Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Forty Years in the Wilderness

Forty years ago, in the spring of 1975, two big things were happening in my life. The first thing was that my mother was, after a seven-year battle with the cancer that had consumed her body and much of my childhood and adolescence, dying. The second was that my family and I were in the middle of a decision-making process that culminated in my leaving high school at the end of that school year, which was my junior year, to enroll that fall at Mercer University.

Mama died in June and I left for college in September. Her exit from my life and my entrance into Mercer turned out to be two of the most formative events of my life.

It was so long ago.

It seems like yesterday.

There is a very real sense in which I have been wandering in the wilderness during the forty years through which I have lived since leaving the only house, home, family, church, and friends that I had ever known. There are ways in which the struggles to know and to be true to myself, to know and to be true to God, and to find and to be true to my place in the world have been ongoing.

I have known my share of failure and disappointment during those forty years but I have known more than my share of success and fulfillment as well. There have been many times when my faith has wavered but, as it turns out, I must have usually been going three steps forward and only one or two steps back because my trust in God is, by the grace of God, much, much greater at this point in my life than it ever has been.

The truth is that I’m very grateful for the wandering that I’ve done. Wandering has let me get to know many people, places, and things that I never would have known had I stayed put. Wandering has led me to encounter many perspectives, thoughts, ideas, and theories that I would never have encountered had I not had the privilege of pulling up stakes, packing my small faith and my great hope in my travel bag, and heading out into the great unknown. Wandering has weakened my prejudices, broadened my perspectives, and increased my love.

Still, as J. R. R. Tolkien said, “Not all who wander are lost,” and to say that I have been wandering for forty years is not to say that my wandering has not been purposeful. Besides, I have put down other roots along the way, the most significant ones being those that Debra and I started putting down almost thirty-seven years ago; wherever we have wandered, we have taken those roots with us, put them down again, and done everything we could to encourage them to reach greater depths.

Somewhere along the way I also decided that my life would be grounded in love and in grace; I determined that if I was going to make mistakes—which I surely was—I would make them on the side of and for the sake of love and grace. I have lived up to that commitment imperfectly but I think and hope that I have been constantly growing toward doing it more and better. It has proven to be a worthwhile goal.

A while back I wrote an autobiographical song that included these lines: “I’ve always wanted to settle down; I’ve always wanted to roam. I’ve spent years both living in and looking for my home.” That’s been my story; I long ago left my home but I have also all along the way always been at home because home has for me been wherever we have been and family has been whoever we have been with. Wherever the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, their God, their families, and their covenant were their constant companions. So it has been for me.

The Hebrew Bible contains two viewpoints on the forty years that the Israelites spent wandering the wilderness. The predominant viewpoint and thus the one with which we are most familiar sees that period as one of trial and testing that came upon the people because of their disobedience. The other less familiar take on Israel’s wilderness period is that it was a positive time in the relationship between God and Israel because in the wilderness the people had to relate directly to God without having the crutch of institutions on which to lean and because being settled in the land actually caused the people to become dismissive of the requirements of God and thus complacent and even corrupt in their attitude toward God (see Jeremiah 2:2 & Hosea 2:14-15). Looking back I realize that the wilderness has been both a test and a blessing for me.

So now after forty years of simultaneously wandering around and settling down I am going back to where it all started for me.

The truth is, though, that even as I move to what I anticipate will be the place where I will live for the rest of my life, I am actually getting ready to keep on wandering in the wilderness.

I'm going home.

And I'm going back into the wilderness.

After all, both living in and looking for our home—simultaneously finding and searching, staying and going, putting down roots and stretching out limbs, knowing and wondering, and embracing and letting go—is what living life is all about.

If God gives me another forty years, it’ll be another forty years in the wilderness.

And it’ll be another forty years at home …

Monday, March 23, 2015

Mementos and Memories

Debra and I have moved on average about once every seven years. Every time we move, we go through things and decide what to keep and what to discard. (I am very grateful that thus far she has chosen to keep and not discard me.) This time around we have managed to get rid of some things that we have been carting around in boxes for over three decades.

There are things, though, that will move with us one more time, even though they are of no practical use to anyone and are of no sentimental value to anyone besides us. At the top of that list are two plastic containers filled with letters and cards, all of which were written in the summer of 1977.

That was the summer during which, on an August Saturday afternoon, Debra and I stood on the bank of the Towaliga River below High Falls and agreed together that we would become husband and wife, an agreement marked by her acceptance of a ring; ten months later we followed through on that agreement and now, almost thirty-seven years later, here we still are. That weekend of our engagement was one of the rare times that we were together that summer, though; Debra spent those months working at Harvey’s Peanut Company in her hometown of Leary, Georgia while I spent them in Macon working at Sears and housesitting.

This was in olden times before there were such things as cell phones and home computers so if we wanted to stay in close communication we had to do it the old-fashioned way—the only way available to us: by writing letters. So we made a commitment to write each other every day during that summer. That was the closest we could come to having a daily conversation about what our day had been like and about whatever else was going on in our lives or was on our minds.

(Once a week I would go to a pay phone either at the convenience store up the street from where I was staying or on the Mercer campus and call Debra collect; we would then repay her parents for the cost of the calls. If she wasn’t at home when I called, her mother would refuse the charges, which made practical sense but which she seemed to me to enjoy doing a little too much. That was probably my imagination. Probably.)

I don’t know that we’ve ever actually gone back and read what we wrote during that summer. When we came upon the letters the other day, Debra said that we probably ought to read them so we’ll be prepared for what we’ll have to deal with one of these days when one of our children finds and reads them. I’m not sure that’s an issue since I see no reason for that to happen until we are dust in the wind. That’s probably when the letters will be discarded—after our children have a good laugh and then see no other reason to keep them.

I think Debra and I should read them and not just for the smiles they would inspire; I think we should read them because they tell a story. They tell the story of those three months of our lives and tell by extension the story of the lives that touched ours and that our lives touched. They tell a small but significant part of the story of us, a story that is in the context of time and space a small one but still a significant one.

Still, the important artifacts and the most meaningful record of that period are written not on paper but in our hearts. The letters and cards are mementos of our memories. The mementos are important to us; that’s the reason that we hold onto them for no good reason. But it’s the memories that really endure.

As I prepare to begin my new job with Smyth & Helwys Publishing and as we prepare to move to my family’s farm, Debra and I look forward to making new memories and to acquiring additional mementos. As we prepare to leave Fitzgerald and the First Baptist Church, we are deciding which mementos to take with us but we are taking all the memories that we have accumulated. They will be added to the mementos and memories from Augusta, from Nashville, from Adel, from Louisville, and from Macon. They will be added to the ways in which we remember our lives, which is in the final analysis the only way that we can keep our past with us …

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Times They Are A-Changin’

“The times they are a-changin’”—so sang the prophet Mr. Dylan in 1964.

The ‘60s were indeed a time of change but all times are times of change. Things are always changing.

I thought about that fact while on my annual Spring Training pilgrimage to Orlando last weekend. I told my Good Wife that we had to buy a program because this was a year in which we would not know the players without one. The Braves—they are no longer America’s team but they are still ours—have made wholesale changes since last season, trading off such stars as Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, and Justin Upton in exchange for prospects (and hopefully future stars) with names like Tyrell Jenkins, Michael Foltynewicz, and Jace Peterson. The Braves also acquired veterans Nick Markakis, Jonny Gomes, and Eric Young, Jr., all of whom they hope will plug, at least on a stop-gap basis, the significant holes created by the numerous trades.

While the Braves did make some changes on their coaching staff, highlighted by the naming of Kevin Seitzer as hitting coach, for the most part their on-field leadership remains the same, including Manager Fredi Gonzalez, who, if he can shepherd this team to a .500 or better record, will deserve serious consideration for Manager of the Year.

It’s much more common for a team to make a managerial change than for it to undergo a thorough overhaul of the roster like the Braves have done. It’s the same way with churches—while occasionally a church might experience a large turnover in members (usually due to a conflict) it is more likely that the Pastor will leave to continue his or her ministry in another place while leaving the same team behind to carry on.

That is the situation in which the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald and I find ourselves. I am changing my direction, changing my career, changing my location, changing my lifestyle, and probably changing a bunch of other things I haven’t even begun to think about yet, all, I trust, in obedience to the call of the Lord upon my life. Meanwhile, the good members of the First Baptist family will stay here in Fitzgerald to carry on their very important life and ministry in their community. It is a time of change for them, too, as they continue to seek God’s way for them and as they seek new pastoral leadership.

I hope, pray, and trust that the coming days and years will be an exciting and adventurous time for all of us. After all, change, while it can make us anxious, is basic to life; we are meant to grow, to develop, and to mature. We are all mean to change!

I believe that the future holds great promise for all of us; I believe that the ministry to which I am called and the ministry to which First Baptist Church is called will glorify God and will bless people if we carry them out with the love of Christ—a love that is characterized by sacrificial service.

I remember every manager the Braves have had since moving to Atlanta in 1966; I remember them all from Billy Hitchcock to Fredi Gonzalez. When I hear their names I always think, “What an honor to have served as manager of the Atlanta Braves!”

My name will always be associated with my having served as the Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald. It has been my honor …

Monday, March 9, 2015

Full Circle

My Good Wife and I have been discussing what to call our spread in Yatesville; it just seems like it needs to have a name.

I tried to think of something biblical. “Garden of Eden” seems like overkill, “Gethsemane” sounds risky, “Heaven” is overly optimistic, and “New Jerusalem” is too apocalyptic. I also thought about “Jericho” since my blog is called “On the Jericho Road” but the fact that Jericho’s walls came tumbling down gave me pause.

She suggested that we might find a name in one of our favorite movies. “Bedford Falls” won’t work because there are no falls on our place, “Casablanca” sounds exotic and Yatesville isn’t, “Shangri-La” didn’t turn out well for Charles Foster Kane (and we’ll have no use for a sled), and “Los Angeles,” the setting of Pretty Woman (her favorite film), is taken. I’d love to call it “The Eighth Dimension” as in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the Eighth Dimension (my favorite movie) but I’m pretty sure she would veto it.

My Good Wife also suggested that we might find a name for our place in one of the songs that means a lot to us. Elton John’s “Your Song” is her song while my song for her is “Something in the Way She Moves” by James Taylor; there’s nowhere to go, place name-wise, with those. My favorite song of all time is The Beatles’ “Let It Be” which, while a great slogan, would not be a great name.

I suggested “Full Circle” as a possible name for our place. Yatesville is my father’s home; he was born in the house on the farm (we now refer to that house as “The Big House”; my Uncle Johnny resides there) in 1921, three years after his parents acquired it. I grew up ten miles away in my mother’s hometown of Barnesville; we spent every Sunday afternoon of my growing up years in Yatesville.

Forty years ago this fall I left home to go to college and except for the summer following my freshman year I never lived there again. So in a real sense I am, in moving to Yatesville, coming full circle.

But it’s a mighty big circle.

A lot has happened in the last forty years. I’ve picked up three degrees, I’ve served as pastor of three churches, and I’ve taught at a college. I’ve lived in two states besides Georgia and I’ve travelled to many other places. I’ve read umpteen zillion books and I’ve written a few. Through it all my Good Wife has been with me and together we’ve been blessed with two children and recently with two children-in-law. When I left home I had one parent, eighteen aunts and uncles on my father’s side of the family, and four aunts and uncles on my mother’s side; those totals now stand at zero, five, and zero, respectively. And the changes aren’t over as I’ll be embarking on a new career as I prepare to move back home.

Can you go home again? I don’t think so. But that’s not what I’m doing, anyway. The place to which I’m returning is not the same place. I am not the same person I was when I left. The people to whom I’m returning are not the same people—the ones who remain have gone through many changes, too.

So while “Full Circle” may well be a good name for our Yatesville home, it only tells part of the story. That circle has taken my Good Wife and me on a very long and wonderful journey and as we have taken that journey the circle has grown wider and wider; so have our hearts, our minds, our spirits, our relationships—so have our lives.

I anticipate that the circle will keep on getting wider as long as we live …

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

2 Out of 3 Ain't Bad

I bought a new used car the other day; because I bought it through my friend Randy who works with Chestatee Ford in Dahlonega my first experience driving it was on a four-hour trip. It performed perfectly, I am happy to report.

The only problem was the broken side view mirror on the passenger side of the vehicle; that was a pre-existing condition that was reported to me beforehand and which will be rectified when the new mirror that the dealer ordered for me arrives. The previous owner had used masking tape to reattach the mirror to its casing; needless to say the tape made it very difficult to see anything in the mirror.

The rearview mirror and the side view mirror on the driver’s side were in good shape. I soon found, though, that driving on an interstate highway at night without the side view mirror on the passenger’s side was dicey business. You really need to be able to see what is behind you on the right when you want to move one lane to the right. I spent a lot of time and effort turning around to look for what I couldn’t see in the mirror.

I was glad that 2/3 of my mirrors provided a clear view of what was behind me. But I sure missed the other 1/3 of the view. The truth is, though, that even when all the mirrors are in good working order we can’t see everything behind us; all cars have blind spots.

So do all people.

As the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald family and I look back over the 6+ years we have spent together, there is much that makes us smile and some that makes us frown. The funny thing is that some things that make some of us smile make others of us frown and vice-versa. The even stranger thing is that some of us have vivid memories of moments together that others can’t recall at all.

But that’s just the way it goes. Each one of us views the past from our particular perspective. And every one of us sees what lies behind us incompletely and imperfectly.

Even from our limited perspectives and even with our incomplete vision, though, we can look back and see how God has guided us in and helped us along the way. In all things, then, we can say “Thanks be to God!”

We don’t stare at our mirrors when we are driving; to do so would be dangerous. We keep our eyes on the road ahead of us and we glance at the rear and side view mirrors every once in a while. That’s the best way to move into the future that God has for us. I hope and pray that we will all keep our eyes on the road that lies ahead of us; I hope and pray that we will look for what God has in store.

Let’s look back just enough to celebrate what we should celebrate and to learn what we need to learn …