Friday, December 30, 2011

A Living Prayer

By Rev. Mark Reece

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” This week we wrap up our sermon series built from these words of Jesus offered in John 15:7. Jesus offers us the opportunity to ask of God in the spirit of abiding or obedience. Following the path and teachings of Jesus maintains an unselfish, giving and loving presence about us that will control our asking. This is particularly important because asking dominates much of our prayer life. The best preparation for prayer is to abide in Christ, through daily word and deed, in order to prevent us from offering what I’ve referred to as selfish reactionary and impulsive prayers. We are the branches and Christ is the vine. A clean and honest life keeps us connected to the life source.

There is a human asking and a divine giving at work in John 15:7. Gospel of John scholar Susan Hedahl says that it is “through this process of human asking and divine giving that we become disciples.” John 15:8 essentially says that the Father is glorified when we ask with obedience and our prayers are granted. This week I’m focusing on the divine giving. I was with a mentor of mine a few weeks ago for lunch and he pulled out a little book that was full of names. I could see the notes by each name and there were a few check marks. He was keeping notes of how God was in the process of answering his prayers. He had check marks by those prayers that he felt had been answered. I know that God answers prayers. God continues to answer my prayers. However, I’m continually amazed at the ways by which God answers my prayers.

John 15:7 begins with conditional statements “if you abide in me” and “if my words abide in you” and then moves to the declarative. One thing that I’ve discovered in my relationship with God is that the divine giving often comes with expectation. We often pray that God might give us more of something – perhaps patience, generosity or compassion. But what if God answers our prayer by giving us opportunities to exercise more patience? We pray to be more compassionate. Perhaps God gives us opportunities to exercise compassion. This thought process keeps us united in a partnership with God whereby we’re prevented from becoming complacent bystanders; rather, we’re always becoming active participants in our spiritual lives. We move from saying a prayer to living a life of prayer. Pray on and be blessed this week.

Mark Reece is the pastor of Piney Grove Baptist Church in Mount Airy, NC. This article originally appeared in their church newsletter, The Grove.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Jesus, an Immigrant

By Rev. Len Keever

Recently, I was at a meeting where a representative from the North Carolina Council of Churches was presenting some interesting statistics on population changes in our state. He said that for many people in the world immigration is not a problem, it is a solution. I don’t think I’ve really heard it put that way before.

Immigration is hard on a family. The decision to leave home and perhaps never return isn’t made lightly. There are dangers involved. Loved ones are left behind. Why would someone take those risks? Several answers come to mind: freedom, safety, the ability to provide a better life for children through education, health care, and job opportunities. Few of us can imagine what it would be like if we were trying to raise our children in a place where violence, oppression, hunger, and poverty was the norm.

Hours later the speaker’s words were still trying to find a comfortable place to sit in my thinking. They couldn’t be dismissed easily. Then suddenly and without warning they struck a different nerve. A new thought came to mind and I found myself sitting up straighter in my chair. An unexpected ah-ha moment was happening. I heard myself say, “Wow!” There is another example where immigration is the answer to a problem---but this time it isn’t the one who is immigrating who is looking for a solution to his difficulties. The one immigrating came to be the solution to our deepest problem.

God saw that things here were getting desperate. The influence of evil was growing; the impact of faith was more and more hidden. People were hungry for the knowledge of God’s love; thirsty for the hope that things were somehow going to get better. God sent God’s One and Only Son with the promise that whoever believes in him will find eternal life (see John 3:16). The Advent of Jesus is an immigration where God sent “The Word become flesh to dwell among us,” (John 1:14). Jesus came to change our way of seeing where we are now, to help us discover hope, to help us find promise, to show us a love that was once hidden. The immigration of Jesus changes us and changes the world. If we will only follow Jesus, he will lead us to a better life now and a better life-everlasting. We could not cross the border to live with God so God crossed the border to provide a way that we can discover faith and hope for the present and the path to eternal life then.

Philippians 2:6-8 says it best: “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being found in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death---even death on a cross.” The decision to send Jesus to us was not entered into lightly. For God, this was an act of pure love. For us it is the solution to our deepest problem; our fallen state. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” (Romans 10:9). The birth of Heaven’s Immigrant in a Bethlehem stable is the greatest gift ever given. He is not only our neighbor, he is our only hope.

Merry Christmas!

Len Keever is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dunn. This article originally appeared in their church newsletter, The Builder.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Re-reading the Grinch

Artwork for "Forgotten Joy 2011
Advent Guide" by Helms Jarrell
 by Jason Williams

I have always been a bit confused by the Grinch's elaborate lie to little Cindy Lou Who. In my imagination, the Grinch plays the part a little too well. The fact that he was so smooth with his lie suggests that he was thoroughly formed by the trappings of Christmas as much as, if not more than, the child. The Grinch's belief that removing the trimmings would stop Christmas illustrates the extent to which he bought into the materialism of Christmas.

Through his observation of the Whos, down in Who-ville, the Grinch understands only the lie of Christmas told by the material things he sees. His experience begs the question: How do the trappings of Christmas lie to us as we observe and celebrate Christmas?

We know from the end of the story that the Whos represent those whose Christmas joy has not been obscured by materialism and consumerism. Their celebration continues in spite of the Grinch's efforts to stop Christmas. For most of my life I have identified primarily with the Whos. I suspect that I learned this identification from the people and societal practices around me. And I imagine that this is true for most of us.

We read the story of the Grinch in such a way that it reinforces our own perceived virtue. It reminds us that despite the trappings around us, we, like the Whos, are not fooled by them. It is through our true understanding of Christmas that we help change the Grinches around us. We all want to see ourselves this way and I imagine that desire directs us away from a more self-critical analysis of the story.

If we allow the story to reflect our practices and habits back to us as a mirror, I believe a different picture emerges. The Whos do not represent the virtue within us. Rather, they represent the virtue to which we aspire. The Grinch, then, becomes the character with which we most identify. This reading allows us to look deeply into ourselves to discover the ways that our Christmas traditions deceive us.

How might the anxiety, dread and fatigue produced by our material and consumer Christmastime traditions contribute to a spiritual amnesia? Might we, like the Grinch, need to extract the Christmas trappings around us from our vision in order to grow our understanding of the true joy of Christmas?

In the end, a story like the Grinch can serve to underwrite our perceived virtue or it can challenge us to live more faithfully. If we truly desire to follow the life and teachings of the One we seek to celebrate at Christmas, then the latter will guide our Christmas reflection.

Jason Williams is a graduate of the Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond and a member of Hyaets, an intentional Christian community in the heart of the Enderly Park neighborhood of Charlotte, NC. A verson of this article is taken from their Advent Guide, Forgotten Joy, which can be found on their website:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jesus, Bible and Missions, Not Politics

By Rev. Dr. Larry Hovis

“Aren’t you concerned that critics might accuse CBFNC of being too political?” my friend asked, as we stood in the sanctuary of FBC Sylva following a Monday evening worship service last October. The service was part of a collaborative effort of CBFNC and the Western North Carolina Baptist Fellowship (WNCBF) to conduct a joint Fellowship on the Move and WNCBF fall gathering.

WNCBF leaders had requested that I enlist Rev. Hector Villeneuva to serve as the preacher for the service. The inquirer was a pastor, who had been out of circulation for much of the year and therefore was not aware of the events surrounding Hector’s arrest, attempted deportation, and eventual (Praise God!) release back to his family and congregation.

“Don’t get me wrong,” my colleague continued. “I’m in favor of CBFNC’s involvement in the immigration issue. Hector’s story is amazing. But it does concern me that some folks might see it in a more negative light, and might accuse us of violating the separation of church and state.”

“I hear what you’re saying,” I explained to my friend. “CBFNC still adheres firmly to church-state separation. It’s one of our bedrock principles. We’re not engaging in partisan politics. We didn’t even set out to get involved in the immigration discussion. But we did feel called by God to pursue missions with the growing Hispanic population in our state. And we discovered that when you reach out to people with the love of Jesus, when you truly try to be the presence of Christ with them, their issues become your issues.”

CBFNC is, above all, a missions organization. Our missiology is based on our reading of the Bible. By taking Scripture seriously, we are led to be a missionary people. By taking God’s call to mission seriously, we are led down paths that, on our own, we might not choose to go. But as the old hymn has us sing, “Wherever He leads, I’ll go.” And our Bible-based, Spirit-led, mission-focused life together is taking us down some new paths.

Because Jesus, echoing a repeated Old Testament refrain states, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35), as missionary Baptists we are led to welcome the Hispanic immigrants who have come into our state.

Because Paul explains, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14), and “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), as missionary Baptists we are led to seek reconciliation with brothers and sisters of other races.

Because repeatedly in the Old Testament God’s people are urged, “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (Proverbs 29:7), and Jesus himself described as his personal mission “to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18), as missionary Baptists we are led to engage in ministries that address issues of wealth and poverty in our state and world.

These are some of the new ministry paths the Spirit is leading us to take. I can’t say for sure where we’ll be called to go next. But I know one thing for sure. We have no interest in pursuing anybody’s political agenda. Our only agenda is to study God’s Word, listen to the Spirit’s call, and faithfully pursue that call consistent with our heritage as missionary Baptists.

Larry Hovis is the Executive Coordinator of CBF of North Carolina.

Friday, December 2, 2011

I Invite You to Join Me in the Recovery of a Christian Christmas

By Rev. Randy Carter

Please read the title of this article. Yes, a “Christian Christmas.” It seems strange that the Christian church would have to fight to recover a season in the church calendar that has the word “Christ” in it. But, would you disagree that much of what happens in our culture during Christmas has nothing whatsoever to do with the remembrance of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh? Is Christmas even recognizable beyond an exercise in rampant, unbridled consumerism? Ask your children, “What is your favorite thing about Christmas?” Will they answer the family meal, the visit to Grandma and Grandpa, or the special parties and get-togethers with friends and others in the community? No. They will answer with one word: presents.

Presents are good. I give presents during Christmas. In fact, gift-giving during Christmas can be a sign of the divine gift-giving we celebrate at Christmas. If we can remember why we give gifts during the Christmas season, we can utilize the practice to teach the real lesson: God so loved the world that he gave His very best gift, His only Son, that whoever might receive this gift would receive also the gifts of forgiveness of sins, of hope for the present and future, and of eternal life. I am certain that a Mom with a Wal-Mart basket full of toys wishing Wal-Mart would bring back layaway practices so she could buy more than anyone has ever needed so she can be the coolest Mom ever has missed the point of the divine gift-giving.

It is not only the presents problem. It is a waiting problem. You’ve heard this before from me, but here it comes again. Before December 25th, the season of Advent invites us to wait and anticipate. Advent allows us to hope for Christmas to arrive so that when December 25th (and the 11 days that follow 12/25 that comprise the 12 days of the Christmas season) does arrive we feel joy and excitement that Christmas has come – similar to those who waited for the Messiah and felt joy and excitement over the news of the birth of the Savior. Here is what I think happens too often: we start hearing Christmas music in late October, we are inundated with commercials and sales flyers full of red and green by early November, we celebrate Thanksgiving with our eyes more focused on Black Friday than the bountiful feast before us, and then December finally arrives. All that before December even appears on the calendar! December, then, ends up becoming a pressure-packed month of worry and panic knowing that time is running out before the big day. And, when Christmas Day dawns (literally for many of you with young children), people are so sick and tired of all things Christmas they can hardly wait to see it go. That makes me so sad.

What, then, would recovering a Christian Christmas entail? Much more than I can write in this article, but here’s a start. First, wait and experience Advent. Second, reflect long and hard about the point of the presents and how the practice of gift-giving can be a sign of the great divine gift-giving. Third, ask yourself if your children truly understand Christmas and work to be sure they do. Fourth, if there are 12 days of the Christmas season (12/25 – 1/5), is there anything Christmas-related you can do after 12/25 to take reduce the stress before 12/25? Fifth, can your family find or create a way to serve others this Christmas (again, not just on 12/25, but during the 12 day season)?

What are your ideas? I’d love to hear them.

The Lord be with you all, Randy

Randy Carter is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Hillsborough, NC. This article first appeared in their church newsletter, The Messenger.