A Great Honor Bestowed at Age 90

greenvillecollegecrestA great honor has recently come to Kathleen and me. Greenville College, the school at which I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English 63 years ago, has bestowed the honor. My impulse is to share the details with my readers but I must first tell you about the college.

Greenville is a Christian liberal arts college. In September it is to become Greenville University. The school was founded in Greenville, Illinois in 1892, by ministers and members of the Free Methodist Church. Greenville, a city of 7000 on Interstate 70, is about 50 miles east of St.Louis, Missouri.

Today the college has 1600 students and offers more than 50 majors. It was smaller by far when I was a student long ago, but it continues with the reputation of providing solid higher education and sending a significant number of students to graduate school and then onward to lives of character and service.

I graduated from GC in 1953 at 27 years of age. With three small children in tow, Kathleen and I then went on to Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky for a three year program of pastoral education. Only eight years after I graduated from Greenville I was brought back from Western Canada to be the pastor of the college and community church. The new church building was just across the street from the campus, and this move began for us a 13-year, wide-ranging pastoral ministry.

Later, at 48-years-of-age I was voted into the bishop’s office for a period of service that lasted 19 years. Kathleen and I took that election with full intent to treat it as another though broader pastoral assignment. Our life’s commitment to the pastoral office did not flag.

A few months ago, 63 years after my graduation and 42 years after completing my 13 years as pastor of the Greenville Free Methodist church, President Ivan Filby asked me a question that took me by surprise: Would my wife and I consent to have the college name a renewed School of Theology, Philosophy and Ministry after us, and would I also be agreeable to having a Chair of Pastoral Theology and Christian Ministry established in my name?

Needless to say, we were astonished and felt deeply honored at the same time. On several occasions during our Greenville pastorate we turned down invitations to other enticing Christian ministries. I refused such offers in order to continue as a local pastor. So we said yes to President Filby’s inquiry.

Now to the formal inauguration of the Donald N. and Kathleen G. Bastian School of Theology, Philosophy, and Ministry. It occurred just three weeks ago, on October 5 and 6. For months Linda Myette, Vice President for Advancement, and her staff, had been working diligently to put together a two-day program of celebration of this event. In addition to the school, the Donald N. Bastian Chair of Pastoral Theology and Christian Ministry was to be established.

So, on October 4 members of our family converged on Greenville. Kathleen and I and two Greater Toronto children Carolyn and Don with spouses, Doug and June, traveled together. Son Robert and wife Jan drove from the Chicago area. Two grandchildren, Charis and Zach, also drove from there. A grandson, Jonathan, and great granddaughter, Rebekah, came from Pennsylvania. It all turned out to be the experience of a lifetime for all of us.

Among many wonderful moments of the two days, here are the three highlights for me and for Kathleen as well.

First, to start the celebration we listened to heavenly choir pieces in chapel, and afterwards I preached the sermon to an attentive student body. The text: But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all things needful will be added as well. For me and for Kathleen, that verse summarizes the life we have attempted to lead, and I believe the students received it as a challenge from the Lord for their lives too.

img_2712A second highlight was the ribbon cutting and the uncovering of the large plaque at the front door of the school of theology, announcing the new name of the school housed in the JKL building, a gift to the college made by Don and Esther Jones. A large group of friends, family, and community gathered outside to hear the greetings, comments and proclamations. The ribbon cutting made us feel we will always be a part of Greenville.

Third, I had been asked to be guest lecturer for a one-hour class of about 20 ministerial students. My subject: The Pastoral Vision. It was a joy to break down the pastoral task into three main components: Ministry of the Word, pastoral care of persons, and administration, and to illustrate these assignments from a long life of ministry. The class was alert and engaged and afterward we enjoyed a special luncheon with them. What a privilege to connect and share with a coming generation of likely pastors.

Please share with us in giving all glory to God for the possibilities launched on this occasion.

And join Kathleen and me in praying for the students of Greenville University, rejoicing with us in the faithful service of President Ivan Filby and his wife, Kathy, as well as the faculty, staff, administration, and trustees of this greatly loved institution!

Re-post: Of Turkey Legs and Left-Over Scraps

At a big family dinner, savory dishes began the rounds. When the platter, heavy with turkey, came to eight-year-old Luke, he took enough for himself and then pulled onto his plate a large browned turkey leg.

His mother noticed and asked, “Luke, what are you going to do with all that?” Pointing to the leg he said, “That’s for Buster.”

As his mother returned the leg to the platter she said, “You can’t take a turkey leg for your dog. Wait until after the meal and we’ll give you lots of scraps for him.”

When the meal was over, Luke was heard to say to Buster, “Here’s something for you. I thought I was going to bring you an offering but all I’ve got is a collection.”

For those who lead in the Sunday morning worship of God, it’s good to ask from time to time, are the gifts we place in the plates treated like offerings or collections?

In other words, how do we treat the time in the service when we receive the worshiper’s gifts? Is it an intermission from worship in order to collect up “leftovers” to look after mundane matters like paying the pastor and repairing the church van? That would be a collection.

Or is that time a high moment of worship in its own right? Do the worshipers think of themselves as giving not to the plate, or even the church, but to God Himself, our Heavenly Father? Are they giving it as a portion of what he has entrusted to them as his stewards? And is their participation in this part of the service as much a moment of worship as when they bow their heads to say The Lord’s Prayer or settle to hear God’s word preached? If so, that would be an offering.

I love to remember the sight of ushers receiving the Sunday morning offering at the last church I served. It took twelve ushers to receive the congregations gifts, three ushers on each side aisle and six in the middle. When it was received, the ushers gathered at the back of the center aisle, assembled the plates into four stacks, and then four ushers walked in formation to place the plates on the communion table. The congregation stood and sang the Doxology.

How the pastor frames the giving of tithes and offerings has a lot to do with how seriously the congregation, young and old, worship in the giving of their gifts. And it may determine whether a congregation gives collections or offerings.

For the pastor, it should be a theological issue of great importance. Is the worship of the Triune God what we do in a service only when we sing or pray? Or is everything we do in a service an act of worship — including announcements and offering?

What pastors teach a congregation from week to week out of their own reservoir of truth becomes what the congregation learns to hold true also. It is to be hoped that pastors often resolve on behalf of their people: “No collection mentalities around here; no more timeouts in worship to look after paying the bills.” Only offerings.

Every congregation needs to think of presenting tithes and offerings into the care of the church as a sanctifying moment. To sanctify means to set apart to God. It is an act of thanksgiving and trust – thanksgiving that God out of his provident care has made the gifts possible, and trust that the officers of the church will dispense the gifts prayerfully and with diligence.

What a clever distinction eight-year-old Luke made between collections and offerings. And how aptly the distinction can be applied to the stewardship moment in every worship service. If what we put into the offering plate is the leftover scraps from the week – what we can spare after all other needs have been met — it is a collection. If it is the first fruits, right off the top, set aside to be given with joy, it is an offering.

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Photo credit: motoyen (via flickr.com)

What Hinders Faith?

11774111985_16b3bbfe7a_mIt was Mark Twain who said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Some adults hold Mark Twain’s opinion when it comes to Christian things. It is not clear whether the disbelief is from lack of understanding, disregard of evidence, or a bad religious experience at some time in the past.

There is, however, a fourth cause for unbelief which many times is the primary one, and it is moral in nature. It is an inner impulse to resist truth when the Gospel is clearly presented. Jesus faced this resistance many times.

The Apostle John tells of such a time in Jesus’ ministry when he performed many miracles. He opened eyes of the blind, healed the sick, and restored to the lame the ability to walk.

To many who were there, his miracles were obviously genuine, and witnessing them awakened faith in Jesus as the Messiah. But others who witnessed the same miracles in the same circumstances, were angered and contentious. John writes:

Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence they still would not believe. (John 12:37). A few words later John writes of the same people: They could not believe (Emphases added). It appears that the willful refusal of light brought darkness.

John offers the words of Isaiah as a reason for this resistant state of mind: They could not believe because, [God] has blinded their eyes / and deluded their hearts, / so they can neither see with their eyes, /nor understand with their hearts, / nor turn – and I would heal them. (Isaiah 6:10).

When we resist the Gospel, according to Isaiah, not only we but God blinds our minds. But, at the same time, he holds before us the promise to forgive and heal our blindness if we turn to him.

John reports a further reason for the defective or reserved belief of some in the crowd on that day of miracles. He writes: Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God. (John 12:42).

This brings to mind a young couple that came to see me many years ago. He reported he had intellectual problems with the Gospel and was seeking help. He was pleasant about it but when we considered the miracles of Jesus as the Gospels report them he grew resistant. He insisted he was unable to believe in miracles.

It was not until I drew to his attention the Apostle John’s explanation for why many who saw the miracles and were convinced that day would not openly acknowledge the truth: they loved praise from men more than praise from God.

For this young man, it was as though a light had gone on. His eyes widened; this was his issue. He was brilliant in the sciences with a promising career in view. His issue with the gospel seemed to me moral and an issue of his will more than an intellectual handicap. As I remember, he was aware that to believe openly might limit success in his career.

To my knowledge, he never reversed his response. He appeared pleasant and at ease when not discussing the Christian faith, but a door had been locked in his heart.

The good news of the Gospel is this: even though there were regions in which Jesus preached only to have his message rejected, both back then and today it remains that he is the Good Shepherd, always seeking to draw sinners to himself and thus to salvation and discipleship.

That is the kind of love that ever calls us to believe.

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Photo credit: William Warby

Convictions About Marriage Spring up Where You Don’t Expect Them

253317539_aac78de442_mFor those who accept the Bible as God’s timeless Word, and who receive its message with openness and honesty, God’s design for marriage is clearly presented in many places.

There’s an example in Abraham’s and Sarah’s experience when they moved into the alien territory of the Philistine King Abimelech (Genesis 20). This land was the extreme southwest section of the Negev Desert, between Egypt and Israel.

In that era, a king usually gathered a harem of beautiful women — sometimes as trophies, sometimes for political reasons. This would be just one example of culture’s veering from the message of the Biblical account of creation — that marriage is a bonding between one man and one woman (Genesis 1,2).

After establishing God’s intention for marriage, in Genesis 1 and 2 this book of beginnings reports faithfully the state of affairs for domestic life the world drifted into — bigamy, polygamy, concubinage, incest, fornication, and adultery. Genesis reports these aberrations because they describe the broken world into which God would send our Lord Jesus for our redemption.

At the outset of their travels from Mesopotamia into Canaan and Egypt, Abraham and Sarah knew about harems. They therefore agreed between themselves that if Sarah were seized and taken into a king’s harem because of her beauty, they would present themselves as brother and sister — not a completely false claim because they shared a common father, Terah. The marriage of half-siblings is not affirmed in the Bible but simply reported here as a feature of the honesty of the Book.

Word of her beauty reached the king. She was sent for and preliminarily taken into the harem, as they had feared would happen. Abraham might now be killed to get him out of the way if it were discovered that she was his wife, not his “sister”.

But before Abimelech went near Sarah, God came to the king in a dream, revealing the fact that Sarah was more than a sister to Abraham; God said in the dream, “she is a married woman.”

Abimelech, the pagan ruler, was instantly stricken with fear at what he had done — he had invaded a marriage to take a woman who was already the wife of another man. Within the dream, Abimelech protested his innocence to God, “I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” In spite of his harem, here is a pagan king acknowledging that marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman regardless of how far culture might have traveled or moved away from that standard.

Early the next morning, Abimelech called his officers together to report the perilous situation they were in. They, too, were stricken with the fear of divine judgment. Abraham was immediately called before the king to explain his deception and in the presence of the king’s officers he was rebuked and asked why he had done this evil deed.

Abraham defensively told the king of the fear that drove him: “There is no fear of God in this place and they will kill me because of my wife.”

To stave off divine judgment, Abimelech gave Abraham abundant gifts of sheep, cattle, and slaves while restoring Sarah to him and graciously inviting them to live anywhere in his land they might choose.

He also notified Sarah that he was giving “her brother” one thousand shekels of silver to make amends for the offense committed against her. The story ends as Abraham prays God’s blessing on Abimelech and his house.

It’s an ancient story, lodged in an ancient culture. Its setting is devoid of the full revelation eventually reported in God’s divine Word. Yet the story shows that the Eternal God has his ways of affirming his rules even among those who do not know him.

There, in the Bible itself, is a case for natural law, known by Abimelech and affirmed in a dream even long before the divine law establishing the sanctity of marriage was given on Sinai.

Photo credit: Stephen Durham (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: Our Resurrection is Assured!

520114756_6fca07c5e7Last night I taught a Bible study on the astonishing resurrection of Jesus Christ. My focus was on the events that attended his actual deliverance from a burial place where, three days earlier, his tortured and emaciated body had been hurriedly entombed – for the evening of Friday, all of Saturday, and the early moments of Sunday.

My primary source was Matthew’s account of the event, chapter 28.

Two women, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” came with no special expectations except “to look at the burial site.” They were drawn there by their grief and to make one last gesture of love for their fallen leader.

But, according to Matthew, upon their arrival, they saw that an earthquake had shaken the place and wrested the heavy stone away from the mouth of the tomb. An angel sat on the stone.

Toughened Roman soldiers had been assigned to guard the tomb against any mischief. But, terrified and shaken by the angel’s appearing, those guards froze in place like dead men standing.

The angel’s address to the two women was clear: “Don’t be afraid. You are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here. As he promised, he is risen. Step inside this gaping grave and you will see the vacated spot where he lay.”

The angel’s instructions went on: “He has risen from the dead. Go quickly. Tell his eleven special followers to go to Galilee. They will see him there.”

As the women moved quickly away from the tomb their emotions were a strange mixture of fear and joy — fear raised by this inexplicable angelic presence, joy excited by the message he gave.

Suddenly, intensifying their already overwhelmed state of mind, Jesus greeted them. They could think of nothing to do but fall down, clasp his feet and worship him.

Twice they were instructed, “Go and tell” but instructed in different ways. The angel said, “Go quickly and tell his disciples.” The Risen Lord said, “Go and tell my brothers.”

Each of four Gospel accounts ends with the same essential story: Jesus was put to a horrible death by the corruption of religious leaders, the fickleness of a Jewish populace and the illegal exercise of Roman authority. But each reporter tells the story with the same conclusion – the tomb was empty; Christ had risen from the dead!

For him, death was not about to have the last word: He surmounted death; overcame it; left it forever behind him. Moreover, his disciples came to see that it was a death with a purpose. It was a death on their behalf, the innocent Son of God dying to give forgiveness to sinners.

The news about Christ’s surmounting of death by his resurrection is not only the climaxing note of the four Gospel accounts; it’s a message either declared or assumed by every book of the New Testament (for example, Acts 1:3; 2:23,24; Romans 1:4 etc.).

Why does the account of Jesus’ resurrection matter? And what assurance does it afford believers today? For believers, this truth becomes very personal when Jesus declares: “Because I live, you also will live!” [John 14:19] That promise is the ground of their joy!

Photo credit: James Emery (via flickr.com)

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My First Car

1934_ford_two_door_sedanIn the summer of 1947, at age 21, I bought my first car — a 13 year-old 1934 Ford.

The auto industry had been making tanks, military trucks, and other war materiel, and was just getting back into production of automobiles after the Second World War. Even good used cars were scarce at a reasonable price. A friend of mine, Frank, told me of a relative of his north of Toronto who had a car he had quit driving for health reasons.

I went to his farm and bought the car for $300.

This car had one instant appealing feature — a remanufactured V8 engine. At that time, Ford held the patent on V8 engines so only Ford could produce them. Those engines were quick on the take-off and peppy on the road but they were known to burn oil. Nevertheless, this Ford with a replaced V8 engine was a treasure to me.

After that one feature in the plus column there were several in the minus column. After all, it was a 1934 vehicle bought in 1947. Cars back then became undependable more quickly with the passing of time and needed repairs sooner than today’s automobiles.

So, let me list some of the minuses. Its two-doors opened from the front. They were sometimes called suicide doors because if they ever became unlatched and opened while traveling at any significant speed, they would catch the wind and who knows what would happen to the door, or the driver’s side of the car. Or, for that matter, the driver if it was his door. Seat belts were not yet invented when that car was built.

The bottom of both doors had rusted away quite badly so in the winter, driving in a cross-wind provided extreme air conditioning. The driver got the worst of it because he had to keep his feet on or near the pedals regardless.

Another minus was that some of the basic instruments had long since quit functioning. The gas gauge was useless. I tried to keep track of the gas level in my head but on more than one occasion I ran out of gas on the highway and had to cross a field to the nearest farm to get a small container of gas. Back then that trek could turn out to be a neighborly experience.

The speedometer didn’t work either. You had to figure how fast you were going in comparison with other cars on the road. This wasn’t really taxing because the volume of traffic even on the recently built Queen Elizabeth Way was a fraction of the traffic today.

Kathleen and I were married in late December a little less than five months after I bought the car. Soon afterward we had to drive to Watertown, New York, from Toronto — a little over 200 miles. I was to speak there for the weekend. On that trip the rain pelted the car and revealed another frailty: the cowl above the driver’s feet leaked water badly. My bride diminished the problem by unwrapping sandwiches she had made and placing the wax paper (no plastic wrappings yet) over my feet.

On occasion people referred to that vintage car as a puddle jumper or bucket of bolts. When my friend, Herald, rode in the back seat he teased that the car was equipped with buggy springs. That 1934 Ford was an adventure and, at the same time, an object for good-natured quips.

In the spring, I saw an advertisement for a car paint that could be applied with a powder puff (the puff included). The grey paint on the car had become drab so I bought the paint and on a Saturday morning Kathleen and I cleaned up the car and did the paint job with the powder puffs. It was a small act of love towards that old car. The results were a much improved shiny black body, but the doors were still rusted at the bottom.

My first car had one distinguishing feature that very few cars have to this day: a bullet hole through the back wall (there were no trunks back then). More than once, people who noticed it quipped that I must have outrun the police. I insist to this day that the bullet hole was there when I bought the car.

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Photo credit: carsguide.com

Re-post: Taking Evil Seriously

Do you think of evil as mere ignorance? Do you say people do bad things only because they don’t know any better?

Or is evil more like an intangible force that prompts a young man to steal a car at gunpoint or a girl to lie to her mother when she knows what she is doing is wrong?

To speak to the issue of evil, Jesus told one of his many incomparable stories. In it, evil is an invisible, intelligent, destructive power.

Here’s the story: A house is indwelt by an evil spirit. But the spirit leaves it and goes into the desert where evil spirits are believed to dwell. There this unclean spirit feels homeless so returns to the house previously lived in. It finds the place thoroughly cleaned, all swept and returned to order — but vacant.

This vacancy prompts the evil spirit to round up seven other spirits even more wicked than itself and they take up residence. The consequences are horrible! The house is then more defiled and disordered than ever (Luke 11: 24-26).

Evil is such a pervasive force in the universe that one story is not enough to fully account fo it. Philosophers and theologians have divided evil into two categories: natural evils (like tornados) and moral evils (like bank heists, murder or even hatefulness).

But they both represent something that does huge damage to those in its grip. We consider hurricanes and tsunamis that kill thousands to be the result of evil loosed into the world by the Fall. We think of cancer that way too. But theft, murder, deception, and greed are also evils of a more personal, human sort.

Elsewhere, Jesus gives a catalogue of the elements of evil that dwell in the human heart (Mk 7:20-23). And, under the heading of “the flesh,” the Apostle Paul presents an incomplete list of the acts or influences that flow out of this evil (Gal. 5:19-21).

The story Jesus told suggests that personal evil is a dynamic quasi-personal influence that resides inwardly in people and defiles their lives. It makes life chaotic. Its results are likened vividly to an abandoned house that breeds mold and cockroaches and mice and also throws furnishings, dishes, and knick knacks into disarray. Personal evil makes a mess of things inwardly.

Here’s what we can draw from this story: We are only authentically Christian and safe from evil when Christ lives in us. Being under Christian influences is not enough. That may help us to be nice, and to develop good church manners. But that niceness is not the bona fide evidence that we are Christians.

The evidence needed to show we are people of genuine faith is that Christ has not only cleaned us up but has taken over our lives as our resident Master.

The Scripures make this abundantly clear. The Apostle Paul notes that “Christ in you” is our hope of a glorious future (Col. 1:27). Of the Corinthians he asks, “Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 5:5).

Elsewhere he writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).

But here’s the most telling word of all, spoken by Jesus to his followers during his closing hours before his crucifixion. He said, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” John (14:23).

Is your inner state regulated and ruled by the presence of the Living Christ? By faith does he live in you? And is your respect for the force of evil in the world so clear that it is easy to pray regularly, as Jesus taught us to do, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one?” (Matt. 5:13).

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Photo credit: L.Marie (via flickr.com)