An unexpected crisis, a frustrating detour, or a messy stumbling block, can send us into a tailspin. Things like pandemics really play havoc with our 21st Century sensibilities. Our autonomous lifestyle rebels and shouts that this should not be happening to us. The present Coronavirus intrusion bedevils the pop philosophy that tells us we should live in the moment. But society is crying out, “This is not the moment we want to live!’
Just now we are doing that very thing; we are living in an unwanted moment, and we have no choice. Nature has intruded into our personal space and we don’t like it. But we are all helpless to escape. The invisible and mysterious enemy called Covid-19 parks it’s inconvenient realities right in our face—literally. Even in this age of marvelous technological wizardry, we are forced to face ourselves and acknowledge we are boxed in by our own personal and societal limitations.
When I first began to write this post I was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, observing obligatory social distances. No, not because of the Coronavirus, but for an unrelated follow up needing medical attention. Trying to use a touch screen device with gloves on makes it difficult. Even the helpful stylus has its limitations. Endeavoring to be healthful is hard work, and it doesn’t easily fit with a snappy “you deserve a break today” bromide.
I’ve run into other unexpected roads in life. I learned to drive a car on an unexpected road with my dad being my teacher. I remember that first experience was on an isolated country road in northern Wisconsin after a Sunday morning church service. Dad took me with him when he preached at a tiny rural church way out in the boonies. On that gravel road, with no one in sight, he turned the steering wheel over to me for my maiden voyage. I drove for about a mile, and then turned around to return and was greatly embarrassed as I saw my erratic tire tracks in the soft gravel roadbed. Unexpected roads can be daunting and humbling.
Sometime later, about a month after obtaining my driver’s license, the Lord called our dad out of this life. I was left to be the family chauffeur at the ripe age of 16. That was an unexpected road for me to travel — whether I was ready or not. A few years later I was driving a school bus, and then various other vehicles while serving in youth ministry during my college days. Eventually I learned to navigate mountain roads in Wyoming and Colorado as a leader on youth camping trips. Those were challenging and formative days, and yet a great God has been an ever faithful guide on everyone of those roads.
But the darkest and most difficult journeys are not caused by disease or inexperience. They flow from the struggles of the heart. They come from our innermost being when we realize our limitations. It is here where we encounter our need for rescue, guidance, and peace during fearful moments. Just like the deadly Coronavirus teaches us; we need help from outside of ourselves to meet the challenges of the unexpected, as well as the difficult experiences of life.
The powerful and gifted personality, the Apostle Paul, confessed personal self limitation when he recorded the Savior’s words to him, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9. Because of the Savior’s redeeming work on the cross, we are all able to receive the grace and power of Christ for our journey.
We have a great privilege to look past ourselves and to focus on those who need the message of hope. This song came from the WW II era and was composed by a pastor in India. It was sung by believers living with the uncertanities of war in Burma and northern India.
In 2000 I wrote the following article in remembrance of a distinctively unique experience in my life and the lessons that I learned from that experience.
Thinking about…Vietnam, mistakes, and ministry
In the summer of 1968 I was a youth pastor and had taken my youth group on our second annual Western Camping trip to the mountains of Colorado. We were camped near the ghost town of Marble, which is approximately twenty miles across the mountains (as the eagle flies) from Aspen. On a warm afternoon the group, which included teens from several churches, was rappelling on the cliffs surrounding the marble quarries a mile or so above the old town. From these huge quarries had come the marble used to construct the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and other famous structures in our nation’s Capitol.
I had taken a small group on an errand back to the campsite. We were slowly driving a four-wheel vehicle back up the steep trail when we came upon a couple hiking up the mountain. As they stopped to let us pass, we recognized that it was former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had only a few months before he resigned from President Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet amid the growing controversy swirling around the unpopular Vietnam war. For the next couple of hours our combined youth groups played host to this famous couple, demonstrating our daring exploits on the cliffs.
The fact that is significant about this encounter is that at the moment we were entertaining Secretary McNamara, the infamous Democratic National Convention of 1968 was being held in Chicago. And at the very time we were showing off to the man known as “The Architect of the Vietnam War,” protesting students and police were waging a bloody battle on Chicago’s streets. From then on the national turmoil over Vietnam worsened until the war was finally stopped in 1973. Actually the distress of that conflict still lingers today in our country.
Recently, I’ve read two books that McNamara has written during the last five years: In Retrospect (1995) and Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy (1999). In the first book Mr. McNamara attempts to take responsibility for and explain the mistakes that he made, as well as those made by President Johnson and the other top advisors who led our country at that time. Not everyone agrees with his assessments, and further controversy has resulted from this book. The second book is actually a collection of thoughts from former U.S. leaders, scholars, and even representatives of the enemy nations. Truly, the title accurately represents the contents of the book, and it typifies the disagreement that still exists about this troubled era of our history.
I’ve wondered several times over the past 30 years, “Why was McNamara hiking in the mountain wilderness when his political party and his former boss, President Johnson, were struggling in a battle of such strategic importance?” I don’t know, and these books don’t give me answers to that question. But that experience of many years ago has given me pause to ponder. Perhaps he was just trying to get away from it all. Perhaps he was weary of the battle. The irony was – we were in the mountains trying to prepare young people for battle. We were trying to prepare them to avoid costly mistakes caused by a failure to implement God’s strategic battle plan. We were engaged in youth ministry, and our mission was to prepare teenagers to develop purpose, focus, and integrity in their lives.
When you read the books and articles about Vietnam, you find a rather uncanny accord among the disagreeing commentators. The quarreling parties find common agreement that the worsening situation stemmed from a lack of clear purpose, a decidedly wrong focus, and a resultant loss of integrity. Even though the leaders stridently disagree about the reasons for these failures – and the solutions that should have been invoked – agreement nevertheless exists that the great nation of the USA failed in purpose, focus, and integrity.
Today, bloody battles and conflicts continue to plague our world. Vietnam has faded, but Kuwait, Somalia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and many other hot spots have emerged to trouble our great nation, and world. Mistakes are still being made – and human suffering continues to persist as a result.
But I feel that the battle for the lives and minds of young people is really the most important battle being waged today. Those of us in ministry best be warned that we dare not fail in our PURPOSE, FOCUS, INTEGRITY. In our ministries, in our lives and in the legacy we leave for our youth – we must strive to achieve God’s purpose, focus and integrity.
“…but this one thing I do…I press toward the mark for the prize of God in Christ Jesus.”
On a cold Minnesota February day in 1966 — 54 years ago — I found a letter in my seminary mailbox that shaped my life, and the course of our family. The letter was an invitation from Bud Weniger to consider being his youth pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Normal, Illinois. I said to myself, “ Boy, I’d like to do that!” But how could it be possible? I was not slated to graduate that spring, but I was intrigued by the idea of going to Normal.
I began to research seminaries relatively close to Central Illinois where I could earn credits that could be transferred back to Central seminary in Minneapolis for my degree completion. This was obviously in pre-internet days, but at that time Christianity Today magazine published classified ads that included summer studies in theology. Two schools were advertised: Winona Lake School of Theology in Indiana, and Temple Baptist Seminary in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Winona Lake did not offer what I needed, but Temple did. So, in early June I drove our new Ford Galaxy 500 Coupe all the way down the old two-lane U.S. 41 to Chattanooga, and Connie followed two weeks later on the train after fulfilling her teaching contract. We had no idea that 30 years later our not yet born daughter would become a life-long resident of that beautiful city on the Tennessee River. But God was leading and directing our journey.
Those were the hay days of the legendary Highland Park Baptist Church, and Tennessee Temple Schools, led by the dynamic Dr. Lee Roberson. We became exposed to a whole different cultural world from our Minneapolis and Chicago backgrounds. That summer we explored the history rich area and spent many hours studying and hanging out in the school’s air conditioned library, because our rental house had no cooling, except for a box window fan. It was an experience.
Then at the end of August we took up residency in Normal and began four years of fruitful ministry. Actually, it was an amazing ministry experience. When we arrived, the church was running a little over 200 in attendance, and four years later it was averaging 600. We started with a very young youth group, because seven young people from the church had just graduated with most going off to Bible college. Four years later the youth group had grown tremendously with often 75-100 teens attending our youth activities. It was an exciting time.
Those years in Normal were truly unusual, and not normal at all. The growth and spiritual development of Calvary Baptist during those years was truly remarkable. Many adults, university students, teenagers, and children came to Christ during those years and following. The church was thriving with activity and outreach. We led the youth group on four adventurous Colorado Camping trips that were spiritual mountain top experiences. It was a blessed time of God’s grace in our lives.
At the same time, Calvary attracted many people who had been faithful members at a number of area churches that were slipping into theological liberalism. A robust and growing economy, plus expanding employment opportunities, brought new move-ins to the area. Several of these folks, although from varied church backgrounds, found Calvary to be a welcoming environment for their biblical convictions. The church grew numerically and spiritually.
Pastor Weniger was a tireless worker, and he drew people in with forceful preaching and exposition, but he also recruited and motivated members to put their hands to the plow and work to build the church. Thousands of dollars were saved on building expansion projects through volunteer work days and nights. Additionally, those work projects brought the people together in purpose, and fellowship.
They were great days of working, learning, growing, and serving. Looking back now I realize what a great privilege it was to be part of a not-so-normal ministry experience. Our participation in the church and youth ministry at Calvary was a crucial step in God’s leading down the Grace Journey road that we have been traveling all our life. What a privilege!
During my senior year in high school I attended a youth retreat at Cedar Lake Conference grounds in northern Indiana. At that retreat I heard missionary-evangelist Hubert Mitchell speak and I have never forgotten the impact of his ministry on my life. God is truly gracious to give us these experiences and encounters with choice servants of His during our personal grace journeys.
Hubert Mitchell and his wife were missionaries in Indonesia. They had 4 children when his wife died. Annie Flint’s poem “He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater” brought comfort to his heart and the Lord inspired him to write music for it.
Story by Hubert Mitchell, and relayed by Linda Morken
The Story of a Nail is the singular account of one missionary’s encounter with the miraculous. The setting of the story is the central area of Sumatra, Indonesia. The time is 1937. The players are an aboriginal tribe called the Rawas Kubus and a missionary from America by the name of Hubert Mitchell.
Most of the other native tribes of Sumatra were of the Islamic religion, but the Rawas Kubus held to no religion, worshipping only nature. Thus, they were a people despised by the other inhabitants of Sumatra. They were also a people who had never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Hubert Mitchell begins his tale with his entrance into Sumatra in 1934 with his wife and his two year old son. After three years of tramping the jungle trails ministering to this people, he desired to reach yet another more secluded Kubus tribe in the Jambi Kubus area.
With guides and machetes hacking through the almost impenetrable forest he finally found himself face to face with the tribes people, he with Bible and they with blow-pipes and poison darts in hand. His guide explained to the chief that Mitchell had come to tell them the story of “the Great Chief” who had died for their sins. The following morning all were gathered to hear this tale.
After having explained the life of Jesus and having begun the tale of the crucifixion, Mitchell realized he was beginning to lose their interest. The concept of a cross and of a nail held no meaning to them; they had never seen either one. His efforts at explanation seemed to bring no understanding and the impact of the story was lost. His audience finally began chatting among themselves and drifting away.
Discouraged, he decided to take a lunch break and pray for God’s help. A well-known poem came to mind: “For want of a nail a shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, a horse was lost.” And he added in his mind that for want of a nail it was possible that a whole tribe would be lost.
He sorted through his backpack hoping to find some kind of a nail to show them. Neither he nor his guides could find any nail at all. Discouraged, he sat down by a stream and opened a can of mandarin oranges he had bought in Japan.
After emptying the contents, he started to toss the can but stopped short, hearing a clinking sound in the can. Examining it, he found to his amazement and joy a three-inch nail in it!
Quickly he explained to the people what it was and told them that he had never heard of a nail getting into canned food. Believing him, they responded to this God who wanted them to know about Jesus and had helped them, and the whole tribe was converted. This story is told often in our family gatherings, for Hubert Mitchell was our uncle.
Below are some resources about Hubert Mitchell and this true story.
A fuller telling of the story, with complete illustrations, is available through the Billy Graham Center archives at Wheaton College. Click on link below. The video is an oral retelling of the story by his son.
The following article is offered as a prospectus for hopefully more extensive research into the invasion of the two main Baptist conventions in the USA during the 20th Century into local church autonomy. If anything, a Baptist church is to be an autonomous body that is ruled by congregational polity. Both conventions – Northern and Southern – disregarded Baptist polity and utilized the secular courts to force their organizational will on local autonomous congregations.
Charles Dickens began his historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities with the famous words: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Dickens goes on to weave a tale of intrigue and treachery midst the period leading to the French Revolution. The two cities of London and Paris reflect the contradictions and conflicts of that period when democratic ideals clashed with powerful political, and dominant social, forces.
Because my wife and I were members of two different unique churches, I am led to rephrase the Dickens dictum to say: “It was the worst of times, which led to the best of times.” These two church congregations suffered the loss of property and buildings, all because powerful denominational machinery and muscle was brought to bear to crush their congregational autonomy. But God meant it for good! New churches emerged that grew and flourished, and the old Convention controlled churches faded. One has relocated and exists under a new name, and the other exists no more.
Connie and I are perhaps the only people who were members of congregations that lost court cases to the American Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention respectively. In 1966 we moved to Normal, Illinois, where I became Assistant Pastor at the Calvary Baptist Church. That church came into being four years earlier after the majority of the members of the First Baptist Church of Normal were denied an appeal before the State Supreme Court due to a lawsuit filed by the minority of church members. Even though the majority won a Circuit Court decision, the minority gained an Appellate Court reversal that led ultimately to the majority being ejected from their house of worship.
That group of faithful believers mortgaged homes and raised money within a few weeks to purchase property one mile north of the original building. In God’s timing it became obvious this was a great blessing. The old brick building, known locally as the “Green Church” due to a curious paint job, was land-locked by the rapidly expanding campus of Illinois State University. When the legal battles began in 1955, ISU was an institution of less than 5,000 students. When we arrived over ten years later it had exploded to more than 15,000 students and continued to grow. Twin 16 story high-rise dormitories were built a half-block from the church and the old Green Church was dwarfed by the continual campus development. Today that church building no longer exists and an apartment building occupies the strategic corner lot at School and Mulberry.
Another facet of the story is that my dad, Dr. George Carlson, testified at the trial on behalf of the majority group in Normal, Illinois. Dad was called as an expert witness by the defense lawyers to give testimony relating to Baptist History and Baptist Polity. This trial was only months before dad was killed in an airplane crash while flying to a hunting camp in Northern Ontario in a small aircraft. Less than ten years later I was called as Assistant Pastor by that majority group in their new church. Today Calvary has a beautiful facility that has undergone six building programs over the past sixty years.
The second church we were members of that experienced a losing legal battle was the Falls Road Baptist Church of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. It was thirty years after going to Normal that we moved to Eastern North Carolina to join the staff of Positive Action for Christ, a Bible curriculum ministry that grew out of the Falls Road church. This church was birthed through the struggles of the North Rocky Mount Baptist Church that some Southern Baptist’s believe was the spark that ignited the fire that led to the conservative resurgence in the SBC. Many Baptists across the South were appalled that their beloved Convention would trample the autonomy of a local church, in order to advance the cause of bureaucratic power and control.
Like the Normal church body, the folks of the North Rocky Mount Baptist Church endeavored to practice democratic congregational church polity, and were sued by a minority of members. Both churches, by strong majorities of over 80%, voted to withdraw from their respective Conventions because of creeping theological liberalism and definite doctrinal deviation. The North Rocky Mount Baptist case went to the North Carolina Supreme Court who handed down a devastating decision flatly denying the historic Baptist distinctive of local church autonomy. The rejected majority went one block down the street and established the independent Falls Road Baptist Church.
Like the Illinois case the Rocky Mount case was messy, and both situations received negative news coverage that characterized the opposing sides as battling Baptists who just couldn’t find a way to get along. In both cases the new churches, with new names, eventfully escaped the bad press and local antipathy to become healthy, growing and productive churches in their communities. But their separate stories are fascinatingly similar in a number of ways, even though they fought different ecclesiastical organizations, in different sections of the country. The similarities are captivating and instructive to the current theological and ecclesiastical climate of the 21st Century.
In 1996 I was called to serve on the staff of Positive Action for Christ, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. That organization grew out of the ministry of Dr. Frank Hamrick, who first was the Youth Pastor and then Pastor of the Falls Road church. Frank founded and authored the club program and curriculum of ProTeens, which became the launching pad for Positive Action Bible Curriculum that now sends Bible teaching materials around the world. Today the Falls Road Church has been renamed Crossroads Baptist and is relocated four miles west on over fifty beautiful acres of prime land. God truly is faithful to His churches.
Here are some practical lessons, in abbreviated form, from these two churches that I hope could be investigated in the future by an interested research scholar.
Theological liberalism is real
Baptist churches are either autonomous or not
Power can be corrupting
Unbelief is degenerative
God’s purposes are not thwarted
The purposes for a future study of this subject are threefold: (1) to tell the story of denominational intrusion into these two distinctive local churches, and other churches; (2) to highlight the pernicious encroachment of theological liberalism and legal/social progressivism; (3) to stimulate further serious research into the historical and legal record of denominational interference with autonomous Baptist churches.
Central Bible Quarterly, Volume: (Summer 1966) Article: An Investigation Of The Abandonment Of Certain Historic Baptist Principles By The Northern Baptist Convention In Court Cases Against Local Churches. Robert Johnson
Twenty Years of Faith: History of Calvary Baptist Church, Normal, Illinois. Compiled by Mrs. Lillian Stockton, May 1982.
Southern Baptist Free Press (Periodical) December 1956.
Tears to Joy: The Amazing Story of a People That Dared To Do Right. W. Gene Gurganus, 1985.
Also archives are available at both Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, NC, and Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Plymouth, MN.
Recently I gave this devotional in our morning chapel service on the Maranatha Village campus. This daily gathering is held weekdays to pray for our supported missionaries and share a short devotional challenge. The Bible has much to say about the value and blessedness of old age. May we heed the Psalmist who taught us, “So teach us to number our days, That we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalms 90:12 NKJV
God provides for our Journey
“I have been young, and now am old; Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, Nor his descendants begging bread.” Psalms 37:25 NKJV
God preserves us during our Journey
“Do not cast me off in the time of old age; Do not forsake me when my strength fails.” Psalms 71:9 NKJV
God empowers us throughout our Journey
“Now also when I am old and grayheaded, O God, do not forsake me, Until I declare Your strength to this generation, Your power to everyone who is to come.” Psalms 71:18 NKJV
God promises fruitful completion to our Journey
“They shall still bear fruit in old age; They shall be fresh and flourishing,” Psalms 92:14 NKJV
“For I am already being poured out as an offering, and the time for me to depart (my departure) is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith!” 2 Timothy 4:6-7 NET
We who have lived in the USA during last half of the twentieth century and the first two decades of the twenty-first century have known little of hardness and difficulty. We have been blessed with relative prosperity and peace through our whole lives. Some of our brothers and sisters in Christ have known great personal suffering and sorrow, but even then we have safety nets in our society that include medical wonders, social and spiritual support systems, and most importantly – the grace of God.
Still it is challenging for us to comprehend the richness of God’s grace when we have so much. We know the truth of Eph. 2:8… “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God…” But the redemptive truth of grace alone is much greater than any of the wonders of our age. What a blessing God gives us to trust in Him alone, for salvation alone, for His security alone, and for the enablement alone to seek to glorify Him. God’s grace is truly amazing!
In days to come, the Lord willing, I plan to work on a writing project that focuses on the greatness and glory of God’s grace. Several lifelong friends in ministry have agreed to read my thoughts and give input, suggestions and guidance. Pray with me that God would be glorified in this venture that I see as part of our Grace Journey.
This blessed gospel song came to mind last night as I went to bed meditating on this project.
Grace 'tis charming sound, Harmonious to the ear; Heav'n with the echo shall resound, And all the earth shall hear.
Refrain: Saved by grace alone! This is all my plea: Jesus died for all mankind, And Jesus died for me.
'Twas grace that wrote my name In life's eternal book; 'Twas grace that gave me to the Lamb, Who all my sorrows took.
Grace taught my wand'ring feet To tread the heav'nly road; And new supplies each hour I meet, While pressing on to God.
Grace taught my soul to pray, And made mine eyes o'erflow; 'Twas grace which kept me to this day, And never let me go.
O let Thy grace inspire My soul with strength divine: May all the pow'rs to Thee aspire, And all my days be Thine.