Mpact—Honoring Pastor Michael Barrett

Just a few months ago when Pleasant Garden Baptist Church called me to follow Mike Barrett as pastor, I couldn’t have imagined the impact he would have on me in such a short period of time. I have been blessed to be around and serve with many good and godly pastors along the way. Until July 2018, I had never been around one quite like Mike Barrett.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been around any Christian with less pretense than him. He epitomizes Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” He has lived this way because he wants only Jesus honored. In fact, I paid him a public compliment not long after I arrived. He pulled me off a day later and whispered, “Please don’t do that. Just lift up Jesus.”

I know I’ve never been around anyone with the energy and metabolism of Mike. Diet Mountain Dew, a couple pieces of chocolate, and a go-go-go energy has bounced all around Greensboro and the Pleasant Garden community and even worldwide on mission trips where he’s scattered Jesus’ love everywhere he’s been.

I have loved being around someone with such a playful joy. I hadn’t even begun at the church officially when he welcomed me into the fraternity of “Robert, it’s your fault!” A table the staff was moving took out a rear truck window and with a smirk on his face and twinkle in his eye, he immediately blamed me. I wasn’t near it at the time, so I asked him, “Mike, how you figure it was my fault? I wasn’t anywhere around.” With playful glee he chuckled, “That’s why! If you’d been there, it wouldn’t have happened!”

What I couldn’t have imagined when my family and I arrived was the quick, deep, and prayer-shaped friendship we would develop in only a few short months. Weekly, we’ve gathered to pray together, for each other, and for our respective ministry futures. He’s walked me through many of his approaches to ministry. He’s let me talk. He’s given encouragement and direction. He’s also done something that I respect tremendously and know must not have been easy. While we’ve overlapped, he’s taken steps back more and more to let me lead. For the pastor, shepherd, preacher, and leader of 31 years to step behind me while he’s led and served so faithfully and admirably has been perhaps his greatest gift to me. He’s set me up for such success. Why? Well, take a look back at that first trait—no pretense.

In our celebration of his tenure, we outlined our service with the acronym, “Mpact,” calling attention to the mark he’s left on countless people through “missions,” “prayer,” “action,” “compassion,” and “truth” in his pastorate at Pleasant Garden. I know this. He’s made and indelible mpact on me. If, 30 plus years from now, I have had half the influence of Michael Barrett, I’ll have considered myself immeasurably successful in ministry.

As he transitions from Pleasant Garden Baptist this week to a new season as our local missions strategist, I’m looking forward to watching his future ministry grow even more. I know this: wherever he serves, he will leave an mpact. And a slew of chocolate wrappers, an empty Diet Mountain Dew bottle or two, and a string of people who’ve come to know Jesus because of his work.

Thanks Mike for your mpact!

Switching Seats

As a kid, I rarely, if ever gave much thought to driving. I just knew we would climb into our family van and go. But as a teen, something switched. Like many teenage boys, I began to appreciate my dad’s aggressive driving habits and tense as my mom creeped along the road. Like my dad, when I thought of driving myself, I knew I wanted to fly.

Then driver’s ed happened. The rules of the road were pounded into a full room of eager, juvenile, immature soon-to-be drivers. Our instructor did his best, but he certainly had his work cut out for him. I read about one driver’s ed student who, when told to put the car in “passing gear” by the instructor, shifted up to the big “P” slamming the car to a hard stop. Thankfully, no one was hurt, and the experience surely turned into an excellent teaching moment for the instructor moving forward! While nothing quite that exciting happened in our class, rookie drivers may just bring such dramatic, and traumatizing, possibilities.

I can still recall those first few times switching seats. Exhilaration. Nervousness. An exceptionally heavy foot. (Wait. That last one didn’t happen until AFTER I passed the class.)

The perspective’s different in the driver’s seat. So is the responsibility.

In late June, I accepted the call to Pleasant Garden Baptist Church and began serving there with the outgoing Sr. Pastor, Michael Barrett in mid-July. I moved from an Associate Pastor’s role to a Sr. Pastor’s position.

I switched seats. The perspective’s different and so is the responsibility.

But here’s the best thing. The Instructor is better than any driving teacher I’ve ever had. God says to those who look to Him for guidance and direction,

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.

Psalm 32:8

I’m glad I switched seats. I’m enjoying the change in perspective and responsibilities. But oh, how grateful I am for the wise, faithful, diligent, guidance of the Instructor. Without Him, I’d be more clueless and lost than that teen who thought the “P” on the steering column meant “pass.” Just like when I began driving, I’m sure to make a mistake or two (or ten) along the way. But with God guiding our way with His watchful eye, I’m hopeful we’re more likely to avoid running red lights, crashing on the brakes, or other such “rookie” mistakes in the driver’s seat.

What Can You See?

“Can you read that lowest line for me?” My eye doctor had just adjusted the lens correction for my new contact prescription.

E D F C Z P

I could read every one. Prescription updated. Vision check success.

My optometrist has each and every necessary tool to look into my eyes and check them. Lights. Some red. Som white. Lenses. Drops. All this specialized equipment to give me a vision check.

That recent appointment has had me thinking, “What can I see spiritually?” And as I did, I realized, the One who created our eyes has placed tools before us to check our spiritual vision.

2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one[a] on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.

Mark 9:2-8

These verses are overflowing with truth for us, but for our purposes here, I only want to highlight two key tools God uses to give us spiritual vision check. First, he sometimes breaks our routine so we see Jesus more clearly. Jesus took his three closest disciples with him on the mountain to include them in reveal they needed to see. This Transfiguration was all about Jesus’ identity. His power. His glory. His preeminence. His authority. His lordship. His might. Are You in an unusual place? Is life a bit unsettled now? Have some unexpected trials come your way? Is your routine out of kilter? Look. Pay attention. God’s quite possibly trying to show you a fresh glimpse of Jesus.

Second, when you do begin to see what God’s doing around you, don’t miss the Savior for the salve. Don’t mistake the miracle for the Miracle worker. Don’t be distracted by the grand expression of God’s involvement in your life that you miss God altogether. Standing right there. In front of you.

That was Peter’s mistake. He saw Jesus. And Moses and Elijah. He saw Jesus transfigured and two heroes with him. In the shock and grandness of God’s power, he made a mistake we are prone to as well. He took his attention and allegiance off of Jesus for the briefest of moments. So God gently corrected him. “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”

Back to the eye doc. After I read each of those letters, the thought never crossed my mind to thank the large, metal lens contraption she had just removed from in front of my face. I did not—even one time—consider thanking the bright, white light she had just used to peer into my eyes only a minute before. Nor did I contemplate thanking the letters on the wall for being bright and visible. But I did thank her. The doc. The expert who used each tool to help me see each letter deserved my appreciation.

It’s not the tools we thank. It’s the Doc. How’s your vision? Do you need a eye check? What can you see? When you finish the exam, remember, it matters most if you see Jesus. And when you do, thank him for it.

What I’ve Learned from Old Man Job and Dear Saint Paul

I’m currently experiencing a season of obvious, visible blessing from the rich storehouses of God’s mercy and grace. God has been expressively pouring out one clear example of his goodness after another upon me and my family. We are floating in a sea of joyful goodness. We are basking in the warm glow of generous grace. We are dining at a full table and drinking from an overflowing cup.

As God’s kindness has wrapped us up and carried us along in this season of life, I’ve repeatedly told my wife, “Oh, I don’t want to take anything for granted! I don’t want to miss one thing! I don’t want to be ungrateful for any one piece!” In so many ways, grateful joy and expressive rejoicing has been easy in this season of life for us.

As I’ve contemplated all these wonderful blessings, God has reminded me of two truths I need to keep close at hand, one from Old Man Job and the other from Dear Saint Paul. First, he’s recalled to my attention that he gives and takes away. Both blessings and trials pass by his throne room for permission. Our circumstances do not change his authority—or his praiseworthiness—one bit.

In my Bible reading, I just finished the book of Job. God gave to Job. Then, God took away from him. God allowed Satan to remove his wealth, his children, and his health (see Job 1-2). As he wrestled with the experiences of loss and the arrogant (and ignorant) correction of three friends, he defended his own righteousness and integrity (see chapters 3-37 for the back and forth between Job and his friends). But when God began to question him (chapters 38-40), reminding Job of his tiny place in the great providence of his creation, Job concluded,

3 …”Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? 4 I lay my hand on my mouth. 5 I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.”

‭‭Job‬ ‭40:3-5‬ ‭ESV

Two chapters later, after another round of God’s sovereign correction (chapters 40-41), Job again responded,

2 “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4 ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ 5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6 therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

‭‭Job‬ ‭42:2-6‬ ‭ESV‬‬

The only response we should ever have to God is submissive repentance and expressive praise. Job’s circumstances, even in their most dire, didn’t justify any other reply.

Which leads me right to the second lesson God has been taking me back through.

Rejoice always.

1 Thessalonians 5:16

Right now, for me, it’s easy to rejoice. Just about every circumstance is “good” by how we typically look at “good” and “bad” in human terms.

Paul had read the book of Job though. Paul had lived on top of the mountain and deep down in the valley (see Philippians 4:11-13). Paul had been honored by the lips of men and pelted by their stones too (see Acts 14:19-23). He knew trial, tragedy, and terror (see 2 Corinthians 11:16-33). This man, who knew life at both extremes, commands, “Rejoice always.”

Always. There’s no wiggle room in that word. No exclusions. No exemptions. No exceptions. Paul commands us to rejoice regardless of the circumstances, the trials, or the difficulties. He commands us to rejoice when we want to rejoice and when we don’t want to rejoice. Like Job, Paul had learned that whatever shapes our “always” never affects God’s worthiness. Like Job, Paul knew God’s sovereign power and great majesty deserve our joyful worship when God gives and when God takes away.

Tomorrow may be a different day for me. I assure you, I’ve had days when his visible goodness wasn’t quite like this season now. I, like Job, have justified my “righteousness” in trying times only to have God remind me that I will never hold him accountable. It’s as if Dear Saint Paul looked into Old Man Job’s story and concluded, “Let’s just bypass that whole self-pity or self-justification stage altogether. Rejoice always. Yep. That’ll do it.”

Are things good? Rejoice! Are things not-so-good? Rejoice! Either way, God’s worthy of it! Always!

Are You Caught in the Chaos of a Storm?

I‘m finding myself in the midst of chaos. Work. Family. Stress. Stuff. The burdens of others. The unknown. All these things — many of them good — are swirling around in my life like a storm of sorts. Stress-sized raindrops pound incessantly on my mind and emotions. Wind-like expectations whip around from work, friends, and family, sending my attention in a dozen directions. While I’m chasing these expectations one after another, uncertain anxieties crack my attention back to the present like a loud clap of thunder close by stops you in your tracks. Chaos. Loud, thundering, life-shaking chaos. That’s a good bit of my life right now.

God knows this too. In fact, not one bit of this chaos has surprised him. Not one stress raindrop or frightening thunderclap showed up without his guiding permission.

Why? Well, he’s the God who speaks in storms.

I spent some time years ago digging into the Psalms. Many struck me in timely moments, but one in particular resonated with me in those chaotic, stormy seasons of life.

Take a moment and read Psalm 29.

1 Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,

ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;

worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.

3 The voice of the Lord is over the waters;

the God of glory thunders,

the Lord, over many waters.

4 The voice of the Lord is powerful;

the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;

the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

6 He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf,

and Sirion like a young wild ox.

7 The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.

8 The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;

the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

9 The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth

and strips the forests bare,

and in his temple all cry, “Glory!”

10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;

the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.

11 May the Lord give strength to his people!

May the Lord bless his people with peace!

In verses 1-2, David calls our attention to worship God for his majesty, splendor, and holiness. That’s an excellent place to begin seeking calm in the chaos.

In verses 3-9, David essentially takes a thunderstorm and its powerful display of wind, rain, lighting, and thunder to describe the awesome power of God’s voice in nature’s chaos.

In verse 10, David reminds us that God reigns sovereign over the thunderstorms — and everything else.

In verse 11, David prays that the God who is worthy of worship, the One who speaks in storms, the One who sits high above them, would strengthen and grant peace to his children living under the chaos of the wind and rain.

In the chaos, God wants to grant calm. In the craziness of life, God wants to display his settling control. In the echoing confusion of thundering voices all around us in chaotic moments, God wants us to realize his voice is speaking. Right there. In the chaos. That thunder? His voice. That pelting rain? His voice. That violent, ripping wind? His voice.

And what’s his voice saying?

“I’m worthy of worship regardless of what you are going through. I’m in charge of the thunderstorms in your life. They bend to my will. I’m in control. I’ve got the storms. And I’ve got you. Come to me. I’m the source of peace. I’m the provider of strength. I’ll usher you through.”

Is your life being ravaged by the chaos of a thunderstorm? Are you being shaken by the winds of life? Do you feel yourself drowning in the rising rainwaters? If so, turn yourself to the One who speaks in the storms. Listen. And as you do, you may just find his calming, sovereign voice giving peace and strength in that very thunderclap.

Sippin’ Sweet Tea, Sittin’ in a Lawn Chair, and Soakin’ in Summer Stories

The sun had just dipped below the tree line. The thick, humid summer air was turning to a pleasant, slight coolness that takes the edge off the day’s hottest heat. Cousins were bouncing and running through the trees and scattered lawn chairs in my uncle’s yard. Chatter and laughter flitted through the air much like butterflies do with more than a few exaggerated fish stories and exchanges about mischief among the kids. And the food. Oh the food! The charred, smokey burgers and sweet, savory baked beans piled high on everyone’s plates. Juicy watermelon finished off the meal time with that just-right mix of watery sweetness. More than one seed spitting contest followed. Everyone did their own thing until my PaPaw took his seat with sweet tea in hand in that old, woven lawn chair. Even now, nearly thirty years later, I can still see his broad smile and glinting eyes that smirked more than his curving lips. I can still hear his soft chuckle. I wasn’t the only one.

You see, when my PaPaw sat down, stories were sure to follow. And every one of us knew it. Just about every family member, even the littlins’, gathered in close to hear him retell scaring the daylights out of his kids decades earlier, beating his boys in golf just the day before, or catching a cooler full of fish on the last family beach trip. He just had a way. However he said it, he just said it better. Sons listened. Daughters and daughters’-in-laws cooed. Grandkids giggled. All of us found ourselves mesmerized. We were home. Home right at his feet. Listening.

I’ll never forget some of those stories. I can still hear him tell us about sneaking quietly around the back of the house, switching off the power, and slowly slipping into the living room where his wife and kids had gathered to figure out what happened to the power. At the point in his account where he screamed and everyone else scattered, I laughed and laughed and laughed. I could listen to him tell that story over and over.

My PaPaw was a Christian. I’m so grateful for that. To me, that means in part one day I’ll get to hear him rattle off stories again. It also reminds me, one day, I’ll get to sit and listen at Another’s feet. Just like Mary did.

38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.

Luke‬ ‭10:38-39 (‭ESV‬‬)

That’s part of what makes our memories, relationships, and joys so powerful. They are echos of the real thing. They allude to the greater story. They hint at a greater reunion. One day, for believers in Jesus, every good gift we’ve been given here will be perfected there. And the even greater hope for others among us—those who may not have as many fond memories, relationships, or joys—is that they can anticipate the stories of the Savior sitting at his feet with an unmatched eagerness.

Summer’s just around the corner. Sweet tea and a warm grill too. Laughter. Fish stories. I’m looking forward to it. I’ll remember my PaPaw. Again. And when I do, I’ll also look ahead to that other reunion.

Now, would you please pass the sweet tea?

Are You In A Fog?

Not too long ago, my family and I were traveling back home at night. It had been a cold, rainy evening already and turned dark. As we navigated up Black Mountain on I40 West, the fog settled in. Unbearably thick. Frightening. Soaking up the headlights scary. I slowed way down. I had too. My visibility only extended about 10 or 15 feet, at best, in front of the car.

We wound up that mountain at a near crawl. As we cut through that choking blanket of hazy moisture, my mind darted to a verse I had been meditating upon in the days prior.

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

Psalm 119:105

Throughout Psalm 119, David emphasizes over and over how God’s word has been given to us to shape how we live and act. Verse after verse, David praises God for the gift of the Old Testament Scriptures he had grown to love because they methodically guided his actions toward God and others. In this short verse here, David imagines a nighttime walk, perhaps from his shepherding days, where like a small lamp, God’s instructions for him had shaped what he was to do and how he was to act one step at a time.

Like a cascading waterfall, the truths of that short verse burst afresh upon me that night in the midst of that gray foreboding fog. The actual, physical fog hearkened my mind back to a few years prior. My wife and I were driving the exact same stretch of road seeking clarity in that season of life about God’s direction for a specific issue before us. I’ll never forget the word she used to describe it–she called it “the fog.”

The fog spiritually does quite exactly the same thing that real fog did as we drove through it. Fog clouds vision. It disorients direction. It slows progress. It hinders action. We would have been motionless and helpless had it not been for the car’s headlights. Light pierces the fog. At night, light is the only way to make your way, even slowly, through its dense restraints. Like car headlights, we need a way to see our way through the fog. Enter Psalm 119:105.

It’s here we need to see a crucial truth about how God’s word most often works. Rarely will you open the Bible to find circumstantial direction about your foggy situations. We need to be careful holding his word to a standard where we expect to thumb through its pages to find a specific answer about much of the stuff we face.

Do I change jobs?

Who should I marry?

Which car should I buy?

What college should I attend?

Which one should I direct my child toward?

If you are looking for specific answers for questions like these, I fear you may end up disappointed. But, if you and I seek out his word for wisdom on how to make these decisions, we may begin to see the step in front of us. The lamplight of his word shines ahead of our steps more like these questions below.

Which job gives me the greatest opportunity to serve God? Does one take me away from Christian fellowship? Will one weaken my commitment to my family?

Is this young man I’m dating following God? Is he valuing my purity? Will he help me honor God with my life? Will he lead our family to Jesus?

Which vehicle lets us steward God’s resources he’s trusting us with the best?

Will my top options for college help me find the shape or call of God for my life? Will the friends I make press me closer to God and his standards? Can I help my son seek God’s wise guidance in the college options he has before him? How does his word help shape my conversations with him so that I help him rather than push him away?

The difference between those two sets of questions is night and day.

As my mind jolted back into the car creeping along the curvy interstate, we crested the top of the mountain. The fog began to lift. The lights pierced further. Our route became safer. At the same time, the connection between Psalm 119:105, the actual fog we were coming through, and the spiritual fog we had experienced years prior became crystal clear. God has given us a spiritual foglight. The words of his book pierce the hazy, engulfing fog that clouds around us. They show us, incrementally, how to put one foot in front of the other to find our way. Years before, God did exactly that. Through his word, he helped us navigate that spiritual fogginess. He showed us how to obey him, day by day, even moment by moment, until his unfolding plan became clear on the other side of the fog.

More than once since, other spiritual fogs have settled back upon us. I never like it. But, I believe I’m starting to understand God’s purpose in them.

Slow down.

Look right in front of you.

Heighten your attentiveness.

Let my word guide your conduct.

Pay careful attention ahead.

Are you in a fog? If so, it may be just where God wants you. His word, like a visible guiding light, can give you direction, wisdom, and clarity for each step ahead. Slow down. Take a look. At his word. Right in front of you. And as you do, see if he doesn’t light your way.