I learned this past Sunday that my friend Dave Miller passed away after a brief illness. Dave was a long-time member of First Baptist Church of Weaverville where I served as Minister with Youth and Children before accepting the call to pastor Ecclesia Baptist in Asheville. The incident I've described in the original blogpost (below) happened four years ago.
Wait--that can't be right . . . It was in February. 2015. So that's only . . . oh. So, yeah, four years.
The interesting thing about the story below is that it's actually the first of at least two similar occurrences when Dave had some sort of minor episode while I was preaching. This odd coincidence led to a running joke.
"I see you're preaching Sunday, Aileen," Dave would say on a Wednesday night at Bible study. (He was never just a Sunday morning church goer.) Eyes sparkling, grin hiding just behind his straight face, he'd quip, "I believe I'll play it safe and just stay home."
Or, "Hey Dave, how are you feeling today? I'm preaching so I just thought I'd check!"
"Well, I'm a little tired, but I'll get a nap during your sermon."
The last time I saw Dave Miller was my last Sunday at First Baptist Weaverville. "You be careful preaching every Sunday! Don't put them to sleep, you hear?" He laughed at his joke and I laughed at him laughing. Then, getting serious, he added, "We're going to miss you honey. We're really going to miss you."
I miss you too Dave. Give my love to Glory, and I'll see you in the sweet by and by.
February 5, 2015, Weaverville, NC
I've only been in the vocational ministry for five years, but if you count my nearly 50 years as a preacher's kid, that's a good bit of ministry--or at least church--experience. So I know of what I speak when I tell you that on Sunday, February 1, I came as close to speaking in tongues as I ever have.
I was in the middle of my sermon when an older member of the church who was sitting down to my right, slumped over in the pew. (I told him later that if he didn't want to hear me preach he could just say so and not cause such a stir.) As it turns out, he had a spell related to heart troubles and once the EMT's got things straightened out he was fine.
Anyway, there I was preaching on the weekly lectionary text like a good little girl when Dave keels over. It took me a minute to clue into what was happening but when I did, I turned back to the choir and asked a member who is a nurse to attend to Dave. She got up immediately as did another member in the congregation who is a medical professional. Our pastor, who by God's providence was seated one pew over, went to comfort Dave and his sweet wife of about 60 years.
That left me, mid-sermon, standing at the pulpit in front of a congregation of confusion, fear, and anxiety. I had absolutely no idea what to do.
But the Spirit did. It's a good thing that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." (Romans 8:26) In truth, I remember very little of what I said or did. All of it was Spirit led.
Now, it's true, I was raised in the church and have experienced tense situations before this. I've seen my Preacher Daddy deal with emergencies from the pulpit a time or two and have been in other situations where difficulties arose in unfortunate surroundings.
I've also had classes on crisis management and read books on the same topic. I've studied group dynamics and crowd behavior.
But I'ma tell you right now. The Holy Spirit scooped up all that life experience and book learning and molded it into something far greater than anything I could have accomplished. In the midst of that human crisis, the Spirit interceded and brought Peace to the turmoil.
Hallelujah and to God be the Glory!
It was one of my first assignments for my Introduction to Preaching class at Gardner-Webb University Divinity School. Ever since then, I’ve been watching movies with that idea in mind. I’m amazed by how often I see theological themes in theater. You should try it! In fact, to get you started, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite examples.
So get some popcorn, sit back, and listen to the testimony of these six films. (Spoiler Alert: if you haven’t watched these awesome movies, first slap yourself, then get to it. You can finish this after you’ve caught up. If you choose to read on anyway, be forewarned: spoilers abound.)
God Restores. Places in the Heart (1984). This classic starring Sally Field tells the story of a young widow trying to make a way for herself and her children in 1930’s America. Field’s character and her community experience all kinds of loss and disconnection, but the movie ends with everyone together in church, celebrating The Lord’s Supper. The choir is singing “This is my story, this is my song; Praising my Savior, all the day long . . .” as the communion elements are passed from person to person and pew to pew. In this scene, we at first see the main characters interacting with each other, but as the Eucharist moves through the congregation, we notice unexpected participants. There’s the boy who died, and the man who killed him; there’s the widow’s husband (supernaturally alive and well), and her farm hand who has recently and permanently left the area. For a moment it’s confusing. But then you realize: it’s a glimpse of the Kingdom. As the congregation comes together at the Lord ’s Table, sinners join with saints, humanity joins with divine, and restoration—if only for a moment—is complete.
God Redeems. Steel Magnolias (1989). Aside from being chocked full of timely and hilarious one-liners, this movie delivers a message of redemption that brings to mind the Gospel promise of salvation. The story takes place mainly in a southern beauty shop. There, good friends face life’s travails—from graying hair to infidelity. In the midst of the mundane, we find Shelby (Julia Roberts), a diabetic whose life is endangered when she becomes pregnant. Her mother M’Lynn (Sally Field), is all but paralyzed by fear and dread. Shelby’s slow decline is heartbreaking and painful. We all hurt with M’Lynn; no parent should have to bury a child. But in the midst of the unimaginable, there is joy in the form of a little boy: Jack, Shelby’s son, M’Lynn’s grandson. When hope seems lost, mercy toddles in with fresh giggles and new life. (Can I get an “Amen?”)
God’s Family Crosses Boundaries. Remember the Titans (2000). Based on a true story, this film set in Northern Virginia in 1971, recalls racial tension in a newly integrated high school football team. Central to the story is the relationship between black defensive end Julius Campbell and white linebacker Gerry Bertier. The film portrays the early days of their relationship as cautious and hostile. As the story unfolds though, they become so close that when Gerry is in a near fatal car crash, he only wants to see one person: Julius. When Julius steps into Gerry’s hospital room, the nurse says to him, “Sorry, only kin’s allowed in here.” Gerry responds, “Are you blind? Don’t you see the family resemblance? That’s my brother.” That’s family; that’s Love—the agapé kind.
God Transforms. Gran Torino (2008). If ever a character has been set in his ways, it is Walt Kowalski. A retired auto worker and decorated Korean War vet who recently has been widowed, Walt has his way of doing things. Routines—orderly routines—keep Walt focused and in control. He takes care of himself. He takes care of his dog. And he doesn’t bother people. He has a few friends; he doesn’t need any new ones. Walt is concretely set in his ways and has no intention of changing. Love has another plan; it sneaks into his life by way of a most unexpected source, and persists, unyielding and determined. That love—it’s like the Hound of Heaven—pursues Walt Kowalski past prejudice and obstinacy, beyond rejection and denial. And Love—as Love always does—wins.
God Calls Imperfect People. How to Train Your Dragon (2010). The movie opens with “This is Berk. It's twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death. It's located solidly on the Meridian of Misery.” In addition to its unfortunate location, the island of Berk is plagued by a terrible nuisance: Dragons! The dragons steal food from Berk and terrorize the villagers. Here in Berk, we meet a young Viking boy named, of all things, “Hiccup.” Hiccup comes from a long line of great and fierce Viking leaders, but he is still just a boy and not at all ready to be a full-fledged dragon-killing Viking. Nevertheless, Hiccup finds himself in charge of an effort to save his village. He’s the most unlikely candidate for the task, but he’s the one chosen. Because he’s willing to answer the call despite his own insecurities, Hiccup does the impossible. Like Moses did. And David. And Paul.
Godly Community Makes Life Easier. Toy Story 3 (2010). This third installment of the Toy Story Trilogy completes the story of Andy and his toys. Andy is now all grown up and headed to college with no need for childhood playthings. Facing uncertainty, the toys fight to stay together and to find a sense of purpose. Despite their efforts, friends Buzz Lightyear, Woody, and the rest wind up on a conveyer belt headed towards an incinerator. There’s no way out, no hope. As they move slowly and unavoidably towards the fiery furnace and certain death, they reach out to each other. One by one, they clasp hands. The fire rages on. But once they are all connected, something miraculous happens. In their connection, they find peace despite their circumstances. That’s church, my friends; that’s church as Christ intended.
Before that divinity school assignment, I’d never given any thought to God speaking to me through movies. Now that I’m listening, I hear God’s voice nearly every time I watch Netflix™ or go to the cinema. How about you? What movies have you watched lately that delivered not just entertainment, but the abiding truths of God?
*This piece was first published on February 9, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing on the second Monday of each month at baptistnews.com.
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“I’m going to move over here by Ruby so she can hear me,” Edna said as she stood, stepping over so her voice would project directly into her friend’s ear.
“How’s this?” she asked. “Can you hear me OK, Ruby?”
Ms. Ruby noticed us watching her and piped up, “Beg your pardon?”
I was attending the monthly meeting of a Woman’s Missionary Union roundtable at my church, and Ms. Edna was sharing the prayer calendar which included a brief devotion. These particular women have been meeting together for longer than anyone can remember. They share prayer concerns, pray for missionaries, take on mission projects, enjoy snacks provided by the hostess of the month, and just spend time together. I’d guess their average age is upwards of 80.
As I basked in their traditions, I was taken back to my days in Girls in Action (the children’s version of WMU). The ladies spoke of Lottie Moon, and immediately I pictured the diminutive missionary who changed the face of Baptist international missions. I recalled also the women who taught me about Lottie Moon and other missionaries. I saw their smiling faces as they welcomed me into a community of belonging.
They were some of the same ones who greeted me at GAs on Wednesdays, taught my Sunday school class, led crafts at Vacation Bible School, or bandaged my scrapes at church camp. They, and others who came after them, taught me that church is a place where children are loved and friendships are made. They taught me other stuff too, of course. I learned about Adam, Noah and Abraham; Paul, John and Peter. I learned about the widow who offered Elisha a home and the one who offered Jesus her all.
Those lessons grew with me, as I read and re-read familiar stories, gaining deeper understanding over time. I’m grateful — so grateful — for the hours those volunteers put in with me and my peers. People like Elaine Hill, Marilyn Thompson, Eva Spear, and Vi Keeter gave me a picture of godliness that I readily recognize in others today.
It’s that kind of godliness I saw around that table of women last week. Like the saints in my own history, these women will be quick to tell you they’re just “sinners saved by grace.” Indeed, they — we — are human beings who trespass against others even as we fail to forgive those who trespass against us. So yes, they are imperfect; but these women take church seriously. In addition to being at church every time the doors are open, “Lord willing,” they show up around that table, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. For a couple of hours each month they share snacks and stories, recipes and remedies, hopes and hurts. They pray together — for each other and for people they’ve never met — and over time they’ve developed a community of faith that looks a little bit like the Kingdom of God.
What about you? What pictures of the Kingdom have you seen lately?
*This piece was first published on December 14, 2014, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I'm delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing on the second Monday of each month at baptistnews.com.