It has been two full years since my wife and I arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, after spending the previous academic year in the greater Boston area during my first year of seminary at Gordon-Conwell. We came to Pear Orchard not just because of a job but because of the reputation of the church community. We went through a little bit of a tough season in Boston and what we desired most was to find spiritual refreshment in the means of grace among a loving and welcoming congregation. After two years, we have realized that we have found that in Pear Orchard.
One of the aspects that tend to stand out in Christians who believe in a robust and Reformed, biblical doctrine of sin is that of conviction. We are skilled in the art of finding out what is wrong about us. Yes, there are many ways in which we do not realize the extent in which our hearts are deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9), but there is certainly a solid belief in the need to feel conviction. This often leads us to reflect critically and thoughtfully on how we do as a church. Are we welcoming to our visitors or are we stand-off-ish? Do we go out of our way to have deeper conversations with fringe attendees or do we stick to the typical, "How are you doing? I'm doing just fine; how about you?" type conversations?
I have heard many comments that sound like the following:
"We need to make sure we do _______ better."
"What we're really missing at POPC is _____."
"I think we are really slacking off in [insert this aspect of the church]."
While these are very helpful and needful reflections that we need to have as a congregation, we also need to remember to bring up that which we are doing well. It might be easier for me to do because of the fact that my wife and I are still relatively new to the Jackson-Ridgeland area. Although I surely consider this church "home", I also think I can still give helpful feedback as a newer member. There are plenty of times that Paul encourages his congregations as he writes to them. In his fantastic book, "The Heart is the Target," Murray Capill writes about the importance of encouraging people in our sermons and not merely exhorting, teaching, and convicting them. After commenting that "the greatest aid to progress is genuine encouragement," Capill says:
"If we take our lead from Paul, then, we will at times tell our congregation how much we love them and how we miss them when we are away; we will tell them of how encouraged we are by their gospel work and how thankful we are for their ministry; we will tell them about what we pray for them; we will tell them of ways in which we see them as wonderful examples to others; we will publicly praise God for them and for his work of grace among them."
So please, let me encourage you.
The moment that we stepped into the doors of POPC, the pastoral staff and congregation have bestowed upon us the type of hospitality that only grace-filled believers could exhibit. You did not know us or our families. We did not go to Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Mississippi College, or [insert you college here] with any of you but you took us in as if we were closer than friends, as if we were family in Christ. We are not from Jackson or Mississippi but you welcomed us as citizens of a greater land. We came in as total strangers seeking refuge in Christ with a like-minded community.
We have been blown away at the frequent invitations from you for meals, Bible studies, and community. There have been gifts to help us move into Jackson and get settled in. There have been texts, calls, and emails that have encouraged us. There have been jokes, hugs, and prayers for us when we needed them. One would think that maybe this was merely a temporary welcome to us POPC and to the Jackson area, but we would find out over time that this was not the case.
It seems to be that there is real fruit of the Spirit here at POPC. Genuine fruit is tested whenever visitors become members and regulars. Ever since we have become members and regulars, there has been no shortage in the amount of outreach that you have extended to us. There has been no "They have had enough of our love" attitude among you. Rather than your love having a big, bright, but short flame, your love to us has only steadily grown towards us. We do not feel like we have been kept at arms length but rather have been brought in as a father brings us his newborn child.
Dear Pear Orchard, we have seen your love, your grace, your fervor, and your desire to grow. We have witnessed your zeal to welcome visitors. We have noticed your urgency to reflect the kingdom of heaven in its diversity. We hope you see them as well.
As an athlete who has been through two surgeries to repair bones and ligaments, it is often very difficult to see your own progression. Often times, it is the physical therapists and the surgeons who notice it in more detail as they examine you. I hope this is a helpful and encouraging perspective for you.
Do not lose your zeal. Do not fail to extend bread to the hungry. Do not give up on the wayward. Do not desert your prayer closets. Do not close your Bibles. Keep going. You are bearing fruit whether you realize it or not. Grace and I are not the only ones who notice your fruit. Often times when I am at the seminary, on youth retreats, or at conferences, we are not the only ones who brag about you but rather your reputation has extended further than we go and the people we meet praise God because of you. So please, keep standing out as Christians - people who love others in the name of Jesus.
Coming to Jackson has been fresh balm to our souls. It has been cold water after a hot season. We have both been strengthened in the call to ministry and certainly the call to minister at POPC. Love begets love and that has certainly been the case here. Today is an age where we shy away from others when things get messy. We live as if others' mess is red paint and we only wear white shirts. You have witnessed our mess and have embraced us in response. We have been counseled, fed, taught, mentored, helped, supported, prayed for, and taken in.
We are blessed to minister the gospel to you and be ministered to by you. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." Let us keep this as our motto. Let it be a banner for us in the days to come.
Dear Pear Orchard, please be encouraged that the Holy Spirit is at work in you.