The Life of the Funeral

I’m attending more funerals lately. It’s the inevitable outcome of advancing years. Observing the departures prompts a contemplation of mortality, especially mine.

Samuel Johnson said “The prospect of being hanged wonderfully focuses the mind.”  He overstates. It really doesn’t take a noose. Even natural death is riveting. It’s not just another’s passing that grabs my attention. It is also the reflection on my life, now 82% complete actuarially speaking. What kind of life has it been…will it be?

Dallas Willard, the late philosophy professor at the University of Southern California and honored friend of the Okoboji Bible Conference, coined a helpful phrase to describe the life Jesus offered His followers. Willard called it an “eternal kind of life.” The recorded literal words of Jesus that describe this life bear implications of both quantity and quality.  The English word “eternal” or as in the King James Bible, “everlasting,” suggests quantity only. Trust Jesus and live forever somehow, somewhere. Much Christian talk leans toward “the sweet by and by.”

Another understanding, captured by Willard’s phrase, comes closer. Jesus offers full life now. He said so according to John 10:10, “I have come that you might have life to the full.” And yes, He also promised life without end in the age to come. He says that life will be with Him. “I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live.” (John 14:3, The Message)

At the funerals I attended in the last few weeks, I was taken by the simple beauty of two lives well lived. A phrase that came to mind was something Jesus said of His followers, “You are the salt of the earth.” Both of these people lived flavorful lives. They seasoned those who knew them. I’m sure they had their flaws but by the time I met them, they each looked a lot like Jesus. This man and woman were kind, loving, full of grace, and gentle…two Christ-confessing, Bible-believing people who never knew each other but may yet meet. Both died in their late 80s. Neither was famous. Like most of us, their great grandkids will barely remember them. But they lived “eternal kind of lives” and I’m convinced they continue full and forever. They were reborn to this kind of life when they put their trust in Jesus Christ.

I lack statistics, but it appears to me that attendance at formal funeral services is down while participation at visitations is up. I surely don’t have a problem with personally engaging surviving loved ones with sympathetic condolences. I’m just convinced that a Christian funeral is also a good time to give attention to mortality and eternity; to remember that life is uncertain and oh so short; to hear the Bible, the Word of God; and to sing an old hymn or a new chorus with tears. Jesus offers an “eternal kind of life” that can begin now and last forever. A funeral, of all places, could become the open door to that kind of living.

In Times Like These

Ruth Caye Jones read the headlines of the Pittsburgh newspaper on a morning in 1943. This pastor’s wife and mother of five saw the casualty lists from World War II and faced another bleak day of rations and sacrifice as war ground on in Europe and the Pacific. She wrote these words:

In times like these you need a Savior,
In times like these you need an anchor;
Be very sure, be very sure,
Your anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock!

This Rock is Jesus, Yes He’s the One,
This Rock is Jesus, the only One;
Be very sure, be very sure,
Your anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock
!

Ruth Jones had been reading the Bible book of 2 Timothy. Chapter 3 begins with these words, “In the last days, terrible times will come.” Though her wartime feelings underscored the words, her renewed mind chose not to linger in the dark place. She remembered another Bible verse, Hebrews 6:19, which speaks of Jesus Christ with these words, “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…” The two thoughts coalesced into the Gospel song that many have loved for decades.

The song has come to me in recent weeks. Fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes have filled our newsfeeds. More gut-wrenching than these natural disasters are the actions of a crazed gunman in Las Vegas. The international background noise is amplified by threats and counter-threats of small men with big weapons.

There’s more than enough trouble to go round in the world. And most of us live with some, perhaps much, personal heartache. As we view distant disasters on our phones, we soldier on in the face of ill-health, unemployment, addiction or abandonment. In times like these, we need an anchor.

Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 7) records a story Jesus told. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.  And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

Upon what or whom does your life rest in restless times? Jesus’ story is filled with moving parts like people, houses, and storms. The wise choose to rest on the one immovable rock, Jesus, an anchor for the best and worst of life and death. In times like these, be very sure your anchor holds and grips the solid rock.

You Never Know

Tom and Eleanor Dvorchak were just doing the right thing when they welcomed a young Chinese leader to their Muscatine, Iowa home in 1985. The Dvorchaks shared what they had and showed hospitality and respect.

It came as something of a surprise to them in 2012 when Xi Jinping, now Vice President of China, wanted to return for a visit. Xi had political reasons no doubt, as he moved toward the highest office in his land. But Eleanor Dvorchak suggested another reason. As reported then by David Pitt of the Associated Press, “She speculated that Xi wanted to return because volunteers in Muscatine were generous with their time as they showed the Chinese delegation their farms and the community, and invited them into their homes.”

Xi confirmed that sentiment with his response, as reported by CNN, “You were the first group of Americans I came into contact with,” Xi told his Iowa friends. “To me, you are America.”

And we all know that a little hospitality has gone a long way. Xi Jinping is now president of China. He is one of the first global leaders to visit the United States under the Trump administration. And Governor Terry Branstad, who shared a toast with Xi Jinping in 2012, will be changing his address to Beijing. Iowa seeds of friendship and respect are producing a harvest of apparent good will and international understanding.

In the next few weeks, we will welcome the world to our region. I’m not talking about the tourists. They’ll be here for sure. Instead, I’m thinking of the J-1 students, hundreds of them, who will be among us all summer to help meet employment demands. Who will be hospitable to the students who help us offer hospitality?

Employers, churches, tourism leaders and others are growing a unified effort to assure safe, happy, productive experiences for the visiting students. That effort will be multiplied when those of us who reside here emulate the Dvorchaks of Muscatine, making a memory of American kindness and respect.

Of primary importance is patience on the roadways as our guests learn the ropes of biking and walking here. This also includes how we treat them as they serve us. Their English is a work in progress. Kindness will ease the adjustments. An invitation to your home will never be forgotten. Research indicates that only 1 in 5 international students are ever invited into an American home. Let’s improve that ratio.

Are there future global leaders among them? You never know. But every one of them is a brave human being who took the risk of leaving the familiar cultural comforts of homeland and language for an adventure at minimum wage. Let’s all do our part to make it a great experience so that in years to come, wherever they are, part of their hearts will be at Okoboji.

There’s No App For That

“I wish prayer was this easy.” The thought bounced across my mind as I put my finger on coveted items via the Amazon app. The corrective thought came quickly, “My smartphone is not good for my soul.”

The Bible book of James gives advice on prayer. “You do not have because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (James 4:2b-3) I’m sure that is true. Too many prayers go unprayed and too many are selfishly motivated.

But all of us have also prayed heartfelt prayers that are not answered as we want. The loved one suffers and even dies. The affliction persists. The trouble remains. This is where God and Jeff Bezos part ways. Unlike Amazon, God does not come through for us in the way we want, when we want.

No matter how friendly Amazon may appear their corporate goal for the customer is transactional. They want to make a sale and they want to make a profit. God comes from a different perspective. His desire for humankind is relational rather than transactional. Prayer is not commerce, it is friendship. Prayer is not touchscreen exact but rather friend to friend subjective. Jesus said it, “I have not called you servants, but friends.”

In the earliest passages of Scripture, we see God walking “in the cool of the day” seeking His created human friends. In the Gospels, Jesus, God-with-us, invites people to Himself not to sell or to buy, but to know and to love. I like my smartphone because it is instant. Instant knowledge, instant orders, instant communication. Intimacy is not instant. It takes time. It receives gifts. It endures disappointment. Intimacy learns to love through it all and in spite of the worst. My smartphone is a tool, not a friend.

At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, we read of the Devil tempting Him with shortcuts to control and satisfaction. These were smartphone moments for Jesus in which He was tempted to choose the easy and pleasurable rather than the way of obedience and love, waiting for God’s plan to unfold.

As Jesus approached His execution, He prayed to the Father, “Not my will but thine be done.” He submitted control to accomplish the greater good. My smartphone gives me the illusion of control and makes prayerful, submissive waiting seem painful, slow, and unproductive.

Perhaps you remember the old gospel song derived from Isaiah 40:31, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint. Teach me Lord, teach me Lord to wait.”

Prayer is not online shopping. I am not in control. Prayer is loving and being loved, listening and talking, asking and receiving, weeping and waiting. Pastor and author Ben Patterson says, “What happens in me while I am waiting is more important than whatever it is that I am waiting on.” Smartphones and Amazon apps don’t teach that.

 

What is Truth?

“Post-truth” was the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year for 2016. The selection was presumably actually made and the report thereof is verifiable and true. We all know how reliable Wikipedia is. Right? But really, how are we to know that the Oxford Dictionaries exist? That the folks there made such an assertion? In a post-truth, post-trust era, what can one believe?

The dictionary publisher defined post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Personal beliefs can take you from a flat earth to Elvis sightings, or for that matter, from intelligent design of the universe to resurrection from the dead. When personal beliefs trump the facts the whole world becomes the comment section of some wacky Facebook post.

Beginning today, over 2 billion Christians around the world begin the season of Lent. This preparation and annual remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection is the pinnacle of the Christian year. What are we to believe about that? Is it an homage to “appeals to emotion and personal belief” or did Jesus Christ really rise from the dead? Even Pilate, the Roman prefect (validated by extrabiblical testimony as an actual Roman official at the time of Christ) charged with ascertaining the guilt or innocence Jesus, received this testimony of Jesus: “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” To this, Pilate answered, “What is truth?” Was Pilate scoffing at Jesus? Or, was he asking a question that humans have been asking for all recorded history? Was Jesus a deranged, megalomaniac? Or, was he genuinely born into the world to “testify to truth?”

Of course, not everything is post-truth. When I get on an airplane I trust several “truths” from the skills of mechanics to the laws of aerodynamic lift. I trust the sobriety of the pilot and the accuracy of the navigational instruments and air traffic controllers. I access most of these from personal belief based on experience. Was I to bring “objective fact” to bear I would ask the pilots to take a breathalyzer test. I would measure the wings of the aircraft, weigh the airplane, take meteorological assessments and compute the likelihood of flight. I don’t. I just believe.

Was the resurrection of Christ an objective fact or is it just the personal belief of billions and billions across the last two millennia? Lent is a good time to explore histories and His stories. Lent is a good time to decide if you will believe Jesus’ reported words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Or, if you’ll go with Pilate’s “post-truth” model and wash your hands of it all.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” An old religious song about Jesus’ trial before Pilate asks the question, “What will you do with Jesus? Neutral you cannot be.” One could argue that in a post-truth, post-trust society the answer no longer matters. I would suggest the opposite. I matters more than ever.

Jesus People

The church can be amusing. You’ve seen those church reader board photos floating around the internet, “Free Dinner – All Welcome – Come and Enjoy our Hostility.” Then you have your “bulletin bloopers” like, “The ushers will eat latecomers” or “Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community.”

The church can be confusing too. What, after all does a Presbyterian believe or do that an Episcopalian or a Lutheran doesn’t? I sometimes feel sorry for the poor soul who needs a dictionary just to cry out to God for help.

I’m ok that the church comes in many flavors, wears many labels, and gathers in diverse meeting places. What bothers me is our failure to know, appreciate, and be strengthened by our differences. The Church of Jesus Christ is balanced in her breadth. But in any given local assembly she can be imbalanced. Part of that is a pendulum effect. The divisions mostly occurred as corrections to perceived imbalances. But part of it is just the isolation of churches holed up under their historic label with little opportunity to find the vitality of faith, prayer, love, and mission that resides just down the street.

A recent stunning image of persecution and martyrdom captured our attention. Twenty-one Egyptian Coptics, Christians of one of the earliest streams of the Church, were summarily beheaded on a Libyan beach. Pope Francis offered a heartfelt and captivating response: “The blood of our Christian brothers is a witness that cries out. If they are Catholic, Orthodox, Copts, Lutherans, it is not important: They are Christians. The blood is the same: It is the blood which confesses Christ.”

Suffering and blood gave occasion for a deep sense of Christian unity. Historic division became secondary. Doctrinal differences were laid aside for the moment. Only one commonality mattered. Followers of Christ confess Him as Lord even unto death.

In the earliest history of the church called The Acts of the Apostles, we read that after the martyrdom of Stephen, “a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” The global spread of the Good News of Jesus began in ugly persecution, even martyrdom.

What if in our time ugly persecutions (and researchers indicate that they are accelerating) would not scatter the church but rather, unite her? What if opposition drove us to one another in such a way that all who confess Christ as Savior and Lord renewed our love for one another. In this way, we could be strengthened to do that radical thing that Jesus called us to do, that is to love even our enemies.

Here’s your homework assignment. If you have no church, visit one. Laugh at the typos in the bulletin, and then look for Jesus there. And if you have a church, visit a different one. Worship God and be enriched by the beauty and breadth of the body of Christ.

Rick Porter
Executive Director
Okoboji Bible Conference Ministries

Faith and Fear

A recent report from Omaha indicated that medical personnel at the University of Nebraska Medical Center were being “shunned” for fear of ebola. As you know, two or three people with the disease were being treated at a biocontainment unit there. Kids of the medical workers were being disinvited from birthday parties.

Ebola is real and serious. But over-reaction may be symptomatic of a deeper malady. The mantra of our day seems to be, “be afraid, be very afraid.” Perhaps in writing this I’m joining the “anti-hysteria hysteria” as one author called it. Another labeled the feverish fear a “typically American response.” But why is that?

Blame complex times. Blame the twenty-four hour news cycle. Blame social media. Each has its part. Blame ignorance for sure. A recent University of Minnesota study suggests that people are more likely to be afraid of ebola if they failed to give attention to math and science in school. The example given in a New Yorker article was the fellow who when told that he had a 1 in 13 million chance of contracting the virus responded with, “Whoa, that’s totally scary. Thirteen million is such a big number.”

But this is the faith column, so let’s focus there. At least some and perhaps much of the cause for the irrational fear that seems to grip our country these days is our diminished faith in a benevolent, self-revealing deity. Fear flourishes as faith fades.

Israel sang a hymn to God, recorded in Isaiah 26:

You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal.

The Bible is filled with instructions to forsake fear. Angels appear to announce it. Jesus often spoke it. The stories of Scripture describe the interventions of God in the lives of those who chose faith rather than fear. I’ve been on the planet long enough to testify that most of what I feared never happened, and when it did, faith in God and the love of others carried me through the trial.

Oswald Chambers must have known fear. The Scottish author and military chaplain served in Egypt in World War I. But he captured an important thought for his day and for ours when he wrote: “The remarkable thing about God is that when you fear God, you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God, you fear everything else.”

In frightening times, fear God and nothing else. That is, feed your faith in Him, learn of Him, revere Him and trust Him. Having done that, go to birthday parties.

Good News AFTER Conference

Could you use some good news? I have some. In fact, I have quite a lot of good news to share with you and the entire Okoboji Bible Conference family.

If you were able to attend even one Conference session back in August, some of this may be old news. If you could not attend, please receive this letter as a friendly update from a familiar and favorite place. Later, I’ll share some good financial news too. 

Mark Mittelberg surprised us all. From his global perspective as a church leader and author, he spoke of reaching others for Christ. Early on he dropped a good news bombshell. Mark testified that he came to Christ as a young man after listening to a message recorded at the Okoboji Conference in the 1970s! Mark heard, believed and was saved. Think of it. Mark stood in the exact spot from which THE BEST NEWS EVER was communicated to him four decades before. Then, on August 9, 2012 he found himself sharing that news in person in Arnolds Park and beyond, via recording, radio and the internet! Who else might hear and believe? And where might that believer be forty years hence?  

Conference is not just a once-per-year gathering for Christians. We scatter Good News seed everywhere all the time. Across eight decades Okoboji has influenced influencers.

  • A grandmother shared why Conference matters to her: “I see the Christian growth of families across generations. There is something special here.”
  •  Among our guests were two young missionary couples. One partner of each was nudged perhaps even shoved toward global service at Conference. Where do they serve now? Mongolia and Afghanistan. Good news cultivated at Okoboji spreads to far corners of the globe.
  •  A gentleman attended with his family for the first time ever this year. They returned for seven sessions. Why? “This is so good. I think every session should be packed!”

Several times at Conference I mentioned an all-year-long financial shortfall. In spite of solid Conference offerings, I could see nothing but a sizable deficit looming for our September 30 fiscal year-end. When Conference ended on August 12, $65,000 was needed to pay back our bank line of credit and all other bills. I know, that’s anything but good news, but there is some!

Income in August (AFTER Conference) and September to date totals $20,000! There’s some good news! And there’s more. Committed to avoiding deficit operations, your 12-member board of directors promised to give $22,000 before September ends. That is a real sacrifice for these households. Your leaders are servant leaders. 

That means that only $25,000 is needed in the next two weeks to meet fiscal year obligations. That’s a lot, but the Conference family is BIG! Better yet, we serve a BIG GOD who has sustained this ministry for 78+ years. I’m writing to ask you to join the sacrifice of Conference leaders to completely underwrite 2012.  

Late this month, a visioning group from the board of directors will again meet on campus. The early efforts of this process were visible this summer. The inviting Broadway green space opened the way for new fellowship/friendship venues. This group will be pumped when I inform them that we are futuring from a deficit-free position thanks to the sacrificial partnership of you and others.

Will you prayerfully consider joining your leaders to give an additional gift before September 30?

You’ve given before. That’s why I’m writing. Perhaps you’ve given very recently. Thank you so much. Perhaps you can give no more. I understand. In that case, please pray for those who can. Please pray also for your Conference leaders as God-blessed futures unfold.   

Enclosed you’ll find a reply envelope. Your tax-deductible gift, postmarked on or before September 30 will be part of the good news of a 2012 financial miracle. You may also give online at okobojiconference.org. I will mail (or email) your receipt after October 1. At that time I can give you a complete report as to how your gift and others made the difference, avoiding a deficit.

May I share one more good news story? We recently received a gift in memory of Marguerite Tilman. Marguerite came to the Conference as girl with her Sunday School teacher. Her life and eternity were changed at the tent meeting! Marguerite married a man who became a pastor. After years of pastoring the Tilmans moved to California to spend decades working with Teen Challenge, serving the addicted and abandoned in Jesus’ name. Later, as an elderly widow, Marguerite still served. Using a walker she traversed blocks each day to assist at feeding center near her nursing home. Marguerite’s life touched people in Iowa churches and on the streets of Los Angeles. She spread THE BEST NEWS EVER, news she received first at the Okoboji Bible Conference. 

Conference is not just a once-per-year gathering for Christians. We scatter good news seed all the time and everywhere. Thank you in advance for being part of the effort!