Bowl Classic included tennis, an intercollegiate sailing regatta, and a basketball tournament.  There were four basketball teams in New Orleans for the 1973 classic:  LSU-New Orleans, Memphis State, Villanova and North Carolina State University.  This was the NC State team of David Thompson, Tommy Burleson, and Monte Towe.  They would not only win the Sugar Bowl Classic, but would continue to win all the way into the NCAA tournament.  After taking down mighty UCLA in 2 overtimes, they would beat Marquette to claim the 1974 NCAA National Championship.  


Monday, December 7, 2020

Joe, Mary, the Baby and the Mall

        (This is an adaptation of a Christmas article I wrote for the Dispatch almost 30 years ago.  I wrote this a year or two after Baptist Hospital started putting the big star on top of their main building.  It is dated with the emphasis on big crowds shopping at the malls.  The Denton newspaper ran this column for a number of years each Christmas.)

 And it came to pass during the Great Pandemic that there went out a decree from the Department of Commerce that gift giving at Christmas was mandatory, even without a governmental subsidy.  Everyone was required to give expensive gifts to all family members, co-workers, delivery drivers, the family next door, the butcher, the baker, and the fake-news makers.  This decree was first made during unprecedented unemployment and a depressed economy.       

And Joe also went up from the county of Davidson, out of the city of Linwood, into Forsyth, unto the twin city, which is called Winston-Salem, because he was of the house and lineage of Old Salem, to go last-minute Christmas shopping with Mary, his new wife, who was great with child.  

And so it was that they drove around the parking lot for a long time until they finally parked in the grass, because there were no parking places in the paved lot.  After buying gifts, Mary was standing in the complimentary gift-wrapping line, socially distanced and wearing a mask, when the days were accomplished that she should be delivered and she went into labor and passed out in the line. 

Upon witnessing this great thing that had come to pass, Joe dropped the gifts and announced, “I must go, even unto the parking lot, and find our car which I pray the Lord will make the location known unto me.”  And he went with haste and found his car which was blocked in by several other cars and then, seized with panic; he sprinted back to the mall and was promptly hit by a car.  He was sore and afraid.

And there were in the same mall, security officers, who called 911 to assist the expectant mother.  And suddenly, there was in the parking lot, a multitude of frustrated drivers who also called 911 to report an injured shopper in hopes they would get his parking place.  And it came to pass that there was gridlock around the mall and the ambulances could not get through.  Joe was even more sore and afraid and he looked up and saw a star in the east at Baptist Hospital and prayed for help from above.  

Upon hearing his prayer, the helicopter from Wake Forest Baptist came with haste and found Joe in the parking lot, Mary in the mall, and the baby due any minute.  As the helicopter landed at Baptist it blew the giant star off of the hospital into the adjoining neighborhood where friendly carolers were singing Christmas carols by night, while wearing masks and socially distanced.  

 And, lo, the giant star flew over them and exploded round about them and they were sore afraid.  And suddenly there were with the carolers a multitude of police cars, fire trucks, and emergency vehicles with loud sirens and flashing lights.  And the carolers said, one to another, “Let us now go even unto Wake Forest Baptist Hospital and see this thing which is come to pass.”  And they came with haste and found Joe in the emergency room, Mary in labor and delivery, and the babe, wrapped in a hospital blanket and lying in a sterilized bassinet. 

And Joe said in a loud voice, “Here we are on Christmas Eve without any gifts!”

Just then, three wise doctors from the east entered the room and said, “But you have the greatest gift of all, a newborn baby boy wrapped in love and joy, and lying in a sterilized bassinet.”  And the carolers, socially distanced and wearing masks, joined with the doctors and nurses and sang, “Silent Night.”

And Joe, being warned in a dream not to return to the mall, took Mary and the baby and went back to Linwood on Christmas Day, where they were visited by family members, neighbors, and friends, all wearing masks and socially distanced, who celebrated this new life with great rejoicing. 

Joe and Mary apologized for not having any gifts, but everyone was so excited about the newborn baby that gifts did not matter.  It was a happy time of love and joy. 

Perhaps we can celebrate Christmas with gifts of love, happiness, peace and joy.  Could we be so excited about the baby of Bethlehem that ordinary gifts would not matter?  The greatest gift is God’s love that comes to us through the birth of his son.

Merry Christmas!  Share the love of God and pray for peace on earth.  Remember to wear your mask and socially distance!







Tuesday, October 20, 2020

And Though This World With Devils Filled

 When Martin Luther wrote the words, “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us . . .” he knew what he was talking about.  If the backlash from the Reformation was not enough, a global Pandemic was wrecking havoc in Luther’s world.  


The “Black Plague” that seized Europe in medieval times was much more deadly than the Coronavirus.  It is estimated to have killed up to 60% of Europe’s population.  The worst of the plague was in the fourteenth century but it continued to reappear for a long time, including the summer of 1527 when it swept into Martin Luther’s home of Wittenberg.  


At the time, Europe was deeply divided (we would say “polarized”) by the events of the Reformation.  Perceptions of the deadly disease were filtered through layers of mistrust rooted in religious difference.  Even though the disease was no respecter of religion, the Protestants regarded the plague as God’s judgment on the Catholics and the Catholics accused the Protestants of weakening the unity of Christendom in a time of crisis.  How one interpreted the plague was determined by their religious views.


While the Coronavirus is no respecter of religion or politics, perceptions of the COVID disease are filtered through layers of mistrust rooted in political difference.  Martin Luther had no patience for such misplaced logic or those who took no personal responsibility for their own reckless behavior.  He said people who downplayed the disease were not trusting God; in fact, they were tempting Him.


They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. That is not trusting God but tempting him. . . .


Luther thought it was our Christian duty to follow every safety precaution “in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.”


The words of the powerful hymn of the Reformation, “A Mighty Fortress is My God,” take on new meaning when we realize that when Luther wrote of “the flood of mortal ills prevailing,” he was referring to a Global Pandemic.  


It is true that everyone is growing weary of the virus, it is called “COVID fatigue.” Unfortunately, being tired of the virus doesn’t change the facts—The number of people in our country who have died in the virus would be the equivalent of over 1,000 Boeing-737 jets crashing.  North Carolina and Davidson County numbers are alarming.  We may be tired of the virus, but it is not tired of us.  


The writer of Hebrews encourages us to “run with perseverance” the race that is set before us.  (Hebrews 12: 1)   We are in a race and we cannot sprint to the finish, we must pace ourselves, running with perseverance, keeping the faith, holding on to our foundation.   


Just as Luther was frustrated by those who were careless, so are we.  But we need to set the example---don’t go out without a MASK.  Keep your distance—six feet minimum, more is better.  And keep hand sanitizer and wipes close by.  




Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Two Broken Lives Result in Most Beloved Hymn


It was not a very popular hymn when it was first published in the mid-nineteenth century.  The words seemed trite and the poetry was not very good.  The music was certainly not church music, and few thought it would be around for long.  


The words were never even intended for publication.  His mother was dying in Ireland and he didn’t have the money to cross the ocean and see her, so he wrote her a poem to bring her comfort—a poem she never saw.  


His entire life had been one tragedy after another.  He had been engaged twice, but both of his fiance’s had tragically died, one the day before the wedding.  He spent his time chopping wood for the poor and caring for the sick, but he found no fulfillment in his life.  He battled depression for years until one day they found his body floating in a river.  


The music was inspired by a man who suffered from alcoholism.  His wife had left him and he wandered the streets selling anything he could find for liquor.  He was only 37 years old and living in a slum when he fell in a drunken stupor and fatally hit his head.  


Out of these two sad, broken, and tragic lives come one of the most beloved and popular hymns of all-time, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Joseph Scriven’s life started with great potential, but multiple tragedies left him scarred and wounded.  He had lost everything and when the news came that his dear mother was at the point of death, it was more than he could bear.  He remembered his mother’s unfailing faith and he knew that she had a friend in Jesus.  He wrote the words we know so well, ostensibly to comfort his mother, but they may have been his own cry for faith as he was “weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care.”


The trials and temptations of his life had led to trouble everywhere.   But deep down in his soul he knew that he had a precious Savior who was still his refuge.  Yes, he too had a friend in Jesus.  


The music for this most beloved hymn is not church music, it is American Folk music that was inspired by the “Father of American Music,” Stephen Foster.  Charles Converse who is credited with the music simply adapted a Foster tune.  The great American composer who gave us such classics as “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Swanee River,” died penniless and alone as a result of his alcoholism.  He too, had many sins and griefs to bear.  


Isn’t it amazing how God can use two sinful and broken lives to give us such hope and comfort?  Out of the depths of these two anguished souls come one of the most uplifting and encouraging reminders of God’s faithfulness and love.  In the midst of this long and protracted Pandemic that continues to cast a shadow of darkness and doubt, we find the promise that “In his arms he’ll take and shield thee; thou wilt find a solace there.”   


Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Remembering "False Alarm At Midnight" And the 1918 Pandemic

 In early 1999 I received a phone call from a respected doctor in a neighboring town.  He offered to come to our church and give a presentation on the Y2K situation that was creating fear and concern among many as we approached the end of the millennium.   Most computerized systems back then recorded the year with only 2 digits.  The year was 99 to the computer, not 1999.  The fear was that when we entered the year 2000, the computer would think it was the year 1900.  As a result, electrical grids would fail, planes would fall out of the sky, defense systems would be rendered useless, our infrastructure would collapse, and there would be nationwide turmoil, chaos, and panic.  


I asked the good doctor what type of presentation he wanted to give.  He said he wanted to prepare our church members for the coming disaster that he described in apocalyptic terms.  He would talk about storing food, water, medical supplies, and essentials.  He would instruct people how to obtain gun permits and what types of weapons would be necessary.  Since it would be months, if not years, before order would be restored, he would teach us how to survive in the desolation.  


I told the doctor that I did not believe there would be any crisis, except for the crisis of people creating panic through fear mongering.  Therefore, his services would not be needed.  He told me that I was making a serious mistake and the “blood of the congregation” would be on my hands!  


It was this type of fear and paranoia that led to the 1999 New Year’s Eve presentation at the Civic Center, “False Alarm at Midnight.”  We wanted to reassure people that we had no reason to be afraid.  Extremists, like this doctor, were sounding a “false alarm.”  As we came to the end of the century, we wanted to show how the church had helped in times of great crisis and uncertainty during the past 100 years.  We highlighted the church’s role in the Second World War during the 1940s and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, but we were looking for something in the early part of the century.  What was the greatest crisis during the first quarter of the 20th Century?  


It was the Influenza Pandemic of 1918.  


It was because of people’s faith in God, a faith that had been consistently proclaimed in Lexington’s churches that people made it through.  I look back now, 21 years later, and try to remember what exactly led us to focus on the Pandemic in our presentation.  


It was not until I started researching that I discovered 675,000 Americans died during the 1918 Pandemic, also called the “Spanish Flu.”  This was more Americans who perished in the First and Second World Wars combined. Davidson County had 713 confirmed cases and 6 deaths due to the influenza, largely due to the strict quarantine ordinances that were implemented.  All schools and churches were closed.  Public gatherings of any type were prohibited.


Churches did not have a radio to broadcast services in 1918.  Of course, there was no YouTube or Facebook.  The only “modern” tool of communication was the telephone, which many people did not have.  But people knew how to pray and they knew that God was their rock and their salvation, he was their “refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.”  


I remember working on that presentation and thinking how far-fetched it would be to actually have to close our church.  I couldn’t see it happening, not in our modern and advanced world.  I never really thought Y2K would be a problem.   I didn’t lose any sleep over what the doctor said to me.  And if Y2K couldn’t touch us, then surely a global Pandemic could never happen—not in our world!


At this writing we are about to pass 190,000 deaths in the United States, 3,000 deaths in North Carolina and 32 deaths in Davidson County.  The majority of schools and churches remain closed.  There are strict guidelines on wearing masks and keeping a safe distance from others.  Public gatherings are for the most part prohibited.  


God is still our rock and our salvation, He is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.  God saw us through the 1918 Pandemic and He will see us through the 2020 Pandemic.  God is faithful and He has a plan.  Put your trust and faith in Him!















Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Thinking About Our Visit to the Bonhoeffer House

Joyce and I have commented several times during this Pandemic that we are so thankful we went on Sabbatical last year.  If our Sabbatical had been planned for 2020 rather than 2019, all of our plans would have been canceled.  I will always be grateful to my friend Randy Hall who graciously served as our Interim minister, allowing us to go.  


There were so many great lessons that I learned during that three-month sojourn.  There were so many highlights that I would be hard pressed to place one above the other.  One of the unforgettable and inspiring moments took place on a beautiful Saturday morning in Berlin when we visited the Bonhoeffer house.  


Dietrich Bonhoeffer is recognized today as a 20th Century Martyr.  In his epic book, The Cost of Discipleship he wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  Little did he know that he would be called to do just that.  Bonhoeffer was a true man of God who lived and died with dignity, courage, and grace.


I don’t know of a Bonhoeffer memorial, a Bonhoeffer museum, or a Bonhoeffer historical site.  He never owned a home, but in 1935 his parents built a retirement house in west Berlin and Dietrich lived his last few years of his life there, writing and plotting the resistance against the Nazis.  


I gave the taxi driver the address for the Bonhoeffer House. I had read there was an English tour every Saturday morning at 11 a.m.  It was a long taxi ride.  At one point I thought the taxi was either lost or I had given him the wrong address.  We were in a quiet residential area.  The taxi driver was driving very slowly and turned down a short dead-end street.  He stopped in front of a house. 


“This is it,” he said in broken English.  

I looked at the attractive home that gave no indication it was any different from any of the other neighborhood houses.  The meter was already up to 20 Euros.  I was afraid I was going to have to pay another 20 Euros to go back to the hotel without finding the Bonhoeffer House.  I got out of the taxi and then saw a small sign at the gate: “Bonhoefferhaus.”  This was it.


I paid the driver and we walked to the front gate.  But I discovered the gate was locked.  I found a bell on the gate that I rang.  A moment later a rather large German man opened the door and said to reach inside and open the gate.  We did and he welcomed us to the Bonhoeffer House.  


There is only one room in the house that has been restored historically.  It is the upstairs room where Dietrich lived.  The desk where he wrote, his piano, and his bookcases are all original.  The man told us that before we would visit the room, we would have a conversation on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The “conversation” was a rather lengthy lecture in broken English, but it finally ended and we ascended the stairs and had the unforgettable experience of standing in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s room.  He was in that room on April 5, 1943 when the SS agents came and arrested him on direct orders from Adolf Hitler.  


I knew I was standing on holy ground.  There was a sacred hush as we stood there.  I was looking intently at the desk where he wrote.  In was here, not long before that fateful April day that Bonhoeffer wrote these words:


There remains for us only the narrow way, often extremely difficult to find, of living every day as if it were our last, and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future.  It is not easy to be brave and keep that spirit alive, but it is imperative.


This is how we should live each day during this Pandemic, in faith and responsibility.  The days are long and yes, it is not easy to be brave and keep our spirit of faith and responsibility alive, but it is imperative.  While we are not facing the same danger that Bonhoeffer did, the COVID virus has been just as deadly for over 2,000 North Carolinians.  We believe that with God’s help we will have a great future on the other side of this Pandemic.  Until then, it is imperative for us to live in responsibility---being safe by wearing a mask, keeping at least six feet distance from others, and washing our hands.  

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

My Final Column for the Lexington Dispatch

A Final Word for A Final Column

For over a quarter of a century it has been a rare privilege and a great joy to share my thoughts and reflections with you through the pages of The Dispatch.  It was almost 30 years ago when a young Dispatch reporter by the name of Chad Killebrew stepped into my office on a Sunday morning.  He explained that Dr. Lee Jessup, who had written a weekly religion column for a number of years, was leaving First Reformed and while he would continue to write a weekly column, the paper wanted to find new writers for the religion column.  Chad asked me if I would be one of those writers.

I hesitated for two reasons.  One, Lee Jessup was legendary in Lexington and I knew no one could replace him.  Indeed, it took four of us to take his place! Secondly, I never really saw myself as a writer, but since the commitment was once every four weeks instead of weekly, I agreed.  I soon found myself enjoying the opportunity to reach into your hearts and homes each month through Saturday’s religion column.  

I have written almost 400 columns and I’m proud to say that I never missed a deadline.  (I almost missed one a few years ago, but Jill Doss-Raines emailed me when she didn’t see my column by Wednesday).   Many of my columns have been serious, many have been light-hearted.  Some have just been downright crazy! (Does anyone remember “Joe, Mary, the Baby and the Mall?)  

It has been my privilege to walk with you during times of crisis: The Y2K scare, 9/11, the close of our furniture plants and textile mills, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most recently, the COVID Pandemic.  I have shared Lexington history with you and I will always appreciate Editor Bob Stiff endorsing my proposal for our community to promote Lexington as the first Lexington named after the “shot heard round the world.”  (We were, you know.  I can prove it!)  

I have reflected on community events:  the BBQ Festival, the Davidson County Fair, Kamp Kiwanis, American Legion Baseball, MLK Celebrations, the Palm Sunday Community Celebration and more.  Together we have shared holidays, the changing of the seasons, and our mutual losses.  I have written about the deaths of my father, my mother, my brother, my sister, and my beloved dog, “Little Buddy.”  

I’ve had a wonderful relationship with The Dispatch and all of the staff.  I remember the old days when I would hand deliver a printed copy of my article.  It was always exciting to walk up those stairs and hear the buzz of the newsroom in action!  I will never forget meeting with Joe Sink in 1999 and asking if The Dispatch would sponsor our New Year’s Eve production at the Civic Center, “False Alarm at Midnight.”  I didn’t really know Joe and I was scared to death.  Joe not only graciously supported our effort, but Joe and Libby became good friends and we traveled together several times.  In 2003 The Dispatch provided the funding for the first MLK Worship Celebration to be held in a white church—First Baptist on West Third.  The Dispatch also generously sponsored the highly successful 175th Historical Celebration at the Civic Center that Evelyn Harris and I produced and directed.  

Your comments, your encouragement, your words of affirmation have meant the world to me.  It was always a blessing to meet someone in the community who told me they appreciated my columns.  Now, I’ve had a few detractors along the way.   Remember the “Bricks and Bouquets?”  I had several bricks hurled my way as well as a number of letters to the editor.  That comes with the territory.

But now that my final column is coming to a close, I will leave you with a word that I hope has been evident in every one of my 400 columns—kindness.   We are all children of God, we are all equal in the eyes of God.  We must respect all people and most of all, be kind.  There is something more important than being right and that is being kind.  Kindness is a gift.  Kindness is a blessing.  Kindness will not just make a difference in this world, it will transform it.  

Farewell, my friends.  Be kind one to another.  

Ray N.Howell III is Senior Minister of First Baptist Church on West Third Avenue in Lexington

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Waiting with Patience for the Hope we Cannot See

I keep thinking about our New Testament lesson this past Sunday from Romans 8.  Paul is talking about the promise of redemption not just for us, but for all creation.  He speaks of creation being set free from its bondage as it is “groaning in travail” awaiting its glorious redemption as a mother “groans” in labor pains awaiting the glorious birth of a child.  

Ancient man didn’t have a scientific world-view, but he did understand the precarious state of the created order.  The ancient world-view was a three-tiered universe with a heavenly ocean above us and another underground ocean beneath us.  Looking at the beautiful blue sky, our ancient ancestors thought they were gazing at the bottom of the heavenly ocean.  What was holding it in place?   The grace of God.  

When God sent rain to the earth, he simply opened a “window” in heaven and the rain came pouring down.  But creation would suffer when God did not open the windows of heaven.  Drought and famine were common in the ancient world.  Then, there was disease.  

Creation suffers from famine, drought, pollution, waste, viruses and diseases.  Viruses are a part of life, something we live with every day.  Our bodies have built up defenses against most viruses.  But the Coronavirus is new, our bodies don’t have any built-in defenses to stop it.  Here is one of the best analogies I have heard to explain the virus.  It’s from Dr. Dan Pastula from the University of Colorado Medical School.

So, the virus isn’t more powerful, per se, than other viruses. But when it enters the human body, we have no pre-existing defenses since our bodies don’t immediately recognize it as a dangerous intruder. Imagine an old, walled medieval town. If this virus were a disguised attacker arriving at the town’s protective walls, but open gates, the guards would not immediately know to be suspicious. With this coronavirus, it’s as if the guardians of our cells have kept the gates open and let the coronavirus in without immediately recognizing its danger.

Then the virus starts to spread.
“It gets in and hijacks the human cell’s machinery. Instead of the cell doing what it’s supposed to do, the virus overrides the cell’s normal programming and turns it into a machine to make more of the virus. It goes and goes and goes until the immune system stops it,” Pastula said.
I am sure that all of God’s creation is “groaning with travail” to be set free from this Coronavirus bondage.  The promise in Romans 8 is that it will happen!  There are so many unanswered questions right now, but Paul reminds us that “hope that is seen is not hope.”  We hope for what we do not see and--this is important--we must wait for it with patience. (Romans 8: 25).  We can wait with patience because we know, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (vs. 31)
As much as we don’t know, there is something very simple that we do know.  We know how to stop the spread of this disease.  All we have to do is Wear a mask, Wait six feet away from others, and Wash hands frequently.  You may have seen Tom Hanks interviewed on TV yesterday.  He and his wife were both ill with the virus.  He urged everyone to do their part, saying that it’s very simple.
"Wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands. That alone means you are contributing to the betterment of your house, your work, your town, your society as a whole and it's such a small thing," Hanks said.

And I would add, it also means we are following the command of Jesus to love our neighbor.  

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.