I take you now on the most incredible journey of my life that I call “Swept Into Spirit River,” with the headwaters beginning with “Three Desert Streams” in my rookie pastorate in a place called Lamont, Michigan. It also marked the beginning of many years in which nights of undisturbed sleep were hard to find in the rushing waters of this never before experienced “Turbulent Spirit River.”
A FAMILY PHOTOGRAPH FROZEN IN TIME
Some time ago I had the nostalgic experience of returning to the pulpit of a church that I had pastored decades earlier. The love which endured for those dearest of friends and parishioners was quickly rekindled. It also gripped me, as I looked out over this most precious congregation that Sunday morning in Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey, how little things had really changed. Remarkable, I thought, for now many years later they were all sitting in the same pews and in the same places. It was both strangely reassuring and yet somehow troubling at the same time.
The congregational topography had changed only slightly in that some trees had turned color, while other trees had grown up, and new little saplings had come to life by their sides. Some of the trees had been cut down by the grim reaper. Still, everything seemed to be in place. It was like a family photograph frozen in time. It was like paging through a family album in which no one had moved or even blinked.
Also, in the morning worship service the same songs were sung as they were over and over again for uncounted years, making the sanctuary sound like an ecclesiastical echo chamber. I must confess that today I miss those great hymns of the church that are seldom if ever sung anymore in many churches. Instead we sing 7 word ditties 11 times which songs I have heard rightly referred to as 7/11 choruses. Truly, there isn’t enough theological substance in them to fill a thimble. But that morning in my former church, there were no new songs, just the very old and familiar ones. Nothing, and I mean nothing had changed.
PARROTING CATECHISM ANSWERS
Part of the unending, repetitive sameness in my first pastorate was my responsibility to instruct the youth in the doctrines of the church. It was called “Catechism.” It was essentially the same doctrinal construct taught on Mondays year after year in ascending and increasing doses from grade school through high school.
Now please hear me! Catechism, that is, doctrinal instruction for Christians was and is to be sure, very necessary and critically important as it lays down a strong Biblical foundation for faith that will sustain us throughout the years of our lives. It is totally missing in many fellowships today resulting in a desperate situation of the woeful lack of Bible knowledge and clear theological thinking. It has produced a generation of church goers who have little to none clear doctrinal formulation in their minds or hearts. It has opened up a chasm of spiritual ignorance into which many have fallen to their eternal peril. Even as the Lord painfully states in Hosea 4:6,
“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”
After a long day of school, the youth of the church would come on Monday afternoon and evening to learn the doctrinal standards of the church. There were those who were cooperative and even a few who were vitally interested. Many them were of course not thrilled about the requirement, and viewed it as inviting as going to the dentist to get their teeth drilled. I at first wrote it off as cerebral overload due to a long day at school.
Then it dawned on me that it was something more than school fatigue, for a few of them looked at me the way the mythical Count Dracula looked at a crucifix. To see some of their faces reminded me of scenes from Reform School Girls or Reform School Boys. They were required to study their manuals as well as learn and memorize answers to multiple doctrinal questions outlined in the catechism compendium. Each of them knew that their turn was coming, and several tried to hide and avoid eye contact with me like soldiers wary of sniper fire and flying shrapnel. For others it was like infield practice in baseball while trying to avoid screaming grounders and red hot line drives.
No matter how they ducked, all of them were hit with questions in each class, with reports given to their parents by yours truly if they proved to be delinquent in their preparation. And there were always a couple of them who looked at me with facial expressions indicating that I was their sworn enemy. I can only hope as I look back on it that I served with distinction, if not outright heroism at times, in this “Catechism Theater of Operations.”
Deep within me was the growing awareness that something vital was missing. I knew way down in my heart that what they needed far more than doctrinal systems was a real and deep personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Until they each touched by faith the Word become flesh, the truths that I taught them would never become fleshed out in their lives.
I struggled in my soul with the sense that without that, Monday after Monday I was leading them each week to the edge of nowhere. I had the burning conviction that these precious kids must do more than parrot catechism answers or hand in to me their completed catechism homework. They must hand over their lives completely to Jesus Christ. They must become Christians first, not just catechumens. Jesus commanded us to teach disciples, not catechumens.
Plus, somehow only by the Spirit of Grace, there was within me the profound and unshakeable sense of John 1:4,
“In Him (Jesus) was life, and this life was the light of men.”
Since, as the Apostle John says, that Christ’s life is the light, and that His life must come before light in us, how then could their sin-darkened minds be illuminated by spiritual truth without the life of Christ? Were we not, week after week, putting the proverbial cart before the horse? Was I not at that point a seeing pastor trying to teach unseeing students?
There can be no true enlightenment without conversion. There can be no real illumination without regeneration. Otherwise it is like saying to a blind man, “Watch this!” No wonder week after week and year after year so many sets of eyes looked at me so murky and dark like so many unfocused postholes. Dead people cannot see, and dead-in-sin people cannot understand spiritual truths.
If you will:
“A DYING MAN MAY HAVE BREATH IN HIS NOSTRILS, BUT TO HAVE
IT IN HIS LUNGS ALONE GIVES AND PRESERVES LIFE.”
“A BLINDED MAN MAY HAVE LIGHT UPON HIS FACE, BUT TO HAVE
LIGHT INSIDE HIS EYES ALONE GIVES AND
Though a young pastor, and already considered by some to be an overly zealous pastor, I understood something troubling that challenged me greatly. I knew that the Word of God teaches that all of us by nature are born into and exist in a spiritual domain of darkness. (Colossians 1:13) That means that we are all blinded by evil and cannot see, let alone understand spiritual truth. The windows of our mind are blackened by sin. The facts are:
“WHEN THE WINDOWS ARE DARKENED, THE ROOM
MUST BE BLACKENED.”
If you will:
“SIN PREVENTS LIGHT FROM ENTERING THE SOUL, LET ALONE
MAKING ITS WAY THROUGH IT.”
Here I was, shining flashlights of doctrinal truth into blinded eyes week after week and year after year. Only Jesus, the life (John 14:6) and the Light of the world (John 8:12), can take away spiritual blindness and give the light of understanding by the Holy Spirit.
I believe that the man born blind recorded in John 9 did not have eyes, just empty, dark eye sockets like those empty, dark postholes that I looked into in Catechism classes. Through spit-mudballs Jesus did a recreative miracle, not just a restorative one. The man born blind is a type of all of us by birth who are born blind. Hear this:
“WE NOT ONLY NEED LIGHT WHICH IS THE MEANS OF SEEING, WE
NEED SPIRITUAL EYES WHICH ARE THE INSTRUMENTS
Only Jesus can give both the instruments and the means of spiritual sight and understanding.
I also knew the words of Jesus to His Jewish people in John 5:39-40,
“You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them
you have eternal life; but you will not come to Me,
that you may have life.”
There it is again! Life is only found in Jesus Who alone is the life. (John 14:6) It is not found in theology, doctrines, or memorized catechism answers, even though the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day thought that through their great spiritual and moral knowledge they were saved.
So did the board members of my church when I with other teenagers made profession of our faith in Jesus Christ in order to join the church and qualify for partaking of the Lord’s Supper. They asked each of us three questions from the catechism to which I spit out answers with instantaneousness, exactness and specificity. In my early years I had a photographic memory. Facts, dates, names, paragraphs and even entire pages would have to fight to escape my mind. Now they fall out! All that my correct catechism answers to the chruch board members indicated was that I had a very good memory but not necessarily a changed heart. I was confirmed and welcomed into church membership.
This was not far from the experience that I have had many times over in my lifetime, when asking the person next to me on the airplane if they were a Christian, only to receive the answer, “I am a Catholic.” The translation being that if they went to Catholic mass, confessional, prayed to Mary and believed Catholic dogma, they were safe from judgment and in good standing with God. Likewise, as long as we knew and agreed with the doctrine of the church, we could be members and partakers of communion. “I am Reformed.”
Not one of us young people were asked by the pastor or church board what Jesus Christ meant to us or how He had changed our lives. What’s wrong with this picture? Everything!
FISHING IS FOR CATCHING
The true dynamic involved would come crashing on to my mind some years later on the island of Jamaica with 65 other pastors from the United States. While conducting evangelistic crusades in Jamaica I learned a powerful principle that would change my life and ministry forever. I with my fellow preachers were assigned to conduct evangelistic services in several of the mountain-jungle churches over the course of ten days. Yes, you are reading correctly! Jamaica is not primarily coastal Ocho Rios, Montego Bay or Kingston. That is where the tourist trade happens, but the real Jamaica is found in the elevated and remote jungle regions of the interior.
Assigned to mentor my particular group of four pastors, the host Jamaican pastor, John Alexander, instructed us before our first crusade meetings that we must have an “Altar Call” at the end of our sermons. I was completely unfamiliar with the strange sounding couplet. I distinctly recall thinking at the moment that whatever it was, I didn’t have one with me. I thought it was some kind of religious paraphernalia that I should have sent for through the mail before I left home. In my naivete and ignorance, I asked what an “Altar Call” was.
Rev. Alexander explained that an “Altar Call” was a post-sermon invitation to those in attendance to give their lives to Jesus Christ as the Lord of their lives and the Savior from their sins. That is, to invite them forward to lay down their lives for Jesus Christ on the altar of commitment and sacrifice. He instructed us how to do this much like a kindergarten teacher instructing wee-little students the alphabet. Kind of like the ABCs of how to be saved. How to call people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, taken from Jesus’ first public altar call in Mark 1:15 where He announced and commanded,
“The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent
How to call them forth to pray the sinner’s prayer! How to pray prayers for salvation with the people repeating them after us!
I was not familiar with the practice one bit, and at first resisted it out of uncertainty and fear. In short, I asked with more than a tinge of desperation in my voice, “Must we? I mean, is it absolutely necessary?” The wise pastor then asked me if I had ever seen a fisherman throw out his fishing net into the water, but then not draw it back in. End of discussion! The self-evident truth would never be forgotten. It is this,
“Fishing is for catching.”
For after all, had not Jesus said in Matthew 4:19,
“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
I did what John Alexander ordered at the end of my first sermon in the Jamaican jungles in a cinder block building filled with Jamaicans, as well as with some sort of rats running up and down the walls. In my first “Altar Call” under a kerosene lantern hanging on a wire from the ceiling, there were at least a dozen or so people who came forward to give their lives to Jesus.
It all happened so suddenly. It was like presto, I was a father of 12 babies, with tears of emotion now running down my cheeks. Incredible! Surprise, surprise, it actually worked! It was euphoric! This was so much more thrilling than each Sunday morning and evening back home simply dressing up sinners in religion for an hour or so. Sort of like putting aluminum sidings on 18 or 80 year old homes! No, this was like building brand new houses! Or as Paul states in II Corinthians 5:17,
“If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation.”
Revelation without response is a dead-end street. It is like lightning without thunder, seed without fruit, gift without gratitude, greeting without reciprocation. The truth is:
“DOCTRINAL INSTRUCTION MAY ENABLE US TO BECOME BUDDING
THEOLOGIANS, BUT ONLY A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP
WITH JESUS CHRIST CAN MAKE US
YOU LITTLE SINNERS YOU
That was all years later, but back to the rote catechism classes in my rookie pastorate. The lesson on that Monday afternoon for high school students was about sin and sinners. I was particularly intense in my teaching on that day as I recall. Of course, intensity, I am told, is my middle name. Sin, after all, is not first of all about exact answers to questions, nor is it meant for graded homework. Sin is the most powerful reason for heartbroken confession. Students are not to be congratulated for understanding sin as a cardinal doctrine of the church. God help us! Rather, the conviction of sin is to convince them of their desperate need of a Savior.
I told them all that afternoon that they like me were dirty rotten little sinners who were bound for Hell if they continued to ignore Jesus Christ. I can still hear myself say those very words! I sounded more like Rev. Billy Graham than a catechism instructor.
In that Monday catechism class in the late 1960s something occurred that had never been seen before in my ministry either in doctrine classes or worship services. After the usual closing prayer and dismissal, streams began to flow in that religious desert. As a matter of fact, three streams began running down to the front of the room towards me on that unforgettable day.
Three precious high school gals approached me as I had my back turned while cleaning off the green board with an eraser. One of them spoke for all three, as she said. “Rev. Klingenberg.” I turned around and she continued timidly, “Would you pray with us to accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior from sin.” Then they all joined in and began to cry as they each expressed their own sinfulness and their need of the blood of Jesus Christ to wash them and make them clean.
I too was overwhelmed with glorious emotion as tears began to roll down my shocked face and pale cheeks. I learned that day a powerful lesson:
“ONLY GOD CAN TURN A DOCTRINAL LECTURN INTO AN
I was much like the rookie preacher who had been invited by a much older and wiser pastor to speak to his large congregation. The young man’s impassioned sermon came to an inspired conclusion. To his shock, people began to get out of their pews and come forward to line up in front of him. Paralyzed by the entirely unsettling sight, his mind totally shut down. The would-be-converts longingly looked up at him for direction and help. He looked down on them like a mannequin. The scene was one of awkward silence for what seemed like an eternity. Then not knowing what to say, he looked at the congregation and said, “Well folks, that’s all she wrote,” and then sat down in horrified silence.
Great God-Moments have their way of reducing all of us to slobbering infants. Oh God, please jar our sterile and set-in-cement ecclesiastical world again and again. Then the older, more experienced pastor stepped forward quickly to rescue the entire situation. He proceeded to lead those dear folks to Jesus Christ in a wonderful prayer of confession of sin and faith in their Savior.
I felt a little like that young, raw pastor on that day in catechism class. I too handled it clumsily. The Lord does His greatest work in our weakest moments, or as He said to the Apostle Paul in II Corinthians 12:9,
“My grace is sufficient in weakness, for power
is perfected in weakness.”
Suddenly my otherwise well-ordered and very orderly, dry and moribund theological world was rocketed heavenward into space in what felt like for the moment an increasingly wobbly orbit. It was the most awesome spaceflight in Heaven’s spaceship “Salvation” as a pastor that I have ever had! Of course, the first space flight is always the most memorable, so I am told.
LET THE CELEBRATION BEGIN
From their deep need of the Savior to forgive their sins, their hearts now flowed with a deeper love for the Savior Who had just met their need. These three streams in my religious desert flowed with overflowing love, peace and joy. There they were before me now jumping and hugging because an ordinary love, peace and joy for such an extraordinary Savior would be totally inappropriate.
“BECAUSE THEY HAD NEW EYES, FOR THE FIRST TIME THEY
COULD SEE THE REFRESHMENT OF THE SONSHINE, THE
BEAMS OF DIVINE MERCY, AND THE BROAD-LOVE
SMILES OF THE SAVIOR.”
And what is more, when Jesus, Whose name is Wonderful, is the one we love:
“BETWEEN THE HIGHEST EXPRESSION OF THAT LOVE AND
THE TOTAL ABSENCE OF THAT LOVE THERE IS
NO MIDDLE GROUND.”
If you will:
“WE EITHER LOVE JESUS ENORMOUSLY AND EXTRAVAGANTLY,
OR WE DO NOT LOVE HIM AT ALL.”
I rejoiced with exceedingly great joy also. I too felt reborn! Christians are a strange lot, and these precious gals were now Christians. It is said of Christians that:
“THOUGH THEY LIVE IN THE WORLD, THEY LIVE ABOVE
IT, AS WELL AS LIVING, AS IT WERE, WITHOUT IT,
WHILE AT THE SAME TIME THEY ARE THE
MOST JOYFUL PEOPLE IN IT.”
The Apostle Peter calls it:
“JOY UNSPEAKABLE AND FULL OF GLORY”
Streams in the desert! The desert bloomed! It was as if both I and my ministry had be raised from the dead. I was unable to control myself. When the three desert streams left me, I immediately ran to our parsonage only a few yards away and burst through the doors with uncontrollable celebration. I must have appeared to dear Ruthie my wife as if I were having some sort of seizure.
We could see those three baby Christians still embracing, rejoicing and skip-dancing down the side of the road all the way to their homes. I tried to explain to my wife what had happened in catechism of all places. We and they were literally living the words of the father about his returned prodigal son in Luke 15:32,
“But we had to be merry and rejoice, for this brother of yours
was dead and has begun to live, and was lost
and has been found.”
Oh, by the way, they now became the most eager learners in catechism and showed the greatest zeal and excitement over the truth of God’s Word from the very day of their conversion.
Of course, one never in those moments thinks about the elder son in the Luke 15 story who was angered by his younger, prodigal brother’s return home after wasting his life on wine, women and song. Let alone his father throwing a big party for his son who was lost but now was found, who was dead but was now alive. The pouting older son was in the dumps, and should have been named “Dumpster.” That older son and brother’s name probably could also have been “Thumpster” if not “Grumpster.”
Little did I know that what appeared to me to be three desert streams flowing gloriously in new life would be viewed by their parents as an 8.5 earthquake, causing a tsunami to ravage their homes sending shock waves back to our home as well! You won’t believe what happened next! I was about to meet several Dumpsters, Thumpsters and Grumpsters.
(Coming Soon – SWEPT INTO SPIRIT RIVER – THREE DESERT STREAMS Pt. 2)