Friday, November 9, 2018

Using ACTS in Your Prayer Life

Today I want to suggest a method for praying that can help with your focus during your prayer time. Perhaps “method” is not the best word; it is more of a guideline or mnemonic device for those of us who struggle with what the Buddhists call the “monkey mind,” where your thoughts tend to jump all over the place. It has been written about many times before, yet countless people have never heard of it.

The mnemonic device is a simple acronym: ACTS. It’s easy to remember not only because it’s short, but because it happens to be the name of a book of the Bible as well. It breaks down this way:

Adoration – In all of our prayers, giving praise, honor, and worship to God for who he is should be first and foremost. Some good examples of this can be found in Psalms 95, 145, and 150; Isaiah 6:3; and Revelation 4:8, 4:11, 5:12, and 5:13.

Confession – After giving praises to God, we should take time not only to acknowledge and confess specific sins that we have committed, but the very fact that we are sinners (Luke 18:13 and 1 John 1:8). One of the greatest expressions of confession and repentance ever written is Psalm 51.

Thanksgiving – All good things come from God, and no matter our circumstances we all have things for which to be thankful. We should next express these thanks to the Lord. If we thank each other for even small gifts, how much more do we owe thanks to God for all he has given us? Psalm 138 is a beautiful psalm of Thanksgiving.

Supplication – Far too often I jump straight to supplication (asking God for things) and never move beyond that point. God wants us to bring our petitions to him (Matthew 7:11; Philippians 4:6), but as the ACTS acronym rightly shows, it should be the last part of our prayer time, not the first and only. I would further suggest that our prayers for others be presented before prayers for ourselves. This can be difficult, especially when we are in particularly dire circumstances, but can also be quite beneficial to our spiritual growth.

ACTS is an important reminder in another way as well. At the end of our prayer time, it reminds us that we are always to pair prayer with action. We find this throughout the Bible; the time that comes most often to my mind is when Nehemiah was rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem: he “prayed and posted a guard.” My prayer is that the ACTS method will benefit both your prayer life and the living out of your faith as well.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Banned Books Week: Remember the Bible

Banned Books Week is an annual celebration of the right to read. Banned Books Week 2018 will be held September 23rd through 29th, and as in years past will include special events and displays at both libraries and bookstores across the country. Begun in 1982 as a collaboration between the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers and the National Association of College Stores, Banned Books Week aims to raise awareness of censorship problems in the United States and abroad.
An earlier post on this blog was about how though the Bible is the best-selling book in the world, it is one of the least read. Banned Books Week reminds us that it is also one of the most banned/challenged books in the world, even in the United States. In 2015, the Bible was one of the top 10 most challenged books in America, coming in at #6. The reason most often cited was “religious viewpoint.”
As troubling as this is, the challenges to the Bible in U.S.  public libraries and schools pale in comparison to the restrictions placed on the Bible in other parts of the world. Here are just a few examples:
In North Korea, possession of a Bible or other religious literature is punishable by death or imprisonment.  In one particularly heart-breaking report, Vernon Brewer, founder and president of humanitarian organization World Help told Fox News that he often thinks about a case involving a girl named Eun, whose third-grade teacher gave the class a “special assignment” to go home and “look for a book” and if it’s the right book, the student will be honored. Eun ended up finding a Bible.  “The next day she received a prize at her school. But when Eun returned home, her parents weren’t there,” he recalled. “It’s hard to imagine such cruelty that would unknowingly turn children on their own parents.”
Morocco allows Bibles in French, English, and Spanish, but not Arabic. Arabic is the official language of the country, and the one spoken and read by the vast majority of the population.
Maldives, which requires that all citizens be Muslim, restricts Bibles to foreigners living in the country. It is illegal for a citizen to own one.
Turkmenistan prohibits the publication of Bibles. They can be imported by the few registered churches in limited numbers, and only with permission.
And while in some countries where printed Bibles are restricted people could read the Bible online, many nations restrict Internet access in a way that makes even this difficult to impossible. They include Belarus, China, Cuba, Iran, Libya, Maldives, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
So during Banned Books Week next week, as you support the right to read previously challenged books ranging from The Old Man and the Sea to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, take a moment to remember and speak out for those here at home and around the world who have been denied access to the Bible as well.

Friday, August 31, 2018

The Gospel in a Nutshell

Sometimes we make things much more complicated than they need to be. Entire books have been written to explain the gospel, but here is how the Apostle Paul summed it up in four sentences:

"Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." 1 Corinthians 15: 1-4 (NIV)

No definition captures the true essence of the "good news" better, and nothing I can add will make it any clearer than Paul did two thousand years ago.

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Jesus Prayer: 14 Powerful Words

Do you ever wish there was a short, succinct prayer that not only put you in the proper frame of mind to approach God but also summed up why we need Christ as our Savior? There is, and it’s even helpfully named. It’s called the Jesus Prayer:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The prayer is based on a verse from Luke’s Gospel. Here is the entire passage in context:

[Jesus] then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

While this is the passage that most aligns with the Jesus prayer, we see examples of the truth it expresses in other places in the New Testament. After the miraculous catch of fish soon after meeting Jesus, Peter says to him “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). When the centurion sends messengers to Jesus asking him to heal his servant, he recognizes his sinful state when he says “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8).

The tax collector, Peter, and the centurion all acknowledged what we know but too often refuse to admit. We do not just commit sins; we are sinners. Only when we face this truth and go to Jesus for forgiveness and mercy can we be restored to a right relationship with God.

The Jesus Prayer is most often associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church, where it has been prayed since the 4th century. Priests, monks, and laymen typically recite it using a knotted prayer rope (much like a Rosary), repeating the prayer as a means of meditation and to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Many in the West were introduced to the prayer through the book “The Way of the Pilgrim,” a 19th century tale recounting an unnamed narrator’s pilgrimage across Russia reciting the Jesus Prayer.

While better known in the East, the Jesus Prayer is certainly not confined to our Orthodox brothers and sisters. The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically mentions the prayer and its benefits (CCC 2667-2668). Any and all Christians can benefit from this brief but powerful prayer. Try incorporating it into your own prayer life; these may be the most transformative 14 words you’ve ever said.



Wednesday, August 22, 2018

We All Fall Down

The apostle Peter is a virtual case study in both what to do and what not to do in both ministry and life. He is emblematic of how we all fall down; the difference between him and many of us is that Peter always got back up, and it is in that area that we may be able to learn the most from his life.

There are numerous examples of Peter's strengths and weaknesses, and it is the recording of these failings that makes me even more certain that the Biblical record is accurate; propaganda never shows its leaders' flaws, only a true recounting does. And it is easy to see how Peter succeeds and then fails (or fails and then succeeds) because in most cases they happen almost in tandem. Here are some key instances:

1. One of the best-known of Peter's failings (and little-acknowledged successes) occurred during a storm on a lake:

"Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. 'It's a ghost,' they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: 'Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid.'

'Lord, if it's you,' Peter replied, 'tell me to come to you on the water.'

'Come,' he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.

But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, 'Lord, save me!'

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. 'You of little faith,' he said, 'why did you doubt?'" (Matthew 14:22-31 NIV)

For 2000 years people have focused on the fact that Peter took his eyes off Jesus, looked at the storm around him and started to sink. This is obviously true, and even Jesus asks why he doubted. But we tend to overlook what led up to this: Peter got out of the boat. Of all the disciples, only he had the audacity to even ask to be able to do it, and as a result he is the only one besides Jesus in the entire Bible to have walked on water. We should learn a lesson from his taking his focus off Jesus, but we should also learn a positive lesson from his boldness and willingness to take a risky step of faith.

2. Later we see Peter go from great heights to the depths in almost an instant. The height came in what is known as his Confession of Christ:

"Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, 'Who do people say I am?'

They replied, 'Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.'

'But what about you?' he asked. 'Who do you say I am?'

Peter answered, 'You are the Christ.'

Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him." (Mark 8:27-30 NIV)

Peter is the first of Jesus' disciples to both recognize and acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. In Matthew's Gospel it is during this exchange that Jesus says that Peter is the "rock" on which Christ will build His church. Yet Peter stumbles almost immediately:

"[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. 'Get behind me, Satan!' he said. 'You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.'" (Mark 8:31-33 NIV)

This is one of the strongest rebukes we see during Jesus' ministry, perhaps because Peter should have known better given the previous exchange. Peter has shown flashes of the ability to lead; here he loses sight of Jesus and His mission, mainly because he neither likes nor understands what Jesus is saying about his upcoming death. We need to be prepared to accept whatever leading we receive from the Lord, whether we like it or even understand it.

3. Peter is also well-known for his denial of Jesus after Jesus is taken away to be tried before the crucifixion. There can be no doubt that this is his greatest failure, made even worse by the fact that Jesus had earlier predicted it would happen:

"Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest's courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the girl on duty there and brought Peter in.

'You are not one of his disciples, are you?' the girl at the door asked Peter.
He replied, 'I am not.'

It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself.

As Simon Peter stood warming himself, he was asked, 'You are not one of his disciples, are you?'

He denied it, saying, 'I am not.'

One of the high priest's servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, 'Didn't I see you with him in the olive grove?' Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow." (John 18:15-18, 25-27 NIV)

Many consider Peter's return to Jesus to have occurred when he went out and wept bitterly after his denial (see Luke 22:62). This was certainly a sign of his repentance, as was the fact that Peter ran to the empty tomb as soon as the women reported that Jesus was not there (see Luke 24:8-12). But even more encouraging to believers today is the way Jesus dealt with Peter following the Resurrection.

The first sign came on the day of the Resurrection, when the women were confronted by an angel at the empty tomb:

"'Don't be alarmed,' he said. ’You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.' " (Mark 16:6-7 NIV)

Peter is the only one of the eleven remaining apostles who is mentioned by name here; he alone is singled out by the angel. Even after his three denials, Jesus wanted Peter to know that he mattered, that he was important, and that he was forgiven. When we feel at our lowest point, when we feel like there is no way God could ever forgive us, we need only look at what happened here with Peter.

But Peter's restoration went beyond forgiveness to reinstatement. Shortly before he returned to Heaven, Jesus appeared to the disciples at the Sea of Galilee, and he had this conversation with Peter:

"When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, 'Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?'

'Yes, Lord,' he said, 'you know that I love you.'

Jesus said, 'Feed my lambs.'

Again Jesus said, 'Simon son of John, do you truly love me?'

He answered, 'Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.'

Jesus said, 'Take care of my sheep.'

The third time he said to him, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?'

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, 'Do you love me?' He said, 'Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.'

Jesus said, 'Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.' Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, 'Follow me!'" (John 21:15-19 NIV)

So not only did Jesus forgive Peter, he restored him to his former position as the head of the apostles, something that Peter could certainly never have dreamed was possible. If after his repentance even Peter could still be used by God in service to the Kingdom, then any of us can. I believe this is precisely the reason that the Bible records both Peter's failures and successes: they show us in no uncertain terms that although we will all fall down, the important thing is that we keep getting up.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Springsteen and the Scriptures

In my first post I jokingly referenced two Bruce Springsteen songs; in the second I encouraged you to read the Bible more. Today I thought I’d take a look at how reading the Bible more can help you catch references in Springsteen’s songs that you would otherwise miss. What can I say…I make strange connections on Monday mornings before that second cup of coffee.

In that post about the Bible I said that not knowing anything at all about the Bible makes it impossible to fully understand Shakespeare, Dante, or Michelangelo (to name only a few) since all three owe the Bible a debt for their content. The same is true of some of Springsteen’s best songs. Consider these examples:

Adam, Cain, and Abel:
Adam Raised a Cain
“In the Bible Cain slew Abel
and East of Eden he was cast
You’re born into this life paying
for the sins of somebody else’s past
Adam raised a Cain”

The Price You Pay
“Little girl down on the strand
With that pretty little baby in your hands
Do you remember the story of the promised land
How he crossed the desert sands
And could not enter the chosen land
On the banks of the river he stayed
To face the price you pay”

Swallowed Up (In the Belly of a Whale)
“I fell asleep on a dark and starlit sea
With nothing but the cloak of God’s mercy over me
I come upon strange earth and a great black cave
I dreamt I awoke as if buried in my grave
We’ve been swallowed up”

Jesus, Gideon, Saul, and Abraham:
Heaven’s Wall
There was a woman waiting at the well
Drawing water ‘neath the desert sky blue
She said, “He’ll heal the blind, raise the dead, cure the sickness out of you”
Come on men of Gideon
Come on men of Saul
Come on sons of Abraham
Waiting outside heaven’s wall

Noah and Jesus:
Rocky Ground
“Forty days and nights of rain washed this land
Jesus said the money changers, in this temple will not stand”

Jesus, Mary, and David:
Jesus Was An Only Son
“Jesus was an only son
As he walked up Calvary Hill
His mother Mary walking beside him
In the path where his blood spilled
Jesus was an only son
In the hills of Nazareth
As he lay reading the Psalms of David
At his mother’s feet
In the garden at Gethsemane
He prayed for the life he’d never live,
He beseeched his Heavenly Father to remove
The cup of death from his lips”

That’s a fair number of references spanning a 45-year career, and there are more. But I want to make one thing clear: I am not saying Bruce is evangelizing here. His most famous album was not called “Born Again in the USA.” Still, he clearly knows at least something of the Bible, or these references would never have made their way into his songs. So if you won’t take my advice on reading the Bible, then take it from Bruce. He is the Boss, after all (even if he does think that Eve actually tempted Adam with a Pink Cadillac).

Note: Just in case you would like to look these references up for yourself, I have included the passage or Bible book where you can find them below:

Adam Raised a Cain:  Genesis chapter 4, verses 8-16
The Price You Pay: Numbers chapter 20, verses 1-12 and Deuteronomy chapter 34, verses 1-5
Swallowed Up (In the Belly of a Whale): Jonah, chapters 1 and 2
Heaven’s Wall: John chapter 4, verses 1-30. The stories of Gideon, Saul, and Abraham are found in Judges chapters 6-8, 1st Samuel chapters 9-31, and Genesis chapters 11-25 respectively
Rocky Ground: Genesis chapters 6-9 (the Flood) and John chapter 2, verses 13-17
Jesus Was An Only Son:  Matthew chapters 26-27, Mark chapters 14-15, Luke chapters 22-23, John chapter 19, Psalms

Friday, August 17, 2018

One Way

In the classic book Mere ChristianityC.S. Lewis writes what is often referred to as the “poached egg” passage. If you have never read the book, the specific passage is below:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Lewis wrote this during in the mid-1940s, and what I find troubling is not that people 70 years ago rejected Jesus’ claim to both be God and the only way to salvation (many have rejected that since his days on earth), but that so many today go even further, maintaining that he never really made such claims for himself in the first place. A few years ago, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a major study on religious beliefs in the United States. It found that 70 percent of all Americans believe that many religions can lead to eternal life, including 65 percent of all Christians. Shockingly, 56 percent of people who consider themselves Evangelical Christians said that there are many paths other than faith in Christ that lead to God and eternal life.

I understand that this is a popular and “tolerant” point of view. However, it stands in direct contradiction to the words of Jesus himself. Consider the following passages:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well.” John 14:6-7

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son…. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:27

“Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this; to believe in the one he has sent.'” John 6:29

“For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” John 6:40

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12

“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” John 10:28-30

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.'” John 11:25-26

None of these statements of Jesus are in any way vague or ambiguous, and for that very reason many people, even self-professing Christians, simply avoid them altogether. But to call yourself a Christian while rejecting the very words of Christ himself is disingenuous at best and self-delusion at worst. As C.S Lewis said, “He has not left that option open to us. He did not intend to.”

Monday, August 13, 2018

Choosing the Right Bible for You

Men like William Tyndale and John Wycliffe devoted their lives (and sometimes even sacrificed them) to bring us the English translation of the Bible. While they would likely be pleased to see how far their initial work has come in making the Bible available to all English speakers, they would also be confused by the sheer number and variations of translations and types available now. Walk into any Christian bookstore, or any other bookstore for that matter, and you will be faced with so many options that you may long for the days when the King James Version was the only one available.
Choosing the right Bible for you is no longer a simple task, but it can be made easier with a little work before you buy. The first and often most difficult choice is which translation is best for you. There are stalwarts out there who still insist that The King James Version is the only true translation, even if many of the words haven't been in use for nearly 200 years. If you are one of these people your choice is easy, at least as far as translation. For everyone else, let's take a look at the plethora of translations available.

When translating the Bible from the original languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic) there are two basic methods: word-for-word or thought-for-thought. In reality, all versions use some combination of this process, because many Greek and Hebrew words don't have an exact English equivalent and the word order doesn't match up exactly either. A true word-for-word translation would be virtually unreadable. And while thought-for-thought translations better convey the original meaning, even they translate Greek and Hebrew words exactly wherever possible. A third method is the paraphrase, but these versions allow for current slang and idioms and are outdated almost as soon as they are printed.
The ultimate goal is making the Bible relevant and understandable to us today without everyone having to learn Greek or Hebrew. My recommendation is to stay to the thought-for-thought side without slipping all the way to a paraphrase. Another consideration is the reading level required for each version. The translations on the word-for-word end of the spectrum will require a higher reading level (12th grade for the King James Version, for example) while the thought-for-thought versions will require a lower reading level (4th grade for the New Century Version). Below is a list of widely available versions, the translations type, and reading level:

King James Version (KJV): Word-for-word, 12th grade.
New American Standard Bible (NASB): Word-for-word, 11th grade.

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): Balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought, 10th Grade.

New King James Version (NKJV): More verse-for-verse than word-for-word, 9th Grade.
English Standard Version (ESV): Word-for-word, 8th Grade.

New International Version (NIV): Balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought, 7th Grade.
New Living Translation (NLT): Thought-for-thought, 6th Grade.

Contemporary English Version (CEV): Thought-for-thought, 5th Grade.
New Century Version (CNV): Thought-for-thought, 4th Grade.

Beyond reading level and translation method, there are a few other important choices that must be made when selecting a Bible, things like font, print size, cost (which is related to the binding method) and type of Bible. Cost can vary widely, but generally speaking you get what you pay for. A particular study Bible may come in soft cover for $19.99, hardback for $29.99, bonded leather for $39.99, and genuine leather for $49.99 and up. While more expensive, a genuine leather Bible should last for a lifetime, while a soft cover may wear out in two years or less. In the long run, it's better to pay more now.
When speaking of the type of Bible, I am referring to another phenomenon that is fairly recent: the specialty Bible. For centuries Bibles had only the sacred text, some maps, and perhaps a brief concordance. Today the choices are enough to make a person dizzy. Type in "Study Bible" on Amazon and you will get hundreds of results. A few include: The ESV Study Bible, The Life Application Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Seeker's Bible, The NIV Study Bible, The McArthur Study Bible, The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, The Women's Study Bible, The Recovery Study Bible, The Men's Devotional Bible, and the list goes on and on.

Almost anyone can find a study Bible that suits his or her particular need at a given moment in time. All are filled with helpful notes, articles, diagrams, concordances, maps, and application tips that can be very useful. But one word of caution: it is very easy to get so caught up reading the notes and articles that you're not actually reading the Bible itself. The notes should always be used in addition to, not in place of, the actual Biblical text.
As for my own personal recommendation, especially if this is the first Bible you've purchased in some time (or ever), I would suggest the NIV Life Application Study Bible. The NIV is the world's best selling translation and is very readable. In addition, the notes in the Life Application Study Bible are easy to understand without a seminary degree, which is not true of every study Bible out there.  For deeper study, perhaps the best available right now is the ESV Study Bible, as evidenced by the fact that it is used by ministers across all denominations.

Regardless of which version and type you choose, the best Bible version for you is the one you'll actually read. It will only be of use to you if you're reading it daily, not simply letting it sit on the shelf gathering dust. Start with 5 minutes a day; it will change your life.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Jesus Was Not a Relativist

Prophets are often ignored, especially in modern times and particularly when they are right. Such is the case with two men who made bold declarations decades apart, declarations that have sadly come to fruition today. The first was Bishop Fulton Sheen, who said years ago on his television program:

“America, it is said, is suffering from intolerance - it is not. It is suffering from tolerance. Tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos. Our country is not nearly so overrun with the bigoted as it is overrun with the broadminded.”

The second was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his last homily in 2005 before becoming Pope Benedict XVI:

 “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

It’s hard to look at society today, especially in the US and Western Europe, and not see the prescience of these statements. They echo the last verse of the Book of Judges: “All the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). This is true in every facet of life, but particularly in the area of moral truth. The irony of relativism (and “tolerance”) is that those who hold to moral truth are the only ones not allowed to voice an opinion because that opinion is “intolerant.” Nowhere is this more pronounced than with regard to the teachings of Jesus.

If you want intolerant, non-relative statement that can neither be ignored nor reconciled with the current my-truth-is-whatever-I-say-it-is mentality, try these:

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:17-18)

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” (John 14:6)

It’s a shame Jesus wasn’t more clear when he said things. St. Peter echoed this in one of his first sermons. Speaking of Jesus, he said:

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)*

These are not the kind of statements that get you elected to public office or garner “likes” on social media today, for one simple reason: they are the Truth. And when the truth about who Jesus is and what he said gets obscured and pushed aside by relativism and tolerance, everything else breaks down. Of course there are many who would, in all seriousness, argue that neither of these verses is to be taken literally. I will let C.S. Lewis have the last word on that, from his book Mere Christianity:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”


* For a great teaching on St. Peter’s statement in Acts 4:12, see Bishop Robert Barron’s homily here.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

He Is Risen!

 After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow. The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men. Then the angel said to the women in reply, “Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ Behold, I have told you.” Then they went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed, and ran to announce this to his disciples. Then they went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed, and ran to announce this to his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them on their way and greeted them. They approached, embraced his feet, and did him homage. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”- Matthew 28:1-10

Do not be afraid. We can trust and heed these words of both the angel and Christ precisely because of the words "he is not here, for he has been raised just as he said." The Resurrection makes all the difference in the world, for it means we do not simply follow a good moral teacher or enlightened guru but the Son of God himself, who has conquered both sin and the grave, who gave his life that we might live.

Do not be afraid. The empty tomb proves that everything else Jesus said during his earthly ministry is true. Not maybe true, or possibly true, but True. It proves that we can be reconciled to God and have everlasting life with him in Heaven. Knowing this, what have we to fear?

Do not be afraid. This Easter, as we celebrate the Resurrection of the Savior, do not let the moment simply pass by. Return to him who created you and loves you with a perfect and everlasting love. As the apostle John wrote, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18).

Do not be afraid. Finally, in perhaps the best summation of all I have written, heed the words of Jesus himself: "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid" (John 14:27 ESV).

For He is Risen. He is Risen indeed!

Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday

So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross himself he went out to what is called the Place of the Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus in the middle. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews.” Now many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that he said, ‘I am the King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four shares, a share for each soldier. They also took his tunic, but the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top down. So they said to one another, “Let’s not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it will be,” in order that the passage of scripture might be fulfilled:

“They divided my garments among them, and for my vesture they cast lots.”

This is what the soldiers did. Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.

After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I thirst.” There was a vessel filled with common wine. So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth. When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, “It is finished.” And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.

Now since it was preparation day, in order that the bodies might not remain on the cross on the sabbath, for the sabbath day of that week was a solemn one, the Jews asked Pilate that their legs be broken and they be taken down. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and then of the other one who was crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out. An eyewitness has testified, and his testimony is true; he knows that he is speaking the truth, so that you also may [come to] believe. For this happened so that the scripture passage might be fulfilled:

“Not a bone of it will be broken.”

And again another passage says:

“They will look upon him whom they have pierced.”

After this, Joseph of Arimathea, secretly a disciple of Jesus for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate if he could remove the body of Jesus. And Pilate permitted it. So he came and took his body. Nicodemus, the one who had first come to him at night, also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about one hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and bound it with burial cloths along with the spices, according to the Jewish burial custom. Now in the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been buried. So they laid Jesus there because of the Jewish preparation day; for the tomb was close by. - John 19:16b-42

We adore You, O Christ, and we bless You.
Because by Your Holy Cross, You have redeemed the world.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Resurrection is No Fairy Tale

Holy Week has begun; this is the time each year we recall Jesus’ Passion, death and Resurrection. It will culminate on Easter Sunday, the day we celebrate Jesus' resurrection from the dead following his crucifixion. Hundreds of millions of people will fill churches on Easter morning and sing about the resurrection, but do they believe it? In America today, while most people believe in God, a significant number of people don't believe that the resurrection really happened. Amazingly, this includes people that consider themselves Christians.

The literal resurrection of Jesus is not something that can be accepted or rejected according to your personal interpretation of the Bible or view of Church teaching. There are many things we can debate, but this is not one of them;  for people who call themselves Christian, the resurrection is the single most important aspect of Christianity, and without it Jesus was simply one in a long line of "good teachers." So were Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa, but we don't build belief systems around them or consider them the way to salvation.

The various Christian denominations may argue about numerous points of doctrine, but none deny the importance of the resurrection in the plan of salvation. St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that "if you confess with your mouth, Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." He went on in his first letter to the Corinthians to say that "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." The resurrection is what sets Jesus apart from every religious teacher that ever lived and what gives believers their hope.

So I would like to make a very brief case for the historical reality of the resurrection, which isn't as complicated as it might seem at first. Without delving too deeply into various conspiracy theories that have cropped up in the last few centuries I will deal mainly with two key factors: the empty tomb and the deaths of the apostles.

1. The Empty Tomb
Let’s first remove the long-discredited argument that Jesus was alive when he was taken down from the cross and somehow escaped the tomb. This theory has always been nonsensical; Roman soldiers were well skilled in making sure a condemned person's sentence was carried out. And while Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ may have been too bloody for some people's taste, it was a very factual presentation of what happened to those sentenced to crucifixion. That's simply not something a person survived.

Another extreme theory was that the disciples stole the body from the tomb. This theory hinges on the premise that Jesus' followers (all of whom fled when he was arrested) returned to the tomb, overpowered a squad of Roman soldiers standing guard to prevent just such an occurrence, and then hid the body. All so they could proclaim the reign of a king they knew to be dead. This notion stretches the imagination even further than the idea of someone rising from the dead.

So if we know Jesus was dead, and the disciples didn't steal the body, then why didn't the Jewish leaders or the Romans simply produce the body when the claims of the resurrection were made? That would have been the simplest way to shut the whole thing down. They didn't because they couldn't; the body wasn't there.

2. The Deaths of the Apostles
There have been many followers throughout history who died for the leader of a religious movement, most often through mass suicide, but the deaths of the apostles fall into a different category altogether. Of the eleven apostles (Judas had committed suicide after betraying Jesus) only John died of natural causes. The other ten died while spreading the gospel, in the following ways:

Peter - crucified upside down
James, son of Zebedee - beheaded
Matthew - killed by a sword thrust
Philip - crucified
Andrew - crucified on a cross in the shape of an X.
Simon - crucified
Thomas - speared to death
Jude Thaddeus - killed by arrows.
Bartholomew - flayed alive and crucified
James, son of Alpheus - stoned to death

Both the violent nature of these men's deaths and the fact that they died at different times and in different parts of the Roman Empire is important. If they knew that the resurrection was a lie, which they would have if they had either stolen Jesus' body or not personally seen him after the resurrection, it is possible that one or two of them might have been deranged enough to die in order to keep the story going. There is no way, however, that ten of them would have endured excruciating deaths, completely separated from the others by years and thousands of miles, for something they knew to be a lie.

What we see in the apostles is an amazing change from the terrified men who fled at Jesus' arrest to men who did not shrink from death in proclaiming his resurrection. That is only possible if he really did rise from the dead.

Ultimately, the resurrection is something that cannot be ignored or treated like a fairy tale. It is either true or it's not, and the entire Christian faith rises or falls based on the answer to that question. There is much more that has been written on this subject (entire books, in fact), but the two reasons here should be enough to challenge any doubts you might have. Belief in the resurrection goes beyond a mere leap of faith. But in the end faith is still needed, and this Easter season each of us must ask ourselves if we truly have that faith.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Harry Potter and the Bible

 ©Warner Bros. Pictures

The Bible is not simply a religious text; it is the best-selling book of all time, and an influence on Western culture in innumerable ways. It is also the founding literature of Western Civilization, and it is not difficult to find similarities between it and a large number of works of fiction, both classic and modern. The Harry Potter series is the best-selling book series of all time, and as much as it may anger fundamentalist Christians, the similarities between the Harry Potter books/films and the Bible do not end there.

The similarities do not, however, lie in the obvious shared symbols the books contain. The fact that the symbol of Gryffindor is a lion is no more a reference to the Lion of Judah than it is to Aslan in the Narnia series. Snakes are prominent in the stories, and Lucifer took the form of the snake in the Garden of Eden. But while the Basilisk and Nagini would be considered evil, other snakes in the books have been portrayed more benignly (such as the one Harry frees from the zoo in the first book). The real parallels between the Potter books and the Bible lie in the issues of death, sacrifice, redemption, and love.

Sacrifice and redemption go hand-in-hand in both the Bible and the Harry Potter series. Especially in the Old Testament, figures such as Abraham, Moses, and Elijah fail greatly, usually early in their lives, only to overcome in the end. Moses in particular fits this model: before becoming the deliverer of the Israelites he was a murderer. In the Potter books, we see that heroes like Dumbledore and James Potter had significant character flaws early on life, but strove to overcome them and later sacrificed their lives battling evil. Snape is a perfect example of redemption as taught in the Bible, someone who turned from evil to good, though he was suspected by his comrades until the end of his life.

There is one point in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where we are presented with an actual verse from the Bible: "And the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." This is the inscription on Harry's parents' tomb, and it comes from 1 Corinthians. However, this is not a case of J.K. Rowling professing Christianity. It is simply a classic verse that deals with the same thing as the central issue of her books: death and how we deal with and overcome it. All of us will, as Harry did, face the death of loved ones as well as someday facing death ourselves. Both the Bible and the Potter books show that death is not the end, but simply part of an ongoing journey, although they present that journey in very different ways (Heaven vs. King's Cross Station, for example).

In the end, the most obvious parallel is the belief in both the Bible and the Harry Potter books that love will, in the end, triumph. Harry's mother sacrificed herself for him out of love, and it was the power of that love that ultimately helped defeat Voldemort. Sirius loved Lily Evans, and that love made him watch out for Harry in spite of himself. And Dumbledore taught constantly that it was love that would overcome the power of the Dark Lord. In the Bible, Jesus made love a focal point of his teaching (as did St. Paul and St. John later): love of God and love of your fellow man. And he demonstrated it by laying down his life for us.

So while the Harry Potter series would not be considered “Christian” books, they explore many of the same core values as the Bible. 20 years since the publication of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," those who still seek to ban the books for being satanic would do well to try to understand this. Besides, if your faith can be destroyed by an eleven-year old character in a children's novel, it was a pretty weak faith to begin with.