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February 16, 2004

Alter Call

I continue to be inspired and impressed with our new Rector. Yesterday she initiated something I don't believe I've ever seen at St. John's. We had an alter call.

But let's go to the sermon first. She quoted from Luke this time in a reading of what sounded very much like the Beatitudes. But Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount is half a tale of blessing and half a tale of woe.

Luke 6:20-26

20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.

21 Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.

22 Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man's sake.

23 Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets.

24 But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.

25 Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.

26 Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.

She spoke of balance and turning and in this passage she went in a direction that compelled me to think of Christ's understanding of contingencies. For me, echoes of the Tao were inevitable. For if Christ suggests that the weak have hope and the hopeful have weakness and that our love should extend to those who suffer, surely this is not a one-sided affair. It is a confirmation of all redemption because those who will be made low are those to whom we must reach out yet again. Beware, your position is not fixed.

Yet again she appeals to our desire to believe that love is eternal and conquers all, very powerful. As she prays, she invokes God's use of us as instruments of his grace. To the rich, to the poor, to all who will suffer woe as a result of their accomplishments, to all who will be blessed with joy in remission of their suffering.

During the prayers of the people Rev Collins called to the people to join her at the alter. Say what? As the St. John's Choir, those angels, sang Blessed Assurance the entire pace of the service slowed to a crawl.

What's magical about this place is the quiet. In all my years I have never experienced the plaintive quality of the swooning songs played to a quiet room. Instead of the spirit filled arpeggios and funky blended notes with the organ on full swell, the a slightly Puritan discreteness in near silence filled this large stone church. Usually it is during the quiet after a loud stomping, while people's hands are still raised and swaying, during the times of the calming 'Yes Lords' that this sense of Holy Spirit is present. But here it was in the middle of the prayer - the quiet hugging meditative prayer at the Episcopal alter. It is a potent blend of the African and the Anglican that I have never seen before. I was as teary as I've ever been, but that's not the end of it.

Apparently, a skunk under her house managed to destroy 17 of the reverend's suits. So she was feeling a bit out of it. So immediately after the first alter call, we had an alter call in reverse. This was something extraordinary beyond even high expectations. 100 people left their pews to come and pray for the minister. It was the most touching moment I've experienced in quite some time. Every once in a while there are moments at which men have a certain pride in their tears. There it is.

Posted by mbowen at February 16, 2004 05:29 PM

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A Lesson Learned

Steven R. Cook


When I was a teenage boy growing up in Las Vegas, Nevada, my parents had a little dog that used to love to get into the bathroom trash and scatter it all through the house. As soon as the family came through the door and saw the trash everywhere, I knew it was just a matter of time before my father would order me to begin cleaning. At that moment I both loved and hated that little dog. I would discipline our little pet, but she did not seem to know why she was being punished. Finally, after about four cleaning episodes I decided to try something different, I decided to put her in the very trash can she kept emptying. After trying this technique a few times, she stopped her messy behavior for good. As I think back on that event many years ago, it would have been much easier if I could have simply come to the dog and said now Max, you need to stop tearing the trash through the house, because I have to clean it up every time. But I realized then, as I do now, that when I am dealing with a creature that has limited understanding, I am left to teach the hard way. Sometimes, when we as believers fail to think Scripture in every situation, we too become like an unreasoning animal and must learn some lessons the hard way.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go;

I will counsel you with My eye upon you.

Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding,

Whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check,

Otherwise they will not come near to you. Ps. 32:8-9

Being a new seminary student I am a little excited about serving in the ministry. My excitement, however, recently persuaded me to abandon Christian sensibility and seek to move headlong into the first ministry opportunity which came my way. After sending my resume to dozens of churches I received a call to interview for a pastoral position in a newly constituted Baptist Church. I have some pastoral experience, and thought this would be an excellent opportunity to grow. The church interviewed me, heard me preach a few times, and decided I was their man. I accepted the position and was very excited about the new post.

Prior to being constituted, the church had been a mission for several years and had a small group of believers who were acting as the governing body. I did not inquire about the background of the church before I came in, nor did I consider who was currently leading the church, and that was my mistake; there were many questions I should have asked. After being there for two weeks I made some proposals regarding ideas for spiritual growth and outreach. At first, some seemed to be curious about my ideas, but little discussion pursued. As the Pastor, I assumed leadership and expected support from all involved. As I began to teach from the Scriptures every time we gathered, it became apparent to all that my main interest was in the teaching of the Bible. Though the gospel was consistently made clear at the end of each service (John 3:16, 36; 20:31; Acts 4:12; 16:31; Eph. 2:8-9), my focus was on teaching the content of the Scriptures (II Tim 2:15; 3:16-17; 4:1-5) . Many were pleased with the teaching and were bringing visitors.

After five weeks of being the new pastor, and with several new people coming and joining, I thought everything was going great. Suddenly, without warning, I was called by one of the members of the Pastor Search committee who originally interviewed me, and there was to be a surprise meeting between me, the man who called, and three other members of the church. I thought this was a little strange, but agreed to meet with the four of them. For nearly four hours I sat in the church and was attacked by these men who made it clear they felt threatened by me. The main instigator stated he was afraid I was going to develop a popular following and then subvert the church. I asked him what he was talking about, but he did not have a clear answer. I assured him his fears were unwarranted, but for some reason he was bent on accusing me of things that were either not true or were magnified out of measure. I explained to them I had the gift of Pastor-Teacher, and that the main responsibility of my gift is to clearly set forth the content of the Word of God followed by exhortation to live the Christian life; I think what they wanted was someone who was going to stir the congregation emotionally with fiery rhetoric. One of the men then said we would prefer to have someone with the gift of preacher. I staggered at the statement, and told them I had never heard of such a gift; indeed, the Bible recognizes no such gift. I explained that I was willing to accommodate them as far as I believed I could without compromising Scripture. Of course, it is hard to discuss something with someone who wants to argue from their ignorance of the Scriptures.

One of the main issues I was attacked on was my unwillingness to give an alter call. I do not like alter calls because I understand them to be an emotional appeal which pressures people to do something that the Bible does not necessitate. The alter call was invented by Charles Finney sometime around 1830 during the Second Great Awakening. Finneys alter call sprang from his warped theological views where he saw mankind as not completely fallen and where each man could contribute to his coming to Christ; hence the invention of the anxious bench where those who came forward were pressured to believe in Christ and join the church. Finney also invented the door to door method of rounding people up and pressuring them to come to church. Finneys practices have become common place in the church today where ministers are expected to do alter calls even though the Bible commands no such action. Though most people who practice the alter call today would certainly not agree with Finneys view of the fall of man, they fail to realize that the alter call is nothing more than a tradition held over from the past. Sadly, for many, the alter call is practiced in the church and yet there is little understanding where it came from and how it originated. It has become a tradition which is so entrenched in the church that if a minister does not practice it (as many ministers did not do for over eighteen hundred years), then he is viewed by some as contradicting the very Word of God. Gross misunderstanding of the Bible can eventuate into pharisaism and the elevation of traditions on par with the Scripture.

As I tried to discuss these matters with the men present at the meeting that afternoon, I realized soon enough that I was dealing with a mob that could not defend themselves sufficiently from the Scriptures and had to resort to words and actions that demonstrated their immaturity. For example, after I explained that the alter call was no where found in the Bible, the main instigator realized I was right and in a moment of desperation he stated Billy Graham does an alter call; are you going to contradict Billy Graham!? I was utterly stunned at the statement! I love Billy Graham and think he is a wonderful man who is doing the Lords work for his life; however, Billy Graham is not God and his words and actions are not the final authority on matters pertaining to the Christian life. Billy Graham and his actions are not the measure of Christian truth, the infallible Bible alone holds that privilege. What struck me was that the main instigator (who is himself a seminary graduate) was looking to obtain a point of leverage in the conversation and lashed out with words that demonstrated his desperation. Apparently for him, if Billy Graham practiced an alter call then it must surely be Christian, and if a minister does not perform an alter call how can he function in Christian ministry? I could not answer his question because he sought to attack me using a source other than the Bible (namely Billy Graham), and last time I checked the Bible alone is the standard for faith and practice for the Christian.

It became apparent throughout our discussion that I was being set up for the kill. The men present were asking me all sorts of questions in an attempt to trap me on something, but I was not sure why. Accusations were made against me from one other church member who was not present, but who conveyed concerns on paper to the men who were attacking. I am not sure if the accusations were legitimate or conjured up; I was never allowed to look at the paper or address the person who was making the allegations. The men kept throwing questions at me like machine gun fire. As soon as I would answer one question, they hurriedly hit me with another. Several times I thought about walking out and just telling them they could have their church back. But I thought I better stick it out and see what happens. I thought it would be better for me to maintain Christian poise rather than give in to my attackers. Several times I got upset at the attacks and asked the men to speak plainly and let me know what their intentions were. They would not answer me, but kept going back to their list of questions. Finally, the meeting came to an end, and the main instigator and his company ran out of questions. I think they were tired. After the meeting they talked with me and made me think everything was ok and that we could work out our differences. I made every attempt to let them know we could work together as Christians and that I was willing to offer an apology to the church where I might have unnecessarily offended. They said that was acceptable and that everything was going to be ok. I offered to close with prayer, and they hesitantly complied. I did not know they were lying to me and acting as though everything was alright. In their thoughts they were beginning to conspire and plot against me in order to protect their place of power in the church.

As Sunday came my wife and I arrived early at the church and were getting ready for the morning service. Most of the members seemed a little different. People were not looking me directly in the eye, or they would quickly look away if they did. As the service began, we opened with two hymns, which were followed by a rather long prayer. Then, the four men who challenged me a few days earlier, gathered on the platform and stated that they were going to hold an emergency business meeting right then. One of the men then stated that after much consideration, the group thought I was not what the church wanted in a Pastor and they recommended that I be removed immediately. Before the words were completely out of his mouth, another person from the congregation jumped up and seconded the motion. Then there was a request for all in favor to stand up. About two thirds of the church jumped to their feet as though they had springs in their seats. It immediately became apparent that what was happening had been carefully orchestrated behind my back. In less than two minutes everything had turned topsy-turvy. The other third of the church was in complete shock at what was happening and stood up with me against those who were asking for my removal. The fact that part of the church did not know what was happening implies that the orchestrators carefully selected companions who would follow their recommended course of action. After the majority voted against me, they then asked that I leave the church grounds immediately. When I went to address the church, all of my opponents broke into a hymn and the pianist began to play very loudly to drown out my voice. The music minister stood waving his arms frantically as he looked about nervously. Several of the members of the church ran out crying, others stormed out mad. My wife and I were in complete shock over this orchestrated event. I was never asked to defend my position before the church as a whole. The Bible was never consulted by the church as a group and I was never given a chance to explain anything publicly. I am sure several in the church spread rumors, and most everyone accepted them without question. While everyone was singing hymns I nicely got up and left the church after gathering my things. The members who did this continued to sing hymns until after I was gone.

I went to the church parking lot and found about ten members distraught and angry. No one in the parking lot saw this coming, and were wondering what had happened. A few were ready to go back in and challenge the whole event. I assured them that God was aware of what was going on, that He was present, and He was still in control. We talked for a few minutes and I gathered everyone around for a word of prayer, thanking God for His grace and to offer forgiveness to those still inside singing hymns. As I left the church grounds, my head was swimming with all that had transpired.

I believe in Church discipline and even believe the Bible outlines disciplinary action (1 Cor. 5:1-13; Matt. 18:17-18; Titus 3:10-11; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; 1 Tim. 5:20; Gal. 6:1); however, the Bible was not followed and the actions expressed that Sunday morning were not Christian. Church discipline should serve the church as a whole to protect them from evildoers, not to serve the power lust of a few misguided leaders.

I am home now, in my house near the seminary, and have had a little time to reflect on that Sunday mornings fiasco. In one sense, I understand I was treated unjustly by many possessed with religious arrogance; on the other hand, I realize I had rushed headlong into a church without making sure it was grounded doctrinally, and I did not make sure the church was headed in the right direction. Like many Pastors today, I am learning some things the hard way. I often wonder how much God protects me from my own ignorance and arrogance.

I do not hold any bitterness over those who were my attackers. I realize that the ministry is full of attacks. I have walked away from this event a little scuffed up. I realize religious arrogance is alive today, and as a minister I would be nave to ever think that I could serve the Lord and not find myself under attack every now and then. I do believe that those who attacked me are Christians, and that what they did was very wrong. Of course, I have never met a perfect Christian and I do not think I ever will; this keeps me thinking in terms of grace. I pray for them and hope that God may still use them to further the gospel message as well as offer correct Bible teaching. Deep inside I hope that there might come a day when they would offer an apology to me for what they did. I would like to think that they would have the humility and courage to come forth and admit their wrong. However, the pride of some Christians runs too deep and such an action may be more than I can ever hope for. I have decided to place the matter in the Lords hands and leave room for Him to deal with His own children in the way He sees fit.

17Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord. 20But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17-21

I realize life is full of challenges and tests designed to provide opportunity for Christian growth (James 1:2-4). Too many times I have read the verses above and wondered if I could obey the commands given to me. I am convinced God has not given me commands beyond my ability to comply, nor has He placed me in situations beyond His ability to sustain (I Cor. 10:13). Even though I realize the sinful actions of others against me, I must ultimately accept responsibility for the decisions I make and for the events that come into my life. At the end of the day, I must be willing to learn from the difficulties that I encounter; even the ones I blindly walk into.

Posted by: Steven Cook at July 7, 2004 02:39 PM