Charlie crosses final finish line

Kathy’s first words to me this morning at the kitchen table were “Your track friend died.”

At the same that I was asking “Who?” I was thinking it was probably Charlie Foster. Charlie wasn’t the only friend I made while running track, but he was definitely the one whose death would be the main story on the front page of the sports section. And not just in our local paper. News of his death was reported across the country.

When I started running track as a sophomore at Spartanburg High School, Coach Voyles said if I could get down to a certain time in the 120-yard high hurdles, I’d probably win all of my races. I got down to whatever that time was by our first track meet, but I didn’t come close to winning every race. One big reason was a guy named Charlie Foster who was also a sophomore at rival Gaffney High School.

The first time I ran against Charlie, I had no idea who he was, and based on our times coming into the meet, I was expected to win. The meet was at the Gaffney High School football stadium, which had no track. It was the only place in my whole career where everything was run on grass. No problem. But there was a problem at the finish line that I was totally not expecting since we usually just warmed up over the first few hurdles. Coming over the 10th and final hurdle, I was in the lead and confident of winning. As I looked toward the finish line, all of a sudden I saw something just beyond the stretched string I planned to break. Bleachers. Aluminum bleachers used during football season were sitting about 10 feet beyond the finish line. Are you kidding me?! How was I supposed to finish my sprint without crashing into those stupid bleachers? Consciously or unconsciously I made the decision to slow down as I approached the string. Charlie leaned forward and hit the string at full speed a tenth of a second ahead of me. He and another Gaffney runner ran up the bleachers as they had obviously done many times before. A third Gaffney runner in the outside lane maneuvered deftly around the bleachers.

I don’t remember exactly what I said or did, but I’m sure I was frustrated and mad. I probably complained to Coach Voyles that it was unfair. He probably agreed and said there was nothing we could about it. Just wait until we got to run them again at our place. It would be a different story at Wofford College where our home meets were held.

But not different enough. Charlie once again beat me by one tenth of a second. Thanks to the county meet, regionals, and various invitationals, I would run against Charlie quite a few more times that year. He beat me every time - each time by one tenth of a second.

Things changed our junior year, but not in my favor. I might have been a little bit better our second year, but Charlie was a lot better. A lot. Forget one tenth of a second. Our races weren’t even close. Charlie had become one of the best track athletes in the southeast. A serious case of mono my senior year meant my track career was over. A serious case of continued improvement by Charlie meant his was just getting started. He became one of the best high hurdlers in the country winning the 1971 Junior National Championship and tying the high school world record at the Golden State Relays.

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Beyond high school, Charlie’s accomplishments were too numerous to mention here. They included winning the NCAA Championship, the US National Championship, a Gold Medal in the World University Games, and being top ranked in the world. He was favored to win the gold medal in the 1976 Olympics, but finished fourth thanks to a pulled hamstring if my memory is correct. After years of running on the world stage, Charlie (who somewhere along the way became Charles) had a long career coaching track at UNC, Clemson, and Virginia Tech.

Kathy referred to Charlie this morning as my track friend, and he was, but I can’t claim that I ever got to know him well. At all of our meets he competed in too many events to do much socializing. Though high hurdles was his specialty, he could do about anything track related and his team took great advantage of his talent. I remember in one dual meet Gaffney’s track coach knew that they needed every point to try to beat us, so he entered Charlie in the high jump hoping he might pick up a point. Though he had never competed in that event before that day, Charlie not only won the high jump but set the school record for it in the process. In track they do a first call, second call, and final call for athletes to gather at the starting line for their races. Because of competing is so many events, he was rarely at the blocks for first or second call, raising hopes that we might not have to run against him. Upon hearing final call he’d come trotting over probably from the long jump pit just in time to step in the blocks. Wherever he was, he was easy to spot. Our sophomore year he wore a white cap, which was replaced with a fur cossack hat our junior year. Even through his coaching days he was noted for his hats.

I’ll offer two conclusions to my memories of Charlie. Both are true so take your choice.

The Sentimental Conclusion: A few days ago, March 31, Charles Wayne Foster got the final call and crossed the finish line for the last time.

The What I Usually Think Of When I Think of Charlie Foster Conclusion: If it weren’t for those stupid bleachers I could say that I beat one of the best high hurdlers of all times.

RIP. Run in peace, Charlie.

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Lessons from Legos

Asher wanted us to build a really tall tower with the giant Lego blocks that are among the many things we keep on hand to entertain our grandsons. My hope was that we would build a masterpiece of a tower together. Things did not go according to plan.

Somewhere along the way, Asher decided it was more fun to tear down the in-progress tower than help build it. The rest of our Lego time was a combination of me trying to show Asher how we could build a really great tower together, and Asher tearing down my building efforts almost as fast as I could construct.

I’d like to think I’m pretty good with block. I thought I had a good plan and good design going, but never got to see it through. I was glad Asher was having fun, but wished I could have helped channel his energy into something more productive.

Asher is a wonderfully great kid and I love him beyond description, even when he is tearing down my work. But he is also two-years old. Two-year-olds do things like that. I’m confident he is learning and growing, and I believe one day we’ll build that tower together.

I wish I had the same confidence in everybody else. As Asher was laughing at his successful efforts to smash whatever I built, I couldn’t help but think of countless “big people” who seem to take more delight in tearing down the efforts of others rather than being a part of building much more important things than Lego blocks. It happens in almost every area of life. Serious things are turned into destructive games.

It’s OK to act like a two-year-old when you are one.

But not forever.

To Christopher on his 35th birthday

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Christopher, today you turn 35 years old. There are so many things that I have come to admire about you in your first 35 years, and one of the smaller ones is how you have written letters to and about your two sons on their birthdays. When I first saw that you were doing that, I thought it was a great idea. What a gift for Jim and Liam to read as they get older. I also felt bad that I hadn't thought of doing that for you and Taylor and Shari during all your growing up years.  I don't know that this is something that I'll continue (I probably won't), but 35 seems like a good time to write this. I missed 25 and 50 is too long to wait.

Thirty-five years ago, we experienced extreme fright, excitement, and uncertainty. As you know there were complications toward the end of your mom's pregnancy that placed her in the hospital. After getting Kathy settled in, I went back to the doctor and asked if our baby's life was in danger. He replied "the baby's life and the mother's life are both in danger." His words shot through my heart like a dagger. There's a lot I don't understand about prayer. I don't think there's a magic number of people praying that impresses God, or that the prayers of well known people count more, but I do know that very quickly there were many thousands of people all across the country praying for you, including everybody from the Billy Graham team to NFL teams. Doctors and nurses worked to stabilize your mom enough for you to be born, and the night before your original birthday, the doctor told us to be prepared for you to be a small, struggling baby, but he said he thought you would make it. Later than night two nurses came back into the room and confessed that they weren't supposed to be doing what they were about to do. They said they weren't trained to read X-rays, but that they had seen enough of them to know what they were seeing. They said they knew what the doctor had told us, but they didn't want us to worry. From studying the X-rays, they assured us that you looked like a big healthy baby.

They were right. You were big and healthy and full of life from the beginning. We were excited and thankful beyond words. As you now know yourself, nothing prepares you to be a father. After a couple of days of being well cared for in the hospital, I couldn't believe it when a nurse put you in the car with us and said goodbye. That was crazy. We didn't know how to be parents. We would learn quickly.

As you know, I was camp pastor for Centrifuge youth camps when you were born, which meant you didn't even get to spend a night at home until you were 11 weeks old.  We went straight from the hospital to North Greenville College where our staff training camp was just starting. I have always found great fulfillment in ministry, and that continued, but it was amazing how fulfilling other things suddenly were - like getting a good burp out of you after giving you a bottle. After 11 weeks of being the youngest Centrifuge "staffer" ever, you finally got to spend a night at home. For one night. Then we headed out for a couple of weeks of ministry on the road. 

The first two years of your life we spent over 250 days a year on the road. You could have written a book on "Church Nurseries Across the USA." It was challenging, but it was also great family time together for the three of us. I was amazed at how your mom took such good care of you under our strange circumstances. When we moved to Columbia for me to go on staff with the South Carolina Baptist Convention, we came home late one night after a weekend at some church somewhere. As we walked into the house, you groggily looked around and said "I want to go home." We told you that we were in our new home, to which you replied, "I want to go to a hotel." Apparently you were OK with the travel.

I could write a book of such stories, most of which you've heard. Instead of continuing with stories, I think I'd rather just write about you. Ever since that uncertain, exciting entrance into this world, you have been an incredible person. When some people think of incredible people, they may think of someone who is an amazing athlete or musician or some of the things that our world  clamors over. You're a good athlete, an OK musician, etc. and an outstanding writer,  but your real gifts are what I consider quieter gifts and abilities. You are kind. You are intelligent. You have a great sense of humor. To be such a great all around guy, you are genuinely humble.  You have a very tender heart. You are sensitive. You have a strong sense of right and wrong. You desire mercy and justice for all people. You pull for the underdog. You love. Man, do you love. Every father should be so fortunate as to know the love of his son as I have. It means the world to me that in our family we not only love each other but even like each other and genuinely enjoy being together. Thanks for helping to set that example.

In order to write this, I stopped writing the script for Thursday night's drama at Seesalt. (My goal was to finish it before going to bed tonight. Not going to happen.) Spoiler alert: this year's drama includes a story of a prodigal son. In writing for the father, I'm thankful that I've had to draw on my imagination and not my experience. For years I dreaded what it would be like for you to go off to college, but when you "left us," it felt like that was exactly what was supposed to happen. And we went right on loving each other and spending good quality time together. For a long time we both thought that you would carry on Concoxions, but several years ago you decided that God was leading you to do other things. You taking over our ministry would have been something I would have enjoyed, but it was never an expectation. I expect you to follow God, not me.  Even more recently you moved from half a mile away to hundreds of miles away to become a student pastor in Nashville. Your mom and I miss you and EA and Jim and Liam like crazy. But we've never felt like you "left us" as a prodigal son. We remain confident in your love for us even as you share that love with so many others in other places. It has been good to watch you carve out your own niche in a new place of service where you've been very much on your own.

I really need to get back to that prodigal son script as you can well understand, so I'll start wrapping up by saying that I love you... I started to say more than you can imagine. But now that you've become a father, I've seen you love your sons so beautifully that I think you can imagine how much I love you. You know there's a special love between father and son. When you were born, I thought a new word needed to be invented for how i felt about you. And as much as you love Jim and Liam today, believe it or not, it will only grow stronger. That has certainly been my experience. Little boys grow up. But that doesn't mean they have to grow away.

From what I hear (and I agree) you and I are a lot alike. I hope that hasn't been too big a burden on you. I've worried about that, but you've handled it well.  I'm thankful you haven't chosen to rebel too much. But I know that you are your own man. We don't always agree on everything and that's OK. Neither of us is perfect.  But I have always been immensely proud of you and thankful to call you my son. 

You probably feel like you've been around a long time now, but at 35 you are hopefully just getting started. I pray that you will have many more years of being a great husband, a great dad, a great minister, a great friend, a great brother, and a great son. It won't always be easy, but keep growing, keep learning, keep loving, and keep being all that God created you to be.

Celebrating 35 years in one letter has not just been hard. It's been impossible. So...

Happy birthday, Christopher!

Love,

Dad

 

Storm

(Much appreciation goes to Storm's mother and grandparents for their permission, blessings, and encouragement to share his story, and to Marion Humphrey for his help in many ways.)

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I won't pretend for a second that I and our staff get as close to the students who come to Seesalt and Chillipepper as the adult leaders who bring them, much less as close to them as some of their family members and friends. But we do get close to many. We care about all them. A lot.

So the hurt is very real when we lose one of "our kids" as we did last week. Sadly, this is by no means the first time this has happened. I'm sorry to say that I have lost count not just of how many of our former students have passed away, but of how many met the Lord at Seesalt or Chillipepper and are now with Him. Some that committed their lives to Christ finished their earthly race even before the next year. That was the case with Storm.

I got the first message of Storm's passing from Marion, one of Storm's adult leaders, a few hours after he died. Marion and Sally, the church youth director, were also the first ones who told us about Storm when their group checked into our Seesalt summer student conference this past summer.  Storm had not previously been a part of their youth group but had shown up shortly before Seesalt to help out with a local mission project the group was doing. Marion and Sally had reached out to Storm in very caring ways. Marion gave Storm an old pair of worn out work gloves big enough to fit his hands.  No one had any idea what a special and important relationship had begun. When Storm heard the group was going to Seesalt, he asked if he could go with them, so he was added to the group at the last minute.

AT SEESALT

Marion and Sally told me that first day that they had some reservations about bringing Storm. They said Storm was a handful and lived up to his name. In addition to being unpredictable and sometimes hard to deal with, I learned that three weeks earlier Storm had put a loaded gun to his head. He still wasn't sure why he hadn't pulled the trigger. That, of course, meant we would all need to watch him even more carefully. (Sadly, that's something we've needed to do more times than you might think.) They hoped Storm wouldn't cause too many problems, but really felt like he needed to be there. I reminded Sally and Marion of something they'd heard me say for many years - if everyone just brought their perfect angels, it might make all of our jobs easier, but that's not why we do what we do. We know there are troubled teenagers in the world, and that's who we most need to be reaching.

The next morning, first-year Seesalt staffer Abbey came to me after Bible study groups had met. She told me that she had a guy in her group that had been extremely disruptive, and she wasn't sure she was going to be able to handle him. It wasn't hard to guess who it was. We reviewed some of the options we had talked about in training camp for dealing with students who are less than cooperative, and talked about what to do next. We concluded with a reminder that very often the students who are the biggest problems at the beginning of the week turn out to be the biggest reasons for joy by the end of the week. We prayed that would be the case with Storm.

I didn't actually figure out who Storm was until that night. Our theme this past summer was "Solid Rock," a 50's theme, and included a sock hop in the gym. (In case you aren't up on 50's culture, sock hops were dances that required removing your shoes so as to not scuff up the gym floor.) As I looked out across the gym at hundreds of people having a great time, I quickly noticed one guy who was not having a great time. I asked Kathy if that was Storm, and she verified that it was. Storm was one of the larger 15-year olds we've had with us. He towered over most of those around him, which only accented that he was not having fun. His obituary said he "did not know the meaning of hate or prejudice." This may have been the one exception, because I'm pretty sure Storm was hating the Bunny Hop. 

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As the week continued, Storm was very much in our prayers and we saw steady signs of progress. One afternoon, Storm elected to go to the personal interest conference that Abbey was leading Afterwards he talked to her about how he had nearly killed himself a few weeks earlier. He said he was beginning to understand why he had not pulled the trigger.

At the end of our worship service on the last night of Seesalt, Storm responded to the invitation to make a commitment to the Lord. In the "chat room" with Marion, he invited Jesus Christ into his life as his personal Savior and Lord. When our staff learned later that night that Storm was one of the students who had committed his life to Christ, there were plenty of tears of joy and prayers of thanksgiving. 

The change in Storm was immediate and dramatic. Among other things, he was excited to tell anybody who would listen that he had become a Christian.  It's exciting to see those commitments at Seesalt, but the real test is what happens when we all go home. By all accounts, Storm passed that test with honors.

AFTER SEESALT

The next time I saw Storm was about a month later when Kathy and I were at his church to do an "Art to Heart" presentation. I had heard he was doing well, and I hoped he would be there so I could talk to him personally.  Before the service, I was in the restroom putting my headset mic on, and a big guy came busting through the door.

"Hey, Mr. Bill! I was at Seesalt this summer. I got saved! I don't know if you remember me or not, but I'm Storm!"  This excited, full-of-joy young man was not the same Bunny Hop hating guy I had seen at Seesalt. We talked for quite a while in the men's room, specifically about how he was doing spiritually and what he was doing to continue growing in his month-old faith. He had brought his family to the program that night, so he introduced them to Kathy and me, and we got the chance to talk with them for a while. 

At some point, Storm was baptized in a river, and was so much bigger than the preacher that he had to be baptized sitting in a chair.  Storm was at our Chillipepper conference in January, but I'm sorry to say that I didn't get much of a chance to talk with him beyond brief pleasantries. From talking to others, I know that Storm's desire to tell others about Jesus continued.  In recent months, his biggest concerns were that some of those closest to him would get their lives right with God as he had done.

The first message I got from Marion last week began: "Bill, I don’t know if you remember Storm form Seesalt at Mars Hill this past summer, he was the young man that had shared with Abbey about putting a gun to his head. It hurts to write you and let you know that Storm has gone home to be with his savior, Jesus." My heart broke. My immediate fear was that Storm had taken his own life. I was very convinced of the reality of his conversion, but I know that even genuine Christians still have problems and dark moments and do tragic things. 

Marion went on say that Storm had been found in the field beside his house where he had been running to get in shape for football. Preliminary investigation revealed "no signs of any trauma to his body." An autopsy was scheduled for two days later. Nothing would bring Storm back, but I prayed that the autopsy would not reveal more sad news.  Marion and Sally stayed in touch, and told me that Storm's father had died at an early age of complications from an enlarged heart. Nothing about Storm's life during the past eight-and-a-half months suggested anything other than that he was excited about living his life to the fullest, but the autopsy report was still a welcomed relief. Storm died of a massive heart attack. He had an enlarged heart, liver, and spleen. He died doing something he loved.

THE MEMORIAL SERVICE

Storm's family received friends in the church gym before the funeral. The first two people in the receiving line were his maternal grandparents - both Christians. When they found out Kathy and I were from Seesalt, they jumped up from their chairs, and with tears streaming hugged us like old friends. His grandmother said Storm had called her from Seesalt that night to tell her that he had been saved. He told her in great detail what he had done, how he was feeling, and they rejoiced together. His grandfather excitedly told us that Storm came back from Seesalt a totally different guy. He said the change was amazing, and that "he never changed back." Some of us talk a lot about how Jesus changes lives. I believe that with all my heart and mind, and I've seen it happen countless times. But it's always affirming to be reminded that it's not just talk and belief. It's real.

We spoke next to Storm's mother, who obviously loved her son with all her heart.  I immediately noticed that she was wearing his "Even if..." wristband that he had gotten at Chillipepper. It went along with a message I preached based on Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It was a reminder that we need to remain faithful "even if" things don't turn out the way we want them to. Losing your only son, especially at such an early age, has to be one of the biggest "even if" challenges imaginable. Unless we've experienced that personally, I don't think any of us can fully understand or appreciate the hurt of a mom in such a situation. You can know that your son is in a better place far greater than we can imagine because of his faith in Jesus, but that still doesn't erase the sorrow. Please pray for Storm's mom and all those who will always miss him.

The church was packed for the funeral with people sitting in the choir loft, in added chairs, and in an overflow room near the sanctuary. Marion was one of those who spoke and he did a great job of telling how Storm came to know the Lord. He had been with him every step of the way. Others told of the change in Storm's life. It included his new love of contemporary Christian music which he shared with others, sometimes whether they liked it or not. Upon turning 16 in January he became a volunteer fireman, and around 30 of his fellow firefighters were on hand as his honorary escort.  It was mentioned that his goal was to become a football player and "become good enough so that when he did something good he could kneel down and give God the honor and credit."

Among the things written in the memorial service bulletin: "...He was bigger than life itself... A big bear of a young man with the most gentle heart... He lived his life full speed and all out... He loved and was loved tremendously..." 

The day of Storm's funeral was a rollercoaster of emotions. We laughed and we cried, sometimes at the same time. We talked with a lot of students and parents of students who had come to Seesalt and Chillipepper over many years. My thoughts were primarily on Storm and his family, but I couldn't help but also do a lot of serious reflecting on the larger implications of ministry. None of my thoughts were new, but they took on even more depth and weight.

I was reminded of why we do what we do. Ministry is not easy. At times there are challenges that make it hard to continue. I'm very much aware that there are others who can do what we do, but I was thankful that we've continued.

I'd like to think that we do some pretty good things at Seesalt and Chillipepper that make a difference, but I was reminded that none of what we do could make much of difference without faithful adult leaders in the churches which allow us to share in their ministry. Without faithful people like Sally and Marion, kids like Storm (or anyone else) would never come our way. They reached out to him, and cared for him, but that was just the start. There were times that Storm wasn't sure what was going on at Seesalt. Beyond our program and staff, he needed and had caring adult leadership to walk with him, love him, and guide him. And of course all that continued after our few quick days together were over. I have long sincerely said that people who work with teenagers are some of my favorite people in the world. My heroes are neither Marvel or D.C.

STRENGTH IN WEAKNESS

The fact that Storm considered taking his own life before he found his new life in Christ might be something that we'd like to forget about, but it is an important part of his story. It reminds us that God can rescue and restore us no matter how desperate we are.  It was interesting to hear how many of his friends described him as "care free," "loved by everyone," "without a worry in the world," etc.  It seems incongruous that anyone who was perceived as care free, without worries, and loved by everyone would considering ending his or her life. But it happens more than we'd like to think. The number of teenagers who take their own life is at an all-time frightening high. Even more make unsuccessful attempts, and far more seriously consider it.

I asked Marion if he knew why Storm had considered taking his own life. He did. They had talked about it a lot. The life of the party, throttle-wide-open kid that everyone knew and loved confided that at that point he felt like an outcast, that he didn't fit in, that nobody really cared about him. I know very few people who haven't felt like that somewhere along the way. Some of us feel it more strongly than others. There have always been people who cared about Storm and loved him deeply, but there was still something missing. Thankfully, even when Storm was at his lowest point, he found the strength to press on. He chose life. And as a result, four weeks later he chose life again - life that would be everlasting. Thanks to these two all-important decisions that Storm made, even in our sadness, we can celebrate the end of his time on earth.

We see people of all ages every day who are also in danger of being pulled under by their own private storms. Try to look beyond the smiles, the laughter, and the masks. We can't always tell who is hurting, so. to be on the safe side, it might be a great idea to love and care for everybody.

And how many reading this are in some degree of despair? At the risk of sounding simplistic, giving up is not the answer. There are people who care. And a God who cares more than we can imagine. He doesn't promise us a set length of life, but he does promise us a full and eternal life if we put our trust in Him.  

Storm found his life. I pray that his story encourages others that we can, too.

 

 

The girl in the picture

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On June 8, 1972 during the Vietnam War, a little girl made world-wide news when she was photographed running from her Vietnamese village, which had just been bombed with napalm by South Vietnamese planes. It's a miracle that she was even alive. Her clothes were burned completely away and skin was dropping from her body, which was still on fire. 

The photo won many prizes, including a Pulitzer, and has been credited with hastening the end of the Vietnam War. But what happened to the nine-year-old child who became known around the world simply as "The Napalm Girl"?  This week I had the privilege of meeting and hearing the story of this miraculous lady.

Kim Phuc Pan Thi was rushed to a hospital by photographers, but her injuries were so severe she was placed in a morgue and left there to die. Her parents finally found her still barely alive in that morgue after three days and desperate treatment was begun to try and spare her life. After 14 months in a Saigon hospital and sixteen skin-graft surgeries, she returned to her village.  She continued to struggle with physical pain as well as the mental anguish of being used as a propaganda tool by the communist government. 

Ten painful years after surviving her horrifying experience, Kim committed her life to Jesus Christ. Kim sought a way to find freedom to grow in her faith, and in 1986 the communist government allowed her to continue her education in Cuba. For years Kim considered herself ugly because of the scars that covered her body, and she feared that as a result she would never be loved, never be married, and never have the chance to raise a family. In Cuba she met another young Vietnamese student who later became her husband. While on their honeymoon in 1992, they saw a chance to escape communist control, and they defected to Canada where they still live with their two sons.

Kim says it was only through her relationship with Christ that she was able to find love, peace, meaning, and purpose, and eventually to extend forgiveness to those who caused so much pain for her and others.  Kim is doing an amazing amount of work around the planet sharing her faith and working through foundations she has set up to especially provide medical and psychological assistance to child victims of war. 

Her grace, love, forgiveness, and commitment to powerfully sharing the message of Christ is beyond inspiring. I'm thankful that her famous photo was not a picture of the end of the road, but of the beginning of an incredible journey that has brought peace to people throughout the world.

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Sue Thomas - An Amazing Lady

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I think the word "amazing" gets way overused, so I try to use it sparingly and appropriately. But here goes. Sue Thomas is one of the most amazing ladies I've met in a while.

At the age of 18 months, Sue suddenly and with no explanation lost all hearing. Doctors wanted to put her in an institution, but her parents were determined for her to live as normally as possibly. She worked diligently with a demanding speech therapist for seven years to learn how to speak and afterwards continued to work with voice teachers to improve her ability to speak in spite of her total deafness. Growing up, Sue was badly bullied and ostracized, which hurt badly because she has always loved people and had a strong desire to be a "party animal.".

Even though she was branded a "dummy" and went through public school in slow learners classes, she graduated from college and later did post-graduate work in counseling and seminary training. 

Because of her extraordinary lip-reading ability, Sue was recruited by the FBI. As a special agent, she helped put away many "bad guys" by reading their lips when they thought no one could hear their conversations. Her exploits served as the basis for an award-winning TV series, Sue Thomas, FBEye, which is syndicated in 64 different countries.

In spite of her exciting career, Sue knew that something was missing in her life and she left the FBI after three and a half years. Sue found the fulfillment she longed for through a deep personal relationship with Jesus. Since then she has traveled the world telling millions about how good God is. 

I had never heard of Sue Thomas until today when Kathy and I heard her speak and got to spend some time with her.  We were captivated by her warmth, her sense of humor, her love for people, and her single-minded commitment to simply tell people about Jesus and about God's goodness. That she can speak at all is amazing. That she can speak as she does with such love and lack of bitterness or pity is even more amazing. Her world is silent, but she is anything but. She lives to share with others.

About three months ago, Sue suffered a serious stroke. It affected her ability to do almost anything including her ability to walk and to see. She now has suffers from bad double-vision. With characteristic humor and wonderfully positive attitude, she says the good news is that "it makes it look like I'm speaking to twice as many people." Amazingly, the one thing the stroke didn't affect was her voice, which she worked so hard to even have in the first place. That meant she could keep telling people about Jesus.

Shortly after her stroke, Sue began physical therapy to try to regain some ability to walk. That first day, she spotted stairs in the therapy area and asked to be taken to them. The therapist explained that it would be at least several weeks before they could began working on climbing stairs. Sue insisted that she wanted to try it that day. Why? Because she needed to be able to climb stairs to get on stages to share God's love. She did it. 

As Sue continued to speak today, I just wanted to give her a hug and tell her how much I loved and appreciated her. I'm glad I got that chance and more.  After being humbled and inspired by this, yes, amazing lady, I was reminded that I have no  reasons to complain and no excuses.

 

Two from a two at a zoo

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Each time over the last year and a half that we've visited Shari, Robin, and Asher in St. Louis, our visit has included a trip to the impressive St. Louis Zoo, recently named the "top free attraction in America" (we like free). We also like zoos. No matter how many times you go, the unpredictable behavior of fascinating animals keeps the experience fresh. 

Today had another fresh twist. Asher turned two years old today, and for Kathy and me, this was his first time of not being confined to his stroller or the arms of a parent or grandparent. Asher loves seeing animals at the zoo, and as soon as we passed through the front gates he successfully petitioned his way out of his stroller. Freedom! Free to run anywhere and do anything that the herding team of Shari, Kathy, and me would allow.

Asher not only loves zoo animals - he loves life in general. And as much as he enjoys animals, it also seems he enjoys everything else at the zoo. With each step (or even half step) there was a fascinating rock, or leaf, or stick, or wall, or sign to stop and behold. He definitely has to poke any glass sign that lights up to see if it's a touch-screen monitor. We were inside the zoo for more than 20 minutes before actually getting to see any non-squirrel animals. We'd probably still be there sans animal sightings without occasional gentle nudging by his mom. 

This continued throughout our visit (and lest you misinterpret this, I loved every minute of it). Asher is even more fascinated by people (especially those close to his size) than rocks, sticks, leaves, and touch-screens. Asher almost didn't even see the huge grizzly bear that swam over and suddenly put its face six inches (including several inches of glass) in front of Asher's face. Asher was too busy noticing the little girl standing next to him. Same thing a little while later at the polar bear tank. The animals were coming close today. Including the monkeys. As crazy as Asher is about monkeys, even they had to compete for his attention with the stroller confined four-year-old little boy who didn't seem to appreciate that Asher kept calling him "baby."

In observing all this, I quickly realized two take-aways that interestingly are somewhat opposite each other:

1) How often do we miss some of the most important parts of life because we're so focused on less significant stuff? At a zoo you can see amazing animals that you rarely get to see any other time or anywhere else. Or you can be so focused on little things that you can see every day and everywhere to the point that you totally miss the amazing. Two-year-olds usually outgrow their fascination with rocks and leaves, but I imagine we've had more than one guy at our Seesalt or Chillipepper student conferences who missed out on a potentially life-changing face-to-face experience with God because their focus was on the girl sitting next to them. Sometimes we need to turn off the TV, take out the earbuds, disconnect the devices... They may be distracting us from experiencing much more amazing and important things.

At the same time...

2) How often do we go through life and miss the little everyday things along the way that can bring us enjoyment? Stop and smell the roses - or the rocks, leaves, sticks...  I need to finish writing a script in the next few days. It's a big undertaking. It's important. I'm often thinking about it even when I'm not writing it. But it's not so big and important that I can't enjoy rocks and sticks. Especially when I can enjoy them with one of my grandsons. Beyond our own enjoyment, paying attention to the little things can make a big difference in important ways.

Take as much or as little as you'd like from #1 or #2. Or even both. Experiences from the St. Louis Zoo are free.

 

Remembering Dr. Rust - Part 1

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This seems to be a season of life in which many of my former "bosses" and/or mentors are passing on from this temporary life to the next eternal one.  A few weeks ago I got word that Dr. Ray P. Rust had died. Dr. Rust was executive director of the South Carolina Baptist Convention when I served there as associate director of the evangelism department. He is certainly among those at the very top of the list of great leaders with whom I've had the privilege of serving.  To say that I have long had the utmost respect for Dr. Rust is an understatement. 

I have forgotten everything about my official job interview with Dr. Rust except for one brief part. And I remember that one brief part like it was yesterday.  I might be off by a word or two, but I feel confident enough in my recollection to put the conversation in quotes.

After we had talked about a lot of other things, Dr. Rust said, "Bill, as you probably know there is a lot of division in our denomination right now with a lot of people choosing to be on one side or another.  I'm not out to hire people from just one side. In fact, I'm not even going to ask you what side you're on. All I want to know is - do you think you can work with all of our people no matter what side they're on?"  The magnitude of that attitude and question was immediately appreciated. This was a man I wanted to work for and hopefully get to know. I thought about my response, but I didn't have to think long. I simply replied, "Yes, sir, Dr. Rust. I believe I can do that."

As I said, I don't remember anything else about that day or about what I'm sure was a thorough and in-depth conversation. So I don't know if we then went on to talk about other things, or if he then offered me the job, or if he said he'd pray about it and get back to me, or whatever. As I'm writing this, I'm somewhat amazed that I don't even remember if I officially got hired that day, a few days later, or a couple of weeks later.  But I sure do remember his position, his question, and my answer.

In those days and these days when people were and are indeed quick to pick a side and see everyone else as opposition and even enemies, Dr. Rust had a desire and commitment to bring people together rather than drive them further apart. I think and hope I already had that same desire, but I took seriously my answer to him that day.  I remembered it as I interviewed and hired staff over the years. I remembered it as I worked with "our people" on both sides even when they sometimes had their own agendas that worked against the common goals that we hopefully shared. 

It has been many years since I've worked for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, but I'd like to think the wisdom of Dr. Rust has continued to help guide me. In our ministry and simply in my desire and mission as a Christian to serve and follow the Lord, "our people" has expanded. "Our people" are not all Baptist. In a larger sense, "our people," are not even all Christians or Americans or anything else. God calls us to love and serve all people - even our enemies who are not on our side. 

I think Dr. Rust understood that more than many did and do. He has already been missed and that will continue. We need more Dr. Rusts.

(I have other significant and fun remembrances of Dr. Rust that I will save for another post)

Birthday list

Every day our local newspaper has a birthday list of somewhat famous people. Kathy and I read the paper online during breakfast and often comment on whose birthday it is.
Bill: Jesus didn't make the list.
Kathy: He probably wasn't really born on December 25.
Bill: I know, but in parenthesis they could have said this is when his birthday is traditionally celebrated.
Kathy: They just put people on the list who are alive.
Bill: Well?
Kathy: You're right - he should be on the list.
Merry Christmas! And happy birthday to the one who has his own exclusive list!

What everybody doesn't really know/think/wish/etc.

Recently I’ve seen an increase of online articles with titles like “What Every Pastor / Christian / Husband / Wife / American / (or whoever) Knows / Wishes / Thinks / Believes / (or whatevers) About (Whatever” (feel free to fill in your own blanks).  This is not a comment on the content of the articles themselves, but mainly the titles and by association the presumptions that go with the posts.

 How can anyone presume to know the thoughts/wishes/desires/etc. of “Every Pastor” or “Every Christian” or “Every True American” or “Every Anybody” for that matter? If there’s one thing I think I know about pastors, it’s that they don’t all think the same way. Same for husbands, wives, Americans (True or False), Christians, Muslims, Southerners, Mid-Easterners… 

While not many people put such presumptous titles on their ideas, I wonder how many of us still assume that we speak for everybody else, or at least for everybody with which we want to identify or associate. Does stating that we speak for everybody else lend more weight or validity to our ideas? Or do we think/hope it makes more people more inclined to read what we write?

Maybe presuming to speak for whole groups of people has just become an accepted literary device. I hope not. I, for one, don’t want to accept it. Maybe more humble sounding titles won’t get as much attention or sound as important, but I’d rather see more posts with headings (and more importantly attitudes) like “What This One Christian/Pastor/Husband/Wife/American Thinks/Wishes/Believes/etc At This Moment About Whatever.”

Maybe it's just me.

Goodbye to a circus

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THOUGHTS WHILE WATCHING LIVE STREAM OF THE RINGLING BROS. AND BARNUM & BAILEY CIRCUS FINAL PERFORMANCE

First a little context. Before I was even born, my dad worked for Ringling doing public relations and marketing. He continued working with various shows, carnivals, and our own Cox Amusements throughout his life. I’ve been around around circuses my whole life. My favorite TV show as a little boy was “Circus Boy” (starring 10-year old future Monkee Micky Dolenz under the stage name Micky Braddock). Somehow I got and wore a hat just like circus boy Corky wore. For years Dad called me “Circus Boy Bill.” My favorite movies were “The Greatest Show on Earth” (still is) and “Toby Tyler - Ten Days with the Circus.” By age five, I had my first clown suit and professional clown makeup. By junior high I had built and tried learning how to perform on my own trapeze and high wire (my mother called it a low rope). I put myself through college by managing Cox Amusements. A former Ringling ringmaster visited our family for a few days (stayed in my room) and gave me a bullhook and trapeze that according to him were actually used in “The Greatest Show on Earth” movie (which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1953).  I could go on and on, but suffice it to say I have sawdust in my shoes.

Attendance at RBB&BC has been on the decline for some years and at the same time operating costs have continued to climb. Attendance took an even more drastic drop when, after years of protests by animal activist groups, the Ringling elephants were retired. (I have no desire right now to debate the use of animals in circuses.)

Feld Entertainment (owner/producers) has responded to the financial challenges, especially in recent years, by changing things up. A lot. There are (were) two units of the circus. Kathy and I saw the final version of the Red unit live a couple of months ago. Tonight we are are watching the final show of the Blue unit. Both shows are far cries from what “The Greatest Show on Earth” was even a few years ago. Both are good shows, but save for a few acts, it’s no longer what many of us consider “circus.” We’re not suddenly losing the Ringling circus tonight so much as we’ve been losing it for years.

Lest this seem harsh or overly critical, I understand. First, it’s not like circuses have always been the same. They’ve always changed and evolved. Secondly, the Felds did probably what they should have done. They changed with the times. They’ve tried to appeal to younger, “hipper” audiences. If I had been in their shoes, I may have done some of the same things. 

But it hasn’t worked. And the more it hasn’t worked, the more it seems they have tried to accelerate what hasn’t been working. In all fairness, I’m not sure much of anything would have turned things around to the extent needed.

So tonight is the final show. Some people who think the circus hates animals are glad to see it go. I’m not. I’m sad. I don’t want to overstate it, because I’m not one of the many who are losing their jobs. I’m not one of the ones who has spent much or all of my life as part of this particular circus family. I’ve been a part of great things that have ended and it hurts. It is sad. So far I haven’t shed any literal tears, and the reality is that I’ve got much bigger things on my own plate right now. But I am more than casually sorry to see such a great tradition come to an end after 146 years. 

(Update: I did fight tears at the end of the show as thanks and goodbyes were being said. It had to be incredibly tough for most all involved.)

After tonight, this circus is gone, but others remain. Some using the circus name are even less circusy than Ringling became. But there are still other more traditional shows still plodding along. They, too, are probably dealing with great challenges, but I’m pulling for them just as I pulled for the one I’m streaming from my iPad mini to my TV.

Prediction: We haven’t seen or heard the last of “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth.”  Though the brand has become somewhat diminished, that name alone is iconic and worth at least a small fortune (relative to my bank account anyway). Within a few years, I wouldn’t be surprised if the name were sold to another company which will put a new show on the road. If so, I hope it will be at least a little more traditional circus that will continue to change and evolve, but just not as fast and drastically. Who knows, maybe it will even go back to traveling under canvas (though probably a long shot). Or maybe that’s all just wishful thinking. 

Soon this final performance will be over and even those of us who care will quickly go back to our Ringling-less lives. (I’ve got a script to finish tonight.) When I find a little spare time (probably in a couple of months), I look forward to watching one of my copies of “The Greatest Show on Earth” movies.

Remembering Cliff Barrows

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The accolades pouring in for Cliff Barrows are more than well deserved. Cliff is best known as being the music leader for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, but he was so much more. Upon Cliff’s death today at the age of 93, Billy Graham suggested that his and Cliff’s name should have had a hyphen between them. That’s how much Cliff meant to Dr. Graham and to their ministry.   Leading music was just the tip of the iceberg of Cliff’s ministry at BGEA. He did an amazing amount of crucial work behind the scenes that helped make the ministry what it was and is.  But he was so much more. 

Cliff and his family were members of Taylors First Baptist Church where I served as Minister to Youth for five years and where Kathy and I continued to attend another six years after we started Concoxions. 

As a boy I remember watching Cliff often on TV. He was a famous celebrity. Even as a college student I considered him a larger than life legend in ministry. When I started serving at TFBC toward the end of my senior year at Furman, all of a sudden he was the father of sons in our youth ministry and a fellow church member. Sometimes when you see “celebrities” and “legends” up close, they sadly lose some of their shine. With Cliff it was just the opposite.

I quickly learned that he was “Cliff”- never Rev. Barrows, Dr. Barrows, Brother Cliff or whatever. Though he was larger than life, he was also down to earth and had a wonderful warmth and humility that endeared him to most everyone. I remember him often wearing a vest and string bolo tie instead of a more traditional coat and tie. (As I’m writing this, I’m wondering if that’s where I started liking vests.)   Simply put, I not only had the utmost respect for Cliff in every way - I just plain liked him a lot. 

Cliff was a big encourager and supporter of our ministry at Taylors. My responsibilities included college ministry, and each fall Cliff and his family helped us launch the new school year by hosting an evening at their home on Paris Mountain for hundreds of students from Furman and North Greenville. One year our music for that event was led by a Furman freshman who was a part of our college ministry and who had just released a major Christian album that was getting a lot of attention. I confess that I had an ulterior motive in wanting Amy Grant to do music that night. We introduced her to Cliff and it wasn’t long before she was singing at Billy Graham crusades.

One of the things I knew and appreciated about Cliff was that he understood and supported the role of contemporary Christian music. He always had a love for young people and for music that appealed to them and not just to Billy Graham’s older supporters. Besides Amy, Cliff went out on a limb and featured many contemporary Christian musicians in crusades and other BGEA events.  In my early years with the South Carolina Baptist Convention, I broke a lot of new ground in using contemporary Christian artists in our youth events. For at least a couple of years I had to do a lot of explaining and justifying to certain pastors as to why we were using music with electric guitars, drums, etc. that obviously meant it was “straight from hell.” Yes, that’s a direct quote I got more than once. In some of those conversations I mentioned that some of the very same artists we were being condemned for using were also singing at Billy Graham crusades. I’m sure with some people this young whippersnapper had very little credibility, but I don’t remember anyone suggesting that Cliff Barrows had been mislead. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to suggest that Cliff made more of a difference than anyone in helping the church accept styles of music that went beyond the sound of Bill Gaither. 

Though he was probably the most well-known song leader in history, Cliff may have been an even better preacher. I and many others consider Billy Graham to be by far the greatest evangelist of our time but, at the risk of sounding heretical or crazy, I have long thought he was still the second best preacher on his team. That’s how much I enjoyed and appreciated Cliff’s preaching.  But I have no doubt that both men were right where they needed to be, and together they made an unparalleled impact on our world.

When I started writing this I was baby-sitting two of my superhero obsessed grandsons and, under that influence, one of my first thoughts was to say that Cliff Barrows was to Billy Graham as Robin was to Batman. Not true. The first Robin eventually became Nightwing and left Batman. Other Robins followed. Cliff and Billy were together from beginning to end and the relationship never wavered. There was only one Cliff Barrows. It’s hard to imagine a more faithful or important superhero sidekick.

Over the years a special piece has hung in our home. It’s a hand-crafted coat rack with “Bill” engraved on the left side, “Kathy” on the right side, and a heart-shaped mirror in the middle. It’s a wedding present that Cliff made for us in his wood shop. I think about him every time I look at it.  But even without it, it’s safe to say that I’ll never forget Cliff Barrows.

A non-political comment on politics and priorities

Election Day 2016. In my whole life, I can’t remember more people being more ready to get to this day. Not because very many of us are excited about finally getting to vote for our candidate(s), but simply because we want this campaign to end. Unfortunately I fear the election won’t put an end to all the negative rhetoric that has plagued the nation for more than a year.

For various reasons, I’ve made no effort to publicly try to convince anyone to vote for one candidate or another, or even to vote at all. That’s a personal choice. Many have tried to influence others, and that’s not inherently a bad thing. In fact, intelligent, well-informed, civil exchanges of thoughts in appropriate ways and proper settings is a very good thing.

To say this election is important is a vast understatement. There are issues and policies at stake that effect all of us (and others) tremendously right now and even for generations to come. I am as concerned as anybody about where our country and world are and where we are going. As painful as it has been, I think I’m about as informed as reasonably possible on all the candidates, options, scenarios, and everything that is at stake.

But beyond all the political, legal, and moral issues, I have other concerns. These concerns stem from being a citizen not just of the United States or even the world, but of a much larger kingdom. Being a Christian definitely shapes my political views, but I think it’s vital that our vision goes beyond just what is on the ballot. 

In no particular order, it concerns me that many are using politics as a test and statement of one’s Christianity. Yes, I believe that our faith and convictions should impact how we vote, but how we vote does not determine our Christianity. I certainly don’t claim that I’ve got it all figured out, but at the risk of oversimplification, I believe that being a Christian is based on whether we’ve trusted Jesus Christ, not on our political party or how we vote on certain issues no matter how important they may be. I don’t think it’s Jesus plus whatever. 

So hopefully we don’t really believe that our salvation depends on our politics - just whether or not we’re a “good” Christian. Unfortunately we’ve all missed that boat.  Romans 3:10-11 says “…There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands…” That doesn’t mean we quit trying. 

But in the mean time, what do we accomplish when we publicly bash others (including Christian brothers and sisters) who think and vote differently from us? Cheap shots and petty arguments with people who don’t agree with us rarely change their minds but rather entrenches them deeper in their opposing position.

Not only are we not changing many minds (or votes) with our social media and other public attacks, we’re not representing ourselves or Christ very well to those who watch and listen.  In John 13:34-35, Jesus says “…Love one another. As I have loved you, so also you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.”

If I’m a non-Christian (or anybody else for that matter) observing some of what’s being said by those claiming the name of Christ, a lot of it doesn’t seem much like love. There’s not much there attracting me to be even mildly interested in what Christianity is all about. It gives me yet another excuse to stay away from church and God. Does that matter? I think it does. A lot.

For some people, elections are pretty easy. Their minds are made up even before they know who the candidates are. They are party loyalists. Everything their party/candidate does is obviously right and everything the other party/candidate does is wrong and stupid. Part of pulling for one’s party is pulling for the other party to fail and gleefully cheering those failures no matter who those failures hurt. It’s another sport in which party is sadly more important than country, not to mention world or kingdom. 

For many of us, even including some party loyalists, this election has not been easy. We are faced with the choice of two candidates who are widely considered the most unpopular, unfit, undesirable,  un-presidential nominees in many years - perhaps ever. Without rehashing all we’ve been bombarded with for too many months, I understand why some Christian friends are in the never Hillary camp and are either enthusiastically or reluctantly supporting Trump.  I understand why other Christian friends are among the never Trumpers and are enthusiastically or reluctantly supporting Clinton. I understand why many of us don’t want to vote for either candidate even while holding our noses. I get it.

In a less imperfect world, we would still be passionate about politics but with a greater sense of fairness and the understanding that we can disagree without being disagreeable. Or just downright mean and hateful.

If I thought all the animosity would end with this election, I probably wouldn’t be writing this, but I suspect it will continue and possibly even escalate. Each one of us will choose how we participate. Participate in a way that will make a difference - not just politically, but in a larger sense.

I care deeply about this election and all that is at stake. I want to make a difference. In spite of what we always like to say, (unpopular but true statement coming) when all is said and done my one vote all by itself really isn’t going to make much of a difference.

But how I treat people and how well I represent Christ might.  

Temples

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This was my view for a wedding recently. The picture doesn’t do it justice.  I’ve been in some of the most opulent man-made sanctuaries in the country and beyond, but none can compare with the natural sanctuary that God himself created. A good reminder that we shouldn’t try to limit God to our church buildings.

In Acts 17:22-27, Paul says “… I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”

Superheroes for Jacob

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I found this brand-new Superman shirt when we were closing down Concoxions Cornerstone Theatre, and no one else claimed it. About the only time I can remember wearing it before today was to match grandson Jim, who is now six years old. (He is nine days younger than Jacob Hall and is also a fanatic Batman fan.)

When tragedies like the one in Townville happen, I wish badly that I could do something to stop senseless violence and/or comfort those suffering unimaginable sorrow. Wearing a shirt that I wouldn’t normally be wearing is such a small gesture and changes very little. So far today, at Chipotle, at the mall, and at Costco I encountered quite a few others wearing superhero shirts in memory of Jacob as suggested by his parents. Sometimes we exchanged words, but most of the time we simply exchanged knowing smiles and nods that said thank you for caring.

I’m not Superman and after today the shirt will probably once again get lost amongst the large collection of Seesalt and Chillipepper shirts. Our ongoing challenge is to keep showing in large and small ways that we care. No matter what shirt we wear.

Thank you, George

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Earlier today I got the news that George Schrieffer died. I was stunned and for a few seconds, I didn’t believe it. Surely not George. It didn’t seem possible. 
But of course it was possible. George was 85. He lived a very full and fulfilling life. It included investing in my own life in a way that made an immeasurable difference. For 23 years, including my teenage and early adult years, George was Minister of Education and Administration at First Baptist Church in Spartanburg.  He claimed that he was not much of a speaker or singer. I don’t think I ever heard him do either, so maybe he was right. (I at least enjoyed his Sunday morning announcements.) But he was an artist. A very good artist. So he put that gift to good use in numerous ways.

George Schrieffer was the first person I ever saw do a chalk drawing. No matter how many times I saw him do one, it was mesmerizing, entertaining, meaningful, worshipful and much more. For many summers, George would come do chalk drawings at 10-12 churches in Bell County, Kentucky as part of our youth group’s mission trips there. For a couple of summers during college I served as the assistant to our youth minister, Bobby Haley, thus extending my years of serving in Kentucky. 


During the summer before my senior year of college, we were already in Kentucky and George was supposed to come up about the middle of the week. His car was already packed when he got news that an aunt in Chicago had died and that he would need to go to Chicago for the funeral instead of coming to Kentucky.  For several days we had all been telling the kids we were working with about something very special that someone was coming to do at the end of the week. I worried that they would at least be disappointed and maybe even think that we were leading them on with the promise of something special just to get them to come to the Bible schools we were conducting. 

I expressed these concerns to Bobby and suggested that maybe I could do a chalk drawing at some of the churches to keep the kids from being as disappointed. Bobby asked if I had ever done a chalk drawing (a good question to ask). I told him that I hadn’t, but that I had seen George do one quite a few times. I readily acknowledged that I knew it wouldn’t be nearly as good as George’s, but it might be enough to keep the kids at our Bible schools from being too disappointed or thinking that we had led them on.  Bobby’s response: “You get it together and let me see it - then we’ll talk about it.”

I took that as a challenge. I found an easel and a big piece of heavy cardboard which I covered with white paper table cloths for a drawing surface. I bought some cheap Crayola poster chalk at one of the few stores in town.  To get a light source I removed a few ceiling tiles and went over a wall into the AV room of the college where we were staying. Kathy likes to say that I did my first chalk drawings with a stolen projector. I maintain that since I put it back, it was merely borrowed.  George used a color wheel for some cool effects, so I made a cardboard strip containing various colors of cellophane that I manually moved in front of the borrowed projector for a similar effect.  George did his drawings to soundtracks recorded by our Minister of Music, Ronald Wells, so I enlisted a good singing friend (Scott McClellan), broke out my guitar and an industrial strength stereo cassette recorder, and we recorded a soundtrack of cross-themed songs. Getting all this done took all night, but by morning I was ready to “audition” for Bobby. He just shook his head, smiled (laughed?) and said “I don’t believe it. Go to it.”  

Over the rest of that day and the next, I did chalk drawings at 11 different little mountain churches. They were very simple and crude, but God used them in spite of my very limited drawing talent. George heard about what had happened and as soon as we both got home, he began encouraging me to continue to do chalk drawings. Our church’s superintendent of building and grounds, Frank Mabry, had built George’s light bar that included both white and black lights. George had Frank build an identical one for me. George gave me enough of his professional chalk (much better than Crayola) to get started and told me how to order more.

I don’t remember how those first invitations came, but somehow I started doing chalk drawings all over the place. I did a lot of them for various college groups and youth groups and retreats and banquets and church services. During that senior year at Furman, I did a chalk drawing for the youth group at Taylors First Baptist Church, which probably helped them decide to call me as summer youth minister.  That turned into the incredible opportunity to stay on as full time youth minister, during which time I met and married Kathy.

The chalk drawings continued to develop and opened up all kinds of doors to minister in many different places and ways all across the country and in several other countries as well. Seeing how people responded to something out of the ordinary encouraged me to try and develop other creative means of ministry. A lot of what I’ve been privileged to be able to do over the years can be traced back in some way to chalk drawings that I probably would have never started doing were it not for George Schrieffer. 

George and I became good friends and stayed in touch over the years. When we saw each other we usually talked chalk drawings. There aren’t many people who could have the kinds of conversations we had.  We sometimes borrowed chalk from each other and sometimes ordered chalk together to get a better price. To this day I still can’t draw nearly as well as George did, so I’ve long tried to compensate by enhancing the drawings with a lot of special effects, dramatic lighting, great music, etc. that grew into a 16-foot trailer full of equipment, a four-hour setup, and the need for usually Ray Jackson to go with us to help set up everything. Numerous times George commented that as he got older, he kept trying to simplify his set up, but said I seemed intent on continuing to complicate mine. (His wisdom might have finally started to sink in as I’ve recently added a much simpler second setup.) He never stopped being an incredibly encouraging mentor.

For the record, George was much more than a great chalk artist. He was an outstanding minister of education and administration who served with great humility and a wonderful sense of humor and grace. Even more importantly he was a great husband, dad, grandfather, friend, etc.  (His daughter, Amy Haase, served on our summer staff and worked with for several years as a US-2 missionary when I was with the SC Baptist Convention.) He leaves a great legacy. 

I am sad because someone I loved died.  I am celebrating (through tears) because George Schrieffer’s life was well lived. I am blessed because he made a huge difference in the course of my life.

Perspective on a storm

Thunderstorms were in the forecast. As we were tearing down and packing up our last week of Seesalt, I stepped out on the auditorium loading dock and wondered if we were going to have to load the truck in pouring rain. About that time staff member Erica Peterson walked out and noticed the same dark clouds I was seeing. Her immediate reaction, spoken softly to herself but barely loud enough for me to overhear - “We get to see a rainbow!”

It was a perfect capsule summary of Erica and an attitude that I’ve reflected on often in the week since then. Thunderstorms come into all of our lives. God, help us not to be so worried about the rain that we forget that “We get to see a rainbow!”

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