Me with my lovely wife, Kathy:

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Questions, Seeking Answers: Our Current Political Situation

I have been watching the US political drama--as in soap opera--from afar. The nation of Palau, where I spent the last four months has a close relationship with the United States. For four decades following World War 2 Palau was part of a trust territory overseen by the United States. Since Palau became the fourth smallest nation in the world, Palau continues to maintain close ties with its big brother. Palauans can serve in the United States military, can go in and out of US borders with the same freedom as US citizens, are eligible to receive educational assistance, and the nation's only post office has a US zip code, 96940. Much of the island nation's government structure is modeled after America's.

A few weeks ago I had an interesting conversation. A friend and I had gone to a modest, but nice,
restaurant for lunch. It is owned by one of Palau's former presidents. As we were finishing out meal, Former President Nakamura, sat down at our table. He and my friend are well acquainted. He proceeded to introduce himself to me, and an interesting conversation ensued. Before long a question came up. "How," Mr. Nakamura wanted to know, "did the greatest nation on earth and two of the greatest political parties on earth come to this?" The "this" he referred to was the unfolding presidential campaign. The question is even more pointed now that what was only possible a few weeks ago has become all but a sure thing.

Just about every time I watch a news cast, or read a political article I see the statesman from the other side of the world looking at me with a gentle smile. His question haunts me. Indeed, how did we come to this state of affairs? The question would be troubling enough if I lived in a land ruled by a king, where the succession of leadership is determined by who is born to whom and when. In my land however, since I am involved in the choice of those who lead my nation, I have too admit that the current state of the state is not just an interesting point for discussion. It is a matter of personal responsibility.

Following the past few election cycles, I've seen bumper-stickers that proclaim, "Don't blame me. I didn't vote for ______." I suppose I could adopt that philosophy. "I'm right; if only people would have followed my example. . . ." Yes, in my land I am not only the ruled; when I go to the polling place I am the ruler. I do need to cast that vote responsibly, but is that all? How active should I be in politics? Is our current situation a confirmation of Burke's famous pronouncement? It would appear that evil will triumph in the current election cycle--the only question is which flavor of evil. Is the explanation that good men have done nothing? Am I one of those good men who spent too much time sitting on their hands?

I have a number of questions, and few answers, maybe we can help each other. I welcome your comments.

  • Some have adopted an attitude of fatalism. A friend recently posted an article by a friend of his that began, "The fact is, and this is a biblical fact...If Donald Trump is our next President, he will be there because the hand of God is on him to put him there." The same can be said about Hilary or, for that matter, we could just as well say, if the Ayatollah of Iran successfully seizes power over the USA and establishes a new caliphate it will have taken place within the sphere of God's sovereignty. Existentialist Albert Camus, in The Plague, sets up a dilemma. A plague had come. The priest in the story concluded that the plague had come has a result of God's judgment. Therefore to oppose the plague was to oppose God.
    In Old Testament Israel a particularly unscrupulous king murdered his way into power, I ask myself, "Why did God allow Jehu to become King?" My answer is, "Because Israel deserved to have Jehu for her king." (2 Kings 9-10) Still if Jehu had been running for office instead of riding in on a reign of terror, I wouldn't have voted for him. It is not right to choose evil.
  • What are the limits of what one can do with a clear conscious. I am told that Hitler was nice to little children. Is that virtue sufficient to earn my vote. Even those candidates who are very admirable are not perfect. Is there ever a mortal who is worthy of my vote. Theologian Andy Naselli thinks out loud on this one. His thoughts are worth considering.
  • Russel Moore takes on the question that seems to dominate the conservative end of the current political discussion. Should a Christian vote for the lesser of two evils? You should read his thoughts, but in brief his answer is "No."
  • It is a bit more general but Steve Cornell has some thoughts on Christians engaging with culture. Clearly how we vote is one of those points where our Christian worldview stands toe-to-toe with the culture where we live.
  • Sometimes when things are bad it is good to remind yourself of some conclusions you came to when things weren't quite so bad. I reread this old piece and I think the me that is wondering what to do today needs to hear the me that spoke a while ago. 
I'm still thinking about the President's question.  I add another one:  What am I going to do about it?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?

An excellent series of articles came my way.  The Occasional Bulletin is a publication that is generally only available to Evangelical Missiological Society.  Because of its broad relevance EMS made this edition available to the general public.  I'm thankful that they did.  I think anyone will profit from this discussion.  For those of us involved in any way in missions it is must read stuff.  Click on the download button.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Instead of demanding that others keep Christ in Christmas, how about keeping Christ in Christmas?

I hope this post will be of interest to pastors and church leaders.  It contains an idea for doing something positive in regard to keeping Christ in Christmas.

I think I have a badge, maybe underneath my socks, that says something like, "I say Merry Christmas,"  or, "It's OK to say Merry Christmas."  I wore it for a few times when I first got it, but as the campaign to "Keep Christ in Christmas" became more militant and political, I put it away.  I am all for keeping Christ in Christmas, but I don't see any reason why I should pressure retailers into forcing their employees to use a particular greeting.  There are Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths, or no faith, who have no reason to wish me a Merry Christmas.  We can debate the point on another occasion, but there are some who believe that followers of Christ are a negative influence in our communities.  They find the celebration of Christ's birthday to be a bad thing.  I am glad that I live in a country in which people are free to worship, or not worship, as they choose.  I will be glad to discuss why I think Jesus Christ is Lord, but I won't participate in any attempt to force others to act like they believe something they don't.

The above gives some background to why I am so proud of my church for its Live Nativity presentation.  We aren't twisting arms to get others to "Keep Christ in Christmas."  Rather in a warm, winsome way the folk in my church are offering our neighbors an opportunity to experience the story of Christmas.  Lo and behold, when you look into the story Christ is right there, and not just in a manger.

First let me remove some possible misconceptions.  Ours is a small church.  On a good Sunday we have 150 in attendance.  No one died and left us a large bequest to finance this ministry.  We use what we have--primarily a willingness to work hard and the good will of some neighbors to put on this presentation.  Basically what I'm saying is if we can do this any church can.

Here is how it works.  Hopefully you can find some ideas here that can be adapted to your situation.

Because of the goodwill of our local Parks Department we are able to use a very nice public park for our presentation.  We transform the picnic shelter into the Village of Bethlehem.  Guests are welcomed to Bethlehem by the Mayor.  They are informed that Caesar Augustus has decreed that all must sign the census.  A money changer provides the visitors with Shekels
so they can purchase "bread" (mostly cookies,
though in the past we have offered bread and fruit).  Bethlehem is the House of Bread.  A Roman soldier struts about and makes himself obnoxious.  The Mayor warns visitors to guard their Shekels and women from the Romans.  Kids can play simple games, and buy some trinkets in the shops.

Every 15 minutes or so, visitors in the Bethlehem are encouraged to take a ride on one of the
"strange chariots" that have been provided.  Reports of strange things out in the countryside have been heard--angels, the birth of a king, etc.  Guests ride, sort of hayride style, on a trailer.  (On occasion we have used walking tours.) They are accompanied by a guide.  This year our guides included: a team, the two thieves on the cross; Elizabeth; Simon the Zealot; and Mary in her later years.  In years past we have had the Apostles John, Peter, and Paul; the little girl Jesus raised from the dead; Nicodemus; Judas (yes that Judas); and one time, Satan, though he was not able to finish the tour.  He just couldn't get past the empty tomb.
These trailers take guests past scenes that portray:

  •  the annunciation,
  • the shepherds in the field and the announcement by the angels,
  • The scene at the manger,
  • The visit of the wisemen to the young king,
  • A scene by the sea of Galilee,
  • The Crucifixion,
  • The Empty Tomb,
  • And the Great White Throne.

Instead of a scold, demanding that our neighbors say, "Merry Christmas," rather than, "Happy Holidays," our community is greeted with a warm smile, some cookies, an opportunity to visit with friends, and a winsome, unique presentation of the greatest story ever told.  Granted we are a Bible-belt community, but the general response we get after our presentation is a warm thanks.  Many families return year after year.  The only negative responses I recall are complaints that we only do our presentation for one weekend, and that the presentation by Satan, "Lou C. Fir" was just too frightening.  (Our ushers warned people about this particular guide, but some did not heed the warning.  There were those who spoke highly of the devil being a guide.  I think they enjoyed the spectacle of his defeat, and seeing things from a different perspective opens one's mind.)  

We know that we can't accurately portray these events.  We try to not include elements that are false--
though we cross the line with little kid angels--and we point out where some of the popular conceptions of the Christmas story are false, or at least not known for sure.  What we are trying to do is give a feel of what it was like, and give folk something to think about.  We want to fuel some positive conversations.  We don't charge anything to participate in the Live Nativity.  We offer it as a gift to our community.  It is not a good evangelistic tool, in that we don't have a list of folk who have given their lives to the Lord as a result of our event.  It does very much keep Christ in Christmas.  It is a lot more trouble to host a Live Nativity than it is to put on a button, but I think it is much more effective.  Billy agrees.

You can find more pictures of our event here:

We would be glad to talk to you about how you could host a Live Nativity in your community.  Write us at

Merry CHRISTmas.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Faithfulness, it ripens slowly:

I just read a great report in the September Christianity Today, Why  Christianity Is Surging in the Heart of Islam. (19-20)  In particular the article speaks of churches that are starting and growing in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qutar and United Arab Emirates.  Reporter Jayson Casper points out the fact that "Gulf churches exist at all stems from relationships."  As an example of those redemptive relationships he points to some medical missions started in the region by TEAM.  "In 1960 before the oil boom that propelled the region to immense wealth, missionaries with TEAM (The Evangelical Alliance Mission) were invited by tribal sheikhs to start a hospital in what is now the UAE after TEAM's medical work in Kuwait and Bahrain attracted their attention.  [at the time] half of local children and 35 percent of mothers were dying during childbirth."  Today "many royal family members were born in the hospital."  The care that gave them life and saved the lives of their mother is not soon forgotten.  Kindness shown 50 years ago is bringing about freedom for Christian ministry today.
With all the horrible news of persecution of Christians in Muslim lands this report of tolerance and opportunity is incredibly refreshing, but it's not all.  When I came to Covington Bible Church 42 years ago, one of the missionaries our church supported was Norm Niemeyer.  Norm and Sue were missionaries with TEAM in Trinidad.  After a ministry that included establishing a couple of churches and a Bible camp in the Island nation, Norm became an executive with TEAM.  We continued to support the Niemeyers as Norm gave leadership to the organization's ministries in the region that included the Arab world.  I still remember some of the tales that Norm told about his visits to TEAM's medical operations in the Arabian Peninsula.  For several years Norm was a key player in the success of those humanitarian ministries that are today bearing the fruit of opportunities for a new generation of missionaries.
Norm is with the Lord now, but I remember back in the day when Norm was "our" missionary being impressed that it seemed that every little church I visited in this end of Virginia and over the border in West Virginia had a picture of Sue and Norm Niemeyer on their missionary bulletin board.  A bunch of small congregations all across this region faithfully sent their ten, twenty, or fifty dollars per month to support this dedicated family.  These folk faithfully served.  Because of this long, slow investment today there are "great evangelistic opportunities."
Who'd a thunk it?  If you put a question mark after the title of the article, "Why Christianity is surging in the heart of Islam?"  the answer is because Covington Bible Church supported the Niemeyers.    

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Proverbs for Preachers:

This is a post for my fellow preacher, and, perhaps even more, for those who aspire to preach.

It was recently my privilege to share six sessions in a homiletics class.  One of the things I did, in preparing for the class was come up with proverbial sayings about preaching/pastoring.  I didn't put any music with this.  Play your own.  :)


Maybe these will encourage some thought and discussion

What Does The Bible Say About Abortion?

Last week, I did a series of posts over STTA, and some parallels here, on the moral/ethical/political/cultural issue of abortion and the aanctity of life.  I finished this round on this subject, over at STTA on Friday.  My intention was to do one more post, here.  Her it is.
This is mostly some notes from a message I did a while back.  Notes, at least my notes aren't intended for general consumption, so I'm cleaning this up some.  I figure it will still have that note-ish quality about it.

 What Does The Bible Say About Abortion?  
1       Is Human Life Unique?
 Not too long ago this would be a question that would not make any sense.
Today it is a question that cries out to be answered.

I am not in any way encouraging cruelty to animals.  We have a responsibility to treat them properly.

“A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal, But even the compassion of the wicked is cruel.” (Proverbs 12:10, NASB95)
The godly care for their animals, but the wicked are always cruel. (NLT)
Peter Singer, of Princeton University is obviously an extremist on the matter, but he and other philosophers like him are obviously exerting an influence. .  .
In the previous chapter I gave reasons for believing that the fundamental principle of equality, on which the equality of all human beings rests, is the principle of equal consideration of interests. Only a basic moral principle of this kind can allow us to defend a form of equality which embraces all human beings, with all the differences that exist between them. I shall now contend that while this principle does provide an adequate basis for human equality, it provides a basis which cannot be limited to humans. In other words I shall suggest that, having accepted the principle of equality as a sound moral basis for relations with others of our own species, we are also committed to accepting it as a sound moral basis for relations with those outside our own species - the nonhuman animals.  (rest of article)
Another writer on the subject, Joan Dunayer, had this to say, “When I was writing Animal Equality, a friend questioned the book's title. Did I really mean to say that all animals are equal? Yes, I did. Like human equality, animal equality doesn't mean equal abilities. It means that all animals have an equal right to moral consideration and legal protection.”

The position of the Bible is entirely different.
I’ll summarize it by referring to 3 passages of scripture.  Jot them down.  All 3 refer to the image or the likeness of God.  The later 2 are after the Fall:
(Gen 1:27 NASB)  And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

(Gen 9:6 NASB)  "Whoever sheds man's blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man.

(James 3:9&10  With it we bless our Lord and Father; and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.
There are a great many things that we have in common with animals, we can take great joy from their companionship, and we have a responsibility to treat them in an appropriate manner and to spare them any unnecessary cruelty.
But, one of the great gulfs that exist in God’s creation is the gulf between the value of human life, and the value of the life of animals.

The life of human beings is special—sacred—because of that creation in God’s image.  That great worth is powerfully made known by the death of God’s Son to redeem us.
You can see this in the natural realm . . .
In the very act of denying that there is a difference, people demonstrate that there is.

2When Does Human Life Begin?

Again let me marshal some Biblical evidence for an answer, and then look at this in the natural realm.  All of the following, more material is available in the supplement, I referred to.

The Bible indicates that God oversees the formation of human life within the womb.
For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them.” (Psalm 139:13–16, NASB95)

The Bible consistently speaks of life as a continuum
It is a person in the womb, the same person that is after birth.  The Apostle Paul speaks of that continuation in Gal. 1:15.  “But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was please to reveal His Son in me . . . ” (Galatians 1:15, NASB95)

Note the interaction of the born and unborn in Luke 1:39-44
Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! “And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? “For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.” (Luke 1:39–44, NASB95)

Modern medical science has made it very difficult to miss this truth.
·         18 days from conception, heart begins to beat, with the baby’s own blood.
·    28 days from conception a baby has eyes, ears, and even a tongue!
·    28 days from conception: Muscles are developing along the future spine. Arms and legs are budding.
·    30 days: Child has grown 10,000 times to 6-7mm (1/4”) long. Brain has human proportions. Blood flows in veins.
·    42 days: Skeleton is formed. Brain coordinates movement of muscles and organs. Reflex responses have begun.
·         42 days: Brain waves can be detected, the jaw forms, including teeth and taste buds. The unborn baby begins to swallow amniotic fluid.Fingers and toes are developing.
·    45 days from conception: The unborn baby is making body movements, a full 12 weeks before the mother may notice such stirrings. By seven weeks the chest and abdomen are fully formed. Swimming with a natural swimmer’s stroke in the amniotic fluid, the baby now looks like a miniature human infant.
·         44-45 days: Buds of milk teeth appear, and the unborn baby’s facial muscles develop. Eyelids begin to form, protecting the developing eyes. Elbows take shape. Internal organs are present, but immature. 99% of muscles are present, each with its own nerve supply.
·    52 Days: Spontaneous movement begins. The unborn baby then develops a whole collection of moves over the next 4 weeks includinghiccuping, frowning, squinting, furrowing the brow, pursing the lips, moving individual arms and legs, head turning, touching his/her face, breathing (without air), stretching, opening the mouth, yawning and sucking.
8 – 10 weeks
·         8 Weeks: Now a small-scale baby, at approximately 3 cm (1 1/8”) and weighing a gram (1/30gth oz.), yet well proportioned. Every organ is present. Baby’s heartbeat is steady. Stomach produces digestive juices. Liver makes blood cells. Kidneys begin to function. Taste buds are forming.
·    8 ½ Weeks: The unborn baby’s fingerprints are being engraved. Eyelids and palms of hands are sensitive to touch.
·    8- 8 ½ Weeks: Of the 4500 structures in the adult body, 4000 are now present in the unborn baby. The skeleton of the arms and legs and the spine begins to stiffen as bone cells are added.

The person known as Howard Merrell has been changing for the past, nearly 65 years.  Most recently he acquired a very sophisticated new right knee.
In the 9 months prior to that change was much more rapid and profound. 
But from the moment of my conception it was certain that I would blue eyes and a gap in my teeth.  There was no doubt that I would have black hair that would turn to gray. 
The genetic predisposition to having big legs with knees that were prone to wear out was there the moment the cell from my mom and the one from my dad were united. 
From that moment until the present, and indeed for the rest of eternity I am that person known as Howard Lee Merrell the son of Irene and Audley Merrell.

Is it ever right for one human being to take the life of another?

The most accurate translation of the 6th Commandment is, "Thou shalt not murder."
All needless taking of human life is to be avoided.  When a human takes the life of another without Divine sanction, it is wrong—grievously wrong. 
Not all taking of human life is murder.

·         While death resulting from accident is horrible, it is not the same as what is condemned in the 6th Commandment.  Numbers 35 is helpful in sorting that out. 
·         The death of another that takes place in self-defense is not murder.
(Both of these can relate to questions in regard to the death of the unborn.)
·         When one takes the life of another in war, or in the execution of police action . . .
·         Properly administered capital punishment. . . .
Abortion as it is currently carried out in our nation is in almost every instance totally removed from any of those.  Arguing on the basis of the few possible exceptions to justify the whole is dishonest. 

What Should We Do About It?
  I put this question forth knowing it is a horribly polarizing issue.
Certainly it has divided our nation politically.
It divides families and has split churches.
It has been over 40 years since the Supreme Court of the US changed our nation’s laws.  Many in the Christian community are just tired of the whole thing.  The newer debate over the definition of marriage has taken up some of the oxygen.
It’s much more trendy to rally for social justice and to advocate for an end to human trafficking than it is to uphold the right to life for the unborn.  Those are important, but. . . .

With that in mind, what do I recommend in 2015?  This is something for you to do . . .
·         Keep the main thing the main thing.
This may sound strange in a message in which I am encouraging you to take a stand for the life of the unborn, but we need to know that the primary message of the church is not pro-life—for that matter it is not traditional marriage, or any of the other social issues on which we need to take a stand.
I am not encouraging compromise.  I am saying that we ought to make sure that we don’t do anything to negate the most important message.

·         Be politically aware and use politics properly.
Several years ago I wrote to one of our state politicians.  Really a good guy.  I don’t remember precisely what the issue was but it was something in this realm.  I asked him to vote for, and advocate for, a proposal that would move our commonwealth in the right direction in this regard.  He wrote back that what was proposed would be struck down by the courts anyway.  It would be a waste of effort, time, and most important money.  He wasn’t going to support it.  Nothing was really said about whether it was right.
Just about any great social advance ever made, began as a losing battle. 
Yes, I want a representative who knows how to get things done, but more important than that, I want those who lead my nation and state and community to be dedicated to doing what is right.  I want a representative who will advocate for a losing cause if it is the right cause.
I didn’t vote for that guy.  I’m not going to tell you who he is or what party he is in, but I don’t think you should either. 
I do not believe that the answer is primarily political, but having said that, it is incontrovertibly true that the state of things as they currently are is a result of our having elected representatives with a particular view of right and wrong who have appointed judges and bureaucrats. .  .
Since, as Abraham Lincoln said, ours is a government of the people, I must not only heed the commands of scripture addressed to those who are ruled.  I must heed what the Bible says about those who are in power.  When I vote, or even more so when I campaign, I am exercising power.  In the same way as a king, or president, or congressperson, or judge should use their power for good.  I should as well

·         I said it is not primarily a matter of politics, though that is not something we can simply ignore.  It is certainly not a matter of force.  We must seek to reach the heart.  It is not a matter of coercion.  It is a matter of persuasion.

·         Don’t just talk—especially don’t just yell—do something. 
What are we doing to uphold life?
Snack pack (This is a local program that provides food to kids who depend on school breakfasts and lunches.  Some of them don't have anything to eat when they aren't in school.  This program seeks to help.)
Every week we have the privilege of reaching out to kids who are otherwise ignored. 
James put it this way, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27, NASB95)

·         One more, and this one is especially for people like me.  We need to proclaim grace.
At my weekly gathering with some pastor friends there were four of us last Thursday, representing two churches.  My colleagues from our sister church addressed this subject last Sunday night.  Doug and I knew this message was coming this AM.  
      We asked one another, "Do you think anyone was, or will be present who has been touched by abortion?".
Almost certainly.
Some of you, because of someone close, or maybe even because of personal experience, find this terribly hard.
Many, perhaps most, abortions take place in the midst of confusion, despair, depression, and pressure from others.
God loves each of us.  He loves you.  He loves that person you are close to who has been horribly hurt.
Come to His love.

The testimony of Norma McCorvey, Roe, is that she found that grace in Jesus Christ.  It wasn’t hard preaching that caused Miss Norma to change from pro-choice to pro-life and more importantly to turn to the Lord Jesus.  It was the love of a little girl.

Let us make sure that our message is always one of love, compassion, and forgiveness.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

For the mom carrying a precious life, there is help.

I don't have much time, but I wanted to post a couple of links.
One of the accusations that is often made toward we prolife folk is that we are only concerned about the life of the unborn child.  The claim is we have no sympathy for the life of the mother.

Our rhetoric and political strategy often communicate that.  We need to do a better job.  That is one purpose of this emphasis at STTA and this blog.

To our credit, many prolifers are putting their money where their mouths are.  Below are a couple of resources in our area where moms in difficult circumstances can find help.

I'll post other information that readers provide, if it checks out.  We have worked with the above organizations and I trust them.

Beyond that, I'm pleased to have been involved with Covington Bible Church all my adult life.  We don't have a Crisis Pregnancy Center or any special program for moms or babies, but we have helped many moms, dads, and others do the right thing and reap the blessing.  I promise that if you get in touch with us we'll do what we can to reach out to you with the Lord's help.