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

 

Advertisements

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.

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.