Sunday, May 31, 2009

Beach Theology

Photo by Micah A. Ponce.

Today, on vacation at Nags Head, God showed me a truth.

I was at the beach with all four kids. The older three had gone out into the ocean and were playing in the surf. The youngest, at 7 years old, is still a bit afraid and unsure of going into the deep water. At this beach, the sand and shells are pretty rough, and sometimes even sharp, right where the breakers hit. But if you go out past the breakers, the sand turns smooth and comfortable.

I told my son that while he was enjoying the beach, he would enjoy it a lot more if he would follow me further out into the water. But, being afraid of the deeper water, he shook his head, pulled away from me, and refused. "I've got you," I told him. "Just take my hand and you'll be alright. It's even better out there, even though the water is deeper. And I'll be with you the whole time."

Then God said to me, "Do you hear yourself? That's what I've been trying to tell you for a long time. Just take my hand and trust me."

In Ezekiel 47:1-5, the prophet writes:

1 In my vision, the man brought me back to the entrance of the Temple. There I saw a stream flowing east from beneath the door of the Temple and passing to the right of the altar on its south side. 2 The man brought me outside the wall through the north gateway and led me around to the eastern entrance. There I could see the water flowing out through the south side of the east gateway.

3 Measuring as he went, he took me along the stream for 1,750 feet[a] and then led me across. The water was up to my ankles. 4 He measured off another 1,750 feet and led me across again. This time the water was up to my knees. After another 1,750 feet, it was up to my waist. 5 Then he measured another 1,750 feet, and the river was too deep to walk across. It was deep enough to swim in, but too deep to walk through.
God desires to lead us into greater things, deeper spirituality, and increased blessing in our lives. Ezekiel found that the deeper he went with God, the more he experienced God’s best. My son showed me the same thing today. He never did trust me enough to go into the deeper water today. It's all right. We've got plenty of time to work on that. I wonder—how much time do I have for God to work with me?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Many Convincing Proofs

“During the forty days after his crucifixion, he appeared to the apostles from time to time, and he proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive. And he talked to them about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3 NLT).”

Churches around the world just celebrated the Feast of the Ascension, when Jesus ascended into Heaven forty days after the resurrection. Acts 1:3 says that Jesus gave many convincing proofs that he was actually alive. But some skeptics doubt that the resurrection could possibly be true. What are some of the proofs for the outrageous claim that Christians make, that Jesus rose from the dead?

One proof is the Bible itself. Skeptics would say, “You can’t use that. It’s circular reasoning to say, ‘The Bible is true because it says it is.’” But remember that the Bible isn’t just one book. It’s a library of 66 different books. The New Testament is 27 books whose authors all point to the same thing. We have 24,000 copies of these ancient manuscripts—the greatest collection of manuscripts of any other ancient book in world. These are reliable accounts that were written by eyewitnesses within a short time of Jesus’ resurrection. Their testimony would stand up in a court of law.

Another proof is secular historians. No Jewish or Roman historians deny the empty tomb. If you wanted to squash infant Christianity, all you’d have to do is deny the empty tomb. Yet none of them did. They took it as fact.

The Roman seal affixed to Jesus’ tomb was broken, and the guards fled the scene. This bears witness to the reality of the resurrection, for it was death to break a Roman seal without authority, and it was death for a Roman soldier to abandon his post. Who would risk such a thing to perform a hoax?

1 Corinthians 15:5-6 (NLT) says, “He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.” What if 500 people today saw something newsworthy, and all attested to it? Could anybody deny it? Absolutely not!

It wasn’t only Jesus’ followers who witnessed the resurrection. James and Jude, the brothers of Jesus, were both skeptics until they witnessed the resurrection. Saul of Tarsus was a persecutor of the church until he saw Jesus. The experience changed their lives, and they became Christians—even leaders in the church.

To me, the most convincing proof of the resurrection is that the disciples were willing to die horrifying, gruesome, torturous deaths for the sake of the truth. Of course, many people die for their beliefs. But I ask you, would you or anybody willingly die for a lie? Nobody would! They were eyewitnesses, and would never die just to perform a hoax. They died because they themselves knew it to be true, for they had seen it with their own eyes.

Have you had your doubts about the resurrection? Employ a little logic—the favorite tool of skeptics—and logic will prove the impossible to be true.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Is It a Sin to Get Pierced or Tattooed?

The question has come to me a lot lately, whether it’s a sin to get tattooed or pierced. Certainly there are a lot of opinions in our culture about people who are tattooed or who have body piercings. In the history of our American culture, men who were tattooed or pierced were probably sailors at best, and pirates at worst. Sailors and pirates often pierced their ears so if they died at sea there would be enough gold in their ear to pay for their burial. Tattoos have existed in many cultures for thousands of years, but came to America from sailors who traveled to the South Pacific. Today, nobody considers the morality behind a woman getting her ears pierced. But if a man gets his ear pierced, there are many who think this is a sign of a troublemaker or homosexual. Some say it is OK to pierce your ears, but no other part of your body. Some say that tattoos are signs of low social class, while others boast the beauty of the artwork on their bodies. With all these questions, we need to ask ourselves, “What does the Bible have to say about it?” As Christians, are we supposed to take our cue from social convention, or from the Scriptures?

My Celtic cross tattoo,
by Amber Dinn at Memento Mori in Abbotsford, BC
First, let’s talk about body piercing. In Genesis 24, we read the story of Abraham’s servant seeking a bride for Isaac. When he tells Rebecca’s father about how he met the young woman, he says, that the Lord brought them together. “So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and worshiped the LORD (Verses 47-48).” A ring in the nose! Now that’s different than the American norm! In Ezekiel 16, God speaks to Israel as if the country were his bride. He says, “I adorned you with ornaments: I put bracelets on your arms, a chain on your neck, a ring on your nose, earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown upon your head (Verses 11-12).” Yes, this is very different than what Americans are used to. But if God uses such language, how can we condemn it? In fact, God commands body piercing in Exodus 21:5-6. If a slave loved his master so much that he wanted to become part of the family, the Scripture says, His master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.” So it appears here that nobody who condemns ear or body piercing can use Scripture to back it up. That is a matter of personal taste and style.

Some who are opposed to body piercing quote Leviticus 19:28. Here, I will quote the first part. Later I will quote the second part. It says, “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead.” During the time the Israelites were entering the land of Canaan, the pagans who lived there had a practice of cutting themselves in mourning. They would also cut themselves as part of their fervent idol worship (See 1 Kings 18:28). Today, there are people who have psychological issues regarding self-abuse. These “cutters” often say they cut themselves to make life seem more real, or to punish themselves for their perceived low self-worth. These practices have nothing to do with body decoration. People who engage in such activities are in need of psychological help. As the verse quoted above involves such practices, and not body decoration, it cannot be used to condemn body piercing.

There is one kind of "mark on the body for the dead" that I want to talk about.  I've known many people who have lost someone dear to them, and they want to commemorate that person's life with a "memorial tattoo."  Christians and non-Christians alike should be careful with this.  Often when a person constantly sees a deceased loved one's name or image tattooed on his or her body every day, it becomes very difficult to come to the end of the grieving process.  Mark 12:27 says that God is "not the God of the dead, but of the living."  God wants you to be able to heal from your hurt.  When you get a memorial tattoo, instead of eventually being able to let go of the hurt of loss, the constant reminder can keep the pain fresh.  Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly (John 10:10)."  He wants you to live in His life, not become obsessed with death.  So you might want to think very carefully about memorial tattoos, because you don't want to make an idol out of your dearly departed. 

But what about tattooing in general? Encyclopedia Britannica says, “Tattooing has been practiced in most parts of the world, and examples have been found on Egyptian and Nubian mummies dating from 2000 BC.” In the Canaanite religion, tattoos were associated with idol worship. Leviticus 19:26-28 says, “You shall not eat anything with its blood. You shall not practice augury or witchcraft. You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD.” It is certainly clear what the Scripture passage says, but what does it mean? Drinking blood was also associated with idol worship. Hebrews wouldn’t even eat a rare steak! Trimming your beard was associated with witchcraft. Ironically the long beards that good Hebrew men were supposed to have are today mostly found on tattooed bikers! Clearly these verses are meant to be taken in social context. Remember, these rules were meant for the Hebrews as they were moving into Canaan. If you live in a culture where trimming your beard is a sign that you’re a witch, don’t trim your beard. If you live in a culture where trimming your beard is more acceptable, then go for it! The same is true for tattoos.

Some will use 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 to say that tattoos are sinful. These verses say, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” First, the temple that is being referred to here is the Church. Again, we have to look at context. Paul is writing to the Corinthian church about divisions that are threatening to destroy the church. It is not referring to the human body at all. Second, in no way does a tattoo or piercing destroy the body.

So, what is the proper attitude to have regarding tattoos and body piercings? Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, which says, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” Now, in this Scripture, Paul is talking about the human body! Whatever we do with it should honor God (or at least not bring dishonor to God). So a cute little butterfly or motorcycle, or a tattoo that honors Jesus like a cross or fish symbol, would be just fine. What about a tattoo to mark a significant place in your spiritual journey with the Lord? But let’s stay away from the pentagrams and skulls with bloody daggers stuck through them, OK? Of course, remember Exodus 20:12 – “Honor your father and your mother.” If you’re considering one, try a big red heart that says MOM. But wait until you’re an adult.

Finally, just for fun…

  • God was the first tattoo artist – Genesis 4:15 – “And the LORD put a mark on Cain.”
  • Paul said, “I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body (Galatians 6:17).”
  • God says in Isaiah 49:16 – “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”

    Thursday, May 21, 2009

    Evidence for Jesus

    This is a good, intelligent video, even though it is no frills, and apparently produced in a hotel room. I encourage you to watch.

    Do People Who Commit Suicide Go to Hell?

    A friend of mine emailed me with a question about suicide. A lot of people have asked me the same question, and I put so much into the answer that I thought I'd share it with you.
    My friend said:
    I know the Catholic faith teaches that suicide is the "unforgiveable sin", and I think the protestant belief may be the same. What/where are the scripture teachings on this?

    My co-worker and I were talking and she says that she "believes in a kind God", and cannot accept that He would banish someone's soul to Hell. In a way, I also believe in a "kind God", but bottom line, I don't really know how I feel concerning suicide, and am looking for some help in figuring it out..

    Here's my response:

    I'm sorry for the loss of (name omitted) . I'm sure his wife and the rest of their family is going through a very difficult time. I'm also sure that you're giving as much support to them as you can.

    You're right--the Catholic church teaches that suicide is a 1-way ticket to Hell. This is based on their doctrine that you have to confess your sins to a priest, and receive absolution from the priest. Since you are dead, you can't confess--so off to Hell you go. This is an unbiblical doctrine, because the Bible tells us over and over again that nobody goes to Heaven or Hell because of what they do--they go either to Heaven or Hell because of what they believe or don't believe, because of Who they know, or Who they don't know as their Lord. There will be a lot of good people in Hell, who have never received Jesus as their Savior. There will also be tons of sinners in Heaven, who are saved not because of anything they did to deserve it, but only because of God's grace, which they received in Jesus Christ.

    A lot of people become so depressed that they want to die. Here are just a few of the "greats" from the Bible who wanted to die:

    Moses - Numbers 11:15 - "If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin."

    Elijah - 1 Kings 19:4 - "He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. 'I have had enough, LORD,' he said. 'Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.'"

    Jonah - Jonah 4:8 - "When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah's head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, 'It would be better for me to die than to live.'"

    Paul (who actually seemed to be contemplating which choice to make) - Philippians 1:20-26 - "I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far;24but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me."

    What made these people choose to live? Somehow, they found hope. But I believe it's possible to be a Christian, and still reach the point where you can't see any hope. This may be due to a chemical process in the brain, as in depression. It may be due to seemingly hopeless circumstances, a perceived lack of support, or any number of things. I believe that when a person chooses suicide, they have left behind rational thought, and are no longer "themselves." How can God judge a person for what they did, when they were in a state of detatched, irrational thought, and it was not truly "themselves" who did it?

    The story of Judas sheds some light on this. Both Luke 22:3 and John 13:27 say that Satan entered Judas. We like to condemn him for what he did, but are we really just in our condemnation? Would God be just, in condeming a person for what they did not themselves do? In John 6:70, Jesus, referring to Judas, says "One of you is a devil!" Was Judas actually a fallen angel? No--but he was certainly under the influence of the devil. Judas did not choose for himself, when he betrayed Jesus.

    We see his remorse in Matthew 27:3-10 when Judas returns the money, and commits suicide. Is he still demon-possessed when he commits suicide? Or does he just feel so much remorse because of what he did, while he was demon-possessed? Hard to say. Some say that Judas was damned, because Jesus says he was "doomed to destruction" in John 17:12. Could Jesus not have been talking about his physical destruction (suicide) rather than a spiritual destruction (Hell)?

    Some people will use 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 to say that everyone who commits suicide goes to Hell. It says, "Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? 17If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple." That sounds pretty clear, doesn't it? It does, until you realize that the body that Paul is talking about, in the entire chapter, is the church itself. What he's saying is that anybody who brings destruction to the church will be destroyed.

    Hebrews 7:27 says, "Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself."

    "Once for all." This means that when Jesus died, He entered timelessness, sacrificing Himself not only for the sins of people in the past, before the crucifixion, but also for the sins of people who would live in the future, after Him. Jesus didn't just die for the sins you've already committed--He died for the sins you haven't yet thought of. This means that even unconfessed sin is covered. We confess our sin to God, not so that we can be forgiven for each individual sin as we confess it, but so that we can realize the seriousness of our sin, express regret, and seek a change. Unconfessed sin doesn't damn a Christian. Jesus died once for all time, once for all sins, once for all people who would receive Him as their Lord.

    John 3:16 gives us the assurrance that "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." The real question is not whether a person has confessed his sins to a priest, but whether he believes in Jesus, and receives eternal life.

    Ephesians 2:8-9 says, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast." Our works neither condemn us nor save us. We are either saved by faith, or condemned because of our lack of faith.

    Of course, I do realize the danger in this notion that you don't go to Hell for suicide. Some may take this as a license to commit suicide. This would be a horrible thing! Suicide robs God of the ability to use you in His Kingdom on earth. Suicide insults God, telling Him that you don't trust Him to work things out in your life. Suicide grieves our Lord, who came to rescue us from the grip of Satan. Jesus said in John 10:10, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."

    In the Philippians 1 passage above, it is obvious which is the better choice: to remain in life, to let God continue to use you. Jeremiah 30:19 is clear: "This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live." Jeremiah 29:11 assures us: "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'"

    Dear friend, if you are reading this article because you or a loved one is considering suicide as an option, then please click here for an article entitled "Why Should I Not Commit Suicide?"

    Monday, May 18, 2009

    Your Servant is Listening

    --> -->
    So Eli told Samuel, "Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, 'Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
    1 Samuel 3:9 NIV

    My cat amazes me. He has an incredible ability to concentrate on just one thing, blocking out all distractions. I’ve spotted him sitting on the window ledge, staring into the house, waiting for someone to walk by the window. Then he’ll submit his request with a meow, and we’ll let him in. He lingers in this concentration for quite some time, because he has no concept of time. He simply knows that eventually, someone will come and open the door. So, patiently, he waits.

    How would it be if we prayed that way? If we approached God with single-minded determination to hear His voice? Instead, fill the air with our own words. We like the sound of our voice better than the quiet intonations of His in our hearts. We’re more comfortable with what we have to say than we are with what He has to say.

    When God spoke to young Samuel, the boy had no idea whose voice it was. He thought it was his teacher Eli calling him. He asked Eli, and the old sage told him how to respond to God. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

    How would it be if, instead of filling the air with all that we want to say, we simply followed Eli’s advice? “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Can you imagine a more simple prayer?

    First, this prayer acknowledges the relationship between servant and Lord. In your prayers, do you monopolize the time? Whoever dominates a conversation usually dominates a relationship. Are you really God’s servant, relating to your Lord in prayer? Or do you try to dominate your own prayer time?

    Next, this prayer makes a request: “Speak.” We have been taught that praying is when talking to God. This is only partly true. Do we come to our prayer time, expecting God to speak to us? Samuel only wanted one thing from God. He didn’t ask God to heal anybody or provide anything or do a miracle. He simply wanted God to speak His heart. This attitude can radically transform your prayer life—to want to hear from God more than anything else. Is that what you want when you pray?

    Finally, Samuel told God that he was listening. The truth is that God speaks to us all the time. We don’t hear because we’re usually not listening. We tell God what we want Him to hear, and then we say amen. Taking the time to sit and listen is a challenging discipline to begin, but it offers great rewards.

    Oh, to be like my cat—sitting and waiting, watching for the door to open! Oh to have the simplicity of Samuel’s prayer, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

    Friday, May 15, 2009

    Life Changes

    The Smith family will be going through some major life changes soon. No--we're not moving. God is blessing us right where we are. Please pray for God's grace as we all adjust to the wonderful changes that are just around the corner.

    First, Beth is returning to school to finish up her degree. We got married while we were still in college, and with the birth of our first child, Beth had to put her education on hold. "I'm just taking a semester off," she said. That semester lasted 17 years. Now, she's going back.

    I can't say how ticklishly happy I am for her, and how proud I am. She's proving that while dreams may be put on hold, they don't have to die. Recently, we went to the campus at Virginia Commonwealth University so she could register for classes. There, she found out that she still has enough room in her schedule to accommodate not one, but two degrees! She thought she was returning to VCU to finish up one degree, and in the same amount of time (and with the same amount of dollars) she'll be earning two Bachelor's degrees! (That's better than I did!) Now, she has to figure out what her second degree will be. If you could see my face, you'd know how beamishly delighted I am for her.

    The second major change that is taking place in Smithville is that we're about to have a new addition to the family. No--nobody's pregnant! Instead, a long-time friend is moving in with us. Our daughter Emily's best friend from Red Oak is arriving on June 7, with suitcases in hand, to stay for an indefinite period of time. Brandy has been like a daughter to us for years, but now she's taking a step closer to that. We couldn't be more thrilled to have her. Yes, we'll have to make some adjustments. Emily will be sharing her bedroom. We're going to have to rearrange furniture and schedules. But it'll be worth it.

    So please pray for us as we make these adjustments. It's a good-stress, but it's a stress nonetheless. We all have to grow and stretch. Hopefully, the more we stretch, the higher we'll be able to reach!

    Monday, May 4, 2009

    Passing the Test

    This time of year, high school and college students are hurriedly cramming for their exams. They’re reviewing their notes, taking practice tests, and quizzing each other. If they’re smart, they realize that cramming is only good up to a point. Sleep deprivation the night before a test, trying to force more equations into your brain, is rarely a good plan. Instead of cramming the night before, it’s best to begin preparing for the final exam the first day of class. From the moment you crack open your textbook for the first time or put your pen to that fresh sheet of notebook paper, you’d better be getting ready for your final.

    Many who are done with our formal education are tempted to think that final exams are the stuff of yesteryear. This is not so. One day, we will all sit for our final examination, and our Instructor will determine whether we’ve passed the test. That final judgment will determine our eternity. Can we afford to fail? How can we be sure we pass the test?

    When you receive Jesus as your Lord and Savior, asking Him to take up residence in your heart, wash your sins away, and make you a brand new person, you take your first steps into eternal life. This is like the first time you crack open that textbook. You’ve enrolled in the course. But the Instructor also wants to see that by the time you get to the final exam, you’ve actually learned something.

    The final exam is all about love. It’s about whether we’ve learned to love one another, to lay down our lives for one another, even as Christ has done for us. It’s easy to give lip-service to love, but harder to follow through. Jesus calls us to follow His example, to do what He did. He expects to find us faithful. He expects us to not just pass by the skin of our teeth—He expects us to get an A.

    One of the ways you can ensure an A in the class is showing the Instructor that you’re interested. When I was in high school Spanish class, you could tell which students were actually interested in learning, and which ones were simply fulfilling a requirement. Those who were only there because it was required would answer a question by saying, “No speak-o Spanish-o.” I was different. I actually wanted to learn. As a result, I did well academically, but I also developed a great relationship with my teacher. How many Christians are in church, not because they’re really interested in the course, but because they’re just trying to fulfill a requirement? When asked a question, they’ll say, “No speak-o Christianity-o.” If you actually want to learn, you’ll make an effort to learn. You’ll not only pass the test—you’ll ace it. And along the way, you’ll develop a great relationship with the Instructor. And who wouldn’t want to be the Teacher’s pet?