Special Christmas commentaries from The Alabama Baptist (click to read) …
War, destruction, human suffering — it can be too much to take some days. At the same time, moments of crisis also provide an opportunity to shine the light of Christ brightly amid the harrowing darkness suffocating so many around the world.
Matthew 5:14–16 tells us, “You are the light of the world. … let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Have you noticed all the faith-based ministries that sprang into action the minute Ukrainians found themselves displaced?
The consistent call for prayers and pleas for financial assistance also showcase the enormous support pouring in from around the world.
Opportunities for support are available through our churches, associations, state conventions, national ministries and global partners.
Courage and compassion
And how about the courage and compassion shown by Baptist leaders in Ukraine and the surrounding nations who are committed to caring for those whose lives are forever changed.
What I didn’t understand until recently was the depth of distrust and dislike between Ukrainians and some of its neighbors, especially those in Romania.
Yet, people in Romania are among those pushing through the exhaustion, day after day, to provide the “guests” passing through with food, clothing and a safe place to sleep.
While some Ukrainians have stayed in Romania, most of the refugees are on their way to other places, explained Daniel Fodorean, academic dean at the Baptist Theological Institute of Bucharest.
The seminary and churches are housing the guests, and many people are making rooms available at their homes, he said.
An app-based network for Romanian Baptist church leaders also dings nonstop with needs, which are covered within minutes by someone on the app, Fodorean shared as he and I talked March 22 in Alabama.
Fodorean was in the U.S. for a previously scheduled meeting related to his work with the Romanian-American Mission and took some time to provide a glimpse of the efforts in his country.
“It’s not natural to help Ukrainians because they were mean to Romanians (during past conflicts), but we see the need,” he shared. “We need to show mercy. God said to love one another.”
Efforts also are strong in Moldova, Poland and within Ukraine. Many pastors and ministry leaders are choosing to remain with those surrounded by gunfire and attacks, Fodorean said.
“Love is important and center,” he said. “The most important thing is the kingdom of God.”
On the front lines
Elijah Brown, general secretary and CEO of Baptist World Alliance, shared similar reflections of the work taking place among Baptists on the front lines.
During a March 17 presentation in Birmingham, he described a variety of ministry efforts organized by Baptist churches in the region.
“In the first six days of this war, 600 (of the 2,100) Baptist churches (in Ukraine) provided basic food and humanitarian relief, helping 45,000 people who had been displaced by war,” he said. “But they can’t do it alone.”
Brown asks Baptists to pray for the people of Ukraine. To write out prayers that will be shared with Baptist leaders on the ground in Ukraine, visit baptistworld.org/shareaprayer.
Our brothers and sisters in Christ are standing strong and demonstrating His love boldly. They need our prayers and to know they are not forgotten.
We hope our continued coverage through The Alabama Baptist and The Baptist Paper helps keep those serving in and around Ukraine in the forefront of your mind not only as they focus on mere survival in the moment but also as they attempt to pick up the pieces once the war is over.
Southern Baptist efforts
The communications team from the International Mission Board has been a tremendous help as we pull together coverage day after day.
IMB officials also confirmed Southern Baptists’ efforts through Send Relief include working with local Baptist partners in Ukraine and other nations in Eastern Europe.
We applaud Southern Baptist leaders for choosing to partner with area Baptists in the work.
“These relief efforts include providing food, shelter, transportation, clothing, medical supplies and trauma care to families displaced from Ukraine, as well as Ukrainians internally displaced in the country,” the IMB reports. “And 100 percent of the gifts to [the] Ukraine Crisis Fund are being used to help Ukrainian refugees.”
Options for donating to relief efforts for Ukraine can be found through numerous channels, including the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions at alsbom.org/ukraine.
Teams of Alabama Baptists are beginning to organize for trips to Romania and other Eastern European countries in April and May. To read more about the current and upcoming efforts in Romania, check out this article in The Alabama Baptist.
The start of a new year always brings the opportunity to begin again, turn over a new leaf and release what’s behind us to stay behind us.
And if you’re like me, the freshness of it all provides the exact confidence and energy needed to give it a try.
Does it mean we’ll accomplish all we might dream up for the coming year? Not at all.
Is it possible something significant will derail us along the way? Likely.
But God calls us to continue growing deeper in our relationship with Him and to seek to become more and more like Jesus every day.
So with the primary goal for our new year already outlined for us, we technically can remove the pressure because if we give our primary energy to the main goal, then everything else we need to develop, remove, sharpen, repair, learn or polish will surface.
Focus on Jesus
We’ll have an opportunity, or maybe multiple opportunities, we could have never dreamed up for ourselves — and in some cases never wanted to experience. Either way, if we keep our focus on Jesus, we’ll find our way through as we tackle some with sparkling competence and others more diligently one difficult step at a time.
As you settle into this new year, what are the areas you already know need a little smoothing out?
Do you have a plan in place for how to get started? What resources will you need?
Will you need to find more space in your day (specific time set aside), your mind (expanded mental capacity) or physical location (less clutter)? If so, what are your first steps to find that extra space?
How have others made a difference in your life through the years? Be sure to let them know.
Also, reach out to your church staff and let them know you appreciate all they do for members and ministry efforts as well as the community at large.
The past two years required a good bit of adapting for those serving in ministry, and a kind word goes a long way toward them maintaining the strength needed going forward.
If by chance you aren’t able to genuinely share appreciation, then it’s also important to share those concerns as well.
Consider writing out what upset you this past year. Then, summarize the points and prioritize them to use as your guide for explaining your concerns.
Josh Wilks, minister to children at NorthPark Baptist Church, Trussville, baptizes 7-year-old Grant Stuman during the early service June 6. (Photo by Margaret Smith/NorthPark photography team)
The glow on the little guy’s face as the minister to children surfaced him from the portable baptismal pool triggered a sprinkling of water down several cheeks in the sanctuary.
A handful of us sat at the perfect distance and angle to see the crinkle in his nose emerge above a beaming smile as he was “raised in newness of life.”
We had the unusual opportunity to see these details because the church’s official baptismal pool was covered with decorations for Vacation Bible School.
VBS starts today at many churches across the nation; some even kicked off the week last night with a hot dog supper or other fun event.
As my husband and I sat in the service yesterday at NorthPark Baptist Church in Trussville, Alabama, we found opportunities to worship at every point — experiencing the baptism of a 7-year-old excited about giving his heart to Jesus, singing along with all the other voices, participating in the moments of prayer, giving of our tithe and learning from the pastor’s teachings.
Preaching from Judges 6:1–16, Pastor Bill Wilks shared how “the Israelites thought they were brought low because of the Midianites, but God said to look again.”
“We see the surface problem, but God sees the root problem. Appearances can be deceiving; and we should never overlook the God factor,” Wilks explained.
“We can be too big for God to use us but never too small,” he said. “God sees all the potential in us and wants to draw it out.
“But we — the people of God — may need to look at our own hearts to see where we are rebelling against Him as individuals and as churches. When people do what is right in their own eyes, they often miss what is right in the eyes of God.”
A fairly routine Lord’s Day at any Southern Baptist church, yesterday’s service might have even been a good example for the recent social media posts connected to the #ThisIsTheSBC hashtag.
And church leaders made only one brief mention of the upcoming SBC Annual Meeting in Nashville — a congregational vote to approve the list of messengers who will be attending on behalf of NorthPark.
We chuckled as our executive pastor Stephen Hall accidentally called those of us on the messenger list “missionaries” to the annual meeting before he realized what he said and got tickled himself as he corrected the reference.
It truly was a slip of the tongue, but my mind clung to what he said. Maybe all of us going as messengers should become missionaries of sort and consider the business sessions, hallway talk and panel discussions a missions field.
Exploring divisive terrain
After all, the leaders of our convention entities, Executive Committee, seminaries and other groups are in the roles they are in to serve the churches of the denomination, not the other way around.
Several of them need our help as guides back to calm waters of unity and cooperation and away from the divisive, difficult terrain they decided to explore.
Intimidation and bullying tactics among denominational leaders are not new, neither are manipulative actions to gain or keep control of whatever area or funding — or maybe secret — he or she is attempting to control. Remember, they are human too. The reason it seems worse now is because we all get to watch it play out in real time through social media.
A steady diet of the ugliness eats at our soul, and there’s a point we sense a need to respond, but instead of choosing sides and casting blame, what if the masses of us who don’t like what we see stand together in prayer and a unified voice?
What if we refuse to take the bait and instead of getting caught up in the drama swirling around us, we commit to purifying our denomination?
Starting point for purification
As the true leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention — the churches — we should start with our individual congregations and that means first focusing on our own hearts. It means surrounding our pastors with prayer and support and helping them focus strictly on God to lead.
Healthy churches can then work together to sift issues at the associational level and then the state convention level. From there, the members of the boards of trustees of the roughly dozen SBC entities, Executive Committee, seminaries and auxiliaries should be strong enough to guide those employed as directors of the groups.
We as members of the churches across this denomination fund all the work taking place, and we trust the process put in place to manage the work, but if our hearts are not pure then that will trickle down to those who are called and thus hired to manage the work being done — such as entity leaders and seminary presidents.
They need us. What that means we should do next week in Nashville, I can’t tell you, but I do know that without prayer, accountability and clear expectations, we all are susceptible to the ugliness and deception of life.
We already have the strength and power needed to navigate these latest rocky waters of denominational life — His name is Jesus.
What if all of us — every one of us, not just those we might want to put on a list, but all of us — get over ourselves and look back to Him?
—Jennifer Davis Rash
Known for his kindness and quiet demeanor, Cecil Rash was a dedicated family man with an impeccable work ethic and calm presence.
That’s the way we wrapped the biography section of my father-in-law’s obituary in late January.
During the graveside service, we also shared about his longtime and ever-growing relationship with Christ and years of faithful service to his church — First Baptist Church, Cairo, Georgia, for the past 25-plus years and Sheridan Hills Baptist Church, Hollywood, Florida, for more than 20 years prior to that.
Cecil and Sue Rash’s commitment to Christ and involvement in church for their entire married life rubbed off on their three children — and eventually served as a model for me too.
Sheridan Hills Baptist Church is where I met Jason during my two-year missions term serving the Caribbean through the International Mission Board.
When I met Jason in the mid-1990s, his parents had already made the move to south Georgia, but Jason always had stories to share. So when I did meet them, I felt as if I had always known them.
‘A great dad’
In telling me about his dad during those early days, Jason always described him simply as a great dad.
And in delivering the eulogy for his dad a few days ago, Jason said, “I wish you could see the exclamation points I put on my paper after this sentence: He was a GREAT dad.”
A somewhat generic term in many cases, but Jason’s emotional emphasis of “great” for his dad revealed layers and layers of reasons and experiences — something we all deeply understood without needing extra words.
And while his presence is piercingly absent in the family home, Cecil also will be missed by many in the city of Cairo. He loved Cairo — which happened to be where he spent his formative years prior to college, as well as where he retired — and worked hard to keep it moving forward.
The 85-year-old, single-screen Zebulon theater in town was one of Cecil’s favorite projects, so it only seemed fitting that the marquee pay tribute to him the same day immediate family gathered at the graveside.
Surrounded and supported
And just like all of you have most likely experienced at some point in your journey, the church family stepped in to do what it does best during times of grief — provided prayer, food, phone calls, notes, flowers, plants and listening ears.
COVID-19 restrictions prevented visits from friends like we were used to in the past, but our combined church families from four states surrounded and embraced the family.
The Rash family’s current pastor and former pastor in Cairo, both dear friends, also ministered to the family consistently — and continue to do so — even while balancing so many other needs in their church families.
As we work on all that comes following the death of a family member, I am reminded of the various gifts and skill sets each family member brings and am encouraged to watch us work together as a team.
Cecil would undoubtedly love the group effort taking place. And while he likely wouldn’t actually say much out loud, he would be proud of Sue and his children and grandchildren. He would think they were all pretty great themselves.
—Jennifer Davis Rash
A straight-line decline in membership for more than 50 years should sound an alarm for Southern Baptists, something several ardent researchers and ministry leaders in the convention have attempted to do in various ways for many years.
What could be the reason for the consistent decline?
Did we get so caught up in growing the numbers for numbers’ sake that we forgot to focus on making disciples?
Have we spent most of our energy recruiting church members rather than sharing Christ with those who don’t know Him and helping individual believers grow in their faith?
Do we use the church statistical data to judge each other unfairly and thus push people away?
Have we overcomplicated and overextended what it means to be part of a church family?
The Church and politics
In his 1997 book “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” author Philip Yancey noted, “In the 1950s and 1960s, mainline denominations moved away from proclaiming the gospel toward a more political agenda, and the pews began to empty, cutting membership by half.
“Many of these disaffected churchgoers sought out evangelical churches, where they heard messages more directed to their spiritual needs. It would be ironic indeed if evangelical churches repeated the error.”
—Jennifer Davis Rash
Graduates, the nugget I want to leave with you today is the importance of holding on to the capability to learn.
As the Class of 2020, you are being touted as the class above all classes because of what you experienced during your final semester. You know, that little pandemic thing.
You’ve proven you’ve got what it takes.
You learned in only a few months what most of us had the luxury of a few decades to learn — how to adapt and still flourish when life doesn’t work out like we planned.
But with this praise comes a great deal of pressure and responsibility, which can be managed with success if you maintain a spirit of teachability.
The ability to continue learning at every step of your journey will always serve you well.
Some days, good enough truly is good enough, but most days should be about excellence, no matter how insignificant the tasks of the day may seem.
Part of being excellent is owning up to mistakes.
Mistakes are part of the journey so being mature enough to own yours will lighten the load for everyone involved, including yourself.
It’s also important to learn from them — yours and others.
One mistake we all make at some point is to believe the world revolves around us.
And while today is rightfully all about each of you — most days are not.
In fact, the more we focus on helping others instead of ourselves, the more at peace we will be.
Being a graduate of a religious institution of higher learning means you know a bit about the Bible, so you already know Scripture teaches our greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.
And the second greatest is to love our neighbor as ourselves.
As you leave the college nest and prepare to tackle the world, clinch tightly to those commandments.
And recognize that to achieve both, you must also love yourself.
Scripture is clear that each one of us is created in the image of our Father, the almighty God, so humbly loving ourselves reflects our love for Him and teaches us how to love others.
You only have one life to live here on earth, and you’ve started well.
I urge you to commit today to also finish well — with confidence in who you are and assurance of Whose you are.
The fact is, we need you.
We need your light. We need your kindness. We need your smarts. We need your energy. And we need your teachability.
A few ABCs for the road …
A — Always be honest but be kind in the process, and always give people the benefit of the doubt as your first response.
B — Be forgiving and able to let go of past hurts.
C — Calm the chaos around you by giving more than you take and being part of the solution.
Congratulations, Class of 2020. You are beautiful. You are valued. You are loved. You are strong.
And remember, we need you — the very best version of you God has in store.
Editor’s Note — Commencement address delivered by Jennifer Davis Rash at Judson College in Marion, Alabama, on June 27, 2020.
By the time we realized March Madness for the year 2020 would not describe basketball brackets, rivalries and surreal roundball moments, the normal activities of life as we know it had practically shut down.
COVID-19 became a household term, and our homes, offices, schools, churches and devices might just be the cleanest they’ve ever been.
Online screenings and drive-thru testing centers emerged seemingly overnight.
Many conferences, classes and church services were canceled, rescheduled or moved online.
Airlines and hotels removed all rescheduling and cancellation fees. They even made it super easy to go online and click through the necessary items in a matter of seconds.
Leaders at all levels assessed, reassessed and worked hard to make the best decisions they could for the people for which they were responsible, as well as for the businesses and organizations they lead.
And when Alabama’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was announced this morning (March 13), the assessments narrowed to an even more laser-focused stance.
While our team at TAB Media is working to stay up on all the latest reports and announcements, we also are performing appropriate assessments related to our staff and office as well.
Crisis management plan
Past experiences of unforeseen difficult events, such as the Snowpocalypse winter storm of 2014, the April 2011 tornado devastation in Alabama, the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009 and other experiences through the years, provided opportunities to develop crisis management plans we still use today.
As crises emerge along the way, we always try to dust off our existing plans and put those into play while also adapting as needed to the current situation and accounting for new techonology and resources available to us.
Learning from each experience makes us better and more prepared for the next event sure to come our way. Having a crisis management and communications plan prevents panic and uncertainty because team members trust the leadership and are informed early, consistently and with clarity about what to expect and how to prepare.
Even a basic plan such as knowing who is in charge during a crisis and naming one person to handle all outgoing and incoming communications gives an advantage in focusing quickly on determining priorities.
Opportunity to shine for Jesus
As we find our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m confident history will report amazing stories of people of faith shining for Jesus.
Volunteers trained in medical missions and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief will undoubtedly be on the front lines.
Believers with a chaplain’s heart will work to calm the masses, and people of prayer will unite across the globe to call on God to lead us through this journey.
And I believe the best of each of us will surface as we come together.
Take this opportunity to calm your heart and mind and sling some Jesus all around.
—Jennifer Davis Rash