Monday, October 31, 2011

Lessons from a Missionary’s Experience

Marilyn Barr is a fellow church-member of mine who knew something of my interest and personal experiences in China. She recently sent me via Evelyn a book about a Southern Baptist missionary whose career had focused on China and Manchuria. The book, Repaid A Hundredfold (Eerdmans, 1969) was written by Charles Alexander Leonard, Sr., a missionary sent to China in 1910 by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Since the book came unexpectedly and without comment or guidance, I set it aside for a while. I recently came back to the book and began to read its most interesting account of the life and work of a Southern Baptist missionary in the first half of the 20th century. After reading most of the book, I ran into Marilyn at church and mentioned how much I was enjoying the book and learning from it. Only then did I discover that Charles Alexander Leonard, Sr. was her grandfather.

For 10 weeks in 1964, I served as a student summer missionary in Taiwan. There I met several missionaries who had served in China before the Communist takeover. They told me exciting stories about the “Shantung Revival” (now called the “Shandong Revival”) that had taken place in China prior to World War II and before the Communists drove American missionaries out of China (around 1949). I confess that my first interest in reading Charles Leonard’s book was primarily to see how many of these missionaries that I had known personally would appear on the pages of his book.

When I talked with Marilyn and discovered that this was the story of her grandfather’s ministry, I had only run across familiar names like Lottie Moon and Bill Wallace, both made famous by their ministries and sacrifices in China, but neither of whom I knew personally. A few other names were familiar because of the leadership roles they assumed later at the Foreign Mission Board. But by that point in the book, Leonard had drawn me into his book and into amazement at his ministry in China. I had almost forgotten that I was looking for names of missionaries that were familiar to me.

Only in the last chapter (“Stories of Human and Spiritual Interest”) did I finally see a few names appear of missionaries that I had known. One of them, Dr. C. L. Culpepper, actually wrote a very kind letter to me that was delivered at the Taipei airport as I was leaving to return home. He apologized for being unable to see me off but graciously thanked me for my work in Taiwan that summer. [His daughter gives a tribute to him in the following video about the Shandong Revival: .]

In my next few blog posts, I will share some of my reactions to Charles Leonard’s book and some insights I have gained from reading his story.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Happy Birthday, Aunt Irma

Irma Margaret Richardson Holt Wood was born on October 24, 1915, and celebrated her 96th birthday yesterday. It has been over a year since I last visited with her in the Alabama town, Sylacauga, where I was born in the midst of World War II and where my mother and I lived either near and with her while my dad was in the Pacific arena. In fact, I went straight from the hospital to Irma’s home after I was born. That foreshadowed a long history of closeness with this special aunt.

Irma was born 14 months before my mother (Mom’s birthday was Christmas Eve, 1916), and the closeness of their ages engendered a special bond between them. My Mom had four sisters and two brothers, and all of them were especially intelligent and gifted. The first daughter, Mable, was the only college graduate among the siblings. All of the rest had the capability; but because they mostly came of age during the Great Depression, the cost of financing college degrees was prohibitive. Mom always said that Irma gave up the opportunity to go to college so that both of them could attend a business school instead.

Irma’s first child, Margaret, was born about 4-1/2 months after I was. Her second child, Marilyn, was born about two months before my sister. Though these cousins lived 40-50 miles away during my school years, they were my sister and my closest relatives and friends as we grew up. We seemed to spend together every holiday that was worth celebrating; and during the summer months we would spend weeks together. The closeness of our family relationships yielded a rather uncommon familiarity. Titling this post with “Aunt Irma” seems almost awkward, because we children all called our aunts and uncles by their first names, rarely preceded by “Aunt” or “Uncle.”

Irma’s first husband, Thurman Holt, was an independent grocer and was my substitute father for my first couple of years when my Dad served overseas in the Army. Thurman died as the result of botched surgery in the mid-50s, when malpractice lawsuits were almost unheard of. His grocery business already was suffering from the introduction of a chain grocery store in Sylacauga. I recall that his final surgery was for stomach ulcers. Irma, a stay-at-home Mom, was left pretty much penniless with two school-aged daughters. One of my uncles assisted her in getting a job as a bank teller, and she worked at that bank in jobs of increasing responsibility until she retired. With some assistance from that same uncle, she was able put both of her daughters through college; and both became gifted teachers.

Later, after I had started my college and seminary work and was away from the frequent family get-togethers, Irma married Robbie Wood, a kind and gentle man, who provided a level of comfort and security that she had not known before. Robbie’s family welcomed Irma and has continued to give attention and care to her even after Robbie’s death years ago.

Irma’s got a birthday card from me yesterday (if the Postal Service cooperated), but that card is a most inadequate symbol of what she has meant and continues to mean to me. She and an uncle who married my mother’s youngest sister are the last of the generation before me. Both are still in relatively good health. After these two and one older surviving cousin, I am now the fourth oldest member of the Richardson clan. I hope I can live with the faith, grace, strength, endurance, and optimism that my aunt Irma has modeled. Just think of all that she has experienced and seen since 1916. She is a family treasure. My love goes out to her on her birthday, though again I am far away.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Feeling Good About Being "Average?"

Gotcha feeling good about being “average,” did I? Well that was a sucker punch. Let’s talk about what really is average. World-wide, the top 1% own 43% of the world’s assets. The richest 10% own 83% of the world’s wealth. If you have assets of $4,000 after deducting your debt, you are in the wealthiest half of the world’s population. And here’s the real kicker: Half of the global population together possess less than 2% of global wealth. So half of the world’s population have an average total net worth of less than $60. Consult your check book or your credit card statement and see how far $60 would go. I’m feeling a little better about not being average, but I am not feeling better about where the other half find themselves, staring into the face of hunger, want, and need.

Statistical resources:

Tyler Durden, “A Detailed Look at Global Wealth Distribution,”

Are We Really "Rich" Americans?

We have always been told that we Americans are blessed. We are the wealthiest nation in the world and are viewed with envy by the rest of the "poor" world. In fact, we Americans make up 4.5% of the world's population, and we control 39% of the world's wealth. That is an enormous imbalance. But I don't feel so "rich." Do you?

Well, the recent focus on wealth in the USA might explain why we don't feel so rich. We now know that 10% of the people in the USA hold 90% of our nation's wealth. When you put that information in a global perspective, the reality hits home. The top 10% of America's wealthiest comprise 0.45% of the world's population, but they control over 35% of the world's wealth. The rest of us Americans (4.05% of the world population) have 4% of the world's wealth. Hey! That makes us pretty "average!"

Statistical resources:
US population of 307,007 million with a world population of 6.775 billion.
39% of world's wealth from Jack Ewing, ""America's Dominance in Global Wealth Is Slipping," New York Times (September 14, 2010)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Write This Down

I often begin my day with some fitness exercises. While I exercise, I usually am tuned in to Pandora, the online music station that plays “your favorite music.” I have eclectic interests in music—from religious to Broadway musicals, from ballads to barbershop quartet, and from the Carpenters to Johnny Mathis. Pandora takes my expressed preferences and regularly tests those interests by proposing other similar styles that might be of interest to me.

Although I lived in Nashville for 25 years, I am not a great fan of country music; but Pandora continues to push my interest in ballads in the direction of Country and Western. Some of their suggestions I like; some I do not. The problem is this. Whenever I don’t like a song for whatever reason, I have to stop in the midst of my exercises and go to my computer to click on the “thumbs down” button. Frequently I just let it pass rather than interrupting my exercise routine.

Today was one of those days. Pandora introduced me to George Strait singing “Write This Down,” a country song written by Dan Hunt and Kent B. Robbins. My first inclination was to “thumbs down” this one, but I let it play as I continued my exercises. I’m glad I did, because I surprisingly found some significant religious themes in the song.

When Strait began to sing, “You can find a chisel; I can find a stone. Folks will be reading these words long after we’re gone,” my first thought was of Moses and his tablets of stone. And while Moses was receiving the Torah, the nation was constructing a golden calf. That seemed especially poignant because the words being written on the stone in George Strait's song were: “I love you, and I don’t want you to go.” Suddenly I was reminded that this is the fundamental core message of the Bible. God is saying, “I love you. I don’t want you to leave me or forsake me. I’ve written these words of Scripture to (in Strait’s words) ‘tell yourself I love you and I don’t want you to go. Write this down. Take my words. Read ’em every day. Keep ’em close but don’t let ‘em fade away. So you’ll remember . . . .” Then in the spirit of Deuteronomy 6:7-9, the song continues: “So use it as a bookmark. Stick it on your frigerator door. Hang it in a picture frame up on the mantel where you’ll see it for sure.”

So, write this down: “God loves me and wants me to stay close.” The reminders were written in stone on tablets and painted with blood on a cross. I need the reminders every day. I need to keep those words close and not let them fade away.

So write this down today, literally and figuratively: “God loves me and want me to stay close today—and every day.”

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Renewal of Marriage Vows

I have been asked to assist in the renewal of marriage vows for a couple of friends. Here is the ceremony that I have been working on. I would welcome your comments, evaluation, and feedback.

When asked to participate with you in the renewal of your marriage vows, the first idea to pop into my mind was the word faithfulness. As is often my custom, that thought sent me to the dictionary to explore this idea of faithfulness. The suffix of the word, the “-ness” part of it, conveys the idea of an instance or state of being, or a quality of being. That idea reminded me that part of what we attempt in marriage is to take the instance of making pledges in a marriage ceremony and extending those pledges into a state of practicing those ideals throughout our lives. So when we take a person as our lawfully wedded spouse—when we make marriage vows to love, honor, cherish, and obey—and when we pledge ourselves to our spouses and to them alone, we are establishing some standards by which faithfulness can be measured and some guideposts by which we can assess our progress through this most intimate of human relationships. As believers, we set all of this in the context of a covenant made with each other, before God, and in the presence of witnesses.

That definition almost immediately reminded me that faithfulness is one of the most prominent descriptions in the Scriptures for God’s relationship with God’s people. The words “faithful,” “faithfully,” and “faithfulness” are used 160 times in the Scriptures; and about three-eighths of those occurrences use the words to describe God’s faithfulness. That explains why Thomas O. Chisholm in 1923 penned the words to that timeless hymn praising God, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Phrase after phrase in that hymn remind us of the divinely inspired image of what faithfulness means when we follow God’s example of faithfulness. With God there is “no shadow of turning.” God “changest not.” God’s “compassions … fail not,” what God has been God “forever wilt be.” The seasons of the year; the sun, the moon, and the stars; and “all nature” give manifold witness to God’s “great faithfulness, mercy, and love.” God’s pardon, peace, and presence cheer us, guide us, strengthen us, and give us “bright hope for tomorrow.” The refrain of the hymn asserts that “all I have needed, Thy hand hath provided” as each morning brings new mercies to us.

That kind of faithfulness is a worthy goal for us in our marriages; but frankly, the goal is way too high for us--and we can say that from two perspectives. No one of us will ever find a spouse who can fulfill our every need in every way and in every instance; and none of us can be a spouse who will be the perfect answer to all of our spouse’s needs. Marriages are not perfect because we are not perfect people. The expectations of perfection that we sometimes bring with us into marriage are quickly discovered to be unrealistic. Some people can’t handle that discovery, and either they create a make-believe life out of ignoring the imperfections in themselves and in their spouses, or they become disillusioned and either live a lifetime of muted disappointment or break up the marriage in hopes that someone else can become their “perfect spouse.”

What we are doing here today is to seek another path that steers us between disillusionment on the one hand and dissolution on the other. We are imperfect people in imperfect relationships—but, so what? Where did we get the idea that we could be perfect or that our spouse would be perfect? Why do we imagine that some other “perfect person” might be out there who could change things? Why does the reality of imperfections disappoint us when we must honestly acknowledge that we ourselves are imperfect?

Renewing vows is not a cure-all. It is not a magic potion or a remedy that can correct, counteract, or remove our imperfections. It is, rather, what the initial marriage vows were intended to be. It is a pledge to make a sincere effort to devote yourself and all you are to another person because you genuinely love that person. You want to be with that person--to live, to love, to support, to endure, to assist, to uplift, to strengthen, to forgive, to embrace, to enjoy so long as you both shall live. In this, the traditional marriage vows continue to have meaning: “I take you to be my spouse, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”

These words that pledged faithfulness were somewhat empty words when you were first married, because you had little of the shared experiences with the better or the worse, the richer or the poorer, the sickness or the health. Now you know so much more. You have experienced so much together. You have had good times and bad. You have had ups and downs. You have had sickness and health. You have had gentle peace and the expected conflict. You have dealt with each other in each of your best and worst personas. And yet, through all of this, you have returned to this sacred time and this scared place to say:
  • I truly love you, and I want us to spend the rest of our lives together.
  • I pledge to you anew my constant love and faithful devotion.
  • I beg your forgiveness for where I have failed you in the past.
  • I plead for your patience for where I surely will falter in the future.
  • I pray that God will strengthen me as I strive to meet your needs.
  • And I pray the God will bless you through me as we walk together in love.