Genocide in Iraq

The word genocide should never be used lightly. But it must be used when it accurately describes what is going on in a region—like the genocide against Christians and other religious minorities in Northern Iraq.

I am sensitive to this issue of genocide, because I have friends whose families were part of the Armenian genocide carried out by Ottoman Turks in 1915.  Also because my wife’s grandmother’s family was wiped out in the Greek genocide of Asia Minor in 1923.  Her grandmother survived the Greek holocaust in Smyrna. The stories about slaughtering men, raping the women, and burning their homes are all true. My wife’s grandmother was 12 years old when she got on the last boat out of Smyrna as the city was being burned. She came as a refugee to the United States. These early 20th century genocides were aimed at driving Christians out of Asia Minor.

American Christians usually know something of church history in the West. But we are less familiar with the spread of the Christian faith to the north, the South, and to the East through Persia. There was, for a long time, a strong Christian presence throughout Arabia and Persia. In our life time there has remained a small Christian presence in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Jordan and Egypt. Christians have lived in these areas for over 1800 years. But over time radical Islamic governments have increased the persecution and aimed to finally exterminate Christianity and other religious minorities from this part of the world.

What we have seen in the Middle East in the last few years, (in Egypt, Syria, Turkey Iraq and Iran) is a continuation of that aim and an intensification of it. Last year scores of Coptic churches were set ablaze and destroyed in Egypt. Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom says it was “the worst pogrom on Christians in Egypt for about 700 years.”

What we are now seeing in 2014 is an attempted genocide carried out by the group calling itself Islamic State, or ISIS. This violent Islamic militant group is a spin off of al Qaeda.

They are attempting to purge northwestern Iraq of its Christian and Yazidi populations. They are also targeting other minority religious minorities, including Muslim groups.

Iraq’s Christian heartland is in the northern province on the Ninevah plain. Islamic State has been destroying Christian towns with the goal of imposing comprehensive Sharia law.

In Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, Christians were given an ultimatum with three choices: convert to Islam, or pay a fine and give your daughters and wives over to Islamist leaders, or die by the sword. Word is, 95% of Christians have fled, and some 5% converted. If you are a Christian, Islamic State will put a red death stamp on your house, to target you.

Many families have fled in advance of the militants. Estimates of those who have abandoned homes in fear ahead of Islamic State’s advance are now in the hundreds of thousands.

Islamic State is destroying and looting churches, monasteries, mosques, and other significant historic landmarks—including Jonah’s tomb. There are reports of children being beheaded and their heads put on sticks and displayed in parks, of mothers being raped and killed, and fathers being hung. Videos proudly displaying this brutality are now being posted on the internet, promoted by those sympathetic to Islamic State.

All this of course has created a terrible humanitarian situation.

Up till now, many in the West have been silent in the face of this evil. The Western media has been silent, not wanting to seem intolerant towards Islamic groups. They have not come to terms with the ideology of radical Islamic thought. Our government has done little until yesterday.  Many Western Christians have been lulled to sleep by our own creature comforts.

So what do we do in the wake of this genocide? First, realize the important role the US has in the world. We cannot be passive. We must wisely use our power in just ways.

Second, become informed. Groups like International Christian Concern provide daily updates on the persecuted church. See their website:

Third, call on government officials and international organizations to take action, providing assistance to sustain a Christian presence in the Middle East.

Finally, pray for your brothers and sisters in the suffering church and make sure your church prays for them now. They are crying out for help. If you listen, you will hear it.

Posted in church history, persecuted church | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Those Blasted Presbyterians: Reflections on Independence Day

“We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against him, let us not pay the least regard to it.” Book Four, Calvin’s Institutes

Presbyterian Revolution

“I fix all the blame of these extraordinary proceedings upon the Presbyterians.”  So one colonist loyal to King George wrote to friends in England.

Around the same time, Horace Walpole spoke from the English House of Commons to report on these “extraordinary proceedings” in the colonies of the new world.  “There is no good crying about the matter,” he said.  “Cousin America has run off with the Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.”

The parson of which he spoke, was  John Witherspoon—a Presbyterian minister, as well as a descendant of John Knox.  At the time, Witherspoon was president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton).  He was also the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.

From the English perspective, the American revolution was often perceived as a “Presbyterian Rebellion.”  And its supporters were often disdained as “those blasted Presbyterians.”

The Presbyterian Revolution
Most American Christians are unaware of the fact that the American Revolution, as well as the new American state, was greatly shaped by Presbyterians and the Calvinism that was at its root.  Some modern-day  Presbyterians have moved light years away from the convictions of these early colonists.

An estimated three million people lived in the colonies at the time of the Revolutionary War.  Of that number, “900,00 were of Scotch or Scotch-Irish origin, 600,000 were Puritan English, while over 400,000 were of Dutch, German Reformed and Huguenot descent. That is to say, two thirds of our Revolutionary forefathers were trained in the school of Calvin.”  (Carlson, p. 19)

As one historian puts it, “When Cornwallis was driven back to ultimate retreat and surrender at Yorktown, all of the colonels of the Colonial Army but one were Presbyterian elders. It is estimated that more than one half of all the soldiers and officers of the American Army during the Revolution were Presbyterian.” (Carlson, p. 16)

To the man, Presbyterian clergy joined the Colonialist cause. It was said that many of them led the Revolution from the pulpit.  In doing so, they paid a heavy price for their support for independence.  Many lost family members or their own lives.  Some had their churches burned to the ground.

The Presbyterian Drive
We forget that many of the early American colonists had left England precisely because Presbyterian Christianity was rejected.  After its brief reign as the established church through the English Civil War and the work of the Westminster Assembly, Britain returned to Anglicanism.  Thousands of non-conforming Presbyterian ministers were then ejected from their churches.  Some, such as the Covenanters, were martyred in a period that came to be known as “the killing times.” Rigid laws of conformity drove many to seek a better life somewhere else.  After 1660, many Presbyterians began to make their way to the colonies in North America.  It was these individuals who brought a new strength to the colonies as they inched their way forward towards independence.

They had little loyalty, and often outright hostility, to the crown of England.  They were armed with the theology of John Calvin, mediated through John Knox, and solidified during the English Civil war. It was a theology which devalued the divine right of human kings, and elevated the worth and dignity of the individual under God.  This theology shaped the early American understanding of civil liberty.

It shaped our founding fathers. The idea of human equality which influenced John Locke, who in turn,  influenced our founding fathers, was learned from the Puritans. Locke’s father had been on Cromwell’s side during the English Civil war.

It also shaped the general population under the influence of the Great Awakening. The Great Awakening was a massive 18th century religious revival that shook the colonies. It was promoted by preachers such as Gilbert Tennent and George Whitfield who travelled up and down the coast calling for a return to a robust Christian and Biblical faith.  Emphasizing the new birth and a Calvinist theology, the Great Awakening had an immense influence on colonial sentiments in the generation just preceding the American Revolution.

Consider then, some of what was at work in the American consciousness preceding the revolution. There was the memory of their horrid experience in England. There was the worry that Anglicans would establish this same kind of church in the colonies. There was a persistent fear of the imposition of bishops who were viewed as “holy monarchs,”  (monarchy in any form was considered bad)!  There was a belief in the absolute sovereignty of God. God alone is Lord of all and the author of liberty. There was a corresponding belief in the absolute equality of individuals (king and peasant, clergy and laity) under God’s law. There was the belief that no human should be entrusted with absolute power, given our radically fallen human nature.  There was a belief that there should be a separation of powers in any new government that is established.  And because of their experience in England, there was the belief that religious freedom and freedom of conscience should be respected.

In other words, for these Presbyterians, liberty is affirmed, but it is not an absolute liberty. It is always to be lived out under the sovereign creator God. It was this theology, a theology rooted, not just in Calvin, but in the Bible, which ultimately gave the colonialist the will to resist.

The Presbyterian Legacy
So this year, as we celebrate our independence once again, and as we think of early American courage, and the genius of our founding fathers, let us not forget those blasted Presbyterians who sought to understand liberty in light of the Bible.  A liberty which conceived of a nation and its entire government under God.

Sources:  Our Presbyterian Heritage, Paul Carlson (Elgin:  David C. Cook, 1973)Presbyterians: Their History and Beliefs, Walter L. Lingle and John W. Kuykendall, (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1988), The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World, Douglas F. Kelly, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey:  P&R Publishing, 1992)

Posted in America, History, Presbyterians | Tagged , | 24 Comments

Saints in Scripture

all saints day 1

All kinds of definitions of saints have been given. A cynic once said, “a saint is a dead sinner, revised and edited.” I recall that the famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson said, “the saints are merely sinners who kept on going.” William Barclay, the Bible commentator said, “a saint is someone whose life makes it easier to believe in God.” My former pastor, Warren Wiersbe said, “the word saint is simply one of the many terms used in the New Testament to describe “one who has trusted Jesus Christ as Savior.”

This week, in an historic dual papal canonization, the Roman Catholic church has declared former Popes John XXIII and John Paul II as saints.

What does the Bible have to say about saints?

Christians of all kinds sing the hymn, Holy, Holy, Holy, which has the line “Holy, holy, holy, all the saints adore, thee, Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.” Who are all these saints, and how should we think of them?

In the New Testament, the word “saint” is used mostly by Paul in his letters. He uses the word about 45 times to designate Christians. The word saint is derived from the Greek word hagiazo. Its basic meaning is—to set apart, to sanctify or make holy. So a saint is one who has been sanctified. According to Paul, this happens when we are justified and stand in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. He has cleansed us of our sins.

The predominate use of the word saint in the New Testament is someone living who has saving faith in the Lord Jesus. True, we are still sinners. But we have been declared “not guilty” because we trust in Christ’s righteousness. By faith, his righteousness is imputed to us, and our sins are forgiven.

So a really important question to ask yourself is this: Are you in Christ? Have you trusted in him as your Savior and Lord? If you have, then your sins are forgiven and you are a saint!

Of course, that would mean that many of you reading this blog post are saints.

A woman who heard teaching like this had a hard time accepting this truth about her husband. She protested, “he may be a saint, but if he is, he was canonized by the Ringling Brothers.”

But it’s true. If you are in Christ, you are a saint. Look at the way Paul addresses so many of his letters. For example, his letter to the Philippians begins “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi.” (1.1)

It may surprise you, but in the New Testament there is no process for canonizing saints.
To become a saint, you did not have to die, then be nominated, then go through a judicial inquiry, where people look for proof of your worthiness and check to see if you have done miracles. That process came much later. In the New Testament, a saint is a Christian— even a common Christian. The primary focus is on the living ones who believe in Christ. In fact, “saint” is the most common name for Christians in the New Testament. It is even more common than the name “Christian.”

An extension of this teaching is that saints are called to be holy. They are called to live out their position in Christ. They are challenged throughout the New Testament to exert a godly influence on people around them, and to stand for righteousness, and walk in the righteousness they have found in Christ.

Having said all this, there is one more strand of New Testament teaching on saints that we can’t ignore. It is found in the book of Revelation. How did it come about that the church started recognizing certain people as saints? In Revelation, the last book of the Bible, the word saint is used in a wider way than in the writings of Paul. It speaks of the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5.8; 8.3,4), the faithfulness of the saints in the Tribulation (13.10; 14.12), the rejoicing of the saints (Rev. 18.20), the righteous acts of the saints (19.8). and the blood of the saints—i.e. the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.” (Rev. 16.6; 17.6, 18; 18.24).

The focus shifts in Revelation and appears to include both living saints and saints in heaven—especially martyred saints. In other words, in Revelation, Christian martyrs have a special standing.

This is why in the post New Testament period of the church, Christian martyrs were so revered. By the way, remember that these early Christian martyrs, were not like the modern day martyrs who strap explosives to their belts and walk into a crowd. Rather, they were people who courageously stood for and spoke for and followed Jesus, even at great cost.

Listen to some of the early Christian, post New Testament sources as they speaks about Christian martyrs.

  • “The holy martyrs…were beheaded, and so they perfected their testimony in the confession of the savior.” (The Martyrdom of the Holy Martyrs, 160 AD)
  • “they took up Polycarp’s bones, “as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold” and deposited them in a fitting place. They celebrated the anniversary of his martyrdom.” (Martyrdom of Polycarp)
  • “The death of martyrs is also praised in song…. The death of his own saints is precious in his sight as David sings.” (Tertullian)

Many believers in the early church began to consider the remains of these faithful witnesses as precious. Churches were sometimes built over the tombs of martyrs. Their stories were told and retold, especially on the anniversary of their death. Local calendars commemorated their death day. Then later, these calendars were combined, and the number of saints days grew. By the Middle Ages, devout believers started making pilgrimages to their tombs. People began praying to the saints. Parts of their bodies were given to other churches as holy relics. Numerous “lives of the saints” were written, (and sometimes embellished). Icons and statues were made—churches were full of them.

By the 16th century, it was clear that things had gotten out of hand. The focus had clearly shifted from Jesus and the church was in great need of reform. That is why the Protestant Reformers started to object to all this focus on saints. In the devotion of common people, saints were taking the place of Christ. The calendars of the church were cluttered. So the reformers called the church to put the focus back on Jesus.

One Reformation confession, the Belgic Confession, coming out of Holland in 1561, addressed the issue squarely. It said, in essence—yes, we should honor the saints. But we dishonor them by interceding to them instead of Christ. Then it asks—why should we seek another intercessor? It implores the reader not to leave Christ for another, because he is our only sufficient mediator.

This is good advice that stands the test of time.

Summing up the basic ideas of saints in the New Testament, we can say this. There are three basic ideas about saints in its pages.

First, all believers who stand in and trust in the righteousness of Christ are saints. They are living saints. This is the dominate idea of the New Testament. As such, we are people who have been sanctified by the blood of Christ, forgiven, and filled with his Holy Spirit.

Second, all believers are called to grow in saintliness (holiness and godliness). We are to live out what we are in Christ. We are to live lives in conformity to his will—to walk in holiness and righteousness, and exert a godly influence. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he wrote “to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus” [that is our position as saints], “and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[that is our practice as saints]. (1 Corinthians 1.2)

I remember hearing the story of a little boy who attended a church with beautiful stained-glass windows. He was told that the windows included pictures of St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, St. John, and St. Paul. One day, he was asked by one of his teachers, “what is a saint?” He answered, “A saint is a person whom God’s light shines through.” That is a great way of describing growing saints.

Third, at the end of the Bible, it appears that some believers who die as faithful witnesses are referred to as saints as well. In so doing, they are part of the “blessed” “who die in the Lord,” (Revelation 14.12,13), a verse which echoes Psalm 116. This is one of Revelation’s seven benedictions. Whether you see this as a reference to the future or the past, it describes saints who endure, who keep God’s commandments, who keep their faith in Jesus, and who are blessed at death with rest from their labors.

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The Spiritual Temperature of Cities


Cities have spiritual temperatures.  So suggests a recent joint study from the Barna Group and the American Bible Society which ranked 100 cities on their “Bible mindedness.”

Now let’s back up. We know from the Bible that cities have spiritual temperatures. Babylon was a city-state in Mesopotamia which destroyed Jerusalem.  It came to personify rebellion against God. Whereas Jerusalem was the city of God, where his temple was. So Babylon had one temperature, Jerusalem generally had another.

But actually, it’s not that simple. Because the Bible portrays Jerusalem itself in many different spiritual states.  Under David it was a united and spiritually vibrant, but by Zephaniah’s day Jerusalem is described as a rebellious, defiled and oppressing city.

There are some cities Jesus taught in that were receptive to him.  But there were also the unrepentant cities of Matthew 11—“Woe to you, Chorazin. . . Bethsaida”  They were hardened to the mighty works of God.    And remember Jesus weeping over the Jerusalem of his day?  He said, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23.37).

Okay, back to Barna.  It ranked 100 cities in the United States for their “Bible mindedness.”  On top were Chattanooga, TN, Birmingham, AL, Lynchburg, VA, Springfield, MO, Shreveport, LA, Charlotte NC, Greenville, SC, Little Rock, Ark, and Jackson, MS with Mississippi being the most religious state in America.

By contract, the least Bible minded cites included, Phoenix, AZ, San Francisco, Boston, Albany NY and Providence RI.

Now, granted, studies like this raise questions.  How do we define Bible mindedness?  Is regular Bible reading and belief in the Bible’s accuracy an adequate spiritual indicator?  It doesn’t tell us if such people really embrace Christ or live out the gospel.

But I believe such studies do have value.  They remind us that cities do in fact have spiritual climates.  Any pastor with working spiritual antennae knows this.

Wisdom in ministry consists in knowing that temperature—doing a little cultural exegesis to understand the climate.  As a pastor, one week a year I would gather my pastoral staff  and we’d talk about the cultural climate of our city and how we should faithfully minister the gospel in light of that.

Knowing the spiritual temperature of a city will influence how we do ministry. The church I recently pastored was in Denver, Colorado.  Denver is near the bottom of Barna’s list.   Now I live in Orlando.  Orlando is higher on the list.  We live on the edge of the Bible belt.  In some of our more secularized cities, people know less about Christianity and you have to take that into consideration when you are preaching and doing evangelism.  Evangelism in a post-Christian city has to deal with the fact that people are less familiar with the Bible’s story, or they’ve been exposed to it, but reject it.

Reformed Theological Seminary has 6 campuses.  Two of them—our Jackson campus and our Charlotte campus, are in the top ten of Barna’s list of Bible minded cities.   Orlando, where our campus is, sorry to say, comes in at #69 on the list.  And Washington DC, where we have another campus, comes in at 80 on the list!

The point is, cities such as Birmingham and San Francisco have very different spiritual climates.  And while people’s spiritual needs are the same everywhere, and the gospel is the same, and Christ is the same yesterday today and forever, it helps to understand  the climate were ministering in, just as Paul did in Athens.

The good news is that a strong Christian presence can influence the spiritual temperature of a city.  The Barna report notes that most of the more Bible minded cities have sizeable Christian institutions of higher learning there.   According to Barna, their influence may explain some of the impact.  Just as RTS has discovered  that when we plant a seminary campus in a city there is usually a church planting movement that springs up near the campus, which then affects the city.  RTS has helped birth many churches and ministries all over the country, but especially here in Central Florida,

While Christians know that “here in this world we have no lasting city,” we also have a long tradition of “seeking the good of the city” where God puts us.  Not simply by doing good works, but by letting the light of the gospel shine from our churches in word and deed.  That will have an impact on the spiritual temperature of any city.

Posted in America, church, Culture, discipleship, gospel, Missions and evangelism, The Church | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Reformed Classics You Should Know: The Westminster Shorter Catechism


In every generation, one of the most critical tasks of the church is to pass on the truth of God’s Word to the next generation. This usually takes place through evangelism, adult education, and the diligent teaching of children.

In not too many years, our children will replace us as guardians of the Christian faith. Will they have a clear grasp of the truth?

Throughout its history, the church has often used a tool called ‘catechisms’ to help pass on the faith. A catechism is a booklet of questions and answers, designed to teach key doctrines. Children not only read and reflect on them, but also commit them to memory.

There was a time when catechisms were routinely used in the church and family, parents were considered the primary spiritual teachers of their children, and pastors were there to assist them. It was during the Reformation that the practice of explicitly “catechizing” children and the laity aimed toward raising up a new generation of Word-shaped people.

But catechisms have largely been abandoned in our time. Today in many churches, memorization is frowned upon, doctrinal instruction of children is out, and “edutainment” is in. We shy away from these older teaching tools. . . and to our own detriment.

In my own church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, we have two catechisms—the larger and the shorter Westminster catechisms, along with a confession—The Westminster Confession of Faith, which explains what we believe. But it’s The Shorter Westminster Catechism that I want to bring to your attention. It’s a classic you should know about.

In the opinion of theologian B.B. Warfield, the Westminster Assembly left to posterity not only “the most thoroughly thought-out statement ever penned of the elements of evangelical religion,” but also one which breathes “the finest fragrance of spiritual religion.” Their most influential work, The Shorter Catechism, was intended as a an introduction to the Christian faith.

It was written in 1646-7, when the Puritans briefly captured the British Parliament, and has played a vital role in churches ever since. It was adopted by Presbyterians. But Baptists and Congregationalists also used a slightly altered version of The Shorter Catechism as well (such as The Baptist Catechism of 1677).

Perhaps the most significant example of this is The Shorter Catechism’s appearance in America’s New England Primer, America’s first school text book (used in our country from 1690-1890). Which is to say, for two hundred years, generations of Americans were shaped not only by a deeply Biblical education, but a particularly reformed Biblical education. The Primer taught generations of Americans how to read. When Benjamin Harris introduced it in 1690, he had a brilliant idea. Why not use the Bible and Christian truth to teach children to read. It sure beats the Dick and Jane books I was raised on!

Listen to this, from The New England Primer, 1843 edition “Our Puritan Fathers brought The Shorter Catechism with them across the ocean and laid it on the same shelf with the family Bible. They taught it diligently to their children. . . .If in this catechism the true and fundamental doctrines of the Gospel are expressed in fewer and better words and definitions than in any other summary, why ought we not now to train up a child in the way he should go?—why not now put him in possession of the richest treasure that ever human wisdom and industry accumulated to draw from?”

When you look at The New England Primer, one is immediately struck by how massively we have drifted as a nation in our view of law, education and the importance of the Bible.

Fortunately, this great reformed classic and helpful teaching tool is still available to us in both modern and classic editions. (The Westminster Shorter Catechism in Modern English / The Shorter Catechism with Scripture Proofs)

There is even a children’s version of this aimed at kids ages 3-6th grade which can make a nice supplement to children’s Sunday school (Catechism for Young Children)

What do you find in The Shorter Catechism?
• It all begins with the magisterial statement, that the purpose of life, the chief end of everything, is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
• Its outline is shaped by the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.
• It gives succinct definitions, such as Question 4: What is God?   “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”
• It speaks of God’s sovereignty in describing his works of creation and providence.
• It reminds us with stark realism of the fall and its consequences–vividly describing our condition as one of “sin and misery”.
• It gives us a simple grid to interpret the entire Bible through the concept of covenants.
• It helps us understand Christ our redeemer by simply explaining his person, natures, offices, and states.
• It reviews the Spirit’s role in applying redemption and the benefits of Christ to our soul, by defining effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification.
• It spells out the duty God requires of us by explaining his moral law, the Ten Commandments.
• It tells of the saving grace of God for salvation that is offered in the gospel
• It gives basic instruction on prayer through The Lord’s Prayer.
• It details the outward means whereby Christ builds us up: the Word, prayer, and sacraments.

I did not grow up with catechisms. In fact I was wary of them. I’d never heard of The Shorter Catechism until I was in college. The way I got to know this spiritual gem was at Regent College where theologian J.I. Packer seemed to smuggle the Westminster  catechisms into most of his classes and make us memorize them! For that I am deeply grateful.

This  teaching tool added simple depth to my faith and the faith of my children and churches. It set basic outlines and definitions in mind to help build a basic Biblical and doctrinal literacy.

Like other reformed churches, this catechism is part of the Constitution of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. According to the EPC Book of Order, “The home and the church should also make special provision for instructing the children in the Bible and in the Church Catechisms. To this end Sessions should establish and conduct under their authority Sunday schools and Bible classes, and adopt such other methods as may be found helpful. The Session shall encourage the parents of the Church to guide their children in the catechizing and disciplining of them in the Christian religion.” (BOO, Chapter Four, 4-5)

I’m not sure how many Elder boards take this charge seriously. Many Presbyterian churches have lost touch with their reformed roots. But there are wonderful resources available to help us pass on the truth of God’s Word to the next generation, and this is one of them.

Whether it is The Westminster Shorter Catechism, or The Heidelberg Catechism, or even Luther’s Catechism, these are Reformation treasures that we desperately need to rediscover.

Posted in church, church history, Education, Presbyterians, Reformed Classics, Theology, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Year Ahead: 2014

2014 the year ahead

The new year is upon us and it is time again to think ahead and anticipate. What will the year hold?

At the end of each year I like to look down the road and be somewhat ready for what we will be thinking about and dealing with. My lists are by no means comprehensive. They are not forecasts either. God alone knows what actually will happen. But by keeping an ear to the ground, watching culture, and doing a bit of homework, one can catch a glimpse of the year ahead. My hope always is that this might help you think wisely about the coming year, especially for those who have ministries of teaching, preaching and disciple making.

Some Faith Trends in Our Culture
• Faith makes a hit at the movies: This Spring movies like Noah, Heaven is for Real, Son of God and Mary of Nazareth are released, but, as always, amidst a mountain of cultural slush like Godzilla and Fifty Shades of Grey.
• Mega church pastor angst: Younger leaders worry about the role of mega church pastors, given all the recent transitions, scandals and crashes. They wonder what the “one great leader” model does to a person/church and how it can be improved.
• Low pastor esteem: Trust in clergy reaches record lows, according to a recent Gallup Poll. The overall trend for clergy has sloped downward since 2001, a contrast to 30 years ago when community and congregation held pastors in higher esteem. Trust, integrity and honesty are issues.
• Pope Francis is held up as religious model:   As TIME’s man of the year, Francis’ influence and example are being promoted both within and outside the Roman Catholic Church.
• America “the hardest mission field”: That’s what some are saying. In our post-Christendom era of material abundance, outreach is a big challenge. There are numerous barriers to deal with before many people will set foot in a church.
• Growth of multiple venues in one church: More churches are experimenting with multiple venues and campuses.
• The issue of leadership: The Economist writes, “in 2014, the world will crave leadership!” Demands and expectations of pastors are higher than they were 25 years ago. Churches are looking for pastors that can preach and lead. More smaller churches are hiring executive pastors.

Some Global Trends
• A mobile phone world: In 2014 the number of mobile phone subscriptions will overtake the number of human beings according to the International Telecommunications Union. Much of the growth is in Africa and Asia. This will lead to more people getting online.
• Big data and big data protection: Our planet is awash in information known as big data. Data constitutes a vast new natural resource. More companies aim at capturing data and applying predictive analytics, rather than just relying on past performance. This raises privacy and worries about eavesdropping.
• American neo-isolationism: President Obama’s cautious retreat and unwillingness to be global sheriff are emboldening American rivals from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea. These developments make a more risky global scene in 2014.
• Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East: If Iran gets a nuclear weapon we will see a destabilizing nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
• World poverty drops: A recent Oxford University study on poverty and human development says some of the world’s most impoverished people are becoming significantly less poor. It predicts that if development trends continue, countries with the most poor could see acute poverty erased within 20 years
• The Asian shift: According to The Economist, this year Asia overtakes North America to become the continent with the most millionaires. The growing world influence of Asian markets and China will continue.
• Robotic revolution speeds up: We will see the use of robots spreading beyond factories into daily life. Newer, smarter, more sophisticated models are being used for everything from unmanned military vehicles to walking dogs to TSAbots at airports..

Some National Trends
• More short term economic recovery: Americans are looking for a better year in 2014. While some still talk about a coming collapse, general 2014 predictions are for the US economy to grow by 3%, the jobless rate to fall, and inflation to be at 2%.
• Political blame game heats up: As we approach the mid-term elections, there will be lots of blaming going on. Expect some kind of Obama backlash. Congress, and especially the Senate is up for grabs.
• Fractured: Many signs in 2013 showed America becoming increasingly diverse and fractured (Sanford, FL, national politics, studies like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart). This will accelerate. Since society lacks the glue to fix this, there will be ample opportunities to demonstrate the power of the gospel and the peace of Christ.
• With retirement, 80 is the new 60: The workforce is graying as seniors put off retirement due to life span increases and not having saved enough. Retirement at 65 looks more like a pipe dream as older adults are now the fastest growing part of the US labor force.
• Narco-business comes out of the shadows: it used to be the preserve of criminals, but with the new legality, prohibition is giving way to regulation and profit. States approving medical marijuana will expand. Legalization of production and sales will grow.
• Technology’s limits: Business journals report that talking to colleagues will make a comeback. Companies are worried that emailing and working virtually are creating a work force that does not know each other.
• Space tech wonders: This year we may see the dawn of a new space age for commercial aviation and an audacious space mission hoping to land a spacecraft on a comet!
• RNA breakthroughs: Project ENCODE, involving RNA research and interference, will bring new momentum to the field of genetics. RNA, which controls what cells do, is said to be the “Cinderella” of genetics and may deliver the promises made for DNA in the Human Genome Project leading to cures in genetic diseases and disorders.

Some Important Anniversaries and Dates
Jan 12      Affordable Care Act takes affect. America’s health market will change drastically.
Jan 28     1200th anniversary of the death of Charlemagne. The “father of Europe” brought stability and renaissance after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
Feb 4        Facebook, with more than a billion members, celebrates its 10th birthday signaling the continued growth of social media, even as polls show teen enthusiasm for Facebook waning.
March/April      Lent begins (March 5), Palm Sunday (April 13), Easter (April 20)
April 26      Shakespeare’s 450th birthday
April 8-10      Together for the Gospel conference in Louisville, KY
June 20th      800th anniversary of Oxford University receiving its charter.
June 23-4      The Scots commemorate the700th anniversary of their victory over the English in battle of Bannockburn.
June      General Assemblies, etc.: OPC GA (June 4-10 Grand Rapids), SBC Convention
(June 10-11 Baltimore ), PCA GA (17-20 Houston), EPC (June 18-21 Knoxville), Gospel Coalition Women’s National Conference (27-29 Orlando).
July 2      50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act
Aug 8      500th Anniversary of John Knox’ birth
Aug 19     2000th Anniversary of death of Augustus Caesar, 1st Roman emperor.
Aug        The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. The “war to end all wars” became the horror of the early 20th century.
Nov 4    Mid-term elections in the US
Nov 9      25th anniversary of fall of Berlin wall
Nov 30      First Sunday of Advent
Dec 3      25th anniversary of end of Cold war
Dec 27   300th anniversary of birth of George Whitefield.

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The Four Days of Christmas: One Pastor’s “Coping Mechanisms” For Doing Christmas Wisely

“Boy it must suck to be a pastor in December,” a friend once said to me. He was thinking—funerals in December, too many devotionals and sermons to give, too many Christmas events to attend, four Christmas Eve services, little time for family on Christmas eve, and being exhausted on Christmas Day. “Who would want to do that?” he said, as he offered this commentary on my December.

Well, it is certainly busy. In fact, it’s crazy busy. In fact, if we are not careful, it can be disastrous personally and for my family. But it doesn’t “suck.” It is challenging. It is crammed. Yet it’s an extraordinary season of the year, filled with immense spiritual opportunities.

But after failing at December for too many years, through experience I managed to come up with a number of “coping mechanisms” that helped keep this month both sane and meaningful for me and my family.

One thing Christina and I did was take a weekend away from the church just before Advent. We usually spent a night or two at a hotel. It was my time to tell her I loved her and warn her yet again of the rush of December for those in ministry. We had quiet time and planned our family schedule for the Advent-Christmas season. This helped put us on the same page.

But even better than that was coming up with what we called “The Four Days of Christmas.” Four—not twelve? I know it sounds odd. Hear me out.

Like everybody else, in the early years of our family with four young children, we tried to cram too much Christmas into one Christmas Day. You know how it goes: the kids would get up early and tumble down the stairs head first. They opened stockings. By the time we got to the gifts, a numbness had already set in. They were over-saturated. When our cousins gathered for dinner, if they happened to bring gifts, I knew we were in trouble. My kids were glassy-eyed, over-stimulated and ungrateful. The next day, we went through the morning after Christmas syndrome like everyone else, and couldn’t believe how quickly the whole thing was over. It was too much for one day. We were all exhausted.

Of course, all this is complicated for a pastor’s family because you have to prepare a message and be at church on Christmas Eve. Throw in multiple services on December 24th and there is no time for much of anything on that day but church. For instance, I had four Christmas Eve services: 4.00, 5.30, 7.30 and 9.30. For our family, it was even more complex, because my wife is a violinist, and musicians play a lot in December—including Christmas Eve. We both got home around midnight!

Granted, most people don’t have to deal with ministry obligations like this. But I am convinced that for those who do, there are wiser, more sane ways to “do Christmas” than we typically do. So what we did was stretch out Christmas to four days!

There is good precedent for this. After all, in the history of the church, Christmas is a season, not just a day. The Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, as the 25th has is sometimes called, is part of the larger season of Christmastide, which, for some, lasts twelve days. You’ve heard of “the twelve days of Christmas,” haven’t you?

So how did we cope with the rush of Christmas? We stretched it out for four days. We did our family Christmas Eve on the evening of December 23rd. The kids called it “Christmas Adam.” (“You know dad,” they would say, “the 24th is ‘Christmas Eve’ the 23rd can be ‘Christmas Adam.’”). Okay, I relented. So, with just our family, we had a special dinner on the 23rd, and usually watched a movie afterwards. That is our first day of Christmas—our family Christmas eve.

The second day of Christmas is the 24th. The 24th for our family is church day. We encourage everyone to be active in services on Christmas Eve. Our children were inevitably involved in some of the services, either singing in choirs or doing public readings of Scripture. But they all know mom and dad have lots of responsibilities that day. We encourage them to participate as well. This has the wonderful effect of putting the spotlight on Jesus that day.

On Christmas Day, (the third day of Christmas) our kids get their stockings only. In the afternoon, we usually have dinner with grandparents and cousins.

It is the day after Christmas, (known as Boxing Day in England) that we all open our presents. This is our fourth day of Christmas.

Now, you may think that this is cruel and unusual punishment to children—i.e. that we do not allow them to open their gifts on Christmas Day. Truth is, they got used to it quickly. Our children still prefer it this way. They like that mom and dad have slowed Christmas down, without cutting church out, or family time. We actually have more time celebrating the holiday than we used to.

I’ll admit, for those who are not in ministry, this plan may sound rather strange. But for those who are, you will recognize it not only as one person’s creative road out of Christmas chaos, but also as a wonderful way to distress the day. It actually gives us more Christmas in Christmas, more family time, ample church time, and on the evening of the 25th, when it was over for most people, we have more to come.

True, it’s not exactly The Twelve Days of Christmas. But it did move our family in the right direction.

May I commend a similar creative wisdom to you if you find your Christmases too chaotic?

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