What God Has Taught Me

Today our church service included the testimonies of several of our members regarding what the Lord has taught them over the past year.  Below is a transcript (as best I can provide) of what I shared with our congregation.


Looking Back

I wish I could stand before you this morning and tell you that I’ve spent the last 363 days of the year faithfully studying God’s word, desperately pursing him prayer, and passionately worshipping him 24/7; I wish I could rattle off a list of people I’ve personally led to the Lord, that I could say, “Hey – see that table there?  All of them are here today because when I told them about Jesus they listened and responded.”

But I can’t.  And that’s okay.  See, that’s what God has taught me this year.

One Word Summary

If I had to sum the year’s lessons up in one word, it would “grace” – the grace God shares through Jesus every day of the year as he deals with and talks to me.  Jason asked us a couple of weeks ago to talk about how God has moved in our lives this past year so that we could share it.  I wanted to be able to say, “I was sick – now look at me!  I’m healed!” or “One day, out of the blue, God sent a check that paid off my mortgage!” or some other miraculous story.  Instead, I stand before you and tell you that we spent the better part of a year recovering from the consequences of a car accident that totaled our van, delayed our trying to have another child, and put a complete stop on selling our house and moving into another one – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Rather than tell you about the mortgage being paid off, I will stand here and tell you that the promised raise was voted down, sometimes there was more month than money, and the insurance settlement didn’t come close to paying for the new van.

stone of graceYup, that’s our year.  A pretty normal year, a year mixed with both victories and struggles, great memories and pain I think I’d rather forget.  A year that started with good intentions – intentions to read scripture daily, to pray faithfully with and for my wife, to disciple my children – but as I look back I realize that while there were months I did read daily, pray faithfully, and invest in my kids, there are also weeks I’m not sure I even cracked the bible open except on Sunday morning, months that went by where prayers were little more than “Bless this day, God” or “Help feel better”, and plenty of nights where not only did I neglect to do devotions with the girls but where during the day I actually lost my temper and yelled at them.  Yup.  That’s my life – my imperfect, human, raw life.

And in the midst of it, He is here.  God is.  Jesus – he’s in the midst of all the turmoil, all the pain, all the disappointment.  He’s right here. That’s what God taught me this year.  To focus on the increasingly intimate, on-going, day-by-day and moment-by-moment relationship I have with Him, to remember that he speaks to me about and through the “mundane,” he works through me, and he fills in the gaps when I step aside and let him.

The Grant

I look back at the year and realize that when I was one of two people tasked with writing a 300 page grant application in just two weeks, that when the words were flowing through my fingers onto the screen, when the ideas in my mind were literally changing the way we structure support for schools in our district, that they weren’t my ideas at all – they were His. I recognize now that the whole process – a process that didn’t result in receiving the grant – was about growing me in Him.  Through that process he was shared both verbally and non-verbally with my co-workers; he grew my faith and honed my listening skills.  We walked side-by-side through that project.  And we grew closer.


I look back at the statistics class I had to take this semester, or the two-nights-out-a-week for school that robbed me of time with family.  And I recognize that he was with me on every drive to Chapel Hill, that those times in the car where I would sing, talk with him out loud, listen to sermons, and listen to him speak to me were times of growth and intimacy with my Savior – times I have come to treasure and even look forward to.  I understand they were times I have to invest in out-of-town friends and family via late night phone calls that serve to help keep me awake as I traveled but minister to them in other ways than I could ever imagine.  He’s worked in and through me even while I drive.

Driving Around Town

I look back on the day I was driving from a school in Winterville out to a school in Farmville.  I was sitting at the intersection of Davenport Farms Rd and Old US264 waiting to turn left.  There was a semi truck coming from the right and two cars coming from the left.  Even though there was more than enough space for me to safely pull out and make my turn, I heard a voice say, “Tom, just be patient – don’t be in such a rush.”  So, for once in my life while behind the wheel, I actually just decided to sit there and let everyone pass – to listen to and not just hear Jesus’ voice.  After the truck passed I turned to wait for the first of the two cars to pass, and after it passed I waited for the second car to pass.  It was then that I saw a third car that had been invisible to me just seconds before – a third car who was executing an illegal pass of the second car, so he was in the lane I would have turned into.  Literally, had I not listened when Jesus told me to wait I would have had a head-on collision with a car that was easily traveling 60+ mph.  And it took me longer to tell you this story than it actually happened in life – it was that quick.

The Missing Dog

I look back at the morning I woke up and the dog had escaped the back yard; of spending 30 minutes driving and walking the neighborhood in the rain when it was still dark outside, only to return home praying, “Lord, just bring her back – or help someone to find her and call us.”  Then I turned onto my street and who was standing in the middle of the road, one door down from our house, looking around all confused?  My Cosette.  And Jesus said, “See – I even care about the dog.  If I care about something so insignificant as that, don’t you think I care about the big stuff, too?”  Sure, it could have ended differently – she could have been lost forever, but I think God was saving me from have the country-music-song year (you know, no raise, car accident, totaled car, hurt wife, dead dog).

The Year to HearThe Lesson: Just Listen

So here’s what I’ve learned this year more than ever before – a year that, while it hasn’t been the most difficult of my life has certainly had its challenges.  I’ve learned that God is faithful in the little things, and he’s faithful in the big ones, too.  I’ve learned that God’s grace overpowers everything the devil can throw at us.  I’ve learned that the best part of life is walking hand-in-hand with my Dad – my Heavenly Dad – and hanging out with him.  I’ve learned that listening to Jesus and hearing him are two different things.  I used to teach my students that the while hearing was a function of the ear, listening was a function of the brain.  Hearing is simply when sound waves hit the ear drum, but listening requires actually processing and paying attention to those sounds.  It’s why we can sit in a restaurant and, even though we hear conversations of other people around us, we only listen to the person we’re having dinner with.  Jesus reminded me of that truth this year, so I want to share a couple of very specific examples when he spoke and I did more than hear, I listened.

Lance Armstrong

To do that I went back and reviewed some of my blog posts for the past year.  Two stuck out…  Two that were turning points in my year when Jesus spoke deeply to me.  The first one I want to share was from last January. To provide a little context, I used to be an avid cyclist, and Lance Armstrong was one of my favorite racers.  Last January was when he finally admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs in each of his seven Tour de France victors.  Here’s some of what I wrote:

There is something about Lance Armstrong that saddens me: he is not a Christian.  I have to wonder how someone who has been given so much cannot believe in God at all.  It’s not that he knowingly serves another spiritual presence, it’s that he doesn’t even believe God exists.  To know that while he may inspire many here on earth to achieve great strides yet not spend eternity in heaven is disheartening.

He writes in his book, Every Second Counts, the story of the home he bought in Spain.  Part of the home is a family chapel that he paid to have restored.  He writes this regarding the chapel: “To me, that chapel isn’t just about worship, but about history, about age, about the hundreds of years that have seeped into the arched ceilings, the gold paint, and the original stained glass.  It’s stunning.”

I fear Armstrong’s comments regarding faith and religion are all-too-common in today’s culture.  Religion is viewed as a duty, as a set of rules, as a hoax, or as a crutch (Armstrong refers to it as this, too).

Yet what Armstrong fails to understand is Christianity is not meant to be a religion but a relationship with the living God of the universe.  Think of it—the creator wants you and I to know Him!  He even came to earth to make a way for us to draw near to Him.  Church is not a building, or a history lesson.  Church, The Church, is the living, organic body of our Savior Jesus.  That’s what Armstrong fails to understand.

This week we see what could be described as the deprivation of man in general and Armstrong in particular.  I didn’t watch his confession, but I read enough in the press to know that his sincerity and regret was, at best, questionable – how else could he still claim he didn’t think it was wrong to cheat?

For me, though, what is even more disheartening than the cheating is the years and years of lying – lying to the public, to his donors and supporters, to his fans, and, ultimately, to himself.  He was vicious – suing those who dared suggest he had doped and calling them terrible, horrible names.  In Armstrong we see the fallen nature of humanity for what it is: an obsession with oneself.  Like the title of Armstrong’s first book, we had confirmed this week that it wasn’t about the bike.  It was about him and only him, at all costs.

And here’s what really gets me… Armstrong’s cycling wasn’t what brought him to fame, it was the fact that he had overcome cancer and then still went on to be what we all thought was the greatest cyclist who ever raced.  We didn’t follow him because of the bike, we followed him because of the healing.

This afternoon I got kinda upset about that.  I found myself upset with God that my sister died of cancer when she was 20, yet this liar and cheater was allowed to live.  It just didn’t seem fair.  Erin wasn’t perfect, but she certainly wasn’t Armstrong.  How come she had to die and he got to live?  If anyone deserved to die wasn’t it a man who would take his healing, shove it in the face of the God who healed him (as he did in his book), and then go on to mock the rest of the world to win by cheating and covering it up for years afterwards – ruining the lives of countless other professionals in the process?  Isn’t that the one who should have died?

And then God reminded about his grace.  It’s what Armstrong needs – it’s what he’s always needed.  Not grace from me or any other person; what Armstrong needs is to accept the grace given him by God.  Erin died a believer, which means she ultimately was healed that night she passed into eternity.  But Armstrong?  He’s headed straight to hell.  Not because he cheated and lied, but because he’s a sinner just like everyone else.  Perhaps worse than some but better than others.  Yet at the end of the day when he dies he’ll spend eternity separated from God because he refuses to accept the grace found in Jesus.

And so God continues to offer grace, one chance after another.  Should Armstrong have died?  Who am I to judge that…  What I can say with confidence is this: God must certainly love him a whole bunch, if you judge it based on the chances he’s given (and continues to give) to come to know Him.  2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  Maybe, just maybe, Armstrong will wake up to this fact.  It’s what I’m praying for, anyway

Grey’s Anatomy

The second one I wrote the following month, in February, and I think you’ll see how they are related:

I was watching a little TV with Melissa and she turned on the most recent episode of one of her new favorite shows, Grey’s Anatomy.  One main theme in the episode was a 19 year old who needed a blood transfusion but couldn’t get one because of his religious beliefs.  The conflict in the show revolved around how the doctors should respond to someone whose religious beliefs prevented them from treating a sickness that was curable.  At one point a friend of the dying patient comments to one of the doctor’s that even though they hang out “every day” his friend “never once mentioned to me that he was a Jehovah’s witness.  He never talked about it.  I kinda don’t think he is.” (his being a JW is why he can’t get a blood transfusion).  The doctor responds that maybe he’s just a private person, to which the friend says, “If you believed in something so hard you would die for it, would you keep it a secret?  Wouldn’t you at least tell your friends?”

And that’s when God slapped me upside the head and asked me the question, “Would your friends even know you’re a follower of Jesus?  Have you ever told them?  Would they know what you’re living for?  Would they know what you’re willing to die for?”  See, when God writes them a love letter, don’t you think he wants them to know that he lived and died for them?  Paul tells me that I’m the letter – I’m the ambassador.  So what message are they hearing?  Or am I keeping him a secret?

What about Sunday?

Both of those stories provide the “front book-end” examples, so to speak, of what Jesus was telling and teaching me this year.  So let me use one final quote before I tie this all together to provide the “back book-end”… Just this past week I finished reading a book in which the following question was asked:

“If Sunday didn’t exist, would anyone know you were a follower of Jesus? The reason I pose the question is because most people conclude someone is a Christian or not based on that person’s Sunday religious activities and behaviors. You may not even be inclined to advertise your faith, but inevitably if you attend church often enough, it will come out in conversation. So if Sunday didn’t exist, you would no longer have a building to point to as being the place you attend church…If Sunday didn’t exist, we would no longer be able to use our Sunday activities as evidence that we are followers of Jesus. So back to my question…If Sunday didn’t exist, would anyone know you were a follower of Jesus?”

The Missing Formula

I wish I could give you a formula that said, “This is how you grow closer to the Lord.  You read 4 chapters a day at 6:00am, then make sure you pray for 35 minutes every morning about these 5 topics.  Oh, don’t forget to fast once a week (Tuesdays would be best) so that you can spend extra time with the Lord in prayer.  Always listen to Christian radio, in the car make sure you play sermon podcasts rather than turn on political talk, answer at least 3 out of 5 questions at small group, and….”  Well, you get the idea.  But there isn’t a formula – it’s a relationship between two beings.  And that’s what Jesus has been teaching me.  There’s an ebb and flow to life, and an ebb and flow to relationships.  Hearing Jesus’ voice in every moment of every day isn’t something that happens just because you do X-Y-and-Z.  Hearing is a result of listening, and listening is a result of focus and paying attention – perhaps it sounds like I’m arguing semantics here, but hearing is a physiological process whereas listening adds both the cognitive dimension and the spiritual act of discernment so that physiology, cognition, and spirit all work together.

listen-and-learnNow don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting there’s nothing we can do to hear God’s voice or that regardless of what we do nothing will inhibit us from hearing him.  Sin is very real and it sets a wall up in our hearts to make it difficult to hear his voice.  We have to spend time with him regularly – if I never talked with Melissa or spent time with her or listened to her you’d all wonder what type of marriage we had.  But at certain times of our lives those shared times may look different.  When we first got married we had regular date nights every week – but once you have kids and you realize between dinner, a movie, and a babysitter that date nights take the entire month’s entertainment budget, they start to look different than they used to.  I can’t give a formula for the marriage relationship.  Are there certain things we do and don’t do?  Absolutely.  But we don’t get a marriage because we do those things, we do those things because we are married.

Similarly, I’m not so certain that we get a growing relationship with God just because we read the Bible, pray, fast, or engage in any of the other spiritual disciplines.  Reading the bible and prayer no more make you a Christian than babysitting makes you a parent.  Does this mean you shouldn’t babysit my kids for me?  Absolutely not! But remember that we aren’t parents until we’ve had a kid – whether you have them naturally or you adopt them.  Just because you are a teacher who works with kids, or a family therapist who studies child development and know what all the “experts” say about them, a pediatrician who diagnoses their sickness or a L&D nurse who delivers newborns every day – if you’ve never had the sole responsibility to care for a child you aren’t a parent.  That’s not meant to discourage or dismiss people, it’s simply stating a neutral fact.  In the same way, just because you attend church, read the bible, pray, fast, give money, and/or serve in the community it doesn’t mean you are a follower of Jesus.  Does that mean you shouldn’t do those things?  Absolutely not – but don’t overemphasize the vehicle when what is important is the relationship.


Abiding leads to doing

Because of our growing relationship with God we engage in those disciplines – just like when we get married we do things couples do, or when we have children we take responsibility for our kids in raising them.  But when it all gets dry?  Well, sometimes relationships don’t always “feel” vibrant.  But that doesn’t mean we aren’t in relationship.  Sometimes our sprititual walk with our Dad doesn’t necessarily “feel” great, but it doesn’t mean he’s not there or that he doesn’t care.  The thing that Jesus has taught me more this year than any year in the past is that a deep relationship with him is exactly that – a relationship that isn’t ruled by rules and regulations about what I do or say or think.  In fact, it’s not ruled by anything but His Grace.  To use our Covenant and Kingdom language, I’ve learned that as I abide with and in Him, the doing happens automatically and naturally and I don’t even need to think about it.  Just this past week I read John 3:21, “anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.”  When I abide in Him, he works through me and others see it for what it is.

Don’t take these words to mean that when you walk with God that what you consider to be “good things” only happen to you or you always get what you want.  Sometimes the dog doesn’t come home, sometimes your sister dies, sometimes you spend more than you make, sometimes the car accident happens or the tire blows out or you fall out of the tree and break your arm.  I have friends who are Christians who walk faithfully with the Lord and still experience great, great pain – the pain of divorce, untimely death, the sickness of a child, lost jobs, or even the loss of a home – so I’m not naïve enough to think that by walking with and listening to Jesus we are free of the effects of sin in a fallen world.  Walking with God doesn’t guarantee bad things won’t happen to you.  It DOES mean you don’t have to go through them alone.



Whom Do You Envy?

“Don’t let your heart envy sinners” is what I read in Proverbs.  Sinners?  Really?  Who envies “sinners”?  I mean, I can understand being envious of others who have more money, a bigger house, a nicer car, higher-paying job, better health, etc.  But “sinners”?  Really?


Yet as I reflect I realize that too often I fall into this trap – if I’m honest, I have to confess I too often envy the life the lost live, mistakenly thinking I’ve missed out on something.  And I don’t think I’m alone in this…  I hear this type of talk all the time from those who became Christians later in life (rather than early on) – they talk about the “sins of youthful indiscretion” when they were younger, but they talk about it as “yea, those were the good ol’ days when I had lots of fun, but now that I’m older I need to start acting my age and be mature and responsible.”  There’s almost a sense that, given the choice, the person would make the same mistakes again because it really was so much fun and the consequences were not so bad after all – it’s almost an attitude of pride towards their sin. Now I certainly can’t judge what another person really feels or thinks, so I am making an assumption here; I’m just making that assumption by what I see and hear.

0608-the-upside-oe-0941I’m reading through the book of Proverbs with the leadership group from my church, something I first mentioned in this post, and when I read the 23:17-18 it really challenged me.  I actually like the way the New Message puts the verse: “Don’t for a minute envy careless rebels.”  Too many times I look around and go, “Wow, how come I work so hard and try to do what God has called me to do, to live honorably and obey his will, and that person there is living so far from God and yet they have a better paying job, a bigger house, and a new car.  How come they don’t seem to struggle with <fill in the blank>?  How come none of their family members ever get sick?  Why doesn’t their car break down and need a repair and mine does? It just doesn’t seem fair.”  (and before you go there with the comments I know that life’s not fair, so you don’t need to remind me of that :))

I see this happening not just with individuals, but also within families – even church families.  I can not even count the number of churches I’ve know that have pastor envy, youth group envy, band envy, building envy, ministry envy, and so on – and the negative results that come from that envy…  They look at how God is moving through another pastor or church and think, “We need to have and then our church could be better.”Envy-2

But these attitudes and thoughts are not what scripture promises nor is it what this proverb advises.  We (I?) are (am) to focus on building a healthy fear of the Lord – of living in an abiding respect, admiration, and love of God through the grace given us in Jesus Christ.  Because our (my) future is ultimately not contingent upon my house, my car, my job, or even my health; it’s contingent upon my relationship with God through Jesus.  3-Blessings

And through that relationship, I am reminded, God has given me “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms” and made me a “co-heir with Christ” (see Rom 8:17 and Eph 1:3).  And for that reason the lost will one day envy us.

My Prayer for Newtown

Father, I’m not even sure what to say.  I know you grieve over what happened yesterday – I know that you are a good God and that you took no pleasure in watching this happen.  I also know that you are sovereign and you are in control – even though the world seems out of control.  I believe you are strong enough to have stopped this from happening, and I don’t know why you didn’t.  But I believe you are big enough to handle that question without being offended.

I also know that I’ll probably never get an answer to that question, at least on this side of heaven.  And, for some strange reason, I’m okay with that.  So I don’t want to talk about the why, I don’t want to try to understand, because, at the end of the day, there are 20 dead kids up there in Connecticut and 6 dead adults just from that school.  That’s a lot of families that are hurting right now because their loved ones didn’t come home last night; those parents weren’t able to snuggle with their sons and daughters and tuck them in last night, they didn’t get to see them take a nap in someone’s arms today, nor did those kids wake up to discover “the elves” had returned.  And those families are hurting.

They need help, Jesus.  They need love, they need peace, they need hope – in short, Lord, they need you.  So I’m praying right now that you would supernaturally rain down on them – do something, Lord, to bring peace to chaos, hope to despair, and love to the hurting.  Father, move your people who live in Newtown to pour out your love to these hurting people.  There are no answers, there are no explanations, there are just hurts – hurts that seem beyond healing.  Hurts that never should have been.

I can’t fix this, Jesus – none of us can.  We can’t bring these kids back from the dead, we can’t undo the madness of yesterday.  In fact, we can’t even do anything to prevent this from happening again.  We’ll try – I’ll try – but at the end of the day it seems that if evil wants to rear it’s ugly head then evil will rear it’s ugly head.  And that, quite honestly Lord, just down-right sucks.  I know in the end you win – I get that; I know and believe with all my heart that one day you will “wipe away every tear” from our eyes, but right now there are hurting people, people who have lots of tears and lots of holes in their hearts, and that promise you gave has yet to be completely fulfilled.

And it’s not just those who lost a loved one, Lord – it’s everyone up there that was affected by this tragedy.  There were over 600 kids at that school – SIX HUNDRED KIDS, Lord!  That’s 600 kids whose lives will forever be changed, six hundred kids whose innocence has been shattered.  Every one of their families will now fear sending their kids to school, wondering, “Will it happen again?”  I’ve read the comments on the blogs, on Facebook, and even on the news stations.  People are scared.

And you know better than I do that when we get scared we do only a couple of things.  One is to react irrationally and do crazy things.  Another is run away from you because, well, we’re mad that this happened and questioned how you could allow it.  The other is run to you and just collapse in your arms.  Father, I pray for each of the families that are affected by this tragedy that they would run to you, Lord.  Let them know that you are crying, too – that you hurt because what happened is bad and evil and it was never in your plan.  Let them know, Lord, that this is not something you did or wanted to happen, that this is an example of something happening on this fallen world that is outside your will.

And, Father, I also pray (and perhaps I’m praying this even more than anything else), that you’d smack your people upside the head so we don’t say or do anything stupid.  I read in horror what people write about you – people who claim to believe, know, and follow you.  The things they say about you and this situation break my heart (and I have to believe they break yours).  They blame you, they say you caused it.  They’re so busy arguing over your involvement (or lack there-of) in this tragedy that they’re forgetting to reach out to those who are hurting.  They’re not listening to the broken-hearted, Lord, too many of your people are preaching at them, complaining about things like video-game violence, R-rated movies, ease of obtaining a gun, and the like.  It’s not that those things are unimportant, Lord, it’s just that right now is not the time to discuss them.  You told us in your word that for everything there is a season, and the season for those conversations will come – but right now, Father, is the time to weep.  To weep over the fact that these little kids were murdered in cold blood; to weep over the loss of innocent lives of teachers and administrators at an elementary school.  It’s time to weep and mourn, Lord.  Use this, somehow, to bring your people back to you.  There are people weeping right now and we’re supposed to weep with them, Father, but too many Christians are, well, just worried about other things. Let them weep, Lord.  Don’t wipe the tears away just yet because the tears of those who are affected are still there, so ours need to be present too.

And, finally, Father, I pray for those who, tomorrow, will preach your word in churches across this nation.  I know that it’s going to come up in sermons; I know people will go to church tomorrow that haven’t ever darkened the door of one before.  And they’re going to be looking for answers, answers to questions they’re asking, answers that none of us have.  Give those pastors and leaders the courage to say, “I don’t know” when they need to; give them the wisdom to know how to communicate your love and your brokenheartedness to those who hurting.  Don’t let them get distracted, Father, by politics or theological arguments.  Lord, help them just love people and communicate your love to tomorrow.

Jesus, we need you.  We need you because right now we’ve got nothing.  We’re sitting down here, two weeks before Christmas (a time that’s supposed to be about peace and joy and happiness), and we’re crying because laying in front of us are the bodies of 20 murdered kids and six murdered adults and there’s nothing we can do to bring them back.

I take that back, Lord, we do have something – we have you; I have you.  Give me the courage to share you with a hurting world; give me the courage to talk about you and lift you up, to point to you and acknowledge you.  Give me the words to say when I’m asked questions where clearly the only answer is you.  Give me the courage to love those around me and share your love with them, to shower people with the good news that even when I’ve got nothing I really have everything.  Dear God we need you.  My country needs you; all those people up there in Connecticut need you, Lord.  Show us how to share you.  Soften their hearts – somehow, some way – to be open to receive you and know you and be filled by you, because what they’re looking for they will never find outside of you.  Show us, your church, how to share you.

Book Review: The Voice New Testament

I’ve fallen a little behind on my reviews, but in the next couple of weeks I should be getting more caught up.  The fact of the matter is one of the books I have been reading just hasn’t been very good (I’ll post that review soon), one has been absolutely fantastic (that will be posted this week as part of a blog tour), and one, well, I’ve just gotten lost in the book and enjoyed it so much I was afraid that if I posted my review I’d not come back to it.  That book is Thomas Nelson’s The Voice translation of the The Bible, originally released back in 2008.

It’s always difficult to review a Bible translations because I’m not a language scholar, so I don’t understand translation in general yet alone the finer nuances that make one version of the Bible different from any other.  But I am a follower of Jesus, the living and risen Savior and Son of God, and through him I have a relationship with God the Father and am in-dwelled by the Holy Spirit.  That is not to suggest this blog review is “inspired by God”.  It’s simply to say that I view reading a Bible translation through the lens of deepening my relationship with Him.  Since I believe the Bible to be the Word of God, and we know that God’s Word does not return to Him void, then it makes sense that reading the Scripture should draw me closer to Him.  So how do I judge whether the translation is a good one or not?  In large part by whether I notice any change in my life after having read it.  Reading this translation has done exactly that.  I’ve already blogged on how it’s begun to impact my prayer life, and I can also testify to the fact that I find myself excited every day to get up and read it – which is something I struggled with for a long time.  I find that, in short, I don’t want to put it down but instead want to spend more time reading what God has said to me.

There are a couple of unique aspects to The Voice.  The first is how they translate the Greek word “Christos”, or “Christ”.  I have read several chapters in the Gospels a couple of chapters from Acts, the entire letters of Ephesians and Philippians, and a scattering of chapters elsewhere.  The word “Christ” never appears once.  The translators made the decision to translate the word “Christos” literally, or as “The Anointed” (or a variation thereof) instead of the English word “Christ”  The reason for this is “Christ” is actually a title (like Mr., Mrs. Dr. etc) in the original Greek, but many people in the English-speaking word have interpreted “Jesus Christ” not as “Jesus the Anointed” but thought “Christ” was simply the last name of the Jesus.  At first this took some getting used to as a I read through the scripture, but the more I read the easier it is to process.  I will also say it’s given me a new appreciation for the name “Jesus” (something I’ll blog about separately soon).

Another difference is the book is written in script format, meaning there are no “He said” or “She said” references.  Instead, you read the name of the person speaking and then just see what they speak.  As a drama person I absolutely love this – and there are even examples of what might be considered “stage directions” to help set the scenes.  As I read through the chapters I read this format really caused the text to come alive to the point I could literally see everything happening!  It was very exciting to read.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of this translation is that it wasn’t performed solely by ancient-text scholars (Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic).  The translation was performed by a team of people – and the team consisted of both ancient-text scholars and modern-day writers (poets, dramatists, writers, etc) as a way to blend experts in the original language and experts in the modern language (English).  I can’t say how it was handled or who had what role, but I can tell you the text is an absolute pleasure to read.  In terms of “word-for-word” vs. “thought-for-thought” translation, the introduction describes this as a balance between the two, which personally makes sense to me.  Some may argue that since this translation is not a word-for-word translation it shouldn’t be used for serious Bible study.  And that may or may not be true.  All I can say is that if reading it leads to a deepening of my walk with God as evidenced by the fruit in my life, why would I not read it?  When I do serious Bible study I never stick to one translation, because, in reality, no translation is truly word-for-word for the simple fact there are no exact matches for all words between two languages – every translation at some point has to translate thought-to-thought otherwise it wouldn’t make sense.  Poetry is a perfect example of this – you can’t perform a word-for-word translation of poetry from one language into another without loosing some of it’s meaning (since the form partly defines the meaning), so the work of any translator (or team) is to figure out the best word in the target language to match the original.  The introduction actually does a good job of placing this argument out there, and it was one I was excited to read because for years I have struggled with the fact certain teachers prefer one translation over another or say one is better than the other.  The fact is that every translation is exactly that: a translation, which means by definition we are reading a certain amount of interpretation based on the viewpoint of the translator.  If you want to study “the original Word of God” then you’d better do it in the original language, otherwise recognize there may be imperfections along the way.

Below is Acts Chapter 12 quoted in it’s entirety – the story of Peter’s miraculous release from prison.  I encourage you to read this and you’ll see much of what I’ve talked about in terms of the style of this translation – particularly how enjoyable it is to read.  For a free copy of the entire New Testament visit Hear the Voice‘s homepage, which also contains information on how the translation was performed.

1Back in Jerusalem, hard times came to the disciples. King Herod violently seized some who belonged to the church with the intention of mistreating them. 2He ordered James (brother of John) to be executed by the sword, the first of those appointed as emissaries to be martyred. 3This move pleased Jewish public opinion, so he decided to arrest Peter also. During the holy festival of Unleavened Bread, 4he caught Peter and imprisoned him, assigning four squads of soldiers to guard him. He planned to bring him to trial publicly after the Passover holiday.

5During Peter’s imprisonment, the church prayed constantly and intensely to God for his safety. 6Their prayers were not answered, until the night before Peter’s execution.
Picture this event: Peter is sound asleep between two soldiers, double-chained, with still more guards outside the prison door watching for external intruders. 7Suddenly the cell fills with light: it is a messenger of the Lord manifesting himself. He taps Peter on the side, awakening him.

Messenger of the Lord: Get up, quickly.

The chains fall off Peter’s wrists.

Messenger of the Lord: 8Come on! Put on your belt. Put on your sandals.

Peter puts them on and just stands there.

Messenger of the Lord: Pull your cloak over your shoulders. Come on! Follow me!

9Peter does so, but he is completely dazed. He doesn’t think this is really happening—he assumes he is dreaming or having a vision. 10They pass the first guard. They pass the second guard. They come to the iron gate that opens to the city. The gate swings open for them on its own, and they walk into a lane. Suddenly the messenger disappears.

11Peter finally realized all that had really happened.

Peter: Amazing! The Lord has sent His messenger to rescue me from Herod and the public spectacle of my execution which the Jews fully expected. 12Peter immediately rushed over to the home of a woman named Mary. (Mary’s son, John Mark, would eventually become an important associate of the apostles.) A large group had gathered there to pray for Peter and his safety. 13He knocked at the outer gate; and a maid, Rhoda, answered. 14She recognized Peter’s voice, but she was so overcome with excitement that she left him standing on the street and ran inside to tell everyone.

Rhoda: Our prayers were answered! Peter is at the front gate!

Praying Believers: 15Rhoda, you’re crazy!

Rhoda: No! Peter’s out there! I’m sure of it!

Praying Believers: Well, maybe it’s his guardian angel or something.

16All this time, Peter was still out in the street, knocking on the gate. Finally they came and let him in. Of course, the disciples were stunned, and everyone was talking at once. 17Peter motioned for them to quiet down and then told them the amazing story of how the Lord engineered his escape.

Peter: Could you please get word to James, our Lord’s brother, and the other believers
that I’m all right? Then he left to find a safer place to stay.

18But when morning came and Peter was gone, there was a huge uproar among the soldiers. 19Herod sent troops to find Peter, but he was missing. Herod interrogated the guards and ordered their executions. Peter headed down toward the coast to Caesarea, and he remained there.

20At this time there was major political upheaval. Herod was at odds with the populace of neighboring Tyre and Sidon, so the two cities sent a large group of representatives to meet with him. They won over one of Herod’s closest associates, Blastus, the director of the treasury; then they pressured Herod to drop his grudge. Cooperation was important to the two cities because they were all major trading partners and depended on Herod’s territory for food. 21They strucka deal, and Herod came over to ratify it. Dressed in all his royal finery and seated high above them on a platform, he made a speech; 22and the people of Tyre and Sidon interrupted with cheers to flatter him.

The People: This is the voice of a god! This is no mere mortal!

23Herod should have given glory to the true God; but since he vainly accepted their flattery, that very day a messenger of the Lord struck him with an illness. It was an ugly disease, involving putrefaction and worms eating his flesh. Eventually he died.

24Through all this upheaval, God’s message spread to new frontiers and attracted more and more people. 25Meanwhile, the time Barnabas and Saul spent in Jerusalem came to an end, and they reported back to Antioch, bringing along John, who was also called Mark.

I do recognize there’s a lot of controversy surrounding this translation, and it’s hard to give a rating for the Bible, for fear I might offend the original author!  But I believe that this translation, working side-by-side with other translations, can lead one to a deeper understanding and relationship with God through Christ.  Many of the objectives I’ve read online can easily be addressed, so, with that being said, I’ll give this a 5/5 stars.

What’s the Big Deal about Easter?

Earlier this week I read a blog post entitled “Why Easter is Bigger than Christmas” and that got me thinking…  What is the big deal with Easter anyway?  I mean, it’s a celebration of Jesus being raised from the dead.  But that’s it…or is it?

Paul broaches the subject in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19, so let’s try and put this into context.  Jesus’ resurrection is a big deal.  A Really Big Deal.  A Really, Really, REALLY Big Deal.  So big, in fact, that it is the essential event every human must respond to at some point in their existence – either in this life or the afterlife.  It’s that big.

Think about this with me for a second…  If Jesus didn’t get up from the grave then obviously everything he said and did has been invalidated.  But not only that, since the Bible contains the story of Jesus, if what Jesus said and did becomes invalid then everything else in the Bible is also invalid (that whole “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” thing).  You read that right: if Jesus didn’t raise from the dead we can dismiss the entire Bible and everything in it.  But it goes beyond that even.  I’m arguing that without the resurrection then the very presences of an Almighty God is lost.

Think this through with me for a second… The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is what sets Christianity apart from every other world religion.  No other religion says that God came to Earth to save us.  No other religion says that God died on a cross.  And no other religion says that God came back from the dead.  Without the resurrection, Christianity is no different than any other religion or philosophy; religions all try to address the question of what to do with God – and, in essence, all religions (except for Christianity) say, at best, we have to do something to earn the approval of God.  This is where Christianity stands in contrast to world religions, because it says there’s nothing that we can do to earn God’s approval.

Think of three competing philosophies: one that says there is no God, one that says we need to find a way to God, and one that says God reaches down to make a way for us.  Christianity is obviously the last, but without the Resurrection Christianity is proved false.  Yet because there are so many competing philosophies that fall into group B, all that basically say the same thing, one could argue that the very presense of so many competing philosophies in-and-of-itself invalidates them all (this is the argument Christian apologists have to argue to separate Christianity from other religions, because with so many competing viewpoints pretty much everyone is able to recognize that none are true).  So after Christianity and Group B are both gotten rid of, the only choice left is that there is no God.

But what’s the big deal with that?  Simple.  Without God we are left ultimately with nothing but the here-and-now.  Without God we have no purpose, no authority to answer to… We should “eat, drink, and be merry – for tomorrow we may die.”  How does that look practically?  To start with, we would have no reason to teach good and bad to our kids, but there is no right or wrong.   We’d have no reason to listen to those who have authority over us because, well, no one is in authority over them to put them in authority over us – so we have anarchy.  We have no reason to fulfill or honor any vows we have made throughout our life – be it to our spouse, our friends, our family, or our jobs.  Life truly becomes survival of the fittest, and so any and everything I do is justified and “right” as long as it helps me survive.  I keep my promises – as long as it helps me and makes me stronger; I don’t cheat in business – as long as it means I come out on top; I don’t honor authority – as long as doing so doesn’t get me killed; I don’t value the life of anyone – unless their value brings me strength and victory.

See, without the resurrection we have absolutely nothing.  What purpose is there to being good, honest, and fair?  Why fight for the freedom of other people – when they might end up being stronger than we are and overtake us?  Why work for “the good of humanity”, when humanity will just be out to get me?  Without the resurrection we have nothing.

But with it – well, now that changes things.  Because Jesus did raise – bodily – from the dead, that means there’s a God out there who is just.  A just God means that there are rules to be followed, order to be enforced, rewards to be earned, and punishments to be given.  Let’s just say it – a just God means there is right and wrong.  But it also means there is a God who paid the way for that justice to happen without compromising it in the least.  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are not just because “God loved me so much…” (though they are about that).  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ mean that God is so just that he was not able to accept sinners into relationship with him unless a price was paid to wipe out their sin.  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ show us that God paid that price and made a way for us to live in communion with him for all eternity.  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ paid the way for a just and loving God to offer forgiveness to individual people.

That’s huge – it’s absolutely mind-blowing to consider this, but the Almighty God of the universe demanded something that we could not do, and instead of lowering his standards he made a way by which we could meet them through the death of his son Jesus.  And then when Jesus got up from the dead, God showed us that he had the power to do everything the Bible said.  And that’s really, really fantastic news!  Now I have a reason to honor my vows, keep my word, obey those who are in authority over me, teach my children right and wrong, and work honestly.

But even more important than that – more important than “living a good and honorable life” – I have a reason to worship, to respond to what God has done.  Yes, Easter – the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead – is a really, really big deal.

The Missing eMail (4.7)

This past week I went 24 hours without email – really!  It was a wonderful, yet frightful, experience.

Here’s what happened.. On Wednesday I left my office about 11:35 for lunch.  When I returned after lunch I was surprised to see no emails – but I wasn’t too worried since I had a 1:30 and 2:30 appointment.  To make a long story short, I ended up missing my 2:30 appointment and working in my office all afternoon.  However, for the entire afternoon I didn’t receive a single email message – which was wonderful because I got so much done.  You have to understand that my Blackberry seems to buzz non-stop throughout the day (and even night), so the fact that I had five hours without a single buzz allowed me to get caught up on a lot of back-work.

That night I checked my Blackberry before I went to bed (as I always do), just to make sure there are no “surprises” waiting for me the next morning.  No new emails.  Interesting….  The next morning I woke up and checked my BB again – no new email messages.  Again, interesting, but I was more relieved than anything and felt a sense of “Wow, life is good.”

That morning I arrived in my office and worked in my office all morning until I was getting ready to leave for a lunch appointment about 11:15.  Just before I left I realized that it had now been 24 hours (almost to the minute) since I had received any email messages.  Now I was beginning to wonder if something was wrong… So I went into my Gmail account and sent myself an email – but it never arrived in my inbox.  So then I sent myself an email from within the work email program and it did not come through.  All of a sudden, I realized I had a problem.  So I began search – I looked in my  Spam folder, not there.  I looked in my Junk folder.  Not there.  So I started going through ALL my folders and finally, when I opened up my trash, I found over 75 unopened email messages from the past 24 hours!  All my email had been routed (incorrectly) to my trash without me ever seeing it.  I quickly moved them back to my inbox and spent the rest of the afternoon (after lunch) going through 24 hours worth of emails!

Which got me thinking… How often does God send me a message but I miss it because I’m looking for it in the wrong place or the wrong way?  How often do I take what he’s trying to tell me and send it (either accidentally or intentionally) to my “trash”?   And how long would I have to go without hearing his voice before I even realized there was a problem?

While I was questioning the lack of emails I received over that 24 hours, it wasn’t until it had been a solid 24 hours that I even began to try and figure out what the problem was (a sorting rule gone awry – it took me about 5 minutes to figure it out and about 30 seconds to fix it).  How long would I have to go without hearing from God before I began trying to figure out why?

I noticed my email problem fairly quickly because electronic communication fills such a large portion of my life – in this instance, over 75 instances in 24 hours; but normally it is many times that!  Each of those 75 emails required a response, and many of those responses resulted in extended exchanges – so I literally exchange hundreds of email in a single day.  But how much time every day do I spend interacting with God?

How about you?  Which of the following would you notice a problem with soonest: your email, your cell phone, your wallet, your Facebook account, or hearing from God?

How we answer that question is a good measure of where our priorities lie.