Marching to a Counter-Cultural Cadence

Barry's Notes

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.


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…

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Don’t Let the Darkness Eclipse the Light of Christmas

Barry's Notes

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…

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Advent: ‘Tis the Season for Hope

Advent Hope

In seasons of despair, hope is never lost, but it is often misplaced. Advent is a time to rediscover and re-kindle the hope we have in Christ. And this year, we need a revival of hope.

Our frustration with the political theatre, our anguish over economic uncertainty, and our anxiety over threats of war or terrorism can feed a growing sense of hopelessness. Or, they can inspire us to rise up from our sackcloth and ashes, and to proactively address the issues of our day. St. Augustine imagined, “Hope has two beautiful daughters – their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

Real hope is neither blind nor naïve. Real hope motivates us to rise above despair and deal with challenging circumstances constructively, collaboratively, and courageously. Our hope in Christ reminds us that through the ever-changing circumstances and seemingly insurmountable challenges of life, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

A few years ago, I read of a rather profound exchange between two clergy who were working together during a season filled with monumental changes. In 1960, John Claypool began his tenure as pastor at the Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville. Shortly after his arrival, Claypool became friends with a Jewish rabbi who was forty years his senior. Their friendship grew deeper as they worked together in the civil rights movement. After a tense and unproductive meeting one day, Claypool looked at his Jewish friend and said, “I think it is hopeless. This problem is so deep, so many-faceted, there is simply no way out of it.”

The rabbi asked Claypool to stay a few minutes after the meeting and said, “Humanly speaking, despair is presumptuous. It is saying something about the future we have no right to say because we have not been there yet and do not know enough. Think of the times you have been surprised in the past as you looked at a certain situation and deemed it hopeless. Then, lo and behold, forces that you did not even realize existed broke in and changed everything. We do not know enough to embrace the absolutism of despair. If God can create the things that are from the things that are not and even make dead things come back to life, who are we to set limits on what that kind of potency may yet do?”

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

When underscoring the therapeutic value of hope, Norman Cousins proposed, “The capacity for hope is the most significant fact of life. It provides human beings with a sense of destination and the energy to get started.”

Advent is a season to rediscover our hope and to renew our strength, a hope inspired by God’s perspective and strength that motivates us toward God’s future, on earth as it is in heaven.

(Barry Howard serves as a leadership coach and consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches. His writings also appear on his blog, Barry’s Notes. You can follow him on Twitter @BarrysNotes.)






Let There Be Peace on Earth

peace on earth

The quest for peace is universal, whether it be peace in our land or peace in our soul. As a nation we are weary of terrorist threats, campus shootings, human trafficking, schoolyard bullying, workplace conflict, family fragmentation, political turmoil and heightened anxiety. We have a deep longing for peace.

Weary of disputes, the prophet Isaiah envisioned a future wherein war would be eradicated, and peace would prevail:
  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 fully answered…at not yet. To date, we cannot identify an era in human history when the world was completely devoid of conflict or warfare.

Early in the book 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 2017: 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 was currently being waged in Syria, an ancient biblical land, where it is reported that over 500,000 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.”
-Jill Jackson Miller and Sy Miller

As we approach Christmas, once again preparing to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, let us call on leaders in the highest places to cease provocation, and let us proactively advocate for discernment, containment, disarmament, peaceful negotiations, and the eventual end of all wars, until that day when ultimate peace prevails.

(Barry Howard serves a Leadership Coach and Consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches.

Advent: Taking the Scenic Route to Bethlehem


Although plans were being developed for a new federal highway system as early as the1930’s, construction for the Interstate Highway System was finally authorized by the Federal Highway Aid Act of 1956. However, by the time I-20 opened between Atlanta and Birmingham in the 1970s, local residents in my hometown were looking forward to faster travel on the new freeway.

For years, my family had traveled to Birmingham from Anniston on old highway 78, a winding two-lane road that would take us across the Coosa River at Lake Logan Martin and over the mountains near Chula Vista. When I-20 finally opened, I was excited to accompany my grandparents on our annual Christmas trip to the Eastwood Mall in Birmingham to do a little Christmas shopping, to see “the real Santa,” to ride the escalator in Pizitz Department Store, and to dine at Morrison’s Cafeteria.

I was surprised, however, to find that my grandfather preferred to drive the old two lane highway rather than the new expressway. He would often say something like, “The freeway is for people who are in a rush. The scenic route is for people who want to enjoy the trip.”

I didn’t know anything about Advent back then, but now I understand that, in a sense, Advent invites us to take the scenic route to Bethlehem. There seems to be a subtle force in the ethos of our economy that pushes us to travel toward Christmas in the fast lane, implying that the season is all about shopping and spending, and acquiring and accumulating. John Jensen reminds us that, “The trouble with life in the fast lane is that you get to the other end in an awful hurry.” Advent encourages us to go slow and breathe in the scenery en route to the manger.

As a young pastor, I was introduced to the colors and candles of Advent and my journey toward Christmas changed drastically. Today, I am convinced more than ever that as mission-driven Christians who live in a market-driven culture, we need the reflective disciplines of Advent to keep us alert to stealth influences like materialism, busyness, and greed, illusive forces that aim to cloak the real message of the season and replace it with superficial slogans and commercial clichés.

Advent is a time to listen for a truth that is bigger than words and to long for a gift that is other than stuff. By helping us reconnect with the heart of the Christmas story, Advent challenges us to reject cultural notions of a Jesus who promises prosperity, success, and self-fulfillment, and calls us to follow the biblical Jesus who offers forgiveness, exemplifies simplicity, and teaches self-denial.

For a Jesus follower or a spiritual inquirer, the season of Advent is like a scenic tour that begins with the promises of the prophets and concludes with the nativity narrative. Advent is a journey of emerging expectation that culminates when the Christ candle is lighted and the Christmas Star shines over the manger in Bethlehem.

Somehow when we revisit the prophets and we re-read the gospels, we are better equipped to empathize with the anxiety of Mary and Joseph and to feel the labor pains of God. By observing Advent, when we celebrate the birth of the most renowned newborn in history, we can hear both the joyful sounds of angels singing and the repercussive sobs of Rachel weeping.

If we dare to avoid the expressway and we take the scenic route to Bethlehem, we might just hear a compelling still small voice calling us to follow Jesus from the cradle to the cross and beyond.

(Barry Howard serves as a leadership coach and consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches. His writings also appear on his blog, Barry’s Notes. You can follow him on Twitter @BarrysNotes..)