Far As The Curse Is Found

I love epic stories. You know the kind. There’s a terrible danger, the world is threatened, but a hero comes in an unexpected fashion. The hero survives dangers and threats and then in some surprising way saves everything. It’s Frodo, a tiny hobbit, a Halfling, who saves Middle Earth. Oz is saved from the tyranny of the Wicked Witch by Dorothy, a mere girl. Luke eventually saves the world and his long lost father, Anakin Skywalker with it. Part of the reason I love epic stories is I think they are true. I think they resonate with us because we know this is the way things really are. There is a danger. The world is at risk. There is a hero who arrived in an unexpected fashion and who saves the world in a surprising way. This is the story of Christmas,  and of Jesus.

He arrived into the world unusually, born of a virgin, yet usually, born of a woman. The only people who seemed to know he was coming, or had come, were strangers from the far away East. His own people, including Herod their “king”, were unaware of his coming. The only fanfare announcing his birth was given to shepherds, people considered to be so low they weren’t even allowed to give testimony in court. The Son of God, Philippians says, humbled himself. With this entrance he was truly beginning at the very bottom.

There were dangers, too. Frederick Buechner memorably describes Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. Then the angel says, “You mustn’t be afraid, Mary….As he said it, he only hopes she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.” Not only that, Revelation 12 tells us that at the birth of the Savior a great red dragon awaited to devour the child the moment it was born. Remember Herod and the hideous murders of Bethlehem’s innocents?

And yet, in true hero fashion, the True Hero accomplished his mission. He is accomplishing it still. When finished we will hear what Revelation 22:3 says, “There shall not be any more curse.” Not a trace of it. The people of God will stand, redeemed and well, in an also redeemed and well world in which heaven and earth have been brought together. My favorite lines of any hymn speak of that. “No more let sin nor sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings known far as the curse is found (and then it bears repeating), far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.”  Amen.

It’s Advent. Let’s get ready. And then lets turn ourselves loose in worship and service to join Jesus in making his blessings known that far.

Thank You, FBC

It’s November and hooray for cooler days and the hint of crisp nights. Yippee for football on television and Friday nights watching the Jackets trounce yet another victim on their inevitable march to the play offs. Hats off to the hope of sweater weather just around the corner. But mostly, hallelujah for you.  I mean it.

       Last month the ministers on the church staff were honored, very much so, by you, our brother and sisters here at First Baptist, for Pastor Appreciation Month.  We were honored lavishly and generously, and that is greatly appreciated.  But what really honors us is being able to serve with you in this church. The kindness with which we are treated is unparalleled in my years of serving churches. Your support, encouragement, and friendship are extravagant and vital. Know why? Here’s some numbers about pastors shared with me on Facebook by one of you.  I know it’s Facebook, but the numbers come from a reliable source.  Here they are.  97% of all pastors have been betrayed, falsely accused, or hurt by a close friend.  70% of pastors battle depression.  1,500 quit every moth.  Only 10% will make it to the end of their career still pastoring, still serving.  80% report high levels of discouragement. 94% of their families feel pressured. 78% have no close friends. Those statistics are alarming and they tell us some things we need to hear.

There is a perception among some that serving in ministry is easy. It can be. Many days it is.  But many days it isn’t.  There are reasons for that. Some of the reasons are of the minister’s own making. A big temptation is to forget what kind of work we actually do. Eugene Peterson rightly criticizes some pastors for being what he calls “religious shopkeepers” who see their work as keeping the customers happy and keeping them coming back. When we give in to that temptation we give up our calling.  But there are other reasons why, some days, this work is not easy.  Some times congregations want a shopkeeper minister.  Sometimes they want to isolate the minister, not accepting him into their lives with the result that he ends up friendless, worn out, and discouraged. There is spiritual warfare involved, too. The enemy of our souls works overtime to nibble away at those responsible for feeding and leading. Pastors, ministers, need support of all kinds. The reason should be a selfish one for churches.  The single most important factor in the life and health of a church is the spiritual lives of its ministers.

But this is a thank you. Like Paul, I have received everything and am amply supplied. Your support and friendship means everything. Thanks.

The Sixth Devastation

A confession: maybe I read the Gospels too much. Maybe I read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John when I ought to be reading Isaiah or Ezekiel. I can’t seem to help myself. I am fascinated with the stories of Jesus doing Jesus things. I am fascinated with his wisdom, his stories, his deft handling of small town Pharisees and Supreme Court Justices. I am fascinated with how when Jesus is around everything gets better. I am fascinated with what the world looks like when God is actually in it.

I know what the world looks like when God isn’t in it. I’ve seen it too well. You have too. Sin, that me first I’m in charge of my own life power, has wrecked and devastated the world. It has wrecked and devastated us. For a long time I’ve taught that sin has brought five particular effects: death, disease, demonic activity, disasters in nature, and depravation. You see Jesus in the gospels directly addressing each of these. He raises the dead, heals, casts out demons, stills storms, and feeds multitudes. When God is in the world the effects of sin are destroyed.
Ever had an “aha moment”? A moment when a piece of knowledge you should have had all along is given to you and you find yourself saying “of course.” I had one this morning. Here it is. There are not five effects of sin. There are six. The sixth devastation is division. Think how divided the world is. Think how early it began. Think of Adam and Eve, those two who were one flesh, and their immediate finger pointing once sin came. Think of how we still do the same. Think of how we take sides against people and brand them as enemies. And think how when we do we are proud of our righteousness and virtue. And then think of Jesus.

Think of how he healed and blessed Jews, Romans, Syrians. Or about how he chose as followers both collaborators and revolutionaries. Think about how he sat down at tables with rank sinners and self righteous saints. Think about how he refused to see anyone as an enemy; a “them” as opposed to our “us”. Think about how being like Jesus is healing division instead of creating it and celebrating it.

How do we heal it? Jesus’ message and example is to really and to radically love everyone. That includes people who are spiteful to you or who persecute you. It includes people who stand when you kneel and kneel when you stand. So what’s love look like? Look again at Jesus. It means time. Jesus spent time with the powerful and the powerless. It means affirmation. Jesus spoke upliftingly to all. It means help. Jesus refused no one who needed what he could give. It means forgiveness, even for those who are crucifying you.

Homecoming and National Back To Church Day

Two Sundays in September are Sundays we need you to be here whatever else may be trying to claim your attention.  Two Sundays that are special Sundays, right in the middle of the month: Homecoming on September 10th and National Back To Church Day on the 17th. 

Our Homecoming speaker this year is Stanley Todd.  Stanley and Barbara are well known to us.  The Todds were a part of First Baptist when he was ordained to the ministry.  Stanley has ministered to many families in our church in his role as chaplain for South Georgia Hospice.  And of course he serves many of us on the Jesup City Council.  Stanley is a fine preacher and I know he’ll do us proud in the pulpit on Homecoming. I know as well we’ll have a fabulous time of fellowship around a meal after church.  Please be here for Homecoming this year.

National Back To Church Day is a new event for us.  On that day we’ll be participating with thousands of churches across the country in inviting people to come to church.  On that day we hope to have scores of people who haven’t been here in a while to be back.  We also hope to have even more people who have never been here to come that day.  Lots of work is already going into this effort.  2,500 postcards are being mailed to people in our community asking them to come. We need volunteers to call everyone on our church role to let them know about this big Sunday and to ask them to come.  We’re planning a block party after church on the 17th on our back parking lot.  We’ll serve lunch.  There will be inflatables and games for the kids.  There will be awnings for shade and conversation areas for adults to give you a chance to mingle with and get to know new people who are attending.  We’re asking all our Sunday School classes to plan a fellowship event the week following National Back to Church Day specifically to include newcomers.  We’ll gather to visit newcomers on Monday evening the day following the Day.

National Back To Church Day is a big event designed to be a big outreach for First Baptist into the community.  There are many ways you can be a part.  You can help us call our church roll.  You can help us put out flyers in Wayne Terrace and the Country Club on Saturday morning the 16th, two areas our postcards will not be mailed to.  You can invite your barber, the cashier at Wal-Mart, or your neighbor.  You can be here too.  We want everyone to observe National Back To Church Day.

Homecoming.  National Back To Church Day.  Be here both days. And help us make both hugely successful.

Making Friends and Changing Lives

I’ve been reading the classic novel East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck considered it to be his masterpiece, and many others agreed. It’s set in the years that span the turning of the 19th and 20th centuries though it’s based on Genesis 4, the Cain and Abel story. But that’s not why I mention it. I mention it because of the description the narrator in the book gives to one of the characters, specifically his mother, Olive. He says Olive had a distinctive way of dealing with facts that didn’t fit into her notion of how things were. She “obliterated them by refusing to believe in them.” These “nonexistent realities” included such varied things as airplanes and World War I.  She had no place in her thoughts for either, that is, until circumstances forced her to confront both.

I mention Olive and her way of dealing with airplanes because we have a similar way of dealing with one of our external realities. For us it’s people. We have long standing close friendships in Jesup. We like our friends. We enjoy being with them in our Sunday Morning Connection Groups. We meet them for lunch or for shopping. We have our circle. And then someone new arrives. They sit next to us in our Bible Study group. We talk about work, the kids, and then get around to the lesson. We’re friendly. Then church is over, we head for lunch, and those people become for us one of Olive’s external realities. They no longer exist. We go on with our circle of friends and the newcomers (what were their names again?) fade. When you meet your friends for lunch you don’t think of inviting them. You don’t call them to see how they are doing or to say hello.  They come back, a time or two, some for a good while even, and then they simply fade away. They’re an airplane or something else faraway and unreal. An external to our group reality.

When Jesus chose his disciples he chose them “that they might be with him.”  When two curious seekers asked him where he lived he said, “Come see for yourself,” and invited them in for the day. He later said to them, “I now call you friends.” Jesus’ strategy for changing the world was to pull people close and make them his friends. It’s our strategy too. But you have to help. You have to open your friendship circle to new people. They cannot remain left out. You must intentionally pull them close.

I once heard someone say, “No one comes to church to get involved but no one stays in church unless they do.” Involved in what? Ministries, making a difference in some way. But most importantly, friendships. It’s up to you to make friends for Christ’s sake.