Christmas Memory

This was written for a holiday variety show where I was on stage as the “visiting Protestant minister.” I appeared along with a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest. No joke.

“I am a Protestant pastor, but I grew up in the Greek Orthodox church. It was a great spiritual foundation. You need to know that Greek Orthodoxy is kind of like Catholicism before they modernized under the Vatican II Council. By the way, my family is very Greek. All four grandparents were immigrants and they spoke Greek at home. I went to Greek school (with all the other kids from church) every Tuesday and Thursday after American school was over.

My mom died the summer when I was twelve years old. That first Christmas without her was weird. We sat around the Christmas dinner table like there was an empty seat … or like we were a holiday jig-saw puzzle with a piece missing.

Then, a few years later, my dad married an American woman. I say that because, as far as the Greeks were concerned, it was a mixed marriage. But Christmases became a lot better.

My new mom wasn’t just American—she was blue-eyed, blonde, and Protestant—and we started going to a Presbyterian Church every other week. I didn’t mind it. Not only could I easily read the prayers along with everyone else during the service, the service itself was a lot shorter. We were out-of-there in under an hour. Truthfully, I had never heard a church service performed in English before that. And perhaps what impressed my adolescent boy’s mind the most was that the girls at a Protestant Church didn’t all look like my sister. (Um, just so you know, my sister is beautiful … but … well, um … you know what I mean.)

Christmastime was different at the Greek Orthodox Church. The priest and the cantor would sing something in Greek, sounding more like Middle-Eastern street performers than like Bing Crosby and Perry Como. If the Byzantine choir sang anything, it was always in a minor key. Anything Christmas-y happened during Sunday School in the separate building next door to the church. Truly, it’s not even officially Christmas until around the 7th of January in Orthodoxy.

I will never forget our first Christmas at the Protestant Church. We didn’t have to get as dressed up as we did when we went to the Orthodox Church We went on the night before Christmas. The stars were out in that cold, clear, black sky. The church windows glowed as we approached. And the Americans had decorated their building—oh, how it was decorated—with holly wreaths and mistletoe, with green garlands and gold bows, with red candles and twinkling white lights. A handbell choir rang out, Away in the Manger. The pastor spoke about the significance of Jesus’ birth in language even I could understand. We got to sing Christmas carols inside the church—songs like, O Come All Ye Faithful, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Silent Night.

There was even a tall Christmas tree in the front of the sanctuary, all lit-up with colored lights and ornaments, over a Nativity set. In my teenage imagination we were like the shepherds, all around, who had come to see the Christ-child. I could almost hear the lamb and cattle sounds. And I nearly caught a glimpse of angels making their rounds.”

What Kind of People Did Jesus Befriend?

Luke 7:20,22-23  When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’” … So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” 

Luke 7:31-35   “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like?  They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’  For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’  The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”

Jesus loves everyone, but He did not buddy up to “religious” people—at least those who thought they knew how God behaves, what He likes, and what He hates. They struggled with the people Jesus hung around. The question we must ask ourselves is: What Kind of People Does Jesus Befriend?  From the several verses above, we can surmise the following:

  1. Totally committed people who struggle with doubts sometimes (like John the Baptist).
  2. Totally sinful people who struggle with their reputation.  (Like the “sinners” mentioned above).

If you find yourself in either one of these groups, Jesus wants to spend time with you. He will be with you in your solitude and doubts (the believer that you are); or He will celebrate life with you (the immoral person that you are). Anyone who tells you otherwise will be whining along with the ultra-religious people mentioned above, “Hey Jesus, we thought we knew the kind of people you liked—men and women who keep the rules and never question—but you wouldn’t cooperate with us!”

If Jesus didn’t befriend the “religious,” but still loved them, how did He show it? —By refusing to play their games and by challenging them about Himself.

Submission to Authority

Not a fun topic, especially with the kind of folks who make up Scum of the Earth Church—a group of amazing, passionate young people who have seen part of their subculture’s mission as reprimanding corrupt institutions, being skeptical of corporations, and questioning governmental leaders.

It’s a prophetic calling, really.

And yet, in the Bible, there are commands to respect that which God has placed over us—even if there are bad people in those positions. It doesn’t make sense when one remembers that Christianity has been seen, historically, as a subversive movement by many of those in power.

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. (1Peter 2:13-15)

How often have we viewed civil authorities as the enemy? In many movies, television shows, and books we paint police and politicians as evil (or at least incompetent) people who should be disobeyed. We can’t stand the injustice they perpetrate. When they are defied, it is to the delight of the reader and the cinema audience.

The Apostle Peter—the guy who wrote the Bible passage above—once cut off the ear of a government official who was coming to arrest Jesus (and do you honestly think he was just aiming for the man’s ear?) Later on in his life, Peter still had plenty of reasons to mistrust those who ruled the Roman Empire. Christianity was outlawed. He was flogged, beaten, imprisoned, and finally crucified upside down by the “authorities” he writes about—all for speaking the truth about Jesus, the Savior of that world.

That Peter would obey civil authority at all is amazing. That he would encourage other Christians to do so is mind-boggling. He becomes more concerned about the reputation of Christ than about his own sense of justice. He submits himself to the laws of the land—as long as they don’t break the higher laws of God. When he refused to defer to the empire’s demands to stop talking about Jesus and discipling churches, they killed him.

We, in the Western world, enjoy more freedoms than any people at any time in history. So, let us obey the laws we have to the glory of Jesus; that is, until the time when our obedience to the nation becomes disobedience to God.

In Him,

The Shortest Prayer: HELP!

Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my sighing. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray. In the morning, O LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation. (Psalm 5:1-3)

These are the opening lines to a prayer written by David, the king of Israel, about three thousand years ago. This much is obvious:

1) He wants God to hear him because he is in trouble.
2) He knows God is the boss of everything.
3) He understands that prayer gets God’s attention.
4) He starts talking to God about it as soon as he wakes up.
5) He expects God to do something, but he doesn’t know what or when.

Does that process sound familiar? These lines give us hope that our prayer lives are not as shallow as we’ve feared. It’s okay to keep asking for help. God has given us an example in the Bible—actually many examples—of people who love Him asking for help out of the hard times in which they find themselves (even if they themselves are the cause).

Have faith (Mark 11:22).

Some Verses for When You’re Too Weary to Read Your Bible

  • O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (This person knows God and is still having difficult times! Sound familiar?)  
  • My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word.  (Hmmm … the words of God are like water for the thirsty soul. Maybe I’m not too tired to read the Bible after all.) 
  • The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.  (Not only are God’s words nourishment to our souls, but He will use us to nourish others with His words as well.)
  • “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  (Who does Jesus think He is, the Word of God or something?)  
  • Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.  (Looks like Jesus is the Word made flesh, and we are to think hard about how He found nourishment from God’s words when His life became very difficult.)  
  • Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.  (There is a reward for doing the right thing—like feeding on God’s word—as if it weren’t enough of a reward in itself!)

(Psa. 63:1 / Psa. 119:28 / Isaiah 50:4 / Matt. 11:28 / Heb. 12:3 / Gal. 6:9)

Keep striving,

–Mike 

Giving Up

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Jim Elliot’s journal entry for October 28, 1949 based upon the words of Jesus in Luke 9:24, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

What we hold onto is so futile, so temporary, so poor in comparison to what God offers, that one wonders why it is so difficult to give up.  The answer is simple—it’s everything we have.  Jim Elliot, the 28-year-old missionary who was murdered along with four other young missionaries by warriors from the Huaorani tribe in Ecuador, gave up his earthly life. What he gained in eternity will never be taken away. Most of us are not called to sacrifice our lives for the Gospel. Instead, Christ has asked us to die on the “installment plan,” a little bit at a time. It looks something like this:

   •Give up our plans for God’s plans.

   •Give up hoarding money to gain infinite spiritual wealth.

   •Give up our frustrations to gain God’s peace.

   •Give up our preferences for God’s truth.

   •Give up our un-forgiveness to gain God’s forgiveness.

   •Give up our control of others to gain God’s control of us.

   •Give up our addictions to gain freedom in body and soul.

   •And finally, give up our mortal lives to gain immortal life in Christ.

This is the cost of discipleship. This is the metaphor of baptism. This is what it means to be a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). According to Jesus, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.      (Matthew 16:24)

By fantastic mercy,

The Line Between Romance and Friendship  

 

Can men and women just be friends without romance becoming a factor?  And how can a person make sure he or she falls in love with a friend (without ruining the friendship)?   

The Bible doesn’t say a lot about dating (since it was not the method of courtship in those times) and it doesn’t specifically address the idea of friendship between men & women (although we can see several relationships where that is the case).  Below are some of the differences I’ve found between “being friends” and “being in love.”

FRIENDSHIP

Song of Songs 2:7 Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you by the gazelles and by the does of the field: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.

Common interests, ideals, hobbies  

Inclusive (the more friends, the merrier)

Easygoing in nature

Emotionally steady

Physical appearance is no big deal

It’s a hug or a handshake

It’s focused on things together

ROMANCE

Song of Songs 5:16 His mouth is sweetness itself; he is altogether lovely. This is my lover, this my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.

Opposites tend to attract each other

Exclusive (two’s company, while  three’s a crowd)

Passionate in nature

Emotionally unpredictable

Physical appearance is a definite factor

It’s a kiss on the lips

It’s focused on each other

Quite a difference, huh? The bottom line is this: The only way you will ever know if you have fallen in love with a friend is if you would have been friends even though you had never fallen in love.  The best way I know to discover this is to consciously refrain from romance, for as long as possible, until you know for sure that you could be friends.  

Even so, it will be difficult to tell if you’re the kind of person who can fool him/herself into thinking all in the relationship is platonic when it is not. That’s where friends and family can be great reality checks. Show them the lists above and ask them what they think—if you’ve crossed the line between friendship and romance.

Your friend,

Mike

INSPIRATION & ILLUMINATION

The INSPIRATION of the Bible 

I believe the scriptures to be inspired by God—in that the writers of the Bible were influenced supernaturally by the Holy Spirit to record the things God desired as he worked through the writers’ personalities. 

2Peter 1:20-21  Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.  

This kind of inspiration was given that God might convey his truth to people throughout the ages.  It appears that God is not pleased when humans don’t take his inspired truth seriously. 

Zechariah 7:12  They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry.

The Apostle Paul maintained the inspiration of Scripture when writing to early church leaders. 

2Timothy 3:16-17  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Jesus himself used the words which God had given through Old Testament writers in response to Satan’s temptations. 

Matthew 4:7  Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’

As for the New Testament, the Apostle Peter elevated the writings of Paul to the same level of Holy Scripture when he wrote about Paul’s letters:

2Peter 3:16  He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.  

The ILLUMINATION in our hearts

Illumination is that process by which the Holy Spirit continues to reveal God’s word and work to us.  The apostle John said that it was by illumination believers are able to discern between what is from the LORD and what is not. 

1John 4:6  We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.

Even Jesus himself said as much. 

John 7:17  Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.

The Apostle Paul writes about this in another of his letters to the early church.

Ephesians 3:2-5  Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.

Paul expects his readers to understand what he writes by the same illumination under which he himself wrote.  

I find that in my work with young adults, one of the most frequently asked questions is about the inspiration of the Bible and human ability to understand it. It is for this reason that the doctrines of inspiration and illumination are not only important, but relevant for Christ-followers today.  On an even more personal level, I rely on the truth of this doctrine every week that I preach (as do those who hear me).  I would not want to be given the task of teaching God’s word without the ability to be enlightened concerning the Holy Scriptures!  By the same truth, everyone who leads a Bible study relies on these truths—and we all rely on them when we read the Bible or whenever the Holy Spirit brings God’s words or works to our hearts.

By amazing grace,

Mike

How God Reveals Himself to the World

Number One: GENERAL REVELATION 

Although God is infinite, he has made himself known within our finite universe.  He has revealed himself through creation and throughout history.  He has revealed himself to the human soul as well.

God has allowed his existence to be known to men and women by their merely looking up at the sky.  Psalm 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Even the earth itself tells of its maker.  Romans 1:20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.  As an artist is known by his artwork, so the creator is known by his creation.

God also reveals himself throughout human history, especially through the history of the nation of Israel.  The re-creation of the nation of Israel in 1948 made many in the world scratch their heads in wonder, as once again the stage was set for Biblical prophecies to be fulfilled.  Daniel 2:21 He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.   Acts 17:26 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 

Finally, God has left his imprint on the human conscience.  Humans around the globe hold certain things in high esteem—concepts like justice, mercy, compassion, heroism—while decrying other things like cowardice, thievery, murder, and lying.  Romans 2:14-15  (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)  The Apostle Paul, when appealing to the men of Athens, even brought up lines from their own poets who spoke of a general-revelation knowledge of God, Acts 17:28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’  

The bottom line is that, in the end, people are without excuse when they claim there is no God.  God will be vindicated in light of all he has done to make his presence known and thus encourage them to seek a relationship with him.  Followers of Christ must rely upon this truth when conversing with nonbelievers about the reality of the gospel.  Christians should not lose hope when they’re told, “You can’t prove God’s existence to me,” for God is already at work revealing himself over and over again to all people.

Number Two: PARTICULAR REVELATION

Just because someone may know that the president of the United States lives in Washington D.C. does not mean that someone knows the president himself.  In the same way, just because God has revealed himself in creation, history, and in the human conscience, that does not mean that anyone knows God personally.

The God of the Bible has consistently made himself known in a particular fashion to humanity.  From the book of Genesis, it is obvious that he desired relationship with Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and his descendants.  When God revealed himself to Moses, he wanted to be on a name-to-name basis: Exodus 3:14 God said to Moses,  “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites:  ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”  If you look, you can see that much of the Old Testament paints a picture of a creator who has intimate relationships with his people.

In the New Testament it is no different.  The apostle Paul states, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…”  (Philippians 3:10The reason that Paul and others could say these things is because they knew that God had specially revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ.  The apostle John said that Jesus was the word of God (John 1:1, 1:14, 1:18). The writer of Hebrews put it this way:  Hebrews 1:1-3 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

The fact that God has revealed himself in particular through his prophets and ultimately in Jesus Christ points to his disclosure of himself through the words of the Holy Scriptures.  They are the primary way that people have God revealed to them.  It needs to be said, however, that God is still in the business of personally revealing himself through his son, Jesus Christ.  I have heard stories from missionaries who tell of Jesus appearing to Muslims in dreams and leading them on the true path of salvation.  It is not just repeating the words of a “sinners prayer” that forges a relationship with the risen Christ—it is an encounter with Christ himself.

The sermon on the mount in National Geographic Channel’s Killing Jesus.

(photo credit: National Geographic Channels/Kent Eanes)

On Worship

The idea of “worship” was never that clear to me.  Sometimes I didn’t feel I was worshipping God because I had no feelings when I was at church (then, of course, some well-meaning Christians would make me feel worse by hinting about how unspiritual I was).  Sometimes I would want to worship so badly that I would go along and act the part of the dynamic worshipper, hoping the feelings would follow.  I felt like a fake sometimes, and other times it was just okay.  Some people said worship was singing songs and reciting scriptures; other said no, worship was about what you did with your life.  Some people said it was a mindset of “ascribing great worth [as in worth-ship]” to Jesus.  And then there have been those very few times in my life when I was overcome by the love of God and really can’t describe the experience.

So I did a study of the words commonly translated “worship” in the Bible.  Here are four scriptures with the four most common words:

In the Old Testament (hishtawa) — to fall prostrate religiously or in the course of duty

Exodus 3:12  And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” 

In the New Testament (proskyneo) — to worship, pay homage, show reverence; to kneel down (before)

Matthew 14:33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” 

In the New Testament (latreia) — service to God

Romans 12:1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship. 

In the New Testament (leitourgia) — service to the community

2Corinthians 9:12 This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 

What I derived was that worship is basically two things: REVERENCE & SERVICE.

The REVERENCE part leaves all sorts of room for strong feelings within the course of worship—sometimes you fall face down because you can’t stand up!  It also leaves room for very little feeling within the course of worship—sometimes you pay homage or kneel out of respect for the Lord.

The SERVICE part doesn’t require feelings at all—you serve God and others, period.  Sometimes you feel wonderful when you are serving Him and others, sometimes you don’t.

 

Let’s also look at a couple of the terms that David used when He wrote this song some three thousand years ago:

Psalm 34:3 Glorify the LORD with me; let us exalt his name together. (NIV)

Psalm 34:3 O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together. (KJV and RSV)

glorify (& magnify) is from the Hebrew, “gadal,”  v. to grow up; to make great; to magnify; to grow long; to honor, glorify

exalt is from the Hebrew, “rum,”  v. to raise up; to lift high

David was writing about God’s goodness.  This is the psalm that contains the famous line, “Taste and see that the LORD is good!”  We glorify and exalt God because He is so good to us (especially in light of what we deserve).  When we magnify something, we make it look larger, increasing it out of proportion.  If we talked about our own character and activity out of proportion, we would be guilty of stretching the truth; but when we magnify God, we can’t go wrong.  We simply cannot say too much about God’s goodness and love.  Even if we exaggerate how terrific the Lord has been to us, we don’t know the half of it.

He is doing wonderful things for us that we don’t even notice—we are like the toddler who has no idea the time, expense, and energy that her parents have put into her care and protection.  So, we can freely and joyfully join with David who calls us to lift God’s name up high.  In glorifying and exalting God, even the sky isn’t the limit.

By fantastic mercy and amazing grace,

Mike