It Was Another 9/11

Fourteen years ago this week I was called to be the pastor of First Baptist Church of Alexandria.
We had been talking with the search committee (Marth Jo Meserole, Billy Pessaud, Don Lytal, Laura Redding, Sam Moneyhun, Kris Meyers, and Chris Elliff)  for several months. Together we had made the decision for me to be presented to the congregation. It had not been an easy decision for us, even though we had both felt from the beginning that it was God's will. I knew that I would be uprooting our very happy and tranquil life, and that I would be disappointing the church in Danville where I had invested almost 17 years, people that I loved dearly. And, once the decision was made and announced, things would never go back to the way they were. It would not be the same again.
We spent Thursday night and all day Friday and Saturday with various groups from the church--meeting, talking, and fielding questions. Exhausting, yes—and necessary for an informed decision. But the big day was Sunday, September 11. I preached twice that morning, and the sermon was titled: "Glimpsing My Heart" from Romans 1:1-16.

I was nervous, of course, but I also thought that I was really sick. All the week preceding, just after I told our staff and some special friends in Danville what I was doing and what would likely be happening, I had been experiencing the worst stomach ache I had ever had, and a backache. At times barely able to stand up straight. My voice seemed to be leaving me, too. I actually feared that I might faint and fall off of the platform before the message was done that day.

It didn't happen, though. You would have remembered that. I finished the sermon and we left the room after both services while a ballot vote was taken. We were then ushered back in, and the aged and wonderful church clerk, Dorothy Allport, ascended the platform and adjusted the microphone downward. She announced that I had been called to be the thirty-first pastor of First Baptist Church of Alexandria--by a 99.3% affirmative vote!

There were some shouts, thunderous applause, and a standing ovation! Audrey and I both made brief statements, requests for prayers and friendship. We accepted the call. The actual beginning date would be in the following month—but this was the day our relationship began.
I wrote in my journal: "This has been the most thrilling, affirming day in my entire ministry." And I said to Audrey later that day: "We will never be more popular here than we are right at this moment."

That's true, of course, but I have so enjoyed these years with FBCA. The preaching and the mission trips. Leading the US House of Representatives and later the Senate in prayer, and other very special privileges that have come my way because of my position. Committee meetings and business meetings, too. Entertaining hundreds and hundreds of people in our home. Baptizing believers and holding precious newborn babies in dedication services.

The relationships. With births and surgeries, visits to the ER, pastors are among the few to see you without your make-up. And at happy weddings and sad funerals I have gotten to meet your larger families—even some that you did not intend for me to meet. You have told me your secrets and shared your sins. But, hopefully, you have learned over these years that I can be trusted to guard those private things. I am a sinner, too, after all.

Regrets? I've had a few. Of course. But the conviction that it was God who brought us together has never left me for a moment. I have served alongside incredible staff pastors, administrative assistants, and wonderfully gift lay people. Most of the mistakes along the way have been mine—these people have saved my ministry countless times.

After driving back to Danville that afternoon, I wrote in my journal late that night, September 11, 2005-
            “I pray that I am equal to the task that is before me, but I know that apart from God's                              intervention I will not be able to do it.”
The sick stomach and back ache left me immediately after Miss Dorothy's announcement that day—but the thrill, the joy and the burden of serving this church never have.
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