Monday, January 30, 2006

Gossip: The Sin No One Confesses

Almost every sin imaginable has been confessed to me during the 35 years I have been a minister: stealing, lying, adultery, and even murder. But I do not recall that anyone has ever confessed to me the sin of gossip. Yet gossip is surely one of the most prevalent sins of all, and one of those most severely condemned in Scripture.

Perhaps one reason so few people feel guilty of telling about another person’s faults is because we have developed such clever ways to disguise what we are doing. Much of the worst slander is prefaced with a disclaimer such as, “I don’t mean to be spreading rumors, but ….” That is an absurd statement. Anyone who ever makes it should immediately just shut up, or at least change the subject.

Gossip may be disguised as false sympathy: “Isn’t it too bad how Joe beats his wife.” Some gossip is even passed off as a prayer request: “Now I’m just telling you this so you can pray about it.” Then there is the person who as a question: “Is it true that George and Alice are getting a divorce?”

We also gossip just by listening. If the receiver of stolen goods is as guilty as the thief, is not the person who provides a willing ear the accomplice to the one who bears the tale? I personally consider it an insult when a person brings me a bit of malicious gossip. In so doing he is passing judgment on me, assuming I am the kind of person who delights in hearing such slander.

A gossip may argue, “But I am only telling the truth.” The fact that a slanderous story is true does not necessarily justify its being told. If one man sins and another tells about it, the talebearer may have committed the worst sin of the two.

For example, Genesis 9 tells how Noah became intoxicated and lay naked in his tent. It’s a shame for anyone to get drunk and indecently exposed, especially a preacher.

One of Noah’s sons, Ham, discovered his father’s drunkenness and couldn’t wait to go tell his two brothers about their old man. All he told was the truth. But Shem and Japheth refused to look upon their father’s sin; instead they covered him.

The sons who would not listen to or spread the gossip were blessed and they prospered. Ham, because of his gossip, was cursed and condemned to a life of servitude. Like all sinners who repent, Noah was forgiven. In the New Testament he is later listed in Hebrews 11 as one of the great men of faith and righteousness.

In this scenario God’s judgment against one who gossips was even more severe than it was against the man guilty of drunkenness and indecent exposure. That’s something to think about the next time you hear yourself say: “I don’t mean to gossip, but….” The Living Bible says: “Anyone who says he is a Christian but doesn’t control his sharp tongue is just fooling himself, and his religion isn’t worth much.” James 1:26

Monday, January 23, 2006

Remember the Forgotten Victims of Abortion

I’ll call her Barbara. That isn’t her real name, but every other fact of her story is true. Barbara is the first person who ever confessed to me that she had willfully taken the life of another person.

I was a very young pastor when Barbara came to see me. She didn’t look like a killer. She had a ready smile, stylish short brown hair, and always looked like she had just stepped out of the pages of Dress for Success.

Barbara was a doctor, with a flourishing private practice. Still in her early 30s, she commanded a respect in her community which made her the idol of many other young women. Little did anyone suspect the secret torment she harbored in her soul.

I was not Barbara’s pastor, which is one reason she chose to make her confession to me. She was very active in her church in a neighboring city, but said she just could not bear to tell her own pastor. Perhaps he would be understand and forgiving, but she wasn’t sure she could handle her own emotions in having to face him again every Sunday, knowing that he knew of her great sin.

It had happened seven years earlier while she was a medical student. Becoming pregnant had definitely not been a part of her plans. When she learned she was expecting a baby she had already broken off her relationship the young man who would have been the father. Barbara’s decision to have an abortion was her own. No one ever knew but she and her doctor.

Barbara did have some reservations before she took the life of her unborn child. But she had her career to think about and she had consoled herself that it was perfectly legal. Barbara told me that for a couple of years she thought little of the abortion. She expected to soon forget completely about it. She was wrong.

As a doctor Barbara was committed to healing and saving human lives. Through her practice of medicine she had not been able to escape the irrefutable evidence that human life begins at conception. Many times after a long day of caring for her patients she would find herself going home and crying herself to sleep because of the hypocrisy from her past that came back to haunt her.

It was not only the conviction that came from her medical knowledge that troubled Barbara. Shortly after setting up her medical practice she began to attend a local evangelical church. At first she attended because she thought it would be good for business. In the process she had been convinced by the claims of the gospel. Barbara had asked Jesus Christ to become the Lord and Savior of her life. As she began to study the Bible she realized that God’s word confirmed her medical conclusions – abortion is murder.

When I hear that 26-million abortions are performed somewhere in the world every year, 126-thousand of them every day, that is just a statistic. But when a young woman like Barbara sits across the room and sobs as if her heart is breaking, several years after the fact, it is a personal tragedy.

Barbara’s story should remind us of the hidden victim (or victims) behind every abortion – those who must deal with the guilt of taking the life of the most innocent and helpless. Barbara didn’t need condemnation; she needed to be reassured of God’s love and forgiveness. Through prayer and counsel she left my study that day with her burden lifted.

My prayer is that while Christians denounce the terrible sin of abortion, that the forgotten victims will also be remembered. May God help us to hate sin while we love the sinner. Jesus’ words to a sinful young woman are still applicable to all: “Nether do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

Friday, January 20, 2006

Just Call Me Christian

Many people seem to be addicted to the pursuit of giving everything a label. Nothing can just exist. It must be titled, categorized and classified.

For example, every bookstore is filled with field guides for the amateur naturalist. It is not enough to appreciate and enjoy a bird for its beauty and song alone. It has to have a name. The bird watcher can look up smugly from his field guide and declare “That was a yellow-billed Cuckoo,” and feel that somehow by naming the bird he has put it in its proper place. Yet he may understand little or nothing about the bird’s behavioral patterns, diet, habitat, breeding, or any of the other things that make a Yellow-billed Cuckoo different from a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, or a Yellow-breasted Chat.

Label makers find especially fertile ground in the field of religion. To them, every belief and every believer must be neatly tucked away into a slot.

When I was growing up in the mountains of East Tennessee, they called people at the church I attended at that time “Holy Rollers.” Kids at school would ask me if it were true that in our church we turned off the lights and rolled on the floor. We didn’t but sometimes I think we came close.

“Holy Roller” was considered a slangy term which our church indignantly disclaimed. Long before my time, way back in 1915, the Church of God denomination had passed a resolution repudiating the title as a “slanderous and malignant offense.” My parents taught me early that I was not a “Holy Roller.” If not a Holy Roller, then I wanted to know what I was.

“Protestant” is one answer I received. However, the term “protestant” is a most negative one, and in my own personal spiritual pilgrimage I have discovered that serving God is the most positive lifestyle one can live. I’m not protesting anything. Perhaps “Catholic” would be a more apt term to describe the way I feel about the church, for I see myself as a part of the universal, or catholic, body of Christ. Yet many who belong to the Roman branch of the church might not appreciate my saying I am Catholic unless I give allegiance to the Pope.

While studying theology in college a teacher informed me that I was a “Fundamentalist.” In fact I do believe in the fundamental tenants of the Christian faith. But as a writer I have been attacked more by Fundamentalist Christians than any other group. From many angry letters-to-the-editor I’ve learned that many Fundamentalists don’t consider me a part of their camp.

“Pentecostal” is a category into which many would put me. Yet Pentecostals themselves are so divided that I have a difficult time deciding into which of their slots I fit, if any. There are classical, neo, progressive, old line, liberated and post-Pentecostals, to name a few. Some Pentecostals have called me “Charismatic,” but most hard-core Charismatics don’t consider me to be one of them.

Many of the terms people use to distinguish themselves are broad almost to the point of being meaningless. For example, some say they are “New Testament Christians,” but whoever heard of a Christian who disclaimed the New Testament? Many call themselves “Full Gospel,” but no one admits to being “Half Gospel.” Others use the term “Spirit Filled,” and so do I, yet, the term is open to a score of different theological interpretations.

“Born Again” once seemed to me a powerful term which adequately described the dramatic change Christ makes in a life. However, in recent years that term has been so secularized that it has lost its original punch. At times I have referred to myself as an “Evangelical,” but some people always mistake that to mean that I have the gift of an evangelist, which I don’t.

So please don’t put me in a box. If I have a label I’m sure to fall short of somebody’s expectations. Really, it takes all the effort I’ve got just to try to live up to the name “Christian.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Please Don't Call Me Reverend!

Just one month after I was first married in 1965, my new bride and I had one of our first disagreements, and it was over whether or not I was a Reverend. She thought I was, but I insisted I wasn’t.

In those days I was Associate Pastor of a church and she was a first grade teacher. Her school was selling “personalized” Christmas cards as a fundraiser. My wife brought home two boxes which she had ordered a few weeks before our October wedding, and they were imprinted with “Rev. and Mrs. J. Stephen Conn.”

There were two things I didn’t like about the cards. First, nothing is much more impersonal than a Christmas card on which the name is imprinted rather than signed. But much worse was the pretentious title, “Reverend.” The cards sat in a drawer for several years before we finally threw them away.

The truth is, all the mail I receive from my denominational headquarters prefaces my name with “The Reverend,” so I suppose the title is legitimate. But after 35 years as an ordained minister I have never called myself Reverend, and I still shudder whenever anyone else does. Even worse is to call a person “The Most Reverend,” “The Right Reverend” or “The Very Reverend.”

Reverend means quite literally “worthy of reverence,” or “holy.” That which is reverend is to be regarded with profound respect and honor to the point of worship and adoration. Frankly, I don’t qualify. And neither does anyone else I have ever known, clergy or otherwise. We are all still better described by the bumper sicker; “Christians aren’t perfect – just forgiven.”

Has any pastor ever actually felt that he stood on a pedestal smiling benevolently down on the flock, basking in their praise, and bestowing them with blessings? God forbid! Whenever I preach, I have always felt that I was simply one beggar telling another beggar where he could find bread. My message is: “Fellow pilgrim, I haven’t arrived yet either. But come on; take my hand; we can make it together.”

If “Reverend” is a proper title then surely it should be the highest thing one could be called. Yet it has always amused me that many who call themselves “Rev.” are quick to drop the term in preference to putting a “Dr.” before their name. Those whose “doctorates” come by mail-order are usually the most eager to flaunt the title. But if a person may rightly be called reverend then surely that should be preferred above doctor. It is greater to be holy than it is to be educated.

Some may think I am showing a “holier-than-thou” attitude in expressing my personal prejudice against a title which is used by many wonderful people. If so, let me admit that for many years I allowed myself to be called reverend in two areas.

First is the telephone book. Actually I never told the telephone company that was my title. But they asked my occupation when I applied for service and then when the book came out it was listed that way. I later changed the listing and the title was dropped.

The other place where my name was prefixed with “Rev.” was on my checkbook. My wife handles the check book most of the time, and she said it might help in cashing a check (which I have always doubted.)

One day I used a personal check at a store where I was unknown. The clerk glanced at the check then looked up at me and said with sarcasm, “Rev., huh? The last time we got one of these with rev. on it , it bounced.”

That did it. I ordered new checks that very day with the title deleted. You can call me mister; you can call me brother. Better yet, call me Stephen. But please, don’t call me reverend.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Entering the Holy Land

AMMAN, JORDAN: Arriving alone in Amman, Jordan in the spring of 1985 presented no problems. An immigration officer at the airport matter-of-factly gave me a 30-day visa.

Two days earlier in Istanbul (see previous post,) I had been separated from the tour group with which I was traveling to the Holy Land. My problem had been compounded by the fact that I was the only non-Methodist in a group comprised of Methodist ministers. I later learned that concluded I had used their group to get to Turkey, and that our unscheduled stop in that country had been part of some clandestine plan. They had gone ahead without me, giving it little more thought. When I arrived in Jordan, they had already left that country by bus and were somewhere in Israel.

It was evening when I landed in Amman. I checked into a hotel, expecting to buy a ticket the next morning for the two hour bus trip to Jerusalem. That morning a travel agent near the hotel gave me the distressing news. Israel and Jordan were officially at war with each other, and have been since the six day war of 1967. There is absolutely no public transportation between the two countries.

“A tour group is different,” the agent explained. “Both Jordan and Israel need the tourist dollars, so they have an agreement to allow foreign pilgrims to cross the border with a special visa. There is no way a person can make the journey alone.”

Back at my hotel I began calling in search of a tour group. Eureka! There was a bus load of Christian pilgrims eating a late breakfast at a hotel across the city. In less than an hour they were leaving for Israel.

I ran to catch a taxi. Arriving at the hotel restaurant which was full of Americans, I asked for the tour leader. To my delight he turned out to be Kash Amburgy, a Pentecostal preacher from Lebanon, Ohio. When I introduced myself he said he was an old acquaintance of my father.

Sitting in the back of the bus, traveling toward the Israeli border, I felt great. “God is so good,” I thought. I had an unexpected adventure in Istanbul, and now I’m safely on my way to Jerusalem.”

As we neared the border it was obvious we were in a war zone. There were soldiers, tanks, and bunkers at frequent intervals. About 100 years short of where the Allenby Bridge crosses the Jordan River into Israel, the bus came to a halt. Twenty soldiers armed with submachine guns surrounded us. Mr. Amburgy assured our group that this was just a routine stop.

One soldier boarded the bus and walked down the aisle checking passports. When he looked at mine his stoical expression suddenly changed. “You don’t belong on this bus,” he growled. “Come with me.”

A young couple with whom I had been talking became frantic. “Quick,” they insisted. “Give us your home telephone number. We’ll call your family and tell them where you are. I tossed them my card as the soldier yanked me off the bus.

The 20 soldiers outside gathered around me, much as those had done a couple of days earlier at the airport in Istanbul, except these seemed even more excited. Across the river Israeli artillery was pointed toward the Jordanians through bunkers and barbed wire. I prayed beneath my breath, “Lord, please get me over to that side of the river.”

From the stamp in my passport It was evident to the soldiers I had entered Jordan alone, from Turkey, and was not part of this group from Ohio. Under the hot desert sun they seemed to argue endlessly among themselves concerning how to handle the matter.

All of a sudden Mr. Amburgy, with holy boldness, cam e storming off the bus. With a red face and a loud commanding voice he waded into the circle of soldiers. “This boy’s with me; I know his daddy. He comes from a very important family back in America. Now you let him go!

To my utter amazement the officer who seemed to be in charge gave a disgusted grunt and motioned us both back onto the bus. We rolled over the Allenby Bridge, across the muddy Jordan, and into the Promised Land.

Monday, January 02, 2006

An Arresting Experience in Istanbul

ISTANBUL, TURKEY: I was en-route to the Holy Land, in early spring, 1985, flying from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Amman Jordan, on a KLM Airlines 747. The captain’s voice came over the speaker, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to make an unscheduled stop in Istanbul, Turkey. We’ll be on the ground for about one hour.” No explanation was give as to the purpose of the stop.

What great luck, I thought. That’s just long enough to say that I’ve been to Istanbul, ancient Constantinople.

Viewing the exotic Moslem city from the air made my pulse quicken. The skyline, with its numerous domed mosques looked like something out of a Rudyard Kipling novel. In the outlying fields shepherds herded their flocks.

The airport was heavily guarded. Armed soldiers stood on elevated platforms above the high fence which surrounded the runway. In my excitement I didn’t hear the announcement that all passengers were to remain on board. I’ll never know why I wasn’t stop as I walked off the plane.

The best souvenir I could imagine was not a trinket from an airport gift shop, but a stamp in my passport. Without any luggage, I walked through customs unhindered. At the immigration desk I presented my passport for the coveted stamp, and received it without a hitch.

Walking outside the airport, I took a deep breath and smiled to myself. “So this is the legendary Turkish capital.” I walked around the front of the airport to see as much as I could. Forty minutes of the allotted one hour passed. Just to be safe, I decided to re-board the plane.

That’s when two armed guards stopped me at the airport entrance. “Ticket,” they demanded. That seemed to be about the only word they knew in English. The other word was “No!” which they repeated with increasing vehemence as I tried vainly to explain to them my situation.

When I made an effort to enter the airport above their protest, they pressed the barrels of their submachine guns into my stomach.

I’ve never seen anyone prouder than these two young Turks as they marched me off to the police sub-station in the airport. I was taken into a bare room where one stood guard over me while the other went for assistance.

Soon I was surrounded by a dozen angry looking dark-faced men in uniform. One of them spoke English. He demanded my passport. With exaggerated motions he crossed out my immigration stamp, scribbling something beside it in Turkish. I glanced out the window just in time to see my flight taxiing onto the runway. My heart sank; the blood drained from my white face.

I was informed I had entered the country illegally. My ticket was from Atlanta to Amsterdam and from there to Amman. I didn’t have passage into our out of Turkey. The officer gravely shook his head, “This is very serious.”

For more than an hour I stood in the middle of the room, praying silently while the police argued among themselves in excited tones as to what to do with me. Through the interpreter I laboriously explained again and again how I had arrived in their country.

Finally they must have decided I wasn’t subversive – just stupid. The English-speaking officer turned to be with a wide grin which showed a missing front tooth. Returning my passport he said in a pronounced accent. “Velcome to Istanbul. You may go now.”

The first flight I was able to book to Amman was 26 hours later via Royal Jordanian Airlines. They were very kind to offer me free passage. Twenty-six hours gave me the opportunity for a fascinating day of exploration. A taxi took me to a hotel near the Bosporus Bridge, which connects Europe with Asia.

The next morning, while visiting the famed Blue Mosque, I met a local young man who was eager to practice his English. I accepted his invitation to have afternoon tea with his family. He treated me as an honored guest and proudly showed me off to his friends and neighbors. It was an experience I would not have wanted to have missed.

Little did I know that in only 48 hours, on a lonely Jordanian road, near the place where Moses looked over into the Promised Land, I would be arrested again.