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Denison Forum on Truth and Culture Christian Blog and Commentary

Jim Denison

Dr. Jim Denison engages contemporary culture with biblical truth
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In yesterday’s Daily Article, I made the point that mortality is a fact for us all. Reflecting on stories in the day’s news, I stated, “Evil people like the Son of Sam killer can develop heart disease. Heroes like John McCain can develop brain cancer. The death rate is still 100 percent.”

John McCain is still a hero and he still has brain cancer. But a kind reader sent me an extraordinary note about the Son of Sam killer that I asked his permission to share with you today.

An amazing story of redemption

Dr. Steve Foster is pastor of Community Bible Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In December 2009, he visited the “Son of Sam,” David Berkowitz, in prison.

Thirty years earlier, Berkowitz terrorized New York City, killing six people and wounding seven others. Police mounted the largest manhunt in New York City history, arresting him on August 10, 1977. Berkowitz claimed to have been obeying the orders of a demon manifested in the form of a dog belonging to his neighbor “Sam.” He pled guilty to second-degree murder and has been serving six consecutive life sentences.

I remembered his story when reading that Berkowitz has now been hospitalized for a heart problem. What I didn’t know was the rest of the story.

Dr. Foster tells it well: While in prison, Berkowitz came to faith in Christ. Such “conversions” are often a play for media attention or sympathy from parole boards, but his has clearly been sincere. For decades, he has been ministering to other prisoners in Jesus’ name. He has especially focused on those who are suicidal and emotionally disturbed.

In his blog post, Dr. Foster notes: “It was hard for me to imagine this man as the former Son of Sam. He was humble, gentle, self-effacing.” Berkowitz has developed a writing ministry with Christian ministers around the world; his testimony has been used by Prison Fellowship in many of their prison outreaches.

Berkowitz views his imprisonment as just punishment for his crimes and has regularly refused even to attend his parole hearings. He has also issued a public apology, asking for forgiveness from those he has hurt.

Dr. Foster says that he left his meeting with David Berkowitz with Paul’s testimony in his mind:

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 1:12-14).

I am delighted to retract my description of David Berkowitz as “evil.” He is not who he was. His transformation shows that the gospel that changed Paul’s life still changes lives today.

Partner with the God who redeems

How can you and I experience and share this transforming power with our culture? Several personal journal notes I have made in recent days help answer our question.

One: Delight God by depending on him.

I recently read in Psalm 147, “His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love” (vv. 10-11). To “fear” and “hope in” God is to revere and trust him.

God loves you no matter what you do, but he delights in you to the degree that you depend on him.

Two: Go where he sends and say what he says.

Jonah 3 tells the story of the prophet’s ministry in Nineveh. This city and its people were bitter enemies of the Jewish nation. Yet, when Jonah warned them of divine judgment, “the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (v. 5).

Clearly, the Holy Spirit had been at work in Nineveh before Jonah arrived. I noted in my journal: when we follow God, he leads us where he has already prepared the way for us.

We are like farmers planting seeds in soil–we can go where the ground has already been plowed, or we can try to plow it ourselves. However, only the Holy Spirit can convict of sin and change lives. If he does not convict people, we cannot convince them. Obedience to God is fruitful; disobedience is fruitless.

Three: Submission to God brings peace.

Yesterday’s reading in Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest includes this observation: “Whenever you obey God, His seal is always that of peace, the witness of an unfathomable peace, which is not natural, but the peace of Jesus. Whenever peace does not come, tarry till it does or find out the reason why it does not.”

David Berkowitz has clearly chosen to depend upon the Lord. His ministry from prison is now being used to touch lives around the world. And the peace Dr. Foster witnessed in his countenance is evidence that the Prince of Peace rules his heart.

After his meeting with Berkowitz, Dr. Foster responded in his blog post: “Grace. Abundant grace. Amazing grace. Poured out from God upon those who need it. And all of us need it . . . whether we recognize it or not.”

Do you recognize your need of grace today?

 

 

For more from the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture, please visit www.denisonforum.org.

Do you want to live a life in whole-hearted pursuit of loving God and others? 

Read today's First15 at www.first15.org.

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“I am always thinking for the best. There is always a solution in life. This is what my father has taught me: to always face difficulties and hope for the best.”

This is how one elderly person describes the key to long life, part of a fascinating new study by the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. It reports that such optimism, along with stubbornness, a love for family and country, and a willingness to work hard are traits common among a group of Italians aged ninety to 101.

However, before you decide that optimistic stubbornness is all you need to live longer, take note: other studies claim that owning a dogdrinking coffee, and doing more push-ups and sit-ups contribute to longevity. But another study warns that too much exercise can raise your risk of an early death.

Here’s a fact: no matter how long you live, you won’t live on this planet forever.

Evil people like the Son of Sam killer can develop heart disease. Heroes like John McCain can develop brain cancer. The death rate is still 100 percent.

If we will all die (unless the Lord returns first), why do we try so hard to fight the fact of our mortality?

Jesus is still the Great Physician

One reason is God-given: our Lord cares about our physical health.

Jesus was noted far and wide for his healing ministry (Matthew 4:23-25). The apostles were famous for the healing power of the Spirit at work through them (Acts 5:12-16). The apostle John prayed for Gaius “that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul” (3 John 2).

God calls physicians and scientists to partner with him in healing bodies today. When a baby born with her heart outside her body survived because of extraordinary medical care, I believe her Father in heaven rejoiced.

In my work as Resident Scholar for Ethics with Baylor Scott & White Health, I have marveled at the God-given talents of doctors and care providers. A baby was born recently at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas as the result of a transplanted uterus–the first in the US. Many patients who would have died just a few years ago are experiencing remarkable health through genetic medicine advances.

God wants us to care for our physical bodies even as we care for our souls. He grieves when we are sick and suffering and wants us to pray for health and long life. Christians never truly die–the moment we take our last breath on earth, we take our first breath in heaven (Luke 23:43Philippians 1:21). But we should seek to glorify God on earth as long as we are on earth.

Death is still the great enemy

A second fact seems contrary to the first: death is “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). It is especially frightening for those who are not prepared to face it. If you’re not sure where you will go when you die, it’s clearly not safe to die.

Note the many ways we seek to ignore or obfuscate the reality of our mortality. We use euphemisms such as “he passed on” or “she left us” to avoid saying that a person “died.”

There was a day when nearly every funeral I conducted included an open casket and a processional past the deceased person’s body. Today there is seldom an open casket even at the cemetery or a body present at the memorial service. This change is in part a way of giving families privacy at the graveside service, but it is also a way for some to avoid the fact of death.

If I don’t know where a road leads, I’ll avoid taking it. If I’m already on such a road with no exit ramps in sight, I’ll avoid thinking about its destination. I’ll focus on the journey, ignoring the fact that it will end one day.

This refusal to confront our mortality is a very effective tool of the devil in keeping people from considering their need for Jesus. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis quoted a demonic tempter: “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

That’s why followers of Jesus need to be courageous in talking to people about their need for Jesus. I know that such conversations can seem confrontational. But if you were an oncologist and knew a patient had cancer, would you risk hurting their feelings to tell them their condition? If you had the cure for their disease, would you pay any personal price to share it with them?

The measure of our love for lost people is our willingness to tell them they are lost.

Conclusion

If you have trusted Jesus with your eternal salvation, would you thank him right now for his saving love? He came at Christmas, died on Good Friday, and rose on Easter just for you. Would you thank him for those who brought you to him? And would you ask him to use your life and words today to lead someone else to him?

Billy Graham is right: “Heaven is real and hell is real, and eternity is but a breath away.” Are you ready?

 

Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstockphotos.com

Publication date: December 14, 2017

 

For more from the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture, please visit www.denisonforum.org.

Do you want to live a life in whole-hearted pursuit of loving God and others? 

Read today's First15 at www.first15.org.

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In a “major upset,” Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in yesterday’s Senate election in Alabama. This was the fiftieth Senate special election in my lifetime. None has been remotely as controversial as this campaign.

The Denison Forum is nonpartisan and does not endorse or oppose political candidates. As a result, my intention today is not to support or criticize the candidates or their parties. Rather, it is to explore the cultural significance of the election in the context of biblical truth.

It seems to me that four factors influenced the outcome. I predict that these same factors will continue to be relevant to American elections for the foreseeable future.

One: Personal qualifications

Doug Jones has been working for civil rights and reconciliation since high school. He served as an assistant US attorney and private lawyer before being appointed US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama by President Clinton in 1997. As a result of his work in racial reconciliation, he received 96 percent of the African American vote in yesterday’s election.

Roy Moore graduated from West Point and served in Vietnam. He was elected Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2000 but was removed in 2003 for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument he installed in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. He was reelected in 2012 but was charged with violations of legal ethics in 2016 and suspended; he retired the next year.

In recent months, he faced allegations of sexual impropriety from at least eight women. These allegations apparently played a role in Jones’s upset victory, the first time Alabama has elected a Democrat to the Senate in twenty-five years.

As supporters of both candidates would agree, personal qualifications are obviously significant for elective office. Just as an overseer must be qualified for leadership (1 Timothy 3:1-7), so a political leader should be qualified to serve.

Two: Political positions

A candidate’s political agenda is always relevant to an election. But this factor was especially important in the Alabama race, causing many conservative voters to support Judge Moore despite the personal allegations against him.

In 2011, only 30 percent of white evangelicals agreed that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” Last year, 72 percent agreed with this statement, a far larger swing than other religious groups the poll studied.

I believe that one reason for this change is the opposition evangelicals feel from the culture. With the legalization of same-sex marriage and the rising hostility to biblical morality in our society, it’s not surprising that 83 percent of evangelicals believe religious liberty is under attack.

In this environment, many conservative voters are more concerned about a candidate’s political party and agenda than his or her personal qualifications. For instance, some Republicans who are troubled by personal accusations against Donald Trump nonetheless celebrated his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

In addition, recent allegations of sexual impropriety against political leaders show that we do not always know the private character of those we elect to office. And it is possible for God to use people who live unbiblically to advance his Kingdom agenda. The pagan king Darius issued a proclamation honoring the one true God (Daniel 6:25-27); Caesar Augustus ordered the census that fulfilled Scripture (Luke 2:1-7Micah 5:2).

In today’s bitterly partisan environment, we will continue to see many voters support a candidate more because of party and position than because of personal qualifications. Scripture teaches that we are to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). What a candidate will do in office is obviously a vital question for voters and constituents.

Three: “Fake news”

The Alabama election saw widespread complaints that criticisms of Roy Moore were “fake news.” According to exit polls, 51 percent of voters said the allegations against Moore were probably or definitely true, while 44 percent said they were probably or definitely false.

There have been several high-profile journalistic mistakes in recent weeks that have fueled widespread distrust of the media. “Fake news” will continue to be a major factor in our political climate for some time to come. The ninth commandment is clear: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). We are to “put away falsehood” (Ephesians 4:25) and reject slander (1 Peter 2:1).

Four: Write-ins and no-shows

Several newspapers in Alabama urged conservatives to write in a Republican rather than cast their vote for Moore. Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby says he “voted for a distinguished Republican write-in” rather than vote for Moore.

According to Newsweek, Jones’s margin of victory was a little under 21,000 votes, while there were close to 23,000 write-in votes cast. Assuming most would otherwise have gone to Moore, “write-in votes had a decisive impact.”

In addition, only 1.3 million votes were cast out of 3.2 million eligible voters, meaning that nearly two million people chose not to vote rather than support either candidate. No-shows were especially significant on the Republican side. As The Atlantic reports today, “Although many white voters weren’t convinced to vote for Jones, the allegations against Moore persuaded many of them to stay home.”

Some Christians believe that we should focus more on building authentic Christian community and less on engagement with the secular culture. There are times when we must “go out from their midst, and be separate from them” (2 Corinthians 6:17, citing Isaiah 52:11). One way to do so is to view an election not as a binary choice between two nominated candidates but as an opportunity to write in a candidate or to protest the process by refusing to vote.

Conclusion

In our contentious, polarized society, we can expect more divisive elections. The mid-term elections next year are shaping up to be especially contentious. There are clearly no perfect candidates (or voters).

If Christians are to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16), we must be engaged in the cultural and political issues of our day. But we must always act with “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). No matter how we or our candidates are treated, “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) is an imperative for us.

Shane Claiborne: “I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination.” How will you spread your faith today?

 

Photo: Democratic U.S. Senator elect Doug Jones (L) and wife Louise Jones (R) greet supporters during his election night gathering the Sheraton Hotel on December 12, 2017 in Birmingham, Alabama. Doug Jones defeated his republican challenger Roy Moore to claim Alabama's U.S. Senate seat that was vacated by attorney general Jeff Sessions.

Photo courtesy: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Publication date: December 13, 2017

 

For more from the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture, please visit www.denisonforum.org.

Do you want to live a life in whole-hearted pursuit of loving God and others? 

Read today's First15 at www.first15.org.