Dec 22, 2007

600 Families Come to First Wesleyan!

This past Thursday (Dec. 20), the Huntington First Wesleyan Church partnered with the Salvation Army to distribute Christmas gifts and food boxes to over 600 low-income families. Earlier in the month, my wife Natalie noticed on the local news that the Salvation Army was in a crisis because they could not find a building to hold and distribute their Angel Tree Christmas gift program. I immediately called Captain Bob Mullins of the Huntington Salvation Army and they agreed to set up shop in our gym for three weeks.

So on December 20, about twenty-five volunteers from Huntington First came out to assist in any way they could. Many of them took the day off work in order to help. Over 11,000 Christmas presents, 600 Christmas dinners, 150 plus bicycles, 75 Jesus Videos, 60 Bibles, and 900 invite cards to First Wesleyan's Christmas service were distributed to over 600 families throughout the day.

This was such an amazing day to see God's people being missionaries to their own community. We were blown away by the generosity of this city, and we're excited to do it again next year!

May 19, 2007

Is God Green? | Part 1

Everyone seems to be going "green" lately. There is this cultural phenomenon, driven mostly by the media, that has sounded an alarm about our role in global warming. It feels like the global community is beginning to go into this "survival mode" as people change everything from their light bulbs to the type of cars they drive. Billions of dollars are being spent to research global warming, educate the global community, and to eventually change the way we live in order to prevent greenhouse gases from being released into the atmosphere.

The basic premise about global warming goes like this...
1. The global temperature has risen since the late 19th century, and more drastically in the last 30 years.
2. Global warming is mostly attributed to human activities where greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere.
3. If humans don't change their behavior and attitude about these greenhouse gases, then the warming will continue, causing the sea level to rise dramatically.

Celebrities and the media are creating quite a stir that is driving the public to change the way they live and think about the world. We've been told that this is primarily our fault and so we must be the ones to take the responsibility and fix this problem. Is this an exaggeration?

Here are some preliminary conclusions (feel free to disagree). First, climate changes have occured throughout history, not just within the last decade when people have become more aware. I don't think the earth is suprised at all, to be honest. Second, temperatures have risen since the early 1800s, even before the Industrial Revolution began. If the argument is that global warming is due to the gases we emit from our machines, then how is global warming explained before these machines began to exist? Third, there is no scientific consensus about what causes global warming, and yet we are paying all this money in support of something that has not yet been fully proven. Fourth, the media plays a huge role in creating the hysteria that global warming is primarily our fault. Finally, we are very arrogant to think that we are powerful enough as human beings to control the climate by our own technology and will-power. We can't even correctly predict the weather with a 24-hour period.

This brings me to some theological questions. Is God green? Does He care about his own creation as much as the media does right now, and if so, would He go about it differently? What is the Christian's role in caring for the earth? Or the deeper question, why should we care about the earth? What does the Bible say about being green? I'll answer these questions in my next post.

One final note. Yes the globe is warming. Is it primarily our fault? There's no concrete evidence that it is. Also, I do believe it's very important to take care of God's good creation, but should that come at the price of deception and gullibility on a worldwide scale? Or if we "go green", we tell ourselves that we're saving the planet, but isn't this just another way we can feel better about ourselves and raise our self-esteem?

Every time we install a low-energy light bulb or shut off the faucet while brushing our teeth, we need to ask ourselves, "Why am I doing this?" Is it because I really want to be a good steward of God's creation, or do I believe that the salvation of this planet is really in my own hands? There is a difference. And the subversive cultural message that is being preached right now is that we as individuals are powerful enough to save ourselves by what we do. "If we 'go green' we can save the world and ourselves from a coming disaster." Isn't this a false gospel?

Mar 26, 2007

Common Objections to Helping the Poor

I came across a sermon by Jonathan Edwards entitled The Duty of Christian Charity. He preached it because his Puritan congregation kept coming up with all sorts of excuses why they didn't want to give to the poor. I find it interesting that many congregations and Christians in general still make these same excuses today.

Here is a condensed list of common objections to helping the poor, both in the 1700s and our own day...

1. They're not really poor - I only have to help those in extreme cases.
2. They don't deserve to be helped.
3. I can barely provide for myself, let alone someone else.
4. I'll wait to see how they got into this condition in the first place.
5. I won't help unless they ask.
6. He dug his own pit, so he can dig his way out.
7. Someone else will take care of them.
8. They already get enough help from the government.

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC, gives clarity to Edward's answers in his sermon "Neighbors." The answer to excuse #1 - we should relieve our neighbors in only extreme destitution. "That is not agreeable to the rule of loving our neighbors as ourselves. We get concerned and do something long before we become destitute. So you should love your neighbor as yourself."

As to excuse #2 and #6 - I don't have to help when they have brought this onto themselves...they don't deserve it. Keller paraphrases Edwards by saying, "But Christ loved you, pitied you, and greatly laid himself out to relieve you from all that want and misery that you brought on yourself. Should we not love others as Christ loved us?"

And as to excuse #5 - I can hardly make ends meet myself...I can't afford to do it. Edwards answers it with a question, "How else will 'bearing one another's burdens' be fulfilled? If we be never obliged to relieve others' burdens, except when we can do it without burdening ourselves, then how do we bear our neighbor's burdens, when we bear no burden at all?" Keller explains, people think that they cannot give to the poor or needy without it burdening them or hurting one's standard of living. The point is, this has to cost us something and it has to be sacrifical, otherwise we aren't bearing their burdens.

What other excuses do we have?

Mar 12, 2007

John Wesley on Animals in Heaven

Questions about heaven come up in conversations for both believers and unbelievers. Death seems to bring most of these questions to mind. One question I get asked is, "Will my cat Sammy be in heaven?" Children are quick to ask this since they usually experience the death of a pet before the death of a parent or other family member. There's obviously more important questions that need to be asked before this one, but I think it's necessary to address.

The first thought that usually came to my mind when asked this question was, "Who cares. Animals don't have a soul, they don't have a conscience, and Jesus died to save only humans and forgive them of there sins." I've recently begun to change my attitude about this.

In the creation account of the Bible (Genesis 1-2), God created the animals on days five and six. First the fish and birds, then all the other animals. And for both, "God saw that it was good." We also see God create mankind on day six and He places man in charge of the animals (1:26,28) and the man gives each of them names (2:19-20).

John Wesley says at this point of creation, the animals "had gratitude to man for benefits received, and a reverence for him. They had likewise a kind of benevolence to each other, unmixed with any contrary temper. How beautiful many of them were, we may conjecture from that which still remains; and that not only in the noblest creatures, but in those of the lowest order. And they were all surrounded, not only with plenteous food, but with every thing that could give them pleasure; pleasure unmixed with pain; for pain was not yet; it had not entered into paradise. And they too were immortal: For 'God made not death; neither hath he pleasure in the death of any living.' (Wesley's sermon #60.1.5 "The Great Deliverance").

Then in Genesis 3 comes the Fall , as theologians call it, when mankind sins. When this happened, did some kind of fall occur with the animals? Since God created "every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man" in the garden to be named, wouldn't they have to be tame? Today, it's pretty obvious to see that many animals are more violent than others.

For example, my dog ("Ike") is much friendlier than a cat? And not just any household cat, but wild cats. Is there something that my dog understands better than a cat? He’s more submissive to me than a tiger, he’s more friendly than a panther, and a lot less uptight than a lion. Is it because of his nature and surroundings? Have some animals always been more violent than others? What makes a mountain lion more dangerous to be around than a household pet? These are all questions I think about, and wonder if it was like this from the beginning of creation, or did their disposition occur as a result of the Fall.

Wesley addresses this issue as well. “As man is deprived of his perfection, his loving obedience to God; so brutes are deprived of their perfection, their loving obedience to man. The far greater part of them flee from him; studiously avoid his hated presence. The most of the rest set him at open defiance; yea, destroy him, if it be in their power. A few only, those we commonly term domestic animals, retain more or less of their original disposition, (through the mercy of God) love him still, and pay obedience to him" (sermon #60.2.2).

In addition, he goes into detail about what occured to the animals once mankind fell from his state of perfection. "The whole animated creation, whatever has life, from leviathan to the smallest mite, was thereby made subject to such vanity, as the inanimate creatures could not be. They were subject to that fell monster, DEATH, the conqueror of all that breathe. They were made subject to its fore-runner, pain, in its ten thousand forms; although "God made not death, neither hath he pleasure in the death of any living." How many millions of creatures in the sea, in the air, and on every part of the earth, can now no otherwise preserve their own lives, than by taking away the lives of others; by tearing in pieces and devouring their poor, innocent, unresisting fellow-creatures! Miserable lot of such innumerable multitudes, who, insignificant as they seem, are the offspring of one common Father; the creatures of the same God of love! It is probable not only two-thirds of the animal creation, but ninety-nine parts of a hundred, are under a necessity of destroying others in order to preserve their own life! But it shall not always be so" (Wesley's sermon #64.17 "New Creation").

It shall not always be so! So what's next for them? They will not always continue in this state of survival of the fittest. Romans 8:19-22 makes it pretty clear, "For ALL creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, ALL creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that ALL creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time." We can conclude that creation includes the animal kingdom, and they too are groaning for redemption. They too desire to be made right as they were when God created them, just as humans do.

God is interested in redeeming all of creation, even the entire earth. All throughout the Scriptures, there is mention of a new heaven and new earth (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1; Isaiah 65:17, 66:22; Job 19:25-27). So the question, "Will animals go to heaven when they die," for me, is a question of where one believes heaven is located. Wesley believed what the Scriptures state, that heaven will come to earth.

He says, "He that sitteth upon the throne will soon change the face of all things, and give a demonstrative proof to all his creatures that "his mercy is over all his works." The horrid state of things which at present obtains, will soon be at an end. On the new earth, no creature will kill, or hurt, or give pain to any other. The scorpion will have no poisonous sting; the adder, no venomous teeth. The lion will have no claws to tear the lamb; no teeth to grind his flesh and bones. Nay, no creature, no beast, bird, or fish, will have any inclination to hurt any other; for cruelty will be far away, and savageness and fierceness be forgotten. So that violence shall be heard no more, neither wasting or destruction seen on the face of the earth. "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb," (the words may be literally as well as figuratively understood) "and the leopard shall lie down with the kid: They shall not hurt or destroy," from the rising up of the sun, to the going down of the same. (sermon #64.17).

God is in the process of redeeming the entire creation to its original state, which includes animals (both domestic and wild).

Some additional questions:
1. Do Wesleyans believe in an "escapist theology" which says that we won't have anything to do with this earth in the future state of things? In other words, is heaven "up there" somewhere, or will it be right here among us?

2. If God plans to redeem animals to there original state when he created them, what does that tell us about God?

3. I'm not a vegetarian by any means, but if this is God's plan, how should we treat animals and the rest of creation right now, so that we can be a part of the process of bringing "heaven to earth"?

Mar 4, 2007

REVIEW: Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp is a documentary that was released in 2006 and was recently nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature. It portrays the lives of young children who attend an evangelical fundamentalist kids camp ("Kids on Fire") in North Dakota, led by chldren's Pastor Becky Fischer.

Overall, I thought the film itself was well done, but disturbing on many levels. First, I don't think "Jesus Camp" does a very good job at representing Jesus. It seems to have more of a political agenda than anything. For someone like me who's had little contact with the Pentecostal traditions of evangelicalism, I felt uncomfortable, angry, and emotionally exhausted. Both my wife and I felt this tension that I think most people feel, that it's okay to discuss issues like pro-life, the decline of moralism in society, and spiritual warfare, but we felt sick to our stomachs in the way these issues were portrayed.

I honestly felt sorry for the kids in this film. Although they are very passionate, they seemed "brainwashed and indoctrinated" (as the radio host on the documentary suggests). Other aspects of the camp included emotional times of prayer, speaking in tongues, smashing mugs with a hammer that had "government" written on them (they were trying to invoke God to bring our nation back to Christian values again). At one point, they brought out a cardboard cut-out of President George W. Bush and started laying hands on it and praying for him. Other scenes include a worship service at Ted Haggard's former church in Colorado Springs. This was obviously filmed before his sex scandal.

I think it's important to watch Jesus Camp because it helps us see how much damage and confusion fundamentalism causes, but it also exposes a need for balance in how religion and politics should interact with one another. For those who are already disgruntled with the church, I'm not sure how much this film will help. It could, if they pay attention to the rebuttal that takes place from the radio host that is dispersed throughout the film.

By the way, because of the negative reaction this film has caused, "Kids on Fire" camp has closed down for the time being.

Mar 2, 2007

Can we inherit eternal life by DOING?

I find it interesting in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) the question this lawyer poses to Jesus, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Our protestant answer when we read such a question is, “You can’t do anything to inherit eternal life! You just got to have faith.” And not the George Michael kind.

What I find interesting is that Jesus not only answers the lawyer’s question with a question of His own (“What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”), but Jesus goes on to answer it in the form of a parable that describes what people do and don’t do (i.e. the Good Samaritan).

But let’s look first at the answer this lawyer gives to Jesus. He quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” When Jesus heard the lawyer respond in this way, Jesus agreed with him. In fact, we see Jesus giving this answer Himself in Matthew 22 and Mark 12. After Jesus tells the lawyer he’s answered the question correctly, Jesus says, “DO THIS, and you will live.”

So back to the first question, “What shall I DO to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds, “DO THIS (i.e. Deut. 6:4-5 and Lev. 19:18), and you will live.” For some reason, many of us separate this whole concept of being and doing (or believing and doing). It’s difficult for us to see Jesus respond in this way. But if we look at these two great commandments, they are based upon a verb (ahav in Hebrew). A verb requires that we do something. It requires that we take action, or else it wouldn’t be a verb.

We can’t love God and our neighbor by mustering up enough feelings within ourselves, because love isn’t about what we feel, it’s about what we DO. Love pays the bills. Love comes home and plays with the kids. Love puts food on the table. Love even compels God to do something about our sin, so He comes to earth and dies in our place. This is why loving God isn’t about mustering up enough strength in your heart, mind, and soul as if they were feelings. There are many days when I don’t feel like my relationship with God is going well. I know many others who feel the same way. But love is not about what you feel, it’s about what you do. And this doing, Jesus says, is how we inherit eternal life.

But what about belief? Belief is there for the lawyer already. Of course He believes in God. In his mind, as for every other Jew at the time, they were concerned how they could honor God by what they do. They knew their actions couldn’t save them. Yet, actions followed their faith. The point is, if you truly love God and your neighbor, you’re going to want to express that with your heart, soul, mind, and strength. We get the impression when we hear these two great commandments that we have to feel a certain way in our hearts, souls, and minds before we can love. Maybe we have it backwards. Love is what you do, and the person behind the love will drive you to be passionate.

Every core of who we are is wrapped up in this action of loving. Both Romans 13 and Galatians 5 says that love is the fulfillment of the law. This is all based on an action of doing (i.e. loving).

In addition, Jesus follows up this lawyer’s answer with a parable about doing. A parable about love in action. A man is walking along a dangerous road by himself and is robbed, assaulted, and left for dead. The one who loves the man is the one we least expect (the Samaritan), while the religious ones (priests and Levites) we expect to love - don't. The Samaritan loves the man by tending to his wounds, paying his bills, and providing for him a place to stay.

What we tend to miss in this parable is the fact that Jesus is not only showing us that we should be active in our love like the Good Samaritan, but we also should be the ones to love the Good Samaritan when we’re so used to hating him. Jesus ends the parable by asking another question, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer (in context) answers Him, “The one who showed him mercy.” Notice how the lawyer answers Jesus. He says, “The one…” He can’t even say the word Samaritan. Could he possibly hate these people this much? Most Jews of the day actually did.

So Jesus says, “You go, and DO likewise.” Jesus exposes the lawyers stereotypes, prejudices, and hatred toward the Samaritans. How is he going to start loving God if he can’t even love his neighbor (the Samaritan)? How can this man inherit eternal life if he doesn’t show this active love to his own enemies?

Jesus fuses together being and doing (believing and doing), even eternal life and DOING. James, the brother of Jesus, caught on later to what this means. He says, “What good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (2:14,18).

In no way am I advocating works righteousness. I don't necessarily think that's the main point anyway. What I think Jesus is really getting at is there is no distinction between Samaritans (outcasts) and priests when it comes to following Christ. He is breaking down the walls that separate them. That is the true Gospel being unveiled in real life. If you love your neighbor, then you’re respecting God’s image in that person, and are therefore respecting and honoring God.

Any thoughts?

Mar 1, 2007


Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.

As a popular nursery rhyme, Humpty Dumpty resonates with a large number of people in how they feel about themselves, friends, the world, and life in general. There's an overwhelming state of hopelessness and despair that we find ourselves in at times. For some, it never seems to end.

If God is reconciling all things to himself, according to Colossians 1:19-20, then let's name what those things are. There's obviously no space within one post to go into great detail about each of these things and how God puts these things back together (that will be for subsequent posts), but it would be a good start to get out in the open what things actually break apart in life.

1. Relationships. Divorce and separation are all too common, even within my own family. Friendships get slaughtered, marriages disolve, siblings harbor bitterness toward one another, enemies kill each other. Sometimes this is between individuals, while other times it involves entire nations. Unrighteous anger and revenge cause retaliation, prejudices, stereotypes, violence, isolation, and murder. More tragic than any of these relationships is the broken relationship humanity has with God (i.e. without Jesus and the Gospel) because of our sin. It's created a wall of separation between us and God and each other.

2. Physical bodies. Any elderly person who has difficulty getting around knows exactly what I mean. We get older, and then we die. Everyone breaks down.

3. Creation. Romans 8 says that "creation was subjected to hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay." I hope to take a close look at this and what it means for us to be a part of the process of reconciliation.

4. Condition of humanity. Just to ponder over the amount of things in life that are broken, forces us to ask why it happens. Relationships are severed, physical bodies break down, and creation is frustrated because of our sinful condition. Proverbs 20:9 reminds us, "Who can say, 'I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin?'" Jeremiah adds, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (17:9). We also don't need anyone to teach us how to be evil and we can't blame our surrounding environment or family that raised us. Jesus is clear in His teachings that the reason all things are broken, including ourselves, is because of our wicked hearts.

The Gospel reveals that Jesus is the only One who can make these wrongs right. He's the only One who can put all things back together again. That is His message and His kingdom, and this "putting back together" has already begun. How this happens and who is involved is for many future posts.