Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I'm thankful for gut flora

On Thanksgiving, we take time away from complaining about our jobs, the government and the price of higher education to be grateful for the good things we have: our jobs, Facebook, Twitter, reality TV shows (sure), family, health, and the greatest gift which opens up a relationship with the creator of the universe. There are some other things this Creator has given that don’t normally make the list of those for which we are thankful.

Intestinal bacteria
The trillions of bacteria that live in the average human intestinal tract outnumber the cells in the body. However, most are beneficial and deter harmful bacteria from growing and damaging the host. These “good” bacteria boost our immune system, improve nutrient absorption [1], assist in the digestion of food, break down toxins, as well as manufacture vitamins and amino acids [2]. This is why a course of probiotics is recommended before travel to third world nations and one reason yogurt sells at the Piggly Wiggly. It may not make for a very good discussion topic around the Thanksgiving table, but gut flora are good for us.

While tragic when these affect populated areas and people are harmed, earthquakes – a result of plate tectonics – have served to provide a livable planet for advanced life. Plate tectonics maintain proper amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to balance the sun’s luminosity. In the carbonate-silicate cycle, CO2 is removed from the atmosphere through weathering, then returned into the earth’s crust through plate tectonics. Another similar mechanism controls the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere through a type of “oxygen elevator”. Oxygen becomes bound in various oxides, drawn into the earth’s interior at subduction zones along tectonic plates, then incorporated through a complex process into a mineral called majorite (yes, it was named for researcher Alan Major). When majorite reaches the earth's surface, it releases the oxygen, some into the atmosphere and some to bind with hydrogen to form water [3]. Without tectonic activity – and earthquakes – that perform these and many other functions, this planet would not be habitable. We can thank God for earthquakes.

Bad is good
Other examples of things we normally don’t think are worthy of thanks include volcanoes which deposit nutrient rich soil that is easily broken down by weathering, allowing for productive agriculture. And viruses, which are often very deleterious to humans, are beneficial in regulating animal and plant populations. Also, researchers have been able to use harmful viruses for good, like sheep in wolves’ clothing. For example, the deadly HIV-1 virus was “disabled” and used to deliver a healthy gene to stem cells of a patient with a rare brain disorder [4]. This Thanksgiving we can see the Creator’s providence even in some unusual places.

"Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all His benefits." (Psalm 103:2)

[1] USDA/Agricultural Research Service. "Beneficial Bacteria Boost Intestinal Health."ScienceDaily 3 January 2007. 24 November 2010
[2] European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). "Bacterial balance keeps us healthy: Microbial genes in gut outnumber genes in human body." ScienceDaily 4 March 2010. 24 November 2010 .
[3] David Rogstad, “Another benefit for life in earthquakes”, Reasons to Believe, 7 Dec 2007.
[4] Fazale Rana, “Viruses and God’s providence revisited”, Reasons to Believer, 26 Nov 2009.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

When Christian leaders fail

Last weekend, a letter was read to parishioners indicating an audit found an unspecified amount of money had been “misappropriated” by Rev. Francis Drabiska, who had served as pastor of the Word of God parish near Pittsburgh, PA for 16 years. Bishop David Zubik, Roman Catholic Diocese, announced the resignation of Rev. Drabiska, who admitted taking the funds [1], which were presumably not used for wafers and grape juice.

Rev. Ted Haggard resigned from the 14,000 member New Life Church in Colorado Springs which he had founded in the 1980s. The former president of the 30,000 member National Evangelical Association stated in a letter read to the congregation, “The fact is I am guilty of sexual immorality”. [2] In Hollywood, this admission would be received with a yawn and movie deal. Not so in the church. This matter was a bit more complicated than most church sex scandals, given Haggard’s involvement in politics and his opposition to same-sex marriage legislation. Mike Jones of Denver, who is gay and whom Haggard allegedly paid for a massage and methamphetamine, stated “My intent was to expose a hypocrite.” [3]

Then there’s Father John Geoghan, former Boston priest, suspected of serial pedophilia for decades before he was convicted in 2002 of groping a 10-year old boy. He is alleged to have left behind a trail of victims, many of whom have likely turned away from the church, before suffering his own tragic end - a noose held by fellow inmate Joseph Druce on August 23, 2003 at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. [4] We could continue; unfortunately, as there are other examples. Many non-church attenders point to these types of incidents as another problem with religion. Is it justified to turn from the church and God because of the sins of a few?

How does this affect people?
News reports of Christian leaders' moral failings receive a disproportionate amount of attention in comparison to the actual problem. Similarly, there are thousands of plane flights every day, but they only receive attention when something goes wrong. The vast majority of church leaders are never involved in any scandalous behavior. Unfortunately, some people become disillusioned as a result and leave the church or use these scandals as an excuse for avoiding church. A survey of those who do not attend religious services found that 72% stated that church is “full of hypocrites”. [5] Few, if any, scientific studies break this down to church leaders who fail, but it is clear that hypocrisy is a common complaint of the unchurched.

So, how should we react?
Is it reasonable to be surprised and shocked when a human fails? Only Jesus was without sin (2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:22, 1 John 3:5). Conversely, the remainder of us have sinned to varying degrees (Romans 3:10, Psalm 14:1, Romans 3:23). Though it is certainly disappointing when a respected church leader falls, our trust should not be in humans, but in God alone (Psalm 40:4, Isaiah 26:4). We should forgive those who sin as each of us would like to be forgiven (Luke 6:31, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13). Certain behaviors may necessitate removal from positions within the church (2 Corinthians 2:6-8), expulsion from the church completely (1 Corinthians 5:13), and even criminal prosecution. Following repentance, if return to the church would not place others at risk, this person may be restored to fellowship (Galatians 6:1).

What to do?
The message and mission of the church are too important to not take reasonable precautions for church leaders and workers. Systems of checks and balances are essential for financial matters, so that no one is tempted regardless of how much the pastor, secretary or CFO are trusted. Similarly, safeguards need to be in place – and already are in most churches – to protect against even the appearance of impropriety. All of us who work in the church as volunteers or staff need to maintain high standards of conduct (1 Timothy 3:1-13) so the message of the gospel will not be hindered (Matthew 18:6). However, we need to remember that Jesus Christ was the only person who never sinned and our faith should only be in Him.

[1] Jodi Weigand, “Word of God Parish rocked by theft accusation against priest”, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 15 Nov 2010.
[2] Associated Press, “Haggard admits ‘sexual immorality,’ apologizes”, MSNBC, updated 11/05/06.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Thomas Farragher, “In death, Geoghan triggers another crisis,” The Boston Globe, November 30, 2003.
[5] Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Survey: Non-attendees find faith outside church”, USAToday, 23 Jan 2008.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Embryonic stem cells no longer needed?

Michael J. Fox, in an opinion published at on September 8, 2010, advocated the “scientific freedom to pursue all promising paths to finding” treatment for neurodegenerative diseases, “move beyond political agendas and advance the promise of stem cell research.” [1] He noted that, two weeks earlier, a federal judge in the U.S. granted a preliminary injunction to halt federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The promise of stem cell research is very encouraging for those with a variety of physical conditions including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, and others. However, the progress of this research seems to be discouragingly slow. The crucial issue involves whether an embryo is a human being – if so, then how can we justify using a live human for laboratory experiments.

Fortunately, whether life begins at conception may be a moot point in regard to stem cells. Numerous recent studies have shown that adult cells can be transformed into stem cells with the same regenerative capability as embryonic stem cells. Adult cells reprogrammed to become undifferentiated are called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), the word “pluripotent” indicating the ability to become almost any of the other 220 cell types in the body.

One such study in the April 25, 2010 issue of the journal Nature reported that mice were able to be cloned from adult iPSCs. This is significant because, previously, only embryonic cells were capable of this. Investigators from the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Regenerative Medicine and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute found that a segment of chromosome 12 containing genes important for fetal development were turned off with most iPSCs. By closely comparing profiles of cell lines in embryonic and adult stem cells, the researchers identified the chromosome that was hindering the process. Once this was identified, the adult stem cells were just as effective as embryonic cells. The researchers found that “those iPSCs (with chromosome 12 activated) were as successful in producing live animals as embryonic stem cells have been”. [2]

This is only one of many research experiments involving stem cells. A number of recent studies have successfully produced adult pluripotent stem cells with the same capabilities as embryonic cells. An article, already written, with several of these studies highlighted will be posted soon to the website. The bottom line: It is not necessary to create and destroy embryos - an early stage of human development - for scientific research. We sincerely hope, for Michael J. Fox and millions of others, that medical technology progresses expeditiously to the point of regenerating damaged cells and curing these debilitating diseases.

[1] Michael J. Fox, Special to CNN, “Michael J. Fox: Keep funding stem cell research”, CNN Opinion, 8 Sept 2010.
[2] Massachusetts General Hospital. "Gene Silencing May Be Responsible for Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells' Limitations."ScienceDaily, 29 April 2010. Web. 7 November 2010. .

Saturday, October 16, 2010


“The 33 graves we never needed” was a name given to the site where the Chilean miners were spectacularly rescued on October 13, 2010. At the San Jose copper and gold mine, the last of the miners was rescued from a shaft 2,041 feet underground after surviving 69 days. This was the longest anyone has survived while trapped underground. No expense was spared in bringing top of the line drilling equipment and estimates were around $22 million for the entire operation [1]. For the first 17 days, no one on top knew they were alive and in fact feared the worst. This joyous rescue has gained the attention of the entire world as well as international cooperation, including Canadian workers, NASA specialists from the United States, a drilling consultant from Australia, and even a specialized drill bit from a Pennsylvania based company [2].

One of the rescued miners, 50 year old Yonni Barrios, had his romantic dalliance with Susana Valenzuela revealed on the international news, not exactly to the delight of his cheated wife Marta, who stated “she’s welcome to him”. Then there is 27 year old miner Carlos Barrios, who has a five year old son with his wife as well as a girlfriend who is seven months pregnant. So, an overwhelmingly joyous occasion is not without a little social drama.

Another group of people were trapped underground that you probably did not hear about. They too were separated from fresh air and the light of the sun. In fact, many in this group had been underground so long, they became accustomed to it and, for the most part, did not even try to escape. Occasionally, one would get out, but the others quickly forgot about him or her and returned to their “normal” lives. Sometimes, people on the bright surface communicated opportunities for escape to those trapped, but some miners ignored them, some did not hear, and others even jeered at the surface people, claiming they would rather remain in the stale subterranean air. Many lived out the remainder of their natural lives in this extensive mine. A few wrote books about mystical experiences in the bright surface world while a few others authored books explaining the reasons that world does not exist. These miners had, as those in Chile, searched for gold, but instead found discontentment, a lack of joy and peace, loss of purpose, and low level generalized depression. However, they attempted to put a happy face on things and tell others below they were fine.

Ridiculous allegory one might say? Is it ridiculous that many people are spiritually trapped, not knowing the light of God, not knowing His love and forgiveness, and not having the hope of eternal life in heaven? Not to diminish an exceptionally well planned rescue in Chile, spiritual entrapment can be totally life-encompassing, not to mention eternal – “what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). Many people are trapped in pits that were dug with shovels of alcohol, drugs and similar addictions – “He has dug a pit and hollowed it out and has fallen into the hole which he made” (Psalm 7:15). In lucid moments, we clearly recognize the situation, but friends, parties and life’s pleasures keep some in the pit – “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Fortunately, the Bible states that God “has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son” (Colossians 1:13). The first step is admission and the second is acceptance of God’s rescue. “I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined to me and heard my cry. He brought me up out of the pit of destruction” (Psalm 40:1-2a). May those on the lighted surface continue sending rescue capsules to those who are trapped.

[1] Pittsburgh Tribune Review newspaper, “Last of Chile miners rises to surface”, Oct. 14, 2010.
[2] Stephen Kurczy, The Christian Science Monitor, “Chile mine rescue spurred unprecedented global cooperation”, Oct. 14, 2010.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Does consciousness continue after brain death? If so, is this evidence for existence of the mind outside of the physical brain? And, ultimately, is this potential evidence for life beyond death?

“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path. One that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it – white shores and beyond - a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

Cardiac arrest study
Cardiologist Pim van Lommel became unexpectedly interested in the continuity of consciousness after death during his medical internship when a patient was successfully resuscitated in the cardiac ward by electrical defibrillation. The patient regained consciousness, and was very, very disappointed. He told the doctor about a tunnel, beautiful colors, a light and beautiful music. [1] Sometime later, after hearing similar reports, van Lommel and others initiated a study which ultimately involved 344 consecutive survivors of cardiac arrest in ten Dutch hospitals. The purpose was to investigate the frequency, cause and content of near death experiences (NDEs). A short standardized interview was conducted within a few days of resuscitation in which patients were asked whether they could recall anything during the period of unconsciousness.

The result was that 62 patients (18%) had some memory during clinical death. An American study found similar results involving 116 cardiac arrest survivors, 11 of which (10%) reported a detailed, in-depth experience. In the Dutch study, about 50% reported awareness of death, 30% moving through a tunnel or met with deceased relatives, and 25% had an out-of-body experience. A longitudinal follow-up study found that, after two and eight years, those patients who previously reported NDEs and were able to be re-interviewed recalled the events almost exactly. So, the experiences were not ephemeral, but enduring and impactful.

Long term changes
Some fascinating positive changes occurred in all patients who had been resuscitated. There was a highly significant decrease in fear of death and a significant increase in belief of an afterlife. Other significantly increased attitudes and interests included: meaning of life, acceptance of others, love and empathy, family involvement and appreciation of ordinary things. Recognizing the transitory nature of this life – as well as the reality of the next – seemed to enhance the importance of both.

Biblical example?
Some have speculated that the Apostle Paul’s reference to a man caught up to the third heaven may be an example of consciousness beyond the physical brain (2 Corinthians 12:2-4). Without more information, it is impossible to know for certain if this man’s soul (mind) actually left the body or the experience was merely a vision, completely contained within the physical brain. In fact, in verse one, Paul (probably the same “man”) prefaces this anecdote by mentioning “visions and revelations”.

How significant is this?
NDEs are fertile ground for bizarre spirituality (astral projection, reincarnation, etc.) and this issue is far from resolved. Nonetheless, it is clear that many of the main proponents today are not spiritist frauds, but cardiologists and other medical professionals, who recognized the phenomenon only after convincing evidence. In addition to Dr. van Lommel, other studies have been conducted with reports indicating the reality of conscious experiences after medical death. As far back as 1978, Cardiologist Maurice Rawlings reported his findings which, similar to those of van Lommel, were unexpected. Rawlings found that, immediately following resuscitation of cardiac arrest patients, some reported the usual experiences (looking down on one’s body, tunnel, light, and a beautiful city), but others reported very disturbing hell-like images (darkness, fire, heat, demons, and fear). Dr. Rawlings concluded: “Contemplation of death while we are still in good health affords us an excellent utilization of time and objectives during our short pilgrimage on earth.” [2] Whether or not recent medical research provides evidence of life after death, it is incontrovertible that all will die and the risk is incalculable to enter that great beyond without certainty of one’s destination.

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 4:7)
“I was dead and behold I am alive for ever and ever” (Revelation 1:18)

[1] Pim van Lommel, Ruud van Wees, Vincent Meyers, Ingrid Elfferich, “Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands”, Lancet, 2001; 358: 2039-2045.
[2] Maurice Rawlings, M.D., Beyond Death’s Door, (New York, NY: Thomas Nelson, 1978), 117.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

to burn or not to burn - how should Christians respond

So, the Reverend Dr. Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center (DWOC) in Gainesville, Florida decided not to burn Qur’ans on 9/11. Even after Jones stated “We will definitely not burn the Quran, not today, not ever", about 600 protesters gathered in Afghanistan where Afghan security forces opened fire, killing two [1]. If the Qur’an burning was a publicity stunt, it was a huge success. Jones, who pastors a church of about 50 – the average number of people in line at WalMart at any given time – became world famous as fast as you can say “Death to America, the Great Satan”. He flew to New York City to appear on NBC’s “Today Show”, received a personal telephone call from General Petreaus, and a public request by President Obama to reconsider. If he never intended to burn one Qur’an, he received the notoriety so many long for.

The website for the DWOC advertises a book by Jones entitled “Islam is of the Devil” and other similar items for sale [2]. DWOC first stated the Qur’an burning is an act of love: “We are using this act to warn about the teaching and ideology of Islam ... We do not hate any people, however. We love, as God loves, all the people in the world and we want them to come to a knowledge of the truth. To warn of danger and harm is a loving act" [3]. While that may be true, the method used to convey this “warning” is offensive and counterproductive for showing God’s love to others.

What should be the response of Christians to other public acts designed to shock and draw attention, such as waving signs stating “God hates fags”? General Petreaus warned that burning Qur’ans “would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan – and around the world – to inflame public opinion and incite violence” [4]. Conversely, others have correctly noted there were no Qur’an burnings on September 10th, 2001. To be fair, where were the riots and threats of violence when a crucifix was placed in urine and called “art” [5] and when Christian churches were burned in Sudan? [6] Jesus gave us direction when he stated, “whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matthew 5:39).

Numerous Christian leaders have, not surprisingly, denounced the Qur’an burning. Though too numerous to mention, a few include: Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, Joel Osteen, Southern Baptist Convention, Focus on the Family, the Vatican, and even Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. An inter-faith group including Baptists, Jews and others met with Attorney General Eric Holder to also denounce the Qur’an burning. This is commendable and, at as well, we strongly repudiate the methods employed by Dr. Jones as inappropriate for followers of Jesus Christ.

So, how should Christians respond to those with different beliefs? What about those who actively seek to harm us? Jesus said, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you …Treat others the same way you want them to treat you.” (Luke 6:27-31) Everything we do must be motivated by love. Paul famously wrote, “if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan and the vast majority of true Christians hold to those values. A very small sampling - of many - Christian organizations who have no plans to burn Qur’ans; rather, have actively worked to help meet the physical needs of those in dire situations in predominantly Muslim nations include: Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, Compassion International, Lutheran World Federation, Catholic Relief Services, Operation Blessing, Joyce Meyer Ministries, Episcopal Relief & Development, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and many others. Christians are admonished to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” and “never pay back evil for evil” (Romans 12:14, 17). That is our response.

[1] CNN wire staff, “2 killed in Afghan protest over Quran burning”, posted 12 Sept 2010,
[2] Dove World Outreach Center website, accessed 7 Sept 2010, < >
[3] Joshua A. Goldberg, writing in The Christian Post, “Christian Leaders repeat calls to halt 9/11 Quran Burnings”, 6 Sept 2010.
[4] Rahim Faiez and Robert H. Rei, “Thousands of Afghans in anti-Quran burning protest”, Associated Press, 11 Sept 2010.
[5] < >
[6] “A Rebirth of Hope”, accessed 12 Sept 2010,

Sunday, August 8, 2010

the least of these

“Be at peace, brother. We will have a happy supper with the Lord tonight.”
John Bradford to John Leaf, England, July 1555. [1]

On Friday August 6, 2010, the bodies of ten aid workers were discovered in the remote northern Afghanistan province of Badakhshan. Six Americans, one Briton, one German and two Afghan interpreters were killed while working as part of a medical mission. The only survivor of the group was a local translator who offered proof of his Muslim faith by quoting the Quran, according to the Associated Press. The Taliban took credit for the executions, alleging the charity workers were proselytizing poor villagers. A Taliban spokesman stated, “They were Christian missionaries and we killed them all.” [2] The workers were part of International Assistance Mission (IAM), “an international charitable, non-profit, Christian organisation, serving the people of Afghanistan, through capacity building in the sectors of Health and Economic Development”, in existence since 1966. [3]

According to the IAM website, all foreign workers are unpaid volunteers, some spending their own money to live and work in Afghanistan. The medical team was en route to Kabul following a 15-day mission providing eye care to rural villagers. Victims who have been identified are New York optometrist Tom Little, Colorado dentist Thomas Grams, Pennsylvania's Glen Lapp and Britain's Dr. Karen Woo. Grams had quit his dental practice in Durango, Colorado, to volunteer full-time, providing impoverished children with free dental care in Nepal and Afghanistan. Woo also gave up her job in London to work with Afghans. Optometrist Little had worked in Afghanistan for three decades, even learning to speak fluent Dari, one of the two main languages in that region. He supervised a network of IAM eye hospitals and clinics around the country. An associate of Grams and Little stated, "The kids had never seen toothbrushes, and Tom brought thousands of them. He trained them how to brush their teeth”. [4]

We commend these brave men and women and pray that those in Afghanistan who were touched by their selfless acts will recognize the love of God shown through their lives. “And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death.” (Revelation 12:11)

[1] John Foxe, Foxe’s Christian Martyrs of the World (Westwood, NJ: Barbour Books, 1989), 124.
[2] Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “Taliban Strategy: Kill aid workers”, August 8, 2010, p. A1.
[3] < >
[4] MSNBC, “Christian Group denies Afghan Taliban claims over dead workers”, posted 8 Aug 2010, < >

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hard luck and Caesar's household

“Hard luck and bad news have followed me from town to town
All my life my luck’s been down I’m getting so weary
I don’t have one friend, folks turn their backs when I’m around
When I walk by the grass turns brown” [1]

When circumstances in life turn bad, a natural reaction is to become discouraged, angry, depressed, and wonder why God let us down. We may also wonder why our service to God (working in the church, tithing, charity, etc.) has not spared us from hard times. The Apostle Paul certainly could have gone through these emotions and questions when he found himself in prison at Rome for “bringing Greeks into the temple” (Acts 21:28), though essentially, for preaching about Jesus. Rather, he chose to use the imprisonment as an opportunity.

A particularly interesting comment is made by Paul later during his imprisonment: “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar's household.” (Philippians 4:22) As Caesar was considered in Roman times to be godlike, it seems unusual for Paul to mention some of his attendants. Craig Keener points out that “It most likely refers here to the Praetorian Guard … if Paul was in Rome at this point, anyone who guarded him … would naturally be exposed to his teaching. Even Caesar’s slaves wielded more power and prestige than most well-off free persons; the Praetorian Guard itself held the prestige of the Roman military’s elite, often rewarded by Caesar himself. Paul’s greeting would impress his readers: his imprisonment has indeed advanced the gospel”. [2] So, Paul had a very unique opening to spread the gospel.

Philip Schaff comments that Paul “often refers to his bonds, and the coupling chain or hand-cuff (ἅλυσις) by which, according to Roman custom, he was with his right wrist fettered day and night to a soldier; one relieving the other and being in turn chained to the apostle, so that his imprisonment became a means for the spread of the gospel…” [3] This was probably not one of the choice assignments for a guard. Imagine being chained to a prisoner in a cell for hours at a time. But Paul, rather than lament his situation, turned it into a chance to talk to each of the guards about Jesus. He likely spoke with many guards over time. At some point, Paul was permitted to live in “his own rented quarters” (Acts 28:30-31). During these two years of imprisonment, from approximately 61-63 A.D., Paul wrote letters to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon and may have also written Titus and I Timothy.

Paul explained, “that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.” (Philippians 1:12-14) Rather than blaming God and giving up when the situation became bad, Paul turned it into a chance to spread the gospel and lead people to salvation. In our lives, a depressing situation may be a unique opportunity to do something significant.

[1] Larry Norman, Hard Luck and Bad News, Something New Under the Son, 1981
[2] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 567.
[3] Philip Schaff, History of the Church, Volume I: Apostolic Christianity. A.D.1-100, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), § 93.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

As a man thinks in his heart?

“As a man thinks in his heart, so is he”, states the Bible in Proverbs 23:7. Sermons have been preached and doctrines taught on the concept that we become what we think in our heart. Even the Buddhist philosophy admonishes “right thinking” as one component of the eight-fold path. However, other translations of this portion of Proverbs convey a different meaning: “for he is the kind of man who is always thinking about the cost” (NLT 2007, NIV 1984, ESV 2001). In fact, this translation seems to fit more accurately with the context of the passage. Reading the verses immediately preceding and following 23:7 indicates the writer is cautioning the reader when associating with a selfish person:
“Do not eat the bread of a selfish man, or desire his delicacies; for as he thinks within himself, so he is (for he is the kind of man who is always thinking about the cost). He says to you, ‘Eat and drink!’ But his heart is not with you. You will vomit up the morsel you have eaten, and waste your compliments.”
This hardly seems like positive encouragement for us to become what we think in our heart.

This passage advises us to be careful when with certain types of people because they are not what they appear to be on the surface. The clause “as he thinks within himself, so he is” warns that this man’s inner thoughts are different from the deceptive false front he presents. These verses do not teach the power of positive thinking. In fact, the deceptive man mentioned in this verse acts differently from his inner thoughts.

But, is the concept still accurate and is it supported in other passages of the Bible? Actually, there is less Biblical support than one might think. In fact, several biblical passages that mention thinking lead to different outcomes. For example, Jesus said, “whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him” (Luke 8:18). The thoughts of this person obviously did not lead to action. Paul similarly mentioned positive cognitions that failed to benefit this person: “For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:3). Again, here is a person who thinks he is something he is not, in contradiction to the common meaning attributed to Proverbs 23:7.

But wait, doesn’t the Bible state that we speak what the heart believes? Yes, there is some biblical support for that; for example, Jesus connects the heart with speech (Matthew 12:34, 15:18). So, what is in the heart (mind) will at some time leak out of the mouth. And, we know from experience that belief can determine behavior. But, that is not always sufficient - as James points out, we show belief by actions (James 2:17-18). So, thoughts and beliefs do not automatically lead to the behaviors we desire. Thinking – and even believing – must be followed by conscious decisions to put them into practice in reality.

On the other hand, psychology does seem to support the concept that thoughts can lead to behaviors. Much of the basic theory of cognitive psychology is derived from the notion that thoughts determine the interpretation of events, which lead to feelings, which can then determine behavior. Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive psychology wrote: “In cognitive therapy it is generally maintained that beliefs have a profound impact on feelings and behaviors.” [1] Though, psychologists will often employ behavioral techniques enabling clients to follow accurate thinking with appropriate action.

The bottom line here is the importance of considering the context and proper translation of biblical passages, especially when basing an entire doctrine on one or two verses of dubious clarity. Mistakes have been made in other areas similar to this (e.g., baptism for the dead and faith of God). Furthermore, we should not take for granted what we have been taught; rather, “examine everything carefully, hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).

[1] Aaron T. Beck, Fred D. Wright, Cory F. Newman, and Bruce S. Liese, Cognitive Therapy of Substance Abuse (NY, NY: The Guilford Press, 1993), 169.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

praying to a painting

La Basilica in the town of Higuey, Dominican Republic, contains a painting of Jesus’ mother Mary, entitled La Virgen de la Altagracia, patron saint of Republica Dominicana, made by a 15th century Spanish painter. As my wife and I visited while celebrating our anniversary, the tour guide stated many people – including his own mother - pray to this painting, hoping for Mary to make intercession. Thousands visit annually on January 21st to celebrate Our Lady of Altagracia Day, when the beautiful architecture of La Basilica is illuminated after dark.

Some of the most spectacular paintings and edifices in the world are religious. Fortunately, it is not necessary to pray to a saint or visit a building to communicate with God. In fact, all believers are saints: “to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2). And, we are all priests: “He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father” (Revelation 1:6). All believers have one great high priest (Hebrews 8:1) and no need for any other. Each of us has the indescribable privilege of communicating directly with God, as Jesus said, “you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will request of the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you” (John 16:26-27). James encourages believers to “draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8). And, we do not need to visit a building to meet God: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you” (1 Corinthians 3:16).

The veil of the temple was torn (Matthew 27:51), providing access to God for all who believe in Jesus Christ. In the words Bob Hartman, leader of the greatest rock band ever:
He paid the ransom due and tore the temple veil in two
and opened up the way for me and you.
It is finished.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Aliens and oaths

“At any given time, there are around 1,500 aliens on the planet”, said Tommy Lee Jones to Will Smith in Men in Black. Many aliens live in the United States today – some legally and others not – though most are not from the Alpha Centauri system or the Crab Nebula. Immigration is a political hot button topic these days. Of course, all residents of this nation were aliens at one time, even American Indians who likely traveled across Asia and the Bering Strait thousands of years ago. As Tommy Lee goes on to say, “Most of them are decent enough; they’re just trying to make a living.” That is true today – many undocumented visitors in the USA are simply trying to make a better life for their families, while others have decidedly more malevolent intentions. The general public may never know how many potential terrorist attacks have been stopped by analysts, agents and concerned citizens.

The 9/11 hijackers were living as enemies within the borders of this nation. However, it is interesting to note that these devoted followers of their god partook of the sins of Western civilization which they vociferously denounced. For example, in the days prior to the attacks, United Airlines hijacker Marwan Al-Shehhi purchased at least $435 worth of porn videos and toys from the Video Outlet in Deerfield Beach, Florida (from FBI timeline). Mohammad Atta downed $48 in vodka at Shuckums Oyster Bar and Restaurant in Hollywood, Florida, telling the bartender, “Of course I can pay the bill, I’m an airline pilot”. [1] According to the USA Today, “The night before terrorists struck New York and Washington, three men spewed anti-American sentiments in a bar and talked of impending bloodshed at a strip club known as the Pink Pony and Red Eyed Jack's Sports Bar in Daytona Beach. "They were talking about what a bad place America is. They said 'Wait 'til tomorrow. America is going to see bloodshed’”, stated the manager to the FBI. [2]

For those immigrants who truly want to become productive citizens of the USA and assimilate into American life, there are several requirements. Once those are met and the application is filed, the last step to citizenship is for the individual to swear the oath of allegiance. The oath begins with this phrase:
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen…” [3]
When an individual has renounced all other allegiances and sworn loyalty to the United States, he or she then becomes a citizen.

The Bible instructs believers to live as aliens and strangers in this world. Christians should not assimilate into society, engaging in the same behaviors as unbelievers. Peter tells us: “I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.” (2 Peter 2:11) In the next verse, he continues, “keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles”. Are we living up to that admonition? It is easy to feel at home, especially in Western societies wherein life is generally good. Do we sometimes love the world and the things of the world as John commands us not to do (1 John 2:15-17). While living as aliens, we do not seek to destroy society through terrorism; rather, we seek to change people from the inside out. To do that, we cannot live as those who have no hope. We need to renounce prior allegiances. And, like an immigrant to the United States who changes allegiance, the Apostle Paul informs that we also have switched: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household” (Ephesians 2:19). How then should we live?

[1] Ian Ball, Telegraph online, “FBI tracks down the Florida lair of flying school terrorists”, 14 Sept 2001,
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[2] USA Today newspaper, “Manager: Men spewed anti-American sentiments”, 14 Sept 2001, < >
[3] U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, “Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America”, updated 8 Mar 2010, accessed 25 May 2010, < >

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Four "E"s of the Resurrection

The most significant event in human history is celebrated on Easter: The resurrection of Jesus Christ, of which Paul said, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). If He was not raised, we may just eat, drink, and do whatever we wish because all of us will die with no hope. Fortunately, not only was He raised, but the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the best-attested event in ancient history. Here we will list four easy lines of evidence for the reliability of the gospel accounts, particularly of the resurrection.

1. Eyewitnesses: John, Peter, Matthew, and James personally observed the life of Jesus. Luke and Mark wrote their accounts based on the testimony of eyewitnesses. Peter stated, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). John wrote, “The Word became flesh and lived among us. We have seen His glory” (John 1:14). Luke as an investigative reporter, indicated, “I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you…so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4). Luke traveled with Paul (Col. 4:14, Philemon 24) and wrote his account prior to A.D. 62, so many eyewitnesses were alive to interview. Mark was an associate of Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and wrote his account based on that information, a fact mentioned by early church father Papias. Furthermore, when most of the books in the New Testament were being written, hundreds of additional witnesses were alive to corroborate these accounts, as Paul wrote: “He (Jesus) appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living” (1 Corinthians 15:6).

2. Early: I Corinthians was written around 55 AD by Paul and contained a creed in Chapter 15 that dated to within only a few years of the resurrection. Historical non-Biblical records show that Paul died around 62 AD, during the reign of Emperor Nero, so all of his writings were complete before that time. Relating that to the modern era, suppose sometime in the 1980s, a person became well-known for performing miracles, was arrested, killed, then seen alive again afterward. Would an eyewitness of those events still remember three decades later? Absolutely. Much of the Bible was written while dispassionate, as well as hostile, witnesses were still alive to dispute the accounts.

3. Embarrassing: If many of us had been with Jesus and decided to write our memoirs, would we have included embarrassing details of seeming insignificance? For example, between the crucifixion and resurrection, the brave disciples were hiding (John 20:19). Furthermore, in this patriarchal society, the first courageous ones to visit the tomb were women (Matthew 28:1). If the valiant disciples were making up this story, they would surely have mentioned something about boldly marching down to the tomb, kicking some Roman guard hindquarters, and rescuing their Savior. Then, there was the verbal exchange in which Jesus called Peter “Satan” (Mark 8:33). If Peter was making up the story, do you think he might have said to Mark, “Don’t include that part about Jesus calling me Satan”? Various other mentions of the unbelief and intellectual deficiency of the disciples in the gospels would surely have been deleted if they were only stories. The fact that embarrassing details are recorded lends credibility to the accounts.

4. Empty Tomb: John records, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!’" (John 20:1-2) Did they go to the wrong tomb? It was a very traumatic time, the burial was made hastily, and it was dark, so perhaps they did. However, the Jewish leaders would have been very motivated to quickly locate the correct tomb - with help from Roman guards - prove Jesus was still dead, and put an end to this resurrection foolishness. Well then, maybe the disciples stole the body and invented the story? One problem with that theory is that it would have been impossible to get past the Roman guard. Two, if the disciples did steal the body, then they clearly knew he was dead. And if so, they were the stupidest people in history to willingly die for a false story they knew was false. Some may be willing to die for a lie they think is true, but all of the disciples (except Judas) were willing to die for their belief.

These are four, simple yet convincing, reasons to believe the Biblical resurrection accounts.
(A more detailed account of these lines of evidence may be found in the book "I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist” by Frank Turek and Norman Geisler.)

Friday, March 12, 2010

simple little lumps and pale blue dots

Scientific advances in very recent history indicate that even simple, single-cellular organisms are incredibly complex, raising serious challenges to undirected origins of life and naturalistic, Darwinian evolution. Darwin’s ideas were ingenious, but at the time he wrote, microscopes were not sufficiently advanced to distinguish the inner workings of a living cell. Ernst Haeckel, a great admirer of Darwin and popularizer of his theory, believed a cell is a “simple little lump of albuminous combination of carbon”. [1] He couldn’t have been more wrong. A "simple" cell has been described as functioning with the complexity of a small city. The probability of even one protein forming by chance is astronomical, to say nothing of all the other necessary components of a single cell. In fact, this one aspect of cellular development has been addressed by chemists Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen. [2] They determined that, in the absence of any chemical competition with non-amino acids and nonbiologically relevant amino acids – in other words, an ideal situation – the probability of aligning the correct amino acid in a specific position in a protein molecule is 1.25%. Calculating from there the probability of correctly aligning at least one hundred amino acids necessary to form even one simple protein, is roughly one chance in 10,191. This does not begin to address the numerous other requirements for the formation of even one single cell, such as: nucleic acids (RNA and DNA), homochirality of amino acids, cellular membrane, transport mechanisms, lipids, and so on. Scientific evidence is solidly in the court of intelligent design, leaving the burden of proof on those who advocate undirected, naturalistic origins.

Evidence for intentional design is not only greatly bolstered by technological developments on the microscopic level, but also on the astronomic scale. Carl Sagan believed that Earth is an ordinary planet circling an ordinary star in an ordinary galaxy. He proposed the idea that, if there is life on Earth, then many other planets probably also have life. Is that true? People have worked for years on the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Program to find signs of life on other planets. However, when we begin to examine the narrow parameters necessary for life to exist, it is abundantly evident that this planet is anything but an ordinary pale blue dot in the vast universe. Astrophysicist Hugh Ross, has listed 93 parameters necessary for life as we know it to exist on a planet. [3] The list is obviously much too lengthy to quote here, but suffice to say, Earth is significantly more unique that previously thought. To give one example, too few gamma-ray burst events in the galaxy would lead to insufficient production of copper, scandium, titanium, and zinc necessary for complex life to exist. Too many gamma-ray bursts would result in too many mass extinction events on earth. Only 92 more until life is possible.

Astronomical parameters, combined with microscopic biological observations, present very strong arguments for intentional design and, therefore, an intelligent designer. As tourists recognize the purposeful design in the painting of the Sistine Chapel, study of the universe, and the exponentially higher level of design, leads one to agree with Paul: “since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made” (Romans 1:20).

[1] Farley, J., The Spontaneous Generation Controversy from Descartes to Oparin, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 73.
[2] Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories (Dallas, TX: Lewis and Stanley, 1984), 113-166.
[3] Hugh Ross, Fine Tuning for Life on Earth, at:, 2006,
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Thursday, February 18, 2010

true hero

College life is usually full of good times and many fond memories. It was no different for students on the women’s campus of a university in Islamabad, Pakistan on October 20, 2009. The young ladies were enjoying lunch in the cafeteria, while working outside was a janitor, Pervaiz Masih, who had been on the job there less than a week. Masih was a Christian, which is not much of a resume-builder in Muslim Pakistan (no disrespect toward janitors). A strange thing happened this day Masih was working when someone walked to the building dressed in a burka from head to foot. Even in this Islamic nation, the outfit was a little over the top. When a security guard suspected something was amiss, the man under the burka shot the guard. As the attacker began moving toward the cafeteria where an estimated 300 to 400 students were gathered, Masih blocked his path and refused to let him enter. It was reported there was a confrontation and a large explosion. The attacker and Masih were killed, as were three students, but most of the ball bearings used as shrapnel exploded into the parking lot rather than the cafeteria, most likely saving many lives. Pockmarks in the walkway are a reminder of the event.

Afterward, one of the students stated, “If he didn't stop the suicide attacker, there could have been great, great destruction.” Another student, 20-year-old Sumaya Ahsan said, "He's now a legend to us, because he saved our lives, our friends' lives." Professor Fateh Muhammad Malik remarked, “Despite being a Christian, he sacrificed his life to save the Muslim girls." Video coverage of this story by CNN is worth viewing. [1]

Who do many people think of when the term “hero” is mentioned? Spiderman, Barack Obama, Drew Brees? Perhaps Captain Sullenberger, who landed a plane in the Hudson River or Richard Phillips, whose boat was hijacked by Somali pirates? Many fawn over celebrities, musicians and athletes, but those truly deserving of recognition are ordinary people who do extraordinary things during unanticipated situations.

The account of Pervaiz Masih may remind us of another hero who once said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” And, like those students in the cafeteria, most of whom probably do not know the true God: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

[1] CNN edition, “Christian janitor died saving Muslim students”, posted 11 Nov 2009,

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Why does God permit natural disasters?

On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the nation of Haiti. As of this writing, the confirmed death toll is over 100,000 and may approach 200,000 when the debris is cleared. It is encouraging to see money and aid pouring in from many nations, Christian organizations, and others. George Clooney and many famous celebrities have used their status and money to assist. A telethon held January 22nd raised more than $57 million and counting. Even Tiger Woods sent a $3 million check from an undisclosed location and Brangelina, in the midst of another alleged breakup, have donated $1 million.

Months from now, when the headlines have subsided, it will be important to not forget about Haiti. A number of excellent Christian relief organizations have been working in this impoverished nation for many years, including Samaritan’s Purse. Assistance will be needed to rebuild Haiti, where 80% of the population lived below the poverty line [1] and the average annual salary was around $450 before the disaster [2]. Most Americans spend more for a television. A number of Haitians work six month stints at resorts in Punta Cana, which is about 200 miles on the other side of the island. And, even those wages would cause North Americans to turn up their noses.

So, why did God let this happen? Tragedies raise questions about God, which appear to leave three possibilities: God does not exist, He is not good, or He is not all powerful. If these were true, He would have protected the victims, right? First, the response by Christians is not to distribute trite answers, it is to help those in need (James 2:14-16) and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). For those who truly are searching for an answer, let’s ask how God would act. He works through people, His physical hands and feet in this world (1 Corinthians 12:27 and Romans 12:4-5) designed to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). Jesus commanded us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give drink to the thirsty (Matthew 25:35-36). Tragedy is a call for God’s people to step up and demonstrate His love.

Next, God has given humans the intellectual capability to prevent much of the human suffering and devastation from natural disasters. For example, tornado warning systems have been designed to advise nearby residents to find safe shelter. Building codes in earthquake zones such as Japan and San Francisco require that new structures are constructed to resist earthquake damage. We daily use many devices that protect from serious harm or death: seat belts, carbon monoxide detectors, smoke detectors, side air bags, and many others. While these are no comfort to those who have lost loved ones, they demonstrate that humans have the capability to develop technology to greatly reduce harm from accidents and natural disasters. Rather than saving us supernaturally, in many ways, God has placed this ability in our hands. James Roberts, research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for International Trade and Economics, served in the State Department for 25 years and worked at the embassy in Haiti. He stated corruption has been a major problem in that nation, accounting for the lack of economic development and even contributing to inferior building designs through lack of standards enforcement or cheating by contractors [3]. Humans have the ability to implement changes making Haiti safer.

Earthquakes are a function of geological forces that are necessary for life on Earth. As a rotating wire coil inside a set of magnets generates an electrical current, Earth’s rotating liquid iron core produces the magnetosphere which protects our atmosphere from solar wind particles and low energy cosmic radiation harmful to life. The rotating core causes movement of the crustal plates, which maintain the carbon cycle necessary to life. Plate tectonics are also crucial to creation and continuation of land masses which would be eroded over time, turning Earth into a water world inhospitable to life, including Kevin Costner. And, this water would be frozen without the molten core which causes movement of the continents [4].

Finally, we must remember that God originally placed humans in this world in a protected status designed to live forever (Genesis 2:8 and Genesis 2:15-16). After rejecting God’s instruction, the first humans were unceremoniously ejected from Eden. Throughout history, humans have collectively wanted God out of our lives (Romans 3:11-12) and each of us has done this individually. So, to some degree, God did get out of our lives. We call on Him in times of trouble, but since the Garden of Eden, we have decided to reject His instructions, have our own way, so we get our wish. If God was punishing the Haitian citizens, we would all be in trouble (Luke 13:4-5). Each of us are now living in a fallen world and are susceptible to difficulties: Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned (Romans 5:12). None are exempt from problems (Psalm 34:19); however, we have many great promises that God will deliver us from trouble (John 16:33, Psalm 34:17). One day, He will permanently deliver all who trust Him (1 Corinthians 15:52) and the greatest tragedy would be to miss that.

[1] Central Intelligence Agency, updated 27 Nov 2009,
[2] World Vision, “Frequently asked questions about the Haiti earthquake”, accessed 24 Jan 2010,
[3] Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, interview by Craig Smith, January 23, 2010, p. A7.
[4] Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, The Privileged Planet (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2004), 55-58.