I Was Wrong (Again)

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance:
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—
of whom I am the worst. 1 Timothy 1:15

Like thousands of other pastors and ministry leaders, I’ve been following the media-saturated, slow-motion drama at Willow Creek Church near Chicago. The church known for presenting drama on its stage has itself become a stage for a drama to the world. The short story is that former senior pastor Bill Hybels has been accused of sexual misconduct, which he has denied. The church has been accused of mishandling the accusations. After Hybels resigned in April, I opined in this blog that the church would shift into silent mode and handle the matter privately.

As it turns out, I was wrong, wrong, wrong.  If my predictions about the future were applied to the standard of biblical prophecy, I’d be in heap big trouble. Stones would be flying in my direction. I wouldn’t have to worry about buying a cemetery plot. Thankfully, I’m neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. Various accusers have continued to make public statements about Hybels and Willow Creek. Some of it is new information. Third-party critics have piled on. The church has retracted previous statements, apologized for missteps, and asserted new corrections. Hybels himself issued a limited apology, but has mostly remained silent. Analysis of the situation varies widely, depending on which website you’re perusing. The scandal has escalated into a conflict. Two websites have been particularly helpful to me in navigating the minefield.

Dr. Jim Meyer wrote in his blog:

Having been a pastor for thirty-six years, I know how difficult it is for people inside a church to confront their pastor about wrongdoing.  I could probably count on two hands the number of people that came to me personally over the years, so they stand out in my mind … and I’m probably a gentler person than Hybels.

When he denied any wrongdoing, it’s hard for me to believe that Hybels couldn’t recall those confrontations … especially since both women could have escalated matters by approaching Willow’s elders instead.

Conflicts in churches could be avoided and resolved if people would just address matters as they occur … and that’s certainly what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:23-26, and what Paul taught in Ephesians 4:26-27.

The Bible doesn’t give us a specific statute of limitations on confronting those who may have harmed us, but to go back twenty years to complain about a comment the pastor made seems vengeful to me.

There are two surefire ways to destroy a relationship: make a long list of someone’s offenses and recite it back to them … and mention offenses they may have committed that go back many years.

This is the way the world works.  This isn’t supposed to be the way the church works.

I just wonder who is influencing whom.

Meyer’s blog is posted here: Four Questions About the Willow Creek Train Wreck

The second helpful website is an anonymous blogger who uses the pseudonym “nanapush.” This person wrote:

It is one thing to call for broad investigations but another to come to terms with a comprehensive investigation: all people making allegations should be assessed for motive and reliability; all people making allegations should be asked to provide evidence; all allegations should be rigorously assessed, interpreted, and cross-checked….

Willow Creek Church can be easily destroyed by people denouncing others with a zeal that can, despite the best of intentions, make justice ever elusive, innocence a casualty of a righteous certainty that eschews thoughtful action and lasting reform in favor of virtue signalling and tenuous solidarity.

The challenge for WCC is to understand dysfunction at the level of the individual, the cultural, and the institutional. Singling out individuals, however powerful they may be, can at best lead to dismissals, lawsuits, and public shaming, but unless the institutional culture in which such actions occurred is examined, substantive change and reform will remain elusive.

Nanapush is posted here: https://nanapush.wordpress.com/2018/04/22/darkness-at-noon-willow-creek-church/

The train wreck at Willow Creek is not an isolated case. This is a seismic cultural shift within the evangelical church. Earlier this year, Dr. Paul Nyquist was forced out as president at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago by a media-saturated campaign against him. The latest media frenzy concerns Dr. Paige Patterson, former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He was unceremoniously fired earlier this week following numerous allegations of mishandling sex abuse situations and creating a toxic culture of power. Like Hybels, Patterson denied the basic charges. The scandal has degenerated into open warfare with media attacks and counterattacks from accusers and supporters alike. This conflict has enveloped the entire Southern Baptist Convention because of related theological disagreements. The SBC discord appears to be much more vicious than Willow Creek’s conflict, which is almost tame in comparison.

This is a tragic situation. Yesterday Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, tweeted: “My heart has been broken for my beloved Southern Baptist Convention in recent weeks, days, hours. Never more than in last few hours. WE are broken down, indeed. I pray for God to rescue us, and all those we are called to rescue.”

Everybody has dirty laundry. In the past, we used to wash our underwear in private, especially if it was soiled in private. If it was a public sin, we confessed it publicly. Jim Meyer tells a story in his blog about how a woman approached him to confess being angry at him for years for not returning her romantic love. The problem was he never knew she was angry at him. He later wished she hadn’t said anything. He believes it would have been better if she had confessed her private sin in private and left him out of it.

Right now evangelicals are waving their dirty underwear alongside the information super-highway for the world to watch – and mock. The #MeToo movement has overtaken male-dominated conservative churches like a tsunami. What we used to handle in private has become public fodder. We do need to clean up our house. Where the church has tolerated abuse in the past, we must stop. But I’m not sure it will be helpful in the long run to do our house cleaning on social media. We have given opportunity for the enemies of God to blaspheme. They are chiming in gleefully.

It’s not a scandal that we have dirty laundry. That’s a necessary consequence of a church which is led by sinners. The scandal is that we’re scandalized by our own sin. Do we think we are no longer sinners?

If we shouldn’t clean our house in public, why am I posting here? It’s simple. Public sin, public confession.

Yep, I was wrong. The Willow Creek scandal will continue to play out in the public eye. There may no longer be such a thing as a private or confidential matter in the age of social media. This wave does not feel like a passing fad. It feels like a power shift. The rules of public ministry appear to be changing.

The church may never be the same. Long ago I was taught that the state (civil government) is God’s agent for law and punishment. I was taught that the church is God’s agent for grace and redemption. Now it appears that the church is becoming an agent of law and punishment. Who will be left to minister grace and redemption to those are broken in the aftermath?


Our Need for Grace

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (James 1:19-20)

Grace has been on my mind all month. This year March Madness has been much more than basketball. Infidelity and abuse scandals have been snowballing ever since Harvey Weinstein was exposed last October. This month the lives of even more politicians, media celebrities, and ministry leaders have imploded as new accusations are unleashed. Sadly, many of the dark revelations have turned out to be true. Lives are being shattered like glass bowling pins.

Perhaps more devastating is that some accusations may not even be true. It has never been easier to falsely accuse a public figure than it is right now. A falsely accused person has to decide whether to fight back. A long time ago my seminary professors taught that noble ministry leaders should ignore lies told about them. We were counseled to take the high road, remain silent and leave our reputation to God. But with the advent of social media, it’s getting much more complicated than it used to be.  It’s pure madness. In some cases we may never be able to sort out the facts.

Not all the mud slinging is about sexual indiscretion. Some of it is about theological tolerance and hiring decisions which critics can label sinful or evil. Anyone with a blog can smear a leader with whom they disagree. If you’re articulate and savvy, you can gain a following and manipulate a church or a school in the name of a godly rebuke. Followers will applaud you for revealing “the truth” without ever hearing a rebuttal from the accused, who typically won’t respond at all. The dirt flies, but it’s all one-sided. You can even twist a person’s name to ridicule people. (Ever heard of “Obamanation”used for “abomination”?)

Is a church or an organization not headed in the direction you want? Are leaders ignoring your attempts to correct their course? In the old days you had few options except to part ways. But now you can call them out. You can blow a whistle. You can drag private leadership and personnel matters into public. Social media has changed everything. It’s a form of March Madness, but it’s not limited to March.

Leadership disagreements are inevitable. Most high level decisions are complex and debatable. In the early church, Paul and Barnabas experienced a falling out. It involved a young disciple named John Mark who had deserted them on a missionary journey. Barnabas wanted to give him another chance. Paul didn’t. Paul was focused on the task at hand. John Mark wasn’t the best person for the job. Barnabas was focused on the person. John Mark still had untapped potential for the Kingdom. In the end Paul and Barnabas separated. But they parted as friends. God was in the process. They each picked a new partner. Suddenly there were two missionary teams instead of just one. It was a win-win. Paul formed a new missionary partnership with Silas. Barnabas chose to continue his work with John Mark. It worked. Later John Mark wrote the second book in the New Testament. And Paul and Silas became the greatest missionary team in history.

A win-win requires maturity. It requires tolerance. It requires grace. Earlier this month, Jim Denison wrote a blog post about grace. It’s a good four-minute read. The link below is for anyone who, like me, needs grace in a graceless, social-media-frenzy kind of world.


Our Problem with Grace

Shaun White won gold in a thrilling halfpipe finale at the Winter Olympics Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning, however, his dramatic feel-good victory was tainted by news reports of sexual harassment in his recent past. Some writers were blistering in their condemnation both of Shaun White and of NBC’s neglect to highlight the sexual harassment in their television coverage of White’s Olympic quest.

It seems like half the sports stories these days are more about personal misbehavior than sporting events themselves. It’s not just athletes who are in trouble. Announcers are not immune. Misdirected humor or careless slips of the tongue into a microphone have come back to bite them big in the backside. In some cases it has cost sports commentators their jobs.

The pendulum in society is swinging hard from silence to retribution regarding both personal and professional faults. Many people feel as if they are increasingly balancing their lives along the edge of a knife.

If you are in need of grace, I’ve found some and want to share it with you. Yesterday I happened to land on a powerful blog post, Our Problem with Grace, by Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk. Spencer, who died in 2010, was a champion of grace.

Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve thought a lot about grace as I’ve gotten older and lived the Christian life longer. I see and hear young, fired up, Pentecostal preacher boys, full of sermons about what will happen if we will pray more, live holy lives, get extreme, go the distance and all that fizz. It doesn’t get to me anymore. I am slowly living past the point of being affected by all the rah-rah Christianity around me.

I know I am not very obedient. I know my sinful patterns and my perennial laziness. I know where I fall short. I am well acquainted with my lusts, my pettiness and my stupid pride. I may make more progress on these things, but honestly, I doubt it. My efforts at obedience have about run their course. Most of what I am going to be as a human being living as a Christian on this planet, I’ve probably already achieved. I want all the years God has for me, and I want to honor and glorify him, but if I am going to learn about grace, now is the time. I need it now.

Spencer’s blog entry is old, but the message is refreshing and timely. We can soak in grace rather than sour in retribution. You can find the entire post at the link below:





Undeserved mercy, unexpected grace

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” Isaiah 58:9-12

Yesterday I experienced one of the greatest kindnesses I have ever seen. It was a gift of mercy multiplied by grace.

Recently Carol and I had some new flooring installed in our home, a hard floor in the little breakfast nook and carpet in the den and stairway. Yesterday I walked down to the furniture store to pay the bill. Privately I was a little anxious because we’d already spent my annual housing allowance on other repairs and renovations. To be flat-out honest, I was suffering a bit of a private pity party. I know, I know. I shouldn’t engage in that kind of self-indulgent sulking. God has been so good to us. He is always faithful and worthy of our continuous trust. I ought not worry about such little things as paying bills. But I worry far too often, even when the Lord has provided the means to pay.

Most of my private pity parties are celebrated when I play the comparison game. When I compare myself to other people in general or other pastors in particular, it invariably drains my spiritual vitality. Pity parties invariably expose myopic vision. Whether I look good or look bad in the comparison, my eyes stray from Christ and turn inward to self. I carry a burden that isn’t mine to bear. Temporal responsibilities outweigh spiritual reality. That was my spiritual condition yesterday as I pulled out my checkbook. It wasn’t a picture of personal piety.

The clerk laid the bill facing her on the counter between us. I took a pen in my hand and waited for an amount to write on the check. Without any drama or fanfare, without raising her voice or changing her business-like tone, she announced that the bill had been paid in full.

“What?… Who?…” I stammered.

She wouldn’t tell me anything. No names. No places. No explanation. Just that the bill had been paid.

I was shocked. It was an undeserved mercy. I ought to have paid the amount due. Instead the debt I owed was removed. Someone else paid the full price.

But the clerk wasn’t finished. There was more. She wanted me to measure our kitchen floor. Whoever paid my debt also was going to provide a new kitchen floor at no charge. There were no conditions, no “ifs.” There was not a single “but.” It was a gift with no strings attached. I came to the clerk thinking she wanted something from me. Instead she had something for me.

I was speechless. Paying the bill I owed was an undeserved mercy, but adding a kitchen floor was an outrageous and unexpected grace. The prophet Isaiah would label this person a “Repairer of Broken Walls” and a “Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Isaiah 58:12).

Mercy is withholding punishment due. That’s the first mile. Exhibit #1 is Jesus’ atonement on the cross. He paid the debt we owe. He took the punishment for our sin so it didn’t fall on us. Grace is unmerited favor. It goes further than mercy. That’s the second mile. There are not conditions. There are no “ifs.” Not a single “but.” Exhibit #1 is God’s manifold blessings to us in Christ – election, justification, adoption, sealing, calling – to name a few. All provided with no strings attached. We approach God thinking he wants something from us. Instead he has something for us.

In Jesus I’ve experienced both mercy and grace. Exhibit #1 is a hallmark of my life.

This week I was privileged to experience Exhibit #2 of mercy and grace. Mercy paid the bill I incurred. Grace piled on blessings I neither sought nor expected. We were replacing a floor in my house, but God made someone a Restorer of Broken Walls in my heart. We were updating a little house on a highway, but God made an anonymous benefactor a Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Don’t feel left out. You can approach a heavenly Father and find undeserved mercy and unexpected grace. That’s what Jesus has for us. No strings attached. Some­times Jesus’ people do it, too. It can make a big difference. I know because it happened to me this week. Now that I have received the blessing of undeserved mercy and unexpected grace, I get to pass it on to others. So can you.

A Breath of Mercy

My brother Darrell, 56, is dying of pancreatic cancer. He has only a few days to live at most now, perhaps less. We may get to South Carolina in time to see him before he dies. Or we may not arrive in time. When he passes, the immediate cause of death will be complications from a series of strokes.

Today God breathed a moment of mercy. Darrell regained enough awareness and lucidity to address end of life issues. Someone contacted a lawyer and he was able to sign a will. Although speech is impaired, he was able to communicate by phone with our parents, who still live in the same house in Ohio where my siblings and I all grew up. Most important, he met with a chaplain. Although I don’t know the details of their conversation, that is a very positive sign. The south is, after all, the Bible belt.

I am reminded of the incident recorded in Numbers 21 when the children of Israel grumbled against the Lord in the wilderness. God sent venomous snakes among the people. The bites of the serpents were lethal. When the people repented of their sin, God didn’t remove the snakes. Instead he instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Anyone who was bitten had only to look at the pole and he would live.

Jesus referred to this event when he was speaking to Nicodemus in John 3. He identified the pole as a type or a symbol of his coming cross. He himself became sin for us, which is pictured by the serpent on the pole. Like the serpent in the desert, the Son of Man would be lifted up on a cross. Those who look at him will live. It is the look of faith.

Salvation is not achieved by a lifetime of good works. In this word picture given by Jesus to the educated rabbi, salvation results from a mere look at the cross. Maybe it’s just a glance, but the cross arrests our attention. It turns our glance into a gaze. We can look at the cross with full confidence in our salvation. We can do nothing because Christ has done everything. We can receive deliverance only by faith. It is God’s love poured out for us.

If God had removed the snakes from among the people, the people still would have died. They already were bitten. They were guilty of sin. By leaving the snakes in their midst–the consequences of their grumbling, God graciously pointed them to the only deliverance from their condition.

We are in the same condition today. We are guilty of sin. We have been bitten by snakes. Have you looked at the cross? Will you gaze at the cross today? it is your only deliverance from sin.

The Clevenger Chronicles: Over the Rainbow

Over the Rainbow

Over the Rainbow at the Grand Canyon

In late September, Carol and I toured three days at Grand Canyon National Park. We hiked down the beautiful Bright Angel Trail for a mile and a half into the canyon. Shortly after we turned around, a downpour soaked our path. It quickly moved out over the canyon and a bright sun emerged.

A brilliant rainbow formed beneath us in the canyon. It was breathtaking. We were over the rainbow! What Dorothy Gale only dreamed and sang about became a reality for us. It felt like a once in a lifetime experience. At first we were too stunned to think of taking our picture. Fortunately, another hiker offered to snap a photo. What a treat from our heavenly Father! Midday rainbows are impossible except in unique places like the Grand Canyon.

If you look at the picture above, you might miss that we’re actually over the rainbow because the camera is positioned above us and the vast expanse behind us looks like the sky. But it’s not the sky. It’s the canyon below. The rainbow stretches in front of the rocks in the picture—the canyon floor. Isn’t that an amazing sign of a divine covenant?

From the Grand Canyon we headed north to Yellowstone National Park. We drove through a hard downpour and arrived at Old Faithful just as the rain stopped. As we stood at the famous site, a rainbow hovered in the east over Old Faithful Lodge. What a beautiful sight! A few minutes later, the reliable geyser erupted right on schedule.

Two national parks. Two rainbows. One trip of a lifetime. One would almost think God is trying to tell us something. Actually, he is. Rainbows are the sign of a covenant God made with Noah. We are the beneficiaries of his unconditional promise never to destroy the earth again by water in judgment.

Rainbows are far more than a refraction of light caused by moisture in the atmosphere. They’re a reminder that God restrains judgment on us. The colors draw our attention back to a covenant relationship we enjoy with our loving, heavenly Father. Rainbows shout out a universal covenant. They illustrate God withholding his hand of judgment in mercy. We all need God’s mercy. Whenever we see a rainbow, we remember God’s mercy toward us.

But we need more than God’s mercy. We need his grace, too. Mercy only withholds the judgment we deserve. Grace bestows unmerited favor upon us. Grace is consummated in the incarnation, when Jesus came to earth. That leads us to Bethlehem and the birth of the Messiah Jesus. The Savior brings us grace which extends far over the rainbow of mercy. He is full of grace and truth, fulfilling our deepest need. The rainbow is just the beginning. We also need the manger and the cross, all wrapped together in resurrection.

It’s a joy to hear from many of you during this time of year as we celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus. May each of you have a blessed Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”  Genesis 9:12-16

Overflowing Thanksgiving in a Blizzard

As I write this on a Friday morning in Clarkfield, Minnesota, the wind is howling and the first snow of the season is flying. The accumulation is amazing. It’s a genuine blizzard on November 18, complete with a school snow day. The kids are cheering, but not their teachers, who have long term vision and understand the definition of “make up day.” Even a funeral scheduled this morning at another local church has been postponed.

In earlier generations, such a storm would have taken us by surprise. Farmers would have been surprised in the fields. Travelers would have been trapped on the roads. Productivity would have been halted. There would have been loss of livestock and possibly loss of human life. But vastly improved weather forecasting has turned this dangerous storm into a minor inconvenience, at least for those who heeded the warnings and have stayed indoors.

For some that will mean working in the barn instead of the field. For others, it will mean braving the meteorological elements and finding a way to their necessary work. For a few, it will mean the first popcorn and movie night of the season, the first installment of what will eventually turn into a raging cabin fever. But not quite yet.

It’s a good day to be thankful.

All of this raises a good question: Where does thanksgiving come from? Amazingly, it doesn’t come from abundance. The human response to abundance is happiness and satisfaction, often followed by a subtle desire for more. Local farmers will face a stiff test next year when they are tempted to compare the 2017 harvest with the 2016 harvest – and then grumble. Last year I said the same thing after the record harvest in our area, only to be surprised by another year of even greater yields.

Yes, God has blessed us greatly in 2016. Our challenge is to turn these blessings from heaven into overflowing gratitude from our hearts. This is complicated by a sure knowledge that such material blessings both come and go. There are good years and there are bad years… all of which are to result in thanksgiving.

How is that even possible? The starting place for gratitude isn’t bounty; it’s blessing. It’s not good grain; it’s a good God. It’s not preparing for a blizzard; it’s having a refuge when we’re unprepared for the blizzards of life. In a word, it’s grace. For all our lip service to grace, this is a hard lesson to learn. But I’ll try anyway.

Here are two statements to soften my heart: Abundance breeds complacency. Complacency breeds entitlement.

Entitlement kills thanksgiving. If we think we deserve bounty, it’s impossible to be thankful for it because thanksgiving comes from grace, which by definition is a blessing we don’t deserve. We must guard against complacency. Yesterday I guarded against complacency by raking wind-blown leaves, mowing the church lawn and searching out the snow blower. Blizzards come whether we’re ready or not. But we’re not entitled to a refuge from them.

Today is a good day to be thankful, not because I prepared yesterday, but because God’s grace has provided a refuge from the storm. To God be the glory, great things he has done.