Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dear John

Today the worldwide evangelical church said 'So long' to one of its greatest leaders, writers, preachers, pastors and mentors: John RW Stott. In the 1940's, 50's and 60's he stood nearly alone as an exponent of biblical truth in the Anglican Church. His mid-century evangelistic campaigns on university campuses ushered hundreds into the Kingdom, including a young South African student named David Wells. His influence was pivotal in Billy's Graham's historic Harringay meetings in London in which so many came to a saving knowledge of Christ. He was the architect behind the Lausanne movement for world evangelization and founded the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. Stott wrote many New Testament commentaries and has been my personal model of exegetical faithfulness. Perhaps most of all, John Stott personally mentored evangelical leaders in India, South American and Africa and could be called the grandfather of the developing world church. This man's use by God for the expansion of the Kingdom and maturation of it are simply unparalleled. As he passes to his great reward, a reward bought with the blood of Christ, let us thank God for men like John Stott whose ministry influence reached far beyond his London congregation.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Contemplating His kindness

Yesterday my family and I had the privilege of worshipping with friends at a church in Minnesota. At one point in the service we responsively read Psalm 145. In the midst of the reading, I was struck by v. 17, "The LORD is righeous in all his ways and kind in all his works."

For those of us on the receiving end of Minot's flood and the concomitant loses and challenges it's causing, this verse is poignant and challenging. Read it again, "The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works." Few in Minot would quickly point to the summer of 2011 as a season in which God is proving kind to us and our city, but the Psalmist sets us straight. Somehow, in the mystery of God's eternal plan, the evacuation which has left many of us homeless is a mark of God's kindness. The destruction of our houses, goods and neighborhoods is a message to us spoken by a kind Sovereign. There is kindness in our lack of clean water and a functional sewer system. The cancellation of summer sports, the state fair, the swimming pool and life as we usually know it is a clarion call of kindness from heaven. Psalm 145:17 brooks no exceptions, "The LORD is righteous in all (not just some) of his ways and kind in all (not just some) of his works."

As the magnitude of loss for some of us sets in over the coming weeks, we may be tempted to direct our anger at God or get emotionally bogged down in disillusionment. We need to make Psalm 147:17 our best friend and constant companion and trust that no matter what we find when we finally get into our waterlogged houses and no matter how long it takes to rebuild our city and lives, the Lord IS righteous in all his ways; He IS kind in all his works.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


For those of us in Minot, the challenges keep mounting as Alan Walter, city public works director, recently spoke with our city council about the monumental task of restoring our water and sewer systems. In the valley where houses like mine are still under water, restoration of utilities could take months. With winter just months away, that leaves many question marks about long-term housing, etc.

I am not an engineer, and I don't have answers to the practical questions which loom before us. I am a pastor, and the Bible has many answers for the state of our hearts in the midst of uncertainty. This morning I was reading Colossians 3:12-17, which constitutes God's assignment for our hearts ever day as believers in Christ:
12 Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
There are many heart-prescriptions for us in this passage. Paul wants us to live every day proactively putting off our pre-conversion attitudes and actions and clothing ourselves with Christian grace. He also wants us to give close attention to our relationships. The character qualities in vv. 12-13 "kindness, humility, meekness and patience...bearing with one another and forgiving each other" are all relationally oriented examples of holiness. Peace ruling in our hearts is a third prescription from v. 15, and joyful song in v. 16 sets a Christian apart from an unbeliever according to Paul. All these should shape how we respond to life when it's not going our way.
In my opinion, though, all of the above prescriptions for holiness are secondary to the major theme in this passage which is thankfulness. Paul brings it up three times. Look at the end of verse 15, "...and be thankful." Again, in the end of v. 16, "...singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." And then in v. 17, "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." I've read this passage many times before, but I've never before noticed this theme of thankfulness. Sometimes we notice biblical truths when we need them the most.
I'm currently in Sparta, Wisconsin spending time with my family and my parents. Here life is easy. I've been struck by the beauty of the tree covered hills. The creek behind my parent's house is well within its banks. This morning I took a long bike ride and couldn't help think, as I drove by house after house, "Those houses aren't under water. Those families aren't in crisis. This city isn't in chaos." As one whose basement is full of water, whose family is homeless and whose city is in chaos, I could contemplate the placid setting of others with bitterness or jealousy. Instead, God invites (more, commands) my heart into a posture of thankfulness - knowing that in doing so, He is helping my heart stay free from the unseen prison of sin.
Thankfulness in troubled times calls us to trust God and acknowledge - whether we can easily see it or not - that He is good and what He gives and withholds from us is perfect. It was providential that during my morning bike ride I began to spontaneously sing,
Praise to the Lord
Who o'er all things so wonderfully reigneth
Shelters thee under His wings
Yea, so gladly sustaineth
Hast thou not seen how thy desires e'er have been
Granted in what He ordaineth.

There's the key to thankfulness when life gets complex and losses mount: a confidence that our desires - our true and lasting desires - are always granted in what God ordains. Yes, even in a city without water, in a neighborhood without a sewer system, in a house that's still under water.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The flood - a humbling means of grace

Now that the Souris River in Minot is beginning to recede, another flood is rising: the river of heroic effort as neighbors help neighbors and friends and agencies from outside our city come to our rescue. This historic flood has put us who are displaced with homes under water in a uniquely vulnerable position. Many are forced to admit their inability to push back the destructive effects of the flood singlehandedly. I will not be able to empty my basement of dirty river water, clean it out, extract mold and mildew, tear out and replace drywall, wood trim, kitchen cabinets and recover or replace my hardwood floor by myself. The job before many of us in the coming weeks and months is monumental and help from others will be needed.

Our relative helplessness is God's gift. We have a unique opportunity to humble ourselves and come face to face with the mortifying fact that we are limited and desperately dependent creatures. As Christians we should welcome such humbling experiences, for they position us for alignment with God's heart and our sanctification in a unique way as our pride is torn apart. As James 4:5-8a & 10 reminds us, "Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, 'He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us?' But he gives us more grace. Therefore it says, 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.' Submit yourselves, therefore, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you....Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you." In God's economy, the way up is down. Sometimes, the way to greater spiritual strength comes through the painful wake of destructive floodwaters. We should thank God for that.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A note from Ezra Black

A personal flood timeline, part three

Sunday June 26th
• We woke to a beautiful Sunday just after the 1561.72 crest which occurred in the early morning hours.
• 9 am worship at Trinity Church was sparse as expected on site, but other members gathered for ‘north site’ worship on the Air Force Base and others tuned in via Livestream – some in other states and countries.
• The service was memorable as we sang about God’s providential faithfulness and opened the floor for folks to share relevant texts of Scripture that had carried them through the week or ‘God stories’ of His power in action. Many shared – some with tears and others with surprising joy – all giving glory to God and proclaiming their trust in Him. I preached briefly from Psalm 29:10-11: “The LORD sits enthroned over the flood.” It encouraged us to trust His sovereignty and hope in Him to bless us with supernatural peace through the gospel in the face of earthly loss. Then we shared the Lord’s Supper together, as we do each week, reminding ourselves that in the midst of chaos and change, the cleansing of the Cross symbolized in the bread and wine do not change. In that is our hope.
• The big surprise of the morning was having a crew from CBS News show up at the end of our worship service. I thought they were just visitors, but I soon found myself (along with Josh & Angela Hawkins) being interviewed for the national news. As I expected, they edited out my attempts to shine the spotlight on Christ in the midst of the flood. Still, the exposure was helpful as people around the country soon knew about Trinity Church and our role in the flood fight.
• Our family spent the rest of the day with our small group at the Talley home – always a refreshing connection. I was pretty candid there about some of my fears in light of having no flood insurance. We all prayed for each other. Sandy Sanders’ joy there spoke to me, since her house is in far worse shape than mine.
• After small group we drove down to the river’s edge near the Minot Library, the old depot off Central Avenue and on 9th street near the Coke plant (the closest point of access to view our neighborhood). The small lakes formed over the floodplain are astonishing when seen in person. We were surprised to see so many vehicles up to their roofs in water which their owners failed to rescue. One glimpse into my neighborhood showed me just how far off my conservative calculations were of what this flood would become. The water is likely well up on our first floor.

Monday June 27th
• I checked the river levels, monitored Facebook entries about the flood and helped ensure that our church folks were all high and dry. On a tip from a friend who is anticipating building supply shortages in a couple of months, I called Minot Lumber and ordered 50 sheets of drywall for my house (but had them delivered elsewhere ☺).
• That evening our family joined the Wagner’s small group (since we’re living in their home) which was very encouraging as we discussed the flood, honestly shared our fears and spoke of the good, sanctifying work God is doing in unmasking our sin in the midst of this tragedy. We also celebrated Pam Hopkins’ birthday and enjoyed her birthday cake in her absence since she couldn’t get to the Wagner’s due to road closures and congestion on the Hwy 83 bypass.

Tuesday June 28th
• I came to church early to begin preparations for 5+ messages I’m due to give at Cooperstown Bible Camp in July. I spent the morning dialoguing with Josh Hawkins who had by this time taken on the responsibility of crisis response point person for Trinity. Numerous churches from North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Vermont and Connecticut contacted us wanting to help in some way. Glen Stevens, a native of nearby Burlington, which has been hit particularly hard by the flooding, senior pastor of Salem EFC in Fargo, has taken a particular interest in praying for and helping with our recovery efforts.
• Around 11 am I made further attempts to work on my camp messages but could feel the effects of sleeplessness, fatigue, stress and servant-performance-pressure begin to break me down. As I made my way over to the local phone company to pick up a free phone for my wife (lent to those temporarily without our land lines), I got lost, though I know the area well. My brain was starting to shut down. Back in my office I became rather petrified with the thought that I would be unable to preach the Bible camp messages, yet I felt as though my family needed that week away at camp. My wife called around noon and, without really knowing why, I began sobbing uncontrollably. I had hit an emotional/physical/mental wall. I posted as much on Facebook and soon was inundated with kind remarks and prayer from friends. Wade Talley, a fellow TC elder, was soon in my study, encouraging me to set some limits for myself (as a helper in a situation where I myself needed significant help). Together we came up with a moderate plan for my Bible camp speaking responsibilities and he encouraged me to begin handing off my responsibilities to others for the rest of the week before I leave town to spend time in Wisconsin with family. He prayed for me as well. Later Kevin Burckhard showed up with a bucket of Kroll’s chicken and rice soup (my favorite) and prayed for me. Josh prayed for me. Everybody prayed for me. While my wife and kids were away overnight at a friend’s, I went back to Des Lacs where I had a very helpful conversation with the Wagners who then left to celebrate Doug’s birthday. I closed my evening watching My Fair Lady and, strangely, found it quite medicinal to my suffering soul and non-functional brain. I went to bed before 11 pm for the first time in over a week (my normal bedtime is 9 pm).

Wednesday June 29
• I began the day more slowly as my need for rest was becoming clear. After arriving at church, I began to modify my Bible camp messages from five full sermons into three shorter messages about the flood and what I’ve learned in the past week about God’s sovereignty, my sin and limitations and His unfathomable grace. My friend, Ben Leuthy, one of the pastors from the Devil’s Lake EFC, agreed to take two of the five Bible camp messages so I could spend much of my time in Cooperstown resting and enjoying my family. The bonus is that Ben’s family will now be with us for three of the five days we’ll be there. What a providential blessing! But it wouldn’t have happened without hitting the wall of my limitations and having Christian friends step in to help me.
• At 6 pm the Trinity Church elders met and began discussing the big picture plan of what our flood relief involvement should look like. Many challenging questions began to emerge which we’ll need to answer soon as we mobilize for what will likely be several years of relief, reconstruction and relational ministry to those in our community who’ve been affected by the flood. Mark Lewis, director of TouchGlobal (the crisis ministry arm of the Evangelical Free Church of America) joined us by Skype and walked us through some of the basic issues we’re going to be facing not only as a congregation with displaced members in crisis but as a church with a unique ministry opportunity to significantly impact our city with the gospel.
• After two days (Monday and Tuesday) in which the level of the Souris river dropped two feet, it began to level off at around 1560 feet above sea level. It would be days until it began to precipitously drop again.

Thursday June 30th
• My day began with Caleb Rodgers transporting our sons down to his parents farm where they would spend the next three days to free up Terri and me to attend to the many needs around us.
• In addition to working on some of my Bible camp messages, I fielded phone calls from churches wanting to help us and individuals needing personal crisis counseling.
• At noon I took a friend from church out for lunch to discuss his future college prospects before using Ron Molzahn’s binoculars to try to get a peek of the water level in my neighborhood and house (first from the top floor of the Milton Young tower – too many trees; next from the top floor of the Medical Arts Building – again, too many trees, finally from ninth street near the Coke plant – no view of my house, but I could tell that the water had receded significantly since Sunday).
• I spent a relaxed evening at the Wagner’s (who are out of town for a few days) packing for our trip to Wisconsin and enjoying my wife’s company. I love my sons, but what a blessing to have a quiet evening alone with my wife. Thank you Janet Rodgers!

Friday July 1st
• Josh Hawkins and I began our day doing breakfast with Mark Lewis (who flew into Minot on Thursday night and stayed with the Talleys) and Daryl Thompson (EFCA Northern Plains District superintendent), beginning to discuss the details of what Trinity’s relief effort might look like. Mark made it clear that our crisis response might be much longer and more involved than we might think, especially given our church’s focus on gospel-directed relationship-building with those in need.
• At 10 am the four of us joined about 15 other pastors, denominational leaders and crisis relief leaders at Our Redeemer’s Church where we began to discuss what city-wide relief will look like. I was encouraged by the scope of outside help which some faith-based groups will be bringing to Minot. For instance, the national Adventist church has already established a warehouse outside of town where donated cleaning and construction supplies needed by volunteer work-teams are beginning to be stored. The Assemblies of God ‘convoy of hope’ has established north and south locations for water distribution and tents for Wednesday and Friday family friendly activities for displaced families to be staffed by churches across our city for the rest of the summer. It is clear that Minot will recover from the flood and that we will rebuild and move on. The churches of our city will play an indispensible role in making that happen. What Mark warned us about when we left the meeting was our need to work hard to maintain our church’s gospel-focused mission in our relief efforts. He memorably said, "We must not be satisfied with putting spiritually dead, displaced people back into their homes." Therefore, as church leaders we now begin the process of defining Trinity’s unique mission/vision and desired outcome for our relief efforts and the leaders, systems and resources needed to make that happen.
• On Friday afternoon Trinity became an official city distribution point for free, bottled water – thanks to the folks at Bethel EFC in Fargo who sent us a semi full to use to bless our city (which remains without clean water).

The time is now 3:14 pm on Friday. I could continue posts in this flood diary over the coming weeks and months. Instead, I will end my diary here, having tried to give a subjective but clear sense of what our historic flood in its most cataclysmic time has been like for one going through it and caring for others affected. On Sunday I will be leaving for some needed time away in Wisconsin with family, and then it’s on to speak at Cooperstown Bible camp. Stay tuned to our blog as more stories, biblical/theological reflections and pictures of grace in the face of the flood with continue in the days to come.