Paying your vows, watching your words, and being responsible.

“What shall I render to the Lord for all HIs benefits toward me?…. I shall pay my vows to the Lord…in the presence of all His people” (Psalm 116:12-18)

Scripture says it’s better not to vow anything to the Lord than to make a vow and not keep it (see Deuteronomy 23:21 and Ecclesiastes 5:4).

This happened some 25 years ago….

My wife and I were captivated by the words in Psalm 66 which described the awful time we were enduring in the church where the Lord had sent us to pastor only a couple of years earlier. “You brought us into the net; You laid an oppressive burden upon us. You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water.” And then, we spotted the promise and began claiming it. “Yet You did bring us out into a place of abundance.” (Psalm 66:10-12)

All of that quickly proved to be dead on. We have written on these pages how our reassignment to serve in New Orleans drove us to ask, “Is this the place of abundance?”  It seemed anything but. Then we found Romans 5:20, “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”  We had our answer: abundant sin and abundant grace.

From time to time over the next year or so, I would return to Psalm 66 to be refreshed on its contents, to consider the larger context, and to ask whether I had missed anything.

Then one day I noticed something.

Immediately after “our” passage, the text reads: “I shall come into thy house with burnt offerings; I shall pay Thee my vows which my lips uttered and my mouth spoke when I was in distress” (Psalm 66:13-14).

I had never made any vows or promises to the Lord at that time.  Wonder if I should?

I knew enough about vows made to the Lord to tread lightly here. This is holy ground. One does not want to make a promise to the Almighty God quickly, lightly, thoughtlessly.  And if you make it, you’d sure better keep it.

If asked, I can’t even give a good reason for why we need to make vows to the Lord, unless it’s in sheer gratitude for His goodness. Anyway….

As I reflected on making a vow to the Lord, three things gradually came to mind and lodged themselves on my heart. These became my three vows to the Lord, made in the “winter of our ministry” when times were hard and the future was questionable:

1) I will live simply.

2) I will give generously.

3) I will encourage other ministers.

Granted, these are general and not very specific.  And I suppose they could be considered arbitrary, meaning each person could define them in his own way. What appears to be living simply to one person may be lavish and indulgent to another.  But I’m answerable to God only. And for that reason, I have mostly kept these three vows to myself over the quarter century since making them.

Living simply.  The house we bought in metro New Orleans cost a third less than the one we had left. It’s smaller and not impressive. Yet it’s more than adequate for our needs. We’re down to one car now. We’re completely out of debt and owe no man anything.

Giving generously.  Now, do not think I hand out money thoughtlessly or promiscuously. Yesterday I passed panhandlers on downtown street corners without giving. (I sent up a prayer asking the Lord to lead me.)  And yet a quick glance at my checkbook reveals regular gifts to a number of Christian ministries and godly individuals, most of them young, who are going out on missions. These are over and above the tithe.

Encouraging ministers. I had no way of knowing that the Lord would make me the director of missions for the hundred-plus SBC churches in metro New Orleans when a major hurricane would blow through, destroying churches and displacing members and disrupting the ministries of every pastor in the area.  Encouraging and helping pastors became the focus of my life, and a large part of it ever since.  My 2014 calendar shows regular (and usually hastily made) appointments with ministers, often for counsel and encouragement and always for fellowship and friendship.

These vows are not that big a deal. They are simply who I am.  In some ways, “paying” these vows is like eating regularly, breathing on schedule, and taking a daily shower. It’s what I do.

In some ways, back in 1989, when the Lord and I had this meeting about Psalm 66 and the making of vows, He was giving me a blueprint for the rest of my life.

Using language faithfully.  Watch your words.

I was struck by something in TIME magazine this week.  (The May 26, 2014 issue)

In an article about terrorists who burned a girls’ dormitory in Nigeria on the night of April 14 and abducted 276 females, we read: “Large numbers of armed extremists arrived hours later and herded the students onto trucks and buses.”

Armed extremists.  Is there something missing there?  What kind of extremists were they?  Extreme in relation to what?

I scanned the three-page article looking for answers, but there were none.  I did a hasty check of similar publications and saw where other editors did not hesitate to call them “Islamic extremists.”

Was the magazine afraid to use that religious modifier? If so, we can understand their caution. People are ultrasensitive to slights of any kind these days. However, if they were Islamic–I’m not saying they were–why would the magazine not admit it?

After the September 11, 2001 terrorism perpetrated by what were clearly Islamic extremists, we keep encountering their kind across the world, always up to no good.
And yet, it is a given that one must not use such a term loosely. Muslim-haters seize upon any fodder for their ill-will, and responsible people do not wish to fuel that.

I’m calling here for responsibility on both sides. God’s people should exercise care in our reporting the deeds of groups we dislike.

Some will recall Hillary Clinton going on national television during the Monica Lewinsky business accusing “right-wing extremists” of doing anything possible to bring down her husband.  It turned out that her husband was doing all he could to destroy himself and needed no help from anyone.

It is true that extremists of the far political right opposed the Clintons, as they do the Obamas, but not all their problems stem from such opponents.

I’m mainly concerned with the way Christians of a more conservative bent–people like me and members of my denomination–toss around terms like “liberal” and “extremist” and “left-wing,” or “conservative” and “right-wing” and “fundamentalist” without a reference to anything.  We have taken perfectly good words and turned them into monsters or angels.

When using such words, we should be specific. Is he a financial liberal or an economic terrorist?  Is she a right-wing politician or a left-wing religious activist?

There are ways in which I am a liberal.  I eat far more liberally than I ought.  I’m more liberal in excusing my faults than I should be.  And, as we said above, I try to be liberal in contributing to causes and ministries as the Lord leads.

Am I an extremist? I am in loving my grandchildren and in believing in prayer.  I am not moderate at all in believing God’s word and loving His church.

If I go hunting this weekend on the family farm in rural Alabama, once I pick up the shotgun does that make me an “armed extremist”?

It does only to TIME magazine and others who toss around terms loosely.


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