These Three Remain.. Hope

I have to start this by saying I don’t feel particularly hopeful right now as I look around and hear all that is happening. There are a lot of reasons to be discouraged, even depressed. Riots, plague, disasters, anger, death, and evil surround us at nearly every turn. I can say that my Faith sustains me, and it does, but I still feel beaten down and exhausted by all the chaos and hurt and anger and misunderstanding.

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In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul talks about things that are temporary– possessions, knowledge, gifts, prophecies– and three things that remain: Faith, Hope, and Love. Last time, I wrote about Faith. But Hope is a more difficult and more nebulous concept. The writer of Hebrews defines Faith for us– “the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). But there is no substance or evidence for Hope. Hope is not an anchor; it is not a realization. It is a wish, a dream; at best, it is an expectation. Yet Paul says it “remains,” even when other things pass away.

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How is this possible– that a Christian should Hope after all else has been lost, abandoned, or destroyed? Isn’t Faith more solid, more important, than Hope? Aren’t knowledge, obedience, and perseverance more important and more tangible? Isn’t hope wispy, fleeting, and conditional? Lately, it sure seems so. I say that I hope we all get through these tough times; that we will come through all this stronger, wiser, more compassionate, more just, more prepared, etc., but what am I really hanging on to? Where is my Hope?

My Hope DOES have substance and a sure foundation–in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I may have wispy dreams and half-formed wishes of what I would like to see in my life or in the world around me tomorrow, or next year. I may have dreams and visions of what Peace and Justice and Health look like– and I may never see them materialize in my lifetime. I may have to adjust my vision within the temporary world of possessions, and gifts, prophecies and human systems of government and society. But I can remember the life of Christ; in spite of His circumstances, He remained true to His purpose. In His death, He remained compassionate, humble, and loving toward those who hated Him. In His resurrection, He brought eternal Hope to all who choose to trust Him. I can Hope because He brought Hope. I can be inspired by the dreams and hopes of other Christians throughout the years, even if their dreams have not been realized. I can be inspired by the prophecies of others, even if they don’t match my visions. And I CAN see beyond the darkness of the moment (or the year) to see that people (even I) can change; situations can change; circumstances can change; rhetoric and tone can change for the better. Painful valleys and unexpected upheaval may not be what I would want, but sometimes, it serves to clear out the “sinking sand” where dream houses would otherwise be built.

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And Hope is necessary to Prayer– Faith tells us that God hears, even when we can’t see Him or hear His answer. Hope tells us that God cares. He is not aloof in hearing our prayers. He doesn’t answer us out of some worn sense of duty or obligation. He doesn’t just give us His law or even His forgiveness– He gives us restoration and Hope and abundant life! Hope for change in our own lives; hope for progress and healing in our world; hope for victory over sin and evil. Most of all, hope for eternity. God is just and merciful, but He is also gracious and loving beyond all measure. I can cry out when all other hope is gone– His Hope Remains! His Hope is a Solid Rock. His Hope comes with an eternal guarantee.

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I Can Do All Things..

I know many Christians who cite Philippians 4:13 as their favorite verse: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” And while this is a powerful verse, and holds great promise, I think it has been misused and taken out of context too often in recent years.

The Apostle Paul wrote this– from a prison cell as he awaited trial and a likely sentence of death! And this thought is a summary statement. It follows a list of circumstances in which Paul had experienced needs, and questions, and setbacks, and lack of provision.

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In this season of “sheltering in place,” I have a new appreciation for Paul’s letter. I am not in jail, but there are many restrictions (temporary, but seemingly endless) on where I can go and what activities I can pursue in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. I cannot “do all things” in any normal sense. My family could not gather for Mother’s Day this year. We cannot have friends over for a meal, or take our grandchildren to the movies, or meet together for a traditional church service on Sundays. I cannot open my little shop to customers. I can’t go and get a haircut or hang out at the bakery or coffee shop.

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And there are others who are struggling, not just with restrictions, but with increased expectations. They cannot “do all things” to help a dying patient, or stop the spread of infection in their nursing home or hospital ward. They cannot answer frenzied questions about timelines and protocols. They cannot work effectively from home and still be available to their children as both parent and surrogate teacher. Or, they cannot meet the needs of their students without face-to-face interaction.

But Paul is not talking about the mere completion of a worldly task, or achieving a personal goal. Paul isn’t suggesting that he (or anyone else) can do anything and everything he might want to do or that others might wish him to do. He has just finished talking about times of lack, of wants and needs and facing uncertainties. Paul did not (even with Christ’s help) skip lightly around Asia Minor, making friends and influencing people.

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So what DID he do? What did he mean by “all things?”

Paul speaks often throughout his letter of “running a race.” Paul learned that in all circumstances, with whatever resources, whatever restrictions, and whatever obstacles, he could “run” his race. Under persecution or in times of great success; in times of plenty, or in times of hunger; in prison or on the road (or seas); in Jewish synagogues or Greek amphitheaters; alone or in crowds– Paul could worship God. He could proclaim the Gospel. He could spread the love and grace of Christ Jesus. If he couldn’t travel, he could still speak. If he couldn’t speak, he could write. If he couldn’t write, he could pray. He could do “all things” that were necessary to accomplish his one goal– to run the race; to finish strong; to live a life of purpose and worship.

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May we do the same today, through Christ, who gives us strength. I may not be able to gather with friends, but I have the blessing of being able to call, or e-mail, or IM, or send encouragement. I can still write this blog. I can still pray– in fact I have more time to do so! I can do “all things” that will fulfill my purpose and bring honor to God. And so can you. What a privilege–no matter where we are or what our circumstances!

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My Cup Runneth Over

“Are you the type of person who sees the glass half-full, or half-empty?” Amateur psychologists like to ask questions like this, to determine if others are optimists or pessimists. But what happens when you realize your cup or glass is really full to overflowing?!

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Often, we look at our lives and circumstances with a pessimistic attitude. “I’m stuck at home during the pandemic– I can’t be with my friends, I can’t visit the gym, I can’t go to work..” We think of our “full” lives just weeks ago, and we miss all the things we took for granted– even the things we were complaining about before! And we worry and panic about tomorrow, or next week, or later today! But this is not God’s view. All that we are “missing” right now, God knows. He knows what we need, what we want, and what is best for us to have (or not have) during these days. Even if we are suffering from COVID-19, or waiting and praying for a loved one who is isolated and struggling, God knows. He listens for every breath– even the labored ones; He knows all that has come before this moment, and all that will happen in the next. If our glass is truly half-empty, we need only ask, and God will give us wisdom, patience, strength, and whatever He knows we need for the next breath; the next step.

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Sometimes, we carry an overly optimistic mindset–taking pride in our half-full glass, and not allowing God to finish filling it. We sit safe in our houses, confident that we will survive any threat and defeat any enemy, especially a tiny virus. We don’t need God’s help; His abundance of wisdom and grace. We’ve got everything covered with our half-full arrogance. But this is also not God’s view. God doesn’t want to fill our cup so that we can be smug and self-satisfied. God wants to fill us to overflowing, so that we can bless others, and see the incredible riches of His mercy and love! Some people look like they are “half-empty” from the outside– they are poor, or tired, or weak– but they are overflowing with God’s love; gushing with grace, lavish with love, exuding excitement, and overflowing with joy. Meanwhile, the optimist who is smug and self-serving, may seal up her “half-full” glass, refusing to share her hope and joy with others who need it.

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God is never stingy with His riches. Paul reminds us that God’s Grace is sufficient https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Corinthians+12%3A6-10&version=NIV, that God can meet all our needs out of His abundance https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+4%3A19&version=NIV, and that God is able to do more than we can possibly imagine https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+3%3A20-21&version=KJV; the Apostle James writes that every good and perfect gift is from above https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+1%3A17&version=ESV . However, we must be open to accept them, and open to share them with those around us! This is especially true when God’s riches may be hidden by clouds of doubt, worry, and fear.

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So today, I need to see, not whether my cup is half-full or half-empty of energy, or money, or health– I need to see where my cup is overflowing with God’s Grace, His Peace, and His Love!

Hot Dogs and Eutychus..

There is a curious story in the Bible about the Apostle Paul and a young man named Eutychus. https://www.gotquestions.org/Eutychus-in-the-Bible.html. The story is found in Acts 20:7-12, and involves a young man listening to the Apostle Paul. As Paul talks on into the night, the young man, sitting in the third story window, falls asleep, falls out of the window, and plummets to his death. Luke, who authored the the gospel which bears his name and the book of Acts, was a doctor, and an eyewitness of this event. He clearly states that Eutychus died from his fall. But Paul runs outside and brings Eutychus back to life, returning inside to finish his talk and eat with the crowd– who are amazed and relieved to have their friend alive and well.

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Luke’s story doesn’t say whether or not Eutychus was alone in the third story window, or leaning against a wide window frame or perched precariously before he fell into “a deep sleep.” I have always imagined him perched comfortably leaning against the side of a wide and open window frame, one leg drawn up and the other dangling as he listened to Paul speak. As the night wore on, he may have slouched a bit, or even turned to lean his whole back against the frame, pulling both legs up onto the wide ledge. My mental picture may be completely wrong, but I don’t think of him hugging a narrow space and sitting tense and clinging before sleep claimed him.

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A few days ago, I referenced an old hymn knows as “The Solid Rock” or “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand. ” One of the lines of the hymn states, “I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ Name.” But the flip side of this is that Jesus IS the solid rock and the “frame” on which we can both stand and rest secure.

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I was reminded today of another old hymn; one that I heard as a child and did not understand at all. Have you ever heard a new song, and completely mis-heard the lyrics? As a young child, I often heard hymns sung that were old to the adults but “new” to me. This was one of them. I paid little attention to the first verse, but the chorus!?! I was sure the congregation was singing, “Wienies (the word my grandparents sometimes used for hot dogs)! Wienies! Wienies on the everlasting arms…” It sounded like a righteous chorus of hot dog vendors at a baseball game. I giggled and snorted, and my grandmother, who was standing next to me, quietly leaned over and asked what I found so funny. When I explained it to her, she too began to giggle a little, and we shared a (quieter) giggle and smiles throughout the rest of the hymn. (Sacrilegious, I know, but it seemed very funny to a five-year-old.) Later, my grandmother lovingly explained the hymn–turning a “silly” song into a wonderful testament of God’s tender, loving care that touches me to this day.

I don’t recommend to anyone that they trust themselves to a window frame, a third story balcony, a too-comfortable seat at the theater, or to hot dogs eaten in bleacher seats at the baseball game. God doesn’t call us to get comfortable! Even if we are listening, and trying to follow Jesus, we may still fall– literally, like Eutychus, or figuratively. We may misunderstand, or get confused or weary and lose our focus. We may put ourselves at risk by leaning on the wrong frame.

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God could have kept Eutychus from falling from that third story window, but I believe He meant for that story to come down through the ages. It is not just a miracle, and a testament to the power of God and given to the Apostle Paul. It is a great reminder that even when we are trying to listen and follow God, we can still end up trusting in the wrong things and “falling asleep”. But no matter how far we fall, or how broken or “dead” we may seem to be, God sees us, cares for us, and wants to give us new life! We can rest “safe and secure from all alarms” when we remain in (or return to) the reassuring, everlasting arms of our Savior.

Some days, I feel like Eutychus– lying broken and useless three stories below where I began. Other times, I feel like a confused hot dog vendor, calling out to God for “Wienies”, when I really need Wisdom and Grace. But God is faithful to bring me back time after time, wrapping me in his amazing “Everlasting Arms”:

Let No Tongue on Earth Be Silent…


“Of the Father’s Love Begotten”
by Aurelius C. Prudentius, 413, cento
Translated by John. M. Neale, 1818-1866
and Henry W. Baker, 1821-1977

1. Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the Source, the Ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see
Evermore and evermore.

2. Oh, that birth forever blessed
When the Virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bare the Savior of our race,
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face
Evermore and evermore.


3. O ye heights of heaven, adore Him;
Angel hosts, His praises sing;
Powers, dominions, bow before Him
And extol our God and King.
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert ring
Evermore and evermore.


4. This is He whom Heaven-taught singers
Sang of old with one accord;
Whom the Scriptures of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word.
Now He shines, the Long-expected;
Let creation praise its Lord
Evermore and evermore.


5. Christ, to Thee, with God the Father,
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
And unending praises be,
Honor, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory
Evermore and evermore.

taken from http://www.lutheranhymnal.com
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Christ’s Humility and Exaltation
Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus,
who, existing in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God
as something to be exploited.[a
Instead he emptied himself
by assuming the form of a servant,
taking on the likeness of humanity.
And when he had come as a man,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death—
even to death on a cross.
For this reason God highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow—
in heaven and on earth
and under the earth—
11 and every tongue will confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:5-11 (Christian Standard Bible–CSB)

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An early Christian poet penned the words for this Christmas Hymn over 1500 years ago.  He was echoing the words of the Apostle Paul from 400 years before that.  Paul’s “hymn” was expressing truths penned by prophets and songmakers stretching back centuries before his time.  From the earliest recorded writings of Moses we see the same themes:  God is eternal–eternal in existence, eternal in power, eternal in glory; God extends himself on behalf of his creation–giving, sacrificing, inviting, forgiving; God exalts the humble–he notices the overlooked, elevates the lowly, honors the meek.

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These themes have not changed in centuries, but our interpretation and usage of them has.   I still love this old hymn, and the passage from Philippians, but I see people, Christians and non-Christians alike, using phrases like, “Let no tongue on earth be silent,” and “Every knee shall bow” not as invitations or extensions of God’s glory and sacrifice, but as threats.  I find this understandable, but not defensible– especially coming from Christians.

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I think our modern world has lost much of its wonder and ability to see “honor, glory and dominion.”  We spend our days “debunking” any idea or person who might seem worthy of respect or honor, but we replace them with ideas and people who are less worthy of respect, because they make us feel superior and smug in our own complacent, convenient lives.  We are satisfied by glitter, instead of seeking glory.  We have given the word “dominion” the same negative connotation as “colonialism” or “conquest”.  We do not choose to honor humility or service– we celebrate what is brash, flashy, loud, and self-serving.

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Some of our modern churches and worship services fall into the same trap.  We give more honor to the worship band and the comfortable seats than we do to the creator of the heavens.  We spend our money on t-shirts and CDs proclaiming the wonders of OUR faith, but we don’t have any money to share with those in need just two streets away.  I am not saying that this is unique to our time, or that the early Church was without fault.  But there is a very different feeling one gets in entering a medieval church or cathedral–they were not built for human comfort, but to inspire the sort of knee-bowing, tongue-confessing awe found in the ancient hymns.  Jesus grabbing a cup of Joe and plopping down next to us in a climate-controlled, renovated movie theater does not have the same effect.  We are sometimes left with the impression that Glory is ephemeral and glittery, and God is more interested in our comfort than in our transformation.

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So when we read that God is eternally glorious and that every knee WILL bow and every tongue WILL confess– we see this as coming from a self-important little-g  “god” who compels his creation to worship him out of a vain desire for imputed glory.  In contrast, the Bible presents a God whose very nature IS Glorious.  We worship him when we see him as he is.  When we choose in this life to exalt ourselves and ignore God’s invitation, and the ways in which he reveals his glory here on earth, it doesn’t diminish his glory or change his nature.   

Consider a beautiful sunset.  There was a glorious sunset in our area last Saturday night.  Several of my friends posted pictures of it– it was awe-inspiring!  That was its very nature.  But many people missed seeing it, or recognizing its beauty.  After all, the sun sets every day.  This sunset came and went like all the others.  The sky didn’t force anyone to look at it, but it was visible to anyone who would see it.  God’s presence, when fully revealed, will be stunning in its Glory and impossible to ignore.  Every knee WILL bow and every tongue WILL confess– simply in awe of it.  God invites us to open our eyes, to catch glimpses (like Saturday’s sunset) of the glory he imputes to even the most ordinary and humble things in life.

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And so it was in the incarnation.  God’s glory arrived in the form of a baby– one among thousands in Judea, His divine nature wrapped in the ordinariness of arms and legs, cooing and crying like any other baby, born in obscurity, yet announced from the beginning and heralded by the very hosts of heaven– Here HE is!  Come and behold Him!  Worship and adore Him!  Evermore and Evermore!

Full Disclosure

I like to know things–I like to solve puzzles, figure out mysteries, learn trivial facts.  I want answers.  So when I go before God in prayer, I often ask questions.  Why is this person suffering?  When will their suffering end, and how?  Where were you in this disaster (as though God had stepped out for a minute and wasn’t aware of what happened)?

God stays silent.

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I can grow frustrated in the silence or I can learn to trust.  That doesn’t mean that I no longer want answers; just that I am willing to wait on God’s sovereign timing.  It also means that I am need to more about God’s nature–God doesn’t keep secrets or withhold knowledge because He wants to torment me, or frustrate me, or play some cosmic mind game (though some people accuse Him of doing just that).  God withholds full disclosure of His plans, His reasoning, and His nature out of love and compassion.  Suppose I could see into the future, even give out warnings, but had no power to stop disaster from coming.  Not only would I be haunted by the disaster itself, but by the full knowledge of its coming.  Suppose I could see a miracle in advance; know when and how it would unfold.  There would still be joy, but it would be muted by the foreknowledge– of course there would be a happy ending; of course there would be a miracle– I saw it all from afar off.

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The Apostle Paul touches on this in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13.  This is commonly known as the “Love Chapter”, and the first half is frequently quoted at weddings and church sermons.  But the end of the chapter is a wonderful message of hope and faith, ending with Paul’s triumphant statement about all three:

1 Corinthians 13:8-13 English Standard Version (ESV)

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

monochrome photography of a man looking in front of mirror
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God loves us with a perfect love.  Because of that, I can trust Him, and have hope in the midst of my questioning.  So when I pray with questions, I can know that God has “filed them away”– He is fully aware of my situation, questions and all, and He is fully faithful to answer them all in His perfect wisdom and timing.  Someday, I will know– not only all that I don’t know now, but why I had to wait.

God will provide full disclosure. with compassion, love, and wisdom that only He can give.

The “Fake” Good News

I keep hearing about, and seeing reports of “Fake” News.  Even the term “Fake” News is somewhat misleading–is it news?  Is it False News?  Is it “fake” because it never happened, or because it has been exaggerated or taken out of context?  Or because it doesn’t say what I want it to say?  How do I know what is “real” news anymore?

The biggest problem with “Fake” news is that it “feels” real, true, and important.  In reality, it may be none of those things.  Yet there if often a kernel of fact, or a dusting of truth that makes it hard to disprove or dispel.  And, if it had already been accepted as legitimate news by thousands, it’s even harder to stop it from being spread.

But the more insidious problem with “fake” news is the time wasted trying to sort truth from fiction, and plain fact from exaggeration and distortion.  If my friend sends me an article, or a video, or a photo, I may accept it as true on the strength of my friendship.  But what if they’re just passing it on from another source?  What if I see it from a recognized news source?  Do I dare question it?  And if so, where do I turn to verify it?  There are several fact-checking websites, but even they have biases that cause them to weigh facts differently in various situations.  Whatever assumptions we used to hold about “neutral” reporting have been proved wrong.  We are being conditioned to trust none of what we hear and less than half of what we see!

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What about the “Good” News that Christians carry into the world?  Is it like the “Fake” news we see on TV or read about on our tablets?  And if someone challenges our faith in God’s word, how can we prove that the Gospel is not “Fake”, and that our Faith is not just more hype with smoke and mirrors?  If we are pursuing prayer, shouldn’t we be confident that our prayers are not in vain and that our faith is sound?

The claim of “Fake” news makes an assumption that there is such a thing as “True” news.  Similarly, saying the Gospel is “Fake” assumes that there is an alternate truth.  But the real burden of proof is on those who want to push for the alternative.  The truths of the Bible have been time-tested, and shown to be real.  The challenges I hear most often are to the exceptions, not the rule.  I don’t hear anyone saying that “Thou shalt not steal” is a “fake” morality.  Instead, I hear that, “Christianity is fake because I know Christians who cheat and steal.”  I don’t hear people claim that “it is not morally wrong to kill.”  Instead I hear them justify exceptions.  “I’m not promoting abortion as a good thing.  I don’t think it’s right to kill another human being, but this is just a fetus, and anyway, I’m just protecting a woman’s right to her own body.”  “I don’t think it’s ethical to force someone to stay alive if they are in pain and they want to die.”  “You can’t go around just killing anybody, but I think it would be better for everyone else if ___________________ (insert the name of a group– Down’s Syndrome children, Jews, Sunnis, Hutu/Tutsi) didn’t exist.”  “I don’t believe the morals found in the Bible are wrong.  I just don’t think you need to believe the rest of it to “be moral.”

People point to single passages, single verses, even single words to “prove” that the Bible is racist, sexist,  intolerant, and promotes violence.  The Bible includes many examples of people NOT following God’s laws, and yes, the results are grisly.  And there are difficult passages when God calls for a wicked city to be destroyed completely.  Critics are not wrong to point out that the Bible is not about perfect people behaving perfectly.  And the same Loving God who frees the slaves from Egypt is the God who destroys Jericho, and Sodom and Gomorrah.  Taken out of context, these few examples may seem to cast doubt on the authority of God’s word.  Yet the same critics who pound away at the same few examples in the Bible discount hundreds of instances of  historical events that highlight human sacrifice, genocide, mass infanticide, slavery, torture, and all sorts of other evil that occurred without the Bible’s influence.  Moreover, I hear a lot about claims against “Christians” who fought in the Crusades or owned slaves–I hear a lot less about Christians who worked to end slavery and the slave trade, or Christians who founded universities, charitable institutions, or brought revivals that sparked decades of social progress throughout countries and continents.

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I don’t hear many people claim that there was no such person as Abraham, or King David, or Solomon, or Nebuchadnezzar, or Pontius Pilate or Caesar Augustus.  But they want to deny the historical reality of Adam and Eve, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Apostle Paul, who are found in the same Bible.  Why?  Because if Adam and Eve are real, there must be a creation and a creator.  If Jesus really lived and said the things that are attributed to him, we must deal with the claim that he was Messiah.  If the Apostle Paul really lived and wrote his letters to the churches of Asia Minor, we must deal with his claim that he encountered the risen Christ and his life was dramatically and eternally changed.

However, there is a “Fake” gospel– Good news that doesn’t match the Biblical account–a “Fake” Christ that only said or did or “would do” what we want him to say or do; a Christ that isn’t holy or righteous, but just loves us because it’s the “zen” thing to do; a Christ who is without power to save or to sanctify; a Christ who is without mercy and loves only those who look the part or say the right things.  How do you spot a “Fake” Christ and a “Fake” Gospel?  Get to know the real ones of the Bible.  You’ll soon be able to spot an “imposter.”

“Fake” News will always fail the test of time and the challenges of real evidence.  Good News will transcend the test of time and the challenges of faulty evidence.

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Christ Has Died, Christ Is Risen, Christ Will Come Again!  THAT’s the Good News!

 

 

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