Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Confessions of a Middle Aged Pastor

By Barry Howard

With the celebration of yet another birthday this week, I have officially started on my third year past the half century mark.  I suppose I am complimented by the term “middle aged” because I have reached that central season of life with exceptionally good health, with my sanity intact, and I still enjoy attempting to fulfill my calling.

However, it does occur to me that the way I see life and faith and church through the lenses of a middle-aged pastor is rather unique.  I am neither a militant traditionalist or a rabid post-denominationalist. I was mentored by some of the great pastors of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  And I appreciate many of the innovative and creative non-traditional approaches to pastoral ministry that I see working in suburbia and around the globe.

In the rural context of my home church, I “felt the call” to ministry at age sixteen and preached my first sermon two weeks later.  I started serving part-time on a church staff at age 18 and was serving full-time by age 19.  This year I begin my 34th year in pastoral ministry.

If nothing else, thirty four years of service on the staff of Baptist churches means that I have a little durability.   Although there have been hurdles and a few monumental challenges along the way, overall I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve alongside some great, yet imperfect churches.

Supposedly everyone entering middle age goes through a stage of re-thinking life.  For some, it is a painful agonizing struggle, often second guessing important decisions made along the way.  For some, it is a time of re-direction, often resulting in a change in vocations, hairstyles, automobiles, and occasionally, even spouses.  For me, however, middle age, so far, has been a time of reflecting, thinking about how I’ve changed and how much more room I have to grow.

If confession is good for the soul, maybe I will be more healthy if I confess where I am and what I believe about church and ministry at this point in my life as a middle-aged pastor:

  1. Other churches and other ministers are my colleagues, not my competitors.
  2. Being the church is more important than going to church, but I cannot fathom how we can do one without the other.
  3. For me, the authenticity of a pastor is more important than the authority of the pastor. 
  4. Ministry energizes me.  Trying to keep others focused on ministry exhausts me.
  5. What we do inside the doors of the church should make a drastic difference in who we are outside the doors of the church.
  6. I continue to discover the family of God to be much more inclusive and much less exclusive than I previously imagined.
  7. An open Bible and an open mind always trump a closed Bible and closed mind.
  8. As a pastor and a Christian, I am to be priest and prophet, not judge and jury. (I am free to love, share, and exercise grace toward all kinds of people without having to first judge their worthiness.  I am relieved to know that whatever final judgment looks like, I will not be the one holding the gavel.)
  9. Church should be a clearinghouse where talents and gifts are blessed and sent, never a warehouse where talents and gifts are counted and stored.
  10. In the Christian life, I believe the local church is where the action is. The church is where faith is nurtured, where community is cultivated, and where missional service is launched.

Actually my pastoral confession of faith is much more lengthy.  At this point in my life, I have more questions than answers.  I get frustrated far too easily with petty complaint and criticism. Yet I realize that I have far more to learn than I already know, and far more to do than I’ve already done.

Even during my middle age years, I love serving as pastor.  I have the privilege of walking alongside folks from the moment of birth to the moment of death and all seasons in between.
Paul summed it up this way: “I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”  Philippians 3:13-14 NIV

Although I have not arrived, I am intent on enjoying the journey of growing forward.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.)

Friday, December 30, 2011

Listening to What Simeon Says

A few days after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph took the baby to the temple, as was the custom, to have him consecrated to the Lord. After offering their traditional sacrifices, they encountered Simeon, a man who was “righteous and devout” and who was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.”

As Simeon was moved by the Spirit, he took the child in his arms and praised God, saying, “For your eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Joseph and Mary marveled at the mysterious blessing. But Simeon continued, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword that will pierce your own soul too.”

Although the birth of Jesus is celebrated with peace, joy, hope, and love, this matter of following Jesus is risky business. It requires loyal commitment, frequent forgiveness, and stubborn faithfulness.

You have followed the star of Christmas to find Jesus in the manger. Now that a New Year has begun, will you follow him further?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dare to March to a Different Drummer

The holidays typically usher in a shopping frenzy and frantic pre-occupation with gift giving, but again this year both will likely be tempered by a recurrent wave of market anxiety. As I reflect on how we celebrate Christmas in this challenging economic context, I am focused on the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated Bible texts. The first summarizes the journey of the Magi who traveled from the East in search of the mysterious child of promise: When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh (Matthew 2:10-11 NIV).

The second text, which I readily confess does not typically invoke Yuletide emotion, is Romans 12:2, a passage that boldly challenges believers to live out our faith with subversive authenticity: Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (NIV).

Treasures construed to be the contemporary equivalent of gold, incense, and myrrh are not the only gifts you can present in honor of Jesus. As you finalize your Christmas shopping, perhaps you might consider offering something that costs you a little more of your self, a contribution from your own stratum of talent or giftedness.

Do you recall the legend behind the musical story of “The Little Drummer Boy,” the song about a boy who gave of his meager talent by playing the drum for the Christ child? Introduced in the U.S. in the 1950’s, this memorable holiday carol made popular by Bing Crosby, was actually based on a Czech tune, “Carol of the Drum,” composed by Katherine K. Davis in 1941 and later recorded by the famed Von Trapp Family Singers in Austria. The more familiar “drummer boy” version details the fictional but meaningful tale of a young boy who approached the manger with nothing to offer but his drum. However, as the boy began to play his drum, his unique gift brought a smile to the face of the infant.

Throughout this holiday season a variety of colorful and thematic decorations will adorn many of our church campuses, iconic symbols such as a Christmas tree, an Advent wreath, or a manger crèche. Peculiar in the décor of the church I serve is a drum tree which is constructed annually in our church atrium. Vick Vickery, our recently retired Scoutmaster, assembles this drum tree each year out of 34 percussion instruments from different eras in history. Included in this display are replicas of the rope drum used in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Historically, these instruments were crucial for conveying instructions and maintaining morale, for in the days prior to advanced telecommunication, soldiers were trained to listen carefully for strategic commands encoded in the resounding beat of the drummer.

Now, stacked and configured in the form of a Christmas tree, our drum tree serves as a Christmas reminder that God calls us to march to the beat of a different drummer, receiving our formative cues and motivation from the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus. While the default values of our culture may prompt us to spend irresponsibly, to consume disproportionately, and to hurry frantically, our faith calls us to march to the rhythm and cadence of a different percussionist, to be cheerful in giving, gracious in receiving, and intentional in living.

During this festive season of the year, you and I are invited to invest our best gifts, tangible and intangible, in ways that express our allegiance and alignment with the One born in Bethlehem.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Christmas Prayer for Our City

December 15, 2011

Good and gracious God, during the Advent of this holiday season we give you thanks for the privilege of living in one of the most scenic and resourceful communities in the world.

During this historic week as our military campaign in Iraq comes to a close, we continue to pray for the stability in the Middle East, even as we continue to pray for all the men and women who serve in our nation’s military, especially those deployed in other campaigns. We pray for them to perform their humanitarian mission with effectiveness and precision, and return home safely and soon.

Tonight, we pray for all of our local, state, and national leaders that they will rise to a new level of bipartisan cooperation and that they will have moral courage commensurate to the challenges of our day.

And on this evening, we pray for our great city, for our mayor, our council representatives, and for our fellow citizens.

We are grateful for many exciting and emerging opportunities and possibilities that can potentially make our city more vibrant, more beautiful, and more family-friendly.

We especially pray for those members of our community who are unemployed, those who are facing health hurdles, and those who are striving to make ends meet. May the joy of this season create hope, motivation, and opportunity for a better quality of life for all.

Now, as we come to the close of 2011, and as we look forward to a great year in 2012, may our dreams be big, may our dialogue be civil, may our strategies be effective, and may our resolve be firm.

Just as the lights of Christmas illuminate our town during this season, so may your love and grace provide light for our lives all year long. For we offer our prayer in the name of the one who came to be our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. Amen.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida. This prayer was offered at the December City Council Meeting.)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Rekindling Hope

by Barry Howard

Advent is a time to reclaim the hope we have in Christ. Our hope in Christ reminds us that through the ever-changing circumstances and seemingly insurmountable challenges of life, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

As our nation emerges ever-so-gradually from a recession, economic uncertainty has become a global concern, with many European countries either re-organizing or teetering on the brink of financial collapse.

As we prepare for a crucial election year, the rhetoric of the campaigns already sounds more indicative of superficial political posturing than substantive problem-solving.

A general cultural malaise that is saturated with complaint and almost devoid of optimism seems to be contagiously infectious, not just around the nation, but around the world.  And to make matters worse, that sense of hopeless discontent has infiltrated the church.  If the community that has been called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13), the very bastion of hope, forfeits hope for hopelessness, we may find ourselves rushing toward an apocalyptic future.

Real hope is neither blind nor naïve.  Real hope motivates us to rise above despair and deal with challenging circumstances proactively, constructively, and collaboratively.

A few years ago I read of a rather profound exchange between two clergy who were working together during a season filled with monumental changes.  In 1960, John Claypool began his tenure as pastor at the Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville.  Shortly after his arrival, Claypool became friends with a Jewish rabbi who was forty years his senior.  Their friendship grew deeper as they worked together in the civil rights movement. After a tense and unproductive meeting one day, Claypool looked at his Jewish friend and said, “I think it is hopeless. This problem is so deep, so many-faceted, there is simply no way out of it.”

The rabbi asked Claypool to stay a few minutes after the meeting and said, “Humanely speaking, despair is presumptuous. It is saying something about the future we have no right to say because we have not been there yet and do not know enough. Think of the times you have been surprised in the past as you looked at a certain situation and deemed it hopeless. Then, lo and behold, forces that you did not even realize existed broke in and changed everything. We do not know enough to embrace the absolutism of despair. If God can create the things that are from the things that are not and even make dead things come back to life, who are we to set limits on what that kind of potency may yet do?”

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He will not grow tired or weary and increases the power of the weak.  Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.   Isaiah 40:28-31

Like the stoking of warm embers to re-awaken the flame, hope can be rekindled by stoking the fire in our bones that propels us “to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8) in all of the seasons of life.

Advent is a season to rekindle our hope and to renew our strength, a hope inspired by God’s perspective and strength that motivates us toward God’s plan, realized on earth as it is in heaven.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Advent: A Progressive Journey toward Christmas

by Barry Howard

When observed faithfully and progressively, Advent can prepare us for a Christmas celebration filled with mystical wonder and deep meaning, a spiritual communion that far exceeds the buzz of shallow commercialism.

In the rural church of my upbringing, we didn’t observe Advent. We jumped directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas.  In our close-knit congregation, the non-negotiable liturgical dates on our church calendar other than Christmas and Easter were Church Conference after worship service on the first Sunday, Gospel Singing on the fourth Sunday night, Revival during the second full week in August, and Homecoming the last Sunday in July. Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Passover, and Pentecost were nowhere to be found.

During my early years as a minister, I was introduced to the colors and candles of Advent and my journey toward Christmas changed drastically.  Today, I am convinced more than ever that as mission-driven Christians who live in a market-driven culture, we need the reflective disciplines of Advent to keep us alert to stealth forces like materialism, busyness, and greed, illusive grinches who would love to steal away the real message and gifts of the season and replace them with superficial slogans and glamorous counterfeits.

For the Christian, the season of Advent calls us to a progressive journey toward Christmas. When our days are seasoned with prayer and saturated in expectation, we think about Christmas differently than the rest of the world.  Advent has a way of rescuing us from the busyness and the relentless anxiety to meet materialistic expectations.

This year in our church we will count down the days until Christmas by listening to the prophets, singing the carols, re-reading the gospels, and lighting the candles that refuel our peace, hope, love, and joy. Then we will be better prepared to sense the anxiety of Mary and Joseph, to feel the labor pains of God, to celebrate the birth of the world’s most renowned newborn, and to hear both the singing of angels and sobs of Rachel weeping. This gradual journey of Advent culminates when the Christ candle is lighted and the Christmas Star shines over the manger in Bethlehem.

If we dare to journey through this season one day at a time, to reconsider the promises of the prophets, and to revisit the nativity narrative of the gospels, we may discover that we are more than ready to follow Christ from the cradle to the cross and beyond.

(Barry Howard serves as the senior minister at the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Pastor’s Prayer for Parishioners

By Barry Howard

Good and gracious God,

I come to you praying for those who are members, formally or informally, in the congregation I serve.

I pray for the young and the elderly, the sick and healthy, the employed and the unemployed, the happily married and the unhappily married, the active and the semi-active, the veteran saint and the new believer, and the spiritually passionate and the spiritually frustrated.

I am aware at this moment of the diverse and divergent life experiences confronting each individual on this day.  I pray for those who are at the top of the mountain, experiencing success in their business, stability in their home, growth in their faith, good health, and/or unspeakable joy in their heart.

I also pray for those who are currently in the valley of despair, experiencing frustration in their business, anxiety in their home life, lukewarmness in their faith, mounting concerns with their health, and/or perplexing grief in their soul.

I pray for every member of this spiritual family to know the deeper purpose of congregational life, to worship and to serve with faithfulness, to listen and to speak with intentionality, to be honest and to be humble, to be reverent and to be respectful, and to weep and rejoice, privately and together, as needed.

Help us as your family to balance those ongoing tasks of reaching out to those outside our family while ministering to each other within the family, so that neither task is lacking.

Help us as your people to work energetically for the common good of your community-yet-under-construction, so that our personal ambitions and our preferential agendas do not derail or defeat your initiatives that are often invisible to the self-absorbed eye.

Help us as your church to experience an emerging momentum toward faithfulness, the elation of cheerful giving, the gratification of serving, a growing willingness to make sacrifices, and the inner peace that comes only through your divine presence within.

Help us as your children to continually and wisely realign our lives, not conforming to the mirage of pop culture, but always being transformed by the durable and timeless work of Jesus Christ. 

Keep us in tune with your Spirit who convicts and comforts, guards and guides, and equips and encourages, and who is working actively to generate good in all circumstances, especially those things that we perceive as devoid of good.

Since life in this world is imperfect and every individual life including our own falls short because of the brokenness of sin, teach us to be more gracious and less judgmental, more inclusive and less exclusive, more compassionate and less condemning, because we have already seen this kind of grace demonstrated in the story of Jesus.

In this crucial day in time when  many  have forsaken spiritual community for religious conglomerate, replaced worship with trendy entertainment, and prioritized self-interests above service, remind us that we are people of the towel, both to wash each other’s feet, to dry each other’s tears, and to wipe clean the slate of sins on earth even as you have purged our sins from our private record in heaven.

Encourage and equip us to be your hands and your feet, your light and your love, and your disciples and your servants in a world that needs authentic witnesses of your love and your mercy.

May we receive each day as a gift, and like Jesus, to value relationships above the quest for riches and the preservation of traditions, and to prioritize covenant loyalty above comfort, convenience, and temporary gratification.

As you free us to live life to the fullest, make us to be incarnate representatives of your presence and illustrative constituents of your grace, for we pray in the name of the one who came to give us life and life more abundantly.