Go Forth and Serve the Lord – Tire and Transmission

Go forth

The following is a sermon on Luke 9:57-62, preached at Asbury Church not long after my return from the Appalachians…

I have been home for two weeks, and my time in Kentucky is starting to seem like a life time ago.   I do have a handful of stories that I have promised to share, and it may be a life time before I finish them all.

It seems every time I head south there is some challenge, issue or adventure that befalls me.   I am like Bilbo Baggins from the Hobbit leaving the shire for a whole world of adventures.

This trip was no different.  Maybe it was an even greater adventure.   Although with each passing year it gets significantly easier, it is still truly an experience akin to walking on the moon.

Red Bird Missionary Conference, the sight of my schooling is the single largest Methodist Mission in the world.   Africa, Ghana, the sub Saharan; none of our missions to these desolate areas of the globe even come close to what is going on in this small, forgotten area of Kentucky.    I also don’t believe I have ever seen a greater need; which is especially heartbreaking in this, the richest country in the world.

The area is so poor it’s heartbreaking and as a result when we are there we are not staying in the lap of luxury.  Per Capita income for a family in Harlan County, Kentucky is just a hair over $11,000.   The school, medical and educational systems are horribly underfunded.    Most get buy on pay day lending services and pay incredible interest on their income just to make it from one month to the next.   One report I saw while down there had 40% of the average resident’s income going to meet interest requirements on the money they borrow to simply bridge the gap between pay checks.

I wish I could truly paint an accurate picture of this area.  Yet, words will unquestionably fail.   Everywhere you look you see how much is against these people. Large supermarkets are nonexistent, which mean you are likely eating garbage and not healthy or organic foods.   The children look horribly unhealthy and obese by even the most liberal standards.

There are no employers, so those that are there are typically either coal mines, or retail and fast food establishments; both not on the top of the list for employee rights.    If you are lucky you have one of those jobs.   If you are even luckier you have some sort of extra wages to augment your pay, when the coal mines close down for six months each year, simply because both demand is down and coal can be mined cheaper in Argentina.

Another of the key issues facing this area is one that I doubt we would ever experience here.   Although the winters are significantly shorter than New Hampshire and New England, they still have winters, and people get cold.   With folks living on the mountains with next to nothing, some have taken to sneaking out at night with a pick axe and a bucket.   In darkness they go about chopping out coal from little deposits in the rock ledges that line the highway.   As they do, more than a handful have been hit by cars, or crushed as rock slabs fall upon them.   If you stop and consider that, your heart could break.

I want to be clear on this;  one of the greatest blessings I have had as a pastor is to be afforded the opportunity to find myself in missions everywhere from Massachusetts and Washington to Kentucky.    These trips are hard, expensive, and they take their toll physically and mentally on both me and my family, but I am blessed beyond measure for having the opportunity to take them.

I have been forever changed because of these experiences.   I have become a different man through them.    I return home and for weeks, after my family goes to bed, and I sit alone on my couch surveying my own modest world, I could almost cry over the incredible and undeserved blessings that have been given to my family.   I wonder what God thinks of how –simply by the chance location of my birth – I have so much, while they have so little.

Sadly, it didn’t take me long to get back in the flow of cursing the lawn, the 8-5 job, and the work that needs to be done around my world.   As a matter of fact, In a few weeks, I will completely file Kentucky into the back resources of my brain.

Somehow, in Kentucky, they hold on to the recognition of the blessings around them with both hands.   They don’t need big and awesome everyday… instead it seems like they are searching for an everyday reminder.   Someway they learn to see God everywhere and it changes them.    It makes them a different people.   Despite that immense poverty, there is a part of me that wants to move, live and serve there.   It’s because the people are different, and deep down at our core, I believe that we all long to be closer to those types of people.

After my first week had come to close, I decided I needed to put the top down on the jeep and see the countryside.   So with little in the way of destination before me, I took off.   I was travelling the back woods of Tennessee – which abuts Kentucky – and all of a sudden the story took a Hollywood horror movie turn.

It was my trip on those back mountain roads – wind rushing in my hair and bugs smacking the windshield – that was interrupted with a giant BANG!

With a minor coronary, I realized that I had just had a blow out in my jeep.   After a few white knuckled moments, that flat tire had lead to the carefree enjoyment of top down exploration being replaced with foul language and tire kicking.

There I was – in the jeep – in the middle of some mountain road – which had no curbs or pull offs with a flat tire.    Mind you; The roads are not roads in the New England sense.  They are not much wider than the Jeep itself, with each car that passed in the opposite direction, you were sure that a collision was unavoidable.

Again, there I am – now speaking in strange tongues in the middle of the road, contemplating how I change that tire without getting run down like a squirrel in street.    Helpless, I did what any good and well tested man should do… I called my wife.    Actually, I texted Stacey for some much needed moral support.

Now here is where the story turns;


Before I managed to get the phone back in my pocket, there rumbling over the hill is a green, rusting, smoke billowing Ford pickup truck.   In that moment, I was sure I heard banjos playing off in the woods.  It was Beverly Hillbillies and it was barreling down at me in full force.

All I could do in the time it took me to notice the truck and its arrival upon me, was take a breath, start my process of excessive sweating, and under my breath utter a finally colorful chose of commentary.

With a back fire, a white billow of smoke, and almost cartoon like dramatic pause, the truck silence and shut off.

In a second I saw the driver for the first time.    There on the side of this nowhere mountain road, I met the perfect movie stereotype for Tennessee backwoods.   His name was Charles Ray, and he was one of the largest men I ever met.

As he introduced himself, I remember the old adage that killers always have two first names.   Did you realize that?    John Wilkes Booth.   Lee Harvey Oswald,    John Wayne Gacy,   James Earl Ray.   I was surely down for.   I was going to meet my fate it some back woods nowhere road, by Charles Ray, and no one would hear me scream.

Would you like to guess the first words out of Charles Ray’s mouth?

“Are you okay, brother?”

There on the side of the road, in nowhere Tennessee I was introduced to Southern Kindness and hospitality.    Charles Ray spent twenty minutes with me on the side of the road.   He got down on his hands and knees to inspect the hole in my tire.    He poked and prodded, and pulled out a piece of metal about two inches long and the width of a pencil from the inside wall of my tire.   He helped me put on a spare and even offered me a beer as he did the work (of which I refused graciously).

He then got on his CB and called his buddy, who owned a car shop just a few miles from where we stood.   He proceeded to follow me to the station and introduce me to another man named Charles, who was the owner and proprietor of a service station named – and I kid you not – “Go Forth and Serve the Lord – Tire and Transmission”

Charles Ray did a great deal for me that afternoon without payment or request for thanks.    I was in the middle of nowhere and he brought me back to civilization.   Do you know what Charles Ray did not do that afternoon?    He did not look at me the way I did.

When I saw redneck or hillbilly,…what did he see?

He got out of his car – not with an iota of hesitation – and asked simply “are you okay brother?”

Part of me believes they are a great deal richer in those parts than we are here, because they don’t get caught up in the things we do.   One seems richer when the first thing they see is a brother or sister, and not a cartoon character or road side monster.     I find myself wondering if we here in this neck of the woods are those really in need.   I know that it’s the general sentiment of those I met in Kentucky.

It’s easier to lose sight of God – and become different people – when there is so much noise around us.

I originally proposed this idea in a sermon recently that tore about a particular verse in the Bible;  Luke 9:57-62 (Click to Read it)

The verse is a familiar one…A man realizes that he has so much to lose by following Jesus, and can’t give the things up.   Jesus replies not out of anger, but rather with this sense of true concern.   He tells the man that he who puts his hand on the plowshare and looks back is not fit for the kingdom.   The tire incident of Tennessee brings a struggle of my faith front and center, and the challenge of this verse is strengthened.

Our faith teaches us that the Kingdom of God is here among us right now.   God’s Kingdom has come.  God is always present, right here and now.   God loves us, has showered us with blessings, and is calling us to become different people and a different church.   God is not separated, in some far away cosmic palace, but lives in the right here and right now.      God is within us, stands with us, and never leaves us.   Through faith we need to accept that truth, and allow everything about our lives to be changed.

And it will be changed.   Where fear is; love remains.   Where doubt reigns, courage takes over.   We don’t live in constant fear of the ‘what ifs’ or worries about the ‘what now’.   We find strength in our knees, backs, and hearts.

Yet too often we stand there and can’t keep ourselves from looking back at what was.   We have both hands on the plow share doing the work of the kingdom in the here and now, but our eyes are back there.   We find ourselves so full of doubt.   We convince ourselves that God isn’t here, and we aren’t working hard enough.  Maybe we convince ourselves that we have nothing to celebrate and we don’t sense the blessings.      Sometimes it seems as if God is so far away, and as we doubt, we change.

When we fail to recognize God in our midst, we start looking at each other with eyes chock full of suspicion.   What do they want?  What are they going to take?   What should I hide?    What is there real intent?   I am not going to let you in as you will only break my heart or my knees.

As opposed to recognizing the spirit in our midst, we turn our eyes and look backwards.   We become the people we were back then.   We lose God in the noise and we end up with hands firmly on the plow but looking back.

In the end, I think of Charles Ray, and I think of Scott Masters.

I pull around a corner on Route 9, and I see a man standing by the side of the road, I think of homicidal maniac, carjacker, or worse.

I keep driving without thinking twice.

Truth be told, I really don’t know Charles Ray from the next guy.   He could be the worst or the best among us.   To sum up a man through an hour on the side of the road is not grounds for a sound assessment.    Yet this I can tell you…   When I saw that truck approaching and thought of Charles Manson, and heard banjos.   In the end, Charles Ray was a better man.

For some reason Charles Ray – in a broken and hurting part of the country – a part of the country we shake our head at in condescending and misplaced pity – saw something else.

He saw a brother in need of a hand, and stopped.

Stories like that moment, fill that hard place, and I do pray that I can, one day, share in the wonderful, countless riches of that place.

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