(A sermon for the 78th Anniversary Service of The Hill Baptist Church based on Philippians 1:3-11)
It happened to me again last week, this time in Griffin, Georgia. I had just put my car in its place in line for my stepmother’s funeral procession. One of the funeral directors, who had seen my car tag, said, “I grew up in Augusta. What church do you pastor?” I replied, “The Hill Baptist Church.” He lit up and said, “I went to that church when I was growing up!” His family lived on Central Avenue back in the 1950s.
I get that all the time. I sometimes say that everybody in Augusta or his Mama used to go to The Hill Baptist Church. While there is some wistfulness in such a remark, there is also much thanksgiving embedded in it. The Hill Baptist Church has, over the 78 years of its history, touched many lives with the grace of God. That is to be celebrated.
Sometimes, though, we may get to wondering how significant and valid our ministry is in these days. I want to assure you that it is. I want to assure you that, in many and small but significant ways, God is still at work in our midst. It is not just people who went here a long time ago who “thank…God every time (they) remember you.” It is people who are here now and who have been here recently.
As evidence, I offer you the following letter from Rodney Norman, who, with his family, spent the last three years with us before their move to Oklahoma.
To my Family at the Hill,
For 3 years now, my family and I have been attending church at The Hill. While most of you probably know you had an impact on my life, I doubt you realize just how much.
I was saved in a Sunday night service when I was 13 at the Broadway Baptist church in Bay, Arkansas. I felt Christ’s love then and I went to church with my parents. When I was 15, my father lost his job and we moved to Jacksonville, Arkansas. I was desperate to fit in and the school I went to was very large. I tried to fit in with the crowd and my faith and devotion to God faltered. I was very rebellious not only to my parents but to God. I rebelled so much that I wanted out of the house at any cost. I had my mother and father sign me into the military at the age of 17. I wanted out on my own because who better to take care of me than myself. I had already met the love of my life, a wonderful Christian girl who I worked with after school named Lisa Bassett. We were married upon my return from basic training, and just like that, we were off.
I got to Tucson, Arizona and my rebellion took on a completely new shape. My steadfast wife who wanted to find a church and get involved would ask me to go to church. I would go for a Sunday or two and then without fail do what I call “lawyering” the church. I would find some small fault so I could say, “see and that is why I don’t go.” I would tempt Lisa into not going so I could selfishly keep her with me. I began drinking at this time. I deployed a lot and drinking was what I did to cope. This rebellion went on even through my time in Florida.
In 2003, I went to Baghdad to set up communications for our forces there. I am sorry to say that I was so far from being what anyone could even recognize as a child of God. During my time in Iraq I saw and did many things I do not even like to talk about. When I arrived home, I felt like there was a huge void in my life. I tried to fill that void mostly with alcohol. The more I drank the more things did not go right. My marriage, which I thought was sound and stable, I came to find out was not so stable or sound. My wife went through a huge bout of depression and my children suffered. I always have tried my best to provide for my children and Lisa, however, I was never a good Christian father. My rebellion to God almost cost me everything.
Then we moved to Augusta. I was still drinking heavily and Lisa and I were still in trouble. One Friday Alyssa came home saying Mrs. Nanette wanted her, Candace, and Blair to come to an Easter egg hunt on the Saturday before Easter. I did not care; I was not going and if they were out of the house it meant I did not have to hide my drinking or worry about fighting with Lisa. Lisa and the girls came back that afternoon late and were overjoyed. They asked me if I would go for services Easter Sunday and I reluctantly said yes. I thought even then that I would be able to find some fault so I could not have to go again. I purposely sat in the front row. This was so that if no one came up and welcomed me I could say to Lisa, “See we were right in the front and no one even cared to say hello.”
This is not what happened. My family and I were warmly embraced by everyone at The Hill. Pastor Ruffin delivered a brilliant message no doubt handed to him from God to work directly on my heart. I went home heavily convicted. I remember that next week Pastor Ruffin visiting our home. I even at that point tried to find some fault. I remember asking if drinking was wrong and remember telling him point-blank what I thought. Pastor Ruffin has told me on many occasions that he thought we would last a week or two due to the length of the drive. He did not know it but I thought the same thing only for different reasons.
After not being able to lawyer the church or the Pastor I was very convicted. At this point, I remember fighting with Lisa because of my conviction. I remember telling her that I had gone too far to come back and that there was no way that God could possibly want me now. Of course, my wonderful wife reminded me that it was never too late and that Christ forgives us no matter what. I was not completely convinced that God would want such a sinner as me. I decided to go to Sunday school the next Sunday; surely there would be a reason there for me not to go anymore and end this turmoil. That is where I met Mrs. Jackie Robinson. She reminded me of my grandmother who was the matriarch of our family and a devout Christian woman. At this point I was so convicted it was as if my heart was on fire. I went home, wept, and wept for forgiveness at the edge of my bed.
The next Sunday we joined the church. With God’s help and love I have not drank since then and even though Lisa and I had some rocky spots, we have forged a new relationship together with God. I have learned so much from all of you and your examples. I never in a million years would have set my alarm clock to go to church three years ago, but I do now. I pray and read my Bible and instead of lawyering against God and church I try to lawyer for them.
When Mrs. Jackie asked me one Thursday if I would teach Sunday school, I thought to myself, “I have no business trying to teach I need to be taught.” Something, however, told me to say yes. I studied harder than I had ever studied before and I felt like I was doing the right thing.
I have had a peace in my life as I have never had. God has blessed me so much that I can’t even comprehend it sometimes. The void in my life is gone. I truly believe with all my heart that God put each of you there to show me what true fellowship and Christian love is all about. I wanted to be involved and I encouraged Lisa and the girls to be as involved as possible. I know I have said to a lot of you that I wish I could pick up the church and take you with me. I have come to realize though that I hold each of you in my heart so you will be with me wherever I go and whatever I do.
I tell you these things because I want you to know the profound effect you have had on my life. I think sometimes people can get discouraged and have the thought that they are not having any effect. Well, to my family at The Hill: you have had an effect. I will take what I have learned and take it with me to Oklahoma and I promise with God’s help I will carry on what I learned from all of you.
With all my deepest love and affection
Your brother in Christ,
More than anything else, church is about being a fellowship—a family—within which the love and grace of God are known and shared. You shared that with the Norman family. Through you, God changed their lives forever.
To use the words of Paul, I would say to you here on the 78th Anniversary of The Hill Baptist Church,
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ…. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.