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?

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.

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)