Archive for December, 2008

Fellowship of the Unashamed

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

The following is a letter found in the office of a young African pastor in Zimbabwe after he had been murdered by terrorists. When the Lord returns may we all be found so committed!

“I’m a part of the fellowship of the unashamed. I have Holy Spirit power. The die has been cast. I have stepped over the line. The decision has been made. I’m a disciple of His. I won’t look back, let up, slow down, back away, or be still.

My past is redeemed, my present makes sense, my future is sure. I’m=2 0finished and done with low living, sight walking, small planning, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tamed visions, worldly talking, cheap giving, and dwarfed goals.

I no longer need pre-eminence, prosperity, position, promotions, plaudits, or popularity. I don’t have to be right, first, tops, recognized, praised, regarded, or rewarded. I now live by faith, lean on His presence, walk by patience, am uplifted by prayer, and labor by power.

My face is set, my gait is fast, my goal is heaven, my road is narrow, my way rough, my companions are few, my Guide reliable, my mission clear. I cannot be bought, compromised, detoured, lured away, turned back, deluded, or delayed. I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice, hesitate in the presence of the adver-sary, negotiate at the table of the enemy, ponder at the pool of popularity, or meander in the maze of mediocrity.

I won’t give up, shut up, let up, until I have stayed up, stored up, prayed up, paid up, preached up for the cause of Christ. I am a disciple of Jesus. I must go till He comes, give till I drop, preach till all know, and work till He stops me, and when He comes for His own He will have no problem recognizing me—my banner will be clear.”

Let us glorify the Lord and praise His name forever.

McGehee, Arkansas

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

As I write this newsletter article I am thinking of my old hometown, McGehee, Arkansas . . .This coming Wednesday (October 14, 1992) I will visit my ailing 80 year old Grandmother at the Green Glen Nursing Home (probably for the last time).

I grew up in McGehee, Arkansas, circa 1953-1977. The U.S. Census recently designated Desha County, Arkansas–whose major “city” of 4500 people is McGehee–as one of the poorest counties in America (as reported in U.S. Today newspaper). McGehee (one hours’ drive east of Clinton’s hometown Hope, Arkansas) is an anamoly–it should not exist. Created out of the Mississippi flood plain, thanks to the grace of God, and a 40 foot levee, and the Missouri Pacific Railroad, it has existed for over 100 years.
McGehee, Arkansas, in the middle of the twentieth century, is unprepared to face the present, much less the future. The Civil War (or, as we Southerners call it “The War for Independence”) han gs like a heavy shroud on this declining railroad town. Slightly more than one hundred years ago Federal soldiers unceremoniously marched through our swamps on their way to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi. To our shame, no significant resistance was offered, except a brief skirmish at Boggy Bayou.

Perhaps this was the genesis of the unspoken gult, or perhaps it was earlier when Zulu warriors were chained and transported up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and forced to chop our cotton. But, whenever and however the guilt arose, it still permeates my hometown.

No doubt guilt is the cause of so much fear. And then fear is the cause of so much prejudice. And, like a deadly fever, prejudice still grips the hearts of many of my friends and relatives. But I am not longer angry at them . . . no, I feel sorry for prejudiced people. For, you see, I understand now why they hate. . . because they are afraid . . . racists are essentially cowards . . . and I feel sorry for them.

But, I love McGehee, Arkansas. I thank God for gentle folk who loved me, who taught me to respect my elders, who gave me such an appreciation for history. For Mrs. Strout, my fourth grade Sunday School teacher, who taught me that all persons are equally valuable to God and should be to all of us. For Mrs. Emerson, my fifth grade public school teacher, who recognized my academic gifts and did not let my learning disability hinder my development. And I gave my whole life=2 0to Jesus Christ in McGehee First United Methodist Church (during a Lay Witness Mission–stay tuned! We will have one in Sept., 1993!).

So, with great joy I return to my grandmother . . . the same woman whose grandfather was a founding member of the old Methodist Church. And, while the Stobaughs are not trying to make a social statement, our presence next Sunday in First United Methodist Church, McGehee, Arkansas, while it will shock some, perhaps will give others hope too. Because, you see, the same church that produced the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan for the state of Arkansas also produced a man, whose family includes three interracial children . . . I really think old Sam Parris (my great-great-grandfather)–while refusing to sit with us–would still be proud . . .

Come, let us worship the Lord and praise His name forever!

Two Kinds of People

Monday, December 29th, 2008

“There are two kinds of people,” Mr. Merrill Lynch announced at lunch in the Harvard Club on my last day as a Harvard University Merrill Fellow in 1990, “Those who went to Harvard and those who did not.”
At these words, I nearly choked on my overpriced, overdone filet mignon (that many ordinary Hollsopple beef farmer eat every other day!) and wiped my mouth with my embroidered, starched white linen napkin. I was certainly glad to hear that–especially since I was wearing my best suit–and my worse suit–both at the same time. By mistake I had put on the jacket from one and the pants from another. They looked good to me in the pre-dawn morning. But by lunch the crystal chandeliers in the Harvard Faculty Club painfully accentuated my error! Everything about this place reeked of pretention and I was glad to get my crimson crows feet and to fly home!

Ari Goldman, a New York Times journalist wrote a book called Searching for God at Harvard. What becomes abundantly clear, after reading the book, is that he obviously did not find what he was looking for. One professor, the great Christian writer Fred Buechner resigned from Harvard Divinity School because he felt embarrassed to mention God in his classes. “The mere mention of God–an omniscient God, God as a transcendent being–when I was there . . . would be guaranteed to produce snickers,” Ari Goldman wrote (Atlantic Monthly, Dec., 1990).

It is not he purpose of this newsletter article to bash my old alma mater. No, I thank God that I went to Harvard. I had no trouble finding God there–and I found my wife Karen to boot! But I knew where to look. The problem with Goldman, and with Lynch, and with many of us is that we do not look in the right places. Or, in other words, we do not read our Bible and pray often enough.

The Catholic scholar Sean Caufield says, “I’ve come to know that God is not a ‘thing’. He is not of the things and bits of his own creation, one more objecting thing out there, something amongst other things. he is not even th e supreme thing, the first or best or greatest in a series. He is not relative to anything. He is the altogether Other., the Mystery that cannot be contained or boxed in by any symbol or concept.” I have found that mystery. We must reach beyond ourselves and our troubles and find a God who is in control.

Many of us don’t pray and mean it until we are in anguish. We don’t pray until we are driven to our knees by the circumstances of life. Fair enough. But reach that point soon.

Simple Encouragement

Friday, December 26th, 2008

Everything was going so well. Paul, his friend Barnabas, and his companion John Mark (John was his Jewish name, Mark his gentile name) were leading so many people to the Lord. This was the beginning of their missionary journey and things couldn’t be going better.

Acts 13:13 is a tribute to Barnabas–even though his name is not mentioned. It was Barnabas who had set out as the leader of this expedition. But now it is Paul and Barnabas. Paul has assumed the leadership of the expediton, and, there is no evidence, that Barnabas complains. Remember, Barnabas had first sponsored Paul in the Jerusalem Church–and now Barnabas is playing second fiddle to Paul!
But Barnabas really shines later–when we read Acts 15–because he was willing to give John Mark a second chance.

Paul and Barnabas invited John Mark to join them on a new missionary journey–a great privilege. But, suddenly, for no apparent reason, John Mark abandons his friends and returns home.

We do not know why. Perhaps Mark resented the deposition of Barnabas from the leadership; perhaps he was afraid of the proposed journey up into the platear where Antioch in Pisidia stood, for it was a dangerous roads; perhaps he was homesick. In any event, he was a man who failed his God and his fellow Christians.

Whatever the reason or combination of reasons for John Mark’s failure, Paul thought Mark’s failure was serious enough to disqualify him from accompanying them on the next missionary trip (15:38). Barnabas, though, wanted to take John Mark and Paul and Barnabas went their separate over this issue.

Then Mark vanishes from history, although tradition says he went to Alexandria, Egypt, and founded the church there. When he re-emerges 20 years later he is the man who has redeemed himself. Paul, wriitng to the Colossians from prison in Rome, tells them to recieve Mark if he comes to them. “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful in serving me” (2 Timothy 4:11). So, the man who was once a deserter became the writer of a Gospel and the person Paul wanted with him at the end of his life.

First Church today has great need for individuals who will serve as encouragers of those who fail. John Mark needed to repent–confess his sin and change his direction–but then he needed to be forgiven and encouraged.

Simple encouragement is not a difficult job. It is kindness shown at the right time when someone is in the grip of depression; it is talking with a friend who has marital problems. It is taking time to care. It is being Jesus Christ to someone in need. In Shakespeare’s tragedies–like Hamlet–at the critical moment, the characters do not express self-giving, sacrificial, forgiving love. In the comedies–like The Tempest–love and forgivenss are present. Can you take a tragedy in our church and give it a happy ending? I leave that challenge to you, First Church.

Come, let us glorify the Lord and praise His name forever . . .

God is Always With Us!

Thursday, December 25th, 2008

I want to suggest something so obvious, but so radical, that it seems silly for me to say it: God is always with us: God is everywhere: God can do all things. And if I can convince you that this is true, I want to show you through the Christmas Story that this omniscient, omnipresent God loves us too.
We wonder, I fear, that it is true–that God is real. That He is here among us. I mean, we can believe in the stock market, in the Johnstown Chiefs (although that might be stretching it a bit!), in post-Christmas sales. But . . . can we believe that God is right here, right now, in our midst, right next to you . . . I hope, even, in our hearts . . . Can we believe this?

Statisticians tell us that almost 75% of us believe in miracles and more that that believe that there is a God. But how many of us live our lives as though God knew everything that we were doing, thinking, saying? I bet if we felt this way our actions and words would probably change!

I know that the generation of which Joseph and Mary were a part no doubt wondered if there was a God at all. That is, I fear, a perennial question. As he watched his people being persecuted by enemy armies, Gideon wondered where God had gone. David, as he grieved over the death of his son Absalom, wondered if God really cared. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, sincerely held that God was no longer present or concerned about the world that He had created; that He had placed the world in the universe as a clock and backed off to let things happen according to natural law. The great Colonial Awakening preacher Jonathan Edward shared genuine concern that God was still active in his world. Or, at least, he lamented that no one seemed to act like it!

The great English Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, when his cherished wife Joy Davidman died, wished that God was not so present! Listen to Lewis–remember this is a man who loved Jesus Christ with all his heart.

. . . where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims on you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain and what do you find? . . . Silence. . . There are no lights in the window.

Are there no lights in the window? Have you given up on God?

Surely the generation in our Gospel lesson had reason to give up, to lose hope. I mean, why not? When is the last time God had done anything for them? From their perspective, the hated Romans had subjected God’s people to unthinkable indignities . . . and no end in sight. Where was God? Where was the light?

This generation, as our own, echoing the words of C.S. Lewis, “Not that I am thinking that there is no God . . . the real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.” How is God doing in your book? Do you still believe in Him?

How near is God? As near as one born as we were born, albeit in a stable among most primitive conditions. As near as one who drinks a cup of wine and announces a new Way, a new Life, a new Hope. As near as one who died a horrible death on the cross–because He loved me. And then arose from the grave . . . He is here.

He came with singing angels, dirty shepherds, glowing Wise Men. He came to Mary and Joseph–hardly older than many of the children in this place. He came. He is. He lives. Perhaps tonight, my friends, you can discover again, for yourself, God’s inescapable nearness . . . As we light our candles together, rededicate yourself to His purposes. Amen

Loss Gain?

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008

Paul understands that theology cannot just be reduced to the sociology of knowledge. We can use the sociology of knowledge as a critical tool for helping us understand truth. But biblical truth is always transcendent.

When is loss gain? When we surrender our control and our search for security in tangible things, and we discover that trusting in God and God’s design is ultimately more satisfying.

As a historian I understand and firmly believe that human history is always reconstructed, it is never created. When someone gives me a theory of history–including his own– I ask what evidence does the person marshall to build his case. History is always reconstructed from evidence.

But what Paul is telling us that Salvation is out of history. That it is really something new. Something is created that was not here. A New Birth. And that is worth more than all the knowledge, money, or prestige in the whole world.

As I consider, and my past, I understand now why Gals. 2:20 has been such a strong theme of my life: for it is at the cross where I will find my essence of being. “I am crucified with Christ and yet I live . . .” I am forever captured in this paradox . . .

These hard days, then, are ok. Because long ago–thirty-seven years ago–I made a decision to make Christ Lord of my life. And, from that time until now, I have turned my eyes to glory! He is faithful, and so very good, this God we serve! I thank God for these last five years that I have served you as pastor. I would not change a thing; and even if I knew all this would happen, I would still come. I would come for all the people whose lives were touched by my ministry. I would come for all the good things that have happened in my life and my family’s life. We all have grown so much!

Come, let us glorify our Lord together!

The Triumph of Love and Goodness

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

One of my favorite books is called War and Peace by Leo Tolstoi. I like it so much because it celebrates the triumph of love and goodness.

Pierre, “shy, observant and natural looking,” was distinguished by no particular gift of intelligence, good looks, or moral courage. And, while his physical appearance never changed, his character did. And he became a hero of epic proportions. He selfishly put himself in harms way numerous times and eventually married the beautiful and equally heroic Natasha. Somehow the love between Natasha and Pierre mitigated all the horrible pain that the Napoleonic invasion of Russia had wrought on their generation.
Everything–face, gait, eyes, voice–everything was at once transformed in her. To her own surprise, the force of life and hopes of happiness floated to the surface and demanded satisfaction. From that first evening Natasha seemed to have forgotten all that had happened to her. From that time she never once complained of her position; she said not one word about the past, and was not afraid of already making lighthearted plans for the future. . .(p. 503 in Edmund Fuller’s version).

Natasha and Pierre looked back on their past, noted its impact, and then went boldly into the future.
Likewise, while in prison, Paul is assessing all the reasons he has to boast–great education, privileged birth, and advantageous citizenship (but apparently not good looks!) and decides it is all meaningless when compared to the value that salvation has brought to his live. It is difficult to communicate to persons with twentieth-century understanding that establishing a relationship with Jesus Christ is the most important thing that can happen to them in their lives. The empirical mind-set of many twentieth-century people looks for facts that can be measured, seen, and touched.

Paul is speaking of ultimate things. What really matters. What are the abiding qualities of biblical Christianity that transcend time, place, and culture? And this is a critical question for Paul’s community–who were undergoing persecution and other threats–and ourselves–who are constantly fighting against assimilation and compromise with the world. Collapsing culture can only be rebuilt on the framework of biblical Christianity. This is my personal testimony and the heart of New Evangelicalism.

Nothing I am or have compares with knowing Christ. Wow! Do you see how incredibly threatening this statement is? Because if Paul really means it, his jailers, his accusers, his world has no control over him. Only God. And Paul is privileged to live under the wing of Romans 8: nothing can separate me from the love of Christ Jesus. This knowledge takes Paul to where he wants to go: to a new understanding of his value as a person to God and to others.

My Shiloh

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

East Liberty is a mean, ungenerous place to most. You have to be strong to survive and spirit filled to be victorious. We were both. And East Liberty felt good to me. Not because I want to move back–I do not. But I once prayed for this place, cried for this place. For a while, it was my Promised Land. A place where I put down my roots to eternity. It was my Shiloh. God waited for me in the coolness of the evening and I came.

Likewise this city, my city, Johnstown, feels like home. I have prayed over its buildings, walked through its streets, cried for its children. It has been my Promised Land for five years. And I thank God for the time here.

I thank God for all that He has taught me since I entered the ministry over twenty years ago. He has always done what He has said that He will do. He is good. Really good. And so, so very faithful. He has always loved me and He continues to show me His love in so many ways.

Like my children. Rachel is turning into quite a young woman of God. On the mission field. In El Salvador. Jessica is showing signs of being an intercessor; my little Deborah–a warrior for the Lord! And my oldest son, Timothy. What a miracle! Strong, smart, and himself growing in the Lord. Every week God is revealing Scripture to him. And he is listening. And my youngest, Peter. Named after my20father-in-law whom I love and admire so much. Peter is so sensitive, like his mother, and also principled. And Karen. What a woman of God! Standing firm. Storming the gates of hell if necessary for us all. Developing a life changing ministry in learning disability therapy. An intercessor. I am so proud of her and grateful that God sent her to be me best friend and companion.

Yes, I have so much to thank God for. He is so faithful. Let the winds blow in our lives. Let the flood waters rise. We stand on the rock that cannot fail. We will not be overcome! Remember well the great things that He is doing in your lives. Mark them down in your hearts. Remember them. Celebrate His faithful. We truly serve an awesome God!

Come let us praise the Lord and glorify His name forever!

Old Stomping Grounds

Friday, December 19th, 2008

When I had spare time I visited my old stomping grounds. Seven years of my life were spent in the East Liberty area of Pittsburgh because my old church is right around the corner. Other conference participants spoke of East Liberty with hushed scared voices. And it is foreboding. If anything, it is a more dangerous place than ever. Drug dealing is probably the most prosperous business in the area. Prostitution is openly practiced and gangs flaunt their colors on street corners.

At Shaky Frank’s corner. Once upon a time a friend of mine, a homeless man named Frank (no one on the street had a last name) tried to make a living at Penn and Negley. Alcoholism had permanently damaged Frank’s nervous system so he constantly shook. Day after day, rain or shine, Frank stood on that corner, sold Pittsburgh Gazettes and finally died there one cloudy spring day. But not before Frank visited my former church’s drop-in center for the homeless and heard the Gospel.

My old church is prospering. The building is beautiful, the sidewalks are newly repaired, attendance is growing. Isa. 58–a house we purchased for the homeless–looks as good as new. Vacation Bible School–200 strong was beginning the next week. Interracial Families, led by my old friend Chuck Stewart was growing. I spent a gentle half hour one morning reminiscing with Chuck. Celebrating and remembering what an awesome God we se rve. It gave me great pleasure to see that things were going so well. We serve a most faithful and generous God!!!

And in one corner of East Liberty the Health Care Center was quietly saving lives. About the time my family came to Pittsburgh (1983) David Hall, Steve Paschall, and Sue Craig changed history by opening a medical center to serve the poorest of the poor. Today, there are four doctors, social workers, nurses, and even a chaplain! Our God is so good!!

Above the Health Center is a hospital for the homeless. Ten years ago my friend Steve and I had tried to obtain government funding for such a project. But it was not time. Not God’s timing. Someone else built the hospital. And today sick homeless persons no longer wonder the streets alone. Our God is so faithful!!

Garfield Heights is one of the most dangerous areas in America. In the early eighties an enterprising group of Christians bought fifteen abandoned properties and renovated Garfield houses with money borrowed from Beulah Presbyterian Church (and from other sources!). They met at my church. These idealists brought in 15 families and told them that they were not renting–they were buying these properties (at significantly reduced prices!). The poorest of the poor moved into these houses. Most stayed. Their lives were changed. Garfield was changed. My life was changed. Later, I was asked to be on the board of this great ministry called Garfield Jubilee. Proclaim the Year of God’s Jubilee! Today, Garfield is changing. And Jubilee has renovated 100′s of houses.

In the Face of Danger

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

When Karen and I considered the Ku Klus Klan threat to my family in 1994, we seriously considered options open to us and decided that we would not allow anything to cause us to retreat. No, we wanted our children to see us stand firm under the protection of Almighty God. And we wanted to let them hear that no matter what others might do–over 200plus people attend the KKK rally–we would never give into evil. We wanted to model behavior that would show our kids that standing firm for what was right was more important than being safe.

The American Robert Frost, in his poem “West-Running Brook,” writes:

What does it think it’s doing running West
When all the other country brooks flow east
To reach the ocean? It must be the brook
Can trust itself to go by contraries
The way I can with you . . .

I shared this poem with my wife Karen when we were dating. Then, and now, I feel that it is a prophetic word for our lives–that God was calling us to be a West running brook–it it is the right direction to go–even it it is an East running world.

I am asking you this Christmas to take a stand for Christ. To show the world that you will not be intimidated, persuaded, or moved by what the “world” tells you is right–but you will only stand on the Word of God.

Come let us glorify the Lord a nd proclaim His name forever . . .Merry Christmas!