Muriel Johnson at UHBC

“. . . being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1.6).
Our church was blessed beyond words to have Muriel Johnson with us these last several days. Her preaching, teaching, and presence inspired and challenged us. I can’t begin to express my gratitude for her time with us. I needed it. We all needed it.
Muriel has been the Associate Minister for the Great Rivers Region of American Baptist Churches (USA) for 18 years. This was not the first time she’s been to our church, but it is the first time she’s been with our church.
What I mean by that is, she was able to spend valuable time meeting with groups and individuals in our church family. She talked and listened about their hopes and dreams as it relates to “outreach” and what that means for God’s people.
I have had a few people chuckle at me when I have suggested that we need to know what outreach is, but the truth is that we don’t all use the same lens to view what the church needs or how things are going. We don’t always recognize what God is already doing in our midst, and it was good to have Muriel help us see the signs of life and vitality that we all too often take for granted.
Muriel will be formulating a report about her time with us and I’ll pass that along when I receive it. She has offered to continue working with us, and I have graciously accepted that invitation. This is what she does in ABC churches, and as an ABC church, we are fortunate to have access to her knowledge and experience.
In short, you will see Muriel again and she’ll have more to say to us concerning church growth, church health, and the value of relationships. I want to table the idea of a consultant for a while to allow Muriel to be our guide as we seek the Lord’s direction and do His work in this community. Let’s do this “without becoming mean in the meantime.”
There were many takeaways I could share about my spending time with Muriel, but I’ll only select two. However, it does make me to glad to know we’ll continue walking with her for a while as a church family.
One takeaway relates to “reaching more young people.” It’s a refrain I’ve heard in this church, and Muriel has heard it in most of the churches she visits. The truth is that we need to reach ALL people rather than promote one demographic as more important that the other.
But, to position ourselves to reach more young people, we first need to respect and listen to the young people we already have, including those on our church staff. We must be willing to pray, support, and follow their leadership in their respective areas. We can offer suggestions and ideas along the way, but realize that God has called them to their respective areas and their voices are important.
The Apostle Paul told Timothy “do not let people look down on you because you are young” but to set an example for the church (I Tim 4.12). He said because there were people in the church who dismissed Timothy’s leadership role because of his chronological age, even though his spiritual age was more than those who were older than he was
There are times that the 21st century church can treat its young leaders that way too. Let’s be thankful for the “young people” we already have and celebrate them and their growth and example.
The second takeaway is that for all the talk about outreach, we need to be doing outreach. There were uncomfortable but necessary moments during the last Outreach Task Force meeting when Muriel asked each one of the question: “when is the last time you invited and brought someone to church?” The answers were pretty revealing, and I suspect many others in our church would have to acknowledge a basic failure in this area too.
There is no substitute for EACH one of us inviting and bringing people into the church family. No program or activity alone takes the place of establishing relationships with people. It’s not something that someone else can do for you, and there are no shortcuts or “silver bullets” that bring in the people. It’s about embracing the Great Commission and the Great Commandments of Jesus Christ.
A primary goal I have for our church right now is to recognize our need for GOD. You can’t quantify spiritual growth and development. It’s not always about how many people show up on Sundays. There’s a maturation process that is dynamic and unfolding; it’s about personal relationships. There’s no way around that.
One final thought, I have been thinking about what our “sweetspots” (as Muriel says) are as a church. We’ve already identified several, but another one I’ve thought of is being a home for those who are hurting, especially those who have been “church hurt.”
We heard it mentioned last Wednesday night from one of the attenders during a dialogue time with Muriel. It’s not a quantifiable goal, but a spiritual and emotional goal nonetheless. People know when they are welcome and accepted. Our church does this already in a real and organic way; let’s build on that.

A Generosity without Borders

First Lady Barbara Bush’s funeral was Saturday. It was an inspiring and a for a brief moment refreshing display of a kinder, gentler time in American politics.

David Priess posted an amazing photo on his twitter feed of each of the presidents in attendance and their wives. He made this comment, “Each president in this photo did things I disagreed with politically. Quite a lot, in fact, for most of them. And yet I never doubted that every single one of them acted based on core values, including love of country—not, primarily, love of self.”

Several persons offered meaningful eulogies about the former first lady, yet it was a line from the rector of the church that stood out to me. In referencing Bush’s approach to others, Dr. Russell Levenson said, “Her generosity did not draw lines to keep others out.”

That’s another way of reinforcing the words of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

It’s not easy being a pastor. One of the great challenges I have is interacting with people who have such divergent political views. Yet, it is also a privilege to learn from people who are different from me and not make one’s political (or theological) approach a basis for my having a friendship with them.

The level of discourse in our country has deteriorated to toxic levels, and while that might not be all that surprising, what has me deeply concerned is what is happening in our churches. Specifically, I am most troubled by the behavior of those who call themselves ministers of the gospel.

Pastors, ministers, rectors, and clergy of all denominations (or lack thereof) must take responsibility for setting a positive tone of civility in our nation. I’ve heard people say that pastors shouldn’t be political, but I’m more inclined to think that partisanship is more detrimental than being political.

Our church hosted the ChurchNet Spring Gathering on April 20th. The keynote speaker was Jeremy Bell, Executive Director of the North American Baptist Fellowship. During his remarks, he talked about the fact that church members needed to be able to explain “the damage that our votes are making” upon our society. Bell indicated that no matter who or what you voted for, there would be a certain level of collateral damage upon our society. That’s because there is no perfect political viewpoint or candidate.

What I inferred from those remarks is that our primary emphasis needs to be on the prophetic message of Jesus Christ in our communities. And this message needs to be communicated to all persons, regardless of background or viewpoint.

I’m working on practicing a generosity that doesn’t “create lines to keep others out.” Sometimes that’s easier said than done, but that’s the kind of generosity Jesus had toward those around him.

It would be wonderful if it didn’t take a funeral to bring people together. Most people are naturally more sympathetic and supportive during times of grief and loss, but wouldn’t be great if  we could hold differences of opinion without hating one another?

Fred Rogers, host of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” for so many years will be the focus of a movie this summer. One of the most meaningful things he said was this: “Love is at the root of everything; all learning, all relationships. Love, or the lack of it”

May God help us to have a generosity that doesn’t create boundaries or lines.  Let all us of us as church leaders take the lead on creating a more positive world with room for differences of opinion. We can be influential and prophetic with the gospel without excluding people from its message.




Holy Week at UHBC

    Fred Rogers, the wonderful creator of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” once said, “Love is the root of everything. All relationships. All learning. Love, or the lack of it.”
    There’s going to be a movie about his life this summer, and after watching the movie trailer, I have to say it’s going to be very moving. Rogers dedicated his life talking to children–not down to them. And for his time, he was pretty progressive.
    Rogers dealt with subjects like death and divorce on his show. He also included an African-American cast member to further racial reconciliation during a time of civil unrest. Yes, it was a beautiful day in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
    We are beginning Holy Week this Sunday. It is a moment to remember a time when love, and the lack of it, was at the root of everything. Let’s slow down and lean into this holiest of occasions for us as followers of Jesus.
    Pay close attention over the next several days to the opportunities to worship and reflect, both as individuals and as a church family.
    This Sunday is also a commitment time, as we will have a special called business meeting at the conclusion of the worship service. We will be voting on the Nominating Committee Recommendation, Deacons, and the new operating budget.
    We are blessed with good leadership, and they have put in countless hours of time and effort in the presentation of what you’ll be voting on Sunday. I hope you will join me in supporting the new budget along with the other matters we will be voting on Sunday.
   As we look ahead, keep in mind that I’ll begin a new series this Wednesday on “Faces at the Cross.” I’m framing this as a discussion about several individuals who found themselves close to Jesus as he approached his death on the cross. It should be a time for us to reflect upon what it could have been like during the most stressful period of our Lord’s life, and how those moments impacted those around him.
    Maundy Thursday always provides a meaningful opportunity for us to remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us. I’m particularly thankful for this worship service; it causes us to slow down and realize the depths of love God has for us. The imagery, lighting, and Lord’s Supper will help us look back upon what that last week was like for our Lord. There’s an existential component to this time together, and I know it will be a spiritually important appointment for our church. I hope we’ll all take advantage of it.
    On a different note, Saturday morning will be our annual Easter Egg Hunt and is a high point of the year for our children. I’m looking forward to many in our community joining us once again for this time together. The weather has been improving and I am hopeful all will go well in that department on that day.
    And yes, Easter Sunday should be glorious! The music and message will point to the risen Christ. There will be an excitement in the air on that day and we will see friends and guests in our building. Even for those who don’t ordinarily attend, there will be those in our worship service simply because it’s Easter. Let’s be sure to show hospitality and encourage those around us to experience the spiritual renewal that following Christ can bring.
    May God help us make love the root of all that we are and do as a church. Take time to talk to a friend about his or her relationship with Christ and church involvement. People are receptive to these conversations during the Easter season. And, please join me in praying that Holy Week will be a season of renewal in our family of faith.

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart

Gordon Livingston was a surgeon in Vietnam who returned to the United States after his tour of duty to become a psychiatrist. In that capacity, he listened to countless numbers of individuals talk to him about their problems.
He himself experienced great tragedy over a 13 month period of time, as his oldest son committed suicide and his youngest died of leukemia.
Out of those experiences came a book entitled, “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: 30 True Things You Need to Know Right Now.” It’s a thin book of axioms and truths gleaned from a lifetime of dealing with the pain and challenges of life.
Here are a few of them: We are what we do. Any relationship is under the control of the one who cares the least. Forgiveness is a form of letting go, but it is not the same thing. The fear of losing happiness is a roadblock to our experiencing it. The major advantage of illness is relief from responsibility.
I referred to these axioms at Dr. Kinder’s funeral this week, and I’ve given additional thought to them as we paid our final respects to our dear friend John McCullars. It has been an emotional and difficult week for us as a family of faith.
“We are what we do.” That’s a good way to describe Doc’s and John’s lives. They both demonstrated through their actions what was important to them, and we are the better for knowing them.
Let’s use the experiences of the past week to recognize what’s truly important, and that a life well lived is of great value. May each one of us aspire to leading a life that is “worthy of the calling of Jesus Christ” so that others might see our blessed Savior in us.
Sunday’s coming–an hour earlier! I hope to see you all then. Philippians 1:3

Ash Wednesday in Broward County


     Nick Cruz walked back into the high school he had been expelled from armed with an assault rifle. He pulled a fire alarm to get students into the hallways, and then began filling the air with a hail of gunfire. In the chaos that ensued, 17 students were killed.

     This isn’t the beginning of Lent that anyone could have imagined.
     In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Robert Runcie, Superintendent of Broward County Schools offered these remarks: “This has been a day where we’ve seen the worst of humanity. Tomorrow is going to bring out the best in humanity as we’ve come together to move forward from this unspeakable tragedy”
     Ash Wednesday will forever take on a different meaning for the people in that south Florida community. We will grieve with them and remember the victims, the families, and the surviving students who are traumatized with the reality of what happened. These students are dealing with the deaths of classmates and the awareness that their security and peace of mind has been shattered.
     This is a time when our nation offers another round of “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and families. While doing so, we need to realize that this sort of senseless school violence only occurs in the United States of America.
     It’s going to a particularly painful Lenten season for Broward County.
     It’s important to note what is happening in our nation, as well as our world. Theologian Karl Barth once said that pastors should do their work with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other (it would probably be a smartphone now). I think that’s an apt description of the work I’m called to do, and in a similar way, the work the church is called to do.
     Lent is upon us. It begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes the day before Easter. It’s a season of 40 days (not including Sundays) in which the Christian community should reflect, repent, and prepare for the arrival of Easter. Lent is a period of time for us to pay particular attention to our relationship with God.
     By the way, the reason Sundays in Lent aren’t included is that each Sunday is a “little Easter.” On these Sundays, we should temper our melancholy mood with the anticipation of Easter Sunday.
    It’s not uncommon for some Christians to “give up” something for Lent. It’s a way of fasting from something that we typically do as an exercise of discipline. It’s a smaller but can be meaningful way to recall the 40 days of fasting and temptation that Jesus endured (as mentioned earlier, Christians don’t have to practice self-deprivation on Sundays in Lent).
     If you’re looking for suggestions, Twitter has a list of 100 items to “give up” during Lent. The top choices are: social media, alcohol, twitter, chocolate, meat, sweets, swearing, coffee, soda, and Snapchat (ask a teenager what that is).
     In addition to giving something up for Lent, it’s also a time to give one’s time and compassion to others. For this reason, our church is promoting the 40 Days of Change Calendars sponsored by Safe to Sleep. “Safe to Sleep” is a ministry of the Council of Churches that helps at risk women (and children) find shelter and security.
     I’ll be using one of these calendars, and challenge the rest of us to do the same. It’s not the monetary benefit to Safe to Sleep that’s most meaningful, but rather the time spent reflecting upon how much we truly have for which to be grateful.
     Broward County will be grieving for a long time. And, in a nation in which the “worst of humanity” is often on display, let us do our best in representing Christ to show the “best of humanity.” This should begin in our own individual families and extend through our church family into our own county and world.
     The world needs hope. Let the church be that hope.

The “Little Gospel”

I came through New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at a good time (prior to 2000) and enjoyed sitting under the teaching of some remarkable professors. I was especially fortunate, as a theology student, to be influenced by Fisher Humphreys and Paul Robertson.

These two men were instrumental is helping me forge my own theology, and along the way they penned a work entitled “For God So Loved the World: Traditional Baptists and Calvinism.” This little book is a remarkable tool for making the argument for God’s great mercy and compassion for ALL people. Here is an excerpt:

“The most important truth in Christian theology is this: God is love. We believe the love of God lies behind the coming of Jesus Christ and is the reason God send Christ into the world. We believe in the love of God for all people (not just the elect) because the Bible teaches it and Jesus displayed it throughout his life and especially at his death. The love of God for all people underwrites the true meaning of our lives.

There are several metaphors in the New Testament that describe that Divine-Human encounter that brings about eternal life. This Sunday I’ll be reviewing the term “born again” as we revisit that conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus as recorded in John 3. Conversations about spirituality and faith in Christ are still important today.

A Church Closure and a Modest Prayer for 2018

I’ve read numerous articles and heard stories about churches closing their doors. I’ve had people come into our church family who tell me that they don’t have a “membership to transfer” because their previous church had disbanded.

Churches close for a variety of reasons. These have been cited in numerous publications and played out in congregations in many different settings. Usually churches close due to declining attendance, decreasing financial contributions, and gradual and consistent change in the neighborhood around the building itself.

When I received a message that College Place Baptist Church was shutting down, I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know why I couldn’t believe it, except that I didn’t know of any churches on a personal level that had closed. This time was different.

I grew up in College Place, and started attending there when my family moved into a small farm house right down the street. I attended the elementary school right across from the church, so my world was Sherrouse avenue.

It’s been a few decades since I attended that church, but remember being part of youth choirs, missions organizations, and the puppet ministry. We went to Glorieta on more than a few occasions (it’s now defunct too), and had numerous other experiences which have stayed with me to this day.

I mention this church because it has had a profound influence upon my life, and a great deal of what I’ve been able to do and be has its roots in that congregation. I dare say no one (especially myself) could have envisioned that a boy roaming the halls of that building would grow up to be a pastor.

I’ve read a lot of articles and books about church growth and what a church is supposed to be about. There are all kinds of programs, activities, and events that are associated with the work of the church. Still, what is most important, in my view, is that lives are forever changed for the better because of a church’s witness and influence.

I received a wonderful Christmas card a few weeks ago from a woman named Julia. She is Carolyn’s grandmother, one of the Missouri State students who graduated this month and attended UHBC during her four years in school.  Julia thanked our church for our encouragement of Carolyn and our investment in her life.

That card meant a lot to me, and I shared it during our last worship service of 2017. It’s a good reminder of what the church should be doing; our work should be about helping people deepen in their relationship with Christ.

That’s what College Place did for me more than four decades ago. I’m so grateful for all those who were in that church while I was growing up physically and spiritually. I hope that our church now can have that kind of impact on students who come our way, and also provide a spiritual home for others who can spend more time with us. Survival is not the ultimate goal of a church; it’s investing time and resources in human beings for the cause of Christ.

There’s a lot of unknowns when it comes to what’s yet ahead, but what is known is that God remains faithful and able to provide for what is needed and when it is needed. Yes, I am a pastor but much more than that, I’m a follower of The Way. And, I hope that I can trust the Lord for what is yet to come and be excited about the opportunities and challenges of a year.

Psalm 31:14-15 is a good place to begin 2018:  But I trust in you, LordI say, “You are my God.”  My times are in your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me.

Not one of those charter members could have imagined what College Place would accomplish in its seven decades of life. Today I celebrate its impact upon my life and for all the “saints” that have gone on to glory from that congregation. They entrusted their future in the Lord’s hands, and completed several generations of ministry while impacting thousands of lives with the gospel. That’s a wonderful legacy.

For now, and for where I am today, I celebrate the beginning of another year. I’ll do my best to live in the now and lean into each moment as it comes. I’m sure I’ll revisit the words of the psalmist when anxiety creeps in about what’s going on (or not going on) in the church and my family. And, I hope to remain secure in who I am as a follower of Christ regardless of my circumstances.