Billy Graham’s 96th Birthday

17 11 2014
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Billy and Franklin Graham, Cleveland Stadium Ohio June,1994

I’m writing this on Billy Graham’s 96th birthday – November 7, 2014. His son, Franklin Graham, reports that he is in good spirits, eating well and his mind is still sharp.

He notes that although his father’s hearing and vision are failing he still enjoys daily devotions and reading the Bible with his staff.

Last year’s birthday celebration included 800 guests. Celebrations this year will be smaller and quieter – family members and a few friends. And his preaching will continue only via his books and audio- and video-recordings.

Also, on this birthday another “My Hope” telecast will be broadcast nationally. In the film Billy Graham says, “I know I’m going to heaven. I’m looking forward to it with great anticipation.” Also this presentation will air him preaching one of his sermons never before released.

Although Billy Graham has been a public figure for six decades the respect of the national press is still said to be very high. And the Christian community’s gratitude for his gospel witness remains strong.

During six decades of ministry it was not only his clear, resonant proclamation of the gospel that never faltered, keeping the Good News unsullied before even the cynical element of the public; it was also his high ethical standards that marked and undergirded every aspect of his ministry from the start.

The one shadow on his record has to do with his friendship with American presidents, especially his close relationship with the embattled President Nixon. More information on this has recently been released from the Nixon Library in San Clemente, California. Long ago, Rev. Graham offered apologies for offenses caused by political and other comments made in these relationships.

And the ethical standards followed for his ministries were sterling.

I remember that at the outset of his nationwide ministry some businessmen agreed to underwrite his salary so that no monies raised at the campaigns or through other avenues of Billy Graham ministries would come to him.

And whenever he stayed in a hotel during a campaign an aide checked the room thoroughly before he entered to be sure no compromising situation could develop. In addition, he never rode an elevator alone. Extraordinary care was taken to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, so as to not damage his ability to proclaim the Gospel.

Billy Graham, the Baptist evangelist, and Ruth, his Presbyterian wife, made a striking couple. In their commitment to proclaiming the gospel of redemption, a redemption purchased by the Cross of Christ, they were one. Denominational tags tended to fade at the cross.

Ruth spent long periods raising the children and keeping the home intact while he was in other parts of the world preaching the gospel. Once asked about this she said she would rather have Billy for one month of the year than any other man for 12. Ruth preceded her husband in death in 2007.

How did Billy Graham become the convinced and convincing preacher he was? It was not a straight road. He started modestly. He had mentors who were faithful to him, such as V. Raymond Edman, fourth president of Wheaton College.

But he settled a major issue not long before the Los Angeles big tent meeting in 1949. It was that Los Angeles engagement that caught the attention of the nation, launching him into a lifetime of preaching to massed gatherings around the world. What was that major issue?

It was about the trustworthiness of the Bible. His friend, Charles Templeton, was a brilliant and engaging preacher. But Templeton began a slow turn from the faith saying the Bible was full of errors and could not be trusted. He pressed this opinion on Billy Graham with intensity.

In the face of this pressure, the Los Angeles meeting was approaching and Graham had to go one way or the other. He was in conflict. He made a decision to trust the Bible’s authority and to preach it without fear or apology.

People thronged to the big tent as meetings got under way. (I seem to remember the tent could hold 12,000 people) Many well-known people responded to Graham’s invitations and received Christ by faith. Lives were changed in radical ways. Billy Graham’s gospel influence continues right up to the present. The rest is history.

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Photo credit: Paul Walsh (via flickr.com)





Sexuality and Sex Education: A Christian Perspective

10 11 2014

6987482795_c355d9c121_mTwenty-one years ago I wrote a piece on sex education, later adopted by the Canadian General Conference of the Free Methodist Church in August, 1993. Some time ago I reviewed that piece and decided to borrow from and adapt it for 2014, believing it still gives a needed Christian perspective to a subject even more controversial now than then.

My intent here is primarily to present concepts that should precede and undergird what is taught in the church about human sexuality. Here’s part of what I wrote, with minor edits:

The task of sex education is to help growing children, at the level of their understanding, to acknowledge that their sexuality undergirds and shapes their view of the world. Sexuality is not one aspect of being human that can be separated out and experienced in isolation; it is integral to the whole of our humanness.

In today’s society there are sharply conflicting views on sexuality. The issue is not so much what information is taught; it is what assumptions underlie the information. Christians believe humans are more than animals who are socially advanced and intricately developed, and who must respond to “natural” urges; they are unique creatures among God’s creation, bearing his image and accountable to him for their behavior.

The modern mind often begins by asserting that sexuality can be shaped into different exceptions, options, and variations and therefore is offended at and even intolerant of age-old understandings. So, it may be enraged at the claim that a family made up of a mother and father and children still provides the best environment for wholesome education about sexuality. Such education begins in the loving attitudes of parents to each other and the respect they show one another and their children from infancy onward.

Christian education about sexuality is based on the revelation that God created humankind to be male and female, each bearing fully his image (Genesis 1:26,27). From birth onward this differentiation of humans into male and female has serious implications. Teaching about sexuality should help us to understand and rejoice in what God has created us to be.

This education can be enhanced in the home by the use of Biblically-based literature, and Christian audio and video presentations. The anatomy and physiology of sex may best be taught in a gradual way, according to a growing child’s ability to understand. Sex is not taught as a mere biological function of the human body. The Christian faith maintains that there is a mystery to sex – a spiritual dimension – and sex educators must respect this

What about homes that are not headed by father and mother? Single parent families are increasingly becoming a part of Christian congregations. Foster families have also increased in the mix. These represent families or children often brought into these circumstances against their own choosing. They carry on nobly and are often filled with love and grace.

But such parents need special support from a caring congregation. And children in such families benefit from the influence of Christian men and women who, in the normal flow of church life, become role models. The same resources in literature and other teaching aids, as well as courses offered by the church, are to be made accessible to these families.

Children today are exposed via media, movies, online, and some school lessons to the notion that we have progressed past older views of sexuality, and, for example, that now same-sex marriage is to be celebrated equally with traditional marriage. It is an agenda being pressed forward forcefully.

In both church and Christian family, children need to be taught the biblical underpinnings for the orthodox Christian view of the past two thousand years: marriage is between a man and a woman. That is crucial. But at the same time, we must both teach and demonstrate the way of love towards persons in these alternate lifestyles whose paths we cross — without in any way endorsing the lifestyle.

The church must also continue to teach, against the strong opposing cultural tide, that sexual intercourse belongs within marriage. . . .and that marriage is between a man and a woman. At the same time, in our broken society the church needs to reach out in ministry as well to those victimized by others or by their own sexual wrong choices.

In all this, in both intact and sundered families, the undeserved generosity of God toward sinners – his grace – must be emphasized. It is grace that gives the gift of human sexuality to begin with. It is grace that enables those who affirm this gift to remain sexually pure. And for those who have failed, God offers the grace of forgiveness and the assurance that in Christ, wholesome attitudes toward sex can be recovered and purity restored.
 

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Photo credit: Mark Dayton (via flickr.com)





Reflections On a Long, Shared Journey

3 11 2014

Photo credit: Jon RawlinsonOur 67th wedding anniversary is near (December 20) so you can understand that Kathleen and I are reflecting these days on our long, ongoing journey together.

We remember the modest bungalow on North Street in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where we exchanged simple wedding vows. Kathleen’s sister, Muriel, hosted the event and provided a chicken dinner for the eight who were present. In recent years I’ve driven along North Street several times for sentimental reasons but it appears we have outlived the house that was there.

For that event, I had bought a bundle of plastering laths to erect an arch the bride and groom could stand under for the exchange of vows. What I produced was so unstable that it couldn’t be trusted to stand upright for the whole ceremony. A collapse mid-service would have been a bad omen. My best man, the late Mel Prior, took it apart and rebuilt it.

After a night and day in Toronto we boarded a Canadian Pacific train to travel 1600 miles to my home town, Estevan, Saskatchewan, where Kathleen would meet for the first time my parents, a younger sister, and an older brother and his wife. That plan wouldn’t meet today’s honeymoon standards, but in 1947 life for most people could be simplified and made with fewer demands.

As we learned when we arrived, also two older sisters, their husbands and families, had driven 1200 miles from British Columbia to surprise us. We might say to overwhelm us. Kathleen managed this in her usual gracious way, and when newness wore off and curiosity was satisfied, we had very pleasant family celebrations for Christmas week.

Then it was back to Winnipeg on the Soo line and thence via Canadian Pacific to Toronto. There, we caught a Greyhound bus to travel 15 miles to Port Credit where we took occupancy of our one-room apartment above a garage and across the Queen Elizabeth highway from Lorne Park College.

That tiny apartment was a charming place from which to launch our life together. I went back to my studies and other assigned duties at the college. Kathleen had left her teaching position to settle into a new life. We traveled together on weekends to speak and sing in churches in Southern Ontario and nearby States.

Our first ten years were packed with activity and movement. With Kathleen’s invaluable support and her uncomplaining oversight of domestic matters, I ploughed through two academic degrees; we moved seven times; accepted our first pastoral assignment; and welcomed into our union four children — one born in Ontario, two in Illinois, and one in Kentucky.

Toward the end of our ninth year, after three years in Lexington, Kentucky, we loaded four little children, one a five month old infant, into our Plymouth, and, towing a big springless trailer, we joggled across the continent to New Westminster, B.C. to serve our second church.

It was in New Westminster, while serving a loving congregation, that we learned we would not have the privilege of raising our fourth child, John David. At the end of three days for tests in Vancouver Children’s Hospital, we were told that he would be severely limited in his development and would need the special care of an institution. After three years of Kathleen’s dedicated mothering we surrendered him broken-heartedly to the care of professionals, where he is to the present.

We approach our 67th anniversary recalling many bright occasions and a few times of struggle and even crisis — not with each other, but with unexpected circumstances. Early on, for example, we endured major financial stresses. There was a string of surgeries, and our experience with John David was wrenching, leaving us with a sadness in our hearts that has never gone away. We’ve wept together, suffered sleepless nights together, and endured the anxieties and fears that go with raising a family.

Much more than all of this, however, we have relished the joy of each other’s company, and the pleasures of seeing our children launched into stable, successful lives of their own. Looking back, we declare the life God gave and continues to give is a life of predominant joy.

Looking back also I can identify three constants of our years: from the start, we prayed together daily, a lifetime practice; we tithed to the Lord’s work the first money we owned jointly; and through all those years Kathleen has been my adviser and behind-the-scenes consultant in matters of Christian ministry. To God be the glory.

And the memory of that simple but life-changing event on North Street in Niagara Falls continues in a special way to ignite my joy even yet after our 67 years together.

Long years ago a young man and woman, each 21 years of age, stood under a beribboned arch. An older man in a black suit faced them. In his hands he held a little black book. He read from it words of ritual and asked the couple some questions. They responded in the affirmative, without reservation. He declared them husband and wife. It all took about 20 minutes, but sixty-seven years later the two still live under the wonder of that enduring covenant made before God and to each other.

Photo credit: Jon Rawlinson (via flickr.com)

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Everybody Talkin’ ‘Bout Heaven Ain’t Goin’ There

27 10 2014
Bloch-SermonOnTheMount

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch

A statement by Jesus that engages and holds my attention appears near the end of the Sermon on the Mount. He says:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evil- doers.’”

When Jesus speaks of “that day” he means the day of final judgment. In the New Testament this end-times references is called “the day of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8; Philippians 1:6,10).

In this passage, Jesus, the young prophet, leader of a dozen men, tells us that at the end of history there will be a final judgment and on that day he will know the hearts of all men, and will have power to pronounce eternal banishment from the heavenly kingdom for some, saying: “I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers.”

Particularly surprising is the unexpected rejection of one class of believers who claimed to have done great, even miraculous, ministries in his name: “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?”

Instead, there will be only one category who will be received into the kingdom of heaven. It will be those “who (do) the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Obedience is the key. That is, the heart’s obedience to the Father’s will, rather than general and especially self-directed service or accomplishment. That will be the fundamental criterion for anyone’s acceptance into heaven. To explain why that first group will be rejected for heaven, Jesus makes clear that in “that day” performance, even dramatic religious performance like the casting out of demons in the Lord’s name, will not be enough.

This issue of heart obedience is addressed repeatedly in Scripture. Isaiah said of a very religious generation, “These people come near me with their mouth / and honor me with their lips, / but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). In the closing hours of his earthly life, Jesus said to his closest followers, “If anyone loves me he will obey my teaching” (John 14:23).

In both Testaments, the bearing of the heart is the big issue. Even working wonders in Christ’s name will not count if the heart has not been open to the Father.

There’s a line in a well-known Negro spiritual that likely was inspired by these words of Jesus about the judgment: “Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t agoin’ there – O my Lord.” This should awaken us to examine the quality of our obedience to the Father — above all else.

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Dealing with Our Doubts

20 10 2014

DoubtIt’s one thing to be racked by our doubts, wondering if God exists, if He cares, if he can do anything for us in our uncertainties. But to feel that our doubts are sinful, that we must keep them hidden, compounds our distress.

The truth is that doubt is the not infrequent experience of aspiring saints, while the smug or narcissistic or spiritually complacent know little about it. Bible characters like Esau, Samson, Absalom and Herodias give little evidence of wrestling with doubts. They are all supremely self-confident people.

But the prophet Elijah is a different case. So are Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and John the Baptist. Even Jesus had his times of doubt. No one ever trusted the Father more implicitly, yet, from his cross he cried, “My God, My God, Why…?”

There are many doubter’s laments in the Psalms. At least 40 of the 150 are called psalms of lament, and some are from people wrestling with doubt.

Psalm 77 is one of them.

This psalmist is in such distress that he cannot sleep at night. He holds God responsible for even this, since for the Hebrew mind God is ultimately involved in every human situation.

The psalmist cries out in his anguish, “Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in his anger shut up his compassion? (Psalm 77:9 RSV).

This psalm must at first have been the solitary cry of one believer. But when the psalms were collected, eventually to become the Old Testament hymn book, this one was seen as a cry common to many devout hearts. Thus it was made a part of the Old Testament worship literature. Now all doubters, New Testament doubters too, may use it.

But it is not for committed unbelievers. They are inclined to resist being nudged in the direction of faith. Answer one question and they will likely raise another.

No, Psalm 77 is for devout doubters. Doubters want to believe God is their friend, that God is there for them.

But they struggle to see how things could be as they are if God really cared. Doubters have faith but it is under assault, conflicted, strained.

Frederick Robertson, great preacher of an earlier generation, dealt with black, sometimes nearly overwhelming, doubts. His advice?

“Obedience! Leave those thoughts [of doubt] for the present … Force yourselves to abound in little services; try to do good to others; be true to the duty that you know …”

Good advice, but there is an even deeper word in this psalm. “I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord,” he says, “yea, I will remember thy wonders of old” (Psalm 77:11 RSV).

This psalmist avoided the peril of self-absorption by meditating, principally on the mighty acts of his God at the Red Sea.

We can go one better. We have the record of the mighty acts of Jesus to call to mind – his perfect life, his love for the oppressed, his healings – and particularly his deliverance from death at Joseph’s tomb. The Holy Spirit, by such meditations, can renew our faith.

When trying to overcome oppressive doubts, in addition to personal meditation, it is also good to go where a company of believers is worshiping the living God. Attempt to share in their faith as they sing and pray. Join with them and listen to the word of God preached. You will be among friends. On any given Sunday, there will surely be others there too who need to activate Psalm 77.

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Nurturing A Healthy Christian Mind

13 10 2014

UpPhilippians is a love letter to a young church for which the Apostle Paul has a great fondness. It is written while he is under house arrest in Rome, awaiting a sentence that may condemn him to death.

One of his counsels to believers is — to think! Not stream of consciousness thinking but thought in an elevated and disciplined way. Here’s how he puts it:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things . . .  And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8,9).

Ponder with me these targets of wholesome thought.

Whatever Is True. There is mathematical truth (two plus two equals four, everywhere and always). And there is historical and scientific truth. But the truth Paul has in mind is spiritual or moral truth. Elsewhere he writes of truth “as it is found in Jesus.” (Ephesians 4:21). Jesus himself said, “I am the truth” (John 14:6). And throughout the Gospels countless times he introduces his teachings with, “I tell you the truth.”

We Christians are to hold truth in high esteem. Therefore, we turn to the Gospels often and search for its words of truth in a spiritual sense as grounds for our meditation. As a consequence we are lovers and practitioners of truth.

Whatever Is Noble. Weymouth translates the word as “whatever wins respect.” We might say, whatever is honorable, or whatever we are inspired to look up to. There is so much in our world that is crass and vulgar. Paul calls us to avoid reflecting on that which is cheap by consciously fixing our thoughts on that which is noble.

Whatever is Just. There is a connection in the original language between the words “just,” “right” and “righteous.” Paul’s counsel is, think on whatever assures of fair play or meets just standards. When moral concerns are so readily set aside by deception and favoritism in our times Christians are called to reflect on what is just in order to practice being just.

The psalmist wrote in the Shepherd’s Psalm, “He guides me in paths of righteousness”(Psalm 23:3). That imagery of a righteous or straight path is repeated again and again in the Old Testament, suggesting the path the Good Shepherd leads us on is always free of hidden obstacles that would trip us up (Jeremiah 31:9).

Whatever is Pure. The prophets of the Old Testament, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, constantly preach that God is not pleased with the mere external ceremonies of religion, however elaborate and well performed; he wants the hearts of his people to be pure and undivided toward him.

And that of course requires a Spirit-disciplined thought life, and active avoidance of whatever would sully a pure heart — such as internet pornography, movies that promote lust and literature that excites lewd thoughts. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8).

Whatever is Lovely. Weymouth translates this word, “loveable.” The NRSV uses the word, “pleasing.”

A vase can be lovely. So can a flower garden, a bride – or the life of a saintly person of our acquaintance. We are to align our minds to see such lovely things as we move through each day.

Whatever is Admirable. This is an extremely rare word, used only once by the apostle according to The Expositor’s Greek New Testament. It might call us to look for what is of value in any situation and to speak in a kindly spirit. It is not a call to forgo judgment when moral integrity is under siege but to affirm goodness insofar as that is possible.

If anything is Excellent or Praiseworthy, Think on These Things. The Contemporary English Version gives this rendition: “Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise.” It strikes me that the Apostle, having finished his list, is doubling back to be sure the list will have a permanent place with his readers as they think Christianly about all of life.

This brief scripture gives us a pattern for nurturing a healthy Christian mind across a lifetime. And the conclusion of this passage assures us that as we do this, “God who gives peace will be with us” (Philippians 4:9).

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Christ Loves the Church – But Do We?

6 10 2014

73616489_de343e0f42_mThere’s a story about a man who loved the children in his neighborhood. When they called to him he waved. When he gardened, they gathered around him and chattered enthusiastically. The relationship seemed mutually nourishing.

On one occasion the man decided to have the gravel in his driveway replaced with concrete. The workers came, completed the job, and left.

The neighborhood children could not resist the wet concrete and enthusiastically carved their initials into it.

When the owner came home and found the driveway decorated with initials, his affection for children seemed to cool. He scolded them, sending them home crying.

One annoyed parent accosted him. “It appears you don’t like children after all,” she chided. The man replied, “I like children in the abstract, but not in the concrete.”

A surprising number of self-professed Christians appear to feel somewhat like that about the church. In an abstract way, church is a good idea — a place for children to learn the Ten Commandments; a good site for the occasional wedding; a setting for pleasant carols and Christmas skits. It’s even okay as a place for worship, but not necessarily weekly worship which would call for sustained, practical, and responsible involvement.

The Scriptures do not support such a vague, detached view. Instead, they tell us that for true believers, belonging to the body of Christ in substantial ways is serious business.

For example, the main word for “church” in both Testaments means an assembly.  More than that, it can mean an assembly meeting at the call of a herald. When Christians gather in one place to worship the Living God they do so in answer to God’s summons: “Come let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (Psalm 95:6).

My wife and I usually arrive for Sunday morning worship 15 minutes before the service begins. We sit quietly for personal reflection.

I love it Sunday after Sunday when the prelude ends and the pastor steps to the pulpit to say, “Let us stand for the call to worship.” That invitation quickens the spirit and sets the stage for what’s to follow.

The call to worship! For me this is a moment for believers to recognize again that we have been summoned by God to come together for a high hour of worship. It is he who calls us and him whom we worship.

Moreover, the major biblical word for church meaning “an assembly” can also mean, “called out” — that is called out from our various locations to assemble for worship. In the New Testament the word is translated “church” for 112 of its 115 appearances.

The call to worship is God’s call to those who are his redeemed. Someone writes, “Wherever the Holy Spirit unites worshiping souls to Christ you have the mystery of the church.” And this is a visible, audible, active gathering.

At a youth gathering I fell into conversation with the man who had been hired to manage the public address system. While setting things up in the retreat center he said to me, “I’m a born again Christian but I haven’t been inside a church building in many years.” He then added, “And there are tens of thousands of people out there who are just like me.” He seemed to be bragging that Christians can be loners.

One could wonder how he would respond to the Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (in the offering of his own body) (Ephesians 5:25). Multitudes answer God’s call to gather regularly to celebrate that completed sacrifice and worship God in Christ.

Christ’s sacrificial love was obviously not to make believers loners, nor to prompt them to think loosely of some mere abstraction. It was to demonstrate love concretely manifested at Calvary and to recall that love wherever a body of believers is called by the Father to gather.

Think of the reality of it. When we gather in a physical setting, however lofty or lowly, we can claim afresh Christ’s promise, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).

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