A Pastor’s Prayer for Parishioners

by Barry Howard

Gracious and patient God,

Today I pray for those who are members, formally or informally, in the congregation I serve.

I pray for the young and the elderly, the sick and healthy, the employed and the unemployed, the happily married and the unhappily married, the active and the semi-active, the veteran saint and the new believer, and the spiritually passionate and the spiritually frustrated.

I am aware that there are diverse and divergent life experiences confronting each individual on this day. I pray for those who are at the top of the mountain, experiencing success in their business, stability in their home, growth in their faith, good health, and/or unspeakable joy in their heart.

I also pray for those who are currently in the valley of despair, experiencing frustration in their business, friction in their home life, lukewarmness in their faith, mounting concerns with their health, and/or perplexing anxiety in their soul.

I pray for every member of this spiritual family to know and appreciate the value of spiritual community, to worship and to serve with regularity, to listen and to speak with intentionality, to be honest and to be humble, to be reverent and to be respectful, and to weep and rejoice, privately and together, as needed.

Help us as your family to balance those ongoing tasks of reaching out to those outside our family while ministering to each other within the family, so that neither task is lacking.

Help us as your people to work energetically for the common good of your community-yet-under-construction, so that our personal ambitions and our preferential agendas do not derail or defeat your initiatives that are often invisible to the self-absorbed eye.

Help us as your church to experience the joy of serving, the elation of cheerful and sacrificial giving, a peace that surpasses understanding, and the unique bonding that comes from sticking close by each other during all of the seasons of life.

Help us as your children to continually and wisely realign our lives, not conforming to the illusions of pop culture, but always being transformed by the durable and timeless work of Jesus Christ.

Keep us in tune with your Spirit who convicts and comforts, guards and guides, equips and encourages, and who is working actively to generate good in all circumstances, especially those difficult circumstances that we perceive as devoid of good.

Since life in this world is imperfect and every individual life including our own falls short of your standard, teach us to be more gracious and less judgmental, more inclusive and less exclusive, more compassionate and less condemning, because we have already seen this kind of grace demonstrated in the story of Jesus.

In this crucial day in time when it is tempting to neglect spiritual community due to our busy schedules, to replace worship with trendy entertainment, and to prioritize self-interests above service, remind us that we are people of the towel, both to wash each other’s feet, to dry each other’s tears, and to wipe clean the slate of sins on earth even as you have purged our sins from our private record in heaven.

Encourage and equip us to be your hands and your feet, your light and your love, and your disciples and your servants in a world that needs authentic witnesses of your love and your mercy.

May we receive each day as a gift, and like Jesus, to value relationships above the quest for riches and the preservation of traditions, and to prioritize covenant loyalty above comfort and convenience.

As you prepare us to live life to the fullest, shape us into incarnate representatives of your presence and exemplary constituents of your grace, for we pray in the name of the One who came to give us life and life more abundantly.   Amen

A Pastor’s Prayer for Pastors

Gracious and Loving God,

Today I come to you as a pastor praying for pastors. I pray for all men and women from every walk of faith who are called into this peculiar and rewarding vocation of encouraging and equipping others for their journey.

First I pray for pastors to be encouraged. Although this work brings much joy, this work can also be highly discouraging. I pray for those pastors who are right now living through the dark night of the soul, some experiencing darkness because of the challenges of their congregation, others experiencing darkness because of emotional depression, and still others experiencing darkness because of physical or spiritual fatigue. I especially pray for those pastors who are discerning whether to go to a new place of service, and for those pastors who have confirmed the call to stay where they are to seize the opportunities and tackle the challenges. I pray for the energy of pastors to be revitalized so that pastors can dream dreams and have visions, and do their work with the right spirit.

I pray for pastors to be faithful. I pray for pastors to live in faithful covenant to their families, both their spiritual family and their immediate family, and to always distinguish between their covenant responsibilities of the two. I pray for pastors to be faithful to our calling, always discerning and following your missional initiatives, and to be continually engaged in dialogue with you.

I pray for pastors to be anointed with a fresh dose of courage. These are stressful times and it is no time for your shepherds to be sheepish. You did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of courage, so help us as pastors to speak and act courageously with moral and ethical conviction for causes that are just and right. Help us to act with courageous conviction in living and preaching the good news to all people regardless of ethnicity, creed, or economic status. And help us to have the courageous insight to navigate our congregations toward the ways of Christ, and away from any popular fads, trends and perceived shortcuts to growth that both trivialize the gospel and minimize the Christian experience.

I pray for pastors to have endurance. I pray for pastors to work intentionally and intelligently, to carefully manage the demands of an unpredictable schedule, to faithfully practice Sabbath-keeping, and to respond with tough love to those occasional high maintenance saints who can become like thorns in the flesh and pains in all of the wrong places.

I pray for pastors to be effective preachers. I pray for us to be both prophets and poets, who tell the truth and love the people. I pray for pastors to speak with authority from on high and yet have street savvy, so that we can simultaneously be heavenly minded and do some earthly good. In a world filled with bad news, I pray for pastors to be articulate and welcomed voices of good news, bringing your right word at the right time.

Lord, it is an engaging, yet gut-wrenching time to be a pastor. And although faith no longer enjoys privilege and preference in the public square, we are confident that the message of faith is astoundingly relevant at the major intersections of life and that the message may be heard more profoundly in the congestion of the daily grind than from the assigned seats of privilege.

In a world where people are not content with easy answers; where truth is sometimes black, sometimes white and sometimes gray; where shallow spirituality doesn’t “cut the mustard”; and where seekers are searching for authenticity; help us as pastors to rise to the occasion to speak the truth in love, and to be more about the business of the kingdom than the kingdom of business. Help us as pastors to find security in our belonging to you and not in the whims of the culture in which we live or the opinions of the beloved people we service.

For every pastor, and especially me, O Lord,
I pray for clarity of call and clarity of conscience.
I pray for physical health and spiritual vitality.
I pray for emotional stability and spiritual sensitivity.
Restore unto us both the joy of our salvation and the joy of ministry,
That the fire in our bones will be transformed into the energy and enthusiasm with which we serve.

In the name of the One who calls us, who encourages us, who empowers us, and the One who has promised to be with us until the end of the age and beyond.   Amen

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

Jet Rogers: “I Learned a Lot about Life and Sports from Coach Bryant”

(In 2008, I interviewed Jet Rogers about his memories of serving as an assistant coach at Alabama under legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Last Saturday the Kentucky game, the University of Alabama recognized the undefeated 1966 team.  Coach Rogers is now the oldest living coach from that 1966 Alabama team and I am honored to serve as his pastor. The following is a re-posting of my interview with Coach Rogers in 2008.)

Memories of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, 25 Years Later

By Barry Howard

As a child growing up in Alabama, I knew firsthand that legendary Alabama football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant, was larger than life. Twenty-five years after Coach Bryant’s death, his name still invokes awe and respect. Known for his trademark Hound’s-tooth hat and his low rumbling growl, Coach Bryant is remembered as one of college football’s winningest coaches and one of Alabama’s most memorable citizens.

Although he did not have a degree in the subject, Coach Bryant employed sound psychology in his coaching strategy. As he urged ordinary young men to become champions, Coach Bryant taught perseverance and endurance: Never quit. It is the easiest cop-out in the world. Set a goal and don’t quit until you attain it. When you do attain it, set another goal, and don’t quit until you reach it. Never quit.

Coach Bryant retired at the end of the 1982 season with a record of 323 wins, 85 losses and 17 ties. He died on January 26, 1983.

Coach Jet Rogers, now an active member in our church, served as an assistant coach on Coach Bryant’s staff at the University of Alabama from June 1966 through July 1971. I took the opportunity recently to ask Coach Rogers about his memories of Coach Bryant:

Question: When Coach Bryant stepped onto the field, he was respected by his players, the fans, and his opponents. How would you describe Coach Bryant off the field?

Coach Rogers: He was a business man, reserved. One-on-one he would listen to what I had to say, then try to give me good advice.

Coach was not critical of others and kept a positive attitude. He would not allow us to use the word “can’t.” Beginning on Thursday, he had on his “game face” through Saturday, and we coaches would steer clear of him.

Question: What was Coach Bryant’s attitude toward his players and staff members?

Coach Rogers: He believed we all were part of his family. He loved us!! He would worry a great deal about our traveling so much in automobiles as we recruited prospects. We truly felt he was like a father to us, because he pushed us to do more and to be better in every possible way.

Question: What are some of your most significant memories from working with Coach Bryant?

Coach Rogers: I learned a lot about life and sports.

  • WINNING: Coach had us believing that we were going to win, regardless of who we played.
  • HELPING: I needed some financial help and asked Coach Bryant to call the bank for me and set up a loan. He proceeded to give me a father-son talk and wrote me a personal check to meet the need. Also, one year, my wife and children were in a car wreck. Coach Bryant visited our daughter in the hospital and presented her a gift which thrilled her to death.
  • COMPASSION: My dad passed away right after the 1967 Sugar Bowl game. Following the funeral, we returned to Tuscaloosa, and Coach Bryant walked down the hall to my office. He closed the door and told me, “A man’s daddy is the most important person he has because when you’re down and out, maybe broke, or your wife is leaving you, or things get out of control, you can always go to your dad and ask for advice. He is the one person that will help you. Jet, I know how you feel, now with your dad gone. I want to be a father figure for you.” This meant so much to me.          

Question: In recent weeks the ethics and sportsmanship of some athletes and coaches have been called into question. In your opinion, did Coach Bryant practice good ethics and sportsmanship?

Coach Rogers: Yes. Coach informed parents that he would lead and teach their sons the ethics and rules of the game. He also had his own rules—some were written down and the main one, in my thinking, was: “Don’t embarrass your family; don’t embarrass yourself, the coaching staff or the University.” Coach Bryant told his players if they got an unsportsmanship penalty, they would not play anymore in that game. Further, if the player blatantly caused a penalty, he would not play in the next game. This happened to one of our best defensive players in one game, prior to our game against Auburn. Consequently, he was taken from the game and disallowed to play Auburn.

Coach stressed “respect for self and respect for authority.” His players wore a coat and tie to all the games. Also, they were to be mindful of the fact that when their coach stood up to speak to them after finishing a meal together, everyone was to stop eating and “listen up.” We were at a Bowl game and Coach finished eating, stood up, and tapped his watch a couple of times, then faced the team. One player continued eating his meal, and Coach Bryant said to him, “I want you to get up from the table, go to your room, get your suitcase, and head back to Tuscaloosa.”

Question: Do you still have contact with some of the players who played for you and Coach Bryant?

Coach Rogers: Yes. While at Pensacola High School, I hired three former players: Alec Pittman, Steve Root, and Robin Cary. I have been in a position to help one or two Bama boys in their search for coaching jobs.

About two years ago (2006), the University of Alabama honored the 1966 football team. This team went undefeated, plus a Sugar Bowl win against Nebraska. This 1966 team is known as the team without a ring, because we were the only Division I team without a loss or a tie. We all were so excited to be together again, everybody was hugging each other’s necks! These ex-players were thanking us for helping them accomplish so much. We should have been thanking them. Players and coaches are family—Coach Bryant instilled this in us.

Question: Are there any players who stand out as having demonstrated exceptional character during or since their playing years?

Coach Rogers: I can think of many players. John Croyle, Leroy Jordan, Jeremiah Castille, Ray Perkins, Woodrow Lowe, Joe LaBue, and Eddie Morgan are a few I shall mention. Coach Bryant expected us to be of good character. In his words, “If you don’t have character, you better get it soon or you will be gone.”

Question: How would you want others to remember Coach Bryant?

Coach Rogers: I honestly believe that most all of the players under Coach Bryant loved, respected, and honored him. I certainly did. I still miss chatting with him over the phone after we moved away from Tuscaloosa. If you were not fortunate to have known Coach Bryant, please read about him. I have heard comments concerning Coach that are untrue. It really upsets me when I hear people say that he drank too much. I was in his company many times, and I never witnessed him drinking excessively. I don’t think he would exhibit poor judgment. He meant so much too many—more than anyone I have ever known. People need to know that he molded lives.

Question: How do you hope your players remember you?

Coach Rogers: I loved each of them and tried to give them Christian leadership. I tried to help mold their lives. Two of my players became ordained ministers. I attended a funeral in which an ex-player preached. He shared with me that I had a strong influence on him. I appreciated this more than if he had said I was a great coach. I hope each of these men remember me as a coach who respected them, cared for them, and gave them something to lead toward productive lifestyles.

Question: What advice would you give to young high school and college athletes concerning sports and life?

Coach Rogers: I would emphasize these four areas…

  • ATTITUDE – Always have a good attitude. If you are on the 3rd or 4th team, don’t pout; just convince the coach that you are going to get better. Take your sport serious and use it to help mold your life for the future.
  • PUNCTUALITY – Always be on time for practice, meetings, meals, classes, etc.
  • EGO – Never get the big head. Be humble, be thankful for the ability you have and opportunities that you make happen. Always give your best; nothing less than your best.
  • SPIRITUAL LIFE– Go to the church of your choice. Try to live close to God and let Him guide you daily. If you do this, you will accomplish much and be a happier individual.


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

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)