Saturday, August 23, 2014

George Mason, 25 years . . . Thanks be to God

This weekend, at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, we have been celebrating the ministry of George Mason, on the occasion of his 25th anniversary as senior pastor at Wilshire.

George's contribution - to Wilshire, to the immediate community surrounding it, to the Dallas area as a whole, and to the larger Baptist and Christian communities - is being celebrated this weekend.

But I'm writing a very personal post today in celebration of what George - and Wilshire - have meant to Joanna and me. You see, this is a significant anniversary for us - 10 years as members of the Wilshire community of faith. After we walked the aisle on August 29, 2004, and were greeted as new members, we then sat and watched with the rest of the congregation as presentations were made to George in celebration of his 15th anniversary at Wilshire.

In truth, this post is about what a pastor can mean in the faith journey of one person. Multiply that a few thousand times, and you will begin to have a tiny idea of the influence of a George Mason.

One of the presentations that morning was made by our dear friend, the late Phil Strickland, director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission (CLC). Phil had been the key person most responsible for our arrival at Wilshire as members. In May 2004, I had attended the annual CLC conference held at Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio. George Mason was one of the three speakers Phil had lined up for that meeting. It was the first time I had heard George Mason speak.

As he spoke during the first session of that conference, I remember leaning over to my good friend Dan Williams and whispering, "Is he always this good?" Dan nodded. During a break in the meeting, as David Currie and I were talking, George came over and introduced himself to me. Later that day, I approached him and told him that my wife and I lived in Plano and would soon be looking for a new church home. George said, "Well, we're just down the road from you."

For almost 17 years, Joanna and I had been members of a church in Plano. Our kids had grown up there, and we had formed many friendships there over the years. But we had grown increasingly restless as the church's mindset had lurched toward Fundamentalism. Since 2000, I had been challenging the pastor directly; predictably, he didn't take it well. When I had gone to him in 2002, wanting to teach the Baptist Laity Institute's Baptist Distinctives course, he told me that he wouldn't permit me to teach the session dealing with the Fundamentalist Takeover.

A few of my other concerns: the huge floor-to-ceiling American flag that was unfurled on patriotic holidays to completely cover the stained-glass window - with Jesus at its center - above and behind the chancel; the pastor's use of the pulpit to go on a tirade against the critics of George W. Bush at the beginning of the Iraq War; and the pastor's edict in the fall of 2003 - again issued from the pulpit - that women would no longer be permitted to teach men in Sunday School, accompanied by his declaration that God would 'prune' from the church anyone who dared disagree with this decision.

To more fully understand what George and Wilshire have meant in our lives, back up for a moment to the early 1970s. As I said, this post is a very personal reflection.

As a student at Oklahoma Baptist University, I went through a wrenching faith struggle. I had publicly professed my faith at 10 and grown up very active in Baptist churches and with parents who were the two most faithful Christians I have known. But my understanding of faith was built on pretty shaky ground and, early in my sophomore year at OBU, the bottom fell out of it. As I then set out to search for a belief system (not sure I was looking for faith at that point) I could call my own, a friend in the dorm, Ron Russey, suggested I go see the pastor of University Baptist Church across the street, Jerry Barnes.

It was the very best thing I could have done. Jerry Barnes became not only a friend and counselor to me along my journey, my 'search,' but his preaching made me dig deeper for understanding than I had ever dug before.

Fast-forward back to that day in May 2004. That evening, I called Joanna - back home in Plano - and told her, "For almost 30 years, I've been looking for another Jerry Barnes. Today I may have found him." What I meant was a pastor who would make me dig deep for biblical truth and understanding - as Jerry had many years before. Though I had come a long way on the journey of faith since those days at OBU, I felt I had - in many ways - stagnated for a long period, sitting in Sunday School classes where the only questions asked were those with pat answers, listening to a pastor who had become a dictator imposing his own theology on the congregation. I had been looking - longing - for another Jerry Barnes, someone who didn't profess to have all the answers, someone who could occasionally utter the phrase, "I don't know" or "I'm not sure."

Jerry and George are two very distinct personalities, but they share those qualities of grace, honesty, intellectual curiosity, and a faith of great depth and conviction.

On July 4, 2004, Joanna and I drove to Wilshire to visit for the first time. On our way there, Joanna said, "I'm not sure I want to drive a half-hour to church every week." Then, after hearing George preach, we hadn't even reached the parking lot when Joanna said, "I want to come back here."

George had preached a sermon entitled "The Cross and the Flag." It was an innovative sermon, in which he interrupted himself three times for us to sing three great old hymns - hymns that had often been viewed as patriotic and militaristic, but for which he now gave us new understandings, interpreting them in terms of our relationship with God. He also provided a completely different understanding of the relationship between patriotism and our Christian faith than we had observed at our church in Plano.

It was - and I mean this in a sense that could almost be felt physically and viscerally - a breath of fresh air overcoming the stagnant air of our past. That summer, Wilshire had a series of Sunday evening events in Fellowship Hall. In one, George treated the then-popular Left Behind books and movie; in fact, he discussed that whole "Left Behind" theology with an understanding that, to my mind, was much more consistent with the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ than the understanding we had heard at our church. On another Sunday evening, George sat on a stool for an hour-and-a-half, fielding any question that people wanted answered. What impressed me the most was that, when George would be asked some question dealing with theology, he displayed an honesty and humility I found rare in a pastor in that he occasionally answered, "I don't know" or "I'm not sure." That was different than the environment we had encountered over the previous decade-and-a-half.

Looking back, I'm not sure why it took us until August 29 to join, except that we had rushed into our previous choice of a church home in 1987; this time, we wanted to make sure. All I know is that, once we made the decision to join Wilshire, we've been thankful ever since.

In the months to come, we would hear women preach, baptize, and both administer and serve the Lord's Supper. Women preachers and women deacons! When George would speak in his sermons about women's roles in the home and the church - as being the same and equal roles that men have - I would find myself in tears and would reach over and squeeze Joanna's hand; after 10 years, that still happens, for - as much as I try - I still haven't shed the baggage I carried into Wilshire in 2004.

That fall, we visited a Sunday School class called Epiphany. Almost 10 years later, we're still there - it's a class that knows no pat answers. It's a class that asks questions - of the Bible, of the teachers, of each other. We challenge each other, but we also love each other. What a blessing that class has been in our lives! We usually walk out of there with more questions than answers - and that's a good thing. It means we're no longer stagnant; instead, we have things to think about during the coming week. Driving to lunch after church, Joanna and I often find ourselves discussing some of the questions raised in class that morning. That's a very good thing!

So this isn't just about George, it's about Wilshire. But it all comes back to George, because he has encouraged a community where it's safe to ask questions and it's safe to say "I don't know" or "I'm not sure"; a community that is committed to Christ's Lordship rather than to one man's theology.

George has become a great friend to me, and he was a friend to Texas Baptists Committed long before I came along. I'm thankful that his commitment to TBC continues. He has been very supportive of this work and my role in it. He and Kim give generously to TBC, and he has led Wilshire to do the same. I'm very appreciative of that.

George and Wilshire are also good friends to the T. B. Maston Foundation for Christian Ethics, which I chair. In fact, the Foundation has held its last several biennial Awards Dinners in Wilshire's beautiful Community Hall; it has been the perfect place for these dinners, and we appreciate the gracious welcome that George and Wilshire have extended to us.

Much more has been said about George in celebrations this weekend - particularly his contribution as a leading pastor in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and chairing the search committee that chose Suzii Paynter as executive coordinator; and even moreso his contribution to Baptist life in pioneering the Pathways to Ministry program at Wilshire - since spread to other churches - in which Wilshire serves as a teaching congregation, mentoring young ministers in a two-year residency, giving them opportunities to learn and perform pastoral responsibilities. This program has been a great blessing not only to these young residents but to us as a church as well.

Beyond all of this, however, what our family will always appreciate most about George is the morning of April 2 of last year, when he showed up at Medical Center of McKinney at 6 AM to pray with us. Our son, Travis, lay in critical condition after suffering a stroke the night before. In less than 2 hours, Travis would undergo surgery that would save his life. We needed the pastoring George gave us that day and will always be grateful for his care and concern.

Thank you, George, for your friendship and encouragement, and congratulations on 25 years as Wilshire's senior pastor. Thanks be to God for George Mason.