Teach Your Children Well

I don’t know what happened to Nick Fuentes in childhood, but it must have been bad. How else do you explain his hatred toward “Black people, Jews, women, L.G.B.T.Q. Americans, Muslims, and immigrants”?1

At age 24, Fuentes has become a “star” among far right extremists. “He has used a racist slur for Black people; called homosexuality ‘disgusting’; asserted that the Republican party was ‘run by Jews, atheists and homosexuals’; said it would be better if women could not vote; compared himself to Hitler and hoped for ‘a total Aryan victory’; declared that ‘the First Amendment was not written for Muslims’; and maintained that Jim Crow segregation ‘was better for them, it’s better for us, it’s better in general.’”2

Until his name showed up in the news I didn’t know who Nick Fuentes was, but as I learn more about him I really do wonder what happened to him in childhood, and I wonder how we can raise our own children to have exactly the opposite views: to look at others through the eyes of love rather than the eyes of hate.

As a pastor, I’d like to think that we would teach our children to love others unconditionally, the way God loves us. And I hope that we would give them opportunities to practice. At a funeral recently I heard a woman talk about how her mother taught her to “accept those who were different,” as if it were a virtue. She said she would take her to the Virginia Home, a home for people with irreversible physical disabilities, and let her interact with the residents there until she thought of them as friends.

I’m guessing Nick Fuentes’s mom never did that.3

But we could. We could do that and so much more. We could help our children learn to love all those people Nick has learned to hate.

And I mean ALL those people.

I don’t think the church should ever be a place where we love everyone BUT, or everyone EXCEPT. I think it should be a place where we love everyone with no exceptions. In fact, it should be a “school of love” where we practice like that little girl practiced at the Virginia Home until we learn to accept those who are different.

Someone gave me a plaque recently that read: “Just love everyone. I’ll sort them out later.” –God. Yes. Jesus even told a parable to that effect once, remember? The parable of the wheat and the weeds? (Matt. 13:24-30). Where the owner of the field tells his workers not to pull up the weeds because they would pull up the wheat right along with them? “Wait till the harvest,” Jesus advises. “God will sort them out.” Maybe until then we could do our best to just love everyone.

Wouldn’t that be better than just hating everyone?

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1Peter Baker, “The Morning: November 29, 2022,” The New York Times
2Ibid.
3I probably shouldn’t judge Nick’s mom in a post where I’m asking you to love everyone. My apologies to Mrs. Fuentes.

Letting the Outsiders In

It’s 6:06 on a Wednesday morning and I’m in the “green zone.”

At last night’s meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia Carey Nieuwhof talked to us about his energy clock, and how, between the hours of 7 and 11 in the morning he’s in the “green zone.” That’s when he is most productive. Between 4 and 6 pm however he’s in the “red zone.” He’s not going to do his best work.

So, he challenged us to do what we do best when we are at our best, when we are in the “green zone.” That’s where I am at 6:00 in the morning, and that’s where I’ll be until 11:30 or so.

But yesterday at 4:00 pm I was in the red zone, and that’s when I heard a report on Ascent, described as, “a collaborative movement of like-hearted partners of the BGAV committed to reengaging and re-evangelizing North America with the gospel.” I love the concept and I feel the need: young people in North America are leaving the church in droves. And I was pleased with the doctrinal statement that began with an affirmation of the Nicene Creed: that takes us back to our roots. But near the end of that doctrinal statement there was some language about marriage being “between a man and a woman” and that raised a red flag in my red zone because it seemed to be a nice way of saying, “No gay people allowed.”

It reminded me of a sermon I preached at First Baptist a few years ago called “Letting the Outsiders In.” I won’t post the whole sermon, but here’s an excerpt:

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Several years ago I read a book called unChristian that addressed the question of why young people are not coming to church, specifically people under the age of 30. The authors conducted thousands of interviews with young people before coming to their conclusions, and then introduced the results by saying: “This book explores our research in six broad themes—the most common points of skepticism and objections raised by outsiders. Those six themes are as follows:

Hypocritical. Outsiders consider us hypocritical—saying one thing and doing another—and they are skeptical of our morally superior attitudes. They say Christians pretend to be something unreal, conveying a polished image that is not accurate. Christians think the church is only a place for virtuous and morally pure people.

Too focused on getting converts. Outsiders wonder if we genuinely care about them. They feel like targets rather than people. They question our motives when we try to help them “get saved,” despite the fact that many of them have already “tried” Jesus and experienced church before.

Antihomosexual. Outsiders say that Christians are bigoted and show disdain for gays and lesbians. They say Christians are fixated on curing homosexuals and on leveraging political solutions against them.

Sheltered. Christians are thought of as old-fashioned, boring, and out of touch with reality. Outsiders say we do not respond to reality in appropriately complex ways, preferring simplistic solutions and answers. We are not willing to deal with the grit and grime of people’s lives.

Too political. Another common perception of Christians is that we are overly motivated by a political agenda, that we promote and represent politically conservative interests and issues. Conservative Christians are often thought of as right-wingers.

Judgmental. Outsiders think of Christians as quick to judge others. They say we are not honest about our attitudes and perspectives about other people. They doubt that we really love people as we say we do.

Jesus once asked his disciples what the outsiders were saying about him, but in this book we learn what the outsiders are saying about us, his disciples. They are saying we are hypocritical, too political, too focused on making converts, judgmental, homophobic, and hopelessly out of touch. Not only that, but they think we are boring and old-fashioned!

Now, I need you to hear me say this loud and clear: I don’t think that’s true about us, the members and friends of Richmond’s First Baptist Church. I don’t think that any of those things apply to us. But I do think that among those young people who don’t come to church that’s the perception of Christians in general, and probably the perception of us in particular. When they walk by this building they may assume that it’s full of just the kind of Christians they despise. And if it’s true that you have to treat perceptions as reality, then here’s the question: how do we change that perception among our unchurched neighbors, and especially the younger ones? How do we convince them that we are not who they think we are?

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I don’t think those six perceptions are true of Virginia Baptists, either. The ones I know well are very open-minded and open-hearted. But I think we have a number of partners who have joined us in Ascent, and I think that some of those partners have pre-existing doctrinal statements that exclude homosexuals, and I think that in our eagerness to embrace those partners we have adopted language that will make it hard for us to reach our target audience–young people.

My daughters are both Millennials. They are kind-hearted Christians who have somehow, remarkably, stayed in church. But they have told me that they cannot belong to a church that will not welcome gay people. They have too many friends who are gay. To exclude those people would be, for them, not only anti-homosexual but also unChristian. I haven’t yet shared with them the doctrinal statement from Ascent but I think they will tell me that they can’t support what is, otherwise, a very exciting missional movement.

So, here’s my hope. My friend Jim Baucom, who talked to us about Ascent yesterday, said that its board hopes to become more inclusive, not only in terms of race and gender but also in terms of age. I think he said that they hope to have as many young people on the board as they have old people. If that’s true, then I think those young people will help those old people understand that we have to stop putting up barriers that would keep their friends out. If we really want to reach young people we have to love them, just as they are. Only when they are convinced of that will they want to hear the rest of our story.

And we have such a good story to tell.

The “Secret Codes” of Revelation

May be an image of jewelry and text

Here’s something I shared with the church on Sunday: the “secret codes” of the Book of Revelation as presented by my former New Testament professor, Dr. James L. Blevins, Ph.D. (who presented them in costume, dressed as John of Patmos).

Number Code:

  • TWELVE: is the number of wholeness, especially in reference to people, thus the number 144,000 in Revelation 7 is twelve times 12,000, suggesting the whole people of God.
  • TEN: is a complete number.  The thousand year reign of Christ in Chapter 20 is 10 X 10 X 10, implying a complete reign.
  • SEVEN: is a divine number.  In many apocalyptic works the code number for God is 777; many Jews added up the number of their name according to the Hebrew alphabet and this would be their code number in days of persecution. Revelation makes great use of sevens: seven trumpets, seven churches, seven bowls of wrath, etc.
  • SIX: stands for imperfection or extreme evil.  In Revelation, 666 is the code number for Caesar Domitian, who was persecuting Christians and putting them to death.
  • FIVE: is the number of penalty.  All major punishments and penalties are given in series of fives; the locusts that come up out of the pit torture people for five months.
  • FOUR: represents the World (angels stand at the four corners of the earth).
  • TWO: is for witnessing (two witnesses appear in Revelation 11).
  • ONE: of course, is for unity.
  • FRACTIONS: represent incompleteness.  In chapter 8, for example, a third of the earth is burned up.”

John says, “The second code which I use in my book is the color code. Colors carry symbolic meanings.”

  • PALE GREEN: represents death.  The fourth horse in my book is a pale green horse and Hades follows behind.
  • DARK GREEN: stands for life (around the throne of God in chapter 4 is an emerald rainbow symbolizing life).
  • WHITE: represents purity or conquering.
  • RED: is for warfare.
  • BLACK: is for famine (one of the four horses of the Apocalypse is the black horse of famine).
  • GOLD: stands for worth or value.
  • BRONZE: is for strength.
  • SCARLET: equals sin.

John says, “In chapter 1 of my book I describe the Son of Man in color codes. I was in prison for preaching Christ, I could not openly speak about him, so I set forth a living sermon in colors. The Son of Man is described with bronze feet, depicting strength, white robes of conquering, white hair of purity, a gold band around his chest, representing his worth or value, a sharp, two-edged sword coming from his mouth, representing truth. All the Christians hearing this passage read aloud would have known immediately the one of whom I was speaking.

“The third code in Revelation is the animal code.

  • FROG: The meanest, vilest animal in my world was considered to be the frog; anytime the frog appears, evil is right behind it.  In Revelation 16:13, three frogs appear and then the last battle between good and evil. Watch out for the frog!
  • EAGLE: Next to the frog, the eagle always brings bad news. In the midst of the seven trumpets, the eagle appears to announce that the last trumpets will be far worse than the first trumpets.  The eagle’s cry, in Greek, ouai, sounds like the English word woe.  Thus, the last three trumpets in Revelation are announced by the eagle’s cry, by three ‘woes.’
  • MONSTER BEASTS: Many of you have been concerned about the monster beasts in my book. Please bear in mind that monster beasts represent monstrous persons or forces. They are constructed from bits and parts of wild animals to represent extremely evil persons.
  • BEAST FROM THE SEA: A symbol for Caesar Domitian or political power. It is comprised of the three symbols of the major world powers in my day: bear’s feet for Medea, leopard’s spots for Persia, and lion’s head for Rome. There was no animal mean enough to represent Caesar, who had put so many Christians to death.
  • SEA SERPENT: Satan is depicted by this monster beast, a red sea serpent with seven heads. My Jewish people feared the ocean and the sea serpents in it, so what could be better to depict Satan than this horrible creature from the sea?
  • LOCUSTS: Monster locusts came up out of the bottomless pit. They have men’s faces, women’s hair, scorpion tails, and are the size of horses. They represent the sin and decay of the Roman Empire or any society that opposes God.
  • LION: Often symbolizes all wild creatures.
  • OX: Often symbolizes all domesticated creatures.
  • SEVEN-HORNED LAMB: Jesus, himself, is depicted by an animal, a lamb with seven horns (divine power) and seven eyes (divine seeing.) Because I was in prison I could not openly speak of Christ, so I used this coded animal to symbolize my Lord.”[i]

[i] James L. Blevins, Revelation as Drama (Nashville: Broadman, 1984), pp.12-15.

How to Read the Bible

New Bible that includes the Constitution will come on the market around  9/11 anniversary - The Washington Post

Here’s something I shared with my congregation not long ago that may be helpful to you, especially if you are preparing to teach a Sunday school class or preach a sermon.

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  1. Remember that the Bible is not a book, but a collection of books—a small library.  Its name in Greek, ta biblia, literally means “the books.”
  2. Just like the books you have on your own bookshelves, the books of the Bible belong to several different genres: origins (like Genesis), history, law, wisdom, poetry, prophecy, gospel, letter, and apocalypse (like Revelation).
  3. In order to read any book of the Bible with understanding, you have to identify and appreciate its genre (don’t read poetry like law!).
  4. You also have to think about what it meant in its original context.  The important work of finding out what a passage meant then and there is called “exegesis”; bringing that meaning into the here and now is called “hermeneutics” (two good seminary words!).
  5. It might help to look at some maps of the Holy Land, to know more about where the biblical story takes place (see below).
  6. NOW: let’s get ready to read.  You will need a) a good study Bible (I prefer the HarperCollins Study Bible in the New Revised Standard Version), b) a good Bible dictionary (take a look in your church library), and c) a good set of commentaries (also in the church library).
  7. How do you begin? a) take a deep breath of the Holy Spirit and pray for illumination, b) read the passage slowly, at least three times, c) see if you can come up with a list of ten questions (including what genre it is, who wrote it, when was it written, where was it written, and why).
  8. Take your list of questions to the Bible dictionary and commentaries and see if you can find the answers.  This should be fun—like a treasure hunt!
  9. When you are finished, see if you can write one simple, declarative sentence stating what the text meant then and there.
  10. And then see if you can bring the meaning into the here and now, again in a single declarative sentence.

Tip: If you are working with a passage that seems literally unbelievable ask:
     NOT did it really happen this way,
     BUT what on earth is God trying to say?

–Jim Somerville

ABOVE: The Bible was not written in a vacuum.  Israel was surrounded by neighbors who wanted to control this tiny “land bridge” between Asia and Africa.  Over the centuries a number of different empires exercised their dominion.
Israel/Palestine is bordered on the west by the Mediterranean Sea and on the east by the Arabian Desert. Its central features are a rocky “spine” running from north to south, and a deep valley that includes the Dead Sea: the lowest spot on earth.  Galilee, in the North, is a well-watered garden.  The Negev, in the South, is a desert.

Invitation to a Journey

Four years ago I visited my brother Ed just after Christmas. He told me that he was challenging his large and scattered family to read through the entire Bible in 2018. He said he had this reading plan that made it easy, just a few chapters a day, and that he hoped his family would do it.

I didn’t tell him at the time, but I decided to do it, too.

I had read the Bible before. I think. I mean, I had read a lot of it, but I’m not sure I had ever really read it “cover to cover” (I remember trying once and getting badly bogged down in the second half of Exodus). So, I decided to do it, along with Ed and his family, and even though I didn’t use the plan he suggested I found one that kept it interesting.

I made it all the way through, and in 2019 I did it again. In 2020 I did it again. And in a few more weeks I will finish reading through the entire Bible for the fourth year in a row (not bragging; just amazed). But this year has been especially interesting, and I want to recommend the new plan that I found.

I started by downloading the YouVersion Bible, which is an app for your phone or tablet (just look for “Bible” in the app store).1 This is how the website describes it: By far the most downloaded app featuring Bible content in the world (over 500,000,000 downloads), the free Bible App offers more than 1,200 Bible versions, over 900 languages, and more than 1,700 Bible Plans to help people engage daily with God’s Word. It’s free. It’s easy to use. It’s right where you are. All of that is true. Even if I don’t have my tablet with me, I usually have my phone, and I can do my daily Bible readings anywhere at any time.

And then I checked out their daily Bible reading plans. I decided to try the Biblical Storyline plan from the BibleProject.com. It has been an incredible journey. The Bible Project is the work of two college friends, Tim Mackie and Jon Collins, one of whom became a Bible scholar while the other made “explainer videos.” The end result is a collection of animated videos that introduce each book of the Bible and explain some of its more difficult concepts. I don’t agree with everything they say, but I agree with 95 percent of it, which for me is saying something!

So, I want to challenge you to try it in 2022. Download the Bible app (if you don’t already have it), look for “plans” at the bottom of the home screen, and select the “Bible Project | Biblical Storyline Reading Plan.” And then get up early on January 1 (unless you stayed up too late partying the night before) and start reading.  You’ll start with a video—an animated overview of the Book of Genesis—and then you will go right into reading, in your preferred version,2 Chapters 1-3.

I believe that if you can make this a daily habit you will enjoy the journey far more than you might imagine, and that you will get to the end of 2022 with more understanding of the Bible than you have ever had before.

Isn’t that a worthwhile New Year’s Resolution?

—Jim Somerville

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1You can also read the Bible on your laptop or desktop. Click HERE to access the YouVersion website. Click HERE to access the BibleProject’s Bible Storyline reading plan.

2 I use the NRSV version of the Bible, the one we have in our pew racks at church, but you can choose your favorite from among the 1,200 versions available.