A Thought from Thomas Kelly

Most of us are reticent about speaking our deepest thoughts, or exposing our inner tenderness to public gaze. And much of this reticence is right. But there ought to be some times when, and there ought to be some people with whom, we open up our hearts on the deep things of the spirit. Normal religious development cannot take place in a vacuum occupied solely by you and God. We need friends of the soul. Fellowship is not an accidental addition to religion. It is the matrix within which we bear one another’s aspirations.

Do you have people with whom you feel it right to open your heart? If you have not, if you are stilted and stiff and embarrassed, and have no one to whom to confess, not your sins, but your joys, you are indeed an unfortunate soul. George Fox has a counsel which I prize very much: “Know one another in that which is eternal.” Churches ought to be places where men may know one another in that which is eternal. But in many a church the gulf between individuals on the deep things of God is an impassable gulf, and souls are starving and dying of inner loneliness. Would that we could break through our crust of stilted, conventional reserve, and make our churches centers of a living communion of the saints.

The last depths of conversation in the fellowship go beyond spoken words. People who know one another in God do not need to talk much. They know one another already. In the last depths of understanding, words cease and we sit in silence together, yet in perfect touch with one another, more bound into the common life by the silence than we
ever were by words.

from Reality of The Spiritual World

by Thomas R. Kelly

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Just a Game?

There are occasions when football is more than just a game; times when it reminds us of our better selves. Visitors from Oregon took the time to write a letter to the News-Sentinel expressing their kind regards for the hospitality they received while visiting Knoxville for the Tennessee/Oregon game. They were particularly impressed when The Pride of the Southland turned to face the section of the stadium where most of the visiting Oregon fans were sitting played the Oregon fight song.

That impresses me as well. Every time that I am in the stadium, hearing Tennessee’s band play the visiting team’s fight is one of my favorite parts of the game day experience. When you think about how much “Rocky Top” means to Tennessee fans, you have to consider that other fans appreciate their fight song just as much.  There is nothing quite as comforting as hearing something familiar when you find yourself in a strange and new place. One could argue that the band is doing too good of a job at making guests feel welcome, but I don’t think so. I think their playing the visitor’s song is a kindness and courtesy that speaks well of the University and the State.

What is also interesting to note is what does not happen after the band plays the visitor’s fight song. The Tennessee fans remain Tennessee fans. No one takes off their orange and starts putting on the other team’s colors. The band definitely does not forget how to play “Rocky Top.”  In other words, it is possible to be kind and respectful to people who are different from us without ceasing to be whom we are. We do not sacrifice our loyalties by being thoughtful and courteous to those whose loyalties are different from ours.  In a world that seems excessively prone to the darkness of division and discord, a little thoughtfulness can be a great light.

Still another instance of football pointing us toward our better selves occurred when Ike Ditzenberger scored his first varsity touchdown. Ike is a seventeen year-old junior at Snohomish High School in Snohomish, Washington. What makes Ike different from his teammates and most every other high school football player in the country is that he has Down syndrome.  Every day at practice, on the last play of practice, Ike’s coach calls his play. The quarterback hands the ball to Ike and he runs it in for a touchdown.

Last week with ten seconds remaining in the game and Snohomish trailing Lake Stevens by a score of 35-0, Ike Ditzenberger entered the game to run his play. Run he did, fifty-one yards all the way to end zone. At the end of his run, he was very happy.

Yes, I know that the only reason he scored was everybody on the field wanted him to; and that if the opposing team had wanted to, they could have easily tackled him. But they did not. Because they did not, Ike was able to realize a life-long dream. Sure, his team lost; but they are not losers. People who help other people achieve long-held dreams are winners. People who create experiences of great joy in the lives of others are winners. People who share the bright lights of Friday night with one who some might think has no business being there are winners.

These two events could have taken place anywhere, and they could have involved most anyone. What makes them special to me is that they just seem to ooze Christ likeness. If Jesus was the drum major at the University of Tennessee, I can easily see Him playing the visiting team’s fight song. If He was a high school football coach, I would not be at all surprised to learn that He found a way to get a player with special challenges onto the field.  Christ came into the world to heal brokenness and to reconcile division. There are times when we are reminded that He is still at work doing just that. There are times when those reminders come from unexpected places, even football fields.

Standing Out in the Crowd

Working in a concession stand in the cavernous underworld of Neyland Stadium, you meet some interesting people. He was wearing blue and white.  His shirt was blue and his hair was white. This was not his first football game.  The University of Kentucky insignia on his shirt made me wonder if he had lost his sense of direction.  Tennessee was getting ready to play Florida, and his Wildcats where 170-odd miles to the north, getting ready to play the Zips of Akron.  His explanation was that Kentucky was not playing an opponent worthy of his time and effort.  He wanted to see a more competitive game, so he came to Knoxville.

Still, he seemed just a little out of place.  I think he sensed that as well.  When I gave him the hot dog and Coca-Cola that he had ordered, he did not pick them up and return to his seat.  Rather, he moved down the counter a foot or two and started to unwrap his hot dog.  I thought he might just be checking to see if his packets of mustard, ketchup and relish were actually inside the wrapper, as I had told him they were. Instead, he turned his corner of the concession stand into a lunch counter, and proceeded to munch on his hot dog and drink his Coke.

His standing there to eat seemed a little strange to me, but then I realized he was most likely sitting in a section of the stadium that was full of Florida fans.  Perhaps that was the source of his reluctance to return to his seat.  Of course, he could well have been sitting next to Tennessee fans and that might not have been much better for someone wearing a University of Kentucky shirt.  Either way, I wondered if he felt a bit lonely and out of place.  He was the only person I saw wearing Kentucky blue.  Now, I doubt that he did feel lonely.  He obviously knew who he was and why he had come to this place.

Knowing who we are, and why we are where we are, is essential for followers of Christ if we are to be faithful to the call of Christ on our lives, while living in a world full of folks whose behavior and values sometimes, if not most of the time, cause us to stick out like a UK fan at a Tennessee/Florida game.  The way of Christ calls us to humility, concern for the needs of others, honesty about our own shortcomings, and trust in God and God alone. The world in which we live places great value on glitz and celebrity, power and personal gain, winning at all cost, and trusting  in whomever or whatever will get us what we think we want.

When Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves,” He was not exaggerating. Our culture has a riptide effect that can sweep us along through life, conforming us to its norms and values without our ever giving a second thought to what we believe, why we believe what we believe, or the implications of that belief. When Jesus said, “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” He was serious about making a distinction between the behavior and values of His followers and those who were not His followers. More importantly, He was concerned about making it clear to those who would follow Him that doing so would cost them the luxury of fitting snuggly and warmly into the world in which they lived.  Following Christ means intentionally entering into a process that forms us in the image of Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of the others. Simply put, as followers of Christ we want to be spiritually formed by Christ and in Christ in order to transform the world, not to conform to it. Jesus does not send us out among wolves so that we will become wolves. So then there will be times if we are obedient to the call of Christ, that we will find ourselves sticking out like a UK fan at a Tennessee/Florida game.

The Home Place

How does a place hold memories?  How does a house contain the lives of those who have long since stopped living in it?   I was vividly reminded last week of the power a place can have in our lives as I walked through the yard at my grandparents’ house.

Will, my youngest son, was a baby when Mamaw died.  He will be 16 in November.  I was a junior in high school when Papaw passed away. Yet, being there brought back so many memories.  Everywhere I looked there were reminders of moments and happenings.  They were surprisingly fresh after all these years.

The memories were of mostly ordinary activities.  I remembered how I used to watch Papaw cut the grass and wish that he would let me push the mower.  (What was I thinking?)  Then when he would let me mow, and I would miss spots, how he would fuss at me and tell me to be more careful next time.  I remembered sitting on the carport with him watching him whittle and trying to do it like he did it.  Mostly, I just remembered being with him and doing whatever it was he was doing, or watching him do whatever it was he was doing.  The memories of Mamaw were similar — picking vegetables from the garden, watching her cook, helping her break beans, and all the times she let me beat her at checkers.

Not all the memories were of Mamaw and Papaw.  There were memories of aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and the yard that seemed so incredibly large when I was a boy.  The side yard more specifically could be Yankee Stadium and Shields-Watkins Field all in the same afternoon.  I could almost hear the laughter and cheering even still.

I left the home place with a deep sense of gratitude for the memories that it held for me, and for the visit that had brought so many of those memories back to life, if but for a brief time.  What a gift to have known the people who had lived in that place.

Places have their time.  Children grow up and move away.  Loved ones go to be with the Lord.  The place is still in the same location and it is still special; but it is not the same as it was when the people who lived there were doing the ordinary activities that made it such a special place.  Those children who grew up have gone to other places where they now do those ordinary activities that make up so much of life; and in so doing, they are creating new special places for a new generation.  Like an empty canvas, the places where we live patiently collect the brushstrokes of our lives — the dark tragedies, the bright milestones, and the various shades in between.  They hold the stories of lives in such a way that only we can see what happened there and what it meant to us when it happened.

Places in and of themselves are not special.  What makes them special is what happens there, the lives that get lived, and the love that gets shared.  The stories that unfold and the dreams that are born make a place special.  The people that inhabit those stories and fuel those dreams are what make a place special.

So it is with the places where we are now living.  May our living do something in those places that causes them to be places that remind us of being loved, of dreaming dreams and of sharing our lives with one another.

A Prayer for Hailey Rose

My niece, Hailey Rose Rowland, has started school.  She is in Kindergarten at Karns Elementary.  I want to say a prayer for her. Of course, I am praying for her safety and well-being as well as for my sister and brother-in-law as they continue to come to grips with their little girl going off to school. I know that she is going to do well in school because she shares her middle name with her Great-Aunt Connie, who is a very smart woman.

I am praying. . .

. . .that she gains an understanding of the world in which she lives, the good and the bad, which will serve her well through the course of her life.

. . .that she develops a sensitivity to the needs and experiences of other children, those with whom she shares a classroom and those from different parts of the world.

. . .that she learns to analyze problems in a way that leads to solutions that benefit everyone involved.

. . .that she is able to see that perception is not always reality, if it ever is.

. . .that she finds the ability to compromise when negotiation is needed and that she holds convictions about which she will not compromise.

. . .that she comes to understand what it means to seek the common good.

. . .that she learns what it is to be civil and how to have a conversation that reflects her appreciation for truth and integrity.

. . .that she discovers the importance of listening.

. . .that she looks at school not as something that she has to do, but as a gift that presents her with the opportunity to learn, grow and develop each day.

What I pray for my niece Hailey I pray for each of our students. I pray that wherever they go to school, whatever their learning environment that they learn everything that they can about the subjects they are studying and the world in which they will apply that knowledge. In seventeen short years, our kindergarteners will be out of college and finding their way in the life. May the journey they have just begun take them to a full and happy life.

Remembering Mary Martin

In Hebrews 12:1-3 we read:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

That great cloud of witnesses is richer and fuller tonight because Ms. Mary Martin has taken her place among them. Tonight, her love for Christ and His church has joined that cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. Tonight, her passion for telling the story of God’s work in the world through Ball Camp Baptist Church has joined that cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. Tonight, her love for children and her dedication to teaching them the story of our faith has joined that cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. Tonight, her adventurous heart and her determined spirit have joined that cloud of witnesses that surrounds us.

Monday morning of this week, Mary’s life on this earth came to an end. She was blessed with a long and full life, and we were blessed by the way she lived it.  For most of the last decade, Mary moved with grace and dignity through the halls of Arbor Terrace Assisted Living Facility.  She carried herself with a style and confidence that made you think that she was in charge of the whole place; and that is exactly what she wanted you to think.  Rarely, during those days did it occur to me to think of Mary as a person approaching 100 years of age. She was full of life.  Mary’s condition changed in the last couple of weeks. Those changes in Mary’s condition made me thankful that she had been able to be as active as she was during the last decade of her life.

We can be thankful that Mary lived such a long and full life that contributed so much to so many people. We can also be thankful her life was active and full for so long. Yet, even with good reason to be grateful in the face of Mary’s passing, we also grieve. Death always takes those we love sooner than we are ready to let them go.

Mary is at rest now. Her labor here on this earth is finished. She has left a legacy of commitment and service to God and God’s people. If we have ears to hear, her life and her example will continue to speak to us.  We would do well to listen carefully as the testimony of Mary’s witness echoes through our fellowship.

If we listen carefully, Mary’s life will remind us of the importance of our children and our responsibility to teach them.  For 50 years, Mary taught children in Sunday School in this church. Long before a book was written telling us that it takes a whole village to raise a child, Mary was investing her life into the children of the Ball Camp Baptist Church and community. Were children important to Mary? Fifty years. How important were children to Mary? Fifty years. Did it matter to Mary that generations of children learned the lessons of faith and of God’s great love for each of them? Fifty years. With her life, she proclaimed clearly the value of our children and the vital necessity of teaching them, loving them, and leading them to a personal understanding of the love and grace of God.

If we listen carefully, Mary’s life will remind us of the significance of our history.  Mary loved our church in many ways.  She had a particular passion for the history of our church. In 1970, her History of Ball Camp Baptist Church was awarded third place in a nationwide competition sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention. (If you would like a copy of Mary’s book, there are two copies in very good condition available at Amazon.com.)

Mary did not just write history, she lived it. She lived it as a Baptist woman with a deep faith in the grace and mercy of God. Her faith was personal, and her soul was competent. She knew that she was a part of a royal priesthood, and she did not hesitate to use the gifts and talents that God had given to her to proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.

When Mary left her home and moved to Arbor Terrace, she took with her scrapbooks of clippings and photos of the life and ministry of our church. She would not let go of that which was so dear to her.  If we listen carefully to Mary’s life, we will hear her saying that our past is important and that our heritage matters.  As Baptists, that means we each have both the freedom and responsibility to read our Bibles with the aid of the Holy Spirit, and to listen for what God would say to us, trusting in the word of God rather than man-made creeds and confessions. It means that church for us is a gathering of people for whom Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. It means that together we discern God’s direction for our common life without interference from ecclesiastical or governmental interference.

The history and heritage of her faith mattered to Mary. How much? Well, she wrote a book about it.

If we listen carefully, Mary’s life will remind us that our own lives are gifts from God to be celebrated and to be shared.   I never met Mary’s husband. When she would tell me stories of their life together, she referred to him as Martin.  One of her favorite stories involved a night of dancing in a hotel ballroom in downtown Knoxville. After that night, Martin was smitten. Their destiny was to be together. In those days, as Mary would tell the story, the Baptists did not take kindly to those of their membership who frequented dance halls and such. “Such scandalous behavior,” Mary would say as she told me the story with a twinkle in her eye.

Together, they were faithful servants of the Lord at Ball Camp Baptist Church. When our present sanctuary was being built, the church met for worship in the Martin’s store. They gave themselves to God and their community in every way they could.

Whatever we have said tonight, as we remember Mary, will fade with time.  Yet, if we listen carefully, her life will continue to speak to us of what it means to live a rich life that brings glory and honor to God.

Finally, from Mary’s History of Ball Camp Baptist Church, the invitation that she accepted and offered each day of her life and that is offered to each one of us tonight:

To all who are weary and need rest, to all who are lonely and want friendship, to all who morn and need comfort, to all who pray and to all who do not, to all who sin and need a Savior, and to all whosoever will, this Church opens wide its doors and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ says, “Welcome!”

Mary has been welcomed home. She is at rest with the Lord. Amen.

Jesus and Tomatoes

Kate Campbell sings a song about Jesus and tomatoes that tells the story of an especially blessed tomato grower, who grew a tomato that bore, at least in the grower’s mind, a resemblance to our savior. The song starts out like this:

I bought a pack of seeds
Tennessee Bradleys
The best homegrown you’ll find
How it happened I don’t know
Must’ve been the Miracle-Gro
Oh I could not believe my eyes
In my tomato bed
A holy image blood red.

I was reminded of Kate’s song this week, as I had an encounter of a different sort with Jesus and tomatoes.

We had been visiting for a good while, and it was time for me leave. She was about to have a supper prepared by her grandson. My visit had, no doubt, delayed their meal. Before parting, we joined hands and offered thanks for a good visit and the meal that they were about to eat.

Hugs, handshakes, prayers, and good-byes completed, my mind was already in the truck headed for my next destination. She said something about tomatoes. I noticed them when I arrived. At least a third, maybe half, of her kitchen table was covered with homegrown tomatoes. She spoke again, “Will you take some tomatoes?”  I was moving toward the door and almost said “no” — or maybe I did say “no” —  but then I had my Jesus-and-tomatoes moment.  Jesus’ words from the tenth chapter of Luke were suddenly in my mind, “. . . eating and drinking what they provide . . . eat what is set before you.”  He was instructing His followers to receive hospitality.  As Jesus’ words to the seventy people that He was sending out into the world bounced around in my head, I suddenly felt compelled to stop and receive what was being offered to me.

We love to give to those who have need. I know that is true of most churches and other faith groups that see those needs of others as an opportunity to put the moral teachings of their faith into practice; but it seems especially true at Ball Camp.  In giving, we impact the life of the One we are giving to, and we encounter the One who said, “When you have done it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters you have done it unto me.” To give is to be blessed. Yet, to always give without ever receiving deprives someone of the joy of giving to us.  In giving to and receiving from others, we become participants in God’s redemptive activity in the world.

In a good year, tomatoes are abundant. Sometimes those who grow them have so many that they do not know what to do with all of them.  Our neighbors in Grainger County engage in tomato battles, using them as projectiles as part of their Tomato Festival celebration. Tomatoes are, after all, just tomatoes. Yet, when a few are taken and offered to another as a gift, they can become an occasion for blessing and grace.