Friday, September 16, 2005

I Understand

When the name of Dr Bob Gray from Longview, Texas is envoked it draws many reactions from people who are familiar with the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement. Some believe he is a motivational genuis while others contend he is a manipulative dictator. While his ministry serves as an inspiration to many pastors of being sold out for soul winning and reaching those people that others seem to have forgotten, his critics contend it's all about numbers and nickels.

His story is one that stirs curiosity. He was called to be the pastor of the Longview Baptist Temple in August of 1980. Almost immediately after his arrival and his ministry began there was controversy because he brought in converts and individuals that made the status quao in his pews, namely the deacon chairman, uncomfortable. The church split and Dr Gray was faced with empty seats and mounting debts. Defectors even tried to get the buildings from the members who stayed. What did this man who had once worked in the accounting offices of General Motors and then later surrendered his life to be a pastor do? By his own testimony he went soul-winning.

I'm sure he also prayed and pleaded with God for His divine intervention. But basically he went to work building the attendances and the ministry of the Longview Baptist Temple which also houses a Christian day school and Texas Baptist College.

Dr Gray and I both attended the same college, Hyles-Anderson College in Crown Point, Indiana. He and I both called Dr Jack Hyles our pastor and had the opportunity to attend First Baptist Church of Hammond and serve in the ministries there. Now the truth is Dr Gray had attended HAC several years before I did. In fact when I arrived for my freshman year Bob Gray was beginning his sixth year in Longview.

I remember once or twice when he spoke in chapel but to be honest he was never on my list of favorite speakers. After leaving Hyles-Anderson in 1990 I took a job selling Cadillacs and then Nissans. From there I became the Program Director for a 50,000 watt Christian radio station in Albany, NY. An area pastor was bringing Dr Bob Gray to his church in Albany and contacted the station about advertising. At first I thought he meant the "other" Bob Gray from Jacksonsville, Florida. When I found out it was a fellow Hyles-Anderson man I went to both evening services as well as the morning Q & A time for pastors and full time workers.

A few years past and by now I had left radio and become the pastor of the Fords Bush Bible Church in Fort Plain, NY. Our ministry was growing and we had gained some national attention in periodicals like the Sword of the Lord and Revival Fires. Becoming a bit impressed with myself I started hosting some regional conferences and got plugged into the "Preacher Gossip" hot line. Two of my friends in the ministry were each singled out in some sermons by Dr Gray. I got the tapes. I got mad. I got out my word processor and fired off a series of letters to Dr Gray and a few hundred of my "closest" preacher friends. There! I had struck a blow for the defense of fundamentalism. Dr. John R Rice could rest easy.

I got word that Dr Gray was going to be speaking at a Hillbilly Meeting in Troy, NY, so I gathered up some of my staff men and we went. I must honestly say that I had never been to anything like it. There are two memories that still stick out from that night. First, live barn yard animals roaming loose around the auditorium which also included a goat. About two thirds into the service my brother (who was my associate pastor at the time) leaned over and said, "pick up your feet." Naturally, I asked why. He told me not to look down but just pick up my feet. So I looked down. A river of goat urine was running directly under my seat. The second most striking memory of that night was the length of the service. It started at 7:00PM and the host pastor never introduced Dr Gray to speak until after 10:00PM.

As more years past I had suffered some set backs and trials within my own ministry. Some of my wounds were self inflicted and there are some that were outright vicious attacks by satan and acts of betrayal.

I began to realize I needed to tend my own yard and not worry about what was going on in someone elses. In other words, I laid my pen (word processor) down.

I hadn't really thought much more about Dr Gray or his ministry with the exception of reading an occassional post him on the old FFF. As God's sovereignty would have it this past June I hired a new staff member who just happens to be a graduate of Texas Baptist College. He and I shared an immediate bond in that we shared much of the same background in the world of the IFB movement. We've laughed over pizza telling our "war stories" from college and "big days" in the bus ministry. Mine in Hammond and his in Longview.

Brother Keever has a vast collection of preaching tapes by Dr Gray. I have listened to a few. Some were newer messages and others were vintage Bob Gray from the early to mid 80's. As I sat listened to one of those messages where he was really shelling it, yelling it, and telling it... I realized something significant. Behind all the public persona of Bob Gray that invites both positive and negative comments beats the heart of a pastor.

One night I was listening in the living room to one of his messages when my wife said, "he's a broken hearted pastor pleading with his people and scolding them like a father who's scared and frustrated that they're going to make that one decision that could destroy their lives. " I thought... is she serious?!? Then she said, "you can tell he's been hurt and he hurts for his people." WOW!

My wife does not come from an IFB background but she's been well educated in the pains and hurts of ministry.

I did something that night I had never done before. I prayed for Dr Bob Gray and his ministry in Longview, Texas. In fact, I've been thinking and praying a lot for him lately. One of the reasons I am writing this is because a preacher friend called me tonight and shared how God had laid it on his heart to pray for Dr Gray.

Now, there are things in the pulpit that he says that I would never say. There are scoldings he gives I would never give. But I can honestly say that "I understand now." What I didn't realize as a young, had the fundamental world by the tail, but was a very wet behind the ears kid... I now see through the eyes of a middle aged pastor with an earned Ph. D in hard knocks and ministry heart aches. I understand.

You can write your tales of being treated unfairly as a student at TBC because it's easier then admitting there were times you got the punishment you should have or skated when you weren't caught.

You can post your criticisms of his "easy believism" and question his baptismal statistics if you like in an attempt to mask the fact you haven't even shared the gospel let alone actually led someone to Christ in how long.

You can say he's a type A personality who wants to dictate and control people because you want to have the freedom to call sin, grace and to call liberty, license. You can mock his attendances as bloated while leading a patio Bible study because that's all you could fill.

It is no more Bob Gray's fault that some over zealous college kid who wants make a name for himself or win some contest rushes "Juan" for the umpteenth time through the baptistry at an off site chapel somewhere anymore then it's President Bush's fault that people he put in charge of Katrina relief in the Gulf Coast dropped the ball.

By the way, for the critics who love to challenge the validity of Dr Gray's baptismal statistics let do some math. If he posts 10K baptised and you claim it's smaller because the same bus kid got baptised 14 times that year then what should it be? Let's say for sake of debate that only half of those baptised were nonrepeats... that's still 5,000!

Oh one more thing... for those of you who like eye witness testimony... I have a staff member who swears he never saw lines of kids of being rebaptised for the 3rd-4th-10th time. Other than isolated incidents among college kids padding their own numbers it WAS NOT standard practice as some people love state.

Now, I am not saying I always agree with Dr Gray or endorse all of his methods. Nope. But I can say from one who has been judged and misjudged. I can say from one who has had his motives criticised and the validity of his ministry questioned... I Understand!

Some of you may feel genuinely hurt by some experience you attribute to Dr Gray. For some it may be real while for most it's an excuse to blame him for your own pity party. As a pastor I know there have been times that I blew it with someone. I also know there are people in the pews who blow it with the pastor. By the way, for those you that claim it's genuine then forgive and move on. If you can't then make an appointment and go see him. But it's time to have some closure rather than these endless strolls down memory lane on internet message boards of stuff you can't get over from back when you 20 years old and your acne hadn't even cleared up.

For those of you who still feel the "pain" of having been part of LBT or TBC and have this need to vent.... vent it to the Lord. Pray for Dr Gray. It's amazing what it does for your heart and your spirit to pray for someone you may even consider to be an enemy. For those of you who twist the truth and attempt to portray Dr Gray as someone who endorses the abuse and mistreatment of children... the Lord rebuke you!

Dr. Gray, if by chance you should read this I want you to know that I understand even if I don't agree with you on everything AND I really am praying for you. You have a friend in New York.