Grateful for The Courts of the Church

I have a confession to make.  Despite being Presbyterian for a long time, I had never heard the term “courts of the church” until this week when I got to experience them in person.  No, I was not put on trial, but I was able to attend our denomination’s annual ministerial gathering and watch the proceedings close up.  It was fascinating and encouraging.

My denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, hosts this event every year called the General Assembly.  It is an opportunity for the various committees appointed by the PCA to meet, deliberate and make proposals.  There are also times set aside for worship, teaching and fellowship.  Most importantly, it is a time when the assembled body of commissioners can wrestle with difficult issues facing the church and make important decisions.

While every denomination has some form of organizational structure, I have especially appreciated the Presbyterian form of governance as a member of a PCA church.  It is a representative style of governance embodied in the ruling and teaching elders.  The local churches are a part of a regional presbytery and the churches send commissioners to the General Assembly.

Many years ago, I saw the benefits of this form of church government in action.  At that time, we were attending a church that experienced the trauma of losing a pastor because of a moral failure.  Sadly, this kind of experience can be so damaging that it sometimes results in church splits and lots of infighting among the leaders.  To God’s glory, that was not our situation.

Instead, our elders pulled together and provided wisdom, encouragement and strength when we needed it most.  They devised a plan for weekly preaching pulling on resources available in the Presbytery and quickly identified an interim minister with help from the denomination.  At the end of that challenging year, the church was not just stable, but it had even grown a little.  The elders worked with the denomination and a pulpit search committee to find a new pastor and we were greatly blessed by the choice that was made.

Each year there are important issues that face the church.  Recently, however, these issues seem more serious than ever.  Just a couple of years ago, the commissioners at the General Assembly were dealing with the need for racial reconciliation and a history of racial injustice in parts of our denomination.  This year they wrestled with the need to address problems of domestic abuse in our churches and the fallout from the Revoice Conference and confusion on the denomination’s position on same sex attraction and sexuality identity.

As I chatted with pastors on the exhibit floor (I was attending as representative of P&R Publishing and not my local church), and listened to conversations over meals, I was struck by one main thing.  They took their responsibility very seriously.  It was clear that they did not all agree as to how to resolve every issue and there were sharp differences of opinion.  Despite this, the seriousness of purpose, a deep commitment to God’s word and a love for God’s church was apparent in nearly every conversation I had.

With our world in a constant state of turmoil and new moral challenges seeming to confront the church every year, I am deeply grateful for the Godly leadership exhibited in the PCA.  It is not a perfect denomination (and none are), but it has grown steadily for over 40 years.  I believe this is partly due to the effective leaders God has given us and their commitment to His word and a love for His people.  It is a great comfort to me to know that these men provide guidance, wisdom, strength and stability in times of uncertainty and crisis.  As the commissioners return home, I will be praying that each of them will remain steadfast in their calling and that we in the pews will be an encouragement to them.

 

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Surprised by Spring

I knew something had changed the moment I stepped outside.  Gone were the bone chilling winds and instead I felt the rising warmth as the sun rose in the sky.  There was a strange humidity in the air and I didn’t need a jacket.  The birds sounded like they were a chorus singing their praises to their creator and grass was growing again.  It was welcome, but is was also so sudden.

Spring arrives late in the Lehigh Valley, but when it comes, it is unmistakable.  It even smells and sounds different.  The sweet smell of freshly cut grass is combined with the cacophony of “do it your selfers” starting up mowers or cutting boards to start their long awaited home remodeling projects.  Kids are out in full force again all over the neighborhood, laughing with abandon as they ride their bikes and chase each other.  Trees seem to come alive overnight and flowers are everywhere.

I am not used to Spring arriving so late and so dramatically.  Once again, my equilibrium is upended.  For over twenty years living in the Philadelphia area, I could count on seeing the first daffodil poking its head out of the ground around the middle of March.  Then the crocuses would arrive and slowly but surely Spring would take hold.  It seemed to creep up on you one day at a time and then suddenly you realized that it was warm again and maybe you didn’t need that jacket after all.

Fifty miles north, the Lehigh Valley has its own ecosystem and its own weather patterns.  How creative our God is and how wonderful that things are not the same everywhere.  My desire for consistency is constantly challenged by His desire to show me his love in new and different ways.  His mercies are truly new every morning and I am learning to accept that surprises are not always bad.  Walking out the door and discovering that the tree on the corner of your house is suddenly in full bloom with pink blossoms is both stunning and awe inspiring.  I almost can’t imagine what’s next and then I notice the azaleas bursting forth in all their purple glory.

This has been the story of my life this past year.  Never quite sure what is around the corner, but grateful that I know who walks before me.  Time and again, I have been surprised by new people and new opportunities.  Sure, I wish things were as predictable as they had been for a long time, but more and more I am coming to embrace the reality that I serve of God of immense creativity and beauty.  Change can be scary but it is part of God’s plan for my good and His glory so I choose to step into each new day with expectation and hope. I can’t even imagine what Summer will be like this year, but as surely as the Spring has arrived in full force, it is likely to be just as wonderful in its own way.

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Changing the Narrative

Something weird happened this week and it happened twice.  I was on the way to work listening to NPR (and yes, I actually do that sometimes) and heard them mention that the next story was going to be an interview with a pastor in Alabama.  Immediately, I jumped to the conclusion that this was likely to be another secular hit job on evangelicals and I almost turned to another station.  For some reason, I kept listening and I was pleasantly surprised.  Pastor Jeff was being interviewed about his church and their response to a recent devastating tornado that had roared through his town.  First Baptist was doing some amazing work and had become ground zero for the relief effort.  They had connected with Samaritan’s Purse and were mobilizing and supporting hundreds of volunteers in their cleanup and restoration efforts.  The interviewer asked intelligent questions about what it was like to preach at a funeral and how this local pastor was providing comfort to overwhelmed and stressed out families.  There was no criticism of the church, of evangelicals or Christianity.

A couple of days later, I was watching the local news (it was actually the news from Philly, but that counts as local in the Lehigh Valley) and saw another amazing story.  On a station known for filling the first half of their broadcast each evening with a laundry list of murders, car jackings and drug deals gone wrong, this story was different.  It caught my attention because the first images showed what looked like someone putting a gun into a makeshift forge.  The reporter when on to explain that Shane Claiborne (a well-known evangelical activist in the city) had begun a new initiative to turn guns into garden tools.  It was a modern-day version of turning swords into plowshares.  Despite how “pointless” this might have seemed given the number of guns on the streets and how few garden tools were actually going to be made, the reporter focused on the symbolism and it was powerful.  They even interviewed folks who had been impacted by gun violence and were now committed making their world a better place.  Once again, no criticism of the church, of Christians or the evangelical world view.

In a great irony, I realized that whether it was conservatives providing disaster relief or progressives turning guns into garden tools, secular media seems to see these efforts as valid and valuable work worth reporting on.  Interestingly, it was these very types of activities that made the early church so attractive to the world around them and so maddening to the authorities in the Roman empire.  When others abandoned cities during outbreaks of highly contagious diseases, Christians stayed, helped and in some cases dies.  When others ignored the widows and orphans in their midst, Christians provided support and not just to their own people.  In a culture that did not value life, Christians abhorred the practices of infant sacrifice and abortion, making it clear that taking the life of a child was a grievous sin.

While the secular media is often criticized (and sometimes rightly so) for one-sided and unfair portrayals of Christians and particularly evangelicals, it was encouraging to hear a more empathic portrayal of the work of the church this week.  On Friday, Andrew Brunson, my former High School classmate and recently released prisoner from a Turkish prison spoke at length about his ordeal at a chapel service at Wheaton College.  His courage in the face of atrocious lies and accusations was model of Christian perseverance and trust in God. His story is helping the world see that faith in Jesus is something to be admired, not just something to be mocked and ridiculed.  Andrew is truly a hero and an inspiration.  Check out this video.  It is well worth your time.

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Finding Joy in the Snow

As I got off the plane this past week, the breath was nearly sucked out of my body.  The last time I had experienced that sensation was in Moscow in February 2006.  This was not Moscow, it was Minneapolis and it was 50 degrees below zero when the wind was blowing.  God really does have a sense of humor.  Having grown up in the Caribbean, I have found myself as an adult in a surprising number of places that are cold and snowy.  As the Super Shuttle left the airport on the way to the hotel, I quietly prayed that the howling snow would let up and we would make it there safely.  Sure enough, that prayer was answered and so much more.  Who knew you could actually find joy in the snow.

My reason for being in Minneapolis was to attend John Piper’s Bethlehem Pastors and Leaders Conference on behalf of my employer, P&R Publishing.  We had several tables of books in the Lifeway Conference store and I had arranged for a number of meetings ahead of time.  It was an opportunity to combine two of my favorite things – hand selling books and talking to people.  Having been to several conferences this past fall on behalf of P&R, this was my first solo trip and I was a little nervous.  Was I going to make it at all, given the weather?  Would I remember enough about our books to present them effectively?   Would my meetings still happen if people missed their flights too?  It was a real opportunity to trust and obey.

I had lugged a display through the airports with me to show our Resources for Changing Lives booklets and set that up first thing.  While it did highlight these helpful booklets in an effective way, I had no idea how popular it would be.  Over the next few days, several churches noticed the rack and asked how they could get all of the booklets for their church and maybe the rack too.  As I talked about our other books, I was delighted to learn how impactful so many of them had been in people’s lives.  There were several occasions where other people brought their friends to our table and pointed out particular titles and authors that had been meaningful to them.  It was clear that lots of people really appreciated our content.  Much of my “selling” was simply listening and pointing out what I had learned from others.

On the last day of the conference, one of my friends bought a steaming hot cup of water and went outside of the conference center.  He threw the water in the air and it froze instantly.  What an amazing sight and a reminder of how cold it really was.  Fortunately, all of the people I had scheduled to meet with had arrived as well and I had some really interesting and productive meetings discussing potential book projects.  Brainstorming is one of my favorite activities and it was fun to see people’s eyes light up as they explained what God was putting on their heart to write about.  I could visualize these new books coming to life in the years ahead and started to think about the many people who would read them and be impacted by the words and concepts.  Maybe I would return to a conference like this in some future year and be hand selling their book or listening to others talk about how meaningful it was in their life.

As I walked back to my hotel one evening, I was struck by a different reality.  We were blessed to have indoor walkways that connected the hotel to the convention center and did not have to go outside much at all.  Not everyone was so fortunate.  Many folks had to catch buses or actually help to clear away the snow.  The snow was not making their life very joyful at all.  Occasionally, I noticed a homeless person wandering in the walkways as well and was glad to see that they were warm and alive.  Sadly, I later learned that as many as a dozen people had actually died in weather related fatalities.  It is strange that God can use the same circumstances to create wonder and awe in my life and death and destruction in another.  That got me thinking about Job and reminded me that while I will never fully understand the mind of God, I know can trust his heart.  Now, I am looking forward to Spring more than ever this year and a time one day when there will finally be no more tears, no more pain and no more death.

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It’s a Dog’s Life

Watching a young dog frolic in the snow is something to behold.  It gives new meaning to the words “leaps and bounds”.  Every flake of snow and every white covered patch of ground provides something new and exciting to explore.  How did I find myself here – walking a dog in the snow and learning once again what wonder and awe look like?  How did I forget how beautiful new fallen snow really is and most importantly, why did it take a dog to show me all of this?

God really does work in mysterious ways and dog ownership is just one of the many surprising things He has done in my life this past year.  My wife and I have owned cats at various times in our marriage, but had not owned a pet of any kind for the last several years.  This past Summer, we moved to Bethlehem and in a moment of weakness in the Fall, we agreed to get a dog for our son.  A Golden Retriever was his choice and the adventure began.

Lance was already four months old when he joined our family and was still being called a “puppy”.  When they brought him home, he was already so large that I could hardly imagine what a full-grown dog would look like or weigh.  Little did I know, that was the last thing I should have been worried about at that point.  Having grown up on an Amish farm, it was not clear that Lance had been house trained at all.  Let’s just say that the farmer was a little vague on that subject.  After several “accidents” in the house within the first twenty-four hours, we realized that he would require quite a lot of training.  Two months later, we had finally gotten him house broken and in a routine to “take care of business” outside.  That was a loooooong eight weeks with some weeping and gnashing of teeth thrown in for good measure.

Then there was the crazy amount of energy and random late-night barking.  We had been told that Golden Retrievers were the “chillest” dog breed and he almost never barked when we first got him.  He nearly had us fooled.  Within days however, we discovered that while he could have periods of being chill, he also had periods of manic energy. Unfortunately, the manic periods of activity were almost always exactly between 7 and 10PM every night when we were hoping to do a little chilling ourselves.  It was exhausting.  Then the barking began.  It was almost like he discovered he had a voice.

Lance would “go to bed” at 10PM and seemed to settle down in his crate.  We would shut the lights off, leave the room and he would start.  It was almost like an infant crying for their mom and just as persistent.  We never knew when he would do it and when it would stop.  There was no rhyme or reason to his nightly barking.  Some days he did it and some days he did not.  It was maddening and sleep depriving.

Fortunately, dogs grow up, training does work and Golden Retrievers really are wonderful companions.  We now look forward to long walks around our neighborhood and on the river trail near our house.  We plan our days to give Lance lots of time to get his activity and energy worked out and our evenings are no longer so chaotic.  One key to this change was the monster bone he got for Christmas.  It is amazing how long this one new toy can capture his focus.

This step outside our comfort zone turned out to be exactly what Deb, Mike and I needed.  It has helped us to get to know our neighbors and to feel like we are really “settling down” here in Bethlehem.  More importantly, Lance requires us to focus on something other than our own comfort and relaxation.  We are now walking so much that we don’t need Fitbits to tell us that we have reached our suggested number of steps each day.  It really is a dog’s life and we are grateful.

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What We Forget and the God Who Protects

Ian and I were in a rented truck again cruising down the highway when we saw him.  For the second week in a row, we had too many books for a minivan and had arranged for truck to help us get books to a conference.  The event was a lot closer to home and we expected this trip to be a lot less eventful than the last one.  Boy were we wrong.  Only ten miles from the office with the truck all loaded up, a car pulled alongside us and motioned for us to pull over.  We had not heard any strange noises nor were we aware of any problems with the truck – no odd lights on the dashboard this time.  When we pulled over, Ian hopped out, went to look at the back of the truck and I heard him say those dreaded words “Uh-Oh”.  You guessed it, we had forgotten to latch the back and it was wide open.  Amazingly, all the books were still there and our displays.  One small problem – our suitcases were missing!

We quickly retraced our drive from the office going back on the other side of the highway straining our necks to locate suitcases.  Nothing doing.  At the office, we looked around outside.  Nothing there. We went back the same way we had gone in the first place and stopped at the same spot. Nothing anywhere, just lots of trash along the way that we had never noticed before. With a defeated spirit, we went to CVS to buy new toiletry items and then headed for my house to begin the process of packing new suitcases.  Just as we were pulling into the parking lot, we got a call from the office – our suitcases had been found.  How was that possible?

At the very same time as we had been scouring the roads looking for our suitcases, the team in the office had been praying.  After prayer, two of the team visited a local hardware store on the corner near the office looking for a part and simply asked if anyone had seen suitcases.  Sure enough, they had and they had been taken to the fire station right next door and were about to be taken to the State Police.  Quickly, Bryce and Marty went over and located the suitcases in the back of a pickup truck and called us.  Bryce graciously agreed to meet us half way and we finally got them back – nothing broken or even really scratched at all.  Our journey had begun with an amazing miracle.

Things at the conference went very well (after a long evening of set up) and we were delighted at the many people who came to get books.  We had so many stop by that we needed more books brought down and my wife, who was already coming, agreed to bring them.  That evening, Deb and I decided to have dinner across the street from the conference location and were just starting our appetizers when she got a stricken look on her face.  As the blood drained from her face, she blurted out words that I will never forget, “Dave, I think I Ieft the stove on, no – I know that I left it on”.  Given that she had left home three hours before and we were two hours way, this was a big deal. With both of us imagining our home up in flames, she called the fire department and they agreed to send someone over right away.  We jumped in the car and headed home as quickly as we could.  We spent a tense half hour in the car praying as we drove waiting for the call to let us know what the fire department found.

Amazingly, they were able to gain access to our home without breaking in and sure enough, they found that the stove had been left on.  Nothing had caught on fire and the pot was not even ruined.  While they did turn off the gas to our house (which we had turned back on later that night), that was a minor inconvenience compared to what could have happened.  Given that we live in an end-unit townhouse, I am sure our neighbors were pretty happy that nothing caught on fire either.  Knowing that other people have not been so fortunate when they had forgotten things like this in their homes, we did not take this blessing from the Lord for granted and praised him mightily for his protection.

As we packed up the next day at the conference, I could not help but wonder what other chaos our enemy had planned for us that the Lord had thwarted.  It did take us a while to find the parking garage and get unloaded.  The highway had been exceptionally busy that night and yet we did eventually make it to the hotel.  How many angels had been involved in protecting us on this trip?  I shuddered when I thought about it.  This was not out of fear, but out of shame for not remembering that God is always in the business of protection, even when bad things do happen.  He may not always protect our luggage, but he does protect our minds.  He may not always protect our homes, but he does protect our hearts.  Today, I am simply grateful that he had decided that suitcases and houses were not beyond his power or provision either – at least on this leg of the journey.

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Inconvenience and the Sovereignty of God

I love road trips.  In fact, I began this blog as a result of a road trip.  The adventure of discovering new places and meeting new people draws me in every time.  This love of the open road and traveling was probably instilled in me as a child as my parents took me on many journeys to meet people at supporting churches.  Having a little wanderlust is probably a legacy handed down to many missionary children.  Every trip, however, has its own peculiarities and this past week was no exception.

Ian (my work colleague and genuine good guy) and I began the journey with a startling discovery.  Just a few days before we were scheduled to leave, we realized we had far too many books and boxes to fit in a minivan.  Quickly, Ian decided to rent a small truck and what might have been an ordinary trip now took on hints of an epic adventure.  We were traveling to Virginia Beach from Phillipsburg, NJ and this last-minute change of plans foreshadowed an interesting week to come.

Our planned route took us down the Delmarva peninsula and across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge – 24 miles of bridges and tunnels across open water.  I had avoided this route on previous trips south for many different reasons, but mostly from an inordinate fear of getting stuck on that dreaded bridge half way across.  (Yes, I have some strange phobias).  And this time, we were going to cross it in a truck which was prone to shift easily in wind gusts.

As we neared the bridge, we decided to take a bathroom break at a gas station and convenience store.  Ironically, this location had not heard that convenience was supposed to include indoor bathrooms.  Having to use a porta-potty was certainly unexpected, but was simply a minor inconvenience.  Little did I know that it was the second clue that God was up to something interesting in my life.

Not entirely surprisingly, we made it across the bridge safely and I actually enjoyed the view sitting higher up in the truck cab than I would have in my own car or a minivan.  Things were looking up.  Our purpose for the trip was to attend the CCEF (Christian Counseling and Education Foundation) Annual Conference and to provide four tables worth of P&R Publishing books in the conference bookstore.  On the first day, we got things set up in record time and no one was injured.  Given the extensive use of a box knife and significant heavy lifting, that was not something to take lightly.  Maybe the porta-potty incident was just an outlier.

On Friday evening, I was driving the truck to dinner after a very long day when I noticed a strange light on the dash board with a symbol that I did not recognize.  We looked it up and discovered it was probably a loose gas cap.  As soon as we stopped, we took a look and it wasn’t just loose, it was missing entirely.  How was that possible?  We had not even gotten gas recently.  Had someone stolen it?  We never did find out, but now we had a problem to fix.  With a plan to visit an auto parts store in the morning, we went to bed later that night sure that this was just an unusual hiccup in our routine.

Bright and early the next morning, I hopped up and got ready to jump in the shower and discovered that we had no hot water.  How was this possible in America?  Grabbing the phone to call the front desk and complain about the situation, I discovered that the phone did not work at all – not even a dial tone.  At this point, I began to feel like an actor in a bad movie and used my cell phone to call the front desk only to learn that no one in the hotel had hot water and they were waiting on a part to fix the problem.

Clearly, there was nothing left to do except put on some extra deodorant, get dressed and go look for a new gas cap.  Later that morning, I visited the nearest auto parts store and found out that buying a gas cap was more complicated than I had anticipated.  Apparently, it would require providing the VIN (vehicle identification number) for the truck before getting the part I needed.  Who knew there were so many options for gas caps?  Fortunately for me, the number was written on the inside of the front door of the truck cab.  Unfortunately, however, whoever wrote down the number forgot one digit and I only figured this out after failing to convince the store clerk that I had the right number when it did not work on her computer after multiple tries.  Feeling slightly exasperated, I called Budget Rental and got the correct number which worked like a charm and I finally got the right gas cap.

With the hot water problem fixed the next day, I took my final shower of the trip and prepared to help my colleagues pack up our booth and load the truck for the return trip.  Our tear down took place in record time and we were off for what we hoped would be an uneventful drive home.  As we pulled up to the toll booth at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, we realized the adventures were not over quite yet.  Because of high winds, the bridge was closed to truck traffic.  Consequently, we had to go 80 miles out of our way and added two hours to what was already going to be a long trip home.

Driving up the dreaded I-95, we found ourselves stuck in the inevitable traffic jam caused by all the other trucks that had been diverted as well.   There was lots of time for reflection on the week and the events that had transpired.  My mind was quickly drawn to the many conversations that I had with people about our books and their ministries.  Biblical counseling is not easy and yet so many dedicated saints are doing this vital work.  The people I met were eager to learn, to find out about new resources and to hear God speak to their particular needs.

One conversation was the highlight of my week.  We had just released a new series of 31-Day devotionals on various counseling topics.  A woman came up to our booth and shared that she had purchased one of them a couple of weeks before and was now using it with a counselee.  She was so grateful for the format and its practical system for helping people to engage God’s word in bite-sized nuggets of wisdom each day on the specific issue with which they were struggling.  She had been looking for something like this resource and had never found it until our series was made available.  The work of the P&R team was clearly making a difference in her life and I got to be a small part of that blessing.

I have always known that God sovereignly uses the situations I face for my good and His glory.  It was good to be reminded that even the little inconveniences are not incidental.   They are actually instrumental parts of His growth plan for my life.  I may not get to choose what happens to me, but I do get to choose how I will respond.  I can get frustrated and upset at the little inconveniences or I can choose gratitude for all of the major problems that I did not experience.  How true it is that God’s divine providence works in all aspects of my life both big and small.

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