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This article from msnbc shames us all.

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'”  Matthew 25:40

Giving bread to the hungry, clothes to the naked, and aid to the orphans are all acts of kindness given to Jesus himself, according to the passage above. The opposite is also true. Denying them these things is denying Jesus. What about abusing the hungry, the naked, or the orphan? What about pulling a little deaf boy’s pants down while he is making a confession? Yes, these acts of abuse are done to the Saviour himself, and the King will judge.

Jesus doesn’t give a damn about the shame that might come to the Catholic church if such incidents should come to light. They must come to light because if they do not, the abuse will continue. This is not an issue of personal sin, repentance, and forgiveness. This is a public sin that must have public consequences. This is sexual addiction. Father Murphy reportedly molested one of his students 50 or 60 times, and he is accused of molesting about 200 students. That’s 10,000 acts of molestation, if the one particular student’s case was the norm.

Catholic clergy, you are supposed to be the shepherds of your flock, not wolves. You are supposed to protect your flock, not yourselves.

I just finished the last of four or five meetings with the Mormons. Here are some of my thoughts from our conversations:

1. From the beginning, I tried to take charge of the meetings. I was not interested in hearing a pre-packaged message or being led through a series of questions that they had been trained to ask. From the outset, I set the amount of time I was willing to meet with them, and I asked the questions. The advantage to this approach was that it put us on equal footing. I was not in the position of being asked questions whose answers and scripture citations they had been diligently trained to know. They were being put on the spot, and I got more natural conversation.

2. I received and talked to them courteously. I asked them questions about themselves and tried to learn about the mechanics of what a Mormon missionary does. If you do a quick search on the internet, it won’t take long before you find someone talking about how annoying the Mormons/Jehovah’s Witnesses are and how someone relished slamming the door in their faces. What gives anyone the right, however, to treat another human being with rudeness, regardless of how obtrusive or annoying his missionary efforts may be? Doesn’t the gospel teach us to treat others with kindness? Doesn’t it tell us that Mormons, too, are in need of the love and forgiveness of Christ?

3. I focused at first on the Book of Mormon. My plan was to read it book by book and raise my objections. So I started with 1 Nephi and was struck by its total inauthenticity. I objected to the Mormons about the strangeness that a book written (or “translated”) in the 1800’s would use the Old English of the King James Version; that it failed at capturing that Old English; and that some of the names (“Sam”) did not exactly seem Hebrew. The main point that I pushed again and again was that the Book of Mormon was given to the LDS by a single man. No one else read the plates. The Bible, on the other hand, was definitely written by different authors, and there were multiple witnesses to the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Ultimately, however, I did not have time to read the Book of Mormon and bring a point-by-point objection.

4. I pushed the Mormons to tell me just how the gospel or the church was corrupted from the time immediately after the apostles to the coming of Joseph Smith. I asked them to tell me how the Mormon church was different in doctrine from my own. Over and over, I heard, “We believe basically the same thing.” I queried them about God being a human at one time, about Jesus and Lucifer being brothers, and about the possibility of becoming a god of one’s own universe in the afterlife. They down-played these as things that are unclear or things that some Mormons believe and others do not. I got the impression that they were not being straight up with me, as if the goal was to convince me that Mormonism and orthodox Christianity are basically the same.

5. I tried to speak the gospel and say clearly what I believe it means.

I am praying for these guys, hoping that God will use something out of what was said for good. Ultimately, we agreed that there was no chance of progress and we parted ways amicably.

What are your experiences with the Mormons?

I suddenly became aware of the condition of my soul at twelve years old. I vividly recall lying on my back during many long nights, working my way through the sinner’s prayer that I had learned from my dad, and trying to understand its various elements. What does faith mean? What does it mean for Jesus to be a savior and lord? Thankfully, God guided me through my inner turmoils to an understanding of what salvation means.

However, there were a few unhelpful folks along the way. All you preachers who compared faith to sitting on a chair and trusting that it would hold you up–you should know that you didn’t really help me at all. I was only confused about how to put that same sort of trust in Jesus. How do I get from trusting a chair to trusting Jesus? Maybe if I concentrated really hard and somehow exercised faith in Jesus.

Oh, and all you guys who describe the sinner’s prayer in terms of accepting Jesus into your heart, please stop. Stop it right now. What the heck does that even mean? How does inviting Jesus to come live in your heart equal looking to Jesus for your forgiveness? Where in the Bible do any of the apostles invite their hearers to just ask Jesus into their hearts? You are only confusing little boys and girls by using such meaningless imagery.

I shake my head now as I remember how confused I was over something so simple. Thankfully, the Bible (of all things) cleared it up. What did the tax collector say when he was weighed down by all his sin? “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Seven little words, all of them easy to understand. What does Paul say? “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).  Gone are the mysteries of just how we exercise this vague thing called “sitting-on-a-chair faith” when one understands that all that it means is that you are asking for mercy.

I love the movie Luther. There is a scene at the beginning where Martin Luther is struggling with his sin before the unrelenting wrath of God. His priest and mentor hands him a cross and commands him to pray, “I’m yours. Save me.” I like that. I’m yours; save me.

[Warning:  The content of this post is sexually and verbally explicit in places. Please proceed with caution.]

For the past several weeks, my wife and I have been spending Sunday nights watching Seatle pastor Mark Driscoll’s sermon series on the Song of Solomon. My interest was piqued by all the controversy over Driscoll’s supposedly graphic commentary on this book, and I wanted to see for myself whether the hubbub was a big deal.

It wasn’t. Driscoll’s preaching seemed pretty uncontroversial, in fact. He did talk a lot about sex, but that was because the Song of Solomon talks a lot about sex. He did mention details about different sexual activities, but not in a grossly graphic way. He mentioned oral sex, a wife dancing for her husband’s enjoyment, and even referred to the vagina (gasp!) with some sort of phrase like “a woman’s most intimate part.” Here’s the thing, though:  Song of Solomon talks about all these things, and last I checked, the preacher’s job is to preach the Bible. Some have objected that Driscoll should not have explained the euphemisms that are sprinkled throughout the book, but to do so would be to leave everyone in the dark as to what the two lovers of Solomon’s Song are saying to each other. Three thousand years or so separate our culture from the Hebrews’, and unless someone explains what is meant, we probably won’t understand it. Again, this is what the preacher is supposed to do.

Perhaps the umbrage that many people have taken in response to Mark Driscoll’s sermon series has helped expose some of our own sins. We have taken our own morality and made it God’s. We have elevated our own cultural etiquette to the status of the Ten Commandments–Thou shalt not talk about sex openly with other Christians, thou shalt not ask questions about oral sex in marriage, and whatsoever thou doeth, thou shalt not utter the accursed four-letter words that start with d, h, s, and f.

Driscoll also exposes a common sin of the pulpit–the failure to preach the whole word of God. If the Bible talks about sex, then preachers should preach about it. Good grief, this country, with its non-Christians and its Christians, is saturated with a twisted view of sex. Preach the truth about sex. Set people free to have pure fun in their bedrooms with their spouses.

Last, I think Driscoll helps expose a sin among translators. If the Bible is the word of God, then should we censor it so that it won’t offend our sensibilities? If the Bible is explicit or offensive, what gives anyone the right to soften it. If a verse is meant to shock, why would we take away its shock value? Take a look at Philippians 3:8:

Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ. (KJV)

What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ. (NIV)

At least twice, I have heard a pastor (R. C. Sproul was one) explain that this word is actually an obscenity. In other words the verse should read:

What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them shit, that I may gain Christ. (NIV)

If these preachers are right, then that’s what Paul said, and that’s how it should be translated. Consider the shock value that has for us. The best that we have to offer isn’t just rubbish, it’s utter shit. Wow. Pretty shocking.

I do not think that Driscoll’s series of the Song was perfect by any means. I think he was way off on a comment he (reluctantly) made, in response to a question he kept getting, about how often a married couple should have sex. He said that the average couple does it twice a week, and the average married man masturbates five times a week on the sly. Therefore, the couple should probably have sex every day so that the man can have his sexual needs met. The reason why I strongly disagree with him is that I know that masturbation is not meeting a sexual need most of the time. When guys get lonely, feel sad, are bored, or feel a lot of different things, they often meet those emotional needs by masturbating. As far as actual sexual needs go, twice or three times a week is plenty for me, but that’s just speaking for myself.

Last, I was not convinced that the things Driscoll said about relationships (which were in and of themselves, right on) were in fact a good exposition of the actual text. I am not saying that he wasn’t right in how he interpreted this or that euphemism. I am just not sure that his interpretation of the flow of events or historocity of the Song’s relationship were correct. That’s just a suspicion, though. I have yet to do an actual study of the book.

In summary, Driscoll’s sermon on SoS was a helpful series and one that the church needs to hear. Driscoll is a gifted pastor who loves his wife, family, and church very much, but like the rest of us, he has his problems.

Feel free to leave your take on this series, but please, be civil.

I have a confession to make to all my fellow Protestants:  sometimes I make the sign of the cross at the end of my private prayers. No, I am not converting to Catholicism, but I am appreciating a Catholic tradition. In fact, I am appreciating an ancient Christian tradition.

Five or six years ago, a group of friends and I attended a Lutheran church so tiny that the eight of us made up half the congregation. Consequently, the pastor took a lot of time from the service to explain to us non-Lutherans some of the things he was doing, and one of these things was the practice of crossing oneself. He pointed out that though it is often used superstitiously (like at baseball games), the sign of the cross is an ancient practice in the church that serves to remind us of who we are. I liked the idea and began practicing it, trying consciously not to use it mindlessly. It is a reminder that the cross is for me, that its benefits mark me like a seal.

Apparently, the sign of the cross goes way back in church history. In the fourth century A.D., St. Cyril of Jerusalem made the following statement:

Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are in the way and when we are still. Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the poor’s sake; without toil, for the sick, since also its grace is from God. It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of evils; for He has triumphed over them in it, having made a shew of them openly; for when they see the Cross, they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, Who hath bruised the heads of the dragon. Despise not the Seal, because of the freeness of the Gift; but for this rather honor thy Benefactor.”

St. Ephrem of Syria, also from the fourth century said:

Mark all your actions with the sign of the lifegiving Cross. Do not go out from the door of your house till you have signed yourself with the Cross. Do not neglect that sign whether in eating or drinking or going to sleep, or in the home or going on a journey. There is no habit to be compared with it. Let it be a protecting wall round all your conduct, and teach it to your children that they may earnestly learn the custom.

Even earlier, in the second century, Tertullian wrote:

 “In all undertakings — when we enter a place or leave it; before we dress; before we bathe; when we take our meals; when we light the lamps in the evening; before we retire at night; when we sit down to read; before each task — we trace the sign of the cross on our foreheads.”

It might surprise my fellow Protestants to know that Martin Luther supported using the sign, too. Here’s a page of his writings concerning it, and here is one quote:

In the morning, when you rise, you shall make the sign of the holy cross, and you shall say: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Can the sign of the cross be used superstitiously. Yes. The sign itself cannot ward off the devil, nor can it bring anyone good. But the physical sign can serve as a reminder of what our Lord has done for us and what he will do. It can be a real encouragement.

This site offers a lot of helpful information, some of which I have already used. It tells several ways in which the sign of the cross is done, which I have copied and pasted below.

The Sign of the Cross is made thus: First choose your style:

  • Option A. With your right hand, touch the thumb and ring finger together, and hold your index finger and middle finger together to signify the two natures of Christ. This is the most typical Western Catholic practice.
     
  • Option B. Hold your thumb and index finger of your right hand together to signify the two natures of Christ
     
  • Option C. Hold your thumb, index finger, middle finger of your right hand together (signifying the Trinity) while tucking the ring finger and pinky finger (signifying the two natures of Christ) toward your palm. This is the typically Eastern Catholic practice.
     
  • Option D: Hold your right hand open with all 5 fingers — representing the 5 Wounds of Christ — together and very slightly curved, and thumb slightly tucked into palm

Then:

  • touch the forehead as you say (or pray mentally) “In nomine Patris” (“In the name of the Father”)
     
  • touch the breastbone or top of the belly as you say “et Filii” (“and of the Son”)
     
  • touch the left shoulder, then right shoulder, as you say “et Spiritus Sancti” (“and of the Holy Ghost”). Note that some people end the Sign by crossing the thumb over the index finger to make a cross, and then kissing the thumb as a way of “kissing the Cross.”

Any thoughts? Is this an idolatrous practice? Or a comforting reminder?

Walking on the beach one beautiful summer night years ago, I breathed in the scene of the crashing waves and circling stars and, with some disappointment, thought about the passage from Revelation 21:1, “And there was no more sea. ” Similarly, verse 25 reads, “there will be no night there.” Really, God? But I love the ocean, and the night sky is beautiful. If heaven doesn’t have these, then I can’t help but feel a little bit  of disappointment. And while we’re on the subject, what about the new Jerusalem? Living in a huge city always seemed a lot less attractive than relaxing in a garden. I don’t really care that much about streets made of gold either.

A lot of you will be smiling at how naively literal my reading of Revelation was, but I don’t think I was alone. In college, I was crazy enough to agree to teach Revelation to a group of teenagers, and whether they got anything out of it or not, I was exposed to a very valuable resource in Paul Spilsbury’s book, The Throne, the Lamb and the Dragon:  A Reader’s Guide To the Book of Revelation. Spilsbury thankfully draws his readers away from the contemporary obsession with just how the end times will unfold, pointing out that Revelation is apocalyptic literature, almost similar to a fantasy. The strange images of the book come from a long tradition of similar figures, symbols, and numbers running through the Old Testament.

The sea, for instance, is consistently a place of fear for the Israelites, who were not much of a seafaring people. It is constantly pictured as chaotic, and out of it come all sorts of evil creatures (often sybolizing various kingdoms) who are a threat to God’s people. When John describes heaven as being without the sea, he isn’t giving his readers a physical description of its geography, but is making a statement about the existence of evil there. There will be no more evil monsters from the sea; all of Israel’s/the church’s enemies will be gone. In fact, the place where they originated will be gone.

The same principle applies to the banishment of night, the creation of a city, and the composition of the streets. These are not intended to be literal details about heaven. Instead, the Lord is telling us that the dangers of night will be gone;  that God’s people will be together in perfect community; and that the perfection of heaven will so outshine this world that the most valuable material we have here, gold, will be used for the basest of functions there.

Reading Revelation in this way truly unlocks its secrets. It is not a clue book to the future. Instead, it is a fantastic story to encourage us in our present state of troubles. Happy reading to you all as you jump back in the book.

I was flipping through the channels early Sunday morning, trying to let my wife sleep a few extra hours while I held our son. Let me tell ya, Sunday morning Christian shows/church services can be downright depressing. The television portrays a Christianity obsessed with a million things other than the one thing we ought to be obsessed with–the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ has taken a back seat to more pressing or interesting issues, or maybe it is viewed as that event that gets us into Christianity and from which we move on to bigger and better things. The idea of obsessions in Christendom is an interesting one to me, and I have been thinking about a few that I wish Jesus would cleanse from his Temple. Here are a five:

1.  An obsession with the end times. I am sick of hearing preachers treat the Old and New Testament prophets as if they are a code book for the coming apocalypse (which is always, incidentally, imminent, depending on when Russia or Iran decides to attack Israel). Please, I beg you, study the original context and the type of literature that these books were written in, and be willing to hear a different view of the end times. May I suggest a little book on the Revelation called The Throne, The Lamb, and The Dragon by Paul Spilsbury? 

2.  An obsession with thickening our wallets. Please stop promising that those who are hearing you will be free of their house payment within a year. Please stop implying that those who are blessed will be driving high end cars. The Bible says nothing of the sort. In fact, there was a guy in the Bible who had a lot of faith and yet still lived in poverty–what was his name? Oh yeah, Jesus.

3.  An obsession with positive thinking and other self-help stratagies. There’s a wonderful aisle in your local bookstore that talks about the power of positive thinking. I’m pretty sure the Bible isn’t on that aisle.

4.  An obsession with being hip and sexy. Church services become concerts or stage performances. Cute video skits are played in the middle of the sermon, which the guy with the spiked hair and tatoos is preaching. What I find offensive is that these styles of worship are specifically contemporary, i.e., they are for people in their teens, twenties, and thirties. What about those who are forty, fifty, or older? Do they matter? Or do you have a separate, more traditional service for them, so that now you have a church devoid of the influence, wisdom, and leadership of the older crowd?

5.  An obsession with literal creationism. If you think that the Bible teaches that the earth was made 6000-10,000 years ago in six literal days, then that’s fine. However, if you think that anyone who believes in an old earth is a compromiser, an apostate, a heretic, or an ineffective Christian, then you’d better be careful. You have entered the realm of judging your neighbor, in my opinion. Does creation science dominate your religion? Maybe it’s become an obsession.

There you have it. What do you think about these obsessions? Do you have any to add?

Two days ago I heard a fascinating story on NPR about the decline of Christianity in Great Britain. Listen to or read the article here. The following are some highlights of the story.:

Church attendance is slipping rapidly as Britain has become one of the most secular countries in Europe. The English church has always seemed to swing between the two extremes: from the piousness of Puritanism to the dissolute courts of the Restoration; from the high tide of Victorian evangelicalism to the deep and broad secularism of the 20th century and beyond.

Some lay the blame for the modern departure from God at the feet of one man, who lived for 40 years not far from the Canterbury Road.

It is 150 years exactly since Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection. His former home, Down House, in the tiny village of Downe, is now open to the general public.

When On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, it sparked an exodus from the established church that has continued to this day. Many people in Britain still say they are Christians, and of course, under that sometimes frosty exterior, the British people are generally among the warmest, most hospitable people on Earth.

[…]

For people who do still believe, though, there doesn’t seem to be the same conflict that exists in the United States between the idea of evolution and the idea of God. There are no culture wars in Britain — it’s all so jolly moderate now.

[…]

Michael Nazir-Ali, the 106th bishop of Rochester, is also the first Asian bishop in the history of the Church of England. He was born in Pakistan, but moved to Britain for theological studies.

Nazir-Ali is one of the new intellectual evangelicals who have tried to shake up the Church of England. He is also ruffling feathers by saying the country needs to get back to its Christian roots.

“I think modern Britain has had an identity crisis, and we have now reached a stage where we need recovery, and it must be recovery rather than simply the forging of a brand new identity,” says Nazir Ali, who announced last month that he would leave his post later this year. “All of Britain’s cultural, literary, political, legal life is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

Nazir-Ali has earned himself death threats by being very critical of Islam in a way that few white bishops would dare. But he says his comments have also earned him thousands of letters of support. He sees the irony that he and the Ugandan-born Archbishop of York John Sentamu are perhaps the two most outspoken supporters of Christian Britain.

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali
(Michael Nazir-Ali, the 106th bishop of Rochester)

[…]

“If you come to our church or come to our house or even when we are praying in the night, we pray for Britain to be evangelized back, to go back to their first love,” [Nigerian Christian Adunla Ogunlade] says. “British people brought Christianity to my country. Then why should they lose it?”

I wonder if the United States will come to a point when the creation/evolution controversy will be over. I hope and pray so.

Also, how interesting that a Pakistani and a Nigerian are struggling to bring Christianity BACK into England. I hope and pray that God uses them and others to do just that.

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