Hero Worship Part III

Question of the day: Have you ever experienced the disturbing presence of Jesus?

So next month I’m going to my second Michael Card​ Biblical Immagination conference. The first, 4 years ago, was for the Gospel of Luke. This one is the Gospel of John, other than Hebrews, my favorite book in the Bible. The first time, I had no idea what to expect – I had only found out about it a few days before. I just knew I liked some songs and the couple of books I had read. It was such a great experience, that I’ve kind of been looking forward to this one on John’s Gospel. So this time, since there was this nice little file online with some notes, I decided to start going through them before hand. The above is the first question that comes up on the first page. After reading through the associated portions of Mark’s Gospel, came to this question, and different scenes started coming to mind. In fact, my very first experience of Jesus was of just this “disturbing Presence.” But then there was this time, and that time, and another, and another. Sometimes solitary, sometimes in the presence of others. Haven’t gotten past the introductory stuff into the notes on John yet. Definitely looking forward to September.


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Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

My poor, neglected blog.  It’s been a busy summer/fall with too many self-imposed deadlines and too few hours to accomplish everything. But I can’t let this time of year pass without a mention.  The song that was on the radio when I woke up this morning was “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.”  So let me jump off from there.

I love the ancient hymns of the faith, and this one is perhaps one of the oldest that aren’t recorded in the Scriptures themselves.  While the tune and the translation were brought into modern times in the 1800s, it probably goes back to at least the late 270s AD.  Pretty ancient.  Take a listen:

The feeling of solemn dread this hymn has in it’s current version very much reminds me of that day – December 17, 1997, to be exact – when that same solemn dread filled my car.  Dread is one of those words that has lost some of it’s meaning along the way and is now only a shadow of its former self.  The sense of dread I felt that day goes back to an older meaning – deep awe or reverence.  Solemn dread.

After a half forgotten question spoken to the air (we were not yet on a first name basis since I wouldn’t even acknowledge his existence) on a very starry night earlier in the summer (If you’re there, would you let me know somehow?), the fall came, the days got shorter.  Sometime during those long rides home in the dark, I was flipping through the radio stations, and this Scottish brogue caught my attention.  As I listened, this Scottish guy (Alistair Begg – Truth for Life) had a way of explaining the Scriptures that made them relevant to the 20th century and to me personally for the first time that I recalled.  So he was interesting, the brogue was attractive, but the radio station didn’t make it to the end of my ride.  And so began the arguments with this nameless one that I still wouldn’t acknowledge.  I would begin the long ride home in the dark, flip through the stations, land on the Scottish guy, have just enough time to get interested in what he was saying, and the station would fade out.  “If you want me to hear this stuff, you have to get me a station that goes all the way home.” Still no first name.  Angry, belligerent, annoyed.  Solemn dread was not part of the experience yet.  This went on for weeks.

December 17 was just like any other day.  I went to work like usual.  First job was at Maple Heights City Hall to replace the fuser their printer.  When I was done, hopped in my car to go to the next job, and found out I had left my lights on.  I looked up from the dashboard and realized I was facing a gas station.  A little ray of hope that the whole day wouldn’t be ruined by my own stupidity.  The attendant walked over with a portable battery, jumped the car, and told me to get in and try to start it.  It started all right, and as soon as it did, the FM version of the AM station I had been listening to on the long dark rides came on.  Solemn dread.  “Okay, you’re there.  Now what?”

Sure enough, the station stayed on all the way home, and I could now listen to the entire program.  That was fine, and Alistair Begg’s church became the first one I went to some months later when I was finally sure enough that this was real and not a fairy tale to break the news to the rest of the family.  Alistair was joined the next morning by R. C. Sproul whose series Creation or Chaos took me through all the philosophers and history of science that I thought I knew so well – except I had bypassed a couple of really big questions that knocked the legs out from under the major supports of my godless universe.  Doh moments and palm hitting forehead a plenty, and all the while this Solemn Dread became my close companion even though I still wasn’t addressing him by name.  As the remaining days passed before Christmas that year, I remember walking through the stores and hearing the familiar words of Christmas hymns as if for the first time (Christmas Thoughts).

It was still another 4 months before I spoke to anyone else about what God was doing in my life, and I’m pretty sure if I had encountered any evangelizing Christians during that time, it might have blown the whole deal.  But I didn’t, and so God was free to knock down my previous worldview piece by piece and rebuild one that included him with the help of folks like Allistair Begg, R. C. Sproul, and Ravi Zacharias.  Finally, in January 1999, I became convinced enough in my soul that

Christ died for my sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures, and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that he was seen of above 500 brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.  After that he was seen of James: then of all the apostles.  And last of all he was seen of me also . . .

Of me also . . . . . that I embraced this Christ with no more reservations.  I still have a love-hate relationship with Christmas.  I hate the consumerism and the lack of personal thought and love that so much of Christmas gift giving has become.  I love the pretty lights but have a few suspicions that borrowing things from the pagans was probably a bad move.  But, most of all, I love the hymns, and I love to hear them wherever I go – especially the ones that remind me of the Solemn Dread who invaded what would have been an otherwise normal day in December 1997.

Today’s message from Allistair Begg reinforces my love of these ancient songs – Songs for a Savior


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A New Song

Yesterday afternoon, I took a trip out to one of our local natural areas, and on the backside of the trail, Mr. Song Sparrow was just singing his little heart out and made me think of what I like to call my “testimony” verses:

I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:1-3)

So I put the two together, something I’ve been thinking of doing for some time.

newsong

If you’d like to purchase a copy, you can do so here – http://gallery.bandtphotography.com/word-art/e22e422a


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Did Moses Really Say THAT?

My new favorite
(Thanks to my nephew, Steve, for sharing a graphic that perfectly accompanies an article I’ve been intending to write since last fall.)

The first thing I had to come to grips with in my journey from Atheist to Christian was the idea that the Bible doesn’t speak in the language of science – it speaks in the language of the phenomenon.   After the day of answered “prayers” (belligerent though those “prayers” were), the very next day, my very first introduction to the Bible versus Science debate from an informed Christian perspective left me half an hour later banging palm into forehead thinking, “How did I miss THAT?” The THAT was the language of the phenomenon.

It’s a language we still use liberally today, as I will demonstrate in just a bit.  But for now, a simple reference to “sunrise” and “sunset” will suffice. Most of us know that the sun does not actually rise and set, it is we who are moving, but we still use these terms no matter what level of education we have attained.

The corollary concept I had to get into my head had to do with general versus special revelation.  Since God is the Revealer in both cases (the natural world and the scriptures – See Romans 1), then when each is properly understood, there will be no conflict between them.  In other words, if we understand our science properly AND our Bible properly, they’re both going to tell the same story.  Where there is a perceived conflict, there’s a misunderstanding of either the science or the scriptures, and more study of both is needed.

That was the second step of my journey toward Christ (the first step being that there really was a God who heard and answered prayers).

In the fall of 2013, I stumbled onto a National Geographic special, Inside the Milky Way.  Living in northern Ohio does much to squelch my astrophotography ambitions, so I put it on the TV.  Stunning photography is NG’s trademark, and the photography in this special was indeed stunning.

Just past an hour into this 1-1/2 hour program, something was said that made me sit straight up in my chair, rewind, and watch the whole special about 3 more times to make sure I was hearing correctly.  In describing how dark matter “binds the milky way into an extraordinary structure called the cosmic web [more phenomenological language] with billions of other galaxies,” the narrator and James Bullock (UC, Irvine) have the following “dialogue”:

JB:  One of the great things about telescopes is they’re time machines.  Because light travels at a finite speed, when we look at distant objects, we see them as they were when the light left them.

[Nothing new here . . . . look at the pretty pictures.]

N:  As astronomers look back over billions of years, they see a universe teeming with galaxies.  But these galaxies aren’t scattered randomly through space.  They cluster along delicate filaments woven in an intricate structure . . . a vast cosmic web that holds the answers to the birth of galaxies themselves.

N:  It’s a story shrouded in darkness.  Look back far enough and gradually all the galaxies disappear.

JB:  There’s this time period that we can’t see because nothing is formed yet.  It’s this epoch that is called the dark ages.

N:  During the dark ages, the universe was a very different place than the one we live in today.  It’s filled with dense clouds of hydrogen gas.  Just as gas obscures stars in the milky way today, these clouds of hydrogen block the view inside the early universe.

JB:  It’s extremely frustrating because this region, this time period holds within it, in some sense, the Rosetta Stone of galaxy formation.

N:  But there is one clue as to what is happening inside those dense hydrogen clouds.  Look back further in time to a moment just 380,000 years after the Big Bang, and the universe isn’t filled with darkness but with light.  It’s faint afterglow is still visible to astronomers today.

JB:  In fact, this picture is amazing.  This is a picture of the early universe.  This is an image of the afterglow of the Big Bang.

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Here’s the little mathematical equation that caused me to go back and watch this special a few more times and then do a little more research on the side, which is absolutely fascinating – I highly encourage it.

A) The telescope as time machine; plus

B) A universe teeming with galaxies; plus

C) A period of time before these teeming galaxies in which nothing is formed and no light can be seen; plus

D) An original burst of light that we only began to have the technology to observe the remnants of in my lifetime (which cosmologists call the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation); plus

E) Perturbations in this original light that are elsewhere called Acoustic Oscillations (i.e., sound waves for those of us who appreciate phenomenological terminology).

Listen to how the Max Planck Institute described their recent CMB observations from the Planck Space Telescope as recently as March 21, 2013:

The all-sky map released now is based on the first 15.5 months of observations with the Planck space telescope, a mission of the European Space Agency (ESA), and shows the oldest light in the universe. . . .

and . . . .

The CMB is a snapshot of the oldest light in our Universe, imprinted on the sky when the Universe was just 380,000 years old. It shows tiny temperature fluctuations that correspond to regions of slightly different densities, representing the seeds of all future structure: the stars and galaxies of today. . . .

oh, and by the way . . . .

[Rashid Sunyaev and Yakov Zel’dovich] predicted not only the effect of galaxy clusters on the CMB but also the existence of the acoustic peaks in the CMB itself which Planck has now measured so precisely.

More banging of palm on forehead.  How did I miss THAT?  I’ve known about the Cosmic Microwave Background for decades.  I’ve seen the map dozens of times.  I’ve known the technical terms for years.  How did I miss the language of the phenomenon?

Listen to the opening verses of Scripture:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.  And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.  And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.  And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. . . . And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:  And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.  And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.  And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.  And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.  

Did you see it?  National Geographic and Max Plank, among others are all saying that there was light before there were stars, and they are using phenomenological language to communicate that understanding to a wider world.

It’s only been in the last century that there has been general scientific agreement that the universe even had a beginning.  We now call it The Standard Model of the Universe.  But it’s only been in my lifetime that we have had the technology to OBSERVE that there was light before there were stars.

I remember discussing this with a group of kids at church one time, and I really just didn’t have any idea how it was even possible for there to be light without stars, but by that time I was pretty confident that if there was a seeming contradiction between the science I knew and the scripture I knew, then I just needed to wait and trust and keep studying.

There are some great Christian thinkers and some great Christian scientists that I thoroughly enjoy reading, but I’ve really only seen them dance around the edges of this.  And the recent “debate” between Bill Nye The Science Guy and Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis (which was really disappointing to me on both the science and the theology fronts) only served to point out how badly we both (scientists and Christians alike) sometimes miss the point.  In other words, I have yet to see anyone bring together these recent observations of the early universe with what Moses said a few thousand years ago – There was light before there was a sun. How was Moses able to say THAT before we had the technology to make the scientific observation?

While I haven’t got all the details lined up, it seems to me that when scientists use the language of the phenomenon (so that nonscientists and beginning students can understand the concepts), many times what they say ends up sounding remarkably similar to what the Bible (which uses the same kind of language in many places) has been saying for thousands of years.  Are we not pointing this out because centuries later we’re still afraid of another Galileo debacle?


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Peeves That I Like To Pet

Yes, I have a few.  One that I see repeatedly in Christian circles is, “The Lord really showed up.”  I take this to mean there was a lot of response to the preaching or singing, or that people got very emotional.  Why do I pet this peeve?  Well, if you take the Scriptures seriously at all, it’s just nonsensical to even say that God showed up — as if he hasn’t been there all along.  Do people really mean that?  I certainly hope not.  What they really mean, I think, is that we’re usually a hard-hearted lot who flit through life with barely any awareness of God at all (yes, even Christians), but sometimes we soften enough, through the influence of the Holy Spirit – who has been there all along – that we actually respond to Him.  Sometimes that response is quite emotional.  Other times not so much, but new levels of faith or obedience become evident in our lives.

Jesus said that it is the pure in heart who will see God.  If we’re not seeing God, I think it says a whole lot more about us that it does about whether God showed up or not.

Corollary 1

Asking Jesus or God to be present with us.  He’s already present.  Can we just acknowledge his presence and thank Him?


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Beauty for Ashes

 

oboundlesssalvation

O Boundless Salvation, Deep Ocean of Love

William Booth

William Booth

 

Sitting here this afternoon, Ash Wednesday, with the words of this song flowing through my mind.  A familiar song from childhood that I don’t believe I’ve actually heard sung as an adult.  William Booth, who started a movement proclaiming this message, proclaiming it to the people no one else wanted anything to do with, preaching it outside the bars and the brothels, enduring ridicule, and spit, and fists, and stones – for this message, penned these words, and you will still likely only hear them within the ranks of the Salvation Army.

 

O Fullness of Mercy Christ Brought From Above

The Salvation Army still had street meetings when I was a kid – and I hated them.  My worst nightmare was that someone I knew from school would see me there will all these weirdos.  As many times as I heard the stories about how the Salvation Army got started, or about how three generations of my ancestors had given themselves to this message, or how three of my grandmother’s five children had lived and died with Heart to God and Hand to Man, I wanted to crawl into a hole and die if one of my school friends saw me on the streets with these people – especially once I was old enough to also play an instrument.  As it became harder and harder to believe the message myself, it became even harder to be seen with the people who did knowing that I was a mere pretender.

L-R Mary Ruth, Mildred (SA), Dad (SA), Grandma (SA), Grandpa (SA), Bob (SA), Ethel

L-R Mary Ruth, Mildred (SA), Dad (SA), Grandma (SA), Grandpa (SA), Bob (SA), Ethel

The Whole World Redeeming, So Rich and So Free

I couldn’t get away from the idea that the Salvation Army seemed to attract all the people no one else wanted – and as a teenager, this embarrassed me to no end.  I wanted to be cool and to fit in with the other kids at school.  Most of them had no idea what the Salvation Army even was, much less why I was marching down the street playing band music one day and smoking a joint with them the next.

Now Flowing for All Men, Now Flowing for All Men, Now Flowing for All Men, Come Roll Over Me

It finally occurred to me not many years ago that the Salvation Army attracts the people no one else seems to want because they intend to do so.  It’s precisely because many of the places that would be more immediately recognized as churches seem to have forgotten that Jesus was a friend of sinners – that many of his early followers would also have been found frequenting bars and brothels – that the Salvation Army has always purposed to open their hearts in this way.  Sad commentary – The Salvation Army is still the only place I have ever witnessed two unshowered homeless men being welcomed into a Sunday morning worship service with open arms.  I’ve heard that this is so in other places, but I’ve only seen it with my own eyes in the Salvation Army.  These are the people Jesus went to – right where they were – so that he could set them free – free from whatever oppression had them bound.  This inconsistency among different groups and individuals who claim the name of Christ left a sour taste in my mouth for many years.  Still does.  Never mind my own inconsistencies.

Coming face to face this week with the people no one else wants that the Salvation Army is intending to reach, listening to heir stories, hearing their struggles and their joys, talking with a woman who seems all used up, who still has to walk the streets at night, hearing her say, “God is good . . . . ” showed me that even now I don’t quite have the heart of Jesus . . . but I want to, and that is something new.  I want His heart for the people no one else wants, and I repent of the petty selfishness that has marked so much of my life.

On this first day of Lent, there’s nothing that I could feel better about giving up as we move toward the cross than this attitude of self.  Maybe, by God’s grace, I’ll leave it in the ashes where it belongs.

 

O boundless salvation! deep ocean of love,
O fullness of mercy, Christ brought from above,
The whole world redeeming, so rich and so free,
Now flowing for all men, now flowing for all men,
Now flowing for all men, come, roll over me!

My sins they are many, their stains are so deep,
And bitter the tears of remorse that I weep;
But useless is weeping; thou great crimson sea,
Thy waters can cleanse me, thy waters can cleanse me,
Thy waters can cleanse me, come, roll over me!

My tempers are fitful, my passions are strong,
They bind my poor soul and they force me to wrong;
Beneath thy blest billows deliverance I see,
O come, mighty ocean, O come, mighty ocean,
O come, mighty ocean, and roll over me!

Now tossed with temptation, then haunted with fears,
My life has been joyless and useless for years;
I feel something better most surely would be
If once thy pure waters, if once thy pure waters,
If once thy pure waters would roll over me.

O ocean of mercy, oft longing I’ve stood
On the brink of thy wonderful, life giving flood!
Once more I have reachèd this soul cleansing sea,
I will not go back, I will not go back,
I will not go back till it rolls over me.

The tide is now flowing, I’m touching the wave,
I hear the loud call of the Mighty to Save;
My faith’s growing bolder, delivered I’ll be;
I plunge ’neath the waters, I plunge ’neath the waters,
I plunge ’neath the waters they roll over me.

And now, hallelujah! the rest of my days
Shall gladly be spent in promoting His praise
Who opened His bosom to pour out this sea
Of boundless salvation, of boundless salvation,
Of boundless salvation for you and for me.


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The Darkest Place On Earth

I don’t know how many people actually listen to sermons.  I tend to be a fan, but only when the preacher has first been with God himself.   And how do I know that is the case?  When the preacher has been with God, then God can use him to speak to me.  (The negative case doesn’t hold true.  Just because I don’t hear from God through the preaching doesn’t mean the preacher hasn’t done his homework.  I might not have my spiritual ears on that day.)  I remember one particular sermon when the pastor said, “Pray that God will send you to the darkest place on earth.”  With a mixture of anticipation and fear, I did just that.

When you think of “the darkest place on earth,” immediately, the thought arises . . . The Middle East, the Brothels in India, North Korea . . . . Dark places, dark deeds, but safely remote enough that most of us can be sure that God would “never” send us over there.

But what if you find out that one of those dark places is right in your own back yard?

That was the situation I found myself in in 2010.  I had begun to hear about human trafficking and modern day slavery almost as soon as I became a Christian, but it was always “over there.” It never occurred to me that there would be anything that could be done here in the middle of small-town Ohio.  Except that I could never get it completely out of my mind, and every pastor and missionary and visiting speaker I encountered got the same two questions from me – What do you know about modern day slavery, and who do you know who is working in this area?  Sadly, for some years, the answers were – not much – and – no one.

Very early in 2010, we had a guest speaker at our church.  Although it wasn’t the topic of his message that day, Justin in half a sentence in the middle mentioned human trafficking.  Instantly, he had my full attention.  As soon as the service was over, I asked him my questions, and for the first time I had met someone who both knew something and knew someone.  The person he knew was in New York City, which is still kind of “over there” for someone in Ohio, but I felt like something was now in motion.  A week later, my pastor got an email from one of the college ministry guys about an event taking place at Ohio State University in April . . . He gave me Bryan’s email, and Bryan gave me the email address of the event coordinator – Connie Anderson.  I contacted her and explained that I would love to help in any way I could and offered “an extra set of lenses.”

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OSU Price of Life, Connie Anderson, IVCF Director of Justice Ministries

I don’t know why I haven’t written about that week before now. Certainly talked about it plenty.  The series of events that Intervarsity Christian Fellowship put together and called the Price of Life Invitational literally flipped around everything I had assumed about human trafficking up to that point.  As I went around and photographed as many of the events as I could while driving back and forth to Columbus every day and still working my full-time job (flex time opens a lot of doors but does allow me to put more on my plate than a sane person would), I listened intently to everything that was being said.

There was the Parade of Tears in which some 900 people marched along the portion of the Underground Railroad that goes through the Ohio State Campus to protest the fact that people are still being held in slavery today.

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OSU Price of Life Parade of Tears

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There was Dave Batstone of Not For Sale who talked about the importance of lifting people up economically so that they are not vulnerable to being trafficked in the first place and what we as American consumers can do to address slavery every day.

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OSU Price of Life, David Batstone of Not for Sale

There was a meeting in the Law Building with Holly Burkhalter of International Justice Mission and Tabitha Woodruff – a now graduated law student.  Later Ms. Burkhalter and State Senator Theresa Fedor held a press conference together.

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OSU Price of Life Senator Theresa Fedor, Holly Burkhalter, International Justice Mission

Then there was the Town Hall Meeting in which a panel composed of politicians, a trafficking survivor, a local judge (more about him in a minute), and representatives of nonprofits working to eradicate human trafficking discussed the central issues and what each was doing to address the problems.  Of the panel members, I was most captured by Judge Paul Herbert who one day asked a simple question — “God, is there anything you can do with me in this job?” and went on to describe what happened as a result of that prayer as “miraculous.”

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OSU Price of Life, Judge Paul Herbert

And that’s just through Monday night.  During the days, I wandered around campus visiting the various “Proxe” stations that IVCF had set up.  Each was designed to communicate facts about human trafficking, but more importantly to engage students with questions of good and evil, justice, and the message of Jesus.

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OSU Price of Life Proxe Stations

The main event on Thursday evening was a mixture of fun (a Price is Right game and a fabulous dance performance), powerful drama, interviews, and spoken message.

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OSU Price of Life Main Event

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OSU Price of Life Main Event

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OSU Price of Life Main Event

And I took one of my favorite portfolio shots in the process.

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OSU Price of Life, IVCF National Evangelist R. York Moore

At the end of it all, over 300 people indicated at some point during the week that they were placing their faith in Jesus.  Most importantly for me, I learned that this problem wasn’t just “over there” — it was right in my own back yard with Ohio being named among the top 5 in all the statistics that were being given.  For the first time, it seemed like living in Ohio might not be an obstacle to getting involved in the fight against human trafficking.

And then we moved.  After getting settled back in, finding a church, and going through a couple of job changes, I still haven’t mentioned that week on my blog.

Fast forward to 2014.  In a few weeks, I’ll have the opportunity to work with Connie again, and join 40 would be abolitionists in some hands on engagement.  I’m most looking forward to spending time with the ladies that Judge Herbert called miracles and to seeing Jesus in their faces (Matthew 25).  And I’m reminded of a message and the prayer that followed it and how darkness is always overcome by light.

A few weeks ago I read Malcolm Gladwell’s story of his own return to faith.  In it he described the people of Le Chambon, France, whose

“strength granted to them by their faith in God gave them the power to stand up to the soldiers and guns and laws of the state. In one of the many books written about Le Chambon, there is an extraordinary line from André Trocmé’s wife, Magda. When the first refugee appeared at her door, in the bleakest part of the war during the long winter of 1941, Magda Trocmé said it never occurred to her to say no: “I did not know that it would be dangerous. Nobody thought of that.”  Nobody thought of that. It never occurred to her or anyone else in Le Chambon that they were at any disadvantage in a battle with the Nazi Army.”

This torrent of greed and lust that keeps people being bought and sold and thrown away like trash will end.  Really, are these people any stronger than the Nazi armies?  I don’t think so.  Maybe Holly Burkhalter is right and slavery will come to an end in Ohio just like it did in the 1800s on the Underground Railroad.

 


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A Sign Shall Be Given – The Miracle Conundrum

Face it… god has nothing to offer if he is not remedying the sin that he himself imposes in your set of ideas. (former Christian atheist)

 

You are operating in the flesh.  Where is the spirit? Where are the miracles? (Christian)

Two different people, two different statements, both expressing the same fundamental misunderstanding. From the atheist’s perspective, religion and concepts of God are nothing more than social constructs, and the idea that one of these social constructs would provide a remedy for something it created in the first place is kind of idiotic.   So miracles are demanded as proof of God’s existence but not expected to actually happen since the whole religious idea is a cultural creation.

On the opposite side of the spectrum are those who are seeking miracles with the expectation that they are forthcoming.  From my own observations, the sought after gifts (whether speaking in tongues, second blessings, healings, or money) tend to become the evidence of God’s presence to the point that their lack also becomes evidence – either of God’s absence or of some deficiency on the pray-er’s part.  What is missed in these circles, usually, is that the things they are seeking as evidence of God’s Spirit are also present in cultures around the world — completely apart from any connection with Christianity at all.  In the process of exchanging the presence of God for the supposed blessings of God, his reality (In him we live and move and have our being – Acts 17:28) is missed just as severely as it is missed by the atheist.

Both quotes took me on a mental excursion to the opening chapter of the book of Job in which Satan throws out the slanderous accusation that the only reason Job worships God is because God has blessed him so abundantly.  Take away the blessings, says Satan, and Job will curse God instead.  Through the book, Job’s blessings – all of them – are taken away, and Job struggles with a faith that suddenly isn’t “paying off” like it did before.  Job’s friends pile on and try to impose their own cultural idea that all these calamities must be the result of some sin he has committed, and if Job just fesses up, God will start blessing him again.  Job is finally forced to shed all of his previous notions of who God is so that God can begin to show him who He really is.  Near the end of the book – with no answers and no restoration of blessings yet in sight – comes the incredible statement from Job that:

I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.

Shortly after I started attending church again in the spring of 1998, I went to the bookstore and picked up a Bible.  Almost immediately, I was drawn to the book of Job and started to read it — not just once.  I had a heavy internal compulsion to read this book over and over for a period of several months. In reading Job, God began to reveal to me the same things he revealed to Job.

So what was it that Job saw with his own eyes? Or put more appropriately to the point of the first statement, what is it that God has to offer apart from remedying the sin he himself has imposed?  Here are a just a few ideas that I picked up on in those very first days of discovery from Job’s story:

  • He IS.  God’s first question to Job in Chapter 38 begins with, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” The immediately obvious answer is that Job didn’t even exist (nor did I) – But God did, and because he did he could act in creation.  The name by which he reveals himself to Moses in Exodus 3 is a reflection of this – I AM THAT I AM.  The Apostle John reinforces the concept of the eternal existence of The Word (who became flesh in the person of Jesus), when he says that “In him was life.”  Because of that “life within himself,” Jesus had the power to lay down his life and take it up again, and also to give life to anyone he wishes to. The first thing I had to recognize during those initial days of encountering the God who was really there, was that he was really there, and if he wasn’t – if there was not a BEing who had the power of life within himself – whose existence is not dependent on something else prior – then neither would I BE.
  • He is the Creator. In the next few verses, God challenges Job about, not only where he was when God laid the foundations of the earth, but also whether he knows the measure of it or how it stays in place.  While we might have a lot more knowledge about the workings of the universe than Job did, we still don’t have a clue about the actual expanse and only the barest clues about how it is all held together.  The book of Colossians says that it is in Christ that everything was made and is held together.  That doesn’t rule out people continuing to search for some kind of “God particle” or unifying theory that will explain these things.  Maybe we’ll find it someday. In the meantime, I think it’s fascinating that as far out into space as we are capable of seeing, what we see are fully formed galaxies and star systems – just like those in our immediate neighborhood. We now know how big the earth is, and we understand something of how weather systems work, but we certainly don’t have the complete knowledge that the Maker has.
  • He understands and controls the physical processes that operate in all of creation. Everything from the weather to the motions of stars and planets is understood and governed by God.  Whatever control we may think we can exert on these processes, that control comes with an incomplete understanding of all the variables that influence these processes and is prone to error.  Frankly, there’s not a computer or a climate model on earth yet that accounts for everything that goes into governing our climate. “Who can number the clouds in wisdom?”  Who indeed?
  • He cares for his creation.  The challenge to Job is whether he can feed the young lions or the ravens. Does he know when the wild animals give birth or how long their gestation is? Does he know where they live? Can he get the wild animals to do his bidding?  Our parrot, while hand raised and somewhat tame, is still a wild animal by instinct, and he only does what I want if it is also what he wants.  Otherwise, watch out for the can opener on the end of his nose.  And yet, there is not a sparrow that falls in death without the Father.  We understand much more about physical processes and the lives of wild animals, but much remains mysterious.  Does the hawk fly by my wisdom?  Am I really wise enough to instruct and correct the Almighty?
  • He is adorned with majesty and excellency and glory and beauty.  I still remember being completely arrested during my first encounter with the majesty and excellency and glory and beauty of the Living God.  That small glimpse changed my direction forever.  The reaction seems pretty universal.  When we once encounter the true majesty and excellency and glory and beauty of the God who IS, we are always overwhelmed.  From Job, to Jacob, to Isaiah, to Peter, and Daniel, and John – no one leaves an encounter with the glory of God unchanged.
  • He is the only wise judge over human affairs. God asks Job if he capable of nullifying what God has done or if he is going to condemn God so that he can see himself as righteous.   This seems to me to be at the heart of the atheist complaint.  If Job can make himself righteous, then he can also save himself.

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To the point of the second question, what happens to someone whose faith is based on the idea that God’s gifts are synonymous with God’s presence or favor?  If I only pray hard enough, if I only have enough faith, if I only give up this bad habit, if I only give more money to the preacher . . . . THEN God will . . . . fill in the blank.  What if instead of evidence of God’s presence, all these “trappings” (was there ever a more appropriate word?) are really a distraction that end up keeping us from seeing God with our own eyes rather than merely hearing about him from others?  What do they do with Job?

I’ve talked before about how people observing the same event can have wildly different interpretations of what happened.  Working through John’s Gospel, starting with the turning water into wine and all the way through to the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the miracles or signs that Jesus did accomplished a couple of things.  First, they pointed to the fact that Jesus was the Prophet like Moses, the long-promised Messiah, and the Sign that would be given and be called Immanuel — God with us.  But, I think more importantly, the miracles also revealed the heart of the miracle seeker, and Jesus also had two different responses to those who were asking for miracles.  To the demand for miracles as proof, Jesus said, “No sign will be given to you except the sign of Jonah.” (The resurrection from the dead.)  To those who reached out to Jesus in hope of receiving mercy, he freely gave the miracles they needed (sometimes even without being asked at all).

The first time I actually talked to God after deciding as a teenager that he was a figment of the imagination, sometime in the summer of 1997, it was a very, very starry night – much like the picture above.  It could have been the beer talking, but sometime after everyone else had gone to bed and I was left by myself at the dying campfire, I looked up into all of those stars, and, for a moment, it seemed like they were close enough to touch — so close that actually I did the silly thing and reached up my hand to touch one.  In my mind, I said, “God, if you’re there would you let me know somehow?” I immediately felt thoroughly embarrassed about what had just happened, tossed down what was left of my beer, went to bed and put it out of my mind.

Sometime later, late enough in the year that I was driving home in the dark, I happened to be flipping through the channels on the radio and landed on this guy with a Scottish accent that caught my attention.  I later found out he was Alistair Begg, and Parkside ended up being the first church I stepped into after my long hiatus around 6 months later.  But on those dark rides home when I would flip through the stations and stumble onto this Scottish guy, I started hearing things from the Bible that were starting to make sense — things I knew in my heart were true in spite of the fact that I had been denying that truth most of my life.  There was just a slight problem.  As soon as this Scottish guy would catch my interest, the station would start to fade out.  Then began the arguments with this God I didn’t believe in.  “If you want me to hear this stuff, you have to get me a station that will last all the way home.” With all the belligerence of a 2-year old or a teenager, I made my demands.  The message would start, the station would last just long enough to get me interested, and then I would get mad at God for not letting me hear the punch line.  It wasn’t up to me to scan through the stations and see if I could find another one.  Oh, no.  It was God who was now on the hook to perform.

December 17, 1997, right at the height of the Christmas season, in one moment, God gave me the sign I had been demanding and answered both “prayers” – the first longing, the second demanding — and provided the parallel FM station that I had been listening to on AM, and I didn’t even have to drive home that night to know the station would go all the way home with me and I would hear the punch lines from now on.  Nothing has been the same since.

It’s hard for a former atheist to look at the “trappings” of the Christmas season as we know it today and not see paganism written all over it.  I understand the argument that some make – that Christians in the early centuries put their own interpretations on the pagan traditions, but to my mind it’s very reminiscent of the way the conquistadors “converted” Central and South America.  The gods of the Incas and Aztecs were reinterpreted as the saints of Catholicism, and everyone was happy.  Or a phenomenon that happens in cultures all around the world in response to certain emotional stimuli gets interpreted as a gift of God and becomes evidence of salvation.  So pagan traditions are reinterpreted and made to fit the Christian story all the time.

But in the middle of all of that pagan nonsense, God reached down and invaded my life, and as I wandered through the stores participating in those traditions that didn’t remind me of the Baby, I started to listen to the words of the great Christmas hymns again . . . . and those words were everywhere.  They were my first theology class, and they all pointed not to Santa Clause but to Immanuel – God with us.  God with me.  And I was amazed.  I had demanded a miracle and received Presence.  I had insisted on proof and been immersed in Reality.

I’m glad God look beyond my childish demands for a sign and saw the real longing in my heart, but I’m even more glad that he gave me his presence and not a shiny trinket.  Who needs miracles (signs pointing to God) when you can have God himself?


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Ex-Missionaries

I recently came across a Smithsonian video that prompts some thoughts about ex-missionaries. Unfortunately, that video is no longer available, but here is Dan Everett in his own words (approx. 10 minutes) –

Some thoughts:

On being an ex-missionary – I think it’s incredibly sad that Dan Everett spent nearly 30 years of his life dedicated to the task of learning the Pirhana language well enough to translate the Bible into it so that this group of people would have the Word of God in their own language, and then found himself in the position of not believing that was the right thing to do. The reasons I gathered from this film and other comments in his writings were 1) they’re happy the way they are, and isn’t it mighty colonial of us to go in there and try to force our god on them (this is typical anthropology department fodder), and 2) after 20 years with them, they listened to him politely but never more than that, and he never won a single convert, and 3) because the language doesn’t include concepts that include past, future, heaven, hell, or even anyone outside of those in the immediate memory and sensibility (average lifespan is only around 40 years), he had no way of answering their questions about God in terms of the immediate senses. In coming up empty for answers that would address their questions, he lost his own faith and his family.

Since viewing this video, I’ve also come across a book by Kenneth Daniels (Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary) who was in a similar position with Wycliffe Bible Translators, and while in Niger engaged in the task of Bible translation, started asking questions about the reliability of the Scriptures (the questions actually started before he got to the field), and ended up turning his back on God completely, though not his family.

While both of these gentlemen worked with Wycliffe, it’s not a phenomenon that is unique to that organization. Billy Graham’s preaching partner, Charles Templeton became an atheist, as well, after serving in an apparently fruitful ministry as an evangelist, and I’ve also recently encountered a friend of a friend who also claims to be an ex-missionary now turned atheist because of what he says is a lack of demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians and in his own.

I often wonder how I have made the opposite journey. These stories and others remind me, though, that salvation truly is by the grace of God.

Did Charles Templeton, who, with tears in his eyes, said that he missed Jesus at the time of his interview with Lee Strobel (The Case for Faith), ever find him again? Will Kenneth Daniels or Daniel Everett ever find a faith that will last? Will Ed come full circle, this time with the demonstration of the Holy Spirit’s power in his own life?

When I first started encountering these “Ex” stories as I was beginning to write down my own journey, I wondered if I, too, might become an “Ex.” I suppose in some theological configurations it’s a real possibility. After all, I did grow up in a denomination that teaches you can lose your salvation. This was a cause of much teenage angst. Combined with a few well placed “hypocrites in the church,” a good dose of evolution, and a naturally rebellious bent, the answers that atheism provided were quite appealing.

This raises the question – was I saved as a youngster and then lost and then saved again? Or rather, was I never actually a believer at all until 1999? Here, I think, is where some of the theological confusion comes in. From an outward observer’s perspective, it would appear (depending on your definition of what salvation actually is) that I was saved and lost multiple times as a kid, then was lost for 20 years as an atheist, and now have been saved again for 14 years, but according to the church I was raised in, I could still be eternally lost if i chose to depart from the faith.

That outward picture is in distinct contrast to the internal experience of what has happened over the years. I certainly remember the fact of multiple professions of faith as a kid, going to the altar, asking forgiveness, or whatever else people might call salvation. I definitely remember each heart decision that took me closer to atheism and further away from belief in God. What I don’t have any recollection of at all is any heart conviction of sin. Maybe some guilt – if caught doing something “bad” – but it seems to me now that guilt is not the same as conviction. Guilt can be misplaced and manipulated by others. Conviction of sin is God pointing out the things going on in my heart that cannot be denied or manipulated. As a kid, I could spout all kinds of facts and Bible verses, but at the end of the day, being “saved” meant trying to be “good” and not having any fun. The effort of trying to be “good” was more than I could sustain for very long, so I soon gave up convinced that there was nothing to all this Bible stuff.

What happened between 1997 and 1999 that changed all of that? From inside my skin, it was the action of the Holy Spirit doing exactly what Jesus said he would do. Beginning right where I was spiritually at the time, He began to convict/convince me of sin (my own), and righteous (his), and judgment (deserved). And this is something that had never happened before.

Of course, the question remains – having been convinced, could I now become unconvinced? I suppose in some views it would be theoretically possible, but I don’t think it’s a practical possibility. Even my parents acknowledged this to me at one point when discussing the subject. Having trusted in the One who said he would never leave me or forsake me, and the One who said that he would complete the work that he started, and the One who said that no one could pluck me out of His hand, it’s hard to credit that even if my faith were to fail that he would then be so faithless as to abandon those great and precious promises.

What was missing in my “salvation” experience as a child was the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and it is He who is the guarantee that I will not, at this point, ever be lost again. If it were up to me and my own efforts, all bets are off because I would soon tire of the effort and fail. Reading the ex-missionary stories, I just have to wonder if it is the Holy Spirit who is missing from their stories, as he was from mine.


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Behind the Ball Diamond

Can you find the nest? I remember when Terry and I were going out to the gun club, there were quite a few kildeers around, and I would try to find their nests so I could see the broken wing act that they put on in order to attract predators away from the nest. The one I found behind the ball diamond today is lucky I didn’t step right on the nest. I had seen the two kildeer and knew generally where they had been hanging out, but looking for brown spotted eggs in a sea of gravel is pretty daunting. Today, I kept a respectful distance and didn’t get to see the broken wing display. Solution to the puzzle below.
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Butterflies are one of my favorite challenges. They hardly stay still long enough to get a decent shot, so one where you can actually see the segments of their antennae is particularly rewarding.

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As we were driving to the parking lot, I had seen a couple of egrets flying around at one end of a small lake behind the ball diamonds. I didn’t make it to that end of the water tonight but did encounter a spotted sandpiper at water’s edge.

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He seemed to be working a particular section of the shoreline from right to left, and when he got to the end of that stretch, he’d fly back to the beginning and start working his way back again. There were others doing the same thing farther along the shore.

And now the revelation of the nest site:

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