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A GOOD NEWS STORY
It was late August of 1974, I was in the backseat of my parent's 1973 Buick Centurion. We were coming home from Freshman football practice. Across the seat from me was Dennis Davenport, fellow footballer and son of the youth minister at our church. We were giving him a ride home from practice. My mother was at the wheel.
"Tom," Dennis suddenly blurted out, " you oughta come check out The Good News Publishing Company at church. Me and Keith and a bunch of people you know are in it. Its a lot of fun, I think you'd like it, its cool."
I had no idea what he was talking about, I knew Keith was Keith Snyder and he named off a bunch of other people I knew. But what was the Good News Publishing Company? I was clueless. So I asked.
"It's the high school choir, ya know, we sing in church at second service and then every summer we go on tour. Its a blast." My parents made sure I was a church going lad at the time but we went to the early service. I went to Sunday School with Dennis and Keith but I'd never sung in a choir and it didn't sound like anything that was fun, let alone a blast.
At that point of my life I was all about sports. My aspiration was to be an athlete, but to be honest, I wasn't working very hard to do anything about it. I had been a pretty good grade school baseball and football player, but by the time I got to junior high school I was spending much more time in front of the TV watching sports and reading about them in the Courier and the Pantagraph than I was actually playing them. My body showed it, I weighed in around 230 by the time football started and not much of that was muscle.
Still, in my head I was somehow going to become a great athlete and play first base for the St. Louis Cardinals. If I didn't make the MLB, I saw myself in the broadcast booth calling the games on radio or TV. Singing in a choir had nothing to do with that. In my 14 year old head that artsy kind of thing was for girls and those that couldn't play ball.
Religion was another thing I didn't have a lot of interest in. We went to church every Sunday and had since I could remember, and most weeks I went to Sunday School also. But except for a few months when I was twelve and had heard my friends talking about weird rumors about the impending end of the world, I hadn't paid much serious attention to matters of faith. It was something I had to do because my parents required it.
My mother spoke up in response to Dennis and said she thought that was something I should do. One thing that was clear beyond any reasonable doubt in my childhood was that if my mother decided that something was going to happen in our family, barring her death or disabling illness, that thing was going to happen.
So the next Wednesday night, I along with the other 25-30 high school kids that were trying out for the Good News Publishing Company showed up for that first practice. I don't remember much about the practice other than looking at sheet music was like trying to read Egyptian hieroglyphics for me. What I remember better was after practice Gary Ramlow, who was my across the street neighbor and who at 16 had his driver's license, offered to give me a ride home. Now that, when you're 14 years old and don't have your own set of wheels, was cool! So after twisting my mother's arm to let me ride home with Gary instead of her, I spent the hour or so after choir practice with Gary, Dennis and a couple of other friends riding round Lincoln.
Prior to that moment, I don't remember ever having ridden in a car with anyone other than my parents or some adult authority figure. Cruising around town with friends was a level of freedom from parents and independence I had never experienced. No wonder Dennis thought this was a blast! I was hooked.
That same incentive soon got me into the High School Youth Group, which met on Sunday Night and tended to focus on Bible study. It was there that I found that some people in the group actually read the Bible when they weren't in church. That was a foreign concept to me. They seemed to really be interested in what Jesus had to say. I remember telling myself previously that this Bible stuff was important for older people who were about to die and that I would start taking it seriously when I was older. But now I was exposed to people who were reading it and trying to live by it even in their teen years. They acted like it had something to say about the way you treated other people, that it wasn't just about how to avoid Hell and get to Heaven when you die.
When Youth Group and Sunday night church was over, it became a ritual for us to head to Guzzardos where we would hang out drinking Cokes and eating the free Crispies that John Guzzardo made available to us. Sometimes we'd stay until closing time which gave us just enough time to cruise around town a bit before we had to get home.
Later the church rented the old Jefferson school and on Sunday nights we would drive out there to play pickup basketball until it was close to curfew.
Singing in the choir at the second service gave me a chance to sleep in a bit later on Sunday, which meant I could persuade my parents to let me stay up later on Saturday night. That gave us more time to play basketball at the school or cruise around town. Sometimes this gave us a little more freedom than we knew how to handle. Around Halloween we soaped some windows and "T.P.ed" a few houses as well. We even did a few things that I'm too embarrassed to put on paper even though the statute of limitations has long ago expired! Let's just say being in church twice a week didn't guarantee a sin free life. I'm glad we are saved by grace and not our own perfection!
The best part of all of this was the summer choir tour. The first year I went I was more than a little apprehensive about it all. I had never spent more than one night away from home and the tour was 14 days long that year. We were doing a musical based on the life of the Apostle Paul and part of that meant dressing in lst century attire. Some mothers went all out and sewed elaborate robes for their kids. Sewing was not my mom's cup of tea, so when our director Keith Davenport told her a bathrobe would do, she went to a thrift store and bought me one.
At that time when the choir toured it would stay in the houses of church members who were hosting us. We had some good times getting to know those folks and most of them bent over backwards trying to make us feel welcome. Looking back now I can see that was quite a sacrifice and it taught me something about the value of offering hospitality.
The very first night of the tour we received some shocking news, Leon Appel, the long term senior minister of our church who had recently left to become the president of what was then Lincoln Christian College had died of a heart attack. Most of those on the tour knew "Preacher Appel" and were in tears. A few wanted to cancel the tour and go home, knowing otherwise they were going to miss his funeral. Our director Keith Davenport called us all together and told us he had spoken with the family and they wanted us to continue with the tour, as proclaiming the good news is what Mr. Appel would have wanted us to do. We drove through Georgia and into Texas singing in churches along the way. Then the second week we headed to Oklahoma for the Christ In Youth conference.
The Conference was a large high school age youth rally that brought people in from all over the midwest. It was held that year at Northeast Oklahoma State University. We arrived fresh off a week of singing in churches at night, riding the bus all day and getting a day off at Six Flags Over Texas. It had been a fun ride with lots of friendships and romances being formed along the way.
We were going to perform our musical on the last night of the conference but that was six long days away. There wasn't much planned at the conference except listening to speakers preach sermons and then breaking into small groups to discuss them. The Campus of Northeast State was not air conditioned at the time and we were staying in the a/c-less dorms. Oklahoma in early August is not a cool place to be, literally or metaphorically. At night we discovered that the dorms were infested with cockroaches, who would come out of hiding and sometimes crawl across our feet as we tried to sleep. My roommate and I had a contest to see who could kill the most cockroaches. I beat him 44-42.
Then on the second to last day of the conference while we were all gathered in the main auditorium listening to another sermon, the lead MC came out and and interrupted the speaker, saying there was an important event happening in Washington, D.C. and we needed to know about it. A small television was wheeled out to the middle of the stage and when it was turned on we were greeted by the face of President Nixon, somberly sitting behind his desk. He then announced that at noon tomorrow he was going to resign the Presidency.
There were audible gasps from the crowd, followed by a few shouts of "No!" and then the sound of sobbing. The room was obviously overwhelmingly Republican. A number of my choir mates were sobbing. I was just kind of stunned. I didn't really like Nixon all that much and to me, the Watergate hearings had proven he was a crook, so I didn't get emotional like many of those around me. But we all had a sense of apprehension. No President had ever resigned in the history of the United States. What was going to happen next? Who would lead our country? We were a thousand miles from home, tired, sick of the Oklahoma heat, sick of the cockroaches and now uncertain of the future of the country.
Among the high schoolers there were several who felt like we should cancel our concert and just head home. Our director Keith Davenport called us all together in a classroom. Keith reminded us we were singing a musical about the Apostle Paul, a former persecutor of Christians who after his conversion, wrote about how he had been "beaten with rods …pelted with stones, three times …shipwrecked and had spent a night and a day in the open sea." Through all that, Keith said, Paul pressed on to serve his Lord.
One of the songs we were singing was called "I Press On" and that is what we were going to have to do, surely knowing what Paul went through for his faith, we could press on through the heat, the bugs, the death of loved ones and the resignation of a President. We prayed for strength and went back to our dorm rooms. I felt a renewed sense of purpose after hearing that. We were learning that being faithful sometimes meant persevering through circumstances that weren't pleasant, even when something we thought would be fun went south.
The concert that next night could not have gone better. Despite being tired, somewhat dejected and more than ready to be home, we gave one of our better performance and got a standing ovulation from the crowd of our peers.
When I arrived home after 14 days on the road I felt like a lot had changed. I had made friendships that were real and were going to last. I found myself praying and reading the Bible not because somebody told me to, but because I wanted to. I felt that I had grown tremendously. . As a group, our choir had been through a real emotional rollercoaster. The grief of death, the joy of travel, the freedom of independence, the slow trauma of long hot days with little fun, followed by nights of trying to sleep through the stifling heat and crawling critters and the uncertainty of a national crisis without the aid of our parents. We experienced all that together and it gave us a bond I had never experienced before.
I went on three more tours with the Good News choir. All of them had their moments of joy, fun, tears and trauma. Perhaps none were quite so dramatic as that first one, but all of them built me up and were a large part in forming who I became as an adult. That this continues to happen 50 years later is a tremendous blessing for all that are touched by it. It really is good news.
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