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?

House Hunting with Jesus

As some of you know, my family and I have started looking for a permanent home in Mount Airy. In many ways, of course, that has been a lot of fun. It’s exciting to see new places and to dream of what you might do with a house once you moved into it. But the process has also been more than a bit frustrating—as I’m sure you can understand. After all, there are so many questions to ask: Is this a neighborhood where our little girl will find friends? What structural or mechanical problems might be hiding behind these freshly painted walls? Can we afford this? Then there are the “close-but-not-quite” scenarios: If only this house had another bathroom. If only the closets were a little bigger. Then, too, there are those occasional houses that you walk into and think, “Oh my…what were they thinking?!”

I can’t help but wonder if similar thoughts run through Jesus’ mind when he thinks about making his home in us—both as individuals and as a church. After all, the Bible does say that “we like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5). Does Jesus get excited dreaming about all the things he might do with us if our hearts became his home? Does he agonize over all the questions there are to ask: Is this a place where my children will be welcomed? What problems are hiding behind this well-kept facade? Does he, too, encounter “close-but-not-quite” scenarios? If only she would let me heal her of this pain? If only he would turn this sin over to me? If only they would be more passionate about my mission? Are there even occasions when he steps in—eager to find something great—and ends up saying, “Oh my…what were they thinking?!”

Bob Bennet is a Christian singer/songwriter who gives us some insight into the “house hunting Jesus.” In a song titled, “You’re Always Welcome Here,” he writes…

Lord, I hear you knocking. You’ve been knocking at the door.
How long have you been waiting? Seems I never really heard You before.
I’ve kind of let the place go; I’m ashamed of what You’ll find.
But You can make yourself at home, if You’re sure that you don’t mind.
‘Cause when I cry, the roof leaks. And when the wind blows, the walls are weak.
But a house is known by the company it keeps.
And I feel better, now that You’re near. And I want to make it clear:
Jesus from now on, You’re always welcome here.

I’m sure that my family and I will eventually find a house, and I do ask for you to pray for us along the way. But maybe even more, I hope you’ll pray that Jesus will find a home in me…in you…and in the family that we call Calvary Baptist Church—because the good news of the Gospel is that our Savior longs to make his home in us. And I pray with all my heart that He’ll always be welcome here.

A Moving Experience

It seems like it’s been a long time coming, but the members of my family—wife Teresa, daughter Windham and dog Mae—have finally arrived in Mount Airy. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for all the prayers and words of encouragement that many of you have offered for us over the course of the past couple months, nor can I say how deeply I appreciate Gray and Mary Jane Shelton (who brought us a “mid-move” meal)…along with Marvin Beasely, Lowell Layman, Bob McPherson, Ken Nowlin, Drew Nowlin and Owen Stone (all of whom turned out to help us unload the truck).

As it usually does, the process of unloading the truck got me thinking: Gee, I have a lot of stuff!! Of course, I know I’m not alone in that. Especially for anyone who’s been married for awhile…or who has a child or two…it can be downright mysterious how our hoard of “things” just seems to grow and grow, even without our effort or intention. And where the powerful forces of “almost-accidental acquisition” leave off, there are equally powerful forces of “marketing madness” that work on us almost all day, every day – trying to convince us that we need the “latest this” or the “new and improved that” or the “faster and more powerful other thing.”

None of this would be a problem, of course, were it not for the fact that we follow a Savior and Lord who repeatedly made it clear that “a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions.” As I’ve already mentioned once or twice from the pulpit, Jesus had more to say about the use of our wealth and possessions than almost any other topic, and most of what he said flies in the face of our prevailing cultural attitudes. Not only did he remind us that our self-focused consumption makes it increasingly difficult to live in a way that blesses others by providing for their needs. He also warned us that the worries about our financial and material well-being can quickly rob us of peace and divert our attention from where it most needs to be: the well-being of our relationships with God and others.

Sadly, an awareness of these truths doesn’t always lead to easy solutions…even for the pastor. But in a time when economic issues seem to drive so much of our personal and political discourse, maybe we take at least a step in the right direction when we come face-to-face with the almost ridiculous amount of “stuff” that most of us have – and allow the encounter to move us toward deeper gratitude and greater generosity.

Hmm…maybe I need to have a yard sale?


Oh, Rapture!

As I write this, it’s about 4 o’clock in the afternoon on May 21, 2011—the day that some Christian ministries have been proclaiming for months as the guaranteed day that Jesus will return to take His faithful home. Since my latest look at CNN.com shows no indications of sudden theophanies or mass disappearances of believers – departing for heavenly glory, I’m figuring that Jesus has only about 8 more hours to put in an appearance before this latest cadre of End-Times prognosticators is shown to be just as mistaken as all those who have gone before them have been. [Of course, to be fair, there are several others time zones where the end of May 21st will come later than 8 hours from now. So technically, I guess that Jesus may have a little more time than that.]

Now just on the off chance that the Rapture doesn’t take place—and all of us are still here on May 22nd—I can’t say that I’ll be surprised. I suppose that I have to count myself among those Christians who tend to think—that since Jesus himself said “only the Father” knew the day and hour of his return—it doesn’t do much good for us to burn much energy making predictions. Then again, I also can’t say that I’ll be especially pleased. After all, as one song puts it: “If we ever needed the Lord before, we sure do need Him now.” Given the level of violence and hatred and mistrust and unfaithfulness in the world, I actually do long for the day when Christ returns and “God makes all things new.” However, assuming that we’re all still here tomorrow, I think that what I will feel is hopeful—hopeful that with this little sideshow behind us we can focus once again on being rich in love, faithful in prayer, and dedicated to living in such a way that “God’s kingdom comes and God’s will gets done on earth as it is in heaven.”

So while I do look forward to that day when God completes the “redemption and restoration” mission the He began in Christ (although I have no clue when or how that time of completion will come), perhaps I can pray for now that the Rapture will come a little every day, as faithful followers of Jesus make his presence a little more clear in the world through their words and lives.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

The Relentless Rush to Enter Rest

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29)

I’ve been participating in a lot of church committee meetings lately. All in all, that’s a good thing. In fact, it’s something that I requested, since I’ve been trying to use these gatherings as a learning tool to “get up to speed” on the ministries that are taking place in the Calvary Baptist family. However, I did have an experience the other night that made me wonder…

I was standing out in the church parking lot—waiting for some committee members to arrive for one of those meetings—and all the people who I saw pull in were talking on their cell phones as they arrived. Now I’ve got nothing against cell phones, and sometimes I wonder how we ever got along without them. But the sight off all these good folks heading into yet another meeting while simultaneously attempting to deal with other life issues reminded me: Sometimes the way that we live seems mighty far from the “rest for our souls” that Jesus promised.

Of course, this “hurry sickness” would be problem enough if it was just the result of “the world” or “the culture” pressing us into its mold. But often—too often, perhaps—I find that the church is at least somewhat guilty of adding to the problem rather than easing it. We get focused on all the good things we want to do for the Lord…things like teach the Bible, minister to children and youth, serve those in need, and so on. And so we form committees and recruit volunteers and schedule meetings. And all of this is well and good, until we get to the point—that in the midst of our efforts to “do things for the Lord”—we miss the Lord himself.

I feel this tension quite strongly as a pastor…and perhaps even more as a new pastor. As the leader of an organization that we call the local church, it is natural and appropriate to ask the question: What do we need to do to accomplish our mission? But as the pastor (or “under shepherd”) of God’s flock, it seems equally important to ask: How can I get out of the way so that the Good Shepherd can “make us lie down in green pastures, lead us beside still waters, and restore our souls”?

In the weeks and months ahead, I have little doubt that we’re going to identify lots of good things that we can do to glorify God and to bear witness to His kingdom here in our community. And I hope that we’ll do at least some of those things with whole-hearted commitment and joy. But through it all, I hope that we’ll always keep in view the essential truth that our faith is not built on the things we do. It’s built on what God has done. It really is all a gift of grace…and we as a church are accomplishing the most when we help people rest in that gift.

So thanks for all the things you do, Calvary Baptist. But thanks, too, for those times you stop…and put down the cell phone…and close the inbox…and simply abide in the greatest truth of all: God loves you! (And I love you, too.)

Rest in that…

Just Thanks

It’s Friday night here in my new hometown of Mount Airy, NC. Although it’s been a slightly intense week (along with normal tasks of ministry and rich-but-unexpected interactions, I actually had at least one committee meeting every night) tonight has been one of those rare evenings that is extraordinarily rewarding, precisely because it’s so ordinary. After wrapping up a few things at the office this afternoon, I had the opportunity to walk the quiet streets of “Downtown Mayberry.” I made some dinner…talked to my family…did some reading…watched a movie. I realize how unremarkable (and perhaps to some – boring) it all might seem. But given the many hurts and heartaches that I know are out there (both close at hand and far away), the very simplicity of these hours has refreshed my spirit and has made me grateful once again for everything that has brought me to this moment in this place.

So to everyone who has been part of this week—family and friends, co-workers, church members and others—I’m so grateful to have you in my life. And to those who have humbled and honored me by sharing with me parts of your story—you’re in my prayers. And to the Father who gives me a quiet Friday night to sit back and reflect on it all—just thanks.

Can You “Here” Me Now?

I’ve recently been reading a new book on spiritual practices or disciplines by Brian McLaren titled “Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words.” I’ve only made it through a handful of chapters at this point, so it’s a little premature to offer any overall assessments. But I’ve already been blessed by the first of McLaren’s “12 Simple Words”—the word “Here.”

As McLaren puts it, “Here is the simple word by which we show up, responding to the One calling our name. Here is the way we name where we are—pleasant or unpleasant, desired or not—and declare ourselves present to God’s presence.” As I read it, McLaren is advocating the same kind of goal that one finds expressed in Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God and Frank Laubach’s Game with Minutes: a simple-yet-focused awareness of the reality of God’s abiding nearness. His ‘spiritual exercise’ for cultivating this awareness is tantalizingly simple. At any time and in any place, one can simply bring to mind this thought: “Here I Am. Here you are. Here we are together.”

Of course, McLaren lays the groundwork for this exercise by unpacking several biblical examples of divine-human encounters. And he points out that successfully cultivating an awareness of God’s presence ultimately requires time spent alone with God so that we can still ‘make the connection’ when we’re immersed in the rush of daily life. In this way, his simple word “Here” references what might more traditionally be called the disciplines of solitude and/or centering prayer.

But over the last few days, I’ve found that this single-word approach does have a certain power. Creating just the tiniest space for my heart to say, “Here” focuses me on the reality that I want to live in this moment (and not some other), and on the truth that God is with me in this moment. And for that, I give thanks.

A Minor Twist of Faith

The church in Mount Airy, NC, that I’ve been serving for almost three whole weeks received a letter in the mail the other day. The letter was from a local family whose 5-month son had been taken to Duke Medical Center to receive treatment for a rare and serious heart condition. As you can imagine, the treatment (and the cost of staying near Duke) is expensive, so the family was seeking assistance with meeting the costs. Our church is making members aware of the need, so that they can contribute as they feel led. But in the meantime, I remembered (Duh!) that I have in-laws who live near Duke Medical Center. So I asked them if they might be able to stop by and offer this young family some encouragement.

My in-laws did exactly that, and here’s a snippet of the email they sent me in the wake of that experience…

I just got back from visiting with that young boy and his mom.  He is a precious little 5-month old.  His mother was remarking about how amazing God is to make the connection of you receiving the letter and having family here  that could look in on them.  I”ll be checking back with them again…they are handling a huge load. 

Thank you for letting us know about this child. I love the way God works. Being a part of that just makes it all the more amazing.

Isn’t it neat what a little ‘twist of faith’ will do?

A Time for Clearing

Today, I paid to have a large pile of dead tree limbs and other brush removed from my yard. I really hated to waste money on an expense that offers so little in the way of tangible benefit (other than the absence of the pile). But the stack had grown far too large for me to haul it away myself…and it was too close to healthy trees to burn…and with my family trying to sell our house, we needed to do something to get rid of this major eyesore.

The great heartache in the project, however, was that I had never intended to let so much brush accumulate in the first place. The back-story goes like this: I had been visiting with a friend who had a large section of cement conduit (about 2 feet high and 5 feet across) that he was using as a backyard fire-pit. It was the perfect thing for gathering friends to engage in warm conversation (and the occasional marshmallow roast), and—when I expressed admiration for it—he promised me that he could get one for me, as well. So I started stockpiling broken limbs and sections of fallen tree, just waiting for the day that they’d become the fuel for many a family campfire. But that was three years ago…and my section of conduit never came. I suppose I should have realized when my friend moved away about a year ago that it was never going to happen. But by that time, I already had a big pile. So I just kept adding to it until—at last—the task of clearing it could wait no longer.

Funny, isn’t it, how things have a way of accumulating in our lives? We never intend for it to happen. But somehow a pile of “stuff” (or a mound of debt…or a stack of regret…or a heap of bitterness…or a mountain of sin) imperceptibly begins to grow around us. And we’d like to get rid of it, but at the time it doesn’t seem like a big deal…or its too close to things that matter to destroy without hurting something else…or it’s just too big for us to handle on our own. Then inevitably, the day comes when the pile can wait no longer; and dealing with it at that point is often far more painful than it would have been had we only acted sooner.

Thankfully, there are companies we can call to remove our piles of dead tree limbs. But a cause for even greater gratitude is the fact that there’s a God we can call to remove our other piles of stuff: a God who heals brokenness and forgives sin; a God who removes regret and restores our spirit. And unlike the local tree service (which charges a pretty penny, even out here in the rural south), God’s clearing service is offered as a gift of grace. Our Heavenly Father delights to haul the trash out of our lives, so that—in its place—something beautiful can grow.

Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.
(Psalm 51:10, 16-17)