Thanks for “Being” (vs. “Doing”) the Church

I have been the pastor at Calvary Baptist in Mount Airy for a little more than a year now. Having invested much of the past twelve months in building relationships and learning about the congregation’s character, hopes and dreams; it has begun to feel in many ways like it’s time to start tackling the question: What do we need to do? (What new ministries do we need to launch? What new projects should we undertake? What new actions can help us enhance our fruitfulness as God’s people?)

And yet, I must confess that even asking this question creates a certain tension for me. Sometimes, I feel like those of us in church life get so preoccupied with “doing something” that we miss the greater blessing that comes from simply “being something.” Maybe the church doesn’t (or shouldn’t) grow because we trained everyone in the latest evangelism technique or launched a new outreach emphasis. Maybe the church should grow because we were faithfully and authentically being the people of God, with the result that others were drawn to that light.

An example of the difference comes from a couple of stories that deacons in my church have shared with me recently. One of these deacons was checking into the hospital not long ago for an outpatient procedure. While he was filling out the necessary paperwork, the receptionist who was working with him received a phone call, informing her that some members of her family had been in an auto accident. She was clearly distraught, and so this deacon took her by the hand and asked if he could pray for her. When she said, “Yes,” he did exactly that – with the result that she was reminded of the presence of God and the support of His people.

The other deacon is a local business owner whose shop was broken into a few weeks ago. The young man who committed the crime was caught and convicted. But when the deacon learned that this young man had attempted the burglary because he was desperate to provide for his wife and child, he did a rather radical (and I think, rather Christ-like) thing: he offered the young man a job.

Of course, these are somewhat extraordinary examples of people “being” (versus “doing”) the church…or are they? The fact is that all of us are given opportunities almost every day to offer those small acts of care and compassion that can make all the difference in someone’s life. And quite frankly, our responses to these opportunities can’t really be schedule or programmed or even encouraged in any systematic way. They grow out of who we are…out of our willingness to notice the open doors and our eagerness to be the church.

I’m so grateful for the way that these small acts happen with ‘blessed regularity’ in the life of my church family. Naturally, this doesn’t mean that we’ll never make the decision to do something special. Sometimes there are needs and opportunities that call for an organized and focused response. But for today, I just want to say, “Thank You” to those two deacons – and to all those others who are the family of God through the way they allow the character of God to shine through them. Thanks for “being” (vs. “doing”) the church.

Unexpected Gifts

The last couple of months have been the first spring that Teresa, Windham and I have spent in our new home here in Mount Airy. Among the joys of this experience has been the pleasure of watching and waiting to see what types of plants will end up growing in our yard. The previous owners, you see, were much more skilled in the gardening arts than we ever hope to be. As a result, we’ve been able to sit back and observe as roses and irises and ferns and hastas (and ivy’s that I can’t even identify) have come bursting forth into verdant life.

It’s quite a gift, when you stop and think about it—all this beauty given to us with hardly any effort or investment on our part. And like many gifts that come to us so easily, this one would be easy to take for granted. But I’m reminded that God frequently cautions his people not to overlook such unexpected gifts – maybe because He gives so many of them. Years ago, when Moses was preparing to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land, he told them: “When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Deut. 6:10-12).

Church life, it occurs to me, is filled with many examples of these unexpected (and unearned) blessings. We study the scriptures with Bibles that we didn’t translate, using lessons that we didn’t write. We worship with songs that we didn’t compose in sanctuaries (that in many cases) we didn’t build. When we become church members we enter into a ready-made family—a deep well of relationships overflowing with love and support and encouragement—that existed long before we realized how much we needed it. And most important, of course, we receive peace with God through Jesus Christ by virtue of a sacrifice we could never make and a grace that we could never fully fathom.

The question we need to ask, however, is “What will we do with these unexpected gifts?” I must confess that because I had absolutely nothing to do with providing the colorful plants in my yard, it’s tempting just to ‘let them go.’ But it would be such a shame to let such life and beauty go to waste. Therefore, even though it takes some effort, I’m trying to cultivate them. I’m trying to keep them weeded and pruned. I’m trying to learn how they need to be fed and tended. And who knows? Maybe someday, I’ll be able to leave some unexpected gifts for someone else.

What are you doing with your unexpected gifts…especially the ones that you receive from being part of our church family?

May God prevent us from taking His gifts for granted. And since we’ve been blessed to be a blessing, may we always be eager to do the work that’s necessary to preserve and nurture these gifts for those who come after us.

On the Road Again…Finally!

After several months of winter hibernation, I finally got back and my bike and did some cycling today. I didn’t go that far…nor did I go that fast. But I did go, and I tend to trust – now that my physical inertia has been somewhat overcome – that additional trips will follow.

I can’t help but think that a similar dynamic plays itself out in terms of spiritual inertia. We may entertain great thoughts about getting out and “going somewhere” for God: experimenting with a new discipline, starting a new ministry, turning from some ingrained sin. But as long as we’re content to bask in the comparative ease of our soul’s winter hibernation, we’re not likely to accomplish much. Only when we take a step (or perhaps a pedal) will we find that our joints begin to loosen, and our enthusiasm for the next step begins to grow.

My sermon for this Sunday starts a loose series of messages from 1 John, and this weeks text includes this helpful reminder: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Good things happen when we walk…and maybe even when we ride! So here’s to getting off the couch and “going somewhere.” May God be our guide as we seek to journey in the light.

Somewhere It’s Snowing

Last night brought my family’s first snowfall in our still-somewhat-new hometown of Mount Airy, NC. It was one of those beautiful snow events…just heavy and moisture-laden enough to cover every tree branch with a blanket of white. Up to this point, we’ve had a very mild winter; so you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from local teachers and students when they cancelled school for today. But in spite of the unexpected holiday, I’m here in the office (gladly, by the way). When you’re a pastor, Sunday morning approaches quickly, regardless of whether there are snow days or not.

As I drove to the church this morning, I was reminded of a great anthem that the choir of my Baptist Student Union used to sing back when I was in college. If memory serves, it was composed by Mark Hayes and went something like this…

I once read in a poem – when snow covers the earth –
That it hides the worlds scars and gives nature new birth
And they say when a man turns from sin to the Lord
That God’s grace – like the snow – covers him evermore
And somewhere it’s snowing. See the soft drifting down
As the snowflakes surrender to the hardening ground
Like the good grace of Jesus that now covers our sin
In the kingdom of heaven, it’s snowing again

So thank you, Lord, for snow and beauty. Thank you for great memories of good friends. And most of all, thank you for the good grace of Jesus – which still covers sin…and which allows me to start this day with a full heart.

 

The Rest of The Story

“And now you know…the rest of the story.”

For those who don’t recognize it, this was the famous tagline of Paul Harvey – a radio personality whose commentaries often examined current events by digging a little below the surface, thus revealing how one’s perspective can change when you know all the facts and the context of any particular happening. Indeed, it is amazing how different things can look when you know ‘the rest of the story.’

Of course if that’s true about today’s headlines, it’s probably even more true about the life of faith. The victories we win and the challenges we face tend to make the most sense when viewed from the larger perspective of what our Heavenly Father is trying to do in our lives and in the world. The inspiring stories and the startling promises of scripture can only be understood correctly when seen within the context of “The Grand Story of God” – that begins in a garden…that ends in a Holy City…and that is signed by the Author on every page.

For these reasons and more, our church is preparing to engage in a special discipleship emphasis called “The Story.” During the season of Lent—the weeks that begin on Sunday, February 26 and lead up to Easter on Sunday, April 8—we will examine together “The Story” of the Bible. Our goal will be to gain insight into what God is doing in the world…and to see more clearly the ways that His Story intersections with our stories.

There are many ways for you to participate in “The Story.” Our Sunday morning messages during this emphasis will focus on the overarching plot of scripture: Where did it all begin? Where will it all end? And how does this help us make sense of God’s call in our lives along the way? In addition, many of our Sunday School classes will spend this time focusing on “The Story of Jesus,” allowing us to see the way that all God’s plans find their fulfillment and highest expression in him. Finally, one of our Wednesday Night Family Night offerings will be “God’s Story – Your Story,” a Bible study developed by Max Lucado that helps us see the connections between what God did in Christ and what God is doing in us.

I hope you’ll plan to be a part of “The Story,” and with that goal in mind, I’d like to ask three things of you…

  1. Will you make every effort to be with us on Sunday mornings, Wednesday nights or both as we seek to deepen our understanding of God’s Word?
  2. Will you pray that God will use “The Story” to inspire us and to give us a clearer picture of what He desires from us and for us?
  3. Will you invite others to worship and study with us as we draw nearer to God and each other?

God is writing an incredible Story – in you…in me…and in the church family that we call Calvary Baptist. And His Word promises that not even the gates of hell will be able overcome us when we submit to His will and pursue with passion His purposes for us. Wouldn’t you like to be a part of that? Wouldn’t you like to know…the rest of The Story?

 

My Holy Night

As I suspect is true for a lot of us, many of my earliest Christmas memories have to do with all the festivities of the holiday season. I remember trips to visit family…and the decorating of Christmas trees (with meticulously hung pieces of tinsel, no less! Who uses tinsel anymore?). I remember standing in line to see department store Santa’s…and – of course – I remember the joy of tearing into brightly wrapped gifts on Christmas morning. But among all these festive memories, there is one that stands out for its decidedly different tone – and for the way that it continues to shape the thing I long for most at Christmas.

My father was a singer – and a good one! Trained at a well-known music conservatory, he had sung with symphony orchestras, in musical theater productions, and in countless churches. So it’s really no surprise that in the small-town church of my childhood, he was one of the ‘anchor voices’ in the church choir. But at our congregation’s annual Christmas Eve service, my dad would leave the choir. He’d sneak away into the balcony, positioning himself where he couldn’t be seen. Then – during that portion of worship where candles were lit and the Christmas Story read – he would sing, “O Holy Night,” his voice filling the sanctuary like sacred incense – and filling me with pride (because – after all – that was my dad).

But more than allowing me to hear the voice of my father, those moments introduced me to the voice of The Father. They awakened my soul to what the ancient teachers of the Church called the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”—the tremendous and fascinating mystery that is the holy presence of God. And I suppose it must be said…that to this day…the thing that I most desire in the Christmas season is that God will allow me to experience again those moments of sacred wonder—moments when lights and music and the closeness of family and friends become the doorway to something even deeper and more life-changing: the reality that God Is with Us.

Thankfully, the awareness of God’s holy presence is not limited to candlelight worship services on Christmas Eve. God can slip into our lives in all kinds of unexpected ways and at all sorts of unexpected places…which is kind of what the Christmas story is all about. How and where will you discover the holy mystery of God’s nearness this Christmas?

My dear friends, I’m thankful for all the ways that you have been the presence of Christ to me this year. And I pray that God will fill your season with “O Holy Nights”…and “O Holy Days”…and with countless reminders that you are loved with an everlasting love.

 

My Merry (and Ambivalent) Christmas

Like a lot of folks, I enjoy Christmas about as much as any time of the year. Many of my favorite songs are Christmas carols. Since I attended college in Williamsburg, Virginia, I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for colorful Christmas decorations and the warm flicker of glowing candles. And even though I might lament the commercialization of the season, giving and receiving gifts is still a lot of fun.

But having said all that, I also find that my typical observance of Christmas leaves some points of discomfort in my heart. For all their beauty and familiarity, I know that many of my favorite carols present a highly sanitized view of the holiday — all glory and peace and a beautiful babe in a manger, with very little of the agony and struggle of being a poor, unwed mother giving birth in a stinking animal barn. While all the decorations might be a completely appropriate way to celebrate the joy of a Savior’s birth, I can’t help but wonder if that same Savior might prefer that we focus more on being lights than on stringing them. And as for the gifts…well, ignoring completely the issue of “seasonal commercialization,” I simply find that more and more these days, I struggle to “find the perfect gift” for people who – in truth – don’t need anything (which reminds me, of course, that as much as I like receiving gifts, I don’t need anything, either).

Perhaps my misgivings about the season are captured in the title of a book by Pastor Mike Slaughter: Christmas Is Not Your Birthday. In the book, Slaughter comments, “At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the Messiah who was born not only to die sacrificially for us but also to show us how to live sacrificially…Most folks would rather have a holly, jolly Christmas than to give themselves as a ‘womb’ for an honest-to-God Christmas miracle.”

How would the Jesus who we meet in the gospels want us to celebrate His birthday? With songs and decorations and presents? Sure. But perhaps even more with moments of stillness and prayer and waiting on God. Perhaps even more with deeds of compassion and forgiveness and reconciliation. Perhaps most of all with hearts that aren’t looking back to see the Child in the manger, but are looking around to see this same Savior at work in the world, so that we can join Him there.

I pray that all of you will have a very Merry Christmas. But amid the merriment, let’s remember: Christmas is not our birthday. May our celebration bring true honor to the One whose birthday it is.

Slow Enough to Give Thanks

On Monday of this Thanksgiving week, I was diagnosed with a case of strep throat and put on antibiotics. Naturally, this isn’t the way I would have chosen to kick-off the holiday, especially since I plan to travel later in the week in order to enjoy my first visit with immediate family in several months. But as it turns out, my unexpected bout with minor illness has actually turned out to be something of a gift.

Left to my own devices, I’m sure that I would have found some way to cram as much as possible into the days before my holiday departure. After all, my work as a pastor offers me a never-ending supply of visits that could be made, sermons that could be researched, and ministries that could be planned. But since my mind is a little on the fuzzy side (and since I have no desire to share my contagion with others), I’ve had to content myself with slowing down a bit. I’ve done some sleeping and some reading. I’ve sent a few emails and made a few phone calls. And somewhere amid this temporary downshift, I’ve been reminded–in more than a cursory way–that I’ve got a lot for which to be thankful.

Given the opportunity to reflect, I’m freshly cognizant of what a full year this has been. I’ve left one church family and have accepted a call to a new one. I’ve said goodbye to a number of dear friends and have begun the joyful (and sometimes exhausting) work of building new relationships. I’ve sold a home (no easy feat, given the current state of our economy) and have moved into a new neighborhood. And along the way there have been questions and fears and prayers and tears and–most of the time, at least–a genuine sense that God is working His purposes out.

Of course, I still hope to be more-or-less “completely healthy” by the time Thanksgiving Day rolls around. But for today, I’m thankful for this minor illness, which has helped me to go slow enough to give thanks. And to all my friends – both old and new – I wish for you a “Slow Thanksgiving.” May God give you enough unhurried moments to see His presence and His blessing.

A River Runs Near It

I did a little cycling this afternoon, and my path took me down the hiking/biking trail that runs along the Ararat River as it winds its way through my hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina. It was a picture perfect afternoon, with the clear water of the river framed by blue skies, distant mountains, and the fading artistry of autumn leaves. As I rode, I was reminded of these verses from Psalm 46:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.

Years ago, the professor in one of my Old Testament classes suggested that these words – rather than being an inspirational description of the Holy City – were actually an expression of faith and hope. Because there was no river in Jerusalem. Just the trust (as the Psalm goes on to say) that

God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.

Of course, I’ve not had the chance to visit Jerusalem. So I can’t testify one way or the other to its rivers and streams (or the absence thereof). But for this afternoon at least, my heart could certainly resonate with the idea of a river “whose streams make glad.” And the gladness came, I think, not from the beauty of the river (although the Ararat certainly was beautiful today)…nor from the utility of the river (although I’m sure that Ararat serves some useful function as it flows through Mount Airy)…but from the simple “is-ness” of it—from the fact that “there is a river” that flows through my hometown, just like there is a God, who allows his good and beautiful and gracious Spirit to flow through me.

So thank you, Father, for time to ride…time to notice…and time to give praise to You, who are my all.

 

Respect for the Living

I conducted a funeral recently. I must confess: funerals are not my favorite part of being a pastor. But I am humbled by the opportunity that I’m given to walk with families through times of significant loss. And I take seriously the responsibility of helping people see grief through the lens of God’s gracious love, given to us in Jesus.

One element of the funeral experience that still has a surprising power for me is the drive from the chapel to the cemetery. I don’t know what other people do with those moments, but for me they are usually silent ones—used to reflect on the comments that have been shared in worship and that will be shared at the graveside. But the thing that makes the drive “surprisingly powerful” is the way that the community responds to the funeral procession as it passes.

You need to understand; I spent the early years of my ministry in a very busy, urban area. In that environment, there was no way that you could stop traffic for a long line of cars, making their slow trip to the cemetery. So after a funeral ended, the time for the graveside service was announced, and people generally got there as well as they could…by whatever route they could.

But here in Mount Airy (and, I’m sure, in other small towns throughout the South), we still make that slow and solemn journey of grief together, and—in an amazing way—the town grieves with us. People let the parade move along uninterrupted, regardless of what the traffic lights say. And many drivers still pull off to the side of the road as a sign of respect for the deceased.

Now, as a sign of respect, this practice of pulling off the road does seem to have a certain “holy appropriateness” to it. It helps us remember, I think, that we truly are connected to one another in a deep and sacred way (regardless of whether or not we like to admit it). I’m reminded of the famous passage from the 17th century poet, John Donne: “No man is an island; entire of itself…Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”

But I also wonder—in this case, at least—if our practice is somehow backward. Don’t get me wrong; it is a good thing to pull over for a passing funeral. But the fact is that we’re paying respect to someone who can no longer appreciate it. At the same time, we rush and speed past living souls…persons created in God’s image and made uniquely for His purpose…individuals who certainly deserve at least as much respect as we show to those who are deceased. As theologian C.S. Lewis reminds us:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses…to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you meet may one day be a creature which—if you saw it now—you would be strongly tempted to worship…or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.” (C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity)

I’m sure that my work will continue to involve me in funerals. And I suspect that members of our community will continue to show respect by pulling over as funeral processions pass (at least I hope they will). But maybe once in a while, we ought to pull off to the side of the road (or stand off to the side of the hall) and pay attention…because passing by us is a glorious procession of God’s children, all so valuable that Jesus Christ would give his life for each and every one. Maybe then, we’d show some respect for the living. And wouldn’t that be a practice worth celebrating?