Simple, Good, and True

190403-pancakes-066-copy-1554497284I didn’t preach on Sunday, October 13.

My friend Amy Butler was in town and I thought it would be a treat for the congregation to hear her.  She’s kind of famous, having recently finished a five-year stint as Senior Minister of the world-renowned Riverside Church in New York City where she rubbed shoulders with the likes of Bill Moyers, Cornel West, John Legend, Neal Patrick Harris, and Adele.  She preached a great sermon, and everybody seemed happy to hear her, but after spending the morning in the spotlight with a celebrity preacher I was ready for something a little different.

So, Christy and I drove to Boykins, Virginia, an hour-and-a-half away, to join our daughter Catherine and her husband Scott for a pancake supper and hymn sing at Boykins Baptist Church, where Scott is the pastor.  It was drizzling rain when we got there, and so we hurried through the side door and into the fellowship hall just as Scott finished the blessing.  “And here are my in-laws!” he announced.

It reminded me so much of my first church—New Castle Baptist in Kentucky.  The names and faces were different but it could have been the same people sitting around those tables in the fellowship hall.  And so, after hugging Scott and Catherine, I went from table to table introducing myself and learning about them.  Eventually somebody brought me a plate of pancakes, bacon, and stewed apples and I sat down beside Scott to eat and talk “shop.”

“How did things go this morning?” I asked.

“Good!” he said.  “It’s been a good day in church.  How about you?”

“The same,” I said, forking in a mouthful of pancakes, and then, a minute later, “But we didn’t have this!  We didn’t have a pancake supper and hymn sing!”

It really was perfect.

Everybody was talking around the tables.  One woman got up out of her chair to come over and sit beside my mother-in-law, Lu, who had come with us.  They started up a conversation and within minutes were laughing out loud about something.  Christy was talking with Catherine.  I was talking with Scott.  Children were doing laps around the fellowship hall.  The pancake chef (who was also the deacon chair) came out of the kitchen wiping his hands on his apron to ask if anybody wanted more.

Eventually someone sat at the piano to play hymns and (here was a surprise) someone else sat down with a cello.  For nearly an hour we called out the numbers of our favorite hymns as these two musicians accompanied us (beautifully) and we sang from hearts full of love and heads full of memories in an old Baptist church by the side of the road in Boykins, Virginia.

Driving home afterward I began to feel wistful, remembering the days when I was a young pastor in a small-town church.  Was life really so much simpler then, or did it only feel that way, looking back?  I know Scott has had to deal with some fairly complex issues in his two years at Boykins.  He calls me from time to time asking, “Have you ever had to deal with anything like this?”  The life of a pastor is not easy, no matter where you are.  But it sure was sweet, on that rainy Sunday night, to gather in the fellowship hall with the church family to eat pancakes and sing hymns, and a good reminder that the best things about church have nothing to do with celebrity preachers or spotlights.  The best things are simple, and good, and true.

And always have been.




Carried Away

child reading bibleI got a little carried away last week.

I was preaching that passage from 2 Timothy 1 where Paul is reminded of Timothy’s sincere faith, a faith that lived first in his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice (vs. 5).  I started thinking about how my own faith lived first in my mother, Mary.

And that’s when I got carried away.

I spent a full third of the sermon remembering how my mother shared her faith with me and my brothers and tried to make sure we “grew up Christian.”  I talked about the way she gave us a Christian worldview, and taught us the Apostle’s Creed and the Catechism, and told us thrilling stories from the Bible, and sang the great hymns of the faith.  I probably didn’t need to do all that.  Most people probably got the point after the first illustration.  But here’s the truth: that wasn’t the half of it.  And I cut out of the sermon this whole paragraph about my father and his contribution to my faith:

My father the minister didn’t like to talk shop at the family dinner table but I watched him live his faith in ways that impact me still.  I watched him use his body and his hands to help poor people.  I remember how he used to roll his tongue to one side of his mouth and bite down on it when he was exerting unusual effort.  I’ve watched him dig footers, and shove beams into place, and drive roofing nails as he and a group of volunteers built a house for a poor widow in West Virginia before Habitat for Humanity ever existed.  I’ve seen him come in at the end of a day exhausted, with dirt under his fingernails, from trying to do what he thought Jesus wanted him to do.

And then I got to that verse where Paul tells Timothy, “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you though the laying on of my hands” (vs. 6), and I began to think about my father-in-law, Bill Treadwell, who preached my ordination sermon and was the first in line to lay his hands on my head as I was set apart for the Gospel ministry.

Bill was the one who invited me to work as a part-time youth minister at his church in Georgetown, Kentucky, when I was only 22 years old.  He was the one who asked me after a couple of years of that if perhaps God was calling me into pastoral ministry.  He was the one who took me to the seminary for my first visit and the one who was standing there to receive me when I came down a church aisle to answer that call.  “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands,” Paul wrote to Timothy.  I read those words on my personal 24-hour retreat and tears came to my eyes as I remembered Bill laying his hands on my head. 

The sermon could have been so much longer than it was.

Because it wasn’t only my mother, my father, and my father-in-law who nurtured my faith, it was my brothers, my Sunday school teachers, my close Christian friends.  The list goes on and on.  When I asked the question in that sermon, “Where did you get your faith?” I was thinking about all those people.  I could have talked all day.

But I was aware, even as I was preaching, of parents who did all they could to make sure their children “grew up Christian,” and whose hearts are now broken because their children are not, or at least don’t appear to be.  “What about that verse?” they ask me, often with tears in their eyes, “the one that says, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it”? (Prov. 22:6).  “Well,” I say, “is your child old?”  “Not really,” they say.  “He’s thirteen.  He’s having some doubts.”

Well, of course he is.

And he may have some more when he’s 22, or 37, or 56.  We all go through times of doubt and crises of faith.  I did.  But I also believe those things we are taught when we are young stay with us and come back to us, often in the moments we need them most.  Maybe if those children get old enough, and maybe—or especially—when they get close to the end, they will find that the faith of their fathers (and mothers) is living still.

May it be so,