Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Miguel Diaz – II

I lost track of Miguel around 1973. He had married Carmen Maria and moved to Boston to pastor, where I paid him a couple of visits. Then they went to Latin America as missionaries and I didn’t know how to contact them.

As the years went by Miguel was on my list of people that I wished I could reconnect with. As with George and his family, so with Miguel and his family, they remained in my prayers.

In the summer of 2001 Vickie and I were in Toronto at a pastors’ conference sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. There were around 500 or 600 people there and the format consisted of plenary sessions and workshops. On the second afternoon I was in a meeting room for a workshop on worship music. I was seated and chatting with the man next to me, waiting for the workshop to begin, when I heard a deep distinctive voice, “Are you Robert Withers?”

I looked up and saw Miguel Diaz – 28 years since I had last seen him, I was looking at Miguel Diaz – he was a bit more then than 185 pounds (sorry Mike!), but it was Miguel Diaz.

After our embrace he said, “Last night, in the worship meeting, I heard a laugh, and I looked at Carmen Maria and said, ‘Withers is here. That’s his laugh.’ ”

Ah what a blessing, what a treat to see Miguel again, to have a wish fulfilled – how sweet. Vickie and I had lunch with them and spent time with them before the conference ended. A year or so later they visited us in Virginia while on a ministry trip.

In the years since 1973 they had served as missionaries in Central America and pastored in Philadelphia, which is what they were doing when we reconnected. We exchange emails from time to time and now that I’m writing this I think I should probably give him a call and do some more serious catching up. After all, it isn’t everyone who will wipe bird poop off your head.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Profile – Miguel Diaz

Life at Ayers Kaserne in Kirchgoens, Germany was lonely for me. The men in my infantry unit were good guys, but I hungered for Christian fellowship. The chapel services were plain vanilla, about as inspiring as Interstate 64 between Richmond and Charlottesville, straight with no scenery, a drive that can easily put you to sleep. Our chaplain was nice enough, but in the military you never know what you’re going to get with a chaplain – I guess it’s the same way in churches with pastors, some guys and gals should have gone into social work and skipped the ministry.

I taught Sunday School for a crowd of military children, and I mean a crowd. There must have been fifty of the rascals. I only mention this because I might forget it and years from now this will remind me.

A new chaplain arrived on base, a tall, balding, red-haired, slender colonel in his mid-40’s. He was a Southern Baptist. Shortly after his arrival there was a notice: GOSPEL HYMN SING THIS COMING SUNDAY, 1900 HOURS (1900 hours is military talk for 7:00 P.M.). That Sunday evening a group of about 40 of us gathered and sang hymns. A few pews in front of me I noticed a Hispanic soldier. When the hymn service concluded I made my way to him and asked, “Are you from New York City?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“Are you Pentecostal” I continued. (In those days if you were Hispanic and lived in NYC and were not Roman Catholic you were probably Pentecostal.)

“Yes,” he said.

So began my friendship with Miguel Diaz. Miguel is about 6’1”, was around 185 pounds in those days, wore glasses, and had a deep voice that ended sentences on high notes. Perhaps that was the Spanish coming through the English? Miguel was a medic. We quickly got to know each other, spending time praying, reading the Bible, and talking to other soldiers about Jesus.

We soon received permission from the new chaplain to hold Sunday evening services at the chapel. We put posters up around the base and folks showed up. I can’t remember the specifics of what we did, but I know that after I left Germany that Miguel continued the ministry. We ended up receiving support in the form of hymnals from the Church of God, Cleveland, TN. Miguel remembers a time he and I prayed with a distraught soldier out in the rain, kneeling on the ground – since I’m accustomed to people remembering things that I don’t I’ll trust him on that one.

Miguel was thoughtful, good natured, patient, and a good friend. After our Army days I looked him up in Manhattan and we had more time together. He was going into vocational ministry and I visited his church on more than one occasion. One of my shining moments was my participation in a street meeting his church was holding. There we were on the street, singing and preaching, I guess at least 20 of us.

Now you never know who or what you’ll attract at a street meeting. Some folks will be respectful, others derisive.  D.L. Moody was warned not to go to some places in the UK for open air meetings due to the roughness of the population, but he went anyway. John Wesley went into some pretty tough areas too. David Wilkerson established Teen Challenge on the streets of NY. If you are going to put yourself out in public you have to be willing to suffer the consequences.

There we were, on a street corner, sharing the Gospel – not knowing what might befall us…when it happened…

A bird pooped on my head.

Miguel cleaned it off. I told you that he was a good friend.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Profile – Retrospective Thoughts on NY

While I do have a bit more to share about NY – in case you’re wondering - I want to take a minute for some autobiographical observations in the hope that the reader will apply them to life.

In reading about my expulsion from Bible College and arrival in NY you may be thinking, “That’s pretty neat. What a great experience for Bob.” If you are thinking anything along those lines I want to disabuse you of the thought. Yes, it was wonderful meeting the Spanish-speaking Christians of NY and I treasure what they taught me and most of all their friendship. I also treasure George Will – I have been blessed to know him and without my early exposure to our inner life in Christ, which came through George, my life would be much the poorer.

On the other hand, I didn’t have an adult male or males mentoring me, guiding me, directing me, and holding me accountable. I had been a poster boy for The Little Church in NW D.C. and for the church in Silver Spring, MD. Then I was a poster-boy of sorts for the NY circles I was in – and George, well, George I’m sure did the best he could with me, but I don’t recall direction or challenge from him either.

I had been a Christian for less than a year after my arrival in NY – and this poster boy was anything but mature, in fact I was markedly immature and self-centered. I needed a framework within which to live and I didn’t have it. I needed accountability and didn’t have it. I was building a house without a foundation and it was not a good thing. 

The fact that I could speak publically and that I knew the Bible reasonably well (I use the term "knew" in a sense of storyline and data rather than in a sense of understanding and wisdom) didn't mean that I had internal character or maturity. I've seen this mistake made throughout my life in the church, with both young and old. How many times have I seen a successful business person come to Christ and be given a position of leadership in the church without a period of discipleship? Too many. It's the same thinking.

This lack of direction and accountability would cost me dearly in my early adult life – and so my point is that responsible accountable relationships are critical in formative years (actually in all seasons of life) and that if you are young that you should seek out older folks to mentor you – and ask them to hold you accountable. If you are older – consider approaching younger people to come alongside hem in an intentional and accountable fashion – not controlling, but accountable, there is a difference.

If you are a pastor or church elder – every young person in your congregation should have someone walking alongside him or her. The liftoff is critical for the Space Shuttle, if its trajectory is off the mission will be off; yet we let our teenagers and young adults launch their lives without helping them with their trajectory, we abdicate responsibility. Whatever the reasons may be we need to get over it, take the risk, and get involved in the lives of our teenagers and young adults – and this includes young married couples.

Our young people need much more than programs or cool music or hip-hop or “contemporary” services and events – they need relationships – which seem to be one of the things we don’t have time for anymore.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Profile – George Will After NY

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the last time I saw George was in 1977 in Gainesville, FL and the last time I talked with George was a few weeks ago when he called from Italy.

After our brief time together in 1977 I talked with him a time or two over the phone that same year but then I don’t think we spoke until shortly after September 11, 2001. That was a 24-year interval. If I did talk to him during those intervening years I don’t remember – kind of sad in a sense, no, not my memory, rather the fact that we didn’t keep up communication. But again, I continued to pray for him and his kids and I’m sure he continued to pray for me and I guess that’s a higher form of communication – kind of like using heaven’s switchboard. [Now if you aren’t sure what a switchboard is let me refer you to old black and white movies, or to the Smithsonian Museum of American History, or to your grandparents. While you’re at it check out “party lines” and “rotary” phones and phone numbers that begin with two letters, like WH6-9456. The WH stands for Whitehall, that was our exchange back in Kensington, MD. Oh, and if you try WH6-9456 and I answer see if Rod Serling is listening in because that was our actual phone number and if I answer I think we’ve got another storyline for this blog. Who is Rod Serling you ask? Ask your grandparents or try the Smithsonian or try black and white television.]

Okay, back to George. I called him a day or two after 9/11 at his parents’ home and was told that he was in Italy but that he was trying to make it to the States. Then a week or two later I called back and he was there and we talked.

After that it was 2007 or so before we talked again. I had been telling some guys in my church about George and a few days later the phone rang and it was him – pretty neat. Since then he usually calls when he is in the States – though three times he has called from Italy. One time he called from Italy when I was with a group of men and I put him on the speaker so the guys could say “hi” to this man I’d been telling them about – that was fun.

When I saw George in Gainesville in 1977 it was bittersweet for me because I had changed – I wasn’t the kid George had known and that may have thrown him, I’m not sure. Also, our thinking about some things had gone different ways – though we were both anchored in Jesus there were some doctrinal areas that I had moved away from in terms of emphasis – and when I realized that George took it for granted (which he had every reason to do) that I was still tracking with him about certain points of emphases I decided to shy away from those areas out of respect for him.

I think one of the things that happened was that I was exposed to different Christian traditions and had a lot of cross-pollination, while my guess is that George worked within more confined settings. Having written this, however, I think I should also mention that George approaches everyone everywhere and doesn't  know a stranger – but he is also pretty intense and his intensity can be tough for some religious types to swallow – if you are not sure what you believe you’ll find that out pretty quickly if you’re around George.

Our phone conversations the past few years have affirmed that we share the same center of gravity in Jesus Christ, going back to our relationship at the Bible College – we both believe that only God can live the Christian life and that He desires to live it in us and through us.

In one of our 2007 or 2008 conversations I sensed that George was assuming that I had bought into certain toxic attitudes and practices in the North American Church – exchanging the Biblical for the pragmatic you might say. I wrote him a letter – he had gone to  Italy – setting the record straight. He called from Italy and apologized. It mattered to me what George thought because he had built so much into my early years; I wanted him to know that I was still on track with the Christ of the Cross and the Cross of Christ.

I have known few people as unashamed of Jesus and as openly in love with Jesus as George Will. I have known few people as dependant on Jesus for daily direction and provision as George – I am in diapers compared to George. And I have never known anyone who so consistently focuses on Jesus in his words and actions as George.

Maybe I’ll hear from George again and maybe I won’t – he’s getting up there in years; but of one thing I’m certain, I will see him again and then we’ll do some real catching-up.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Profiles – New York: Fruit Cocktail and Prayer

Here are some NYC vignettes:

A couple of months after my first visit I was back in NY for a few weeks. The night I was to return to Maryland by bus George and I preached at a church, after which the pastor invited us to his apartment for coffee. The apartment was in one of the many “projects”.

After a time of coffee and fellowship it was time for George to drive me to the Port Authority bus station. The pastor and his wife asked us to wait just a minute. They went into the kitchen and returned with a small paper bag – within which was a can of Del Monte Fruit Cocktail. “This is a gift for your mother,” they said.

That can of fruit cocktail remains one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received. It reminds me of the “widow's mite” of the Gospel – others were giving to the Temple treasury out of their surplus and abundance, but the widow was giving out of her poverty.

On another visit I went to visit a pastor and his wife early in the morning. After they welcomed me into their apartment and gave me coffee the pastor said, “Brother Withers, would you please excuse us for a while? My wife and I have not yet had our morning prayer together and we need to do that before we do anything else.”

"Of course,” I replied. As they went into their bedroom for prayer I enjoyed my coffee and read. To see people putting spiritual values above social convention is encouraging to me and something I need to see as an example and practice in my own life – I still haven’t caught up with those folks.

On yet another visit my mission was to visit my friend Carlos Ramirez and encourage him to return to actively following Christ. Carlos and I had met in Maryland and after he returned to NY we kept in touch. When I became aware that he was moving away from the Gospel I knew that I had to see him and encourage him.

After a few visits to Carlos, and getting connected to some of Carlos’s Christian friends (I recall one night we all went to a Billy Graham Crusade at Shea Stadium), Carlos recommitted himself to a life of discipleship – the last thing I knew was that he was attending Nyack College in preparation for vocational ministry.

Prior to Carlos’s recommitment he had been involved with a girl who had no use for the Gospel and she was pretty distressed that Carlos was getting serious about Jesus again. During one of my visits to Carlos’s neighborhood one of his Christian friends said, “You know brother, Carlos’s old girlfriend is pretty angry with you and said that she is going to kill you.” So far she hasn’t tracked me down.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Profile – George Will and NY – III

After the church service an older lady and a young couple approached us, introduced themselves as Flora Gonzalez, her son Jose, and his wife, Maria. They asked us where we were staying. When we told them about our automobile accommodations they invited us to stay with them – they lived a couple of blocks from the church. This family became precious to us, and exceptional friends to George as he continued his ministry in NYC and abroad. 

Eufemio Alvarez lived in the “projects” just off Houston Street. The following day we visited him and his family, who also became wonderful friends to George and me. Eufemio’s wife, Carman, was a gentle lady, soft spoken, and always hospitable. They had three sons and (I think) three daughters. The two oldest boys, Abraham and David, were around 11 and 13 I imagine. On that first visit the parents had all of their children line up and greet us, shaking our hands and welcoming us. It was a sign of welcome and respect that I’d witness many times in the homes of my Latino brothers and sisters throughout the metro NY area.

After a few weeks in NY I returned to my Mom’s in Maryland. While I would return to NY periodically over the next few years, George remained in NY for a number of months until he began traveling and teaching in Europe and (as I recall) the Caribbean – though most of his time in the intervening years has been in Europe.

I learned so much from my Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters. They were giving – if someone was in need others would help however they could, helping was a way of life. They were not ashamed of the Gospel – they were always sharing the Good News of Jesus with others without shame or apology. They were not materialistic – they made do with what they had and didn’t worry about what they didn’t have. They gave sacrificially to missions – I have never seen a people give as they gave and do so with such reverence and joy.  The idea of fund raising auctions and similar things would have never crossed their minds, they didn’t need a motive to give other than Christ and a concern for others.

They had exceptional respect for pastors and especially missionaries and they encouraged their children to enter vocational ministry. They were committed to their local churches. They valued prayer – and they didn’t just talk about prayer…prayer was a way of life. You didn’t visit a home without serious prayer before you left.

I have walked into many a Latino church in NYC not knowing anyone and been made welcome and invited to speak. They had a Kingdom perspective.

Think about it. Here’s a 16 year-old kid, who really doesn’t know what he is doing…not really…in a strange city, in a different culture…and not once does he feel out-of-place among these wonderful people – I think that’s pretty amazing – they were really great people.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Profile – George Will and New York – II

Just as we started to pray there was a knock on the driver’s side window. George rolled the window down to hear the words:

My name is Eufemio Alvarez and I am a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ. I just heard one of you singing about Jesus and the Holy Spirit told me to come over here and find out who you are.

Well now, when someone knocks on your door and says something like that you invite him to come in.

Eufemio Alvarez was about 5’6”, medium build, and was likely in his mid to late 30’s. He talked fast, had darting dark eyes, and on this particular day wore a black trench coat. His face bore scars from what was possibly severe acne. He smiled a lot. I think his smile was animated by observation – hence the darting eyes – and the rapid tempo of his life – he was usually on the move. I’ll share about his family in a future post.

As Brother Alvarez, for this is how we would call him, sat in the back seat we introduced ourselves. When we finished he said:

I’m out of town tonight, speaking in New Jersey. Here’s my card. On the back of the card I’m going to write down the name and address of a church that has service tonight, and also the pastor’s name. You go there and tell him that I sent you. The church is only a few blocks away on Delancey Street.

After a little more conversation our guest departed.

That night we arrived at the church and waited for the pastor’s arrival. The entrance to the church had a steel storefront folding gate that was locked for security. Soon a man in his 50’s arrived, wearing a dark trench coat (remember it’s winter in NY) and unlocked the gate, pushed it back, and then unlocked the door to the church. It wasn’t a “church building” but it was hardly a storefront church either. It was attached to other buildings in the block and it could easily seat 300 people, possibly more, and had a high ceiling such as you’d find in a free-standing church building. That little section of Delancey Street was only a few blocks long as I recall, with nondescript stores and small walk-up apartments.

We followed the man inside and introduced ourselves, showing him Brother Alvarez’s card. The man, who was the pastor, gave us a warm invitation to stay for the service. It was, to my thinking at the time, an unusual night for a church service, either a Tuesday or Thursday. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Spanish-speaking Pentecostal churches of NYC had services 4 – 6 nights a week, depending on the particular church – they took church-life seriously.

As time for the service to commence got nearer and nearer I wondered where the people were, as the actual time arrived I wondered why we didn’t begin. The people were very friendly to George and me – introducing themselves and their families, many of them spoke English, but many of the older people didn’t. As the minutes ticked away the service still didn’t begin and people were still arriving. After 20 or 30 minutes music began, people started singing, and still folks kept coming. I guess the pastor didn’t get down to business until a good 45 minutes after the scheduled start time – that was my introduction into life in a fast city in the slow lane.

Everything that transpired was in Spanish – and I was intrigued. People were excited about being there, the music was vibrant, the children were respectful, the singers and musicians were involved in heartfelt worship and ministry – people were glad to see each other, they were glad to be there.

Deep into the service George and I were invited onto the platform, were introduced, and were then asked to speak. I went first and really didn’t have much to say. Basically what I said was that two years ago I had been in NYC as a runaway boy, now I was back to preach the Gospel.

George had more to say because he really did have more to say. I never heard George speak for the sake of hearing himself speak. He talked about Jesus being our source of life and about Jesus being our Good Pastor, our Good Shepherd. George has been preaching and teaching that ever since I’ve known him – right up until this very day, and I suspect his last words will be about Jesus being our source of life.

The service lasted for at least a couple of hours and as it drew to a close I didn’t have sense enough to wonder where we’d sleep that night. I mean, why not live in the moment. As Reepicheep says, “Let’s take the adventure that Aslan gives us.”

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Profile – George Will and New York - I

The next morning I said to George, “Let’s go to Greenwich Village and preach on the street.” So off we went from Brooklyn to Manhattan. We didn’t make it to the Village, at least not that day. Entering Manhattan we found ourselves on Houston Street, a fairly broad street around, if memory serves me correctly, the Williamsburg Bridge. 

We noticed a library and decided to go inside and look in the newspapers for a place to stay. Naturally we had no frame of reference for anything we read, we didn’t know the city; I guess we were like the guy calling for directions and when asked his location replied, “I’m at the corner of Walk and Don’t Walk.”

Leaving the library with not a clue to what we were doing – at least I didn’t have a clue – we saw a laundry mat across the street. Since laundry mats often have bulletin boards in which people post advertisements, George said that he’d go over and see whether or not there might be advertisements for apartments posted. 

In my first post about George I mentioned that he was from south Florida and that he had quite the drawl; and that said drawl was especially pronounced when he sang. As a matter of fact, it’s been 43 years since that day in January and I can still catch the words George was singing re-crossing Houston street from the laundry mat to the Ford station wagon where I was waiting. I imagine that 100 years from now sensitive microphones will be able to pick up George’s drawn-out drawl of songs sung in the 20th century, those words just seem to hang in the air.

One of George’s favorite songs back then was, “I get so thrilled with Jesus, every hour of the day. I get so thrilled with Jesus, He’s the Truth, the Life, the Way…” George would take that word “thrilled” and string it out from here to El Paso. On his way back across Houston Street he no doubt hit the “t” in “thrilled” when his foot stepped off the curb and didn’t find the “h” until he was at the car.

George got in the car to report that there were no apartment postings in the laundry mat. What to do? 

We bowed our heads to pray…and just as our prayer commenced there was a knock on driver’s window where George was sitting.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Profile – George Will – From Bible College To Brooklyn

George had a Ford station wagon that we loaded up. We stopped by the home of a married student who lived off-campus and then headed north to Maryland. We may have spent the night at the married student’s home, I can’t remember. (Just image how often I’d use the term, “I can’t remember,” if I waited another ten years to write this!)

I’m not certain when we decided to head to New York, but I think it was before we got to my Mom’s in Maryland. I had read The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson the previous year (later made into a movie with Pat Boone) and I thought it would be great to preach the Gospel in NYC. Since George had a friend working at Teen Challenge in Brooklyn, which was Wilkerson’s ministry to gangs and people on drugs, we thought we’d just head on up I-95 to see what God had in store for us.

We spent a few days at my Mom’s and I remember George fixing things around the house for her. We also went to visit Pastor Don Wilkes and filled him in on the expulsion. Pastor Don called the school and then told me that they’d take me back but that they wouldn’t take George. He didn’t explain why. Well, the fact that they wouldn’t take George back meant that I really didn’t have anything to think about, I couldn’t even explore the possibility of a return under those conditions. Of course, considering why I was expelled, returning wouldn’t have been workable – the school wasn’t going to change anytime soon and I wasn’t about to change my thinking.

After a few days at my Mom’s in Rockville, MD we headed to Brooklyn, NY. Upon our arrival at Teen Challenge we met George’s friend, (Liza I think her name was) and got a tour of the place from Don Wilkerson, David’s brother. However, there was nothing at the ministry for us to do and that night we slept in the car on the streets of Brooklyn. It was January, it was cold, and we had around $80.00 between us.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Profile – Bible College VI – Some Reflections

Before I share a bit more about the Exodus, I want to reflect on my overall experience at the Bible College. 

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t used the school’s name or location; here’s why:

I hold no ill-will over what happened, I didn’t then and I don’t now. I’ve made so many mistakes in my life, done so many stupid things, done so many sinful things, that who am I to  uncover the sins and stupidity of others? Christ calls us to cover not to uncover.

The school has since repented of its stance on segregation – so why would I want to bring up the past? I’m sharing this part of my life because I want to share about George Will and because this was an early formative experience for me.

I had some great times at the school. I recall nights of prayer in the church located on campus. I had intensive Bible study, both in classes and on my own. And of course I met George and was introduced to writers who would help mold my life.

It never occurred to me that the school would be segregated – segregation was outside my life experience. Now I had seen racial prejudice a few times growing up, but I attended integrated schools, I went to a high school with students from all over the world, I lived in a cosmopolitan area, I visited friends in predominately African-American neighborhoods, why the church I attended in the Silver Spring – Wheaton area was integrated. A fellow high school student, who was black, was an early influence on my Christian life; I visited his home and his church. 

I, as many other students, simply ignored the racist policy of the school in that when we went into the city we mingled with African-Americans. I’d like to think that had I been older and more aware of the civil rights climate of the time that I would have gotten back on the bus when I figured out what was going on and returned home – but I didn’t. I’m not even sure when I realized what was going on – like I said, the whole thing never crossed my mind. I was naive about the race problem in our country – I was also only just 16 years old. 

I’d like to say that I intentionally challenged the school’s policy in my devotional, but I can’t say that with certainty. I did mean what I said in terms of loving people of all races – no question about that – but that was natural to me, it was natural to my understanding of the Gospel and of Jesus Christ – I wasn’t out to be a crusader, I was just calling the balls and strikes as I saw them.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Profile – Bible College V – The Exodus

The next 10 days or so were, and are, a blur. The administration took my words as a challenge to its policy of segregation and it also apparently took issue with my theology of the indwelling Christ. I was approached by older students in the dorm with questions about my beliefs. I particularly recall that the issue of capital punishment was raised – why I don’t know, but it was. At the time I was reading Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, and I had questions about capital punishment – so when asked about the subject all I could say was that I didn’t know.

It strikes me that during this time not one adult talked to me about what I had said in my devotional. Not one adult talked to me about my beliefs. Not one. Not a professor, not someone in administration, not the dorm parents (there was an adult couple living in the dorm). This is nuts isn’t it? One of the school officials had a son attending the Bible College, and I recall questions from him – but of course he was another student.

On Tuesday, January 10, 1967 I was summoned to the president’s office. The president said to me, “Brother Withers, I understand that you’ve been teaching false doctrine. You either conform to the teachings of this institution or you will be forced to leave.” Those were pretty much his exact words – I’ve never forgotten them.

“How soon do you want me to go?” I replied.


I didn’t have the presence of mind to inquire as to the false doctrines I was allegedly teaching, and I don’t suppose it would have done any good – but it would have been nice to know, if for no other reason than I could share them with you.

George Will was also expelled. I don’t recall if he went first or if I did, it happened so fast. Apparently George was expelled because he had been a bad influence on me – see, I told you in an earlier post that George had ruined my life. Bad George, bad bad George.

I just noticed that January 10, 1967 was the day Lester Maddox was sworn in as Georgia’s segregationist governor, kind of ironic isn’t it?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Profile - Bible College IV – The Exodus

When the hymn concluded and it was time for me to stand and speak I froze. It was as if someone had applied glue to my chair. I was afraid to stand and afraid not to stand. What was I going to say to all those people? What was I going to say to the administration and faculty? 

The two seniors who had approached me in the dorm were in the front row, I was a number of rows back of them. One of them turned to look at me, then he began to stand, I assume to cover for the scared kid who didn’t know what to do. 

Without a conscious decision on my part I found myself on my feet, Bible open to John 13:34 – 35, asking those assembled to read along with me. 

I didn’t speak long, for less than 5 minutes. It went like this:
The fact that Jesus gave us this commandment, to love one another as He loves us, means that He expects us to keep it. But we can’t keep it, not in and of ourselves. Only Christ living in us and through us can keep this commandment. Why we have trouble enough loving people of our own race, but Christ expects us to love pink people, and purple people, and green people, and red, black, and yellow people – He has called us to love all people. But we can’t do it – only Christ can do it living within us and through us.
When I sat down, the student who sat to my left, who was from South Africa, looked at me with a stunned expression and said, “Oh, wow.”

I didn’t understand the import of the “Oh, wow.” He was older than me and he was always congenial to me, and I don’t think his “Oh, wow” was a criticism but rather a realization that the kid sitting next to him had perhaps just gotten himself into trouble. The kid was too naive to know what he had just done.

The kid thought that he had just given a faithful representation of an element of John 13:34-35, a faithful representation of why we need Christ living in us and through us. The kid was only passing on to others what he was learning from the writings of Chambers, Murray, Tozer, Nee, and Bonhoeffer.  The kid was locked into Galatians 2:20. The kid didn’t realize that he was on his way out. 

Did I mention that the school was segregated? 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Profile - Bible College III - The Exodus

Each day at Bible College began with chapel, which was held in a large lecture room and consisted of prayer, a hymn, and a short devotional. The devotional was led by a student and students were assigned this function in alphabetical order. This being the case I was not scheduled to share a devotional until late in the academic year - I guess God had other plans. 

A phone call, a conversation over coffee, a "chance" meeting at a conference or in Wal-Mart, following up on an impulse to contact someone; for every seemingly insignificant interaction or encounter we have in our lives that leads us to something significant, I wonder how many we miss? 

On the first academic day in January 1967 the student who was scheduled to give the chapel devotion was sick. I don't even recall who the student was. I don't know if he had a bad cold, or chickenpox, or measles, the flu, or leprosy. I don't know if he was relieved he was sick so he wouldn't have to give the devotion; though I doubt it for one reason most of us were at the school was to preach - so who would want to pass up even 5 minutes before the student body and faculty?

That morning began like all other mornings for me, and as I sat in my dorm room preparing to head for breakfast and chapel there was a knock at the door. When I opened the door there stood two seniors, they were leaders in the dorm - they carried that "all-knowing" look about them, they'd been there and done that, and while people weren't wearing T-shirts in those days that proclaimed accomplishments, had T-shirts been available they would have been the first to receive them. I suppose their T-shirts would have carried the words, "We have been to the heights and depths of theology, and explored the hidden wisdom of preaching, and know the deep secrets of the faculty - follow us."

I'm not sure these guys ever smiled or laughed, but hey, they were kids too - which is to say in the season of life in which I write this most all of the students then were kids. They were doing the best they could with the models they had.

You know, or maybe you don't know, that every time I've taken myself seriously I've messed up. I don't know about you, but I know about me, at least a little about me. And when I take myself seriously I tend to not take God seriously and I tend to not take others seriously - this is by way of comparison with myself. For when I take myself seriously then I put myself at the center of the universe and that's never a good thing. I end up thinking less of God then and less of others - whether I intend to or not. Now I want to take what I do seriously because I want to be a good steward of life, a good friend, a good employer, a good pastor; whatever the relational case may be.

I think maybe Bible College and seminary students should have T-shirts that read; "Take God seriously and forget about yourself." What do you think?

One of these guys was tall and slender, the other of middle height and a bit portly. I'm not sure that prior to this particular morning I'd had a conversation with either of them.

"Brother Withers," one of them began, "Brother Clovisfundruckerstein (that's as good as any name when you can't remember the real name) is supposed to give the devotion today and he's sick, would you do it?"

"Sure," I replied.

Have you ever said "sure" when you didn't know what you were getting into? Come on now...have you? Do you have any examples you could contribute to an anthology titled, "When Saying 'Sure' Was Not the Smartest Thing to Do"? Or what about one titled, "When Saying 'Sure' Led To Surely Unintended Consequences"?

When the senior brothers left the room I sat at my desk and opened my Bible looking for Divine inspiration, for it wouldn't be long before chapel and I needed something to say, something that mattered. It was a Schofield Reference Bible that had been given to me, used - as in previously read, by pastor Donald Wilkes.

It was important to say something that mattered, that is different than taking yourself seriously, that is taking what you do seriously. The Apostle Peter says in his first letter (1Peter 4:11) that "Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterance of God..." My old preaching professor at Gordon-Conwell  (not the Bible College), Scott Gibson, says that "If there is a mist in the pulpit there is a fog in the pew." What he means is that if the preacher isn't sure about what he is saying that that uncertainty will be exponentially communicated to the congregation. I think that's true of leadership in general - what do you think?

I turned the pages of that old red Schofield Bible, with its well-worn binding and frayed edges, looking for a beam of light to shine from the heavens down on just the right passage. No beam of light. No voice from heaven. No goose bumps. Not even an image of a goose. Not a candle flicker of light. Not a twinge of excitement. What do do? Well I couldn't hide in the dorm. I could pray for an alien abduction - but that prayer probably wouldn't be answered. 

My attention was drawn to John 13:34 - 35 in which Jesus says, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." However, no beam of light, just a couple of verses spoken by Christ in the Upper Room shortly before His arrest, trial, and execution. 

I took my seat in the lecture hall not knowing what I would do. The protocol was that after the hymn that the student giving the devotional stood at his chair and spoke from there, rather than walking up to the front. No one but the two senior brothers knew I was the substitute speaker.

The hymn was sung, it was time for me to stand and speak...and I froze.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Profile - Bible College II and George Will

As I write this George Will is likely in Italy, at least he was a few weeks ago when I answered my phone. George doesn't call me usually unless he's in the States, usually when he's back home in Florida, but I was especially glad to hear his voice most recently because I had been wondering if perhaps he hadn't gone home to be with Jesus. It had been a while since I'd heard from him, and after all he is pushing 73 or 74, somewhere around there. When he does leave this life I won't know it because no one will telephone me or send me a note; maybe I'll have a "sense" that he's gone, maybe not. I'll probably just wonder why I haven't heard from him.

Whether or not I hear from him again I'll keep praying for Debbie and Art, they are his children. I've been praying for them for around 44 years, ever since I first met George at Bible College. I guess they both have children now and they probably aren't far behind me in terms of age. They don't know who I am, they don't know I've been praying for them for almost 44 years, and they don't know that their Dad has played a significant part in my life. Heck, if it hadn't been for George I wouldn't have been expelled from Bible College, but I'm getting just a little ahead of myself.

I met George in the fall of 1966 at Bible College, he was 13 years older than I was then and he still is 13 years older than I am, I haven't been able to gain any ground on him. George was also a first-year student. He had been in business and had had a miraculous conversion, pulled off the side of the road, tears streaming down his cheeks, and gave his heart to Jesus. Actually, he gave his life to Jesus. 

George is from south Florida, around Homestead as I recall, is around 6' 5", and had a southern drawl 44 years ago, as in a real southern d---r---a---w---l. I don't pick up the drawl anymore, but back then waiting for George to finish a word was like waiting for a train with 200 coal cars to pass a railroad crossing; you might as well turn your engine off and settle back 'cause you ain't going anywhere anytime soon. George's drawl was especially evident when he sang - an item I'll touch on in a future post. I mean that man could start singing a song in January and tease those lyrics out at least until Independence Day. 

I often credit George with ruining my life. There I was, a bare 16 years old and what does George expose me to? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A.W. Tozer, Andrew Murray, Watchman Nee, Oswald Chambers - talk about an irresponsible older brother in Christ! When I read Bonhoeffer's words, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die," I believed them. When I read Nee and Murray on the indwelling Christ, I believed them - Galatians 2:20 became etched in my mind. When Tozer wrote about a passionate pursuit of God that would not take "no" for an answer that became my ideal. And when Chambers cast the vision of "my utmost for his highest" I wanted to climb that mountain. 

George talked about Jesus - whether we were working on a crew tearing down a house, or eating a meal, or walking across campus, the man was, and is, all about Jesus. He talked about Jesus, sang about Jesus, and wasn't afraid to ask hard questions or to be asked hard questions. He prayed the way I eat ice cream and pizza, with pure enjoyment. And George was always praying and looking for revival. 

Once when George had been injured on the work crew and was confined to his dorm room he said to me, "Now tonight at dinner, during prayer time, they are going to pray for me. Ask them not to pray for me but to pray for revival." And that's just what I did. When the folks at the head table said that we should pray for George this 16 year old spoke up and said, "Brother Will has asked that instead of praying for him that we please pray for revival." It never dawned on me that offense might be taken at that request, maybe it was and maybe it wasn't, I was just passing on my friend's request. 

Since 1967 George has traveled the United States and Europe sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. Maybe this wouldn't have happened had he not been expelled from Bible College; and come to think of it, I guess just like I can thank him for getting me expelled that he can thank me for getting him expelled, but I'm getting ahead of myself again. 

The last time I saw George was around 1977 in Gainesville, FL. I was selling Encyclopedia Britanica and was working some leads in Gainesville. I called his parents' home just in case he was back in the States and low and behold he was not only in the States but he was right there in their home. At that point it had been 10 years since we'd seen each other; now it's been 34 years. I've never stopped praying for George or for Debbie or for Art - after all, the man ruined my life, the least I can do is to pray for him and his family. 

I suppose I should tell you about being expelled from Bible College - but why don't I wait until my next post? 

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Profile - Bible College I

In September of 1966 I traveled south to enter seminary. It was the seminary that both Walter Veasel and Donald Wilkes had attended. I really had no business heading down there, and I can't believe my parents let me go - but it's likely that they didn't know what to make of my conversion and the fact is that even if I was a bit crazy about Jesus that it sure beat the alternative - for you see in the summer of 1965 I had run away from home.

When I went to register the registrar told me that I couldn't take seminary classes because I hadn't graduated from high school (this was really more like a Bible College, but it called itself a seminary at the time; I think it has since dropped the word seminary and now uses Bible College). I told the registrar that if they'd let me in that I'd have my GED before I graduated from seminary. Guess what? Yep. They let me in.

Life was pretty austere at school but I didn't mind. Most afternoons after class I worked  on a crew that the school contracted out in order to pay my tuition. We did demolition work, and cleared land; those are the two jobs I remember. My hands got so blistered at one point that I couldn't depress the top of my shaving cream dispenser . We worked half-days on Saturdays too, and after our return to campus and lunch I took long naps to recover from the week.

Like I said, I didn't mind. I enjoyed classes, took them seriously, in fact I took the entire experience seriously.

The school was coed but you couldn't talk to members of the opposite sex. I guess since most of the girls were older than me it wasn't an issue.In daily chapel, church on Sundays, and classes the guys sat on one side of the room and the gals sat on the other.

I was reassigned from the work crew to helping an older man do repairs around the campus, including in the girls dormitory. I guess because he was old and I was young they figured we were safe, or maybe just safer.

I had two roommates, one of which left after a few weeks - the environment was a bit much for him, which I can understand. That left brother Joe and me. Our dorm room was adjacent to the restroom. One evening for dinner we had fish, something like salmon cakes as I recall. Late that night I heard terrible noise coming through the partition from the restroom - I mean terrible, moaning and groaning and the like.

"Brother Joe," I said, "do you hear that?" 

"Yes, I do, brother Withers, perhaps we should see what's going on?"

I should mention that the rest room had a line of commodes which were not separated by partitions, much like the military - I mean, why spend money on something like partitions? You just have to clean them and otherwise maintain them; and people are going to do what they have to do partitions or no partitions. So with this salient fact in mind...

Brother Joe and I opened the restroom door to behold a line of young men on the floor, moaning and groaning and holding onto commodes like a good prayer warrior holds onto an altar - except this was no prayer meeting, this was an assembly of those who got sick on fish from dinner. It was not a pretty sight, and yet it was not without its humor. Why some of us got sick and others didn't we'll never know. I can't put it down to righteous living because I know myself too well.

Now I guess brother Joe and I could have found some oil and anointed and prayed for the other brothers, but the thought never occurred to us. I suppose we could have remained with them to console, or even perhaps sing songs of praise; but again our thoughts were not how we might lighten the loads of our dear brethren. No, I have to admit that our thoughts were selfish in the extreme, though not without thanksgiving and resolution - we were thankful we weren't sick and we were resolved to do the best we could to get a good night's sleep in the midst of the moaning and the groaning.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Profile - My Second Church

Either shortly before or immediately after attending camp meeting in Frostburg, MD in the summer of 1966 I moved in with my Mom, two brothers, and an elderly great-great-aunt in Rockville, MD and began attending a church in the Wheaton - Silver Spring area that was in the same denomination as the Little Church in NW D.C. 

This church had many more people compared to my first little church, and there were even a few younger folks, though not many. The pastor, Donald Wilkes, was urbane and cosmopolitan, a contrast from Walter Veasel's simplicity, and from all appearances he was likely doing well as a pastor. The church was in a nice section of the county, the members were middle-class and upper-middle class professionals. The music, traditional by today's standards, was terrific. The choir often reminded me of the camp meeting choir with its enthusiasm, energy, and joy. I still recall one morning when we sang, "Wonder Grace of Jesus," I thought I'd burst for joy.

I was the only kid from outside the denomination and there were no other boys my age, and I guess only a couple of girls. Once again, the adults made me feel welcome and did the best they could. They were a more relaxed congregation than the Little Church and what women wore or how they did their hair didn't seem to be issues that concerned them. 

I recall that Don Wilkes called for a day of prayer and fasting. I was all excited about the prospect and looked forward to the appointed day, which was a Saturday. As it turned out pastor Don and I were the only two people there until the evening, then others arrived, joined in prayer, and we concluded the day. To my young mind I couldn't understand why the church wasn't packed. I couldn't understand why it was only the pastor and me at the church. Things haven't changed in the professing church, but I still don't understand it.

I was befriended by a widower in the church, Bill Wood, with three children, two girls and a boy. His wife had died of cancer not long before my arrival. I spent time with his family and often went to church with them. That summer Bill hired me to work at a local newspaper where he was general manager; I helped lay out display advertising by operating a machine that produced graphic letters.

Bill was kind to me, and looking back I have to wonder why he would take the time to bother with a kid  like me when he had three children of his own who had recently lost their mother. Bill was soft spoken, thoughtful, and, I think, lonely. He once mentioned that people had started treating him differently after Mary died. People who used to invite his family over for dinner and activities stopped doing so - maybe he saw that I was lonely too?

A week or so before leaving for Bible school the church had a going away party for me at Bill's house. and the night before I left for Bible school in the fall of 1966 was spent at Bill's home. Early that morning he drove me to the bus station in Washington, D.C. and I boarded a bus for the South and school.

I returned to the church during my Christmas break and recall attending Christmas worship with my Mom. Don Wilkes preached from Luke about Simeon and Anna and Mom remarked that she'd never heard a Christmas sermon like that - I guess she meant that it wasn't traditional...it didn't focus on the birth narrative.

I was kind of a poster boy for this church since I was from outside the denomination. I testified in front of the church once or twice, but thank goodness I didn't preach! One bad sermon (see previous post) was enough.

The last time I visited the church was probably during Christmas break in 1966. I did see Don Wilkes at least once a few weeks later - after I had been expelled from Bible College, but I don't recall attending church. again Oh - actually I saw Don Wilkes one last time in June 1968 - it was very briefly at the hospital when my Mom died - I called him and he came, there is a lot to be said for that.

The last time I saw Bill Wood was around 1971. I recall visiting him at his home, but I don't think I saw any of his children at that visit; if you're younger and reading this what they say about one's mind is true - thought I'd mention that before I forget it. 

I regret not having an older man in my life who would be straight and direct with me, who would not hesitate to say things to me that I needed to hear, and who would challenge me with the Scriptures. Walter Veasel was nice to me, Don Wilkes was nice to me, and for sure Bill Wood was nice to me - now I needed nice, but I also needed straight talk - conversion does not equal maturity or even common sense.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Profile - A Little Church in NW D.C. PART FOUR

In December of 1966 I returned to the Little Church while on Christmas break from Bible school and preached my first-ever sermon. Walter Veasel was no longer there. I don't know why he left, hopefully he left to take another church closer to home. As mentioned in a previous post, a few years later when I met him again he was pastoring outside of Baltimore.

I don't recall the name of the new pastor. He was older than Walter and was welcoming to me. I really had no business preaching and I didn't do a good job. I preached from Leviticus 11, about clean and unclean animals and tried to extrapolate it into principles of holy living. It's kind of interesting that I'm writing this right now because last week a friend of mine remarked on the propensity of some preachers and traditions to excessively allegorize - of course I did it then because I'd seen others do it. [To be clear, I'm not opposed to allegory, the NT writers certainly use it, just look at Galatians 3:21ff. However, I do think it needs to be rooted in the Biblical fabric and not used as a stand-alone argument or teaching. Just because some folks misuse things is not an argument for their non-use; just consider the gifts of the Holy Spirit on that point.]

I'd say the only good thing about my sermon was its brevity - it only lasted 10 or 15 minutes. I didn't know that I was practicing one of the great principles of preaching - "when you've said what you have to say - sit down". So while I violated a number of exegetical principles I modeled a homiletical principal that a lot of preachers seem to have missed - when you're done just shut up and sit down - no need to repeat, "In closing", ten times before you actually bring yourself to stop speaking. 

My last time in the Little Church came a year or two later. I visited on a Sunday after  living outside the D.C. area for a while. As I was leaving the church that Sunday, the couple who had driven me to camp in the summer of 1966 asked me to call them. I was excited at the prospect of reconnecting with them, they meant so much to me. Perhaps they'd ask me over to spend time with them? Wouldn't it be great to catch-up!

The next day I telephoned them in anticipation of renewed friendship. The wife answered the phone and after some brief small talk said, "Bob, you really should shave your beard off." 

You see I had grown a fledgling beard during my time away. Blown away was my anticipation of seeing this couple who meant so much to me - they didn't want to see me, they wanted me to shave my beard off. My heart, which had been high with excitement, plummeted like a roller coaster after teetering at the top of a drop - and in this case the cars of the roller coaster came off the track. That was the last time I visited the Little Church, it was the last time I talked to anyone, other than Walter Veasel, from the Little Church.  It wasn't that I was angry - just hurt; and I didn't know how to handle it.

That last phone call has never colored my affection for the Little Church. After all, the people welcomed me, cared about me as best they knew how, and did the best they could. I'm sure they'd never had an outside kid wander in, a kid with no clue about their tradition, about bobbed hair or beards or women in pants. Consider this, these folks did not allow the generation gap to stop them from reaching out to me; they didn't say, "We are old and he is young, we don't know how to relate to him." They did the best they could and I'll always be thankful for that - hey, suppose they hadn't welcomed me? Maybe I'd be a Moonie today or something like that - maybe I'd be writing a blog for the Hare Krishnas or the Loyal Order of Cat Daddy Distillers.

My biggest regret about that season of life, in both the Little Church and in the sister church in Silver Spring, MD, is that I didn't have a mentor, an older man to counsel me and help lay a foundation for the future. I may unpack that in a future post.