Sunday, January 13, 2013

Some Deacons I've Known

(I wrote these words for the Deacon Ordination Service we had today in Clemson, SC. First Baptist Church.)

I want to talk to you today about some of the Deacons I have known. I thought about talking to you about some of the Deacons I wish I had not known. In every church I have ever had there has been someone who just made things difficult. I don’t know how many hours sleep I have lost just dealing with some of these difficult people. But, you know I have discovered something in looking back. I don’t remember much about those that gave me and the church difficulty. What I do remember are names and faces of those that carried the church along and made it work. These are the ones that still stand out in my mind.

There was Mr. John in my first church. Must have been in his mid-seventies. He had worked for REA all his life and helped bring electricity to Daviess County, Kentucky. He had been a member of our church for as long as anybody could remember. He had buried two wives with cancer and he had not lost his faith. He was going steady with Miss Pauline who taught the first grade and never been married. When people asked her when they were going to get married she said: “We’re not. I’m not going to be the third wife he buries!” I was young and green and needed a lot of help. I would sit on Mr. John’s front porch and pour out my heart as he smoked his little pencil thin cigars. He was a wise old man. And he helped me immensely. “Preacher, I’ve been around here a long time and seen all kinds of crazy stuff. It’s going to be all right. We’re going to work together.” And when he stood to talk in business meetings people listened. For years I kept a picture of Mr. John underneath the glass on my desk.

In my second church Charlie was just wonderful. I never knew a man who loved his church any more. He sold insurance, or at least he went around to houses collecting quarters and dollars the way they used to do. Chewed tobacco. But he visited the hospitals more than me. He was always singing in the choir, usually a little too loud. He was always there and would sidle up to me and say, “Preacher, we’re praying for you.” I knew he meant it.

In my third church Edwina had been ordained a deacon. It was 1969 and not many women were being ordained. But I remember her because of her deep spirituality. She kept reminding the Deacons and the church that ours was a spiritual body. Kept calling us back to our true purpose. That we had to bathe everything we did in prayer. She would look out on Sunday from the choir and see what she called, “troubled faces” and pray for them. They never knew that. But she gave out church a richness without which we would have been poorer. She kept calling us back to an authentic spirituality.

Most of you here knew Ed. He was head of the local Nuclear Power Station. Had an important job with many demands. But he was always at the church when he was not out of town and you could always count on him. When I had things I could not handle one of the people I would always turn to was Ed. He never broke a confidence. He was never one to love the spotlight. But his integrity just came through and everybody respected him.  

You ordained Mrs. Sara Cooper to the Diakonate in 1973. That was two years before I came. She was the first Woman Deacon in our church—and was either the first or second in the state of SC. You chose her because she was faithful and loved this church. She had taught about every child that came through our Sunday school program. When I came as Pastor her time as Deacon was about up. But she kept coming to the Deacon’s Meeting after her tenure was over. Nobody else did that. And the men would look around and whisper: “She’s not supposed to be here anymore.” And somebody would whisper: “Are you gonna ask her to leave—I’m not.” Mrs. Sara stayed and this church was richer because of who she was and what she did.

Sam (not his real name) was President of a large corporation. You would know his family name if I told you. But he gave a lot of money to the church, supported many other good causes and never made a splash. He didn’t have to be in the spotlight. He just served. Never threw his weight around.  He built Habitat houses, he gave of himself and his means. And when I got into serious trouble, he stood by me all the way. And when I retired, 10 years later, he flew a whole planeload of my friends from that church I had once served. This Deacon helped save my life in a terribly difficult time. You don’t forget folks like that.

Bill owned a paint store. He was a charter member of our church. He and his wife opened their home to all those that moved in from somewhere else. Everybody loved them. He stuck with the church through some hard, hard days. He never gave up. When I knew him he was an old man but there every Sunday and still jogging in his eighties. The day we dedicated our new sanctuary he came out the door with tears in his eyes and hugged me and said, “I never thought I would live to see this day—it is just beautiful.” And at the end of his funeral service, a black man stood up and said: “Mr. Bill—welcomed me into this church. I never would have come without his hugs and his love.” And if you we to that church this morning this black man would be standing at the door saying: “Welcome to Church! God loves you and we love you!” That would have never happened without Bill and his love and his hugs. In Bill’s funeral service I talked about “Pillars.” Pillars that hold the church up. Bill did that. 

I could name fifty others whose lives have made an indelible impression on me. But as I thought about today and ordaining these two new Deacons: Andrea Rauch and Lana Todd. But we also set aside: Kelly Durham, Rob Hubbard, Davy McDowell, Bill Swedberg, Craig Williams Ron Young and Roy Young.  So my challenge today comes from the faces in the Albums of several the churches I served. These are the things that I think they all had in common.

They all knew what the word deacon meant. Diakonia means to serve. It does not mean to be served. The first Deacons were called out because the widows were being neglected and there was a lot of rumbling. Acts 6. Deacons solved the problem. So our model is found in Philippians 2.But Jesus did say when we give ourselves away—it comes back to us. Every one of these people, in their own way served their Lord through the church. They rolled up their sleeves and were not afraid to work. They could all be counted on. They knew to be a Deacon meant to be a servant.

They all loved their church. As I look back on these men and women every single one of them loved their church. Each one in different ways. You could count on them. There was no question about their loyalty. More than one would say, “Pastors come and Pastors go, but this is our church.” And they didn’t leave. They were all deeply committed to their local church. And what they taught me was that the more you invest yourself, the more you love something. I never heard one of them say: “If the church does not do so and so…I will leave.” They did not believe in divorce from the church. They never threatened or held their church hostage. They just kept coming and doing their part. And it always made those little all-too-human churches stronger.

They could all be trusted. Everybody in the church knew this. Even their enemies. For, you see, they lived lives of integrity. They didn’t whisper behind people’s backs. What you saw was what you got. I am told that during the Korean conflict that General Guy Dean was captured by the North Koreans and was treated unmercifully. He was in prison for a long time. One of the ways they would torture him was to say he would be killed sometime that day. They did this day after day. Week after week. One day he felt like that would be the day when they would kill him. So he sat down and wrote a letter which he thought was to be his last. He wrote it to his wife and son. Sort of a last will and testament. What would you say to your loved ones if you thought this was the last letter you would ever write? Would you talk about success? Money?  Good job? Education? Love your family? No. What he wrote to his wife was this: “Tell Bill (his son) the word is integrity.” Of all the words that good deacons leave us—the best word of them all may just be integrity. You can count on them always. Sterling silver—they don’t rust. 

As I look back on the faces of the Deacons that I remember they had another thing in common: they all loved their Lord. I don’t mean they were pious. In fact some of them were downright impious sometimes. A few of them could not even pray in public. But nobody doubted their love for the Lord Jesus. Somebody has said that the definition of a saint is someone who lets the light shine through their lives. If you want to be a good Deacon I think you have to have a faith that runs deep. This is why Paul warned the church not to call immature people to serve. They needed to be seasoned. People whose faith had been tested.

Each one of these I remember supported their Pastor and Church staff. Now these were strong people. You did not manipulate them. They could spot a phony a mile away. So none of them were yes people. Most of them crossed swords with me from time to time. They had their own minds. And when they would disagree with the Pastor, and most of them did from to time, they would come into my office or call me on the phone and we would talk behind closed doors. That’s the way it worked. Thinking back, I have never seen a church that did not stand by its Pastor or its staff that was strong. Can you think of a single one? Shoot the leaders and what do you have? A leaderless church.

As I think of those Deacons I remember they were all different. They were as different as people could be. Some were introverts and some were extroverts. Some talked continually and some were very quiet. But I Corinthians says in chapter 12 that we all have different gifts. I don’t know how many people in the church don’t think they have anything to contribute. But God uses our differences for his kingdom’s work. It doesn’t matter if you are well heeled or live from paycheck to paycheck. Somebody said there were two kinds of people the alive and the afraid. Those people who say: “We can’t do that. We can’t do that. It will hurt the church. People will leave. (Or even worse) I will leave…”  But the others would say, “Pastor, let’s try it. We’ve never done it that way—but it may work. And if it doesn’t, so what? We will try something else.” They were all different but they were all alive.

They all knew what to do with a towel. In the liturgical church the stole that goes around the neck of the minister was first placed on the arm as a symbol of the towel and service. But somewhere through the years the towel came to hang around the neck of the minister for decoration. These deacons I have mentioned all knew what you were to do with a towel. Sometimes they wiped away tears. Someone they cleaned up spills. Sometimes they helped keep things clean. Sometimes it was the church and sometimes it was to wipe the dirty smudges off people’s lives. As I think about all these, none of them were judgmental. They didn’t have the time.  They didn’t look down their nose—they just helped.

Another Deacon I remember was Louie. He must have been getting close to eighty when I first met him. He came into my office one day and said he had a problem. “They want me to serve as Deacon, and I don’t think I can do that.” “Why?” I asked. “Well, I have this habit. I know that Baptists don’t believe in dancing and Jewell and I go dancing every single week. How can I be a Deacon and still dance?” I asked him if he loved the Lord and his church. I asked him if this dancing thing was the only reason he would not serve and he nodded his head. I told him, “Louie, I think God is calling you to be a Deacon. If the only reason you don’t serve is because you dance I don’t think that excuse is good enough. I think this church needs some dancing Deacons.” The Sunday he was ordained I gave him a towel as a symbol of what it meant to serve. Several years later I moved away and his wife called and told me Louie had cancer and was very sick. He wanted to talk to me. And she put him on the telephone and we talked. And I tried to encourage him. I asked him if he remembered his towel, he said, I still have it—I look at it every day. I’m glad I got ordained.” Not long after that Louie died and they asked me to come back and have part in the funeral. I asked Jewell if she could find his towel. And I held it up that morning and talked about Louie, the dancing deacon. A wonderful human being.

So friends, we come to set apart two new folk and the seven who have served us before. I challenge them ands all of us to remember that Jesus called us to serve. Use your towel well.  If you do that this will be a better church because of what you do. May God bless you in your work. And may God bless this congregation as we support what we do here.

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