Join the Circle and Dance

I’m enjoying life for a few days here at the Conference Center in Green Lake, Wisconsin. It’s a work-related trip, but it involves a whole lot of beautiful scenes and personal relaxation. The outdoor sculpture at the entrance is both inviting and captivating. It depicts a handful of energetic children dancing in a circle, and there’s an empty spot for visitors to join in. What could be more joyful than kids at play?

They send forth their children as a flock; 
their little ones dance about.
Job 21:11

That’s actually the meaning of the word “carol”—to dance in a circle. (We should try that at Christmastime.) The sculpture is brilliant because good art provokes participation and/or reflection, not just admiration.  

It’s only right for people to dance in celebration at appropriate times in life; the entire universe is spinning in circles by design of the Creator. Whether we look through the microscope or peer through the telescope, we find that everything from planets to protons are twirling around with reckless abandon and delight. Animals join the party, too.

And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.
Malachi 4:2b

The fact that I don’t dance well is irrelevant. I’m happy to help make others look good while I tour-jete like an amputated hippo or electric-slide like a lumbering baboon.

Anyway, the lake is stunning, the grounds are immaculate, and the atmosphere is peaceful. I would love to see this place in the fall. The seasonal colors are no doubt magical and intoxicating.

I really appreciate the respite right now because my proffing, preaching, pastoring, and dissertating load this fall will be unrealistic and unsustainable. Apart from the grace of God, it will be impossible to pull off. The schedule has never been this thick.

So, I’m dancing while I can—at least on the inside. 

His Name Is Samuel James

I found out this week that we’ll be having a grandson in December. His name is Samuel James. My heart is overjoyed.

Samuel comes from the Hebrew word שְׁמוּאֵל (shemu’el). It appears to be a combination of the root “to hear” (שׁמע, shm’) and “God” (אֵל, el). Taken this way, it means something like “heard by God.” In Scripture, Hannah named her son Samuel because God heard her prayer for a son (1 Sam 1:20).

James come from Ἰάκωβος (Iakōbos), the Greek form of the Hebrew name Jacob. James was a dear friend of my daughter and son-in-law’s who passed away when was only 18 years old. Just as our daughter’s middle name (Paula) reminds us of a college friend who’s now with the Lord, so our grandson’s middle name will remind us of a greater life beyond this life.

If I seem weepy to you these days, there’s good reason for it. I pray blessings over the child, and I can’t do so without tears.

May His favor be upon you
And a thousand generations
And your family and your children
And their children, and their children

The Christ Community, Part 6: The Church as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)

The most prominent image for the church in the New Testament is “the Body of Christ.” There are about 15 references to it from Matthew to Revelation. The image implies that believers are to be, do, and say what Christ would be, do, and say if he were physically with us today. For three and a half decades, Jesus lived on this planet as the Son of God—deity in human flesh. In his earthly body, he went around preaching the good news of the kingdom of God, loving and serving those for whom he came. 

•  With his eyes he saw the physical and spiritual needs around him.

•  With his ears he heard the cries of the hurting and the oppressed.

•  With his heart he felt compassion toward those who needed the grace of God.

•  With his feet he went to their side to be with them.

•  With his hands he touched them, fed them, and healed them.

•  With his voice he spoke God’s word to them

In time he died on Calvary’s cross for the sins of the world. He was buried in an unused tomb, and on the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is now seated at the Father’s right hand. 

On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Christ—came back to earth indwell his people and constitute his church. So, while God came to the world in Jesus in a body 2,000 years ago, he now comes to the world in his new body, the church.

•  We are the eyes of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the ears of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the heart of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the feet of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the hands of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the voice of Jesus on earth.

Believers are the means through which Christ expresses himself and ministers to the world today. In short, the church of Christ is the body of Christ on earth. How in the world could we ever fulfill such a task? We start by staying connected to the head of the body—Jesus Christ himself.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Back in the Saddle after a Brief Mini-Vacation

1. Well, my mother-in-law did it! She made the trip to Hickory, NC and back again, with only about four stops each way. After a lot of coaching, re-directing, and sign making, Lorena pressed on and did what few people thought she could do. She successfully attended part of the 2021 Taylor Family Reunion. Yes, she was confused by much of what was going on around her, but she did recognize her brothers and sisters when she got to speak to them. That alone was worth taking the trip. (Eleven of the 13 remaining siblings were able to attend this year; one has since passed away.) We’ve often said that Lorena is most like herself when she prays. Maybe that’s why she was asked to close the family worship service in prayer on Sunday morning. That was a precious moment. We usually stay for the whole week and participate in all the reunion activities, but this year we came back after a few days so as not to overwhelm her. There are a few snaps below, and we’re trusting our cousins to fill in the gaps for us. As always, my son Andrew is capturing the event on video.

Taylor family worship service at the Rex Allen theater.
Lorena Moore worshiping the Lord.
Lorena and her sister-in-law, Judith Taylor.
Lorena closing the worship service in prayer.
First-generation Taylors who were able to attend the reunion this year.

2. Mercy. Grace. Covenant. Love. Hope. Those were the broad themes I spoke on last week at one of the camp meetings in our region. There was a wonderful response to the message each night, and on several occasions, the altar service lasted well over an hour with dozens of folks responding in prayer, gratitude, and/or repentance—just quietly singing, praying, hugging, and waiting on the Lord. Happily, the leaders were not being manipulative at all; they just said, “Come if you feel led, or pray with others in your seats, or leave quietly if you’d like. Just spend these moments with the Lord in whatever way the Spirit leads.” It was beautiful to watch the grace of God melting hearts and renewing hope. (The Apostle Paul reminds us that it’s the kindness of the Lord that leads to repentance, not the harshness of preachers and other believers.) I was especially moved by the willing response of the young people. Oh, and I may have “ugly cried” once or twice while singing Jenn Johnson’s “Goodness of God.” 🙂

A glorious shot of the camp cabins.

3. Seldom does this sort of thing resonate with my spirit (because of its inherent potential for abuse), but a brother spoke a word over me on the final night I spoke at camp. He said, “While we were praying, God gave me a vision of you as a shiny trumpet, and God playing his sacred song through you, blowing his breath of life through your voice when you teach and preach. He’s using you to play his beautiful song of grace for many people, even as he continues to polish out any remaining discoloration in your own trumpet. There’s an accuser trying to call people’s attention to the discoloration rather than to God’s song and the polishing he continues to do for you. Don’t ever be discouraged by that accusing voice. Just keep letting God give the clarion call of his kingdom through you.” Alrighty, then. So be it.

4. My head and heart are exploding from all that I’m learning in my dissertation research. My working title (which will almost certainly change over the next several months) is: “Thresholds of Eternity: Tracing the Veil of Yahweh’s Sanctuary from Its Creation and Consecration to Its Destruction and Obsolescence in the New Age of Living Temples.” I estimate that I have about four more months of intense research, followed four months of principal writing, followed by two months of refining and defending. The only frustration is watching my workout schedule getting squeezed out. I have got to remedy that. Oh, and I’m going broke buying books for this venture. But I suppose that that’s not too terribly frustrating. After all, this fall we’ll be renovating the basement and creating a home library/podcast studio. If there’s any money left. 🙂

Artist’s rendition of Israel’s tabernacle in the desert.

More from the 2021 Taylor Family Reunion (Hickory, NC)

Got to attend a Crawdads game Sunday night with my kids and a whole bunch of other relatives.
After the game we oooo-ed and aaah-ed at the Independence Day fireworks.
Uncle Tommy Taylor in the original homestead barn. He’s the kindest man you could ever meet, and he turns 90 later this month.
This year, instead of the Monday morning hayride, we replicated chores the first generation did on the farm, including hoeing a row, milking a cow, moving rocks, stacking hay bales, etc. It became a contest to see which team could do them the fastest.
One chore was to carry water from the spring house to a tub and then “take a bath” in it. The rules required that one team member get their feet, knees, and shoulders completely wet. Sonya was the good sport on our team.
One of our tasks was to line up the school pictures of the original 14 kids in their birth order. We in the second generation could handle that, but it was fun to watch the third generation try to do it.
The well-loved “field day” activity is in full swing today, and social media lets us catch some of the highlights from a distance. Those who are able will be traveling to Lake Fontana tomorrow for the rest of the reunion.

158 Years Ago Today: The Civil War Maggots That Saved a Soldier—and Our Family

His name was Michael Link.

• He was a Private in the 151st Pennsylvania Volunteers regiment.

• He came from a family of German coal miners who immigrated to the United States in the early 1800s.

• He was a blacksmith by trade, but he was also an excellent musician. He played the French horn, the violin, and the accordion.

• When the Civil War began, Michael enlisted. He was a 24-year old bachelor at the time.

• On the first day of the battle, July 1, 1863, the PA 151 was involved in the fight at McPherson’s Woods—where General Reynolds was killed by a sharpshooter.

• Michael Link’s unit saw their beloved leader carried from the battlefield that day, mortally wounded.

• A few hours later, Link himself was shot—right in the face. A bullet entered his left eye, went under the bridge of his nose, and then exited his right eye. The blow knocked him to the ground, leaving him unconscious for several hours.

• When he finally came to, he made the horrifying discovery: “One of my eyes had run out, and the other was hanging down my cheek.” 

• “The last thing I remember seeing,” he said, “was the rebel flag, and I was shot just as I was leveling my gun to fire at the enemy.”

Michael’s hometown newspaper gave this account of his ordeal:

“There in that field, under the hot sun, with his eyes shot out, Private Link laid for two days. Initially he prayed for death to relieve his agony, but soon enough he found the strength to go on, even though he was sightless, delirious, and near death’s door. Rebel soldiers passed him, but they thought he was a corpse. His damaged eye sockets had been eaten away by maggots as he lay helplessly on the battlefield. Then on the third day some Boys in Blue came along. They heard Link’s groans and conveyed him to the field hospital.

“Weeks later, upon being discharged from a Philadelphia hospital, the former blacksmith returned to Reading. Undaunted by his disability, Link gained admission to an institution for the blind to obtain training and vocational skills. With his full pension of $72 per month, Michael built two 3-story brick homes on Penn Street. At one of these locations, he opened a shop where he cane-seated chairs. He never gave up, and he never quit. Instead, he entertained his friends by playing his music.”

Several years after the war, Michael got married to Margaret Krebs. Mike and Margaret had a baby girl by the name of Rosa. Here’s how the rest of the family tree unfolds:

Yes, Michael Link was my great-great grandfather.

Had he thrown in the towel on hope as he lay there on the battlefield, had he dropped out of life when recovery from those terrible wounds was long and hard—I wouldn’t be here today.

Do you see the importance of perseverance, of pressing on when you feel like giving up? Generations not yet born are affected by the decisions we make right now—whether to fight to the finish or to throw in the towel. I can’t help thinking of St. Paul’s final words to the church: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race” (2 Timothy 4:7a).

Remember those maggots? The doctor told Link that the maggots had actually saved his life. Those disgusting, filthy maggots that made him want to give up—they had eaten away the infection that otherwise would have killed him.

Got any maggots in your life these days? Any nasty worms chewing on your heart? It might be a difficult person. It might be a family challenge. It might be a terrible situation. It might be a broken dream.

Could it be that those maggots are designed by a loving God to cleanse your soul of spiritual infections and conform you to the image of Christ?

Could it be that “what the maggots meant for evil, God meant for good” (cf. Gen 50:20)? Paul reminds us: “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Fighting to the finish—come what may—is our heritage.

May it be our legacy as well.

Image Credits: Some pictures from gettysburgpa.gov; others from personal collection.

The Christ Community, Part 5: The Church as the Temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

In 1 Corinthians 3 and Ephesians 2, the Apostle Paul likens the church of Jesus Christ to a sacred temple. The building blocks of this new temple, he says, are Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. Together they “rise to become a holy temple in the Lord.” Not only that, says Paul, they’re being “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” That is, they are habitations of the divine. Similar imagery can be found in 1 Peter 2.

It’s an amazing image to ponder. First, one of the great themes running through the Bible storyline is that God looking for a home on earth. That’s what a temple is—the intersection point of heaven and earth. Second, Jews and Gentiles were notorious for not getting along. Many within each group harbored a deep resentment toward the other. So, how in the world would this new arrangement work? With such contempt and disgust close to the surface, how would they ever interact peacefully? Clearly it wouldn’t be easy. But here’s the little known secret: it wasn’t supposed to be easy. It’s not supposed to be easy today, either.

The church-as-temple image tells us that God is building a “house” for himself, and flawed believers are his construction materials. Yet, the whole project is for his glory, our good, and the Kingdom’s gain. It was Augustine who first described the church as “a hospital for sinners.” He went on to say it would be very strange if people were to criticize hospitals because their patients were sick. The whole point of the hospital is that people are there precisely because they’re sick and they haven’t yet fully recovered.

And so it is with believers today. Colin Smith has noted, “It’s hard enough for two sinners to make a good marriage. So how much harder is it for 200 sinners or 2,000 sinners to make a good church?” Indeed, Scripture says when we see Christ, “we will be like him,” but until that time comes, we are like a building under construction. Construction is messy. Construction sites are muddy. The construction process can look like chaos. But the mess of construction means the Builder is at work, and the blueprint is being followed. As renowned theologian R. C. Sproul has said:

“The Christian church is one of the few organizations in the world that requires a public acknowledgement of sin as a condition for membership. In one sense, the church has fewer hypocrites than any other institution because, by definition, the church is a haven for sinners. If [we] claimed to be an organization of perfect people, then [our] claim would be hypocritical. But no such claim is made by the church. There is no slander in the charge that the church is full of sinners. Such a statement would only compliment the church for fulfilling her divinely appointed task.”

So, what is God up to in the building of his living temple, whose very stones are flawed from the get-go? That’s what we explore together in this message.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Popping in to Say Hello

Just a few life updates (and some pictures that caught my eye) before I get back to the tedium of research.

1. Happy birthday to my baby girl…who’s not a baby anymore! I recently raved about my kids on TNL, so I’ll spare you the schmaltz today. Bethany’s first act on the planet was to pee on the doctor (and after we got his bill, we were glad she did), so I texted her this morning: “Go find a doctor and pee on her…just for old time’s sake.” She works with several doctors right now and texted back, “I know a few doctors I wouldn’t mind peeing on!” And thus our weekend celebration begins. The main party is tomorrow, which is actually my late father’s birthday. I love being a dad.

2. The red and white petunias are doing o.k. Only a few of them didn’t make the transplant. I thought they would grow faster than they are, but that’s probably my impatiens coming out. (See what I did there? LOL.) The petunias in the hanging baskets are doing surprisingly well—much better than last year, but my Zenia’s are just “meh” right now. A little bit of dead-heading produced more buds, but their color is less brilliant than when I first planted them. I’m wondering if the mulch layer in the flower bed is too thick for them. Long story short, everything in the yard looks nice, but I don’t think we’re going to win any awards from BH&G this year. I’m not discouraged as much as I am distracted (per #3).

3. I knew the dissertation would feel like a full-time job, and it does. Alas, this one doesn’t pay! I’m now in the thick of my research, and it’s awfully tedious to pull together. Academic writing can be like that. I have enough material for a 450-pager, but I should be targeting about 275 to 300 pages. That will be a real challenge given my proclivity for pedantry and prolixity (of which this sentence is a case in point). I thoroughly love the project and the subject matter, but the time needed to do it well inflicts a bit of guilt whenever I’m not able to tend to other things. I’m told that I have that “far away” look in my eyes these days, even when I’m not reading and writing. That’s because I’m continually thinking about next steps in the process. I’m sure it’s an INTJ thing. The other downside is that getting immersed in the project has interfered with my workout schedule. Grrrrrr!!! After doing so well in the first quarter of 2021, I have to find a way to reboot again. 

4. Sanity by way of diversion is maintained each night with a streaming binge. I hardly ever watch the news anymore (too depressing), or news analysis shows (too manipulative), or baseball games (too political), which leaves me with a small window to watch something with a storyline. I can now add to my previous binge list: “Halt and Catch Fire” (interesting), “The Hobbit” (classic), “Anne with an E” (adorable, though darker than the Megan Follows version), “Designated Survivor” (thrilling), and “Quantico” (intriguing). Right now, I’m in Season 1 of “House of Cards.” I’m still waiting for more from “Victoria,” “The Crown,” “Warrior Nun,” and “Stranger Things.” I’m assuming the COVID crisis interfered with a lot of production schedules. (As always, I skip the raunchy parts or entire episodes as necessary.) In any event, perhaps we love stories because we’re in the middle of the ultimate Story…and the ultimate Author is developing his characters in his own cosmic page turner. It’s interesting how the word “author” is so closely related to the word “authority.” Whoever we allow to author our own story is our true authority.

5. I am now a track mentor in our seminary’s Th.D. program. Specifically, I’ll be serving in the Next Generation Apologetics track. That means I’ll be taking a handful of students through their own doctoral journey in the coming years, on top of teaching the full cohorts in two of their five core course. Prayers will be appreciated for this new venture!

6. We’ve made the decision to try to get my mother-in-law to the triennial family reunion next month. That’s not going to be easy since it’s a 9-hour drive, and she doesn’t travel well. But given the progression of her disease, we think it may be the last time she will be able to meaningfully interact with her twelve remaining siblings and their families. Our plan is to stay two full days (instead of the whole week) and then come right back so as not to thoroughly disorient her. Yup, prayers appreciated for that challenge, too.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you have a marvelous weekend!

The Christ Community, Part 4: The Church as the Family of God (Hebrews 2:10-13)

My birth certificate has always been as mysterious as President Obama’s. There are, to be sure, a lot fewer people in the world who are interested in my birth certificate than there were in his. Still, mine is crazy. For starters, there were three originals, and they all had different birth dates (March 30, March 31, and April 1). Second, the named father is not my biological father but the man who would have been my stepfather. And, third, a new birth certificate had to be issued after the “Decree of Abandonment” was signed by a Montgomery County judge: 

“The court…finds that Henry Morucci [yes, that was my given name, but you’re not allowed to call me that!] was abandoned by his father…immediately following his birth and delivery of custody to the Children’s Aid Society of Montgomery County, he never having seen the child, and after having been contacted by the Children’s Aid Society of Montgomery County showed no further interest or desire to contact, see, or know the child in any manner whatsoever.”

That’s kind of cold to read, even after all these years. But the good news is that a completely different birth certificate was issued 13 months later when I was adopted by Carl and Cherie Valentino of Reading, Pennsylvania. Another signature by the judge—this time on a “Decree of Adoption”–changed everything:

“Hereafter the said Henry Morucci shall be in law the adopted child of the petitioners and shall have all the rights of a child and heir of the petitioners, and shall be subject to the duties of such child, and your petitioners further pray that the said child shall be known as Timothy Ray Valentino.”

If the decree of abandonment is a source of coldness, the decree of adoption is a source of comfort. In one single day, I got a new name, a new home, a new set of relatives, a new inheritance, and a new hope. In one single day, I got a whole new family!

So it is spiritually with the followers of Christ. The church in Scripture is referred to repeatedly as a “family.” That is, at one time we were spiritual orphans, but now in Christ we have been adopted as his children. And that changes everything. 

Adoptions are expensive, and Jesus paid for ours on the cross with his own blood. In the process, we gained many spiritual relatives and a new spiritual inheritance. That’s a tremendous blessing and a tremendous challenge at the same time. In the end, we are reminded in this message that the church of Jesus Christ is a family of believers. Be a good brother or sister in the family!

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

No Greater Joy: Father’s Day, June 20, 2021

What a glorious day it’s been. Mother’s Day usually gets more fanfare than Father’s Day, and rightly so. After all, as Jim Gaffigan says, “When you consider the male contribution to human life, it’s not very impressive.” God knew what he was doing when he gave women the travails of labor. We men never could have handled it. That’s why Mother’s Day gets top billing. Still, my kids made me feel like a million bucks this weekend. They even laughed at my dad jokes, which were especially bad this year.

First, my son came to our house Friday night for our usual movie and pizza night. He brought along gifts and treats that were deeply meaningful to me, and we started watching The Chosen together. Tissues may have been involved—not only because the production is fresh and alive with new angles and insights than most of the “screen Jesus” fare we’ve seen (hey, love the cinema, hate the sin), but also because Andrew is making a major life change this month. It’s a new journey for him, and it’s rooted in his desire to know Christ better and love him more. 

He also called me today to wish me a happy Father’s Day, and we talked about his new adventure. He said, “I’ve never had this much confidence in the face of this much uncertainty.” I’m moved by his faith and dedication, and I couldn’t be prouder of him than I am right now. He’s the first blood relative I ever met, and I often remind him that he’s “my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”

Then, this morning, we had a beautiful worship service focusing on our “good, good Father.” It was a thrill to meet some new people today and hear their stories. After the service we gathered at my favorite Italian restaurant in the area with my daughter and her husband. They, too, shared wonderful cards and gifts that got me choked up. I even got a card from my future grandchild, along with a special gift from him or her. (The in utero child is the size of an avocado right now, which explains one of the gift tags below.)

Micah, who is celebrating his first Father’s Day this year (because being pro-life means he’s a father now), turned my Puddles the Popsicle post into a children’s book so that I could read it to the munchkin when he or she finally arrives. (The due date is December 2.) Opening that gift was a heart-stopping moment. And it made it easier to forgive them for getting me the card that came with it—the one with “Puffy” on the front.

Years ago I had a beautiful Pomeranian. Beautiful on the outside, that is. Inside, the little terror was demon possessed, and, alas, I don’t have the gift of exorcism. Our failed experiment in having a dog actually began with Bethany batting her eyelashes at me when she was little and saying in the cutest way possible, “Daddy, can we have a puppy? I’ll take care of it.” Uh huh. Right. And now she owns a cat. Smart lady. Bethany and Micah are serving the Lord, too, using the gifts and graces God has given them for his glory. 

I am beyond blessed to be a father to these three wonderful kids. And I can say with the Apostle John, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4).

Our son-in-law, Micah. Part of what it means to be pro-life is that we celebrate fatherhood when the mother is expecting.
We all start out as rookies, but Micah is going to be a good father.
The grandchild on the way is now the size of an avocado. I got a gift from him (or her), too. I love the love on the gift tag! 🙂
One of my gifts from Sonya. It’s getting real.
That’s exactly what Puffy the Pomeranian looked like, minus the crown. It almost gave me heart failure when I saw it.
A card from my little avocado.
My grandchild’s handwriting looks a lot like my daughter’s. 🙂
Here’s the gift that took my breath away. Micah turned a story I wrote into a children’s book so I can read it to my grandchild.
Micah worked really hard on the artwork.

“May his favor be upon you / And a thousand generations / And your family and your children / And their children, and their children….”

That’s a Great Question

Albert Einstein famously said, “Question everything,” but it was Jesus who practiced what Einstein preached. Contrary to popular assumptions, Jesus was not a robotic Answer Man; he was more like the Great Questioner. According the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Jesus asks over 300 questions during his earthly ministry. Surprisingly, he answers only three. That’s quite a ratio, but it aligns with the m.o. of Yahweh in the Old Testament. God was known for asking his people lots of questions, too. Like Father like Son.

Now, if omniscience asks questions, it’s not to ellicit information; it’s to reveal it. In everyday life, our responses to the questions put to us have a way of exposing our hopes, fears, values, passions, and aspirations. They unveil our muddled thinking and our gaps in understanding. They demonstrate our innovation and creativity. They uncover our souls, for as Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).

Asking questions can unlock learning and enhance interpersonal bonding, provided they’re not impossible “gotcha” questions designed to intimidate or humiliate (e.g., “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”). Jesus doesn’t work for cable news. He works for his heavenly Father, who deeply desires a relationship with every human being, his highest order of creation. Since relationships by nature are dynamic and reciprocal, questions are part of the interaction between God and humanity. There’s give-and-take and back-and-forth—a rhythm of geneuine conversation allowing both parties to play the role of a subject, not merely an object.

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John have noted, “The wellspring of all questions is wonder and curiosity and a capacity for delight. We pose and respond to queries in the belief that the magic of a conversation will produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Sustained personal engagement and motivation—in our lives as well as our work—require that we are always mindful of the transformative joy of asking and answering questions.”

God doesn’t ask questions because he needs to know. He asks questions to reveal and relate. Yes, we might have some questions for God in the life to come—who doesn’t?—but God has some questions for us in the life we have right now. Why not spend some time relating to him over some of the questions he’s already asked?

Questions God may ask us about our EMOTIONAL life.

  • “Why are you angry?” (Gen 4:6b) 
  • “Why are you crying?” (John 20:15b)
  • “If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest?” (Luke 12:26)

Questions God may ask us about our THOUGHT life.

  • “Have you never read the Scriptures?” (Matt 21:42a)
  • “Why are you thinking such things in your heart?” (Mark 2:8b)
  • “Do you not yet understand?” (Matt 16:8)
  • “Are even you likewise without understanding?” (Mark 7:18)

Questions God may ask us about our PHYSICAL life.

  • “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Cor 6:19a)
  • “Do you want to be well?” (John 5:6b)
  • Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? (Isaiah 55:2)
  • “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:36a)

Questions God may ask us about our INTERPERSONAL life.

  • “What are you discussing as you walk along?” (Luke 24:17)
  • “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man?” (Luke 10:36a)
  • “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8b)
  • “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matt 5:46)

Questions God may ask us about our SPIRITUAL life.

  • “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9)
  • “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (Gen 3:11b)
  • “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14)
  • “What is your name?” (Gen 32:27a)
  • “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I command?” (Luke 6:46)
  • “Do you love me?” (John 21:16)

Questions God may ask us about our MISSIONAL life.

  • “Whom shall I send?” (Isa 6:8b)
  • “What is that in your hand?” (Exod 4:2b)
  • “How many loaves do you have?” (Mark 8:5)
  • “Are there not twelve hours in a day?” (John 11:9)
  • “Do you see this woman?” (Luke 7:44b)

Maybe the most all-encompassing question God could ask us is this one: “Where have you come from, and where are you going?” (Gen 16:8b). Certainly the most important question he could ask was raised by his Son, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15). The two questions are actually related.

So, grab a cup of coffee, pull up a seat, and “have a little talk with Jesus,” as the old gospel song puts it.

The Christ Community, Part 3: The Church as the People of God (1 Peter 2:4-12)

One of the most tragic changes Christianity has experienced in the last 50 years is the minimizing of the centrality of the local church in the life of believers. The Lord’s Day used to be considered sacred. It was dedicated to the worship and service of God, but now it’s treated like any other day. And local church life, which was once considered indispensable to the Christian life, is now treated like an extra-curricular activity rather than an essential part of our spiritual formation. 

In his book, Set Apart: Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life, Kent Hughes presents six images describing today’s “de-churching” trends—trends that are held even by those who wish to retain some sort of connection to the historic Christian faith:

  • Hitchhiker Christianity
  • Cafeteria (or Consumer) Christianity
  • Spectator Christianity
  • Drive-through Christianity
  • Relationless Christianity
  • Churchless Christianity

It’s hard to square these images with the lofty vision of the church found in the New Testament. In 1 Peter 2:4-12, for example, the Apostle Peter sets his sights extremely high. He writes to 1st-century believers about their continued need for Jesus, their continued need for each other, and their continued need for a genuine spiritual commitment. He knows they won’t make it or be effective in this world without these three things. In this message, we learn that the people of God are living stones being built together by Jesus Christ to reverse a crumbling world. Masonry imagery is used to describe both Christ and the church he is building:

  • Jesus is the living stone. (4a)
  • Jesus is the rejected stone. (4b, 7a)
  • Jesus is the chosen stone. (4c, 6a)
  • Jesus is the precious stone. (4d, 6a)
  • Jesus is the cornerstone. (6a, 7a)
  • Jesus is the capstone. (7b)
  • Jesus is the stumbling stone. (8)
  • Jesus is the coming stone. (12)

To the masonry image, Peter adds the temple and priesthood metaphor in his description of the church:

  • We are living stones. (5a)
  • We are a spiritual house in progress. (5b)
  • We are worshippers with direct access to God. (5c)
  • We are a chosen people. (9a)
  • We are a royal priesthood. (9b)
  • We are a holy nation. (9c)
  • We are a people belonging to God. (9d)
  • We are a people of praise. (9e)
  • We are a people called out of darkness into light. (9f)
  • We are the recipients of divine mercy. (10)
  • We are aliens and strangers in the world. (12)

Peter cites numerous Old Testament passages to make his case. He calls the people of God to live good lives and subdue the war around us (v. 12). But for that to happen, the church must also live godly lives and subdue the war within us (v. 11). The challenge is great, which is why drive-through Christianity doesn’t cut it. 

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Bunnies Are Cute, Right?

I’ve been wondering for the past several years why the rose bushes in our backyard never flourish. Two days ago I got my answer. The neighborhood bunny thinks they’re a snack. Actually, we have a family of bunnies living under the massive holly tree across from our patio near the property line. These little fur balls are cute, but I’d like to remove their tastebuds during the spring and summer months. 

Usually skittish at my approach, the puffy rascal just kept munching away as I walked toward it. Only at the last moment did it hop away, proud of its larceny and subsequent escape. I’ve since learned that rabbits can safely eat all parts of a rose bush, including the flower petals, stems, leaves, everything. The good news is they haven’t discovered the roses in my front yard.

The rest of our cultivation projects are doing well, including the zinnias, petunias, marigolds, and sundry bushes. Even the garden has started producing. The tomatoes will take another month or two, but the lettuce is ready to go now. I’d happily share some of that with the bunnies in exchange for keeping my roses. 

The post-bunny rose bush.
A bunny-free rose bush in the front yard.
Another variety of rose bush in the front.
These roses are lighter and more delicate than the sultry Lincolns.
Most of the petunias transplanted well.
A white petunia taking hold.
Wave petunias work well in hanging baskets, and they’re a lot cheaper when you plant them yourself rather than buying them pre-assembled.
The daylilies (which aren’t really lilies) are beginning to unfold.
A few of the daylily buds have already opened.
A row of lettuce in the garden box. I’ll exchange some of this with the bunnies to keep my roses.
For a city boy like me, watching food go from the garden to the table is a real delight.
Tomato cages in the garden box.
Peppers in the garden box.
A happy cluster out back by the shed.
The one remaining rose in the backyard that the bunny hasn’t discovered yet. Game on, ya little booger. 🙂

The Christ Community, Part 2: The Church as God’s New Humanity (Ephesians 2:11-18)

Ever since Genesis 3, it has been hard for people to get along. We’re all so different, and, because of our fallenness, those differences can annoy us, threaten us, and make us suspicious of one another. In jealousy, envy, and pride, we tend to think, say, and do nasty things to each other, making life unpleasant at times.

In the first century, there were two groups of people who didn’t get along very well—Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. The Gentiles were everybody else. Both latent and overt hostility marked their relationship over the centuries. Paul addresses that enmity in Ephesians 2, and he talks about what God has done to rectify it. The solution he offers is still relevant today because the world is more polarized now than ever. In recent years we have witnessed a growing hostility between races, classes, genders, and political parties. The tension is exhausting and disillusioning. 

How can God take widely diverse and disparate people and put them successfully into one new group? Paul’s answer is Jesus. Why? Because “he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15).

Paul argues that the source of alienation between Jew and Gentile—God’s law—was put on the shelf (2:15a) because the source of reconciliation—God’s Son—was put on the cross (2:13b, 16b). Human beings may be hostile to each other, but God treated his perfect Son as if he were all the world’s hostility rolled into one. And when Christ died on the cross, the Father regarded the hostility itself as having died, too. God’s purpose was to create one new humanity out of the two—a horizontal hostility replaced with horizontal peace (2:15b).

The result is that irreligious people (like the Gentiles, who thought they are “far off”) can now hear and believe the gospel of peace (2:17a). Religious people (like the Jews, who thought they are already near) can hear and believe that same gospel (2:17b). All are “far off” because of sin, but all can “draw near” now because of Jesus. God is wise in this regard. All who draw near to him wind up drawing near to each other, too. Indeed, the only way to fully experience the God who is community is to participate fully in his new community—the church.

That’s not always easy because we’re all different. But believers who draw near to God bear the marks of unity in diversity. That’s why Paul cites the Trinity two times in this passage (2:18, 22). God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are the ultimate model for the church—a community of truth, love, and unity in diversity.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

A Little Bit of This and That

1. Happy birthday to my mother-in-law, Lorena, who turned 83 a couple days ago. Family from North Carolina came to see her this past week, and more will be coming from Delaware this Memorial Day weekend. Nancy Reagan once described Alzheimer’s Disease as “a long goodbye.” I might add, “a long and sad goodbye.” Lorena is most like herself when she prays. That’s why we secretly hope she never says, “Amen.” Alas, all prayers conclude at some point, and the mundane tasks of life resume. Those tasks are now exceedingly difficult for her, but she can still experience the love and joy of family, even inside the fog of a mind devoid of all short-term memory. 

2. National Conference was inspirational this year, in large measure because of the Grace Community Church (Willow Street, PA) worship team, led by David Julian and Alyssa Mayersky. This pair is Southeastern Pennyslvania’s answer to Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes. I’m so glad they use their incredible gifts for the glory of God. Note to Dave and Alyssa: When you sing Goodness of God and The Blessing back to back, it just leads to some “ugly crying” on the part of us delegates! 🙂 Keep up the great work; we appreciate it! (Thankfully, Alyssa has a YouTube channel.) Dr. Doug Buckwalter’s devotionals were also insightful, inspirational, and uplifting. What a blessing to be his student many years ago, and now his colleague on the seminary faculty. And, as always, Bishop Bruce Hill was the picture of competency, joy, and common sense.

3. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” So said the esteemed poet Maya Angelou. This week marks the anniversary of her death in 2014. Thankfully, Amanda Gorman is well on her way to reaching a similar stature that Angelou enjoyed. Political quibbles aside, I love her ability to capture a moment with energy, flair, and creativity.

4. I’m loving the meat smoker I got for Christmas in 2019. Applewood chips are the best for smoking chicken, which I think I’ve nailed—if I may so myself. Ha! 🙂 With my brother-in-law’s rub recipe, it’s the best way to prepare it by far. Alas, I’m still learning the best techniques for pork and beef. Those meats are a little harder to get just right. I guess I’ll just have to keep trying!

5. Life has apparently come full circle. I’m heading out soon to a dance recital for my daughter, who first tapped in public many years ago as Minnie Mouse. Today she’ll be a grown-up “Momma Mouse” of sorts. I’m hoping her flair for dance will help the little guy (or gal) inside her to inherit much better rhythm than I have. 🙂

6. Today’s weather reminded me that Enya sings a lot of songs about rain. One of these days I may compile them all into a single post. “Echoes in Rain” from Dark Sky Island is the one pulsating through my head right now. One reviewer describes the piece as featuring “a buoyant optimism due to the marching rhythmic ostinatos and pizzicato strings.” That’s an apt description—which is really saying something since most critics give us little more than piffle and perfidy when they’re deconstructing other people’s art.

7. Here’s a song that’s new to our congregation, based on a question from the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563. It’s called “Christ Our Hope in Life and Death” by Keith and Kristyn Getty, and Matt Papa. I’m loving it!

What is our hope in life and death?
Christ alone, Christ alone
What is our only confidence?
That our souls to Him belong 
Who holds our days within His hand?
What comes, apart from His command?
And what will keep us to the end?
The love of Christ, in which we stand 

O sing Hallelujah!
Our hope springs eternal
O sing Hallelujah!
Now and ever we confess
Christ our hope in life and death

What truth can calm the troubled soul? 
God is good, God is good
Where is His grace and goodness known?
In our great Redeemer’s blood 
Who holds our faith when fears arise?
Who stands above the stormy trial?
Who sends the waves that bring us nigh
Unto the shore, the rock of Christ 

O sing Hallelujah!
Our hope springs eternal
O sing Hallelujah!
Now and ever we confess
Christ our hope in life and death

Unto the grave, what shall we sing?
“Christ, He lives; Christ, He lives!”
And what reward will heaven bring?
Everlasting life with Him 
There we will rise to meet the Lord
Then sin and death will be destroyed 
And we will feast in endless joy
When Christ is ours forevermore

O sing Hallelujah!
Our hope springs eternal
O sing Hallelujah!
Now and ever we confess
Christ our hope in life and death

O sing Hallelujah!
Our hope springs eternal
O sing Hallelujah!
Now and ever we confess
Christ our hope in life and death

Have a blessed holiday weekend!


UPDATE: Bethany’s group did a tap dance routine to Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” It was a marvelous performance, even though it looked exhausting. The choreography called for heel clicks but no wings, which she really wanted to do. Watching her on stage brought back memories of past recitals, not to mention the emotions that go with them. (“Is this the little girl I carried? Sunrise, sunset….” Ha!) Anyway, the song is another example of why Aretha is the real Queen of Soul.

You need me (need me) 
And I need you (don’t you know?)
Without each other there ain’t nothing either can do
Yeah!

The Christ Community, Part 1: The Church of Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:13-20; 18:15-20)

What on earth is the church, and why are we here? All authoritative answers to these questions must begin with Jesus, who said, “I will build my church” (Matt 16:18). Since the church is his church, and he is building it, there’s no better place to begin our inquiry than Christ himself. Therefore, in part 1 of this series, we focus on Jesus’ two uses of the word “church” in the Gospel of Matthew, along with its Old Testament background. His first reference speaks of “the Church Universal,” and his second reference speaks of “the Church Local.” What do these expressions mean, and how do they relate? 

Quite significantly, the Hebrew word qahal denotes an assembly of Israelites, especially when gathered before the Lord as a “saved” or “rescued” covenant people. When the Greek Old Testament (called the Septuagint) translates qahal, it uses the word ekklesia, which means “group,” “assembly,” “community,” or “congregation.” In secular usage, it meant the gathering of people at a town hall meeting. In sacred usage, it meant the gathering of believers for worship, prayer, and mission.

In our day, the word ekklesia comes into English as “church,” which always refers in Scripture to a “saved” or “rescued” covenant people, never to a building. Let that sink in for a moment. The church of Jesus Christ, according to the New Testament, is a people, not a building. It is people that Christ is building.

As suggested by Jesus’ two uses of the word ekklesia, “the Church Universal” refers to the community of all true believers in every age and in every place. By contrast, “the Church Local” is a community of professing believers at a certain time and in a certain place. The rest of the New Testament bears out this important distinction. 

At its most basic level, then, the church of Jesus Christ is a community of believers rescued from sin and released for service. It’s God’s new society. And it’s still very much alive around the world today. No, it’s not yet perfect, but it is perfectible, and it will be perfect when Christ has finished his building.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.