A vision from God

OK, I admit it: The video with this post is a stretch.

I needed an art element and couldn't find anything quickly to illustrate a vision from God. So, child of the '80s that I am, I just knew you'd appreciate Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is a Place on Earth." Right?

The Chicago Tribune ran an interesting story this week on a minister who says God told him to buy a large church building:

Steve Robledo was a newly ordained minister in search of a flock when he had what he calls a vision from God: He was to start his congregation in a grand church building for sale on the west side of Elgin, a brick and stone edifice with soaring stained-glass windows and dark wood pews.

He had no money but plenty of faith, and sure enough, his vision came to pass. Two businessmen and Robledo's pastor agreed to provide the financing, and soon his fledgling Lighthouse Community Church had its home.

Five years later, though, this mission of divine inspiration has run into earthly trouble.

Robledo's nondenominational congregation is a fraction of its 200-member peak, diminished by the recession and an internal schism. With contributions down sharply, the church can't afford to pay its $3,100 rent or fix maintenance problems that have drawn a lawsuit from the city.

Here's what I like about this story: It simply reports Robledo's impossible-to-verify claim and lets him explain it in his own words.

Readers can decide for themselves whether to believe the pastor's story or not:

Robledo, a former bank manager, was well-versed in the practicalities of business before becoming a minister. But that experience didn't matter when he received his vision in 2005.

He was looking for a small place in downtown Elgin to host services when one evening, he said, he received a heavenly summons to go to a building just west of the Fox River that was being sold by Grace United Methodist Church.

He arrived in the middle of the night, he said, and as his vision foretold, there was a man outside working on the building. The man showed him around but, upon learning that Robledo had no money, said the minister would need a miracle to acquire the church.

"Sir," Robledo replied, "I believe in miracles."

After that, he said, everything fell into place. He ran into a church acquaintance at a picnic and pitched the idea of buying the church.

Here's what I don't like about this story: It's shallow and leaves too many obvious questions unanswered. Admittedly, part of that may have to do with the length: It's only 830 words, and given shrinking news holes, that may be the upper end of the space available for this particular report.

Still, I couldn't help but think as I read this report that a Godbeat pro would have filled in some of the blanks.

For example:

-- The lede describes the pastor as "ordained," but the story never explains who ordained him. That might go a long way toward helping understand his theological and denominational background -- another hole in the report.

-- His congregation is described as "nondenominational," which could mean any number of things. But no insight is given whatsoever into the theological leanings of the church. In other words, is this the kind of church where visions from God occur on a daily basis or was it a rare thing for this pastor to report a vision?

-- The story reports that pastor Larry DeSantis of Aquila Christian Ministries signed the mortgage. Again, readers are left clueless as to the beliefs of DeSantis' ministry, but its website says:

We may be called full gospel, word of faith, pentecostal, apostolic, holiness, evangelical, non-denominational or what ever! It does not matter to us, as long as we are known as the people of God!

-- Mention is made of an "internal schism" and an associate pastor leaving to start his own church, but no explanation is given of what caused the split. Theology? Personalities? Finances? What exactly precipitated the decline from a peak of 200 members to 30 worshipers on a recent Sunday?

-- No purchase price is given on the church that this pastor bought. The building is for sale for $590,000, but is that more or less than the purchase price?

-- Finally, the story attempts to make the case that trusting in God may lead to unwise financial decisions:

While the particulars of Lighthouse's struggle are unique, they reflect the financial trouble many churches are suffering: An analysis by Reuters found that church foreclosures have tripled since the recession began in 2007.

Church business matters are often complicated by spiritual concerns, an expert said, creating friction within congregations and sometimes leading to risky decisions.

"Depending on a person's spiritual commitment and mystical propensities, he may look for divine authority and weight that greater than sound business principles," said Richard Hammar, a church tax and legal expert based in Missouri.

I wish the writer had found another expert -- perhaps a Dave Ramsey type -- to discuss what the Bible says about money.

All in all, this is one of those stories that you read, scratch your head and wonder what's really going on.

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