Heavenly Hoax

Some years ago I stopped to use a pay phone and found the phone booth had been virtually wallpapered with pink tracts, which turned out to be excerpts from a book written by someone claiming to have visited hell. The author’s description of hell was partly graphic, somewhat entertaining, quite incredible and entirely un-Biblical.

In 2010, a book was published which claimed to be the story of a young boy who had visited not hell, but heaven. The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven was the spectacular story of a child’s visit to heaven after he “died” in a car wreck that left him a quadriplegic. Alex Malarkey’s story sold over a million copies and was developed into a TV movie, gripping hearts around the world. But several days ago Alex admitted that his story was nothing more than a heavenly hoax.

Following the accident which almost claimed his life, Alex – six years old at the time of the accident – spent two months in a coma. The wonder of Alex regaining consciousness was overshadowed by the incredible account he gave of what he experienced while he was unconscious. He claimed angels had escorted him through the gates of heaven, that he heard heavenly music, saw the devil and talked with Jesus Himself.

But Alex recently wrote an open letter that was published on the Pulpit and Pen website in which he flatly said, “It was all a lie.” Alex now says he didn’t “die” in he accident, and he never at any time went to heaven.

“I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention,” Alex said in a brief statement. “When I made the claims I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to.”

The book has been taken out of print by its publisher, and bookstores have stopped carrying the book.

Of course the bigger question is, “Should the book have been published in the first place?”

From a Biblical point of view, the clear answer is No.

The Bible speaks nothing of people dying, going to heaven and returning to the Earth to tell people what they have seen. Paul spoke about his own experience of seeing heaven in vision (2 Corinthians 12:2-4), and the prophets Daniel and John wrote of visions of heaven they had experienced (Daniel 7:9,10; Revelation 4:1-11). Jesus returned from heaven to Earth, but like Moses – the only other person the Bible discusses who died, went to heaven and returned to Earth – He was silent about what heaven is like.

What’s alarming about The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven and stories like it is that they directly contradict the plain testimony of the Bible. The Bible clearly states that death is a sleep, not a condition in which people can travel to heaven or any other place. Jesus spoke of Lazarus as being asleep (John 11:11), which he clearly interpreted as meaning “Lazarus is dead” (John 11:14). The Bible is remarkably consistent on the subject. Paul wrote that the dead sleep until Jesus wakes them at the second coming (1 Corinthians 15:51,52), and that the saved who are alive when Jesus returns will go to heaven at that time, along with those who had previously died in faith and slept the sleep of death. While such a view may come as a surprise to someone who has not carefully investigated this subject, it is certainly biblical.

Numerous times the Bible refers to death as a dreamless sleep which lasts from the moment of death until the first resurrection takes place (Revelation 14:13; John 5:28,29).

Over the years there has been a very deliberate and carefully-orchestrated campaign conducted by the enemy of souls to confuse people regarding death and life after death. Like the majority of Christian believers, I was taught as a child to believe that those who die are ushered immediately into either heaven or hell (or in certain other cases, purgatory or limbo). And rather than this being a minor theological point of debate or discussion, the twisting of truth on this subject leads to at least two extremely serious theological problems: the marginalizing of Jesus, and the opening of the door to spiritualism.

Spiritualism is serious business – literally and figuratively. Millions are spent on psychics and mediums and related materials. And a person who entertains thoughts of contacting a spiritist medium is entertaining thoughts of getting into very close contact with the devil himself. Such was the experience of King Saul (see 1 Samuel 28).

The Bible makes clear that spiritualism will be a major influence in Earth’s final days in preparing people to accept Satan’s final deceptions (Revelation 16:13). A friend recently told me that following the tragic death of his 23-year-old daughter, if he had not understood what the Bible says about death, he would undoubtedly have sought to contact his daughter through a spiritist medium. Such involvement with the enemy has disastrous consequences.

And while a misunderstanding of death opens the door to spiritualism, it also reduces Jesus to being less than He actually is. In John 11:25, Jesus explained to the sister of Lazarus that He is “the resurrection and the life”. Without Jesus the dead have no hope of life beyond the grave. Only through Jesus’ direct intervention at the time of the second coming can anyone be raised from the dead. Without Jesus waking the sleeping dead, the grave will never release its prisoners. Even the giants of faith listed in Hebrews 11 – with the exception of Moses and Enoch – “did not receive the promise (Hebrews 11:39.)” They also wait for the return of Jesus to take place before they can be raised from their various places of rest (see verse 40).

If people go to heaven immediately upon dying then a resurrection is unnecessary, and Jesus is no longer “the resurrection and the life.” Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 15:55 KJV – “O grave, where is thy victory?” – is a question not worth asking. We can travel to heaven without a resurrection having taken place.

Stories like that of Alex Malarkey are extremely popular. 90 Minutes in Heaven, published in 2004, spent over 5 years on the New York Times bestsellers’ list and sold over six million copies. Heaven is for Real – the story of a four year old who visited heaven – has sold over ten million copies. A 2014 movie based on Heaven is for Real has grossed over one hundred million dollars. This publishing phenomenon is now a genre of its own, having been dubbed “Heavenly Tourism.”

A story published by National Public Radio quoted a blog post written by Alex’s mother, Beth, in which she said, “There are many who are scamming and using the Word of God to do it. They are good, especially if you are not digging into your Bible and truly studying it. They study their audience and even read ‘success’ books to try to build bigger and better… ‘ministries/businesses.’ “ And Phil Johnson, the Executive Director of the media ministry led by author and broadcaster John MacArthur said, quoted in the Washington Post, “The idea that Alex suddenly recanted is just not true. There was proof everywhere that he did not stand behind the content of this book. But it was a bestselling book. Nobody in the industry wanted to kill it.”

The publisher of the now-recalled book said at the time of publishing that the story was “a supernatural encounter that will give you new insights on Heaven, angels, and hearing the voice of God.” Alex Malarkey is now saying something very different.

So how could this heavenly hoax have happened? Some say Alex’s father – the co-author of the book – saw an opportunity to make money from his son’s vivid imagination. There seems to be little doubt that Alex was a genuine soul who had no idea of the harm his creativity was going to cause. But informed by a flawed belief system, Alex was able to believe that an out-of-body escape to heaven is entirely possible. Multiplied millions believe the same thing around the world.

Similar stories have been prominent in pop culture and within religious circles. Moves dealing with out-of-body and other paranormal experiences have played to audiences in all corners of the planet. And claims of mystical occurrences such as apparitions of the Virgin Mary continue to encourage the faithful, even though they have gain no support whatsoever from Scripture.

A number of years ago while I was praying in a small group at a convention for Catholic youth, my eyes opened wide when a young man from my church started ‘prophesying.’

“My people,” he began. “I have a message for you, my people…” It was well known that Peter was a plumber. What was not known was that he was a prophet. Few of us were convinced. Several of us tasked a young nun with talking to Peter about his ‘prophesying’, but before she had a chance to approach Peter, Peter came and spoke with our small group and admitted his ‘prophesying’ was nothing more than a case of misjudged wishful thinking.

“I just wanted it to be real, and… I’m sorry. That won’t happen again.” As far as I know, it never did. Peter had been exposed to Pentecostal worship services where ‘prophesying’ is common or even expected. His desire to possess this type of spiritual gift got the better of him.

Alex Malarkey admits his desire for attention prompted him to tell a story that simply wasn’t true. Now 16 years old, Alex offers some sound advice. “[People] should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.”

The hope is that many will take his take his counsel as seriously as they took his story.

(Originally published in the Adventist Review online)

New Year’s Resolutions

2015. Who’d have thought? And it seems to have arrived so quickly. I don’t mean to sound cliché, but time really does seem to be flying by. Someone suggested to me a while ago that when you’re ten years old, a year is one-tenth of your life. But when you’re much older, a year is proportionately much less of your life, and for that reason, seems to fly past much more quickly.

And maybe there’s something to that. I think it has something to do with being busy. When life is busy, there isn’t time to mull over the passing of time. You wake up one day and it has been and gone.

With each new year, there’s the temptation to make new year’s resolutions. I’m not given to making too many of them, but this year I’ll probably make a couple—one of them being to exercise more. There’s no reason for not doing it. It has something to do with prioritizing. And if you can’t make exercise a priority, it’s probably time to look at the big picture and make some changes.

New year’s resolutions can be productive. Lose weight. Exercise. (I picked a common one). Drink less alcohol, or none at all. Eat better. Keep in touch with so-and-so. Pray more.

But new year’s resolutions have a happy knack of lasting until about January 5, and then becoming a candidate for next year’s new year’s resolutions.

What about spiritual new year’s resolutions? I’ll pray more. Memorize more Scripture. Get more involved at church. Be a better person. Lose my temper less. Well, that’s all well and good. But in all likelihood, it doesn’t stand a great chance at success.

People often make God promises, but few people have a very good track record of keeping promises made to God. In the wilderness, the Israelites proclaimed, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 19:8)

A few short weeks later they were worshipping a golden calf. So much for their promise! Peter told Jesus with as much sincerity as he could muster, “Though I should die with you, yet will I not deny you.” (Matthew 26:35)

And he meant it! The problem is, mere hours later, he forgot his promise to God and denied Jesus with as much vigor as he had earlier promised to serve Him.

Have you ever done that? Made promises to God that you later couldn’t keep? The answer is undoubtedly “yes.” I want to encourage you to make fewer promises to God. Or better yet, to make no promises to God. God doesn’t even want us to make promises to Him. Instead, simply believe the promises that He has made to you.

We’re told that through His promises, we can be partakers of the divine nature. (2 Peter 1:4) We all want that, but the how of it is the tricky part. We can be made like Jesus, but not through promising Him good behavior. Instead, the key is to believe His promises to us. Philippians 2:13 says, “It is God who works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”

Not even Jesus pleased God through His own efforts. Although He cooperated with the working of His Father, he said, “The Father who dwells in me, He does the works.” (John 14:10)

God promises to work in our lives. When we accept that promise, claim that promise and believe that He will do what He says He will do, we can expect to see God do great things.

You won’t need to make another promise to God, ever. He doesn’t even want you to. His promises are enough. Believe them, and you’ll have a new year like you’ve never had before.

The Dilemma

A true story.

A certain pilot—we’ll call him Dave—had been flying commercial airliners for almost 20 years. In that time, he had seen just about everything. On this particular flight, the plane he was piloting was delayed, the weather was bad, and although the crew members were experienced, they’d never worked together before, which slowed things down a bit.

While at 35,000 or so feet, Dave was given word that a passenger on his plane was gravely ill. He’d had a severe heart attack, and although a doctor on board was helping, it was obvious the man needed urgent medical care. The pilot radioed the tower at a nearby airport seeking permission to land, but due to the bad weather, permission was denied.

So what should Dave do? If they stayed flying, the passenger would almost certainly die. While it was true the weather was a problem, Dave believed he could land the plane safely in spite of it. He’d been flying for years, not just for the airlines but in the military as well.

On the other hand, he didn’t feel like he should risk the lives of his crew and passengers by trying to land. While he deliberated, news came again—the passenger was failing. And although not everyone on board the plane knew what was happening, those who did were unanimous: Dave should land the plane and try to save the man’s life. Now, Dave had a dilemma—defy the control tower, risk everyone’s safety and likely save a man’s life, or follow instructions and let the man die.

A dilemma. What would you do? Every person in the world faces a very real dilemma—and it’s far more serious than that faced by our pilot.

But first, what is a dilemma? Having to choose between vanilla and strawberry isn’t a dilemma. That’s a choice. Running out of gas isn’t a dilemma; it’s a problem (although it could introduce a dilemma).

A dilemma is this: “A problem offering two solutions or possibilities, of which neither is acceptable.” The two options are often described as the horns of a dilemma, neither of which is comfortable.

In Romans 7, Paul describes the dilemma faced by every sinner. And it is a dilemma. He describes his experience in wanting to do what he knows he shouldn’t, and not wanting to do that which he should.

His options—the horns of the dilemma—are these: One, he yields to his fallen nature and simply allows it to govern his life, and he’ll be lost (which we would surely agree would not be good), or option two. Option two is to accept Jesus and let Him be the Lord of Paul’s life. And therein lies the dilemma.

To surrender fully to Jesus is to die. It is to die the death to self, and let Jesus govern our lives just as if we had died and were reborn. So why is that an uncomfortable choice?

Jesus compares this experience to crucifixion. And that’s not pretty. You can tell it isn’t pretty because so few people experience it and so many resist it. There’s nothing acceptable about death, but that’s what Jesus is calling us to. So often we find ourselves in that Romans 7 situation—we know what is right, we want to do right, but before we know it, we’re back into that sin.

And we don’t want to die the death to self because we’ve grown to love the sin more than we like the thought of Jesus removing it from our life. So there’s the dilemma.

Two choices—carry on in the old life and bear the inevitable consequences, or let Jesus make the old life new. The old life leads to death, because the wages of sin is death. To get to the new life means death also. And that option is so unattractive that most people choose against it.

Only one thing can free a person to live a true Christian experience: choosing Jesus as the Lord of one’s whole life. If self lives, we must die. If self dies, then we can live—forever.

The choice is obvious and clear. There’s only one way worth going. All it requires is a choice to subordinate one’s desires to the will of God. Continually.

Are you willing to make that decision?

Donald Sterling’s Problem

The remarks allegedly made by Los Angeles Clippers Owner Donald Sterling were…actually, I’m not even sure what word (or words) to use. “Sickening” according to Michael Jordan. “Incredibly offensive” said President Barack Obama. Basketball heavyweights have said there’s no place for Sterling in their sport. And the NBA responded by banning Sterling for life, and fining him $2.5 million.

This matter forced the National Basketball Association to confront serious issues, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver decided the offensive remarks were indeed made by Sterling. Silver acted swiftly and firmly, sending a strong message to Sterling, the NBA and those associated with it, and the world.

I found the recording extremely difficult to listen to. I would not have chosen to listen to it, but happened to be in a place where it was sort of “sprung” on me and I had little choice but to hear the revolting rant. I listened with my forehead in my hand wishing it would end—quickly—only to discover that there was much more to be heard in addition to the initial release.

The sad fact is that as long as there is sin in the world, there will always be racism, but this was…this was different somehow. These weren’t remarks made in anger, or spewed in the heat of the moment, or fueled by drugs or alcohol. Even if they were, the remarks wouldn’t have been any more acceptable, but there would have been a context that enabled people to at least say, “Here we go again,” or “Well, what can you expect?” This was well thought out, calculated and carefully elucidated. This couldn’t be explained away somehow, using inflamed human emotion as some kind of excuse. This was…hideous.

Yet as grotesque as Sterling’s comments were, there’s an additional twist in this affair that isn’t generating a lot of discussion. And that is, the remarks attributed to Donald Sterling were made to his girlfriend—not his wife of nearly 60 years, but his mistress. While it seems certain that Sterling is racist—based on the ruling by the National Basketball Association—he is also certainly immoral. And nobody seems to mind.

Sterling’s paramour is more than 55 years his junior. There’s controversy surrounding this relationship: lawsuits and accusations and money—and plenty of it. Evidently, in this age where racism is appropriately not tolerated, immorality is accepted as a part of everyday life.

In certain circles, immorality is celebrated. It’s a conquest—an achievement—and whereas tawdry behavior was once the domain of men, our equal-opportunity world has seen to it that women are welcome to be every bit as morally bankrupt as men.

One 27-year-old actress recently acknowledged that she has had 36 “partners” over the years. While she admits to being embarrassed that the list of her conquests has been made public, there’s nothing attached to the story of her immorality that suggests she actually did anything wrong.

The point of this post isn’t to criticize the immoral, but instead, the fascinating relativism that exists with sin. I noticed (unfortunately) that one It Is Written Twitter follower professes faith in Jesus while adorning her Twitter page with soft-core pornography. Certain sins fade in and out of style, while many can become somewhat fashionable.

Oddly, 150 years ago, Sterling would have likely been criticized for his immorality, while racism would have been given a free pass. Times change, as does the human proclivity for defending the indefensible.

When God heard the phone conversation between Donald Sterling and his mistress, He was appalled by more than racism. But thankfully, racists, the immoral—in fact sinners of all shapes and persuasions—can find forgiveness and renewal in Jesus.

See, there’s one more thing nobody is talking about with Donald Sterling, and that’s redemption. Yet, isn’t that the ultimate hope in the case of any sinner? Condemning a man for his misdeeds is the easy, almost satisfying part. Praying him on to a change of heart is another.

Jesus could easily say, “The man’s guilty. Throw your rocks!” But He is far more interested in saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

Were Sterling to be the biggest bigot on the fruited plain, he would still be a bigot for whom Christ died. And while one hopes earnestly that a racist would see the error of his or her ways and repent, one also hopes that a racist would find Jesus, and redemption from all sin.

As ghastly as the recorded racism was, the Bible reminds us that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” (Romans 5:20) There’s plenty of sin in this world to go around, and there’s a little of Donald Sterling in all of us. None of us is blameless; all of us are flawed and fault-ridden. God sees it all, and wants to save us just the same.

Christians and Politics

A well-known tenet of Christianity is summed up in what is often referred to as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s an adaptation of Matthew 7:12, where Jesus said, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

And it’s probably fair to say that, generally speaking, most Christians get this right. The majority of believers—the majority of people for that matter—would not only agree that it’s correct to treat others right, but put into practice pretty well the idea of showing deference or respect or kindness.

But there’s one area of life where it seems that Christians—the people who believe in “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39)—seem to altogether forget the Golden Rule. And that’s politics.

I’m continually surprised at how many Christians take off the gloves and bare their fangs when it comes to discussing politics. In everything else it’s “be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love” (Romans 12:10), but once they start talking (or tweeting or Facebooking) about politics or politicians, it’s a different story.

Many devoted followers of Christ become mean, critical, hard and bitter when politics is the topic of conversation. Insults, name-calling, bitterness, invective…nothing seems to be out of bounds. It’s as though Jesus’ injunction to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) was never spoken. If you haven’t noticed what I’m talking about, keep and eye or an ear open, and you will.

Perhaps social media is part of this. People are emboldened to write things they might never say. Or maybe, when it comes to politics, the stakes are really pretty high—politicians make decisions that affect our financial well-being, our national security and our personal safety, so perhaps it’s natural that passions run high as well.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that Christians shouldn’t have opinions on politics or that they shouldn’t express them. I’m extremely grateful to God that I live in a country where free speech is a basic human right. I’ve witnessed what the absence of free speech does to the psyche of people. I don’t want to live in the midst of that.

I’m happy that there are Christians who care about their country, the economy, health care, and that some involve themselves in the political process in the hope of helping their fellow man or woman. God bless them.

But does it have to become hateful? An opinion is one thing. “I think X is a poor President/Senator/Congresswoman/Councillor…” It’s a person’s right to feel that way. But watch how so many people cross the line from opinion to attack and insult. Some of it is brutal, hateful and malicious. Wait—did I say “some”? I should have said “a lot.” Because it happens a lot.

Watch the Twitter posts of some Christians. Listen to them start discussing Republicans or Democrats. And ask yourself if it’s possible they’ve ever read Colossians 4:6: “Let your speech always be with grace.”

The real reason people become hateful when they discuss politics has to be a spiritual reason. Converted people may well make mistakes along the way, but they won’t be habitually nasty when talking about others—even politicians.

People whose lives are being led by the Holy Spirit know that in Matthew 12:34, Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” and they can’t escape the reality that one’s words betray or reveal one’s true character. (A sobering reality.)

“For by your words,” Jesus said, “you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:37) I don’t recall Jesus ever saying, “But when it comes to politics and politicians, feel free to let rip.”

There’s undoubtedly a way for Christians to engage in the political process and political discussions while manifesting the Spirit of Jesus. And for Christians to consistently do so—rather than consistently being mean or harsh—would be a powerful witness for Jesus and His Word.

A Time for Tolerance

The recent passing of Fred Phelps, the pastor of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church based in Topeka, Kansas, might have been a time of delight and rejoicing on the part of those who were the targets of his considerable venom. Remarkably—and, perhaps, instructively—it appears that it was not.

While undoubtedly there are those in certain communities who will have been at least relieved by the news of Phelps’ death, media reports revealed a considerable amount of restraint and a remarkable amount of kindness being demonstrated by those against whom Phelps railed.

Phelps’ church “demonstrated” against the homosexual community in unusually spiteful ways. Westboro Baptist representatives protesting at various events would hold signs reading, “God Hates You”, “God is Your Enemy” and “You’re Going to Hell”, among others. Phelps’ church protested at the funerals of slain American soldiers, and even picketed the funerals of Former Vice-President Al Gore’s father, and the mother of Former President Bill Clinton. The New York Times described Phelps as “a much-loathed figure at the fringe of the American religious scene.”

Yet following Fred Phelps’ death, one prominent homosexual leader was quoted by CNN.com as saying, “As a Christian, I also believe in showing love to my enemies and treating people with grace even when they don’t deserve it. I pray for [him] and his family just as I pray for those he harmed. It’s easy for me to love someone who treats me kindly. It’s hard for me to love Fred Phelps. To me, that’s the whole point of grace.”

Another mentioned that instead of celebrating the death of Phelps, he recognized that Fred Phelps had a family who loved him and would be sadly missed by many people. And that even though there were strong disagreements with Phelps on many levels, there would be no gloating or rejoicing over his death.

Some Christians can learn from this.

For various reasons, some Christians—who by definition must subscribe to Jesus’ teachings regarding manifesting love towards others—find it impossible to love homosexuals, or to demonstrate toward them even a modicum of tolerance or kindness. I suspect some of this has to do with the Internet age: it is easy to be hateful when you might be geographically removed from the object of your scorn, and the expression of your vitriol is conducted via a computer keyboard. But many Christians—and I recognize that ‘many’ certainly does not equal ‘all’—treat homosexuality with a special type of hatred, and homosexuals as the worst of sinners.

There is little wonder that many people are turned off by Christianity when they witness “Christians” treating others with hatred and scorn. One prominent British personality has stated publicly that he could never be a Christian because Christians are so brutally unkind to those with whom they disagree.

I’m certainly not advocating or excusing homosexuality. As I read the Bible I see homosexuality as being contrary to the will of God. But so is dishonesty. So is pride. So is lying. And so is being hateful. In expressing hate towards gays, many “Christians” are guilty of a sin towards which God cannot—and will not—turn a blind eye.

As hard as it may be, God calls Christians—commands Christians—to love everyone.  And until we do, we are no better than those we criticize and condemn.

The Littlest Fan

Just three years old. And she knows all their names!

I saw a cute story recently about a little girl with a remarkable talent. Just three years old, she can name every player—and his position—on her family’s favorite professional football team, the 2014 Superbowl-winning Seattle Seahawks.

The little girl is adorable, and it’s really quite stunning to see her reel off the names of not only the stars of the team, but also those of lesser-known players in less glamorous positions.

So how can a three year old possibly know the names of the players on a professional football team? That’s where we can learn something.

Her Deputy-Sheriff Dad—a devoted football fan—began a nightly ritual with her when she was (even) younger. At bedtime—just before Daddy would go off to work—he began teaching the little princess the names of the Seahawks’ players. And as nights passed he began to quiz her on the names of the players, and their positions. It was so much fun for them both that today there’s a three year old girl with a remarkably grown-up knowledge of the names of Seattle’s pro football players.

Clearly, the mind is a marvelous thing. And even the mind of a little girl barely able to clearly articulate is capable of storing large amounts of information. Knowing the names of football players on a family’s favorite team is probably little more than cute, but imagine taking that time to teach a child the names of Bible characters. Or, better yet, Bible verses or passages.

The Bible urges us to hide God’s word in our heart (Ps 119:11). God urges parents to teach His word “to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.” (Dt 11:19). And David said God’s law was his “meditation all the day.” (Ps 119:97).

The mind can absorb remarkable amounts of information—useless, and useful. If a three year old girl can learn the names of the players in a football team—and there are fifty three players in an NFL squad—imagine how much Bible knowledge can be absorbed by a child. Or by an adult!

What are you putting into your mind? It has been said that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. The best thing you can do for your mind is to fill it with God’s word. When you do, you’ll be blessed more than you can imagine.

Thankful!

It struck me as strange, really. This past Thanksgiving, the news was full of stories about heartless business owners who were opening on Thanksgiving—Thanksgiving!—and therefore forcing their staff to go to work—to work!—on part of Thanksgiving day. This, of course, prevented them from spending time at home with their families. Because that’s what everyone should do on Thanksgiving day, it was reasoned. They should spend time with their families.

And I thought that was strange.

Not the sentiment. That people should be able to be with their families is a lovely thought. But the outcry seemed altogether disproportionate to the actual event. Businesses were opening on part of Thanksgiving, a Thursday, so they could get a jump on the Black Friday shopping madness. And in some quarters, there were calls for legislation that would prevent businesses from opening on Thanksgiving, for the reason that Thanksgiving is sacrosanct, and nobody should be forced to work on Thanksgiving. Some media commentators felt Thanksgiving should be protected.

I understand. But I think some people were pushing it waaaay too far. And I have Biblical reasons for my concern, reasons rooted in Bible prophecy, and connected to the coming great trouble of Earth’s final days.

But first, from another perspective… People being forced to work on Thanksgiving? While it would undoubtedly be an inconvenience for some, I would imagine some people would be happy to get the extra work and therefore the extra income, right at the start of what for many is one of the costliest seasons of the year. And then there are those who don’t have family, or would be at a loose end at Thanksgiving. For some people Thanksgiving would be just another day, and some would be happy to be able to go to work.

One prominent news story involved a pizza restaurant manager who became a bit of a hero after he was fired for refusing to open on Thanksgiving. He felt his staff should be free to have the day off work. (He later got his job back.) Other businesses were lionized for their “not-open-on-Thanksgiving” stance. Oddly, one notable example actually did open on Thanksgiving a few years back, but quit the practice after they found it to be not-so-profitable. But now they don’t open on Thanksgiving and it’s all very noble of them.

I’ve worked on many of the important holidays. While working in the radio industry—where I spent my first career after college—I worked many a Christmas day and other “family” days. I recall one year when as a teenager I worked a Christmas day at a food processing plant. I had a holiday job at the plant, the food needed to be processed, and so there I was working on Christmas day, sorting peas and corn. A scandal? Hardly. A bummer? Yes it was, but a job is a job and sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.

I get it. I understand the ruffled feathers. This is *Thanksgiving* people are talking about. Many people love staying home to overeat and watch football on Thanksgiving. And many others spend precious time with family. Or both. But is the idea of some businesses opening on what was actually only a part of Thanksgiving so horrendous that it’s necessary to call for legislation? Here’s where I get concerned from a Biblical point of view.

It seems to me that if I own a business and I want to open it on Thanksgiving and there’s no law against it and I have staff who are willing to work, then I should be allowed to do so. It’s hardly an outrage if a person wants to do business in the capitalism capital of the world, surely. But some would legislate against that.

When we go to the Bible and we look in the book of Revelation, we see laws being passed that in this case have to do with worship. Revelation 13:16 says, “And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads.” The “he”, a “beast”, is a kingdom or nation (see that prophetic symbol explained in Daniel 7:17, 23). A nation “causes”—or forces, coerces—“all” to receive the mark of the beast. And how does a nation force people into certain behavior? By passing laws.

Laws will be passed enforcing a certain type or form of worship. Certainly many people will welcome this mark and find nothing in it to be objectionable. The mark of the beast will be offered to the world as the answer to problems, as a panacea for all that pains an ailing planet. “Here—this is good for you!” But what of those who disagree with the mark of the beast, who do not wish to accept it? What about those who from a Biblical perspective object to what it stands for? What about them?

Revelation 13:9, 10 says, “If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, the same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God.” It won’t be pretty for the dissenter, who in this case is actually the one who stands faithfully for Christ. And why will he or she find himself/herself in a bind? Because someone else decided for them that they should have this mark, that they’ll be better off with it, and that society would benefit from it.

Worship—how can that be bad, right? Except that when worship is enforced, and not from the heart, it is never right. And when it is enforced on people who reject it based on Scriptural grounds, it is not right, but very wrong.

Someone wants to open their business on Thanksgiving, and some in the media call for legislation to stop the practice. “We’ll prevent you from doing that, because it is in society’s best interests for you not to.”

An ominous attitude, in light of what prophecy says about the future. There are forces in the world that are more than willing to tell you how to live, how to act, and even how to worship, when in God’s eyes we are free moral agents in religious matters. God in His wisdom and kindness has given us freedom of choice, to exercise as we see fit under the guidance of His Spirit.

And for that, I’m thankful.

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A Popular Pope

It was a moving, gripping photo. Pope Francis tenderly embracing a man suffering from a disfiguring illness. The picture oozed compassion, and spoke much of the obvious compassion of the Pope himself. The world saw the photo and responded very positively. This Pope was different!

In stark contrast to his predecessor—and perhaps to many of his predecessors—Pope Francis has broken with papal convention. He has shunned certain expensive aspects of the papacy. He has at times stressed his security detail as he connects with people in the vast crowds of well-wishers. He has demonstrated himself to be a man of the people, and the revelation that he was once a nightclub bouncer reinforced the idea that this pope is ‘one of us.’ The pope he replaced, Pope Benedict XVI, was an older man who seemed far less accessible and immersed in weighty theology. In contrast, Pope Francis has gone so far as to ask who he is to condemn people for being homosexual. Not what one expects from a Pope! For hundreds of years popes condemned people—often to death—for much less! The New York Times reported that a columnist for Britain’s Guardian newspaper said, “Even atheists should be praying for Pope Francis.”

There has certainly been a global warming towards this man of the cloth, and towards the church he shepherds. He was declared Time magazine’s ‘Man of the Year’ for 2013. But I found the following journalistic offering to be truly enlightening.

Pope Francis recently said, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” One journalist commented on this remark by saying, “I think the new Pope is trying to get me back in the pew every Sunday.”

Think about this. Embracing an unfortunate homeless man; commenting on social issues; being a man of the people; shunning excess; showing yourself to be approachable and accessible… All of them laudable, commendable things. And they have understandably resulted already in heightened appreciation for the church of the pope.

But what do any of these things have to do with real faith in God? A certain amount, to be certain. Love, gentleness, goodness and meekness are fruit of the Spirit. Love and concern for others are Christian virtues, and few would suggest we see too much of it from religious leaders, or religious people in general.

But what do they reveal about the true nature of the papacy? The obvious answer is, very little. That Pope Francis is a really nice man with a kind heart says nothing at all about what the Roman Catholic Church actually stands for, actually believes. These actions tell the world nothing about the Catholic Church’s positions on the Word of God, and how it relates to Scripture. In short, even if Pope Francis were the nicest man alive, what’s really important is what he teaches from the Bible, how he represents the Word of God. If you want to judge the Roman Catholic Church, doing so based on the gracious demeanor of Pope Francis is an alarmingly shallow way to do it. A more accurate picture regarding the personality of this church can be gained by reading the church’s official Catechism.

If Pope Francis gets people back in the pew every Sunday by commenting on social issues, that would be a sad commentary on society. Shouldn’t church attendance have something to do with a church’s stand on the Bible? Based on what we’re witnessing with the rise of Pope Francis’ popularity, not everybody thinks so.

And that’s alarming.

What Does God Want for Christmas?

It’s Christmas time… And while you were busy buying gifts for others, did you stop to think about what God wanted for Christmas? The answer is found in Proverbs 23:26, where God says, “My son, give me your heart.” How much of your heart? Jesus said in Matthew 22:37 – quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.”

What keeps us from doing so? You could perhaps answer this in several ways depending on either your perspective or your theological bias, but it could be answered with one three-letter word. Sin. Sin keeps us from loving God as we should, and even perhaps as we want (see Romans 7:15,17).

The general attitude towards sin is fascinating. I was reminded of this during a recent tangle with ill-health. It occurred to me that when we fight illness or disease, there’s nothing we won’t do to beat the disease. People submit themselves to chemotherapy – which in some cases can be brutal – and to radiation, which in certain cases can also be very harsh. People will choose amputation in order to beat disease. In 2013, actress Angelina Jolie elected to undergo a preventive double mastectomy. She did not have breast cancer, but had an 87% chance of developing breast cancer due to possessing a certain defective gene. The decision may have saved her life. And it may not. But because there was a chance – statistically, a good chance – that the surgery could save her from a life-threatening disease, she opted to have her breasts removed. A major, absolutely momentous decision.

Some people battling disease will follow stringent diets, will choose strange natural remedies (not that all natural remedies are strange), they’ll fast, travel to the furthest corners of the Earth, spend vast sums of money… all in an attempt to beat disease.

Now think with me of this clear parallel. While people – rightly – put everything they have into the fight against all manner of terrible illnesses, how much energy is put into the fight against sin? Sin is the deadliest disease known to humanity. It won’t only cost you your life in this world, but it will cost you eternal life. Not even a stroke or tuberculosis or diabetes will do that. But where’s the energy, the fervor, in the fight against sin?

Where are the think tanks assembled, the great minds studying how sin is best beaten? Where are the institutes, the research centers? What resources are committed to this? (One could argue that the church is a resource committed to this fight, which would represent a big investment. Others argue it isn’t doing an especially effective job.) Where are the people traveling the world, investing their resources, searching the internet, doing everything they possibly can so that they defeat sin rather than being defeated by it?

Yes, such people exist. But for the most part, sin is taken extraordinarily lightly, even though there is no question it will overtake the vast majority of people in the world, and possibly even in the church. Is there an urgency about this deadly disease? You might remember when AIDS became big news. People were terrified by it. Basketballers refused to take the court with Magic Johnson for fear of contracting this (misunderstood at the time) disease. And the world swept into high gear in a fight against AIDS, which while not having found a cure has resulted in vastly improved treatments.

What would the world and the church be like – what would my heart be like – if we fought sin like we fight disease? Before Jesus returns He’ll have a people waiting for Him who have learned to hate sin, to shun sin, and to embrace Him fully and completely. Be that person this Christmas time, the person whose heart is totally yielded to Christ.

Sin cannot dwell where Christ dwells. If you will surrender to Him now, and allow Him to work “in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13), you’ll see the grace of God consume you and transform you by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2).

Thank God, we already have the answer for the battle with sin, or self, or however you’d like to describe the battle. Jesus is that answer. Give Him your heart – or allow Him to take it – and you’ll soon see that He is able to keep you from falling, and give you power and victory in the place of failure and defeat.

Give God your heart, and He will give you Jesus, grace, salvation, forgiveness.
Everlasting life.

“Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift!” (2 Cor 9:15).