He calls his sermon “The Continuous Need for Help,” and Dr. Clifford Jones rightfully turns to others to help him make his points.
He starts with the disciple Paul, traveling east toward the Black Sea, then leaps to gymnast Gabby Douglas with the speed of a tumbling run.
But there’s a message here for his congregation at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church and beyond, a message about the tension between God’s plans and our own, of questioning what we believe to be true, of asking for help, then helping others.
Yet Jones’ sermon resembles a routine on the uneven bars. It twirls. It spins. It comes close to crashing to the floor. The preacher, however, always finds his grip, and at the end his closing point lingers over the sanctuary like incense. After 30 years in this pulpit, Clifford Jones knows how to stick a dismount.
Funny thing about Friendship: There’s a real yin-yang to this whole affair. The service swings from the traditional to the contemporary, from familiar hymns born aloft by the waves from the mammoth church organ to the sweat and harmonies of the gospel choir.
Likewise, Jones starts his message in a raspy whisper. He promises it will be short. And then it starts to build.
Too often, the pastor says, we force God to accept our terms, our itineraries – all those familiar beliefs and biases that make life so comfortable.
Except God, he believes, doesn’t move that way. God pokes. God challenges. God can turn us completely around.
So we begin with Paul, insistent on traveling east toward Asia Minor. Until a voice in a dream calls out to him. “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
Paul immediately turns west, not knowing what he’ll find, but believing he is doing God’s will.
In other words, Jones says, let the Big Man do his work.
Which brings us to Gabby Douglas, who also heads west and changes the course of her life. She leaves her family in Virginia for the unknowns of Iowa, “doesn’t even know if there are black people there,” he says to roars.
Yet she finds a coach. She finds a family that will take her in. She finds a new path that leads to the Olympic team and then to the finals for the gold medal given to the best all-around gymnast in the world.
“And when Gabby started grinning, I started shouting,” Jones said, his voice starting to rise, the words strung together. “I said I know the Lord will make a way somehow.”
Jones, who at times has channeled his inner James Brown, now lowers the volume. He has one last point to bring home, to this big church on Beatties Ford Road.
“There are some little Gabbys in Charlotte who are crying out, ‘Friendship, come over and help us,’ ” he says, his voice returning to its original whisper.
“And to not help them … is a sin.”