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A Christian in America

This is the weirdest, saddest, most distressing time of my life, as an American Christian. I believe that the church has strayed so far away from the needs of the ethnic minority, the poor, and the disabled of our own nation, that my generation is forced to choose a strange paradox: Do we vote for and actively pursue equality, knowing that eventually the exclusivity of Christianity will come under very strong fire in American Liberal politics? Or do we cover our right to religiously assemble, and by default (if not intentionally) perpetuate the divide that sees a Klan rally justified by an anti-biblical expression of “free speech”, to say nothing of the horror that blatant racism and willingness to harm other ethnicities reveals about our nation and its systemic racism as a whole?

Yeah, I think those are the two options. And they both suck.

That is not to say that there aren’t Conservatives standing opposed to the events of Charlottesville, and rightly condemning white nationalism, white supremacy, and the groups that represent those ideologies. But for the majority of those standing up now, there was silence until a white woman was murdered as a peaceful protestor or the leader of the nation made outlandish claims equating the KKK with people demonstrating in response to them. And why the silence? I think because American Christianity has largely become a game of safety and security. But why?

Patriotism Run Amuck

George McKenna, in his book The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism, wrote that the idea of patriotism is in effect, “an affection rather than a syllogistic process, it is a highly evocative word, recalling all kinds of memories, stored up in images”. He goes on to address the origins and true adaptable nature of American patriotism in the 17th century. And I think he’s right on all accounts. My first image of patriotism is my grandfather’s Purple Heart, that he earned as a soldier in the Army, fighting in WWII. And I remember the first time I stood at the Vietnam Memorial, overwhelmed by the length of that wall, and the small print still needed to fit the names of soldiers lost on it. Oh, and the first time I read Letters from a Birmingham Jail, as a student at Elon University. These things, for me, ring of American patriotism.

But I also believe that the adaptability of American patriotism has neutered what it truly means to love our nation, and learn about and FROM its history. Somehow people have so bastardized American ideology that ethnic cleansing is taught by some as permissible and beneficial. And churches can recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but most don’t know the Nicene Creed, or even that it exists. We study the news, but not the Bible. We know what we are against, but we have abandoned so much of what Jesus was truly for. We’ve traded in true belief and biblical conviction, for memes, prejudice, and the conviction to be right and loud. We don’t evangelize because we don’t want to be offensive or counter-offended, or we’ve just completely forgotten how to. We can’t be real in the world or “do life” with people because we’ve been so busy condemning gay people and Muslims, or standing for things that Jesus apparently forgot to make as pillars of his ministry. In so many ways, we’ve just stopped being the church.

So if you’re still reading this, you’re either in agreement so far, completely fuming but hanging in there, or you just came to see the fireworks. No matter what, I do believe that social media has influence. And as unbelievable as it may seem, altogether, roughly 5,000 people ‘follow’ me. And because I make everything I post public, many more can follow along too. So while I’m a pretty insignificant cog in the machine, I have a voice. And this is what I think needs to happen in American church and within the hearts of Christians soon.

Evangelism Lost

My sweet and brilliant wife reads my posts. She proofs some of them, and parts of all of them. In the introduction, where I mentioned evangelism and our fear of it, she rightly pointed out that we largely misunderstand it too.

We’ve lost American evangelism to a handful of unbiblical ideas. Here are a few that drive me insane:

Attraction – Being well-liked, or in a pretty building, or having an affable reputation is nice. It would be a whole lot more effective if that was coupled with being engaged in the community, financially invested in helping the hurting within that community, or being known as a haven for the hurting through programs or availability. But even then… if we poured money into the poor, and had a beautiful building, and were well thought of… none of that is evangelism. None. It’s nice. But it’s not evangelism. It may be a tremendous catalyst TO evangelism, but if you think it’s enough, well that’s called an idol.

Moral Superiority – I don’t know where to begin here. Christians are not superior in any way to anyone else. The moral superiority of Christianity resides entirely in the person of Jesus Christ. To posture that the rituals, habits, and platforms of faith cast a shadow on our cities that compel people to Jesus is absurd. Again, a positive reputation might lead someone to you, but if your excellence is your platform, again, that’s an idol that you’ve made in your own image.

Anti-Secularism – I grew up hearing the phrase, “no one has ever been argued into salvation”, and I’m 37, so the phrase has been around a while now. But we’ve gotten so good at being against things, that I think we’ve convinced ourselves that a Facebook video about what we find unbiblical or evil is some kind of evangelism. But it’s not. It never has been. It never will be. At best, it’s my opinion, gleaned from interpreting scripture, but at worst, it’s bullying that pushes people away from Jesus.

Lawless Love – My last one is the one I’m generally most accused of. As a registered Democrat, now living in Washington State, I get it. Since I don’t rail against things that are not permissible from Scripture, maybe I appear complicit. Maybe it seems that I treat people as though they are sinless, and that Scripture doesn’t really say hard things. But that’s not true of me, nor is it evangelical. The Bible is true for Christians, and it says hard things. In my experience, the best way to talk through them with people who do not view Christ as I do, is through (1.) earning the right to be heard, through loving them as they are and as I am, (2.) being humbly honest about Scripture, (3.) and reminding them that we are all on the same footing, as sinners. And then, after that, be consistent and steady. Scripture guides me as the Lord is my Savior. To reduce Scripture for the sake of love is not love at all.

Evangelism Reclaimed

It simply means that we bring the Good News. That’s it. And since, for Christians, that good news is the story of Christ and his sacrificial atonement, it means that evangelism is telling someone about Jesus. That’s it. All of that other stuff is either secondary or self-centered.

Period.

Choose For Yourselves

So yes, I’ve stepped beyond that crossroad of choosing which fight I’ll fight. But I do understand the real angst over potentially losing our freedom of religious assembly. I’ve been to countries where my function as a pastor and teacher was illegal. I’ve heard the knock at the door and watched a few dozen faces turn immediately from focus to fear. I have shaken the hands of a man who was disavowed, then condemned to die, and then martyred for simply believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And America is a long way away from that kind of existence… I think. But I could be wrong. I laughed at the idea of Trump as President.

Whether I’m right or wrong about the trajectory of faith in America, I’m captivated by Joshua’s call for covenant renewal: “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the god that your fathers served… and serve the Lord… choose this day whom you will serve.” [Joshua 24:14-15a]

My dad loves Jesus. It’s a humble affection that I’m forever grateful to have grown up under. But it’s not my faith. Same Jesus. But I’m not my dad, and his faith doesn’t save me or fuel me. It saves him and only him. And for me, I choose the God that says we are all equal (Gen. 1:27; Eph. 2:14; I John 2:2), and that our chief aim is to glorify God (Isa. 43:7; Hab. 2:14; Ps. 115:1) through loving one another (Rom. 12:9, 13:10; Mk. 12:31; I Cor. 13:1-3), even those who feel the need to oppose me for my faith (Luke 6:35), because I must fight as someone that has been called out by God to those who need him, need hope, and need help…

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

Aggressively for the Love of People

Maybe you still disagree with me. That’s fine, but I think I’m standing on Scripture here. So unless you can convince me that Jesus isn’t real (& you cannot), that we have not been called to bind up the broken-hearted (Isa. 61:1) and that somehow does not include black Americans right now, but other minorities, the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the refugee, the imprisoned, the homeless, and the foreigner, and that the eventuality of religious persecution in America is justification to hide, or defend the love of Christ that cannot be thwarted (Rom. 8:35)…. what are you standing for?

A fight just broke out in the cafeteria of the American consciousness, and everyone wearing a WWJD? t-shirt just collectively stood up and picked a side. And with the whole world watching, but more importantly, our neighbors, classmates, family, and friends saw us rise, and they saw us run to defend the hurting, as Jesus did, or to the defense of anything else.

So if one day, I lose the right to freely claim that Jesus alone is the way to God and that the Bible is uniquely true…. well ok then. I’ll go to jail for that. I’ll go to the mat for hope and faith. And until then, I’ll stand for Christ’s love for all people.

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Keep Throwing Darts

I recently saw a clip of Will Farrell’s commencement speech at USC. Google it. It’s great. And somewhere in it, he mentions his goals post-graduation, and how one of his most proud accomplishments is that he never stopped trying. He just kept throwing darts at the dartboard, hoping one would eventually stick. I respect that.

I’m in the middle of a job hunt right now. As our family has trekked across America, truly learned to appreciate a new set of cultural norms in Washington State, and bought more rain-ready clothing than I’d ever previously seen, let alone owned, we kinda want to stay around. But there’s a nagging passion that for me, for us, is inescapable. Ministry.

Last fall, when my buddy passed away unexpectedly, his dad called me and asked me to fly home. He called me their pastor. Some of you reading this consider me your pastor. Or maybe I’m the only pastor you know, or the only one you willfully talk to. Or I’m one of the many pastors you know. Or maybe you have no idea who I am and you accidentally stumbled onto my blog because you like darts… and you are so disappointed right now. My apologies. But to someone, to a few people for certain, I’m their pastor. And that absolutely lights my fire. I’m Parker and Elliott’s dad, and that gets me up and going every day. I’m Grace’s husband, and that stills my heart when I’m hurting and lifts my heart higher, even on great days. And to God, I got picked to teach and love people, and that gives me a purpose for all of this extroverted energy inside of me. But to those who think of me as someone trusted enough to call Pastor… well, that keeps me throwing darts. The idea that someone would listen to me, seek me out for advice, in triumphs, in sadness, or in doubt, or trust me to teach them about the role of Christians in the world and how following Christ gets us to those right places… that’s just humbling. Thrilling. Horrifying. Humbling. 

The prophet Jeremiah contemplated quitting. His path was hard, on a scale that I cannot fully comprehend. He was against a nation that liked the comfort of their brand of disobedience, and despised being told they were wrong. And sometimes, I can’t tell if I’m Jeremiah, fighting to keep the fire burning in my own ministry because I cannot stop if I wanted to [ref. Jeremiah 20:9], or if I’m the defiant Israel, shaking my fists at the idea that I might not be on the right path, because ministry is hard, finding work is obnoxious, and the idea of moving my family again weighs so heavy on my heart. 

Centered-Set & Preaching

Somewhere around 40-50 years ago, a man named Paul Hiebert theorized that missiology had truly become a study of two methods of expressing Christianity, based on two ideas of how Christians become Christians: Bounded-Set and Center-Set. Basically, you’re taking Set Theory from Applied Mathematics, and laying it over how we view missions, belief, and the requirements for belonging to Christianity. Dumbed way down, you are a Christian either because you meet certain criteria [Bounded Set] or you’re a Christian because you are moving toward Jesus [Centered Set]. Admittedly, I don’t think it’s so cut and dry. If anything, I’m probably a Centered-Set guy that recognizes that some boundaries (profession of faith, exclusive belief in Christ, etc.) must exist, but not nearly as many as we often try to lay on top of faith. 

So the goal has always been to get people moving Christward. In my relationships, teaching, training, counseling, the aim has always been to point in the direction of Jesus, and draw the necessary connection between Him and us. So when I got the chance to preach at First Presbyterian Church of Tacoma last Sunday, my goal was to point all of us toward Jesus. And I had a blast. I love all of the stuff that comes with preaching. The over-studying, gathering too much material, tying to fit a message into a time constraint that allows people to eat all three meals on a Sunday, and the nervous tension between doing what I love and fearing that I’m not that good at it… love it! And no one walked out mid-sermon, thank God, but the pastor hasn’t told me yet if anyone emailed about that awful preaching on Mother’s Day. If you want to hear it, bless your heart, and you can find it on the website (linked already) or the church’s app.

And now, sermon behind me, job applications and copious resume dissemination in front me, I’m throwing darts hoping that one sticks. 

So Thanks…

If you’re reading this, I appreciate you. Maybe you disagree. You might be opposed to faith, to me as a pastor, or still disappointed that this isn’t a blog on dart-throwing. But you’re here, allowing me to point, whether you agree or not. Thank you.

To that faithful group of folks that claim me as a pastor. As their pastor. I keep you closer to my heart than you will ever know. To the Ted’s crew, lifelong Durham friends, some family, everyone at Clements, and people from Cornerstone, Guess Road, Patterson Park, and Lakeview – you keep me hopeful that I’m not done, there is still a word to be said and people willing to hear it, and I might still be a man for the job.
So until the darts run out or one lands, I’ll just keep throwing. Grateful. 

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Hurting Over Hurting Churches

I recently bought new glasses. That purchase was warranted because my old glasses broke. They were basic & functional, did what I needed them to do, & had been with me for at least 5 years.

I knew they were breaking down. I could feel it. They didn’t fit right, couldn’t get clean, & always appeared warped. But I just needed to see. And then they broke. An entire arm just fell off while I was walking through my bedroom. And for a week, I kept them. I couldn’t bend in any direction without holding them, or they’d fall off. As they sat on my the bridge of my nose, they would inevitably begin leaning to the left, away from the break. They were done. I knew it. But I did not want the expense or the work of repair or replacement. So I wore contacts all day, every day. My eyes were exhausted…

Churches matter. I love church. I don’t always like churches or agree with them, but I do love them. Churches, more than the ocean, a sunrise, or childbirth are the visible expression of God’s authority, power & presence in the world. Christ commissioned the church & left it to do His work. So I love church. She’s the bride of Christ, & I’m a part of her.

So terminally ill churches break my heart. Churches that are unaware of deficiencies, extra-biblical offenses, or cultural irrelevance really do hurt my heart. It’s enough that there are smatterings of Christ emissaries all over my hometown & this country that aren’t doing what Christ blatantly & simply commissioned them to do. But imagine a loved one wearing broken glasses every day, & claiming clear, undeterred vision. How disheartening, to become so comfortable with deficiency.

The first step is admitting that there’s a problem.

Dying churches… maybe dead, but certainly dying. That’s the church that lacks spiritual development among its attending believers. The dying church is actively not evangelizing the Gospel that does not return void, is not baptizing new believers, is not taking discipleship seriously, & is not seeing vibrant transformation.

But worse than dying/dead churches – yes, there’s something worse – is the assembly of believers that doesn’t seek help for its tragic state.

Admitting a problem & addressing a problem are not the same.

Who admits that they are not fulfilling their promise to follow Christ in faith, obedience, evangelism, & discipleship with enough gumption to actually address it?

A couple of nights ago, I was sitting on the floor with Parker, putting together a jumbo puzzle of our solar system. Allow me to brag — my kid is advanced. He loves puzzles & has learned to articulate things that don’t seem quite right (when he doesn’t throw a tantrum, that is). He’s such a wonderful, intelligent kid. I love being his dad. Anyway, back to the story — I open the box & take all of the pieces out. He grabs an edge piece (again, brilliant). Then he finds a corresponding edge piece. Then a corner piece to match. And then my favorite part of activity-time.

“Dad, look at what we did!”

But then there’s a pause. He stares at the puzzle for a minute, & then looks back at me. I asked him what was wrong, but I knew. He looked back at the puzzle & simply said, ‘Something’s wrong Daddy.’ Then he leans in close, touches his work, & smiles. ‘Daddy, I’m so silly. It’s upside-down!’ Then he quickly turned it around & back we went to completing our task.

How many churches were doing the right thing, pulling out the right work & tools, but never questioned if they were doing what God wanted, the way He wanted things done. And someone may have even noticed that it wasn’t quite right, but the myth of church business took over & they thought they’d address it later. Or unbiblical hierarchy stepped in to push the group through. And then, as the pieces got snapped into place, it started dawning on people that everything was upside down. Maybe someone addressed it to no avail. Maybe people saw it, saw the collective ignorance to the problem, & just chose to go down the street where the puzzle was right side up. Or maybe the whole group, seeing the mess they’d made, got embarrassed & just found a pew to maintain. The puzzle that God had given them was just left lying on the floor, unfinished, upside-down. And now you have irrelevant, uninspired, stagnant church… Heart-breaking. Absolutely gut-wrenching.

Broken bones don’t reset themselves.

I broke my finger once. I knew something was wrong immediately, so I pulled it as if it was jammed. And in true manly fashion, I pulled it a few more times, & then told no one for a few weeks. But Mom noticed a purplish, mildly mangled finger that I was favoring. And an x-ray revealed a break that had, by that time, healed over crooked. Even worse for me, I did the same thing to another finger a year later. I am the proud owner of two crooked fingers, one on each hand.

And broken churches, no matter how you tug, twist, yell, & ‘business meeting’ them to death, do not self-heal correctly. So I end with this with a prayer & petition:

God, raise up a league of humble, Christ-longing churches that will admit brokenness, stop self-inflicting more damage through bad choices & apathy/atrophy, & ask for help

And Lord, raise up an army of church revivers. Men & women of God skilled to wisely diagnose ailments, skillfully express errors in church life, & biblically revive, rebuild, replant &/or revitalize churches in America

Churches need this. The lost need this. Christ is still commissioning His church.

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And Drift Away…

Do you ever read a passage of Scripture that just grabs a hold of you? Perhaps it wasn’t profound. It may be obvious, repetitive, or so simple, but it’s God’s Word. And even the most cursory reading can be provocative & challenging.

I’m reading through Hebrews. Generally, as I read through Scripture, especially large chunks, I read it all once attempting to hear the Spirit of how it was written. After I read it, I’ll go back to the beginning & begin some from of ‘Bible study’. And I’m just starting my first reading, as I come across this:

Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. – Hebrews 2:1

Boom! Just reading through that quickly, my mind was brought to a halt. Three things pierce my heart about this passage:

1. I am so arrogant.

Chapter 1 in Hebrews is a restatement of Christ’s supremacy & His lordship. It’s a restatement. God is anointing men of faith to repeat themselves, often to people who already profess faith. Paul begins nearly every Epistle reaffirming his apostolic ministry or Christ’s authority. Jesus is often reminding the Apostles of what they had already heard Him say about himself, the Church, God, the lost, or persecution. And if I were in their shoes… I’d go crazy.

I hate repeating myself. My voice carries. I’m probably easily characterized as a loud guy. And nothing confuses & confounds me more than someone not hearing what I just said. Forget importance. I’m certain that most of what I say is useless. But if we locked eyes & I spoke up, how could you miss it?? So imagine my horror & severe dissatisfaction with the reality that I’m the reason God repeats himself so much. I could probably rattle off a few dozen verses from Scripture right now. Even call a few of them my ‘favorites’. And if God so chose to audibly respond in that moment, He may well ask, for all the world to hear, “If you love those verses so much, why don’t you live them?” And he’d by right… & I’d be ruined. I am ruined. And it is wild that I ever think that there are things in God’s Word that I ‘get’ so fully that I can move on to what’s next.

2. I like drifting.

When I was a kid, I wanted a lazy river ride surrounding my house. Nothing is easier & more relaxing than sitting on a tube, out in the warmth of the sunshine, just floating along with the current. And that fascination seems to have become a disease that inflicts believers today. We don’t have to fight, argue, or do bad things. We can just drift. Some current offers a simple, lifeless way of moving through every day, & we take it. And we can convince ourselves that this relaxation is merited. We’ve somehow earned the right to relax our devotion to God & our determination to His work in this world. So we drift, having forgotten what we’ve claimed to know, away from what saves us.

I need to hate drifting. Maybe I should install an electric fence around the house instead. Get a jolt every time I go off in the wrong direction.

3. Paying attention is hard.

What can keep us from perilously drifting? What mystery of God can quiet our arrogance & keep us held tightly to the Lord?? What wisdom, hard to find but necessary for us all, must we endeavor to seize?…

‘we must pay much closer attention…’

How embarrassing. Pay attention? No deep theology or philosophical mystery? Pay attention?!? The key to this passage is being aware, keeping vigilant, & giving notice to what you are already a part of in the Kingdom of God. It can’t be that simple. Can it?

Wouldn’t it be amazing to simply commit to giving God your time & attention, & have Him reward you with intimacy, peace, & purpose? I pray you find that commitment worthwhile. I pray that I fight my love of drifting. And that together, we can all walk so closely to God that His presence is visible on one another.

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We Hold These Truths…

I am not politically savvy. I’m not even a fan of politics, at least on the national level. But as it relates to the language of our country’s founding documents, I’m a big fan. I love the words & phrases used throughout our revolutionary history. And my favorite fragment is this blog’s title…

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.’

As far as I can tell, the self-evident portion is just snappy English that denotes that all signing this document are unanimous in their approval of these ‘truths’ that they consider obvious, forthright, & worthy of declaring. But ‘we hold these truths’ could be the slogan used in law texts, a creed preceding the Hippocratic Oath, every good businesses strategy for a continuity of ideologies, & more to my thoughts today, should be what every church is using to begin their list of theology & doctrine… their vision statements.

‘We’ – all of us. Is that every member? Or maybe every staff member? We’ll go with staff & key leadership, because it is might be unrealistic to think that every leader can properly vet every member of their fellowship to see if they all agree on key theological issues. It might not even be right to do so. I don’t know. But it would certainly be uncomfortable, awkward, & off-putting to go pew by pew (upholstered chair by chair, for you rebels), with that questionnaire. So let’s say that ‘we’ could be a reference to the pastoral & lay leadership of your church & anyone who was there when the vote took place that one time. A unanimous stance by those called out & affirmed to lead your personal fellowship of the saints, that they believe in one view of God, Christ, Church, salvation, Scripture, sin, etc. But it would be more than a unanimous statement wouldn’t it? I think, done right, it would be a corporate passion.

‘hold’ – cling to. Whether we’re discussing something revolutionary, like nation-building, or something supernatural, like Jesus Christ & his atoning sacrifice, sinless life, unique human deity, unparalleled genealogy, discipleship, words, walk, miracles, & character, our grip on those ideas & beliefs are paramount to our beliefs & life choices. If I don’t cling desperately to Christ as the Son of God, then adhering to His decrees are no longer paramount. So again… holding. This act of passion & determination is not merely a simple touch, but the clasping of hands between one who is drowning & one who is saving. I’ve seen emails concluded just that way:

G(r)asping for Him with you

That’s awesome.

These – as in, a unique set that we have not only seen & understood, but that we now consider a possession. THESE truths – the ones right here – whether in my hands or beholden to my heart, THESE truths – for an American it may be the equality of every man & woman or the right to practice our faiths, but for the Christian, THESE truths do have, in my limited understanding of Scripture, a pinnacle truth.

Truths – this is where politics begins its division from God. Right at the beginning, a small, minuscule division is born. Truths. Plural. Franklin & Madison held truths. None more important than the other. And in the realm of this world, they were not wrong, not off, & were deeply honorable. And American historians may well disagree with me that one truth did not unite them, but what is written & held to in America is just degrees away from God’s Word.

I remember watching the Apollo 13 movie. And my heart raced to think that they had one shot to hit Earth. But how could they miss a planet?!? They could miss the whole world by starting just one degree off. And then they’d be lost to the darkness of space. It was a thrilling movie. And they hit the mark.

But my favorite line fragment from our founding documents is, to me, just a degree off. And more than 200 years later, we’re seeing the degree difference of 1776 become something of a chasm in 2012. Admirable truths, short of one overarching truth, still fall short. And that is heart-breaking & saddening.

Jesus Christ, through His life, ministry, sinlessness, conviction, torture, murder, sacrifice, resurrection, & eternal reign, has atoned any who would believe, of their separation from God. He is the only way of John 14:6. He is the Son of God. He is the Truth above all other truths.

I believe in a number of things. I believe in equality, justice, peace, love, doing what you have a passion for, kindness, gentleness, that UNC may be anointed as God’s university (kidding… just some levity)…. I believe in so many good & righteous things. But holy isn’t holy without Christ. And a nation built on Biblical principles by Christian men & women is not a Christian nation without Jesus at the helm of it.

This Jesus, the Savior of the world, is the only truth that the Church holds to be self-evident. We are a body of many parts, but there is one head to this body. We are global & diverse, but there is one Lord over us. Different languages, traditions, ideas on worship, programming, meeting styles, individual freedoms… a smattering of differences. One Truth.

We hold this Jesus Christ… to be unique, almighty, & returning.

Strip away freedoms, we hold Christ. Take away marriage, commerce, global communication, technology, & even the promise of individuality, & Christ would still be Lord, so Christianity would not die. The body lives because of Christ. No Christ? No body. Always Christ? Always believers. Where faith is illegal, faith lives. Where nations are godless, the Spirit-filled can dwell. And we prevail because of one never-changing, ever-living Truth. Jesus the Christ. Amen.

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