The Other Side of Christmas

Gatlinburg, TN is one of the most beautiful places in the country. It is a popular destination for vacations, weddings, honeymoons, and hiking. My family, like many others, have enjoyed the hospitality and scenery of the Great Smoky Mountains.
This area, sadly, has become consumed with far too much fire and smoke these last several days. The images of people losing their homes and livelihood are painful, and knowing this is the holiday season makes the situation even more difficult. Perhaps the most horrible aspect of this tragedy is finding out that someone started this on purpose.
This Sunday, I’ll be dealing with a seldom used passage related to the “Slaughtering of the Innocents.” It’s about Herod, a powerful and paranoid King, ordering the execution of all the baby boys two years old and younger. In his rage, he thought that at least one of them could be the messiah the Magi went to see.
While it’s been called “the most wonderful time of the year,” Christmas can also generate a variety of emotions. There are those who struggle with stress and sadness, relating to death, loss, and grief. It’s important to note this as we relate to each other.
Jesus came into a world filled with pain, violence, and despair. It was a time of political unrest. And, his own arrival caused great collateral damage in the form of death and grief from families who fell victim to Herod’s rage.
It’s easy to get caught up in our own issues, and fail to realize our connection with the rest of the world.
One of the events I look forward to each Advent season is the Parade of Flags. It signifies the beginning of Global Missions month at our church. The flags represent people of all races, nationalities, and customs. This activity serves as a great reminder that we are a small part of the human tapestry.
The best known verse illustrates God’s attitude toward us: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3.16). This verse, along with the Great Commission and Great Commandments, serve as the foundation for our missions endeavors.
Our Global Missions Offering will be divided between CBF and ABC missions causes. I hope you will join me in being part of giving to this Kingdom cause.
Sunday’s coming! Shane and Diane McNary will be our special guests in morning worship. They will speak to us about their work at the Missions banquet at 4 pm. Several of you have had a part in getting ready for this, and others will take part in the program. Thank you in advance for all your good work.
Finally, I wanted to thank Bob Perry for handling the preaching duties last Sunday. It means a great deal to call upon him and others so I can visit with family around the holidays. It’s good to be back in the Ozarks, and I look forward to seeing you all Sunday!

The Death of Gratitude

In the movie “Finding Neverland” Johnny Depp plays J.M. Barrie, a struggling writer who was inspired through a friendship with the Davies family to write a play called Peter Pan. It’s a story of an eccentric boy who never grows up and lives in a place, of course, called Neverland.

As opening night approaches, the theater owner voices his worry that an adult audience won’t appreciate the play and it will be a failure. In response, Barrie invites 25 orphans to the play.

It’s quite a contrast. The adults are dressed up in handsome tuxedos and beautiful dresses, seemingly unimpressed with the appearance of the theatre. The children enter and are immediately enthralled with the beauty of room, and laughter fills the room as the children enjoy what they see. The adults are caught up with the joy of the moment and follow the lead of the orphans. It becomes a magical experience for everyone in attendance.

Our church recently completed it’s participation in Operation Christmas Child. It’s collection week, and we made sure to pack up and send 100 boxes to a neighboring church who is serving as a collection site. This number is a personal best for our church, and it’s rewarding to watch our people engaged in an effort to improve the lives of boys and girls living in poverty.

I’ve been amazed at what goes in those boxes. Just little things for the most part. Dolls, and small toys. Gloves and socks. Even those plastic toys that come in kids’s meals at fastfood places are put in there. These “dollar store” items wouldn’t be missed by people in “first world countries” but they are precious to children who are desperate for any kind of gift. Their faces light up in gratitude for things that we would easily cast aside.

It’s Thanksgiving. I am wondering how our nation is going to celebrate the holidays–if at all. I’ve heard from several people who wonder aloud how they are going to be with family members who voted the opposite way from them in the presidential election. It’s apparent to me that the divisions and wounds are not healed, and we are a long way from any since of normalcy.

We’re quite good at acknowledging our own problems. These come front and center in our thinking. But, it’s harder to recognize that others who have a different worldview and opinion also struggle. Perhaps it would be useful the adage, “Let us remember to be kind to one another. Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

The battle right now seems to be getting in the mood for Thanksgiving. Oh sure, I’ll take the days off and make the trip to visit family. We’ll gather around the table and enjoy a meal together, and I will offer a prayer for thanks for the people with me. Yet, I am concerned for us a faith community when it comes to realizing how much we have to be thankful for.

I’ve done a lot of funerals in my life; now I’m wondering if it’s time to do one for Gratitude. Can we recover the lost art of being thankful?

In Luke 17, Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem. This is a journey to the cross. On the way, he is shouted to by ten lepers who cry out to be healed. They cannot get close to Jesus, they are social outcasts and make their living begging alongside busy highways and roads. Jesus does something that most of us would never do: he sees them and says something to them. Jesus responds, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Amazingly, they do it. The priests are the ones who would pronounce them clean and ready to enter society.

I’ve read this passage a few times, and I marvel at this exchange. There are no special words. Nothing dramatic. No “Be healed!” from Jesus. Simply a command to go, and they do and as they go they are healed.

That would be a great ending to the story, except it isn’t. One of them returns–a Samaritan. An important detail. A man who had two strikes against him with the leprosy and his heritage; now he still has the one. He falls to his feet in gratitude before Jesus who looks around and asks, “Where are the other nine?” Then he offers a personal message to the Samaritan, “rise and go, your faith has made you whole.”

Not only is the Samaritan physically healed. He is also spiritually healed. Salvation has come to his lonely house.

There is one characteristic about this Samaritan that sticks out to me: he has a BIG mouth. He is loud while voicing his problem to Jesus. And, he is loud voicing his praise to Jesus.

This Thanksgiving, it would be good if we could find a way to be as vocal with our gratitude to God as we are griping to God about our problems. I wonder who else we might find at the feet of Jesus.

There is a condition worse than leprosy; it’s called ingratitude. And, it’s contagious. May God help us remember the leper in each one of us who needed healing and acceptance.Gratitude is the path to grace.

Happy Thanksgiving!



A Modest Proposal for November 8th

It’s finally here. . . we are in the final few days of the ad blitzes. The news channels let us hear what the candidates are saying 24/7. Then, the talking heads tell us what we just heard.

It’s a strange season. And on top of that the Indians and Cubs are in the World Series. At the same time. We can be thankful for a short period of time for the distraction.

Here in this bell-weather, “show me state” of Missouri, airways have been saturated with enough attacks on our presidential, senatorial, and gubernatorial candidates to last a (political) lifetime. Even after living here for almost a decade, I am still having a difficult time getting used to all these commercials. I don’t recall getting this much media attention while living in Mississippi.

I’m pretty sure I know why.

I’m noticing the anxiety level creeping up. After the All Saints Day worship service, I stood in the Narthex like I usually do to greet people who have the time or desire to talk with the pastor. One of our older (very conservative) members asked me “Are you going to tell our people to vote next Tuesday (November 8) ?” I paused for a moment, thinking he might have said “who to vote for.” I assured him that I was confident that election day hadn’t slipped anyone’s mind, but that I usually encouraged people to vote.

It’s been a strange dynamic, this election cycle.

I’ve had folks tell me about the country’s demise if Hillary Clinton gets elected. I’ve also had others tell me pretty much the same thing if Donald Trump wins. My favorite response is from those who tell me it doesn’t matter because they are planning to move to Canada after the election.

This isn’t the first election cycle for me at our church. From the pulpit, I have seen a Republican U.S. senator sitting in a worship service next to the County chairman of the Democratic party. It’s a wonderful dynamic to see them talking to each other, knowing that they are friends but obviously have different opinions. And, I’m pretty aware of the political views of our people, not because I ask them, but because I know how to log on to Facebook.

We are a Baptist church, but I quickly add the “not that kind of Baptist” moniker to this identification. So, that means we are very diverse in our social, economic, theological, and political views. What my older, very conservative, church friend has been discovering as he and his wife serve the Lord with us, is that we don’t have a political litmus test in order to be part of the church. I have observed that this has been difficult for him, as he obviously has a preference for whom to vote for and that others should be urged to follow suit. It can be a surprise to learn that the people you love, know, and sit on the pew with have different political views. For some people, it’s a bridge too far to cross in order to maintain fellowship. That’s a sad reality. Churches ought to be a place where there is space for people who have different views but who also can affirm “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

I’ve never “endorsed” a political candidate. I believe in a free pulpit and the separation of church and state. It doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions, but I recognize that after this election is over, we are all going to have to find a way to live with each other. Unless, of course, there are people who really are going to move to Canada.

I would expect some degree of angst about this political malaise from church people, but what has me more disappointed is the behavior of pastors. It’s discouraging when clergy endorses a political candidate, and when so much time is spent opining about the terrible state of affairs of our nation. A pastor friend, whom I love dearly, offered his “We need God in the White House!” lament to me over the phone the other day. I simply listened but knew, of course, that God wasn’t running for office. My greater concern has been praying that God would be evidenced in and through our churches.

It might be a good time to remember that our political candidates are not perfect human beings–far from it in fact. And, if we are going to demand public expressions of faith from them in order to get our vote, then we are simply begging to be deceived. The ancient yet timely words of the Psalmist come to mind: “Do not put your trust in princes (or in princesses, I might add), who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing” (Psalm 146:3-4).

This is not an easy time for our nation. Admittedly, this is an unusual election in so many ways. There’s a lot of frustration, anxiety, and fear. While affirming freedom of speech, I do want to urge caution against the statement “I don’t see how  you can be a Christian and vote for _________________.” It’s bad enough when people in the pew say this, but when pastors weigh in like this, it’s theological malpractice.

As important as this election is, let’s take a breath and remember that we’ve been through this before. We need to act like it. And, we Christians should be focused not only on November 8th but what happens the day after.There is a more important and lasting Kingdom, and I want as many of us as possible to embrace that–no matter who you vote for on Tuesday.




All Saints Day

Last month, I preached a sermon series from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. Known as the “weeping prophet”, he had the unenviable task of informing God’s people they were about to go into exile. They would lose their homes, land, and way of life.

One of the passages related to a letter from the Lord to his people, indicating their period of exile would not be an indefinite period of time. It would last 70 years, after which God would bring them back to their homeland. Seven decades is a long time, but it is finite time frame. A key verse from that letter is from Jeremiah 29.11, in which the Lord indicates that he knows the plans he has for them, and that they will have a “hope and a future.”

We have a tendency to interpret many passages like this on a personal rather than community basis. However, these words were meant for all the people in order to encourage them about what is still to come for them. The application is that each one of us is part the whole, and what happens to one of us impacts the rest of us.

In a sense, I think that relates to All Saints Day. Saints of all ages can embrace not only a future but a sure hope because of Christ.

Our church will be involved in a remembrance on October 30. Yes, the children will be thinking about Halloween and gearing up to Trick or Treat. But, it’s also the weekend in which we think about Martin Luther and the birth of the Protestant Reformation. We owe so much to him and others who came before us; Luther recovered the theological triad of justification through grace alone, by faith alone, and in Christ alone.

The All Saints emphasis will be about those who have gone on to Glory. It’s important for us to realize that we are part of the people of God through the ages, sometimes called the “invisible church.” Those of us who remain in the “visible church” have an eternal connection with those persons who lived and died in faith.

The psalmist described the deep affection that God has for his people: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116.15 KJV). This is a beautiful reminder of God’s ongoing compassion and attention for those who met their death believing in God.

While some Christian traditions allow for the canonization of persons into the “sainthood”, Protestants have not interpreted Scripture this way. Baptists refer to “saint” in the plural tense, as it always appears that way in the Bible. Individually, each of us is not a  “saint” yet collectively as God’s people we are all “saints.” It’s a wonderful image.

During the ten years of serving as pastor of UHBC, I’ve led or participated in at least 125 funerals. I’ve buried a decent sized church. We have felt these losses on a personal, emotional, and financial level. All Saints Day helps us remember our ongoing connection with them through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. One day we will rejoin them in a great Homecoming!

We will also be reflecting upon parents, siblings, children, and other loved ones who have gone on to their eternal reward. These persons and others through the ages are part of the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12) who are cheering us on in the race we have yet before us. Eventually, each one of us who knows Christ will join that congregation in the life beyond.

In a time where political rancor is dominating the media, it’s good to know where our ultimate place and destiny remains. This world is not our home. We are simply passing through. May God help us to enjoy the time we have in this life, live out our faith in words and actions, and give thanks that our place in the Father’s house is being prepared for us.






A Hope and A Future

 Two psychologists were conducting experiments on a lab mouse to gauge behavior using a Skinner box. This is a device that B.F. Skinner devised to train mice using behavioral modification techniques. Certain behaviors were rewarded and others punished in an effort to train the subject to perform certain tasks.
  The lab mouse performed beautifully until the doctors began introducing mixed stimuli and related it to the same behavior. The mouse performed a task and received a food pellet, but later performed the same task and was punished with an electric shock.
  Within a short period of time, the mouse was so confused that he went to the corner of the box and remained motionless. The psychologists concluded that the mouse had lost hope, frozen in fear, and would have died had they not rescued him from his misery.
  These last several weeks we’ve been looking at the prophet Jeremiah and the message he had for God’s people. The people lost the temple, their home, way of life, and all hope with the Babylonian captivity. They were going to go through some experiences that would create misery for them, yet God urged them to make the most of their captivity. God had not forgotten them, and there was a larger purpose for their exile.
  Our church has experienced many exciting events recently. These last several weeks, in particular, have seen a dozen persons join our church, including numerous baptisms. There will be more of these to come!
   We’ve been acknowledged for our payday loan debt relief effort. In a week or two, the News-Leader will carry a story about our partnership with the Chin Church. For these and other reasons, it’s an exciting time to be part of UHBC.
  While all these developments are unfolding, we are also dealing with financial issues. We made reductions in our operating budget to bring our spending more in line with our giving. It is a difficult process but the staff and church leadership is doing its best to work within these ministry limitations.
   There is a scripture on the wall in the church office from Jeremiah 29:11. It reads, ” For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
    I see this verse almost every day. The context of it was a letter given to people who had no visible reason to be hopeful, yet it was an assurance of God’s presence and purpose for their lives.
   We are in a much better situation than Jeremiah’s audience, yet these words have meaning for us as well. They were intended for the faith community rather than one individual. The primary reason for the people going through hardship was to bring them back to God. They had gotten confident in their own abilities; content with going through the motions of religious service.
    St. Francis of Assisi said, “Start by doing what is necessary; then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
    It’s a terrible thing to feel like that lab mouse, curled up in a corner, hopeless and fearful of our next move. Fortunately, we don’t have to live that way. God has been faithful, and given UHBC “a hope and a future” too. God knows that the future will be; we of course cannot. But, we can determine to move forward in faith, knowing that our hope is rooted in Christ.
   I’m grateful to be on this spiritual journey with you, and remain open to whatever future God has for me and this church in the days to come. Let’s continue to seek “the mind of Christ” as we embrace our future with confidence.

The only thing we have to fear. . .

    The Springfield Business Journal printed an article some time ago entitled “Cast fear, Greed Aside in Making Decisions.”  The key question related to which is the stronger emotion–fear or greed?
    Fear is a powerful emotion. It can move us to action, or it can paralyze us to inaction and despair. Of course, one of the most famous uses of this term came from FDR: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”
    The phrase that appears more than any other in our Bible is “Don’t be afraid.” I think there’s a reason for that.
    Wednesday night, I watched the first episode of “Designated Survivor” when the United States capitol building blew up during the President’s state of the union speech. The President, Cabinet, and Congress were all killed during the attack. The designated survivor was the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, played by Kiefer Sutherland. He was the last person in the presidential line of succession left alive and had to assume the presidency during a time of war. I’d never thought of that scenario being played out. It makes a terrific TV show, but would be a horrific actuality.
    Of course, there are enough real things going on to scare us. Recently, the police shootings and rioting in Charlotte have generated a lot of media coverage. Tensions have been at a boiling point.
    The explosions in Chelsea, NY and the loss of life have brought to mind once again the presence of terrorism. We heard last Wednesday night of family members in that area who were close to where the bombs were detonated. Fortunately, they were okay.
    The Bible cautions us to make the very most of our time: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring” (Proverbs 27.1 NIV).
    I’m finishing up the sermon series on “Finishing the Race” this Sunday morning. We are a community of faith and can draw strength from the Lord and each other to face life’s challenges. It’s a privilege to go through life together.
    One of the metaphors the Apostle Paul used in describing his life is “I fought the good fight.” We talk more about loving others than “fighting”, yet that is what we must do. This refers to being active and struggling as needed to deal with the challenges that come our way.
    An example of this is Faith Voices of SW Missouri and UHBC as we “fight” against the payday and title loan industry. I’m grateful the City Council approved a resolution to be sent to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau asking for stricter restrictions on this industry. I’m proud of our church and our partnership with the Educational Community Credit Union. We are making a difference.
    I hope you’re using your prayer guides. It’s important for us to be “on the same page” in our prayers and desires for our church.
    Let’s not be afraid of what’s ahead, but embrace life as a gift. Remember the adage: “It’s not the years in your life, but the life in your years” that counts.

Looking ahead, Moving forward

 “The future demands that we look forward, not backward. When we refuse to orient ourselves forward, we create an idol out of the past and that is spiritually deadly because it prevents God’s in-breaking and prevents any substantive future progress.”
These words were written by Rev. Dr. Marvin A. McMickle, president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. He offered them in a recent alumni magazine to explain the rationale of moving the seminary from its current location to a new campus setting.
Relocating a school can be a daunting and emotional task. McMickle acknowledged the sentimental attachment to the current location and hesitancy of some to support the move. But, he felt it necessary to remain a viable part of 21st century theological education: “I am reminded that no institution can survive, much less thrive, without adapting to the time and the people it serves.”
UHBC is NOT relocating and embraces our university connection with its “town and gown” culture. We have, however, gone through changes in order to remain relevant in a 21st century context.
Last Wednesday night, our church approved adjustments to the missions portion of the budget. We have made minor changes in order to give more dollars to address local needs. We will now have ongoing support for Rare Breed (homeless shelter for teenagers) and Safe to Sleep. We have also increased support to the Council of Churches and Greene County Baptist Association, with particular attention to Crosslines and Grand Oak Mission.
I am grateful for your support of these changes, as our church seeks to respond to the growing needs right here in Springfield and Greene County. We will also continue regional, national, and international connections and support.
On a related note, I wanted to urge you to read the September issue of the Word & Way magazine. There is an article on “Safe to Sleep”, a ministry that our own Romona Baker has helped create and sustain. I’m proud of this wonderful ministry, grateful for our church’s support of it, and express thanks for Romona’s life and work.
One of the key features of our missions support relates to support of the operating (unified) budget. Although having a budget goal, what actually goes to missions causes is 10% of actual financial gifts. So, the actual dollar amount going to missions increases or decreases depending on our giving to the operating budget.
As we reach the halfway mark of the fiscal year, we are running 83% of budget along with not meeting current expenses. Our Finance Board will be meeting this Sunday afternoon to assess things and will be bringing some thoughts about that to us soon.
Our church is not alone is dealing with situations like this. Other churches are facing decisions relating to their giving, expenses, and budgets. While mindful of this, I wanted to express my concern about our own reality and inform you about it.
Interestingly, the Preparing For the Future Campaign is going very well and is on target to meet and exceed the $100,000 mark by June 2017. This has proven to be a wise and useful investment in handling many of the more expensive building related costs. And, remember that 10% of what is given is used for local missions causes.
Recently, I have been going through some pictures of different events in our church and came across one in which Steve Stepp, Wyman Grindstaff, and I were at Commerce Bank to make the final payment on the loan. It reminded me of my arrival almost 10 years ago when I was given a tour of this building. I was impressed with the beautiful, new covered entrance, entryway, elevator, and other renovations on the upper floors.
New members don’t realize and maybe others have forgotten that there was an existing $1.3 million debt which the church still owed for doing these renovations. Together, we followed the leadership of the Capital Campaign Steering Committee who led us in paying off this amount in four years. We are debt-free because of this church’s generosity and focus.
While we face some challenges as a church, paying off a loan is not one of them (many churches would LOVE that). We don’t have to think about relocating our church campus. We do, however, need to pray and be sensitive to what the Holy Spirit is doing among us.
The theme of the capital campaign were the words of Jesus: “with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19.26 NIV). Jesus didn’t say “With God, all things are easy.” There is a difference.
God is doing great things through UHBC. I’m encouraged by new people, ministries, and missions support. God has blessed us in amazing ways. I’m focused on moving us ahead and being open to what God has for us. Indeed, “the future demands that we look forward, not behind.”