Brian and Anita Cunningham are two of our very precious members at Westmoreland Baptist Church. They "wear a number of hats". Anita sings in the choir and Brian is one of our deacons. They both have long been involved in other ministries and they presently teach a third through fifth grade Sunday School class. Last week, after worship service, Brian and Anita took several members of the class (who had permission from their parents) to lunch at Gattiland in Ashland, KY. The few photos shown here indicate what a great time the kids had. Besides being wonderful, caring teachers, these are people who help make Sunday School a pleasant and memorable experience for children. I thank God for people like Brian and Anita, whose own kids are now grown, but contiue to serve God through ministry to children. God bless 'em!
Thursday, April 29, 2010
Monday, April 26, 2010
The third chapter of the book of Acts records the story of a man who had previously been lame for his entire life. He was miraculously healed after a brief encounter with a couple of former fishermen turned preachers, who were headed to the Temple at the hour of evening prayer. The news spread throughout the Temple complex and across the entire city of Jerusalem. The already crowded courtyard quickly filled with curious onlookers who poured onto the Temple Mount to see for themselves.
One of the preachers took the opportunity to share with the growing crowd, the mysterious source of the power that had accomplished this miracle. It was none other than the name of Jesus, who less than two months earlier had been publicly flogged and had died a horrible death of crucifixion. The lifeless body of the itinerant teacher had been hastily buried, but three days later, the tomb was found to be empty. Speculation was rampant as to what had happened to the body. Some said His followers had stolen it away, but that was a foolish story from the outset. The tomb had been sealed and a team of highly trained, fully armed Roman soldiers, had been ordered to stand guard. Nonetheless, the guards were frightened out of their minds by the powerful shaking of the place and the Angel who rolled away the stone which had sealed the sepulchre. The story spread quickly that Jesus had risen from the dead. Fantastic as it may have seemed, this man is one who had brought others back to life during His ministry. Why should it be incredible that He would, Himself, arise from the grave?
The risen Christ had made numerous appearances to His followers over the next forty days, finally giving them instructions to take the good news of salvation to every person on earth. He promised them a special power and authority to do so, just before He ascended into the heavens before their very eyes. Within 10 days, this rag tag group of 120 followers, were empowered by an indwelling of His Spirit, which changed their lives forever. In return, they changed the world.
Chapters four and five of the same book record the beginnings of persecution that would be the hallmark of their service for the rest of their natural lives. Dragged before the authorities, they were threatened, imprisoned, and beaten for no crime other than proclaiming that Jesus was risen from the dead! The miracles done at their hands, they maintained, were done through the power of His name. These very followers who had run like scared cats on the night of His arrest, now stood boldly before the religious leaders who demanded their silence. Even after the threats, imprisonment, and beatings, they continued to come right back to the same prominent locations, preaching the same message of love, grace, and forgiveness through the power of the risen Christ.
One of the men, a fellow named Simon Peter, summed up their motivation. "We cannot help but speak what we have seen and heard", he told the Sanhedrin.
Isn't that simple?
Isn't that profound?
They had been given the power and boldness for which they had prayed. They remained faithful to their mission through more intensive persecution - and eventually to their own martyrdom. They continued to proclaim that the only way to peace, forgiveness, relationship with God, and eternal life, was found in this man Jesus. Their lives had been forever changed for having been with the Master. Those of us who follow Christ today possess that same power and authority. We stand on the shoulders of these (and other) giants of the faith. They could not help but tell what they had experienced through Jesus. His mission became their passion. They were bold, powerful witnesses.
How can we not do the same?
Thursday, April 22, 2010
As I rounded the corner of the hospital lobby I saw the open door of the third elevator and jogged the last thirty or forty feet to get there before it closed. Just inside the threshold stood two rather large, middle aged people. One man and one woman. They stood on opposite sides of the doorway, facing one another. He had what appeared to be about a six day beard and sort of a blank stare. His mouth hung open and he stared blankly at the woman who appeared to be his companion. She had salt and pepper shoulder length hair whose style could best be described as "stringy". She wore a wrinkled T-shirt and those stretchy, knit kind of pants that really large people shouldn't ever go out in. They made no effort to move further back into the elevator, or even to step aside to allow me to pass between them.
I was headed for the sixth floor. So, after squeezing between the immobile couple of bookends I noticed that the button for floor number five was already lit up. Since the lady was standing right by the control panel, I said, "Six please". She stood still, staring straight ahead at the mouth breather, and made no effort to press the button. "Perhaps she didn't hear me" I thought, so once a gain I said, (a little louder this time) "Six please".
As the door began to close, I stepped up, reached around her rather ample waist and pressed the button for the sixth floor.
As fate would have it, this elevator ride was the local, rather than the express. We stopped at each floor. Two folks entered the car on the second floor. One was a hospital maintenance man pushing a little cart. He was headed for three. The other was an older lady going to the fourth floor. My two new best friends didn't budge. The new riders had to squeeze between them as I had, and the earlier scene was repeated. They called out their floor numbers, and Princess Charming glanced at them but remained immobile and non communicative. The maintenance guy stretched his arm around her and pressed buttons three and four.
The three of us stood in the back of the elevator looking at each other, silently wondering if these folks had missed the day when the third grade class had discussed elevator etiquette.
The maintenance guy got off at three, the elderly lady at four. Both had to squeeze between the two large silent sentinels, who made nary a move to allow them to pass.
By the time we arrived at the fifth floor, the woman by the control panel turned to face the door. As they exited the elevator, I saw for the first time the words printed on the back of her huge T-shirt. They read, "I Just Don't Care!"
I'm just sayin...
Monday, April 19, 2010
My son called me Saturday night on his way back to New Orleans from Angola Prison.
Now, before you get too excited, he wasn't on parole, he had just been visiting. In fact, his family, along with some other friends from their church, had made the two and a half hour trip to make a day of it at the famous Angola Prison Rodeo. Angola is the largest maximum security prison in the United States, with 5,000 inmates and 1,800 staff members. It is located on an 18,000 acres in West Feliciana Parish, close to the Mississippi border. The inmates put on a rodeo every April and October. It is a major event, drawing spectators from all over Louisiana and Mississippi to watch these tough prisoners perform as cowboys for a day.
I could only imagine how much the two grandsons had enjoyed the bucking broncos, calf roping, bull riding, etc. We had taken our own two sons to a rodeo in Huntington when they were small and it was really a great show. Surely this brought back some memories for Jay and created some new ones for Quint and Canon.
When asked how they enjoyed it, Jay replied that it was great.
Then he told me about the best part of the show.
"It was hilarious!" he yelled into the phone. "It was the funniest thing I have ever seen!"
The only thing I could imagine was that there must have been some awfully funny antics by the rodeo clowns. Surely he wouldn't be laughing so hard about some inmate being thrown from a bull or trampled by a wild horse.
He explained that at the very end of the rodeo, some horned sheep and goats were let out into the arena, and they were rounded up by Spider Monkeys dressed as cowboys, riding Border Collies! "It was totally unexpected", Jay laughed, "And it was unbelievable!"
Isn't that the way life is sometimes?
It's not always something hilarious, like monkeys riding doggy back. In fact, it often isn't funny at all. But we certainly do get hit with the unexpected... the outlandish... the unimaginable.
The unexpected turn of events can and do take us completely by surprise. It may be a financial reversal. It could be an accident or tragedy resulting in the loss of home or other property. It might be a family crisis, which brings your hopes and dreams crashing to earth with a thud.
In my case it was the diagnosis of metastatic colon cancer. "Stage four" the doctor said seriously. "Incurable" he continued, "but hopefully manageable for a while with treatments". These were words that I honestly had never expected to hear. I was only 54 years old! My third grandson had just been born a week earlier. I had only been on the ministry field at Westmoreland Baptist Church for two brief years. I was the one who had spent years ministering to other people who were sick. Now they were telling me that the average survival time for people in my situation was 18 to 22 months.
A week earlier we had celebrated Thanksgiving. Now we stood dumbfounded and numb in the shadow of a monster that came totally unexpected.
Life is like that. Full of surprises - and not always pleasant ones.
The key to situations like this is how we react to them. What do we do when we face circumstances that are totally beyond our control? Fortunately, many years ago, I had entrusted my life to the One who gives life itself. In fact, an ancient writer named John, referred to Him as the one "In whom was life, and that life was the light of men".
During the subsequent years, my only hope and assurance is that God is in control. I embraced His promise, "For I know the plans that I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope." This was a promise that God had made to the ancient exiled people of Israel, through the Prophet Jeremiah, but it is also a truth that ALL of His people may cling to today.
Even in the midst of the unexpected, He is the one constant, and all that He allows to come my way, is part of what "He is planning for me".
Did it ever just occur to you that NOTHING ever "just occurred to God"?
As a follower of Christ, it is comforting to know that in the hours of the deepest darkness, and the most unexpected turns in life, God is weaving a tapestry that is of His sovereign plan and by His design. When we do not know what tomorrow holds, what a blessing to know the One who holds tomorrow.
Do you know Him?
You should. After all. You never know what to expect!
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
This week sees a quick trip to New Orleans for our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Board of Trustees Spring Meeting. Flew in Monday afternoon and will depart Louis Armstrong International Airport very early Thursday morning. I have a class on Thursday evening, and a few folks I'll need to visit in the hospital between my arrival at Tri State Airport and the class meeting at the Jesse Stuart Foundation building in Ashland. While it is a brief "business trip", it is still nice to be able to spend one brief evening with Jay and Michelle and grandsons number one and three (Quint and Canon).
Weather here is beautiful and my shiny scalp is glowing red from the Sun's bright rays and a couple of hours yesterday with the top off of Jay's Jeep. Construction is going on all over the city. I noted several areas where roads are being reconstructed. New buildings are going up here and there, numerous homes are being renovated, but even after five years much Katrina damage is still evident. I never cease to be amazed at the beauty of this city and the resiliency of its people.
On the darker side, "The Times Picayune" reports this morning that there were 7 more shooting incidents yesterday, bringing to 18 the number of shootings since Saturday evening. Four are dead as a result of the gunfire. Several were shot on Canal Street Saturday night as the French Quarter Festival was going on. All of the violence, however, has not been just in Orleans Parish on this side of the Mississippi. Today's news story said that three of the incidents were in West Bank communities in Jefferson Parish. The article said there had been 23 shootings this month. As shocking as this all seems, I am reminded that even back home in our smaller cities of Huntington and Charleston, there have been reports of gunfire, stabbings, and drug related violence nearly every day. Fact of the matter is, that we live in a depraved society full of people who desperately need a relationship with the Prince of Peace!
That is one thing that makes me so proud to be able to serve in a small way in relation to this "School of Providence and Prayer". In this very fertile mission field of "The Big Easy" about 3,000 men and women are enrolled in various study programs, helping prepare them for various careers in fulfilling the Great Commission. Many of them are already heavily involved in active ministry right here and now in the New Orleans area. While being a seminary of national academic renown, NOBTS is a great evangelistic force in the mission field where it is planted. The evangelistic fervor lives from the top down on campus. NOBTS is led by Dr. Chuck Kelley. Inside the academic persona of Dr. Kelley, beats the heart of an evangelist. In fact, prior to his election as President of NOBTS, he served this school as a Professor of Evangelism. He continues to lead today, surrounded by a top notch cadre of administrators, faculty, and staff who believe deeply in the concept of John 3:16. The natural progression from that truth, leads to the urgency of fulfilling Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8.
My regular committee meets at 3:00PM today and we will close with a Trustee/Faculty dinner this evening in the dining hall. Tomorrow will be a full day. I will be in the Executive Committee meeting at 9:00 AM. At 11:00 we'll have a tour of the new apartment buildings now well under construction. After lunch, the entire Trustee Board will meet in Plenary Session until dinner time. We should finish up around 8:00 Wednesday evening, then it will packing and a short night's sleep in order to be at the airport at 6:00 AM Thursday. I am blessed, and feel it a deep honor to be able to serve in this capacity. We as Southern Baptists can be proud of the job that is being done in all of our Seminaries, and especially here at NOBTS.
Just after arriving yesterday, Jay and I took a quick trip out to New Orleans East. That area was hard hit by flooding during Hurricane Katrina as the storm surge poured up through the now closed Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (or MR.GO as it is called here). Jay has recently been contacted by an individual who is interested in donating a house and piece of property in a subdivision there to our ministry. Beacon Ministries, Inc. is considering receiving this donation. We have spoken to our attorney and as a Kentucky Non Profit Corporation, we would be allowed to receive it and use it for non profit purposes. The house is in a neighborhood that is rebounding from the hurricane's damages. Roughly half of the houses in the subdivision have been renovated and are inhabited. Others remain empty with lots overgrown with weeds. This house has been completely gutted. It appears to be structurally sound, but would require heavy renovation. A brother who was heavily involved as a property evaluator with the Operation NOAH Rebuild will be accompanying Jay to the property to assess the rehabilitation possibilities. We feel that if renovation is feasible, there is enough volunteer power to do the work. We would have to rely on donations of materials, but our God has all the resources that are needed. Possibilities for the home include (but are not limited to) a potential home for missionaries on furlough, low cost housing for a seminary student family, or a guest house for visiting mission teams coming to work in New Orleans. We are excited about the possibilities, but praying for God's leadership in the matter. Here is a photo of the house as it appears today.
Monday, April 5, 2010
Our pastor's wife was the epitome of grace and dignity. She was the unofficial standard of decorum in a rather unconventional congregation. Our church was located in the Guyandotte section of Huntington. Guyandotte was named for the river whose headwaters begin in the mountains of southern West Virginia and empties into the Ohio, just across from Proctorville, OH. It was a settled community before Poage's Landing (which later became Huntington) extended it's borders to include the old town. There had been a skirmish there during the Civil War, and the territory changed hands between the Union and the confederacy several times.
By the late 1950's and early 60's Guyandotte was best known for it's bars, gamblers, bootleggers, ladies of the evening and other colorful characters. Into that mission field, Carl and LaVerne Vallance came to serve the congregation of Thomas Memorial Free Will Baptist Church. Mrs. Vallance served as the "first lady" of the church for over 26 years. She was a wonderful example of grace and purity for all the young ladies there, and was loved by all of the older ladies as well.
Our family was closely linked to the Vallances, from the late 1940's when Dad and Pastor Vallance were both beginning their respective ministries in the coal mining country of Logan County. When we moved to Huntington in 1952, Brother and Sister Vallance had already taken up residence in Guyandotte, so it was natural that our family settled into Thomas Memorial Church. Dad eventually served for several years as Assistant Pastor at the church, and he and Brother Vallance often travelled together, preaching in revival meetings, homecomings, or conference meetings. Dad thought so much of his colleague, that he named our youngest brother, Carl, in the pastor's honor.
The Vallances always liked little Carl. Their own sons were already out of high school by 1965 and Carl was their little darling. His special status, however, was seriously, although only temporarily, damaged when the five year old boy asked Sister Vallance "The Question".
She was talking to several of the older ladies just after Sunday morning services had concluded on this particular Lord's Day. My little brother approached the pastor's wife and began to tug gently on her stylish blazer.
"LaVerne! ... LaVerne!... LaVerne!"
Somewhat agitated, she looked down and said impatiently, "What is it, Carl?"
"Does your underwear have holes in it?" he queried.
Sister Vallance was aghast! With every ounce of her righteous indignation, she scolded the lad for asking such an impertinent and improper question. Yet he pressed on.
"Well, does it?"
"It most certainly does not!" she huffed.
"Well", he replied innocently, "How do you get your legs through?"
The laughter could be heard in the parking lot!