February 20th, 2016

Scripture Readings

Amos 5:21-24

“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

James 2:14-19

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder.

Meditation and Prayer

There’s a small part of me today that is rather unpastoral and may seem overly frivolous, but I hope if you knew Ray you’ll get the joke.  Ray and I had many conversations about faith and the church, both in person and by email, and you probably know that Ray was strongly opinionated and very articulate.  I had to admit a smile crossed my face when the thought hit me this morning:  I get the last word!

There’s a more important reason that will emerge a little later in my meditation, but one of the reasons I chose the reading from Amos is that it begins with a complaint by God himself that I think Ray resonated with:  “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies.”  We preachers tend to think what we do every week is really important as an expression of true faith in God.  If we’re not careful, we even judge people’s spirituality by how often and how sincerely they worship in church services.

Ray Gantt, you may know, was not a church goer.  I’ve been pastor at Corinth for 23 years.  If Ray ever attended a church service here other than the memorial services for his parents, I either didn’t know he was present or have forgotten about it.  Either is possible.  But we had a mutual respect – I would even venture the word “friendship” – that I cherished and I think he did as well.  I was very sad when I learned that his life had ended prematurely and without time for us to reconnect.

I would venture a guess that most of you knew Ray better than I did, however.  So at the end of this service I’m going to give you an opportunity to share some of your own thoughts and stories about him briefly.  In addition to my own memories and files, since Ray died I talked to his brother Bob and also received e-mails from three of his friends and co-workers – Larry Shuford, Don Norwood, and Ford Markle.  Their reflections helped me in preparing my own remarks, and I’ll include the e-mail texts as part of the printed copies of this service and what I post on my blog.

Let me offer first a brief biography of Ray for those who may know only bits and pieces of the story.  He was the oldest of four boys Raymond and Edith Gantt raised.  The Gantts joined this church in 1958, while this current building was under construction.  In 1946, after serving his country in World War II, Raymond, Sr., worked as an engineer for what became Southern Desk until he retired.  Raised Baptist, he was old school in terms of his family, frugality, and faith.  Edith was a mountain girl whose calling was as a homemaker.  She loved baking and yard work, especially.  The great tragedy of her life was the loss of her 15-year-old son Tommy, Ray’s younger brother, to systemic lupus.  Shortly thereafter, she began a long, slow decline from Parkinson’s Disease, which progressed for 35 years until she passed away in 2000.  Raymond died the next year.

My first conversations with Ray (as well as his brothers Bob and Stephen) were during the preparations for his parents’ funerals.  He expressed nothing but respect and appreciation for both of them, even though his life took a sharply different turn.  Ray, after all, was a teenager during the 1960s, and like most young people of that generation – perhaps most of you – he questioned everything his parents and his church tried to instill in him.  But years later, after his mother’s death, he would credit his parents for instilling in him the key values of his life – creativity, knowledge, honesty, and caring.

And he was creative.  He and Don Norwood both became interested in television at Hickory High School in the early 70s.  Ray the attended UNC Chapel Hill, directing their sports and news programs as a student.  But didn’t spend all his time studying.  His Dad became concerned when Ray never asked for spending money, and even more concerned when he learned that the reason Ray didn’t ask is because he was so good at poker.  Ray also joined the Students for a Democratic Society, beginning his trajectory of social and political activism.

At Carolina Ray began a lifelong relationship with Janet Doss, although they never married.  He came home and began work in TV production.  Ray, Don, and B. E. Miller worked with a federal grant to produce local TV programming for Hickory City Schools and the community, including independent study classes for high school students.  Larry Shuford was one of those students.  When Ray went full time into the producer’s role, Ford Markle took his place in the classroom.  That early group also worked with Don Coleman, then teaching chorus at the high school, to film the Hickory Choral Society singing Handel’s Messiah in Corinth’s sanctuary in the 1970s.

Ray and Janet incorporated Unifour TV Productions in 1980, producing film first for the furniture industry, but as Don Norwood said, “he broadened his base to include many different sectors, from manufacturing to biotech to robotics to utilities to insurance and on and on.”   Don said that people in Hickory may not have heard of Ray, but his work spread all over the world.

As the economy changed during the 90s and 2000s, Unifour’s business slowed, and eventually Ray went to work for Kino Mountain Productions.  Professionally, Ray was known for his attention to detail, his creativity, his work ethic, and his relationships with the people involved.  He wasn’t necessarily a warm and fuzzy guy, limiting his close friendships, but he loved working with friends and enjoyed mentoring younger and newer colleagues so they could continue that excellence.  Some of his friends think it was his undying attention to his work that led to his premature death.  Stress was normal in his work; taking care of yourself was not.  We don’t know exactly what happened earlier this month, just that he had some surgery and apparently died quietly in his home of a blood clot or some other complication.

Now I’d like to reflect a bit on my own relationship with Ray and on the Scriptures I chose for this service.  I suspect the conversations I had with Ray differ from what most of you discussed with him most of the time.

After both his parents died, Ray and I began a dialogue about church and religion that included both e-mail exchanges and an occasional lunch.  He had sent me a note of thanks for being there for his parents and preaching their services, and I responded back.  At one of our early lunches he told me believed Christianity is a valid path to God, but that there are many such paths.  This led to exchanges on fundamentalist and tolerance, on philosophy and truth.  He did not believe in absolute truth.  I do, although I hope there’s some humility about what I believe.

I kept two long emails from Ray.  One is dated May 9, 2002, in which he affirmed that he believed God create the universe, God is rational and omnipotent, humans have everlasting souls, and our souls matter to God.   My favorite quote from that email is this:  “To some extent, I feel that both Fundamentalists and Atheists have made the same mistake.  One has found God…one has found there is no God…but they have both given up the search.”  Ray wanted to continue the search.

The other long e-mail is dated July 6, 2005, and begins, “OK, you asked for it….”  I don’t have my e-mail to Ray, so I don’t know exactly what I asked for, but I do know at the time we were discussing homosexuality.  Our denomination had just become the first mainstream Protestant church in America to declare its support for same sex marriage.  I’m more on the conservative/traditional side of that argument, but that subject is too complex to delve into today.  Suffice it to say I’ve learned a lot from people like Ray.

The story Ray told me in that email opened a window into what shaped his life.  (Remember, I’m giving you Ray’s recollection.)  In 1968 Ray was a member of Boy Scout Troop 1 at Corinth, and working on his God and Country badge.  This required him to attend a meeting of the Consistory, the governing board of the church.  After cordial greetings followed by discussions of budget and building maintenance that held little interest to Ray, the final agenda item was how the church should recognize 25 years of service for Ivey the janitor, who happened to be African American. The leaders also wondered if they should also include “Mary, Corinth’s black maid” (Ray’s words), who had served the church for 17 years.

17-year-old Ray raised his hand, and he insisted 37 years later he remembered exactly what he said, surprised at his own eloquence:  “Would it not be right and fair that you recognize Ivey and Mary for their many years of hard work by inviting them and their families to join in the services which are held in the sanctuary they have cleaned and kept so faithfully?  And to join in the fellowship of the church they have served so well?”

This produced, according to Ray, a “shocked silence,” and the President of the Consistory quickly called for tabling the conversation to the next meeting.  After the meeting the President cornered Ray and said, “If YOU are EVER invited back to Consistory, YOU are NOT to SPEAK!  You are here to LISTEN and LEARN!  NOT to SPEAK!”  That incident, Ray went on to tell me in the email, was pivotal in moving him to active support of civil rights.  But he also said, “I learned that, in a way, I was no better than those who had spoken to me so loudly…I plead the ignorance of a young Southerner of the times.  I’m not ignorant now.”  And he added, “I guess the most important thing I learned is that a church should be very careful about who, from the family of man, it excludes from the fellowship of the love of God.”

Perhaps this is one reason that Ray embraced political and social activism and did not embrace the church.  I can’t say that I blame him, but I can tell you as I told him that I wish he had given us another chance.  Even in our ongoing differences, I would like to think we have learned a lot about inclusion and grace and humility.  Which is not to say that we don’t still have much to learn.

The same frustration Ray felt at organized religion is what moved the prophet Amos to quote God, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.”  Even God hates organized religion when it doesn’t change hearts.

And what kind of heart change is God looking for?  Martin Luther King, Jr., loved this text from Amos, although to his credit (from my perspective) he never gave up on the church or organized religion.  But when he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, he quoted the end of that paragraph from Amos:  “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

That’s far from a theme limited only to the Old Testament.  James, Jesus’ own brother, has a letter included at the end of our New Testament, from which I also read earlier.  James, too, was tired of church meetings where people are excluded or diminished – in his case, by their lack of social status and wealth.  James memorably declared, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

I don’t know if I ever said this directly to Ray in writing or in person, so I want to say it now.  Ray, I’m sorry.  On behalf of the church of your youth, I’m sorry.  I wish I could tell you that all our blind spots are embedded deep in history.  They are not.  We still don’t get it, and the tragedy is that sometimes the very ways in which we think we get it look in retrospect like our greatest mistakes.

But I have not given up and will not give up on the church.  Why?  Because I believe it’s God’s idea to place us in imperfect communities.  Why?  Precisely because all of us are imperfect in both knowledge and awareness. We are all still in need of that search.  And the alternative to joining other imperfect people in a search for truth and justice is that we engage that search as a solo journey.  I rather suspect that Ray’s appearance at that Consistory meeting is part of what began to open up this church to be more inclusive of people of color, of different classes, of different political views.  We still have a long way to go, but how do we ever learn anything if those who think we’re wrong just go their own way?

So I, as an insider to organized religion, am still on a search of my own.  But there are some basics of which I remain fully convinced.  That there is a God who created the world, that he desires intimacy with human beings, and that in Jesus Christ he entered this imperfect world to provide the way to God through his perfect sacrifice for our sins.  To declare that is my faith, but I agree with Amos, James, and Ray, that faith without works – without justice, without grace, without love – is dead.

And that, my friend Ray, is what I say since I have last word.  Amen.




Remembrances from Friends

Ford Markle

You asked for some info on how I knew Ray.  In ’76 he moved to a full time producer’s roll at the TV Center at Hickory High.  I was hired as his replacement in the classroom.  My students were the crew for the programs and I was the talent on a few.  I even appeared as Pythagoras in a HS math series Ray was producing.  I was on the crew that taped Handel’s Messiah in the 70s at the Church.  It was a challenge, but Ray had a great plan and we pulled it off.

I am in contact with some of the former students.  Mark Sowers remembered when he was a student at Hickory asking Ray for a cigarette.  He said Ray would not loan him one, so he used it as motivation to quit.  Ray touched us through his programs, his instructions and a decision not to give a kid a cigarette.  He was a good friend that would take time for a call or visit, even it had been months since the last one.


Don Norwood

Ray and I first met in high school through our common interest in television, his in the production of programs and mine in the technical realm.  We later worked together for several years at the studio that I built for the Hickory school system.  Then in the late 70’s, we each started our own businesses, again with Ray in production and myself involved in the equipment end of the industry.  We continued to stay in close contact, and in recent years, typically had lunch together about once a week.  Since Ray lived alone, I spent more time with him after he broke his ankle and he was confined to his house while convalescing.  When I could not reach him on the phone, I went to check on him and discovered the sad news.

Ray was a perfectionist in his work.  Though most people in Hickory probably never heard of him or his company, the work that he did is literally all over the world.  Originally, the majority of his clients were from the furniture industry, but as that business changed, he broadened his base to include many different sectors, from manufacturing to biotech to robotics to utilities to insurance and on and on.  The diversity of his clients gave him insight into so many different fields that he gained quite a broad range of knowledge and could intelligently converse about many subjects.  His passion for detail could easily be seen in his work and I believe was a key to the loyalty of his clients.

Ray was also very strong willed, and in recent years, became ever more convinced that his views were correct.  We had many discussions about a broad range of subjects, some in agreement, and some very much opposed.  I learned a lot from those exchanges, but was also frustrated with his movement toward a closed mind and an intolerance for differing viewpoints. Regardless of our differences, we remained good friends.  I think we probably puzzled each other, each wondering how the other could be so wrong!

Bottom line, Ray was an extremely creative person who will be greatly missed by colleagues in his profession and by his friends.  I had the pleasure and honor of being both.


Larry Shuford

Yes, I knew Ray a long time.  We met in summer of 1974 when Ray had taken a job working at Hickory High School’s Educational Television facility.  Don Norwood was administering a federal grant to setup the facility and produce local television programming for Hickory City Schools and the community. This was interesting in that Don, Ray with the help of vocational education were actually building the facility.  We laid cinder blocks and each took turns with a Pneumatic Chisel on a reinforced concrete wall to create a passage needed to link 2 areas.

When the school year started, Ray taught “independent study” classes for those of us who wanted to learn the art of making television shows.  We had a crew of 5 or 6.  Jim Furlong, Mark Harrison, Ed Shepherd, Phil Hamilton, and me. Brother Bo was usually around too. We would operate TV cameras and sound mixers and even act like professional hosts interviewing Superintendent Joseph Wishon.

Several of us went on to study Film / TV in college and then become professionals ourselves. During the time I was in Chapel Hill Ray and Janet incorporated Unifour TV Productions in 1980.  After I worked in Charlotte for several years, I moved on to Chattanooga.  When Janet became too sick to work as much as she needed, she called me in Chattanooga urging me to come back and help Ray with Unifour.  At first I resisted, but eventually after I had moved back to Charlotte in 1988 working with Duke Power Company’s corporate communications, the pull from Ray was too strong.  I left corporate TV, moved back to Hickory and partnered with Ray.  We had a very small office and a small staff with Tom Jackson as the video editor and a Linda Bevins, bookeeper.  Soon we had to grow and before long the company moved into larger offices on Old Lenoir Road.

I was a fish out of water. While I could “make televison”, I had no idea how to pitch ideas to business clients and sell these ideas for sales and training videos.  Ray again became my “teacher” and this experiment lasted for a decade. Ray was always thinking ahead and had a vision of success that guided him. He would use that vision and with supportive yet focused critiques to stabilize my work.

We each had our specialties and over time we modified our working relationship to take advantage of them.  Ray did most of the sales and customer care and I did operational and production related duties. Customers were often very loyal to Ray and Unifour Productions.  Those folks liked the thoroughness of Ray’s proposals, project planning and ultimately the return on their investments in Unifour’s videos. We worked so often for some of them that at times you might think we were employees.  We knew their business and needs really well.

During our years creating professional quality moving images of rooms of static furniture, we extended our work family with many young film and video students who were becoming professionals.  Greg Winters, Gregg Easterbrook, and several others from UNC-Greensboro were important Unifour resources. Together we worked to make top notch footage for local furniture dealer commercials to be used across the country. Our semi-annual production schedule was lovingly referred to by Greg as “summer camp”.  It was always hard work and long days, but when working with friends we could do nearly anything.

Eventually the local economy took many blows and business for Unifour slowed.  My interests led me elsewhere and by 2002 I was no longer involved with the business, but my friendship with Ray continued.  Actually without the stress of the business I enjoyed time with Ray more.  The sad part is that his work level had grown but his health had subsided.  Ultimately a stressful life caught up with Ray.  I knew Ray. I respected and learned from Ray. Ray is forever a part of my life and part of who I am.

P.S.  Among the interesting things Ray did when he was at UNC Chapel Hill in the 70s (along with being in the Students for a Democratic Society) was to fund his spending money by playing poker. Not only playing regularly, but winning so regularly that he would sometimes lose on purpose so that folks would let him play.

Ray’s father once confronted him, puzzled by the fact that he wasn’t being asked to send him money.  His dad thought maybe Ray wasn’t eating or something.  However Ray explained his poker playing and at first his father was really concerned.  Eventually he came around to understand that Ray truly had special skills.

Ray was a complicated guy.  He was acquaintances with a huge number of people, but didn’t seem to be close friends with many.  I’d describe him as formal and professional.

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