We had seen the Biblical Jesus walk into our church. Christianity was no longer a three-point sermon. The Savior was no longer a flannel-graph, Sunday School Jesus. Now in the days ahead, even as God had stopped the sun in the days of Joshua
, He was about to stop our hearts and increase the power of Spirit River
that would be revealed to me as I had never seen or known. In His mercy, God puts a veil between us and what the future will bring
. We would run away from it if we saw it all at once, both the highs and the lows that we have to go through to get to the highs.
The Holy Spirit had moved us to pastor a much younger and more aggressive church – evangelistically speaking. Now in another city, a new beginning, a fresh start. We accepted a pastorate on the edge of Kalamazoo, Michigan where we were about to experience Spirit River in power and glory never before imagined. Spirit River was now about to rush through a countryside church, and sweep us into a dramatic Holy Spirit flow in which all those traditional, tidy concepts of Christianity were about to be taken away. In short, we were about to be shanghaied to parts unknown!
USUAL FISH IN THE POND
In my brief tenure as a young, ordained minister, I had already encountered many different species of fish in the church pond – nothing exotic at first, rather the usual kind. There were largemouth bass – very vocal, aggressive with domineering personalities, but if you persisted you could take the fight out of them. Then there were bullheads – extremely difficult to change their minds or direction. They stayed mired in the muck of their own mindset. Now and again a catfish – they need no comment. Causing me to ask Habakkuk’s question at times in Habakkuk 1:14,
“Why hast Thou made men like the fish of the sea, like creeping
things who have no ruler over them.”
Of course there were, as there always are, the aristocrats of the fish world – the trout. They are kind of like the Pharisees who, to paraphrase Luke 18:11, pray,
“God, I thank Thee that I am not like other fishes….”
You know the kind, in their whole life they never smoked, never drank, never cursed, never cheated on their income taxes, and never even returned a library book late. So self-righteous that they really don’t need your ministry, but they have their ways of letting you know that you do need theirs. The type who would be no more able to steal a hotel towel than they would commit a triple ax murder!
You know the kind that I am talking about. They are sure to let you know that they fast twice a week, even though they gorge their guts on the other five days. I have never been any more comfortable around these uppity trout fish (alias white fish, alias puffer fish) than Jesus was. It was these that the wise man must have had in mind when he wrote in Ecclesiastes 7:16,
“Do not be excessively righteous….”
But then on the brighter side of things, there were those wonderful sunfish – so colorful, so cheerful, so much fun to be with. And of course, there were those gullible bluegills – they would bite on almost anything you dangled before them. These were the ones that I mainly looked at when I preached, looking for affirmation and encouragement from their eager and happy faces.
Nothing out of the ordinary there for a pastor who soon finds that there are those fishes who give him such pleasure, but also those who cause him such pain. You know what I mean, like the title of a Tom Hanks movie – angels and demons. Sure, the great majority being so joyfully supportive an appreciative, and then that inescapable minority who are chronically disagreeable.
And then of course there were those who come up to you after every service with a personal or interpersonal problem. You can see them swimming your way like lamprey, and you want to quickly disappear into the deepest part of the pond. A very ordinary assortment of fishes! God loves them all, and I was trying.
UNUSUAL FISH IN THE POND
Not too much time had gone by in our new pastorate when I began to notice a small but steady influx of new fishes in our ecclesiastical pond. They steadily trickled into our worship services – wonderful people, excited-about-the-Lord people, aggressive in their Christian witness, and very demonstrative in their expressions of praise and worship of God.
Some of these new arrivals lifted their arms and hands while they sang. When I first saw it, being a sports nut, I thought that it was the signal that someone had just successfully kicked a field goal. Some bounced up and down a little with their arms stretched upwards to the heavens. I guess we could call them the “flying fish.” I had never seen anything like them before in church.
If that would have been all there was, it would have been challenging enough to the rest of the fish in the pond. But there were other rare species swimming in, like those who clapped their hands while they sang during hymn time. “I Will Sing of My Redeemer” had never been sung by clappers in my recollection. But there they were – “clapper fish.”
I noticed that one even brought into the service a tambourine that he would hit against his thigh as a supplement to the music of the organ and piano. How in the world did he ever get in there? Another new arrival brought his guitar, mind you, and played it lightly in the pew during the singing to augment our now growing and unsolicited fishy orchestra. “Gospel Band Fish” were now swimming in our waters.
I could tell that it was all very disconcerting and distracting to the traditional fish, including shockingly enough, myself the bar evangelist. Unheard of! Never before seen or heard! An already out-of-control revolution of worship was taking place before my very eyes. How ill-mannered, for they had not been asked, and they had not requested permission to do any of this. I was totally caught off guard by them, and yet they somehow intrigued me. Plus it was church growth, but what kind of growth I was not at all sure.
As time went on, I could see the church board’s police car with its arrest lights whirling and flashing, and I could hear the siren wailing. I could see and hear it by the looks on their faces. Their serene smiles had been more and more replaced by looks of dismay and even disgust. After all, who were these rude and coarse zealots intruding upon the pious in their respectable worship? It was the Psalmist David who wrote in Psalm 77:13 KJV,
“Thy way, O God, is in the sanctuary.”
That had now been replaced by an ode to intolerance which said instead,
“This is not way to act in Thy sanctuary, O God.”
Prejudice is such a damnable thing, but doubly damnable in the religious. Listen:
“WHAT IS PREJUDICE BUT JUDGING MATTERS AND PEOPLE, NOT
AS THEY REALLY ARE, BUT WITH PREFERENCES WITH
WHICH WE ARE ALERADY PREPOSSESSED.”
As it turned out, these new fish were some of the most God-loving and pure-hearted people one could ever be blessed with. But as it is with prejudiced people:
“THEY ALWAYS VIEW WHITE AND INNOCENT THINGS THROUGH
BLOOD-SHOT EYES RED WITH INTOLERANCE AND ANGER.”
Never let us forget:
“PREJUDICE CANNOT SEE PEOPLE AS THEY REALLY ARE, BUT
ONLY AS THAT THROUGH WHICH IT SEES THEM.”
We must never forget that question of prejudice from the mouth of the Nathaniel in John 1:46,
“Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”
Nonetheless, as the Sundays went by, I watched these overstated unconventionals, and I watched them closely. I trusted that the flying fish, the clapper fish, and the Gospel-band fish, the more they worshipped with us, would learn not to carry on so much. Oh yes, everything in moderation, which in my way of thinking meant a much more subdued posture and softer tones.
My background was keynoted by the phrase:
“EVERYTHING IN MODERATION.”
Moderation was considered the virtue of all virtues. My, my, moderation, can anything look more benign and sound more soothing? But what is inferred, though never spoken explicitly, is this:
“KEEPING THE SOUL IN BALANCE, NOT ALLOWING IT TO RISE TOO
HIGH ON THE ONE SIDE, AND NOT LETTING IT FALL TOO
LOW ON THE OTHER SIDE.”
Whatever in the name of “Ritalin Religion” that means? You know, take two moderation pills in the morning for the next six days, and we will see you next Sunday in church drooling and cooing.
THE POE VALLEY SUCKER FISH
About that time, our precious family went on vacation together. How convenient! With my beloved cousins Herm and Nancy Tuls and their precious family, we took campers to Poe Valley State Park in the beautiful remote mountain area of Pennsylvania near Penn State University. The campground was so remote and hard to access, that once you got in there, you didn’t leave. You would stay put and just drink in the glory of God. And we did, along with other campers, bears, and rattlesnakes.
The area in which we vacationed was famous for many things, not the least among them being trout fishing. We asked the park ranger what kind of trout those famous streams held for us. He told us that the waters had brown trout, brook trout, and rainbow trout. Classy fish! As we have already referred to them in a somewhat less complimentary setting, these were truly the aristocrats of the fishing world – the trophies of real fishermen. This was a triple-A spot for triple-A sportsmen, which we tried to portray ourselves to be.
Anticipation ran high as my fishing-partner cousin Herm and I began our great fly-fishing expedition. The setting was stunning, with the mountains rising above us on each side of the strong trout stream/river. The rushing current, the early morning sun peaking through the foliage, and the sight of a rising trout causing momentary ripples brought our hearts to a flutter. We were actually there – kings of the fishing world!
It wasn’t long, and suddenly there was a fisherman’s dream on the end of my buddy’s line. Oh, how he fought that fish with his delicate line and super-flexible trout rod. And oh, how that fish fought back with the current working with and for him. All of the odds were in the fish’s favor, as Herm cautiously stepped from slippery rock to slippery rock on the stream’s bottom.
This was going to be the biggest trout ever caught in trout-fishing history, and I knew that my very intense, very competitive cousin would let me hear about it during the entire vacation as well as for years to come. For me, being equally intense and competitive, this wasn’t just a bad start, this was the worse start of all. I have found it easier for some reason over the years to sympathize with other fishermen when their prize eludes them and gets off the hook, than to fully rejoice with them when they land their catch. Sound familiar anyone?
After a long battle, tired and warn out, the trout gave up the fight as it yielded to the pressure of the line and the hook. When it came into the shallows, and became visible, it was the strangest trout I had ever seen. More than that, it was really not that big at all, in fact, it was kind of small. It just had looked and felt bigger in the heavy current. It had a round mouth underneath its head, weird looking lips moving in and out like a nursing, sucking baby. More than that it was red, in fact, it was just about as red as my very frustrated and deflated fishing-partner’s face. This was not a trout! I said to him, “That’s a sucker fish, a red sucker fish. Can you believe it?”
What humiliation for him! What fun and hilarity for me! I had the distinct sense that he was trying to hide that little sucker fish from me, but he couldn’t. It was also obvious that the come-down was hitting him like a ton of night crawlers in the face.
I couldn’t contain the comic moment that I was a part of. My belly laugh traveled up and down the stream, echoing back and forth between the mountainsides. I laughed so hard I literally wet my pants in my trout waders. I could barely stand up, and you wouldn’t have been able to either if you saw what I was so thankfully seeing. What a mountain blast!
From time to time, more often than not, throughout our vacation, I would look at my fishing pal, and then shape my lips to mimic the mouth of his disgraceful catch. And then I would look up to the heavens and taunt him by saying, “Why God? When you created all of those stately trout, why did You have to create this peculiar-looking thing? After all, such a substandard fish in these elite and exclusive waters! And why God did you have my expert fishing partner catch it on our very first day? Why God?” Oh yes, I really worked it! I then howled in glee for the other campers to hear.
As it would turn out however, my taunting question ‘Why God?’ would prove to be more profundity than alacrity. In fact, more profound that I could ever have imagined! I would soon discover that the little red sucker fish, while it was designed for my pleasure, there was a far more powerful purpose in it than pure pleasure. What God had done here He did on purpose, and His purpose was directed at me and my church.
I would learn something that the Bible has been saying all along, and that in Ephesians 1:11,
“…according to His purpose Who works all things after the
counsel of His will.”
All things, even a little red sucker fish! God accomplishes His purposes by His Word and His providence. And when God on purpose sets out to fulfill His purpose, we can be assured of this:
“WHEN GOD TAKES UP A PURPOSE FOR US, HE WILL NOT STOP
UNTIL THAT PURPOSE IS REALIZED IN US
Do you know that it is happening at the time? Not generally, which means that God has a double advantage – sovereignty and secretiveness. What a set up! And God indeed knows how to set up His purposes.
And in the end you discover that this was not just another fish story, even though to this day that story of unvarnished truth elicits healthy laughter. How wonderful when God chooses to teach us not just in pain but in pleasure. But the strong meaning of the bigger-than-life story would soon come.
HIS EXCELLENT GREATNESS
After our vacation, one Sunday evening before the worship service, I was reading a Psalm in preparation for the service, as well as for my own personal inspiration from God. What I was reading I had read innumerable times before. Have you ever had that as well? You are reading something from the Bible for the umpteenth time, and lo and behold something jumps off from the page at you as if you have never seen it before. It was one of those moments of Divine-suddenly revelation from God’s Word. Wham! Even as we read in Psalm 36:9,
“In Thy light we see light.”
Zap! Suddenly your soul is doubly lit up! You may have seen it before, but in was in a dimmer light. Then in one of those Holy Spirit – Word moments, God turns on the high beam in your soul, and there it is! Eureka! You are actually, after many readings, now reading it for the first time.
What I was reading in that pre-worship service devotional was Psalm 150. Let me share just a bit of it up to the place where I was hit by a truck. Psalm 150:1-2,
“Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, and His praise in the
congregation of the godly ones.”
“Praise Him for His mighty deeds; praise Him according to
His excellent greatness
Bwam! Boom! Bang! I was stopped in my reading with a real jolt. I could go no further. I was for the moment abruptly halted at the words:
“PRAISE HIM ACCORDING TO HIS EXCELLENT GREATNESS.”
The question instantly flooded my soul, “Isn’t this an unnecessary combination of words, “Excellent Greatness?” I mean, when you are talking about God’s greatness, you surely do not need adjectives to enhance it! Why “Excellent Greatness?” After all, when you say or write “God’s Greatness,” you have said and written it all, and nothing more is needed to accent it. Isn’t putting “Excellent” before His “Greatness” needless redundancy? I mean, does God’s greatness need help?
Sitting there in silence in my study, I heard the Lord begin to speak to me about why the Psalmist put the word “Excellent” before “Greatness.” The Holy Spirit within me began faithfully speaking to my heart. He explained to me, “Not only is God the God of greatness, but he “Excels” in greatness. He abounds in greatness. Greatness is His specialty, and He is really good at too. And he wants to excel in greatness for you. Doing great things for His people is His hallmark.” I can still hear it today deep inside, and it thrills me no less.
I love the Word of God. I have tried to be a faithful workman rightly dividing the Word of truth. That is a divine imperative for every preacher of the Word. We read in II Timothy 2:15 Paul’s words to Pastor Timothy,
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman
who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately
the Word of truth.”
Be a workman-preacher! I mean, studying the Word of God and preparing to feed His people is not fluff-ball stuff. It is hard, hard work! There is no harder work than continually digging for treasure in the mind of God. There is at the same time no reward more exhilarating.
I was not too long ago confronted by a pastor who said to me, “In your ministry, do you receive from God revelation directly? I ride down the road in my car, and God gives me my sermons for Sundays as I go along. Do you believe in that?”
I answered by sharing with him another story about a young, raw preacher who was talking to a much older and more experienced pastor. The rookie preacher said to the venerable old gentleman, “I just get up there behind the pulpit, and God speaks to me and tells me what He wants me to say. Have you ever had that?” The wise sage looked at him with a sly smile and said, “Yes, I tried that once, and when I got behind the pulpit, all that the Lord did say to me was, ‘Get down from there, you are unprepared.’” Listen now:
“THE PULPIT IS NOT AN IMPROMPTU STAGE, IT IS A SACRED DESK.”
I had preached on Psalm 150 before, and had worked hard at it each time. But that night before evening worship service, something powerful happened – the “Excellent” revelation that I had never seen before. God rewards hard work in the Word. Not only do we reap what we sow, but as is always the case:
“IF WE FAITHFULLY SOW THE WORD, WE WILL ALWAYS REAP
MORE THAN WE SOW.”
Think of it this way. How often have we said to our children, “Listen children, if you don’t eat your meat, potatoes and vegetables, you can forget the yummy chocolate cake.” Listen pastors,
“NO DESSERT REVELATIONS UNLESS YOU DO A GOOD
JOB ON THE DINNER.”
HOW GREAT THOU ART
Not only did God right then and there give me and the congregation an “Excellent Dessert,” but he went on to unfold to me His GREATNESS. I had never understood His “Greatness” like I was about to understand it. You won’t want to miss it! The “Greatest Explosion” was about to come! And there we will find the true meaning of A LITTLE RED SUCKER FISH.
(A LITTLE RED SUCKER FISH Pt. 2 will be here soon)