Tuesday, May 24, 2016

An Example You Wouldn't Know

Six years ago this week, I helped conduct the funeral of a man in our church that many people even then would not have known—Carl Zerges. He was usually seen on his own, looking maybe just a little disheveled (it was his look). I’m sure that younger, newer families here probably didn’t notice him much, and he wasn’t one to draw attention to himself. He wasn’t your stereotypical kindly-looking older gentleman. And sometimes, if you wound up in conversation with him, it might take a little longer than you had planned. Carl’s story would not be one that would make a great book, and his life’s ups and downs were the kind that sometimes made you smile or wince, sometimes both at once.
Carl's years of more visible involvement were before my tenure (he served as an usher/greeter).  Even so, many people knew him—as there were more at the funeral than I would have guessed, and those who had known him best over the 20 plus years he was in our village knew he was special in a number of ways.  Sadly, it is often as people are preparing for their own or others’ funerals that I learn so much more about a person’s life and testimony, and that was the case here. Many of us heard the story of Carl's conversion for the first time, as well as stories about the change that faith brought into his life. 
He had been on the road regularly for business, traveling from his home in Cincinnati to Columbus or Cleveland, and often he passed through Cedarville. His life, by his own admission, was not happy and he knew he needed help, so during one of those drives through town he actually stopped here at the church—a landmark you can’t miss as you make the U.S. 42 jog through town. Through the witness of the staff, he came to know Jesus, and decided the best thing he could do was move here to learn more. So he did, and lived here until he died.
He became passionate to let other people know about Jesus, and he loved to find ways to help and give to others.  He welcomed me to town when I moved here with one of his favorite passions and gifts--good coffee beans!  He repeated that gift a few times, too. One story about Carl, though, stands out in my mind most clearly.
One of our missionaries returned home for a year of furlough.  Reporting to the church, the missionary shared a prayer request that the Lord might provide a vehicle for the family to use for the year.  Carl responded after the service, telling the missionary that because he recently purchased a new car and had two vehicles, he could give the missionary one to use.  Indeed Carl had a brand new Chrysler that was to replace an old clunker he had driven for years.  The next day, the missionary came to Carl's home to get the car, and was surprised when Carl handed him the keys--to the new Chrysler.  Carl kept driving the old car for the year. 
As I spoke to other people, I discovered that this was not out of character for him--it was normal.  The few who knew about this at the time were profoundly affected by his example.  I was, too, when I heard it. While I’ve known many who’ve been able to pass on their used items when they get new ones (including me), this sacrifice of the new for those in need is rare.
I’ve been privileged to know many godly people in my life who loved Jesus, knew the Scriptures, lived according to the truth, and set good examples. But I wonder if sometimes we have many more such examples around us (perhaps even in our own church) that might enrich us greatly, if we only knew. That’s why I try to engage people whose stories I’m not familiar with in conversations. It’s amazing what I can learn or be encouraged by.
So now, you all know about Carl. And maybe knowing about him will encourage you to seek out such examples, and maybe even emulate them!

Friday, May 20, 2016

What Happens When We Die?

There is lots of confusion about what happens when a Christian dies. Are we in "Heaven" then? Do we have bodies? Are we asleep in the grave until the end? 

Recently, I was sent this question that I’ve seen before, and thought it might be one that some of you deal with, too. Someone who was in a Bible study on the Book of Revelation asked me the following:

“There have been some passages in the New Testament that we've read that have me confused. We also just discussed Rev. 20 and talked about the first resurrection which made me think about what happens between death and that first resurrection of believers. Anyway, I feel like I've been taught my whole life that when we die we go to heaven...immediately. It wasn't until this year that I even heard or thought otherwise. What are your thoughts? From these passages in Revelation as well as some other New Testament passages it makes it seem like we won't be with Christ until He returns for his 1000 year reign.” 

Here’s the heart of my response:

The Bible clearly states in Philippians 1 and 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 that at death we are “at home with the Lord” or “with Christ,” which Paul says is “far better” than being here. Obviously our bodies aren’t with Christ, since we’ve died and our bodies have been (typically) buried. But we, in a real sense, are there. We call that “heaven” sometimes, and that is appropriate, since it is where God lives.

However, as I understand it, it is not us as we will always be, but still waiting for something more. Our spirit is there, and we are rejoicing with the Lord and those we love, but we are also awaiting the resurrection, because we still need bodies, and ours is in the grave. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul writes that we are currently in an earthly “home” or “tent,” and are longing for a “heavenly dwelling” (a new, resurrection body). Putting off this earthly tent for our heavenly dwelling seems to involve an interim that Paul references as being “naked” and “unclothed”—a state that is not what we finally want. It’s not embarrassing, like being naked here, but rather unadorned, lacking the beautiful exterior that is to come. It may be in that happy but incomplete state that we find ourselves when we are with Christ, waiting for the resurrection.

So, after our death while we wait for this future event, our existence would be similar to angels—spirits that have no permanent body. Some suggest that we will have a temporary or intermediate body, but we don’t have any evidence for that. We will be known and “seen” by God, angels, and I assume one another, but how that “works” isn’t clear. I’ll trust God to take care of that for us!

At the resurrection, we are united with a new, glorious body (the last half of 1 Corinthians 15 talks about this at length) that is perfect and will last forever. After the judgments of Rev. 20, we then move into the New Heaven and Earth—the recreated place where the heavenly Jerusalem will be. It’s a perfect world (the new earth) and God chooses to make his presences abide there as the Son is there, too (and I’m assuming the Spirit).  

The unredeemed, whose spirits have been “residing” in Hades (a place of conscious torment) are also raised in bodies that will last forever, but only to be judged and cast into the Lake of Fire—even worse than Hades, since Hades is emotional, mental, spiritual torment, but the Lake of Fire may also then include physical torment as well. 

I hope that gives you some help, or at least some things to think about when we consider our future, and those we love being with Christ. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

"The Center Cannot Hold"

Reading an article about the deteriorating conditions of our public culture and discourse, I noted a reference to a famous poem called “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats, one of the great Irish poets of the 20th century. The line cited was, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”

That despairing comment needed a context, so I looked up the poem (I think I’d heard it before, but I’m of the age where I’m learning all sorts of things I once knew). Yeats had just lived through World War I, and had experienced other conflicts as well and saw his civilization seeming to fall apart. The first stanza of this reflection on the various wars he had lived through says,
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The “center” not holding is from that picture of a falconer spinning and his falcon on a tether moving so fast the man can no longer hold on—and that’s what Yeats thought was happening as the 20th century hit the 20-year mark. It is a powerful image of events of his day—World War I had left Europe in shambles, his beloved Ireland was in a state of rebellion, the societal stability of the Victorian era was gone, and Yeats was not optimistic! I see why the writer of the article I was reading used this line to reference contemporary conditions, where, as culture shifts dramatically toward chaos, doublespeak (thank Orwell for that term), and moral oblivion, all seems out of control.

But I think the most telling lines are the last 2 of the stanza: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Is that true today? For all the handwringing over genderless bathrooms in stores and schools, and bakers and photographers losing businesses, the people who are most intense about their positions and their actions are those who are, in my view, the “worst.” Their hatred of God’s created order and authority to declare something good (or not) leaves them, literally, “hell bent” on making every change they can. They have momentum, and they want to add to it. We are less than one year into the era of same sex marriage, and public discourse has turned to general support of the conclusion that people are “born” transgender (the illogic of that phrase is stunning). On the other side, only a paltry few voices are raised in opposition and urging meaningful action, and some of their actions are more reactionary than thoughtful and compelling. They labor against the tide, and are either derisively laughed at, scorned, or given no platform to be heard.

And the rest? Most of those who consider themselves “good” and “reasonable” and are not supportive of this new direction may feel personally uncomfortable—maybe even unhappy--but refuse to take any action lest they be seen as opposed to the “right side of history” as it marches forward. They don't want to be targets. What they don't realize is that they already are. Respectful dissent from the new consensus doesn't seem to be an option if you want to be a part of public life.

What shall Christians do? In the days of the final antichrist, that evil leader will seek to turn everything toward evil, but there is a wonderful phrase in Daniel 11:32-33 about those who face this challenge: “…but the people who know their God shall stand firm and take action. And the wise among the people shall make many understand, though for some days they shall stumble by sword and flame, by captivity and plunder.” It won’t be easy in those days to stand firm and take action—in fact it will be harder than today. And some will pay a price. But isn’t that what makes it evident who knows their God and who does not?

I'm not announcing a boycott of anything, or telling you what to do--in many ways I'm still trying to figure that out. But passivity is one option that the godly must rule out, especially as we seek to influence those closest to us (where we can do the most good) what the truth is and why it is important.

Yeats’ poem is called “The Second Coming” and later he says that people in his day looked at the circumstances and cried out that it must be time for the Lord to return. He thought that was foolishness and that such a hope was futile. Actually, his title was much more profound than he knew. We know that the Lord will come, and this may be the time. But we also know that, until He comes, He will empower His people to stand against evil and for the truth of the gospel, even if they do have to pay a price. Knowing who is really on the right side of history makes a difference, doesn’t it?

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Eve of Pentecost

It’s seven weeks past Passover, in A.D. 33, and its also the same time past the crucifixion and the resurrection the following Sunday. Ten days ago, Jesus has ascended into the sky from the Mount of Olives in a display of God’s glory that was awe inspiring. The glory of God’s “shekinah” had enveloped the bodily rising Savior and the last of him the disciples had seen was as he disappeared into the blindingly brilliant glory of that cloud. The angels who appeared next were not nearly as impressive after that, but their message was—“this same Jesus” would one day return in the same way he left—with the glory of God shining.

Jesus had already told them to be witnesses to him, throughout the world, but to wait in Jerusalem until power came to them. He had spoken to them in the upper room of the Holy Spirit that the Father would send in Jesus’ name as that power. They certainly would need that power; after all, how would such a ragtag bunch be able to carry off something that was to be worldwide in scope?

They had some idea of what was going to come, and they didn’t doubt Jesus, but how would they know?

And while they’d done some praying and worhsiping, and they’d selected a replacement for the accursed Judas, there was, no doubt, a sense of anticipation mixed with uncertainty and just a little impatience. Jesus had said it would be a “few days from now” just before he left, and that was over a week ago. By most of their measures, they were at the most generous understanding of “a few days.”

So, when would the Spirit come, and how would they know? What kind of power would it be?

Today is Pentecost Eve.  And perhaps, like the disciples in the upper room, you are waiting just a bit impatiently for the promised power of God to show up in a time of great need. You can’t do what you know is God’s will in your own strength (perhaps a consistent record of failure in that regard has cemented that message in your mind). You know he has promised you power, but when?

The answer, as it was for the disciples in the upper room, is “a few days from now.” God often builds waiting into his provision so that we will learn faith and patience.

The answer is also “tomorrow.” It will come at the most needed opportune moment. For the disciples it was Pentecost, the great Jewish feast where in one day they could start their mission to the world with an audience from the known world all gathered in one place. For you, it will be the moment when you most need his power, and when you can use it most effectively. By the way, while we tend to think of the tongues of fire, the mighty wind, and being supernaturally empowered to speak the languages of their hearers, the point of the power was witness to Jesus. And that has been its “point” ever since.”
And, because we live after Pentecost, the answer is “today.” While the disciples did not have the indwelling Advocate/Comforter, we do, and his powerful presence is always available to convict you when you sin, to enlighten you when you read the Word and ask for understanding, and empower you to tell the world about Jesus.

Let this Pentecost Eve remind you of the power that changed everything the very next day is the same Holy Spirit that is present in you and around you, to enable you to live a life and speak the words that will make much of Jesus, as the Hero of your story (and everyone else’s).
Visiting the traditional site of the Upper Room

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

At Last: A Delayed, Disturbing, but Detailed Report on ABWE's Response To Missionary Abuse

Today, I read the executive summary and much of the text of a 280 page report by Professional Investigators International ("Pii") on the abuse of ABWE missionary children and other sexual misconduct by Donn Ketcham. Nearly 20 children and four adults were involved with his sinful activities over his ABWE years, and a pattern of immorality on his part goes back over half a century. The report is summarized in a Christianity Today article and in that article you can follow links to ABWE's video response, statement, and to the entire report.

It is not easy reading. The abuse is awful and should have never occurred. It would not have occurred if the same standards to which other workers were held, both by ABWE and churches and ministries of like faith and practice, had been enforced on this man. But Donn Ketcham was a "star" in our circles. His father was the saintly leader of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (I still have my copy of Murray Murdoch's Portrait of Obedience about him). Donn was a charismatic and connected young man whose presence with the mission gave ABWE "status" within this particular circle of Baptists, and they used him to their advantage. Exceptions were made for his "indiscretions" over and over because he was so good at telling the mission's story and recruiting for and promoting ABWE.

But what is so damning in this report are the atrocious missteps of the mission and its President, Dr. Kempton, in assuming that Ketcham could be "talked to" a few times and be cleared to return to the field. However, the women with whom Ketcham had affairs were terminated from the mission and the 14 year old girl that Ketcham abused and whose accusations finally caused him to be dismissed was made to sign a confession and acknowledge that she was equally responsible.

And just as bad, in my view, is that ABWE's employees continued to fight the investigation all the way into 2015! They didn't complete full internal investigation, even though one was launched and continued for nine years! They didn't cooperate with an agency (G.R.A.C.E.) that they hired to do an investigation, and eventually fired them. Then they didn't cooperate with the new agency (Pii) for 2 years, until they finally fired their attorney and let a liaison "retire." So, while the accusations were first made public through a survivors' blog in 2011, it was not until sometime in 2015 that ABWE actually became a fully-cooperative partner in trying to find the truth. That is after 2 agencies and 2 presidents had assured all of us who are supporting churches and donors that they were doing everything they could to get to the bottom of things.

I am sickened by this. This has been the one agency from our church's past that I have continued to endorse as a potential partner for our church in sending new missionaries. I was stunned when I heard about the abuse, and then dumbfounded when I learned that nothing had been done at the time for the victims. When ABWE's initial responses to the blog were defensive, I was bothered, but then they started sounding cooperative and conciliatory. I wanted to trust them when they made their first acknowledgement of wrong in 2011. I wanted to trust them when they hired G.R.A.C.E. I wanted to trust them when they fired G.R.A.C.E. and hired Pii. At every step they told us that they were being transparent and above board. The report makes it clear that they were not either of those things for most of that time. Pii believes they have gotten to the truth, and there are some ABWE people who come out of the report as advocates for the truth. Al Cockrell, the interim president (for the second time), has done what needed to be done when he could. His video statement is straightforward and blunt. But unless I know what steps are being taken to make sure anyone who helped the coverup continue is gone, and what measures have been taken to punish those who have so hurt the organization and its missionary family, I will not believe that this matter is closed. Trust in the leadership of the organization has been lost. It will have to be earned back.

Dr. Kempton was someone I greatly admired for decades. Dr. Ebersole (the executive most involved in the abuse coverup) was a missionary hero in my mind. Until I knew of this story, Dr. Donn Ketcham was in the list of missionary greats, too. Unfortunately, now the first two will always carry a very mixed legacy and the last will be rightfully seen as worthy only of shame in his service. I'm not aware of any public repentance on his part for the harm he has done to his victims and the cause of Christ. Personally, I think Dr. Kempton's name should be removed from anything associated with ABWE. He cared about reputation, but not about MKs. He let a man who was a serial adulterer be a mission spokesman. He punished the women involved in Ketcham's affairs, but not Ketcham. And even after Ketcham's dismissal, Kempton only spoke in loving terms to this pedophile, never calling him to repent in any of the letters that remain. Many try to say that Kempton was only acting as people did "back then." But I'm aware of plenty of pastors and ministry workers who were removed from their positions for immorality. ABWE had removed quite a few. But not Ketcham. Over and over, he was "forgiven" and set loose. Perhaps previous generations did tend to keep things quiet when they should not have. But they still removed immoral, duplicitous leaders.

Those brave survivors who started their blog over five years ago are to be commended for their endurance, even as they should be supported and prayed for in their pain. The report goes quite a ways toward vindicating their reports. I will await their analysis of the report--and frankly, if they have criticism, I will probably give them the benefit of the doubt.

Addendum: I know that many people work at ABWE that were not in any position to affect this situation, and I do not want anyone to think less of them because of the actions of the people in control of this situation. And I still have the highest love and respect for the ABWE missionary family--many of whom are not just our missionaries but my friends. They have suffered through this with all the rest, waiting for this report. So many I have spoken to have dreaded it and longed for it at the same time. I pray that their work will not be adversely affected in the future because of the failures of their leaders in the past.