Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Come As You Are, But Don't Leave That Way

On Sunday evening, November 20th, our family was heading home after a wonderful Thanksgiving Psalm Sing in Lafayette, our hearts full of the grace and wonder of God. As we drove east on SR 26, I noticed ahead a car off the right side of the road with headlights pointed at us. As we passed by at 45 mph (slowing to try and see in the dark what was going on), we realized this car was down in a ditch about five feet below the road. We stopped, turned around and drove back. Jamey and I hopped out of the van into the cold, dark night to investigate, while Miriam took the wheel to try and position our vehicle more safely on this two-lane road.

We came upon a Chevy Malibu with its tail end wrapped around a telephone pole. In the dark it was at first difficult to see if anyone was in the car, but as we dropped down into the ditch and started yelling the passenger door opened and out stumbled a man about thirty years of age, the door closing behind him. He was dressed in boots, blue jeans and a leather jacket, with five ear rings adorning his left ear, and he was cursing up a storm. We found out his name was Rob and inquired if he was all right. He assured us he was uninjured. He again cursed and used the Lord's name in vain at having wrecked his stepfather's car. It was only then that we heard cries from the back seat. We realized children were in there.

They were Rob's five year-old daughter and eight-year-old son. At first it seemed that Rob was just going to leave them in there, but when I pointed out that the pole had crushed the back of the car between them and that they were sitting on shattered glass, he swore again and then worked to extricate them from the car. Fortunately, from all we could see they had escaped injury as well. His adorable, sobbing daughter sat on my lap as we struggled to find and get her coat and shoes on in the dark. His son stood there sullenly, and I could see from the headlights of our van now pointed over the scene the look of distrust and disgust that should not be present on any son's face as he watches his dad.

As Rob called his stepfather on his cell phone, who lived nearby, to come to bring them home, we put the shivering children in our van to warm up as they waited. In the process of helping, two, open, sixteen-ounce beer cans between the front seats confirmed the hunch the wrecked car, Rob's demeanor, and his son's look had given me. Rob had been headed east, lost control in his drunkenness, done a 180, and then walloped the back end of his car around the telephone pole. As we waited for the help to arrive, and as many passing cars slowed down or stopped as people offered help which Rob declined, I confronted him.

I told him that he had been drinking and had nearly taken his life and his children's in the process, which he acknowledged. As he stood there lighting up one cigarette after another, it was clear that he was not so drunk as to be completely unaware of what was happening. I explained that I was a pastor, and that his swearing at God was blaming the wrong party and offensive to God. Rob told me he was returning from having picked up his children from his wife, who had left him for another after ten years of marriage. He had also been to church that very morning, the "Harley-Davidson Church," that makes bikers like him feel welcomed by telling them "come as you are." The way he explained it, his going to church and his drinking were for the same thing - to help him get over losing his wife.

On the roadside I told Rob that God certainly welcomes all to come despite their appearance, but if they do not leave inwardly changed by their encounter with Christ, which was obvious in his case, then something is dreadfully wrong either with the one preaching or listening, or both. I told him that the Lord of heaven had sent a preacher along right then to call him out of the mess he was making of his life. As we looked at the totaled car, Rob heard that it's one thing to come to God with your life a wreck, but it would be foolish to leave it that way.

As we parted, I prayed for Rob and his family's salvation, and tell you this to ask you to do the same. And let us join together in telling sinners that they can come to Christ as they are, wrecked lives and all, but they certainly cannot leave that way, for far greater judgments await those who spurn His salvation.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Law of Naboth's Vineyard

The encroachment of government on personal rights and responsibilities is the result of our increasingly godless society. As man trusts the Lord less, he puts his trust in other men, particularly rulers, more. How a few recent examples have made me painfully aware of that lately!

  • The problem of increasing costs of local government coupled with an accounting error to the tune of $10 million in our city's budget in a previous year left local leaders with a great shortfall in income. The solution? Our property taxes were increased by 40%.
  • Our church building sits kiddy corner to the public library in downtown Kokomo. For over a year now the library board has been considering different plans for expansion and renovation. One of the plans we recently discovered on their website, in the area labelled "demolition," involves the "removal of the Presbyterian church." That's us! To this date, no one from the library or city has yet to contact us.
  • I've had to oversee my mom's healthcare, and she is turning 65 in a few months. So I've been trying to figure out Medicare. Despite the claims of the Medicare literature (complete with colorful drawings and tables) that they are making it easy to understand and decide on the best option, even with a few math degrees I'm struggling to make heads or tails of it. A recent cartoon captures my experience so far. An elderly man is holding up some bottles of pills to his adult daughter and he says, "This one's for a good night's sleep and this one's for the headache I get trying to understand the new Medicare drug plan."
Though there will be a great crisis caused at some point because there will be too few workers to fund too many retirees' medical needs, at least for the moment Medicare is more a nuisance to me than anything. Certainly I detest paying several hundred more dollars per year in taxes, but at the very least I can hope (I'm not holding my breath) that the increased property taxes are only temporary until the crisis passes. As much as these other examples concern me, it is the middle example above that has me the most concerned over the arrogance of government when they no longer fear God. The library has stated that it hopes that it will not have to pursue "eminent domain options," but with the recent Kelo decision by the Supreme Court local governments have been emboldened. Our local officials have not even had the courtesy to ask the Presbyterian church if it would like to be demolished, and some involved have made bombastic statements in public meetings as to how "easy" it will be to expand our way.

These things remind me of a story from the Old Testament about a king named Ahab. Seems that Ahab wanted a certain vineyard adjacent to his own royal gardens that was owned by a man named Naboth. When Ahab found Naboth's vineyard was not for sale, a plan was hatched by his seductive wife Jezebel. They ended up holding a sham trial against Naboth with false witnesses, sentencing him to death, and then after he was executed - voila! - they seized his property. The "Law of Naboth's Vineyard" then is this: What rulers want, rulers can have. If they want more of your income, they can have it. If they want your property, it is ultimately theirs. If they want to take care of your doctor's bills, they can do that for you. What rulers want, rulers can have.

However, there is one thing rulers may want to keep in mind. Ahab and Jezebel found this out the hard way. The Law of Naboth's Vineyard is universal. In other words, the Lord of lords and the King of kings can employ the same rule. What the Lord wants, the Lord can have. The only difference is that unlike arrogant government officials who apply this law to seize things to advance their personal power and political purposes, God applies this law to execute justice and protect the poor. When He pronounced Ahab and Jezebel's demise (you can read about it in II Kings 21:19-26, but be warned that it is not for the squeamish), the Lord makes it clear that He wants their lives and properties because they had taken Naboth's.

So rulers, pause before you seize. You can apply the Law of Naboth's Vineyard, but there is a great King to whom we can pray who also operates by the same law.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Group Counseling

Having been exposed a great deal recently to psychiatric wards, waiting rooms and mental health counselors (Clarification: Not for myself), I have been amazed at the number of people seeking counseling. The wards and waiting rooms are full. Prescription drug sales for depression are at all-time highs. The patients speak of their psychiatrists and counselors with awe and reverence.

So you can understand why as a preacher I was both amused and encouraged by a recent quote by Jay Adams about preaching:

"Preaching is nothing but group counseling...(and there is) no difference between counseling and preaching except that the latter is louder."

Few view preaching this way, as large group counseling. Few pastors would think this as they take their place behind the pulpit. Yet preachers are to proclaim the word of God to the congregation as counsel from the Lord. Every time the congregation comes and sits under the preached word they are to be, according to II Timothy 4:2, "reproved, rebuked, exhorted, with great patience and instruction." Sounds like counseling to me! The preacher is to see himself as a pastor or shepherd (the Greek word translated pastor means "shepherd") being used by the Lord to guide the entire flock to the green pastures and quiet waters where people's souls can be restored (Psalm 23).

The reason so many are seeking the word of counselors is that they have forsaken the word of God. The reason so many are filling their mouths with pills is because they are not being filled with the word of God. The reason so many revere the word of the psychiatrists is that they speak with more authority than preachers do who have the word of God. Only when ordained preachers begin to see themselves with the authority of God's license upon them to speak directly to the ills and needs of the people, and then faithfully guide them, will the authority of the false teachers (i.e. Christless psychotherapists) be exposed.

In his book whose title gives its outline, PsychoBabble - The Failure of Modern Psychology and the Biblical Alternative, Dr. Richard Ganz, former psychologist turned pastor, states "The key to Biblical change is often confrontation." Until pastors can boldly or (remembering Adams' quote above) loudly start confronting their listeners with truth in their weekly times of group counseling, and also equip their congregations to serve those hurting in their midst as Ganz also outlines, we will continue to see the shriveling of souls and the inability to cope with life that is so present all around us.

Does this suggest a new way to invite all these psycho-dependent people to church? "Where you going?" they ask. Then you say, "To group counseling. Want to join us?"

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Two Blogs for the Price of One

Perhaps you have noticed I have not blogged for over a month. Yet today I'm offering two blogs (see below). What's the deal? Two brief explanations.

First has been that the trial with my mom has taken time away for extras. The past two months have been filled with multiple moves, hospital admittances and visitations, appointments for legal, financial and medical counsel, etc. Recently Mom has been showing some signs of stabilizing, though we continue to be greatly concerned for her spiritual state. Last night we moved her into a studio apartment at the assisted living place. Though she still has a long road to go for true recovery, we hope this place will be long-term for her and the dealing with emergency-like situations will cease. In the midst of the struggle and pain, it helps to keep a sense of humor. Celia asked last night, "Why did we put Nanny into a little compartment?" Unlike what this suggests, she has very comfortable surroundings, Christian care, and many people showing her God's love. Please pray she could receive it.

Another reason I'm writing today is that I'm changing somewhat the nature of this blog. So far, I have been putting Biblically-based essays here that take quite a bit of time for me to write. But as I learn more about blogs, I'm seeing that short comments on a variety of issues are common, and I think will fit in well with what I want to do here. So I've decided to update this blog more frequently by writing on what I can rather than just when I am able to do an essay.

I hope that's agreeable to those who take the time to read this. If not, I guess you can ask for a refund!

Amongst the Lambs

My wife and I decided to teach the primary class in our Sabbath School program at the church this fall quarter. As the pastor, I must confess I have thought on more than one occasion that "I am too busy with more important things" at the church than to teach 3-7 year-olds. Yet in the few weeks we've been in there, I have been reminded how important time with the lambs can be.

For consider some of the lessons the Lord is teaching not them but me:

Explain the Scriptures simply - Our church is memorizing Psalm 40 this quarter, and I have been singing it (poor kids!) and then having the children fill in words when I pause. As the psalmist speaks of God bringing him out of the pit, one line says the Lord brought me "out of the dungeon mire." When I asked what "mire" was, one girl said, "That's the store where Mommy shops." We laugh at these things, but I have had adults who have had no Scripture training make similar comments. Pastors and teachers need to work hard to explain the Scriptures simply. When I asked them if they would like to be down in a deep, dark hole filled with icky mud at the bottom, a resounding, unanimous "NO!" filled the classroom, and they took another step in their understanding of salvation. This brings me to the next lesson God is teaching me.

Tell stories with excitement - It amazes me how these children, wiggly after sitting in church for 90 minutes plus, hungry for lunch, excited to be with their friends, will grow quiet as you tell them a Bible story with enthusiasm. Huge grins develop as you show them different animals God created. Eyes widen in horror as you tell them about Cain killing his brother Abel. Hands shoot up in the air to answer questions. I have been reminded how at the Banner of Truth Pastor's Conference I attended last May, Pastor Stuart Olyott of Wales had a sanctuary of grown men captivated by his child-like telling of gospel stories of Jesus. Whether preaching, leading family worship at home, teaching Bible studies, counseling or evangelizing, there is nothing like a parable or story to bring truth home. Is that not how the Bible is written? Is that not how Jesus preached?

Don't dim enthusiasm for prayer - Adults have much to learn from children when it comes to prayer. The children, unencumbered by tradition and protocol, pour out their little hearts in honest prayer. These can range from the humorous, little details of life such as "Please help Jack's daddy's green car go faster" to those with eternal-weight in them like "Please help Daddy come to church like he promised." Why is it that the simple prayers of children or young believers always excite me as I listen, but so often the petitions of older believers, including my own, lull me to sleep? Where is the faith to ask God to meet the details of life as well as to conquer the impossible?

Rejoice in small, tangible blessings - The children were absolutely fascinated with the pet lizards we brought to class (a visual for "the creeping things that creep on the earth" from Genesis 1:26). They ran, held hands, and shouted during a walk around the block as they pointed out what God has made. A couple of crackers and juice have been received like some great banquet is being served. One gal joyfully took out of her purse a walnut she had found on a walk with Daddy in order to show the class. Every week they give their offering for a Compassion child in the Philippines with tremendous excitement and joy. Yes, it helps we collect it in a toy dump truck (I kept forgetting to get a basket), but still how often my heart is dull to the daily blessings God sends my way by the truckloads. Rejoicing with the lambs is helping me see God's green pastures more clearly.

Show affection warmly - My wife has no problem with this. She is a nurturer, and how quickly these young ones run to her for a hug or a lap to sit on. And how quickly, once they know and trust you, they want to show affection. I, on the other hand, have often been too reserved during my ministry to extend a hug or show affection. As one young fellow, who is not my own child, crawled on my lap this week to help me tell a story, I saw how these young ones are breaking down my resistance and are confirming something I've been feeling in my bones as I am becoming an older pastor. God's people need the personal, fatherly touch, be it a heart-felt handshake, a welcoming hug, hands laid on in prayer, or a sympathetic pat. Certainly boundaries of propriety exist that must be carefully maintained, but we need also to be careful not to be overly constrained. We are, are we not, the body of Christ?

So if you hear me getting really excited when I pray, get surprised by a hug from me, or just come upon me looking at a walnut with fascination, now you know why. I have been playing and learning with the lambs, and "out of their mouths pour forth God's praises."