On Easter Monday, I spent some time walking through a cemetery in Hendersonville, North Carolina. No, this was not some kind of post-Easter mystical, resurrection escapade. I was looking for a particular grave and I found it. It was the grave of a man named Carl Bates.
A bit of explanation. Our daughter, Jordan, is working as an apprentice for Thomas Shepherd and Son Funeral Home in Hendersonville (Who would have thunk!!!!). I knew that Bates and his wife had retired to Hendersonville sometime in the 1980's. I had gotten word of his death in 1999. On a lark, I asked Jordan if perhaps Shepherd and Son had provided the service for his funeral and.....would you believe.....they had. So with Jordan's assistance I found his grave and, while the rest of the family walked around and studied other graves, I spent a few moments rememembering this gentleman.
An explanation is in order, I know. Carl Bates was pastor for many years of the First Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas. First Baptist had at that time, and still does as far as I know, an extensive coverage of their Sunday morning early worship service. People in the panhandle of Texas, eastern New Mexico, western Oklahoma, and southern Kansas are all able to view that service. It is not religious programming as one might see today with all the "soul molesters" who come into our homes via the TV. It is just the televised worship service.
In a sense, Dr. Bates was a kind of pastor figure for that whole geographical area. Tall, good-looking, with a deep, rich baritone voice, he was quite the striking figure. I first heard him speak in the late 1950's. Even as a young boy, there was a kind of magnetic appeal about this man. He was funny, relational, and his sermons were well-crafted and challenging. In time he would move to the pulpit of the First Baptist Church in Charlotte, thus establishing his residency in North Carolina which would become the location of his final resting place.
As a student in college I came across a book written by a selection of ministers giving their insights to young ministerial students. Since I was classified in that particular category, I purchased the book and read it from cover to cover. One of the chapters was written by Carl Bates. The one thing I remember from that whole book was his statement to would-be-preachers, "Always have good books. Do without a fine automobile, live with fewer clothes and collections of stuff for your house. But always have good books."
I took the man at his word. There have been few days through all these years when there has not been a good book within my reach.
I met Carl Bates and his wife, Myra (who followed him in death in 2005), in Asheville in the mid 80's in a restaurant. We spoke briefly. I remember he made some self-deprecating comment about himself. And I thanked him for an influence that he never knew he had on a young man many years before.
The community of faith of which I am a part has been talking in recent weeks about our journey on, what Scott Peck called, the "road less traveled." It is an exciting road, albeit difficult at times. As I stood in front of the burial site of Carl Bates I realized that my journey of faith had some of its most important, beginning steps in my observation of and reading from the life and heart of this man.
Thank you Carl Bates. I will always have good books.