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Observations from Visiting Different Churches this Summer

Observations from Visiting Different Churches this Summer

I’ve been on a full sabbatical this summer.  It has been an enriching, rejuvenating, and much needed time.  One aspect of my sabbatical was that I visited different churches each Sunday.  This has been a great eye-opening experience for me.

I don’t have all the answers, but it certainly raised some good questions.  Namely, if we sat down at a table with Jesus and came up with a blueprint for what church should look like, would our contemporary model be what we come up with?  Obviously not.  And that’s not to throw stones at any of the churches I visited, or to say that mine would be the answer, because it certainly isn’t either.  But it’s a question that we need to ask and keep asking and keep rethinking as we strategize and plan our ministries.  Here is a list of what I learned and observed this summer from my church visiting, some of these are more deeper than others.  Disclaimer:  I am wired to see what we can improve on rather than what we are doing well.  I find it to be more productive for producing effective change.  I’m not trying to be overly critical here.  There were good things I saw too, but that’s not really the purpose of this list:

  • Being new to a church is an uncomfortable feeling, and I’m a pastor who has spent his whole life in church.  I can’t imagine how uncomfortable it is for someone who has never been to church before in their life.
  • New people like to sit in the back, on the ends of rows.  It is makes it difficult when these seats are unavailable to them.
  • Most people in churches do not sing, or they sing very quietly.
  • With a small number of exceptions, sermons aren’t super interesting or memorable.
  • For the most part, the strategy for a new person to connect into the community of a church is this:  1. Go to a service, 2. Enjoy it / Learn from it, 3. come back, 4. join a small group, event, or service group which is where you’ll A. build friendships, B. grow deeper, and/or C. impact the community.  I look at this progression and wonder if this is the best way?  It seems like a lot of steps to take to get to the “end goal”, and that first step is really impersonal.  That’s the thing I noticed over and over, with a small number of exceptions.
  • Churches are very segregated racially.  The vast number of churches are either 99.9% white or 99.9% black.  This is a subject that I will likely post a separate, longer blog on in order to do it justice.  I’m still wrestling with the best way to articulate this as it’s something God has been weighing heavier and heavier on my heart over the years (and is at it’s heaviest point right now!) and is something I want to communicate in a way that is effective and helpful, not condemning or judgmental.  The book Divided By Faith ruined me on this issue a few years ago and God has only intensified this conviction in me as years have progressed.  I strongly recommend that you read this book if you want to get understanding and grow in this area.  Props to Kingdom Life Church for being a good mix of blacks and whites.
  • I found this randomly funny:  White churches all serve coffee and snacks.  Black churches don’t.
  • I was excited about the idea of video venues.  After visiting a couple, my excitement has lessened.  The jury is still out for me on them.

For now, I just want to leave my observations as observations.  I hope they cause you to ask good questions when it comes to the effectiveness of the local church to reach people who don’t know Jesus and to take Christians deeper in their walks with him.

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2012 in Theology

 

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The Year in Review, 9 days late…

The Year in Review, 9 days late…

It’s fitting that my year in review would come 9 days after New Year’s.  As I reflect back on my first real attempt to be a blogger, I realize this is the type of blogger I am.  When I started out in July, I thought I’d be posting a couple times a week, or at least once a week.  Fast forward and I am posting around a once a month!  I post when I get inspired.  And then only when I have time.  Which between the two definitely dwindles down my opportunities.  I think good blogs that post frequently are ones that have a scheduled goal they are setting out to blog about, like when my blog-friend Ivy blogged through reading the Bible as a non-believer in 2010.  Read the Bible every day, blog about it = regular blogging.  Same goes for sports bloggers.  Your team plays a game, blog about it = regular blogging.  I thought I could do this with my sermons each Sunday, but the videos are never uploaded in time for when I am inspired/have time early in the week, and I don’t like doing a blog post without the video link, so this just hasn’t happened as often as I’d first intended.  All in all though, I really have enjoyed blogging the posts that I have, and I do enjoy keeping score of which blogs garner the most hits the day they are posted.  For my blog year in review, I’d like to highlight some of my favorite blogs that you may have missed.  Since I blog soooo sporadically, I figure it’s easy you could have missed a few of these gems (sarcasm doesn’t always come across well in text), so I thought I’d start your new year out with some reruns:

11.24.11 Being a Dad = Science Fiction – This was the winner for most hits in a day.  Makes me feel great about my writing abilities.  You only click on things where videos and photos of my cute baby are involved.

10.24.11 The Elephant in the Church Room: Homosexuality – I figured this would be a hot topic and it was.  A close second for most hits in a day.  I was grateful for the interaction I received at first, but when I posted a reply, the conversation ended.  I would love for someone to click, read, and continue the dialogue as I raised some questions that I’d love to hear reaction to.

9.8.11 NFL Prophecy – Fun to look back on my NFL picks.  All I have to say is it is a good thing I don’t bet on sports or the Eagles would have made me a very broke man.  But hey, I did pick the Lions to be the #6 seed in the playoffs, which they were, which has to be worth something right?

8.30.11 Why I Believe in God.  (hint: it’s not because of the Bible) – Look at my provocative title.

My new year’s resolution: Shorter blogs.  More blogs.  Pick my nose less.  Happy New Year.

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2012 in Uncategorized, Wisecracks

 

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Why Is the Old Testament God so vengeful? And other biblical interpretation issues…

Why Is the Old Testament God so vengeful?  And other biblical interpretation issues…

Hermeneutics (how we interpret the Bible) has really been on my heart recently.  Biblical hermeneutics in a nutshell is the process of figuring out: What is the eternal/divine meaning of a text? (Not it’s immediate cultural application).  A helpful case study of hermeneutics is 1 Cor. 13:12, Greet one another with a holy kiss.  The Bible is very clear that we should do this, yet we don’t.  Why?  Are we disobeying the Bible?  Are we not reading the Bible literally?  Why do we not do this today?  Because we understand this was a cultural expression of showing Christian love, the way a hug or handshake would be today.  I defy anyone who says, “We must apply the Bible literally!” — because if you do please warn me to come late to your church service, after the “kiss the person next to you” time is over and done with.  Bible translators have picked up on this, as you’ll notice in the 2007 New Living Translation (a translation that is more concerned with idea-for-idea from the Greek to English than it is word-for word) has 1 Cor. 13:12 as reading:  Greet each other with Christian love.  Alright, whew, now that is a church I can attend and not have to worry about if I used mouthwash that morning or not.  Yes, we need to apply the eternal/divine meaning of a text literally, but not its immediate cultural and/or contextual application.  A helpful hermeneutical phrase to remember is:  The Bible was written for us, but not to us.  When discussing debated issues amongst Christianity, I would advise people not say, “Well the Bible says so and so we do it” (i.e. It’s in the Bible and we take it literally!) as their argument, because if you say that in one spot, you’ve got to be consistent and use it all over (as well as wear plenty of Chapstick Flava-Craze , for all of our sakes), otherwise you too are simply picking and choosing.  Instead, we must do the difficult task of hermeneutics each and every time we read the Bible: a text written for us, but not to us!  (It’s no wonder people get Ph.D’s in this stuff—the problem is sometimes those only solidify our preexisting biases!)

This applies to all of the New Testament prooftexts a Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon will give you as to why they don’t believe in the Trinity to the dozens of debated issues that divide Christian denominations.  Saying “the Bible says so right here in this instance and we take that literally” simply isn’t good enough.  Hey, I never said this wouldn’t get messy, something we really hate in church circles.

The thing that has put this topic so heavy on my heart is that hermeneutics is the key to understanding the Bible as we are meant to.  If you just picked up the Bible out of the blue, without the understanding of basic hermeneutics, you are bound to be utterly confused and likely will get a very skewed version of who God is.  One of the biggest questions that arises when someone tries reading the Bible from cover to cover (not the way it is meant to be read, btw), is:  Why is the God of the Old Testament so vengeful?  How can he command genocide?  I found a great article by David Lamb that gives a great explanation to these questions.  What I appreciate most about this article is Lamb’s humility as well as consistency.  The thing that gets me fired up about biblical interpretation is when people pick and choose the parts of Scripture they like and toss out the rest, and you see people on both ends of the spectrum doing this; some do it with the moral commands they agree and disagree with, while others do it with theological positions they agree or disagree with.  Lamb effectively singles out both of these groups as inconsistent viewpoints, and does a great job of giving solid hermeneutical options that show how we can continue to hold the entire Bible as truth in a way that is consistent from cover to cover, when dealing with this challenging question, and others like it.  The article is only 2 pages and has cool pictures; even you can read that:  Type in “page 109” at http://www.relevantmagazine.com/digital-issue/53

The biggest thing to remember when reading the Bible is that it is like a masterpiece painting.  The entire painting tells one consistent story (Jesus redeeming humanity back to a love relationship with Him).  You cannot take a hole puncher to a painting and look at only that dot, and/or only at 3-4 dots, and say you have the message of Scripture.  At best, you’d be ignorant and/or incomplete, and at worst you’d be a heretic capable of committing all kinds of damage!  The Story is the painting, not the dots.  You must look at every dot in relation with the entire painting.  And for those of you who have read the Bible from cover to cover and were left unimpressed, I honestly apologize that better prefaces aren’t put into Bibles giving better instructions on how to read it.  I would expect you to get as much out of the Bible as I would if I popped in a new DVD and put the scenes on “shuffle mode”… I saw the movie, but it didn’t make any sense.

More on this to come, but this is a good start…

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2011 in Hermeneutics, Theology

 

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A Response to a Mormon

This post started out as a reply to a Mormon, Dan Holden, who commented on my previous blog post about when two Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped by my house.  As I tend to do, I got rather lengthy with it so decided to turn it into its’ own post rather than leave it as a comment:

Thanks for the comment Dan, I really do appreciate your willingness to converse about these things.  I think the biggest thing to remember when arguing against the Trinity is that Christians do believe that God exists in 3 separate persons.  The Scriptures I often see non-Trinitarians like JW’s and Mormons use are verses that we already use to explain God’s 3 Persons.  We believe the Bible communicates that God is 3 Persons but 1 Essence, so arguing that He is 3 Persons is telling us something we already acknowledge (simply stating this as advice as you lay out your arguments).

The second piece of advice is that when you (a Mormon) are talking to a Christian, remember that we do not believe the Book of Mormon to be authoritative/true, so you can’t use arguments from the Book of Mormon with a Christian to help argue your point.  We can both use the Bible in our discussions though, which is a good place to have this conversation.  Though Christians are able to show where the Book of Mormon contradicts the Bible, which is what brings up my unanswered questions about Mormonism, for example, on Mormon.org it states:

•    “Mormons believe first and foremost that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world and the Son of God.”
•    the truth that Jesus Christ is the only way by which we can return to live with our Heavenly Father. Jesus suffered and was crucified for the sins of the world, giving each of God’s children the gift of repentance and forgiveness. Only by His mercy and grace can anyone be saved. His subsequent resurrection prepared the way for every person to overcome physical death as well. These events are called the Atonement. In short, Jesus Christ saves us from sin and death. For that, he is very literally our Savior and Redeemer. In the future Jesus Christ will return to reign on earth in peace for a thousand years. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and He will be our Lord forever.

…Which Christians also believe and is straight from the Bible.  If we both really believed this, we would both be on our way to Heaven and in a right relationship with God.  But Joseph Smith, in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith-History 1:9-19, in reference to Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists, he says:  “What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it? …I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at that time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)…I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong… all their creeds were an abomination…all those professors were all corrupt.”

He says that “all their creeds were an abomination”, that is pretty strong language to say about Christians’ believe in the Atoning work of Christ which brings salvation, which is essentially what Mormon.org is quoting verbatim.  How can what you just stated about the way to get to Heaven/salvation also be an abomination?  Smith is saying that anyone not a Mormon is going to hell, but Christians all believe the exact doctrine Mormons state is what gets someone to heaven!  This is an unanswered question I have about Mormonism, which seems like a huge contradiction to me.

Mormons also believe God the Father was begotten of the species of gods, who existed before him in an infinite series of gods who were once men, but Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13 clearly tell us that God is the “Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” He has always been here and will always be here.

Mormons believe that God the Father was at one time a sinful human, as we are, was purified, and became God the Father.  They believe the same about Jesus, who (I think) they say is the god of this earth.  These directly contradict Scripture which very clearly tell us God doesn’t change:

Malachi 3:6  “I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.
Psalm 102:12  But you, O LORD, sit enthroned forever;
        your renown endures through all generations.
Psalm 102:25-28     In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth,
        and the heavens are the work of your hands.
 They will perish, but you remain;
        they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them
        and they will be discarded.
 But you remain the same,
        and your years will never end.
The children of your servants will live in your presence;
        their descendants will be established before you.”
Hebrews 13:7-9   Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.  Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings.
James 1:17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

Beyond this, Mormons believe in many gods (and that we can become one), where Scripture clearly says there is only one God:
Romans 3:30 since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.
Ephesians 4:6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
James 2:19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

Mormons believe that the ultimate goal of humanity is to become a perfected god with a wife as a goddess:

o    Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses, 1:356 – When you have learned to become obedient to the Father that dwells upon this earth, to the Father and God of this earth, and obedient to the messengers He sends—when you have done all that, remember you are not going to leave this earth.  You will never leave it until you become qualified, and capable, and capacitated to become a father of an earth yourselves.”
o    Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 2:48 “The Father has promises us that through our faithfulness we shall be blessed with the fullness of his kingdom.  In other words we will have the privilege of becoming like him.  To become like him we must have all the powers of godhood; thus a man and his wife when glorified will have spirit children who eventually will go on an earth like this one we are on and pass through the same kind of experiences, being subject to mortal conditions, and if faithful, then they also will receive the fullness of exaltation and partake of the same blessings.  There is not end to this development; it will go on forever”

You can’t find this anywhere in Scripture, and also contradicts the above verses about there only being one God.

And frankly, an embarrassing doctrine in Mormon writing that has nothing to do with Scripture and contradicts Galatians 3:28 (Gal. 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.), saying that the less valiant angels were cursed to become Negroes on earth:

o    “We naturally conclude that others among the two-thirds did not show the loyalty to their Redeemer that they should.  That the Negro race, for instance, have been placed under restrictions because of their attitude in the world of spirits , few will doubt.” Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, 1975, p. 43
o    “Every man had his agency there, and men receive rewards here based upon their actions there, just as they will receive rewards hereafter for deeds done in the body.  The Negro, evidently, is receiving the reward he merits” Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 1:65-66

I know that much of these contradictions rest on the Book of Mormon trumping the Bible in your view.  The Mormon Elder who came to my house asked me why I believed God’s revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai (10 Commandments, etc.), but I don’t believe God’s revelation to Joseph Smith.  My answer is very simple: Jesus did not affirm Joseph Smith’s revelation, but he did affirm Moses’ in Matthew 5:17-18, as well as the fact that Joseph Smith was not a direct eye-witness to Jesus or an eyewitness to the eyewitnesses (which is why we receive the New Testament as Scripture).  And this brings up a huge question that I would love to get answered by a Mormon, which the Mormon Elder who came by my house could not answer: What is the difference between the claimed revelation to Joseph Smith compared to the claimed revelation to the Muslim prophet Mohammad?  Mohammad allegedly received a revelation from God in a cave, telling him the contents of the Koran, which sounds nearly identical to Joseph Smith’s revelation about what to put in the Book of Mormon, or really any other claimed revelation from God which comes after the New Testament (e.g. David Karesh, Jim Jones, etc.).  So what makes Joseph Smith’s differ in comparison to these others?  The common threads in these examples is that they got their revelations long after Jesus’ life, they made a claim of God revealing Himself to them that anyone could claim, as there’s no way to validate their claim, and most importantly, all of these revelations directly contradict what we already have in the Old and New Testaments.  The only answer my Mormon Elder visitor could give me is that in his heart he feels a peace from God that Mormonism is true, and also that he thinks this is the best way to live — something I’m sure all Muslims, and followers of various other faiths feel and believe, or else they wouldn’t believe these things and even die for them.  Unfortunately, sincerity of belief is not enough to make something true.

Everyone is entitled to believe what they want, but the major hangup I have with both Mormons and JW’s is that they say they believe the Bible, and then there are these huge contradictions between the Bible and the other writings they have added to the Bible in their traditions.  If you want to believe the Book or Mormon, you can, but don’t say you also believe the Bible because they say two very different things.  Just say “I believe the Book of Mormon, but only bits and pieces of the Bible” as that would be much more accurate and honest.  I know you said your goal in your blog was to debunk myths Christians believe about Mormonism; I’d honestly be very interested in reading that (if you address my above questions) because the response I got from the Mormon Elder who visited my house when I asked him all of the above questions, comparing Mormon belief to Scripture was “That’s really interesting/is confusing to me, I need to do more research on that.”  Which to me is someone’s way of seeing that there are contradictions but he’s obviously too invested in the Mormon culture to pull out of it.

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2011 in Theology

 

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Witnessing to (Jehovah) Witnesses

Two Jehovah Witnesses stopped by my house today.  They are the 2nd pair to come by in the last two months or so.  While most of our natural reactions when JW’s or Mormons ring our doorbell is to tell them we’re not interested, or maybe even to get angry at them, I encourage Bible-believing Jesus-followers (a better description than “Christian” for what I consider myself!) to see these encounters as an opportunity to share the true message of Jesus with these witnesses.  The common bond that JW’s and Mormons have is that at the core of their faith, they believe we are saved by our good behavior (earning God’s approval), rather than being saved by our faith in the forgiveness and love of Jesus.  On a theological level, neither group believes Jesus is God (they don’t believe in the Trinity)… (both will tell you in some way that “Jesus saves us”, but how can Jesus save us from hell if he was a mere prophet or angelic figure, only God can conquer something as powerful as sin! -and you’ll find this is only lip service to him saving us, it is truly our works, in their minds, that save us in the end)

On a side note, a couple months before my first pair of JW’s came by (June), I had a pair of Mormons come by as well (April).  I learned a lot from each of these conversations.  For what it’s worth, the pair of Mormons were a lot more polite than the JW’s.  They were interested in actually having a conversation with me, and when I presented something to them that made their beliefs contradict Scripture (you have to know Mormons believe the Bible (KJV version) is God’s word), they said, “That’s a good point, I’ve never thought of it that way, I’m going to do more research on that,” which I appreciated.  The frustrating thing about talking to both JW’s pairs that have come over (they also say they believe the Bible is God’s word… kind of… they change words and add words to the original Greek and Hebrew, how convenient, but for the most part you can still show them Scriptures to look up accurately), it feels like when I talk to them I must sound exactly like the teacher from the Charlie Brown cartoons:

Because the JW’s tell me, “We believe everything the Bible says.”  I then show them 3 simple Scriptures that show that Jesus/the Messiah is seen as God (a part of the Trinity) in Scripture:

Isaiah 9:6  (prophecy of the Messiah) For to us a child is born,
        to us a son is given,
        and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called
        Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
        Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 10:21 (same word describes Messiah in 9:6 as here describes Jehovah/God)  A remnant will return, a remnant of Jacob will return to the Mighty God.

John 20:27-29 Then he (Jesus) said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Colossians 1:16-17 For by him (Jesus) all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

And I swear I must sound exactly like the teacher from Charlie Brown, because these are the responses I have received:

The first lady, after telling me adamantly she believes the Bible, told me that nothing she ever hears is going to make her say that “Jesus is God.”  I asked her then how both of her statements can be true since Isaiah, Thomas (with Jesus affirming it), and Paul (author of Colossians) all just said that Jesus is God, and all of them are in the Bible.

The 2nd lady gave me an analogy about a dog to explain her view of Jesus in relation to the Father, and then said how she’s believed this for 25 years so she isn’t going to change now.

I’m not saying that the Trinity is a simple concept to digest, but please don’t compare your Jesus and God to a something about how dogs relate to each other.  And I’m not saying you should listen to my view and in 5 seconds, understand the Trinity.  The Trinity is hard for our minds to grasp: how does Jesus pray to the Father, while at the same time say, (John 10:30-31) “I and the Father are one.” Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him... or: (John 14:9)  “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?   But at the very minimum these Scriptures should exude the response from a self-proclaimed Bible believer that “I’ve never thought of it that way, I’m going to do more research on that.”  If you’re interested in a more in-depth look at the Trinity, see my Feb. sermon on it:

Beyond the this’s and the that’s of our theological views, the lack of ability to listen presented by the JW’s is what troubles me the most.  I give credit to the Mormons who were actually taking notes, and willing to hear what the original Greek and Hebrew texts say, and when there’s a difference with their beliefs, say: “Hey I’ll look into that more,” rather than claim to believe the Bible then immediately say that the Bible won’t change your beliefs about God.

It makes me wonder how often I do this when talking to others about their faith, or talking to other Christians about their doctrinal beliefs that differ than mine.  While it’s more obvious when we see this in those of other faiths, it’s much harder to see in our own lives.  While holding a Bible in hand, it is important that we read it for what it is (while using good hermeneutics I beg of you Christian!!), and try our absolute best to rid ourselves of preconceived biases we have, like how our Jehovah Witness, Mormon, Baptist, Pentecostal, etc. upbringing taught us to look at the Bible.  Let’s look at the Bible (without adding any words to it please, JW’s!).  Jesus ripped on the Pharisees over and over for adding things to the Bible, let’s make sure we don’t do the same in our traditions.

And to Christians out there, please show JW’s and Mormons the love and grace of Jesus when they stop at your house.  Explain to them that it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8-9).  They, like everyone else, need to here of these incredible gift God has given us, they are just happening to come to your door to hear it from you, rather than you having to go to them.

(you don’t need to go to seminary to have an intelligent conversation with these faiths.  Check out these great resources, which are bullet-pointed and brief, and excellent:  Mormonism by Kurt Van Gorden & Jehovah’s Witnesses by Robert M. Bowman, Jr. )

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2011 in Theology

 

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