“A loyal friend who brought me in and with whom I was able to spend time would have changed my life”. – Braden
“I could be so far off course. Thank God for shepherds.” – Braden’s Dad
“Go out. And BE the Church”– Ron Hill; Retired Senior Pastor: FOSA
Wouldn’t we all like an opportunity to re-map some path in our life or perhaps even entirely delete a poorly written chapter? There’s no such thing as time travel. Still, authors and Hollywood writers attempt to weave fantasy stories about that possibility.
In mathematical theory it’s been proven that by outpacing the speed of light you could literally turn back time. Although we’ve come a long way, I don’t expect we humans will ever find this a trick we’ll be able to perform. Still, if we were afforded one chance to go back, would we? The more compelling question is, should we?
If so, it begs the next question: Where along our life lines would any of us purposely return or hit a restart button? It certainly wouldn’t be a positive experience or a decision that had a favorable outcome. More likely it would be some event or decision so horrible it had a disastrous impact on us and those around us. It would be something so bad we would quickly take the chance to re-script history.
Returning to those months and years prior to losing Braden October 30, 2018 would certainly be tempting for me as a father. I would return in a heartbeat to undo wrongs although done with every good intent. I’d accept and love Braden more unconditionally and encourage him more frequently.
On the other hand. There are chapters with experiences and with people (many who were strangers) which would never be written out of our story. Without some of these strangers who happened along our paths, some of us might have blown off course to a place distant and dark. Certainly, we’d be less well off.
This weekend I watched a live FaceBook feed from The Fellowship of San Antonio as a very special individual was celebrated for his 52 years of ministry for Christ. On this occasion, it’s important to share with you about him and how he has served me as a shepherd and a friend.
Until age 18 I lived in west Texas where “Cotton was King” (Wine vineyards are king now). We were the typical farm family before corporations took over. Then, farming was simple although uncertain and highly subject to the whims of Mother Nature.
As a teen, somehow life fell into my lap with few if any problems or crises of note. Summers meant Vacation Bible School. Sunday mornings had us all in Sunday School and “big” church (even some Sunday evenings and the occasional Wednesdays). What a lot of kids had been dealt in life just didn’t get served to my plate in large portions until years later. Of course, then I got the “All you can eat buffet”.
Social life during that time was relatively easy. After all I had a twin brother and we never lacked for friends. Still, as with every teen, you must find “your” place and your own identity. Beginning high school I decided the wisest choice for a core group was with the church youth, but I didn’t think I’d fit in. Even in west Texas, I felt like the hokey “farm kid” though you’d think that was an easy fit. It would be, but for the fact that the youth at First Baptist Church were all town kids.
At age 16 I drove a 1970 Ford pickup our dad had worn to its last thread pulling a thousand double-towed trailers overloaded with cotton. That truck was like a well aged suit. What looked good on the outside was ready to fall into a heap if shaken too much. No one else in the youth group drove a pickup not to mention lived on a farm.
One late Sunday afternoon, from my room I could hear my brother Mike’s trap set rattling the house. He’d fallen in love with drums when we were little kids living on the west side of town. Santa delivered his first toy set but this was a real one. It was well worthy of the double insulated walls dad had installed to muffle the noisy racket just to make living tolerable for us. We thought we were drowning him out, but neighbors were complaining half a mile away across open acres of dirt fields.
That Sunday, a total stranger was visiting our home. He was the youth group leader at First Baptist looking for a drummer to play in his choir called the “Celebration Singers” and “Sonshine Company”. Our sister, Karla was a singer in the group and they were preparing for a “summer tour” heading to California with stops along the way. A young Ronnie Hill was scouting talent for the group’s instrumental section.
As I sat in my room listening, I hoped somehow to get a chance like Karla and Mike were getting. To be invited into a place to plug in. Although my only talent had been first and second chair trumpet in junior high band, I might be able to do something, anything to be included. Heck, I could even do lighting.
As Ronnie was leaving, it was clear he was impressed and wanted my brother to join the group. Then he turned and looked up the hall toward my room. He came in and introduced himself. Seeing an old junk guitar standing against the wall, he asked, “Do you play “GUT-TAR?” (Until then, I had pronounced it “GIT-TAR”).
The neck had long warped and the bridge was almost completely unglued, leaving the strings a good quarter to half inch above the fretboard. To play it was painful at best and bloody at worst. I had a few songs I could play in single notes and only about three measures in length. “My Dog has Fleas”, (an old favorite), “Secret Agent Man”, and “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple. This was long before “Stairway to Heaven” had even been written.
This old “instrument” was scratched up by years of poor treatment and who knows how many kids trying to bang out tunes over time. The sound never came out quite flat nor sharp but somewhere just south of pleasant. Still, this was a chance to go on “tour” and Mike was being invited. This might be my chance!
“Do you know how to play?” Ronnie asked again.
“Uh, yeah”, I replied. And that’s how I learned to play the guitar. On the job training. More importantly, it’s how I learned about shepherds and how Christ uses them to enter into uncomfortable places, to find those left behind, and invites them when least expected. That one instance was the start of a lifelong friendship. One where I learned more about being a “Christian” than I perhaps ever would otherwise. It is certainly a chapter I’d never remove from my story.
We played the “Summer Tour”. About ten churches and a mall or two of uninterested shoppers. I kept my Mel Bay’s “How to Play Guitar Chords in Three Simple Steps” book hidden in my case. The whole tour, I mock played my “GUT-TAR” with the volume turned off completely. After each show, we’d have a fellowship and audience members would say, “Hey, I could hear everyone else but you. Man, you need to turn up your volume”. I always nodded and replied, “Yeah, it’s best for a guitar to just blend in”.
Pretty lame, but true. Still, I was invited. That was ALL that mattered then and a complete stranger named Ronnie Hill made a choice to do that. I’d not realize what he was doing until far later in life. That one choice he made changed my life entirely.
As a youth in Brownfield, either kids met at the “drag”, stayed home, or found some other place to gather. The drag was a one mile stretch on the Lubbock Highway between Coleman Park and the Sonic drive-in. Ronnie’s door never was locked and when his youth were unsure where to go, we could knock on the door knowing when it opened we had a place.
We played not only Christian music but popular music and many times the kids would just sit around talking and laughing. This was a completely new experience for me and I suspect for most of the others. Still, it was a place of absolute acceptance, inclusion, and encouragement.
As I became more comfortable as an outsider, I’d stay late after the other kids left. Ronnie and I would throw darts, tell jokes, and laugh until our sides hurt. Many times he pulled out board games and never acted like it was an imposition on his time. Ronnie had a knack for erasing the age gap and his kids felt we belonged, were valued, and we had a purpose.
Ronnie was later “Called” to move to a church in Dallas as a youth minister. There, he became just “Ron” and we remained friends. He actually wrote old fashioned letters that required a stamp. They were brief, sincere, and always asked how I was doing along with a scripture reference. I rarely returned the gesture but he didn’t stop.
After college graduation, I was in search of a job and headed for the big city of Dallas. Ron opened his home for a place to stay while job hunting. Once or twice we’d have a pretty good argument and once he even kicked me out. It was short lived but well deserved. I was being a selfish idiot.
Years later, Ron served as my singles minister in San Antonio. Most recently, he invited me to the church he founded and pastored for almost eighteen years. He asked me to share testimony about our son’s life and his death, openly and without shame. Ron’s church planted a tree in their prayer garden in memorial of Braden. Following Ron’s leadership and example his flock welcomed my family as their own and when we visit there, it feels like a second church home.
I could share so many stories about my friend and our friendship it would quickly grow boring. Suffice to say, they are memories we’ll both take into chapters yet written.
Here are just a few things I learned from this shepherd. Perhaps we all could better see how Christ works in the background and how we each should serve as His shepherds wherever lost sheep can be found.
Lessons from Ron
God blesses his children if we just look for those blessings.
God sends helpers so be looking for them.
God loves laughter. After all, He created it.
God loves us just as we are and He hears short prayers as clearly as long flowery ones.
God loves the humble, the unloved, and the outcast.
GOD LOVES ME and offers unconditional grace.
A shepherd’s primary responsibility is the safety and welfare of the flock.
Matthew 18: 12
“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?”
Today was Ron’s very last message to the flock he leaves in search of his next. Perhaps his next flock will be scattered to all corners of the world. He loves travel, so that will suit him well. As he left the stage this morning, before they cut the microphone, he exclaimed “Now, go OUT. And BE the Church!” How perfect.
Prayer: Lord, thank you for sending us shepherds. I consider myself blessed to have met several along life’s path. Please open the eyes of the lost today in need of a shepherd who will choose to leave the beaten path and help bring others to You. Bless the Shepherds and may I serve as one to someone else. In Jesus’ name, Amen.