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Previous Letters

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AUGUST 2017

Dear Falling River Church Family,

The ocean lies still as a mill pond. The sailing ship and her crew are helplessly stranded. Not even the slightest breeze makes the canvas flutter. There is no escaping the oppressive heat. Freshwater supplies have gradually dwindled—along with hope. Becalmed in the doldrums, sailors can do nothing but wait and pray...

All in a hot and copper sky,

The bloody Sun, at noon,

Right up above the mast did stand,

No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.

--Samuel Coleridge,

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

The trade winds of the earth’s northern and southern hemispheres meet at the equator. The hot and humid air rises there, leaving little or no wind near the ocean’s surface. Sailors have traditionally called this region “the doldrums.” In the age of sail, vessels were often stuck in the doldrums for days—or even weeks.

In a similar way, Christians sometimes find themselves in the spiritual doldrums. Without the slightest breeze of emotional encouragement, a faithful believer can feel helplessly stranded. Life suddenly seems stale and monotonous. At times like these, one seems to be going nowhere. It’s difficult to pray when one doesn’t feel like it, and who likes to wait? Every Christian occasionally sails into the doldrums, so how can we make it through?

1.Know that you aren’t alone. Every Christian is a human being who faces emotional ups and downs. We all are tempted. You are not the first or last to visit the doldrums—and the Lord has been there before you. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man…For we do not have a high priest (Jesus) who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (I Corinthians 10:13a; Hebrews 4:15; ESV).”

2. Don’t neglect physical factors. We are embodied creatures; the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical are all intertwined in us. A Christian’s sense of spiritual dryness can have physical causes. How are you sleeping? How are you eating? What is your physical health? Have you been stressed? In your doldrums, it may be wise to consult with your doctor. Take note of Elijah’s dark mood in I Kings 19:1-8. There, the LORD’s first prescriptions for Elijah were rest, cool water, and hot food. Physical factors can be spiritually significant.

3.Stick with your holy habits. When life takes the wind out of your sails, church can seem irrelevant—or even distasteful. Bible reading and prayer might feel lifeless and useless. One may feel like withdrawing from Christian friendships either out of embarrassment or disinterest. Remember this: you need such spiritual disciplines most when you feel like following them the least. Sailors stuck in the doldrums continue to maintain the ship, ready the sails, and follow their daily disciplines. Order is therefore maintained, survival is possible, and all is kept ready for the wind when it returns.

4.This is a good time to grow beyond superficial faith. In the doldrums, a Christian soon realizes how much he or she has been leaning on emotional experience and worldly supports instead of God. With fewer crutches, one learns to rely on the Lord more than His gifts; we find that only He is ultimately faithful. In times of waiting, we may also deal with long-ignored sin in our lives. Unaddressed issues finally come to the surface. We can freely go to Jesus for a new start.

5.Discover the patient endurance of Christ in you. In life’s rough patches, God may seem absent at first, much as the sleeping Christ seemed to the disciples in the storm (Mark 4:37-38). As a Christian is forced to wait and pray, however, something wonderful begins to happen. He or she can now identify with the Christ who knows the doldrums from personal experience. Jesus is no longer asleep in the back of the boat. Instead, He often works most closely when we feel that he is most distant from us. The doldrums can build a faith less tied to emotional weather—a faith with grit and staying power. We find ourselves partners “in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus (Revelation 1:9; ESV).”

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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JULY 2017

“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,

for his steadfast love endures forever.”

--Psalm 136:1 (ESV)

Dear Falling River Church Family,

A rusty railroad bridge spans the James River between Lynchburg and Percival’s Island. Its steel rails have now been replaced with wood planks. Piercing whistles and thunderous engines have yielded to chatty walkers and clicking bicycle gears. A scenic overlook has been built at the bridge’s midpoint. Here, hundreds of locks are attached to the chain link fencing. Big, small, new, old, etched, painted, brass, chrome, combination, and key—they are everywhere! Lovers traditionally leave a lock here to commemorate their steadfast love. As a sign of irreversible commitment, many a couple then throws their lock’s key into the river. If that’s not romantic, I don’t know what is.

Every time I pass this spot, I think about the relationships represented there. Some locks signify nothing more than a high-school crush or a summer fling. Despite their passionate beginnings, most of these romances have been—or will be--painfully broken. A minority will prove stronger--forged to endure “till death do us part.” None, however, is permanent.

Each of us looks for a sense of permanence in this world, but find nothing that truly lasts. The feelings of romantic love, for instance, seem locked in place, but they can be notoriously unreliable (as all emotions are). We’re often disappointed by those we love, and we even disappoint ourselves. Our best intentions, resolutions, and commitments easily falter. As for our possessions, if you’ve ever witnessed an estate auction, you know that the dearly departed never show up to bid on the things they worked so hard for. Status, sex-appeal, strength, wit, and ability eventually fail us as well. In the end, only one thing remains:

God saw the trouble we were in. God’s love never fails.

He rescued us from our enemies. God’s love never fails.

--Psalm 136:23-24; CEV

Jesus is all I truly have, but He is enough!

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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JUNE 2017

“Somebody once said that climbing Everest is a challenge,

but the bigger challenge would be to climb it and not tell anybody.”

--Billi Bierling

Dear Falling River Church Family,

Let’s imagine a woman (we’ll call her Jenna) who dreams of climbing Mount Everest. She sacrifices time and money to this end. For years, she physically and mentally conditions herself. Jenna seeks friends and mentors who can help develop her mountaineering skills. She gains valuable experience scaling many other less challenging mountains.

The long-awaited Everest ascent finally arrives. At basecamp, Jenna begins by acclimating herself to the thin air at over seventeen thousand feet (she will need bottled oxygen for the climb higher). An approaching storm system threatens to ruin her plans, but it misses the Everest area. Braving dangerously cold temperatures, Jenna and her group now begin their ascent. They crawl on shaky ladders over icy crevasses. They slog up steep slopes and jagged cliffs. At times, Jenna feels close to giving up. Her burning lungs and sluggish limbs tell her to stop, even though that could be deadly. Indeed, many have died trying to make this journey. Some of their frozen remains are even visible from Jenna’s climbing route (she tries not to look). With the snowy crunch of each footstep, Jenna searches for the will to continue. The long line of fellow climbers keeps her moving. Hours later, her determination is rewarded with the ecstatic joy of reaching the bleak summit—the fulfillment of all her single-minded preparation. Unfortunately, Jenna cannot remain here long, and the journey back down the mountain pushes her endurance further beyond the limits of what she previously considered possible.

While waiting at Kathmandu airport, Jenna posts a few pictures of her trip on Facebook. She calls friends and family—ostensibly to let them know she’s okay—but also to brag a little on her achievement. On the long flight home, passengers close their windows for better sleep. Conversation dies away, and only the drone of jet engines can be heard. As she closes her eyes, vivid images of Everest fill Jenna’s thoughts. The last week’s events now feel oddly unreal, as if they’d happened in someone else’s life. Jenna grins as she whispers to herself: “I did it!”

Such an adventure may seem exotic and unattainable to most of us; I don’t know of any Falling River church members who are aspiring mountaineers. Our lives seem comparatively mundane—“nothing to write home about,” as they say. A Christian’s life is more, however, than it appears to be. Even as you and I make daily decisions, pay bills, deal with health concerns, and navigate relationships, we dream of a goal higher than the Himalayas: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection of the dead (Philippians 3:10-11, NIV).”

An Everest climb may be accomplished in days, but climbing with Jesus is a lifelong journey. Rather than a rocky summit, it is my hard heart which must be conquered. My selfish ego presents me with a steep uphill slog. Sins block my way like dangerous crevasses, and the cross is the only ladder over them. The spiritual air is dangerously thin in this world; I need the strengthening breaths of the Holy Spirit. Fellow Christian climbers can teach, challenge, and encourage me. In the end, however, only I can decide to put one foot in front of the other. “Many dangers, toils, and snares” may tempt me to give up on grace, but it would be deadly to do so. Along the way, I occasionally encounter the frozen spiritual remains of climbers who “made shipwreck of their faith (I Timothy 1:19, ESV)” by turning aside from the way. Such sad sights remind me to stay close to my Guide: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41, ESV).” While the ascent is treacherous, it is also glorious. Just when I need it most, the Master Mountaineer stops to give rest, nourishment, and astounding vista-views of grace. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7, ESV).”

Our Christian climb is not for showboating. It is largely hidden from others. Your progress with Jesus can’t be measured by Facebook likes or popular opinion. Jesus emphasizes this point surprisingly often. In his famous “Sermon on the Mount,” for instance, Jesus constantly notes that our discipleship journey primarily consists of what we do when nobody else is looking (Matthew 5:28,43-48; 6:1-6,16-18,21-23,25-34; 7:21-23, etc.). This pilgrimage doesn’t merely end with a change of location; it must change who you are! While our intention is not to show off, others will notice our transformed lives: “…A city set on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14b, ESV).”

One of the most depressing things about this world’s adventures is how fleeting they are. All journeys here must end, and even memories and photographs inevitably fade. Not so with Jesus! Our climb with Him continues into eternity. In the last book of C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia,” heaven is memorably described as a never-ending climb deeper into the love of God. Christ ever calls us to follow Him “Further up and further in!” May I forever grin and whisper to myself, “He did it!”

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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FEBRUARY 2017

Dear Falling River Baptist Flock,

Did you notice that I just greeted you as “flock” instead of family? For a month, I’ve been preaching on Jesus our Good Shepherd (John 10), and leading “Shepherd-Heart” Bible studies. My mind still brims over with thoughts of shepherd-staffs, sheepfolds, stalking wolves, and still waters. Before we move on to greener pastures, I’d like to give a parting word from the world of shepherding.

Jack is growing less interested in church. The preaching seems boring, the music isn’t to his liking, and the people are annoying. Every month or so, he musters the will to revisit his favorite pew. If truth be told, Jack attends worship mostly from a lingering sense of family loyalty. His grandfather, as they say, was “a pillar of the church.” Over the years, other church members have asked Jack to help in various ways, but he never seems to have the time or inclination do get more involved in church. Jack occasionally slips a twenty-dollar bill in the offering plate—isn’t that enough?

Jill is exhausted. At last count, she served on five church committees. She regularly teaches Sunday School and helps lead several key ministries. Planning a family vacation is especially stressful for Jill, as she must find a half-dozen volunteers to cover her church responsibilities. If truth be told, Jill primarily continues ministry out of guilt and a strong sense of duty—where would this church be without her? She increasingly resents others’ apathy and immaturity. Jill once experienced great joy and fulfilment in her church ministry. That now seems a distant memory.

Many of us may be able to personally relate to Jack or Jill. While such experiences are common in church life, they come from fundamental misunderstandings about how Jesus shepherds His church. Most Christians imagine three distinct roles in the church flock: 1) Shepherds (pastors and a few other key church leaders), 2) Sheep (“regular” church members), and 3) Jesus (a silent partner who has delegated most of His work to the shepherds). This model, however, is deeply flawed and very damaging. In Jack and Jill, we can see how it is so.

Jack sees himself as a sheep who has little or no responsibility for the flock. He therefore thinks his only church role is to be served. Jack hasn’t realized that Jesus cares for His church not only through special leaders, but by every believer’s spiritual gifts (I Corinthians 12:4-7,11-12). All the sheep in God’s flock share the Shepherd’s work. We should not be surprised at Jack’s lack of concern for the church. Because he invests so little in the church, he receives little. Jack’s spiritual gifts and character are undeveloped and atrophied. It is sad to think of the joy he will miss (Matthew 25:14-30)!

Jill sees herself as a shepherd-leader who doesn’t have time to take care of herself. She has set herself apart from the rest of the flock and its needs. While Jill is a church leader, her frustration and exhaustion are reaching dangerous levels because she’s forgotten that she is also a sheep—and that the flock belongs to God (Psalm 23:1; Acts 20:28b; I Peter 2:25; 5:2a). Love and the Lord’s reward are no longer Jill’s motivations for service (I Peter 5:2,4). If she doesn’t allow Jesus to be more than a silent partner in ministry, Jill will soon burn out, flip out, or drop out. She needs the Good Shepherd to restore her soul. In our “Shepherd-Heart” study guide, I included the following words from my private prayer journal:

We all are sheep, and we must all be continually shepherded by the Master.

To lead, you must be led. To feed, you must be fed.

To hold others accountable, you must be accountable.

To heal, you must be healed.

To protect, you must be protected.

To teach, you must be teachable.

To love, you must be loved by the Lord.

To serve, you must allow Him—and others—to serve you.

In the Care of Our Good Shepherd,

Pastor Keith

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NOVEMBER 2016

Dear Falling River Church Family,

As a boy, maps fascinated me. I’d hunt for them in my parents’ old National Geographic magazines. These cartographic treasures were then carefully unfolded and hung on the walls of my room. I’d lay on my bed and study their continents, oceans, rivers, and mountains. Above all, I was interested in the boundaries of faraway countries. I’d even create kingdoms and empires in my imagination, and draw detailed maps of their domains with colored pencils.

I’ve noticed that Christians try to map out God’s activity in their lives. We often think that He works within certain boundaries while being absent elsewhere. We assume, for instance, God’s presence in our devotions, at church, or when we feel particularly “blessed.” Other life-latitudes—like traffic jams, bad news, or family arguments—are treated as God-free regions. “…Can anything good come from there?” When things are going our way, we praise God for His nearness. In tough times, we pray like we’re calling to God across a vast ocean. Moods of uncertainty, irritation, and anxiety can seem like impassible mountain ranges which block God’s work in us. In contrast, a maturing believer begins to see God at work in all life’s geography. An ancient Celtic poem simply says, “The path I walk, Christ walks it.” In other words, I can be confident that my God is at work in every situation I encounter.

God isn’t limited to special occasions, crucial crossroads, and holy locations. I believe, in fact, that He usually works through life’s mundane “little things.” It is there that my character is being daily shaped by God. In 1666, a French monk named Bother Lawrence dedicated his life to Christian service. He looked forward to experiencing God’s presence in study, meditation, and worship at a monastery. Imagine his discouragement when he was assigned kitchen duty instead. Brother Lawrence, however, began trying to honor God in his menial chores. He encountered God while praying at the kitchen sink: “Lord of all pots and pans and things…Make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates!”

Even more unexpectedly, God has worked for good in my weaknesses, crises, and setbacks. He may not cause these things, but he certainly uses them: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28, NIV).” Even my sin can showcase His goodness and mercy. I’ve prayed for God to erase persistent and painful difficulties from my life-map. To this, God has sometimes said, “No.” After initial dismay, I’ve come to realize that the Lord’s best gifts arrive in such localities (the cross, for instance). His grace is sufficient. He can transform us through every circumstance. He meets us at every turn. May Douglas Hyde’s words describe our daily experience: “…see the hand of God in every place, in every time and in every thing…have this sense of life being embraced on all sides by God.”

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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AUGUST 2016

Dear Falling River Church Family,

Over the years, God has strengthened and blessed this church. Even this summer, He’s powerfully changed lives through Vacation Bible School and two mission trips (Impact VA and Standing Rock). We should be profoundly grateful to see our young people strong and growing in the Lord. Even so, it is good to remember that challenges come to every church. It’s not a question of “if,” but “when.” Tuck the following list in your Bible for use when these tests of faith arrive.

Seven Church Crisis Myths

1.There’s no way through this.

Yes, church trials can feel absolutely overwhelming. Jesus replies, “What is impossible for people is possible with God (Luke 18:27, NLT).” The Bible is packed with crises which were overcome with Him. Think of Abraham and Sarah’s childlessness, the Red Sea’s hopelessness, Goliath’s intimidation, a terrifying storm on the Sea of Galilee, Gethsemane’s sorrow, the pain of the cross, and the finality of the tomb. God can take you through this trial!

2.What crisis? Everything’s fine.

When one ignores or minimizes a church crisis, it almost always gets worse. When we honestly address problems, however, growth becomes possible. While it may seem counter-intuitive, crises may offer great potential for a church to move beyond old limitations. Surprising gifts wait on the other side of the storm.

3.If we can figure this out and make the right plan, everything will be okay.

“We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps (Proverbs 16:9, NLT).” We should carefully examine a crisis and seek wise counsel. Leaders should do their best to make right plans (although they will have to change them often). With that said, know that most crises are too complicated for any human to fully understand, and no human knows the future. God perfectly knows both, and He is the only one in control. Let’s keep our eyes on Him instead of leaning on our own understanding.

4.When God defeats the “bad guys,” then we—the “good guys”—will win.

It is tempting to see church crises as holy wars between good and bad people. The Bible says otherwise: “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil… (Ephesians 6:12, NLT).” Every member of God’s church is a sinner in need of the Lord’s life-saving grace. This does not mean that sin should not be acknowledged and dealt with (1 Corinthians 5-6, etc.). Sin however, must always be confronted in the humble and loving spirit of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:5-11 & Galatians 6:1-5, etc.).

5.Good leaders have what it takes to guide us through this storm.

On one hand, God uses pastors, deacons, and other church leaders to guide the church’s direction in holiness and biblical truth. On the other hand, remember that your pastor is also a sheep. Along with you, I can be wounded, wandering, and stupid. There is only one truly good, wise, and faithful shepherd who knows the way. His name is Jesus.

6.I need to leave and find a better church.

Rarely, a church can become so toxic that one should prayerfully find another place to worship. Every church, however, has problems. Every member (including you and me) contributes to those problems, so the grass will usually not be greener on the other side of the fence. It is precisely the process—and stress—of working with other sinners which produces the Spirit’s fruit within us (Galatians 5:22-23).

7.We’ve messed up and God has left us.

In every trial I’ve ever faced, I’ve later been able to look back and see God’s presence. When my Lord seems most silent and invisible, He is actually closest. When He feels far away, He is often doing His best work within me. In my mind’s eye, I think of the cross. Here, soldiers rolled dice, corrupt judges looked the other way, and hypocrites laughed. The victory of injustice and evil seemed complete. Even to Jesus, God felt far away. And yet…look at the wonderful love of God at work. In that terrible crisis, God was closer to His messed up children than He’d ever been before. Through that dark day, light has dawned in our souls. It was true then, and it’s true now.

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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JULY 2016

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DECEMBER 2015

Dear Falling River Church Family,

My nephew Mason is two years old. He sits on his knees in a chair, with his elbows on my kitchen table. The boy’s eyes are fixed toward the wall in eager expectation. No, there’s no television mounted there—just a darkly stained cuckoo clock. Twenty-eight minutes earlier, Mason had heard the clock’s tinny gong, immediately followed by a “cuckoo!” from the bellows. By the time he’d scampered into the kitchen, the carved bird had retreated behind its little door. My nephew now hopes for a glimpse of the cuckoo. I try to encourage his hyperextended attention span: “Just two minutes now, and the cuckoo will come out again.” Except for the tick-tock of the clock’s pendulum and Mason’s fidgeting, the room is quiet.

Somewhere along the way, we grown-ups changed. We might not even notice a cuckoo clock now—much less wait for it. Our eager expectations have been brought down to earth. We’re more dutiful, practical, and reasonable. We don’t have time for wonder; there are too many “important” things to do. Anticipation once made December magical and joyful; we looked for Christmas with nearly unbearable longing. Most of us have largely lost the capacity for that sort of hope.

Jesus told us that we must become like children to enter God’s kingdom (Matthew 18:3). I’ve always thought that He was referring to childlike trust and humility. When I think of Mason and my cuckoo clock, however, I can’t help but wonder about childlike hope as well. Such hope would transform our experience of faith—and Christmas. Let’s string together some of the Bible’s words on the subject. Prayerfully consider what God is saying to you:

…We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.) This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary. Jesus has already gone in there for us…Let us hold on tightly to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure.

Romans 8:23b-25; Hebrews 6:19-20a; 10:23; 11:1; I John 3:3 (NLT)

In His Hope,

Pastor Keith

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JULY 2015

Dear Falling River Church Family,

If you’ve watched a professional football game, you may have noticed that coaches often cover their mouths while discussing upcoming plays. This prevents someone from reading their lips and then informing the opposing team of their plans. Athletes, businesses, and nations are all willing to pay dearly for intelligence about their rivals. Such knowledge can be a game-changer. C.S. Lewis once wrote about Satan’s game plan against Christians in a book called “The Screwtape Letters.” In the same way, let’s imagine what the Devil’s playbook might look like in this church. If a demon were assigned to tempt us, how might he be advised by his satanic superiors?

DEAR TICKSNIT,

Congratulations on your assignment to Falling River Baptist Church. I see from your last message that you somehow consider this post beneath your abilities. Your early performance there as a Junior Tempter, however, shows that you have much to learn. To be frank—your work has been pathetic. I have therefore been ordered to oversee your operations more closely.

Upon examining your first field report, I see that you aren’t capitalizing on Falling River’s wonderful potential for disunity. You should know that I’ve already spoken with Sunderslop. As your predecessor, he certainly knew how to instigate quarrels among them! He nearly broke your church altogether (had the cowards not called on the Enemy, they would have been wholly ours). This sort of back-to-basics tempting led to Sunderslop’s promotion.

Note how things have already deteriorated on your watch. Your humans are working together—and enjoying it! Notice how they linger after their meetings. The sham herd-instinct they call “love” is getting the better of them. Like a virus, it could soon infect everything they do. You must immediately exploit their old grudges (I’ve attached the files of several promising personalities). For the love of all that’s unholy, grab this low-hanging fruit! Even one minor misunderstanding can bring their whole stinking show to a halt. Division makes everything easier for us. It yields great returns with minimal effort, besides bringing delicious pleasure to the heart of our Father below. Oh—and do I really have to ask you to finish off at least a few of the weakest marriages? You will be most gratified by the domino-effect of suffering this can unleash.

As I look at your inventory of active prospects, I notice that all age groups are represented. Children, teenagers, young adults, the middle-aged, and elderly are constantly in contact with one another. Our superiors have wisely discouraged this sort of intergenerational contact everywhere else in your region’s culture. Why do you allow it at Falling River? Are you blind to the dangers at hand? As it is, the aged are free to pass on their help, encouragement, and wisdom to the young. The young share their energy, hope, and courage with the old. Children are being indoctrinated in the Enemy’s ways. Whole families are increasingly resistant to our influence (perhaps this is why your divorce statistics are so disappointing). To hobble this church, the generations must be segregated. They grew up in different worlds—so keep them in different worlds. Constantly remind the older members of how stupid, irresponsible, and ungrateful young people are. Irritate young people with how the old are foolishly and selfishly set in their ways. Highlight seemingly irreconcilable differences in music, dress, and worldview. In this way, they’ll stop helping each other, and your job will become much easier.

Ultimately, you are in a battle for their attention—to manipulate what your humans concentrate on. The instant one of them calls on the Enemy, you will be blocked. Our intelligence services have not yet determined why the Enemy demeans himself by giving these animals his vile attention. Perhaps he wants to utilize them in his twisted plans, or maybe he just wants to irritate us. Whatever his ulterior motive is, the Enemy certainly doesn’t “love” humans as he claims—how could any intelligent being do so? In any case, with prayer, the Enemy soon meddles in one way or another, and you’ll find a door slammed in your face. To make matters worse, his interventions are illogical and unpredictable (remember the trickery of the empty tomb incident). The key to success therefore lies in keeping your humans’ attention completely away from the Enemy.

Don’t make the amateur mistake of thinking that humans must be distracted by obviously “sinful” things. No—anything will do, so long as people look away from the Enemy. A marital affair, painful death, or pastoral meltdown may be great fun, but such things can backfire. When a human is under pressure, there is ever-present danger that it will suddenly come to its senses, betray you, and return to the Enemy. No—a safer bet is to lead these worms to hell by a broad and easy path. Steer their thoughts toward smug contentment, trivialities, and creature comforts. As much as it might disgust you, be ready to use church ministry as a distraction (a church’s “success” is our success if it turns attention from the Enemy). If humans feel pleased with themselves, safe, or even mildly resentful, the Enemy will be crowded out. They taught us in the old days at Lucifer Institute: “distraction gained –victory attained.”

I look forward to hearing of your progress. My little fiend, unless you soon deliver better results, I’ll take great delight in inflicting the pains already prepared for your chastisement.

Sincerely,

GARBLEGUM

District Supervisor of Church Operations

How do you think the Devil could attack this church? Resolve to pray for God’s protection and help in this area.

“…Satan will not outsmart us. For we are familiar with his evil schemes.”

--2 Corinthians 2:11 (NLT)

In Christ’s Love,

Pastor Keith

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APRIL 2015

Dear Falling River Church Family,

I want to be different from the majority of people who call themselves Christian, and I want Falling River to be different from most churches. You and I must be different if we are to have any hope of making a difference in this messed up world—or even in our own lives.

To begin with, we must think differently about what it means to be saved. Most churches define salvation as believing certain things and praying a certain prayer, walking down the aisle, being baptized, or being confirmed. This would be good if they didn’t stop there. As it is, many are led to believe that one can then tuck salvation away like a “get-out-of-hell-free card” until it is needed at death. You’ve heard me call this “fire insurance faith,” and it is a distortion of the gospel. It’s all about going to heaven when you die without following Jesus as you live. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a German pastor who was persecuted and killed by the Nazis) called this “cheap grace,” where salvation costs us nothing and therefore means nothing to us. Many so-called Christians believe in Jesus’ cross, but then refuse to take it up and follow Him daily (Luke 9:23; 14:27). They claim a Jesus who is largely irrelevant to their lives—and to our culture. There is dangerous emptiness, apathy, and hypocrisy in cheap grace. Dallas Willard described it as “nondiscipleship Christianity.”

We seem to have forgotten that Jesus clearly commands us to make disciples—not to merely save souls (Matthew 28:19-20). I appreciate how evangelist Roger Roller frequently points out that “the plan of salvation” is the crucial first step in a new life of discipleship—not the last one. This is why Roger doesn’t consider his evangelistic association a stand-alone ministry. He instead partners with churches which can go on discipling believers when his revival services end. Without discipleship, Christianity will continue to be dominated by supposedly-saved “nondisciples” who (apart from a few outward signs of religious affiliation) think like unbelievers, live like unbelievers, and offer no help or hope to a dying world.

I’m not advocating salvation by works, but rather works by salvation (James 2:17-18). I challenge Falling River to stand apart from what usually passes as Christianity in this country. Jesus’ teachings are not extra credit. We need to be more than saved; we need to be His disciples. This means joining Jesus’ work now—the work of learning to think like Him, believe like Him, make decisions like Him, and treat others as He would. There is no appropriate place for hand-wringing, fear-mongering, and hate-politicking over our godless culture. We will not fight fire with fire. No—we must concentrate on honestly bearing Christ in our lives. Instead of “us versus them,” our attitude will be “us for Him.” If we don’t live as authentic disciples, who else is going to change the world?

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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MARCH 2015

Dear Falling River Church Family,

I trust that it will be considerably warmer by the time you read this letter. Right now (February 19th), it’s a balmy fifteen degrees Fahrenheit in the heat of the day. Tonight the thermometer will sink below zero, and that doesn’t even include the wind-chill factor. In such conditions, most people bring their pets indoors. The last time we had a sub-zero night, I moved my outside-dogs into the garage. My plan didn’t end well for the dogs, the garage, or me.

Let’s call today’s project “Operation Doggy-Door.” This morning, I bought two doormats at the dollar store. After donning necessary cold weather gear (including a sheepskin hat), I waded into my snowy driveway. I’d soon cut slits in the mats and attached them over the doghouse entrances. These door-flaps appeared to function exactly as I’d envisioned. They shielded the doghouse interiors from the sharp wind and provided a little insulation. Sarge (a border-collie mix) immediately nosed the flap aside and crawled into his house. Captain (a large hunting hound) appeared confused. He pawed at his new door-flap but wouldn’t enter. For hours, my sons and I tried to coax (or even force) Captain into his doghouse—to no avail. He either could not understand the concept of a doggy-door, or he refused to accept the change. While Sarge enjoyed a long nap in his warm doghouse, Captain pathetically shivered in the snow.

People struggle with change too—especially in church. The truth of Christ’s gospel does not vary. Sharp cultural winds, however, constantly assault our cherished traditions and ministry forms. I know—I don’t like it either, but it’s a cold world out there. In various churches, I’ve seen otherwise rational Christians dig in their heels over needed changes in paint color, music style, meeting times, and thermostat settings. This behavior isn’t surprising when one considers the bewildering blizzard of change faced elsewhere. Imagine a church member who shivers at his changing nation, community, health, job, and family. To such a person, even an insignificant change at church might feel like the last straw. Even so, all growth (spiritual or otherwise) happens through change. The Lord’s work usually challenges us to move beyond the familiar by faith.

I’m proud of the way you’ve coped with change; I’ve been impressed with your wisdom and maturity in Christ. You understand that all change is not good, but not all of it is bad. We need the Holy Spirit’s discernment to be, “…like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old (Matthew 13:52, NIV).”

You’ve probably seen the sad alternative. When a church becomes adamantly inflexible and resistant to new people and ideas, it begins to refuse God’s help. Such people desire to be left alone—to remain comfortable and unchanged. They will ultimately get what they want: refuge from innovation, creativity, energy, fresh insight, young people, relevance, and hope. That kind of church will freeze to death. I thank God that Falling River has chosen a warmer way; may we never do otherwise!

By the way, no animals were harmed in the making of this letter.

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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FEBRUARY 2015

Dear Falling River Church Family,

I have some old friends who are pushing my patience to its breaking point. Over the last week, they’ve posted daily pictures of their vacation on my Facebook newsfeed. They’re frolicking in the surf. They’re lounging by a poolside in sunglasses, straw hats, and loud tropical shirts. They’re relishing scarlet Caribbean sunsets while sipping iced drinks. I can’t take it anymore!

Meanwhile, here I am—sun-deprived and chilled to the bone. The end of January specialized in that peculiarly dreary weather which denies a person both the warmth of spring and the full enjoyment of winter. This is a difficult time of year for many people. The weary sun hangs low in the sky, and spirits flag. Some even deal with “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” struggling with depression in the colder months. We like to imagine that our happiness does not depend on something as mundane as weather, but it often does. Such external circumstances influence our moods a great deal. I can probably guess a person’s mood, for instance, if I know her arthritis has been acting up this morning, she didn’t get much sleep last night, or that she has just received an unexpected check in the mail.

All this makes Christian living more striking, because we are offered a joy, peace, and contentment which are deeper than mere mood (Philippians 4:4,7,12). Christians get impatient, depressed, and tired. They experience just as much pain, difficulty, and death as everyone else. Jesus Christ also experienced these things and overcame all (Hebrews 4:15; 12:2). Because He now lives in me, I have a soul-foundation that winter can’t freeze, debt can’t bankrupt, and death can’t kill. Every day—despite how I feel—I have living hope. The weather may be dreary, but my spirit basks in the warmth of God’s Son. Take that, my Caribbean vacationing friends!

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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JANUARY 2015

Dear Falling River Church Family,

Throughout our lives, we’re drawn to what is new. Newness often brings experiences of excitement and optimism. I remember feeling these on my first day of school—waiting at the bus stop with new clothes, a new lunch box, and new hopes. Weddings have a similar joy of newness. I once made a wedding picture album for Tammy, and noticed that smiling faces were in nearly every photograph. Everyone seemed caught up in the joy of our new beginning. Holding a new baby can likewise fill a person with wonder and joy. The most world-weary soul can be touched by a child’s fresh innocence and potential. Even inanimate objects can have this effect. In 2009, I purchased my first new car, which looked and performed markedly better than our previous ride. It was shiny and clean. It even had a distinctive “new car smell.” While minivans don’t have a reputation for excitement, I admit having a little adrenalin rush while driving ours home from the dealer.

It’s no surprise that people celebrate the fresh start of a new year. A huge globe of electric light is lowered in Time Square. Confetti falls and music blares. Celebratory parties continue well into the cold morning. The newness is intoxicating (amongst other things). In January, folks hope to capitalize on this occasion by making resolutions to improve their lives. Everyone seems to naturally yearn for some sort of new beginning.

I don’t consider our love affair with newness to be accidental; I believe it is God-given. One might even say that Christians corner the market of newness. The Bible constantly speaks of it. A glance at the word “new” in any Bible concordance will reveal a new covenant, new birth, new life, new self, new humanity, new order, new name, new song, and new creation—all ours in Jesus Christ! In the last pages of Revelation, God rightfully declares “…Look! I am making everything new!” Whenever religion becomes tiresome, boring, and irrelevant, know that God has nothing to do with it. There is nothing boring about Him or His ways. In Christ, every day is a sort of New Year’s day—a fresh start of forgiveness, purpose, and living hope. “…As Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4b; KJV).” God’s mercies are, after all, new every morning (Lamentations 3:23)!

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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DECEMBER 2014

Dear Falling River Church Family,

Last week, I met a friend who’d stopped by the church to prepare for a Christmas event. “I feel like I just did this,” she said as she unpacked supplies from a closet, “It’s hard to believe that the year’s done and Christmas is here again!” I know what she meant; this season’s timing can play tricks on the mind. Sometimes, time seems to crawl by interminably—while waiting in a shopping line, for instance. On other occasions, we wish time could be slowed—as when one’s thoughts drift back to work at the close of a holiday break. One might say that we have a love-hate relationship with time. After all, we spend the first few decades of life wishing we were older, and the rest trying to look as young as possible.

From my very rudimentary understanding of science, time is believed to be interwoven in the fabric of our universe. Its ongoing chain of cause and effect is an intrinsic part of physical existence. Let me show you what I mean. Today, I stayed home after breakfast to write this letter. Because of time’s constraints, my decision has consequences which I cannot take back. I can’t, for example, change my mind later tonight and then revisit this morning to run errands. As they say: “That’s water under the bridge.” This process is so familiar to us that we take it for granted. We rarely try to imagine an existence transcending our own experience of time. God, however, is independent from the physical universe (he made it), along with its time. “You are worthy, our Lord and God…for you created all things…With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day (Revelation 4:11 & 2 Peter 3:8).”

C.S. Lewis speculated on God’s relation to our time-bound universe by comparing it to an author’s relation to his novel:

Suppose…I (the author) write ‘Mary laid down her work; next moment came a knock at the door!’ For

Mary who has to live in the imaginary time of my story there is no interval between putting down the

work and hearing the knock. But I, who am Mary’s maker, do not live in that imaginary time at all.

Between writing the first half of that sentence and the second, I might sit down for three hours and

think steadily about Mary. I could think about Mary as if she were the only character in the book and

for as long as I pleased, and the hours I spent in doing so would not appear in Mary’s time (the time

inside the story) at all.

Perhaps this is why God knows the future—and can personally attend to a million prayers at once. All of history would then be an open book to God, as he could turn His attention to any chapter at will. He alone would see “the big picture,” where every character has been given freedom to shape the plot within the limits of the Author’s will. I know—it’s mind-bending, isn’t it?

So what does all this have to do with Christmas? In the manger, we see the great Author of creation writing himself into our story. Jesus’ birth marks the intersection of God’s eternity and our timeline. “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…(Galatians 4:4).” In Christ, the cause and effect relationship between my sin and death has been severed on the cross. I believe I will live with Christ even though I die (John 11:25). The Christmas Child has pried me from time’s grip! When you feel the Christmas time-crunch stressing you out, contemplate these things.

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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APRIL 2014

Dear Falling River Church Family,

Maybe I think too much—at least when it comes to God. I look for logical evidences of his presence, and my reason strains to understand Him. When it comes to brains, I end up feeling underpowered (like I’m racing a riding lawnmower in the Indianapolis 500). While we should definitely use the minds God has given us—many don’t do this enough—there are other ways of experiencing His reality. Life is full of God’s wonders. These can be far more helpful than reason in opening one’s eyes to God. In no particular order, let me give my own abbreviated list:

•a baby’s first laughter

•waking to the aromas of fresh coffee and frying bacon

•the moon playing hide-and-seek in the clouds

•mockingbird solos

•the power of forgiveness

•couples who’ve loved each other so long that they seem to resemble one another

•squirrel acrobatics

•cherry petals falling in a warm breeze

•baying beagles on the scent

•the first glimmer of Easter sun

•holding hands

•the sound of a waterfall in the distance

•the Milky Way overhead

•children’s Christmas pageants

•a well-worn Bible

•warming myself at a fireplace

•the silent witness of a mountain

•newlyweds

•old porch swings on a summer day

•the smell of the air before it snows

•baptisms—the moment their eyes open

“…The one and only wonder-working God! …All earth brims with his glory…”

—from Psalm 72:18-19 (The Message)

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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MARCH 2014

Dear Falling River Church Family,

In middle school, I read a short story that has stayed with me. It has probably been removed from textbooks by now, as it emphasizes personal responsibility over victimhood (don’t get me started). The tale centers on two boys in the same class. The first is the story’s main character, who spends his free-time watching television and eating candy bars. This overweight child resents the second boy, who is athletic and popular.

One day, these two boys wake to find that they have somehow switched bodies. Once he has recovered from the initial shock of this unexplained event, the formerly flabby child eats a huge and unhealthy breakfast before going to school. His class meets outside for a running competition later in the day. The first boy excitedly begins the race in full sprint. He exults in his newfound speed; his fast legs and well-conditioned heart and lungs enable him to leave everyone else in the dust.

Near the end of the race, however, something unexpected occurs. The first boy begins to tire. His lungs burn, his trim body aches, and his spirits flag. His breakfast comes back to haunt him. He feels he must stop. Meanwhile, a burly figure is gaining. It is the second boy, who is pushing himself hard. He’s soaked in perspiration and he gasps for breath. His eyes are fixed ahead and his expression is resolute. To everyone’s surprise, the second boy crosses the finish line first.

The obvious moral of the story is that our inner attitudes and decisions are more important than our emotional state or situation. This point shouldn’t be pushed too far in the physical world (regardless of my attitude, for instance, I have no chance of being a professional basketball player). In spiritual matters, however, it’s dead-on. The Bible continually describes an inward power that transcends everything else. It is not a feeling, but faith; it is not a set of circumstances, but the Spirit. I love how Eugene Peterson describes this endurance in his translation of Colossians 1:10b-11:

As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work. We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy…

In other words, our joy comes from who God is and what He has done in Jesus. It does not come from our government, our town’s economy, or our church’s attendance figures. We Christians often spend too much time resenting our circumstances and other people, thinking that these are responsible for our joylessness. We gorge ourselves on worldly entertainment and distorted thinking, and then wonder why we feel spiritually sick. Feelings of anger, fear, and fatigue tempt us to give up. “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth (Galatians 5:7)?”

It is “Christ in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27),” who gives the special kind of endurance we need. Are you relying on common sense, or the Lord who calls? Are you drawing from outward resources or His inward well of endurance? In this church and in your life, where are your eyes?

…Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus… (Hebrews 12:1b-2a).

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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FEBRUARY 2014

Dear Falling River Church Family,

I was twelve when my grandfather heard that I’d never been fishing. He was flabbergasted. Since no one in my immediate family had ever shown the slightest interest in a rod and reel, I’d never had the opportunity. Grandpa considered this a tragic oversight to be immediately corrected. Although we were vacationing far from home, he knew of a nearby pond stocked for paying tourists. Fifteen minutes later I was holding a rented bamboo pole at the water’s edge. Children around me were excitedly catching fish. While my corn-baited hook was often investigated, it was never bitten. After an hour, Grandpa was obviously perplexed. He’d spent money on a sure thing, yet I seemed to be the only kid without a catch. We eventually gave up and left. I thought Grandpa must have been thinking, “this is sad—if he can’t catch something here, he’s beyond my help.”

I’ve had better fishing since then, but maybe my first attempt biased me against the Bible’s “fishers of men” story. In it, Jesus walks along the shore and calls out two brothers casting a net: “Come, follow me...and I will make you fishers of men (Mathew 4:19).” Hmm. If experience is any guide, my prospects as God’s fisherman are dim. Up till now, the analogy never connected with me anyway. It seems to suggest that we’re in the business of trapping unbelievers—they won’t know what hit ‘em! They may struggle, but we’ll haul in our catch of new converts in the end. Surely that couldn’t be the approach that Jesus intended. As I’m writing in a newsletter named “The Fisherman,” I’d better try to understand what He did mean.

We first need to remember that Jesus was talking to professional fisherman. He’s going to show them how to draw others to Himself, beginning where they are. If Christ were calling two carpenters framing a house, He’d probably make the same point by starting with that situation. Maybe He’d have said, “Come follow me...and I’ll teach you how to build God’s family.” Even if I’m not a fisherman, Jesus calls me to begin His work wherever I am—just as He calls you where you are.

I also have to admit that fishing is like sharing Christ. Both require a great deal of patience, and we must take the time to understand those we hope to catch. As I learned at the start, we’ll often need to accept disappointment while hoping for a better “next time.” Both fishing and witnessing require skill, respect, and a gentle touch. Too much talking and not enough action quickly ruin our chances of success. Results are ultimately in God’s hands. Both fishing and evangelism are a matter of life and death: the fish will die if it isn’t thrown back in, but the soul “caught for Christ” begins to really live. Our Lord, of course, never throws His catches away. What if you’ve never shared Jesus with someone? That would be a tragic oversight to be immediately corrected.

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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JANUARY 2014

Dear Falling River Church Family,

I’m writing to you from home on New Year’s Day. My oldest son is out hunting, while his brothers help Tammy pack away Christmas decorations. As 2013 recedes into the past, I’m thinking about a (until now) secret affliction of mine. “Nostalgia” is the best word to describe it. Nostalgia is a bittersweet feeling which combines the heartache of loss with the pleasure of fond memory. I first became aware of nostalgia as a boy visiting my grandparents in the Smokey mountains. With each passing summer, I’d notice more paved roads, cleared forest, and new houses. Eventually, many of my cherished quiet trails and unspoiled views became casualties of economic development and tourism.

Even now, when I think of God’s presence, I remember those long-gone places where I first met Him, and am filled with a sort of homesick longing. And that’s just one example of my nostalgia. I’m also nostalgic about the twentieth century—and most of the centuries before that. Mom & Pop stores, typewriters, old songs, trains, fireplaces, mechanical clocks, chivalry, rotary phones, letter writing, walking sticks...well, you get the picture.

I’ve noticed that nostalgia worsens with age as we increasingly miss not only things, but people. As our culture rapidly changes, whole communities and churches can slip into a nostalgic mindset. Unchecked, this can blind us to history’s ugly side and the future’s promise. Today’s opportunities and blessings can be lost in our futile attempts to regain yesterday. Were the good old days really as good as we remember them? We probably didn’t think so at the time.

Nostalgia, however, can also be helpful. It points to good’s true source and hints at the wondrous good coming our way. Let’s look at James 1:17, Romans 8:28, and John 6:37,39-40 (NIV):

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights,

who does not change like shifting shadows.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been

called according to his purpose.

(Jesus said) all that the Father give me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never

drive away...And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given

me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son

and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him (or her) up at the last day.

These words emphasize important truths concerning nostalgia:

1. All good things are from God—even if they’re in our past.

2. God doesn’t change, and He is always working for our good.

3. In Jesus, we will never lose God—and so we will never lose our best good.

4. God’s best gifts are yet to come, and neither time nor death can stop them.

In God, every painful loss is temporary, and nothing good will be truly lost. Past blessings become sneak previews. Our longing for the past stirs deeper longing for glories to come. In the end, we’ll find that nostalgia was only hope’s shadow.

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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DECEMBER 2013

Dear Falling River Church Family,

When it comes to getting profound insights about God, many think of weary study over large old books, intense prayer in a secluded monastery, or a long and difficult pilgrimage. Popular imagination sees spirituality as mysterious and exotic, like a wrinkled “holy man” serenely perched on some misty Tibetan peak. Folks commonly consider divine knowledge as far removed from their boring daily lives. If you’ve slipped into this kind of thinking, you may be missing the best God has to offer.

I do study and pray alone when I can. I’m refreshed by spiritual retreats which help me remember and feel God’s presence. I’d be lying to you, however, if I said that my best insights come on the mountaintop. God’s best has usually barged into the daily scenes of my life—often when I least expected it. I’ve learned the most about God through listening to Him while building a fence, raising teenagers, or trying to understand my wife. Once you begin to realize that God is ready to teach you anytime and anywhere, you’ll find Him in the oddest places. Railroad crossings, parties, hospitals, and hardware stores can all become God’s classrooms.

I believe that Jesus experienced this. His most profound insights into God’s character come through everyday scenes: farmers, construction sites, sparrows, wedding receptions, red sunsets, and small children. Of those who don’t expect God to speak through such mundane things, Jesus says: “…they look, but they don’t really see. They hear, but they don’t really listen or understand (Matthew 13:13; NLT).”

Take Christmas, for instance. We might consider Bethlehem exotic and far removed from our experience, but what is God teaching us in its details? What does God reveal about Himself by coming to us through the arms of an impoverished teenage mother(out of all the people He could have chosen)? See what I mean? George MacDonald once wrote that, “Anyone who is willing to be taught of God will be taught, and thoroughly taught by him.” It’s also been said that “the devil is in the details,” but God is found there even more often.

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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NOVEMBER 2013

Dear Falling River Church Family,

Yesterday, someone gave me one of the best compliments I’ve ever received: I was called “REAL.” I confess that I have a long journey ahead of me before I’ll completely live up to that. It is true, however, that my heart’s desire is to be a REAL Christian, and to help you toward the same goal. Real Christians take Jesus to heart, mind, and—best of all—life. I want Falling River to be a no-hypocrite-zone. I think you do too.

In his book “Faith & Doubt,” John Ortberg describes three species of belief that we all have to some degree: public, private, and core convictions. “Public convictions” are those things that we say we believe, but don’t. We might tell Grandma that we don’t believe in drinking, but enjoy a cold beer when she’s not around. We might tell our friend we plan to go to church only to get him off our back. We give the impression that we believe certain doctrines only because everyone else seems to. This obviously isn’t REAL.

“Private convictions” are more difficult to sort out: these are things we’d like to think that we believe, but we really don’t. We might feel very strongly that God is always with us, but show that we don’t by our actions (we would never watch, do, or say certain things if we really believed that Jesus was in the room). We might completely agree that our loving God forgives us—and then reveal different views by refusing to forgive others or ourselves. Every truth worth believing has a real-life test. The apostle Peter once expressed his private convictions to Jesus: “Even if all fall away, I will not…Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you (Mark 14:29,31).” When circumstances changed, Peter then showed his true colors by denying that he even knew Jesus—three times in a row.

“Core convictions” are REAL. They form the foundation of our thinking and action. This is who we are in daily life. For instance, it’s obvious that I believe that I need to eat, or that I believe in gravity. Watch what I do—even in private, and you’ll see these core convictions. If you want to know what you really believe at your core, you’ll need to take a close look at your life. God won’t be satisfied until what we believe about Jesus is REAL on this level. This is good faith. This is what it means to follow Jesus.

Millions of so-called Christians have public convictions about Jesus which they dutifully affirm in surveys, but have no basis in reality. Millions more like to think that they follow Jesus because they made some decision way back when—but their lives betray their true beliefs. Let’s be the minority of Christians in the process of becoming REAL to the core!

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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OCTOBER 2013

Dear Falling River Baptist Church,

Jay eased back into an aluminum lawn chair, admiring his freshly washed car. After a contented sigh, he spoke to it. “Friend, you and I have seen some good times, haven’t we?” In the sunlight, the rusty chrome seemed to sparkle with a knowing smile. The jalopy hadn’t been started in years. Wasps and mice had taken residence in its engine compartment. At least grass hadn’t grown up around its dry-rotted tires; Jay made sure of that with his weed-eater.

Two little granddaughters interrupted Jay’s nostalgia. “Gramps, can Jill and I sit in the coupe?” “Not now girls. Why don’t y’all go swing in the backyard?” He was relieved that they soon left him in peace. He loved them, but didn’t like the thought of unruly kids climbing all over his car. Next thing you know, there’d be another scratch on the fender or a tear in the upholstery. “Kids today don’t have enough respect for things,” he muttered under his breath.

Jay’s son once offered to get the coupe running again. “It would take a lot of work, but I think the engine is salvageable.” The offer was quickly refused. Jay suspected that his son might do more than work on the engine. He’d be taking the car for joyrides, modifying things—maybe even changing the way it looked. His son tried another tack: “Dad, automobiles have a purpose. They’re made to go. They’re meant to enjoy, and to move people. It doesn’t seem right to let this one fall apart right under our noses.” Jay rolled his eyes. If his son could only go back and see the coupe when it was new—maybe cruise the strip of yesteryear—he’d know that nothing could compare with the good old days.

Needless to say, the young man soon lost interest. “I have better things to do on my weekends than slaving away on that old wreck,” he thought. “…In any case, Dad would criticize everything I did.”

Many years went by, and Jay got exactly what he wanted. No one dared change a thing about the coupe—until after his funeral. Considering the car’s condition, the scrap-dealer paid a fair price to haul it off.

***

Unfortunately, this modern day parable accurately describes many churches. I don’t think Falling River is one of them. Nevertheless, it’s good to remember that we easily could be. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Revelation 3:6).”

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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SEPTEMBER 2013

Dear Falling River Church Family,

I don’t feel like writing a letter right now; after a few fitful nights and boxes of tissues, summer cold victims don’t feel like doing much of anything. I suppose that in a perfect world, our moods would always suit the occasion at hand. On Monday mornings, for instance, we’d feel like going to work. At just the right time, we’d feel like washing dishes, doing homework, or paying bills. We’d feel like praying every morning. We’d even feel like eating healthy food and exercising. The real world, however, is obviously not perfect. Christians seem to have an especially awkward relationship with their feelings. Let’s drag three feeling falsehoods into the light:

Falsehood #1: “Genuine Christians are happy Christians.”

We were delighted last month with several days of clear skies and unseasonably cool temperatures. I relished every minute of this reprieve from August heat and humidity. As we all know, it didn’t last. Our pleasant emotional experiences are like such weather. We should enjoy them with gratitude, but never depend on them. Even Jesus shared the universal human experience that while happiness is a blessing, it never lasts long. When good feelings fade, we can pray for God’s help. Deliberate trust in Him will bring soul-support far deeper than any emotional state. The Bible calls this “joy.” Joy can strengthen us in the middle of dreary feelings like a warm fireside on a bleak winter’s day. On the other hand, imagine a dog chasing its tail. This is a good image of a Christian trying to chase an emotional experience before God. Such a one will neither find God nor catch the feelings he or she is after.

Falsehood #2: “I can’t _____ (forgive, love, worship, pray, resist temptation, etc.)

because I don’t feel it in my heart yet.”

When I was 4 years old, my grandparents took me to visit the Cherokee Indian Reservation in the Smokey Mountains. Upon our return home, my brother and I dressed up like Native Americans, beat on drums, and attempted a rain dance on the porch. We gave it our all, and I remember trying to will the rain to fall (it never did). If you think willpower is powerless to make rain, just try using it to make yourself feel like forgiving someone you despise, or loving someone who seems unlovable. It is practically impossible to force such feelings. Jesus, of course, never asked us to feel something before obeying Him. Moods are only something that happen to us; they aren’t who we are. If you wait for them, you’ll never get around to following Jesus. Positive emotions often do follow obedience, but they rarely precede it. Your will—what you decide to do—is infinitely more important than how you feel. “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey!”

Falsehood #3: “When a Christian feels down, they must have a spiritual problem.”

Here we return to my summer cold. At this moment, I feel…“blah.” My heart is not overflowing with exuberance for life. If I wallowed in self-pity, negative thinking, or sinful distractions, I suppose the spiritual causes of my mood would loom larger. For now, however, my emotional state has more to do with my sinuses. We can gain a healthier perspective by remembering that our feelings are linked with mundane matters like brain chemistry, fatigue, or even indigestion. While our emotions have a spiritual element, physical causes are more important than we realize.

Father God, help us navigate through difficult emotions.

Help us appreciate blessed assurances and moments of happiness.

Help us realize that we are far more than how we feel.

Help us to trust and obey our Lord Jesus. Amen.

In His Joy,

Pastor Keith

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AUGUST 2013

Dear Falling River Church Family,

On vacation in Abington, I wander into an antique shop. A bookcase catches my eye, and I peer through its glass paned doors at the titles. The store owner immediately notices my interest, and does her best to feed it. “You may open the case—they’re beautiful, aren’t they?” I turn the little key to open the doors, and am greeted by the musty-sweet scent of old books. From the shelves, I pull out on an old volume of Plato, admiring the worked leather of the cover, and the hand marbled end pages. The cheery shop owner chimes in: “They don’t make them like that anymore, do they? It’s too bad books will soon be obsolete.” I grimace at her words. She may be right, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. If being a bibliophile (book-lover) were a crime, I’d be doing time. Even though knowledge is now instantly available in the pale glow of a computer screen, I won’t be tearing down my bookshelves.

I know that many of you would rather watch a movie than read—and that’s O.K. I admit that there is nothing especially noble or sacred about printed matter. Before we dump books into the recycling bin of history, however, I invite you to revisit them as a sort of faith-parable.

First of all, there is a tangibility and familiarity to a book which digital bytes don’t provide. On the printed page, eternal truths enter the physical world I live in, somehow sharing its limitations. Unlike an e-book, bound literature can grow old. It can be held, neglected, tear-stained, dog-eared, and treasured as an heirloom. Books have always reminded me of Jesus’ incarnation: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…(John 1:14).” I’m reminded that Christian faith isn’t merely an abstract concept. Faith is meant to be lived in the real world. Eugene Peterson calls this, “…your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life…”

Secondly, old books tell a story beyond the words they contain. Among their yellowed pages, I’ve found ticket stubs and many other forgotten keepsakes. I’ve read profound notes written by readers who must have died over a century ago. I’ve found clues as to how a book may have been used, and where it may have been. I have a set of bible commentaries, for instance, once given to me by an elderly missionary to Brazil. The faded covers still bear the marks of humidity damage from years in the jungle. Every time I see these volumes, I’m challenged by the patient dedication and godly sacrifice of their previous owner. I can almost feel the tropical heat and hear monkeys in the trees!

Old books can therefore remind us that we don’t live out our faith alone. We are “…surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…(Hebrews 12:1),” who have gone before us. We are part of a faith-story reaching long before our time. Lessons, warnings, and encouragements may be gained from this rich spiritual history. We are also leaving a legacy for those following us.

Lastly, books remind us of faith’s precious beauty. Before the invention of the printing press, books were among the most valuable of possessions. Ancient manuscripts were carefully copied by hand on vellum. Pages were often painted with exquisite decoration called “illumination.” Covers often reflected this worth, and were sometimes even encrusted with jewels and gold. As late as the nineteenth century, books were usually covered in leather, with titles stamped in gold foil. Bindings were hand sewn to last generations.

Similarly, the gospel of Jesus is priceless. It should be appreciated and treasured like a beautiful family bible. We, however, sometimes treat the things of God more like an e-book: cheaply downloaded, quickly consumed, and soon discarded to make room for more. We now expect even spiritual knowledge to be cheap and easy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this “cheap grace.” There is, of course, nothing cheap about grace—and nothing convenient (nothing worthwhile ever is). God’s grace in Jesus is free, yet priceless. The cross cost God everything, demands everything of us, and will yet give us everything worth having! Perhaps our bookish faith-parable is clearest in the bible’s last pages (Revelation 20:11 - 21:5). Is your name inscribed in Jesus’ book?

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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JULY 2013

Dear Falling River Church Family,

“Amen.” The word stirs my soul with memories of “the amen corner” of my childhood church. That’s what some called the back pews of our sanctuary’s right side, where a few elderly farmers sat. Most in our congregation felt that absolute silence—and stillness—was appropriate for worship. These men predated such standards of decorum, thereby giving the amen corner its name.

My parents wouldn’t let me turn around and stare, but they couldn’t stop me from listening intently for a bass outburst from the back row. When the preacher was saying something which one of these gentlemen cheerfully agreed with, a quick and conversational “amen” might be heard. My favorite was a low and slow “a-a-a-m-m-en,” which indicated a deep moving of the Spirit. When I heard it, I felt it; I knew that a profound truth of God had just been revealed. Very rarely—maybe once in a year—a passionate affirmation was loudly shouted: “AMEN!!”

These men used amen as the Bible does: to publically affirm one’s total agreement with, and commitment to, God’s truth. Jesus, in fact, often says “amen” before he speaks, although this is usually lost in English translation: “Verily I say unto you (or truly, I assure you)…” Now, amen is nearly exclusively used to mark the end of a prayer. It means something like, “goodbye God,” or “we’ve stopped praying.” In public prayer, this is important, as people prefer knowing the appropriate time to open their eyes and begin talking—or eating.

While I continue to use amen at the close of my public prayers, I stopped using it privately over a year ago. One morning, as I reached the end of my prayer-time, I thought, “Why do I have to end this conversation? Lord, I know you aren’t going anywhere, so why should I say goodbye? Why can’t I keep the line of prayer open today?” I tried it—and it has helped me understand prayer a little better. It’s a little like keeping a friend on the phone rather than hanging up at the close of a conversation. While still carrying the phone, you go about your daily tasks. You aren’t talking aloud, but your friend remains with you on the other end of the line. At any time, either of you can resume the conversation by simply speaking up. When this principle is applied to communication with God, one’s entire day can become a prayer.

Try giving up amen. It may feel awkward at first, but then again, it might be worth it. “Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).”

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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JUNE 2013

Dear Falling River Church Family,

American citizens endured five presidential election seasons. Europe adopted a single currency called the “Euro.” The dread of Y2K grew to unbearable proportions...and then vanished. September 11, 2001

dramatically altered the lives of millions. Over ten years of war unfolded in Afghanistan and Iraq. Millennia of marital norms were upended. The economy moved through boom and bust. Icecaps retreated. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, and tsunamis swept the planet. On a much less newsworthy scale, I served in four churches and raised three children into their teens. For all this fuss, the cicadas (we used to call them “locusts”) couldn’t care less. Not once did they stir; it was not yet their time. Two feet under my yard, their dark and quiet world consisted of tree roots and seeping rain water. Now, after seventeen years, they are ready to move.

My dogs are the first to sense the impending invasion. They begin to furiously dig around our trees, making an ankle-turning mess of our yard. A week later, the cicadas finally show themselves. One night, I hear an odd rustling sound around my driveway. With the aid of a flashlight, I watch countless insects climbing from the earth, leaving dime-sized holes everywhere. They struggle over uneven ground to nearby vertical surfaces, and resolutely march up the tree trunks in long lines. There, they begin to emerge—white and ghostlike—from their shells. By morning, new wings have unfurled on their now darkened bodies. As I write this letter in the church office, I can hear thousands of cicadas serenading each other in the treetops outside. With what shall I compare their glorious song? Uninformed readers might try imagining a nearby car alarm that can’t be turned off. In a few weeks, they’ll be gone—until we meet again in seventeen years.

I’ve seen people respond to cicadas with disgust, anxiety, indifference, and curiosity. I, however, have been strangely moved with wonder. These bugs are a welcome reminder that the turmoil of world history is not the last word; the universe is not contained in our achievements and anxieties. Unseen and unrecognized, there are deeper realities waiting to be realized. Cicadas are proof that unexpected transformation is part of God’s plan: darkness to light, tunnel to treetop, and silence to song. Despite present appearances, we will be changed in Christ. “It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye...those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed (I Corinthians 15:52).” Take note of the cicada sign.

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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MAY 2013

Dear Falling River Church Family,

John is admiring a glorious Caribbean sunset with his wife when he’s startled by the cruise ship’s alarm bell. As he struggles to understand what is happening, the obnoxious sound intensifies. Everything—the pink sun, the other passengers, his wife—begins to fade into a dark fog. For a second, John’s mind totters between two worlds. The unrelenting noise, however, finally wins, and he wakes.

John slaps the top of the alarm clock and squints at its red numbers: 7:00pm. “This night shift is killing me,” he mutters to himself. The evening sun glows through his bedroom shades, while the clatter of dishes and the indistinct chatter of his daughters can be heard in the kitchen .

John reaches for the bible on his nightstand, opening (as he usually does) to the gospels. He tries to read from Jesus’ life at the start of each day—or in his case, each night—because it somehow makes him feel the reality of Jesus’ presence. Turning on the lamp, he reads from the last page of Luke: “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’” It suddenly occurs to John that he needs to be on the road in twenty minutes. Pushing back the tension which accompanies this realization, he prays. “Please God, I need your help today. Walk with me Jesus…please speak in my heart so that I can understand what to do…”

***

Elizabeth’s eyes open to moonlight. The moon’s cool sheen somehow reminds her of her mother’s well-worn silver. Glancing around the living room, she can just make out the furniture’s outlines. It is still too early for the birds to sing, or for her to get up. Other than the tick-tock of the mantle-clock, everything is absolutely still. “Why did I sleep in the recliner?” Elizabeth wonders to herself. Remembering the answer to that question, she nearly chokes with an unwelcome rush of tears. It was Phil—he’s gone. After sixty years with him, it had simply been too painful to sleep in her bedroom—the room with a closetful of his clothes, a shelf with his glasses (just where he’d left them), and a bathroom with his toothbrush. The tasks of the coming morning crowd into Elizabeth’s thoughts: she must get the house ready for her son’s family, and a pile of paperwork still needs to be sorted out.

Before she climbs out of the recliner, Elizabeth pauses. There is one thing that needs to be done before anything else. She takes a deep breath, and her trembling voice breaks the silence: “Lord, this day is yours. I give myself completely to you. I trust in Jesus for everything—God, you know how much I need you…” Outside the picture window, the first bird begins to sing.

***

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,

and all these things will be given to you as well.”

--Matthew 6:33 (NIV, 1984)

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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APRIL 2013

Dear Falling River Church Family,

What’s the connection between Vikings, a stone at the bottom of the sea, and grief?

Let’s start with Vikings. You know—the angry guys with longboats, swords, and a bothersome tendency to show up at your village uninvited. In all fairness, ancient Vikings weren’t always pillaging and hurting people. They also found time to be amazing explorers. With no magnetic compasses or other modern equipment, Vikings sailed to settle throughout Europe, Iceland, and Greenland. Some even reached North America centuries before Christopher Columbus (yes, I know I already brought him up in last month’s letter, but I’m continuing a navigation theme, so don’t interrupt).

People still debate how they did it. According to one legend, Vikings used magical “sunstones” which showed them the sun’s position on overcast days or after twilight when navigation was otherwise impossible. Magic rocks? Please.

This leads me to a stone at the bottom of the sea. In 1592, a ship sank near the island of Alderney in the English Channel. Amongst the artifacts of this recently discovered underwater wreck, an odd stone was found near a navigational instrument. This crystal is known as Icelandic spar, and it apparently has unique optical properties. Some researchers have claimed success in using such minerals as “sunstones,” affirming the truth of Viking stories. Apparently, one can hold one of these prismatic crystals up to an overcast sky, and by carefully moving it back and forth, he can determine the sun’s direction by the polarized light coming through it. It seems that sunstones might have existed after all.

Finally, my train of thought arrives at grief. One can be grieved by losing various things—one’s marriage, job, health, or reputation, for instance. In the last few months we’ve grieved the loss of people--cherished members of our church family. Such grief is a natural part of this life, and we believe that a Christian’s death is only a temporary goodbye. This grief has been so painful, however, that it sometimes feels like sailing without a compass or reference point. The answers that would normally comfort somehow fall flat. Just when we think we see a glimmer of sunlight, the sky darkens again. Emotional provisions run low, and hope fades. We need a true sunstone to find our way:

…Come to Him, the living Stone…For in Scripture it says:

"See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone,

and the one who trusts in Him will never be put to shame."

--from 1 Peter 2:4a,6 (NIV)

His name is Jesus, and you’ve already demonstrated that you know Him. I’m proud of the way you’ve looked to Him. In the deepest grief, His cross is an answer all to itself—the only answer that satisfies. Thank you for allowing Christ to light my way through your lives. In your darkest hour, you’ve brought blessing to an entire community. Have you noticed how God has been helping us through our love for one another? Look how His grace continues to gradually heal and guide us!

Wait...is that land I see on the horizon?

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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MARCH 2013

Some went off to sea in ships, plying the trade routes of the world.

They, too, observed the LORD’s power in action, His impressive works on the deepest seas.

...What a blessing was that stillness as he brought them safely into harbor!

—Psalm 107:23-24,30 (NLT)

Dear Falling River Church Family,

Navigation at sea is a complicated business, even in an era of GPS. In the age of sail, finding one’s way across the ocean was even more challenging. A good compass isn’t good enough, after all. With it, a crew might know they were sailing west across the Atlantic—but to where? South America? Canada? The Carolinas? Chronometers, charts, sextants, and other pieces of specialized equipment were needed to constantly determine a ship’s precise position. Great expertise was needed in daily fixing a ship’s bearing on a coastal landmark, the sun, moon, or stars. Even the ocean’s currents needed to be taken into account.

Centuries ago, charts were often wildly inaccurate. The weather, of course, wasn’t always cooperative either. A storm could bring overcast skies and rough seas which prevented celestial navigation for many days. One might quickly find his ship hundreds—or even thousands—of miles off course. Remember that Christopher Columbus discovered America through a gross navigational error (he thought he’d arrived in present-day Indonesia).

Life-navigation makes oceanic navigation look like child’s play in a bathtub. On the vast ocean of life, millions of people are trying to navigate their way, and you’re one of them. What’s your position and destination? Are you in danger of a collision? Where is God, and what’s your bearing to Him? Are your compass and charts accurate? If so, have you recently checked them? Maybe you’ve encountered foul weather, and it’s been a while since you’ve “taken a fix” to determine where you are. Perhaps the weather has been good, and you haven’t felt the need to check your position. Such a Christian can merrily cruise along without realizing he or she off course and heading for deep trouble. It’s a frightful thing to suddenly realize that you aren’t where you thought you were.

Every week, our ragtag fleet meets for worship. We enjoy each other’s company, but we also need each other. We take great care in consulting our Bible charts. We compare the Sprit’s compass readings. We calculate the subtle effects of our culture’s currents. Like a sailor taking his fix on the sun, we regularly fix our eyes on Jesus to determine our position and bearing (Hebrews 12:2).

Worship is all about course correction. In every service, we have a time of invitation where all (starting with me) are called to determine their position. Some realize that they are hopelessly lost, and for the first time in their voyage, obey Jesus as their Captain. Many have previously set out by faith, but now realize that a major course adjustment is needed. Others will see marks in their Bible charts that they never noticed before: dangers to be avoided, or helpful currents to look for. None of us can afford to neglect these constant course corrections until we’ve reached our haven with God. You get the picture. I’ll see you soon—remember to bring your charts!

In Our Captain’s Wisdom,

Pastor Keith

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FEBRUARY 2013

Dear Falling River Church Family,

I’ve always been wardrobe-challenged when it comes to dressing for the weather. One day, I’ll freeze in a thin shirt. The next day, I’ll put on a sweater, only to find myself outmaneuvered by a temperature spike. In recent weeks, weather has been even more unpredictable than normal. Temperatures ranged from 18 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. We’ve had picnic days, polar days, tranquil afternoons and wind advisories. I’ve opened my front door to warm breezes, arctic blasts, snow, sleet, rain, and clear skies. I’ve even had my first experience of “thundersnow,” as thunder and lightning interrupted a snowstorm. Weird.

Current events are just as changeable. Following the headlines of the last week, I read of political, religious, and military war. I read of mass murder, inspirational stories, and entertainment. I read editorials which scornfully mock my grandfather’s generation, and those which are nostalgic for his golden era. According to the latest news, Christians have been alternately admired, ignored, and attacked. Weird.

My state of mind has been unpredictable as well. My moods go up and down. In the last week, I’ve known contentment, compassion, and calm; I’ve also experienced distress, doubt, and depression. If I were to sit down with a pen and paper and write down everything I remember feeling during that time, the entire spectrum of human emotion would be represented. No—I’m not manic depressive. I actually consider myself a fairly even-keeled person. I am, however, human. By definition, this makes me (along with everyone else), variable as the weather or politics. Weird.

When I was a teenager, my family chartered a sailboat for several days on the Chesapeake Bay. After a few days bobbing up and down, I remember stepping back ashore. I then found out what “sea-legs” were. The solid ground felt quite strange under my feet as my sense of balance struggled to adjust itself. It felt weird, but at the same time, wonderful.

Similarly, the contemplation of God can be strangely wonderful. In all the meteorological, journalistic, and emotional craziness, He alone remains solid ground. Everything changes, yet He remains the same. Nations, relationships, and lives all rise and fall; His love endures forever. Take a minute to step ashore into His calm.

Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good. His Love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever.

To Him alone does great wonders. His love endures forever.

To the One who remembered us in our low estate. His love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of heaven. His love endures forever.

—Psalm 136:1-4,23,26

In His Enduring Love,

Pastor Keith

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JANUARY 2013

Dear Falling River Church Family,

I groggily climb out of bed. The dry furnace heat has left me with a throbbing sinus headache. Immediately, the day’s demands rush into my thoughts. With determined effort, I push their clamor back to offer God a simple prayer: “Our Father...Hallowed be Thy name...Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done…”

A minute later, I open my Bible to the morning’s reading from Psalm 112. My eyes—which seem slower to wake than they used to be—strain to resolve the blurry lines. Oddly, a nearby news magazine suddenly seems more appealing, and its photographs and headlines reach for my attention. I turn to read (with vision somehow dramatically improved) phrases like “fiscal cliff looming again,” and “bus rape enrages Indian protesters.”

As my mood darkens, I suddenly remember an old ‘80s pop song by Genesis: “...too many people, making too many problems, and there's not much love to go ‘round. Can't you see this is a land of confusion?” With renewed resolve, I set the magazine aside and pick up my Bible again. The words seem to slip by without touching me...until verse four.

“Unto the upright there ariseth light in the darkness…”

I stop, and reread that phrase—then reread it again. Something has happened. The words stand out as if they’re highlighted on the page. Have you ever thought that you were alone in a room, only to be startled by another voice behind you? That’s what this is like. From experience, I know not to read further—God is speaking here somehow, although I don’t yet know what He is saying. Over the next week, I ponder this phrase, revisiting it many times.

“Unto the upright there ariseth light in the darkness…”

I begin to realize how disillusioned I’ve become with my own faith. I study the Bible for a living, but find it difficult to apply even the most elementary biblical concepts in my daily life. I’m increasingly concerned that I won’t have the time in this life to make much spiritual progress before I meet my Maker.

“Unto the upright there ariseth light in the darkness…”

On bad days, church life seems hopeless. We often struggle with broken families, death, and conflict. I’m painfully aware of how far we fall short in our mission to reach this community with Christ. Our efforts seem small and irrelevant. Can we really make a difference? Are we fighting a losing battle?

“Unto the upright there ariseth light in the darkness…”

I eventually realize that all of God’s revelation is contained in this phrase—especially when I see who the light is (John 1:4-5). In the sealed tomb of Jesus, “there ariseth light in the darkness.” In my sin-sick heart, “there ariseth light in the darkness.” In the weakness of God’s church, “there ariseth light in the darkness.” There is powerful hope for you, your family, God’s church, and this new year because...

“Unto the upright there ariseth light in the darkness…”

In His Rising Light,

Pastor Keith

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DECEMBER 2012

Dear Falling River Church Family,

EGR. It’s the story of my life—and yours. I don’t mean the EGR valve in your car. I’m referring to “Extra Grace Required.” I thought I’d coined this phrase myself, but after “googling” EGR, I discovered that Rick Warren and many others have been using it for years.

First, you may know a few EGR people. They seem uniquely gifted to drive you crazy. You can stay up all night trying to understand why they do the things they do, but you’ll still be clueless and frustrated in the morning. They’ve tested your patience and elevated your blood pressure. These EGRs may be bossy, passive, negative, manipulative, or misguided. One thing will be certain: extra grace will be required in dealing with them.

There are also EGR days. You know—the ones where you feel a cold coming on, you get a speeding ticket, and you lose your keys. Some EGR days are more than annoying. They can even reach biblical Job-like proportions: a loved one dies, your Dr. wants to talk to you about ominous test results, or your spouse walks out on you. In times like these, extra grace will be required to survive.

Lookng within ourselves, we find the most challenging of all EGR situations. Each of us requires extra grace for our unique weaknesses and temptations. Some Christians struggle with a terrible temper, while others are cowardly and timid. Many are vulnerable to alcohol, various sexual temptations, or specific bad habits. A few easily slide into a negative attitude which deprives them (and their acquaintances) of God’s joy. The shadow of depression falls on some, while others are too easily content with the superficial security of an unexamined life or a half-hearted faith. I could go on, but I’m sure that sensitive readers are already mindful of their personal EGR weaknesses. Anyone attempting to follow Jesus soon finds an inner need for extra grace. A person can’t even become a Christian without first acknowledging the fact that he or she is hopelessly EGR.

What is this grace that we all require? I certainly won’t find it by whipping up my will-power, trying harder, or learning more. Grace isn’t an experience or a natural ability waiting to be discovered. Grace doesn’t depend on my figuring out a trial’s secret purpose—I need only trust that the Lord is mysteriously working for my good. Grace isn’t a feeling of happiness and calm—it’s looking beyond emotion into the face of God’s Son. Grace isn’t about building my strength—it’s the strength of what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do. Grace is outside of anything I am capable of—it’s the gift of losing myself in who Christ is.

If you’re in an EGR situation, I invite you to carefully read 2 Corinthians. Crowning that letter, we find Jesus’ words to a man who required extra grace:

But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you,

for My power is made perfect in weakness (12:9b).

Your EGR Pastor,

Keith

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NOVEMBER 2012

Dear Falling River Church Family,

If you want to strike up a conversation with a stranger, be careful what you talk about. In the Walmart checkout line, most people won’t appreciate a first-time acquaintance who wants to debate religion or politics. Personal questions (“What happened to your face?”) are also a bad idea. One topic, however, is safe most of the time. It is the undisputed king of small-talk. Yep, you guessed it: the weather.

I’ve just finished a week where conversation usually began with Hurricane Sandy, also known as “Frankenstorm.” Friends and I shared opinions on how bad it would be. The size of the storm, its path, snow, rain, and wind were all discussed. After Sandy headed for Canada, next came the post-weather commentary: “I’m so thankful I didn’t lose power this time…Wasn’t that terrible in New York?”

People have a love-hate relationship with weather. While we enjoy weather that suits us, it never lasts. Aside from a few pleasant days in Spring and Fall, people generally complain that it’s too cold, too hot, too wet, too dry, too cloudy, too windy—well, you see what I mean.

Despite weather’s inconveniences, I’m thankful that we can’t direct it (just imagine climate steered by a government agency). Weather is our best reminder that we’re not in control. With humanity’s great knowledge and technological achievement, we often imagine we’re in charge. One storm, however, can instantly bring us back to reality. “The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and the earth…he sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses (Psalm 135:6-7).” When confronted with the suffering that a storm like Sandy can bring, we often ask ourselves, “Why?” Weather then teaches another essential lesson: we don’t know all the answers—we can only trust the one who does.

On a more positive note, weather reminds us that the world’s best delights can’t be earned or won—they can only be accepted as undeserved gifts from God, who “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).” The crisp autumn air, the brilliant crimson of the maple, and the beautiful morning frost are all object lessons of grace.

Who says no one talks about the things of God anymore? Don’t we still talk about the weather?

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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OCTOBER 2012

Dear Falling River Church Family,

There once was a great chef. She’d worked at the same little restaurant for many years, and people would travel long distances for a taste of her cuisine. Her dedication and attention to detail made every dish a delectable masterpiece.

For hours before and after meal times, the restaurant kitchen was busy and noisy. Steam hissed, waiters shouted, pans clanged, and knives rapped cutting boards. In this commotion, the chef labored on, sleeping little and eating even less. The smiles of delighted diners and the critics’ glowing reviews appeared to justify her sacrifices.

Eventually, the chef began losing weight. She looked quite pale and smiled much less than she used to. Her hands occasionally trembled, and she took longer to prepare orders. Everyone overlooked these troubling signs, however, as her culinary creations remained first-rate.

For the chef, cooking had once been a joyous passion, but now every entrée felt like a tiresome chore. She increasingly noticed how other members of the kitchen staff took breaks which seemed much too long; they certainly didn’t share her dedication. She inwardly stewed in resentment toward the restaurant owner, who never offered so much as a “thank you” for all her work.

The day the chef didn’t show up for work, the restaurant couldn’t open. “This is certainly unlike her,” the waiters mumbled to one another. Later, everyone was shocked to hear that the chef had been found dead in her apartment—a victim of starvation.

I write this story for those of you who continually sacrifice to serve others in this church and community. For Jesus, you’ve worked countless hours. You’ve fed God’s children through your service, teaching, and prayers. You have endured constant annoyances and thankless chores. I know there’s still work to be done, but you need to eat.

If you teach others, you must allow yourself to be taught. If you serve others, you must allow Christ to serve you (John 13:8). If you give generously, you must be willing to receive the generosity of others. If you won’t take the time to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8), you’ll lose your taste for ministry. If you won’t let God restore your soul at His dinner table (Psalm 23:3,5), you’ll end up with nothing to offer others. Think about it. What could be more ironic than a chef who’s starving to death?

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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SEPTEMBER 2012

Dear Falling River Church Family,

Can you say, “Rikuzentakata?” It’s a place far away from our Virginian foothills—or even North America. Rikuzentakata is a city of 23,302 on the picturesque shore of northeast Japan. It is known for its oyster farms, and scenery long considered a national treasure. Behind a beautiful beach, a two mile strip of 70,000 pines protects the city from winds whipping in from the sea.

On March 11, 2011, Rikuzentakata would be wiped off the map. After an underwater oceanic earthquake, a 40 foot wave (tsunami) swept into the city, overwhelming the seawall. 45 firefighters died while trying to close the harbor gates. Thousands of the city’s residents were killed or missing. 80% of Rikuzentakata’s houses were swept away. The cherished pines which had adorned the shore for centuries would be completely obliterated…almost.

When the waters subsided, a lone pine tree overlooked the wreckage. Locals would soon call it the “miracle tree.” No one knows why this particular 250-year-old tree endured, but it did. Seiko Handa spoke for many of Rikuzentakata’s survivors when he said: “We didn’t have any hope at the time. So even having one survive really was like having a beam of light shining through the darkness.”

Many assume that real Christians are somehow exempt from life-tsunamis like old age, cancer, divorce, uncertainty, poverty, or death. While it’s true that Christians can escape much unnecessary grief by avoiding sin, the pain of living in a fallen world comes to believers and unbelievers alike. As a pastor, I see godly people struggling with these things every day. At times, this reality is hard for me to accept. I then find it helpful to remember that there was no greater tsunami than the pain of the cross, and Jesus was called to it. In the end, He stood alone, overlooking the wreckage of what His world had become—and yet He lives.

As Christians, we too may encounter terrible things, but we face them with the living hope of Christ, “…like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season…(Psalm 1:3).” Faith may not always change your tsunami, but it will always change you. Not only will you find new life in the wreckage, but others will be encouraged when they see Christ’s life enduring in your situation. You will stand apart like a lone pine tree, “…a beam of light shining in the darkness.”

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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AUGUST 2012

As inexperienced and naïve as children are, you’d think teaching them would be very one-sided—a qualified adult offering knowledge to a kid who doesn’t know much. I approached July’s Vacation Bible School from this perspective. I would soon be reminded that teaching is a two-way street.

The first night of Vacation Bible School, I stand at the back of the sanctuary—a place I don’t often get to visit—watching the children worship. As you might imagine, the scene is quite different from Sunday

morning’s adult congregation. Later in the week, I tag along with my 21-strong 4th & 5th grade group— although sometimes, there seem to be 201 of them. As I share their snacks, games, crafts, and Bible study, I’m even more aware of how differently children approach God. At times, they make me feel like I’m the one who needs a remedial Christianity class. While kids aren’t perfect angels, they certainly teach me a thing or two about entering God’s kingdom:

1. Live in the Moment When I arrive at worship, I’m often weighed down by worry, or preoccupied by some concern—and I stay that way. I’m so distracted by yesterday and tomorrow, that I can miss the God of today. Children don’t have this problem. They show up at church with many concerns, and yet quickly set them aside to live in the moment; they are here in mind, heart, and soul. I desperately need to be more like that.

2. Enjoy Worship As I said, kids are quite different from adults in worship: noise, drama, laughter, excitement, singing, clapping...and did I mention noise? I can imagine your grown-up disapproval: “Young people today need to be quiet and learn a little reverence.” Yes, that is what we teach children about worship—but what do they teach us? Kids challenge us to praise God with passion, and that it’s even O.K. to enjoy it (gasp!). Last week, I heard a recent high school graduate asked why young people didn’t go to church more. His answer was piercing: “You people sit around singing the same songs, doing the same things over and over every week without knowing what you’re doing or really meaning it. Where’s God in that?” Ouch. I want to worship with heart.

3. Trust This world is tough. People hurt other people. Somewhere along the way, I lost touch with the ability to trust without reservation. Thank God that children haven’t. After all, isn’t this the definition of faith? I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that faith is important to God. I want to learn to trust.

4. Soften Your Heart We adults have become respectable, cautious, and hardened by life. As a result, it is extremely difficult for us to respond to God. As I watched the kids in my group listen with wide-eyed wonder to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, I tried to remember the last time I saw adults pay attention to the gospel like that. More children turned to God this week than we adults do in a month of Sundays. Oh, how I need to soften my heart toward God—soft enough to change for Him!

“I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God

like a little child will never enter it.” —Luke 18:17 (NIV, 1984)

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JULY 2012

Dear Falling River Church Family,

My pulse quickens as I see the fatal blunder of my computerized opponent. He’s left his king exposed. I quickly take his rook with my queen, and begin my final attack. In five moves, I have his king checkmated on the edge of the board. Computers don’t respond emotionally to either victory of defeat, but I sure do. I taunt the unresponsive screen with an exultant “Ha!” This bothersome collection of microchips has deserved a trouncing for some time.

My “Elo” chess score (similar to a golf handicap) will now be close to 1200, so I excitedly check my status—am I now a serious chess contender? High hopes are soon brought back to reality. My Elo score is ranked in category E, with the designation (gasp!) “bright beginner.” I feel my heart sink with a newfound humility. Yes, after hundreds of hard-fought chess games, I can now rightly consider myself a beginner. If I aim to win, I need to seek out children, weak players, or beginners like me.

I’m glad Christians aren’t assigned spiritual Elo ratings; there are some things we’re better off not knowing. I might make the occasional breakthrough with Jesus, but I wouldn’t consider myself a master-disciple. For instance, take Psalm 119. There, I read the words of someone with spiritual Elo ratings in the clouds. Who but a Master could honestly make the following claims:

I will always obey your law, for ever and ever…

This has been my practice: I obey your precepts...

I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word.

I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me.

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!

—Psalm 119:44,56,101-103 (NIV, 1984)

When it comes to being a Christian, my Elo score doesn’t even come close to this. Spiritually, I’m a beginner.

Perhaps some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. Just when you think you’re starting to make progress in living the Christian life, you get a “reality-check” from reading the Bible, hearing a sermon, or experiencing defeat.

Following Jesus, however, isn’t all about you or me. Our progress isn’t based on what we think of ourselves, or how we compare with one another. The only spiritual Elo rating that ultimately matters is the one that Jesus has earned. He alone is the Grand Master. Looking back to Psalm 119, there is one set of verses which I like to call “The Breastplate of His Righteousness.” These highlight the central reality of our lives: God Himself gives daily victory as we trust in Him; our progress is grounded in His righteousness— not our own. Listen to the secret of a spiritual master as he prays:

Teach me, O LORD, to follow your decrees;

then I will keep them to the end.

Give me understanding, and I will keep your law

and obey it with all my heart.

Direct me in the path of your commands,

for there I find delight.

Turn my heart toward your statutes

and not toward selfish gain.

Turn my eyes away from worthless things;

preserve my life according to your word.

Fulfill your promise to your servant,

so that you may be feared.

Take away the disgrace I dread,

for your laws are good.

How I long for your precepts!

Preserve my life in your righteousness.

—Psalm 119:33-40 (NIV, 1984; bold print mine)

With the Lord at work in me, I have something to say to sin, fear, weakness, and even death: ”Checkmate!”

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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JUNE 2012

Dear Falling River Church family,

“What are we having for dinner?” As I walked in the door, I asked my wife this routine question. Her answer wasn’t expected: “I don’t know.” The table was already set with glasses, white plates, silverware, and a green tablecloth. Usually that’s the last thing to be arranged before we eat. I tried again. “O.K., then when are we eating?” The reply comes with a grin: “I don’t know.”

Five minutes later, our questions are answered. In the wake of Tammy’s surgery, our church family had arranged everything. My dogs’ barking alerts me to the truck pulling into our driveway. Friends have brought everything needed—and more—for a wonderful hot supper and desert. A hearty meal has come ready to enjoy.

Throughout that week, different friends arrived with a new meal each evening. Home-prepared salads, meat loafs, pastas, vegetables, roasts, fresh baked bread, hams, and delightful deserts made every day seem like Thanksgiving. Added to this were the encouragements, visits, calls, cards, and prayers which met us at every turn.

All this was good for my soul. I was reminded that in this world of questions and pain, God is good. He loves us, and His people know how to show that love. For all the world’s talk of Christian hypocrisy and scandal, I saw evidence that Christian love makes all the difference in times of trial. Thank you for showing us God’s generous kindness!

Come, all you who are thirsty,

come to the waters;

and you who have no money,

come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labor on what does not satisfy?

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,

and your soul will delight in the richest of

fare.

Give ear and come to me;

hear me, that your soul may live...

--Isaiah 55:1-3a (NIV, 1984)

In His Love,

Pastor Keith

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MAY 2012

Dear Falling River Church family,

Can you picture yourself playing a board-game like scrabble or monopoly—with a monkey? After a few minutes, there would probably be more game pieces on the floor than the table! How long might a monkey’s attention span last at the cinema? Even if the movie was critically acclaimed, a minute of concentration would be miraculous—milliseconds if there’s popcorn nearby.

Inside our own heads, thoughts can be as restless and unmanageable as a monkey at a movie theater. Buddhists often call this “the monkey mind,” but the experience is familiar to Christians too. For instance, let’s say you try to pray. After a few seconds, things on your to-do list (which you haven’t considered all day) suddenly enter your thoughts and demand attention. Like a monkey swinging from branch to branch, your thoughts take detour after detour. Or, let’s imagine that you’re listening to a friend share a problem which has been overwhelming her. You try to listen attentively, but you soon begin to think about a TV show you recently watched, or an upcoming hair appointment, or the big buck you saw last hunting season. Sadly, I often struggle with my own monkey mind when preparing for a sermon—much as you do when you try to listen to one. Concentrated thought can be as difficult as herding cats.

Hyperactive scheduling, screaming kids, and our zeal for multi-tasking all make the monkey mind worse. Our attention spans have also been stunted by years of conditioning. Television, texting, and internet surfing have trained us to shift our attention constantly, following our fleeting whims. The consequences of this trend are very real. Peace of mind, joy-filled worship, prayer, biblical knowledge, and maturity are all threatened. Scatterbrained saints quickly become “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

So, what do we do? Should we simply give up and join the monkeys? Should we take New Age prescriptions of transcendental meditation or positive thinking? Should we scapegoat technology, pursuing an Amish-like lifestyle? God offers a far better option: following Jesus’ example.

Mark 1:21-39 shows Jesus’ success against the monkey mind. In twenty-four hours, he’d preached, battled demons, and healed crowds of desperate people. His schedule was hyper-busy, and he was no stranger to multi-tasking. Jesus’ mind must have been simultaneously pulled in a thousand different directions. What did he do?

  • Jesus was very deliberate about His concentration on God. He made time to practice the unhurried disciplines of prayer, even if he had to get up when it was still dark. As a result, he heard God, and lived in his peace. The only way to develop powerful spiritual concentration is to deliberately exercise it like a muscle. Use it or lose it.
  • Jesus cared deeply about others, unselfishly helping them where they were. He refused, however, to allow others’ needs and demands to take his Father’s place. Christ habitually pulled back from the crowds to clear his mind of distractions from God. In following God’s lead, Jesus was ready to say “no,” to others’ demands—even if this disappointed his friends or family. Because of this, Christ was guided by a profound sense of purpose and direction. He could now serve others in God’s way.
  • We’re not monkeys! “...But we have the mind of Christ (I Corinthians 2:16b).”

    In His Love,

    Pastor Keith

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    APRIL 2012

    Dear Falling River Church family,

    Ah…the pleasures of Spring—bright blooms, warm breezes, and deranged songbirds. Yes, you read that last phrase correctly. I hope this letter won’t read like an Alfred Hitchcock script (I’m showing my age here), but “the birds” have turned on me—at least one of them.

    The first ominous sign came a few weeks ago, when my parents paid us a visit. After breakfast, they parked their new SUV in our driveway. I’m told that this vehicle’s color is “metallic truffle-brown,” and it’s flawless finish brilliantly glittered in the morning sun. My father—who is especially attentive to all things automotive—was soon horrified to find bird droppings covering his car. He deployed his grandsons to clean this mess. A solitary songbird, however, returned to attack its reflection in the side-mirror, again leaving its mark. As a result, the grandsons were enlisted for guard duty. We all—well, most of us—ended up having a good laugh over this.

    What started as comedy has now become horror. After my parents left, this little gray bird returned to battle anything remotely reflective. Car windows, body panels, and mirrors have all been constantly assaulted. Each day, our cars are peppered with new bird droppings. I’ve moved my vehicles and I’ve tried various scare tactics, but nothing has worked. Only a vague sense of goodwill toward God’s creatures has kept me from using my 12 gauge to end this problem.

    It is interesting to ponder what this bird is doing. It thinks that it is attacking dangerous competitors or enemies. In reality, its precious time and energy are being wasted on a mere reflection. The more viciously the bird fights, the more threatening its opponent seems, for the bird is fighting itself.

    I’ve noticed that human beings can do the same thing. We often feel most threatened when we see our own faults in others. Doesn’t our smoldering resentment of prideful people stem from our own pride? Are we bothered by “control-freaks” because we secretly want to be more in control? Do we despise immoral persons because they remind us of our own past failures—or our present temptations? Does our anger at others’ unbelief sometimes reveal how terrified we are of our own doubts?

    Take a long look at what’s driving you crazy. Are you sure it’s not your own reflection? Think about the people who are irritating you. Do they look familiar? If so, maybe it would be good to meditate on Jesus’ familiar words in Matthew 6:14-15 & 7:1-5. Perhaps God can even speak through a deranged songbird.

    In His Love,

    Pastor Keith

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    MARCH 2012

    Dear Falling Church Family,

    I remember my boyhood excitement upon hearing that school would be cancelled due to “inclement weather.” Snow then seemed a wondrously free and unexpected gift straight from God. At least for a day, I could exchange my books and pencils for snowmen, snow angels, and snowballs!

    Now, when I hear the word “snow” in a forecast, I feel I should dutifully roll my eyes in disgust—perhaps adding a long sigh of resignation. After all, responsible adults have no time for such bothersome interruptions. Snow is messy, annoying, and occasionally dangerous.

    I must, however, come clean. It may be socially unacceptable for anyone over thirty, but I still LOVE snow. If I haven’t outgrown my wonder at frozen precipitation by now, I suspect I never will. Last February nineteenth, when the flakes finally began to fall, my heart smiled. There is something refreshing about a forced holiday—even for a few hours. Later that night, I confess that I’d occasionally turn on the outside floodlights just to watch the flurries dance in the dark. You may recall the following Monday morning, when the trees, fields—everything—slept under a thick blanket of purest white. By the end of that day, of course, it was nearly all gone.

    At least I’m in good company, as God doesn’t frown at snow either. In Scripture, snow becomes a picture of God’s wondrously free and unexpected grace. The cross of Christ brings a new morning of forgiveness and change. Unlike earthly snow, which is soon dirtied and melting away, God’s cleansing is eternal. In Christ, your life can become one big second chance. This is what we call the gospel—the “good news.” Let’s never outgrow our childlike wonder for it. Oh—and let’s make a point of sharing it!

    “Come now, let us argue this out,” says the LORD. 'No matter how deep the stain of

    your sins, I can remove it. I can make you as clean as freshly fallen snow…'”

    —Isaiah 1:18a, NLT

    To that, I say, “...Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow (Psalm 51:7b, NLT).”

    In His Joy,

    Pastor Keith

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    FEBRUARY 2012

    Dear Falling River Church Family,

    Honestly—this is the only time I use make up. You see, I need to look around fifteen years older—deep furrows and laugh-lines should stand out on my face. I’m supposed to have survived a recent attempt on my life, so scars must appear on my body. Oh—and we won’t even talk about the head of hair I’ll have. To complete my outward transformation, I don a tunic and woven outer wrap. In the middle of January, leather sandals replace my more comfortable socks and shoes.

    Of course, these externals are nothing, really. The most difficult part of this presentation will require me to change the way I think and act—I must be Paul of Tarsus for an hour. This entails weeks of study about Paul’s life, habits, and beliefs. Even one slip-up could ruin the whole night. I’m painfully aware that I don’t have what it takes to pull this off, not to mention the fact that I’m not worthy of standing in for an apostle!

    I can never predict the questions and challenges that will come my way from the audience—so I pray, knowing that only God can help. Without His wisdom, nothing good will come of this role-playing, and no one will be drawn to Jesus Christ.

    I am, of course, describing my preparation for one of the “guest speakers” in last Sunday’s Galatians debate. It reminds me of something that all Christians are called to do: “...clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ…(Romans 13:14).” This verse isn’t talking about makeup or costuming. It refers to a far more difficult process—taking on Jesus’ character and thinking. Preparation helps immensely; the study of Jesus’ life, habits, and beliefs is essential. We must immerse ourselves in His character, because we are called to be like Him in this life.

    We’re painfully aware that we don’t have what it takes to pull this off, not to mention the fact that we’re completely unworthy of Him. We certainly can’t predict the questions and challenges that we’ll encounter from others—so we must constantly pray for God’s help. Every Christian who takes seriously his or her

    calling to be like Christ will find supernatural aid. This comes in the indwelling power to do what once seemed impossible, “...which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).” “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (Philippians 1:27).” Let the transformation continue!

    In His Joy,

    Pastor Keith

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    JANUARY 2012

    Dear Falling River Church Family,

    Last week, I was in line at the drugstore when our local newspaper reporter caught me off guard:

    “Can I ask you a question for this week’s paper?”

    “Sure.”

    “What’s your New Year’s resolution?”

    Well, this question was simple enough. There was only one hitch—I’m no good at New Year’s resolutions. Many others in this country make a habit of annual introspection and solemn commitment. They vow to lose weight or otherwise improve. I, however, have never quite jumped aboard the resolution bandwagon. Rather than make a spectacular leap forward each January, I do well to crawl an inch each day of the year.

    Inwardly, I ask for wisdom, knowing that I should probably say something awe-inspiring and spiritual. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to think of any such thing. I end up giving the answer that immediately comes to mind: “I want to keep on keeping on.” While this may not be awe-inspiring, it is at least an honest answer. Friedrich Nietzche once said the same thing more profoundly (this quote has inspired the writing of entire books):

    The essential thing “in heaven and earth” is...that there should be long obedience in the

    same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something

    which has made life worth living.

    Can you imagine those words quoted under Rev. Williams’ mug in the Union Star? I didn’t think so.

    In 2011, Falling River Baptist Church did not make many grand resolutions either, but I am greatly

    encouraged by her daily successes. From our support of various missions, to the living faith of our young

    people, to the consideration we’ve shown each other, the evidence is telling. Inch by inch, we’ve come to a place very different than that of last January.

    This year has brought many challenges. We experienced the deaths of loved ones, economic hardship, and an increasingly uncertain world. By the constant strength and mercy of our wonderful God, we’ve not only survived, but thrived! December’s church-wide Christmas play was the icing on the cake—we worked

    together in ways that would have seemed impossible last January. I believe that Falling River is ready to boldly take the love of Christ to our community and world in 2012. I am, “...confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).” Let’s keep on keeping on!

    In His Love,

    Pastor Keith

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    DECEMBER 2011

    Dear Falling River Church Family,

    It’s the memory game. I remember sitting on the floor with my young son. On the carpet, two dozen well-worn cards lie face-down in rows. It is my turn: “Now… where was that other card—the one with the bicycle picture—I just saw it on the left.” I glance down at my four year old, hoping that he’ll naively give away the answer with his eyes. He, however, merely squints and grins, trying not to show how much he enjoys defeating me on his own turf. I cautiously turn up the corner of a card that seems a good prospect, only to see a picture of a clown leering back at me. My son giggles as he then quickly snatches up the two bicycle cards, adding them to his stack (which is already taller than mine). Have you too experienced the bittersweet humiliation of being bested by a preschooler?

    How good are you at the memory game? Every picture, after all, has its match. Let’s say that you’ve been feeling a little under the weather. You’re sitting at home feeling sorry for yourself when the phone rings. On the other end of the line, a good friend asks how you’re doing. After a long conversation, your spirit is refreshed and your day has changed. Where is the match to that card? Do you see this encouragement as a random coincidence, or a special blessing to thank God for?

    Perhaps you’ve received some bad news from a medical test. The card you decide to flip over will

    determine what kind of life you’ll live. Will you match this event with bad luck, the judgment of an angry God, or the promise that Christ will be with you? Your faith will either be strengthened or distorted.

    Jesus spent much of his life trying to teach people how to correctly match cards like these. While many saw God as stern and distant, Jesus taught us to flip over a different card—one showing a loving God profoundly interested in the details of our lives. Even evil people (He would say) know how to give good gifts to their children. Can’t the Abba (“Daddy”) God who cares so deeply give us daily blessings? Won’t God provide for the needs of His own? To the very end of His ministry, Jesus sought out broken and hurting people, showing us how God sees us: with concern, love, and healing power.

    Christmas itself offers us a card. To make a pair, we can flip over images of holiday trappings, empty rituals, or old memories. I believe I’ve found the perfect match: God is with us!

    In His Love,

    Pastor Keith

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    NOVEMBER 2011

    Dear Falling River Church Family,

    We continue to climb higher. Freshly fallen leaves cover the trail and lend an earthy smell to the cool air. Morning sunlight plays hide and seek—occasionally sliding through the shade of the hardwoods to warm my face.

    For two years, a pastor-friend of mine has been reminding me of the benefits of dropping everything to take a “spiritual retreat.” After such sermons, I would dutifully nod my head in agreement, mumbling that I planned to take a day alone with God...soon. Well, this was it. Here I was on the Appalachian Trail, hoping my knees would make it up—and down—a mountain named (aptly for the occasion) “the Priest.” To prove that I had indeed taken a true Sabbath, I’d invited my friend to join me.

    The switchback path becomes steeper, and we step over large lichen-covered stones. The slope narrows until we’re ascending a ridge through mountain laurel and stunted trees. I’m the first to reach an exposed cliff with an awe-inspiring panoramic view. Just below us, eagles soar along the mountainside. Thousands of feet below, apple orchards and hayfields flank the Tye River. Farmhouses and ponds dot the vast green valley. Beyond that, another ridge of mountains rises—and then another—until the hazy peaks mingle with the sky.

    My friend and I decide to spend some time in individual prayer and reading. Each of us finds a comfortable spot on the sunny rock face near the ledge, sitting about a stone’s throw away from each other. Apart from a gentle breeze rustling the nearby laurel, all is quiet.

    I, however, discover that we’re not totally alone with God when the first stinkbug lands on my nose. One then flies into my ear. I concentrate on the book I am reading, and begin to ponder an ancient prayer printed there. Before I can get to “Amen,” three stinkbugs crawl up the margin of the page. It is then that I realize that many of these insects are crawling on my boots, legs, shirt, and up the back of my neck. I jump up and try to shake and swat them off.

    Now standing up, I try again to read. I notice that no matter which direction I turn, or where I stand, the stinkbugs are landing on me by the dozens. I see my friend in the distance throwing down a book and waving his arms frantically—I derive odd satisfaction from knowing that he is miserable too. I’m determined not to let these bugs get the better of my quiet time. For the next half-hour, I fight on in prayer, but, “...the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41).” I finally empty my backpack of stinkbugs by violently shaking it for several minutes (I’d foolishly left it open in the shade), and quickly start back down the mountain.

  • My companion and I now continue hiking in silence. I think of how wonderful God’s creation is and how hard I tried to appreciate it. I relish the experience of His presence around me, and the sacredness of the moments I shared alone with Him. And then—I also think about the stinkbugs. They are always there, aren’t they? What are the stinkbugs in your life? Have you missed the awesome panorama of God’s presence around you because of them? Between swatting sessions, “Watch and pray…”
  • In His Love,

    Pastor Keith

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    OCTOBER 2011

    Dear Falling River Church Family,

    The temperature is perfect. There are no bugs. Chili and hotdog aromas waft from the concession stand. Fans call from the bleachers and lawn chairs behind home plate. The children vary in playing ability, and some of them have never played ball before. The pitcher and catcher offer smiles, helpful advice, and encouragement.

    With a swing of the bat and a loud “pop,” a little girl darts toward first base. After fumbling, a fielder recovers and drills the yellow softball toward first (five feet too high). Was this a ridiculous error or an act of mercy? It’s impossible to tell. The runner slips on the loose dirt, but still manages to reach first base just before the baseman. As the fans cheer, red shirted men in the field playfully rib each other about their less-than-professional performance. Hearty laughter erupts, and it takes a while to settle down for the next batter.

    As I watch it all, I have the thrilling realization that I am seeing Jesus at work. I notice that no one seems to be wrapped up in their own ego; no ruffled feathers or frustration can be detected anywhere. The players obviously care much more about the kids’ safety and enjoyment than their own bragging rights. Later, when the deacons finally get three kids out, I watch them bat. After each hit, I see the batter pause to check where his ball is going. He does this not to make sure he has a good run, but to make sure that no child has been hurt by the ball. This may be the only sporting event I know of where all walk to the parking lot with smiles on their faces.

    I wrote to you about a similar experience several years ago, but I never get tired of drawing attention to Christ in you:

    Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others...

    Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:3,5).

    When God’s church takes this same attitude to other occasions (even business meetings and private conversation), the powerful peace and love of Christ take over—and the Devil quickly finds himself

    unwelcome. I’m convinced that this is possible. After all, if Jesus can be Lord of the ball field, He can be Lord of anything!

    In His Love,

    Pastor Keith

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    SEPTEMBER 2011

    Dear Falling River Church Family,

    What do you think would happen if you ate at your favorite fast-food restaurant for a month—for all three daily meals? Also, you’d say “Yes” if the cashier were to ask, “Do you want to super-size that?” For exercise, you could have no more than the United States’ average: 5,000 standardized distance steps a day. How healthy do you think you’d be at the end of the month? An otherwise healthy 32 year old man named Morgan Spurlock supposedly did just that. He even made a movie about it (“Super Size Me”). This is one of those things to which we can say with a sigh, “Only in America!”

    I suppose you want to know how Mr. Spurlock did. At the end of his 30 day experiment, he’d gained 24 1/2 pounds, his cholesterol level had risen to 230, and he’d suffered mood swings, heart palpitations, fat accumulation in his liver, and other unpleasant side effects. Spurlock claimed that he’d become addicted to fast food. It took him another fourteen months on a “vegan” diet (vegetarian with no dairy or other animal products) to lose the weight he’d gained. While it does no harm to occasionally enjoy a Big Mac, moderation is key. We need a well-balanced diet.

    Our brains need a well-balanced diet too, but I think many Christians (like me) easily develop unhealthy addictions. We spend hours a day catching up with the news: weather, politics, local, and world. We listen to talk-shows. We watch T.V. We check our e-mail and facebook pages. We play on the computer. We read the paper. As Christians, of course, we season our days with a few minutes of Bible reading and prayer. What is the end result of this brain-diet? Our thinking begins to reflect what we’ve seen and heard the most: we can become impatient, anxious, angry, morally confused, or even depressed.

    Now, I’m not asking anyone to become uninformed about current events, or to hide from the world. What if, however, we began to season our days with the world’s news and entertainment instead of making them our main entrée? Have you ever stopped to think about how your thinking might change if you reversed your current habits— giving hours to God, and minutes to the LCD screen? Galatians 5:22-23 lists some pleasant side-effects.

    In His Love,

    Pastor Keith

    ________________________________________________________________________________________

    AUGUST 2011

    Dear Falling River Church Family,

    Last week, my Sunday School teacher (yes, it’s nice to be taught!) used a quote from former president Ronald Reagan: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” By this, he meant that our precious values and freedoms are not automatically passed on to the next generation, nor are they guaranteed for our children. Rather, we must make “passing the torch” our priority, and cherished freedoms must be defended constantly, or they’ll be gradually lost. My Sunday School teacher, as you might have guessed, applied this principle to our freedom in Christ. In Galatians 5:1, we’re told: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Unfortunately, just as each generation faces fresh threats to its political freedoms, so it will find its faith in the balance.

    Most adults can easily observe that their children (and grandchildren) are growing up in a world more challenging to Christian faith than that of their own memory. By every measure, American churches are struggling—even failing—to pass the torch of Christ’s gospel to the next generation.

    In recent weeks, we’ve looked closely at our great commission from Jesus. This is found in Matthew

    28:18-20, and our purpose statement summarizes it: “Know Christ, Be Like Him, and Share Him with Others.” While every age group in the church is important to God, I believe that our young people should be given the priority of our time investment as we first bring Christ’s freedom to them. Historically, this has kept Falling River Baptist Church thriving and close to Christ. Some of our greatest growth has been born of sacrificial giving to the next generation (Rev. & Mrs. McDowell’s youth group and the “Alleluia” musical come to mind). Each of this summer’s mission efforts targeted young people: Pierce and Carma’s Liberia trip (orphan children), the Acteens’ trip to Florida (teenage girls), and Celia’s missionary service in Illinois (to children by a college student). Last month’s Vacation Bible School showed how the entire church can pull together prayers, time, and resources to reach children with Christ’s love. This summer has been filled with God’s blessings!

    I want to challenge you to step up support for two ministries with your prayer and time: our youth group, and our children’s ministry. Both these ministries are blessed with wonderful young people and amazing volunteers. Volunteers, however, are easily burned out without the support of parents and new help. Ask about your youth and children. Find out where you can help—even in little ways. Mention them in your prayers. Care enough to pass the torch of Christ’s freedom. After all, our faith may be only one generation away from extinction.

    In His Love,

    Pastor Keith

    ________________________________________________________________________________________

    JULY 2011

    Dear Falling River Church Family,

    It’s a humid Sunday night in my childhood church. I excitedly wait as visiting missionaries tinker with an old slide projector. They’re wearing exotic African garb, and they’ve covered the altar with pictures and handmade souvenirs from another continent. Finally, the projector is unjammed and the sanctuary lights are dimmed. As bright images are cast on the screen, I listen to the soft-spoken couple describe how they’ve dedicated their lives to share Jesus. As a boy in Elementary school, I’m awestruck by the thought of leaving everything I know to answer God’s call in a country on the other side of the world.

    Missions. What does that word bring to your mind? Most people think of missions as an “extra-credit” and sporadic activity in Christian life—perhaps in a summer trip or an occasional volunteer project. As far as full-time missions service is concerned, we think of someone else going somewhere else. Jesus, of course, puts missions at the very center of every Christian’s life-agenda. Read the following wording of the end of Matthew from Eugene Peterson’s “The Message:”

    ...Some, though, held back, not sure about worship, about risking themselves totally.

    Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave this charge: “God authorized and

    commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near,

    in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy

    Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as

    you do this, day after day, right up to the end of the age.

    Here, Jesus describes missions as the church’s main entrée—not an optional side. To fully appreciate God’s mission for His church, we need to understand two central truths.

    First of all, we can see from Christ’s commission that all missions work must be Christ-centered. Missions and evangelism are inseparable. God’s love in Christ provides the motive, guidance, spirit, and goal of all true missions work. We don’t meet needs merely because we feel sorry for people; we want to bear God’s love in Christ. It’s easy to drift away from Jesus, forgetting that physical needs are intertwined with the soul’s need for the life-changing gospel. Without Christ, missions work becomes what my grandfather used to call “do-gooding.” I confess that this phrase is loaded with political baggage from another era, but I use it here to describe missions work with no higher aim than to do nice things for people. Lending a helping hand is commendable and needful; both Jesus’ example and passages like James 2:15-17 show us the importance of compassionately meeting people’s physical needs. If that’s all we do, however, haven’t we missed the heart of our commission? If Jesus is not our goal, we might as well join a charity or civic club instead of God’s church. We may feel better about ourselves, but without Christ’s supernatural power, no eternal good will come from all our busyness. In church missions, Christ is everything.

    The second great truth here is that there are no boundaries in Christian missions. Reread Matthew 28:17-20. If anything is clear there, it is that our commission is not limited by geography, race, personal preference, or time. Everywhere we go and every person we meet is our mission field. No matter what generation we live in, our duty is the same—share Christ everywhere. Jesus gives no strict methodology, because the methods and opportunities for sharing the gospel are endless—as long as Jesus remains in the center. When people place boundaries on Christ’s mission, they say things like, “Why should we go there when there are plenty of needs here at home?” Or, perhaps you’ve heard, “They know where the church is—why should we go to them?” “What are we getting out of this?” is even worse. Let’s not forget the infamous excuse, “Those people over there will never change—nothing will be any different until Jesus comes.” Finally, we all know the three-pronged attack which can quickly ground any good missions idea: “We’ve never done that before,” “We don’t have the money for that,” and (with a dismissive tone) “There he/she goes again.” I’m thankful that God has blessed this church family with the ability to move beyond such limited thinking, because Jesus’ great commission knows no boundaries.

    Everything we do at Falling River Baptist Church should be missions work. When we supported Pierce & Carma’s Liberia trip, or prayed for Celia’s ministry in Illinois, we were on mission for Christ. When our teenage girls go to Florida to learn creative ways to show God’s love, that’s Jesus’ assignment. When we reach out to area children and their parents through Vacation Bible School, that’s the great commission in action. When we pray, study, and worship in the church building, people are brought closer to Christ. When you bear Christ at work, at the dinner table, or in the community, you join His mission in the world.

    When I was growing up, I heard most missionary presentations conclude with the same reminder. After the long slideshow, a deacon in the back pew would turn on the sanctuary lights. We’d all pray for God’s work overseas. The soft-spoken missionary would then look at us intently and say, “...And remember, you are a missionary too—wherever God has called you!”

    In His Love,

    Pastor Keith

    ________________________________________________________________________________________

    JUNE 2011

    Dear Falling River Church Family

    A few months ago, I was pleasantly surprised by an older couple’s arrival in the church parking lot. The man, who had been driving, got out of the car and walked around to open the door for his wife. After she stepped out, he shut the door, smiled at her, and walked with her into the church. I realized that I hadn’t seen a man do this for some time. Why is that? That seemingly insignificant gentlemanly gesture was actually quite important, for it was an expression of his character. I’d often seen him exhibit this same kindness and respect toward his wife, children, and grandchildren.

    Such ideals of godly manhood have somehow become casualties in our culture’s pursuit of equality and personal freedom. Let’s peruse some ideals which are increasingly rare in today’s men: manly responsibility, leadership, faithfulness, integrity, courage, honor, honesty, hard work, sacrifice, fatherly love, and gentlemanly consideration. That’s quite a list, isn’t it? None of those words become realities in a man’s life without intentional effort, and nowhere are they more needed than in the life of a father.

    Sadly, the terrible consequences of an absent or passive father are well-known. Rather than quote statistics, let me share an excerpt from Raising a Modern-Day Knight, where Robert Lewis shares from his

    personal experience:

    ...I do have a number of pleasant memories from my boyhood. But when my dad walked in the door at the end of a long day, his personal influence began to fade. As in the movie “The Invisible Man,” my dad would shed his corporate identity at home and begin to disappear altogether. He became “The Invisible Dad.”

    He never told me, “I love you.” I never prayed with him or talked with him about spiritual things. I never knew what he believed. His inner world was a mystery to me. We never sat together and talked about life or girls or sex or school or the future. There was no fatherly preparation for things ahead.

    I never heard him say, “I’m proud of you.” I never experienced a moment when he shared with me what he thought I would be good at or what my responsibilities were as a man. He offered no measuring sticks to my life. He had little to say at certain crucial moments in my life. When a host of college football scholarships were offered to me, his only comment was, “It’s your decision.” Everything was on my own...alone.

    Dad’s passivity with all of us was deafening. The lack of his direction was heartbreaking. My brothers and I were left to our own pathetic resources and guesswork for navigating ourselves through adolescence and early adulthood. And none of us did very well.

    What can we say in response to that, Dads? As far as I’m concerned, that quote represents the father I don’t want to be. I want to show my children what an honorable man looks like. When my graveside service is over, I want my sons to have no doubts about how much I loved them or their mother. I want them to be absolutely certain of what I believed. I want to leave this world with a track record of faithfulness to my family. I’m glad that I’m not the only father here who feels this way, and I pray that God will show us more ways to help each other.

    Humanly, the godly responsibilities of fatherhood are impossible to carry. As I reviewed the list of ideals at the beginning of this letter, something occurred to me: Jesus Christ is the perfect representation of the godly man. Without His constant help and example, I’d be a lost cause—but thankfully we have both!

    "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord."

    — Ephesians 6:4 (NLT; underlining mine)

    In His Love,

    Pastor Keith

    ________________________________________________________________________________________

    MAY 2011

    "He reached down from on high and took hold of

    me; He drew me out of deep waters."

    --Psalm 18:16

    Dear Falling River Church Family,

    I couldn't help but chuckle when I noticed the article title on my computer. "How to Survive Falling in a River" sounds like our church name, doesn't it? The writer meant to give advice about falling overboard in rapids. Immediately, however, I began to ponder the similarities between white water rafting and another potentially hazardous adventure--life itself. Without further discussion (except to apologize to ehow.com for butchering their article), let's dive in…

    How to Survive Falling in a River

    It can quickly happen when you least expect it. You are enjoying yourself, floating down life’s lazy river, when you hear a distant rumble downstream. The raft picks up speed. Soon, you’re in rapids. The little concerns that previously worried you quickly disappear as you notice the sharp rocks jutting out from the foamy water just ahead. Previously, you’d simply enjoyed the view. Now, you’ll be just trying to stay in the boat.

    These rapids might come in the form of unexpected health crises or problems in our family relationships. Financial difficulties can also be the culprit. Our own bad choices or the perils of church conflict can rock the raft. We sometimes even lose someone close to us.

    Regardless of the cause, the waters of our faith can be easily troubled. What happens if the challenges of life push our faith toward the breaking point, and we find ourselves falling into the river? What can be done then?

    Instructions:

  • “Be wearing your life vest. Okay, that said, once you're unexpectedly in the water, stay on your back with your feet pointed downstream and visible. That way your feet won't catch on rocks or other unseen grabbers.” The most important thing you can do to survive life’s rapids is to prepare your faith ahead of time. It’s silly to postpone looking for your life vest until after you’ve fallen into the river. In the same way, don’t put off giving your life to Jesus Christ. Trust Jesus with your good days, and you’ll find Him in the bad ones. When the river is calm, develop habits of daily
  • prayer, Bible reading, and involvement in a church family. These will all hold you afloat in the rapids.

    If you can honor God in your decisions “by the still waters,” you will be more unsinkable in the white

    water. While we may not be strong enough to swim against the rapids, we can be wise enough to keep

    our eyes on Jesus, lifting our feet from the snags of despair (Hebrews 12:1-2). Remember that Peter

    walked on water until he concentrated on the waves instead of Jesus (Matthew 15:29-30).

  • “Ditch your pack--it will pull you down.” There’s nothing like falling in a river to help us realize the dead weight in our lives. A crisis opens our eyes to things that are totally unnecessary —things we were probably spending far too much time worrying about. Whatever is superficial, dishonoring to God, or distracting should be thrown off. Have you ever seen a person struggling in a life crisis, expending great energy in trying to hold on to possessions, bad habits, petty luxuries, or the approval of others? Just ditch the pack!
  • "Use your arms as oars to slow you down and pull you out of the current toward shore. If you can't get to shore, go for an eddy behind a big rock. Stay clear of branches, logs and rock piles that can trap you. If they're unavoidable, lunge towards them head first and try to climb on quickly as you make contact.” The unspoken assumption of this advice is that, even when one can’t rescue himself—he or she should be trying to maneuver into a position where someone else can. While God allows us to go through life-rapids, he will always do one of three things to rescue the overboard Christian: 1) He may still the river, so that it becomes less difficult. 2) He may come into the water with us, keeping us afloat and helping us in the danger. 3) He may take us ashore to heaven (He, of course, makes this choice—not us). Help will come from God in one of these three ways. Count on it.
  • “If there are other people in your party, they need move downstream to help catch you and your floating pack, preferably in a way that doesn't endanger them, too.” For those in this church family, remember that God uses Falling River Baptist Church to help those who have “fallen in the river.” Never isolate yourself from other Christians. That would be a deadly mistake. Seek the help of your church family—and give it freely. We are God’s gift to one another. Keep your eyes peeled for those who might need a helping hand—especially in your own raft.
  • In His Love,

    Pastor Keith

    ________________________________________________________________________________________

    APRIL 2011

    Dear Falling River Baptist Church,

    "Preachers are like a box of chocolates - you never know what you're gonna get." That's what a friend told me--paraphrasing Forrest Gump--after last month's revival services. You may remember that we invited five different pastors to share their personal faith stories. They came from very different backgrounds. Some were raised poor, and some affluent. They came from places close to Brookneal, out of state, and out of the country. Some first trusted Christ as children, some as teens, and others as adults. They grew up unchurched, Episcopalian, Baptist, and Methodist. Between them, we saw children of divorced parents, single parents, and adoption. They were big, little, short, tall, younger, and older. They all dressed and spoke very differently.

    Another friend observed that these five testimonies all had something in common: God, who is "alive and well" in our lives. I suppose that even assorted chocolates all share a common ingredient (chocolate)! In the same way, the world's motley assortment of Christians all share a common Lord.

    As we celebrate Easter, let's invite Jesus to share his personal story with us. We're told that he grew up poor, adopted by a stepfather who probably died when Jesus was a teenager. Jesus says that he always trusted God, even before birth. He lived and worked in a small town, active in his faith community. There was nothing particularly special in his outward appearance.

    As a young man, Jesus began to deliberately make his story a part of our story. At the age of thirty, he decided to be baptized, closely identifying himself with sinners. He then went public with the truth of God's story. He healed, taught, guided, warned, and saved whoever had even the smallest faith in him. Jesus then went so far as to die for us all, convicted on false testimony.

    After days in the grave, God raised him from the dead. His ministry now continues all over the world, including the Brookneal area of Virginia. Jesus continues to live by God's Holy Spirit directly in in the lives of true Christians. He is alive and well.

    Have you heard this story before? Good--then let me share the best kept secret of Christian living: if you want to see the benefits of being a Christian, let Christ's story become your story. This is the mystery that Galatians 2:20-21a* (New Living Translation) describes best. Read the words slowly and prayerfully, testing their truth in the story of your life:

    My old self has been crucified with Christ.

    It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.

    So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God,

    who loved me and gave himself for me.

    I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless...

    What does it mean to be a Christian? Wherever Christ's story and a person's story become the same thing, a Christian life is lived. Good Friday and Easter then become much more than holidays--they become who we are.

    In His Love,

    Pastor Keith

    __________________________________

    *see also Romans 6:4-14, Colossians 2:12-13, Galatians 5:24-25, & Matthew 10:38-39

    _________________________________________________________________________________________

    MARCH 2011

    Dear Falling River Baptist Church,

    In seminary, my wife worked in a child daycare center. One wall of the playroom contained two large opaque screens four feet above the floor. These screens served as one-way windows from a dimly lit adjoining room. Parents could therefore watch the children and teachers without being seen.

    Imagine the scene of a new mother watching her toddler from this little viewing room. The child happily stacks wooden blocks in the playroom, oblivious to his mother's presence. He never gives her a thought; from his perspective, she might as well be in Tibet! Meanwhile, the boy's Mother lovingly follows his every movement. Her heart is filled with hopes and fears for her son. She also carefully observes the teachers, noting any sign of neglect or impatience.

    This is a good picture of the relationship many of us have with Jesus Christ. In the back of our minds, we know that Christ loves us, and that His cross has given us "new birth" as God's children. In our day-to-day awareness of Christ's presence, however, He might as well be in Tibet. We happily play with our toys, or even occasionally miss Him. In either case, we're unaware that He lovingly follows our every move. It becomes hard to believe that His heart is constantly filled with hope and concern for us.

    One New Testament phrase has always intrigued me: "in Christ." Used over ninety times in the Bible, "in Christ" often shows how closely we are identified with Jesus. His life is our life. His death is our death. His resurrection is our resurrection. His truth is our truth. His character is our character. His thoughts are our thoughts. Christ even prays with us--note the "we," "our," and "us" in the Lord's prayer-- and He lives within our very souls. We don't follow a Jesus who is "out there somewhere."

    Christ calls us to a union much deeper than we expect. "In Christ," I challenge you to read the gospels as your stories, and the New Testament letters as God's personal letters to you. "In Christ," pray not just to God, but with Him.

    An ancient prayer of the Celtic Christians rings true:

    ...Christ with me sleeping,

    Christ with me waking,

    Christ with me watching,

    Every day and night,

    Every day and night...

    I dare you to stop playing and take a look behind the screen.

    In His Love,

    Pastor Keith

    _________________________________________________________________________________________

    FEBRUARY 2011

    Dear Falling River Church Family,

    Prayer: everybody talks about it, but we have a hard time doing it. We sometimes want to pray, but don't know what to say. Or, when we do pray, we often hear no guidance in return. At other times, we don't even feel like praying, even though we know our need. Both churches and individual Christians can experience these times of prayerful hesitancy as they look for God's way forward.

    In such predicaments, we find one of the most precious reminders of God's ever-present love for us. When we don't know how to pray, His Spirit will pray through us (Romans 8:26). The most rewarding way of experiencing this loving help is to simply pray God's own Words. In praying Scripture, the Spirit leads us from within, giving us the right words to say. Christ kneels beside us, opening the way to God. Our Almighty Father listens to us, embracing us with a love we only dimly know in human relationships. Because of the Psalms, the Lord's Prayer, and many other Scriptures, prayer life can continue unbroken. Best of all, as we pray God's Word to Him, we hear His Word for us. Let's pray together right now:

    God is our refuge and strength,

    an ever-present help in trouble.

    Therefore we will not fear,

    though the earth give way

    and the mountains fall

    into the heart of the sea,

    though its waters roar and foam

    and the mountains quake

    with their surging.

    There is a river whose streams make glad

    the city of God, the holy place

    where the Most High dwells.

    God is within her, she will not fall;

    God will help her at break of day.

    Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;

    he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

    The LORD Almighty is with us;

    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

    Come and see what the LORD has done,

    the desolations he has brought on the earth.

    He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth.

    He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;

    he burns the shields with fire.

    He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;

    I will be exalted among the nations,

    I will be exalted in the earth.”

    The LORD Almighty is with us;

    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

    -Psalm 46 (NIV)

    Amen.

    In His Love,

    Pastor Keith

    _________________________________________________________________________________________

    JANUARY 2011

    Dear Falling River Church Family,

    I start this year with a word to the leaders of this church. I believe that I've seen a vision. No, I'm not talking about a future-predicting prophetic dream. I don't even have any strange biblical images for you--no beasts, olive trees, or golden statues. It is a vision, nevertheless. I've had this picture lodged in my mind for seven years, and it won't go away. Every year it intensifies.

    I see a Christmas service in the sanctuary. The children, youth, sanctuary choir, and praise team have all been practicing together for weeks. Even the preschoolers are in on the action. I don't mean that each group has a time in the program to do their own thing; they're ALL up there praising God TOGETHER. Falling River is musically gifted by God. We do pretty well having several separate Christmas programs. Can you imagine, however, what kind of life-changing worship could come from ONE combined program?

    I've privately told friends about this vision. Only half-joking, I tell them that I hope to see it realized before I die. I know. It's crazy. Who would lead the thing? After all, we have some pretty strong personalities that don't always see eye to eye, and this makes it safer to do things separately. Finding practice times to suit everyone would be a nightmare. The logistics would be overwhelming. And yet... the picture won't go away.

    I've pondered the meaning of this. Why does it keep bothering me? Why can't I just leave "well enough" alone? I now realize that this dream is important because it calls attention to Falling River's greatest danger. We don't have one Christmas program -- or one anything -- because we're divided. Our morning worship service is sometimes the only time all of our key leaders gather for the same event. From outward appearances, things may seem fine, but suspicions and resentments inwardly simmer. At every turn and in every ministry, we face this tension. If you're a church leader, you know I'm speaking the truth in Christ.

    If this secret division in our church leadership goes on unhealed, at best we'll continue to do "O.K.," but fall short of God's wonderful plans for His church. In the worst case scenario, which is more likely, the old feuds will cripple ministry, or even cause a church split. If you think I'm addressing particular saints who've annoyed you for years, then this word first applies to YOU.

    This new year, I challenge Falling River's leaders to chart a new course into the heart of Christ. If we don't, we'll be our own worst enemy. We must deeply humble ourselves and turn from the "mini-churches" which are forming in Falling River's ministries. Unity in Christ may be built on a thousand sacrifices and pains, but the alternative always proves to be much worse. It may be that my vision of one Christmas program was merely given to expose our spiritual condition. You be the judge. It's time to be more intentional about unity, or else risk terrible consequences. Leaders, where you go, the church will follow.

    "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.

    So be earnest, and repent.

    ...He who has an ear,

    let him hear

    what the Spirit says to the churches."

    Revelation 3:19, 22b

    In His Deep Love,

    Pastor Keith

    ___________________________________________________________________________________

    DECEMBER 2010

    Dear Falling River Church Family,

    A much loved friend of Falling River recently visited our Wednesday night Bible study on Revelation. For over a year, he’d been active in a large church in Lynchburg. As he walked in the door here, he looked around and commented on how much he missed the coffee shop that greeted him in the foyer hall of his other church. How are we supposed to compete with that? I’m often asked what the future holds for small churches, as folks notice the diminishing number of young church-goers, and the growing dominance of large churches with thousands of members. While Falling River Baptist Church continues to be tremendously blessed by God, perceptive people notice these dynamics here as well.

    The top five reasons that small country churches are struggling:

    1. Small towns like ours were in recession when recession wasn’t cool. Job opportunities are minimal, and

    farming doesn’t pay like it used to. As a result, young people often move to where the work is.

    Churches can reflect these community changes.

    2. Christianity is becoming less important to our country’s culture. We may debate the various reasons for

    this, but our culture is increasingly godless. As a result, large numbers of young people consider church

    attendance unimportant. This is a sad reality of 21st century America.

    3. Go into any store and observe how many brands and varieties of the same product are available— from

    vacuum cleaners to toothpaste. In our consumer culture, we’ve come to expect that our personal

    preferences will be catered to. People gravitate to large churches that can offer many programs,

    products, and worship styles to choose from. Mega-churches often offer worship tailored to one’s

    generation; one doesn’t have to put up with those “old people” or “kids,” as the case may be.

    Also, when it comes to how we spend our time, a huge variety of attractive options are available. As a

    result, even large churches have a tough time winning a place in our schedules.

    4. We don’t like commitment and we don’t like accountability. We want the option of walking away with no

    strings attached. Many prefer big churches (or no church) for these reasons. Little is required of an

    anonymous visitor who blends into the crowd.

    5. This last one may hurt. Small churches are much more prone to get stuck in a rut. Many see the

    country church as synonymous with inflexibility, irrelevance, and the worn-out past.

    ...But here are five reasons that God powerfully uses small churches like ours:

    1. We’re not in the affluent suburbs, and that can be a good thing. Falling River Baptist Church is

    strategically placed in a hurting community which needs Jesus Christ. We’re not called to change

    population trends or the economy; we’re called to be faithful where God has planted us. No one can

    reach the people of this community in the same way that we can. We are nothing less than Christ’s body

    in this place— what an awesome and empowering truth! As I read the gospels, I notice that most of

    Jesus’ ministry took place in rural, small town areas like our own.

    2. Our culture may be godless, but we are not. In a small town, there are tremendous opportunities to let

    others to see Jesus in our lives. Each person is noticed, known, and therefore influential in a special

    way. You’re not just another number here! Country churches often have more direct influence on their

    communities than a large church has on its city. Country churches forge lifelong ties to the next

    generation which aren’t easily broken: bonds of family, friendship, community, and faith.

    3. One of the most precious assets of a small country church is its resemblance to an extended family. The

    elderly, preschoolers, newlyweds, teens, and middle-aged all worship and work side by side every week.

    In love, they are forced to consider each other’s needs and preferences. In this close proximity, the

    Spirit’s fruit (Galatians 5:22) is called out in a special way. In such a church, the character of Christ will

    be more than skin deep—it must be.

    4. What we want and what we need aren’t always the same thing. We may prefer not to be bothered with

    accountability and commitment, but we need both to follow Christ. It is next to impossible to go

    unnoticed in a small church! The friendships will be deeper and more demanding. People will notice if

    you go astray. You will have many more opportunities to exercise your spiritual gifts and to humbly

    serve.

    5. Smaller churches have a long memory. We are “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses

    (Hebrews 12:1).” We know that we’re not a passing fad, because we’ve been carried through wars,

    depressions, and countless tragedies. We’ve seen the power of Jesus Christ uphold us through the

    generations. Our identity is not dependent on the latest program or bottom line. Our past, present, and

    future all rest in God’s hands. As Jesus said of us, “...No one can snatch them out of My Father’s hand

    (John 10:29).”

    In His Love,

    Pastor Keith

    ___________________________________________________________________________________

    NOVEMBER 2010

    Dear Falling River Church Family,

    I resisted a long time, but was finally hauled kicking and screaming into the digital age. For years, pastor friends had been telling me how new gadgets and online social networking were powerful ministry tools. I didn't buy it. I considered those things distractions from my efforts to personally relate to people and God. Technology, after all, has a long history of promising convenience and happiness, but then burdening our lives with unnecessary complication and busyness. I'd too often seen someone talking on a cell phone when they should have been driving, or online instead of talking with their family, or "texting" while walking down the street--oblivious to the real world. I didn't want to be a person like that! Well, here I am, typing this letter on my laptop with a smart-phone in my pocket and a website deadline before me.

    What happened?

    1. I realized that my friends were right: technology does open doors of opportunity to meet people where

    they are.

    2. Many of my friendships have grown and deepened through sites like facebook. I am much more aware

    of what is going on in the hearts and minds of many church members.

    3. With a computer, it is much easier to let people know what is going on at church.

    4. As Christians from different generations and groups communicate online, greater unity is possible.

    5. As an older gentleman recently told me, "Everything changes and everything stays the same." While

    technology has changed, digital communication is simply the contemporary equivalent to letter writing or

    talking to a friend on his front porch.

    And yet, I've also become aware of shortcomings in these new technologies:

    1. In "virtual friendships," we personally customize relationships to suit our tastes, dropping them when

    they become inconvenient or tedious. It is more difficult to do this in face-to-face friendships. As a

    result, face-to-face relationships provide accountability, character development, and depth that

    go far beyond what is possible online.

    2. Virtual reality can distract from the reality immediately around us. For instance, while I'm catching up on

    e-mails at a restaurant, I may not notice the friend in the parking lot, the waitress who needs prayer, or

    a God-given sunset.

    3. "Multi-tasking" is, literally speaking, a myth. The human brain can only completely concentrate on one

    thing--or person--at a time. As we simultaneously watch T.V., listen to music, check our e-mails, and

    talk on the phone, how can we expect to hear God too? "But I have stilled and quieted my soul...

    (Psalm 131:2)." I have a feeling that the Psalmist wasn't holding a smartphone when he wrote that.

    In His Love,

    Pastor Keith

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