Saving Children – One Book at a Time

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Atlanta, GA – 10/02/2017 — Highly-reviewed author Justin Gabriel announces that 100% of his profits from the sale of his novel, Kings of the Promised Land, will be donated to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. “I’ve felt convicted about the lack of generosity in my life and wanted this book to be used for a purpose greater than personal enrichment.”

The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund is a non-political, nonprofit humanitarian organization that has provided medical assistance and emergency surgeries to thousands of innocent children from Palestine and other countries in the Middle East. PCRF has been awarded with the coveted four-star rating from Charity Navigator for accountability and transparency. Of particular interest to Gabriel is the Gaza Mental Health Program.

A work of “faith-based historical fiction,” Kings of the Promised Land (Elk Lake Publishing) tells the epic tale of the rise and fall of King Saul and his rivalry with the future King David in ancient Israel. The novel currently has a five-star rating on both Goodreads and Amazon, where it is available for purchase in paperback and Kindle formats. “Read a great story, buy a gift for that book-lover you know, and do some good at the same time!”

CONTACT:
Justin Gabriel
PO Box 921412
Norcross, GA 30010
author@justingabriel.org

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Missions & Evangelism: Lessons Learned

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This year I had the opportunity to go on two very different missions trips (and my firsts).

I was able to fulfill a lifelong dream by traveling to Japan. But I was not there as a tourist, I went as part of a group of four Americans at the invitation of a Christian church in Ishikawa Prefecture. Rendezvousing with two Japanese translators and meeting the pastor and his wife, we served as ambassadors of Christ in a number of ways.

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We canvassed the surrounding neighborhoods with fliers and invited people to some of the upcoming special events the church was hosting. We had daily prayer and focused teachings on prayer and discipleship. We facilitated two screenings of the Jesus film in Japanese. We participated in a Mama & Kids party and were able to engage in Q&A with members of the community. And I had an opportunity to share powerful testimony during the Sunday service about how God has drawn my heart to Japan time and time again and the care I know he has for the Japanese people.

Second, I was able to attend Dragon Con in downtown Atlanta with a group of missionaries through Gamechurch, a nonprofit ministry that attends various gaming conventions across the U.S. and a couple in Europe. For four straight days, we worked a booth in the vendor hall, handing out free swag (lanyards, stickers, pins), gamer Bibles (the gospel of John with some commentary), and told people the simple but profound message of “Jesus loves you.”

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From both of these experiences, here are some of my observations and conclusions:

Speak the Language, Understand the Culture

If you aspire to any missionary or evangelistic activity, you should speak the language and understand the culture. I spent several months prior to my Japan trip not only practicing speaking and reading Japanese via Pimsleur audio CDs, iPad apps, and watching Japanese TV shows on Netflix, but also by reading as many books as I could get my hands on to understand the history, philosophy, aesthetics, and etiquette of Japan. I barely made a dent in the potential pool of linguistic and cultural knowledge, but what I did learn served me immensely in Japan and opened doors.

Likewise with Dragon Con, I understand the culture and speak the language of gaming and various aspects of geeky pop culture. Every Gamechurch missionary is a Jesus-loving gamer! If I was not, I would have had zero credibility (more on that later). Both Japan and video-games are two of my seven core interests, so these trips were natural fits.

Evangelism is Fun

Growing up, I dreaded the idea of traditional evangelism outreach. Accosting strangers in the park or, worse, going door to door, was a thought that raised my anxiety and triggered an avoidance response. I came to identify more with the prophetic type of work, of speaking to and nurturing the people of God, rather than the evangelistic work of reaching out to people who are not yet believers.

Although I am deeply idealistic, I am also extremely pragmatic. I view walking up to strangers at the park or knocking on doors to share the gospel as an ineffective and outdated method, with little hope of making any converts. But more than that, I view such behavior as a violation of the Law of Christ, or specifically of the second greatest commandment. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves. In the phrasing of the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do to you. Would I want Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on my door or interrupting time with my family at the park? Absolutely not! So why would I do that same behavior to others?

But during my two missions trips, I learned that evangelistic outreach can be very enjoyable and rewarding, even addictive! To do it right, you need to be meeting some sort of need or have some sort of unique angle or gimmick. As the old saying goes, nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

My church has had good experiences hosting immigration help seminars, international food festivals, and giving out balloons at a local international festival. In Japan, special events were being advertised or community activities offered. With Gamechurch, we were handing out free stuff! At my most recent job, I would be able to weave apologetics into my weekly ethics lectures in response to questions from atheistic members of the audience. In David Platt’s Radical, he describes setting up a table in New Orleans and offering to read people’s future for free (using scripture).

What Would Jesus Do?

Outside of Dragon Con, a group of angry street preachers / protesters set up on the corner with large signs and loud bullhorns. Their signs pointed out that God hates the sin of the Dragon Con attendees, and that such people as “idolators, porno-freaks, dope heads,” and others are doomed to the fires of hell for eternity. These protesters generated a lot of anti-Christian sentiment inside and outside the convention with their methods. I have seen their like elsewhere before, such as at the BelleChere festival in Asheville, NC.

First, I wonder what their actual goal is. What are they trying to accomplish? I’m genuinely curious. Second, I wonder if they think they can achieve that goal with this particular method. From everything that I saw, they were making Christians look bad and driving people far away from Jesus. Instead of their conversation being “full of grace, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6), it was nothing but spades of salt.

Thankfully, the extreme negativity of the street “preachers” outside put what we were doing in a much better light inside. We had people say things like, “I’m an atheist, but thank you so much for doing what you’re doing this way, instead of like those guys!” I was happy to be able to say “Jesus loves you” and give out free pins to many, many people, including a self-described Satanist and another guy literally cosplaying as Satan.

As I think through the four gospels, the only people that Jesus was verbally harsh and confrontational with were the self-righteous religious hypocrites. Otherwise, Jesus was dining with sinners (Matthew 9:11) and letting immoral women touch him (Luke 7:39).

Generosity is Good

In a little over one year, I’ve been able to raise $3,500 for missions trips and other charitable endeavors. That is also a first for me. For the past few years I’ve been focused on trying to provide for my family and have had little margin for generosity. That lack of generosity has been gnawing on me. But apparently, I’m better at raising money for missions trips and evangelism than I am at selling books!

With that in mind… stay tuned for an exciting announcement…

Support My Missions Trip to Dragon Con!

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On Labor Day weekend of 2017, I am going on a Missions Trip with an organization called Gamechurch to Dragon Con in Atlanta, GA – the “largest multi-media, popular culture convention focusing on science fiction & fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film in the universe!” In 2016, Dragon Con drew attendance of over 77,000 people.

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Over the course of four days, I will be manning a booth with a team of fellow missionaries, handing out Bibles and spreading a very simple but profound message: “Jesus loves you.” At the time of this posting, I only need to raise $875 to fully fund my part of the trip. Please consider donating using this Gamechurch link (unlike GoFundMe, there are no service fee deductions!)

Do you think it is worth sharing Jesus with people like this?

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And this?

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And this?

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I think it is very worth it. If you agree, and you are not able or willing to go yourself, help send me to be an ambassador for Jesus to tens of thousands!

My Four Most Impactful Scripture Passages

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It has been said that the physical appearance of a person’s Bible can provide insight into the condition of their soul. As Charles Spurgeon once put it, “A Bible that’s falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t.” A man I know who mentors at my workplace has a beaten-up HCSB Minister’s Bible that has almost as many handwritten notes as there are actual scriptures, and I can vouch that he has a heart of gold!

As a one-time collector of Bibles, I have a few in very good condition that I use. However, if you examined my first real post-conversion Bible, a ’77 NASB Hebrew-Greek Keyword Study Bible, you could certainly ascertain a few nuggets of information. Specifically, the spine has been bent in such a way that the pages are likely to fall open to one of four specific sections of scripture. These would be the four most impactful passages in my life:

  1. Jeremiah 29:11-14

This is a famous and well-known series of inspirational verses, adorning everything from Christian t-shirts to coffee mugs. However, it was also the catalyst for my salvation experience thirteen years ago. Like an old friend, I return to these time and time again for encouragement.

‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. And I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’

  1. Isaiah 49:1-7

Shortly after becoming a Christian, God spoke to me and referenced this passage. It has been a sort of ongoing prophetic blueprint for my Christian walk, and the very name of this blog has been taken from it. Whenever I am feeling lost, confused, or just uncertain of what God wants me to be doing, I return to this passage for guidance. And, as God revealed to me on a fog-shrouded mountain in Western North Carolina, the job of the arrow is to be sharp, strong, and straight; it is up to the archer where to aim and fire the arrow!

Listen to Me, O islands,
And pay attention, you peoples from afar.
The Lord called Me from the womb;
From the body of My mother He named Me.
He has made My mouth like a sharp sword,
In the shadow of His hand He has concealed Me;
And He has also made Me a select arrow,
He has hidden Me in His quiver.
He said to Me, “You are My Servant, Israel,
In Whom I will show My glory.”
But I said, “I have toiled in vain,
I have spent My strength for nothing and vanity;
Yet surely the justice due to Me is with the Lord,
And My reward with My God.”

And now says the Lord, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant,
To bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him
(For I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
And My God is My strength),
He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also make You a light of the nations
So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and its Holy One,
To the despised One,
To the One abhorred by the nation,
To the Servant of rulers,
“Kings will see and arise,
Princes will also bow down,
Because of the Lord who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel who has chosen You.”

  1. Psalm 51

 As a totally depraved descendant of Adam, I had a very successful 19-year career as a sinner. Sometimes old habits die hard. Before I came to understand the concept of grace after reading The Hammer of God (Giertz), I would often in my moments of guilt turn to this passage and offer it up as a plaintive plea for mercy to God. Still the most powerful sinner’s prayer I have ever encountered, although you will find that my newer Bibles do not spring open to this passage.

Be gracious to me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness;
According to the greatness of Thy compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
And cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
And my sin is ever before me.
Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned
And done what is evil in Thy sight,
So that Thou art justified when Thou dost speak
And blameless when Thou dost judge.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
Behold, Thou dost desire truth in the innermost being,
And in the hidden part Thou wilt make me know wisdom.
Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness,
Let the bones which Thou hast broken rejoice.
Hide Thy face from my sins
And blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Thy presence
And do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation
And sustain me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors Thy ways,
And sinners will be converted to Thee.

Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, Thou God of my salvation;
Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Thy righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
That my mouth may declare Thy praise.
For Thou dost not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
Thou art not pleased with burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.

By Thy favor do good to Zion;
Build the walls of Jerusalem.
Then Thou wilt delight in righteous sacrifices,
In burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
Then young bulls will be offered on Thine altar.

  1. Matthew 5-7

The Gospel of Matthew is the single most influential piece of writing I have ever read. And within that longer text, the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) is the cream-filled center. More than anything else, the Sermon on the Mount taught me what it means to be a Christian and how to live a Christian life. If you were stranded on a deserted island and chapters 5-7 of Matthew washed up on shore in a bottle, you would lack for nothing.

When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them…

Koi-Koi

Note: I tend to get obsessed with things. Currently, it is Japanese Hanafuda (Flower Cards) and the related game of Koi-Koi. The plus side of obsessing is that I do a deep-dive into whatever the current object of obsession is so that you don’t have to! There is widespread discrepancy in printed material and on websites about the exact rules and scoring methods of Koi-Koi, and I have here endeavored to bring together the most common and authoritative information I could find in my 13+ hours of research thus far. This is always open to future editing and improvement, but I think this is a comprehensive conglomeration of information on playing Koi-Koi!

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KOI-KOI

OVERVIEW

Koi-Koi is a competitive, trick-taking Japanese card game using a traditional 48-card Hanafuda deck. Variants of this game are played in Korea (Go-Stop) and Hawaii (Sakura or Higo-Bana). It is originally meant for 2 players.

BACKGROUND

48-card Hombre decks were introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in the 1500s. During the isolationist Edo period, foreign playing cards were banned, ultimately paving the way for the indigenous Hanafuda to be developed. The Nintendo company was founded in 1889 for the purpose of producing and selling hand-crafted Hanafuda decks.

HANAFUDA

Hanafuda literally means “flower cards.” In the deck there are twelve suits representing the twelve months. Each is designated by a Japanese flower, and each suit has four cards. 12 suits x 4 cards = 48 cards.

January           – Matsu (, pine)

February         – Ume (, plum blossom)

March              – Sakura (, cherry blossom)

April                 – Fuji (, wisteria)

May                 – Ayame (菖蒲, iris)

June                – Botan (牡丹, peony)

July                  – Hagi (, bush clover)

August             – Susuki (, Susuki grass)

September      – Kiku (, chrysanthemum)

October           – Momiji (紅葉, maple)

November       – Yanagi (, willow)

December       – Kiri (, paulownia)

Each suit contains a combination of regular cards and special cards, which vary from suit to suit. Special cards are assigned different point values. However, in Koi-Koi those point values are only used for reference, not scoring. The four types of cards found in the deck are:

Brights (20 points) – referred to as “Lights” in some rule-sets

Animals (10 points) – referring to these as “Tens” may reduce confusion

Ribbons (5 points) – referred to as “Scrolls” in some rule-sets

Dregs (1 point) – also known as plains / chaff / normals / junk / trash / flowers

*Dregs appears to be the most accurate choice, as kasu describes the dregs remaining after sake production

There are also two cards that have special properties:

Bake-Fuda – Wild Card – The Sake Cup can act as either a 10-point card or a 1-point card

Optional Variant – Gaji – The 1-point Lightning card from November can be used to capture any other card

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OBJECT OF THE GAME

The goal of Koi-Koi is to earn points by making sets, or “yaku,” as fast as you can and ending the round before your opponent. A full game session is 12 rounds or “months,” and the player with the most points after 12 rounds is the winner. Each round is winner-take-all and can involve score multipliers. For a shorter game, 6 rounds can be played.

CHOOSING THE DEALER

An initial dealer, the “oya” or “parent,” is decided at the start of play. Each player will draw a card from the deck. Whoever draws a card representing an earlier calendrical month is the dealer. If both players draw the same month, the value of the card will determine the dealer (e.g., Brights trump Ribbons). If both players draw cards of the same month and same value, they will continue to draw until the oya is decided.

Being the dealer has certain advantages, including going first and breaking ties, and the winner of each round will be the oya at the start of the next round.

SETTING UP THE GAME

The dealer will shuffle the Hanafuda deck and the opponent will cut the deck. The dealer will deal a total of eight cards face-down into the opponent’s hand, eight cards face-down into their own hand, and eight cards face-up in the center of the playing area, known as the “field.” Nintendo’s rule-set recommends dealing two cards to the player, two cards to the field, then two cards to the dealer, repeating this process until the dealing is complete.

The rest of the deck is set to the side, face-down, as a draw pile. Be sure to leave some space in the play area because additional cards may be added to the field.

CHECKING THE FIELD

The first action after the deal is to scan the field to make sure the round is valid. If there are all four cards of a single month / suit showing on the field, the round is void and must be re-dealt. Likewise, if there are four pairs of cards from the same months / suits on the field (e.g., two January, two March, two May, and two September), the round is void and must be re-dealt. 

Second, if there are three out of four cards from a single month showing on the field, they must be combined into one stack and left on the field; if a player later makes a match, they capture the whole stack.

CHECKING THE HANDS

There are two conditions that result in instant scoring and end the current round. Each player must check their hands at the start of play. Note that these conditions are identical to what voids a round if found in the field after the cards are dealt.

Teshi (手四) – Hand of Four – Being dealt four cards of the same suit – automatic 6 points

Kuttsuki (くっつき) – Sticky – Being dealt four pairs of cards with matching suits – automatic 6 points

If both players draw either of these instant-win conditions, the dealer breaks the tie and the opponent gets nothing. Points are scored, the round ends, and cards are re-dealt.

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PLAYING THE GAME

Step One – Hand Matching

The dealer or “oya” goes first. They will take one card from their hand and place it face-up in the field. If that card matches another card from the same suit, the player will place their card on top of the other card, matching it. If the card does not match any card on the field, the card will remain on the field.

Step Two – Deck Matching

The player then draws the top card from the deck / draw pile and places it face-up in the field. Again, if the card matches another card from the same suit, the player will place the card on top of the other card, matching it. If the card does not match any card on the field, the card will remain in the field.

Step Three – Capturing

If there have been any matches made during steps one and two, the player will capture those matches, taking them from the field and placing them face-up to the side of the play area or in front of their hand, depending on house preference. If there have been no matches made, the two cards remain in the field.

Step Four – Checking for Matching Sets (Yaku)

At this point, the player checks to see if they have acquired a matching set, called a “yaku.” Each yaku has an assigned point value, described in the list below. If there are no matching sets, the player’s turn is ended and the opponent starts over with Step One. If there is a matching set, play moves to Step Five.

Step Five – Calling “Koi-Koi” or “Shōbu

If the player has acquired a yaku, they have the option to either call “Shōbu” (勝負) meaning “Game” to instantly score the points and end the current round, or call “Koi-Koi” (こいこい) which basically means “Come on!” in Japanese. If Koi-Koi is called, play continues, and the opponent starts with Step One.

You want to call Koi-Koi if you believe that you can obtain a better yaku, an additional yaku, or add to the value of a current yaku before your opponent makes a match and calls Game. It is a risk-reward scenario, because if you call Koi-Koi, your opponent will score double the points if they make a match and call Game before you increase your possible points. You will not be able to call Game after calling Koi-Koi until you increase your total possible points.

Likewise, if an opponent is daring and calls Koi-Koi after you have already called Koi-Koi, you will have the opportunity to win double the points if you manage to call Game before your opponent.

SCORING

When one player calls Game, the round ends and that player who called Game gets the points for whatever matching sets or yaku they have in their possession. The other player scores nothing, no matter how many points they accumulated during the round.

If both players run out of cards in their hands, the round ends and scoring begins; the player with the highest points will score and the other player gets nothing. In this case, if there is a tie the oya breaks the tie and scores the points.

If neither player has at least one yaku at the end of play, then “Oya-Gachi,” “Oya-Ken,” or Dealer’s Privilege is in effect. In this case, the dealer scores 6 points.

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YAKU SCORING CHART

Yaku Made With 20-Point Cards

Gokō (五光) – Five Brights – 10 points

Shikō (四光) – “Dry” Four Brights – 8 points

Ame-Shikō (雨四光) – Rainy Four Brights – 7 points

Sankō (三光) – “Dry” Three Brights – 6 points

Yaku Made With 10-Point Cards

Ino-shika-chō (猪鹿蝶) – Boar, Deer, Butterfly – 5 points
     1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Animal’ card

Tane (タネ) – Seeds (Five Animals) – 1 point
     1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Animal’ card

Yaku Made With 5-Point Cards

Akatan, Aotan no Chōfuku (赤短・青短の重複) – 3 Poetry Ribbons + 3 Blue Ribbons – 10 points
     1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Ribbon’ card

Akatan (赤短) – 3 Poetry Ribbons – 5 points
     1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Ribbon’ card

Aotan (青短) – 3 Blue Ribbons – 5 points
     1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Ribbon’ card

Tanzaku (短冊) – 5 Ribbons – 1 point
     1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Ribbon’ card

Yaku Made With 1-Point Cards

Kasu (カス) – 10 normal / junk / dregs / chaff / plain / flower cards – 1 point
     1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Dregs’ card

The “Viewing” Yaku – (optional)

Tsukimi-zake (月見酒) – Moon Viewing (Moon + Sake Cup) – 5 points

Hanami-zake (花見酒) – Blossom Viewing (Sakura Curtain + Sake Cup) – 5 points

Optional Variant – Viewing Blossoms in the Moonlight (All 3 Viewing Cards) – 10 points

Optional Variant – Viewing Yaku can only be scored in addition to another yaku

Optional Variant – Viewing Yaku score 0 if you have the Rain Man or Lightning Card (i.e., the viewing party is ruined)

Corresponding Month Yaku – (uncommon optional variant)

Tsuki-Fuda – Obtaining all four cards of the suit corresponding to the current month of play for a full 12-round game session – 4 points

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SCORE MULTIPLIERS

If a player accumulates 7 or more points, they will score double the points. This is one incentive for calling Koi-Koi and risking it to try and earn at least 7 points.

If a player called Koi-Koi during the round, the opposing player will score double the number of points if they win the round.

These two multipliers are cumulative, meaning you can potentially quadruple your points in a round. For example, if you have 7 points and your opponent had called “Koi-Koi” before you called “Game” or play ended by both players running out of cards in their hands, you will earn 28 points!

WINNING THE GAME

At the end of 12 rounds or “months” (6 rounds for a short game), the player with the highest total score wins.

The Meaning of Life

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What is the meaning of life? Are you curious? Would you like to know? Can a single blog post solve this great philosophical and existential puzzle?!?

Well, I object to the premise of the question. An individual life can have meaning, and the things that occur to a person during the course of life can have meaning, but seeking “the” meaning to this vague and amorphous concept of “life” is doomed to non-specificity from the start. Now the purpose of human existence on this earth, or the goal of life we should seek to accomplish… those are different ideas and more answerable.

Now, the reason why God created humanity in the first place and the marching orders he originally gave the species can be and have been addressed elsewhere, but in our post-fall / pre-heaven parenthetical existence, what is the purpose of our ongoing life now? Why this multi-millennium span of human imperfection and suffering as all creation groans under sin, curse, death, and depravity? (see Romans 8:22) This life indeed, as Martin Luther put it, is a vale of tears. If it is within God’s present power and long-term plan of salvation history to right every wrong and wipe away every tear, what’s the hold up? For that matter, why not provide atonement for sin immediately after Adam and Eve initially transgressed and save us all the heartache?

The Purpose of Existence

Let me pose this question: how can free will and a perfect world exist at the same time? In our fallen state, man-made attempts at Utopia routinely end up in despotism. From a spiritual perspective, if free will exists, then a person is always free to choose something other than God’s perfect parameters for creation. Either free will cannot exist (and I hold limited free will to be a self-evident truth) or the risk of an imperfect world must always endure (which is not God’s stated intention per scripture).

The only solution I see is to create a world where free will exists, and then select all those who freely choose to do good and follow God’s design to live in a rebooted world. And more than that, these individuals use their free will to seek to have the nature of their character permanently changed by God! Christians, once awoken, yearn to be free from their corrupted sin nature and to experience the glorious transformation and relational eternity promised in scripture.

Some verses that point to this overall conceptualization:

“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us,” (Acts 17:26-27).

“For the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that he may strongly support those whose heart is completely his,” (2 Chronicles 16:9a).

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach; and they sat down and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw away. So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous,” (Matthew 13: 47-49).

God seems to be building a family of free-willed image bearers who freely choose enduring loyalty and believing allegiance to him.

The Goal of Life

Such a purpose to existence, although impacting our eternal destiny, might be viewed passively, as set by God and residing external to ourselves. We don’t have to do anything for the purpose to be what it is. But what is the ultimate goal for us? What do we aim at and how do we orient our lives? As Chuck Colson said, how now shall we live?

Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famed Hierarchy of Needs model posited that Self-Actualization was the highest need of man to be achieved. Although never a Christian, Maslow began to critique his own work toward the end of his career and wrote and spoke publicly about the need to add an additional stage to his model: that of Self-Transcendence. This was based on his observations of altruism and varieties of religious experience. As a Christian I would say that Self-Actualization is certainly not man’s highest achievement or goal, and Self-Transcendence, while crucial, is too religiously universal. Also, rather than Self-Transcendence being a stage only reachable after Self-Actualization, I believe the self can be transcended at every point on Maslow’s Hierarchy.

I appreciate a lot of theologian John Hick’s early work, and elements of his soul-building theodicy ring true. God is a master craftsman at work, desiring to improve the souls of all who are his. There is a sense that God is progressively sanctifying us through his Spirit, through Christian teaching, through circumstances and suffering, through pruning and discipline, etc. As much as we allow him to work in our lives and submit to his leading, we will morally progress; others may enter the eternal state with little to show from their time on Earth (1 Corinthians 3:15).

The ultimate goal of all spiritual formation efforts, as Dallas Willard argues in Renovation of the Heart and Larry Crabb does similarly in Effective Biblical Counseling, is the imitation of Christ. Achieving Christlikeness or ‘putting on the character of Christ’ is the guiding light that beckons us down the narrow path, but an accomplishment we will never fully attain this side of the eschaton. It is in heaven alone that we see “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). With soul-building in mind, it is irrelevant that we cannot achieve moral perfection in this life; the love and pursuit of God’s goodness will continuously pay off as long as we are making forward progress toward the destination.

Importantly, this is not based in legalism or motivated by self-righteousness, but obedience to Christ’s call. Jesus challenges his disciples to “be perfect” (Matthew 5:48) and, in the Great Commission, sends them out to, in part, teach others to obey “everything” that he taught (Matthew 28:20). For me, the goal of life can be summed up in eight words. It is my motto, my slogan, my creed, my lodestar.

Fulfill the Law of Christ no matter what

The Law of Christ is understood by me as the ‘two greatest commandments’ discussed by Jesus in all three synoptic gospels:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40, see also: Mark 12:29-31 and Luke 10:27).

There you have it. Two rules that fulfill the whole of what was written in 2/3 of the Old Testament, including the 613 civil, ceremonial, and moral laws observed by ethnic Israel’s ancient theocratic society. But now comes the ‘no matter what’ piece, and I can’t emphasize it enough.

If you were born in desperate poverty: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you were born wealthy: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you were born disabled or handicapped: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you were born in perfect health: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you are a high school dropout: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you have a PhD in astrophysics: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you have been cheated, mistreated, abused, imprisoned, abandoned, or persecuted: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you have participated in great criminality in your past: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you have tragically lost everything and everyone in your life: fulfill the Law of Christ.

The call to follow and imitate Jesus, fulfilling the two greatest commandments, is the great equalizer, and every living soul is without excuse or pardon from this sacred charge.

The Paradox of Christian Environmentalism

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On many political and social issues, there is often a predictable split between traditional / conservative and so-called progressive wings of the Christian church, at least for certain denominations. Environmental activism, pursuit of clean energy, and concerns about climate change tend to be found more among the ‘Christian Left.’ Liberal-minded Christians emphasize the role of humanity as caretakers and stewards of God’s creation while conservative-minded Christians emphasize the call for humanity to exercise dominion over creation. The former are accused of worshiping a false god of Mother Nature; the latter of raping the Earth and denying science.

Paradoxically, both sides are wrong and right. Where the Christian environmentalists err is in failing to realize the total eschatological destruction of the creation they are trying to preserve. Scripture is clear that “the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire” (2 Peter 3:7) and that “the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10). Again, “the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat!” (2 Peter 3:12). Some physicists argue that our universe is permeated by an ocean of Higgs field. If the value or energy state of that Higgs field changes, the Biblical scenario referenced above would indeed happen.

So no matter how hard we work to preserve the environment now, all of it will inevitably be erased from existence. The Great Barrier Reef? Gone. The Amazon Rainforest? Obliterated. The African Elephant? Extinct.

But the ultimate promise is of new heavens and a new earth, a return to the paradisiacal Edenic state – Earth 2.0, if you will. Although all physical matter in the entire universe in this current stage of reality will be gone, yet we are told that the “glory and honor of the nations” will be brought into the future heavenly city of God on the renewed planet (Revelation 21:26). But what glory and honor will remain if everything is wiped out? The Mona Lisa and Crown Jewels won’t be around. Godiva chocolate won’t be there either. What is this verse referring to?

I interpret this in part to mean that the knowledge and expertise Christians gain in this life will be carried over and useful in the age to come. Although the skyscrapers we build will not endure, our engineering and construction experience will. Although our spaceships and satellites will be long gone, our understanding of astrophysics and rocket science will be preserved. Although your favorite pizza place won’t be there, our understanding of making incredible, authentic Neapolitan-style pizza will endure (if anyone with that knowledge makes it into heaven). This same principle applies to environmentalism.

Christians should become experts in clean and renewable energy and sustainability now, because that knowledge is going to hugely benefit us in the life to come. We do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past. Who wants to be told to stay out of the ocean due to high bacteria levels? Who wants to walk around their city wearing a breathing mask because of air pollution? Who wants to suffer the consequences of radiation poisoning when a nuclear reactor fails? Who wants to see a Garden of Eden paved to make room for gaudy strip-malls? If you love fishing, sustainable fishing matters to you. If you love books, you are going to want sustainable forestry for the printing of paper. If we have the opportunity of Earth 2.0, let’s get it right from the start, especially if we are going to live there forever.

What is the Bible, really?

Opening of The Shrine of the book, Israel Museum

I often like to remind my readers that theology is the “science of God.” Scripture, found in the Bible, is the primary data source we analyze in the pursuit of supporting or falsifying theological hypotheses. The normative or binding Special Revelation of the Bible is primary (although it may be bolstered by data gleaned from General Revelation and non-binding Special Revelation). But what is the Bible?

At times our culture takes it for granted. We walk past the sensory-overload of options on the shelves of bookstores, ignore the copies placed by the Gideons in the drawers of hotel rooms, and have long forgot where those pocket-sized, orange New Testaments went that some street evangelist handed us years ago. Believing and unbelieving politicians alike are sworn in on them. They line the backs of church pews and lay open superstitiously in some dusty relative’s house. A hundred different English translations are available online for free at the click of a button.

But what is this book, really?

Well, it is not a book at all. The Bible is a collection of sixty-six different documents (in the Protestant canon most familiar to us), written by no fewer than forty human contributors, across the span of some 1,500 years, in three different languages.

These diverse writings encompass many different genres and forms: creation stories, history, genealogy, narrative, law, covenantal agreements, song lyrics, wisdom literature, prophecy, erotic poetry, apocalyptic, gospel, epistle, and more. Some ‘books’ of the Bible are brief letters written from one individual to another, while another ‘book’ may symbolically and/or literally describe the future end of the entire universe.

Yet these laws, prophecies, and writings are tied together by some crucial factors. First, the collection tends to follow the nation of Israel in general, and more specifically the genealogical family lineage of Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ) and, later, the effects of his ministry and the actions of his followers. Second, many sections purport to be records of Divine Speech. A writer will often record a supernatural encounter that happened at such-and-such a place, at such-and-such a time, in which the writer will be commanded to “write down these words.”

The Old Testament depends on the testimony of recognized prophets, persons commissioned by God to be his messengers. Likewise, the New Testament rests on the concept of apostolicity, that all of the contributors were eye-witnesses of Jesus Christ. All of these documents were recognized fairly early as authoritative and legitimate by their respective audiences, with other writings being excluded for not passing the sniff test.

Despite the span of geography and time, and the complexity of writing, editing, transmitting, collecting, preserving, and ultimately translating these supernaturally-themed works, Christians recognize the final product now known simply as the Bible as being both a human book and a divine book. There are many terms that can be used, including ‘inspired,’ ‘authoritative,’ ‘inerrant,’ and so on. That may lead to confusion for the uninitiated, because the Bible at times inerrantly quotes from non-inerrant sources, and our best manuscripts might actually have missing pieces (see: 1 Samuel 13:1)!

One concept I like to focus on is that of ‘inscripturation,’ which is to say that our closed canon of scripture contains everything that God wanted it to contain and nothing that God did not want it to contain. The Bible is a collection of literature, the creation of which God superintended, sometimes even having his literal speech recorded word for word. To the extent that we can find the most accurate manuscripts, being closest to the original, ancient-language autographs, and seek to understand them through the best linguistic, archaeological, and cultural study tools available, we have access to an amazingly invaluable resource.

Support my Mission Trip to Japan!

komatsu_old_town_in_japan_001

I am seeking to raise support for a short-term mission trip to Japan at the end of July of this year. Although I have a deep love for Japan and it has been a lifelong dream to visit, this is not a vacation or sightseeing excursion, but rather a working trip to support and encourage a young, growing Christian church. In connection with Carolina Lighthouse Ministries and Discipleship International church, I will travel with a small team to the Ishikawa Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan side of the main island of Honshu. We will be sleeping on the floor of the church at night and rolling up our sleeves during the day!

Japan has been historically resistant to Christianity, with periods of violent persecution of both foreign and domestic believers. Even today, Shintoism and Buddhism dominate the spiritual landscape. Current estimates are that only 1% to 1.5% of the country’s population is Christian. Compare this to Syria, which is 10% Christian! The good news is that God loves the Japanese people. I am praying for an awakening!

The $2,000 I am seeking to raise will go toward roundtrip airfare and passport fees, with whatever is left going toward basic day-to-day expenses. I am spending the next six months immersing myself in the Japanese language and prayerfully considering what message God might have for me to share to encourage my Japanese brothers and sisters. Thank you for your support!

“And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.” – Matthew 10:42

gofundme.com/c4xsb-mission-trip-to-japan

Simulated Worlds and Harmonizing the Age of the Earth

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Elon Musk believes that we live inside of an advanced computer simulation. Spoiler alert: we don’t. However, the concept of the simulated universe is a useful tool, perhaps the tool, to drive the next leap of theological advancement. See my related posts here, here, and here.

This is not dissimilar to other secular origin theories that have arisen out of skepticism and dissatisfaction with traditional Darwinian evolution, Big Bang cosmology, and philosophical naturalism that can actually be leveraged in favor of Christian creation theories. For example, Directed Panspermia is a theory that early lifeforms were deliberately transported and planted on Earth by advanced beings (extraterrestrials). Compare this to the Christian concept of life being purposefully created on Earth by an advanced being (God). Another example, The Black Hole at the Beginning of Time theory basically argues, “that our universe may have emerged from a black hole in a higher-dimensional universe.” Compare this to the Christian concept of matter and energy appearing in nothingness, originating from a higher-dimensional source outside of our physical universe.

But I digress. The age of the Earth is a point of Christian contention between Old-Earth Creationists and Young-Earth Creationists and, at times, between Christians and non-Christian scientists. In my current thinking, the only two coherent arguments that have been advanced which satisfy evidence found in both General and Special revelation is the Day-Age Theory and the Ideal-Age Theory (or Apparent-Age Theory) of creation. The Day-Age Theory states that each day or “yom” of creation is really a period of time, so that creation is then completed in six periods of time or stages rather than literal 24-hour days in a calendar week. The Ideal-Age Theory states that the universe was created with all the hallmarks of age: Adam had the body of an adult male, trees had rings, distant stars as well as the light particles between them and the Earth were created simultaneously, etc. For a good discussion from Wayne Grudem on this debate, go here. Both views have adamant advocates and detractors, and neither are without difficulties.

Using the concepts of Simulated Worlds or Simulated Universes, we can actually harmonize these two conflicting views. Let’s look at the world generating process of the computer game, Dwarf Fortress. I am pulling the next section whole cloth from Wikipedia:

The first step in Dwarf Fortress is generating a playable world; only one game can be played per world at a time. The player can adjust certain parameters governing size, savagery, mineral occurrences and the length of history. The map shows symbols representing roads, hills, towns and cities of the various civilizations, and it changes as the generation progresses.

The process involves procedurally-generated basic elements like elevation, rainfall, mineral distribution, drainage and temperature. For example, a high-rainfall and low-drainage area would make a swamp. Areas are thus categorized into biomes, which have two variables: savagery and alignment. They have their own specific type of plant and animal populations. The next phase is erosion—which the drainage simulates. Rivers are created by tracing their paths from the mountains (which get eroded) to its end which is usually an ocean; some form into lakes. The salinity field defines oceans, mangroves or alluvial plains. Names are generated for the biomes and rivers. The names depend on the area’s good/evil variable (the alignment) and though in English, they are originally in one of the four in-game languages of dwarves, elves, humans and goblins; these are the four main races in any generated world.

 After a few minutes the world is populated and its history develops for the amount of in-game years selected in the history parameter. Civilizations, races and religions spread and wars occur, with the “population” and “deaths” counters increasing. The ticker stops at the designated “years” value, at which point the world can be saved for use in any game mode. Should the player choose to retire a fortress or gets defeated, this world will persist and will become available for further games.

So, here you have an example of a simulated world that does not pop up instantly, but rather develops algorithmically and procedurally. But this process, which covers an incredible stretch of in-game time, takes only a few minutes of outside-game time or real time. To put it another way, in our higher-dimensional world, we experience the acceleration of lower-dimensional time for a set period, and then a more normalized lower-dimensional passage of time when the world generation ends and the game begins.

So, a harmonization of the Day-Age and Ideal-Age theories of Christian creation might be as follows. During the process of creation, the universe did not appear pre-fabricated, but rather developed procedurally. For example, light emitted from distant stars had to travel through the vacuum of space, the Grand Canyon slowly eroded, etc. However, all of these events occurred at an accelerated pace. We might say that a higher-dimensional measure of time (the Transcendent Time’s Arrow? Multiversal Standard Speed?), was increased, while all the processes remained at the same relative speed to one another within the physical universe. For example, the speed of light stayed the same relative to other physical processes, such as radioactive decay, but all were greatly accelerated relative to a measure of time external to this physical universe.

In this way, you could have what would ordinarily take millions of years accomplished in a much shorter period of time, and the higher-dimensional acceleration would go unnoticed in the lower-dimensional world because of in-universe relativity. I am not saying that I personally hold to this view, but hey, if an old PC running Windows 98 with 256 ram can do it, why not God?