“A Piece of My Mind”
January, 2017 Newsletter
Advancing Christian Faith and Values,
Defending Religious Liberty for All,
Supporting Civility and the Common Good
through Preaching, Teaching, Writing,
Activism and Reasoned Conversations
1517 – 2017
500 Years since The
Nehemiah—A Great Reformer Then and Now
The beginning of each new year is a great time to think about REFORMATION. 2017—this new year—will be unlike any other on that topic. My intense prayer is that genuine, biblical reformation, spiritual renewal and revival will be the experience of every major tradition within Christianity. I pray, too, that our major Christian traditions will strive to understand each other. That is needed before we can honestly agree or disagree with one another.
Nehemiah was God’s agent for reform—an important official in the Persian government in the years (5th Century BC) when Jewish people were resettled into their land after many years of exile. His heart was grieved when he learned of the broken condition of Jerusalem’s walls and the suffering of his people there. So he received permission and authority from King Artaxerxes to go to Jerusalem and oversee the city’s restoration.
Restoration (reform and renewal) is never a “done deal”! There are setbacks. People regress to their old ways. Revivals, it seems, just “don’t last.” The evangelist Billy Sunday once quipped, “Neither does a bath, but it does you good!” The church is “never so good” that it doesn’t need fresh repentance, change and visitation from God.
So, from the final (13th) chapter of Nehemiah’s book, we learn lessons when Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem again and sees the need for fresh reform.
1. Nehemiah saw that the House of God had been corrupted.
(see Nehemiah 13:4-14)
A man named Tobiah had been given a room in the Temple for his own use. But Tobiah was a dedicated enemy of Nehemiah’s effort to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (2:10). His presence dishonored the Temple.
To make matters worse, the people were not contributing as they should to support the ministries of the House of God (13:10). As a result, the ministers who should have been supported by contributions had to work in the fields and the ministries of the Temple suffered.
Nehemiah’s responses were quick and effective: (1) He threw Tobiah’s household goods out of the Temple and cleansed the room (remember: Nehemiah was a government official with authority, not a freewheeling religious zealot); (2) at his direction, the people restored their contributions to the proper level so the ministries of the Temple would be as they should be.
Lessons for us:
- Without being narrow-minded, we must be sure that the church does not support what is incompatible with our convictions.
- We must give generously so that our church’s ministries and worship are accomplishing what we desire—and even more, what God desires.
2. Nehemiah saw that the Sabbath Day had been corrupted.
(see Nehemiah 13:15-22)
The Jewish people were working on the Sabbath Day (13:15). Gentile traders also brought their goods into Jerusalem on the Sabbath (13:16). These actions broke the Sabbath law as found in the Ten Commandments.
Nehemiah rebuked his people for this violation and locked the gates of the city on the Sabbath so the tradesmen could not come in (13:17-22).
Lessons for us:
- Of all the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath command is the hardest for Christians to apply to their lives in the modern world. But surely there is a principle to be followed: setting aside one day in seven for rest and for worship is a sign that we put God first, not our vocations and money.
- We need a dedicated time each week for coming together in worship, prayer and hearing Scripture—we should guard this time zealously.
3. Nehemiah saw that the Institution of Marriage had been corrupted.
(see Nehemiah 13:23-31)
Some had married gentiles who didn’t share their religious faith (13:23). And half of their children were not being taught “the language of Judah” (13:24). Instead, they spoke languages of the non-believing people around them.
Nehemiah’s corrections were bold and decisive (and offensive to many “moderns”). He cursed them, physically punished some of the men, and ordered the people not to marry those outside their faith (13:25-28). He warned them that such compromise had brought God’s judgment in the past.
Lessons for us:
- We live in a pluralistic world. That’s simply the way it is and we must live out our faith accordingly. “The Kingdom of God is no longer identified with any geopolitical kingdom on earth. It is no longer the era of driving the nations out of God’s holy land but of living side by side with unbelievers in charity.” – Michael Horton, The Christian Faith
- At the same time, the distinctive faith, morals and lifestyle of the Christian faith must be practiced in our world. Church life especially must reflect these distinctives, for the church is not the same as the world—at least it shouldn’t be.
- Marriage within The Faith is still affirmed in the New Testament.
- What does it mean for us to teach our children to speak the “language of Judah” today? How about making sure they know:
The books of the Bible
The Ten Commandments
The Lord’s Prayer
The Apostles Creed (and what its points mean)
The importance of Baptism and Communion
The great hymns and songs of the faith
Listen to my sermon on Nehemiah 13
“Time for a Great Reformation” (go to October 23, 2016)
Honoring Two Very Dedicated Public Servants:
Retiring Los Angeles County Supervisors
Don Knabe and Michael Antonovich
Fifty-six years of combined service on the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors has come to an end with the retirements of Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich. Both of these men are dedicated Christian public servants.
Don was mayor of Cerritos, among other tasks, before becoming a county supervisor. He would mark August 31, 1986 as a critical day in his career—the day an Aero Mexico plane plunged into a Cerritos neighborhood, killing 83 including 15 on the ground. A few years ago he spoke at a men’s breakfast at my church and explained how his Christian values interface with his government service.
One of his accomplishments is the “Safe Surrender” program, which allows the mother of a newborn who feels she cannot provide for the child to bring the child to any fire station or hospital within three days of birth.
No questions, no shame. And no abortion or abused child either.
“Safe Surrender” has received 148 newborn since it began in 2001.
Mike came to the Board of Supervisors after serving in the California Assembly, where I first met him. He was and is a staunch pro-life advocate. During one of his terms as Chairman of the Board of Supervisors I met him in a hallway at the State Capitol in Sacramento. What would we talk about? He wanted some Bible verses on a particular topic!
Mike advanced many causes, including children’s issues, adopting animals and protecting land for public use. Both leaders supported keeping a small cross on the county seal (on top of a depiction of a mission, which it would seem is right where it should be) as a symbol of the county’s heritage. One wonders why this should be an issue with anyone!
Both gentlemen are fine examples to men and women on fulfilling opportunities to serve God through dedicated public service.
On January 9th, 2017, partnering organizations in support of law enforcement officers nationwide will promote National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day. In light of recent negativity directed toward law enforcement nationally, there is a need to show law enforcement officers that our citizens recognize the difficult career they have chosen, in public service to us all.
There are many positive signs of appreciation that citizens can show. One of the best is simply to thank the law enforcement officers you meet for their protection and service. Donate to C.O.P.S. or your local police foundation.
I urge each congregation in America to take time on Sunday, January 8 to recognize and pray for all who serve in Law Enforcement.
One New Year’s Resolution:
“I will speak no sentences with ‘Look!’ or ‘you know” or “I mean’!”
Religious Liberty Vigilance – throughout the World
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
– United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights (Article 18)
The U.S. Government has seemed slow in responding to threats against religious freedom around the world. I was therefore heartened to learn that President Obama signed the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act on December 16, a bipartisan bill designed to strengthen the U.S. response to religious persecution in the Middle East and elsewhere.
(Please click on the bill title to read the text of this new law.)
“The new effort to bolster the U.S. response to threats against religious freedom across the world is raising hopes that Washington will make the treatment of religious minorities a key issue in its bilateral relations with countries like Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria and India, U.S. allies with a poor record on religious freedom.” (National Catholic Reporter, December 21)
For example, the law calls on any American institution of education that operates in a foreign country to “make every effort in all negotiations, contracts, or memoranda of understanding engaged in with a foreign government to protect academic freedom and the rights enshrined in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.”
Religious persecution is a subject near to my heart. I believe churches must earnestly pray for those persecuted and help them in every way possible.
I applaud every effort to oppose such persecution, no matter what faith is being persecuted.
At the very least, these seven protections must be sought and maintained:
1. The right to believe as one chooses, without fear of punishment by a government or by a mob.
2. The right to worship as one chooses. This includes the right to be safe while worshipping and the safe preservation of places of worship.
3. The right to live out the dictates of one’s faith in the many arenas of life.
4. The right to raise children according to the family’s belief system.
5. The right of a religious organization to fulfill the obligations it believes it ought to fulfill, free of government interference.
6. The right to evangelize others to seek to convert them to one’s faith, and the right of every person to convert from one faith to another, or from unbelief to faith, or vice versa.
7. The right to secular employment or to service in government without having to meet any kind of religious test.
Cliff Barrows, songleader for Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades, passed away on November 15.
Mr. Barrows was a very personable and unpretentious man—free of the “full of oneself” problem that affects many in music. When Billy Graham held a crusade in Southern California (1985), my wife and I sang in the crusade choir he directed—a desire I had long cherished.
Months prior to the crusade a retreat for pastors was held in the local mountains. Only a couple of dozen pastors were there, and Cliff Barrows was there with us. I joined him for lunch one day and we talked about the very beginning of Billy Graham’s evangelistic ministry. It grew out of a prayer meeting held at a hotel in Winona Lake, Indiana. I worked at that hotel many years later while attending Grace College. It is now part of the college campus.
I cherish the memory of Cliff Barrows, his persona and his legacy for quality heart-felt song. For the record, he was 93 when he passed away. George Beverly Shea, long-time soloist for the Billy Graham Evangelist Association, passed away in 2013 at the age of 104. Billy Graham lives on at 98.
Evangelistic music must be good for the body as it is for the soul!
Good News from Grace
January of 2017 is a milestone month for my wife and family and myself. During this month 40 years ago we came to this church (known then as “Grace Brethren Church”) in Seal Beach and sat in the back row as first-time visitors.
This led to an incredible journey with many milestones, including serving this church for 28 years as its senior pastor. Other roles have included organist, choir director, board member and, now, Pastor Emeritus.
God bless this church as it moves forward in its eighth decade of service to God and the community.
Don’s Upcoming Ministries
January 17, 2017 – Present “Religious Freedom Day Proclamation” to the Long Beach (CA) City Council
January 31 (7:30 pm) and February 3 (9:30 am) – Teach on the Epistle to the Galatians at Women’s Bible Study, Grace Community Church of Seal Beach
A New Year’s Confession and Prayer
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.
From everlasting to everlasting you are God.
Teach us to number our days aright,
That we may gain a heard of wisdom.” – Psalm 90:1, 12 (NIV)
Contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org