Monday, June 19, 2006

Crawlfish Caper

Sneaking up to the corner of the house, the scrawny eight year-old boy carefully peered around it into the carport. His lips, perpetually separated by buckteeth, broke into a grin as he saw the car was gone and the object of his desire was where he knew it would be. Sitting there on the step by the door, magnified into lobster-sized proportions by both the afternoon sun shining through the water in the mayonnaise jar and his own imagination, was the crawlfish. His barefeet slapped across the concrete as he hurried over to the jar, picked it up with its glorious contents, and replaced it with a jam jar bearing a crawlfish less than half its size. The guilty pangs that arose as he took off around the corner were surpressed by the thought of how Terry had practically stolen it from him in the first place.

The thin boy had caught the crawlfish earlier that day. He and his older friend by four years, Terry, had spent that morning as they often did, hunting for crawlfish in the two creeks that ran down the borders of the boy's yard and joined into a Y to form a larger creek as the water left his property. He had lifted a large rock and, after the few seconds it had taken for the silt from the creek bed to be carried away by the stream, had almost dropped the rock in amazement. Lying there, its claws raised menacingly, was the largest crawlfish he had ever seen. He had quickly thrown the rock aside on the bank, moved his hand behind the head of the crustacean, and quickly darted down and squeezed his fingers and thumb around its midsection. Like a fisherman who has finally landed the prize-winning catch, the boy had lifted the crawlfish triumphantly, the claws arching back toward his hand making him a bit nervous, and called excitedly to Terry to come and see.

Soon Terry and the other boys in the neighborhood had joined him at the picnic table in his backyard. As the boy held the four-inch crawlfish, again somewhat scared of its pincers waving erratically in the air, they confirmed that he had caught the granddaddy of them all. Terry, older and more wily, sensed the fear of the younger boy. Holding up a smaller, lighter crawlfish next to the boy's dark, large one, he angled in for the trade.

"Yers may be bigger, but yer pert 'nuf half-scared of that thang, and besides, mine could lick yers cause it's so much faster."

"Un-unh. Ain't either," said the boy, as he defended his champion crawlfish but did not deny the fear.

"Is too. Put it in this here bowl of water and see for yerself."

As the boys dropped their crawlfish in the bowl, it became clear to the boy Terry was correct. The larger crawlfish lumbered clumsily around the bottom while the small one, provoked by Terry sticking his finger in the water in front of its face, shot backwards with its tail, often banging into the larger crawlfish and knocking it sideways. With the other boys joining Terry's side, before long he had pulled a Tom Sawyer on the younger boy and made him see how good it would be to trade for a crawlfish "more suited for yer size."

After Terry had walked off with the crawlfish and the day had progressed, the other boys had continued to talk about how big "Terry's crawlfish" was. The boy had begun to regret the trade. This frustration led then to the crawlfish switch, and also brought on the inevitable confrontation.

That same evening, Terry returned to find the trick played on him by his young neighbor. Across the creek the following verbal volley ensued.

"You stole my crawlfish!"

"Ain't yers. I just was lettin' ya borrow it."

"You traded it, fair and square, for that little'un."

"Wuzn't no fair trade."

"Was too!"

"Was not!"

Knowing the boy was too close to the door of the house and his parents within, Terry gave up the fight, dumped the little crawlfish into the creek, and marched angrily back to his house.

Funny how memories, like a dandelion seed on a summer breeze, can come floating across our minds. Though my buckteeth were corrected years ago by the pull of braces, and my thieving heart by the grace of God and restraint of His law, the above childhood memory came back to me recently. This in turn stirred other thoughts of how God actually used my stealing ways (my word to give the crawlfish to Terry should have been honored) to make me sick of sin and seek Christ:

  • Like when I shoved the Hostess fruit pie down the front of my pants at Crawford's Corner Store after school one day. Just like the Proverb says, the stolen bread was sweet at first but then turned to gravel in my mouth because of the guilt. Years later, after our family had moved from North Carolina to Michigan, we were driving back to NC for a visit and had stopped on eastbound US 40 to help a motorist with a flat tire. Another car, going westbound, also pulled over to help. Who should the man be who crossed the highway and median to help but Mr. Crawford? Only God could orchestrate that! When he peeked into the car window to say hi to us kids, I just slunk down in the back seat like the guilty sinner I was.
  • Or like when I stole the Gale Sayers football card from Tad when he went to use the bathroom during a trading session (I justified it then because Sayers was my favorite receiver, Tad had three of them after all, and he was being unfair not to trade). I kept that card for years, yet like Frodo's ring the weight of carrying it around seemed to increase over time. So one day I simply destroyed it to be relieved of the burden.
  • Or like when I broke the dormitory window as a freshman at the University of Michigan while throwing snowballs at my friends, then lied about it when asked by the campus police. Jesus came to me in that same dormitory and saved me from my sin. It took some time (okay about five years!) but eventually my conscience would not let me go on without contacting them to apologize, determine the cost of replacement, then sending the money plus 20% (see Leviticus 6:1-5).
As Augustine said in his Confessions as he recalled stealing the pears of his neighbors, "But now, O Lord my God, I seek out what was in that theft to give me delight, and lo, there is no loveliness in it." I do not know where these folks are anymore, but in the advent you might read this blog: Mr. Crawford, forgive me for taking advantage of all the kindness you showed, and I would love to treat you to a fruit pie; Terry, sorry about the crawlfish and about all I can offer you is dinner at Red Lobster; Tad, I'll get you a new card if you would like, as I see grown-up kids are selling them on e-Bay.

But better yet, let me tell you about One who can take all our debts away - yours and mine - and promises treasures in heaven in return.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Question

Over the past several years I have run into "the question" ever so often, just infrequently enough to forget it is there. The experience is much like the one I have when I run into my mother-in-law's sliding glass door, her dedication to cleanliness causing me to forget that there is a piece of thick glass between me and the great outdoors. "So how is the controversy in your congregation going?" one pastor friend or another from across the nation asks me when I see them after a long period of time. WHAM! I stand there momentarily stunned, a dumb look on my face, rubbing my forehead, feeling remarkably similar to my encounters with the sliding door. "What controversy?" I'm thinking. Then just like I start to laugh when I see my face print on the glass, a knowing smile comes over me as I realize to what they are referring. Oh, yeah, the wine.

Several years ago some godly members of our church, their consciences bothering them, asked our elders to study whether wine should be used in communion or not. Their reasoning to us was that it seemed to be the temperance movement in the history of our church, rather than an exegetical study of Scripture, had more to do with our denomination's practice of replacing wine with grape juice in the Lord's Supper. Their studied commitment to the practice of having worship regulated by God's Word rather than the traditions of men, combined with a peaceful and forbearing spirit they had consistently displayed, caused us to seriously take up this request.

Over several months we studied, then brought our conclusions to the congregation. We came to believe that the Scriptures and church history do show that wine has been used through the ages in communion. In trying to figure out what to do with our convictions, the elders decided that we did not believe that this had to be a matter where we sought to change the mind of everyone else in the denomination by writing long papers and giving lengthy arguments on the floor of Presbytery or Synod. Since our catechisms and Book of Worship discuss wine in the administration of the Lord's Supper (Curious about that assertion? See the Westminster Confession of Faith here at Chapter 30, Paragraph 3; the Larger Catechism here in Questions 168-170; or the Directory for Worship here at Chapter 3, Paragraph 14.), we believed there was a freedom in our church's documents for the session to decide what would be the wisest course to pursue to maintain the sanctity of the sacrament and the peace of the church.

So we let the congregation know how we had arrived at our convictions, that we would now be using wine, but that we would also provide juice for conscience sake as we understood other beloved brethren in the church did not share our convictions. Though admittedly making a change of this sort has had its awkward moments, the transition in our congregation has been a peaceful one. As we sought to pursue this matter along the principles of conscience given to us in Romans 14, we have experienced the blessing promised there: "the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17). Our communion services are sweet times of fellowship and, to be honest, when the communion dish returns to the table with the glasses missing, I would not be able to tell you who has taken which except in the cases where members have talked with me personally about it.

So why do friends ask me "the question"? One dear member of ours, believing this should be a matter decided by the broader church, worked to petition first Presbytery then Synod to rule on the change. Both higher courts, with words of admonition that we have sought to follow, ruled in agreement with our practice. Wine was allowable but juice should be made available. Yet along the way to these rulings, some pretty heated exchanges occurred on the floor that must have become associated in other’s minds with there being a controversy here.

During all those deliberations in the courts of the church, I never said a word as our intention was not and still is not to try to change everyone else’s mind. So why am I bringing this up here? I note that for consideration at this year’s Synod is a paper by a dear brother that I greatly respect but with whom I respectfully disagree seeking the overturning of this ruling. My hope is that Synod will choose to decline looking into this matter further and just allow its earlier ruling to stand. Without commenting on the paper itself, I believe that is the wisest course. Why?

1) Following the 2002 ruling of Synod, a presbytery petitioned Synod to have a study committee on the use of wine in communion. After a great deal of effort and time, this committee came back with an inconclusive report and was dismissed. I do not think further efforts in this area will yield better results.
2) Though we desire unity in our worship practices, complete uniformity is a different matter. For instance, I maintain that the very Word of God that we use in worship is of greater significance than the sacrament that seals that Word. The gospel can be preached without the sacrament, but not without the Word. Yet we trust sessions to decide what version of the Bible they believe to be best for their congregation. Within the parameters of our church documents and rulings, we should allow them the same freedom with the elements of communion.
3) Typically those who are upset with the introduction of wine into communion have been life-long Reformed Presbyterians with deep roots in the abstinence movement. Synod’s 2002 ruling allows those who believe in abstinence to continue its practice without mandating it for everyone else. This decision is consistent with Synod’s removal of abstinence as a requirement for both membership and ordination.

My only comment on the paper itself has only to do with a remark at its beginning that also hit me with a WHAM. I felt like I had run into that door again. The claim was made that some ministers are declining going to certain congregations because of the contents of the cup, and some elders would rather drop the tray than administer certain "fruit of the vine." Please tell me that this is not true. If it is, then maybe our problem is not with the content of the cup, but with the content of that greater vessel we are to use in our love for one another?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Reformation Society of Men

Last night, June 7th, the first Reformation Society of Men's meeting in Kokomo was held in the Fellowship Hall of the Sycamore RPC. We had 17 men in attendance. The men were told that these type of meetings were held during the time of the Reformation, and in recent years, primarily through the ministry of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Reformation Societies have been popping up around the nation. One of the strongest of these is located in Indianapolis which our "grandmother" congregation of Second RPC has been fundamental in founding and supporting. Our "mother" congregation in Lafayette was also instrumental in beginning one in their city two years ago. Good fruit has been developing from these ministries as a result.

The RSM here is slightly different in that it was designed to help us meet a need that exists in our own congregation of discipling the men. Thus, we are focusing currently on developing our men's ability to hear the Lord speaking to them through the studied and preached Word of God from our worship the Lord's Day prior to the meeting, as well as building mentoring and accountability relationships. We pray, however, that others will be led to join us eventually. The format we followed was:
  1. Historical Explanation of Exercises and Society Meetings by Jason Camery
  2. Our "Exercises" - Reciting our Scripture Memory Passage & Singing the Psalm of the Quarter
  3. First Presentation on the Study of Genesis 5:1-24 by Yours Truly
  4. Second Presentation by Jason Camery
  5. Question and Answer Period
  6. Accountability Groups where the Men Asked Each Other:
  • What is one key application from our sermon and study you are making?
  • What is one area you can use prayer in?
  • What is one way that I can encourage you in your faithfulness?

7. Regathering for Closing Singing of Psalm 90C and Prayer

The night was a great success and immensely encouraging. The highlights:
  • The presence of many new and young believers wanting to grow and have mentoring relationships with other men.
  • A vanload of men from Marion making the commitment to be there despite the distance.
  • Men seeing how God speaks to us from the Scriptures, even from what some call the "Obituary Section" of the Bible.
  • Easy and open flow of conversation in the accountability groups spread around the Fellowship Hall and adjacent rooms.
  • Bob McKissick having a birthday, which had us end our meeting with one of the most manly renditions of the Happy Birthday song I have heard in a long time, and being topped off by strawberry shortcake and ice cream prepared by Sharon.

Bob, let's just declare it's your birthday every time we meet. That way, we get Sharon's dessert and you might reach Methuselah's age!

The Coming of Gowf

Well over four hundred shots rang out on the Deer Track Golf Course located near Frankfort, Indiana, on Tuesday as three other men ventured out on the golf course with moi for my semi-annual golfing outing. I call it semi-annual because I usually only go twice a year, once in late spring and another time in early fall. Golf is too expensive and my playing too erratic to give much more time to it than that, but I do relish it when I can play. What can be more therapeutic for a pastor who has to be in the study quite a bit than strolling along green fairways (in my case it is across them as I go side-to-side looking for balls with a mind of their own), seeing woods and water beautifully placed (and spending a great deal of time in both of them), and enjoying the wildlife (we did not see any deer tracks, but the deer flies kept biting our necks, leading us to consider a new name for this particular course)?

Anyway, my blog title comes from a story by the English humorist P.G. Wodehouse, who tells a funny tale of a king who has a strange new religion known as "gowf" invade his empire and eventually conquer the people. For those who are hackers like me, golf by its very nature should give a lot of laughs, for what could be more ridiculous that trying to hit a tiny ball with a stick over hundreds of yards into a way-too-small cup? Below are a few of the gowf anecdotes that occured Tuesday. Notice I have concealed the identities of my partners in an attempt to not further embarass them.
  • At the first tee, one guy swung mightily and missed the ball completely - twice. In a case of sports mix-up, one of us tried to encourage him by calling out "Strike two!"
  • Another time, the same guy, with his ball lying on the fairway, missed twice again, but successively removed several inches of turf both times. After praising him for his consistency, he prepared for his third go at it. One of us used the sun behind us to make the shadow of his hand appear on the ground next to the ball, pointing at it so he could see it.
  • While searching for a lost ball in the rough, one of us came upon a dead sparrow. Lifting it up by the foot, he said, "Hey, I finally got a birdie."
  • One man among us donned a towel on his head to cover his neck from the deer flies. Of course we then dubbed him Mohammed Al-Subpari. (Incidentally, the wicked man whose name we were playing off of really took it in the neck by our forces today.)
  • A minor accomplishment of mine was that I actually hit a few straight drives for once with a five-wood. Yet toward the end of the time, on my second shot on a par 5, my satisfaction of the feel of another good smack turned to dismay as I looked up to see the head of my club had snapped of and was hurtling down the fairway. As I picked up the club head and mourned, we could not locate my ball for a while as we thought it might have landed in the woods. However, my joy returned as we found the ball at the end of the fairway not far from the green. Since I then went on to make par for the first time ever on a par 5, I now have that five-wood head displayed in my office.

Yet none of these tops my favorite gowf anecdote that happened several years ago. While playing with one of these same men, he hit a shot into a creek that cut across the fairway. The bank of the creek went down about six feet, so my friend pulled his extendable ball retriever out his golf bag, which was resting on the pull cart behind him and to his left. As I stood watching him from the other side of the creek, I saw the pull cart begin rolling down the hill to the bank. Before I could cry out the alarm, the cart and bag with all his clubs plunged with a splash into the creek below. As he went down the bank to fetch his sinking bag, he heard the sympathetic question, "You have a ball retriever, but I guess you left your bag retriever at home?"

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Distaff Laugh

"She stretches out her hands to the distaff, and her hands grasp the spindle." -Proverbs 31:19

While having family worship at our table one morning this week with Miriam's parents (affectionately known as Papa and Hoo-Hoo, the latter tag bestowed upon Grandma by young grandchildren for her habit of calling "Hoo-Hoo!" when entering the house), we were reading the last chapter of Proverbs about the excellent wife and came upon the above verse. The question arose over "What is a distaff?" Given that the context is talking about the industrious nature of the wife and mother spoken of in this passage, and the obvious reference to weaving or sewing in the second part of the verse, we concluded that the distaff must have been a part of a loom for weaving and went on.

This morning Miriam's mother told us she had looked it up in the dictionary, and this is the interesting definition as given by Merriam-Webster:

distaff - "1 a : a staff for holding the flax, tow, or wool in spinning b : woman's work or domain 2 : the female branch or side of a family."

As we discussed especially the "1.b." and "2" definitions, we reasoned that so associated was the woman in her working with weaving cloth and clothing her family that the instrument used to hold the materials for spinning became synonymous with both the woman's work and even her side of the family. A Google search confirmed these suspicions:

A distaff is 'a staff with a cleft end for holding wool, flax, etc., from which the thread is drawn in spinning by hand'. It can also be a simliar attachment on a spinning wheel. A dis is a bunch of flax. The word distaff first appeared in English around the year 1000. We find it in Chaucer (e.g., in the "Nun's Priest's Tale": "And Malkyn with a dystaf in hir hand") and in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy ("Tradesmen left their shops, women their distaves"). There was also an expression "to have tow on one's distaff" meaning 'to have work in hand or trouble in store,' as in the "Miller's Tale": "He hadde moore tow on his distaf Than Gerueys knew." (Tow is the fiber of flax or jute prepared for spinning.)

Since women were the ones who did the spinning, the meaning of distaff was extended to mean 'woman's work'. This sense also goes back to the Canterbury Tales. In the "Monk's Prologue" we find, "She rampeth in my face And crieth...I wol haue thy knyf And thou shalt haue my distaf and go spynne." In King Lear Goneril says: "I must change names at home, and give the distaff into my husband's hands," i.e., 'I must become the soldier and leave my husband to do the spinning'. Shakespeare also used the word in Cymbeline: "Their owne noblenesse which could have turn'd a distaff to a lance." The distaff is contrasted with the sword, women's work of spinning contrasted with men's work of fighting.

The day after Twelfth Night was called distaff's day": that was the day on which women resumed their spinning and ordinary household tasks after the Christmas holidays. Herrick wrote a poem called "St. Distaff's Day."

Eventually distaff came to be used figuratively for the female sex, and the female branch of a family came to be known as the distaff side (as we might say "on my mother's side").

So the woman's side of the family was known as the distaff side, and the man's side was the sword side. Of course, many would take exception to this distinction today, for the article I quoted from above ends with this warning, "Be careful using distaff as a synonym for 'female'. Some women might find it offensive -- especially if they know the origin of the word." However, in the age when the Biblical roles of men and women were considered honorable, referring to the female as distaff would not have been seen as derogatory but as a symbol of her noble and caring work. A Biblical encyclopedia said that the woman held the distaff under her left arm as the fibers were pulled from it in the spinning process. Thus, to use distaff to refer to the woman would imply she was a source of constant supply to her husband and family, which is exactly the picture given in Proverbs 31.

Of course, with Miriam's parents there, we had some fun with this as well. You will understand why the older grandchildren and I will from now on always introduce Papa and Hoo-Hoo as our "distaff relatives." You will now know that it is not that they suffer from some disease or condition, nor that they are only related to us in some strange way. Rather, it will actually be a compliment, as in Miriam they have answered for me the question of Proverbs 31:10 and made me rejoice in the distaff by my side.