Tears at the Cineplex (or “How a Kids’ Movie Helped Prepare My Heart for Christmas”)

During the Thanksgiving weekend, my family and I went to the movies to see “The Rise of The Guardians.” Now just in case you’ve neither seen nor heard of the film, it’s a purely fanciful tale that features a cast of “mythical beings” (Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and so on) who have been charged with the responsibility of being “Guardians” for the world’s children. Whenever the hope and wonder and joy of childhood are threatened, The Guardians spring into action.

Now I won’t even attempt a review of the film, which has plenty of flaws (although it’s also completely harmless, and – as is often the case with kids’ movies these days – the animation is fantastic). But I mention it in order to say that this film unexpectedly moved me to tears, and – in a funny way – helped prepare my heart for Christmas.

While trying not to give away too much, I’ll share that the story revolves around “The Bogeyman” (who is attempting to plunge the world’s children into a new age of hopelessness and fear) and “Jack Frost” (who has just been added to “The Guardians” to help stop him). Part of the tension in the plot comes from the fact that The Bogeyman has found away to make children stop believing in The Guardians, which robs them of their power. As is often the case in good stories, evil appears to have the upper hand. We reach the point that there remains only one child who believes…one tiny point of light against an ocean of darkness. But through the power of that belief – and the power of an act of self-sacrifice – The Bogeyman is defeated…and the darkness into which he aimed to plunge the world is transformed into a joyful and wonder-full light.

Sitting here writing about it, it’s hard for me to say what it was about the film that moved me. Maybe that’s just what happens when one of your frequent prayers is that God would more and more break your heart with the things that break His. But part of it, I think, is that I do see so much darkness in the world. Unlike some of my other “Baptist preacher brethren,” I tend not to localize that darkness in “them” (where “them” is shorthand for the enemy-du-jour: the lib’rals, or the gays, or the Chinese, or the pro-choice crowd, or…well, I think you get the idea). No, I tend to think the darkness is a whole lot closer to home and a whole lot more intricately woven into every human heart. I think the darkness is the division and partisanship that prevents us from truly listening to each other. It’s the lust for vengeance that keeps nations fighting each other, even when the battle is killing them both. The darkness is the subtle sense of dissatisfaction (stoked, of course, by endless streams of “Holiday Sale” ads) that makes us want the “newer” and “bigger” and “better” when we already have so much. There are other shadows, of course, that I perceive in the darkness. What do you see there?

Still…no matter how pervasive and powerful the darkness seems to be, the thing that gives me hope and moves me to tears is the realization that even one tiny point of light can beat back the darkness. The power of belief – and the power of self-sacrifice – can transform even the encroaching gloom of defeat into the joyful and wonder-full light of victory. But from where will that light and belief and sacrifice come? The fact is: it won’t come from us. If it could, we’d have conquered the darkness by now.

Thankfully, the Christmas Story reminds us that the light we need comes to us in the child of Bethlehem. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). And while I hope that my Advent thoughts about this light won’t leave me walking around in a constant state of tears…I do pray that my heart will be constantly and tenderly open to The Light – that gives joy and wonder and that defeats the darkness…even the darkness in me.

May THE Guardian – the Great Shepherd of the Sheep – guide you and protect you through this Advent season. And may you find some joyful tears along the way, as you contemplate the gift that comes to us through Him.

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.

The Fearsome Joy of Renovation

My family and I have just commenced our first ‘home renovation’ project since moving into our home in Mount Airy last fall. We’re not undertaking anything too dramatic; quite frankly, we don’t have the resources for that. But we do want to update some fixtures, change some colors, and add some touches that make the house our own.

Thankfully, we know that the ‘finished product’ of these renovations is going to look great – mostly because the work is being done by a talented crew – supervised by our church’s own Bill Norman of Bill Norman Construction. (Now Bill…about that ‘free advertising discount.’ ) But let’s face it: going through a renovation isn’t a lot of fun. You have to move a bunch of your stuff out of the way. Comfortable routines get disrupted. And almost inevitably, the work churns up dust and debris that has to be dealt with somehow. But in spite of those headaches, we’re renovating anyway – because we believe that the end result is worth it.

It occurs to me that something very similar can be said about the “heart and life renovation” that Jesus wants to perform within each of us as individuals – and among all of us as a church. We know that the finished product will look great. After all, God’s Word promises that when the project is completed, “we will be like Him, for we will see him as He is” (1 John 3:2). But along the way, a bunch of our stuff is going to have to be moved out of the way. More than likely, some of our comfortable routines will get disrupted. And Lord only knows what kind of ‘dust and debris’ will get churned up! If we’re going to become more like Christ, there will be fears and sins and hurts that will have to be dealt with somehow. But in spite of all that, wouldn’t we want to renovate anyway? Don’t we believe that the end result is worth it?

Here are a couple of questions that I would really like you to make a matter of prayer. First: What renovations does Jesus want to do in you? Is there some old sin that he wants to tear out? Is there some spiritual practice (like prayer or Bible reading or giving) that he wants to ‘freshen up’? Is there a new addition that he wants to add – like a new act of compassion or a new form of ministry? Second (and similarly): What renovations does Jesus want to do in us as a church family? What no longer works and needs to be updated? What’s cherished-but-worn-from-use and needs to be restored? What new opportunities, needs and gifts are inviting us to step out in faith and embrace something different?

In many ways, the Christian life would be so much easier if we could hire someone like Bill Norman Construction to handle our ‘heart and life’ renovations just like they’d handle our home projects. But our Lord and Savior requires us to be more personally and more passionately invested than that. The transformation that the Spirit is producing within us calls us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” – to roll up our sleeves, pick up our tools, and dive in. But thankfully, this is no “do-it-yourself” affair. We have beside us a Master Builder, who knows every hidden part of us and who understands how to maximize our potential. And it is His promise that he will see this project through. After all, the scriptures remind us: “God, who began the good work within you, will continue His work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6, NLT).

Will we embrace the fearsome joy of renovation?

In This New Year: “Aroma of Christ” or “Unholy Stink”

Did you hear the news? Buried deep within the “post-Christmas” and “pre-New Year” press reports about political campaigns and holiday sales figures was one of those stories that make me scratch my head and think, “You’ve got to be kidding!” On December 28th, the Associated Press noted that up to 100 Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic priests and monks clashed inside the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem in a frenzied, broom-swinging, turf battle. Apparently, the fight broke out as the church was being cleaned in preparation for Orthodox Christmas celebrations that take place in early January. The scuffle was so bad that Palestinian police—using batons and shields—were called in to break things up.

I don’t know about you, but this is the kind of thing that makes me wonder—deep down in some secret part of my soul—if maybe we Christians have it all wrong. I mean, come on: if supposedly holy men can get into a knock-down, drag-out fight—right in the very spot that Jesus was born—over something as trivial as who gets to clean which part of the manger…then something’s not right. If the grace and love that we receive through Christ can’t produce more meaningful change than this, then maybe we misunderstood something…or maybe the message wasn’t that true and powerful to begin with.

Of course, this example of our human capacity to let petty rivalry and self-centeredness trump the beautiful message of reconciliation through Christ is probably so frustrating only because it’s so obvious and so ridiculous. The truth is – that every day – every one of us is “giving testimony” to the true power of the gospel. We either “spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16) by living in ways that are compassionate and forgiving and full of grace…or we raise an “unholy stink” by living in ways that are prejudiced and contentious and prideful.

Jesus once said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples: if you love one another” (John 13:35)…and hopefully, there won’t be any “broom-swinging” church fights in my congregation or yours any time soon. But I can’t help but wonder: as people look at our church family in the year ahead, will they see things that make the gospel less believable – or more believable? Will we draw them to Christ through lives that are holy and unified and passionate about God’s kingdom? Or will we make them scratch their heads and think, “You’ve got to be kidding”?

May God so move within and among us in this New Year that all who come into contact with us will sense the “aroma of Christ”…and may we truly be able to say (with the prophet Isaiah): “Yes, LORD, walking in the way of Your laws, we wait for You; Your name and renown are the desire of our hearts” (Isaiah 26:8).

 

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.

The Best Thanks

As I write this, I’m still basking in the glow of “Pastor Appreciation Month.” In recent weeks, many of you have made a special effort to speak with me or to send an encouraging note; and then, of course, the congregation as a whole has blessed my family and me with a generous gift certificate to one of our favorite local restaurants. I do want to make sure that I let you know how grateful I am for these kind expressions, but I want to rush to add that I’m thankful for far more than these most recent demonstrations of support. Ever since my arrival in Mount Airy (and more truthfully, ever since my first contact with the congregation’s search team), members of the Calvary Baptist family have been showering me with warm words and offers of practical assistance. I feel a little like the apostle Paul must have felt when he wrote, “I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received the gifts you sent” (Philippians 4:18).

Of course, as wonderful as all this appreciation is, I do hope you know that it’s not the kind of response that I’m really seeking. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to be appreciated for the work I do. I’m sure that just about all of us would feel the same. But what I truly desire—the ‘best thanks’ I can ever receive—is for you to open your hearts and lives even more fully to God. If you’ll allow me to paraphrase one of my favorite passages of scripture: “To obey is better than sacrifice…and to listen is better than the fat of rams (or the giving of generous gift certificates)” (1 Samuel 15:22, with apologies for unauthorized textual additions). The ultimate appreciation that this pastor seeks (and in the end, the appreciation that I believe God seeks) is that we would seek God eagerly, love Him whole-heartedly, and serve Him passionately through our church and in our daily lives. That’s challenging, of course, because all of us have so many demands pressing in upon our time and energy. But this is what being a “Christ-centered, caring church” is all about: placing Jesus at the heart of all we do so that in all we do – God get’s the glory.

There’s a Hallmark card I send from time-to-time. The front of the card declares plainly, “This is a Thank-You Note.” Inside, the card reads, “Please don’t send me a note thanking me for this note, or I shall be forced to send you a thank-you note thanking you for the note thanking me for the note.” That fits (in a mildly-amusing and appropriate way), since right now we find ourselves caught up in a circle of mutual appreciation. But I pray that our shared gratitude will now find even greater expression in lives that overflow with enthusiasm for God’s work among us.

Thanks to you all!

Pastor Alex

 

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?

The Youth in All of Us

Some of you may not know this, but I’ve been “pinch-hitting” as the Calvary Baptist youth minister recently. Of course, I don’t want to make that sound like a bigger deal than it is. Mostly, I’ve just been leading some Bible study with our young people and working with our adult volunteers to coordinate some youth activities, and—in all honesty—if it weren’t for the dedication and the passion that those volunteers bring to the effort, I wouldn’t be able to manage even that. But still, it has been an important part of my overall ministry during these early days at Calvary…and so I wanted you to know about it.

On the one hand, I’m incredibly grateful for this time that I’m getting to spend with our middle school and high school students. It helps me get to know them and their families; and hopefully, it lets them know that they are just as ‘worthy’ of the pastor’s attention—and just as important to our church’s health and growth—as anybody else is. On the other hand, having the chance to be with our youth in this way makes me aware of how far I fall short of what they need. Not only do these ‘young-adults-in-the-making’ have special needs and concerns that could be better addressed by someone with the training and the passions to do so. They also need someone who has the time to be with them, to pay close attention to them, and to invest in them in a way that I can’t manage amid the other duties that I deal with as pastor.

That’s why I’m thrilled that our church is “fixin’ to get ready” to begin a search for a new youth minister. As I think you’ll see when our finance committee presents next year’s budget proposal, the recommendation is being made that we include money for a youth minister salary. By the time you read this article, our youth council and personnel committee will have met to develop an “initial profile” for the youth minister we’ll seek. And very soon, you’ll be invited to participate in a Q&A session in which you’ll have a chance to tweak that profile before any youth minister search begins.

I share all this with you partly to keep you in the loop…and partly to ask you to pray for the process as it unfolds. But even more, I share this with you in order to remind you that this is our process. You may or may not have a child who was, is or will be a participant in Calvary’s youth ministry; but these are still our young people. They are “the youth in all of us.” And since they are an integral part of this Body of Christ, we should care deeply about how they come to faith…how they grow in faith…and how they express their faith in ways that expand God’s kingdom.

 

Of course, “caring deeply” for our youth involves more than just making sure they have a youth minister (as important as that it). Perhaps even more, it involves connecting with them in ways that help them understand their value in the eyes of God. It means getting to know them and praying for them and encouraging them. After all, there may be few gifts you’ll ever give that have as much eternal value as taking the time to help a young person experience God’s love. I know, because I was the recipient of just such a gift.

I know from my own experience and from the testimony of many others how wonderfully God worked to bring me and Calvary Baptist together so that I could serve this church family as pastor. Won’t you join me in praying that God will work again to lead us toward the individual who can join our church family and nurture the youth in all of us?

Our Love for God’s People

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you,
because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people.
(Ephesians 1:4)

One of the things that has brought me great joy during these early months of my ministry here at Calvary has been discovering the unmistakable love that the members of our church have for one another. Ours is a congregation in which you can tell that people genuinely care about one another…and go out of their way to serve one another. This, of course, is what we’re called to do—both by biblical command and by the example given to us in our Savior Jesus. And so I think that it’s important to celebrate that love…and to let you all know how grateful I am to have become a part of a fellowship in which people are “living out” the good news in such beautiful and tangible ways.

At the same time, I am constantly reminded of how God is always inviting us to “expand the boundaries” of our love. I had a very meaningful visit recently with the daughter of one of our church members. This particular member is no longer able to participate in the activities of our congregation because of her health…and her daughter is caring for her, even though doing so exacts a fairly significant emotional toll. As we talked, it became clear that the daughter feels at least like her mother has been somewhat forgotten by the church family. And while there may be some very legitimate reasons that the number of cards and calls and visits has declined over time…it still made me aware of what an awesome privilege and responsibility it is for us to love this sister in Christ—in practical and faithful ways—to say nothing of the opportunities we have to extend love to her daughter, who I’m sure could use some additional encouragement and support.

Or consider a different example. We’ve been blessed in recent weeks to have quite a few guests joining us for worship on Sunday mornings. And I have no doubt that members of our church have been greeting them warmly and doing everything we can to help them feel at home. But let’s face it: so often at church we find ourselves trying to catch up with the friends we know…or we’re tracking people down to ask questions about various church ministries. And once we leave church, we’ve got busy lives! There are jobs to do and families to care for and chores to get done. Who has the time and energy to make “following up with guests” a high priority? But how might God bless us as we “expand the boundaries” of our love for these potential brothers and sisters in Christ? How might we be blessed if we took a few extra minutes to get to know them at a deeper level? How might they be blessed if we invited them out to lunch after worship…or gave them a quick call during the week? Acts such as these would take some effort, to be sure. But hasn’t Christ done so much more for us in order to bring us within the boundaries of God’s amazing love?

As I’ve been preparing to lead some conversations about our church mission statement on upcoming Wednesday nights, I’ve been asking myself if there’s a small phrase that captures the heart of what our church (or any church) is called to do. So far, I like this: Expanding God’s Embrace. May our love for each other—and for others—continue to lead people into the open arms of their Heavenly Father.