Remembering Names: A Letter to West Franklin

Remembering Names: A Letter to West Franklin April 23, 2022
West Franklin Family,
Thursday morning I drove to Hartselle, Alabama. My mom wrote a book and was part of a home-town book signing at the Train Depot in the center of downtown. My sisters were there, along with some of their children (11 out of 15 grandchildren were present and accounted for). I got to see a couple of faces I had not seen in a long, long time. A fun day for sure. One gentleman I met for the first time was the preacher who officiated my parents’ wedding. His name is A. Ray Lee. He wore a brown leather vest, dark button-down shirt, and black jeans. He carried a cane. And he wore a dark brown newsboy hat over his eyeglasses and white moustache. He moved slow and spoke with a Spirit-infused wisdom.
Bro. Lee informed me he was ordained into the Gospel ministry in 1960. He pastored in the North Alabama region his entire ministry. That’s 62 years for those without a calculator. Though he claimed to have slowed down a lot, he still preaches and has started taking his writing seriously. So far he has written about how different people respond to tragedy (and the effects it has on their lives), his wife’s long battle with dementia (that took her life three years ago next week), and currently working on a book about the journey of faith. He shared with me how he played a part in getting my parents together. It wasn’t long into our brief conversation that he asked me about my mom’s sister – by name (Lisa). And then he asked about my mom’s brother – by name (Andy). He mentioned my mom’s dad – by name (Tom) remembering my granddad’s former occupation (Director of the Alabama Baptist Children’s Home). And he mentioned my dad’s parents – by name (Elton and Mary Nell). I was (and still am) dumbfounded.
My parents got married over 51 years ago. And my mom’s side of the family did not even attend the church where they wed. But he still remembered them . . . by name. He even remembered key details about their lives. A. Ray Lee – without even knowing it – taught this pastor a little bit more about what it means to be a pastor. Actually, without even realizing it, he taught me what a pastor is and does.
A pastor knows his people and he knows their story. A pastor let’s his people and their stories get “in” him. A pastor takes the stories and the situations of his people with him to the Lord. As I’ve heard it said so beautifully before: “A pastor is one who is with God with his people on his mind.”
West Franklin, that’s what I want for us. For me. For you. Yes, for me to know your names and stories (I’m working on it! Oh to be like A. Ray Lee!). But I want this to be true of each other as well. Of all the word pictures given for the church in Scripture, “family” is the one that seems to be most dominant. Family. Brothers. Sisters. Mom. Dad. Son. Daughter. Grandson. Granddaughter. Cousin. Uncle. Aunt. Great-grandmaw. Names. Stories. Heritage. History. Love. Forgiveness. Arguments. Tension. Joy. Celebration. Grief. Prayer. Eating. Chores. Figuring out life. Enduring together. Inheritance.
I asked Bro. Lee what his secret was. He just smiled. He said, “it’s a gift.” Indeed. I kind of hoped he would stop at that. It would have let me off the hook a bit. I could have walked away and thought, “That’s great for him, but I don’t have that gift.” But A. Ray continued. He looked at me through his glasses, smiled, and said, “Matt, you have to be intentional about it. You have to take time to listen. To pay attention. To be present with them.” I was at once convicted and challenged and drawn in all at the same time. Yes, Bro. Lee. That’s it. That’s just like Jesus. The One who knows our names and our stories. The One who is never in a hurry but eager to be present with us.
West Franklin, I am not sure how to best go about this. But I long for this to be true of us. To know one another’s stories. To easily recall each other’s names. To be with God with one another on our minds and hearts. Maybe it’s not as hard as it seems? Maybe it is? Maybe we all just need to start by un-busying ourselves and begin paying close, attentive attention to the person right in front of us. Maybe we need to pause for 10 seconds right now and pray that this be true of our church family. God. Us. Us with God. God with Us. God for us, in us, pursuing us, sending us. I don’t know, but it sure feels right. Holy. True. Human. Whole. May God help us.
You’ve probably never heard of Bro. A. Ray Lee. Before Thursday, I hadn’t either – and he married my parents!! But I have a real good feeling hundreds of folks in North Alabama know who he is. They do because he knows them. No. You may not know A. Ray Lee. But I promise you this: if you ever do get to meet him, he will know you. Thank you God for pastor’s like him.
God willing, I will see you in the morning with my Bible open to 1 John 5:11-13. We’re starting a 6-week series on 1 John. I can’t wait. Now. If you wouldn’t mind, go take a minute and purchase my mom’s book. It can only help pad my inheritance when the time comes (Grin) (Just kidding. . . sort of).
Longing to Know and Be Known With You,
Pastor Matt

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