Be The Light in 2019

Every year when the calendar turns over, it provides us a psychological break with the past. We are given the opportunity to consider new endeavors and see the possibilities that a fresh year provides.
 
This past year (2018) was characterized by significant divisiveness and acrimony in our public dialogue. In my sermon on Sunday, I likened living in this time to Isaiah’s words of “being a people dwelling in a land of deep darkness.” I gave some examples of how the unrelenting access to news and the ability to respond instantly have led to people hurting one another with their words.
 
I suggested that the new year gives us an opportunity to lighten the darkness around us by being the light of Christ in four specific ways:
 
First, let us resolve to give less offense to others.
  • We can do this by becoming more polite with our words.
  • We can refrain from using hyperbolic language when referring to another person’s motives or actions.
  • We can go out of our way to be kind to another person, even if, and especially if, they have not been kind to us.
  • We can become people of grace who, like Jesus, are merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love
 
Secondly, let us resolve to take less offense from others.
Today it seems as if everyone is offended by everything and everyone. Any little perceived slight done by one person to another is interpreted as an intentional offense that must be met with outrage and the offending person must be put in their place.
 
  • Instead of taking offence at everything, let us strive to give other people the benefit of the doubt.
  • Let us not jump immediately to assigning evil intent or bad motives to another person’s words or actions.
  • Let us realize that we are not the arbiters and judges of every other person’s opinion.
  • Let us be people of grace we have been called to be by Jesus.
 
Thirdly, let us resolve to pass on less offense.
Before we press the “share” or “retweet” button, let us ask ourselves:
  • Will this thing add to the division and incivility of our culture?
  • Is the outrage or offense of another person that we are about to pass on truly worth adding to the anger and antagonism of our time.
  • Will it add to peace and understanding or will it inflame?
  • If it will inflame or add to the division, then let’s not do it.
 
More than 50 years ago, Hal David and Burt Bacharach wrote a song whose message still resonates today:

What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love,
No not just for some but for everyone.
 
So finally, as we seek to shine the light of Jesus in 2019, let us commit to loving other people with grace and abandon! The world needs us!
 
Grace and peace to each of you!
Your friend and pastor,
Pastor Lee


God Came To Us

Merry Christmas!
Every year when Christmas rolls around I am reminded how amazing the story of Jesus’ birth is. Mary, a young Hebrew girl, hears a word from the Lord that she will conceive and bear the son of God. She faces embarrassment, ostracism, and even the possibility of death for breaking the norms of the culture, yet she persists with courage and faith. Joseph, a young man, is faced with a betrayal of trust from his betrothed, but he is told in a dream not to be afraid to take the young Mary as his wife. They make a long arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and arrive just in time for her to give birth. Shepherds from surrounding fields receive a message from angels that the Savior has been born, and they head to Bethlehem to worship the new born king. Wise Men from the East also arrive and give gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They then flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod only to return after Herod’s death.
 
As wonderful as this story is, the most amazing thing to me is not what Mary and Joseph did, but rather what God did. The Creator of the universe and the one and only omnipotent God chose to limit himself, take on the form of a human, and come to live among us as one of us. God came to us!
Every other faith on earth focuses on what the human must do to reach God. Hindus strive to reunify their spirit with Brahman, Buddhists try to attain nirvana, and Muslims have 5 pillars to attain satisfaction and approval from Allah. However, the story of Christmas is about what God did to reach humans. The love of God came to us!
 
Jesus “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God has something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And begin found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
 
God came to us in Jesus because of love, and it is that wondrous love that we celebrate at Christmas. God is not some aloof being who created the world and then stood back to watch what would happen. No, God is intimately involved in the created world, and the story of Christmas is the best proof we have of God’s commitment to be present in the world. God’s loving involvement continues today in the presence of the Spirit.
 
So, wherever you find yourself this Christmas, let the story remind you that just as God came to us 2000 years ago in the person of the Christ child, God continues to come to us every day. You are not alone, and you are very much loved by the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
 
My family and I wish each of you a very blessed and holy Christmas!
Your friend and pastor,
Pastor Lee


The Longest Night

I always get excited as we enter into the Advent / Christmas Season. I love the extra touches we add to our worship experiences – from the Advent Wreath Liturgy, to the extra musicians, to the special services. I enjoy the Christmas music playing from the radio and in the stores. I like seeing the lights on houses all decorated for the holidays.
 
Yet, I am always aware that this festive season is not always so festive for those who are
are experiencing grief at this time of year. The struggles of life do not take Christmas vacations, and sometimes the observance of Christmas just serves to highlight the deep loss one may be experiencing.
 
In an attempt to acknowledge this truth and care for those who are hurting, we held a “longest night” service last year. Through prayers, scripture readings, music, and silence, we proclaimed that God’s presence is there for those who mourn or struggle.
 
We will be holding this service again this year on Wednesday, December 19th (please note date change) at 7 p.m. In our time together, we will give voice to the pain of those are experiencing grief and loss, and at the same time we will proclaim the hope of the incarnation of Jesus. All will be reminded that God’s Word comes to shine light into the darkness of our lives. This service is for all who need the time and space to acknowledge their loss and sadness and to know that they are not alone. (If anyone would be interested in helping with this service, please speak with me as soon as possible.)
 
As we walk through this Advent / Christmas season, let us never forget the words of the Gospel of John, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5

Grace and peace to all.
Your friend and pastor,
Pastor Lee
 


The Big Picture

Each year when the time for the Thanksgiving breakfast rolls around, I am reminded of my first “official” event as your pastor. It was thirteen years ago during the week of Thanksgiving that I began my ministry with you, and the first “worship” service I led was the devotional service at that year’s Thanksgiving breakfast. My first Sunday was three days later on the first Sunday of Advent, and that evening was my first Christmas Family Night.
In the thirteen years since, our church has baptized 44 children and adults, confirmed 60 youth into the faith, hosted more than 18 weddings, received 104 new adult members, and lost 63 members to death. We have collected more than 19,000 jars of peanut butter for the food pantry, received more than $20,000 – 2 cents at a time – for our hunger offering, and given more than $500,000 to local mission.
Over these years, we have had many wonderful fellowship events and meaningful family retreats to Montreat. We have sustained an active Sunday school program and developed strong small group and trio-discipleship groups that help us grow in faith. We have grown our lay pastor program to include ten lay pastors who provide care to our homebound and aging members. We have cried together, laughed together, rejoiced and worshiped together.
Sometimes as we navigate the great demands of living in this complicated world, our focus can be narrowed to such a degree that we can miss the big picture. The only way not to miss it is to take some time to step out of the rush of life to reflect on the journey. When I step back to look at all that we have accomplished together on our journey, I have to give God the glory for it all. God has truly blessed our church in many ways and truly has blessed me with the privilege of serving alongside you over these years.
As we celebrate another Thanksgiving together, I just wanted to say thank you for allowing me to be a part of your lives. As you gather around your Thanksgiving tables this year, I encourage you to take a step back, reflect on the journey, and give thanks as well.
May you each have a blessed Thanksgiving!
Your friend and pastor,
Pastor Lee


The Pursuit of Unity and Peace

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Ps 133:1.
 
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Ga 3:27–28.
 
Unity is something sorely lacking in our country these days. The divide in our country that has been growing for decades has now reached extremes. It seems that people now define themselves by how they differ rather than how they are the same. As a result, there is very little desire to look for common ground on either side of so many issues. The worst is often assumed of the person who holds different opinions, and extreme rhetoric just makes it worse.
 
The technological advances that allow someone to post his or her thoughts to the world in a moments notice has removed the filter of time that in the past allowed someone to cool down and reflect on the consequences of one’s words. It truly feels like we are living through a war of ideology, and the casualties are civility, understanding, and decency.
I understand, in a way I never have before, the words of the Psalmist who wrote: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Ps 133:1. I understand it, because I know how very awful and bad it feels as we live in this time of disunity and division.
 
How are we as Christians to engage this world that is in such turmoil?
I think the answer is to live out our faith in the ways that Jesus modeled:
He loved the unlovable; He forgave those who felt they were unforgivable and those who sought to do him harm; He did not condemn but brought understanding; and he saw the potential in a life turned to God. We all would do well to follow his path by working to understand, love, and forgive all of those in our lives who differ from us. We also would benefit by looking for the common ground we share in Christ.
 
Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians that the divisions people often focus on cease to matter because of Christ. When we focus on Jesus, his message, and his mission, we are able to put aside human divisions and become united in purpose and community. I am so proud of how our church focuses on the person of Jesus and the mission He has given us despite our human differences. I know for a fact that people in our congregation are on different sides of many political and social issues, but we join together each week in worship of God, in love for one another, and in mission to the world. This is a beautiful thing.
 
Finally, I would say that one antidote to the division we see in this world is to strive to live the words of Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.
This is my prayer.
 
Grace and peace to each of you.
Your friend and pastor,
Pastor Lee


Building Community

Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ!
 
In my sermons in the last two weeks, I have been focusing on how we build and strengthen community. The Greek word in the New Testament that refers to community or fellowship is “Koinonia,” and it carries with it the connotation of a partnership where each other’s burdens and joys are shared. As we seek to strengthen our community, I have given two practical challenges for each of us to undertake.
 
The first is the “With-me” Challenge. This is based on the practice of Jesus who often invited people to be with him in his day to day life. Jesus did not attempt to live his life or do his ministry alone. He involved people in everything he did. When he traveled, when he went to temple, when he healed the sick, there were people in his life. On his preaching Journey, Jesus took the twelve with him as well as some women who had been cured of illnesses. He took Peter James and John with him to the mountain of Transfiguration. When he withdrew privately to Bethsaida, he took the twelve to be with him. When he was facing the his death and praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus took Peter, James, and John to be with him.
 
My challenge is for each person in our congregation to invite someone else in the congregation to be with them in some activity each month. If you are going to a movie, invite someone to be with you. If you are going shopping in Winston, invite someone to go with you. If you are going to visit someone who is ill, invite someone to go with you. As each of us does this each month with someone different, we will find our connections strengthened and our community built.
 
The second challenge I gave is what I call the “1-1-1 Prayer Challenge.” This challenge is based on the truth that when we pray for someone, the Spirit intercedes and silently builds the relationship. The Apostle Paul frequently prayed for the people in the churches that he founded and asked for prayers from them. Through those prayers for them and from them, their relationships deepened.
 
So my challenge is for each person to choose 1 person in our congregation to pray for one minute once a day for one month. At the end of the month, write a note saying that you have been praying for that person. And then choose a new person for the next month.
 
I am convinced that if our whole congregation takes up both these challenges, our “Koinonia” will be strengthened in ways that will astound us!
 
May the Lord bless each of you!
Your friend and pastor,
Pastor Lee


Welcome Home!

I sure do love traveling and going to new places and experiencing new things. Yet, no matter where I have gone, there comes a time when the longing for home begins to grow. Sometimes it takes a few weeks of being away other times it can be just a couple of days, but soon the desire to be back in my own bed and in my comfortable surroundings draws me home. After my first semester of my freshman year in college, I looked so forward to coming home. As it is said, “there is no place like home.”
 
The church was designed to be like that – a place of home and welcome where people want to be – where they can share their lives, support one another, and worship God together. The Greek word often used for this concept is “koinonia” and it means fellowship. It carries with it the connotation of a partnership where each other’s burdens and joys are shared. We are most familiar with the word as it comes to us in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
 
In the best of cases, the church is a place of welcome, home and fellowship. In fact, I believe, that it is this “koinonia” that many people are looking for when considering a church in which to participate. The fellowship of the church is an integral aspect of the body of Christ.
 
This “koinonia” is not meant just for those who are part of the fold; it is also for “the stranger.” The Bible has the concept of hospitality. This English word comes either from the Greek “xenodocheo” which literally means “to be receptive to strangers” or “philoxenia” which means “love of strangers.” The church is called to be a place of welcome to all who are seeking its fellowship. This means that the church creates an environment where new people are warmly embraced by those already at “home” in the church.
 
With the blessing of the Session, we have adopted these two ideas – “koinonia” and “philoxenia” as our themes for this coming year. More specifically we are calling it: “Welcome Home: A Year long experience in Christian Community and Hospitality.” In sermons, in Sunday school, and in our work as a church, we are going to keep these ideas in front of us as we seek to grow in the grace of Christ. So, be on the lookout for some exciting opportunities and challenges that will be coming your way in the months ahead!
May the Lord bless each of you!
Your friend and pastor,
Pastor Lee


Reader’s Choice

On Monday, my first day back in the church office following the mission trip, I went through the week’s worth of mail that had piled up in my box. I was surprised when I opened an envelope from The Dispatch, our local paper. It seems that they had been running a “reader’s choice” poll for various categories of establishments here in Lexington, and First Presbyterian had received the most votes in the “Best Place to Worship” category.
 
Now I certainly know that such a poll is unscientific, completely subjective, and linked directly to the motivation of the readers of The Dispatch to participate, but it was a nice surprise and an encouragement as we continue to navigate the many different expectations of our congregation concerning worship. Our culture is changing, and it is a challenge to engage new generations in worship while at the same time continuing to bless the worship traditions that are so valued.
 
For thousands of years the shape of worship has taken on many different forms, yet at its core worship ultimately is about God, what lifts God’s name up, and what pleases God. Truly this is the guiding principle for any worship of God: does it glorify God and build up the body of Christ? If it does, it is a faithful expression. Whether in the Crossroads service, the classic service, or our combined service in the summer, this principle has been the focus of our worship life, and it is nice to know that people in the Lexington community have recognized this.
 
The Lewis Center for Church Leadership has noted that since 2001, worship attendance has been trending downward throughout the country in many denominations including evangelical and Catholic churches. Let’s do our best to buck this trend, and make worship attendance a priority in our lives no matter which service we attend.
 
May the Lord bless you and keep you!
Your friend and pastor,
Pastor Lee
 
 


Word for the Graduates

On the Sunday when we recognized our graduating high school seniors, I shared with them eight values that I recommended they cultivate as they grow into adulthood. I used the word G-R-A-D-U-A-T-E as an acrostic for those values. A number of people asked me to share these words in the newsletter, so here we go!
 
Generous
The apostle Paul said that the person who “sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Cor. 9:6). What this means is that generosity breeds generosity. When you are generous with others, you will find that you will also be the recipient of generosity. Generosity is a primary quality because it expresses the very nature of God and His Love for us.
 
Respectful
As a follower of Jesus, you can stand out and live out your faith by granting respect to all people as children of God – even if you strongly disagree with that person. If you need to argue about issues, do so; but don’t assume evil intent in the person with whom you disagree. Give them respect, and you will distinguish yourself as a follower of Jesus.
 
Authenticity
Simply this means practice what you preach, walk the talk, or be real. There will be so much pressure in this world to make you be something you are not in order to get ahead. However, a follower of Jesus lives what he or she says and is true to God and self. Be who God created you to be; and don’t allow anyone to make you conform to any image other than that of Christ.
 
Diligence
To be diligent is to work hard, be persistent, and characterize all you do as a calling from the Lord, and then use all your energies to accomplish it. In the letter to the Colossians we read: “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ” (Col 3:23–24.)
 
Unwavering
To be unwavering is to be steadfast in the face of the effort to make you give up. It is the inward strength to withstand stress to accomplish God’s best even when it is hard and even when it costs you something. Paul writes: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith” (Ga 6:9–10). In the face of the fallen world, when it seems like evil and wrong are winning, do not waver or weary in doing what is right.
 
Alert
Scripture calls us to be alert in two general areas: First we are to always be alert for the movement of God in our lives. If we are not looking for God’s work, we will miss it. God’s movements in this world and in our lives are often subtle. We have to develop the discipline to be watching for Spirit’s prodding. And we do this by becoming alert. Secondly we need to be aware of those things that are taking place around us so that we can respond well to it. As a follower of Jesus, cultivate the ability to look at the world with the eyes of Jesus and work to bring the love of God to people who are in desperate need of it.
 
Thankful
A follower of Jesus is thankful to God for all the many things God brings to his or her life. He or she cultivates a thankful attitude and strives to express that thankfulness to those around him. When you develop a thankful response to the things that come your way and not worry about the things that don’t, you will be blessed with happiness.
 
Enthusiastic
Enthusiasm is a feeling of energetic interest in a particular subject or activity and a desire to be involved in it. This is about finding joy in the things of life. It is expressing in your soul the joy of the Spirit of God. Peter wrote: “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Pe 1:7–9). Approach everything with enthusiasm knowing that you only get one life to live, so live life to its fullest as you seek to glorify God in all you do.
 
These eight words are good for all of us to cultivate as we seek to live out our faith in Jesus and become more like Him. May the Lord so enable and empower us to do so.
Grace and peace to you!
Your friend and pastor,
Pastor Lee


Be Prepared

On Pentecost Sunday, I challenged the youth who were being confirmed to “be prepared” for whatever life might bring their way. I used the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids where five were prepared with extra oil and five were not prepared. I gave the youth four practices to undertake as they prepare themselves for the life ahead. I have had a number of people ask me for the four challenges, so I thought I would review them here in our newsletter.
 
1. Surround yourselves with supportive Christian Friends who hold you accountable.
Developing close friendships with Christian friends during the easy times of life will help prepare you to lean on them when the inevitable difficult times will come. Not only can they encourage and support you, they may even counsel you and help prevent you from making stupid mistakes. I have a handful of close friends who will challenge my thinking and make me consider things from different perspectives.
 
2. Allow the Word of God dwelling richly in you.
Do this by hiding the word of God in your heart. Memorize important verses of scripture. The day may come when you don’t have access to your Bible. The more you immerse yourself in the word of God, the more able the Holy Spirit is to bring to your remembrance things that you need to hear at any given moment. I often recite in my mind the first passage of scripture I memorized: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
 
3. Develop a consistent prayer life.
Do not let your prayer life just be a 911 call to God in the moments when the oil runs out. Cultivate it, nourish it, and practice the presence of God. Prayer is the chief exercise of our faith and it will sustain you in the difficult times if you have done a good job of cultivating it as a practice in the regular times of life. Ultimately, prayer is not about asking for things; it is about cultivating a relationship with God which will sustain you through all the travels of life.
 
4. Live a life of self-sacrificing service
When we follow in the serving footsteps of Jesus, we become more like Jesus and have a broader view of life than the immediate issues we are facing. We realize that meaning in life comes from making a difference in the life of another person not in the acquisition of things.
 
These are good words for all of us to hear!
 
Grace and peace to you!
Your friend and pastor,
Pastor Lee