Monday, September 27, 2004

September 27, 2004

9:32 PM The thought occurred to me late this afternoon that more people have heard about Calvary in the last 24 hours than at any other time in our 90 year history. I can’t prove that scientifically, but I think that’s probably true, and if so, it’s an amazing result of an amazing day. Last night there were so many TV crews at the church, we couldn’t keep track of them all. Crews were there from Channel 2 (CBS), Channel 5 (NBC), Channel 7 (ABC), Channel 9 (WGN), and Channel 32 (Fox). The Chicago Tribune wrote a story. And to top it off, I met a young man who said he was writing a story for the Trapeze, the student newspaper of Oak Park-River Forest High School. Two people called me today to comment on Cisco Cotto’s discussion of yesterday’s services on WLS radio this morning. Cisco attends Calvary and is an on-air reporter for the station. He not only explained what happened yesterday, he also talked about the true meaning of the gospel. When you consider that WLS is one of the most-listened radio stations in the Midwest, that’s amazing. This afternoon I did a brief interview for Prime Time America, the Moody Network program that airs across America. Later this week I’m doing an interview with Kevin McCullough in New York City. And the ripples go on and on. What brought all this attention to one church in Oak Park on a beautiful Sunday in late September? It’s no secret that we did our best to publicize this series in the hope that we could catch the ear of our community. That’s why we mailed out 40,000 postcards to every home and business in this area. That’s why we put the banner above the front doors of the church, and that’s why we bought ads in the local papers. And that’s why we wrote to the congregation, gave away hundreds of copies of Erwin Lutzer’s fine book, The Truth About Same-Sex Marriage. And that’s the reason we announced the series on the Internet. But that by itself doesn’t explain the unprecedented attention we have received in the last 48 hours. For that we must say thank you to the Oak Park Lesbian and Gay Association, and to the militant protesters who came from another gay rights group in Chicago. Their protests (which were separate and quite different in tone) brought the spotlight of media attention to our services yesterday. We had prepared on the security front for weeks. Reggie Winston put together a team of men who ensured that the church was safe yesterday. And we owe special thanks to the Oak Park Police Department, and to Chief Rick Tanksley, for their help yesterday also. We knew in advance that a group from the Oak Park Lesbian and Gay Association were coming to stage a “silent protest” although we weren’t sure what that meant. Before the 8:30 AM service, they set up a card table on the sidewalk in front of the church. They chatted with our people, offered them white ribbons and literature about what they believe. Lots of Calvary folks stopped to talk to them and to invite them to join us for the first worship service. I think we had 10-15 OPLGA folks who attended the first service. The service itself was packed, and the atmosphere was tense and expectant because no one knew what was going to happen. The choir performed magnificently and Pastor Andrew had put together a service plan that emphasized God’s greatness and his grace-–a wonderful combination for this special day. I preached three times yesterday, and the experience was the same each time. In 26 years of being a pastor, I can’t recall a Sunday where the emotional pressure seemed as great. And I am sure I have never preached with as many people praying for me as yesterday. We had churches and people all across America praying for us. Still, it was a great challenge because we all felt the weight of the moment. You could sense the tension in the sanctuary as the sermon began. It was the same all three services. That eased a bit–but not much–as I worked through my material on marriage. I decided early in the week that rather than attack same-sex marriage head-on, I would instead present a survey of the whole Bible, showing that the male-female, man-woman relationship is fundamental to all that the Bible says. It starts in Genesis 1 and is still present in Revelation 22. I wanted to show it’s not an optional part of the Bible that you can take or leave. It’s central to creation, the fall, marriage, the family, the birth of Christ, the nature of the church, and the offer of salvation. People applauded when I said the Bible is not a cafeteria where you take what you like and ignore what you don’t like. I told the congregation that instead of telling them what was wrong, I wanted to talk about what was right. And I encouraged them not to take my word for it. Go home and read the Bible for yourself and see what it really says. In the latter part of the sermon, I addressed the emotional reality that we all felt–-the “us vs. them” mentality. But beneath our differences there is a deeper truth–-we are all highly valued, deeply fallen, and greatly loved by God. And we’re all in the same boat because of sin. I mentioned Philip Yancey’s comment that grace shocks and then threatens us because God accepts people we wish he wouldn’t accept. And I used Jeffrey Dahmer to illustrate how we all like to think we’re better than other people we regard as great sinners. Finally I said that over the door to heaven are three words: “For Sinners Only.” I ended by having the congregation quote John 3:16 with me. There was a noticeable change in all three services during the latter part of the service. Down deep we all know that we’re sinners desperately in need of God’s grace. And we know we need to be reminded about that from time to time. All three services ended with a soulful version of “Jesus Loves Me” led by Von and Vilma Matthews, Menia Matthews, and Pastor Andrew Irvin. I asked the congregation to join hands, even across the aisles, so that we were all connected with each other. There was a mighty release of emotional praise as we sang those familiar words, “Jesus love me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” The sound filled the sanctuary with a mighty crescendo as we sang the final chorus a cappella. What started under great tension and pressure ended on an amazing high note of praise in all three services. Various people from OPLGA attended all three services. Without an exception, they were gracious, courteous, kind and loving. It’s quite true that they disagree with what I said (at least on some points), but there were no angry arguments. And there were many conservations, lots of smiles, and even some laughter. Despite our deeply-held differences, we were able to talk together as friends and neighbors. And we all felt, “This is how it ought to be.” Before my sermon in the third service, Reggie Winston alerted me that several protesters from a gay activist group in Chicago (not affiliated with the OPLGA in any way) were standing near the Channel 7 TV cameras in the rear of the sanctuary. (Channel 7 was the only TV station at the church in the morning. The others came in the evening.) Reggie thought they were there to disrupt the service, and he was right. Near the end of my sermon, one young man yelled, “Boo!” He was warned to be quiet, but a few seconds later shouted, “Born Again Bigot.” Reggie bearhugged him and dragged him out of the sanctuary. It only took four or five seconds to get him out, but the camera caught it on tape. That was what he wanted, of course. (Channel 7 showed it on the air at 5 PM.) Since he was near the back of the sanctuary, it didn’t disrupt the service. After we finished, I went up to greet a friend who is part of the OPLGA. He hugged me and said, “Ray, I’m proud of you. You spoke what you believe and you spoke from you heart. And you released us to love one another.” I saw many of our people talking to our visitors all morning long. I can’t think of anything better than for those who know the Lord to spend time talking with people who visit the church. The reporter from Channel 7 said she appreciated the sermon because it did not promote hatred like other sermons she had heard on the topic. The reporter from the Chicago Tribune loved the whole service, and said she felt comforted by what she heard, and by the multicultural nature of our congregation. I think all of us sensed the Lord had done a great work in our midst, that lives were changed, and many doors for ministry are now open before us. The evening was a different story. When I got to the church at 5 PM, a group of 15-20 noisy protesters were marching in front of the sanctuary, with placards decrying the bigotry of our church, led by a man with a bullhorn who continually shouted things about Stephen Bennett, our speaker for the evening. The man with the bullhorn was the same young man who interrupted the service in the morning. For reasons of security, I did not go out front because my presence would have only inflamed a tense situation. Basically just picture any vocal demonstration you’ve seen on TV, and that’s what it was like last night. The police were there in force—uniformed officers and squad cars surrounding the protesters. There were so many TV trucks and camera crews, you would have thought you were at a political convention. A small crowd of onlookers watched the hour-long demonstration. It was noisy and raucous and unnerving. As 6 PM approached, our people came in from all directions. Many of them walked right by the protesters who implored them not to come hear “that bigot,” Stephen Bennett. A few people got upset with the protesters, but most just ignored them, which we had asked them do. By 6 PM the sanctuary was packed with 500 people. We had 30 children and workers in the nursery, with another 30 people gathered to pray in the Legacy Room. Those praying included many Chicago-area pastors who came to Calvary especially to help us pray because they understood the spiritual warfare involved. Pastor John Erickson of Brickyard Bible Church organized the pastors. David Steinhart (Forest Park Baptist Church) and Art Jackson (Judson Baptist Church) were there, along with Mike Dixon who came from Palos Heights to pray. Although the congregation was mostly from Calvary, we had many visitors, including some of the protesters, one of whom sat on the front row. Stephen Bennett gave interviews to three TV crews before the service started. I opened the program by welcoming people, and (in light of the vocal protests) reminding them that the church is private property, the sanctuary is for the worship of God, and that anyone who disrupted the service would be removed. I did that at Stephen Bennett’s request. He speaks all across the country, and often faces the sort of protest we had last night. Many militant activists hate him (and fear him) because they cannot answer his testimony of a truly changed life. We had no problems of any kind during the service or afterwards. I met Stephen Bennett for the first time just before the service. He came up and spontaneously gave me a hug. He immediately struck me as being warm and sincere and outgoing without being pushy. And he seemed genuinely glad to be at Calvary. He was accompanied by his wife, Irene. Pastor Andrew led two songs, and I noticed that the mood was much different than the morning. It was as if the battle was over, and we could begin to relax and celebrate the Lord. People sang with great emotion and joy. After a brief introduction, Stephen Bennett spoke and sang for almost 50 minutes. I thought his singing was a very disarming way to begin because it put the audience in a good frame of mind. During his presentation, he emphasized repeatedly while he does not believe that anyone is born gay, there are many reasons why people end up that way. He also said that he does not believe that homosexuality is a “choice” that people make. It happens as a result of many factors, usually traceable to various childhood influences. He spoke forthrightly about being in the gay lifestyle for 11 years, even to the point of saying he had had 100 sexual partners. In 1991 or 92, a friend named Kathy shared the Bible with him. Eventually he began to read the Bible, understood the gospel, God opened his eyes, and he trusted Christ as Savior. Later he met Irene, they got married, and now have 2 children. He became an evangelist to the homosexual community in 2000. He spoke with such conviction about his former life and his present life that no one could deny the reality of what Christ has done for him. There simply was not one word of hate in anything he said. It was love through and through. Several times he spoke with compassion about the protesters, saying that gays and lesbians are some of the most loving people you could ever meet. Yes, there are some angry people but they are not the majority. His final words were a call to believe in the life-changing power of Jesus and to reach out in love to those who need to hear the message. When he finished, the congregation rose to give him a sustained standing ovation. Later he took questions from the audience, most of them dealing with how to relate to gay and lesbian friends and family members. Love them. He said it over and over again. Don’t compromise what you believe. But love them. And trust God to give you a chance to share with them at the appropriate moment. The only remotely political moment of the whole day came when someone asked about same-sex marriage. Christian must oppose it, he said, because it violates Scripture. And we should oppose civil unions because they are “faux marriages.” After the service concluded, a long line of people waited to greet him in the portico. The protester who sat on the front row greeted him kindly. He chatted with a number of people from the gay community who recognized in him true love and caring. Two other quick stories, and I am done. After the service, I was in the lobby greeting people when a woman from Calvary tugged my sleeve and said, “Pastor Ray, I’ve got someone I want you to meet.” With a big smile she introduced to her friend, a woman who had come to protest. But when the woman from Calvary saw the woman on the picket line, she said, “What are you doing here?” It turns out their children attend the same school. So they talked, and the woman came to the service and said she appreciated Stephen Bennett’s message. The woman attends the Unity Temple, one block from Calvary. When I left them, the two women were still talking together. Before the service, David Kudo happened to be standing near one of the protesters who asked him, “Is it alright if I go to the service?” “Yes, we’d love to have you come in and join us.” “Will they hurt me?” (A fear shared by many gays and lesbians because of past mistreatment.) David responded with, “Do I have horns?” I’m chuckling as I write this because David Kudo is truly a gracious man. So the protester got his partner and the two of them came in and listened to Stephen Bennett. It was that kind of day. Early in the morning, before I got out of bed, I prayed that God would glorify himself in the midst of his people all day long. I truly believe that prayer, and all our prayers, were abundantly answered. 7:53 AM Here are three online reports about the Sunday services at Calvary. If I find any others, I will post them here: Channel 7 Chicago Tribune US Newswire

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