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.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

THE RUSH TO BE LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE

"Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.  But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night."  (Psalm 1:1-2)

I think I need to say right at the outset that this piece is not about politics, nor is it about talk radio.  I say that because I'm starting with a quote by Rush Limbaugh.  This is something I heard him say on his program yesterday during the first hour of the show.  I was on my lunch break at work, just sitting in my car listening to the radio and eating a sandwich.  I was so taken with something he said that I quickly grabbed a small piece of scrap paper and wrote it down word-for-word.  Here's the exact statement Limbaugh made that so powerfully impacted me:

"I summarily reject conventional wisdom.  I go a different way.  Conventional wisdom is 'group think'; it's not critical thinking."

There are so many areas of life to which that statement could be applied.  Yes, he was speaking of politics and modern American cultural behavior.  But it applies to much more than that.  It's something I wish could be "drilled into" the hearts and minds of every evangelical Christian in North America, and I include every pastor, every evangelist, every Christian author, every church board member, every denominational executive; all of them!  You see, the Lord intended us to be different from the rest of the world.  I don't think he wanted us to be a bunch of weirdos, so much; although I know we've all heard those sermons about Christians being called to be a (in King James language) "peculiar people".   No, not weirdos, but not exactly like the rest of the world, either.  We are not supposed to be the followers.  We are supposed to be the leaders!  People are supposed to look at us and find us so different that on the one hand we make them feel a bit guilty and uncomfortable, but on the other hand, they admire us and wish they could be more like us.  We are then supposed to befriend and love people "from the world" and show them the way.

That's not happening very much in our day at all!

I've been a "born-again Christian" since I was a teenager in the early 1970s.  At that time, Jack T. Chick put out his famous tract aimed at Christians, illustrating how carnal and worldly the Christians were.  Sadly, the Christians of the early 1970s in so many respects seem like spiritual giants in comparison to so many of the Christians of 2017!  It's my conviction that the evangelical church of North America of today is in a rush (and I did use that word as sort of a pun because of mentioning Rush Limbaugh) to look like and act like everybody else.  We're not the better for it!

Recently, (as an Ordained minister) I received an on-line survey to fill out from a highly respected Christian organization.  The e-mail said it was soliciting the opinions of pastors about what trends they see in the church today so that it would help them to effectively plan for and anticipate the future of the church.  I didn't fill it out.  Now, I didn't fill it out for two reasons.  One is that I'm not currently pastoring a church, and I think they mainly wanted to hear from people who are actively pastoring churches right now.  But the second reason is that I found the whole idea of such a survey very offensive and frankly at odds with true Biblical Christianity!  Even if I were pastoring, I don't think I'd have filled it out!  As a Bible College student in the late 1970s, I was involved in "nursing home ministry" at the Assemblies of God retirement complex (known as "Maranatha") in Springfield, Missouri.  It was my privilege to meet many of the great early pioneers of the Assemblies of God, including E.S. Williams and Frank Boyd.  I sat with them, talked with them, and heard wonderful stories from them.  I was about to write "I prayed with them",  but it would be far more accurate to say, "they prayed with me"!  So many of these men and woman literally walked by faith, worked miracles (by the power of God), and went into cities and countries and "turned them upside down" for Jesus.  They were humble.  In fact, it was surprising how simple and humble most of them were.  I think of "Brother Gowdy" who was a great missionary to Nigeria.  He'd be excitedly telling me how he'd witnessed to the UPS driver who came to make a delivery.  All that Brother and Sister Gowdy owned in all the world was in their room in that nursing home.  There was a desk and a bookcase and a few other things.  They'd given everything for Jesus, and they'd done a great work!  I can't imagine any of these folks sending out a survey to find out what the trends in the church are and how to anticipate the future of the church.  Instead they were just foolish enough to take the Bible very literally, be filled with the Holy Spirit, and humbly obey God, no matter what the cost.  I think of my first pastor in the Assemblies of God, the Rev. Lloyd A. Westover.  He'd probably be a hundred years old or more if he were still living.  He'd worked in the business world until he was well into his forties, then he'd taken the Berean School of the Bible correspondence courses, and moved from his home in Washington State to New England to plant churches and do a work for God.  Dr. Terry Lewis, a highly respected educator in the Assemblies of God, was his Assistant Pastor many, many years ago in Laconia, New Hampshire.  Lewis says of Westover, "he was the most godly man I ever knew".  I can imagine what Lloyd Westover's response to that survey would have been, and I don't think it would have been very positive.

Almost a decade ago, my daughter Amy was on the worship team of the church she attends in Missouri.  The church decided to have the worship team dress much more casual to be "more relevant."  When Amy told me about this, I was so proud of the question she told me she'd asked the church music director:  "Relevant to WHO?!"

Please don't misunderstand me!  I'm not saying we should "do church" the way they did it in 1855 with no electricity, no bathrooms, and no sound equipment!  Of course not!  I'm not even saying we should "do church" exactly as it was done in 1970.  There have been a number of positive changes and developments.  The use of PowerPoint in services has been mostly a good thing.  Instant communications have allowed a church in the midst of a missions convention to have a missionary up on the screen live on the internet giving a progress report.  Those kind of changes are great!  But there's such a rush today to look like everybody else, and to act like everybody else.

I'm so thankful I attend a church where we still have "old-fashioned" altar calls and where we still believe in and promote the Baptism in the Holy Spirit!  I'm so glad I have a pastor who is not quick to follow the crowd but who is quick to get a word from God and obey Him and deliver it!  Let's not be in a rush to be like everybody else.  Let's humble ourselves.  Let's get into God's Word.  Let's seek His face.  Let's forget the surveys.  Let's see what He will do! 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

WAS IT GOD'S WILL?

"And when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, The will of the Lord be done." (Acts 21:14)

It may surprise some of you that despite the fact that I'm (for the most part), "socially conservative" and despite the fact that I'm a registered Republican, and a very committed Bible-believing Christian, I enjoy listening to many of the programs on Public Radio.  Yes, there's a very liberal bias on most of Public Radio International's broadcasts.  I'd caution any of my Christian conservative friends that it's just something you've got to keep in mind when you listen.  However, there are some amazingly interesting programs on Public Radio.  One that I enjoy is, This American Life.  Incidentally, their website is at:
www.thisamericanlife.org

This weekend's episode of This American Life is one of the most powerful that I've ever heard.  It was actually a re-run from 2008, but I'd never heard it the first time.  The episode's title is, Switched At Birth.  The show presented the true story of two women who were born at the same hospital in a small Wisconsin town in 1951 and who somehow got "switched", well, shortly after they were born.  There were two women who gave birth that day.  One was Mrs. Miller.  She was the wife of a pretty strict evangelical minister.  They already had several other kids.  The other was Mrs. McDonald.  She had a son but very much wanted a daughter and was delighted to give birth to a baby girl.

Shortly after Mrs. Miller got home, she was very uneasy.  The weight of the baby girl she took home was quite a bit different from what she'd been told the baby weighed at the hospital right after birth.  The figures weren't close- they were way off.  Mrs. Miller had a strong gut feeling that this was not her baby girl- that somehow, a terrible mistake was made at the hospital.  She told her minister husband who didn't take her concerns very seriously.  He finally said  (I assume in a tongue-in-cheek fashion), "Well, we brought this little girl home and we're going to keep her!"

The Millers were very serious and mostly strict and disciplined people.  The little girl who grew up as her daughter Martha was nothing like them.  She didn't look at all like them, and she was a very humorous and fun-loving child.   Across town at the McDonald home, little Sue didn't look a thing like the rest of her family, either.  The McDonalds were people who didn't take life too seriously, approaching life in a light-hearted manner.  Sue loved her family, but always felt more serious than the rest of them.

It's all a very long story about how the story of the switch finally came out into the open, but it took nineteen years!  Well, to be fair, Mrs. McDonald was the last to know.  She didn't find out the truth until the early 1990s!   Both Sue and Martha were interviewed extensively on the program as were Mrs. McDonald and Mrs. Miller.  You can imagine how this whole "baby switch" thing has rocked the lives of each member of these families!  Mrs. Miller was frankly a bit weird; she actually tried to change the name of her daughter once the whole thing was brought out into the open!

Mrs. McDonald was particularly bothered by the actions of the Rev. Miller.  She said there were several times in which he spoke to her at length begging her forgiveness for what happened.  What really upset her is that he would quote many Bible verses to her and ultimately he told her that the switching of the babies was, "God's will".  She was furious.  In fact, she stated that what was God's will is that Mrs. Miller insist that the hospital be told way back in 1951, even if it meant losing her husband and her marriage.

I must admit that as a guy who spent over twenty years as a pastor, I was very sympathetic with the Rev. Miller "quoting Bible verses" and apologizing.  That's where serious evangelical Christians go for help- we go to the Bible.  We find comfort in the Scriptures.  Mrs. Miller said Martha had brough a light-heartedness and sense of fun into their family that they probably desperately needed.  And, several of the Miller kids told the girl raised as Sue McDonald that she "lucked out" by being raised in the fun-loving McDonald home!

What was God's will in all of this?  In retrospect, it does seem like Mrs. Miller should have really "pitched a fit" about this early-on and gone to the hospital authorities, even if it meant causing serious trouble in her marriage.  It does seem like it was wrong for these two girls (who are age sixty-five today) to be raised in the wrong homes.  Or was God (strangely) "in" this scenario happening exactly as it did?

I graduated from Central Bible College in 1979.  As a Bible school kid I "had all the answers".  Almost all Bible school kids, frankly, "have all the answers".  As a sixty-two year old who pastored for over twenty years and who has experienced some disappointments and hard knocks in life, I'm not so sure how to figure this one out.

What do you think?  Was it God's will?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

40, 30, 20, 15, Hike!

"So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom."  (Psalm 90:12)

No this is not about football, but you've got to admit Bill Belichick and Tom Brady would probably like the title!  Rather, it's about 2017 marking some important anniversaries and memories of my life.  When I was a kid, we would think of "the year 2000" as being so futuristic!  We'd imagine people routinely flying off to other planets, and self-driving cars.  (Well, wait a minute, now I'm told there are a few self-driving cars on our roadways!)  I mention that because as a kid I couldn't even conceive of 2000 as being seventeen years in the past!   Yes, in this January of 2017 I wonder where all the years have gone and I'm in a reflective mood.  I suppose being in a reflective mood at the start of the year is probably a good thing.  I hope it will help me to be more committed to "stay the course" in my Christian life and to make the very most of this year.  Now, about those anniversaries and memories:

Forty years ago this month, in early January of 1977, I began as a student at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri.  (The school closed in 2013 and was "merged" into Evangel University, which is my daughter Amy's alma mater.)  I already had a B.A. in History from Stonehill College, but I felt the call to "full time ministry".  It's all a very long story, but I arrived on campus several days into that semester.  I'd never been to Springfield, Missouri before 1977.  In fact, I don't think I'd been much further west than Elmira, New York at that time.  I was quite a "home body".  I loved New England, and I was the type who wasn't keen on venturing much more than a hundred miles from home.  So, this was a really big thing for me!  It was my first time flying on a jet plane.  The plane took off from Boston's Logan Airport during a snowstorm.  I later found out from my parents that they closed down the runways (not allowing any take-offs or landings) just thirty minutes after that American Airlines plane departed!  I got a 1977 C.B.C. yearbook, but my picture is nowhere to be found inside.  There is a photo of the "new mid-year transfer students" but it was taken a couple of days before my arrival!  Those guys and gals also got a campus tour and a lot of helpful information.  I arrived late so I did not benefit from any of that!  I lugged one big old-fashioned suitcase with me.  (Following my parents' deaths in 2000, I donated that and some other old suitcases to the theater department at Framingham's Marian High School!)  I must have been a sight as I walked through the Springfield, Missouri airport lugging my big ugly (circa 1940s) suitcase and had no idea where I was going!  I hailed a cab to take me to the school and proceeded to find my way to the school offices.  It would take pages and pages to describe that whole "adventure".  I thank God for C.B.C student Ed Duddy who really "took me under his wing" during those first few days because otherwise I might have panicked and decided to go back to New England!  Over two years later, I graduated from C.B.C. with a B.A. in Bible.  Some years ago, an independent Pentecostal pastor I know told me I have a "forerunner's anointing".  I don't want to get too theologically deep here, but that's the same anointing that was on John the Baptist and on Elijah the prophet.  Honestly, I think I do walk in that anointing.  One of the "challenges" of having a "forerunner's anointing" is being given to extremes of emotion and being subject to great despair.  (That was true of both John the Baptist and Elijah.)  Yet, the person with the "forerunner's anointing" who may not necessarily be brave or bold or confident will at times be led to step out as a "first" at whatever the calling is, and pave the way for many to follow.  Ironically, I've been told I'm, "not a leader", and yet as far as I can tell I was the first one "saved" in our family, and that includes scads of relatives on both my mother's and father's side. Ironically, today my daughter Amy and her husband and kids live in Springfield, Missouri and they've been appointed "Assemblies of God Missionary Associates" with the "Sustain Hope" ministry!

Thirty years ago this month, I began as pastor of First Assembly of God of Framingham.  That sounds like an impressive name, but the church was tiny.  The little white wooden building (which had no parking lot) seated fifty people.  The church often "ran" far fewer in attendance than fifty.  When I arrived they were using rotary dial phones and had a circa 1965 electric typewriter.  They were saving twenty dollars a month to buy a photocopier.  At that rate, they'd probably have gotten the copier around the time the church closed in 2010! Despite "not being a leader" I helped direct the leadership to initially ask for the gift of an older copier that another church was no longer using, and within a year we were leasing a brand-new photocopier!  We also got new touch-tone phones pretty quickly!  I wrote (by hand) a weekly report about the church's activities every week from January 1987 to the church's closing in March 2010!  (I still have all of those reports!)  I made a lot of mistakes as a pastor.  Except for a couple of very brief growth spurts followed by declines, the church really never grew.  It was never regarded as very much or as very important, but one of our congregants in the early days, Christina Powell, sensed a big calling on her life.  Today, she's a highly regarded and published Christian medical ethicist.  Dr. Powell has told me I encouraged her and had an impact on her life.  There were many other stories of lives touched, and although there are many sad and painful memories about that pastorate, there were a number of victories and there are a number of happy memories.  Our kids loved growing up in Framingham.  One of the reasons I stayed there (possibly too long) was for the benefit of my kids- to give them the stability of growing up in a single community.  I don't regret that.

Twenty years ago, my wife Mary Ann decided she wanted us to have a big open house for New Year's Day 1997!  We went "all out"!  We sent out invitations and bought lots of food.  We were so excited about the open house!  We wondered how many would come?  Forty?  Fifty?  Sixty?  In fact, two people came!  The two were our friends Suzanne Fay and her nine-year-old daughter Erika.  We had a nice visit with Suzanne and Erika, and we ate like pigs, but we were very disappointed.  Later our relatives told us they didn't come because they thought the open house was for our church, and our church people told us they didn't come because they thought the open house was for our relatives!  All had been invited!  My son Jon and I did not take seriously the warnings about not eating chicken that was left at room temperature for over two hours.   We munched on chicken wings that were "out" all afternoon.  The next day Jon was very sick and I was moderately sick.  Well, that was twenty years ago and it's hard to believe!

Fifteen years ago, on the night of Dec. 31, 2001 going into Jan. 1, 2002 there were heating system problems at the church building.  It's not your "normal" way to spend New Year's Eve but Bob Gill, Bill Lincoln and I were at the church building dealing with a heating system leak all night!  Later that morning, I came to the church building to discover that the exterior of the facility had been covered with graffiti!  That was a tough way to start a year, but I remember 2002 as one of the very best of my life.  During that year, Mary Ann and I traveled to both Alaska and Prince Edward Island.  Yes, that timidity I'd had about traveling more than a hundred miles from home was long gone!

I look in the mirror and see a 62-year-old guy.  Honestly, I don't like it!  In many ways, I feel much more like the nerdy, naive 32-year-old who was the new pastor in 1987.  Sometimes I feel like I'd give anything to go back to those years, but I know we really aren't to look backward as much as we're to move forward.

What have I learned from my crazy life?  Well, I've learned to be a risk taker!  I've learned to step out and face a new adventure when you're scared to death!  I've learned to take the lead even when you're not a natural born leader or a dominant personality.  I've learned to humble yourself and do manual labor when necessary.  I've learned to make the best of a bad situation (i.e. the poor turnout at the open house); and that even if you suffer with some ill effects of that bad situation (i.e. getting sick from bad chicken) it will pass and things will get better!

So, after all that reflecting and writing, I'm ready to move forward and see what the Lord has for me in 2017!  How about you?!
AND, for more thoughts about the New Year, please watch this video:
https://youtu.be/flZ1WJ1dyvE