From Univeristy Hospital

My Mom, Clarice, fell in the early hours of Wednesday morning and broke her neck. As I write this, I am in her room at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City where she is receiving wonderful care. Fortunately there is no evidence of damage to her spinal cord and no loss of feeling or movement. The Dr. has given the options: either have surgery to fuse the vertebrae or wear a neck brace for the rest of her life.

Mom is very anxious and uncomfortable. She was unable to sleep at all last night – just can’t deal with the neck brace and all the limitations. She’s also very sore from the fall. It’s very difficult to sit or lay in one position for more than 15 min without an overwhelming desire to move. This afternoon they did a swallowing test because that has become a problem. Soft, pureed foods only for the foreseeable future.

After prayer, talking with family members, and consulting with several friends, Mom has decided to pursue surgery. Right now they are working to schedule surgery for Monday or Tuesday. There is some swelling in Mom’s neck at C2 & C3, where the break is, and they have to give that time to go down. Please pray for surgery at the earliest possible time.

From what we understand, Mom will be at the University Hospital for three days following surgery before being transferred to skilled care in Oskaloosa. From there we just don’t know what the plans might be.

Many thanks for all your prayers and calls.

Jim

PERMANENTLY DELETED

Maintain. Now there’s a word that should be permanently deleted from the vocabulary when talking about church. The dictionary defines maintain, “to keep in existence; to preserve; to keep in a specified state.” I’ve had pastors and leaders describe the church as “maintaining services” or “we’re maintaining our Sunday School.”

Honestly? That makes me sick! The last thing we should be doing is “maintaining.”

OK, so I’m on a soapbox. I admit it. And I recognize that many times the term “maintain” is used and the speaker really doesn’t mean that the church is preserving a program or a building. But think about this with me.

If church attendance is the same now as it was three years ago, what is happening? How could we possibly say we’re being obedient to Matthew 28:18-20? Or, if the only growth the church has experienced is because the 20 somethings are having babies, is that actual growth?

What are we doing to reach the people in our communities who are far from God? This is not the sole responsibility of the pastor – it rests on everyone. We are all responsible for building relationships with people who are outside the household of Faith.

And what about our church buildings? Are we concerned about “maintaining” them or using them up? Wearing them out? Maybe we ought to think of our facilities like a ream of paper for the copier. We keep the paper dry and store it so it stays flat – we treat it with care. But we also use it up!

We need to change our perspective and attitudes. If Sunday School isn’t working don’t maintain it – do something different! If we’re not building relationships with people who are far from God, then something is wrong. If we treat buildings as if we are preserving them for future generations then we need to revisit the definition of idols.

I might make one exception to using the term “maintain” if one is speaking about keeping the church van in safe, running condition. But even the van ought to be viewed as a resource that is eventually used up for the sake of the Kingdom!

Together in Christ,
Jim

On a personal note: Lois and I are privileged to be the lead chaperons for our local high school music department trip to New York. We’ll be leaving Thursday evening and returning Tuesday morning. We’re looking forward to spending significant time with this group of 80 teens and adults – some of whom have been turned off regarding church.

KICKED IN THE GUT

I love talking with young adults . . . they keep me on my toes! “T,” a college student, just got off the phone. He’s had it with church and religion and all the hypocrisy. His Mom called me last night and asked if I would be willing to talk with him. She really wanted me to “talk some sense into him” so he wouldn’t “throw his life away.” I said I would talk with her son but only if he called me.

I was surprised when he called. “T” was loaded for bear and unloaded all the hurt, confusion, frustration and anger he’s been harboring against the church. It was pretty messy. The phrase that seemed to be repeated over and over was, “just a bunch of hypocrites.” So I challenged him to give me one example of this hypocrisy that was bugging him so much.

This is the nicest way I can summarize: “When I was a kid, the pastor talked all the time about giving 10 percent. Ten percent of your money; ten percent of your time; and ten percent of your talents. Nobody did it – at least not my parents or my friends’ parents. I’ve seen the tax returns. More like three percent. Yet every Sunday they’d go to church and smile and make nice and pretend they were doing the ten percent thing.

“When I got to college I was introduced to Islam. One of the things you agree to do when you become a Muslim is bring all your money to Mohammed and then the leaders let you take some back. Now that’s commitment.” When he finished I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut.

The hypocrisy in the church is most evident when it comes to money.

In 1896 Judson W. Van DeVenter penned some words that Winfield S. Weeden put to music as a hymn we know as “I Surrender All.” History proves that these two men did indeed surrender everything to follow Jesus but we cannot sing this song honestly. Maybe we should re-write the lyrics to represent what we teach but what few of us do. Therefore, in order to make the song reflect reality, I propose the following version:

Ten percent to Jesus I surrender
Ten percent to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him,
In his presence daily live.

I surrender ten percent, I surrender ten percent;
Ten percent to thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender ten percent.

Ten percent to Jesus I surrender,
Humbly at His feet I bow,
Worldly pleasures all forsaken,
Take me Jesus, take me now.

I surrender ten percent, I surrender ten percent;
Ten percent to thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender ten percent.

Is the “ten percent tithe” Biblical? It was in the Old Testament. But Jesus seems to hold up a higher standard when He asks us to “take up our cross and follow.” And when he teaches us that if we want to save our lives we have to lose them first. Paul continues the theme when he talks about being “living sacrifices.”

No wonder our young people are walking away from the church. We’ve made being a Christian way too easy.

Jim

EVYN

The call came on Saturday morning. Lois and I had just arrived home from an early trip to pick up groceries when Joy called and asked us to come to the Ottumwa Hospital “right now.” Joy and Tony’s dear friends, Chris and Melissa, had taken their 3 yr old daughter, Evyn, to the Doctor on Friday and she was admitted to the hospital. She had the flu and they wanted to give her some antibiotics and fluids to help her body fight it off.  Saturday morning Evyn’s vitals were not improving and they decided to transport her to Iowa City – the best medical facility south of Mayo Clinic. They never made it out of Evyn’s hospital room. Her heart just stopped.

Lois and I walked into the pediatric area just as the medical staff “pronounced” Evyn. We arrived to support our daughter and son-in-love but quickly realized the family’s pastor wasn’t there yet. Fortunately Dave is a friend and I wasn’t too worried about offending him. (I called him as soon as possible and told him what had transpired.) For the next two hours I had the opportunity of offering spiritual direction in a time of crises.

The medical staff recognized me as a pastor and told me that Evyn had died. I walked into the room where everyone but the parents were waiting and told them Evyn was gone. What a shock! I prayed with the family and friends who were gathered and then went into the room where Chris and Melissa were sitting on the edge of the bed holding their first-born and weeping over her still body. It’s an image I’ll cherish the rest of my life. I wept, too. The pediatrician was still in the room and we all prayed through our tears.

After a little while we brought Evyn’s almost 2 yr old brother, Isaac into the room to be with his family. And, two-by-two, other family members and dear friends joined the grief around that hospital bed.

I found the medical staff huddled together trying to process everything. I knew their faces – they are people that have delivered all our grandchildren and cared for them. To a person they were soaked with perspiration and emotionally drained. I asked if I could pray for and with them and they readily agreed. We moved out of the hallway into a room and I looked into their eyes and thanked them for “giving their all to try to save Evyn.” I prayed for them and then together we prayed for Evyn’s family. I walked out of that room grateful for the privilege of prayer.

It took about 90 minutes for everyone to get to the place where they were ready to leave Evyn’s room. In the meantime, the family’s pediatrician had to have the difficult talk with the parents about an autopsy – they needed answers. We found out Tuesday that it was Influenza B. The flu isn’t supposed to kill children that have had the flu vaccine.

It’s wonderful to be able to stand alongside the pastors who are extending love and grace and comfort to this family. Providing spiritual direction in situations like this is both tough and necessary. These are the truths we are holding up:

? God did not DO this. Jeremiah 29:11 tells us that God does not make plans to bring us harm.

? Evyn is NOT an angel. Angels were created to be “God’s Secret Agents,” to quote Billy Graham. Humans were created in God’s image and are more precious, more valuable than any angel could hope to be. Some angels actually get sent out of God’s presence while we, His children, once in heaven, will never leave His presence. If God needs another angel He just thinks the thought and its done.

? Bad things happen to good people because we live in a broken, fallen world.

? It’s true that sometimes God intervenes with a miracle and we don’t understand why He chose not to do that in Evyn’s life. But then we are reminded that God’s ways are inscrutable – to us they are mysterious and beyond understanding. What seems wise to us is foolish in God’s sight.

? No matter what, God is completely trustworthy. He will not abandon you.

There have been multiple meetings with the parents and family. We’ve prayed together again and again. Pressing the reminder of God’s constant presence into the hearts and minds of God’s people is a continual process but especially in times of crises. Wednesday, several pastors will take turns being with the family as they receive visitors. Pray for me on Thursday as I have the responsibility and privilege of leading the committal service.

Together in Christ,
Jim

QUIT? YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING!

I was driving this morning and took a call on my cell phone. It was a bi-vocational pastor calling to let me know he wrote his resignation letter last night after church.

I said, “Quit? You’ve got to be kidding!” Then I began to recite back to him all the good things God has been doing in the church. One bad day shouldn’t be enough. . . .

I know being a pastor is sometimes personally painful, discouraging and costly. In my years as a pastor I wrote (and then tore up) many resignation letters! The thoughtless and downright mean, personal attacks on my family were the worst times.

I remember calling a friend during one particularly discouraging time. He said, “Now is not the time to quit! In fact, it’s always too soon to quit.” I shared those words with the pastor who called this morning and I reminded him that even though he didn’t think it would make any difference to others if he quit, it would have a huge impact on him.

Maybe you’ve heard this statement, “If you quit now, quitting next time will be easier. When things grow stale, when you’ve run out of energy and inspiration, that is the time to buckle down, dig in and finish.”

Richard Halverson once wrote, “The acid test of a man’s worthwhileness is his response to the uninspired moments – how he reacts to duty and drudgery. The one who depends on inspired moments rarely finishes anything. He leaves a trail of half-baked tasks behind – muted evidence of adolescent self-indulgence.”

Those who are spiritually mature refuse to quit; refuse to throw in the towel. Don’t misunderstand, thinking about quitting, even wanting to quit, happens a lot. And maybe its good therapy to write that resignation letter. Just run it through the shredder instead of mailing it!

After all, football games have been won in the last few seconds by the losing team who refused to quit. Destructive behavior patterns have been replaced with positive habits in people who don’t quit. As pastors our reactions to difficulties impact a great number of people. They’re watching us.

Our supreme example is Jesus Christ. He was obedient all the way to the cross. He finished the work God gave Him to do.

But you, O God, are both tender and kind, not easily angered, immense in love, and you never, never quit. Psalm 86:15 – (THE MESSAGE)

God gives a hand to those down on their luck, gives a fresh start to those ready to quit.
Psalm 145:14 – (THE MESSAGE)

IF JESUS COMES TO TOWN

A well-known pastor of a large church recently responded to some criticism because some of the church staff had a meeting with the mayor. This is the quote: “Some of our pastors had a meeting with the mayor of [Grand Rapids], which was simply for the purpose of asking who the most forgotten and the most hurting in our city are. The mayor had several very specific answers, and so we’ve actually reorganized a whole area of our church, putting the majority of our efforts around trying to take care of the worst problems in our city. I don’t know if you would say that’s political or not, even though it involved meeting with the mayor, but if Jesus comes to town and things don’t get better, then we have to ask some hard questions.”

Read the last sentence again, “ . . . if Jesus comes to town and things don’t get better, then we have to ask some hard questions.”

I’ve been following the comments in the blogosphere for three weeks and have been amazed at how easily well-meaning Christians can be sidetracked. It happens in small, local churches as well. We know what we are called to be and do as a household of faith, but we get wrapped up in arguing among ourselves to the degree that nothing is accomplished.

In order to stay on track; in our pursuit of what really makes a difference; one of the questions we need to ask ourselves is, “What is changing for the better in our community because we are here?”

Are hungry people being fed? Do people who need help paying the electric bill get assistance? Are there children at school who need a coat? Did the single mom who just moved into the area get an offer of free child care so she could hunt for a job?

Wait, before you protest, I know the churches whose leaders get this email average less than 55 in attendance and have limited resources. I spent eleven years in a small church where budgets were tight and there were always more needs than dollars.

But we didn’t let our small numbers limit our love and care for the community.

We joined forces with the local ministerial association. (I still live in the area and remain a member of this association even though I am not pastoring a local church.) This group is comprised of churches in our rural school district and includes mainline, evangelical, pentecostal, and independent pastors. Although there are great differences in theology, doctrine and polity, we are able to agree that as representatives of Jesus Christ, we should make a difference in the lives of people with physical needs.

In the past ten years the pastors and churches who are part of our association have witnessed God provide resources in ever increasing amounts and we have used that money to assist people with needs. The magnitude of that outreach is greater than any one of our small churches could have possibly imagined or managed on our own. Yet together we can honestly say our community is a better place now than 10 years ago or even six months ago.

This past Christmas we were able to help 45 families with 128 children at a cost of $9850.00 – and there’s still money in that account! Every month we have the privilege of helping people who need help paying for heat, or making a rent payment, or a myriad of various needs. Do we sometimes feel that we’re being taken advantage of? Yes. But we would rather be generous in the name of Jesus than stingy. After all, its His money.

We even help stock a special closet at school. Have you ever thought about what happens when a child has an “accident” at school and the parents are at work or maybe don’t have transportation to get clean, dry clothes to their child? The ministerial association makes sure the school has the funds to keep clothes on hand for just such an emergency.

The school knows they can count on the churches. Can you imagine how they respond when we come to them with a request?

Jesus makes our responsibility to take care of the “least of these” very clear in Matthew 25:31-46.  It should challenge our priorities to be reminded that we won’t be judged on how well we kept up our buildings, or how many prayer meetings we had, or if the parking lot was paved, or how many attended the Sunday night service.

So I conclude with the same question, “What is changing for the better in your community because the Gospel is being lived out?”

Note: I fully expect that some of my readers will get upset and conclude that, “Jim is starting to preach a social gospel! – He’s becoming a liberal!”  That seems to be a small but consistent reaction any time church folk are challenged to look beyond themselves.

Together in Christ,
Jim

Mike Polo on RESTORING BALANCE

Our scriptural home base for the “Restoring Balance” series has been Isaiah 30:15, Only in returning to me and waiting on me will you be saved.  In quietness and confidence will be your strength.

These words were God’s personal call to Israel to change their ways and adopt a posture of patient trust and rest in Him.  The words that follow this invitation to the people of God are a warning against stubbornly pursuing their own ways of handling their problems.  But you would have none of it. You said, “No, we will get our help from Egypt.”  God responds with the consequences of rejecting His way.  You will be left like a lonely flagpole on a distant mountaintop.

Present day followers of Jesus take heed.  It is not an option to make learning from and listening to Jesus our life’s priority.  It is not an option to build times of quietness and prayer into our daily schedules.  It is not an option to observe a weekly day of Sabbath.  And if we treat these spiritual essentials as such we will suffer the consequences.

That is just what is happening in the lives of many Christians.  They are frenzied, fatigued, and frustrated.  They are dissatisfied, depressed, and discouraged.  They are hurried, harassed, and hope- deprived.  They feel like that lonely flagpole on a distant mountaintop.

There is one solution to this situation.  Return to God and adjust life to His intended balance.  And that means setting aside daily times of quietness before God.  It means taking a weekly day of rest and renewal. It means making our relationship with God the one thing, the main thing.

Only in returning to me and waiting on me will you be saved.  Deliverance from the cultural taskmasters of stress and hurry and busyness and the emotional tormentors of anxiety, depression, and frustration will come if we choose to do it His way.  There are no other options.

Pastor Mike Polo

Update from Chuck Whitmire in Africa

Hi There!

I finally found a way to contact you.  All is well here.  All of my travel went smoothly and on time. Compared to many of the others here that is a miracle.  We have people who were held up for 24 hours at border crossings, missed flights and were delayed 24 hrs., luggage still missing, and other travel difficulties, so I have a blessing in having everything go so well.

Just finished teaching the AM session on Tues.  The first few days have gone so well. I arrived here right on time on Thursday.  Was met at the airport by the Blands, Kathy Vanderpool, and Matt & Henne Wiley.  The Wileys are field coordinators for Malawi.  They oversee a total of nine orphan units each staffed by two facilitators,  5 staff members and 15-20 BMW Students.  They own 160 lake front acres here at the base.  They oversee a farming operation that grows maize (a type of corn) pigs, goats, chickens, ducks and fish. Each unit also has some land where they grow some agricultural things to generate income and help feed the people.

On Friday I went to visit 3 of the orphan units up in the mountains about 3 hours away.  It was so beautiful!  Kids came to greet us at each stop.  At one place they stopped school and all the kids came out to sing for us.  At another the chief dressed up in his best ceremonial garb and came out to greet us.  They were all so impressed to have Mr. Bland the big Director from America come to visit. And rightly so, the more I am with him the more I am impressed too.  They are doing an amazing work here.

Saturday was spent mostly in rest, prayer and study.  On Sunday AM I preached in one of the local churches.  Then in the PM I preached at the opening rally for the summit.  Monday preached twice and twice today.

It is warm here,  probably near 90.  It is the rainy season so we see some rain most days.  Sometimes a lot of it.  It is a beautiful place.  Monkeys run around the base daily.  If we don’t watch them they try to steal food from the pots when they set up the serving line for meals.  I have seen a mongoose twice and various lizards and birds.  I went to the garbage dump and ran into a three foot monitor lizard.  Boy did I scare him.  Hippos come up from the lake at night and eat grass on the property.  Have not seen them but we see where they have been the next morn.  Sometimes jackels come around the animal barns at night looking for a goat or baby pig.  Some of the students sleep down there just in case.

The people are very open to truth.  This conference is designed to help each staff member be more effective in their work.  There are about 100 of us here,  85% African, it is a great thing to be a part of.

Give my greetings to all.

Chuck Whitmire

“This will change your life forever.”

Last night I was at a meeting at our local high school and got back home at 8 pm. Lois and I talked about the day and prayed together and then I needed to unwind. There wasn’t much on TV but we ended up watching Deal or No Deal.

The host, Howie Mandel, tried to make the contestant and audience believe this was a game about faith, luck, and nerve. Its not. Deal or No Neal is about greed – simple, unvarnished, drooling greed. (Our early church fathers listed greed as one of the Seven Deadly Sins.)

Another phrase that Mr. Mandel used multiple times was, “Winning a million dollars will change your life forever.” I wasn’t counting at first, but I think he used a form of that phrase at least a dozen times. “This will change your life forever.”

But will winning a bundle of money really change someone’s life forever?

There are a lot of people who are confused about this. We know the “church answer” but honestly, what would most people rather have: a million bucks? Or, a life of surrender and obedience to God? Would we rather build houses, buy cars, and take off on world class vacations or clean toilets at the local homeless shelter?

As pastors and church leaders we need to personally wrestle with this question.

Our surrender to the Lordship of Christ must be continually evaluated. The people we lead see right through empty words. Our lives are an open book – and people can “read” us from a mile away. What is it that has changed your life forever? Does your family know where you place your loyalty? Does the household of faith you serve see you as someone who is totally committed to God?

Not only should our commitment and surrender be obvious to those around us, our obedience needs to be what makes us real. We all fail and fall; sin and disobedience is part of this life and we need to acknowledge our failures and shortcomings. Confession and repentance always results in change and those adjustments, those changes should be noticed.

I’m not advocating that pastors stand up on Sundays (or any other day) and publically discuss all their sins! What a disaster that would be. What we ought to understand is that lives of sacrificial surrender and humble obedience should speak for themselves.

Back to the main question: What is it that changes a life forever?

Are we communicating the love and forgiveness, the grace and mercy of God through Jesus Christ in a way that the people around us will notice the greed that drives a popular TV program? Will we be known for the transforming power of Christ in us? Or will people remember us as selfish and greedy?

“So roll up your sleeves, put your mind in gear, be totally ready to receive the gift that’s coming when Jesus arrives. Don’t lazily slip back into those old grooves of evil, doing just what you feel like doing. You didn’t know any better then; you do now. As obedient children, let yourselves be pulled into a way of life shaped by God’s life, a life energetic and blazing with holiness. God said, “I am holy; you be holy.”  You call out to God for help and he helps – he’s a good Father that way. But don’t forget, he’s also a responsible Father, and won’t let you get by with sloppy living.  Your life is a journey you must travel with a deep consciousness of God.”
1 Peter 1:13-17 The Message

Jim

HOPE!

Bruce Larson tells this story in his book, “Faith for the Journey.”

Once there was a successful factory that made drills. One day the owner told his corporate officials that he was going to retire and that he had chosen his son as his successor. At the next board meeting the son asked his four vice presidents, “What are your goals for the company for the next five to ten years?”

One vice-president replied, “Well sir, we’re looking at new sizes and shapes for different drills.”

The son then dropped his bombshell. “I have news for you – there is no market for drills.” One could feel the tension in the air. He continued, “From now on we will not think drills. We will not sell drills. We’ll sell holes! People don’t want to buy a drill; they want to make a hole!”

As they began to think of other ways to create holes they developed, among other methods, lasers for hole drilling. This attitude change and other innovations keep this company in business while its competitors are losing large shares of the market and many are even going bankrupt.

We need that kind of attitude adjustment in our local churches.

Many of us think in terms of presenting the message of salvation so that people will not spend eternity in hell. But look at it from a different perspective: Scores of people I’ve talked with can’t even begin to imagine eternity in hell because they think they are living in hell now. Their question is, “how can it be any worse?”

They live in a personal hell of drug and/or alcohol addiction and abusive relationships. The hell of rampant sexual immorality; AIDs; terminal cancer and insurmountable stacks of debt. The hell of deep and dark depression; the betrayal of a spouse; the bottomless pit of bitterness and the hell of desolate loneliness. People all around us are being overwhelmed by hopelessness.

Each of our local churches offers the solution: Hope! Jesus came so people can have real life; now, today – and in eternity! They can have a life today that is better than anything they ever dreamed of! (John 10:10)

Will coming to Christ solve everyone’s problems? No. There will still be pain, cancer, unfaithful spouses, and unpaid bills. But Jesus says, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how.” (Matthew 16:24 The Message)

Instead of being repulsed by these people we need to beg God to help us see them as He does: People that desperately need to be embraced in Jesus’ love and offered unconditional grace and forgiveness and hope!

We have the message: Jesus is the Son of the Living God. He has come to save us from the sinful ways of life that rob us of hope – to give us abundant life, overflowing life, life lived to the max.

He has given His Bride, the local church, an awesome task of being a lighthouse of hope in a world of dark desperation. And He empowers us to the task in Matthew 16:18 when He says, “I will put together my church, a church so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out!” (The Message)

Portions of this article originally appeared in the March 2006 issue of the Christian Union Witness.

Encouragement to follow Jesus better!