God And His Promises


_estes_parkI’ve been thinking a lot about God and His promises of late. Some are unconditional and some are contingent upon the response of the people to whom He made the promise. I think a lot of misunderstanding comes from not recognizing 1) to whom God made the promise and 2) which kind of promise He made.

I’ll start with the one that gets thrown in the faces of Christians quite often by those who wish to call into question God’s existence: Mark 11:23-24.

Truly I say to you, “Whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. Therefore, I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.”

Sure, people who don’t believe in the power of God, will say, mountains cast into the sea! Happens every day.

A few scholars address this issue, first by saying what the passage is not, then giving their views on what the passage is, based primarily on the context. First, what the passage is not:

This passage has been “fodder” for many sermons on “Mountain-Moving Faith.” I have heard sermons on “a mountain of debt,” “a mountain of worry,” “a mountain of problems,” “ a mountain of sickness,” on and on ad nauseam. Time and again this passage [Matt, 21:21-22], along with Mark 11:23-24, becomes the “launching pad” for a “faith rocket” aimed in any direction we want it to go. This is a clear example of “a text taken out of context becoming a pretext for just about anything.” (“The Mountain Cast Into The Sea”)

Next, what those of this mindset believe the passage is:

In the context of the passages, Jesus has been interacting with the scribes and chief priests (Matthew 21:11-15; Mark 11:9-18). They are critical of him because he is receiving the praise of children, who call him the Son of David and the Prophet of Nazareth. It seems that Jesus and his disciples are visiting the temple on essentially a daily basis, returning at night to Bethany.

In both passages we are told as well about a fig tree. From the passages we learn that Jesus came on the way from Bethany to Jerusalem and found a fig tree that had leaves but no fruit, and he cursed it. On the following day, returning along the same path, the disciples noted that the cursed tree had completely withered, and they marveled.

It is upon this occasion, the marveling at the withering of the fig tree, that Jesus [answered] . . .

Notice a word that is frequently overlooked. Jesus does not say simply, “say unto a mountain,” but “say unto this mountain.” What mountain is he speaking of? There is the possibility that it is any mountain between Bethany and Jerusalem, but in the context of both accounts, the very next thing that Jesus does is to enter into Jerusalem and specifically the temple (Matthew 21:23; Mark 11:27).

Thus, it is reasonable to view Jesus’ remarks as being directed toward the mountain to which they were approaching, namely Jerusalem, and especially the temple mountain. With this in mind, what Jesus is speaking of is of the destruction of Jerusalem. The destruction of Jerusalem, and especially the temple mount was complete. (“Mountain Cast Into Sea”)

Jerusalem_(22)All well and good. Except for the “therefore” part of the Mark 11:23-24 passage: “Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.”

The verse seems to say, in the same way that you can ask for the mountain to be cast into the sea, you can ask whatever else.

But praying and asking is something that a number of different passages in Scripture address. Jesus said to ask in His name (John 16:23), to pray in secret (Matt. 6:6), to persevere in prayer (Luke 11:8-9), to pray according to God’s will (Luke 22:42), in agreement with two or three others (Matt. 18:19-20), upon abiding in God’s word (John 15:7); Paul says we are to pray in the Spirit (Eph. 6:18) and without wrath or dissension (1 Tim. 2:8); James says we are to ask, but if we ask with wrong motives we won’t receive (James 4:1-4), that the prayer offered in faith will restore (James 5:15), and that the prayer of a righteous individual can accomplish much (James 5:16); Jude says we are to pray in the Holy Spirit; John says we have what we ask for if we keep God’s commandments (1 John 3:22).

Quite a list, but I suspect there is more. The point here is this: there’s no one thing that we can do to insure that God will—in fact, has to—answer our prayers.

I knew this even as an early teen. I read the verse about casting the mountain into the sea and thought I’d try it out to see if “it worked.” Well, I quickly recognized that by running my own little test on that verse, I was already not without doubt. In fact, I did doubt.

Then there’s the issue of God’s will. Is it His will that this mountain, or any mountain, be cast into the sea? Am I going to find two or three other Christians to agree with me on that? And is my motive right? Am I asking in Jesus’s name—not just the ritual add on we conclude our prayers with, but in the name of the Almighty who has the power over wind and waves, demons and disease, life and death—am I praying in His name?

Trying to sort through all the “prayer requirements” can get pretty complicated. How do I know if I’m abiding in God’s word or living in obedience, particularly regarding the command to love my neighbor as myself? How do I know if my motives are pure? And if I have even faith that’s at least as big as a mustard seed?

There’s a passage in Romans that I’m finding helpful with all this:

yet, with respect to the promise of God, he [Abraham] did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. (Rom. 4:20-21)

I admit, at times I want God to spell out His promises to me just as clearly as He did to Abraham. But of course, I have the Bible—I have the benefit of knowing what Abraham went through and much, much more.

The part that catches my attention is that Abraham was fully assured that God was able. Combine that with what God had promised. I’m fully assured that God is able to cast a mountain or this mountain into the sea. I’m also confident He didn’t promise such a thing just because.

So what has God promised that I am fully assured of? Everlasting life for those who believe in Jesus, for starters. There are others, but this post is already too long. Suffice it to say, the mountain into the sea reminds me of God’s power, and it serves as a check on whether or not I’m fully assured that He will perform what He’s promised.

Can He? Yes, absolutely. Will He? That’s the question.

We Don’t Have What It Takes


Mountain climber
Recently on Twitter a Christian with some standing in the writer world tweeted this: “We all need to be reminded more often that we have what it takes. It’s true. You are enough.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t know what world this individual is living in, but in the real one, none of us is enough. We wouldn’t be around if our parents hadn’t seen us through that awkward stage called infancy! We weren’t enough in those early years.

None of us is growing our own food and making our own clothes and pumping our own water that I’m aware of. We aren’t enough in the day-to-day business of providing for our basic needs.

Someone in the writing business ought to be aware that none of us is enough. Writers need editors (or friends willing to read over our work for mistakes) and cover designers and Amazon if we want to do the simplest, most basic kind of publishing. Even if we decide we will put our work up on our blog, we are not alone in the endeavor. We not only need the blog platform, we need the computer and the software and the Internet connection. We simply are not enough.

But of course, our inadequacy is most evident when we look at spiritual matters. Our pride would like us to believe we’re enough. Satan would like us to believe we’re enough. The world, and now this professing Christian, tells us we’re enough. But God says we aren’t.

In fact God says our righteousness doesn’t cut it, that salvation is “not of ourselves” (Eph. 2:8-9), that it is found in no one except Jesus Christ (“There is salvation in no one else . . .” – Acts 4:12).

Quite honestly, I’m baffled. I know this “look to the power within” movement, a very Zen idea, is quite the rage these days. But really? Power to do what, precisely? Do we cause the sun to rise? The tides to swell or withdraw? Can we stop the rain from flooding or bring it to drought-ravaged land? Do we “have what it takes” to force our boss to give us a raise? Or cure our friend of cancer? Do we have what it takes to force ISIS to stop killing people or the Boko Haram to stop kidnapping and raping Christian girls in Nigeria? Is it in us to bring an end to the Ebola virus?

The amazing thing to me is that a handful of people have retweeted this utter nonsense and an almost equal number have favored it.

What do these people think we have in us that “is enough”? Enough for what? And what do we have? What is the “it factor”? And what does it accomplish?

I can see people reading those words now, nodding, and thinking, Oh, so wise. Yes, I am enough.

It’s a bit of meaningless garbage, but it stokes the ego—which I assume is why people think it’s worth passing on to others, why they want to save it where they can find it and read it again some day.

As near as I can figure, ego stroking is all those lines accomplish. They are void of any substance and they are patently untrue.

I shouldn’t be surprised, I know. Satan is all about cutting humans off from God upon whom we must depend.

God uses a variety of metaphors to show us our connectedness with Him, our dependency on Him. He says we’re sheep and He the Shepherd will guide us to green pastures, quiet waters. Christ says He’s the vine and we are the branches, that abiding in the vine is how we produce fruit. He says He is the head, the brain, if you will, and we are the body. Paul even identifies the lack of connection to Christ as pride:

Their sinful minds have made them proud, and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it. (Col. 2:18b-19, NLT)

Psalm 71 spells out our need for God, as opposed to an independent state of being enough:

For You are my hope;
O Lord GOD, You are my confidence from my youth.
By You I have been sustained from my birth;
You are He who took me from my mother’s womb;
My praise is continually of You. (vv 5-6)

The Psalmist did not say, my praise is continually of myself for I have it within me. I am enough.

So I wonder, have we stopped reading our Bibles that we would be suckered into believing this platitude of the world’s philosophy? I have to admit—I feel a little shell-shocked. I mean, believers, or at least professing believers, writing something or agreeing with it and sharing it with others, that is so contrary to what the Bible says is true. It’s another instance of calling wrong, right, and even encouraging others to do the same.

Make no mistake, though. God does not reveal in His word that we have what it takes, that we are enough. He reveals that our best efforts, our righteousness, is dirty, grimy, muddy, slimy, unclean, mucky foul, squalid, sordid, nasty, soiled, sullied polluted, contaminated, unhygienic, unsanitary rags:

For all of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;
And all of us wither like a leaf,
And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on Your name,
Who arouses himself to take hold of You;
For You have hidden Your face from us
And have delivered us into the power of our iniquities. (Isaiah 64:6-7)

So if by “we have it in us,” this individual means, we have the power of our iniquities in us, then OK. If by “you are enough,” this person means we are enough to cause God to turn from us because of our sin, then OK. I don’t think that’s what they were going for, though.

The reason this false teaching is a big deal is simply this: unless we see our need for a Savior, we won’t want one. Unless we realize we aren’t enough, we won’t seek the One who is enough. Unless we see our best efforts as God sees them, we won’t want the new life we can have in Christ. Instead we’ll be off trying to conquer mountains with what we have in us. Which decidedly isn’t enough.

Published in: on May 28, 2015 at 6:20 pm  Comments (12)  
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What Do We Believe When We Believe In Jesus?


open BibleThe Bible says in John 3:16 that whoever believes in God’s Son will have eternal life. Jesus Himself spoke those words.

The Gospel writers sprinkle evidence throughout their books that Jesus was that Son. Consequently, we would be accurate to say that whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life. But what exactly are we to believe about Jesus? That He existed? That eternal life is in Him? That He is God’s Son?

Perhaps we should start by saying what this phrase does NOT mean.

We are not to believe that Jesus was a good example. Yes, He was, and we are to follow Him, to live as He lived, to obey what He said. But doing all that is 1) not possible apart from supernatural power; and 2) not going to give us eternal life. We know this from the totality of Scripture.

Let’s use a sobering example. Say a married man is unfaithful to his wife just once, but in that one act of infidelity, he contracts a venereal disease. No matter how faithful he acts from that time forth, he will not cancel out his faithless act. His fidelity is what he owed his wife all along, and giving it to her before or after his adultery does not scrub out the faithless act or its consequence.

So too, if someone says he believes in Jesus as a model for how to live, good for him. If he could actually do so, he would now be living as he should have all along. But this new behavior would not scrub away the life lived in contradiction to Jesus’s example. In other words, living as Jesus lived cannot bring that eternal life John 3:16 promises.

Believing in Jesus also does not mean believing that He will make this life more comfortable for us or that He will fix our heartaches, keep our loved ones safe, help us to get a better job, or make us better wives or husbands. He may do those things. But the truth is, He wants to do more.

Two missionary couples were killed some years ago by Somali pirates. If their belief was in Jesus making them happy, they must have been sorely disappointed when their yacht was captured. I suspect they were not, because their chosen mission was to distribute Bibles. I suspect, therefore, they believed the Bible and knew that their lives were more than comfort and ease.

In 2011 an LA fireman who died in the line of duty was buried, and his funeral was televised for all the area to see. His pastor, among others who spoke, gave a stirring testimony of this man’s faith—not in Jesus who would give him a comfortable life, but Jesus who assured him of eternal life.

Believing in Jesus is also not taking to heart His teaching. Like the challenge to live as He lived, this one is also impossible and insufficient.

What, then, does it mean to believe in Jesus?

First it means to believe in who He is—God’s Son, the promised Messiah, the suffering Savior, the risen Lord, the soon to return King.

Second it means to believe in what He has done—while we were yet sinners, He died for us, bearing the punishment we deserved for our wayward hearts and willful rebellion; then He rose again that we too who were dead in our sins could be alive to God. We also must believe that His sacrifice as our substitute is sufficient to reconcile us to our Holy God. That, after all, is the point and purpose of the promise—eternal life means life with God, enjoying his abiding love and fellowship and presence, here on earth, in part; after this life, in uninterrupted fullness.

With some small revisions, this post originally appeared here at A Christian Worldview Of Fiction 9n February 2011.

Published in: on May 27, 2015 at 6:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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Prayer For Muslims


30-Days Of Prayer posterThis past Sunday, I stumbled upon a booklet calling for Christians to pray for Muslims during the month of Ramadan.

The year I spent in Tanzania when I was seventeen, we hired a man to care for our yard and garden. My parents also invited him to have the noon mean with us—which became our dinner, not lunch, so that Omari would have at least one substantial meal. Through that year we got to know him some, including the fact that he was Muslim by tradition. He didn’t pray at the prescribed times during the day, but he did keep Ramadan.

Ever since then, I’ve been mindful of this special month, but it wasn’t until this year when I read the booklet I referred to that I understood why Ramadan shifted to different points during the year. In essence, the Islamic calendar is shorter than the Gregorian calendar, “with an annual drift of 11 or 12 days” (Wikipedia).

This year the Muslim world will celebrate Ramadan June 18 to July 17. As they have since 1993, a group of Christians have chosen to focus their prayers on the Muslim world during Ramadan. It’s a great goal, I think.

In part, here’s what the press release says:

Christians are gearing up … for the 30 Days of Prayer for the Muslim World, an international movement that began in 1993. Millions of Christians worldwide, and from many denominations, have regularly participated in this concerted prayer effort for Muslims coinciding annually with the month of Ramadan, a time of the year when Muslims are much more deeply aware of spiritual matters.

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is a time when Muslims are supposed to practice self‐restraint by fasting (abstaining from food and drink and other physical needs) during daylight hours. It is also a time to make peace and strengthen ties with family, friends and neighbors, and do away with bad habits. The Arabic word for “fasting” (sawm) means, “to refrain;” not only refraining from food and drink, but also from evil actions and thoughts. Muslims hope that as a result God will be more inclined to hear their prayers.

WorldChristian.com is the North American coordinator of the annual 30 Days prayer focus designed to raise awareness and encourage new initiatives to reach out to Muslims—around the world and across the street—with more understanding, and with faith, hope and the love of Christ.

When 30 Days started, Islam was not a daily news item; much has changed since the 9/11 attacks. ISIS! Al‐ Qaeda! Boko Haram! These radical terror groups now invade our news channels every day. But there is another story, an even greater story that is unfolding across the Muslim world today.

Mission strategist and author David Garrison says: “We are in the midst of the greatest turning of Muslims to Christ in 14 centuries of Muslim‐Christian interaction. More than 80% of all the Muslim movements to Christ in history have occurred in the past two to three decades, a time period that coincides with the modern prayer movement for Muslims.”

There are a number of organizations sponsoring this prayer effort including Voice of the Martyrs, TEAM, Tyndale, and Christ for All Peoples.

The 30-day prayer plan is to pray for a particular country or region each of the thirty days of Ramadan. If you’re interested, you can access the information on line at the 30 Days Of Prayer site or you can purchase prayer booklets, either individually or in bulk should you wish to make them available to a Bible study or prayer group.

I’m convinced praying for Muslims, whether we view them as neighbors or as enemies, is something that fits into God’s commandment to Christians to love. Too many Christians can skirt the topic of loving Muslims by saying, we don’t know any Muslims. But we forget that we can pray for people we haven’t ever spoken to. The fact is, God knows them all by name. He also hears and answers prayer, and He can do the impossible.

From time to time, I wonder what happened to Omari. For a number of years he would write to my dad, but then the letters stopped. What became of him? Of his family? Did he ever put his faith in Jesus Christ? Are his children preparing to celebrate Ramadan in a few weeks, or are they gathering with other Christians to pray for their Muslim neighbors?

I certainly wasn’t faithful in praying for Omari, though he sat at our table day after day for an entire year, though he spent time learning English from my sister, though he worked diligently at his job. I don’t want to miss another opportunity to pray for people who God can bring to Himself—regular people who need to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed in an understandable way.

I’d like to invite anyone else who might be so inclined, to join the prayer team. There’s nothing to sign, though you’re welcome to go public in the comments, if you want. Sometimes making a commitment others know about helps us to be faithful. But some may think these decisions are for the prayer closet and the prayer closet alone. That’s fine, too. God hears and answers corporate prayer and individual prayer.

Either way, may we see God work to move the mountain of unbelief in the hearts of thousands in the days to come.

Published in: on May 26, 2015 at 6:22 pm  Comments (2)  
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Keep Seeking The Things Above


speak, see, hear no evilPaul wrote to the church in Colossae that their relationship with Christ should matter. In chapter two, he said, “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why as if you were living in the world, do you submit to decrees such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (v 20-21). In other words, “dying with Christ” is not the same as adopting a legalistic life style. I think it’s fair to say, neither is taking up our cross.

Paul didn’t stop with the negative though. He began chapter three with the flip side:

Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. (vv 1-2)

Our relationship with God, then, is to affect what we think about—things above, not things on earth.

Tall order. After all, we live here, not there.

It’s hard to think about where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God, when it’s time to fix lunch or to do laundry or to take the car in to get it smogged. Everyday responsibilities can distract. So can everyday pleasures—watching a ball game, going to a movie, enjoying dinner with friends and family. How do we set our minds on things above all day long?

Or do we chalk this up as a nice goal, though an unreachable one?

I actually think the thing that’s working here is a principle I learned when I was teaching at a Christian school: integration. We aren’t Christians and school teachers, or Christians and writers, or Christians and wives (or husbands). Our Christianity infuses all the roles we have and all the activities in which we participate because “Christian” isn’t our religion; it’s our life.

A car doesn’t stop being a car when it’s parked in the garage or when it’s getting gas pumped into its tank. It’s a car from morning to night, on the road or at the curb, in a parking structure or pulled over by a police officer. A car is a car because it’s a car.

In the same way, a Christian should be a Christian because he’s a Christian. There ought to be no “taking days off” when it comes to trusting God, loving Him, obeying Him, or living to please Him. We ought not aim to be Christians at church and businessmen at work, Christians at Bible study and fans at the ball park, Christians at home and greedy shoppers at the mall.

Which isn’t to say we can’t be businessmen, fans, or shoppers. We can. We should be. Jesus said we are to be “in the world.”

That phrase reminds me of the prophet—Jeremiah, I think—writing to the exiles that they should seek the good of the place where they’d been taken. They were still Jews, but they were in Babylon and that meant they were to fully engage in life in Babylon so that the place would be better for their having lived and worked there.

At the same time, Jesus said we’re not of the world. We are not to make the world’s principles our principles—we’re not to see the world the way others see the world. Simply put, that means we’re not to see it apart from Christ. We’re to look at this world as God’s creation, and the people in it as the ones Christ came to save. We’re to look at life—every part of it—as an opportunity to be light to the world and to give thanks and praise to the One who rescued us from the dominion of darkness.

The world operates on principles like take care of number one and the one who dies with the most toys wins and even reduce your footprint on the planet. Paul said in Colossians, these are things which are all destined to perish.

In contrast we’re to concern ourselves with that which lasts. Matthew said, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Our purpose, our goal, our driving force in all things should be to advance God’s kingdom and to live in His righteousness.

What does that look like?

It’s easier to show what it doesn’t look like, I think. It doesn’t look like one friend bad-mouthing another. It doesn’t look like engaging in sex outside marriage. It doesn’t look like holding grudges against a friend or family member. These are also right there in Colossians:

Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him (3:5-10)

Paul does move to the positives. He says Christians are to put on love, beyond all else, that we’re to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, that we’re to let the word of Christ dwell in us. And several times he mentions we’re to be thankful: “. . . giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (3:17b)

So what’s different with these things from the “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” things Paul was referring to in chapter two? I think it’s in the mind. We are to set our minds on things above, we are to consider ourselves as dead to things on earth. We’re to lay aside what was a part of our old self as we’re being renewed to a true knowledge of Christ.

In short, where our minds go, our bodies are sure to follow! 😉

Published in: on May 22, 2015 at 7:03 pm  Comments (5)  
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Exploring Horror Or Exploring Light


300x179xthe-walking-dead-s4-e16-zombies-636-380-300x179.jpg.pagespeed.ic.35AUmep_fuWhen I first heard the term “Christian horror,” I laughed. I thought the person was kidding. I mean, how could blood and psycho-killers and hauntings and demon possession be Christian? Since then I’ve learned that some serious writers—including some Christians—believe horror fiction holds a necessary place in understanding evil, and therefore confronting it.

A number of years ago, for example, author Brian Godawa posted a three-part apology for Christian horror at Speculative Faith. More recently author and friend Mike Duran has published Christian Horror:On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre.

While I’ve moved from a hard stance against horror (I insisted that the genre existed to accomplish one thing—produce fear), conceding that some writers and readers confront evil and explore how to counter it through fiction, I’m far from holding the view that horror is “must read” fiction for Christians, that to turn away from an exploration of evil is to isolate ourselves from the reality of the world in which we live.

I expressed my thoughts in a post at Spec Faith nearly four years ago, ideas to which I still hold. The following is a slightly revised version of that post.

Author Anne Rice, best known for her vampire fiction and her conversions to and from Christianity, has stated that her vampire books were actually explorations of the spiritual. Spiritual light or spiritual darkness?

Some may say that an exploration of spiritual darkness must precede any look at spiritual light. I suppose this might be one of those areas that differ from person to person, but I can’t help but wonder why we Christians aren’t exploring the light more than we are the darkness.

Corrie ten Boom

Certainly darkness is in the world. Yet when I think of darkness, some of the most uplifting, true stories I’ve read come to mind. Take Corrie ten Boom, for example. Without a doubt, her story contains horrific elements, including the inhuman conditions in a Nazi concentration camp and the death of her dear sister as a result.

But throughout, from the decision to help Jews, to Corrie’s release from the camp and her subsequent commitment to show the love and forgiveness of God to victim and victimizer alike, the story is infused with hope and promise and the sovereign hand of God over all circumstances.

Elisabeth Elliot

The story of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, and Pete Fleming is similar. These young missionaries, so committed to sharing the gospel with a group of people who had never heard of Jesus, died at the hands of the people they wanted to save. More astounding, Jim’s wife Elisabeth and Nate’s wife Rachel returned to the tribe, lived with them for two years, and saw many come to Christ. The forgiveness and love these women lived out in the midst of tragedy and loss is a revelation of God’s love and forgiveness.

Joni Eareckson Tada’s story is equally inspirational. Injured as a seventeen year old, Joni has lived as a quadriplegic for forty-eight years.

Joni Eareckson Tada

Despite her disability, she shines the love of Jesus into the lives of hundreds of thousands through her writing, painting, and speaking. She has even put out a vocal recording and starred in the video of her life story. Perhaps her greatest work has been establishing Joni and Friends, an international disability center bringing hope and help to people throughout the world.

Hope. That seems to be a key thread that runs through these stories of triumph over tragedy. The darkness is very real in each one—Joni’s despair, the deaths of the missionaries and Corrie’s sister, the brutality of the Nazis—but triumph dominates the story.

The Hiding Place is not the story about Corrie’s sister dying but about God’s love and forgiveness manifested in an unspeakably cruel place.

Through Gates of Splendor is not a story about five twenty-something missionary men being killed but about the truth in this verse of the hymn from which the title of the book came:

We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender.
Thine is the battle, Thine shall be the praise;
When passing through the gates of pearly splendor,
Victors, we rest with Thee, through endless days.

Joni is not the story of a seventeen-year-old whose life caved in, but of a God who brings meaning and purpose out of suffering.

You might wonder why I’m taking a look at all these true stories in a post about speculative fiction. I see how inspirational the lives of these three who suffered greatly have been. They personally explored the light in the midst of the darkness of their real circumstances. The result has been phenomenal. They have pointed generations of people to Christ.

Why, then, would a fiction writer not want to adopt this model — an exploration of light in the midst of darkness? Why go the other route and spend pages and pages exploring the dark, even if the light comes filtering in at the end?

I personally (and remember what I said at the beginning of this post about us all being different) find hope and help to be what I want to read. Darkness, I already know. Hope and help in the midst of darkness is compelling. Why aren’t more Christian speculative novels exploring the light?

It seems to me we are becoming fixated with what is true to the human experience, and as a result we are not setting our “mind on things above” (Col. 3:2). Do we think we know all there is to know about God, so we don’t need to focus on Him as much as we do the depravity and corruption sin causes?

Darkness will be a part of fiction, I believe. But I also see there are two ways of looking at it. In one case, stories seem to explore the darkness, in the other they seem to explore the light that triumphs over the darkness. This latter type is the kind of story I like to read and I want to write.

I Don’t Like Being Bullied, Intimidated, Or Maligned


Friendly_InternetI wish I had a better sense of humor. I don’t think anyone handles criticism better than InsanityBytes. She routinely writes blog posts about the unkind things people say that end up in her spam folder, and yet she treats them with lightheartedness (see for example “Lost In Spam” or “Back Talking Spam.” She makes some astute comments along the way, so she makes me laugh all the while making me think. Maybe when I grow up, I’ll be more like her.

In the meantime, I’m stuck not liking it when someone bullies me via the Internet (or in person), says things to try to make me back down from an opinion I hold, or vilifies my character. I’m pretty sure, of the three, I’m bothered most by the latter.

The little issues I faced recently have made me think about people who face real opposition, continually—the kind that restricts their freedom (such as being sold into the sex trafficking trade or married off to an Islamic terrorist) or threatens their life (such as Christians in Iraq or Sudan). Ultimately I’ve thought of the Lord Jesus Christ and those men and women who formed the first Church.

Jesus was bullied and intimidated and maligned. The Jewish leaders singled Him out because they were jealous of Him. That was Pontius Pilate’s assessment of things when Jesus stood before him and he wanted to release Him (Matt. 27:18). No, the crowd said. Not that man. Crucify Him and release Barabbas. Why did they turn against Jesus? Because the Jewish leaders, motivated by their envy, convinced them to.

I think jealousy and envy are behind a lot of bullying and intimidation. The Jewish leaders didn’t like it that this upstart carpenter didn’t bow to their rules or back off when they challenged Him. They didn’t like it that He did things they couldn’t do—like heal lepers and restore sight to the blind or raise dead people back to life. Mostly they didn’t like the fact that people followed Him and basically wanted to make Him the king.

After all, they were the leaders. The Jewish people were theirs to rule, for all practical purposes. Sure, sure, the Romans were over them, but when it came to the day-to-day things and anything having to do with religious law, the Council of seventy elders, led by the High Priest, was in charge.

So they tried to trap Jesus into saying something or doing something for which they could legitimately arrest Him. They didn’t realize they were dealing with the perfect Son of God. They were never going to catch Him in a sin.

Finally they resorted to lies, claiming outlandish things such as that He blasphemed. In other words, they maligned His character. But they’d been doing that for days and days, even accusing Him at one time of being in league with the devil. They said He was a drunk, a party-er, a Sabbath-breaker. Anything He did, they tried to turn into a reason to have Him arrested.

Jesus’s followers experienced the same treatment. Peter and John were thrown into prison though the rulers and elders and scribes had no charges to bring against them. After all, the only thing they’d done was heal a lame man and preach about the resurrected Christ. The Council released them the next day but threatened them and ordered them to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. Yep, that’s straight from Intimidation 101: “Stop what you’re doing, or I’ll make sure you stop for good!”

But what did Peter and John do? In this instance, they answered the leaders by saying, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge” (Acts 4:19b). Then they joined a prayer meeting.

It’s interesting to think about the fact that they didn’t have the end of the story. They didn’t know if they’d be killed the next day or if God would miraculously save them. So they joined their companions and prayed:

Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence, while You extend Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Your holy servant Jesus. (Acts 4:29-30)

Clearly we can see on this side of the events that God answered this prayer. Peter and the other disciples did in fact speak with boldness, and God did continue to heal through them and produce signs and wonders through the name of Jesus.

Of course, Peter was arrested again and miraculously saved, but eventually, according to Church tradition, he died for his faith. We could look at the Apostle Paul and see a similar trajectory. Preaching and healing, followers, leaders in opposition, arrest and/or death threats. He was kicked out of towns, stoned and left for dead, beaten. In Greece he was forced to escape alone and head for Athens. In Damascus he got away in the middle of the night by hiding in a basket lowered over the wall.Inernet

Yes, the early Church knew a thing or two about being bullied, intimidated, and maligned. I may not like being treated badly, I may not like being misunderstood, but really . . . I sure haven’t “resisted unto death” yet.

It would help if I grew a sense of humor about such things, but it would also help if I followed Peter and John’s examples: choose to do what God says rather than giving in to intimidation; and pray.

Groaning – A Reprise


This world is groaning. It’s the weight of sin that causes it, and it’s been going on for … well, since Eve believed Satan over God.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if we as human beings aren’t more aware of the groaning than at any point in history. Terrorism has people across the globe on heightened alert. War and rebellion are tearing nations apart. Famine is on the increase, and the economy of the rich countries is in a shambles. Add to all this the earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, Japan, and most recently, Nepal; the tornadoes and flooding in the Midwestern US; snow storms on the East coast in the winter and hurricanes in the summer; and don’t forget the tsunami that devastated an already devastated Japan.

We’re groaning.

Professing Christians are leaving the church. Government—democratic government that was supposed to have the necessary checks and balances—is self-serving, if not corrupt. Marriage is being redefined. In other words, civilized institutions are crumbling.

We’re groaning.

The weight of sin is too big. Drug addiction isn’t lessening. Anxiety isn’t disappearing no matter how much we medicate. Neither is depression. Interpersonal conflicts haven’t ceased. In fact divorce is still a growing problem no matter that so many people now practice at marriage before making “lifetime” vows. Abuse continues or perhaps is on the increase. Child slavery and sex trafficking are problems that seem without end.

We’re groaning.

Worst of all, who can we trust? The person we love the most is the person who shatters our hopes and betrays us by their unfaithfulness. Our leaders are tarnished, our celebrities are in and out of rehab. Our pastors are selling get-rich religion or everybody-goes-to-heaven credos fabricated from their own minds.

We are indeed groaning.

Should I go on to mention cancer or AIDS or the fears of a worldwide pandemic? I suspect it’s not necessary.

At every turn, we’re groaning.

As God did during any number of crises recorded in the Bible, He is standing with open arms saying, Your way leads to destruction. My way leads to life.

Over and over stiff-necked people ignored Him or shook their fists in His face, denying His right to rule. So it seems, we’re doing today.

We think if we just get the right person in the White House, if we only raise taxes or cut spending, if only we’d pass an arms deal with Iran or give more aid to Israel, if we would only put boots on the ground and take care of ISIS or withdraw from the Middle East and let them fight their own battles, if only we’d pass this piece of legislation or that, solve one key problem then another, use this green technology or drill for oil there, then, at last, the world will come round aright.

Personally we think, if only we could marry this person or get out from under a bad relationship, if only we could get hired for that job or get the promotion we had our eye on, if only we could live in a better neighborhood, had a nicer car, could afford a good vacation, didn’t have to work such long hours, had kids, didn’t have kids, if only things were different, life would be better.

In that foolish thinking, we are ignoring the One who wants us to fix our eyes on His Son.

“See to it,” Paul said to the Colossians, “that no one takes you captive through philosophy or empty deception according to the traditions of men, according to the elementary principles of this world, rather than according to Christ.”

The philosophy and empty deception of our day says we can solve our own problems, that we don’t need anything outside ourselves. We have the power within us.

And yet, with all this great power within ( 🙄 ), we don’t seem any closer to bringing the groaning to an end. We’re looking in the wrong places.

There isn’t a chemical high or an alcohol-induced haze that will mask the pain long enough, there isn’t a movie or video game or concert or ballgame that will distract us sufficiently, there isn’t a better relationship that will heal our shattered heart.

Except the one God offers through Christ Jesus. He is our Hope, and He is our Salvation.

In Him the groaning will one day come to an end.

This article is an updated and revised version of an earlier one published here in September 2011.

Food For Thought – Cloth And Wineskins


Have you every been bugged by a portion of Scripture that’s hard to understand? It just doesn’t seem to fit or make sense in light of what you know or in light of the context. I’ve struggled in this way with a passage in the book of Matthew.

Context, of course, is a key to Biblical interpretation. Someone studying the Bible today ought not make up something from his own mind or experience. Rather, it’s critical to look at an entire passage, an entire book, to find out what the circumstances were and what the audience likely understood.

Having said that, let me give you the context of the passage that’s given me difficulty over the years: After Jesus began his public ministry, He quickly incurred the ire of the Jewish religious leaders because more than once He healed people on the Sabbath—something these Pharisees viewed as breaking the law.

In the face of their displeasure, Jesus proceeded to call Matthew, a prominent tax-collector, to be His disciple, then went to the man’s home for dinner with a group of his friends—a group made up of other tax-collectors and people who didn’t keep the Jewish law. The Pharisees complained about Jesus eating and drinking with these corrupt government officials and sinners.

Jesus responded to His critics by saying, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE’…”

Soon after, John’s disciples and those of the Pharisees observed a religious fast. John’s disciples asked Jesus why His disciples didn’t fast, too. He answered with an analogy.

And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.

I get that—Jesus is the bridegroom and His followers are the attendants. So far so good. But He continued, and here is the troublesome passage:

“But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”

Huh?

How did we get from eating with sinners and not keeping a fast to garments and wineskins?

Well, obviously, as with the previous part of His answer about the bridegroom, Jesus is making an analogy, but what equals what?

I’ve heard sermons on this passage before—the old is the Law, the new, the New Covenant. Set aside for the moment that those to whom Jesus was talking would not have understood that analogy at all. The idea of the New Covenant was still just that—an idea. Most people had no clue why the Messiah had actually come.

But the real problem I have with that interpretation is that the new-on-old in Jesus’s analogies destroys the old. Yet Jesus clearly said in the Sermon on the Mount that He did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

WineskinsIs Jesus advocating for new wine to be put into new skins? I mean, isn’t it understood that old wine is better? Approaching the verse with the idea that Jesus is saying, new is better, doesn’t really fit the physical realities of the objects He was using to illustrate His point.

And what about the patch and the old garment? Clearly a new patch is incomplete, so it’s pretty hard to conclude that this analogy is saying new is better.

Interestingly Mark in his gospel elaborates on the problem Jesus had with the Pharisees. Take a look:

(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:

‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:3-9 – emphasis mine)

So here’s what I’m thinking. What if the old cloth and the old wineskins stand for God’s true Law? In the verses just prior to these analogies, remember, Jesus told the Pharisees to figure out what Scripture meant when it said God desired compassion rather than sacrifice.

The new patch of cloth, the new wine, then, represent the traditions the Pharisees heaped on top of what God had said. Their add-ons were tearing apart the fabric, bursting the skins, of God’s perfect Law.

I know this way of looking at these verses flies in the face of the traditional interpretation. Traditional … heh-hem. Maybe departing from tradition is not a bad thing if it fits the context of the passage. This way of looking at the passage is also consistent with what Jesus says about fulfilling God’s law and about the Pharisees’ perversion of it through their tradition.

In the end, I come away more mindful of the need to hold loosely things like worship styles and other extra-Biblical practices—the traditions of our day which we might be heaping on top of Scripture, particularly on top of what the Bible lays out as the nuts and bolts of what it means to be a Christian—loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Compassion must not be sacrificed on the altar of tradition.

This article is a revised version of a post first published here in May 2012.

Published in: on May 15, 2015 at 7:14 pm  Comments (10)  
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The 2015 Clive Staples Award


2014CSA_Small copyI guess this is the day for announcements.

Since its inception I’ve headed up the Clive Staples Award For Christian Speculative Fiction. This year the organization sponsoring the award is taking the lead (yea!)

Today begins the process of picking the best Christian speculative novel published in 2014. All the information you need to know is below, but I want to point out the first item on the timetable: Nominations will be open for only two weeks. In other words, there’s not a lot of time to make a decision or to read the book you’ve heard such good things about. The time is now, people! Now!

OK, do I sound sufficiently exercised? 😉 Hope so. We really do have a great list of nominations so far, and anyone can add books that aren’t on the list yet.

So without more blathering, here’s everything you need to know about this year’s award.

RealmMakerslogo

Realm Makers is excited to promote this year’s Clive Staples Award for Christian Speculative Fiction. We will announce the winner as part of the Realm Makers Awards Dinner on August 7th.

Similar to last year, the final winner will be decided by a panel of judges, so the award becomes a hybrid of “readers’ choice” and panel judging, which combines popularity and critical acclaim in the process. We’re very excited to be able to recognize the book that earns this honor, and therefore, the Faith and Fantasy Alliance is once again committing sponsoring funds to the cash prize that will go to the winner.

The nomination period is upon us and will be conducted via an online poll. If you would like to nominate a book for this award, please read the guidelines below before jumping to the poll.

Nomination qualifications

Eligible books must be all of the following:

  • Containing themes consistent with a Christian worldview, whether implied, symbolic, or overt.
  • Published in English.
  • Published between January 1 and December 31 of the current contest’s year. (For example, for the Clive Staples Award held in 2015, entrants must have been published between, Jan. 1, 2014 and Dec. 31, 2014.)
  • In the science fiction/fantasy/allegory/futuristic/supernatural/supernatural suspense/horror/time travel category, or any sub-genre or mashup of these.

Nomination guidelines

  • Authors, agents, and publishers may not nominate books with which they are affiliated. Likewise, book authors or affiliates may not campaign for votes on behalf of their books. A conservative number of social media posts to make readers aware of the voting process is welcome. The contest committee reserves the right to disqualify any entry if it is determined a book’s affiliates have campaigned for votes.
  • Readers may only nominate books they have actually read.
  • Ebooks and books in hard-copy print are both eligible

Nomination instructions

  • Add between 1 and 3 books you’d like to nominate. Please include the Title, Author, and Publisher (indicate “self-published” if that is the case.)
  • Submit your answers

After the nomination period is over, the award committee will tabulate the votes and declare the semi-finalists.

Readers’ Choice Semi-finalist Voting

Voters will be eligible only if they have read two or more of the books nominated. We want this to be a selection by readers of Christian speculative fiction, not just the fans of particular authors.

Below are standards to consider.

Standards for Clive Staples Award books

  • Quality writing style and mechanics
  • Believable and well-developed world-building
  • Depth of characterization
  • Well-structured, original, and interesting plot
  • Deftness of integration of the worldview into the story’s plot and characterizations

Contest time line:

5-15-15: Reader nomination period begins

5-29-15: Reader nominations close

6-1-15: Semi-Finalists announced; second round of Readers Choice voting begins

6-8-15: Readers Choice voting closes

6-15-15: Finalists announced

7-7-15: Winner announced at the Realm Makers Costumed Awards Dinner, cash prize awarded

Thank you for lending your voice to help us choose the best speculative fiction out there. Spread the word that the contest is open, and good luck to all you authors.

To participate in the nomination process, record your selections (up to three) on this survey: CSA Nomination Survey.

Published in: on May 14, 2015 at 5:25 pm  Comments Off on The 2015 Clive Staples Award  
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