A Faith That Hopes, A Grief That Lingers

A Pastoral Prayer
September 11, 2016

O God of grace and peace,
On this fifteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001
We remember an atrocious day, a day that we wish we could forget.
Our grief still lingers, but our faith still hopes.

We confess our ongoing need of your transformative and emerging grace
For we are all too mindful that this date still grieves us
With emotions that are unsettling
And with memories that stir our fears.

As we attempt to apply your words to life,
And to live by faith as we embrace your promise of a better future
We confess that our anger and grief from that fateful day are not nearly resolved.
And that we still harbor impulses of hate and retaliation deep within.

And yet we acknowledge that our hurt does not compare to the pain
of those who were touched more directly
through the unexpected and unfair loss
of family members, friends, and colleagues.

We shudder at the memory of horrific images of death and destruction,
We grieve over the deaths of the sons and daughters of our nation,
As well as the subsequent casualties among our allies and our adversaries.
We fret over the ongoing threat of terrorist initiatives
And we long for a civilized and lasting resolution
So that all may live in peace
And that those who have longed for liberation from tyranny
Might govern and be governed with dignity and integrity.

Rather than being consumed by our grief,
And controlled by our fears
And constrained by our anxieties,
Let us set our minds to addressing any injustices that precipitate hostility,
Let us direct our souls to living out our moral conviction,
Let us turn our hearts to loving the poor,
and the disadvantaged,
and the disenfranchised.
And let us determine to fight terror,
Not with our own terroristic threats,
But with a responsible and courageous exercise of freedom,
And with a proactive and missional faith
That addresses the spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of humankind,
Especially the underprivileged and the underserved.

And though it runs counter to our deepest instincts,
You continue to teach us to love our enemies,
so that we do not become like them.

Today, especially today,
We pray for the leaders of our nation and our world
And for the leaders of our state and our community
To act and react with wisdom and discernment,
And to maintain a disposition that will defuse conflict
And advance the cause of peace.
And we pray for the leaders of our churches and synagogues
And for people of diverse faiths
To act and react with transformative grace and eternal hope,
And to maintain a disposition that will dispel propaganda
And advance the cause of truth and compassion.

We offer our prayer in the strong name of the One who came to bring peace on earth and goodwill to all humankind. Amen

Fifteen Years Later: Lessons from 9/11

by Barry Howard

Fifteen years ago on September 11, 2001 I was sitting in the home of one of our members meeting with a widow to plan a memorial service for her husband who had passed away the previous evening. As we were finalizing the date and time for the service, a family member interrupted us and asked me to step into the kitchen. There she pointed to the television and began to cry as she said, “I thought you needed to know what is happening in New York.”

My heart sank as I watched the replay of the first plane crashing into the tower one. I returned to the living room, led the family in prayer, and prayed for our nation, not knowing that more attacks were looming.

I quickly made my way back to our church campus, which was only a couple of blocks away. I found our entire staff gathered around the tv in my study, and the second tower was hit just as I entered. After a few moments of shock and tears, our team kicked into ministry mode, shared an emotional time of prayer, and began strategizing about ways we could minister to our church and community in light of these events.

Like every community around the country, members of our congregation had family members and friends who lived in New York or Washington, or who were traveling in that area, or who were serving in the armed forces who would eventually be responding to these horrid acts of terror. Eventually, it seemed that everyone was connected by friendship or kinship to someone directly affected by the attacks of that fateful day.

Although those events occurred fifteen years ago today, our individual and collective memories are still vivid and painful. We remember where we were when we heard the news. We remember bystanders fleeing from the scene and first responders rushing toward the scene. We remember gathering in churches, chapels, temples, and synagogues to pray.

What have we learned about ourselves and our world since 9/11? In particular, as followers of Jesus, what are the proactive steps we can take to be “salt” and “light” in a post 9/11 world?

  • Find your greatest security in your relationship with God. Psalm 46:1 teaches us that, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in our time of trouble.” Our faith doesn’t exempt us from tragedy, disaster, or even acts of terrorism. But our faith does serve as a compass to help us navigate the most difficult and challenging circumstances of life.
  • Refuse to live in fear. We cannot allow fear to dissuade us from fulfilling our mission. One of the goals of terrorism is to invoke a life-disrupting fear. II Timothy 1:7 reminds us that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” Obviously we need to be wise, savvy, and circumspect at home and abroad. However, we cannot let the fear of the unknown keep us from going where we are called to go and doing what we are called to do.
  • Avoid responding to terrorism with terrorism. We cannot allow terrorists to provoke us into behaving like terrorists. In other words, you cannot defeat terrorism by conducting acts of terrorism. Followers of Jesus are called to respond to adversaries with the spirit of Jesus.
  • Express gratitude to first responders. The events of 9-11 gave to many of us a deeper appreciation for the valiant service of firemen, police officers, paramedics, and other first responders. As a pastor and community leader, I want to affirm those who serve as first responders and to encourage others to consider these vocational tracks as honorable career opportunities.
  • Learn the basic tenets of other faiths like Islam. A huge challenge for those unfamiliar with the religions of the world is learning to distinguish between radical Islamic groups, Jihadists for example, and mainstream Muslims who not only reject methods of terrorism, but who also must contend with it. Just like radical “Christian” groups such as the Branch Davidians and the Peoples Temple do not represent the majority of Christians, members of Al Queda, ISIS, and Boka Haram do not represent the vast majority of the Islamic world.
  • Be careful not to become xenophobic. Xenophobia is the fear of people from different countries, cultures, or ethnicities. Just because most of the terrorists of 9/11 were from the Middle East does not mean that everyone who wears the common wardrobe of a Middle Easterner, such as a burka or a turban, is to be suspected of terrorism.
  • Pray for our president and national leaders. The task of making decisions during turbulent times is stressful and tedious. No military or political leader in history has faced the type or magnitude of threat posed by terrorist groups. No matter your preferred political party, it is imperative that people of faith pray for those who lead our nation to exercise wisdom and discernment.

A year after the 9/11 attacks, I was asked by a local newspaper, “How has the world changed since September 11, 2001?” The response I gave in 2002 is still relevant in 2016:

I believe the world has changed in so many ways that the majority of those changes are still being realized and processed.   From my perspective, it seems that our nation is going through the various stages of grief (shock, denial, depression, panic, guilt, resentment, and hope), and like any normal family system, not everyone is in the same stage.   Because the assault on 9/11 was a multi-dimensional attack on the spiritual, social, psychological, and economic fabric of our country, our sense of loss is more complex. Not only were thousands of lives lost, but so were many of our presuppositions, especially those regarding personal safety, economic security, and religious superiority. I hope and pray that we will emerge as individuals who are more circumspect, more patient, less acquisitive, and more spiritually grounded than we have previously demonstrated.

(Barry Howard serves as the Lead Pastor at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

A Prayer for Independence Day 2016

God of all grace and goodness, as we celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, we are beaming with gratitude. From the beginning you have revealed yourself to be a freedom loving God. Throughout history you have taught your people to pursue and cherish freedom.

This week as we celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, we are thankful for our spiritual and national heritage, yet we are also concerned for our future.

We are thankful for the privilege of living in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” We are grateful for unequaled liberties that allow us to freely make choices about our work, our worship, our ideology, and lifestyle. We are indebted to past and present veterans who risked life and limb in the pursuit and protection of these liberties.

From the “mountains to the prairies” we are inspired by some of the most spectacular and diverse landscapes on our planet. From “sea to shining sea” we are privileged to draw from a treasure trove of the world’s natural resources. We have access to comfortable housing, the best in healthcare, a more than adequate wardrobe, and an abundance of favorite foods. We are blessed far beyond our deserving.

During this season of celebration, we must also confess to you our concerns and appeal to you for guidance. Regardless of our personal ideology or perspective, we are concerned about things like the abuse of political power, the threat of terrorism, the divisiveness of harsh and misleading rhetoric, the lack of civil discourse, a growing sense of moral anarchy, and the possibility of another natural disaster. These concerns lead to an elevated sense of anxiety about the integrity of our government, the stability of our economy, and the future of our world.

And we confess that these anxieties all too frequently divert us from our mission to “minister to the least of these,” and to “love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly” with you.

These concerns and anxieties also remind us of our need to confess our sins, personally and corporately. We confess that we have too often taken our freedom for granted and we have too frequently been negligent in living up to the responsibilities of our citizenship. We confess that at times we are too quick to judge and quicker to criticize. We confess that we are slow to intercede and slower to trust in your providential care.

We confess that our self-interests have too often taken priority over the best interest you have in mind for our nation and for our world. We confess that we have been irresponsible in our stewardship of “our space and our stuff,” often consuming and storing compulsively without conscious regard for sharing. We confess that we have too often trusted in our own initiatives and ingenuity more than we have trusted in you.

You tell us in time-tested scripture that, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (II Chronicles 7:14)

As we celebrate this Independence Day, we ask you to forgive our sin and to heal our land.

On this day, we pray for the leaders of our nation, our state, and our community that they will lead with wisdom and courage.

We pray that in the upcoming election we will vote with discernment and conviction, and that we will support and pray for all who are elected.

We pray for the men and women who serve in our military that they will fulfill their humanitarian mission and return home safely and soon.

We pray for our enemies that their swords will also be “turned into plowshares,” even as we long for that day when the “lion will lie down alongside the lamb.”

We pray for the churches, cathedrals, and temples of our community and our world that they will be lighthouses of grace and peace, ever pressing toward the mark of our high calling.

Because you are the freedom-loving God, lead us to exercise our freedom responsibly and to pursue “liberty and justice for all” people around the globe.

We pray in the strong name of the One who came to deliver us from evil and to make us free indeed. Amen.

(Barry Howard serves as Lead Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.)

Celebrate Religious Liberty: Exercise Your Freedom to Worship

by Barry Howard

Fire up the grill. Crank up the ice cream churn. Prepare for the fireworks show.  Hum along to a little John Phillips Sousa. It’s Fourth of July weekend.

July 4th is a time to give thanks for our unrivaled freedom, and a great time to highlight and celebrate our religious liberty. Religious liberty refers to the right to worship freely without fear of persecution. Yet religious liberty also protects citizens from compulsory religious participation. In other words, our government is to neither compel nor dissuade our participation in worship.

Noting the catastrophes that had occurred historically when the government becomes the guardian of the church, our nation’s founders strategically planned their new government with a wall of separation between church and state.  When tempted to tear down that wall we should not forget the words of Isaac Bachus, a noted Baptist minister who served during the era of the American revolution: “When Church and State are separate, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other; but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued.”

While many of us plan to celebrate our nation’s independence with picnics, barbeques, and ballgames, I hope we will also seize the opportunity to celebrate religious freedom by exercising our freedom to worship. Since religious liberty is a core distinctive among Baptists and a core motive in our country’s founding, gathering with a faith community to participate in worship is a particularly appropriate way to celebrate.

Our Baptists ancestors were among the many who contended for religious liberty for all faiths. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States confirms that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

As citizens of these United States, we enjoy more comprehensive freedom than any other nation on earth, but let us never forget that with great freedom comes great responsibility.

In light of our religious liberty, let us pray fervently for those who live in regions of the world that are subject to harsh religious persecution. As we freely choose where and when to worship, let us remember our brothers and sisters who will gather anxiously but faithfully in underground churches, taking risks unfamiliar to most of us, in order to worship God and gather with their fellow believers.

In my years of experience as a pastor, I have noted that joining regularly with other believers to worship nurtures spiritual growth, fosters moral character and encourages humanitarian service. Hebrews 10:25 reminds us, “Some people have gotten out of the habit of meeting for worship, but we must not do that. We should keep on encouraging each other, especially since you know that the day of the Lord’s coming is getting closer” (CEV).

To neglect the opportunity to gather for worship and Bible study is to trivialize the tremendous price paid for our freedom to assemble without fear of reprisal or repercussion. Perhaps the most detrimental symptom of historical amnesia is the tendency to take freedom for granted.

You and I can best celebrate and preserve our liberty by exercising the privileges that accompany our extraordinary freedom. This month is a prime opportunity to celebrate. Whether you spend the time at home or on the road, make plans for a fun and festive day with family and friends celebrating our nation’s independence. Take time to give thanks for our great heritage and to pray for our nation’s leaders.

Most importantly, celebrate religious liberty by exercising your freedom to worship. And respect the freedom of others to choose when, how or if they worship. For if one group among us loses their religious freedom, religious liberty will be in jeopardy for us all.

(Barry Howard serves as the Lead Pastor at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida)

12 Healthy Trends Emerging in Revitalizing Churches

by Barry Howard

There are a lot of adjectives that can be used to describe churches: Vibrant churches, mega churches, healthy churches, dying churches, transitioning churches, and emerging churches, just to name a few.

While some may propose that vitality and relevance only exist in new church starts, there are many churches typically considered to be traditional churches, flagship churches, or big steeple churches that are undergoing a healthy process of revitalization.

There are a multitude of reasons that contribute to the need for revitalization.  Almost every church is faced with generational attrition, a more mobile constituency, cultural shifts, increased diversity, and adjudicatory or denominational restructuring.  Additionally, many churches have been adversely affected by natural disasters, congregational conflict, unpleasant leadership transitions, and changing neighborhoods.

Churches should be careful not to fall prey to “quick fix” strategies of church growth, “canned programs” that often cause more harm than good. Most churches actually need to focus on church health, which leads to the right kind of growth. There are no shortcuts to revitalized church health. I have observed that healthy congregations grow in healthy ways, and unhealthy congregations tend to grow to be more and more unhealthy. Revitalizing is the process of restoring a healthy vision, good congregational morale, and a sustainable model for engaging in mission and ministry.

What is a revitalizing church? A revitalizing church is a congregation wisely and discerningly upgrading its mission and methodology to contextually engage and serve its culture and community. A revitalizing church recognizes that the matrix for assessing effectiveness is no longer based on “budget, buildings, baptisms, and butts in the pew,” so a revitalizing church is in the process of devising a “new scorecard” for evaluating mission and ministry.  Although every church is unique, there are some common characteristics that seem to be prevalent in revitalizing churches.

Here are twelve healthy trends that I am noting in revitalizing churches across a diverse spectrum of denominations and geographic locales:

  • A revitalizing church is cultivating a strong sense of spiritual community, while simultaneously experiencing declining interest in church as institution.
  • A revitalizing church is notably trending toward serving rather than being served.
  • A revitalizing church is nurturing a worship culture that promotes engagement more than entertainment.
  • A revitalizing church is becoming more readily identified by its location than its denomination, often revising its name or brand to enrich its welcome.
  • A revitalizing church embraces the full giftedness of men and women in service and leadership.
  • A revitalizing church is developing ways to streamline decision-making by empowering committees, councils, ministry teams, and ministers with specific responsibilities on behalf of the larger body.
  • A revitalizing church is developing a high tolerance for healthy change, maintaining its core message, but upgrading it methodology.
  • A revitalizing church is strategically multigenerational, valuing the perspectives of multiple generations rather than being mono-focused on a single demographic.
  • A revitalizing church respects diversity, and is becoming more comfortable with diverse ethnic, economic, political, and theological streams within the community.
  • A revitalizing church is adapting to a culture of mobility, offering a variety of worship and study opportunities on campus, off campus, and online.
  • A revitalizing church treasures the past but is invested in the present, and does not waste energy competing with images of its former glory or being haunted by its past mistakes.
  • A revitalizing church develops strategic ways to cultivate and mentor future leaders.

While I am sure there are other factors that describe and shape churches that are on a journey of revitalization, these twelve healthy trends seem to be emerging in the churches I am observing and the church I am serving.

Churches that become satisfied with a mythical status quo and who remain highly resistant to new winds of the Spirit can easily become entrapped in a time warp, and they risk being vacuumed into a black hole of irrelevance. Churches that undiscerningly “throw out the baby with the bathwater” and sell their soul to popular culture lose their capacity to be salt and light, and their kingdom influence goes down the drain.

However, churches who are committed to living out the time tested values of scripture with a passionate sense of mission will find ways to share the good news with fresh relevance and to dialogue cross-culturally with transformative grace and radical hospitality.

Revitalization is a challenging and ongoing process. And most churches need an experienced and trustworthy networking partner to walk alongside them during the journey of revitalization. If your church needs to begin the process of revitalizing, I recommend contacting The Center for Healthy Churches to discover more about the resources they can provide to equip clergy and congregations for healthy revitalization.

We live and serve in an opportune season for missional innovation and cultural engagement. Rather than being anxious, this season calls for courage. “For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment” (2 Timothy 1:7).

If a church wants to thrive and not merely survive, a continuing revitalization process is essential.

(Barry Howard serves as the Lead Pastor at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

10 Things I Learned in Vacation Bible School

match stick cross

match stick cross

Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.                                                           -Romans 10:17

Of all the fond memories I have from childhood, Vacation Bible School was definitely one of the most influential and formative experiences of my “growing up” years. It was in VBS that I learned many of the lessons that have shaped my life and faith.

In my home community, Vacation Bible School was one of the biggest weeks of the summer. Of course it looked a little different in my day. There was no digital music, only piano. Refreshments consisted of cookies and a different color of Kool-Aid every day. Recreation revolved around playing Red Rover in the churchyard. And during craft time, we learned to make picture frames with popsicle sticks, crosses with match sticks, and all sorts of things with pipe cleaners.

I remember the teachers and workers with gratitude and clarity, and can still see their faces and recall their names. In fact, I don’t remember having a teacher I didn’t like. I’m just not sure they understood the significant impact they had on my life and the lives of countless other children.

Though Vacation Bible School is primarily tasked with teaching the Bible, in my experience the Bible lessons became life lessons. Here are ten of the things I learned by participating in Vacation Bible School when I was a child:

#1 I learned the great stories of the Bible.

#2 I was introduced to the great characters of the Bible.

#3 I learned to love the church.

#4 I first licked the middle of an Oreo cookie.

#5 I experienced group participation in crafts, projects, and recreation.

#6 I learned about God’s love.

#7   I heard about God’s gift of salvation on a level I could understand.

#8 I learned to pray for missionaries.

#9 I learned about the importance of stewardship by bringing my VBS offering every day.

#10 I learned about my first lessons about leadership by carrying the flag, and by reading scripture and leading in prayer.

Today is the first day of Vacation Bible School in our church. I hope and pray that the things our children learn this week will prove to be formative and foundational for years to come.

(Barry Howard serves as the Lead Pastor at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)


Practicing the Discipline of Remembering

To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward.     -Margaret Fairless Barber

There are some things we want to remember, and some things we want to forget. But what do we do when the things we want to forget are also the things we should remember?

Last week as I shared another eulogy at Barrancas National Cemetery at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, I remembered. As a jet flew over the pavilion just as I began my remarks, I remembered the sounds of freedom. As I scanned the landscape dotted with thousands of white grave markers, I was reminded of the costs of freedom. As I looked into the faces of a veteran’s family, I remembered the tremendous sacrifices made by the men and women who served to preserve our freedom.

As a pastor serving in an active military community, I am privileged to serve alongside those who serve or have valiantly served our country. But I also serve in a community where an extraordinarily large number of residents have lost a son, daughter, father, mother, brother, sister, friend or neighbor on the field of battle.

So for me, Memorial Day prompts more of a sense of reflection than celebration. Memorial Day is not just another “day off” but a day to remember those who have lost their lives in the military service of our country. This is a day to remember those who, according to Henry Ward Beecher, “hover as a cloud of witnesses above this Nation.”

In a culture that is increasingly attention-deficient, remembering is a painful but necessary discipline. Memorial Day provides a designated occasion “to look backward for a while to refresh the eye.”

Remembering stories from the battlefield may keep us consciously aware of the harsh realities of war and lead us to be more aggressive peacemakers. Revisiting the historical narrative of our major conflicts may enable us to learn from both the successes and the failures of our ancestors. When we remember the fallen we keep alive the individual and corporate legacies of valor and courage that inspire and challenge us to be responsible citizens of the free world.

When we fail to remember the sacrifices of those who came before us, we succumb to a convenient amnesia that eventually robs succeeding generations of acquaintance with our national heritage. To fail to remember creates a contagious apathy that leads to a neglect of both our freedom and our citizenship.   To fail to remember can produce a false sense of security and an inaccurate perception that we are exempt from future warfare. If for no other reason, we should remember in order to guard against what George Washington called “the impostures of pretended patriotism.”

Remembering our unabridged heritage can invoke in us both a gut check and a reality check. The kind of remembering we need to do on Memorial Day is an uncomfortable but necessary discipline, a practice that forges vision from memory and distills wisdom from history.

This year as we observe Memorial Day let us take time to remember the men and women who served with honor and distinction to establish and preserve our freedom. By remembering our heritage, we may be better equipped and motivated to engage our adversaries with discernment and determination.

(Barry Howard serves as the Lead Pastor at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)