SAILING SOLO IN THE STORM
By Pastor John Duncan
Ellen MacArthur named her sail boat Mobi. This was no ordinary boat. This boat operated as a sophisticated, state-of-the-art trimaran sail boat, seventy-five feet long with strong sails. The boat was equipped with a computer and supplies to cruise around the world. Ellen MacArthur determined in November 2004 to break the world record for sailing solo on a sailboat around the world.
She crossed the starting line on November 28, 2004. The journey lasted seventy-one days. She became the fastest person ever to make it around the world solo in a sail boat. Writing these words make it sound so easy, a cruise around the world on seas of triumph. Other competitors warned her of the challenges ahead. Off she sailed. However, she almost did not make it. She faced fierce winds, roaring waves anxious to devour her boat, physical injury, emotional exhaustion, and numerous other hardships along the way.
On one occasion the sail boat’s generator heated up, sputtered, spit fumes, coughed, and died. Ellen had a team of advisors, path plotters, strategic leaders, encouragers, and trouble shooters connected to her via an onboard computer. A doomed generator could mean a failed journey. One trouble shooter advised her to try using olive oil to bring it back to life. Miraculously, the olive oil worked and Ellen felt a sigh of relief accompanied by a shout of joy mid-sea.
On other days Mobi faced storms, storms creating raucous waves some forty feet tall, monstrous waves that tossed the sail boat like a bottle fighting survival to stay afloat on a raging ocean. One storm produced forty-five-foot waves that aimed to destroy both her and the sail boat. The twenty-eight-year-old Ellen dreamed of breaking the world record, but she never dreamed she would have to strap herself in the boat like a race car driver, to hang on for dear life, to navigate to safety, and to ride out the storm like an out-of-control roller coaster bobbing up and down and around on a windy, turbulent, angry sea. Mobi slammed into one wave after another.
In a fearful moment like that Ellen mustered courage, fearlessness, and perseverance unmatched. She described surviving one storm this way: “Your heart is literally in your throat.”
Ellen faced the daily spray of the sea which dried her skin and left salt sores that had she had to treat with her supply of ointment and medicine. She faced sleep deprivation, long days, uncertainty at times, and mental exhaustion.
Her greatest challenge though went way beyond olive oil solutions in a crisis, hanging on for dear life in a storm, trying to get sleep, heating up freeze-dried spaghetti for a meal, or worrying the boat might capsize in a storm where 43-degree water meant almost instant death. Her greatest challenge involved the sails. One sail ripped. Ellen had to climb onto the deck, steady herself, and scale one-hundred feet up the mast of the sail boat to repair the torn sail. All this happened quickly, in a matter of minutes, in a fit for survival, in the fury of a storm, and in her first attempt she cut her finger. She had to retreat to the deck, bandage her finger, and scale the mast again to fix the sail.
Her injury stinging, she later jokingly said her medical team told her to keep her hand elevated. After the sail repair she acknowledged that climbing the mast, repairing the sail, and clinging to life by a flimsy thread was not easy. “It was like trying to hang on to a telegraph (telephone) pole in an. earthquake,” she said. Fighting the wind, waves, water, mother nature, the sea, and the test of her physical limits, Ellen described the daily battle as a constant war of two things: adrenaline and turbulence.
I have been a pastor for over forty years and I can identify. My whole life pastoring churches might be described as a daily battle in a constant war of two things: adrenaline and turbulence. The adrenaline kicks in on Sundays, preaching multiple worship services, attending meetings, and caring for the needs of people. I loved all of it and still do, but some days the pastor-generator sputters, fumes, spits, and faces near exhaustion only to repeat the same experience the next week. The turbulence comes in church problems, the ministry of staff and people, financial woes at church, and, sometimes, the relentless pursuit of holiness and excellence in a world that beats against you like waves, wind, and water in the adventurous roller coaster ride of ministry.
No doubt, some days you look up and the sails are ripped and you scale the mast and hang on for dear life only to live to describe the experience in picturesque words, “It was like trying to hang on to a telegraph (telephone) pole in an earthquake.”
My life as a pastor has given me great joy, innumerable challenges, a pound of strength doubled by an ounce of pain mixed with laughter, tears, hope, and disappointment. Yet Christ as an anchor I have thrived, survived, and, by his grace, repaired enough sails to keep the boat trolling the ministry seas. Even as I write, though, one friend recently told me twenty-five percent of pastors will resign after Covid-19 ends. Another report explains pastoral exhaustion, ministry burnout, and discouragement among God’s servants in ministry. The ministry faces new challenges and oncoming storms amid a rising tide of troubles. Still, God’s grace is sufficient.
You’ve been there, too. Right? That “hanging-on-for-dear-life-feeling-while-hanging-on-to-a -telephone-pole-in-a-crisis-feeling?” Remember, the earth may quake, but Christ is your anchor in the storm and the key to an unshakable kingdom. All you can do is “be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe…” Hebrews 12:28).
Back to Mobi, Ellen MacArthur, and the joy of breaking a world record to be the fastest person to sail around the world solo. For all the things the wonderful, record-setting British lady said after finishing her course in grand fashion was this. She confessed that what kept her going in the near exhaustion, in the storms, and on the path to victory was, of all things, email messages sent from her fans who tracked her course through the world-wide Web. Internet messages sailed over invisible cables to her computer to lift her spirits, to add perseverance to her quest, and to encourage her up and down journey. And there it is. The one thing everybody needs: encouragement.
The poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) penned rhythmic poetic verse in memorable words. Eliot’s famous poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock inks that interesting question,
Do I dare
Disturb the universe…?
Followed by the mysterious words, “Have I known evenings, mornings, and afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” I guess Eliot drank a ton of coffee. But did you know that Eliot would never have been a great poet nor a winsome writer had it not been for the guidance, editorial skills, and encouragement of the noted Ezra Pound?
And as writing goes, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby does not write one of the wonderful literary masterpieces in history had it not been for the edits and encouragement of Scott’s friend and the famed editor Maxwell Perkins. None of us ever really sail solo.
Basketball champion and NBA star Michael Jordan in the documentary “The Dance” named two people as his biggest encouragers. First, he named his father, James. After the death of his father, second, his personal security guard Gus became his number one encourager. Jordan discussed this encouragement and these encouragers with tears. Encouragement dives deep in the soul. It is personal, emotional. What would we do without encouragement?
The apostle Paul received encouragement the son of encouragement himself, Barnabas (Acts 3:36; 9:27). Without Barnabas Paul might well have been another discouraged Christian. Instead Barnabas taught Paul to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:1). Paul taught Timothy to walk with Christ with the strong faith of a soldier, the discipline of an athlete, and the resilience of a farmer. One disciples another by encouragement. Paul learned such wisdom from Barnabas.
“Therefore,” Paul writes, “encourage one another and build each other up, just as in just as in fact you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). In scripture our belief in Christ holds us together and gives us courage to encourage others. Christ is also our bond who holds us together by encouragement. We help each other. We learn two are better than one. In Christ we put our best foot forward for the future because of the encouragement of others.
So I’ve said all this to say. The waves rise high. The winds blow strong. The water beats against the boat. The storm rages. The journey we travel often possesses obstacles, ripped sails, disappointment, and unexpected twists and turns. Encouragement helps us stay the course. Encouragement helps us keep going. Christian encouragement gives us the courage to no we do not fight the battle alone. In Christ we never face a storm or battle solo. Encouragement carries us home to safe harbor. Everybody needs encouragement.
So find someone to encourage today. Call a friend. Write a note of encouragement or thanks to a fellow laborer. Disturb the universe with encouragement, love, and joy. Hug a pastor. Oops, in a Covid-19 era, you should probably just send a card. After all, encouragement is the one thing everybody needs.
I'm sitting here under the old oak tree wondering where summer has gone.
The Great British
Baking Show and the
During this coronavirus pandemic, quarantine, and disruption of my usual routine I’ve resorted to watching The Great British Baking Show. While we’re learning new terms like Zoom, Covid 19, shelter in place, social distancing, and the stimulus bill, I am learning to bake. I miss church, Luka magic and the Dallas Mavericks of the NBA, Major League Baseball, and the shining moments of NCAA basketball’s Final Four. If you’d asked me two months ago if I watched The Great British Baking Show on Netflix I could tell you the score from last night’s favorite game, but I couldn’t tell you how to navigate Netflix much less what recipe the Great Britain bakers would drum up under the white tent.
The show begins with a baking assignment and an annoying voice, either comedian Sue’s or Mel’s, as they announce, “On your mark. Get set. Bake.” Once you get past the annoying start the show offers entertainment, tension, competition, and drama. The directors give the bakers instruction to make British dishes like Cornish pasties, dishes like Yorkshire pudding, Shepherd’s pie, Queen of puddings, thin flavorful crackers, or a “showstopper” cake or a “showstopper” project like the gingerbread construction of Big Ben’s Clock, Buckingham Palace, the Roman Coliseum, or a house in the English countryside.
In case you’re interested, some of the food looks delightful and delicious, yet some of it…not so much.
One guy made a British farmhouse from gingerbread with cereal used for the roof with two blue birds sitting in front of the door. The guy possessed skills, imagination, and a unique ability to make stuff taste good. I know, you have no more idea what the bakers are baking than I do describing it. The “what’s next” drama adds to the excitement and tension.
Add to this that I am watching the show with a great cookie baker who watches in the chair next to me. It’s all high drama, a little intimidating, and, of course, not quite Final Four basketball exciting, but exciting enough in these strange times. The tension builds.
The tension climaxes when judges English celebrity chef Paul John Hollywood, British food writer and television presenter Mary Berry, and journalist-cookery writer, and novelist Prue Leith judge each baker’s food of the hour. If you do well, a “well done” follows. If not, the food critics share their expertise: too dry; too soft in the middle; missing something; too much cinnamon; not quite right; too hard; something went wrong; or, occasionally, a total disaster. You feel the “I’m doomed” feeling in some of the bakers. It creates sympathy and empathy from me as an engaged viewer.
Paul John Hollywood is the Simon Cowell of the Great British Baking Show, coarse, often curt, a shrewd critic, and, once in a while, almost mean to the bakers. His voice adds to the tension, the drama, and the excitement/disappointment of each baker’s hopes, dreams, and realized baking ambitions.
A star baker is announced at each session, one person gets sent home, and at the end of the ten weeks the show crowns a winner. The judge passes a bouquet of flowers to the winner.
You feel empathy and compassion for the people who get sent home. Just the other night I felt sadness for bakers Ryan, Mary Jane, and Cathryn whom judges sent home.
Two things surprise me about the show: first, the tears, ever flowing tears, rivers of tears when things go bad in the baking or the solidarity of tears amid hugs when a contestant gets sent home; second, the pressure of time. I could bake a cake, no problem, but adding the pressure of time to the bakers appears to fluster most of them. Time marches. Who knew measuring sugar and spice and mixing it in time could add such excitement to life?
Loving all things British, The Great British Baking Show takes me back into history. I found myself thinking of the beautiful British countryside that I’ve seen numerous times on my past rain rides to Cambridge or at Stonehenge or the scenic Cotswolds or near Windsor Castle.
I thought of London during an outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1625 where thousands of people died. I thought of the Pastor/Priest/Poet John Donne of Saint Paul’s Cathedral (1572-1631) during that time. Donne’s life moved along with ups and downs, many twists and turns as he attended Cambridge and Oxford Universities, encountered burdensome debts in his younger years, wrote poetry, went to prison, became a lawyer, served as a politician, and struggled in his middle years with daily emotional conflict and agonized ill health.
In his later years, in a surprising turn, on January 23, 1615, sixteen years before his death, Donne took orders in the Anglican Church, served as a minister, and became a masterful preacher. In the plague of 1625 London newspapers reported as many as one thousand people a day dying from the plague, Black Death as it was named. The worst of the plague came later in London in 1665-1666. In 1664 London locals saw a bright comet in the sky. Londoners assumed this was a bad omen. Apparently, it was a bad omen. The British National Archives estimates by the end of 1665 over 100,000 people died with 7,165 dying in one week.
In 1625 Donne performed funerals, finally fled the city to preserve a measure of health, and returned to preach the Christmas Homily of 1625. He wrote about a flea that caused death, a reference to the plague caused by an infestation of rats in the city and transported to humans via a flea bite. He wrote his book Devotions where he penned that famous line, facing death himself, “I am John Donne undone.” He wrote his infamous words, “Death be not proud” and “Batter my heart three-person’d God for you…” and “make me new” and “No man is an island…” and “Since you are then God’s masterpiece….” and “Repaire me now…” and “O Savior…Restore thine image, so much, by thy grace…” He penned poetic words and drenched them with wet tears, a valediction of weeping, tears, “Fruits of much grief they are…” Ultimately, tears of grief became both Donne’s chosen sermon topic and his personal pain.
The bakers crying was one thing, but the pressure of time in England was something London also knew during the blitzkrieg of Hitler’s assault on London in WWII. Parents sent their children to countryside homes, farms and safe places, while they defied Hitler’s arrogance and stayed in London after Winston Churchill’s inspiring “We shall fight on the beaches…landing grounds, fields, streets, and in the hills; we shall never surrender…” speech. Children placed their heads on soft pillows at night and cried for their parents; parents wept for their children; everyone wept for the hope of peace and an end to war. Surprisingly, tears flowed as perseverance, endurance, and grit in a time of uncertainty, tears that turned the tide and defeated Hitler’s regime. Was it the end of the world? Was it the end of time?
Military veterans, citizens of England, and survivors of WW II inherited from the tragedy of war a deep, embedded, vivacious quest for time, the value of time, and the cherished memory of time.
Pandemics are not new. A crisis of huge proportions is not specific to one era time, but it sure impacts how persons view time.
We live in unprecedented times. In fact, I never dreamed I’d be watching tears on a baking show any more than I thought I’d live to see the spread of the coronavirus, the collapse on a world economy, doctors and nurses frantically and heroically working to save the sick, and, sadly, people dying alone.
I think it’s time for tears; a time for us to ask God to repair us, make us new, to help this time bear fruit that unites us and restore us by his grace. I think it’s time for tears, tears of perseverance, endurance, and grit in this time of uncertainty, tears of empathy and compassion for our fellow man and tears of grief in solidarity with those who have lost loved ones.
All, told, like Donne in the 1600s or military veterans in WW II, it’s time to ask the Lord to put our tears in a bottle like the Psalmist (56:8): “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Let’s put tears in a bottle and place them in windowsills as reminder to look to God and pray, to value the people in our lives, to love our neighbor, to grieve with the grief-stricken, and to value time in an effort to live life to the fullest in the glory of hope that falls from heaven.
T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality” and how often we are “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Maybe, cell phone in hand, we need diversion from the chaos, the distraction, and troubles of our time, diversions like NFL, MLB, NBA, the NCAA’s shining moments of the Final Four, or The Great British Baking Show. Nonetheless, may we never forget the reality at hand, that is, to pray for human kind, for empathy, for compassion, and for shared tears stored in a bottle as a reminder of shared humanity in crisis and of God’s love, his Shepherding, his sustaining strength under the pressure of time, and his hope that he can above our our fears in these trying times.
John D. Duncan is a writer, co-pastor, pastor-scholar, and an avid sports fan, especially of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks Basketball, and, apparently, a fan of the Great British Baking Show
Turning Sixty: The Snow on Mount Herman
I never knew his name was Albert. Actually, his full name sounded like this: Albert Burleson Christensen. Born in the rural confines of Somervell County not too far from the Brazos River and in a community still called the Rainbow community, A.B.C. as his initials summarized his name, entered earth just as he left it: full of wide-eyed wonder and overflowing with joy. Christensen hails as a Danish-Norwegian surname, originally spelled “Kristensen.” Today in Denmark two percent of the population carry the name Christianson, also spelled Christenson or Kristenson.
The surname makes for interesting chatter for two reasons: First, A.B.C was born to John B. and Myrtle Caldwell Christensen on January 7, 1931. His father and mother moved the family from Rainbow to Kristenstad, in what today swirls with pecan trees, flowering homes, and a meandering Brazos River in the, now, formally called Pecan Plantation and DeCordova Bend residential areas near Granbury, Texas. The Christensens moved to Kristenstad, literally, “Town of Christian.” The legendary Fort Worth Press in the 1930’s declared Kristenstad a modern utopia, a place to rebuild, a haven for jobs, and as a place to get a loan to buy cows, chickens, and to buy land to make a living wage to live a happy life. If you lived in Kristenstad you would also give ten percent of your earnings to the local “Town of Christian” to provide security and money to help other members of the community. The curmudgeon bi-focal wearing, cigarette-smoking, poor-wit writers and editors at the Fort Worth Press designated the town of Kristenstad a Danish-Scandinavian community, a “socialist” colony. But it appears the community made an honest attempt at living out the Gospel, at bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), and at creating a by-love-serve-another community of helping brothers and sisters in the struggles of a hard-scrabble life. Historians described it as a “work-if-you-eat” town. Historians described John B. as “about six-foot tall and a very likable person.” I am not making this up.
As a side note Kristenstad grew as a small town with rock houses, a school, a post office and a brush arbor for church. At some point the water supply went bad and Kristenstad became a legendary Texas ghost town. By 1949 the Leonard Brothers purchased the six thousand acres of Kristenstad and later turned a profit on the land by growing trees and plants for their nursery in Fort Worth. Their big payday came when they created the DeCordova and Pecan Plantation residential communities.
History affords interesting tidbits, bite-sized information that adds up to press releases, hard-knock lives, hardscrabble farms, and living each day by grace working the land. For it was said in Kristenstad in the 1930’s, “We need God’s grace to stand success as much as we need it in adversity.”
Adversity came all too swift. Often it does. By the time A.B.C. turned six he knew the pain of life, the pain of the land, and the pain of loss. Albert’s dad, John Benjamin Christensen from Missouri by way of Denmark, died. Records show that he died in Rainbow, but, more than likely, he died in the “Town of Christian,” in the shadows of God’s grace, in the arms of God’s love and comfort, and in the arms of God’s shepherding care. “John B,” as the locals called him, was a man ahead of time, one who promoted water conservation, rural electricity, and paid for time on the radio so that locals could listen to music play over the airwaves. But the man ahead of his time ran out of time and died prematurely. A.B.C was only six years of age.
The French Novelist Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897) once penned a book entitled La Doulou, translated “The Pain” or the “In the Land of Pain.” He wrote of pain’s physical effects on his mind, his friends, family, and imagination. He wrote, “Pain blots out the horizon, fills everything.” Young Albert Christensen knew pain, the loss of a father, and, as Daudet laments, “the invasion” of pain that plunges like a dagger. Yet, somehow, Daudet, who suffered in agonizing pain for over twenty years, felt suffering instructive, a path to moral and intellectual growth. In the deep and dark of pain Daudet somehow wished to be a “vendor of happiness.” Pain arrived in Al’s life as an uninvited guest, an unwelcome thief, and an unwanted intruder.
In grief Al’s mother Myrtle had moved Al and his three brothers Odin, Homer, and David and sister, Fakey, to Dallas. The city afforded opportunity, hope, and family support in the calamity of grief and the cloudiness of an uncertain future.
Second, the surname Christensen provides interest because of the name of “Christ” in the name. And that’s how I met Albert, whom I’ve only known as “Al” and only known as a deacon in a church where I pastored and had only known as a saint. But more about the saint part later.
I knew him as a superb Christian, if “Christian” and “superb” can go together. I knew him as a friend. I knew him as a friend to me, to pastors, and to the church he longed to serve. If I could pin one word to Al’s back, I would pin the word, “servant.”
Life takes amazing twists and turns, because it was on the land not too far from Kristenstad, not too far from Rainbow, and just around the bend from the Brazos River that I first met Al. Riding my lawnmower, Al and his granddaughter stopped by in their car. I talked to him though the car window, enjoyed his cheerful spirit, and enjoyed through the years his wisdom, joy, care, and seasoned grace. We talked life and joy, church and Christ, and Al’s mile filled the day with happiness. Al operated as a vendor of happiness. An apple does not fall far from a tree, he was about six-foot tall, had a likable spirit, and glowed with grace, Amazing Grace.
Now that I think about it, seems Al moved from Dallas to Granbury to get back to his roots, to get close to the land, to get in touch with his past, and to refresh his life with a slower pace not too far from his homesteads, Rainbow and Kristenstad.
I am not sure why Al’s parents named him “Al,” for all I can tell John B. and Myrtle should have named him Barnabas, “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36), or “Saint Barnabas,” or “Joseph or Joses the Levite” (Barnabas’s original name), after Paul’s chief friend and encourager. Barnabas, that son of encouragement or consolation, sold his property, gave the proceeds to the community, and took the apostle Paul on a missionary journey (Acts 4:36-37; 11:25). It was Barnabas who took Paul to his side, encouraged him, and discipled him when the other disciples wanted nothing to do with Paul, a former persecutor of the church before God’s blazing light saved him on the Damascus Road.
Al grew up in Dallas, served in the United States Air Force in the Korean War, married his wife Joann Cheeves on April 23, 1949, had a family, and worked as a used car salesman at Goode-Taylor Pontiac until 1995 when he moved to Granbury and we visited in the front yard at my house.
What captures my attention about Al is that he never talked about himself, his accomplishments, or his job. He seemed more interested in YOU, rather than trying to get you interested in him. How many times did old Al, “Barnabas,” that “son of encouragement” come by my office to check on me? How many times did he tell me great sermon, good job, or “pastors have a tough job, but you seem to handle it well.” How many times did we talk over the phone over the last several years and he ended by saying, “We sure do miss you?” Who is “we?” The church? His family? The dog? He and Joann? Pastors come and go and are forgotten faster than you can say “Mother Teresa,” but Al always made me feel like family, special, gifted, and a valued member of society. He possessed a special gift of encouragement, sprinkling happiness, joy, encouragement, and love as gently as the refreshing snow falling on trees in the mountains. Compassion oozed as ministry. Compassion and sympathy wired together as a gift he shared with the excitement of human electricity.
But you have to wonder, or at least I do, where did the compassion come from? From Christ, of course. Probably from John B., too. Probably from his walk with God’s Word, for sure. Probably from empathy that feels another’s pain. Probably from the wish to make the world a better place, too.
But let me offer this as a possibility. Maybe, just maybe, in the depths of Al’s soul, God’s grace equipped him to be a steward of his own pain. The writer Frederick Buechner once spoke of his own father dying when Buechner was ten years of age. Buechner once shared with a group of listeners about his own struggles, the loss of his father and it effects, and the pain and joy in life and death.
A man walked up to Buechner after his grieving words and said, “You’ve had a fair amount of pain in your life, like everybody else, you’ve been a good steward of it. You’ve been a good steward of your pain” (Buechner, Crazy, Holy, Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory, 16). Christ by his crazy, holy grace transformed Buchner’s life and pain so that Buechner became a steward of both his life and pain.
It’s a far reach, but I think Al became a good steward of his own pain. By God’s grace this gave him insight into the human condition, human hopes, human hurts, and the human heart in the land of pain. Because of that grace and insight God equipped Al to care for others, to demonstrate deep compassion, and to encourage the weak, downtrodden, depressed, and weary saints on life’s journey. Compassion flowed from a well of pain in the pursuit of God’s holiness that spewed rivers of mercy to those who needed it most.
When I was a young pastor at Lakeside where Al became one of my favorite deacons and one of my favorite people on planet earth. I once visited a lady who lost her husband. She said something I’ll always remember about her husband who died. She said, “He was a fine man. He’s leaving a big hole and there’s gonna be a big hole to fill. Some big shoes to fill.”
The priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1884-1889) once quipped,
No matter, child, the name,
Sorrow’s springs are still the same.
Tears flowed as she uttered those words about the hole. Sorrow’s springs flow. And even now as I write, sorrow’s springs are still the same in me. Tears flow.
Right now I am thinking of Al. A big hole has been left-in our hearts, in his family, in the church, and in the world. Pleading tears arrive, who will fill it? Who will fill the hole? Who will fill those big shoes? Who will step up and encourage the saints?
Maybe the point is that no one has to fill the empty hole, but we all have to encourage our brothers and sisters. We all have to live as vendors of happiness in the land of pain. We all must be good stewards of our pain, yield life’s hurt, disappointment, and agonizing pain to God’s grace so that God can transform the pain into a way to minister to and help others. It’s in the Bible, actually, “God comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
But of all the verses in the Bible, maybe Psalm 116:15: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Al was a saint in life as in death. Precious indeed. What does a saint do? Loves. Encourages. Helps. Guides. Strengthens others. Weeps with those who weep. Prays. Demonstrates compassion. A saint lives with zest and gusto. A saint vendors happiness. A saint sows Gospel-seeds of joy.
It’s almost Christmas and one of my last memories of Al involved Christmas Eve. He served the Lord’s Supper at church. The choir sang. The congregation lifted up a chorus of voices of praise and Glory Alleluia to the New Born King, we shared the Lord’s Supper as a congregation, whispered Silent Night in a song of hushed adoration to Christ, lit our candles in the dark church and starlit night, and exited the church quietly. There was Al: passing out the Lord’s Supper elements of the bread and cup, picking up candles after church, and for all I know, locking the church doors in the silence of Christmas Eve. There was Al, doing what he did best: serving, caring, encouraging the saints in the shadows of the manger beneath a golden star.
As so here it is almost Christmas again and I think of Al on Christmas Eve. I imagine when he got to heaven saint Peter and another Lakeside deacon Riley Robeson greeted him. Riley walked him to Jesus. You can only imagine how that went, worship and praise, humility and grace, and a river of tears, for sorrow’s springs equal tears of overflowing joy. And you can imagine a banquet, around a table, a family reunion with John B. and Myrtle, and a church family reunion with Lester and Erma, Riley and Laverne, and Elaine Smith. Riley prayed. Laverne served the roast and potatoes and pecan pie. Lester stared, listened. Erma kept the conversation going. And Elaine Smith said, “What took you so long? I couldn’t wait to get here!” And the angels cried holy. And a heavenly host gave praise to God, announcing. “Do not be afraid. For I bring you good tidings of great joy.” And old Al grabbing the saxophone and melodiously blowing through that tube the song of songs, Amazing Grace. Who knew Al played the saxophone? Heaven added a saxophone player to its orchestra. Who knew? Heaven’s Christmas joy.
And the streets of gold, the marble, the cherubim and seraphim, and Jesus’s eyes like a flame of fire with a rainbow over his head, well, you just have to be there to comprehend it. Who can comprehend it? But one thing happens in heaven, for sure, grace flows freely. Mercy triumphs. Joy explodes.
It’s almost Christmas and here I am thinking of Al. I love that Christmas movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” George Bailey, the angel Clarence, and the drifting snow in Bedford falls. The angel Clarence bellowed out those iconic words, “George Bailey, you’ve had a wonderful life.” But my favorite quote from the movie is this: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
Al Christensen lived a full life, a wonderful life, a life as the saint of encouragement, a Barnabas-like life. He leaves a big hole. He has touched so many lives. I know he touched mine.
If Baptists had a pope I would call him up and say, “Albert Burleson Christensen just died. Make him a saint. Let’s make him a saint! Now!” Saint Al, servant of the Most-High God, servant of the church, servant of people, servant who in Christ-like humility served humanity. In the meantime, I’ll strike up the band, grab my saxophone, and invite you to join the orchestra and choir in Amazing Grace. And I’ll give thanks, yes, give thanks to God for his grace. Give thanks for each other. Give thanks for Al.
Yes, give thanks for grace that binds us together.
John D. Duncan is the Co-Pastor of The Church at Horseshoe Bay, Texas and a writer,
an adjunct professor, and the former Senior Pastor of Lakeside Baptist Church from 1987-2007.
A Saint: Christenson
and a Saxophone
I looked in the mirror the other day and observed that the snow continues to fall on Mount Hermon. Or if you read the preacher of Ecclesiastes, “All is vanity! All is vanity!,” then you understand what he means when he says, “…the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags himself along.” The snow falls and my hair turns gray. Slowly, surely, my head of hair grays. I move a little slower like the grasshopper dragging along. And if you read Ecclesiastes Chapter 12 the keepers of the house tremble, the stars grow dark, the grinders cease, the sound of grinding fades, men rise up at the sound of the birds, and their songs grow dim. In order, as you age your legs grow weaker, your eyesight fades, your teeth fall out, your hearing declines, and you wake up early to see the birds or are awakened by the faintest noise, and your voice fades.
I am turning sixty, birthday number 60, and the writer of Ecclesiastes was right. Life moves on. The body ages. He continues by saying, my paraphrase, “Before long, you’re going to the funerals of friends, family members go their eternal home, dust turns to dust and returns to the earth, and mourners wail in the streets.”
The preacher of Ecclesiastes says, “Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come” (12:1). If only I could remember my youth.
Not long ago I buried a pastor friend with eulogized words of “Keep seeking the things above” (Col. 3:1). In grief all I know to do is keep seeking the things above, where God is. Seek him.
Then my father died. The mountain boy left the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina at nineteen to join the United States Air Force. You can take the boy out of the mountains, but you cannot take the mountains out of the boy. My dad became an air traffic controller at one of the busiest airports in the world: Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. He achieved success in spite of the fact that he talked too slow, so they said, and spent his entire life never being in a hurry, moseying along like a grasshopper on a summer day. Yet, when he died recently, in spite of the fact that I am a pastor and funerals, death, and dust to dust, an eternal home, and mourners in the streets have been my lifelong routine, none of it feels like the grief I walk through now. The valley of the shadow of death dives deep and dark.
I have lived through upswings and downturns, weddings and funerals, tall mountain climbs and dark, lonesome valleys, rainy days and sunshiny days at the beach, the good and the bad-just enough to gain enough wisdom to know I have been through a lot, but have so much more to learn. Approaching sixty, I am finding, is not a crash landing, a final call, or the terminal of a final destination. It feels like a new beginning. I am just getting started.
Turning sixty I find I am more excited to see what God has in store than ever before. So what if the snow falls on Mount Hermon? Actually, the Arabs call Mount Hermon “Jebel el-Sheik,” “the gray-haired mountain,” because snow falls on the 9,100 feet mountain peak during the year. The mountain is also associated with dew, “the dew of Hermon” (Psalm 133:3), freshness, a fresh, dew-dropped morning supply for vegetation. Furthermore, the melting snow supplies water for the rivers below and, on top of that, visitors say that the eye-popping views create the wonder of immense joy and fascinates the human mind. In the Bible, Mount Hermon in Hebrew means “consecrated or sacred place.”
Mount Hermon is also associated with false worship (Judges 3:3), the wickedness of fallen angels (Enoch 6:1-6), and a curse.
So I am turning sixty. I aim in the next sixty years to capture the dew, the freshness of new journeys, new opportunities, and new adventures. Lord willing, I anticipate climbing new mountains and wading flowing rivers while hoping to serve as a resource, a river of encouragement to the downtrodden, the broken, and the weak. I aim to capture God’s fresh joy and expand the mind with new challenges, fresh information, and to feed my mind hungry curiosity. I long to discover new vistas and scale deep, dark valleys with careful wisdom in pursuit of God’s wisdom in the consecration of fresh experiences of worship with a wide-eyed openness to see what God has next.
Yet, I know, too, I must avoid false gods, false worship, and false pursuits. I know that the world swells with wickedness and curses loom as near as the tip of my nose. John the beloved warned of the desires of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). So in the next sixty years I pray, by God’s grace, I can defeat the temptation to worship false gods, to avoid the wicked angels of my inner self, to overpower life’s curses with the blessings of God Almighty.
I aim to live with wide-eyed wonder in anticipation of the Holy Spirit’s guidance and joy. All told, turning sixty and looking forward to the next sixty years will not be without hazards, trap doors, road blocks, and enticing detours. But I aim to stay on the narrow road and live by faith in the hope and love that God supplies.
I aim, as the writer of Ecclesiastes sounds forth, not only to remember my Creator, but to fear God and keep his commandments (Eccl. 12:13), to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, and mind, and to challenge others to do the same. And I pledge, so much as in me is, to live with grace, to shower the world with the dew of kindness, and to yield my life as an instrument of peace to help others.
The Roman orator, politician, lawyer, and statesman Cicero (106-43 B.C.) once quipped, “The old can be a pleasure rather than a burden.” So in the next sixty years I pray not to be a burden, but to encourage others and to lift their burdens. Hail Cicero! Hail the apostle Paul, “Carry each other’s burdens…” (Gal. 6:2). Hail Jesus! “And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him too. Give to him who asks you…” (Matt. 5:41-42). In the next sixty years I am going the second mile with a smile and am going to be a giving person. “Give and live. Live and give,” will be my motto.
Again, though, I do not think the next sixty years will be any easier than the first sixty. I will have to refuse negativity, to ignore the backbiters and gossipers, to stifle the haters and hatred, to stop meanness with kindness, to put up a shield of faith when enemies beat at my door, to spread the oil of gladness on life’s complaining, grainy irritants, and to forge ahead even when clouds arise, when weariness grabs my gut, and when storms drown the darkness.
I aim to discern criticism, listen to my arm-chair critics, and learn from them when applicable. If necessary, I will weigh criticism in the balances and learn what to save and what to discard.
I hope to sow positive seeds, cheer my friends and enemies, and pray like mad when storms cover my graying head. Yes, I’ll pray like never before…for the world, the kids and grandkids, for you and me, and for joy to shatter the world’s pain and hurt and misery. Yes, I’ll pray for God’s joy, showers of blessing in the next sixty years. After all, blessing can come. “It is as the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion, For there the Lord bestows his blessing.” I’ll look for the dew of Hermon to fall on Mount Zion. I’ll wait with eagerness for God’s blessing and bless others. Yes, I’ll forge ahead. “Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are ahead, I will press on toward the mark of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). Yes, I’ll press on.
Cicero gives advice on “How to grow old.” He advises taking care of the body and soul, to live an active life, to learn something new every day, to live with respect for yourself and others (“The crowning glory of old age is respect.”), and to keep the soul focused with an eye to the future. But his best advice, as least to me, comes in his use of the Latin word occaecatum; hence, our word occatio or “to harrow, to turn the soil.” Cicero challenges the person growing old to turn the soil, to seize the occasion, each opportunity, to keep the heart turned toward what he describes as occatio, “the right time to sprout and bear fruit.” Cicero describes occaecatum, occatio, as a seed planted, embraced, and warmed by the moist heat of the earth, that, once planted and nourished, grows into a blade slightly above the earth. As the blade lives, breathes, and sprouts taller, through light and water and enrichment, it drives deep roots beneath and grows into a tall stalk reaching for the sky, and matures into a useful, fruitful, delightful stalk, yielding corn. In the next sixty years I wish to seize the occasion, embrace suitable time, and grab with gusto new opportunities. I wish to do this for myself and others, to bear fruit to God’s glory, and fortify usefulness.
I know it will not be easy. I am told as you get older, many people think you are washed up, worthless, and serve no purpose. I’ve even heard older people say, “I’m of no use. No one wants me around. I’m worthless, useless. No one cares about me.”
I’ll take the approach of the late wildcatter T. Boone Pickens. Near the end of his life, he sold some things (his Mesa Vista Ranch), he got some things right (returned to the Methodist church and started worshiping God again), gave away some things (money, check Oklahoma State and his church), and he kept moving. They say, T. Boone Pickens, the “Oracle of Oil,” always kept moving until he drew his last breath.
This reminds me of lady who once turned a hundred years old. “How have you lived this long. How did you do it?” she was asked by a young news reporter. “Bacon. I ate been every day. Lots of it. And kept moving,” she replied, her eyes glowing and her face smiling. Her keepers trembled, her stars faded dark, her legs grew weaker, her eyesight faded, and her voice weakened. Snow had covered Mount Hermon. But she never lost her sense of humor or a zest for life. In the next sixty years I aim for zest and a sense of humor.
Back to T. Boone Pickens. When he turned sixty-eight he retired, walked out of Mesa Petroleum, which he started, and the next day un-retired, started a new business, and spent the next twenty years in what he described “as the most productive years of his life.” He claimed as his goal at sixty-eight a future news headline, “Old man makes a comeback.” He had lived through hardship, financial ruin, physical depression, family troubles, business failings, tremendous success, and finally made enough money to have the joy to give it all away. Living to the ripe age of ninety-one, he claimed Boonism number 15, “Don’t let old age be an obstacle.” People like to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson when talking about T. Boone: “Do not go where the path might lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” (Dallas Morning News, 11 Sept. 2019). T. Boone Pickens was no saint and certainly had his problems, but he pressed on and made his last twenty-plus years some of his most productive. I am looking forward to sixty productive, useful, and “leaving a trail” years. I will press on. Seek peace and pursue it. Give my all.
So there it is. I am turning sixty. It sure got here fast. I look forward to the next sixty years. British politician Winston S. Churchill took up painting as he got older. He said that painting nature created a needed distraction, a sense of inner clam, and engineered within him gratitude. He encouraged daily reading: “Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas.” But he also embraced nature, painting, and travel as enrichments to a life well lived. Still, he said one quality in life, in military strategy, and in painting is necessary, “AUDACITY.” He described painting as “a joy ride in a paint box,” requiring full fledged courage, faith, AUDACITY. In the next sixty years I plan to live with AUDACITY. I will embrace nature, sunrises, mountains, beaches, rivers, and eagles in flight. I will paint the world with hope. I will travel and explore new cultures and vistas. Yes, I will go to the neighborhood pool more. Yes, I will swim more. Relax more. Enjoy life and God’s grace more.
I am turning sixty. I am not worried about it. Let the snow fall. Let the dew drop. Let the grinders grind. Let the birds chirp. Let the angels sing. Let the occatio arrive as soil-turning, seeding-sprouting opportunity. I will wake up with joy. I will lift my eyes toward Jesus and serve him. I will kiss the morning dew. I will hug the wife, kids, and grandkids. I will hug my friends and enemies. Pray without ceasing. I will open my eyes to wonder. And spread the peace and joy that flows like overflowing rivers from the mount of God. I will approach life with AUDACITY. The audacity of humility, faith, hope, love, grace, peace, kindness, and joy. Yes, let the snow fall. Let it snow. Let it snow. Let it snow.
John D. Duncan is a co-pastor at The Church at Horseshoe Bay, Texas. He is also a writer, adjunct professor, and fan of the NBA basketball’s Dallas Mavericks
Here in Texas, August beckons. Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet, once quipped, “Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.” I have been away from the church for a sabbatical of sorts, rest, finding pleasure in reading and writing and resting and longing to return to my post as pastor to be with the people of God. The Lord is sending my dry roots rain. I feel refreshed. I find myself thinking of the future, climbing Jacob’s ladder to peer in to what God has in store; gazing at Jeremiah’s future and a hope; scoping Paul’s letter to the Colossians (3:1) from prison where from the deep and dark he declares, “Keep seeking those things above, where Christ is… .” I think of the future, one with no land phones and digital, of green cars in an eco-friendly society and HD TV where at least we yearn to see the Dallas Cowboys or Dallas Mavericks in multi-color championships on crystal-clear screens. I think of the future, cancer walks and cancer research and cancer cures on the horizon. I think of the future, political speeches winding down and electronic election polls minus the chads; of hyped cars with powerhouse engines advertised with mega “horsepower”; of outsourcing in business and televised conference calls in HD TV with clear sound like talking to the neighbor next door; and of churches with digitized sound and big screens and bands like the Beatles echoing praise choruses and rhythmically blasting hymns high to the heavens. The future is wide screen and wide open. Yes, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is.
Still my mind drifts to the gospel. For all the technological wizardry, the gospel still impacts people one person at a time by river sides, in the marketplace, over coffee or a meal, at grave sites, and in homes where people pray for the light to shine in dark places. Henri Nouwen once declared of “Christian leadership in the future,” “It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus, is made manifest.” Nouwen invites leaders to humble themselves as Christ to be servant leaders. All told, humility is a difficult thing. C.S. Lewis once noted that his “school life was a life almost totally dominated by the social struggle, to get on, to arrive, or, having reached the top, to remain there, was the absorbing preoccupation.” Come to think of it, the climb to the top in business or an organization to which you belong or, dare I say it, in the church, as often happens, and the drive to get ahead, control and dominate, seems to me, to be one of life’s ongoing struggles. We never really outgrow school life—the jockeying for position, the jokes, the jealousy, the envy, the bullying that goes on and the cliques. Still, getting to the top and a preoccupation with “the top,” is different from, “Keep seeking the things above, where Christ is.” Getting to the top might find you preoccupied, but prideful. After all, Lewis adds, “Pride leads to very other vice … and is an anti-God state of mind.” Now I doubt that any of us ever think of ourselves as anti-God in any state of mind. On the other hand, though, I guess most of us have demonstrated pride, to a co-worker, toward a spouse, or even a church member. This, of course, is why we seek the things above, where Christ is, so that it rids us of pride and leads us to serve Christ in our present and future. Still, yet, to seek the things above we must first fall down before Christ in humility.
It is complex in principle, but maybe a picture helps. I am thinking under this old oak tree on this hot Texas summer day of two people. Last spring on the same Saturday I was privileged to preach both their funerals. They were different, but alike, saints on the journey of struggle, but humble in their hearts to the core and to the end. First there was Phyllis. Phyllis worked at the local Texaco gas station. That is where I first met her, paying the fare, discussing rising gas prices, and taking her prayer requests as she offered them because she knew I was a pastor. She lived from 1939 to 2007 and lived in California, Arkansas, Tennessee and Granbury, Texas. She lived a quiet, humble life with her cats and a dog named Stormy. She liked to listen to Elvis, who, by the way, does not live in Granbury and has never appeared there as far as I know, but Granbury once had an Elvis impersonator named Carey Dyer who sang at a hangout on the local town square, “the man of a thousand voices,” who could sing to the rafters like Elvis and look like him and shake his leg just the way Elvis did. Phyllis liked listening to Elvis, and at her funeral Elvis sang “Amazing Grace,” music off of one his old albums, of course. Phyllis had humble beginnings, born to sharecroppers in a shack in Earle, Ark., loved to watch western movies, and spent most of her days scanning gas credit cards, discussing the price of gas, stocking gas station shelves with sugary sodas, and talking to Stormy when she got home from work. Phyllis assured me she knew Christ, a “recovering Methodist,” as I think she once named herself. She never came to our church because she worked on Sundays, but always requested prayer and accepted her simple plight in life without complaint or desired fanfare. She lived humbly in the shadows of life and in the sunshine. And the Light of her life was Christ. She quietly kept seeking the things above, where Christ is.
Then there was Raymond Croy. Phyllis died after 67 years of age. Raymond died after 93 years. Raymond was born in 1913 in Arcadia, La. President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed a “new deal” for the American people back in the 1930’s and formed the WPA (Worker’s Progress Administration) and his grandfather, brother-in-law, and father-in-law all worked for the WPA for $1.50 an hour. Raymond’s first job was in the Ringgold Saw Mill for 15 cents an hour. He later moved to Shreveport, then to Fort Worth, where he enrolled in the seminary. Raymond worked a full-time job and attended seminary for three years until his health deteriorated. His family physician instructed him to quit seminary, but Raymond never stopped serving Christ nor seeking the things above. He served in small churches, served as a deacon at Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth as well as a deacon here in Granbury at Lakeside Baptist for 14 years. Brother Raymond lived in the same house on James Avenue for 43 years and drove the same car for 28 years, a 1948 Chevrolet. Who lives in the same house and drives a car that long anymore? Raymond worked for Bell Helicopter until 1978, and then retired. He never retired from serving, preaching, teaching and praying. I loved to hear Raymond pray. He prayed with words a southern drawl, his voice deep and resonating as a man who knew God personally. He prayed onesyllable words with two syllables, words like “our” and “God” with a humming intonation, “Our-a God-a.” He prayed sweet prayers, deep ones, from the depths of his soul, calling out light to Light, begging for Light to penetrate the darkness and for the peace God’s wondrous grace to sweeten the soul of a world in chaos. Raymond for all his long life sought the things above, where Christ is. P.T Forsythe once spoke of shutting the chamber door, praying quietly, audibly, humbly to the Lord. “Write prayers and burn them,” he wrote in 1913. Brother Raymond’s prayers intimately rattled heaven’s throne and touched the heart of God, and his prayers burned in his heart as though the only two people presents were him and God. He kept seeking the things above, where Christ is. Oh, humility is challenging. Those who possess it, however, know God and understand themselves and serve quietly, humbly, find a way to be salt and light in the world that is dull and dark, and simply going about living life seeking Christ daily. So here I am under this old oak tree, feeling refreshed, longing for the future and enjoying Christ’s grace in the present. James, the half-brother of our Lord, once wrote (James 4:10), “He who humbles himself will be lifted up.” He sounded exactly like Jesus, who once said in Luke 4:11, “He who humbles himself shall be exalted and he who exalts himself will be humbled.” I am praying, “Mine, Oh Lord, send my roots more rain. Lord, send my roots more of your reign.” And I am watching, praying, ever aiming to walk humbly in the glow of his grace and anticipating the future that stands wide screen and wide open to the possibility of God’s glorious and humble future work. I keep seeking the things above, where Christ is.
(This is a reprint article from John D. Duncan, first published from the Baptist Standard Cybercolumn written by John on July 20, 2007.)