Churches: Don’t run away from tough questions

I’ve seen and heard a growing concern over the phenomenon of “Leavers”–young adults who leave Christianity.  This month, even Christianity Today is talking about it. That’s not really anything new. Growing up, I heard more times than I could count in confirmation class and theology class that some of us would walk away once we graduated. What’s new is the percentage of those who are leaving, and how few ever come back.

Reasons vary. Sometimes it’s Christian beliefs getting in the way of how we want to live. Sometimes it’s the church hurting us. Sometimes it’s a combination of both. By all rights, I should have been one who left and never came back. The reason is in the article, but I think it’s glossed over. Read more

The battle of unforgiveness

I’m writing this for me. If it helps you, great.
The concept of generational sin is something that I take very seriously and something that has great potential to affect the people around me in unpleasant ways. I think I can say without offending anybody that my grandfather wasn’t as faithful to my grandmother as he should have been, and that his son, my Dad, was an alcoholic.

Well, when I’m dating someone I can’t look at another girl without feeling guilty about it, and alcohol does nothing for me. I’d much rather have a cup of coffee. So I think my future wife and kids are safe from those. Unfortunately, I’ve been blinded by pride or something else, because I totally missed my signature sin. And it’s a serious one.

Unforgiveness.

Unforgiveness is serious because it destroys relationships, but if that wasn’t enough, it’s one of only two sins that’s absolutely, positively guaranteed to keep you out of heaven. Matthew 6:14-15 states that if we don’t forgive the people who sin against us, God won’t forgive us either. Remember that line in The Lord’s Prayer? “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” A modern translation would say, “And forgive my sins the same way I forgive people who sin against me.” (The other, if you’re curious, is to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, which, I think, means to totally reject God and God’s work. The notes I have jotted down next to that verse in my veteran NIV Bible read, “If you’re afraid you might have, then you know you didn’t.” I recall The Rev. Dr. LaBore–yes, that was his name, and yes, he did bore some students, but I found him interesting–saying in Theology class some 11 years ago that it’s impossible for a Christian to blaspheme the Holy Spirit.)

Back to the topic: The really frightening thing to me is that I’ve walked people through the process of dealing with this before. I can teach what I have difficulty doing. Yes, that’s every bit as wrong as finding out your teacher can’t read and your preacher doesn’t pray and your president has no soul.

My unforgiveness manifests itself as bitterness. It doesn’t happen all the time. I’m pretty forgiving of minor stuff. I don’t yell at other drivers very often and it’s been years since I’ve given another driver the finger. In a recent softball game the pitcher, covering home plate, applied the tag harder than he thought he should have. I didn’t even notice. Not counting telemarketers, I’ve only hung up the phone on someone twice in my life. One was a college newspaper editor. I don’t remember who the other person was.

So I handle the small stuff pretty well. But if you injure me seriously, that’s usually another story.

I’ll tell you how I found out about this. I was out with my sister and we stopped in a store that sells a lot of beer memorabilia. At one point, she turned to me and asked me what was wrong, because I looked really miffed. I wasn’t comfortable there, but consciously, I wasn’t mad or anything. Then I realized there’ve been two other times this year that I was around something that really glorified alcohol and someone thought I was really mad when I wasn’t.

My dad was an alcoholic. I believe that his drinking contributed to his early death. His drinking absolutely affected our relationship. I never knew when I came home if I’d meet Cool Dad or Obnoxious Dad. I didn’t like having friends over because I didn’t know which of my Dads they’d see. And I think my relationship (or lack of one) with Dad has something to do with why I’m an extreme introvert, which has always made it a lot harder for me to make friends with guys and to talk to girls. At least on some level I know I blame him for it. After all, if my own father didn’t want to talk to me, why would a stranger?

There’s some baggage associated with alcohol.

Unfortunately, I’ve projected Dad onto other people. Remember what I said about unforgiveness destroying relationships? It doesn’t just destroy the relationship with the person who committed the sin. It can destroy relationships with people who remind you of that person too. Even if the attributes they share with that person are the good ones.

There are other red flags, but I think I’ve proved my point that unforgiveness can easily turn a respected, accomplished man into a pathetic wreck.

How to know if you’re harboring unforgiveness? Well, there are my earlier examples. Or negative thoughts that always get associated with a person. Going out of the way to avoid a certain person. Those are possible signs.

So what to do about it? In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis recommends practice, and he recommends practicing on things that are easy to forgive. I remember his advice being not to start off by trying to forgive Nazi Germany. Start by forgiving Camaro Boy for gunning it and cutting you off making a right turn in front of you from the left lane on your way home from work.

But I don’t think that’s enough. It’s been a long time since I’ve had difficulty forgiving people like Camaro Boy and Van Boy and Truck Boy and the other people seemingly bent on destruction that I encounter on my way to and from work. And yet I still had difficulty forgiving my own father.

Sometimes it helps to know what forgiveness is and isn’t.

What forgiveness is: It’s accepting the pain that someone has caused you, and giving up your right to retaliation. You hand it over to the proper authorities. In some cases that’s the legal system. Sometimes that’s God.

What forgiveness isn’t: It’s not forgetting, it’s not ignoring it, it’s not acting like it didn’t happen, and, contrary to what it feels like, it isn’t letting the person off scot-free.

I’ve heard the saying: What goes around comes around. That’s almost Biblical. Deuteronomy 32:35 reads as follows: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. I will repay.” (I wonder how many pastors stay up nights worrying what to do if someone picks that as a confirmation verse?) God forgives our sins, but God doesn’t necessarily shield us from the consequences of them. And God knows the proper balance of justice and mercy. We may think we know our offenders, but only God knows what our offenders are living with, so only God can truly hand out what’s appropriate.

But I know what forgiveness is, and I’ve practiced on the small stuff. How do you forgive when you still just can’t? See Philippians 4:13. It reads: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

When I finally noticed the problem, I didn’t have to pray that God would make me want to forgive Dad. But that might be a good first step, for those times when we just don’t want to. I already wanted to forgive, because, well, it’s my Dad. That’s reason enough, let alone I’d had enough of the consequences of not doing it for all these years. So I prayed that God would enable me to forgive Dad. That’s a prayer that I can know God will answer affirmatively, because what I’m doing is asking God to enable me to do what He told me to do.

I came up with this exercise a number of years ago. It may help. I’ll close with it.

Picture that person that you just can’t forgive. Put that person on trial in your mind. The crime doesn’t matter, because the punishment is crucifixion: the most painful, vile, slow death ever concocted by mankind. And of course the person is guilty, because you’ve been harboring the unforgiveness. You’re fair, aren’t you? Watch the condemned carry the cross down the street, the crowd on either side, mocking, taunting. Watch as that person collapses under the weight of the cross. Two soldiers unstrap it, and they pull some guy out of the crowd. He looks vaguely familiar. They make that guy carry it. Slowly, the two of them march down the street and up the hill. The soldiers take the crossbeam and put the cross together. One of the soldiers beckons for you to come up the hill. He hands you a hammer and a big nail and asks if you’d like to drive the first one. And as the other soldier grabs the condemned, the man who carried the cross speaks.

“Wait! I’ll go instead.”

The soldiers give one another a puzzled look and mouth the words, “Did he just say he’d go instead?”

Then he lays down on the cross and looks at you. “Whenever you’re ready.”

And then you recognize the man. It’s Jesus.

Jesus finished your unfinished business and mine nearly 2,000 years ago.

God cares about our concerns, even when we’re not brave enough to talk about them

Tomorrow night in Bible study, I’m going to cover Mark 5:21-41. Since I actually put some work into preparing and actually wrote something halfway substantial for probably the first time this year, I thought I’d share it here.
Special thanks go to Jeff King for inspiring this largely derivative study, and to God for using Jeff and his talents and insight to answer two simple prayers from last night.

Let’s let Mark start the story:

21When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. 22Then one of the synagogue rulers, named Jairus, came there. Seeing Jesus, he fell at his feet 23and pleaded earnestly with him, "My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live."

Now remember, most of the religious leaders of the day didn’t have a whole lot of use for Jesus. And being a synagogue ruler in this day and age, he was in the upper crust. But on this day, He needed Jesus.

So this aristocrat comes up to Jesus and wants something from Him. Jesus had this big crowd around Him. Yet Jesus dropped that opportunity and went to help him. Even though Jesus had something else to do. And even though Jesus could have used this opportunity to teach the aristocrat a lesson.

The lesson for me: God does not have better things to do. God wants to hear my voice. Yours too.

And there’s a second lesson: God “teaching us a lesson” doesn’t necessarily have to be painful. Sometimes it is. But He prefers, as we’re about to find out, to be unbelievably kind and loving.

24So Jesus went with him. 25A large crowd followed and pressed around him.

The crowd expected something. I guess Jesus had a reputation. The hard question for me: Do I expect God to do something?

And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse.

Anyone who made contact with this woman became ceremonially unclean. (See Leviticus 15-25-33.) She was an inconvenience. A nuissance. This woman lived in loneliness and isolation for 12 years. Not to mention the physical pain she must have suffered.

Now, I don’t know about anybody else, but I can handle pain. I deal a whole lot worse with loneliness. When I’m in pain and lonely, personally, it’s the loneliness that I want to go away. To me, 12 hours of it is more than enough, so I can’t even begin to imagine this poor woman’s plight.

27When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,

What I want to know is why this woman that nobody wanted to have anything to do with knew about Jesus. And that raises a question: Is there anyone in my life or yours who nobody wants to have anything to do with who needs to know about Jesus?

28because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.”

This has always troubled me, because I’ve wondered whether this was faith or superstition. Faith is good. Superstition isn’t. But God knows faith when He sees it. Here’s a question: What had the power? The cloak, or Jesus? The answer is the difference between the two.

If you think I think there are a lot of superstitious Christians, you’re right. Take the Prayer of Jabez (please!): There is absolutely nothing special about the words, "enlarge my territory." Say that to me and I might give you a quarter if I have one and nobody else has asked me today. But if you say it to God, trusting in the power of God and not in some magic words, and it’s God’s will… then it’s something special. But wouldn’t God rather hear your own words?

Here’s something else that strikes me. She was afraid to just ask Him for what she wanted. Maybe she didn’t want to trouble Him. He was off to stop someone from dying, after all. He had something better to do, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, a million times plus infinity wrong. God isn’t like your overburdened unapproachable boss. God isn’t bound by the constraints of time. God always has time for you.

Is there anything that you’re afraid to ask God for?

29Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

Jesus healed her. Period. End of story. Right?

30At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, "Who touched my clothes?"
31"You see the people crowding against you," his disciples answered, "and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ "
32But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it.

I used to think Jesus was angry here. Maybe He was mad about her making Him physically unclean. Maybe He was mad about her being superstitious. Maybe He had some other reason. Now I believe differently. Of course Jesus knew who touched Him. He only asked because He wanted her to approach Him. Why? I don’t think Jesus was satisfied with healing just her physical ailment. We’ll see why in a second.

33Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth.

She thought the same thing I used to think. She’s a genius! She agrees with me!

34He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering."

Look at what Jesus said. What word jumps out at you? The word that jumps out at me is "Daughter." "Daughter" is a loving word. It’s a special word. How special was it to Jesus? It’s the only recorded instance of Him using this word.

Now, if you’ll indulge my overanalysis for a minute: She’s in pain and she’s lonely. If she could get rid of her bleeding, then human contact suddenly becomes a possibility. Solve the root problem, and then she can see about finding some companionship. Maybe she had some relatives. Maybe she could make some friends. She didn’t dare ask Jesus to love her.

But what she wanted wasn’t nearly as important to Jesus as what she needed. Jesus didn’t dare keep on walking without telling her that He loved her.

The Eastern Orthodox church has a legend that this woman’s name was Veronica, and that she followed Him literally to His death. The legend says that when Jesus fell underneath the weight of the cross on His way to Calvary, Veronica reached out to Him and wiped the sweat, blood, and dirt off his face with a handkerchief as the soldiers seized Simon of Cyrene and made him carry Jesus’ cross the rest of the way. She was there for Him when His disciples had abandoned Him. It’s only a legend, but isn’t it a beautiful picture of a reaction to God’s love?

35While Jesus was still speaking, some men came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. "Your daughter is dead," they said. "Why bother the teacher any more?"

If “trouble” wan’t Jesus’ least favorite word before He was incarnated, it was by the time He died. Remember what I said before about God not being bound by the constraints of time? You’re not any trouble for Him.

36Ignoring what they said, Jesus told the synagogue ruler, "Don’t be afraid; just believe."

Faith is enough. The amount of faith doesn’t matter. The smallest possible amount of faith in the right thing–God–is more than enough.

37He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James.

Peter, James and John were Jesus’ inner circle. This was one of many things they alone were priveliged to see.

38When they came to the home of the synagogue ruler, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39He went in and said to them, "Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep."

As far as God is concerned, death and sleep are the same thing. Jesus wasn’t lying.

40But they laughed at him. 41After he put them all out,

God isn’t mocked. But Jesus didn’t punish them; He just gave them the same fate as the other 9 disciples: They had to wait outside.

he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha koum!" (which means, "Little girl, I say to you, get up!" ).

Look at some of the words here. Gently. Taking her by the hand. “Talitha” is an endearing way to say “little girl.” Jesus loved that girl.

42Immediately the girl stood up and walked around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. 43He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Let’s look at the two halves of verse 43. First half: Jesus didn’t want to be famous. Jesus wanted to help people. Jesus was the very embodiment of humility. This raises a tough question for me: How many times have I boasted about something God did, hoping that someone would think more highly of me simply because I happened to be there? Don’t we sometimes seem to be preoccupied with appearing to be spiritual powerhouses? I hope I’m the only one.

Second half: Jeff King, a friend of a friend, brought this one up. Do you see the parallel with verse 34? Jesus raised this girl from the dead, and once again, He wasn’t satisfied. First He’s concerned that she’s sick and in pain. Then He’s concerned that she’s dead–a valid concern, possibly. Did she believe before He raised her from the dead? Not likely. I’m sure she did afterward. So now that He’s healed her ailment and saved her soul, what’s He concerned about? He didn’t want her to be hungry.

God derives no pleasure from your hunger or mine. None.

I’ve asked a lot of questions tonight, but I want to ask one more. What have you been afraid to talk to God about?

Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®: NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Fair use statement: NIV quotations are permitted without express written permission provided they are fewer than 500 verses, do not amount to an entire book of the Bible, and do not constitute more than 25% of the total text of the work.

How to get rich–the Biblical way

Money is a controversial topic in Christian circles. On the one hand you’ve got people who say money is the root of all evil. The other extreme says if you do the right things, God will reward you with health and wealth and who knows what else.(This was the topic of my Bible study last night, in case you’re wondering. And I’m short of material, so I’m recycling. I’m also mixing in some insights people shared.)

For the record, 1 Timothy 6:10 says money is a root–not the root–of all kinds of evil. That’s somewhat less of a strong statement than saying it’s the root of all evil. So, money causes problems, yes, but it’s not the cause of every problem in this world.

To see some other causes and symptoms of evil, see 2 Timothy 3:2.

Isaiah 55:2 asks why we spend our money on what is not bread (when the Bible says “bread,” it’s frequently referring to the necessities of life such as basic food, clothing, and shelter) and on things that don’t satisfy. The main reason we do it is because we’re surrounded by messages that say this product or that product will change our lives. And while some products have changed lives, let’s think about it for a minute: Those kinds of things tend to come along once a generation, if that. I’m talking about things like the airplane, the automobile, and before those things, the railroad. Computers belong in that category. But the soda we drink is not going to change our lives, at least not for the better. Drink soda instead of water and it could make your life worse–regardless of what that 7up commercial with the bear says.

The American Dream is to give the next generation things the previous generation doesn’t have. Some have said that dream is dead, because we’ve become so affluent that we can’t think of what the next generation can possibly get that we didn’t have.

But it’s not working. Our kids have entertainment centers in their room that give a more life-like experience than the movie theaters of 20 years ago. They’ve got videogame machines that play better games than you could find in an arcade a couple of years ago. They have everything imaginable, and yet they’re all on ritalin and prozac. Meanwhile, their parents are both working, to pay for those two luxury SUVs and the next big home improvement project and all the toys and all the drugs that are necessary to keep themselves and their kids afloat in the miserable life they’ve built together.

My dad wasn’t always there for me. It seemed like most of the time he wasn’t. But it’s safe to say that when we ate dinner together 5 or 6 times a week, it was unusual. Most weeks we ate dinner together 7 times a week.

My American Dream is for my kids to have two full-time parents. Screw the luxury SUVs and the $300,000 house in the suburbs. My Honda Civic has more ameneties than I need. I’ll drive it for 15 years so I can have more money when things that matter crop up.

I told you how the Bible says to get rich. And maybe you’d argue I haven’t answered that question yet. I think Isaiah 55:2 can lead one to wealth that’s very enviable, but, yes, the Bible also tells how to gain material wealth. Check Proverbs 13:11. It’s especially relevant in the era of dotcom billionaires.

You’ve seen stories of wealty people who nickeled and dimed themselves to the poorhouse. What Proverbs 13:11 says is that you can nickel and dime your way to prosperity as well.

What the Bible doesn’t say is how, so I’ll share the concept of opportunity cost, which is one of two things I remember from Macroeconomics. I don’t know how many other people in my class picked this up from the dear departed Dr. Walter Johnson at Mizzou, so I’ll do my best to make my examples clear.

Opportunity cost says a 13-inch TV does not cost $99. That’s the amount written on the sticker, but that’s not the price. The price is about 30 lunches at my company cafeteria.

The monthtly cost of driving a new car every three years is about half my mortgage payment. But my mortgage will be paid off in 28 or 29 years and my house will be worth more then than it is now. In the year 2031, I will have absolutely nothing to show for the car I’m driving today. Those people who buy a $2,000 used Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla every few years and drive it until it dies have more money than you think they do.

Assuming you work about 240 days a year, two cans of soda every workday from the soda machine at my employer will cost you $240. But not really. What happens if you invest that money in what’s called an index mutual fund, which follows one of the major indices, such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average? Historically, you’ll gain about 10% per year on your investment, which means you’ll double your money every 7 years investing that way. (That’s taking into account times of bad economy, like today, or worse.) Anyway, I just grabbed my calculator. If you take that $240 and dump it into an index fund, in 35 years you can reasonably expect it to be worth $7,680.

The real cost of a can of soda is sixteen dollars. Unless you’re not going to live 35 more years. But unless you’re going to die tomorrow, the real price is considerably more than 50 cents.

There are a total of 118 verses in the NIV translation that use the word “money,” and considerably more talk about the concept without using the word. Of those, Matthew 6:24-34 is poignant, as is Ecclesiastes 5:10-20. What I take from them is this: If you build your empire 50 cents at a time, you’ll never be as wealthy as Bill Gates. But you’ll have more than you need, and you’ll be happier than Bill Gates, and you’ll sleep a lot better.

And if your name is Jackie Harrington, I suggest you start selling autographed 8×10 glossy photos of yourself. Sign them, “Bill Gates just stiffed me for 6 bucks! Jackie Harrington.” Sell then for $10 apiece to people like me. Then put the money in an index fund. Then in 35 years, when you’re a millionaire, write a thank-you letter to Bill Gates.

My well-dressed visitors

One evening early in March–the first really nice day of the year, as I recall–my doorbell rang. My girlfriend was coming over that night, but I didn’t expect her for another 45 minutes or so. I looked out the window and saw two guys in their early 20s, wearing black dress pants, white shirts, ties, and engraved nametags.
I knew instantly who they were representing. I debated whether I should answer the door, but I figured it would be better for them to come in and talk to me than to go knock on my neighbor’s door. My neighbor already has a church and doesn’t need another one, and I really didn’t want these guys trying to convince him otherwise. (For the record, my neighbor’s church isn’t my church and it’s not the same denomination as mine. I just want you to know that.)

They came in and they told me who they were representing. Then they proceeded to tell me that everything I know is wrong. I’ve been told that before. I think the first time was at a U2 concert, but I don’t think they really meant it. At least they didn’t mean everything. I heard it again at college, but their main motivation was to teach me how to think.

They told me a story about a prophet. When this prophet was about their age, he didn’t know what church to go to. So God the Father–this is important–and Jesus Christ appeared to him. They told him a couple of things, and the result of this was the church that the two of them represent.

There’s only one problem with that story. There’s another prophet named Moses. You’ve probably heard of him. He’s the one God handed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets. He also wrote the first five books of the Bible. Among prophets, Moses is in an elite class. When Jesus was transfigured in front of three of his disciples, two prophets also showed up. Those prophets were Moses and Elijah. To those three disciples, who were Jewish, the presence of Moses and Elijah and their submission to him indicated that Jesus was something special.

Well, one of the big reasons that Moses is something special is because he saw God. Once. Only he didn’t get to see God the Father’s face, because it would have killed him. (See Exodus 33:19-23.)

St. Paul was in an elite class of apostles. (According to these two guys, St. Paul was sort of a prophet. Remember the “sort of.”) St. Paul was on his way to Damascus to kill some people (see Acts 9:1-22) when he got interrupted. He got blinded by a light, then he looked up in the sky and saw Jesus. Jesus gave him a talking-to, then Paul went and changed the world.

When God shows up visibly to people, things change. It doesn’t happen very often, so when someone comes along saying he’s seen God, people tend to follow.

But the problem with the story these two guys told me is that it doesn’t mesh up. Moses couldn’t see God’s face because it would have killed him. Paul’s story meshes up with Moses’, because Paul didn’t see God the Father. He saw Jesus. But their prophet saw God the Father.

I pointed out this discrepancy to them. When they left that night, one of them handed me a piece of paper with the verse Acts 7:55 written on it. That’s the story of Stephen, the first martyr. Stephen saw God the Father and Jesus Christ. It says so. So how does that mesh up with the story of Moses and Paul? Five verses later, Stephen was dead.

These two guys put a lot of emphasis on their prophet’s testimony and on their own experience and feelings. I resented their implication that I’d never had an experience with the Holy Ghost. I resented them coming right out and telling me my baptism was invalid. It annoyed me when they told me that neither one of them had read much of the Bible, and they continued to talk down to me even after I told them I had read the Bible in its entirety. On a subsequent visit, one of them told me he very rarely read the Bible because he didn’t like it, but this other book they wanted me to read… He loved that book. That made sense to me though. Americans are very do-it oriented. Give an American male a list of things to do to be successful, and he’ll probably do them. He’ll probably thank you for it. Even if the list is 613 items long. There’s a reason why the self-help section in American bookstores is so big. The book these guys wanted me to read is well-suited for an American audience. While the Bible likes to talk about the things God did for us, this book is full of ideas about things we can do for God.

But the most important thing about that book is the experience and feelings you get when you read it. Let me tell you a little bit about my experience and feelings reading the Bible.

When I was about the same age as these two guys, I began the process of reading the Bible cover to cover. I was questioning everything I knew and everything that had ever happened to me, and that book and what I perceived as the misuse of that book was at the center of those questions. So I read it, looking for answers. I prayed at the same time too. I asked God where I should be going to church, because I didn’t know. He told me where I should go. Not because it was where I wanted to go–I didn’t want to be Lutheran–and not because the LCMS is right about absolutely everything, because they aren’t. When it comes to understanding the needs of a guy in his 20s and resources to help them, the LCMS has a whole lot of nothing. But the LCMS’s specialty is its teachings on grace and forgiveness, which was what I needed more than anything. God knew it, and I know it now, and I needed that message so desperately that I would have listened to the pastor talk through an electric fan if that was what he wanted to do. I returned to the denomination of my youth about a month after I finished the Bible.

These guys talked a lot about feelings. Sure, it was an emotional time. And while you should pay attention to feelings, you also should remember that feelings aren’t infallible. Our emotions can be 100% wrong and totally detached from reality. There are plenty of moments in just about any relationship of a romantic nature can illustrate that vividly.

Four years after I returned to the church body of my youth, I went on a mission trip to a very impoverished part of Florida. I saw the life of one of the teenagers in my small group completely change over the course of a couple of days. If God the Holy Ghost didn’t have a hold on him, then I don’t know who it was. That same week, five or six of us had finished up our task for the afternoon, so we went walking. We came upon a church, and it had become our habit that week to pray for the churches in the area. The prayers were pretty simple and generic: That the area churches would reach out to the community, and that they would have the desire and the ability to meet the needs of the people around them. After we finished, our pastor looked up and saw an elderly woman standing on a second-floor balcony across the street from us. “Are you watching us?” he asked playfully. “Yes I am, sir,” she said, humbly but without any shame or nervousness or timidity in her voice. Pastor asked if he could send a few of us up to her to pray for her. “I’d like that very much, sir,” she said. So I grabbed three guys and we walked up to her apartment. We talked to her for a few minutes, prayed with her for a few more minutes, then talked for a while again. The last thing she said to us is probably something I’ll never forget: “I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit outside when your group walked up to that church, and I just had to step outside and see what was going on out there.”

When my two visitors told me the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost is beyond description, I had to agree with them. And I’m sure that the Holy Ghost is working on them, trying to show them the way to truth, and I’m sure they feel that work in their lives. But they have it backwards. To them, the Holy Ghost is their reward for doing the right thing once. To use a baseball analogy, the Holy Ghost is a World Series trophy to them. That’s wrong. Yes, the Holy Ghost is there after you’ve gotten right with God, but only because He was already there. The Holy Ghost isn’t a World Series trophy. The Holy Ghost is the leadoff batter on opening day, and His work never ends until our final breath and the final beat of our heart.

These guys have a lot of things backwards, but I could never convince them to even think about any of that stuff. They’re constantly talking about proving things to God. The only thing we can ever prove to God is our inadequacy, but even that isn’t really proving anything. How can you prove anything to an all-knowing being? Of course, I’m not sure that their god is an all-knowing being.

They never encouraged me to read the Bible. They wanted me to read their book and pray about it. But they wanted a very specific prayer: Pray to know that their book is true. The problem is that when you pray a prayer like that, God may say no, but since you prayed for a yes answer, if some other being comes along posing as God and says yes, that’s the one you’ll listen to.

Truth be told, the ethics of their book aren’t bad. Their book reads much like the books Protestants call the Apocrypha: the books between the Old Testament and New Testament that Catholics and Episcopals accept but Calvinist and Lutheran denominations don’t. If the church these guys represent only believed and taught what was in the Bible and this other book, they’d still be a fringe group but mainline Christianity would have far fewer problems with them.

On the Saturday before Easter, they paid me a visit again. My friend Matt, who’s working on his Master’s of Divinity, happened to be over. They talked to me some more about why my baptism was invalid and theirs is valid: The authority to baptize died with the apostles and wasn’t restored until the 19th century, they said. After a half hour or so of miscommunication, Matt asked me if he could ask a question. I said certainly.

He had them turn to a second book they use–one that I was aware of but didn’t have a copy of–and read a passage from it. That passage stated that the Apostle John never died. (Matt later told me that that belief is a misinterpretation of John 21:20-22. Interestingly, John 21:23 specifically warns against just this interpretation.) But Matt went with their interpretation. Is it true that John never died? Yes, they said. Then the authority to baptize, which disappeared with the death of all the disciples, never left this earth.

The younger of the two was visibly taken aback. The older of the two struggled for a minute, then regained his composure somewhat and changed the subject.

The discussion quickly turned to the Nicene Creed and never veered back to this contradiction. But that very neatly illustrates a problem.

Whenever the Bible appears to contradict itself, it’s due to misinterpretation. Since English is a terribly imprecise language, often the problem comes down to word choice, and reading the verses in question in more than one translation (if you can’t read Biblical Greek and Hebrew) will resolve the issue. Or, often the problem is due to taking verses out of context. Re-read the offending verses in context and in light of similar verses, and the conflict resolves. Biblical prophets do not contradict themselves or one another because they were repeating the words of God, who doesn’t contradict Himself.

Statements such as “The Apostle John never died” are not the words of a prophet. They are the words of someone who didn’t read John 21:23. (Church tradition states that John died in Ephesus around the year 100 AD, at the age of about 94.)

In an early conversation, they told me that God used prophets in the Old Testament to bring people back after they became wicked. They then asked if it doesn’t make sense for there to be a living prophet today. I said no. They were taken aback; I’m certain that usually they get the opposite answer.

I held up my well-worn NIV Bible, then I said something like this: This is a book about relationships and sin. It took several centuries to write. There isn’t a single relationship problem that exists now that didn’t exist then and isn’t mentioned somewhere in here. And sin hasn’t changed. We’d mastered sin by the time this was written. Our need for God hasn’t changed, and what we have to do to be right with God hasn’t changed. The only thing that’s changed since this book was finished is our technology. God’s given us our answers; He doesn’t need to add anything else to it.

I’ve read books written by people who claim to have the gift of prophecy. But their revelations from God mostly affect them and the people directly around them, and they make no other claims about the messages they receive. They’re also incredibly short. And, most importantly, they don’t contradict scripture. In fact, many of them are simply restatements of scripture.

But when I’ve run across someone claiming infallibility, it usually hasn’t taken long for them to say things that do contradict scripture, such as that statement about the Apostle John. Verses such as Deuteronomy 18:20-22 and 2 Peter 3:16 have harsh words about these kinds of people.

Before they left angrily, one of them asked Matt what his motive was. Their motive, they said, was the truth. Matt said his motive was the truth. Have you read it?, one of them asked, holding up his secondary book. Matt said he had, and he was in the process of reading it cover to cover now. They each agreed that the other needed to find the truth (the less experienced of the two visitors didn’t say much and left looking shellshocked)and that was the end of it.

I see two major problems. The first is the assertion that the Bible isn’t enough. That opens the door to all sorts of crazy things. The second problem, just as bad, is the overemphasis on self and de-emphasis of God. Virtually every sentence they said began with the words, “You need to” or “We need to.” But it’s God working in us that enables us to do things. And in my experience, often when God’s working in us, we don’t know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and it’s only after the fact that it makes sense. That doesn’t happen when your motive is to prove something to God though.

It’s been a couple of weeks now, and they haven’t called me or stopped by. I hope some of the truth has sunk in. But it usually takes a while.

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