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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Why You Need a Good Church

You believe in God, but you don’t think you need to go to church. Or you attend church, but you do not see any need to become a member of one. If so, there are increasing numbers of people who think the same way you do. But is this a good trend? Take a moment to examine it with me…

In this article I won’t be discussing the issue of what a good church is and isn’t, though I do cover that in the book I mention at the end. Here I simply want to suggest some reasons why you need a good one—especially if you believe in God.

According to the Bible, which repeatedly claims to be the Word of God to us, the church is God’s idea. It is not merely a human invention, like clubs, sports teams, support groups, and other attempts we make at developing community among us. In Old Testament times, God called a group of people out of the rest of the world to be His worshippers and servants (the people of Israel), and when Jesus came He told His disciples, “I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18). He then proceeded to organize this assembly of believers (the meaning of the word “church”) by giving instructions about its administration through His appointed spokesmen, the apostles (see 1 Tim. 3, 1 Cor. 11, etc.). These directions included such topics as how people could become members of the church, how they should worship God when they came together, how to meet the financial needs of members, and perhaps most importantly, what kind of person should be a church leader and what those leaders should do.

That issue of leadership, which the Bible addresses repeatedly, is one of the most important reasons for not only attending a good church, but also making a commitment to membership in one. Take just one verse, for example: Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

The idea of “authority” in the spiritual realm may seem strange to you, or perhaps it conjures up images of witch trials and mass suicides by unquestioning, mindless followers. But notice that God says that true spiritual authority (in the church He has established) is something that is good for you, and even something that is necessary for your spiritual health. After all, the definition of spiritual sickness would have to be disobeying God’s commands, which He has given us for our good—and this is a command God has given us! We all need mature, loving leaders who can “keep watch” over us through their teaching, counsel, and accountability, if our goal is to become more spiritually mature ourselves.

In this short article I have said nothing about the helpful relationships we can develop in a good church, the needs that can be met, and the desires that can be fulfilled when we become members of what the Bible calls “the family of God” (1 Tim. 3:15). To learn about those benefits and more, please take a look at a book I co-authored, Life in the Father’s House: A Member’s Guide to the Local Church. You can order a copy here

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Satan and God are both at work in your entertainment... Who will win?

I am so often amazed at how an ancient collection of books like the Bible can be so relevant and even sufficient to answer the difficult questions we face as Christians even today. For example, I was recently listening to a song by a non-Christian artist who has practiced and advocated many things that are abhorrent to God in his life, yet is so obviously gifted with incredible musical talents, and questions were going through my mind (as they often do)... 

Where did he get this amazing talent? Has Satan empowered him so that he would influence people to turn away from God? If so, should I not listen to him and enjoy his talents? If I do, would I be participating in the evils of his life and how the devil is using his music for evil purposes? Or can I thank God for his talents and enjoy them, as long as I am discerning and don't let it influence me toward evil? Fortunately for me, as often as these questions come into my mind, I also think of answers that come from the Scriptures, and I can process the whole thing in a way that honors God. 

What are those answers? Well, rather than "re-invent the wheel" here by writing new material, I'd like to share with you the following excerpt from my book Who Are You to Judge? Hopefully it will help you to think and choose wisely regarding this important area of our lives that we could call...     

Entertainment and the Popular Arts

What kinds of movies, television, music, novels, etc. can a Christian enjoy, and still be honoring to God? No other issue has been the source of more friction between Christians in our media-soaked, pleasure-worshipping society, and no other issue has given rise to as many legalistic rules in an attempt to keep us from being “contaminated by the world.” Some Christians say we should avoid movies altogether, others say only G-rated ones are acceptable. Some say no secular music is good to listen to, others add “Christian contemporary” as a taboo because it sounds too much like what unbelievers are producing. On every issue in this general category, there are many examples of Christians who are far too “loose” in their practice, but on the other hand many over-react to the dangers of modern media by going “beyond what is written,” and are therefore susceptible to all the dangers described in this book. So how can we understand this issue in a way that avoids the extremes and maintains a biblical balance?

        A Matter of the Heart

First, we need to understand that the Bible offers very few specific rules about this issue, if any, and therefore we should not expect to find easy answers that apply to everyone. It is mostly an individual matter of “the heart”—a term which in the Bible means our “inner man,” where we think, desire, worship, and make choices (“mind” and “will” are aspects of the heart). In Mark 7:18-21 Jesus says that “whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him…that which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man.” He then goes on to say evil comes “from within, out of the heart.” What we take into our eyes and ears can certainly tempt or influence us, as we will discuss, but it cannot necessarily cause us to sin. So the response of our hearts to what we see and hear is the ultimate issue in morality. This is very important to understand, in order to avoid legalism in this matter. An activity that might be wrong for one person might be right for another, depending on what is happening in their hearts.

Some Christians, either in creed or merely in practice, advocate a rejection of any kind of artistic expression and enjoyment. But that approach is clearly inconsistent with Scripture.  As T. M. Moore points out,

Anyone who reads the Bible, paying careful attention not only to the words of the text but also the forms of God’s revelation, will be struck by the widespread and varied use of the arts for communicating God’s purposes and will. The Old and New Testaments alike make abundant use of the arts: visual arts (the Tabernacle and Temple and all their decorations, the pillar of memorial stones on the banks of the Jordan); musical arts (psalms and spiritual songs); literary arts (story-telling, poetry, perhaps even drama, all kinds of metaphors and images); and a wide variety of abstract and visionary art forms (the first chapters of Ezekiel and Revelation, for example). 

We could add to that list the fact that the apostle Paul seems to have enjoyed reading the Greek poets, because he quoted from them in his message on Mars Hill in Acts 17:28. And to mention a different but related issue, he also seems to have been a spectator at the Greek Olympics and other sporting events of his time, because he makes frequent reference to them in his letters (e.g. 1 Cor. 9:24-27; Heb. 12:1-2). 

So there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the art forms that people enjoy today, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying them, even as “mere entertainment.” This is important to discuss because some Christians point out that the Bible does not mention “entertainment,” and therefore infer that it is somehow a questionable concept.  But of course the Bible does not mention pizza or toothbrushes either, and that does not make those things bad. And the Bible does contain the idea of entertainment, if not the word itself. One of the themes of the book of Ecclesiastes, for instance, is that God wants you to “enjoy life” (Eccl. 9:9) when it is centered on Him.  He tells us to “eat, drink, and be merry” several times in the book (5:18, 8:15, 9:7), and says that you should “follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes” (11:9).

        The reference to eating and drinking is especially helpful in understanding how God wants us to enjoy ourselves (in moderation, of course). Some of the food and drink He has given us, and some of the eating and drinking we do, are merely for utilitarian purposes, to nourish our bodies. But beyond that He has blessed us with enjoyable food and drink, and we partake sometimes merely for the pure pleasure of it, not simply to keep ourselves alive. And this is according to His design—just as He has designed the arts for our enjoyment, as well as for our edification.

        What About Secular Artists?

        Most Christians will admit that modern forms of entertainment are not sinful in themselves, and that they can be used by believers for godly purposes. But many have a problem with anything produced by unbelievers, because it almost always contains ideas that are contrary to God’s Word and depictions of behavior that God has forbidden. Plus unbelieving artists often live very ungodly lifestyles. We must remember, however, that unbelievers can indeed produce things that are acceptable and helpful to Christians. This is obvious in the scientific realm, of course, because we benefit from the medical and technological skills of unbelievers all the time. But it is also true in the realm of the arts, as evidenced by Paul’s use of the work of Greek poets, which I mentioned above. Most Christians can appreciate the music of Mozart and Tchaikovsky, for example, even though one was a libertine and the other a homosexual. So why can we not enjoy the good work of modern-day artists, even though they may not be godly themselves?

        The book of Ecclesiastes is again helpful in this regard, because it says that to His people God “has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give to one who is good in God’s sight” (Eccl. 2:26). The abilities that unbelievers have, including their cinematic, musical, and literary skills, have been given to them by God so that they can produce art that can be beneficial and enjoyable to Christians. This does not mean that all the art or entertainment produced by the world is okay for Christians to enjoy, but it is certainly reasonable to assume that some of it is. 

[If you would like to read the rest of the chapter, which contains seven principles from Scripture that apply to our choices regarding entertainment and the popular arts, you can purchase a copy here. You can also read about those principles in a series of blog posts that begins here.]

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Sunday, November 8, 2020

Why I Am Not A Progressive Christian

I don’t think being “progressive” is a good thing, unless it means we are making progress toward a better understanding and application of the original meaning and intent of Scripture. That is the only kind of progress that God encourages and commends in the Bible itself. Progress beyond what the Bible meant and intended when it was inspired by the Holy Spirit, as if it needs to be updated or improved based on modern thought, is consistently warned against in Scripture. In fact, the repeated message from God throughout biblical history is that God’s people should return to the Scriptures and recover their original meaning and application, not update or improve upon it. Let’s walk through a survey of what God says about this “from beginning to end,” starting with the beginning of the Bible, then the end, then everything else in between (and especially Jesus)…

NOTE: In this article I’m referring to progressive Christianity (see a definition here), not progressive politics, though there are some parallels between the two—like the issue of how the Constitution is understood and applied. The difference is that the Constitution can be wrong and in need of correction—and even for that I suggest that the standard should be the timeless truth of God rather than current theories, trends, and preferences that so often change with the wind. It’s also interesting to note that the word “liberal” has been used for both theological and political beliefs, and that those who are “liberal” or “progressive” in the one often are in the other as well—with a few notable exceptions like Andrew Klavan. So it would seem that there is an inevitable connection, to some degree at least, between what we believe about God and what we believe about politics. (See here for an interesting article about that.)

The Beginning of the Bible

In Genesis 1 God speaks everything into existence, and then in Genesis 2, as soon as He creates humans, He speaks a command to them (not to eat of that one tree in the Garden). In Genesis 3 Satan casts doubt on the Word of God by tempting the woman with “Did God really say?” The devil also gives a “nuanced” new interpretation of what God said that changes only a few words but ends up promoting the opposite of what God intended. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the very first (and most tragic) story about our sin shows God’s enemy doing basically the same thing that progressive or liberal Christians do when they cause people to doubt the Scriptures rather than encouraging trust in them. God knew that Satan would do this all throughout history in one way or another, and He wants us to ask the question, “Does the way I talk about the Bible cause people to question its truthfulness, authority, and relevancy?” If so, we are being more like Satan than Jesus Christ (more on His perspective later).

God then reveals His written law through Moses as a standard that He will constantly call people to return to rather than advance upon. On the eve of their entrance to the Promised Land, for example, both Moses and Joshua make this point clearly:

Now this is the commandment, and these are the statutes and judgments which the Lord your God has commanded to teach you, that you may observe them in the land which you are crossing over to possess, that you may fear the Lord your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, you and your son and your grandson, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged.  Therefore hear, O Israel, and be careful to observe it, that it may be well with you…. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…. You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, His testimonies, and His statutes which He has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 6:1-17)

[The Lord said to Joshua,] “Be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”

The End of the Bible

It is also no coincidence that the Bible ends with this warning: “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city.... For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Revelation 22:14-19).

In the second-to-last book of the Bible, God says, “Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 3-4).

And the fourth-to-last book of the Bible says, “This is love, that we walk according to His commandments.... For many deceivers have gone out into the world.... Whoever transgresses [literally, “goes beyond,” a synonym for "progresses"] and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son.  If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.”

Just like He did when He delivered the first part of His revelation (the Mosaic law) 1500 years before, God is saying, “I’ve given you a written Word that is what I want to say to you for all time. Don’t add to it or try to improve it; rather always come back to it as the standard for truth, trying to understand it better and apply it with wisdom to whatever situation you might face. Satan and his servants will always be the ones who want to make you question whether it’s all true or whether it really applies to you.”

Someone might say at this point, “But you believe that parts of Scripture don’t apply to us today, like the sacrificial laws in Leviticus or the tongues instructions in 1 Corinthians.” No, I actually do believe that even historically-bound texts apply to us, though I would say they apply to us in a different way than they did to the original recipients, because of the changes in the way God has worked in the world in different ages. And—this is key—I believe God told us in the Word that these changes would occur. The cessation of animal sacrifices is attested by so many passages (like Hebrews) that it’s a consensus among Christians, though the tongues issue rests largely on our interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:8 and the nature of the gift in Acts. But wherever we land on issues like that, we “conservatives” believe the text of Scripture was true and sufficient when delivered—it’s just a matter of interpreting and applying it correctly. Progressivism, on the other hand, says that the original meaning of the text was in error and needs to be corrected in light of modern “knowledge,” or that it simply isn’t enough to understand and solve modern problems. That kind of “progress,” as you can see from the passages in this article, is never predicted or approved of in the Bible like the historical stages are (e.g. the “better” covenant in Hebrews and the “fuller” knowledge in 1 Corinthians 13).

Everything in Between (and especially Jesus)

The prophets, the Psalms, and the wisdom literature of the Old Testament are filled to overflowing with references to the timeless truth of the written Word of God and calls to return to it rather than improve or re-interpret it according to the spirit of the age. (And keep in mind that a lot of development in human culture took place over the 1500 years following the writings of Moses.) Here are some examples:

[5th Century BC, 1000 years after Moses:] And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel. Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law. Ezra the scribe stood at a wooden podium which they had made for the purpose…. They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading. (Nehemiah 8:1-8)

[7th Century BC, during the reign of Josiah] Then Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan who read it…. And Shaphan read it in the presence of the king. When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes.  Then the king commanded Hilkiah the priest…“Go, inquire of the Lord for me and the people and all Judah concerning the words of this book that has been found, for great is the wrath of the Lord that burns against us, because our fathers have not listened to the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us”….  Then the king sent, and they gathered to him all the elders of Judah and of Jerusalem. The king went up to the house of the Lord and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests and the prophets and all the people, both small and great; and he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord, and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to carry out the words of this covenant that were written in this book.  

Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens…. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts…. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:89, 98-100, 105)

The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

Even when the Old Testament prophets predict a new covenant (in the future kingdom of the Messiah), they don’t say the existing Scriptures will be proven wrong or somehow improved—they say the Scriptures will be “fulfilled” in various ways that actually honor rather than denigrate or cause them to be questioned. Notice what Jeremiah 31:31-33 says, for example: “‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord.  ‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.’” Similarly, Ezekiel 36:26-27 says, “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.”  

The future age of the New Covenant will not be better because antiquated, inaccurate ideas in the Old Testament will be corrected and improved—no, it will be better because people will actually understand and obey those Scriptures more than they did before.

Jesus Himself echoed that truth over and over again in his interactions with the Jews, as He doggedly refused to give any ground to the “progressive” or “liberal” sects like the Sadducees (who, interestingly, denied the Resurrection, among other parallels with modern thinkers). And He never condemned the Pharisees for believing in the truthfulness (and even “inerrancy”) of the Old Testament—rather He rebuked them for not truly understanding and obeying it. Here are some examples:

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-19)

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life….  Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me.  But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words? (John 5:39-47)

Jesus answered them, “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? (John 10:34-36)

The apostles, whom Jesus chose to deliver the final parts of His “once-for-all” revelation, could not have been more clear that our goal as Christians should be to trust and apply the written Word as it was originally given and intended. Referring primarily to the Old Testament (and only by extension to their own writings), Paul and Peter say this:

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

We have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (2 Peter 1:19-21)

One-and-a-half millennia after the first books of the Bible were written and hundreds of years after the rise of Greek philosophy, Alexander’s world empire, and the Pax Romana, these men said that even the ancient Old Testament books were completely true and applicable to their age and the ages to come. God had told them that their writings would have the same character (1 Corinthians 14:36-38, 2 Peter 3:16), so no doubt today’s “progressives” would have them rolling over in their graves (if there were no Resurrection, as many believe).

That half-joke leads me to my conclusion, which is to highlight the extreme danger of the progressive or liberal views of Scripture by saying that they are indeed a slippery slope. (Just because that’s the name of a logical fallacy in argumentation doesn’t mean it’s not a real dynamic in many people’s experience.) Why should we believe in the Resurrection of Christ if other accounts in Scripture are merely mythological, and then how could we have a confident expectation of our own resurrection through a union with Him (Romans 6:8)? Speaking of logic, I think we can safely add a preface to Paul’s “syllogism” in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19:

[If the Scriptures contain myths and you can’t know whether its stories are true, then you can’t be confident that Christ has been raised (because that’s a whopper of a tale).] If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

On the other hand, if Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead and is still alive 2000 years later, than it’s possible and even very likely that all the other fantastical stories are true, and that we do have a confident hope for the future.

POSTSCRIPT: Here’s another “syllogism” to summarize my main point in this article:

Progressive Christians say they believe God speaks through the Bible (to some degree at least). The Bible itself warns against progressing beyond the original intent and meaning of the text by adding to or modifying the original intent and meaning, to which the Bible repeatedly calls us back. So progressive Christians should hear this message from God and seek to modify their beliefs and lives to be more consistent with it. Otherwise their Christianity makes no sense, because the book that is foundational to their Christianity (in any scheme) weighs in against the kind of house they’re building upon it. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

An open letter to Francis Chan about healing

Dear Brother Francis, 

I don't know if you remember me, but we had some seminary classes together. I recently reached out to you via email for some input after reading your very good book on marriage and listening to some of your thought-provoking discussions about church ministry. (I couldn't find anything but an old and possibly defunct email address, so if you didn't get it and happen to read this, I'd still love to ask your advice on some things.) I admire and appreciate many things about you. But shortly after I wrote my email to you, I happened upon this video and was concerned enough to write this open letter, hoping that you and/or others might somehow benefit by reading it.

First of all, let me recount a few things you said in your "Last Message to America"...

You said that you were taught and believed for years that supernatural healing doesn't happen anymore.

You said you've been thinking for a few years that the "sign gifts" like healing are still operative today, but didn't experience them yourself until a recent trip to a village in Asia, where you said things like "Be healed" and everyone you touched was healed.

You said the village was a difficult place where the people had never heard the gospel before and when you were preaching it, you said to yourself, "I have no power, I'm speaking through a translator. You need to do something" like signs and wonders in order to convince them to believe (the full quote is below in the comments).

You said, "This is no different than if Jesus walked through this village...I am Jesus right now." 

Here are some thoughts for you about each of those...

Don't misconstrue or misrepresent the "cessationist" perspective. Cessationists (at least myself and the ones I respect) are not saying that God no longer heals supernaturally today--we believe he does. We're just saying that there are no apostles anymore and therefore God doesn't do it in the same way. You are not an apostle, so you shouldn't expect the exact same things to happen with you as happened with them, and you shouldn't describe it in the same terms (that has scary potential for misleading people about your role, by the way, especially in cultures like that). Was there prayer for healing being offered by you or others at the village? I believe that people are healed through prayer, "if the Lord wills," so certainly God may have chosen to heal people in response to those prayers (even when they're offered in the midst of some errors). But do you think he will heal "on command" or always answer "yes" to such prayers if people have enough faith? If so, that is unbiblical and dangerous teaching, which has been refuted so often and conclusively that I don't need to address it here.

Don't allow your experience to have more authority than the sound interpretation of Scripture. This is not safe nor wise, to borrow Luther's phrase, and it's led to most of the heresies and cults throughout church history. We have to view our experiences through the more objective lens of Scripture and not the other way around, and we need to recognize and guard against the ever-present tendency to get that backwards. We should ask ourselves, "What would my beliefs and terminology be if I based them entirely on the Bible, without factoring in my experiences (because experience can be so misleading)?" I know you're probably thinking that you are basing everything on the Bible, but I just wanted to challenge you as a brother that I got the vibe while listening to you that you might be putting experience too high on the authority scale. For example, you seem to think and imply that what happened in the village proves your recent thoughts about signs and wonders to be true. But nothing could be further from the truth, for many reasons (some of which I will discuss below). I remember driving a Prime Time shuttle to and from the airport when I was a seminary student (Did you ever do that? Many of us did) and talking to a number of Mormons who gave me their testimony about how someone had showed them a verse in the book of Mormon that says that God will reveal the truth of that book if we pray and ask him to. They prayed and then had a supernatural experience that was so profound "it could only be from God," so they knew that the Book of Mormon was true. But as I lovingly told them, I wouldn't deny their experience, but it proves absolutely nothing except that they had an experience. That leads me to...

Don't forget that Satan can do miracles too. In fact, you've probably never considered this (I had never heard it before), but it seems to me that the only future signs and wonders predicted in the New Testament (to happen after its writing) are ones done by Satan and demons. The New Testament never clearly says that God will do signs and wonders after the initial stage of the church, but it does say that the forces of evil will do them in order to deceive people. (Read more about this here.) I know you quote John 14:12, like everyone does, but you can't base a whole theology on a verse like that, considering the way Jesus regularly spoke in irony and hyperbole and there are a number of different ways to understand that passage. At the very least, I think we can safely say that Jesus did not mean that our works would be more amazing signs and wonders than he performed: he raised several people (including himself) from the dead and fed 5000, for example, and no one after him has outdone those miracles, let alone every believer. Given that, it's much more likely that he was speaking ironically and meant that even the typical ministry of his people in the New Testament age would be greater than what he did, which leads me to...

Don't underestimate or understate the power of the gospel. What caused me the most concern was when you said "I have no power" when you were preaching the gospel (full quote in the comments below). With all you know of the Scriptures, I can't believe you would say that--unless something is clouding your mind like a desire for "more" and/or some false teaching that you've opened your mind to. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16)! I know you know that verse (and many others that say the same thing), so again, why would you even say something like "I didn't have any power"? If you no longer believe that the gospel's power is sufficient to save people without "signs and wonders," I suggest you definitely have been led astray by a desire for "more" and/or some kind of false teaching. Furthermore, as I'm sure you also know, people can be converted to Christianity because they see signs and wonders without even understanding the gospel, let alone embracing it truly in their hearts. I know you know this because you've preached about false conversion, and I also know you know about the reality of demonic power because you've preached about that too. So don't you realize that demons might heal people (or even use the amazing power of the mind that is behind many healings) to get people to focus more on supernatural experiences than on the real, lasting power of gospel discipleship?

Why couldn't you just pray for the sick, encourage them to pray themselves, make sure they know that God does not promise to heal every sickness at all times, and teach them how to trust and thank God even if he does not take away their suffering (like Jesus did in the Garden, etc.)? Why couldn't you take that clearly biblical approach rather than using questionable terminology like "I healed them" or "everyone I touched" or "the gift of healing" etc. That terminology had a specific purpose and application for special people like Christ and the apostles in validating their credentials to deliver God's written revelation, which is contained and completed in the New Testament (Heb. 1:1-2, 2:3-4, Jude 3, etc.). Do you think your prayers will have less real power if you simply ask for healing and then trust God to do what is best for the spiritual health of people (which is sometimes allowing sickness to continue)?

Don't say "I am Jesus." I understand our union with Christ and that we are his "hands and feet" in the world, and I even agree with you (as I explained above) that, in a sense, we are doing works like he did on his behalf and in his place in the world today. But though the Bible says (over and over again) that we are "in Christ" and other similar phrases, it never says we are Christ. That very important distinction must be upheld in our terminology, to maintain both the ontological uniqueness of Christ and also the historical uniqueness of his life and ministry. The fact that you would use those words makes me wonder again if you are being negatively influenced by false teaching, since it echoes the way some heretical Word/Faith teachers talk. 

I hope you believe that I'm only writing this out of love and concern for a brother who has been used greatly of God (much more than I have). I am not a "company man" and have also progressed beyond the teaching of our seminary background in various ways. But I don't want to see someone with so much past fruit and future opportunity deviate from what the Scripture itself teaches (2 John 8-11).

In Christ,


Friday, October 23, 2020

Favorite Songs - How Great You Are, by me and others

(Are there some songs that never get old for you? You can listen to them over and over again, even after you've just listened to them, and you still enjoy them? When they also make you think about interesting and important stuff, you get the kinds of songs I'm talking about in this series of blog posts.)

I've had the privilege over the years of improving some contemporary worship songs by modifying their lyrics--one example is that I've added the rest of the Psalm into some songs that use only a small part of it, so we could sing the whole song that God inspired. In the case of this one ("How Great You Are"), the lyrics were very sparse but I loved the tune and thought it deserved some more extensive words from Scripture to describe how truly great our God is. So about 20 years ago Bob Tevlin and I came up with this hymn/praise song hybrid that still moves me today. If you can put up with the amateur vocals, I hope it will be a blessing to you too. 

How Great You Are
You are so faithful, Lord You are glorious
Holy and righteous, Your sovereign choices are just
For Your love endures forever; Your mercy never ends
Majestic Lord yet still my precious Friend
How great You are, how great You are
You are the Mighty King,
Who has come to reign in me
How great You are, how great You are
I give You all the praises of my heart
You are deserving of all the praises Lord
For You have raised me, to a new life I'm born once more
For You walked the road to Calv'ry
there You bore my sin and shame
You nailed it to the cross and took my blame
How great You are, how great You are
You are the Holy Lamb,
Who has come to rescue man
How great You are, how great You are
I give You all the praises of my heart
You have been given a seat in the highest place
Your lovingkindness has left me with no debt to pay
For Your life became a ransom, now my life has been redeemed
You intercede for me eternally!
How great You are, how great You are
You are the Gracious Lord, 
And I am Yours forevermore
How great You are, how great You are
I give you all the praises of my heart

© 1993 Maranatha Praise, Inc.\Christ For The Nations Music (Admin. by The Copyright Company)\(Maranatha! Music [Admin. by The Copyright Company]) Shannon Wexelberg.  Additional verses by Robert Tevlin and Dave Swavely. 

 All rights Reserved. CCLI #2799265

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Red, Orange, and Yellow (for Jill on our 30th anniversary)

May these colors remind you of the Fall

My favorite season, above them all

And remember, as you always tell me—

It’s death that makes the greatest beauty


Think of me and my love for you

And how God can make all things new

Think of what the colorful cycle of life from death tells—

I wouldn’t want to go through a F/fall with anyone else!


Our anniversary always falls in the Fall

30 times now through hard falls and all

We’ve celebrated the union that God put together

And a friendship that (without the falls) will go on forever!

Monday, September 21, 2020

You should try this! (it will be good for you spiritually)

[This post is an unabashed advertisement, but it's purpose is not to benefit me--it's purely for your benefit. For the first time in a while I opened a wonderful book I have on my Kindle this morning for my prayer time--I have often turned to it over the years when I wanted to "spice up" my prayers or when I'm not sure what to say myself and want to pray along with the words of another. This prayer--reproduced in its entirety here, with headings added--is one of a collection of profound entries found in C. H. Spurgeon's Prayers. You can get inexpensive copies here in various formats, and I strongly encourage you to do just that. Learn from a master and let his words guide you in your own prayers...I guarantee you will be blessed!] 

O LORD God! the Fountain of all Fullness, we, who are nothing but emptiness, come unto Thee for all supplies, nor shall we come in vain, since we bear with us a plea which is all prevalent. Since we come commanded by Thy Word, encouraged by Thy promise, and preceded by Christ Jesus, our great High Priest, we know that whatsoever we shall ask in prayer, believing, we shall receive. Only do Thou help us now to ask right things, and may the utterances of our mouth be acceptable in Thy sight, O God our Strength and our Redeemer.  

Trinitarian Praise

We would first adore Thy blessed and ever-to-be-beloved Name. “ All the earth doth worship Thee, the Father everlasting.” Heaven is full of Thy glory. Oh! that men's hearts were filled therewith, that the noblest creatures Thou hast made, whom Thou didst set in the Paradise of God, for whom the Saviour shed His blood, loved Thee with all their hearts.  

The faithful, chosen, called, and separated, join in the everlasting song. All Thy redeemed praise Thee, O God! As the God of our election we extol Thee for Thine everlasting and immutable love. As the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we bless Thee for that unspeakable gift, the offering of Thine Only-begotten. Words are but air, and tongues but clay, and Thy compassion is divine, therefore it is not possible that any words of ours should “ reach the height of this great argument,” or sound forth Thy worthy praise for this superlative deed of grace.  

We bless Thee, also. Divine Son of God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father, that Thou didst not disdain to be born of the Virgin, and that, being found in fashion like a man thou didst not refuse to be obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Let Thy brows be girt with something better than thorns; let the eternal diadem for ever glitter there. Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood; unto Thee be glory, and honour, and power, and majesty, and dominion, and might, for ever and ever!  

And equally, most blessed Spirit, Thou who didst brood over chaos and bring it into order, Thou who didst beget the Son of God's body of flesh; Thou who didst quicken us to spiritual life, by whose divine energy we are sanctified, and hope to be made meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light, unto Thee, also, be hallelujahs, world without end!  

O Lord! our soul longeth for words of fire, but we cannot reach them! Oh! when shall we drop this clay which now is so uncongenial to our song? When shall we be able with wings to mount upward to Thy throne, and having learned some flaming sonnets that have once been sung by cherubim above, we shall praise Thee for ever?   

Yet even these are not rich enough for Thy glory. We would sing unto Thee a new song. We will, when we reach the heavenly shore, become leaders of the eternal music. “Day without night“ will we “circle God's throne rejoicing,” and count it the fullness of our glory, our bliss, our heaven, to wave the palm and cast our crowns with our songs at Thy feet for ever and ever!  

Intercession for the Lost

Our Father, which art in heaven; next to this we would offer prayer for those who never think of Thee; who, though created by Thee, are strangers to Thee; who are fed by Thy bounty, and yet never lift their voices to Thee, but live for self, for the world, for Satan, for sin. Father, these cannot pray for themselves for they are dead; Thy quickened children pray for them. These will not come to Thee, for, like sheep, they are lost; but do Thou seek them, Father, and bring them back.  

Oh! our glorious Lord, Thou hast taught us to pray for others, for the grace which could have met with such undeserving sinners as we are must be able to meet with the vilest of the vile. Oh! we cannot boast of what we are; we cannot boast of what we have been by nature. Had we our doom we had now been in hell. Had we this day our proper, natural, and deserved position, we should still have been in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity. 'Tis Thy rich, free, sovereign, distinguishing grace which has brought us up out of the miry clay, and set our feet upon a rock. And shall we even refuse to pray for others? Shall we leave a stone unturned for their conversion? Shall we not weep for those who have no tears and cry for those who have no prayers? Father, we must and we will.  

“Fain our pity would reclaim and snatch the fire-brands from the flame.”  

There are those who are utterly careless about Divine Things. Wilt Thou impress them! May some stray shot reach their conscience! Oh! that they may be led solemnly to consider their position and their latter end! May thoughts of death and of eternity dash like some mighty waves, irresistibly against their souls! Oh! may heaven's light shine into their conscience! May they begin to ask themselves where they are, and what they are, and may they be turned unto the Lord with full purpose of heart.  

There are others who are concerned, but they are halting between two opinions. There are some that we love in the flesh who have not yet decided for God. Behold it trembles in the balance! Cast in Thy cross, O Jesus, and turn the scale! Oh! Love irresistible, come forth, and carry by blessed storm the hearts which have not yet yielded to all the attacks of the law! Oh! that some who never could be melted, even by the furnace of Sinai, may be dissolved by the beams of love from the tearful eyes of Jesus!  

Lord, Lord, if there be a heart that is saying, “Now, behold I yield; lo! at Thy feet rebellion's weapons I lay down, and cease to be Thy foe, Thou King of kings“ — if there be one who is saying, “I am willing to be espoused unto Christ, to be washed in His blood, to be called in His righteousness“ — bring that willing sinner in now!  

May there be no longer delay, but may this be the time when, once for all, the great transaction shall be done, and they shall be their Lord's, and He shall be theirs.  

Oh! that we could pour out our soul in prayer for the unconverted! Thou knowest where they will all be in a few years! Oh! by Thy wrath, we pray Thee, let them not endure it! By the flames of hell be pleased to ransom them from going down into the pit! By everything that is dreadful in the wrath to come we do argue with Thee to have mercy upon these sons of men, even upon those who have no mercy upon themselves. Father, hast Thou not promised Thy Son to see of His soul's travail? We point Thee to the ransom paid; we point Thee once again to the groans of Thy Son, to His agony, and bloody sweat! Turn, turn Thy glorious eyes thither, and then look on sinners, and speak the word, and bid them live. 

Prayers for the Church and the Country

Righteous Father, refresh every corner of the vineyard, and on every branch of the vine let the dew of heaven rest. Oh! that Thou wouldest bless Thy church throughout the world! Let visible union be established, or if not that, yet let the invisible union which has always existed be better recognised by believers. Wilt Thou repair our schisms; wilt Thou repair the breaches which have been made in the walls of Zion? Oh! that Thou wouldest purge us of everything unscriptural, till all Christians shall come to the law and to the testimony, and still keep the ordinances and the doctrines as they were committed to the apostles by Christ!  

Remember our land in this time of need. Do Thou be pleased by some means to relieve the distress prevalent. Quicken the wheels of commerce that the many who are out of employment in this city may no longer be crying for work and bread. Oh! that Thou wouldest make wars to cease, to the ends of the earth, or, when they break out break Thou the slave's fetters thereby, and though desperate be the evil, yet grant that Satan may cast out Satan, and may his kingdom be divided, and so fall.  

Plea for Christ's Return

Above all. Thou long-expected Messiah, do Thou come! Thine ancient people who despised Thee once are waiting for Thee in Thy second coming, and we, the Gentiles, who knew Thee not, neither regarded Thee, we, too, are watching for Thine advent. Make no tarrying, O Jesus! May Thy feet soon stand again on Olivet! Thou shalt not have this time there to sweat great drops of blood, but Thou shalt come to proclaim the year of vengeance for Thy foes, and the year of acceptance for Thy people.  

“When wilt thou the heavens rend, In majesty come down?”  

Earth travails for Thy coming. The whole creation groaneth in pain together until now. Thine own expect Thee; we are longing till we are weary for Thy coming. Come quickly. Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen and Amen.


Saturday, August 22, 2020

Favorite Songs - At Your Mercy, by a sinner who needs it every day

(Are there some songs that never get old for you? You can listen to them over and over again, even after you've just listened to them, and you still enjoy them? When they also make you think about interesting and important stuff, you get the kinds of songs I'm talking about in this series of blog posts.)

I had a dream last night that I was driving a huge double-trailer truck through the countryside somewhere in Africa (probably Uganda because that's where I've visited and where my missionary friend Ryan Vance lives). I took my eyes off the road for a moment for no good reason, lost control of the truck, and watched helplessly in horror as the truck careened through a village and struck numerous people, including children. When it finally came to rest, I could hear the wails of pain and grief from behind me and then could see an angry mob of men approaching through my mirror, presumably to inflict the kind of tribal justice that I've heard about from my missionary friend. Then I woke up.

It occurred to me in the aftermath that when we drive any vehicle we are all just a moment away from hurting or killing someone through our own negligence, and I thought about how thankful I should be that such a thing has not happened to me in reality. It's certainly not because I never take my eyes off the road to fiddle with my phone or stereo or whatever, so I definitely don't deserve to be spared from such a fate. In other words, it reminded me that only God's mercy has prevented me from so many consequences I could have suffered, and God's mercy is my only hope for the future. 

It made me think of one of the songs I often sing to God during my prayer time (usually early in the "rotation"). It's called "At Your Mercy" and it's not a favorite because of the quality of the song (the vocals are certainly nothing to write home about:), but because it means so much to me after singing it to God thousands of times over the years. If you listen to it and can put up with the sparse instruments and amateur singing, maybe it will be a blessing to you. But even if not, the lyrics below should be, because they are all from Scripture and especially echo the famous phrase in Lamentations 3:23 that God's mercies are "new every morning." I usually think of that verse in positive terms as a promise that God will provide for us all we need every day even though we don't deserve it, but my dream made me think about it in a different way: Every day we should be grateful that we have not received the judgment and punishment we deserve for our sins.

At Your Mercy

At Your mercy, oh Lord
I’m at Your mercy, oh Lord
Nothing in my hands I bring
Only to the cross I cling

At Your mercy, oh Lord
I’m at Your mercy, oh Lord
Amazing grace—how can it be?
To save a wretch like me

I was lost, but I was found
Lord, You turned my world around and upside down
I was blind, but now I see
And I’m dependent on the life you make in me

At Your mercy, oh Lord…

I was down, and I was out
Lord, You lifted me from the valley to the mount
I was going, Lord, I was gone
And now I need Your strength to carry on

At Your mercy, oh Lord…

If you could stand some more minimilistic (but meaningful) amateurism, here is another short song I sing to the Lord in my prayer times...

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Favorite Songs - Holding Back the Storm, by Paul Rodgers

(Are there some songs that never get old for you? You can listen to them over and over again, even after you've just listened to them, and you still enjoy them? When they also make you think about interesting and important stuff, you get the kinds of songs I'm talking about in this series of blog posts.)

While my wife Jill was away for a couple days helping a family in need, this song came on in my rotation and was already on my list to do a blog entry on it, so since I was missing Jill and thinking about her, I figured this was the time to do it.

This is my favorite of a number of songs on this album by Paul Rodgers that I love, because I think he has one of the best voices ever and on this more mature solo album (compared to his Free and Bad Company days), he actually uses it to sing about some important and meaningful issues (rather than "All Right Now," "Feel Like Making Love," "Ready for Love," and their ilk, which are great vocal performances but not very meaningful:). 

"Holding Back the Storm" is actually an ode to a godly woman, a Proverbs 31 woman even, which of course is what my wife is. The song says she flies "on the wings of a white dove," which can only be a reference to the Holy Spirit, and other lyrics in it echo these verses from Proverbs 31:

Who can find a virtuous wife?
For her worth is far above rubies.
The heart of her husband safely trusts her;
So he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good and not evil

All the days of her life....
She girds herself with strength,
And strengthens her arms....
She extends her hand to the poor,
Yes, she reaches out her hands to the needy....
Strength and honor are her clothing;
She shall rejoice in time to come.... [The song says "Fly on the wings of tomorrow"]
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
And on her tongue is the law of kindness.
She watches over the ways of her household....
Her children rise up and call her blessed;
Her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many daughters have done well,
But you excel them all.”
Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing,

But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.
Give her of the fruit of her hands,

And let her own works praise her in the gates.

About the music in the song... As I've said before, powerful rock music can be very appropriate for various emotions that God wants us to feel, such as anger against injustice and other consequences of sin. In the case of this song, I find it very fitting for the celebration of one of God's greatest gifts to the world--a godly woman whose "worth is far above rubies." 

I posted my own song and video tribute to my wife Jill (and "the fruit of her hands") elsewhere on this blog, but here are the lyrics that are sung by a much, much better voice than mine:

Holding Back the Storm

She has the heart of a lion
The soul of a mountain stream
That flows through the heart of the valley of love
Pure as an baby's dream

She has the eyes of a tiger 
Watching her children grow
The power and grace of the love on her face
Sharing the secret she knows 

Hold back the storm
With a love so warm
Holding back the storm
With a love so strong
Holding back the storm

Fly, with the power of love
Fly, on the wings of a white dove 
Fly, away with my sorrow
Fly on the wings of, the wings of tomorrow

Holding back the storm

She has a way of believing
When nobody else gives a damn
She has a way of seeing the truth
Touching the soul of a man

Hold back the storm
With a love so warm
Holding back the storm
With a love so strong
Hold back the storm

My message to you baby, is that I love you, and you hold back the storm...

Saturday, July 18, 2020

A Discernment Exercise re: Progressive Christianity

In the course of my writing work I happened upon this statement of faith (of sorts) on the website of Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA, and I thought it would serve as a good exercise in discernment to compare what the statement says with some related passages from the Bible. Ask yourself if these church leaders are teaching the traditional faith of Christians throughout the centuries based on the Scriptures, or if they are creating their own "updated" version of religion in an attempt to improve on both.

The quotes from the church's statement are in bold and the Scriptures I'm adding are in plain print. (I didn't spend much time on this, by the way, but just put in some passages off the top of my head to help you compare the two.)

What We Believe

The mystery of the Christian liturgy well celebrated remains: God is faithful and waits.

So the liturgy in its whole range—from daily prayer, to initiation rites, to Eucharist, to burying the dead—waits patiently for our humanity to be opened to it. The liturgy waits patiently, like the Scriptures, like Jesus, like the whole life of God who, as Tolstoy once observed, “Sees the truth but waits.” (1)

"The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)

"And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God." (1 Cor. 2:1-5)

Heaven is revealed upon the earth both in the cup of cold water which is given to the poor... and in Michelangelo’s David: in both the dance of a child and the melody of Mozart. (2)

Alertness is all. (3)

"But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away." (Isa. 64:6)

"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing." (1 Cor. 13:1-3)

"Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil." (1 Thess. 5:21-22)

Belief is appropriately a moving target, which shifts and adjusts with time, circumstances, and the continuing new revelation of the Spirit of God. It’s also so varied and complex—even within a single parish—that any attempt at a summary would be immediately misleading. Belief isn’t a set of ideas or propositions. It’s rather an approach to life and a dynamic engagement with the mystery of God.

"Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him." (Heb. 11:6)

"Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ." (Jude 3-4)

"For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures." (1 Cor. 15:3-4).

"And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness:
God was manifested in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory."
(1 Tim. 3:16)

The Episcopal Church is not principally identified by its adoption of a creed or an approved statement of doctrine; we are primarily a community formed by the practice of worship. Praying shapes our believing, and, thus, there are no insiders and outsiders but, instead, we are people who gather prayerfully to seek, across all divisions, peace and unity with God and one another and the joy that comes from sharing love directly and personally. Our churchyard, our church building, our facilities, our programs, our ministries, and our worship are open to all, because openness without limitation is the keenest form of spiritual alertness.

“'Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber'... Then Jesus said to them again, 'Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.... I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me." (John 10:1-2, 7-9, 25-27)

"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector." (Matt. 18:15-17)

"I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore 'put away from yourselves the evil person.'” (1 Cor. 5:9-13)

Being alert in this way opens to us the reality of God’s heaven in our midst and in our world. Heaven is not merely a distant reward. This is a terrible caricature. Glimpses of heaven are, rather, present to us in the beauty of creation and in our sharing the image of God in our own creativity. They’re also made manifest in many acts of redemption: by our reaching out in care, by our offering forgiveness and reconciliation, and by our making our first delight service to others.

"Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men." (2 Cor. 5:9-10)

"Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." (1 Cor. 10:31)

"Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, 'Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?' Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’" (Matt. 22:35-38)

True belief unfolds slowly, across the spans of lifetimes....

"Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24)

"By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith." (Heb. 11:7)

"For what does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.'” (Rom. 4:3).

"Once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation." (Heb. 9:26-28)

Those last verses highlight what is missing from that church's "statement of faith"--the gospel (1 Cor. 15:3-4)! What Christ has done for us on the cross, the most important truth for us to believe, is not explained in it. Of course, the leaders of that church may not even believe in the penal substitutionary sacrifice of Christ, because denying that doctrine is common in "progressive" or "liberal" circles. It's not my purpose here to defend it or to explain the nuances of the passages I listed above--I just wanted you to see and think about the disparity between the way many people talk about the Christian faith and what is actually contained in the Word that He gave us as a basis for it. But if you'd like to discuss any of this further, I'd be glad to.

Footnotes from "What We Believe":
1) Donald Saliers: Worship as Theology
2) Gerardus van der Leeuw: Sacred and Profane Beauty
3) Michael Fishbane: Spiritual Attunement

Monday, June 22, 2020

An All-Star Team-Up vs. Depression

I wanted to share with you, in its entirety, what I read for my time with the Lord this morning. First because it features three of the most profound and powerful wordsmiths in history--the prophet Isaiah, Charles Spurgeon, and Martin Luther (with God behind it all, of course). Secondly because it cut me to the core after a Father's Day when I struggled deeply with thoughts and feelings of depression when I should have been trusting and praising God, like these literary giants reminded me.

I also wanted to share it because I know I'm not the only one who struggles in that way. "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation," as Thoreau famously said, and though he was using "men" in a general sense, middle-aged males and fathers in particular may be some of the most susceptible targets for depression (especially the "quiet" kind). But, of course, what is said in this excerpt from Spurgeon's comments on Isaiah 41 applies to everyone, regardless of gender or age. The Scripture verses are in bold and Spurgeon's comments (including a great story about Martin Luther and his wife) are in italics...

17, 18. When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.

See what God can do. Men are thirsty, they have no water; and lo! on a sudden, behold rivers, fountains, springs, pools, floods; for God does nothing in halves. He is an all-sufficient, overflowing God. When he gives, he gives like a king. He does not measure his gifts of water by the pint and by the gallon; but here you have pools, and springs, and rivers. When he has given waters, he will give trees to grow by the waters. When God gives blessing, he makes other blessings to spring out of it.

19. I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the shittah tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree; I will set in the desert the fir tree, and the pine, and the box tree together. Making a paradise of streams of water and lovely trees, evergreen trees of the most comely aspect, and of great variety.

See what God can do. Where there is a wilderness, where there were hills and valleys, and all was dry and parched, he makes woods and forests, rivers and fountains. He can do all things. Oh, that we had faith in him! But we forget him: we turn not to him; we look everywhere but to God; we try every method except that of trusting in the living God. Have we a God? If so, why do we act as we sometimes do? 

Martin Luther was a very cheerful man, as a rule; but he had terrible fits of depression. He was at one time so depressed that his friends recommended him to go away for a change of air, to see if he could get relief. He went away; but he came home as miserable as ever; and when he went into the sitting-room, his wise wife Kate, Catherine von Bora, was sitting there, dressed in black, and her children round about her, all in black. “Oh, oh!” said Luther, “who is dead?” “Why,” said she, “doctor, have not you heard that God is dead? My husband, Martin Luther, would never be in such a state of mind if he had a living God to trust to.” Then he burst into a hearty laugh, and said, “Kate, thou art a wise woman. I have been acting as if God were dead, and I will do so no more. Go and take off thy black.” 

If God be alive, why are we discouraged? If we have a God to look to, why are we cast down? Let us rejoice and be glad together; for God will do all that he has promised, for this reason:? 

20. That they may see, and know, and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the LORD hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it.

God wants you to know that he is at work on your behalf. He wants you so to trust him as to see how his promises can be applied to your case, and what his right hand can accomplish even for you. Let us trust him with all our hearts.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Favorite Songs - Always, by Owl City

(Are there some songs that never get old for you? You can listen to them over and over again, even after you've just listened to them, and you still enjoy them? When they also make you think about interesting and important stuff, you get the kinds of songs I'm talking about in this series of blog posts.)

I'm not a fan of pop music in general, and someone might think that Owl City is the epitome of pop music. But not really, for several reasons. Adam Young's music is just quirky and unique enough to set it apart from typical pop fare--maybe there's something like it out there, but I haven't heard it personally. Admittedly, I'm not heavily versant in pop music, but for me Owl City is unlike anything I else I've listened to. And then there's the fact that Adam is a committed Christian who is not afraid to say that publicly (see this recent Instagram post, for example). That alone takes him out of the category of typical pop star.

Adam might also be criticized for being a sentimentalist, but that doesn't stop me from loving many of his songs. I am, after all, a big Charles Dickens fan, and like Dickens, Adam manages to pull off his sentimentalism in an effective and (again) unique way. No artist I know communicates an innocent sense of wonder and optimism better than he does. And when Adam's sentimentalism is being expressed in lyrics that are truly encouraging spiritually, because they come from God's Word, those songs really hit the sweet spot for me in a big way.

Even though "Always" is tied for my favorite with another song I'll mention below, I've chosen it for this blog entry because it mentions a verse I've studied recently--Isaiah 40:31. It says, "They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint." A rare thing happened when I read Charles Spurgeon's comments on that famous verse recently in my time with the Lord: I actually disagreed with Spurgeon! He said that the "running" we do is unfortunate and the "walking" is better, but after looking at the passage further and reading Edward J. Young's commentary on it, I think Isaiah is saying that we will be given grace both to "run" in crisis situations when we're weary and also to "walk" during the normal course of life. In other words, the strength God gives us will not only be a temporary one in a time of crisis, but will continue throughout our "walk of life."

Another great insight I discovered while studying that verse, by the way, is that the Hebrew text uses terminology indicating that God exchanges our weakness for His strength, echoing and presaging the "Great Exchange" of the gospel (see 2 Cor. 5:21). He freely gives us something we didn't have before, something that was completely foreign to our nature--namely, wings in Isaiah and righteousness in the gospel.

The other song that is tied with "Always" for my favorite Owl City song is the short but oh so sweet "Meteor Shower." Even after hundreds of times listening to the song, I still get goosebumps on my skin and in my soul every time I hear it...

Most of Adam Young's songs are not directly about God or spiritual issues, but many are also favorites of mine because of their quirkiness and uniqueness, and because they just make me feel good listening to them. If you could use some of those good feelings right now, check out this playlist of Owl City favorites I made on YouTube. I hope you enjoy them and will feel Adam's music says to us, "There's hope!"

Monday, June 8, 2020

Not Hidden to God – A Tribute to My Father-in-Law Jim Hallman (1938-2020)

“The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” 
--George Eliot

First, I wanted to say that I’m so glad that I didn’t wait until after his death to say these things to and about Jim (don’t let that happen to you!). I often told him how loved, admired, and appreciated he was, and just as often he seemed somewhat embarrassed by it (but never as much as when I awkwardly hugged him). I even called him “Dad” since he’s been my only living father for the last 20 years.

On a long flight to Africa a few months ago I thought I was just killing time by watching the three-hour movie A Hidden Life, but I ended up being deeply moved by it (and also loved how almost every frame looks like a painting). It’s a true story about a conscientious objector in Austria during World War II who, as an “unsung hero,” embodied the quote from George Eliot above. After the movie was over and that quote graced the screen at the end, I thought of Jim Hallman.

More importantly, my father-in-law embodied this quote from Scripture: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).

Jim’s work ethic was legendary among those who knew him, all the way up until he could not physically work anymore. He was also known for his quiet demeanor, except when an opportunity arose to talk about his baseball career. But actually, though he would discuss sports to get a laugh or make conversation, you could tell that his favorite topic was Jesus and the Scriptures. He listened regularly to Bible teaching on the radio and loved to share about what he had heard.

I don’t want to make him out to be a saint (in the Catholic sense), as if he was perfect. I remember him crying with regret a number of times, several of which were because he was physically unable to take care of our property anymore (okay, he was a saint). But, seriously, I remember him crying one time after his health problems began, wondering if it was because of sins he had committed. No, he was human, which is important for us to know because many of the stories you’ll hear about him make him seem superhuman, and rightly so.

Walking almost five miles to work when there was too much snow to drive, writing a letter to Jill every single week for over ten years while we lived in California and he in Pennsylvania, doing all the landscape work on our big property and others well into his 70s, and of course all those legendary baseball stories. He also had an amazing trust in God and the gospel (the fears mentioned above were just an understandable speed bump on his spiritual journey). He faced death with faith and thankfulness, which he expressed over and over, and some of his last words were a prayer in which he mentioned every member of his family by name and begged God that we would all be true believers in Christ.

Though Jim was a superhero in those ways and many others, there weren’t many people who knew about it. His multiplied good deeds will not go down in the history books and there won’t be large crowds of people at his gravesite. But the depth and quality of his influence on those of us who knew him and the exponential effect it will have on countless others through us will be obvious in eternity, which started for Jim recently when he heard these words: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord” (Matthew 25:31).