MILNER — Thomas Wolfe must have had a fear of his hometown, Libya Hill. He is the author who wrote the book, You Can’t Go Home Again. The book was actually published after his death. Do you suppose he feared publishing it while he was still alive?
The book was extracted from an unpublished manuscript called The October Fair by Wolfe’s editor, Edward Aswell. The novel tells the story of George Webber, a novice author who writes about his hometown to the chagrin and consternation of the residents. They write him threatening letters and warn that harm could befall him because of their displeasure with his distorted depiction of them.
Wolfe concludes that it would be unprofitable for him to go home again. The novel has a theme, which may have a lot of truth to it, because sometimes it is unwise to think we can return to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting and so essential to success, but which are changing all the time.
The novel reminds me of Ecclesiastes 7:10: “Say not thou, what is the cause that the former days were better than these? For thou doest not inquire wisely concerning this.”
Return to Milner
Can you go back to the past, to the former days, to the old home place and expect things to be as they once were – good and pleasant?
In many cases the answer may be a resounding “no”, but not with Ken Ross, pastor of Milner Baptist Church. He has returned to a church he pastored 40 years ago and is enjoying every minute of it.
Ross and his wife, Donna, moved to Milner in 1975 and served there until 1979. The church was struck by lightning in 1974 and burned to the ground, so Ross was the first pastor in the new facility.
From Milner Ross went on to serve as pastor of First Baptist Blackshear, First Baptist Fitzgerald, First Baptist Cleveland, Second Avenue Baptist in Rome, and First Baptist in Homerville, the church from which he retired.
After his retirement he returned to Milner in April 2014 to become the interim pastor following the death of Ben Taylor, who was serving the Milner church at the time of his death. Six months after becoming interim pastor the church asked Ross to become the pastor for the second time. He started his service as pastor on the first Sunday in October 2014.
‘They knew my heart’
When asked what would prompt the Milner church to call him back to serve a second time, Ross replied, “They knew my heart. They knew my passion for evangelism and missions. I never have been one to visit former church fields. I always believed that when you are gone and the church you left calls another pastor you need to stay away and not meddle in the affairs of the church.
“I went back a few times when they called me for a funeral or a homecoming. I did go back and preach a revival for the church on one occasion, but there is a sense in which they had never totally let me leave and I had left a part of my heart there 40 years ago. I suppose you could say we had a long-term love affair.”
Ross continued, “The church has been very understanding. They understand that I am not the 28-year-old pastor who once served them. In some ways I had changed and the church had to accept those changes.
“I also had to acknowledge that the church I left many years ago is not the same church I once served, nor is the community the same. The church and community had declined through the years. When I was at Milner the first time, the town had two grocery stores, a service station, a public school that accommodated grades 1-7, and a bank. Now, none of those things exist.”
Getting acquainted … and re-acquainted
“But I love the blessing and benefits of this ministry,” Ross added. “A church and a pastor who have loved each other for 40 years have been reunited. In returning to Milner as interim I had the opportunity to get acquainted with the members who were not here when I was pastor the first time. It also gave me the opportunity to get acquainted or reacquainted with those I knew.
“Likewise, the church had the opportunity to get acquainted or reacquainted with me. So, when they called me as pastor there was already a trust and acceptance by both the church and me. As a matter of fact, the call was unanimous and I have had the customary ‘honeymoon period.’
“In fact, I think I have three important gifts that made it possible for me to return. I have a great love for the local church, especially the Milner church.
“I think I have proved my leadership gifts by having served on many committees and boards within the Georgia Baptist Convention. Dr. Ed Cliburn often said to me, ‘The people of Milner know who you are and are proud of your accomplishments. If you ever have the opportunity to return I think you should.’”
Compassion and calling
“God has also graciously given me the gift of preaching and I believe the Milner church has recognized that gift,” Ross said. “They desire to have a man in the pulpit Sunday after Sunday who can effectively share the Word of God with compassion and a sense of calling upon his life.”
Ross explained, “I am very happy to be back in Milner. I probably would not have considered coming out of retirement for any other church. This church made a great investment in my life when I was young and now I have the opportunity to say to them, ‘Thank you for having taught me so much.’
“There is a wonderful sense of family among the congregation and the affirmation they give my wife and me is beyond what you find in a lot of churches today. When I came back I decided I would not simply pull old sermons from my files, but study and develop new sermons that would meet the needs of this congregation.”
A deeper walk
“The study for new sermons has deepened my walk with these people, but more importantly, it has deepened my walk with the Father. My greatest joy comes from the belief that God has given me in this ministry to not only say, ‘Thank you’ to the church for their investment in my life 40 years ago but to share the experiences I have gained throughout the ensuing years.
“So, I guess in many cases you can’t go home again, but it is possible.”
Ross concluded, “I remember what the late Coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant said when he returned to the University of Alabama as head football coach, ‘When Momma calls you, you have to come runnin’.’ If God calls you to return, even if you have concerns about whether it will work, you must go home again.”