Monday, December 28, 2009

On the Lighter Side

I love getting books as gifts. This year for Christmas I got a book by one of my favorite authors--Johnny Hart. The book, Growing Gold with B. C.: A 50 Year Celebration. Now, if you're like me and you've been a fan of B.C. for years, this book is something you need to get. It's not a comprehensive collection of all the B. C. strips. It is a good representative sampling of some of Hart's best work.

I got hooked on B. C. way back in high school. My piano/voice instructor's wife was a distant cousin of Johnny Hart, and they always had copies of B. C. and Wizard of Id on the coffee table. I would go early just to read the comic books while a school classmate had her lesson.

I've finished reading the book already. In it I found B .C. strips going back to the beginning of B. C. in the late 1950s. I saw B.C.'s character development and presentation from a short, fat cave man to the taller, somewhat leaner version we all know today. What I found most interesting was Hart's own testimony of overcoming hurdles to breaking into syndicated comic strip work, the inspiration he got from Peanuts, and the way he chose his main characters for the strip (turns out most are friends or relatives).

So what's missing? Well, Hart's classic Christmas and Easter strips are missing, and I wish they weren't. Hart has a way of sharing the gospel with his readers that is engaging, thought-provoking, and winsome. He doesn't preach at you with his Christian vignettes, but he makes you think about the message of Christ. I remember many years ago he had a Good Friday strip that my wife found quite disturbing. I told her to be patient, and wait for the Easter strip--that it would be okay. It was better than okay. Hart knocked it out of the park.

May we all be so gifted as to find winsome ways to take a positive stand for Christ.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas Meditation

Christmas day is almost done as I sit down to write. Christmas Eve was a late night as we filled the stockings and finally got to sleep after midnight. Christmas morning started at 5:30 when I found my oldest up with her watercolor set making last minute stocking stuffers for me and her mother.

By seven we were working on breakfast and getting everyone out of bed. At breakfast we read the Christmas story from Luke's Gospel, then we went to the living room to sing Christmas carols before getting into the gifts. The hardest thing about Christmas is keeping the incarnation of God in the person of Christ at the center of it. Many churches no longer have Christmas or Christmas Eve services. The focus is on gifts and food for so many people. For me Christmas is another opportunity to press the claims of the Gospel on my children and urge them to come to Christ. Today I spoke of the inn which had no room for a late-term pregnant mother and her traveling husband, and I raised the question, "Is there room in your heart for Christ?"

Think about it. The very one who created all things came to his creation only to be told, "No Vacancy!" when he arrived. John put it this way: "He came unto his own, and his own received him not." (John 1: 11). Did Christ find a place in your heart,  your home, your family at Christmas this year? Or was he crowded out by all the gifts, food, parades, and frivolity that have become part and parcel of the season? Did you take a stand for Christ this Christmas?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ethics, Ecology, and Evangelicalism

In today's world ethics has been redefined from traditional morals about how you and I treat one another as human beings to how we treat the planet we live on. Everything is about going "green". My Boy Scout Council has set a goal to become a "green" council. We have a supplier that produces cups, plates, utensils, and trash bags out of biodegradable corn starch. They're really amazing, too, unless you have a corn intolerance. I'm not sure if enough of the corn would leach into food to become an issue, but I'm not willing to try it on my daughter who is very corn intolerant. But I love using the stuff myself. I also play guitar. And guitars are made of, well, wood, for the most part. And they're not just made of any old wood. Special woods are used, some from exotic places like Africa, India, or South America and Indonesia. My acoustic guitars are made by Walden (, and I love them. They are well made and affordable. Well, Walden has just announced a new "green" guitar in the name of ecological ethics--the Madera line. It's a beautiful instrument made of excellent woods from a variety of places. What's unique is not the wood itself but the suppliers. Apparently the suppliers for these woods are certified as participating in efforts to sustain the forests, presumably by replanting trees for the ones they harvest for guitar production. It's a great idea, and I applaud Walden for being involved in this. It will ensure that guitar players for generations to come will be able to buy and enjoy fine instruments crafted from the best woods.

Having said all of that, the question comes to mind, is ecology an ethical issue? If it is, how should believers respond to ecological issues?

First, I do believe that ecological issues are ethical issues. How we treat  the planet says something about how seriously we take our God-given stewardship of it (see Gen 1: 26--28). Secondly, believers should not respond to ecological issues in the same way as many others are responding. Much of the talk of ecological ethics today is rooted in the worship of "mother earth". Everything from questions about global warming (and there are a lot more questions now than answers in the wake of "Climategate") to whether I should burn charcoal in my grill to cook my deer steaks seems to be eco-ethical question these days (including whether I should have shot bambi to begin with).

How we treat the planet impacts how we treat each other. We do want to keep our planet in a healthy condition, because this is the only home we have until Christ returns. As believers you and I should demonstrate good and responsible uses of the natural resources we have. Every renewable resource should be maintained. If we drop a tree to make a guitar, another should be planted to replace it (foresters have a formula for how many trees should be planted--glad I don't have to keep up with that). We shouldn't pour paint thinner and other contaminants down storm drains or onto soil to contaminate ground water supplies. In short, we shouldn't just trash our planet. On the other hand, we shouldn't make everything here so "sacred" that we can't hunt or fish or harvest trees. We shouldn't worship the ground we walk on. God created all of this, and he will sustain it to the fulfillment of his purpose for human history, which will culminate in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. God is the one we should fear and worship. We should care for the earth because he has commanded it. Our exercise of ecological ethics should be an extension of our worship of God and appreciation of all the good things he has made. So take a stand for a Christian perspective on ecological issues and don't get caught up in the frenzy of an unbelieving world that makes ecology into a kind of religion in its own right.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Saint Nicholas vs. Santa Claus

With Christmas always comes the wonder of "Santa Claus", that jolly old bearded man in the red suit with the reindeer and sleigh and the bag of goodies. Oh, and let's not forget the elves who work in his shop building toys all year long. Personally, I'm not a fan of telling kids about "Santa Claus", and here's why. We tell them about both Santa Claus and the baby Jesus side by side. They grow up to find out Santa isn't real, and will that lead them to question whether Jesus is real, too? It's just a question.

But, I love Saint Nicholas. Not the fictionalized St. Nick but the real Saint Nicholas. Yes, he really lived. This morning I watched with my kids a Veggie Tales video that sort of tells the story of the real Saint Nicholas. I say "sort of" because the wonderful people at Veggie Tales always take some creative license to make the stories more readily understandable for kids, but they keep the essential facts in place. It's not a criticism, just an observation. I love Veggie Tales as much as any kid.

So who was Saint Nicholas? He was a bishop who lived in the Roman Empire during the last great persecution and into the early years of Constantine's reign and the legalization of Christianity. He lived in the Eastern part of the Empire, never saw the north pole, and was probably never fat. You can see an icon of Saint Nicholas at that represents how he is often viewed in the Orthodox Church. Saint Nicholas was a man of character and generosity. He endured persecution for the faith and was beaten so badly that his body appeared bruised for the rest of his life. He came from a wealthy family, and as a bishop he used his wealth to help the poor. One story relates how he dropped gold coins into the stockings of three poor sisters to provide a dowry for them so that they could marry. This the beginnings of the "stockings" legend related to Saint Nicholas. Another story relates that he was one of the 318 bishops at Nicaea in 325, and that he rose up in anger at the Arian heresy and struck an Arian bishop to the floor with his fist. Saint Nicholas was a man who was not afraid to take a stand for Christ and the gospel. He was not afraid to spend his wealth to help the poor. He was a respected bishop of unquestioned character and generosity.

May we all be more like Saint Nicholas--standing firm for the gospel with generous hearts toward the poor. The world needs to see what we stand for.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Christmas Caroling

One of the great delights of the Christmas season for me is the music. I love Christmas carols. I'm not talking about "Santa" songs. I'm talking about the songs that celebrate the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. These songs, for the most part, were written to be sung, not played on an instrument. They are vocal arrangements. I love Handel's Messiah, and not just the "Hallelujah Chorus" but the whole thing. My favorites, though, are those minor key songs like "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "What Child is This?" Recently I've fallen in love with the minor key harmonies of "One Small Child". Shades Mountain Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, has an excellent performance of this great song by David Meece at

Other songs that I love from Christmas include "O Little Town of Bethlehem", "Stille Nacht" (I prefer the German to the English), and of course, "O Come, All Ye Faithful". "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" is the first Christmas song I ever played by sight-reading at the piano, so it has special place in my heart, too. There are so many wonderful songs about the birth of our Lord that I love to sing.

But why should this be so central to my Christmas? It is because I grew up in a home of music, and Christmas was doubly so. Three of my dad's four sisters played piano. And most of us lived within 100 miles of each other. Christmas was a time for family to get together. Yes, we'd eat, but mostly we'd gather around the piano. One of my dad's sisters would play, and we'd sing Christmas carols. Most of us read music (some read only shape notes, but that was okay since most of our books were shape note books), so we had plenty of harmony. Music was a central part of my childhood Christmas experience. But today I see the music as a key way of transmitting the gospel. Many people who do not regularly attend church will listen to Christmas carols. Keep the caroling tradition alive. Maybe get some friends together and go caroling through your neighborhood this Christmas. Think of it as another way to take a stand for Christ and remind everyone that HE is the reason for the season.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Christmas Interrupted

Well, my Christmas spirit has been interrupted by something a friend pointed out to me via Facebook. Then I saw a news story about it at It's appeared on MSNBC, too, I think. I feel I need to address this issue.

Led by Andy Schlafly, son of the anti-feminist leader, Phyllis Schlafly, a group of amateur Bible scholars (and I emphasize "amateur" while using "scholar" loosely) have set out to create a modern Bible translation free of the "liberal" biases they see in translations today. They read liberalism into such famous passages as Jesus' prayer for his executioners in Luke 23: 34 (which appears in the KJV--I bet there were some liberals on that translation team) and Jesus' forgiving the woman taken in adultery (another text in the KJV). Acts 2: 44 is right out as it clearly endorses socialism, so it must be retranslated in a way that makes no sense of the rest of the Acts narrative that culminates in chapter 5 with the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. You start to get the idea of why I emphasize "amateur" and use "scholar" loosely.

This project is free and anyone can contribute. It's a wiki project, similar to wikipedia. No advanced competency in the languages or textual criticism is required. There seems to be an emphasis on the ability to spot deceptive liberal wordings in the text and correct them with "powerful conservative terms" ( This is so obviously an agenda driven translation project as should require no rebuttal, but the press had latched on to this thing and given it legs with its reporting.

I am not going to address the particulars of the project. Rather, I want to say a word about the textual transmission of the Bible, textual criticism, and translation theory. But I must qualify all that I say with the caveat that, on this, I am an amateur, too. My specialty is Church History, not biblical studies, and while I've studied Greek, Hebrew, and Latin for my degrees, I'm by no means a scholar in those fields.

When you pick up a Bible, you hold in your hands the culmination of thousands of years of work, from the writing of the "autographs", the originals penned by the biblical authors, to the centuries of hand-written copies, the translation work of scholars through the ages, and much careful study. No book is as closely proof-read by publishers as is the Bible. Why? Because so many of us consider it to be the very word of God written. Therefore it is treated with special reverence and care.

When biblical scholars work on what is called a "critical" edition of the Greek New Testament or the Hebrew Bible they have certain guidelines they follow to sort through a variety of "textual variants", minor discrepancies that appear here and there in the text as a result of centuries of hand-copying by scribes in various circumstances. They do this, not to include or eliminate specific readings because of an agenda, but to determine what was most likely the original wording of the text as it appeared in the autographs. With regard to the New Testament, scholars have over 5,000 manuscripts to work with, and the level of certainty is above 99% recovery of the original text. Our level of confidence in the Hebrew text is similarly high, though I don't have an exact figure for that.

Next comes the matter of translation. This is where there is more potential for bias. There is a saying among translators: Traduttore traditore--"the translator is a traitor." What this means is that no translation from one language to another is ever entirely complete. Something is lost or added in every translation attempt. The question is, are there intentional changes taking place due to translator bias? Has translator bias impacted some translations? Yes. Still, most of the popular translations today (I'm not speaking of paraphrases, which are a separate issue) seek to remain faithful to the original thought or wording of the Greek and Hebrew texts. Given that, you can have confidence that the Bible you own, whether it is a King James Version, New American Standard, New International Version, or English Standard Version (or some other--there are so many today) is substantially the Word of God written and is reliable to communicate to you God's message of redemption.

Here a quote from the 18th century English Baptist leader John Gill is in order: "The Scriptures in our English translation, have been blessed of God, either by reading them in [the original], or by explaining them according to it, for the conversion, comfort, and edification of thousands and thousands. And the same may be said of all others, so far as they agree with the original, that they are the rule of faith and practice, and alike useful" (Body of Divinity, Baptist Standard Bearer ed., 13b).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Anticipating Christmas

An oft recurring theme in the New Testament is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in the life of Jesus. Indeed, Jesus said that the Old Testament spoke of him. Think for a minute what life would be like in a land without Christmas, without the coming of the Christ. Try to imagine yourself living before Christ came. Now, if you were an Israelite with some familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures, you would know that God had promised to send a Messiah. You might not be entirely sure what kind of Messiah he would be, but you would have the hope that God would send someone from the lineage of King David to be a Deliverer. But if you were a Gentile you would likely know nothing of this hope. What would that be like?

One of the great Old Testament promises referred to in the New Testament is Psalm 2, a royal psalm. Scholars believe this psalm may have been used during the installation service of a new king in Israel. But the New Testament sees in this psalm a prophecy of the One King promised to come from David fulfilled in Jesus.

"As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.
I will tell of the decree:
The LORD said to me, 'You are my
today I have begotten you" (Ps 2:6--7, ESV).

In the coming of each of the Davidic kings the promise of the One King was carried forward. And even when the kingdom fell due to sin, the line of kings, the line of descendants from David remained unbroken until the coming of Jesus. In Jesus the promise of an everlasting kingdom and an everlasting King has been fulfilled. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords. Here is the good news of Christmas. The King has come. Take a stand. Spread the good word.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

More about Christmas

The thread of redemption for a fallen humanity runs throughout the Old Testament. We saw it yesterday in Genesis 3: 15. Walter Kaiser, in his book, Toward an Old Testament Theology, zeroed in on the concept of the promised "seed" as the seam that ties the Old Testament together. This promise, as we have seen, begins in Genesis 3: 15, but it certainly doesn't stop there. Early in Genesis several "threats" appear to this promise. The first threat comes with the murder of Abel, but the line of Seth is the line through whom seed will come. Then the flood threatens all of humanity, but from the line of Seth, Noah finds favor with God, and he and his family are spared. From the family of Noah the focus narrows to the line of Shem, and from Shem to the sons of Eber (father of the Hebrews). In the line of Eber, Abraham "the Hebrew" is chosen, and the promised seed again becomes a dominant theme.

Abraham is given the promise that "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 12: 3, ESV), and in Galatians 3: 15--19 Paul says that God's promise to Abraham should be interpreted as Christ being the promised "seed" who would bring salvation to both Jews and Gentiles alike.

Christmas reminds of in a very concentrated way of the fulfillment of the promise of salvation. In that way it shows us the unfailing faithfulness of God. If God was faithful to Eve and to Abraham to keep his promise for the giving of his Son as our Redeemer, will he not also be faithful to sustain and keep us in his Son, and to send his Son to claim us for himself at the last day? Christmas should remind us that he who came the first time will come again because God is faithful. This is good news. Spread the word.