Grace and Gratitude: Remembering Ronnie Avery

The Second Miraculous Catch of Fish

From Ronnie Avery’s Memorial Service February 8, 2004.

Luke 5:1-11 NRSV

“Grace” and “gratitude.”  The two words come from the same Latin root and belong together.  Grace is when God does something for us that God did not have to do.  And the only way to respond to God’s amazing grace is with humble gratitude.

The soon-to-be disciples were in a boat with Jesus just offshore.  Jesus asked Simon, who had been fishing all night without catching a thing, to drop his nets out in some deeper water.  When he did they filled up the boat with so many fish that the boat began to sink!  They signaled another boat to come over to help.  Then they filled that one up!  They barely got back to shore before the boats sank under the weight of the fish.

These fishermen had never seen anything like it before. It was a miracle. It was also grace. Jesus did something for these ordinary fishermen that Jesus did not have to do. That is the definition of grace. And the fisherman responded with humble gratitude as they “dropped everything” to follow Jesus. They left their old lives behind on that beach, to worship and to serve Jesus for the rest of their lives.

The disciples responded to grace the same way Ronnie Avery responded to the grace that he received.  Ronnie would be the first person to tell you that he was on a road in the summer of 2003 that was leading him to a place that he did not want to go.  When he was hospitalized in July of that year, gravely ill with congestive heart failure, he realized this, and was filled with fear.

That day in ICU Ronnie said that he prayed a prayer that went something like this: “Oh God, not now.! Please don’t let me die now!  Please save me God, and I promise I’ll get myself right and start living for you.”

He said when he opened his eyes from that prayer, he saw me standing there in front of him for the very first time.

I had a short prayer with him and said, “Ronnie, I sure am glad to meet you, but I am sorry that it had to be under these circumstances here in the hospital.”

I will never forget how he responded. He said, “You’re getting ready to see a lot more of me, because I am going to be sitting on a pew in your church the first chance I get, and I am going to be sitting on one every Sunday that I possibly can!”

Ronnie told many people that on that day, in that moment, his life miraculously changed forever.  Not only was he suddenly and miraculously healed of a disease which had plagued his entire adulthood, it was in that moment that he began to live his life like those fishermen—fishermen who one day dropped everything, left their old lives behind them, to live a brand new life following Jesus. And this was the real miracle.

The very first Sunday that he was able, Ronnie was sitting on a pew in church, just like he said. A little over a month later, Ronnie joined the church.  He came every Sunday and every Wednesday night he could.  He gave faithfully our church’s budget.  He contributed generously to the fund set up by the church to help pay the tuition for my doctorate.  He loved his wife more sincerely.  He loved his siblings more deeply.  He loved his children and stepchildren and family and everyone he knew more earnestly.  Although he was weak and tired, he spent the entire first day of 2004 loving his sister-in-law, Donna, in the emergency room of Wake Forest University Hospital in Winston-Salem.

He repeatedly told me that he wished he was well enough and strong enough to do more.  However, the truth was, Ronnie did more for the Lord in six months than most people do their entire lives.

Ronnie would tell people that I changed his life.  He even said that I saved his life. However, we all know this was not true.  And deep inside, Ronnie knew that was not true.  God saved Ronnie’s life. God changed Ronnie’s life. I just happened to be the one who happened to be standing at his beside after his fearful prayer to God.  God used me to give Ronnie something that God did not have to give Ronnie: grace. Amazing grace: free, unearned, undeserved and unmerited.  And Ronnie responded like fishermen with humble gratitude and sincere thankfulness.

God also used Ronnie’s family members the same way God used me. God used so many people through the steadfast love they had for Ronnie.  They loved Ronnie with a love that was unwavering.  Each of his siblings, Steve, Dianne and Shirley, loved Ronnie with the steadfast love of their mother, Mary.  With his faithful wife, Becky, they never gave up on him. They showered Ronnie with the grace of God—unearned, undeserved and unmerited.

At Ronnie’s funeral service on February 8, 2004, I shared something that I had never shared with anyone before.  I tried to share a little of it with Ronnie on the way back from Winston-Salem on January 1, 2004.

Ronnie told many that I changed and saved his life.

What many did not know was the extent of which Ronnie changed and quite possibly saved me.

There is a disturbing and alarming statistic concerning pastors.  After just ten years of ministry, 30% of pastors drop out of the ministry.  After ten years, many pastors wake up and just decide that being a pastor is simply not worth all of the heartache and heartbreak. Trying to please people is a very demanding and stressful job. Not to mention, impossible. Many pastors decide that the burden that is placed their families is simply not fair. And many come to a place where they feel they are ceasing to make a difference. So they drop out and leave the ministry all together. You will find many of them selling insurance or real estate.

Personally, since I have been a pastor, I have always experienced a strong call to pastoral ministry. There was never any doubt in my heart or mind that serving as a pastor is what God was calling me to do, until 2003.  That marked my eleventh year of ministry.  I was at the point where 30% give up and drop out.  The first six months of that year were the most difficult six months of my entire ministry. The heartache of trying to please everyone and the heartbreak of failing to please everyone was wearing me down. The church was taking in fewer new members, and we were failing to meet our budget.  Church attendance was down, and I was at the darkest point in ministry wondering if I was really making a difference in anyone’s life.  I was contemplating joining the 30% of my colleagues by seeking another profession.

Then came a hot day in July. I went to the hospital to visit with the family of Howard Evans and Venetia Kue. I got off the elevator on my way to see Venetia and ran into Donna Mosley. She told me about Ronnie and sent me directly to see him in ICU.  And I have never, and I will never be the same.

For you see, on that day God showered two people with grace. Amazing grace—unearned, undeserved, unmerited. God was not finished with Ronnie, and God was not finished with me.  After ten years, God was still using me and calling me to be a pastor.  God may have used me to save and change Ronnie, but I will thank God the rest of my life that God used Ronnie to save and change me–as God used Ronnie to change so many others.

Ronnie continually told me that he wished he could do more for the Lord through the church.  I tried to tell him in the car on the way back from Winston-Salem  just a month before he died, and I hope to God that God has told me now, that he did more for the Lord than he ever knew. Ronnie saved my ministry and quite possibly my life.  And I will thank God for Ronnie Avery the rest of my life, as will many others.

In that ICU room, Ronnie said, “You’re getting ready to see a lot more of me, for I am going to be sitting on a pew in your church the first chance I get and I am going to be sitting on one every Sunday that I possibly can.”

Now I hate to admit it, but deep within my sometimes cynical self, I thought, “Sure you will.”  I didn’t graduate from seminary yesterday.  I had been a pastor for eleven years.  I know how most people work.

When most of us are given a gift which is completely undeserved, unearned, and unmerited, a gift that changes our lives, at first we are grateful.  But then our gratitude begins to wane. I expected to see him on a pew one Sunday, maybe two Sundays, but I certainly did not expect to see as much of him as I did, and I never expected that he would have the impact on my life that he did.  That’s the way grace and gratitude works with most people.

But thank God, Ronnie Avery was not most people.

Like fishermen dropping their old lives in the sand to leave them behind for a brand new life, Ronnie Avery certainly dropped his old life in exchange for another.

How did he do it?  Why didn’t his gratitude wane like most people?

Because Ronnie lived everyday of the rest of his life acknowledging that God had done something for him that God did not have to do. God had showered Ronnie with grace. Amazing grace—free, unmerited, undeserved, unearned. And Ronnie was grateful.

Think of what the church of Jesus Christ could be and what the church could do, if all of us made this simple acknowledgement: That God has given us something that God did not have to give us.  The gift of life.  The gift of friends and family.  The gift of himself.  The gift of resurrection.  The gift of life everlasting.

Think of the difference we could all make if we woke up each morning with the prayer that I believe was Ronnie Avery’s prayer everyday:  “Today God has given me something that he did not have to give me, something that I did not have coming to me—something completely unearned, undeserved, unmerited.”

I believe our lives will truly bear witness to the love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We will be the people God is calling us to be.  We will be the church God is calling us to be. And there is no telling how many people, and even pastors, may be changed along the way.

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