Monday, May 03, 2010

Of Marathons, Imaginary Twins, Misquotes, and Embellishments

When does a mistake of the mind become a mistake of the heart?

In both morning services Sunday, May 2nd, Steve Gaines used a sermon illustration about a sensational "church fight" he claimed occurred in a Wichita, Kansas church. Here are the links to the videos of both versions. Please watch both (transcripts provided below each link) before reading further. Be sure to listen to the part following the story if you want to hear his definition of "troublemakers" and what he thinks of them ("us"?).


A couple of years ago... I read a story about a church in Wichita, Kansas. It seemed that four of the church members wanted their pastor to resign. I had a guy ask me... years ago, "How... how in the... ," he... he was of another denomination... he said, "How is it that you Baptists change pastors?" I said, "One of two ways, the movement of the Spirit or the push of the brethren. Hahaha!" {laughter}

So these four people were tired of their pastor... and they wanted him to leave, but the pastor said, "I'm not gonna do it. God called me here. I'm gonna stay here as long as God wants me to." So they decided to take matters in their own hands. And they began to literally disrupt the worship services. One Sunday they literally ran... through the sanctuary shouting... while the preacher was trying to preach his sermon. They shut the pastor's Bible while he was preaching. You know, I'd be afraid to do... I'd be... I'd be afraid that God would... blow me up. They even took the pastor's microphone away from him and banged him on the head with it. They knocked the pianist off her bench and held her to the floor. They kept doing it week after week and nobody would stop them because they said... , "God's a God of love." They went from 600 in attendance to 50. The pastor finally resigned.


Several years ago I read about a church... true story... in Wichita, Kansas. Four of the church members wanted the pastor to resign, he didn't want to resign, and the battle began. Somebody asked me, years ago... and... they were... they were of a different denomination, "How do you Baptists change pastors? I mean, what... what's the procedure there? Is it... what... what... what's the process?" I said, "Well, Baptist pastors leave a church for one of two reasons... the movement of the Holy Spirit or the push of the brethren. Hahahaha. One of the two."

Well, these people wanted him to leave. The push of the brethren was goin' on here. And he said, "I'm not gonna do it," so they began literally to disrupt the church services. Can you imagine... being..... ? Can you imagine? I don't even know what word to say! One Sunday they literally... it got so bad... ran through the sanctuary shouting while the preacher was trying to preach his sermon. They went up on the pulpit and shut the pastor's Bible. They even took his microphone and banged him in the head with it! They knocked the pianist off her bench and held her on the floor and would not let her play... any more worship songs. And they kept doing this week after week, and nobody would do anything! And they went from 600 to 50, and finally the pastor resigned.

One would think after the Nashville marathon debaucle, the Joan Rivers' "twin" story, and just three days later attributing a quote to Abraham Lincoln which is well-documented as having not come from Abraham Lincoln, that Steve Gaines would be more careful about confirming the veracity of his sermon illustrations before delivering them from the pulpit/music stand. I suppose it really is true what they say. Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

The problem is the stories in these two video clips contained only a tiny grain of truth. And I mean a very tiny grain. Namely, that the church is in Wichita, Kansas, and that "four members" were involved at one point. Beyond that, unless there is a story about a different Wichita, Kansas church with some eerily similar-sounding details, as far as I can tell this story was fabricated to illustrate a point about... taa daaaaa... "troublemakers in the church!" That's been a recurring theme in a number of SG's sermons over the past 3-4 years. Apparently the man thinks he and Bellevue Baptist Church are being persecuted and under attack. In fact, he recently wrote an article on his blog about how Christians "will be" persecuted.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:10-12) that we are "blessed" when people insult and persecute us. If we live Spirit-filled, separated, holy, prayerful lives, the devil will see to it that the world harasses us. If the world hated Jesus, it will hate us as well.

While not the subject of this post, I'm pretty sure neither Steve Gaines nor the vast majority of the rest of us has any idea whatsoever what "persecution" is. We sit in our air-conditioned and heated homes and offices, drive our cars and trucks on paved roads, have everything we need in the way of food, clean water, clothes, and a lot of other creature comforts. We're free to worship and demonstrate our faith openly, and few, if any of us, have ever been "persecuted," harrassed, arrested, tortured, or put in physical danger simply for being Christians in the U.S.A. So please excuse me a second while I finish playing my tiny violin.

I'm tired of hearing how we Christians in America are being "persecuted" because, in the words of the late former Texas governor, Ann Richards (fact-checked!), "that old dog won't hunt."

Gleaned from the sources I was able to find online, this seems to be the story that was the inspiration for Steve's story. The church in question is Reformation Lutheran Church. It is in Wichita, Kansas. And they've certainly had their share of problems. However, the "troublemakers" were not members of that church nor was it ever the troublemakers' goal, from any account I've read, to "get rid of the preacher."

You may recall the story of the death of Dr. George Tiller, one of the few (openly) late-term abortion doctors in the country. You can read more about Tiller here and here. Tiller was shot to death inside the church where he and his wife were members one Sunday morning in May 2009. The church was Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas. Members of Operation Rescue and others regularly protested outside RLC. Protesters entered the church on more than one occasion and tried to disrupt services. (Note: These were not necessarily members of Operation Rescue.)

Their point was that by allowing Tiller and his wife (who managed his clinic) to remain members, participate in communion, etc. without seeming to care what they were doing Monday through Friday and certainly without any public disapproval, the leadership of RLC was neglecting their duty to discipline and restore or, failing that, to "excommunicate" the Tillers. For the record, I agree, not with their means but certainly with their motives. If nothing else, the leadership was putting all the other members in physical danger by continuing to let him attend. I do not condone bombing buildings or shooting abortion doctors. It only steels the resolve of the "pro-choice" (an oxymoron if there ever was) people and makes reasonable pro-life people look like nuts. Now, is the world a better place without Tiller still doing his "work"? Absolutely! But that's not what this post is about either... although that's fodder for discussion if anyone's interested.

In spite of his clinic being bombed in 1986 and Tiller being shot in both arms in 1993, he was soon back on the job. And that is what the "troublemakers" were trying to change. They wanted Reformation Lutheran Church to practice some good old-fashioned church discipline on their member, Dr. George Tiller. If ever there was a case for church discipline, this was it, but for whatever reasons, the church chose not to "excommunicate" Tiller, and frankly, even if they did "excommunicate" him, I don't see how that would have saved the life of even one baby. After all, Tiller was not performing abortions at the church. Kicking him out of the church wouldn't have stopped him from continuing to perform abortions. Apparently he'd already been kicked out of another church (Holy Cross Lutheran). RLC continued to allow him and his wife to attend and participate. Tiller was an usher and was passing out bulletins outside the sanctuary the Sunday morning he was gunned down by Scott Roeder. His wife was in the choir.

According to trial testimony by RLC member and usher, Keith Martin, there had been several incidents of non-member, anti-abortion protesters disrupting services.

Church usher Keith Martin testified Monday that he saw Roeder at the church a half dozen times before the shooting. Unlike other churchgoers, Roeder always brought his own Bible and sat by himself, Martin said.

Martin also testified that anti-abortion protests at the church over the years made members suspicious of newcomers even before the shooting. Tiller, whose Wichita clinic closed after his death, championed abortion rights even after being shot in both arms by an activist in 1993.

At times, visitors had stood up in the congregation and started shouting, Martin said. Some even tried to take over the microphone, he said, and someone once tried to push a pianist off the stool.

Still, Martin said, he didn't closely watch Roeder the day Tiller was shot because he had seen Roeder at previous services and that he had behaved peacefully.

Kristin Neitzel, a pastor at the church, testified that Roeder briefly attended the church's special Saturday service the evening before the shooting, and that some church members had become suspicious of him because he had been asking a lot of questions.

So there's your attempt to take over the microphone (no mention of it being the preacher's mic or anyone being "banged" over the head with it) and someone attempting to push "a" pianist off a stool. Church members were not the "troublemakers." Remember, this was the report of sworn testimony in a court of law.

According to this article (and others) two men from Arizona, one an ordained minister of some stripe, Rev. Henry "Bud" Shaver, traveled to Wichita and "visited" Reformation Lutheran one Sunday morning in July 2007 (almost two years before Tiller was killed). Shaver found an open mic and disrupted the service by reading from a portion of Isaiah 1 written on a scrap of paper -- "Isaiah's warning to believers." The article didn't say if Shaver had written a personal statement on the paper from which he was reading. According to the article, several members of the church tried to shut off his mic (not the preacher's) and grab the piece of paper from his hand.

Remember, Steve said the troublemakers, whom we now know were not church members at all, grabbed the preacher's mic, "banged" him on the head with it, closed his Bible, and "knocked the pianist from her bench, held her on the floor, and wouldn't let her play any more worship songs." Whether this was the same day protesters merely "attempted" to push a pianist off the bench is unknown. It wasn't mentioned in any of the articles about this particular incident, only in Martin's testimony. Shaver apparently refused to be quiet and was then escorted from the building.

Shaver's associate, Joey Cox, when communion was given and the pastor, Thomas Hallstrom, said, "Receive the body of Christ," handed the bread back to Hallstrom saying that it did not represent the body of Christ but rather the bodies of babies killed by abortion doctor, George Tiller.

Four men (I guess that's where Steve got the number four) were said to have then escorted Cox from the building.

Hallstrom called the police (perhaps this was an overreaction unless the men were trying to reenter the building or had threatened to harm Hallstrom or someone else) and Shaver and Cox were apprehended at a nearby gas station and arrested. They were charged with "rude and indecent behavior in a place of worship" and spent 7 hours in jail. I've not found the outcome of the case.

According to Reformation's history, Hallstrom was pastor from October 2002 through October 2007. He is currently serving as interim pastor of another Lutheran church in Kansas. There's no indication I can find that the members were clamoring for him to leave. His wife is still listed as organist on Reformation's website (which could be old information). Believe it or not, preachers in all denominations do leave churches for reasons besides "the movement of the Holy Spirit or the push of the brethren."

Some retire or die, some leave churches or the ministry all together because of health or family situations, some head for greener pastures (i.e. more money and/or prestige), churches fold, churches merge, and in some denominations a governing board or other hierarchy appoints pastors/priests and moves them around frequently. Occasionally one even goes to prison. (See Darrell Gilyard and the rogues gallery here.) So let's not assume that the poor beleaguered pastor is always led by the Holy Spirit or forced out by troublemakers. That dog won't hunt either.

As for church attendance, I have no source for attendance numbers for RLC, nor at this point is it even relevant, but I can see how witnessing someone shot to death inside your church building could make some a bit squeamish about returning. So I imagine they did lose some members. Still, there's no indication, if attendance dropped, that it had anything to do with then-pastor, Thomas Hallstrom.

Look, I am as anti-abortion as they come, BUT this was neither the time nor the place for such a demonstration. That is NOT how you change people's hearts, and that's what is going to be necessary to end abortion in this country. You don't pound people and soften their hearts about spiritual matters by YELLING AT THEM AT THE TOP OF YOUR LUNGS! (I'm looking at you, Steve.) You work to change their hearts. That doesn't mean you condone sin or indefinitely tolerate unrepentance, but what works for a drill sergeant or football coach isn't going to work on the average pew-warmer.

I've no doubt all this attention only caused the members of RLC to circle the wagons to support Tiller (much like the Baptist Identity bunch is circling the wagons to defend a certain Baptist seminary president right now). Many members of RLC may not have agreed with what Tiller was doing, but he was one of their own, and they must have thought they were under attack.

Now, I ask you, how different is that from the story Steve Gaines told? What are the chances that there just happen to be two churches, both in Wichita, Kansas, where "troublemakers" disrupted services and tried to take over the mic and knock a pianist off the bench?

Now, here is another story about a Wichita, Kansas church that made the news, this one Baptist, but I think it's obvious that Reformation Lutheran is the church around which Sunday morning's "yarns" were spun.
This from the man whose security guards will haul someone out of 2000 Appling for sneezing. (Okay, that's an exaggeration, but let us not forget the 15-year-old girl who was called out of a service at BBC, handcuffed, and cussed out by a BBC rent-a-cop who was fired from the Memphis Police Department for similar behavior.) I guarantee you if anyone, say a gay rights protester, so much as dared to interrupt a service at BBC, he'd find himself tackled, shackled, and hauled out before he knew what happened. And the cops would be called.

What if a prominent member of Bellevue was known to be engaging in blatant unChristian behavior (use your imagination) during the week, and protesters, whether they were Bellevue members or not, came into the church on a Sunday morning and interrupted the service to rebuke Steve Gaines for not disciplining or "excommunicating" this prominent member? I don't think it's a stretch to say that the protesters would be treated to the same (or worse) treatment that the anti-abortion protesters received at the hands of the members of RLC.

What is it with Baptist preachers and "embellishing" the last couple of decades? I suspect it's been going on since time began, but now we have the internet. (Praise the Lord, and thank you, Al Gore!) Dr. Ergun Caner, president of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, is the most recent high-profile example who comes to mind. Several bloggers have done series of articles about his troubles:

Witness Unto Me > Ergun Caner's Secret Biography

FBC Jax Watchdog series

Ministry of Reconciliation series

Grace and Truth to You series

There was Darrell Gilyard and his story about living under a bridge during his youth. (Didn't happen.)

Mike Warnke (remember him?) stepped in it for years before being exposed as a fraud.

According to Ed Young (the younger) Fellowship Church doesn't "own" a private jet. They just "lease" it.

And Mac Brunson has been documented "embellishing" on more than one occasion.

Mac's Illustrations: Poor Sermon Prep or Intentional Fibs?

Mac a "historian"? More Evidence of His Difficulty Telling the Truth

There are 16 million members in the Southern Baptist Convention. We can't account for several million of them, but doggonit, that's our story and we're sticking to it.

And of course, "It was just an itty bitty fence."

It seems many preachers in the SBC are pragmatists. The ends justify the means, and if you have to "embellish" a little (or a lot) to make a story sound more interesting or cast yourself in a more favorable light, well... then so be it. Michael "Butch" Caner, the chubby kid who was raised with his two brothers by his mother in Columbus, Ohio apparently doesn't make for nearly as sensational a story as Ergun Mehmet Caner, the "towel-head" (his word) raised in Turkey as a devout Muslim and trained to "do that which was done on 11 September."

Fred, the Catholic mechanic, isn't nearly as inspiring as Fred, the evangelical Christian mechanic with the moving testimony. And when you can't find a good (and true) story about church members beating up on the pastor (there are plenty about pastors "beating up" on church members), you take a story about anti-abortion protesters disrupting a church service and rewrite it to suit your purposes.

How stupid does SG think people are? Especially after the Joan Rivers' "twin" story and the Nashville marathon winners, does he not wonder if someone is going to think, "Hey, I don't remember ever reading that story," and try to find it just to satisfy their own curiosity... and then figure out he's making the whole thing up? That's all I did. I thought surely with all the things I've read about abusive church situations in the past few years that I would have run across this one, and I likely would have remembered it. Even if I didn't remember it, I certainly should have been able to locate some mention of it somewhere -- a newspaper article, a TV report, a blog, something. But I came up empty.

I can't decide (1) if he's so arrogant or emboldened that he thinks he can say anything and the sheeple will swallow it (if this is the case, that actually seems to be working pretty well for him), (2) if he convinces himself he's telling the truth, or (3) if he's just that careless.

Let's assume the best case scenario, that it's simply carelessness. The man has a Ph.D. for pete's sake. How does one earn a Ph.D. if he's this lackadaisical about basic research? He's the pastor of what's still considered a large church. Doesn't such a prominent position demand more regard for truth and accuracy? I realize no one's perfect. We all make mistakes. (By the way, those are words I never want to hear a surgeon say.) But I don't see how there can be any excuse for being this fast and loose with well-documented facts. This is much more than just getting a detail or two wrong. If he's that careless about being truthful about details that really don't matter in the grand scheme of things -- marathon winners, Joan Rivers' "twin," this -- then just like Ergun Caner, why should anyone believe him when he talks about the things that really matter?

One of the few things I vividly remember from my days in the primary department of a Baptist Sunday School was the little song they drilled into us which was based on Luke 16:10. I can't find the song online now. It probably wouldn't be considered "cool" enough for today's children, but it made a lasting impression on me. Either this is all there was to it or I just can't remember the rest, but the tune and the line, "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much," keeps running through my mind. (Read the rest of that verse for the corollary.)

If you aren't careful to be truthful about the little everyday details of things and not "embellish" a story to make it fit your purpose or make it more intersting to your audience, then why should we believe you're going to be truthful about the big things? Of much more eternal importance, why should a lost world believe you?