Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Exceptions and Rules in a Crisis and Beyond

As I am writing, the whole world is in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. In nations all around the world, governments have claimed special powers and forbidden activities that, under normal circumstances cannot be regulated by the government. The danger of this illness has also caused churches to modify their activities. Some churches are not meeting at all. Some are meeting electronically via Zoom, Facebook, or some other medium. In the midst of this crisis a lot of things have changed.

Many people are asking, “Will things ever return to normal?” Some are asking, “Should things ever return to normal?” A few are not asking questions but are making statements such as, “Our old normal was not working very well, and we should not ever go back to it.”

I believe that the Bible speaks to this situation in a couple of ways. It has words of wisdom that we ought to consider at this time, and that we should remember once the crisis has passed.

Some changes should be kept

1 Samuel 30 contains the account of an event that led David to the conclusion that a new rule was needed in his army and that it should become a permanent rule. Ziklag, the city where David was living at the time, had been sacked and all the people carried off. This happened because David and his men were out of town. When they returned to Ziklag and found their wives and children carried off as captives, they pursued the invaders.

1 Samuel 30:1-2, 7-10, 18-21
Now when David and his men came to Ziklag on the third day, the Amalekites had made a raid against the Negeb and against Ziklag. They had overcome Ziklag and burned it with fire 2 and taken captive the women and all who were in it, both small and great. They killed no one, but carried them off and went their way.
7 And David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelech, “Bring me the ephod.” So Abiathar brought the ephod to David. 8 And David inquired of the LORD, “Shall I pursue after this band? Shall I overtake them?” He answered him, “Pursue, for you shall surely overtake and shall surely rescue.” 9 So David set out, and the six hundred men who were with him, and they came to the brook Besor, where those who were left behind stayed. 10 But David pursued, he and four hundred men. Two hundred stayed behind, who were too exhausted to cross the brook Besor.
18 David recovered all that the Amalekites had taken, and David rescued his two wives. 19 Nothing was missing, whether small or great, sons or daughters, spoil or anything that had been taken. David brought back all. 20 David also captured all the flocks and herds, and the people drove the livestock before him, and said, “This is David’s spoil.” 21 Then David came to the two hundred men who had been too exhausted to follow David, and who had been left at the brook Besor. And they went out to meet David and to meet the people who were with him. And when David came near to the people he greeted them. 22 Then all the wicked and worthless fellows among the men who had gone with David said, “Because they did not go with us, we will not give them any of the spoil that we have recovered, except that each man may lead away his wife and children, and depart.” 23 But David said, “You shall not do so, my brothers, with what the LORD has given us. He has preserved us and given into our hand the band that came against us. 24 Who would listen to you in this matter? For as his share is who goes down into the battle, so shall his share be who stays by the baggage. They shall share alike.” 25 And he made it a statute and a rule for Israel from that day forward to this day.

So we see that, in this case, a decision made in relation to a particular case became a standing rule to be followed. That is sometimes the right thing to do. If we see that a practice adopted in a given crisis works well, does not contradict a principle of justice or a command of God, then we may do well to adopt it as an ongoing practice.

In the case of the current crisis I believe that we will find some new practices that should be continued.
For example, our congregation has developed a greater presence on Facebook and has made greater use of other technologies to stay in touch with one another and to reach out to the unchurched. I believe that this will and should continue.

Changes we should not keep
But there are other practices that I pray will not remain once the virus is under control. I am sure that you agree.

None of us wants the barber shops to stay closed forever. Hopefully, none of us believes that our state governors have a right to rule by decree. Essentially, our civil rights have been temporarily suspended. A needless continuation of that situation would be very dangerous for our nation. In fact, it would spell the end of our nation as it has existed for the last 200 years.

Currently, none of our church elders is making visits to the homes of our members. None of the elders are inviting members into their own homes. I trust that this will not continue once the virus is under control. Church elders are supposed to be known for their hospitality (1 Tim 3:2). Currently we can claim the virus as an excuse for suspending that, but if we keep it up beyond the virus, that would indicate a serious problem.

Currently, because most of our members should not assemble with us, they are listening in to our worship via phone or computer. That should not continue indefinitely.

Currently, because health experts have warned that singing has a tendency to spread the virus, we are making considerable use of recorded music. But that change should not be maintained once the virus has passed. Professional singers sound better than we do, no doubt. But sounding better is not the point. There is a simple principle at stake here. Just as we cannot offer someone else’s money as our offering to God, we cannot offer someone else’s singing as our praise to God (2 Sam 24:22-24).

Consider this passage from the Mosaic law.
Numbers 9:1-13
And the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, 2 “Let the people of Israel keep the Passover at its appointed time. 3 On the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, you shall keep it at its appointed time; according to all its statutes and all its rules you shall keep it.” 4 So Moses told the people of Israel that they should keep the Passover. 5 And they kept the Passover in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, in the wilderness of Sinai; according to all that the LORD commanded Moses, so the people of Israel did. 6 And there were certain men who were unclean through touching a dead body, so that they could not keep the Passover on that day, and they came before Moses and Aaron on that day. 7 And those men said to him, “We are unclean through touching a dead body. Why are we kept from bringing the LORD’s offering at its appointed time among the people of Israel?” 8 And Moses said to them, “Wait, that I may hear what the LORD will command concerning you.” 9 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If any one of you or of your descendants is unclean through touching a dead body, or is on a long journey, he shall still keep the Passover to the LORD. 11 In the second month on the fourteenth day at twilight they shall keep it. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 12 They shall leave none of it until the morning, nor break any of its bones; according to all the statute for the Passover they shall keep it. 13 But if anyone who is clean and is not on a journey fails to keep the Passover, that person shall be cut off from his people because he did not bring the LORD’s offering at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin.

Yes, God is willing to make an exception for the one that needs an exception made. But the exception is NOT to become an excuse to neglect to do what could have been done! A case is noted in the time of Hezekiah. The whole nation missed the date of the Passover, and some partook while ritually unclean. The Levites assisted in tasks that normally should have been done only by the priests. The Lord allowed these things on this occasion, but the exceptional case was not allowed to continue.

2 Chronicles 30:13-22
And many people came together in Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the second month, a very great assembly. 14 They set to work and removed the altars that were in Jerusalem, and all the altars for burning incense they took away and threw into the brook Kidron. 15 And they slaughtered the Passover lamb on the fourteenth day of the second month. And the priests and the Levites were ashamed, so that they consecrated themselves and brought burnt offerings into the house of the LORD. 16 They took their accustomed posts according to the Law of Moses the man of God. The priests threw the blood that they received from the hand of the Levites. 17 For there were many in the assembly who had not consecrated themselves. Therefore the Levites had to slaughter the Passover lamb for everyone who was not clean, to consecrate it to the LORD. 18 For a majority of the people, many of them from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover otherwise than as prescribed. For Hezekiah had prayed for them, saying, “May the good LORD pardon everyone 19 who sets his heart to seek God, the LORD, the God of his fathers, even though not according to the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness.” 20 And the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people. 21 And the people of Israel who were present at Jerusalem kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with great gladness, and the Levites and the priests praised the LORD day by day, singing with all their might to the LORD. 22 And Hezekiah spoke encouragingly to all the Levites who showed good skill in the service of the LORD. So they ate the food of the festival for seven days, sacrificing peace offerings and giving thanks to the LORD, the God of their fathers.

The elders of this congregation, and all congregations that I know of, have allowed public meetings of the church to be suspended for a time. That should not continue a single day beyond the necessary time. Many congregations have made use of recorded music, because we are not in a position to sing together as usual. That also should not be continued beyond the necessary time. Children’s Bible classes have been suspended and will remain suspended for quite some time. But they are likely to resume at some point.

Please do not assume that it is right to continue an exception that is introduced on a special occasion. It may not be. Some exceptions are exceptions only to our usual practice – they do not involve changes to what God has commanded. Those can be continued. If they are found to honor God, they should be continued. But others, if they were continued beyond the current crisis, would indicate disrespect for what God has commanded. Exceptions of that nature will be ended as soon as is practical.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Crack Players

Kipling began the description of a polo match by mentioning that one of the teams was "a team of crack players instead of a crack team; and that made all the difference in the world." I know little about polo, but I think that I understand his point all the same. In team sports, having the best players gives no assurance of victory. A team with moderately talented players will often defeat a team of highly gifted players. Teamwork is often victorious over talent.

The biblical writers tell us the same thing.

Paul reminds us that the church is a body; and that a body is made up of many members, but these members must think of the body not of themselves. The eyes must look out for the welfare of the whole body, not just the eyes. The mouth eats for the good of the whole body, not for its own enjoyment. The feet never go anywhere without taking the rest of the body along (see 1 Corinthians 12 for his actual wording).

Jesus emphasizes how we treat each other as central to our success in evangelism. It is not some hot new strategy that we need for convincing the unbeliever. It is a new attitude toward one another. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35, ESV).

The Wisdom literature had hinted at a similar concept. In Psalm 133 we read, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1, ESV). And in Ecclesiastes we are reminded, “And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Eccl 4:12, ESV).

Attempting to be a Lone Ranger Christian is as likely to succeed as an attempt to manufacture round squares. I would rather herd cats, or drive a car with square wheels, than to shepherd a church of individualists.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Planning Ahead

Normally by this time of year we are making or have made our Summer plans. This is no normal year. Most of us have no idea what we will be doing in June or July. We have no idea what we will be allowed to do. Most of the planning that we normally do this time of year has become impossible. But there are some things we can still plan and that we ought to plan.

We should plan to worship. We may be able to assemble and worship together, or we may have to continue worshipping at home, but we certainly should be planning to worship. A lot of things are in short supply this year, but I have not heard of any shortage of Bibles or hymnals. If we cannot go out as often as in the past, let’s get our homes set up for worship. To the extent we are able to go out, let’s be sure that we include worshipping together in our plans.

We should plan to honor the Lord in how we deal with inconveniences. This is one area where we may have abundant opportunities! It is certainly possible to honor the Lord when things are going well, but sometimes it is our response to troubles and trials that honors him most.

We should plan to serve others. Again, this is an area where we may have an unusual level of opportunities. Is there a neighbor who is extra susceptible to the virus? Could we not offer to do their shopping for them? Certainly, we could at least phone those who will be extra lonely at this time.

We should plan to pray. The uncertainty of these times should help us to remember that we are not the ones who are really in control. I have not been able to study any more than normal the last few weeks. Study, for me, requires a well-established schedule; and I have not had that. The phone has rung at the oddest times. But prayer opportunities have remained limitless.

Yes, we are way off schedule. Yes, most of the things we normally plan for the summer cannot be planned this year; but let’s plan to worship, to honor, to serve, and to pray.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Acute and Chronic

An acute illness is one that comes on abruptly. A chronic illness is a nagging problem that lasts for months or years. Some of us have chronic medical conditions that have been endured for decades. Most of us have had several acute illnesses that came, were perhaps even severe for a time, but were overcome.
Recently we have been warned of the danger of an acute case of COVID-19 striking someone who already has some chronic medical problem. While this virus is bad for anyone, it is more dangerous for those with underlying, chronic diseases.

Might there be a spiritual parallel? Are there chronic spiritual diseases that make us more susceptible to an acute spiritual attack? Surely there are.

Those who do not abide in the word of the Lord (Jn 8:31-32), those who have ceased to hear his instruction (Pr 19:27), are more susceptible to acute spiritual illnesses. Those who do not know the voice of their true Shepherd are more likely to be led astray by a false shepherd (Jn 10). Failure to read and study the word weakens our spiritual constitution and makes us more likely to succumb to sin. Those who do not respect their spiritual leaders (Heb 13:7,17), those who neglect to assemble with their brothers and sisters when they could (Heb 10:23-25) are thereby weakened. Those who harbor secret sin, even what seems to them to be minor secret sin, are weakened and more likely to fall in time of major temptation.

We must all do daily battle with chronic sin. For chronic sin, if unchecked and untreated, weakens us and makes it more likely that we will fall in an acute attack.

The most common farewell term these days is “be safe.” But being really safe involves a lot more than face masks, hand washing, and social distancing. We need to build up our spiritual constitution – strengthening the spirit by daily communion with the Lord, frequent fellowship with the saints, and by practical service. One cannot be strong in a moment of Satanic attack if one has allowed subtle and secret sin to weaken the spiritual constitution in the months leading up to that attack.

Let us conclude with a song,
“I washed my hands this morning, so very clear and bright;
“And gave them both to Jesus, to work for him till night.
“Little feet be careful, where you take me to;
“Only things for Jesus, ever let me do.”

Friday, April 24, 2020

The Church is Christ’s

Karl Barth is not one of my favorite authors; but at times he had a knack for stating the obvious in a memorable way. Maybe I should say a knack for stating what should be obvious but is too often overlooked.
He once closed a lecture on the church by stating, “The church is not a society of pious people; it is the church of Jesus Christ.” What he meant by that is clear from the context; and it is a truth that ought always to be kept in mind.

The church is not a group of people called together to promote an agenda upon which they have come to agree. The church is called together by the Lord. It has not come together to take a vote on what the people think ought to be done. The church works together to carry out the Lord’ will, not the members’ will, not the leadership’s will, but the Lord’s will.

Christ is the head of the church (Eph 1:22; 5:23; Col 1:18). As any physical body takes its orders from the head, so the church gets its instructions from the Lord.

Of course, our Lord is a compassionate head. He cares if the feet are hurting or the arms are weary. He takes steps to alleviate needless suffering of his body. But he also takes steps to strength his body, and sometimes those steps may even increase our pain. He cares, but he does not surrender his Lordship to our complaints or opinions. The body does not instruct the head. The body serves the head. The body obeys the head. The body submits to the head.

One major American denomination planned to hold a conference May 3-15 that was to vote on an extremely plain teaching of scripture, whether to accept it or not. The virus has cancelled that conference, but the whole idea was pointless anyway. The stupidity of such a conference is obvious. The leaders of that denomination are on par with the kindergartner who, not knowing the gender of the rabbit the teacher had brought to class, suggested “let’s vote on it.”

I suppose that one can vote on the gender of a rabbit if he chooses to do so. But the vote does not change a thing. The rabbit is what the rabbit is.

The church either obeys the instructions of its head, or it shows itself to be a rebellious false body, not really the church at all. We should study the instructions. We should obey the instructions. We can disobey the instructions, but we cannot change them.

The church belongs to Christ, not to the people.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Life is Interconnected

Ron Rizzi was involved in organized baseball for over fifty years, most of that time as a scout for major league baseball. When asked about the best pitcher he ever saw, Rizzi replied, “Brien Taylor.” Some of you are not baseball fans, so you never heard of Brien Taylor. Some of you are baseball fans and still, you never heard of Brien Taylor. He never made it even to the triple-A level.

The Yankees gave Taylor a $1.55 million dollar signing bonus. You give a kid fresh out of high school $1.55 million, what could possibly go wrong? One “off-field altercation” (a fight, in plain English) and Brien Taylor’s arm and career were ruined.

I see two clear lessons here. They are so clear that I hesitate to state them for fear you will feel that I am insulting your intelligence. But I will risk it.

Lesson one: Do not give a kid too much spending money, too much authority, too much autonomy. There is a reason why God ordained that kids are to have parents. Yes, we can by-pass the need for two parents (one male and one female) with medical technology and wrong-headed adoption laws. We can by-pass the need, but we shouldn’t. Kids need parents until they are really adults. Traditionally, no one was seen as an adult until he was 21 years of age. We changed that in 1971. How is it going? Has the change led to greater maturity and happier homes in our nation?

Lesson two: What happens off the field affects on-field performance. What happens away from work affects on-the-job performance. All of life is interconnected. What we do in private makes us what we are in public. You cannot soar with the eagles in the morning if you hooted with the owls at night. Or, as Jesus put it, “No one can serve two masters.” If we let our eyes dwell on evil, our whole life will be full of darkness (Mt 6:22-24).

Yes, we might get away with living wrong in private while acting right in public. We might get away with it for a time, but it never lasts. Yes, we might do good in private and have it remain unnoticed for a time. But eventually, what we are (good or bad) comes to light (1 Tim 5:24-25). Look at that passage carefully. On the negative side, we can see that Brien Taylor never made it - because all of life is interconnected. On the positive side, we can see that any one of us can make a positive difference in our world - because all of life is interconnected.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Decision Time

For months now, we have been saying that the final decision as to where we will carry on this work would be made in April or May. April has arrived. The leaders of the schools we first considered have urged us to decide, and we have done so.

Before stating the decision, I first want to say that it was not an easy decision. I believe that we could have done good work and honored our Lord in any of the places that were considered. I also want to say that when we first began this process, we perhaps made the issue of housing too much of a consideration. We only looked at places where there were existing schools that could offer us free housing. While there might have been a significant financial advantage at an existing school, there were other considerations that now seem to loom larger.

At any of the existing schools that we considered, it seemed likely that Thayer would have been entangled in administrative work for the school. As time went on, this problem appeared larger and larger to us. Another disadvantage to the existing schools we considered was that they are in areas that are either high crime areas or areas where medical care is poor (even from an African point of view). In some cases, both of these objections applied.

Still, despite those difficulties, we could have done much good at Nigerian Christian Bible College or at Daybreak Bible College. And we would have gone to one of them if something else had not happened. It all came down to dialing a wrong number.

Several people asked us, “why not go back to Swaziland, where you already know people and where the communication infrastructure is so much better? Would it not be easier to do this work there?” Our minds had been on the cost of housing, and we had not considered going there – since doing so would involve renting a house. But we decided to phone a brother in Eswatini (as Swaziland is now known) to ask, “How much would it cost to rent a house?”

I dialed the wrong number; but the right person answered the call. I accidentally dialed the home of Ella Magongo. Her son Jonathan “happened” to be visiting his mother, and he took the call. I had never even considered phoning him. But, as soon as I heard his voice, I realized that the Lord had guided us to the right person. I had been trying to phone a retired plumber, but instead I was talking to brother who has worked in banking and is currently in the insurance business. Jonathan was in a good position to help us find a house and to help get permission from the Eswatini authorities to do this work in their country. The person I was trying to call could have answered my question, but Jonathan has been able to do so much more. And I called him “by accident.”

The Decision
So, as you have surmised by now, we feel led to return to Eswatini. It will cost a bit more per month, but we believe that it will be better in the long-run.

I want to emphasize that this decision does not cast a negative light on either Nigerian Christian Bible College or Daybreak Bible College. Both are very good works and the State-side administration of both schools were very cooperative. But the technical difficulties of working in a place where the electricity is (at best) spotty, where safety is questionable, and where Thayer would likely be sucked into a time-consuming administrative role weighed heavy in our thinking. We want to thank the board of African Christian Schools Foundation and Chad Wagner, their president, for encouraging us to move back to Nigeria. We want to thank David French of Daybreak Bible College for his encouragement to consider that work. We deeply appreciate everything that these brothers did for us.

Working from Eswatini we will not be directly associated with any school, but that may be an advantage. The road system in Eswatini and the Republic of South Africa is good. We will be able to visit several schools in the region. We will be in a better position to get input from a larger number of students. We will be able to be of assistance to a larger number of native teachers.

Leadership Training
Of course, the textbook project will not take up all our time. There is also a tremendous need in this area for programs to develop local leadership in the churches. When we moved to Eswatini in 2000, the Bible school that was there had been in existence since 1965. Many evangelists had been trained and several congregations had been planted. But none of those churches ever appointed elders or deacons. Very few of those churches held Bible classes to train their children (or any of their members) for the work. Unconsciously and unintentionally those who set up the work in Eswatini had created a clergy system. Only the preachers received any training, and so the preacher had to do all the work.

During our three years there, we were able to set two of the congregations on a path that led to the appointment of elders and deacons. We were able to make a start on getting the churches to see that they need to train all their members to take part in the work. In returning to Eswatini, we will not be housed on the campus of a school but will move about among the churches, offering training at night and on weekends so that the entire church (not just the preachers) can be equipped for every good work.
Now that our sons are all raised and on their own, Chery will be able to be even more actively involved in this. Women outnumber men in the church. The ladies need training especially adapted to their needs and their expected roles.

We believe in this work and are willing to accept a sizable reduction in our income to do it. But we cannot do it for free. We are seeking monthly support of at least $3500. It is not a huge figure. This work will make a huge difference.

Monthly support pledged as of 26 March
Since a decision has been made on location, our figures for moving fund and monthly support will need to be revised. We are working with brothers in Eswatini to get a more accurate estimate of cost. That may take some time (especially under the current conditions). But it currently appears that the monthly support figure may need to increase slightly, while the moving cost may come down significantly from what was indicated earlier.

In addition to the monthly commitments, we currently have $5750 of one-time gifts either pledged or in hand.

Any excess in one-time gifts beyond actual moving costs will be used to supplement the monthly support needed. For example, a one-time gift of $4200 could be used at the rate of $50 per month for at least 7 years. Or (to think big) a one-time gift of $120,000 applied toward monthly support could almost eliminate any need for raising more monthly commitments over a 5-year period! I know that $120,000 may sound outlandish, but it is not.

We know of a building and parcel of land that will soon go up for sale. It has been indicated by the brothers and sisters involved in that sale that the African Textbook Ministry will receive at least a large portion of the proceeds. None of us knows what the sale price will be, but this might be how the Lord intends to provide. This land is in an area of low property values, so the sale may not bring in that much. But then again it might bring in more. Real estate auctions often surprise us. Pray about this! And give some thought to assets you might want to dedicate to a good work.

The Effect of the Pandemic on our Plans
You will not be surprised to learn that the current pandemic has forced us to make changes in our plans. We had hoped to have all the funds raised by the end of May and we had hoped to move back to Africa in October. Both target dates are now out of the question.

Once travel and assembly restrictions are lifted, we will set new dates. At this point it would appear that a delay of two months to complete the fundraising will be needed. The actual move is likely to be delayed even further. A two-month delay in moving would mean moving in December, and that is never a good time to move. Our target date for getting moved will now have to be pushed forward into 2021; but how far forward is uncertain.

Keep us in your prayers. We will try to keep you informed.

By the way, for those who really were hoping to get to see us as we raised funds in April and May, check out the Flanders Road Facebook page. I have quite a few videos posted there.

Even during lockdown, we will be very glad to hear from you. Please drop us a word of encouragement – or a major commitment! 😊