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Guest blog post: “Dead… and yet I see”

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Article copyright by Brian A. Williamson

(Brian A. Williamson is a hospital chaplain and former pastor in Mississippi. He shares the following reflection on a funeral and on a hospital visit he made with a dying patient, which I found thought-provoking. He follows the reflection with a poem. Feel free to share your comments below.)

 

I recently attended the funeral of my dear friend Jack’s beloved wife of more than 30 years—Paula. Paula, too, was a close friend of mine, but not like Jack. I’ve told people many times about Jack’s faithful service as a devoted deacon of the first church I served as pastor. Being with Jack in this setting was different… Many times before Jack and I sat with others in a funeral setting, but usually he was the one walking around and ministering to others in the room. He was clearly uncomfortable on this occasion with all the attention he was receiving by those coming to pay their respects and offer condolences—a mark of an incredibly humble man. On this day, I saw no tears fall from his eyes while I marveled at his faith—he clearly knew that his wife’s final hope was realized.

Paula’s casket was beautiful; the drape of orchids, hydrangea, and white with light blue roses was the prettiest I’d ever seen on a casket. The colors of the flowers provided the eyes with a visual symphony in perfect pitch…and all of this matched the colors of the sanctuary of that little country church beautifully; and I thought, “Paula would smile if she could see all of this…” And then it hit me—I wonder, “what if she can?”       I looked to and fro amongst all us mourners and supporters, contemplating this thought with a different curiosity than ever before. I thought, she’d cry at her own funeral—there were people everywhere sitting with this family, to support them and mourn with them over the loss of “the Queen of Banana Pudding” as she is known in the church. Paula isn’t used to this much attention, and I imagine she’d be uncomfortable with all this, too. Hmmm… I wonder, “What do dead people see?”

 

Flashback—I visited a terminal cancer patient in the hospital months ago who told me her only prayer request since being given a terminal diagnosis was to ask God to let her live long enough to see her first grandchild being born. Tearfully, she acknowledged the looming reality that she was dying faster than her daughter’s pregnancy was progressing. Several family members sat somberly with this woman as she lamented her death and God’s flat denial of her request. “Why would God take this from me?” she asked, seeming to genuinely hope that I had a great answer… But, I didn’t. Then she asked, “Do you think God will let me see my granddaughter’s birth even though I’m dead?”

I’d never considered a question the likes of this one before. Is it answerable? I pondered what it might be like once dead; is there Scripture to support such a notion? As I pondered the question further, her family began to offer her spiritual condolences… “Everything’s gonna be ok, why you won’t even care about us…things will be so beautiful in heaven that you won’t even think about us” said one man in a wheelchair. Another chimed in, “That’s right—you’ll just be worshipping the Lord, and you’ll be so consumed by his majesty that you’ll forget about us altogether…” Still another, “When you get to heaven, your sense of time will be like a warp or something; you won’t even think of being in a different place cause when you blink, we’ll all be there with you.” (Really? I thought…you gotta be kiddin’ me!) I thought more about the woman’s question…it was simple…yes or no…no other explanation needed.

YES” I said; and the room fell quiet instantly, as if someone had thrown open the hatch in space and the vacuum sucked all the wind and words out of the room. My eyes were locked into the dying woman’s eyes as I had come to this conclusion, communicating my sincere faith in my response. She locked her eyes on mine as seconds passed in slow motion—she was processing. She looked interested and hopeful, and I repeated, “Yes. I do think that God will allow you to see the birth of your granddaughter even though you are dead.”

The others in the room leaned back as if lightning was about to strike me as God “took me out” for such heresy. I continued with my thoughts out loud: “It seems to me that God understands the beauty of birth, for God created it; and, God knows the love you have for your daughter as well as your love for the unborn child. If God formed this life and longs for her to spring from her mother’s womb, and I believe that you believe it is so; then, I’m certain that his love for you would not deny you the joy of such an anticipated event that is overflowing with hope and love from you. Because of his love, I believe he will allow you to see what He will see on that blessed day. Even though you will be dead, you will be alive by faith. You’re death won’t make you blind—you will still see. I don’t know how it will work, but I believe it will be so. You and your family will celebrate your granddaughter’s birth together—of this, I have no doubt.”

She held her breath for in silence; then, she believed and exhaled. It was as if the weight of the world had been lifted off the woman’s shoulders. Her mourning tears became happy tears, and the anticipation of the new birth again gave her hope. No one had ever considered the possibility that God had already granted this grieving woman’s prayer request because she continued to die; but, God had.

Though “in Adam” we all die; yet, “in Christ” we all live! In Christ we live and move [and hope] and have our being! In Christ, this woman will live to see the birth of her prized and much-anticipated grandchild! “Dead, and yet I see!” will be her anthem on that day. I can’t explain how it will work or what it will be like, I only know that is the truth.

Dead and yet I see

By: Chaplain Brian Williamson

 

I’m dead and yet I see, having crossed over to Promised Land,

‘Tis my home now, though it’s hard for you to understand.

Am I dead? Yes…and yet I see, for by my faith I’ve moved along,

Joyfully straining to be happy in life, while longing what lies beyond.

Now more than ever, by my hope in Christ, I see

That painful things in life make sense in eternity.

 

Dead, but now I see. I know you don’t understand,

But my life isn’t over, and I still see you from Glory Land.

God knew my love for you; and though we now live separately,

I’m closer than you think, beloved; for though I’m dead, yet I see.

 

Our God gives us hope through the promises contained in Scripture, and by faith in Him, I believe that he would never remove our love for others—if he did, He doesn’t understand.

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Movie review: “Paul, Apostle of Christ”

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The film Paul, Apostle of Christ, is unlike some recent Bible films that retell the story from scripture. This film creates a fictional story of the Gospel writer Luke (played by Jim Caviezel), who seeks out the apostle Paul (played by James Faulkner) in prison in Rome, to collect stories for the Acts of the Apostle.

All of the story of the film is set in Rome, with Luke going back and forth from visits to Paul in prison, to visits with the Christian community hiding in Rome, led by the Biblical personalities Aquila and Priscilla. Thus, it is a slow-moving plot. However, it uses these scenes to show the violent persecution of Christians by Emperor Nero, and for Paul to flash back to memories of his own persecution of Christians before coming to the faith. The Roman commander of the prison who has a sick daughter becomes involved in the fictional storyline, which serves to further illustrate the Christian faith and martyrdom of Paul.

While the plot moves slowly, this film is not so much about the plot as it is about the characters and what they experienced, and the characters are developed well, helping you feel the emotion and real struggles of trying to have faith in God in a dark and evil world. Faulkner is very convincing as Paul. Aquila and Priscilla also portray a Christian married couple who show respect and love for each other. The acting, costumes, scenery, music and cinematography are outstanding.

Although most of the film is fictional, it seeks to carefully follow what is known from the Bible. For example, the film shows Luke making sure a letter is delivered from Paul to Timothy, and quotes extensively from Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy. A study of the last part of that letter mentioned “Only Luke is with me” (2 Timothy 4:11) and sends greetings to Priscilla and Aquila (2 Timothy 4:19), whom the film depicts as escaping Rome to be with Timothy.

Especially powerful is how the film deals with Paul’s inner struggle with guilt over killing Christians, yet accepting Christ’s grace and forgiveness. This is beautifully resolved at the end of the movie in a particularly moving scene. The film should spark great discussions about what it is like to live out the faith in a non-Christian world.

Will the Jews Be Saved?

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Article copyright by Bob Rogers

There are more Jews in the United States than live in Israel, and more Jews in New York City than Jerusalem. Thus many American Christians have Jewish friends, and wonder about their eternal destiny. Many people believe that Jews will be saved just because they are God’s chosen people, but a study of Romans almost seems to say the opposite.
In Romans 9:6, the apostle Paul said, “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” He said in 9:30-31 that the Gentiles had obtained a righteousness by faith, but Israel pursued a righteousness by the law and failed to obtain it.
In Romans 10, Paul said that the Jews had heard and understood, but failed to believe.
So he comes to Romans 11:1, and asks, “Did God reject his people?” His answer in verse 2: “God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.” So what does God say will happen to the Jews? Will the Jews be saved?
In Romans 11, Paul answers this question in the present, and in the future.

1. At the present time, only a few Jews are saved (Rom. 11:1-24)

In the first part of the chapter, Paul discusses the situation of the Jews during his time, a situation that we still observe today. The key statement is in verse 5: “at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.” They are saved by grace, not race.
Paul himself was a Jew. He stresses this in verse 1, saying, “I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.” Paul reminds his readers that there are still Jews like himself who follow Jesus, and that is true to this day, although they are a small percentage of the Jewish population (by some estimates, about 100,000 Jewish people are “Messianic Jews” who follow Jesus as their Messiah.)

Paul senses a danger here, and he issues two warnings to his Gentile readers. He says in verse 13, “I am talking to you Gentiles.” Then he proceeds to use an analogy of an olive tree to explain the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the story of salvation. This is an appropriate illustration, because an olive tree was often used in scripture as a symbol for Israel. Paul says that the olive tree has some branches broken off, which represents the fact that many Jews have rejected the gospel, and then he says in verse 17, “and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others…”
Thus we who are Gentiles have no right to be proud. It is only by God’s grace that He has grafted us in to be part of His people. This should remind us that there is no place in the church for anti-Semitism. Throughout the years, people have persecuted Jews, forcing them to move out of their homes, calling them “Christ-killers.” While few of us would do such a hateful thing, how many Americans make jokes about Jewish people being stingy with their money? How dare we say such things about God’s chosen people?

 

2. In the future, the Jewish people will be saved (Rom. 11:25-32)

So will the Jews be saved? Paul finally brings this question to a climactic answer in verses 25-26. Paul says, “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved…”
Matthew 24:14 says the gospel must be proclaimed to all nations, and then the end will come. Apparently this verse is referring to the same matter, that God knows how many Gentiles are going to receive Him as Savior, and when that critical mass is reached, a revival will break out among the Jews, as they turn to faith in Christ.  In this way, God will fulfill His promises and covenant with Israel. This is confirmed in Revelation 7:4-8, which names the tribes of Israel before the throne of God in heaven.
Over and over again in the Old Testament, God promised that he would not reject the Jewish people. The prophet Samuel said in 1 Samuel 12:22, “For the sake of His great name, the Lord will not reject His people…”
So the answer to our question is yes! In the end times, the Jews will turn to faith in Jesus, and be saved!

The miracle of the Jews

Frederick the Great, king of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, asked for proof that the Bible is true, in a discussion with his court chaplain. Frederick had been influenced by the atheistic French philosopher Voltaire. The king said, “If your Bible is really true, it ought to be easy to prove. So often, when I ask for proof of the Bible, people give me a large book that I have neither the time nor desire to read. If your Bible is really from God, you should be able to demonstrate it simply. Give me proof for the inspiration of the bible in a word.”
“Your Majesty, I can give you the proof you ask for in one word,” replied the chaplain.
Amazed, the king asked, “What is this magic word?”
“Israel,” replied the chaplain. Frederick the Great responded only with silence.
When you think about the history of the people of Israel, it is a miracle of God that they still exist. The descendants of Jacob, or Israel, went down to live in Egypt, and were made into slaves there. But God brought them out of slavery and settled them in the Promised Land. They were conquered again and again, but each time God delivered them from their invaders. Finally, the empire of Assyria destroyed the northern part of Israel, and deported the lost tribes of Israel to other lands, and the empire of Babylon destroyed the southern part of Israel, burned down Jerusalem and the temple, and deported the Jews to Babylon. But after the exile, once again God brought the Jews back to the land. The Greeks tried to exterminate Jewish faith and culture, sacrificing a pig on the altar in the temple, and trying to force the Jews to only speak Greek and adopt Greek culture, but the Jews fought a war for independence under the Maccabees, and restored their land and cleansed the temple. A few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Jews fought a war with Rome in A.D. 70. Again the temple and Jerusalem was destroyed, millions of Jews died, and millions of Jews scattered all over the world. Despite all this, for centuries they maintained their language, faith and culture. They continued to be hounded out of nations, called “Christ-killers,” and persecuted wherever they lived. Then the communists tried to expel them from Russia, and Nazi Germany murdered six million of them in the holocaust. Did that eliminate the Jews? No! Instead, in 1948, the United Nations established Israel as a nation again. Surrounded by millions of Arabs who hate the Jews, Israel has had to fight war after war with their Arab neighbors, but Israel has won each war. In 1967, Israel fought a war simultaneously against Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and defeated them all in just six days, taking the Sinai peninsula from Egypt, the west bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. Today over 5 million Jews live in Israel, along with about 2 million Arabs, and every year more and more Jews are returning to their homeland.
The only explanation for all these events is the grace of God. Or, as Romans 11:29 says, “For God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.”
This same God who has an amazing plan for his Chosen People has a plan for you. We who are Gentiles are only wild shoots, but God in His grace calls us, as well, to be grafted in to His spiritual tree. You can only come in by faith. One day the full number of Gentiles will come in, and it will be too late for us. As more and more Jews are beginning to turn to Christ, and more unreached people groups are reached, we do not know how long that will be, but one day it will be too late for us. How about you? Will you come to Him by faith while the door remains open?

Movie review: “I Can Only Imagine”

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My wife and I were deeply moved by the new film, I Can Only Imagine. I was so emotional that I had to compose myself before I could drive home– it was that powerful.
You may know the song, but do you know the story behind the song? “I Can Only Imagine” by Bart Millard of the Christian band Mercy Me is the best-selling, most-played Christian single of all time. The new film by the same title tells the moving true story of the songwriter and how he wrote the song.
The film tells how Bart Millard’s father abused him and his mother, and constantly told Bart he was not good enough. [Spoiler alert—skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to know the basic plot.] Thanks to a football injury and a music teacher’s insistence, Bart discovered he had a gift to sing. When his father told him to forget his dreams, he left home, turned his back on the girlfriend who loved him, and tried to escape his troubles by singing with a traveling band.
I won’t give away the ending, because the circumstances of how he recorded the song have surprising twists and turns along the way, but suffice to say that Bart had to face his fears to reach his dreams. And yes, the film dramatically presents the full song near the end of the film.
Dennis Quaid is amazing as the actor playing Bart’s abusive father. People who have endured abuse will feel the pain Bart feels from his father, but many people with sins in their own past, like myself, will identify with the pain of the father himself.
This is a Christian film, but it is not “preachy.” The story is raw, real and unapologetically soaked with the hope of the gospel. Go see this film if you like music, if you like romance, if your dreams have been crushed, if you have been abused, if you have abused someone, if you have a broken home, if you are grieving the death of a loved one, if you need forgiveness, if you need to forgive, and if you need hope.

Three reasons why I believe the Bible

Article copyright by Bob Rogers.

In the runaway bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code, author Dan Brown claims that Emperor Constantine “commissioned and financed a new Bible” and he “outlawed, gathered up, and burned” the existing gospels (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, p. 234).
While reputable historians have rejected the claims of The Da Vinci Code as having no basis in fact, many people wonder, why should I believe the Bible?
The Bible itself claims to be the Word of God. We read in 2 Timothy 3:16 (NIV) that “all scripture is God-breathed…” I believe the Bible is the Word of God? Why? Not only does it claim to be the Word of God, but it passes three important tests:
1. It passes the test of corroboration.
In a trial, one of the things a judge or jury look for is corroborating testimony. If one witness sees something, and another witness agrees and says he saw the same thing, it gives extra credence to the truth of his words.
The Bible passes the test of corroboration, because so many other witnesses verify what the Bible says. Here are just a few examples:
Genesis 36:20 says the Horites were descendants of Esau, but some historians doubted they existed. In 1995 Giorgio Buccellati discovered the Horite capital city beneath modern Syrian city of Tell Mozan.
According to 1 Kings 9:28, King Solomon brought back 16 tons of gold from Ophir. But nobody knew that Ophir existed. In 1956 broken pottery found at Tell Qasile in Israel was inscribed, “gold of Ophir for Beth-Horon.”
The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that Nero persecuted the Christians, and then explained that “Christus” was crucified under Pontius Pilate, just as the Gospels record.
In 1990 a bone chest was discovered in Jerusalem that was inscribed “Caiaphas” and “Joseph, son of Caiaphas.” John 11 says Caiaphas was the high priest at Jesus’ trial, and Jewish historian Joseph says his full name was “Joseph, called Caiaphas.”
There are literally thousands of these kinds of historical and archaeological discoveries that identify people and places named in the Bible.
2. It passes the test of endurance.
The manuscript evidence of the Bible is an amazing story.
The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew and some in Aramaic, and copied down by hand. So how trustworthy is the text that has been copied and recopied for several thousand years? We got our answer when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947. The Dead Sea Scrolls were a thousand years older than any other manuscripts available at the time! Scholars eagerly studied them to see what errors would have been made in all those years of copying. To their amazement, there were almost no differences. For example, when they studied the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, which is about 100 pages in English translation, they only found three minor spelling differences, similar to the difference in spelling Savior or Saviour.
The New Testament has by far the best manuscript evidence of any other ancient document. There are 5,400 ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that scholars can study to figure out what the original text said. Compare that with the classical works of Plato, Herodotus, and Aristophanes, that have anywhere from one to 20 manuscripts.
At one time, liberal scholars claimed that the Gospel of John must have been written long after John’s life, in the late second century. But then a papyrus was discovered in Southern Egypt of the Gospel of John carbon dated to A.D. 125. Since John was probably written at Ephesus, it had to have been written long before A.D. 125 to have time to travel to Southern Egypt.
The Bible has outlasted the empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome. It survived the invasions of the Goths and Vikings and the neglect of the Dark Ages. It survived the skepticism of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. Over the centuries, people have attacked the people, banned the Bible and even burned the Bible, but the Bible continues to endure as the number one bestselling book of all time.
3. It passes the test of experience.
Millions of people have read the Bible and found that it spoke to their hearts.
Lewis Wallace was a Union general in the Civil War, and then became governor of the territory of New Mexico. He met the atheist scholar Robert Ingersoll and was unable
to refute Ingersoll’s arguments against the Bible. So he studied everything he could about the life of Jesus, and became convinced that Jesus was everything the Bible says he was. In the process, Wallace wrote a novel, called Ben Hur about a man who meets Jesus and gives his life to Christ.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a Russian who was sent to the Soviet labor camps for eight years for writing disparaging comments about the Soviet leader, Stalin. There he became convinced that only the message of the Bible explained the human condition of sin and gave the solution for changing the human heart. Solzhenitsyn’s writings about the Soviet prisons and Russian history are considered some of the greatest writings about communism in the USSR.
I grew up the son of a U.S. Army chaplain. In the seventh grade, I began to read about ten chapters of the Bible every day. I could not get enough of it, I was so thirsty to read more and know more about the scripture. And the more I read the Bible, the more my life changed. Finally, in the tenth grade, I sensed that God was calling me to preach His Word.
Why do I believe the Bible? It passes the test of corroboration and test of endurance, but most of all, I have experienced it’s life-changing message, and so have millions of others. How about you?

Why we can’t be disciples of Christ without the church

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Article copyright by Bob Rogers.

Many people say that they believe in Jesus but don’t believe in the church. Yet I submit that it is impossible to be a disciple of Christ apart from the church. Why do I say that?

1. We can’t use our spiritual gifts without the church. The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts to all believers, but it is always in the context of the church. It says in 1 Corinthians 12:7-12 that every believer is given a spiritual gift for the common good, because we are all part of the body of Christ.

2. We can’t show we are disciples without the church. Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). I may know I’m a disciple but I can’t show I’m a disciple if I sit at home alone and don’t show love for fellow believers.

3. We can’t experience God’s greatest presence without the church. Matthew 18:19-20 tells Christians to agree together in prayer, and where two or three are gathered that way, God is there.

4. We can’t take communion without the church. By definition, the Lord’s Supper is meal of Christians gathered together to remember the body and blood of Christ given for us upon the cross. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-26, the apostle Paul continually uses the phrase “come together” to describe observance of the Lord’s Supper. Since we cannot take communion without expressing unity with the church, it follows that refusal to express communion with the church is a refusal to express communion with Christ.

Christ died for the church. Christ is the builder of the church. Christ is the head of the church. Christ is the shepherd of the church. Christ is the groom for His bride, the church. Christ is coming again for the church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against His church!

Movie review: “The Shack”

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My wife and I saw the sneak preview of the new motion picture, The Shack. I posted a review earlier of the bestselling book (click here to read it) of the same title by William Paul Young, so I wanted to follow up with this review of the movie.
The plot
The Shack is a deeply emotional film about a man named Mack Phillips, played by Sam Worthington, who is angry at God because of the abusive and tragic circumstances he experienced as a child and as an adult. The film tells the story of a deeply personal tragedy that occurs at a shack in the woods, and how Mack gets a letter from God, inviting him to return to the shack and deal with his pain. Mack returns, and there meets God in three persons, who engage him in experiences and conversations that allow him to rediscover the goodness of God. After he resolves these issues and learns to accept forgiveness and give forgiveness, Mack returns to his family a changed man. The plot uses flashbacks to tell about the tragedies in his life. Much of the story is framed as a visionary dream, which is a major departure from the plot of the original book. The plot moves well at the beginning and the end, although it may seem a bit long in the middle, if you are not engaged in the conversations.
The characters
Octavia Spencer plays “Papa,” a character representing God the Father, who appears to Mack as an affectionate African-American woman. She explains that since Mack could not relate to God as a father, due to his childhood experiences with an abusive father, Papa has chosen to appear as a mother figure. In fact, all three persons of the Trinity are there. The Son, representing Jesus, is a Middle Eastern man, played by Abraham Aviv Alush, and Sarayu (the Spirit), played by Sumire Matsubara, is represented by a young Asian woman who glows and shines and sometimes just disappears. Although God is represented as three different persons, they act in unison, as one person continues a conversation with Mack that he had earlier with the other person.
The message
The movie deals powerfully with the question of why God allows suffering. Papa, The Son, and Sarayu do not offer easy answers, but they help Mack to get a bigger picture of how God loves, forgives and redeems. For example, when Mack angrily tells Papa that Papa could not be good and allow the Son to suffer on the cross, Papa shows nail scars in her own wrist, and says with tears, “Don’t think that I wasn’t also there when my Son died.”  In another scene, Jesus sends Mack on a path to a cave where he meets a female called Wisdom, who lets Mack sit in the judgment seat of God and see what it is like to be a judge, an experience that overwhelms him, reminding him that no human should try to play God, and also hinting at the reason Jesus had to die for our sins. Unfortunately, the emphasis on God’s love is so strong, that a balanced statement about God’s holiness is lacking. God reminds Mack that sin has consequences, but when Mack bluntly asks Papa about God’s wrath, Papa could have said that God is holy and offended by sin, but instead only emphasized God’s goodness and love.
The film quality
This is a quality film production. There are breathtaking nature scenes, scenes filled with color and light, darkness and drama. The music is engaging, but not distracting. The main actors and supporting cast are all convincing in their roles. Octavia Spencer exudes love and kindness as Papa, and Sam Worthington explodes with emotion and pain as Mack. Country singer Tim McGraw does a good job as a supporting actor, playing Mack’s friend, who becomes a narrator of the story.
Comparisons with the book
Fans of the book will probably also like the movie, and some critics of the book may like the movie better than the book. I don’t remember hearing any profanity in the movie, although the book has some profanity. The portrayal of God the Father as a woman is explained sooner and more clearly in the movie than in the book. There were several passages in the book that critics accused of teaching universal salvation (that all people will go to heaven), particularly some conversations Mack had with the persons of the Trinity. Most of those controversial conversations do not occur in the movie, although the movie does repeat the words of Jesus that He is not a “Christian” (which came across as humorous to me both in the book and film.) The movie puts more emphasis on God’s love than on God’s judgment, although it it reminds the viewer that God does make judgments of heaven and hell and that sin does have consequences. After the movie was over, I asked my wife, who has not read the book, if she thought the movie taught universal salvation, and she said, “Not at all.”
Spoiler alert: If you have read the book, you will notice that the movie ends a little differently. It makes the whole encounter at the shack into a visionary dream, and while the book has Mack actually finding his daughter’s body and giving it a proper burial, the movie shows that happening as part of his dream. Then the movie focuses at the end on Mack going to church with his family and having a new faith in God. The movie added the friend as a narrator of the story at the beginning and end, which I thought was a good framing device for the story.
Conclusion
I liked the original book, despite its flaws, but I liked the movie even more. What I like the most is that it deals with the important issues of pain, suffering, the redemption God offers through Jesus Christ. I wept several times as I thought about my own sin and need for forgiveness, and it moved me to want to be more forgiving towards others. My wife commented that the story touches nearly every person at some level in their lives. This film offers a vivid story that can open up discussions with our friends and neighbors about how our hope is found, not in an old rustic shack, but on an old rugged cross.

Book review: “Snoop: A Spiritual Memoir of a Vietnam Army Grunt”

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Snoop: A Spiritual Memoir of a Vietnam Army Grunt (Published by Parables, 2016), by C. Wayne Harrison, is a 98-page book that tells stories of war, grouped together for devotional reflection. That may sound like an unusual approach, but Harrison makes it work.

Harrison was a private in the U.S. Army, who fought in the jungles in the Vietnam War in 1969-1970. Today he is Baptist minister in Booneville, Mississippi. In ten short chapters, he recalls his desire to be a soldier and relates in vivid detail the horrors he experienced in the war. Although the stories tend to move chronologically from early in his life through his year in Vietnam, the chapters are more thematic in nature, with titles such as, “The Heart of a Soldier,” “The Hands of a Soldier,” “The Hardships of a Soldier,” etc. Each chapter opens with a passage from the Bible, then focuses on stories that relate to the theme of the chapter, followed by some discussion questions and a prayer.

The reader identifies with the young man, who is nicknamed “Snoop” because of his lapel pin of Snoopy, the dog who imagined he was a fighter pilot, in the “Peanuts” comic strip. Some descriptions of war in the book may be disturbing to young readers, and the stories certainly are sobering even to mature readers. I believe Harrison’s writing will connect well with soldiers who read the book, and would make an excellent resource for military chaplains or anybody, especially soldiers, who are willing to reflect on God’s purpose for their lives.

The book is well-written, using excellent images and descriptions, and is easy to read, although I noticed a typo on p. 64, where the word “scar” was spelled “scare.” There are black-and-white photos of Harrison as a young soldier in the back of the book. In interest of full disclosure, I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author, with no obligation to write a favorable review.

Thoughts on going to jail over same-sex marriage

Unless you have been living in a cave somewhere, you probably already know that Rowan County, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis has been sent to jail by a judge for refusing to issue any marriage license since the Supreme Court imposed same-sex marriage on all 50 states, causing an eruption of opinions on both sides of this issue.

On one side are those who would make her into a martyr for the faith. While I believe the judge could have been far less harsh (a gay couple in Kentucky who acted in civil disobedience in 2013 against the law were only fined one penny), we should remember that Mrs. Davis is not a private citizen; she is a government official who has sworn to uphold the law, and she could have resigned her position and advocated for change as a private citizen.

On the other side are those who mock her as hypocrite, especially since she has been divorced multiple times. This ignores the fact that Mrs. Davis only recently became a Christian in 2011, and her multiple divorces happened before she had a life-changing conversion to Christ. Now she openly acknowledges her sinful past, says that Jesus has changed her life, and she sincerely wants to obey Him now, no matter how hard that may be. That is not hypocrisy; that is honesty and courage.

Much more could be said about it, but Russell Moore has written by far the best blog that I have read on this subject. Please read this link to his blog before making any comments here.

Why it is reasonable to believe that God exists, Part Two

GodWorship A few days ago I posted here an essay explaining why it is reasonable to believe in God. With today’s post, we will look at three more specific reasons to believe in God’s existence.

I. First reason: The First Cause. (Psalm 90:2)

Psalm 90:2 says, “Before the mountains were born, before You gave birth to the earth and the world, from eternity to eternity, You are God.” So God has always existed, but the universe has not always existed. The universe had a beginning, when God created it out of nothing.
But why should we believe this? We have clear evidence that the universe has not always existed. Instead, it began to exist. If it began to exist, what started it? What was the first cause? The answer is God!
Someone might ask, “How do we know the universe has not always existed? How do we know that it started sometime in the past?” We know this from logic, and science also confirms it.
Think about it. It is logically impossible for the past to go into infinity. It is impossible to count down from infinity to one. There is always an infinite distance to travel, so we never arrive. In the same way, if the past went on into infinity, we could never arrive at the present. But here we are! So there must have been a beginning. (Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, p. 219-223)
Science has also given us reason to believe in a first cause. In 1929, astronomer Edward Hubble discovered that a dozen galaxies near earth were moving away from us at high speeds. Scientists today agree that the universe is expanding, because it had a beginning, which they often call the “Big Bang.” Scientists don’t know what caused the big bang, they just know it happened. But as Christians, we know that caused the Big Bang. God spoke, and bang! It happened.
The Big Bang Theory is not the only scientific reason to believe in a first cause. There is also the second law of thermodynamics. This scientific law states that the energy in the universe is slowly but surely being used up. Like a fire that eventually burns out, all the energy in the universe is eventually going to disappear. Now here’s where it gets interesting. If the universe existed for eternity in the past, then it would have already used up all the energy by now. But here we are, with energy still available to use. So the universe is not eternal; it had a beginning in the past. What other way is there to explain this beginning, except that an all-powerful, supernatural person was the first cause? (Groothuis, p. 224-226)
The only answer atheists can have to this, is to argue that the universe was caused by nothing but a pure accidental explosion. Not only does it take more faith to believe the beautiful complexity of the universe had no cause, but such belief would also mean that everything in life is meaningless, and has no cause or reason. So would you prefer to believe that an all-powerful Creator spoke the word and brought the universe into being with a purpose, or would you prefer to believe that everything began from no cause, and life has no meaning? The choice is yours, but thank God we have a better choice than to live a meaningless life that began by nothing and has no purpose. Instead, it makes far more sense to believe that there was a First Cause, a supernatural Being, who brought the universe into existence, and that our lives do have purpose and meaning.

II. Second reason: Self-Consciousness. (Genesis 2:9; Romans 7:22)

Those who believe in Darwinian evolution, think that the human being is a mere biological collection of atoms that assembled by chance over a long period of time.
The Bible, on the other hand, says that God formed mankind from the earth, and we became a “living being.” (Genesis 2:9). Romans 7:22 talks about understanding something “in my inner self.” Whether or not you believe the Bible, we all know that we have an inner self, a self-consciousness. As the philosopher Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” I have an awareness of my own self; I have something within myself that makes me to be me.
But where in the human body is my consciousness located? Where is my self-awareness? No scientist has located it. Nobody can tell you that in this part of the brain, or any other place on the human body, is the location of self-consciousness. Nobody can tell you where it is, yet we know we have it.
And if I am only a biological collection of chemicals, then how do we explain the human appreciation for beauty, music, poetry and art, and how do you explain love?
If you are an atheist, there is no explanation for it. But if you believe in God, the answer is simple: God put it there.

III. Third reason: Religious Experience (John 9:25)

The man born blind who was healed by Jesus could testify to a changed life, and nobody could dispute his experience. In John 9:25 we read, “He [the blind man] replied, ‘Whether he [Jesus] is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!'”
In Isaiah 6:1-5, Isaiah had a face-to-face encounter with the Lord in the temple; in Acts 9:1-9, Saul met the Lord on the road to Damascus and had a life-changing conversion experience.
This series of blog posts was originally presented as a series of sermons at the church I was serving in near Savannah, Georgia. When I presented the message, a student at Armstrong Atlantic State University, came forward at the end of the early worship service to publicly profess her faith, and at the second morning service, she gave her testimony to the congregation. She told how she did not believe in the existence of God, but she began to seek God. She heard all of the same arguments for the existence of God that we have talked about last week and this week, but she was still undecided about whether she believed. Then she decided to go with the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at Armstrong Atlantic State University on a mission trip to Haiti. That week, she prayed, and said, “God, if you are there, will you reveal Yourself to me.” Later in the week, she was walking through a voodoo area of Haiti, where all of the statues had been destroyed by the earthquake, and she looked up and saw a statue of Jesus on the cross. Her friend had been encouraging her to have faith in God, and right then she looked up and saw the statue. She decided that if she turned away then, she would never believe. That experience finally brought her to belief in God and faith in Jesus Christ.
The religious experience of millions of people is a powerful evidence for God. People can deny the existence of God, but they cannot deny the fact that millions of people of every time, language and culture have believed in God and claimed to have an experience with God. When the white men first came to the New World, they found Native Americans who had never had contact with Western society, yet they believed in a Great Spirit.
Atheists sometimes claim that people who believe in God are ignorant, or even neurotic. But they have a more difficult time making this claim when confronted with the fact that so many great leaders like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln believed in God, great musicians like Ludwig von Beethoven and Johann Sebastian Bach believed in God, great artists like Leonardo da Vinci believed in God and great scientists like Werner Van Braun believed in God. My late uncle, Dr. R.A. Clinton, Jr., was a rocket scientist who worked alongside Van Braun in building a satellite at the space center in Huntsville, Alabama. My uncle later became the leading American expert on Russian missile technology. Yet brilliant as he was, Uncle R.A. was also a believer, who taught Sunday School at First Baptist Church of Huntsville for over 25 years.
Atheists often claim that much harm and cruelty has been done in the name of God. However, atheists must also face the fact that millions of people were massacred by atheist dictators like Joseph Stalin and Mao-tse Tung. Atheists are correct that people with distorted views of God have done great harm, whether they were misguided people who claimed to follow Christ, as in the Crusades, or the brutal terrorists of ISIS. This points to the fact that it is not enough to believe in the existence of God; one needs to know the personal God who has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ, and truly obey Him. True followers of Christ have fed millions of hungry and in the name of God millions of sick have been nursed to health. After Hurricane Katrina, there were no atheist relief organizations to help, but thousands of churches and Christian organizations came to help. The life-changing experience of the God of the Bible, Jesus Christ, is the greatest reason I know to believe in God. How about you? Do you believe?

Poem: “Glory”

Copyright 2014 by Bob Rogers

SunsetBrunswick

Glory

Things from nothing

Man from dust

Sin from perfection

Evil from innocence

Promise from faith

Hope from belief

Laws from above

Commands from Him

Failure from obedience

Despair from hope

Love for hate

Blood for anyone

Light in darkness

Peace in war

Crying to joy

Death to life

Glory

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Book review: Max Lucado, “Outlive Your Life”

OutliveYourLife   I have read about 20 books by Max Lucado. I love his gift for telling a story and turning a phrase. However, after reading so many of his works, I began to feel that if I’ve read one of his books, I’ve read them all. So when I got a copy of Outlive Your Life: You Were Made to Make a Difference, I let it sit on my bookshelf for over three years.

Recently, some circumstances in my own life drew me again to the title. I’d like for my life to make more of a difference, so I decided to see what Max had to say. I was deeply moved– to take action.

This book uses the familiar writing style of Lucado that has made him one of the bestselling Christian authors of modern times: vivid storytelling with a surprise ending, and clever, poetic phraseology. For example, he described the apostle Peter’s reaction to the vision to eat unclean food by saying, “Peter was pondering the pigs in the blanket when he heard a knock at the door” (p. 146). He also follows a Biblical theme, as he does in most of his books. This one focuses on stories in the Acts of the Apostles to encourage Christian readers to make a difference in their world, the way the early disciples did.

What really stands out in this book, however, is how boldly Lucado calls on Christians to be involved in social action. Again and again, he urges Christians to help the poor, care for orphans, feed the hungry, etc. He is very specific in examples of how to do that, more so than any other book of his that I have read to date. He does so without abandoning the gospel message. In fact, chapter four, “Don’t Forget the Bread,” stresses that if we help the needy and don’t share the gospel, we are like he was when his wife sent him to buy bread at the grocery store and he came home with everything else and forgot the main thing: the bread.

Each of Lucado’s books include a discussion guide at the end, but this book has a “Discussion and Action Guide” (emphasis mine). America’s most inspirational author intends not only to inspire, but to move the reader to action. For this reader, he succeeded.

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Book review: “Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in China”

RedeemedByFireMost Christians who are interested in missions are aware that Christianity has grown dramatically in modern China, despite persecution by the Communist government. But the story of how Christianity grew and what it looks like today in China remains a mystery to most Western Christians. Lian Xi, a native of China who is now professor of history at Hanover College, lifted that mystery for Western readers in 2010 with his carefully researched book published by Yale University Press, Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China.

Xi briefly surveys the presence of Christianity in China in ancient times, and then focuses most of the book on Christianity in China in the 19th and 20th centuries. China was forced to sign treaties with Western nations that included official toleration of Christianity after 1858. For the next century, over 23,000 missionaries poured into China from the West, half of them Americans. While this mission effort did contribute to over 623,000 members in mission churches by 1949, it also led to a deep resentment against Christians by most Chinese, who saw it as a religion of foreigners that was forced upon them. This resentment erupted into violence at times, such as the Boxer Rebellion. Xi stresses that Protestant Christianity was able to become truly indigenous under Communist rule, and no longer was seen as a foreign religion. The Communist government unwittingly allowed this to happen, by settting up the officially recognized and state-controlled Three-Self Church. Most Christians rejected the Three-Self Church as guilty of ungodly compromise with the state, and turned instead to a variety of underground church movements.

Xi then follows the stories of several influential indigenous movements among Protestant Christians, including the True Jesus Church, the Bethel Band, the Jesus Family, and the Little Flock, with charismatic leaders like John Sung, Wang Mingdao, and Watchman Nee. Most of these churches held to a fundamentalist faith, a charismatic leader, pre-millennial hope, and a revivalistic, if not Pentecostal, fervor. Some half million Christians died under Communist persecution, but by 2000 there were 15 million Protestants and 5 million Catholics in the official registered churches, and an additional 30 million Protestants and several million Catholics in underground churches.

Westerners tend to idealize the faith of Chinese Christians, but Xi points out that the lack of theological training and isolation from any accountability in underground churches occasionally led to doctrinal heresies and mixtures of Chinese folk religion with Christianity, as well as opening the door to leaders who were dictatorial and sometimes immoral. Despite these shortcomings among the underground churches, Xi credits them with having a powerful appeal by offering hope to the powerless under Communist oppression. Despite the phenomenal growth of Christianity in China, it is still a minority faith in China, and expected to remain  a religion of the common people, not a majority faith or a faith of those in influence or power in China.

I found Xi’s research to be thorough and highly informative, but it came across as somewhat aloof and skeptical of genuine faith. He tends to explain away the faith of Chinese Christians in terms of sociological factors. He includes stories of the moral failings of Chinese Christian leaders, but he reports very few of the stories of commitment, martyrdom and persecution suffered by Chinese Christians. Nevertheless, Xi’s research is likely to become a standard resource for any historian or missiologist wishing to understand Christianity in modern China.

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Movie review: “God’s Not Dead”

godsnotdead-posterA lot of Christian films have poor acting and predictable scripts, so I was quite surprised at how good this movie was. Of course, it was predictable in defending the belief in God, but it presented that message in a way that was creative and hip. The film introduced a variety of characters but did not show how they all connect until later in the film, giving the subplots an unpredictability, even as the main plot was fairly much what the viewer expected. It targeted a young audience, as the protagonist and most of the primary actors were young adults who constantly used smart phones, computers, and visual media to communicate, and it all came to a conclusion during a Christian rock concert.

The acting was outstanding, both by the lead characters and the supporting roles. It was some of the best acting that I’ve seen in a Christian film. The dramatic tension made a very intellectual argument interesting, bringing it to a climax that was so strong that the theater audience where I was broke out into loud applause. Atheists will hate this film, but they cannot dismiss it as simple-minded or shallow. But what might infuriate atheists the most was that the movie showed that it is not only reasonable to be a believer, but it can even be cool to be a believer.

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Finding Christ in the Christmas tree

ChristmasOrnamentCrossCopyright 2013 by Bob Rogers

All over the world, people are putting up Christmas trees this time of the year.
In southern California, a 90-foot Christmas tree was erected at the Fashion Island shopping center in Newport Beach, covered with strobe lights and Disney-themed music for the thousands of shoppers. (Emily Foxhall, “90-foot Christmas tree arrives at Newport Beach’s Fashion Island,” Los Angeles Times, November 8, 2013.)

   All over the world, people are putting up Christmas trees for the holiday. But what does this have to do with the birth of Jesus? Is it just a pagan practice, or can we find Christ in the Christmas tree?

  

I.                  The origins of the Christmas tree

 

   Where did the tradition of the Christmas tree come from?

   There are many different stories, since ancient peoples have made use of trees and even worshipped them. One of my favorite stories is of St. Boniface, the missionary to the Germans in the 8th century. Boniface told them about Jesus Christ, but they worshipped a great oak tree. So Boniface boldly went to the oak with an axe and began to chop it down. They were ready to kill him, when a great wind came and blew the tree down. After that, the Germans converted to Christianity in large numbers.

    Some legends tell that St. Boniface later decorated a fir tree to represent Jesus instead of their pagan gods. It is uncertain whether this is true.

   During the Middle Ages, there was a popular medieval play in western Germany about Adam and Eve and a “paradise tree,” which was a fir tree hung with apples, that represented the Garden of Eden. Germans set up paradise trees in their homes on December 24, the feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on it, representing the bread of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, and then later they hang cookies, and often put candles, symbols of Christ as the light. (“Christmas tree.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopeaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encylopaedia Britannica, 2012.)

   Meanwhile, in the 15th and 16th century in Latvia, Estonia and northern Germany, there was a tradition of bringing an evergreen tree to the town square on Chritmas Eve, dancing around it, and letting it burn. Eventually people in Germany began to light a tree on Christmas Eve with candles. Lutheran tradition says that the Protestant reformer Martin Luther helped popularize the lighting of an evergreen tree at Christmas all over Germany.

 

II.               Modern Christmas tree traditions

 

    Germany settlers brought the Christmas tree to North America as early as the 17th century.

     Prince Albert of Germany, the husband of Queen Victoria of England, introduced the Christmas tree into England in the early 19th century. By the 19th century, Christmas trees were popular all over the world. In Victorian England, trees were decorated with toys and small gifts, candles and candy. Blown-glass ornaments became popular in the 1870s. By 1890, strings of electric tree lights became popular to hang on trees. In the 1960s, artificial Christmas trees made out of aluminum became popular, but these were soon replaced by artificial trees that look realistic.

   Many families still enjoy going together to get their own real Christmas tree. John and Pam Carper’s family have a tradition for the past five or six years, of traveling to a North Carolina Christmas tree farm, to cut a Fraser fir to bring back to Georgia for Christmas. James & Kerri Gilyard also have a tradition of getting a real tree, which they do right after Thanksgiving. Their tradition is to put on the lights first, then the ornaments, with the memorable and breakable ones up higher. Last of all, they put an angel on top.

   Many families will choose a special ornament for each member of the family. We have an ornament for each child on the year that they were born. Kevin & Sharon Kendall choose a special ornament each year for each child in the family. They enjoy looking at the ornaments to see what dates they got each ornament.

   That brings us back to our question. As nice as these traditions are, what if anything does a Christmas tree have to do with the birth of Jesus? Let’s open our Bibles and see.

 

III.           God’s Christmas tree

 

  1. Israel was symbolized by a tree (Isaiah 5; Ezekiel 17; Daniel 4:10-12)

 

   In ancient Israel, a tree symbolized God’s people Israel. Isaiah 5 gives a parable of a vineyard that was planted but failed to produce good fruit, and so it is torn down. Isaiah says, “For the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah, the plant He delighted in.” (Isaiah 5:7, HCSB).

   Ezekiel 17 gives another parable comparing Israel to a tree, saying God will plant a sprig on a mountain. “I will plant it on Israel’s high mountain so that it may bear branches, produce fruit, and become a majestic cedar… Then all the trees of the field will know that I am Yahweh.”

    Thus Psalm 1:3 speaks of the righteous man as like a tree planted by water, and in Matthew 3:10, John the Baptists says every tree that doesn’t produce is cut down.

   Daniel 4 tells how God used a vision of a tree to warn King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to beware of his pride. He told about a tree that reached to the sky, but it was cut down, and Daniel said, “That tree is you, the king.” (Daniel 4:22).

   So a tree often symbolized Israel, although it could also symbolize the life of others.

 

  1. Christ is symbolized by a tree of life (Isaiah 11:1-10) and a tree of death (1 Peter 2:24)

 

   So if we stay with the symbolism of life in a tree, notice what we read in the prophecy of Isaiah 11: “Then a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit… On that day the root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples. The nations will seek Him, and His resting place will be glorious.” (Isaiah 11:1, 10, HCSB).

   Jesse was the name of the father of King David, so this passage is referring to the Messiah who would be a descendant of David. Notice the description of the Messiah in verses 2 and following:

   “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him—

   A Spirit of wisdom and understanding,

   A Spirit of counsel and strength,

   A Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord…”

   From the beginning to the end of the Bible, we read of a tree of life. In the Garden of Eden, Genesis 2:9 speaks of a tree of life, and in Revelation 22:2 we read that in heaven, “The tree of life was on both sides of the river, bearing 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations…”

   Jesus is symbolized by this tree of life, for Christ gives us life. And how? Because he is also represented by a tree of death by his death on the cross!

   Crucifixion was so horrible it was illegal to crucify a Roman citizen, and Jews saw it as a curse. Deuteronomy 21:23 says that anybody executed on a tree is cursed, and Galatians 3:13 repeats this. So when Jesus was nailed to the cross, which of course was made from a tree, the Jews thought He was cursed.

   Yet look what we read in 1 Peter 2:24: “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness, for you have been healed by His wounds.”

   Thus the tree of life became the tree of death so that by faith in Christ, we could enjoy life.

   The best Christmas gift was not under a tree, but hung upon a tree, the tree of Calvary.

 

   In 1957, Frances Kipps Spencer at Ascension Lutheran Church in Danville, Virginia, came up with the idea of the Chrismon tree. She wanted a way to display a Christmas tree in her church that had Christian symbols, instead of gaudy, bright lights. So she covered the tree with monogrammed letters, and other Christian symbols, such as the cross, fish, crown, etc. Today, many churches display a “Chrismon tree,” which is a Christmas tree that only has Christian symbols on it.

   Why don’t we have our own traditions to see and show Christ in the Christmas tree? Put an angel or a star on the top. Display a manger scene under the tree. Put a nail on a ribbon, and hang it on the tree to remember the tree upon which Jesus was nailed. Make a Chrismon tree full of Christian symbols. When your family, friends and neighbors see your tree, you can share the meaning of the symbols.

   But there is something even more important than what we do with our Christmas trees. That is what we do with our lives. Let us show Christ in a Christmas tree traditions, but even more, let us show Christ in the way we carry the cross of Christ in our daily lives.

 

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