Remembering Pearl Harbor, Visiting “Punchbowl”

by Barry Howard

punchbowl-002Today as wreaths are laid at the USS Arizona and as divers are preparing to inter the cremains of two recently deceased survivors of the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor inside the hull of this historic sunken vessel, I am reminiscing about my visits to the USS Arizona Memorial and the National Cemetery of the Pacific.

As a kid growing up in Northeast Alabama, I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to travel broadly. For our family, making the journey from Anniston to Eastwood Mall in Birmingham was like a mini-vacation.

Going to an exotic location, like Hawaii, seemed out of the question. However, in 1995 I made my first trip to Hawaii, and of course, Pearl Harbor was high on my list of sites to visit.

I was raised near Pelham Range and Fort McClellan in Calhoun County. Seeing military convoys traveling the highways and hearing artillery fire from the range was a routine part of life. Later, when I served as a pastor near the army base, and subsequently, as I taught on the adjunct faculty at the college on the base, I developed significant friendships with many of our great military personnel. As long as I can remember, I have had a deep sense of gratitude for veterans and a profound sense of gratitude for all of those who serve in our armed forces.

I think anyone who visits Pearl Harbor is overwhelmed with emotion. Missouri Congressman Sam Graves says, “Millions of people gave their lives fighting fascism and imperialism, but Pearl Harbor was the event that forever changed the course of human history.”

While on the USS Arizona, as I listened to the historical narration, and as I watched tourists and veterans alike walk around the monument reading the list of names with reverent silence and then gaze in the water at the rusted vessel, I grieved for the families who never saw their young men and women return home.

Mostly due to a missions partnership we had developed through our church, I made subsequent visits to Hawaii in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000. My most memorable visit occurred in 1999. That year I had the privilege of taking my friend, Mack Jones of Corbin, Kentucky, on his first trip to Hawaii. Mack’s brother, Edward, died January 5, 1944 in the aftermath of the attacks on Pearl Harbor and is buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as “Punchbowl.”

On a prior trip, a group of us, including Mack’s wife, Wylene, had visited Punchbowl, located the headstone for Edward W. Jones, taken a few photos, and then did a pencil tracing of the grave marker to take home to Mack.

The next year, we were privileged to return, and this time Mack went with us. First we traveled up the hill to Punchbowl and visited Edward’s grave. Then we traveled to Pearl Harbor to visit the memorial. As a group of us stood alongside our friend, whose brother never returned home to Kentucky, we were even more aware of the sobering reality of war, and even more appreciative of the sacrifices of those paid the price of our freedom with their own blood.

Since I have moved to Pensacola, I have conducted over 130 services at the Barrancas National Cemetery located at the Naval Air Station here. As a minister, I am honored to share words in memoriam for veterans of all ages.

And today, as I think about that memorable visit to Pearl Harbor and Punchbowl, and my many other visits to Barrancas, Eisenhower, and Arlington National Cemeteries, I am also praying that the Christmas “peace on earth and goodwill to all humankind” will become our global reality.

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

Let There Be Peace on Earth

earthby Barry Howard

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.                        Isaiah 2:4 NIV

The quest for peace is a universal longing, whether it be peace in our land or peace in our soul. Isaiah was weary of disputes and so are we. We are weary of terrorist threats, campus shootings, human trafficking, partisan politics, schoolyard bullying, workplace conflict, family fragmentation, and intrapersonal turmoil. We have a deep longing for peace.

Since childhood, I have been singing and praying, “Let there be peace on earth.” But this prayer has not been answered…yet. To date, we cannot identify an era in human history when the world was completely devoid of conflict or warfare.

On the second page of Genesis, the paradise called Eden is contaminated by sin, and then a couple of pages later, a fatal conflict erupts between Cain and Abel. The notion of war is born.

In the Old Testament, not only is there regional conflict between the Israelites and a variety of enemies, there is also internal conflict between Israel and Judah. This civil war eventually led to the establishment, at least for a few years, of the Southern Kingdom and the Northern Kingdom, often referred to as the Divided Kingdom. That’s what war does. It rouses suspicion, ramps up rhetoric, breeds hostility, and divides people into adversarial camps like the North and the South.

Fast forward to 2016: According to various news agencies there are at least 10 active wars and more than 30 armed conflicts ongoing in the world this year. The most lethal war is the civil war currently being waged in Syria, an ancient biblical land, where it is reported that over 400,000 have been killed.

But the promise of scripture is that there will come a day when the lion will lay down beside the lamb. Just not yet! There is coming a day when the nations will transform their instruments of war into tools for agriculture. Just not yet!

Until then we cannot recline in naïveté. In a world where systemic evil exists, when efforts at negotiation and arbitration have failed, military initiative is often an unfortunate but necessary option to destabilize tyrants, to rescue hostages, and to thwart terrorism. But even then, for civilized nations, the goal is to be protective, not vindictive.

In one of his most well-known sermons, Jesus proclaimed, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Especially in these days of escalated fear, let us pray for peace, let us work for peace, let us practice peace-making, and let us keep singing:

Let there be peace on earth And let it begin with me. Let there be peace on earth The peace that was meant to be. With God as our father Brothers all are we. Let me walk with my brother In perfect harmony.”                       -Jill Jackson Miller and Sy Miller

As we approach Christmas, once again preparing to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, let us continue advocating for discernment, disarmament, containment, peaceful negotiations, and the eventual end of all wars, until that day when ultimate peace prevails.

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

Good Options for Online Advent Devotionals

by Barry Howard

Devotional reading, contemplation, and prayer are disciplines that nurture our spiritual health in all seasons. Advent, however, is a prime season for deepening or re-igniting one’s devotional life. And if you opt to go “paperless,” there are many excellent Advent devotional resources available online.

During my high school years, the student ministry at my home church challenged us to begin the practice of a daily “quiet time.” Since that time, my personal devotional time has been a primary catalyst for spiritual growth and direction.

Across the years, however, that seedling notion of a “quiet time” has emerged into an early morning ritual which centers on inspirational reading, prayer, and reflection. And the resources I utilize are highly diverse, ranging from testimonial to liturgical.

Three years ago I decided to go “paperless” in my devotional time choosing to utilize online Bible apps and a variety of e-resources for my devotional time. Online resources are especially helpful during holiday travels because the resources can be accessed on any internet computer or smart device including laptops, tablets, and smartphones.   Going paperless also keeps my desktop a lot less cluttered whether I am at home or in my office.

Most online devotional sites provide complimentary access, and the costs are covered through donations or advertising revenue. And perhaps most importantly, like any electronic communication, e-devotionals save paper and are friendly to the environment.

As I began preparing for Advent this year, I previewed a few good resources to share with my congregation and to use in my own personal devotional time. I wanted to find resources that are easily accessible, theologically sound, and culturally relevant.

Like other online devotional resources, Advent E-Devotions may be posted by churches, missional organizations, or individuals. A few of the devotional sites invite you to register your email address and they will send a daily devotional directly to your inbox. Other sites have corresponding “apps” that you can download making access easier on your mobile devices. And all online sites can be bookmarked or added to your favorites list for ease of access.

Here are a few examples of online Advent devotional options that you might find helpful:

Local churches often provide links to their Advent Devotional Booklets. For example, the Advent Guide at my church is compiled by our Children’s Ministry and is posted at http://fbcp.org/Uploaded/16-Advent.pdf. These booklets can usually be accessed as a PDF file, or downloaded to a tablet, Kindle, or E-reader.

D365.org is sponsored by Passport Camps and provides a daily Advent devotional that is appropriate for students or adults. (http://d365.org/)

Buckner International is a faith-based social service organization based in Dallas that serves hundreds of thousands of people each year across the United States and around the globe. Their Advent guide, written by assorted authors, can be downloaded at http://www.buckner.org/christmasdevotions.

The Denison Forum on Truth and Culture provides multiple resources to equip people to “change the culture for the kingdom.” The DFTC web site offers inspirational Advent devotions that are written by Janet Denison at http://dev30.denisonforum.org/store/send/1-root/34-advent-devotional.

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary provides an Advent Devotional W-Book written by members of the seminary community. This e-book follows Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary and can be downloaded at http://www.pts.edu/devotional_1.

Sacred Space is an online prayer site provided by the Irish Jesuits. They provide a guided Advent devotional series and an Advent Retreat option at www.sacredspace.ie.

Whether you are new to the practice of a daily devotional experience or a long time practitioner, you may discover that a good Advent E-Devotion will enrich your spiritual preparation for Christmas, and ultimately deepen your celebration of the birth of the Christ.

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

Making Wise Decisions about Holiday Giving

by Barry Howard

The holiday season is here once again, and with the festivities comes multiple invitations to give to worthwhile missional causes. Determining which ones to give to can be painstaking and time consuming. Because of the multiple opportunities and solicitations that come our way, it is important that we are generous and smart in our giving.
 
Many businesses and foundations have pre-determined guidelines for determining the charitable causes to which they will make contributions. I believe it is possible for individuals and families to make both wise and generous decisions about charitable holiday giving as well, but you need a plan. At our house, we employ the following guidelines to help us filter through the requests and determine which charities, missions, and ministries will go on our Christmas list;

  1. Our first gift goes to the mission offering of our church. Throughout the year, our tithe (the first 10% of our income) goes to support the ministries of our church. Primarily, this is an act of obedience in response to what we believe the Bible teaches. Through the years, however, we have observed that the cumulative projects of a local church make a significant impact on improving individual lives. So, at Christmas we give an additional gift to the missions offering to support the work of missionaries around the globe.
  2. We tend to give to organizations that are faith-based and focused on assisting the “least of these,” those who are disconnected, disadvantaged, or disenfranchised.
  3. We aim to give to organizations that have low overhead and administrative costs. We don’t want to give to an organization that exists to sustain itself. We want to give to organizations that provide a monumental service to people in need or that serve as conduits to get funds and resources to people in need.
  4. We give to organizations that have demonstrated accountability, those who have a reputable board of advisers and a reporting mechanism to let us know where previous gifts have been used.
  5. We determine not to do “guilt giving” or to respond to “arm-twisting requests.” We are motivated more by the missional pulse of a group or project than by the emotional plea of the one making the request.
  6. We do not give directly to persons on the street, at intersections, or interstate ramps. Our experience is that people are most effectively helped through missional organizations and relationships. (We do offer to help get persons on the street to our mission center for assistance, or we offer to buy them a meal, but we do not give money, simply because of the high rate of manipulation and addiction among regular panhandlers.)
  7. We recognize that some good organizations will be left out of our giving plan. There are thousands of organizations, ministries, and causes that are trustworthy, accountable, and effective, but we cannot support all of them. There are hundreds we would like to support, but our resources are limited. So, we choose a few of those organizations or projects that fit our criteria and we give to them cheerfully.
  8. We give ourselves a matching challenge that helps us to give generously and according to how we have been blessed. We try to give an amount equal to the total of what we spend on gifts for family and friends. For example, if we spend $1200 on gifts, we will also give a matching $1200 to missions or charitable causes. Other friends of ours gift an amount equal to their season tickets for college football or an amount equivalent to their annual dues at the country club.
  9. We have transitioned to electronic giving, if the recipient organization provides a secure web portal for contributions. E-giving transfers our gift to the organization more quickly and it gives us an immediate receipt of the contribution.
  10. We re-evaluate who we are giving to each year and do not automatically give this year to the same groups as last year.

As we grow and learn better stewardship practices, we realize that we are not liable for supporting every worthy cause. However, we are accountable to God for the resources placed within our care. We have the privilege, especially during the holidays, of generously discerning from among many worthwhile causes those projects and organizations we will support.

As you plot and plan your holiday giving, don’t be overwhelmed with guilt for not supporting every single cause. Be generous and smart. Give to those causes that have a proven track record of ministering to spiritual, physical, and emotional needs.

Choosing an Attitude of Gratitude

by Barry Howard

Many of us will be privileged to gather on Thanksgiving Day with family and friends to enjoy a bountiful feast and hearty conversations around the table. And either in our morning devotional time, or the prayer before the meal, we will give thanks for our many blessings.

As one of our treasured holidays, Thanksgiving is a day set aside, not only to give thanks, but to remind us of the ongoing importance of gratitude. In I Thessalonians 5: 16-18, Paul encourages believers to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Elie Wiesel proposes that, “When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.” During my college years, I read a little book entitled, Agaperos, written by Grady Nutt, a unique Baptist minister who was called the “Prime Minister of Humor.” In that book, as in his sermons, Grady emphasized the importance of choosing “an attitude of gratitude.”

As we grow in our walk with the Lord, we may discover that choosing a disposition of gratitude enriches life in more ways than we have previously imagined. Experiencing and expressing gratitude throughout the ever-changing seasons of life has a way of re-shaping our perspective and re-formatting our attitude.

In my journey of faith, I am discovering that gratitude encourages me and others around me. When I am frustrated and tend to see the glass half empty rather than half full, I find that the practice of “counting my blessings” infuses me with encouragement, and that encouragement spills over into the lives of others. Gratitude has a way of refocusing my attention on the positive and reminding me of how blessed I am.

Gratitude also promotes good health. That does not mean that gratitude brings instantaneous healing, nor does it make us immune from viruses or exempt from accidents. But a heart of gratitude promotes spiritual, emotional, and physical health in at least a couple of ways. First, gratitude trumps toxic negativity and complaint, cleansing our perspective and renewing our focus. And second, gratitude seems to put us in a positive frame of mind which allows our body to better produce and release antibodies and restorative enzymes that work to promote health and wholeness.

A detailed report on a study of the psychology of gratitude is found in Robert Emmons’ book, Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. In his research at the University of California-Berkeley, Dr. Emmons found that those who practice grateful thinking “reap emotional, physical and interpersonal benefits.” The study revealed that individuals who regularly keep a gratitude journal report fewer illness symptoms, generally feel better about their lives as a whole, and are more optimistic about the future. This led Dr. Emmons to conclude that gratitude is both a personal choice and healthy response to our life experiences.

Ultimately, gratitude inspires me to serve. Gratitude is not about counting my blessings just to make me a happier consumer. Genuine gratitude motivates me to share my blessings. For me, the quality of life is best measured, not by how much I have, but how effectively I use resources I have been given to serve.

With good reason, the scripture encourages us to “give thanks in all circumstances.” For the believer, thanksgiving is not just a day of feasting and festivity. Choosing an attitude of gratitude is a daily discipline, a personal practice that gradually and steadily transforms us from the inside out.

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

A Prayer for Veteran’s Day 2016

by Barry Howard

God of faith and freedom, on this Veteran’s Day we are thankful for all the men and women, past and present, who have served or are currently serving in the various branches of our nation’s military services.

We are grateful for the privilege of living in a diverse country that persistently thrives on the privileges and perplexities of freedom.  And we are thankful for each and every veteran who has paved the way for our unrivaled liberties, treasured liberties that allow us to freely make choices about our work, our worship, our political convictions, and our lifestyle.  We are forever indebted to these past and present veterans who risked life and limb in the pursuit and protection of these freedoms.  

As we observe this Veteran’s Day by highlighting the valor and courage of our veterans, we also confess our concern for the current state of our nation. We sincerely ask you to forgive our sins, even the ones we are slow to confess, and to heal our land. You tell us in an ancient but relevant 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)

On this day, we pray for the current leaders and the newly elected leaders of our nation, our state, and our community that they will embody wisdom, exercise courage, and build consensus.  And we especially pray for the men and women who currently serve in high risk areas of the world, that they will fulfill their mission effectively and return home safely and soon.

Just as you have revealed yourself to be a freedom-loving God, send us into the world to be your freedom-loving people.  And may the stories we hear and the memories we share on this Veteran’s Day inspire us to live responsibly, serve cooperatively, and sacrifice selflessly, even as we work courageously toward liberty and justice for all your children.  We pray in the name of the One who gives ultimate freedom.  Amen.

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

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