The Hug I’ll Never Forget

Embrace

I don’t know if you realize this or not, but there are just about an endless combination of types of Baptists here in my neck of the woods. Some are predominately traditional and others more contemporary.  Some prefer a tie and coat while others like jeans and a t-shirt.  Some Baptists rival a few other denominations (not-to-be named) in their tendency to express less than zero emotion at church.  While, on the other end of that spectrum, a few Baptists sound more like their Pentecostal friends at church (just all in the same language of course).  Some Baptists like the formality and order of high church worship while some of their counterparts would just assume have no order to worship to “let the Spirit move, amen?!” Indeed, along these lines and others, one of my favorite traits about being a Baptist — and one of our tenets — is our diversity on so many levels.

One of those most endearing traits for many Baptists is that they are proudly “huggin’ folk.”  You know, those good-hearted types who are more likely to pull you in for a bear hug than shake your hand during the greeting time, right?  Those folks that don’t know any such thing as a stranger and express that with a friendly embrace.  I’m honored to pastor one of those churches that is full of “huggin’ Baptists.”  We have kind-spirited, down-to-earth, friendly folks who truly do know how to make you sense a welcoming presence with a warm hug.*

So, among such a group of huggin’ folk, a hug that stands out should not be forgotten.  A few days ago, I shared here how much fun the first year at Pleasant Garden Baptist Church has been for us. One of the search committee members, Curt Whitley wrote in response,

“The moment for me was, when after all three services, the votes were tallied, we met with you & Diana in the conference room, shared the results, and formally extended the call. Then Pastor Michael entered the room. You and he shared a warm, prolonged embrace with great joy and mega tears. Not a dry eye in the room. I wished the entire congregation could have witnessed that moment. God has and continues to be so faithful to His church.”

I won’t forget that moment or that hug.  Our retiring pastor, Michael Barrett, who had so faithfully guided Pleasant Garden to that point of transition walked into the room with the search committee and my wife and me.  As he congratulated me with that embrace and tears, he wrapped me in the warm grip of Godly mentorship, prayer, and love. 

In the 12 months following that embrace of celebration and transition that day, he has continued to envelop me with encouragement, prayer, support, and investment.  He’s been a listening ear from time to time, a source of advice, and a faithful support for God’s continued movement here at Pleasant Garden Baptist Church.

That hug embodied a powerful gift that “Pastor Mike” committed to me as we transitioned.  He said, “Robert, I’ll help you.  I’ll pray with you.  I’ll pray for you.”  And how he has!  Can we do any better for those around us?  Isn’t the command “to love one another” that’s woven through the entire Bible displayed in that type of expression to those God places along our path? Isn’t that exactly what God would hope “huggin’ folk” would do for one another?

I won’t forget that hug.  But, more than that, I’m striving to pass it along.  I want to hand off that same support, prayer, encouragement, and help that I’ve been so graciously given to others who need it.

So, be a hugger if that’s you. But, more importantly, be a helper, a support, and an investor in others around you. Perhaps you’ll give a hug–or a help–that won’t be forgotten!


*On a lighter note, I realize some out there are keep-your-hugs-to-yourself folk who are just as kind-hearted and down to earth, but at arms length 😉

Time Flies when You’re Having Fun!

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I’ve heard that phrase my whole life. I’ll never forget the first time I realized how true it was. I must’ve been 11 or 12. Our church was heading to Carowinds for what would be my first trip around those twists, loops, and hills at breathtaking speeds. I can still remember lying awake, tossing and turning in eager anticipation, barely sleeping a wink that night. The next day was simply a blur. The fun went by as fast as the very roller coasters I hopped on for the first time that day.

Well, time’s been flying again! One year ago this week, I stood before Pleasant Garden Baptist Church to preach in view of a call. Three sermons that morning later, I was called by a 99% vote, and we hit the ground running.

Like those roller coaster rides decades ago, the next 12 months have flown! Week of Wonder (aka VBS on steroids), children’s camp, a transition overlapping with retiring Pastor Michael Barrett, our 85th Homecoming Celebration, Pastor Mike’s retirement, over $100,000 committed to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, a new year, a new part-time hire, a student pastor leaving to become a lead pastor, and a search process for his replacement would be just a few of the “big rides” marking my first 12 months. In between these fast twists and turns, we would sprinkle into all the excitement a few short conferences, visits, trainings, finance meetings, personnel meetings, pastoral care, counseling sessions, a few different sermon series, my first Christmas Sunday preaching (and my first Easter), staff meetings, prayer times, and a few trips to rest and reflect before jumping back in line for the next big ride.

It’s quite hard for me to believe it’s been a year already! It seems like just yesterday the search committee gathered around me to pray a little before 8:00 am on June 24, 2018, before I would preach my trial sermon that Sunday. Like the first time my stomach flipped in nervous anticipation as I felt the slow, clicking lurch of the roller coaster train climbing the first hill at Carowinds so many years ago, I can still feel my stomach doing flips during that prayer as I eagerly anticipated walking out to preach.  And well, just about like that ride was over in what felt like seconds the first time I bounced around those roller coaster tracks, this past year buzzed by too.

But hey, that’s just a reminder: time really does fly when you’re having fun!

Wait. It’s Always Worth It.

“The work of a true missionary is work indeed, often very monotonous, apparently not very successful, and carried on through a great and varied but unceasing difficulties.” Missionary to China, Hudson Taylor (1832-1905)

Taylor made this statement regarding missionary work specifically, but his observations apply to disciples of Jesus everywhere. Life moves at a mundane pace. Evidences of success often elude even the most faithful of God’s followers. Difficulties and challenges distort perspective and drag zeal downward more often than most of us would care to admit.

Yet, each of these uncomfortable realities whisper hope to us if we’ll listen. The tedious monotony of life tests our patience inviting us to constantly trust the timing of the One who holds time in His hands. The evasiveness of visible success keeps us humbly trusting the only One who saves souls, heals lives, and breaks down strongholds. The frustrations of life’s trials reminds us that this world’s light and momentary existence pales in comparison to the eager, eternal anticipation of the place where “He will wipe away all tears.”

A pastor friend shared with me recently a truth he’d gleaned from Isaiah 40:31.

But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

The word for “renew” there means, literally “to exchange.” Isaiah conveys a simple, powerful, and profound truth to the disciple of Jesus. God promises to “exchange” His strength with ours when we wait upon Him! Is your life tiring you in mundane monotony? Wait. He will exchange His strength for yours. Are you growing discouraged in the lack of fruit you see, even as you faithfully strive to keep your hand upon the plow He’s assigned you? Wait. He will exchange His strength for yours. Have the turmoils of life weighed you down, tempting you to give up, give in, or give out? Wait. He will exchange His strength for yours.

That same man, Hudson Taylor, who so accurately described the work of the missionary also understood the work, power, and might of God. Time and again, he trusted God and watched God faithfully empower the gospel work throughout China. One biographer recounts:

Hudson Taylor was the most widely used missionary in China’s history. During his 51 years of service there, his China Inland Mission established 20 mission stations, brought 849 missionaries to the field (968 by 1911), trained some 700 Chinese workers, raised four million dollars by faith (following Mueller’s example), and developed a witnessing Chinese church of 125,000. It has been said at least 35,000 were his own converts and that he baptized some 50,000. His gift for inspiring people to give themselves and their possessions to Christ was amazing.*

He had experienced the exchange of God’s mighty strength for his meager morsels. Those same whispers of hope burst into our ears as we contemplate some of his other words he’s left to us generations that have come after him. I leave you with these words from him that remind us of what I’ve been contemplating all morning. Wait on God. It’s always worth it.

“All God’s giants have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on God being with them.”

“It does not matter how great the pressure is. What really matters is where the pressure lies — whether it comes between you and God, or whether it presses you nearer His heart.”

“There are three stages to every great work of God; first it is impossible, then it is difficult, then it is done.”

“Depend on it. God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply. He is too wise a God to frustrate His purposes for lack of funds, and He can just as easily supply them ahead of time as afterwards, and He much prefers doing so.”

― Hudson Taylor

*https://www.wholesomewords.org/missions/biotaylor2.html

The Interview

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Nerves. Stomach churning nerves. I had been nervous before, but this time was different. This time was a first.

Diana and I pulled into the parking lot with tempered excitement and bursting uncertainty.

As we got out of the car and walked hand-in-hand to the door where the team to interview us had gathered, we immediately sensed a warmth and even a strange familiarity.

Introductions. Exchange of pleasantries. Simple chatter.

We took our seats for the interview to begin.

Diana sat to my right. Around the tables formed in an oval, Brian Beasley sat to my immediate left. Shirley Davis sat on Brian’s left and the rest — David Routh, Amber Ward, Neal Hughes, Curt Whitley, Susan Marshall, and Robin Halsey — wrapped around the tables with Robin sitting next to Diana.

Prayer. The interview had begun.

As questions began to focus on Diana and me, and Pleasant Garden Baptist Church, I can distinctly remember my nerves settling. Question followed question. Our answers began to be more and more relaxed as we, almost imperceptibly, began to converse rather than interview. We laughed. At a few points, some of us even cried. I distinctly remember tears in David Routh’s eyes on a couple occasions. In Amber’s as well. Not so with Brian. The lawyer in him held his cards so close to his chest I had no idea what he was thinking or sensing.

The first of two moments when I knew that God’s hand had been all over this interview occurred when Diana began to share about her mission trip to India the year before. With zeal, joy, and passion she affirmed a church with a strong missions emphasis and exalted the God who guides our steps into difficult places. After she finished, Curt looked at her with a glint in his eye and said, “Diana, I’ve got just one question, why didn’t you apply for this position?” All of us laughed a joyful laugh of closeness, camaraderie, even friendship.

The interview moved on through other questions, conversation, dialogue. As we finished around the two hour mark, Diana slipped to the restroom with a couple others. That’s when the second moment happened. A couple of the ladies on the committee asked to see pictures of Joseph. As Diana returned and began to chat with them, showing pictures of our wonderful child, it occurred to me: if that hadn’t gone well, they wouldn’t have wanted to know about Joseph.

A few minutes later, Diana and I left. As we got into our car, with tears in the corners of our eyes, she said, “They felt like friends we’d known for a long time.”

They did. They sure did.

*March 26, 2019 marks the one year anniversary of the first interview Diana and I had with the Search Committee from Pleasant Garden Baptist Church.

Even in the Evil, a Hope Arises

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Timely. My wife and I just read yesterday morning in our Bible reading of Pharaoh’s utilitarian, systematic, and brutal murder of Hebrew babies to control the population of the enslaved people (Exodus 1). The words of Exodus 1:22 spew a hideous evil:

Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.”

This same utilitarian evil has displayed itself again and again throughout the pages of history. From the deplorable tragedies of slavery to the coldly organized death of Holocaust victims, our broken, sin-stained world continually turns in on itself again and again wreaking havoc on the weak, vulnerable, or those simply deemed unneeded or unnecessary. In recent days, states in the US have extended abortion to full term. It’s unconscionable. It’s sickening. It’s evil. I cannot remove from my mind the image of lawmakers in New York cheering when they instituted this law. This evil attempts to drown out Iowa’s move toward honoring and protecting life the very same week as their governor signed the heartbeat law into place protecting the life of an unborn baby at the moment a heartbeat is detectable.

After my wife Diana and I discussed and lamented what we are watching unfold in our country, my mind drifted back to Exodus 2 and the birth of Moses. As I read and reflected again on the providential way in which God preserved his life, a renewal of hope began to take shape in my soul. Even in the evil, God sent a rescuer. Moses would be raised in Pharaoh’s own home. The very one who instituted such violence against the most vulnerable, would become the very one God would use to preserve the life of the man He would use to bring His people up out of bondage. The little baby Moses would be drawn up from the Nile River, the very device of evil used to murder many young Hebrew baby boys.  He would then be nursed, preserved, and raised in the home of Pharaoh.    Ultimately, God’s ironic providences in guarding Moses’ life would lead to God sending him back to Egypt to cast off the evil chains of bondage. And with him, God would usher in layers of judgment upon the evil depravity of Egypt’s sinfulness.

My mind then flashed forward to another Hebrew child in the pinnacle era of history when another evil regime also sought to snuff out life. Herod, when he heard of the birth of a King, sent his wrath out upon the weak and the vulnerable to satiate his jealous hatred and fear of losing control.

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.
Matthew 2:16

In God’s providence yet again, Jesus would escape with his parents to, of all places Egypt, for the preservation of His life. Even in the evil, hope arises.

Are you noticing a pattern here in God’s providence? All throughout history, evil displays it’s ugliness. And yet, God, even sometimes through the very devices of that evil raises up His Hope for humanity. In Jesus, He sent the Rescuer, the Redeemer, the Savior, who would later wield the tool of Roman evil–a wooden cross–to break the chains of sin and darkness. In His resurrection three days later, Hope would break out of the grave of death. Even in the evil, the Hope arises!

With Moses, many years would pass between his preservation as an infant and God’s deliverance. With Jesus, more than 30 years would pass before He secured victory on the cross over evil. And again, three days would pass before His resurrection victory would be shouted from heaven. Time will pass in the here and now as we look again to the attacks on the beauty of human life through the evils of abortion–or any injustices upon humanity for that matter. But just wait. Even in the evil, a hope arises.  I believe God is wakening many in his church to pray, fast, and graciously engage this grave tragedy with His mighty Hope. *For my church family at Pleasant Garden Baptist Church, we will be joining with an organization called Love Life right here in Greensboro to watch His hope arise.

Hope arose with Moses’ preservation.  Hope arose when he returned to free God’s chosen people.  Hope arose when God sent Jesus into the world.  Hope arose when He died for all the sinful evils this broken world could muster.  Hope arose when He raised to life everlasting three days later.  Over and over and over, hope has arisen.  And hope will rise again.  Evil will show itself.  It will oppress. It will steal.  It will destroy.  It will wreak havoc.  But evil will never win, for even in the evil, a hope arises.

*For those connected at PGBC, we will adopt a week through Love Life in early August.  Be on the lookout for more details soon.  

A New Year!

When the clock strikes midnight on 12/31, another year will pass and usher in the new. As one year closes, another opens. The passing of time, particularly at the New Year, allows for reflection and rejuvenation. I’m sure many of you will make resolutions physical, spiritual, and relational. I pray, right now, that God grants you the diligence and determination to keep them.

For me and my family particularly, this passing of 2018 into 2019 has invited a great season of thanksgiving for all God has done in our lives this year. He has moved us to a new place, a new ministry, and a renewed zeal to seek and serve Him.

I’m sure, though, for some, the passing year may be a godsend. Some reading this right now may be hoping that loss, trial, frustration, or difficulty may be passing too when the clock strikes midnight.

As I contemplate the spectrum of emotions that a New Year brings for many, I’m reminded that whether we come to this transition with thanks, regrets, or anxieties, God has a word for us.

13 Brothers…one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:13-14

Are you regretting a year of self-inflicted pains? Repent. And press on toward Christ.

Are you wishing that the changing clock will wash away the aching loss in your heart from life changes you couldn’t control? Hope. And press on toward Christ.

Are you anticipating the New Year with eagerness of all God will do? Look ahead. And press on toward Christ.

Are you awaiting with thankfulness a fulfilling year of God’s bounty and goodness? Praise. And press on toward Christ.

The recipe—indeed the resolution—for each of us is the same: press toward Christ. So whether you celebrate, sing, sit alone, or sleep in the turning to 2019, do so with Jesus as your focal point. And let’s see what He will do!

A Christmas Eve Sunrise

Few sites seem more calmly beautiful to me than a slowly creeping sunrise as the orange hues of light push away the blacks and blues of night. As I watch this morning’s sun rise on Christmas Eve, I can’t help but wonder about the sunrise for Mary and Joseph that day two thousand years ago. Was the first Christmas Eve rainy? Colder than normal? Hot and muggy? Was it dreary? Were they still traveling that morning or had they already arrived in Bethlehem? Were they awakened both by the creeping sun and the bustle of animals around the stable? Whatever the conditions of that morning before Jesus’ birth, their day must have been a conglomeration of anticipation and anxiousness. Dread and delight. Without family and close friends around and comforted only by a stable full of stranger’s animals, Joseph and Mary settled in for the birth that would change the world.

The sun rose that day. It also rose the next day, the first morning that our Savior breathed in air into his tiny lungs. The sun would follow suit bowing down each evening and rising up every morning throughout Jesus’ life. At the cross, the sun would hide its brilliance in Jesus’ sacrificial moments of death. But the sun would rise again.

Three days later, the Son and the sun would rise. Oh, my mind wonders yet again, what was that sunrise like on that day of resurrection? No matter. The same sovereign power that guides the sun every day brought up the Son of God from the grave.

The sun rises. It’s like clockwork. It’s Designer set it that way. Right now, through my window, I’m watching the hues brightening, turning the blackened silhouettes of the trees outside into their natural browns and grays. The sun will rise on Christmas Day tomorrow as well. There’s such hope in looking to the stabilizing routine of the Creator’s handiwork. His patterned control of the sun reminds me this morning that there’s not one single event happening in this world He created that’s not under His calm, guiding power. I’m pulled to the words describing Jesus, the one born in that bustling stable, from Colossians 1:15-17,

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

The sun rises because Jesus holds all things together. The rain falls because Jesus holds all things together. Life twists and turns, but Jesus still holds all things together. The calming rhythm He’s set in motion to guide the sun also rules every single moment you will experience today…and tomorrow. Please don’t forget that. The sun rises. He’s made sure of it.

That’s one gift I’m certainly grateful for this Christmas!