Church being Church

You may have heard the saying, “hard times don’t build character—they reveal it.”   That saying was much on my mind this week as you, the body of Christ at Ball Camp, walked with the Lethgo family during their time of grief and loss.  There are few times in our lives more difficult than when we face the loss of a loved one.  Watching you be the presence of Christ to a family facing just such a loss was truly a blessing.

Your ministry to them to them was a wonderful answer to the question of what the church is and what the purpose of Ball Camp Baptist Church is.  The news came to us Sunday morning and we started to pray for this family.  Someone was already talking with the family helping to answer questions and make arrangements.  The sanctuary was made available for the funeral service as it always is when a member or friend goes to be with the Lord.  The choir loft was full for the service and there was room there for friends and family who wanted to join in the singing.  Every time I hear our choir sing How Great thou Art at a funeral service, I grow more confident in the promise of heaven.   More than that, I long for it more when I hear them sing.  Somehow it just seems closer when they proclaim it with such power and beauty.   Dr. Leonard Markham’s willingness to return to Ball Camp to preach Gibby Lethgo’s funeral is testimony to the reality that once you have been a part of Ball Camp, experienced the working of God in this place and with our people, it stays with you even when life moves you to other places.  Many of you were here during the receiving of friends and for the service, and by your presence you reminded this family of the promise and presence of Christ.  Of course, on the day of his burial you continued to speak love and support to this grieving family by graciously and wonderfully feeding them when they were hungry.  So like Christ to meet such an everyday, ordinary need in the midst of difficult times.

For many different reasons, we do not always have the opportunity to minister in so many ways to a family suffering the loss of a loved one.  This week, you did and it was a beautiful sight to behold.  No definitions, no explanations, and no words could provide a better understanding of what the church is supposed to be than seeing you and what you have offered to, and been for, this family as they have walked through the cold, dark valley of the shadow of death.  You have been rod and staff to them.

As people of God, saved by God’s grace and made a part of the family of God by God’s unconditional love, we are able to be in constant conversation with that loving and gracious God.  That love and grace shapes our living so that we proclaim with word and deed the truth of it.  Today as we pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” we are reminded that we do not face our trials alone.  God has brought us together: “Lead us not,” “deliver us.”  By God’s grace, what we face, we face together and as we do that we see clearly the substance and depth of Christian community.

More than that, we bear witness to the truth of the Gospel.   Jesus told his disciples that he would never leave them nor forsake them, but that he would be with them until the end of the age.  When followers of Christ act and minister in the ways that you have this past week these words of scripture come to life before our very eyes.  They take on flesh and bone as you seek to be the presence of Christ to one another.

Thank you for your faithfulness to the teachings of scriptures and to the commands of Christ.

Remembering a Great Day of Worship at BCBC

It is two weeks later, and I am still soaking in the afterglow of our January 30 Celebrating Together worship service.  So many of you who participated in that service have shared your own feelings of the rich and meaningful time we shared together as we worshipped the Lord.  Unity emerged as a priority when we did our Future, Forward, Faith visioning process.  This worship service was the first time that we implemented one of our Future, Forward, Faith priorities in the area of congregational unity.  For it to have had the impact that it did on so many of us is a cause for celebration in and of itself.

As we continue to live out our Future, Forward, Faith priorities, we will have other occasions to be together in worship.  Already I have a hard time imagining our next occasion for all-church worship being as powerful as our time together was on January 30.  Yet, I believe that it can be if we anticipate it with the same spirit that was very evident as we prepared for Celebrating Together.

The togetherness and warmth that we felt that day did not happen because we decided to schedule a worship service for everyone at the same time in the same room.  For us to expect a similar outcome in the future simply because we put such a service on the calendar would be an invitation to disappointment.  Several important factors contributed to the success of our Celebrating Together service that we would do well to remember as we look forward to future times together.

First, the cross of Christ was lifted up, and the worship of God was the priority of the day.  When we put God first, everything else has a way of taking care of itself.  When our foremost concern in worship is to worship God, we will have the kind of worship experiences that we had together on the 30th. That day was a good day not because we made unity or togetherness a priority.  It was a memorable day not because we worshipped in a particular style or sang certain songs.  It was a good and memorable day because we made the worship of God our first priority.

Second, a good number of people spent time praying for this worship service.  Nothing prepares our hearts for worship together like time spent alone with God in prayer.  The sincere and heartfelt prayers of many people were answered as we were Celebrating Together.

Third, there was a feeling of trust and mutual respect as we gathered for worship.  There was trust that our special worship experience was simply a special worship experience.  It was not a proposal to do worship in a different way.  It was not Phase One of a five-part plan to change the time or the style of our worship.  The peace born of trust was evident that day.  Close companion to that trust was respect.  There was a mutual respect for each other and each other’s worship preferences.  The service was not an effort in any way to convince anyone to worship differently.  On the contrary, there was an acceptance of the fact that we all have different ideas and opinions about worship.  The service was not meant to change any of those ideas or opinions.  Rather it acknowledged them and respected them.

Trust and mutual respect are essential ingredients for unity.  Without them, unity would have little or no chance.  With them the possibilities are limitless.  For us to have respect for one another’s worship preferences, and to be able to trust that a special service is not intended as a criticism or a correction of our personal preferences, is an indication of a spiritual maturity.  A person’s ideas or opinions about how to worship are often deeply personal.  To speak of them in disparaging terms is in some way similar to making a derogatory comment about someone’s ancestry.  At the same time, when someone shares with us their thoughts and ideas about worship, we ought to always recognize that we are being entrusted with something of great personal value to them and to respond accordingly. The gifts we offered to God as we worshipped together at one time in the same place were offered in an atmosphere of trust, with an attitude of respect for God and one another that made for a sweet, sweet spirit.

A fourth factor that contributed significantly to the good worship that we experienced together on January 30, was a genuine desire on the part of all involved for every part of the service to be as good as it possibly could be.  There was no part of the service that was hers or his, theirs or ours.  Each element of the service was offered by us to God in worshipful praise, and received by the congregation in the same spirit.

Finally, there was much hard work done to prepare for our all-church worship service. The coordination of it all was no small task.  Many people prayed, prepared, practiced, and rehearsed in order to get ready for the service. Their diligent efforts and the spirit in which they were offered made for a joyous day of experiencing the power and the presence of God together.

We ought never to take our walk together with God for granted.  We experience God’s peace for us, and the unity of God’s Spirit among us, when we make God our first priority, when we prayerfully prepare ourselves for worship, when we cultivate trust and mutual respect, when we desire God’s best for one another, and when we use the gifts and abilities that God has given us to the best of our ability.  One way to think of church is as a collection of relationships.  Relationships that are important to us require us to be intentional in our care and nurture of them.  Church is no different.  As we relate together, serve together, and worship together in this faith community to which God has called us, an important responsibility we all share as growing and maturing followers of Christ, is to be as gentle with one another as God has been with each of us.

What is in a Name?

In the early days of the movement we know today as the Baptist branch of the Christian faith, those who were moving in a Baptist direction did not refer to themselves as Baptist.  They were called by Baptist by those who opposed them. It was a term of derision that was not meant as compliment. The Baptist accepted the name and made it their own by the mid 1600s.  They were small bunch of people with a whole lot of conviction and not much else.  Their status was bottom of the barrel and their ability to win friends and influence people was virtually nonexistent. For that reason, they always seemed to be getting kicked out or run off. In 1607, John Smyth, founder and leader of a band of believers that would become Baptists, led his people to Holland in order to escape religious persecution in England. In 1635, Roger Williams, the founder of the first Baptist Church in what would become the United States of America was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his nonconformist views on religious matters.  In 1770, James Ireland, a Virginia Baptist pastor, was kicked out of free society and into Culpepper County jail for preaching the Baptist understanding of Christianity. From the very beginning, Baptists have an established legacy of being made to feel less than welcome by those who had the power to make their lives uncomfortable.

Even in the 21st century some Baptists are still getting kicked out of places. The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is about to kick the Tarrant Baptist Association out of the building that the seminary owns. The seminary is kicking the association out because the association has yet to make any effort to kick one of its member churches, Broadway Baptist Church, out of the association. The association is way behind schedule from the seminary’s point of view as Broadway has already been kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Broadway was kicked out of the SBC and BGCT because they would not kick any homosexuals out of their church. Now the seminary is kicking out the association because their failure to kick Broadway out of the association cannot viewed as anything other than tacit approval of Broadway’s decision to not kick homosexuals out of their church.

If all you know of Baptist history is the last thirty years, then you might be inclined to think that the Baptists in this latest dispute are the ones doing the kicking.  In the past three decades, Baptists have grown quite adept at kicking people out; running people off and making those different from them feel less than welcome. They seem to find a great deal of satisfaction in doing to others what was done in earlier times to very people who started the Baptist movement. Broadway Baptist Church and Tarrant Baptist Association are in good company. Smyth, Williams, Ireland and a host of Baptist forebears experienced the pain of exclusion, the threat of harm and the brute force of coercion at the hands of those who thought they were speaking for God.  Their courage and conviction bear fruit to this day in the resolve shown by Broadway, Tarrant and others who refuse to be bullied by church hierarchies that seem more concerned about their own agendas than in sharing the richness of God’s grace with one another and with the world.

In the beginning, it was the Baptists that were getting kick out of places.  Truth be told, it still is.

A Word of Thanks

Ron Crawford, president of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, and former pastor of College Park Baptist Church in Orlando, Florida, wrote last week at EthicsDaily.com about “Catch-up Sundays.”  Catch-up Sundays are those special days set aside by a church’s finance or stewardship committee to get the church’s giving caught up with where the church’s budget says it ought to be, or where the church’s spending says that it needs to be. Crawford’s contention is that such special giving days rarely work and can even be detrimental to the financial health of the church. To be certain, such special days can result in especially large offerings.  He suggests that many times those offerings are made with dollars that would have been given to the church without the special emphasis.  The special emphasis just caused them to be given earlier in the year.  Therefore, the church finds itself in a similar pinch a few months later. The detrimental impact of catch-up Sundays is that it can take the focus off of regular, faithful giving on the part of church members. Giving to God’s work through the local church is not something that we wait to do in times of crisis or emergency. It is something we do on a regular basis as we live out our faith day by day.

As I was reading Crawford’s article, the question came to me as to why we were not having a special catch-up Sunday at Ball Camp. Given the state of the economy and all the transition going on in our church, one might think that the conditions would have been right for some disruption of giving at some point this year.  Whether they work or not, there have been years when we have done catch-up Sundays in an effort to get our income to be ahead of our expenses.  However, there has been no talk of doing one this year.  My curiosity got the best of me and I opened our treasurer’s report for November of this year to check our year-to-date general fund income. Janet pulled last year’s file so that I could compare our November of this year with last year’s numbers.  Amazingly, this year’s income is ahead of where it was this time last year.  I thought we might be close, but I did not expect that we would be ahead of where we were last year at this time.

With gratitude for the way that God has provided, let me commend you for your faithfulness to our church and the work that God is doing in and through it. Your understanding of and commitment to regular giving has resulted in a financially healthy faith community that is impacting the world for Jesus Christ.  This year, your gifts to our general fund budget have not only provided for our ministry here in our community, but have enabled us to partner with others in sharing Christ’s love.  We have supported the work of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Missionaries in the uttermost parts of the world, and especially in North Africa. We have partnered with Carson-Newman College, the Gideons, the Baptist World Alliance, Family Promise of Knoxville, and Western Heights Baptist Center to do ministry at home and abroad. Your faithful giving is touching lives and making a difference for Christ.

However, you have not just shared Christ’s love through your giving to the general fund budget. You have also done it through special offerings over and above your regular gifts to the church. This year you gave generously to those whose lives were turned upside down by the earthquake in Haiti. You gave an offering to Faith Comes by Hearing to help record the Bible in the heart language of an unreached people group. Can you imagine what it will be like for those people to hear God’s word in their own language for the first time? You helped make that happen this year. You have given faithfully to Global Missions at Easter and are giving again here at Christmas time. You have supported the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Tennessee Partners in Mission Offering. You supported our young people so that they could go on their mission trip to Ohio. Some of you have designated gifts to the work of the Southern Baptist Convention. Of course, you have given other gifts as well. Some of them I am aware of and some of them I am not.  Yet, each of those gifts has been a sharing of Christ’s love and tangible reminder to someone or to a group that Christ is present with him, her or them. Your willingness to regularly give above and beyond has made every Sunday a special offering Sunday at Ball Camp this year.

There is a bit of red in our treasurer’s report. Our Benevolence fund is just over $200.00 to the negative. This is the fund we use to minister those in our church and community who find themselves in need of help with rent, utilities or fuel. We have spent more than we had to spend in order to help those in need.  Money for this fund is traditionally given at the conclusion of worship services in which we have celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Please be mindful of the poor and needy as we celebrate at the Lord’s Table on Christmas Eve and on the first Sunday in January.  I know you will. You always are. Thank you for your faithfulness this year to God’s work in and through Ball Camp Baptist Church.

Don Hastings, 1941-2010

The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:  a time to be born, and a time to die.”  We know the truth of that simple statement.  It is not a startling revelation.  We have enough experience with living and dying to know that death comes to us all eventually. Yet, when it comes, it always seems to catch us off guard.  The certainty of death almost always seems far off until it comes crashing unexpectedly into our lives.  In those moments, we are reminded vividly and painfully that there is indeed a time to die.  We are shocked by the suddenness of it and unprepared for the reality of it, yet still it comes.  We say “This can’t be happening” or “I just spoke to him yesterday.”  Such is our attempt to make sense of death when it comes near to us.

It certainly has come near to us, too near, too soon.  Our brother in Christ, Don Hastings, has taken his leave from this life and has gone on to the next one.  His death leaves us with questions.  For those who were closest to him, the questions are critical.  What will we do without him?  What will life be like without him?  Don was husband, father and grandfather.  Indeed, what will life be like without him?  Whatever it will be, it will not be the same.  The emptiness left by his dying, if it can be filled, can only be filled by the grace of God and the legacy of Don’s life.  The hope of God in Jesus Christ is God’s promise to us that death does not have the last word.   Even as death takes from us one we never wanted to be without, in Christ we know that there is more to life than the short time we spend on this earth.   In the midst of grief, faith holds the future we cannot see.  Today we weep, but there is a day coming when all will be made well.

Certainly, our faith is a comfort in times like these, but we also have Don’s life and the way he lived it.  All the ways that he gave himself to others without even thinking about it now becomes for us memories of a special man.  Memories that we honor not only when we remember them, but also when we let them impact the way we live our lives.  Don was a devoted husband, father and grandfather.  He cherished his family.  He was a working man.  Overcoming physical challenges, he provided for his family; whether at Lockheed Martin, in his barber shop, or at the grocery store, Don did what needed to be done to make sure that his family had what was needed.  Don was not just concerned about his own family, but the livelihood of other working men and women as well.  He served his country in the Army until polio caused him to be honorably discharged.  His love for his church was always evident.

Pause for a moment and think about the ways that you knew Don.  What memories emerge?  I think of Don as a greeter.  I believe it was his spiritual gift.  He was always greeting people; saying hello to them, and asking them how they were doing.  He never met a stranger.  He was always reaching out to others with a kind word and smile. To give someone a pleasant greeting, a few minutes of your time, may seem like a small thing.  However, Don did it for a lifetime.  Who could count how many lives he touched?  One smile, one hello and one handshake at time, he made his world a better place.  How is it that someone turns to be the kind of person Don was?   I am sure that Don faced enough defeats and challenges. Yet, he still offered himself freely to those around him, sharing his love of life and people.

Don was not just friendly.  He was also concerned.  His ability to empathize was extraordinary.  He would always ask me about Karns football.  As I would share the most recent news, which more often than not was bad news, I could see Don’s face take on the pain and disappointment that was evident from the news I was sharing.  No matter what I told him, he always found something positive to say.  “Well, maybe they will do better this week.”  I will always be grateful to Don for the way he offered hope.

Don:  Thank you for the legacy you have left to us.  May our living be more lively and hopeful as we apply the lessons of your life to our own lives.

Can we still eat Yogurt?

Her first words where, “I am mad.”  Those are not always welcome words when a pastor is having a conversation with a faithful and active church member. You can understand how relieved I was upon learning that she was not mad at me.

“I am a Christian.” She is certainly that. I have witnessed her faithfulness to the cause of Christ in more ways than I can recall over the last ten years. She is also Baptist to her very core. I know this because she teaches missions, promotes missions and does missions. She is a Baptist woman on mission if there ever was one. From Knoxville to New Orleans, from Kentucky to North Africa she has been there doing, living, sharing the love of Christ.

“When I do yoga it is not unchristian!” In short order, we had arrived at the source of agitation. She had read the Yahoo report of an Associated Press story about an Al Mohler blog post. Al Mohler is the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.  In his post, Mohler had issued a warning to Christians to avoid yoga.

“Why did he say that?” Of course, I have no idea why he said what he said. So I am guessing that it is because it originated in India and it involves the body and the mind in a meditative practice that is foreign to his life experience.  However, I really don’t know what his reasons were for writing what he wrote. I do know that doctrinal purity is high on his list of priorities. Perhaps he sees yoga as threat to his understanding of Christian orthodoxy.  What he fails to take into account is that yoga, like pizza, spaghetti and Kung Pao chicken bear little resemblance to their countries of origin once they become integrated into the our American culture.

Still, one has to wonder if maybe he and his fundamentalist brethren have just run out of people to be against. They have already condemned Mickey Mouse, Masons, divorced people, women, couples who use birth-control, churches that ordain women and churches that refuse to shut their doors to homosexuals all in the name of doctrinal purity. Perhaps they are just now getting to the “Y’s. Who knows?

The conversation ends. The caller has spoken her mind. She has learned that her pastor, while not a practitioner of yoga, is not opposed to others benefiting from such practice.

I was unaware of that a former deacon chairperson was behind me listening to the conversation. He said, “I don’t know who you were talking to, but you might want to let them know that you have a former deacon chairperson who is taking Tai Chi.” I don’t tell him that the co-chairperson of the personnel committee just returned from a trip to Disney World.

That Southern Baptist circle just keeps getting smaller and smaller and we find ourselves further and further from its narrowing circumference.

Future, Forward, Faith Planning Teams

Over one hundred members of Ball Camp Baptist Church gathered last Sunday afternoon in our Fellowship Hall for our Future, Forward, Faith Summit. We spent the better part of three hours together listening to one another and waiting on God to speak to us. We heard from young and old alike. We shared in small groups, and with the whole group, what we were sensing as God’s direction for our church.  It was an afternoon of prayer.  Not that we spent the whole afternoon with our heads bowed and our eyes closed; but we were together in the presence of God, sharing with God and one another the burden of our hearts, and listening for God to speak in and through us.

For over one hundred of you to give three hours of your time after already having spent the morning at church is no small thing. In fact, it is a very large thing. It is more than just three hours spent together.  Over one hundred people giving three hours of their time, to God and His church, is over 300 hours that could have been spent in other ways. Yet, you chose to give those hours to God and to use them in service of the people of God, and the people in our community and the world, that may yet be impacted by what we heard God saying to us in our time together.

At the conclusion of our time together, we found ourselves with four clear priorities. The priorities that emerged were:

Spiritual Formation/Bible Study

Local Missions

Outreach

Unity

What do we do with these now?  We plan accordingly. Each one of these priorities will now have a team of church members working on a plan that will involve us as a congregation, engaging in each of these priorities over the next three years or so. These teams are still being formed. The priorities are posted on the wall in the Fellowship Hall. Underneath each of them is a sign-up sheet. We still need people to join these teams to work on planning these priorities.  We also need people who will sign up to pray for these teams as they work on their plans.

If you did not attend the summit last week, there is still opportunity for you to join one of these planning teams. Do you have a particular burden for one of these priorities?  Do you feel a need for us to deepen our relationship with God? You ought to consider joining the Spiritual Formation/Bible Study Design Team.  Do you have a desire to be more involved in local missions?  Think about joining the Local Missions Design Team.  Is your heart set on reaching out to our community?  Join the Outreach Design Team. Do you long to see a more unified body of Christ at Ball Camp Baptist Church?  The Unity Design Team is the place for you to put feet to your prayers.  Please, visit the Fellowship Hall today before you leave and consider how God would have you serve the church in this important work.

Thank you to all who have worked so hard to this point — Strategic Visioning Leadership Team, Interviewers, Interviewees, Summit participants.  God is going to honor your investment of time and energy as we go Forward together by Faith into the Future that God has for us.