The Road to St. Paul

Generally, the Road to St. Paul, Minnesota, does not run through Colorado, but for our family it did. In the summer of 1969 I led the youth group from Normal, Illinois, back to Colorado for our third western camping trip. We joined several other youth groups and embarked on an ambitious trek that took the entire entourage of over 100 across the Rockies to the Colorado National Monument and down to the Four Corners Area.

I did not know at the time that I would return to that area a few months later to candidate at a church in Durango, Colorado. That church owned a parsonage with a picture window that perfectly framed the LaPlata Peak, a snow-capped mountain to the north. It was a beautiful spot. During our stay to candidate for the pastorate I spent a day on horseback with a church member to check his large herd of cattle grazing on 4,000 acres of land leased from the U.S. Government. I relished the idea of becoming a preacher in authentic cowboy country.

But it was not to be. After spending five days there, and preaching five times, the church became embroiled in a controversy after we left. The result was a closed door for us, and a disappointment at the time. However, one year later, while on vacation in Minnesota, I was asked to speak at Faith Baptist, in St. Paul. This time the Lord’s leading and timing was clear. We accepted a call to Faith, and arrived in St. Paul in early November 1970, to begin a blessed eight year ministry.

Not surprisingly, St. Paul was definitely different than the growing Bloomington-Normal community, amidst the flat farmland of Central Illinois, or the picturesque mountain setting of Southwestern Colorado. St. Paul was a classic blue-collar, Democratic Party controlled city, and the church location was surrounded by government housing projects. It was a unique contrast from my youth pastor days, but it presented an exciting challenge.

The church was an inner-city work that started ten years earlier because three single-parent ladies were praying for a church to be started in their area. God led Pastor Larry Johnson to meet them, and he began Bible studies in the Community Center of what was known as the McDonough Project in those days. When we arrived the church was reaching out to three housing projects and bringing children to Sunday School via a rusty old school bus and an unreliable van.

Over the succeeding years the Lord blessed the bus ministry with growth to three routes with more than 100 riders weekly. This ministry not only reached school aged children, but teenagers, and a number of parents too. Today, 45-50 years later, we still have contact with many who came to Christ, or were discipled through the Sunday School, youth group and adult ministries. As the outreach to the public housing areas grew, God sent us many choice servants from outlying areas to reach, teach and lead in the ministry. The challenge of serving the Lord in the city became a motivation to a number of families and young couples

McDonough Homes circa 1970s

The ministry grew and a new building addition was constructed that doubled our building capacity, and ultimately allowed the church to establish a Christian school in 1976. God gave us several fine assistant pastors, Max Day, Wayne Vawter, and Mike Kleeberger, plus a host of church leaders, talented servants, and workers. I would be remiss if I tried to list names, and left someone out because of faulty memory.  But one name stands out as an example of the dedicated individuals who served faithfully. Everyone knew Charlie Reed, and the unwavering testimony that he consistently manifested.

Charlie was a character. He was a former prize-fighter, and a strong patriot. But, most of all, Charlie loved to tell the story of how Christ saved him as a young, pugnacious man. Many times I sat with him in someone’s living room, and heard him tell his conversion testimony to a needy person. I can repeat certain parts of his testimony word-for-word to this day. He wasn’t the only one – but, he was a leader, an example, and an inspiration to many during those days of hard work and blessing.

We reached out to all people. While thinking about the recent tension and riots in Minneapolis and St. Paul I recalled an experience I had with a large black family. The mother and her bunch of kids came regularly to our services. They were in the welfare system at the time, and the husband was a day laborer who had a drinking problem. I developed a relationship with Billy, although he did not come to church. I visited the home, and at times he would pick up the family after services and I would talk with him.

Once he showed up after a Sunday evening service to apologize to the wife after sobering up from a drunken bender. I admonished him for his behavior and encouraged him to be a responsible dad for his kids. He showed sincere contrition and vowed to do better. My heart went out to him.

Following that incident I was invited to a meeting of a dozen social workers to discuss the perils of this struggling family. After some discussion I remember all the social service professionals turned to me and said, “Reverend, it looks like you are the only one here who has a relationship with Billy.” Sad, but true. Not long after that we were called to leave Faith for my new ministry, and within six months I was sent a report that Billy got in a fight and killed a man while drunk. That was Eastside St. Paul ministry. Often tragic; but always rewarding.

After being in St. Paul several years I learned that the notorious Chicago gangsters would hide out there during the bootlegging days of the Prohibition Era and Great Depression. The remnants of that ungodly influence were still in evidence during the 1970s, but God’s grace was sufficient to do a work of grace in many lives during our years of ministry in St. Paul. We are so thankful to be a part of that grace journey.    

The Road Home

Going home can be such a blessing. At this stage in our life Connie and I greatly enjoy the tranquil home we have in our small central Florida Christian retirement community. Every time we travel to the beautiful, but congested, costal beach areas, or the traffic gridlock of Orlando, we are so thankful to return to our safe and comfortable community and home. 

Home is so important because it is often where love is; or where security is, or where precious memories linger, or where the simple necessities of life are readily at hand. Sometimes we think of home as where we now live, but at other times the thought of home goes back to our childhood residence. 

But in our transient and mobile society many of us do not have a “old home” that still exists where we grew up. A house may be there — but it is not the same place any longer. It is where we played, grew, and learned life’s most important foundational lessons —but it is not home anymore.

What a joy to look forward to a new home someday; a heavenly home. We know that Paul says in 2 Cor. 5 “…that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord… We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” That home will be great because our Lord will be there. 

C.S. Lewis, in his book Pilgrim’s Regress, muses: “One road leads home and a thousand lead into the wilderness.” Even though one may not have had a joyous home growing up, or that old home no longer remains where family shared blessed times — the Lord Jesus has prepared a place. We need not wander in the wilderness when we can be sure of our eternal home.

James M. Gray, president of Moody Bible Institute, penned this gospel song during the onset of the Great Depression. The Road Leads Home

O pilgrim, as you journey, 
Do you ever gladly say, 
In spite of heavy weather 
And roughness of the way, 
That it really does not matter, 
All the strange and bitter stress – 
Heat and cold, and toil and sorrow, – 
Will be healed with blessed-ness!

O safe and blessed shelter, 
Heavenly mansions of content! 
There are the holy kindred 
From our hearthstone’s early rent; 
And our precious, loving Saviour, 
Who our sins on Calv’ry bore – 
Who would ever mind the journey, 
With such blessed-ness in store?

There’s comfort on the journey, 
There is also guide and chart; 
There’s wisdom for the asking, 
And there’s solace for the heart; 
And there is no need of turning 
To the left or to the right, 
And no fear need stir the bosom 
At the coming of the night.

For the road leads home, 
Sweet, sweet home! 
O who would mind the journey 
When the road leads home? 
For the road leads home, 
Sweet, sweet home! 
O who would mind the journey 
When the road leads home?

The Unwanted Road

Back on September 1, 2019 I told the story of my quintuple bypass in 2003 in a blog post on Grace Journey. In that post I recounted my testimony of how the Lord provided an ambulance at the right time to take me from Nash County Hospital in Rock Mount to the Heart Center at Wake Med in Raleigh, North Carolina. Here is that account:

One of my colleagues at Positive Action later said, “Why in the world was there an ambulance from Wake delivering a patient to Nash General?   No patient is ever sent from Wake Med to Rocky Mount.”  Well, the Lord, and the Wake County Sheriff Department, transported an incarcerated patient to the Nash County jurisdiction just so that the high-tech medical limo (staffed with a cardiac team) would be there for me.  And would you believe that one of the EMT’s on that ambulance was a wonderful Christian (from England, no less) and we had great fellowship all the way to Raleigh.  My Lord is a great God!! https://gracejourney.blog/2019/09/01/my-2003-heart-journey/

At that time, I must confess, that was an unwanted trip. But now many years later I realize how strategic it was — a trip of a lifetime! That trip began a journey of learning, growing and trusting. It was unwanted at the time…but life saving. It is hard to believe that was almost 17 years ago. Truly, the Lord is good.

Currently, we are in the midst of the frightening and frustrating Coronavirus Pandemic. It has been over four weeks now and all of society is uncertain about the extent of the present and future threat of this yet elusive enemy. And citizens are becoming restless, impatient, and, in some cases, restive about the restrictions of stay-at-home living. This state of affairs runs totally counter to our instant culture that thrives on at-a-glance and one-touch technology.

But consider our present condition in contrast to the four years plus of World War II. The citizens of our country endured long years of restrictions and social discomfort. And they did not have smart phones for instant communication, or large screen home entertainment systems with a veritable mountain of binge-watching digital options. They did all of this without drive-up fast food emporiums, big box warehouse stores for “necessary” products, or climate controlled comfortable living spaces.

They stood in long lines just to get “Ration Books” to buy truly essential products. If they were privileged to own an automobile they were subjected to long lines at the gas pump to purchase a rationed amount of fuel.

It was a long and grueling period of sacrifice and restriction. There was a massive appeal by the government for citizens to work together for the common cause of national security and continued freedom.

Truly many in our society today are suffering greatly. Too many are dying in hospitals without the benefit of family members at their bedside. Many others have gone through very dark valleys fighting back to regain their health. This has been a time for believers to, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” as the Apostle Paul enjoined us to do in ‭‭Galatians‬ ‭6:2‬. But it is difficult to help others when we are restrained by social distancing.

But it has been a good time to get alone with God and his word, and to read, think, and meditate about God and his truth. During this period of time I have been privileged to read John Piper’s words from his hastily written helpful book Coronavirus and Christ. He gives the following thoughts that are convicting and challenging:

The coronavirus pandemic is where I live. Where we all live. And if it weren’t the coronavirus, it would be the cancer just waiting to recur. Or the unprovoked pulmonary embolism from 2014 just waiting to break off and go to my brain and turn me into a mindless man who will never write another sentence. Or a hundred other unforeseen calamities that could take me—and you—down at any moment. 

The Rock I am talking about is under my feet now. I could say that the Rock is under my feet now just because hope beyond the grave is present hope. The object of hope is future. The experience of hope is present. And that present experience is powerful. 

https://www.desiringgod.org/books/coronavirus-and-christ

The book is free by clicking on the link above and downloading to your computer or device in several optional formats. It will be a blessing.

The Unexpected Road

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.

The Road to Marble

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.

The Group in 1968 at the Yule Quarry, above Marble, Colorado. Elevation: 7,992 ft.

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.   

A camper demonstrating rappelling down the 100+ ft. opening.

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. 

The Yule Quarry was reopened for mining in 2011.

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.

There are three openings, or quarries, in the mountain.

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.

This was the 1967 group that also camped at Marble, and blazed the trail for the 1968 trip.

“…but this one thing I do…I press toward the mark for the prize of God in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 3:13-14

The Road to Normal

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.

Student Body @ Tennessee Temple Schools in Chaucey-Goode Auditorium, Highland Park Baptist Church, Chattanooga

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.

Calvary Baptist Church after first Educational Wing completed

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.

Calvary Youth Group on a Colorado Camping Trip

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!

The Story of a Nail

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.

https://www2.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/bulletin/bu1303.htm

A TALE OF TWO CHURCHES

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.

The orginal Logan Chapel and subsquent addition at Calvary Baptist, Normal, IL

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.

The old First Baptist, Normal, building (“The Green Church”)

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.

Main Entrance at Calvary Baptist Church today

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.

The old North Rocky Mount Baptist Church building on Falls Road

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.

The former Falls Road Baptist Church building that was sold in 2015

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.

The new Crossroads Baptist Church building on Highway 48, near Interstate 95

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.

Resources:

  • 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.

Old Age is Blessed

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

Grace Alone

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.