Thursday, October 02, 2014

My Caswell Story

During our Board of Directors' Meeting at Caswell this week, I was sharing with Rick Holbrook, Director of Caswell, about how my life was radically changed at Caswell. He asked me to write these things down and send them to him, so here is what I have written. 
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This week, I had the great privilege to revisit a place that has left an indelible mark on my life. Once every four years, the Board of Directors of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina convenes at the North Carolina Baptist Assembly at Fort Caswell (or as it is more fondly known by many, “Caswell”) for its triannual meeting. A small handful of times over the last twenty years, I have had the chance to visit briefly, but this was the first time I’ve been back with enough spare time to walk the grounds and meditate on the eternal impact that has been made on my life here at this place.

For better and for worse, I am not a “board member.” I’m an “at-large member” of the Business Services Special Committee. I jokingly tell other board members that I have two adjectives up on them: I am “at-large” and “special.” Outweighing the limitations on this unique role is the advantage of having fewer meetings to attend when the Board convenes, and thus more personal time to enjoy and experience the place where we gather.

I drove over four hours in pouring down rain on Monday evening, from my home in Greensboro out to the far north-east corner of Oak Island where Caswell is picturesquely situated. By the time I had unpacked in Oceana, the rain had ceased and I had an appointment to keep. My appointment was with a particular bench. There is this little bench situated behind the “Little Pier” cottage that looks out on the Cape Fear River, with the Oak Island Lighthouse just over one’s left shoulder. I first sat on that bench twenty-two years ago, early on the Friday morning of July 31, 1992.

"My Bench"

  
It is necessary to understand something about my life up to that point before one can comprehend the significance of that morning on the bench. I did not grow up in church. Though my parents would call themselves Christian, the Christian faith was not discussed or practiced in our home. I do not recall whether or not we even owned a Bible. Certainly, if we did, it was never read by me or anyone else. By the time I was in high school I had declared myself to be an atheist, and I availed myself of all of the moral liberties that the rejection of God’s existence afforded me. I grew to despise all things that smelled of “religion,” and I pitied those whom I considered to be so desperate as to need something called a “god” in their lives. I recall proudly asserting to one Christian I met along the way, “I don’t need a god, because if there is a god, then surely I must be him.”

From as early as I can remember, I had desired to gain an appointment to the United States Air Force Academy and become a fighter pilot. Much to the surprise of many, I had attained that goal. I reported for processing in the middle of June, just a couple of weeks after my high school graduation. It was as if everything I had ever wanted had been laid before me. On the night before we were sworn in, I laid down in an uncomfortable bed in a pitch-dark room, and it was as though in a second my entire world collapsed around me. Having everything I had every wanted within my reach, I realized that my life was empty. For reasons I cannot fully explain, I sensed that I could not follow through with my commitment to the Air Force, and that I must return home. As I explained this to an officer in his pajamas in the middle of the night, he said, “Let me call a chaplain.” I said, “Do you have an atheist chaplain?” He said he did not, and offered to call a psychiatrist. I assured him that though it would not make sense to anyone else in the world, I was more sure than I had ever been about anything that I must leave the Academy. The next afternoon, I did just that.

I came home to a number of heartbreaking situations. Most of my family and friends, who had been so proud of me just a few days before, were now ashamed of me and confused about how I could throw away my future. My grandmother died within days of my return. Just when it seemed that I had no one else to turn to, I was surrounded by a group of friends I had only recently met. We had a lot in common, but one thing we did not have in common was our beliefs. I was an atheist; they were Christians. Over the next few weeks, they began to talk about their excitement to go to “Caswell.” I had never heard of this place and certainly had no desire to go to some place where all people did was pray and read their Bibles and talk about Jesus. My friends persuaded me, however, by telling me two things: I could go for free (because I was taking the place of someone else who had already paid), and I could meet girls there. One of those factors was more influential than the other, and so I went.

As we rode along in the church van, the youth leader (my closest friend’s mother) asked me if I brought my Bible. Ashamed to tell her that I did not even own a Bible, I simply said, “No, I didn’t think to bring it.” She handed me a Bible and told me I could use it all week and keep it. I laughed at the mere prospect of actually reading this book. Much to my alarm, once we arrived at Caswell, I discovered that every morning I was expected to read it during some strange ritual called “Quiet Time.” Each day during quiet time, I would find a different place where I could enjoy the view. The first day, I determined that I would not read this book, but would just sit for an hour doing nothing. After a few minutes, I realized that an hour moves slowly when one has nothing to do, so I began to read our devotional guide for the day, and I spent most of the hour trying to find the place in the Bible where this story was supposed to have taken place. As the days went by, I learned to use my table of contents and locate the passages, and I would read them.

Friday came, and it was our last day at Caswell. I went out to a new place for quiet time: the little bench behind Little Pier. I sat down and daydreamed for a few moments, and then I reviewed my devotional guide. The passage I was to read was 1 Samuel 3:1-10. As I read it, I was struck by how the Lord had been speaking to Samuel, but Samuel did not know it was the Lord. Immediately I thought of a dozen situations in my life when something had happened, even in the recent weeks, and I had not even considered that God might have been trying to get my attention. As I read verse 7, something happened in my heart and mind. “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, nor had the word of the Lord yet been revealed to Him.” When I sat down on that bench that morning, I was as committed an atheist as I had ever been. When I read that verse, I knew that God had been working in my life to bring me to Himself, but I had not recognized it and did not know Him. As Eli told Samuel, “If He calls you… you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening.” I uttered those very words aloud: the first prayer I had ever prayed in my life. All through the day, I repeated it over and over again: “Speak Lord, for Your servant is listening,” but I told no one of what had happened on the bench.

That night, I attended the final worship service of the week at Hatch Auditorium. I do not recall who was speaking or singing, or what we sang or what the message was about. What I do recall was hearing how Jesus died for us to save us from our sins so we could be reconciled to God. In my heart, I knew that I needed Jesus and was almost ready to receive Him. Much to my surprise, the speaker announced that anyone who wished to receive Jesus should come forward! Almost everything in me wanted to go forward – everything except my pride which kept a white-knuckled grip on the back of the pew in front of me. My friends were urging me, pleading with me, “Why don’t you go forward? Come on! I will go with you!” I did not go, and the service ended.
"Hatch"


As I exited Hatch that night, I was filled with remorse. I knew the greatness of my sins and I knew my desperate need for Christ. I wrestled with my ego and my pride all the way back to the Yaupon House. As I entered, my youth group was already assembling for evening devotions. I had barely gotten in the house and seated when the pastor said, “Does anyone have anything they want to say?” Before I realized what was happening, I was on my feet, saying, “I do! I want to believe in Jesus! I need Him as my Lord and Savior.” And that night, in the front room of Yaupon, I was gloriously and graciously saved. When I returned home, I was baptized, and joined my friends as a member of United Baptist Church in Winston-Salem.


It was just on the inside of that front door that I gave my life to Jesus.

The next summer, I think I was the first one in our church to sign up for Caswell. Having completed my first year of College, I was saddened to discover that I was “too old” for a youth trip, but I could go as a “chaperone.” I think we had more chaperones on that trip than we had “youths,” but I was eager to return to Caswell. During that second trip to Caswell, God stretched me to understand what it meant to really live for Him. Though I had been a Christian for a year, I had not grown in my faith beyond the first steps. I rededicated my life that week at Caswell. Though I did not undergo an instantaneous transformation, over the next year I became more and more convicted of things in my life that needed to be purged and of healthy spiritual disciplines that needed to be cultivated. Throughout the school year, I continued to reflect back on the rededication I had made at Caswell and the lessons I had learned in Bible studies that year.

By the end of spring semester in 1994, I had come to another “fork in the road” in my life. Having spent the previous two years studying history and education at UNC-Charlotte, I had become increasingly disinterested in the idea of being a school teacher (a fact that my grades evidenced). I had also become increasingly uncomfortable in my surroundings at college. Desiring to grow in my faith, I felt that I needed to be in a more spiritually edifying environment. As I left Charlotte for the summer, I declared my intent to not return and to begin investigating other opportunities. By the time our annual Caswell trip came around, I still had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had taken a full-time job as a manager of a sporting goods store, but I begged time off so I could return to Caswell as a chaperone.

It was sometime early in the week that I was sitting on the upper balcony of the Long Bay building (which was called “Building 2” at that time). I had been strumming on my guitar, but put it aside to read from Jeremiah 1. As I read those words about how God had been preparing Jeremiah to serve as His prophet, I became undeniably convinced that God was calling me to spend my life in ministry. For the next few days, I would withdraw from everyone else as often as possible and hide in a little corner on top of the battlement directly in front of Long Bay with my Bible to pray about this sense of calling. I can distinctly remember a holy moment there on top of that fortress when I surrendered to the Lord and said I would go wherever He would send me and do whatever He wanted me to do.

"Long Bay" or "Building 2"

"My Hiding Place"

The next morning in the Youth Leaders’ Bible Study at Sherrill Chapel, I met a young man named Chris Huffman. He had recently surrendered to the call to ministry and was attending Fruitland Baptist Bible Institute (now College). A few weeks later, I got a friendly letter from Chris telling me about how excited everyone at Fruitland was about the installation of their new President, Randy Kilby. He sent me a course catalog to look over as I considered the possibility of enrolling. Over the next several months, I read every word of that little book many times over. During that same period of time I got engaged to Donia, and I began sharing with her about my ministry calling. Donia’s family had a vacation house in Holden Beach, and I distinctly recall taking her to Caswell for a quick “drive-thru” tour of this place that had been so special in my life and walk with God.

It was in the Spring of 1995 that Donia and I visited Fruitland together and the warmest welcome was extended to me by Chris. I came home, resigned from my job, and enrolled at Fruitland as soon as possible. In God’s gracious providence, my first quarter there was Chris’s last, so we were able to share some of that time together. As my time at Fruitland was drawing to a close, I was on a mission trip to Kenya when I learned of Randy Kilby’s death. The entire campus was shrouded in grief at the seemingly untimely loss of such a beloved leader.

By the time I graduated from Fruitland, Donia and I had begun attending Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem where we would be married in October of 1997. I had served with Mark Corts as an intern following my graduation from Fruitland. Soon after my internship ended, I was called to Conowingo Baptist Church in Conowingo, Maryland as the Assistant Pastor. Just a few weeks after I began serving there, the Pastor’s health declined rapidly and I became the Pastor. Upon Dr. Corts’ urging, I finished my undergraduate degree at Lancaster Bible College in Pennsylvania. During my time at Conowingo, my son Solomon was born in 2000.

I served at Conowingo until 2003, when I sensed that the time was right for me to enroll in Seminary. After much prayerful consideration and counsel, we decided to return to North Carolina. I enrolled at Southeastern Seminary and began serving as Pastor at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Kernersville. My daughter Salem was born during these years of seminary studies and service at Hillcrest. One of the highlights of my brief tenure at Hillcrest was dropping in our youth group for a night each summer while they attended their own youth weeks at Caswell.
"Live Oak" where Hillcrest Youth often stayed

In 2005, I left Hillcrest to begin serving as Pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Greensboro, where I continue to serve today. The same year, I also graduated from seminary. Over these years of ministry, I have been blessed to travel to Kenya, Ukraine, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, and Nepal on numerous mission trips, and have helped to establish and strengthen churches in New England through home mission partnerships. We have rejoiced to be a part of the lives of so many people that God has brought our way. Looking back to that first trip to Caswell, I could have never imagined all that God would do in my life in the intervening years. But it all started at Caswell.


This week, I was so blessed to return there. I sat on “my bench” and read again those words from 1 Samuel 3. I walked over to Hatch and remembered how God was working in my heart to draw me to Himself. I stood in front of the door at Yaupon and remembered the moment when I first met Jesus. I climbed the stairs to the upper balcony at Long Bay where I first sensed God calling me into the ministry, and I ascended the fort to my little hiding place, and read Jeremiah 1 once again, remembering how I had surrendered my life to His service twenty years ago. I stood outside of Sherrill Chapel and thought about how God used Chris Huffman to point me to Fruitland. I told these stories to as many people as would sit and listen to me. In our Business Services meeting, I rejoiced at the statistics that were shared of young people who, like myself, had been saved, made rededications, and surrendered to ministry at Caswell this summer. Most importantly, I thanked God that there is such a place as Caswell, and that He saw fit to bring me to that place and use it in such a tremendous way in my life! 

2 comments:

Brian Davis said...

Russ
Thanks for sharing your story. You certainly are a " special " member of our board of directors. Thanks for your service.
Brian Davis

Anonymous said...

It was somewhere around 1989-90 that a friend and I (both on summer staff) built that bench and planted it. It's good to read part of its legacy.