Monthly Archives: March 2013

“God, Help Us to Get Off Our Butts! Amen.”


I sat in my study waiting for the first of my six elders to arrive for the session meeting.  Under the Presbyterian form of government the congregation elected a designated number of elders to make the major spiritual and practical decisions on behalf of the congregation.  I knew Dr. Jim would be the first to arrive; he always came thirty minutes early to “shoot the bull.”  He was not your normal church leader.  His transparency appealed to almost all people in our community.  I always said if I were starting a church with just one couple; I would enlist the help of Jim and Elnora.  He would arrive with his trademark cigar hanging from the right side of his chubby lips.

I loved this guy; he almost always supported my vision for strengthening the church and was ready for any innovative strategy for reaching more people for Christ.  New church growth techniques that appeared threatening to many traditionalists tweaked his interest.  I always mused what he might say or do next to entertain me without intending to do so.  Sure enough, the Dr. knocked on the door three times and then entered before I could say, “Come in!”

“Good God, Elnora is going to drive me to drink more than I already do.  I knew he liked to drink a cold beer on occasion and I envied his unwillingness to conform to other people’s religious expectation and mandates.  Jim married his polar opposite.  He was earthy and she radiated aristocracy.  He could be corny and liberal; she was “starched” and staunch.  Both were bright.  Born into the old wealth of Benton County, she raised the bar of her family’s influence by being one of the first to receive an education at an Ivy League school.  She returned from the Northeast and quickly worked her way to top of the county’s school administration.  Her very presence brought dignity to any group—by now her skin reflected years of responsibility; but her elegant dress, carefully applied makeup, erect posture, and Southern drawl pulled your mind to the backyard under the shade of scented Magnolias on a plantation.

Dr. Jim pulled off his Panama straw Fedora with a little pheasant feather stuck under its black band and laid it gently on my desk, totally covering my phone. He sat down with an exhausted groan.  “Elnora is hell-bent on me putting new chains on the porch swing.  The swing is just fine, but she thinks it might not hold under my weight.  You know, I think she lays awake at night thinking of unnecessary things for me to do to keep me away from going to the Elk’s Lodge.”

The guy was significantly overweight especially around his waist. I smirked and said, “Listen, you are probably right about the swing, but if you would drop a few pounds from that expanse hanging over your belt, maybe she would quit ragging you about anything related to weight.  I hate to admit it, but you bring a lot of this on yourself.  I think she just wants to keep you around for many more years.  That would be okay with me as well.  But carrying around thirty extra pounds of sugar day in and day out is not good for the person or his swing!”

“And, by the way, Jim, why don’t you sign your death warrant and tell her that she is the one that needs to take off a few pounds?”

He just scorned hard at me, trying to think of someway to say something ugly, but fortunately another elder, Mr. Pratt entered the open door.

I learned very quickly in my profession that people tend to behave in two time-consuming ways to extend meetings. First, if you allow it, most people will stray from the main point to follow all kinds of paths in an endless forest only to make a big loop and come back to where they began; and second, everyone has an irrelevant personal story they are aching to tell.  I often wondered if some people really wanted to go home from church or enjoyed sitting in an unproductive meeting destined to go no where.  So, after a year of boring business meetings, I set up three non-parliamentary rules:

  1. Personal stories were anathema.
  2. All recommendations for action must arrive in writing on my desk 24 hours before an official meeting.  Non-submitted concerns would be postponed until the following month.  Recommendations had to include a specific plan for accomplishing the recommendation.
  3. No meetings longer than two hours.

Among the five agenda items of the evening, we had a rather heated discussion about strengthening the recruitment of volunteers in the church.  It produced the consensus that the elders had to step forward as examples of the joy of service.  I tried to manipulate the discussion toward some of the leaders actually identifying some of the concrete ways they would serve, besides attending this monthly meeting.  And, they decided I needed to prepare a list of specific responsibilities for current programs that were lacking leaders to present at the next meeting.

The stated rules of the Presbyterian Church require all session meetings begin and end with prayer.  I usually called on one of the individual participants to lead such prayers.  So, I asked, “Dr. Jim, would you mind dismissing us in prayer?”

His prayer was brief and focused:  “God, help us to get off our butts and do what we already know we should!  Amen.”  People left shaking their heads.  I left knowing I needed to buy some softer pillows on which for people to sit.

Mr. Jim, Everyone Called Him Mr. Jim.


Everyone called him Mr. Jim; I never figured out why.  He was an enigma.  The Camden Cumberland Presbyterian Church issued us a ministerial call in April, 1971, to serve as the twenty-first pastor of the church effective July 1, 1971.  We accepted.  Prior to our move, we attended our denomination’s annual international business meeting convened in Jackson, Tennessee, only one hour from Camden.  Mr. Jim and his wife, Elnora, were strong leaders in Tennessee and usually attended denominational activities in a variety of locations around the United States.

He walked up to me with a sweat-stained University of Tennessee baseball cap in the convention lobby and said, “Hey, Bob, you want to play golf at the Jackson Country Club this afternoon?”  Jim’s head always hovered close to the ground at 5 foot, 5 inches.  He appeared anything but a golfer.  His short hairy arms connected to an apple-shaped body.  He hitched his grey wash pants up as far as possible without putting the crotch of the pants under unsustainable stress, thus creating the appearance he purchased his britches entirely too short, revealing an inch of his white socks.

I replied, “Sorry, but I don’t have my clubs with me.”  Besides, I didn’t want him to get the impression that I was so lazy that I’d sneak off from a business meeting to play golf.  And, I added, “plus they wouldn’t let me into a country club.”

“All you have to do is show your local club membership and they will give you reciprocal privileges.  It’s no problem.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t belong to a country club; I never have.” I replied.

He looked surprised, puzzled and a bit disappointed, “You don’t belong to a country club?”  Then he repeated himself in a gruff voice, only louder.  “You don’t belong to a country club; you don’t belong to a country club anywhere!?”

Now I was beginning to feel uncomfortable and inadequate, “No, Sir, I don’t.”  This must have put him into a state of disbelief because he turned away and mumbled to himself as he left.

I learned over the next span of four years that I could not hope to predict what Jim would say or do next.  He was a mystery.  Jim grew up in the hills of Arkansas, a son of a conservative Church of Christ minister.  He never mentioned his mammy or pappy much, only that they wrote him out of their will when he left their denomination.

Periodically, Jim would stop by the office when he had a vacation day from DuPont, a chemical factory near New Johnsonville, TN.  He usually appeared in one of his many hats, a casual shirt, hiked-up wash slacks, white socks and a cigar.  Most successful people blend intelligence, common sense and wisdom.  This old man possessed all three.  As a UT engineering graduate, he had a good deal of the so-called liberal arts under his belt.  When at home, he could be found in an over-stuffed thread bear Lazy-boy in his den, surrounded by stacks of books and magazines.  An avid reader, he noted inside the front cover the day he completed each book, as well as noting pages where he underlined important passages for future reference.  Without exaggerating he had fifty books within an arm’s reach of his chair.  He would never commit to whether he loved books or cigars most.

He always knocked three times loudly on my door before entering. Today he came on a mission.  “You know Bob…I was talking to Pete Johnson and he said you fall somewhere between a poor and horrible golfer.  Said your slice is a constant endangerment to the landscaping and people playing on a parallel fare-way.”  Mr. Jim said all that as if I had absolutely no pride or feelings.  But, then he laughed deeply.

“Tell you what I want to do!  I have never met a golf problem I can’t fix.  Why don’t you knock off and let’s run out to the club?”  I still hadn’t joined the country club.

He trapped me between a rock and person that didn’t know how to accept a NO.  So, I agreed to meet him at Magic Valley after lunch.  Honestly, I entered this contract with zero optimism.  He wasn’t the first to try to cure my slice.

We arrived and walked to the practice range.  He always chewed or sucked on a cigar more than he smoked it. And, I detested people chewing and spitting as if they owned public land.  For the lesson, he came in his grass stained black and white golf shoes (me in my tennis shoes), his baggy shorts, and his bright red Bangor bucket hat.  He didn’t bother to bring his clubs.

“Ok, man, let me see your stuff.”

My neck and shoulder tighten, similar to the belt around his belly.  I ripped my first drive long and deep into the timber to our right.  I glanced to Mr. Jim.  “Try that again.”  Again, I hit the ball with great accuracy, back to the same spot as the first time.  He raised his hand, pulled out his cigar stub, and grimaced.

“Have you ever had a lesson Preacher?”

“No.”

“I didn’t think so.”  He giggled.

“Well, let’s work on your grip, then your address, followed by your takeaway, then the breaking of the wrists, and finally your follow through.  We will have this straightened out in one hour.  Mark my word.”

One hour later, he had finished his corrective steps and pronounced me ready to hit the ball correctly.

I teed up the ball, decided on the flight path from the back of the ball, addressed the ball with a better stance, positioned my grip perfectly as he taught, drew the club back slowly in a nice arc, swung at the ball breaking my wrists as instructed, and followed through like a professional.  The ball took flight from the tee magnificently and then without a signal made an unlawful right turn; landing somewhere close to where I hit the ball before the lesson.

He paused and closed his eyes, bent his perfect oval-shaped head to the right, and then to the left.  He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “I can’t help YOU.”  He wheeled to the left and waddled back to his car without uttering another word.

Blood Stained Glory


It isn’t possible to relate some experiences with the intensity or emotion they deserve.  How can you capture with words the sacrifice people make to secure religious and political freedom?

The incredible history and culture of China dwelled behind dense clouds of mystery for centuries.  The average non-Chinese only imagined the beauty and mystic of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, or the Terra Cotta Soldiers.  Even Chinese citizens knew little about their country.  Then, Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), a leader from the peasant class rose to power with Mao Zedong.  After Mao’s death, he led China through the first stages of a market reform that opened some doors to the West while continuing to severely restrict the religious and personal freedoms of his people.

But, the crack for foreigners was wide enough for me to visit a few churches in Mainland China in 1991.  My second stop after visiting a former Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Sha Kai was Guanzhou (formerly Canton) in hopes of finding the gravesite of Rev. Gam Sing Quah.  Rev. Quah, a young convert living in the USA came under a deep personal conviction to plant Cumberland Presbyterian churches in China, and set sail from San Francisco on October 8, 1908 as an employee of the Women’s Board of Missions of the CPC.  By 1923 he had organized eight churches.  He died in 1937 in Canton, leaving the ministry to his two sons—Samuel and McAdoo.

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While in Guangzhou we toured the impressive Sun Yat Sin Memorial.  Sun Yat Sin was a revolutionary and the founding father of the Republic of China.  As we sat down in the nearly vacant auditorium, I noticed my guide from Hong Kong become very quiet as we listened to the music played throughout the auditorium.  The tune was captivating even though I could not understand a single word.  When I glanced at my host, tears were gently flowing down her cheeks.  So, I sat and assumed this was a special moment.

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Finally, she said, “You know I am really surprised with this music.   ‘Blood Stained Glory’ is the name of the song. Students listened to it for inspiration in the Tiananmen Square in Beijing before the government massacre two years ago. It’s hard to believe the government would allow it played here at this time in our history.”  Later, I would learn the lyrics of “Blood Stained Glory” tell the story of the price paid for freedom, regardless of the country.

Perhaps I’ll bid farewell and never to return, can you comprehend? Do you understand?

Perhaps I will fall and never to rise again. Will you be forever waiting?

If it’s to be so, grieve not, the flag of our Republic has our Blood Stained Glory.

If it’s to be so, grieve not, the flag of our Republic has our Blood Stained Glory.

Perhaps my eyes will shut and never open again, will you understand my silent emotions?

Perhaps I will sleep forever, never able to wake up. Will you believe that I have been transformed into mountains?

If it’s to be so, grieve not, the soil of our Republic contains the love we have given.

If it’s to be so, grieve not, the soil of our Republic contains the love we have given.

The following link plays the music accompanied by shots of the Chinese struggle for freedom.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iTQjejY-4Y

I sat in silence long after my host left the memorial.  I felt strangely close to a people’s struggle. Mental images of a young man standing in front of an approaching tank passed through my mind.  Few people that saw that display of bravery will forget those moments of tension.   After the young man momentarily stopped the tank, he disappeared into the crowd and to this day no one knows his identity, although some believe he was arrested and killed.  The facts remain unclear.

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I could not imagine at the time how critical the Tiananmen experience would be in opening China to the world.  The largest nation in the world would soon become a global political and economic force.  Unfortunately, there are no reliable figures to demonstrate the growth of Christianity in China since 1989, but everyone agrees that numbers have grown significantly. The lives lost in Tiananmen Square were not in vain.  There are still many steps to be taken for full religious freedom to exist in China, but the wall has been knocked down and spiritual liberty is sneaking in day by day.

As I reflect politically, many people have shed blood in every nation on earth in an effort to secure freedom.  No one should underestimate such cost.

But thinking theologically, only the death and spilt blood of the Lord Jesus Christ has the potential to save every person on the globe from remaining estranged from God.  Oh, that everyone would be given the opportunity to receive the gift of eternal life.  And, so, the incredible need for missions.