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Sackcloth and Ashes
by Pastor Dan White
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I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed, “We have sinned and done wrong” (Daniel 9:3-5 NIV).

At every Wednesday night prayer meeting, Judy’s hand went up to request prayer. And every Wednesday night, it was the same request. Pray for my husband, Ronnie, Pray that he will attend church with me.

Judy was a fisherman’s widow on Sundays. She went to church. He went fishing. His retirement dream to buy a place on the lake, build a dock, and get a new bass boat had come true after a life of hard work.

Ronnie Heath sat in the boiler room of the Graniteville Mill in the area known locally as “The Valley.” Horse Creek created the valley over thousands of years and has a long history in the cotton mill industry. After the Civil War, cotton mills were constructed, and they used the dams built along the creek for power. Graniteville, South Carolina, embodies what Henry Grady, spokesman for the post Civil-War New South said, “Bring the cotton mill to the cotton field.” It was the only way that the South could rise again from the devastation caused by The War.

Generation after generation of families in The Valley worked at the cotton mills and lived in company owned housing and shopped at the company owned store using company issued script for money.

Erskine Caldwell made The Valley famous in his raunchy, best selling novel, God’s Little Acre, published in 1933 and later made into a movie..

Ronnie was one of those generational workers who dropped out of school to go to work in the Mill.

Ronnie was a handy man around the plant and could do about anything to keep the place running. But in the boiler room on that eventful day, he realized that he was on a dead end street.

“I’ll live from paycheck to paycheck the rest of my life if I don’t get out of here,” he told himself. But, what could he do?

He bought a can of paint and a paint brush, and solicited jobs from people he knew in The Valley.

After Ronnie clocked-out at the mill each day, he then went to work painting. He painted on weekends and holidays, Ronnie worked to build his business, and build it, he did!

Soon, he was faced with the dilemma to quit the mill and step out in his own business or remain at his dead end job which gave him security and a regular pay day.

Ronnie turned in his notice at the textile plant and never looked back. His business took off. Within a few years, he was working three crews and had moved into the big bucks - painting for the commercial market.

He had a contract with a convenience store chain to paint their buildings on a regular scheduled basis in Charleston, Columbia, Beaufort, and Augusta. In spite of limited education, he was a shrewd business man and began buying rental properties in The Valley.

Ronnie was a good man. I liken him to Simon Peter - rough around the edges, but a heart of gold. He loved the Lord and loved his church in The Valley - a Baptist Church, and he loved the kids. He led the youth group and built the group to the point that forty or fifty kids were involved in ministry, service, activities, worship, prayer, fellowship, and Bible study.

When I met Ronnie, decades had passed since he darkened the door of any church. He had long ago soured on the church and on his relationship with the Lord.

“Now preacher, don’t come here talking to me about going to church,” he emphatically told me when I went to visit him. “We can talk about anything else but that.”

“Well, why Ronnie? What happened to cause you to drop out of church?”

“I told you preacher, I ain’t talking about it!”

So, I asked him about fishing, his favorite subject. He showed me his dock, his super bass boat, his tackle box, and all of his rods and reels. I could tell where his heart was - where his love was. It was in that lake. Clark’s Hill Lake is the largest lake east of the Mississippi with 1,200 miles of shoreline covering 70,000 acres. Seven and a half million people visit the lake each year. Some of the best fishing in the South is in Clark’s Hill. Ronnie was living his dream by living on the lake.

Ronnie lived to fish. Sundays were spent fishing in his local Modoc, South Carolina, Bass Masters tournament with his friends. The last thing on his mind was going to church on Sunday.

“Ronnie, I want to go fishing with you sometime.”

He cocked his head looking at me as if I was telling a preacher story - you know, a lie. “Alright,” he replied. “Be here at five in the morning, and I’ll take you out.”

“Five in the morning!” I thought. “The fish don’t even got out of bed that early! Five o’clock?” That meant I’d have to get up at four to make it by five. “What have I done?” I asked myself.

Believe it or not, I made it to his dock on time - well maybe a few minutes late. “Where you been, preacher? I’ve been out here since 4:30 waiting on you!”

I think Ronnie knew in the back of his mind that I was more interested in fishing for men than fishing for fish.

He cranked the powerful outboard motor and away we flew. I mean flew! My favorite Georgia Bulldog cap blew off before we had hardly left his dock.

“Hold on, preacher!” He went full throttle and we sped across the lake. “This is a big pond, and I’m headed to Bass Alley. We’ll land a big one there.”

I was fully awake!

We quietly eased into Bass Alley. Ronnie cut off the big outboard engine and put his quiet trolling motor in the water. He was in the front and stuck me in the back - out of the way. He looked at his fish finder, and excitedly said, “They are all over the place down there - just look at the screen!”

“Here preacher, use this rod and reel and put you a watermelon seed worm on a Carolina rig.”

“Ronnie, could you speak English?” I don’t have a clue what you just said.”

He laughed and shook his head. I could tell it was going to be a fun day for him.

“Now, when you throw it out, you got to brake it with your thumb or else you’ll get a bird’s nest. Here, let me show you.”

Ronnie’s cast was perfect. Right up under a fallen limb. He was using a bright yellow floating worm.

“Preacher, right over there next to the bank. Cast it over there.” I reared back and let go. The watermelon seed worm attached with a Carolina rig went up on the pine tree limbs and the backlash in my reel caused the biggest bird’s nest mess imaginable.

Ronnie roared with laughter.

He slipped the boat over to the shore, cut down the limb, and saved his lure. “You’ve ruined Bass Alley. We’ve got to go to another spot. But first, you’ve got to learn to cast with an open face reel.”

He stopped in the middle of open water, gave me another reel, and I practiced until I learned to use my thumb to stop the lure without creating a bird’s nest.

The sunrise over the lake was spectacular. Ronnie looked at the Eastern sky as it woke up our world and said, “You know, preacher, this is what it’s all about. Just me and perfect quiet out here. Real peaceful.”

That was the first of many outings with Ronnie. I got better and learned how to use spinner bait, crank bait, jerk bait, and buzz bait. I learned the difference between a Carolina rig and a Texas rig. I understood when to use a watermelon seed worm and a pumpkin seed worm. We even fished a big bass tournament in the Santee over in the South Carolina low country. Bobby Richardson, the great second baseman of the 1950’s and 60’s from the New York Yankees, was the celebrity tournament guest. We both got him to autograph a baseball for us. Richardson was Ronnie’s favorite player and one of mine too.

I prayed for Ronnie and asked the Lord to give me an opening to talk with him about his soul. That moment came one hot, lazy Georgia summer day. The bass had stopped hitting the lures as we cast and cast in a peaceful cove talking to the fish. Yes, real fishermen talk to the fish and call them up. But, they had stopped listening to us like Ronnie had stopped listening to the Lord.

“Yea, I used to go to church preacher.” He told me all about his ministry with the kids years and years ago. He served as a deacon. He never missed church or Wednesday nights.

“We had a big church fight over the youth. Some of the leaders in the church said cruel and mean things about me and the kids. They said the kids were taking over the church, and they didn’t like it one bit. Everything is for the youth, they said.

“Word got back to the young people, and they were hurt. It wasn’t long before only a handful were coming. The harsh criticism against me was tough to take. I quit.

“I sowed some wild oats after that. I was out of town a lot with my painting business, and me and the boys partied a lot. My marriage broke up, and I really got wild then. Marrying Judy kind of settled me back down. She is a real blessing to me.

We sat there in silence for a long time. It was a holy moment for sure. It always is when someone confesses their sins - their hurt and pain.

“I know I need to get back in church. I really need to. Judy wants me too real bad. I’ve done a lot of wrong and want to get right with the Lord again. Who knows, maybe one day I will, but I’m just afraid,“ he chuckled. “I’m afraid that the roof will fall in if I walk through the door!”

Ronnie indeed did show up in church, and the roof didn’t fall. A couple of Sundays later, Ronnie asked for the transfer of his church membership to our church. He rededicated his life to Christ. It was a great day! There were several with tears in their eyes including Ronnie. Judy openly wept tears of joy and happiness. All those prayer meetings. All those prayers. Answered!

Several months later, the church made Ronnie a deacon again. He was on fire for the Lord. He donated money to enlarge the children’s playground. He sang in the choir and in the men’s ensemble. He had fish fry's at his home for the church. He invited everyone he came in contact with including his fishing club to attend his church, meet his pastor, and hear God’s Word preached.

Ronnie still fished in the monthly Modoc bass tournaments on Sundays. But this time, he would dock his boat, get in his pick-up truck, and head for the church house. After the worship service, he’d go back to the lake and finish fishing the tournament.

One day we were fishing, and he said, “You know the guys in the club can’t stand it! I take about three hours on Sunday to go to church, come back, catch more fish than they do, and win the pot! I told the boys, ‘What can you expect?’ Didn’t Jesus show the disciples how to catch a boatload of fish?”

We laughed together, prayed together, and served the Lord together The change in Ronnie Heath was like the difference between night and day..

In late December of 1998, Judy called me. “Ronnie is dead,” she sobbed. He had had a heart attack walking back to his four-wheeler after deer hunting one morning. It was right before Christmas.

Ronnie is dead, but thank God, he lives today in heaven. We used to talk and wonder if God had a big lake up there. If He does, I’m sure Ronnie is out there with old Simon Peter swapping fish stories on how they fished for men.

It’s sad how mean-spirited and cruel people run good people off from church like they did Ronnie. Their words and critical dispositions are weapons of mass destruction and blow up churches. Their fruit is certainly not the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23 NIV).

Love and kindness are the ways of Christ.

There is something about the quality of God’s love. When we see the cross - really see Jesus suffering in agony for our sins. When we hear Him cry out, “Father, forgive them.” When we touch his nail-scarred hands - an amazing transformation happens.

Hard hearts melt. Our focus changes from fishing for fish to fishing for men and loving them into the kingdom of God. Instead of looking for excuses to stay away from Sunday worship, nothing interferes with the commitment to hear the Word of God read and preached, to fellowship with the congregation of God, and to renew the soul. After all, a real, loving church is a little taste of heaven on earth.

The Old Testament calls this repenting in “sackcloth and ashes.” Confession, repentance, forgiveness, rededication - powerful stuff that restores our relationship with the good Lord and gets us back into a good church - a loving church, a non-judgmental church like North Columbia Church where encouragement and building up one another is the norm and not the exception.

Put on the sackcloth and sprinkle the ashes. Come home.

I’ve wandered far away from God,
Now I’m coming home;
The paths of sin too long I’ve trod,
Lord, I’m coming home.

I’ve wasted many precious years,
Now I’m coming home;
I now repent with bitter tears,
Lord, I’m coming home.

I’m tired of sin and straying, Lord,
Now I’m coming home;
I’ll trust Thy love, believe Thy word,
Lord, I’m coming home.

My soul is sick, my heart is sore,
Now I’m coming home;
My strength renew, my home restore,
Lord, I’m coming home.

My only hope, my only plea,
Now I’m coming home;
That Jesus died, and died for me,
Lord, I’m coming home.

I need His cleansing blood I know,
Now I’m coming home;
Oh, wash me whiter than the snow,
Lord, I’m coming home.

William J. Kirkpatrick (1838-1921)

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Member Comments
Member Date
Judy Wilson 10 Jan 2009
From death to life, Beautiful!
Julia May 09 Jan 2009
Pastor Dan, I enjoyed this story very much. Thank you for sharing it in your eloquent way. One line that stuck with me is this "After all, a real, loving church is a little taste of heaven on earth." Ain't it the truth! I am so blessed to be a part of the family of God in a loving church home - and guess what? It's a Baptist church! :) Keep writing for God's glory. Love in Christ, Julia


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