Re-post: Reading Scripture in Church

The best advice I know for those called upon to read Scripture in public worship is this: Read the Bible as though you are listening to it, not as though you wrote it.

I would also say: Read clearly, with confidence and conviction. Read so the people will want to listen.

Too often, only a few verses are read as the text for the minister’s sermon. That is commendable, but historically, Christian Scriptures have also been read as a separate, stand-alone act of worship.

That’s also how it was in the ancient Jewish synagogue. The scrolls were kept in a sacred chest and removed reverently to be read to the gathered worshipers.

Early Christian assemblies continued this practice. The Apostle Paul, who was well trained as a rabbi when Christ called him, wrote to the young pastor Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of the Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). Notice that the reading of the Scripture is spoken of here as separate from preaching and teaching.

It is ironic that public worship in so-called “liberal” congregations include in their order of worship a Bible reading from both Old and New Testaments and from the Psalms, while many congregations we call “evangelical” include no scripture other than the aforementioned sermon text.  

I was teaching a seminary class of fifteen or so who came from many church traditions. I asked: “How many of you attend or lead a congregation that includes Bible reading as a separate act of worship?” Fewer than half raised their hands.

In the early decades of my denomination — and indeed of many evangelical denominations — it was different. On the first page of the Free Methodist Church’s 1910 hymn book I find an “order of worship” printed on the first page. It includes Scripture lessons from both the Old and New Testaments. Our forebears apparently wanted to be sure that Scripture would be central in worship and also that worship would be uniform from congregation to congregation.

To recover this practice, here are suggested “rules” to consider.

1. Well in advance of Sunday let the pastor choose a portion from each Testament, usually between 10 and 25 verses in length, giving special attention to the Psalms and the Gospels.

2. Choose lay readers carefully. Reading the Scriptures in worship is an assignment for those who are good readers, who articulate clearly and project their voices so as to be heard by all.

3. Give readers the passages before the Lord’s Day and encourage them to acquaint themselves well with them so that there will be no stumbling over words during public reading.

4. If young people are chosen, explain to them the importance of the assignment. I have noted at times that young people tend to read too fast, not being aware that many worshipers need a slower pace. I suggest you model for them the pace, or have them read for you and coach them. Also, advise readers to dress modestly for the assignment and with respect for a holy God and a worshiping congregation. If this advice is properly given it will win a response.

5. Ask readers to sit near the microphone at least until they have carried out their assignment. They share leadership for that service and the congregation should not need to wait while readers come from a distant place in the sanctuary.

Many years ago in a class with Carl Bangs, an outstanding scholar and seminary professor, we students discussed the drift of some churches from historical beliefs. He noted, however, that such congregations often continue to give a place to the public reading of the Scriptures. Then he added these words: “So long as the Scriptures continue to be read there is hope.”

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Update: How Earthly Prayers Enhance Heavenly Worship

Yesterday I wrote to our children and spouses suggesting that we all pray regularly for a special need in the family, thereby joining our individual prayers into a choir of intercession to God.   

This made me reflect more generally on the place of prayer in the Christian’s life.  In that some prayers seem to go unanswered, it is not surprising that Christians might be tempted to ask from time to time: Do my daily prayers make any difference? Is God aware of them?

In the closing book of the Bible — the Revelation of John — there is an encouraging answer. John recounts his mystical vision of heaven there. In chapter 5:8 we are in the throne room of God and worship is about to begin. 

A lamb is there that appears to have been slain but is yet fully alive. We know who this lamb represents – the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. Around him are “four living creatures” and twenty-four elders. Some Bible scholars believe that, taken together, they represent all of creation.

The lamb takes a scroll from the hand of the Majesty (God the Father), and suddenly the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fall down before the lamb. It is time for worship in the heavenly realms.

All have harps in their hands, heavenly instruments of worship. They also hold bowls full of incense. John tells us that this incense represents “the prayers of the saints.”

This imagery makes a powerful connection between two spheres of existence: on the one hand, that heavenly realm unseen by us now, where our God reigns and harmony and order prevail; on the other hand, our visible world, so clouded by conflict and struggle. 

The connection between these two worlds appears to be the collective prayers of God’s people. Imagine: while we are yet on earth, our prayers contribute the aroma of incense to worship before the throne of God.  

It encourages me to learn from this passage that our prayers matter to God. However ineffectual they may seem to us in our limited earthly existence, God receives them as a fragrance in his throne room. 

They must gladden the heart of the Father. They are apparently more than merely a list of our needs; they pour out all the possibilities of adoration, homage, praise, and awe.

It also encourages me to know that without the “incense” of the prayers of the saints, the very atmosphere of the throne room would lack something important. Our prayers apparently fill that place with a lovely fragrance, thus enhancing heavenly worship.

This larger view of prayer can infuse our prayers with renewed faith and fresh ardor. We will still have petitions to offer and unanswered prayers will still perplex us. 

Yet in those moments when we are “lost in wonder, love and praise,” and even when we are perplexed or afraid, we will know that in that glorious throne room our prayers are being mingled with the prayers of saints from all times and places.  

Image info: Dave Gough (via flickr.com)

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Update: Why, at 95, We Still Think Church Attendance Is Important

From infancy onward, my younger sister Eunice and I were taken to church. At sixteen, I declared I was old enough to choose when I would and would not attend. My little English mother quickly punctured my trial balloon. She put one finger on the dinner table and said, “Young man, so long as your feet are under this table you’ll go to church when church is on.”

Later, when Kathleen and I were first married we lived across the Queen Elizabeth Way at Lorne Park College, west of Toronto. On Sundays we walked the long gravel lane to the main building morning and evening to join faculty and students in Christian worship. On Wednesday nights we made the same trek to attend vespers.

Having lived since that time in Southern Illinois, Kentucky, Western Canada, Southern Illinois a second time, and the northwest suburbs of Toronto, we are now in an independent living arrangement of a lovely retirement village called Walden Circle, located very near where Lorne Park College once stood decades ago.

Now, given the constraints caused by Covid-19 and some physical infirmities, we “attend” church each Sunday by listening to (usually) three different televised services that provide substance and scriptural teaching. And we have attended an interdenominational meditation onsite at Walden Circle when offered.  

You might conclude that, after our seventy-four years of marriage, we attend church in these ways by sheer habit, and there’s some truth to that. But we have additional reasons.

We attend church because we are Christians, and the Christian Scriptures tell us to do so. In the Old Testament there was the weekly Sabbath in commemoration of creation (Exodus 20:8-11) and as a reminder of the people’s release from captivity (Deuteronomy. 5:12-15). There were also the special occasions when throngs gathered in Jerusalem to worship in remembrance of certain great events of Israel’s history — Passover, for example.

Much later, if there were as many as ten families the dispersed Jews built synagogues where they could meet on the Sabbath and listen to the reading of the Law. It was a weekly practice, and Isaiah had even declared earlier that the keeping of the Sabbath gave assurance that God would give his people a special blessing (Isaiah 58:13,14).

On the evening of the day of our Lord’s resurrection, the disciples gathered for what became the first Lord’s Day celebration (Luke 2418-36). But as a second generation of believers came along, the commitment to attend worship to some seemed less important. So believers were exhorted: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all the more as you see the Day [of Christ’s return] approaching” (Hebrews 10:27).

Another compelling reason why we maintain the church-going habit is that Scriptures are to be expounded for our profit (1 Timothy 4:13). Some assert that we could read them for ourselves or hear their exposition by means of television, as Kay and I are often doing at present. But there’s something about being in the company of God’s people for this exercise that can’t be matched. We share a common agreement and respond with a common “Amen.”

We also experience that attending church — or making sure that we observe carefully each Lord’s Day — gives a divine order to life, and this plays back on the way the whole week is lived. Turning up to worship is like resetting life’s priorities and focusing on the joy of the Lord. That may be one reason why the Psalmist said, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’” (Psalm 122:1).

Finally, we attend church because in doing so we join forces with a company of God’s people who are committed to certain ministries that help to keep a Christian witness alive in our secularized world. For example, we support pastoral ministry to those bereaved, hospitalized, or shut-in, or to parents to whom a baby has just been born. We are instructed on how moral issues in society should engage us. We support gospel, educational, and medical ministries for the needs of people in other lands. Local churches are often the unsung heroes of the Christian mandate to go into all the world with the gospel.

What goes on in church, we admit, can here and there become lacking in the excitement of active faith. But, as Carl Bangs once said, “So long as the Bible continues to be read in church, there is hope.”

So, as we were taught in early childhood that attending church regularly is crucially important for Christians, so now we pass on that counsel to our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and friends. We say: Know the Lord; experience him in a personal way; then find a church where you can be loyal and make regular attendance and participation a key feature of your lives.

Image info: James Mann (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: About Telling the Truth

A church member offered to teach Sunday school. For orientation, he sat in a boy’s class to help keep order as the teacher taught.

The first Sunday he was startled to hear the teacher say to the boys, “We all lie.” Then, shooting his own hand into the air as if to include himself, the teacher asked, “How many of you told a lie this past week?” 

The boys glanced at one another hesitantly and a few hands were raised guardedly.

For a Sunday school teacher to tell a class of growing boys that he lies, that he admits it, and that he knowingly told a lie during the past week must have been quite troubling. It would sound to them as if lying was nothing out of the ordinary for Christians.

Christians do believe that because all humans are “born in sin” (Psalm 51:5) we are all by nature disposed to lie. We do this very early in our lives, even as toddlers, and before we know clearly what we’re doing or have a conscience about it.

Children don’t have to be taught to lie; to always tell the truth is what they have to be taught.

Lying, according to a well-worn definition, is “a misrepresentation of the truth with the intent to deceive.” We can lie in many ways, not only by words but also by silence or a gesture. Representing part of the truth as the whole truth, intending to deceive, is also a lie.

When, by the grace of God, the Gospel penetrates our defenses it reveals to us our dishonest ways. That’s why the Gospel calls us to repent. That is, to renounce all dishonesty and turn from deceptive practices.

Opening ourselves to the Gospel brings a great assurance of forgiveness. Our sins are blotted out. And at the same time the Holy Spirit enters our lives in renewing power and begins to construct a new life. It is called regeneration (Titus 3:5-7). In this new life there is no place for deceptiveness, manipulation, or hypocrisy. These sins have to be confronted, and truth must become our new badge.

This commitment to truth is a necessary mark of Christian conversion, for when we are saved, Jesus — who is very truth itself — lives in us (John 14:6). Moreover, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit, whom he promised to send into the world, is “the Spirit of truth” (John 15:26). Therefore, his call to truthfulness is serious, and the Spirit is patient but firm about it.

In our weakness or fallibility we may slip. We may be overtaken by a “sin of surprise.” We dare not forget that for Christians in whom the Spirit of Christ lives sin is never necessary but always possible.

Here’s the prescription written for Christians who lie or deceive in such a moment: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1John:1:9). 

This does not mean we are casual about a moment of dishonesty that overtakes us. In fact, we should grieve sincerely when we fail. But we are quick to confess and throw ourselves on God’s forgiving mercy.  

Here are some reinforcing scriptures we can hide in our hearts:  

  • Zechariah 8:16,17:  “These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against each other, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,” declares the Lord.
  • Ephesians 4:25: “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one another.”
  • Psalm 51:6: “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.”

This is what we should be teaching boys in a Sunday school class.

Image info: Orin Zebest (via flickr.com)

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More on the Centrality of Preaching

An excerpt from my forthcoming book, From Kitchen Chair to Pulpit: A Memoir of Family and Ministry.

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I began to grasp as early as seminary and my Lexington student pastorate (1953-56) the centrality of preaching in the pastor’s role. Everything in church life ultimately flows from the presence of the Living Word, Christ, through proclamation of the written Word. Certainly by the time I was pastor of the Greenville congregation, the Sunday-morning sermon was the high point of the week for me and for many. How did I prepare for this moment every week? 

Step one: I arrived quite faithfully at my study by eight in the morning of each working day. Thus, on Monday, or Tuesday morning at the latest (if I took Monday off), I prayerfully chose or set down my text for the following Sunday morning. This was made easier if I had chosen passages for the whole month. But generally speaking I had to choose the text at least a week in advance. Otherwise I would be in danger of rustling pages in my study Bible day after day until it was suddenly Friday or later with the text still uncertain. Committing myself to preach serially, that is, two or three related sermons on successive Sundays, helped me to come up with a helpful and fresh sermon by Sunday.

Step two: I wrote out by hand the text I was to use, whether it was two verses or a paragraph or a chapter. This was not a waste of time. Engaging with the passage in this way was like putting a magnifying glass over the page. By this means I sometimes got a flash of insight for the beginnings of my study. 

Step three: In a large ringback scribbler I jotted down: everything I knew, or thought I knew, about my text and its context; other passages in Scripture that dealt with the same topic; experiences of my own that appeared to apply; possible illustrations, for later examination. These ideas were untested. They had to prove themselves relevant as I moved forward.

Step four: I turned to the commentaries I had on the passage. I always had ready to hand a couple of these. (Accessing these on the Internet would not be an option for me until my retirement.) Again, this called for collecting notes of ideas, insights, and possible clarifications. Sometimes this process rounded out, contradicted, or enriched my understanding. 

At the end of this exercise I usually had ten pages of ideas, opinions, and background that shone light on the passage. 

Often I completed steps one through four in the first two mornings of study.

Step five: By this point the week was wearing on. If possible by Thursday’s study time I would have formed a topic sentence for the sermon or even a rough outline. My mind worked on this material while I drove across town, stopped at the post office, or weeded a patch in the garden in the evening. (Okay, I admit it: I rarely worked in the garden.) My mind was always working, aided by the grist I had milled. One of my sons once broke into my distracted state during lunch, saying, “Preparing your sermon?” I recall walking to the hospital with sermon thoughts percolating in my head and stopping in my tracks to write down an outline that had suddenly occurred to me.

Step six: The time factor differs from preacher to preacher. I confess I moved through the steps slowly, which meant the formation and filling in of my outline more often than not happened on Saturday. (I preached from an outline rather than a complete script.) 

I must say I often envied preachers of more nimble mind who had everything ready to go by the end of Friday. Nevertheless, after following these steps, it was a great joy for me to enter Sunday’s pulpit knowing that, the Lord being my helper, I had prepared a feast for my people.

Image info: Jesse Radonski (via flickr.com)

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On the Importance of Constitutions

In 2010, I wrote a blog on the function of constitutions. The reason was that there was an uproar in the United States at the time about a huge and sweeping healthcare bill. Many knowledgeable people said that this bill was unconstitutional. Others, seeing things differently, and apparently focused primarily on the desired result, said in essence, “Just ram it through.”  

Today, we hear questions about the constitutionality of the Centers for Disease Control’s eviction ban, giving tenants a breather from potential financial ruin, yet depriving landlords of the ability to collect rent on their properties, possibly to their financial ruin. Those protesting this ban note that the CDC is an agency of government, not its legislature, and only the latter could legally institute this ban.

In both above examples, there seem to be those focused mostly on the short-term gain, at least for one party in the matter. On the other side are those not only speaking up for the disfavored party, but also for the Constitution, and the terrible damage the nation might suffer due to its violation.  

As I said in 2010, lightly edited: The function of a constitution is to “constitute” a body, giving it form, order, and limits. This is a constitution’s function whether of a nation, teachers’ federation, or Christian denomination.

I also said that in both Canada and the United States neither average citizens nor the highest leaders are to assert authority above what a constitution allows. I acknowledged of course, the availability of a process of amendment.  

This ordering, defining, and sometimes restraining of a people by its constitution can also apply to church life. A local church or denominational constitution sets doctrinal standards, rules of membership, and governing procedures to regulate the life of the body and prevent disorder.

Living east of Eden, as we do, it is not surprising that the clear laws of both nation and church institutions are repeatedly subjected to challenge. Humans seem inclined to continually search for loopholes to serve this or that purpose.

This push against constitutional order in the church can of course be made more attractive by appealing to “flexibility” or “love,” while skillfully sidelining those speaking for legality of process and outcome. This is how revolutionary change can be brought to both doctrine and institutional practice.  

I recall chairing (with the help of an interpreter) an annual conference of the Free Methodist Church in another country and culture. When a controversial issue arose, voices became loud. Thankfully, the constitution of the denomination spoke to the issue clearly. As I gently taught the people their constitution’s directives, emotion subsided and thoughtfulness took its place.  

In this case, it was not the authority of persons nor the loudest voice, but ecclesiastical law enshrined in a constitution that calmed the gathering and preserved unity and harmony. 

In my experience, when a constitution is charismatically or cunningly ignored in pursuit of a goal, this may seem to do no harm, but in the long run it creates dangerous precedents and restless division in the body. It “deconstitutes” a people.

Where should Christians stand on that matter of constitutionality of state or church? Paul writes to Christians who lived under the shadow of Imperial Rome: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13:1).

It seems to me that a constitution is a governing authority, and that Paul’s instruction is a solid, sacred word that deserves our attention. Our disordered world needs to see Christians living out their freedom in Christ by living ordered lives within the institutions of the fallen order.

Image info: Travis Wise (via flickr.com)

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The Central Importance of Preaching

In the past few months, I have been working with my son Don to draw together a memoir of my ninety-five years — seventy-three of them with my beloved Kathleen. Don has told me that he thinks I need to include a statement about preaching, since preaching was central to my pastoral calling.

I’m working to prepare a longer statement, but I thought I might restate some of my thoughts on the subject from my blog of April 26, 2010, entitled “But Can He Preach?”  

In that prior post, I explained that in my nineteen years as an overseer (elected bishop) of pastors and their churches, I was involved from time to time in interviews between local church representatives and the conference’s Ministerial Appointments Committee, when there was discussion of a new pastor being assigned to their church.   

In those formal discussions, I frequently heard variations of the question: “But can he (she) preach?” At other times I had private conversations with the lay persons involved. With a certain regularity I heard the same question.

Of course, those involved wanted a well-rounded pastor. Pastoral care, a heart for the lost, and administrative ability were important, too. Yet lay leaders everywhere shared a deep insight regarding the central importance of preaching. 

Where did this insight come from? One might initially say from the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The power of the Scriptures was rediscovered in that mighty awakening and also the importance of proclamation and teaching as the pastor’s primary tasks.

But the centrality of preaching goes farther back than that. Think of the prophets of the Old Testament – Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah, to name only three of many. “The word of the Lord came to me,” they said, or they prefaced their messages with, “Thus says the Lord.” They proclaimed a divinely inspired word with authority.

This was only further amplified in the New Testament. Jesus’ ministry included preaching. He also sent his apostles to preach the truth of his kingdom. Paul wrote to the younger Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). Later he wrote, “I give you this charge: Preach the word…” (2 Timothy 4:1,2). The primacy of preaching is inescapable in the Scriptures.

Now and then a young pastor might not get this aspect of his or her work right. A pastor just out of seminary admitted, to my surprise — after I had done some probing — “I don’t believe preaching is where it’s at.” I asked him, “Where, then, is it?” His response: “I think it’s in rapping with a few young people at a time, informally.” Only after he caught the vision of preaching from the Bible’s perspective did his preaching take on an energy that won him a hearing.

Pastors exercising a true sense of vocation have a demanding, multifaceted task. They not only must preach the word but also must offer pastoral care to their flock; seek the lost as a shepherd; and administer the church so as to assure it is ordered and has clear purpose.

The question about the pastor’s primary task, “Can this pastor preach?” isn’t inquiring about oratorical skills or scholarly brilliance. It is asking: Does his or her preaching show evidence of real preparation by study and preparation of heart and mind to bring even a simple message that is compelling? Is it obvious that this passage of scripture moved his or her heart during the week leading up to its delivery to the congregation?  

These are demanding times for pastors. Expectations are high and competition for congregants’ attention can be intense. Laypersons may fail to encourage in helpful ways.  

But the pastor’s task is a privilege. A deep honor. Worth intense effort. As I have said elsewhere, to lead a congregation is a “high and holy calling.” And it is my lifetime conviction that churches growing deeper Christians and also growing in numbers derive both kinds of growth from a Spirit-anointed pulpit.

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Re-post: Marriage and Money

On June 9, 1947, When Kathleen and I agreed to marry, we hadn’t even talked about money. There really wasn’t much of it to talk about. She would be leaving a teaching position that paid $100 a month and I was a student and part time staff at Lorne Park College near Toronto.

For us, it was not love at first sight – but close. We both seemed to know from the beginning that we were meant for each other. We were committed Christians and had a strong sense of providence in the matter. But there were questions to be faced.

I had left high school at sixteen years of age to attend and later graduate from Moose Jaw Bible College. Afterwards, I traveled in Canada and parts of the Eastern United States as a  singer and song leader. Now, as an adult I was doubling back to make up the deficit in my high school education.

Because Kathleen knew that I was on my way to the ordained ministry she knew that if she married me there would be several years of post-secondary education ahead. There would be the completion of a college program and possibly three full years in seminary. Because she was from a family that valued education, she was prepared for that sacrifice.

Kathleen had begun a teaching career two years earlier at the age of nineteen. At that time, five years in high school and one year in Normal School were sufficient for her to begin to teach in the public school system. But back in the forties of the last century it was not so common for a wife to support her husband financially in school. Female teachers were expected to retire from teachers once married. When children came along the husband would have to be the sole breadwinner.

So, there was the financial question to be answered: Where would the money come from to keep us afloat if I were in school through college and possibly through three years of seminary?

The question of how we would survive was not a big issue with me because I was adventuresome and entrepreneurial. I was increasingly getting modest financial returns for singing and speaking and I had sold books door-to-door. I was sure I could provide for both of us.

We married on December 20 of that year in the home of Kathleen’s brother-in-law and sister, Wes and Muriel Smith, in Niagara Falls, Ontario. It was a modest event. The day of elaborate twenty-to thirty-thousand-dollar weddings had not yet dawned.

There was also no premarital counsel for us except that one older minister took me aside and warned me grimly that “marriage isn’t all roses.” As I recall, counseling as an expected pastoral service to engaged couples came much later in the century. Back then, it was generally assumed that if two were getting married they were expected to know what they were doing.

In the first weeks of our marriage, I carried the money, as my father had done. He had a roll of bills in his left front pocket, held tightly together by an elastic band. I began our marriage taking the same responsibility for our cash.

But about two months into our marriage I became ill and was in bed for several days. Kathleen had to do the grocery and any other shopping on her own. During that period I discovered that she could make money stretch further than I.

In grocery shopping she was much more deliberate and selective; she was slower to decide on a purchase; she compared costs. In a word, I learned that she was a shrewd shopper. Money restraints in her family while she was growing up — though in many respects unpleasant and confining — had been disciplines to train her for life.

That revelation set us on a new course. We decided that she would take over the primary money management, which she continued to do throughout my years of active ministry. For example, in the early months of our marriage she set -– and adhered to — a grocery budget of $7.00 a week for many months. Only after I retired did it fall back on me to participate significantly in the keeping of our finances.

What were the circumstances I referred to that had trained Kathleen for this responsibility? She and her six siblings had been raised by a widowed mother on very limited means.

In 1933 her father died unexpectedly after a surgical procedure. She was seven years old at the time. The oldest of the seven children was thirteen and the youngest three months from birth. Their Saskatchewan farm was heavily mortgaged and that year the Great Depression dipped to its severest level. They were a family in crisis.

After one year her mother moved the seven children to Niagara Falls, Ontario, to come under the care of an unmarried brother, Uncle Oswald. Three years later when he died of cancer, she moved the family to a more modest dwelling across town and continued to raise this family on a widow’s pension of $60 a month.

The house where I visited Kathleen during our courtship was small for eight people but always well-kept and appealing. Though poverty was real, I detected no sense of it there. That is probably where I learned that poverty is first of all a state of mind.

Growing up, the financial limitations had made Kathleen resourceful. There was no money to buy clothes off the rack so Kathleen learned to make her own. She also made clothes for her mother and three sisters. If a room needed to be painted or papered there was no money for professionals so she and an older brother tackled the job, learning as they went. When she was 13 she began to babysit, and on Saturdays to scrub and wax floors for a wealthy family across town.

Later, in her teens, one summer she worked on a production line for canning peaches and another summer for assembling batteries. This money she saved to finance her upcoming one year of Normal School. Her masterful skill in stretching what a dollar would buy was just what we needed when we married.

So we launched our shared lifetime together. She was supportive of me as I studied to prepare for a life of ministry. We welcomed four children into our union, Carolyn (a teacher), Don (an editor and publisher), Robert (a doctor), and John David (our severely handicapped son).

We happily provided what the children needed. There were piano lessons for all three and a flute for one and a French horn for another. We settled their squabbles and held before them high standards of achievement. In the process we made our parenting mistakes for which the children freely forgave us.

After our first three-and-a-half years as a married couple, we left Lorne Park College, and during our two years at Greenville College in Illinois I began going out weekends as a singer and speaker. Then, during three years at Asbury Seminary, I served a student pastorate in the north end of Lexington. The denomination covered the cost of my seminary tuition.

We closed out the eight years of educational effort and left Kentucky for our first full-time pastoral assignment, in Western Canada — with no debt! This was partly due to my additional summer experiences here and there as a youth speaker and partly due to Kathleen’s skillful management of finances.

Along the way, the denomination taught us well that money is a trust from God and must be managed accordingly. It’s called stewardship. Kathleen and I, in spite of our sparse income, tithed the first money we owned jointly, setting aside ten percent for the Lord’s work. That wasn’t always easy. And several times across the years Kathleen has reminded me that she tried to treat the remainder of our funds with care because she remembered that they came from the Lord’s people and in some cases were from sacrificial giving.

After seventy-three years together, we believe that one of the most unnoticed but important challenges of pastoral ministry is that of managing money to the glory of God. Because we took the challenge seriously, we are comfortable in our retirement. But how well we have done this will only be disclosed when we “all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Image info: Alan Cleaver (via flickr.com)

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Why Tom Came Back

Happily, the church I was pastoring was attracting young couples with little children, along with many other age groups.

Among these couples were Tom and Nancy. But after they had come to Sunday worship with their children for three weeks, Tom was absent on week four. 

As Nancy gathered the children to depart that fourth week, I asked her if Tom was ill. Tears filled her eyes as she told me of a decision he had made. He didn’t need to go to church, he had said. He could manage his life without it. 

I learned that Tom had a good job and was providing well for the children, and his Sunday golf game was with new friends whom he enjoyed. Sunday church was in the way and therefore taken off his schedule.  

As I recall, perhaps it was the next Sunday I asked Nancy to be away from home the coming Thursday night. I told her I wanted to visit with Tom alone.  

After getting the two children into bed she went to the mall for the rest of the evening. When I rang the doorbell, Tom, who was expecting my visit, met me at the door with his engaging smile. He was a cheerful and self-confident man. 

We sat down together and our conversation was easy and mutually affirming. Toward the end of the visit I mentioned that I had noticed his absence from church recently and asked if he would share with me the reason. (My interest, of course, was his eternal destiny, support for his wife, and his influence on his children above all.)  

Tom responded to my question but never lost his smile, and his decision seemed fixed. Before leaving his home I took an index card from my pocket and holding it in hand I asked if he would do me a favor.    

Seeming mildly amused as he received it, he said he would try. 

I asked if he would agree to read the card at least once a day for two weeks; and then I would come for a second visit. I offered a prayer, we exchanged respectful farewells, and I went to my car. 

When I went to his home the second time, the man who met me at the door was different. He was warm again but there was no smile. He moved almost urgently to the subject of faith. 

In a very short time we were kneeling together at his bidding. With tears, and before the Lord, he was confessing and asking forgiveness and resetting his values. 

What could have stirred such a change? It was the simple but penetrating word of our our Lord Jesus Christ printed on the card I had left with him:

What good is it for someone to gain the whole world yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Matthew 8:36,37)

It was not I but the Lord who had arrested his attention. The Spirit of God, working through scripture, had penetrated his consciousness. 

This story illustrates what Christians everywhere believe about the power of God’s word: “… for the Word of God is living and active.” And also: “It divides even to the dividing of soul and spirit, joints and marrow” (Hebrews 4:12,13). 

Sometimes, even with Scripture, it takes repetition to let the light in and illuminate the soul.

That conversation and prayer took place more than 60 years ago. I heard recently that Tom’s wife had died. I phoned him across the country. He wept as we talked. He was still serving the Lord.

(Names and some details changed to maintain Tom’s privacy.)

Image info: Justin See (coming back) (via flickr.com)

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On Loss and Life’s Meaning

The world is too much with us: late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers …

These are the first two lines of a sonnet by William Wordsworth, English poet of the nineteenth century. As a poet of the romantic era, he believed the clank and roar of the Industrial Revolution with its belching smoke stacks had smothered the beauty of the natural world.  

Sprawling factories, and the obsession of making profit from man’s labor, had so captured the attention of the masses, he seems to proclaim, that they had obscured Nature from human wonderment, a bitter loss

In a much more ancient era, the wise man who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes goes further than Wordsworth, with a penetrating summary not merely of Man and Nature but of the whole drama of life in both its temporal and eternal dimensions. 

And speaking even more directly to eternal matters, our Lord Jesus asks, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world yet forfeit their soul, or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matthew 16:26). 

There is more in Ecclesiastes and our Lord’s words than in Wordsworth: not only the loss of Nature’s beauty but also the loss of the soul. The aged writer of this book summarizes his findings about life’s meaning with these words: 

“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

Image info: Thales (via flickr.com)

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