Christianity and Society

A Lament: Why I feel betrayed by my fellow Christians who support disparaging remarks of Africa and Africans

About a week ago, the President of United States of America, Donald Trump allegedly used vulgar language to disparage the country of Haiti and the continent of Africa. The president has since denied using vulgar language but admitted to have spoken tough on the issue of illegal immigration in the USA.

Ever since the news was reported in the media, there have been two main reactions. Some have condemned what the president said while others have supported what the president said. However, what has greatly disheartened me is to hear fellow Christians categorically supporting the degrading language that the president allegedly used to describe a continent that is a home to many of their brothers and sisters in Christ. When I read and heard some of the comments I felt like David in Psalm 41:9: “Even my close friend in whom I trusted…has lifted his heel against me.

Now, before I proceed to bemoan what I strongly feel as betrayal I need to highlight the following: first, I strongly believe that the USA just like any other country in the world has a right to decide who enters and stays within its boarders. This is absolutely right. It is only wrong if the USA chooses basing on skin color or the conditions of where one comes from. Secondly, I also strongly agree with the USA government that illegal immigration is wrong. When somebody enters the USA, they agree to stay in the country as long as they are permitted by their visa or other immigration documents. It is sinful and wrong to overstay.

That said, I feel let down by fellow Christians who have unconditionally supported what the president of USA said regarding the continent of Africa where I come from for the following reasons: first as I have already highlighted above, your fellow brothers and sisters live in this continent. It is just normal and human to feel hurt when one demeans your sibling. No matter how poor or unattractive your brother is, he is your brother. Even the secular world recognizes this and acknowledges that blood is thicker than water. The Bible even says it better that all Christians are one body of Christ and “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).

Second, no one can deny that the USA is more wealthy and powerful than the countries of Africa. I have often confessed it to my brothers and sisters from the USA that the Lord has blessed their country with many material blessings. There are many opportunities of personal advancement and growth in America. Life is more comfortable and easier in many ways in the USA. This is the Lord’s doing and should not make American Christians accept the tendency to look down upon Africa. “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).

Third, consider the Christian testimony in Africa. An unconditional support of the president’s remarks has serious implications for evangelism more especially among Moslem communities in Africa. In many Moslem strongholds, people are told that what they see in the West, more especially, in America is what Christianity stands for. To many in these places, America is a Christian nation and everything that people do or say in America is what the Bible teaches. Now, guess what will the Muslim say. “Christianity believes that Africa is the most unpleasant place in the world.” Of course not all people will believe that, praise the Lord for his grace. But if one person finds the president’s remarks a stumbling broke to believe in Christ just because some Christians did not condemn and distance themselves from the remarks, we ought to be greatly concerned for that soul.

Again, let me reiterate that not all Christians have unconditionally supported the President’s remarks and I am thankful for that. A Sunday following the reporting of what the president said, one of my pastors came to me after the service and said, “How do you feel about what our president said?” I told him that I was hurt and I felt my eyes warming up with tears as I spoke to him. He then said to me, “I am sorry. I know…It’s hurtful. But I don’t think of you or your country that way, my brother.” He then put his arm around my shoulders and said, “You are my brother forever.” Oh, what a comfort it was to hear those words and know that there are still brothers and sisters who care for this brother from the so-called unpleasant continent.

“You are my brother forever,” that’s is very true. Here on earth, God has made us to live in different parts of the planet as Paul points out, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us,” (Acts 17:26-27). But a day is coming when all the boundaries will be abolished and as one family in Christ we will live together forever.

 

 

 

 

 

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What about Fasting, Reformed Brothers and Sisters?

I don’t think I will exaggerate if I say that fasting is one of the dwindling practices among the Reformed Christians today. Some time ago, I was attending a workshop on the topic of fasting. All the attendees were Reformed Christians. It was a confession time when the facilitator of the workshop asked how many of us fasted regularly. Less than ten hands out of about forty participants went up.

There could be a number of factors that have contributed to this sad development, which I cannot speculate. But I believe we can all agree that this ought not to be so. Both the Bible and our Reformed tradition encourage us to engage in this practice as often as possible. But before I look at the Bible and our Reformed heritage let me highlight that there are two types of fasting: public and private or individual. Public fasting involves the body of Christ coming together to either pray for a particular issue or to thank the Lord for his mercies. The Westminster Directory of Worship is one of the best documents that ably expounds on this type of fasting.

The individual fasting is more private in the sense that a Christian fasts and prays for personal issues which might include confession of sin, thanksgiving, God’s guidance or wisdom in a situation. There are a number of Bible passages that teach and model for us this practice.

We first see individual fasting in Exodus 34:28. Moses fasts for forty days and forty nights (no food or drink) while meeting with the Lord for the second tablets of the Law. This type of fasting is a special one and certainly Moses was sustained in these forty days and nights by the special power of God. Christ will also later fast forty days after the Holy Spirit would lead him into the wilderness to be tested at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:1-2). Like Moses’ fasting, Christ’s fasting was special and extraordinary.

In 2 Samuel 12:16 we read that David also fasted and prayed. He had committed adultery with Bathsheba and later murdered Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. The Lord was displeased and declared that the child that was born out of this sin will die. David fasted and prayed probably confessing his sin and certainly pleading with the Lord that the child should be spared. However, God’s word stood and the child went to be with the Lord although David’s sin was forgiven (2 Sam. 12:13). Here Scripture models for us the fast that is both repentance of sin and supplication.

Nehemiah also fasted and prayed confessing the sins of Israel as well as asking the Lord to restore and rebuild the ruined walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 1). The young man Daniel too regularly fasted and prayed for forgiveness of Israel’s sins and that God would grant mercy to his people (Dan. 9:1-23; 10:3).

Lest we think that this practice was observed only in the Old Testament, Christ instructs us on what we should do when we fast in Matthew 6:16-18: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

We also read of early Christians fasting and praying in Acts 13:1-3 probably asking for God’s guidance in their ministry of reaching out to the lost. Therefore, there is no doubt that Christians except for those who have health reasons or limitations should fast and pray. This fasting should not only be limited to food and drink but also to other activities including conjugal obligations (1 Cor. 7:5) and use of electronics and Internet. (Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you. I just said, “internet”).

Our forefathers in the faith also rightly taught on the importance of fasting and praying. We will take a brief overview at what some of our forefathers said and wrote about this practice. John Calvin in the Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.12.15-19 wrote, “A holy and lawful fast has three ends in view. We use it either to mortify and subdue the flesh, that it may not wanton, or to prepare the better for prayer and holy meditation; or to give evidence of humbling ourselves before God, when we would confess our guilt before him.”

Calvin also warned of three errors when fasting. First, we should not think of fasting superstitiously. By this he means that we should not be deceived and think that although our hearts are not right with God, fasting might still help us getting special blessings from God. Fasting is futile when practiced by unregenerate and unrepentant heart.

Second, related to the first error, we should not think of fasting as a means to merit God’s blessings. I have met some Christians who think that by fasting they can somehow force God to act according to their will. This is absolutely wrong and even blasphemous. Man can never manipulate God and force him to act against his will. Lastly, Calvin warns us of thinking that fasting exalts us to a higher position above other Christians who do not fast. While we are to encourage this practice, we should not think that those who fast are spiritually superior to those that do not.

The Dutch theologian and pastor, Wilhemus A Brakel (1635-1711), bemoaned the dying of this practice among the Reformed Christians of his day and urged them to fast regularly. “It is sad—a sign of great decay in the church—that so little work is made of fasting, both in public as well as secretly. Therefore all who wish to lead a life of tender godliness and desire to see the good of Zion ought to stir themselves up to exercise this duty… Therefore, as obedient children of God and followers of the saints, fast frequently. This was the practice of the original Christian church and of believers at the outset of the Reformation—and even long thereafter. Do not allow this practice to die out” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service Vol. 4, p. 9).

As already observed the Westminster Directory of Worship also has a lot to say about fasting. Although its emphasis is on public fasting, it has a number of important insights we can also apply to individual fasting. For instance the directory reminds us: “A religious fast requires total abstinence, not only from all food, (unless bodily weakness do manifestly disable from holding out till the fast be ended, in which case somewhat may be taken, yet very sparingly, to support nature, when ready to faint,) but also from all worldly labour, discourses, and thoughts, and from all bodily delights, and such like, (although at other times lawful,) rich apparel, ornaments, and such like, during the fast; and much more from whatever is in the nature or use scandalous and offensive, as gaudish attire, lascivious habits and gestures, and other vanities of either sex.”

So, beloved Reformed brothers and sisters, we need to rekindle this dying practice. The status quo needs to be challenged not because we become superior Christians when we fast and pray but because it pleases our Lord when we live in obedience to his revealed will.

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The Virgin Mary: God’s Submissive Servant

One important lesson we can learn from the life of Mary the mother of Christ is her submission to God’s will. By grace, she submitted to God and trusted him to accomplish what is impossible with man (Luke 1:37). The late RC Sproul once described Mary as a Christian’s model of submission.

In Luke’s account of Mary and the angel Gabriel we learn that after Mary was told that she  will conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit,  she surrendered  herself to God’s word and said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

There are two important lessons we glean from Mary’s submission. First, she submitted despite having unanswered questions. In Luke 1:34 she asked how she will be able to give birth while she is a virgin. The angel explained that this will happen by the Holy Spirit. But I don’t think Mary fully understood how all things will come about just as we, today, cannot fully explain the incarnation. Remember that this had never happened before in the history of humanity. Mary was the first and the only young woman to be told that she will conceive without a man.

Then there was the question of Joseph. What will he think about this and how will he react? Will he not decide to divorce her once he discovers that she is pregnant and not by him? Mind you at this moment, the angel has not yet gone to Joseph and informed him that Mary will conceive by the Holy Spirit.

Second, Mary submitted knowing that this could cost her life. Probably, we don’t often think about it when we read this account. But have you ever wondered what would have happened if Joseph divorced Mary and told the people that he was not responsible for the pregnancy? The obvious conclusion would have been that Mary committed adultery and the sentence for this “crime” was death by stoning (Deut. 22:23). This was a costly submission. Again, Mary did not know that the angel will also go to Joseph and told him not to divorce her as we read in the gospel of Matthew. Yet she submitted to God’s will.

I am very certain that there will never be another Mary in this world. God will never come to another young woman and ask her to be the mother of Christ. However, again and again God in his word and through the work of the Holy Spirit comes to us and asks us to do some things for him and his kingdom. Some of these things might not make sense and we might not fully understand them. Others might be costly. It could be that we have to make huge sacrifices to fulfill God’s will in our lives. How will we respond to God’s call? I strongly believe that Mary’s response is the best response for every Christian called to do God’s will. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”

At the core of our daily walk with Christ is the call to obey and trust him. The hymn writer was right:

Trust and Obey

For there is no other way

To be happy in Jesus

But to trust and obey

By his  grace, Christ enables us to trust and obey just as he enabled Mary to trust and obey.

(This material first appeared in a form of a sermon which was preached at London Free Reformed Church in London, Ontario, Canada on December 17, 2017).
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A New Year’s Sermon

This is an excerpt from the sermon which Rev. Charles Haddon Spurgeon preached on January 1, 1860. The title of the message was “A New Year’s Benediction,” and it was taken from 1 Peter 5:10

I wish, my brothers and sisters, that during this year you may live nearer to Christ than you have ever done before. Depend upon it, it is when we think much of Christ that we think little of ourselves, little of our troubles, and little of the doubts and fears that surround us. Begin from this day, and may God help you. Never let a single day pass over your head without a visit to the garden of Gethsemane, and the cross on Calvary.

And as for some of you who are not saved, and know not the Redeemer, I would to God that this very day you would come to Christ. I dare say you think coming to Christ is some terrible thing: that you need to be prepared before you come; that he is hard and harsh with you. When men have to go to a lawyer they need to tremble; when they have to go to the doctor they may fear; though both those persons, however unwelcome, may be often necessary. But when you come to Christ, you may come boldly. There is no fee required; there is no preparation necessary. You may come just as you are.

It was a brave saying of Martin Luther’s, when he said, “I would run into Christ’s arms even if he had a drawn sword in his hand.” Now, he has not a drawn sword, but he has his wounds in his hands. Run into his arms, poor sinner. “Oh,” you say, “May I come?” How can you ask the question? you are commanded to come. The great command of the gospel is, “Believe on the Lord Jesus.” Those who disobey this command disobey God. It is as much a command of God that man should believe on Christ, as that we should love our neighbor.

Now, what is a command I have certainly a right to obey. There can be no question you see; a sinner has liberty to believe in Christ because he is told to do so. God would not have told him to do a thing which he must not do. You are allowed to believe. “Oh,” saith one, “that is all I want to know. I do believe that Christ is able to save to the uttermost. May I rest my soul on him, and say, sink or swim, most blessed Jesus, thou art my Lord?” May do it! man? Why you are commanded to do it. Oh that you may be enabled to do it.

Remember, this is not a thing which you will do at a risk. The risk is in not doing it. Cast yourself on Christ, sinner. Throw away every other dependence and rest alone on him. “No,” says one, “I am not prepared.” Prepared! sir? Then you do not understand me. There is no preparation needed; it is, just as you are. “Oh, I do not feel my need enough.” I know you do not. What has that to do with it? You are commanded to cast yourself on Christ. Be you never so black or never so bad, trust to him. He that believeth on Christ shall be saved, be his sins never so many, he that believeth not must be damned be his sins never so few.

The great command of the gospel is, “Believe.” “Oh,” but saith one, “am I to say I know that Christ died for me?” Ah, I did not say that, you shall learn that by-and-bye. You have nothing to do with that question now, your business is to believe on Christ and trust him; to cast yourself into his hands. And may God the Spirit now sweetly compel you to do it. Now, sinner, hands off your own righteousness. Drop all idea of becoming better through your own strength. Cast yourself flat on the promise.

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One of the key doctrines that sets apart the Roman Catholic Church (RC) and the Protestant churches is the doctrine of Mary also called Mariology. The RC exalts Mary to the position of a mediator between God and man and pray to her and say, “Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

As Protestants, and more especially as Reformed believers, we are appalled by this prayer. How can one pray through Mary while Christ is the only mediator between God and man as Paul reminds us in 1 Timothy 2:5? But in our reaction to RC’s doctrine of Mary we often tend to go to another unhealthy extreme of ignoring the important and God-given role that Mary played  in the history of our redemption.

We need to guard against this extreme because as we see in the Bible Mary by God’s grace did play an essential role in our redemption. It is through her that the Savior, Jesus Christ, was born in the world. It is of little wonder then that her name is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed.  Above all, the Scriptures call her “blessed among women” (Luke 2:42, 48).

One thing that will help us guard against the mentioned extreme is to always remember that Mary was chosen by God out of God’s own grace. This is where we the Protestants differ with the RC.  In Luke 1:28-30 we read

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

The Greek word charis translated favor in this passage means grace. In interpreting these verses the Roman Catholic Church teaches that Mary was the one who had grace. In other words, Mary was the source of grace hence in the “Hail Mary” Prayer, the RC members pray:

“Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

However, this contradicts what Luke 1:28-30 tell us. Mary was the recipient of God’s grace; she was never the source of grace. Mary was not full of grace; God alone is full of grace.

The brief account of Mary which Luke records for us in chapter 1 clearly demonstrates that it was Mary who found grace in the eyes of God. Consider the following three points. First, Mary was a sinner in need of a Savior (Luke 1:46) just like all of us. And the Lord saved her by grace and chose her by the same grace to be the mother of Christ.

Second, Mary was from a very low and humble background. She was not a daughter of a king or a daughter of a rich man. In her song, the Magnificat, recorded for us in Luke 1:46-55 she confesses that she is from a humble estate. In verse 48 she says, “For he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” In verses 52-53 she says, “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

Third, Mary was from an obscure town of Nazareth as we read in Luke 1:26 “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth.” Nazareth was neither the capital of Israel nor a big city in Israel. It was a city of little significance humanly speaking. You might remember that when Christ began to call his disciples in  John chapter 1 we read  that one of his first disciples was Phillip.  Later Philip invited his friend, Nathaniel and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” And what was the response of Nathaniel? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

This is what people thought of Nazareth the hometown of Mary. Nothing good can come out of this little-known town. Yet, it is to this obscure city that God went and found a young lady named Mary and said to her, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:31).

The story of Mary resembles the story of our salvation in many ways. God chose to save us not because we were a better, richer or more powerful people. He saved us solely out of his sheer grace and mercy as Apostle Paul clearly reminds us  in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29:

26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being  might boast in the presence of God.

God’s grace is indeed amazing.  To Him alone be the glory forever!

(This material first appeared in a form of a sermon which was first preached at London Free Reformed Church in London, Ontario, Canada on December 17, 2017).

The Virgin Mary: Chosen by Grace

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My Life as a Christian, My Sermons

A Cry of the Broken Heart (Psalm 130:1-2)

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice, let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy! (Psalm 130:1-2)

The Psalmist is crying to the Lord with his broken heart.  His heart is broken due to the sin or sins he has committed. Now please notice the two things about this cry.

First, is the object of his cry. To whom does the Psalmist cry out? To the Lord! “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!” In the depths of his sin, the Psalmist cries out to the Lord. This is very important to notice because sometimes when we believers sin, more especially if it is a grievous sin, we feel ashamed to turn to God. We look at ourselves and think of how much we have brought the name of the Lord into disrepute. And we think to ourselves, “How can I turn to the Lord in this mess. Where do I start?” And Satan takes advantage of our guilt and shame and whispers in our ears and says, “Look at you a hypocrite! You claim to be a child of God, how can you sin this way if you are really a child of God. How can you? Do you think God will hear you prayer after you have let him down like this?”

If we are not careful we buy into this lie of the devil and instead of drawing close to the Lord, we withdraw from the Lord and like a wounded dog run into the corner in darkness to lick our wounds. Satan does this deliberately so that we can despair and think that the sin has conquered us and there is no way out. However, we need to learn from the psalmist here. When we have fallen flat on our face because of sin, it is time to lift our eyes and cry out to the Lord through Jesus Christ. The Psalmist did not completely fall into despair. He turned to the Lord and cried for help. For sure the hymn writer was right when he wrote:

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free
For God the Just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me
To look on Him and pardon me

Secondly, I want us to notice the plea or the request of his cry. What is the psalmist asking in his cry? “O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my please for mercy.” The Psalmist is crying out to the Lord for mercy. He is saying: “I know that I deserve your judgment Lord because of my sin. But please be merciful to me and do not punish me in your anger, as my sin deserves.” The Psalmist is not crying to the Lord because he is worthy but rather because his God is a God of mercy. So, when we have sinned let’s remember that God is merciful.

Of course, God hates sin and nothing will change that. Of course, God will punish all unrepented sin and nothing can change that. But also God is a God of mercy. When we have confessed and repented of our sin, he freely grants his mercy. This why the psalmist in Psalm 103 rejoices and declares: “Bless the LORD, O my soul and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity…He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him (2, 9-11).

So, when our heart is broken due to sin. Let’s remember to cry out to the Lord. Don’t despair. Don’t wallow in your sin because there is mercy with God. He pardons those who truly repent of their sin.

(This material first appeared in a sermon form which was preached at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, USA on October 22, 2017)

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What Happens at Death?

We are continuing with our study of personal eschatology, and we now come to the question of death. What happens at death? This is a broad question that unfortunately cannot be answered broadly since there are two types of deaths namely that of a believer and an unbeliever. What occurs at the death of these two differs significantly. We will look at believer’s first and later at unbelievers.

First, as a Christian dies, he experiences God’s grace. This might sound obvious since the daily life of a believer is marked by grace. But, I highlight this point because even though death is a defeated foe, it still remains one of great fears of humanity. It is for no reason that we call it the chief of terrors. Many have experienced or witnessed loved ones passing into glory, perhaps more than a dozen times, yet they can’t say that they are used to death. Since no single human being can be used to death, God always grants grace both to the one dying and to his family, more especially, if they are believers. Christ’s grace proves to be more than sufficient and helps everyone through it.

Second, at death a believer attains full sanctification (Heb. 12:23). In this life, by God’s grace, a believer strives to become more like Christ but sin has not yet been fully conquered in his life. However, at death sin is completely eliminated and the Holy Spirit makes his soul perfect in holiness.

Third, a believer’s soul immediately enters into heaven. There are a number of teachings regarding what happens after the soul has been separated from the body in death. Some have taught that the soul sleeps waiting for the final judgment. This teaching is also called the doctrine of soul sleep. Some have said that the soul goes into an intermediate place. In this place, so the say, the souls of believers enjoy a measure of reward but not equal to their final and full reward in heaven. On the other hand, the souls of unbelievers, this teaching states, suffer a degree of punishment but not equal to their future judgment in hell. Some also have taught that there is a place named Purgatory where Christians with some unrepented sins go to be purified before their entry into heaven. However, we cannot find any biblical basis for these teachings. Instead, the Bible clearly teaches us that the moment a believer dies, his soul goes straight to be with the Lord in heaven (2 Cor. 5:1, 6, 8; Phil. 1:23). We shall in the following posts look at how Christian should respond to these erroneous doctrines.

Fourth, a believer’s body returns to earth waiting for the day it will be glorified and reunited to its soul (1 Cor. 15:53-54). I think the fact that one day the dead body will be glorified should be one of the motivating factors for Christians to treat dead bodies with respect. Burial is not just an incidental detail in our lives.

This could spark a debate on whether Christians should bury or cremate. I will weigh in only by making a confession. I have always believed that burial is more ideal. I also believe that I can argue from Scripture that burial is preferable than cremation. I had strong reservations towards cremation until one day when I was talking to a fellow Christian who is from one of the Asian countries. In our conversation we somehow arrived at the topic of cremation and he told me that in his country, more especially in his area, they don’t have enough land for cemeteries so even Christians cremate.

That conversations helped me clear some of the prejudice I had towards Christians who practice cremation. It helped me to understand that not all Christians who practice cremation prefer it to burial rather there are some factors that compel them. So, if there weren’t any valid reasons for cremation, I would have argued that Christians should shun it.

 

 

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