Are We There Yet?

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“Are we there yet? Why is it taking so long?” Every parent on a road trip with their kids has endured whining questions. Little children don’t understand the relationship between time and distance, so a long, boring car ride seems endless. And what happens when there are two or three kids in the backseat? Trouble! Squabbling and poking and crying.

For almost three months America has been on a journey. It seems like a trip to nowhere. Will it be over by the end of summer? Who knows? No one does, but it won’t be over soon enough! We simply don’t know when it will end. And like kids in the backseat on a cross-country trip, that spells trouble.

For political leaders Covid-19 is both a difficultly and an opportunity because politicians can use the virus like a ballistic missile to blow up their opposition by destroying confidence in their leadership. Politicians, by design, exploit problems to gain control. It may sound cynical, but it’s mostly true. And it’s not just politicians who use crises this way. Recently I heard a Christian leader say that crises provide “smoke cover” for leaders to do things they want to do, but can’t without the covering of “smoke.” He was speaking of the current Covid-19 crisis.

For pastors, the leadership challenge is different. Pastors shepherd people they know by name and by sight. Churches are bodies of believers whose head is Christ, bound together by love for Christ and His love for them. So the pastoral challenge isn’t like that of the politician leading opposing factions. It’s more like that of the parent with kids squabbling in the backseat. Now, don’t run too far with this analogy. Pastors aren’t our parents and the congregation isn’t a gathering of whining children, though there are different levels of spiritual maturity and understanding in the membership of any church.

The church is a family. We live together, young and old, mature and immature. We see things differently, but we each have an interest in the health of the family. We may whine, and we might even squabble about how to drive the car down the long and winding road, but we love our church and want it healthy and living in obedience to Christ.

So, are there some principles or guidelines that can help pastors and churches as we travel together on a difficult, unfamiliar road? Yes, there are a few:

First, now and always, we must fear God and love God above all others. Honoring God and seeking what He wants us to be, say, and do is always the most important thing. When we get this right, everything is right. Every day the challenge is the same. What is God saying? What does He want from me? How can I obey Him? Much of the trouble we face happens because we fear others more than God. We love God, but we love something/someone else, more. This is a problem. It is a bigger problem than Covid-19. Pastors, church members, love God first. Fear God most. Everything else becomes clearer when we get this right.

Second, love your neighbor. Bless your community. This requires intention, not mere sentiment. Loving is something we do, not something we say or feel. Every crisis or problem provides us the opportunity to love someone, bless someone. How does God want me to love my neighbor today? How does God want us to bless our community today? Yesterday my wife gave each of the 13 kids on our cul-de-sac a set of marbles with instructions on different games to play. She also wrote them a poem. She’s been introducing our neighbor kids to various “old fashioned games” to try and alleviate a bit of the stay-at-home monotony. She’s having fun, and the kids are too.

Pastors I’ve spoken with are leading their churches to abide by the stay-at-home orders, and the social distancing guidelines, out of love for their church and community, not because they believe the government has the authority to dictate whether the church can gather for worship. They are voluntarily following the guidelines because they love their people and don’t want to jeopardize the health and lives of their church and community.

Whether our state and national leaders, including the medical experts, get things exactly right in terms of how to handle the crisis is not the primary point when it concerns the church gathering or not. The politicians and medical experts won’t get it exactly right. They’ve changed their opinions about things such as whether to wear a mask or not. They have changed the rationale for the stay-at-home orders as well. We can certainly argue and disagree about how fast to open up the economy and get people back to work. But don’t let this create a problem for your church. When we think about love, remember love for the “weaker brother” (Romans 14 and 1 Cor. 8). Covid-19 is providing new ways to do this. This leads to the next principle.

Third, protect and promote the unity of the church. Some families pull together in a crisis and some get blown up by it. Churches are no different. Like kids squabbling in the backseat, this Covid-19 road trip is putting pressure on churches. There are financial pressures caused by over 36 million people losing their jobs in just eight weeks. Church members are seeing their businesses crumble. Some are dealing with sickness and even death. Even before Covid-19, an average of 7,700 people died every day in the United States, more than 2.8 million each year. If the averages hold true, that means that while 90,000 have died of Covid-19 in the U.S. so far, another 800,000 have died from some other cause. Covid-19 didn’t introduce death to us, but it has introduced massive job loss and isolation through stay-at-home orders.

Added to these troubles, pastors are learning new technologies and acquiring new skills and working harder than ever. Then there’s the pressure about when to begin gathering again and how to gather. When we gather, what precautions should we take? Do we need sanitation stations in the church building? How do we practice social distancing? Do people wear masks? Do we take temperatures as people walk in the door? What do we do if someone in the church gets sick with Covid-19? Do we ask everyone they came near to self-quarantine?

How about this question: should we obey governmental mandates and guidelines regarding the stay-at-home orders, or should we not obey them? What about the U.S. constitutional liberties about free exercise of religion? Are we allowing the government to trample on our constitutional and God-given rights by following the stay-at-home orders and not gathering for worship? And if we violate the governmental orders and guidelines, and someone gets sick, can they file a lawsuit? Will our insurance company support us if we fail to follow guidelines? These are the questions church leaders are considering.

As we continue down the road of Covid-19, this question of governmental authority, and when and how the church should start gathering, is beginning to threaten the unity of some churches. Disunity in the church over Covid-19 would be a great tragedy. Don’t let it happen.

Your pastor and church leaders are trying to do the right thing in the best way. Support them in this. They have incredible pressures upon them right now and they need the support and love of their church, just as you need their love and support. Like the rest of us, your pastor has never gone through something like this. He needs to know you support him. You don’t have to agree with his every move to fully support him as your pastor. He is God’s under-shepherd for your church. He bears a great responsibility about how he serves God’s church. He knows this, and more than the opinion of any other person, your pastor wants God’s blessing on his life and the people he serves. With all that your church and pastors are facing, don’t add disunity and grumbling to the mix. That will only serve the purpose of the evil one.

Fourth, focus on disciple-making and disciple growing. This is the mission of the church. Problems provide the church unique opportunities to make and grow disciples. Just think of the opportunities Covid-19 is providing families. Moms and Dads are home with their kids, teaching them math and history and grammar. Parents are teaching their kids how to handle a problem and how to redeem the time. How to pray. How to pull-together as a family. They are taking walks together, playing together, resolving conflict together, learning how to be together 24/7.

I don’t know all that parents are teaching their kids through this, but I know that they are teaching them because kids are always learning something, good or bad. I can imagine there is a family in your church that is memorizing a Bible chapter or a Bible book, together. They are redeeming this stay-at-home order, trying to make the best of it. Covid-19 provides churches a unique disciple-making opportunity. How are you growing the faith of your church and the obedience of your church during these days? What are you doing to further develop the leaders in the church? Has God led you to biblical texts that you have found helpful to grow the obedience of your church?

Impatient kids on a long road trip eventually learn that the trip will end. It might end at grandma’s house where they’re greeted with hugs and cookies. It might end at the beach or a family gathering where they get to play with the cousins. But all road trips end. The trip down Covid-19 will end as well. When it does, things won’t be quite the same. We’ll be in another place, at the end of the road. And when we get there, we don’t know what we’ll find, exactly. But we know that the Father will be there with us. Hopefully we’ll arrive together, as families and church families, serving God in His ever-changing and fallen world.

The Heart of God’s Shepherd – Jeremiah 16:1-14

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(Note: this is the synopsis of a message I did that I thought might be appropriate for such a time as this)

In our bedroom I have a painting of the missionary David Livingstone. After my first visit to Africa, I began to read his journals and some biographies as well. Livingstone buried children, his wife, and suffered incredibly as he took the gospel to Africa. One of the things I found remarkable is that the name Livingstone is still revered by Africans. There are several towns named after him. The largest city in Malawi is Blantyre. Blantyre is not an African word. It’s Scottish. It’s the little town in which Livingston was born.

After his little girl died of Malaria, he wrote a letter to his sister in which he said, “Fever may cut us all off. I feel much when I think of the children dying. But who will go if we don’t? Not one. I would venture everything for Christ. Pity I have so little to give. But He will accept us, for He is a good master. Never one like Him. He can sympathize. May He forgive, and purify and bless us” (Mackenzie 113). In another letter he wrote, “A parent’s heart alone can feel as I do when I look at my little ones and ask, shall I return with this or that one alive?” (Mac, 114).

Livingstone knew he would see little fruit from his labor. But he also knew there was a day coming in which others would harvest from fields in which he sowed. He wrote:

“It seems very unfair to judge the success of these [missions] by the number of conversions which have followed…. Future missionaries will see conversions follow every sermon. We prepare the way for them. May they not forget the pioneers who worked in the thick gloom, with few cheering rays to cheer except such as flow from faith in God’s promises. We work for a glorious future which we are not destined to see, the golden age which has not been but will yet be. We are only morning stars shining in the dark, but the glorious morn will break – the good time coming yet…. For this time we work. May God accept our humble imperfect service.” (Mackenzie, 150f).

Today Africa has more professing Christians than Europe and North America combined, and some of this can be traced to a man who embodied God’s heart and was willing to suffer for Christ. We see people like this in the Bible, the prophets and the apostles, for whom obedience to God meant everything.

Jeremiah. David Livingstone, I think, felt a kinship with Jeremiah. Jeremiah wept the tears of God. He entered so much into the mind and heart of God that he embodied the feelings of God. Jeremiah not only spoke the Words of God, but Jeremiah felt the emotions of God. When you read his book, as I have dozens of times, you discover that Jeremiah doesn’t present the people’s pain to God. Jeremiah presents God’s pain to the people. Jeremiah knew the pain of God. But God demanded more of Jeremiah than emotional empathy. God demanded his whole life, physical, social, everything about Jeremiah became a living enactment of his message. And it made him hurt.

Jeremiah’s personal story is particularly striking in chapter 16. There, God told Jeremiah “You must not marry or have sons or daughters” (16:1). This was a devastating demand, but Jeremiah was called to embody in his life the catastrophe that would engulf all of Israel’s families. No family. And no funerals, either (16:5). Using a shocking triple negative, God told Jeremiah don’t go to funerals because the coming catastrophe would be so great that normal mourning would be abandoned.

No family. No funerals. No feasting. Jeremiah lived in loneliness and exclusion. He embodied what it meant for God to be driven out by the people He loved. Of interest is that Jeremiah was from Anatoth. Anatoth was where the priests lived who were banished by Solomon. Jeremiah was not a priest in Jerusalem. He was a descendent of the priest Abiathar, who supported Solomon’s older brother Adonijah to become king. Solomon said he deserved to die for that, but he let him live because he carried the Ark in the presence of King David (1 Kings 2:13-27). So Abiathar was banished to Anatoth and Jeremiah was his descendent. So, when God wanted a man to represent him, to embody the pain of God, he didn’t choose a priest from Jerusalem. He chose an outsider from Anatoth.

Maybe you’re an outsider. You don’t come from a “made family.” Nobody set you up to be the next best thing. That was Jeremiah. Maybe you can relate to him. But Jeremiah came to know God, and his heart was shaped by God, and he did what God told him to do, even if it brought him great suffering.

The prosperity gospel of health and wealth and happiness is made to look as stupid as it is by the life of the Prophets and the Apostles. It was precisely his obedience that thrust Jeremiah into 40 years of suffering and sorrow. God did speak to Jeremiah about the future restoration, but He also made clear that he wouldn’t live long enough to see it. When you preach from the hope passages of Jeremiah, like 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you … plans for your welfare …” you need remember, the restoration of Israel came after that generation was dead.

So what can we learn about shepherding God’s people from Jeremiah 16?

1. To shepherd the people of God you must enter into the heart and mind of God.

We cannot serve God’s people if we cannot hear God when He speaks, and if we don’t enter into His heart and mind, the mind of Christ, the Father’s heart. I’m actually quite concerned that some think that to shepherd God’s people you have to know the mind of Rick Warren, or Ed Stetzer, or, Matt Chandler, or pick your favorite (not that these aren’t good men from whom we can learn). Or, to lead the people of God you have to know the systems, strategies, and best practices. No. To lead the people of God, you must hear from God. You must know His heart. And even embody His heart and mind. That is first, second and third.

2. To shepherd God’s people you must present to them the heart and mind of God.

This is what you see in the prophets and the Apostles. You especially see it in Jeremiah. Jeremiah uses that phrase, “The word of the Lord” or “the Lord says” more than any other. In 16:1 “the word of the Lord came to me.” 16:3 “This is what the Lord says.” 16:5 “this is what the Lord says.” 16:5 “this is the Lord’s declaration.” 16:9 “this is what the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, says.” People don’t need to know what their shepherds think about spiritual things. People expect their shepherds will talk to God in prayer, then reveal God’s heart and mind as expressed in His Word.

3. Those who shepherd God’s people must embody His message.

The classic definition defines preaching as “truth through personality.” The word “personality” speaks of the entire person – character, integrity, physicality, everything. When you listen to Jeremiah, and when you examine his life, you know, “This man was not a hypocrite. This man didn’t say one thing and do another.” He embodied the message.

4. Shepherds pay a price, often a big price.

This is where it gets tough for spiritual shepherds. You will pray a price. Probably not as big a price as Jeremiah – no marriage, no kids, no social life, starved at times, thrown in a hole. The annihilation and destruction of his city and his country. Continual rejection throughout the 40 years of his ministry. It won’t get that bad for most, but you will suffer.

David Livingstone’s favorite verse was, “Lo I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). The promise of Jesus’ presence, through it all, sustained him. Jesus is present with you too, if you trust in Him, and He will see you through to the very end.

A More Excellent Way

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The second mile … the longest day … the shot heard round the world … the golden rule. These phrases bring to mind images, thoughts and memories. Some relate to an historical event, but many come from the Bible. “A more excellent way” is a phrase that comes from the Scriptures. You might recognize it as a quote from 1 Corinthians 12, concluding Paul’s discourse on spiritual gifts and transitioning to one of the most beloved passages of Scripture – 1 Corinthians 13.

Known as “the love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13 is a poem that not only celebrates love, it reveals loving behavior in glorious detail. Because it is frequently used in weddings, the context of the teaching is often overlooked. The church in Corinth was a divided church, a sinful and deeply troubled church. Much like the church today, they valued giftedness and celebrity more than love. But 1 Corinthians 13 says that love is superior to supreme intelligence, mountain-moving faith, sacrificial generosity, and death-defying spiritual courage. A person who truly loves God and others is a greater gift to the church than anything else in the whole world!

Our churches need love. Our communities need love. Where will North westerners find love if they don’t find it in God’s people? They’ll find it nowhere. There’s a country song about “looking for love in all the wrong places.” That’s a description of every person before they find love in Jesus Christ.

A More Excellent Way is the theme for the annual meeting of Northwest Baptists. More than a theme, this phrase expresses the deep yearning we all have for God’s love. We’ll celebrate how Northwest Baptists are loving their communities. We’ll remind ourselves that how we love “the least of these” (another of those precious phrases) matters more to our Father than most anything else. In testimony and message, in Scripture readings and prayers, maybe even in reports, we’ll be called to live “a more excellent way.”

Northwest Baptists annual “family gathering” begins November 11 with a Great Commission Celebration and continues November 12-13 with the annual meeting. We’ll gather at the Great Wolf Lodge in Centralia, WA so bring the kids and grandkids. The water park is available to those attending our meetings and the room cost is deeply discounted for NWBC attendees.

Speakers include Richard Blackaby, Dennis Pethers, Carlos Rodriquez and NWBC President, Dustin Hall. Each of these men love the Lord and His people, and they are being used by God to build and bless His Church.

A funny thing happened in our home recently. My wife Paula took her blood pressure shortly before I got home and it was 110/62. I turned on the television news shortly after arriving and it was full of political conflict and other things that can stir emotions and boil blood. Paula checked her blood pressure 15 or 20 minutes into the news and it had shot up to 135/80! She’s been telling me ever since that I’m killing her by watching the news! But here’s the point, the news relates to things we have little control over. It’s probably better to focus on matters in which we can make a difference. We can “love our neighbors.” We can serve Jesus in our community. We can make a difference where we live. We need to pray for our leaders and our nation, but most of our attention should be given to people in whose lives we can make a difference by living “a more excellent way.”

Jesus and your Neighbor, that’s the Test

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Jesus said, “I tell you … there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).

One of the most striking characteristics in the ministry and message of Jesus is his attention to the value and importance of a single individual. Much of what we know about Jesus comes from his interaction with one person and his parables that focused on the worth or behavior of a single person – Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the man born blind, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Peter, Pilate, the Rich Young Ruler, the Prodigal Son, and so many others.

The value that Jesus places on a single person is one of the most important and attractive qualities of Jesus. The “end-justifies-the-means” ethic of tyrants and bullies who are willing to sacrifice the individual for some “higher purpose,” or for the “greater number,” is devastatingly refuted by Jesus’ treatment of the most ordinary humans.

Recently I’ve been thinking about this as it relates to two things. First, some in positions of power and influence are willing to damage an individual, or fail to seek justice for an individual, in order to protect an institution. The institution could be a church, denomination of churches, or a particular “ministry.” In order to “protect the ministry,” an individual person is hurt or allowed to suffer. Second, organizations, including ministries, are tempted to suppress the truth (poor performance numbers, mistreatment of individuals, etc.) when they think the truth will bring a “backlash” from the constituents (the people paying the bills).

When did Jesus ever mistreat an individual in order to protect the religious establishment? When did Jesus ever suppress the truth, fearing people couldn’t handle the truth? The answer to both questions is – NEVER. Jesus never hurt an individual, no matter how unimportant some thought they were, in order to please the religious established or protect the religious institution from others learning the truth.

There are two questions that will help you know how to handle any difficulty or ethical situation you will face in life: What does God say about this? And, how does it affect my neighbor? Other forms of the two questions might be: What does the Bible say? And, how does it affect an individual person?”

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot, mostly because my sleep has been disturbed by leaders suppressing the truth, or hurting an individual, in order to “protect” the ministry. We never protect our ministry by suppressing the truth, even if the truth is ugly … especially when the truth is ugly. God’s people can handle the truth. What they can’t handle is hiding the truth or avoiding the truth.

Equally disturbing is a willingness to let a person suffer, or to actually harm a person, in order to protect or promote the “ministry.” God will not, He will not ever, bless a ministry in which a person is deliberately harmed, or in which harm is not redressed.
The test is really quite simple, Jesus and my neighbor. If I’m good with them, nothing much will go wrong. If I am good with them, I don’t need to worry about my “religious institution” or establishment. And with that said, I can now sleep undisturbed.

Ministry Guaranteed to Bless Your City

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A sanitation worker in our town was crushed when he was hit by a car and pinned up against the garbage truck. He was horribly injured and our church prayed for him and his family. Following the prayer, a church deacon asked a simple question that ultimately transformed our ministry. Here’s the question: “I wonder if that man has a church that is ministering to him and his family?” We learned that he did have a church and they were doing well by him. But this led to a second question: What about others in our community, who in time of crisis, have no church family? What of those who have no pastor, no Bible class, no ministry and no living testimony of God’s love and care in their life? What about them?

This tragic situation and the subsequent questions resulted in a profound commitment by our church. We determined that we would pray for, and serve as best we could, every family in town touched by tragedy. House fires, car wrecks, crime victims, accidents of various kinds, horrible medical diagnoses; these happened with some frequency in our ministry area of 25,000 people. And when they did, we sent two or three to the home with the simple message, “We’re from First Baptist. We heard what happened. We’re so sorry. We want to pray for you and see if there is any way we can help.”
Sometimes our involvement ended after the prayer and words of love and concern. Other times clothing or food was provided, biblical counseling was provided, a wheel chair ramp was built, among other things. The results included some coming to faith in Christ, goodwill built with the family and friends, and some actually joined our church so that they could be involved in this ministry of care. Our church was known for several things, one of which became, “They’re the church that serves everybody and anybody in time of crisis.”

So here’s a goal that will bless your city: commit to visiting and praying for every person stricken by tragedy. The tragedy doesn’t have to be physical injury. In our local newspaper I read weekly, if not daily, of hardships in families. A local mayor’s portrait was on the front page because he was accused of soliciting sex for money. A grandmother went to prison because she embezzled from her employer. A family was ripped apart when a grandson murdered his grandmother. The list goes on. But questions that a local church needs to ask are, “Does this family have a church? Do they have a pastor? Let’s visit them and pray for them and see how we might show them God’s love.”

When I surrendered to ministry leadership a pastor told me that if I would minister to hurting people I would never lack for ministry opportunities. He was right. But I also learned that I couldn’t do it by myself. I needed to lead our church to organize and to do this in our ministry field.

Often when we discuss ministry goals we talk budgets and baptisms and attendance in public worship and Bible study. These are important matters to consider. But mostly they are the byproduct of other things. Things like leading a church to pray for Kingdom concerns and mobilizing outreach ministries of various kinds. Through ministries like http://www.Pray4EveryHome.org every member of your church can pray for their 100 closest neighbors. Through My316 and God Space you can teach your church how to share the Gospel and minister to people (these are provided to every NWBC church without cost thanks to the generous Cooperative Program missions giving of our churches).

How about this as a goal: We will pray for missionaries, the lost in our community, city and school leaders, and all of the children in town, in every public gathering of our church. That is Kingdom praying –praying for the city, unbelievers, and the missionaries we send and support. If we don’t pray for Kingdom concerns when we gather as church, Kingdom praying won’t happen in the homes of most church members.

Things like this make me excited for the spiritual possibility present in every church. Whether you gather with 20 or 200 on Sunday, these are the kinds of things you can do that will touch heaven and human hearts and will make a difference in your city. God told the people in Jeremiah’s day, living as exiles in Babylon, “Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the LORD on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper” (Jere. 29:7). That is a good word for us, living in a 21st Century Babylon.

Trust – The Indispensable Ingredient for Seizing Unexpected Ministry Opportunities

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A few weeks ago I was asked to speak about things I have learned in 35 years of ministry. I decided to tell a story that illustrates what can happen in a church/ministry when trust is high. This article is longer than most, but I think you will find it encouraging. Partly, I just wanted to get it down on paper for myself.

I was in my tenth year as pastor of FBC McAlester, OK when we learned that the trial of Terry Nichols, a conspirator in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, would be held in the Pittsburg County Courthouse, adjacent to our church. Nichols had already been convicted in a federal trial and given a life sentence. The trial in McAlester was an Oklahoma State trial, undertaken so that Nichols could be given the death penalty for his role in the murder of 168 people, including three pregnant women and 19 children.

Our local newspaper said that the trial could last six months and that our town of 18,000 would be inundated with media people. Our church staff had our weekly meeting the day we learned the trial would be held next door to our church building. We first discussed the problems this could bring, primarily with parking, but we quickly transitioned to the question, “Is there a ministry opportunity in this situation?”

Tom Beddow was a staff member who had the unique role of providing counseling, as well as helping us connect to the needs of the community in creative ways. Tom said, “I’ll call Paul Bettis at the Oklahoma Baptist Convention office and see if he knows anything about this.” Paul led the chaplaincy ministry for Oklahoma Baptists, and when Tom told him that he wanted information about the trial, and how the church might help, Paul said, “I can’t talk to you. I can’t talk to anyone in Pittsburg County.” Tom said, “I don’t live in Pittsburg County. I live in Pontotoc County. Does that help?” Paul said, “Let me check and I’ll call you back.”

Paul called Tom 30 minutes later and told him the situation, which went generally like this: “We think the trial will last six months and that as many as 150 bombing survivors and victim family members will be there each day. We need a safe place for them to go when they want to leave the courtroom, some place where the media can’t reach them, some place where they can relax. We need to feed them a breakfast and a good lunch every day of the trial, Monday-Friday, for as many as six months. We can’t charge them for the food.”

Paul told Tom, “You can’t tell anyone about this.” Tom said, “I have to tell the pastor.” After some checking, Tom was allowed to tell me, and we were allowed to share it with our church staff, but each of us was sworn to secrecy. We couldn’t tell anyone else because they were concerned it could taint the jury pool.

The situation boiled down to this – the Oklahoma City District of Attorney’s Office needed someone to feed and care for as many as 150 people daily for six months, but they couldn’t share this need publically. The question for me and my staff was this, “Can you commit to provide for this need without informing the church that you are committing them to six months of ministry, Monday through Friday, including providing food and other support services to these families?” Our staff and I enthusiastically and confidently committed ourselves and our church to this ministry opportunity, knowing we couldn’t tell our church or the deacons or anyone else that to which we had committed them.

About five weeks before the trial began we told the District of Attorney’s Office that we needed to bring some key lay leaders into the planning and preparation process. They asked for a list of names, and if they were not in the thousand-person jury pool, we could meet with them. None of the 21 names we gave them was in the jury pool.

The night we met with the 21 was amazing. Each were choice servants of God, people of faith who had given God a big “YES” when lesser opportunities were presented. There was an overwhelming spirit of gratitude that God would choose us to minister to a people so badly wounded by the bombing. As we talked about the particulars of purchasing food and preparing meals, someone suggested that we ask Walmart and other businesses if they would help us. But one of the 21, a big bear of a man, said, “How much glory would Walmart want if they paid for this? I think God deserves all of the glory and we don’t need to ask Walmart for help.” That statement resonated with us, and we determined to ask for no outside help. This wasn’t meant to be negative toward Walmart or any other business. It was meant as an expression of faith and confidence that our God could use His people to do this thing. And He did.

One week before the trial started and the jury was selected, I was permitted to tell church what we had committed them to do. It was a Sunday morning. As I explained the incredible opportunity God had given us to care for these families who had suffered so, to feed them, listen to their stories, offer prayer and comfort, there was tremendous excitement in our congregation. It seemed like everyone wanted to know how they could help. The spirit was one of gratitude that God had chosen us for this work, and every need we had was met.

The trial lasted 3 ½ months. Our church never faltered. We set aside $2,000 to buy food, thinking that would get us through the first couple of weeks. At the end of the trial $1,800 remained. One small country church, unsolicited, sent us $500 to purchase food. Others did the same.

One survivor who attended the trial was Mr. Khan. Mr. Khan was Islamic and couldn’t eat the food we had prepared. One of our volunteers told him, “Mr. Khan, you tell me what you would like to eat and I’ll prepare it.” She did so every day thereafter. Mr. Khan said, “I am a Muslim. But if I ever become a Christian it will be because of what you have done for me.”

Another person mentioned how hard the benches were in the courtroom. One of our people heard the comment and bought cushions for every seat in the courtroom.

Our church had two custodians who were not members of our church. Some were concerned that we were overworking them, but they came to us and said, “We want to be a part of this. If it means we have to work extra we will donate our time because we want to help.”

About two months into the trial I told a group at lunch that I wouldn’t see them the next week because I was taking my family on vacation. A man asked me where we were going and I told him Washington D.C. He asked, “Are you touring the White House?” I said that we were trying to get a tour of the East Wing (which is where the tourists were allowed to go), but that it hadn’t come through yet. He said, “I’m retired Secret Service. I can get you a private Secret Service tour of the West Wing.” The next week our family met a Secret Service agent early one evening, and he toured us through the West Wing of the White House – the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, pictures in the Rose Garden, the whole works.”

The trial wrapped up late one Friday evening on June 11, 2004. The jury deadlocked on giving Nichols a death sentence, which meant “life without parole” was the maximum he could receive. I was at my house. They called me about 10:00 PM and told me of the verdict and the sentence, and they said that the families wanted to gather one last time in our church and they wanted me to pray for them and speak to them.

It was an evening I will never forget. I don’t say this lightly, but God gave me a message that night. It was a message unrelated to any I had ever delivered. I spoke about the need we have for justice, but how the justice we ultimately need cannot be provided by any earthly court. “How do you secure justice for those who are gone? How do you render justice for an act so horrific?” I then said, “It’s during times like this that the resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes most precious. Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. And a day is coming when all the dead will be raised and God Himself will render judgment. “ I further assured them that our hope for justice is based on a God who’s love and power are so great that He not always knows the right thing to do, He has the power to do what He knows is right. “Many of you feel let down tonight. You don’t feel like justice was done. But no human court can provide what we most need. We need assurance that our loved ones have a future. We need to know that they’re alright. We need to know that we can see them again. And that is the promise of the gospel. That is the hope that Jesus’ resurrection provides.” Those moments were special. They were powerful as God ministered His Word to those gathered.

In the aftermath of the trial Oklahoma City District Attorney Wes Lane and his team of prosecutors travelled 145 miles to our church on a Sunday morning just to worship with us and to publically thank our people for what they did. Several of the survivors did the same. The Oklahoma governor issued a proclamation honoring our church. And if you tour the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial you will see a plaque honoring FBC, McAlester. The person responsible for that recognition was Judge Stephen Taylor. He presided over the trial and said that the ministry our church provided was indispensable and he wanted it recognized.

In my years of ministry those months were the highpoint, not because it was the most impactful thing that church had ever done or I have ever experienced. It’s the highpoint because it revealed a level of trust and confidence in God and in God’s people that was extraordinary. Stephen Covey called it the “speed of trust.” High trust allows you to move quickly and confidently. Low trust keeps churches from doing much of anything. Sometimes a lengthy decision-making process is necessary, like when you’re deciding whether to build a large structure. But sometimes churches forgo great ministry opportunities because trust is low. We were able to commit the church to such a huge ministry because we had already seen God do many things over the past decade and trust was built in the process.

When David faced Goliath, he said, “The LORD who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Sam. 17:37). We were able to say that the Lord who had delivered us and used us in multiple ways in times past will certainly do so once again.

The bottom line is that churches and pastors who hear from God and experience God gain confidence that the God who “said and did” is the God who still “says and does.”

It Happened One Sunday

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It happened in Spokane, WA on a Sunday morning in the spring of 1937. Eighteen year-old Lillian Privette was in church, as was her custom.

1937 was a difficult year. Unemployment in the U.S. was 14.3 percent and climbing, reaching 19 percent by 1938. Nazi aggression made war seem likely to astute observers such as Winston Churchill. It was also during that year that Amelia Earhart vanished during her around-the-world solo flight.
But as difficult as things were in the world, God was at work, as He always is.

Gifted with a beautiful voice, Lillian loved singing the hymns of the faith. On this particular Sunday, one hymn became a special favorite. As she later told the story, they were singing the great Isaac Watts hymn, “At the Cross,” when she heard a strong, if unfamiliar voice. She looked over, and standing a few persons away, was a handsome young man named Everett. With a striking bearing and clear blue eyes, he possessed the muscular confidence of a young man chiseled by hard, physical labor. Everett had come in from the woods where his family carved a living as loggers.

Finished with school by the eighth grade, Everett helped support a family of twelve by felling timber with his dad. But it was Sunday, and they were far from home, so they attended church in the city. As God would have it, they sat on Lillian’s pew. And while singing “At the Cross,” she heard his voice, looked his way, and described her experience as “love at first sight.”

Everett was smitten with Lillian as well. That morning he asked her to go on a date … to church. Everett drove to Lillian’s house to take her to Easter services at her church. The courtship moved quickly, and they were married by year’s end, beginning 61 years together.

In the 40 years since my grandparents, Everett and Lillian Adams, told me the story of how they met, I have never sung “At the Cross” without thinking of them. We even have the song displayed in our home to remind us of the faith tradition of our family.

I tell this story as an encouragement to parents and grandparents to share your stories with your family. Children need to hear our stories of faith in Jesus Christ, and they need to know what God has done in and through our families.

The first person I helped lead to faith in Christ was my college roommate, Steve Phillips. I hadn’t seen Steve in twenty years, then, on a family vacation that took us near his home, I gave him a call and we had a wonderful visit. He and his wife have a beautiful family that loves Jesus. It had never occurred to me that our sons knew nothing about Steve and how God had used their Dad to share Jesus with Steve. I learned that I need to share such stories with them. It was good for them to know that when I was about their age now, that I was trying to serve and share Jesus with others.

One of the great concerns that many have is the salvation of their own children and their commitment to serve Jesus after they leave home. This is a valid concern that requires multiplied efforts. Sharing your faith stories with your kids is one worthy effort toward that end.

Have you told your children and grandchildren how you became a follower of Jesus? Tell them. Have you shared a time when you believe God was guiding you and it changed your life? Share it. Have you talked about serving Jesus, maybe leading a friend to Christ? Tell them. Did you help to start a church? Is there a time when you denied self, and sacrificed, for Jesus and His cause? These are stories that others need to hear, especially our own kids.

Everett and Lillian have been with Jesus for more than fifteen years. When they died I lost someone who prayed for me daily. I will always remember my Grandpa’s first words after he heard me preach my first sermon. “You are called,” he said. That meant a lot to me. It still does. And I want my sons to know the story.