Tuesday, December 30, 2008


I’m not much on writing retrospectives, given that the events of my life don’t mean much to anyone but me and those who are closest to me, but the truth is that 2008 proved to be quite a significant year in the lives of my family members and me and so, well, here comes a retrospective, albeit a brief one.

We lost some significant people during 2008. Debra’s nephew Mike died suddenly and unexpectedly, my stepmother Imogene passed away, and three of my father’s siblings, Aunt Myrtice, Uncle Jack, and Uncle Bobby died.

And Dr. Giddens died, too. Dr. Howard P. Giddens was our professor at Mercer University who became my mentor but he also became much more than that; for all intents and purposes he became, following the death of my father in 1979, my father and he served as a second father to Debra as well. In his 97 years he served as pastor, professor, and guide to countless numbers of ministers as well as to normal folks. He taught me much about living and toward the end he also taught me about dying; never have I seen anyone move toward the conclusion of his earthly sojourn with more grace than Dr. Giddens exhibited.

We also experienced loss in moving away from Augusta and The Hill Baptist Church. We enjoyed our years living in Augusta and we very much miss the good people who are so vital to the fellowship at The Hill. Debra misses her colleagues at Augusta State, too. One of the prices she has paid for being my wife has been that when I have felt called to go elsewhere she has had to leave jobs that she enjoyed and people with whom she loved working; that was certainly the case in her leaving the Biology Department at ASU. We left a great house in Augusta, too—a great house that is still for sale if anyone is interested!

But 2008 has been a year of great gains as well. For one thing, our daughter Sara has finished the requirements for her degree at Mercer University and she will in a few weeks begin an internship at Disney World in Orlando; she is as excited as we are pleased. For another thing, our son Joshua began work toward a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Georgia College and State University; that is a vital step in his formation and in his life journey.

We have also been blessed by our move to Fitzgerald, Georgia. We are excited about the possibilities that are so obviously present at First Baptist Church where I now serve as pastor. We have already met a tremendous number of fine folks and I have been greatly encouraged by the response to the beginning of my ministry here. Our house here (yes, we presently have two houses—did I mention that the one in Augusta is for sale?) already feels like home and we are enjoying being in it. The small town life is something that both Debra and I appreciate and we look forward to the relationships that we will develop here over the years.

I also gained a year in age, which is true of everybody else, too, but this year I hit the big number 50. My good wife lessened the impact by treating me to a marvelous trip to Disney World. We had a great time celebrating with Mickey and the gang.

While 2008 has been a momentous year it has on balance been a good one. In all things, the good and bad, the gain and loss, the happy and sad, we give thanks to God who has been with us in it all.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Setting the Agenda

(A sermon based on Luke 2:22-38 for the First Sunday after Christmas and my third Sunday as pastor of FBC Fitzgerald)

When a new pastor shows up at a church it is natural for the people of the church to wonder what the pastor’s agenda is. What you may not know is that it is also natural for the new pastor to wonder what the people’s agenda is! Unfortunately but understandably the courtship period does not always reveal the whole story about the pastor or about the people.

The comedian Sinbad told the story of a man and woman who were dating. The man would say, “Where would you like to eat tonight?” and she would reply, “It doesn’t matter; I just want to be with you.” The man would say, “What movie would you like to see tonight?” and she would answer, “It doesn’t matter; I just want to be with you.” The man would say, “Would you like to stay in or go out tonight?” and the woman would say, “It doesn’t matter; I just want to be with you.” And it came to pass that they decided to get married. At the wedding ceremony when the minister asked the man “Do you?” he said “I do.” Then the minister asked the woman “Do you?” and she replied, “I do—and some things are going to have to change around here!”

Sometimes the pastor/church courtship is like that. We ask each other questions and we inquire into one another as best we can but now that we’ve taken the vows we might find that one partner or the other expects us to make changes or to adopt agendas that we did not expect. It seems wise to me, therefore, to state up front some of the items that are on my agenda. Understand, now, that this is not a comprehensive list; I will learn more about our situation here as we go along and I’m sure that in consultation with the Lord and with you items will be added to the list. Understand also that this is just a list; I’ll be fleshing these items out as we go along but today I just want to offer a succinct list.

Item #1: I want us to glorify God in everything that we say and do.
Item #2: I want us to commit ourselves fully to following Jesus.
Item #3: I want us to read and study Holy Scripture with an eye toward the forming of ourselves into true disciples of Jesus.
Item #4: I want us to continuously and purposely grow as Christian human beings so that we live as responsible Christian adults in our lives in the church and in the world.
Item #5: I want us to bear consistent witness in our homes, in our church, and in our community to the love and grace of Jesus Christ so that others will come to faith in him.
Item #6: I want us to reach out through caring and practical ministries to everyone that we can both in our own backyard and around the world.
Item #7: I want us to develop a genuine Christian spirituality that takes seriously the role of prayer in our lives.
Item #8: I want us to take seriously the Baptist part of our Christian identity, growing in knowledge and appreciation of our Baptist heritage and grasping the particular contributions that Baptists can make to our modern culture.
Item #9: I want us to take seriously the fact that we are Christians before we are Baptists and that all who share in our faith in Jesus Christ are our brothers and sisters.
Item #10: I want us to grow in our awareness of God’s love for us and in the depth of our love for God and for one another.

I am well aware of the fact that I have the advantage of the pulpit in letting you all in on my agenda and so I am going to be very intentional about creating situations in which I can listen to what you have to say. As a first step, our Minister of Education & Senior Adults Tom Braziel is going to be working with me on setting up a schedule for me to visit with all of the adult Sunday School classes for a time of listening and conversation; I plan to begin in January.

We need, though, to be very clear about one thing: what really matters is not my agenda or your agenda; what really matters is God’s agenda. We will work hard at praying, at listening, at talking, and at searching together to keep our agendas as in tune with God’s agenda as we possibly can.

And that brings me to today’s text, which is what set me to thinking about this matter of agendas, anyway. Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary, being the faithful Israelites that they were, had Jesus circumcised and officially named him eight days after his birth. Then, in accordance with the teachings of Torah, they undertook Mary’s ritual purification forty days after the birth; for this they decided to journey to the Temple in Jerusalem. In these facts we get a glimpse at God’s agenda for Jesus and by extension for his Church: the Jesus event comes out of the background of the covenant community that God had established with Israel. In a similar way, we need to celebrate the fact that God will do what God is going to do here against the backdrop of what has gone on before. What God is about to do will not be done on a blank canvas; it will be painted against the backdrop of what has already been done and we appreciate and celebrate all of those who have gone before us and those in our church who, like Simeon, have seen much of what God has done and who look for what God is yet to do. Now, there were some beautiful pictures on Israel’s canvas but not all of the pictures were pretty ones; such is the case for a church, as well, so we have to be discerning about that to which we should hold and that which we should turn loose.

We get another glimpse at God’s agenda for Jesus and for the Church when we notice that the significance of Jesus was proclaimed by two prophets, a man named Simeon and a woman named Anna. Both of them, this man and this woman, were devoted and faithful in remarkable ways, both of them had been endowed with God’s Spirit, and both of them had been looking for the coming of the Messiah. The witness of this text and of the trajectory of the New Testament as a whole is that all of God’s people, regardless of gender, of social standing, and of ethnicity are to be involved in the ministry of Jesus Christ and are to exercise whatever gifts God gives them and have access to the Spirit of God. God calls whom God will and God empowers whom God will.

And even before that calling and empowering, God saves all who will come. Notice that Simeon, who had been “waiting for the consolation of Israel,” which means the coming of the Messiah whom the faithful had expected, understood that the Messiah’s coming was not just for the sake of Israel. True, Simeon did proclaim that the baby was “for glory to your people Israel” but he also said that he was “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (v. 32). It’s hard for us to understand just what a big deal it was in that day and time for faithful apostles and witnesses and preachers and believers to insist that the good news of Jesus Christ was for absolutely everybody, whether they were Jew or Gentile. Think of this way: imagine some person or some group of people that you have a hard time imagining being in church with you or even in heaven with you. It was probably even harder for some folks in Jesus’ day to think that God might love the Gentiles, too. But the good news is for all and all who will believe may come. That is God’s agenda.

Let me say one last thing about God’s agenda: it’s not easy. Look at some of the things that Simeon said to Mary about Jesus. He said, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (vv. 34b-35a). Simeon said that Jesus compels a decision; people have to decide whether they will humbly admit their need for God or whether they will in stubborn pride cling to their ways and values and self-sufficiency. Simeon furthermore said that Jesus would engender opposition; grace and forgiveness and love never get a welcome hearing in this old world. Simeon moreover said that Jesus would make clear the true content of people’s thoughts and attitudes and motives; we can’t hide our true selves from Jesus and how we respond to his grace and love and how we then live in them tell everything there is to be told about us.

So here at the beginning we have some work to do on setting the agenda. But let’s be clear about this: the agenda that matters most is God’s agenda and God’s agenda for us is seen in God’s agenda for Jesus. Let us commit together to doing all that we can do, with God’s help, to find and to follow God’s agenda.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

This Christmas

This Christmas we’re in a new home. We just moved our stuff into it a week ago today but it’s coming together well, largely due to the amazing organizational skills of my wife. Our Christmas tree went up on the evening before the first night that we slept in our new house and Debra has put up minimal Christmas decorations; the combination of the chaos that accompanies moving and the short time between our moving in and the coming of Christmas made the full treatment, which in our case is usually vast, impractical. Still, the Christmas spirit is there.

This Christmas we’re in a new church. That’s because I have a new ministry position as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald. Tonight we will celebrate the coming of the Christ child at our first Christmas Eve service in Fitzgerald. I am told that the service is much-anticipated and well-attended and I am looking forward to it. The one addition I have made to the service here is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, something that I have been having as a part of Christmas Eve services for years. It is helpful and necessary, I believe, to remember that the baby in the manger grew up to be the man on the cross. Immanuel—“God with us”—ultimately means that Christ suffers and dies for us and so we remember at Christmas not only his birth but also his death.

This Christmas we’re in a good place. By that I mean that we’re in a good place as a family in the living of our lives. Sara has just finished the requirements for her degree at Mercer University and in January she will begin an eight month internship at Disney World in Orlando, an opportunity over which she and we are very excited. Joshua has just finished the first semester of his three-year MFA in Creative Writing program at Georgia College & State University and he is pleased with how it is going. We parents are pleased that our children are pleased with how their lives are going.

This Christmas we’re in an old story. It is the old story of, in the words of the old hymn, “Jesus and his mercy…Jesus and his love.” It is the old story of Mary and Joseph, of shepherds and wise men, of epiphany and wonder, and of life and death that I have heard and loved for my entire life. It is the old story of incarnation, of “veiled in flesh the God-head see,” of “the Word made flesh,” and of the Son of God becoming the baby in the manger. It is the old story of God loving the world—every person in the world—so much that God sent Jesus into the world that the world—including me—and you—might be saved. Yes, it’s an old story, but every time around the old story becomes new because it grabs us and startles us and amazes us and astounds us and reforms us and renews us. It is the old but ever new story of God with us and God for us that makes all the difference.

My hope for you is that this Christmas will be full of joy and peace and wonder and love and grace—in other words, that it will be filled up with Christ.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Expected and Unexpected Gifts

(A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent based on Luke 1:26-38)

I confess that I am easily amazed. The words of Proverbs 30:18 summarize it for me: “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden.”

Three categories of activity that amaze me are covered in that verse.

First, I am amazed by nature. To the verse’s naming of the eagle and the snake I would add such things as the twinkle of the stars in the sky, the ebb and flow of the tides, the intricacy of a flower, and the softness of the gentle breeze. When I pause and actually reflect on such realities, I am thoroughly amazed.

Second, I am amazed by technology. A ship sailing on the high seas was the essence of cutting edge technology in the time in which this proverb was written. I still can’t understand how something as heavy as an aircraft carrier floats, much less how things like the internet and GPS devices work. I’m a bit like that new secretary who was told by her boss to send a fax to an associate. A few minutes later the associate phoned and irately asked, “Why have you sent that fax to me thirty times?” When the boss asked his secretary about it she said, “Well, I keep putting it in the machine but it keeps coming out the other side.” She didn’t understand such technology. Neither do I.

Third and mostly, I am amazed by relationships. It was “the way of a man with a maiden” that the proverb names and I am amazed by that, too. Who knows why and how it happens? As one of my favorite songs says, “All at once you look across a crowded room and see the way that light attaches to a girl.” I remember the day that happened for me and I remember all the days since. But all kinds of loving relationships amaze me: those between child and parent, those between siblings, those between grandparent and grandchild, those between friends, those between Christians, and others. I am amazed at the complexities and complications that are a part of relationships.

Imagine, then, how amazed Mary must have been when the angel Gabriel announced to her that she was going to have a child. “How can this be,” she very logically asked, “since I have not been with a man?” Mary knew that the announcement she was hearing was impossible from the perspectives of nature, of relationship, and of technology. The only way to conceive a child in Mary’s day was the natural way that required a relationship with a man; no technology such as in vitro fertilization that had even been imagined, much less developed. “I know the way things work,” Mary was saying, “and none of those ways apply to me.”

But that little fact did not make what Gabriel was saying any less so because God was up to something.

Still, the gift that Mary was receiving was obviously an unexpected one because God was up to something unexpected. We need to remember—perhaps to relearn—that God does things in unexpected ways—in surprising ways—even in shocking ways.

Make no mistake about it—what God was up to in what God was doing through Mary was amazing and miraculous and unexpected. Oh, there were clear teachings in the prophets that God was going to send a Messiah and there were hints that he was going to do it in unexpected ways—but I dare say that you would have been unable to find a respectable rabbi in turn of the millennium Israel who would have had any inkling at all that God was going to use a person like Mary—simple and poor and humble—who lived in a place like Nazareth—can anything good come from there, after all—to give birth to the Messiah in a stable and lay him in a feed trough where he would be visited not by the dignitaries of Israel but by a bunch of shepherds and foreigners. Moreover, despite the hints of the prophets that suffering and dying were part and parcel of the way in which God in love would save his people, I doubt that few in Mary’s day—I almost said “any” but then I remembered Simeon who told Mary that a “sword will pierce your own soul too”—would have believed that the baby Messiah would grow up to be executed on a cross and would then rise on the third day.

To hear that God does things in unexpected ways should not be terribly surprising; after all, we’re talking about God. I mean, if we are amazed at things that we see and are in the middle of every day—things like nature, technology, and relationships—how can we not be amazed at the ways of God? After all, if we reduce God to the level of our expectations, are we not making God in our image and are we not then dealing with something far less than God? Don’t we want to worship and serve the true God—the God who is the Creator of the Universe and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—and not some tame and limited shadow of a god that fits only our expectations and does only our bidding and confirms only our opinions?

Here as we begin our journey together I hope that you will affirm with me that it is God that we worship and serve and that God is not bound by our expectations. It is thrilling, is it not—and exciting—and a little bit scary—to know that we do not know all of what God is up to and all of what God will do and all of what God will expect of us?

And yet it is not all brand new to us, is it? Mary was dealing with something that was unexpected because it was all so brand new. Neither she nor anyone else had ever heard such a thing before or known that God could be up to such a thing. Here we are 2000 years later, the heirs of the old, old story. And here we are having heard and told the story of Christmas for our entire lives. My fear is that in its familiarity the story has become predictable and mundane—but it shouldn’t. It shouldn’t because what happened is still so amazing and unbelievable and wonderful.

It should still leave us so amazed that our minds spin and our hearts soar and our mouths gape.

Our daughter Sara spent the past few months working in the preschool department of a church in Macon. A few days ago the children were engaged in an activity in which they would wrap packages and give them to one another. These were not “real” presents that they would get to keep; they were just wrapping and opening large play blocks. Sara said that the children were absolutely thrilled to open those blocks, even as they opened the same thing over and over again. Each time it was just like they were opening a brand new and unexpected present. A three-year-old girl named Cara, when her friend Ellie gave her a present well into the process, put her hand over her heart and said, “Oh, Ewwie, a gift for me?” And when she opened it she exclaimed, “Oh, Ewwie, a bwock, a bwock!” Sara reports that the thrill was genuine—and contagious.

So here we are, waiting to open the same old present again, waiting to welcome the same old Messiah again, waiting to greet the same old baby again. And here we may be, thinking that we have it all figured out, thinking that we know exactly what God is up to now, thinking that nothing will surprise us.

Maybe a little child should lead us: “Oh, my Lord, a gift for me? A Savior! A Savior!” How can we not experience a thrill that is contagious? How can we be other than overcome with amazement?

When all was said and done on that day, Mary said—and this is something else that amazes me—“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” As we open our lives up to the old yet new, expected yet unexpected, familiar yet surprising things that God is about to do, may that be our stance as well: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

Sunday, December 14, 2008

It’s All about Jesus

(A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent based on John 1:6-9, 19-28; this is also my first Sunday morning sermon as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, GA)

Maybe it’s because I’ve been a bit distracted, but I don’t think I’ve heard as much this year about the “war on Christmas” or about “keeping Christ in Christmas.” That’s ok since I tend to believe that if we Christians will keep Christmas in Christ-like ways and especially if we will answer the question posed by that great theologian Elvis Presley, “why can’t every day be like Christmas?” by immersing every day in the love and grace of Jesus, then Christ will be kept in Christmas just fine.

After all, we can’t expect the culture to focus on Jesus but we can expect the Church to focus on Jesus.

Perhaps, though, we who are the Church need to be reminded of what this season is all about. As a matter of fact, perhaps we need to be reminded of what being the Church is all about. Indeed, perhaps we need to be reminded of what everything is all about. I know that I have to keep reminding me what it’s all about so that I will not let myself get focused on things that are not the main thing.

So what is it all about?

Brothers and sisters, it’s all about Jesus.

Here on this next to last Sunday of Advent, here as we draw closer and closer to the precipice of the celebration of the coming of our Lord, here as we remind ourselves again that Jesus did in fact come and is in fact going to come again, it is good to be reminded that Advent points us to Jesus and reminds us of the fact that everything that we are as the Church, that everything that we are as Christians, is all about Jesus.

And that means that it’s not all about us.

It’s tempting to think that it is. Consider the curious case of John the Baptizer (it may be better to call him that rather than “the Baptist” so that we don’t let ourselves entertain the notion that there were Baptists before there were Christians!) who was, as the Gospel of John tells us, “a man who was sent from God” (v. 6). That’s pretty heady stuff! If John the Baptizer knew all of what Luke tells us about how John came to be—you know, the whole business about his father being visited by an angel and about how his father did not believe what the angel told him and so was made unable to talk for the duration of his mother’s pregnancy—and I don’t see why his mother and father wouldn’t have told him, particularly when little John asked his folks why they were so much older than the parents of his playmates—then it would have been pretty easy for John to let it all go to his head. I mean, given that he was a “man sent from God” and given that he had such an auspicious origin and given that he was now attracting so much attention, it would have been easy for John to believe and to act as if it was all about John.

When I was a child I sometimes acted as if it was all about me at this time of year. My good father used his trusty Brownie 8mm camera to film everything that happened during my early years. Since I was always in the spotlight (literally), how could I not conclude that I was the star? One particularly revealing reel was filmed on a Wednesday night at my home church when Santa Claus had come to visit. Santa would meander around the sanctuary greeting all the boys and girls. Daddy filmed away as I stopped Santa dead in his tracks and would not let him go until I had gone over my entire Christmas list, which was substantial, with him. Yep, the approach of Christmas was all about me; the anticipation of Christmas was all about me; the wonder of Christmas was all about me.

Only it wasn’t. And often even through the glow of my childhood self-centeredness the reality of the coming of the Christ child would break and I would find myself shocked and awed by it all.

Yes, sometimes we get to thinking that it’s all about us. We get to thinking that the Church is all about us—about our wants, about our fears, about our prejudices, about our grudges, about our agendas. We get to thinking that being Christian is all about us—about our wants, about our fears, about our prejudices, about our grudges, about our agendas. We get to thinking that life is all about us—about our wants, about our fears, about our prejudices, about our grudges, about our agendas.

But they're not--they're all about Jesus.

We need to affirm along with John, “This is not about me—it’s about Jesus.”

The text tells us that John “came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him all … might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every (one) was coming into the world” (vv. 7-9).

Like John, we are not the light but, like John, we bear witness to the light. Jesus said that he was the Light of the world but he also said that we who follow him are the light of the world. Our relationship to Jesus is like that of the moon to the sun—the sun is the primary light giver and the moon reflects that light. It is the nature of the sun to produce the light; it is the nature of the moon to reflect the light. The moon does not reflect the sun’s light perfectly but it reflects it adequately because it is true to its nature. We are being true to our nature as followers of Christ when we are the “little lights” that reflect the “big light” of Jesus.

I am the brand new pastor of The First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald and I am well aware of the high hopes that are attached to me. Let me assure you that I will do the best job that I know how to do and that I will try to learn to do a better job than I presently know how to do. Let me say right up front, however, that I am not the light—but I will try, with the Lord’s help, to bear witness to the Light. Let me also say that I am not worthy to untie Jesus’ shoelaces—but I will try, with the Lord’s help, to follow his footsteps as well as I can and to point others down his way. I simply ask you to remember: this is not about me—it’s about Jesus.

Let me also say right up front that I have high expectations of you, too, but you are not the light either and you are not worthy to untie Jesus’ shoelaces either but with the Lord’s help you can bear witness to the Light and you can follow him and show others his way. I simply ask us to remember: this is not about you—it’s about Jesus.

The world is in darkness and it needs the Light of the world. The world is looking to us to reflect that Light so that he can shine into their lives. We do that when our lives reflect the love of Jesus, the grace of Jesus, the forgiveness of Jesus, and the sacrifice of Jesus.

You see, it’s all about Jesus. His way is the way I am committed to walking with you. Oh, who will come and walk with me?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

My Favorite Nativity

My wife likes nativity scenes. We have some very nice ones that we have acquired over the years. We also have a couple of new ones; I picked up a stone nativity at St. John’s College in Minnesota last summer and we bought a “brush” type—you’d have to see it to understand—at a store in Augusta a few months ago.

I like the new and nice ones, too.

My favorite nativity scene, though, is neither new nor nice. In fact, it has to be at least fifty years old and it’s showing its age.

My favorite nativity is very simple. The crèche is made of plain brown wood; much of the roof material has disappeared over the years. The ceramic figures of the wise men, the shepherd (there’s only one), and the holy family are showing some wear and tear.

My favorite nativity is not nearly as attractive as our other ones. But right now it’s the only one that we have displayed. That’s because all of our others are still packed away in their crates which are in turn packed away on a moving truck which is in turn packed away on the moving company’s lot. That’s because our house here in our new home of Fitzgerald is still not quite ready.

But my favorite nativity was in my office closet in Augusta because for many years now I’ve been displaying it in my study at Christmas time. So while the movers were packing my office I rescued it and put it in our car. And so it is now displayed in the den of the lovely house that is serving as our temporary residence.

My favorite nativity belonged to my parents. It was the only one they displayed and it was always given pride of place in our little house during the Christmas season. As it reminds me of the birth of Christ it also reminds me of my good parents and of the good home in which they raised me.

My favorite nativity is plain and simple yet somehow profound—kind of like my parents.

I’m glad we still have it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Great News for On the Jericho Road

PC World has published a list of the eleven lamest blogs on the internet.

I am happy to report that On the Jericho Road is not included on the list.

That's great news for On the Jericho Road (and just about every other blog)!