The year began with a seven-week series on fasting. God has been teaching us and calling us to continue this practice all year long in the Fasting Forty. I attribute much of the joy and energy and hope that I have felt to the faithfulness of many of you to pray and fast on my behalf. "Fasting from food, feasting on God," has become a kind of motto for the Fasting Forty.
The Greatest of these is love
The spring sermon series was on love. As we spoke these astonishing biblical words God was doing them among us. Over and over again I have heard from newcomers and some oldcomers that there is a different spirit among us. I do not take this for granted, nor assume it must continue. I pray that we will be a rugged and tender band of lovers. This emphasis corresponded remarkably with what God was doing in the summer focus and the Master Planning Team.
Summer is for seeing and showing Christ
The banner was beautiful. But more important was that we really pursued the double joy of seeing and showing Christ during the summer months. There was a link between the two. It's expressed in 2 Corinthians 3:18. "We all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory." Beholding (seeing) Christ is the key to becoming what we ought to be (and thus showing Christ!). May our Father give us eyes to see his Son every day (Matthew 16:17).
A Passion for the supremacy of God
The Master Planning Team and Elders completed their year-long labors on the Mission and Vision Statement and made it available in the fall. I made this the framework for the sermons through the fall as we unpacked the MISSION, the Spiritual Dynamic, the Reaffirmed Vision of 2000 by 2000 and the Fresh Initiatives. All of this is our effort to clarify our identity and goals, leading to fresh commitment and action plans in 1996. The Master Planning booklet is a very important document, blending the powerful old radicals of our God-centered allegiance with some new emphases strongly informed by the Holy Spirit's cry in the hearts of our people for "a decisive emphasis on relationships of love."
Ruth and Talitha Ruth
The Advent season brought a cycle of advent poems on Ruth. They will mark in more ways than people realize the advent of our Talitha Ruth. As I write this, I have just turned 50. The decision to adopt a two-month old daughter was not made in haste. Noël and I have been talking for years about this. Recently there have been significant times of prayer. Then came the phone call from Phoebe Dawson, "I believe this little girl is for you." Now we believe so too. The key word in the story from which we take her name (Mark 5:41) is, "Do not fear, only believe" (Mark 5:36). That is God's word to us as parents and God's word to you as a church.
In a sense, Talitha says that I am starting over at Bethlehem. The first fifteen years began with Abraham as an infant. The second fifteen years begins with Talitha as an infant. I was 34 and excited. Now I am 50 and excited. I had been married to Noël for 12 years. Now I have been married to this amazing lady for 27 years. We are deeply thankful for these past fifteen years of love at Bethlehem, and very eager to revel with you in the supremacy of God over the next 15.
Karsten and Shelly
Just as precious as receiving Talitha was receiving Shelly Orvis into our family through marriage to Karsten in May. Two daughters in one year is a high privilege not many dads get. Watching my sons pass from one chapter to the next is deeply moving. God's changelessness becomes more and more sweet.
It was the year of finishing Future Grace. I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for the generosity of the elders and people of Bethlehem to affirm the call of God on my life to pursue a ministry of writing. A few days ago I read these words about Martin Luther: "Luther [who was a professor, not a pastor] preached because the congregation asked him to, and because his doctorate in theology was understood by him and his contemporaries to be a call to teach the word of God to the whole church." If my doctorate of theology from the university of Munich has any relevance in my life, it is probably this: it represents a call to minister to the wider church and culture through the discipline of God-exalting writing. I take this very seriously and submit with joy to the Mission of our church: to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples. That is why I write.
With profound affection in my heart for Jesus and Noël and Karsten and Shelly and Benjamin and Abraham and Barnabas and Talitha and all of you I dedicate myself afresh to this great Mission that we share. Future grace abounds for this day and for the decades to come. May God be mightily glorified in us as we are mercifully satisfied in him!