Empty Chairs at Empty Tables* Revisited

Fifteen years ago last week, I was sitting in the Trans World Airlines cafeteria located in Hanger 12, JFK Airport in New York. I was talking to some crew members who had just finished their FAA required Annual Emergency Review. As their instructor for this class, I always enjoyed hearing the in-flight adventures of the cockpit and cabin crews. Later on that day I would be traveling to Oklahoma to attend a FAA safety up-date conference. The crew members who were at these tables were discussing their scheduled flight assignments. Some off to London, some to San Francisco, others to Madrid and at one table; approximately 10 crew members headed to Paris on flight 800. This group of men and women were part of the crew who had been working together for the month of July. The First Officer (Co-Pilot) and a group of the assigned Flight 800 Flight Attendants were making dinner plans in New York City that night. The next day everything changed. TWA 800, a Boeing 747-131, exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near East Moriches, New York, on July 17, 1996, killing all 230 persons on board. 30 were crewmembers; 15 were “deadheading” to Rome to cover another flight.

Two days after the accident, I returned from Oklahoma and was told to report to Hanger 12. The cafeteria temporarily was transformed into an operation center which would handle the incredible public relation workload. I was assigned as family survivor liaison; an assignment I began immediately. As I was leaving the cafeteria to meet with my first family, I looked toward the NE area of the cafeteria where a few days ago at that table, those TWA 800 crewmembers were planning their night. Their next day. Their lives. Two of the flight attendants were husband and wife. Two others were engaged. Those chairs and tables sat empty. In my heart, empty forever. As I started towards the exit, the reality of what happened hit me; the death of one family member is always hard. Imagine 30.

In James (4:13b-14) it is written that “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit. Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow, you are a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” On a daily basis, we are consistently making plans for ourselves, our family and our employment. Yet, on each day given to us, we are subject to our ‘last day’.

CS Lewis wrote concerning that last day: “There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen…”

The boarding announcement for our eternal flight home will only be heard by us.

*Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Les Miserables: Boublil/Schonberg, 1985


Church Size and Bible Knowledge: Are They Growing Together?

The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.”
Isaiah 40:8

I recently was asked to share to a community church located in rural Oregon. This church has opened its doors every Sunday since 1892. Every Sunday! The message I shared  was  from 1 Peter 1:22-25           and why it seems that books about the Bible are more popular in some churches than the Bible itself.

As I looked around at the total of 12 pews and the 13 people sitting in them, I couldn’t help but think of what worship services were like not only in Oregon but worldwide before “mega churches.”  The folks who ‘claim’ this church number about 25. It is small, very small.  Depending on the harvest, planting, and other seasonal work, there may be 50 in attendance and sometimes there are 4.  No matter how many show up,the doors open every Sunday. They do not have an army of pastors. In fact, two gentleman share the basic responsibilities. One shares God’s word and the other leads the praise and worship singing. They rotate every 6 months. The fellowship before and after the service is their answer to counseling sessions, support groups and other “programs” that some churches have that never seem to end. These folks love each other and love whomever enters that church door. None are rich nor is their need among them. The oldest is 81. (Her mother is 101 this week). The youngest is 17. She is a foster child of one of the families. She has been attending for amount of time she has been with her foster parents-10 years.

It was a wonderful service. No videos, no DVDs, no pamphlets on how to get to Heaven and so forth. No bands playing at a decibel higher than a 747 engine. Oh yes, there were no books about the Bible. There were only hymnals (one guitar) and Bibles. These folks knew the Scriptures!

In the heart of Seoul, Korea, the Yoido Full Gospel Church sits directly across from Korea’s National Assembly. The building is large enough to seat 26,000 people, with overflow sent to nearby buildings who watch events in the main church on telescreens. As of 2007, membership stands at 830,000, with seven Sunday services translated into 16 languages. (Wikipedia, August 2009)

According to Outreach magazine (2010 Special Edition)Lakewood Church located in Houston, TX and pastored by Joel Osteen  ranks number one among the top 100 largest churches in the United States with a membership of 43,500.  Charles Stanley’s son Andy, is pastor of North Point Community Church located in Alpharetta, GA  with 24,325 members in a town of 52,000 and is the second largest and fastest growing church.

By comparison, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, West Virginia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Oregon and Montana did not have a church with a population of over 5,000. Number 100 on the list is Christ fellowship located in Miami, FL with a congregation of 5,518.

Interestingly,the median church in the U.S. has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday mornings, according to the National Congregations Study http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/

Living in the United States, (and certain countries of the world) we are truly blessed to attend any church we desire. 3,000 or 30, to some the numbers do not matter. Back East, I attended a non-denominational church with a congregation of a couple hundred at each of its three Sunday services. Sunday evening there were about 300 people. As my faith grew as well as my knowledge of Scripture, it really didn’t matter to me how many were in attendance. My focus was and still is on the teachings of an excellent pastor. He taught from the Bible, not books about the Bible. A friend of mine has been attending Catholic services for over 5o years and cannot recall ever bringing a Bible to church with her on Sunday.

I had a ‘pop-up’ advertisement recently from Rick Warren ministries promoting his latest book, “The Purpose of Christmas.” Why would one who reads the Bible need to read a book such as this? This is one example that I discovered in that many of the mega-churches in the United States, the head pastor does a lot of promoting his or hers books. I understand that the sales of these books help offset costs of administering to other ministries here in the U.S. and abroad.  But a question remains: Are churches becoming more knowledgeable about ‘other’ books than the Bible? I don’t know the answer to that, but I have my suspicions.

The New York Times religious writer Laurie Goodstein reported that researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.  The survey’s authors concluded that there was “widespread confusion” about “the line between teaching and preaching. (NY Times 9/28/10) (my italics and highlight)

As we approach the 400th year of the King James Bible (1611),I can’t help but wonder what a powerful unification there would be in all churches; large and small, if the Bible was the best selling book in that church, not the pastor’s.

Who Is Going To Replace The Dalai Lama?

We are all getting older. Our jobs either have been or will be filled by someone just receiving their sheepskin this past May. Our replacement may be two doors down the hallway. The pope can resign or die, but his replacement is only a plume of smoke from the Vatican chimney away to sitting in the ‘pope-mobile.’ In other words, we all can be replaced. Or can we?

Imagine if you hold a position that the people say not only you can’t leave, but they will see to it that you are reincarnated! According to Ardy Verhaegen*, in the mid-1970s Tenzin Gyatso, The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, and current holder of the office, told a Polish newspaper that he thought he would be the last Dalai Lama. In a later interview published in the English language press he stated “The Dalai Lama office was an institution created to benefit others. It is possible that it will soon have outlived its usefulness.” These statements caused a furor amongst Tibetans in India. Many could not believe that such an option could even be considered. It was further felt that it was not the Dalai Lama’s decision to reincarnate. Rather, they felt that since the Dalai Lama is a national institution it was up to the people of Tibet to decide whether or not the Dalai Lama should reincarnate. Interesting, eh?

From what I have read, there is a 15 year old in waiting for this “calling.’ Since this “office” has been going on before Columbus discovered America, there is joyful anticipation. However, the Peoples Republic of China may have something to say about this. During September 2007 the Chinese government said all high monks must be approved by the government, which would include the selection of the 15th Dalai Lama after the death of Tenzin Gyatso. Since by tradition, the Panchen Lama must approve the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, that is another possible method of control.

I just don’t understand why governments have a difficult time with peacemakers. Pilate and Jesus for example; but that is another story…

*Verhaegen, Ardy (2002). The Dalai Lamas: The Institution and Its History. Emerging Perceptions in Buddhist Studies, no. 15. New Delhi, India

Anne Rice: The Christian Shiksa?

Recently the author Anne Rice decided in private, and then made it public via Facebook, that she could no longer follow the Christian religion. She wrote that, “My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me,” Rice continued to write; “But following Christ does not mean following His followers (my italics). Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been or might become.”

I read some of the readers’ comments on Anne’s Facebook page and as suspected, the comments ranged from “who needs you anyway”, to “you speak for many of us.” I suppose my comment, if she asked, would have been, “Anne, you need to find some new followers.”

I have some of the same thoughts as Anne, but I personally believe the fellowship of believers is the design of Christ; thusly what Heaven is. Heaven is not what we want it to be; it is what God has created it to be.

Anne had some problems with the Catholic Church. Very big problems. Although the Catholic Church continues to purge itself concerning some of their priests behaving very badly with little boys, there is neglected in consideration, not to mention prayer, the hundreds of priests and nuns working tirelessly in countries that I have only seen and heard about in National Geographic. This is not only the Catholic Church, but the Lutheran, Baptists and many other churches as well. Unfortunately, many people consider ‘the’ Church as going to a building on Sunday morning, listening to a weekly speech or commentary (sermons have gone by the wayside in my opinion) by a person who says things that 70% of the people sitting there already have heard and the other 30% don’t know why they are sitting there in the first place. After ‘services’, all concerned then go home and have Sunday dinner. If that is one’s only exposure to the “church” of Christ, then those people’s comments towards Anne would then fall under the “who needs you anyway.”  “Anne, the clique is established and you are not invited to join.” But Anne apparently has more insight of faith in Christ than many of her readers give her credit for.

When people wrote to Anne that “you speak for many of us”, in  writing about hypocrisy,  I could not help but think of Jesus in Matthew 7:1-7. His discussion on hypocrites is very to the point. When you take your faith in Christ (His Church) to the streets by feeding those who are hungry, visit those in hospitals and prisons, say yes when asked a favor, say no to corruption and idols. (i.e., the Ten Commandments) then you are a follower of Christ without the building, the weekly speech maker and the hypocrisy that Jesus Himself talked about in Matt 7:1-6.

Anne Rice, because of her fame, has instant access to the world to discuss her feelings about anything via the internet. So the world, in a sense, responded. It is more important how God hears the prayers of Anne than what “Christians” think about her statement.  I hope Anne is placed with people who are true followers of God; not teaching the doctrines of men:

And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment. 1 John 3:23

C.S. Lewis wrote that “the strong believers or disbelievers of course think they have very strong evidence.” Even in churches today, believers seek errors amongst themselves.

I will pray for Anne that her faith remains strong and true (Colossians 1:9-18) as I pray for myself, my family and the other workers of the church who labor in the name of Christ for His glory. I just hope Anne doesn’t write a book about this decision of hers; it is better it stays between her and God.

Exiting Off Of Life’s Highway(Part 2):Going On To The Next Exit

Well, the results are all in. My wife has cancer and it can only be removed surgically. No radiation or chemotherapy for this type of cancer. “Surgery is the only weapon,” the doctor told us. “And the sooner the better.”

I personally believe prayer is a more formidable weapon and thusly many friends of mine and I are using prayer as the weapon of choice. I was reading (again) C.S. Lewis’s take on prayer. In his essay”The Efficacy of Prayer”, he wrote that; “Prayer is not a machine. It is not magic. It is not advice offered to God. Our act, when we pray, must not, any more than all our other acts, be separated from the continuous  act of God Himself, in which alone all finite causes operate.”

The refused prayer of Christ in Gethsemane answers many things about prayer refused. The important thing is that all prayers are heard. I believe that.

Exiting Off Life’s Highway: Is It Exit 54 Already?

Road of Life

Road of Life

Chapter 1 “Got Some Bad News For You”

My wife and I leave our doctor’s office; arm in arm. Not only because of the romance we have for each other, but because of her MS and the unbalance that comes along with this disease she has. We have been seeing this doctor for many years. He is a good man. He has always been our cheerleader, a confidant, and a friend. (When was the last time you prayed with your doctor?)

However, today was different. Our doctor made his announcement as stern as a judge would when issuing a verdict; Cancer has entered my wife and as of this writing we do not know how far it has spread. My wife is 54. She has had MS (diagnosed anyway) since 1995. Unlike when a judge considers a verdict, my wife committed no crime. The body God created for her had done her well up to this time. She gave birth to two children, climbed some western USA mountains, rode a bicycle 250 miles, received a college degree and gave more of her self than should be allowed.  No history of cancer in her family. None. This is not revolutionary that a person like her can get cancer, I know that. Given the cards she has already been dealt, you would think that would be enough for a lifetime. A friend of ours died at 44 because of cancer. We thought that was unique; so young with a family and all.

54 and so much more? One would think so. “Nothing almost sees miracles but misery.” C.S. Lewis wrote in his book ‘Miracles.’ What is the miracle that I am to pray for? No MS, no Cancer…? The best I am coming up with day in and day out since this has all started is ,”please, no pain, please.”

My caring for her with MS has been taxing. Now enter the world of cancer. Care is care, no matter what the ailment is. Tuesday we find out the results of the C-Scan she took the other day. I find out if my responsibilities will grow–she finds out more than I possibly want to know. But then again, all is not gloom. God has prepared us for this moment. Surgery may be the answer and all is well. Or other stuff may happen and that will be the way it goes…

“And do not seek what you should eat or what you should drink, nor have an anxious mind.” Luke 12:29

To Be Continued: Chapter 2 We Heard the News Today

Conversion In A Free Market Religious Economy

“Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

There has been a rapid decline in denominational “name-brand loyalty” which allows people raised in one kind of religious tradition to move to another according to Timothy P. Weber of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Professor Weber raises a very interesting point in an Introduction to The Confessions of St. Augustine (Thomas Nelson, 1994). In this introduction he says that “People are now consumers about religion in much the same way that they are consumers about everything else. “Switching’ occurs because a new congregation or religious group better meets a person’s spiritual needs, not necessarily because he or she has undergone a radical change of life.”

In this world where personal accountability is on the decline as well as the willingness to admit personal wrongdoing (Tiger Woods ring a bell?), conversions hardly seem necessary.

Professor Weber continues that conversion means a “significant change in life’s direction, the trading of one set of ultimate allegiances for another.” This is clear by what Jesus was saying in John 3 (ye must be born again) and 2 Cor 5:17 (…he is a new creation; old things have passed away…) From this biblical perspective, Weber continues, “a conversion is more than a change in personal preference; it is a change of identity.” 

When confession is merely to explain why there is nothing wrong with their behavior or why they should not be held accountable for it; questioning that person’s salvation does come to mind. When seen from that point of view Weber explains that “it is safe to say that real conversions are relatively rare; and when they do occur, people take notice.”

Read Augustine’s confessions; he blames no one for his life of sin. Though he often felt powerless to change his behavior, he felt personally responsible.

If Jesus was on Twitter

Actually He is; in a unique way. “and lo,I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20b) The thought I’ve had recently with that was “what am I doing with that unique communication?” The more I think about it, I wonder what I have done with it?

In my morning reading, I was directed to a wonderful assurance of my ‘communication’ with Him:

“Also He said to them, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Is it not to be set on a lampstand?  For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light.  If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” Mark 4:21-25

Complete openness! Isn’t that we all desire?

CS Lewis had this thought: “Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world.”

We have at our disposal the best communication tool ever devised; and man had nothing to do with it. Thank God!

Atheism: Our Strongest Supressed Impulse?

But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Matthew 19:22

I always wondered about this “young rich ruler ” in that he apparently was living a good life. Yet, when Jesus told him to “go, sell what you have and give to the poor” (v.21b) that stopped all forward movement. We may ask why? What causes us to come so close to being “perfect” as Jesus offered (v.21a) and yet we go the opposite direction; away from faith in anything that offers us the best.

C.S. Lewis had an interesting thought in his essay ‘On Obstinacy in Belief’.  He said that as Christians, faith is demanded of us and there are situations where we demand it of others. And when we attempt to tell people a ‘better way of life’; both present and future is to “ask them to believe that what is painful will relieve their pain and that what looks dangerous is their only safety.

When asked the impossible, this young rich man took the other road. To remove a thorn from a finger, a bad tooth from the infected gum and to give more than to receive at first will have a painful result. It is not until we go through that pain will we ever know the painless result.

When we choose not to believe in anything, then we will never have to test ourselves for anyone. We do not have to prove our love to anyone. We can keep all our toys and occasionally give when it makes sense to us and not anyone else. Complete freedom to appease our self and no other unless we choose to.

Was that what the young rich man really wanted?

“I Never Knew You”

“Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did.  But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man. John 2:23-25

C.S Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that “You must make your choice. Either this man was and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you  can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

To hear some pastor’s speak as I have over the last few months you would think that Jesus was a member of the faculty; and in some cases not tenured. The discussion of Baptism, forgiveness, kindness, obedience has been diluted with mega buildings, mega salaries, and missionary trips thousands of miles away when two blocks away families are in need.

I don’t get it. As mentioned in John 2, many people believed in Jesus because of His miracles; but their was no relationship. When there is no relationship with Jesus Christ, then yes, you have one heck of a teacher. Then what is written in Matthew 7 surely will come to play:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.  Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!Matthew 7:21-23