Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Most Beautiful Churches in the World

Sacred Spaces. We have been creating them since time began, and need them now more than ever. While I understand that the Church is the people of God (and not the building where they gather), today many of our church buildings resemble event centers and stadiums more than houses of worship. They seem to be built more for utility than as a visible expression of the glory of God. Yet we owe God our best, even in our architecture, and we need beautiful, awe-inspiring churches as well. Here are a few.

Duomo di Milano - Milan (Wikimedia Commons)

Duomo di Milano, Milan, Italy. Begun in 1386, this amazing Gothic cathedral took nearly 600 years to complete. It is also the third-largest church building in the world.

Notre-Dame Basilica - Montreal, Canada (GettyImages)

Notre-Dame Basilica, Montreal, Canada. Dedicated in 1829, this Gothic Revival style church was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1989. One interesting feature is the stained glass windows, which depict scenes from the religious history of Montreal rather than the traditional Biblical scenes.

St. Peter's Basilica - Vatican City (Wikimedia Commons)

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. Perhaps the most famous church in the world and the most visible representation of the Catholic Church. Construction began in 1506, and the fundraising campaign to complete the project proved (unintentionally) to be a catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. The church sold indulgences to raise money for the construction, Martin Luther objected, and the rest is history.

St. Paul's Cathedral - London (Wikimedia Commons)

St. Paul's Cathedral, London, England. St. Paul's was first consecrated in 1300; that building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The current St. Paul's was begun by the famed architect Sir Christopher Wren in 1669. It's massive dome has dominated London's skyline for centuries.

Washington National Cathedral - Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C. The National Cathedral took 83 years to complete; it was only officially finished in 1990. It has been the site of 21 Presidential funerals, and has an interesting modern detail: a sculpture of Darth Vader at the top of the west tower, representing evil.

St. Vitus Cathedral - Prague (Wikimedia Commons)

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague, Czech Republic. Located within Prague Castle, the cathedral was constructed over a nearly 600-year period and is the largest and most important church in the Czech Republic. One of the most richly decorated churches in Europe, it also houses the tombs of St Wenceslas and Charles IV.

St. Basil's Cathedral - Moscow (GettyImages)

St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow Russia. Located in Red Square, work on this famous church was begun in 1554 by order of Ivan the Terrible, the first Tsar of Russia. The vivid colors that grace the domes today were not added until 200 years after construction was completed.

La Sagrada Familia - Barcelona, Spain (Wikimedia Commons)

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain. La Sagrada Familia is one of the world's most amazing churches and one of Barcelona's most famous landmarks. It was designed by famed architect Antoni Gaudi, with construction starting in 1882 and ongoing to this day.

Matthias Church - Budapest (Wikimedia Commons)

Matthias Church, Budapest, Hungary. Officially named the Church of Our Lady of Buda, the church takes its more common name from King Matthias, who ruled from 1458-90. In 1541, when the Turks captured Buda, the church became a mosque; it became a church again after the liberation of Budapest from the Turks in 1686. Legend has it that during the bombardment of Budapest by a European alliance, a wall of the church collapsed, revealing a hidden sculpture of the Madonna to the praying Turks. Demoralized, they surrendered the following day.

Notre Dame Cathedral - Paris (Wikimedia Commons)

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris France. No list of beautiful churches would be complete without the iconic Paris landmark. Construction began in 1163 and was completed in 1345. It is both the most popular monument in Paris (beating even the Eiffel Tower with 13 million visitors each year) and a pilgrimage destination for Catholics from around the globe.

Memorial Presbyterian Church - St. Augustine, FL (Wikimedia Commons)

Memorial Presbyterian Church, St. Augustine, FL. Florida’s oldest Presbyterian Church, Memorial Presbyterian was built in 1889 by Henry Flagler as a memorial to his daughter.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre - Jerusalem (Wikipedia Commons)

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, Israel. Easily  the oldest church on this list, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was first consecrated in 335. It was destroyed in 1009, and rebuilt in 1049. According to tradition, the church contains both the site of Jesus' crucifixion and his empty tomb.

As beautiful and important as these churches are, we must always remember that the buildings are never to be the object of worship themselves:

"However, the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands. As the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Could you build me a temple as good as that?’ asks the Lord." - Acts 7:48-49 (NLT)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The "R" Word

One of my recent posts was a short one about the Apostle Paul’s definition of the gospel (which was also short and to the point). But knowing what the gospel is still doesn’t tell us what we are expected to do about it, so what comes next? What is our response supposed to be? Well, just as the Bible gave us the definition of the gospel, it answers that question as well.

The second chapter of the book of Acts tells of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus rose from the dead. Peter speaks to a large crowd of Jews from all over the Roman Empire that have gathered in Jerusalem, telling the story of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection (the gospel), and how this proved Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. They responded with the same question we have today, and Peter gave a clear answer:

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” Acts 2:37-38,41 (New International Version)

Repent and be baptized. These are not ideas that Peter just pulled out of thin air as he was speaking to the people. Both came from Jesus himself, one at the start of his ministry and the other just before he ascended into heaven:

Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News. “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” Mark 1:14-15 (New Living Translation)

[Jesus said:] “Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciples. Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to do everything I have told you. I will be with you always, even until the end of the world.” Matthew 28:19-20 (New Century Version)

Repent and be baptized. Like Paul’s explanation of the gospel this seems pretty straightforward, at least the part about baptism (we have all seen what a baptism looks like, if not in person then at least in movies or on television). Where we get hung up is on the "R" word.

“Repent” sounds like something you would hear from a downtown street preacher, all condemnation and no compassion. But we saw above that Jesus called everyone to repentance, and there is no question about how much he loved us. So what does repentance mean? It does not mean simply being sorry for sins you have committed; often we are sorry not for the sin, but that we got caught. True repentance involves an acknowledgement that we have sinned not just against others but against God, a true change of mind about sin that results in a change in our actions (literally, to go in the opposite direction).

Repentance seems like an old-fashioned, outdated concept in a world were anything and everything goes, but without it salvation is simply not possible. Jesus first called people to repent at the start of his ministry, Peter did the same at Pentecost, and God still calls us to repentance today. The only question left is how you will answer.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Fish on Your Car is Hindering the Great Commission

I usually try to refrain from ranting on this site, but tonight is an exception. After yet another long and harrowing drive home, I feel compelled to comment on something fans of Seinfeld will well remember. Consider the following exchange between Elaine and Puddy:

Elaine: David, I’m going to hell! The worst place in the world! With devils and those caves and the ragged clothing! And the heat! My god, the heat! I mean, what do you think about all that?
Puddy: Gonna be rough.
Elaine: Uh, you should be trying to save me!
Puddy: Don’t boss me! This is why you’re going to hell.
Elaine: I am not going to hell and if you think I’m going to hell, you should care that I’m going to hell even though I am not.
Puddy: You stole my Jesus fish, didn’t you?
Elaine: Yeah, that’s right!

Ah, the ubiquitous "Jesus fish." For readers outside of the United States, the Jesus fish is a symbol that many Christians in America like to put on their vehicles, usually on the trunk, bumper, or tailgate. As Wikipedia explains, it "comes from the fish symbol formed by two intersecting arcs, the ends of the right side extending beyond the meeting point so as to resemble the profile of a fish." Early Christians used it as a secret way to identify each other, because the letters in the Greek word for fish (ichthys) form an acrostic for the phrase "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior."

In theory, there is nothing at all wrong with placing this symbol on your car or SUV to let people know that you are someone who believes in Jesus. However, the theory falls apart once 99% of us get behind the wheel. Because let's face it: Christian or not, most of us are horrible drivers. When you combine rush-hour traffic, a lack of driving skills, chronic texting while driving, and even full-blown road rage with a known symbol of the Christian faith, you have become the polar opposite of salt and light.

Some of you are certainly wondering what the big deal is. After all, most of the drivers you cut off, scream at, or make inappropriate hand gestures toward will never meet you in person. And that is the problem. They will never know that outside of your car or truck you are a caring, committed, follower of Christ who would give them the shirt off your back. They will only know this: that you are the idiot who ran them into a ditch while putting on mascara with one hand and texting with the other, and that you have a Jesus fish on your car. And more than a few of them will think this:

"If that's how Christians act/drive/represent/etc., then I don't want anything to do with them or their Savior."

Sure, that's a ridiculous overreaction and completely unfair generalization, but guess what? Most people don't need much of reason to avoid us as it is. The last thing we need to do is give people one more excuse to avoid Christ and Christians by combining an ancient symbol of Jesus with a modern inability to drive like a sane person.

I once asked a pastor why he didn't have a fish on his truck; he was a pastor, after all. His response was telling: "Paul, until I learn how to not drive like a lunatic, I'm not putting one of those near my truck. It's bad publicity for Jesus."

So to all my brothers and sisters out there with the Jesus fish on your vehicles, I say this: go right now, this very minute, and pry it off. Don't even read the end of this post first. Just do it. Then repent of your horrific driving, ask for forgiveness, and invite the neighbor down the street out for coffee so you can tell him or her about what Jesus is doing in your life and what He can do in theirs.

Better let the neighbor drive.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

What is Faith?

A well-known Bible passage says that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1, NIV). There are passages in the Bible that can be hard to understand, but this one perfectly sums up the essence of what faith is. While the dictionary gives a generic definition such as “belief that is not based on proof” or “belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion,” Hebrews 11:1 distills what faith is into a simple sentence.

This is not to say that faith is simple; it’s not. But having a solid starting point when talking or thinking about such a complex issue is of great benefit. While a secular view of faith might indeed see a definition like “belief not based on proof” as properly describing religious faith, this in fact refers to a blind faith, a shot in the dark, a hope that really has no basis.

When looking at the theological definition of faith, it may be that the New American Bible (Revised Edition) translation of Hebrews 11:1 puts it best: “Now faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” The NABRE's use of the word “evidence” is important. True faith is always based on evidence of some sort.

For example, the resurrection of Jesus cannot be proven scientifically; the events of the lives of historical persons cannot be put under a microscope or tested in a lab. Yet they can be weighed in light of what is called “legal/historical evidence.” In the case of the resurrection of Christ we have the evidence of an empty tomb (though guarded by Roman soldiers), the changed lives of the disciples after the Resurrection (when they were cowering in fear at the crucifixion), and the fact that the first person to find the tomb empty was a woman.

This last point is often overlooked yet very important, because at that time in Jewish culture a woman could not testify in court and was not considered a reliable witness. If the story had been fabricated by the apostles, they would certainly not have had a woman be the first to reach the empty tomb.

All of these and other things taken together constitute evidence, believable testimony that the resurrection occurred. But as no one living today was at the tomb that day, we cannot fully prove that it happened. The evidence strongly indicates that it did, but there is still a small gap between belief and fact.

The step across that gap is faith, it is being certain of what we have not seen. And one of the most interesting and exciting things about faith is that once you have a little of it, God can take that sliver of faith and build it into something stronger. This happens through prayer, through reading the Bible and seeing the teachings there come true in your own life, and through events and circumstances that the secular world would call mere coincidence.

Some will say that putting faith in anything or anyone is stupid, but the fact is, everyone lives by faith every single day. If you don’t think so, ask yourself the following questions:

How many meals have you eaten in a restaurant without ever watching the cook to be sure he wasn’t poisoning you?

How many times have you ridden in an elevator trusting that a safety inspection was performed in the past decade?

How often do you drive through an intersection every day, believing that the drivers at the cross street will actually stop at the red light?

We all exercise faith in innumerable ways, both great and small. But when it comes to the most important thing in life many are quick to dismiss faith, and this simply should not be. Our faith should be active, constantly tested, constantly explored, constantly measured against evidence. When this happens, the Christian faith is not a stumble in the dark; it is a leap into the Light.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Arguing With a Burning Bush

Because of the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, when people think of Moses the face millions of them see is Charlton Heston’s. But the real Moses was no Hollywood he-man. He was a man with flaws and faults just like us, and if we are open to God’s leading, He can use us in spite of our flaws just as He used Moses.

Most people who have read the book of Exodus (or seen the Heston film) know that Moses had to flee from Egypt because he had murdered an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. So Moses was no sinless poster boy from the very start. His temper plagued him at the end as well; in chapter 20 of the Book of Numbers, while the Israelites are in the desert God tells Moses to speak to a rock at Meribah and water would flow from it. Moses was angry at the people’s complaining and struck the rock instead; for his disobedience God kept him from entering into the Promised Land.

We also know that during the time between these two events, God used Moses in a way Moses could have never imagined. Through Moses God brought the 10 plagues upon Egypt, freed the Israelites from bondage, parted the Red Sea, oversaw the construction of the Ark of the Covenant, gave the Israelites great military victories, and brought them to the brink of the Promised Land.
However, I think the episode of Moses’ life that is the most amazing (and instructive) is his encounter with God at the burning bush. In real life, Moses was not nearly as composed as Charlton Heston when coming face-to-face (so to speak) with God. In fact, Moses did something I’m sure all of us would swear we would never do if God were before us: he argued with God, not just once, but five times. Here are Moses’ five questions or excuses, followed by God’s response, when God told him to go to Pharaoh:

Moses: Who am I that I should go? (Exodus 3:11).
God: I will be with you; when you come out of Egypt, you will serve me on this mountain (Exodus 3:12).

Moses: But what is your name, that I may tell the people who sent me? (Exodus 3:13).
God: I am who I am, Yahweh, the God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3:14-15).

Moses: How will the people believe that you have sent me? (Exodus 4:1)
God: Responds by turning Moses’ rod into a serpent then back into a rod (Exodus 4:2-4), then He makes Moses’ hand leprous then heals it (Exodus 4:6-7), and finally instructs Moses to turn water from the Nile into blood if the people still do not believe (Exodus 4:9).

Moses: I am not eloquent; I am slow of speech (Exodus 4:10).
God: I, Yahweh, am the one who made your mouth (Exodus 4:11).

Moses: Please send someone else (Exodus 4:13).
God (finally getting angry at the excuses): Your brother Aaron will go with you; you will speak my words to him and he will speak to the people for you (Exodus 4:15-16).

There are several lessons to take from this encounter. The first is that it’s amazing God chose Moses at all, given the flaws he had already exhibited. The second is that God is patient when we think we’re not up to the task or when we don’t immediately grasp His calling. Finally, Moses’ life makes clear that if we will be obedient to God’s call in spite of our fears and shortcomings, some incredible things can happen. We may never part the Red Sea, but we may do equally amazing things, from sharing the Gospel halfway around the world on a mission trip to helping feed the homeless in our own neighborhood to simply showing Christ's love to someone going through a rough time.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

A Whale of a Tale

While the story of Jonah is one of the best known in the Bible, nearly everyone misses the real point of the story altogether. The ultimate theme of the Book of Jonah has nothing to do with whales; it is a story of God's merciful compassion for all people, not just the Israelites.

Jonah preached during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel (782 753 B.C.). At some point during his ministry, God called him to preach a message of repentance to the people of Nineveh, the capital of the Israelites' bitter enemies the Assyrians, so that they would turn from their evil ways and not be destroyed. This would be similar to an American preacher being called to bring a message of repentance to Osama bin Laden or the leader of ISIS, knowing that they would turn from their ways and be spared by God. Jonah wanted God to destroy Nineveh (the same way many of us would want al-Qaeda or ISIS destroyed), so he ran in the opposite direction, taking a ship to Tarshish.

This is where the whale (the Bible actually calls it a great fish) comes in. God sent a storm to stop Jonah, and after determining that Jonah was the cause of the storm, the crew threw him overboard. The great fish was simply the means God used to keep Jonah from drowning. After three days Jonah had had enough, and cried out to God to forgive him. The fish then spit Jonah out alive onto dry land, and Jonah began the long journey east to Nineveh. For those who don't believe that the whale (or great fish) really swallowed Jonah, take it up with Jesus. He refers to the event as a fact in Matthew 12:38-41 and Luke 11:29-30. If Jesus says it happened, then it's good enough for me.

What happens once Jonah gets to Nineveh is the real lesson of the story. He does as God commanded, calling on the people to repent or be destroyed. To his chagrin, everyone from the king down to the lowliest servants do just that, fasting and praying for God's forgiveness, and God relents from destroying them. Jonah becomes so angry about this that he tells God that he wants to die. God then teaches him, and us, a lesson.

While still hoping that God might change his mind and destroy Nineveh, Jonah goes to the east of the city and sits in the blazing heat. God caused a plant to grow that gave shade to Jonah, and Jonah was very happy. But the next morning, God sent a worm to attack the plant, which immediately withered and died. This made Jonah so angry that he again told God it would be better for him to just die. God simply asks if it is right for him to be angry about the plant, for which Jonah had done no work and which was, after all, only a plant, while having no concern for the people of Nineveh, people just like him whom God had created.

Therefore, the Book of Jonah is not some children's fairy tale about being swallowed by a whale. It is a lesson from God about loving those who are not like us, even our sworn enemies, especially our sworn enemies. Because while he may not condone their deeds, God loves them just as much as he loves us. It wasn't a popular message 2,700 years ago, nor 700 years later when Jesus told us to love our enemies, and it's not particularly popular today. But if we're going to follow God as we should, it is a lesson we must heed.