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Facing our mortality

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

As I get older, I become more concerned about health issues. I am, thankfully, in good health, but I know that the years are starting to take their toll. So I am confused, and often amused, by the sometimes conflicting advice offered by the professionals. For example, they once warned us that coffee was bad for our health. However, further research showed that, if used in moderation, it actually aided our health in many ways, including preventing cancer. The same kind of conflicting advice has been offered concerning chocolate and alcohol.

It’s all rather frustrating isn’t it? While some dietitians point out that the Japanese eat small quantities of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans, others point out that the French eat large quantities but suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans. While some dietitians point out that the Japanese drink small quantities of red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans, others point out that the Italians drink large quantities of red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans. Though the Germans drink copious amounts of beer and eat large amounts of fat (including sausages), we are told that they experience fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.

What then are we to believe? Presumably, that we can eat and drink whatever we like, and that it is speaking English that gives us heart attacks!

Of course, I am being facetious (although some of my friends who have tried to learn English might agree!). But seriously, I was surprised to read that every 68 seconds, another American citizen is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. And unless more effective treatment is found, in the next 35 years it will increase to a new case every 33 seconds as the percentage of older people in the population rises. In the U.S., Alzheimer’s disease already is the sixth leading cause of death. And it is a cruel disease. Not being able to recognize or interact with loved ones is not how we want to spend the last years of life.

Personally, I take comfort in knowing that there is more to a human creature than meets the eye, or enters the medical records. As Karl Barth once said, we are “an embodied soul and an en-souled body.” While we have physical limits in time and space, we also know that God has breathed something into humanity that transcends those physical limitations.

Old age may creep up on us, but it does not take God by surprise as we are reminded in Ecclesiastes 12:1-5 (The Message Bible):

In old age, your body no longer serves you so well.
Muscles slacken, grip weakens, joints stiffen.
The shades are pulled down on the world.
You can’t come and go at will. Things grind to a halt.
The hum of the household fades away.
You are wakened now by bird-song.
Hikes to the mountains are a thing of the past.
Even a stroll down the road has its terrors.
Your hair turns apple-blossom white,
Adorning a fragile and impotent matchstick body.
Yes, you’re well on your way to eternal rest,
While your friends make plans for your funeral.

I don’t want to be morbid, but it is important to face our mortality. Death is a transition, in which there is continuity and discontinuity. Death begins the transition from mortal to immortal, in which we become new creatures through a regeneration and re-arrangement of body and soul. This is the destiny of all humans, even though we can’t grasp it fully now. The apostle Paul speaks of our being given “spirit bodies” (1 Corinthians 15:42-45). We see something of this in Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances and at his ascension. But the time is coming when we will see and experience it firsthand.

As we age, or see a loved one fade away, it is easy to become preoccupied with the challenges of physical existence. Our body’s mortal mechanism may not work right, or even break down completely, as with Alzheimer’s. We may come to the point where we forget who we are. But we must not confuse who we are with how we appear in our mortal bodies and what we can or cannot communicate through them. God never forgets who we are! In his ascension, Jesus has glorified and taken up our humanity with him. And by the Holy Spirit, we will one day fully receive from him our glorified humanity. And then it will be seen who we really are – God’s own children sharing in his own Son’s glorious sonship (Romans 8:14-17; 1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2).

Many of us face the challenges of growing older. As we do, let’s be reminded of the encouraging words of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (The Message Bible):

Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

Dr. Gary Deddo

P.S. Please help me welcome Gary Deddo to full-time GCI employment as Special Assistant to the President. Gary has been working part-time for us over the last several months. You can read about Gary and his wife Cathy in the GCI Weekly Update post at https://update.gci.org/2012/01/gary-and-cathy-deddo/.

Also, I’m pleased to note that our online videos (including several with Gary) often receive positive feedback. For example, note the Kerry’s Loft post at http://kerrysloft.com/trinitarian-theology/. This blog is written by Kerry Magruder, a curator in the Oklahoma University library system.

Higgs boson: the God particle?

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

There was some exciting news last week. Scientists working at the leading edge of theoretical physics announced that they have discovered a subatomic particle that may be the elusive Higgs boson, often called the “god particle” in the popular press.

Scientists don’t like that name, as it implies that the discovery will answer some deep theological questions. It won’t, but it will help explain some important gaps in our scientific understanding. I find this fascinating, even though it can be hard to understand. The more we learn about the nature of the cosmos the stranger it seems to be. The physicist Freeman Dyson once said that the cosmos is not just stranger than we understand – it is stranger than we can understand.

However, the breakthroughs announced last week do seem to be opening up new levels of understanding. Scientists are naturally exuberant and the media is always hungry for sensational headlines. But if you read past the hype, it is clear that we have discovered something significant, even if we are not quite sure what it means. For example, Professor John Womersley, chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, told reporters at a briefing in London:

They have discovered a particle consistent with the Higgs boson. Scientists say it is a 5 sigma result, which means they are 99.999% sure they have found a new particle, yet they don’t know for sure what this all means.

For most of us, 99.999% is good enough, but until there is 100% certainty a careful scientist will remain cautious. Sadly, that does not stop others from feeding the atheistic agenda by suggesting that these advances in understanding are steadily chipping away at the need to believe in a Creator God. For example, Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University wrote,

Far from suggesting any higher power, the discovery at CERN takes particle physics one step further toward answering the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” [It does this] by demonstrating the plausibility of the idea that everything we see could arise naturally from an initial state of no particles, and maybe no space, and maybe even no fixed laws — without supernatural shenanigans (cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com).

According to Krauss, the Higgs research “explains why we are here.” Sorry, but it does nothing of the kind. It is quite possible that this discovery will even deepen the mystery of the nature of the universe. This discovery, even if confirmed with 100% certainty, will certainly not be the end of physics research. For example, it probably won’t explain something as fundamental as gravity.

Physicist Lisa Randall is one of the clearer and more objective writers in this field today. She wrote,

We are poised on the edge of discovery. The biggest and most exciting experiments in particle physics and cosmology are under way and many of the world’s most talented physicists and astronomers are focused on their implications. What scientists find within the next decade could provide clues that will ultimately change our view of the fundamental makeup of matter or even of space itself—and just might provide a more comprehensive picture of the nature of reality (Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World).

As has so often happened in the history of science, what may at first seem to be a conclusive experiment opens up new fields of experiment and discovery. Paul reminds us how the physical creation can show us something of God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature (Romans 1:20). Something – but not everything. That was a mistake Job made. He thought he had God all figured out, until God brought him down to earth and exposed his ignorance. “Have you ever gotten to the true bottom of things?” he challenged him. “Do you have any idea how large this earth is? Do you know where Light comes from and where Darkness lives? Have you ever traveled to where snow is made, seen the vault where hail is stockpiled?” (Job 38:18-23 Message Bible).

Our understanding has advanced since then, and we might be tempted to sneer at Job’s ignorance. We do know now how large the earth is, and why we experience light and darkness. And the science of meteorology has long banished any mysteries about why it snows and hails. But the more we learn the more we find there is to learn. What the physicists are doing is fantastic, and good luck to them (providing they don’t make a “Higgs boson bomb”). But it is arrogant and foolish to suggest we have reached the end of the road of discovery and now have no need to believe in a Creator God. While this current experiment may help provide the answer as to why things in the universe have mass (weight, size and shape), it won’t answer the questions why things like the Higgs field and the Higgs boson particle exist in the first place and where they came from.

Thankfully, we don’t need a supercollider to understand the most important things we need to know about God – his unconditional love for us, and his determination to give us salvation and life with him for eternity. He showed us that in the most striking way – not with an obscure particle that needs trillion-dollar experiments to unwrap. He did it himself, coming to us in the simplest and most easily comprehensible way – as one of us, in person, face-to-face.

When, in Jesus, God the Son became human, his teachings “super collided” with the way we have chosen to live and those images or ideas of God that we have constructed for ourselves. Although at first rejected through his birth, life, death and resurrection, Jesus triumphed over all opposition, including death and evil itself, opening the way for us to understand who God is, who we are and why we are here.

With love in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

Celebrating freedom

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

This week, Americans celebrate their national holiday, the 4th of July. On that day in 1776, a group of courageous men put their lives on the line by declaring independence from the British Empire. The Founding Fathers of the United States were men of remarkable vision, but even they could not have realized they were laying the foundation for what has become the most powerful, richest and arguably the most influential nation the world has ever seen. The United States is by any standards blessed. Never before have so many people experienced such a high standard of living and enjoyed so much freedom. I do not say that to boast. I am simply stating a fact.

The preamble to the Constitution of the United States says this: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Two and a half centuries later we still need to make progress towards that “more perfect union.” But let’s not join the doomsayers who seem to delight in pointing out anything and everything that is wrong about America, and then prophesy that we are about to be punished by an angry God, “in a few short years.” This is an unhealthy mindset based on a distorted understanding of the gospel. It also has the effect of undermining incentive to do what we can to make things better. What is the point if the nation is doomed?

Aren’t you thankful that our denomination has repudiated that approach? It does not mean we have to go to the other extreme and become Pollyannaish. We need not be blind to our nation’s faults. But as one of America’s greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln once said, “He has the right to criticize who has the heart to help.”

There is much to celebrate; much to be thankful for. (For one thing, Americans pay less for gas, and have among the lowest personal taxes of any other developed nation!) Let’s be grateful for the freedoms we have, and mindful of the price paid, in the past and today, to secure them. Although many of the Founding Fathers were not traditional Christians, they were God-fearing men, with a passionate belief in freedom. They did not get it all exactly right, but they set a course that has allowed America to develop as a nation with a deep commitment to liberty and justice. The gospel took root, and has continued to work its way through our culture – like yeast in the dough that does its work over time, sometimes unseen; often unappreciated. It is the yeast of freedom in Christ that led some to rise up against tyranny. Later others rose up against the terrible bondage of slavery. Today others rise up against sex trafficking, drugs, inner city poverty and other evils that still afflict us.

Those who are so addicted to preaching the Gospel of Gloom often quote the apostle Paul to reinforce their arguments. However, I wonder if Paul came back today, he might be pleasantly surprised. Not only at the astonishing technical progress – I have sometimes travelled farther in one day than he did in his lifetime. He would also see a society where widows and orphans have some support, slavery has been abolished, and women have rights and hold some of the most important positions in the government. These things would have been unimaginable when he wrote his epistles. Although such things are not the main thrust of the gospel, they are by-products of the Christian way of life. Perhaps Paul might actually be encouraged by the progress, although, of course, there is still a long way to go.

I am encouraged to see how many of our congregations are actively involved in community outreach programs and activities. They do this not just as a way “to get more people,” but because it is the right thing to do. Other congregations are generously supporting our summer camps and helping plant new churches both in this country and around the world. As the church of Jesus Christ who is Lord of all, we believe in the common good. So we can speak a word of hope to our government and to all society even while proclaiming that we live in a fallen world that needs the transforming grace of God.

Let us focus this 4th of July on our blessings, including the opportunities we have to serve God in a nation that at least tries to be “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

With love in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

P.S. NAE president Leith Anderson said it well: “Our generation is facing a long process of moral conflict, judicial disagreement and political haggling.” We see this with regard to several issues, including national debt, international trade and various social issues. One particularly controversial social issue is same-sex marriage. I am often asked what GCI teaches about this and related topics. I encourage people to read our statement at www.gci.org/aboutus/FAQ#homosexuality and two papers published by others:

  1. NAE’s position paper at www.nae.net/resources/news/714-open-letter-on-marriage-and-religious-freedom.
  2. Why We’re Gendered Beings…Theological Reflections on Sexual Identity, a paper by Gary Deddo posted at www.trinitystudycenter.com/topical/gender.php.

In some countries and in some states in the U.S., same-sex marriage has been legalized. GCI elders sometimes face this issue and they should know that GCI does not require them to perform any marriage when their conscience would prohibit them. However, in a few countries the laws do not give elders such freedom. Questions about specific situations can be addressed to the appropriate pastoral supervisor.

Christianity: Only for dummies?

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

When Tammy is not with me, I never know who might sit next to me on an airplane. I’ve sat next to lawyers, business owners, mystics, soldiers, pilots and just about every other profession. It has made for some interesting conversations. The cartoons below, used with permission, are a humorous reminder.

On a flight to Dallas last week, my seatmate was James – a nice fellow in his late twenties. James was somewhat full of his intellectual capacity and thought the world was full of stupid people. Christians, he explained, were exceptionally stupid, because they seemed to be oblivious to the discoveries of science. In his estimation, they were like people who believed the earth was flat. James was obviously proud to consider himself an atheist.

I enjoyed the look on his face when I told him that I was one of those so-called ignorant Christians. I mentioned that he might not have heard of surveys showing that 40% of scientists are agnostics and 40% are Christian. I told him that I knew personally several believing scientists who work on the cutting edge of scientific discovery. I reminded him that Francis Collins, who was the director of the Human Genome Project, is a devout Christian. James seemed interested to hear more.

I told him that I am amused by TV characters like Dr. Sheldon Cooper and his “Bible belt” mother in the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory; and by Alice, the assistant to the vicar in the British sitcom Vicar of Dibley. I also admitted to him that some Christians would benefit from more education. But I told him that I’m annoyed that it is now acceptable to portray Christians as simpletons. These TV characters are definitely not typical of most Christians.

I explained to James that many of the concepts we grow up believing are myths. For example, there is the commonly held idea that even educated people in historic times believed that the earth was flat. However, the historical record does not support this idea. As noted by Jeffrey Russell (professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara) in Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, the flat-earth theory is a fable used to denigrate pre-modern European civilizations.

The historic fact is that as far back as 330 BC, Aristotle pointed out that the shadow of the earth on the moon is always circular. In 240 BC, Eratosthenes calculated the earth’s spherical circumference. The Venerable Bede, who lived over 700 years before Columbus, explained the varying duration of daylight in terms of the roundness of earth, reasoning from the Bible that spoke of the “circle of the earth” (Isaiah 40:22).

Some of the most notable scientists through history were Christians. In the sixth century, philosopher and theologian John Philoponus anticipated the modern physics of light and atomic structure based on the doctrines of the Trinity and creation. Galileo was reading Philoponus as he calculated the movement of the stars, laying a foundation for our modern understanding of the cosmos.

Unaware of all this, James was intrigued. I hope I left him less sure that Christianity is only for dummies. I’d like to think I helped him shift in his thinking from being an atheist to an agnostic.

Of course, many assume that atheism and agnosticism are synonymous. They are not. There is a significant difference in the two. It is fashionable today to say you are an atheist. Writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins have made names for themselves by ridiculing religion in general and Christianity in particular. They have suggested that if Christians cannot convincingly demolish the atheist argument and prove God exists, the only sensible default position for an educated person is atheism. But hold on a minute. Atheists claim that God does not exist, so it is up to them to prove their point. They can’t, of course – philosophically you cannot prove a negative. When cornered, most atheists have to admit to really being agnostic. Agnostics say they do not know whether God exists. This is a reasonable position for people who have insufficient evidence (and/or interest!) to make a decision.

Do you see the arrogance of those atheists who say they have won the argument because those who believe in God have not proved their point? It is true that you cannot “prove” God exists to someone who is not willing to show some faith. Lending an initial mustard seed’s worth of trust is an essential ingredient. As Thomas Aquinas said, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” I realize the atheist will say that to “have faith” is a weak argument. But it is not. We “have faith” in all kinds of things we cannot fully understand or control. So what is “weak” about basing a decision on evidence that is accepted on faith? We may not be able to make a 100% knockdown scientific proof that God exists. However, there is plenty of evidence to say that to believe in a Creator God is not preposterous nonsense.

God, of course, is not interested in our faith being the result of a successful experiment. What he wants is a relationship with us. That is why the ultimate proof of God’s existence must be in and through Jesus – for he himself is the place were God and humanity perfectly meet face to face. He is the place where we can enter into personal relationship with God. We meet and relate to God where he meets and personally relates to us. But entering into that relationship, like all personal relationships, calls for some initial trust or faith. No faith, then no knowledge, no relationship.

Of course, explaining all this to James would have been overkill. But, since he was proud of his analytical ability, I wanted to challenge him to think his position all the way through. Just because Christians have not proven their point to his satisfaction, it does not mean that the atheists have won. Atheists must present their position with the same strength of proof that they expect of believers. Until they do, we could only accept their premise by a sheer act of will. But such an assumption, lacking an object of trust, does not even deserve the label, faith.

Like most “atheists,” James was really an agnostic. Agnosticism is a valid intellectual parking lot. However, a parking lot is not a destination. I hope I helped him on his way.

Your brother in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

P.S. Please join me in praising God – we have learned that Grace Communion Seminary has received accreditation! It has been a long and sometimes arduous journey to this important milestone. My sincere thanks to Drs. Russell Duke and Michael Morrison, and all those who have worked so hard and skillfully with them to bring this about. Read the details in the article linked at left.

Politics and the pulpit

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The candidate to oppose President Obama this fall has been chosen and election fever is mounting. I have my own strong opinions about who I want to see occupy the Oval Office for the next four years. I am sure most of you have also. In fact, I am sure most of you reading this, wherever you are in the world, will watch the November U.S. election with keen interest.

The President of the United States is the de facto leader of the free world, and his decisions and policies affect people far beyond U.S. borders. Personally, I believe that any Christian who lives under a system that allows the opportunity to elect their leaders has a duty of stewardship that should not be neglected. We need to use our votes responsibly and, come November, I intend to. However, please notice that I have not mentioned any candidates or parties. Let me explain the point of my letter to you this week.

Every couple of years, we need to be reminded not to use the pulpit for political purposes. Since the run up to the election looks as if it will be more controversial than ever before, we need to be aware of our responsibilities as pastors and ministers. While I encourage the practice of excellence in citizenship and the exercise of our privilege to vote for those who live in free countries, I also need to remind you not to make your church part of the political arena. As C. S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”

Christians, including ministers, are not barred from political involvement. We have actually had elders who have held some high positions in government. But the pulpit is not the place to advance a political agenda.

Writing to the Christians of ancient Rome, Paul reminded them, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13:1). Paul was writing to people who lived under a highly authoritarian government, in which the ordinary person did not have much say. In a democracy, all citizens do have a small amount of authority each time they vote, and it is not a sin for people to use that authority. They are not rebelling against the government even if they are voting against the status quo. On the contrary, they are supporting the government by participating in it. So, don’t misunderstand. Whereas we should not politicize the pulpit, we can use our influence to remind our people of their responsibility as citizens. Remind them to vote, but on no account offer any suggestions about whom they should vote for.

This is especially important for those of us who live in the United States. Since 1954, the Internal Revenue Service has had regulations that prohibit churches from explicitly saying that they support or oppose any candidates by name, although they are allowed to take positions on moral issues.

Over the years, some churches have paid the penalty for violating these IRS regulations. For example, when Jerry Falwell ran afoul of the regulations, his church lost their tax-exempt status for two years.

Some may resent these regulations, but I think, overall, that it is good that they are there. As pastors, we do have considerable credibility and we therefore must be careful to keep a political election in perspective. While we may personally prefer one party or candidate over another, the truth is, none of the political parties or candidates will solve all the national, state or local problems, however persuasive they sound.

In any election, our responsibility is to become as knowledgeable about the issues and candidates as we can and then vote as wisely and faithfully as we can. And when it’s over, regardless of who wins, we should pray that the winners will promote peace, justice and the freedom to worship as we see fit. The church need not and cannot align itself with a party or platform. It has one absolute and fixed loyalty that goes far beyond what any government could hope to offer. We cannot “put our trust in princes” nor in the promises of political parties. What the church has to offer its members are theologically grounded moral guidance and spiritual wisdom to sort out priorities. We can offer our members reminders of the character of God and his purposes which together provide a foundation for individuals to make their political judgments and cast their votes. And having a secure foundation is far more important than even the vote for a particular party platform or a particular candidate in the ever-changing and shifting political landscape of our time. That foundation sheds light not only on politics but on family, vocation, education and finances – indeed, on all of life.

As the election approaches, remind your members of these things. But be careful not to cross the line by even hinting from the pulpit who is the “right” person to vote for. Regardless of how we vote and regardless of the job the winner does, our ultimate trust is in our Savior, who in the end makes all things right.

With love in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

P.S. Please join me in congratulating Randal Dick, my good friend and long-time GCI elder. Randal received his Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary last week. See the details in the article linked at left.

Thoughts about Father

Dear children of our heavenly Father,

Next Sunday (June 17) is Father’s Day in the U.S. and elsewhere. This holiday celebrates one of the most influential roles any man can have – that of father.

What comes to mind when you hear the word father? Perhaps you think of your human father with positive thoughts like strength, leadership, security, friendship and love. However, for some the word father brings negative thoughts because their human fathers did not live up to the high calling and responsibilities of fatherhood. They may have to learn later in life what it is like to have a loving father as they come to know the first person of the Trinity, revealed to us by Jesus as the Father.

Used with permission.

Most languages have diminutive (baby talk) words to speak affectionately of fathers. In English we have dad, daddy and papa. Sometimes it is said that Jesus used a baby talk word in speaking of God as abba. Though in modern times this Aramaic word is used in the diminutive sense, it was simply another word for father in Jesus’ day. Each of the three occurrences of αββα in the New Testament is followed by the Greek equivalent πατερ, which simply means father. There were diminutive words for father (such as pappas) that Jesus could have used, but did not.

Nevertheless, it is significant that Jesus called God father and abba. Though God is referred to as father 14 times in the Old Testament, when Jesus addressed God as his own Father, he was accused of blasphemy. On one occasion, when Jesus was accused of Sabbath-breaking because of healing people on Saturday, he replied, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too, am working” (John 5:17). The Jewish leaders missed the point of the miraculous healing and who those miracles identified him to be. They only heard more blasphemy. They were even more outraged when Jesus taught his followers to pray to God as their Father in Matthew 6:9. Just who did this Jesus think he was?

Indeed, if Jesus was not who he said he was, he would have been guilty of blasphemy. But Jesus knew who he was, and he knew exactly what he was doing. “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). Jesus makes known to us his absolutely unique relationship with the Father, one of mutual knowing as Son of the Father. He also reveals that he can let us into that relationship of personal knowing by sharing with us his inner knowledge as the unique Son of God the Father.

When one of his disciples asked him in John 14:8, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us,” he responded by telling them that he was the representation of the Father; whoever had seen him had seen in him the Father (verses 9-14).

Jesus gives us amazing insight into his relationship with his heavenly Father especially as we listen to his prayer found in John 17. From all eternity they have shared love, glory and a oneness. But more than this, we discover that the Son intends to share with us all that the Father has shared with him! So in John 15 Jesus says: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (vv. 13-15).

Jesus revealed the astounding truth that God is not a remote taskmaster or slave driver demanding respect and obedience (or else!). Nothing could be further from the truth! Jesus revealed God as the Father who thinks of us as his children. Jesus has included us in his relationship with the Father – a relationship of love and acceptance that God intends we enjoy forever. Indeed, the Father has a place in his kingdom for each of us and it is his “good pleasure” to give it to us (Luke 12:32). That place is our sharing in Jesus’ own sonship with the Father (John 17: 24).

Happy Father’s Day to all who are fathers. Let’s do our best to live up and into all that this title means.

With love in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

P.S. We just completed our annual audit for 2011. It was performed by CapinCrouse LLP, Certified Public Accountants. They specialize in audits for churches and non-profit organizations. Once again, we received an unqualified opinion that our records and practices are free of material misstatement and deficiencies, with no deficiencies in internal controls, and in conformity with accepted accounting practices. My thanks to Mat Morgan and Robert Meade who were both complimented by this outside audit firm.

Understanding prophecy

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

A journalist heard about an old Jewish man who had been going to pray twice a day at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, for a long, long time. Sensing a good story, she went to the wall and there found the old man walking slowly up to the holy site. She watched as he prayed. Then after about 45 minutes, as he turned to leave using a cane and moving slowly, she approached him for an interview.

“Pardon me, sir, I’m from CNN. What’s your name?

“Morris Feinberg,” he replied.

“Sir, how long have you been coming to the Wailing Wall to pray?”

“About 60 years.”

“That’s amazing! What do you pray for?”

“I pray for peace between Christians, Jews and Muslims. I pray for all the wars and hatred to stop. I pray that all our children may grow up safely as responsible adults who love their fellow man. I pray that politicians tell us the truth and put the interests of the people ahead of their own interests.”

“How do you feel after doing this for 60 years?”

“Like I’m talking to a brick wall!”

How sad. Yet, I’m sure we can relate. Sometimes prayer seems like talking to a brick wall – especially when praying about the Middle East. For the last two years, that region of the world has been in turmoil, in what has been called the “Arab Spring.” The struggle for democracy in one after another Arab nation has added more uncertainty in an already volatile region. How it will all play out is anybody’s guess.

However, it is not anybody’s prophecy. Whenever events start heating up in Israel and the nations that surround it, prophecy buffs and pundits start quivering. “Is this it?” they wonder. “It” being the series of events that some believe will lead directly to the return of Jesus Christ. Well, let’s hope they are right. But don’t get your hopes up too high. They have never been right before. But it is not for want of trying.

For the last 2,000 years, self-appointed prophets have been appropriating world events to trumpet their personal interpretations of prophecy. It is a dismal record of pride, false expectations and shattered dreams. You’d think they would have learned from history to be cautious. And you’d think the rest of us would have learned to ignore them.

Yes, some argue: “But this time they may be right!” Possibly, but maybe not. Maybe things will, once again, settle down to the uneasy tension that passes for “peace” in this troubled region. Or maybe events will escalate into another major war, with Christ still not returning just then.

However, even with our caution we need to be careful. Note the warning in 2 Peter 3:3-4: “You must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.'”

While we can be skeptical of any particular prediction about Jesus’ return, we cannot allow hope of his promised return to be squashed. Followers of Jesus do indeed live in hope—in the wisdom and timing of God—even if not in human predictions.

That is why, even though it is tempting to poke fun at the dismal track record of the prophets of doom and their frantic efforts to recalibrate their end-time scenarios, I try not to scoff. Many prophecies do make specific references to events that seem to align with biblical teaching related to Jesus’ return. At least, that is one way of looking at them. But it is not the only way. One thing is certain: no one can know for sure until God is ready to make his intervention plain and clear.

2 Peter was written to help us keep our balance, not to send us careening off-center with speculation and irresponsible knee-jerk reactions whenever hostilities flare up in the Middle East. If there is one thing that trying to figure out “where we are in prophecy” should have taught us, it is that we don’t—and can’t—know.

What we do know is that the entirety of the Old Testament points to Jesus (John 5:39). Jesus himself explained this to the Pharisees so they could recognize God’s faithfulness to his word demonstrated in his first coming. While they seemed to miss the point, there’s no need for us to follow suit. Jesus’ appearance two thousand years ago confirms that what God promises he fulfills. Therefore, we are not fools to have hope.

It may be, as some biblical scholars have thought, that Jesus completely fulfilled all the promises made in the Old Testament. But one way or another, hope is not built on predictability. We are called and permitted to hope in the promise of Christ’s second coming in much the same way ancient Israel was given hope for his first coming. We can be ready and anticipate the sure fulfillment of God’s word, not because we can predict when and how, but because all of God’s promises will be fulfilled in Christ, one way or another. We can count on the same Lord Jesus who fulfilled Israel’s hope at his first coming to fulfill all our hopes upon his promised return. Jesus himself is our ultimate hope.

Even the most “timely” prophecy does not cancel out the timeless teaching of the Bible. Just before the warning about scoffing, 2 Peter 3:2 exhorts us to “recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles.” Those messages reminded God’s people that Jesus would return unexpectedly, taking everyone by surprise. For those who are unprepared, that return will seem like a catastrophe. Indeed, there will be “winners and losers.” But the winners will not be those who have been able to sort out the “coded messages” of prophecy. Rather, the winners will be those who by patient, consistent and diligent discipleship have become those who truly seek the life of the kingdom of God and its righteousness and live in hope of it.

In some ways, I hope that the “end time” panic merchants are right this time. I’d like to see the end of the suffering and repeated cycles of war and destruction. I love Isaiah’s vision where he saw Jerusalem not as an epicenter of contention and strife, but a source of peace and happiness (Isaiah 2:2-4). I’m not sure exactly what it means, or when it will happen. But whatever and whenever it is, it is something to look forward to.

In the meantime, we’d do well, as the psalmist said, to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6). Because, whether this is “it” or not, people are being killed and maimed and lives and property are being wrecked while yet another generation is growing up knowing only a seemingly endless, bitter cycle of misery. We know that only Jesus, who has already broken into history and inaugurated the rule of his kingdom can and will bring his reconciling and saving work to its consummation.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Joseph Tkach

Memorial Day reflections

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Last Monday the United States celebrated Memorial Day. Formerly known as Decoration Day, this holiday originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the fallen soldiers of the Union Army. Since then, Memorial Day has been expanded to honor all who have served in the U.S. military to preserve our freedom and way of life. Many countries have similar celebrations. They are sobering reminders that human history has been a long and continuing story of war and conflict.

Though many view Memorial Day as no more than an unofficial celebration of the beginning of summer, veterans take it seriously. They form up on parade once more and remember their fallen comrades in commemorative services and ceremonies. Memorial Day is a poignant reminder of a time in their lives when they were called on to serve in an extraordinary way.

Many of these veterans are elderly men and women now. The uniforms are faded and the marching no longer has the crisp precision of former times. But they hold their heads high and wear their rows of medals with pride. Others are younger, but their experiences have made them old before their time. And there are those in wheelchairs, or who hobble along on crutches – their bodies, and perhaps their minds, still showing the scars of war.

Veterans have told me that war is a bittersweet experience. There are many moments of trauma, fear and uncertainty. But the experience of combat also forges some strong relationships that last long after the fighting stops. War has a way of bringing out the best and the worst in us.

Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz

There is a greater irony in this. The wars that cause people to band together in new relationships are a result of the breakdown of relationships. Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz who died in November 1831 was a Prussian soldier and German military theorist who made a deep study of the moral, psychological and political aspects of war. He wrote a careful, systematic, philosophical examination of war in all its aspects. The result was his principal work entitled On War, which was not completely finished by the time of his death.

Clausewitz is often remembered for his shrewd observation that “War is…the continuation of politics by other means.” To put it another way, war is the tragic outcome of the breakdown of relationships.

The first chapters of Genesis tell us how, at the beginning of human history, the relationship between God and humanity was fractured. That broken relationship spawned even more broken relationships between humankind. It does not take much for nations and tribes to find an excuse to start a war. In 1969, two Central American nations actually went to war over the result of a soccer match. And in the 18th century, Britain and Spain fought each other because a Spanish sea captain cut off the ear of his British counterpart. The epistle of James tells us where this madness originates:

Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it. You wouldn’t think of just asking God for it, would you? And why not? Because you know you’d be asking for what you have no right to. You’re spoiled children, each wanting your own way (James 4:1-3 The Message Bible).

The grim history of war demonstrates that humanity cannot reconcile disputes without resorting to the “continuation of politics by other means.” How then, can reconciliation be accomplished?

It required God’s own intervention to bring about reconciliation, and that is exactly what he did in sending Jesus. Jesus came among us as the ultimate freedom fighter of all space and time. Jesus gets at the root causes of sin and death. He conquers all evil that destroys life and establishes justice, making everything right. He brings permanent solutions of sustained forgiveness, eternal reconciliation and healed relationships.

This is something to remember when we honor the men and women who have given so much in the cause of freedom. We can appreciate their heroism and sacrifice that war has demanded of them. But as we honor them, those who have fully experienced its horrors do not ask us to glorify war. They, of all people, appreciate Isaiah’s prophecy of a world at peace:

He will judge between the nations, and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore (Isaiah 2:4).

Though the fullness of this vision unfolds at Jesus’ return, in knowing Jesus and having him live in us, we experience that world now. As followers of Jesus, we share in our Lord’s ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18), and that, to paraphrase von Clausewitz, is the resolution of conflict by other means.

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

Theology in perspective

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In the Peanuts cartoon strip below, Lucy is like so many people today who are stressed out about what they see happening in the world. Linus reassures her with some sound, Bible-based theology.

Sound theology is important, for unsound theology distorts our understanding of God and our relationship with him. However, it’s important to note that we are not saved by theology. And so we need to keep it in perspective.

PEANUTS © 1965 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. Used by permission of Universal Uclick. All rights reserved.

Christianity has never been theologically or doctrinally perfect. We often hear preachers urging people to “get back to the faith once delivered.” By this, they usually mean the early apostolic church, which they assume had a complete and uncorrupted understanding of the faith. However, those apostolic churches were not perfect. They too had to grow in their understanding of what was “sound doctrine.”

In fact, much of the New Testament is polemic – meaning that it was written to correct various wrong ideas. In Corinth, for example, some Christians were tolerating incest, suing one another in court, offending each other by their understanding of what they were permitted to eat and becoming drunk at the Lord’s Supper. Some thought they should be celibate even if married and others thought they should divorce their non-Christian spouses. Paul had to correct these ideas, and history tells us that he had only limited success. But the people were Christian despite their lack of complete doctrinal understanding.

There are many examples of the disciples failing to understand Jesus, even when he was with them. For example, after Jesus miraculously fed thousands of people, he and the disciples got into a boat and Jesus warned them, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod” (Mark 8:14). The disciples concluded that Jesus meant that, since they hadn’t brought any bread they would have to buy some on the other shore; moreover, they shouldn’t buy any bread from a Pharisee or Herodian because something was incorrect about the yeast they used.

Why didn’t they just ask Jesus what he meant? Perhaps because they were afraid of looking foolish (that happens today, too!). Jesus chided them for not understanding something that they should have been able to grasp. The disciples didn’t need to worry about bread or yeast. Jesus had just shown that he could make bread miraculously. They could remember facts (verses 19-20), but they didn’t always draw right conclusions from those facts. The miracle of the loaves was not just a way to save money — it also had a much deeper meaning that the disciples had failed to understand (Mark 6:52). It figuratively symbolized the fact that Jesus is our source of life.

I am encouraged to know that Jesus’ own disciples frequently didn’t fully comprehend what he was doing. Nevertheless, Jesus still co-ministered with them, as he does with us. It demonstrates that any “success” we have is the result of God’s guidance, not our human ability to figure things out exactly.

Those first disciples were thrown into confusion by Jesus’ death even though he explained it to them more than once. But, like us, they could only absorb so much at a time. If you follow the flow of the conversation at the Last Supper, you can see by their questions and frequent attempts to change the subject that the disciples did not understand what was going on. So Jesus told them, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13).

After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples and instructed them for 40 days, after which he ascended to heaven. While with them, he said, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5).

Jesus’ words were fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. And as we read in Acts 2:4, the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and through his guidance, what had been isolated facts and an unsound theology came together in a new and exciting way. The apostle Peter preached his first public sermon, urging his audience to repent, to believe in Jesus Christ as their Messiah and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (verse 38). On that day, some 3,000 people were baptized and became the people of God (verse 41). The church had been born.

From that day on, the Holy Spirit has continued to guide the church into “all the truth,” helping her to “prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:9). The New Testament writers, led by the Holy Spirit, showed those first Christians how to live godly lives in the turbulent environment of the first century. He is doing the same with us today, as we struggle to “get it right” while facing the complex and controversial challenges of our time.

We need to remember then, that the ultimate object of our faith and the only object of our worship is our Triune God, not our theological statements. We want to tune our theological understandings as best we can to do nothing less and nothing more than serve our faith in and worship of the Father, Son and Spirit. By the Spirit and the Word our theological understandings can be continually sanctified. This coming week on Pentecost Sunday we celebrate the descent of the Spirit that gave birth to the church. While not yet perfect, the children of God have been given the good and perfect gift of the Spirit, who will in the end enable all of us to share in Jesus’ own perfection!

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

Is image really everything?

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The author of Hebrews tells us about God-fearing men and women who “went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated,” who “wandered in deserts and mountains and in caves and holes in the ground” (Hebrews 11:37, 38). The writer said that the world was not worthy of such people. Most people would not have thought of them as glamorous role models and certainly would not have wanted to look and act like them.

We associate glamour with the rich and famous – how they dress, where they live, what they eat. We are fascinated with their comings and goings, and they, of course, make sure to come and go in ways that keep them in the limelight. Actually the word “glamour” originally meant the opposite. It referred to a magic spell used by witches and wizards to conceal their identity. King Arthur’s legendary sorcerer, Merlin, swathed himself with a glamour spell so he could travel as an old man, or a young woman, or as the sort of unexceptional person none would turn their heads to look at. The word has morphed in our modern times. Sadly, our society is growing ever more preoccupied by the physical trappings of glamour.

Professor Joan Brumberg of Cornell University has made an interesting study comparing the diaries of teenage girls (The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, Vintage, 1998). In 19th-century diaries, she found teenage girls focused on being good, useful, caring, positive contributors to society. They had a sense of personal responsibility that motivated them to reach beyond themselves. In diaries of our time, she found teenage girls focused on becoming slim, pretty, well-dressed and popular – preoccupied with copying the clothes, hairstyles and lifestyles of celebrities.

Being a celebrity used to involve a measure of specialized training, talent and skill. Now, sadly, it’s often only about the bling. A whole industry has grown up to help you attain your proverbial “15 minutes of fame.” Here are examples of what is offered (and I share these with my tongue buried deep in my cheek):

  • You may not be able to own the runway at the Oscars, but you can borrow a designer dress from a company called Rent the Runway for about $75. The owners of Rent the Runway say their business has tripled in a year.
  • Need some bling to go with that dress? Jewelry company Adorn will rent you a $24,000 diamond necklace for $260 and a pair of $8,250 earrings like Princess Kate wore at her wedding for just $160 (yes, there’s a security deposit). Avelle will rent you a Louis Vuitton handbag (retail price $1,680) for just $60 a week.
  • Of course, none of this matters if no one is looking. So why not head out on the town in style in a Bentley, Maserati or Rolls-Royce rented from Gotham Dream Cars? A Rolls Royce Phantom convertible will cost you $1,950 a day, which is chump change compared to its retail price of $427,000.
  • And doesn’t a celebrity, even a fake one, need a pack of paparazzi? Well, you can rent that too. For just $499, Celeb 4 A Day will rent you four personal paparazzi to follow your every move and shout questions at you for 30 minutes. Or you can upgrade to the MegaStar package, and get a two-hour experience that includes six personal paparazzi, one bodyguard, a publicist and a limousine.

Dressing up to look like something you are not is not a new idea. In fact, it may have been what Paul had in mind when he encouraged Christians at Rome to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14). He was using an expression that his readers would recognize as describing an actor donning a costume to play a part in a play. Of course, Paul did not mean that Christians should seek to draw attention by dressing in “Jesus costumes” (Jesus did not stand out in a crowd because of his clothing!). Paul certainly was not advocating wearing glamorous clothes or riding in stretch limousines (something some religious “celebrities” seem to forget). Rather, Paul was talking about the life transformation that occurs through our union with Christ. John makes a similar point in writing that “whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6).

Paul and John, each in their own way, were referring to the transformation that occurs in the life of a believer. As the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ, Jesus’ life – his regenerated human nature – becomes our own (Colossians 3:10). We become new creations with Jesus’ Spirit filling us (2 Corinthians 5:17). The Spirit gives us the power to really become children of God (John 1:12) and so brothers and sisters to Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Hebrews 2:11). The resulting change is not superficial or artificial, but authentic, deep and lasting.

Sharing in Jesus’ living and loving in the world will get you noticed, although as mentioned earlier, it does not usually lead to glamorous celebrity status. What matters most to God is not the image we create, but rather the image God has created in us. To be all that we can be, we must realize and trust in the source of our life, breath and being. The record of Scripture shows us that God does great work through those whom the rest of the world would not give 15 minutes of fame.

In Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach