Friday, December 29, 2006

O Little Town of Bethlehem--O How You've Really Changed

"O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."

Phillips Brooks' classic Christmas tune was inspired by a trip he took to Bethelehem in 1865. However, if Brooks saw Bethlehem in 2006, it's doubtful he'd say the town is lying peacefully still.

Consider what Jerusalem resident Avi Hein observes about how Bethlehem has changed:

"In 1948, Christians made up eighty percent of the population in Bethlehem. Muslims now make up eighty-five percent of the population. The Palestinian Authority has been co-opted by radical Islamic fundamentalism. Today, Bethlehem is ruled by Hamas.

"With the radical Islamic Hamas' ascent to power, their desire for a fundamentalist Muslim state ruled by Islamic law seems closer than ever to being realized. Christians under the PA are reduced to dhimmis, second class citizens. Muslim Palestinians threaten their Christian neighbors with violence on a daily basis because, as one Christian Palestinian noted, the Christians 'want to live in peace.'

"Palestinian Christians don't live in peace. They live in fear, unable to practice their own religion. The Christians are pushed out of their homes due to the continual segregation and establishment of Muslim-only housing projects. Muslims boycott their Christian neighbors' shops and businesses.

"Christians live in fear for their life. Under the Palestinian Authority, Christians have been forced to observe the strict restrictions of Ramadan and must observe Islamic sharia law.

Read the rest of Hein's piece here.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Mystery of Christ as Both God and Man

"Much discussion has arisen in theology over the question of Christ's self-consciousness. How could He know and sense the infinite might and wisdom of God and at the same time appear at times with normal human weaknesses and limitations apart from complications with immortality?

"How could He know and not know? How could He be the source of all power and yet be prone to and exposed to human frailty?

"The answer to the that Christ operated in the human sphere to the extent that it was necessary for Him to accomplish His earthly purpose, but at the same time continued operating in the divine sphere to the extent that it was possible in the period of his humiliation."

--Lewis Sperry Chafer

Founder of Dallas Theological Seminary
Quoted from his Systematic Theology

Image: From Meditations on Mary: Georges de la Tour The Nativity
Musee des Beaux-Arts
Rennes, France

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

True God and True Man

"Remaining what he was and taking on what he was not, [Jesus] united the true 'form of a servant' with the form in which he is equal to God the Father. He grafted together both natures in such a union that...majesty takes up humility, strength takes up weakness, eternity takes up mortality...True God and true man...[he] was able to both die (because of his humanity) and to rise again (because of his divinity)."

--Leo the Great, ca. 400-461

Excerpt from Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel, edited by John D. Witvliet and David Vroege

Image: "Adoration of the Magi" (1495-1505) by Andrea Mantegna

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas Came

Christmas came...

Sitting and enjoying a few private moments in the church sanctuary with only the Christmas lights on, very early Sunday morning.

Reading Scriptures and singing carols during the Sunday morning service.

Singing "Silent Night" with the congregation in a candlelit sanctuary Sunday evening.

Seeing the happy faces of my kids when they opened their presents.

Singing some unfamiliar Advent songs with my wife at the piano.

Eating a turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

When at Christmas did you sense Emmanuel--the With-Us-God?

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas 2006

The Angel Appearing To The Sheperds (1634)

Etching, burin, and drypoint

REMBRANDT Harmenszoon van Rijn (b. 1606, Leiden, d. 1669, Amsterdam)

Friday, December 22, 2006

Christ in Christmas

My friend Earl Crecelius, pastor of a UCC church in Illinois, has some good holy sarcasm in his upcoming Christmas Eve message:

I know I’m becoming a Christmas grump when I realize the slogan “keep Christ in Christmas” bothers me. It may sound funny for a preacher to say that, but it does. I’m not sure I ought to worship a Christ than can be put into or taken out of Christmas like a plastic doll in a manger. I have a hard enough time just keeping up with Him, much less putting Him into, or taking Him out of, anything. What does it mean to keep Christ in Christmas anyway? To pray while you shop? Has the Lord of the universe become flesh and blood so we can have Christmas trees in airports?

I think if we’re going to keep Christ anywhere, it’s more important to keep Him in Friday than in Christmas. Friday comes 52 times a year more often, for one thing. Besides that, Christmas time is all warm and tender and delightful, who really needs Christ at times like that? But on Friday – when you’ve reached the end of your rope and smacked your kid, and you’re wondering just what the heck kind of father you are; on Friday – when the doctor says you need that surgery now; on Friday – when you realize that you just can not help someone you love – that’s when you need Christ. So whatever you do with Christmas, keep Christ in Friday. Please!

...So don’t worry about keeping Christ in Christmas, or getting Christ in Christmas. He’s already here. Emmanuel – God with us.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

History of Christmas Carols and Hymns

If you ever get curious about the history and background of your favorite Christmas song--both secular and sacred, there's no better site than Douglas Anderson's Hymns and Carols of Christmas.

The site lists over 2,300 songs. There's incredible detail on many of the best known tunes.

I've spent hours on this site. It's a lot of fun.

The database to start searching is located here.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Christmas Confession (Based on Isaiah 9:6)

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. And though your name is Wonderful Counselor...

I do not seek your wisdom; instead, I depend on my own smarts and schemes.

Though your name is Mighty God...

I do not depend upon your strength; instead, I am timid and chicken-hearted.

Though your name is Everlasting Father...

I do not believe you want the best for me; instead, I believe the Deceiver--who lies about your character.

Though your name is Prince of Peace...

I do not rest in your peace; instead, I crave more money and more stuff.

Forgive me I pray. O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Kansas Cattle Drive

My city friends ask me all the time, "What do you do in Kansas?" One of the things we do is play with animals a lot bigger than your dog. Over the weekend, I helped Kendall (one of my church members) move 83 cattle from one winter home to another. Come along for the cattle drive.

The cattle had been grazing in this field of wheat stubble for about a month. Having basically eaten the place dry, it was time to take them elsewhere.

Eight people on horseback joined us to round up. Horses are great for keeping the cattle together. In addition, we had 8 kids on foot, Kendall on a four-wheeler, and his wife driving a truck. To move this many cattle, it takes a lot of help.

Once we got the cattle rounded up and moving (not an easy task), we took them east down Avenue J and then turned south (above) into an empty wheat field.

After going about a mile south, we turned the cattle east toward the road where I'm taking this picture.

Here we are coming south on 28th Rd.

Now we're crossing Highway 56. We had to wave down and stop a few cars. They were amused to see so many cattle crossing the road.

Safely across the highway, we continued south on 28th Rd.

Further down this road is where the cows new home awaits.

You can see one cow in the back deciding to go another way. That happens a lot, which is why you need several people to help steer the cattle in the right direction. It's much harder than you might think. Cows will be submissive, but they definitely have a mind of their own. One cow would never start the journey. Another had to be routed into a temporary pen after refusing to cross a bridge.

Here are my daughters enjoying a horse ride near the end of the drive.

The cattle are in their new home. Kendall gives a high five to one of the horse riders. The six mile trek took almost three hours to complete.

Kendall puts up the electric fencing wire to enclose the cattle. When hooked up to a car battery, the fence has enough "juice" to encourage the cows to stay inside the field.

That's the trip. Glad you came along.

If you've like to see even more pictures, they're here.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Time Person of the Year

Hey, I won!!! (And you did too).

I was named Time Magazine's "Person of the Year."

And I even beat out North Korean dictator Kim Jong "Mentally" Il.

Aren't you proud?

I never thought I would aspire to such lofty heights. Never again am I just another average Joe out of millions.

This one is going on my resume!

UPDATE: Everyone is utterly slamming Time for its choice. Here's one example.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Cross Centered Preaching

What is the message a pastor must preach and a congregation must hear?

In his excellent (and free) e-mail newsletter, Preaching Now, Dr. Michael Duduit from highlights the subtle, yet startling difference that cross-centered preaching makes:

"I recently had the privilege of preaching for J. Alfred Smith at Allen Temple Baptist Church, a large African-American congregation in Oakland, CA. (We also jointly led a preaching conference the next day with about 80 attending.) Dr. Smith has a new book out called Speak Until Justice Wakes (Judson Press), and one of the chapters in this excellent though brief volume is on "Preaching the Cross." He observes:

"Popular preachers on the American scene seem to be steering clear of preaching the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. It seems that in order for preachers sought after by Main Street to succeed in attracting the masses, they need to avoid preaching about the one who, according to the Scriptures, died for our sins.

"After all, people are attracted to practical preaching; that is, preaching designed to address human problems with human solutions. People love to hear preachers who make them forget present pain. They want the good news of peace, joy, contentment that is soon to be theirs. When people come with the burdens and cares of the week, they want the preacher to untie the Gordian knot of misery in favor of a God who assures them of prosperity.

"The god many seek today is the deity of upward social class mobility and middle-class prosperity. These listeners' hearts are not tuned to hear about the blood and gore of a Palestinian Jew dying helplessly and hopelessly on a Roman cross. . . .

"If the preaching of the cross is unpopular, if prosperity gospel and peace of mind preaching are preferred . . . what must preachers do who are loyal to preaching faithfully the biblical message with textual integrity? Peter Taylor Forsyth . . . addresses all these concerns in a classic called Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind:

Where your object is to secure your audience rather than your Gospel, preaching is sure to suffer. . . . It is one thing to rouse or persuade people to do something, to put themselves into something; it is another to have to induce them to trust somebody and renounce themselves for him. . . . The note of the preacher is the Gospel of a Savior. The orator stirs [people] to rally, the preacher invites them to be redeemed. Demosthenes fires his audience to attack Philip straightaway; Paul stirs them to die and rise with Christ. The orator, at most, may urge [people] to love their brother [and sister], the preacher beseeches them first to be reconciled to their Father.

"Forsyth says that we must preach Christ and not preach about Christ. We must place Christ before people. Christ, and not our oratory, draws persons to God. . . . What is there for us to preach but Jesus Christ -- crucified, dead, buried, and risen again for us?"

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Matthew 1:18-25 and Isaiah 7:14 (Part 2 of 2)

God intentionally lets time pass as Joseph agonizes over his circumstance. Joseph assessed the situation to the best of his natural ability: Mary is guilty of infidelity. Upset, yet merciful, he will quietly divorce her. The decision is made.

After all this, God finally intervenes:

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

The angel tells Joseph, "I know it looks like Mary did something wrong, but she did not. God is responsible for creating this messy situation. Don't be afraid to claim her as your wife. This isn't just any child; this is the Messiah. You are needed in this critical situation--because only you, as a relative of King David, can bring Jesus into the family line. "

What happens next in Matthew's gospel narrative is something I think many people miss.

It’s noteworthy that Matthew stops his narration right at this point to quote from Isaiah:

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"—which means, "God with us."

Sure, Matthew is saying that what's going on with Jesus' birth fulfills an Old Testament promise, but he's doing much, much more than that.

Matthew is pulling his readers aside for a moment to issue a challenge: “Listen up! Joseph has an important decision to make--and so do you: In the midst of difficult circumstances, will you believe that God sees ahead of your way? Will you trust God to work it all out?”

That was the problem facing King Ahaz in Isaiah 7 . His enemies were threatening Israel's borders, yet the Lord said through Isaiah, “Don't seek the aid of foreign armies. Trust me and me alone to protect you!” Of course Ahaz doesn't, so Isaiah gave his famous prediction in 7:14. He points to a young virgin girl and says to Ahaz, "That almah will bear a son with the name Immanuel. Anytime you see that child, it will be a living reminder that you failed to trust God."

What gets overlook is that Isaiah’s “you-watch-and-see” promise to King Ahaz about Immanuel is a sign of judgment! And yet, Matthew redeems it in his Gospel as a good news sign of promise!

The angel who visited Joseph removed a huge stumbling block by putting a divine stamp of approval on Mary’s story. As a result, the angel has essentially challenged Joseph: “You’re God’s man for this hour. Trust me. Do what God asks. God will provide."

In using Isaiah 7:14 then, Matthew is pausing to ask his readers: “In-the-line-of-David-Ahaz refused to trust God. What will in-the-line-of-David-Joseph choose? And what will you choose in the challenges you face--faith in God or your own wisdom?”

Then, at verse 24, Matthew resumes the narration. And we see Joseph's choice:

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Joseph chose to trust God and becomes the story’s hero. Because Joseph is in the line of David, Jesus is legally adopted into the family's heritage.

In application, if we choose the way of Ahaz, we will experience the guilt and frustration of living apart from the ever present “With-Us-God” (eg. Isaiah 8:10). But if we chose the way of Joseph, we will experience the blessing and power of the ever present “With-Us-God.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Matthew 1:18-25 and Isaiah 7:14 (Part 1 of 2)

If you've heard the Christmas story from Matthew 1:18-25, you know that Matthew quotes from Isaiah 7:14 in the Old Testament. For years, scholars have argued over that verse--like whether the Hebrew almah means virgin or young woman. Meanwhile, I think we've all overlooked an important aspect of Matthew's use of Isaiah.

Not only is Matthew using Isaiah 7:14 to say that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of what Isaiah promised long ago, he also uses it to ask you and me an important question about our relationship with God.

The question gets asked through the problem that confronts Joseph:

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.

Joseph is bound to Mary, but before they consummate their marriage, she ends up pregnant. Assessing the situation isn't difficult. Joseph knows all about the birds and the bees. He's mad and deeply hurt. And yet...

19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But as readers, we know something that Joseph doesn't. We've been made privy to some inside information. Mary isn't unfaithful. Rather, she's pregnant because of the Holy Spirit. So then, God is responsible for Mary's messy situation.

Makes you wonder: Why didn't God give Joseph some advanced warning--you know, an angelic "heads up" before Mary obviously looks pregnant? Why does God let Joseph find out this way?

Doesn't it make you marvel a bit about God and how He works?

On second thought, it kind of scares me!

Part 2 tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Virgin Birth--Did It Really Happen?

The Apostle's Creed--a classic faith declaration used for years by the universal church--says, "I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary..."

But was Jesus really virgin born? Did Mary really conceive Jesus without the aid of human father? The late scholar Vincent Taylor observes, "The virgin birth becomes a living issue only when it is claimed that Jesus was more than just a man."

Let's be honest. The only person who really knows the truth is Mary. And yet, I believe credible evidence exists showing that it really happened.

Foremost is Mary's own testimony, recorded in Luke's gospel. In all likelihood, Luke got the story firsthand from Mary herself, as he interviewed sources in preparation for writing his gospel.

While Luke's account of Jesus' birth is told from Mary's point of view, Matthew's gospel is from Joseph's perspective. Thus, what we have are two independent accounts with similar and yet different details. For instance, only Luke tells us that a census was ordered, while only Matthew tells us that Magi came from the East. And yet, both accounts make clear that Jesus was born of a virgin mother.

The bottom line question is this: Can God do the miraculous? Can he temporarily suspend the natural order of the world to do a supernatural work?

But the most persuasive evidence in my mind is the story itself. It's scandalous!

If Jesus wasn't virgin born, there's only one reasonable explanation--Mary illicitly conceived Jesus before she was officially married to Joseph. And in Jewish culture 2,000 years ago, pregnancy outside of marriage was utterly scorned. When Joseph still claims Mary as his wife, he too becomes part of the scandal. To claim a virgin conception is a bad cover-up attempt.

The movie, "The Nativity Story," does a nice job depicting the dilemma. When Mary returns home to Joseph and her parents, after her long her visit to Elizabeth, everyone notices the obvious--she's pregnant. While Joseph is personally persuaded by God that Mary did nothing wrong, that doesn't stop the rest of the village from whispering gossip.

God could have sent Jesus to earth on a spaceship, but he didn't. Instead, He came to earth by through ordinary, faithful people.

And that's God's pattern. He works in the world by working through us.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Movie Review of "The Nativity Story"

Film making is a difficult in and of itself, but it's even harder when you're telling a familiar story. That was the challenge facing director Catherine Hardwicke and screenwriter Mike Rich in bringing to life the story of Jesus' birth. Their movie, The Nativity Story, faithfully retells the story and offers satisfying visual and dramatic details.

I saw the movie twice over the weekend--once with my wife and another time with members from my church.

The film tastefully portrays elements not contained in Luke and Matthew's birth accounts and left to our imagination--like the circumstances that bring Mary and Joseph together, Mary's journey to visit Elizabeth, and the Magi's quest to find a newborn king.

One character the movie really brings to life is Joseph, played by Oscar Isaac (Interestingly, the Bible never quotes Joseph. His character is silent. But his actions speak volumes and proves what Matthew says about him--he was righteous). On the long, difficult, and sometimes dangerous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, we see Joseph protecting and providing for Mary. Watching the couple come closer together in marriage and mission made me think that maybe God brought about the trip for that very purpose.

The scene of Jesus' birth was a little too Hollywood for me. I could have done without the multiple shots of light coming down from heaven (The language used in Luke's gospel is a very straight forward, earthy account that resists glorifying the fact that God has come down to earth). However, the portrayal of the shepherds and Magi's awestruck response upon seeing the baby Jesus was amazing and worth the price of admission.

What makes the story of Jesus' birth compelling is the faithful choices made by Mary and Joseph and the irony of earth's creator being born in the lowliest of places. The Nativity Story captures well these subtleties and should be a Christmas favorite for years to come.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Bad Album Covers

Years ago--before God called me to seminary and before the retail music industry lost out to Napster and IPods--I used to manage a record store in Athens, Ohio.

So I had to chuckle when I saw this list of worst gospel album covers of all time.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Turkey In the Straw

Turkeys are in abudance around where I live, fun to observe, and challenging to photograph. Here's one I snapped running under a fence.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

In the Beginning: Media Bias Before 1000AD

Like you, I've heard complaints about how the media is biased and bent on promoting its liberal agenda, no matter the facts. We've heard those complaints for so long, it's become white noise.

But I couldn't believe it when I read this opening paragraph by Alan Cooperman in the Washington Post, an article reviewing "In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000," an ancient Bible manuscript exhibt in Washington DC:

"If 40 percent of Americans refuse to believe that humans evolved from earlier hominids, how many will accept that the book we know as the Bible evolved from earlier texts and was not handed down, in toto, by God in its present form?"

Geez, the noise of that axe grinding is deafening.

I like what Mollie at Get Religion says in response:

"See, if there is one thing I learned as a lifelong Christian, it is that the Bible was handed down in the New King James Version directly from God. And as a Christian, the foundations of my faith would be shaken if I were to be told that God did not hand down the books of the New Testament in English along with a printing press in the year A.D. 33 Every Christian knows that the canon was dictated by God Himself speaking directly to Jesus, right?

That’s why I love Cooperman’s opening graph so much. It resonates with me. I like how it ties together skepticism of human evolution with skepticism about canon development. I have never felt better understood by mainstream media than I do in Cooperman’s hands.


The sad thing is that Cooperman actually wrote a rather nice review of the Sackler exhibit complete with interesting historical facts and discussions with its curator. But when he went to frame the story or give it broader context, he went for the dramatic faith-shaking angle.

In so doing, he managed to cast Christians as unwitting fools who believe the Bible was delivered in Gideons form in some ahistorical manner. Was that really necessary?"

If you're not afraid to learn about the development of the Bible--yes it is inspired by God, but it has a very human history--check out this nice online feature supporting the DC exhibit, "In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000."

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Bible and the Story

"Ray Lewis has a story to tell, of persecution and redemption, of fathers and sons, of pain caused and pain endured. The trials he's suffered -- and Lord knows there have been many -- are all part of a master plan..."

So goes the opening paragraph of an in-depth story in Sports Illustrated on Baltimore Raven linebacker Ray Lewis in a November issue.

I was reading this article yesterday in the waiting room of my chiropractic's office.

The opening words and the picture (shown) made me think that Lewis had converted to Christianity. While I'm not sure if Jesus is his Savior (I was reading the article quickly and might have missed it), it is clear that Lewis has changed his ways since he was acquitted of serious charges in 2000.

One line in the story surprised me. It wasn't directly about Lewis, but was used to illustrate the drama of Lewis' story. It said:

"Christianity explains itself with stories."

I don't know if I've ever read such a statement in a secular work. The insight surprised me.

The SI writer is right on--that is very much the approach of Christianity (and Judiasm). If weren't for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (the story), we would never have Paul's discourse in Romans (the logic).

In our western culture, we typically defend positions with arguments and logic--much like the Greek philosophers of old. But in eastern culture--the world of the Bible--people make their case with a story. Theologicans identify this as "narrative theology." Out of the story, comes the lesson.

So next time you read a story and wonder what it means, or assume it's not saying anything, remember:

The story is the argument.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Advent Thought

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent. At my church, we lit the first Advent candle and sang our traditional Advent song that counts down the weeks toward Jesus' birth.

Advent and Lent are the two seasons on the liturgical calendar that our church regularly observes. A lot of churches ignore the calendar all together, but I think that's a mistake. Remembering Jesus' birth and passion are the bookends of his life. As disciples of Jesus, His life is ours. That's why I see value having regular seasons of worship to reflect on Jesus.

On the front of our bulletins this month, I've printed a quote by Dr. Wayne Grudem, taking from his systematic theology. It summarizes well what we celebrate about Jesus in this Advent season:

"Remaining what he was, he became what he was not."

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Blogger Problems--Uggg!

Friday I logged into Blogger and made a depressing discovery--my Posting dashboard is gone!

I can still post, but I can't spellcheck, can't add any pictures, can't bold or italize any words, can't link to anything, and can't do much of anything else.

I didn't sleep very well Friday night. This problem bugs me more than I want to admit. Maybe my wife is right--I'm a blogaholic.

I sent a troubleshooting message to Google. I hope they can fix this.