Wednesday, August 31, 2022

The Irreplaceable Importance of Going to Church

(*Note: in lieu of a new set of poetry stanzas today, I'm posting another of the devotional columns I wrote for my hometown newspaper, this one coming just before Easter earlier this year)

It’s Easter this Sunday (*see note above)—the day when Christians celebrate the most momentous event in all of history, when Jesus Christ, who had borne the weight of the world’s sin in his death on the cross, rose triumphantly to life again. It’s also traditionally a day when many people who had not been regular churchgoers would make an attempt to come back to church. I’d like to encourage you to consider making just such a resolution, and not only for one day, but as a lasting habit. This isn’t just self-serving (though obviously, as a pastor, I want people to come to church!)—it turns out that there are very good reasons for going to church regularly, regardless of the level of your beliefs.

For those who might be skeptical about organized religion or have just gotten into a rut of doing life without church—maybe you grew up in church but drifted away, for instance—you should know that there’s significant research that shows that going to church is probably the absolute best change you can make to improve your life. In study after study, regular churchgoers are shown to be significantly happier in their relationships, report more satisfaction in their sex lives, have vastly lower rates of depression, suicide, and substance abuse, report a greater sense of meaningfulness, and enjoy participating in service and civic engagement more than any other segment of the population. Churchgoers were the only demographic group in America whose mental health did not show significant diminishment over the course of the pandemic. Recent studies from Duke University have even shown that on days when church services are cancelled (for bad weather, for instance), the social wellbeing metrics for the entire area go down at an alarming rate, including the metrics for non-churchgoers. It’s not quite clear what this data means, but it appears to show, in a surprisingly clear way, that church services are doing something that has a markedly positive effect on everyone in society.

Of course, improved wellbeing isn’t the whole story, but the data is clear enough that it should be eye-opening even to skeptics. The reason why the numbers hold true is that something very real is happening in church: people are being changed by the living presence of Jesus Christ. You can find the hope you seek. You can belong to a family centered upon the illimitable, unfathomable love of God. It’s open and available for all.

Further, there are good reasons for coming to church beyond just the good it will do you: most importantly, because the message we proclaim happens to be true. We live in an age where the tide of intellectual skepticism against faith is beginning to turn, even in the highest levels of academia. Recent discoveries in physics and cosmology (and increasingly in philosophy) point toward the existence of God and the conclusion that we live in a designed universe. (Two recent books are good starting-points for getting a grasp on this developing evidence: The Return of the God Hypothesis, by science philosopher Stephen Meyer, and Is Atheism Dead? by Eric Metaxas).

All that to say, even if you’re a skeptic, there are really good reasons for coming to church this Easter. If you’re a Christian who has fallen into a rut of not attending, the reasons for returning to church regularly are even more compelling. Christianity is not a system of faith that you were ever meant to practice on your own. You are part of the communal Body of Christ (that is, the church), and the Bible is clear that we absolutely need each other. You are a branch connected to the vine of Jesus himself, commanded to abide in him (John 15), but you simply can’t do that if you are unconnected to his Body. You’re choosing a life of self-impoverishment by not connecting to church. The Sunday worship service is a crucial avenue by which we grow in the grace of God. There is no replacement for it. So starting this Sunday, take up the challenge to see for yourself. Come and see. Come and be transformed.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Photo of the Week

In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun. It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

- Psalm 19:4-5

Monday, August 29, 2022

Quote of the Week

"The real calling is not to a certain place or career, but to everyday obedience. And that call is extended to every Christian, not a select few."

- Brother Andrew, founder of Open Doors

Thursday, August 25, 2022

A Prayer from Peter Marshall

In the name of Jesus Christ, who was never in a hurry, we pray, O God, that you will slow us down, for we know that we live too fast. With all of eternity before us, make us take time to live--time to get acquainted with you, time to enjoy your blessings, and time to know each other. Amen.

Apologetics: Noah's Flood - How History Points to Jesus

In our continuing series on the reliability of the Old Testament, we'll examine the texts in view of two sets of evidence. First, the way in which it can be confirmed by historical evidence, either textual or material; and second, the way in which it points to a fulfillment in Jesus, which gives evidence of the divine inspiration of scripture.

The Historicity of Noah's Flood

There's a fairly broad debate among Bible scholars about how to interpret the details of Noah's story, which (like all of Gen. 1-11) comes under discussions of cultural historiography, genre, and authorial intent. Essentially, the question here is whether it was written and understood as an exact history (in the manner we would write history today) or as a primeval epic (in which historical events are portrayed to make a larger point about the world and its meaning). In terms of the historicity of the text, then, the question is not whether Noah is a historical character (both possible genres assume that he is), but whether this was a truly global flood or a major flood of the known world at the time. The details of that debate are worth exploring, but our purpose here is to explore the common ground that points, in the cases of both genres, toward Gen. 6-9 conveying true historical memories.

- There is archaeological evidence in both the Mesopotamian region and in the Black Sea basin of a major ancient flood that effectively wiped out a primeval civilization. That is, the areas on both sides of the geographic area said to be the landing-spot of the ark show evidence of a civilization-ending flood.

- Legends and folktales from around the world have a common story about a major flood that wipes out humanity, except for one family (and often some animals). Well-known examples from the ancient world are the Atrahasis epic from Babylon and the myth of Deucalion from Greece. Tellingly, these legends come from every major area of human settlement, including far-flung areas (like South America and Australia) which would have had no contact with the ancient Middle Eastern tales for thousands of years. This suggests that all the legends stem from a common historical memory.

Noah's Flood as an Allegory of the Gospel

See the following previously published posts on this subject:

     - The Ark of God

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Photo of the Week

Unto the hills around do I lift up my longing eyes;
O whence for me shall my salvation come,
From whence arise?
From God the Lord doth come my certain aid,
From God the Lord who heaven and earth hath made.

- from a hymn by John Douglas Sutherland Campbell

Monday, August 22, 2022

Quote of the Week

"No one should aspire to gain a reputation for holiness. First of all we must actually become holy; then there would be some truth in having a reputation for it."

- Benedict of Nursia

Friday, August 19, 2022

A Prayer from Teresa of Avila

Govern everything by your wisdom, O Lord,
So that my soul may always be serving you
In the way you will and not as I choose.
Let me die to myself so that
I may serve you;
Let me live to you who are life itself. 

Thursday, August 18, 2022

When God Seems Absent

(The apologetics series that normally runs in this Thursday slot will return next week. For this week, I have a devotional article I wrote for my local newspaper.)

Have you ever been in a place in your life where you wish the Lord would answer your prayers quickly, be right there when you call, and rush to your aid? I’m sure we can all think of times like that. Perhaps it’s true of this season of our lives especially, as so much of our society has gone through turmoil and social upheaval during the past couple years. The difficult thing is this: God doesn’t always seem to answer as quickly as we would like, even when we’re in those places of great desperation. His presence can feel far off. Sometimes it doesn’t even seem like he's paying attention at all.

There’s a story like this in the Gospel of Mark. After performing a miracle of feeding a vast crowd of people with nothing more than the contents of a single lunch basket, Jesus has sent his disciples on ahead of him. The twelve disciples have put out on the Sea of Galilee in their boat, aiming to cross and make a landing on the other side by morning, while Jesus remains on shore. He wants to spend some time alone in prayer, so he goes up on the mountainside that overlooks the water and begins praying (Mark 6:45-47). The moon must have been shining brightly that night, because the story says that Jesus, from his vantage-point on the slope, could see his friends’ boat far out on the water. The wind had arisen, and they were having a difficult time, straining at the oars with all their might. Though some of them were fishermen and were used to such conditions, others had been landsmen their whole lives, for whom it would be a terrifying thing to manage an open boat out on the waves during a windy night, when there is no one else around. No doubt they wished their Master was with them in that moment, the one who could calm the sea, and, more importantly, who could calm the tumult of their souls in the midst of all their fears.

Jesus had every ability to go out and help them, as the story soon demonstrates. This is the story in which Jesus walks on the water, striding out over the waves to meet his disciples amid the fury of the wind-whipped sea. But Mark includes an interesting detail in his telling of the story: although Jesus had noticed the disciples’ difficulties much earlier in the night, it isn’t until the fourth watch of the night—that is, just before dawn—that he goes out to meet them on the waves (Mark 6:48). Why the delay? Why didn’t Jesus just go straight down to help them when he saw them struggling against the wind? One of the answers might be that he was already helping them—perhaps he was praying for them while up on the mountain. Though they couldn’t see him or feel his presence, that didn’t mean he was unaware of what they were going through or unconcerned about it. He was watching over them, and he had already planned to come and make his presence known when the time was right.

I think this is a useful reminder to hold onto. The truth is, there are times when we will feel like we’ve been left out on our own to face the wildness of life’s raging sea. But that doesn’t mean that God isn’t watching over us. It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care. It may be that God is already at work in our situation in ways that we cannot yet perceive. Scripture tells us that even now, Jesus is praying for us in the presence of God the Father (Rom. 8:34). So take heart. You are not alone, and God is watching over you. He may not intervene precisely at the time we would like or in the exact way we hope he will, but that doesn’t mean he has abandoned us. He is still the same God who can stride through the storm to save us, wherever we might be.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Photo of the Week


I will stand at my watch
and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what God will say to me.

- Habakkuk 2:1

Monday, August 15, 2022

Quote of the Week

"A true love to God must begin with a delight in his holiness, [...] for no other attribute is truly lovely without this."

- Jonathan Edwards

Friday, August 12, 2022

A Prayer from Gregory of Nyssa

Lord, from You flows true and continual kindness.
You had cast us off and justly so,
but in Your mercy You forgave us.
You were at odds with us,
and You reconciled us.
You had set a curse on us,
and You blessed us.
You had banished us from the garden,
and You called us back again.
You took away the fig leaves
that had been an unsuitable garment,
and You clothed us in a cloak of great value.
You flung wide the prison gates,
and You gave the condemned a pardon.
You sprinkled clean water on us,
and You washed away the dirt.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Let Your Eyes Be Opened

(The apologetics series that normally runs in this Thursday slot will return in two weeks' time. For this week and next, I have a couple devotional articles I wrote for my local newspaper.)

This summer I have the privilege of taking part in an archaeological expedition in Israel, unearthing a site that might be one of the towns that played witness to Jesus’ ministry nearly two thousand years ago. Specifically, the dig directors believe it to be the site of Bethsaida, mentioned several times in the Gospels as the hometown of Peter and Andrew (Jesus’ disciples), as well as one of their most frequent stops when ministering around Galilee. On one of those stops in Bethsaida, Jesus performed what is perhaps his strangest miracle of healing.

In the story (told in Mark 8:22-25), a blind man is brought to Jesus, and Jesus leads him away from the crowd, to a place where they can interact one-on-one. The Gospels are full of healing stories, so we know that Jesus can heal with simply a touch or a word. But here he does something weirder: he spits on the man’s eyes. The story gets stranger still, because it quickly becomes apparent that the man is only partially healed. When Jesus asks him what he can see, he reports a fuzzy, disordered image. So Jesus puts his hands on the man’s eyes, and this time his sight is fully restored. The two-step nature of the miracle is strange, since elsewhere in the Gospels it seems like Jesus’ healings are instantaneous and complete. But here, it appears to take Jesus two tries.

What’s going on in this story? Scholars have debated it for years, and there are many interesting interpretations. Despite all our study and speculation, though, we may never know for sure why Jesus did things the way he did. But we can observe some ways in which the pattern of this healing is similar to our own relationship with Jesus.

First, consider the fact that Jesus uses spit to heal the man. We sometimes have the false idea that when we come to faith in Christ, it’s going to be a super-spiritual experience, with our hearts and minds immediately exalted to heavenly realities. But the truth is, God works in our hearts far more often in dull, ordinary, everyday ways. He uses the simple things of life—like our families, the color of a sunset, the sound of the wind in the trees, or even the difficult seasons of our lives—to draw us closer to him. God doesn’t immediately transport us out of earthly realities; he makes use of them to help us know him more.

Second, consider the two-step pattern of the healing. This is actually very similar to the normal pattern of coming to faith in Christ. Against our expectations of an immediate, utterly transformational event, many new Christians find that they’re still the same people after getting saved, and that they haven’t been instantaneously transfigured into pictures of angelic radiance. The normal pattern is this: God saves us by making us spiritually alive in Christ, and then he teaches us how to live. Just as with the blind man in the story, Jesus restores our spiritual sight, and then helps us learn to see rightly. So don’t get too discouraged when you see the same old problems popping up in your life. Just bring them to Jesus. He’s the one who saved us, and he’s the one who is still at work, teaching us the way of holiness. He gave us back our spiritual sight when we were blind, but we still need his touch to learn how to use those powers of sight in the right way. Growing as a Christian is a journey, and it’s a journey with only one set of directions that you need to remember: when you don’t know which way to go, turn to Jesus.

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Photo of the Week

For you who revere my name,
The sun of righteousness will rise
With healing in its rays.

- Malachi 4:2 

Monday, August 08, 2022

Quote of the Week

“The power of prayer has subdued the strength of fire; it has bridled the rage of lions, hushed anarchy to rest, extinguished wars, burst the chains of death, expanded the gates of heaven, assuaged diseases, repelled frauds, rescued cities from destruction, stayed the sun in its course, and arrested the progress of the thunderbolt.”

- John Chrysostom, early church father

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

More photos from the archaeological dig


Sunrise over the Sea of Galilee, from Mount Arbel

Roman-era perfume juglet

The "before" picture--what my dig square looked like when we started working on it

The "after" picture--me and my team in my dig square, having excavated what was probably a monastic cell down to the Byzantine-era floor

Roman-era discus lamp

Sunset, looking back toward Mount Arbel