Unpacking Easter

For most of the past week or so, I’ve been in the process of unpacking—both at my office in the church and in the home that I’ll be occupying here in Mount Airy. As you probably know, unpacking can be a challenging task, and it’s one that I haven’t quite finished. Of course, the thing that makes the chore so difficult is that life keeps happening, even while I’m trying to get ready to live it. It would be so much easier if things could stop for a while so that I could put stuff away, figure out what’s going on, and get my head screwed on straight. But instead, there are new friends to visit and committees to meet with and worship services to plan…not that I’m complaining! This is the kind of thing I love to do, and I’m so glad to be doing it here at Calvary Baptist. But still (as the saying goes), it’s hard to change a tire while the car is moving.

It occurs to me that “unpacking Easter” can be much the same kind of experience. It would be so much easier of things could stop for a while. That way, we could think deeply about what God was doing when He raised Jesus from the dead. We could study-up on what it means to live with resurrection hope. We could decide exactly how we as individuals and as a church were going to tell our community and our world the incredible good news: “He is risen! He is risen, indeed!”

But instead, life keeps happening. We care for our families. We go to work. We move along a never-ending road of tasks and chores and responsibilities. And along the way we get joyful and frustrated and sometimes scared. And we find ourselves wishing that we had some peace and quiet and time to seek God and figure out what He’s doing in and with our lives. But the car keeps moving…and those tires won’t change themselves.

Perhaps we shouldn’t feel too badly about our predicament. If I recall correctly, Mary Magdalene didn’t even have time to catch her breath after having an awe-filled encounter with the resurrected Jesus before he was sending her off on a mission: “Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (See John 20:11-18) The car does keep moving…and the tires may or may not be ready. But the most important thing about the journey is that Jesus goes before us. And that’s what makes the journey worth taking.

So my prayer for you (and for me) in the weeks ahead is that God will let us “unpack Easter.” I pray that we’ll find the time to reflect on the tomb-defeating joy that rests at the heart of our faith…and
that we’ll find the opportunity to share that joy with others. But even if all that gets interrupted because “life keeps happening,” I hope that we’ll all discover: Life is the point! And because of Easter, we know that Jesus is present with us, enabling us to live it abundantly.

The Greening

We’re entering one of my favorite times of year here in Marshville, North Carolina. The fields that surround our community are beginning to turn the most amazing shade of green, as the winter crop of some unknown-to-me grain erupts into vibrant life. Only in pictures of Ireland have I seen a landscape so richly carpeted in emerald hues. This greening is to me both hope-full and grace-full: full of hope because it signals the sure approach of spring (and all the color and warmth that come with it)…and full of grace because it comes as a gift. Although I know that some farmer worked hard and invested much to produce this verdant growth, the sight strikes my heart as a sure testimony to God’s bountiful and unmerited favor.

This year, the greening around Marshville coincided with a journey that my family and I made to visit with the church family at Calvary Baptist in Mount Airy, North Carolina. We were there to meet with individuals and groups within the congregation and to preach in view of a call at the Sunday morning worship gatherings. And for me this experience, too, was both hope-full and grace-full: full of hope because it allowed me to anticipate the fruitful ministry that I believe we can share as we begin growing together…and full of grace because it, too, was a gift. God has been so good to open the door that has connected me with this church family; and even though we’ve only begun to get to know one another, I’ve been richly blessed.

Jesus once spoke about fields “white for harvest” (John 4:35). But before the growth and harvest come, there is a greening—a joyful beginning to announce a new season. Thanks be to God for all our new beginnings, and for the hope and grace that allow us to see them through.

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)

“Go to the Land I Will Show You”

 “The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you…and you will be a blessing to others.” (Genesis 12:1-2)

A quick glance at this blog will make it clear that it has been some time since my last post. What may not be immediately obvious, however, is that the sermon posted for December 5, 2010, was the last message that I preached at the First Baptist Church of Marshville. I wish that I could say that this was the result of a healthy and well-ordered process – that the congregation and I had come to a mutual and affirming realization that it was time for us to end our shared ministry journey for the sake of the kingdom. But, as is often (maybe too often) the case, that’s not quite the way things unfolded. Instead, differences emerged and weren’t handled well. Feelings got hurt. And before too long–whether it was “mutual and affirming” or not–it became clear to me (and to a number of others) that my time for fruitful service to the church was at an end.

Naturally, I hate that. I hate it for the sake of the wonderful church family at FBC Marshville, among whom I’ve been privileged to serve as pastor for the past 6-plus years. I hate it for the sake of the kingdom work that I think we were doing together but which has now been short-circuited. And I hate it for the sake of my family, since we had not been planning on dealing with this type of transition at this point in our lives.

But as much as I hate what has taken place, I am also filled with gratitude and excitement. As the weeks have gone by, there have been so many people who–in so many different ways–have expressed support and encouragement. In addition, God has been doing an exceedingly gracious work in my heart to protect me from a bitter spirit. Best of all, the Lord has been opening doors that very well may lead me to my next place of ministry. It’s probably a little premature for me to “spill the beans” just yet (even though most of the folks who might bother to read this blog may know already), but I have been in conversation with a congregation whose search team has been an absolute blessing to me. Our prayerful dialogue has led us to believe that the Lord is bringing their journey and my journey together, and hopefully–in the not too distant future–the church will affirm that belief. It is one of those moments in life that I am able to affirm (in the words of one of my favorite quotes): For all that has been – Thanks! For all that will be – Yes!

The book of Hebrews reflects on God’s call of Abraham (cited above) with these words: “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going…For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:8; 10) I almost always wish I had even more faith. But I am ready to obey and go, because I can’t wait to see all that our Master Builder will do.