New Year’s Resolutions

January invites us to “resolution season.” We’ve just concluded the “holiday season” between Thanksgiving and Christmas (also known to many of us a feasting season). Likely, many of us have already set new goals to shape 2020.

  • Goals for a healthier lifestyle.
  • Goals to be more pleasant, or more kind, or more restful.
  • Goals to lose weight.
  • Goals to guard our words.
  • Goals to grow closer to Jesus.
  • Goals to manage busyness.
  • Goals to love family better.
  • Goals to take in less media or entertainment.
  • Goals to sharpen our minds.

My guess is, even if you haven’t written them down, announced them on social media, or told a family member, most of us have looked back and glanced ahead to identify at least an area or two of our lives that need a recharge or a renewed effort to place in check.

In my time of reflection entering this New Year, I’ve identified a few areas to “resolve.” Here’s one. In reality, they three resolutions in one. In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, Paul links three thoughts together to shape our spiritual “actions and reactions.”

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

I find myself frequently reflecting on these verses. I have them written down in a portion of my daily prayer time. What’s come to the surface as I’ve contemplated these verses recently is their overarching control over my actions and reactions. God longs for our actions (our intentional choices) and our reactions (our responses to the choices of others and the situations of life that come against us) to please Him. I’ve found these three commands from Paul to be a powerful recipe for keeping both my actions and reactions in check.

Paul commands, “rejoice always.” It’s easy sometimes to rejoice, isn’t it? At Pleasant Garden Baptist Church where I’m pastor, our Lottie Moon Christmas Offering will be our largest ever.* When I found that out, I started bouncing. My heart was giddy! I couldn’t help but want to tell everyone! But, that’s not everyday, is it? An unexpected trial, a frightening diagnosis, a toilsome season at work, or a difficult relationship may tempt us to words or reactions far less than rejoicing. Yet, the Word instructs us in all these moments to rejoice.

Paul further teaches, “Pray without ceasing.” Prayer should be as natural and common to my spiritual life as breathing is to my physical. I must be taught—again and anew—to pray. That’s one of the key reasons we are kicking off 2020 at PGBC with the series, “Jesus on Prayer.” For nearly 3 months, we will weave in and out of His instructions in the gospels regarding how we are to pray and what we are to pray for.

Finally, he implores, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” I’ve found this command to often be the link for obeying the other two. How do I rejoice when my circumstances tempt me to be discouraged? I thank God for His never-ceasing faithfulness. How do I keep pressing into prayer when I’m so busy that I’ve got to jump into the next priority? I slow down to praise God for His generous and wise guidance in the past. How do I hold to Him when His answer seems delayed? I thank Him for the last time His answer came through when it seemed delayed.

Pray. Rejoice. Give thanks. Three simple, powerful, and direct commands. For me, they’re resolutions too. How about you? What’s one of your resolutions for this New Year?

*For Southern Baptist churches, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering is one way we actively support our missionaries all around the world. At our church, we anticipate our 2019 offering to exceed $105,000!

Christmas Previews the Cross

The shadow of cross falls upon the manger. A wooden feed trough meant for animals would give way to a wooden cross meant for criminals. The birth of a King, welcomed only by parents and shepherds to little fanfare would be replaced by a show and spectacle of judgment and the jeering of many voices at the death of this same King decades later. Tiny, innocent hands and feet yet untouched by the callouses of work and labor would later be pierced with spikes and held to a wooden cross. The Redeemer would be robed in swaddling clothes at his birth and stripped of everything at his death. Christmas is a preview of the cross.

The angel’s announcement to Joseph in Matthew 1 invites us to consider this preview.

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

Matthew 1:21

He came to save! He came to redeem! He came to forgive! He came to cleanse! His name, Jesus, means “Yahweh is salvation.” The promise of the angel is a guarantee of what he would accomplish: “He will save.”

What sin or sins do you need to be saved from? Where have you veered from Him? Where are you wrong? Where has evil crept into you heart? What habits, patterns, and flaws still cling to you?

The hope of these simple words reminds us that Jesus can and will save us from all our sins. In Mark 1, this same Jesus shows us the way to receive His forgiveness.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Mark 1:14-15

Repent and believe. This is the way to the Jesus who saves. Have you? Will you?*

Let us not forget. Christmas isn’t about candy or trees, cookies or even Santa. Christmas isn’t about gifts or even primarily about giving. Christmas previews how God will save His sinful and broken world. At Christmas, we are introduced to the One who would redeem us at Easter. Christmas is about the cross!

*If you want to begin a relationship with Jesus by repenting of your sins and believing in Him, I would like to invite you to reach out to us. You can get in contact with me at 336-387-4151 or robert.hefner@pgbc.com.

Night Lights

When I was a kid, a night light provided just the perfect amount of direction for a late night trip to the bathroom or a sneak for a snack from the kitchen. A night light’s not hardly noticeable in the day, but they pop at night. Even a very dim night light draws your attention almost magnetically in the dark.

Spiritually, I have to admit, I often take for granted that I live in much “light” when it comes to my faith as a Christian in the US. As a pastor, I can speak freely of Jesus. As a pastor in the South, I speak freely to people who know the name of Jesus and have likely been to church. I’ve been privileged to grow up in a very “Christian” world with a Christian education, Christian friends, and even a Christian career. We’ve got much work to do in the US, but I mustn’t forget that so much around me is bright.

I think that’s why the “dark” of Thailand has gripped me so much. I’ve gone on mission trips before, but I’ve never been to a country so blinded in its dark, night-like lostness. Religiously, a pragmatic Buddhism blended with animistic faiths lead people to fear spirits, worship wood and metal idols, and seek luck by paying for “merit.” Morally, some of the country’s dark, seedy streets teem with sensuality that’s invites provocatively a worship of self indulgence. Traditionally, the country’s Buddhist roots and cultural structures of honoring elders place an allegiance to family that hinders changing of religious faith. It’s as if someone has turned the lights out on the entire nation.

But, the darkness makes the night lights stand out. A team in a large Thai city is engaging in schools, reaching into the Red Light district, and teaching English to college students.

In the dark spiritual night of Thailand, their night lights are burning bright!

Another team is plowing new ground in a South Thailand region by witnessing door-to-door, working alongside church plants, and engaging English-speaking college students.

In the dark spiritual night of Thailand, their night lights are burning bright!

In the middle of the country, other personnel is training pastors, planting gardens, providing water filters, and even giving livestock to open doors for the bright light of the Gospel.

In the dark spiritual night of Thailand, their night lights are burning bright!

I’ve been privileged to meet many of these “night lights” God has placed for Thailand to see. Monty and Jermaine, CJ and Julie, Doug and Cheryl, David and Pamela, Tom and Susan, Rob and Nicole, Quentin and Kim, Jeremy and Christine, Matt and Erin, Cale and Julie, Tony and Kim, Stephen and Emily, Kelli, Ann, MaKenzie, Rachel, Litza, Anna, Angela, and Mikayla along with many, many others dot the spiritual darkness across this country like beautiful night lights.

Each of these I’ve mentioned by name above serve as International Mission Board personnel in Thailand. After meeting them over the past few weeks, I have never been prouder to be a Southern Baptist. If you are giving to our SBC Cooperative Program and our Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, I would give you personal testimony that dollars in Thailand are going to excellent use pushing back the darkness one night light at a time.

Jesus said,

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Matthew‬ ‭5:14-16‬ ‭(ESV‬‬)

These lights are burning brightly all over this country. And my favorite thing about each of these night lights is they really only seem to care that Thailand see the Light of the World and give him glory. I’m glad I’ve been here now. I suspect the more these burn here, the more lights will pop up. And it may just be that one day, Thailand may be so bright you won’t even notice the night lights!

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!

DiamondbackcoasterKingsIsland-5a592c1f4e46ba0037902d16

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

meeting

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.