Thursday, December 22, 2016

Remembering Stifter

Several weeks ago I was perusing my Facebook account and noticed that several of my friends from high school were all changing their profile pictures to images of themselves with another former classmate of mine named Andy Stifter.  None of them were commenting on the pictures, but it seemed odd to me that they would all change their profile pictures to images of themselves and Andy.  I later learned that Andy went missing while on his paddle board the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  He had gone out on his own to take photographs of wildlife from the water.  An immense search effort was marshaled, but to no avail, and the worst was feared.  On Tuesday of this week, 25 days after Andy disappeared, his body was spotted by an ice fisherman using an underwater camera to search for fish.  This is the second acquaintence of mine that has died in as many months.

Andy leaves behind a wife, two children, and another on the way.  I can only imagine the depth of their loss and grief, and for the little one yet to be born who will never know his or her dad.  What a tragedy.  Thankfully, a gofundme page was started and as of this writing more than $85,000 has been contributed toward Andy's family.  Although such a large amount of money can never replace Andy, I'm glad that his family is feeling the support of his friends and relatives and neighbors, and even strangers.

I first met Andy in elementary school, I think.  We became acquaintances at that time, and would go on through high school together.  Stifter was an extremely funny guy.  I wouldn't describe him as a class clown, but he was witty and just generally really funny.  I remember one semester he and I were in a class together, and it must have been either a remedial class or just a low-level class that we took to fill up credits, because I think he and I were the only ones in our grade in that class.  I do remember, though, that the class was taught by Ms. Lund, and when she would get on us for goofing off, talking, or laughing, he'd say, "Ms. Lund, we ain't causin' no ruckus!"  I guess you had to be there.  It was always a great time, and I recall looking forward to that class each day because he would crack me up.  He had a dead-pan delivery that was perfect.

But my most prominent memories of Andy are from the summer of 1993 (or was it 94?) - the summer before 7th grade.  He and I ended up on the same baseball team - the Chicago White Sox - and it was a summer to remember (I've written about some of my memories of that team here).  What I haven't mentioned before was that Andy was a huge part of that team's success.  Neither of us made the traveling team that year, but we went on to go undefeated, both in city league play and even when our coach shopped us around to traveling tournaments.  Our team - a city team - beat up on traveling teams.  We were that good.

Two things about Andy's involvement on that team stand out to me.  The first is a practice that we had.  We were scrimmaging and Andy came up to bat.  He hit a single and ran to first base.  On the next pitch he took off for second.  The catcher threw the ball down and short-hopped the covering infielder, and the ball bounced up and hit Andy right above his right eye as he was sliding into the base.  "Aaaaggh!" he cried.  "Why does this always have to happen to ME?!"  I remember him emphasizing the word "me" really loudly, and it was actually pretty funny in the moment.  He seemed more upset that he got hit in the face than hurt by it.  The next day at school - no joke - the imprint of the stitches on the ball was still visible just above his eyebrow.

Another thing I remember about Andy from that team was that he was an exceptional outfielder for a 13-14 year old kid, or however old we were back then.  Contrary to what you might think, measuring and catching a fly ball is actually very challenging.  Looks can be very deceiving, and the ball can easily change directions based on the wind or spin of the ball.  But Andy was great at it.  He would measure the ball perfectly, make a clean catch, and even put himself in position to make a throw to the infield if someone was on base.

I'll always appreciate my time with Andy, even though I haven't spoken to or seen him since graduation.  May God bless his family during this hard time.

Monday, December 19, 2016

3 Reasons to Go to Church on Christmas Sunday

I once heard a presentation from a preacher that suggested that Christians should move their celebration of the Christmas holiday to July.  After all, the celebration of Jesus' birth isn't directly tied to December 25 (Jesus was not born on Christmas day).  His reasoning for this was mostly because it has become to easy to get lost in cultural aspects of the Christmas season and to miss a meaningful celebration of the birth of Christ.  If Christmas were in July, we wouldn't be so wrapped up in gift giving (no pun intended), family gatherings, parties, cookies, and everything else that comes with the cultural celebration of Christmas.  If Christmas were in July, he reasoned, we could focus entirely on the purpose of the holiday - celebrating the incarnation - and save the cultural celebration for December.  

While I don't think I'd like to move the celebration of Christmas to July, I think this preacher was on to something: all too frequently we put other things in front of Jesus when we remember his birth each year.  It's easy for us to focus on "cultural Christmas" rather than the true purpose of the holiday.  

No church on Christmas day?

This reality is made apparent every six years or so when Christmas day falls on a Sunday.  Many churches cancel their Sunday worship services so their members can focus their time and energies on family gatherings and all of the things that come with it, such as gifts, meals, parties, and so on.  After all, it's difficult to open the presents, eat a Christmas meal, and spend enough time reminiscing with family and friends and go to church all on the same day.  And so, in order for people to "celebrate" Christmas, many church's Sunday services are frequently canceled when they fall on Christmas day.  

This trend is, in my estimation, a bad one, and one against which we should push back.  Allow me to offer you three reasons why you should go to church this Christmas Sunday.  

3 reasons to go to church on Christmas day

1. It's Sunday!  The main reason you should to to church this Christmas Sunday is because that's the usual day we gather to worship.  Sunday is the Lord's day, and we gather on that day to celebrate, remember, and worship him.  This tradition has existed since the resurrection, 2000 years ago.  Far be it from us to break it for the sake of having more time to open presents.  Even if you're out of town visiting family, find a way to get to church and continue on the tradition of worshipping on the Lord's day, in the Lord's house, with the Lord's people. 

2. Going to church on Christmas day is counter-cultural.  As described above, our culture has mostly appropriated Christmas as a secular holiday.  Taking time to put the cultural celebration of Christmas on the back burner and focus on its primary object (Jesus) is a way for you to buck the trend and speak into our materialistic culture and remind it that there is a reason for this season, and it's not gifts, family, or anything other than Jesus.  Our culture wants us to focus on all of the physical aspects of Christmas.  Instead, be counter-cultural and focus on Jesus by going to church. 

3. Because Christmas is about Jesus, and that's it.  Despite what our culture says or what you may think, Christmas is only about Jesus.  Sure, we gather together with friends and family at this time of year, and we exchange gifts and eat Christmas dinners, but none of those things are what Christmas is all about.  Those things are all good, and when understood correctly they point us to Jesus, but they are not the focus of this holiday.  Christmas is only and all about Jesus.  If we are tempted to put Jesus on pause so we have enough time for the cultural aspects of Christmas, we've simply missed the boat.  Don't let the culture tempt you from taking your focus from where it should be.  

So whether you're at home or you've gone over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house, get to church on Christmas day!  I hope to see you there, this Sunday. 

Friday, December 16, 2016

2016 Books

The end of the year is a great time, because it's in these concluding weeks that prominent bloggers begin to publish their "Best Books of the Year" lists.  Most of the books that I read come from the recommendation of blogs that I read, so this time of year will literally fill up my reading list for the next few months.

In that spirit, I thought I might make my own list of the best books that I've read this year.  Actually, I need to clarify: for the past couple of years, I don't usually read books - I listen to them.  Audiobooks have revolutionized the way that I take in books.  I love listening to books when I'm walking, driving, cleaning, or doing anything else that doesn't require thoughtful attention that will draw me away from what I'm listening to.  That being said, this is a list of the best audiobooks that I've "read" this past year.  Reader beware: some of these books have disturbing content, although I must say that I didn't go into them knowing about that content.  So I can't give a blanket recommendation for all of these books, however, these are the ones that most caught my attention this past year, listed in order from 10-1.

10. If At Birth You Don't Succeed by Zach Anner.  Sometime this past year I stumbled upon the Youtube channel of Zach Anner and was instantly hooked.  Zach is a comedian who lives with pretty severe cerebral palsy, which he flawlessly works into his act.  His comedy is great.  So when I heard that he wrote a book describing his life and experiences, I jumped into it.  I always appreciate hearing from people who have overcome challenges - especially people with disabilities - and this book is a great example of someone doing just that.  Zach has a great outlook on life and on his disability, and his attitude and spirit are worthy of emulation.  Zach isn't a Christian, but his reflection on his life and disability almost presupposes a sovereign order to the universe, which I found interesting.  That being said, Zach is a raunchy comedian, which is a shame, and his book is also quite raunchy (but still very funny, and would probably be much funnier without the raunchy jokes).  His Youtube channel, however, is clean for the most part.  If the book had been less raunchy, it would occupy a much higher spot on my list.

9. The Revenant by Michael Punke.  One of my favorite genres is history (see In the Heart of the Sea for great historical book) or historical fiction, or books that are a little bit of both.  The Revenant fits into that latter category.  I got turned on to this book because the movie came out, and the book was in the iTunes bestseller list, I think.  After reading a short description, I was intrigued.  While based on historical events, the book is rather farm from factual.  Hugh Glass was a real man, and he he did have an encounter with a bear, and he was left for dead by two supposed friends, and he did have a plot for revenge...but it was never carried out.  According to his Wikipedia page, by the time he crawled his way back to the nearest fort, he was too tired to seek out his betrayers and exact vengeance.  But that's a much less exciting ending for a book, so Punke took it in a different way.  Although it's not true to history, it's still a good story of survival.

8. The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken.  This was a recent listen for me.  This book details what it's like to be a Christian in "hard" parts of the world where the Christian faith is either severely frowned upon or outlawed altogether.  Ripken (not his real name) travels all over the world to talk to believers in these hard places to see how they do it - how they live as Christians in hostile environments.  What he encounters are some remarkable people and stories.  While the stories are interesting, challenging, and convicting all at the same time, I had some theological quibbles with Ripken throughout the book.  For instance, in his own mission work, he acknowledges that many times the message of the gospel was not given (in favor of providing humanitarian aid).  He notes that this was a problem and that it troubled him, but he never addresses it beyond noting the problem.  He also seems to favor a strong continuationist theology that I think can get out of hand very quickly.  From a practical standpoint, I thought the narrator of this book left something to be desired as well.  But aside from these concerns (odd title notwithstanding), it's a very good book.

7. Fortunate Son by John Fogerty.  Another favorite genre of mine is biography or memoir.  I really enjoy reading about peoples' lives - even people I don't like!  Thankfully this wasn't true of John Fogerty, although he's got some pretty polarizing political views.  I read the book mostly for his reflections on the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival (Note: If you don't have "Chronicles Vol. 1 by CCR, stop what you're doing and go get it).  While Fogerty seems to be a bit of a self-important head case, hearing him talk about his influences, how he learned to sing, the guitars he likes, and so on, was a great listen for me, considering my own interest in music.

6. Cold Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace.  I bought this book for my dad for Christmas last year, and then I got the audiobook for myself.  It's a good read, and a great introduction to Christian apologetics.  Wallace, a former homicide detective, examines the evidence for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity.  It's fascinating, and I learned a ton about evidence in general and the different kinds of evidence that can and should be used in forming a conclusion.  There's also a lot of great stuff about inductive versus deductive reasoning, the power of circumstantial evidence, and a lot more.  This book is well worth a listen/read.

5. God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens.  Confession: I really enjoy Christopher Hitchens, and interestingly, this isn't the only time he'll show up on this list.  In addition to this book, I also listened to his memoir, Hitch 22 this year.  Not only could I listen to his deep, British-accented voice for pretty much forever, I think he's actually intellectually honest (see number 2 below).  Even though the title of this book is rather provocative (as is the subtitle: "How Religion Poisons Everything"), Hitchens, I think was open to other views (see the fantastic documentary "Collision" for more on that), and he was open to thinking through good arguments and weighing them for their merit.  That being said, this book was not written to engage arguments.  It was written to be a polemic against Christianity, which is mostly what made him famous.  If nothing else, it's good to read things like this to know where people are coming from (an ever-increasing number of people in our post-Christian culture).  Why is it so high on my list?  Not necessarily for the book itself, but for the character of the author.  Reader beware: Hitchens can be crass and vulgar, and that is evident in this book.  

4. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  When I was in seventh grade a friend of mine was really into the Tolkien books.  I picked up the hobbit and started reading it, but never made it too far, as the opening chapters are...well...slow.  Now as an adult, I figured it was time to give it another go via audiobook.  I also listened to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy this year, but didn't enjoy them as much as I did The Hobbit.  For one thing, it's narrated by the great Robert Ingliss, whose reading and style simply can't be outdone (at least for these Tolkien books).  Secondly, I think the Hobbit is just a more engaging story (at least in book form - the movies on the other hand...ugh).  I plan to read this one to my kids in the next year or so.

3. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi.  I'll be honest: books on the Muslim religion don't hold a lot of draw to me.  It's not that I don't care about the evangelization of Muslims - I do - but more so that I just don't see it as a front-burner kind of issue for me and my life at the current moment.  In other words, when I picked up this book I didn't have high expectations that I would be significantly engaged by it.  I'm happy to say that I was very wrong.  This is a phenomenal book.  Qureshi comes from a Muslim family and was steeped in Muslim religion and culture throughout his childhood and young adulthood before becoming a Christian.  For this reason, he is able to provide fascinating insight into Muslim culture and tradition and belief, which sheds a very helpful light on why many Muslims think the way they do (for instance, why a caricature of Mohammed is so offensive, or how Muslims regard authority, and so on).  Qureshi also explains in detail why Muslims have a hard time believing that Jesus died on the cross, and in the process provides a fantastic apologetic for the Christian faith.  Moreover, through this book, we can see a very clear picture what it means to count the cost of following Jesus, as Qureshi basically left everything to become a Christian.  You should get this book and read it.

2. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Alex Taunton.  If you read the Amazon reviews for this book you will find a lot of angry atheists who hate Taunton for writing it.  Hitchens was, of course, a vehement atheist, and many of his disciples despise the notion that Hitchens was potentially open to considering other points of view.  They see it as the deepest betrayal by one of their heroes, so rather than engage what Taunton says of his relationship with Hitchens, they simply respond with blind anger.  That is unfortunate, because this is a wonderful book.  For a long time, this was - hands down - the best book that I read this year (until I read the book at number 1).  The story of the friendship between Taunton and Hitchens in the closing months of Hitchens' life is endearing, real, deep, heartfelt, and any other number of adjectives.  This book really demonstrates the spirit of Hitchens that I described above in number 5.  It also serves as a great example of how and why we should be ready, willing, and able to talk to people about the Christian faith.  While Hitchens himself downplayed the possibility of a "deathbed conversion" for himself, this book reminds us that we have no idea what God can do in a person's life (even at the point of death).  Even if you know nothing of Christopher Hitchens, you should read this book.  And if you do enjoy or appreciate Hitchens you simply must read this book.

1. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.  This is the only book on this list that I have read/listened to twice this year, which is one of the main reasons that I figured it should occupy the number one spot.  It was so good (and so complex that I wanted to make sure I heard and understood the story correctly) that it required a second listening, and I'm planning on another read-through in the near future.  On second thought, I'm not sure "good" is an adequate description of this book.  Perhaps "intriguing" or "thought-provoking" is more accurate.  This is another work of historical fiction that is based on historical fact, but many of the details have been significantly indulged to the extent that it is categorized as a novel.  The story takes place in the pre-Civil War American Southwest, and details the terrible crimes of the Glanton Gang, through the eyes of the main character, known simply as The Kid.  The Glanton Gang made their living by collecting bounties on Indian scalps, the owners of which were known to terrorize white settlers.  Soon, however, the gang realized that the scalps of violent Indians looked the same as the scalps of peaceful Indians, and the bounty was the same for either kind of scalp, so they began to mercilessly slaughter any Indians they encountered.  Not long after that, drunk with bloodlust, they turned their violence on anyone and anything that got in their way.  The main antagonist is a character simply known as The Judge.  I'm not sure I've encountered a character anywhere else in literature as intriguing as The Judge, even though his character is utterly depraved and unspeakably evil.  There have been many interpretations by readers of who or what The Judge represents (my own interpretation is that his character represents unchecked human depravity), but you'll have to read it yourself to form your own opinion.  Another thing I thoroughly enjoyed about this book was its narrator: Richard Poe.  There cannot be a better voice for the narration of this book.  Reader beware: this book is a story that will take you to the depths of human depravity.  This book is exceedingly violent, as it details the account of the reprehensible men of the Glanton Gang doing horrible things (let's face it: scalping Indians isn't a pleasant activity), however the violence therein is stated very matter of factly and isn't sensationalized.

Monday, December 5, 2016

A Savior, Who Is Christ the Lord

Several years ago I heard about a big church that was on the cutting edge of Christian culture.  They were experimenting with different ways of "doing" church, and a lot of those ways were hip, trendy, and cool.  They were very much what you would call "seeker sensitive."

One of the new things they were doing was changing their terminology for Jesus.  We commonly refer to Jesus as "Lord and Savior," after all, he's our Lord because he rules over us, and he's our Savior because he died to save us.  This particular church, however, thought that the titles "Lord and Savior" were either too technical, too old fashioned, or sounded to much like "Christianese" speak, so they decided to change the language they used in reference to Jesus as "Life Leader and Forgiver."  While this change in language may create a more palatable image of Jesus that is more welcoming and inviting to "seekers," it is a potentially dangerous change that we should be very slow to make.  There are certain ideas and images that are given by the term "Lord," for example that are not necessarily communicated by the term "Life Leader."  And "Forgiver" does not encompass the meaning of the term "Savior."  But what's the big deal?  Do we really have to insist on certain language in reference to Jesus?

As we consider Jesus' first coming this Christmas season, it is a good idea to full understand just who it was that was born into the world, and the language that describes him.  In Luke 2, when the angels announce to the shepherds that Jesus had been born, they use three specific titles to describe him: Savior, Christ, and Lord: "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2.11).  This is who was born: Jesus the Savior, Jesus the Christ, and Jesus the Lord.  Let's briefly consider each of those three titles.

Jesus the Christ
The Greek word for "Christ" is "Christos," which literally means "anointed one."  And "Christos is the Greek word for "Messiah" in Hebrew.  So when the angels announce Jesus' birth and that he is the Christ, they are literally saying that God's anointed one has been born.  But what does that mean?  What does it mean that a person has been anointed?

In the Old Testament, certain people were anointed (set apart) for specific jobs or roles.  For example, prophets, priests, and kings were all anointed - that is, they were set aside for a particular role.  Jesus was anointed as well.  He was set apart to be the Savior of all who would trust in him.  But with him, the title of "Christ" or "Anointed One" is more than just a title or a role that he is to play - it is the essence of his being.  He exists to be devoted to the service of God and performing the will of his Father.  He has been separated from all other humans for this purpose (Philippians 2.7-8).  So when the angels tell the shepherds that the Christ has been born, they're referring to the Son of God, sent into the world for the specific purpose of dying for the sins of the people.

Jesus the Savior
Jesus is only referred to as "Savior" twice in the gospels - once in Luke 2.11 and once in the gospel of John.  The church I referenced earlier had changed their terminology for Jesus from "Savior" to "Forgiver."  What's the difference?

The Greek word for "to save" is "sodzo" and it literally means to deliver or protect.  Salvation is more complex than just forgiveness, but don't get me wrong: you must be forgiven in order to be saved.  But you don't just need to be forgiven - you need to be saved and delivered.  Why do you need a Savior?  From what do you need to be saved or delivered?  The answer is that you need to be saved and delivered from the punishment your sin deserves.  That's why Jesus died on the cross.  he bore the punishment for your sin, thereby saving you from punishment and delivering you from having to bear God's justice for yourself.  That's more than just being forgiven.

Think of it like this: imagine that you're standing in a court room and you've committed a terrible crime and you've confessed your guilt.  The judge is about to pass the sentence: death.  But before he does, you say to him, "Your honor, I know that I've done wrong, and sir, I ask your forgiveness."  The judge is moved by your plea, and he looks at you with compassion and says, "I believe that you are sorry for what you've done, and that you regret your actions.  I forgive you."  And then, BANG!   He slams his gavel down and you are lead off to your execution.  You can be forgiven, but justice must still be satisfied.  What you need is to be saved from justice - you need someone to deliver you from the punishment that you deserve.

God can forgive your sins, but that will not satisfy his justice.  In order for justice to be satisfied your sin-debt needs to be paid.  You need someone to pay that debt for you.  But even that won't be enough.  Not only do you need your sins forgiven and your penalty paid, but you need to be perfect in order to be with God.  This is what Jesus does.  He earns your perfection through his life, and he takes the deserved punishment for your sins and he pays the price on your behalf so that justice can be satisfied, and in the process, your sins can be forgiven.  And to be saved is to throw yourself on those realities - to put your faith in them - and to trust in them as you would trust in a parachute on a crashing plane.  And through your faith, God applies the righteousness that belonged to Jesus to your account, and transfers all of the sin from your account to his, as he hung on the cross.  So now you can stand before him as innocent - fully forgiven! - fully justified! - fully righteous! (2 Corinthians 5.21)  When the angels tell the shepherds that the Savior has come, that is what they mean.  Not just a Forgiver, but a Savior.

Jesus is the Lord
The Greek word for "Lord" is "kurios," which can mean "sir" or "master," or a title or respect.  But in reference to God, it is a title that refers to one who is in supreme authority.  The angels said that Jesus - the tiny baby born in Bethlehem - was the Lord, the one in supreme authority.

Over the past several years, many people have enlisted the services of life coaches.  Life coaches come alongside a person and help him think and work through decisions, though processes, behavior patterns, and so on.  Life coaches certainly serve a purpose, and maybe you have even enlisted a life coach to help you in your day to day life (I have!).  At the big church I described earlier, they had replaced the term "Lord" for Jesus with the term "Life Leader."  When I hear that term, what I think of is a life coach - someone who will walk alongside me and help me think through decisions, etc.  But Jesus is not a life coach.  He is Lord.

Jesus is not merely someone who comes alongside us and offers suggestions - he's not just someone who gives advice - he's not just someone who comes alongside and encourages his followers.  Does he do all of those things?  Indeed, but that is only the beginning of his power and authority.  Instead, the Bible paints a picture of Jesus not as a life leader, but as the supreme sovereign of the universe, to whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, and that his name is above every other name.  Consider Colossians 1.15-18: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him al things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church.  He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  

Does that sound like a life leader to you?  Not to me.  Jesus is the Lord!

We use a phrase a lot in Christian circles in which we tell a person, "You need to make Jesus Lord of your life."  We need to stop using that phrase, in my opinion, because it is quite simply impossible.  You can't make Jesus Lord of your life - he already is.  To say that I can make Jesus Lord of my life implies that his lordship relies upon my permission.  Jesus isn't sitting at your feet, imploring you, "Will you please make me Lord of your life?"  No!  Jesus isn't Lord because you call him "Lord."  He is Lord because he is the sovereign ruler of the universe, and that has nothing to do with whether or not you want to acknowledge his lordship.  The laws of gravity don't apply because I believe in them, but because they simply are.  Jesus is not Lord because you confess him as Lord, but because he simply is Lord.  The question is not whether or not you will make him Lord of your life.  The question is whether or not you will bow then willingly or by force.  One way or another, you will submit to his lordship.

As we gather together in this Christmas season to remember the One who entered into the world as a tiny human being, I think it's important to realize just who it is that is lying in the manger: the Savior, the Christ, the Lord.   Let us come and worship him and give him the glory that is due to the sovereign, self-sacrificing, Deliverer.

Monday, November 28, 2016

When Christmas Hurts

Everything in our culture tells us that Christmas is a joyful season: friends, family, food, and gifts all encourage us to celebrate Christmas.  But for many people, the Christmas season can be a painful reminder of the difficulties of life.  Many people will celebrate this Christmas for the first time without a spouse or a loved one that has died.  Some people will celebrate this Christmas for the first time without their spouse, due to a divorce.  For others Christmas can be a painful reminder of financial hardships.  Ironically, it is often during those times when we are supposed to be happy and joyful that our suffering and pain can be felt most vividly.  

Christmas in a Broken World
It can be hard to have a "merry Christmas" because the reality is that we live in a world that has been utterly damaged and broken by sin.  When Adam and Eve fell into sin, the world fell with them (Genesis 3.17-19).  Before sin entered the world, there were no thorns; now that sin is here, there are thorns a plenty.  Before the world fell, work and labor were easy and joyful things; now they are toilsome and difficult and painful.  Before the world fell, human beings enjoyed a perfect relationship with God; now we are separated from him.  Before the world fell there was no disease and no accidents; but now that the world is marred by sin there is suffering.  When we look around and see the pain and suffering of the world, and we wonder, "Why?" the Bible gives us a very good explanation: because we live in a sinful fallen world, filled with sinful fallen people, who do sinful fallen things.  If we trace it back far enough, sin is the root cause of all of our problems and difficulties.

For this reason, times and seasons that should be merry and joyful, aren't.  When we experience the sadness of a first Christmas without a loved one who has died, we are getting a very real taste of the effects of sin.  And the fact that we live in a broken, fallen world can make even joyful occasions bitter.  The Apostle Paul calls these effects of sin that we experience our "sufferings of this present time."  He says that the world has been "subjected to futility," and that it is in "bondage to corruption" (Romans 8.18-21).  Because we live in this kind of world, we taste death and pain and suffering, and happy times - like Christmas - can hurt. 

Responding to Christmas Pain with Gospel Hope
Although we live in such a world where suffering exists because of sin, Paul says that is no reason to lose hope.  There is coming a day when all things will be made new - the earth and the bodies of those who are trusting in Christ will be restored to their condition before sin entered the world.  There is coming a day when all things will be made new, and there will be no more pain, no more death, and no more suffering.  Imagine a world where there is no suffering to due accidents or severe weather; a world where the doctor will never call with bad news about a suspicious lump or a dark spot on the X-ray.  This world is coming, and it will be so glorious that all of the effects of sin under which we suffer in this world won't even be worth remembering (Romans 8.18).  

But we aren't there yet.  So until that day comes, we wait for it with eager longing.  And because we are still here, and because the world hasn't been restored yet, we still feel pain, we still suffer, and we still cry our way through the holidays, missing a loved one or mourning a broken relationship.  But because of the hope that we have, Paul says that our attitude as Christians - even and especially when we are living in a world where we suffer from the effects of sin - should be one of expectant hope (Romans 8.24-25).  We should view our suffering under the effects of sin through this lens: that there is a glorious rebuilding of the earth and redemption of our bodies in the near future.  Let us suffer well in light of this hope.  

Although we live in a world that has been damaged by sin, God foresaw our need and enacted a plan for the restoration of the world right after Adam and Eve fell into sin.  God said that there would be One who would come - a descendant of the woman (Eve) - who would restore all things to perfection.  This One would come into the world and suffer the same ways that we do.  He would feel the effects of living in a sinful world.  He would be bruised.  But in so doing, he would likewise crush the effects of sin (Genesis 3.15).  Through his bruising he would crush sin; he would crush death; he would crush suffering; he would crush pain and sadness.  All of this Jesus accomplished through his life, death, and resurrection.  The effects of sin have been crushed, and now we await the day when all things will be set right again.  Because of him, there is coming a glory that will soon be revealed, to which the sufferings of this present time cannot be compared.

However, that time has not yet come.  We are still in waiting; we are still groaning; we are still suffering.  We are still enduring the holidays without a loved one or in a broken marriage.  But take heart in this: God has set a plan in motion to restore the world and redeem the bodies of those who are trusting in Jesus, and it's only a matter of time until that plan comes to fruition.  Until we reach that day, remember that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.   At Christmas, we celebrate that Jesus came into the world as a man in order to crush the effects of sin in our lives.  They no longer leave us hopeless and full of despair, but instead that hopelessness is replaced by an expectant hope for the revealing of the glory of God.  This is the hope of the Christmas season, even when Christmas hurts.  

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Fragile Thing

Beginning in my early twenties I spent two great years working at Schmitt Music in Roseville.  I applied for and received the job after going back to school and getting engaged.  I came on as the "string specialist" since my background was in orchestral string instruments.  This basically just meant that I was in charge of the small room that exhibited the violins, violas, and cellos that we had for sale, and I helped customers with specific string instrument questions and needs.  I enjoyed the job immensely, and enjoyed the people with whom I worked, as they were mostly music nerds, but it turns out that music nerds are easy to get along with.

One of those music nerds was a guy named Eric Betthauser.  He was our store's "music specialist," pertaining exclusively to sheet music.  What this meant was that Eric was in charge of our store's sheet music stock, which was a huge part of our business.  He would manage the stock, make special orders, and coordinate the overall stock of the other local Schmitt stores.  As I got to know Eric, I came to know him as a very genuine person - one of the most genuine people I think I've ever met - at least he stands out in my memory that way.

Eric was a huge music nerd.  His primary instrument was his own voice, and he sang semi-professionally with a group called The Rose Ensemble, which specialized in ancient, often obscure choral music.  Plus, as the music specialist at our store, he seemed to have an intimate knowledge of virtually every piece of sheet music we sold.  He was very good at his job.  And then, on his lunch breaks, he could be found in one of the practice rooms located in the store, playing piano, for no other reason than that he had time to kill and he did so playing piano.

Eric was also significantly left-leaning in his politics, and he and I had several good-natured conversations about politics and religion (at the time I was going to college for a degree in ministry, and I was known among my co-workers as the resident Christian).  But what struck me about Eric's left-leaning politics is that he actually believed them and lived by them.  For example, he was very concerned about climate change (although at that time nobody called it climate change - instead it was still global warming).  Because of this concern, every day that he worked he would sort through the garbage at the store and remove anything that could be recycled, bag it, take it home with him, and recycle it.  He also periodically utilized public transportation so as to drive his car less.  I certainly disagreed with his view on climate change, but I had to respect him for putting his money where his mouth was.  I don't personally know anyone else who espouse the dangers of climate change and sorts through his company's trash as a result.  And this was true not just on his views about the environment, but every left-leaning stance that I knew him to take.  Also, I think it's very important to note that although Eric and I had significant political differences, we were still friends.  We could have a lively discourse and still respect one another to the point that we remained good friends.

I never really got a handle on Eric's faith while I was working with him.  He professed a love for "sacred" music and even some contemporary Christian songs with which he was familiar.  Aside from that, we did debate matters of theology from time to time, although they usually arose from previous political discussions.

Eric was also incredibly health conscious, always bringing his own extremely healthy lunch with him to work.  Once, on a day that he wasn't feeling well, I asked him what was the matter and he said that it was probably the cheeseburger that he ate before bed the night before.  "Like, food poisoning?" I asked.  "No, I just don't usually eat cheeseburgers," he said.  I had to rib him a bit for that.

After my two years at Schmitt Music came to an end and I moved on to other things, Eric did so as well, soon after, moving to a couple of different places to teach music and voice at various public schools.  I kept in touch with him on social media, however, where I would once in a while engage his left-leaning posts.  During my time at Schmitt, several people worked for the company and entered into my social sphere as co-workers.  Of all of them, I consider myself to have been friends with (as opposed to acquaintances of) two of them - Eric was one of those two.

As you probably noticed, I'm referring to Eric in the past tense.  This is because he was killed by a drunk driver last night at the age of 43 - just seven years older than I am now.  I found out over social media, and immediately was saddened and looked into the details of his death.  He died on the scene after being struck while attempting to make a left turn.  As seems to usually be the case with drunk driving accidents, the drunk who hit him survived the crash and was presumably in good health, as he was released from custody on bond the following morning.

This kind of thing brings back the usual flood of emotions and memories, and other thoughts.  But above all, the thought dominating my thinking today is that we simply can't know when death will come.  Life is such a fragile thing.  One moment we're driving, the next, we're dead.  No matter how health-conscious we are and how much we prioritize organic food over processed, these precautions will not save us from late-night drunk drivers.  One minute you're here, and the next you're dead.  It's just the way this fallen, sinful world works.

We live in a world that is corrupted by sin and is populated by sinful people.  And as a result, bad things happen.  People are killed in accidents; people get sick; drunk-drivers slay those who are simply minding their own business.  In Romans 8, Paul calls these kinds of things our "present sufferings."  In other words, because we live in a sinful world populated by sinful people, we suffer.  But, Paul says, there is coming a day when the glory of God will be revealed, the world will be restored to its perfect condition, and those who are trusting in Christ will have their bodies fully redeemed.  Now there is pain and suffering; then there will be no such thing.  Until then, however, Paul says that the creation and we ourselves groan for that day to come.  I know that I personally cannot wait for the day when I will never have to read about an old friend being slain by a drunk driver.  This is why we pray, "Come quickly, Lord Jesus!"

Like I said earlier, I don't know what Eric's spiritual condition was.  I hope that he put his faith in Christ for the forgiveness of his sins - even if in the last moments of his life.  Perhaps, as his life was fading from him, he called out to God for salvation.  That is my hope, and that should be our hope for anyone who goes to meet God.  Regardless, I thank God for the life of Eric Betthauser.

Monday, November 21, 2016


(Listen to Pastor Joel's sermon on this topic here)

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday: food, family, friends, and remembering all the ways that God has blessed us.  It's also a time for us to pause and reflect on all of the blessings that we have received, and to express our gratitude to God.  But we shouldn't just stop at a feeling of gratitude - our feelings should translate into action.  Even the word "thanksgiving" involves action - the action of giving thanks.  But how do we do that?  Is there anything tangible that we can do to express our gratitude?  Yes, indeed, and the Bible gives us three simple ways that we can turn our feelings of gratitude into action that all involve some sort of giving.

Leviticus 7 tells about "peace offerings" - sacrifices that the Israelites could make whenever they wanted to in order to celebrate the peace they enjoyed with God and the blessings they received from God.  There were several different sacrifices that the Israelites were commanded to make, most having to do with forgiveness of sin and to obtain ritual purity.  But the peace offerings were different.  They weren't required like the other sacrifices, and anybody could make a peace offering at any time for any reason out of gratitude to God.  It's the characteristics of these peace offerings that offer us some suggestions about how we can tangibly express our gratitude to God.

Give of yourself.
The primary characteristic of a peace offering was that the one who made the offering sacrificed his own resources to do so.  Peace offerings required the sacrifice of an animal and also several loaves of bread.  In order to make this offering, the worshiper had to give up something that he owned (an animal and the bread).  Remember, he wasn't required to do this, but did so out of the desire of his heart to thank God for all that he had done.  But in order to give a peace offering, the worshiper had to give of his own precious resources.  The lesson for us is the same.  One tangible way that I can thank God for all that he has done is to find a way to give of my resources.

Give back to God. 
When we give of ourselves as a way of thanking God, we primarily give back to God.  With the peace offerings, the first portion of the sacrifice (the animal and bread) was burnt as an offering to the Lord.  This symbolic gesture communicated the reality that everything the worshiper had belonged to and came from God.  Giving these resources back to God through a burnt offering was a way of acknowledging that everything a person owns comes from God, and so we thank him by giving what he has given to us back to him.  So if you'd like a tangible way to express your gratitude to God, think of a way that you can give back to God out of all that he has given to you.

Give to others.
A third characteristic of the peace offerings is sharing what we have with others.  After the worshiper gave a portion of his offering to the Lord, the rest was for him to eat and enjoy.  Typically the worshiper used the leftover meat and bread and threw a feast for his friends and family.  This was yet another symbol of appreciating all that God has done.  It's a statement that declares: "God has blessed me immensely!  Come and share in God's blessing!"  So this Thanksgiving, think of some ways that you can thank God by giving to and sharing with others.

Learning to be thankful.
If you're like me, it's easy to take God's blessings for granted.  I often don't even realize how blessed I am because I am willfully blind to all of the ways that God has provided for me.  Little children have to be taught and trained to say "Please," and "Thank you."  Like them, I have to train myself to recognize the ways that God has blessed me and provided for me.  The peace offerings of Leviticus 7 weren't required or enforced.  Rather, they relied upon someone simply realizing and acknowledging all of the ways that God had blessed them and responding to that realization with a sacrifice of thanksgiving.  We need to learn to be thankful, and then respond to our feelings of gratitude with the action of thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Can't We All Just Get Along? Probably Not.

Before I get into the meat of this post, I feel it necessary to make it known that I did not, nor do I now, support Donald Trump for president (although he is the president elect, and I will "support" him in that I will respect him in his office).  I did not vote for Donald Trump.  My "tribe" stands to lose very much from his election to the office of president (which, much to my chagrin, my tribe doesn't seem to understand).  For instance, I am of the opinion that the election of Donald Trump has effectively ended the debate on the sanctity of marriage.  Conservatives have unknowingly abandoned their argument for marriage being between one man and one woman by throwing their support behind a candidate who does not share a like-minded opinion on the sanctity of marriage.  The same is (somewhat) true for the life argument, although, to be fair, it remains to be seen how the newly elected president actually will deal with life issues.  At the very least, we can say that his commitment to pro-life values is very late in coming, and is not entirely robust.

I could go on and on about my problems with Donald Trump, but I'll leave it there for now.  I hope that you can see that I am not a Trump supporter, and that this reality will give you some context to what I'm going to say next.

In the two days since Trump's election to the presidency, there has been much consternation on the left that has manifested itself in the form of protests, riots, and social media outrage.  Others - both conservatives and liberals - have called for unity and to put our support behind the president-elect, and that this is a time for us to see how we can work together toward a better future for our country.

Well, it ain't gonna happen.

Please understand: I don't say this because I don't want it to happen, or because I don't think it should happen.  Indeed, I do want it to and think it should happen.  But the reality is that our society has changed so drastically in the past 10 years, that our collective cultural and social constructs and "enlightened" worldviews won't allow us to make peace with one another.  It's a fascinating (and frightening) time to be alive.  Let me give you just three reasons why I think there will be no peace and unity in our nation for the foreseeable future:

1. Because we now interpret disagreement as hate speech.  Certain issues in our society that used to be matters of opinion in which two disagreeing parties could engage in vigorous debate have been deemed to be the litmus test for bigotry, hatred, racism, etc.  For example, the opinion that illegal aliens should not be allowed in our country is interpreted as having racist motivations.  And nobody wants to reason with a racist, because racism is wrong, right?  Nobody wants to have unity or peace with racists, because racists are filled with hate, right?  In the eyes of some in our country, it would be akin to finding unity with the KKK, which obviously is a type of unity that nobody wants to have.  Another example is opinions about the sanctity of marriage.  Not advocating for gay rights is considered discrimination and bigotry.  Who wants to sit down and work together with a bigot?  No one.  Since one side is convinced that the other is filled with hate-mongers, they have no desire for unity or peace with them.  To do so would be to validate what they see as hatred and bigotry.  As long as people interpret the opinions of others as hatred and bigotry there will be no peace or unity in our country.

2. Because we we buy the narrative perpetuated by the media.  The media loves ratings, and they know that juicy stories are going to garner page views, link clicks, air time, and advertising dollars.  The media doesn't care about the truth so much as the bottom line.  They don't care about what's actually happening, but they're happy to report on fringe stories that are just that: on the fringe, so as to make people angry.  When people are angry, they visit websites and share articles on social media; they watch cable news shows and read magazines.  The media knows this, so they consistently report stories that they know will push people's buttons, and we - people who like to have our buttons pushed - take the bait.  We ingest these fringe stories and we react to them.  The media tells us what is important, and we go along with it like obedient sheep.  As long as we allow the narrative of our society to be perpetuated by the media, there will be no peace or unity in our country.

3. Because social media amplifies the worst about us.  Similar to the way the media spins the narratives in our country, many of us live in the microcosm of social media.  We're never more than a click away from airing our most inflammatory opinions that we haven't thought out, vetted, fact-checked, or even read beyond a headline.  This kind of sharing simply perpetuates the anger and extremism that we all fall into if left unchecked.  Plus, social media is a safe place for us to say inflammatory things - there are no checks and balances.  The worst that can happen is for someone to call us a crazy liberal or conservative.  A very recent and real example is this website that supposedly catalogs instances of racism that have occurred since Donald Trump was elected president two days ago, and allegedly as a result of his election.  Take a look at the examples posted there, and you'll hopefully notice a few things pretty quickly (note: I am not justifying any of the horrible things described on this site): 1) many of these reports are unsubstantiated; they are based on circumstantial evidence and hearsay.  2) considering that reality, it is possible that these alleged instances of racism could be spread by anti-Trump people who want to hurt the image of those who have supported Trump (in other words, they're intentionally causing trouble - something that has been done before the in the recent past).  3) it's also possible (and, in my opinion, likely) that these instances of racism (if substantiated) were perpetrated by fringe minority groups who always have been racist losers and are simply living up to their reputation.  It's unlikely that all of a sudden, once Donald Trump was elected, a vast number of people suddenly began to let their racist strips shine through.  It's more likely that racist losers - who were racist losers long before Donald Trump was even on the political scene - have taken this opportunity to perpetuate their wickedness because they know they'll get the spotlight (see point 2 above).  But people have taken these fringe incidences and have used them as an opportunity to showcase the very worst things about humanity.  And others on social media see them and are (rightly) enraged by them.  But rather than direct their anger toward the fringe minority groups perpetuating evil, they choose to instead direct it at those who merely disagree with them (see point 1 above).  There will not be peace and unity in our country for a long time because social media brings out the worst about us, and we're all too quick to believe it and attribute it to everyone who thinks differently than we do.

We are a long way off from having unity as a country.  We can't even trust one another when we say that we don't hate each other.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Day After the Election

I'll admit it: I fell asleep on my couch last night sometime between 1:00 and 1:30 AM, watching election results come in.  Like most people, I watched the coverage slack-jawed, astounded that Donald Trump was winning the election.  And, like most people, I woke up the day after the election with feelings of surprise, followed quickly by uncertainty.  My feelings were similar to that of Pastor Phil Johnson, whom I follow on social media: "I couldn't be happier that Mrs. Clinton won't be our next president.  I'm still profoundly sad that an unprincipled lout will be."  Yeah, that about sums up how I feel.  If you feel that same uncertainty on the day after the election, let's think for a minute about what this day brings with it.

The day after the election brings a renewed opportunity to trust in the Lord
In one of his letters, John Newton said, "The whole system of my politics is summed up in this one verse, "The lord reigns!  Let the nations tremble! (Psalm 99.1)  The times look awfully dark indeed; and as the clouds grow thicker - the stupidity of the nation seems proportionally to increase.  If the Lord had not a remnant here, I would have very formidable apprehensions.  But he loves his children; some are sighing and mourning before him, and I am sure he hears their sighs, and sees their tears.  I trust there is mercy in store for them at the bottom."

Every time we face uncertainty it is a new opportunity for us to renew our trust in the sovereignty of God.  To be sure, although the election results were a surprise to most, they were not a surprise to God.  He knew of them and even ordained them before the foundation of the world.  He will oversee the affairs of the nations, including ours, and he will see that his purposes on this earth our carried out, regardless of - and even in spite of - those who deem themselves as powerful.

The day after the election brings a renewed opportunity to pray
1 Timothy 2.1-2 says: "First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and ann who are in high positions..."  The Apostle Paul clearly thought that it was important to pray for our leaders, and so we should.  Additionally, in these verses, Paul gives us three reasons why we should use this opportunity to commit ourselves to prayer:

1. So we can lead peaceful, quiet, godly, dignified lives (1 Timothy 2.2b).  The government has a significant influence on how we live our day to day lives - more so now than ever before.  It behooves us, then, to keep our leaders in prayer so we can simply lead Christian lives.

2. Because it is pleasing to God.  God commands us to pray for our leaders, and so, when we obey that command, he is pleased.  We should pray for our leaders because "it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior" (1 Timothy 2.3)

3. So we can be about the business of gospel work (1 Timothy 2.4).  If we will pray for our leaders, and if they will in turn allow us to lead peaceful, godly, dignified lives, we can be more efficiently and effectively about the business of declaring the gospel to the world.  The more we keep our leaders in prayer, the more we can be focused on the work of our King.  God desires for people to be saved, and so he tells us to pray for our leaders so we can carry out his work.

So if you're still getting over the shock of the election, pick your jaw up off the floor and get busy praying.

The day after the election brings a renewed opportunity for gospel ministry. 
The United States is still the most free place in the world in regards to religious expression.  It behooves the church - God's vehicle for spreading the message of his gospel - to take the fullest advantage of such freedom as possible.  If you're a Christian and you're not involved in a local church, you need to be.  And a great way to not be overcome by the worries of the world is to busy yourself in kingdom work.  Find a ministry through the local church and devote yourself to it.  And if you really want to change the world, share the gospel with people.  Change won't happen through political means; it won't happen through governments or leaders; change only comes through the power of the gospel.  So let the election jar you out of your gospel-slumber and awaken you to the power of God in his gospel, and may it invigorate you to declare the good news.  Let the day after the election be a reminder to you that we still live in a fallen world that is effected by sin, and let that be a motivation to you to boldly declare the gospel.  

The day after this election can be one that is filled with all sorts of ideas and emotions.  So take a few moments to take it all in and feel the emotions.  And then remind yourself of the truths that the Lord reigns, and that he has called you to pray and to join him in his mission for this world.  

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Day Before the Election

Feelings of hopelessness and despair
If you're like me, the day before this presidential election is one where I am left with feelings of blah. Never before in my life have I been so uninspired to cast a vote for President.  Moreover, it seems like no matter who will be elected president on November 8, it will not be for the benefit of our country.  It's easy to spiral into feelings of hopelessness and despair.

But this is not where the Christian should find himself on this day, or any other day, for that matter.  If nothing else, our recent sermon series in the book of Joshua has served to underscore for me the reality that all power in this world comes from God and not from men (or women).  This should reframe the way that we think about the presidential election and leadership of our country.

It is the Lord your God who fights for you
Throughout the book of Joshua there is a clear theme that is apparent: there is no power in men, but only in God.  This is demonstrated time after time, as God says as much to the Israelites and shows them this truth in real life as he leads them against insurmountable odds.

Joshua 23.3, 9-10 - And you have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you.... For the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations.  And as for you, no one has been able to stand before you to this day.  one man of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the Lord your God who fights for you, just as he promised you. 

The message to the Israelites is clear: there is no power in you; there is only power in the Lord.  This message is also reiterated to Israel a couple hundred years later during the time of Gideon.  Gideon and the Israelite army were going up against the occupying Midianite forces.  But before the battle, God gives Gideon some peculiar instructions: "The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, 'My own hand has saved me.'  Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, 'Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurt away from Mount Gilead.'"  Then 22,000 of the people returned and 10,000 remained.  The reason God commanded Gideon to pare down his forces was so that they people would know that there is no power in men.  And you probably know what happens next in the story of Gideon: God looked at the 10,000 men that remained and decided that was too many as well.  So Gideon made some more cuts and was left with 300 men against an army of Midianites.  But here's the point: 300 men is still too many when considering the reality that God is the only one with power.  Even one man is too many.  God doesn't even need one man or woman to bring about his purposes in this world.  God is not limited in his power or strength.  He can accomplish anything because he has limitless resources and power.

This is something we need to remember as we go to our polling places: God is strong, and kings, presidents, and armies are weak.  The course of our nation and its successes and failures depend on God, not on presidents and leaders.  Everything we have comes from him and because of him, not because of the person that carries the title of "President" before their name.  What we as a nation have achieved, we have not achieved as a result of our own power.  What we possess we did not gain because of our craftiness.  What we now enjoy we did not earn.  All was given to us by God, not by any man.  

How now shall we live?
On November 8 you should go to your polling place and cast a vote for the candidate that you believe, according to scripture, will lead our nation closer to biblical righteousness, and know that God has ordained our next president from before the foundation of the world for his good purposes.  Do not go to the polling place on November 8 presuming to trust in yourself, or in Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, or even a third party candidate, for they are nothing.  You should not feel despair about this presidential election.  Rather, you should rejoice in hope and confidence in the Lord, regardless of exit polls and early results.  It is God who has fought for us and on our behalf.  Our trust should be continually in him.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The New Freedom of Religion

Every once in a while, when I want to see what crazy liberals are up to, I check in with Bill Maher.  Maher, to me is an interesting cat: he's a huge liberal and an atheist, so there's not much upon which we agree.  He is absolutely right, however, when it comes to his views on radical Islam, much to the chagrin of his fellow liberals and atheists.  Apparently, Maher has been asking President Obama for an interview for years now, and has been declined each time.  Now that Obama's second term is coming to an end, however, he obliged Maher and gave an interview, and said some interesting things about the freedom of religion when probed by Maher.  You can watch this segment of the interview here, but what I want to focus on is a brief section of the interview when President Obama responds to a question about perceived or alleged discrimination of atheists.  He says this (I've emphasized some of his words in italics):
I think the average American, if they go to the workplace, somebody's next tome, they're not poking around trying to figure out what their religious beliefs are.  So here's what I would say, that we should foster a culture in which people's private religious beliefs, including atheists and agnostics, are respected.  And that's the kind of culture that I think allows all of us, then, to believe what we want.  That's freedom of conscience.  That's what our Constitution guarantees.  And where we get into problems, typically, is when our personal religious faith, or the community of faith that we participate in, tips into a sort of fundamentalist extremism, in which it's not enough for us to believe what we believe, but we start feeling obligated to, you know, hit you over the head because you don't believe the same thing.  Or to treat you as somebody who's less than I am.  
This paragraph, in brief, represents the new version of religious freedom that many in our country would like to impose upon us.  I'd like to take a look for a moment at these italicized portions of President Obama's statement, because I find them simultaneously fascinating and frightening.

Private religious beliefs.
President Obama wants to foster a culture in which people's "private religious beliefs" are respected.  The important word here is "private."  There are many in our society - and in leadership of our country - who believe that religious beliefs should be a private thing, and that they have no place in the public square.  As long as you keep your religious beliefs bottled up and put away in your closet, and you only ever take them out inside your closet all by yourself (or at most, with other people who have similar beliefs in similar bottles), then everything will be fine.  But you can't take your beliefs into the public square.  That is unacceptable.  Hillary Clinton has espoused a similar idea by advocating for the "freedom of worship."  By using this term, she means that people should be free to worship in whatever way they want.  But freedom of religion is not freedom of worship.  Worship only takes place in temples and holy places like churches.  Religion saturates all of life.  Christianity, by its very nature, cannot be private.  It is living and breathing, and inhabits and saturates all aspects of life.  These small changes in vernacular are, I believe, veiled attempts to diminish the forcefulness of the language used in the first amendment.  The President and Mrs. Clinton know that religious people bring their religion to the marketplace of ideas, so they are trying to limit religion to a "private" function that only takes place in houses of worship.

That's freedom of conscience.  That's what our Constitution guarantees.  
To be honest, I don't know what President Obama means by the term "freedom of conscience."  Perhaps he is referring to the freedom to believe and worship and practice religion in whatever way our conscience guides us.  If he's saying that, I agree.  But our Constitution guarantees far more than just that.  Again, President Obama has in view here Constitutional protection of "private" religion.  But the Constitution actually guarantees us far more.  The first amendment states, in part: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  We certainly are guaranteed the right and ability to follow our consciences in order to find truth through religion, but that is not where it ends.  We are also guaranteed the right to practice our religion in whatever way we see fit.  Unfortunately, President Obama's (and those who would come after him) view of freedom of religion is frighteningly narrow.

Hit you over the head because you don't believe the same thing.
This assertion, to me, is the most striking.  In it, President Obama insinuates that a line is crossed if and when people of a particular religion (or lack of religion) address religious issues in public (such as at work, in political discourse, etc.).  This, apparently, is akin to beating someone over the head with one's beliefs (note: this kind of behavior might otherwise be known as: "evangelism" and "proselytism").  Apparently using religious beliefs to guide our thinking in matters of truth and morality - and sharing those beliefs with others - is a no-no.  Again, keep your religion private - don't bring it out into the light of day and confront people with its truth claims.  They might be offended!  They might feel awkward!  They might feel triggered!  They might need a safe space!  Unfortunately, what President Obama is decrying in this statement is the exact thing that is guaranteed in the first amendment.  Also unfortunately, this line of thinking is gaining ground in America.  But what is so striking about this statement is that President Obama is literally hitting people over the head with a dogmatic doctrine that asserts that hitting people over the head with dogmatic doctrine is wrong.  In other words, he's not playing by his own rules.  And he doesn't even realize it.  

Sooner, rather than later, there will be a new version of religious freedom in our country, and it will look very much like what President Obama has layed out here.  It will be a freedom to be religious up to the point that it doesn't make anyone uncomfortable or ruffle any feathers.  And the moment your exercise of religion offends or creates awkwardness or discomfort, you'll be accused of bigotry and discrimination and whatever other politically-correct fear-mongering moniker can be applied.  You'll be free to be a Christian if you want, but just keep that stuff in doors, in private.  Don't even think about letting it see the light of day.  That stuff is private.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Romans Infographics

Last month, during our adult Bible studies on Wednesday nights we've been going through some sections of the book of Romans.  A couple of times throughout that study I've thought that an infographic might help in laying out where the text is going.  So here are some infographics I made on Romans 1.1-6 and 5.15-19.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

If God Loves Life, Why Is There So Much Killing In The Bible?

In Joshua 20 God instructs Joshua to set six "cities of refuge" throughout the newly acquired Promised Land.  These cities were intended to provide protection for those who found themselves in the unfortunate position of having accidentally injured or killed another human being.  In such an event, a person would flee to a nearby city of refuge for protection from the victim's family seeking vengeance for the spilled blood of their family member until the case could be heard and a judgment could be rendered. 

God instituted the cities of refuge to preserve human life - innocent life.  If an accidental death occurred at the hands of another, the cities of refuge guarded against a further injustice of the taking of the life of the "manslayer."  Clearly, the institution of the cities of refuge shows us that God desires to preserve human life as much as possible.  God loves human life because it is made in his image and it is to be held in high regard and protected to the best of our ability (Genesis 9.5-6). 

However, the notion that God loves human life and desires to protect it as much as possible can ring hollow when derived from a book of scripture like Joshua - arguably the most violent and blood-stained book in the entire Bible.  Indeed, the book records the divinely-sanctioned death of countless thousands of Israel's enemies (see, for example, Joshua 6.218.25-2610.2611.6, etc.).  If the institution of the cities of refuge show us that God loves and desires to protect human life - as indeed it does - then why does God seem to condone so much killing?  A further understanding of the cities of refuge can help us to answer this question. 

If a man were to accidentally - and without negligence - harm or kill another human being, to take his life as punishment would be a miscarriage of justice.  Not only does God love human life, but he also loves justice, and so to repay one tragedy with another would be unjust.  However, in the event that a murder is committed with malice aforethought, or if innocent life is lost as the result of gross negligence, a just punishment is justified (see Numbers 35.16-21 and Exodus 21.28-29 for examples).

These principles should help us think about the other descriptions of God-sanctioned killing in scripture.  God does not desire to kill, nor have his people kill on his behalf.  God created man in his own image - male and female he created them - and as image bearers they are the crown jewel of God's creation.  All human lives have value; all human lives are precious.  It is not his desire for any of them to be destroyed (2 Peter 3.9).  In fact, because man is made in his image, there will one day be a reckoning for every drop of human blood that has ever been spilt (Genesis 9.5-6).  

In every instance in the Bible, God desires to preserve and protect human life as much as possible - even the lives of the most despicable and wicked people who have lived throughout history.   The Canaanites, whom God commanded the Israelites to kill and/or drive out of the Promised Land, were vile, wicked people. Their religious practices often called for human - and even child - sacrifices.  They were idolatrous and hedonistic, refusing to acknowledge God.  But even so, God did not desire to destroy them.  In fact, he desired to preserve and protect them and bring them into his family.  For this reason, God gave them a period of 400 years to turn from their wickedness and to him (Genesis 15.13-16).  After that 400 year period, the choice of the Canaanites was evident: they had chosen to reject God and to refuse to acknowledge him as God.  And thus their self-imposed destruction became imminent.  The Canaanites were not innocent people who found themselves at the wrong end of an unfortunate tragedy.  Instead, they were people who rejected every attempt by a loving God to bring about their salvation, and so they met their deserved end.  God wanted to save the Canaanites, but the sad truth is that the Canaanites didn't want to be saved.    

So we can say that not only does God desire to protect and preserve innocent human life as much as possible, but that he also desires to protect and preserve guilty, vile, and wicked human life as much as possible.  It is not God's desire to kill his enemies; it is his desire to save his enemies.

Nowhere is reality this more evident than the cross.  All people have turned aside and become corrupt.  There are none who seek understanding, none who seek God.  We have become worthless.  There is no one who is good; not even one.  Our feet are swift to shed blood, and in our paths are ruin and misery.  The way of peace we have not known (Romans 3.10-11, 15-17).  This is the human condition: a people who have rejected God and deserve his judgment - who deserve to be killed.  But the cross shows us the lengths to which God is willing to go in order to not kill his enemies, but to save them.  God was willing to sacrifice his own Son - to send him to earth to bear the punishment for the sins of all who would believe on the cross - so that anyone who would turn from their sin and trust in him might not receive the punishment that their sin deserves (death), but would instead receive life.  

God loves life.  He desires to protect, and preserve, and save, and give life as much as possible - even to his enemies!  And he has given all people the opportunity to trust in him and receive life instead of death.  He has provided a "city of refuge" in his Son, Jesus Christ.  It is God's desire that his enemies will find this city of refuge in his Son and thereby find salvation from the punishment that they deserve.