Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Pilate's Choice

This past Sunday I attended an adult Sunday School class at the local church I frequent.  We happened to be studying the 18th chapter of the gospel of John, the section where Jesus is interviewed by Pontius Pilate and ultimately condemned to the cross.

For some reason, the people in the class betrayed an almost desperate need to affirm Pilates's freedom of the will regarding his decision to send Jesus to the cross.  "Pilate could have set Jesus free," they said.  "God could have found some other way to accomplish His purpose."  But is that the truth?

Hadn't Christ just a night before in the Garden of Gethsemane passionately prayed three times for exactly that thing: that if there would be any other way than the way of the cross, God the Father would allow it?  If Jesus the Son, well-beloved of the Father, had prayed and mourned in agony, His sweat becoming like great drops of blood, pleading for some other way ... if there had been any other way, would not the Father have granted it?

Jesus had in fact been announcing to His disciples for some time that He was headed to the cross.

Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.” But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken. (Luke 18:31-34 NKJV)

The purpose of God was for His Son to hang upon a Roman cross, and the road to a Roman cross led through the Roman government, and the Roman government meant Pontius Pilate.  While I would agree with my classmates that Pilate's will was in accord with the decision he ultimately made, I would also contend that his will was not necessarily "free" in the sense that 21st-century Americans mean.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Basement Tapes: They Were Me

Between the years 1974 and 1997 I wrote over four hundred songs, ranging in quality from "hmm ... not bad" to "totally craptastic."  I recorded several demo tapes, but lacked the strength of character to actually submit them to record companies, choosing instead to protect my fragile self-esteem by simply not trying.  Through the course of the intervening years, between changing households and stuff just getting lost or thrown out, the number of recordings that still remain has apparently been reduced to twenty-one songs.

These are really Basement Tapes; some of them were actually recorded in the basements of different family members and friends.  Because they are quite old, some of the sound fidelity has been lost; there are mysterious drop-outs and crinkles and fuzziness.  But they represent the best I could do at the time.  Don't expect too much and you might not be disappointed!

This first song, They Were Me, is one of my all-time favorites.  I had written a brief post about it back in 2009 when I first rediscovered the tape, but I didn't have any way to convert the song to digital format back then.  A couple of months ago, though, my friend and ex-brother-in-law Dave was kind enough to do that job for me.  This week I put together a rudimentary music video for the song, just so you'd have something to look at while the music plays.  Click here to view the result.

This song was composed and recorded in the mid-to-late 1980s, to the best of my recollection.  I remember being surprised at my own lyrics; they kind of burst forth from me unexpected, revealing a truth about myself that I had not previously entertained.  I am pretty sure I played all of the instruments in this recording.

From time to time I'll add other songs to YouTube and link to them here at Preaching to the Choir, unless you beg me to stop.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Forgiveness as an Act of Worship

What is worship but a response in the human heart to the realization of who God is, and what He has done?  It is the sense of awe-struck wonder that we have found ourselves embraced by His love; but more.  It is the sense of fear and reverence that He is holy, that we have offended Him, that we deserve Hell; but it is more than that too.  It is the act of obedience to His righteous commands because we realize we have been bought with the price of Christ's blood; but more.  It is the astonishment and admiration upon recognizing the glories of His creation, the perfection of what He has made; but certainly more than that.  It is all of these things, being informed by His Word and taught by His Spirit, and recognizing in some small part the majesty that is His, and offering to Him in some small part the everything that is us.

And so I present the first of my "Acts of Worship"—Forgiveness.

When we forgive those who have offended us—because of God's forgiveness to us—that is an Act of Worship.  When we set them free of any obligation that is owed us, whether known or unknown, we offer that obligation to God and let Him do what He wills with it, forgetting as much as possible that it was ever owed to us at all.

The basis of this releasing of a perceived debt is of course rooted in God's forgiveness for our sins, which is greater by far (to say the least) than any debt that is owed us.  One thing we have regrettably lost in the 21st-century American church is the awareness of how massive is the debt we owed to God because of our sins.  We have trivialized our trespasses, we have lost sight of the purity and holiness of God. (Here I would refer you to the great book The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul.)

But when we can say (whether inwardly or outwardly), "Because of what Jesus has done for me, I release you from any sense that you owe me something," that is an act that honors the Lord.  I have written at other times about our obligation to forgive based on the teaching of Jesus; I won't burden us anymore today with a recasting of those words.

When we realize who God is, and what He has done by pouring His love out in us, what can we do but forgive?  When we realize that we owed God the price of an eternity in Hell, but He has instead promised us an endless paradise in Heaven, how can we not forgive?  When we see the words of Jesus written in red, as red as blood, how can we cling to our own demands for our own sense of justice?  Answer: We can't.

We offer to our most holy and loving Father the injustices and injuries that have been done to us.  Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.  And give us the grace to forgive continually in a way that will honor You … and bring You pleasure with this Act of Worship.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Last Trumpet

I have just released my first piece of new writing since I retired on disability several years ago.  It is called "The Last Trumpet" and its purpose is to serve as a refutation of the pre-tribulation rapture theory.  It costs 99 cents at, only existing in digital format, but if you can't afford the price or don't have access to a Kindle reader, I'll send you a copy for free.  Just send me a note.

I am also at work on another similar project that I'm tentatively calling "Disease and Faith" that is kind of a summation of the things I've learned from my experiences with Parkinson's Disease, Crohn's Disease, and different expressions of faith.  If my past writing speed is any indication, look for it around the year 3000.

In the meantime, I hope to do a little better with these blog posts, particularly the Significant Passages and Acts of Worship ideas, and I may be getting into some musical posts as well, just having been blessed by the recovery of some songs that I wrote half a lifetime ago.  And finally, I hope to sometime finish "Owan's Regret," which is likely the final installment in my Hagenspan Chronicles series.  Thanks for the encouragement to keep on writing.  You know who you are, Harold!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Dear John

Yesterday my son John sent me a note on Facebook, asking me to present him with some scriptures describing the character of God.  I was honored and humbled by the request—honored that he would think I'd know, and humbled because I fall so very far short of such wisdom.  Knowing God is the diligent pursuit of a lifetime, and here I am collecting baseball jerseys.  Nevertheless, I will try to provide an answer, because my heavenly Father would want me to.  Understand that these thoughts are just the jumping-off point, not the very depths.

God is holy. 

"I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple.  Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  And one cried to another and said: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!'" (Isaiah 6:1b-3 NKJV).  The scene in Heaven shows the angels constantly singing out to each other, "God is holy!"  This warrants much thought; the holiness of God has been largely forgotten by this generation in this land, which has found it much more comfortable to believe that God is love, while ignoring the majesty of His holiness.  With that said …

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Intro to Acts of Worship

For years I have been troubled by the contemporary American Christian view of what "praise" is and what "worship" is.  This is grossly oversimplifying the problem, but I trust you will understand: "Praise" is when the music is fast and "worship" is when the music is slow.  The first is hand-clappy; the second is hand-raisey.  "Praise" makes you feel excited and glad to be a Christian, whereas "worship" fills you with gooey emotions as you imagine yourself being in the very presence of God.  I meekly submit the possibility that we are being manipulated by musicians in our quest to find and do true worship.

(Full disclosure: I spent more than a decade of my younger years as a piano player and worship leader for several charismatic/pentecostal congregations, trying like crazy to produce exactly the same effects as those which I have just described.  So my discomfort may very well be tied to my intimacy with the issue.  What honest cigarette-smoker wants to be around someone who has just quit?  The evangelistic fervor of the new non-smoker is a disagreeable pain in the backside for those who have no thought of cessation.  Maybe it's the same with me; I grant the possibility.)

But what happens when you don't like the style of music played at your church?  Someone very dear to me dislikes modern worship choruses and loves the old hymns.  That person has said to me, "I just can't worship with that music."  My children (at least when they were young) loved modern worship music and despised hymns, thinking any hymn-singing crowd to be the hallmark of dead religion.  I find myself falling in the middle; I like some of the new songs, but hate the lazy song-writing most of the new lyrics exhibit.  Some of them seem like random slap-togethers of religious-sounding phrases.  And some of the old hymns bore me, and some of them are a little questionable theologically too.  I find myself feeling a lot more "worshipful" when there's a song being played that I like, and the drummer executes a particularly clever and innovative fill (the drummer at our church is very talented).  I instantly realize that my emotions are being manipulated by the music … but I didn't recognize that when I was younger.

As far as "being in the very presence of God" is concerned, though … whenever were you not in the presence of God?  It is a staple of the Christian faith to believe that God is omnipresent; He is everywhere.  Though He may choose not let you sense His presence, there is no place where He is not.  "In Him we live, and move, and have our being" (Acts 17:28 NKJV).  Where do we live?  In Him.  If our very existence is in Him, where can we be that  He is not?  Our problem is our perception; our problem is that we don't recognize Him.

Romans 12:1 says this: "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service" (NKJV).  Normally I dislike using multiple translations in order to cherry-pick the one that best supports the point I'm trying to make, but the fact is that the "reasonable service" mentioned in this verse does bear looking at in other versions.  The ASV presents it as "spiritual service"; the CEB as "appropriate priestly service"; the ESV as "spiritual worship."  The Amplified, which is useful for wringing every possible nuance out of the scriptures, presents Romans 12:1 as this: "I appeal to you therefore, brethren, and beg of you in view of [all] the mercies of God, to make a decisive dedication of your bodies [presenting all your members and faculties] as a living sacrifice, holy (devoted, consecrated) and well pleasing to God, which is your reasonable (rational, intelligent) service and spiritual worship."

Here we get to the heart of the matter: Our "spiritual worship" of God has little to do with our feelings.  It has much to do with our actions.  There may be emotions that are stirred by the recognition of what God has done for us—indeed, one would be astonished if there were not—but the act of worship is a living, obedient, sacrificial thing that we do, not that we feel.  I stumble a bit at my own characterization that it is a living thing that we do, for in a sense it is also a dying thing that we do.   It involves a death to selfish pleasures in order that someone else may live, in clear-eyed recognition of who God is, and what He has done for us.  It involves a death to our reputations and our fortunes and our comforts in order that someone else may live, in clear-eyed recognition of who God is, and what He has done for us.  And it is in this dying that we find ourselves more completely alive at a different level.

In the coming posts, I will offer three or four examples of what I call Acts of Worship.  Please feel free to debate or offer suggestions or examples of your own.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Bends in the Road

I’d like to introduce you to some fine boys—four of them, in fact: Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah, and Daniel.  These boys were good-looking and smart, but they weren’t vain about it; they also honored and served God faithfully.  They were the golden boys, they were the Rat Pack of their time and place, with Daniel playing Sinatra, and the other three assuming their proper lesser roles.  Their potential was unlimited, their future bright.  It would be tempting to believe that these good times would never end, that if they just followed the road they were on, it would lead them to a lifetime of prosperity, honor, and respect.  It would be tempting to trust in the natural gifts the Lord had bestowed upon them, their good looks, their charm, their intelligence.

But then: a bend in the road.

It wasn't their fault, they had done nothing to deserve it, but suddenly the road they were traveling took an unexpected and unavoidable 90-degree turn to the left.  Jerusalem was besieged, overrun, and conquered by Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon. The boys were given over as prisoners, spoils of war, slaves to this terrible foreign king.  They would never see their beloved homeland again in their lifetime.  They were probably made eunuchs, which meant they would never have families of their own.  It would be tempting to despair, to doubt God, to doubt their position as God's chosen people.

And then: a bend in the road.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Significant Passages #2: John 6:28-29

Another one of my favorite passages of scripture—one that I discovered relatively late in my life—is John 6:28-29.  When I say "discovered," I really mean "was uncovered for me by the Holy Spirit," because I had certainly read that passage several times previously, without it having made the least impression on me.  Here it is:

Then they said to Him, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?"  Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent."
Let me set the stage for you.  Earlier in John chapter six, Jesus had fed five thousand men (and their families, presumably) with five loaves of barley bread, and two small fish—a notable miracle.  Later that same evening, He had walked upon the sea—another notable miracle.  The next day, those who had been miraculously fed sought Him.  When they found Him, they asked, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?"

It's not totally clear to me exactly what they were asking.  Were they saying, "What can we do, so that we can work miracles like You do?"  It seems to be a faint possibility—that they thought that Jesus was just a man like them, and the "works of God" were something to which they could aspire.  But it seems much more likely to me that they were asking Him how they could satisfactorily obey the Law—a noble question, worthy to be asked: "What works can we do that will make us pleasing and acceptable to God?" (The famous Bible commentator Matthew Henry says that they were asking what works they could do to make them worthy to receive "the food which endures to everlasting life," which Jesus had just told them about (John 6:27 NKJV); this is of essentially the same substance as my conjecture.)

Jesus' answer is the answer to any and all who have tried to satisfy the holiness of God by a strenuous obedience to His Law.  "This is the work of God," He says.  "This is what you must do to satisfy the requirements of God Almighty: believe."  Not tithe; not give to the poor; not be patient with your wife or be a good father—believe.  Now, we understand that anyone who truly does believe in Jesus will want to tithe and give to the poor and be patient and everything else that he thinks will please the Father; but that's not where his salvation lies.  His salvation lies in his faith—in his belief in the Gospel, that Jesus died on the cross for his sins (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) and was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25).  Believe the Gospel—not trust in your own works.  Believe in Jesus—not believe in yourself.

There is another sense that can be given to the words, "This is the work of God," with which I once again find agreement with Matthew Henry: "This is the work that God must do; this is the work which Man cannot do."

The work of faith is the work of God. They enquire after the works of God (in the plural number), being careful about many things; but Christ directs them to one work, which includes all, the one thing needful: that you believe, which supersedes all the works of the ceremonial law; the work which is necessary to the acceptance of all the other works, and which produces them, for without faith you cannot please God. It is God's work, for it is of his working in us, it subjects the soul to his working on us, and quickens the soul in working for him (Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible).
I'm not sure which of the petals of Calvinism's tulip this would fall under: unconditional election or irresistible grace, but it informs us regarding both.  We do not work to obtain salvation; it is God Who provides.  And when God creates in us the faith of His working, we do believe indeed.  In any case, the glory belongs to Him.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Significant Passages #1: Luke 22:31-32

Upon the startling discovery that I actually have a reader, I pledge to post a little more consistently.  You can expect posts about once a week, on Friday or Saturday.  At least that's the plan!

Here we go.

Sometimes a Bible verse or passage seems to practically leap off the page and attach itself to my brain (or my heart, maybe; I can't decide which).  In the old days, they may have said something to the effect of one's "bowels being moved with compassion," but in our times, "bowel movement" has come to mean something entirely different.  In today's culture, what used to be represented by the bowels has come to be referred to as the heart, but that's a little too weak and emotional for my meaning, whereas the brain has come to mean (in many church circles) something cold and clinical, lacking passion.  What I mean is something between the heart and the brain, taking the best parts of both and maintaining a balance that is proper and good.  At least that's what I think I mean.  All of that to say this: Sometimes a Bible verse or passage becomes important to me, in a way that nails together my theology, and—more importantly—anchors my faith more upon God and His Word.

This is such a passage. 

And the Lord said, "Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat.  But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren" (Luke 22:31-32 NKJV).

The setting is this: Jesus is in the upper room with His disciples, having just finished the Passover meal.  He has just instituted the Lord's Supper, which we now know as the Eucharist or Holy Communion.  Some of the disciples are now arguing over who's going to be the greatest.  Then the Lord drops this bombshell on Simon Peter: "Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat."  Then Peter says, all bluster and wind, "Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death," to which Jesus replies His famous words, "I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me."

There are two things I take away from this passage that are very precious to me: First of all, that Satan has to ask permission before he can do anything to one of God's chosen.  It's like the throne room scene in the book of Job all over again.  Satan can accuse, but he can't touch—not without God's permission.  There is no attack or temptation that can touch us without the direct knowledge and consent of our Father in Heaven.

Secondly, regarding what is sometimes called "the perseverance of the saints," Jesus tells Simon Peter, "I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren."  Notice that Jesus does not say "if you return to me"—He says "when you return to Me."  There isn't any "if!"  The prayer of Jesus does not return to Him unanswered.  If Jesus prays for you, you're in a good place.

Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:25 NKJV).

Apparently, Jesus continues to pray for His chosen ones—He always lives to make intercession for them.  Hopefully, that number includes you and me, who have put our trust in Him, who have come to God through Him … and He is able to save us to the uttermost.