"Why do they come?...I think they come to worship. They come with some deep longing in their hearts to hear a word they have not heard before. Some come to receive comfort or find their sins forgiven. Others are there to discover an answer for the pressures that keep coming like the waves of the sea. They come to worship--to see in their own way and in their own time, what Isaiah saw once upon a time when he looked up through blinding tears and a broken heart. To see, above the heartaches and headlines of too much the Lord God Almighty.To know, despite what they have done, that they are loved and cared for. That they count."
--Roger Lovette, from Come to Worship
It all began with a visit from your Search Committee. Frank, Becky, Guy, Peggy, and Jerry. David was tied up and could not make the trip. They were the finest Committee I ever worked with. Trust me, I’ve known a lot. With negotiations worked out, contracts signed, and church vote—we moved from South Carolina to Memphis on a hot August day. The year was 1988.
You opened your arms as best you could and we opened our hearts as best we could. And it all began. Sermons, and dinners and baptisms and weddings and funerals and burdens shared and meetings and meetings and meetings. I think we had about as many meetings as sermons I preached.
We learned something of your history. Leaving Bellevue and all the memories of Doctah Lee. This was a hard break saying goodbye to lifelong friends and a place that had been home. But there was enormous excitement about that new wondrous beginning. There was Brooks Ramsey, followed by Jim Hatley. When Gayle and I arrived in 1988 you were 26 years old. Just barely out of adolescence, a young adult, with all the vim and vigor of a 26 year old. Nothing was too hard. Nothing, you thought could stand in your way. For 26 year olds the sky literally has no limits. And so a 53-year-old Preacher met with a 26 year old church –and it was quite a marriage.
You told me you wanted to flap your wings and fly a little higher. After all 26 year olds can do anything and this 53 year old bought into your good dream. We moved fast. Looking back—I probably should have slowed down—but I was trying to keep faith with your dream. But in the mean time I think I scared some of you with my ideas and the challenges I threw out. But you were patient and wary as all congregations are of their new fireman. Looking back—we did a lot together.
We began that wonderful Habitat ministry which continues to this day. I remember that first House Dedication. The Mayor was there. And many of you were present,” The old black lady held up her new shiny keys and said, " I always wanted me a home. And I scrimped and saved just about the time got my down payment somebody got sick or lost their job and it never happened. I thought I had just about given up on my dream,” she said, “But today’s the day!” She jangled her keys as we all laughed and cried.
We started an AA chapter. We resurrected the Stations of the Cross and people from all over came in those evenings to ponder the mystery. We had ads on TV and in the paper. And one glorious Saturday we had the garage sale of all sales to send Bryan Doyle and Bonnie and Missy to Seattle for Bryan’s Bone marrow transplant. Thanks to your generosity they were able to stay there for several months. That just might be my finest memory. We supported Cindy and Mark and Charlie and Audrey our own personal missionaries with our prayers and money. On a less spiritual note we discovered that raccoons had invaded the Annex and left their offerings behind in the attic. It was hard to tear down that beautiful old house for it held so many good memories.
Baptists were making stranger sounds than usual during those days. We heard much talk about a fundamentalist takeover. And a new Baptist thing was beginning. And many of you were scared of what the future might just hold. I kept talking and bringing you reports but many of you wondered.
After three and a half years we decided that maybe this was not our place and perhaps you needed another Pastor. So I resigned one early December Sunday morning. But despite whatever differences we may have had, you reached out and gave us a most generous settlement that lasted until we found our way to Birmingham. I will never, ever forget that generosity that came out of a very painful time for Pastor and people.
Together we plowed some new ground. Together we moved some rocks out of the way. And together we discovered there were some rocks we just could not move. In a tiny way I look back and would like to think that we helped pave the way for the good days that have followed. A 26-year-old Church and a 53-year-old Pastor found their marriage harder than any of us had envisioned.
Gayle and I are very sorry that we couldn’t be with you today to help you blow out those fifty candles. But our family set its vacation this week-it was the only time everyone could be there. But I want you to know that all day long I will remember this day and the faces and friends and challenges we faced on that special spot of holy ground at the corner of Walnut Grove and Perkins.