Thinking Out Loud

December 31, 2018

Of Lives and Years; Of Beginnings and Endings

Have you made your New Life’s resolutions?

As I was thinking about how to wrap things up for 2019, it occurred to me that there might be four different possibility for how your year has gone; and those are the same four which can be applied to the longer span of our lives. For some context as to what I mean by this, here’s something I wrote in 2009. A small portion of this is actually appearing for the 4th time; much of it for only the 2nd time, and some is new.

I’m certainly not one of those “Everything happens for a reason” people, but I do believe every book in the Bible is there for many reasons, and with II Kings, the clearest message that I see is that when it comes to their relationship with God, not everybody ends well.

living-bibleIn II Kings we see a succession of leaders, many of whom are relegated to the most minimal of mentions. In the original The Living Bible, Ken Taylor in his most paraphrasial — ya like that word? — moment in the entire work actually lapses into point form in the later chapters. Those chapters could be called the “bullet point translation.” One could think that perhaps Taylor tired of the various Kings simply not getting it. Basically there are four main types of stories told and each King is representative of one of them:

  • Started badly, ended badly
  • Started well, ended badly
  • Started badly, ended well
  • Started well, ended well

There are several benefits to reading this. It should make you want to end well, to leave a legacy of faithfulness and devotion to God, His word, and His work. But if you’re not solidly signed up with the eternal security camp, it also means you must end well. It allows the possibility that I can blow this Christ-following thing, with severe consequences.

Of course it helps that God, by His Holy Spirit is constantly nudging us closer to His ways. There are times in our lives however, when we don’t respond to His prompting. In the Revelation given to John, a message to the church in Laos ascribes three possible states of response: hot, cold, or lukewarm. Although the descriptors here apply to the local church as a collective noun, I believe the same terms can also apply to us individually.

heat-sensitive-imageMany of those who are cold or even lukewarm will recommit themselves down the road, but in terms of the here and now, if you were to take a picture of the spiritual temperature of people using a “spiritual heat sensitive” camera, you’d find that not everyone is responding to what the Spirit is suggesting. Or demanding; God’s not big on suggestions! Some just love their sin too much. Others are just spiritually apathetic. Some are just too busy.

One of the biggest myths in the Church (capital ‘C’ this time) is to suggest that “It’s all good.” To me, that’s not dissimilar from the Universalist perspective. It’s all good if it all ends well. Right here, right now, in the middle of the story, we don’t see so clearly how it will end. We have absolutely, positively no idea what’s going on in the lives of people at the deepest level, so we can’t begin to assume what God may be doing, or what He may be using to work His purposes, but if II Kings tells us anything it is that even Kings, representing the highest their country has to offer, can refuse to see the need to make God part of their lifelong equation.

lifes-journeyAnother myth is to say “We’re all on a spiritual journey.” The Greeks held that there were four core ‘essences:’ Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Knowing their list didn’t account for everything in the world, they held that there was a fifth essence, ‘quintessence,’ representing ‘spirit.’ Unfortunately many people live lives that are dominated by earth or air or fire or water or whatever modern equivalents represent our modern passions. Their journey can’t be characterized as spiritual at all; or if it contains elements of spiritual life, it appears to be a journey to nowhere.

In Jesus time, we see life represented in the phrase, “heart, soul, mind and strength;” both in terms of Jesus early life in Luke 2:52, but also in how we are to love the Lord with all our being. Some people allow their lives to be dominated by mental or intellectual accomplishments (mind) or physical prowess (strength) or their physical or emotional passions (the eros and philios loves; soul) rather than by a focus on their own spirit and the spiritual side of life.

Of course, it is not for us to know what God is doing in everyone’s lives. We are responsible for the ending to our own story, not that of anyone else.

I want my life to be spirit-focused; to be quintessence-focused. I want the center of that focus to be Jesus Christ. I want to end well. I want those around me to end well, too.

So while we’re caught up in what is really the ‘micro-focus’ of how a particular year began or ended or both, we need to also consider the ‘macro-focus’ on the overall progression of our lives. 

It’s a time for New Year’s resolutions, but also a time for New Life resolutions.

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November 2, 2018

You Can’t Throw Money in the Kettle if You Don’t Carry Cash

For 120 years, The Salvation Army’s Christmas kettles have been synonymous with the holiday season and the spirit of giving. Kettles are already on the streets in more than 2,000 locations across Canada, collecting spare change and cash from passersby to help us serve more than 1.7 million vulnerable people in 400 communities across the country each year.

After a break of a few years, we’re back with another year of providing our online friends in Canada an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people in need. (American readers: Just wait a few paragraphs!) The program in Canada is called iKettle. Any of my Canadian readers can host a kettle with a few clicks of the mouse.

So first this is where my Canadian* blog readers kick in. You can’t toss spare change in the kettles anymore because you pay for everything with plastic cards, and you don’t get change. Any bills in your wallet are probably there for emergencies. Plus, while it pains me to say this, a lot of you shop online and don’t even have the collection kettles in your face anymore. (Maybe that’s why you shop online!)

So here’s where you go to contribute*

Donations stay in the community where you live, so if that’s Winnipeg or Calgary or Ottawa or Halifax or some place in-between, that’s where the money will be applied to the Salvation Army Family Services branch; including smaller towns where they have an active presence.

I really hope you’ll help us launch this over this weekend. We will be repeating this appeal on the blog several times during. Our giving can meet the needs both in overseas relief and development and in the cities and towns closer to home. This is an opportunity to do something on the domestic front in yet another year that’s been rough on many people.

*For my American readers there is a secure online donation website just for you.

There are also online opportunities to give in most parts of the world where the Salvation Army operates.

This is a trusted, respected ministry. When you give, you’re giving locally. But don’t just give. Consider volunteering. Share the link to this article with Facebook friends. And by all means, find one of the many books that tell the William Booth or Salvation Army story and read every page.

Do your giving
while you’re living
so you’re knowing
where it’s going.

September 17, 2018

Irresistible — Andy Stanley’s New Take on New Testament Faith

By his own admission, publishing this book is a career-risking move.

Furthermore, the criticism that Andy Stanley has already endured over statements which are contained in Irresistible would cause some to lay low for several months until the storm passes.

But that’s not Andy Stanley. Instead, he takes nearly 300 pages to fully flesh out his reasons for saying that Christianity needs to “unhitch” itself from the Hebrew scriptures, or what we call The Old Testament. Yes, that. For some those were fightin’ words. For others, the implication was that those writings weren’t inspired or aren’t relevant to knowing the backdrop from which events kickstarted in Bethlehem 2,000-plus years ago. That’s called putting words in someone else’s mouth

…It’s hard to review a book when, for many weeks, you were tracking with the sermon series on which the book is based. There are usually few surprises. Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World (Zondervan) is based on a sermon series called Aftermath which the North Point pastor preached after Easter this year. The church website sums it up this way: “Jesus’ resurrection launched a series of events that introduced the world to his new covenant and new hope. But old ways don’t easily give way. Not then. Not now.” That could also well serve as a summary of the book.

The book is divided into four sections and like a good British mystery, each section is building toward the concluding chapters. I said, “few surprises,” above but unless I missed something in the teaching series, Andy pushes beyond the original conclusion and suggests something even more radical in the way we format our copies of the texts. (I’ve decided to avoid the spoiler.)

I was also struck by the humorous tone used to convey a rather serious subject. It creates a reading environment in which even a new believer — struck by the differences between the First and Second Testament and wondering aloud, “What’s up with that?” — can have a complete understanding of the world in which the news of the resurrection was first preached, and how the two parts connect.

In many respects, the book is personal. His motivation for writing begins with a 2007 trip to China in which he was asked a poignant question about the church in America. In the book (and elsewhere as well) Andy mentions a verse displayed in his office, Acts 15:19: “And so my judgment is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (NLT) He’s committed to removing any barriers to faith which might be hampering someone who would otherwise want to be part of Christ’s family.

As he has stated many times, one of those barriers is the material found in the Old Testament (or if you prefer, First Covenant). The violence. The scientific questions. The seemingly arbitrary rules for conduct. The supernatural occurrences. Instead, he believes (as the book’s subtitle affirms) that we need to be focusing on “the new” and in so doing, focus on what the first generations of believers had in a world before church buildings, a world before printed copies of the scriptures, and a world where the resurrection was everything.

It was a faith to die for.


Release Date: September 18, 2018 | 9780310536970 USA | 9780310536987 UK, Aust/NZ, Canada


Thanks to Dave K. at HarperCollins Christian Publishing Canada for a review copy.

 

 

September 4, 2018

Abdu Murray: Contending for Clarity in a World of Noise

Although the book, Saving Truth was released back May of this year, people in my part of the world are just now becoming aware of it. Abdu Murray is the North American Director for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM); it’s actually his third book; and like the late Nabeel Quereshi, Murray is a convert to Christianity from Islam.

Saving Truth: Finding Meaning and Clarity in a Post-Truth World (Zondervan) begins with the announcement from the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary that “post-truth” was their word of the year in 2016. Since the book was published, we had the statement from Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s attorney, who famously said in mid-August that “truth isn’t truth.” It’s into that chaos that this book steps.

I can’t really review this book without noting a key comparison to another we reviewed here almost exactly a year ago. Like The Problem of God by Mark Clark (also Zondervan) this book is arranged to deal with factors which can crop up in a faith-focused discussion with an unbeliever. While Clark sees his ten as problems to be addressed, Murray sees seven areas — and some of them are the same ones — as subjects where the core issues have been lost in confusion and clutter. While we may bristle at the expression “post-truth;” one can’t be reminded of the conditions a generation ago where the word was “post-modern.”

In terms of how the world responds to the premise of there being absolute truth, the situation today is quite similar and the old arguments have simply been recycled.

Specifically he looks at:

  1. The post-truth mindset
  2. The notion of freedom
  3. Human dignity
  4. Sexuality, gender and identity (the lengthiest chapter; 44 pages)
  5. Science, Scientism and faith
  6. Religious pluralism (all roads start at the same place; end differently)

The end result is what Murray terms a “culture of confusion” a world where the rug of truth has been pulled out from under everyone, including people on either side of any given issue.

As with the writing of Ravi Zacharias, without being an academic title, this book will appeal to the more informed reader; and like Zacharias, broadens its appeal with humor and by mixing quotations from key philosophers and scientists with lyrics from modern music. Many of the anecdotes in the book are based on recordings of the interactions that RZIM presenters have with skeptical audience members at colleges and universities. In other words, this is not “lite” reading, but it does contain practical responses to objections to Christianity that can be filed away for future use.

One inescapable takeaway is that everybody believes something, or to put it differently, everyone has faith in something. Atheism, as an example is very much a belief system, one that demands the faith of its adherents.

This is a book to read with pen in hand in order to go back to underlined sections for reference.


256 pages | US ISBN: 9780310562047 | International Edition: 9780310599838

For my Canadian readers, Abdu Murray will be featured throughout September on Canada’s national Christian television talk show, 100 Huntley Street.


A review copy of Saving Truth was provided to Thinking Out Loud by Graf-Martin Communications; providing Brand Strategy, Publicity and Integrated Marketing in Canada.


DOWNLOAD A FREE .pdf OF THE FIRST CHAPTER OF SAVING TRUTH AT THIS LINK
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August 4, 2018

Secularization in Europe: Where it Begins

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:05 am

You won’t see a picture like this often: Just 5 minutes earlier this Cathedral in Strasbourg was teeming with tourists, but they shut it down at 11:15 AM every day, evacuating all the guests. Empty churches is the theme of my writing on our concerns for Christianity in Europe.

I’m not a social scientist, though I play one on television.

However, in the informal interviews we had with people in July (and the year before) there is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that the secularization taking place in Europe has two very strong nodes; two places where it begins from which the ripple effects spread out throughout each respective country. Furthermore, I’m predicting that in the future, things won’t be much different in Canada and the United States.

One is cities. I know the stereotype. Country people are closer to the land, and it better lends itself to worshiping God in creation. But so many things reinforced the continued devoutness of the people in the smaller communities, as opposed to the secularized society we witnessed in the urban environments. Rural values are more spiritual.

For now.

The second is the young. Even as secularization spreads from the cities to the towns, it spreads as those in their teens advance into their twenties, have their own families for which church attendance is not a part of normal life.

We used to say, “Just wait until they have children.” The theory was that the children would ask questions that would force the parents to provide a structure to help them answer the metaphysical, philosophical, and spiritual questions of life.

Then studies proved that didn’t happen.

I’ve quoted this (source unknown) before:

A faith community that does not impart its sacred writings to its young people is one generation away from extinction.

I would add another today:

A faith community which has lost its children and teens is one generation away from extinction.

…and all the organ concerts and gift shop sales won’t be enough to stop that.

August 3, 2018

Secularism: Coming Soon to a Continent Near You

Tourists appreciate the stained glass in general, but often breeze by without looking at the details. “The Poor Man’s Bible” offered the Biblical narrative to those too illiterate to read the story for themselves, and too poor to ever afford a Bible. Cathedral in this picture was in Strasbourg, France.

If you Google the phrase, “The secularization of Europe;” you’ll get over 50,000 results. I am quite sure that many of those can say better what I’m about to say here.

As some of you know, we just returned from 14 days. Last year it was Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, Germany and the Czech Republic. This year it was Holland, Germany, France (for 5 hours anyway), and Switzerland. During both trips, I interviewed tour guides, bookstore staff, hotel workers, and anyone else who didn’t sprint away when I brought the subjects of faith, church, religion or Christianity.

“We tried religion and it didn’t work;” one of the tour guides in Prague said to me last year. This time, when I asked about church attendance it was, “Why would they go?”

My usual question was, “Out of the people in your immediate social circle, how many would attend church?” One person made a point of telling me the answer was 2-3%, but that strangely the brother’s wife’s cousin of his husband was studying to be a priest (pausing to make sure the his husband part fully registered with me.)

The historic churches and cathedrals seem to survive on a blend of tourism and mid-week organ concerts. Because of the architecture, these buildings are museum-like in their connection to the past, but not the present. Their relevance or impact on day-to-day life for Europeans is minimal, except as a geographical point of reference, hence, “Meet me in front of the cathedral.” 

Most of the bookstores I visited either didn’t have a religion section at all, or if they did, the Christian section consisted of church history and related biographies. There were some stores which offered theology as a category, but it was mostly scholarly and academic texts; there was nothing that would attract a seeker investigating Christianity for the first time, and certainly nothing resembling apologetics. 

Holland does have a Christian bookstore chain, De Fakkel — I’m told it means ‘The Torch’ — but in a situation similar to Canada, it is the big cities which are taking the hit, and the Amsterdam store has closed. This led the sales associate in Scheltema, a five story bookstore, to point out that he really wouldn’t know where to begin picking up the slack. He was smart enough to recognize the various denominations each have their own particular interests, and that De Fakkel can do a better job of this as insiders, so he’s chosen not to expand the Christian books on offer.  

I can’t imagine living in a society where church is so strongly rooted in the past; not the present. As I reflect on this next week, I’ll share about our visits — 3 of them actually — to Amsterdam’s Red Light District, and the whole idea of taking vacations like this versus doing the Christian retreat center thing. 

To conclude: I haven’t fleshed this out as fully as I wanted (tomorrow I’ll discuss the two nodes of secularization) but as I wrote the title what I was thinking was that the secularization we saw in Europe is coming rapidly to Canada. About the U.S., I’m not sure. America is rooted in a nominal Christianity and a political Christianity which appears pervasive. Church attendance is dropping off, and the U.S. pales in comparison to the church growth taking place in some South American countries, but the country of “In God We Trust” is presently an exception to what we see in Canada, the UK, Europe and Australia. It will be interesting to see the religious face of America ten years from now.

This cathedral in Cologne (aka Köln) Germany is so intricate, so massive; and yet so irrelevant to the daily life of anyone under a certain age.

July 8, 2018

When Doctrinal Considerations Take a Backseat

Filed under: blogging, Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:46 am

Tim Challies is, without doubt, the most-read Christian blogger in Canada. Furthermore, his site, Challies.com, regularly appears in the top ten lists of North American Christian blogs; frequently in the top spot.

Yesterday I dropped by the site only to learn that Tim has been battling nerve damage for several weeks that is rendering him unable to type and unable to sit. Knowing that his blog is also his full-time job and source of income, I realized the seriousness of this. I simply take for granted the ability to type posts daily as I’m now doing, but I’ve never remotely monetized the blog and don’t depend on it to cover food, clothing and shelter. Maybe that’s why this resonated. His wife Aileen has been typing his daily a la carte feature (similar to our link lists) and some volunteers have typed other columns.

Tim’s tag line is “informing the Reforming” which puts us at doctrinal odds, but in moments like this, such considerations fade in importance and so I immediately prayed for him. Conversely, I hope Tim would be open to accept the prayers of people with which he might otherwise disagree theologically.

…and so, Lord, we ask your continued blessing on all that Tim Challies does online, both for his own community and for people like me who represent his wider readership. We ask you in the weeks ahead to touch him physically and allow him to experience the blessing of healing, for Your honor and glory.

June 18, 2018

If You Could Change Denomination or Religious Tradition, What Would it Be?

Filed under: Christianity, Religion — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:31 am

On the weekend, the Twitter anon-account Unvirtuous Abbey conducted an interesting if unscientific poll. The question was:

While respondents didn’t give their current status, the list of idealized destinations did contain some interesting results. I wondered what their readership is like (nearly 40,000 followers) and what the results would look like if the survey had been conducted by research organizations such as Barna, Pew, or LifeWay.

In the words of Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi, “These are not the denominations you’re looking for.” [Source: LittletonCoin.com]

Of 110 responses, several mentioned faiths lying outside of Christianity, such as Sikh, Unitarian Universalist, Baha’i, Buddhist, Wiccan and Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. There was only one mention of Islam.

In what I would argue is a class by itself, 7 or 8 people said Jewish, one even specifying Reform Judaism.

Roman Catholic was mentioned several times, but it was often in comparative sentences, or referring to an inability to bring themselves to leaving. “Can I be a bad Catholic?” one asked in jest; while another was very realistic, “I would have enjoyed growing up Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic because liturgy, but I’d likely have converted away by now.” In an indictment against other Christians, one person wrote that, “they seem to be the only one that takes Jesus’ teachings on serving the poor, the immigrant, the lonely, and the marginalized remotely seriously.”

But few actual votes, which was strange given one of the clear winners: Anglican/Episcopal. On the “why” part of the question, one wrote, “All of the pomp, none of the guilt.”

Another clearly-leading contender: Quaker. (One person adding, “I like their oats.”)

The Eastern Orthodox was mentioned a few times, though some of those were from people who had already tried it. Mennonite, Amish, Anabaptist, Wesleyan, United Church of Christ and The Salvation Army each received at least a single mention.

Of the more mainstream Christian denominations, Presbyterian received the most votes — One reason, “because I’ve got waaaay more debts than trespasses.” — as well as Evangelical Lutheran (ELCA).

If you have a Twitter account you can still comment (click on the image above) but really the thing needs a much larger sample size to count for anything.

Is the grass greener somewhere else? Are people feeling a yearning of discontent in relation to where they are? My own comment — skirting the question — was that I didn’t see people lining up to become Assemblies of God or Baptist. Perhaps that’s the nature of the readership that Unvirtuous Abbey receives, or perhaps it means something more significant. What do you think?

How would you — if you’re not on Twitter — answer their question?

 

 

May 21, 2018

Missionals Sanctioned Doubt, Today Reaping the Consequences

Filed under: Christianity, Faith — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:10 am

For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind – Hosea 8:7 KJV
The people of Israel plant the wind, but they harvest a storm – Hosea 8:7 NOG*

Between 2003 and 2007 the movement in the church that would sometime be termed emergent, emerging, or missional was gaining traction. While the first two terms sound outdated — and the critics still abound, convinced they’re still fighting an identifiable force — the third is more about evangelism and hasn’t taken on a pejorative meaning.

Part of the character of these movements was to embrace the value of doubt. We sanctioned it. My wife says “We glorified it and played around with it.” You were authorized to wear your misgivings on your sleeve, while at the same time still adhering to Christianity’s over-arching message.

Reading the titles of books on the subject shows three options:
(a) Doubt is something to be overcome (the classical Protestant view)
(b) It’s okay to linger in doubt, or try to reconcile (hold in tension) doubt and belief
(c) Doubt can have positive effects; like the martial arts practitioners who use their enemy’s force to their own good, doubt can propel us toward faith.

Certainly doubt is to be preferred over apathy. A person who can articulate their uncertainties is in a better place than one who is simply dismissive and chooses to walk away from the faith discussion. Doubt is often the starting point of many a positive apologetic presentation.

And we are all works in process.

But recently, my wife and I have noticed a common thread. We journeyed with many people on the road to missional and find that so often it’s the case that their doubts overcame them. They are far removed from the place where we all began.

Their views on Jesus and the resurrection have morphed away from orthodoxy. Like the attendee at the convention or trade show, they have walked out to the lobby and removed their name badge. They no longer identify with Jesus.

This morning my wife said, “I’m starting to feel like the last man standing.”

This is not to say that there isn’t an overall drifting away taking place in Western culture. (Ironic, since Christianity seems to be growing everywhere else.) Belief in Christ is under attack on all fronts.

However, if our anecdotal evidence is in any way relevant, whatever that was which took place in the first decade of this century, it was insufficient to stick long-term with some of those in that movement…

…These different movements can be a tremendous blessing. I call myself post-Charismatic. I still believe in the limitless work of the Holy Spirit and am grateful for my exposure to and participation in that movement. I would call myself post-Missional. I’m grateful for what it showed me about Christ and culture, and the importance of identifying the people-groups in our own backyards, and reaching out to them. I’ll even (perhaps with some reluctance) take post-Emergent. I’m thankful for the lessons in Ancient-Future worship patterns and the opportunities to try to introduce those in various places where I led worship.

The danger is always throwing out the proverbial baby with the proverbial bath water. That’s what’s gone wrong here. Instead of Missional being a movement to funnel in a broader community, it seems also equally capable of being able to funnel out confirmed believers into the secular culture.

That’s unfortunate.

*NOG=Names of God Bible (Baker)

April 8, 2018

Two Kingdoms in Conflict

The world says ‘seeing is believing.’

Jesus teaches ‘believing is seeing.’

The world says attain wisdom

The Bible teaches we should be willing to become a fool

The world says ‘be a survivor’

Jesus taught we should be willing to lose our lives

The world says ‘go for the gold,’ achieve greatness

Jesus taught us to be willing to be the last, the least

The world exalts leaders

Jesus said we should make ourselves servants

The world exalts human potential and greatness

Jesus said we should humble ourselves

The world says ‘look out for number one’

The Bible teaches we should look out for the interests of others and count others better than ourselves

The world says ‘get all you can’

Jesus says ‘give all you can’

The world says we should make our good deeds known

Jesus taught we should keep our good deeds secret

The world says love is a feeling, it’s conditional and it will grow old

The Bible teaches the love is a lasting, unconditional commitment; love never fails

The world says we should hate our enemies

Jesus taught us to love our enemies

The world says ‘get even,’ retaliate

Jesus taught forgiveness

The world puts spin on events to cover up mistakes

Proverbs teaches us to confess our mistakes

The world emphasizes the great things human can accomplish

The prophets taught things happen ‘not by might, nor by power,’ but by God’s Spirit

The world says ‘drown your sorrows’

The Bible contrasts that with ‘be filled with the Spirit

The world operates on cynicism and skepticism

Jesus taught that all things are possible to those who believe

The world says you should consult your horoscope

Jesus talked about searching the scriptures

The world says the Bible was written by human agency only

The Bible itself claims that all Scripture is God breathed

The world says the Bible is old-fashioned and out-of-date

Jesus said that heaven and earth will pass away, but not his truths

The world thinks Jesus was a good man

The early church confession was that Jesus is Lord

The world says Jesus is not coming back

Jesus promised ‘I will come and receive you to myself’

The world concludes, ‘I’ll never worship Jesus Christ’

The Bible says that someday every knee will bow and every voice will admit that Jesus Christ is Lord.


~adapted from Straightforward by Larry Tomczak, a classic book from the Jesus movement of the late 1970s.  Italicized sections allude to or quote scripture passages unless otherwise indicated.

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