Dear Church,
     Ive been thinking a lot lately about the Im spiritual but not religious mantra spoken by so many these days. Its easy to see why this is such an American phenomenon with our emphasis on individualism and personal rights and such. I will say that part of what I love about being an American is my freedom to be an individual, and I greatly enjoy my right to the pursuit of happiness along with all the other guarantees and freedoms. In fact, recently while in Southeast Asia I was struck by the very different mind-set of the people there, by their absence of a strong sense of personal liberties and dreams.
     But Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and the disciples would be mystified by the idea that we would want to be individually spiritual, lone rangers in our faith, or intensely personal in our connection to God. To them, spiritual but not religious would be a very strange idea, and even a detrimental one. Jesus was nurtured by a community of faithful, believing Jews, and he never even considered going it alone. And Paul declared over and over that Christ is the head but WE are the body of Christ. WE. TOGETHER. ALL OF US. The body is a great metaphor for who we are as the church. A healthy body is one that is strong because all the limbs and organs and muscles are working together, contributing to a common task, such as walking or running or working or playing. My spirituality should help yours, and yours mine. In fact, they should balance each other, keep us accountable, and support one another. When I cant pray, you can. When you cant serve, I can. And when one does not have a particular gift, someone else does. 
     I know the body the church can sometimes be a real pain. But more often it is a real blessing. You bless me far more than you cause me pain.  And I hope that you could say the same about me and my role in your life. So, it seems to me that  spiritual but not religious is just so much selfishness, inwardness, even narcissism. Religion comes from a root that means to bind. Good religion is this: All of us together bound by what God has done for us, in covenant with others because of it, and, as a result, doing far more together than we could ever accomplish individually.
I like to think of us as deeply spiritual and totally religious!
     I look forward to seeing you spiritual + religious types each Sunday in February.  Its one way of maintaining a healthy body!

Your friend and pastor,

Dear Church,
     I do a lot of funerals, roughly 900 over the past forty years.  Some were for persons I didnt know, never even met. Many were for people as close to me as members of my own family. There will be more this year. I can tell you that I never get used to the sense of loss, never grow accustomed to the absences. These funerals, along with the simple fact of growing older and the increased awareness that comes with it, have given me a sense of urgency that I did not have when I was thirty.
     Maybe this urgency comes also from knowing people who are in prison. And people who are wasting their talents. And people who are
consumed by greed and dont even realize it. And people who live year after year without discovering the beauty and the necessity of grace. And people who use up so much of their time and energy in anger or discontentment. And people who spend most of their lives leaning their ladder against a wall they wish they hadnt climbed once they reach the top rung. And people who give an enormous amount of their attention to trivia -- or to self-absorption, or to whatever the current passing trend might happen to be. And maybe this urgency comes from knowing that much of this describes, or has described, me at least some of the time. And maybe this urgency comes in part because of two little boys who call me Papa.
     So I want to make this year count because I want my life to count and because I want my preaching to count and I want my laughter and tears and strength and work and efforts to matter. I want the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart, as the psalmist phrased it, to please God by helping to expand minds and hearts.  Thats what preaching is really about -- not narrowing but expanding our lives by opening them up more and more to God, moving us more and more out of our concerns for ourselves and into genuine concern for the well-being of the church as well as those beyond the walls of the church.
Its going to be a busy year!

Your friend and pastor,


Dear Church,
     I shared with our deacons in the November meeting something that I want all of you to know. We have many reasons to be proud of the fact that we are a McAfee Teaching Congregation, and a major reason for this pride is Josh Hughes.
      Josh and Ginger (and their two-year-old Ella) are beloved in Lyons, Georgia, where Josh is pastor of The Oaks Baptist Church. Recently Josh told his congregation this: 'I am your pastor today because of First Baptist Church in Gainesville. At my lowest point, they stood by me and with me. When I was a Lily resident just there, fresh out of McAfee School of Theology, I unexpectedly went through the crisis of divorce, and I resolved that I would resign and leave the ministry. But they wouldn't let me. They refused to let me go, kept me in the pulpit the very next Sunday, and never stopped believing in me or my calling. When I stood to preach that Sunday, the text was "My grace is sufficient for you; my strength is made perfect in weakness.' But I began the sermon that day not believing it - I didn't believe there was enough grace for me at that time and in that situation. But First Baptist is quite a church, so much so that by the time I finished that sermon, I did believe it!"
     With many good young ministers leaving the church every year, we need more healthy congregations willing to be Teaching Congregations. I think of the many young ministers we've had here in the past fifteen years, and I thank God for them and for our role in their lives. We are not only helping to prepare them for the future in ministry, we are preparing many of them for the future in our ministry right here in this church and community.
     On behalf of all of us who work daily in and for this good church, I wish each of you a Christmas full of blessings that will carry on into the new year. And I say on behalf of my family: May you know as never before that the angel was right - Jesus really is Emmanuel, God with us.

Your friend and pastor,

Special Request Coming in January
      Over the past eight years, we have enlarged and enhanced our church facilities and have seen enormous benefits from having done it. We now have a thriving, even enviable, Day School and exceptional church nursery. We have a beautifully refurbished children's wing. We have the Marquita Nix Moore Youth Auditorium and classrooms that are second to none. We have additional space for our music ministry. We have a Banquet Hall and lobby area widely used by the entire community. We have nice and plentiful restroom facilities. We have a columbarium and outdoor Baptismal area called The Kathy Reeves Mathis Hope Garden
accentuated by a beautiful waterfall. The total cost for all of this has exceeded $12 million. Our Third Century and Our Faith Our Future campaigns have enabled us to pay the lion's share of these costs. Our total debt now stands at only $4.4 million. This is extraordinary and is a testimony to your generosity, excellent lay leadership and God's
      Many of you have rightly suggested that we now eliminate this debt and plan ahead for our much needed new music rehearsal space. Our deacons are not only working on a plan for reducing this debt, they also have set the example by pledging themselves and their resources in leading us toward this goal. A major part of this plan includes asking
each member of our congregation to place 'First Baptist Church Stepping Out of Debt' in your will or bequest. We are asking that this be a major focus for us in the month of January. Please give generous and prayerful consideration to this request. You will hear more about it in the next couple of months.
      Sadly, many of us will not live beyond the Biblical 'threescore years and
ten.'All of us will leave here and we will hopefully have left whatever provisions we can for our family and loved ones. Would you be willing also to leave a loving gift, even $10,000, to your church?Consider this. We could easily have raised more than $2 million through wills and bequests if we had made this a priority 10 years ago. However, most people probably leave nothing to the church simply because they don't think of it. The point is, of course, that over these next few years we could make a serious dent in our remaining debt through wills and bequests alone.
      Of course, not everyone can bequest $10,000, but then quite a few could leave much, much more. Claire and I give faithfully to our church out of our love for the Lord and for this congregation, and we have already placed more than $10,000 in our will. I am confident that there are many in this church who will do the same and more. Again, please pray about this matter as we plan this emphasis in January.

Pastor's Letter

Dear Church,
      I was ordained to the ministry on April 6, 1975, a little over 38 years ago. I want to share with you the charge that was given to me by my pastor and my home congregation on that day because I have taken it seriously everyday since then. It includes:

'Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a
workman who does not need to be ashamed and who
correctly handles the word of truth' (2 Timothy 2:15).

'Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season;
correct, rebuke and encourage-with great patience and
careful instruction.... Keep your head in all situations,
endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all
the duties of your ministry' (2 Timothy 4:1-5).

'Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the
name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and
teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the
age' (Matthew 28:19-20).

'Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I
send? And who will go for us?' And I said, "Here am I. Send me!' (Isaiah 6:8-9)

'See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way
before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will
come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom
you desire, will come,' says the Lord Almighty (Malachi 3:1).

      Through these nearly four decades, I have earnestly sought to 'correctly handle the word of truth.' A pastor actually has very little freedom. I am not free to deliver my opinion or preach what I think. I am subject to truth, which is greater than anything I think or any opinion I hold. I preach always from a Biblical text, most often a gospel text, because I believe those texts contain truth. This means that I must 'endure hardship' at times as I 'teach them to obey everything' Christ has commanded. And after all these years, I still absolutely love this wondrous calling. I love it because it's not easy, it is never boring, and it usually garners responses more beautiful and grateful than ugly and selfish. I cannot imagine having done anything else with my life.
      All this is to say mine is a life of extraordinary gratitude to God for this calling and to you for supporting it, encouraging it, and walking in it with me. Happy Thanksgiving month
to each of you and may you find a thousand reasons for your own gratitude.

Your friend and pastor,