Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Dog Verses God

Tonight I read Exodus 11 to my daughters. This is the chapter where Moses warns Pharaoh about the upcoming death of every firstborn son in Egypt.  (This was one of the many times in the Bible where it would have been preferable to be female.)  As I was reading, verse 7 popped out to me.  "But among the Israelites not a dog will bark at any person or animal. Then you will know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel."
I understood the meaning.  God was going to treat the Israelites differently than the Egyptians and kill neither them nor their animals.  But what was up with the talk of dogs?  Then the picture of various Egyptian deities popped into my head.  I wondered, “Wasn’t there a dog-god or something like that.” I did a little research.
It turns out I was right.  There was a dog-headed god.  He was called Anubis.  Anubis was the god of the underworld, protector of the dead, and god of embalming.
The ancient Egyptians were very interested in death and embalming. Mummies are elaborately embalmed corpses, and the pyramids are nothing more that massive tombs.  Death was a big deal to Pharaoh and the people of Egypt, and death was represented by a dog-headed god.
In essence, it appears that what Moses was saying was, “My God is going to pass through your land and kill every first-born son.  Not everyone will be killed, just this specific subset of your people.  However, your dog-headed god will not be able to so much as bark in the presence of God’s people.  The LORD will triumph over your great god Anubis.  All of those fancy pyramids you build and the elaborate embalming processes you go through are nothing to Him.”
To this day in Egypt, the pyramids are a big deal.  Regardless of the fact that most Egyptians today are Sunni Muslims, these remnants of a pantheon gone by remain the central tourist site in their country.  Yet the dog-god that inspired their construction could not even bark that terrible night thousands of years ago.  Even death bows to God.
When you read the Bible, ask questions, and then look for the answers.  Go deeper. Doing so is like watching color TV rather than black and white.  There is so much more to see if we open our eyes and look.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Third Evil

Evil takes many forms in the world.  Most evil remains below the surface.  It can be destroyed simply by being brought to light.  For example, child pornography thankfully remains taboo in western culture (though sadly not the whole world).  It exists, but those who participate in it are considered among the vilest creatures.  Simply by being found out, such evil people can be stopped.

Other forms of evil are forced on the masses by a minority.  For example, mob violence, cruel dictators, and forms of criminal activity (both illegal and sanctioned by governments) that allow a few to get what they want on the backs of others.  There are examples of this around the world.  Such evil is more difficult to eradicate.  In some cases it can be destroyed through peaceful means as Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated in the United States in the 1960’s.  In other cases it can only be defeated by fighting back.  The good thing about such forms of evil is that they are widely recognized as wrong, and thus they do not often remain in place.

Hidden evil is done in private.  Criminal evil is done publicly but is generally not approved by the majority.  Yet there is a third kind of evil that is even more insidious.  It is when the majority adopts an evil and embraces it as a cultural norm that evil is most destructive.

During the United States’ first century slavery was considered the norm by the majority population in the southern states.  It was upheld as a virtue and the natural order of things.  The prosperity of society was believed to depended on it, and when the value of slavery was threatened, hundreds of thousands of people died defending the enslavement of their fellow man.  Those who wanted to free the slaves were considered criminals and had to operate underground.

When good has to hide, you know that you are living in a corrupt culture.  If we have to hide living righteously, speaking righteously, or even thinking righteously, we can be certain that at least part of the society we live in has been seriously corrupted by evil.

Are there things that you know to be true and right that you are afraid to talk about for fear of what others will think about you, say about you, or do to you?  If so, then you are living in a place that has so thoroughly succumbed to evil that it now hates that which is good.

There is hope.  The corruption need not continue.

Before refrigeration, decay was slowed or even halted by salt.  Meat was kept from rotting by being packed in salt.  As a kid, when I had a sore throat I was told to gargle salt water.  Salt can help cure infections.  What the world needs is spiritual salt to fight against the decay and corruption of evil.

“You are the salt of the world.” -Jesus of Nazareth

You are the tool to fight decay and corruption.  You are the one who can preserve your culture from evil and purify it from unrighteousness.

You have a choice.  You can be salt and face the wrath of a corrupt world, or you can give up your saltiness.  Yet be careful.  If salt loses its saltiness “it is no longer good for anything.”

Make your choice today.  Stand up for what is right even when it is unpopular and be the salt of the world, or give up your saltiness and be useless.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

How the Blisses Saved Christmas

I got a slip in the mail yesterday telling me that I had a document to pick up at the local post office.  I had been waiting for this slip for weeks now.  I diligently checked the mailbox every day.  I even leafed through every flier to make sure the slip was not hidden inside it.  We were expecting a package and we wanted to be sure to pick it up promptly lest it be returned to the sender or we be forced to pay a fine.

I took the slip down to the post office after I dropped the kids off at school.  After waiting in line behind two other postal customers, I finally got my chance.  I presented the post office the slip and was in return given a second slip of paper telling me that that package was waiting for me a the Central Customs Agency.

It has been years since we have had to take a trip to the Customs Agency near the train station in Sofia.  For a while now we have been able to call the Agency and have them deliver packages directly to our door, so it came as a bit of an unpleasant surprise that this time there was no option for home delivery.

We wasted no time.  Sasha and I walked down to the subway station and rode the five stops to the train station.  We then walked two blocks to the Customs Agency.  As we walked there, Sasha reminded me that it was Friday and the slip of paper directed us to go to window number 13.  It’s a good thing we are not superstitious.

We entered the large hall of windows with a beautiful Christmas tree on display in the middle and a large glass-ceiling overhead.  We approached the window where again I found myself in line behind two people.  When it was my turn I handed over the slip of paper and my ID card.  I was then asked the question, “What’s in the package?”

Sasha and I had been expecting this question and had rehearsed several answers.  We were fairly certain that the package was from my folks back in Illinois, but we could not be totally sure yet as we had not seen the package.  The best answer we came up with while waiting was, “I don’t know.  Ask Santa.”

We did not give the lady this answer.  Instead I chickened out and just said, “I don’t know.  I think its gifts.”  This was probably a wise move as any sarcastic responses might have caused her to return the package to America.

She had me fill out a form and then handed me some documentation with the instructions, “Go to window 28 and pay a 4 Leva import tax.”

“Right!” I thought, “Go to window 24 and pay a 8 Leva import tax . . . or was it window 21?”

“Sasha, where were we supposed to go again?”  (It’s nice to have a Bulgarian with you in such circumstances.)

We wound our way through the bowels of the building until we found a wonderfully ancient set of yellow windows.  We were so happy that we had made it in just a few hours from the time we got the slip of paper to the time we got our package.  We went to window 28 to pay the 4 Leva tax.

Upon taking our money, the lady at window 28 handed us a new clump of documents and told me to go to window 30 to pick up our package.  Fortunately window 28 was just two windows down from window 30.  (Amazing concept, I know.)

We went to window 30 ready to pick up our package that we had hurried to get since we had received that slip of paper in the mail just a few hours before.  The lady at window 30 looked at our documents.  Then she looked at her book listing off the packages.  Then she looked at me.  Then she asked me my name.  I smiled and refrained from pointing out that it was on the slip of paper in front of her.  Instead I just said, “David Bliss.”  She found my name and had me sign the ledger.

She then informed me that there was a 2.10 Leva fine for being late picking it up.  I smiled and said, “No problem.”  As she left to get the package, I pulled out the three small coins necessary to pay the fine.  Meanwhile Sasha began to get a little ticked off.

“We just got the slip today!  How can we be late?”

I smiled through my teeth and said, “We don’t have the package yet.  You catch more flies with honey.  After we get it you can tell her off.”

Fortunately the lady took so long getting her package that Sasha and I were laughing by the time she came back.

Window lady 30 placed the package directly in front of me.  I reached out to grab it and she rather sharply declared, “Wait a moment!”  I smiled again as I withdrew my arm from the window.

Window lady 30 then went over to window 29 to get some important documents.  She then handed us our new wad of documents and our package.

We rejoiced at our success.  Package received!  It was Christmas presents from my Dad and Mom.  We had just saved Christmas!

Me with the package in the central customs building.  Mission accomplished!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Living at the Crossroads

One reason I love serving in Bulgaria is that we are not just serving Bulgaria.

We have worked with people from all over the world.  I have had the privilege of teaching the Bible to people from every inhabited continent.

The heart of what we are doing here in Bulgaria is discipleship.  We want to teach people who in turn can teach others.  We do this through small groups and mentoring.  The effects have spread throughout the world.  There are people in Africa, Europe, both Americas, and possibly Asia who have been a part of our small group ministry.

People come to Bulgaria for all kinds of reasons.  Some stay.  Most move on.  This can make our work here a bit sad as we are constantly saying good-bye to people.  Yet it is also fulfilling as we have the chance to invest in people who will make an impact around the world.

Could you be a part of this?  There is room on our team!

A small group that meets in our neighborhood.  There are four nations represented in this picture.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

When Pieces Fall

I have heard a similar thought from several ministry leaders: “I pray that God would take me home before I sin in such a way that it dishonors the body of Christ.”

Usually this idea is spoken in the context of serious sexual immorality or theft or something that disqualifies someone from service in professional ministry.  It is a thought that resonates in my heart.  I am willing to die for the Church, and I would rather be dead than commit adultery or fraud or anything else that would disqualify me from service in ministry.  I have known people in leadership who have disqualified themselves from ministry in terrible ways.  In some cases I would have rather heard that they had died of a stroke in their sleep than that they had fallen.  Yet though this idea may be meant to demonstrate resolve and bravery, it also has a mark of convenient cowardice mixed with a touch of arrogance.

It sounds good.  Rather than sin, we die and cannot sin.  It is interesting that this sentiment only seems to be made in relation to the so-called serious sins.  In reality, every Christian on earth dishonors Jesus on a regular basis.  Most of us don’t commit terrible sexual sins.  Most of us don’t commit felonies or fraud.  But we gossip.  We look at things we should not look at.  We slander.  We throw hatred at each other.  We borrow money and conveniently “forget” to pay it back.  Why not ask God to take us home before we commit these sins.  For that matter, why not take matters into our own hands by physically preventing ourselves from dishonoring God?  Why not gouge out our eyes if they cause us to sin as Jesus suggested in Matthew 18:9?

On the one hand, perhaps we don’t think these kinds of sins are that big of a deal.  We don’t think about our gossip as dishonoring to God.  We don’t care when we take advantage of others.  We make excuses for lying and backstabbing.  We delude ourselves.  We think, “Surely preventing such minor infractions is not worth loss of life or limb.”  By excusing our “lesser” sins as acceptable, we rewrite the moral code.  In doing so, we put ourselves in the place of God.  What could be more dishonoring than this?  Yet it is in exactly this way that we dishonor God daily.

On the other hand, we don’t follow Jesus’ extreme suggestion because we know that the cause of our sin is not our physical bodies.  Sin comes from our heart.  It is merely manifested in our tongues, our eyes, and our hands.  Our heart is the engine that drives the wheels of our sinful nature.  Blaming our eyes for coveting or our tongue for lying is like blaming the wheels on the car for not changing gears rather than looking to repair the transmission.

Getting back to the original thought, when a pastor asks God to take him home rather than letting him commit a terrible sin, he somewhat puts the responsibility for these great sins on God.  After all, if God had just killed the pastor with a heart attack before he slept with the office assistant, there would have been no adultery and the church would never have split.  Why does God allowing these sins to happen?  Doesn’t he realize how important the pastor is?  Doesn’t He realize the damage He has caused to the church by not killing the pastor?

Any ministry leader who thinks that God cannot handle his sin thinks too highly of himself.  Look at the story of King David of Israel.  If he had gotten an infection (untreatable at the time) and died in chapter 10 of Second Samuel, there would have been no affair with Bathsheba.  There would have been no murder of Uriah.  There would have been no civil war with Absalom.  David’s sin caused much suffering, and surely God saw it coming.  Why didn’t God prevent it from happening?

Rather than overriding David’s free will with a illness that prevented the sin, God worked out of that sin and accomplished much good.  From David and Bathsheba came King Solomon the Wise, and from the line of King Solomon came Jesus.  God allowed David to act in a sinful way, yet God was not defeated by David’s sin.

Terrible things happened because of David’s choices.  In the same way terrible things happen when a Christian sins, especially a ministry leader.  Such sins should not happen.  Yet God is so great that He can work even our worst sins together for good above and beyond anything we can imagine.

We are not so important that we can destroy God’s plans by our folly.

Finally, asking for death rather than taking responsibility for our actions is taking the coward’s way out.  It is cowardly to give in to sin rather than fight it in the strength and grace of God, and when we fall it is cowardly to prefer death to confession and repentance.

Rather than ask God to take me home before I sin, I would ask Him to transform me into a man strong enough to resist temptation.  I would ask Him to use my time on Earth to transform me into the man He wants me to be.

Death is better than sin, but righteousness is better still.  Let us trust Him to deliver us from evil.  Let us not give up doing what is right.  Let us enjoy another day walking with Him in His beautiful creation.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What is Hell?

I was once asked how I could believe in Hell if I was a Christian.  On the surface of it, the very notion of a place like Hell seems to be contrary to the idea of a loving God.  Some today might try to argue around the doctrine of Hell by calling it out as an extra-biblical idea that the church has adopted over the centuries.  After all, the concept of a place of conscious eternal torment is only mentioned a few times in the Bible.  Perhaps we are reading too much into it.

The argument that Hell is an extra-Christian idea might hold weight if one of the principle biblical lecturers on the subject was not in fact Christ Himself.

There are several verses where Jesus describes this place of suffering.  From Jesus own words we learn that this place is eternal (Matthew 25:46), painful (Matthew 13:50), and comes as a consequence of sin (Mark 9:43).  It is a place of judgment where people get what they deserve.

There are however, many misconceptions about Hell.  Hell is not a place where the Devil is king.  That concept was adopted from Greek mythology where Hades is ruler of the underworld (a concept vastly different from the biblical idea of Hell).  In fact, Hell will be a punishment for Satan as well (Revelation 20:10).  Hell is not the Devil’s home base out of which he sends demons to pester the people of Earth.  Hell is nothing but a punishment.  Though it is the rightful destination of all evil, evil has no power there.

It is also a place of equitable punishment.  It seems from the Bible that not everyone will be punished equally in Hell, but will be punished according to what they have done and what they knew (see for example Luke 12:47-48).  It is a place of just punishment.  No more or less than we deserve.

The other interesting thing about Hell is that it appears that those in it never seem to repent.  Jesus told a story of a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus who died.  The rich man went to Hell, and the poor man went to heaven to be with Abraham.  In this story, the rich man is in agony.  Being a descendent of Abraham, he calls up to heaven and asks Abraham to send Lazarus to make him feel better.  I can think of nothing more self-centered than asking someone to join you in Hell just so that you can feel better, but that is just what the rich man does.  He doesn’t care if Lazarus suffers so long as he feels a little bit better.  To achieve his goal he attempts to appeal to Abraham’s nepotism even calling him “father.”  He doesn’t even bother to talk to Lazarus whom he is asking to sacrifice for him.

The Rich Man and Lazarus on Earth as illustrated by Gustave Dore

When the rich man doesn’t get what he wants he tries to have Lazarus sent back from the dead to warn his brothers.  At first this seems like a good idea, but if you read between the lines it is almost as if he was saying, “If only I had had the right miracle happen, I would have repented.”  Of course he wouldn’t have repented even if someone came back from the dead.  Even seeing the truth of Hell from the inside, he doesn’t repent.  At no time does the rich man ever say, “I’m sorry God! I messed up!  Please forgive me!”  In fact, he never addresses God at all from his agony.  Even in the face of Hell the rich man is still acting as he did his whole life, trampling over others to get what he desires.  Hell had no power to reform him.

The ironic thing is that it seems that those in Hell get what they are after their entire lives.  Many people want to get away from God.  Hell is the place where that is possible.  It may be that those in Hell get not only what they deserve, but what they sought their entire lives.  As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “All get what they want; they do not always like it.”

From this perspective, Hell seems to fit with God’s justice, but what about God’s mercy?  Why would God make a place from which no one can be rescued and no one can escape?

Well, He did make an escape.  We know there is a way out of Hell because someone went there and came back again.  That person is Jesus.  He took our punishment for us, and in doing so He made a way out of Hell.  He paid our debt, so that God’s justice can be satisfied and His mercy and grace can flow.  Perfect justice meets amazing grace in the person of Jesus.

But that’s not all God did to provide a way out of Hell.  He left a powerful siege weapon here on Earth to break down the gates of Hell and free the captives.  Jesus said about this weapon, “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”  That weapon is the Church.

The Church is everyone around the world who believes that Jesus Christ is God, that He took on flesh, that He died for our sins, and that He rose again.  It is those who are trusting Jesus alone for their salvation from Hell.  If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you are saved, and you need not fear Hell.  But more than that, you along with your fellow believers can storm the gates of Hell and rescue the lost.  We do this by telling others the message of the hope of salvation in Jesus.

Can evil hold this message back?  Not a chance in . . . you get the idea.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Is This Heaven?

Earlier this year, I was driving my father-in-law from Sofia back to his hometown of Kostenets.  As we drove over the Vakarel pass the beautiful Ihtiman valley spread out before us with the massive snow capped Rilla mountain to our right.  As we gazed at this breathtaking site I mentioned how beautiful Bulgaria is.  My father-in-law responded by saying, “It’s a piece of heaven.”

Bulgaria certainly seems like a piece of heaven to me.  I love it here.  I think it’s beautiful, and I love the people and culture.  I have close friends and family in Bulgaria.  This place is my home.

Yet there are many people who don’t think that highly of Bulgaria.  Part of the reason for this is that we get some bad press.  Generally speaking, the only news westerners hear about Bulgaria is bad news.  “Bulgaria is one of the European Union’s poorest country.”  “Bulgarian immigrants are taking Western jobs.”  “Bulgaria is overcrowded with refugees.”  These are not exactly the most flattering headlines.

Often times, this hidden little gem of a country gets overlooked or scoffed at as a sort of backwoods place with poorly educated people.  It is not a fair view of Bulgaria, but it is a common one.

Back in the first century there was a tiny little town that people viewed in a similar way to how they might view Bulgaria today.  It was so decidedly below average that one first century leader once asked if anything good could come from there.  In this town there once lived a man who had a very common name that today would be translated as “Joshua.”  Joshua was of a minority people group in his country and a member of a minority religion.  When he grew up he went into ministry.  His ministry lasted for just three years when he was condemned by the religious and academic elites of the time and executed by the local Roman governor.

But Joshua’s story did not end there.  You see the town in question was Nazareth, and the name "Joshua," when referring to Him, is more commonly translated as "Jesus."  Out of this little town of Nazareth, pathetic in every way, came a man who would transform the world.  Nazareth was so much a part of who Jesus was, that one of the early names for Christianity was “The Nazarene Sect” (Acts 24:5).

Just as Heaven came to Nazareth, and transformed the world, I believe God can take this little piece of Heaven called Bulgaria and transform the world.  We are strategically placed between Europe and Asia, and not to far from Africa.  People from all over the world come through here.  We merely need the right people who are willing to give everything for God that the light of Jesus might shine around the world out of Bulgaria.

Sometimes I look around Bulgaria and ask, “Is this heaven?”

No.  It’s Nazareth.