Future, Forward, Faith

At Ball Camp Baptist Church, we are in the midst of an exciting endeavor. We are walking with God and looking toward our future. We are calling this process Future, Forward, Faith.

We are focused on Future because we believe that God will continue to work in and through the people of Ball Camp. Therefore, we look to the future with discerning and expectant eyes to see the places and ways God will invite us to join the work.

We are focused on Forward because that is the only direction we can go. There is much to celebrate in our past, as well as mistakes from which we can learn. However, we can neither recreate past victories nor undo past mistakes. We can remember them and learn from them as we go forward into the future that God has for us.

We are focused on Faith because that is what makes us a people.  Our common experience of the grace of Jesus Christ is the foundation of our life together. It is the reason we worship, witness, develop and minister together. We share Christ’s love because it has been freely given to us. For all the uncertainties that the future may hold, our faith is not uncertain. It holds us and holds us together. Without it, we would lack the courage to look to the future and the strength to move forward toward it. Future, Forward, Faith is us, together, listening and learning as we walk together with God.

We are being led in our Future, Forward, Faith journey by our Strategic Visioning Leadership Team. The team members are Alpha Patrick, Michelle Gamble, Hannah Chambers, Janie Wallace, Karen Diaz, Brenda Bradley, Vernon Gordon, Robbie Kelly, Gary Rochelle, Mike Wilson, Ernie Jennings and Bob Bridges. They have recruited interviewers from among the membership of our church. Those interviewers have been trained to conduct interviews with our active members and regular attendees.  These conversations are vital to the success of our Future, Forward, Faith process.  They will give each of us a chance to share, in a relaxed setting, the ways that we have seen God at work in our church, and the ways that we hope to see God at work in the future. If an interviewer has not contacted you yet, one will be doing so soon. Please receive the call as an opportunity to serve the Lord and your community of faith at Ball Camp.

Also, please be in prayer for team members, interviewers, and those being interviewed. During this phase of the process, over 300 interviews will be conducted. That is 300 conversations about how God is at work in the lives of the people of Ball Camp Baptist Church.  If we did nothing else, I believe that we would benefit greatly. There is power in telling our stories. But we will do more than that. On August 1st, we will gather after our morning worship service to see and hear what we have said about the ways God has been at work, and the ways we hope to see God at work, as we look to the Future and go Forward in Faith.

“. . .Particular Knowledge”

Thomas Helwys penned these words nearly 400 years ago:

That the members of every Church or Congregation ought to know one another, so that they may perform all the duties of love one towards another, both to soul and body.  And especially the Elders ought to know the whole flock, whereof the HOLY GHOST hath made them overseers. And therefore a Church ought not to consist of such a multitude as cannot have particular knowledge one of another.

They are from a lengthier confession of faith written by Helwys for a small group of Baptists who remained in Amsterdam, for fear of persecution if they returned to England. The Baptist faith was still young and fragile at this time. Helwys’ words were the first attempt to put the Baptist faith in the form of a confession.  One Baptist history estimates that the number of members of Helwys’ church to be 10 or so, which makes his emphasis on a church being of such a size that members can “have particular knowledge of one another” particularly interesting. If there were only a dozen people in the church, how could you not know them all?

Whatever else Helwys thought about the church, its mission, and its purpose, he understood that knowing one another was a central part of being church.  The connections made in the context of one’s participation in a local church are not merely the result of human need for social interaction; they are an expression of New Testament Christianity.

Last Sunday as we celebrated our 213th anniversary, I was reminded of Helwys’ words in both positive and negative ways. Negative because it is difficult to have a “particular knowledge” of one another on Sunday mornings when we worship in three different services; positive because in each of those services we gather to worship a living Savior that we have come to understand through the unique and rich experience of being members of Ball Camp Baptist Church.

As I watched us worship, eat, worship again, baptize new believers and dedicate new hymnals last week, I saw so many wonderful people who walk daily with the Lord and serve Him with enormous dedication.  We are so blessed to have each other.  There is much that we can learn from one another, and much we have to share with our community and the world.

Jesus taught his disciples saying, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” Look around you at the faces of those gathered to worship this morning. We have been given much and entrusted with much. Nowhere is that more evident than in the lives of those that we join together with for worship each Sunday.

Let us continue to celebrate the joy and grace that we find in each other, as we deepen our “particular knowledge” of one another, by being thankful for long-time friends and by introducing ourselves to soon-to-be friends in the body of Christ at Ball Camp Baptist Church.

Not Funeral Food, But Still Good.

Some years ago Kate Campbell graced our sanctuary with her thoughtful lyrics and soulful voice. One of the songs she sang that evening was entitled “Funeral Food.”

Aunt Fidelia brought the rolls
With her green bean casserole
The widow Smith down the street
Dropped by a bowl of butter beans
Plastic cups and silverware
Lime green Tupperware everywhere
Pass the chicken, pass the pie
We sure eat good when someone dies

Funeral food
It’s so good for the soul
Funeral food
Fills you up down to your toes
Funeral food

It is a song that describes the pastoral mystery of food in the face of death, and the sacred necessity that is breaking bread with friends and family in the midst of grief.  In such times, sadness and loss are hanging thick in the air. Words do not come easily, and sometimes there just isn’t anything to be said; but people always need to eat. So the casserole and the fried chicken become icons of God’s love. The food speaks, expressing the love and concern of God’s people, and the never-ending assurance of God’s presence.

Thankfully, I have not been to a funeral this week, but I did go to a surgery last week. My wife, Patti, had surgery on both of her feet last Wednesday. One of you has brought food to the house every day since then.  There has been fried chicken, steak and gravy, meat loaf, salad, macaroni and cheese, green beans, baked beans and rib-eyes for grilling on Mother’s Day. Your kindness has been humbling, your thoughtfulness expansive, and your generosity overwhelming.

These meals have been most helpful during this time. They have made our days more manageable, they have nourished our bodies, and they have delightfully satisfied our hunger. Yet, I have tasted something more in your demonstrations of compassion.  I have tasted bread and juice as if we were in the sanctuary together at the Lord’s table.  Your gifts of food have been a real and tangible experience of God’s grace for me.  You have been the presence of Christ to me and my family even as you have brought Christ’s presence to us.

We live in challenging times, and you know that I am not just saying that in some general sort of way. There are personal trials and challenges in my life, and in yours, still to be faced.  Even so, I am more hopeful today as a result of your vivid reminder of the reality of the resurrection. You are the body of Christ sent into the world to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am convinced again of that truth. Your testimony of concern and care have deepened my faith, strengthened my spirit, and touched my soul. Thank you for your faithfulness to the life and words of the One who said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Being the presence of Christ.

What a gift it is to have friends come and visit. We had a friend visit with us this past Sunday. His presence with us was a visible reminder that other people who live in other parts of the world experience life differently. Not only are their day-to-day lives different from ours, but also the challenges they face and the trials that they endure. Our friend’s retelling of the murder of his colleague poignantly underscored in a somber way those differences.

Our friend and his family spend most of their days in a place far different from our East Tennessee. Yet, we do share a common faith, a common experience of grace and redemption. Out of that experience of grace and redemption, we share a common calling. It is a calling to be the presence of Christ as we live out our lives. We are called by the profound act of love demonstrated to us and for us in the life, teachings and death of Jesus Christ. We are to extend grace as it has been extended to us, to give hope as it has been given to us, and to show mercy as it has been shown to us.

We share a common calling with those around the world who have heard the voice of the one who said to us “. . . come unto me and I will give you rest.” We are called by the same words: “Go ye into all the world,” “When you have done unto the least of these,” “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We are called with the same words to the same calling, though we are called to different tasks in different places.

Our friend will return next month to the place that God has called him and his family to serve. He goes with courage and great faith to do what God calls each of us to do, wherever we find ourselves, to be the presence of Christ. Even though we are surely called to be Christ to those around us wherever we are, we should not dismiss too easily the idea that God might very well have a task for us that would require no less courage, nor less faith, than that of our friend and his family as they return to the place they call home. May our prayers rise continually for their safety and well-being.

Last month, you brought to the altar over 500 pairs of shoes and offered them to the Lord. Those shoes were delivered to the Western Heights Baptist Center. They will be given to men and women, boys and girls who need them. They will be given as a tangible reminder that in the midst of their need, they are not alone in this world, but that Christ is with them. Giving shoes to protect the feet of the needy is being the presence of Christ.

This month is our Tennessee Partners in Missions offering as well as the month that we collect blankets for Lost Sheep Ministry for the homeless. The gift you give to the mission offering will be used by six ministries across the state as they seek to be the presence of Christ. The blankets will be given to homeless people in our city to warm them this winter. Again, participating in either or both of these offerings is a way that you are the presence of Christ in a world that longs for his grace and peace.

With courage and faith, let us be the presence of Christ together so that all may know the joy and hope that we have found in him.

Thank You Church!

I am in awe of the gift you have given to me. Every day that I serve as your pastor, I am mindful of what a special group of Christians that you are. There is a unique richness about our fellowship that is unlike anything that I have ever experienced. But now you have gone beyond being an amazing church, of which I have been privileged to pastor for nearly nine years. Now you have given me an extraordinary gift. That gift is the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I attended along with 57 other people my first week, August 3rd. We will meet seven more times over the next two years at Camp Sumatanga. Sumatanga is a retreat center in Northern Alabama.

What happens at the Academy for Spiritual Formation? It is a program designed to help Christians, laypeople, and clergy deepen their relationship with the Lord. The day starts with a prayer service at 7:30. We worship and pray for about 30 minutes before we go to breakfast at 8:00. At 9:00, we go to our morning lecture. The morning lecture for this session is focused on praying the scriptures. There are many ways and variations on how to do this, but in its basic pattern, sacred reading begins with a gentle reading of a passage of scripture. The reading is followed by a time of reflecting on and thinking about the passage. Usually a particular word, words, or a phrase will emerge from the passage. As the mind is drawn to a particular word or phrase this becomes the prayer or what is spoken to God. After the prayer, there is a time of simply being with God and enjoying the presence of God.

After the lecture period, we enter a time of silence and solitude for prayer and reflection on what we have heard in the lecture. At 11:00, we come back together as a large group to ask questions of the lecturer and to hear testimonies from the time of prayer. Lunch is served at noon each day.

The second lecture or faculty presentation begins at 2:30. Our afternoon lecture is focused on the history of Christian spirituality. Granted, the tasks of presenting the history of Christian prayer in five one-hour sessions is an impossible task; nonetheless, the sessions are engaging and informative. Our presenter for the afternoon session is Dr. Lloyd Allen who teaches church history at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology. McAfee is one of our CBF-connected divinity schools. The afternoon presentation is followed by the same time of silence and solitude for prayer and reflection as the morning presentation, and we gather afterward as a large group to ask questions and share insights. Both the morning and afternoon lecture topics will change with each session.

Our time of asking questions and sharing is followed at 5:00 by our second worship service of the day. This service is special because we hear our only sermon of the day and celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. After communion, we go to supper at 6:00. Supper is sometimes followed by a special presentation of a topic that is of interest to one of the faculty members. Whether there is a special presentation or not, we are in our covenant groups at 7:30 each night. Each attendee is placed in a group with seven or eight other people. In these groups, we discuss the experiences of the day and share our sense of how God is at work in our lives. These groups will stay together for the duration of the Academy.

After our covenant group time, we gather for our final time of worship and prayer at 9:00 p.m. At the conclusion of this service, we observe silence until the next day’s morning prayer service.

Hopefully, this gives you some idea about what I am experiencing when I am away at the Academy for Spiritual Formation. Again, thank you for such a wonderful gift.

Baptism and Ordination

Tonight was a wonderful night at Ball Camp Baptist Church. Our service started with Christina entering the baptismal waters. Caroline, her sister, read her baptismal statement and then Brian, our Pastor to Students, immersed Christina in the water reenacting the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord. Thank the Lord for Christina’s testimony that she is indeed living a new life in Christ.

After the baptism, we presented three people to be ordained as deacons. Brenda Bradley, Bailey Chambers and Debbi Graf had been elected by our church and each of them agreed to serve to the best of their abilities with the Lord’s help. During the service, they each expressed their willingness to answer the church’s call. Coming forward, they took their places in front of the altar and the whole church came forward to lay hands on them and speak words of blessing to them. The spirit of God was moving. The faces of God’s people plainly said that something special was happening.

Before the benediction, Christina came to the pulpit. She was given a towel to remind her and all of us of the service Jesus performed when he washed the feet of his disciples. The towel is her calling and ours. We departed to serve the Lord.

Being true Baptists, we could not leave the premises without stopping in the fellowship all for soup, sandwiches and homemade ice cream. God is good all the time, thanks be to God!

Working at the Car Wash, If We are not Careful

Have you noticed the new car wash in the neighborhood? It is at the corner of Middlebrook and Lovell. You pay $3.00 to get your car washed and then you get to use the vacuum for free. It is a pretty good deal. The name of the place is J.J.’s Super Shine Car Wash.

I would not have called it to your attention except that I am also wondering if you remember what used to be there. Really, you are perfectly capable of noticing a new business opening up in the community, especially one that is at such a prominent location, and a new building to boot. Do you remember what stood on that property before there was a car wash there?

The Martins used to live there. The home of J.J. and Mary Martin stood on that lot. Mr. Martin has been gone for many years, and I have no idea if the owners of the car wash even knew his name. Mary still lived there when I came to Ball Camp, almost nine years ago. Not long after I came, she moved to Arbor Terrace, as she was no longer able to live alone in the house that she and Martin, as she always called him, shared together. Next door to their house, about where Lovell intersects with Middlebrook, there used to be a store. It was demolished when Lovell Road was moved and the new intersection was built.

You may not remember J.J. Martin or know Mary Martin, but they surely know you — “you” being Ball Camp Baptist Church. They dedicated much of their time, energy and resources to your well being. When the current sanctuary was being built, Ball Camp Baptist Church met in the Martin’s store for Sunday worship. I am not familiar with all the ways that Mr. Martin served the church, but Mary taught Sunday school. She taught Sunday school for many, many years. Ask someone who has been at Ball Camp for a while and there is a pretty good chance that they had Mary for a Sunday school teacher. They may even have a plaster plaque depicting praying hands or with the Lord’s Prayer on it. Mary loved to send the children home with items that they had made. Mary also wrote an award winning history of the church.

Now, instead of the Martins, we have a car wash. For $3.00 we can have clean cars; but who will teach our children, care for them and tell them the stories of our faith that have so shaped our lives. A car wash is all well and good, but I cannot help but feel that we got short-changed in the exchange. How do we replace a couple that, time and again, demonstrated such faithfulness and commitment to their church?

In one sense, we don’t ever replace such people. Their hands have left their own unique prints on the work that God is doing in this place. More to the point, it is not us that do the replacing, but God who does it. In every generation, God raises up people to do and to be what God needs for them to do and to be. God continues to do that with ministry leaders and Bible teachers in our church. We are blessed each week by women and men who regularly and responsibly perform important work for the cause of Christ at Ball Camp Baptist Church. Yet, there are places in our church that still need dedicated and committed people to say yes to God’s call on their lives.

Do you have any sense that God might be calling you to a deeper level of commitment and responsibility? None of us can be somebody else, but each of us can be ourselves. When we give ourselves to God, God has an amazing way of making exceptional things happen. So what is God saying to you? Do you feel any closer to God than you did a year ago? Is your love for God deeper now than it was then?

If you are not satisfied with your answers to these questions, you might consider joining us for our regular time of prayer and worship in the sanctuary on Wednesday nights. God honors commitment and discipline. Such a setting may be just what you need to hear what God wants to say to you. On the other hand, you might hear a clearer word from the Lord if you chose to hang out in the nursery on Sunday mornings during worship time.

For over two hundred years, the Martins and scores like them have heard the call of God in this community of faith, and they have answered with a lifetime of commitment. Now is our time to listen, to respond and to commit.

Homosexuality and the Local Church

The church is local and the church is universal. These seemingly contradictory claims have given expression to the way Baptists have sought to understand being the body of Christ for 400 years. While we have recognized that the church is made of all believers, we have found that the richest expressions of church are local ones. That is certainly not to say that local congregations cannot and do not join together to accomplish amazing deeds for the kingdom of God, because they can and they do. Yet, it is in and through those local congregations that God speaks most clearly and effectively to those local congregations. Who better to hear and to recognize the voice of God for a particular time, place and situation than the people of God living through that particular time, place and situation. We, as Baptists, have always given priority to the local church, while happily joining together with likeminded believers to share Christ’s love.

Two decisions rendered by national church bodies underscore for me the wisdom of this approach. The first occurred in Louisville, Kentucky, at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. Messengers there took all of thirty seconds to approve, without discussion, a recommendation to cease fellowship with Broadway Baptist Church of Fort Worth, Texas. What made Broadway unworthy of fellowship with the Southern Baptist Convention? They refused to distance themselves from members of their own church who are homosexual. Simply put, the Southern Baptist Convention was trying to tell Broadway Baptist what kind of church it should be and how it should conduct its business. Broadway refused to be bullied, which is their prerogative. The Southern Baptist Convention gave them the boot, which is their prerogative. What Broadway held onto through it all was the notion that the local church is the final authority for what happens in a local church, not some outside body.

Several months ago, a proposal was made for a workshop focused on the topic of “Homosexuality and the Church”, to be offered at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Houston this summer. The purpose of the proposed workshop was to give those who had an interest an hour to gather, listen and ask question about how homosexuality is impacting the church, and how the church could approach the issue. No decisions, pronouncements or recommendations would have resulted from the meeting, simply conversations — maybe heated conversations — but conversations nonetheless. Someone made a decision not to offer the workshop. It was not on the schedule. Why not? Because someone recognized that the only meaningful place to have such a conversation is in the local church. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship wisely chose to leave the matter there.

Those kinds of conversation do take place in our church, though I have never participated in one or known one that occurred in a large group setting. No, they happen informally between trusted friends. Such topics come up from time to time in Sunday School classes and in conversations in the parking lot. We have a way of seeking out the people we need to talk to and listen to when we face challenges in our lives.

We do have conversations about Sharing Christ’s Love. With whom do we share it? What restrictions or limitations do we put on it? Are there those with whom we will not share? What hungry person does Christ not want us to feed? What thirsty person does Christ not want us to give a cup of water to? What lonely person does Christ not want us to share coffee and conversation with? What we strive to do each day is to share the love of Christ with whomever comes our way. In short, love first, ask questions later. That is really what the Apostle Paul was saying last week to the Ephesians and to us when he wrote about living blameless lives. To be blameless is to love as Christ loved. To do less, to limit, to restrict, to exclude is to be less than blameless, less than Christ calls us to be.

Loved, just as we are

Relationships are what make our lives interesting. Sometimes interesting is good and other times interesting is a challenge. Our relationships can be a source of richness and joy. They can also be a source of frustration and disappointment. The relationships that are closest to us are sometimes the ones that can be the most complicated. They call forth from us intentional effort and thoughtful interaction. Even then, they are not always what we need, expect, or want them to be.

Our relationship with God presents its own challenges. Perhaps the greatest challenge in our relationship with God is when we try to figure out who God is. There is certainly no shortage of images and ideas about who God is. Many of the portrayals of God that have been passed on to us through the years are not so helpful when it comes to our relationship with God. God is often presented as angry and vindictive. God demands perfection and punishes us when we fail to meet God’s expectations. Such images of God make it difficult for most of us to let ourselves fall freely and fully into the kind of intimate love relationship that God so desires to have with us. As sometimes happens in our human relationships, we find ourselves waiting anxiously for something negative to happen. If our understanding of God is angry and punitive, we may even feel that we deserve something negative to happen. Or we find ourselves putting distance between us and God. It is only natural to want to protect ourselves from emotional and spiritual pain.

What we often forget or too easily overlook is that God created us in God’s own image. We were made to be in a relationship with God. That is what God designed us for. Just as our actions and behaviors have put stress on our relationship with God, so too have the thoughts and ideas expressed about who God is distorted our understanding of God. Yet, neither our actions nor our misconceptions have changed who God is or God’s purpose in creating us. God made us to love us, and be loved by us. And so God does love us, freely and unconditionally.

We are all too aware of our shortcomings, weaknesses and failures, so it is often difficult to imagine being loved with the kind of love that God offers to us. What is absolutely mind blowing is that God’s love is greater than our shortcomings, weaknesses and failures. God demonstrated the breadth and depth of his love for each of us through Jesus Christ. In Christ on the cross, God was reconciling Godself to the world. That is, God in Christ, made things right between us and God. Whatever would keep us from God or prevent us from experiencing God’s love is gone. We are forgiven again and again and again.

Even in our state of forgiveness, we can be weighed down by the burdens of life. While God is always faithful and just to forgive us, we are not always so ready to forgive ourselves. So we carry our failures with us, unable to let them go and move beyond them. They get heavy and they can make life miserable. Their weight robs us of the joy and peace that comes from being loved by God. God gives us the freedom to let go of those past failures and mistakes. In the context of our relationship with God, we can simply give those shortcomings and weaknesses to God. We need not be afraid, ashamed, or embarrassed. God wants us to be free from the power of sin and death in our lives. God wants for us to fully experience the joy and peace of being in relationship with God. For that very reason God is always near us — not to catch us or punish us — but to receive our burdens and hear our confessions that we might feel again the depth of God’s love.

Not as old as we thought

I knew that it would happen eventually, I just did not think that it would happen to me. One day last week I went through the red light in Karns on my way home. As I went through the red light I saw a car in front of me waiting for traffic to clear so that he could turn into the Walgreens drugstore. I slowed down and stopped in order to wait for him to turn into Walgreens. Just as soon as I stopped my truck, wham! I felt a jolt from behind. Nothing major, but it did kind of knock the breath out of me.

While the lady who hit my truck was calling the police, I began collecting the documents that I would need to show to the Sheriff’s deputy. My license was in my wallet along with my proof of insurance card. My registration was in the folder that stays in the compartment underneath the armrest. Having all those pieces of paper ready to go when the deputy arrived made filing the report a breeze. In no time at all, I was on my way in spite of my truck’s slightly bruised rear bumper. For what it is worth, the front end of a Volkswagen Passat is no match for the rear bumper of Dodge Dakota. Not that this is a competition or anything like it.

The report is finished and I am leaving the scene when this voice screams at me from somewhere inside my head, “When did you get so old?” I knew immediately what the voice was referring to. Twenty-five years ago my license would have been in my wallet, but the registration would not have been stored neatly in its own easy to find folder. If it was in the car at all, it would have been crumpled up in the glove box. Insurance, did you even have to have insurance twenty-five years ago? If you did, I know that you did not have to have proof of it. Twenty-five years ago it would not have mattered either way I would not have been able to find it. But now, now I have all the documentation that is needed to file an accident report right at my fingertips. When did I get so old?

Sunday Christians all around the world will celebrate Pentecost, the birthday of the church. The church is just under 2,000 years old depending on how you count your years. That is old. By now, we should have everything organized and figured out. Everything at our fingertips for whatever situation may arise. So much of what we talk about in church happened a long time ago, Creation, Exodus, birth of Jesus, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost for that matter. We have had all this time to catalog and categorize pretty much everything that God has ever done. If we are not careful even our own personal experience with God can get filed away in the things God did a long time ago drawer.

That is what makes Pentecost so very important to the Church. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came. Wind and fire were blowing all around. At Pentecost, the Church came to realize that God is not just Creator and not just Savior, but also Spirit. God is breathing life, love and hope into God’s people. God is not past. God is not something that happened a long time ago. God is present. God is now. God is future. God is not easily categorized, cataloged or figured out. God is alive. That is the frightening and awesome reality we celebrate on Pentecost Sunday.