Looking for Something More

My father delighted in drama.  He was an avid story-teller who knew how to create suspense.   He masterfully drew listeners to the precipice of a story’s climax.  He was often called upon to speak publicly, especially at celebratory or ceremonial occasions.  With carefully chosen words, he lent gravity and significance to every proceeding, no matter how small or common. The natural drama that surrounds the holiday season especially primed my father’s pump.

Christmas Eve brought convergence to my father’s love of suspense.  Before bed, we set out chocolate pie for Santa.   Then Daddy would pull out his giant reel-to-reel recorder and conduct interviews with my sisters and me. With a news reporter’s demeanor, he would conduct his man-on-the-street interview, probing our expectations for the day ahead.  As we prepared for bed, he scanned across oceans of static on his transistor radio for reports from NORAD about an unidentified inbound object over the Bering Sea.  We were never sure which was imminent – Santa Claus or nuclear holocaust?   Every detail of the evening was calculated to create suspense by asking the same question.  “When we wake in the morning, if we wake, will we encounter wonder or disappointment?”

My father knew this was never a settled question for me.  He knew that sometime in the night, I would wake and slip, as noiselessly as an eight year-old can, into the living room where all things Christmas were contained. He knew I would investigate the pie plate then the wing-back chair which was the designated landing spot for the evidence of my goodness in the preceding year.  The pie plate looked like a crime scene and in the chair were many good things, but not every good thing.  Something was always missing.   The big item on my list – that something more — was never there.   Even as he slept, my father created suspense.

In the morning, after Santa’s gifts were examined and family gifts were exchanged, just as my mother was getting up to begin lunch preparations, my father would notice something out of place, stuck in an unused corner or fallen behind some furniture.  With great fanfare and musings of “what is this” and “where did that come from,” he produced ‘something more.’

Christmas is often a season which leaves us looking for something more.  Our expectations are high, but our celebrations rarely deliver everything we seek.  And even when we take to heart Linus’ words to Charlie Brown that Christmas is about the birth of a Savior, we are left wondering what type of Savior He is.  Is He a mere teacher, who increased the demands of the law from mere outward conformity, to the perfect obedience of heart, mind, soul and strength?  Is He a mere example, come to demonstrate to us how to love and sacrifice for one another?  Is He a revolutionary who incites us to throw off convention and tradition?  Or should we look for something more?

The men of Jesus’ day were asking these same questions.  As the popularity of John the Baptist grew, a delegation of religious leaders questioned him about his identity. While they were busy comparing John with their own expectations, John provoked them to look for something more — more than a political and religious radical, but one who was God and Man, the Coming King of Kings, and the Lamb of God who takes away sin.   John pointed them not to one who could teach them about deliverance, but who alone could deliver them.   What kind of Savior are you looking for?

The Heidelberg Catechism, a time-tested set of questions and answers designed to teach the basics of the Christian faith,  prepares us to ask this question.  By pointing out saviors who can’t save, it asks.

Q15. What manner of mediator and redeemer then must we seek? A: One who is a true and sinless man, and yet more powerful than all creatures, that is, one who is at the same time true God. 

Join us this Sunday, November 24 as we examine John 1:19-34 and consider what type of Savior we are seeking and to what we are pointing others.   We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:45 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.   We look forward to seeing you.

Count Down

Our vacation to Melbourne Beach, Florida was filled with expected and unexpected high points.  The beach, the weather, the manatees, and our hosts’ phenomenal hospitality were all amazing.  But among the unexpected high points were the nesting sea turtles, viewing the construction site for SpaceX’s Starship and visiting the American Space Museum and Space Walk of Fame.   With its awkwardly long name and very small building, on a quiet side street in Titusville, Florida, the American Space Museum and Space Walk of Fame did not seem very promising at first glance.  Oh, how wrong that assessment proved to be!

The museum’s collection of NASA artifacts and memorabilia is prodigious, but its greatest treasures are its volunteers, many of whom were career NASA employees.   Their depth of knowledge, experience, and perspective about all things NASA was worth any price of admission.   You quickly discover that these unassuming docents are retired rocket scientists and electrical engineers.  Even some of the guests had remarkable stories.  One woman we met designed and fabricated the heat tiles, as well as the heat resistant quilted lining, for the STS (Space Shuttle) vehicles.

An entire room was required to house the carefully restored  computer used to synchronize the countdown for all the Saturn V and Atlas rocket launches.  After all, nothing is more essential to a rocket launch than the countdown.   But countdowns not only sequence the details of a rocket launch.  They also conduct and heighten expectations surrounding the important events of our lives.

As a child, once Halloween had passed, I could give anyone who asked an accurate countdown to Christmas.  Even now in our family, the beloved Advent calendar is an important part of our Christmas décor and observance.  But in all the excitement of counting down the days to Christmas are we preparing ourselves as much for the reality of the Incarnation as we do for the remembrance of it?

It is easy to confuse the remembrance with the realities of the great mystery of Christ manifest in the flesh.   Perhaps this is why so often when December 25 passes, a sense of unfulfillment and drear settles upon us.  We vested confidence in the celebration and not the thing celebrated.  Then predictably it fails to deliver. And our holiday peace, hope, and joy get stored away in the attic with the lights and greenery.

God spent thousands of years preparing mankind for the coming of Christ.   The countdown begins in the book of Genesis.  Even as God was pronouncing the curse of the Fall, He was also promising a redeemer.  He gave the people sacrifices and law and ceremony, designed to teach them how salvation would be provided — ceremonies that painted a vivid picture of sins curse and its cure.  Yet these ceremonies had no power to save through mere religious observance.   So, scripture warns about the insufficiency of mere creatures to save.

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.  Hebrews 10:1-4

And again,

… you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ. 1 Peter 1:18-19

Men predictably confused faith in the promise with faith in the practice.  Just as we often confuse celebration with substance, and remembrances with realities, God’s ancient people put their hope for redemption in mere creatures rather than in the Redeemer, God had promised.   Our Heidelberg Catechism warns us not to follow their ruinous example when it asks.

Can any mere creature make satisfaction for us?  None: for first, God will not punish, in any other creature, that of which man has made himself guilty; and further, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin, and redeem others therefrom.  Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 5, Question 14.

The countdown is on.  Christmas is a little more than 5 weeks away.  What are you preparing for?  Are you preparing for the reality of the Incarnation, or trusting merely in annual remembrance to provide peace, joy and hope? Join us this Sunday, November 17 as we examine Hebrews 10:1-18 and consider the danger of seeking redemption from created things, including our holidays, traditions, religious observance, celebrations or family.  We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:45 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.   We look forward to seeing you.

Caring for the Caregivers

There is no dismay quite like it.  That crushed look in the eyes of a child when they proudly present their latest masterpiece for mounting on the refrigerator and Dad asks, “what is it?”  “Can’t you tell?” responds a quivering little voice.  And immediately parental stammering and backpedaling begins.

I learned long ago, after many parental fails, to ask “tell me about this one?”  This little bit of painfully acquired wisdom has served me well.  As I visit with those who are suffering long-term illness and look at the pictures displayed around their homes – pictures that tell their story and that of their family — I ask “tell me about this one?”  Just as our children’s masterpieces are often unrecognizable to us, so the appearance of friends may become nearly unrecognizable as long-term sickness takes its toll.  I have noticed that even the best Hollywood makeup artists cannot quite capture the withering effects of prolonged illness.

But the one who is sick is not the only one who suffers.  Caregivers keenly feel the effects of their “labor of love.”   Often, I have asked a primary caregiver, “your loved one has you to care for her, but who is taking care of you?”  Sadly, more times than not the reply is “no one” — the caregiver had no caregiver.  And it shows.  Weariness of face and weariness of soul is hard to disguise.   And the effects are devastating.

But this is not only true for those caring for the physical needs of others.  The burdens of spiritual care are wearying to those who bear them.   Paul lamented that he wrote to the Corinthians “out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears.”  And in Romans, Paul wrote that he had “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” because of the unbelief of his fellow Israelites.  And in Colossians, we read of Epaphras who was frequently “wrestling in prayer” for his congregation.  Spiritual caregiving is strenuous and takes its toll on pastors and elders.  But who cares for the caregivers?  The answer Scripture gives is surprising.

In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul instructs Timothy in how the church is to behave as the household of God.  Following up on his commands regarding the support and care for widows, Paul gives important guidance about how the church is to care for its caregivers – its elders, especially those that labor in the word and in doctrine.

In the United States, on average, over 1700 pastors leave the ministry every year.  70% report suffering chronic depression and 80% believe that pastoral ministry has adversely affected their families.  Burnout is epidemic and extreme loneliness is characteristic.   Who is caring for these caregivers?  Paul’s admonition is that this is the collective work of the congregation.   Just as the congregation bears the burden of care for widows, who in turn have cared for the congregation, so the sheep are to provide care for the shepherds who have tended and fed the flock.

Join us this Lord’s Day, March 10, as we examine 1 Timothy 5:17-25 and consider the practical ways in which congregations care for their caregivers.  We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:45 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.   We look forward to seeing you.

The Living Room

The old saying goes, “a man’s home is his castle.”  While there is some comfort in this, it is worth remembering that the primary architectural goal of a castle is to keep others out.  Castles have walls with battlements from which projectiles can be hurled and pots of boiling oil dumped on the heads of those who seek to gain entry.   A castle’s windows are designed for archers, not effective lighting.  And castles have moats – a feature that unequivocally says, “keep out, or else.”  Castles were not built for hospitality.  Castles were built to clearly draw the line between us and them.

The architecture of 1970’s Americana had an answer to this kind of bunker mentality.  It was called, the Living Room.  Not to be confused with the den, which was the private gathering spot for the nuclear family, the living room was a separate room designed and decorated for the reception of strangers.  This was the place where guests were received, where daughters were courted, and where outsiders became, for a brief time, insiders.  The Living Room served as a stone of remembrance that we lived in a world larger than just “us.”

Our society has grown increasingly divided, however.  We have our church groups, school groups, and various other groups.  And rarely do they cross-pollinate.  But this is not the normative expression of the Christian life.  Our faith must permeate, flavor and unite every realm of life.  We don’t hang up our Christianity on a hook at the back door of the church as we leave worship each week and only put it on again as we arrive the following Sunday.  The life of faith, modeled through our worship, is to be lived out in every sphere – our vocations, our avocations, and our families.  Like a living room, our faith forms the meeting place, the intersection, of all our little worlds.

In the New Testament, Paul wrote two letters to his young friend, Timothy, to instruct him in pastoral care.  To be sure, many of these instructions regarded doctrine, worship and organization within the local congregation.  But Paul also gave eminently practical instructions on questions of communication and family life, reminding Timothy and us that the gospel defines who we are, and what we are, everywhere that we are.

Join us this Lord’s Day, February 24, as we examine 1 Timothy 5:1-8 and consider how our faith informs some very practical matters of communication and family life. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:45 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.   We look forward to seeing you.

Knock Offs

To say I was unpopular as a boy would be an understatement.   I wanted to fit in and find acceptance, but there were three significant strikes against me – I struggled with my weight, I loved to read the World Book Encyclopedia for fun, and I wore Trax shoes.   For those unfamiliar with vintage 80’s knock-off footwear, Trax were the K-mart Adidas want-to-bes.   But no one was fooled.   In a time when being a part of the “in-crowd” at school demanded the full complement of status symbols – Jordache, Izod and Adidas – wearing a K-Mart knock off was the worst of all possible worlds.

Discount stores finally figured this out and started producing their own distinctive, no-name brands.  At least a no-name brand says, “I don’t really care what you think; I’m more practical and not pandering to your good opinion.”  But the knock-off attracted all the wrong kinds of attention.   My father was trying to help, but as a child of the depression, he was oblivious to the narcissism of the age and the power of the status symbol.  He was far too practical (and wise) to spend beyond our means to purchase a logo.  But, alas, there was no anonymity for the wearer of Trax shoes.   Everyone knew you were trying to fit in but came up short.   No one was fooled by the knock-off.  It was important to be the real deal.

Authenticity is important.  We want this in our food, we this in our relationships, but what about our faith?  No outcry is more universally raised in reaction to Christians than the cry of “hypocrite.”   Once when the missionary E. Stanley Jones met with Mahatma Ghandi he asked him, “Mr. Ghandi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?” Ghandi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”   No one is fooled by a knock-off.

The Apostle Paul in writing to Timothy pointed out the importance of authenticity for pastoral ministry.  He instructed him to preach the word, in season and out of season, but he also stressed the importance of living authentically as a follower of Christ before the believers in Ephesus.

… set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity… Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. 1 Timothy 4:12, 15-16

Walking the walk, makes our talk talk.   Just like Timothy, we are called to live authentically — our lives and doctrine corroborating one another.  Scottish pastor, Robert Murray M’Cheyne famously wrote.

“A minister’s life is the life of his ministry….  In great measure, according to the purity and perfections of the instrument will be the success. It is not great talents that God blesses so much as likeness to Jesus.  A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”

Join us this Lord’s Day, February 17, as we examine 1 Timothy 4:11-16 and consider the call to live authentically as Christians.  We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:45 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.   We look forward to seeing you.

Muddy Waters

I never liked to swim where I could not see the bottom.  Growing up in Georgia, our lakes and streams were usually murky.   Like the water used to rinse children’s paint brushes, our natural swimming areas always sported a milky, muddiness that left me fearing what might be lurking in the darkness, ready to nibble my toes or wrap itself around my legs.   We had special “old clothes” we would wear to such places, because once dipped in, they were beyond all hope of cleansing from the effects of a red clay baptism.    My own children do not have these concerns.  Our Arkansas swimming holes are quite different.  Infused with generous amounts of limestone worn away by the rushing streams, our natural pools sparkle with an electric blue clarity that invites and assures.  The clarity of the water gives hesitant children a clarity of perspective that nothing sinister waits beneath their feet.   When it comes down to it, none of us want to swim in muddy waters.

What is true of our swimming holes is also true of the ideas and experiences that shape who and what we are.  We all want clarity of perspective, but often we latch on to ideas or experience things that muddy the waters.  When we were children, everything was black and white.  Some cowboys were good and some were not.  It was simple to distinguish them because some wore white hats, while others donned black ones.   But then we realized that men in white hats sometimes committed black deeds and the waters got muddied.  Skepticism crept in regarding the people and the truths we thought were so clear.   As we sought clarity, we found murkiness.  Where would we look for truth?  Who can we trust?  As one ancient preacher mused, “the devil fishes in muddy waters.”

The enemy of our soul likes to muddy our waters.  His goal is to make us suspicious of truth, of one another and of God.  You don’t have to look very far in our world today and see that he seems to have had some success.  His favorite muddy fishing hole is false teaching and false teachers in the church.  Nowhere is doubt and suspicion more easily sown than in the very place which professes to be the pillar and buttress of the truth.  Yet Satan’s, strategies, though subtle are never surprising.  He always works in the same way.   He is never a bald-faced liar.  Jesus called Satan the father of lies and a liar from the beginning, but his lying is filtered through subtlety.  Like an evil chemist, he mixes healthful truth and poisonous deception.  He loves muddy waters.  God warns us of this time and time again, reminding us that His Word and Spirit bring clarity – that He is the Living Water.

Join us this Lord’s Day, February 3, as we examine 1 Timothy 4:1-5 to unmask Satan’s nefarious strategy by considering the sources, the content and the consequences of false teaching.  We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:45 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.   We look forward to seeing you.

Staying Focused

As a boy, when I arrived home from school each day, two priorities dominated my agenda.  The first was to secure a snack — often something, not so healthy — and the second was to spend an hour watching television before diving into my homework – also not very healthy.   Ted Turner’s fledgling super-station curiously juxtaposed two cartoons starting at 3:35 – “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons.”  One superimposed modern concerns, attitudes and lifestyles upon stone-aged men and women while the other superimposed futuristic technology and innovation upon contemporary concerns, attitudes and lifestyles.  The curious message of both cartoons was the same.  While the context of life changes radically, people are the same in every age.   The hopes, their problems, their needs are the same whether they are riding dinosaurs in the rock quarry or zipping around in spaceships.

Certainly, those of us who have lived very long have seen this.  People are people, even though the world today is radically different from the one in which we grew up.  We did not have computers, cell phones, video players of any type, remote controls, or even color television.  I was almost grown before I leaned that Gilligan’s shirt was not light grey.   The pace of technological change is staggering, as amazing discoveries are being made every day which fundamentally change our lives.   Scientific discovery is accelerating exponentially.   But the most important discovery sits outside the realm of science.

Curiously, every great discovery has been there all along, hiding in the cosmos and waiting to be uncovered through some unfolding chain of inquiry.  But the greatest truth, the one which affects the hearts and souls of men and women, is not discoverable.   It must be revealed.   This truth alone, expressed in the Christian gospel, has the power to change people from the inside out.  This truth has been entrusted to the Church, whose mission is to proclaim it.  While many great discoveries have improved the quality and quantity of human life, none of these have eternal impact.

But often the Church gets distracted and fails to keep the main thing the main thing.  Programs must be staffed and funded, buildings must be maintained, schedules must be managed, traditions must be observed, controversies must be addressed.  The church may pursue many good secondary things, but if not careful, it may lose sight of the first thing, the gospel.  No doubt Paul recognized this danger as he instructs Timothy how the church is to be organized, who is to do what, how worship is to be conducted, and how the needs of the congregation are to be met.   For this reason, he constantly reasserts the big picture in every discussion of details.   The structure of worship, the establishment of leadership and its qualifications, the concern to contend for truth, and to care for the marginalized all serve the same end – to declare the great mystery of godliness, revealed in the gospel.

Join us this Lord’s Day, January 27, as we examine 1 Timothy 3:14-16 to consider the importance of focusing our ministry as the Church through the lens of the gospel. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:45 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.   We look forward to seeing you.