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Pointed theological questions emerge amid disasters such as Harvey and Irma. Is God angry? Why did God let this happen? Where is God in all this? Interpreting disaster from a Christian perspective is difficult, but Jesus gives us some pointers. 

Upon hearing that Pilate had some Galileans killed at the Temple, Jesus asks, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? …Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:1-4). Jesus is subverting the widespread assumption that disaster is divine retribution for specific or excessive sin. 

Interpreting disaster as divine retribution is riddled with theological, ethical, and biblical problems. Theologically, it discounts human free will and freedom within creation. God is not the immediate cause of everything that happens. Human hands wielded the weapons that slay the Galileans. And Jesus gives no indication that God knocked over the tower of Siloam.

Ethically, the primary problem with interpreting disaster as divine retribution is that it blames victims. Ethical problems accrue when this line of interpretation is applied selectively. For example, televangelist Pat Robertson publicly suggested that the 2010 Haiti earthquake was divine retribution for specific sin, but did not make a similar claim about the Nashville flood of 2010.  Could this inconsistency betray a tendency to demonize the destitute, since victims in Haiti were largely impoverished, or a tendency to demonize people of color, since victims in Haiti were largely black?

There are also biblical problems with interpreting disaster as divine retribution. The Old Testament character Job suffered multiple disasters precisely because he was so righteous, though his friends assumed he had sinned. The disciples voiced a similar assumption when they encountered a man blind from birth and asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born like this?" Jesus said neither (John 9:1-3).

The point is not that sin is without consequences but that victimization should not be ascribed to God. There is a better theological response to hurricanes than Reverend Al Sharpton’s suggestion that Harvey might have been “God’s rebuke.”

After asking whether the victims of Pilate and the tower were worse sinners than others, Jesus says, “No, I tell you. But unless you repent, you will perish just as they did.”  Disasters such as hurricanes are not to be viewed as God punishing others’ sins but as an occasion for our own repentance. We might repent of our indifference toward everyday victims, our inaction in the face of human suffering, or our tendency to see others’ sin as deserving punishment and our own sin as garnering grace.

When he heard about Pilate killing Galileans, Jesus himself was a Galilean en route to the cross where Pilate would have him killed. Christians affirm that Jesus on the cross was God in the flesh. The God of the cross is found not in the instigation of disaster but in solidarity with the victims.

Pastor Noel Schoonmaker

First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN

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I met Jeff 17 years ago.  I took notice of the way he spoke.  It was an unusually slow drawl; his elongated vowels slid up and down in pitch somewhat unnaturally, but were always precisely punctuated with perfectly placed, overly enunciated consonants.  There wasn’t a single sound missing, yet understanding him was still difficult…at first.

Jeff and I first met at Special Friends Camp and got to know each other even more later as I worked in the group home where he lived with 7 other men with intellectual and physical disabilities.  I have always loved talking with Jeff.  His speech may be slow and sound somewhat labored, but I don’t mind; I actually like it.  His pace demands intentionality.  To talk with Jeff, you really have to want to talk with Jeff.  Chitchat and small talk, being brief and lacking in substance, are lost on Jeff.  Each word and each minute in conversation with Jeff is valuable, and he has learned to make the most of each.

Kenny lived in the room next to Jeff at the group home.  They were good friends, but when it comes to speech, they were opposite.  Jeff’s slow drawl was no match for Kenny’s quick sharp sounds, but Jeff’s extensive vocabulary was in stark contrast to Kenny’s utilization of only 2 words…“yeah” and “nah.” Oh, Kenny could make plenty of sounds, but his forms of “yes” and “no” were the only words he ever spoke.  Nonetheless, Jeff loved talking with Kenny, and (seemingly as a courtesy) he only ever asked Kenny questions that could be answered with yes and no.

I stopped working in that group home, but still saw Jeff each summer at camp.  A few years later, Jeff moved out of that group home and stopped coming to camp.  It had been years, but Jeff surprised me this last July; he was back at camp!

During the week, I had a few minutes to talk with Jeff.  Luckily for me, Jeff is still just as good as ever at cutting to the chase.  Our conversation was slow, but again, Jeff made the most of it.  You see, I had always just assumed that speaking must have been a source of pride for Jeff…you know, something to treasure because of how hard he worked for it.  Something he could claim as his own…something well earned.  But as our conversation casually turned to his old friend Kenny, Jeff taught me a lesson about things that are “earned.” At one mention of Kenny, and though I have never told Jeff any part of what I think about how he talks, Jeff, with all the simplicity that true friendship requires, said,  “I wish I could give Kenny my voice and I could be like him for a day.”

I froze.  There was no contributing context to this comment, but I have come to learn that an out of the blue comment in a conversation with Jeff is really a glimpse into the one thing most important to him at that moment.  His display of selflessness was neither off-the-cuff nor fleeting.  It was proof of who Jeff is.

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Philippians 2:1-4

Jeff, I wish I could be like you for a day.

Bryan Anderson

Minister of Music

First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN

I recently read Lee Canipe’s book entitled Loyal Dissenters: Reading Scripture and Talking Freedom with 17th-century English Baptists.  It’s an incisive study of how early Baptists in England grounded their core convictions in the New Testament.  Canipe examines three of these convictions at length.

The first is that “civil authority has no power over religion.”  Since Ephesians 5:23 says, “Christ is the head of the church,” early English Baptists concluded that an arrangement in which a human being—such as the King of England at the time—acts as head of church and state is theologically inappropriate.  They also cited James 4:12, asserting that “there is but one Lord and one lawgiver” in spiritual things, and that is Christ.  They argued that civil authorities should not attempt to legislate matters of the soul.

The second conviction is that “persecution on account of religion is wrong.”  Early English Baptists cited Luke 9:54-56 to support this position.  In this passage, a certain Samaritan village is inhospitable to Jesus.  His disciples James and John offer to call down fire from heaven to consume the village.  But Jesus rebukes them, indicating that persecution of other religious groups is wrong.  Early English Baptists also cited Matthew 13:24-43, the parable of the wheat and the tares.  The point of the parable is that believers and non-believers should be allowed to intermingle, or “grow together,” until the final judgment.  Therefore, there is no place for religious persecution.  God will sort things out rightly at the right time.

The third conviction is “loyalty to the king, obedience to God.”  The principal scriptures in this case were Romans 13:1-7, which commands submission to earthly authorities, and 1 Peter 2:17, which says, “Fear God.  Honor the emperor.”  Early English Baptists argued that loyalty to the king is important, yet qualified by reverent obedience to God.  Civil authorities are to be obeyed unless such obedience compromises the moral conscience and spiritual integrity of Christians, at which time “passive obedience” is appropriate.

The seventeenth-century English Baptist pastor Thomas Grantham developed the concept of “passive obedience” as a way to fear God and honor the emperor when the wills of the two are at odds.  This concept essentially states that when civil law and earthly authorities contradict the values and consciences of Christians, Christians are to disobey the law and accept the punishment for such disobedience.  Disobeying the law in these cases is important because fidelity to God supersedes loyalty to state.  After all, in Acts 4, the rulers told the apostles not to preach the gospel, and the apostles said, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”  At the same time, passively accepting the legal consequences of such disobedience maintains a proper biblical submission to authorities.  As Canipe notes, Grantham’s concept of “passive obedience” anticipated “by some 400 years the concept of nonviolent resistance advocated by Mahatma Gandhi in India, and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States.”

The witness of early English Baptists can encourage modern-day Baptist churches to continue supporting religious freedom, opposing persecution on account of religion, and walking the delicate line between loyalty to the state and obedience to God. 

Pastor Noel Schoonmaker

First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN

Of All the Answers

Of the answers to my prayers—“Yes, No or Wait”—“Wait” is the hardest for me. “Yes”, of course, is great (though sometimes scary—oh, no!  Do I really want this???) “No” means just move on—not going to happen.  But “Wait” is so nebulous!   Does that mean there’s a “Yes” down the road?  Does that mean that if there HAD been a “Yes” that it would have been bad?

Yet, as I look in the Bible, I see LOTS of “Wait.”  The Jews waited for the coming of the Messiah. Abraham waited to be the father of many nations. Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth waited for children. Joseph waited to get out of prison. Simeon waited to see the Messiah with his own eyes. The early church waited for the coming of Holy Spirit.  Galatians 4:4-7 says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”

Why so much waiting????  Is God just slow?  Does God enjoy our discomfort? 

In examining this, I’ve come up with some possible suggestions.

Because God chooses to work with humans to whom God has given freedom of will, sometimes it takes a while to get things going in the direction God desires.  (Think herding cats here.)  How much more efficient things would be if we were pawns upon God’s chessboard that God moved at will.

Whether or not God’s plan involves waiting, there can always be growth and time spent to good purpose in our “waiting periods” IF WE ALLOW IT.  Waiting can be the sandpaper God uses to smooth off some of the “not Christ” stuff on us. That sounds about as comfortable as it would feel! Not very! But it will bring noticeable results in the end.

Our mindset has an enormous amount to do with our perception of our wait time. Which goes quicker, time with friends telling stories and laughing or time spent anticipating a root canal? Part of our work in this process is staying busy with God’s work here on earth while we wait for God to act. In addition to whatever good we accomplish, the time goes by faster.

Finally, a wise friend taught me the importance of waiting for God’s timing. I may see something that needs to happen. It may be something that has much good in it and be something that God would bless, but its success will be much more effective if others have had time to see the need, ponder the answer, and work towards the solution in collaboration. God works inside our “messiness” to bring about great good—truly miraculous! So sometimes our answer is, “Wait.” 

Pam Pilote

Minister of Senior Adults and Congregational Care

First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN

Choose Your Own Adventure

When I was in third grade, I found a cool new type of book called a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. Instead of presenting a conventional story from beginning to end, these books allow you to choose which way you want the story to go. At certain points in the plot, the reader is presented with different options.  Since the books are written in second person, you are part of the story.

For example, say in the story you want to walk on the beach after dark. Your mother says you can go if you go with your brother, but you want to sneak off by yourself. The book might say turn to page 12 for inviting the brother or to turn to page 19 for going alone. Once you turn to the page, you pick up the story from there until you come to another fork in the road and choose the next adventure. In these books, the author doesn’t have all the power in how the story plays out. The reader has a say.

The end of Mark’s gospel is similar. In many modern Bible translations, it’s a “Choose Your Own Adventure” ending. It’s important to realize that the Bibles we have today are compilations of ancient manuscripts translated into English. Turns out that the ancient manuscripts of Mark’s gospel have alternate endings. Some of the manuscripts end at verse 8. Some include a shorter ending after verse 8. And some include a longer ending with verses 19-20. Which shall we choose?

Well, only a few late manuscripts have the short ending after verse 8, so that’s not the best choice. And while several manuscripts end with verses 9-20, the earliest and best manuscripts stop at verse 8. Therefore, it's likely that Mark’s gospel originally ended at verse 8.

Funny thing is, even if we agree that Mark ends at verse 8, it’s still a “choose your own adventure” situation. Verse 8 says the women left the empty tomb and said nothing to anyone for they were afraid. The Greek word order at the end is, “They were afraid, for.” That’s right, English teachers, Mark’s gospel ends with a preposition. It leaves us hanging. What happened after that? Mark doesn’t say. He leaves us with the women scared silent. 

Perhaps Mark leaves us with the women running away scared because he wants to put us in their shoes. He wants us to choose our own adventure. He asks us to decide, not how the book will conclude, but how the story will continue.

As the women exit stage left, Mark ushers us onto the scene, stage right. We are the next act. We have the news that Jesus is resurrected from the grave. Today's church writes the next chapter. Do we believe or do we doubt? Do we have faith or give way to fear? Do we tell the story or keep silent? Do we follow the risen Jesus or do what we wish with our lives? Do we believe in eternal life or see no hope beyond the grave? Mark has dropped his pen for us to pick up. It’s time to choose your own adventure.

Pastor Noel Schoonmaker

First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN

Spiritual Growth through Accountability

The word “accountability” has negative connotations for most people.  Both as Americans and as Baptists we pride ourselves on being free people.  Yet, if we truly want to realize our potential as people, and as Christians, it is essential that we have some accountability in our lives. 

In contrast, Americans generally feel very positive about the word “coach.”  Coaching began in the arena of athletics where it was clearly recognized that, if a team or individual wanted to be their best, they needed a coach to help them get there.   I’ve watched in fascination as coaching has broadened to personal fitness, and then kept growing in popularity in other arenas.  Now “Life Coaches” are quite popular as people realize their need of someone outside themselves to help them reach their goals.  We need accountability to become our best selves.

The accountability that helps us grow can come in many forms.  It can be from a small group we meet with regularly, or an individual we meet with one-on-one.  Modern terms for these relationships vary.  Some of the most popular are "small group," "accountability group," "peer coach," and "spiritual director."  Getting together for these sorts of interactions is part of the church being the church. 

I believe two keys necessary for these relationships to be effective in bringing about spiritual growth are regular meetings and honest interaction.  We must have someone in our lives with whom we can be honest, and who can be honest with us.  For that relationship to be most effective we need to meet on a regular basis whether it is once a week or once a month.

I have been fortunate through the years to have been a part of several small groups and one-on-one relationships which have helped me tremendously in my own spiritual growth and growth as a person.  For the past 7 years, for example, I have been in a “peer coaching” relationship with another individual.  We meet regularly to share our individual goals and report on our progress (or sometimes our challenges and lack of progress!).  This relationship has consistently prodded me toward new goals, and challenged me to “think outside the box.”   I am a stronger Christian and better leader because of this relationship.

Proverbs 27:17 states “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”  Without accountability we are left vulnerable to our own blind spots, and the whims of our own motivation.  Worse yet, we are subject to the limits of our own vision for ourselves.  If you are not currently meeting with a small group or individual with whom you can be honest about your spiritual challenges and goals, I encourage you to prayerfully seek one out.  In the long run you will be glad that you did!

Phil Potratz

Minister of Christian Formation

First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN

3 Lenten Lessons on Spirituality

At First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro we observe the season of Lent, a forty-day period of fasting, repentance, and acknowledging our mortality as we prepare for Easter.  Since Isaiah 58 is one of the scriptures associated with Lent, I want to suggest three important lessons on spirituality that Isaiah 58 teaches us.

The first lesson is that spirituality can become selfish.

Isaiah 58:3 says, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.”  It’s a problem, says the prophet, when believers use spirituality as a mere tool for our own benefit.  In this particular case, the spiritual practice of fasting had become a masquerade for self-service.  The reason people were fasting, it appears, was so God would do what they wanted.  People sometimes make similar attempts today.  Some folks kneel to pray only because God might come around to giving them what they want.  Some folks attend worship as an attempt to get God on their side.

But Bible scholar Alex Motyer points out that this is more of a Canaanite mentality than an Israelite mentality.  The Canaanites were the ones who tried to do things for the gods so they could get a reward.  The Israelites, on the other hand, undertook spiritual acts in gratitude to the God who had saved them.  Their piety was a response to God’s grace.  One sin we might repent of this Lent is the sin of self-serving spirituality.

The second lesson is that spirituality is supposed to be social.

Many people assume that spirituality is purely vertical, that it’s strictly between the believer and God.  But spirituality is also horizontal; it’s between the believer and other people.  Part of the problem in Isaiah 58 was that the people paired their fasting with the oppression of their workers.  Any spirituality that functions to oppress people is out of bounds.  John Chrysostom said they were abstaining from food but not from harming others.  The fast God desires is for us to abstain from oppressing people. 

Isaiah 58:6-7 says, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” Self-denial for the sake of impressing God is out.  Self-denial for the sake of helping others is in.  Self-denial is not undertaken for asceticism but for altruism.  It does not impress God when we go without in order to try to get God to do us a favor.  It impresses God when we go without so that we can furnish something that others need.  An appropriate project for Lent might be to contemplate how we can fast from certain things in order to furnish resources that others need.

The third lesson is that spirituality is satisfying.

Isaiah 58:11 says, “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places.”  Even amid fasting, says the prophet, God will provide satisfaction.  The season of Lent is not all bleak.  Although it’s 40 days long starting on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Sunday, there are actually 46 total days in that span.  The reason for the discrepancy is Sundays.  Sundays do not count in the 40 days of Lent.  Sunday is always a feast day, even amid the season of fasting, because Sunday is the day Jesus arose from the dead.

This is why Lenten fasts are properly broken on Sundays.  For example, if you fast from chocolate during Lent, you can go Hershey crazy on Sundays.  I knew a family of four that decided to fast from soft drinks one Lent.  The two young boys in the family, ages 8 and 10, had never loved Sundays so much because it was the only day they could have Coke!  That experience showed them that spirituality involves satisfaction as well as repentance.

It’s important to recognize that Sunday is foundational to sacred time because it is the day Christ arose from the grave.  So even during Lent as we repent of our sin, acknowledge our mortality, and fast in order to furnish resources that others need, we still have Sundays mixed in. Resurrection is mingled with sin and mortality.  Hope is present in our ashy existence.  Self-denial is mixed with satisfaction.

Pastor Noel Schoonmaker

First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN


Blessings of Music

In my role as Senior Adult Minister at First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN, I have the privilege of planning dates for and singing with the Senior Adult Choir named “Joyful Sound.”  It has been a blessing to me.  Most Fridays will find us somewhere in the area singing in an assisted living or skilled nursing facility.  The activity directors of the facilities say that musical programs are some of their best attended ones.   

I sometimes quip that “music is in a separate drawer of a different filing cabinet than speech or memory."   I have seen virtually silent individuals sing every verse of every hymn when they have not spoken in almost a year.  I have seen people sing with abandon when they could not have said what or if they’d eaten for breakfast.  I’ve seen the smile of reminiscence when we sing Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.   I have seen folks cry as the words and the melody of Amazing Grace or In the Garden touched their hearts.  It has made me wonder if that particular song was touching because it was played at a funeral, or because it was the favorite of a loved one, or because it promised eternity with God.

Singing together with folks makes a connection.  After singing with them, they want to talk to us, to shake our hands, and sometimes to tell us some of their story.  What we have shared binds us together in a unique way.  Not every form of ministry both gives and receives blessings, but music ministry often does. 

A couple of years ago, my grown children and their spouses and I went to a concert at a local outdoor venue.  It had been a fun evening—the special magic of having all of one’s children together at the same time.   We were sitting on blankets on a warm summer night.  The moon was full and the band struck up Will the Circle Be Unbroken.  I looked around and we were all singing with our heads thrown back and at full volume.  A bit of heaven on earth.  Music often takes us there. 

Pam Pilote

Minister to Senior Adults and Congregational Care

First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN

A Christian Response to Refugees and Immigrants

In 1915, the Turkish government began slaughtering Armenian people in an event now known as the Armenian Genocide.  Many Armenian families fled the violence and relocated to the United States as refugees.  I have been thinking about them this week, and about how the Bible directs God’s people to treat refugees and immigrants.

The Old Testament law consistently commands us to treat them justly.  For example, Dt 1:16-17 says, “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien.”  Dt 24:14 says, “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land.”

The Old Testament law also commands that refugees and immigrants be treated compassionately.  For example, Lv 23:22 says, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien.”  Dt 24:20-21 says, “When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.”

Daniel Carroll observes that other law codes of the ancient Near East are virtually silent about how to treat resident aliens.  So why would the Old Testament law advocate for them time and time again?  Perhaps the main reason is that the Lord loves them.  Dt 10:18-19 says, “[God] loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The prophets teach us not to mistreat refugees and immigrants.  Jer 22:3 says, “Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, or the widow.”  Zech 7:9 says, “Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor.”  Mal 3:5 says God will judge those who push the alien aside.  In all, Bible scholars count 36 instances in which the Old Testament tells us to treat the alien, the orphan, and the widow with justice and compassion.

The New Testament promotes hospitality for refugees and immigrants.  For example, Heb 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  In Mt 25:35, Jesus says that on Judgment Day he will say to the righteous, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”  The Greek word translated “stranger” is xenos, which means someone unfamiliar or foreign.  It includes immigrants and refugees.  To show hospitality to them is to show hospitality to Christ, who was once a refugee himself (Mt 2:13-15).

In summary, the Bible calls us to treat refugees and immigrants justly, compassionately, lovingly, and hospitably.  We can do this by supporting them at school, at work, and in the public sphere.  We can do this by extending friendship and by opening the doors of our churches. 

I thank God for those who treated Armenian refugees this way a century ago, especially since one of the Armenian families that fled the violence and settled in the United States was the Packlaian family.  They had a son named Steve, who had a daughter named Karen, who had a daughter named Dayna, who is my wife.  My wife and daughters have a refugee heritage.  To our family, the question of how to treat refugees is not merely a social question, or a political question; it is a very personal question.

Parents and children continue to flee violence in various parts of the world today.  They are looking for compassionate hospitality in a safe place.  This is where God’s people come in.

Pastor Noel Schoonmaker

First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN


What Are You Good At?

I’m absolutely terrible at fishing.  Well, I’m great at feeding the fish, just not so great at catching them.  Admittedly, I don’t really even enjoy fishing.  I find both the fish and the bait slimy and smelly.  I don’t like being out on a boat, I don’t like handling critters, I never got a feel for the art of “setting the hook,” and quite frankly, I’m pretty sure I just don’t have the patience for it. 

But I know a guy who is good at fishing.  He has all the right equipment, knows all the best techniques, and he goes fishing a lot.  He is a friend of mine, and he and I happen to be alike in many ways, but also different in other ways.  Fishing, for example, is both a talent and a hobby of his, but it is not either for me.

First Corinthians 12:1-11 talks about how God has created each of us to be unique with our own set of spiritual gifts.  Paul goes on in verses 12-31 to explain that no matter what our gifts are, those gifts are given to us with a purpose.  Paul explains that because we each have different gifts, it is like we are all members of one body that is made up of many different parts.  Each different part has its own job to do to help keep the whole body working.  We are unique, but we depend on each other.

Now, you might be thinking, “What does fishing have to do with spiritual gifts?  I thought spiritual gifts were just things like preaching, teaching, organizing a Bible study, or singing in worship…you know, church stuff.”  Look at verse 11 again.  Paul says that the gifts we are given are allotted to each of us individually just as the Spirit chooses.  So if the Holy Spirit chooses what gifts to give us, then surely each gift has a purpose. This is what is so special about my friend’s gift for fishing.  While there may be nothing inherently spiritual about being good at fishing, my friend has realized his talent as a spiritual gift by choosing to use it in a spiritual way.

He has told me about how he finds God in and around him every time he takes to the water.  I’ve heard about how the spectacular sunrises he has experienced make known to him in a very real way God’s presence with him there on a crisp, cool morning.  I’ve heard about how God has used an accident that was almost very serious to bring about change in his life.  I’ve heard about how the relaxing atmosphere on the calm, quiet water has yielded to conversations between my friend and his own son that over the years have brought them both closer together and closer to God.  And I can’t count how many times I have heard him tell a fishing story, any old fishing story, that somehow ended with, “and you know, God’s kinda like that…”  My friend just has a way of discovering God while his line’s in the water.  It is clear to me that God has used my friend’s gift for fishing to make a spiritual difference in his life, and the lives of those he shares his gift with, including mine.

He may not be a preacher or a singer, a missionary or a church minister, but he knows something he’s good at, and he lets God use it!

So I’ll ask you again, what are you good at?


Bryan Anderson

Minister of Music

First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN

Listening to God

The Bible says God speaks. God spoke to Eve, Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Mary, Paul, and other biblical figures. Sometimes I wonder if they literally heard an audible voice or if they just sensed God telling them something. Either way, Scripture encourages the church to listen for God’s voice. I want to suggest that the story of Elijah at Mt. Horeb in 1 Kings 19 reveals four key insights about listening to God.

First, God speaks to individuals in a personalized way.

In the Hebrew, verse 9 says Elijah went to the cave, not just a cave. This signals that he went to the exact place where Moses encountered God in Exodus 33. Moses heard God speak when there was an earthquake and a fire. But this time God came to Elijah in a new, distinctive, and personalized way. Just as God called Elijah by name, God also knows your name. God knows you intimately and completely and communicates with you in a personal fashion.

Second, we are more likely to hear God if we listen attentively.

Elijah retreats to a quiet place of solitude. Verse 13 says he “went and stood in the entrance of the cave.” This indicates an intentional posture of listening. Picture Elijah on his tiptoes, sticking his head out of the cave, pro-actively listening for what God had to say. This is a key aspect of prayer. We don’t just talk to God; we also open our ears to hear what God is saying to us.  We can be attentive to God’s voice by reading the Bible prayerfully and by giving God a chance to speak whenever we pause to speak to God.

Third, we can hear God through silence. 

Verse 11 says God was “passing by,” which means God was going to tell Elijah something. A forceful wind shattered the rocks, but God wasn’t in the wind. An earthquake struck, but God wasn’t in the earthquake. A fire ignited, but God wasn’t in the fire. Then came the sound of a “gentle blowing,” as one translation puts it.  God spoke in the stillness after the storm.  God didn’t shout.  God didn’t scream.  God whispered ever so softly.  Sometimes we want God to speak as loudly as thunder or as clearly as a message written in the clouds.  But God often speaks subtly, even silently. Although the King James Version famously says it was a “still, small voice,” the Hebrew is best translated the “sound of sheer silence.” God spoke through silence. And the very next verse says Elijah heard it. How can anybody hear silence?

I interpret this in light of the blue whale, the largest animal ever to grace the earth. Blue whales speak to one another across miles of ocean. Their vocalizations are incredibly loud, measuring between 155 and 188 decibels.  That’s louder than a jet plane. The upper end rivals a rocket launch. The crazy thing is, a blue whale could swim by your boat talking up a storm, and you not hear a thing. You see, while blue whales speak at high decibels, they speak at low frequencies, between 10 and 40 Hertz. The lowest frequency humans can normally detect is 20 Hertz. When we hear things like that at super low frequencies, we don’t hear them as much as we feel them. So when the blue whale speaks at low frequencies, we can’t hear it like a normal human voice.  Our only chance is to feel it, to sense it’s deep vibrations.

Similarly, God often speaks in a way that we can’t hear with our ears but we can sense with our soul. We can feel God communicating with us in the spiritual rumblings deep in our gut. Perhaps the phrase about the sound of sheer silence indicates that Elijah didn’t hear an audible voice of God, but instead sensed soft rumblings in his soul that he interpreted as the divine voice.

Fourth, if we truly hear from God, God will probably send us on a mission

God says to Elijah, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus, and anoint Hazael king over Aram.”  Elijah didn’t get a clear word from God until he encountered God personally, listened attentively, and felt God’s voice rumbling in his soul.  But once he did get a word from God, the word was, “Go!”  If we listen to God very much, we will probably hear God say “go” as well.  Who knows what God would have us “go” and do in 2017, if we would but listen expectantly to the subtle divine voice?

Pastor Noel Schoonmaker

First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN



The Great Departure

At First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro, we are currently celebrating Advent.  I invite you to imagine with me what Advent looked like in heaven…

The angels were going about their business as usual.  Some were singing praises.  Some were preparing blessings.  Some were running errands from heaven to earth.

Michael, an archangel, was passing by the throne, when he saw something he could hardly believe.  His eyes got as big as cantaloupes.  His heart fluttered like a propeller.  The King had stood up.

Michael had passed by the throne countless times before, and the King was always sitting down.  Always.  But for some reason, the King had risen to his feet.  Michael thought, “Maybe this is what Gabriel was talking about.”

He ran down the golden streets, shouting, “It’s time!  It’s time!  Everyone, come quickly!”  The angels smiled at each other.  “It’s time,” they repeated.  They flocked toward the throne.

Michael ran off into the neighborhoods, knocking on doors, clapping his hands, waving his arms, and shouting, “It’s time!  It’s time!”  Doors began to open, heads peaked around corners, and people slowly came out onto the streets: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Moses, Miriam, Deborah, Elijah, David, and others.  Moses said to Elijah, “Do you think it’s the appointed time?”  “I guess so,” Elijah said.  “Let’s go!”

Michael, breathing hard now, took off back toward the river of life.  It was flowing gracefully, as always, with a sparkle in every ripple.  As he approached the water’s edge, he jumped into the air, gliding across to the other side.  He shouted to the hosts of heaven by the riverside, “It’s time! Come quickly!”  They scrambled to their feet and flew toward the throne.

Michael covered every inch of the kingdom, ensuring that all of heaven heard the news.  When he got back to the throne area, he saw a scene unparalleled in the history of the kingdom.  All the hosts of heaven were lining the street that leads to the throne.  Both sides of the street were populated with angels and saints standing shoulder to shoulder.

The King had begun walking down the street.  His stride was steady and strong.  The golden crown glimmered upon his brow.  The train of his robe trailed him by 40 feet or more.   On the front of the robe was the letter “Alpha,” and on the back, “Omega.”

The angels were singing louder than ever, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts!  Heaven and earth are full of his glory!”  As he passed the tree of life, its leaves fluttered in the breeze.  As he passed the river of life, it flowed with the power of an ocean and the peace of a pond.  As he passed the book of life, it blew open and pages flapped against each other, seeming to multiply.

The hosts of heaven continued to sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is, and who is to come.”  The music swelled as the King approached the end of the road, where it meets the jasper walls and the pearly gates.  He lifted his right hand, and the singing stopped. 

He reached out his arms, grabbed the gates, and threw them wide open.  He turned to face the crowd.  Heaven was on tiptoe.

The King’s eyes were teeming with compassion; his face glowed with grace.  Slowly, in the silence, he removed the golden crown from his head and laid it on the ground.  He took off his royal robe and left it in a heap on the street.  With that, he stepped off the streets of gold and departed through the pearly gates.

And so a baby cried in Bethlehem.  And salvation was ours.


Pastor Noel Schoonmaker

First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN


The Advent/Christmas Season: Reduce Possession-Obsession

For many families at First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro, a necessary pre-Christmas ritual is weeding through the old toys and belongings to make room for new ones. Most of us have so much “stuff” that we can’t keep track of or play with it all. Yet we can ease the focus on materialism this season in a variety of ways. For example, consider the following.

Remind your family that Christ is the best gift. Make sure your children know that we celebrate Christmas as Jesus’ birthday and that God sent Jesus because God loves us. When families decorate and prepare for Christmas, leave a nativity scene manger empty and add pieces to the nativity each week adding to the story of Christmas. Wrap the baby Jesus figurine in a special box and open it on Christmas Eve. Then read Romans 6:23b: “The free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Discuss the gifts we give to God. Talk about how you respond when someone gives you a gift. Ask your family what they can do that pleases God such as prayer or sharing with a friend about the good news. As a family, fill out gift cards listing what demonstrates love for God and “neighbor.” Hang the gift cards from your Christmas tree or wrap them and place them under your tree as gifts to God.

Encourage children to be generous. Emphasize the importance of giving not receiving during the season of Advent. As a family, participate in a service project for people in need or donate time and money to others in the community. Talk about how it feels to give and discuss some ways you can continue doing so in the new year ahead.

These are just a few ways to try to create an Advent and Christmas season characterized by love for God and neighbor. May the First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro family truly experience and share the most wonderful gift of all—Christ Our Savior.

Brent Greene

Minister of Preschool and Children

First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN

Adapted from Parent Connect Newsletter

Aging Matters

On Wednesday evenings at First Baptist Church I have been facilitating a class based on the NPT series, Aging Matters.  One of the comments on one of the tapes was, “Most of us believe that we will drive ourselves to our own funerals.”  We laugh because it is so true. 

Thinking about the end of my life is, for me, like anticipating childbirth.  Now, hang with me here.  When a woman is pregnant, she knows that she goes from expecting a baby to having one, but in between it is unknown, scary, different for everybody, momentous, and may well involve struggle and pain.  Doesn’t that sound a bit like what we fear about the end of life? 

Just like the “come to Jesus meeting” my first obstetrician had with me where he asked me what I did and didn’t want during my labor with my oldest child, we would do well to converse with our loved ones about what we do and do not want at the end of our lives.  This conversation is much better held when the end of our lives is in some far distant future.  That removes some of the emotion from the discussion that is often present when a life-limiting diagnosis has already been given.

Recently I was privileged to attend a conference on Faith and Spirituality sponsored by Alive Hospice. One of the breakout session leaders, Carleen Rodgers with Medalogix, gave some great resources on how to have this difficult but important conversation.  I’m listing a few of them here for you:

If having “the talk” is something that you’ve been planning to do, perhaps this is the nudge and the resource that you need to check that off of your “worry list.”  I hope so!

Pam Pilote

Minister of Congregational Care and Senior Adults

First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN

What is the Church?

This question has collected countless answers over the centuries. Baptists have often responded by citing Mt 18:20, where Christ says, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the middle of them.” This verse reveals at least three things about the church.

1) The church is a community.

Jesus says nothing about a building because a church is made of people. It requires at least two. Jesus calls people to follow him together, not individualistically. He never had only one disciple. He started by calling Peter and Andrew because he wants two or three gathered. If a Christian couple prays together at home in the name of Christ, they are a church.  Yet one person praying alone in a glorious cathedral is not a church.

2) The church is an open community.

After Jesus called Peter and Andrew, he called James and John, too. What if Pete and Andy had thought, “Man, this is our thing. We’re not letting anybody else in our club.” That would have been completely antithetical to the type of community Jesus has designed. The community Jesus calls is always and necessarily open. That’s why he says “where two or three are gathered.” The church is like two always ready to welcome a third. In fact, in Matthew’s gospel, there are 2 disciples, then 4, then 12, then 70, and by the second chapter of Acts, 3,000 are saved and more are added daily.

The church is an indefinite and hospitable collective. It’s not a circle of people holding hands tightly, where if you try to enter you get clotheslined like in a game of red rover. Rather, it’s a circle of people holding hands loosely who are always ready to drop them momentarily to welcome a new set of hands into the expanding ring of grace. The church is more interested in the community it is becoming than the community it already is.

3) The church is an open community with Jesus in the middle.

Since the makeup of the church is always in flux, it needs something strong to hold it together. Enter the name of Jesus. The church gathers not for mere social reasons but in the powerful name of Christ. His name is the centripetal force that holds the community together. When Jesus says he is “in the middle” of the group, he does not just mean that his memory is inspirational, or that his ideals live on through his followers.  He means that as the resurrected and living Savior, he is spiritually and actually present with those who gather in his name.

More precisely, Christ is present between us.  He lives between Christians praying together, between Christians studying Scripture together, between Christians reaching out to the homeless together, between Christians worshipping shoulder to shoulder. The living Christ has an interstitial presence in the church.

When my daughter Maggie was three, we were leaving church one day and she said, “Jesus hugged me at church.” I didn’t know what she meant. I asked if a Sunday School teacher had hugged her, or a friend perhaps. She said Jesus hugged her. I asked if she had learned about Jesus hugging children or if she was picturing Jesus in her mind. She said Jesus hugged her. Then I thought, “Oh yeah, where two or three are gathered, Christ is in the middle.”

So I suppose he gives hugs at church, too.

Pastor Noel Schoonmaker 

First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN




Let's Talk about Talk

There’s been a lot of talk about talk lately, especially since the presidential debates began. The talk of political leaders influences the talk in our culture. But there is a better source of wisdom concerning talk. A few months ago at First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro, we studied the book of James. From James 3, we learn three important things about talk.

1. Words create worlds.

James reminds us of the creation story in Genesis 1. In that story, God didn’t wave God’s hand to create the universe. God didn’t stomp God’s foot to bring the world into being. God spoke. God said, “Let there be light." And there was light. God could have created the world in any way God wanted, and God chose speech. God talked the universe into existence. Since then, tongues have had the capacity to shape worlds. We can’t speak light or plants or animals into being, but we can use the power of speech to shape our own sphere of life. For example, ever since they were born, I have constantly told my daughters that they are good girls. Part of what I am doing is describing them. They are generally sweet and well-behaved girls. But part of what I’m doing is speaking a world for them to live into, a world in which they are moral people.

2. We don’t run our mouths; our mouths run us.

We often think of the mind telling the mouth what to say. But James takes a different angle. He says the mouth controls the body like a rudder steers a ship. It’s a small part of the vessel but it charts the course. A key to self-control, then, is tongue-control. If we can learn to practice holy speech, we can learn to practice holy living. If we can get our Christian talk going, it can help our Christian walk. This is one reason prayer is so formative. Saying “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” can help us to do God’s will. Saying “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" can help us to forgive others.

3. Blessing and cursing shouldn’t come from the same pie-hole.

James says we use our mouths to bless God and to curse people created in God’s likeness. How can we praise the Creator and curse the creations? That’s like praising an author and cursing her books. That’s like praising an artist and cursing his masterpiece. It makes no sense. And it shouldn’t be that way. The clear lesson is that we are to bless people as we bless God. So the next time we want to curse somebody on the news, or curse somebody who has done us wrong, or curse somebody on the other side of a controversial issue, we might remember that they bear the mark of God’s creative genius in some way or another, and that to curse that person is to curse someone made in God’s image.

These three points are important to remember because words are a huge part of our lives. In fact, a 2012 study found that the average person speaks about 17,000 words per day. That’s a lot of opportunity to mess up. But it’s also a lot of opportunity to shape a healthy world, chart a holy life, and bless people’s socks off.

Pastor Noel Schoonmaker

First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN