A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Scout BSA Annual Banquet Keynote Address - Rev. Robert McDowell

 Scouting Banquet
OU Inn
April 25, 2019
Rev. Robert McDowell

    Thank you for inviting me to talk with you tonight about the positive impact that the scouting program has in our communities. I must admit though, that I feel a little out of my element in sharing with you tonight. 

     For example, as a pastor, I’m not used to so many people sitting in the front seats like this. That’s really different for me and it’s kind of throwing me off my game. I think you should get an award or something for sitting up here. Let’s have a hand for the front seat people. So brave of you!

     I also want to temper any expectations you may have about my message tonight because I used up all my best material for my Easter sermon last Sunday. It’s usually not a wise move to ask a preacher to speak at an event immediately after Easter Sunday. We only have so many good illustrations. So basically, you’re just going to get last Sunday’s Easter sermon tonight. Just kidding.

     In all seriousness, when it comes to scouting, I have more than enough heart warming material to share with you. So, the first thing I did when I was invited to speak tonight was to ask some people I know what scouting has meant to them. 

     That’s what I have learned about being a preacher, by the way. Preaching is really just me as the preacher sharing other people’s incredible stories of faith with the entire congregation, with permission of course. And I get to sprinkle in my personal stories as well. And waa-laa, when you do all of that, you will probably end up with an above average sermon. It’s actually a little more complicated than that but that’s not too far from the truth.

     The stories of how scouting have made our communities and world a better place are all around us. I’m just going to share some of these inspirational stories and experiences about scouting with you.

     Someone was telling me about his aunt who was vacationing in England and taking a tour along with her friends of all the old castles along the canals.  They had rented a long and narrow boat for this.  One day their motor stopped.  There were many other boats going both ways on the canal.  Nobody stopped to help them in their distress, except for one group. I’ll give you one guess who. 

     That’s right. They were Boy Scouts and they were able to get them going again. The people in that boat were so grateful. They will always remember these scouts who rescued them and got their boat to safety.

     Recently I was reading about three marines who were killed a couple of weeks ago while serving in Afghanistan. The news article caught my eye because one of the marines is from my home area in south central, Pennsylvania.

     I kept reading the article which led me to the second marine who was killed on that same mission. The name of this second marine is Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman who graduated from a high school in Maryland where he was an Eagle Scout. 

     He resided in Newark, Delaware with his wife and three daughters. He was a New York City firefighter with Ladder Company 27, The Bronx, and was credited in 2014 with saving a woman’s life. “He represents the very best of us, all the bravest of the brave,” said FDNY Chief John Sudnick. It’s not uncommon to come across news stories like this that remind me of how scouting develops young people to be leaders who end up making a positive difference in our communities and world.

    Speaking of scouts who save lives, in one of the churches I served as pastor, two of the Boy Scouts from the troupe we chartered were also members of my church. They were coming home from school one day and I don’t remember too many details because it’s been approximately fifteen years ago. But as they were coming home from school, they used their first aid training to save a woman’s life. They were fortunately in the right place at the right time. But the story continues.

     Two years ago, one of the those two scouts, Eric made the news again in that same local paper. Now in his 30’s, he was featured in an article for helping to organize four to five truckloads of supplies from the Dayton, Ohio area to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey down in Texas. 

     They partnered with two of the local car dealerships in their community who let them use some of their trucks. They loaded those trucks with water, blankets, food, baby supplies, clothing, toiletries, and other flood relief items. Once a scout, always a scout in doing good for your community in these selfless ways.

     A former Boy Scout Master attends my church. And we were talking one day and knowing that he is very passionate about scouting, I asked him about his Troupe which he had back in the late 80s and early 90s. 

     He said that he had four scouts in his group including his son and they were all good friends growing up and they have all done well for themselves. I’m guessing that you might recognize one of these four scouts from that Boy Scout Troupe. You might know him as Dr. Sergio, an orthopedic surgeon here in our town. I told my church member, the former scout leader that he must be proud to know that he helped to influence these young people’s lives.

     I share these stories about scouting to remind us of the positive ripple effect that scouting has in our community.

     We are honored at Athens First United Methodist Church to be a charter organization for Boy Scout Troupe, #71. They have their meetings at our church on Monday evenings and are consistently asking me, “How can we help your church? Is there anything we can do? Just let us know.”    

[Pastor Robert with Boy Scout Troupe #71, February, 2019]

     I’ve been at Athens First for four years now, and it’s amazing how much they have done for us just since I’ve been here. They have cleaned “hard to reach” windows, picked up trash around the church, weeded and mulched, painted, helped lead worship services, and just a couple of weeks ago, they saved us a lot of work by helping to clean out one of our storage rooms.

     They’re hourly rate is very reasonable. $0 an hour. I tried to negotiate that down but they said that’s the best they could do. And they do all of this helpful work with a great attitude and a positive spirit. What else would you expect from scouts?

     But let me share my favorite thing these Boy Scouts did for our church. Athens First is located along College Street, just across from the city parking garage and so we have a lot of people, especially college students who walk by our church on a daily basis.

     If you have been by the front of our church the past few years, you probably have noticed that a large prayer cross is mounted in front of our church entrance. This white cross has two metal boxes attached in the middle of where the two cross beams meet.

[Boy Scout Troupe #71 Outside Prayer Cross Dedication, Athens First UMC, February, 2016]

     The one box contains prayer request cards with small wooden pencils for people to write a prayer need and then place it in the slot of the other little secured box. Every Tuesday morning, one of our church members takes out the prayer cards from that box and our church prayer team includes those prayers with other prayer cards from our congregation. Each and every one of those prayers including the ones from the prayer box are prayed over by our prayer team that same morning.

     I want you to know that our Boy Scout Troupe made that cross for us. They did that a little over three years ago. During a Sunday morning worship service, our congregation blessed that cross and during the closing hymn, several scouts carried that new cross out of the sanctuary and they mounted it in the ground. 

     I didn’t know what to expect when we put that prayer cross in front of our church building. Would anybody use it? Would people not even notice it and just walk on by? Would college students see it as a way for them to share a prayer need and to know that our church is here for them?

     The first week the cross was put up, I’ll never forget this, but twenty prayer cards had been placed in the box of that cross. We prayed over each and every one of those cards. And we continue to do so every Tuesday morning at 7:30 am.

     This prayer cross has revealed to me that when I see college students walking down the sidewalk, there are a lot of heavy hearts walking by. A lot of heavy hearts. They might not show it on the outside, but many of them are carrying an unbelievable amount of anxiety, fear, and brokenness.

     One of those prayer requests has always stayed with me. It was a prayer request for us as well as a message for our church. It read, “Pray for me because I drink too much and thank you for not judging us.”

     Without that outdoor prayer cross that was made possible by our Scout Troupe, we would not know of what is on the hearts of the students who walk by our church every single day. Our church is eternally grateful to our scouts for making this possible. 

     All of these inspirational stories of how Boy Scouts are making a positive difference in our community and world have been reinforcing something that I have been thinking a lot about lately as a pastor, as a father, and as someone who cares deeply about our community. Anything that helps our young people to know that they have value, that they have self-worth, and that they are unconditionally loved is worth supporting. Scouting is one of those organizations.

     It breaks my heart to think about so many young people who do not feel worthy, who do not feel like they have value, and who do not feel that they are loved for who they are. It can make all the difference in the world to that teenager going on a camping trip with other scouts or that college student walking by a church to get to class to know that somebody really does love them and cares about what’s on their hearts.

     I’ve been in the pastoral ministry for over thirty years now and if I could change anything with my approach to being a pastor over all these years, it would be to simplify my message and just remind people, especially young people, that they are loved. That’s it. It’s not that complicated. We have value. We are loved.

     Scouting is one of those ways that we help share this simple but very profound message with the young people in our community. We all have something to contribute. We all have value. 

     I’ll close with this thought.

      A couple of months ago, my wife encouraged me to watch the Mr. Roger’s documentary that was on HBO. If you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend it.

     As many of you know, Fred Rogers was the creator and producer of the children’s TV show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood which aired from 1968 to 2001. Fred was a Presbyterian pastor and this show was his way of helping children to know that they are loved for who they are.

     There were a couple of times that I cried during the documentary and one of those times was when they shared a conversation that Fred had off the set with one of his cast members Francois Clemmons who played Officer Clemmons on the show. 

     One day, Fred said to Francois off the set, “Francois, I love you just the way you are.” And Francois was taken off guard by his comment and replied, “Fred, are you talking to me?” And Fred said, “Yes, Francois, and I’ve been telling you this for two years and you finally heard me today.”         

     Francois said that after Fred said that, he collapsed into Fred’s arms and started crying because that was the only time he heard someone say that he was loved. His parents never told him. His family never told him. Fred was the first person who told him that he was loved.

     For some young people, especially in our day and age, scouting might be one of the few ways and who knows, maybe the only way for them to hear somebody say those life-changing words, “You are loved just for who you are.”

     Interestingly enough, soon after I watched that Mr. Roger’s documentary, a member of my church gave me a book about Fred Roger’s life. On the inside of the front cover, she wrote these complimentary words, “Pastor Robert, thanks for living in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood.”

     To all the scout leaders who are here tonight, “Thanks for living in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood.”

     To all who support scouting with your time and your gifts, “Thanks for living in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood.”

     I can’t think of a better place to live.

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