Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Victor

This is one of my favorite Easter songs.  I love the picture that it paints, even if the theology may be a bit shaky.

The Victor

Swallowed into earth's dark womb
Death has triumphed that's what they say
But try to hold Him in the tomb
The Son of life rose on the third day

Look, the gates of hell are falling
Crumbling from the inside out
He's bursting through the walls with laughter
Listen to the angels shout

It is finished, He has done it
Life conquered death
Jesus Christ has won it

His plan of battle fooled them all
They led Him off to prison to die
But as he entered Hades Hall
He broke those hellish chains with a cry

Listen to the demons screaming
See him bruise the serpent's head
The prisoners of hell redeeming
All the power of death is dead


Look, the gates of hell are falling
Crumbling from the inside out
He's bursting through the walls with laughter
Listen to the angels shout


Words and music by Jamie Owens-Collins. 
Copyright 1976 Communique Music (admin. by CMI). 
All rights reserved. 
International copyright secured.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Being an Apologist

Apologetics is an often misunderstood Christian discipline.  The first time I head the word I thought it was related to being apologetic; apologizing for being a Christian.  And I was not interested in that.  But I came to learn that it means something quite distinct from that.

Apologetics comes from a Greek word that means 'speaking in defense', and is the discipline of defending a position through the systematic use of information.  This term is most often applied in a religious context, referring to providing a verbal defense for ones faith.

Some believers would like to delegate this discipline to preachers and scholars, but scripture really assigns this task to all of us.
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
1 Peter 3:15b-16 NIV
All of us are instructed to be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give the reason for our hope.  This is not an instruction to go and share with people, although you can find that elsewhere.  Instead, we are told here to be ready to share why we believe with those we encounter who ask about it.  Do you know why you believe?  I hope so, although many seem not to really know the reason.  And I hope you are willing and able to share that reason with those who ask you about it: that you have taken the time to work through those reasons and are comfortable enough with them to be willing to share them.

And I also hope you are able to share it with them in a way that is understandable to the one inquiring.  Imagine someone sees you offering a prayer over a meal, and asks you about your faith.  Can you explain to them what you believe, and why you believe it?  And do it in a way that they would be able to understand, even if they do not agree with you.

If you can, then you are an apologist; one who is able to practice apologetics.  You do not need a seminary degree or any other intensive training to be an apologist.  All you need is a willingness to share with those who inquire, know why you believe, and be able to share it in an understandable and logical way.

So now that you are an apologists, Peter goes on to give some tips for your apologetic practice.  Do it with gentleness and respect.  The person who inquires about your faith may have a variety of motives.  He may actually be attacking your faith, trying to confuse you or convince you that you are a misguided fool.  Or she may be seriously interested in knowing what you believe and why.  Or anything in between.

But whatever the motives of the questioner, we should respond to them with gentleness and respect.  And that can be hard to do when you feel like you are being attacked.  But you should remember the proverb "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger".  Responding to a verbal attack with a verbal counter-attack only makes the situation worse, as well as justifies the initial attack, at least in their own mind.  But responding with gentleness and respect will generally, although not always, make the questioner much more open to your response.

The other thing he tells me to do is to maintain a clear conscious.  That may seem strange at first, but is very important.  If my life does not match my 'defense of the faith', how seriously will the other person take that defense.  Most likely it would do little other than fuel a charge of hypocrisy and justify their rejection of your faith.  But if you are keeping a clear conscious, practicing what you preach, then you may find your 'attackers' coming to have a grudging respect for you and your faith.  And at the same time toning down their rhetoric and becoming more willing to listen.

I spent a number of years actively engaged with militant atheists in a discussion forum.  As far as I know I never convinced one of the rightness of my position.  But most of them were at least willing to engage me with respect and openness.  And these same folks would attack other believers without mercy.  Why the difference?  I tried to always be respectful of them and their right to believe what they did, even if I disagreed.  Others treated them as foolish losers, and got the same in return.

The Cliff Notes version of how to be an apologist:
  • Know what you believe.
  • Learn to express your beliefs simply and clearly.
  • Be willing to share with those who ask.
  • Share with gentleness and respect.
  • Let your life match up well with your beliefs.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Healthy Church

So what makes a church healthy?  I suspect most people who are involved with a church have some opinion on this question.  Or at least feel like they can identify if a church is healthy or not, even if they cannot define why.  Church health is actually a topic that generates much discussion and many books, but apparently is a topic where consensus is hard to find.

Now I don't pretend to be an expert on church health, although I have been involved with many churches in the past few decades.  I would describe some of these churches as at least marginally healthy, some that were a bit sickly, and even a couple that have had the plug pulled on life support.  And over the years I have developed a gut feel for the health of a church, although it was hard to quantify.  But I have spent a bit more time with that question recently and have some more specific criteria now.

One of the metaphors used in the Bible for the church is that of a body.  The church is the body of Christ, with Christ as the head and each member of the church acting as a body part.  I like this metaphor in the context of church health and will use it extensively here.  It seems like there should be some good parallels between my health, and the health of 'the body'.

Connected to the Head

My own health is highly dependent on the rest of me remaining tightly connected to, and taking direction from, my head.  It is highly unusual for a human body to operate in a healthy fashion independently of its head.  So too the church.  If it is not tightly connected to its head, to Christ, then it is not only unhealthy, it is dead, or dying.

So is the church you belong to connected to its head?  That can sometimes be hard to know for sure, although other times it is obvious one way or another.  Does your church seek direction from the head in everything they do?  Do they keep their focus on the head, or are they more focused on money, people, programs, or problems?  Are they excited about Jesus, enjoying life with him, or are they just going through the motions, following their traditions.  How do they respond when a soul is saved?

All the Parts Working in Harmony

One of the signs of a healthy human body is that all of its parts are working correctly and in harmony with each other.  If even one part is sickly and/or not functioning correctly, then I am unhealthy.  And the more parts not working correctly, the less healthy I am.  While I can continue to function, it is at a less than optimal  fashion.

The body of Christ is very similar is this regard.  When all of its parts are functioning correctly and doing their part, the body is healthy and productive.  But if members of the body are not correctly filling the role God has placed them in, the whole body will suffer.  And the more body parts that choose to do nothing, or serve incorrectly, the greater the harm to the body.
From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. - Ephesians 4:16 NIV

Disease Free

Disease is another problem that my body faces.  This is actually similar to having the body functioning incorrectly as discussed above, but I am choosing to make a distinction here between the two; a distinction that not all may agree with, but that's OK.

I have had cancer, and currently have heart issues.  Both of those are caused by my body not working correctly.  I am also in the process of recovering from a cold.  The cause of this is something outside of my body, a virus, launching an attack on me.  And that illustrates my somewhat arbitrary distinction between functioning incorrectly and dealing with disease; disease being something that is caused by some outside agent.

Disease agents, viruses and bacteria and other creepy crawlies, are all around me, looking for a way to break through my bodies defenses.  And occasionally one of them does, and I get sick.  Normally, if my body is healthy enough, it will quickly fight it off and health is restored.  But there are times, depending on the state of my health and the severity of the attack, that it might be debilitating, or even fatal.

The local body of Christ also faces many disease agents: false doctrine; compromise; adoption of shortcuts to attract more people; persecution; bitterness; the easy way; faithlessness, etc.  Each of these are like a virus, just looking for a weakness to attack and spread.  A healthy body will be able to fight off most with little problem, but sometimes a weakness is found and the body is infected.  And as the virus spreads, unless the body is able to successfully fight it off, the body will grow sickly and ineffective, and maybe even die.

My body fights off disease primary by avoiding it in the first place, but if infected, the bodies resources are committed to overcoming the attack.  The same strategy will work for the church.  Avoid contamination in the first place.  But if contamination does occur, fight it off rather than allow it to spread.

Get Plenty of Exercise

One of the questions my doctors always ask me concerns the amount of exercise I get.  While physical activity does not guarantee good health, it does make it more likely.  The more active I am, the stronger my body will be, and the better prepared it is to fight off disease from outside, and breakdown from within.

A body that is actively involved in the Lord's work is also much more likely to be healthy than one that does little.  The healthiest churches I know of are those whose calendars are filled with opportunities for service.  A church that is working, going, and reaching is much more likely to be healthy than one that is at rest and content.

It is worth pointing out that just being busy will not make a church healthy; in fact, it could be a sign of being unhealthy.  What is it that fills the calender?  Providing opportunities to make a difference in the lives of the people around us is much healthier for a church than providing a multitude of entertainment opportunities that only benefit the body members.

Good Nutrition

Another primary question my doctors like to ask concerns my nutrition habits.  Am I eating the rights things?  Do I avoid tobacco, drugs and alcohol?  I used to be able to answer positively to all of these questions, until suddenly my cholesterol became too high.  Now I am forced to look more closely at what I eat, trying to avoid saturated and trans fats and cholesterol.  I am painfully discovering that much of what I enjoy eating is not really all that good for me.

How important is good nutrition in the life of the church; Bible study and preaching?  Are we willing to hear what God has to say to us (good nutrition), or do we prefer to hear what makes us feel good (junk food).  Preaching and Bible study are not guarantees of good health, but hearing and responding to a genuine message from God makes church health much more likely.

The Signs of Good Health

The are a number of indicators that people sometimes use to judge the health of a church.  Stay tuned for a discussion of some of these, and how they are often misleading.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Hope of Salvation

"Once saved, always saved!"  I have been exposed to this expression most of my life, and struggled with it most of my adult life.  It is comforting to folks whose loved ones have made a profession of faith in Christ, and then later gone astray.  But just how accurate is it?

It really depends on what a person means when they use this expression.  All too often they seem to be of the opinion that making a heart felt confession of faith in Jesus is all that is required to be saved, and nothing after that matters; at least as far as one's salvation is concerned.  In some respects this is like running a race. So long as I have a legal start, it doesn't matter how I run or finish.  And I have some serious issues with that mindset.

Too many passages in scriptures express the importance of enduring to the end, or running the race (see references at the bottom).  How you run the race, and how you finish it are important, and your salvation appears to depend on it.  I like much better this statement from the Baptist Faith & Message on Election:
"All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end."
In this, only those who endure to the end are true believers.  Those who do not endure to the end were never saved in the first place.  But that raises another question, at least for me.  At what point am I saved?  When I profess faith in Christ, or when I cross the finish line?  Was I saved in August of 1971, or will I be saved at whatever final date is printed on my obituary?

For a long time now I have said that I am saved when I cross the finish line, and that I currently have a promise of salvation, the "hope of salvation".  But I have recently had one of those little light bulb moments and realized that neither point in time is completely correct.

Ephesians 1:4 says that God chose me before the creation of the world.  This is not a new verse to me, but it has taken on new meaning.  The points below attempt to lay out the unveiling of this mystery to me.
  • God is omniscient, he knows all things; not just in our current time or past, but also in our future.  My future is his now.
  • Before creation, God already knew me.  He knew all there was to know about me, even before I was.
  • Also before creation, God had already chosen me to be holy and blameless in his sight.
  • Is there any essential difference between being chosen by God and being saved?  Do they not both describe entering into an eternal relationship with my creator?  It seems like the primary difference is one of perspective.  Choosing, or election, is God's perspective; while salvation, although still the work of God, is more from my perspective.
  • If that is true, then before creation, I was saved.  My salvation did not occur when I professed faith in Christ.  It does not occur when I have ended a faithful life.  Instead, it has been a done deal all along.
Now I do still believe that confession of Jesus as Lord is essential.  And I do still believe that enduring to the end is necessary.  But God knew before creation that I would profess Jesus as Lord.  And before creation, he knew whether or not I would endure to the end.  And knowing that, he chose me.

While God is omniscient, I am not.  I live in time and what God knows in my future only comes to me as the circle of time unfurls.  It is only when I profess Jesus as Lord, entering into a life with him, that I begin to experience salvation.  So for me, the experience of salvation began in August of 1971.  And that experience will continue until I undergo deliverance from the bondage to death and decay.  At some point in the future I will be saved from destruction.  

So I was chosen by God before creation, entered into a walk with him in August 1971, and will experience release from my fleshly prison at some point in an increasingly less distant future.  And all three of these might properly be described using the term 'salvation'.

There are many passages in the Bible that essentially say that salvation comes with belief.  But there are a number of other passages that describe salvation as a future event, or with some form of conditionality.  Among these are:

  • Matthew 10:22 - You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.
  • Matthew 24:12-13 - Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.
  • Luke 9:62 - Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
  • Acts 16:31 - “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”
  • Acts 27:31 - Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.”
  • Romans 8:23-25 - Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
  • Romans 13:11 - And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.
  • 1 Corinthians 1:18 - For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
  • 1 Corinthians 15:2 - By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
  • Ephesians 1:4 - For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.
  • Philippians 1:28 - without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God.
  • Philippians 2:12 - Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:8-9 - But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Hebrews 3:14 - We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.
  • Hebrews 6:11 - We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized.
  • Hebrews 9:28 - So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
  • Hebrews 10:39 - But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.
  • Hebrews 11:6 - And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
  • 1 Peter 1:9 - For you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Responding to Insult

Have you ever been insulted?  I would guess that you have.  You might have been insulted because of your physical appearance, your gender, your age, your intelligence, your political leanings, your religious beliefs, or any number of other things that make people different.  Insults seem to be a way to allow the insulter to feel better about themselves, expressing superiority over the one being insulted.

How do you respond when insulted?  I must admit that my initial tendency is to respond with insult.  And in my life I have done that more than once or twice.  There are other times when the insults stung enough to make me feel bad about myself, which I guess is one of the desired outcomes from the perspective of the one offering the insult.  But how should I respond to insult; in particular when insulted because of my faith in God?
18 Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

22 “He committed no sin,
    and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
1 Peter 2:18-25 NIV
Much of 1st Peter deals with suffering as believers.  This passage in particular deals with how believing slaves should respond to unjust treatment at the hands of their human masters, but it has much to say to the rest of us as well.  Do what is right.  Regardless your station in life.  And if you suffer as a consequence of doing what is right and good, trust that God will take notice and reward you.  There are probably very few folks who enjoy suffering.  But doing good is always to our advantage, even if we suffer for it in this life.

Christ also suffered, and in that left me an example: avoid sin; be honest; don't retaliate when insulted; entrust yourself to God.  What did Jesus do when insulted?  He did not return the insults.  Instead he chose to give it over to God and let him handle it.

When someone insults me, labeling me a fool because I choose to have faith in God, I have two choices.  I can strike back with insult, defend myself, or feel bad.  Or I can smile, thank them for their observation, and be positive.  Something in the first set of responses is what the person insulting me expects, and wants.  And when I give them that, they have demonstrated a certain amount of power or control over me, an ability to "pull my strings".  When I remain positive in the face of their insult, I gain victory over their attack.  And, even more importantly, I follow Christ's example and bring glory to God.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Cholesterol Control

I went in a couple of weeks ago for my annual physical.  I did this primarily to have my PSA level checked, making sure that the prostate cancer is still gone.  That value was undetectable this year, which is good.  What was not so good is that my cholesterol levels had spiked up into an unacceptable range.  My total cholesterol jumped from 205 to 240 and the LDL cholesterol (the bad stuff) jumped from 127 to 162.

So late last week my doctor called to have a chat with me about taking care of this problem.  The options given to me were to either change my diet, or go onto some type of medication.  Neither one of those options had a lot of appeal to me, but I opted for trying the diet change to see how that would work first.  And if I am unsuccessful there, then I guess I start on pills.

The doctor recommended a book to help with the diet decisions; "Eat to Live", by Joel Fuhrman.  So I bought the book that day from Amazon and it showed up in the mail the next day.  It is a 400+ page paperback and I managed to get through the intro and most of the first 2 chapters before I gave up and, against the author's advice, went to the back of the book.  It seems to me like the first 2 chapters could easily be covered in a couple of pages: follow my plan and lose lots of weight; diets are bad; processed foods are bad; meat is bad; eating according to my plan will fix the vast majority of your health issues and help you live longer.

So when I couldn't handle the repetition any longer I jumped to the back to see what his plan consisted of.  It starts with a 6 week plan: lots of raw veggies and salads, the more the better, 1 pound a day is the target; lots of cooked or steamed veggies, the more the better, a pound a day is good; 1 cup of beans a day; at least 4 pieces of fruit a day; limited dried fruit, nuts, grains or starches; no dairy, meat, oils, fruit juice or snacks.  After the first 6 weeks you can start to eat very limited amounts of dairy and meat, although he recommends against it.

I know full well that I do not eat enough fruits and veggies.  But I also know that there is no way in the world that I would be able to force myself to eat 2 pounds of veggies, a cup of beans and 4 pieces of fruit a day.  Especially if there is any other food available.  I just cannot see myself sticking to something like that longer than a day or two; and that is probably not long enough to do any good.

So instead, I am researching heart healthy, cholesterol lifestyles online and being more conscious of what I eat:  keep a close eye on saturated and trans fat levels and cholesterol in the food I eat; give up my nightly bowl of ice cream; work hard at getting more fruit and veggies in my diet; lose the 10 pounds wrapped around my tummy; and try to get back running at least on a limited basis.

The doctor wants me back in 3 months to recheck the cholesterol levels, so I guess I'll find out how successful I have been by then.  I would expect that if my cholesterol is not under control by then, my cardiologist will also start pushing a medication response.  So for now, good-bye to ice cream, and hello to salads and label reading.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Honor the Emperor

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.
1 Peter 2:14-17 NIV
This passage in 1 Peter seems to be especially appropriate for many of us in the U.S. now.  While we do not have an emperor, we do have a president.  And if the believers in Peter's day were supposed to honor their emperor, would it not follow that we should honor our president today?

To honor someone is to show them respect, to place value on them.  The scripture tells us to honor God, Jesus, each other, our church leaders, marriage, and the emperor.  I certainly hope that the honor we give to the others on this list is greater than what we often give to our president.  It is hard to see a relationship with God, or my wife, lasting if they are given the 'honor' I often see directed to our president.

Just a quick disclaimer: I am not a fan of our current president, disagreeing with him on more than a couple of issues.  I was not really a fan of our past couple of presidents either, nor of the primary alternative in the recent election.  In fact, I cannot really remember a president that I was fully on-board with.

But even though I disagree with some, or much, or what he is doing, I can still honor him as my president.  I don't always see eye-to-eye with my wife on everything, but I still honor her.  I don't agree with my pastor on at least a couple of things, but I do try and honor him as my pastor.  I even don't agree with God on all that I understand him to be doing, but I still honor him as God.  Why cannot I disagree with a president and yet still honor him?

You may hear me disagree with a presidential policy.  You may hear me express dismay with the direction, or lack thereof, that our government is taking.  You may hear me speak out about a number of issues our country is facing.  But you will not see me making Facebook posts that are derogatory toward our president, or anyone else for that matter.  Nor will you find me 'liking' those same posts from others.

To my fellow believers: I am not asking you to be Obama fans; I certainly am not that.  But I do ask you to show him the honor that God expects us to have for our governmental leaders.  Unless, of course, you disagree with God on this point.