Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Historical Sign that Changed my Life

When a person sets out to visit each of the 3,141 counties or their equivilents in the United States, as I am doing, he never knows what unexpected discoveries he may make.

This simple interpretative sign at Tannehill Historical State Park was a catalyst that made a deep and lasting impact on my life. When I first read it in December, 2004, I would never have imagined the quest for knowledge on which it would lead me.

I had read countless other such signs during my travels, but for some unknown reason this one particular one on that particular day resonated deeply with me - especially the simple description of actions taken by Union troops from Iowa who were here during the latter days of the War Between the States:

"... they torched all the adjacent factory buildings, slave cabins, a large gristmill and tannery and a storehouse for food and supplies. In the fire Tannehill’s workforce of over 500 slaves and white mechanics were scattered and displaced."

Whoa, I thought! The Yankees burned the slave cabins along with those of the white workers? Hundreds of people were left with no shelter, no food, and nowhere to go?

Although I grew up in the South, all my life I had been told that the Union troops marched south to free the slaves. If that were so, then why did the Northerners burn the slaves out, leaving them destitute, homeless and hungry. Elsewhere on the grounds of the Tannehill Historical State Park I saw a large patch of woods, marked as the site of scores of slave cabins which the Yankees had ransacked, plundered and then destroyed - cabins that would have been equal to those my own Irish and Cherokee ancestors lived in during the same era in Alabama and Georgia.

I began to make the connection to other discoveries I had made during my travels, such as a monument to black Confederate soldiers in Mississippi and an antebellum plantation in Louisiana owned by a black family who were slaveholders. I had dismissed these things as flukes, but now I saw there was a patteren which contradicted most of what I had always assumed I knew about the War Between the States.

It occurred to me that somebody was lying about what really happened during the so called Civil War, and I determined to find out the truth.

Since that fateful day I have spent thousands of hours studying about the Confederacy, the causes of secession, and the War Between the States. As I have read scores of books, I have continued to visit hundreds of historical sites, now looking for clues to the real story, unvarnished by political correctness. To say that the things I have learned have been an eyeopener is an understatement.

Okay, I don't have room on this post to get up on my soapbox and tell it all here in this description. Much more time and space would be required to do that. Some of the things I am learning I am now now sharing on a blog. I hope you'll check it out: http://confederatedigest.com/.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Taking on the Bank

When the biggest bank in town sends you a check for $5.87, and the check bounces, you know its gong to be a bad day.

The check was a refund for overpayment on a loan I had paid off. Nothing on the check indicated that it expired if not cashed within a certain time limit.

I carried the bounced check to the bank’s downtown office and presented it to a teller. “You own me $35.87,” I said, “including $30 for the bounced check fee.” The teller informed me that she was not authorized to pay the fee. She directed me to one of the bank’s vice presidents who was sitting behind a big desk on the other side of the lobby.

The vice president had an air about him that must be a requirement for someone in his position. He could smile, be polite, and put you down at the same time. “Mr. Conn,” he said, “We will be happy to pay you the $5.87, but where do you get the idea that we owe you an additional $30?

“Because your check bounced,” I replied. “And that’s my fee for a bounced check.”

"We can’t pay such a fee,” he protested, his face turning red. “It’s not our policy.”

“Mr. Vice President, once I wrote out a check to his bank, and because of a miscalculation in my arithmetic, the check was returned. You charged me a $30 fee. Why was that?” I asked.

Because that’s our policy,” he explained.

“That’s my policy, too.” I answered. “Give me the $30.”

The V.P. looked at the check carefully. “This isn’t even our check.” He said “It actually came from a bank in New York. You’ll have to see them.”

“Who’s name is n the check?” I asked.

“That’s our name,” he kept explaining. “But the account number shows the money actually came from a bank in New York, and we are only acting as their agent.”

“Your name’s on the check; the check bounced; you owe me $30,” I demanded.

“This is highly irregular,” the V.P. muttered. “I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until I can take this up with our board. Come back and see me next week.”

“Mr. V.P.,” I said, “I’m a very busy man. My time is valuable and I live 14 miles from this office. If I have to come back to collect later the amount you owe be will be considerably more than it is now. I’ll have to add my expenses and collection fees to what you already owe me, and I don’t think you want that.”

“I’m sorry,” he bluffed, “but I can’t help you.”

“Then perhaps I need to see the bank president,” I said. “Obviously you don’t have the authority to make a $30 decision.”

The V.P.’s face turned a brighter shade of red and the veins bulged from beneath his starched white collar. “I have all the authority I need,” he insisted.

“Then pay me what you owe me.”

“I’m very busy now. If you don’t mind just wait right over there,” He motioned me to a chair at the far end of the reception area.

I pulled my chair up closer to his desk. “I’m quite comfortable right here. I think I’ll just stay where you won’t forget me.”

For 10 or 12 uneasy minutes the V.P. shuffled some papers around his desk. He looked everywhere but in my direction. Finally he stood, “Mr. Conn, the bank closes in one hour. I have an important appointment so I must be going now, and I’m afraid you’ll have to go too.”

“I’m not leaving until I collect my fee.” I said.

“If you’re still here when we close I’ll call security to have you removed,” he threatened.

“Get some strong men,” I replied, “Because they’ll have to carry me out.” The V.P. turned and walked out briskly, leaving me sitting alone beside his desk.

Time passed slowly. Ten minutes, 20, then half an hour. I wondered if I was doing he right thing. There was no doubt in my mind that the bounced check fee I had demanded from the bank was justified. But I didn’t know how well it would sit with my congregation if I were arrested. I imagined the headline in tomorrow morning’s paper. “Local pastor arrested trying to collect bounced check fee from bank.”

Fifty minutes passed. I thought about justice – about big business taking advantage of the little consumer. And I thought about Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple.

It was time for the bank to close. I eyed the security guard as he watched me from across the lobby. Then, through a reflection in the plate glass I saw the V.P. coming toward me. A check was in his hand. “Okay,” he said, “here’s your $35.87. I hope you’re happy.”

“Oh, no,” I responded, “not a check. The last time this bank wrote me a check it bounced. I want cash.”

“The V.P. took the check over to a cashier and returned shortly with $35 in crisp new bills and 87 cents in change. Justice had prevailed.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Not Yours to Give

Davy Crockett

God give us people in Congress today with Davy Crockett's insight and integrity.

"Not Yours To Give"

By Col. David Crockett, US Representative from Tennessee

Originally published in "The Life of Colonel David Crockett," by Edward Sylvester Ellis.
Provided as a courtesy by US Rep. Ron Paul (http://www.house.gov/paul/)

One day in the House of Representatives a bill was taken up appropriating money for the benefit of a widow of a distinguished naval officer. Several beautiful speeches had been made in its support. The speaker was just about to put the question when Crockett arose:

"Mr. Speaker--I have as much respect for the memory of the deceased, and as much sympathy for the suffering of the living, if there be, as any man in this House, but we must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for part of the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living. I will not go into an argument to prove that Congress has not the power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member on this floor knows it.

We have the right as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right to appropriate a dollar of the public money. Some eloquent appeals have been made to us upon the ground that it is a debt due the deceased. Mr. Speaker, the deceased lived long after the close of the war; he was in office to the day of his death, and I ever heard that the government was in arrears to him.

"Every man in this House knows it is not a debt. We cannot without the grossest corruption, appropriate this money as the payment of a debt. We have not the semblance of authority to appropriate it as charity. Mr. Speaker, I have said we have the right to give as much money of our own as we please. I am the poorest man on this floor. I cannot vote for this bill, but I will give one week's pay to the object, and if every member of Congress will do the same, it will amount to more than the bill asks."

He took his seat. Nobody replied. The bill was put upon its passage, and, instead of passing unanimously, as was generally supposed, and as, no doubt, it would, but for that speech, it received but few votes, and, of course, was lost.

Later, when asked by a friend why he had opposed the appropriation, Crockett gave this explanation:

"Several years ago I was one evening standing on the steps of the Capitol with some members of Congress, when our attention was attracted by a great light over in Georgetown. It was evidently a large fire. We jumped into a hack and drove over as fast as we could. In spite of all that could be done, many houses were burned and many families made houseless, and besides, some of them had lost all but the clothes they had on. The weather was very cold, and when I saw so many children suffering, I felt that something ought to be done for them. The next morning a bill was introduced appropriating $20,000 for their relief. We put aside all other business and rushed it through as soon as it could be done.

"The next summer, when it began to be time to think about election, I concluded I would take a scout around among the boys of my district. I had no opposition there but, as the election was some time off, I did not know what might turn up. When riding one day in a part of my district in which I was more of a stranger than any other, I saw a man in a field plowing and coming toward the road. I gauged my gait so that we should meet as he came up, I spoke to the man. He replied politely, but as I thought, rather coldly.

"I began: 'Well friend, I am one of those unfortunate beings called candidates and---
"Yes I know you; you are Colonel Crockett. I have seen you once before, and voted for you the last time you were elected. I suppose you are out electioneering now, but you had better not waste your time or mine, I shall not vote for you again."

"This was a sockdolger...I begged him tell me what was the matter.

"Well Colonel, it is hardly worthwhile to waste time or words upon it. I do not see how it can be mended, but you gave a vote last winter which shows that either you have not capacity to understand the Constitution, or that you are wanting in the honesty and firmness to be guided by it. In either case you are not the man to represent me. But I beg your pardon for expressing it that way. I did not intend to avail myself of the privilege of the constituent to speak plainly to a candidate for the purpose of insulting you or wounding you.'

"I intend by it only to say that your understanding of the constitution is very different from mine; and I will say to you what but for my rudeness, I should not have said, that I believe you to be honest.

But an understanding of the constitution different from mine I cannot overlook, because the Constitution, to be worth anything, must be held sacred, and rigidly observed in all its provisions. The man who wields power and misinterprets it is the more dangerous the honest he is.'

"'I admit the truth of all you say, but there must be some mistake. Though I live in the backwoods and seldom go from home, I take the papers from Washington and read very carefully all the proceedings of Congress. My papers say you voted for a bill to appropriate $20,000 to some sufferers by fire in Georgetown. Is that true?

"Well my friend; I may as well own up. You have got me there. But certainly nobody will complain that a great and rich country like ours should give the insignificant sum of $20,000 to relieve its suffering women and children, particularly with a full and overflowing treasury, and I am sure, if you had been there, you would have done just the same as I did.'

"It is not the amount, Colonel, that I complain of; it is the principle. In the first place, the government ought to have in the Treasury no more than enough for its legitimate purposes. But that has nothing with the question. The power of collecting and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power that can be entrusted to man, particularly under our system of collecting revenue by a tariff, which reaches every man in the country, no matter how poor he may be, and the poorer he is the more he pays in proportion to his means.

What is worse, it presses upon him without his knowledge where the weight centers, for there is not a man in the United States who can ever guess how much he pays to the government. So you see, that while you are contributing to relieve one, you are drawing it from thousands who are even worse off than he.

If you had the right to give anything, the amount was simply a matter of discretion with you, and you had as much right to give $20,000,000 as $20,000. If you have the right to give at all; and as the Constitution neither defines charity nor stipulates the amount, you are at liberty to give to any and everything which you may believe, or profess to believe, is a charity and to any amount you may think proper. You will very easily perceive what a wide door this would open for fraud and corruption and favoritism, on the one hand, and for robbing the people on the other. 'No, Colonel, Congress has no right to give charity.'

"'Individual members may give as much of their own money as they please, but they have no right to touch a dollar of the public money for that purpose. If twice as many houses had been burned in this country as in Georgetown, neither you nor any other member of Congress would have Thought of appropriating a dollar for our relief. There are about two hundred and forty members of Congress. If they had shown their sympathy for the sufferers by contributing each one week's pay, it would have made over $13,000. There are plenty of wealthy men around Washington who could have given $20,000 without depriving themselves of even a luxury of life.'

"The congressmen chose to keep their own money, which, if reports be true, some of them spend not very creditably; and the people about Washington, no doubt, applauded you for relieving them from necessity of giving what was not yours to give. The people have delegated to Congress, by the Constitution, the power to do certain things. To do these, it is authorized to collect and pay moneys, and for nothing else. Everything beyond this is usurpation, and a violation of the Constitution.'

"'So you see, Colonel, you have violated the Constitution in what I consider a vital point. It is a precedent fraught with danger to the country, for when Congress once begins to stretch its power beyond the limits of the Constitution, there is no limit to it, and no security for the people. I have no doubt you acted honestly, but that does not make it any better, except as far as you are personally concerned, and you see that I cannot vote for you.'

"I tell you I felt streaked. I saw if I should have opposition, and this man should go to talking and in that district I was a gone fawn-skin. I could not answer him, and the fact is, I was so fully convinced that he was right, I did not want to. But I must satisfy him, and I said to him:

"Well, my friend, you hit the nail upon the head when you said I had not sense enough to understand the Constitution. I intended to be guided by it, and thought I had studied it fully. I have heard many speeches in Congress about the powers of Congress, but what you have said here at your plow has got more hard, sound sense in it than all the fine speeches I ever heard. If I had ever taken the view of it that you have, I would have put my head into the fire before I would have given that vote; and if you will forgive me and vote for me again, if I ever vote for another unconstitutional law I wish I may be shot.'

"He laughingly replied; 'Yes, Colonel, you have sworn to that once before, but I will trust you again upon one condition. You are convinced that your vote was wrong. Your acknowledgment of it will do more good than beating you for it. If, as you go around the district, you will tell people about this vote, and that you are satisfied it was wrong, I will not only vote for you, but will do what I can to keep down opposition, and perhaps, I may exert some little influence in that way.'

"If I don't, said I, 'I wish I may be shot; and to convince you that I am in earnest in what I say I will come back this way in a week or ten days, and if you will get up a gathering of people, I will make a speech to them. Get up a barbecue, and I will pay for it.'

"No, Colonel, we are not rich people in this section but we have plenty of provisions to contribute for a barbecue, and some to spare for those who have none. The push of crops will be over in a few days, and we can then afford a day for a barbecue. 'This Thursday; I will see to getting it up on Saturday week. Come to my house on Friday, and we will go together, and I promise you a very respectable crowd to see and hear you.

"'Well I will be here. But one thing more before I say good-bye. I must know your name."
"'My name is Bunce.'

"'Not Horatio Bunce?'


"'Well, Mr. Bunce, I never saw you before, though you say you have seen me, but I know you very well. I am glad I have met you, and very proud that I may hope to have you for my friend.'
"It was one of the luckiest hits of my life that I met him. He mingled but little with the public, but was widely known for his remarkable intelligence, and for a heart brim-full and running over with kindness and benevolence, which showed themselves not only in words but in acts. He was the oracle of the whole country around him, and his fame had extended far beyond the circle of his immediate acquaintance. Though I had never met him, before, I had heard much of him, and but for this meeting it is very likely I should have had opposition, and had been beaten. One thing is very certain, no man could now stand up in that district under such a vote.

"At the appointed time I was at his house, having told our conversation to every crowd I had met, and to every man I stayed all night with, and I found that it gave the people an interest and confidence in me stronger than I had ever seen manifested before.

"Though I was considerably fatigued when I reached his house, and, under ordinary circumstances, should have gone early to bed, I kept him up until midnight talking about the principles and affairs of government, and got more real, true knowledge of them than I had got all my life before."

"I have known and seen much of him since, for I respect him - no, that is not the word - I reverence and love him more than any living man, and I go to see him two or three times every year; and I will tell you, sir, if every one who professes to be a Christian lived and acted and enjoyed it as he does, the religion of Christ would take the world by storm.

"But to return to my story. The next morning we went to the barbecue and, to my surprise, found about a thousand men there. I met a good many whom I had not known before, and they and my friend introduced me around until I had got pretty well acquainted - at least, they all knew me.

"In due time notice was given that I would speak to them. They gathered up around a stand that had been erected. I opened my speech by saying:

"Fellow-citizens - I present myself before you today feeling like a new man. My eyes have lately been opened to truths which ignorance or prejudice or both, had heretofore hidden from my view. I feel that I can today offer you the ability to render you more valuable service than I have ever been able to render before. I am here today more for the purpose of acknowledging my error than to seek your votes. That I should make this acknowledgment is due to myself as well as to you. Whether you will vote for me is a matter for your consideration only."

"I went on to tell them about the fire and my vote for the appropriation and then told them why I was satisfied it was wrong. I closed by saying:

"And now, fellow-citizens, it remains only for me to tell you that the most of the speech you have listened to with so much interest was simply a repetition of the arguments by which your neighbor, Mr. Bunce, convinced me of my error.

"It is the best speech I ever made in my life, but he is entitled to the credit for it. And now I hope he is satisfied with his convert and that he will get up here and tell you so.'
"He came up to the stand and said:

"Fellow-citizens - it affords me great pleasure to comply with the request of Colonel Crockett. I have always considered him a thoroughly honest man, and I am satisfied that he will faithfully perform all that he has promised you today.'

"He went down, and there went up from that crowd such a shout for Davy Crockett as his name never called forth before.'

"I am not much given to tears, but I was taken with a choking then and felt some big drops rolling down my cheeks. And I tell you now that the remembrance of those few words spoken by such a man, and the honest, hearty shout they produced, is worth more to me than all the honors I have received and all the reputation I have ever made, or ever shall make, as a member of Congress.'

"Now, sir," concluded Crockett, "you know why I made that speech yesterday. "There is one thing which I will call your attention, "you remember that I proposed to give a week's pay. There are in that House many very wealthy men - men who think nothing of spending a week's pay, or a dozen of them, for a dinner or a wine party when they have something to accomplish by it. Some of those same men made beautiful speeches upon the great debt of gratitude which the country owed the deceased--a debt which could not be paid by money--and the insignificance and worthlessness of money, particularly so insignificant a sum as $20,000 when weighed against the honor of the nation. Yet not one of them responded to my proposition. Money with them is nothing but trash when it is to come out of the people. But it is the one great thing for which most of them are striving, and many of them sacrifice honor, integrity, and justice to obtain it."
Col. Crockett later died defending liberty at the Battle of the Alamo, in the War for Texas Independence.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Happiness is a Journey

It is called the longest continuously marked footpath in the world. For over two thousand miles the Appalachian Trail winds its way over the ridgetops and mountains of Eastern America from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. It has been described as “remote for detachment, narrow for chosen company, winding for leisure, lonely for contemplation, the trail leads not merely north and south, but upward to the body, mind and soul of man.”

The lure of the trail is almost irresistible to some people. I am one of them, fascinated by the mystique and challenge of the remote and rugged terrain.

I first started talking and dreaming about the trail when I was in high school. A few years later I took my first sixty-mile backpacking trip on the Trail with my brother Bruce. Now I have hiked about one thousand miles of the trail altogether. That’s a lot of steps. Still I have a very long way to go in completing my lifetime goal of walking the trail, by bits and pieces, end to end.

Of the many thousands who have sampled parts of the Appalachian Tail, a relatively small number – a few hundred – have ever finished it. Some of those who have accomplished the feat have commented on a sense of being let down after reaching their goal.

Perhaps at the end of the trail is the discovery that joy is found not in arriving but in striving. Happiness in life is not a destination; it is a journey.

That’s one of the great things about walking the Christian pathway. God offers His followers much more than eternal life in the by-and-by. He gives abundant life in the here and now. Getting to heaven is half the fun.

America is a Republic, not a Democracy

The United States of America is not a democracy; it is a Republic. And for that every freedom-loving American should be grateful.

In a true democracy one person gets one vote and the whim of the majority becomes law. If the majority happens to be unreasonable, greedy, bigoted or hostile, there is little those in the minority can do but suffer the consequences.

One of the most democratic meetings in recorded history took place in the Middle East almost 2,000 years ago an unpopular and falsely accused young Hebrew teacher stood before a judge. The young man had committed no crime and the court was unable to find fault in him.

If the scene had taken place in 21st century America the judge would have declared a mistrial and would have released the prisoner. Despite the fact that the young Hebrew was the leader of an unpopular minority group, his rights would have been guaranteed under our Constitution.

Even first century Roman law would have protected Jesus. But Judge Pontius Pilate was a cheap politician who was not above giving the populace wanted if it would curry their favor. In violation of his own government’s high principles, Pilate turned his courtroom into a complete democracy. Everyone got one vote – men, women, children masters, servants – everyone. The verdict came quickly and decisively. “Crucify Him!” Democracy turned to mob-ocracy, and a despised but innocent man was nailed to a cross.

Because the Founding Fathers of our country knew the majority is not always right, they established a republic. The late Chief Justice John Marshall, who presided over the United States Supreme Court for 34 years, was called “the second maker of the Constitution.” He said, “Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.”

The key word in Marshall’s statement is “balanced.” There are many republics in our world, and vast differences separate them. My travels have allowed me to see several of these firsthand. Consider the beautiful Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Occupying the western third of the island is the Republic of Haiti. Here in the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere the majority of the populace is illiterate and superstitious, and the average life expectancy is about 33 years. Although classed as a republic, Haiti has a long history of being ruled by a dictator who cared little about his people.

On the other end of the island, the Dominican Republic is also a poor country, but an elected president and legislature control the government. To travel from one end of the island o the other is to see two totally different worlds, the Dominican Republic having a vastly superior system.

To journey from the People’s Republic of China (Mainland) to the Republic of China (Taiwan) is to go from darkness into light. The People’s Republic of China is a republic in name only. Personal freedom is so limited in this communistic dictatorship that a person gets the feeling he is touring an immense prison camp. The contrast of Taiwan with its free enterprise system is startling to say the least.

So a republic is not necessarily a republic. The United States is distinguished from other republics of the world by our Constitution, which guards every citizen’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. According to the Declaration of Independence, those inalienable rights are given to man not by the government, but by the Creator Himself.

Thomas Jefferson said, “Our peculiar security is in the possession of a written Constitution.”

So stand tall and breathe a prayer of thanksgiving the next time you pledge allegiance to our flag “and to the republic for which it stands, one nation. under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Honest Doubt Can Lead to Faith

As a believer in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I have tremendous respect and appreciation for honest doubters. There may be more hope for a sincere skeptic than for the shallow believer who is too easily swayed by any wind that blows.

It is not unusual to hear some preachers and Sunday School teachers criticizing the Apostle Thomas for his lack of faith. “Doubting Thomas,” they call him. On that first Easter following the resurrection of Christ, he was the one of Jesus’ disciples for whom the empty tomb was not proof enough of the resurrection.

But instead of being a worse doubter than the other disciples, perhaps Thomas was simply displaying more intellectual honesty. Earlier there had been occasions when he seemed to have a more courageous faith than the rest of the 12 apostles.

When Jesus was determined to go to Bethany where He would raise Lazarus from the dead, the other disciples were fearful that the trip would be too risky, considering the increasingly hostile sentiments against Jesus in the area. They tried desperately to dissuade Jesus from making the trip - but not Thomas. This sometimes doubter bravely challenged his brethren, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” John 11:16. That was real faith.

A short time later Jesus spoke to his disciples concerning the place in heaven He was going to prepare for them. Not a one of the 12 fully understood what Jesus was saying, but only Thomas was truthful enough to admit it. He responded, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”

That wasn’t doubt; it was honesty. Because Thomas was willing to risk looking ignorant in order to ask an honest question, we have Jesus’ unforgettable answer, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6.

On the evening of the resurrection Jesus presented himself to only 10 of his apostles. Judas was dead; Thomas was nowhere to be found. Wherever he was it is certain Thomas was confused, disillusioned, and demoralized – full of doubt.

Later Thomas told his fellow disciples he could not believe in the resurrection until he personally touched the wounds of the crucifixion. In eight days Thomas got that opportunity. With faith renewed he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.” John 20:26-29.

For Thomas, a sincere questioning doubt became the foundation of an unshakable faith. He became a missionary and carried the gospel to Parthia, Persia (Iran), and finally to India. The indigenous Christian Church in India today can trace its beginnings to the ministry of Thomas in the first century. Mount St. Thomas, near Madras, memorializes his name.

The proof of Thomas’ faith came when as an old man in India he died a martyr’s death. His life was not taken because he shared the beauty and wisdom of Jesus. No one objected to that. But it was Thomas’ insistence upon the resurrection of Christ from the dead that incited his murder. So resolute was Thomas in his faith in the risen Lord that he would rather die than recant.

The transformation in Thomas and the other apostles is to me the greatest proof of the resurrection. With them Christians everywhere echo the prayer, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”

Monday, January 05, 2009

Church Hoppers are little help to the Kingdom of God

Surely one of the greatest frustrations of pastoring a church in our generation is that we live in the day of the roving church member.

When two Christian acquaintances meet on the street, after not having seen each other for a few months, the conversation often goes like this: “How are you? How’s your family? Where are you going to church now?” People are almost expected to switch places of worship every year or so.

Instead of becoming committed members, many are instead connoisseurs of churches. They taste one and another, becoming more acutely critical of any and all churches as time goes by. Often such roving Christians develop an attitude of spiritual superiority, sitting in judgment over the churches they visit and seeing themselves as somewhat above any of them.

Such shiftless souls are of little use to the kingdom of God. They vote for a building project, then walk away without paying for it. They demand programs, but can’t be counted on to implement them. They know exactly what the church should be like, but no such church exists. They shop for a place to worship much as they do a place to buy groceries – following the specials of the week or their own whims.

When I started pastoring, in the 1960s, things were very different. Most Christians seemed to be committed to a home church. They would rather fight than switch. Some of them did fight – literally. But even as they feuded and fussed they stayed true to their church. They might run the preacher off, but nobody was going to budge them.

That system had its drawbacks but such dogged commitment could be healthy. Sometimes it forced people to face up to their own problems.

We pastors have not necessarily caused the problem of the roving member, but all too often we have encouraged it by our spirit of competition. Perhaps we could remedy the situation by being more careful in the matter of transferring members.

Most churches still follow the practice of sending a letter of transfer when a parishioner moves from one local congregation to another. However, it is often an after-the-fact formality for the purpose of record keeping, rather than an actual recommendation.

The tradition dates back to the first century. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also.”

But what if the person who is doing the church-hopping is not such a worthy saint? In all the 35 years I have been a pastor I do not recall ever having received a letter stating that the member coming my was is a self-serving, power-hungry, hypocritical trouble-maker. I’ve always had to discover those characteristics the hard way.

A man who once joined my congregation came to us from another church where he said he was rejected because he was filled with the Holy Spirit. It didn’t take me long to discover that this man’s spirit was something other than holy. He caused untold heartache before he finally moved on.

To my knowledge that man belonged to no less than eight different churches during the next six years after he left us. He was a contentious and divisive factor in all of them. Fortunately for the church, the last I heard of him he has not attended church regularly anywhere for many years now. The man says that none of the churches in his city meet his standards.

The apostle Paul also encountered such men. He did non just send them on down the line to another assembly with the attitude of “sheep stealer beware.” He wrote of a fellow churchman, “Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm. May the Lord repay him according to his works. You also must beware of him, for he has greatly resisted our words.”

What would happen if every pastor in a city would covenant together that one would not receive a member from another without such an honest recommendation? We could save ourselves a lot of grief.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Better Preaching Requires Better Listening

There will always be a place in our world for the person who can preach a better sermon. But there is also plenty of room for better listeners. God preaching, as with all forms of communication, is a two-way street.

It has long amazed me how four people sitting on the same pew on a Sunday morning can hear four distinctly different messages. It happens frequently.

After the service they come by to shake my hand and comment on the sermon. Each will say I spoke to his or her particular need. If I question them, I learn the needs to which they refer are entirely different.

When that happens, it means the listening was at least as good as the preaching. I attribute this phenomenon to the work of the Holy Spirit who anoints the ears and mind of each worshiper to receive God’s Word according to his or her deepest need of the moment.

The reactions of some people in church remind me of four men who climbed a mountain. The first didn’t enjoy a thing because of his aching feet. The second kept his eyes on the dark clouds and worried the whole trip about a storm which never came. The third looked down looked down at the lovely farms nestled in the valley below and was filled with envy because he didn’t have such a farm.

The fourth man, breathing deeply of the rare mountain air, lifted up his eyes with wonder and appreciation for the magnificent view. He forgot earthly cares for the moment as he allowed his spirit to soar with the summit. This man is the only one who had a true mountaintop experience.

What do you get out of church? It blesses many people, bores others, and may even cause some to become depressed or bitter.

If a person never gets anything good from the service it may mean he or she needs to change churches. But more than likely the problem is within the person. A Jewish proverb says that to a worm in horseradish the whole world is horseradish. The apostle Paul said, “to the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact both their minds and consciences are corrupted.”

Here’s how you can hear a great sermon this Lord’s Day. Don just drag your sour carcass into the church and plop it down on the back seat with an expression which says, “I’d rather not be here, and I dare you to bless me.” The best preacher in town will bore you to tears, or maybe make you angry.”

Instead, prepare yourself for worship with a pure heart. “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise….”Psalm 100:4. Lift up holy hands before a loving Father and worship Him in spirit and in truth. Get your eyes off of the people around you and focus on Jesus.

The improvement in your pastor’s sermons will amaze you.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

God Governs - if we let Him

In the city of Key West, Florida, the local ministerial association refused to offer opening prayers at city commission meetings because “It does no good.” “Why pray for guidance,” one pastor reasoned, “when they (the commissioners) have already decided what they are going to do.?”

Those pastors have much in common with in common with some Marxist groups who would like to see all vestiges of religion erased from public life in America. Neither believes that prayer can make any difference. Thankfully, not everyone agrees.

In July 1983 the United State Supreme Court upheld the right of state legislatures to open their sessions with prayer. The court ruled that lawmakers in Nebraska did not violate the constitutional prohibition against the establishment of a state religion by hiring a chaplain. In most states, as well as the United States congress, each session of the House and Senate are opened with prayer.

In Michigan it is the legislatures themselves who usually provide the invocation. The prayers can range from the solemn to the sarcastic, and many are humorous.

State Rep. John Maynard prayed, “Give us wisdom and the patience to correct the Senate’s work.” Another pleaded, “Help us avoid adding to the perception that the state capital is an island of confusion surrounded by a sea of reality.” A prayer offered by a Republican representative was, “Teach us, Lord, that you are not a Republican. Comfort us with the knowledge that neither are You a Democrat.”

One of my favorites is the prayer of the Rev. Fred Holloman, chaplain of the Kansas state Senate. “Omniscient Father,” he intoned over the bowed heads of the senators, “help us to know who is telling the truth. One side tells us one thing and the other just the opposite. And if neither side is telling the truth, we would like to know that too. And if each side is telling half truth, give us the wisdom to put the right halves together. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.”

It has been my personal privilege to pray for the opening sessions of state legislatures, county commission meets, school board meetings and more. That the same custom is not allowed in our public schools is a shame. The tradition of such prayers before governing bodies in America is as old as our nation itself.

The Constitutional Convention had been in session in Philadelphia for more than a month in 1787. The debate had been heated and futile. George Washington earnestly reasoned with the delegates, “It is probable that no plan we propose will be adopted.” He said “If to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterward defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the event is in the hand of God.

At that crucial moment an elderly statesman slowly rose to his feet. It was Benjamin Franklin, and his speech proved to be the turning point in the convention. Franklin reproved the delegates for their neglect of prayer, reminding them that during the dangerous struggle for independence “we had daily prayer in this room for divine protection.” He asked, “Have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance?

“I have lived, Sir, a long time,” the elder statesman continued, “and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”

From that time on, each session of the convention was opened with a prayer led by a member of the clergy from the city of Philadelphia, imploring God’s assistance in the framing of the new Constitution.

Many people view public prayer before our governing bodies as just a meaningless form. I still believe, like Franklin, that “God governs in the affairs of men,” if we let Him.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Jesus Never Called Anyone a Sinner

“Jesus said, ‘If you don’t get born again you’re gonna split Hell wide open,’” The evangelist thundered as he slammed his clenched fist onto the pulpit. His large audience sat piously and nodded their affirmation as the sound of the preacher’s voice reverberated through the auditorium and into thousands of homes via a nationwide television hookup.

I cringed and sat uneasily in my easy chair. I thought, “This man preaches hell as though he can’t wait to see somebody sizzle.”

I call myself “born again;” I call the man on television “brother.” Yet at best he was giving an unbelievably bad paraphrase of Jesus’ words, and at worst he is grossly misquoting our Lord.

Jesus didn’t try to take the bad from our lives by threatening something worse, but by offering something better.

Having been reared in a church environment which provided plenty of “hell-fire-and-brimstone” preaching, one of the most startling discoveries I made as a young Christ was this: Jesus never called anyone a sinner!

Now the Bible clearly teaches that all have sinned and come short of the Glory of god. Jesus knew that. He was familiar with Old Testament texts such as Ecclesiastes 7:20, “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.”

In truth, Jesus did His share of angry red hot preaching. He didn’t mind calling people “white-washed tombs” and “generation of vipers.” But look carefully and you will notice that such messages were never directed at bald faced sinners – rather they were to self-righteous religious leaders – hypocrites.

To the sinner who knew he was a sinner Jesus had nothing to offer but love, mercy and forgiveness. He saw all human faults, yet he didn’t major in pointing them out. Instead, He specialized in telling everyone what good and wonderful people they could become through faith in Him.

One beautiful example is Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. When Jesus met that poor woman, He knew she had been married and divorced five times, and was now living with a man to whom she was not married. Jesus didn't comdemn her; he didn't have to. She already knew she was a sinner.

In essense, Jesus said to the woman, "I know who you are; I know where you have been; I know what you have done. Woman, wouldn't you rather have a drink from a fountain of living water that really satisfies?"

She answered “Yes,” and took one deep, everlasting guzzle. Immediately the woman dropped her water pot and ran all the way back to town carrying a well within her. She hit the city limits crying, “Come see a Man!” And the town of Sychar was never the same again.

That has always been Jesus’ style. It always will be. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” John 3:17.