“TOTAL ECLIPSE of the SUN” (AUGUST 15 - 31)
After a few days of rest at home following the London/Lee Abbey adventure-in-England, I flew out on Sunday evening, August 13, headed for Greenville, SC. Some might have thought I was going to view the Eclipse of the Sun since Greenville had been named as an optimum place to view a TOTAL Eclipse. But unfortunately, I wasn’t even aware of the coming eclipse when I booked my flight back in June. And when I did realize it, I was pretty "cool" about it, with words like, "no big deal," and "I'll catch the next showing." A case of sour grapes, as I would later recognize.
Ridgecrest is a conference center set in the beautiful Appalachian mountains just east of Asheville, North Carolina. As a high school student, my home church took groups to Recreation Week at Ridgecrest Conference Center, sponsored by the Church Recreation Department of the Baptist Sunday School Board. It was the first time that I traveled out-of-state without parents from my home in LA (Lower Alabama) before college days. It was a world I’d never seen: the beauty of Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi River, located in the Appalachian Mountains, and the beauty of formative inspiration by men and women who were leaders in the Church Recreation Department in Nashville, and who would become role models for me.
People like Frank Hart (Pogo) Smith, who was almost as wide as he was tall, who taught me to laugh at myself, and that worship and ministry can be fun. I would in later years at another conference hear POGO say that he had an engraved nameplate on his desk that spelled out, not his name, but the letters, WCDIBTICDI. (Who can do it better than I can do it—an encouragement to himself and to all ministers to empower others, not to try to do everything yourself.)
And Don Mattingly, who would years later lead a workshop at Rec Lab where I would learn the ministry of puppetry. At Rec Week Mr. Mattingly taught us silly songs like “Way Up In the Sky, Where the Little Birds Fly . . . “, that I would use years later as a youth pastor to wake kids in my youth group that I had taken to Ridgecrest—you guessed it—for Rec Week.
And there was Ev Robertson, drama specialist, who inspired me to use drama in ministry and worship, and taught me that it was not only okay, but that is was good, and a powerful tool to communicate the gospel.
And Jim Stanton, who would not only lead me but who would in my adult life become a very good friend. And there were others that I can’t remember names now. But all of these people pointed me to a Christ who sets me free to laugh and be silly, to play and have fun—that it’s okay, in church, and in ministry and service. These were formative times. Oh, I didn’t realize it when I was 16, but God was shaping me for ministry that I would live out in Kentucky, and Tennessee, and in Texas,
So, because these great leaders were such powerful influences on my life and ministry, and my association with them was in this gorgeous setting, I went back to North Carolina and to this wonderful place called Ridgecrest to finish Sabbatical 2017. (Don't tell my Texan friends, but when I was sensing that it was time to seek God's will and leave the church in Nashville after 14 years, I was praying every day that God would call me to North Carolina—the beauty of the mountains, the cool mountain air—these were the things that drew me to NC. But he called me to Texas. Go figure.
On the Sunday in May when Pastor Steve announced I was going on Sabbatical, several of you wished me well and asked me what my plans were. And when Dana Brown asked me, I said, “Well, plans aren’t in concrete, but I’m talking to the folks at Ridgecrest about coming there for a few days.” Now Dana, who knew about Ridgecrest and knew exactly where it is, asked, “Why don’t you come visit us in Hendersonville while you’re there?” And knowing it was on the way, and remembering that for years she and Nelson had invited me to come to visit them at their summer home, I accepted the invitation of the Browns. (Oh yes, there was an invitation from Nelson to play golf, so that didn’t hurt either.)
So I did spend a few days with Nelson and Dana. Their hospitality was fabulous, and Dana’s a great cook. So quiet and beautiful, sitting on their chalet balcony, looking out over the mountains of Appalachia, it was "heaven." But you know what I loved most—we talked. The TV was never on, and we had great conversations. We talked about things that matter—our families, including, of course, children and grandchildren, and our friends back home. We shared our stories—how we got there, and where we’re going. I know I could have those same conversations with them in Houston, but it just doesn’t happen, for whatever reason. But it was very nice to hear stories about where they grew up, and their families of origin, and how they met and eventually blended their two families. Thanks, Dana and Nelson, for that quality time you shared with me. And yes, I did enjoy playing golf with Nelson and even got to play with Herb Miller, another UBCer who now lives in the same neighborhood. And on the last day, Dana and Nelson were nice enough to take me up into Pisgah National Forest, where we saw beautiful and powerful waterfalls—Spectacular! Lots of great reminders of the God who gives us beauty in creation and conversation.
After a quick lunch at Hot Dog World, where I could not argue with the claim that they have the world’s best dog, I made my way to Ridgecrest, less than an hour away. When I checked in, the kind lady who greeted me at the desk asked if this was my first visit, and I said, “oh no, I was here 45 years ago.” She smiled and welcomed me back.
Days at Ridgecrest were—you might say—boring. I walked every morning up to the TW Wilson Prayer Garden, where I sat on a bench and in the cool quiet of the morning, read one of the devotional classics. There were five or six benches, but because summer programming was pretty much over, there was never another person in the garden while I was there. Listening to the sounds of the forest around me, the babbling mountain brook that flowed through, I spent some nice time praying and listening and thinking and praying and reflecting and praying. My kind of boredom.
On most mornings I took extended walks, sometimes on the trails in the mountains above Ridgecrest, or on the road that circles the compound—a walk that that was half down-hill and half-uphill—very uphill! My UBC colleagues will be pleasantly shocked to hear that I often went to Clouds, an internet coffee shop, to work on my writing project for a couple of hours. They won’t be surprised that I usually had a Nehi peach soft drink in a bottle (I hadn’t seen a Nehi since I was at home in LA), rather than an espresso or even a cup of coffee.
In the afternoon, I read for a little while and walked again. Two evenings I went to Phil’s Barbeque for dinner. Phil’s was decorated with sports caps that covered the entire ceiling, and “coke” bottle caps that lined the windows and formed the trim around the building. I’ve told some of my Texas friends that I didn’t know until I came to Texas that you could make barbeque out of brisket, so of course I had the pork at Phil’s. Did I mention that Phil’s was decorated with a North Carolina state flag, a United States flag, and an Alabama state flag? And that there was a life-sized cut-out of Nick Sabin, with an elaborate display of Crimson Tide memorabilia. But he wasn’t available. I said it anyway, to the young lady at the cashier. She wasn’t impressed.
Another evening I went to a place called Red Rocker Inn. A bed and breakfast, the Red Rocker was in the same location in Black Mountain that it was 40 years ago when I brought student groups to Ridgecrest. It was a favorite spot for Kay and me to take the student sponsors for dinner. It hadn’t changed much, but I was just a little disappointed that they don’t serve in "sittings" as they did back then, with the owner praying a blessing before everyone started dinner.
The time at Ridgecrest was fabulous. Like Lee Abbey, it was quiet and secluded time. There was a TV in a hospitality room across from my room, but I only checked once a day to keep up with what was going on in the world—breaking news—and we all know what that was about. But the times for meditation, and reading, and writing—these are the ways that I re-energize. And it was very good.
Now regarding that eclipse, I did come to regret that I hadn't made plans to make the 1-hour and 45-minute drive back to Greenville to see the total eclipse. But I purchased my "eclipse glasses," went up on Mt. Mitchell, which, as I wrote earlier, is the highest point east of the Mississippi River. And yes, I did see the eclipse, and it was pretty cool (probably 90-95 %, so it only got very dim, not dark.) A little disappointed, but an amazing sight to see. A couple of days later, I would sit in my hotel room in Greenville, and the local news guy showed a video of the eclipse, with the large sun covering the entire screen, and the moon covering about 25% of the sun, and a small “bug”-looking shape crossing the sun. When he explained that the “bug” was the International Space Station, I was disappointed that there was no one present to hear me say, “I know Randy Bresnik, and he's flying on that "bug." No one there to hear me, but I said it anyway.
After six days at Ridgecrest, I had planned to drive to Raleigh, North Carolina, to visit my friends Fred and Barbara McGehee. Barbara was preschool/children’s minister at Judson Baptist Church in Nashville, for all the 14 years that I was on staff there. She and Fred were great encouragers to Kay and me. And our was a great encourager to me. And our boys were in Mr. Fwed’s preschool Church Training group, and they loved Mr. Fwed and Ms. Babra. But around 8 o’clock Tuesday morning, Barbara called to tell me that Fred, who had been having some health issues, was scheduled just a few minutes earlier for a heart cath that afternoon. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to see them, but thankful that docs determined the problem (a light heart attack), and were able to contain it. And he’s okay now—no surgery or stints needed.
So with plans disrupted, I decided to call my friend Fausto back in Houston. Fausto has a son, Efrain, who lives in Greenville, where I was scheduled to fly out the next day. I drove to Greenville, and that evening, I had dinner with Efrain and Angela and Joshua and Jared. It was so much fun meeting them and telling them how much I love their dad/granddad, and how much he means to us at UBC. It was a great way to end my NC visit. And then the painful part—I had to listen to Joshua and Jared tell me how incredible it was to see the TOTAL eclipse of the sun. I was happy for them, and just a little sad (again) that I had missed it.
I returned to Houston on Wednesday evening to hear first reports of Harvey the Hurricane. I had no idea that the storm was brewing in the gulf, but I would join 6 million other people in Houston who had no idea that by Saturday, Harvey would be wreaking havoc on the entire region, bringing what turned out to be record rainfalls in Houston—In the 40+ range, and sometimes more than 50.
So for this last week of Sabbatical, I’ve watched some of the most horrible and widespread destruction by floods that I’ve ever seen. And I’ve watched some of the most inspiring and gut-wrenching stories of courage and ingenuity as folks have come from all parts of Houston, and from Dallas and San Antonio and Waco, bringing boats and hearts of service, to save lives of those who were trapped in their homes, with water rising around them. And I heard no talk of race or religion or political party in the process.
Many of our friends from Tennessee and Kentucky and Alabama and even sent text messages to check on us. My response was always, “Kay and I are okay. Had a little street flooding Sunday morning, but no water near our house. I am mostly feeling guilty because so many are being forced out of their homes and into the life-boats, leaving houses with waters that will rise and destroy much if not all of everything they own. So please pray for the people of Houston.”
If I had a twitter account, I just might tweet, “Watching people drive across town or from places far away, bringing boats and trucks and canoes and rafts, rescuing the elderly and children, the sick and the babies, and their parents, makes America great, and IT IS GREAT, and has been for a long time.
The recovery will begin soon, but it will be long and hard. And for some, it will be painful. Like an eclipse, Harvey has blocked the light of the heavens from the earth. And in many ways, Satan has used the storm to try to block the Light of the World from the people that Jesus died for. But hope is not d. The sun will shine again—as a matter of fact, it is peeking through the clouds even as I write. And in the meantime, God is being glorified by the demonstrations of love and compassion and care being shown by the people of Houston, Texas. I’m ready to get back to work. Thanks, UBC, for three months of Sabbath—rest and rejuvenation. Thanks be to God. AMEN.