A funny thing happened on the way to the cemetery

I’ve never done any funerals where the “honored guest” got up and walked out, or where the wrong person was discovered to be in the casket, or such foolishness as that. And for good reason.

Funerals are highly structured affairs, regulated by state law and overseen by a whole battery of employees and family members.

When we gather at the funeral home, the family has already been in conference with the mortician on how they want things done. The funeral directors stand nearby to make sure all goes according to plan. As a result, there is usually very little wiggle room there, space for the unexpected to occur.

And that’s not all bad.

I did this one funeral…

Where the man and his grandfather were buried together. The man was 34 and the grandfather was 64.  If the numbers don’t work for you, consider that the grandpa had died a full decade earlier but the family had not held a funeral. When the grandson was found in his freezer with an axe in his head–put there by his wife’s lesbian lover–the family wanted a joint funeral for both. The two women are serving life terms in the state penitentiary.

And the first time I held a funeral in one of New Orleans’ above-ground cemeteries….

The day before the funeral, the daughter-in-law said, “Now, pastor, tomorrow when we bury Roy’s mother…”  Yes?  “My mother will also be in the casket with her.” I said, “Excuse me?”  She said, “We cremated my mother some ten years ago and we haven’t known what to do with the ashes. We found out that it’s legal, so just before the casket is sealed, we’re going to slip the urn inside it and put both their names on the marble slab.”

She got a little gleam in her eye and said, “Just think–my mother and my mother-in-law in the same casket.” I said, “Did they get along together in life?”  She said, “It really doesn’t matter, does it?”

Continue reading

Have a conversation; change the world

Recently, my wife and I drove to Birmingham for lunch with my sisters and brother and their spouses.  Arriving a little early, we took a minor detour so I could show Bertha where I had lived in college.  The neighborhood is going downhill fast, and in fact, my college announced earlier this year they will cease to operate after graduation in a few days.

The boarding house where I lived for perhaps six months 1959-60, in the 1100 block of Graymont Avenue West, lies empty now, but I took a snapshot of the front porch.

I have a story about that front porch.

Three blocks down the street we shot a picture of the small apartment house where I lived the next three years. The neighborhood is in trouble now and you would not want to be stranded out here at night.  But back in the day, it was a safe place and I could walk up the hill to college and a mile to my girl-friend’s house without a thought about safety. I logged a lot of miles walking back and forth.

Back to the front porch.  Here’s what happened.

One Wednesday night I was sitting on the front stoop waiting for my ride to church.  Bill Dempsey was my Sunday School teacher and his wife Marguerite worked in the church office.  Great folks, and forever friends.

The six men who roomed with Mrs. Pope had had dinner and two or three were lounging on the front porch.  Joel Davis sat on the swing reading the newspaper.  Following his recent discharge from the Navy, Joel had moved to Birmingham for a job with Roadway Express. One of our residents had invited Joel to room with us.

From the swing, suddenly Joel looked up from his newspaper.  He said, “I just realized something. It’s Wednesday night . If I were back home in LaGrange, I’d be in prayer meeting!”

I said, “Come go with me. I’m waiting on my ride right now.”

He did.

Continue reading

Pastor, if you could go back to your earlier churches…

If you’re a pastor, here’s an interesting game to play. And that’s all it can be, unfortunately–a game.

If you could go back to the churches you have served, what would you do differently?

Some people say, “If I could live my life over, I wouldn’t change a thing.” I hear that and think, “What? You never made a mistake? Never really blew it? Never did anything stupid?”

We all did, let’s face it. And surely, if we went back and knew what we know now, we would do many, many things differently.

Here’s my take on this subject.

The first church I served was a tiny congregation 25 miles north of Birmingham, Alabama. It was my first attempt at preaching and pastoring and I did poorly, I’m afraid. The good folks at Unity Baptist Church of Kimberly, Alabama, were patient with me for the 14 months I served them. At the end of that time, I resigned and for 6 months served as part-time associate pastor of Central Baptist Church in Tarrant, Alabama. We were living in Tarrant and I worked down the street from the church at the cast iron pipe plant as secretary to the production manager.

If I could do the 14 months over at Unity, the one thing I would do is seek out a mentor.

I would call up a pastor or two in Tarrant or Gardendale and ask if they would let me buy them a cup of coffee. As we sat across the table from each other, I would say, “I’m lost. I have to prepare three messages a week and don’t have a clue how to get started. Give me some advice.”

And, if the advice was something that worked for me, I would have asked if we could meet regularly for a while until I got this figured out.

The folks at Unity would have appreciated the effort and the congregations of subsequent churches would have benefited. As it was, by going alone, I took the far more arduous way to find out to make sermons and lead a congregation.

What would I do differently at Central Baptist of Tarrant City, Alabama, during my six months there? Very little, probably. My duties were to call on people who had visited our services and help Pastor Morris Freeman with anything he asked. For this, no money changed hands, but we received free use of the old parsonage, thus saving us rent.

The one thing I wish I had done was to take a layman with me visiting. It would have done me good, blessed the layman, and made a statement to the people we were calling on.

Both of those churches came in my pre-seminary years, 1962-64.

From 1965-67, while in seminary, I pastored 25 miles west of New Orleans. Paradis Baptist of Paradis, Louisiana was situated on Alligator Bayou. I took what I had managed to learn from Unity and Central and what I was trying to learn in seminary, and did some things right. The church almost tripled in the less-than-three-years we were there. (Note: That church relocated and is now West St. Charles Baptist in Boutte, LA.)

Continue reading

My love affair with the church

As much as anyone you’ve ever met, I’m a product of the Church.

For some reason, the churches in my life revolve around the number three. I served six churches as pastor–three smaller ones and three larger ones–and in between, I logged three years as a staff member of a great church.

And, to carry out the theme, the churches that nurtured me from childhood through adolescence were three in number. Oddly, they were of different denominations, which may be one reason I’m more of a generic Christian than a denominational one.

The New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church of Nauvoo, Alabama has been our family’s church since the late 1800s. My grandparents joined that church in 1903, and my mother, in her 96th year now, is its senior member. Although “Oak Grove,” as we call it, sits 15 miles from any sizeable town, it will run a couple of hundred in attendance on Sundays and the buildings are all new and lovely. Mickey Crane has been its pastor for over 30 years. My mother thinks he’s one of her sons.

Remember how Paul remarked to Timothy that he had been nurtured in the faith by his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois (II Timothy 1:5)? My mother is Lois and my first Sunday School teacher was Eunice.

I have good underpinnings.

That church loved its children. It was a wonderful place to grow up.

As her mother before her had done with a houseful of children, Lois got her six young ones ready on Saturday night. Then, on Sunday, we walked across the field and through the woods, a mile to the church. Among the blessings from that investment, God gave this good woman two sons for the ministry. Ron and I have logged nearly a hundred years of preaching between us.

Continue reading

Please write in your Bible

“This shall be written for the generation to come; and the people who shall be created shall praise the Lord” (Psalm 102:18).

Please go to the front of your Bible and write in it.

Start by putting your own name.

Often, when I pick up the Bibles of friends to see what they have written in them, I’m chagrined to see they don’t even have their names.

Write in your Bible, friend. Please.

At Christmas 1973, my aunt Eren gave a new Bible to her mother, my wonderful grandmother Bessie Lowery McKeever.  Grandma died in 1982, but not before marking up that Bible.

I now own it.  It is a treasure beyond price.

One morning, I read something I had never seen before, that made the tears flow.  (I was looking up the text above, and Grandma’s Bible was handy.)

In the margin beside Psalm 103:17, Grandma had written “One of Papa’s favorite verses.”

But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon those that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children.

I never knew Grandpa Lowery, her father.  Many years ago, she told me he was a preacher of the Word, and a Baptist at that. As a little girl, Grandma would accompany him as he went out to preach. Other than that, I know nothing of him.  Thanks to Grandma’s notes in the front of this Bible, I have his name:  George Marion Lowery. And his wife, my great-grandmother, was Sarah Jane Blocker, whose birthdate is listed as January 1, 1852.  (Grandma Bessie was born in 1895, was married in 1910, and became a mother the first time in 1912 when my dad Carl arrived, and for the twelfth time with the birth of Georgelle in 1936, six months after being widowed.)

In his lifetime, my dad presented me with two Bibles. The first came in 1948 when he asked me to “come go with me,” and we walked off the West Virginia mountain, and up  the railroad tracks to the town of Sophia. Inside a variety store he asked the clerk to “Show us your Bibles.” He told me, “Pick you out a Bible.”  I was stunned.  This was the last thing I expected.  I chose a black zippered beauty which I read every night for years.  Then, many years later Dad gave me Grandma’s Bible. I’m still finding notes she left in the margins.

This is about people writing in their Bibles.

Continue reading

If I were starting ministry again….

If I were a young man just beginning to minister for the Lord, I would want to make sure I did these things (in no particular order)….

One. That I stayed close to the church.  Loyal to it, involved in it, faithfully preaching that the church is the only institution the Lord formed, and I would work through the local church. If I’m unemployed at any time, I will join a church where I live and serve the Lord faithfully.

Two.  I would get as much formal education as possible.  I would move my family to the campus just as we did the first time, and get to know the professors and students personally.  The bonds formed in class and in between class periods last a lifetime.  If some of my education was online, that would be fine.  But the basic seminary education, I would do on campus.

Three.  I would try to master all the electronics available that help with the work of ministry.  I would avoid gimmicks but would accept anything that could enhance my work. That’s why at this very moment this 83-year-old is sitting here at the breakfast table typing on his laptop with his smartphone 12 inches away.  I’m typing this for my blog which I trust will be read by a lot of ministers young and old.  Oh, earlier this week I was interviewed for a podcast directed toward helping small churches.  What I know about podcasts would fill a thimble, but if they help people, I’m all for them.

Four.  I would work to safeguard regular time for my family.  If I’ve learned anything from decades in the Lord’s work, it’s that for a pastor everything is urgent, every crisis demands his immediate attention, and failure to respond at once will result in someone criticizing.  But to surrender to that tyranny is bad for the preacher, hurtful for the one criticizing, not good for the church and devastating to a pastor’s home life.

Continue reading

21 ministry lessons learned the hard way

I began serving the Lord when I was 11 years old, began preaching the Word when I was 21, and began pastoring a year later. At the moment, I’m 83 years old.  Here are a few lessons this life of ministry has taught me….

One. Never tell anyone anything you don’t want repeated.  The single exceptions are the Lord in prayer or your wife in the bedroom.

Two. Never put anything negative in a letter.  It will still be circulating and poisoning people against you long after you’re in the grave.

Three.  Never fail to check all the references of a prospective staff member.  And then check a few more.

Four. Differences of opinion–in a church or on a staff–can be healthy, but dissension/competition should be nipped in the bud.

Five.  Neglect your family and you will have a lifetime to regret it.

Six.  A sense of humor can be a lifesaver–if you know how to control it and when to let it loose.

Continue reading

Some things, my friend, you just do not want to know

“He leadeth me in paths of righteousness, for His name’s sake” (Psalm 23:3).

Pastor, you do not want to know why that committee turned you down for that position you wanted so badly.

I’m rereading my daily journals for the decade of the 1990s.  Much of it I’d long since forgotten, so in many respects, it’s fun.  One thing struck me, however, about the year 1992.

I was looking for a way out of this church!

By “this church” I mean the one I served as pastor nearly 14 years (1990-2004) and remained as a member through 2016.  It had come through a crisis 18 months before I arrived that almost resulted in its self-destruction.  The Lord sent me to half a congregation, millions of dollars in debt, an odd-shaped sanctuary that had had major problems from the beginning and constantly needed work, and a dysfunctional leadership team of some of the greatest souls in the kingdom mixed with some of the strangest birds ever.

My wife and I were hurting financially and it appeared to be getting worse.  We were living in rented quarters and were cutting into the small savings we kept from selling our house in North Carolina.

Some of the leaders were unhappy with us from the first and looked for ways to undercut everything we tried.

Nothing about this was fun.

Continue reading

The accidental blessing that lasts a lifetime

I was a freshman in college and as was the custom in that school at that time, every student worked on campus two days a week. We were remunerated at the rate of fifty cents an hour for two eight-hour days.  Hey, this was the late 1950’s and no one was complaining.

Anyway, on one of my classroom dates, a classmate named Bob asked if I’d like to make a little extra money.  He’d been asked by the wife of the college president to wash the windows at the presidential home.  “Sure,” I said, “I’ll give it a try.”

That afternoon, Bob and I washed windows at the presidential home.  Not a huge job, nothing too difficult, but not my favorite thing to do.  So, next day, I did not show up.  This was no big deal to me because I had never committed to a second day in the first place.

That night in the dorm, Bob said to me, “You’re in trouble.”  I said, “Really? For what?”  “The president’s wife was upset that you did not keep your promise.”

I said, “I made no promise.  And so I broke none.”

“Well, even so,” he said, “she wants to talk to you.”

I shrugged it off.

Next afternoon someone called my name on the floor of our dorm.  “Telephone!”

It was the president’s wife.

“Can you meet me out front in five minutes?”

“Sure,” I said, still wondering what was up.

Continue reading

Battle scars: They come from serving God and dealing with His people

From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus (Galatians 6:17).

“…I bear branded on my body the owner’s stamp of the Lord Jesus” –the Moffett translation.

“…I bear on my body the scars that mark me as a slave of Jesus” –Goodspeed.

At Mississippi State University, the Kenyan student carried horizontal scars across his face.  “Identification marks for my tribe,” he explained to me.  Wow.  Tough clan.

We were returning from the cemetery in the mortuary’s station wagon.  The director and I were chatting and did not notice the pickup truck coming from our right and running the stop sign. We broadsided the truck.

My forehead broke the dashboard.

I bled and bled.  And got a ride to the hospital in the EMS van.

The emergency room people decided I had suffered no serious injuries and taped up the two gashes in my face.  At the wedding rehearsal that night, I sported a large white bandage on my forehead, just above the eyebrows. It made for some memorable wedding photos the next day.

That happened nearly 40 years ago and I still carry the scars right between my eyebrows.  They look like frown marks, but they’re not.

They are scars from serving the Lord.

My wife Bertha, bride of over six years now, says her husband Gary had scars in the same place, also from the ministry.  “We were walking to our church in the French Quarter,” she said. “Suddenly, a woman screamed and ran toward us, yelling ‘Don’t let him get me!’  Someone, perhaps an angry husband, was chasing her in a car.  Gary handed me our child and told me to get back.  He positioned himself between the woman and one very angry man.  In the scuffle, the man hit Gary right between the eyes, causing a deep gash.”

Bertha said, “I don’t remember what happened next, and know nothing of the outcome of that couple.  But we had to go to a clinic quickly.  Gary carried the scar from that fight the rest of his life.”

Continue reading