Saturday, December 31, 2011

Q & A: "Does God change, and if not, why pray?"

OK, I'm starting with a "two-fer" one more theological, and the other a practical outworking of the answer.  The first part is relatively simple, in that God says of himself, "For I the Lord do not change..." (Mal. 3:6).  James says there is "no variation or shadow due to change" (James 1:17).  His faithfulness, covenant-keeping  and steadfastness are elements of his unchanging nature (see Exodus 34:6-7).  Those references where God seems to change course or plan (often it says God "relented," such as in the case of postponing Nineveh's judgment due to their response to Jonah), represent the use of our finite human language to try to describe how God acts in relation to His creation in ways we can comprehend.  God can experience the full range of emotion--for example He was "sorry" that He made man (Genesis 6), but not in the "I wish I hadn't done this" mode, but the "this is a terribly painful--sorrow-ful--state of affairs."  Again, we have to use our language to describe an infinite, changeless being who nevertheless experience the sorrows we tend to link with regret.

So, if God does not change, why pray?  Let me try to answer this with a list:
1. We pray because God directs us to do so, and his directions are never pointless.  We may see no reason why the children of Israel had to march around Jericho once a day for six days, then seven times on the seventh, then blow a trumpet for the walls to fall down.  We look at that and say, "what was the point?"  Well, a better way to look at it is to say, "what an amazing, unique, and powerful way God chose to destroy Jericho. Only God could do it that way."  In our limited, cause and effect thinking, we try to figure out how things work. God says, "Pray, and  you will see things happen."  We say, "what difference does it make?"  God responds, Pray, and see how it makes a difference."  Jesus taught his disciples to pray on at least two occasions (Matt 6: 9-13, Lk. 11:1-4) and gave the parable of the persistent widow to teach that we should never give up praying (Lk. 18:1-8).  His instruction when it comes to receiving answers to prayer are clear:  keep on asking, seeking, and knocking (Matt 7:7-11), and pray as Jesus would have us pray (John 15:7, 16:23-24), and you will see results.  The God who ordains the ends also ordains the means by which those ends come to pass.  God has set up His universe in such a way that prayers are the means by which His ends are accomplished.
2. We pray to communicate our hearts desire to God.  Some might say, "But He already knows."  That is true, but communication and communion is a part of relationship.  I may know what my wife wants or thinks and she may know my mind, but we still talk about our thoughts and desires, and share with one another.  It is one thing to "know," another to "share."
3. We see our own hearts shaped by the activity of prayer.  As I pray, I am immediately made aware that I am speaking with One who can do what I can't, who is the only One I can count on in this or any situation, and One whose love for me and acceptance of me is perfectly established through Jesus.  As I voice my petition, I actually think about it, and that thinking may well refine, deepen, and change my request as I think about it and bring it to a loving, holy, and gracious "Abba" Father.  The Spirit intercedes for us as we pray (Rom. 8:26-27), and as we pray we can be sure that the Spirit is at work in us.  The more I pray about something, the more I see how important it is to me, and the more convinced I can become that God is keeping me praying about this for a reason.

These three just scratch the surface, but they suffice to show us the value of prayer as God's means to shape us and accomplish His will.  Any questions?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Answering Questions

This is just a heads up that you are going to start seeing something new here--I have decided to start answering questions here more frequently.  I'll begin with a set of questions that came to me from the students of my Spiritual Formation class this past semester--some great questions from some great students.  But if you have a question you would like to see answered here, just send it to me at  I can't promise how quickly they will get answered, but I want to do what I can to tackle as many as I can in a timely fashion!  Stay tuned...

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ken Boa's Gentle Reminder

In his monthly newsletter, Ken Boa talks about a proper response and perspective on suffering. Here was a quote that speaks of a reality many of us have needed to embrace during 2011.

It is simplistic and unbiblical to think that by coming to Christ, we will be protected from pain and adversity in this life. People are often prompted to come to Him for all the wrong reasons--to have a better marriage, a better career, financial prosperity, happiness, good health, etc. But Christianity is not a religion of solutions; it is a relationship with the Savior. It is not a conquering of our problems, but a commitment to a Person. The Lord calls us to pursue Him apart from any benefits He may provide. We must love the Giver for Himself, and not for His gifts, because all these pale in comparison to knowing Him, the personal Source of every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift (James 1:17).

Friday, December 23, 2011

Ending Advent

Advent is drawing to a close, and tomorrow night we will have our village's Christmas Eve service here at Grace.  I know that some people (maybe even some of my relatives) aren't as excited about Christmas Eve services as I am.  But I can't help it.  It is bringing our anticipation of Christmas to a climax and and close at the same time.  And it is doing so with the people I am called to shepherd--to be constantly leading to Jesus.  What a great opportunity!

Here in Cedarville, it is also a chance to share this time with the other churches and congregations in town.  We have a village where the all the churches' pastors in our Ministerial Association are committed to historic, orthodox, evangelical Christianity.  We have our differences over secondary stuff, but we choose not to let them keep us from celebrating our fundamental unity in the saving message about Jesus.  That means our Christmas' Eve is a celebration of shared faith as well--a good message to send to a larger community that thinks having different kinds of churches means we are against each other rather than on the same side!

We also will have guests with us--some local, some from far away.  It is a pleasure for me to meet new people at any time, but doing so at Christmas means we've shared something special already.  And while people may come from churches that use different worship music, or don't go to church at all, they will know the songs tomorrow night.  And it is my privilege to share the story once again of what Advent has meant--waiting, longing for the fulfillment of a promise.  The initial promise was kept on the first Christmas; the completion of the promise is what we still wait for. 

Getting old isn't the same as getting holy

I've been listening to a sermon by Tullian Tchividjian (pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church) entitled "Jesus+Nothing=Everything" (also the title of  his new book).  The sermon was preached at my brother's church, and it's been a good reminder of the nature of our sanctification--not what we do, but what Christ did.  I cannot focus on "how I'm doing," because the minute I do, I lose sight of what Christ has done and will do.

In the midst of the sermon was this quote from Gerhard Forde, reflecting on the fact that we sometimes think that becoming an old Christian means we are getting more holy.

.. Well, maybe it seems as though I sin less, but that may only be because
I'm getting tired! It's just too hard to keep indulging the lusts of youth. Is
that sanctification? I wouldn't think so! One should not, I expect, mistake
encroaching senility for sanctification! "But can it be, perhaps, that it is
precisely the unconditional gift of grace that helps me to see and admit all
that? I hope so. The grace of God should lead us to see the truth about
ourselves, and to gain a certain lucidity, a certain humor, a certain
I like that.  Encroaching senility or being too tired to sin does not equate to sanctifiation.  Neither does reading my Bible more, praying more, or witnessing if done to seek God's favor rather than out of the freedom of having to do nothing to be loved by Him.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Christmas Song For Monday

We heard this song a week ago in our worship time, and it's one of my newer favorites.
UPDATE:  The trailer at the end advertises a Christmas special that was 3 years ago, and on a network I would never encourage you to watch.  Just sayin'.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Israel Trip 2011

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Israel Trip 2011, a set on Flickr.

Here are my pictures from the Israel trip. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Desperation or Devastation, or Death

I was just reading an article in Revive magazine that included a quote from a Ugandan pastor who spoke of the powerful revival of the church there through the tragic days of Idi Amin and afterwards.  He said,
In Uganda we experienced a nationwide revival as a result of severe persecution.  The suffering of the people was beyond description, and no one came to our rescue.
But God used the opportunity to wake a nation from its spiritual coma.  What we learned is that revival will come either through devastation or desperation.  So my question is simply this: what are you doing in America to make sure revival comes through desperation and not devastation?
I think that the question is profound, but I also know that there is no promise to us in America that revival will come.  Just as churches that were vibrant throughout the middle east in the early centuries of Christian mission are now only a memory or a shadow of what they were, so it may be here.  Perhaps we will become desperate at our lack of spiritual life and in humility seek God.  Or perhaps we will not, and God will send devastation that will awaken us from our spiritual stupor.  But I fear he may allow us, even in times of devastation to wring our hands but not rend our hearts, and the church here may go the way of many others in history have gone--while in new places it arises and grows in the Spirit's power.  I pray not.  But then, our only strategy comes back to this: we must cultivate desperation within our hearts and our church; desperation for God's Spirit to come in power to convict and comfort, to enlist and empower, to heal and to help.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Three Sad Headlines

  • I was looking at The Christian Post today and at the end of the article I was reading saw these three current headlines (each is a link to an article).
  • Gay Marriage OK in Denmark Churches
  • Small Ky. Church Bars Interracial Couples From Membership
  • LGBT Groups Boycott Salvation Army's Red Kettles
  • They each speak to something about our current circumstances that I find profoundly sad for the people of the world and for the church as well.
  • The first article speaks of the inability of the Church to recognize its role as witness to the truth of God's Word, even in a society that rejects it.  Of course the "church" referred to in Denmark is a state, Lutheran body that has long ago moved away from viewing the Scripture as meaning what it says.  Nevertheless, a body claiming to bear witness to the Jesus of the Bible that shreds the truth of that same Bible by its decisions grieves the Lord Jesus even more than it does me, and obscures even further the knowledge of God.
  • The second headline reveals the evil that resides among those of us who claim to be Bible believing Christians.  If you read the article, you will discover that this church had 15 members in a business meeting vote 9-6 for this satanic idea.  Being a Baptist, congregationally-governed church (as our church is), there is no one to tell them they are in sin and must change and repent, at least until Judgment Day.  Their denomination says that all they can do is ask them to change, and then perhaps withdraw fellowship.  A note to those denominational leaders: it's always a good idea not to fellowship with "synagogues of Satan," according to Revelation 2:9.  What makes this especially sad is that nine people in one church have done something that has made headlines in a world that loves to mock Christians.  
  • Finally, the third headline shows that something that should not be news is news.  The idea that a group that advocates behaviors that the Bible prohibits would boycott the work of a church denomination that believes in the Bible's authority and thus opposes those behaviors should not be a shock.  It only is shocking to the person who doesn't understand that there are still those who believe what Christians universally believed until the middle of the last century, and still believe in large numbers.  What saddens me is that Bible believers have become so invisible in a land where we once were well understood, if not universally accepted.
  • I am especially burdened in this Advent season that we be CLEAR on who Jesus is, where we get our knowledge of Him and of God's will (the Bible), and our conviction that what we learn of Him and His will there is truth to be followed.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Three Days in Jerusalem

Alright, truth be told, I always try to end my Israel trips in Jerusalem.  There is just something so powerful about capping a visit to the Holy Land with arrival and touring in Jerusalem that is hard to explain if you haven’t done it.  Every stop has its highlights and the excitement and learning grow along the way, but it comes to a boil in Jerusalem, where you are confronted with powerful evidences of biblical reliability over and over again.  You walk the streets of the Old City on pavement stones from the time of Jesus on your way to places you know he walked and stood.  You see places you’ve read about in Scripture, you discover locations and geography that explain things you’ve read in the Bible, and you cannot escape thinking about spiritual realities in a city that has been claimed by three major world religious systems.  The history is palpable, the culture is explosively diverse, and the chance to experience Israel’s spiritual capital in both its ancient and modern neighborhoods ought not to be missed. 
Thus far we have done just about everything you might associate with a visit to the city, and what we haven’t done yet we’ll do in our final day tomorrow, it seems.  Standing on the Mount of Olives, walking the Palm Sunday road, praying and singing in the Garden of Gethsemane, visiting nearby Bethlehem, and catching up with Shaban, my favorite Old City shopkeeper, were highlights of day one.  Visiting the Western Wall, a walk through the Western Wall tunnel, visiting the city of David, hikes through either Hezekiah’s or a Canaanite Tunnel from Gihon Spring, and experiencing Yad Vashem—Israel’s Holocaust memorial—were day two’s highlights.  The Temple steps and Temple Mount, followed by visits to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and a closing communion in the Garden Tomb marked the last day.  I can barely get that list typed without being overwhelmed by the remembrances or anticipations that come with each.  How do I describe how you feel seeing a stone pavement where Jesus was mocked and tortured for me?  There is nothing I can say that is serious or powerful enough.  And it is like that all day, every day here.
It is moments like this that keep me leading trips and encouraging people to come if they can.  There simply is nothing like what you experience when you are here.  And it is frustrating to try to explain that to others who haven’t had the experience.  So, I think I will just leave it with this—I am so blessed to be here and to have the privilege of sharing it with those who are here.  
Our group on the Mount of Olives, half way down the Palm Sunday Road
Now I’m in the airport, awaiting our flight home.  It’s late, I’m tired, and we have a 12 hour flight to Philadelphia next.  But it is all more than worth it, and the dominant feeling I have and that will carry through the next weeks is wonder.  It is truly “wonder” full to be here, and if the Lord tarries, I hope to visit here again.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Galilee to Jerusalem

Going through Solomon's gate in Megiddo

We left our kibbutz by the sea in Galilee this morning for our travels through the central part of Israel, along the coast, and then up to Jerusalem.  Our first stop today was very un-touristy, even though it is a national park—Harod Spring is where Gideon tested his volunteer army by seeing how they drank water to determine who and how many men God would allow him to use in the battle against the Midianites—found in the book of Judges.  There was no big build up or hype, just a spring between the places where the Bible says the armies were encamped.  Still pretty cool to see.

In the waterworks tunnel built in the time of Ahab, Megiddo
Our next site certainly did have a lot of hype—when you visit Megiddo and look out on the valley it borders, you can’t help but think apocalyptically.  Twenty five civilizations came and went, and were gone a long time before the excavations began here, but what a treasure trove of history was found here.  The city was vital to Egypt, to Solomon, to Ahab, and others—each made their mark.  Ahab’s water system is a marvel of engineering, and Solomon’s stables are impressive.  But looking out on the Valley of Armageddon one cannot help but be sobered by the predictions that invoke it regarding the great battle at the end of the age.
Our next stop was the site of another battle—this one between Elijah and the prophets of Baal.  Mt. Carmel provides a vista from which you can see much of the land of Israel, but it also reminds us of the challenges faced when our vision fails to see anyone else who stands with us in standing for the Lord.  Elijah was alone in his contest, but he was not really alone—and later chapters reveal that there were still 700 who had not bowed the knee to Baal. 
Lunch was found on the way down Mt. Carmel at another Druze restaurant—it was a falafel feast—schnitzel for the timid and taste challenged!   I cannot get enough of falafel, hummus, tahaina, and the Middle Eastern salads and olives.
Bill likes falafel!
Onward we traveled to Herod the Great’s capital of Caesarea Maritima.  This city was the seat of Roman power in Judea, and was one of Herod’s many marvels of construction—he built cities that he named after his benefactors, but it was really all about him.  They were magnificent, though.  The site was later a Byzantine city and a Crusader fortress.  But I like Caesarea because it is the home of the Gentile inclusion in the church—the conversion of Cornelius marked the full reception of Gentiles as Gentiles into the New Covenant people!
Our last stop before arriving in Jerusalem was the Elah Valley, where David fought Goliath.  It’s a farm field today, and certainly has nothing to mark it as significant.  But Israel learned, at least momentarily in that story, that there was a God in Israel who did great things and could be counted on.  May we not forget the lesson they forgot! 
Our group in an arch of the Herodian aquaduct, bringing
water 6 miles via gravity flow to Caesarea

In the Crusader gatehouse, Caesarea
Our hotel in Jerusalem is a short walk from Jaffa Gate to the Old City, and many took advantage of that closeness tonight.  We have great days ahead here in Jerusalem!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Lower Galilee and Nazareth

The view of the Sea of Galilee from our room
Millers on the Sea of Galilee
Today was one where we were seeing the ministry of Jesus in just about every place we went.  We started the day with a visit to the Jordan River, and while we know it may not have been the site of his baptism, it is one of the few spots where you see enough water to baptize in that river--the old gospel songs talking about the "mighty Jordan" were obviously written by people who had never seen it.  Yet it was a defining border for the land and a place Jesus must often have seen.  He also spent a lot of time in our next site--the Sea of Galilee itself.  We had a beautiful hour on the water reflecting on some of Jesus trips from the very spot we left and returned.  We had the added blessing of a Messianic Jewish boat captain who led us in singing praise and worship songs after our Bible study.  Following our return we saw a boat recovered from the shoreline of the Galilee that came from the time of Jesus and his disciples--we saw what their boats must have looked like.  And then we visited the traditional sites of the Sermon on the Mount and the feeding of the five thousand.  And finally we ended our morning with a visit to Capernaum--Jesus' adult home and site of so many of the events of the gospels.

Even our lunch had a biblical flair, as we went to a restaurant run by a former fisherman who served us St. Peter's fish--the staple fish that comes from the Sea of Galilee.  I don't know if the disciples had it with garlic sauce, but it was excellent!  It was quite the experience for us all.

Seeing some of the recovered artifacts from Capernaum
After lunch, we traveled to Nazareth, where we viewed the much-changed city of Jesus childhood.  Nothing is the same, and we used a nearby hill to view the city and see a better representation of what the scene must have been when his hometown was ready to kill him (Luke 4).  Then we got a much better view, as we went to the Nazareth YMCA and saw their "Nazareth Village" a recreation of life as it was in the 1st century.  What an informative and helpful stop.  Run by Arab Christians, we had the chance to consider not just the stones of the past, but consider Jesus' living stones--his followers--as they shared with us the story of the Savior's life as a child.

An amazing and full day, and now we move into our final leg of the journey as we travel tomorrow through the center of the country and end up in Jerusalem.
Nathan and his St. Peter's fish!
Jerry at the salad bar!


Friday, November 25, 2011

From Bet Shean through Upper Galilee

The "cardo" (main street) of
Bet Shean
Well, today started early, but that isn't as big a deal when your sleep cycle is still adjusting (or in my case completely whacked).  We had breakfast and were on the road by 7:15 am to head to Bet Shean, my favorite excavation in Israel due to its size and scope.  This city of the Decapolis looks as if it should have been in Italy or Asia Minor, but it was in the middle of Galilee--small wonder that it was sometimes called "Galilee of the Gentiles."  The Roman architecture and order reminds you that this was occupied territory in Jesus' time and that pagan religion and culture competed with Jewish devotion to God in the land.

Leaving these magnificently restored ruins, we headed north, all the way up to Tel Dan--the remains of the ancient city that was the northernmost referent for the land--as in "from Dan to Beersheba."  We did it backwards, but arrival in Dan meant seeing this ancient city from the period of Joshua and Judges.  Dan is a reminder of the failures of the people of Israel, from the tribe of Dan's failure to possess its inheritance, to their idolatry as they conquered this city, to Jereboam's introduction of idolatry as he divided the Israelite kingdom from the Temple.  But from a city that turned to paganism we went a few miles to a pagan city where the Lord Jesus took Simon Peter's confession and turned it into marching orders.  Caesarea Philippi was only a few miles from Dan, and in front of the Temples of Augustus, Pan, and Zeus, Jesus told his disciples that the offensive strategy of the church would overtake the gates of Hades itself--significant in that Pan was one of those who was linked with the guardians of the underworld.  What a contrast!

Nathan (and all of us) paid attention to the little red
triangle signs on the Golan Heights that said, "Danger-
Mines!"  Not something you see on tour every day.
We had some non-biblical experiences as well, from our visit to a Druze village for lunch (what incredible Druze pita and falafel--the schnitzel was good, too), to exploring a Syrian bunker on the Golan Heights, to a visit to an olive oil factory and some sampling!  All in all a great day as Shabbat (Sabbath) begins this evening.  Our only "Black Friday" experiences were in buying some products at the Olive Oil factory, but we were there in a private tour, so we had no crowds!

Today we are also helping John and Judy Bigelow celebrate 50 years of wedded bliss.  You can wish them a Happy Anniversary when they get back!  We did tonight at dinner!

John and Judy Bigelow on their 50th wedding anniversary,
Tomorrow we continue exploring Galilee, with an emphasis on sites of Jesus' ministry in the region.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks on Tour

Dead Sea at sunrise
Well, it is not exactly a normal Thanksgiving when you are a) out of the country, and b) on a fast paced tour.  Our day started early as we had much to do before too much daylight was lost.  We were up, had breakfast, and were out on the bus by 7:30 am to depart from the Dead Sea to head to Masada, the fabled site of Jewish resistance to the Romans.  Half of our group climbed the snake path, while the rest of us watched them briefly as our cable car zoomed by on the way to the summit.  But way to go, climbers!  You accomplished the climb. We smelled better the rest of the day.

The Hanging Palace at Masada
Masada is sobering as one considers its history, breathtaking as one studies Herod's intricate buildings and artistic touches preserved through 2,000 years, and stunning as one puts these two together in this incredible setting.  I never visit this place without reflecting on the conditions faced, the choices made, and the "what ifs" that come to mind.

We went to En Gedi next, the storied oasis of the desert mentioned throughout the OT, beginning in Genesis.  Most famous as the place where David could have killed Saul but spared him while hiding in a cave, the wildlife and waterfalls are a treat to see.  Our family has now taken our third picture at one particular spot at the middle falls.

The ladies especially enjoyed a stop at the Ahava factory, where cosmetic products from Dead Sea minerals are made and sold, but then we all profited from our visit to Qumran.  I love looking at Cave 1 and having Hezi recount the story of how the thousands of Dead Sea scrolls came to light through a Bedouin shepherd boy's throwing a stone and providentially breaking a piece of pottery.  Amazing confirmation of the trustworthiness of Scripture's transmission came through such a simple act!

We stopped in Jericho and saw the tel that holds what remains of the ancient city--so much could be found there, I think, if more excavation were done.  We also made a quick stop at the sycamore tree held to be the tree of Zacchaeus--I suppose it might be, but I wouldn't put too much stock in the identification.

The falls at the oasis of En Gedi
It was a long drive to our hotel afterward, but we got in before 6 pm, ending a long but joyful day.  And I must say, that in addition to many blessings that I have reflected on while riding through Israel today, one of them has been seeing these things with Kathy, Christine, Nathan, my brother's family, and the members of my church family and my Jesus family.  And I also have given thanks for the many of you back home--some of whom will be reading this.  I am a blessed man, especially because I am a son of our Heavenly Father and saved by the work of my Lord Jesus.  Today, I traveled in places He traveled, but someday I will walk with him on a new Earth, a new Promised Land.  What a great hope to have!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Day One--From Beersheva to the Dead Sea

Tel Beersheva
Hotels in Israel typically serve very generous buffets for breakfast, and today was no exception.  We were well fueled for our first day of touring with our guide, Hezi.  This is my 3rd tour with Hezi, and I appreciate his hard work and devotion to getting us what we would like to have.  Today he helped us accomplish all our stops and just a little more.

An ibex along a pathway at the
 David Ben Gurion Memorial
We began by heading to Tel Beersheva, the mound containing the remains of the "city" of Beersheva dating back to before the time of Christ.  However, the site is more significant than that, as the place where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob saw significant events.  We focused on Isaac's personal reaffirmation of faith followed by his receiving the confirmation of God and others that God truly was with him--even pagans seemed to see he was blessed before he did!

We traveled on to Kibbutz Sde Boker, a place where the desert actually does bloom!  This kibbutz captured the spirit and dream of David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, who believed that bringing the desert of the Negev to life was the key to his new nation's survival.  He died there, and is buried nearby, in a site overlooking the wilderness of Sin, a rugged area mentioned as a part of Israel's journey to the Promised Land.  Seeing that terrain made you wonder how Moses could have led the people through such difficult and desolate regions, and made the need for manna absurdly obvious!

Moving on, we went to a Bedouin village setting where we were entertained and fed by our host, Salim.  He told of Bedouin life and customs, sang a few local songs, and played his coffee grinder!  You'll have to ask about that one.

Doing what you do
 in the Dead Sea
We drove on to look at the Mizpe Ramon crater, a massive hole in the ground that speaks of the incredible power of water to change a landscape (I'm thinking Flood here).  More Genesis came into view as we arrived at the Dead Sea.  Now a mineral spa resort, the area is a stark reminder of God's judgment as one contemplates the cities buried under the water near the southeast shore.  Our experience was much different as we stayed in a resort style hotel.  We didn't just float in the sea, but also took advantage of heated mineral and freshwater pools in the hotel's spa.  Then it was a great dinner and time in conversation before heading to bed--which I am about to do!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Journey is Underway!

Well, we arrived in Tel Aviv this afternoon after a very good flight from Philadelphia--made better by the fact that I actually slept quite a bit.  We were met by those joining us from other places, and then by our guide, Hezi, and our driver, Rami.  These men will accompany us throughout our journey in Israel.  Today was about getting here and getting to our first night's hotel in Beersheva.  This ancient home to Isaac and his family will be ours tonight.  We've had a good meal and now are beginning to fade away, thanks to time changes and time changes.  Tomorrow will be our first day of touring.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Off to Israel

Well, I am sitting in the Columbus airport, waiting for a slightly delayed flight that still will get us to Philadelphia 3 hours before we catch our next flight to Israel.  15 of us are here, 6 more will join us in Philadelphia, and 7 will meet us in Tel Aviv for this tour.  For the first time, we are beginning in the desert south of Israel, staying the first night in Beersheva, Isaac's abode during much of his life.  I'm anxious to get there again--this is my tenth trip.  Even so, there are places we will see this time that I have not seen before.  As we leave, I'm rejoicing in the good report from our Harvest Offering.  As of this morning we are around $$62,000, meaning all but one of the projects are funded, and my prayer is that the next few days and weeks will see the final project completed!

I am hoping to have access to blog, and maybe even post a picture or two each time--but I make no promises!  Pray for us, if you are not too jealous, that God will use this time to deepen our understanding of His Word as we walk the land of the Bible!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

More on fasting: The "Daniel Fast"

(This is some of the "more information" I promised in the post from Sunday, found here. )

There is a significant amount of material on the web and other sites related to the "Daniel" fast, named for the biblical prophet who in Daniel 1 and 10 used this particular diet.  The first time was to test God's faithfulness to Daniel and his friend's obedience in following Hebrew dietary laws.  The second was to discover the meaning of a vision he had received from God.  Daniel fasted for three weeks, and so this fast is often for that duration.

A Daniel fast is simply choosing a vegetarian (or possibly "vegetation"--that is, anything that comes from the ground) and water diet.  Some use juices as well.  It would involve no dairy and no meat.  It is often used for a period of seeking God, not just a day or two of fasting.

I spoke with someone today whose former church used to use this any time they faced a significant decision or development, with very affirming results.  This is not to say you must, but only that this is another aspect of this wonderful "tool" called fasting that is available to help you seek God.

One other thing--go to the main church website here and follow the links to the audio or video of the message if you didn't hear and would like to, or need a refresher.  And you can also follow the links to find my sermon notes as well (just like always).

Claiming that Jesus is still dead...

An amateur archeologist with a desire to prove Jesus is still in the tomb has announced more on his supposed "discovery" of the tomb itself in a location no other scholar supports. Todd Bolen, from The Master's College and the Israel Bible Extension writes about it at the Bible Places Blog here.

And for those interested this blog has a wealth of information about archeology today in the Holy Land.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Resources On Fasting

For those who would like to consider more seriously how to go about fasting, the following resources are helpful, though I issue my standard disclaimer--not everything everyone says in every resource is correct--I agree with much of what is here, some of it may be debatable, and none of it should supplant the clear teaching of the Word of God!

That said, here are three helpful resources to begin.  I will add to this list as the need or opportunity may arise.

God's Chosen Fast, by Arthur Wallis, 1968, reprinted 1997, Christian Literature Crusade

Bill Bright, founder of CRU (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) was a regular practitioner of fasting, which may explain some of the remarkable ways God used him and his ministry.  He offers very practical instruction in this article, including his recommendations for undertaking a lengthy fast.  It has some good teaching, a few overstatements (that was Bill Bright's way), and some very clear "how-to" instructions.

Jonathan Edwards on fasting and prayer

This should get you started if you desire to do so.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Pastoral Prayer for Reformation Day

The following is a prayer offered by Charles Spurgeon in November, 1877, in his pulpit at Metropolitan Tabernacle, London.  I share it, marveling at the depth of is petition, and wondering how well our church, or any church would enter in to this kind of praying.  As one of the great "grandsons" of the Reformation, Spurgeon is a fitting tribute to the celebration of Reformation Day.

O LORD GOD, the great I AM, we do confess and cheerfully acknowledge that all come of Thee. Thou hast made us and not we ourselves, and the breath in our nostrils is kept there by Thy continued power. We owe our sustenance, our happiness, our advancement, our ripening, our very existence entirely unto Thee. We would bless Thee for all the mercies with which Thou dost surround us, for all things which our eyes see that are pleasant, which our ears hear that are agreeable, and for everything that maketh existence to be life. Especially do we own this dependence when we come to deal with spiritual things. O God, we are less than nothing in the spiritual world. We do feel this growingly, and yet even to feel this is beyond our power. Thy grace must give us even to know our need of grace. We are not willing to confess our own sinfulness until Thou dost show it to us. Though it stares us in the face, our pride denies it, and our own inability is unperceived by us. We steal Thy power and call it our own till Thou dost compel us to say that we have no strength in ourselves. Now, Lord, would we acknowledge that all good must come of Thee, through Jesus Christ by Thy Spirit, if ever we are to receive it. And we come humbly, first of all acknowledging our many sins. How many they are we cannot calculate, how black they are, how deep their ill-desert; yet we do confess that we have sinned ourselves into hopeless misery, unless Thy free undeserved grace do rescue us from it. Lord, we thank Thee for any signs of penitence—give us more of it. Lay us low before Thee under a consciousness of our undeserving state. Let us feel and mourn the atrocity of our guilt. O God, we know a tender heart must come from Thyself. By nature our hearts are stony, and we are proud and self-righteous.
Help everyone here to make an acceptable confession of sin, with much mourning, with much deep regret, with much self-loathing, and with the absence of anything like a pretence to merit or to excuse. Here we stand, Lord, a company of publicans and sinners, with whom Jesus deigns to sit down. Heal us, Emanuel! Here we are, needing that healing. Good Physician, here is scope for Thee; come and manifest Thy healing power! There are many of us who have looked unto Jesus and are lightened, but we do confess that our faith was the gift of God. We had never looked with these blear eyes of ours to that dear cross, unless first the heavenly light had shone, and the heavenly finger had taken the thick scales away. We trace therefore our faith to that same God who gave us life, and we ask now that we may have more of it. Lord, maintain the faith Thou hast created; strengthen it, let it be more and more simple. Deliver us from any sort of reliance upon ourselves, whatever shape that reliance might take, and let our faith in Thee become more childlike every day that we live; for, O dear Saviour, there is room for the greatest faith to be exercised upon Thy blessed person and work. O God, the Most High and All-sufficient, there is room for the greatest confidence in Thee. O Divine Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, there is now sufficient room for the fullest faith in Thine operations. Grant us this faith. Oh, work it in us now, while, at the same time, we do confess that if we have it not, it is our shame and sin. We make no excuse for unbelief, but confess it with detestation of it, that we should ever have doubted the truthful, the mighty, the faithful God. Yet, Lord, we shall fall into the like sin again, unless the grace that makes us know it to be sin shall help us to avoid it.

And now, Lord, we ask thee to accept of us this morning whatever offerings we can bring. We bring our hearts to Thee, full of love to Thee for what Thou hast done; full of gratitude, full of faith, full of hope, full of joy. We feel glad in the Lord. But we do confess that if there be anything acceptable in these our offerings, they are all first given us of Thee. No praise comes from us till first it is wrought in us, for

         “Every virtue we possess,
         And every victory won;
         And every thought of holiness,
         Are Thine, great God, alone.”

Well may we lay those fruits at Thy feet that were grown in Thy garden, and that gold and silver and frankincense which Thou Thyself didst bestow: only first give us more! Oh, to love the Saviour with a passion that can never cool! Oh, to believe in God with a confidence that can never stagger! Oh, to hope in God with an expectation that can never be dim! Oh, to delight in God with a holy overflowing rejoicing that can never be stopped; so that we might live to glorify God at the highest bent of our powers, living with enthusiasm—burning, blazing, being consumed with the indwelling God who worketh all things in us according to His will! Thus, Lord, would we praise and pray at the same time; confess and acknowledge our responsibilities; but also bless the free, the sovereign grace that makes us what we are. O God of the eternal choice, O God of the ransom purchased on the tree, O God of the effectual call, Father, Son and Spirit, our adoration rises to heaven like the smoke from the altar of incense. Glory and honour and majesty and power and dominion and might be unto the one only God, for ever and ever, and all the redeemed by blood will say, Amen.

Look, at this time, we beseech Thee, upon us as a church, and give us greater prosperity. Add to us daily. Knit and unite us together in love. Pardon church sins. Have mercy upon us that we do not more for thee. Accept what we are enabled to do. Qualify each one of us to be vessels fit for the Master’s use; then use each one of us according to the measure of our capacity. Wilt Thou be pleased to bless the various works carried on by the church; may they all prosper. Let our Sabbath School especially be visited with the dew of heaven, and the Schools that belong to us and are situated a little distance, may they also have an abundant shower from the Lord; and may all the Sabbath Schools throughout the world be richly refreshed, and bring forth a great harvest for God.

Bless our College, O God; let every brother sent out be clothed with power; and may the many sons of this church that have been brought up at her side, preach with power to-day. It is sweet to us to think of hundreds of voices of our sons this day declaring the name of Christ. Blessed is the church that hath her quiver full of them, she shall speak with her adversaries in the gate; but the Lord bless us in this thing also; for except Thou build the house, they labour in vain that build it. Bless our dear boys at the Orphanage. We thank Thee for the conversion of many. May they all be the children of God, and as Thou hast taken yet another away to Thyself, prepare any whom Thou dost intend to take. We pray Thee, spare their lives, but if at any time any must depart, may they go out of the world unto the Father. May the Lord bless all the many works that are carried on by us, or rather which Thou dost carry on through our feeble instrumentality.

May our Colporteurs in going from house to house be graciously guided to speak a good word for Jesus. And Lord bless us. We live unto Thee; our one aim in life is to glorify Thee, Thou knowest. For Thee we hope we would gladly die; ay, for Thee we will cheerfully labour while strength is given; but, Oh, send prosperity, and not to us only, but to all workers for Jesus, to all missions in foreign lands, and missions in the heathendom at home. Bless all Thy churches far and near, especially the many churches speaking our own language across the Atlantic, as well as in this land. The Lord send plenteous prosperity to all the hosts of His Israel. May Thy kingdom come! And, Lord, gather in the unconverted: our prayers can never conclude without pleading for the dead in sin. Oh, quicken them, Saviour! and if any one here has a little daughter that lieth dead in sin, like Jairus may they plead with Jesus to come and lay His hand upon her that she may live. If we have any relatives unsaved, Lord, save them: save our servants, save our neighbours, save this great city; yea, let Thy kingdom come over the whole earth. Let the nations melt into one glorious empire beneath the sole sway of Jesus the Son of David and the Son of God. Come quickly, O Lord Jesus, even so, come quickly. Amen.

Spurgeon, C. H. (2009). The Pastor in Prayer (7–12). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Happy Reformation Sunday

Well, Grace celebrated Reformation Sunday with an introduction to Martin Luther and the use of 2 of his hymns.  It was a great time of reflection and worship, including powerful music and gathering around the communion table.  If you want to join in, you can go to the church website and listen/watch the message shortly, and find the outline there, too!

Yes, a Baptist church honored Luther, and the roof didn't fall in.  And no, we still don't agree with him on baptism, communion, or a number of other areas.  But the freedom of churches to disagree stems from his insistence that the Word of God is our final authority, not a church structure.

And one more thought for you on this day--a further advance in Christian thinking came thanks to Baptists in America, who took advantage of their situation to urge the separation of church and state.  Their political ally--none other than non-Baptist (really non-Christian) Thomas Jefferson!

Letter or spirit of the Law--Changes in Our Perceptions

This article discusses a situation in the NFL that prompts a question--when enforcement of a law's words violates the law's purpose, which should govern?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Scot McKnight's Rethinking of the Gospel

OK, I have got to get and read this book, but not because I think I'm going to like it. The book is The King Jesus Gospel, and it purports to offer a radical, new understanding of what the Gospel is, with the underlying premise that our long held, Reformational understanding is wrong (he calls it "the soterian" or "salvation" gospel and says it is too individualistic).  He favors something he develops as "the story gospel" which is narrative in style and culminates in a more communal/corporate idea of salvation without losing the individiual element.  That is the summary I get from his blog, but need to read the book to grasp it more fully.

Any time a 21st century thinker comes along and tells me that "everything must be rethought!" I get skeptical.  He goes so far as to say that the "old" way is not harmonizable with his approach and must be abandoned in favor of it.  And for good measure, N. T. Wright, whose writings on justification have the same call for a "new" way of thinking, writes the introduction(along with Dallas Willard).  Having heard and read McKnight in the past, I've had appreciation for much he has written, and had questions, too.  Looks like I may be in for more of the quesitons.

I read his article on this in Christianity Today around Christmas.  He writes a little about this at his blog, Jesus Creed, and you can find his thoughts in this post: On Tweaking the Soterian Gospel

Monday, October 10, 2011

S.A.F.E.--from a recent wedding

I was asked if I'd share part of the charge to the bride and groom from Nathan and Joanna Flack's wedding service this weekend.  The passage they had selected for reading was 1 John 4:7-19
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. 13 By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. 19 We love Him because He first loved us.
In this passage we learn a number of lessons about the love of God, loving God, and the power of that love in us.  I shared four.

First, we see salvation is marked by experiencing and possessing God's love.  "[E]veryone who loves is born of God and knows God."  The blessings of salvation are multiplied, but one is that we experience and possess and are able to share God's love. 

Second, we learn that possessing and sharing this love for God and others is a great assurance that we are in right relationship with God.  Assurance is often treated as if it is a stand alone concept, but it is actually the result of changed life and behavior, and love for each other is one of those great tools of godly assurance.

Fearlessness marks the person who possesses and thus shares the love of Christ.  In marriage, when I love my partner enough to be the husband or wife God has called me to be, it not only helps me be fearless in terms of eternal life, but also fearless in terms of my relationship in my marriage.  My spouse's pouring God's love into me makes our home one where I need not have any fear of my acceptance or standing.

Finally, I note that love is an enablement God has poured his love into my life, which enables me to love others, especially my spouse, rightly.  I certainly cannot be the husband or wife God desires on my own, but he provides the love I lack, and keeps it flowing into me, so that it can flow through me. 

Putting these four words together, they can form the acroymn, S.A.F.E., and God's love will make your marriage a safe relatationship and your home a safe place from which your faithful walk and service can be based. 

7 Differences Between Galilee and Judea in the Time of Jesus

This was a fascinating summary of the differences between the two regions of Israel during Jesus' ministry, and how they figure into the background of the gospel.  It is the summary of someone else's work, but still captures the essence.  Enjoy.

7 Differences Between Galilee and Judea in the Time of Jesus

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A timely reminder from Joel Rosenberg on "Shaking the Nations"

Once again, Joel Rosenberg offers thoughtful and challenging commentary on the current world situation. If you know me, you know I am not what would be considered a "prophecy fanatic." I do believe that Jesus is returning, and he may return at any moment to bring this age to its concluding scenes. I tend to shy away from confident assertions of particular strings of natural disasters as signs that Jesus is coming soon.

Yet we must avoid the error of becoming functional "naturalists,"--saying that these things are just all a part of processes God has set in motion and we have no idea what they mean. In fact, the Bible makes clear that every disturbance is under His direction, and that all of them are meant to make people turn to Him.

Not only are physical disturbances under God's direction, so is the issue of the rise and fall of nations in power and influence. As our own nation has just taken another step away from facing its financial folly, we should not think only of our political leaders and their collective lack of will, but also of God's will--specifically, his ability to remove His hand of blessing and instead bring about instability to cause His followers to repent and trust Him, and to cause unbelievers to seek His mercies.

Read Rosenberg's thoughts on this issue here.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Three Aspects of Good Gospel Preaching

As I read Acts 24 today, I marveled at Paul's bold preaching in tough circumstances.  With freedom on the line, he did not sugarcoat his conversations with the Roman governor, Felix, and his Jewish princess/wife, Drusilla (a member of the Herod family), when they talked about "the Way."  Felix had some background, and more importantly, controlled Paul's destiny (at least from a human perspective).  You might think Paul would try to use Felix's interest to get himself set free.  And you would be wrong.  Instead, he preached a message that seems as pointed as possible.  And it is the core of the gospel we should preach to others and ourselves.

It was, first, about "righteousness."  How can anyone be right with God?  Is our own behavior ever going to be good enough?  In Felix's case, he probably knew it was not.  He had divorced his previous wife and stolen the heart of Drusilla, who herself had a record of unfaithfulness to her previous husband.  He was not above a bribe, and history does not present a picture of any nobility about this man.  Yet he's intrigued by Paul, whose moral clarity and intellectual integrity is obvious.  So they talked about righteousness, and based on all his preaching and writing we know what Paul would be saying.  To such a Roman, Paul would most likely echo what is written in his letter to the Romans.  He would present the arguments of Romans 1-3 to show that there is a God of righteousness, and that man has resisted righteous thought and action in favor of our own passions and preferences.  Every man's conscience tells him when he does wrong, but we learn to not listen.  And when confronted with God's laws, we recognize that we don't obey them, don't want to, and even if we did, we don't have the power (that's Romans 7).  Our righteousness is what Isaiah labeled "filthy rags" (a very prejudicial term) in God's judgment, and this is true of all.

Where can righteousness be found?  Paul would clearly point to the One whose life was righteous, and whose nature, being God, was inherently righteous--Jesus Christ.  This one man's righteousness was in stark contrast to that of all other humans descended from Adam (Romans 5).  And that righteousness was available, as it always had been, not through works that we can do, but through faith: believing God (Romans 4).  God's provision of righteousness is through faith.  When we believe God has provided righteousness for us and a substitute whose death is accepted as the payment for our sin, we are "justified" by that faith--declared first to be not guilty because the guilt has been laid on Jesus at the cross, and also declared to be righteous because Jesus' righteousness is credited to us (Romans 5-8).

Is that all?  Is the gospel simply a wiping away of guilt for sin?  It is that, but it is much more!

It is secondly about "self-control."  Wow, so was Paul telling Felix he had to "shape up" to be saved?  Not at all.  If we read Romans 6-8, as well as Romans 13-16, Paul develops a picture of what happens when our eyes are opened to the truth of our sinfulness and the way that God has provided to deal with that.  We recognize that we are guilty, but that we are also sinners who need to be saved from our sinning.  This knowledge comes through the ministry of the Spirit, who not only opens our eyes, but sets us free from the bondage to sin (Paul calls it "the law of sin and death"--Romans 8:2).  The Spirit continues to remind us of whose we are now--children of God--and empowers us to walk in "newness of life" (Romans 6 says much about this walk).  We now realize that we are in a battle with sin which still appeals to a part of us (Romans 8 calls it "the flesh") even while we are seeking to walk in the Spirit.  This is the test Paul puts forward of whether real faith has come to us or not.  If we see that there is good and evil, but ultimately choose to live our lives doing what we want no matter what God desires, then Paul argues that this is not true faith.  Felix's interest, and even possible agreement with the teaching of Jesus would not be enough.  It would have to yield fruit--a lifestyle that shows the desire to "walk" under the direction and power of the Spirit.  Paul would not preach perfection, but he would say that there SHOULD be continued progress as we learn the will of God.  The basic pattern of the Christian life is this: we learn and grow, we obey, we find joy; we stumble, we feel guilty/convicted, we recognize that our efforts will never save us but that Jesus has paid our debt and given us life, we repent, we get back on the path of the Spirit; and continue to walk.  It is a pattern of Spirit-empowered self-control (maybe Paul would have alluded here to another book's message, for in Galatians 5:22-23 we find that self-control is the final of seven aspects of the fruit of the Spirit in a believer's life).

Of course, our man Felix hasn't shown too much evidence in his life of self-control, and may not be really interested in changing.  Or perhaps he thinks his religious interests and searching would be good enough.  Paul then takes him to a third subject...

Finally, it is the message about the coming judgment.  Paul faithfully reminds Felix that God has appointed a day of judgment.  In that day, eternal life and death will be manifested.  Sinners will "perish" due to their sinfulness, either in violation of what they knew about God from creation and conscience, or from God's law as revealed in the Scriptures.  If you could stand before God and say that you had kept all of his laws, you would escape judgment.  But all have sinned and fall short of God's glorious holiness (Romans 3:23).  This means that the sinner will receive the due payment for violating God's law--death (Romans 6:23).  The "perishing" and "death" that are spoken of for the sinner must be more than physical death, since believers die physically as well.  Paul makes this clear in Romans 9, where he points to a mysterious possibility in a universe created by God--that God actually wants his creation to see both his grace and his wrath.  And this wrath is described as "destruction" (9:23) and God's "sentence upon the earth" (9:28).  While Romans doesn't get into a lot of the specifics of judgment, Paul has written in 2 Thessalonians 1 that it involves flaming fire, vengeance, and being thrown out of God's presence.  And in Romans 14:10 he tells us "we will all stand before the judgment seat of God."  This warning--that the God who made the universe and determines its laws and what is good, will serve as final Judge, and we will stand before him, just as Paul had to stand before Felix.  Given his dissolute life to this point, and the intellect that had allowed him to plot and plan his current rise to power, Felix was not receptive to such a message.  Acts 24:25 tells us that he became "alarmed,"  and basically said, "Leave, and when I'm more ready for this, I'll listen again."  He didn't get it.  He couldn't make himself ready, and never would.  His old ways soon crowded out whatever fear he felt, and he continued to dialog with Paul and give his friends freedom to visit, hoping that it would result in what usually happened--a bribe to set Paul free.  No bribe was forthcoming, and so Felix left him for his successor to deal with.

I wonder if we are always faithful to give the whole picture to people when we share the gospel.  It is definitely a message of righteousness, and we are pretty good at telling people that they are sinners in need of God's grace in salvation.  But in our zeal to make sure that no one trusts in their own efforts, we sometimes downplay the changing power of the gospel-- Sinners + Salvation & the Holy Spirit = self-control.  We can, should, and want to say "no" more and more to the flesh (read Titus 2:11-12 carefully).  If a sinner only wants to escape Hell but doesn't want God to rescue him from his sinning ways, then he doesn't want salvation.  And I don't think most of us are too excited about reminding people that God is bringing a final judgment and all will stand before him.  This failure may account for the fact that so few share with urgency and hearers often react with apathy.

Let's be sure we preach the Gospel as Paul did, to others and to ourselves!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

If you wouldn't mind...

Radical Together: Unleashing the People of God for the Purpose of God
I reviewed David Platt's book "Radical Together" last month, and posted it for you here.  The company that makes these books available for review likes to see the reviews rated.  If you wouldn't mind, could you do two things?
If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil

First, go here and read the review.  Then, rank it at the bottom of the review.  That's it.  Thank you.

Oh, except for one other thing.  I also reviewed earlier Randy Alcorn's wonderful book, "If God is Good."  You can find that review here (the original site) and do the same.  Thanks again!

If you were wondering, I did review the original "Radical" and loved it, but the review was just on my own, not for this company.  You can read that review here.  OK, that's enough for now.  I am in your debt.
Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream