I have been in Tallahassee, Florida two weeks today. Hurricane Michael plowed through Florida narrowly missing its capital (leaving only scattered and mostly minor damage in the city). The ravaged coastal area of Panama City and Mexico Beach, however, are not far from here. So, here I am, doing my bit to manage a second hurricane in as many months.
Today is the first day I have actually gotten out and explored. I drove about the city for about an hour. The Clemson football team is in town to play Florida State.
Clemson has the second-highest ranked program in the country and, since Georgia is nearby, the city is teeming with fans of both programs.
It struck me as I was navigating the crowded streets that there was one place I was interested in going that none of these folks would likely have on their dance card. I wanted to see the Temple Baptist Church where Rayburn Blair, one of the first truly significant influences on my life, labored for 28 years. So, I drove to North Meridian Drive and right down Memory Lane…
I was just a boy who wanted to be a preacher and believed that was what God wanted for me, too, when I first heard Rayburn Blair’s eloquent sermon delivery. He was a favorite preacher of my grandfather’s and he had come to Mineral Wells, where my grandfather was a pastor, to hold Revival services in our little white clapboard and red brick church on SE 6th Avenue.
I must have been about ten. I had heard my share of Hell-fire and brimstone by then. I had not heard anyone deliver a sermon with the grace and eloquence exhibited by Mr. Blair. He was cut from a different cloth than most of the preachers to whom I had been exposed.
I think the absence of flying spittal, animated gestures, and thunderous warnings of impending doom may have bored some of my fellow preteens into day-dreaming of the after-church trip to Dairy Queen. Not me. I was glued to the seat and focused on every word. By week’s end, Mr. Blair had worked his way into my Top 5 Favorite Preachers list and pretty much stayed right there through the ensuing years.
Rayburn Blair was 33 years old in 1963 when he chose Tallahassee as the right place to plant a new church. Margaret Gayle, in a biographical sketch of Dr. Blair on the Chinese Christian Mission website, wrote:
Pulling a small U-haul truck loaded with household items and two hundred wooden folding chairs, the Blair family arrived in Tallahassee on February 20, 1963. The bargain-bought chairs were a down payment on the new ministry the Blairs hoped would flourish in this new city. With enough money for rent, gas, and food for a month, and the twenty dollars a week support promised by several churches in Texas, the Blairs knew the Lord would supply all their needs.
With six kids, the Blair family constituted the first eight members of what would be named the Temple Baptist Church. Their first Sunday service saw 35 people in attendance, including the eight Blairs. Before long, Dr. Blair started broadcasting his sermons on the radio and eventually, the Sunday morning service was locally televised, as well. Ten years later, the church with the humble beginning and the gifted-but-humble pastor built a 3,000-seat auditorium.
That was 1973.
I would visit that church with my family two years later, in 1975.
Reunited and it feels so…
Today, I sat in the parking lot of what is now called the North Florida Baptist Church, formerly Temple Baptist. It is still located on the original campus and occupies the building Dr. Blair and his people built (though it has been renovated). I sat in my truck, away from the celebratory Clemson fans and the disillusioned Florida State folk, and remembered the day the Strothers rolled into Tallahassee. It was a Wednesday.
I was 14, so not too old to be excited that we were on our way to Disney World. Along the way, however, Dad was as excited as a Disney World-bound kid to drop in on the midweek Bible study service to hear one of his favorite preachers in his own habitat.
Yep! Dr. Rayburn Blair.
I am pretty sure, of the three kids born to David and Freda Strother by 1975 (my baby sister would come along three years later), I was the only one who didn’t care that stopping in Tallahassee and waiting for church time meant it would be one more day before we reached Orlando and the Magic Kingdom.
I barely remember the service that evening. I do remember that to a Mineral Wells, Texas preacher boy, that auditorium was massive and the midweek crowd, though several hundred strong, did not do it justice. I also remember the pain in my Dad’s eyes when Dr. Blair tried to tell his folks they had visitors from Texas, but he couldn’t remember our name. He called us “the Stroud family.”
Strother is a pretty difficult name, I know, but Dad thought he was coming to hear a familiar friend, one who at least knew his name! Dad left visibly disappointed and I left a little wiser and more aware that humans – even eloquent preaching ones – sometimes let you down or leave you feeling unimportant…and they may not even mean to.
Dad got over it pretty quick and probably had completely forgotten the whole affair by the time we were back in Texas. But a son who sees hurt in his father doesn’t forget. Here I am 43 years later and still feeling obliged to put this uncomfortable and unflattering morsel into my story. I don’t do it to diminish Dr. Blair or to jade the reader towards him, but to remind you to be mindful of the people – even the little people just passing through – on whom your influence may fall. Value them and they will know it.
Today is Mom’s 75th birthday. I called her from the church parking lot to tell her what I was up to and to wish her a happy birthday. She remembered that night in 1975, too.
She said, “You know, we did become great friends with the Blairs after he retired and moved to east Texas. Your Dad always loved him.”
The steps of a good man…
“The steps of a a good man are ordered by the Lord…” -Psalm 37:23
In her short bio of Dr. Blair, Ms. Gayle wrote:
At barely seventeen, Rayburn joined the Marines and received training as a combat radioman. Sent to Korea with the First Marine Division, he fought in one of the bloodiest battles in the Korean War—the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in North Korea near Manchuria. During the coldest of wars, seeing death all around, Rayburn realized how fragile life was. One night as he held a dying friend in his arms, he sensed God’s presence in a way he had never before. He surrendered his life—what would be left of it after the war, he thought—fully to the Lord. He realized that life without God’s presence was void, no matter how long he might live. Sharing with a friend later, Rayburn remarked, “If I was worthy, I would like to be a minister of the gospel someday.” To which his friend responded, “I’ve never known anyone who was worthy.” Rayburn never forgot that comment.
Dr. Blair left Tallahassee and retired from the pastorate in 1991, after suffering a heart attack. He left a remarkable ministry in Florida’s capitol city. He had ministered to thousands and been a spiritual guide to governors, senators, and community leaders. The Christian school he established had an enrollment of more than 2,000 students.
Upon retirement, he returned home, settling in a small town in east Texas. Ever the forward-thinking visionary, he seized on the growing phenomenon known as “blogging” and continued to share his spiritual insights, observations, sermons, and his salvation story via the Internet. In his personal bio, he describes himself like this:
Born on Christmas Eve 1930. Retired Pastor whose ministry began in winter of 1950 as a 19 year old Marine in North Korea in Hell Fire Valley. We were fighting our way into the Battle of Chosin Reservoir where HQ 1stMarDiv was surrounded by 150,000 Chinese Communist Forces. I Pastored 36 yrs. Sweet wife and I have 6 children and 67 grand and great grand children and it has not stopped yet. I am a happy, old Preacher who loves Jesus and people. People…only because God so loved the world. We are an unlovely lot.
By the time I saw Rayburn Blair again, I had myself spent nearly 20 years in church ministry, having been the pastor of churches in California, east Texas, and the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex.
The year was 2000. We were all facing a brand new century. I was still coming to grips with life after the pastorate. Dr. Blair and his wife were retired and living not far from my grandfather’s final congregation before he, too, retired. My father had been dead nine years by then.
Dr. Blair came to hear me preach on a Sunday morning. It was a special service, the significance of which escapes me now, and the small sanctuary of the Bible Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant, Texas was as packed as it had ever been.
I don’t remember what I preached that day, but I do remember that, following the service, the aging minister whose sermon delivery had so captivated me thirty years before took my hand in both of his and said enthusiastically, “You have a good sermon delivery.”
I forgave him that instant for calling me a Stroud way back in 1975.
Plenty of people have had much more to say about my preaching than that short sentence. Some have been most flattering in their appraisal. I don’t know that any assessment ever gave me greater satisfaction or made me feel better than his words that day.
Footprints in the…
“The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord…”
Yes. Yes, they are. They leave footprints, too…not just in the shifting sands of time, but in the everlasting souls of men, women and their children (who become men and women).
May I ever be as eloquent and thoughtful in my journey as the gracious man whose life impacted thousands…and me._section]