Forty-Five Years!

Today is the 45th Anniversary of my ordination; when a 24 yr old inexperienced seminary grad was set aside for the gospel ministry by the laying on of hands by faithful men. 

Gloria and I were married 2 weeks later and then started as the Associate Pastor of the Bethlehem Community Church- 2 weeks later. I had the privilege of working under Pastor Art Gay and being mentored in ministry by this faithful man.   

Yesterday, I also had the special privilege of being a part of the 50th Anniversary celebration of Bethlehem Community Church, Delmar, NY and saw some very special friends. 

My life-ministry verse is and has been 1 Thess 5:20, “Faithful is he who has called you who will also do it.” Praise God for his faithfulness and I thank him for a faithful life-time partner in ministry, my wife Gloria. 

Please pray that we would continue to be faithful to our faithful God until he calls us home. 

April Fools…

I wanted to write an informative blog on the origin of April Fools’ Day, but there are so many claims that I gave up and personally don’t care. So I thought instead I would share some memorable hoaxes that have been foisted upon our family over the years, but I couldn’t think of any. Finally, I thought I would tell you about the incredible April Fools’ joke I played on my parents when I found out I was adopted (April Fools), but I can’t.

On the one hand, it is fun to be a bit of an intentional ninnyhammer  on one day of the year when we often act or say foolish things quite naturally at other times. On the other hand, it is too bad we take so much time thinking of some untruth to tell someone when the time could be better spent thinking of something encouraging to do or say to them.

Instead, I think I’ll share a bit on the three types of fools that are revealed in the Bible. I would highly recommend the book Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion by Os Guinness, especially the chapter, “The Way of the Third Fool.”  Guinness writes that there is, first of all, the Fool Proper; applied to a broad category of people who have no time for God. There are those who make the outright claim that there is no God (Ps 14:1) or those who live with no conscious consideration of God (Lk 12:20).

The second kind of fool that the Bible mentions is the Fool Bearer. This person is the one who has been treated as a fool for Christ sake (1 Cor 4:10). Like Dostoevsky’s Idiot, this is a person who is misunderstood, mistreated, persecuted, and rejected for the sake of following Christ. He or she is willing to be laughed at by the world just as their Savior was mocked and treated as a Fool King when he was dressed in purple, given a fake scepter, and a crown of thorns as part of his suffering.

The third kind of fool that Guinness describes is the Fool Maker. The Fool Maker is one “…who is prepared to be seen and treated as a fool, so that from the position of derided folly, he or she may be able to bounce back and play the jester, addressing truth to power, pricking the balloons of the high and mighty, and telling the emperor he has no clothes… The cross, Martin Luther wrote, was the devil’s mousetrap. The devil smelled cheese, and wham, felt steel…Everything that climaxed in that sultry Passover week was spring-loaded with a deeper, history-shaking truth, although under a disguise so strange that it bewildered even the closest and most ardent followers of Jesus–and the devil himself fell for the smell of cheese. Just so did God shame the world’s folly, subvert the wold’s pride and put death to death through the death of his Son.”

And what I find most insightful is the fact that Guinness shows that this kind of foolery is what God uses to win the world. He quotes Reinhold Niebuhr who claimed that there is a limit to what even the power of God can do as power alone, for “such power does not reach the heart of the rebel.” Guinness adds, “power can fence us, in but only sacrificial love can find us out. Power can win when we are ranged against it, but it cannot win us…There was no other way. It takes the full folly and weakness of the cross to find us out and win us back.”

And so on this April Fools’ Day, which has so closely followed the “foolery” of Holy Week, let us not fall prey to the idea that power and dominance will be the way the gospel will win the world. It will be through our suffering as “fool-bearers” and our loving others as “fool-makers” that the gospel will subvert the wisdom and power of the world, and find and win the lost .

 

Repent and Sin No More!

 

Did you know that this phrase is not in the Bible? Jesus told the man healed in John 5 to “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you,” and he told the woman caught in adultery to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus never told anyone to “repent and sin no more.”

However, Jesus did use the word repent with a far different word in Mark 1:15, “The kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the gospel.” Not just repent, but repent and believe. Both are in the present imperative, active, 2nd person plural. In other words, it was a command to do these things continuously: “You all out there, continue to repent and continue to believe the gospel!”

Just as we cannot imagine a follower of Jesus without faith, so we should not imagine the same follower without the continuing character of repentance. We should not just call ourselves Believers but also Repenters, for we will not stop repenting until we stop sinning. Unfortunately, this continual character of repentance is sadly lacking in our churches, in our Christian colleges and graduate schools, in our interpersonal relationships and in our marriages, where we readily admit to our brokenness but when it comes to repentance, we act as if other people need to repent, but not us.

I would like to clarify what repentance is because I think many people are often confused as to the meaning of the word. So over the next few blogs let me unpack the biblical concept of repentance by describing it in 3 different ways:

  • Repentance is not penance
  • Repentance is without regret (remorse)
  • Repentance is without excuse

 

First, Repentance is not Penance

Roman Catholic Theology defines Penance as a sacrament consisting of contrition, confession, and the carrying out of certain works which render satisfaction for the sin committed since baptism. Certainly repentance and inner sorrow is a part of this, but penance is an act performed that makes amends or satisfaction for sin.

Not to be out done, we “Prots” have our own version of penance. Though we confess to being saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, we are still driven to act in ways that seek to curry favor with God. Many co-opt the Lenten season with acts of self-denial and self-abnegation to demonstrate contrition to God by the sincerity of outward actions, while failing to comprehend that the real issue is the inner condition of the heart. It becomes more of a “flesh formation” rather than a spiritual formation.

Not only does penance divert our attention away from the real need of our souls, but it can also anesthetize our consciences so we gain momentary relief from our guilt. In so doing we actually set up a vicious cycle for ourselves: do good things to make up for our bad things; then after being good for a while we think we deserve a little bad, which we then try to make up for by being good and… so on and so forth. Penance makes us like little gerbils on a never-ending wheel of trying to deal with guilt.

The prophet Isaiah held out the free grace and mercy of God for his people when he cried, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for things that are not bread, and your labor on things that do not satisfy” (55:1, 2). And in the closing chapter of the New Testament, the Spirit and the Church cry out, “Come, and let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires to take the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17).

If we can do nothing to achieve our salvation, why do we think our actions (now that we are God’s children) are in any way meritorious or sanctifying? Why do we measure God’s love for us by how much we do for him rather than by what he has done for us? Penance may drive us to a bed of nails, but true repentance will always drive us back to the cross! Repent and believe the gospel of God’s love and mercy which continues to flow for us because of Christ. The same gospel that saves also sanctifies.

More on this next blog… let me recommend an excellent book on this subject by Richard Owen Roberts, “Repentance: the First Word of the Gospel.” (Crossway Books, 2001)

Marriage as a Discipline…

 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I want to take this opportunity to write something about marriage that you do will not read about in the superficial and unrealistic cards that have to be plowed through in order to find one (if you are lucky) that you are not embarrassed to give. You will never see mentioned the fact that  marriage needs to be a discipline if it is going to last; sounds so unromantic.

While it is true that only 7% of marriages today reach the 50 year mark, there are certainly a lot of things that necessitate against long-term marriages, not the least of which is death. However, one factor rarely considered is the lack of a disciplined commitment. I write this blog cognizant that many of my divorced sisters and brothers may feel discouraged by what they read. Please understand that my intention is to challenge all of us (especially myself) to recognize the seriousness of our marriage vows, even if we have been divorced and remarried. Sadly, our culture has undermined such seriousness.

Karl A. Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell University and professor of gerontology in medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College, has done research examining how people develop and change throughout their lives. In a recent set of studies, Pillemer decided to find out what older people know about life that the rest of us don’t. This project led to the book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans (Penguin/Hudson Street Press, November 2011). Much of this advice had to do with marriage. I have distilled his findings as follows:

In my efforts to understand the elders’ view on commitment, I came to a revelation. They were talking about marriage as a discipline As that word is used in fields from spiritual development to business management, it does not have anything to do with the idea of punishment– far from it. Rather, a discipline, is a developmental path where you get better at something by mindfully attending to it and by continual practice. Most important, it is a lifelong process—you don’t “arrive” at success, but rather you spend your life mastering the discipline. In all disciplines—from learning a martial art, to running a marathon, to meditating—short-term sacrifice is required to reap the long-term rewards from your effort.

When the elders talked about commitment, it’s this kind of discipline they have in mind: persevering, working out creative solutions for problems, and seeking help when necessary. The mental image of a lifelong commitment—where it is not easy to get out—makes partners work intensely to overcome challenges. Lora, 70, told me:

“My generation was not accepting of divorce, and my husband and I were of that mindset. Because that wasn’t an option in our mind to separate, you really figured things out. It wasn’t, ‘Well, it’s not working out and I’m not happy right now. Let’s give up.’ It wasn’t an option, so therefore we needed to figure things out.”

Sheldon, 88, whose marriage went through difficult periods, agreed:

“We have had some pretty hard arguments, believe me. You’ve got to deal with it and not to have in the back of your head that you’re going to split. You’ve got to get that out of your head. That whatever it is that goes on, you’re going to stay together and work it out.”

And the elders are clear that no one can make a commitment at a single point in their lives, then simply relax and forget about it. Commitment is enacted every single day, as part of the discipline of marriage. Mae Powers, 70, also had a rocky road in marriage, but chose to remain in the relationship for 42 years. She eloquently summed up the meaning of commitment this way:

“It’s continually committing, actively deciding to stay together. During the rough times, you have to decide to recommit yourself to the relationship. My husband and I joke about having ‘gotten married’ many times. Things happen that cause people to question their relationships, and then they have to make a decision to recommit or not recommit, and how to recommit if they decide to do so. So when I recommit to staying together today after a huge blow-up, it’s with the knowledge of all of those limitations and what I have decided I’m willing to live with.”

Searching for a way to characterize this attitude among the elders, I found myself using the word spirit. That is, many of them have a spirited approach to the discipline of marriage, to get better, to forgive, and to innovate. There’s a spirit of initiative to overcome problems and an indomitable attitude to move on despite problems.

Sound idealistic? For me, seeing was believing. Nothing convinces you of the value of making a lifelong commitment like being in the presence of couples who have done just that. Most people who make good on the “marriage is for life” assumption freely admit having considered splitting up at least once over the decades (and often more than once). They’ve lived through sloughs of unfulfillment, periods where passion waned and nothing appeared to replace it, and bouts of simmering resentment. But they hung in, they endured, they worked feverishly on the relationship – and they won out in the end.

They won out by reaching a level of fulfillment that is difficult to describe. I’ve introduced you to a number of such partners in this book, and perhaps you have seen it in an older couple you know. When you are in the presence of two people who have weathered life’s predictable and unpredictable storms together and emerged as true and inseparable partners at the end of life, there’s a feeling of “Ahhh, so that’s what it’s all about…” I had the opportunity to observe this apotheosis of married life many times, and each time I came away inspired and enriched.

Because when people make it the whole way, it’s so good that it’s better than almost anything else you can imagine. It’s better than the titillating excitement of dating, better than the heart-pounding passion of a new relationship; yes, even better than the mid-life lure of trading the old spouse in for a new model. It’s good enough that it may inspire you to give your marriage a second, third, or fourth chance. Because to wind up at the last years of life in the arms of someone you fell in love with 60 or 70 years ago is sublime. It’s a part of a well-lived life that is so transcendental that for many elders who are there, it defies description. I learned this from the elders: there are some life experiences for which you need the whole thing to reap the benefits – marriage is one of them.

I believe that such a perspective exemplifies God’s meaning for marriage–it is a faith commitment that excludes all alternatives. However, there is an additional layer that we need to speak about as Christians. I believe that the overriding reason for me staying in my marriage together is because I want to please the God who made me and loves me in Christ, and who said “I hate divorce.” (Malachi 2:16)

Thus my continuing commitment to my wife of 44.5 years is not just to provide a stable example for my kids and grandkids or to maintain my ordination and the ability for me to minister in a church, but because it is my duty and responsibility before God and a gospel witness to the world that Christ will never divorce the one who trusts in Him.

Gary Thomas in his excellent book Sacred Marriage (Zondervan, 2000) issues this challenge: In a society where relationships are discarded with a frightening regularity, Christians can command attention simply by staying married. And when asked why, we can offer a platform of God’s message of reconciliation, followed by an invitation: Would you like to hear more about that good news of reconciliation? 

 

Conversations at Christmas

A-Charlie-Brown-Christmas-image
A-Charlie-Brown-Christmas-image

It is hard to believe that the Advent season is already upon us and with it comes opportunities to share the gospel even in a secularized culture like ours. Since I am the Chaplain of the Graduate School at Wheaton College, I have access to material that could be helpful for you to create an entry point for some interesting conversations with neighbors and friends this season.

The Billy Graham Center has created a resource to help you begin faith conversations this Season with those who don’t know Christ. You could also use them with your children as a part of the 12 days of Christmas celebration leading to Epiphany.

http://wheaton.edu/BGCE/Equipping-Corner/Personal-Evangelism-Tools/Conversations-at-Christmas

The above link will take you to the site (copy and paste in case it doesn’t take you there) and the link below to a PDF file if you want to make a copy.  May God help us to be good stewards of the good news this Christmas.

download the full PDF version of Conversations at Christmas >

 

Last Day of A Cruise…

I am writing this blog on my iPhone onboard a cruise ship out on the ocean somewhere between Ketchikan, Alaska and Vancouver, BC. It is the last day of a wonderful cruise that our wonderful church (Community Fellowship of West Chicago) gave to us as we stepped down from ministry there last August.

It is Sunday morning and I feel diminished, which is pretty ironic after eating all that one does on a cruise.  Diminished because I’m looking at a vast expanse of water from outdoors on deck 11, with the wind howling and the deck chairs skittering. Diminished because this ship could disappear at sea and 2,000 souls could go into eternity. Diminished because I am so small compared to the vast Creator who by a mere word spoke this ocean into existence.

Yet this feeling of being diminished also generates a great sense of security because this vast Creator is my Father, and He loves me. There is an old hymn written back during WW1 by Fred Lehman, the third stanza of which captures this sense that I have right now:

Could we with ink the ocean fill, and every stalk on earth a quill; were the whole sky of parchment made, and every man a scribe by trade. Were we to write the love of God above, would drain the ocean dry; nor could the scroll contain the whole, though stretched from sky to sky.

I read somewhere that the author adapted this verse from words pencilled on the wall of a patient’s room in a mental hospital. No doubt the original writer felt diminished as well but took comfort in the security of God’s love in Christ.

Do you feel diminished today by your circumstance or by mental anguish? All the better to bask in the security of a vast God who loves you vastly in Jesus.

A Victim of Fraud…

I was almost scammed this week; here is how it happened… I have a pool table that I wanted to sell on Craig’s List. When I listed it, complete with pictures, I immediately got a text from a person saying he wanted to buy it and would pay me $50 extra to hold it until he sent me a check a few days later. He said he was on a business trip and couldn’t come and see the table but knew he wanted it because it was a good price ($250). I thought it was a little strange, but then again thought it was plausible. The next text I got said that his secretary had made a mistake and added the price for shipping the table onto the purchase price, so I would be getting a bank check for the whole amount- over $1500. Hmmm. He then texted that when I got the check, I was to immediately wire the amount for shipping to an address he would give to me. Obviously red flags were going off all over the place at this point.

When I got the check he told me to wire the money to a guy in Alabama, who was supposed to be the shipping agent of a company in Illinois. I told him to forget the whole deal and that I wasn’t wiring any funds to anyone and was, in fact, going to take the check to my bank and refuse it. He told me to stop the foolishness and just deposit the check- nothing could go wrong! My bank examined the check and though it looked legit, they told me that in order to refuse the check I had to take it to the bank that issued it. So I went there and they did a little research and found it was fraudulent and destroyed it. They told me that if I had deposited the check in my account and then wired the $1200, my money would have been gone without a trace and I would have been left with a bunch of fees when the bank found out that it was a bad check. I was a victim of fraud; “a deliberate deception to secure unfair or unlawful gain, which is both a civil and criminal wrong.”

The Bible talks alot about the sin of defrauding our neighbors, our spouse, and the poor. It is easy to recognize fraud when we are victimized by it, but I wonder if we recognize it when we deceive or rob or oppress the people in our lives of what is rightfully due to them? I wonder if God could indict us like he did Israel in Malachi’s day of defrauding Him of our tithes and offerings?

Anyway, my last text message to this person who tried to defraud me was “You are a fraud and have been found out, but Jesus loves you.” An appropriate word to preach everyday to the scam artist in me.

By the way– anyone want to buy a pool table? Such a deal!