The Lord had something special in mind for me this weekend. One after another of old friends appeared and blessed my life.
It began Monday morning at Gardner-Webb University where I had traveled for the installation of Robert Canoy as the dean and president of the M. Christopher White Divinity School. I had not seen Robert since he was 12 years old, in 1970 when I left Emmanuel Baptist Church in Greenville, MS, to join the staff of the FBC of Jackson, MS. In the meantime, he grew up, was called to preach, went to college and seminary, earned a doctor of philosophy degree from our seminary in Louisville, KY, and pastored some significant churches.
We gathered in his office a few minutes before time for the installation luncheon where I was to speak. His parents were there. William and Dorothy Canoy, still living in Greenville, William retired now from the National Guard, their four children all grown up. We hugged, and Dorothy told the others in the room of my coming to their home in October of 1970 and leading her and the three boys to Christ. William, she said, delayed, and was saved the following year. I had the privilege of baptizing her and the boys, and how honored I am about that. This is one precious family, and what a good day’s work someone did getting Robert to head that institution.
Wayne Ward, Robert’s professor and mentor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was the featured speaker for the convocation in the school chapel. Earlier, at the luncheon, he hardly sat down as he met old friends and made new ones. At age 86, he is a wonder. I jokingly remarked to Robert that if his experience is like mine, people will come up saying, “You remember me. We met in 1976.” Robert said, “Yes, but Wayne will say, ‘I remember it exactly. It was on the bus at the convention in Norfolk and you said….'”
Sure enough, when Robert introduced us, Dr. Ward said, “Joe, I know you,” and went into the time and place. I was stunned. How could he remember this and I not? Shame on me.
I have to comment on Dr. Ward’s message in chapel. He must have spoken for 40 minutes, without notes, with the sharpest mind, clearest thoughts, positive, uplifting, powerful. I was stunned, and found myself thinking, “Lord, do that for me too, please.” Let’s see…that would be 19 years from now…guess I’d better get at it.
As soon as the convocation ended, I drove to Lincolnton and visited with Dixon Free, the retired pastor of the FBC of that city. Dixon and I were neighboring pastors in the 1980s when he was at Pritchard Memorial and I at FBC of Charlotte, not a half-mile apart. What a great soul he is. I truly adore this man.
Most of our readers know that the Southern Baptist system for moving pastors from one church to another is for people to recommend ministers they know and have confidence in. Over 10 years ago, I found out that the Lincolnton church, where I had done a revival a year or two earlier, was seeking a new pastor. All the bells went off, and I thought what a wonderful pastor Dixon Free would make them.
I wrote a two page letter to the search committee recommending Dixon Free. I pointed out that “he is pastoring a larger church than yours, but you should not let that stop you. This man will go wherever God sends him.” They took that to heart, and Dixon became their pastor.
Maybe two years later, Dixon invited me for a revival, and at the deacon banquet on Saturday night, the chairman pulled out the letter I had written to recommend Dixon and read it aloud to the entire group. That was a little scary. You have no idea when you write such a letter that someday it may become public property!
Over coffee at the Lincolnton McDonald’s Monday afternoon, Dixon said, “If ever a pastor and a church were right for each other, it was me and Lincolnton. This has been the best 10 years of my life.” He and Carolyn will continue to live there, and will be only a blessing to the next pastor.
(Know of a good pastor/preacher with great people skills you want to recommend to them? The chairman told me recently, “We don’t want a liberal and we don’t want a fundamentalist.” As Dixon said, they are looking for someone “in the road,” not in a ditch on either side. The way I interpret this is they’re looking with someone who loves the Lord, His word, and His people, and isn’t mad at anyone.)
The next morning, Tuesday, today, I had breakfast at I-HOP on Independence Boulevard with a former deacon at the church I had pastored there. We spoke of “the” deacons meeting in April of 1989–that four hour session in which I felt my life flashing before my eyes, when some did all in their power to get me out. My friend said, “I remember every detail of that meeting. If you recall, I finally couldn’t stand it any more and got up and left.” He left that church too, and now belongs to a non-SBC church, one known for being liberal. (Not a slander against his new church; they wear it as a badge.)
I have only deep appreciation for my friend and his faithfulness to me at that time, but I expressed some concern about his faithfulness to the Lord. “I’m writing you a note,” I said. “To be read after you leave today.”
When he opened it later, the note said, “I have no problem with you calling yourself a liberal if you choose to, so long as you remember what the heart of the Christian faith is and hold on to: a) a commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation, and b) a devotion to the Bible as the Word of God–and I’m talking about reading it regularly!”
I might say facetiously that if he does these two things, he’ll not long consider himself a liberal. But I’ll allow him to find that out on his own and for himself.
These terms, liberal and conservative, fundamentalist and moderate, mean different things to different people. I’m a liberal in some ways. In my love for my grandchildren, for ice cream, and for life. It’s actually a very good word. The Lord wants us to be liberal in giving, serving, and praising.
Tuesday afternoon I was driving down Billy Graham Parkway headed to the airport when I approached the sign for the new Billy Graham Library. “I have time to run by,” I thought, and told the gate guard that I would be inside only 10 minutes. Mainly, I wanted to see where it was for the next time when I have a couple of hours.
The Billy Graham Library is in the loveliest woods you’ve ever seen, just a short jog off the parkway. Spacious parking, lovely choir music piped into the whole area, tour buses and cars scattered around, people coming and going, everyone smiling. The barn that houses the primary exhibit and has a huge cross down its center. And there’s the brick house, the one where the senior Graham family raised Billy, his brother–what is his name; I used to know him 20 years ago–and their sister Catherine. If I remember correctly, I used to see this house 10 miles down the highway on the grounds of Heritage USA. For reasons no one seemed to know, Jim and Tammy Bakker had put the house on the PTL property. But now, it’s where it should be.
I stepped inside the house and found myself in the middle of a tour group crowded into the living room while a woman spoke about the house and the elder Grahams. She said what I had always heard, that Billy Graham’s mother was a devout woman of prayer and the Word. As she spoke, I realized this was Cathie Bowers, the niece of Billy Graham, daughter of his sister Catherine McElroy.
More people entered and a greeter asked me to move forward. I crouched down in front so as not to block the views of those behind, then asked Cathie, “Are the furnishings original?” “No,” she said, “the original furnishings are in the homes of various family members,” which makes a lot of sense when you think of it.
She looked at me and said, “Do I know you?” I said, “McKeever.” She screamed and gave me a hug. She turned to the crowd in the living room and said, “This is the pastor who baptized me!” We spent the next few minutes catching up on the family. Her wonderful mother Catherine died a year or two ago. It was my privilege to be the pastor for the McElroys at the same time as Cathie and her husband Tom.
(Tom Bowers teaches a popular Bible class at the First Baptist Church of Charlotte, a fine church in every way. Those reading this blog know that occasionally to make a point, I refer to incidents from my various church experiences from 45 years in the ministry. As with every pastor on the planet, some experiences were blessings and some left scars. And the plain fact is we learn more from the scars and suffering than from the joys. But nothing I ever say should leave anyone with the impression that I have anything but the deepest appreciation for FBC Charlotte. God used them in my life.)
Speaking of these connections, when I asked about Tom and Cathie’s son Jamie, I learned that he had met and married the granddaughter of Dr. Grady Wilson, the boyhood friend and fellow evangelist of Billy Graham. What are the chances! For 18 months, I was Grady Wilson’s pastor, up until his death in the early winter of 1987. What a giant of a man he was, even leading people to Christ from his hospital deathbed. The very definition of an encourager. The first time I met him, he handed me a copy of his life story, “Count It All Joy,” in which he had inscribed a wonderful message. You’ll recognize the title as a reference to James 1:2. Brother Grady Wilson was a great soul, and I am honored to have been touched by his joy.
The Lord evidently thought I needed encouragement to have given me these encounters–with the wonderful Canoy family from 1970, with the neighboring pastor-brother from the late 1980s, the loyal deacon from the same period, and now this delightful surprise at the Billy Graham Library. I have had a good weekend!
I returned home Tuesday night just in time for the Second Anniversary of Katrina, tomorrow August 29, 2007. Over a bowl of cereal for dinner, I caught up on the Monday and Tuesday Times-Picayunes, replete with updated stories on people whose lives were changed forever by Katrina, conditions in the city now, and vast listings of anniversary events. All the networks are in town to interview people and cover this ongoing story.
One excerpt from an op-ed column by Drew Broach, a neighbor of mine in River Ridge, who is the bureau chief for this part of the parish. “Take a moment to be grateful for help,” headlined his column.
Drew writes, “For one day during this anniversary week, stop your whining.”
“Pause. Focus your heart on the good that has come our way in the past two years.”
“Perhaps not enough to right the wrongs, you might think, what we have received is nevertheless breath-taking.”
“Since Aug. 29, 2005, hundreds of thousands of volunteers, wave upon wave of compassion, have given up their families, their vacations, their money, even their jobs, to mend our wounds. It might just represent the greatest single outpouring of kindness in human history.”
Then, after listing some specifics, Drew writes:
“In July, a youth group from Hayes Barton Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC, spent a week tending to the recovery in New Orleans. They finished their assigned project a day early and could easily have gone home or relaxed. Instead, they called up my church in River Ridge and asked what we needed done, then came out and weeded the gardens for six hours.”
“And my church is Episcopalian!”
He concludes, “Suffice it to say, we should be humbled.”
“One day this week, sit down and write a letter to one of these people or one of these organizations. What they did for us surely reaffirms the essential goodness of the human spirit.”
Amen, Brother. We have been blessed, and daily the Lord adds to it.