Year End E-Letter # 4 – To Our Congregation

January 4, 2008

Dear Church Family,

In this fourth of five year-end reflections I am going to talk about myself. I am going to share thoughts of a nature that could be shared in an Open Time, but that are, well, longer. This is personal and rather autobiographical, and I understand if you may not feel inclined to wade through it. It is my nature it seems to put such thoughts into writing.

These thoughts were inspired by a significant event in my life this past year. This even has given me pause to think about other such events that have led me to where I am today, to think about blessings God has given me in my life – blessings that were confirmed as it were by the event of this year – and to think about some challenges I have faced this year and will face going forward from here. I hope at least some of you will bear with me and read this narrative. I covet your prayers.

As to the event.…I was just driving down the road. I had thought it all through. It all seemed to have been confirmed to me as right. I was embarking on a new adventure. I was driving south. I was going to school. And then suddenly, in a moment, I knew – I was to turn around.

I felt embarrassed and a little humiliated, and in the moment I didn’t understand it. But it was a clear as anything could be. I was not to go forward with the plans to take classes at NC State. I was to come back. God reached down and touched me.

I’ve been touched by God’s special hand of mercy and direction on many occasions in my life. I remember as a young sixteen year old teenager coming home from a weekend retreat at Windy Gap, a retreat put on by the youth ministry of Trinity Episcopal Church (Team) led by John Yates with the help of his wife Susan. My friend Calvin had invited me. I was skeptical. But I paid attention. I listened. I laughed at the skits. I learned a whole lot of fun Scripture songs (many of which we still sing!) I enjoyed the trudge up and the run down the mountain. I felt the love. Back at home in my bed I prayed. It was a pretty wimpy prayer really. But I woke up a different person. I don’t want to go into details but some bad habits just melted away. I knew something had changed. I was filled with new interests. Yes, I had miles and miles to go, but a new life had begun.

But in truth it progressed with a lot of stuttering half steps. In those days people put a lot of really good books into your hand as a young Christian. So I became pretty well read. I thought of myself as a Christian. But as time went on I seemed trapped between wanting to be a Christian and the sense that I just would never get there. And on top of that the whole issue of vocation and college major weighed upon me like a hundred ton building. I had done well, too well I think, in college, and too many doors were opened. I was an emotional and spiritual wreck. So I left Clemson to take a trip over to England to study at a place called L’Abri Fellowship. Billy Peebles, a friend from Team, that youth ministry mentioned above, who had reached out to me several years before at Windy Gap, well, he had been to English L’Abri, and he recommended it. I left a lot behind when I took off half way through my junior year at Clemson. I would never go back.

When I arrived at L’Abri that hundred ton psychological/spiritual load was weighing down upon me as ever before. But my first night there at L’Abri, in Dick and Mardi Keyes’ flat, during a talk I can’t remember, the load lifted. It just went away. It was there one moment and gone the next. I felt it leave me. So I was able to devote myself to the study of Genesis and Romans and Philippians, along with several other streams of interest, unhindered. God touched me, again. I was baptized before I left, in a bathtub!

It was hard getting settled back into life in Columbia, living at home, attending a new college, having major reverse culture shock. But there I was. Now I knew I was a Christian. I knew I needed to seek out a local church. Just hanging with my Christian buds wasn’t enough. So I went here. I went there, usually alone. I stayed at one place a while, another place a while. I was feeling lost again. Someone told me about this little storefront type church meeting upstairs in rented room in down town Columbia. So I went. I knew the moment I went in that it was the place. I never went anywhere else until I moved away a couple of years later. God touched me, again.

I graduated. I got a job. I should have known better, but Ivory Wilcox was such a dear friend and brother. He worked in the warehouse and was always singing, always rejoicing. He seemed to be living the Christian life on another level. I wanted what he was selling, and he was selling the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Again a weight was on my back that I could not bear. My mind told me that something was amiss, but my heart yearned – for more? I tried speaking in tongues. I prayed for the “baptism.” It was a hard time for me. Then one day, feeling empty and barren, I went on a walk with my dog Clancey down to a lake near where I lived. I sat in the grass and flipped back and forth in the Scriptures. I landed in Matthew 11. I read and reread Jesus’ invitation to “come unto Me all you are weary and burdened.” Uh, that would be me. Suddenly the weight lifted, again. The bottom line? Jesus was enough. I had the Spirit already. I felt whole again. God touched me.

You’d think after a year at a great school getting a Certificate in Christian Studies, plus a year or more under one of the greatest preachers in the country in Glen Knecht at First Pres Columbia that I would be doing great spiritually. But again a weight had grown upon me. I had no peace. I felt distant from God. Vocational decisions loomed again. I had no deep assurance.

So one day I sat out on the balcony of our second floor Devine Street duplex, and I started turning the pages in my Bible again. I landed in Romans 5. I read the passage about that peace that we have with God having been justified by faith though our Lord Jesus Christ, and the statement following – “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Peace. Love. Spirit. Hmmm. I was just sitting there, feet up on the rail, thinking, praying. There was a large Willow Oak in the front yard that had branches that reached over to the porch railing where I sat. And then it happened. A dove (I kid you not), a dove flew from nowhere and landed on a branch maybe two or three feet from my feet. He looked right at me, right into my eyes. I looked at him. I read the passage. He flew away. Peace came over me. I was assured. I have been since. God touched me.

There were more touches here and there, some dramatic, some less. There were many lessons learned. Fast forward to the present, driving to Raleigh, like a little school kid going to school for the first time, and it happened again. “Not now. Turn around. Go home. Get to work.”

And so I did. A certain turmoil had built up in me leading to the decision to take the classes at State. I had other interests. I wanted to be prepared to do other things if need be. I wanted to be at least a semi expert at something so that I could busy myself in retirement. I had thoughts of starting an organization. I had anxiety about my future. Maybe I wanted to hedge my bets.

I had always been a bit of a reluctant pastor. I definitely believed that I was called to it based upon the process that got me there. But I never really felt up to the job. I wondered if it was worth it. I wanted to do a lot of other things too.

So God touched me. Inside something was different. Other desires faded. The calling just seemed clearer. He let me see the brokenness of the world and the brokenness of my own heart. He let me glimpse the need of the world for the basic truths of His message. And He took me on a tour down memory lane. He helped me remember the ways He had touched me in the past. He opened my eyes to all He had given to me in preparation.

Take a break, come back, and walk again with me now, briefly, down my memory lane.

When I first responded to the gospel after my weekend at Windy Gap (which I attended because of the invitation of my friend Calvin Marshall, to whom I owe a life debt of gratitude) it took me a while to do anything different on purpose. I had no idea how to go forward. Gradually, as folks from Team realized that I had responded in some real way, and as I began to attend more gatherings, many took initiative and gave to me material to read. Within my first year our two I was nurtured in CS Lewis, JI Packer, Francis Schaeffer, John Stott, John White, and GK Chesterton. Needless to say, this reading immersed me quickly into a solid stream of historic orthodox Christianity. I was deeply blessed. I was off to a good start.

I continued to read and study, though confused inwardly, until I left for England halfway through my junior year at Clemson. Again, I was so blessed in the extremely gifted people working then at English L’Abri – Dick and Mardi Keyes, John and Jill Barrs, Jerram and Vicki Barrs, and Ranald and Susan Macaulay. I mean, it really just does not get much better than that. In my studies I focused at first just on the Bible. I studied Schaeffer’s teaching from Genesis and Romans, and then branched out to other things. I heard lectures that were thought provoking and edifying. I learned a lot from very bright fellow student searchers. And I learned how to sing hymns there. “Praise to the Lord the Almighty” which we sang at breakfast many mornings, stands out.

Fast forward a year and there I am at Christ Fellowship Church in Columbia – a very small church with a half time pastor Paul Wright who otherwise taught at Columbia Bible College, and whose teaching built me up week after week. Nothing fancy, just really good solid teaching from a man who knew his stuff. I learned a huge number of hymns there. It was then when my friend Richard Greenfield took me under his wings to disciple me. I have no idea why he chose me. But he made a huge difference in my spiritual growth.

I was hungry for more, so after much soul searching I decided to head out to Regent College in Vancouver, mainly because JI Packer was there, and because it was on the Pacific coast. I wasn’t expecting Bruce Waltke, Klaus Bochmuel and the many other great teachers. Waltke’s “Old Testament Theology,” Packers “Intro to Systematic Theology” and James Houston’s “Understanding the Creator” perhaps meant the most to me. And there were the other students – including Susan!

Fast forward a few more years and we’re in Columbia attending a church that may have been one of the premier churches in America for teaching and preaching and gospel centered living. I got to sit under the teaching and preaching of Mark Ross and Glen Knecht for almost three years. I mean, one could simply not ask for more.

Again, a few years later, back at Regent College. Due to the sickness of the other systematic theology professor I had a double dose of Dr. Packer. I was also in his advisee group. It is hard to express the good fortune that was mine in having so much exposure to Dr. Packer. Susan also knew him well in her stint at Regent. She had to do her Master’s Degree oral presentations with him for her Masters in Theology, a more academically serious degree than I have. I never could have remembered enough to do well at that. But I had the good fortune to get to know dr. Packer as well as take classes from him, and to be able to go to him often with all my questions. Seriously, God’s goodness to me in that sense is off the chart. Yes, there were other great teachers during my second time at Regent, and yes immersion in the biblical languages was super, but all the classes and time with Dr. Packer stands out.

And, add to that personal tutelage under a humble and blessed PCA pastor named Doug Codling, and I was blessed even more!

And then our family came here.

My September 2007 turnaround gave me opportunity to reflect upon my call took me back to the wealth of opportunities God had provided for me over the course of my life, not only the great teaching, but real community and real godly example. I am forced to see two and two adding together. Not to make the most of these blessings and opportunities would be wrong.

But I have also had to come to grips with my own limitations and failures and some of the consequences of the sedentary office life. I am not a very good “Office Dude.” I have struggled with organizational effectiveness as a solo pastor. It has been hard for me to focus on anything whenever I am in the office, and my tendency to lose things is legendary. I have not adjusted completely well to the internet/e-mail age. And clearly, over the course of time, the sedentary life has been slowly killing me physically.

And so, in order to move forward, to make the most of what has been given to me,  I am having to address some issues in my life. Obviously my health is one of those. Six months ago my heart was kicking into an irregular pattern often, my BP was way too high, my blood sugar was high, and I was significantly overweight. I couldn’t sleep. I felt crummy almost all of the time. There was always stress and tension in my chest. I was as weak and flabby as a wet noodle. I am trying to address those issues via diet and exercise. Things have improved but I have a very long way to go.

I have also had to face the fact and truth of my organizational dysfunction. I would almost go so far as to say I am hopeless. Thus I am trying very hard to implement an improved approach to basic managerial work. It does not come naturally and is a lot of work for me to change. But the internal stress of carrying all these half finished projects and “to do’s around in my head is just too much. To be fruitful and to be able to stay at it I just have to get on top of this. I am using the book “Getting Things Done” to help me get my act together. It may take a while, but I’m trying, hard. I covet your prayers. It is hard to convey how desperate I often feel in this regard.

I also am working on finding the space in each day to have my normal “quiet times” using the St. James Devotional Guide. It is just about impossible for me to be in the “quiet time” mode while in the office, so I am trying to do that at home before I leave in the morning, or during breaks during the day. I just have to do this. You’d be surprised at how this is so much NOT easier just because one is a pastor.

I am trying to be more faithful in my communications – to you in the church, to my immediate and extended family, to old friends and local friends in other churches, and to pastoral colleagues. I want to regain some pre-internet, pre-e-mail patterns of communication. You know, writing with a pen or pencil! Remember that?

I sense a need to reconnect with the books and ministries or people who were instrumental in my own growth as a Christian. I am developing a  list of books that were especially meaningful to me early in my life as a Christian to read again in 2008, one per month. This list will include Packer, Schaeffer, Lewis, Chesterton, MacDonald, Hopkins (GM), and Dostoevsky. The latter wrote the first book on my list, “The Brothers Karamazov.” I know that that long book seems daunting but the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” story has so much insight about the temptations of Christ in the wilderness I just thought I’d start with that book and try to finish before the February sermons on the temptation. In addition, I may try to go to some seminars or conferences this year. I have had very little input other than reading over the past 14 years, and I know I need that just as does everybody else.

I hope that many of these changes will give me more time and energy to prepare for worship as well as to write and address the ongoing issues of our day in a more public setting. Much to my amazement I find that my writing opens doors, and encourages or challenges others, and I think I am supposed to stay at it. But I also want to do a better job at equipping others in our own body. The truth is I find the most joy in ministry in encouraging and helping others in their ministry. I want to do a better job at this within our own fellowship.

I also hope that I will do a better job as a husband and father as I become more organized and less stressed.

I ask for prayer for all of these things regarding myself. I do not wish to bore you or impose myself on anyone. Everyone I know has equivalent needs. I am just writing to you as a person whom you support financially (and whose family you support). I want and need to improve in many ways in my life, not all of which I have mentioned.

I give thanks, looking back on 2007, a harder year than most, for God’s mercy and kindness. Here I am at fifty, a Christian for over thirty years now, but with so much room to grow. I covet your prayers.

Thanks for reading through this. Please forgive any typos or mistakes.

In Christ,

Joel

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