I am in the midst of a revival of hope and unexpected direction for my life. The past nine years or so have been extremely difficult for me. By no means am I, or have I been, suicidal; however, there have been times when I found relief in the certainty of death and eternity in heaven.
This condition of despairing and profound lamenting was the result of watching what I see as the deterioration of America … this nation that I love, believe in and appreciate beyond description. This time of despair and lament was compounded by my response to approaching 70 years of age and feeling it. That combination produced thoughts of just taking life easy. That is, playing golf and not making any effort to assertively help address the ills of our society. In the end, I could find no peace in that approach. Every day became a time of struggle as I tried to do what I believed to be God’s will for me. It was a miserable time.
Then, along came this young preacher, Reverend Robert M. James Jr. For a little over one year, he has been the pastor at First Baptist Church (Anderson Street) in Fayetteville. I am a member of that church.
To my surprise, James is an exceptional preacher and pastor. My commendation of him should not be read to mean James agrees with my social, political or theological positions. My intent here is to share the very positive impact of his preaching in helping me start to, amazingly, break free of my despairing and lamenting. For me, he is proving to be “a messenger of encouragement and instruction.”
Let me explain the “to my surprise” statement in the preceding paragraph. Consider the following: I spent my teenage years listening to the preaching of my father who was a master sermon-crafter and presenter; have heard some of the great preachers of years past; earned a seminary degree; served as a pastor. Beyond this, my experience as a member of various churches has been where older, seasoned individuals were pastor.
All of that has shaped my conception of meaningful worship. Not for a moment do I contend my concept of worship is the only one acceptable to God. What I have seen recently by way of contemporary music in worship is often an atmosphere that reminds me of a place of entertainment and sermons that neither solidly encourage nor instruct. I was afraid this 32-year-old would bring that to this church where we still sing from hymnals. Finally, I did not expect a powerful and profound preacher at such a young age.
I was not in town when James and his family came for his “candidacy weekend.” He preached, and there was an event that allowed for interacting with the congregation. When I returned, all the reports regarding the weekend were glowing. Even though I was not there for the weekend, the Pastor Search Committee had provided information on the candidate. At some point, I knew he was a graduate of Wake Forest University and Yale Divinity School. Given my greatly diminished confidence in institutions of higher learning, due to the overwhelming majority of them being controlled by staunchly liberal adherents, I did not give much weight to his education.
In my absence, the membership voted to call James as pastor. Some weeks later, he walked to the lectern and started his first sermon as such. Five minutes into that first sermon, I realized God had provided — and the First Baptist Church membership had called — an extremely mature and gift- ed preacher.
Over this year of listening intently to his sermons, I knew the effect on me was positive. In part, because of those sermons, my periods of despair and lament were occurring less frequently. Instead of procrastinating and justifying it by my advanced age and some physical limitations, I found myself getting back in the struggle to help make America a better place. Not only was I getting back in the struggle, but I also was not giving up in the face of difficulty, challenges or unwarranted opposition.
I saw all of that in the first year of James’ preaching. However, it was near the end of his sermon Aug. 27 that I realized the positive impact on me of his preaching was far greater than I had recognized. That’s when I knew I had to write about his tremendous effectiveness as a “messenger of encouragement and instruction.”
The title of that Aug. 27 sermon was “Missed Miracles: God’s Helpers.” The Scripture reference was Exodus 17:8-13. The pastor opened by explaining that Moses was leading some 2.5 million people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in a land God promised. Leading this group was not easy for Moses. He had to deal with recurring complaints, whining and various demands from the people. In this passage, the Amalekites come to fight with Israel. Moses sends a group out to battle. He then goes to the top of a hill with Aaron, his aged brother, and Hur, a young man not shown in Scripture as popular. Watching the battle, Moses realizes that when he keeps his hands raised, Israel wins. When he lowers them, they lose. The arms of Moses get tired, and he is unable to keep them up consistently. Recognizing the situation, Aaron and Hur seat Moses on a rock and, with one on each side, support his arms. Because they helped Moses without being asked, Israel won the battle.
Rob James shared a personal experience that so powerfully burned the point of his sermon into my mind that it brought me to tears. He talked about, as a young fella, falling a lot. Falling was such a frequent occurrence that he did not get new jeans because the old ones were too small, but rather because his falling wore holes in the knees of jeans. He then recounted how, when he would fall, the huge hand of his father would, time and again, take hold of his small hand and help him get up and move along. There were also times when that huge hand of his father caught him during a fall.
Then the time arrived when James’ father became ill and needed his son’s hand. That loving father with the huge hands died when this future preacher and pastor was just 16 years old. In those 16 years, the circumstances of life allowed father and son to help each other.
The sermon closed with a call to action on our part to be helpers and open to being helped by others. Nearing the end of the sermon, James said “We don’t have to be powerful to do what God is doing. We don’t have to be or think we are as able-bodied as we used to be. Aaron is an old man, and he is able to help here. We don’t have to be somebody that is well-known. Who knows anything about Hur, other than this story? We just have to be willing to listen, to see and to try. And God can handle the rest.”
This young preacher is playing a major role in God’s process of getting me back to listening, seeing and trying to help build a better world. A reasonable question is how does a person take on, like Rob James, those qualities that make it possible to influence others for good? A 3 year-old at Wake Forest Baptist Church answered the question. She said to her mother, “Reverend Rob really loves God.” The good news is that this life-changing relationship with God is available to each of us through Jesus Christ.