Making Our List, Checking It Twice

At our house 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 this week between Christmas and the beginning of the New Year, all of the items on those lists have been checked off and completed except for the final list. Today we are working 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 Christmas Missions Offering, which supports the work of missionaries around the globe.

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

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

Let There Be Peace on Earth

by 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

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 us rhetoric, breeds hostility, and divides people into adversarial camps like the North and the South.

Fast forward to 2015. This year there are at least 10 active wars and 20 ongoing armed conflicts.  The most lethal war is currently being waged in Syria, an ancient biblical land, where it is reported that over 250,000 people have been killed during the past three years.

But the promise of scripture is that there will come a day when they will transform their instruments of war into tools for agriculture (Isaiah 2:4). 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.

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 prepare to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace this Christmas, let us continue advocating for discernment, containment, peaceful negotiations, and the eventual end of all wars, until that day when peace prevails.

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

Don’t Let the Darkness Eclipse the Light of Christmas

by Barry Howard

 

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.)

An Unforgettable Visit to Pearl Harbor

As a kid growing up in rural Alabama, I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to travel broadly. For us, 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.  The 4414 mile trek from my hometown to the Aloha State was quite an enjoyable adventure, however, my first trip to Pearl Harbor would not be the most memorable of my visits there.

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 an associate minister at the First Baptist Church of Weaver, near the army base, and even later, as I taught on the adjunct faculty at the college on the base, I developed significant friendships with 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 our military personnel.

I think anyone who visits Pearl Harbor is overwhelmed with emotion. 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 thought about 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 gravemarker 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 who paid the price of our freedom with their own blood.

Since I have moved to Pensacola, I have conducted over 125 services at 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 unforgettable visit to Pearl Harbor and Punchbowl, and my many other visits to Barrancas, Eisenhower, and Arlington National Cemeteries, I am also praying that somehow, in a world threatened by “wars and rumors of wars,” we can advance toward “peace on earth and goodwill to all humankind.”

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