In the Office: A Verse to Remember

For much of this week, I’ll be participating in a training event that will put some significant limits on the amount of time that I’m able to devote to my daily “In the Office” reflection. However, insofar as I’m able, I do hope to post a few words; and today’s thoughts are rooted in a verse that became important to me many years ago.

In today’s Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer, the Apostle Paul speaks to his protege Timothy and offers these words of encouragement:

So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. (1 Timothy 1:8-9)

I first encountered these words in a meaningful way when I was a high school student taking a discipleship class with several men in my church. At the time, I was moved by the challenge of these verses to “live boldly for Christ”: to shun the timidity that might keep me from sharing the gospel and to embrace even suffering if that what it took to be faithful. And that’s a reminder that I still need to hear. I can’t think of many occasions when I feel “ashamed of the testimony about our Lord,” but there are times when it’s easier to remain silent than to speak out; and these words remind me that I was made for more than that.

As I have aged, however, it is the second half of this passage that has grabbed by heart. “He has saved us and called us to a holy life” – God’s purposes are not just to rescue us for heaven, but to make us the kind of people who are fit for heaven – and this life-saving and life-changing gift is given “not because of anything that we have done, but because of His own purpose and grace.”

I hope that we all can rest today in what God has done for us. And – acknowledging that – I pray that we can live boldly, embracing everything that comes our way with the confidence that God’s power will sustain us.

In the Office: Be Still

In today’s Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer, the psalmist offers these words:

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging. (Psalm 46:1-3)

This is one of those promises of God’s Word to which I return frequently, especially in times of transition and conflict like the ones in which we find ourselves. And yet, while I have no difficulty grasping and affirming this affirmation at an intellectual level – there are days when it’s hard to embrace this promise at an emotive and spiritual level. Is God truly my strength and my “ever-present help”? Or does the “roaring” of my to-do list and the “quaking” of cultural turmoil leave me yearning for refuge and seeking a strength that seems just beyond reach?

Of course, this difficulty is one of my own making; and thankfully, this same psalm suggests a remedy…

He (the LORD) says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth. (Psalm 46:10)

be-stillSometimes, I need to step back from life’s fast pace and the world’s upheaval in order to reconnect with the deeper reality that undergirds it all. In moments of stillness, I’m reminded of (and invited to experience the reality of) God’s presence and care, which renews my confidence in the ultimate triumph of the gracious and sacrificial way of Christ.

May God grant you some opportunities to “be still” and “know Him” today. And may the LORD be exalted in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world.

 

Snacking on Jesus

My devotional reading as of late has invited me to meditate on Jesus’ “Bread of Life” discourse in John Chapter 6. Today’s reading included these words from verse 57

“The one who feeds on me will live…”

What came next could have something to do with the fact that I was snacking on a couple doughnuts while I did my devotional reading; but I found myself wondering: Can I truly say that I’m “feeding” on Jesus? Is he the source of “soul-deep nourishment” that sustains me and for which I hunger? Or would it be more accurate to say that I’m “snacking” on Jesus? Do I reach out for a little “Jesus sugar rush” when the mood strikes or when the opportunity presents itself while allowing the bulk of my spiritual nutrition to come from far less beneficial sources?

Oddly enough, I don’t think that this question has cropped up because I’ve been lacking in spiritual rigor. If anything, the demands of ministry and the needs of my own heart have been drawing me to Christ with even greater strength in recent days. However, I am captured by the notion that the Lord desires to give me (and to give us) a feast that’s far more satisfying than most of us have dared to dream – if only we will allow him to become THE Bread that feeds our souls. Perhaps this prayer of A. W. Tozer says it best:

“O God, I have tasted Thy goodness, and it has both satisfied me and made me thirsty for more. I am painfully conscious of my need for further grace. I am ashamed of my lack of desire. O God, the Triune God, I want to want Thee; I long to be filled with longing; I thirst to be made more thirsty still.”

Gracious Lord, thank you for being the Bread of Life and for offering yourself so freely to us. May I and all those with whom I share the journey hunger for you and you alone today; and may our feasting upon you fill us with overflowing life.

Kyrie Eleison

Many years ago, when I made the transition from being a campus minister to being a local church pastor, I realized that my “new parish environment” would be presenting me with a whole new set of pastoral needs. Instead of dating dilemmas, exam anxieties and other challenges of young adulthood; I’d be presented with life-changing illnesses, career derailments and heart-breaking losses. True to my expectations, this is what life as a pastor has brought me. And even though it has stretched me in a lot of ways, I wouldn’t go back on the growth that I’ve experienced as a person and as a minister, nor would I trade an easier journey for the demonstrations of God’s faithfulness that I’ve seen along the way.

Having said that, there are days when the difficulties confronting the people among whom I serve seem to be exceptionally numerous and unusually heart-rending. Just this afternoon, I found out…

  • A woman in my church who has battled numerous health problems in recent years was diagnosed with a lung infection that it may be difficult for her to fight off.
  • A woman who recently underwent a double mastectomy discovered that her cancer has impacted some surrounding tissue and now will be contemplating several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.
  • A woman who just completed a series of chemo treatments for breast cancer and who hoped that this might bring an end to her fight was told by her doctor that he recommends radiation, too.
  • A woman whose elderly mother is already dealing with dementia was told – that in all likelihood – her mother also has a form of blood cancer and now must decide what kind of treatment, if any, to pursue.
  • A man who is in his prime and has a son in high school suffered a stroke.
  • A woman in a former church of mine who was very dear to me is approaching death, and the family would like for me to say a few words at her funeral when the time comes.

There are other issues out there: people dealing with loss and illness and marital discord and more. And please understand; I’m not complaining. I consider it to be an honor to serve these individuals…and an even greater privilege to pray for them and to seek to be a faithful reminder of God’s presence in the midst of their trials.

But on days like this, “praying” and “trying to communicate God’s presence” can seem like mighty small and less-than-adequate things to do. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in prayer. And without those reminders that God is with us…well…how could we muddle through. But still, there are those times when it feels like a “magic pastor wand” that offers up some form of more visible assistance should have come with my seminary degree.

In the end, all I can do is to offer the prayer that believers down through the ages have offered: “Kyrie, Eleison.” Lord, have mercy. And that prayer I DO offer…along with the humble recognition that it has never been about the kind of assistance that I can offer. It is the Father alone who is our help in ages past; our hope for years to come.

So Lord, please do pour out your mercy on all these I’ve mentioned, along with all those others in whose lives you’ve allowed me to have a part. And please have mercy on me, too. May I serve your purposes in them, and in me, and in the broken but wonderful Body of Christ, which continues to embody your grace in the world.

A Trip to the Big House

Last week, my wife and I took a couple of vacation days to visit The Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina. This was our first visit to America’s largest private home, and there’s no denying the fact that we were impressed. How could one not be? After all, it’s a showplace of art and architecture, situated amid 8000 acres of beautifully manicured gardens and stunning mountain vistas. What’s more, the Biltmore was sponsoring an exhibit titled “Dressing Downton,” which featured a collection of clothing from the popular Downton Abbey television series. Sadly, I’m neither “historian” enough nor “fan of Downton” enough to know for sure, but I gather that they heyday of the historic Biltmore would have coincided roughly with the heyday of the mythical Downton. So the juxtaposition of the two made it a little easier to imagine what living in such a palace might have been like.

To be completely honest, the thought of living in such a privileged environment left me vaguely uneasy. I’m sure that George Vanderbilt and his family worked hard to amass their fortune, and the information provided in the tour suggested that they treated their staff and employees well, especially in comparison to other workers of the era. But still…to live a life of such “over the top” luxury doesn’t seem quite right. Why surround one’s self with such opulence when something less grandiose would be more than adequate? Then again, couldn’t the same be said about me? My home is no Biltmore; and yet, in comparison to the vast majority of people in the world, I have so much more than I need.

Psalm 16 says:

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
You make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
Surely, I have a delightful inheritance.

While it’s fun to visit places that reveal “the lifestyles of the rich and famous” (and perhaps even more fun to seek things that embellish my own lifestyle), I pray that I’ll always feel a deep sense of gratitude for how pleasantly the boundary lines have fallen for me and my family. And even more, I pray the the Lord will truly be “my portion and my cup” – the highest good that I could ever desire or attain.

Pursuing a Hidden Clean

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you,
    and lead me along the path of everlasting life.

Psalm 139:23-24

After a busy Easter weekend, I’m spending the morning at home today while a group of trained technicians cleans the duct work in my house. Even for a relatively tidy person (like I aspire to be), duct cleaning isn’t exactly the kind of thing I’d do every day (or every week…or month…or year…or…well, you get the point). After all, “dusty ducts” don’t exactly confront you in the same way that other, more visible kinds of clutter do.

And yet, just because you can’t see the dirt doesn’t mean it isn’t there. As the purveyors of duct-cleaning services are more than happy to point out, dirty ducts can be the perfect place for all kinds of allergens to accumulate. And clogged ducts can hamper the efficiency of a home’s heating and cooling system, resulting in higher utility bills and greater wear-and-tear on the equipment.

So as I’m sitting here and feeling good about the fact that these “hidden pathways” in my home’s infrastructure are going to be clean, I do have to ask myself: How often do I give similar attention to the “hidden pathways” of my soul? After all, even though the dirt that resides in the hidden recesses of the heart may not confront me in the same way that other, more obvious sins do, I have little doubt that the accumulated detritus of daily living allows all kinds of unhealthy things to build up. And who knows how much harder God has to work to get my attention and/or use me when the channels that allow His Spirit to flow through me are clogged?

The writer of Psalm 19 said: “How can I know all the sins lurking in my heart? Cleanse me from these hidden faults” (v. 12). Father, please search our hearts and help us to have “a hidden clean;” so that – in all things – we can honor You and do Your will. 

Starting Over…Somewhat

I’ve been thinking about this blog a lot lately. On the one hand, I find myself more convinced than ever of the value that different social media outlets like this possess to spark conversations…to deepen relationships…and to give potentially interested people at least a small glimpse of what this particular pastor is thinking. On the other hand, it’s sometimes discouraging to see the way that online musings (musings, I suspect, that are not always “finished products” but “works in progress”) are all-too-easily picked apart by those who seek to find fault. It makes the act of selecting material for new reflections a little intimidating. Who knows, after all, when someone’s gong to take something the wrong way? Combine this with the challenge of finding time to write in the first place…and mix in a little discouragement over the fact that so many of my posts were from so long ago…and the end result has been that I’ve venture onto this blog (or onto Facebook or Twitter) to share my life only occasionally.

So I’ve decided that I’m starting over…somewhat. After cleaning out all of my posts from the days before I arrived here in Mount Airy, North Carolina, to become the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church; I’ve resolved to attempt the discipline of posting something on at least a weekly basis. And who knows? If I can get in the habit of being more reflective about life and ministry…and more transparent in sharing the fruits of that reflection…maybe I can encourage a few more folks to share with me the things that God is saying to them.

So let the conversation begin (or start over…somewhat). What kind of reflections (if any) do you wish the pastor would share more frequently? What kind of reflections do you get tired of hearing? What creative uses of this space might help create the kind of interchange that “expands the embrace of God’s kingdom” in us and in the places that we live and work?

What Will We Do with the Promise of Easter?

Of all the Bible’s accounts of the first Easter Sunday, the one that I like the best can be found in the gospel of Mark. According to the earliest and best manuscripts, Mark’s telling of the story ends like this: A young man dressed in white appears to the women who came to the tomb and tells them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He has risen! Go tell his disciples, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” (Mark 16:6-7).

Of course, that’s the promise on which our faith is built, and it’s the kind of news that you’d expect people to get excited about! And maybe that’s why “what comes next” seems so unexpected. The very next verse says, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)

That’s it. According to the scholars, that’s the way Mark’s gospel ends. Not exactly a rousing declaration of Easter triumph, is it? Why on earth would the Bible describe the greatest victory that was ever won in a way that seems so weak and unresolved?

Well, in the opinion of my New Testament professor in seminary (who seemed to know what he was talking about), Mark concluded his gospel this way because it puts the real end of the story in the hands of the reader. Think about it. The fact that we’re reading the message of Jesus’ resurrection means that this great news is now in our hands. So what are we going to do with it? Trembling and bewildered, will we go out and tell no one? OR…grateful and confident…will we share with others the promise of Easter: that not even death can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord?

This year, as our church family welcomes the celebration of resurrection hope, there’s a lot going on among us that could leave us “trembling and bewildered.” There are folks in our fellowship dealing with loss and illness…weakness and stress…pain and uncertainty. But in the face of all that, a messenger comes and says: “Jesus is risen! He’s going ahead of you – and you will see him, just as he told you.” What will we do with the promise of Easter?

God’s Valentine

Do you remember celebrating Valentine’s Day back in grade school? Perhaps I shouldn’t assume that everyone’s experience was similar to my own. But in my school, we spent several days decorating shoe boxes to hold our valentines. And then – when the big day finally came – every student brought valentines for everybody else. I can’t remember if we were told that this is what we had to do – or if it just never occurred to us to leave anybody out. But either way, everyone got included. Everyone received these tangible reminders of love and friendship.

It strikes me that our celebration of Valentine’s Day seems to become a whole lot more selective as we get older. We might give a valentine to our sweetheart – or our family members – or even a few close friends. But we rarely seek to make sure that everyone gets included. And I understand why, of course. Most of us couldn’t afford to give valentines to everyone we know. And even if we could, Wal-Mart doesn’t really sell boxes of inexpensive valentines that would be appropriate for adults to give to their coworkers, neighbors, clients and friends.

But still. Maybe there’s something admirable and praise-worthy in those Valentine’s Day habits of my childhood. After all, the Bible tells us that when God wanted to give a tangible reminder of love and friendship, “He gave His only begotten Son, so that whosoever (i.e. everyone) who believed in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). So maybe—if we want to take a “God-minded” approach to Valentine’s Day this year—we’ll look for the people who might not get included. Maybe we’ll make a little list of the forgotten, and the lonely, and the ones whose lives are all-too-devoid of celebration. And then maybe we’ll figure out: What tangible reminders of love and friendship could I give – that would help to insure that everybody gets included.

I hope that you get lots of valentines on Valentine’s Day. (Sadly, you probably won’t get one from me. After all, there are 550 of you in our church alone; and my “card budget” just wouldn’t be able to cover everyone.) But even more, I pray that you give lots of valentines. “Do you mean Valentine’s cards?” someone might ask. Well…maybe. But even more, “Valentine’s deeds” that share with others the love that we’ve received.

Of Ministry and Mustard Seeds

Jesus said, “How can I describe the Kingdom of God? What story should I use to illustrate it? It is like a mustard seed planted in the ground. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of all garden plants; it grows long branches, and birds can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)

A new ministry got started at Calvary recently. You may not have heard about it, because no committee meetings were held to plan it. No announcements were made, urging people to participate in it. No money was collected from the church to pay for it. Instead, a small group of people in our congregation saw a need – felt a burden to do something about that need – and allowed God to use them to be a blessing to others. And as a result, I believe that Calvary has taken another little step toward becoming more of what God wants us to be.

Just in case you’re wondering, this new ministry involves sharing the blessing of time and attention with residents of the Colonial Care Nursing Home not far from our church. There are no members of Calvary at Colonial Care; and compared to similar facilities in Mount Airy, Colonial Care is somewhat under-resourced. And yet, it is filled with people whom God loves and for whom Jesus died. So some women in our church – moved by compassion (and I think, by the prompting of God’s Spirit) – have begun to visit. They’re spending time with residents to play some games, read some books and share some cookies. And thinking about their efforts brings to mind the words of Jesus: “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” (Mt. 25:40).

Now I don’t share this with you in order to heap praise on these women (although they deserve it); nor do I share this in the hope that you’ll join them (although they’d probably welcome your participation). No, I share this to point out that this is the way the kingdom of God works. I hope that you have heard me say loud and clear that the heart of our mission as followers of Jesus beats with the calling to be a blessing. And one of the “growth areas” that I see for our church family in the days ahead is finding new ways for all of us to roll up our sleeves, jump in, and serve our community.

But we need to understand that this isn’t likely to happen as a result of “church-wide programs.” Although there may be value in those, we could never coordinate calendars well enough to get a majority of our folks involved – nor could we find many ‘whole-church’ projects that would utilize everyone’s gifts. But if we look for the small things…if our Sunday School classes and mission groups and music ensembles and leadership teams – start looking for lonely people they can visit and hungry people they can feed and children they can inspire and strangers they can bless…then we can plant some mustard seeds. And what did Jesus say? Those seeds (though small) produce big kingdom results. The saying really is true: “Small things – done with great love – will change the world.”

Of course, I’m happy to report that the planting of this particular “mustard seed” isn’t a new thing for folks at Calvary. Our Sunday School classes and other small groups are performing “Acts of Blessing” all the time. But what might it look like for us to get even more intentional about that? What if every small group at Calvary made it their aim to plant at least one “mustard-seed-act-of-blessing” every month, or every quarter? And suppose we found ways to share and celebrate the ways that God was at work – changing the world and changing us – through those acts of blessing?

It is my passionate prayer that our church family will be so moved by love for God and each other that we can’t contain that love to ourselves. Let’s be about the work of expanding God’s kingdom embrace. The fields are ready. What seeds are you planting?