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Flies

There are few feasts that compare to the southern fried, covered dish, Baptist fellowship supper.  Baptists are a people of the casserole.  Baptists can do very little that does not involve a nursery, choir, a committee, and a casserole.
As I have described in previous posts, the only buildings on the property at Lantana Road Baptist Church in the late 90’s were God’s mower shed, which was a metal building that housed our sanctuary and few small classrooms.  The other building was a larger block building with a concrete floor, wood paneling, and chicken wire that held the insulation to the ceiling.  Baptists usually refer to these buildings as the fellowship hall.  In the wilderness the people of Israel had the Tabernacle.  If the Exodus narratives were written about Baptists, it would tell the story of a group of people who wondered through the desert with a fellowship hall.  When Baptists decide to build a structure the foremost concern is that there be a place to have a meal.  If we can’t afford a sanctuary, we will build a multi-purpose building instead of a fellowship hall.  All this means is that we will have a space in which we can eat without our mommas boxing our ears for bringing food into the sanctuary.  The only thing that keeps a multi-purpose building from being a fellowship hall is that once a week we will put up the food, get the good chairs out, and worship God in it on Sunday.
In the early days of LRBC the block building was the designated fellowship hall.  Because the church was growing, fellowship meals were occurring more frequently.  Yet we had a small problem, a very small problem.  In fact, it was about 1.5 million small problems.  We had flies. 
I am not a fly-ologist but here is my theory on what was occurring in our fellowship hall.  At some point in the early days of the LRBC fellowship hall there was a Baptist casserole infested meal that beckoned the flies from the nearby cow pasture to leave the manure for something much better.  I should also say that in Baptist life there are very few church officers.  We have only the pastor, the deacons, and the lady who uncovers the “covered” dish.  It is also her duty to stand by and shoo flies away from the table as people pass through the line.  I am sure the flies who came that day were shooed away but found refuge high above in the damp, moldy, insulation held to the ceiling by the chicken wire.  There they began a colony swearing never to return to the cow pasture again for they knew, with increasing regularity, a casserole would be below and it was far better than a pile of manure any day.
By 1997 the colony of flies was practically a plague.  When it was time for a fellowship  meal the lights were turned on producing heat in the insulation and the parade of casseroles would soon enter.  It would not be long then until the nation of flies could resist the aroma and the warmth no longer and would come out to play.  We soon realized there were more flies than “shoo” ladies.  We could not keep up with the demand.  Something had to be done.
Enter Donnie.  Donnie was one of three LRBC deacons.  He was what I would call a “tinker” guy.  Donnie owned an auto body shop and was one of those guys who could do most anything to make a buck.  Donnie was also famous.  He owned Hank William’s limousine in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and he hung out with Marty Stuart.  I asked Donnie several times to get Marty to write us a song for VBS.  I got to see the limo.  I never got my song.  In any event, Donnie had a plan to rid LRBC of the nation of flies. 
It was late on Sunday afternoon and we had a fellowship meal planned after the evening service.  Donnie showed up to church that evening with a long pole and several bug bombs.  Bug bombs are cans of insecticide that when opened will fill several hundred square feet of space with a poison cloud.  It says plainly on the can that one should set off the bug bomb in the building and then leave – go on vacation – take a trip – but by all means do not stay home while your space is being bombed for bugs.  Our problem was that the fly nation nested high above and Donnie was convinced that the poison cloud would not reach them.  So Donnie mounted several bug bombs on a pole, and while I preached in God’s mower shed next door, Donnie would set off the bombs atop the poles and lift them up nearer the fly nation.  As you may have now pictured in your mind, this would require Donnie to be bombed with the bugs.  Something the can says should not be done under any circumstance.
There is no measure of how much poison Donnie ingested that night.  The good news is that the poison did not kill Donnie (though he was acting stranger than normal), but it did bring down the flies.  When I say bring down, I mean literally, bring down.  They fell to the floor by the millions.  Donnie not only bravely bombed the flies, but he also became their undertaker.  By his estimates he hauled away three large garbage cans full of dead flies while I continued to preach next door. 
Many of the ladies in the church had no idea what Donnie had done.  For just in time Donnie had hauled away the last can full of dead flies before the first casserole came in.  The only indications of what may have taken place in the fellowship hall that night was that Donnie appeared a little glassy eyed, the building smelled like an Orkin factory, and every few minutes a fly may land beside you, flip over on his back, spin around and then suddenly die.  Rain on Sunday will keep a Baptist at home, but not even a dying fly landing near his food will keep a Baptist out of a casserole.  Most people happily ate, totally oblivious to the mayhem that had preceded them.
I knew.  Donnie knew.  Now everyone knows why the flies suddenly disappeared from the fellowship hall at Lantana Road in the Fall of ’97.  Donnie, I hope you are doing well.
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Redeemed, but Ridiculous (The Shepherd Chronicles)


It has been awhile since I have written anything due to my workload both at church and at school over the past month or so. When I left off I was talking about my confrontation with a person I refer to as “the gatekeeper.” He was the guardian of tradition at Lantana Road Baptist Church and because I had not purchased VBS material from the associational store, my wife was baptized in an independent baptist church, I graduated from Tennessee Temple University, I failed to use a Tennessee Baptist evangelist for simultaneous revivals, and I had taken our students to a non-SBC sanctioned youth conference he was convinced I had an agenda to pull LRBC from the Southern Baptist Convention. The whole thing was petty and ridiculous.


After several months of verbal banter and a steady defense of my intentions, it was evident that the gatekeeper and I would not see eye to eye. My final meeting with him was a monthly deacon’s meeting. I knew he had already resolved to leave the church because he had not been there for several Sundays in a row. He even refused to come on a Sunday in which we were honoring him as one of the founding members of the church. Yet for some reason despite his Sunday morning absences he insisted on keeping his appointments for monthly deacon’s meetings. On this particular Sunday afternoon only two of the five who were scheduled to be in attendance actually came, he and I. It was providential. We had a casual but open conversation. After quite some time I asked him if there was any way we could reconcile our differences. He refused. I obliged. After months and months of trying to trip me up on obscure nuances of Baptist polity, Robert’s Rules of Order, the constitution and by-laws of the church, and having failed to do so on every count, I took the opportunity to call his attention to one matter of legality. Conveniently placed just down the hallway, in plain sight of the room he and I were meeting in, was a gigantic copy of the Church Covenant. I opened the door and began to read it to him, calling particular attention to the final paragraph where it reads, “We moreover engage that when we remove from this place we will, as soon as possible , unite with some other church, where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God's Word. After reading him that line I said to him, “What you do, do quickly.” He did.


Through the years my approach to conflict has mellowed quite a bit. Yet in any season of my ministry conflict has always been the least enjoyable facet of what I do. If one enjoys conflict he should probably be a conservative talk radio host or either seek therapy. Yet sadly, there is very little we will engage with any regularity, quality, or longevity that will not at some point along the way involve conflict. Many people find conflict one of the most difficult things to reconcile in the local church. If these are God’s people, should their life together not be heavenly? Well, yes, ideally it should; and at some point in time it will; but not yet. Until redemption is final we will not be perfect. Until then I may be mistaken from time to time for an Independent Baptist spy. I may nick name you “the guardian.” Until we are perfected I will grow tired of those who cannot attend a worship service that does not end with a business meeting. You may prefer square tables. I, myself, like round ones. And indeed I have seen that squabble play out on the business meeting floor for almost an hour. Until Jesus makes all things right, you and I will be redeemed, but ridiculous.


As much as I did not personally enjoy the gatekeeper, I have no doubt that the man was redeemed. Though terribly misguided, I count him my brother in Christ. Through the years I have watched many people become disgruntled and transfer their membership from our congregation to another one. Some of these are habitual by nature. Every decade or so the pattern repeats itself and they “feel led” to go somewhere else. This is nothing less than immaturity and you hope at some point they will grow up. Yet, one may wonder what becomes of a pastor’s heart during these episodes? Some estimate that it becomes sort of like the Grinch’s, it grows smaller and smaller. He cares not. I can speak from experience, this is not the case. Whenever someone leaves, for whatever reason, it hurts. My own experience has been that no one has ever left us that I did not grieve. I sleep very little during the ridiculous times.


The New Testament is honest in its recording of our ridiculousness. In the final paragraph of Acts 15 Paul and Barnabas became ridiculous. They disagreed over taking Mark. In the end they agreed to disagree. Paul took Silas and Barnabas took Mark. Yet there is, at times, something redemptive about our ridiculousness. Sometimes the ridiculous results in two missions instead of one. Without the ridiculous the final 13 chapters of Acts would be very different. We have no way of knowing how the story would have gone had Paul and Barnabas stayed together. Indeed their “sharp disagreement” was ridiculous. But in the end, the result is still something great. The story of how the gospel went global that began in Acts 1:8 continued, despite the ridiculous.


The longer I continue to pastor the more I am always amazed at how years later the ridiculous is redeemed by forgetfulness. Perhaps it is more forgiveness than forgetfulness, but I am in awe of how some of those with whom things have become ridiculous; when we meet years later we laugh, smile, and embrace as if nothing ridiculous ever happened. Later in his life Paul sent for Mark. He wrote that Mark was “useful” to him (2 Tim. 4:11). Though things got ridiculous, there was something about Mark that Paul enjoyed. I have found this to be true. In time, strangely enough, my soul begins to miss and reminisce about how much I enjoyed the company of those with whom I have parted before we became ridiculous. Redemption has a strange way of working us toward reconciliation.


We are redeemed but ridiculous.

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Tradition

Tradition is a good way to pass along meaningful aspects of the faith from one generation to the next. Tradition is bad way to build idols out of things that in the end don’t matter. Tradition is a pastor killer. Sometimes tradition is as plain to see as Goliath. It is 9 feet tall and dares you to fight him. Some pastors give it a shot. Unfortunately these brave souls do not enjoy the fate of David and they are crushed in a very short time. For others tradition is a stealth assassin. The shepherd is completely unaware of its existence and unwittingly provokes it to anger. I fell into the latter category. I had angered tradition and he was about to come out of the closet.


Strike one came with a phone call from a well known Tennessee Evangelist. The churches of the Cumberland County Association had committed to simultaneous revivals. I knew that much, but no one told me that the Association had a deal with the collective of the TBC Evangelists. Each of them cleared that particular week of their October calendar so they could be in Cumberland County. Because I was not privy to this information I called one of my early ministry heroes, Ron Bishop (at the time an independent Baptist), to come an preach at LRBC. What I did not realize was how fortunate we were to already have a certain TBC evangelist scheduled. The particular evangelist, who shall remain unnamed, called to let me know. I was not allowed to say much in the conversation. In fact the conversation was more of a monologue than an actual conversation. It was sort of like being scolded by your granny. Though I tried to apologize and explain to him that I was new and had no idea of his coming he rudely interrupted me and told me that he would rather go to another church in our county than come to LRBC. He made me mad. I told him that sounded like a good deal to me and I suggested that he do as he said and move along. As long as I was in Tennessee I never heard from him again. Ironically, for the last 9 years of my ministry here at Ridgecrest I have gotten his newsletter every quarter along with a promo telling me how great a blessing it would be for him to come and preach. My brother, you may have forgotten me, but I will never forget you. Call me sometime :) !

Strike two came with Vacation Bible School. I have established the fact that the church had little to no money. With VBS looming on the horizon several of the church leaders suggested that we have a one day VBS and use an alternative curriculum. Most people don’t know this but Lifeway publishes high quality VBS material. Cost wise it is the Cadillac of curriculum. Little do people know that Lifeway also publishes an alternative for about 100 bucks. It has a lot less flair and the whole thing comes in a small box. I suggested we use it to save money and that it could be easily adopted to the one day format. The problem was that the association office held a VBS store every year that offered the churches material at a discount. I knew about the store, but it was still out of our price range. Little did I know that it was a tradition for the church to buy their material from the association office. Innocently, I thought that buying the material from the association or elsewhere was like choosing to buy something at Wal-Mart because it was $30 cheaper than Target. I thought you had a choice. I had no idea it was tradition.

Strike three came with taking the youth group to Charlotte. The conference was put on by Tim Lee, a heroic war veteran with a powerful testimony. Tim Lee is an evangelist. He is not a Southern Baptist evangelist per se, he is just an evangelist. He is widely known. The church that hosted the conference was in independent Baptist church. I should remind you, this was also Shannon’s home church. For the gatekeeper of tradition at LRBC this was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. While I was in Charlotte the gatekeeper held meetings with the association leadership and had called several lay leaders in the church accusing me of desiring to pull LRBC from the Southern Baptist Convention. If this was my desire, it was the first I had heard of it. As I stated in a previous post, one of the most difficult things about being a pastor is that people read your mind but do not allow you to write the script. The accusations were so bad and ridiculous that the gatekeeper was even calling for Shannon to be re-baptized because she had been baptized in an independent Baptist church. Adding fuel to the fire was that both of us were students at Tennessee Temple University, you guessed it, and independent Baptist university. I found out later that the gatekeeper was so angry that he would stand in the parking lot on Sunday mornings and tell visitors that they needed to go somewhere else because they didn’t want to come to church here.

Shannon, suffering from homesickness, fielded all of this on her own and not wanting to diminish what God was doing in our youth group, had to hold it in for two more days. And, by the way, because it had rained hard that week, the church nursery and hallways flooded.

Riding a spiritual high coming back from Charlotte I had no idea of the hornet’s nest that awaited me in Crossville. When I got home Shannon shared the news with me. We cried like babies. Yet tradition would require that we grow up in the ministry quickly, the hard way.

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The Preacher's Wife

As we entered the summer of my first year at Lantana Road there were many promising first fruits of growth and new life in the church. We had raised enough money to take our youth group to Charlotte, back to Shannon’s home church, for a youth conference. Several of the kids with us had barely travelled outside Cumberland County. Going to North Carolina was a big deal. Several of the kids were not Christians. Getting away from the distractions of home and hearing the gospel boldly proclaimed was an even bigger deal. From experience I knew that a core of youth ignited for Christ could spark revival in the church.

Shannon had just begun working at Rockwell Automation so she was not able to go. Going from college student to pastor’s wife in an unfamiliar area had its challenges. I would say Shannon has only really been homesick once during our 15 years of marriage and the summer of ’97 was it. Her not being able to go with us back to her home church and instead being alone for a week back in Crossville didn’t help. Little did we know when the youth group and I headed for Charlotte on Monday that Shannon’s homesickness would be the least of our problems.

Many people don’t realize that pastors and their wives are people. Like everyone else we deal with things as husband and wife just like everyone else. However, when you go into the ministry you sign a contract that whatever you are dealing with, however big or small, will have to wait for everyone else. Most of the time your turn never comes and no one ever asks. Statistically speaking, many pastors and ministry marriages never make it. I would say there is a myriad of reasons that become contributing factors. Entering the ministry is high stress and low pay. A CNN poll found clergy to be among the worst jobs in America. I love what I do and wouldn’t ever want to do anything else. CNN didn’t ask me, but I get it. What makes ministry more difficult is that you marry it and so does your spouse. You parent your kids, but so does the church. This is probably why most pastor’s children become maniacs. There is an external pressure to it all that is unfair. Church people read your mind, your wife’s mind, and your children’s mind. They project an image of you that is your alter ego and you are never allowed to write your own script. I may not get rave reviews for saying this, but in 15 years of being a pastor one of the most difficult aspects of it all is that I have had very little time to be Brian. Shannon and I often struggle with the fact that no one really knows us. I think it scares people to know you are real. It scares them more if you say what you feel. If you ever fight back, you never win.

We were having a great week in Charlotte. The kids were responding to the gospel. Though it was mid season for baseball, New York Yankee’s pitcher Andy Pettitte made a surprise appearance. It was his rookie year. I got to meet him in the back hallway. All I remember is that he was a very nice person with huge hands. We were having a great time in Charlotte. Shannon was struggling to stay in Crossville. What happened that Wednesday made it even worse. Shannon was about to experience the dark side of being a pastor’s wife. Her struggles were about to be overshadowed. No one ever knew. She was the first one to feel the turbulence. I thought things were great at LRBC. She was first to find out otherwise. Because she did not want to diminish what the Lord was doing in our group in Charlotte, she kept everything to herself until we returned 2 days later.

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Turbulence

“Behold the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”  Rev. 21:3-4
A lot of people have the idea that the experience of church should be close, if not identical to Rev. 21:3-4.  They believe the church is a gathering of ideal people who sing Jesus songs, treat each other perfectly, and stay happy all the time.  Well it’s not.  We have a long way to go before Rev. 21.  Many people go to church for six weeks and think, “This is great.”  Yet it will not be long until they realize that the church is good, but it is not yet great.  As a matter of fact the church, in its current state, is less than ideal.  The misguided reaction to the difficult mess that is called the church is to quit.  Some take their disillusionment to the extreme by not only giving up on church, but also on the idea that Jesus or God are any part of this reality.  If the church is such a mess, God must be a myth.  It is a tempting conclusion, but not a truthful one.
The Bible is more honest about the less than ideal nature of the current state of the church than we are.  Between the Gospels and Revelation 21 is the truth, a collection of books that spell out the miraculous history as well as the turbulent episodes of the church.  There is no degree of dysfunction or chaos that one can experience in the church that has not already been written about in the New Testament.  From sorcery to sexual scandal, from embezzlement to fussing, from heresy to jealousy God led those whom He used to pen the sacred text to make one thing clear, until we get to Rev. 21, there will be turbulence.  1 Corinthians alone would make reality TV blush.
In chronicling my experience as shepherd I knew I too would have to be honest enough from time to time to share the turbulence.  Not everything I can recount as shepherd has been funny.  At times I was the victim of turbulence, at some points I was its catalyst.  I will try to share what I can with due censorship.  Why censorship?  Because there is grace and forgiveness that have been extended from and to those involved.  I am not trying to blame or to recreate turbulence.  Strangely enough I plan to share how I have experienced Christ through it.  What I do hope to convey is a Biblical truth, as crazy as the church can be and often is, the gates of Hell will not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).  Jesus said so.  In 15 years I have found Him faithful.  His Word is so. 
If there is another caveat to my desire here it is to encourage those who are discouraged with church to take the Bible seriously and stay faithful.  The church in its current state is wheat, but it is also tares.  If you take seriously God's promise to be with us, or His promises that He would answer prayer, you should also take seriously everything Jesus said in Matthew 13.  All of it is Scripture and should be believed. 
If you have ever been on a plane you know that turbulence can feel like the beginning stages of death.  It is frightening, but not deadly.  I hate it, but to get where you are going, most of the time you must go through it.  So it is with the church.  We are headed to Rev. 21.  Until we are there, expect, from time to time, that there will be turbulence.
To be continued . . .
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Getting Married

I had the loofah, now it was time to get the girl.


Because we never took note of the actual date of our first date we adopted Feb. 1. We knew we began dating in February of ’95. Because I am male, 1 is much easier to remember than 18 or 22 (just ask my wife and my daughter). Therefore we agreed that forever and always our anniversary would be Feb. 1. Conveniently enough in 1997 Feb. 1 fell on a Saturday. So after I got her father’s permission and won her over with a John Cusack moment, we set the date of our wedding for Feb. 1, 1997. So for those of you keeping score, here is the box on our relationship. Shannon and I dated for two years before we were married. We only lived in the same town for two to three months of those two years; the first two or three months of our two years of official-ness. I graduated in April and stayed in Chattanooga, she moved back home to Charlotte. In the Fall she moved back to Chattanooga, I left for Louisville. In January of ’96 I moved to Cartersville. She remained in Chattanooga. I moved to Crossville. She moved to Charlotte. Being that I hate driving long distances and talking on the phone, the fact that I somehow won the girl is nothing less than a miracle of God. Love is a mighty thing.

When the wedding weekend finally arrived I picked up all of my groomsmen and we headed to Charlotte. I remember little to nothing about our rehearsal or the dinner, but I do remember our bachelor outing. You must understand I was a pastor. My buddy Dave was studying to be a preacher. Childhood friend Chris was now my successor as youth pastor in Cartersville. Childhood friend Dell is one the greatest men of integrity I have ever known and has only sinned 12 times in his entire life. We did not have a bachelor party, we had a bachelor outing. Furthermore, between the four of us there was probably less than $30, so we had to get creative. The end result was that somehow we got into a private club/restaurant on the top floor of a downtown Charlotte high rise. We were grossly underdressed, and at $80 a plate dinner was not an option, so we bought sodas for $3 a pop. They served them in classic bottles. I ordered Sprite. I still have that old green bottle.

I was nervous prior to the ceremony, but once it began I enjoyed every minute of it. Our wedding ceremony was one of the happiest experiences of my life. Shannon and I still talk about how the nerves left us once it began and how fun the whole thing was. The experience was shared with family, a cluster of our college friends (all very poor and in desperate need of a road trip, a few dozen of them came in only a car or two), and several people who drove in from Lantana Road to see their pastor get married. They made the trip from Crossville to Charlotte in Baby Blue.

One of our favorite mementos of the occasion is the video. Not because it commemorates the ceremony, but because it is littered with religious, guttural utterances from cameraman Jeff Yankie. Jeff was a big man with red hair who had a distinct deep voice. It is as if our wedding video was brought to you by the lumberjack from Brawny. When the presiding pastor, Dr. Price, would say something that moved Jeff, he would add in a Brawny tone, “Mmmm, that’s right.” Our favorite part is when he provided baritone harmony the singing of The Lord’s Prayer.

Once the day was over we ran through the traditional wedding confetti and into our awaiting chariot which happened to be a red Pontiac Grand Am. I was still in my tux, Shannon still in her dress. I think we used a shoe horn to get her in. Her dress pretty much took up the front windshield and dashboard. As we pulled away we were quite startled to find my friend Dave hiding in the backseat. We all have those moments when we think later what we should have done, but didn’t. What I should have done was drive Dave down I-85 into the Charlotte ghetto and drop him off, tux and all. Instead, what I did was stop the car, pull Dave out of the back seat and kick him square in the butt. I was a soccer player. I kicked him hard. He said, “ouch.” He was a hockey player so he laughed and walked away. Sorry Dave.

As you would suspect our car was covered in shaving cream. We were staying in Charlotte that evening before flying out the next morning to Vermont. Just a block from the hotel we stopped to get the car washed. The whole thing was awkward. I should note that on the day we were married it was 70 degrees and sunny, highly unusual for Feb. 1 in Charlotte, NC. A sunny Saturday in Feb. means that everyone in Charlotte will get out and go to the carwash. We were 47th in line.

I got out of the car and went inside the gas station to pay, tux and all. Upon returning to my red Grand Am, littered with wedding confetti and advertising in shaving cream, “Just married” a fine man with a backwoods North Carolina accent approached me, still wearing my tux. Also remember that my new bride is literally filling the front seat and windshield of the Grand Am with her very white wedding dress. The nice North Carolina man asked,

“Did y’all just get married?”

Surprisingly that was not the stupid question.

I just smiled, glanced over his shoulder at the wedding decorated car with the happy bride inside and said, “Yes.”

Now for the stupid question,

“Today?”

“Umm, yes, today.”

Our February Vermont honeymoon was awesome. As Southerners we had never seen that much snow. We went on a sleigh ride. We ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream straight from the factory. We snow shoed at the Von Trap lodge (which was the beginning of my Hollywood musicals education). I almost died in the hot tub. We built a fire. The fire smoked up our cabin. We had waffles everyday for a week. It was great.

Once the honeymoon was over another one began. We were now 20 and 23 years old, a pastor and his new wife at a new church. Wedding honeymoons usually last a week. Sometimes you don’t get much more than that with the church. We would have until the summer before our ministry honeymoon abruptly ended and there was turbulence at Lantana Road.

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Thirty

Today is the final Sunday for Johnny Kilgore, our beloved minister of music and senior adults who has served Ridgecrest faithfully for 30 years.  When I came to interview with Ridgecrest I asked the two pastors on staff at the time, Jason Duckett and Johnny, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?”  Duckett said that he saw himself as senior pastor of a church; and today he is.  Johnny’s answer was simple, “I’m going to retire”; and today he is.
I am deeply honored to have worked with Johnny these nine years.  He is a loyal man of God with an insatiable appetite for quality.  He quickly wins the trust of others.  He covers criticism with praise.  Johnny always smiles.  He never counts his hours and leaves nothing undone.  I should add that he eats faster than anyone I have ever seen.
I don’t know how many years the Lord will give me to serve His church.  However long that may be indeed I will always count working with Johnny as one of the major highlights.  Not many pastors can say that they were on staff with a man who had been with the same congregation for 30 years.  It is like working with an encyclopedia.  If I ever needed to know why things at Ridgecrest are as they are, all I had to do was ask Johnny.  He knew every formative experience for this congregation.  Johnny has been a leader at Ridgecrest over half of the church’s life.  His ministry with this congregation is multi-generational and it will be long lasting.
As I have been working towards this Sunday for many months I have asked myself what I can learn from Johnny’s example.  I am not sure how much of a lesson is in this, but the experience has helped me realize that thirty years is not long.  I have been here almost a third of the thirty already.  There are many lessons I can piece together from Johnny like how to work with people.  Stay positive.  Smile even when it hurts.  Never give up on anything or anyone.  Do everything as unto the Lord.  Yet perhaps my favorite lesson in all of this can be stated most simply, stay.  Sometimes being a pastor is not so much in what you do, it is in how long you stay.  The longer you are with a congregation the more your words mean.  Perhaps it is because you know better what to say.  Perhaps it is because you have said it for thirty years.  Perhaps it is because it takes decades for people to listen.  I’m not sure which is the contributing factor, but you never have a chance if you don’t stay.  Johnny has stayed with Ridgecrest through its victories and its sorrows.  Though Johnny is not the preaching pastor of this congregation, he is, for the most part its pastor.  And for every preaching pastor who has served at Ridgecrest Johnny has not only been a faithful assistant, but he has been for them a family pastor.  Johnny presided over the dedication of our second daughter.  He has been the piano teacher of our oldest.  He has prayed for us when we needed him.  Johnny has listened to me be a person.  As odd as that statement may sound to some, for the pastors who have served with Johnny they are grateful for his listening ear and wise counsel.  Sometimes it is good to be a man again.
Johnny will be dearly missed, but I am sure he will stay connected.  After all, that is the type of man he is.  Johnny has laid a great work on the foundation of Christ at Ridgecrest. It will remain and we will continue to build. 
Thank you Johnny for your friendship, service, and dedication.  You have certainly contributed to my life and family.  I am grateful to have served with you as pastor.
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The Widow's Mite

Phyllis Harold was a widow that lived in a single wide trailer beside one of the smaller lakes in the Lake Tansi community.  Her ministry was the nursery.  Her favorite group was The Kingdom Heirs.  Phyllis was well in her sixties when I met her and had season passes to Dollywood, not for the roller coasters, but for The Kingdom Heirs.  If there is such a thing in gospel music, Phyllis was a Kingdom Heirs groupie.

I am about to share something that up until this time (as far as I know) is only known by me and one other person, but it is an episode in the life of Lantana Road Baptist Church that was a divine cause of why the church continues to exist and is a great witness for Christ today. 

The ink was barely dry on The Long and Short Range Plans when the church voted to begin considering some upgrades to the building.  The business meeting that Wednesday night gave me an incredible amount of hope.  The vote may have centered on building plans, expenditures, and projects, but it was actually a display of unified faith.  For the first time in a long time the church was looking ahead, no longer focused on where it was, but focused on what God was going to do.  I walked out of the small, metal sanctuary building towards the block building that would later become our worship center.  I am not sure that my feet touched the ground from point A to point B.  Yet I had not long walked through the door when the treasurer met me with some news that would bring me back to reality.  “Brian, the church is about $10,000 in the red.  We owe bills to X, Y, and Z.  The three letters that concerned me the most were IRS.  We have spent the Lottie Moon missions offering to try and catch up.”  In Southern Baptist Life spending the Lottie Moon offering on anything other than missions is equal to cannibalism, throwing puppies off a bridge, or water boarding Mother Teresa.  It is an unimaginable crime, borderline blasphemy. 

My feet were now squarely back on the floor.  My heart was not far behind.  I do not blame our treasurer for the grave error that had been committed.  She was simply doing what she had been instructed to do for several years.  You spend what you have and try to make it up later.  The problem was that later was now.  Even worse, now I was the pastor.  There were so many bad business decisions going on behind the scenes that threatened the solvency of the small congregation.  At the time all I could say was, “Please don’t tell anyone what you just told me.  If they find out, they may hang us both.”  I determined that I would go home that night and pray for a miracle.  I employed one other person to do the same.  It was a long night and a fitting inauguration into the dark pressures of pastoral leadership.  Between the tears and flashes of failure and fear, I prayed.  That is all I knew to do.  I prayed that somehow God would intervene and save the church.

The light of Thursday brought no relief.  I tried to manage the day, not letting others know that I was dying inside.  Without a miracle my first pastorate would last less than 90 days and Lantana Road Baptist Church would have ended in the first few weeks of 1997 (at least that’s the way I felt).  Darkness fell once again on Thursday night.  Once again I petitioned God into the pre-dawn hours of the coming morning. 

At some point I fell asleep, not in the bed, but on the small love seat couch in my study.  It was about 9:00 a.m. when I was awakened by a phone call.  It was Phyllis.  “Brian, the Lord is telling me to do something, but you have to promise me that you will not tell a soul (sorry Phyllis, but 15 years is long enough, and since you are in Heaven now, you’ll have to chide me later; I know you will).  I am not sure what the church needs, but I am going to donate $10,000, will that help?”  Would that help?  Help was not the word I was thinking.  She should have asked, is this a miracle?  God had provided our need basically to the penny.  I have never shared this information with anyone, but I can verify that Phyllis‘ donation was a turning point in the life of LRBC.  If nothing else, it was the price of redemption.  It was the end of bad business LRBC.  From that day forward the church began to grow in numbers, in faith, and in finances.  During my tenure as pastor the church never returned to the red and never missed paying a bill.  God answered our prayers.  Lantana Road Baptist Church would prosper from that day forward because Phyllis Harold heard the voice of God and obeyed Him. 

That moment was a defining moment for LRBC and for me in these 15 years of serving God as a shepherd.  I have had many dark days of doubt throughout the years, but Phyllis’ call was more to me than a Friday morning alarm, it was an awakening moment that reaffirmed to me that with God all things are possible.  I learned early on that the great things God does usually comes from unlikely people in unexpected corners.  I have always found it to be true that the people who have the least give the most.  Phyllis gave the widow’s mite, she did all she could, and God has used her gift these past 15 years to grow a great church for His glory. 

Phyllis died not many years later of throat cancer.  She was a dear saint of God.  A few hours after she passed away I visited her trailer and asked her family for one thing, a Kingdom Heirs tape.  In my office is a box full of strange artifacts that would mean little to nothing to others, but to me each item in the box represents a person or a chapter in the story of this first 15.  Phyllis‘ Kingdom Heirs tape was the first item in the box.  Each time I open my box I pull out that old cassette tape and I remember Phyllis, what she did, and what God can do. 

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Loofah

When Lantana Road Baptist called me to be their pastor on October 13, 1996 I was engaged to be married on February 1, 1997.  For those four months, as I have stated in previous posts, I watched Tombstone repeatedly and ate mystery groceries in a fairly non de-script duplex.  We had collected a small cache of furniture as we prepared for marriage.  I bought a washer and dryer while living in Cartersville.  The day Sears delivered it in one of their big Sears box trucks felt like some sort of rite of passage for me.  I was now a man.  Sears had delivered to me.  The only thing left to do was to tie the knot, marry the girl, go get the bride and her suitcase or two of clothes.  I felt like the nest was ready.  I was wrong.

A few weekends before the wedding Shannon came to Crossville to “bring her stuff.”  I grossly underestimated what that meant.  Basically the arrangement was that she would come in on Friday.  I would be banished from the house to Uncle Roy’s.  She would be left alone to prepare the pad.  When she arrived it was clear she was on a mission.

On Friday evening me and Uncle Roy fished.  On Saturday morning, we fished.  On Saturday afternoon we watched college football as all good Southern men do.  After college football, you guessed it, we fished.  Though she was just a mile up the road, I heard nothing from Shannon.  What could she possibly be doing?  Was she becoming oriented with Tombstone?  Was she memorizing the lines as I had done?  Was she trying to figure out where the mystery groceries came from?  In my mind there was not that much to do.  I had the table set for her, all that was left for her was to unpack her clothes and enjoy.

We went to church on Sunday.  We went to lunch.  Shannon headed back to Charlotte.    I went back to the duplex.  There is an old song that says, “You don’t know what you’ve got, ‘til its gone.”  I think that line was probably taken from an ancient Chinese proverb.  When I opened the door of the duplex I established that the reciprocal is also true, you don’t know what you’ve got until your fiance brings it.  When I walked in the door I realized that for three months I had been living in a drab, plain world of white.  Now I would be living in a world of color, meticulously planned and thematically designed to accent the couch.  My world would now also be full of what I call “artifacts”, strange vases holding sacred grasses, picture frames of people I didn’t know, well placed blankets, pillows, and towels I was not allowed to touch.  Before Shannon all towels were legal.  After Shannon there were towels that appeared to be towels but they were not towels, they too like the vases and the sacred grasses, were artifacts, accent pieces that though they were in the bathroom had some special connection with the colors on the couch.  I noticed also that there were more videos.  Tombstone no longer stood alone, but now it was a part of a broader collection of musicals.  Wyatt Earp, meet the Sound of Music.  Hello, Dolly!    

There was one discovery that remained.  On Monday morning I entered the shower and there hanging before me was a loofah.  At the time I did not know it was called loofah, but now I know it was a loofah.  Behind me was a collection of specialty soaps, creams, shampoos, and conditioners. 

It was then that I realized marriage was only a breath a way.  The loofah confirmed to me, from now on, there would be a lady in the house.  The pastor’s wife was coming. 
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L.B. McClain

When I became pastor of Lantana Road I was 23 years old, L.B. McClain was 86. He was the oldest member of the congregation and its elder statesman. He was a small man with a large nose, white hair, and piercing eyes. He moved slowly but he was always up to something. He had been a successful business man in Knoxville who after 42 years sold his business and bought a large tract of land in Crossville that was full of natural gas wells. Many times he told me the story of how he had acquired the mineral rights. I never knew what he was talking about. He also told me often that he saved up plenty of money for retirement. The problem was that he lived too long. He had an unmistakable elderly laugh that shook his whole body. It came out of him every time he told me he outlived his money.


L.B.’s day consisted of go somewhere and get something done, visit someone, grow something, and tinker around on some old piece of equipment he owned. I once borrowed his tiller. It was rusted out and held together with wire, but it worked like a new one. This was L.B.’s craft. No machine ever died around L.B. McClain. He was the Messiah of would be junk. After we loaded up the tiller, he asked me what I was going to do with it. I told him I was going to use it to till out an area in our yard where we could plant flowers. He gave me a speech about how strange it was the people would work so hard to grow a garden that grew nothing a man could eat. I felt like a total wimp. He let me use his tiller anyway.

My office at Lantana Road consisted of a metal desk and a folding metal chair. There were no supplies. There was no computer. There were no shelves. It was just a room with a desk and folding metal chair. Already struggling to know what to do, spending time at that office made it even worse. But I was the pastor and pastors are expected to spend some time at the office. Most days I would just take my Bible and read.

One morning L.B. stopped by on his route to go make a difference. He opened my door and said, “Preacher, I want to tell you some things.” When L.B. determined to tell you some things you could count on it taking awhile. I pulled out the other matching folding metal chair. L.B. sat down and he began to talk. I did nothing but listen. This is how most all of my visits with L.B. went. Whenever I would go to their home L.B. would begin to lecture me about something and the conversation would often be interrupted by his wife Lorene, “O’ L.B. would you hush, that’s crazy, Brian, you know he’s crazy.” Then she would stomp off to cook something. Lorene was 100 miles an hour in every direction. She always made me laugh.

Sitting in my office L.B. took off his hat, put it in his lap and began to share with me his story. He told me of his business in Knoxville and how mean a man he used to be until he was saved. L.B.’s eyes often watered and he would use a handkerchief to wipe them. You never really knew if he was crying or if his eye was just watering, it was hard to tell the difference. Whatever L.B. said, he said it with passion and intention. He told me how he moved to Crossville and was a member of Homestead Baptist Church for several years until God gave him a vision to start a new church. L.B. believed that when a church had more than 40 or 50 people in it, it was time to start a new one. I will never forget a year or so later L.B. stopped by to tell me that now that LRBC had 80 it was time to start a new church.

L.B. rehearsed the story about how he begged the preacher at Homestead to start a new church. Knowing L.B. the pastor of Homestead probably obliged so that L.B. would go home. It took more time before L.B. finally gained the support of the association, and scrounged up enough money and men to buy 3 acres on the front corner of a 100 acre lot at the end of Dunbar Road at Lantana Road. He told me how they built the first metal building, then the second, then the block building. L.B. told me every good and bad episode at LRBC from 1983 to present. He even told me why 11 people voted against me. Then came a moment when I knew he was crying.

“Preacher, I know God has great things for this church and that He put it here to reach lots of people. I have prayed for this church for all these years. God is going to answer my prayers.”

My grandmother died when she was 98. She prayed for God to give “her generations” a preacher. L.B. McClain died when he was 97. He prayed for God to grow a church at the corner of Lantana Road and Dunbar. God answered their prayers and what He did for them has forever shaped me. I am forever grateful that both of them lived long enough to see their prayers answered.

We pray too short and too shallow. Our God is not small. If we dare to do so He invites us to pray in such a way that His answers change lives, shape stories, and give new life to struggling congregations. Sitting in an almost empty office, L.B.’s story reinforced to me that if I would stay faithful and preach God’s Word, something great would happen at LRBC; and it did.

Every church needs people who have a vision that is blurred only by their tears and people who pray so fervently that lives are brought together at various points and their stories are forever fused as God answers them.

My first 15 years of ministry were chiseled out by the fervent prayers of two saints of God. Who will pray for my next 15?

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Characters

We are all characters. Surely someone thinks of us and chuckles. The tone of our voice, the shape of our body, the color of our hair, our mannerisms, our mistakes, the way we laugh, there is something about all of us that makes us memorable. When I write about the characters that made up the early cast of Lantana Road Baptist Church I do not mean to poke fun or demean. Trust me, as I write the paragraphs I smile, often chuckling about the way we were. I confess that in many ways I too am a character in the plot of many. I have been laughed at and am a big part of many exaggerated stories told. There are plenty of impersonations of me. I do not mean harm in any of this. I mean only to share the characters of my story, some of the people who have made it interesting. People who still make me laugh.

The first minster of music I served with was still considered a young guy, but he was still several years older than I.  Not surprising since I was still young enough that insurance would not allow me to drive Baby Blue for two more years.  If the pastor planned an outing, according to State Farm he still needed a chaperone.  Though our music minister was still a young fellow, he would soon surpass what Southerners generally consider "marrying age", thus he was incessantly pressured by the church, but remained a bachelor with no prospects. He always smiled but never looked me in the eye. I never could figure him out and he never figured me out. He wore thick glasses and had a distinct cadence to his speech that made him curious to hear. No matter the rhythm of the song, he directed everything as if it were in 1/1 time which worked well for the normally sluggishly performed 4/4 hymn. But that would not do for me. I wanted something with speed. I wanted the choir to sing something that wasn’t in the hymnal. He tried, but beating time in 1/1 for the typical hoot nanny Southern Gospel number made him look like he was trying to fan out a fire rather than trying to start one (which is what I wanted). Once the song service ended he would sit in the center of the front pew for a breather. He would open his Bible and stare at the floor, again, not once did he ever look me in the eye. Every few minutes he would do the most curious thing I will never forget. Ever slowly he would raise the index finger of his right hand toward his face, carefully taking aim at his thick glasses. The motion was methodical, calculated, as if he were a sniper with only one shot. Eventually his finger would make it to his glasses and with his eyes crossed he would press them back against his face. I never laughed though I found it funny. I just preached. I think I was a total aggravation to him, which is not my intent.  It would not be long until he quit and I would take my rookie lap at another typical pastoral duty, search for staff.


Just behind our music minister sat a Vietnam Vet named Cliff. Cliff’s wife died several years before I arrived. The deacons told me that after she was gone Cliff was never quite the same. He rarely bathed, was a heavy smoker, and constantly drank coffee. He wore the same suit almost every Sunday and emanated an odor that I would liken only to the French Quarter of New Orleans in the morning. He had a terrible sore to the left of his nose that never healed. He would pick at it constantly as I preached. If he was not picking at his sore Cliff was giving himself a manicure. I’m not sure where he smuggled it all in, whether in his pocket or his Bible, but Cliff would have a nice set of metal tools that allowed for him to not only trim his nails but also file them. His nails were thick which meant that when it came time for his manicure I would have to ramp up my sermon to overcome the incessant clicking and popping of the clippers conquering Cliff’s nails. Each severed shard of nail would leave his hand like a bullet. Some of them landed near the pulpit, many in his Bible, others three rows back, and the rest only God knows where. A year or so into my ministry the head deacon and I were finally allowed to visit Cliff’s home. He had been stacking newspapers throughout his house since the day his wife died. There were hundreds if not thousands of them in massive piles. The piles formed a maze of catacombs from the kitchen to his living room and back into the bedrooms. It was one of the saddest things I have ever seen. Cliff was eventually taken to a permanent VA care facility. He died a few years later a forgotten hero of a conflict that victimized many men America failed to appreciate.


I have lots of favorites throughout these first 15, but one of my all time favorites is Steve Delozier. Steve lived with his widowed mother Ivalene. Ivalene was a seventy something year old Southern Belle with all the charm and cooking skills. She was a transplant from Knoxville who lived on Lake Tansi. She was the queen of the rose. She was gentle but opinionated, soft spoken but pointed, frail but full of fire. Steve was probably in his fifties. He was short with grey hair and a manicured mustache. He had a distinct look about him. His mind never left childhood. Steve either liked you or he was done with you, forever. The good news is that Steve liked me. Ivalene had us over to eat often and to take a ride on her pontoon boat. Steve would talk our ear off. There is no way I can mimic his tone and voice in writing, but he began every statement with either “You know what”, “I tell you what”, or his favorite, “You won’t believe it.” Every morning he walked down to the boat dock to feed the fish and every Sunday he would tell me what he saw.


“Brian, you won’t believe it.”


“What Steve?”


“You won’t believe it. I saw a big one, right over there.” Though we were standing in the gravel parking lot of the church Steve would point to the right or the left as if we were standing on the dock and I could see what he saw three days ago.


“Are you serious Steve?”


“It was huuuuuge, bout like ‘at.” Steve would give me the dimensions with his hands. He would then shake my hand and crush it. Steve was weak in mind but God gave him an incredible amount of grip strength. Very few of the ladies in church ever shook hands with Steve, but we all heard his fish tales.


So there we were in God’s mower shed, burning hot; me preaching and everyone listening to a bad sermon on an even worse sound system. I was the 23 year old clueless preacher with a thick Georgia brogue. On the front row the music minister took cross eyed aim at his glasses. Cliff gave himself a manicure. Steve patiently waited through my sermons with his arm around his mother but always looking left. Uncle Roy and Aunt Geneva listened proudly to their nephew preach. After 45 minutes Uncle Roy beginning to grow nervous that I would never finish and that he wouldn’t have time to fish. Jenny, the now former pulpit chair listened to what I had to say, probably wondering what in the world she had done. The kids who came in on Baby Blue fidgeted and fumbled the whole service like all church kids do. To the left were Bob and Edie Petty. Edie knew far more about the Bible than I did. Bob was a huge man with some health issues but somehow still managed to work long hours at Ace hardware. Edie’s job was to check the facts of my sermon and to keep Bob awake. I never managed. There were others, Donnie and Carrie, Jenny and Samantha, Melanie and Donald, Roy and Teresa, Clay and Bobbie, Sherry and Rodger, Josh, Keith, Phyllis, Renee and Charlie, Bud and Wilma, Jeff and Debbie, Matt, Sheena, Helen, Mary, Lavanda, Clint, Adam, L.B. and Lorene, Bruce and Denise, Connie, Jason, Crystal, Mary Jo, and another Betty or two. I know I am surely forgetting someone, but in those early days there were not many more of us there from week to week. We were a comedic cast of worshipers in God’s mower shed, but something was happening. God was honoring something in and about this rag tag cast. It was not long until I figured out what it was. The congregation’s eldest member and statesman was about to tell me. L.B. McClain paid me a visit.


I was about to find out what God (and everybody else) was up to on Lantana Road.

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Long and Short Range Plans

The traditional, but wholly unbiblical name for most church buildings is “God’s house.” God’s house is the only place on the planet where little boys are forbidden to run. Bringing food into “God’s house” is an only slightly more audacious sin. Wearing a hat and eating a burger while taking a jog in “God’s house” will send you straight to Hell. The church building is God’s house and all good Southern Baptists instill the fear of God in their children so that they may grow up respecting “God’s house.”

Robert Schuller had the Crystal Cathedral. Spurgeon preached in the New Park Street Chapel. I started my ministry in a metal shed. To call the thing “God’s house” would have been a stretch. God’s lawnmower barn, maybe, but if it were God’s house the place had serious issues. In several places the seams in the sanctuary carpet were separating.  Someone remedied the problem with duct tape. Seems logical. So toward the rear of the main worship space the color scheme and pattern of the severely used and outdated carpet was broken up by a nice silver strip of duct tape. The walls were an early ’70’s fake wood panel. The center of the sanctuary housed a set of pews. On either side were rows of cushioned metal folding chairs that didn’t match anything. The soundboard had about 8 channels. I think only 6 of them worked. The PA sounded like an AM radio. It had a duel tape deck and to this day I am surprised it didn’t have an 8 track. The parking lot was gravel and had a slight slope toward the front doors. In a heavy rain the runoff water flowed back to the building and underneath the metal walls. Rainy days always meant flooded halls and nursery. The foyer and the bathrooms were separated by the Baptist version of swinging saloon doors. They were wood paneled doors with a small square peep hole. If you swung them in you almost hit the back pew and also endangered someone rounding the corner of hitting them in the face. If you swung them out they would stick on the linoleum flooring in the foyer and trap someone in the bathroom. I remember one Sunday in particular in which one of our Deacons named Donald got trapped, gave up hope that he would be rescued from the potty and decided just to sit have a smoke. Lucky for him we smelled his burnt offering and a kind usher freed him.

I know there are some who may be offended at my assessment of the old LRBC. There were a lot of men who worked very hard to keep the metal building standing. There were even more who sacrificed to make it a possibility. But between the dilapidated air conditioning, the stifling heat of the auditorium, the mice, the musty smell, and the serious amount of patchwork, to call the metal building rough is an understatement. “God’s house” needed an upgrade.

Being a disciple of Bro. Wayne I was armed with a tool that would motivate the church to get busy. Bro. Wayne called them, “Long and Short Range Plans.” On the first Wednesday night of his pastorates he would stand in the pulpit fielding dreams and suggestions, things people wanted to see changed, fixed, or built. No matter how big or small an idea, how expensive or cheap, not matter how dumb or brilliant, Bro. Wayne welcomed any input, wrote it on a poster, and posted it for all to see. Across the top read the words, “Long and Short Range Plans.” As each goal or suggestion was met it was marked off the list. It was an effective motivational tool. LRBC needed some easy wins, so the first Wednesday night as pastor I walked in the path of my mentor, I fielded dreams and before long we had a poster, “Long and Short Range Plans.” 93 suggestions and ideas that would turn LRBC from a struggling congregation in God’s mower shed to a viable church with a serious vision.

#11 - Fix auditorium doors. We did that by removing them. Deacon Donald could now easily go outside to smoke. #14 - Pay pastor full time. I liked that one. I have begun that story and will share more about it later. #15 - Purchase surrounding land. A good story will come of this one as well. #18 - Computers for offices. The abacus must be replaced. #20 - Parking area paved. I have a great story about a green bean farmer to share with you on this one. #27 - Re-plumb baptistry with drain. I will allow your imagination to wonder what became of the dirty sin water post-baptism until this goal was met. #36 - New organ. Seeing that the current organ at the time only had a half set of keys, “new organ” was a novel idea. An only slightly better idea, you guessed it, #38, organist. #58 - another van. Baby Blue needed a buddy. #77 - Regular spraying for pests. Seeing that we had more mice than members, poison was in order. #93 - Mic stands. If we were to be a viable church, laying mics on the pews like men leaving the TV remote on the couch would no longer do.

Looking back on that list of plans brings back fond memories. Comparable to the cost of various projects throughout these last 15 years of ministry, all 93 ideas on the first version of the Long and Short Range Plans seem like a good bucket full of change would have taken care of most of it. It is amazing how little vision costs, but how little of it we often have. Though it didn't seem like much, we had a vision.  Some people believe vision is earth shattering, huge stuff.  In 15 years of shepherding the church I have found that vision often begins with the little things.  Fix some doors, clean the place up, just do something.  Reaching the world for Christ often begins with fixing the doors and giving people a decent place to park.  Fix the flood in the nursery and just maybe people will feel more comfortable about leaving their babies in it.  Do the little things.  Easy wins in the short term, but keep it going for the long term.  That is exactly what we did.  Little by little for the next six years we worked together and things began to change. 
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Say Anything


Throughout these Shepherd Chronicles I have alluded a few times to the fact that Shannon and I were engaged when I began as pastor at Lantana Road Baptist Church.  My first day at LRBC was Oct. 13, our wedding date was set for Feb. 1.  Before I move too far along in the story, I should back up a bit and talk about how I met and married the greatest part of me.
At the time Shannon and I attended Tennessee Temple University, it was an independent  Baptist college with strict, independent Baptist rules.  You could not wear shorts or blue jeans.  You had to wear collared shirts in Jesus name.  You could not swim in the same pool as a member of the opposite sex.  They called this “mixed bathing.”  I cracked up laughing anytime someone used the term.  To top it all, commandment #11 was that you could not date without a chaperone until you were 20.  When Shannon and I met I was a Senior, she was a Freshman.  If we were to date, we needed a chaperone.
The ironic twist in the story is that even though I knew Shannon we did not date one another until 3 months before I graduated.  Though she was not my girlfriend, there were a few times that she was my chaperone!  To make a long story short, our first date was a church event on a Wednesday night, Feb. 1, 1995.  We were married exactly two years later.  I married my chaperone.  There is a ton missing from this paragraph.  If you know my wife, ask her about the whole story.  I’m sure she would love to fill you in.
We lived in the same town only 3 months of the two years we dated.  While she was home in Charlotte I was either in Ringgold or Cartersville.  While she was at school in Chattanooga, I was either in Louisville or Crossville.  I drove a lot for love.  The good thing about long distance dating is that it forces you to talk.  I am not a great person to person communicator, especially on the phone.  Yet somehow I said enough to make her love me.
I knew I wanted to marry Shannon way before I ever asked her.  But when you’re a penniless student, a part time youth pastor, and a mower man living next door to Ostriches it is hard to pull the trigger.  Frank Cox, pastor of North Metro Baptist in Lawrencville, GA became the catalyst for our engagement.  Frank was preaching a revival at Atco.  One night before the service began Bro. Wayne, Mrs. Joan, Frank and I were sitting together talking marriage.  I was asking questions.  They were telling me how big a fool I was that I had not already asked Shannon to marry me.  “What’s the problem Frank said?  What’s the holdup?”  At the time I had enrolled at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (for the first time, more on that later).  I explained that I did not think with school bills I would be financially solvent enough to also be married.  Frank looked me in the eye and said, “If you’re school bill was not an issue, would you marry her?”  When Frank asked me that I had no idea that he had established a scholarship at NOBTS in his late wife’s honor.  “Absolutely, no doubt about it”, I replied.  “Done, I will call the school tomorrow, your tuition will be paid.”  Game, set, match.  I was about to be engaged.  
Side note:  I enrolled in NOBTS with a full ride scholarship.  I never went.  I was a seminary dropout for the second time.
In a matter of a few days I had the approval of Shannon’s father and a ring.  The only question remained, how exactly would I make this a #1 romantic moment that would sweep her off her feet?  TBS is to blame for how the whole thing went down.  “Say Anything” is one of those sappy, lazy Sunday afternoon movies that help you fall asleep.  It is a film that holds your attention just well enough that you eventually become too tired to turn the channel.  In the film is a scene where John Cusack attempts to win back his lost love.  He pulls up in front of her house, and stands by his car with a big boom box playing a very ’80’s Peter Gabriel song, In Your Eyes.  It is the signature scene of the film.  Before there was Leonardo and Kate on the bow of the Titanic there was John Cusack with a boom box.  I would soon be Shannon’s John Cusack.
I convinced Shannon that I was going to Atlanta to buy Sunday School literature.  I had never bought Sunday School literature a day in my life and even if I were in desperate need of it I would not know where to go in Atlanta to find it.  I called Shannon’s roommate Sarah and told her the plan.  Her responsibility was to make sure Shannon did not leave her room during a pre-arranged period of time.  She was to also convince Shannon that they needed to have their dorm room window open.  Sarah accomplished the mission, but she also let every girl in Demoss Hall know I was coming.  When I pulled up to the front of the dorm I wanted to see Shannon in the window.  Instead I saw a sea of coeds in darkened windows poised to watch the whole thing.  
I parked the Nissan.  Walked around to the passenger side, and just like John Cusack I held up my boom box, but instead of Peter Gabriel, I played Otis Redding, These Arms of Mine.  Shannon is a sucker for old love songs.  
I had a scholarship, a job at a golf course, part time job as a youth pastor, and an Ostrich for a neighbor.  Now I also had a fiancee.  
Thank you John Cusack and Otis Redding.

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A Night at the '96 Olympics


15 years ago today the Centennial Olympic Games began in Atlanta.  Though this derails the chronology of my first 15 there is a story here worth sharing.
Early in the summer of 1996 my friend Chris moved in with me for a few months.  Our families are close.  I went to their house every day after school from 3rd – 5th grade.  Chris’ dad coached one of the world’s greatest sports franchises, the Graysville Bobcats soccer team.  We lost only two games in three years, both championships.  We were the Buffalo Bills of rec. league soccer.  Chris is now also serving the ministry as a youth pastor in Carrolton, GA.  Even now our kids get together with the grandparents and go camping together just like Chris and I did growing up.  The Altmans and the Branams represent three generations of friendships, very cool.
While Chris crashed with me for the summer in Cartersville he also joined me in working at the golf course.  I would like to think that it was also that summer that God used our time serving at Atco Baptist to implant in Chris’ soul a call into the ministry.  After I left Atco, Chris succeeded me as youth pastor there just after he graduated college.  He has made it 15 years in youth ministry.  If I were still a youth pastor I would either be in prison or a psyche ward by now.
It was a Friday afternoon.  The Olympics had been in Atlanta for about a week.  By the next weekend it would all be over.  Chris and I had just gotten paid.  We decided that there was no way the Olympic Games could be that close and we somehow not make an effort to be right in the middle of it.  So with a few dollars to our name we drove to Kennesaw, caught a bus and headed for Centennial Olympic Park. 
We found a $5 burger and walked into the mass of people from all over the world that had descended upon Atlanta.  The sidewalks were filled with internationals and scalpers.  The internationals were intriguing, but the scalpers slowly became to us like a siren song, begging us for what little money we had in our pockets.  The Dream Team was playing that night, $500; out of our league.  The men’s volleyball team was also playing that night, $250.  We probably had that much between us, but one of us would have to cannibalize the other to make it possible.  We had just eaten, no volleyball.  Gymnastics.  No way.  Then we met a man who had two tickets to water polo, Italy v. Russia, 35 bucks apiece.  All week long we had watched the swimming events on television.  We speculated that somehow with water polo tickets we may be able to sneak in to the end of the men’s relays that were taking place that night.  We bought the tickets and caught a bus to the Aquatics Center at Georgia Tech.
If you remember the Aquatics Center for the Olympic Games in Atlanta it was a unique design.  It was an indoor/outdoor sort of thing.  Everything was covered, but the ends were open near the top.  You could see the scoreboards and video screens from the outside and the noise of the crowd easily filtered into the streets.  When we got off the bus it was loud, the people at the pool were going nuts.  The men’s relay was going on at that very moment and the USA was in the lead.  In that moment we believed that our $35 plan to catch the last few seconds of the men’s relay was going to work.  When we got off the bus we were immediately ushered into a people trough.  People troughs are the same things we do to cattle, except at massive sporting venues it is people.  Instead of leading cattle to hay, people troughs lead ticket holders to their seats.  The first few turns of the people trough took us closer and closer to the action.  The next few turns took us the other way.  Being ignorant of the world of Olympic aquatic events we did not realize that water polo pools and racing pools are not the same.  The racing pool was massive, Olympic size as they say, and surrounded by 30,000 seats.  The water polo pool is more the size of a pool you would find in someone’s backyard, just a slight upgrade from one that you buy at Wal-Mart and blow up yourself.  Racing pools seat 30,000.  Water polo pools seat about 300.  But we were there.  We had Olympic tickets and nowhere else to go.  Chris and I went onward through the people trough to watch Italy take on Russia in water polo.
What we did not realize was that at the time Italy and Russia were #1 and #2 in water polo.  Maybe $35 was a deal after all.  I had been to Russia in college, but as an American, ever since the hockey thing, it is very difficult to sit with the Russians at an Olympic event, so we chose the Italians.  Needless to say, we had a blast.  It was Jeff Foxworthy meets the Cake Boss.  We had no idea what was going on.  My interpretation of water polo is that you try to throw the ball into the net before the other team drowns you.  Though we were clueless, we chanted and cheered, mimicking the Italian fervor with our North Georgia brogues.  We may have been shouting total filth and slander at the Russians, but since it was in Italian we had no idea.  Whatever it was, all I know is that Italian people know how to have fun at water polo.  I have a feeling that Italians know how to have fun at anything.
It was well after midnight when we arrived back at Centennial Park.  There we would catch another bus back to Kennesaw.  When we finally got on the bus we were well outside the park.  I pointed out to Chris that there were police cars rushing about, frantically, everywhere.  Whatever it was, it must have been crazy.  We were too tired to care.  Sleepily we made our way back to Cartersville with only slight curiosities as to what was actually happening.
When we finally arrived back in Cartersville it was almost 3 a.m.   Out of habit we flipped on the TV.  It did not take us long before we realized why there was so much chaos as we were leaving the park.  The Olympic park had been bombed. 
They say everyone will experience 15 minutes of fame.  In 15 years of preaching I have yet to have my 15 minutes.  Yet I can say at this point, I was almost blown up by Eric Robert Rudolph.  How’s that?  Chris played baseball for Piedmont College.  He knew Richard Jewell, the man the media falsely accused and subsequently ruined his life.  Maybe that makes Chris famous, who knows?  All I know is that my first 15 could have come to an abrupt end with water polo.  What a way to die!
Glad to be here.  
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Tilted Saucers

People expect pastors to be generous souls, detached from material things, and not greedy for money.  That may be true, but everybody has to eat, even pastors.  
Being a small congregation Lantana Road was only able to provide me with a small salary.  Fortunately my parents blessed me by paying my college tuition.  I paid cash for my one semester of seminary, so I had no college loans to repay.  Upon moving to Crossville I rented a small two bedroom duplex that wasn’t too unreasonable.  I had a red Nissan pickup truck with a payment of less than $150.  I paid on that truck for 48 months and drove it for 156.  I sold it only a few years ago.  I had a 19” television, but no cable.  My Uncle Roy loaned me a VHS copy of Tombstone.  I watched it almost every morning while eating pop-tarts.  It is one of my favorite movies and outside of Raising Arizona probably the one I can quote the most. 
“I’m your huckleberry.”      
After rent, truck, and pop tarts there was not much money left for anything else.  The pastor search committee encouraged me to find a part time job to supplement my income.  I gave it a shot.  I went to numerous businesses in the area but one genre of employment I marked off the list.  I would not mow grass at a golf course.  I lived less than a mile from the Lake Tansi golf course, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it again.  I looked for work at funeral homes.  Though we were not married at the time the thought of me working at a funeral home disturbed Shannon, but I was fine with it.  I was just so burnt out on mowing I had rather hang out with the dead than return to grass.
I searched for a couple of weeks with no results.  I was overqualified for most part time jobs in a little town.  I was under-qualified for any job that required a skill other than translating Greek.  I was quickly frustrated.  Late one afternoon I pulled up to yet another funeral home and walked inside.  A group of men, all employees, stood at the door.  I introduced myself, “My name is Brian Branam, I am the new pastor of Lantana Road Baptist Church . . .”  Before I could get anything related to inquiring if they had any part time work available they began to laugh.  Very quickly they spouted out a few negative things about the church and recited a few episodes of their troubled history.  Nothing they said to me was encouraging or well received.  I politely retreated to my Nissan and prayed, “Lord, in your Word you have promised to provide my needs.  As long as you provide I will work as hard as I possibly can to bring souls to Christ.”  With that prayer the part time job search was over.  I would be a full time pastor with bi-vo pay.  I trusted that God would take care of the rest.
I learned the lesson of living in simplicity and trust from my grandmother.  She had little to nothing but remained one of the most generous people I have ever met.  Her soul was a deep well of wisdom, but her financial plan was like a shallow, tilted saucer.  She would trust God to pour in and He could trust her to quickly overflow and pour out.  She lived on enough.  She gave away the excess.  She was remarkable and content.  She was penniless and generous.  On paper she was worth nothing, but to those who knew her she was a woman of incalculable worth.  It was now my turn to live the tilted saucer life I learned from her.  
I could create another set of chronicles about all the miraculous ways God has met my needs through the years.  Over and over, God has always out given me.  Each time it is miraculous.  I remember a time that Shannon and I determined to give a donation to the church.  We had specified a Sunday in which all those who wished to participate would put their donation in a sealed envelope and lay it at the alter at the close of the service.  We laid our gift down, prayed over it and turned to walk to the back of the church to greet people as they exited.  Before we could get to the door three couples gave us cards, also in sealed envelopes.  The season was nearing Christmas so there was nothing unusual about receiving cards after service.  When we returned home to open them we found that we were given twice what we gave; to the penny.  Neither of those who gave us cards knew what the other had given.  None of them knew what we had laid at the altar, yet they gave us two-fold what we had just given.  God blesses tilted saucers.
True to my prayer, I worked as hard as I possibly could to bring souls to Christ. True to His Word, God met my needs.  A generous family that became more to me than merely church members invited me over to eat with them most every night.  Jeff and Debbie were masters of applesauce and catfish with some sort of lemon seasoning.  I appreciated their support and loved having meals with them.  I still count those meals as one of the favorite memories of my first 15.  
If I ever went to the grocery store it was for things like milk, toiletries, and bread (not necessarily in that order).  Almost every week I would open my door only to find an anonymous bag of groceries.  Often it was something someone had grown and canned.  When I went home for Thanksgiving my refrigerator was full of things I had not bought.  In my freezer were two turkeys I had no idea how to cook.  
When Joshua crossed the Jordan he told the people to gather stones from the riverbed and stack them on the other side as memorial to what God had done.  The memory of that miraculously filled refrigerator is an early pile of memorial stones in my first 15.  It stands there ever to remind me that God is good and that He overflows tilted saucers.  
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Preaching Cubed

I had a few weeks between the time I received the call to become pastor of LRBC and my first Sunday.  I took the time to relocate and write two new sermons, one for Sunday morning, one for Sunday night.  I had grown in my preaching skills.  Long gone were the days of marching Joshua around Jericho in 7 minutes and 30 seconds.  Now it would take him almost an hour.  
By the time LRBC called me as pastor I approached a sermon as if I were carving a paper weight out of a mountain.  I read broadly.  I researched every cultural nuance of the text.  I took several days to carve out an outline.  I searched for stories.  I took a few more days to write the manuscript and several more to practice it.  By the time the process was over I had a well crafted 45 to 50 minute theological masterpiece.  Those early sermons took a great deal of time to prepare and they took an even greater amount of patience to hear. 
On October 13, 1996 I preached my sermons.  One in the morning.  One in the evening.    My life as a pastor was officially underway.  I left the church and headed back to the duplex I had rented just a few miles down the road.  I reflected on a job well done all the way home.  When I arrived I made my way to the front door and fumbled with my keys.  Now that I was a pastor I had more than two keys.  Lantana Road Baptist Church only had three doors, but for some reason you needed ten keys to get in the building.  But keys felt good.  It felt official.  So there I was with my big set of keys, my big black Bible, and a sermon manuscript, still hot from a solid 50 minutes of preaching.  
After I opened the front door another thought entered my mind.  As I made my way toward the small countertop between the living room and the kitchen I became increasingly unsettled.  Now that I am an official pastor I will have to preach again on Wednesday night, just three days from now.  Seven days from now I will have to preach two more sermons.  The following week I will have to do it all again, three more times, every week for the rest of my life.  Being an official pastor means preaching cubed.
It was a sickening moment when I realized that I no longer had a month to write a sermon.  I had a week to write three of them.  Somehow I would also have to visit people and if they died I would have to bury them.  That would require another sermon.  Nobody is considerate enough to give you 30 days notice so you can have enough time to write their funeral sermon.  I felt completely overwhelmed, out of my league.  I could always go back to mowing grass.
I didn’t know where to begin.  How do preachers figure out what they are going to preach about every week for the rest of their life?  I had taken preaching classes, but somehow I missed this all important lecture.  Now I know that in 1996 Rick Warren and Bill Hybels had long invented the sermon series, but I had heard only one of those.  Bro. Wayne had preached 12 Sundays on the 12 Apostles.  That might buy me 12 Sundays, but the three a week schedule meant that the 12 Apostles would only last me a month.  What then?     
I sat on my couch, a new one that I had purchased with Shannon on the way up to Crossville.  It was our first official married couch.  I was blue and green.  We still own it.  If that couch could talk it would probably be much more honest about these stories than I ever will.  But I sat there on the couch wondering, “What exactly is it that preachers do?”  “How do they do this every week?”  Monday was only a few hours away.  Those questions would begin to answer themselves soon enough.   
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Eleven Plus Two

It was mid September when I preached in view of a call at Lantana Road.  To “preach in view of a call” in Baptist life means that you are going to preach for the entire congregation and barring you don’t pass out or renounce Christ from the pulpit they are going to vote you in.  I had a few weeks to prepare a sermon.  I delivered it.  Jesus remained the Son of God.  I remained conscious, but I would have to wait a week for the vote.  That week in Cartersville, mowing grass and waiting, seemed as if it lasted a month.
Lots of things run through your mind while you are mowing grass.  Buddhists meditate.  Baptists mow grass.  I have had some deep thoughts on a mower.  That week of waiting in Cartersville made my mind wander from how awesome of a pastor I was going to be, to how much the people were going to love me, to how happy I would be to quit mowing grass at a golf course and finally begin serving as pastor of a church.  Apparently I didn’t get the entire “humility” memo God was trying to send me on the back of a mower.  In my mind the vote was merely a formality.  Who in their right mind would vote against me?  I was so confident in the vote that I told Jenny I would not come unless I received a 100% vote.  To this day I am not proud of that moment.  There was no good reason to make that demand.  It was pompous and stupid.  The only explanation I have is that I was prideful and insecure, two beasts that often dance together.  My struggle with them will become a repetitive theme throughout my story.
The Sunday of the vote I rushed home quickly from morning worship at Atco and waited by the phone.  To add to the torture Crossville is in the Central Time Zone, an entire, excruciating, hour behind Cartersville in the Eastern Time Zone.  I sat on my couch, which at the time was a hand me down from another century.  It had brown cushions with accents of orange and a polished wood frame.  The thing horrified my mother, but it worked for me.  I walked to the creek behind my house.  I sat on my 5x5 front porch and stared at Mr. Gunn’s Ostriches.  They had no idea what I was going through.  The Ostrich is a rude bird that cannot sympathize with human emotion.  We never got along.    Early in the afternoon the phone finally rang.  It was Jenny, chair of the pulpit committee.
I expected to hear, “The vote was unanimous, we all believe you will be one of the greatest pastors who has ever lived.  Could you please be here in a couple of hours, we can’t live another minute until you arrive.”  Instead I heard, “Brian, the vote was 56-11, do you want to come?”  
Pride and insecurity began to dance.
I went from thinking no one in their right mind would vote against me to barely getting the 75% of the vote needed for the recommendation to pass.  There were only two ways to process what I had just heard.  Either there were 11 people in Crossville, TN who were not in their right mind, or it was me who was not in my right mind.  The truth of the matter was that both of us were wrong. 
The two times that I had preached at LRBC there were barely 40 people there, now there were 77.  In most Baptist Churches there are way more members than there are people who actually attend.  Some come for Easter.  Some come for Christmas.  They all come when there is a vote.  According to the story I was told, a godly layman who had served the church well as interim desired the job.  He was well respected in the church, but when he was not considered for the role of permanent pastor he gathered sympathizers to vote against the motion to call me.  He did not know me.  He had never met me.  He was not there when I preached.  The 11 votes had nothing to do with me, but pride and insecurity had me convinced that the 11 were all about me.  
It has taken me many years to realize that pride and insecurity play cruel tricks.  They are deceivers, illusionists by trade who make the man in the mirror appear as if he is the only one on the planet that gives a reflection.
The problem was that at the time I had no idea how great a grip pride and insecurity had on me.  They were so deeply entrenched in my soul I did not know they existed.  I still wrestle with them, but now I know they are there.  If there was anything positive about the 11 it was that God used them to expose another 2 in me.  They also taught me that believing God is more powerful than believing everyone thinks you’re wonderful.        
I told Jenny that even though I was discouraged by the vote I knew God had called me to Lantana Road.  I accepted the call.  My first Sunday there would be October 13, 1996.  I was 23 years old.  
I said goodbye to the wonderful people of Atco Baptist Church.  Uncle Roy rented a short U-haul and used his packing skills to pack what little I had into something even smaller.  I left the ugly wooden couch.  My mother was glad.  I said goodbye to Mr. Gunn and his rude Ostriches.  I headed for Crossville.  Pride and insecurity rode shotgun. 
I was finally off the mower, but I still had much to learn.
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Interview LRBC

I vividly remember “Baby Blue” pulling away from the curb with the LRBC pulpit committee inside.  I do not remember exactly what transpired in the days after my trial sermon, but somehow I eventually wound up in Crossville for an interview.  
Because we were engaged Shannon was invited to be a part of the process.  I had no idea how it all would go, but I remembered Bro. Wayne axiom #3, “Whatever they ask you will reveal what they didn’t like about the previous pastor.”  
The evening began in a relatively old local buffet restaurant with wood panel walls.  Our party would occupy the back room.  After making our first visit to the buffet, Shannon and I were seated in the rear of the room with our backs to the wall.  The six members of the committee sat across from us.  There was no escape, but I was ready.  I guess I expected some friendly chat over course 1 which generally includes some sort of modest soup or salad.  I didn’t want our first impression to be pig.  There was only a limited amount of chat before the questions began.  The surprising part was that none of the early questions were directed at me.  They were Shannon’s.  Shannon is a relatively slow eater.  Having to field questions made eating nearly impossible for her.  While her salad sat dormant the questions kept coming - for a while.  They questioned her so long I was beginning to wonder if they were interested in me.
Given the number of questions directed at Shannon and the fact that she was apparently chosen to be the lead off hitter, Bro. Wayne axiom #3 meant that the previous pastor’s wife must have been a trip.  I finished my first modest course, desperately wanting more, but again there was no escape.  I ate little to nothing.  Shannon ate nothing to little.  
After her borage of questions an elderly lady showed up on cue.  She took Shannon away.  Shannon’s salad stayed.  They questioned her.  Now they were going to kill her.  No more buffet visits for Shannon.  I was left alone.
The only thing I remember about the interview was that it was long.  I was hungry.  Shannon was gone.  What started in daylight ended in darkness.  It was relatively late when the questions ended. The last remaining order of business was to retrieve my fiance; maybe.  
Shannon had not been killed.  Instead she had been quarantined to the home of a nice elderly couple that lived a few blocks away.  After wrapping up the marathon evening with some small talk Shannon and I drove away and spent hours trying to interpret exactly what we were getting ourselves into.  Given Bro. Wayne axiom #3 we attempted to decode the interview all the way to Chattanooga.
Apparently the interview went well as the committee eventually extended to me an invitation to preach at the church in view of a call.  I will share this story next.  The interview also taught me a lesson.  If you want to be a pastor, study Greek and be ready to answer questions for hours.  I would be reminded of this again 6 years later during the interview process with Ridgecrest.  Comparatively the interview at LRBC was merely a 10k.  As long as it seemed at the time, it would be nothing compared to the marathon process with Ridgecrest.  I will get to that story eventually, but it will take quite some time.
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The Pulpit Committee

Some say Charles Finney invented the “gospel invitation."  The conclusion is debatable.  I would love to know who is responsible for the invention of the pulpit committee.  In pastor circles pulpit committees have inspired a myriad of nightmares and comedic stories.  Allow me to share my first experience with a pulpit committee. 

After waiting almost a year I finally received a call from the chair of the pulpit committee at Lantana Road.  I remember nothing about our initial conversation other than that I surmised my possibilities of becoming pastor at LRBC increased now that I was engaged to Shannon.  I shall share that romantic moment in a future episode. 

We agreed to meet at a neutral site so they could hear me preach “live.”  I called a family friend, a man who had been called into the ministry from my home church, William Swanson.  At the time he served as pastor of a congregation north of Chattanooga in Ooltewah, TN.  The date was set.  I would drive up from Cartersville.  The committee would drive down from Crossville.  I would preach and we would go from there.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting I counseled with Bro. Wayne on what I should do.  To this day I remember only three things Bro. Wayne told me about the process:  1)  When you get to the church, try to find out who is on the committee and introduce yourself to each of them individually.  2) When you are finished preaching your trial sermon ask them if they would like to go out and eat so you can talk things over. 3)  Whatever they ask you will reveal what they didn’t like about the previous pastor.  3a)  Don’t be that guy.  Easy enough.  I felt ready.

I worked for a couple of weeks crafting the perfect sermon.  I preached it in front of my bathroom mirror.  I even considered preaching it to Mr. Gunn’s Ostriches, but at the time I felt they were too mean and stubborn to listen.  Now I know preaching to Ostriches would have prepared me well for the ministry.  Finally trial Sunday came.  I drove to Ooltewah.  I was ready.

William’s church was fairly small.  On a typical Sunday evening, even large churches are fairly small.  There were probably less than 40 people in the building.  William met me at the back door.  We chatted for a bit catching up on one another’s families.  Williams brother George and his now late father Belvis will ever be a comedic highlight of my formative years.  After we talked family, William said, “There are six people sitting on these two rows.”  He talked as he pointed toward them.  “They are not my people.  That’s your committee.”  I knew they were already there because there was a baby blue church van in the parking lot that read, “Lantana Road Baptist Church.”  After I became pastor of LRBC I appropriately nicknamed that clunker of a van “Baby Blue.” 

I remembered Bro. Wayne’s counsel.  It was time to implement axiom #1.  I mustered the courage to step forward and introduce myself.  Three of them sat on a pew right of the aisle.  Three of them sat on a pew on the left side of the aisle.  I approached the nearest lady, who I soon found out was the chair of the committee.  Her name was Jenny and to that point she was the only person from Crossville, TN other than Uncle Roy with whom I had ever talked on the phone.   I knew her voice.  “Hello, my name is Brian, you must be with the pulpit committee from Lantana Road.”  I didn’t stutter and I didn’t throw up.  In my mind, I was doing well.  She looked me in the eye and said, “No I’m not, but its nice to meet you.”  I knew by her voice that she was either lying or suffering a memory lapse from carbon monoxide poisoning having ridden in “Baby Blue” for two hours.  Without missing a beat I turned across the aisle and said to the lady sitting on the end of the pew, “Hello, My name is Brian, you must be with the pulpit committee from Lantana Road.”  I found out later her name was Carrie (I will later share an episode about her husband Donnie and a gazzilion dying flies).  Carrie broke what was apparently the committee pact.  They had agreed not to identify themselves.  Carrie did.  She pointed across the aisle at Jenny and said, “And that lady and the people she is sitting with are with us too.”  We all had a big laugh.  If there was no other benefit of that moment of levity it was that the tension in the air was released, as were my nerves, and I was now confident I would not throw up.   

After the service I remembered Bro. Wayne axiom #2, ask them out to eat.  By the time I could get to the back of the small church the LRBC committee was out the back door and already crammed into the van.  I was now back to nausea.  This did not look good.  I had to catch them.  I approached the driver side window and asked, “Would you all like to go out and eat so we can talk things over?”  I said it confidently but I was dying inside.  They were leaving.  I cannot remember who was driving, but they replied, “We will talk it over.”  I conceded their request and walked back over to William.  Surely they would accept my invitation.  Was my sermon that bad? 

I turned back around only to see “Baby Blue” back away from the curb, turn right on the highway and head back to Crossville.  Without saying a word they were gone.  To this day I am shocked I didn’t get sick right there in William Swanson’s church parking lot.  Somehow I held it together and drove back to Cartersville totally defeated.

To be continued . . .
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Cartersville

Between TTU and Southern Seminary I had taken countless Bible and theology classes and 2.5 years of Greek.  Yet, perhaps the most beneficial pastor-prep class of my educational career came on the back of a mower. 
My pastor, Dr. Wayne Hamrick left my home church, New Liberty Baptist Church in Ringgold, GA to pastor Atco Baptist Church in Cartersville, GA.  He made this move while I was a student in Louisville.  While I awaited a response from Lantana Road, Bro. Wayne asked me to serve at Atco as Interim Youth Director.  I had served with Bro. Wayne at New Liberty also as Youth Director.  Serving my first ministry job at my home church provided me a safe place to begin.  There was some degree of difficulty in becoming the official leader over many people I had grown up with, but somehow we all managed to adjust.  Honestly, I never realized how volatile a situation the whole arrangement could have been until many years later.  I now realize the tremendous amount of grace that my friends, their parents, the church as a whole, and Bro. Wayne extended towards me during that time.  It was there that I not only gained many of the administrative skills that I continue to rely on, but I also gained confidence at New Liberty that indeed God had called me to this and that I was capable of continuing for a lifetime.   
I served in Cartersville for only 8 or 10 months, but it seemed much longer.  For the first couple of months I lived in a hotel on the weekends and travelled back and forth from Ringgold.  At the time the church provided a small part time salary and covered the hotel expense.  I was hoping that Lantana Road would call soon.  Via Uncle Roy I knew that they had my resume’ and that they had yet to hire a pastor.  Other than Uncle Roy, I heard nothing.  Getting a full time job cleaning up construction sites provided enough money for me to eventually move to Cartersville.  By day I swept up nails and disposed of scrap lumber.  Almost every other moment was spent serving the church.  A few months later a young deacon in the church offered me a job on the maintenance staff at the golf course he superintended.  It represented a slight raise in pay and an opportunity to move from the mother-in-law house I occupied 11 miles out of town, to a 2 bedroom rental in town.  To this day that rental house represents the most exotic place I have ever lived.  Out the back window I could see a small creek.  From the kitchen window I could see Mr. Gunn’s Ostriches.  If you have never lived near Ostriches you may not know that they are relatively quiet, but they are not friendly.  When you visit an Ostrich, keep your distance, trust me.  The rental house was also conveniently next door to the golf course where I worked and only a few miles from the church.  I took it and as summer approached, still I heard nothing from Lantana Road. 
There were many long days on the back of the mower that I complained to God in prayer, “I can translate Greek, but here I am mowing grass.  What is the meaning of this?”  At the time I did not realize how pompous I was.  Oftentimes we do not realize that we are learning while God is teaching, but now I realize how formative these days were.  For the last five years I had surrounded myself with the church, its pastors, and professors.  Now I was mowing grass with a group of guys who had never seen a Greek translation of the New Testament, but who had a masterful knowledge of alcohol and English vulgarity. 
I could tell at first they viewed me with skepticism.  I was strange to them.  They were strange to me.  I was the only dude in the shed, other than the Super. who had experienced a haircut since the mullet went out of style.  I did not drink beer.  They drank nothing but beer.  As hung over as they were most mornings coming in to work, I was always amazed at the perfectly straight lines they could mow.  If you know anything about golf course maintenance you know that straight mower lines and the checkerboard patterns they create border on works of art.  In golf course language your daily mower pattern is called by clock hands such as 12 to 6, 3 to 9, or 5 to 10.  I was sober, but my 12 to 6 pattern looked more like 12 to 20 til 7 (golf course maintenance shed humor there). 
About the only commonality we shared was that we were all male and as all good Southern men do, we loved sports.  For many weeks sports became our common language.  Over time I somehow gained their trust and from time to time they quizzed me on the Bible.  It always surprises me how much Scripture alcoholics know.  On a few occasions they asked me to pray before we ate lunch.  Those moments meant a lot to me because I could sense it meant something to them.  I now realize how much of a foreigner I was to them, yet in their own strange measure of grace, they allowed me into their circle, even if it was just for conversation.
My college and seminary professors taught me what Jesus said.  The guys I worked with at the golf course taught me what Jesus meant.  Working with them helped me realize that shepherding the church was not just about preaching sermons, it was about connecting people to the blood of Christ.  Jesus was the master of incarnational ministry.  The holy lived with the profane.  If I were to be effective in ministry I would have to learn the language of the maintenance shed, minus the profanity, just as fluently as I had attempted to learn Greek.  The shed is the world of the sheep.  If they were to respond to my voice, I would need an ear that could also respond to theirs.  I still count that maintenance shed as one of my favorite theological classrooms.  It taught me to talk sheep, not Greek.  
Near the end of August, 1996, Bro. Wayne offered me the opportunity to remove “interim” from my title.  I love Wayne and Joan Hamrick.  I am deeply indebted to them.  I really liked living in Cartersville, GA.  It is the quintessential picture of Georgia in the Spring when the dogwoods and azaleas bloom.  The people of Atco made me feel so much at home, but since the day I read Exodus on the apple crate I knew God was moving me to Crossville, TN.  The problem was that the people of Lantana Road were not getting the same message.  Though I had not heard a word from them in a year, I told Bro. Wayne that I felt called to be the pastor of Lantana Road Baptist Church in Crossville, TN.  A few days after I turned down a great opportunity at Atco, the chair of the pulpit committee from Lantana Road called me for the first time, thus officially ending almost a year of complete silence.
On October 13, 1996 I became the pastor of Lantana Road, but the journey from the first phone call to the official pastoral call would prove to have a few interesting twists and turns.  There are some peculiar beasts of Southern culture, many of which have now been exposed on reality television.  If any producers are looking for the next big hit, may I suggest, the Baptist pulpit committee . . .
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