28 December 2012

THE Big Story

It's the end of the year. This is the time of year when American media tell stories about their stories over the preceding year. It's a good time to remind ourselves about the foundational story of everything: the Book of Genesis. Over the next week, I will publish some thoughts on Genesis, creation, and God. I will begin with what I believe regarding this all-important message from - and about - God.

  • I believe the Book of Genesis. I believe it literally. I used the word “story” in my intro, which to some people means fiction. I do not accept anything in this book to be fictional. I accept is as being a revealing to me about how this world was created. I don’t necessarily understand all the processes that are in play in terms of science – or whether God even used anything that we would relate to as scientific. I know that it says God created the heavens and the earth and I believe that to be totally true.  
  •  I am a creationist; a young earth creationist, at that. That means that I do not believe in the theory of evolution. I do not believe that man rose up out of some primordial ooze as a single-celled organism and evolved into what he is today. I do not accept, as is the general understanding that earth is millions or billions of years old.
  • I don't need to engage scientific theories, or even theological theories.  I do not believe that it is necessary for Bible-believers to explain away, or harmonize God’s Word with the current scientific theories. That’s not my job. I may study science, because true science is simply understanding the universe that God has created. But, I'm more interested in what God says, not about what pagan scientists claim.  
  • I believe that this book is foundational to understanding the rest of the Bible - and God's world. The importance of this book is that it answers the fundamental questions of human existence. 1. How did we get here? Where did we come from? 2. Why are we here? What is our purpose here? Where does sin come from? 3. What happens at death? Is there life after death? Genesis is the foundation for the rest of Scripture in which these questions are answered.   

Happy New Year. More on this topic next year.

25 December 2012

A Gift for You

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour 

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour, All for love's sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender, Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love's sake becomes poor.

Thou who art God beyond all praising, All for love's sake becamest man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising Heavenwards by thine eternal plan.
 Thou who art God beyond all praising, All for love's sake becamest man.
Thou who art love beyond all telling, Saviour and King, we worship thee.

Emmanuel, within us dwelling,
Make us what thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.

- Frank Houghton (1894-1972)

21 December 2012

Today's the Day; The End

If you are reading this post the world probably did not end as many believed would happen today as a result of the Mayan calendar ending. Or, it's possible that may yet happen, but you're reading this early in the day. 

In case you are one of that dozen or so folks who've never heard about this, here's a brief story about the (non?)- event.

The world will end! This existence; history; will not go on forever. We don't need any wacky Mayans to give us fantastic stories and predictions. There are books and websites galore which "explain" the time, the place, the details. Many of these books are written by earnest, but misguided Christians.

The problem with all these predictions is that they fly in the face of what the Bible actually says. Jesus Himself stated that  "no one knows" when the last day will be.  (Matthew 24:36).  

Do we know anything about the final events of history? Sure we do. What we may know is explained in several places in Scripture, like Acts 1: 10-11, 1 Thessalonians 4:16,17; 2 Peter 3:10; Jude 14,15; and 1 John 2:28. These all give us an inkling, but no details; certainly no time frame. What do we know for sure?
  • Jesus is coming back (in the same manner in which he left (Acts 1:10-11).
  • There will be a judgment (see John 12:48 for some important news on this).
  • Those who belong to Jesus will reign with Him forever. 
There are a few other details, but these are the most important in my estimation. Theologians and theologian-wannabes will continue to argue about this until it actually happens. What's really important is preparation. Once again, I can assure you that you can read many exhortations regarding how to get ready. But, again, the Bible tells us what's important. In 2 Peter 3:10-18, we get good advice from the Apostle Peter. He tells us, the end is coming and you DO NOT know when that will be. So be prepared. How? 
  1. Be diligent to be found by Him without spot of blemish and at peace. (verse 14)
  2. (T)ake care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. (verse 17)
  3. But grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (verse 18)
Don't forget to tell others about Him, either.

Now, the last major end of world catastrophe that was widely anticipated (not counting the various predictions of Harold Camping) was Y2K. That year-end was supposed to bring devastation to the world because computers could not handle (it was believed) the numeric switchover to a new century. Planes were going to fall out of the sky. Computer-related medical instruments would fail. People would die all over the place.

Being the skeptics and party animals that we are, Sandra and I hosted a series of ten parties at the end of 1999 and into 2000. We had fun and nobody died. I suggest a similar course of action for what's left of today. Have a party. If the world ends - and you are in Christ - you go to heaven. If the world doesn't end that day, you had a party.

The world as we know it could end that day. If it does it won't be because some Mayan stone cutter ran out of rock. It will be because the Creator of the world has said, "That's enough."  For, ...with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." He's patient. But, the day will come. In His time.


18 December 2012

The Christmas - Carp?

Christmas traditions, of course, vary from country to country; even from region to region. These variations include what we eat on the occasion of Christmas Day (or Eve, depending upon the local practice). In many English-speaking lands, turkey and ham are now traditional meals on Christmas Day, although there are certainly pockets of those who enjoy such traditional meals as lasagna. In many nations roast pork is favored. Germany features a variety of wurst (sausages) and France - well the French have a little bit of many wonderful French specialities.

Chicken, turkey, goose, and duck seems to be the most-oft consumed main course.
The cakes and pies also vary. The one constant is that they are plentiful.

Here in the Czech Republic, the traditional meal, served on Christmas Eve, consists of fish soup, fried carp, and potato salad. It's a relatively new tradition (19th century) although carp have been an economic staple here for centuries. You can read more about this here.

Carp tanks and cuttings boards
The carp are purchased on street corners (at least in the city of Prague) where large tubs boiling with fish are set up. People wait in line for the opportunity to purchase their Christmas Eve dinner. One chooses his or her carp and then can opt to have it butchered on the spot or to take it home live. Often the carp will inhabit a home's bathtub for a day or two before becoming part of the festive repast.

In my very unscientific survey over the past two Christmas holidays, I have never found a Czech who enjoys the carp. Yet, most still indulge in the traditional meal. As Tevye said (in Fiddler on the Roof) "Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as... as... as a fiddler on the roof."

14 December 2012

Three Theories of Everything

So, one day in October we got a visit from an old friend we hadn’t seen in nearly 35 years. It was Ellis Potter, who was coming to Prague to lecture at the Anglo-American University. Ellis was the strange former Zen Buddhist monk, who arrived at L’Abri in Switzerland a bit before we did, in 1976. By the time we arrived he was already a “former” monk. He had become a Christian. We stayed in Switzerland for two years. Ellis still lives there. 

Ellis, to whom I refer as “the Ellis,” is still strange. It’s a good strange, though. We enjoyed his all-too-brief visit and hope to see more of him in the coming years (if we aren’t all doomed by the Mayan calendar. More on that in a few days). 

Ellis wrote a book. It’s titled Three Theories of Everything.  It’s a book about worldview (shudder!). These days, we read and hear a lot about worldview. There are worldview camps and worldview books, and worldview seminars, and worldview ministries, and worldview websites. Just what is a worldview? 
  • The overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world. 
  • A collection of beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group. 

John Calvin explained once that there are two things of which we must have understanding if we are to have an authentic, comprehensive world view: 
“First, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, the source from which salvation is to be obtained.” (Selected Works of John Calvin, p. 126). 

This is what The Ellis is attempting to explain to us. He’s done so admirably. Readers seem to agree. In fact, he commented to me that, “Reviews have come in from two 13 year olds and one truck driver, so I guess the book is for everyone.” 

Now, remember, The Ellis is different. This book is different, too. I’ve read numerous books on this thing called “worldview.” Few describe the situation like this: “In terms of world views, there is one-ism, two-ism, and three-ism.” (page 3).  He does explain, along the way, that many folks refer to these categories of thought as Monism, Dualism, and Trinitarianism. 

In essence, what The Ellis is trying to do is help us to answer some old and universal questions, “What is Truth?” and “Are There Absolutes?” His contribution to the discussion reflects an interesting and refreshing combination of Ellis’s own experience and study with the teaching of his mentor, Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer. In a speech given at Notre Dame University in 1981, Dr. Schaeffer stated this: 
Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural, but rather truth spelled with a capital “T.” Truth about total reality, not just about religious things. Biblical Christianity is Truth concerning total reality – and the intellectual holding of that total truth and then living in the light of that Truth. 
The Ellis has been faithful to this teaching. After explaining that the world is in a mess - and needy (much as the Apostle Paul does in the first chapters of the Epistle to the Romans) - he states that 

The solution is that the Creator Himself enters into the creation and becomes one of us, a human being, made of flesh and blood.... Then being in the creation, and being the Creator, in time and in eternity, natural and supernatural, human and God , immanent and transcendent, He does one thing: He empties Himself. Literally. He sacrifices His life, allowing His body to be nailed to a wooden cross, so that His blood can be drained for others. Jesus gave Himself, emptied Himself, not for Himself, but for others. It was, and remains, the ultimate, most astonishing other-centered act in all of history. (page 67).

The Ellis gets it. And he’s sharing it with us in this unique look at reality. Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). This is a very good question these days, when everything is viewed as “relative.” Competing religions and belief systems call out to us like hawkers at a carnival: “Hey, you, look over here. I’ve got the best truth.” Others tell us that everybody has the truth – until somebody steps up and says they’re a Christian. Then we get a sort of “selective relativism.” 

How can we know what’s true? How can we sort out the charlatans from the purveyors of truth? Related questions include: “What does it matter what’s true? Do we really need to know?” If Christianity is true, then sin has invaded the world and men need salvation from the consequences of that sinfulness. If I cannot know that this is true, I will be lost – and suffer whatever those consequences are. If there is no God, as many modern teachers claim, then it really doesn’t matter what’s true. 

The last section of this book is particularly valuable (which is not to compare the other portions of the book in an unfavorable light). Titled simply, “45 Questions,” this segment of the whole deals with representative questions The Ellis has heard over the years. Of course, he also provides answers. He wrote to me “Answering a lot of questions in this book was supposed to save time, but it has actually gotten worse.” But he recognizes the necessity of continuing to ask questions, for he also states “Of the asking of questions there is, thankfully, no end. It is part of what keeps us alive and human.” 

It’s a little book. It’s full of Ellis-isms. It is at the same time simple and profound. I liked it. Buy several.

11 December 2012

Preparing for Worship

Worship is obviously of interest to me. I co-wrote a book titled Children in Church: Nurturing Hearts of Worship. Nearly every day I tweet quotes regarding the proper worship of our holy God. So, I offer a few thoughts here on a much-ignored topic. How can I prepare myself to worship with a congregation on Sunday, the Lord's Day?

Our gatherings for corporate worship on Sunday are the most important assembly of the week. These meetings of the saints should be filled with joy, celebration, and learning. Throughout the course of the week we should be preparing for worship on Sunday.

Here are just a few suggestions
  • Prepare for worship by spending time in prayer for the services. Throughout the week, it would benefit everyone to take extra time in prayer.   Pray especially for the preaching of the Word, the people who will be there, and for your heart to be prepared for the receiving of God’s Word. 
  • Study the text that will be preached.  In many churches, a schedule of the sermon texts can be found at the congregation's website.If not, ask the pastor (or his secretary, if he should have one).
  • Arrive prepared to listen attentively—with your eyes, ears, and heart. With your eyes, you should be focused on the central theme of the worship service. With your ears, you should be carefully listening to the message, prayers, and songs. Finally, the heart should be focused on growing in the Lord and self examination. 
  • Come equipped to listen. A Christian should bring his/her Bible to worship services – and a pen or pencil, or electronic instrument which can serve as both Bible and note-taking device. Outlines are often provided for Sunday morning sermons.
  • Be ready to fellowship. The purpose of the corporate gathering is not only to hear the preaching of God’s Word, partake in prayer and the breaking of bread, but also to fellowship with one another. Be quick to encourage other members of the body in the Lord and to greet visitors. 
  • If at all possible, come rested. I know that this isn’t always possible, especially for families with young children. But you DO have control over your Saturday night schedule.
Being prepared for worship will enhance the experience. But remember that worship is not about us. It's about God. John 4:24 doesn't say anything about enjoying ourselves (although it certainly doesn't ban enjoyment). Worship is not intended to be a spectator sport or an entertainment spectacular. We are to worship in spirit and in truth. Preparation and prayer will enhance our ability to do so.

07 December 2012

Who Is This Guy? The Apostle Paul

I've spent a lot of time recently reading and studying the Epistle to the Romans. It's a fascinating book. Over the next few months I'll be sharing some of my thoughts (occasionally) on the epistle and it's human author.

John Calvin a trained humanist lawyer, as methodical and organized as humans get, wrote this in his commentary on Romans, his first commentary,
The whole Epistle is so methodical, that even its very beginning is framed according to the rules of art. As contrivance appears in many parts, which shall be noticed as we proceed, so also especially in the way in which the main argument is deduced: for having begun with the proof of his Apostleship, he then comes to the Gospel with the view of recommending it; and as this necessarily draws with it the subject of faith, he glides into that, being led by the chain of words as by the hand: and thus he enters on the main subject of the whole Epistle justification by faith; in treating which he is engaged to the end of the fifth chapter.
The subject then of these chapters may be stated thus, — man’s only righteousness is through the mercy of God in Christ, which being offered by the Gospel is apprehended by faith.
So, who was this guy whose writing Calvin referred to as "methodical"? Paul was a very interesting man. A Pharisee, who persecuted the first generation of Christians, Paul was converted dramatically as he traveled to the city of Damascus to further abuse and oppress the faithful. See Acts 9:1-19.

This letter is not about Paul, nor is it about the saints at Rome. It is about God, whose Gospel is being declared. Let’s look at the introduction of Paul.

Who is Paul? Read Romans 1:1. We know that at this point, Paul had never been to Rome. Yet, he’s not writing to a totally unknown group. There are people there that he knows. There are people there who had been in Jerusalem when the HS appeared at Pentecost. Here in the very 1st verse Paul describes himself using three terms:

  • Servant. δουλοσ.  “a slave, bondman, man of servile condition  1a) a slave  1b) one who gives himself up to anothers will; those whose service is used by Christ in extending and  advancing his cause among men  1c) devoted to another to the disregard of one's own interests  2) a servant, attendant.” Paul was a willing servant to God. We know that he was called by grace; but he didn’t have to be a willing servant…
  • Apostle. Αποστολοσ. A delegate; messenger; one sent forth with orders. Might seem at odds with the “willingness” of the "servant" description above, but Paul was “called” to this role. By whom? Look at 1 Corinthians 1:1.
  • Set Apart.  ἀφωρισμένος. Marked off. Like yellow tape at a crime scene. He’s roped off so that he can perform his one function of apostolic work without interference (although certainly men TRIED to interfere).
So, Paul was "sent" to further our understanding. He was "set apart," to do this job. It wasn't exactly an easy job.

Look at Acts 13:1-3. Once again we see Paul (still known as Saul; along with Barnabus) was "set apart."  The work begins at verse 4 (now read the rest of the chapter: Acts 13:4-52). This is what happened after the ceremony in which people laid hands on them and prayed for them. For the next two years Barnabas and Saul traveled (as we read in the next two chapters of the Book of Acts) from Antioch to Seleucia to Salmis & Paphos (on Cyprus); then to Perga, Psidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, then back to Lystra, Iconium, Psidian Antioch, Perga and on to Attalia and eventually returning to Antioch in Syria.

They traveled over 1,000 miles, averaging – on good days – 16 miles. This was over rough terrain; crossing the Mediterranean Sea several times in small, leaky boats. They had no furlough; no email; no phone.

Along the way they faced:

  • Opposition from a sorcerer (Acts 13:8)
  • Abuse and persecution (Acts 14:45, 50)
  • Threats to their physical well-being (Acts 14:5)
  • Stoning (Acts 14:19,20)
And this was only the first two years – the first missionary journey!  

So, that's Paul. He's the guy God chose to set forth this great doctrine of justification. What has God set YOU apart for?


04 December 2012

Who Are You Following?

A Guest Blog by J. Mark Fox
           If you have a Twitter account, you know that on your main page there are two categories: Following and Followers. Following: Those are the people or groups who have a Twitter account that you are following. Every time they tweet something, it comes to your Twitter feed. Followers: Those are the people or groups who are following you. Every time you tweet something, it goes into their Twitter feeds. I am following John Piper and CJ Mahaney, for example. They, on the other hand, are not following me. Then there’s Facebook, where you don’t have followers; instead, you have friends. Everything you post on Facebook can go into your friend’s accounts. Unless they have blocked your posts and you are a friend in name only. That would mean they count you but they don’t follow you. Let’s not even talk about LinkedIn or Google Plus or Pinterest, all of which have ways for you to follow people or be followed by people. The social media world knows all about followers. But, do they really? Do they know about following in the same way the Bible speaks of following?

   When I was 15, I lost the person who best represented to me what a follower of Jesus Christ looked like. My greatgrandmother died that year. My first memory of Grandma Hauser was when I was probably 4 or 5 years old. I was at her house and eating a Lifesaver. I swallowed it whole and it got stuck in my windpipe. I started turning blue and Grandma Hauser put all of her 98 pounds into a blow to my back. The Lifesaver came out and the breath came back in. My lasting memory of Grandma Hauser was also of her hands, not hitting me in the back but folded in prayer. She loved Jesus with all her heart and talked to him every single day. I would sneak down the hallway sometimes just to take a peek at her kneeling by the bed with her hands folded, praying. Grandma Hauser never even dreamed of Twitter or Facebook, but I was one of her followers. That’s for sure.

   Then there was my pastor, Burke Holland. When I was in my late teens, he was the one God used most to teach me the Bible. I loved his preaching and I respected his life because what he talked about in the pulpit on Sunday, he walked out in the community all week. You could say I followed his teaching, his conduct and his aim in life literally, because it was under his ministry that I promised the Lord I would be a pastor. Burke is past 80 now and is a follower of this column, getting them as an email once a week. But he is one whom God used to shape me.
   The Bible has much to say about following. Jesus called 12 disciples to a radical new life with the words, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Paul commended Timothy for following Paul’s lifestyle, character, and even Paul’s willingness to be persecuted for his faith in Jesus Christ. He even told the church at Corinth, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

   I’m not concerned too much with whom I follow on Twitter, or who is following me. But I am so thankful for the men and women whose walk with the Lord I can follow. I also am humbled by the knowledge that some follow my walk with the Lord, just as they do yours. May God help us!

 J. Mark Fox is the author of “A Faithful Man,” his latest book, and the pastor of Antioch Community Church on Power Line Road in Elon. You can tweet him at @jmarkfox. You can find all of Mark’s books on Amazon or other online sellers.Email Mark at markfox@antiochchurch.cc