Blog #57: We Three “Kings” (!?!?)

By John Cline

An online article found at christianitytoday.com had this to say about some characters so familiar to the Christmas story: “They’re the three men in glittering velvet robes and fake beards in the living nativity at church. Sometimes they tow a live camel. Bearing gifts, they traversed afar, following yonder star through the back of the sanctuary in the grand crescendo of our beloved annual Christmas pageant. I’m speaking, of course, of the Magi. Or is it wise men? Wait, kings? Perhaps if Luke the historian had written about them in his Christmas account, we might have had precise details. But Matthew’s account is vague, shrouded in mystery: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem…” (Matt. 2:1).
Intrigue swirls around these festooned foreigners. Where did they come from? With a wink Matthew writes, “the East.”
How many were there? We don’t know, the bible doesn’t say: all it says is that they offered three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
What were their names? Again, who knows but almost certainly not what an old Armenian tradition identifies them as: Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India.
Were they “kings”? Probably not, though as early as the second century Tertullian considered the Magi to be kings for he argued their visit fulfilled Solomon’s prayer in Psalm 72—“May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts.” Isaiah 60 also speaks of how, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…and all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.” But, most likely they were not kings.
Were they “wise men”? Now we are getting closer to the fact of the matter. Wise men is a perfectly acceptable translation of another word “magi” and the Roman historian Cicero described magi as being “wise and learned men among the Persians.” In fact, the Hebrew word for “wise men” is used much more frequently in the Old Testament to designate a class of astrological advisors. Gentile kings valued these men for their wisdom concerning the affairs of the kingdom.
So, the “kings” or “wise men” of the Christmas story were “magi”. The term magi is the precise Greek word used in Matthew’s gospel. His story demonstrates that the “magi” were astrologers and interpreters of omens—following a star and dreaming dreams. When they arrived in Jerusalem, their curt bluntness had King Herod spitting out his morning coffee: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2).
These visitors were like a blast from the Hebrews’ past. The book of Daniel chronicles how he and his companions spent 70 years exiled among magi in the East. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was in the habit of gathering the best and brightest from his vanquished foes into an advisory body of wise men, stargazers, and dreamers. When he captured Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, he added them to his menagerie of magi, “and in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters (Greek magi) in his whole kingdom” (Dan. 1:20). In one episode from the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar had an ominous dream. Summoning his magi and enchanters, he demanded, “If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble” (2:5). When the magi only succeeded in coming up with excuses, Daniel rescued them all with the dream and interpretation from the Lord. In awestruck gratitude, “the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men” (2:48). Daniel became the “magi of magis”.
The whole episode with Daniel and the magi is similar to the stories of the Egyptian Pharaohs were kept their courts packed with wise men, astrologers, and magicians. Genesis tells of a young man named Joseph who was carted off to exile in Egypt. One night Pharaoh awoke from a terrifying dream. He found that none of his magicians could provide an interpretation. It was Joseph, the Hebrew exile in prison, who provided Pharaoh with God’s interpretation. In response, Pharaoh clothed Joseph like a king, “and they called out before him, ‘Bow the knee!’ Thus, Pharaoh set him over all the land of Egypt”. Similarly, at the time of Moses in the Book of Exodus, he did battle for God against that Pharaoh and his magi, the court magicians.
So, who were the “magi” who came to see Jesus? Most likely, court astrologers in Persia who had been influenced by the Hebrew Old Testament brought to them at the time of Daniel and which spoke of a coming newborn King of Israel. When these magi saw a bright saw in the east they concluded that it was the sign they had been watching for regarding the birth of a newborn King of the Jews. And, so they mounted up whatever animal it was they were riding (horses? camels? donkeys? – again, we don’t know) and they followed the star to Bethlehem. “And the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. They they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of (frank)incense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream (after all, they were magi – interpreting dreams was in their job description!) not to go back to (King) Herod (who planned to go and kill the child once the magi returned to him and gave him the exact location of the Christ Child), they returned to their country by another route.” (Matthew 2:9-12)
Whoever those visitors from the east were – kings, wise men, magi – they have become examples to people throughout the centuries of how people should enter into the presence of Jesus: in worship and awe, with reverence, and bearing gifts for him. The greatest gift we can gift to Him in this season is that of our devotion and obedience. This Christmas we would do well to follow the example of those mysterious visitors from the east.

Blog #56: What’s Your Worldview? 

Dr Ken Bender, our church’s Director of Pastoral Care and Discipleship, last week presented an excellent seminar on Worldviews. Below is a guest blog from Ken on this topic, quoting from an article on the Focus on the Family website, The article was written by Tracy F. Munsil and is entitled, “What’s Your Worldview?” Munsil writes the following,

“The scene: The African plain comes alive with the gathering of zebras, gazelles, giraffes, elephants, all the animals on a majestic pilgrimage to see their future king, the cuddly newborn lion cub, Simba. After receiving the blessing of Rafiki, the lion pride’s shaman monkey, the animals big and small all bow on bended knee in worship to the uplifted cub. In the background plays the song, “The Circle of Life” – “It’s the circle of life/ And it moves us all/ through despair and hope/ Through faith and love/ Till we find our place/ On the path unwinding/ In the circle, the circle of life.”

Any parent with children older than about 8 knows the scene described above well, and most can still sing the song. Disney movies are like that -full of wonderfully creative characters, compelling story lines and memorable music. Millions of families across America watched the popular movie The Lion King when it came out in 1993, delighting in Simba and the antics of his friends Pumbaa and Timon singing “Hakuna Matata.” Pure Disney genius. But what worldview was being absorbed by millions of impressionable preschoolers? Is the concept of the “circle of life” true according to God’s Word? Do the ideas in the movie square with the Christian worldview?

Like everything we watch, listen to or read, The Lion King contains a worldview. And unless you know what you’re looking for, unless you have a strong understanding of your own worldview, it is often difficult to discern.

So what’s the worldview in The Lion King? Despite a handful of good moral lessons, it is not biblical Christianity. The notion of the “circle of life,” that history is circular and the present is heavily influenced by the spirits of one’s ancestors, is closer to Eastern pantheism or native spiritualism than the linear view of history presented in the Bible. But how is the average parent to know and discern the worldview, and how can parents equip their children to evaluate worldview for themselves?”

Thus, the questions before us are “what is meant by the word ‘worldview’?” and, “what is your worldview?”

Again, Tracy F. Munsil explains, “Worldview is the latest buzzword in Christian circles. We’re all told we need one, and whether we know it or not, we all have one. But what is a worldview? Literally, of course, worldview is how a person views the world. A person’s worldview consists of the values, ideas or the fundamental belief system that determines his attitudes, beliefs and ultimately, actions. Typically, this includes his view of issues such as the nature of God, man, the meaning of life, nature, death, and right and wrong.

We begin developing our worldview as young children, first through interactions within our family, then in social settings such as school and church, and from our companions and life experiences. Increasingly, our media culture is playing a key role in shaping worldview. We are a culture saturated with powerful media images in movies, television, commercials and music. And like the entertaining and seemingly benign Lion King, what we watch, listen to and read, impacts the way we think. Consistently consuming entertainment with false ideas will inevitably distort our view of the world.

Although the Bible never uses the word “worldview,” in Colossians 2: 6-8, we are commanded to be able to discern and discard false philosophy-which is essentially worldview. “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him, rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world, rather than on Christ.”

Jeff Baldwin, a fellow at the Texas-based Worldview Academy, says worldview “is like an invisible pair of eyeglasses-glasses you put on to help you see reality clearly. If you choose the right pair of glasses, you can see everything vividly and can behave in sync with the real world. … But if you choose the wrong pair of glasses, you may find yourself in a worse plight than the blind man – thinking you see clearly when in reality your vision is severely distorted.” To choose the “right” glasses, you have to first understand and embrace the true worldview…”

In truth, then, there are three major worldviews operational in our world: an animistic worldview, a secular humanistic worldview and a biblical worldview. God wants His followers to live with a biblical worldview, but we have grown up in cultures that espouse one of the other worldviews. To find out your worldview and then how it may be different from a biblical worldview go to www.focusonthefamily.com/ faith/christian-worldview/ whats-a-christian-worldview/ whats-your-worldview. May God give you insight as you choose to follow Him.

Blog #55: Come Conspire With Us!

John Cline

Every year since 2010, our congregation has participated in the Advent Conspiracy Movement. From their website, www.adventconspiracy.org, comes this explanation of the origin of the movement.
‘The Origin of Advent Conspiracy: A conspiracy born out of Christmas dread’.
Several years ago a few pastors were lamenting how they’d come to the end of an Advent season exhausted and sensing they’d missed it again: the awe-inducing, soul-satisfying mystery of the incarnation.
No wonder there was a dread at the beginning of each new season as they prepared to proclaim, celebrate, and worship around the story of God entering our world as one of us. A creeping kind of idolatry was consuming them and their communities. It seemed as if all were drowning in a sea of financial debt and endless lists of gifts to buy.  An overwhelming stress had overtaken any sense of worship.  People now believed the marketing lie that spending money is the best way to express love.  This, combined with the American mindset that “more must be better” was now consuming pastors and congregations alike.
Somehow, this had become the new normal. This had become everyone’s Christmas routine. Every year people were being devoured by the Christmas frenzy, and every year the Advent season ended with a sinking feeling that once again, they’d missed the point. 600 billion dollars is the amount of money Americans spend every year on Christmas shopping, while 30 billion dollars is the amount of money it would take to provide safe water access to the entire world.
So, three pastors—Rick McKinley from Imago Dei Community in Portland, Chris Seay from Ecclesia in Houston, and Greg Holder from The Crossing in the St. Louis area—decided to try something different. They called it the “Advent Conspiracy”, and came up with four tenets—Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, Love All—to guide themselves, their families, and congregations through their season of preparation for Christmas.  It started small—just the three churches and a handful of others who would try this experiment.  They didn’t know what to expect, but deep down they sensed a longing to reclaim the story of Christmas. And along the way a revolution was born. A video posted on YouTube went viral with more than a million views. In those first few years hundreds of churches in 17 countries on four continents were participating, and millions of dollars had been directed to Living Water International to provide safe drinking water for people around the world.
Since then, every year more churches and groups—numbering in the thousands—have conspired to celebrate a more Christ-centered Christmas. Using the tools of the Advent Conspiracy, they have celebrated with more relational traditions, partnered with more organizations, and have channeled resources to the poor, marginalized, and forgotten in their own communities, and around the world.
Where you choose to channel your resources to love all is up to you. Advent Conspiracy is yours. The beauty of the Advent Conspiracy, however, is not in its re-direction of resources, but in its power to transform us personally, as a community, and as the Body of Christ. Churches that participate consistently share that what they love most about AC is how it transforms their season into one that is happier, more connected, and freer to focus on Jesus. That’s what it’s all about.

 

Blog #54: A Church That is Built on Prayer

By John Cline
Recently, our Tuesday evening Ladies’ Bible Study group watched a video series featuring Pastor Jim Cymbala of the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City. His church is clearly one that prayer built.
A personal aside here: our beloved former Pastor Emeritus the Rev. Dalton Grant loved Jim Cymbala’s messages and would often quote him as well as distribute his books. In any case, back to my blog…
When Jim and Carol Cymbala went to Brooklyn Tabernacle in the early 1970’s, according to Jim Cymbala, “More people were turning to crack than to Christ.” He described the dismal early days in his book “Fresh Wind Fresh Fire”. They had no training for ministry, no money, and only a handful of members. Before long, seeing few victories and feeling personally defeated, the discouraged pastor decided he needed to quit. It was during that dark period he received a distinct and unexpected call from God to lead the people to pray. The next time he was before the church, he told them about his strange call from the Lord to focus on prayer. The following Tuesday night, about a dozen members joined the pastor for prayer. They joined hands, stood in a circle and prayed. Five minutes later, they were finished. They obviously weren’t sure yet how to conduct a prayer meeting but they had taken the first steps. Over the next few years, Brooklyn Tabernacle would become known around the country and around the world as a praying church.
Today, about 10,000 people every Sunday wait in line to attend Brooklyn Tabernacle. The attendance is a miracle, but it doesn’t end there. Carol Cymbala has led the Choir since soon after arriving at Brooklyn Tabernacle. Her original choir consisted of nine people. In spite of not reading music, Pastor Cymbala’s wife Carol has received five Dove Awards, six Grammy Awards and has written hundreds of songs for the now 270-voice choir and for their 28 albums.
How has all of this occurred? Jim Cymbala traces it all to that call from the Lord so long ago to build a praying church, and to make the weekly prayer meeting the most important service of the week. He calls the prayer meeting  “the barometer of the church.” It didn’t start big but it grew. The first Tuesday night prayer meeting of a few members gathered in a circle is now 3,000 people a week crowding into the church to call upon the Lord. The prayer meeting officially begins at 7 p.m. but people start pouring in at 5 p.m. to pray for the prayer meeting!
At our church, McLaurin Memorial Baptist Church, we have many opportunities to pray at different times and with different groups of people, as well as individually for people in their homes. Are you involved in prayer? Please become involved, either with others from the church or in your home. Prayer changes people and situations and is the foundation of how God works in this world. Brooklyn Tabernacle is a church that is built on prayer. We would be wise to follow their example and to be obedient and submissive to the Lord in this matter of becoming a praying person and a praying church. God still hears and answers prayer! Let’s get praying!

Blog #53: Maybe We Shouldn’t Have Thrown out Sexual Morality, After All

By John Cline

We are currently preaching through the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. In it, we have heard about the sexual immorality that was so prevalent in First Century A.D. Asia Minor (today’s nation of Turkey). When the Gospel came to that area, it came with a message of transformation and morality. The followers of the goddess Cybele then influenced the church in Colossae to throw out the sexual morality that they had learned about and experienced as Christians. But, the leader of that church, a man named Epaphras, as well as the Apostle Paul, pushed back and the Christian message was re-established and eventually the entire Roman Empire (and, thus, the Western world) became Christian, adopting the sexual mores that were from God as the new norm.
in our currently society, there has been a similar push against the morality of the Judeo-Christian mindset. Matt Walsh, writing on The Daily News website, recently penned an article entitled, “America Is Full Of Deviants. Maybe We Really Shouldn’t Have Tossed Out Sexual Morality”. In that article, Walsh writes, “Several names have been added to the accused pervert club just in the past week. Multiple women have alleged that famous comedian Louis C.K. likes to pleasure himself in front of unsuspecting and unwilling spectators (C.K. now admits this). Roy Moore in Alabama has been accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl almost 40 years ago. Mariah Carey has been accused of sexual harassment. Steven Segal, too. Charlie Sheen was accused of raping Corey Haim when he was 13. Those were all just this week. Mark Halperin, prominent journalist, was accused last week (I think; I’ve lost track). The list of other Hollywood and media people facing allegations in the past five weeks or so includes but is not limited to (and, here he names several people, but, then goes on to write…) There have been 17,000 reported sexual assaults by students in public school over just a four year period. Sexual assaults by teachers are even more common. It’s estimated that one in ten students will be abused by a teacher in public school at some point. There are 50 million kids in public schools right now. You do the math.
Hollywood, D.C., academia. Chock full of perverts, it seems. We can’t forget the church, of course. And not just the Catholic Church. Protestants have a sex abuse problem as bad or worse.
Where can a person go to get away from these deviants? Certainly not to the doctor. Physician sexual abuse is widespread, including the recent high profile cases involving Olympic gymnasts molested by a team doctor. Possibly the worst serial pedophile in American history was a pediatrician who went to jail a few years ago for abusing over 100 young patients.
What’s left? What’s the next profession to be revealed as a breeding ground for rapists? Electricians? Dog groomers?
This stuff is everywhere. It really can’t be broken down on political, or religious, or even gender grounds. Men seem more likely to be the abuser, but the problem is not exclusive to them. Though we tend to brush these kinds of cases to the side, the fact remains that an enormous number of female teachers have been found guilty of sexually harassing or assaulting their pubescent male students. Any attempt to place the blame on one particular group falls apart. The crisis it too widespread. It encompasses too many different types of people. It has leaked into too many corners of our society.
It appears that there’s a serious problem with our culture as a whole. Of course, the first problem with our culture is the same with every culture: we are a fallen and sinful species. But our fallen and sinful nature seems to be manifesting itself more and more in the form of degeneracy and sexual predation. Why?
Well, perhaps we should consider the possibility that the Sexual Revolution was a catastrophic failure. It probably is not a coincidence that the vanguards of the revolution — Hollywood and academia — harbor the highest level of deviants. It also is probably not a coincidence that the male-on-male rape epidemic in the Church began in the ’60’s, precisely when the leadership of the Church, especially in the United States, decided to adopt a more enlightened and culturally acceptable view of sexuality. They loosened the rules a bit, started being more tolerant, and almost instantly their ranks were filled with boy-raping men.
Maybe we ought to consider adopting again some semblance of sexual morality in our culture. Maybe it was not such a stellar idea to throw out every ethical rule governing sexual activity. Maybe we should think about reevaluating other things, too, like:
1) Our love of pornography.
2) Our belief that sexually-charged young people should wait until they’re 35 to get married and finally channel their sexual energies in a positive and procreative direction.
3) Our idiotic insistence that every single thing in society be co-ed, and that there ought to be no socially enforced codes of conduct governing how men and women interact with each other.
Maybe all of these ideas and strategies are terrible and have blown up in our faces in spectacular fashion. Maybe if you’re a proponent of the modern and liberal approach to sexuality, you are just simply wrong about everything.
Or maybe we should continue doing exactly what we’re doing, because it seems to be working out so well.
I think I know which option we’ll choose.”

Blog #52: On ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ After Another Mass Shooting

By John Cline

 

I have to admit that, as a Canadian, I do not understand the American defense of weaponry nor their intense fascination with guns. After yet another mass shooting – this one in a Baptist church in ruralTexas – which saw 26 people killed and that many more injured, we all are left in stunned sadness. The gunman, an atheist who on-line stated his hatred of Christians, was armed with an assault rifle, 15 loaded magazines and an obsession with a family dispute. Apparently, it was his mother-in-law that he was having an argument with, having sent her a threatening text message that Sunday morning. The woman, a member of that Baptist church, did what she regularly did on a Sunday: attending morning worship. It was in the building of that congregation that the gunman chose to seek his vengeance.
In response to this tragedy, some people have called for prayer but others – politicians, media commentators, and Hollywood “stars” – have mocked and derided those who have called for prayers. Some even mocked those killed, callously stating that they were praying and, yet, look what happened to them! They mocked those who dared to pray in the midst of evil.
So, my question for today is: how should we respond when these types of tragedies occur?
A couple of years ago, on the christianitytoday.com website, and following the mass shooting in San Bernadino, California committed two years ago, writer Andy Crouch stated that “Prayer—and lament—is the proper first response to tragedy.”. Crouch went on to make the following points:
‘We can say with some confidence that all the following are true.
1.a. When news of a tragedy reaches us, almost all of us find our thoughts overwhelmed for minutes, hours, or days, depending on the scope, severity, and vividness of the loss. This is called empathy—our ability to put ourselves in the place of others and imagine their suffering and fear, as well as heroism and courage, and to wonder how we would react in their place.
1.b. Almost all human beings, whatever their formal religious affiliation, find themselves caught up in a further reaction to tragedy: reaching out to a personal reality beyond themselves, with grief, groaning, and petition for relief. Even those far from the church will find themselves, almost involuntarily, addressing God in these moments. This is, in a way, another and perhaps higher form of empathy. It reflects our instinct that our own experience of personhood, identification, and love must ultimately reflect something—or Someone—fundamental to the cosmos who is personal, who has identified with us, and who responds to us and all the world with love.
1.c. Unless the tragedy is literally at our door, this empathic response—call it “thoughts and prayers”—is all that is available to us in the moments after terrible news reaches us. If the tragedy is literally at our door and thus is happening to us rather than just being reported to us, we know that an astonishing number of human beings act with courage and resilience even in the face of the most terrible evil. They also, if given time to speak or otherwise communicate to others not facing their moment of terror, instinctively pray and ask others to pray.
1.d. It is unrealistic, and arguably cruel, to ask for fresh words in the moment that we are confronted with suffering and loss, let alone horror and evil. Every human being, in these moments, falls back on liturgies—patterns of language and behavior learned long before that get us through the worst moments in our lives. There is no need to come up with a new thought or new words when you stand in the receiving line at a funeral home; it is entirely fine to say, “I am so sorry for your loss,” even though the family will have heard those words a hundred times before. What matters is not your words, which cannot possibly rise to the demands of the occasion, but your presence and your empathy.
1.e. Politicians and public figures are fundamentally like all other human beings and have the same basic responses to tragedy. This is true no matter their position on controversial issues of policy (say, gun control). So it is no surprise that they respond immediately, like the rest of us do, with familiar words and phrases that express their human solidarity with those who suffer. Even the most accomplished speechwriters will take hours or days to come up with words adequate to great suffering. No human being, even the most articulate, can offer adequate words in the first moments after terrible news. To demonstrate that level of rhetorical fluency would in fact be to demonstrate an inhuman lack of empathy. Inarticulacy is the proper, empathic immediate response to tragedy.
2.a. To offer prayer in the wake of tragedy is not, except in the most flattened and extreme versions of populist Christianity, to ask God to “fix” anything. It is to hold those who were harmed, and those who harmed, before the mercy of God. In many traditions, it is to recognize that the human person is more than a human body, so that even death itself is not the final word on our destiny—so prayers are appropriate even for the dead, whose lives are held by a Life that transcends death.
2.b. An equally valid and instinctive form of prayer in the face of tragedy is lament, which calls out in anguish to God, asking why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Lament confronts God with his seeming inaction and distance. This is a profound response of faith. Far from being unchristian, it is actually the prayer offered by Jesus himself on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
2.c. No honest accounting of history can deny that God, if there is a God, is terrifyingly patient with evil. And yet, over and over, astonishing goodness, holiness, and reconciliation have emerged from even the most heinous acts of violence. When Jesus himself voiced the psalms of lament and the anguish of every victim of torture and terror, Christians believe God was at work reconciling the world to himself, and that three long days later God demonstrated his power to bring life out of death. So even when human beings have done their worst, it is not too late to pray for redemption and healing.
3.a. To suggest that we should act (though usually without specifying how those of us not physically present could act in the immediate wake of tragedy or terror), instead of pray, therefore, is to ask us to deny our capacity for empathy.
3.b. At the same time, the Bible makes it clear that God despises acts of outward piety or sentimentality that are not matched with action on behalf of justice. The harshest words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels are directed at public leaders who pray extravagantly and publicly but neglect “the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23).
3.c. Therefore we must never settle for a false dichotomy between prayer and action, as if it were impossible to pray while acting or act while praying. Nonetheless it is vital, whenever possible, to pray before acting lest our activity be in vain.
3.d. To insist that people should act instead of pray, or that we should act without praying, is idolatry, substituting the creature for the Creator. It insinuates that goodness can be known, possessed, or done apart from relationship with the only One who is truly good. While our neighbors who do not share our faith will not agree, for people with biblical faith this prideful declaration of independence is idolatry, the original sin of humanity, and the ultimate source of the evil in the world and in our own hearts.
4. Therefore the victims of the shootings in San Bernardino, and all those who were caught up in the violence and live this very moment in its awful continuing reality and consequences, and also those who perpetrated the violence, are in our thoughts and prayers.’
Thus, how should we respond when mass shootings and destructively violent and evil acts occur? Andy Crouch has just explained it for us: by praying and then doing whatever we can to be of help to change the situation and our culture that has set the ground for such tragedies. May God be with us and, at this time, with the loved ones of the victims of last Sunday’s shootings in that little Baptist church in rural Texas.

Blog #51: All Saints Day

By John Cline

Here is a quick fact about All Saints Day: It happens this week, on November 1st, just like it does every year on November 1st. But, what is it all about?

In his article on the website Thoughtco.com, author Scott P. Richert wrote an article entitled: “All Saints Day” (with the subtitle “Honouring All of the Saints, Known and Unknown”), Richert writes the following:
‘All Saints Day is a special feast day on which Catholics celebrate all the saints, known and unknown. While most saints have a particular feast day on the Catholic calendar (usually, though not always, the date of their death), not all of those feast days are observed. And saints who have not been canonized—those who are in Heaven, but whose sainthood is known only to God—have no particular feast day. In a special way, All Saints Day is their feast.’
Even though Hallowe’en (the hallowed eve of something…of what?…of All Saints Day!!!!) has taken over in our culture, the history of All Saints Day long precedes Hallowe’en. Again, Richert writes, ‘All Saints Day is a surprisingly old feast. It arose out of the Christian tradition of celebrating the martyrdom of saints on the anniversary of their martyrdom. When martyrdoms increased during the persecutions of the late Roman Empire, local dioceses instituted a common feast day in order to ensure that all martyrs, known and unknown, were properly honored…In the early centuries, this feast was celebrated in the Easter season, and the Eastern Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, still celebrate it then, tying the celebration of the lives of the saints in with Christ’s Resurrection.’
So, why was November 1 instituted as the day in which to honour saints both dead and living, saints both known and unknown? Again, reading from Richert: ‘The current date of November 1 was instituted by Pope Gregory III (731-741), when he consecrated a chapel to all the martyrs in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Gregory ordered his priests to celebrate the Feast of All Saints annually. This celebration was originally confined to the diocese of Rome, but Pope Gregory IV (827-844) extended the feast to the entire Church and ordered it to be celebrated on November 1.’
So, where did the word “Hallowe’en” come from. Again, from Rickert: ‘In English, the traditional name for All Saints Day was All Hallows Day. (A hallow was a saint or holy person.) The vigil or eve of the feast, October 31, is still commonly known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. Despite concerns among some Christians in recent years about the “pagan origins” of Halloween, the vigil was celebrated from the beginning—long before Irish practices, stripped of their pagan origins, were incorporated into popular celebrations of the feast. In fact, in post-Reformation England, the celebration of Halloween and All Saints Day were outlawed not because they were considered pagan but because they were Catholic. Later, in the Puritan areas of the Northeastern United States, Halloween was outlawed for the same reason, before Irish Catholic immigrants revived the practice as a way of celebrating the vigil of All Saints Day.’
As Baptists, we really don’t pay much attention to either Hallowe’en (other than to advise against participating in anything evil, including costumes) or All Saints Day. But, we do support light conquering darkness and thus we will always try to point out that the “E’en” part of the word “Hallowe’en” refers to an evening, and the evening is one that is “hallowed”. Thus, “Hallowe’en” was historically really pointing people to the next day in the calendar: All Saints Day, a day in which to honour all of God’s saints, both known and  unknown, both dead and living. These people served and serve their Lord Jesus Christ. Doing so should be a part of our lives everyday, so this All Saints Day is really about honouring servants of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Happy All Saints Day, everyone!

Blog #50: Martin Luther’s 500 Years of Effect

By John Cline
It was 500 years ago that Martin Luther famously posted his 95 theses issuing a list of items that the Roman Catholic Church needed to change, in his opinion. A Roman Catholic priest, Martin Luther was very much influenced by the writings of the fourth century church theological giant, Augustine who had emphasized the primacy of the Bible rather than Church officials as the ultimate religious authority and who also believed that humans could not reach salvation by their own acts, but that only God could bestow salvation by his divine grace. In the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church taught that salvation was possible through “good works,” or works of righteousness, that pleased God. Luther came to share Augustine’s two central beliefs – that the Bible rather than Church officials is the Christian’s authority, and that salvation was by grace through faith alone and not by doing good works.
Committed to the idea that salvation could be reached through faith and by divine grace only, Martin Luther vigorously objected to the corrupt practice of the Roman Catholic Church selling “indulgences”, the practice of granting “indulgences” being a way to provide absolution to sinners of their sins. In other words, one could buy forgiveness for their sins, and for the sins of their departed relatives. Put another way, one could buy their way into heaven. This alarmed Martin Luther. Indulgence-selling had been officially banned in Germany, but the practice continued unabated anyway. In 1517, a Roman Catholic friar named Johann Tetzel began to sell indulgences in Germany to raise funds to renovate St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Yes, the construction costs of that beautiful cathedral were paid for partially by the donations of Christians who had been told that they could, in effect, buy their way into heaven by purchasing indulgences from the Roman Catholic Church.
Acting on his disillusionment, Martin Luther wrote a paper entitled the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” also known as “The 95 Theses,” a list of questions and propositions for debate. Popular legend has it that on October 31, 1517 Luther defiantly nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. The reality was probably not so dramatic; Luther more likely hung the document on the door of the church matter-of-factly to announce the ensuing academic discussion around it that he was organizing.
The 95 Theses, which would later become the foundation of the Protestant Reformation, were written in a remarkably humble and academic tone, questioning rather than accusing. The overall thrust of the document was nonetheless quite provocative. The first two of the theses contained Luther’s central idea, that God intended believers to seek repentance and that faith alone, and not deeds, would lead to salvation. The other 93 theses, a number of them directly criticizing the practice of indulgences, supported these first two.
In addition to his criticisms of indulgences, Luther also reflected popular sentiment about the “St. Peter’s scandal” in the 95 Theses, asking, “why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?” Rome was not amused.
The 95 Theses were quickly distributed throughout Germany and then made their way to Rome. In 1518, Luther was summoned to Augsburg, a city in southern Germany, to defend his opinions before an imperial diet (assembly). A debate lasting three days between Luther and Cardinal Thomas Cajetan produced no agreement. Cajetan defended the church’s use of indulgences, but Luther refused to recant and returned to Wittenberg.
On November 9, 1518 the pope condemned Luther’s writings as conflicting with the teachings of the Church. One year later a series of commissions were convened to examine Luther’s teachings. The first papal commission found them to be heretical, but the second merely stated that Luther’s writings were “scandalous and offensive to pious ears.” Finally, in July 1520 Pope Leo X issued a papal bull (public decree) that concluded that Luther’s propositions were heretical and gave Luther 120 days to recant in Rome. Luther refused to recant, and on January 3, 1521 Pope Leo excommunicated Martin Luther from the Roman Catholic Church. It is important to note that Martin Luther never intended to leave the Roman Catholic Church but only to see it reformed from within.
On April 17, 1521 Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms in Germany. Refusing again to recant, Luther concluded his testimony with the defiant statement: “Here I stand. God help me. I can do no other.” On May 25, the Holy Roman emperor Charles V signed an edict against Luther, ordering his writings to be burned. Luther hid in the town of Eisenach for the next year, where he began work on one of his major life projects, the translation of the New Testament into German, which took him 10 years to complete.
Luther returned to Wittenberg in 1521, where the reform movement initiated by his writings had grown beyond his influence. It was no longer a purely theological cause; it had become political. His followers were derisively called “Protestant”, a word which means “for the truth” and through their lining up behind Martin Luther, a populist wave of anti-establishment discontent arose among those who felt themselves shut out and forgotten. If this story sounds familiar to our modern-day political reality, it should as the anti-establishment feelings of the populace of that day against the political rulers of the day (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church to whom every government in Western Europe paid taxes to) were very much like our own today here in North America and England and many other nations in Europe.
The result of the political powers in Saxony (Germany) supporting Martin Luther’s fight against having to send money to the Vatican in Rome set off a firestorm of political rupture, the like of which had never been seen before and has not been seen since. Nation after nation threw off their allegiance to Rome and soon Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Holland, England, and Scotland (among others) became officially “Protestant” in both the church and politically.
Martin Luther is one of the most influential figures in Western history. His writings were responsible for fractionalizing the Catholic Church and sparking the Protestant Reformation. His central teachings, that the Bible is the central source of religious authority and that salvation is reached through faith and not deeds, shaped the core of Protestantism. Although Luther was critical of the Catholic Church, he distanced himself from the radical successors who took up his mantle. Luther is remembered as a controversial figure, not only because his writings led to significant religious reform and division, but also because they returned to the church the teachings of Augustine of “only scripture” as our authority and “salvation by grace through faith alone” as the only means of salvation.
In our increasingly secular society, the legacy of Martin Luther on society is largely forgotten or dismissed but, truly, he was a revolutionary used by God to bring good.

Blog #49: Eight Basic Claims of the Christian Faith

By John Cline
John Stott passed on to glory in 2011. You may be asking, “Who was John Stott?”  He was a British Christian leader and author and an Anglican cleric. Time magazine ranked Stott among the 100 most influential people in the world. About him, evangelist Billy Graham wrote, “I can’t think of anyone who has been more effective in introducing so many people to a biblical world view.” In 1958, John Stott published his influential book, Basic Christianity. Ranked number 16 on the list of Christianity Today’s “50 Most Influential Books” list, this book played a major role in my life as a young Christian in the 1970’s. I thought it might be helpful to review its contents in this blog. According to the online website “Eerdword: the eerdmans blog” here are “Eight Basic Claims of the Christian Faith”, as put down in his book Basic Christianity by John Stott:
1. Christianity is Christ
In essence, Christianity is Christ. Who Christ is and what he has done are the rock upon which the Christian religion is built. If he was not who he said he was, and if he did not do what he said he had come to do, then the foundation is undermined and the whole thing will collapse. Take Christ from Christianity, and you remove the heart from it; there is practically nothing left. Christ is the center of Christianity; everything else is peripheral. We are not concerned primarily with the effect he has had on the world, important though that is. Our concern is basically with the man himself. Who was he?
2. Jesus is Sinless
On one or two occasions, Jesus stated directly that he was without sin. When a woman was discovered in the act of adultery and dragged before him, he issued an embarrassing challenge to her accusers, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Gradually they drifted away until there was no one left. A little later in the same chapter, it is recorded that Jesus issued another challenge, this time about himself: “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” (John 8:46). No one could answer. They slipped away when he accused them; but when the roles were reversed and he invited them to accuse him, he had no difficulty at all in staying where he was and bearing their scrutiny. They were all sinners; he was without sin. He lived a life of perfect obedience to his Father’s will. “I always do what pleases him,” he said (John 8:29). There was nothing boastful about those words. He spoke entirely naturally, with no fuss or pretension.
3. The Resurrection of Jesus
If Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, then he was beyond dispute a unique figure. It is not a question of his spiritual survival, nor of his physical resuscitation, but of his conquest of death and his resurrection to a new plane of existence altogether. We do not know of anyone else who has had this experience. Modern people are therefore as scornful as the philosophers in Athens who heard Paul preach on the Areopagus: “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered” (Acts 17:32). The argument is not that his resurrection establishes his deity, but that it fits with it. It is only to be expected that a supernatural person would come to and leave the earth in a supernatural way. This is in fact what the New Testament teaches and what, because of this, the church has always believed.
4. We’re Sinners
Paul opens his letter to the Romans with a closely reasoned argument, which extends over the first three chapters, that everyone, no matter who they are, is a sinner in God’s sight. He writes about the corrupt behavior of the pagan world and then adds that his own people, the people of Israel, are no better. They have been entrusted with God’s holy law—and even teach it to others. Yet they break it just as much as anyone else. Paul goes on to quote from the psalms and the prophet Isaiah to illustrate his theme, and concludes, “there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22–23). John, another New Testament writer, is, if anything, even more explicit when he declares that “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8), and “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar” (1 John 1:10). . . But what is sin? Yes, it affects everyone—but what exactly is it? Several words are used in the Bible to describe its nature. They can be put into two groups, according to whether wrongdoing is seen negatively or positively. Negatively, it is shortcoming. One word represents it as a lapse, a slip, a blunder. Another pictures it as the failure to hit a target. Yet another shows it to be an inner badness, having a character that falls short of what is good. Positively, sin is wrongdoing. One word describes sin as trespassing over a boundary. Another reveals it as failing to keep the law, and another as an act that contravenes justice.
5. Sin Separates Us from God . . . and Each Other
Even though we may not realize it now, the most terrible result of sin is that it cuts us off from God. Our highest destiny is to know God, to be in personal relationship with him. Our chief claim to nobility as human beings is that we were made in the image of God and are therefore capable of knowing him. But this God whom we are meant to know and whom we ought to know is a righteous Being, infinite in his moral perfection…It is more than the wrong things we do; it is a deep-seated inner sickness. In fact, the sins we commit are merely the external and visible indications of this internal and invisible illness, the symptoms of a moral disease.
6. Salvation through Christ
Through Jesus Christ the Savior we can be brought out of exile and put right with God; we can be born again, receive a new nature and be set free from our moral bondage; and we can have the old discords replaced by a harmony of love. Christ made the first aspect of salvation possible by his suffering and death, the second by the gift of his Spirit, and the third by the building of his church.
7. The Church is Christ’s Body
Sin tends to pull us out of harmony with other people. It alienates us not only from our Creator but also from our fellow creatures. We all know from experience how easily a community, whether a college, a hospital, a factory, or an office, can become a hotbed of jealousy and ill-feeling. We find it very difficult “to live together in unity” (Psalm 133:1) . . . But God’s plan is to restore our relationships with one another as well as with himself. So he does not save independent, unconnected individuals in isolation from one another; he is calling out a people to belong to him.
8. The Gospel Requires a Decision
The idea that a decision is needed in order to become a Christian strikes many people as very strange. Some imagine that they are already Christians because they were born in a Christian
country…Others think that if they have been brought up in a Christian home and taught to accept the Christian creed and Christian standards of behavior, nothing further is required of them. But whatever our background and upbringing, each of us as responsible adults must make up our own minds for or against Christ. We cannot remain neutral. Nor can we just drift into Christianity. Nor can anyone else settle the matter for us. We must decide for ourselves.

Blog #48: Some Thoughts on Hugh Hefner’s Passing

By John Cline
Hugh Hefner has died at the age of 91. I hope he found grace and repentance before leaving this world. There are evidences of some interest in Christian truths in Hefner’s life. He grew up in a devout Methodist family. And, an article by his Christian gardeners reported that they saw a copy of Pastor Rick Warren’s “A Purpose Driven Life” on Hefner’s nightstand beside his bed. As well, pastor and Author Lee Strobel also writes about how he presented the gospel to Hugh Hefner and that Hefner seemed interested in the historical proofs for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, there seems to have been at least some elementary understanding and/or interest in Christianity. Yet, his lifestyle and his public statements never once endorsed Christianity or expressed interest in the faith.
Having said that, I will state that I hope Hefner’s death will signify the end of the so-called “sexual revolution” or, at least, the beginning of the end. I say this because the sexual revolution has failed miserably on every front. May it never rise again. It promised freedom but produced bondage. It promised excitement but produced emptiness. It promised thrills and produced STDs.
Dr. Michael Brown puts it this way, “Although Alfred Kinsey’s perverted sex studies, first released in 1948, helped pave the way for the sexual revolution, the real seeds were planted with Playboy’s nude photoshoot of Marilyn Monroe in 1953. Then, those seeds grew with explosive force in the counterculture revolution of the 1960s. And the rest, as they say, is history—a very sad history, for sure. Today, 8-year-olds are being exposed to hardcore pornography. Children as young as 10 are learning the relative health risks of anal vs. oral vs. vaginal intercourse. Twelve-year-olds are sending inappropriate messages to each other, sometimes committing suicide when their naked pictures circulate through their school. Condoms have been made available to first-graders. Healthy young men cannot perform without Viagra because of their porn addictions. Married couples in their 20s no longer have sex because it has become so meaningless to them. Half of all babies born to first-time mothers are now conceived out of wedlock. Thanks for nothing, sexual revolution. You have brought nothing but destruction.” (Charisma News, September 28, 2017)
What a tragic, ugly legacy! Dr. Michael Brown continues on: “And what does this porn glut produce? Broken marriages. Sexual addictions. Perverse fleshly appetites. Deadly STDs. The degrading of women. Lots of bad and lots of evil. Absolutely nothing good. Consider these stats from a government website: ‘Adolescents ages 15-24 account for nearly half of the 20 million new cases of STD’s each year. Today, two in five sexually active teen girls have had an STD that can cause infertility and even death. Also, though rates of HIV are very low among adolescents, males make up more than 80 percent of HIV diagnoses among 13- to 19-year-olds.’ This is the reality of the sexual revolution.”
So, I am not an admirer of Hugh Hefner or what his sexual revolution has produced. They have destroyed too many people’s lives. There is a better way. A much better way. God’s way: sexual purity. This is not a popular message in our society but one I am praying people will turn to as it is the only one that will protect and preserve and bless both individuals and society.