If you grew up in a rural church in a rural town surrounded on all sides by a national forest, I suppose it’s only natural that some of your church activities would be held in the outdoors.
Mr. Earl, our famous (or infamous) RA leader, knew a thing or two about the outdoors. He knew when and where the fish would be biting, how to use different trees for different purposes, and how to use his knife to carve all manner of things into wood (and even soap). He could pitch a tent, build a fire, cook a meal, and find his way through the woods in the dead of night.
He was also a good teacher. Mr. Earl’s favorite classroom was outside, and he taught more out there than he did in the church building. He always said Jesus taught some of His best lessons outside, talking about things in the wild. He figured he ought to follow the Master’s example.
Some Sundays, Mr. Earl and us boys would head down to the creek about a mile from the church for an afternoon of fishing and learning. As a rule, Mr. Earl saved all his good lessons for the creek or the lake. It was a trade-off for us boys: We got an afternoon of fishing (and there’s nothing a small boy in those parts would rather do than fish), but in exchange we were liable to learn something that might make us squirm or — even worse — think.
I recall Mr. Earl was big on “right-living,” what the old folks called “righteousness.” He believed an RA who professed to live by the RA Pledge ought to do just that, and not just when the RA Chapter was meeting. To his mind, right-living was personified in the RA Pledge. If a boy would just do what he promised to do in that pledge, he’d be living right.
And that’s where we found ourselves on the banks of the creek one lazy Sunday evening. Boys were rushing to see who would be the first to get a line in the water when Mr. Earl let out a big “WHOOOOAAAA.”
“Now before you go putting bait on your hooks, I want you to try fishing today with no bait,” said Mr. Earl.
We looked at each other, puzzled. Had Mr. Earl had one too many pieces of fried chicken at lunch? Maybe the heat was getting to him. Fish with no bait? Everyone knew that wouldn’t work, even the city folks who sometimes floated down the creek on tours. To catch a fish, you needed something the fish wanted to bite.
“I’m serious,” piped Mr. Earl. “No bait.”
One brave soul managed to stammer out that he didn’t see how we could catch any fish without bait.
Mr. Earl considered that for a minute. “Well, you may be right,” he declared. “I reckon we ought to at least use some kind of bait. Here,” he said, “use this old piece of tire I brought.” Mr. Earl held out a worn piece of tire toward us.
Puzzled looks again overcame the faces of the boys. We knew of no fish that would eat an old tire. Sure, they eat worms and crickets (so did a few of the boys standing on the bank that day, truth be told). But an old tire? No way.
Mr. Earl looked at us intently, still holding out the tire. “Y’all gonna fish?” he asked.
The same boy — the brave one — replied, “No, sir. It won’t do no good. Fish won’t bite an old tire.”
Mr. Earl’s look began to change. “Exactly. Sit down, boys.”
We did as we were told and took a seat, the astute among us knowing Mr. Earl was about to impart to us a life lesson.
“To catch a fish, you have to have bait. Not just any old bait will do, mind you, so you have to get the right bait. Get the wrong bait, and the fish will swim the other direction. That’s kind of how we are.
“How we act and live is like the bait God uses to attract other folks. You may be the only Christian a fellow knows. He may not read the Bible like you. He may not go to church like you.
“Do you suppose how you live would cause him to swim to Christ or away? If he doesn’t see where Christ made a difference in you, what’s to make him want to stop living like he’s living now and follow Christ? You living and acting like you don’t know Christ is like fishing with this old tire for bait: nothing’s going to bite.
“If you want to catch men for Christ, you have to live like Christ, which is to say you have to live right. And you all know how to live right: you’ve memorized the RA Pledge. Those five parts of the RA Pledge give you a good start on how to act. Live out the RA Pledge and you’re liable to catch more fish than not.
“Pledging to be a follower of Christ, to care for folks, to carry the gospel around the world and learning how it’s done, and to be clean in mind and body, well, that’s an awful good start to living the way God wants you to live.
“Well, I reckon you’ve suffered me long enough today. Here’s a box of worms. See what you all can do.”
Today, we have the RA Virtues (they weren’t a thing back in our day), and those virtues are a pretty good approximation of what Mr. Earl considered “right-living.” That stands to reason, since the virtues tie in nicely with the RA Pledge, what Mr. Earl constantly reminded us to follow.
For example, a boy who is going to “work with others in sharing Christ” is going to have to learn how to work with a team and take responsibility for doing his part. Each part of the Pledge has a virtue for a Lad and one for a Crusader.
That’s not to say right-living alone is following Christ. No, it takes more than just right-living to be a Christ-follower. It takes a change in heart — a relationship with Him — not just a change in behavior. But, if we can judge a tree by the fruit it bears, then a true Royal Ambassador ought to bear RA fruit, namely the virtues listed above.
An RA leader nowadays can have his boys memorize the virtues as well as the RA Pledge. Mr. Earl made us recite the RA Pledge at the beginning of each week’s lesson, and it seems to me that adding in the virtues to that exercise could be beneficial.
You can even get posters with the virtues at wmustore.com. They’re included in the RA Digital Package and the RA Promotion Pack. If I can find them on the Royal Ambassador part of wmustore.com, I imagine anybody can.
Anyway, I’ll tell you more about each of those virtues and what Mr. Earl had to say about them. But that will have to wait for another time. I’ve got things to do; after all, the fish are biting.
Keith Gates is the national WMU ministry consultant for Royal Ambassadors, Challengers, and Youth on Mission. This blog is the first in a series on the RA Virtues.