Good Friday

God transforms our hardest days, our “Good Fridays,” into the glorious victories of Easter. But He does so in His time and way, and we must trust Him.

“How was your day?” Nancy asked as I trudged in the door from work.

“Good,” I replied, with drawn face, slumped shoulders, and a shuffling gait.

Nancy frowned, “You look like it was awful.”

“No,” I said, “Every day above ground is a good day.”

“Mark, I am your wife. You need to tell me the truth – not just lies that you think that I want to hear.”

“Today was good, in the same way that Good Friday was good. Jesus died a horrific death, but God worked wondrous acts and eternal salvation from it,” I answered.

Nancy gave up the questions and followed me to the bedroom. I changed my clothes and laid on the bed where she gave me a back rub. Finally in a safe place with people who cared, the tension rolled out of my muscles. The gates to my heart, shut tight at work since I had to be, or at least appear to be, the perfect doctor and leader, cracked open. Soon Nancy brought love into my dark castle, and we began to heal.

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The Purpose of Prayer

When prayers don’t seem to work, and we doubt God, what do we do?

A few days ago, our family dog, Serena, found wrapped chocolates that my sons had left in their bedroom. Within minutes, truffles, peppermint patties, and a host of other delectables were gone. The same day, close friends visited from northern Virginia. The chocolate and excitement were too much for Serena, and she couldn’t go to sleep. Instead of sleeping, she barked and barked and barked.

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Never Enough

Why is nothing in this life ever enough?

James Bond tells us that the world is not enough. Billionaire John D. Rockefeller is reputed to have said “Just a little bit more” when asked how much money was enough. While King of England, Henry VIII created a new church, the Anglicans, and made himself the supreme religious leader. Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire chronicles an endless line of men and women from Europe, Africa, and Asia who stopped at nothing to grab the Imperial purple.

The past is no different from the present. Bashar al Assad in Syria has butchered thousands of his own people to retain the reins of power. Chief executives from Beijing to Ankara deceive and destroy in the name of virtue but ultimately to exalt themselves. The world of work can resemble gladiators in the Forum, with managers and employees at every level whispering, gossiping, flattering, threatening, shaming, and accusing subordinates, peers, and superiors to try to look good and get ahead.

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Does One Art Form Bring More Glory to God than Another?

A discussion of professions, the arts, art media, and the glory of God

It is Christmastime, and Christians around the world are singing “Glory to God in the highest.” We rarely consider what they mean. In church, we may parrot the Westminster Shorter Confession, which states that the purpose of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Again, the words ring true, but what do they really say, and how can we really do them?

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Spiritual Power

What is spiritual power? How do you get it? How do you use it? How do you give the glory to God?

A patient came to me in tears. As a child she had suffered abuse, alcoholism, and even rape. The Christianity she had known was stern and foreboding. Images of the past were hard to overcome, much less erase. Now she was in a good marriage, had a healthy boy, and was in a solid church. Nevertheless, she was fearful and depressed, feeling unable to face most days. Completing the basic tasks of life, such as caring for her infant son and keeping the house, was nearly impossible. In her dark moments, this woman was afraid that she would lose everything she had ever dreamed of, and now had.

She is not alone. One professionally successful acquaintance is going through a divorce, a job change, and struggling with alcohol abuse.  Another young woman told me of her troubles with anxiety and perfectionism while she was cleaning my teeth. A middle-aged friend struggles with his self-worth after being without a job for nearly two years. A woman jumped off the roof of her 17-story apartment building.

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Living While Dead

To strive is human, but give up the ambitions and worries of this world, seeking only God, is to have life as He intends.

Our church regularly performs Infant Dedication, a ceremony in which the parents dedicate themselves publicly to raise their child as a Christian and the congregation dedicates itself to supporting the parents in this holy work. Parents choose a special verse for their child, one intended to guide them in the ways of Christ through their lives. Psalm 23:1, Jeremiah 29:11, John 3:16, and Philippians 4:13 are popular.

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Encountering God

As we approach death, we realize that only an encounter with God is big enough to save us from despair. Too bad we don’t realize that earlier. And how do we encounter Him?

When children are young, their world is little bigger than their neighborhood; their home, their school, their friends’ houses, and their church. When people reach young adulthood, their world expands, perhaps even to encompass the whole globe. Slowly though, muscles weaken and eyes get foggy. Women lose their ability to conceive, and hair grays. At those moments, pensive people begin to truly understand that though the world will not leave them, they will leave the world. While little children anchor themselves in their parents and young adults in career and family, the aged realize that these anchors will not hold.

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When Obedience Doesn’t Seem to Make Sense

The old song tells us to Trust and Obey, but trust often doesn’t seem to make sense, and neither does obedience. What do we do?

The air in southern Belize was hot and sticky as I saw Maya and Garifuna villagers in my jungle clinic in June and July of 1987.  Having only a stethoscope, some donated medications, the books Where There is No Doctor and Merck Manual, an undergraduate biology degree, and a little experience, I had come to Belize before medical school as a volunteer with Central American Outreach Ministries (CAOM). Dozens of patients lined up for care before breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and in between we farmed the banana plantation and orange tree nursery, fed chickens and pigs, took eggs, pumped water, and built a new clinic. John Collier was the founder of CAOM, and he worked on the ranch with two long term volunteers, a man and a woman in their late 20s. The four of us hosted a volunteer team from West Virginia. Once per week we took a side trip, hiking to the ruins of a Mayan temple, swimming in a jungle pool, or relaxing on the Belizean beach near Dangriga.

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The Anointing

The anointing of God, so vital to saints of old, is available and active today. Seek it out from the godliest person you know, and you will be blessed.

Tim was retiring from the US Air Force and moving out of the national capital area. He had had a stellar career and had been seeking civilian work. He showed great confidence in the future, but as the weeks passed, worry crept into his face. Tim, his wife and daughters moved out of their rental house and moved in with extended family, but several job opportunities had faded away.

They visited with us after Vacation Bible School one afternoon, as we were going through the same transition. As Tim and his family were leaving, my family gathered around to lay hands on them and pray. We prayed for their journey to Texas, their search for a new house, their transition to new schools, a new church, and a new community, and most of all, for a job. Once we finished, I turned to Tim and said “Congratulations, you have received the anointing of the Spirit for this task in your life. You will be successful.”

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Understanding Authority

Since the Fall, man has hated authority. America has built a culture on the hatred of authority, and yet God is still Lord, and He still appoints people over us. What do we do?

The US Founding Father Benjamin Franklin is alleged to have said “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” Whether he said this or not, the idea of questioning authority has woven itself into the DNA of American culture. But the idea of questioning authority is not new; indeed, it is as old as man. Since the serpent convinced Eve to question God’s authority in the Garden of Eden, sinful man has questioned authority. Even more, we have an inherent dislike of it. The idea that anyone or anything should be “over” us in some way is anathema to man, especially individualistic Americans.

Before we continue, we must define our terms. For our purposes, “to question” will be “to ask” or even “to challenge” authority but not to automatically reject it. We will define “authority” as “the power to give orders or make decisions: the power or right to direct or control someone or something.”[1] Note that authority is not the same as power. Power is simple ability, while authority is ability plus legitimacy. A man holding a gun may have the power to take your money, but he doesn’t have the authority to do so. A tax collector in a democratic government has both the power and the legitimacy, hence the authority, to take your money.

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Spiritual Warfare

Every event in the universe is the result of a chain of causes, some known and some not. Our forebears and third world contemporaries generally see spiritual forces as ultimate, though not proximate, causes, of happenings. Westerners generally do not. Who is right?

Our church recently sent a mission team to Eastern Europe to work with local churches in music, outreach, and Vacation Bible School. As they were returning to the airport, the driver nodded off and the van ran off the road, rolling several times before coming to a stop. Thankfully the injuries were limited to skin lacerations and concussions. As the story of the accident was recounted in church the following Sunday, everyone was shocked, many prayed, and others asked what else they could do to help.

Our family has a young woman from Iran living with us, our “adopted daughter (AD)”, who attends a class of international Christians with many Muslim background believers. On hearing the news, one of the women in that class announced that the accident was caused by spiritual warfare. AD, trained in science, was puzzled. This incident was clearly an accident, caused by a purely natural phenomenon, fatigue. Could this be interpreted as spiritual warfare, or was that interpretation an example of sincere but misguided faith? Driving home that day, AD asked me what I thought.

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How ordinary people can contribute to extraordinary change

Ordinary people often feel powerless to improve our society, or even our lives. We can, and we do, but we can do it better. 

Last night after dinner my family and I were discussing some of the Middle East events of the day, and the picture was not pretty. Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria were capturing more territory, killing more people, and destroying mosques and other religious sites. Hamas and Hezbollah were launching rocket attacks on Israel, who was retaliating with air strikes, killing many. Syria remained embroiled in its civil war, and the “Arab Spring” of 2011, with all of its hopes of democracy, has turned sour. My daughter, visibly troubled, asked what our government was going to do about all of this mayhem. I answered that no matter how powerful, governments have limited ability to intervene. The American President Barack Obama, who some consider to be the most powerful man in the world, has four main elements of American national power that he can use to accomplish US goals in the world, which in this case is to restore peace and stability and promote democracy.

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How to Know the Will of God

We think that knowing the will of God is the hard part. We are wrong. God freely tells us His will in His time. The hard part is our unwillingness to do what He commands. 

In Bible Fellowship we were discussing John 9, the healing of the man born blind. During the conversation we noted how the man heard Jesus tell him to wash in the pool of Siloam, and he trusted and obeyed the word of the Lord. Later when confronted by the Pharisees he boldly told his story; that he was blind and now he could see. The formerly blind man didn’t exaggerate the truth and he didn’t “soft pedal” it to soothe his inquisitors. By obeying Jesus’ command and by telling his story with courage, this man was following the will of God for his life. This comment occasioned the question “how can we know the will of God in our lives?” Though we did not have time to delve into it then, I promised my class that I would write on the topic this week.

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The Hand of God When We Are Suffering

Tragedy and suffering are inevitable parts of life in this world. Justice is always delayed, and is never perfect in this world. We have pain in this world, but take heart, Christ has overcome the world.

America has been riveted by the trial of George Zimmerman for the 26 Feb 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin. Race, Zimmerman is a white Hispanic and Martin was black, has played a major role. The all female jury rendered a final verdict of “not guilty” on all charges, which ranged from second degree murder to manslaughter. Some people are elated and others are furious, as is inevitable in such a highly charged case.

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World Evangelism

Should we tell others about Jesus? If we don’t, the stones will cry out.

Evangelism, loosely defined as trying to get others to believe and practice a particular religious faith, has received a bad reputation in many circles in the last century. David Livingstone, the famous 19th century explorer-doctor-missionary in Southern Africa, reflected his times in his belief that Civilization, Commerce and Christianity would help Africa and the undeveloped world out of poverty and into relationship with Christ. He did not support European colonialism but others in his era did, and the association of the “3 Cs” with colonialism generated a backlash against missionary work in the post colonial era.

Evangelism also presupposes that the evangelist knows the true religion and the one being evangelized does not. Such a claim to knowledge cuts against the grain of moral relativism (“there is no true religion”) and can suggest that one man is inherently superior to another. It is difficult for any man to preach a belief system without importing his unseen cultural biases into his message, and the inherent conflict in trying to change another’s way of thinking can result in violence.

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MLK Day – Human Rights, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties

Our ultimate authority, the Word of God, teaches that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).” Combined with other Biblical testimony, this means that we are equally created, equally sinners, and equally eligible to receive God’s grace. Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself for us all, rose again for us all, and those who believe in Him are united in the Body of Christ. As the old hymn reads, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.”

From a political standpoint, the US Declaration of Independence holds that all men are created equal; meaning equal before God and equal before the Law. While people differ in their abilities and their character, their God-given rights and responsibilities are recognized and protected by the law. Minorities are no worse, and no better, than majorities. Neither is any other group. Franklin Roosevelt noted “No democracy can long survive which does not accept as fundamental to its very existence the recognition of the rights of minorities (Letter, 25 June 1938, to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).”

Despite this truth, man is notorious for denying rights to people who are not like him, and even in denying rights to people who are not him. Everyone does this in ways large or small, whether they do it intentionally or not. No man or group of men is uniquely bad or good, and every person, compared to the perfect nature of God, is a racist, sexist, ageist, bigot, or whatever other term we wish to use. We may not see it and we often deny it, but lurking just beneath the surface in every man, woman, and child is a selfishness and wickedness that none of us ever want to acknowledge (Romans 3:10, 23).

Muslims have oppressed Christians, Chinese have oppressed Tibetans, Europeans have oppressed colonials, and everybody has oppressed everybody else whenever they had the power to do so throughout history. Closer to home in America, whites enslaved blacks and then denied them basic human rights even after they had been freed from slavery. Martin Luther King Jr. a black Baptist preacher named after Martin Luther, the Architect of the Protestant Reformation, was an important leader in the fight for equal rights, and responsibilities, for African Americans.

God Is the Foundation of All Just Law

As King noted in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas taught that “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” Eternal law and natural law are rooted in the character and personality of God the Creator. How could it be otherwise? If the universe has anything to say about law and justice, it says that only the fittest, those individuals best adapted to their environment, survive. Even if one considers not the individual but the community, those that survive are those that out-compete others in their environment. In a universe without God, inequality and competition, not equality and cooperation, are the lessons written in the stars. Mankind’s sense of justice is rooted in the Lord, not in ourselves or the created world (Romans 1:18-22).

Those who reject God reject this truth, but even their rejection cannot mask the fingerprints of the Holy One. In light of the recent massacre of kindergarteners at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, the Washington Post ran an article entitled “Atheist parents discuss death”. One atheist parent said “As far as morality and how to behave, when it comes up I say ‘You don’t have to be religious to know right from wrong; the Golden Rule is what we go by.’” This atheist parent may have been shocked to find that the Golden Rule, “do unto others what you would have them do unto you,” is found in the Bible (Matthew 7:12). For those who would argue that these words of Jesus merely reflect what is found in other religions that predate Christianity such as Buddhism and Hinduism, the root concept is found in Leviticus 19:18, written around 1400 BC and long before Buddha ever roamed the earth. The universe could never reveal the Golden Rule – someone outside the universe needed to do so.

God Is the Foundation of All Human and Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

Since law is derived from God, and since humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28), human rights are also derived from God. Human rights are generally defined as “inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being.” The Bible is clear that men are equal in having been created, equal in being sinners, and equal in being eligible for God’s grace. From these truths are derived the universal human rights noted in the US Declaration of Independence; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These God-given human rights provide the foundation for the civil rights, such as the right to vote, that we enjoy in America today.

There is no genetic or environmental reason why humans should have any rights. If, as Darwin suggested, only the fittest survive in nature, then human rights as we know them do not exist. Individuals have only what they can take. Those who can take nothing get nothing.

Neither is there historical justification for universal human rights because for millennia the only ones with such “rights” were those who could seize them by force. Kings did whatever they had the power and legitimacy to do with their subjects, whether rape, murder, or plunder. Women, the poor, and foreigners often had no rights at all. The caste system in India, the concept of dhimmi in Islam, and the ideas of a “master race” are built on the ideological foundation that all people are not created equal. Concern for universal human rights did not become widespread until the 18th century, and then primarily in Christendom. Because of the inherent sense of right and wrong that God has placed into man, most people feel guilty about doing wrong to others, but history suggests that “thou shalt not kill” has more traction than “all men are created equal”.

“Civil rights” are commonly defined as those rights which are granted by a government to its citizens to promote equality. They are political, social and economic rights that the government must monitor and protect. People who believe that individuals have rights but refuse to believe in God may argue that human rights and civil rights are the same thing. Logically this would mean that in truly democratic countries, those in which the people hold the reins of power, the citizens grant rights to themselves. In non-democratic countries, citizens would receive only such rights as the rulers gave them. In such situations rights might differ between countries or cultures. The end of the story is that without God, human rights and civil rights are neither universal nor irrevocable.

“Civil liberties” are fundamental freedoms that the government must stay out of in the lives of its citizens. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press are examples. One government professor summarized that civil liberties are about freedom and civil rights about equality.

A Christian Approach to Human Rights, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

As Christians approach the issue of human rights we must remember that man has no rights before God. He creates us and sustains us, and the Lord is never in our debt. His character, His will and His laws are the ultimate authority in the universe. The Bible clearly teaches that all people are equal. Certain universal rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are the logical consequences of such Bible truths. Civil rights are not granted by governments but are derived from the God-given human rights which are themselves derived from God’s Law. Civil liberties, likewise, are based on the freedoms that God provides his creatures as revealed in the Bible. As such, human rights, civil rights, and civil liberties are universal and irrevocable.

Once a people abandon the Biblical basis of human and civil rights, so called “rights” can arise which are not rights at all and which can even deny real human and civil rights to certain groups. Controversies masquerade as human rights issues which have more to do with sin and selfishness than real human rights. In the infamous Roe v. Wade decision on abortion in 1973, the US Supreme Court decided that a woman’s “right to privacy”, a tenuous “right” based at most on inference from the Constitution, takes precedence over her baby’s right to life. Christians must have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) and must utterly reject such reasoning. The Bible is our guide, and we must be transformed by it.

Ensuring that we know the issues and know the Scriptures intimately, followers of Jesus Christ must advance the cause of Biblically based civil rights wherever and whenever we live. Jesus did no less. But we must also oppose sin and selfishness masquerading as civil rights wherever and whenever we live. Jesus did no less.

Believers should advocate for civil rights in the name of social justice to advance social equality. It is also important for followers of Jesus to advocate for civil liberties to advance freedom in society. We must keep these in balance; taking money from the rich to help the poor may advance social equality but it also hinders civil liberty. Limiting freedom of speech to protect one group necessarily harms another.

Conclusion

Human rights, civil rights and civil liberties ultimately begin at the throne of God. Those who would promote equality and freedom must begin there. In our messy world, however, the fruits of human rights, civil rights and civil liberties are poorly distributed and incomplete. The final solution to these problems lies in the heart of each man. Government can help but can also hinder, whether by ham-handed intervention or by tyranny. Businesses and other organizations can do the same. The best hope of “liberty and justice for all” is found in “one nation under God”, and even more in each man under God. James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers (#51):

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

When each man is under God he becomes a better man, more like an angel, and more able to safeguard human rights, civil rights, and civil liberties for all.

Inauguration Day

Inauguration Day is a special day in America, whether your candidate wins or not. 

On 21 January 2013 I served as the deputy tactical commander for US military medical forces at the 57th Presidential Inauguration, opening the second term for President Barack Obama. All told, nearly 200 military and hundreds of civilian medical personnel provided care to the estimated 800,000 spectators and 10,000 participants. Hundreds of patients ultimately found their way to the dozens of medical tents, aid stations, roving medics, and others involved. Most people were simply cold and aching but a few had heart problems and other more serious conditions. Our National Capital is a beautiful place and the parade was a panoply of music and color. Regardless on one’s political convictions or voting record, everyone on our team was proud to have been a part of this event.

This was my third inauguration; I was the deputy commander of forces from Dewitt Army Community Hospital in 2009 and a spectator at the Bush Inauguration in 2001. In each case I was struck by how many people stayed to watch the presidential motorcade and how few to watch the parade. Even though the motorcade was delayed by over 30 minutes yesterday most of the people lining the route remained. After the president’s armored limo, preceded by press trucks and surrounded by Secret Service, passed by, thousands of spectators disappeared. It was as if the highlight of the day was a chance to see the President.

Two women, African Americans in their early 20s, jumped with joy as he passed, shouting to him and blowing kisses. They had been Democratic campaign volunteers, having spent hours on the phone and door to door grind. Some other black women argued, albeit good naturedly, with each other about which of them Obama had actually waved at. As the limo crept past shouts erupted from the onlookers. Many donned Obama hats, wore Obama T-shirts and carried Obama bags.

I could not help but puzzle at the fascination; almost worship, shown by many in the crowd to the president. Presidents are not generally exceptional in other things that generate such adoration, such as appearance, wealth, or talent in drama, sports or music. Though Obama has a unique standing among African Americans, who were very well represented yesterday, Bush also enjoyed such attention. What is it about the President of the United States that engenders such devotion? How does this feeling continue, though diminished, into the second term despite the inevitable disappointments?

From an economics standpoint, scarcity is a factor. The country needs a president, there are 330 million Americans and there is only one American president, so the supply and demand curve is heavily skewed in his favor. This is certainly one advantage that the president has over Congress and the Courts.

From a success standpoint, simply becoming president makes a person more successful, at least in the eyes of the world, than most people will ever be. Though presidents rarely have movie-star looks or talent, they have been reasonably well appointed and gifted. Success breeds success, and people feel more successful when they are around a successful person.

From an historical standpoint, presidents are part of history, no matter how good or bad, and people with a sense of history, no matter how small, want their fleeting lives anchored in something bigger than themselves. In 2005 I was deployed to Fort Polk to assist with the rebuilding after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While there I visited the Los Adaes State Historic Site and met a worker whose ancestor had been the commander of the Presidio Los Adaes in the early 18th century. When visiting Antietam for the sesquicentennial my son and I were guided by a Park Ranger whose ancestor had fought in the battle. Their history had given these men direction and even purpose, and being a part of presidential history can do that for some.

From a personal interest standpoint, the President, more than any other single individual in America, can advance the interests of one person or party over another. Between the bully pulpit, the appointment of judges, the enforcement of legislation, and the control of the massive executive bureaucracy, the President of the United States can heavily influence who wins and who loses in many fights.

The single greatest factor in the appeal of the presidency is power. While the President exerts control on the domestic scene, he also exerts tremendous power internationally. The American president controls the most powerful military on earth, and the most powerful in human history. Insofar as he can work with Congress he holds vast wealth to distribute to whomever he sees fit. Those who claim that the President of the United States is the most powerful man on earth are probably not too far off the mark. Whether he is too powerful (or some might say not powerful enough) will be the topic of a future article.

All of these factors help us understand the fascination of the onlookers yesterday with the president. But in some cases even more is at play.

The president might be the closest thing to God that some accept. Many refuse to believe in the Biblical God and yet understand that they cannot personally make the world as they wish it to be. So they try to find someone else who can do it for them. Perhaps this is the real reason that Americans are giving their presidents more and more power. Perhaps that is why some Americans make their president an object of veneration.

Those who refuse to accept any reality beyond the physical world must attribute to this world the highest priority. Governing this world then gains the highest urgency. Could this be why zealots left and right seem to hate those who disagree with them, even though they are fellow Americans? Could this explain “gridlock in Washington?” Finally, could this explain the emergence of what many have called The Imperial Presidency?

Why Was the Preaching of Jonathan Edwards So Effective?

The name Jonathan Edwards is the first many people remember when discussing the Great Awakening. His signature sermon, Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God, delivered 8 July 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut, was electrifying; with wails and cries in the congregation and the fear of God on the lips of His people. It is the most famous sermon of the Great Awakening, a move of the Holy Spirit in which an estimated 5% of the population of the colonies found the Lord.

In a communications class today, however, Edwards might have received a failing grade on delivery. Most modern speakers are taught to speak from notes, to gesticulate, to vary the inflection of their voices, and to mix current events, humor, and even music and drama into their preaching. Edwards did nothing of the sort. He was an academic who spent most of his work hours in his pastor’s study. He wrote every speech, choosing each word with exquisite care, and read the sermon in a monotone voice. Edwards was so nearsighted that he kept his text close in front of his face to see it. Sinners has neither jokes nor anything calculated to identify with or engage the congregation. Churchill, the foremost orator of the first half of the 20th century, would probably have commended Edwards for reading his sermons but condemned him for his presentation.

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The Death of a Friend

Death is a great sadness in this world, but not the greatest. We lost a dear friend, like many others in life, but we will see her again. 

It was a beautiful morning at the state campgrounds at Lake Anna, near Richmond Virginia. Several families from our church, and one family that had recently moved away to pursue new job opportunities, had come together for a Labor Day getaway. We were busily preparing breakfast, assembling fishing tackle, and drinking coffee by the crackling fire. As the only physician in the group I was in unfortunate demand. One girl from a different party had had a bike accident, a man splashed some chemlight fluid in his eyes, and a little boy hurt his arm. After my quasi-clinic Mary, a dear friend and breast cancer survivor, asked me about some back pain she had been having. I tried some spinal manipulation with little result. Chagrined by the lack of improvement but without the opportunity to investigate further, we moved on. Our group had prayed for these problems, and Mary had a medical appointment a few days later.

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Magic, Science and Prayer

What are magic, science, and prayer? How do they differ? How do they work in our lives? How should they work? What can be do to make them work better?

Last Sunday my family and I watched The Hobbit, the latest movie from the writings of the great fantasy author JRR Tolkien, which also includes the Lord of the Rings series. It was a good show, bringing the audience through sadness, excitement, laughter, and the whole range of emotions. During my time of prayer and meditation this morning I considered some of the differences between science, prayer, and magic, as it is portrayed in The Hobbit and the Harry Potter series.

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The Conditions of Discipleship

For those ready to stop playing at religion, what do they do if they really want to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ?

Webster defined “condition” as “anything called for before the performance or completion of something else.”  A condition of graduation with an MDiv, for example, is the satisfactory completion of a certain number of courses and mastery of a certain basic body of information.  Dr. Mike Mitchell postulates several conditions for discipleship, including self denial, renunciation, leaving all, steadfastness, fruitfulness and love.  Anyone who wishes to be a true disciple of Christ must demonstrate these qualities.  It is important to differentiate “disciple” from “follower”.  Elwell’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology suggests that the word disciple (μαθητής mathētēs) may be rendered “pupil” in English but actually connotes a far more personal attachment and commitment. The idea is that a disciple is a pupil with a personal relationship with the Master.  While one can be a casual follower, one can only be a devoted disciple.

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Jesus, an Example of Mentoring Leadership

How did Jesus mentor His disciples? How did He mentor others? How should we mentor those who look to us for leadership?

One of the greatest strengths of mentoring leaders is the ability to teach.  To reproduce himself, a man must teach, by words and by actions, those who are learning from him.  Jesus taught large groups and the people marveled at the wisdom and authority of His words.  He was doing His most important work, however, when He was teaching small groups of His disciples and other followers (Luke 24:32).

Mentoring leaders also use gifts of exhortation to mentor those entrusted to them.  Exhortation includes encouragement and instruction to do the right and wise thing.  After Peter’s proclamation of faith in Matthew 16:16, Jesus encouraged him.  After Peter denied Jesus in Matthew 26:69-75, Jesus encouraged him again (John 21:15-17).  Many times in the gospels Jesus exhorted His disciples.  Such gifts as exhortation and teaching are evidence of excellent communication, in this case sharing leadership principles and examples to the next generation of leaders.

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Israel at the Time of Hosea

The Kingdom of Aram (modern Syria) had long been a major military threat to Israel, and Israel had been forced to devote many resources to defense against its northeastern neighbor.  During the days of Jehoahaz (816-800 BC), crushing defeats at the hands of the Arameans had reduced Israel’s army to “not more than 50 horsemen, 10 chariots, and 10,000 footmen (2 Kings 13:7).”

An adventurer named Zakir had successfully gained power in the small kingdoms of Hamath, Luash, and the regions nearby, situated northeast of Aram. Hoping to expand his power the king of Aram, Ben Hadad III, formed an alliance to overthrow Zakir and seize Hamath and Luash. According to the Stele of Zakkur, found in 1903 near Aleppo, the Aramean coalition laid siege to the city of Hazrach (cf. Zechariah 9:1) near Damascus, and was defeated. Zakir’s victory destroyed the army of Aram and led to their precipitous decline. These events occurred around 790 BC, and within 30 years Aram had grown so weak that Israel had gained control of Damascus and Hamath themselves (2 Kings 14:28). The borders of Israel expanded almost as far as they had reached under David and Solomon.  Assyria, which would destroy Israel itself in 722 BC, was relatively weak since the passing of Shalmaneser III (859 – 824 BC).

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Will Jesus Come Again?

Jesus has waited 2000 years to return…is He ever going to come?

Daniel Whittle and James McGranahan wrote the famous hymn I Know Whom I have Believed. The song concludes with a question and a note of hope:

I know not when my Lord may come, at night or noonday fair, nor if I walk the vale with him, or meet him in the air.

But I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day.

The hope of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ has been a source of great comfort to Christians, especially during persecution, for two millennia. However it has also been a source of doubt since Jesus gave no specific time and the event seems delayed. If this troubled the readers of 2 Peter around 65 AD, how much more is it a concern for Christians in 2015. With every passing year, and certainly with the technological and lifestyle changes since first century Israel, it gets harder and harder to believe that Jesus will actually come again. Believers are reminded of this every time someone predicts the return of Christ on a specific day, only to have it not occur.

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US Elections – American Transitions of Political Power

Complain as you will about the American political system, our elections and transfers of power are the best in the world, and in history. 

Americans have waited long for this day to come; some because they are sick of the seemingly endless cycle of electioneering, and others because they are hopeful that their efforts will pay off, or at least their candidates and initiatives will succeed. Most people probably have a mix of these feelings. While understandable, such discomfiture is far better than the alternative. The purpose of elections in every country is to provide for a fair and stable transition of power from one person or group to another. Few countries in history have been able to pull this off.

Whatever happens today in any individual race, including the race for the presidency, power will change hands. The 112th Congress will give way to the 113th, some states will have different faces in their governors’ offices, and the legislative rolls will contain different names. Local governments also will not be the same in January as they are today. The amazing thing about America is that power changes hands with stability, if not civility, and money, not blood.

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Be Thou My Vision – Fixing Our Sight on God

God is not the giver of blessings; He is the blessing. God is not the enabler of accomplishments; knowing Him is the accomplishment. God is the center of our provision and the center of our ambition. And yet why is that so easy to say and so hard to do?

One of my favorite hymns is the Irish “Be thou my vision”, its words are attributed to Dallan Forgaill in the 6th century and its tune an Irish folk song, “Slane”.   The theme is that God alone should be the vision and goal of every Christian, just as He was for Paul in Philippians 3:7-14.

What does it mean to have God for our vision in our purpose for life?

The modern mantra of finding ones’ purpose for life seems to be “follow your inner star”, “find your dream” or “do your own thing.”  The idea is that within each person is something that will guide him or her to meaning and fulfillment in life if only he or she follows it.  Books, music, and movies parrot this idea relentlessly, and many people simply accept it as truth.  Under certain assumptions this could be logical:

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Who is Responsible?

Are we individually responsible for what we do? When are we responsible for what happens to us? If we take credit for our successes, how can we avoid the blame for our failures?

I was at a Preventive Medicine conference in February of 2011 and the speaker was discussing unhealthy lifestyle choices.  Her theme was that people really weren’t responsible for smoking cigarettes, being overweight or sedentary, or any other unhealthy choice.  Instead, they were victims of their genetics and their environment.

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Experiencing God in all things

How do we experience God in misfortune and inconvenience? How do we experience Him in good fortune and ease? 

While sailing on the Potomac in the shadow of Mount Vernon on the fourth of July we lost our engine.  On the way out we had discussed whether we could dock under sail alone, having never done it in the narrow and shallow channel that leads to the Fort Belvoir Marina.  Now we had our chance. We tacked into the wind and slowly sailed toward the marina.  My mother in law Susan asked the children to pray for success. My son David questioned whether God cares about little things like that. Though the wind sailing south was against us, when we turned to starboard to sail into Dogue Creek, the quartering tailwind was perfect.  As we approached the marina we dropped the main and moved in slowly with the jib.  Much to my mother-in-law’s delight, we docked successfully.  We recognized it as a work of God in our lives.

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When a Christian Ends His Own Life

Will a genuine believer in Jesus Christ who kills himself still go to heaven?

My wife called me at work several weeks ago; the morning was good but the news was not. Our daughter had been perusing her friends’ posts on Facebook and saw some from one family that were unclear but disturbing. We called them, close personal friends for over 15 years, and learned that their oldest son had killed himself.

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Christians and Politics

Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, but Christians are salt and light in their society, protecting it from the rot of sin. Followers of the Lord must be active in politics, at least voting, but never forget that our salvation is in Christ alone and our home is in heaven.

This morning in church one of the members of my class asked me about my opinion on Christians being involved in politics. There has been a great deal of press, largely negative, on the issue of evangelicals opposing the legalization of same sex marriage, and this brother was unsure about what the Bible teaches about the issue. While I do not pretend to speak Ex Cathedra, this issue is important enough to examine what Scripture teaches, especially in light of our current circumstances in the United States.

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A Child Leaving Home, and the Providence of God

Parenting is not over when a child leaves home. In many ways, the hardest part is just beginning.

I was chatting with a friend, a professor of government late of Georgetown University, during our Wednesday night church dinner.  He mentioned several Christian youth he had recently met who had lived a sheltered life of homeschooling and church activities, and his concern of how they would do when confronted with the belligerent anti-Christian staff and libertine lifestyles prevalent in most secular universities.  As my oldest will be starting a state college this fall, I was intrigued by his observation.  This educated and devoted man was certainly right to be concerned, and mentioned that he wanted his children to attend a Christian school when the time comes.  There are many sad tales of students raised in Christian homes who are too unprepared intellectually and too undisciplined morally to resist the temptations of living on their own.  How many make mistakes that haunt them for the rest of their lives?

At the same time, Jesus and His disciples lived and worked in Galilee, the most cosmopolitan place in Palestine.  He clearly tells us to be in the world but not of the world (John 15:19, 17:14-16), and to be as salt (Matthew 5:13) to preserve and light (Matthew 5:14) to illuminate the fallen world.   How does a faithful Christian know what to do in the face of such important principles?

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Mysteries of the Trinity

Do we believe in one God or in three gods? How do we explain it? What do we do about it?

I had never expected to meet a Muslim from Lebanon during my family medicine rotation at the Indian Health Service Hospital in Barrow, Alaska in December, 1990. Nonetheless, there I was, eating flat bread in his living room with a few other friends who also happened to be visiting Barrow a month after the sun went down. It was 30 below outside but warm and comfortable within, with conversation ranging from the weather to politics to local events and back to politics again. I stumbled as I tried to say “Good Afternoon” (Masah al Kheir), and the other phrases in Arabic that my new Lebanese friend patiently taught me, in between tending pots and trays to prepare what turned out to be a delicious meal.

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Why is God so Demanding?

We want a God who will accomplish our will, not His. We want a God who will deliver us from misfortune to fortune. We want a God who will let us alone. But the real God loves us too much for that.  

How many people would describe God as a “cosmic kill joy”, the purveyor of “hellfire and brimstone”, and the Angry One who is “too judgmental”? Why have Christians sometimes taught that the wrathful, vengeful God of the Old Testament is not the same God as the loving, forgiving One of the New Testament? How many of my patients, especially those from Catholic traditions, endure a guilty, joyless relationship with their Creator? Why does it seem that no one is ever good enough to please Him?

The God described in the Bible possesses non-moral attributes such as His power, His knowledge, and His eternal existence. He also possesses moral attributes such as holiness and moral perfection. Ultimately God is the Holy Other, absolutely unlike anything else in the universe (Isaiah 46:9, Jeremiah 10:6). The angels in Isaiah 6:3 proclaimed “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory.” The Hebrew word “holy” (קדוש qadowsh) describes something completely set apart from anything else, and the use of the word three times provides the greatest possible emphasis. The term also connotes absolute moral purity and freedom from defilement. There is not the slightest hint of wickedness, or even selfishness, in God.

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The Love and Immutability of God

God loves us more and differently than we can imagine. He will never change, and He will never rest until we are what He has created us to be. 

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” 1 John 4:7-8

If there is one verse, or at least part of a verse, that is better known than Psalm 23:1 or John 3:16, it is the phrase “God is love”. In modern America, no other statement about God would meet with more agreement, and yet what does that statement mean? Further, if God loves us, can He change? Is there a possibility that He will stop loving us?

A good place to begin is to consider the meanings of the word “love” in the original Greek that John used when he wrote. “Love” (ἀγάπη agapē) in the passage mentioned above refers to good will or benevolence. The Apostle Paul describes the word with great clarity in 1 Corinthians 13, revealing that such love, in its perfect form, is unlike any other love known to man. Agape is rarely used in secular ancient Greek literature, and can be considered a love of the unlovable. Brotherly love (φιλέω phileō) refers to the natural love for friends (John 20:2), family members (Matthew 10:37), one’s reputation (Matthew 6:5), and even one’s own life (John 12:25). Eros is another common Greek word for love, is not found in the Bible, and in ancient literature commonly refers to erotic, sexual, or romantic love, as personified in Eros, the Greek god of love. Plato defined eros as “the desire for something that I do not have or the desire never to lose what I now have.” It is a love of the loveable.

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The Sovereignty of God, the Responsibility of Man, and the Suffering of Life

God is totally sovereign, responsible for everything that happens in the universe. Man has the freedom to do what he wants, and is responsible for his actions. These truths are incompatible. What are we to do? 

We have all had days that we will never forget; the day that you graduated, married your lifelong sweetheart, and heard the first cry of your child. We have all had days that we would rather forget; the day that your biopsy report shows cancer, the midnight call that announces that your loved one is dead, or the email that says your job has been terminated. Much as we might wish to have only the first, the second will come. Our usual response is to ask why.

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The Fundamental Problem of Human Existence

What are the greatest problems facing the world today? Suffering? Death? Injustice? No, the greatest problem is the wickedness in the heart of every one of us. As we each become more like God, our world improves and our eternity is secure.

Open the newspaper, turn on television news, tune in to talk shows on satellite radio, or read internet news or text feeds, and you will be overwhelmed by a flood of information, mostly negative, about what is going on in the world. It would be easy to despair at the chorus of doomsday prophets describing how the world will end in dozens of different ways.

Get out of bed, get ready for work, work as best you can at the job you have, spend the evening with family and friends, and go to sleep. Throughout the day you will experience a mix of pleasure and pain, a combination of successes and failures, and if you reflect on the day you will wonder why things turned out as they did.

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Why not God?

Atheists and skeptics ask believers “Why God?” A better question might be “Why not God?” The choice determines eternity. 

Man believes that his existence and importance are self-evident and that God’s existence and importance are not. He therefore questions God, and in history billions of words have been deployed arguing for and against Him. Christians have used arguments based on moral law, causation, design in the universe, and the beauty of creation to support their belief in God’s existence. Non-Christians have attacked these arguments and deployed their own, primarily the problem of pain and suffering in the universe, to support their disbelief in God. On 24 March 2012, about 20,000 people at the Reason Rally in Washington DC celebrated “irreligion, nontheism and secularity”, and the event was billed as a “coming out” party for atheists in America.

If it is true that God is the foundational reality, not man, and “Why man?” is a far more reasonable question than “Why God?”, why is there such controversy about Him? If God is so dominant in the universe, why do so many people disbelieve? Why is so much venom and bile directed towards the One who is revealed in the Bible as being so loving and so good? We could ask, “Why not God?”

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Why God?

God is the fundamental assumption, the ground for all existence, and for every other assumption. He need not be proved and in the final analysis cannot be proved or disproved. So why is there so much controversy, and what do we do?

The question at hand is “Why God?” I was brought up in a Christian home and so I had a marvelous advantage over some who were not; God was just assumed in my home and none of the people around me thought otherwise. They had relatively minor differences about their understanding of His attributes but no one denied His existence or asked why He was important.

I have now had decades to consider the issue and decide for myself, as most people eventually get the chance to do. As a result, I believe in God more strongly than ever, for three reasons:

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Asking for a Sign from the Lord in Prayer

Is it OK to ask God for signs in prayer, like Gideon did long ago? If so, how do you do it? If not, how can you confirm God’s will?

“Fleece praying”, praying for God to provide a specific sign to confirm what He is commanding a person to do, is based on the story of Gideon, around 1100 BC (Judges 6:36-40).  The story does not condemn Gideon for asking for such a sign but Gideon’s request for a second sign was accompanied by a phrase, “do not let Thine anger burn against me”, that suggested that the Lord might be displeased with him.  The modern Christian must ask himself, “Is this what I should do in my prayers to the Lord, or not?”  We will examine the Bible to discover the answer to that question.

Deuteronomy 6:16 warned the Israelites “not to put the Lord their God to the test (נסה nacah – to test, put to the test, prove), as you tested Him at Massah.”  The story Moses referred to when writing this verse is found in Exodus 17.  The people of Israel, having repeatedly seen God work mighty miracles to save them from Pharaoh and provide them food and water, grumbled against Him when they camped, at His command, at Rephidim, a place without water.  They opposed their divinely appointed leader, Moses, and grumbled that he was going to kill them all through his negligence.  Moses commanded them not to test (נסה nacah) the Lord.

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