I start on a personal note. The past year (1996) was probably the busiest year of my life. From jury duty to changing diapers, from Australia to Amsterdam , from San Francisco to Nairobi, from California missions conference to Columbia International University's missions week, from Wednesday teaching to Sunday preaching, from district meetings to Star articles, from Barna's football games to Ben's and Karsten's weekly calls or letters, from worship committee to elder evenings, from youth banquet to prayer meetings, from hospital to graveside, from staff meetings to correspondence, from Fresh Initiatives to staff design, from Hebrews to Biblical Inerrancy, from Monday counseling to small groups, from missions in the manse to urban ministries in the manse, from school concert to candidate interviews, from washing dishes to changing oil, from word and prayer to Advent Poems—I have had a full life. I have traveled more than any other year. I have spoken more away from home, and attended more meetings at home than in any year of my ministry at Bethlehem. And it has been good. I do not feel spent. I feel energized. And that is a miracle of grace. And a tribute to your prayers for me. Please don't stop.
The overarching marks of the year are summed up under 1) Freeing the Future, 2) Hebrews, 3) Dialing up small groups, 4) Searching.
1) FREEING THE FUTURE. Five years and five months after we entered our new sanctuary God freed us from debt. This was a glorious thing to be a part of. So many worked so hard. And God put it in our hearts to give over 1.3 million dollars (including the monthly payments) to end the indebtedness of our church. The program stretched from February's 20+ district meetings to the glorious Thanksgiving service where we celebrated the paying of all our debts. What a year it was! What a wonderful feeling, to be debt free. Not a few have seen the correlation between the exhilaration of being financially debt free and the joy of being morally debt free. Jesus paid our moral debt to God. And in that freedom, and by that power, we have paid our financial debt to man. So Jesus gets the glory for both.
2) HEBREWS. God has been revealing himself and his Son to us in wonderful ways in the Sunday morning series on Hebrews. Jesus is our great High Priest who is not unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. He is the very essence of God and the reflection of his glory. He is not an angel but the Creator of all angels. He is the Mediator of the New Covenant in which the law is written on our hearts and God works in us what is pleasing in his sight. He is the second "Melchizedek"—a Priest who does not have to offer sacrifices for his own sins, or even repeat his offering more than once. Hebrews is the great exposition of the Calvary words: "It is finished." God is teaching us the glory of our Redeemer and our redemption.
3) DIALING UP SMALL GROUPS. In 1996, for the first time, the small group leaders met monthly with pastors and elders for encouragement and instruction. This is a higher level commitment from the staff and elders because we are dialing up the significance of small groups in the pastoral care, nurture, evangelism, and assimilation ministries of our church. It seems that more and more people are catching the vision that being the church implies the kind of ministry that happens among members in small groups.
4) SEARCHING. Together with chairman Tim Tomlinson and eight others I have met perhaps on average every three weeks this year in our search for an Associate Pastor of Worship and Music. The team has grown together in our vision of worship and music at Bethlehem. We have processed well over 50 applicants. We have brought to the church for serious conversation four couples. We are presently pursuing one of these. We have been working on this since October of 1995. God has been merciful to keep us encouraged and hopeful. The time spent corresponds in our minds with the magnitude of the influence that this person will have on our church. May God give us soon what we have waited for and prayed over for so long.
On the home front, Noël has graciously supported my incredible schedule. I will try not to take advantage of this grace. I owe her, as of this writing, a few nights away—and I will pay (with joy). Talitha has brought a new delight to the house. What a wonderful baby she has been. She turned one-year-old on October 11. She knocks on my study door and comes in, sits in my lap and draws or makes a recording in the Dictaphone or reaches for the "mouse." She can say "Jesus," and when we pray she folds her hands. Lord fill up these forms. Abraham started in the PSEO program full time at the University. Barnabas started 8th grade at Bethany Academy. Benjamin finished his two year program at Griffin Tech, in Georgia, and Karsten finished his Masters at Boston College (minus a Latin exam). All the boys stand publicly for King Jesus. I am rich.
There is, of course, more. The unseen glory and grace of life and ministry. I am a graced man. God is unbelievably good to this saved sinner. I look back with amazement at the year. My heart is overflowing with thanks to God for you all. What a great mission we have together. . .
Spreading a passion for God's supremacy in all things for the joy of all peoples,