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Heal Our Land

Recently God led me through the opening chapters of the book of I Samuel, in which we hear about the boy Samuel’s first encounter with YHWH. After that rather scary story, the text tells us this:

“And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord. (I Samuel 3:19-21)

I’m not a prophet, or if I am one, I’m not a very good one. Over the years I’ve made predictions about several things that I thought God was about to do, only to be proved wrong. The Holy Spirit led me to reflect on the several times that He had “let my words fall to the ground.” It was embarrassing and humbling to review that history.

But after that He reminded me of one thing that I said that He had not let fall to the ground, and won’t. That’s what I’m writing about today. It’s this:

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, a number of leaders in the American and British Protestant churches took direction and encouragement from a passage in II Chronicles regarding praying for our nation. We took to praying through this in large numbers. Most of us can quote it by heart since it’s been repeated so many times:

…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (II Chronicles 7:14)

Now, there are plenty of warnings out on the Internet these days regarding the context of this statement, and there’s some truth to the warnings. The declaration by God in this case is YHWH’s response to young king Solomon’s prayer over the temple that he had just dedicated. It’s not a promise to the United States, nor to Great Britain. Furthermore, waving statements in God’s face shouting “You promised!!” is infantile, and we should be past that by now in our relations with God. Try talking to your spouse that way and see how it goes (or save yourself the trouble and don’t, ’cause it won’t go well, and we all know it.)

All that said, it is also the case that God responds to the needs and prayers of His people. People in large numbers have been praying, “Lord, heal our land” for at least five decades now. If one believes that God answers prayers–and I do–then it is simply unthinkable that God would not hear all those requests and move to heal our nation. Promise or not, in context or out of context, it’s a legitimate prayer and lots of us have been at it for quite a while. God will certainly hear and act.

Here’s the part that I started talking about way back then in the 1980s: we might want to consider carefully what it might look like when God decides to answer that request. It might not look like we expect it to look. It might not seem so pleasant when it hits.

YHWH did keep His promise to Solomon. He moved to keep Israel on track with Him, and when they failed in their divinely-assigned duties, He sent Babylon to destroy the nation. After Babylon had been at it for several decades, they waged one, final campaign against Jerusalem and took it captive. Thousands of Jews were slaughtered, and thousands more taken captive into Babylon. The entire nation was laid waste; every city was devastated.

This was God’s mercy. He did not destroy Israel; He left a remnant, and seventy years later they returned to rebuild their nation. Their hearts had been changed. They never worshiped any other gods after that.

I was thinking about this in the light of the economic dislocation that is being produced to prevent a COVID-19 virus epidemic in the US. This is just the beginning of what “heal our land” is going to look like. It’s the first shock. I doubt that it will be the last. When the Holy Spirit reminded me of this particular word, I told Him “I would have been happy to have You let those words of mine fall to the ground along with the others.” But He won’t, because it’s the truth: “heal our land” may look an awful lot like “destroy our land” for a while, and there’s nothing that we can do about that. But this is what we’ve been asking for.

Those of us who love Jesus should not be afraid. He will provide for us, and we personally may be spared much agony. But we need to set our expectations realistically: “spared” in a time of God’s judgment is not always so very comfortable. Ezekiel the prophet was spared when Babylon invaded; but when he prophecied he was living in Babylon, far from home, where he had been taken captive. Lot and his daughters were spared when Sodom was destroyed in Genesis 19; but they lost their home, their friends, all their livestock, Lot lost his wife, and the daughters lost their prospective husbands. God’s favor and protection in a time of turmoil is a sure foundation, but there’s no guarantee that we’ll escape all that’s unsettling. Still, our hope should be in His provision, and we should be willing to accept from His hand whatever He decides to give us.

We can express confidence that the end result will be a nation of people who honor and respect the Creator of All Things, because that’s what we’ve been praying for. Only, there are things we’ve taken for granted–like our political system, or our economy–that may not be precisely the same when it’s all over. We’ll have to be flexible and let God be God, and we’ll have to trust Him. This is His work, in response to our prayers. Let’s not waver in our resolution to produce good.

Meanwhile, there’s comfort to be obtained from knowing that we’re part of God’s plan to rescue the nations, that He intends good toward us for Jesus’ sake, and that even if we expire we’ll be serving His purposes. This is the message Jesus conveyed when the disciples woke him in the middle of a storm in which they were afraid they might perish: “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8:25) He might rebuke the storm, as He did on that occasion. Or He might let the storm do its damage but save everybody from death, as He did to Paul and his companions in Acts 27. Or He could even let you die…but it will serve His purposes if He does, as in Lazarus’ case in John 11, or as in the case of John the Baptist in Matthew 14. Be faithful and trust Him, and your confidence will testify to your neighbors of the greatness of God, when they see the good things that God has worked into your character.

God bless you, be safe, be healthy, and be effective.

What is the Good News? (Part 3)

I’ve been talking about Peter’s first proclamation of the Good News to Gentiles, which appears in Acts 10. I’ve stepped through what he said on that occasion, and how it differed in some interesting ways from the way we 21st century American Protestants have been taught to proclaim the Good News. (You can read those messages here and here, or click the link at the top of the column to go backwards in the blog posts.)

Today I’m going to finish that topic with a reflection about the most difficult part for us to accept: the idea that, in Peter’s words, “…in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:35)

Of course, the hard part for Peter to grasp was “in every nation.” He knew all about the judgment to come. He had always known that God accepted Jews who fear Him and do what is right. The status of non-Jews was less certain, although some Rabbis of his day acknowledged that there existed such a thing as a “righteous pagan” and that some of those might have a place in olam ha-bah, “the world to come.” Because Peter’s cultural habit was to avoid Gentiles, the Holy Spirit had to persuade him that it was alright for him to preach Jesus to a Gentile audience.

But the hard part for us is the idea that God might accept any person because of good things they had done. We’ve had “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (a quote taken out of context from Isaiah 64:6) drummed into our skulls by decades of Protestant systematic theology. We’ve been told that without the Savior, we all deserve hell, and that a just Judge would send us there.

I have found nothing in the Christian scriptures, Old or New, that says that we all deserve hell. It does say that we all sin sometimes, and that sin produces death, but that’s not exactly the same thing. That’s just a fact; where we sin, we produce destruction in our own lives, and that harms us. Worse, it cascades onto those around us, who suffer because of our failures and brokenness. And insofar as our brokenness continues with us into eternity, we could experience self-imposed separation from God, which is what hell is. But there’s nothing that says that that happens to everybody, nor that it ought to. Romans 2:6-11 and Acts 10:34-35 suggest that in the judgment to come, some will be found wicked, but some others will be found righteous–and both say that what the Judge will be judging is what we have done. Every Jew of Jesus’ day would have believed this, including Jesus and all His Apostles.

American Protestants can’t handle the idea that God might accept somebody on the basis of their goodness. As an on-line acquaintance observed just the other day, “It seems to me that if we’re sinners because we sin, then we can infer that we could exist without sinning, which would negate the need for a Savior.”

That makes no sense to me. In what way does the mere possibility that somebody, somewhere might please God negate the need for a savior? That makes it seem as though the person who said that thinks that God does not care what happens to the rest of us. Worse, it seems as though he hates the idea that he could benefit from something God gave us freely, and would rather do anything than enjoy the gift God supplied if he could manage without. Where does that attitude come from?

Behind that notion lies the error that the only thing accomplished by the arrival of the Messiah was that we could make it into heaven. We already know that that’s not the whole story; part of the good news that we covered last month spoke of Jesus setting people free from disease and the power of the devil, and implied that that was to be the new normal. Plus, the arrival of the Holy Spirit in response to the message demonstrated the truth of what Jesus had declared: the Kingdom of God was right at the door, and anybody who embraced Him could join it and benefit from it.

In fact, it’s impossible to separate the arrival of the Kingdom of God from “going to heaven.” If the kingdom is to bring heaven down to earth, per Matthew 6:10, then it follows that whoever begins to inherit the kingdom here is already present in heaven and most likely will seamlessly be transferred there upon passing into the next life (see Eph 2:6-7 if you doubt this.)

So, to the fellow I quoted a moment ago, does it make sense that one might refuse to enjoy the arriving kingdom because, well, gee, it’s just possible that one of us might actually please God without His help, so we really ought to try that first? Why would he think such a thing? Does he often refuse to accept gifts that people choose to give him?

We’ve already been looking at an example of how that conversation is supposed to go. Acts 10 begins with an angel, a messenger from God, declaring that Cornelius’ works were acceptable to God. Did the angel say, “So, you’re already going to heaven, and you don’t need anything else”? Quite the contrary. The angel said, on the basis of Cornelius’ good standing, 

“…send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter…and hear what [he has] to say.” (Acts 10:5,22b)

And then when they heard, did they respond, “You know, we’re already going to heaven, so thanks a lot for your input, but I think we’re good for now”? No. They believed, received the Holy Spirit, and rejoiced that they were to be included in the restoration of God’s presence among His people, as foretold by the Hebrew prophets.

Short version: those who really fear God and do what is right will receive the Messiah with joy when He appears. God knows this. He offered the Messiah to them first (after the Jews, that is)!

My on-line acquaintence, like so many American believers, had heard too many non-believers resist the gospel by saying that they think God will accept anybody who does good, usually meaning “themselves” without saying so. “Everybody deserves hell” was invented (extra-biblically) to answer such people.

But it’s untrue, and it isn’t necessary. It’s unlikely that such people actually do fear God or do what is right. In my experience, such people are looking for an “out”; they have personal reasons not to want to embrace Jesus, the Lord. They remind me of WC Fields, the 20th century comedian, when a colleague noted with surprise that he was reading a Bible. “What are you doing?” asked the colleague, and Fields replied, “Looking for loopholes.”

To respond to the person of the Messiah by saying “No thanks, I’ll take my chances on my own” and look for an “out” is not just foolish and arrogant to the Nth degree, it’s a specific indication that that person is well on their way to being rejected. That person does not fear God, which is the first qualification; and the “right” that they’re doing usually is not cooperating with God, but keeping their distance from Him while keeping themselves clean enough to maintain their public reputation.  

In any case, as I observed to my on-line friend, just because I think it’s possible that somebody, somewhere is living in such a way as to please God (as the scriptures suggest is the case, supplying a few examples) does not mean that I’m stupid enough to imagine that I’m one of them. Folks, I’m wicked, and I can use all the help I can get. If God’s willing to welcome me in and remove my ridiculously wicked habits without holding them against me, sign me up right now. And let me tell you, I don’t think I’m alone. Whatever some unusually decent pagan in some South American jungle might need, I need a savior. And so, I imagine, do you. 

And even if I didn’t, I’d welcome Him because I love Him and want to be part of what He is doing. Because the Kingdom of Heaven arriving on Earth is very good news, indeed. Peter and Paul both said so, and so should we.

What is the Good News? (Part 2)

Last time I wrote I began examining Peter’s first presentation of the Good News to the Gentiles from Acts 10:34-43, with an eye toward answering for ourselves the question, “What, exactly, is the Good News that we’re supposed to be carrying?” We saw that the first two elements in it were things we don’t usually mention in connection to the Good News:

(1) God will judge everybody, and He accepts anybody who loves Him and does what is right. (And, no, that’s not “nobody.”)
(2) Jesus was anointed by God to heal, do good, and free people from the influence of the devil.

Very few of us have been taught to present the gospel by beginning with God’s judgment as both Peter and Paul did, nor do many of us dwell for any amount of time on Jesus’ own ministry in Judea and Galilee. We usually leap from “All men sin” (which Peter did not say on this occasion) to “Jesus died for our sins.” Last week I called us all to ponder why Peter focused as he did on God’s righteous judgment and Jesus’ good works of power. (If you want to reread that message, here’s the link to it.

Now let’s continue:

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify…” (Acts 10:39a-42a)

At the heart of the good news is a simple fact: Jesus, the Messiah, is alive. He selected a finite number of people to see him after his resurrection. It became their task to tell everybody, first of all, what they had seen–namely, that Jesus was alive. Our basis for saying so is that we have seen him. 

In our case in the 21st century, we are the disciples of those who saw him and reported what they saw. However, it is also the case that many of us have seen that He is alive through our experiences with him. He speaks to us directly, and our lives change dramatically when we believe him and respond to him. 

It is important to notice that the Christian faith begins with plain facts. I was still a pretty young man when God showed me Romans 1:3-4, in which Paul was describing what he called “the gospel of God”:

“…concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord…”

The point that He was making to me was that He provided human beings with physical evidence. He gave us proof that Jesus was whom he claimed to be by raising him from the dead. I learned, and never forgot, that God was not opposed to our looking for evidence, and that in fact He approves of it enough to give us real, physical evidence.

Corresponding to that, we should never forget that Christianity, alone among the religions of the world, rests on a simple, demonstrable fact: Jesus is the chosen one of God, and we know it because He raised Him from the dead. We have a specific event in history that we point to.

But that’s not the only thing to which we’re supposed to testify. Peter went on with the next major point in our testimony:

“…that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.” (Acts 10:42b)

Whoa. Again, we’re seeing something that does not usually come up when we speak of the Good News.

I remember being surprised when I first noticed this in Paul’s letter to the Romans. It’s at the end of Romans 2:16, where Paul finished describing the judgment that will occur at the end of all things, “…that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” The judgment was right there, and Paul made it plain that this was his gospel. And now, we’re seeing that what was remarkable to them about it was that they now knew who would be the Judge: it was going to be Jesus. Both Peter and Paul mentioned this detail in their presentations of the good news: Jesus was to be the Judge.

I think that that was relevant because of the last item that came out of Peter’s mouth on that occasion:

“To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:43)

Finally we’re seeing something that usually shows up when we talk about the Good News. But don’t miss the connection between “We know the Judge personally” and “Your sins will be forgiven.” The context of forgiveness was the judgment of which they had spoken already. The point of “forgiveness of sins” was that when the Judge looks at those who believe in him, he will judge them kindly; and at least part of what’s implied is that he’ll judge kindly because they’re members of his family. This explains why both Peter and Paul began their gospel presentations with basic instruction about the judgment that all humans will face. “Forgiveness of sins” has specific and direct relevance to that context.

Of course, it has relevance in other contexts that are related. We stand before God our Father right now and are accepted and loved, with our (sometimes still present) sins forgiven, even before That Day. This is actually a very Jewish thing; many Rabbis identify “Judgment Day” as occurring every year (on Yom Kippur), with the Almighty assigning good or bad results in the coming year according to what we have done in the previous year. Christians don’t believe that exactly, but we do accept that God evaluates our behavior and treats us according to what character formation we need.

The writer of Hebrews drew on that image when he compared Jesus to a high priest who knows our weaknesses and is able to help us overcome them. Jews, of course, did not wait until the End of All Things to visit the priest and make sacrifices for their sins; they did it more or less regularly. And so do we:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Let’s recap Peter’s “good news” as he presented it to the Gentiles on that occasion:

  • God accepts any person who fears Him and does what is right. 
  • God sent Jesus to do good and to heal those oppressed by the devil, as the prophets foretold. 
  • He was crucified, but we are witnesses that God raised Him from the dead. 
  • God sent us to preach  
  •  (a) that the risen Jesus was appointed to be the judge of all, and 
  •  (b) that He’ll judge kindly all who believe in him.

Apparently those who heard the message believed it, and apparently believing it was good enough for God, because what happened next was that God poured the Holy Spirit onto them just as He had poured Him out on the Jews in Acts 2.

Again, I’ve flown by my self-imposed word limit thingy. Next time I will make a few comments about the declaration, “God accepts anybody who fears Him and does what is right,” because in my experience Christians begin to wonder why we preach Jesus at all when they hear that, and then they ignore it. It’s a reaction that I find hard to fathom; yes, that statement is inconsistent with what most of us have been taught, but why would it suggest that we stop preaching Jesus? I’ll discuss this next time, along with some other bits of good news that Peter didn’t get to mention before God interrupted him.

What is the Good News? (Part 1)

Quick, off the top of your head, without thinking about it too hard:

What is the Good News?

The Good News. The message that you and I, as witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah, are supposed to be carrying to the world. What is it, exactly?

Most of us have to think about this before answering, and even after thinking we’re not comfortable with our answer. “Jesus died for our sins, and saved us from eternal destruction.” But there’s more, isn’t there? “Jesus established the Kingdom of God on Earth.” “God reconciled us to Himself through the work of Jesus, the Messiah, and now we can live in His presence.” “God became a man, lived among us, died for us, ascended into heaven, and gave us the Holy Spirit.” Each of those is correct in some ways, and each is incomplete in more ways.

It feels like something is badly wrong with us if we can’t answer easily. But we all squirm a little trying to state, briefly and clearly, what the message is that we’re supposed to be carrying.

Because this is the work of God that we’re talking about, it’s not a surprise that it defies quick summation. God’s works are complex, and they go deeper and further than any human being can grasp. I actually expect that the Good News, stated properly, will be like a brilliant-cut diamond: it will look beautiful from any angle, but every time we look at it we’ll see a different side of it. And that’s fine; it’s alright if we don’t have a pat answer to “What’s God’s big plan?” But we should have an answer, even if we know it’s only partial.

So for the next couple of weeks I’m going to be examining one of the short presentations of the Good News that appears in the scriptures: the first presentation to the Gentiles. Peter delivered it before a group at the home of a centurion named Cornelius in Acts 10. I think we’ll see a few things that don’t usually get included in our presentations of the Gospel. That’s good; it will give us new things to chew on, which is one of the ways we grow.

The message Peter preached (Acts 10:34-43) can be summarized this way:

God accepts any person who fears Him and does what is right. God sent Jesus to do good and to heal those oppressed by the devil, as the prophets foretold. He was crucified, but we are witnesses that God raised Him from the dead. He sent us to preach that the risen Jesus was appointed to be the judge of all humanity, and that all who believe in him receive forgiveness of their sins–that is, He’ll judge them kindly.

Now, into the details:

“So Peter opened his mouth and said: ‘Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.'” (Acts 10:34-35)

Right off the bat, we’re looking at something that not only gets omitted from most of our brief summaries of the gospel, but something that might contradict what most of us have been taught. Protestant theology makes a point of declaring that every one of us deserves hell, and that God is gracious even to consider rescuing us from sure destruction that we have earned.

But Peter said nothing of that sort. He was addressing a different question, namely why God had revealed Himself to the Jews but not to the Gentiles. He had already been told in a vision that God was embracing the Gentiles (see Acts 10:9-33). He was seeing before his face what that vision meant.

And so Peter began by telling the Gentiles about God’s judgment. He might not have had to say that in front of a Jewish audience, since Jews were taught about God’s judgment from their childhood; but before the Gentiles, Peter took the time to say that God will judge everyone, and that what He is looking for is people who (1) fear Him, and (2) do what is right. That’s the goal, and we should never forget it.

The Apostle Paul says the same thing. Paul’s gospel message appeared in Romans 1-8, and to begin it, he established first that men had wandered away from God and fallen into sin (Romans 1:18-32), and then explained that simply being Jewish was not enough to please God, because God will judge all men equitably. He will accept anybody who fears Him and does right, and punish anyone who does not, according to Paul:

“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” (Romans 2:6-8)

He went on to say that all men sin, which every Jew would have understood to be so. But it turns out that the thing we’ve been taught to say, that all human beings deserve hell and would end up there if it were not for the Messiah, was not part of their message, and in fact appears nowhere in the scriptures. Jews like Paul and Peter believed that some would be judged wicked but that some others would be judged righteous.

So, the first point in the gospel message, from both Peter and Paul, is this: Our goal is to fear God and do right. God will judge everyone by that standard and reward us according to our works, regardless of who we are.

(For anyone who is afraid already that I’ve gone off the rails, let me observe that while the Apostles never say “Everybody deserves hell” (which is a Reformation inference, not a quote from the Bible), they do say that everybody has sins that need forgiving. That’s not the same thing, but it is true that all of us need the Messiah. I’ll be discussing this next week.)

Next in Peter’s presentation:

“As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.” (Acts 10:36-39a)

The Anglican Bishop NT Wright, in his outstanding book “How God Became King: the Forgotten Story of the Gospels,” pointed out that even our central creeds, the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed, omit any mention of Jesus’ earthly ministry; they leap directly from Jesus’ miraculous birth to His passion under Pontius Pilate. So do most of us when we present the gospel. Isn’t that odd? We leave out any mention of Jesus’ life, because we don’t know how it’s relevant. (Wright spent the bulk of his book explaining how it’s relevant, and it’s mind-blowing. You should read it.)

But Peter here, as he did in his presentation on the day of Pentecost, focused on Jesus’ good works among the people in Judea and Galilee. These works were consistent with the predictions of the prophets, who identified Jesus’ works of power with “good news,” and also with “the favorable day of the Lord,” the Jubilee (see Isaiah 61). Peter echoed the prophets, calling Jesus’ message “Good news of peace,” a reference to Isaiah 52:7. Jesus, Himself, used Isaiah 61 to describe His ministry to the people of Nazareth.

The power of God to deliver people from demonic bondage, sickness, poverty, and misery is very much part of what made Jesus’ appearance “good news,” and it should be part of our presentation as well.

Corresponding to that, our obedience to the Messiah should also produce those things for us and for others–or the Good News is a lie. If you’re one of those Christians for whom Christianity has not produced that sort of deliverance, please seek help from somebody who has experienced it. There’s more available, and you need it. Don’t quit; seek God. He will comfort you, and you will see His face. Sometimes He takes the long route, but He always arrives.

I’ve already flown past my 1,000-word limit, and I’m only halfway home. So next time I’ll finish Peter’s presentation of the gospel. But we’ve already seen two parts of it that don’t usually get mentioned, haven’t we? Interesting.

Ponder the good news–which really is good news–and I’ll be back in a couple of weeks to finish the job. God bless you all. Enjoy the summer.

Phil’s Proverbs

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Somebody on Quora asked me what my personal morals were for 2019, and the question intrigued me. Naturally, my personal morals are the same for 2019 as they were for 2018, 2017, 2005, 1994, and so forth. They don’t change much. Morality is universal; it arises from the character of God, which fills our universe and all universes. I just add things as I learn them, but they’re things that should have been on the list all along.

I was actually reflecting on this a few weeks ago. I’ve been walking with God for 46 years, and after all that time and all I’ve experienced, what it’s come down to is this: God expects only two things from us. The whole exercise is “Love God, and don’t be a jerk.” That’s it. There really isn’t anything else that we have to do. 

Of course, I’ve just stated in my own words the same thing that Jesus said about the greatest commands: Love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (see Luke 10:25-28 and Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus echoed the words of a great Rabbi named Hillel who said, “All the rest of the laws simply explain this. Go and learn them.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a.)

Just so you know: the two commands originate in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18. 

However, I thought it would be useful to spell out some of the explanatory details of “Don’t be a jerk,” since that’s not very specific. Also, seeing my list might help you all reflect on your own lists of important dos and don’ts, which are worth examining from time to time. I wouldn’t mind hearing from some of you regarding what you might add or take away from this list. Please feel free to send me email at 

So here it is: my personal moral precepts for 2019 (and 2005 and 1993, etc.) with some additional bits of wisdom for living added on. Enjoy.

(1) Don’t murder. Also, try not to hate anybody, as this leads to wanting to beat them up, which in turn leads to murder. Ask for help when you encounter people whom you really detest, even if you have good reasons to detest them.

(2) Don’t commit adultery. Also, try not to lust after anybody, as this leads to flirting, which leads to adultery. Other people are not just bodies, and their bodies are not your playground. They’re people. Treat them with respect.

(3) Don’t steal. Also, don’t covet what other people have, so you’ll never be tempted to steal. And be responsible with spending, so you won’t get into financial trouble and be tempted to steal. Be content with what you have until you’re actually able to have more.

(4) Don’t lie, shade the truth, or obscure the truth by weasel-words, ESPECIALLY when talking to yourself. Make every effort to speak the unvarnished truth, even if it’s embarrassing and reveals personal weakness. (This does not excuse unkind truths to vulnerable people; you can avoid the truth for them, if necessary. Sometimes kindness should trump truthfulness.)

(5) Keep your commitments. If you said you’d pay, pay. If you said you’d attend, attend. If you said you’d forsake all others, forsake all others. And if you can’t deliver, don’t pretend like you can; don’t make commitments you can’t keep. 

(6) Be generous with the good things God gave you. They’re not just for you, they’re for everybody. That includes all your abilities and time as well as your material goods.

(7) Be considerate of the needs of others in every situation. Your own desires are not the universal good; in this world, a lot of people have to share the same space, which is easier if we aim at taking care of each other instead of just feeding our own faces.

(8) Let people be who they are, even if they’re broken somehow. Everybody has a tough life. You can suggest improvements but people don’t usually appreciate such suggestions; be sparing with advice. You can help them change if they ask for help to change.

(9) While you’re letting people be who they are, don’t control or manipulate them. Manipulation is cruel, and it’s arrogant, too. You’re not God. You have no right to control others.

(10) In fact, don’t ever be cruel, try to be kind—to humans first, but also to animals.

(11) Leave judging peoples’ final destinations to God. Be grateful that it’s not your decision. 

(12) Examine first the ways that you caused the problem (whatever the problem is). That’s where you’ll find things that you can actually change. Only consider what others have done to cause the problem afterward, if at all.

(13) If you’re flopping back and forth between “is this right, or is it wrong?”, it’s wrong, and you know it. Every time. So don’t do it.

(14) Never stop learning. Seek out knowledge.

(15) Ask for help when you need help. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s stupid not to.

(16) Nobody on their deathbed wishes they’d spent more time at the office. Everybody wishes they’d spent more time loving people who were important to them. Take a lesson. 

And finally,

(17) There’s nothing wrong with doing things to benefit yourself. Just balance that with all the other stuff in this list. We all have to live.

There ya go. I’m looking forward to hearing what else you all put on your lists.

Go love God and love people, and I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with the stuff I actually intended to write this week.

When Sinners Act Like Sinners

We have such great expectations for church, but people get hurt so often! What’s wrong with the Church?

Brother Lawrence, a layman who cooked for the Carmelite monastery in Paris during the late 17th century, wrote one of the great mystical books of Christendom called “The Practice of the Presence of God.” In it, he observes that he is never surprised when a sinner acts like a sinner.

He was talking about people who did not believe the Christ, and who were still completely in their sins. But the truth is, even those of us who do believe in Christ still manifest our wicked nature sometimes. When we’re together in churches, we’re in a room full of other people who, like us, manifest their wicked natures sometimes. Some of them don’t even recognize their actions as wicked.

The secret to surviving hurt in the church is simply to remember that every one of us is a sinner in recovery. It is no surprise that in a church full of recovering sinners, sometimes we get hurt, and sometimes we hurt others despite our best efforts not to. That’s actually to be expected.

What’s great about the church is that God is there to help us pick up the pieces, resolve the hurt, and do better next time. In fact, He’s still there even if we flub the recovery. We might get offended and run off to another church. That’s silly, because we’re carrying at least part of the problem with us when we go. But God’s there at the new place, and He does not abandon the project of reforming our character just because we stupidly ran off.

The remarkable thing is that sometimes, we or our church-mates do genuinely good things by the Holy Spirit. When that happens, the world becomes a vastly better place for somebody. That makes the whole exercise worthwhile.

Do not expect the Church to be sin-free. You’re in it, and so am I, so we know it cannot be sin-free. But let’s devote ourselves to creating more instances where the Holy Spirit has directed our actions and produced life.

Books That Every Christian Ought to Read

I was asked elsewhere to recommend books for young Christians wanting to round out their Christian education. I made a list, and am reproducing it here. It’s heavy on Christian experience and light on systematic theology, but that’s me. If you want recommendations for learning systematic theology, you’ll have to ask guys who take systematic theology more seriously than I do.

Books that every Christian ought to read at some point, in no particular order:

  • Mere Christianity, CS Lewis
  • Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton
  • The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence
  • Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby
  • Knowing God, JI Packer
  • The Pursuit of Holiness, Jerry Bridges
  • The God Who Is There, Francis Schaeffer
  • Eternity In Their Hearts, Don Richardson
  • The Pursuit of God, AW Tozer
  • The Pilgrims Progress, John Bunyan
  • The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • The Great Divorce, CS Lewis
  • Confessions, St. Augustine
  • The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis
  • My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers
  • With Christ in the School of Prayer, Andrew Murray
  • The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis

I have read pieces of all of these, though there are some I have not finished.

A few notes:

You can actually read most any of Francis Schaeffer’s books and get more or less the same education. Elsewhere I recommended “The Church at the End of the 20th Century,” which is a less well-known title of Schaeffer’s, and “How Should We Then Live,” which is actually a book full of plates to accompany a film strip and lecture. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. “How Should We Then Live” has the added benefit of being a birds-eye survey of the history of Western culture.

“The Practice of the Presence of God,” by Brother Lawrence, is written in 16th century French. It matters very much which translation you buy. Pick up the copy you’re looking at and read several pages. If it sounds simple and a little repetitive, you’ve got a good one. If it sounds thick and complicated, put it down and find a better translation. The one I use is from Whitaker House; it’s an abridgement, but the English is clear and simple.

Some people say “Peace Child” instead of “Eternity In Their Hearts” for Don Richardson. There is nothing wrong with “Peace Child,” but I don’t agree; “Eternity” says things about missions that people need to know. Also, some people add “Beyond the Gates of Splendor” by Elizabeth Elliot. I won’t argue with that. You can get “Splendor” as a documentary film. You can also get the dramatized film “The End of the Spear,” which is outstanding and tells the same story. “Peace Child” is also available as a dramatized film. It’s all good.

A lot of people recommend “The City of God” by Augustine, instead of “Confessions.” “Confessions” is personal, “The City of God” is theological. “City” is also huge, which is why I haven’t read it, but it is reflected everywhere in Christian theology.

A number of these can be found for free download on the Internet, as they are in the public domain. Familiarize yourself with CCEL, the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. It’s a gold mine.

What’s So Good About the Good News?

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
Because the LORD has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
To grant those who mourn in Zion,
Giving them a garland instead of ashes,
The oil of gladness instead of mourning,
The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting.
So they will be called oaks of righteousness,
The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.”

Isaiah 61:1-3

Jesus heard from the Father that he was His Messiah when he got baptized in the Jordan river by John the Baptist. Then he knocked around for a few weeks, performing a few early miracles. And then, driven by a desire to know exactly what a Son of God was supposed to do, he spent 40 days fasting in a lonely place and praying. And after he returned from that period of prayer and testing, he walked into a synagogue in Galilee, took the initiative to read the haftorah portion of the week*, and read the passage at the top of this post. “Today,” he told them, “this is fulfilled in your hearing.” (See Luke 4:14-21)

When Jesus was first asked to declare the good news, full of the Holy Spirit and after seeking God earnestly, that’s what he said. So if we want to understand the good news, we need to pay attention to how he described it.

When Jesus is fully present and we have received goodness from his hand:

  • Broken hearts are healed
  • Captives are liberated
  • Prisoners are freed
  • People who have been waiting for God’s favor, receive it
  • People who have been waiting for God to execute vengeance for them, see it
  • Those who have been mourning rejoice instead
  • They wear garlands instead of ashes
  • Where they used to faint, now they praise

Short version, the good news is that whatever is wrong in the absence of God, gets fixed in His presence.

Now, that’s good news — if it’s true.

And it’s true, but a lot of us have yet to experience it in full. God’s work is seldom instantaneous, it unfolds over time. This is why it is important to persevere in God — because those who wait on the Lord always eventually receive what has been promised. But sometimes it takes Him a while to bring us to the place where we can receive from Him what He wants to give us.

We get only as much of God as we are willing to expose of ourselves to Him. Most of the time we are not ready to draw close to God. We keep ourselves aloof from Him, afraid of what He might demand of us if we get too close. We busy ourselves with distractions and imagine that we already have everything that’s available. Meanwhile, the solution to every need of ours is in Him, and He will make it available to us if we will only draw close to receive it. The absence of an answer is never because God does not want us to have it; it’s always because we’re far away from Him. His will is always “Yes.”

I explain this in more detail in the sermon entitled “The Eternal Yes,” on the sermons page. Give it a listen.

You may be thinking “this is the prosperity gospel,” and that it is too good to be true. You’d be half right. I’m not saying that God wants us all to be as rich as Donald Trump and live in huge houses, but I am saying that whatever we need is available in Him, in proportion to how deeply we are willing to surrender to Him. And yes, it is too good to be true. But it’s true nonetheless.

Just because few of us have drawn close enough to God to receive as much of Him as is available, does not mean it’s not available. It means we have been content with sub-normal Christianity. There’s no virtue in that.

He who did not spare His own son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Him, give us all things? (Rom 8:32) If your experience of God has not been like that, you are missing things that are yours by inheritance. Setting right whatever has been wrong is the good news. It is God’s nature to heal what is broken. It is always — always — His will to do so.

Never doubt the goodness of God. Never doubt His will to do good… to you. Instead, set yourself to draw close to God persistently, expecting that the closer you get to Him, the more of His goodness (as well as His truth, His correction, and His cleansing) will be yours.

*Normal synagogue practice would call for a reading from the Torah, followed by a reading from the prophets. The second reading is called the haftorah portion. Any Jewish male who has received bar mitzvah is qualified to read either of these portions. Apparently visitors were invited to speak to the gathering and sometimes to read the haftorah, since both Jesus (Luke 4:16-17) and Paul (Acts 13:14-15) took advantage of this practice.

Exposing Ourselves to God

It was not God who dove into the bushes to hide when the humans sinned in Eden, it was Man. God does not hide Himself from us; we hide ourselves from Him.

If you ever wonder why God does not show up at your meetings, wonder no longer. It’s not God who fails to show up, it’s us. He’s always willing to draw close to us; it is we who are unwilling to draw close to Him.

This is why God said things to Israel like “Return to Me, and I will return to you,” (Malachi 3:7). He’s not saying “You first.” He’s saying “I’ve already done my part, so if you want to see Me, you have to change.”

This is also why the Psalmist says “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth.” (Psalm 145:18) We can fool ourselves into thinking we’re cleaner than we are, but God is never fooled. Before we’ve been completely honest with God about the stuff that’s going on inside us, He’s going to seem far away. But if we tell Him exactly what’s going on, He’ll be near to help us. That’s not by His choice, but ours.

So the writer of Hebrews encourages us,

…let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful…

Heb 10:22-23

So the real question is, “In what ways am I unwilling to see God today?” If we ask that, He will answer, and will help us alter whatever it is we’re using to block Him out from some part of our lives. And the closer we get to Him, the more life we get from Him. All good things are available from the Father, if we just draw close enough to get them.

Come further up, and further in!

Why I’m Here

Western civilization is coming unzipped.

Christianity built the West. It was Christ who gave us reason. It was Christ who gave us the sciences and the arts. It was Christ who gave us contract law and free markets. It was Christ who gave us universal literacy and individual rights.

And now we are in the fists of a demented ideology that appears to have been formulated in hell to unzip Western civilization and replace it with a Tyranny of the Self-Deluded. Those least worthy of leading think themselves so superior to the rest of us that they confer on themselves the right to tell us all how to live. They are unmaking civilization and replacing it with their delusions.

I devoted a few years to blogging in an attempt to address this through politics. It was satisfying for a while and good therapy, but politics does not hold the answer. At the root of all the good in our civilization, stands Christ. At the root of the deterioration, we have rejected Christ.

So, I have devoted myself to teaching Christian religion to those who want to learn it. My goal is to rebuild the foundation, so that when the edifice of the West crumbles into dust, as it is already well on its way to doing, there will be something of value on which to start rebuilding.

Welcome to the school of Christ, where the Truth will make you free.