Monday, December 18, 2017

TODAY, A MAN OF GOD CAME WALKING BY!

"And how shall they preach, except they be sent?  as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!" (Romans 10:16)

We can have so many expectations about what it would be like to suddenly encounter a great man or great woman of God:  Perhaps someone would literally be raised from the dead!  Perhaps a blind woman would suddenly receive her sight!  Perhaps a whole group of people would fall on their faces crying out to God and saying, "God is in this place!".  Perhaps there would be bright lights in the sky, or a giant clap of thunder.  Well...perhaps...  But so often one of God's great men or women may walk up to one of us at a time and a place we'd least expect.

Just a short time ago, I decided to take a short walk around some of the back streets near downtown Canton, Massachusetts.  Honestly, I was praying as I walked.  Over twenty years ago, a Christian physician told me it would benefit me greatly if I walked and prayed.  I was one of those people who liked to be closed up inside a private room in prayer, so I initially resisted that advice, but when I learned to be flexible and be open to walking and praying, I found the practice to be very invigorating.

I was walking through the parking area of an upscale condominium complex when I saw a man with light brown skin who was probably about my age (I'm sixty-three) walking in my direction.  He was holding the hand of a little light brown skinned boy that I'd guess was his grandson.  The man had a big smile.  It surprised me that he walked directly up to me and handed me an American Tract Society gospel tract entitled, Seeking Acceptance.  I gave it a very quick glance, then quickly turned in the man's direction.  At that point, he was no more than three feet away.

"I'm a born-again Christian, too!"  I excitedly told him.  He stopped, and expressed delight in meeting another believer.  It turns out the man's name is Wahgee (I'm guessing on the correct spelling!).  He lives in Egypt.  He told me he attends a Baptist church.  He's just up here in Massachusetts visiting relatives for a few days.  I asked if I could pray for him, and he enthusiastically told me I could do that.  I laid my hand on him and prayed aloud for God to bless him and his family.

Think of it!  Can you imagine while visiting relatives in a foreign country that you'd just go out and walk, taking gospel tracts with you to hand out as you walked along?  Some of us can say we would do something like that on a missions group as a team or at least in groups.  But I wonder how many of us would pretty much go out on our own as he did.  This guy's from half a world away, but he's my brother in Christ.  I'm sure conditions where he lives aren't the best for Christians, let alone for evangelical Protestant Christians.  It wouldn't surprise me if he's faced persecution of various kinds.  I guess that's why walking around in a foreign country handing people gospel tracts is no big deal to him.

Am I exaggerating in saying I met a great man of God a short time ago?  I don't think so.  As soon as he walked away, I sensed that.  And, I sensed that for some reason, God wanted me to encounter him.  Wahgee asked for my name.  At least "Bob" is easy to remember!  He said he would remember to pray for me and I told him I would do the same for him.  Incidentally, I'm writing this from the Canton Public Library and I plan to leave that Seeking Acceptance tract right here at the computer station for someone to find.

You know, we have all types of "Church Growth Seminars" and "corporate evangelistic planning" and other kinds of "stuff" in the current evangelical church world of the United States of America.  Maybe we don't so much need all that stuff.  Maybe we need to take more prayer walks and meet more folks like Wahgee!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

IT HAPPENED ON ROUTE 109

"In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not." (Matthew 2:18)

Yesterday, November 28, 2017, was a horrendous day for automobile driving and highway safety in the Boston area!  The television news on most of the channels featured not one, not two, but three stories about serious highway accidents!  In one instance, a person driving a Dodge pickup truck plowed into a Bob's store in Billerica.  The store was full of holiday shoppers, but despite the truck driving probably about forty feet into the store, no shoppers were injured.  One person referred to the lack of injuries as a, "Christmas miracle".  Another car crash took place on Route 138 in Raynham.  A 24-year-old young man was driving recklessly at 80 miles per hour and crashed into two other cars.  The worst crash reported, however, took place on Route 109 in the woodsy, upper middle class community of Medfield.  As I understand it, the driver of a Jeep drove recklessly at a high rate of speed, the Jeep went airborne and hit two other vehicles, a Chevrolet and a Kia.  The Chevrolet's driver was killed.  The Kia's driver and the Jeep driver were injured and hospitalized.  That section of Route 109, near the Shaw's supermarket and not far from Dover, Walpole, and Westwood, was shut down for quite awhile in the aftermath of the accident.  A disturbing fact is that just prior to the Jeep hitting the cars, it nearly hit a Medfield police officer who was standing at the side of the road!

Some of my readers know that my late father, Eugene A. "Gene" Baril, was a career employee of the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles.  I don't mean to minimize his functions at the RMV by calling him an "employee".  Older folks will recall that until Governor Bill Weld merged the Registry Police (also called "Registry Inspectors") into the State Police, they were sort of a "highway patrol" law enforcement organization for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  My father, who'd spent several years as a Boston cop, started out giving driving tests in 1956, and retired in 1982 as one of the Supervisors (I frankly don't hesitate to use the term "big shots") at the old 100 Nashua Street RMV headquarters.

Yesterday's accident is being investigated by the State Police Accident Investigation Team.  In the 1960s, there was no such entity.  In those days, individual RMV Investigators were assigned several cities and towns apiece and they investigated all fatal (and near fatal) car crashes in their respective communities.  Dad was the Investigator for Norwood, Dedham, and several other towns in that area from 1963 to 1968.  In that position, he was "on call" at all times.  I remember one Christmas night when he was called out to a fatal accident investigation on Route 1 in Norwood.  Dad had manila file folders for all of the car accidents he investigated.  Many contained eight by ten black & white photos of the smashed up cars.  I know of at least one which contained very gory photos of an accident victim.  (I probably shouldn't have looked at that one!)  Yes, I've heard a lot of stories and seen a lot of photos of wrecked cars.  Even so, I've only once before seen any such photo that showed severe damage to the level of those cars in the Medfield accident.  (That photo from the past was of a full-sized Oldsmobile convertible which hit a bridge abutment on Route 128 in Needham.  All it looked like was a pile of junk on the road!)  What I'm trying to say here is that even as fatal auto accidents go, that one in Medfield was bad; really bad!

Readers may not agree with me, but I think that if that Medfield accident had taken place twenty-five or more years ago, it would have gotten a lot more attention in the media.  I expected to hear it talked about on Boston talk radio this morning, but I heard nothing.  Think of it:  The driver nearly killed a Medfield police officer!  He was responsible for one innocent driver's death and another's serious injuries.  Route 109 is a main artery through some of the most upscale communities in suburban Boston.  It's the kind of road on which even in 2017 one can enjoy a very pretty and pleasant Sunday afternoon drive.  I don't drive Route 109 every day, but I'd say I've driven right past the spot where that accident took place probably fifty times during the past year.  It's sobering!

You may be able to  tell, since I watched the television news reports, I haven't been able to get that Medfield traffic accident off my mind!  My heart goes out to the family of the deceased.  I'm guessing that from now on, every Thanksgiving and Christmas season, they'll be constantly thinking of their loved one's death.  This isn't a "Merry Christmas" for that family.  My father investigated a fatal accident that took place on Route 109 in Westwood back in the 1960s.  As I recall, a truck flipped over near the Route 128 interchange close to the Dedham town line.  I think the victim burned to death.  My father would talk about those kind of things, and often would meet and even interview the families of the deceased.  That's part of why my sister and I are sort of "nervous" drivers.  We tend to be overly cautious, and we get "tailgated" a lot!  It's just that we've seen too many of my Dad's accident photos and heard too many horror stories about what can happen "behind the wheel".  I want to express my sincere condolences to the family of the person who was killed in Medfield yesterday.  I also sent my thoughts and prayers to the injured driver of the Kia and that person's family.

I know I'm going to sound very "preachy" here, but after all, I am "a preacher".  The driving on Massachusetts roads has really gotten "crazy" over the past decade or so.  Everybody's in such a hurry!  So many people have such a rotten attitude when driving!  So many people "tailgate"!  So many drivers take foolish chances!  "Road Rage" in Massachusetts seems to be at epidemic proportions!  If you find yourself behind an older model silver Toyota sedan displaying Massachusetts license place #280 that is going along at the speed limit and this makes you feel frustrated (that's my car!), then just think about what happened in Medfield yesterday.  There used to be a highway safety slogan when I was a whole lot younger that stated, "A Little Courtesy Won't Kill You".  That's what I'm trying to say here.

The Bible verse I opened with is not one we usually like to read or speak much about during the Advent and Christmas seasons.  It speaks of King Herod the Great massacring a bunch of baby boys who were 2-years-old and younger, and the grief and pain that brought.  And, I chose that verse because I'm thinking of the grief and pain being experienced by the family and friends of those who have been killed and injured.  Listen, if you really want to give a present to others and/or you really want to have a New Year's resolution this year, change your driving habits and slow down!

Yes, it happened on Route 109 on November 28, 2017, it's horrible, but it's important that we remember.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

THIS PASTOR DIDN'T KEEP HIS PROMISE

"And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know."  (I Corinthians 8:2)

I may forget where I left my cell phone (which happens often) or where I put my car keys or my wallet, but I will often vividly remember something from many years ago.  That happened one morning this week as I was in the shower (of all places).  The incident I remembered was from the 1980s- I'd guess 1984.  At that time, I was on the pastoral staff of Christian Life Center, which was then a fairly large Assemblies of God church in Walpole, Massachusetts.  I was the "Assistant Pastor responsible for Pastoral Care".  The receptionist answered a telephone call and transferred it to me.  It was from a man I'd never met and who lived several hundred miles away.  He asked me if I would visit a man who was a patient at a nearby hospital.  As I recall the situation, the patient was much older than the caller, but was someone that the caller very much cared about.  I don't believe the patient was the caller's father or grandfather.  I'm not even sure if he was a relative, although perhaps he was an uncle.  The gentleman on the phone was very concerned that this older man who meant quite a lot to him had only a few weeks to live, at best, and that he was not right with God.  The caller was insistent that I visit the sick man soon and attempt to lead him to a commitment to receive Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior before he died.  I assured the caller I would visit the older man.  I wrote down the patient's name and the hospital's name and laid the slip of paper with that information in a prominent place on my desk.  I figured I'd go visit the guy within the next day or two.  Certainly there was no guarantee that I would "lead him to Christ".  That is, to highlight a term often used by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, a "decision" he'd have to choose to make or not make, but I'd be happy to see the man, talk with him, share some Scripture, pray for him and attempt to lead him into committing his life to Christ.  One thing I'll add at this point is that things were very different in the 1980s regarding visiting a patient you didn't know.  Today, there is a very serious privacy law in place regarding patients and their rights.  Were a pastor to receive such a phone call now, he'd have to explain to the caller that first he'd need to talk to the patient and ask if he'd like to have a visit from "Pastor So-in-So".  Then, the patient would have to make that information clear to the hospital staff or the pastor would never be able to make such a visit.

The very next morning after I'd received that telephone call, I awoke with a cold.  I had a scratchy throat, nasal congestion, and I was coughing and sneezing.  One of the first things I learned from the Rev. Terry Lewis in his "Pastor and His Ministry" class at Central Bible College is that you never do any hospital visiting when you have a cold!  Some patients, particularly elderly people, can be in such fragile condition that your simple cold can literally lead to their death!  Yes, my cold was a problem.  I couldn't go visiting in the hospital.  The cold was a particularly bad one, too.  I thought it would last for three or four days, but it actually lasted well over a week.  As I recall, I was so sick that I took a couple of days off and just stayed home resting, and I seldom did that!  I wasn't "cold free" for about eight or nine days as I recall.

On the first day that I felt completely well, I called the hospital to find out what room the patient was in.  (I suppose I was also calling to make sure he was still alive.)  To my shock, I was told the patient had passed away several days earlier!  That was sobering, to say the least.  I had promised the man from several hundred miles away that I'd visit the older gentleman and attempt to lead him to Christ.  Now the guy was dead.  Was the deceased in Hell?  Some of my readers won't understand this, but I'd say it was possible the person died and indeed went to a place of eternal torment. I'm a very verbal person and yet I'm finding it difficult to add anything to what I've just written!

That wasn't the worst part of this story for me, however.  Sometime later, perhaps it was two or three weeks later, another call was transferred to me by the church receptionist.  On the line was the man from several hundred miles away who had made the request for me to visit his loved one in the hospital.  He eagerly asked me if I'd visited the man and what the visit had been like.  I told the caller exactly what I've told my readers in this piece.   Again, I'm a very verbal person, but I'm having a difficult time to describe exactly what the reaction of the caller was to what I'd said.  I guess I expected him to yell and scream at me.  He didn't.  He didn't raise his voice, nor did he become hysterical.  He was very civil, but it was possibly the worst phone conversation of my entire life.  He berated me, telling me I could have and should have gotten someone to go and visit in my place.  He never actually used these words, but it was obvious he considered me totally incompetent, totally insensitive, totally useless, responsible for his relative to plunge into eternal torment, and a catastrophic failure as a pastor.

I don't know why I thought about that call the other day.  I know some may want to contact me saying things such as, "You've got to forgive yourself!"  Honestly, I truly have forgiven myself.  On the one hand, as the title says, This Pastor Didn't Keep His Promise.  But it was not something I did deliberately or maliciously.   You may wonder why I didn't send a substitute.  I'm not sure.  That was well over thirty years ago.  I really thought I'd be well in just a few days and that I'd be able to make the visit.  I was very wrong.  I did determine that sort of thing would never happen again in my ministry!  Ironically, on other occasions I was asked to make hospital visits of that type, but I was always very healthy and was always able to make the visits within forty-eight hours.  I never had a cold or other sickness mess up a situation the way that cold had, and I mean I never had anything like that happen again over more than twenty-five more years of active pastoral ministry.

This month of October is recognized as Pastor Appreciation Month in most churches.  Thankfully, most pastors do a wonderful jobs and deserve to be recognized and honored.  Yet, one of the reasons I write this piece is to remind us, whether we're pastors or whether we're laypersons, that pastors are human and sometimes pastors innocently make major mistakes.   I remember that back when I was a student at Central Bible College in the late 1970s, a dynamic young pastor named John Palmer was brought in to speak to the student body in a chapel service.  The Rev. John Palmer was probably fewer than ten years older than I was, but he'd already planted a church in Ohio that was rapidly growing.  He was a great speaker and had a charismatic personality.  That's why I was shocked by the topic of his sermon.  His sermon was about his failures in the ministry.  He told four or five stories of his own (similar to the story I've shared here) about times he'd really "dropped the ball" as it were.  I remember that one of them was about a funeral service he conducted for a young person.  One relative angrily yelled out during the funeral service that Pastor Palmer, "...couldn't even get the kid's name right!"  I appreciated that sermon so much and I never forgot it.  I think his sermon helped me to get through many of my own failures.   You see, the story I've told here is not my only one!  All pastors have such stories to tell!  Sadly, these incidents sometimes propel people to angrily leave churches, to form roots of bitterness against certain pastors, and even to walk away from God.

You see, pastors are very human and very fallible.  They need forgiveness, understanding, prayer, and love like everybody else does.  Today, near the end of this Pastor Appreciation Month, I wanted to share this painful story from my own ministry with you.  I hope that somehow it was a blessing.

And, I do want to add a "P.S." :   If you're thinking we can't assume that patient who died went to Hell, you're right!  I'm mindful of what I wrote above about the person probably going to Hell.  It's also possible, however, that some nurse or doctor or orderly, or even another patient or a person visiting another patient prayed with this man and led him to Christ before he died.  We just don't know but I don't think we can rule that out.


Saturday, September 16, 2017

YOU CAN'T PUT GOD IN A BOX

"And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony..."  (from Revelation 12:11)

"You can't put God in a box!"  That's something I've learned in life and it's a saying I use a lot!  People constantly think they've got God all figured out- that He has to act this or that way, or do this or that thing, or that God would never approve of this or that thing.  In fact, that was the big problem with the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus' day.  He did not talk or act the way they expected the Jewish Messiah to talk or act; and He certainly didn't even talk or act the way they expected a rabbi to talk or act.  Thus, they soundly rejected Him.  People in our day, whether Jew or Gentile, whether Catholic or Protestant or something else, frequently make the same mistake.  Now, God doesn't tell you to go out and blatantly sin, but outside of that, in fact God may do something in a way you'd never expect Him to!

Once a month on a Saturday morning, I attend a Christian breakfast meeting which usually features a special guest who "tells his or her story" for about a half hour.  Today, the guest was a (male) sixty-year-old pastor of a Congregational church.  (Incidentally, the stereotype of a Congregational pastor tends to be a very theologically liberal man or woman, but this guy was thoroughly evangelical in theology and practice.)  The gentleman had a very interesting life story including many, many interesting details.  One of those details that stood out to me is where and how God brought him into his own "personal relationship with Jesus Christ", as we evangelicals say.  I assure you, it's probably not what you'd expect.

This man grew up attending evangelical Protestant churches.  As he tells it, he could recite the "4 Spiritual Laws" and all the typical teachings and doctrines you commonly learn in any evangelical church.  He attended several well known Boston area evangelical churches, including First Presbyterian Church in Quincy and Park Street Church in downtown Boston.  He knew all the stuff that you're supposed to know.  But, as he put it, it was "all in my head";  there was no real relationship with Christ.  In his early twenties, he began to attend a rather small Episcopal church.  He liked the liturgy and the symbols of the Episcopal church.  He also liked the fact that their services were rather short, and he also was attracted to a certain young lady at the Episcopal church.  One Sunday morning, he went up and knelt at the altar rail (as is the custom in Episcopal churches) to receive Holy Communion.  First, he received the bread from a deacon.  Then, an elderly priest brought the chalice of wine.  As the speaker told it, in the Episcopal church, the priest either says, "The cup of salvation" when he offers the wine to you, or the priest says, "The blood of Jesus, shed for your sins".  As he went along serving the congregants, the priest kept saying, "The cup of salvation".  But when he came to serve the young man, he said, "The blood of Jesus, shed for your sins."  And, the instant the priest said those words and as he drank from the cup, the young man was dramatically shaken by the Holy Spirit!  In that moment, he had the most powerful spiritual experience he'd ever had in his life!  At that altar in that Episcopal church, he got it!  In an instant, he understood the gospel, and in an instant he was transformed!  He could hardly get up and walk back to his seat.  It was a real "Book of Acts" moment.  This young man, who went on to become a chaplain and a pastor, was never the same again!

He commented to the small group assembled this morning, "Usually we hear that someone went to the Episcopal church all his life but never heard the true gospel of salvation and never really understood it until he went to (say) a Baptist church without all of the religious trappings and heard the simple gospel and was born again.  For me, it was all exactly the opposite!"

He also commented that (although many evangelicals disagree with this) the symbols in an institution such as the Episcopal church are very important, and that most evangelical Protestants have been too quick to dismiss that.

There was time for feedback from those who were present today.  I made a few comments, but my first was, in regard to how and where this man experienced being "born again" and coming into a genuine relationship with the Lord, "You can't put God in a box!" 

Monday, July 3, 2017

STILL BELIEVIN' WHEN THINGS "DON'T MAKE SENSE"!

"...I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day."  (from 2 Timothy 1:12)

Those words from 2 Timothy 1:12 are also the words of a beautiful folksy, and inspirational Christian chorus from several decades ago.  I remember learning that chorus somewhere around 1975 at Evangelical Baptist Church in Sharon, Massachusetts (now called "Hope Church").  I'm so glad I learned that chorus because in learning it I also learned that Bible verse, and it's helped me to sing it to myself during some very difficult times of my life.

This year, 2017, is now half over, but since January first, I've attended more funerals and memorial services than I can ever remember attending during a six month period.  I've also known a large number of good Christian people who have been going through extraordinarily sorrowful and painful times during 2017.  I've been a "born again Christian" since 1970, and I spent about thirty years in "full-time Christian ministry".  It's exhilarating to be a pastor during people's times of victory and success, but it can be draining, perplexing and confusing to try to pastor people during times of great pain and loss, and especially during sorrowful times that almost anyone would label as "very unfair".

Most pastors like to preach sermons about "Being an Overcomer" and "Pressing Onward to the Victory"- stuff like that.  I know that for me it's very difficult to get motivated to prepare or preach a sermon about "Why Bad Things Happen to Good Christians".

It's even hard to write about it here.  And, no kidding, I wrote this piece (from a set of very rough notes) this past Saturday only to have it literally disappear from the computer screen into cyberspace and no matter how much I tried, I couldn't retrieve it!  When you're a Bible college student, and a recent Bible college graduate, typically you "have all the answers".  I was no different.  But very early in my ministry, I had an experience that really jolted me.

The year was 1981.  I had only been on the staff of Christian Life Center church in Walpole, Massachusetts for a very short time.  It was my day off, and I received a call that several people from the church were coming over to pick me up and we were then going to the home of a woman who'd just experienced a tragedy.  I don't remember the woman's name.  She had only been attending our church for maybe a Sunday or two. She was (what evangelicals typically label) a "brand new Christian" or a "baby Christian".  She'd only received Jesus Christ as her Personal Lord and Savior maybe a handful of weeks earlier.  Now, her brother had committed suicide.  On that visit to her home were a very godly elderly man, a middle aged-woman, a young woman in my age group, and me.  We tried and tried to say comforting words.  We tried to console her. We tried to reassure her.  Honestly, we didn't get anywhere.  She told us she'd been praying for her brother during the days prior to his suicide.  I will never forget her poignant and melancholic words:  "My prayers weren't answered."
She said them flatly with no emotion or expression.  She never came back to our church.  I don't know if she continued on following the Lord or not.

In Bible college, I remember a film being shown one evening in the school's chapel about some missionaries to a third world country who were brutally murdered.  In the latter part of the film, the widow of one of the murdered missionaries was interviewed.  She also spoke words I will never forget.  Several times in a row she just kept asking, "...pwhy?  ...phwy  ...pwhy  ...pwhy?".   I remember that later one of my fellow students did a "spot on" impersonation of her, dramatically saying,  "...pwhy?  ...pwhy?  ...pwhy?  ...pwhy?".  We laughed.  I laughed.  I know.  That's probably pretty sick and insensitive.  But I think it's rather like why people "whistle in the dark while walking past a graveyard".  (I really don't know why that widow said "pwhy" instead of "why".  Perhaps that was just her regional accent.) The thoughts of what had happened to those missionaries were so troubling and disturbing, it was easier to just make a joke of it all.

A few days ago I had a conversation with a Christian woman I know about why some Christians go through so many difficulties.  She was of the opinion that in general dreams don't come true and all Christians suffer a great deal.  I disagreed and I still disagree.  My own experience after many years in the Christian life and many years as a pastor is that the life experiences of all present-day American Christians could probably be graphed on a bell curve.  There are probably about two-percent who experience amazingly easy, stress-free, fun-filled lives.  There are also probably about two-percent who experience just about constant unspeakable hardship, loss, pain, grief, heartache, and devastating disappointment and suffering.  The other ninety-six percent of the Christians fall somewhere in the middle of these two positions on the bell curve.  Most  experience about half of what happens in their lives as "good stuff" and about half as "bad stuff".  Some lives lean more heavily toward the "bad" end and some lives lean more heavily toward the "good" end.  As far as the reason one person's life falls at whatever place on the bell curve, I'm inclined to use the word,  "...pwhy?".   I know some of my fellow Christians will "take me to task" for what I've written here; some will argue that many Christians "just don't have enough faith" or "just don't know how to confess God's Word".  I think that can be a piece of it, but I don't think we can just sum it all up that easily.

Please don't get me wrong.  In my life, I've seen extraordinary answers to prayer, and I've truly seen miracles!  There's an "old time" Pentecostal song that the late Pastor David Milley taught the church in Walpole which says, "The windows of heaven are open!  The blessings are falling tonight!"  And, yes, I've seen and experienced that!  The Christian film, War Room, which was released two summers ago challenged and exhorted today's church about the miracles we could see and experience if we'd only pray and believe.  And I love that movie and I believe in that!  I do!  But, my own life has seen its ecstatic times and its times of absolute despair.

There are things I experienced over the past decade, and especially during the years 2008 through 2012 that were so dark and painful I just don't even think it would be proper to write in great detail about them.  I do remember the day I spoke to my daughter on the phone, broke down, and asked, "Is God mad at me?"  I thought He was.  And worse.  Yes, it was a very, very dark and bad time.  How I thank God for two brothers in Christ who "walked with me" during those dark years.  They prayed with me.  They prayed over me.  They prayed for me.  They listened to me.  They counselled me. They loved me like Jesus said to love people.  I very likely would have totally fallen away from God were it not for these two men.  (I know some reading this may be thinking, "But I prayed for you, too!"  Yes, of course you did, and I am thankful for all who prayed for me during those days, and sent me cards, etc.)  In so many ways, I wish I did not go through those very dark and difficult years.  Yet, even though I'm not pastoring today, I will say there's a compassion and a love and a wisdom in my heart today that I absolutely did not have when I was pastoring.  It came from walking through that pain and loss!

The Rev. Jim Spence is a very good friend of mine.  He spent a long time as a prison chaplain.  There's something he said to me many years ago that I never forgot.  He said that when some supposedly great or famous Christian is coming to the area to speak, he always asks, "Has this person suffered?"  If the answer is "yes" he will attend.  But if the answer is "no" he will not attend because, "a Christian who hasn't suffered really has nothing to say to me".  I think Jim makes a good point, here.

Do you  remember "The Parable of the Sower"?  It's found in Matthew chapter thirteen.  Remember the seed that was planted in stony ground?  Jesus said it represented the Christians who started out really well, but when problems and difficulties came along, they fell away.  I've learned a lot over the past decade.  In my darkest times, I read my Bible almost every day, even when reading it was like reading the phone book and I felt like I was getting nothing out of it.  I read it anyway.  I prayed almost every day, usually for at least a half hour- even when it felt like my prayers didn't even reach the ceiling and God seemed a million miles away.  I did it anyway.  I went to Sunday morning services, even when I didn't feel like going, and especially in the first years after the church I'd pastored closed, I didn't feel like going, but I went anyway.  And, at church, I didn't feel like singing and praising God; at times I felt phony doing it, but I did it anyway.  You may not understand this, but ultimately practicing those Christian disciplines helped me.  I came very close- too close, mind you, to walking away from  God, but I didn't!

Thank God- today I still have a lot of problems and challenges, but I'm not in that darkness any more.  It's a lot better!

I don't have all the answers.  There are so many things I wish I could change and there are so many things I wish I could fix.  But what does it all come down to?

It comes down to one of two positions.

It's either:   "...I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day."

Or, it's:  "...pwhy?".

Where are you at today?   Is this a painful and dark time?  What will you choose to believe?

(Note:  During my own dark time, I wanted to totally isolate myself.  That's actually the worst thing you can do.  You are welcome to contact me.  If I'm personally not able to help you, I can put you in touch with fine Christians who can.  And, I can pray for you.)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

SUDDENLY IT'S 1960!

"But ye, brethren, be not weary in well doing."  (2 Thessalonians 3:13)

"Suddenly It's 1960!" was the advertising slogan Chrysler Corporation used to enthusiastically promote its 1957 Plymouth automobile models.  (Considering Chrysler hasn't even built Plymouth cars since 2001, I guess I need to mention that back in the late '50s, they marketed Plymouth cars to directly compete against Ford and Chevrolet cars.)  In the late fifties, every auto manufacturer was trying to build cars that were longer, lower, wider, and bigger than their previous models and which gave the impression of being "ahead of their time".  Thus, "Suddenly It's 1960!" was a brilliant slogan.

This piece is not about cars nor is it about marketing, however.  It is about the year 1960.  Recently, the "Memorable Entertainment Television" network (known as "ME TV") began showing reruns of the earliest episodes of the Fred MacMurray classic sitcom known as, "My Three Sons".  Most of us have seen the "later" episodes from around 1970 which are in color and which feature the three sons as Robbie, Chip, and Ernie, with "Uncle Charlie", a crusty older guy with (what I think is) a weird hairstyle, serving as the housekeeper.  The original black & white episodes of, "My Three Sons", however, have the kids as, "Mike, Robbie, and Chip", and the housekeeper as "Bub", played by (of all people) William Frawley who was Fred Mertz on "I Love Lucy".

I've caught a few of these very early episodes of  "My Three Sons" from the 1960-1961 television season recently.  One thing that brought back memories from way back when I was a six-year-old is that when they roll the credits at the end of the show, they feature a 1961 Chevrolet Impala and a 1961 Corvair driving on a highway.  I hadn't seen or thought about that in well over fifty years, but as soon as those Chevys appeared on the screen I felt a little teary eyed as I remembered seeing those "new" cars when those shows were first shown.  I guess "My Three Sons" must have been sponsored by Chevrolet in the show's early days.

That's not all that has struck me about the very early episodes of "My Three Sons."  A couple of weeks ago, ME TV ran the Thanksgiving 1960 episode.  Wow.  If you don't think America has changed since 1960 and if you don't think America has (frankly) lost a lot of its character since 1960, watch that episode!  Now, granted, some of it was what I'd call, "a little hokey".  An American Indian friend of the family who insists he's a direct descendant of Squanto of the Wampanoag Indian Tribe (who befriended the Pilgrims in the 1620s) comes and spends Thanksgiving dinner with the Douglas family.  If he's really a Wampanoag, I don't know why he was dressed like a Plains Indian Chief!  On second thought, I think I do- because this was all "cooked up" (no pun intended on Thanksgiving dinner) by Hollywood.  And, the American Indian visitor spoke just like the Ameican Indians of the "westerns" of that period; you know, saying things like: "Heap big," and "Many moons ago".   Despite all of that (somewhat silly) stuff, this episode deeply moved me.

Why did it move me?

On that Thanksgiving episode, the family (including old William Frawley) all express their deep thankfulness and faith by singing, "We Gather Together".  I suspect that seventy-five percent of my readers who are under age forty won't even know what "We Gather Together" is!  It's a Thanksgiving hymn about God's faithful blessings despite the fact that the Pilgrims had been persecuted by, "the wicked oppressing..."

Listen, they sang the song, all verses included!

Can  you imagine any of today's network sitcoms featuring a scene such as that?!  The only situation comedy I can think of that might even remotely consider it is (a favorite of mine) ABC's "The Middle", but in this day and age, I very seriously doubt they'd do it.  If they did, Axl would probably refuse to sing it and would make fun of it and that would be that!

I'm sure many of my readers from the political left will want to take me to task for loving that world of 1960.  I'm sure they'd want to point out that women and minorities (especially groups such as African-Americans) were very badly and very disgracefully treated in those days.  Listen, it's true- they were.  I admit, as much as I'd take the world of 1960 or 1961 over the world of 2017 and I would, I would never want to see women and minorities discriminated against again as they were at that time.  But, remember that The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who provided such desperately needed prophetic, practical, and selfless leadership in that era was not an atheist nor was he a secular humanist, nor was he a self-absorbed greedy materialist.  Not at all.  King was a devout Baptist Christian who lived his faith in ways that very few Christians have.  His speeches were laced with Bible verses and his actions were akin to men like Moses and John the Baptist.  Dr. King never acted ashamed of his faith.  He was not ashamed to pray.  He was not ashamed to quote Scripture.  He was not ashamed to stand against evil, even if it meant he'd lose his life, and of course, he did.  He rightly deserves a national holiday.

Too often in our day, men and women who stand for prayer and Scripture and God's way are mocked, ridiculed, and rejected.  How sad.

Did you ever watch the film, "Thirteen Days"?  That's such a powerful movie and well worth seeing. The world of October 1962 stood at the brink of an all-out nuclear war.  A brief but powerful scene in that film shows people lined up to get into a church building and (presumably) get right with God.  That was the world of the early 1960s.  The idea of going into a church and "getting right with God" was not seen as all that crazy.  In fact, I remember that in those early days of the Cold War, the United States Post Office routinely used a postmark which stamped the words, "Pray For Peace" on pieces of mail, directly over each stamp as it was postmarked.  Do you suppose we could have the U.S. Postal Service do that in our day?  Well, of course not!  It's not politically correct!  It's "too religious"!  It's "too offensive"!

See what I mean?

You may think the culture and values of America of 2017 are superior to the culture and values of America of the past, but I'm glad I can at least turn on my television set and once in awhile, "Suddenly It's 1960!"

Sunday, May 21, 2017

CONDOLENCES TO THE DOHERTY FAMILY OF FRANKLIN

"...weep with them that weep."  (from Romans 12:15)

I'm a very verbal person who can always seem to know just what to say in any and all occasions.  Well, so it seems, but in this situation, it's just not the case.
I don't live in Franklin, Mass. and I've never lived in Franklin, Mass.  And, I know only a handful of people who do live in Franklin, Mass.  I don't know the family of Michael Doherty, but my heart goes out to them. 

It's been all over the Boston-area media for a week.  Michael Doherty, age 20, had gone to a party, stayed late on Saturday night May 13, and then never showed up at home as expected.  For almost a week, the police and many volunteers were searching for him.  As of this writing (on Sunday afteroon, May 21), a body was found yesterday in a thickly wooded area near Interstate 495 which is presumbed to be the body of Michael.

I'm sure I'm writing the words of thousands and thousands of people from all over the New England area who've followed this story over the past few days:  I'm so sorry for the family's loss.

This horrible event at this time of year brings back a flood of memories.  Yes, I can relate in a number of ways to the Doherty family's terrible loss.  In late June of 1983, my brother Eddie, age 27 at the time, collapsed at his place of employment in Weymouth, Mass., was rushed to South Shore Hospital, spent about ten days on life supports, and died in early July of that year.  My wife was almost nine months pregnant with our first child.  He will be thirty-four in just a couple of months.  It was a bittersweet time.  The funeral home "visiting hours" was one of those situations of a long, long line with scores and scores of people filing by.  We, the family, were all in a state of shock and had no idea what to say.  The people going through the funeral line said things like, "I don't know what to say," and we completely understood.  Eddie's funeral was on a hot, humid day.  It was so hot that an altar boy fainted during the mass.

There's one line someone said during that those terrible days that I do remember.  It was said in private by my father to his wife and two remaining siblings.  Gene Baril was a tough and pragmatic guy, although this loss had reduced him to helpless tears.  But after he'd gone through a couple days of crying and mourning he bluntly said to his family, "Other families go through tragedies.  Why shouldn't our family experience a tragedy, too?"

I know that may seem like a strange thing for him to have said, but he'd been in law enforcement for decades and he'd watched a lot of people go through a lot of tragedies.  As crazy as it may sound, for me the statement was helpful.

Six months after my brother's death, I went through a severe depression.  I was truly frightened, because I had no idea why I was depressed.  This may sound foolish and "super spiritual" to some people, but God spoke to me and told me why I was depressed.   No, God did not tell me in an audible voice, but in a deep inner impression.  He showed me that I'd never truly grieved my brother's loss, and the severe depression was me doing exactly that.  There was no escaping it.  I would have to go through the time of severe depression, and then I'd be O.K.  And, I was.

My brother and I were not close.  He did not look like me at all.  He looked like the Scottish relatives on my mother's side and I look like the French-Canadian relatives on my father's side.  He was an outstanding mechanic and had the mind of a engineer.  I'm a typical "liberal arts" type- I love writing, and good literature, and history and culture but I wouldn't know a crescent wrench from a nail gun!  (Well, actually I do know a crescent wrench from a nail gun, but I liked the sentence!  But, I've never used a nail gun in my life, and only a handful of times have I ever used a crescent wrench!  I think you get what I mean.)  I'm a public speaker.  As an Assemblies of God pastor, I preached and taught in public hundreds and hundreds of times.  And, I'm a good speaker.  My brother would never have aspired to speak in public.  Never.  But if he tuned up your car it would run better than you could ever imagine.  Well, his loss, despite our being opposites, was not easy.  It was very hard.  I had a lot of "survivor's guilt".  I still experience bits of that at times.  Eddie, for instance, would love my son-in-law David who is also a mechanic, and my two little grandsons who love to help Daddy work on cars.  I think of that a lot.  My youngest grandson even reminds me of Eddie- but we all lost out on what Eddie would have done with his life had he lived.

My parents never got over the death of Eddie.  They sort of "put it in the the rear view mirror" and tried to move on, but they were never the same.  Something like Eddie's death at an early age-  you never forget that.

So, when I send my condolences to the Doherty family, I'm not speaking theoretically or hypothetically.  I have no answer to why God allowed this tragedy to happen.  During the years I pastored, situations such as this were the hardest to deal with.  There are no easy answers.  But I know that in the darkest night and the most horrific storms, if you turn to Him, God will come and comfort you, and enable you to "go through stuff" that you could never otherwise endure.  I know.