Ministry

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.

 

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)

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.

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.