Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thanksgiving Blessing: Be Near to Us, O God of Love, by Scott Dickison

Be Near to Us, O God of Love
(based on Psalm 36:5-9)

Be near to us, O God of love, all goodness in your sight.
In you we find the fount of life, Your radiance springs forth light.

Your steadfast love to heaven extends, Your faithfulness the clouds.
The mountains sing your righteousness, the deep your justice sounds.

How precious is your steadfast love, Creator of all things!
All people take their refuge in the shadow of your wings.

We in our hunger feast upon the bounty of your house,
And your great river of delights, we drink from even now.

NOTE from Bill Jones: Be Near to Us, O God of Love was written by Scott Dickison, pastor of First Baptist Church of Christ, Macon, GA. Scott recently completed a 2-year pastoral residency at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. The Wilshire congregation sang Be Near to Us, O God of Love at Scott's Service of Blessing on Sunday, November 18. The Service of Blessing, a Wilshire tradition, was observed to recognize Scott's graduation from the Wilshire pastoral residency program and to ask God's blessing on his future service for Christ. Scott has graciously given his permission for TBC to publish this as a Thanksgiving blessing.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Ron Russey - Gone 33 years but forever present in my life

Thirty-three years ago tonight (funny, it was a Thursday that year, too), I received word that Ron Russey had been killed the night before - Halloween night, 1979 - while on his way from Colorado to lead a family life conference in a church in Texas. Earlier this year, I wrote a post entitled Thank God for the "giants" in our lives. I explained that what I call "giants" are those people who care enough to invest themselves in you, people who make a lasting difference in your life.

Ron Russey was such a "giant" for me. When he died, we had known each other for barely over 10 years. Ron was not quite 32 when he died, so he's been gone longer than he was here. But he made a lasting impact on my life, and I mourn the loss of the many encounters and conversations we would have had through the years had he not left so early.

I entered Oklahoma Baptist University (OBU) in the fall of 1969, thinking I had all the answers. I had grown up in Baptist churches, accepted Christ and was baptized shortly after turning 10 in 1961. In my teenage years, my church youth group and Youth Choir were at the center of my life. In my older teenage years, I became a leader among the youth and was even selected one year to serve as Youth Pastor in the annual service in which the youth led in worship.

From the time I was about 15, all I wanted to do with my life was become a minister of music. Our music minister, Joe Rust, became a friend and mentor to me. He and his wife, Martha, are still dear friends to me today, almost 50 years later.

So I entered OBU on a church music degree program. My faith? It was pretty basic. Looking back, I realize I had never really understood the nature and meaning of faith. For me, it was a set of facts, not to be questioned, not to be grappled with, just to be accepted as they were preached and taught in our church.

Did I have doubts? Yes and no. Yes, I remember having doubts about things like, fine, God created the universe, but how did God get here? and Can eternity really be eternal? I mean, really, world without end? Those kinds of doubts, but they were scary kinds of doubts, and I always quickly pushed them to the back of my mind. Out of sight, out of mind, before any other doubts could enter the room. I never dealt with them, just suppressed them. Never allowed myself to think about what I believed. That was too dangerous.

One of the first people I met at OBU was Ron Russey. I was assigned to a room on the 2nd floor of Section D in the center area of Brotherhood Dorm (down toward Storer Hall, for those OBU grads reading this). It was part of a suite. My roommate was Cary Wood, a junior. The other room of the suite was occupied by the resident assistant (RA) for the floor, Ron Russey, and his roommate, Tim Richardson.

Ron was a senior who, besides being RA, was president of the Baptist Student Union (BSU) that year. The following year, he returned as a 5th-year senior and served as president of the Ministerial Alliance (MA). He wasn't exactly what you think of, however, as a model BSU or MA president. Ron enjoyed drinking with his friends on the weekend, sometimes to excess. In other words, he enjoyed going out and having a good time, and it wasn't always the favored Baptist way of having a good time.

But Ron was serious about serving Christ. He had gone to East Pakistan as a summer missionary. He was very genuine about his service as both BSU president and MA president. He just didn't see any conflict between that and his personal idea of a good time.

Until November 1970, that is.

I lost my faith not gradually but in one fell swoop. One day in Western Civilization class, which was team-taught by a literature professor and a history professor, Dr. Bill Mitchell was teaching Dante's Inferno. As he taught, he uttered the words that forever and radically changed my life: There are no absolutes.

I don't remember the context in which he uttered those words; I'm sure it reflected something Dante had written, not a belief of Dr. Mitchell's. But in that moment, those words burrowed down to the deepest reaches of my mind and soul, and I realized, that's right, I can't absolutely prove any of this stuff I believe. And the bottom dropped out of my faith. Without a doubt, I know (though I can't prove it) that God was in that moment, tearing away the fragile fabric of my "facts" to make room for the faith that He wanted to build within me.

Ron Russey was one of the first persons with whom I shared this awful epiphany. Ron understood my confusion, and he cared. A few nights later, he called a meeting of all of those for whom he was responsible as RA. He confessed that night, in his best colloquial Oklahoma twang, "I ain't been doin' my job good." He went on to further confess that he had some "ethical things" about which he was pretty loose. His attitude, he said, had been that what he did in his personal life didn't affect others.

But my sudden faith crisis had sobered him. He told the guys assembled there about my new struggle and acknowledged that there were others there who were going through similar faith struggles. And he admitted that maybe the Apostle Paul knew what he was talking about when he admonished his readers - in various letters and various ways - to beware of causing others to "stumble," even if it meant sacrificing something "legal" and benign in most circumstances but a "stumbling block" to those in their sphere of influence. Maybe, Ron said, he should clean up his act so that he could better minister to the guys who needed his counsel and heeded his example.

Almost 9 years later, in the spring of 1979, we had been reunited, as Ron and his wife Carol had moved to Longmont, Colorado, where Ron pastored a small church. Joanna and I had moved to Denver 2 years earlier. In April, we went to Longmont to hear Ron preach and to spend the afternoon in their home. As Ron and I talked, he told me something similar to what he had said on that long-ago night in Brotherhood Dorm, that he had "toned down" his behavior of the past, because his ministry to the people of that church was important to him. Ron had no ambition to move to a bigger church or bigger town. Speaking of Longmont, he told me, "This place scares me." He had grown up in the even smaller town of Hobart, Oklahoma. He hated having to go to Denver occasionally - way too big and "scary." Ron was a minister, first and foremost - whether to his church, his friends, or his family.

Back there in 1970, Ron had sympathized with what I was going through. In numerous late-night bull sessions with Ron, Cary, and others, I began to learn how to search for a faith I could call my own. But besides those discussions, Ron pointed me to a man who also became instrumental in my search for faith - Jerry Barnes, pastor of University Baptist Church, across the street from the OBU campus. When Ron was growing up, Jerry had been his pastor in Hobart. Jerry had been a mentor and friend to Ron, and Ron knew that I needed that same influence at this critical time in my life. So Ron suggested that I go see Jerry Barnes.

I went to Jerry and was able to be totally honest, telling him that I no longer believed anything, but that I wasn't giving up, that I wanted to search for an authentic faith - but not my parents' faith, or the preacher's faith, or the Sunday School teacher's faith. No, this time, if I were to find faith, it had to be my own. Jerry invited me to join University Baptist Church. Jerry's preaching was different than anything I had ever heard. It challenged me to the deepest reaches of my soul and mind. Once a semester, I would go in and visit with Jerry in his office, share with him just where I was at this point in my struggle, and Jerry would help me take the next steps on the journey.

But I would never have gone to Jerry Barnes if Ron Russey hadn't prodded me to do so.

Ron was a good friend who cared about my relationship with God and did whatever he could to help me find my own way to God. Whether that meant talking with me in late-night bull sessions, or listening to me when I came to his room after a class, or pointing me to someone else who he knew would care about me just like he did, Ron took the time and effort to invest in my life.

The last time I saw Ron Russey was on Sunday, September 9, 1979. Joanna and I again drove up to Longmont, this time with my parents, who were visiting us. I wanted them to hear Ron preach and meet him. Ron asked me to sing a solo, so I sat on the podium that morning with my friend. Ron's sense of humor - oh, did I forget to mention that he had a wicked sense of humor? - took over that morning as we sat next to each other, sharing a hymnal.

"Jones," he whispered, "while you're singing your solo, don't be surprised if I suddenly get inspired and start speaking in tongues. But don't worry - there's a woman in the congregation who interprets tongues, my wife." So here we are, up in front of God and everybody, and I'm cracking up while we're supposed to be singing the hymn, and everyone's wondering, what's wrong with this guy, why is he laughing? Typical Russey!

Before we left that day, I made arrangements for Ron and Carol to visit us in Denver the following month. Then, the night before they were to visit, Ron called. An unscheduled deacons meeting had been called for the following night, and we would need to reschedule. On the phone, Ron thumbed through his appointments book, listing various upcoming obligations, including the family life conference in Texas. We finally had to settle on November 30. On October 31, Ron's car went off the road on an interstate highway, flipped, broke his neck, and he died instantly.

Ron Russey was one of those essential people that God put into my life at just the right time over the past 40+ years, people whom I owe for the many steps of this wonderful journey on which God has led me since that fateful 1970 day in Western Civ class.

But he was more than that. He was a trusted friend who cared. Joanna and I lived in Colorado for almost 8 more years after Ron died, and I've often lamented not being able to keep going to see Ron and talk about theology, or about Baptist life, particularly the monumental goings-on in Baptist life that had barely begun when he died. Oh, he would have had plenty to say about them. And I have no doubt about which "side" he would have been on, because Ron was always about freedom and grace. He was about ministering freely and authentically to the deepest of human needs.

Even when the giants in our lives are gone, they are still present in our lives, and so it is with Ron Russey. His influence is felt in everything I do, every service I present to Christ.

Thank God for the giants in our lives. Thank God for Ron Russey.