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Monday, November 28, 2011

20 Best Christmas Hymns of all Time

As most of you know, I am a music fanatic. Over at my political blog, The Liberty Sphere, I wrote an entry a few years ago that still gets a lot of attention even now, when the Christmas season rolls around.

It is the top 30 best Christmas songs of all time, including the artists who sang them. That post contains secular as well as religious Christmas songs.

But here, at the ministry site, I want to focus on the 20 best Christmas hymns of all time--those songs that are uniquely Christian in nature.

You are welcome to agree or disagree. This is in my view only and by no means suggests that I have the final word. :)

1. Silent Night
2. O Holy Night
3. O Come all Yet Faithful
4. Joy to the World
5. The First Noel
6. O Little Town of Bethlehem
7. We Three Kings
8. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
9. Jesu Bambino
10. Mary's Boy Child
11. The Holly and the Ivy
12. Hark the Herald Angels Sing
13. Angels We Have Heard on High
14. Away in a Manger
15. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
16. Go Tell it On the Mountain
17. What Child is This
18. The Birthday of the King
19. While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
20. He is Born the Divine Christ Child

There are many hymns that have been written through the centuries for Christmas, but these, in my view, are the cream of the crop.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Thanksgiving Meditation

We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing
He chastens and hastens His will to make known
The wicked oppressing, cease them from distressing
Sing praises to His name, He forgets not His own.

So begins one of the most beloved Thanksgiving hymns of all time--'We Gather Together.'

This uniquely American holiday was born out of the deep religious and spiritual life that our forebears brought with them from Europe. In today's erroneous 'politically correct' world of public schools and such, children are being taught that the purpose for the first Thanksgiving was for the Pilgrims to give thanks to their Native American friends who had 'saved their lives.'

William Bradford, the Governor of the Pilgrim colony, would certainly vehemently disagree were he alive today. Bradford kept complete records of the events of that era. And in those records, readily available to anyone today who wishes to find the truth directly from the horse's mouth, can read Bradford's words for themselves.

In short, Bradford stated that given that nearly half of the Pilgrims died during their first winter at the colony, they gathered with their Native American friends to give thanks to GOD for sparing their lives and enabling them, through a new system implemented by Bradford, to prosper.

That system was free market capitalism. Their initial practice of having all things in common ended in abject failure. Thus, Bradford gave each family a plot of land for them to work for themselves and call their very own. They could grow their own food and sell and trade it with the Native Americans as they saw fit.

Thus, by the time the next winter rolled around, the Pilgrims were living in prosperity and abundance. And they wished to share that abundance with their Native American friends by throwing a massive feast of wild turkey, fish, corn, and vegetables. And they gave humble thanks to God--the God of the Bible, as Bradford makes clear--for enabling them to discover the path to this abundance.

These things are not opinion or conjecture. In George Washington's first Thanksgiving proclamation as President, he referred to the distinct religious, Judeo-Christian heritage and belief system that led the Pilgrims to stage the very first of what would become a rich American tradition of bowing in humble gratitude to God for our blessings.

Don't let some school teacher fill your children's heads with modern-day revisionist garbage. Read to them the actual words of Bradford, Washington, and others. You may have to do some correcting to the filth and lies they are being told at school and college.

This is no time to allow the forces of evil to remove all truth from the public square. Defy it! Challenge it! And make sure the rich religious traditions of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA remain intact for future generations.

And, above all, my prayer is that you all have a glorious Thanksgiving Day!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Demons, Part 2

My discussion on the subject, 'Do Demons Exist?' created a stir among readers. It is, indeed, not only a fascinating topic but one which is prone to much confusion due to the fact that secular sources spread much misinformation about it in movies, books, and so forth.

Today I want to focus on one single aspect of this subject that is crucial for Christians--demon possession. Is it possible for a Christian to be 'possessed' by a demon or even the devil himself?

I will break this down into segments so that it is more easily understood.

First, the term 'Christian' in itself presupposes that a person is possessed by no one other than Jesus Christ. To be a Christian a person must open up their lives to Christ, inviting Him to take up residence in their inner being. Once that is done, it is Christ who resides within, not a demon nor the devil or any 'force of evil.'

Second, a person whose life is that in which Christ resides is automatically off limits to demon possession. It cannot happen. Why? How can a demon, or evil forces, possess a person when Christ resides there? The 2 are mutually exclusive. Think about it. A glass that has even some portion of milk in it cannot be filled or 'possessed' with Coca Cola. The presence of milk in the glass excludes the possibility that any other substance can 'fill' that glass. It already has something in it.

Third, a person who has Christ in his/her life may not necessarily be filled with the presence of Christ. It is possible, according to the Bible, to possess the Holy Spirit and yet not be completely filled by the Holy Spirit. This means that although a Christian cannot under any circumstance be 'possessed' by demons or the forces of evil, that person may well come under the influence of that evil because they are not 'filled' with the Spirit.

This is why Christians are not perfect. We are prone to come under the influence of evil in this world. That is due to two things. First, we are human and will remain so. We are flawed. We have a sinful nature. That is not erased when we become Christians. Second, as Christians we are not always filled with the Holy Spirit. That filling comes and goes and depends on how dedicated we remain, how sincerely we wish to follow Christ, and how consistent we are in the daily prayerful petition to be filled with the Spirit.

Thus, due to our sinful nature and the fact that we are not always filled with the Spirit, then we can, indeed, be influenced by the force of evil, or the demonic, but we will NEVER be possessed by it.

This is why Christians essentially have nothing to fear from demons. We will not be 'possessed.' We belong to Christ. But even so, we must be diligent in our daily walk with Christ. If we are derelict in our pursuit of spiritual union with Him, then there will be areas which are vulnerable to evil.

Going back to the glass analogy, in order to make sure that you will have a glass full of pure milk and nothing but milk, you will need to make sure there is no Coca Cola in the glass. Even a small portion of the soft drink will taint the milk when it is poured in. The goal is to make sure you have a clean vessel within so that only Christ can take full possession or control.

That way we can avoid inadvertently participating in any evil that pervades this world.

But be assured, if you are a Christian, you will never be 'possessed' by any form of evil.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Obedience to God May Mean Disobedience to Government

One of the central concepts of Christianity has been that no matter what governments or 'man's authority' says about certain issues, God is to be obeyed. This sometimes means blatant, outright disobedience to the dictates of governments.

Americans often forget that central aspect of the Christian life. We have had it so easy in a country that was founded on the principle of human freedom. So easy, in fact, that many modern Christians erroneously assume that it is always wrong to refuse to follow the law. They would equate man's law with God's.

But what if man's law is in direct opposition to God's law? What if Christians are forced to engage in disobedience to God in order to 'obey the law?'

In every instance, historically, Biblically, theologically, and spiritually, the Christian faith has taught that when man's laws interfere with Gods,' it is God who must be obeyed, not man.

A perfect example is found in Acts 5. Peter and the other Apostles had been jailed for preaching the Gospel. They had also been instructed upon their arrest that they were not to preach in the name of Jesus Christ. But in an act of divine intervention the Apostles were miraculously released from prison in a manner that defies all logical explanation.

It was then they proceeded to go straight to the Temple to preach in the name of Christ--the very thing they had been commanded by the local authorities not to do.

At that point the Apostles were hauled before the council where they were asked, "Did we not instruct you not to preach in this Man's name? But you have filled Jerusalem with this Man's doctrine..."

It was then that Peter laid out the principle that has guided true disciples of Christ for over 2000 years--"We ought to obey God rather than men." (Acts 5: 12-29).

Human beings are not slaves to any man or any government authority. When government is wrong, it is to be disobeyed, period. Any person who would claim to be a disciple of Christ yet claim that he/she is 'unable to do God's will because of government restrictions' has good reason to question whether or not they are a true Christian at all.

Does this mean that Christians are to be lawless? Not at all. In those cases where governments do not require a person to act in disobedience to God, then the law should be followed in most cases. But when the law is contradictory to God's laws, or the principles set forth by the Christian faith, such as human freedom, then a disciple of Christ is obligated to disobey man in order to remain true to God.

This is the legacy left behind by Jesus himself and a host of disciples who were willing to pay the ultimate price for their willingness to disobey man--Peter, Paul, John, James, Timothy, Joan of Arc, John Hus, Sir Thomas Moore, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and hundreds of other martyrs.

The principle cannot possibly be any clearer. Nor can it be stressed enough in this era in which government increasingly views itself as God, with ultimate authority, to encroach on all of the God-given freedoms fought for by our forebears. Christians are obligated to send a clear message to government, that it does NOT have ultimate authority over us!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Do Demons Exist?

Public interest in the supernatural is at an all-time high in modern America. Of the movies that I see promoted on cable or satellite TV, or by providers such as Netflix and others, a significant number contain a theme revolving around ghosts, the paranormal, evil spirits, zombies, and other such manifestations of supernatural phenomena.

A significant percentage of new television programming at least on the surface appears to share this fascination with these things.

Recent surveys taken of Americans indicate that many believe in the existence of these manifestations of the paranormal. Ironically at the very same time, those surveys show a decline in the belief in angels, Heaven and Hell, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

How is it out of the question for rational people to believe in these Christian concepts but it is perfectly acceptable to believe in ghosts and zombies?

An interesting survey of Canadians from 20 years ago indicated that more people believe in witches, ghosts, and magic spells than in the classic doctrines of the Christian faith. Yet these very same persons indicated that the major reason for their rejection of concepts such as the Virgin Birth or Resurrection of Christ was that such things cannot be embraced by rational minds.

There is a distinct disconnect, an incongruence of thought, inherent in this abject contradiction..

But let us briefly delve into a related issue that many people seem to question whenever a major movie focuses on the concept of the demonic--do demons exist?

The short answer is that the Bible says that they do, and Jesus believed that they do.

When Jesus cast out the group of demons named 'Legion' who had possessed a man living in the caves of the region of Gadara, He spoke to them, and they knew Him. He commanded that they leave the man, at which time they entered a herd of pigs in the countryside nearby. The pigs then ran off the edge of a cliff and drowned in the water below. Luke 8: 26-40.

Theologians have offered various interpretations of this event. Some view it as symbolic. And indeed, there is a symbolic, allegorical element to the story, pointing to the fact that human beings are beset by their own 'demons' that need to be cast out. Such demons may be addiction or a mental health issue that renders a person incapacitated.

It is this to which a person refers when they say something like, "I struggle with my own internal demons."

Theologically speaking, the demonic can be viewed as anything that keeps a person apart from God. In order for an individual to take his or her rightful place in union with God through faith in Christ, their demons that prevent their movement toward that faith must be 'exorcised.'

But, as with all statements in scripture, the literal cannot be dismissed outright. Only a correct literal understanding of the meaning of the words within their original context can lead to a correct symbolic interpretation. And here, it is most obvious that Jesus encountered a man who was beset by a most unusual circumstance. A presence had entered his being, leading him to do things beyond his control. He shrieked. He harmed himself. He raged out of control. And he spoke in a pattern that indicated multiple voices. Whatever it was that controlled the man was plural. There were many.

The point of the story is not to lead to an unhealthy fixation on the demonic but to demonstrate the power of Christ over everything, even the most despicable forces of darkness in the world.

And make no mistake, in this world evil is very real. You may call it 'the force of evil,' or 'the powers of darkness,' or 'the demonic,' but whatever term you use you are referring to a fact of life--there is evil in this world.

Some people have been forced to stare right into the face of pure evil. Those who witnessed the Holocaust, for example, and lived to tell about it, often state that they stared into the face of pure evil when they looked into the faces of the Nazi SS officers, or the Gestapo, or even Adolf Hitler himself.

How else can we account for the senseless murder of 6 million Jews and another 5 million political dissidents, gypsies, mentally ill persons, and homosexuals? And an entire nation was complicit in this evil, blinded by their loyalty to a self-proclaimed 'savior' who would restore Germany to greatness and insure her superiority over all other nations on earth.

I have only rarely experienced the presence of the demonic. It happened to me twice, both of which occurred when I was a theological student working on a Master's degree. I will not go into detail quite yet, but I will say that the feeling was distinct and real. And the events surrounding those two experiences can only be explained by the supernatural. I never wish to encounter such a presence, such a feeling of impending doom and darkness, ever again.

In my training for Pastoral care I was privileged to be a chaplaincy resident in 3 different hospitals, one of which was a state mental hospital. Later as a full-time staff chaplain I served a hospital that had a sizable psychiatric program. I can say that in all of my years working with the mentally ill I have never encountered what I would term as 'the demonic.' I encountered troubled people who were in significant internal pain. And I discovered that once I got to know them, that beneath their rather intense manifestations of anger, or discontent, or anxiety, or hopelessness, there was a human being, most of them likable, who needed help.

These persons were not 'demon possessed' but very sick. And many of them improved with the proper medications and psycho-spiritual interventions and support.

Interestingly, I never encountered the demonic in a mental hospital. But I did in places one would not expect to find it, such as a theological school. I encountered it again on a long, little-traveled road in the middle of nowhere, puzzled as to the shiver that went up my spine and the feeling of coldness that came over me when I drove by a certain spot. It was so overwhelming that I began to shake and I sped up to get out of there as quickly as possible.

It was later that I discovered that the area had been the scene of a brutal murder of young woman by a man who was out to do nothing but kill--anybody, anywhere, at random. There are other aspects to that murder that I will not discuss due to their sensitivity, but suffice it to say that the circumstances surrounding that particular homicide were so evil that its only explanation is the demonic.

Can demons 'possess' people against their will? Not if one's spirit is filled by the presence of Christ. A Christian has the gift of the Holy Spirit that is given to us immediately when we place our faith in Christ. No force of evil can possess us when we are possessed by the very Spirit of the most High God, our Heavenly Father. But this does not mean that we are immune from the influence of the demonic. Having the Holy Spirit in ones life and being filled with the Spirit are two different things. A life filled with the Spirit has no room for the presence of evil. But a life that is only partially filled by the Spirit can certainly come under the influence of evil.

This is why it is important for Christians to seek to be filled by the Holy Spirit each and every day, leaving no room whatsoever for evil to take root.

Perhaps we will revisit this issue as needed, given the high level of interest expressed by many in the subject. It is certainly a rich topic into which to delve.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mr. Graham

An icon in modern Christianity is having a birthday. Dr. Billy Graham, of Montreat, North Carolina, is celebrating his 93rd. Congratulations and a warm Happy Birthday to Mr. Graham.

As a full-time evangelist, Graham has preached to more people than any other minister who has ever lived. And here I am not talking about his television audience, which at one time was vast. He did it in person, practically everywhere on earth, including Communist China and the old Communist USSR.

One of his crusades in Southeast Asia drew over 1 million people on the final night--that's one million people in one place on one night.

Graham has had the ear of kings, princes, heads of state, and a slew of American Presidents, beginning with Harry Truman and going all the way through George W. Bush. It is unknown if Barack Obama has ever sought the counsel of Mr. Graham, although the 2 have met together.

He once told Winston Churchill, face to face, that Britain would never be saved by military might alone but by the power of God as exhibited through Jesus Christ. When Churchill pressed him to explain himself, Graham proceeded to share the simple Gospel story. Graham stated that Churchill's response was this: "If ever there were any hope for the world, or for mankind, it lies in precisely what you have just described."

As a boy Graham was one of my heroes. My family, all of them, would gather around the television whenever Graham would telecast his crusades, which was usually 3 or 4 times per year. These events were so immensely popular that at one time the major networks carried them.

And when I was 5 or 6, I remember my Mother took me to hear Graham in person when he came to our hometown. I remember imitating him, emulating his mannerisms, speech patterns, and such, as children sometimes do with their heroes.

This was just the first of many such times when I would hear Graham in person.

Billy Graham was born near Charlotte, North Carolina, not far from my place of upbringing. As a teenager he and a friend went to a tent meeting being held by a famous evangelist at the time known as 'Mordecai Hamm.' The 2 had gone there to make fun of the preacher. And they did. But by the time Hamm had finished with his sermon, Graham was overwhelmed with some entirely unexpected. The evangelist had touched something deep within his soul, and he found himself 'under a heavy load of conviction,' as he later related.

When Hamm gave the invitation, Graham 'hit the sawdust trail,' as it was called back then, that is, he walked down the middle aisle of the gathering, which was covered in sawdust, and stood at the front just under the pulpit area, where, according to Graham, he publicly gave his life to Jesus Christ.

As a young man Graham found himself preparing for ministry. People were drawn to him due to his winsome personality and natural good looks. And by 1948, Graham was holding tent crusades in such sophisticated places as Los Angeles, California, which began slowly but within a week had turned into a major event drawing multi-thousands. The crusade went on for weeks on end, and crowds continued to swell night after night. It would be a major watershed event in the life of Billy Graham. He was immediately propelled onto the national stage as newspapers across the nation reported the phenomenon that had happened in Los Angeles.

Everywhere he went his crusades turned into protracted events, lasting much longer than planned in order to accommodate the massive crowds. In England, in Madison Square Garden in NYC, in Canada, and in other major, high profile venues, what was planned as 2-week crusades turned into 8 or 10-week campaigns. This, of course, made front-page news all over the world.

Graham would be so exhausted after these events that sometimes he would have to retreat to his home in the North Carolina mountains for months at a time to recuperate.

By the end of the 1990s Graham was forced to cut back on his schedule due to health issues associated with aging. But as Graham backed off, his son, Franklin, stepped up and filled in for his father as often as he could. Although not preaching much anymore, close family and associates say he is still active sharing the Gospel through the written word, in books and in articles.

For many years Graham was a member of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, where famed Southern Baptist Pastor W. A. Criswell was the Senior Minister for nearly 5 decades. Now Graham belongs to the First Baptist Church of Spartanburg, South Carolina, in the foothills of the mountains.

Unlike many well-known evangelists in the latter part of the 20th century, Graham managed to avoid scandal. He set it up that way. When he began the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, he set up a Board of Directors that made all of the decisions. Graham requested that he be placed on a salary so that there would not be any hint of impropriety. He never gave oversight to the financial records of the organization nor  had any dealings whatsoever with the money that came in. All of this was handled by those chosen by the Board.

This speaks well of the organization and of Billy Graham, the man. And as for his personal life, his well-known 64-year love affair with his beloved wife, Ruth, now deceased, was such a major part of his identity that there was never even the slightest rumor that Graham had as much as looked at another woman with a wandering eye.

When the history of Christianity is rewritten for posterity, for generations to come, the name Billy Graham will most definitely be given a significant place in that history, for no other person in the modern era has come close to spreading the Gospel to as many persons as Graham.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Calling Their Names

I am part of a local congregation that has a long history of specifically calling the names of persons with needs in prayer. Persons are mentioned by name in prayer during all services of worship. Those who wish that their privacy be protected are merely mentioned as 'unspoken requests' from unnamed sources.

In peering around the landscape of American Christianity today, I get the distinct impression that such a thing has become fairly rare. Over the past 10 years I have been in countless churches. I can't even begin to count the number. But other than my present 'home church,' I have only been in ONE that engages in the practice of calling the names of persons in prayer.

Perhaps this is due to the growing movement toward large, 'mega-churches' with multi-thousands of members. Such churches seem to be a perfect breeding ground for anonymity. It is much easier to get lost in such huge crowds and to simply fade into the woodwork unseen, unnoticed.

Some people are happy with that, which is fine. To each his or her own. But I will have to add that in my view something precious has been lost in such environments.

Church is not meant to be a place for anonymity. Christians are not meant to be 'lone rangers' who behave as if the rest of the Christian body is either unimportant, unneeded, or an optional luxury that believers can discard if they please.

The New Testament Church is the model, and there there is no such thing as anonymity or a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. You are either all in or you are all out. And if you are all out, then there is a big question as to whether or not you are a real Christian at all.

In addition, in New Testament churches, the Bible says that they 'bore one another's burdens,' and that they 'cried when their brothers cried,' and 'rejoiced when their brothers rejoiced.' This indicates a certain level of trust and intimacy, a sense of belonging.

And mark it down, if people do not get such an experience at church, they WILL get it elsewhere, which is precisely one of the reasons the TV series 'Cheers' was so popular for so long. It was the 'place where everybody knows your name.'

Interesting as to how something that was once a staple of Christianity can now, in many instances, only be found in a bar.

This is why I shy away from mega-churches. I am happy that they reach so many people, and I can rejoice with them on that score. But I would not want to worship there week after week. I need a church that is small enough to where people can actually get to know one another to the point that they can literally 'bear one another's burdens,' and cry when others cry and rejoice when they rejoice. I want a church where people know my name, my family, where I come from, and what is important to me.

And, I want a church that, when I get sick or have a special need, I am immediately missed if I don't show up. And I want to know that they will call my name in prayer when there is a special need.

It's awfully hard to 'bear one another's burdens' as the Bible directs if you don't even know who is sitting next to you in the pew or if you have no earthly idea of the burdens that person must bear each and every day.

So, a word to the wise. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

This Is Hard to Do

I admit I am a worrier. Always have been. My Mother, God rest her soul, used to occasionally refer to me as a 'worry wart.' Of course, she was too. It takes one to know one, I suppose.

I am fully aware of the statements of Jesus that urge his disciples not to worry--'take no thought for your life, what you shall eat, what you shall put on,', etc, etc....meaning, of course, that if God cares for the birds of the air and flowers of the field, He will surely care for us too.

And I know these things are true. I believe God cares about each of His children. And worry is counter-productive.

I once did an inventory of my life, being the introspective person that I am, which showed that over 90% of the things I worry about never happen. That means that I am spending all of that time, energy, and mental resources on things that never come to pass--a precious waste of my abilities and gifts. I decided at that time that I would make it a goal to worry much less.

But that is easier said than done. I find that the old patterns creep back in when we least expect them. And the circumstances of life complicate the issue, particularly when one has health problems. We are naturally concerned when that is the case. But when does healthy concern become unhealthy worry?

It is a fine line that distinguishes them.

Part of the answer may well be our response to real issues that beset us. If there is a health problem, we do all within our power to address it medically, emotionally, physically. And then, having done all we can possibly do, we let go.

Once we know we are doing all that is possible to address the issue, it is easier to let it go and let God and His healing resources of modern medicine do their jobs.

But it is a daily battle. This is not a war that is won in one day--as if we can conquer it one day and be done with it forever. Rather, this is an ongoing battle that must be addressed daily.

The worries that I conquer yesterday can surely vex me again today, unless I am ever alert and vigilant.

Some days I do very well. Some days I do not. It is a mixed bag because we are human. But being aware of the problem is at least 50% of the battle to conquer it.

And with that I leave with the words of Jesus, "Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God. Believe also in Me."