Tag Archives: Christianity

The First Commandment is Still Relevant. Can I get an Amen?

. . . the most urgent contemporary mission field is to be found in their own traditional heartlands, and that the most aggressive paganism with which they have to engage is the ideology that now controls the “developed” world.

Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret,1995.

U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri made headlines by closing his prayer to open a session of congress with “Amen” and “Awoman.” Ironically, his silly attempt to be politically correct and inclusive would break the rule that many progressives in congress, including Nancy Pelosi, want to impose. They want to prohibit the use of any gender distinguishing terms like man and woman, husband and wife, and mother and father. Amen, however, has about as much reference to men as menopause (except for the ideologues that would insist men actually can experience menopause, periods, and pregnancy while also trying to ban gender distinguishing terms). Amen is simply a Hebrew word to express affirmation that one believes a claim to be true or to express the desire for the will of God to become a real and living reality in the lives of people and God’s good world. But make no mistake, the manipulation of and the battle to control language and speech like this is about controlling people and using the coercive power of government to punish those who would dare dissent. It might be silly, but it’s no joke.

Also of concern is that Representative Cleaver, who is also Reverend Cleaver, a graduate of a United Methodist seminary and an ordained United Methodist clergyman, evoked the Hindu god Brahma in his prayer as he implied that Brahma is just another name for the same monotheistic God revealed in the Bible. This seems to be a confused attempt on Cleaver’s part to fill the term monotheism with syncretistic pantheistic meaning. This isn’t surprising as he doesn’t seem to be too concerned about the actual meaning of words.

Brahma is not equivalent to Yahweh, the name of the God revealed in Jesus in the New Testament to be the one God: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. In a nutshell, in Hindu thought Brahma is one of many expressions of the all-encompassing and only true reality called Brahman. While some view Brahman as an impersonal force and consciousness, others see Brahman as a personal being that is ultimate reality and the only real consciousness that pervades everything. It’s not, however, that Brahman is merely in everything, Brahman is everything and everything is Brahman. Distinctions between Brahman and its perceived innumerable expressions are an illusion that results from ignorance that Brahman is all that really exists. The god Brahma is one of many expressions that brings the world of illusion (the world we live in) into existence. Brahma is the creative force. Vishnu is the god that sustains the world that is prone to cyclical decay until it can no longer overcome the forces of decay. At this point the god Shiva, the god of death and destruction, destroys the world. Then Brahma creates it anew to repeat the same cycle all over again infinitely.

The individual souls that make up the ultimate soul, Brahman, within and through these cycles go through a process of reincarnation after death in which they may become reembodied in the form of any type of creature. This cycle is viewed as a curse from which people should seek release and is due to ignorance that all is Brahman and Brahman is all. This release, called moksha, can be achieved via many different paths. Devotion to the any number of gods and goddesses, various forms of study and meditation, and fulfilling the duty of one’s social status (i.e. within the caste system), which traditionally excludes the possibility of moving into higher classes in this life, are the means by which people may work toward enlightenment and the release of moksha. This is to lose one’s distinctive identity and consciousness by achieving total unity with Brahman.

In this worldview there is no real distinction between the universe and Brahman. Hinduism is inherently diverse and therefore there are many different paths to achieve moksha. Through one’s efforts a person develops karma. Karma, good or bad, determines the fate of people in the cycle of reincarnation or their release from it. Ritualistic devotion to any number of the countless gods may attract their favor to help a person build up positive karma in hope of eventually achieving release from the reincarnational cycle of life. The overall cycle of creation and destruction via the work of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva seems to be endless. Human history as an illusion is not really headed anywhere in terms of a real permanent existence. This way of thinking about the nature of God, human nature, and the world is not the same as the Biblical Christian worldview. It’s a worldview that is contradictory and competing to the orthodox Christian worldview, which precludes syncretism.

Like paganism in general, Hinduism can be tolerant of almost any path except one, the path that claims there is only one true path. As Christians experienced with ancient Greco-Roman paganism, there are definite limits to Hindu tolerance, at least within Hinduism itself (not to say that all Hindus would seek to impose their worldview on Christians). Jesus can be accepted as a way but not the only way. Jesus as the only way is inherently related to the concept and the claim behind the First Commandment: the Creator of the universe is the only God to whom humans are to direct worshipful devotion. The Creator, who revealed himself as Yahweh and in the unique incarnation in Jesus as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is not a expression of ultimate reality; he is ultimate reality. He is a personal being, the source of all other forms of being, who created the universe out of nothing. There is no force apart from God to which God is subject or dependent. The universe exists not as an endless cycle that is only an illusion. The universe is the real and good creation of God that is dependent upon God for its existence, but God in no way is dependent upon it for His existence. God is timeless and eternal; the universe had a beginning.

Humans were created in God’s image with free will to reign under God’s authority to bring blessing to the rest of God’s good creation. Idolatry is the illusion that human happiness and blessing and harmony and peace in the world can be achieved apart from total devotion to the one and only true God. Hence, the First Commandment.

Salvation is by receiving God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ as the gift that it is in this one life that he has given us to live in this world not by working to build up good karma over the course of countless lifetimes. Christian salvation is not to escape the world, but to be redeemed for the sake of the world and to pray for God’s kingdom to come in all its glory on earth as it is in heaven. History has a final and eternal destiny with humanity and the rest of God’s good creation in perfect harmony with the will of God but not at the expense of our creaturely and conscious existence distinct from God.

While there are some marginal similarities between the worship of Brahma and the God of the Bible, they each represent very different worldviews that are contradictory and competing. Both might be false, but both can’t be true. From a Biblical point of view one might as well pray to Baal as to pray to Brahma. By the way, it’s not the Hindu forms of paganism that we really need to be concerned about. It’s the aggressive and intolerant version that’s engulfed many Christian denominations and secular western society that Lesslie Newbigin warned about that is of real concern. But God is faithful and will never leave or forsake the faithful.

If the Bible is true, the First Commandment is still relevant for Christians today. I believe that it is. Can I get an amen?

The Supernatural, the Occult, and Halloween

And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver.  ~ Acts 19:19 ESV

Acts here tells us about those who had converted to Christianity in Ephesus. Many of them had formerly practiced magic. In this case magic was not illusion performed through misdirection or slight of hand. It was the pagan art of using spells and incantations to bring luck and good fortune for oneself, one’s family, or city. Magic could also be used to bring misfortune to one’s rivals by employing hexes and curses. In addition to spells and incantations, the books mentioned in Acts 19:19 likely also included instruction on how to predict the future (i.e. divination) and how to contact the spirits of the dead or other spiritual entities that one might appease to solicit their aid. These would have been how-to books on occult practices. magic-book-background-vector-5430214

When pagans converted to Christianity they would give up these magical arts and occult practices. As a symbol of their break with the former way of life, Acts 19:19 tells us they brought their magic books together to burn them. There is no indication, however, that they were forced to do so; they voluntarily did so. This was no “book burning” via coercion from ecclesial or government authorities. It was a voluntary practice. Church leaders would have certainly encouraged new converts from among Gentiles to abandon occult practices, but there is nothing here to suggest they required book burning in this case.

The fact that converts would take such drastic measures to disassociate themselves from these books and the practices contained therein is really not all that unusual. Just a few months ago another pastor posted a question on Facebook asking for advice on what he should do with a series of books by a certain author that he once admired, but now considers to be a dangerous false teacher. He wondered if he shouldn’t just burn the books. I actually recommended he keep them for reference for exposing how and why they were misleading.

Nevertheless, I imagine that many of the converts in Ephesus recognized the spiritually deleterious nature of the practices that those magic books promoted, especially after they were born again. They probably also clearly recognized the great harm that they too had suffered spiritually, psychologically, and even physically themselves.

Under the Old Covenant, Israel was explicitly commanded not to engage in occult and superstitious practices. The latter would involve among other things the idea that certain physical objects could bring good fortune or power (i.e. a rabbit’s foot). The prohibitions definitely forbade attempts to communicate with the dead. The main problem was that it detracted from the faith and allegiance that they were to have in the Lord (YAWEH), and the Lord alone. These forbidden practices were certainly associated with the worship of pagan gods and idolatry. But they are not bad only because of their association with idolatrous worship; they were inherently bad in themselves. The reason is because there are real, malevolent spiritual entities that can use these practices to bring spiritual destruction and ruin to the people involved.

“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you.  You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this.  ~ Deuteronomy 18:9-14 

The attempt to contact spirits of the dead and to gain insight or empowerment thereby render people vulnerable to the manipulation of evil spirits.

I was talking to someone one night at a social gathering who said he was awakened by a voice one night telling him to go check on the baby. He thought it was his wife, but when he looked over she was obviously sound asleep, and later had no awareness of what he was talking about. He said, he did go to check on the baby who had a stuffed animal over his face. Something similar happened more than once. Initially he thought it was indeed a spiritual entity, the spirit of a deceased person just trying to help. But after building his trust, which  opened his mind to looking to it for further help, he said, the spirit eventually turned violent. Later he discovered that there had been a horrific murder in the home. They moved shortly after that! He was quite relieved when I explained that it probably was a demonic presence in the home and how to make sense of it all from a Biblical, Christian perspective. Spirits like that can only have access to people’s lives if they invite them in, naively or knowingly.

I know the above scenario sounds like something out of a horror movie, but the man who told me this story was quite serious. He was seeking my insight as a Christian pastor. The incident took place in a home in Raleigh, NC.

A few years ago, a woman came up to me after a worship service. In tears, she expressed grave concern for her son who was dabbling into sorcery. Several weeks afterwards, I actually met and began to spend some time with the young man . He opened up to me a lot and I shared the gospel of Jesus with him. One time he said he had a friend who had “a dark presence” that he just couldn’t quite get rid of. He asked if I knew anything about demons. He was actually asking for himself, not a friend. He wasn’t quite ready to give up the sorcery and practices that had such a spell on him. For a while it seemed that he only saw Jesus as another possible source of power among others. He was trying Jesus by addition rather than submission to Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). The “dark presence” remained. Eventually, he said he submitted to Jesus as his only savior and Lord and it left!

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. ~ James 4:7

I know materialists want to dismiss the supernatural altogether, but there is another dimension. There is a spiritual realm with good and evil entities. God is good, and it is to God and God alone that we are to look to for blessing and help.

Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. ~ Psalm 37:3-4

The key to genuine blessedness, the fullness of which we will only experience in the world to come under the reign of Christ, is to trust in God and by God’s grace to live according to his moral law. The key to blessing in the Bible is obedience to God’s commandments. It was through obedience that Jesus achieved blessedness for us, which we receive through faith in him and him alone. Pagan religion and its corresponding practices have sought to find short cuts to happiness apart from obedience to God. Morality was not a concern of pagan religions in the ancient world or even today; but it is essential to the Judeo-Christian worldview.

Christians should abandon and avoid anything associated with the occult and sorcery or witchcraft and warn others about the same. Things like Ouija boards and even superstitious practices like possessing certain objects or performing certain rituals to bring good luck should be avoided. And of course as Christians who are called to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44; Romans 12:14), we should certainly not be engaging in practices to curse or harm anyone.

Sorcery is listed among vices that if engaged in an unrepentant fashion will lead one to be excluded from the kingdom of God according to Paul in Galatians 5:19-21

 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (See also Revelation 21:8)

“Sorcery” is translated from the Greek word pharmakiea. That word is used because sorcery often involved enchantment with special potions or drugs. Sometimes the use of special potions is for one’s own personal benefit; sometimes they are used to control other people (i.e. think about how one might use alcohol to manipulate another person). This word used in Galatians recalls all of the warnings and prohibitions against occult practices in the Old Testament. (So much for the idea that the OT should not be the go to source for any behavior in the Church!!). These practices are spiritually dangerous and should be avoided by all Christians.

I once played with a Ouija Board with a friend of mine. She insisted it was for real and seemed to be nothing but serious about it, although she did have some concerns. She was a little spooked because the box it was in would sometimes shake by itself under her bed at night. It seemed quite real to me when we used it together. For me, this was at a time as a late teen just before I entered one of the darkest periods of my life. I was already headed in the wrong direction; I’m sure this encounter didn’t help. Thankfully, God intervened to deliver me!

Toward the end of his life, King Saul of ancient Israel lost faith in God, and ended up seeking guidance from a medium/witch. He wanted her to conjure up Samuel, the dead prophet, who had anointed him as king. Indeed, Samuel did respond, but only to pronounce doom on Saul and his sons. I know there are some who believe that this really could not have been the spirit of Samuel, only a demonic spirit imitating him. The text, however, repeatedly says it was Samuel. While in many cases it could very well be demonic impersonation when it comes to what are called “familiar spirits” (demons do impersonate the dead as a bait to build trust), in this case God allowed Samuel to come and prophesy one more time. But still this only spelled doom for Saul, who still should not have sought the counsel of even the spirit of the great and revered prophet, Samuel, rather than trusting in God! (Read the sad story in 1 Samuel 28)

Today there is an increase in occult activity and witchcraft. Witches apparently outnumber Presbyterians (PCUSA) in the United States now! There are also Christians who have fallen prey to temptations to syncretism, the amalgamation of various religious beliefs and practices. And pagan rituals and practices have crept into mainline Christian circles. There was a serious discussion on a United Methodist clergy Facebook page recently where someone wondered aloud if it was okay for a Unitarian Universalist to teach and over Christian Education in a church. Amazingly many UM clergy thought it would be perfectly fine. Others thought it would be okay but only if the person agreed to teach Methodist doctrine. Something tells me it’s not wise to hire someone who does not hold Christian beliefs to teach Christian beliefs in a church! Another person said they had knowingly hired a pagan spiritualist to teach children and youth because the person agreed to teach Methodist doctrine! This is nuts! The UM pastor said it didn’t work out though because the person didn’t keep her word! I wish I was making this up! Lord, have mercy.

Nonetheless, Halloween is a time when people are especially vulnerable to reveling in and glorifying the dark forces of death and evil. Much of popular media and entertainment certainly puts a positive spin on them, including some occult practices. All Hollows’ Eve, the evening beginning the celebration of All Saints’ Day, does stand as a reminder that we still live in a world plagued by sin and evil and death and decay. There are some scary things still active in this fallen world that we need to be wary of. Christians, however, should celebrate Halloween, but not in a worldly way, where it is severed from its Christian roots, especially its association with All Saints’ Day. We must not forget that we live in a world of sin and evil and death and decay, but we do so as citizens of heaven and heirs of the New Creation where sin and death no longer reign. Halloween is a reminder that death and darkness are still with us, but only as defeated foes not worth comparing to the glory of the New Creation wrought by the glorious victory of Jesus Christ in his resurrection. Christians should never revel in the forces of darkness and death. Neither should we be paralyzed in fear of evil and death as if they are an endless cycle that will never go away. We can dress up and have fun at the expense of the forces of darkness because through the triumph of Christ the saints in heaven and on earth have the final victory!

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. ~ Hebrews 2:14-15

Faith in the Beginning

“I just can’t believe that.” So said an older gentleman in a small group I was leading several years ago. We were discussing the first three chapters of Genesis. Fast forward a few years, and on the same day someone over 70 and someone under 17 expressed similar doubts about the story about the beginning in the book of Genesis.

The truth is if we have trouble believing in the Genesis accounts of the beginning, we’re very likely to have trouble with John’s account of the same, which includes the Word who was in the beginning with God and, indeed, was very God, through whom all things without exception, as John so emphatically states it, came into existence, who also became flesh, fully human, and died and rose again to save the world he had created from sin (John 1:1 …).   big-bang

Much of the time the problem is the assumption that the Genesis accounts must be interpreted in an absolutely literal or an absolutely symbolic way. There’s also sometimes the assumption that one has to choose between the Genesis accounts of origins and modern scientific accounts. The later is no doubt in part due to many in the scientific community who pit science against Christianity; but also, in reaction to those who choose to use science as a weapon against Christianity, some in the Christian community buy into this dubious dichotomy as well.

It’s also not a choice between either a simple literal interpretation and a symbolic figurative one. Sometimes people will insist that they only take the Bible literally, others will insist they don’t take it that way at all, they read it all metaphorically. In both cases, perhaps a bit ironically, neither party is likely to be speaking wooden literally about how they actually read Scripture; or they are confused or simply not telling the truth. This is another false choice. What is meant to be read literally should be; what is meant to be read figuratively should be as well, although discerning which is which can be tricky.

Sometimes when something is indeed taken figuratively, it seems some assume that means it doesn’t have to be taken seriously. Actually, the opposite may very well be the case. Figures of speech, of which the Bible is filled with many dozens of different kinds, often add even more emphasis to what is being stated. For example, when Jesus says “if your right eye causes you to sin, cut it out” (Mark 9:47), he’s not speaking literally, but he is speaking quite emphatically by way of a form of hyperbole about the seriousness and danger of sin and how his disciples should respond to temptation. Because something is figurative doesn’t mean that it doesn’t refer to something very, very real, whether it be something concrete like the human body or something more abstract like love and mercy.

So we shouldn’t assume the origin account must be read in a rigid literal way, but neither should we assume the figures of speech and symbolism mean there are no referents in reality, physically, metaphysically, or historically.

Neither should we assume that Genesis intends to tell how the universe was created in the same way a modern astrophysicist or biologist might. Story telling is an art, but the way a story is told will depend on who is telling it and for what purpose they are telling it. I might tell a story about how my wife went to the grocery store a bit differently from how an automotive engineer might tell the same story, depending on the purpose for telling it, especially if the engineer was telling it for a documentary on how cars and combustion engines work. Similarly, the late ESPN commentator, Stewart Scott, might tell the story of how the Duke-UNC basketball game turned out, differently than the coaches might tell it. You probably wouldn’t hear the later use the word, “booyah”, “dadgum” maybe, from Roy Williams at least, but not booyah. Scott would focus more on top plays and use more colorful expressions to describe them; coach K and coach Roy, might refer to more subtle statistics in much less dramatic fashion, at least on TV, but no one would doubt they were all talking about the same game, which actually happened.

Just because Genesis tells the story of the origins of the universe and life on earth differently from the way an astrophysicist or biologist might in a scientific documentary doesn’t mean they are telling contradictory stories; indeed they may be much more complimentary than some would like to admit. The intent and the focus may be different, but that doesn’t  make them contradictory or competing. In general terms, the Genesis account of origins focuses on the who and why of creation, and modern scientific accounts on the what and how, even though this is not to say there is no overlap between them.

What is interesting, in spite of the belief among many today that science and religion are in a fight to the death, at least in terms of the creation-evolution debates, before the 1920’s and the Scopes trial, prominent Christian scientists and evangelical Biblical scholars and theologians were not as alarmed by theories of evolution as some may suppose. Harvard professor Asa Gray, the most prominent Botanist of the nineteenth century, saw in Darwin’s “Origin of Species”, which he helped to get published in the United States, evidence of God’s grand design and purposes, even though he had qualms about the suggestion of randomness in natural selection and rejected transmutation of species. Darwin insisted to his helpful  colleague that his theory in no way demanded atheism and believed himself that one could be a theist and an evolutionist.

Neither did some very early prominent fundamentalists have a problem accepting Darwin’s theory of evolution. Alister McGrath, theologian and former Marxist atheist, who holds three doctorates from Oxford, one in molecular biophysics, reveals that even a classical fundamentalists like Benjamin B. Warfield believed “the Darwinian doctrine of natural selection could easily be accommodated by evangelicals as a natural law operating under the aegis of the general providence of God.” The twentieth century evangelical theologian, J.I. Packer also followed Warfield in this regard, insisting that he saw nothing in the first chapters of Genesis or anywhere else in the Bible that would bear one way or the other on the theory of evolution (McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, p. 382). Some of my conservative evangelical friends have been surprised to find out that conservatives like pastor and theologian, Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York (read Keller’s take HERE), have similar beliefs, as does renowned biblical scholar N.T. Wright, and as did C.S. Lewis.

Obviously not every conservative theologian would agree; and there are other very serious scholars and intelligent design proponents including the Christian, Stephen Myer, and the agnostic, Michael Denton, who have major qualms about Darwinism for scientific reasons.

Even atheists like Richard Dawkins and Fred Hoyle have admitted that the universe at least gives the very strong appearance and impression of design and purpose, yet insist that it only appears that way. But it can’t be science itself that leads them to that conclusion, despite the fact that so many scientists seem to believe that it does. That is their belief, not an established scientific fact, even though that belief is often misleadingly presented in terms of scientific fact. They have a commitment to, even a faith in, philosophical naturalism. But it is not irrational for one to conclude from the appearance of design and purpose that there is in fact real design and purpose and therefore an intelligent designer, who may or may not have used the process of natural selection leading to macroevolution to create biological life forms on the earth.

Francis Collins, who headed up the project to map the human genome, and also a Christian, believes in a personal God who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead and created life on earth through evolutionary biological processes. If the universe appears to be fine tuned with scores of physical constants being exactly what they should be to support life, and not just any life, but specifically human life, then why not believe that there is really a design and purpose, and therefore real meaning to life?

In public appearances militant atheist, evolutionary biologist, and author of “The God Delusion”, the aforementioned Richard Dawkins, insists that the universe has“no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference” (as quoted by McGrath). Again this is not a scientific conclusion, but a philosophical belief, which is beyond the realm of scientific investigation. Alister McGrath says, “I suspect that the real problem for Dawkins is that he is worried that the universe might turn out to have a purpose of which he does not approve” (Surprised by Meaning, p. 4 Kindle).

Interestingly enough, in a debate with professor John Lennox, Dawkins conceded something that indicates McGrath’s hunch may indeed be well founded. In that debate Dawkins said to Lennox:

“You could possibly persuade me that there was some kind of physical, mathematical genius who created the expanding universe, devised quantum theory, relativity and so on. But that is radically and fundamentally incompatible with the sort of God who cares about sin, the sort of God who cares about what one does with one’s genitals, the sort of God who is interested in one’s private thoughts and wickedness. Surely, you can see that a God who is grand enough to make the universe is not going to give a tuppenny cuss about one’s thoughts and sin.” – Watch debate HERE. transcript HERE

The context of Psalm 14:1, which says, “The fool says in his heart there is no God” indicates a connection between the denial of moral accountability before God and immorality and sin itself. It’s easier for sinners to believe in no God at all or an impersonal God to whom they won’t actually have to give an account, than a personal God who cares about how we live, even what “one does with one’s genitals.”

Interestingly again, a pastor colleague of mine told about a conversation with someone who objected to a message he had given on the importance of traditional Christian sexual ethics, which precludes sexual activity outside of the marriage covenant of one man and one woman, the gentleman’s objections to what the New Testament says about sex in Romans and Corinthians ended up with objections to what the Bible says about the beginning in the first few chapters of Genesis. Ironically, though, New Testament sexual ethics is grounded in what is stated there in the first few chapter of Genesis, such as what Paul says in Romans 1 about homosexuality and what Jesus says about marriage and divorce in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, where he specifically references Genesis 1:26 and 2:24 to explain God’s original design and intent for marriage.

My own conversations with people in the church who doubt New Testament claims like the virgin birth and the resurrection when pressed usually reveal serious doubts about what is said in Genesis about creation. In one conversation when someone voiced disbelief in the virgin birth and resurrection, I simply asked if he believed that God created the heavens and the earth. Initially he said he did. Then I asked what would be more difficult for God, to bring about a virgin conception in the womb of one woman and give new life to one man who had been dead or to create all that is out of nothing. To believe the the later, but not the former would be like believing someone built the Taj Mahal, but the same person couldn’t have built a bird house. The truth is he was having a hard time believing in a God who created everything seen and unseen out of nothing in the beginning and who would one day judge the world. Thankfully, I believe this very intelligent gentleman eventually came to believe the gospel.

So faith in Jesus may very well be inextricably connected with faith in the beginning as recorded in Genesis. Faith in the beginning may be the beginning of faith. It is Genesis that reveals the single all powerful and sovereign God who simply spoke everything into existence without the cosmic battle between capricious gods and unruly matter that one finds in pagan myths such as the ancient Babylonian one, which was contemporary with Genesis. And this God in Genesis created humans not as an accident or an afterthought to be slaves of the gods in the heavens and their tyrannical counterparts on earth. Instead with deliberation this one God created human beings with tremendous dignity in his own image to have dominion and to rule and reign over the earth under his own authority as vice regents and stewards to spread God’s glory over the face of the earth. But something went terribly wrong, sin entered the world through human rebellion, a problem for which the whole creation still groans in disequilibrium for its ultimate solution (see Romans 8:18-30).

As Alister McGrath says, “Christianity does not simply make sense to us; it also makes sense of us.” (Surprised by Meaning, p. 114). It makes sense of where we came from, why we are here, what is wrong, what it takes to make us right, and how all things will eventually work together for the good of all those who believe in and love the God who made us and redeemed us. Indeed, faith in the end begins with faith in the beginning.



The Relevance of Truth

The past few weeks have been quite busy.  This week I will have been out of town for a total of four days.  Last week I preached a three night revival in Mocksville, NC.  I thought the revival was a fruitful, Spirit-filled time with the wonderful folks at Liberty United Methodist Church.  One person described it as a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience.  Wow!  That certainly couldn’t be because there were so many people to show up because there weren’t.  But God did show up in a powerful way; certainly not because I’m so good, but because He is.

When I do a three day revival the first night I share a little about my personal testimony.  The second night, in the spirit of 2 Corinthians 13:5, I invite people into a time of self-examination as we look into the moral law, which is restated in the New Testament in the clear light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The third night, among other things, I talk about a couple of questions as they relate to the Christian faith.  One is the question: Is it relevant to my life?

That’s an important, but potentially very misleading and dangerous question.  I’m not talking about the importance of making the gospel as understandable as possible, which is an essential and difficult task for any teacher and preacher.  What I am talking about is the question in the heart of someone who wonders how the Christian faith may be relevant to his or her life in a helpful sort of a way.  In other words, can it help me have a better life?  The question of whether it’s relevant or not easily lends itself to the idea that Christianity may be relevant in a helpful sort of a way for some, but not necessrabbit's footarily for others.  In other words, it may be helpful in the proverbial crutch sort of a way, but only for those who need it to feel better about themselves and their lives.  Others may see Christianity as helpful in the way some may see a rabbit’s foot as helpful.  The relevance mentality also seems to lend itself to a cafeteria style Christianity where we pick only the parts that seem to be helpful or tasty to us, but without the whole thing we really don’t have the real thing.  With all it’s potential pitfalls, however, the relevance question is still an important question, but there is an even better question before we go there which puts it in a better perspective.

In the Alpha Course, Rev. Nikki Gumble, gets to the heart of the matter; the better question is whether it is true or not?  C.S. Lewis put it this way: “Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance.”  And the truth of Christianity rises or falls with whether Jesus of Nazareth was in fact raised from the dead.  The apostle Paul states quite emphatically in 1 Corinthians 15:12-34 that if Christ was not really raised from the dead then their preaching and faith were both in vain and they might as well call the whole thing off, but, he insists, “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead … (v. 20) and because of that fact Christian faith is full of meaning, purpose, and hope, a real living hope.  So the most important question is: is it true?

More than likely if I told you the capital of Togo is Lome it probably wouldn’t mean to much to you.  “So what?” you might wonder.  But if I also told you that it’s a great place to vacation, a place with wonderful beaches and resorts, it might pique your interest a little more, but maybe not.  But what if I told you that at some time in the near future Togo would be the only safe place left on earth?  Now you may be much more eager to find out where exactly Togo is and how you can get there; but only IF you believe me.

Jesus came preaching, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”  Jesus and the early apostles did not advertise what might be a nice vacation spot to some; they called people everywhere to repent, a term meaning to turn away from sin and return back to God.  The gospel, which means good news, also implies a strong warning.  The book of Daniel paints the picture of the kingdoms of the world built on “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:15-16) coming under the condemnation of the righteous wrath of God with only the kingdom of God left standing forever and ever (Daniel 2 & 7).  As Revelation 11:15 puts it, “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (NRSV).

In Jesus Christ the kingdom has come and one day will come in all its fullness.  As 1 John puts it “the world is passing away along with it’s desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (ESV).  According to the Bible, according to Jesus himself, there is a day coming when there will be only one safe place left, the kingdom of God and there those who find themselves in Christ will abide forever.

Is this helpful and relevant?  Well if it is true of course it is!  The question then is do we believe it is true?  Do we believe the good news that Jesus proclaimed?  And if we believe that it is true how could it only be kind-of-sort-of important to us?  How could it not be at the top of our priority list? If someone really doesn’t believe that it’s true then it may be to him or her a good back-up plan just in case, but the God of the Bible has never taken too kindly to being treated as a backup plan for he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and last.  In reality He is plan A through Z and everything in between “for from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Romans 11:36).  Do you believe it is true?  Now that’s the better question.

Lee Stroble was an ardent atheist, a Yale law school graduate, a journalist and legal editor for the Chicago Tribune, who was appalled when his wife became a Christian.  He thought she had lost her mind; she had, but she found the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11).  Her husband thought she needed help.  He set out on a journey to accumulate evidence to prove to his wife just how silly Christianity really is.  He was an expert in research, but through his efforts to disprove Christianity to his wife he actually became a Christian himself.  Why?  Because he came to believe that it is true, that Jesus Christ is who He claimed to be and that He really was raised from the dead. (Learn more about Lee and checkout his resources here).

Do you believe that Christianity might be helpful or do you believe it is true?

“Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” Romans 10:9-10 ESV

About Me Part 2: A Wall at the Crossroads: Which Way?

Sitting on a five gallon bucket in the midst of the old rusty appliances scattered in front of the huge two bay garage that adjoined my parent’s country store, I had declared to my longtime friend, whom I had known since we played Pee Wee football together for the King Dolphins, that something told me that Christianity was true; and I was going to find out.  This knock on the door of my two bedroom apartment, which I shared with a friend whom I had meet in the seventh grade, could it be the answer I was looking for come looking for me?  Well, we’d have to answer the door to find out.

(Read Part 1 Here)

My father, Marcus Wall, (front) with friend.
My father, Marcus Wall, (front) with friend.

Actually, the first knock we heard was on the door not of my own apartment but the one beside mine.  One of my drinking buddies from the night before -really one of my best friends ever – decided to be funny.  As a well dressed middle-aged man and woman, whom he could see as he peered through my door scope, knocked on my neighbors door my friend knocked on mine from the inside as he snickered and chuckled along with me and our other friend.  I think we had all watched too much “Beavis and Butt-head” on MTV!

Soon though the snickering turned to alarm as the knocking moved directly to my door.  My friend scurried off to my bedroom like a feral cat from a back porch.  A bit embarrassed, I opened the door.

After apologizing for my buddies foolishness – I wasn’t going to take the blame – I asked, “what can I do for you?”

They explained that they were in the area with several others telling people about a wonderful class that the ministry they were affiliated with offered.  It was a class that would explain the Bible and answer life’s most important questions.  Before I could really say too much they began to ask me a few questions themselves.  One was if I knew how to be saved.  I rambled on a bit about growing up in church and trying to be a good person.  Unsatisfied by my response, the man pulled out a King James Bible and turned to Romans 10:9-10, which he insisted was all their was to it – to being saved that is.  He asked me if I believed what those two verses said.  Hesitantly I said I think I believe that.  They emphasized how easy is really is to be saved, and how so many people who go to church just don’t realize what “the Word” (the Bible) really says.

They also began to share some of the other benefits of this class they were promoting such as learning the keys to prosperity, overcoming fear, and how to pray effectually, among other things.  The conversation wasn’t all that long, and they mentioned that they really didn’t live in the area, but they said the local branch of their ministry would be offering a further explanation of the class in the near future.  They asked for my name and number so someone could followup with me about that.  Reluctantly, yet deep down, longingly, I gave them my information.

It wasn’t long before I did receive a phone call inviting me to a public explanation of the class they were talking about.  It was held in a room in the basement of the student center  at ECU.  Reluctantly, but expectantly I went.

As I entered the room, still early in the spring semester, I was greeted enthusiastically and very warmly.  Everyone seemed to be incredibly nice and cheerful.  There was a TV set up playing a band singing a brand of Christian music that I had never quite heard before; it was the band and singers from this ministry’s headquarters in Ohio.  After a brief period of introductions with a few people in the crowd of about 20, someone stood up in front to explain more about this class that so many in the room were obviously absolutely enthralled with.  Then a woman got up to share her testimony for how this class had changed her life so much for the better.  The leader then explained that there would be an opportunity to sign up for the next class that evening.

Afterwards I was approached by a laid back, very friendly gentleman in his late forties.  He explained how he had taken the class when he was a student at ECU in the 70’s and how it had changed his life as well.  I was a bit intrigued by the way he cussed a little as we talked.  I can’t say that I had ever really heard that in Christians circles before.  His demeanor was quite disarming and relaxing to someone like me prone to extreme social anxiety, especially around authority figures.  He pressed me to sign up for the class, which involved a $50.00 registration fee.  “The bottom line is that this just works”, he said.  “It really brings positive results”, he insisted.

The thought of being better able to understand the Bible led me to believe that this class just might be the answer that I was looking for; learning the keys to prosperity and success and overcoming fear sounded wonderful to the ears of that poor anxiety-ridden skinny kid who hoped he’d never have to prime another row of tobacco or load up another truck with watermelons or corn to peddle in parking lots and city streets in downtown Winston-Salem – or live in a junk yard, I suppose.

Me in the store with Daddy's blue ribbon watermelon.
Me in the store with Daddy’s blue ribbon watermelon.

Yet I was reluctant to sign the card and pay the fee.  Would my anxiety outweigh my longing to find the answers that I had declared I would find?

I hemmed and I hawed about how I was just so busy, which I was – a full course load, Air Force ROTC, and an officer in a fraternity – I didn’t know if I could squeeze in the dozen or so sessions that would be required.  The $50.00 caused me pause too, but not too much when I thought about how many hundreds of dollars of student loan money I had spent on booze – one time about $100.00 drinking beer and taking shots in the bars in downtown Greenville, a night I would never forget if I hadn’t blacked out.

By this time the leader for the ministry in Greenville had joined in the conversation.  As I proffered excuses he challenged me to believe that God would make a way for me to take this class, a principle I would learn much more about when I actually took the class.  I signed the card; I paid the fee; I took the class called “Power for Abundant Living” (PFAL) offered by a nondenominational ministry called “The Way International” (TWI).

The class was taught by the founder of TWI, Dr. Victor Paul Wierwille, who was by that time deceased.  He had his teachings recorded on video tape even while he was still alive so they could be disbursed as far and wide and as fast as possible.  From the start I was captivated by his charisma, impressed by his boldness, and delighted with what seemed to be his clear, logical teaching straight out of the Bible.  He referenced Scripture profusely such that it seemed he backed up virtually everything he taught with the Bible.  He insisted that it was not his own views or the views of any other preacher or theologian that mattered, and that what he was teaching was “the Word and nothing but the Word.”  I was hooked.

Everything just seemed to make so much sense.  I felt a deep sense of trust in the “accuracy of the Word,” the Bible.  At one point during one of the class I found myself rubbing my open Bible in awe and adoration.  I was infused with a tremendous confidence that I had never experienced before.  During that class I became a wild-eyed fanatic for the Word, at least the Word according to “The Way” (TWI).

Wierwille said something though at a later point in the class that jolted me just a bit.  It wasn’t the main point of what he was talking about, but something he just mentioned in passing as he quoted, Acts 2:22, which says in part, in the King James, which is what he was teaching from, “Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God …”  Here Wierwille briefly paused and adamantly insisted that the Bible just teaches that Jesus was a man and it was wrong and just plain silly for other preachers and theologians to teach that he was God since the Bible here just plainly states that he was only “a man approved by God.”  He then quickly moved off of this tangent and back to his main topic.  Although I was slightly taken aback, I quickly gave him the benefit of the doubt because of how it had really seemed that he had substantiated everything else he had taught.

This class really did change my life, in many ways for the better.  My addiction to alcohol was broken and my desire to grow in the things of God and the word of God exploded.  I was so excited that I wanted to share what I had learned and was learning with anyone and everyone who would listen.  The PFAL class ended just before the spring semester did; shortly I would take my new found excitement and confidence back home with me, along with a big bag of dirty laundry for my mother to wash.

At first I didn’t take my completion of the PFAL class to mean that I was to become a full-fledged participant in TWI exclusively.  I very enthusiastically began to go back to my home church, Chestnut Grove United Methodist, with an eagerness that I hadn’t had since I was a very young little boy.  The sermons of our Methodist preacher seemed to pale in comparison to the teachings of Dr. Wierwille, but I did not take that to mean that I at that time needed to stop going to church and just attend TWI meetings.  As a matter of fact, early on in my summer break that year, I even had a vision while I was mowing my parent’s yard that I would go to Duke Divinity school and become a Methodist preacher after graduation from ECU.  As of yet I didn’t see the stark difference between the mainstream churches and TWI.  Pretty soon that would change.

It wasn’t long before a TWI fellowship coordinator (TWI groups meet in homes) in Winston-Salem and the one in King came to pay me a visit.  They began to fill me in on those stark differences and insisted that mainstream churches, while they had many good people, even some saved people in them, taught the “false doctrine” of the Trinity as well as encouraged spiritualism by teaching that there is conscious existence after death.  They insisted that I needed to stay away from mainstream churches and call others out as well to join with TWI.  Suddenly that passing comment Dr. Wierwille made had to come off the back burner of my mind; a wrestling match for my soul ensued.

I wanted to be right with God; I wanted to know the truth.  I listened carefully to the folks from TWI; I read Wierwille’s book “Jesus Christ is Not God”.  Wierwille’s logic, which his loyal followers had made their own, and the apparent confirmation from Scripture were compelling to my theologically ill-informed, naive 19 year old mind.  Nevertheless, I intuitively knew that I was on the precipice of making an enormous, life-altering decision.  I was getting ready to take a major plunge, either way; and I wrestled with which way I should go.  My mother was also extremely concerned, to say the least.  Even though I was more and more convinced by the arguments of TWI, I wasn’t quite ready to make that turn, to take that plunge.

I asked for a meeting with the pastor of my home church.  Little did I just how much hung in the balance and on this one conversation with my rural United Methodist pastor.

That and more later …  Stay tuned.

About Me: From the Cradle …

I was born in Winston-Salem, NC, raised in Stokes County in a little rural community called Pinnacle pert near the foot of the Sauratown Mountains.  My parents, of whom I am their only child, owned and operated a small country store on a long country road through the tobacco fields between the towns of King and Pilot Mountain.

sauratown mountain

By the time I was in kindergarten my parent’s business began to wane.  From around 1959 to 1979, my father ran a grocery/convenience store on wheels, a 50’s something model full-sized Chevrolet school bus stripped of its seats and furnished with fully stocked shelves and a cash register where the right front passenger bench used to be.  It was a light blue bus with a white top and “Wall’s Rolling Grocery” painted in red down both sides. With the addition of larger chain stores expanding into nearby towns, resulting in shrinking profit margins for my parents, the rolling grocery bus came to a final stop, but not before leaving many fond memories for countless customers, neighbors, family, and friends.

To make ends meet my dad started learning how to repair household appliances.  It wasn’t long before our store, which had our two bedroom apartment where we lived attached to the back, was surrounded by used appliances and parts, not to mention the remains of the three old buses that Dad had acquired over the years.  He made use of them by filling them with parts that he might need for his appliance repair and used appliance sales business, and whatever else he thought he might need some day.  So I grew up in an old country store in a used appliance wonderland that some might call a junk yard.

I was a painfully shy, anxiety-ridden, somewhat socially awkward kid who mumbled more than talked.  At the same time I also had a red-hot temper, honestly acquired from my father, with a generous dose of athleticism to go with my short, slender, but wiry frame.  When I wasn’t cutting wood or working in tobacco I played basketball, baseball, and football all at some point during my childhood.  I was decent at the later two, but definitely better at and more interested in hoops.  If not for my severe performance inhibiting anxiety and a streak of juvenile delinquency, I might have been able to play some college ball; nonetheless, it’s still a game that brings me much joy to this day.  I still have some skills even if not the stamina and the legs.

As an infant I was baptized in the local United Methodist church, just a mile up the road, Chestnut Grove UMC, by the pastor after whom I was named, Rev. Clifford Weller.  A couple of his grandchildren attended my elementary school, one in my class.  Early on I loved church and really sought the Lord.  Once, inspired by a “Little House on the Prairie” episode, I climbed to the top of a big hill near my house to get closer to God.  Inspired by the preaching of our evangelical Methodist preacher and Rev. Billy Graham, who I sometimes watched with my grandma Wall, who lived in the old white farm house next door, I publicly committed my life to Christ along with other confirmation students in my church when I was nine years old.

I remember struggling to really live out my faith after that, but by the time I was a teenager the struggle was gone.  Not because I had reached some kind of sinless Christian perfection, but because I had given into sin, and was really just going through the motions at church, which we attended faithfully together as a family before I went to college.

Before I finished Jr. High I had a trespassing charge on my record that could have easily been breaking and entering.  For that I got community service at the King public library.  Before I graduated from South Stokes High School I had a drinking problem that one time almost got me arrested, but instead just landed me an underage drinking charge which is on my record to this day, not to mention several other indiscretions of other varieties for which I did not get caught.  By the time I was in college the drinking got worse and the risky behavior escalated.  Only by the grace and mercy of God, did I not get killed or kill someone else, especially when I would drive when I was even too drunk to walk.  I’m also fortunate that I didn’t die of alcohol poisoning, which a few did die of during my time at East Carolina University.

During my freshman year there I did begin to experiment with drugs, and once even took a hit of acid.  That scared me enough to back away and stay away from the marijuana and other hard drugs , but my strong desire for strong drink remained, along with a small but ever increasing desire to really know God.

During this time while I was trying to find fulfillment in all the wrong things, I also was on a search of sorts for righteousness and the One from whom all blessings flow.  During deep discussions – as deep as you can get in smoke filled rooms with pyramids of empty beer cans and water bongs – when the topic of ultimate things and the purpose of life came up I found myself ineptly trying to defend the  Christian faith of my upbringing amidst harsh ridicule.

In one exchange with someone who was adamantly insisting that Christianity was just too stupid and silly for consideration, something welled up in me and I insisted that for some strange reason I believe it is true.  My friend was taken aback by the smile on my face and the gleam in my eyes as I strangely  (because I really wasn’t living for Him) spoke up for Christ.

During my time in college I did occasionally attend church, often with a hangover.  I went to several different churches, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, and more.  I also attended a couple of Campus Crusade meetings.  Nothing seemed to stick, but the desire to know Truth remained and grew.

Over winter break in the midst of my sophomore year that found me drinking less and studying more – to greatly improved academic performance I might add – I was sitting on a five gallon bucket in the midst of the old appliances in front of my dad’s garage drinking beer with a long time friend who was expressing some serious skepticism regarding the Christian faith of his own upbringing.  Again something welled up within me, and I insisted that I really believed Christianity was true but I really didn’t know why.  Then and there I declared that I was going to found out.

A couple of months later, after a long night of lots of longnecks with some friends from back home, I got a knock on the door of the apartment where I lived in Greenville off of 10th street, just a few miles from the ECU campus.  It was a knock that would change the course of my life in incredible, painful, wonderful, and even miraculous ways.

More on that with the next post.  Stay tuned …