MLK Day 2019

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide not the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
These words uttered in 1967 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are as relevant in 2019 as they were more than 50 years ago.
Far too often, prominent pastors and churches allow themselves to be used as political pawns, espousing a Christianity that is foreign to the gospels while palatable to the political winds of the day. It’s a temptation for the church and its leaders to align themselves with whatever politicians happen to be in power at the time. When this occurs, the prophetic voice of the church is muted.
This Monday is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Our church office will be closed in observance of this day. I’m so grateful that our church understands the significance of our acknowledging this event as well as the important message it sends to our community.
The New Baptist Covenant is a community of faith that promotes unity and cooperation among Baptists of all kinds and backgrounds. One of their more recent publications highlighted the fact that this holiday is an important time to “hold up a mirror” to both the church and our nation. We need time to reflect upon the kind of people we are becoming and the examples we are setting for our children.
There’s a lot bitterness present in our nation. Even now, our government remains closed with seemingly no end in sight. I’m reminded of the hundreds of thousands of workers who have missed paychecks and are unable to meet their financial obligations. This situation has generated a lot of animosity and fear; with uncertainty about what is yet to come.
Individuals, congregations, and non-profits are working together to meet physical and social needs in those communities most impacted by the government shutdown. As Dr. King once remarked, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
This Sunday, I’m preaching on the familiar story known as “The Good Samaritan.” This phrase would have been viewed as an oxymoron in the 1st century; Samaritans were a people group vilified by the Jewish community. There was nothing good about Samaritans–they were the object of racial hatred and discrimination.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, spoke at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the MLK assassination. He compared the Pharisees in Jesus’s day to the evangelical church in America–the Pharisees had no problem honoring the prophets because they were no longer alive to disrupt their social order; in same way MLK is not controversial in evangelical church today because he hasn’t spoken in 50 years.
It’s imperative that we maintain our prophetic voice and posture in the political and public arenas. There’s been far too much racial unrest, violence, and hate speech in recent years and we as a church must stand against it.
Let’s be honest about where we are as a nation and as a church by using Monday as a day to “hold up a mirror” to our beliefs and behavior.

Thankful for Epiphany

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions?

It’s a common practice for many Americans; recent surveys indicate that 40% of Americans engage in the practice.

There’s nothing wrong with setting goals and having ambition, but what seems to happen is that the enthusiasm for doing more, giving up certain vices, or starting good habits wanes over a period of time.

Ed Stetzer commented on this kind of behavior in his recent article “Gospel-Centered Resolutions: Not all About You, but God working in You.”

He writes, “New Year’s is, without a doubt, every try-hard’s favorite holiday. But the thing is, this whole ‘do more, work harder’ mentality hasn’t just become evident in our celebration of a once-in-a-year goal setting tradition. In fact, many of us now live in a culture that is more achievement focused than any other in recent history.”

I’m excited about starting a new year; I learned a lot of lessons from last year which I hope will help me in my walk with Christ and as I lead His church. One key lesson I’ll be bringing into 2019 is simply this: “If you’re a follower, then you’re not the leader.”

Profound, right? Yet, it’s imperative that recognize that walking with Christ is a process of learning and growth, and yielding to His purpose of our lives. This is a simple truth but one that is difficult to grasp.

I’m so grateful our church acknowledges Epiphany Sunday. Many churches tend to truncate the Christmas season and have the Magi showing up at the stable along with the shepherds. Epiphany is a culmination of the “12 days of Christmas” and a time to soak in and realize the true meaning of Christ’s birth.

In a sense, each one of us in on a journey. This new year signifies our beginning a new chapter walking together and walking with the Lord. We’re not in the same place we were this time last year, nor will we be in the same place as we end this year. We learn on the way, walking in faith, and by sharing life together.

I want to thank Dr. Bob Perry for preaching last Sunday which allowed time away for me to be with family. It was greatly appreciated and much needed.

Sunday’s coming. I haven’t seen some of you since last year, and look forward to being with you once again for worship. Let’s begin the New Year in the Lord’s House for LifeGroups and worship together. Happy New Year!

Christmas Musings 2018

    “For many people waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go. And people do not like such a place. They want to get out of it by doing something.”
     These words by Henri Nouwen resonate with me–I don’t like to wait. And, I don’t think I’m alone in this affliction of impatience.
     Yet, there’s value in waiting. Some things take time to grow and develop, and if we rush the process the result won’t be what we expected because we’ve truncated the maturation period.
     We don’t always understand why things happen the way they do, when they do, or how they could possibly fit in to our lives. These unexpected events surprise us, and for good or for ill, we are left with deciding how to respond to them.
     Life is about surprises. I suspect that Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds were all caught off guard by the wonderful news of Christ’s arrival. Let’s not also forget about Zechariah and Elizabeth, those senior adults who were blessed with a baby boy well beyond the time when that was supposed to happen.
    We’ll approach Christmas with a variety of emotions. For some of us, it means celebrating this season without a loved one for the first time. Others of you are dealing with the loss of relationships, a job, health crises, or financial difficulty. We need to realize this and be kind to each other.
     Let’s approach this day, not so much thinking about what we are getting, but rather what we’ve been given. It’s so important to realize that life is a gift, and life together through faith in Christ is the greatest gift of all.
    Lori, Cally, Lucy, Matt, and I are grateful to experience another Christmas with you all. Lori and I are especially thankful that our children have been influenced and nurtured by so many of you for another year. It’s amazing to me that Cally is now 21, Lucy is 16, and Matt is 14.
    Sunday’s coming (and Christmas Eve!). I know some of you will be out of town, but if you’re in the Springfield area, I’ll look forward to seeing you in the Lord’s house to
celebrate our Savior’s birth once again.
    Merry Christmas!

Global Missions Sunday at UHBC

In the classic comic strip “Peanuts,” Lucy says to Charlie Brown: “You’re probably the most wishy-washy person I’ve ever known! You’re really not much use to anyone. You’re weak, dumb, boring, and helpless.” After an awkward pause, Lucy asks “Incidentally, how come I never hear you sing anymore?”
Advent is here! These four Sundays will be a time for us to wait for the arrival of the Christ child once again. It is a season of expectation, preparation, and spiritual renewal. This offers a contrast to the reality that many people view Christmas as a “rush into chaos.”
Each Sunday we’ll reflect upon a different theme, and the first candle represents HOPE. The ability to maintain hope in the face of difficulties and discouragement is critical to discovering meaning in this life. Consider the words of C.S. Lewis:
“Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”
Of course, what is most important is believing that Jesus Christ is the HOPE of the world. My desire for us as a family of faith is that we will lean into this component of our faith this Advent season.
As I said last Wednesday night, I want us to be “wide awake” to whatever the Lord wants to say to us this month. Part of that might be that we simply need to “be still and know that He is God” in the midst of our circumstances.
This is such an exciting and meaningful time to be involved in a community of faith. I ask that you take advantage of these times for worship, celebration, and reflection with your church family.
You’ll want to be here this Sunday for our Global Missions Day. Our special guest is Kyle Williams. He and his wife Katrina are American Baptist missionaries and work with the Baptist Community of Congo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They work at the Baptist University; Kyle teaches theology and other subjects while Katrina works with the accounting staff. They have four children.
I’m grateful for our partnership with American Baptist Churches, and Sunday will be a time for us to celebrate that. I hope you’ll be here to show your support as well.
Closer to home, I’m pleased to announce that we’ve hired a new office assistant. Tracy will be working part-time and I’m grateful to have her with us. She’ll need time to learn our people and how things work, so I know you’ll want to make her feel welcome too.
Finally, you should be receiving a letter from me soon. This will include important information about upcoming events and a challenge to finish 2018 in strong financial shape.
My family and I had a wonderful Thanksgiving and appreciate Trey’s preaching in my absence last Sunday. I’m grateful for him and our entire staff, especially during this busier time of year relating to church events.
I’ll look forward to seeing you this Sunday and hearing us raise our voices in song to the one who “became flesh and lived among us.”

Baptist Heritage Day with Sharon Koh

In April 1521, Martin Luther appeared before Emperor Charles V to defend what he had taught and written. As the story goes, Luther offered these closing words: “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.”
This past week many children and adults celebrated Halloween and with that lots of candy, treats, and stomach aches.
Yet, it’s important to note that Luther’s 95 Theses attached to the door of the Wittenberg church on October 31, 1517, along with that memorable quote in 1521, are very much part of this church’s historical context.
Sunday, November 4, is Baptist Heritage Day. This annual experience is a way of affirming our theological and historical roots as free and faithful Baptists. Our special guest will be Rev. Sharon Koh, CEO and Executive Director of International Ministries, the missions agency of the ABCUSA.
Baptists are known for many things, but what really unites us is our passion for cooperative missions. We pray for missionaries, give to missions causes, and seek to teach and live out missions in our church and community. UHBC is proud of its American Baptist partnership and heritage.
It’s a great privilege to have Rev. Koh with us; she’s new at this position having served only 2 years! Her schedule is very demanding and for us to get some time with her is a wonderful blessing.
Sharon will preach in the morning worship service and then speak later that afternoon at 4 pm at a “Coffee and Conversation with Sharon Koh.” It’s a rare moment for us to meet with the top executive of ABC missions–so don’t miss it!
I also want to remind you that our Thanksgiving luncheon is Sunday, November 11th–if you haven’t signed up please do that ASAP! We’ll have forms in the pew racks and the Information Station, you can also contact the church office.
On another note, please keep in mind that Tuesday is election day. Our building serves as a voting place for the Rountree Community, so remember that if you have to come to the building on that day. Also, make sure to exercise your freedom to vote your conscience at the ballot box.
The only thing I would mention about this election is Amendment 1; I favor this amendment as it would limit the amount of money lobbyists can leverage against elected officials. The outcome of the vote will impact our advocacy work against the payday and title loan industries.

“Being”, not “Going” to Church

To belong in the church is not just to belong to a community of believers who come together to ‘get something out of’ a church service, to be ‘fed’ and ‘blessed.’ It is to belong to a community of people who come together to be renewed so they can go back into the world to serve God as they serve others.”

I’ve been thinking about these words by Shirley Guthrie a great deal these last few weeks. They aptly describe what it means to be part of a family of faith. It isn’t about “coming or going” to church, but rather about “being the church” each and every day.

We all use the phrase “going to church” and that isn’t likely to change, but I do want us to understand the privilege of being part of a group of believers is more than showing up for an hour or two on Sunday morning. It is about allowing our relationship with Christ to impact every aspect of our lives.

Our church continues it’s discipleship discernment process. Rev. Muriel Johnson has been an invaluable resource and consultant. She’s maintained her interest and involvement, guiding us through an intentional period in which we seek God’s direction as it relates to growing His church.

The next step in the process is that Muriel will be meeting some selected “young people” from our church in a few weeks. In our deacon retreat several weeks ago, the refrain regarding what “young people” wanted or needed kept coming up. So, it makes sense to actually talk with people who have a personal stake in the future of this church.

The Lord is giving evidence of His work through meaningful worship experiences, the guests and new members who are coming through our doors, and as we as continue our life together as God’s people.

This Sunday offers another great opportunity to be together. We will celebrate the Lord’s Supper in morning worship–a tactile reminder of our shared faith and unity in Christ.

On Sunday evening, we’ll enjoy a GREAT concert with “Southern Raised” at 6 pm. This family band is extremely talented and you won’t want to miss it. There’s no charge for admission but a love offering will be taken. Bring a friend!

Indeed, church isn’t something we go to or primarily strive to “get something out of.” It’s more than that. It’s about contributing through our prayers, participation, and service to God and others.

I appreciate so much your faithful in your prayers, financial support, and participation in the life of this church. I’ll see you soon.

Life Together

“Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts.”

These words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer are from his book “Life Together.” Even though he penned them decades ago in a different time and culture, they have meaning for the church today.

I’ve known about this book for some time, yet have only now been able to work through its pages. This has had additional meaning for me as I’ve been leading a group of men in our church through a discussion on Bonhoeffer and this classic book on Christian community.

It’s a small book, but going through and sorting out the implications of Bonhoeffer’s words for the 2018 church has been a challenge. Perhaps the central lesson thus far from reviewing these pages is that the American church has a whole lot to be thankful for, not the least of which is the freedom we have to gather and worship as the people of God.

I admit I can’t comprehend a context in which the church couldn’t meet freely and without fear, yet Bonhoeffer did and indicated the value of community especially in a culture where persecution existed and could be expected. When he wrote “when Christ bids a man come to him, he bids him come and die” this was not merely a “spiritual” kind of death. It was very real and personal for him, and Bonhoeffer’s bravery in the face of his arrest and ultimate execution is something that should convict all of us.

I’m not a Bonhoeffer expert by any means, so it’s been rewarding to work through this work alongside of men who have a similar viewpoint of this theologian and martyr. We’re learning through the reading and shared time together that the church doesn’t do a very good job of celebrating little victories or expressing gratitude for what we have been given.

I’ve still unpacking his challenge of “giving thanks for the little things” as a precursor for being given larger blessings. But, it rings very similar to Jesus’ admonition to “be thankful in the little things” in order to be granted access to the greater things.

It can be frustrating being the pastor of a local church. There are any number of complaints, criticisms, and unmet expectations voiced from unhappy churchgoers. Sometimes, I admit, these unpopular critiques can weigh on me, especially when there is so much (in my view) to be thankful for as God’s people.

I’m reminded that the church needs to distinguish between being inconvenienced and being persecuted. There is a lot more of the former and very little of the latter. And, I wouldn’t count going through another round of “the war of Christmas” in a few months to qualify as being persecuted.

Bonhoeffer didn’t know what it was like to live in a free church in a free state. He risked and ultimately lost his life by leading the confessing church rather than compromise with the Nazi government. The church at that time sacrificed its prophetic voice in order to secure its existence, and as is always the case, anytime the church becomes associated with the government, the church loses every time.

We can’t wait until things get better or more to our liking in order to make a difference for Christ. The only time we have is the present, and now is the most important time that we have because we aren’t guaranteed another day.

Based on what I’ve read so far, it is evident that Bonhoeffer recognized a time of persecution and crisis as an opportunity for the church to be a witness for Christ. The American church doesn’t have that hardship to be concerned about, so it’s entirely possible and likely that we don’t realize the little things that are given to us each and every day.

The church definitely needs renewal, and a good step in that direction would be revisiting the value of practice of being thankful. It would transform us as the body of Christ. We would appreciate more our unity in Christ rather than our political biases, and there would be less grumbling about “not getting our needs met” and more gratitude about the time we have together as the people of God. There would be less critique about the kind of music or preaching we experienced in worship and more celebration that we had the freedom to be together in the first place.

Life Together. It really is a challenge, but it truly is a gift. And it’s worth it. Let’s not take it for granted.