Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Why I Go

I have been very blessed in my life.  I was raised in a good and loving home.  I was able to receive a good education.  The churches I have served in ministry have been caring and devoted to God.  My wife is amazing and beautiful, inside and out.  I am in reasonably good health, I have friends who make life enjoyable and who support me, and I even have a dog who loves curling up next to me on the sofa.  Life is pretty good.

One of the other blessings I’ve had in my life is to go on several short-term mission trips to other countries.  In the past sixteen years, I have been on mission to four other countries (Panama, Honduras, South Africa, and Ghana) on a total of 9 trips.  This does not include several mission trips I have been able to take within the United States, and ongoing mission efforts and projects in the community.  I look forward to leading a team from my church to Panama again in July, in partnership with the Baptist General Association of Virginia and the Panama Baptist Convention.


Each time I go on mission to another part of the world, someone will ask (in some form or another), “Why do you go?”  Why would I want to pay money and take time away from my home, my family, my job, and my comfortable life to travel somewhere else to do work for God?

When I began going on mission trips, my answer would have been much different than it is now.  I went to Panama for the first time when I was 15, and I went for a variety of reasons:  I had seen my father go on mission trips, and wanted to emulate him; I was excited for the opportunity to travel and see another country; I was looking forward to getting out of school for two weeks(!); and I thought that going on a mission trip was what God would want me to do.

Now, as I look back on 16 years of short-term mission experiences, and contemplate another trip in a couple of weeks, I have some different thoughts.  I’ve had more time to consider the benefits and costs of short-term mission work, both to myself and to those I go to serve amongst.  I’ve also had conversations with other ministers who I respect and admire, classes in seminary on what the meaning of mission is, and friendships with Christians in other nations and cultures.  Some of those conversations and encounters have called the efficacy of short-term mission work into question, while others have confirmed that it is a vital part of God’s kingdom plan.  After considering all of this, I feel better prepared to answer the question, “Why do you go on short-term mission trips?”

1.       The Great Commission/Acts 1:8 – In both the Gospel of Matthew and the book of Acts, Jesus leaves his disciples with marching orders.  In Matthew, he tells his disciples to make more disciples as they go in life – disciples of all nations.  Acts records Jesus telling his disciples to be his witnesses everywhere – even to the utter ends of the earth.  If I believe that I have received the same charge that the first disciples did (and I do believe that), then I have to take his command seriously to go forth into the entire world and bear witness to Christ.

2.       Personal faith – I have heard it said over and over by people who return from short-term mission experiences:  “I received the blessing,” or some variation of that statement.  That has been my experience, as well.  Going out on mission increases my faith in God, exposes me to new understandings of Christ, and gives me the opportunity to see the Spirit at work in different ways.  I always return rejuvenated and challenged to be more committed to my Lord.

3.       Making a difference – On every short-term mission trip I have been on, I felt like I was doing my best to make a difference.  Whether that difference was helping with a medical clinic, passing out mosquito nets, preaching a sermon about Jesus and salvation, or building a relationship with a local pastor or family, I tried my hardest to do my part to help.  Not only that, I tried to help in a way that respected the dignity of the individuals I met and honored the work and commitment of the local church I was working with.

4.       Bearing witness to Christ’s kingdom work – It is far too easy for any church to get self-centered, only aware of its own work and witness.  Yet Jesus didn’t call a church, he called the church.  All around the globe, God’s people are doing amazing things as they proclaim the Gospel and work to make this world more like what God wants it to be.  An important part of my mission, then, is to bear witness when I return home:  to share what God is doing in other places, to relate how our Christian brothers and sisters in other cultures are connecting with God, and to challenge myself and my church to learn from the work of others.

There are probably additional reasons that I go on short-term mission trips, including those I held as a 15-year old.  However, these four reasons are how I would answer the question, “Why do you go on short-term mission trips?”  I believe they are reasons that honor Christ and respect my Christian brothers and sisters as partners in the kingdom mission of God...and they are the reasons I will continue going on short-term mission trips whenever the Lord calls me to go.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

An Alternative Society

My computer homepage is a MSN compilation of news, sports, weather, and entertainment stories that are currently trending.  I don’t know who exactly decided this should be the homepage (it is my computer’s default setting), but it isn’t too bad.  I can have a snapshot (in visual form, even!) of what popular stories are right now, every time I open my internet browser.  It’s a good way to stay abreast of what is going on in the wider world.

Unfortunately, what’s going on in the wider world is often not all that encouraging.  I’ve noticed that, over the past month, probably 80% of the mornings I turn on my computer, the lead story is something tragic or disturbing.  Today, for example, the first story that pops up is, “Mother suspected of killing 3 daughters.”  Some days it is something relatively localized, like today’s story.  Other days, it is something widespread, such as when tornadoes touch down in the Midwest or wildfires ravage California.  And, of course, a large percentage of the stories bemoan missteps by politicians and media personalities.  The only conclusion I can draw from my MSN feed is that the world is falling apart, and we see evidence of it continuing every single day.

This cannot be what God wanted or intended when he made the world.  Scripture tells us that God finished creating the world and said “This is very good.”  Those are words that cannot be applied very often to the world as we know it, at least not without a qualifying statement.  And it has been this way for a long, long time!  In Isaiah 3, the prophet calls out the leaders and merchants, the men and women, the old and young of his day.  Leaders are failing, elders are greedy, youths are oppressive, and women are haughty.  Things are, in Isaiah’s mind, falling apart!  Is there any hope?

Yes, there is!  Isaiah goes on in chapter 4 to describe a segment of his society that is seen as a shelter from the storm and a place to recover true identity, peace, and purpose.  That segment of society:  the community of the faithful people of God.  Whatever form it took in that day, the gathering of God’s people – small though it was in relation to the wider society – was an alternative to what was being offered in the mainstream.  Not an angry alternative, not a clannish alternative, and not a semi-alternative that rejected one or two things vehemently but otherwise embrace the values of the surrounding culture.  Instead, it was a true alternative society, governed by different values – God’s values! – and sustained by a different concept of what was good, right, noble, and worthy.

Flash forward 2500+ years.  All around us, we see evidence of the decadence and self-centeredness of modern Western life returning a cost on most of human society that is far too high.  The vast majority of scientists state that we are killing our planet.  War and strife run rampant in our world.  Economic insecurities leave billions in precarious circumstances.  People are skeptical that our leaders can make a difference.  It’s the world of Isaiah 3 all over again.

And where is the shelter that Isaiah saw in his day?  Who is the alternative society or community now that can be a place to recover true identity, peace, and purpose?  It is the church, the gathered people of God committed to living according to the values of God’s kingdom – this is the community that is supposed to be the shelter in the storm of life.  This is the place where all of us can find an alternative to the world.  This is the fellowship that lives life differently, more meaningfully…when we actually do.  Far too often, we try to live according to what we learn is the way of life in the world:  that money is what matters, that appearances are most important, that comfort is more vital than effectiveness, and that safety trumps obedience to the commands of Christ.

We as the church need to repent when we find ourselves falling back into the same habits as the world – because we were called to be something else.  We are called to be a colony of a different kingdom, a different world, governed by a different law and held to a different standard.  Our central command shouldn’t be “he with the most toys wins;” it should be “love God with everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  We shouldn’t demand what is rightfully ours, but rather be sacrificial and generous with what we have.  And we shouldn’t act shocked when non-Christians act in a way contrary to the way of Jesus – we should be honest and admit that often what passes for religious behavior in our own lives and in our own community can stand in serious conflict with the teachings of Christ.

God has called us to be different than the world, to hunger for something more, something greater than fame or fortune or power or influence.  God has called us to be ambassadors of the kingdom of God, because we have accepted a way of life that so different from the world – but it is what the world is desperately longing for.  Let’s be that shelter in the storm of life, a place that says, “You were made for something more – and we want to help you find it.”

In Christ,



PS.  Many thanks to my good friend, John Chandler, whose devotional thoughts on Isaiah 3-4 in “Praying the Prophets” sparked my thinking in this blog post.

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Friday, May 2, 2014

Goodbye to a Sacred Place

There is a country song that has been with me the past few weeks – The House that Built Me by Miranda Lambert.  Now, I’m not necessarily a huge Miranda Lambert fan.  I like some of her songs, but I probably wouldn’t name her as one of my favorite artists.  Yet there is something about the song that sticks with me, because I, too, have a house (or a place) that helped build me…and really soon, I won’t be able to go back again.

Tonight, I begin my last trip to Grandma’s farm.  After my grandmother’s death on the last day of 2012, I have known this day would come:  the farm has sold and it is time to move on.  Yet in that long period of “in-between,” it has been hard to let go.  This is where my mother grew up, from the age of 2 onward.  This is where I came for visits in the summer and on holidays.  This is where I spent all but two Christmases in my life.  It’s where I learned to shuck corn and string snaps from the garden, go fishin’ in the pond, and peruse old picture albums from the comfort of my granddaddy’s recliner.  More than that, though, this is where I ate grandma’s cooking, played with my cousins, and learned as I grew up to have adult conversations with my aunts and uncles.  For me, this has been one of a few central places that have shaped me and grounded me.
And now…it’s gone.  In January, the family found out that someone was interested in purchasing the farm from the estate.  Although we knew this needed to happen, it brought home that there was a ticking clock on our time with the old farm.  So we began the tasks that we had to do to prepare…at least physically.  My aunts and uncles started going through the clothes and household items.  My cousins helped clean out the cellar, sorting through years’ worth of produce from the garden, faithfully canned and preserved by my grandmother and my aunt.  All of us children and grandchildren helped move furniture and tag items for the estate sale and clean out the smokehouse and pack barn.  We did the things we had to do to get the farm ready.

In the process, I wonder if we – if I – have done the things we need to do to get ready emotionally.  I am the youngest grandchild, with a mere 31 years of memory in this place.  What about my oldest cousins, with 50 or so years?  My aunts and uncles and cousins who still live in the neighborhood, who have literally grown up on this plot of land?  Have all of us really recognized the way that this place has shaped us, and have we recognized both how the sale of this land will affect us, and how the mark it left on us will never really fade?

The Scriptures tell us that place matters – particularly a place that includes encounters with the divine.  There is a sacredness that can become a part of any land.  Why?  Because it has been a place of deep, loving relationship, a place where God instilled his presence into the collective memory and experience of those who met in that location.  Sometimes we know it’s a sacred place from the beginning…but often we don’t until we are looking back.  Sometimes, we are there with Jacob awakening from a dream, sitting bolt upright and stammering, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” (Gen. 28:16) The next day, Jacob left that place…but not before doing something to mark the significance of that location in his memory.

This afternoon, I begin the last visit I may ever make to my grandmother’s house and farm – certainly the last one I’ll make before it stops being “ours.”  I pray that I’ll be able, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of preparations for tomorrow’s sale, to drink in the sacredness of this place.  Grandma’s is a place where I experienced the love of my Lord and the joy of sharing life with family.  That is something to remember, and something to carry with me as I leave this sacred place – because while God was and is in this place, he is not bound to it.  He will be with me and with my family as we leave that place behind and step forward into a new day, strengthened by the memories and shared experiences of doing life together.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

A Healthy Body

Over the past week, I’ve suffered from a few little aches and pains and fatigue that remind me that I’m not as young as I used to be.  My elbow has been twinging as a result of playing too much pickleball (a relatively new sport – sort of like indoor tennis – that is taking off at Grace Hills).  Occasionally, I’ll have a muscle spasm or stitch in my side for no apparent reason.  Saturday morning, I awoke to a flare-up of tendonitis in my left knee that left me hobbling around the sanctuary on Sunday morning.  Finally, last weekend’s late nights and early mornings, combined with a shift to Daylight Savings Time and a week full of stress and travel, has left me feeling behind on sleep.  A lazy Sunday afternoon yesterday was quite in order, especially the two (unplanned) naps!

Our bodies are wonderful combinations of flesh, bone, and chemical connections that God has fashioned to work together in an amazing manner.  Yet those very connections are designed to work within very specific tolerances.  I’m fairly sure that my tennis elbow developed from overuse of the muscles and tendons in my right arm by playing too much pickleball in too short a time.  I’m equally sure that my back spasms and tendonitis are affected, at least in part, because I’m carrying around a few (ok, more than a few) extra pounds.  And my fatigue?  Why wouldn’t I expect to be tired if I got less than 4 hours of sleep two nights in a row, followed by a week of travel and interspersed nights of interrupted sleep?


I’m no health expert.  I’m not THAT kind of doctor, nor am I a personal trainer, an expert in kinesiology, a dietician, or even an exercise enthusiast.  I don’t need to be to know something fundamental about the human body:  to feel good and maintain health, there are certain things we need to do.  We need to get an appropriate amount of exercise (without overtraining).  We need to get an appropriate amount of rest and relaxation (without becoming couch potatoes).  We need to have a balanced diet with good nutrition.  We need to maintain our bodies and pay attention to any warning signals we get (like pain, a grumbling stomach, or shortness of breath).  In short, to maintain the amazing organic system that is our body, we have to intentionally take care of it.

The same is true of the church.  Several passages in Scripture use the image of the body to describe the nature of the church.  Ephesians 4 speaks to the importance of unity and maturity in the body of Christ, and finishes in verse 16 with a beautiful image:  “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”  This wonderfully organic image of the church, as a body growing and becoming healthy, reminds us that the same techniques we use to care for and develop our physical bodies are often helpful in developing, strengthening, and caring for the body of Christ.


Exercise:  One of the hardest things to do for our physical bodies is establish an appropriate exercise regimen.  Despite its difficulty, though, exercise is needed to develop and maintain a healthy body.  This is also true for the church; without spiritual exercise, or mission, the church is just another civic organization or country club.  Jesus tells us that we are called to follow him for a purpose:  to do the things he did.  We do this when we make disciples, when we care for the needy, when we share the Gospel message, and when we generally strive to make the world more like the world God wants it to be.  Those are important tasks that we do as a body of Christian believers, but they can be overwhelming in the same way that running a marathon can be overwhelming for a couch potato like me.  So how can we incorporate spiritual “exercise” into the life of our church?  By having mission and witness integrated into the life of the church.  When a church can offer several options for people to engage in mission, with varying levels of commitment and effort, the burden of missional “exercise” can be alleviated; it just becomes one more part of the rhythm of the church’s life.  It becomes part of the day-in, day-out life of the congregation, and the church is challenged to continue to grow and develop as a healthy body of Christ.

Rest:  A body needs more than exercise to thrive, because exercise without appropriate rest results in overwork, discomfort, and injury.  Indeed, a well-rested body makes for better and more productive exercise than a fatigued body.  Rest is a glorious part of the rhythm of life that God has built into our bodies, and the body of Christ needs periods of rest, as well.  There are busy seasons in church life:  Christmas and Easter, of course, but also other regular times of energy and effort such as VBS.  After such times of exertion, it is important that the church include a period of rest, with less programming and less demands on people, particularly in church leadership.  Such times of rest and recuperation allow the recovery of energy and creativity, and those periods of rest also serve as wells of strength for the church and its leaders to draw from in the next period of activity and mission.

Nutrition:  If I eat junk food all day, my body is going to rebel:  I’ll get stomach aches, I’ll have a lack of energy, and I’ll gain weight.  To operate in a healthy way, my body needs good and balanced nutrition.  In the same way, the church needs spiritual nourishment to grow and develop in a healthy manner.  Scripture and the person of Jesus is the source of nutrition for the church.  The church needs to get a steady diet of grounded and relevant sermons, informative and helpful Bible studies, and timely recommendations for Bible reading and personal devotions.  It also needs to receive encouragement and opportunities to engage in personal and corporate prayer, learning to hear and heed the voice of our Lord.  These practices nourish the souls of both the individuals who make up the church and the corporate body of the church itself.

Care:  When our bodies are hurt or fall ill, the prudent thing to do is to provide care.  A wound untended will get infected, a cough disregarded will become bronchitis, and a sprain ignored could lead to a more lasting injury.  Caring for our bodies when they are hurt or compromised is vital to our overall health.  This is true for the body of Christ, too.  Sometimes, a member of the body is hurt:  an individual loses someone close to them, or suffers an illness, or faces turmoil in their family or job.  Other times, the hurt is to the whole church:  the congregation experiences conflict, has a major financial problem, or is hit with ridicule or obstruction from an outside party.  In each of these cases, care is needed.  The church needs to do those things that promote healing:  rebuilding broken relationships, spending time with despairing members, working through conflict instead of ignoring it, and encouraging one another instead of tearing each other down.

When the church acknowledges its identity as the body of Christ, it draws from a metaphor that we know well:  our own bodies.  Like our physical bodies, the church body needs exercise, rest, nutrition, and care to remain healthy.  When those things are present, the conditions are right for the church to grow and develop as the body of Christ.  May all of our churches become the healthy churches that God wants them to be!

In Christ,


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Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Snowbound Sabbath Rest

Today is a snow day.  Not a “skiff of snow” or an inch of ice.  This is a good, old-fashioned snow day.  We’re talking about a foot of the powdery white stuff here.  The “I’ve got to put on my knee-high boots” kind of snow.  It started last night, and is still going on as I write this.  Its equal turns beautiful and depressing, magical and mundane.  And it has brought virtually EVERYTHING in town to…a…grinding…halt.  Other than some enterprising individuals going about with snowplows and some neighborly folks helping each other clear their driveways, almost everyone is huddling in their homes praying the power doesn’t go out.

This is in many ways an inconvenience for us.  Parents (who may not have had their work cancelled today) have to figure out childcare arrangements for kids out of school.  Meetings have to be rescheduled, events have to be postponed, dinner plans have to be put off, and even Valentine’s Day dates might not happen.  Some people will even see a hit in their paycheck as they lose hours at work.  In many ways, this storm is a problem.

Yet in one very important way, the very enforced nature of this snowbound reclusiveness is a Godsend.  Stuck in our homes, with little reason to go outside except to build snowmen and go sledding, this should be a day of rest – and God has designed us to need a day of rest.  Not only that, he has commanded it.  “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,” we read over and over in Scripture, and some of us do that (almost) every Sunday morning by going to church.  Yet we seem to have missed a second emphasis of the Sabbath:  it is a day of rest.  In Genesis, we are told that on the seventh day – the prototype Sabbath – God rested.  In Deuteronomy’s version of the 10 Commandments, the Sabbath command instructs the Israelites to do no work that day as a memorial to their past as slaves in Egypt – in God’s new world, we aren’t slaves.

In our Western culture, however, work (and the things that work brings) are held up as the highest goal or aspiration; we might even call work itself, or the money and things it provides, an idol.  Thus we have a culture in which the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor alike have to work long hours, sometimes even two jobs, just to get by or get the things that "matter."  It was no surprise to me, then, that as I spoke with my neighbor while we shoveled her driveway, I discovered that her company expected employees with company laptops to work from home.  It wasn’t even a surprise for me to find myself feeling a little guilty if I didn’t do some work today.  So I started my day by catching up on e-mails, making phone calls, and getting some study in for my sermon on Sunday.

And then…I read my devotion for the day.  I know, I’m supposed to do that first thing.  Usually, I try to do that – but today, it just didn’t happen until late morning.  Opening my Bible, I turned to Exodus 16.  Moses and Aaron have to deal with a crowd of whiney Israelites:  hungry, tired, and wondering if this was what they really signed on for.  The two leaders recognize that they need to not take the whining personally – and they also ask God to meet the need of the people.  Food is what God promises, and food is what God provides.

God provides it, however, in a particular way, a way that helps his people understand what it means to live the life he has made possible for them.  Food gathering and preparation in a non-commercialized society is hard work.  I saw this in my recent trip to Ghana:  people labored in the fields to bring forth a crop.  When it was harvested, hours and hours went into making the food ready to eat.  Shelled vegetables were shucked.  Corn was cut off the cob and roasted.  Beans were laid out to dry.  And making the dishes, like the staple fufu, took muscle and time.  All of this was similar in the ancient world in which the Israelites lived, and it was what they were used to.

What God is providing, however, is something that is more freeing than that.  There was still work involved in eating the miraculous manna and quail:  the manna had to be gathered each day, and the quail had to be caught, plucked, and prepared before it could be consumed.  Yet one day a week, the people were not to go prepare their food.  They were to make sure they had enough so they could take a day off…and the people who didn’t do that found that there was no provision of food on the seventh day.  God had already given them an abundance, and they needed to use that abundance to enjoy the rest that God wanted them to have.

Maybe, just maybe, this latest snowstorm can be seen in the same way.  No, I don’t think God caused the snowstorm so we would have to take time off; but I do think maybe God wants us to use the opportunity of this snowstorm to consider how we rest.  Do we view Sabbath as an opportunity to relax and enjoy the life God has given us?  Do we intentionally take time to rest and appreciate the gift we have received?  Do we revel in the blessing of being a child of God, freed from the idols of this world, including work and money and material possessions?  If we can’t honestly say yes, then maybe we need a few more snow days of Sabbath.

In Christ,

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Monday, January 20, 2014

WWJD? Christ at the Center

When I was a teenager, one of the things I did every summer was go to Eagle Eyrie for a Virginia Baptist mission camp with my family.  It was something I looked forward to each year:  I had friends from other parts of the state that I got to hang out with, the swimming pool was a lot of fun on a hot summer day, and the ice cream parlor was a sweet treat after worship.  I also enjoyed the official reasons we were there, of course:  to learn about how missionaries were serving God around the world, to engage in hands-on, local missions myself, and to worship together with Christians from around the state.

One of the things I remember from that annual camp experience and others like it was the plethora of merchandise that the contemporary Christian subculture promulgated.  Everywhere you looked, there were t-shirts “borrowing” secular symbols from the Reese’s logo to the Nike motto, “Just Do It.”  Perhaps most ubiquitous were the multicolored fabric bracelets with four simple letters emblazoned on them:  W.W.J.D.  This simple acronym stood for “What Would Jesus Do?” and you weren’t “with it” as a Christian teenager if you weren’t wearing at least 1 or 2 of these bracelets at all times.


The bracelets’ genesis was a Christian book first published in 1897 and updated regularly throughout the 20th century.  In the book, a church is turned upside down by the appearance of a homeless man in worship who dies in their midst.  Convicted by this tragedy and the church’s inaction in the face of it, the pastor challenges the church to do nothing without asking first, “What would Jesus do?” for an entire year.  Drawing from this challenging message, the W.W.J.D. bracelets were intended to be a constant reminder for Christians who wore them to be thoughtful in their actions and behave as Christ would behave – although for many teenagers, the bracelet became just another fashion accessory.

I bring up this Christian fashion trend of my youth to illustrate a larger point:  for the church of my life experience, the evangelical Baptist church in America, Jesus is uniformly and unalterably at the center.  His life, his example, his divinity, his authority, and his indwelling presence in the life of the church are all essential to Christian existence.

In my own church, Grace Hills Baptist, this cornerstone of Christian thought is visible in many ways.  Firstly, we call ourselves “Christians,” which means “Christ-like” or “little Christs.”  Our very identity and understanding of ourselves is tied up in what we believe about Jesus.  A commitment to and relationship with Jesus – that is what binds us together:  old and young, man and woman, Appomattox native and come-here alike.  Political affiliation, sports team preference, education level, cultural background – it doesn’t matter, because we all look to Jesus as the common thread, the thing that identifies us all.

Another way Grace Hills sees Christ as the center of everything we are and do is the authority we give his words.  Regularly, the church’s Sunday school literature, sermons, and Bible studies focus on the commands of Jesus:  seek first the kingdom of God, love your neighbor as yourself, whatever you do for the least of these you did for me, proclaim good news to the captive, suffer the little children to come to me, go and make disciples.  The repetition and study of these commands and teachings insinuates itself into the minds and hearts of the congregation’s members, because they are the words of Jesus and, as such, are authoritative.  They should be remembered.  They should be considered.  They should be obeyed.

A final way in which Christ is at the center of Grace Hills’ identity and experience is the desire of the church to share Jesus with others.  As followers of Christ, and not just fans of Jesus as a historical teacher, we believe that Christ is still alive today.  We believe he calls us to have a relationship with him, not just a relationship of worship and awe, but also a relationship of intimacy and friendship.  For many of us, this relationship gives shape to our days and meaning to our lives.  It makes life full of joy and worth living…and we don’t want to keep that joy to ourselves.  This is why we support the work of missionaries in our community and around the world who introduce others to Jesus.  This is why we reach out to our friends and family to let them know what a difference Jesus has made in our lives.  We don’t do it out of a sense of manipulation or of self-perpetuation as a church.  We genuinely want as many people to have the opportunity to experience the joy and love and hope and peace that we have as possible.  We don’t want to force it – we just want to make an introduction.

Jesus is the center of what it means to be Christian – and he is the driving force at the center of what it means to be the church.  At Grace Hills, we hold this as a core, perhaps even the core, of our identity and purpose.

In Christ,

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Friday, January 3, 2014

An African Advent

This past year, I turned 31.  That means that I have celebrated 31 Christmases.  Each year, I enjoyed the traditions that my family and churches have observed:  going Christmas caroling, decorating the tree, enjoying Christmas parties, and of course eating all of those good Christmas snacks and meals.  Christmas Eve found me at my grandmother's, where we read the Christmas story, opened presents, and ate homemade chocolate cake.  Christmas is, for me, a combination of the celebration of Christ's birth and an enjoyment of nostalgic memories and familial warmth.

Leading up to Christmas, however, is a season the church has historically celebrated called "Advent."  This literally means "coming," and is a season both to celebrate Christ's first coming and to prepare for when he comes again.  In the process, the church has endeavored to be the presence of Christ in this world.

In my 31 Christmases, in my 31 Advent seasons, I never saw this as clearly as I did this year - because this year, I went to Ghana.

The Virginia Baptist Mission Board has a partnership with the Ghana Baptist Convention.  This particular partnership is focused on the region of Yendi in northeast Ghana, an area with a 95% prevalence rate of malaria - and a relatively low percentage of Christians.  More than Nets is a two year comprehensive project of the VBMB and Ghana Baptist Convention to reduce malaria in Yendi and plant Christian churches in the region.  (Check this great project out here)

I was one of a group of pastors and other committed Virginia Baptists invited to travel to Ghana in early December.  We had multiple aspects to our mission:  we distributed mosquito nets to combat malaria, we planted churches in villages without a Christian presence, we encouraged existing churches and baptized new believers, and we trained new pastors.

Net distribution was one of the primary tasks for our team.  Over the course of several days of distribution, we visited in the homes of Ghanaians and showed them how to use their new nets.  A simple net can protect a mother and several children from malaria for 3-5 years if they sleep under it at night - a tremendous protection in a region where so many are affected by this tropical disease each year.  Our team distributed 2,747 mosquito nets provided by Virginia Baptist churches.  Through these nets, the power of Christ literally is protecting the lives of men, women, and children in the Yendi province of Ghana.

Another important task our team undertook was planting new churches.  Yendi is overwhelmingly Muslim, but the vast majority of people in Yendi have a spiritual hunger.  Sometimes, we would show up in a village to distribute nets and be asked to plant a church by the residents.  Other times, our Ghanaian Baptist brothers and sisters would take us into a village, begin singing, and see the entire town turn out to see what was going on.  Over the course of the week, Christ opened the door for us to plant 25 churches - including one I was privileged to name Grace Hills Baptist Church.  In those 25 churches, 1,607 people expressed faith in Christ for the first time.  Just as Christ's birth ignited faith in the lives of shepherds and kings, so today Christ is sparking faith among the people of Ghana.
Those new churches need leaders, and our team helped train 40 church leaders who have been receiving guidance from local Ghana Baptists.  I taught a course on Genesis, and another pastor, Bill Booth, taught a class about Personal Evangelism.  In these classes, I saw church leaders - new Christians themselves - develop a deeper understanding of God's work in the world.  They will carry that understanding back to their churches and invest that understanding in the lives of their people.

Those leaders have already been hard at work.  Churches planted in the past year have been introducing people to Jesus and discipling them in faith.  One of the privileges of our trip was baptizing many of these new believers in Yendi.  I personally had the chance to baptize 32 new brothers and sisters in Christ in a river on the border of Ghana and Togo - in a village I had to reach by riding on the back of a motorbike along dirt roads.  Altogether, our team celebrated the baptisms of 277 people.  This Advent saw God's family grow larger and more vibrant.


The season of Advent is about the coming of Jesus Christ into our world - and I saw that happen with my own eyes in Ghana this year.  It was something that God made happen - but it was something that ordinary people here in Virginia are making possible.  Virginia Baptist churches are making it possible for Christ to come to new people...people who are made in God's image, people who are hungry for a relationship with God, people who are responding to Christ's love in amazing ways.

This is a ministry that is continuing.  More than Nets will continue for at least another year, and I would like to encourage you to support this effective ministry.  One way to support is through your prayers; especially pray for Emmanuel Mustafa, leader of this ministry effort, and the Ghanaian church leaders.

Another way to support More than Nets is by purchasing nets for distribution.  $10 will provide a net, pay for it to be transported to the home of a Ghanaian family, provide training for that family in how to use the net, and help finance church planting efforts in the Yendi region.  Could you give a net?  Or could you give a net a month through 2014?  Each net could save the life of 1-4 people for 3-5 years - a dozen nets could protect between 12 and 48 people.  You can find more information on the More than Nets Facebook page.

Please consider how you might make a difference in Ghana - and keep the season of Advent, of the coming of Christ, going throughout the year.

In Christ,

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