Thursday, November 23, 2006

Defining Moment

Some time ago one of my colleagues asked me if I could think of one defining moment in my life. I thought for a moment and replied, “It was the night Joe Eggebrecht, my minister at First Church of Christ in Sutherland, Iowa, came to our house to volunteer to be my guardian for a year."

Let me explain! It was February of my junior year in high school and my mother was let go from her teaching job. She’d exploded in the classroom in part because her principal would not support her efforts at discipline. Her temper resulted in her dismissal although the School Board graciously paid her for the remaining months of her contract. Her dismissal meant that I would have to go to a third high school. I did not want to move again. I had become a Christian, made friends at school, earned a football letter, and was a leader in several school clubs. Completely unknown to my mom and me, the church leadership met and decided that the church would “adopt” me for a year and Joe would be my guardian. If mom and I accepted, and if mom would pay the $25 legal fee to set up the guardianship it would all happen.

She accepted; I was elated. For all intents and purposes I was almost on my own after school let out that year. The church got me a job with Burdette Weaver. I lived on the farm and worked for him until football started in late August. He tried me at cultivating, but after I tore out about 12 rows of corn, he gave up on that. I spent the summer painting outbuildings, baling hay, checking electric fence, and doing chores. I had a salary, although I can’t remember how much it was, along with three squares and a bed.

When football started, I moved into town into a room in the home of Harriet Reist, a widow lady who lived about two doors from the church. My mom sent me $50 a month to pay my rent, buy my meals, and take care of my recreation. I had no car in a small town of about 800 people, so there was little outside of church activities for me to do. After the first semester, I moved into the basement of the parsonage and helped the Eggebrechts some with money for meals. The basement was just that! It was an area cut out of the dirt with a cot. Church members took turns doing my laundry and taking me home with them on the weekend for meals.

I also spent a lot of time at the home of Harold Steele. Harold was the uncle of one of my best friends and classmate Phil Steele. Whenever Harold had work, he got me to come do it. I helped him dig a trench across the drive for pipe to carry water to the barn. I helped him clean the chicken house, hog house, and barn. I helped him bale hay. After I graduated from high school in 1961, I spent most of the summer at his place. On one occasion, he took his family on a round robin vacation trip to most of the Iowa State Parks. While he was gone, I kept the place going for him. In addition, he let me drive his pickup and bale hay for other farmers in the area. When the family returned from their trip, he permitted me to drive his new Ford Fairlane. I remember driving that car on one of the few dates I worked up courage to get. It was with Pat Prunty, a lovely redhead from Cleghorn, Iowa. Pat later went to Morningside College and then eventually to the music staff at Ozark Christian College.

Throughout that last year, I thought a lot about what I could do to thank the Sutherland church for doing so much for me. During that time I flirted with the idea of Bible College but wasn’t sure I wanted to do that since my dream was to coach football and teach in public schools. I thought that might become a reality when the coach of NAIA powerhouse Northwestern College of Iowa spent some time with me in an attempt to recruit me to his program. He promised a half tuition scholarship until I made the traveling squad, then it would become a full ride scholarship. Knowing I could not afford the tuition, I asked what he would do if I lettered two years in Junior College. He told me Northwestern would give me a full scholarship. With that in mind, I contacted the coach at Norfolk (Nebraska) Junior College and asked if there were any scholarships available. I was 6’ 2” and 227 pounds and had lettered in both my junior and senior years. He replied that NJC would offer me a half tuition scholarship. Well, that was $25! It was, however, in my price range and with Nebraska Christian College in the same town I could afford it.

To make a long story shorter, I left for NCC and NJC in late August to arrive in time for “two-a-days” with $125 saved from summer work. I registered for 16 hours at the junior college and 4 hours at NCC (that permitted me to live in NCC’s dorm) and reported to the National Guard Armory for football. In December of 1961, I committed my life to ministry of some sort and the rest is, as they say, history.

It was a small congregation of believers in Sutherland, Iowa, who made a major difference in my life. While I owe the most to my Savior, there is also a debt of gratitude I’ll never be able to repay to that group of leaders who made a difference in one boy.

I owe a lot to Terry Miles, who, to my knowledge, never became a Christian. It was Terry who nagged me into my first visit at First Church of Christ. I owe even more to the Steele families. Si and Doris kept in touch and have been interested in my ministries to this day. Si left us to go home with the Lord a few years ago. Because of distance and expenses I was unable to attend his services and I regret that. His sons, Phil and Tom, remain fast friends – men I care about and appreciate for their encouragement and friendship. I lost track of the other boys in the family and Virginia, the oldest in the family. I still pray for Sue, with whom all of us high school boys were in love with, because she is fighting cancer.

I still owe Harold Steele a lot, too. He did more than give me jobs. He provided counsel and direction in my life. I know this sounds terrible, but I think I wept more at the time of his untimely death beneath his tractor wheels, than I did for my mother. One of his gifts to me when I went to Bible College was his collection of Christian Standards. He had several decades saved and I kept them for many years. Today those papers are part of the collection of the library at Boise Bible College in Idaho.

What I’ve been trying to say is that the defining moment in my life was when one small Iowa church stepped forward and took me under their wing. My life was changed forever. I wasn’t the moment I accepted Christ. It wasn’t an emotional experience at all. It was the decision of a small group of people to “be the body of Christ.”

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Rick is oh, so naive!

Rick Warren’s recent observations on the circumstances Christians face in Syria is just another example of now naïve Christians can be. As the guest of the Syrian government, Warren undoubtedly saw only what the Baathist regime wanted him to see and hear from those the regime wanted him to hear.

Muslim governments do allow Christians and Jews to live within their borders. In some cases there is overt persecution, but more often than not the persecution is more difficult to see. One of the greatest obstacles believers face in Muslim countries is the general prohibition against “proselyting.” Christians can live among them but they can not overtly share their message. To do so results in arrest and incarceration! I know of an Egyptian Christian who returned to his country and was arrested for sharing his faith with another. Christians and Jews are often required to pay special taxes or face other, more stringent, restrictions.

My wife and I regularly visit believers in Asia. From all outward appearances, they seem free to worship and move about the country as they choose. As an observer visiting that country only briefly I would conclude the church is not persecuted and is free to do God’s work openly. As someone who has been there, I know that is not the case. There are limitations on what we can say, where we can go, and what we can do. Too many Americans in one location is a cause for concern. It is true that as long as the believers conform to the government they enjoy some freedom, but one never knows when that can be removed. In some instances where Christians object to governmental restrictions or call for greater freedom there are instances of overt persecution. Only the most naïve would say the church enjoys complete freedom to exist alongside Buddhism.

Our president recently visited Vietnam. While there he spent time in a church in personal worship. One would think Christians have freedom to worship under the communist government of Vietnam. That is not the case. Government officials confiscate Bibles, destroy church buildings, and warn believers not to evangelize. I’m sure the press corps accompanying Mr. Bush have the impression that freedom of religion prevails in Vietnam. Such is the naiveté of the press!

I greatly respect Rick Warren for his ministry in southern California. The Saddleback Church is a great church and has tremendous impact for the Gospel in southern California. At the same time, I think he has little experience with the world situation or how the godless rulers of various nations can present a pleasant face while ugliness lurks beneath the surface. And Christians are sometimes the world’s most naïve!

I know Rick Warren has a heart for those in need, but he needs to stick with what he knows and not pontificate on what he thinks he knows.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Thoughts on God

“Christian Standard” magazine recently published a two-part series on “open theism.” I found them stimulating. It will be a while before that issue impacts the local church, but the concepts of “open theism” will undoubtedly stir controversy.

At issue are the existence of evil, man’s free will, and predestination. Open theists argue that if God genuinely permits free will then He can’t foreknow those choices which have not yet been made. Further, prayer truly impacts God and He can decide another course of action. It is all thought provoking and challenging. The arguments also tend toward the philosophical and disregard or reinterpret those passages speaking of God’s foreknowledge, predictive prophecy, and providential control of individuals and events.

I like articles like those in “the Standard” because they challenge me to try to get my mind around difficult concepts. Some around here think I’ve done that so long that I can no longer communicate for the average person. After reading these articles, however, I pretty much returned to my earlier conclusion that finite man simply can’t comprehend the actions of an infinite God. God chooses to reveal Himself to us. He did so through the prophets, but in these last days He did so through His Son (Hebrews 1:1, 2). God could never reveal everything about Himself, but when Jesus came He came with skin on and when we see Jesus we’ve seen the Father.

The articles have the impact of raising our comprehension of the Father beyond the mundane. One of the dangers, in my view, of open theism is the insistence that love is God’s primary characteristic. If so, the open theist must do more than make the assertion. They must also explain what they mean because this culture’s concept of love has little relationship to the biblical concept. It is precisely because we’ve identified love as God’s primary characteristic that our culture has lost any sense of reverence for Him. We tend to see God as a loving God who overlooks every errant behavior because He loves us. Such a soft incomplete view of God has been “out there” for a long time. I’m old enough to remember the song “He” back in the 1950s. Those who sang it on the “Hit Parade” sang it just as written:

Though it makes Him sad to see the way we live,
He’ll always say, “I forgive.”

Garbage! That’s just not true and it has the stench of hell around it. The second line needs amending to, “He’s always ready to forgive.” Now that’s more like it.

You see, the open theists got it all turned around. God’s primary characteristic isn’t love. He is love, but that’s just one of His characteristics. First and foremost, God is holy. Our God is a holy God! From God’s holiness come the twin demands of love and justice. God’s holy justice demands sin be punished. God’s holy love desires the salvation of the sinner. Only the atonement satisfied both requirements (see Romans 3).

Wrestling with the concepts presented systematic theology is great fun. I’ve learned so much from a study of systematic theology. But when the “rubber hits the road” it all comes back to “what does the Bible say.” We “speak where the Scripture speaks ….” I don’t have to understand everything there is to know about God to establish a personal relationship with Him. I expect to learn a host of subtle nuances about Him as my faith in Him grows deeper. At the same time, it is not knowing a lot of information about God that is so important. Knowing God trumps that! Having a relationship with Him does not require exhaustive knowledge. I’ve been married for 41 years now and I’m still learning things about my mate. Why should I expect it to be different with God?