Focus

I am a pretty good multi-tasker most days.  During Carols, that gift is challenged because there are a thousand moving parts and I am trying to watch them all. Needless to say, things get missed, usually because I miss one thing while trying to tend to something else. Sometimes, I simply forget (human!).

Sometimes, I am totally distracted by something else. Happened last night. Doing the processional during rehearsal. I had worked on (studied) cues for me to give the choir all afternoon. These included making sure I updated the notes on processional entrances. We start rehearsal. I am watching. Loges – really good. Nosebleed – excellent. People direct into loft – much better. Main aisles – ????. I turned around to look at them and caught a glimpse of the manger in the box. Totally blown away! Happens every time I see this scene. This is the third year we have used this during the processional and every time I am blown away.  We come to the manager to worship the King of Kings. I stood there, as always, in wonderment (I might have made a good shepherdess) drinking it in.

Reality quickly set in as LLG asked me: “Isn’t the choir supposed to be in the room?” Yes. We were close to the end of the overture. I am still manger gazing, pondering. Oops. Get it moving – those main aisle people. Thanks to Emily Agent who herded up a wandering group who took a wrong turn (I missed that. too, trying to get the rest going again.)

Does make me think, though. What if those shepherds had not paid attention to the angels and not made their march to the manger to see the King? What about the wise men? What about you? What about me? Sometimes the focus probably needs to be other than the immediate next thing on the list. The important thing is not the immediate or expedient – it is the Eternal thing.

Carols2014 Manger 12-08
Manger – December 8, 2014 Rehearsal

Luke 2: 8-18 (NIV) And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” 

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child. 

 

Manger - Carols 2013
Processional – Carols 2013 (photo credit:  Judy Rushing)

The Gospel is requires the manger, the cross, the empty tomb for completion. Each by itself is only a part of the greatest event in history – God coming to earth to save us.

#AreYouChanged #Carols2014

I am. I believe.

Still Choosing Joy!

Cille

Counting Steps

Not sure you realize this but there are a lot of steps in the Sanctuary at First Jackson.  In the choir loft in the #Carols2014 configuration, there are 48 (not counting steps from floor to platform or the steps in the piano tunnel).  Going to the “nosebleed”, there are four aisles of steps reaching toward the stained glass over the President Street entrance.  I should know how many there are – I dragged rope lights up all four aisles today and then walked them back down to get them ready for tomorrow. In the loges, there are a lot more steps. Plus the choir room. Plus the countless times I go up-and-down the steps between the 2nd and 3rd levels of the church, the steps down from the crosswalk, the steps from the parking garage up to the crosswalk.  Lots and lots of steps.

You are probably wondering where I am going with this. In my mind, when I walk the steps, I always count them to myself. I see each step as a person who may walk there, coming to celebrate Christmas perhaps because they were made to come or perhaps because they were invited by many who may read this.  I thought today about the names we called during the Carols prayer time last night who have been invited to worship with us. I never enter the north loge behind where the box is now that I don’t remember a decision envelope found from that section some 20 odd years ago from a young man who made a decision for Jesus sitting in those not-good-seats (even then) and then days later joining His Savior for all eternity. I think about folks like Nona Reid, Billy Jim Thompson, Celeste Pickett and others who walked these same steps and who gave so very much for so many many years so that others could hear the Story of Jesus.

And I pray by name for people who are in the choir and cast and orchestra this year that we may share the only story that matters for Eternity and share it in a way that is clear. And I pray knowing that our responsibility to them does not end there. I pray that we will be responsible to disciple the new believers – that we will help them connect the dots (they don’t have an almost 60 year head start like me) and as they face all the curves that the devil is going to throw in their path to try to stop them from choosing Jesus.

So when I count this year as I walk through the church, I think about the 500 we continue to pray will hear the message we share and will believe.  500 has become way more than a number. The “goal” has morphed into faces and names and needs – real people – not a concept. And I pray that we share with them from our heart – from our knowledge of His mercy and grace, from our personal experiences with Him, from our love for others because “He first loved us.”

John 3:16 – This verse came alive for me as an almost 10-year-old in Vacation Bible School almost 50 years ago. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish.” Today I pray that verse speaks to Alexandria, and to Precious, and to guests from Lebanon, and to senior adults from Alabama and those from CityChurch and MissionFirst and recovery centers and ……. for God so loved them, too, just as He does me.

I am looking forward to #Carols2014. I know Him. I am loved by Him. I have been changed by Him. #AreYouChanged?

 

Tom’s Story – The Reason for My Hope

I am sharing this with the permission of Tom Webb. It is his testimony and is so powerful. He share this with the Sanctuary Choir at #FirstJackson on January 8, 2014. As I point I post this, I understand that he is at UMMC. I have texted Paula but no updates yet. Be in prayer for them and their family.

Here is Tom’s Story…..

My name is Tom Webb. I have been a member at First Baptist Jackson since 1983. This church is very dear to me because it is here that I was ordained as a deacon, married my wife, Paula, and raised my two step children. While serving as a teacher in the Children’s ministry for 29 years I gained many Christian friends and many blessings.

I grew up in Forest Mississippi, one of six children. My mother being a strong Christian made sure we were in church whenever the doors were open.  My Dad was as good a man as you would ever want to meet, but he never went to church.

When I was eight years old a traveling evangelist came to Forest to hold a week long citywide tent revival. On the last night of the revival I walked down that sawdust aisle and gave my life to Jesus.

I soon joined the church and was baptized but nothing really seemed to change.  I still went to church every time the doors were opened but probably slept through most of the sermons. All that began to change when I was twenty years old.  That was the year when my youngest brother, Donald, was hit and killed by a drunk driver as he was riding his bike along the side of HWY 35.  When the police caught the man it became clear that he was from Chicago but he was in Mississippi for his mother’s funeral.  When I heard the news I will have to confess that my initial thoughts were not very Christ like.  My thoughts were, “Just let me in that cell with him for five minutes, and I’ll kill him.”  My Dad who would never go to church was much more forgiving than I was.  I sat there with my dad when the city prosecutor came by the house to update my parents on the investigation. The attorney promised the man would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  But my Dad surprised everyone by asking that they first do a background check on him. If he proved to be a good, honest man who made a first mistake, he didn’t want the man prosecuted.  He said putting him in jail would not bring his son back.  I was humbled by his attitude.  Here I was supposedly a Christian, wanting to kill the man, but my Dad was willing to forgive the man for killing his son.  I had to ask myself what was wrong with this picture.

During Donald’s funeral services the preacher said that even though Donald was only twelve years old he was leaving some mighty big shoes that needed to be filled.  After the funeral my Dad said he was going to try to fill those empty shoes.  From that day until my Dad died five years later he never missed a Sunday morning or Sunday night service.  Seeing my Dad in church was an answer to many years of prayers.  It came at a huge price, but it was almost worth it to see my Dad in church.  I grew spiritually from that experience as well and with God’s help began to learn to control my temper and become more forgiving.

In 1982 I found myself in a job without much chance of advancement, so I decided in order to improve my chances at a better job I needed to go back to graduate school.  I enrolled in graduate school at Ole Miss that fall and majored in public administration.  I went back determined to do whatever it took to succeed.  I studied from could to can’t seven days a week.   I was determined to do it on my own so I shut God out completely.  I didn’t go to church on Sundays; I didn’t make time for reading my Bible or having a quiet time alone with God.  At the end of the semester I had managed to make A’s in all my classes, but I knew I had given up too much trying to do it on my own.

The next semester I started going back to church, got involved in a singles Sunday School class and make it a priority to make time to read my Bible, have a quiet time, and spend time alone with God.  I soon realized it was much easier to succeed with God’s help than it ever was on my own.  I finished my master’s degree with a 4.0 grade point average and moved to Jackson to work on an internship with the State Budget Commission.

After completing my education at The University of Mississippi I took a job with the State and moved to Jackson.

Because my older brother, Richard, was a member of this church, I started attending church here at First Baptist Jackson and quickly became involved in the Single Adult ministry here and my spiritual life began to grow.  I finally began to understand what it meant to have Jesus not only as my Savior but also as my Lord.  It wasn’t long before I followed Richard’s footsteps and started teaching Sunday school in the children’s ministry and continued to teach in the Children’s ministry for the next 29 years.

When Richard was thirty-nine years old and engaged to be married he almost died of a ruptured kidney.  He was driving to work one morning going through the waterworks curves on I 55 when his kidney ruptured.  It was all he could do to control his car and drive himself to the ER at the Baptist Medical Center.  He had emergency surgery and he was diagnosed with renal cell cancer.  The doctors offered him no hope, but with an unfailing faith in God, a good attitude and much prayer support Richard proved them wrong.  He recovered from surgery, left the hospital, was married and began taking chemo treatments and eventually went into remission.  His trust and faith in God was amazing.  I never once saw his faith waiver or heard him complain about his life being unfair.  He just kept his eyes on Jesus and persevered.

His cancer stayed in remission for several years. During those years he and his wife were blessed with a son and life was good again.  But in the summer of 1995 a checkup revealed that his cancer had returned.  He resumed treatments and eventually enrolled in an experimental program. In spite of this he slowly began to lose his battle with cancer.  Through all of this ordeal Richard’s attitude and faith in God never wavered.  He never complained and never questioned why.  He just kept his eyes on Jesus and battled it to the very end with much grace and much courage.  Richard was only 44 years old when God called him home.

I say all this to help set the stage for the rest of my story.  My own cancer story began in the spring of 2011 when I began having some medical issues that I could not ignore.  After several doctor visits and medical tests my doctor called to ask if I could come in that afternoon to discuss the results of my sonograms.  I told him I could and hung up the phone.

Then I started getting nervous and scared because I know something was wrong.  I called my wife to let her know and she said she would meet me at the doctor’s office and for me to try not to worry.  I couldn’t help but think about Richard and I started to cry. I prayed to God for help.  I asked him for three things that afternoon.  1) Please don’t let me die.  2) That whatever happens that I would be able to handle it in such a way that He would receive the honor and glory that he deserves.  And 3) that if it was cancer that I would not die from it before my Mom passed away.  She had already had to bury two sons, and I didn’t want her to have to bury another one.

That afternoon my doctor told us that the sonogram showed a small complex lesion in my right kidney He suspected it was cancer. The good news was that he thought we had found it early enough to do something about it.

He said the next step would be to do some CT scans.  He also wanted to refer me to a surgeon to see if any surgery was needed.

At this point my emotions were in a turmoil.  At one point I would be ok and trying to have a good attitude about everything and the next I was scared and remembering how well Richard had handled his battle with cancer.  I was afraid that I wouldn’t be as strong as he had been.

Paula and I prayed that night and she read some of her favorite Psalms she turned to when she was worried and afraid.  It helped, and we just turned it all over to God because we knew that he was in control.

The news about my problems began to spread around the church and at my office.  People began to pray for us, and I finally knew what it felt like to have so much prayer support.  I began to feel a sense of peace come over me that can only come from God.

When we received the results of the CT scan we found out that the cancer was much worse than expected.  My right kidney needed to come out as soon as possible before it ruptured.

I told the surgeon about my brother Richard had who died of renal cell cancer almost seventeen years before.  He said even if it was renal cell cancer they had come a long way since then in being able to treat that type cancer. Surgery was scheduled and we left the office feeling encouraged.

We went to church the Sunday before the surgery and came away even more encouraged.  It seemed like every song and even the sermon spoke directly to my needs as if God had planned the service especially for me.  We received so many words of encouragement and people telling us they were praying for us that we went home in high spirits.  We continued to receive calls, cards and words of encouragement right up until the time for surgery.

The surgery went well. The kidney was removed and all the lymph nodes around it appeared to be healthy.  The surgeon was encouraged and thought that everything would be alright, but we still had to get the pathology reports back.

We left the hospital very encouraged that it had been found early and that they had gotten it all.  I spent the rest of the summer just concentrating on my recovery from surgery and wasn’t worried about the cancer.

I had a real sense of peace about everything which I attributed to God answering all the prayers people were praying for me.  I had a good attitude about life and my recovery.

When I went back for my post-operative appointment, the surgeon said the pathology reports showed that it was cancer, and that the cancer had escaped the kidney into the fatty tissue around the kidney but that all the margins were clear.  This meant that we were now looking at stage three cancer instead of stage one and that the next step would be to present my case to the oncology review board to see what they would recommend in the way of treatments. Now began an anxious waiting period while the UMC oncology board was studying my case.

One of the things that offered me a great deal of comfort and hope during all this was reading God’s word.  God spoke these words of encouragement to me:

Deuteronomy 31:6 – Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid or terrified because of them (in my case cancer) for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you or forsake you.

Romans 8:28 – We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

In his book, God As He Longs For You To See Him Chip Ingram talks about the sovereignty of God.  He makes a point that goes along with Romans 8:28.  He said nothing will come into your life today that God did not either allow or decree for you ultimate good.

My wife and I claimed the Lamentation 3:21-24 as our verse during this trial: “This I call to mind and therefore I have hope; Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassion never fails.  They are new every morning, great is your faithfulness.  I say to myself; “the Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”

And Isaiah 26:3 – Thou will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee because he trusted in thee.

At last the Oncology Review Board determined that I did not meet the protocol for any of their ongoing studies. But one of the oncologists, Dr. Hamilton, thought he could help me and agreed to take me on as one of his patients.

He explained that I have a very rare and aggressive type of kidney cancer called collecting duct cancer. By very rare he meant that there were so few people diagnosed with it that there was no medical research on its treatment. The only treatment information available was from anecdotal data written by doctors who attempted to treat their patients.  He said I was only the third patient he had treated with this type cancer.  From talking with other oncologists I learned they had never seen a case of this type cancer in their careers.  Since collecting duct cancer is aggressive it can spread to other parts of the body very quickly.

Getting this type of report was not what we wanted to hear and it shook my confidence and tested my faith to an even higher degree.  It was going to take some time to process all this and rebuild my confidence.  But to make matters even worse I went home that night and Googled collecting duct cancer. I found out that fewer than 20% of patients with this type cancer live more than two years.  I let that piece of information get me depressed and I worried about it all night long.

It always amazes me how often the devotions during my quiet time speak directly to what I am going through.  The devotion in Standing Firm that day was “Worry-Free Living”.  The scripture reference was Philippians 4: 6 – 7, “Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and your mind in Christ Jesus.”

There were three points in this devotion.  1) Worrying is pointless.  Worry shrinks our world, steals our energy, and quenches our hopes.  There really are no benefits to worrying.  2) The solution to worry is: prayer and petition with thanksgiving.  Every time we catch ourselves beginning to worry we know it is time to start praying.  It is time to let God know our concerns, ask him for help and thank him for being fully capable of supplying what we need.  3) When we pray God gives us His peace.  And this peace is more powerful than the onslaught of worrying thoughts constantly assailing us.  When we preserver in prayer, the miracle of peace comes.  Nothing has changed on the outside, but everything has changed on the inside.

I wish I could tell you all my worrying and depression went away overnight but it took an actual storm to help me calm my soul.  Paula and I took our grandchildren with us to Gulf Shores, Alabama over the Labor Day weekend.   But when we arrived a tropical storm was brewing in the Gulf with winds of 40 to 50 miles an hour.  The storm just seemed to match my depression but I just kept telling myself that God controlled the storm and that after the storm blew through there would be clear blue skies again.  I hoped and prayed that the same would be true in my life as well.  That once this storm called cancer passed, I would see better days ahead.

It wasn’t going to happen that night because that night after the grandkids were in bed I really started worrying and feeling sorry for myself and just started crying uncontrollably.  Paula hugged me and told me it was ok to cry and that everything was going to be alright.  I finally was able to get a grip on myself and tried to regain my composure.

The weather continued to deteriorate through the night, and we talked about returning home the next morning.  But when we got up the next morning the worst of the storm had passed to the west of us and even though the winds were still high and the waves were still crashing on the beach, we stayed and had a good day.  I could tell that my internal storm was getting better too.

We were able to take the grandkids down to the beach to play in the sand.  At one point Trevor, who was about 15 months old, spied a seagull walking along the beach.  He jumped up and started chasing the sea gull.  I quickly followed close behind Trevor as he pursued the seagull.  For half a mile I walked between him and the crashing waves to protect him and be ready to scoop him into my arms if he veered toward the water.  And suddenly I understood that God was doing the same thing for me.  As I walked this cancer road I knew that God was walking along beside me and standing between my cancer and me. At the first sign of danger he too will scoop me up into his arms.  I just needed to have the simple faith of a child to know he’s there caring for me.

Isaiah 63:9 says, “In all their distresses he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them.  In his love and mercy he redeemed them, he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”

I came home from that trip with a renewed sense of hope in my life. I was ready to face whatever might lay ahead.

When I went back to see Dr. Hamilton, he recommended we start with some preventative chemo treatments followed up by more scans.  I started chemo that day.

After 3 months there was no sign of cancer. I was so relieved. I made sure to give God all the credit for the good results.

Then in June PET scans revealed that the cancer had returned and had spread to other areas in my body.   Dr. Hamilton said our options were do chemo to try to buy us more time and possibly some radiation to help control the pain, but there was no cure.  The doctors may not have a cure, but I knew that God was in control and that with God nothing is impossible.   If he wanted to heal me he could.

We started a new round of chemo in August 2012 but the scan reports at the end of each round of chemo have not been good.  After the last round of chemo in June of 2013 the scans showed that all the lesions had grown and intensified and that the cancer had now spread into more organs and bones.  Dr. Hamilton said that any more chemo would do more harm than good.  I decided that the quality of the time I had left was more important than trying to buy a little more time with chemo.

I asked Dr. Hamilton how much time I might have left.  He said he didn’t know.  But that he did not think I would have still been alive six months ago.  He said I was still strong and active, so he thought another six months or longer wasn’t out of the question.

People keep telling me how sorry they are that I have to go through all this and I can honestly say that it’s ok.  I have not been cheated out of any life because I still have just as many days left in my life as God allows.  I know this because the Bible says in

Psalm 139:16, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

Another verse that I still lay claim is the promise God made in Jeremiah 29:11 – For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord; plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

People ask me how I am able to live a life filled with joy and peace.  I give them several reasons for my hope.  One reason is because I have accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior and I know that I have eternal life.   I have also learned to trust in him for all things. A third reason is because I receive encouragement from His Word. Being in God’s house to worship gives me joy. Many people are still praying for me, I feel the peace and comfort from those prayer on a daily basis. And finally, I receive so much peace and encouragement through music.  There are a number of songs we sing here in worship that help to draw me closer to God.  One is Because He Lives. Another chorus I love is Through It All.

And the most precious one to me is Ten Thousand Reasons.

The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning; It’s time to sing your song again; Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me; Let me be singing when the evening comes.  Bless the Lord, O my soul, O my soul.  Worship His Holy name; Sing like never before, O my soul.  I’ll worship your Holy Name.

I hope that when my days on this earth are over people will be able that say that about me.  I hope I will still be singing when the evening comes.

Behold the Lamb

Manger in the Shadow of the Cross
Manger in the Shadow of the Cross

The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29 NASB)

I took this photo during a “box scene” rehearsal in 2012. The Nativity and the Cross never appear together during Carols, but I think this fully captures the story of The Hope of Christmas. The simplicity of that stable on that quiet night to the horror of that cross on a terrible Friday in the most public of venues.

In Genesis 3:15 (NIV): God condemns the serpent (Satan) and, while banishing Adam and Eve from paradise due to their bad decision-making, lays the groundwork for hope: And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. “Her offspring” – Jesus, the Lamb of God.

In the Old Testament, the sacrifices required a “perfect” lamb as the Passover lamb. Exodus 12:5 sets that out for the sons of Israel: Your lamb shall be an unblemished male a year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.  Yet it was obvious if you follow the patterns of sin / repentance / sin / repentance – that the sacrificing of a lamb, though representative, was not a final path to redemption.

Yet when, as noted in an earlier post, when Abraham told Issac (Genesis 22:8 NASB) that God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son, he knew that God already knew what was required for our redemption.

When they hung Jesus on that cross instead of you or me, He was still perfect in every way – no blemish, no disobedience, no avoidance – fully God though fully man – and the perfect Lamb. At the cross that terrible day, consider what happened (Matthew 27:50-54, NASB): And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”  And indeed He is.

Behold the Lamb. I believe.

Still Choosing Joy

Cille

 

New Jerusalem

I have challenged myself to study a different scripture each day during Carols Week that explains the text of one of the songs in The Hope of Christmas. (Sanctuary Choir members – as you prepare for this week, I challenge you to do the same.) It is so important that we internalize what we are sharing through music and drama.

I started with what I already know will be my favorite song – New Jerusalem. Catherine Carter Sledge is the soloist (and Choir President) and sang this during worship on December 1.  During Carols, this is toward the end of the concert but oh how it ties everything we are sharing together.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:2, 27 NIV)

Honestly – these verses just scratch the surface.  Read the entire chapter. Verse 4 is one of my all time favorites and reminds us that in heaven the tears are gone – no need for them ever again. Think about it.

 And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. (Revelation 21:4 NIV)

God goes to great lengths to describe the Holy City – this New Jerusalem.  Elaborate is a gross understatement. Most importantly, He addresses how pure it is.  And He seals it with the reminder that to live there, your name must be found in the “Lamb’s book of life.”

God provided that Lamb. Do you know Him? Have you found The Hope of Christmas?