Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving at the Mission

Remembering my Grandpa Barnes this morning. I guess I always think about Grandpa around Thanksgiving. He was born on Christmas Day, 1900, the one birthday I can always remember. Otis Theodore Barnes, the tallest, strongest, and most devout man I knew as a child. He seemed to me a gentle giant, with the large, powerful hands of an auto mechanic, hands that showed me how to throw a curve ball.

When Grandpa wasn't under the hood of somebody's car, he was always doing "the Lord's work." He would take off his gray work shirt with his name on the red and white patch, and put on the white shirt and narrow tie of "Brother Barnes." Grandpa was a lay preacher in the Nazarene church, serving in small churches that needed help. But his main gig was at home, where he would record and broadcast "The Voice of Hope" Gospel program on Kansas City's AM radio waves. For years, "Brother Barnes" taught the Bible on the radio, not with the glitz and glamour and bad theology of most radio preachers today, but with plain, simple, straightforward Bible teaching, and lots of people tuned in. I guess there is no way to know how many people he touched and blessed through those broadcasts, but the letters and postcards kept coming as Brother Barnes shepherded his radio flock. Year after year, he never faltered. He never quit.

When it was time to retire from the auto shop, instead of slowing down or taking it easy, Grandpa and Grandma took on the biggest project of their lives - "The Voice of Hope" storefront mission in a rough part of downtown Kansas City. For years Brother Barnes and his faithful wife drove down to the mission every day, preparing a meal for all the street people who came through the door. Grandpa would stand at the door and greet each one as if his guest was the King of England. Along with the hot meal, Grandpa led a worship time and presented a simple Gospel message, every day, without fail, until his health faltered and he grudgingly gave it up.

That's why I always think of Grandpa and Grandma Barnes at Thanksgiving. Every year my family drove downtown to the mission on Thanksgiving morning to lend a hand and celebrate Thanksgiving with Grandpa and Grandma and all the folks that had no where else to go. Being the youngest, all I did was stand beside "Brother Barnes" at the door as he welcomed each person, most he knew by name.

The last chapter of Grandpa's life was difficult and sad, his health failing quickly. He was bedfast for seven years, blind and deaf for the last two years. Believe it or not, my grandmother cared for him at home all those years until he died. I was in college at the time in nearby Liberty and was often called over to help with Grandpa, sometimes in the middle of the night. Grandpa was always gentle and apologetic, not wanting to be a burden. When the end finally came, it was a long-awaited, merciful homegoing.

We gathered in Gladstone for the funeral and my dad conducted the service, but that's not what I remember best. I was sitting on one of the front rows with the rest of the family and I saw something remarkable and beautiful just before the funeral began. We heard the shuffling of footsteps in the rear of the chapel. Turning around I watched the back two rows began to fill with men, rough-looking men from the street, men who still remembered and loved "Brother Barnes" after all those years.

Dad read the words that day, never more appropriate. "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in . . . I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."

So, I am feeling very blessed on this Thanksgiving, the blessing of "Brother Barnes."

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"Love and Fear" by Michael Leunig

There are only two feelings, Love and fear:
There are only two languages, Love and fear:
There are only two activities, Love and fear:
There are only two motives, two procedures,
two frameworks, two results, Love and fear,
Love and fear. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Quickly or Deeply?

Larry McMurtry, known for his book, Lonesome Dove, wrote another book about roads—the many roads he had driven on and the hundreds of miles he had explored across America. At last, returning in memory to the place where he grew up in east Texas, he recalls that his father had seldom gone much farther than the dusty roads near his dirt farm. Comparing his own travels to his father's localized life, McMurtry admits, "I have looked at many places quickly. My father looked at one place deeply."

I wonder how much of my life's journey has been seen quickly, but not deeply. Where is the place you know deeply, where your heart is at home, where you know your place in the grand scheme of things? Maybe, just maybe, that's the place to be.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Something Wet, Something New"

On a gloomy, rainy day with more rain to come, I came across these words from Frederick Buechner:

"Who knows whether there is life on any other planet anywhere else in the universe, but there is life on this planet. And what is life like? . . . You are alive. It needn't have been so. It wasn't so once, and it will not be so forever. But it is so now. And what is it like: to be alive in this maybe one place of all places anywhere where life is? Live a day of it and see. Take any day and be alive in it. Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter. It is your birthday, and there are many presents to open. The world is to open.

It rattles softly at the window like the fingers of a child as I sit on the edge of the tub to tie my shoes. It comes down the glass in crooked paths to stir my heart absurdly as it always has, and dear God in Heaven, the sound of it on the roof, on the taut black silk of the umbrella, on the catalpa leaves, dimpling the glassy surface of the peepering pond. It is the rain, and it tastes of silver; it is the rain, and it smells of christening. The rain is falling on the morning of my first day, and everything is wet with it, the smell of the wet pavements of the city and the sound of tires on the wet streets, the wet hair and face of a woman doing errands in the rain. Wherever my feet take me now, it will be to something wet, something new, that I have never seen before."

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"It Is Life that Is Going On"

This week I was privileged to attend my first Bris, a religious ceremony through which male babies are welcomed into the Jewish people. According to Jewish tradition, it is a parent's obligation to circumcise a son according to God's covenant with Abraham, and offer a threefold blessing for the child: a life enriched by Torah, the wedding canopy, and good deeds.

It was a beautiful ceremony with a deep sense of history and family. To begin, the father explained that their son was named after his maternal great grandfather, no longer living, and their hopes that this little one would have some of those same wonderful character traits. Then the child was passed from his mother to his grandmothers, aunts and uncles, and great grandmothers, each in turn, with a blessing and picture. After the ceremony, the baby boy was held by his great grandfather as we were reminded that the same words of prayer and blessing have been spoken over each new life for generations and centuries past. Finally, the baby was placed in his grandfather's lap and given his Hebrew name and blessing, a wonderful and touching moment.

Reflecting on the ceremony, I thought about how important it is for our children to know that they are part of a larger story, a family story and a faith story. I'm not sure how well we do as Christians getting that truth across to our little ones. Perhaps we could do better. I was also reminded of these words from Frederick Buechner:
a religious ritual through which male babies are formally welcomed into the Jewish people. According to Jewish tradition, it is a parent’s obligation to circumcise a son and offer a threefold blessing for the child: a life enriched by Torah, the wedding canopy (chuppah), and good deeds. - See more at:
a religious ritual through which male babies are formally welcomed into the Jewish people. According to Jewish tradition, it is a parent’s obligation to circumcise a son and offer a threefold blessing for the child: a life enriched by Torah, the wedding canopy (chuppah), and good deeds. - See more at:

A religious observance can be a wedding, a christening, a Memorial Day service, a bar mitzvah, or anything like that you might be apt to think of. There are lots of things going on at them. There are lots of things you can learn from them if you're in a receptive state of mind. The word "observance" itself suggests what is perhaps the most important thing about them.

A man and a woman are getting married. A child is being given a name. A war is being remembered and many deaths. A boy is coming of age.

It is life that is going on. It is always going on, and it is always precious. It is God that is going on. It is you who are there that is going on.

As Henry James advised writers, be one on whom nothing is lost.

OBSERVE! There are few things as important, as religious, as that.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

"Set Apart and Ordained"

The other day I happened to glance at my ordination certificate which hangs on the wall of my office, near my desk. I noticed the date written in Marlin Brown's clear handwriting - August 3, 1980 - thirty-five years ago this Monday. It reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with an older pastor and mentor of mine, Lewis Krause. Lewis was reflecting on the thirty-fifth anniversary of his ordination, talking about the road he had traveled, the churches he had served, and the lessons he had learned along the way. I remember thinking, as any young person would, that thirty-five years seemed like an eternity, a milestone far out in the distance, unthinkable to me as a young pastor. Well, here it is, my turn to mark thirty-five years and to reflect on my own journey. Somewhere in heaven, Lewis is smiling down saying, "I told you, didn't I, Drew?"

I snapped a picture of my certificate in case you've never seen one. The good folks at my first country church in Nettleton, Missouri, called for my ordination and asked my home church, First Baptist Church of Grandview to do the honors. The deacons from the church in Nettleton, Bill Ford and Bob Shaney, participated in the service, and most of the folks in my little congregation made the journey south to Grandview. The other men and women who participated in the service were all special people to me, a Who's Who of family and friends, ministers and mentors, who had been and continued to be great encouragers to me through the years. It still humbles me to think of the investment that has been made in me and my ministry by such choice servants of God. Here's the program from the service.

Some of those who participated in my ordination are gone now, leaving it to my generation to carry the ball. My father has been gone for twenty-six of those thirty-five years. I often told Dad that the sermon he preached at my ordination was the best sermon he ever preached. He suggested it was probably the only sermon of his that had my undivided attention. I do remember it well. Dad was talking about what it means to be called, to be sent from God, and he didn't pull any punches. He put it to me straight. And thirty-five years later I can read his ordination sermon and know how wise and thoughtful were his words to me. My two preacher brothers, Pete and Jim, chimed in as well, and have been wonderful help all along the way.

So, this week I have been thinking about the journey and what I have learned along the way. Eight days after my ordination I met a beautiful, brown-eyed girl on campus at William Jewell. After some serious persuading on my part, Suzanne decided to come along for the ride and what a ride it has been. First came three years of seminary while she paid the bills and I tried my hand at church planting in south Kansas City. Then, on to Lincoln (5 years and one child), Independence (5 years and two more), Lamar (5 years and a doctorate), Sedalia (14 years and an empty nest), and then across the country to Arlington, Virginia (3 years and counting).

I did a little math. That's more than 1700 Sundays with at least one sermon preached, nearly 500 funerals and around 200 weddings, marrying and burying through the years. I have no idea how many new believers I have baptized or how many Supper's I have served. And I don't want to know how many committee meetings I have attended or how many business meetings I have endured. No doubt I have been in far more hospital rooms than the average person.

What have I learned in these thirty-five years? When I began, I thought I would change the world, using my gifts and talents to accomplish great things for God. But, I have learned through the years and sometimes, the hard way, that I am merely a lucky spectator. I get to watch God do His good work in people's lives. As a pastor I have a ringside seat to watch the Champ do His thing.  

Have I ever wanted to quit? Yes, to be honest. Once or twice I might have laid it down and walked away, except for the understanding and encouragement of fellow pastors and mentors. Have I ever wondered what my life would be like if I had chosen a different path? Sure, but quarterbacking the Chiefs has its own unique challenges, too. All things weighed together, I have known far more laughter than tears, more joys than sorrows, more grace than pain.

Dad concluded my ordination message with these words:

"Drew, I became a pastor like you did when I was nineteen years old. After thirty-two years in His ministry, if I had a thousand lives to live, I'd spend every one of them as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

"My prayer is that you will stay so close day by day to the One who called you that His power will be upon your life, and that those whose lives are touched by your ministry will say: 'There was a young man sent from God whose name was Drew Hill.'" 

Now I get it, Dad. At last, I understand, Lewis. Thirty-five years is a long time, a tough and tiresome journey, but worth every step.

Monday, July 20, 2015

"Was It Worth It, Jesus?"

I spent last week working in northeast DC alongside a team of volunteers from Memorial. We were working with a wonderful ministry called City Gate which provides after school activities and summer day camps for disadvantaged children in eleven locations around Washington. Our team provided leadership for a week-long day camp at a large, Section 8 apartment complex. We had about 80 kids and we adapted a Vacation Bible School approach to this unique setting. My job was to work with sixteen 6th - 8th graders, who were actually too old for the program, but came anyway because they had nothing else to do. Believe it or not, this is my favorite age group to teach or coach, not quite too cool for school, and still able to be motivated and engaged, at least for short periods of time.

We didn't have a room, since the younger kids filled up the two classrooms inside the community building. So, we put a canopy over a picnic table in the yard to give us some shade from the heat and cover from the rain.

I guess I had one advantage from the start - being a man. Most of these kids have so few men in their lives, even fewer that express any real interest or concern for them. They seemed surprised that I was coming back, committed to being with them all week. I'm afraid most the volunteer teams that come through drop by for a day or two and then head to the Smithsonian. Everyday, "Are you coming back? You'll be here tomorrow? You here all week?"

"Sure, I'll be here. See you tomorrow." Hard to believe that a single week of contact with these kids could represent so much more consistency than they usually have in their lives. So, day by day, we began to get acquainted - Tilly and Tomiwa and Tyler, Josh and Hivan and Kerod, Jalia and Toure' and Makayla, Tiwalade and Latasha and LT, Daniella and Brandee and Adetilewa and Raivlyn. Man, I thought Bible names were tough. They seemed to pick up "Drew" pretty quickly.

"Help me remember who you are. Tell me your name and tell me about your best day ever." Around the table and the tent, each one shared. Some hesitated, "My best day ever? Hmmm." "My best day was my birthday. I got to go skating." "My best day was when my little sister was born." "My best day was when I got to go to Six Flags."

As we were nearing the end of that conversation, Latasha asked, "Can we talk about our worst day?" I said, "Well, you don't have to, but you can if you want to." When her turn came, she said, "My worst day was when my grandma died of cancer." I said, "I'm sorry you lost your grandma. Did she live here close?" She nodded and said, "I lived with her."

Around the circle we went, each one sharing their worst days, some not so bad really, others heart-breaking stuff, right out in the open. It was real. No pretense, just raw life experience. It was quite a conversation. Here's a few exerpts from our study time each morning, my questions and their answers:

If you were the Creator, what kind of world would you create?
  • No apartments, only houses.
  • No killers, no rapists. No kidnapping or car-jacking. No stealing.
  • Everything is free.
  • No aging. (We stop getting older at 28.)
  • No getting sick.
  • No war.
  • No dentists.
  • No rich people. 
  • No Donald Trump.
  • No commercials.
  • Skittles, lots of Skittles.
  • Rainbows every Tuesday.
 If you were starting a new church, what kind of church would it be?
  • Gospel rap.
  • Involved in everything.
  • Serves the neighborhood.
  • Helps the homeless.
  • Feeds the poor.
  • Teaches about God.
  • Has Vacation Bible School.
  • Gives away Bibles.
  • Sunday lunch.
  •  A celebration every day.
If you could interview Jesus on your own late night talk show, what five questions would you ask Him?
  • What did it feel like to be born into a homeless family?
  • Were you ever afraid to do what God asked you to do?
  • Why did you have to be crucified?
  • Why did you have to go alone?
  • What did you mean when you said, "It is finished,"?
Tilly's group came up with a final bonus question for Jesus:
  • The way the world is today, was it worth it?
 As you can imagine, we had lots of great conversation, talking about their thoughts and ideas and questions. I remember seminary classroom debates that were not nearly as gritty and challenging as talking with this bunch at City Gate.

In the afternoons it was touch football, between two sidewalks, a building, and a row of trees. And watch out for that manhole cover. I was quarterback for both teams, kind of a seven on seven drill, and we had a great time each day. Of course, I could only throw to one person each play, so the others let me know how open they were and why I should've thrown it to them. Tomiwa said repeatedly, "You are the worst quarterback in the history of the world!" He kept track of how many picks I threw, eight in one game, but I also threw 22 touchdowns, so not too bad. The score was 98 to 84. By Thursday I thought my arm was going to fall off. It's been a long time since I was coaching youth football.

My worst moment at City Gate was my last. When I handed the football back to LT at the end of the day Friday, he looked at me and said, "So, this is it? You're done? You won't be back next week?"

"No, LT. I won't be here next week, but I hope to come back sometime before too long," being careful not to promise more than I could deliver. "Take care of yourself, LT. Remember what we talked about." He nodded looking down at the football in his hands and then he was gone.

I wouldn't trade my week at City Gate for anything. I was exhausted, sunburned and sore, yet somehow refreshed, renewed. It took a bunch of kids in the projects to remind me of just how good the Good News is, and how great is the love of the Father for all His children. God bless them all.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Icing on the Cake

Yesterday I wrote a brief note to a special friend of mine that I have not seen for nearly 35 years. His name is Doug Beyer and when I met him he was serving as the pastor of West Side Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. I had just finished my first year of college and was planning to work a second summer in a grocery warehouse in Kansas City. Somehow (providentially?) the warehouse personnel office misplaced my file from the previous summer. So, I was in the middle of finals with no job for the summer.

That same week, the church in Topeka decided to delay calling a full time staff person and instead try to find a college student to serve as a summer youth minister. Doug called the campus minister at William Jewell College while I happened to be sitting in his office. An interview was arranged and the next week I moved to Topeka.

Doug Beyer was a gifted pastor with a PhD from Baylor and a wealth of experience. He was writing a discipleship manual for new Christians that was later published and widely used among American Baptists. By contrast, I was 19 years old with one year of college and no experience. Nothing but enthusiasm really. I showed up on my first day in cutoffs, a t-shirt, and sandals. It took me about fifteen minutes to move into my office. I had about six books to put on a whole wall of bookshelves. Didn't take long.

Doug stuck his head in and said, "Get yourself a cup of coffee and come on in my office." I thought, I can't be in trouble already. I haven't done anything. Doug's office was the opposite of mine, with books and files and stacks all around. We sat down in one corner by a little table. "I'm so glad you are here, Drew." He put me at ease with his big smile. Surprisingly, Doug didn't have any agenda for this conversation, just fellowship and the beginning of a growing friendship. I remember him saying, "Ministry is a piece of cake, Drew, and this is the icing on the cake, the time we spend just as brothers in Christ, just enjoying each others company and the fellowship."

And so this became the pattern of my summer at West Side Baptist Church in Topeka. Every work day began with thirty minutes of coffee and conversation with Doug. Sometimes we talked shop. Other days we never touched on ministry stuff. Sometimes we prayed, sometimes we celebrated what God was doing in the church. I knew he was busy, that he was anxious to get to his studies, that he had a far more demanding job than I did, but every morning there was his smiling face. What a gift he gave to me.

I have lots of wonderful memories of my summer in Topeka, great times with the youth, a camping trip to Colorado, a couple of terrific retreats, leading Bible studies, starting a drama team, playing a lot of football and basketball with the kids. I also preached two Sundays. It was a great summer of ministry.

But what I treasure the most is the memory of those first thirty minutes each morning with a gifted and busy pastor who took the time to befriend and encourage a eager young kid just getting started.

So, yesterday I took out some stationary and wrote a note to my friend, Doug, who now lives in an assisted living facility in California. I caught him up on where I'm serving now and thanked him again for his encouragement and kindness to me so long ago. I also wrote that we had welcomed a new summer ministry intern last week here at Memorial, Ross Tarpley. I told Doug that I would do my best to welcome and encourage Ross as he had encouraged me, paying it forward, and I will. It's no trouble really. Actually, it's the icing on the cake.