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.

Don’t Just Do Something. Stand There.

“Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”
(Ephesians 6:13, NIV; emphasis added)

You might realize it, but we’re approaching a new beginning. It’s not the beginning of a new calendar year. It’s not the beginning of a new church year. It’s not even the beginning of a new pastorate (I guess I’m about 4 months late for that). But it is the beginning of a new school year, and—as someone who spent 13 years ministering in academic environments—it is the start of the school year that always creates in my heart the sense of excitement that comes with doing new things and launching new ministries that allow us to follow God’s call faithfully.

Now in my opinion, it seems like some new beginnings would be particularly helpful at the start of this school year. On the national stage, we need a new approach to dealing with our country’s pressing challenges. Closer to home, our local Baptist association could use a new way of addressing differences that arise as churches minister together (please see my next post). And right here at Calvary Baptist, I’d love to see us move forward with new efforts to find a youth minister…to expand our outreach…and to step up the adoption of a team-based approach to ministry (which started before I became the pastor) so that we can communicate more effectively and respond more readily to changing dynamics and circumstances.

However, even as I acknowledge my desire to get busy and do something about these and other matters, I have to admit that “doing something” isn’t always the best thing…especially in the midst of new beginnings. It’s easy to give into an over-inflated sense of urgency—the notion that if we don’t “act now” we’ll fall behind the curve and lose any chance of getting caught up. But scripture reminds us that before we rush to act – we must discern how God is acting. Jesus told us, “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). And as the passage from Ephesians that starts this reflection makes clear: We do need to put on the full armor of God; but before we go charging into battle, our primary task is to stand.

How can we “stand” as God’s people in a way that will allow us to discern more—not only “more” of what God wants us to do…but also “more” of how much He loves us and “more” of how much He’s already given us? The best answer, I think, is to “pray and wait upon the Lord.” That’s why—by the time we print our next newsletter—you should start to hear about some “prayer cottages” that will soon take place with this goal in mind. These “in-home” gatherings will allow members of Calvary to pray together and to listen for the Spirit’s promptings. If you’re able, I hope that you’ll participate. But even if you can’t or choose not to, you can still join with me and others as we ask God to make clear the things that He desires for us and from us as a church family.

I have little doubt that the days ahead will be full of activity as we resume our Wednesday night ministry schedule, settle into a new school year, and look forward to the joyful commotion that a new church year and a fast-approaching holiday season will bring. But for now, let’s not feel compelled to act. Let’s think…and pray…and wait. Don’t just do something…stand there.

 

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.

Installation and Transformation

On Sunday, May 29th, the people of Calvary Baptist Church in Mount Airy, North Carolina, officially installed me as pastor. Now I’ll have to confess: in one sense all the hoopla seemed a little anticlimactic. After all, everyone in the congregation has received me so warmly—and has made me feel at home so quickly and so completely—that it feels like I’m already part of this church family…and have been for a long time. But in another sense, the day served as a perfect exclamation point on what has been a wonderful beginning. I cannot fully express how grateful I am for the way that people have opened their hearts to me and my family, and I am humbled by the opportunity that now lies in front of us to seek God’s face together and to become agents of His purpose here in our community and across the globe.

All of this, of course, is just another way of saying that now the real work (and the real adventure and the real fun) begin. I am reasonably confident that this congregation did not call me so that we could just “do church” on Sunday morning and then go through the rest of the week unchanged (nor is this why I said, “Yes” to the call). Instead, I believe that God has brought us together so that we can partner in the journey of transformation—transforming ourselves as we open our hearts more completely to Christ and to each other…and transforming our world as we allow ourselves to be used by God’s Spirit.

The challenge, however, is figuring out what transformation will look like for this church in this place at this time. As John Tadlock—my friend and our installation speaker—reminded us, we will need to “interpret our cultures.” We must interpret our congregational culture, so that we can rightly discern the passions God has placed within us. And we must interpret our community culture, so that we can rightly communicate those passions in a way that makes it possible for others to understand them.

With that goal in mind, the leaders of our church (deacons and church council) will be having some “mini-retreats” in the coming weeks. The participants in these gatherings won’t be making decisions or implementing new policies—those are tasks for the church as a whole. But they will be engaging in some unhurried times of prayer, listening and dialogue; through which I believe a clearer picture of our priorities and our “next steps” will begin to emerge.

Now to be completely honest, I wish that I could involve every single member of the church in that kind of “retreat experience.” I think that if we made time to listen intently to each other’s stories—and to share the ‘dreams for Calvary Baptist’ that God has placed in people’s hearts—we’d be moved to a whole new level of love for each other and the Lord. I am practically minded enough, however, to realize that the planning required to pull off a gathering like that would be quite cumbersome – and might short-circuit the process before it even got started.

But having said that, I still want to involve as many as possible. So I’ve asked church members to do two things. First: Pray. Pray for me. Pray for our church leaders, and pray for each other – asking specifically that God will help us “interpret our cultures” by helping us discern how He wants to move (and, in fact, is already moving) in our church and in our community. Second: Join the conversation. Whenever they can…however they feel led…share with me (or a deacon or a committee leader or each other) their sense of what God wants to do through the family of faith that we call Calvary Baptist Church. And if they need a little “push” to jump-start their thinking, I’ve offered a wonderful question that’s borrowed from Thomas Bandy, a leader in church development: Where will Jesus be…five years down the road…in our zip code…and what price is our congregation willing to pay to join him there?

The installation is over. Let the journey toward transformation begin.

 

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.

Lovely Feet or Loose Lips

“How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.”

The Prophet Isaiah, Ancient Israel

“Loose Lips Sink Ships.”

US Civil Defense Slogan, World War 2

I don’t know how many of you are aware of it, but we recently received word in the church office that Calvary Baptist had been named the recipient of a 2011 “Mountie Award.” This means that our congregation was chosen by readers of the Mount Airy News as the Surry County area’s “Best Church.” Naturally, I’d like to be able to say that this has something to do with the arrival of our handsome and talented new pastor (wink, wink)…but the voting on this year’s Mountie Awards clearly took place before I came on the scene. So I guess the best thing I can say is, “Congratulations, Calvary Baptist! You have been ‘letting your light shine’ in such a way that those around you have seen your good works and are glorifying your Father in heaven”…or at least…“They’ve seen your good works and are giving you an award (which doesn’t sound quite as biblical, but which is nice, all the same).”

Now somewhat ironically, in the very same week that we received news about the Mountie Award, I received a phone call from someone who had a very different impression of our church. This individual apparently had what I’ll describe as an “unpleasant encounter” with someone from our congregation, and—when she combined her impressions of this encounter with some unresolved feelings that she had from a prior experience—this was enough to make her question whether we had any true Christians in our midst at all.

In the end, of course, the truth of our church’s character is probably somewhere in between these two poles. We are likely not as good as our ‘best press’ would suggest…nor are we as bad as our ‘worst detractors’ would insist. Our church—like each of us individually—is a sometimes-frustrating mixture of sinner and saint. And perhaps the best we can pray for is that we’re slowly but surely making some kind of progress toward greater Christ-likeness.

But having these two interactions so close together has reminded me (as I hope it will remind all of us) that we are being watched. Whether we realize it or not…whether we like it or not…people are observing our behavior and listening to our words. And they are drawing conclusions—not only about us but also about the Savior we serve—based on what they see.

So what will we show them? Lovely feet that bring good news? Or loose lips that sink ships?

May we aspire to live in such a way that everything we do—in thought word and deed—is done in the name of the Lord Jesus. And may the warm glow of our fellowship cast such an appealing light that others are drawn to the beauty of Christ, who loves us and gave himself for us.

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?

The Same Old Ride…But Different

I finally had a free afternoon to take my first “real bike ride” around my new home town of Mount Airy, NC. I was able to cover just over 18 miles in the time allotted, which is almost the same distance as the typical ride I used to take in my former community of Marshville, NC. But wow. It’s hard to imagine two equi-distant journeys being so different. Whereas the topography around Marshville was gently sloping, the terrain around Mount Airy is hilly and steep. For the first time in I don’t know how many years, I actually had to hop off my bike and walk part of one hill. And now that I’m back home, my calves are reminding me that I might do well to pace myself.

As I prepare to mark my official “one week anniversary” as a pastor here in Mount Airy, I suppose that some similar things could be said about my ministry. I’m doing a lot of the same things: developing sermons, visiting church members, working with leaders and so on. But wow. It sure feels different: different challenges…different opportunities…different spirit.

Of course, in ministry as in cycling, I need to remember to pace myself. But I’m excited to be engaging in the same old ride (but different) as I join God’s people in seeking Him and serving other.