Posts tagged ‘Easter’

Sri Lanka, Persuasion, and Resurrection

There is this telling line that describes the way in which the apostle Paul conducted his ministry: “Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4).  Paul, when it came to sharing the gospel, sought to persuade.  And, by all accounts, he was quite successful.  What began a small group of hundreds of Christians in the first century now numbers 2.18 billion.

The Christian faith has always had an affinity for persuasion.  There is a whole subset of Christian teaching categorized as “apologetics,” which is meant to defend the faith against those who would attack its integrity and persuade those who question its credibility.  Indeed, persuasion is critical to the Christian mission.  Christians are called to make winsome, reasoned, intelligible arguments as to why Jesus is the Messiah in the confidence that God’s Spirit will bring people to faith in Jesus as the Messiah.

Not everyone, however, operates in this way of persuasion.

Last Sunday, as Christians in Sri Lanka were celebrating the resurrection of Christ, a spate of coordinated, terrorist attacks were launched by nine suicide bombers at three churches and three hotels in the island nation’s capital, Colombia, killing around 250.  There were warnings in the days and weeks before the attacks, which Sri Lankan officials failed to heed.  One of the suicide bombers had been previously arrested, but was then released.  ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, although the extent to which the terror group was involved remains unclear.

Tragically, these kinds of attacks have become unsurprising.  In 2017, 18,814 people were killed in terrorist attacks worldwide.  This represents a whopping 27% decline in deaths from the year before.  Many, many people have lost their lives in these acts of evil.

Behind terrorism lies an ideology that those who disagree with you, whether their disagreement be theological, philosophical, ideological, or political, cannot and are not to be persuaded.  Instead, they are to be defeated and destroyed.  This way of thinking is as horrifying as it is frightening.  But it is also, ultimately, unsuccessful.

At the dawn of the third century, when Christians were being severely persecuted by the Romans, a church historian named Tertullian famously wrote to the Church’s persecutors:

Your cruelty, however exquisite, does not avail you; it is rather a temptation to us.  The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.

And seed it was.  When Tertullian wrote these words, there were around 19,000 Christians in Rome, about 4% of the city’s population.  50 years later, that number had grown to 78,000, around 17% of the city’s population.  By the year 300, there were nearly 300,000 Christians in Rome, which constituted over 66% of the city’s population.  Christians were killed.  But the Christian Church could not be stopped.  The persecutors’ terrorizing overtures were unsuccessful.

As it was in Tertullian’s day, so it is in our day.  The threats of those who despise Christians are simply no match for the persuasive and attractive truth of Christianity.  Those who lost their lives in Sri Lanka while worshipping the risen Savior on Easter are not extinguished.  They are simply now waiting – waiting for the One who, on the Last Day, will call forth their bodies from their graves.  To quote Tertullian once more:

The resurrection of the dead is the Christian’s trust … Life is the great antagonist of death, and will in the struggle swallow up for salvation what death, in its struggle, had swallowed up for destruction.

A terrorist may be able to take a life with a bomb, but he cannot extinguish that life for eternity.  Just like some soldiers, a long time ago, were able to take a life with a cross, but they could not extinguish that life for longer than three days.  Of this we are called to persuade people.  Of this I am fully persuaded.

Christ is risen.  And because He has risen, Sri Lankan Christians will rise.  And so will we.

April 29, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Rebuilding of Notre Dame and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

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The world watched in horror as a medieval Gothic treasure was wrecked last Monday when flames ripped through Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  Parts of the building, the construction of which began in 1163, still stand.  But much of the roof, which was made out of timber and original to the structure, along with the cathedral’s grand spire, also made out of wood and iron and rebuilt in 1844, is no more.

Reports indicate that many of the cathedral’s priceless relics, including what is claimed to have been the crown of thorns Jesus wore during His crucifixion, were rescued from the blaze.  Other relics, like a supposed piece of Jesus’ cross, may not have been so fortunate.  Its status is still unknown.  Parisians, Catholics, Protestants, and countless others across the world are still coming to terms with how a landmark as staid and majestic as Notre Dame – which withstood everything from the French Revolution and its virulently anti-Theist cult of reason to Hitler’s invasion of Paris and his order, thankfully disobeyed by one of his generals, to trigger explosives placed inside the grand façade – could come crashing down due to an accidental fire, likely triggered by an electrical short circuit.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, vowed to rebuild the cathedral under an ambitious timeline. “We will rebuild Notre Dame even more beautifully and I want it to be completed in five years,” the president said in an address last Tuesday.  This is indeed a highly aggressive timeline and one of which many experts are skeptical, suspecting that the rebuilding may take decades instead of years.  When the structure was first built, it took 182 years to complete.

Jesus, as He began His public ministry, gazed upon the temple in Jerusalem, which would have been the ancient Jewish version of Notre Dame, and declared, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19).  Apparently, President Macron’s ambitious building timeline has nothing on Jesus.  The temple had already been rebuilt once after being destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC.  Herod the Great had begun a restoration and expansion of the temple in 20 BC, which continued into Jesus’ day.  So, you can imagine the incredulity of those listening when Jesus declared that He could rebuild the temple from the ground up in three days.  This is why the people responded, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and You are going to raise it in three days” (John 2:20)?  But, of course, there’s a secret that the people listening to Jesus do not yet know or understand that John happily lets us in on: “The temple He had spoken about was His body” (John 2:21).

Yesterday, Christians all over the world celebrated the truth that Jesus’ building project was a stunning success.  He did at the end of His public ministry precisely what He said He would do at the beginning of His public ministry.  His body was crushed on a cross.  But in three days, He was not only rebuilt, He was resurrected.  Because of Him, even as the storied nave of Notre Dame sat sadly empty yesterday as a house of worship, hearts across the world were full of joy in celebration of the One who is to be worshiped.

When Notre Dame burned, the world lost a precious space.  But Christians did not lose their Christ.  And Christ did not lose His Church.  In the words of the old hymn:

Built on the Rock the Church doth stand,
Even when steeples are falling;
Crumbled have spires in every land,
Bells still are chiming and calling,
Calling the young and old to rest,
But above all the soul distressed,
Longing for rest everlasting.

Work on Notre Dame began 856 years ago because of this promise.  May work begin again on this grand old lady for this same reason.

April 22, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Resurrection of Jesus in History

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Yesterday, Christians around the world gathered to celebrate the defining claim of their faith:  the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  The apostle Paul is very frank in his estimation of the importance of Christ’s resurrection:

If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith … And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17)

Paul places the full weight of Christianity’s reality and practicality on the resurrection’s actuality.  If the resurrection is not a historical fact, Paul declares, then the whole of the Christian faith is foolish.

But how can we decipher whether or not the resurrection happened historically?  N.T. Wright, in his seminal work, The Resurrection of the Son of God, notes that the empty tomb of Jesus combined with appearances from Jesus offers a compelling testimony to the historicity of the resurrection.  If only there was only an empty tomb, Christians would not have been able to claim that Jesus rose from the dead.  Likewise, if there were only phantasms of someone who looked like Jesus, Christians could not have claimed a resurrection.

Wright explains the power of this combination thusly:

An empty tomb without any meetings with Jesus would have been a distressing puzzle, but not a long-term problem.  It would have proved nothing; it would have suggested nothing, except the fairly common practice of grave-robbery … Tombs were often robbed in the ancient world, adding to grief both insult and injury.[1]

Indeed, grave robbery was so common in the ancient world that emperor of Rome shortly after the time of Jesus, Claudius, issued an edict meant to intimidate anyone who would consider pillaging tombs:

Ordinance of Caesar.  It is my pleasure that graves and tombs remain undisturbed in perpetuity … If any man lay information that another has either demolished them, or has in any other way extracted the buried, or has maliciously transferred them to other places in order to wrong them, or has displaced the sealing or other stones, against such a one I order … the offender be sentenced to capital punishment.[2]

Apparently, the problem of grave robbery had become so pervasive that Claudius saw no other recourse to end it than to threaten capital punishment for it.  Wright consequently concludes:

Nobody in the pagan world would have interpreted an empty tomb as implying resurrection; everyone knew such a thing was out of the question.[3]

Wright continues by noting that mere appearances of Jesus alone could also not make a case for a resurrection:

‘Meetings’ with Jesus, likewise, could by themselves have been interpreted in a variety of ways.  Most people in the ancient world … knew that visions and appearances of recently dead people occurred … The ancient world as well as the modern knew the difference between visions and things that happen in the ‘real’ world.[4] 

It is only the combination of an empty tomb along with multiple appearances of Christ that could have given rise to the idea that Christ had, in actuality, risen from the dead.  This is part of Paul’s point when he writes that Christ “appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:6).  Paul knows that one person can suffer a delusion of a resurrection.  It is much more difficult for 500 people to have the same delusion.  And in case anyone has any questions about what these 500 saw, Paul notes that most of them are still living.  People can simply go ask them.

With all of this being said, a primary objection to the historical veracity of the resurrection remains, which is this:  dead people tend to stay that way.  I have never – and I would guess that you also have never – seen a dead person come back to life.  So how can we accept something as fact in the past when we cannot repeat it in the present?

Again, N.T. Wright offers two helpful thoughts.  The first is that history, by its very nature, is the study of that which is unrepeatable:

History is the study, not of repeatable events as in physics and chemistry, but of unrepeatable events.[5]

In other words, just because we cannot – and, in many cases should not – repeat historical events – such as the crash of the Hindenburg, the sinking of the Titanic, or the horrors of the Holocaust – does not mean that they did not happen.  To apply a standard of “repeatability” to the resurrection in order to accept its truthfulness is to apply a standard by which no other happening in history could be deemed true.

But second, and even more importantly, Wright explains that the early Christians themselves would agree that dead people stay dead!  This is what makes their claim that there was a dead person who did not stay that way all the more astounding:

The fact that dead people not ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it.  The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was, indeed, the start of a whole new mode of existence, a new creation.  The fact that Jesus’ resurrection was, and remains, without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim.  It is part of the claim itself.[6]

The early Christians fully understood that what they were claiming was radically unique.  But they claimed it anyway.  Whatever one may think of the historicity of the resurrection, one must at least admit that the biblical witnesses saw something and experienced something that they could explain in no other way than in a bodily resurrection from death.

These considerations, of course, do not constitute an airtight or empirically verifiable case that the resurrection did, in fact, happen.  But history rarely affords us such luxuries.  Nevertheless, these considerations do present us with a case that makes the resurrection, according to the normal canons of history, highly probable and worthy of our consideration and, perhaps, even our embrace.  There is enough evidence that we must at least ask ourselves:  has Christ risen?  And the answer of not only Scripture, but of history, can come back, with sobriety and credibility:  Christ is risen!

Which is why, 2,000 years later, Easter is still worth celebrating.

___________________________________

[1] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2003), 688.
[2] Ibid., 708-709.
[3] Ibid., 689.
[4] Ibid., 689, 690.
[5] Ibid., 686.
[6] Ibid., 712.

April 2, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Austin Bombings Come To An End

The city of Austin is breathing a sigh of relief.  After a total of five explosions spread over 19 days, the man responsible for planting nail-filled bombs wrapped in innocent looking parcels on porches and sidewalks all over the city blew himself up as police officers were closing in to apprehend him near a northside Austin hotel in the early morning hours of last Wednesday.

The bomber turned out to be 23-year-old Mark Anthony Conditt from Pflugerville – a northeastern suburb of Austin.  According to his grandmother, he came from a tight-knit family, was homeschooled, and later attended Austin Community College, but did not graduate.

His family is shocked by his crimes and released a statement that reads, in part:

We are devastated and broken at the news that our family could be involved in such an awful way. We had no idea of the darkness that Mark must have been in … Right now our prayers are for those families that have lost loved ones, for those impacted in any way, and for the soul of our Mark. We are grieving and we are in shock.

There is no other word to describe Mark Conditt’s actions but “evil.”  Human depravity was on full display in this man’s attacks.  Thus, as our nation grapples with this sickening spate of bombings, it is worth it for us to reflect on the dangers of and collateral from human sin.  Here, then, are three thoughts on sin and its consequences.

Sin defies logic.

Following the Las Vegas shooting, when the motive of the gunman began to elude – and, to this day, still eludes – investigators, I wrote:

The questions of “why” will always be, in some sense, unanswerable – even if a motive is discovered and a record of the assailant’s thinking is uncovered … Sin never leads people to act sanely.

What was true then is still true now.  Even as law enforcement officials continue to try to untangle this bomber’s motives, it remains unfathomable how any grievance, any grudge, or any goal could drive anyone to commit these kinds of monstrous, and seemingly random, crimes.  And yet, what feels utterly inscrutable has a strange way of becoming tragically possible when the darkness of human depravity collides with the astounding faculties of our God-given rationality.  Sin corrupts and darkens minds.  It makes the unthinkable, reasonable and the ghastly, justifiable.  Mark Conditt’s actions are a consummate case-in-point.

Sin desires death.

The apostle Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  We can be tempted to excuse the apostle’s words here as a bit of hyperbole until we are confronted with a case like this.  The bomber’s sin took the lives of two innocent people and, ultimately, his sin cost him his own life.  Sin has a cunning way of leading us down a corridor to catastrophe before we even realize what is happening.  The alcoholic who poisons his liver, the reckless driver who is killed in an accident, and the despot who commits genocide against his own people are only a few examples of just how slippery the slope can be from sin to death.  And it’s awfully tough to stop ourselves halfway down the slope.  This is why it’s best not even to start down it.  The Psalmist says of God’s righteousness: “Your righteousness is like the highest mountains” (Psalm 36:6).  Let’s stay on the summit and off of the slopes.

Sin doesn’t succeed. 

This bomber saw five of his devilish devices detonated.  He did not succeed, however, in taking five lives.  This bomber thought he could perpetually terrorize a city.  His plans were frustrated, however, by law enforcement officials who deserve our gratitude.  This bomber’s sin got cut off and cut short again and again.  He did not succeed – at least not as much as he wanted to.

Sadly, the fact remains that two lives are still lost because of Mark Conditt. There is a 39-year-old father, Anthony Stephan House, who won’t be coming home to his 8-year-old daughter because of this bomber.  There is a 17-year-old aspiring musician, Draylen Mason, who will never get to experience college life at the University of Texas because of this bomber.

Even in these tragic cases, however, sin’s victory is tenuously temporary.  The Christian Church will celebrate this Sunday that Christ has conquered death.  And because Christ is risen, we too will rise.  To quote, once again, the apostle Paul: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).  Nails on a cross could not hold Christ down.  And by faith in Him, nails from a bomb cannot take victims out.

This week, we can take comfort in these words:  Christ is risen.

March 26, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Death Is Dying

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Even as we celebrated Easter yesterday, it was difficult not to be burdened by the death we see around us every day.  This past Sunday, 44 worshipers lost their lives at St. George Church in Tanta and St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, both in Egypt, when ISIS suicide bombers detonated themselves in the middle of these churches’ Palm Sunday worship services.  Closer to home, in San Bernardino, a man signed himself into an elementary school at the front desk and then proceeded to walk into the classroom where his estranged wife was teaching and fatally shoot her while also wounding two students, one of whom later died from the injuries he sustained.  After his shooting spree, he took his own life.  Then, of course, earlier this month, there were the sarin gas attacks by the Assad regime against his own people in northwestern Syria.  Death is all around us.

And this is why I am so glad we get to celebrate Easter.

The story of Easter is a story of many things.  It is a story of joy, as the people close to Jesus realize the man who they thought was dead has risen.  It is a story of fear, as the women who come to the tomb that first Easter morning encounter angelic beings who startle and scare them with their fantastic message.  But it is also a story of subversion.  It is a story of subverting all those who prefer death to life.

N.T. Wright explains the subversive nature of Easter well:

Who…was it who didn’t want the dead to be raised?  Not simply the intellectually timid or the rationalists.  It was, and is, those in power, the social and intellectual tyrants and bullies; the Caesars who would be threatened by a Lord of the world who had defeated the tyrant’s last weapon, death itself; the Herods who would be horrified at the postmortem validation of the true King of the Jews.[1]

In a world where terrorist attacks, school shootings, and chemical bombings instill fear into all who see and hear about them, the resurrection of Jesus reminds us that, in the words of the prophet, “no weapon forged against [us] will prevail” (Isaiah 54:17), even if these weapons kill us, for “the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us” (2 Corinthians 4:14).  A tyrant may kill us.  But God will raise us.  This is Easter’s promise.  And this is why it is so good to celebrate Easter at a time like this.  For Easter reminds us that even if this world full of death, we need not fear.  Christ has risen.  And because He has risen, we will rise.

Take that, death.

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[1] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York:  HarperOne, 2008), 75.

April 17, 2017 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

Easter MorningThe women on that first Easter went to the tomb to mourn.  They went to mourn the loss of their friend.  They went to mourn the loss of, for one of the women, a family member.  They went to mourn the loss of hope.  Of course, when they arrived the tomb, they got something they had never bargained for.  They were greeted by a glorious being with an unlikely message: “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; He has risen, just as He said” (Matthew 28:5-6).

It was on Easter morning that these women, to use the words of the prophet Jeremiah, had their “mourning [turned] into gladness” and received “comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).

Mourning may not be pleasant, but it is needed.  In many ways, I would argue that we don’t mourn enough.  At funerals, rather than addressing the reality of death, people will often try to dull the pain of a loss by casting the service in terms of a celebration of the person who has died.  A eulogist will say something like, “This person wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad!”  Mourning, which is nothing other than the natural and inescapable response to something as heinous as death, is dismissed, downplayed, and depressed in favor of a skin-deep smile.

To make matters worse, when we are not mourning something as intense as the loss of a loved one, we can wind up jettisoning mourning altogether. We not only try to moderate our mourning, we can replace our mourning with something different entirely.

There is plenty that should command our mournfulness.  Greed, corruption, malfeasance, and general godlessness should pain us all.  Sadly, rather than mourning these things, we often trade mourning for grumbling.  This seems especially true in the political arena.  We grumble about health care.  We grumble about immigration.  We grumble about political constituencies that are not our political constituencies.  But replacing mourning with grumbling is dangerous.

The ancient Israelites were experts at grumbling.  Exodus 16:2 says, “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.”  Numbers 14:2 repeats the same refrain: “All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, ‘If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness!’”  The ancient Israelites were experts at grumbling.  But their grumbling carried with it consequences.  The Psalmist recounts the story of Israel during her wandering in the wilderness and says: “They grumbled in their tents and did not obey the LORD. So He swore to them with uplifted hand that He would make them fall in the wilderness” (Psalm 106:25-26).  The apostle Paul admonishes his readers to “not grumble, as some of [the Israelites] did – and were killed by the destroying angel” (1 Corinthians 10:10).  Clearly, God has little time or tolerance for grumbling.  Why?  Because grumbling leads nowhere good.  It leads to rebellion.  The Israelites grumbled about God and then built a golden calf in rebellion against God.  It leads to revenge.  Cain grumbled about his brother Abel’s sacrifice to God right before he killed his brother.  Grumbling leads to sin.  James puts it quite succinctly when he writes, “Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged” (James 5:9).

There is plenty for us, in our day, to mourn.  But sincere mourning over sin is quite different from self-righteous grumbling against sinners.  One perpetuates sin by doing little more than whining about it.  The other fights sin by asking the Lord to rescue us from it.

In a world filled with grumbling, may we remember how to mourn.  And may we also believe Christ’s promise: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).  Mourning, Jesus says, is blessed.  Grumbling, Scripture warns, is condemned.  Let’s make sure we’re doing what God blesses rather than falling prey to what He condemns.

March 28, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Greatest Show On Earth

20150329_100138This past weekend at the church where I serve, we presented our annual Palm Sunday pageant depicting the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a lot of work for all involved, but I always come out of the pageant with a deep sense of satisfaction and awe, for I have the privilege of working with amazing people who have amazing gifts and know how to use them in amazing ways.  I am deeply thankful for the people with whom I get to work.  They are a blessing to me.

In one way, our pageant can be characterized as a spectacle. It has moving music featuring a live orchestra and choir, well-choreographed lights, lots of actors, and a graphic enough depiction of Christ’s death that we make available an alternative worship service for small children who may be unsettled by what they see. But, of course, it isn’t the spectacle of our Palm Sunday pageant that makes it valuable and powerful. It’s the message. There is simply no better message than the gospel message – that Christ was crucified for sinners. Our prayer is that this message – as it is presented in the pageant – leads hearts to repentance and faith, even as God has promised in His Word.

In Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion, there is an interesting reaction to His death from the bystanders: “All the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48). The word for “spectacle” in Greek is theoria, related to our English word “theatre.” This is a most appropriate word because crucifixions were indeed gory theatre. If someone was an enemy of the Roman State, the governing officials, though they could have executed such a person in other, more efficient and less gruesome ways, chose crucifixion. Why? Because crucifixion served as a public, humiliating spectacle. In fact, most criminals were crucified naked so as to shamefully expose them. Jesus is no exception. His crucifixion is meant to be theatre. It is meant to be spectacle. It is meant to be theoria, just as Luke says.

But in the middle of this spectacle, something unexpected happens.

When the crowds see the darkness that covers the land, when they hear the news that the curtain of Jerusalem’s temple has been torn in two, when they hear Jesus commend Himself into His Father’s hands, and when they are startled by the testimony of one of Jesus’ executioners saying, “Certainly this man was innocent” (cf. Luke 23:44-47), they “return home beating their breasts.” In Jewish piety, this is a sign of repentance (e.g., Luke 18:13). What begins as theatre and spectacle becomes a life-changing event that testifies to the truth of Jesus’ identity and to the promise of God’s salvation.

At many churches this Holy Week, there will be a certain amount of spectacle. There will be Maundy Thursday services that conclude dramatically with a reading of Psalm 22 and a stripping of the church’s altar to remind us of Christ’s humiliation on the cross. There will be moving Good Friday Tenebrae services that turn sanctuaries black with darkness to remind worshipers of the darkness of sin and of Jesus’ death. And, of course, there will be energetic Easter services, complete with Easter lilies, rafter-shaking music, and the historic, thrilling Easter greeting, “Christ is risen!” to which the congregation will respond, “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” Yes, there will be plenty of spectacle this week. And this, I would note, is great. I love the spectacle of this time of year.

My prayer, however, is that even as spectacle may be an inevitable and helpful part of Holy Week, we remember that it is not all of Holy Week. For the spectacle is meant to point to something better – and to Someone greater. The spectacle is meant to point us to the cross – and to the One who died on it. And Jesus is more than a spectacle. He is your Savior. That’s what those bystanders at Jesus’ cross discovered as they beat their breasts. And that’s what we are called to believe.

March 30, 2015 at 5:15 am 3 comments

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