Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Idolatry?

Eva attended church as a child and young woman, but had never made a personal commitment to follow Christ. One Sunday morning, Eva Jackson came forward to receive Christ as her Savior. It was springtime that first year, and new life emerged from a spiritual winter. Eva became our pianist, was absolutely faithful, and is now home with the Lord.

Soon after Eva trusted Christ, she brought the well known picture of Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemene to place on the wall. She wanted our garage-turned-chapel to be more like the sanctuary she grew up in.

That picture created the first disruption in our little Fellowship.

"Idolatry! That's what that picture is." Those were the first words that came through his bushy red beard. To say the least, I was taken aback.

I believe my first response was, "Explain?"

"Thou shalt have no graven images!" I was told. I still had no idea what he was talking about and told him so.

"That picture is idolatry!" he insisted.

"It is a picture. A reminder that Christ was a man of prayer," I said, as I pointed to the wall where the picture hung.

"No, it's idolatry!" Now his arms were folded across his chest. Not once did he make eye contact with me.

"Did you pray before you came to your conclusion about the picture?" I asked.

"It's idolatry!" I heard once again.

Obviously, the conversation got no where. Exasperated, I walked over to the wall and removed the picture. I then went to Eva and explained my capitulation. She was a much bigger person than both the one who threw the fit and me; she never pressed the issue.

I had just made a major mistake. What was the mistake? I gave in to a church bully and his meanness.

I also learned something. In most instances, this type of person will continue to find reasons to disrupt the fellowship, and the shepherd not only goes after lost sheep -- he also protects them from wolves and weirdness. I had several more run-ins with the same man. It got a little ugly the last time. . . I fought back! No, it didn't become a boxing or wrestling match. I just decided I wouldn't become the coward of "The County." There are times when you have to stand up to disruptive people.

Idolatry is putting anything ahead of God -- even your fears and "peace at any cost." When I look back at that first confrontation, I realize that my compromise with fear was a subtle form of idolatry -- I bowed to it -- it became my master.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Boring Loring?

Getting assigned to Loring Air Force base was quite a shock for young men and women raised in the Sunbelt or on the West Coast. Loring was close to Canada and a long way from everything else!

Most of the airmen and officers were close to my age; I turned 28 before I finished my first year in Presque Isle. Soon, New Life was populated with military personnel of all rank and file.

I believe it was C. H. Spurgeon who said, "A man needs to pastor for twenty years before he is ready to be a pastor." I was no exception. I had a lot to learn and plenty of growing up to do -- God used many from the U.S. military to begin that process.

In the military there is a professional distance between the officers and the enlisted. In Christ's Church those differences have to be handled very carefully. Salvation puts us on a level playing field. In some instances an airman was teaching a Major, Lt. Colonel, or Full Bird the Scriptures. Every single Sunday, a very young pastor was standing in the pulpit "exhorting, rebuking, and teaching."

I wish I could say I always dazzled everyone with my preaching and leadership, but I would have to lie! On several occasions, ranking officers asked me for appointments. Often it was a Colonel named Ed and Major named Jim; both of them were military doctors.

Those men were mature and wise believers. Sometimes they had to bring a situation to my attention that involved one of the airmen. Most of the time they had to bring a situation to my attention that involved something I had done or said!

Each meeting would begin with prayer. I was always addressed as "Pastor" or "Sir." They would always affirm their confidence in my calling and the sincerity of my desire to follow God. It is hard to find the words to explain the attitude of humility these two men possessed. After we all prayed, the conversation would then move to an area of concern. Sometimes it would be a question about my doctrinal position or my disposition. They would always take me to the Scriptures and transition the conversation like this . . .

"Sir, I understood you to say the Scriptures say . . . "

I would confirm that what they heard was what I said.

Then they would say, "Pastor, that is not all the Scripture says about that subject."

The first time that happened I was feeling pretty intimidated and became very defensive. They never responded in kind. However, they did not back up either! When all was said and done, they were right. I matured and became a better pastor by heeding their advice. I realized that they were allies, not enemies.

Many years have come and gone since those conversations took place. Many times since, I have been the one to say to a young zealot or opinionated believer, "That is not all the Scriptures say about . . ."

Ed Marr and Jim Davis were just two of many that God used to shape and protect the ministry that God gave me. To this day, God always surrounds me with godly men and women who are great allies in the battle God has called me into! Their advice has saved me from myself on many occasions.

Loring. Boring? Not hardly.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Endless Winters

The winters in Aroostook County are brutal. You have probably gathered that by now if you have been reading these posts. While in the County, we saw it snow as early as September and as late as June.

I grew up in Maine. I lived in Old Town and Howland. I spent many hours on the Penobscot river skating, and whenever my Rupp snowmobile wasn't broken down, I was skimming across trails with my friends. . . My wife Sandy grew up in Dallas, Texas where she skimmed across water on skis!

Sandy loves New England. While we were in the Ellsworth area, she found the milder wintery scenes romantic and loved to hike in the snow and even tried cross-country skiing. In the spring she chased smelt up little brooks on her hands and knees. She is absolutely beautiful, but not a prissy.

In Presque Isle with the week-long cold snaps of minus 20 degrees (not counting the wind chill) and snow measured in feet -- not inches -- Sandy's faith was sorely tested. All through the winter she maintained her pattern of standing over the heat register first thing in the morning, and traveling countless times up and down the cellar stairs during the day to feed the woodstove.

There was a particular look on her face that troubled me at times. I would often watch her gazing out the kitchen and living room windows. I knew she was watching the snowbanks grow taller and taller, wondering how far the snow was going to drift up the sides of the house; at times it nearly covered our windows.

I had the easiest job. I was meeting new people and my scenery was constantly changing. Sandy was holding down the fort with a one year old and a three year old; the first winter they were sick alot. We had no insurance. Our house was like Grand Central Station on weekends. When someone didn't show up to fulfill their responsibilities at church, she often took up the slack.

Today, Sandy and I live in the Southeast. We backpack together, cycle together, kayak from time to time, and find countless ways to be out in the the glorious heat and sunshine of Columbus, Georgia. There are few things you can guarantee in life, but this one thing we do guarantee -- You will never hear us complain about the heat or the hardships of life -- since we left the land of the endless winters!

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

I Am An Alcoholic

The well that supplied water for the house was a shallow hand dug well no more than 15 feet deep. The land that surrounded our church was considerably higher on two sides. All the run-off from melting snow or rain eventually made its way to our property.

If you ever drove through Aroostook County your eyes would take in endless fields separated by thin strips of wooded areas. There are no "big woods." Nearly all the land -- thousands of acres -- is planted in rolling potato and broccolli fields. All those vegetables required tons and tons of fertilizer. Fertilizer is not meant to eat or drink.

I talked to Byron and Ted about my concern that our water was bad; it always left an after-taste. We decided have it tested.

Byron gave me the name of Dan. Dan was retired and knew a lot about the water systems in the area. He was also an alcoholic who had not taken a drink in 12 years. I called Dan and asked him to come look at our well and give me some advice about how to fix it if there was a problem.

Dan showed up one afternoon. I immediately liked him. He was jovial, personable, and helpful. He also wanted to provide his service at no charge; he believed that would be pleasing to God. I took him to the well pipe. The pipe stuck up out of the middle of the driveway; it had been bumped several times by automobiles. The opening of the pipe was covered with a sheet of copper that had been formed around over the opening. Even before I got the top off it, Dan pointed out how the earth around the pipe was bowl shaped and the pipe leaned slightly.

"You've got a problem. Water is collecting around that pipe and seeping into your well. I am going to take a sample, but I can tell you right now, you've got a problem!" He said.

I thanked him for his advice and free service and then tentatively asked, "Would you tell me what we need to do. Can it be fixed?"

"%&*# yes!" he said. "This happens all the time. I've fixed a hundred of these!" He explained how we would fix the problem and took a water sample. Before Dan left I invited him to attend church. I told him our folks would like to meet him; they would be very grateful for his advice and generosity.

He responded, "I'll come to your meeting, if you will come to one of mine. Would you come to my AA meeting and meet some of my friends. My friends need a guy like you."

I agreed to go. I had never been to an AA meeting before.

I went to the meeting and sat down with Dan; there were about twelve of us. The meeting started like this . . . "My name is Dan. I am an alcoholic. My name is Bob. I am an alcoholic. My name is Susan. I am an alcoholic. . .

When it came time to introduce myself, I said, "My name is Bill. I am a pastor." The reaction was really funny. Some realized that I was a guest, but not an alcoholic. Others congratulated me for being brave enough to admit my problem!

By the way, in case you are wondering -- I am not an alcoholic.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Making Room

By the spring of 1984 we were having 75-80 in our morning worship; Sunday school attendance was nearly the same. The garage-turned-chapel was full. Every room in our house was being used for classroom space and the Shorey family was going crazy.

It is hard to describe what our bathroom looked like after each Sunday. Toddlers, teens, and adults all had to use one tiny bathroom. The wall behind the bathroom was barn-board. I believe some of the little guys tried to spell their names on it. No, not with ink or crayon. You know what I mean!

In those early days we had some incredible work days. No job was beneath anyone. If we needed 30 people -- 30 people would show up. Military officers and Non-coms, business men and women, teenagers and elderly worked side by side. The sweat-equity in New Life was hard to measure.

The best building on the property was a stable. It was well constructed, but had been a barn for horses. Our next project was to get it cleaned out, sheetrocked, lights, flooring, and heat. It would become classroom space.

The stable was set apart from the chapel, so we built a breezeway to connect them. It was not a work of art, but it was absolutely necessary in that frigid climate. We believed all this work was a temporary fix. We stretched our meager resources as far we could. What we needed was space.

Some of us were already looking at other churches for ideas about the one we would soon build. Yet, we were incredibly grateful for the growth we were seeing and our "tabernacle" in the wilderness.

Everything we did on the property sent a message to the community; we were there to stay and growing! Every improvement became a magnet that drew others to our humble beginnings. New Life wasn't fancy, but God's hand was all over it.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Cutting Edge Evangelism

When we went to Presque Isle, we had about $600 per month of support raised. That income was used to help pay the mortgage, keep the lights on in our house church, and keep food on the table. We were lean financially; the only personal debt we had was a monthly payment for a surgery for one of our sons. A couple of years later when we made the final payment, we had a party and told our son we now owned him free and clear!

We decided that Sandy would not seek employment; Justin was two years old and Josh was not yet one. Being a mom is a big job -- that would remain her primary focus. Sandy also stood by my side in every facet of the ministry. She was as responsible for the success of New Life as anyone on earth.

My mentors advised me not to seek outside employment, either. Instead, I would commit to making door to door contact at least 30 hours a week. God's Word says, "The laborer is worthy of his hire." God was my employer -- we would trust Him to provide. I was very faithful to the commitment to visit, I never took a sick day, and God was never a debtor to us.

"The County" was well known for an abundant supply of game birds, especially partridge. Wherever I went, I had my 16 gauge shotgun and a blaze orange cap in my vehicle. When I was making contacts in the more rural areas, I looked for old woods roads or overgrown potato fields. When I found one, I would pull over, put on my blaze orange cap, pick up my 16 gauge, and hunt for partridge. I got to do a fair amount of shooting!

People in the area got a kick out of seeing me heading into the woods in my semi-formal hunting attire. It wasn't long before they began to stop and tell me where the good hunting spots were. Several different men took me hunting with them and ended up as members of New Life.

In the far northern reaches of the state of Maine, cutting edge evangelism blazed a new trail!

Thursday, May 12, 2005

God's Good Hand

As we entered 1984, we began to see more people visit and inquire about New Life. Some came from Loring Air Force Base, located another 16 miles north of Presque Isle.

I will never forget the phone call I got from one of those military families. Neither will you, once I tell you the story.

One Saturday I answered our phone and a voice on the other end asked, "Do you wear lace on your underwear?"

I responded, "Excuse me?"

The voice replied, "This is Mike Crandall. Are you one of those preachers who is afraid to let God's Word say what it says? Are you afraid to tell people they need to get saved?"

"Come visit our church, listen to the message, and then make your own decision." I responded. That ended the conversation.

I told Sandy about the call, "Either that guy has a genuine burden for the lost, or he is off his nut!"

On Sunday morning Mike, along with his wife Kim and their infant son, settled into the pews. A few weeks later they joined the church.

Mike never lost that edginess, but he did believe that people needed saving. He was a very committed "soul winner."

I tell you that story because Mike's commitment did reflect the mission of New Life. We believed that our primary mission was to bring the gospel to lost people. Don't misunderstand me. People did come and join us from other churches, but we never made it our goal to shuffle people around from church to church. We never embraced the Burger King ad, "Have it your way."

It was common to have 15-25 people show up on Saturdays to canvas the towns and neighborhoods around New Life. I do not fear contradiction when I tell you that nearly every home in Presque Isle, Caribou, Limestone, Washburn, and Easton received a visit from a member of New Life.

Sometime we were warmly received -- sometimes the reception was as cold as the weather. Sometimes people were saved, baptized, joined the church, and then fell away. Sometimes we found it very hard to get our hearts in a place where we even cared whether people were lost or saved.

Yet, Saturday after Saturday we bundled up and set out in sub-zero weather, snow, or rain (once in awhile the skies were bright and sunny). Many times the weather was so bad I hoped no one would show up -- they always did.

Looking back at New Life, I suppose the lens through which I look has a rosy tint -- but only slightly. They were a hearty group. Nothing came easy in "The County."

There is a verse in Nehemiah that takes me back to those days.

And I told them of the hand of my God which had been good upon me. . . So they said, 'Let us rise up and build." Then they set their hands to this good work."

Nehemiah had a group of highly motivated people who shared his God-given burden to rebuild a wall. I was a young pastor, blessed with a group of highly motivated people who believed I had a God-given burden to build a church.
They set their hands to this good work and rose up and built.

Saturday, May 7, 2005

Meet Byron and Cecile

Ted, Don Ross, Byron, my wife Sandy, and I got all that wood split and into the cellar. I don't remember ever enjoying such back breaking work more! Our system of stacking the next day's wood around the stove to dry worked pretty well, too.

That reminds me -- I haven't told you about Byron and his wife, Cecile. Now they are a pair that will beat three of a kind! Their son had been the founding pastor of New Life; they soon adopted us.

Byron and Cecile were in their sixties. Byron was a plumber by vocation and a "horse trader" all the time! He and Cecile loved to track down antiques and collectibles, mostly Americana.
I often had the privilege of watching him dicker with potential buyers, sellers, or traders. One time, Byron traded for an old slate sink and hand pump and installed it in their kitchen. We also have a picture of Byron in an antique tin tub pretending to wash himself with a long handled scrub brush (he had clothes on).

Their house had lots of antiques in it, but there was always a box full of interesting toys for any kids who showed up. Our sons, Justin and Joshua, loved that box of toys and the Harmons. Byron would often make an outdoor fire and they would cook hot dogs and roast marshmallows. At that time my mom and dad were living in Kansas and Sandy's family lived in Texas. The Harmons became the grandparents our boys needed.

Byron was another one of those guys who could do just about anything. He kept the old furnace in the farmhouse going and the Miller gun furnace in the garage-turned-chapel sending warm air our way. Sometimes the furnace in the chapel would start screeching during a service. Byron would reach through the air duct and use a bar of soap to keep the belts from squeeling. As the belt that turned the fan ran across the bar of soap, it would create a blizzard of Ivory Snow (you're smiling).

One spring, Byron, Don Robbins (nearly 80), and I put new set of piston rings in his old pick-up truck. We did the work outside! I did the lifting, handed Byron the wrenches, and enjoyed every minute of those men's company.

Byron only left the state of Maine once in his life. When he was in the Marines he was forced to cross the border. When he got back, he never left again!

Cecile was a God-send. She was a very compassionate and patient listener. Many times Sandy and I went to her and unloaded our hearts and then we would all pray together. Sandy and I knew that we had a safe house whenever we needed one. . . just head out the Fort road, drive up hill for a while, and turn right into their driveway.

On our first trip to the "County," we had stopped on that same road not far from Byron and Cecile's to pray and seek God's direction for our young family, not knowing that soon we would be traveling that road many times to the house of our good friends.

Friday, May 6, 2005

Ted

On Christmas Sunday we had 32 visitors! We had no choir or cantata to mesmerize our guests, but the little 35 X 35 garage-turned-chapel reverberated with the sounds of traditional Christmas hymns. Every song was sung acapella; we still had no pianist.

I remember being incredibly excited and nervous at the same time. The crowd of 75 seemed like 75 hundred! The theme of the message was, The World's response to the infant Saviour. My sermon finished with the question, What is your response?

Ted Jackson responded. Ted was wide at the shoulders and narrow in the hips. His hair and mustache were streaked with grey. He seemed to fill the aisle as he came forward. At the altar, he extended his huge calloused right hand. I extended my right hand and watched it disappear.

I came to learn that Ted could do anything. He was an electrician, fabricator, carpenter, and improvisor. He was a "Jack of all Trades" and a master of perseverence. I have never met a stronger human being -- pound-for-pound -- than Ted.

It wasn't long before his 6'2" frame was stooped over in our dark cellar, putting the big potato house heater together. Ted also tracked down some wood!

The wood came from a plywood manufacturer. As tree length wood was delivered to the sawmill, some of it was so big that the butt had to be cut off; the thick ends would not fit through the saw. We bought the ends for twenty-five dollars a truckload. It was not split or fully seasoned, but it was all hardwood!

Ted and his friend Pete had made a hydrolic wood splitter. We split wood in earnest and threw it into the cellar through a window in the foundation. When we were done, we had almost 12 cords of hardwood packed and stacked under our house!

It may not have been the safest thing to do, but each day we would surround the burning stove with wood to dry it. We figured a fire was less of a danger than freezing to death.

Since 1983, few Christmases have brought a greater blessing than Ted Jackson!

Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Floyd

We made endless trips up and down the celler stairs, constantly feeding a tiny parlor type woodstove. We fed it anything that would burn! The old farmhouse had a thousand leaks. Warm air rushed out -- icy air rushed in unabated. The parlor stove did precious little to curb the appetite of our ancient oil furnace. In December, we were going through 100 gallons of oil every 10 days.

Floyd believed he had a remedy that would get us through that first brutal winter.

Let me tell you about Floyd. He was self-deprecating, had an impish grin, and possessed a boyish optimism. He relentlessly made fun of himself and everyone else; he saw a humorous side to just about everything.

Floyd and his wife Eleanor invited me to their home in Washburn. Floyd embellished the conversation with a steady string of wise cracks. Eleanor's contribution was, Floyd you shouldn't have said that!

During my visit, Floyd told me, You're going to need a lot of grit to make a go of it. Floyd knew about grit. On his sixty-fifth birthday he and Eleanor lost everything they owned, except the little mobile home we sat in. Northern Maine is a tough place to make a living when times are good; there was a down turn in the economy and Floyd was another casualty.

Floyd's remedy for our heating problem? He had located a "potato house heater." That's a BIG, cast iron, incredibly HEAVY, wood stove that can put out some serious BTU's. It got its name from its intended purpose--to heat the massive barns used to store potatoes. We hoped it would be enough to heat an old farmhouse.

All we would need was a couple of strong backs to get it down the steep cellar stairs, assemble it, and hook it into the chimney flue.

One other ingredient is necessary for an efficient woodstove -- wood! At this time of year the only firewood left was under tarps or snow -- seasoning for the next winter.

For Christmas, God sent Ted Jackson. . .

Monday, May 2, 2005

Oil Crisis!

Oil crisis!

It was 1983, so if you know your recent history, you'll know I am not talking about endless lines at the gas pumps or the manipulations of OPEC. No, I am talking about our farm house -- built in the early 1900's -- with a totally inadequate furnace, paper thin insulation, and a gluttonous appetite for oil.

For most who live in the U.S. it is hard to understand how quickly summer retreats as winter attacks in northern Maine; by November it is. . .

FREEZING!

We were not trying to keep the house at 80. In fact, the warmest we were able to get it was about 65 degrees.

Each morning Sandy had a predictable routine. She would briskly get out from under the electric blanket layered under several other blankets. Then she would rush downstairs, dressed in sweat pants and sweat shirt, heavy wool socks, and a rose-colored chenille robe snugged around her. Immediately she would stand on the heat register that blew warm (not hot) air through its grates. Once there, my bride would wrap her hands around a hot cup of coffee, stare out the window at the snow-covered landscape and dream of mild Texas winters.

We were halfway through the month of November; Sandy rushed down the stairs and headed for her little oasis of heat and improvised hand warmer. On that day, the cold grates penetrated her wool socks. Problem -- no warm air! She went over to the thermostat and turned it up a couple of notches -- still -- no warm blast ascending from the cellar.

Bill, I think the furnace isn't working. She called out to me.

To quote Tom Hanks in the movie Apollo 13, "Houston, we have a problem!"

Re-entry into spring's orbit was a loooong ways away!

I knew we had oil; I had filled the tank less than a month ago, so I descended the steep stairs into the dark, musty cellar. I pushed the restart button on the furnace. Nothing! I wondered if the filter was clogged, so I removed the quart sized filter and found nothing. I mean nothing! We had burned through 150 gallons of heating fuel in less than a month!

I felt helpless as I watched frozen teardrops fall from Sandy's rosy cheeks onto her rose colored chenille robe.

Floyd Cunningham would come to the rescue. . . in about a month.