Monday, December 22, 2008

I Finally Made Christmas Lists!

We really do enjoy getting those holiday letters some people complain about at Christmas. Having moved around as many times as we have, we have friends scattered in several places, and, as good as our intentions are, we don't do a good job of staying in touch. Those Christmas letters give us a chance to see kids grow, lives change, and all kinds of other things. Like most people, we usually read through them, stash them with the rest of the Christmas cards and intend to do better about staying in touch. Then it's time for another Christmas, and we read about people about whom we really did intend to do better.
This year's Christmas letters brought something unexpected. I got mentioned in two of them! One young friend of mine felt the need to remind people that he was a Duke basketball fan (as though we could ever forget that about him), and included me and another die-hard Kentucky fan as people who wouldn't be happy to hear that. (I gave up on converting him to the true faith long ago!) The other mention was from my friend who is serving as supply pastor at the congregation I left behind in Huntsville earlier this year. Most of what she had to say about me had to do with how much extra work I had caused for her.
I never thought much about actually being in someone's Christmas letter. These two references felt pretty good, though. Our first Florida holiday has been a wonderful experience, but it's different being this far away from many of the things and people who have been part of our celebrations before. Of course we've shared this year's celebration in our new home and community with all kinds of friends we didn't know before. Still, it's kind of nice to know we've left parts of ourselves among other friends in other places (Even if one of them is a Duke fan!)
I hope you can find some quiet, reflective time in these last few days before Christmas. And I hope you can think about the parts of yourselves you've left with other people in other places. Even if you didn't make someone's Christmas letter this year, I'll bet someone somewhere is thankful for you. And I'm sure you're thankful for the presence of lots of people in your life, too. I hope you all find a way to let each other know. You might just make someone's day. My friends surely made mine! Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Wishing and Hoping

For my birthday, some friends gave me one of those little hand held gizmos that plays twenty questions and tries to figure out sports and music things I'm thinking about. It's pretty good most of the time. But I've stumped it a couple of times. That may say more about the kinds of music I like and my memory of sports stats than it says about that machine, but it's fun whatever it means. Dusty Springfield is one of the music names that stumped the game. Those of you who are my age (56, as of Sunday!) probably remember when Dusty sang a song called Wishing and Hoping. It was all about love and what it takes to experience it. In her words, "Wishing and hoping and thinking and praying, planning and dreaming...that won't get you into his arms." She goes on to make some pretty specific suggestions about will get you into the arms of the one you've identified as the source of all happiness in your life. (She suggests things like holding and kissing and hugging and things that usually work, at least at first.)
One of the messages of Dusty's song seems to be that wishing and hoping aren't enough. Dreaming is good, but what we're dreaming of usually requires us to do something.
Most of us do some wishing and hoping during this time of year. Whether we're wishing for a special gift, hoping for peace in the world (or maybe at least in our lives), planning for the perfect holiday, or dreaming of a White Christmas (doubtful in my part of the world, thanks be to God!), Dusty's message applies. Wishing and hoping usually sound pretty one-sided. They evoke images like Charlie Brown and the little red-haired girl: he dreams of a relationship with her, and she doesn't know he exists. Of course, he's not about to talk to her and let her know how he feels, either! As long as wishing and hoping are all we do, we'll probably never experience what we're wishing and hoping for.
Wishing and hoping are important during Advent, but our wishes and hopes are not just idle wanderings of our minds to better things. We wish and hope for what God has promised-a Savior who will speak peace, a relationship that will give order, meaning, and purpose to our lives. We can wish and hope, but we can also do things to hasten the coming of those things for which we wait. During Advent, we pray. We light candles. We spend time in Scripture. We draw closer to God confident that God is coming closer to us.
Dusty Springfield's song ends with her goal within in reach, literally. Girls, she promises, if you do all the things I've suggested, you will be his. I know she's got some mop-topped boy from the sixties in mind. But I also know that some of her thinking applies to our wishing and hoping for God, too. God has promised to come to us. And in Jesus Christ, God keeps that promise. We belong to God. And if we satisfy ourselves with the things God's people do, we will be God's. I don't know (and probably don't need to) all the things you're wishing and hoping for this season. but I know (and want you to know) that if peace with God is on the list, your wishing and hoping will amount to something. Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Way back when I was much younger, I remember hearing all the old people talk about how quickly time flew by. Of course, I was young then, waiting for all kinds of things, so I didn't have a clue what they were talking about. (And I was pretty sure they didn't, either.) When I was twelve, I couldn't wait to be thirteen, then sixteen, then eighteen, twenty-one, and all those other magical ages that were supposed to make such a difference in my life. Now that I am well past all those milestones, I catch myself wondering why time won't slow down enough for me to catch up. This time of year makes things even worse. Most of you know we just moved. Some of you know we're still unpacking, and will be for a while. Thanksgiving thrust itself into our lives before I found the turkey roasting pan. We managed. Thanksgiving came and went, as it always does. These busy days of Advent resist my insistence on some quiet time to pray and reflect on God's grace, but I still have good intentions of using these days and nights for my spiritual betterment. If today is December 3, then Christmas is right around the corner, and my birthday comes between now and then, as if I needed another reminder that time marches on.
I am much more thankful than I was able to express while Thanksgiving whizzed past me this year. I am also grateful for God's promise made known in Christ, whether my frenzied pace during Advent shows it or not. When Christmas comes, I won't be ready, but it will come anyway. Even though it seems that I'm living through some unknown season I'll call Thanksadmus this year, I know each of these days, hectic and harried as they are, are gifts from God, times to be savored, times for which I'll be thankful when I'm even older, looking back wondering where these days have gone. Happy Thanksadmus. I know some of you are celebrating it with me!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Our Stuff

I know that my real identity and worth are not about what I own or what owns me. Even so, I must admit a real sense of comfort in being surrounded (and if you could see the house right now while we unpack, you'd know how literally I mean surrounded) by my own stuff again. While we are more grateful than words can express to have had places to live while we waited for the sale of a house and the purchase of another, there is nothing like sitting on your own couch or sleeping in your own bed Like most people I know, we have much more stuff than we need. This move, we discarded a lot of things we had been hauling around for years, some which had not been unpacked from the last move nine years ago. Opening a box and discovering books that I'm accustomed to seeing on the shelf or finding mementos from special events down through the years (things that look like junk to some, I know) reminds me of who I am and how I came to be this person.
I'm not altogether sure of where all our stuff is going in this new place. But I'm surely glad to have it with me again. Each piece of it has a story of some sort. I promise not to tell them all. But I am thankful for the stories and for the people behind all that stuff.

Wherever We Are

Psalm 139 has long been a favorite of mine. The assurance this Psalm provides that God knows me, and that God loves me in spite of what God knows is a rare gift. The middle part of the Psalm, the part that talks about never being away from God's presence always makes me thankful. While I never doubt God's presence, I will admit that sometimes I wonder if God really knows (or cares) where I am. The first time I remember having those thoughts was years ago when we lived in Mississippi. At the time that was as far from family, friends, and other familiar things as we had ever lived. I remember walking from the mailbox down a dusty driveway one hot summer day and wondering, does God really know I'm here? As Deanna and I have moved from one temporary home to another over the past several months (for both of which we are extremely grateful), I remember feeling the same way and asking the same question: do you think God really knows where we are?
As some of you know, we have recently moved into a new home of our own (well, most of it belongs to the bank, but you know what I mean). As I dropped one more change of address card in the mail the other day, and ask I dragged in another box to unpack, I remember asking again whether God knows where we are.
Don't misunderstand; I know that God has plenty to keep up without worrying specifically about where Bob is today. As long as there are wars, starving children, and people who have not heard the Gospel, I suspect God has plenty to do without worrying about where I am. Even so, the Psalmist provides considerable comfort in these words: "How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them--they are more than the sand; I come to the end--I am still with you" (vv17-18).
That helps me to reframe my question. It's not so much a matter of whether or not God knows where I am (although I know God does) as it is a matter of my being with God, wherever I roam. I am happy to be settling into a new home. I am happy about the good things happening at Providence Church. And I am happy that I am never away from God's presence. Neither are you. Thanks be to God!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Saying What We Mean

I try to be careful about language most of the time. The old English major in me just won't die, I guess. One of the best interpretative tools I've ever found was a statement from a professor of mine years ago who told us again and again never to overlook the possibility that a writer means exactly what (s)he says. My teacher usually said that in response to some foolish interpretation one of us had made of something we had read. Like many, I guess we preferred what we wanted the writer to say over what (s)he had actually said. Our teacher, of course, had his own ideas about what the writer was saying, and his ideas were usually more valuable than ours.
We've been caught up in the midst of selling a house in Alabama and buying one in Florida and trying to negotiate all the steps in that process on a pretty tight schedule. I caught myself one day this week telling a friend that I thought it was all going to work out on schedule if the stars all aligned in just the right order.
I don't really believe that the alignment of the stars has much, if anything, to do with getting two real estate deals closed and movers scheduled. Even though both the friend to whom I was speaking and I are people of faith, for some reason, I guess I found it easier to use secular language than to say that I am depending in this, as in all things, on God's care and guidance.
Maybe we're all a little hesitant to sound pious or religious. (Those of you who know me know that that's not usually an option for me.) I don't believe there is necessarily anything wrong with my alignment of the stars imagery, but I know there's nothing wrong with acknowledging my dependence on God.
Maybe someday we'll remember that some people think we mean exactly what we say, and we'll learn to be more careful about what we say.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Baby Steps

I remember how excited we'd get when our boys were small and made even the smallest steps toward a goal. Sleeping all night. Those first steps. First words. We celebrated them all with great excitement. Somehow, along the way, we lose sight of how important those little steps are. As our kids grow, we tend to celebrate bigger things: graduations, scholarships (I wish!), awards. Somehow we forget how important it is to celebrate little things.
Working as a new church pastor will remind you of the joy of celebrating little things in a hurry. We plan for visitors every Sunday, but we don't always get them. But, boy, just let some new folks show up, and we treat them like royalty! We had a children's event here over the weekend. Lots of work and planning had gone into it, as you might imagine. We had high hopes about meeting new families and their children. While we were disappointed with the number of children who attended, the children who were here never knew it. The event was all about them and their Christian nurture, and I'm grateful we were able to keep that in mind as we spent the afternoon together.
Today's Monday, and we're working toward another Sunday. We're also making plans for another children's event before Christmas. And we're learning the joy of celebrating little steps toward our goal of becoming a church.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Where Do You Start?

For many of us, the church is either something that has always been a part of our lives, or it's something we don't think much about. Few of us think much about how a church gets started. In most cases, it's always been there: when we were kids in Sunday School or when we were members of a youth group and benefited from the fellowship and acceptance we found there. As adults, the church has married us, helped us welcome our children into the world, and probably guided us through some less pleasant times if we have lived long enough. Whether our participation has been a foundational or an occasional part of our lives, the church has always been there.
The church I serve hasn't always been here. We are a new church, still trying to figure out who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do.
New churches are certainly not unusual in the United States. Drive through any community and you'll see signs of splits and divisions that resulted in new congregations, some that thrive, and some the nurse wounds until they die. On community near where I once lived included the following congregations, all of the same denomination: Bethel Church, Old Bethel Church, New Bethel Church, and Bethel #1. Enough said about how some churches come into being. I served as Organizing Pastor for a new congregation in Alabama before moving to Florida this summer. One of the questions I heard most often there from newcomers and people who called for information was "Who did you split from?" There, I could honestly say that it wasn't a split that led our beginning. The Presbytery planted the church in the midst of a growing community because there wasn't one of our persuasion there. It continues to grow along with that community even without me as its pastor.
The congregation I'm currently working with, Providence Presbyterian, also enjoys the sponsorship and guidance of its Presbytery, the Presbytery of St. Augustine. Planning for the congregation began when some people who were previously members of another congregation in our area approached their pastor and other leaders in the Presbytery about the possibility of beginning a new congregation in this area. After a long and more circuituous journey than that group saw coming, they called me to become their pastor this summer.
There are plenty of sources of information about how to start new churches around. New Church Development has been a popular topic in many denominations for several years. Lots of people think new churches have more likelihood of attracting new people, especially those who don't have much background in the church, than established congregations with all the things newcomers have to navigate there. There's some truth in that. But lots of new people want and expect things that new churches can't always provide, at least on a schedule that meets the needs of some of those people. Youth groups have to be gathered and nurtured. Children's activities require the presence of children and the leadership of people who love them. Sometimes people decide to go ahead and take their chances with an established congregation, or with a newer one with a little history behind it instead of waiting to see what the new congregation might become.
As helpful as all the literature out there is, the best guide we've found is God's Word that tells us all to make disciples, to teach, to baptize, and to love in Christ's name. That's what we're trying to do at Providence Church. Check in from time to time to see how it's going.