The Cross and a GE Clock
The first church I was privileged to serve was a little country church in Johnson County, North Carolina. It was five miles outside of Four Oaks, NC which is a little town not far from Smithfield, NC. Actually we called it Three Oaks and a Stump. On a county road not far from Benson, NC sat the little white church named Burnell Baptist Church. It was only a short distance to Burnell Creek and thereby the name for the church. Those dear people called me as their Pastor after I had been in Southeastern Seminary only about five months. They were either very brave or desperate beyond measure for a pastor. I had been filling in for them for about four months and then in February of 1974 they issued us a call. It was at Burnell Baptist Church that I learned many good lessons about ministry which would serve me well over the coming years. We had a very good ministry there for two years until I left the seminary.
Now, Burnell was different from anything I had experienced in church life. Like most small country churches it was family controlled. They were good folks who loved their church and wanted to serve the Lord. Trouble was that they were doing little more than meeting only part-time and doing nothing to reach others with the Gospel. I told them that I would accept their call if they would go full time. Surprisingly, they agreed to that and so we set out on that agenda. From 1916, the year of their formation until 1974 they had been part time. So, a full time schedule was a big change for them. It worked! The little church gained new energy and members. Tithes and offerings grew better than ever. Things looked great for the future.
I was just about the whole show. I taught an adult Sunday School class. Then I led the worship service. I made the announcements, then I led the singing. I also printed the bulletins plus did the preaching. There was no one else willing to help. It was incumbent upon me to see that it all happened and the people were happy to have someone to do it.
My natural style of preaching is exposition. It just seemed natural for me to take that approach. The people of Burnell loved it since they had never had an expositor before. And even in my early days of preaching, they seemed to think it was the best thing they had ever heard. The only thing about expository preaching is that it takes a little more time than a topical sermon with three points and a poem. These people were twelve o'clock people. Right in the center of the wall about ten feet directly behind the preacher was a round faced GE clock with a white face and chrome rim. It sported a large red second hand that sort of vibrated with every click. It was anything but pretty. It also had a cord that ran down the wall to the plug below. Not good. Furthermore, you could hear it ticking, ticking, ticking. It was loud and annoying. As the clock hands would move closer to twelve o'clock, some of the old deacons would start to catch my eye and then shift their eyes to the clock. They were telling me that it was about time to leave. Hurry up! More than one would do that and it was very distracting. They were signaling to me that their Sunday church obligation was about over and they wanted to go home and eat a country lunch. I would just keep preaching until I was finished which was usually about twelve fifteen. They never said anything to me but I could tell that it was an issue which was festering. Something had to be done!
A great fellow named Nelson Johnson was the deacon chairman and he lived just up the hill from the church. His wife was named "Bill". I thought that was the funniest thing I had ever heard of; a woman named "Bill". She was the best country cook I ever saw and we ate dinner with them every Sunday until we moved on the field. One day after we transitioned to the church field, I told Brother Johnson that we needed to do something about that eyesore clock. He said: "Brother Bill, several pastors have lost their ministry here over that clock." I knew then that it was serious business so it must be handled very carefully. Suddenly one day it came to me! There was no cross in the sanctuary of that little church. The white wall behind the pulpit was high and bare. Only that clock hung on it right by itself with that ugly twisted cord running down the wall and that red second hand loudly signaling the passage of another second. So, I went to see Brother Johnson and told him that the way to handle that clock situation was to put a beautiful cross on that wall. His eyes lit up and he said: "You know preacher, I think you just might have something there." He was a carpenter by trade and said he would build one. He went in an old abandoned house there on his land and found some very old pine boards that were bigger than normal. They were about eight inches wide and about two inches thick. These boards were so old that they had turned to lightered wood. The grain in them was gorgeous and after sanding and finishing the wood was a rich amber red. It looked as if one could stick their finger about an inch down into that rich amber grain. My friend built a cross about nine feet tall which was a work of art. Now here was the plan. We would go to the church on Saturday night after nine p.m., take down that troublesome clock and replace it with the cross. Who could complain about a cross? Who would say one word against having a cross on the wall instead of a white faced, chrome rimmed, loud ticking GE clock with an ugly cord hanging down? So, we sneaked in late on Saturday evening, did our work and left as quickly as possible.
The next morning we were both at the church early to gauge how the people reacted to the new cross being in place. If anyone said anything negative, he was going to use his long standing friendship and family connections to suave their feelings. I felt good about that. Well, in that part of the world, no one came to Sunday school or church until about three minutes before it started. As the people began to arrive we were both amazed and thankful at their reactions as they walked in and first laid eyes on our new cross. Everyone "oohed" and "aahed" as they saw it. They were mesmerized by that beautiful cross. No one said a word about that clock which, by that time, was laying on a table in a back room. It was never mentioned again. We had been successful at doing something that had cost several preachers their jobs: getting rid of that clock. For forty-eight years the church had never had a cross in its sanctuary but they had an unattractive GE clock in full view in order to make worship fit their agenda. Something was missing! This whole event should tell us anew and afresh that the Cross will solve all kinds of problems if it has the proper focus in the life of a body of believers. We can do away with worrying about the time and our own personal agendas, but we cannot do away with the cross.
About ten years after I left Burnell Baptist and returned to Georgia, I was invited to come back and preach at a Burnell Homecoming. Carolyn, the three girls and I returned and received a wonderful welcome. By this time they had built a new pastorium right behind the church in what used to be a corn field. We had lived about a mile up a dirt road which ran right beside the church named Gardner Road. The house in which we lived was no more than a field house that was owned by a member of the church, a Mable Johnson. The church fixed it up a little and we moved into it in February of 1974. We called it "The Little House on the Prairie" because it sat right in the middle of a field of about 200 acres. Our second daughter, Paige, was born while we lived in that little house. The field came right to within twenty feet of our back door and was very close to our front steps. Tobacco would be in the back yard with high standing corn in the front. Later in the year we would have sweet potatoes in the front with cows grazing on rye grass in the rear. An ancient outhouse stood in the corner of the yard but, thankfully, a bathroom had been added where a back porch had once been. One could sit on the toilet, put their feet in the bath tub and wash their hands in the sink all at the same time. It was different. Anyway, it was a great time of fellowship when we went for Homecoming. Most all of the people were still alive and we had a wonderful time. Dinner on the grounds, singing and preaching were the order of the day. The church really turned out wonderfully and we were able to renew many old friendships. When I walked into that little church after those ten years of being absent, the first thing I looked at was that cross that Deacon Nelson Johnson had made from that ancient pine timber with the deep amber color. There it was. Still there. The clock was still gone. I don't know, it might have been laying where I placed it in that back room long ago. Who knows? But, I do know that there was a day when it vanished from the sanctuary wall. It was the day when there was a choice between The Cross and a GE Clock!
William F. Harrell