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[Repost from 2011]

About 10 years ago I wound up in the office of a Christian counsellor.  I couldn’t believe I was about to confess to depression.  Me, a church worker!  Me, conservative evangelicalism’s next big thing!

The cause?  Several very stressful things were happening in my life, but the tipping point into depression was a frustration with the gospel that was being preached around me.  And I fell flat on my face in despondency.

My counsellor took me to Jeremiah 2:13

12 Be appalled at this, you heavens,
and shudder with great horror,’
declares the Lord.
13 ‘My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

He said (very graciously) I’d been digging some kind of broken well which had dried up.  Now I was slumped at this false life-source with a mouth full of mud.  He asked what the broken well might be.  In an instant I knew: “I need everyone to read the bible the same way I do”.  Not for the glory of Jesus, but to be right!

I asked “What should I do?”  He said, “Give up on it and turn back to Jesus.”  As soon as he said “Give up on it” my whole flesh rose up and said “Never!”  This snarling idol revealed itself.  And it shocked me.

My theological paradigm had become my god.  And it was so subtle.  Because here’s the thing: I prided myself on the fact that my paradigm was uniquely Christ-centred.

But when I identified the pride issue a weight fell off my shoulders.  The issue was not the idiots out there, the issue was the arrogance in here.  I’d been thinking of my depression as a complicated issue of theological debate with no way through. In fact it was a simple (but very ugly) issue of plain old sin. And the gospel has a solution for sin.

Someone has wisely said that if you diagnose your problems as requiring anything less than the blood of Jesus for their solution, you haven’t diagnosed your real problem.  My hour with the counsellor cut through to the real problem.  But thankfully the real problem has a real solution. And it’s already mine. Or rather, He’s already mine. I left that office with a massive weight off my shoulders.

Not that I didn’t think the issues mattered any more.  They did matter.  They still matter.  But I looked at them through a different lens.

For one thing, I embraced the liberating truth that I was wrong too. Wrong about plenty. Wrong in a grotesque and sinful way. When you’re right all the time it’s a crushing burden. It’s actually a relief to be wrong – to be in need of forgiveness and correction. Suddenly I was free from the need to prove myself, because all I’d proved was that I was a self-righteous fool.

From there it was impossible to feel superior to those who disagreed theologically. I stopped trying to ‘put one over on them’ and started to genuinely rejoice in a gospel that can save such wrong people – like them and like me.  I then began to genuinely pity the folk with a Christ-less or Christ-lite theology. Not in smugness but with a sincere desire for their good.  I gave up on being the one who would crush them in theological debate and started to think more in terms of sowing seeds and trusting the results to God!

I get this wrong all the time and there’s still much of the arrogant young man to me.  But I also think God’s been teaching me some things about how to live and minister among other Christians with whom I disagree.  I’ll share a few thoughts in no particular order:

  • I love the saying (which I think goes back to Wesley?) that the way to handle opponents is “to out-live and out-love them, out-preach and out-pray them.”  That’s got to be the way forward. And I think it begins with repentance.  I repent of trusting in my Christ-centred paradigm.  I turn to Christ!
  • If I’m tempted to pride it’s good to turn to Elijah’s example in 1 Kings 19.  And to laugh at myself.  “I, only I am left!!” he says, exhausted by his own righteousness! “Ummm” says the LORD “I think you’ll find there’s thousands like you. Get some rest!”
  • I find it very tempting to try and be John the Baptist – a voice crying in the wilderness.  But that was a unique calling. I believe we’re called to get around others with the aroma of Christ.  And the aroma of ‘young hot-prot’ is not quite the same.
  • When relating to church leaders, get a vision for what’s already good about their preaching, leading and ministry.  It’s so tempting to look for what they do badly and to miss the hundred things they do well.  Anything and everything we can rejoice in, we should.  Loudly.
  • People can change.  Not through grand-standing argumentation.  But through a drip, drip, drip of the gospel.
  • I’m only beginning to learn this one:  Usually change happens when people taste the gospel dishes you serve up.  If you consistently serve up Christ-exalting stuff that releases hearts into gratitude and love, then people will ask you about the recipe.  Don’t start with the recipe: “Right, here are the ingredients you need – you’ve been doing it all wrong.  This is the order…”  Start by dishing out gospel goodness – then they’ll want the recipe.

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Do you ever hear of people or institutions described in the following way:

“Don’t get me wrong, their theology is straight down the line. They’re faithful, biblical, solid, orthodox, sound as a pound. You couldn’t fault them on their teaching… It’s just… Well, they’re not very loving. In fact they’re pretty closed. Cold even. Harsh actually. Come to think of it they’re some of the most hard hearted people I’ve ever met.”

It’s quite common to hear, isn’t it? What do we think is a good response?

My immediate reaction is: Where are these total-gospel Christians with diamond-hard hearts? What kind of gospel must this be? How could ‘solid, orthodox, faithful’ theology produce loveless believers? Do we really think they’ve got their theology right, they just happen to be bearing no gospel fruit?

And what remedy would we propose for such cool-headed, cold-hearted Christians? Do we assume that they already know the gospel and therefore need to be inspired to love via other means? What means?

No. Next time you hear someone say “He/She/They are solid theologically, they’re just not loving”, say “Pish, Tosh, Codswallop, Bunkum and Balderdash!”

They cannot be solid theologically. Maybe once they were. But our gospel is revealed far more clearly in our lives than our credal subscription.

I’m not saying that in depth study of the Athanasian creed guarantees warm-hearted gospel love.  I am saying that we should question the common-place label of ‘cold but sound.’  What do you think?

 

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Still in Africa, back in a couple of days.  Here’s one I first posted two years ago…

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I lost some of the best years of my life last month to an atheist blog.

With that in mind, I was amused at the recent furore over comment moderation at richarddawkins.net.  People are surprised at the vitriol spewed forth under pseudonymous cover in the under-belly of RichardDawkins.net?  A forum devoted to one of the most vituperative fundamentalisms going?  Does this shock anyone?

A couple of weeks ago I commented on a well respected and well-read atheist blog and was sworn at and wished dead in the most imaginatively vicious ways.  Compared to the abuses I and other Christians suffered there, the “rat’s rectum” comparisons that flew between fellow-atheists at Dawkins’ site sound like Pollyanna.

Anyway, I thought I’d try to redeem my experience by reflecting on some things I learnt, and some things I should have:

One reflection on my experience was written during the interchanges: Evangelists and Apologists Note: The six things that have already happened.

Here are some other reflections:

  1. Reason flows from the heart.  These guys raised a banner loud and proud for reason, logic, the scientific method, etc.   But there was nothing particularly reasoned or scientific about their manner of argument.  They were well read intelligent people (PhD students etc) but much of their commenting consisted in caps locked swear words.  “Logic” was their slogan not their method.
  2. They constantly appealed to a logical high-ground without any thought as to whether they were allowed one – being materialists and all!
  3. Pointing out this inconsistency didn’t seem to get me anywhere (though you never know how non-commenting readers are responding).
  4. Everyone deals in circularities:
    1. I believe the bible is the word of God because in it God speaks
    2. You believe the scientific method is the arbiter of what’s true because it’s proved itself effective when judged by science.
  5. Everyone has ultimate authorities which, by the nature of the case, cannot be authenticated by outside sources – ie the scientific method cannot be tested by the scientific method.  One guy admitted that this self-validation hasn’t happened yet but that one day science would definitely be able to prove the scientific method by the scientific method.  There’s faith for you.  Which leads to…
  6. Everyone is faith based.  We all proceed from assumptions which we take to be true and then move forwards on the basis of them.
  7. I kept getting asked for ‘evidence’.  My responses were in three broad categories, first I’d point to Christ risen from the dead, second I’d simply quote Scriptures.  But probably the most effective thing was to say “everything!  Everything reveals the LORD Jesus to you.”
  8. Therefore evangelism is the invitation to the unbeliever to step inside the world in which Jesus is LORD and look again.  Basically it’s saying: “Let me tell you a story about a triune God, the world He made and the Son who redeems it.  Now look again at the world through the Lens of Jesus.  Now do you see why self-giving love is the greatest thing?  Now do you see why trust and beauty, evil and forgiveness, truth and goodness are real beyond any scientific analysis?  In other words, now you can take seriously the most basic aspects of your human existence and not run against the grain of reality all the time.”
  9. In this sense theology is a science.  It begins with self-authenticating premises and moves out in faith to investigate .  This investigation is shaped by the Object of knowedge.  Since the Object of knowledge is the Speaking God, the method is to hear His Word.  The premises of our enquiry after knowledge (e.g. Jesus is LORD, the bible is true etc) are not falsifiable in the way the materialists demand they be.  But then the scientific premises (e.g. that true knowledge is verified by the scientific method etc) aren’t falsifiable either.  Premises are the light by which we see.  It’s their success in seeing that recommends them.
  10. The failure of “science alone” to see the world was very evident to me.  It didn’t seem particularly evident to them.  That Beethoven’s 9th was a series of compression waves was certain for them.  That it was “beautiful” was a verdict they couldn’t make with anything like the same certainty.
  11. The atheists who commented were very clearly captured by the vision of “the onward march of science”, demolishing ignorance and dispelling superstition.  There was clearly a love for scientific progress that had won their hearts.  Nothing less than a greater love could ever displace this.  All their calls for “evidence, evidence” were simply calls for reality to fit into their paradigm – to serve their greatest love.  They need a new paradigm, or better – a new love.
  12. The call for “evidence, evidence” in the sense that they mean is a desire to be confirmed in their self-imposed naturalistic prison.  What counts as ‘evidence’ for them is only that which can be assessed according to their naturalistic paradigm.  This is simply a refusal from the outset to hear a Voice from above.  Again it is a matter of hard-heartedness, however seriously they wish to be taken intellectually.
  13. My lowest point came in the heat of battle when I fired off a comment justifying my intellectual credibility.  I’m ashamed of what I took pride in at that moment.  I should have borne shame and taken pride in the foolishness of the gospel, allowing Christ to vindicate me.  The cause of the gospel was hindered rather than helped by the assertion of my academic credentials (which weren’t that great anyway!).  This is especially so given what I’ve been arguing above.
  14. Having said all this, I think it was a worth-while exercise.  Many of the commenters were American ‘de-converted’ evangelicals and knew a lot of bible.  The hurt from previous scars was palpable and I hope that a charitable Christian voice might at least temper some of the “all Christians are bigots” tirades that otherwise spiral on in these forums.
  15. On the other hand, some of the commenters were angry Brits and others who seemed to know very little of Christian things.  All they’ve heard has been from other atheists.
  16. And of course there were many more who I’m sure just ‘listened’.  My time at Speaker’s Corner taught me that even as you engage the Muslim apologist in front of you, you’re aiming at the wide-eyed apprentices hanging off his coat-tails.  Who knows how the Lord will use these words?
  17. Turning the other cheek hurts but it’s powerful.  I trust that (#13 and other lapses notwithstanding) perhaps the most useful aspect of the interchange was the attempt to model Christ in the way I commented.
  18. The absolute hatred for Christians is frighteningly palpable.  The hatred that’s there in the comments sections will rise more and more into the public realm, that seems pretty certain to me.  But if we’re surprised and outraged let’s get a grip – no soldier should act all offended and hurt when the enemy actually shoots bullets at them!
  19. Just as Stephen Fry speaks of descending into the “stinking, sliding, scuttling” floor of the internet, engaging in this kind of way can be the faintest taste of what the LORD Jesus did in descending to a world that hates Him.  (It can be a total waste of time too, but I think there is a time and a place for it).  I spent a few hours in an internet forum.  His whole life He lived and loved and spoke and served among a hatred that literally tore Him apart.  He’s the One we proclaim.  His attitude is the attitude we take.  And as we join Him (in big ways and small) in cross-bearing love, we get to know His enduring grace that much more.
  20. There is a time for shaking dust off your feet.  Some need to spend a little longer in the battle.  But probably people like me (who have to be right!) should quit sooner.  :)

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About 10 years ago I wound up in the office of a Christian counsellor.  I couldn’t believe I was about to confess to depression.  Me, a church worker!  Me, conservative evangelicalism’s next big thing!

The cause?  Several very stressful things were happening in my life, but the tipping point into depression was a frustration with the gospel that was being preached around me.  And I fell flat on my face in despondency.

My counsellor took me to Jeremiah 2:13 and said (very graciously) I’d been digging some kind of broken well which had dried up.  Now I was slumped at this false life-source with a mouth full of mud.  He asked what the broken well might be.  In an instant I knew: “I need everyone to read the bible the same way I do”.  Not for the glory of Jesus, but to be right!

I asked “What should I do?”  He said, “Give up on it and turn back to Jesus.”  As soon as he said “Give up on it” my whole flesh rose up and said “Never!”  Instantly I knew that this idol had its hooks in me.  And it shocked me.

My theological paradigm had become my god.  And it was so subtle.  Because here’s the thing: I prided myself on the fact that my paradigm was uniquely Christ-centred.

But when I identified the pride issue a weight fell off my shoulders.  The issue was not the idiots out there, the issue was the arrogance in here.  I’d been thinking of it as a complicated issue of theological debate with no way through.  In fact it was a simple (but very ugly) issue of plain old sin.  And the gospel has a solution for sin.

Someone has wisely said that if you diagnose your problems as requiring anything less than the blood of Jesus for their solution, you haven’t diagnosed your real problem.  My hour with the counsellor cut through to the real problem.  But thankfully the real problem has a real solution.  And it’s already mine.  Or rather, He’s already mine.  I left that office with a massive weight off my shoulders.

Not that I didn’t think the issues mattered any more.  They did matter.  They still matter.  But I looked at them through a different lens.

For one thing, I started pitying the Christ-lite Christians around me – not despising them or competing with them.  But genuinely feeling sorry for them and wanting something better for them.  I gave up on being the one who would crush them in theological debate and started to think more in terms of sowing seeds and trusting the results to God!

I get this wrong all the time and there’s still much of the arrogant young man to me.  But I also think God’s been teaching me some things about how to live and minister among other Christians with whom I disagree.  I’ll share a few thoughts in no particular order:

* I love the saying (which I think goes back to Wesley?) that the way to handle opponents is “to out-live and out-love them, out-preach and out-pray them.”  That’s got to be the way forward. And I think it begins with repentance.  I repent of trusting in my christocentrism.  I turn to Christ!

* If I’m tempted to pride it’s good to turn to Elijah’s example in 1 Kings 19.  And to laugh at myself.  “I, only I am left!!” he says, exhausted by his own righteousness! “Ummm” says the LORD “I think you’ll find there’s thousands like you. Get some rest!”

* I find it very tempting to try and be John the Baptist – a voice crying in the wilderness.  But that’s not our calling.  We’re to get around others with the aroma of Christ.  And the aroma of ‘young hot-prot’ is not quite the same.

* When relating to church leaders, get a vision for what’s already good about their preaching, leading and ministry.  It’s so tempting to look for what they do badly and to miss the hundred things they do well.  Anything and everything we can rejoice in, we should.  Loudly.

* People can change.  Not through grand-standing argumentation.  But through a drip, drip, drip of gospel juiciness.

* I’m only beginning to learn this one:  Usually change happens when people taste the gospel dishes you serve up.  If you consistently serve up Christ-exalting stuff that releases hearts into gratitude and love, then people will ask you about the recipe.  Don’t start with the recipe: “Right, here are the ingredients you need – you’ve been doing it all wrong.  This is the order…”  Start by dishing out gospel goodness – then they’ll want the recipe.

And now, for the real wisdom on these issues – check out the comments… (don’t let me down guys)…

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Recently I discussed three myths that prop up pop-biblical-theology.  My sights aren’t set on the myths so much.  My sights are set on a unitarian hermeneutic which often (but not always) lies behind them.  But the myths are the assumptions that allow the real danger to flourish.

Allow Article 7 of the 39 Articles to describe the real bogeyman:

The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises.

Today we are hearing those who ‘feign’ exactly this kind of nonsense.  And almost always they use these myths to support it.

Here are two more  hidden assumptions which exert a heavy influence on these discussions:

4) Antiquarian means unitarian

I was recently in a blog discussion in which a commenter asserted “There is no preface to the bible.”  Good point.  God has not written a little introduction with some notes on theological assumptions etc.  We just dive into Moses and away we go.

Trouble is, this commenter was using that fact as proof that Moses etc couldn’t have had conscious messianic faith because, well, apart from a messianic preface where would OT saints get that idea from?

And no, it’s no use pointing to their actual words because, as myth 1 states so eloquently, they spoke better than they knew.  And it’s no use pointing to other verses about their messianic faith because, as myth 3 insists, those verses tell us nothing of authorial intent.

So, the argument goes, in the absence of a messianically focussed, trinitarian preface, we ought to assume an essentially sub-messianic, unitarian faith. Right?

Well now.  The fact that there’s no preface cuts both ways.  If your default assumption is that belief evolves from more primitive forms into messianic faith then you have an unwritten preface of your own.  But why should we accept such a preface?  Why should antiquarian equal unitarian?  Why not just dive into Moses and the Prophets assuming they’re talking about the same triune God revealed in the One Mediator, the Divine Angel, the Visible God, the LORD Messiah?  Since we’ve all got unwritten prefaces, why not have this one?  Sounds a lot more biblical to me than assuming they were unitarian!  I know that comparative religion teachers would have a heart attack, but what biblical reason could we have for rejecting such an unwritten preface?

So often people assume Moses’ doctrine of God was essentially Maimonides’!  There’s an assumption that trinitarianism is the fruit of a progressive revelation of truth.  No-one ever says that in the bible.  Or anything like it.

In fact the NT records no doctrinal struggles whatsoever with a multi-Personal doctrine of God.  Kosher diet – that’s tricky.  Circumcision – that’s a dilly of a pickle.  But trinity – no worries.

So rather than seeing trinitarianism as the fruit of progressive revelation, why not assume that modern Judaism’s unitarianism is the fruit of regressive reception?  That’s my assumption.

It is neither obvious nor true that OT faith was essentially unitarian.  See here for more on the trinitarian OT.  Or this fascinating site The Two Powers.

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5) Progress precludes prescience

Here’s another strong but false assumption.  It goes something like this:

Christ fulfills OT shadows.  Therefore there is progress in the bible – kings that come and go before The King arrives; temples set up before The Temple appears; lambs that are sacrificed before The Lamb is slain; etc; etc…

And to this we can all happily nod along.  Who could disagree?  Who would want to?

The trouble comes when this feat of logic is deployed:

…Therefore, because there is such progress, it is obvious that OT saints trusted only the shadows and were ignorant of their Fulfilment.

To which the response is: huh??  Why should this be the case?  It just doesn’t follow.  In fact, consider how these shadows were set up in the OT:

Before a lamb was ever offered, it was promised “God Himself will provide the lamb” (Gen 22:8)

Before a king ever held the sceptre it was prophesied “He will come to Whom it belongs (Gen 49:10)

Before an article of the tabernacle was produced, Moses was told it was “according to a pattern.” (Ex 25:9,40)

Progress does not preclude prescience.  I’m sure there were many who looked only to the shadows and not to the Substance (just as there are many who today might trust in the sacraments and not Christ).  But there’s nothing about the fact of progress that means OT faith terminated on a sub-Christian object.

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So then, let’s make it five myths.

1) The prophets spoke better than they knew

2) No-one expected the kind of Messiah Jesus was

3) The Apostles read unintended Messianic meaning into the prophets

4) Antiquarian means unitarian

5) Progress precludes prescience

I’ve never argued biblical theology without most of these assumptions being in play.  Usually all of them.

Can you think of others?

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Here are three assertions that trip off evangelical tongues, almost without a second thought.  They are the air we breathe.  Almost never challenged.  And almost never justified in any Scriptural sense.  Everyone just knows them.

Trouble is they’re not true.

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Myth #1 – The prophets spoke better than they knew.

Take any text from, say, Handel’s Messiah.  Try to use it as justification for Messianic faith in the OT and count the seconds before someone counters “Ah, but they spoke better than they knew.”

What chapter of Hezekiah is that in again?  I forget.

Just pause for a second.  Why on earth should we think that?  Why shouldn’t we assume that “the prophets knew what they were talking about?”  Wouldn’t that be the most obvious assumption?

Why would we doubt that Isaiah knew what he was talking about?  Apart from a Darwinian belief in progress.  Apart from what CS Lewis called chronological snobbery.  Seriously, where have we got the idea that prophets – those whose job it is to enlighten the people – are actually so thick they can’t understand their own prophecies.  I mean that would be a really odd model of prophecy wouldn’t it?  But, you know, I’m willing to go with it – if the bible teaches it.  But where does the bible teach such a model of prophecy?

Caiaphas?  The murderer of Jesus?  His one off pronouncement is our model for Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel?

And yet the myth persists.  It is asserted very strongly and very often.  And it needs to be if pop-biblical-theology is to avoid imploding under the massive weight of OT evidence to the contrary.

But the thing is, it’s not true.

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Myth #2 – No-one expected the kind of Messiah that Jesus was

I don’t think I’ve ever been in a home group bible study in my life where this myth was not mentioned at least once in the night.  “Well, of course, the people all expected the Christ to come on a war horse and overturn the Romans.”  Well it’s a decent guess that some Israelites might have been of that persuasion.  But show me the verse that says all Israel conceived of the Messiah only in such terms.

It seems like, relative to any supporting Scriptural evidence, this assertion is punching way above its weight in terms of its general acceptance among bible believers.

And in fact, there’s lots of Scriptural evidence that the people were well able to comprehend the kind of Messiah Jesus was.  At Christmas we remember Simeon holding the baby Jesus and rejoicing that he’d therefore seen salvation.  The kings from the east bowed to a child and the songs like the Magnificat are Scripture-full acknowledgements of what an upside down kind of king the Christ is.  Read on in John chapter 1 and you have Simon, Andrew, Philip and Nathanael perfectly able to comprehend that this carpenter was Messiah, King of Israel and Son of God.

Absolutely there were comprehension issues among the disciples – especially as the way of the cross was set before them (same with us right?).  But it’s just not the case that first century Israelites were unprepared for the kind of Messiah Jesus would be.  They were very prepared.  And the faithful among them (like Simeon and Anna) understood it very well.

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Myth #3 – The Apostles read Messianic meaning into Hebrew texts that weren’t intended by the original authors.

Myth #1 is deployed whenever an Old Testament text threatens pop-biblical-theology TM.  Myth #3 is deployed whenever a New Testament text threatens the system:

“Ah yes, but Paul had apostolic warrant to reinterpret OT texts in ways not intended by the author.”

How very odd.  And to think Paul was able to reason in synagogues with Jews and win some over when apparently his claim is that he’s not giving Moses’ meaning but a new one!

Strange indeed, but ok, I’m willing to go with the weirdness because I imagine there must be explicit biblical warrant for it.  There must be a mountain of verses telling me about the apostolic re-reading of Hebrew texts.  Right?  And married to that, there’d have to be loads of verses telling us not to follow the Apostles in their exegesis because they were authorized to do weird stuff.

But, hmm.  Where are these verses?

And Paul even explicitly says “I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen, that Christ would suffer and rise and bring light to the Gentiles.”  (Acts 26:22f).

So then, what’s driving this myth?

Could it be that the pressure to believe Myth 3 comes not from biblical arguments but from the need to protect against biblical arguments??  Could it be that Myth 3 is required as the only escape route pop-biblical-theology has from the mountain of NT verses stacked against it?

I’ll let you decide.

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You might not think this is a very Christmassy theme.  Well think of it as answering this question: “Did Israel really sing ‘O Come O Come Immanuel’ or can we only put that song on their lips after the fact?”

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Not if you ask Dave Bish

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Oh, and Daniel Blanche has written a gem of a Christmas post.

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