It was radical for those days—a pastor preaching from the floor, not a pulpit and dared to use electronic technology to assist in his sermon. Yet, there he stood. And I will never forget the lesson.
“You are not a zero with the rim rubbed out”—he said this as he used his finger to erase the bottom part of the number he’d previously written on the transparency. It was one of the first times I began to believe that I was valuable, and that God created me in His image. I was beginning to believe that His creation was something to behold. Ray’s sermon that night: obey the commandment to live the life given to us with all of our shortfalls, but definitely with the gifts that He has given us. It was a sermon of Hope. As I sat in that cold church during that midweek service, I looked around at others and all were responding in kind. It was a radical idea at the time—preaching of one’s value. But Ray was radical. And that is why everybody loved him. He loved the sweet story of salvation (and shared it often), but outside the simple plan of salvation, he was a gifted pastor and even better person.
I mentioned in part 1 of “Appearing & Disappearing Hope”, I mentioned my foster parents. I’ve not been able to finish that piece because Ray went home to be with Jesus just a few short days ago. And while not part of my daily life, he’s been a constant source of encouragement to me over all of these years, more so in the last 10-15 after we reconnected. So, I didn’t want to just rush over his part of my story, and certainly needed a little time to even understand what I want to say.
So, I will try.
We all like to think that when we die, those left behind will have glowing things to say about us, and who knows if that will happen—we certainly know at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. It will not matter what people say about you. Changed lives will matter; lives that were changed forever because of yours. That is the category that Ray occupies in my life.
Upon abandonment by my mom, Ray and Gayle (along with their 3 kids) took me into their home. It was the first time I had a bed of my own; it was the first time I even knew that you are supposed to eat 3 meals a day and it was the first time that an adult demonstrated to me the sacrifice that the entire family did. And I will always remember that sacrifice. Even though I only lived with them for 18 months, I always will remember it fondly, and thank God that Ray planted a seed when he made that decision to keep me out of the foster care system. He planted a seed that he had to watch other people tend and water. He had to watch the fruit of his sacrifice from afar. And he did that with class and he did it without ever wanting any glory for a life that he helped save. And for those of you who knew me then, you know that I am not exaggerating.
Thursday mornings were my favorite in the Dunning household. Ray stopped by Krispy Kreme on the way home from church the night before and we had doughnuts for breakfast, much to the “arguments” of Gayle who was always pushing weird stuff like oatmeal with wheat germ on me! He relished spoiling us on those mornings and has he walked by to leave for work, the smell of his cologne served to comfort me—a strange feeling for me.
He refused to allow me to be defined by trauma up to that point, 14 years into my life. He treated me like I was one of his own children. That included fun things like doughnuts, but it also included copious conversations in the living room where I was getting the Ray Dunning “school of life”. And it was a good school too. As soon as I would reach one place of healing, he would push for another telling me that “you have grown by leaps and bounds, but you have a long way to go”—and he knew that would serve as a call to action for me. He gave me every reason to hope that I could do whatever I wanted, especially overcome a difficult life.
I often wonder how hard it was for him to see this broken child in his home. I never knew it if he thought that I’d not make it, not once did I ever think I wasn’t going to be okay, and Ray has a big role in that. He was a picture of Hope to me. He often thought of other people during his decade long illness when it came to sharing his faith. I know for sure when he entered heaven that he was found faithful. Ray was my second pastor. He followed behind Dr. Estes who everybody loved. Ray and Dr. Estes had a beautiful relationship and Dr. Estes remained at that church, under Ray’s leadership, until the day Dr. Estes died. I am remembering Dr. Estes today because his favorite passage of scripture was shared and received by the young pastor following him. And, today, I can’t help but think of Ray when I hear the scripture:
“Be steadfast, not moveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord”
I am so grateful that he took that step of obedience every day for 18 months. I was loved well by him and he often referred to himself as my “second dad”. This man demonstrated the Hope that life has even when it seems like you are down for the count. I firmly believe that my inability to give up, give in or be bitter is directly related to Ray Dunning. And, in true fashion, his last message to me a few weeks ago:
“I love you and I am proud of you”
And you just can’t script it better than that.
Made me want to be the same Hope for everybody I can.