Creative Biblical content at the intersection of life and faith.

The Land

">The Land from Brian Branam on Vimeo.
In this first message of a new series, we look at the theme of land in the Bible. This may seem like an odd place to start, but it is one of the Bible's paramount themes. If you don't understand the importance of land in the Bible you will not only fail to fully understand the story of the Bible but you will also fail to understand much of what you see happening in the news today.
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Mission My Town, From Rodney Calfee of the Upstream Collective

In writing a series of posts on how mission trips help us think missionaly in our hometown, I asked my friend Rodney Calfee to contribute.  Rodney is an amazing worship leader and one of the most progressive thinkers on connecting local churches to missions that I know.  Rodney works with an, the Upstream Collective, an organization committed to doing the very thing this series of posts is about - taking people on cross-cultural mission trips to help them be more missional at home.  I asked Rodney to share a few things he had learned along the way:


It was a short-term trip to Taipei, Taiwan that changed things for me. Those 10 days exposed me to truths about mission I had never considered. They also exposed me to truths about myself I had never considered. That particular trip literally helped me understand my own identity, which changed the way I think about why I am here (both literally “here” in Birmingham, AL and ethereally “here” - alive and walking around). 

On my first major foray into overseas mission, I got lost in literally the worst part of town in a huge foreign city whose language I did not speak. I was with a group of 12 or so folks in the “red light” district of Taipei learning about some missionaries who were working within the brothels there. There were several huge street markets where we were and there were people everywhere. I was taking some video and one of the guys in the group pointed out a particularly cool shot to try to get on camera. It was a nice shot, so I went to get it. After filming for a couple of minutes, I turned around to begin to celebrate the awards we would certainly win for the masterful work we had just done, only to find a sea of Taiwanese people. 

All my friends were gone. I remained there. Utterly alone. In a city of millions speaking a language I did not know. I couldn’t read a sign or say anything useful. For a moment, I was lost and scared out of my mind. I pulled myself together and wandered the area for about an hour or so looking for some sign, any sign, of my friends. I finally found a police officer who spoke broken English. He drug me into a shop and began talking with the shopkeepers who began searching the internet looking for my hotel. They hailed a cab, put me inside, said something in Mandarin to the driver, and off we went. Where? I had no clue. I was just along for the ride. 

After a brief stop at the wrong hotel, a conversation with a kind concierge, and a shocking revelation that I should not have talked to the police in that area of town (I apparently found the one officer in that area that was taking the night off from being corrupt- I was told I should have found a gang member instead. Comforting...), I finally made it back to my hotel and my friends. But that night began a journey for me; one that has taught me what it means to be an outsider, and why that matters.

If I could narrow down a “top 3 things” I have learned through short-term mission that have effected the way I do mission locally, it would be these:

1. Culture is critical. There is no such thing as acultural. Many people have taught that the Gospel is simply some words we say; the same words in any culture. They believe that mission is simply translating those same words into a new language and speaking them to the people in a certain place. The problem is that people do not live in a cultural vacuum. People are products of the culture in which they live. Their worldview is shaped by that culture. 

The Gospel certainly is an unchanging truth, unshaped by culture; but the way we speak about it must be shaped by the culture of the ones to whom it is spoken. Mission must be incarnational. It was necessary for Christ to come to us and become like us in order for us to relate to the gospel of the Kingdom. In the same way that He came, He has sent us out (John 20.21) to become like others so that we can live the character of His Kingdom in ways that they understand. 

2. All mission is cross-cultural. If we believe that culture shapes the way we speak about and live the character of the Kingdom, then we must also believe that it effects every iteration of our efforts. When we follow Jesus, we give allegiance to a kingdom with its own culture, characteristics, and norms, all of which are in opposition to those of the kingdoms of this world. We become strangers and aliens - outsiders to the Kingdoms of this world (Heb 11.13, 1 Ptr 2.11). Our worldview is different. Our character is different. Our culture is different. Even in our own hometowns, in the places we grew up, and in the cultures we know so well, we are outsiders. You may be just like the people around you, culturally (wear the same clothes, have the same hobbies, employ the same crazy slang/accent); but if you follow Jesus and they do not, you are an outsider. You belong to a different culture; the one in which you currently reside is not your home. So for you to live on mission even in your hometown is a cross-cultural endeavor. You need to think like a cross-cultural missionary. You are one. 

3. Mission is not something you do; it is who you are. It is an identity. Paul, speaking of our earthly bodies in 2 Cor 5, says that they are temporary. Just a tent. Our real home is not here. But we are here temporarily to persuade others; to reconcile them to God. He says that when we follow Jesus, the old things pass away, and we are made new. He then gives a name to the new creation that we become - ambassador (5.17-20). All who follow Jesus are ambassadors- representatives who live among a foreign people representing the character of God’s Kingdom here on earth. 

Ambassador-ship is not something you do. It is something you are. Think of it- an ambassador doesn’t live in another country and work a 9-5 job. An ambassador lives the very best of the country (kingdom) that is home for him in full view of a foreign people. People who see American ambassadors in foreign countries see them as just that - Americans. That is their identity. Their mission in those countries is to represent America well as Americans. That is not a job, it is an identity. 

All the same, neither is mission a job for us. Our mission is to be representatives of God’s Kingdom in whatever places He has sent us, whether in our hometowns or around the world. You are an ambassador- a missionary - right where you are. 

Know that. You are a missionary. 

Understand the unchanging Gospel and “bear witness” to the Light that has overcome the darkness. Understand the culture in which you have been placed and live the culture of the Kingdom in full view of the people there. That is who you are...

Rodney Calfee is a part of the Upstream Collective, a group of leaders and churches committed to thinking and acting like missionaries locally and globally. Learn more at theupstreamcollective.org. He lives as a missionary in Birmingham, AL with his wife and 3 daughters. 
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Mission My Town, Thinking Culturally

continued from part 1, Mission My Town

How do mission trips help me become a better missionary in my town?

Mission Trips Help Me Think Culturally

I can’t remember where I read it, but the author defined culture as, “The water in which we swim.”  As you may guess, his metaphor was that of a fish. The fish becomes so accustomed to water he is oblivious to the fact that it is there.  We do the same thing with air.  We also become oblivious to our own culture - until we are exposed to a different one!
The first mission trip I ever took was to Russia.  I lost six pounds because I don’t eat cow tongue.  It was the first time in my life I needed a translator just to help me do simple things.  It was also the first time in my life I realized that common mannerisms and gestures I use everyday may be highly offensive, sexually provocative, or explicitly crude in another culture (that is a story for another day).  At the time, going to Russia helped me to realize that not everyone grew up watching the Dukes of Hazard, addresses other people as “y’all”, or knows what a Herschel Walker is.
Mission trips help you realize you are a cultural product, an international anomaly, an alien everywhere else but home.  But there is a positive reverse effect.  By seeing what an alien you are in other worlds, you begin to slowly begin see the water in which you swim.  You see the culture of home.  
Cross-cultural missionaries invest years trying to cross cultural barriers.  At home, you are already way past the line.  You swim in your world without thinking about it.  But think about it.  Think about what makes your town tick?  What are its shaping historical influences?  What are your town’s major events?  Who runs the sports leagues?  Who owns the local diner?  Where do the sages of the community eat breakfast (you know what I mean, the table of old men who know everything about everybody)!  If you want to reach your town for Christ - eat pancakes with its tribal rulers - the dudes with the gossip!   
On mission trips we gawk and awe at other cultures.  We study them.  In some respects we pompously judge them laughing at their quirks and pointing out their flaws.  But the mission trip ultimately turns our gawking at other lands into observations of our own.  Missionaries try to not only overcome cultural barriers, but they try to find veins within a culture in which the gospel will freely flow.  What are those cultural veins in “my town?”
to be continued . . .
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Mission My Town

I have been on numerous mission trips.  I have never been on one in which I was not profoundly changed.  Each of them have left markers in my spiritual walk that have shaped me toward Christ-likeness.  That said, I do not want my following comments to be a condemnation of the “mission trip.”  But I must be honest, currently, I am doing nothing in any of the cities to which I have been whether it be in the way of missions support, partnership, or ongoing work.  Not that I haven’t tried.  In every place I have been I had a passion to support and to return, but I am currently batting .000.  I have yet to return.  I have no ongoing relationship with any of the missionaries, planters, or pastors in those locations.    It is no one’s fault.  Others have made ongoing, fruitful connections, but I have yet to do so.  This does not mean I am not appreciative of what they have added to my life, nor does it mean I fail to pray for them.  It just means, people are busy.  Pastors, missionaries, and church planters are all well intentioned people, but staying connected (sort of like breaking up), it is hard to do.
Again, this does not mean that I think mission trips are a total waste of time.  In fact, I think they make an incalculable contribution to our souls; far greater than the money or time we invest in them.  Mission trips, especially cross-cultural ones, help us expand our vision for the Kingdom of God.  They convict us at the point of selfishness.  They help us become better stewards of our resources, wasting less and investing more in the spread of the gospel.  They challenge our calling.  They make us listen to the voice of God.  They expose our cultural blind spots.  They make us want to go again!
While all of this is profitable, for me, none of these positives sufficiently represent what is for me the most important point of mission trips.  Mission trips help me become a better missionary in my town.  
Allow me to make further clarification before I speak to missions in my town.  This is not a missional cop out statement.  Many people justify their lack of giving and going by pointing to the need of the gospel right around them.  The hypocrisy here is that while they say they realize it, they do nothing about it.  The end result is that they are missional nowhere.  What I want to challenge you to do is to go somewhere else, anywhere else.  Learn from missionaries in a cross cultural context how to be truly missonal.  Then come home and take a look around at your town through the lens of what you learned.  
Another end I want to avoid is the heresy some participate in in which we are only misisonal elsewhere.  Many people will spend great resources and time on mission trips, but are virtually invisible and ineffective in their own town.  This too is hypocritical and should not be so.  Missions is incarnational.  You do not go on “missions” as if the gospel is something you are to meet up with and start doing in another town.  The call of the gospel is global, universal, timeless - your zip code is not exempt.  
In any scenario, missions is a “where you are proposition.”  The thrust of the Great Commission is to baptize the nations and teach them all things Christ commanded, as you are going.  Christ never meant for missions to be scheduled.  He never meant for us to think of missions only in chunks of time, effort, and energy we call “trips.”  On “trips” we should go, but after “trips” we should not stop.  If anything we could say about this, we could say that mission trips should take us to another place in our town.  When we return we should not be in the same place we were when we departed; metaphorically speaking of course.
What I want to do is to encourage you to take a cross-cultural mission trip this year, if for no other reason than to be able to learn how to think missionally about your town.  Over the next few days I want to share with you what I have learned on mission trips that help me think missionally about my town?  
to be continued . . .

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For the Girls, For the New Year, For All of Us

Here is a great article via The Gospel Coalition Blog by Jen Wilkin on cultural expectation and the gospel in light of the pressures of the new year.  The primary audience is women, but there is a good message here for all of us.


A new year is upon us, and unless this one is much different from others, our conversations will be laden with talk of fitness goals and holiday diet missteps. The new year is traditionally a time for resurrecting our self-control, so this is no surprise. But this new year I have a different form of self-discipline in view---one with potentially longer-lasting effect than dropping a dress size.
Last year about this time I came across an article showing ads from the 1930s and 40s selling products to help people gain weight. The ads made claims that sounded completely comical to our modern ears: "Add 5 lb of solid flesh in a week!" "Since I gained 10 lb . . . I have all the dates I want!" I showed the ads to my daughters, who responded, "Mom, I don't think those are real. Have you checked that on Snopes?"
But they're real, all right, despite how preposterous they seem. My first reaction, I am ashamed to admit, was that I was born too late. How great would it be to live during a time when well-padded women held the glamour-girl title? (As long as I'm being honest, I had a similar reaction to learning that in South America women get implants in their bottoms to achieve their culture's ideal shape. By some cruel twist of fate, had I been born on the wrong continent? Why couldn't I live where hips were hip?)
But of course, to seriously entertain these thoughts is to drink the Kool-Aid served up to women since the dawn of time: the belief that ideal physical beauty exists and should be pursued at all costs. For much of human history, the curvy beauty has prevailed. Statues of women from ancient Greece and Rome, much like Renaissance art, celebrate a body type we would call "plus size" today. Historically, padded women were considered beautiful, because only the rich and idle could achieve such a figure, and because curviness indicated fertility. For women of past generations curviness was extremely hard to achieve unless you had the money to eat well and work little. Thanks to trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup, this is no longer the case. Ironically, the rich and idle of today strive to look undernourished and overworked. And the rest of us rush to follow suit.
So would it have been better to live during a time when well-fed women were hailed as beauties? I doubt it. Because the issue is not "fat versus thin"---it is "perfect versus imperfect." Women have always defined themselves by (enslaved themselves to?) some ideal of physical beauty. Though its definition may change across the centuries, one element remains constant: it is always a definition of beauty just beyond our reach. We want what we cannot have. If curvy is hard, we want curvy. If thin is hard, we want thin.
The expectation of physical perfection hits modern females early and often. In middle school, girls cut themselves to deal with the pressures of conforming to the ideal. In middle age, women do, too---but allow the surgeon to hold the knife. We carve the record of our self-loathing into the very flesh of our bodies---a self-marring, a literal carving of an idol. Increasingly, physical perfection is the legacy of womanhood in our culture, handed down with meticulous care from mother to daughter, with more faithful instruction in word and deed than we can trouble to devote to cultivating kindness, peacemaking, and acceptance that characterize unfading, inner beauty.
In this as in all things, there is hope and good news for the believer: one day we will be free of our self-loathings and live in harmony with our physical appearance. We will be given new, incorruptible bodies---bodies that are no longer on a collision course with the grave. We dare not reduce this future hope to that of an eternity with thinner thighs or a smaller nose. We must celebrate it as the day when vanity itself is dealt a fatal and final blow.
But how should we live in the meantime? By all means, we should steward the gift of our physical bodies---but for the sake of wellness, not beauty. Two women can step onto two treadmills with identical fitness goals and widely different motives. Only they will know the real reason they run.
January is typically a time when we talk a great deal about calories, work-outs, and weight loss. What if we didn't? What if we didn't talk about body sizes at all? What if we made it a point not to mention our own calorie sins or victories in front of our girlfriends and daughters? What if we started living in right relation to our bodies now, instead of waiting for the resurrection? What if every time we looked in the mirror and were tempted to complain we said, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," laying claim to the future hope that our bodies will one day celebrate function in right relation to form, living in the glorious truth of that future hope now?
What if in 2013 we decided to fast not from food but from body-talk? Sure---hit the gym, eat the Paleo diet, run six miles a day, wear Spanx from neck to knee. Just stop talking about it. Stop telling your friend she looks skinny---instead tell her you love her sweet spirit. Choose compliments that spur her to pursue that which lasts instead of that which certainly does not. If someone comments on your own shape, say thanks and change the subject. Banish body-talk to the same list of off-limits topics as salaries, name-dropping, and colonoscopies. Apply the discipline you use to work out to controlling your tongue. Do this for your sisters, and by the grace of God, we could begin a legacy of womanhood that celebrates character over carb-avoidance, godliness over glamour.
Sister in Christ, physical perfection is not within our grasp, but, astonishingly, holiness is. Where will you devote your energy in the new year? Go on a diet from discussing shape and size. Feast on the Word of Truth. Ask this of yourself for your sake, for the sake of your friends and daughters, for the sake of the King and his kingdom. On earth as it is in heaven.
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Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas
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Define the Relationship

">Define the Relationship from Brian Branam on Vimeo.
Mark 3 reveals several groups and how they relate to Christ- the crowd, called, critics, common, and the chosen. It seems that the common thread in Mark 3 is about defining the relationship.
We often portray Jesus as a needy lover who will take you in a relationship any way he can get you. We really believe Jesus is good with that. I don't have to go to church to be saved, and Jesus is good with that. How do you define your relationship with Jesus? Ultimately He defines the relationship and there is one measure of it - do the will of God. It is based on obedience. It is not enough to see His cause, not enough to be passionate, and fickle will never pass for being faithful. We must do the will of God.
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Discouraged Not Destroyed

">Discouraged but not Destroyed from Brian Branam on Vimeo.
The opening Psalm sets the tone for the rest. It compares two people on two paths. The one is the blessed man who doesn't walk in the counsel of the wicked. He loves the Word of God and he is like a tree planted by a stream of water that constantly nourishes his life and in everything he does, he prospers.

The wicked man isn't like that. His wickedness gives him to ground to stand on. It fails him. He is exposed. That's the way life is supposed to work...

So what happened in the last 36 Psalms?  By the time we get to Psalm 37 we are angry? "Fret not yourself because of evildoers, be not envious of wrongdoers." Two dangerous things are happening to the righteous who in Psalm 1 were to be bearing fruit. Here they are fretting themselves, which means to be angered or burned up. To add to the danger, they are actually envious of the wrongdoers. They begin to question if God is fair, listening, good, etc., if the Word really works, and if any of this is worth it. Ultimately the end result of our fretting and our envy is spelled out in v. 8, it tends to evil.
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How Not To Lose Your Mind in Our Final Week on the Planet

"Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you.  For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. . . But you are not in darkness, brothers, for the day to surprise you like a thief. . . So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober."  2 Thessalonians 5:1-6

According to the Mayans and Nostradamus, the world is scheduled to conclude one week from today.  The prospects of finality bring several critical questions to the forefront.  What should we do with our final seven days?  What will I wear next Friday?  Will I have enough Double Stuffed Oreos to get me through my final week on the planet?  Should I do any Christmas shopping?  Does this mean I have to shave or can I let myself go?  I am supposed to finish a root canal on Tuesday, why?

I have too much to do for the world to end in a week!

As a Christian our response to doomsday should be the same as our response to everyday, sobriety balanced with watchfulness.  Here are a few things to consider, from a Christian perspective, to keep us from losing our minds in our last week on the planet.

The Mayans Don't Know

The curious thing to me about the Mayan prediction is that they somehow knew when the rest of us would disappear, but they had no idea that they were about to disappear.  The truth of the whole matter is that they didn't know.  The Mayans, Nostradamus, nor any man has ever been entrusted with the information necessary to know when the world will end (Matthew 24:36).

Followers of Christ are Not To Live in Light of One Day, but Any Day

Doomsday predictions inevitably lead to anxious countdowns, a day of holding our breath, and then waking up the next morning wondering what will we do today?  The Bible teaches that any day could inaugurate the end.  As a follower of Christ we should be sober about existence.  No day is guaranteed and everyday is to be lived in the fullness of Christ (Matthew 24:44).

Its not About Prediction, but Preparedness

When it comes to the end of days, many Christians have become as goofy about the whole thing as the Mayans, Nostradamus, or as Edgar Whisenant's classic 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988.  We turn the end times into a game of charting, decoding, and predicting.  The interesting thing about the Bible is that we miss the forest for the trees.  When it comes to the end times the Bible is intentionally ambiguous and abundantly clear.  What is abundantly clear is that Jesus will come again and set the world back to right.  What is intentionally ambiguous is when and for the most part how.  In what order will things unfold.  I have my ideas, you may have yours, but it doesn't matter. The one message Jesus had in all of this is respond to the gospel and be ready whenever it happens.  When we think about the end of days as a day for our prediction we ignore the Biblical message, be prepared whenever it should come (Luke 12:40).

Its Not About the End of a Calendar, Its About The End of a Story

The end of days is not about the exhaustion of the environment, the collapse of an economy, or the end of chronology on a calendar.  The end of days is about a return and a reckoning.  The world will not end because we have choked ourselves to death on diesel fumes.  It will not end because the polar ice caps have flooded the world due to global warming.  The world will not end because the Mayans quit counting.  The end will come as an intentional move by a sovereign God who is just.  The end of days is not a cataclysmic accident, but an intentional act of a loving God to complete His plan of redemption.  It is not the end of human history, but of salvation history, the story of God to redeem and make all things new (Rev. 21:5).

For Those Who Follow Christ then End is Not Doom but Blessedness

Dec. 21 is doomsday, they say.  Whether or not the world ends next Friday, true followers of Christ have no reason to look at the end of days with fear, but with anticipation.  Many people read the Book of Revelation as if it is a dreaded day.  It is, if you do not know Christ as Savior.  But for the believer the end is not a dreaded day, but a blessed one.  Titus 2:13 actually calls all of this, "our blessed hope." For those who were suffering terribly under the cruelty of Roman persecution, the Book of Revelation was not bad news, but great news.  No matter how evil or powerful the world becomes, Christ will be the victor of all and He will make all things right.  If you want hope in the end, follow the victor now.  Repent of sin and receive eternal life in Christ (John 3).

Balance Soberness with Watchfulness

December 21, 2012 will fade into the night and December 22, 2012 will awaken us with another day full of life and responsibility.  No matter what happens we need to shave, eat Oreos in moderation, and by all means buy Christmas presents.  We need to be sober - which means don't lose your mind over the end!  We need to be watchful - which means we don't need to lose sight that there is an end.  Paul's message to the Thessalonians in 2 Thess. 5:1-6 was about holding these two truths in balance.  The Thessalonians had an unbiblical view of the end and because of it, they lost their mind.  Let's be biblical about the end and whether or not this be our last week on the planet, let's keep it in perspective and not lose our minds as well!

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The Way He Created (A Conversation with The Gospel Project)

This week our church begins using The Gospel Project as curriculum for our Sunday School groups.  My intent here is not to replace the material (as it is good enough), nor to write a commentary on it (as it is understandable), but to only add to the conversation in a way that may help our students and teachers hit the topics from other angles. 
My wife’s grandfather was a real craftsman with wood.  He had a small shed in his backyard that served as his creative retreat.  Inside his workshop were not only his countless number of tools but also piles of what looked to me to be scrap wood.  What appeared to be scrap to me, in his hands, given time, would become nice pieces of furniture.  Each piece reflected his vision and his skill.  Each piece also bore his mark.  Somewhere, hidden from view, he would sign his name and the year he made the piece.  
Several pieces he made now serve in our home as functional cabinets, tables, and stools.  But they are more than this.  They are treasures, especially to my wife and her immediate family, that bring back memories because they are reflections of her grandfather.  They bear his name.  They are the end result of his vision.  They reflect his skill and care.
The creation account in Genesis is not just about declaring who created the universe, but it is a rhythmic story of how.  It does not tell us how in the same sense that a molecular biologist would explain to us how a cell comes to life.  Instead, the creation account tells us how God created the world as an introduction to what God is like.  
He is powerful.  With mere words He creates light, separates the waters, and brings forth biological life.  While all of creation bears evidence of His design, none of it bears his name, but one piece.  Man.
Man, God created last.  This was God’s crowning achievement.  But he did not simply declare man.  Everything else was spoken into being, but the Bible tells us that man was formed by God.  Man began in God’s hands.  Not only did God form man, but He breathed into Him.  Our breath, our being, what we are is not simply a conglomeration of cells inhaling and exhaling oxygen.  We are alive because we are fueled by the breathe of God.  He did not blow on us.  He brought us close to Himself and He breathed into us.  It is then and only then that we became a living soul.  Unique from all other creatures, He also gave us His name.  We are created in His image.
Compared to every other tale of creation, whether ancient or modern, the Creation story of the Bible stands alone.  In other contexts we are either a grand biological accident or we are the refuse, the afterthought of the gods.  The Enuma Elish of the ancient Mesopotamians made us the excrement of the dieties.  To the ancient Egyptians, man was merely a slave of the gods.  To the Greeks, woman was given to man as a trap.  Pandora’s womb, or her “box” as we call it, would only bring forth evil each time it was opened.  Darwin made us little more than monkeys.  But the story the God of the Bible tells is that man was created purposefully, intimately, carefully, wonderfully.
Genesis 1 and 2 tells us how we were made.  In doing so this narrative brilliantly introduces us to the main character of the Bible’s grand story.  When He created the world He was up to something good.  In fact, once God created man, He called it very good.  But it would not be long before it all went bad.  Very bad.
More to come . . .

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Introducing God (A Conversation with The Gospel Project)

This week our church begins using The Gospel Project as curriculum for our Sunday School groups.  My intent here is not to replace the material (as it is good enough), nor to write a commentary on it (as it is understandable), but to only add to the conversation in a way that may help our students and teachers hit the topics from other angles.  
When it comes to origins the church has been deceived into believing that there is only one conversation worth having.  And that conversation, seems to be more of a debate than a dialogue.  Was the universe created by God?  The winner is determined only by whom can yell the most science at his opponent and thus beating him into empirical submission.  
The opening chapters of Genesis are not a scientific shouting match.  This is the opening scene of a story.  As such the primary intent of the creation account is not to provide a scientific record.  The intent is to reveal the Bible’s main character.  The message is not, “This is how God created the world.”  The message is, “This is God.” 
The Bible has entered the conversation of origins attempting to prove to us nothing, but desiring rather to give us a story that explains everything.  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  The fact that He did it is not in question by the author.  There is no debate.  There is not even a dialogue here.  This is a declaration.  In the Hebrew text there are only seven words and the action of the story is quickly underway.
The first seven words of the Bible tell us who did it, now the author weaves together a rhythmic script of the way He did it.  We move from declaration to introduction.  Yet, it is here that we cheat ourselves if we only debate origins.  We lose God in the debate.  The story is lost in the science of it all.  Lecture me on science and my mind will soon wonder.  Tell me a good story and you will have my attention for hours.
Genesis 1 and 2 is a great story.  By telling us the way God created the world the author is introducing us to who God is.  The bacterial flagellum screams at us intelligent design, but the human soul craves to know more about a person than whether or not they are intelligent.  When was the last time you asked a person, “What’s your IQ?”
We want to know if anyone cares.  Are you angry?  Is something wrong?  Where are you from?  Why are you here?  Does he ever smile?  What makes her laugh?  Is there love here?  How will you impact my story?  These are the questions that magnetize our soul and connect us with other people.  If this is what we want to know of other people, how much more do we want to know this of God?
This is the concern of Genesis 1 and 2.  By telling us what God did the storyteller shares with us what God is like.  So when we read the opening sequence of Genesis, let us lay aside our flagellum for a moment.  I am not suggesting that we also lay aside our intelligence, but I am saying, watch the show.  See the character.  By watching the way He does what He does, get to know Him.  Dare to ask the storyteller as he shares Genesis 1 and 2, what is God like?  
More to come . . .   
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Church Appreciation 2012

This month I will begin my 17th year serving the local church as pastor.  God has blessed me with the privilege of serving three great congregations during that time:  Lantana Road Baptist Church in Crossville, TN (1996-2002); Ridgecrest Baptist in Trussville, AL (2002-2012); and currently Liberty Baptist Church of Dalton, GA.  I am deeply appreciative of the experiences God has given me at every place and for the people He has brought into my life along the way.  I am a very different person now than I was when this journey began.  Thank you, to everyone who has helped to mold me as a man and as a pastor.
This year we made a bittersweet move to Dalton, GA.  The bitterness came as we were called to leave a group of people we dearly loved and a place that was very much home in Birmingham, AL.  Added to the bitterness was the difficulty of watching our daughters deal with the natural challenges of leaving a place in which you are rooted.  Birmingham was really all they had ever known.  The sweetness came in the prospects of being called into leadership at a church that was very much alive, healthy, and had a great vision for the future.  Personally, although I thought I would never return to NW Georgia in my adult life, it was a special blessing to realize God was calling me back to my roots.  
In the short time we have been at Liberty we have experienced 7 of the greatest months we have ever had in 16 years of ministry.  Just two weeks ago we saw almost 100 people come to Christ and nearly 70 follow the Lord in believer’s baptism.  Each week I come to this campus wondering what will happen next.  You are a people who love Biblical preaching.  You are sensitive to the Spirit.  You are intentional about reaching the lost.  You are welcoming to the broken.  You follow leadership.  I absolutely love being your pastor.  I count it a great honor that God has brought me here.
This week you have shown your appreciation to me, my family, and our staff.  It is with great gratitude that I receive your love.  But I want you to know what I appreciate about you the most.  I appreciate the way you have received my family into this fellowship.  Your love for the Branams is the greatest gift you have given me.  You received my daughters as your daughters, immediately.  You opened your hearts to Shannon and I as not only leaders, but as friends.  You have overwhelmed us with your love.  I leave here each Sunday night astounded by the spirit that is in this congregation.  
Thank you Liberty Baptist Church for receiving me as your pastor and showering my family with your love.
Your Pastor,
BB, Gal. 2:20
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The Return of Nehemiah

">The Return of Nehemiah from Brian Branam on Vimeo.
Nehemiah was a man who caught a vision for the revival of God's people. However, this return to a homeland could not simply be a physical relocation, but also a spiritual one as well. The scope of the gospel and plan of God for the ages has to be at the forefront of our returning or else we do not know to what we must return, what it looks like, what the standard is. The gospel calls us to return to the cross, return to the commission, return to the commandments, return to our family, return to missions, return to giving, return to worship - if we simply feel sorry and want to do better, then we have failed. The point of returning is to get ourselves back in line with God's love for His people in the covenant.
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Resources that Help (Part 2)

In my previous post I mentioned that there are three types of tools I use regularly that help us study the Bible faithfully.  They are:  1)  Resources to help us investigate Bible backgrounds 2)  Resources to help us investigate Biblical languages 3)  Resources that help pull all we would investigate together.
In this post I will share about resources that help us investigate Biblical languages.
The Bible was translated into English.  The Bible was not written in English.  The failure to realize the implications of the previous two statements has not only been the source of one of the modern church’s most ridiculous squabbles but it has also been the wellspring of poor preaching and teaching over the years.  The original languages of the Bible are Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic; not Shakespearean English.  So when we study the Bible we are not trying to get back to the meaning of the words in the KJV, we are trying to bring out the meaning of the words that appeared in the Greek (NT) and Hebrew (OT) texts.
To help us in this task we need two things, a sample of modern English versions of the Bible that reflect a wide range of equivalence and a Strong’s concordance and/or a language dictionary that is coded to Strong’s numbers.
Translations and Equivalence
I am not an expert in Biblical languages by any means, but in what study I have done in this area, it has helped me to realize how difficult it can be to translate one language into another.  As the old saying goes, something is always lost in translation.  Like any language, Greek and Hebrew are very picturesque languages with words that can carry a wide range of meaning.  
A close to home example of the task of translation is the Spanish word piñata.  There is no English translation for the word piñata.  Yet, if you were to ask some English speaking people to define piñata, one person might say, “It is a papier-mache container, usually shaped like an animal that is stuffed with candy.”  Another person might say, “It is an animal shaped candy container that people hit at a party.  When it bursts candy goes everywhere.”  In this scenario, both descriptions are right.  One description offers a technical, more literal description that helps us understand what a piñata is like.  The other description offers a more functional description that helps us understand how a piñata is used.  Both descriptions taken together give us a range of equivalence, or a range of meaning.
When speaking of Bible versions or translations we usually refer to them based on either dynamic or formal equivalence.  Dynamic equivalence means that the translation of the word tries to render the meaning of a statement in a way that is most familiar to the reading audience.  Formal equivalence means that the translation of the word tries to render the form of the statement that is closest to the original language, yet understandable in English.  Although it is technically impossible to render a “literal” translation of the Bible that is readable by an English speaking audience, formal equivalence is generally what people refer to as “literal” translation.  
Modern Bible versions exist on a scale somewhere between formal and dynamic equivalence.  According to Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, authors of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth translations such as the KJV, NKJV, and NAS exist on the scale closer to formal equivalence.  While these translations are more literal, the intended meaning of the text may be lost in translation.  Translations such as the NIV, TNIV, and NAB are exist closer on the scale to dynamic equivalence.  These translations are usually more readable and easier to understand.  While these translations make the text more understandable to the reader, the original form of the text can be lost in translation.  Other translations such as the ESV and the NRSV are more central on the scale between dynamic and formal equivalency.    
In Bible study, it may be helpful to compare translations that exist on various points on the scale of equivalency.  I find it helpful to also have a more “free” translation on hand, what some would call a paraphrase.  These translations are more thought for thought.  Translations in this category would be the NLT or The Message.  When I compare versions, I generally pull together the NAS, ESV, NIV, and NLT.  By doing so it helps me to see the range of meaning that is present in Biblical words.
A good verse to use would be 1 Corinthians 13:12.  This verse works especially well if you are accustomed to studying the Bible primarily in the KJV.  By following this link, you can see that the KJV says, “Now we see through a glass darkly.”  What does this mean?  Does it mean that I am looking through a dark tinted glass, like sunglasses or maybe a dirty window?  What does this mean?  
By looking at some other modern versions, you see that the original word here is more equivalent to our word “mirror” which is indeed made out of glass.  Yet, while this may seem more literal and technically more accurate, the word being translated here actually has nothing to do with glass at all.  The word actually speaks of a highly polished piece of metal that would be used for reflectivity.  Which also explains why the text reads that we see “through a glass darkly.”  It doesn’t mean that the mirror is dark in color, the word more accurately rendered means that the image is blurry, you can’t see it fully.  If you have ever used metal as a mirror you know that no matter how polished it may be, there is some distortion to the reflection.  In this case we get the full intent of the author in the NLT which reads, “Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror.”  Though the NLT is nothing close to a literal translation, we see that by moving further down the scale of equivalence, in this case, we get a more faithful rendering of the original text.

Language Dictionaries (to be continued)
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Christ for Our Kids

">Christ for our Kids from Brian Branam on Vimeo.
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Louis Zamperini Story

Here is the video I shared Sunday night.

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The Return of Nehemiah (Talking Points for Sunday A.M. 9/92012)

From Nehemiah 1:

Too often "revival" is a planned event, a mere "flash in the pan" with no long term consequence.  Nehemiah's return to God, his revival, was foundational not merely a flashpoint.  His return to God began the process of rebuilding a nation.  How do we experience revival that is more foundational than flashpoint?  For revival to have a long-term impact on a people and a community we must understand the nature of returning.

  • Returning begins with confession out of brokenness.
  • Returning is based in Scripture.
  • Returning is born out of constant prayer.
  • Returning brings us back from the extremes.
  • Returning is a beginning, not an end in itself.
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Resources that Help (Part 1)

In the past several posts on teaching and Bible study I have argued for an approach that seeks to understand the meaning of the Bible in its original context.  This keeps us from pressing on the Scripture a meaning that is skewed by our own experience and cultural reference points.  Instead, by seeking to know what the intent of the author to his original audience, we actually uncover a more powerful meaning that brings out the eternal relevance of Scripture to our current context.  
This all sounds great, but how does the reader make it happen?  The key is tools.  We employ great Bible study tools that will help us get a better understanding of Scripture in context.  I would call your attention to three that I use regularly.  1)  Resources to help us investigate Bible backgrounds 2)  Resources to help us investigate Biblical languages 3)  Resources that help pull all we would investigate together:
  1. Resources that help us investigate Bible backgrounds.
Many would refer to this category as Bible dictionaries or encyclopedias.  I chose not to use the term dictionary for sake of confusion and very few of the books that I employ for this task are called “encyclopedia” anymore.  Most people think of a dictionary as a book that helps us with vocabulary, and while this may be true in the common world, in the Bible world, dictionaries are very encyclopedic.  Confusing, isn’t it? 

Bible dictionaries are thematically and contextually oriented.  For instance, if you were reading Matthew 16:13, the passage in which Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of man is?”  This is the same passage in which Peter makes the grand declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  To understand this passage more fully we can’t ignore the contextual clue that Matthew leaves us in verse 13, “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked . . .”  If we don’t care for a contextual reading of the Scripture we will ignore these statements completely, but they are important.  Here is a snippet of what the Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary says about Caesarea Phillipi:
The site has been suggested as that of OT Baal-gad, Baal-hermon, or Beth-rehob, but pottery fragments found thus far do not pre-date the Hellenistic period. The earliest developments took place during that period in the area of the cave and the spring. Greek settlers named the site Paneion (also spelled Paneas and Panias) after the Greek god Pan; the surrounding territory was also known as Paneas. Niches were cut in the face of the bluff and around the cave, recognized as the sanctuary or dwelling place of the deity, and dedicated to “Pan and the Nymphs.” According to Josephus, the region was given to Herod by Caesar Augustus in 20 b.c.e. Herod in turn constructed a beautiful white marble temple dedicated to Augustus, and it most likely became the focal point of the cultic precinct.
It is significant then that the occasion for Jesus question was not Jerusalem, Nazareth, Samaria, or any other town but Caesarea Phillipi which was steeped in idolatry.  If you look up pictures of Caesarea Phillipi you will see the Grotto of Pan still cut into the rocky mountainside.  Here people would come to make offerings and seek answers. Here they sought prosperity and blessing from the gods.  At the Grotto, they sought salvation.  It is in this context, of countless gods that Jesus asks the question, “But who do you say that I am?”  
Understanding this context not only makes our reading come alive, but it will also lend itself to more weighty teaching for those who are leading small groups within the church.  As you will see, understanding this background does not restrict my application of this verse to our modern context, but it gives it greater application because it is more faithful to what God has said.  
People haven’t changed.  Though we may not cut a Grotto of Pan into the mountainside, we still have our grotto cut; a shrine to our would be saviors.  We easily sell the future commodity of our soul to the decisions of politicians, the rise and fall of companies, or to the allure of popularity.  If we could only catch a break, get noticed, or be the beneficiary of a decision that would bring a windfall our way everything would change.  The problem is that it is not those outside of Christ who are caught in the chase for Pan, but it is those who  would call themselves the disciples of Christ.  Jesus didn’t ask “other men” who He was, He directed the question to His own.  
Do you really understand what it means to call Jesus Lord?  It means not only does Jesus stand alone, but it means that he does not save in the same way as the gods cut into the rocks of the countryside.  His salvation is not first political, financial, physical - it calls for something much deeper.  It calls for a collision with the soul, much like Peter had.  “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”  That realization changes everything.  According to the rest of Jesus statement in Matthew 16:13-20 the people who embrace Jesus’ “Christ-ness” births a powerful community that carries with them access to the Kingdom of Heaven.  With such authority, they make a massive impact on earth.  There is nothing in the Grotto of Pan for them.  They have found so much more in Christ.  Indeed, this becomes the plot for the rest of the gospel and on into the Book of Acts.  
A Bible dictionary is a great tool for context.  Here are a few recommendations:
Tyndale Bible Dictionary, The New Bible Dictionary, The Archeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, Holman Bible Atlas, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, New Nave’s Topical Bible.
I would also recommend, Ferguson - Backgrounds of Early Christianity, any number of “Life of Christ” books, and the IVP Bible Background Commentary.
Many of these resources may be accessed easily online.  I will share with you this info. in a later post.
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A Word to the Wives

">A Word to the Wives from Brian Branam on Vimeo.
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Christ for our Kids (Talking Points for Sunday A.M. 9/2/2012)

According to Ephesians 6:1-4 the Christ centered model for the relationship between parents and their children emphasizes:

  1. Parents are given authority over their children.
  2. Parents are to exercise benevolent discipline toward their children.
  3. Parents are to raise their children to know the Lord.
  4. Children are to see their parents as a gift from God.
  5. Children who receive godly instruction will reap the fruits of their obedience well into their adult lives.
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