On Sunday, Sept. 8, I found myself quietly crying during our pastor’s sermon. This was at First Baptist Church, at 201 Anderson St., where Rev. Rob James is pastor. It did concern me that, although my crying was silent, I could not stop it. Further, I was struggling to determine why I was crying. As the service ended, I went through the rear doors of the sanctuary and tried to avoid talking with anybody as I rushed to my truck.
It was on the drive home that I started to identify the reason for my tears. The primary prompt was an event from the previous week. On Thursday, Sept. 5, I finished writing a column titled, “Challenges to faith and reason.” That column responded to comments received from three readers relative to a couple of my recent columns. In my view, rather than addressing the thoughts put forth in those columns, they challenged the validity of my Christian faith and my capacity for reason-based thought. One of the three readers verbally assailed me for being a black male who dares to think as I do.
After finishing my response to those readers, I spent Friday and Saturday asking myself, “Given this kind of feedback and the accompanying alienation of me by so many people, especially in the black community, why the heck do I write?”
Answering that question is difficult because there are so many factors that say I should not be writing. First, I do not like writing; I do not enjoy it. That is especially true in light of the topics I find myself addressing. For me, producing a column every two weeks is draining mentally, emotionally, spiritually and even physically.
I suppose the draining aspect is because I love people and I love America. My 21½-year naval career took me all over the world — from the Western Pacific to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. No matter where I was overseas, no matter how beautiful or enjoyable the location, I always longed to be home in America. I thank God that I was born here. Seeing all that threatens the future of our nation, of our citizens, scares me, pains me. When I research to write about these threatening conditions, the deeper understanding of dangerous circumstance compounds my fear and pain.
Second, in these senior citizen years, I could be alternating between playing golf, fishing and traveling. Instead, with little or no financial benefit, I find myself in front of a computer doing something I do not even enjoy.
Third, in light of one particular experience, I wonder about the sanity of my commitment to writing when the personal cost is rather high. I have been here before. In 2006, I joined with two other individuals to start a nonprofit organization: Great Oak Youth Development Centers, Inc. The aim was to help black boys build a foundation for successful living. In 2006, I was a Realtor® in Fayetteville. I loved the business, thoroughly enjoyed it and worked with wonderful people. However, in 2009, I left real estate to volunteer full-time with Great Oak. I do not think there was a week when my volunteer hours were less than 50.
However, I was forthright regarding my conservative views. That was not only the case in my interactions with others in the organization but also in my writing and public speaking. That conservatism was not welcomed internally, or externally. At one point, it was brought to my attention that people were calling to say they would not financially support the organization as long as I was there. In 2015, I left Great Oak.
One would think, after this experience, I would have gone back to real estate and enjoyed the rest of my life. Instead, I got more involved in the political process and far more vocal in espousing my conservative views. Now, in 2019, I find myself still paying the price for believing what I believe and not hesitating to proclaim it.
It is against this backdrop that I found myself crying amid a Sunday sermon. Rob James, this young, extremely gifted, cowboy-boot-wearing preacher steps to the lectern. He starts what is the second in a series of sermons. The point of the series is to have us understand God is calling each of us to ministry, regardless of the work we do. That ministry is possible in, and through, our work. He makes it clear that this call is also extended to retirees. To demonstrate this truth, he spends time working with people in their daily employment. The sermons share where he saw ministry happening through the actions of people with whom he worked.
The first sermon was based on his time spent as a barista in a coffee shop. My crying came during the second sermon as he talked about working with two gravediggers. Among other details, James explained how these gravediggers are made to feel ostracized. He related riding with them in a van, headed to a gravesite. At a point along one street, a vehicle comes alongside them; the people in that vehicle make eye contact and seem pleasant. Then, seeing the funeral home name on the van’s side, and the backhoe being towed, they look straight ahead and drive on. They want no further connection.
The two gravediggers share with Rev. James their experience in grocery stores when wearing their uniforms. Their observation is that recognizing what they do and that they are associated with death, people refuse to make eye contact. These men must feel separated and alone. However, James reported that when he asked why they work as gravediggers, both responded that they love what they do.
What I realized on the drive home was that I was identifying with those gravediggers in their having reason to feel alienated and ostracized. That is, because of my experiences, although not recognizing what was happening, I was feeling great compassion for those men. This identifying during the sermon was painful. I believe that explains my crying, but since I do not love writing, it does not explain my commitment to writing.
I love and appreciate God more than words can adequately describe. My absolute desire is to know and do his will, what he calls me to be and do. I am convinced that his calling now is for me to write. However, in my humanness, during experiences such as referred to in the opening, and then this crying episode, I wonder why such suffering if I am in God’s will?
God used James to, at the end of that sermon, bring me back to where I belong. That is, at peace, at this computer doing what God desires of me. He quoted from, and commented on, Matthew 5:11-12 (KJV) where Jesus says:
“11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
“12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”
Love of God — and of people — and commitment to doing his will mandate that I write; being reviled and persecuted come with the assignment. My “Why the heck …” question was answered. If it comes up again, and it likely will, I will go back and read this column. This is my story, but, with different pieces, it might be yours, too. If so, I hope my sharing and transparency help you answer your “Why the heck …” question.
(Watch the sermon “Holy Jobs: Grave Digger-Sacred Groundskeeper” by Rev. Rob James at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZN6CPWNBOdk)