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).

 

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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.

Living the Body – Partnering in Mission

Recently, our church family hosted the annual meeting of the Surry Baptist Association; and although I know that some of the meeting’s messengers and some members of our church (including this pastor) were still feeling some ‘discomfort’ about the association’s recent decision to remove Flat Rock Baptist from its membership, I’ve got to say that it was a good gathering. Through reports on recent ministries and through worship that was energetic and heartfelt, we were all reminded what powerful things can happen when God’s people choose to focus on the faith and mission that unite us, rather than being distracted by the  issues about which we differ.

Later this month, we will have another opportunity to celebrate our shared faith and mission. Our church—along with several others—will sponsor a “Fellowship on the Move” gathering of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina. The event will take place on Thursday, November 10, at Flat Rock Baptist Church and will include a dinner (at 5:30 PM), a selection of training sessions (6:30 PM), and a time of worship (7:30 PM).  The evening will not dwell on business sessions or theological debates –  just brothers and sisters in Christ encouraging one another to walk in a manner worthy of the calling we have received (Ephesians 4:1).

I hope that we can embrace and turn out for gatherings like these—not just because these are partner organizations which we support and which it therefore behooves us to understand—but because there are at least a couple of key truths that our relationship with these partners underscores.

First, they remind us that we are a body. When we give our hearts and lives to Jesus, we do more than make a decision that brings us personal spiritual blessings. We get incorporated into the Church (and not just a church—as in Calvary Baptist Church—but THE CHURCH: the one great family of faith that spans every tribe and nation and people and language and generation and denomination and theological persuasion…) and as members of The Church, we belong to each other. We need the gifts that others offer, and they need ours…even when we have varying opinions about worship and church leadership and the fine points of various theological debates.

Second, gatherings like these remind us that the mission is bigger than we are. We have been sent to seek and to save the world that God so loves. And no one person…no one congregation…no one association…not even one denomination…is ever going to be able to fulfill that mission alone. It takes all kinds people…all kinds of approaches…and all kinds of styles and emphases. As a result, we do well to partner with others (and not just with our dollars, but also with our prayers and our hands-on ministry) because when we do so, we take one more step toward accomplishing the grander purpose for which we exist.

Come to think of it, these aren’t bad principles for us to keep in mind as we nurture our partnerships within the family that we call Calvary Baptist Church. We are a body…and the mission is bigger than we are. And so it takes all kinds of folks—folks who like traditional worship and folks who like contemporary worship…folks who like the SBC and folks who like the CBF…folks who are financially secure and folks who are financially struggling…folks who need grace and…(well, that includes all of us, don’t you think?)—it takes all of us to be the Christ-centered, caring church that God has called us to be.

I’m so thankful to be part of this body, and I can’t wait to see all the things that God will do within and among and through us as we partner in mission together. May God bring us together around the cross of our Savior, and may His love compel us to offer our lives to Him, to each other, and to the mission that we share.

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

 

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.