Saturday, September 26, 2015


"Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:" (James 5:14)

Many years ago when my father was a drivers' license Examiner for the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, the Examiners gave applicants an oral test based on the driver licensing manual. Immediately following that oral test, they administered a road test.  This was circa late fifties and very early sixties.  (This was changed by the late 1960s so that applicants first took a written test to get their Learner's Permit, then at a later date, took their road test.)  On of my father's favorite practices upon administering the oral test was to ask applicants the meaning of various (yellow, diagonal) road signs.  His favorite signs read, "FROST HEAVES" and "FRESH OIL".  In case you don't know the meaning of these signs, FROST HEAVES are common in New England roadways in late winter and early spring.  The freezing and thawing of the ground often causes asphalt roadways to crack, split, and pitch such that there are chunks of roadway at various angles.  This makes for a very bumpy surface to drive upon.  The condition can become very dangerous, causing drives to lose control and have accidents in certain extreme cases.  FRESH OIL refers to the fact that a construction crew has applied a petroleum based asphalt/bituminous sealant to the road.  This is done for various reasons, but usually has to do with preventing water damage to the road.

I suppose most of us would picture "fresh oil" being more like the stuff one pours from a quart container into a funnel, which guides the flowing oil into the car's engine.  I've learned the hard way that not having enough oil (fresh or otherwise) in the engine can lead to all sorts of serious problems.  My 1995 Subaru which "died" last December had numerous problems, but the major reason for its death was that on the morning of December 21, 2014, it was very low on oil.  I've been told that although Toyota Corollas are very good cars, for some reason they tend to burn a lot of oil and it's something the driver has to "stay on top of" lest there be regrettable and needless problems ahead.  In the slightly more than three months that I've had the car, I've had to add oil a few times.  This past Sunday morning on the way church, what to my wondering eyes did appear, but the dashboard's oil warning light flashing a few times.  I was wearing a dress shirt and dress pants, and really didn't want to deal with the oil issue at that point, but I stopped at a gas station, purchased a quart and poured it into the engine.  (For readers who are thinking, "A quart is not enough in that case"; I know that.  I added another quart on the next day, but I was in a hurry.)  A few weeks earlier when I was purchasing oil for the car, I also bought a plastic funnel.  It is honestly not the best funnel.  It's an "all purpose" funnel which is, I think, designed much more to use when pouring gasoline additives into the gas tank or fluids into difficult to reach parts of the engine.  I learned that you can't just "stand" or "position" this funnel into the oil fill area.  You really have to hold the funnel with one hand and pour the oil with the other.  Well, I was in a rush!  I poured the oil too fast and (you guessed it) a glob of the oil backed out of the funnel, spilling into several places.  What a mess!  I grabbed for a roll of paper towels I had in the car.  I was so glad I did not get any oil on my clothes, but I was only able to do a quick and careless cleanup job of the oil and my hands were an oily mess.  I keep the funnel in a plastic bag, inside a plastic storage container in the trunk. Of course, the plastic bag and funnel were all oily.  I like things neat and clean, and this situation was anything but neat and clean!

I guess there has been some spiritual growth in my life!  Twenty years ago, that spill of "fresh oil" and all of its consequences would have absolutely ruined my morning and even my day.  I was not particularly happy about it, but I stopped at a fast food restaurant, went into the bathroom, and gave my hands a good washing.  I met Mary Ann at Marian High School where she had gone earlier, we went to church, went out with our grown kids to celebrate three birthdays, and over all had a good day.

I'm a person who tries to be neat, clean, and orderly (and who often fails miserably in those areas) so it was very much on my heart to try to clean up the mess from Sunday.  I did buy a second quart of oil and put that into the engine- carefully!  I used many paper towels, doing all sorts of wiping and cleaning.  I got out a jug of windshield washer fluid and ran some of that through the funnel.  On my way back from throwing away some of the used paper towels (I was doing all this at a supermarket parking lot) I thought that I'd really like a small bottle of water and considered buying one.  Suddenly I looked on the ground, and just a few feet from my 2001 Toyota was an almost full small bottle of spring water!  My, the Lord provided!  I made good use of that water.  Then, I sort of smuggled the funnel and some paper towels into the bathroom of a fast food restaurant. I ran hot water through the funnel and gave it a thorough cleaning in the sink, and I thoroughly washed my hands.  It felt good to put the funnel away in a clean, new small plastic bag inside the large plastic storage container.  As far as I was concerned, all was right with my world again!

Now, why am I telling you this story?  It's a true story, but as I've thought about it, it's also sort of a parable.   Most conservative New Testament scholars believe that the mention and usage of oil in the Bible is a picture of "type" of the Holy Spirit.  One such passage about this is the Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew chapter twenty-five, but there are in fact many passages that apply.  For any church to truly be a "New Testament church", that is a church (frankly) the way God wants it to be, there needs to be a lot of oil;  there needs to be a great openness to the moving of the Holy Spirit.  Why are there so many churches in our day that are essentially dead or nearly dead?  It's because there is very little or no moving of the Holy Spirit in those churches.  Many years ago, people in Assemblies of God churches and other Pentecostal churches could confidently proclaim, "Well, that's not true of our church.  We are open to the moving of the Holy Spirit in our church!"  Sadly, today, there are even Assemblies of God churches and pastors that are not really open to the moving and working of the Holy Spirit.  This is because when the Holy Spirit does move in a mighty way, things can get very unpredictable and uncomfortable.  It can even become "somewhat messy".   Now, please don't misunderstand me!  I'm not advocating that churches turn into three ring circuses with people "swinging from the chandeliers" and "bouncing off the walls" and where all kinds of unbiblical behavior is taking place!  No!  First Corinthians chapter fourteen verse forty tells us that in church everything must be done decently and in order.  Too many of us, however, want to control things.  We want to play church.  We want things to be safe and predictable.  Honestly, sometimes when I was pastoring, I was guilty of that.  I know there were times that I "quenched the Spirit" because I just didn't want to have to deal with all the ramifications which would happen if I really let the Holy Spirit have His way.  There were Sundays that I was anxious to get to a restaurant or watch the Patriots game.  I don't know if I will ever pastor a church again, and I may not, but let me tell you that if I do, things will be different.  How sad when a church is "almost out of oil"!  In the case of an automobile, the engine will become permanently damaged.  That happened with my 1995 Subaru.  Again, sometimes things may get a little messy when the Holy Spirit is allowed to move, but those are the times when the pastor and elders are to set things in order, to "clean things up" as it were, with solid direction and instruction from the Bible, God's Word.

Remember the part of the story where a small bottle of spring water was actually provided for me to help with the oil cleanup?  That's the kind of thing I'm talking about!  A great verse about this subject is:

"That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word,"  (Ephesians 5:26).

Yes, please don't be afraid of "fresh oil"!

Sunday, September 13, 2015


"Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies."  (from I Corinthians 8:1 New King James Version)

I heard it once again as I listened to a radio talk show late on Friday night, September 11, 2015.  A zealous Christian phoned in and spoke over the airwaves.  I assume she thought she was being used as an instrument for God and that she'd been a great witness for Christ; and perhaps even that she'd put the host and his listeners in their place.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.    

The radio program was Nightside hosted by veteran broadcaster Dan Rea on Boston's WBZ AM 1030 radio.  (WBZ's nighttime signal gets into thirty-eight states and six Canadian provinces.  Plus, it can be accessed pretty much anywhere on earth over the internet.)   Dan chose an excellent topic for the final two hours of his September 11 program:  He asked listeners to call in and share where they were on September 11, 2001 and what their memories are of that day.  The good news is that Dan did receive several very good calls on Friday evening, but the bad news is that the first three or four calls sounded as if they came in from mentally ill listeners in another dimension!  And, that very first call of the evening was the one by the Christian zealot.

The caller did not have a September 11, 2001 story.  She began by ranting and raving that, "It's all in the Bible!"  She continued on by saying that most of the hijackers on September 11, '01 were Iranians.  Dan quickly interjected that they in fact were not Iranians, and that most of them were Saudi Arabian citizens.  That correction seemed to "go in one ear and out the other" to use the tired old expression.  The woman prattled on and on about the Bible having all the answers to everything and the importance of standing by Israel.  Dan Rea tried to have a conversation with her, but his efforts were hopeless.  Dan referred to the Bible as "a book", and as amazing as this may sound, that phrase affected his caller like spraying gasoline onto a fire!  She immediately protested that the Bible is not a book!  (Boy, the last time I checked, it sure looked like a book to me!  In fact, my understanding is that "Bible" literally means "book" !)  The caller yelled, "The Bible is the Word of God!".   Well, for any seriously committed Christian, including me, The Bible is the Word of God, but it's also definitely a book!   Dan asked the caller what particular denomination she belonged to, and she insisted she is "a Christian".  At one point, she did use the term, "born-again Christian".  (Listen, I call myself a born-again Christian, but by the time the call was over I was so embarrassed and uncomfortable!)

I've been an evangelical Christian (also known as "born-again Christian") for forty-five years.  I hate to admit it, but in my younger days, I did some things which were almost as foolish and inappropriate as that woman's call to WBZ.  I wrote some letters to newspaper's editorial pages which now embarrass me. (One was against Halloween.  I still am not a big advocate of Halloween, but I'd just never write a letter like that to a newspaper today.   I did not hesitate to make simplistic arguments nor did I hesitate to put myself into some very embarrassing positions in the name of "defending the faith" or "being a spokesman for God".)  There are even some pieces from the first three or four years of my blog (circa 2006-2009) that I probably wouldn't write today.

I'd honestly like to teach a class on the dos and don'ts of public discourse for enthusiastic evangelical Christians.  I guess the problem is that the people who really need to attend such a class probably wouldn't!  It's possible that the lead-off caller on Friday night could have done a pretty good job if she'd have truly had a conversation with Dan Rea and treated him with respect, if she'd have contributed a good personal story about September 11, 2001, and if she'd have just admitted that the Bible really is a book!

I wonder how many listeners thought, "There goes another mindless, annoying, Christian zealot!  I want nothing to do with their God!"   And, that's the problem.  Such zealots honestly mean well, but they do a lot of damage.

The bottom line is:   Give it a lot of thought and prayer before you call a radio program, submit a letter to the newspaper, or post something on a blog or social media site.  No matter how well-meaning you are, you may find yourself doing much more harm than good!