Barry's Notes

About Faith and LIfe

A Bird’s Eye View

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My friend and fellow church member, Bill Harden, went home to be with the Lord in 2010. His beloved wife, Louise, joined him last week. They were quite a pair. Bill inspired his family and friends with his cheerful humor, durable smile, and artistic craftsmanship. Louise loved flowers, good food, and quality time with family and friends. Her life was a bouquet of encouragement, love, and compassion.  At the memorial service for Louise, the family chose to decorate the chapel and atrium of our church with spring flowers and birdhouses. 

Although Bill invested much of his career in the travel planning business, as a retirement hobby Bill carefully constructed birdhouses in a variety of shapes and sizes.  In addition to the dozens of birdhouses Bill gave to others as gifts, an assorted collection of birdhouses adorned the mantle and the hearth in the Harden home.

Around 2008, Dr. Jim Pleitz and I were each honored to receive a unique birdhouse as a gift from Bill.  Built especially for the pastor and pastor emeritus, these church-shaped birdhouses were built from the wood removed from the floor of our former education building, affectionately known as the old library building, which was severely damaged during Hurricane Ivan and eventually demolished a year later. 

I have strategically placed my birdhouse in front of the chair where I have my quiet time early in the morning. During my prayer time over the past several years, this birdhouse has become a wooden parable of how I understand church in the 21st century….not the bricks and mortar of our campus…but our ministry…our mission…our spiritual community.

While most of the wood on this birdhouse came from the old church, Bill also incorporated new lumber into the birdhouse, creating sort of a two-toned effect, a phenomenon that reminds us that our church is a composite of the old and the new, a merger of our heritage and our dreams.  

For the perch, Bill installed an oversized doorknob front and center, which reminds us that a healthy church needs a big door, one that swings both ways, welcoming us to worship and sending out to serve.  And that big door needs to be open wide, perhaps wider than ever, as we welcome old friends and new neighbors with Christian hospitality, else we will become cliquish and stagnant.

Above the door is a cross. Intentionally placed over the entrance in a location similar to the street number or family name on your home, this cross explicitly identifies the occupants as followers of Jesus above all else. 

And finally, Bill went online and ordered a miniature spire which now sits atop the steeple pointing upwards, beckoning us to look heavenward to God for our hope and our strength.

Following the memorial service for Louise, a couple of young family members stood at the chapel door giving to each person in attendance a package of seeds, which they were encouraged to plant in memory of Louise. In ways too numerous to mention, Louise was all about planting seeds for the future and preparing for the next generation. And the seeds she planted will bear fruit for generations to come.

Our friends, Bill and Louise, are now together in their eternal home, but they left behind an ongoing testimony, personified in wooden birdhouses and a few seeds.  Perhaps their story gives us a bird’s eye view of the future, a future wherein a church that merges the best of the old and new, and plants good seeds for the future, flourishes and bursts into full bloom.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister of the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

 

Pastor: A Unique, Contextual Calling

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by Barry Howard

While searching for a particular volume in my library, another book caught my attention. The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson is an inspiring autobiographical account of what it means to be called to pastoral ministry and to live out that vocation in a unique community. This book has inspired me to reaffirm my calling with fresh perspective.

While Peterson is known to many primarily for his popular Bible translation called The Message, his most significant contribution to my world has been his writings about pastoral work. Years ago I read three of Peterson’s books about pastoral ministry: Five Smooth Stones of Pastoral Work, The Contemplative Pastor, and Under the Unpredictable Plant. In a church world that looks to the pastor to be the CEO, a chaplain-on-demand, or an ecclesial entrepreneur, Peterson reminds ministers and churches that a pastor is more like a spiritual director, a “soul friend” who walks alongside others pointing out what God is doing in their life.

In a fast paced world, where a competitive consumerist culture has invaded the church, pastors are often expected to be an idealistic combination of captivating motivational speaker, savvy executive/administrator, and extraordinary counselor. But the call to be a pastor is unique. There is no other vocation like it.

Veteran pastor Hardy Clemons reminds us that the church is to be “more family than corporation.” Clemons reminds pastors and churches of their peculiar mission:

Our goal is to minister: it is not to show a profit, amass a larger financial corpus or grow bigger for our own security. The ultimate goals are to accept God’s grace, share the good news, invite and equip disciples, and foster liberty and justice for all.”

For Peterson, the call to be a pastor is a call to spiritual discernment and caring within a unique local congregation and community. It is not a “one size fits all” occupation that functions uniformly in cookie cutter churches. The “pastoral intelligence” you glean from ministering to your people becomes a primary tool of the Spirit which informs and inspires how you lead and preach to your people.

In Peterson’s Memoir, he summarizes his understanding of the biblical role of a pastor:

The pastor is “not someone who ‘gets things done’ but rather the person placed in the community to pay attention and call attention to ‘what is going on right now’ between men and women, with one another and with God—this kingdom of God that is primarily local, relentlessly personal, and prayerful ‘without ceasing.

Each of us is responsible to God for fulfilling our calling. Forty-one years ago I confirmed my calling to be a pastor, and I am still learning and growing and understanding more of what it means to provide spiritual direction to a congregation. Being a pastor is more than what I do. It is who I am called to be.

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

Be a Catalyst for Change by Praying for the President and Other Leaders

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On Friday January 20, Donald John Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. Regardless of who we voted for, it is imperative for people of faith to pray for our new president and for other local, state, and national leaders.

From my perspective, our nation will be recovering for quite some time from one of the most negative and divisive election seasons in history. However, in addition to the negativity, there are other factors that make this election and forthcoming presidency unique and challenging: 1) Voters from both major parties “lacked enthusiasm” in their support of their party’s candidate. 2) Questions linger about hacking, tampering, or outside interference from a foreign government. 3) This election marked the largest disparity between the popular vote and the electoral vote. 4) There is at the minimum an uncomfortable relationship between the incoming president and key leaders within his own party.

These afore mentioned challenges underscore the reasons we need to pray for our newly elected president. Let me be quick to say that, for me, praying for a leader is not the same as affirming or agreeing with his or her policies or character. I believe this is true whether we are praying for the president, the governor, the mayor, or our pastor. To pray for a leader is to affirm the power of God in providing guidance and to intercede for that leader to be receptive to God’s direction, to grow in their moral and ethical conviction, and to govern or lead in the best interest of all people. That is why people of faith from a variety of political perspectives can unite around the common mission of praying for our president.

I believe that the Bible specifically teaches us to pray for those in leadership. I Timothy 2:1-2 may be the most direct instruction: I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

As the inauguration approaches, I am especially concerned that we commit to pray for our new president. The president needs our prayers, as every leader does. From my observation, and unfortunately, campaigns are focused on rhetoric. Once a leader takes office, they are confronted with reality. I think every president who takes office must have a “sobering moment” when they suddenly feel the weight of responsibility that comes with their charge.

Here are five specific petitions I am including in my prayer for the incoming president:

  1. Pray for the president to become grounded in his faith. Across the years, I have made it a practice to pray for every president to be grounded in his spiritual convictions, primarily because I believe a president will make wiser decisions when guided by his or her faith. Interestingly, our newly elected president was endorsed by multiple religious groups who perceived his agenda to be more closely aligned with their own. However, I am not aware of any of these groups who espouse that our incoming president is a faithful practitioner of his faith, that he is significantly involved in a faith community, or that he regularly reads or understands scripture. In fact, many of these groups are also praying for the new president to solidify or deepen his personal faith. If our incoming president becomes grounded in his professed faith, I think it could revolutionize his leadership style and moral compass, and enable him to serve with greater effectiveness.
  2. Pray for the president’s family. Both during a campaign and during a president’s tenure of service, his or her family undergoes an unimaginable degree of scrutiny. The pressure is immense, even for those accustomed to the limelight. Pray for the president’s family members, and for the president’s family relationships to be fortified by patience, fidelity, and discernment.
  3. Pray for the president to be wise and discerning in making appointments. Every appointment the president makes will be significant, including appointees to his Cabinet and to the Supreme Court. Pray for the president to choose individuals of good reputation and moral courage. Many of these selections, especially those appointed to the supreme court, will serve for years to come.
  4. Pray for the president to be prepared for an unexpected crisis. Every president in my lifetime has not only carried the daily burden of responsibility of leading our great nation, but they have faced more than one abrupt and unanticipated crisis. President Carter dealt with the Iran hostage situation. President Reagan survived an attempted assassination. President George H. W. Bush oversaw Operation Desert Storm. President Bill Clinton addressed the ethnic wars of Bosnia and Kosovo. President George W. Bush presided during the terrorist attacks of September 11. President Obama served during the sequence of revolts and demonstrations called The Arab Spring. Pray that the new president will be prepared to deal with any unexpected crisis that arises during his tenure.
  5. Pray for the president to grow in his capacity to serve. Regardless of their campaign rhetoric, I am convinced that no candidate is adequately prepared to serve when they enter public office, especially the office of president. An effective president must become a student of the office, learning to listen to his advisers, learning the importance of bipartisan cooperation, learning to recover from his or her mistakes, learning when to speak and when to refrain from speaking, learning conflict negotiation and crisis management, and learning to balance confidence and humility. Obviously, our new president has honed and sharpened his skills in the field of business. I pray that he will likewise sharpen his skills of leadership and diplomacy as he serves as our president.

Almost every election cycle, constituents and candidates from each party make “change” a part of their platform and message. Regardless of one’s political slant, I propose that prayer is the ultimate catalyst for change. Although I am not an advocate of bumper-sticker religion, I remember an intriguing progression of slogans or bumper-stickers from a few years ago. The first simply read, “Prayer changes things.” The second advanced the idea by stating, “Prayer changes people. People change things.” I am committed to praying for God to change people, and to empower people to enact change…morally, ethically, socially, and politically… in all the right places.

Not all followers of Jesus will always agree on who we vote for, but we can agree to pray for “all those in authority.” As we approach the upcoming inauguration, join me in praying for our newly elected president, and all of those who are in a leadership role on a local, state, or national level.

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

The View from Dr. King’s Pulpit

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As a boy growing up in Alabama during the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, I was familiar with the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but only as a name in a news headline or a textbook. I was a child when the Freedom Riders’ bus was attacked by a hostile mob and burned a few miles from our home near Anniston. Weeks later, I remember sitting on a curb in front of Wikle’s Drugstore on Noble Street watching my first Civil Rights March. With grandparents who were avid Wallace democrats, I knew a lot about the governor from Clio, but very little about the man who marched in Selma. That is, until 1982.

During my senior year at Jacksonville State University, I participated in a field trip to Atlanta with the Sociology Club. We visited several sites of social and cultural significance including the Atlanta Federal Corrections Facility, the Grady Hospital, the Ebenezer Baptist Church and the King Center.

While touring the sanctuary of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, another student and I ventured into the pulpit and stood briefly where Dr. King had stood to preach. The hostess immediately reprimanded us, informing us that in their church tradition, only ministers of the gospel were allowed to “stand behind the sacred desk.”  I relieved her sense of alarm by informing her that I was a “licensed” Baptist minister and that my friend was preparing to be an Episcopal priest, a claim which our faculty sponsor, Dr. Rodney Friery, confirmed for the hostess.

Upon learning of our ministerial affiliation, the hostess allowed us to take in the view from one of the most strategic pulpits in our nation’s history.  Then she invited us to follow her to the King Center adjacent to the historic church where she led us through the Archives Area, and then through a door that was labeled “Authorized Personnel Only.”

Once inside, we discovered we were in an expansive storage facility with row after row of shelves containing hundreds of boxes. She took a couple of boxes from the shelves, opened them, and allowed us to view the contents. We quickly realized that the hostess was giving us the privilege of examining some of Dr. King’s personal sermon notes, and speeches, and correspondence. This information was being stored temporarily and would soon be processed for the archives.

The notes we scanned were mostly handwritten on hotel stationary, restaurant napkins, used mailing envelopes, and on the backside of “incoming” personal letters. While many respected orators labor intensively over manuscripts, revising multiple drafts in order to arrive at just the right script, it was obvious that Dr. King had a rhetorical gift for rendering a speech extemporaneously and passionately from a few scribbled notes.

After half an hour or so, our time was up and we rejoined the others in our group. Only years later have I come to realize the distinct privilege given to us that day in Atlanta. Since that time, I have read most of Dr. King’s published writings as well as many commentaries and editorials about Dr. King’s life and work.

Dr. King courageously pursued his dream of equal opportunity for all persons, and he employed and encouraged non-violent means to advance a course toward civil rights. The voice and vision from Dr. King’s pulpit helped shape a movement that began transforming our nation and our world, a movement that continues to this day. And we would do well to learn from his prophetic voice, his relentless pursuit of equality, and his strategy for nonviolent protests and peaceful resistance.

(Dr. Barry Howard serves as the Senior Minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

Seventeen Books I Plan to Read in 2017

readingI must confess that my affinity for reading was slow to develop. During my teenage years, I perceived reading to be a nuisance and necessary evil. At some point during my college years, however, I learned to enjoy reading, not just for assignments or entertainment, but for personal growth.

As a pastor, in addition to Bible study and sermon preparation, I need to read widely to stay current and relevant. More importantly, in my current stage of life, I need books like I need food, to satisfy cognitive hunger and to probe intellectual curiosity. Books stimulate my thinking, exercise my memory muscles, and challenge my presuppositions.

Typically, I read a variety of genres including fiction, spirituality, theology, history, and biography. And I usually keep from three to five books going at the same time, a discipline that was recommended by Opal Lovett, one of the most influential faculty members from my college years. This practice invites a variety of authors to be conversation partners in my internal dialogue.

For the past several years, around the first of January, I make a list of books that I plan to read during the coming year. While I hope to read 40-50 books this year, I have already compiled a list of seventeen of the books I want to be sure to read in 2017:

    1. Simplify: 10 Practices to Unclutter Your Soul by Bill Hybels
    2. Gaining by Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches that Send by J.D. Greear
    3. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance
    4. A Way other than Our Own: Devotions for Lent by Walter Brueggemann
    5. An Other Kingdom:  Departing the Consumer Culture by Walter Brueggemann
    6. The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming Your Inner Life Will Deeply Transform Your Church, Team, and the World by Peter Scazzero
    7. Rediscovering Discipleship: Making Jesus’ Final Words Our First Work by Robby F. Gallaty and Ed Stetzer
    8. The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People by John Ortberg
    9. The Question That Never Goes Away: Why? by Philip Yancey
    10. Buechner101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner by Carl Frederick Buechner and Anne Lamott
    11. The Gift of Hard Things: Finding Grace in Unexpected Places by Mark Yaconelli
    12. I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World by Malala Yousafsai and Patricia McCormick
    13. Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most by Marcus Borg
    14. Half-Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves and Other Things the Bible Doesn’t Say by Adam Hamilton
    15. Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott
    16. Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To: Spirituality without Stereotypes, Religion without Ranting by Lillian Daniel
    17. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Reading books written by authors who write from diverse perspectives stretches my thinking and expands my capacity to relate to variety of people.

This year I would encourage you to read “outside the box” of your personal ideology. In other words, don’t just read the kind of stuff that reinforces what you think you know with certainty. Dare to read something that challenges you to think about life and faith from a different point of view.

Happy reading in 2017!

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

A Few Goals for 2017…More or Less

2017-goalsTraditionally, the start of a New Year is perceived as a season for clean slates and new beginnings. Depending on your perspective, you might consider New Year’s Day as a time to turn over a new leaf, to start that post-holiday diet, to begin that exercise regimen, or to generally clean up your act and put your life in order.

I am not usually inclined to compose a list of goals for the New Year, but in 2017 there are some specific things I want to work on personally and professionally. As I prepare for 2017, here are ten goals I am targeting…more or less:

  1. Eat a little less and exercise a little more. My physician keeps reminding me that I can increase the probability of enjoying prolonged good health if I begin now to eat a little less and to exercise more.
  2. Talk less and listen more. Several times in children’s sermons I have emphasized that God created us with two ears and one mouth so that we could listen twice as much as we talk. As I grow older, I am discovering the need for me as an adult to limit my speech and to be more intentional and focused in my listening.
  3. Meet less and serve more. Over the past few years, the church I serve has taken some strategic steps to minimize the number of meetings we ask leaders and workers to attend, and to increase the number of ministry opportunities we provide. Even as a church staff member, if I am not careful, my time can be consumed in meetings where my presence is not really needed. In 2017, I want to spend more time engaged in ministry action.
  4. Criticize less and encourage more. Maybe it’s just the after effect of a malicious election year, but I have heard enough criticism and negativity in 2016 to last a life time. While constructive criticism may be of great value, negative and petty criticism tends to be contagious and demoralizing. Our local and national leaders, our ministers, and our neighbors need our prayers and encouragement more than they need darts of non-constructive criticism flying their way.
  5. Spend less and save more. As I strive to be a more effective manager, and as I think about retirement scenarios down the road, I am persuaded that I need to spend a little less this year on frivolous things and to put a little more in savings to provide stability for the future.
  6. Worry less and trust more. I am convinced worry is a genetic trait handed down to me from previous generations. I know that worry is a waste of time and energy, but a little voice in my head is wrongly convinced that worry is productive. This year I want to proactively address those things that are within my realm of responsibility, to cease worrying about those things over which I have no influence, and to trust God for daily guidance and provision.
  7. Hurry less and focus more. Because my task list can get long, I tend to spend a lot of time hurrying from one task to the next. This year I want to slow the pace and focus on the present moment, even if that means I don’t check every task off my to-do list.
  8. Watch TV less and read more. I enjoy good tv shows and good books. I especially enjoy watching Hawaii Five O, NCIS, and Last Man Standing. My personal downfall, however, is reruns. I spend too much time watching shows I’ve already seen, and that cuts into my reading time. Reading exercises and stretches the mind more than watching TV. This year I am determined to spend more time wrapped up in a good book and less time watching repeats.
  9. Connect less and disconnect more. Electronic communication can be a technological blessing and social networking can be the next best thing to being there. However, staying connected 24 hours a day can be counterproductive and may increase stress, reduce productivity, and incite attention deficit. This year I want to maximize the benefits of being connected by strategically choosing times to disconnect.
  10. Reminisce less and engage more. Reminiscing about the past can be inspiring and educational. But when I become preoccupied with the past, I end up becoming a curator of yesterday’s blessings rather than envisioning new possibilities and working toward a positive future. Reminiscing helps me to treasure the experiences of yesteryear. But there comes a time to put the past behind me and the future before me and to engage the challenges and opportunities that are knocking at the door this year.

As I welcome 2017, I want to maximize the opportunities, navigate the obstacles, and “press toward the mark of the high calling” with hope and determination.

(Barry Howard serves as Senior Minister of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola.)

Making Our List, Checking It Twice

globeIn our family, we make a lot of lists, especially in December…the grocery list, the Christmas card list, the gift list, the guest list, the holiday event list, and the end-of-year giving list.  During the week following Christmas, most of the items on those lists have been checked off and completed except for the final list.  This week we are checking off the final items on our end-of-year giving list.

Throughout the year, our tithe, the first tenth of our earnings, goes to the ministries of our church.  For us, this is first and foremost an act of obedience to what we believe the Bible teaches about Christian stewardship.  But through the years we have also observed that the cumulative ministry projects of a local church make the most significant impact in meeting physical and spiritual human needs, locally and globally.  So in addition to the work of our local church, every December we give a gift to our Global Missions Offering, which supports the work of missionaries around the world.

Amanda and I are blessed to be able to contribute to a few other ministries and organizations that we are passionate about.  While there are many agencies that do extremely good work, we tend to support missional entities who aim to equip, inform, or complement the work of the local church because we believe “the local church is where the action is.”

In recent years the process has become much easier due to the advent of electronic giving.   Most ministries and charitable organizations, including our church, now have an “online giving” link that enables us to transfer our gifts directly from our account to the designated recipient.  Of course you can still mail a check or personally deliver a contribution, but we have discovered electronic giving to be safe and immediate, and electronic receipts are provided for good record keeping.

In contrast to high pressured, guilt-riddled solicitations for contributions, the Bible encourages discernment and good cheer in giving: “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

As you determine and designate your end-of-year gifts, I encourage you to be cheerful, generous and wise.  And remember, as you prepare to submit end-of-year gifts, the IRS requires that all contributions for this fiscal year be received, electronically transferred, or postmarked by December 31.

So this week we are making our list, checking it twice, and then hitting “send.”

(Barry Howard serves as the Senior Minister of the First Baptist Church in Pensacola.)

When God Moved into the Neighborhood

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The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.        John 1:14a MSG

Occasionally called the neglected Christmas story, the first chapter of John’s gospel describes the incarnation of Christ in philosophical prose.  In contrast Matthew and Luke give us nativity narratives which chronicle the birth story of Jesus.  John, however, describes Jesus as the Word who came to bring life and light to all who are willing to receive it (1:4).  And now, over 2000 years later, that Light still guides our steps and that Life continues to infuse our existence with a sense of purpose and direction.

The gospel accounts are compiled from different vantage points.  Just as Matthew’s gospel addresses the historians and genealogists among us, and Luke’s gospel sings to the poet and musician within us, perhaps John’s gospel dialogues with the inquirers and logicians of the world, both past and present.

John proposes that in the beginning of all things, the Word co-existed with God. Before order was brought out of chaos, the Word was with God. Before light emerged out of darkness, the Word was with God. Before the first breath exhaled through human nostrils, the Word was with God. The Word was, is, and always will be in sync with God.

The Greek term translated and personified as the Word is Logos. Logos is a philosophical concept which can be translated as “ultimate meaning” or “reason for being.”  During Christmas we may see a slogan that says, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  I think John is actually proposing that “the incarnate Word empowers and informs our reason for being.”

According to John, the Word took on human form and moved into the neighborhood.  In other words God not only entered the world for us, but God has chosen to be near and accessible to us.  In other words, the God of the universe, who transcends our capacity to comprehend or control, has freely and lovingly chosen to relate to us personally, to communicate with us in a language we can understand…an exemplary human life.

Remarkably, God not only invites us to receive light and life; God also calls us to be life and light wherever we live and wherever we go.  As we follow the example of Jesus, we become light and life in our community.  As we serve God by serving others, mysteriously, we too become God’s flesh and blood, God’s hands and feet in our neighborhood.

May we follow Jesus as the Light of life, and share the Light with others in the way that we live and serve.  Amen.

Don’t Let the Darkness Eclipse the Light of Christmas

winter-solstice-2015-777x437The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” Isaiah 9:2

It’s dark outside, and today seems even darker than usual. And it should. Today is the darkest day of the year.

For those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, usually occurs on December 21. The solstice, which literally means “sun stood still,” officially marks the beginning of winter. More notably, with the shortest day also comes the longest period of darkness.  The Earth’s axial tilt is at its furthest point from the sun, allowing the least amount of daylight to reach the earth.

While it may be merely coincidental that the darkest day arrives just prior to our customary celebration of Christmas, from my experience as a pastor, I am aware that holidays can be dark days emotionally for many of us. While there are a variety of events, experiences, and emotions that cast dark shadows over our lives, some even bleak enough to obscure the joy of Christmas, a prominent culprit is grief.

Grief comes in many shapes and sizes. In the human experience, we grieve over the death of friends and loved ones. We grieve over disintegration of a marriage. We grieve over friction within the family. We grieve over the loss of a job. We grieve over tragic events around the globe. At times we may even grieve over our diminishing health, the loss of our dreams, or the fading of opportunities.

Let me be quick to affirm that grieving is healthy as long as we are progressing through the grief process as opposed to becoming stuck in our grief. The Bible never tells us not to grieve, but it does counsel us not to grieve “as those who have no hope” (I Thessalonians 4:13).

Be aware that the empty chair at the Christmas dinner table, the Christmas card labeled “return to sender,” or the empty pillow on the other side of the bed can all trigger a seemingly overwhelming sense of darkness, loneliness, or grief.

Unprocessed grief is unhealthy and can lead to anger, depression, or even physical illness.   During the holidays, rather than being overwhelmed by the darkness of grief, look your grief in the eye and call it by name. Don’t deny it or ignore it.  And certainly don’t let grief dictate or dominate the mood or conversation of your holiday celebration.

I am convinced that because we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), our faith gives us the capacity to experience the pangs of grief and “the peace of God, that transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) simultaneously.  Our faith does not exempt us from the darkness, but our faith does equip us to deal with our grief with deep-seeded hope.

Hinting at what life will be like when the promised Messiah comes, Isaiah 9:2 envisions that, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

Walk through the darkness with courage. Just don’t take up residence in the shadows. Grief does not have the final word. After the long night of darkness, then comes the light.

Don’t let the darkness eclipse the Light of Christmas.

(Barry Howard serves as Senior Minister of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola.)

 

Marching to a Counter-Cultural Cadence

by Barry Howard

The poinsettias are ablaze with holiday red. And the crèche is in the window for all to see. The Advent wreath is in place and we are on our countdown toward lighting the Christ Candle on Christmas Eve. Among the poinsettias, the wreaths, and the candles, there are numerous Christmas trees adorned with ornaments, Chrismons, and white lights. Our church campus is colorfully and beautifully decorated.  And in addition to the traditional green Christmas trees, there stands a drum tree. You heard correctly.  A drum tree! A tree-shaped display made of assorted historic drums.

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Vick Vickery, our esteemed Scoutmaster emeritus, assembles this drum tree each year out of 34 percussion instruments from different eras in history.  Included in this display are replicas of the rope drum used in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Historically, these instruments were crucial for conveying instructions and maintaining morale, for in the days prior to advanced telecommunication, soldiers were trained to listen carefully for strategic commands encoded in the resounding beat of the drummer.

Our drum tree reminds me of “The Little Drummer Boy,” the song about a boy who gave of his meager talent by playing the drum for the Christ child.  There’s an interesting story behind this popular song.  Introduced in the U.S. in the 1950’s, this memorable holiday carol made popular by Bing Crosby, was actually based on a Czech tune, “Carol of the Drum,” composed by Katherine K. Davis in 1941 and later recorded by the famed Von Trapp Family Singers in Austria.   The more familiar “drummer boy” version details the fictional but meaningful tale of a young boy who approached the manger with nothing to offer but his drum.  However, as the boy began to play his drum, his unique gift brought a smile to the face of the infant.

Like the wise men in the biblical narrative, the drummer boy brought his gift to the newborn king.  Treasures we might deem to be the contemporary equivalent of gold, incense, and myrrh are not the only gifts you can present in honor of Jesus. As you finalize your Christmas shopping, perhaps you might consider offering something that costs you a little more of yourself, a contribution from your own pool of talent or giftedness.

Now, stacked and configured in the form of a Christmas tree, our drum tree serves as a Christmas reminder that God calls us to march to the beat of a different drummer, receiving our formative cues and motivation from the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus. Romans 12:2 teaches, Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (NIV).

While the default values of our culture may prompt us to spend irresponsibly, to consume disproportionately, and to hurry frantically, our faith calls us to march to a counter-cultural cadence.  Among many other things this cadence will lead us to work for the common good, to pray for our enemies, to welcome the stranger, and to serve the underprivileged.

During this celebrative and reflective season of the year, you and I are invited to invest our best gifts, tangible and intangible, in ways that express our love and loyalty to the One born in Bethlehem.