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.

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.)