Third Sunday of Advent

Tomorrow (or today, in some of the over 60 countries of the world where this blog is read) is the third Sunday of Advent. Historically, the pink or rose candle of our Advent wreathes are lit today. It is called the Gaudete candle in Latin, which means the “rejoice” candle. It is a reminder to us that no matter how dark the world, the darkness will not prevail; no matter how out-of-control things seem to be, God is the ruler yet. Thus we can rejoice in the “comings” of the Lord (that he came once and he will come again) and that such joy can be our strength. The presence of our Lord, our Emmanuel, has bracketed our sorrows with the hope that if the last hour belongs to him, we do not need to fear the next moment. (Helmut Thielicke)

Go to the menu portion of this blog to see the daily devotional thoughts for this third week of Advent. I hope these have been helpful.

Special note: My new book The Goodness of Affliction: Encouragement for Those Who Suffer has just been published. It will soon be available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Christian Book Distributors. This will be a good book to pass onto those whom you know who are struggling with grief, sickness, or discouragement. May God use it for his glory and the good of the Church.

Second Sunday in Advent

On this second Sunday* in Advent (adventus- arrival, coming) we light the first and second purple candles on our Advent wreath. The first candle is sometimes called the prophecy candle, because it represents the HOPE and anticipation of the coming of the Messiah as foretold by the prophets like Isaiah. The second candle represent FAITH and it is sometimes called the Bethlehem candle indicating that God kept his promise that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Be sure to click on the menu portion of this blog and find the daily readings and thoughts for this coming week. Even so, come Lord Jesus!

Also, I have also published on my menu page a “Primer on Eschatology.” Don’t let this big word scare you. It is simply a list of different views on the end of things and the Second Coming of Christ. While Christians agree that Jesus Christ is coming back, the how, when, and where differ significantly. This primer is to help you find your own viewpoint and to better understand the others.

*I post my readings on Saturday, because for some who read my blog in places like Australia it is already Sunday.

Advent Devotionals

Today is the beginning of the Advent Season 2020, which (because it is a leap year) runs through December 24th. The first purple candle (three purple and one pink) on your Advent wreath is lit today signifying HOPE. Advent begins a four-week period of preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ. The need for spiritual preparation reflects that Christ came to be born into our hearts by faith so that he might save us from our sin, and enter into every aspect of our own anxiety-ridden lives.

I have prepared this daily devotional to help you experience the Prince of Peace as he enters into the bedraggled and weary places of your life. It is my prayer that you may find your faith renewed and your hope restored.

Please go to the menu portion of this blog to find the devotionals for this first week.

Join Me on a Journey!!

ARE YOU READY??

Go to the MENU PORTION of this blog and check out the syllabus on Church History 101 and get the text. Then listen to the 6 lessons and view the resources available to enhance your study. There is no hurry to rush through this course (like you did in school) and feel like you are taking a drink out of a fire hydrant. Proceed at your own pace and LEARN SOMETHING.

Persecution and the Church… Then and Now

I am in the process of developing a Church History 101 course for those who want to learn more about the church since its inception. This course will be about the Early Church, from the first to the fifth-century. One of the things we will be looking at will be the persecution of many early believers. This will be the first of six courses that I will put up on this site. They all will be totally free. Here is a sampling:

Christians, at first, were not seen as distinct from the Jews in the eyes of the Romans. It wasn’t until Nero (around 64 AD) singled out Christians as those to blame for the great fire in Rome, which, by the way, many historians believe Nero himself had set. In this first mass persecution, many Christians died as scapegoats. This was to be the nature of the early persecution of the church—sporadic and local. It grew out of the animosity of the populace towards believers, rather than a deliberate government policy. Pliny the Younger, who was the governor of Bithynia (N. Turkey) and who wrote to Emperor Trajan for clarification on what to do with Christians brought before him by neighbors or local authorities simply because they were Christians. Trajan replied that Christinas should not be sought out, but if they were accused of being Christian and refused to recant, they should be punished. Those who were willing to worship the gods of Rome were to be pardoned and all anonymous accusations were to be ignored. It was the original don’t ask don’t tell policy. But there were still martyrs: Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, whose last words were, “I am the wheat of God and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God.” And then there was Polycarp, the aged Bishop of Smyrna, who said when asked to swear by the emperor and curse Christ, “For eighty and six years I have served him, and he has done me no evil. How could I curse my king, who saved me?” He was burned at the stake.

A more universal persecution of Christians did not begin until around 161 AD under Marcus Aurelius. Many more died, including the consecrated widow (worked for the church) Felicitas and her seven sons. She was asked to recant and she replied, “For while I live, I shall defeat you; and if you kill me, in my death I shall defeat you all the more.” Then, persecution suddenly ended in 180 AD when Aurelius died. It began again under Septimus Severus in 202 AD and many more more suffered death in the Coliseum, such as a 22 year old nursing mother, Perpetua, and her servant girl, Felicitas. They were whipped by gladiators, run through by a wild bull, and eventually put to death by the sword.

Then persecution abated for fifty years only to start up again in 249-251 AD under Emperor Decius—it was the first one that was empire-wide. Decius used a different method of persecution, because he realized that killing Christians had only succeeded in making more Believers, as the Christian apologist Tertullian had said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Some even volunteered to die, believing that all post-baptismal sins of a martyr were forgiven. Thus, Decius had Christians perform just one pagan observance and they would receive a certificate of sacrifice, with which they would be perpetually safe from harm. Some Christians bribed officials to get certificates without having to sacrifice. However, if they refused to burn incense to the gods, they were beaten and thrown in jail—no longer to the wild beasts. Origen, a famous church apologist, was arrested, tortured, and then released. He died a few hours later. Then there was the persecution under Valerian in 253-260 AD, and another under Diocletian in 284-305 AD. This was called the Great Persecution and it was designed to extinguish Christianity from the empire. It prohibited all Christian gatherings and places of worship, and all clergy should be hunted down. The persecution continued into the reign of Galerius and then suddenly stopped in 311. In 313 AD, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which ended the Roman Empire’s persecution of Christians for good.

It has been estimated that by 325 AD there were 7 million Christians (est. of a total population of 130 million- 40% of the world’s population) scattered throughout the Roman Empire and as many as 2 million martyrs. Why were Christians persecuted? Christianity was considered an “illicit sect” and was on a “no fly” list with the Roman authorities. They were considered dangerous and counter-cultural. They were considered “superstitious.” This word does not mean what you think it does. The Romans were superstitious in the way we understand it with all their gods and legends. But “superstitious” then meant strange, weird, odd, which was part of the reason Christianity was on the list as an illicit sect. Christians refused to worship the gods of the empire and that caused great consternation because of all the superstitions regarding the anger of the gods leading to crop failure or military defeat, etc. They were accused of being atheists because they did not worship an acceptable god (of the empire); they were accused of treason, because they would not burn incense to Caesar or recognize him as Lord; they were accused of immorality, incest, even cannibalism because at their “love feasts” they would call each other brother and sister, greet each other with a holy kiss, and eat the body and blood of Jesus.

After the persecutions were over and Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, the martyrs and confessors (those who suffered but who were not martyred) were loved, reverenced, idealized and venerated. They were appealed to as intercessors when praying to God. Their bones became relics of veneration. At the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicea (787 AD) it was decided that relics must be placed on the altar of a new church before it could be consecrated. (Christian History, Issue 27.) These who “overcame by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Rev. 12:11)—these became a stumbling block to many in their development of a Christ-centered faith.

Today, we are also awed by the stories of those early martyrs as well as modern ones, and for the suffering church in different parts of the world. It has been estimated that in the very first decade of the twenty-first century, 1 million Christians have died for their faith , and average of 100K a year. (JL Allen, 9 Nov 2012, National Catholic Reporter.) We read their stories and hear from various ministries how the church has grown through their witness. Remarkable! But let us not fail to recognize that persecution has also devastated once vibrant Christian communities, especially in the Middle East in particular. Millions have suffered and have been displaced from their homelands. They are facing intense pressure from poverty and starvation, continuing threats and abuse, torture and inhumane imprisonment, and grief over lost loved ones.

One representative of a ministry that deals with the suffering church writes, “Sadly, one-sided stories and perceptions of persecution do not merely blur reality, but they also do damage both to the persecuted and non-suffering church. When persecution is only told as a story of heroism, it blinds us to the reality that Christians living under persecution are human beings who desperately need our care and support… They should not be pressured to share only their ‘heroism’ or ‘miracles’ and to hide from us the depths of their suffering and tears. Similarly, it creates an illusion of an other worldly Christian experience that we do not see in normal settings. The outcome of this is that people think their personal stories and faith do not mean as much as the celebrated persecution stories. They forget that it is grace that saves us all and only grace that sustains all of us. A persecuted Christians is a sinner just like a non-persecuted one. Both need Christ’s redemption….We lack a theology of persecution in the contemporary church.”

The issue for us today is not to idealize persecution or to seek after it if it comes…when it comes…wherever it comes. Our main concern today is to ask “am I willing to live for Jesus”—and to pray for those who are suffering for their faith, whether they have victory stories or not, that they would be comforted and cared for by the Holy Spirit and his church. We can also support ministries that do not glory in the story, but who provide care and material support for our suffering brothers and sisters.

Get ready for the journey into CH 101!

An Election Day (Waiting) Prayer

As I await the vote count from 6 remaining states with population totals of over 18 million and the total number of votes that separate the candidates only around 200K, here is my prayer:

Almighty God, Eternal Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth, we humbly come before you as a church and pray for our nation in throes of this unsettled election. We pray all of this against the background of acknowledging that you are the sovereign God of the universe who sees yesterday and tomorrow through the lens of your eternity, and knows the end from the beginning—ruling over the affairs of humanity just as you govern the earth, skies, and seas.

In spite of all we know to be true about you, Lord, many of us are still filled with anxiety, others of us are fearful, and others even angry. We are thankful for our democratic (representative) form of government and the opportunity we have to exercise a say in its direction. On the other hand, we also acknowledge our allurement to power and the tendency we have to consider our political opinion pre-eminent. We often fail to recognize or admit to our own blind spots and prejudices which could lead us to disregard the opinions of others with as much zeal as they reject ours.

We often put too much faith in “the system” rather than recognizing that it is but a tool in your sovereign hand for accomplishing your divine purposes, not ours. And we admit that such a trust in our own opinion opens us to the dire warning of our Lord Jesus, “Judge not lest you be judged.” We opine the the viewpoint and negative qualities of others, only to see that our sensitivity to such viewpoints flow from the dark crevasses of our own hearts where the same sin dwells.

We are such weak and desperate creatures, willing to trust in anything that seems to serve us most immediately. O Lord, forgive us; revive us; stir within us a passion for your kingdom and glory. May we pursue justice and righteousness not because it is culturally relevant or a part of our party’s platform, but because it is what you desire from us. May we love mercy and kindness not because it fosters civility, but because it reflects you character who makes the rain fall upon the just and unjust. And may we be driven by the Spirit of humility, repentance, forgiveness, and repentance, thus shunning the way of anger and vengeance towards those who “in our minds” don’t deserve it—just like we dd not in your eyes..

For the Day is coming when every proud look will be brought low and you, Lord, will be exalted. All the glory of mankind will bow; all the pride of man will lie in the dust, and you will be exalted in all the earth. And all our political idolatry will be destroyed.

Holy Father, someday this most anticipated election of our lifetime will be be replaced by another. The election of 2020 will need to be googled to be remembered. But you, O Lord, will remain. May we then, as now, acknowledge with the prophet Isaiah, “Puny man! Frail as his breath! Don’t ever put your trust in him!” Through Jesus Christ. Amen.

As I finished writing this prayer the announcement came that Biden was being declared to winner, which still needs to be certified.

Luther or Khomeini? The Pandemic of Hope…

I am re-blogging this post from several years ago. It is about All Saints Day Eve (today), Martin Luther, and the Reformation. But it is also about God’s continuing work among Iranians. What I wrote (below) is dated but still relevant. I have included a more updated report that you can watch on YouTube called the Pandemic of Hope.  https://youtu.be/xMuZnvU3DF4

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On this day after All Saints, what does Martin Luther have in common with the Ayatollah Khomeini? Very little, except for each man being radically committed to his faith. The radicality of Khomeini has produced thousands of refugees fleeing Iran because of its religious oppression, while the faith of Luther has been a means of conversion for thousands of these Iranians immigrants to Christianity. Germany is home to the largest Iranian community numbering 150,000. In an article in Christianity Today titled The Other Iranian Revolution (July/August 2012), Matthias Pankau and Uwe Siemon-Netto chronicled the impact of the gospel on Germany’s Iranian population, especially among the Lutherans. Twelve years ago, a tiny independent Lutheran church in Leipzig began teaching German as a second language to refugees. The church used Luther’s German translation of the Bible as a textbook. Continue reading “Luther or Khomeini? The Pandemic of Hope…”

“What if” Abraham Lincoln were not shot…

As a theologian I do not usually engage in “what ifs,” because I believe in the sovereignty of God which not seem to comport with “what ifs.” However, as an historian, I allow myself, from time to time, to engage in a “what if” if that engagement brings a greater understanding of an historical event. And so, allow me to engage in such an exercise in order to gain a better grasp of what took place in African American history following the Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln believed that he was going to lose the presidential election of 1864. He was running against his former commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George McClellan, whom Lincoln had fired. The war was not going well; the Union casualties were mounting, the Confederate Army at one point had come within 5 miles of Washington, DC, and McClellan’s platform was for peace, even if it meant a continuation of slavery. Lincoln prepared for defeat and asked ex-slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, to draft a plan to help as many slaves as possible escape the South before the November election.. Lincoln also made his cabinet sign a letter pledging their loyalty to the next administration.

Then, the tide of war suddenly turned just months before the election. General William T Sherman captured Atlanta and basically crippled the Confederate’s ability to wage war. In fact, Lincoln won the election by a landslide taking every state within the Union except for Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey. He won 55% of the popular vote and 212 electoral votes to McClellan’s 21. The majority of the Union Army (78%) even voted for him, in most cases by absentee ballots. Andrew Johnson was elected Lincoln’s VP. We could apply a “what if” here— what if Sherman did not capture Atlanta and Lincoln had lost the election, but let’s not go there.

Our main focus now is on what if Lincoln had a migraine and decided to be a no-show at Ford’s Theatre that fateful Good Friday evening on April 14, 1865? U.S. Grant and his wife declined going, because they decided to take an earlier train home to see their grandchildren. History tells us that there were 13 others in the Lincoln circle of friends who also declined the invitation. What if Abe and Mary had as well, thus escaping the assassin’s bullet and living out a second term overseeing reconstruction of the South. I believe that we would be in a very different place than we are today in terms of race relations in our country. This is my thesis and not one that I have read about from another source. We will never know but here is why I think it could have.

Immediately after the Civil War , the US had 4 million previously enslaved people who were now free. Slavery had been abolished in the Union through the Emancipation Proclamation of January, 1863, but still remained institutionalized in the Confederacy until the end of the Civil War. The Appomattox Court House meeting when Lee surrendered to Grant took place on April 9, 1865, but technically the official end of the war did not come until May 9, 1865. (Even then there were pockets of resistance which remained until President Johnson’s proclamation of peace on Aug 20, 1866.)

It was the passage of the 13th amendment on December 6, 1865 that officially ended the institution of slavery (Lincoln signed it after it passed Congress just 5 days before his death, but it had to be ratified by the states.) Frederick Douglass had proclaimed in May 1865, “slavery is not abolished until the Black man has the ballot,” bur it would not be until 1868 that the 14th amendment was ratified extending citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the US (including former slaves) and guaranteeing them equal protection under the law. And it wouldn’t be until February 3, 1870 that the 15th amendment was ratified formally granting Black men the right to vote. (It is to be noted that they could vote before this, but for reasons soon to be discussed this amendment was still needed.)

Unfortunately (and here we are coming to the “what if”), Lincoln’s successor was Andrew Johnson from Tennessee. Although a southerner, he was on the Republican ticket because he wanted to preserve the Union—but he was not anti-slavery. In fact, he favored states-rights and although the Confederate states were forced to ratify the 13th and 14th amendments, it was with the agreement that Johnson would give each Southern state the liberty to carry out Reconstruction as they saw fit. Since racism continued to exist, many states developed very restrictive laws denying Blacks the right to vote as well as denying other rights. These laws were known as “Black Codes” and were in reality a new form of slavery created by old White slave owners: limiting ownership of property, taxation of salaries, unfair labor practices, etc., all designed to keep the Black citizen in check and use the money from their labor and taxes to pay back the debt the South owed the federal government for the war.

The Republican Congress finally took over Reconstruction in 1867 and forced the South to ratify the 14 amendment (and later the 15th) which President Johnson opposed. It was during this period of Congressional Reconstruction that African Americans in the South made significant strides economically and politically. PBS Pinchback, a freed slave, served for 43 days as Governor of Louisiana after its White governor was impeached. In South Carolina, there were 76 Black delegates out of 131 to the convention to re-write the state constitution. Both the speaker and assistant speaker of the SC House of Representatives were Black. John R Lynch became Mississippi’s first US Congressman. From 1870-1901, there were 22 African Americans in Congress (2 were Senators). Jemar Tisby adds, “During Reconstruction, 800 Black men took on roles in South Carolina government like postmasters, assessors, and custom officials.”

When Blacks were in the majority, they did not try to dominate or consolidate power, but sought for equal protection for all under the law. Most of them were Republicans and supported higher tariffs to protect American industry, federal aid to eduction, pensions for soldiers, and improving the infrastructure of the country. One Black Congressman from SC said, “I am being true to my own race…but at the same time, I would not have anything done which would harm the White race.”

Unfortunately, because compliance with Reconstruction was not federally enforced, by 1876 only 3 southern states had reconstruction governments: SC, Louisiana, and Florida. The other states had returned to their old ways and ordered redistributed lands the federal government had mandated for Black families to be returned to former slave owners, therefore, relegating African Americans to become share- croppers on those lands. Here is my point: There was a window of opportunity under Reconstruction for the nation to build a more perfect union and actually practice that “all men are created equal.” But that window was all but closed because of a racist president and the fear of southern Whites that power in the hands of former African American slaves would be used against them. So, here is the “what if”—what if Lincoln was not shot and was the president who directed the first 4 yrs of Reconstruction? Would it have made a difference to where our nation is today in terms of racial equality?

But God is still sovereign…

There are a few more questions that beg asking at this point: What did White backlash to Reconstruction look like and are there similarites to today? What happened to bring about the vote for Black (and White) women? (Did you know that women’s rights groups were originally opposed to the 15th amendment?) Why and when did the Democrats become the party of the South when it was the Republicans who stood for the end of slavery and who guided Reconstruction?