Thursday, August 07, 2008

On hold (for now)

Once again, I'll be teaching two sections of Bible at our high school -- and given the time needed to do so, I'm putting this blog to sleep for now. Keep checking back, however; I hope to use it as a "preview & comment" website for a book I'll be writing this winter.

But for now -- hasta luego.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: Jesus of Nazareth

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father -- Philippians 2:5-11, NIV.

"Eighty-percent of success," said Woody Allen, "is showing up."

Paul would agree. Writing to the church in Philippi, Paul quotes an already-familiar hymn about the kenosis -- about the way Jesus emptied himself in order to show up here on this earth.

To be sure, what happened after his arrival is the subject of almost infinite debate. When it comes to this week's lesson, for instance:
  • Some of your students will focus on Christ's life, others on his death.
  • Some will see Christ as our example, others as our sacrifice.
  • Some will emphasize sanctification, others justification.
But whatever their view of the atonement may be, your students should agree that it was impossible without the incarnation -- that in the deus ex machina of all time, God had to write Himself into the script of human history and live like any other person so that we might be saved . . .

And no, we may not agree about all the details of that "salvation."

But if we agree on the incarnation, then we're 80-percent there.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Portland City Center Sanctuary

Interested in tracking Dan George's attempt to start a new church in downtown Portland? Here's a link to his website.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: Paul, the ad hoc missionary

Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them -- Acts 16:6-10, NIV.
Key to this week's lesson is the idea that Paul gives us a plan for effective evangelism -- and if we could just discover that plan and copy it, then we'd get the kind of results Paul did.

Mind you, that leaves open the question of just how much we'd really want the kind of results Paul enjoyed; as he pointed out to the church in Corinth:
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. . . . In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands -- II Corinthians 11:24-33, NIV.
To put this in perspective -- imagine an outreach series in your church that concluded with a riot and the arrest of the visiting evangelist.

Would you call that a success?

But if Paul's results are problematic, so too is the idea that he's following some kind of plan. Consider his second missionary voyage, for instance -- the one to which I referred at the beginning of this post.
  • Paul wanted to travel with Barnabas -- but a quarrel led him to take Silas instead.
  • Paul wanted to visit Asia . . . but when that didn't work out, he tried to visit Bithynia . . . and when that didn't work out, he wound up in Troas instead.
  • Finally, when God did lead Paul to Macedonia, he was only able to stay a short time before opposition forced him to flee south.
In short, Paul's plans for this particular voyage soon went by the wayside; the result was something far more ad hoc and opportunistic than we sometimes credit him for.

When it comes to evangelism, in other words, Paul does not give us a plan so much as permission -- permission to make it up as we go along.

Is this scary? Yes.

Dangerous? Yes.

Will mistakes be made. Most certainly, yes.

But if Paul was willing to grab any opportunity God gave him -- even if it meant throwing his own plans out the window . . .

Yes, if no plan was good enough for Paul, then no plan should be good enough for us.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

I wonder how difficult it would be to find twelve guest speakers?

According to the NAD Calendar of Special Days, there are at least 27 Sabbaths that have been set aside to promote one worthy cause or another -- and presumably, each one comes complete with a worship kit and professionally-written sermon that's ready to preach.

Now add the four Sabbaths we set aside for Communion . . . the four I'm on vacation . . . the one where I'm gone at Campmeeting, and the Sabbaths that feature our Christmas Program, Easter Concert, and High School Baccalaureate . . .

And voila! I only need to write twelve sermons for the coming year!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Three questions

So it's campmeeting . . .

And you've just sat down in the cafeteria for another meal with your fellow pastors . . .

And you're tired of the usual gripes and complaints?

Try one of these three conversation starters:
  1. How has your ministry changed in the last five years?
  2. What part of your ministry really excites you right now?
  3. How do you see your ministry changing in the next five years?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: Paul the Missionary

After that, [Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me -- I Corinthians 15:6-10, NIV.

No one was better qualified to work with Gentiles.

And no one was worse.

For as this week's lesson points out, Paul was uniquely suited to carry the gospel to the Roman Empire.
  • He was a Roman citizen.
  • He spoke fluent Greek.
  • He'd been trained in both apologetics and Biblical interpretation by one of the finest teachers of his day.
Yet mission service was not a logical step for Paul -- far from it! No, as this week's lesson also points out:
  • Paul opposed Christianity.
  • He persecuted its followers.
  • And even after his conversion, Paul was hated and mistrusted by many in the church.
In short, we can see Paul's career as a straight line -- as one in which everything had always, inexorably pointed him in the direction God wanted him to go.

Or we can see it as a sudden change in direction -- as one in which God wiped clean the slate and gave Paul a fresh, new beginning.

That's because it was both . . . just as it often is with us.

For just like Paul, God leads us places we never thought we'd go.

And just like Paul, they always turn out to be the places we'd been heading all along.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: Christ's Second Advent

"And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward" -- Matthew 10:42, NIV.
Doctors bury their mistakes.

Me? I bury my successes.

And no, this shouldn't bother me. Whenever I visit someone who is dying, after all, whatever comfort and peace I bring to that person should be its own reward. I'm not looking for recognition, in other words; I don't need a medal that says, "Voted #1 in Customer Satisfaction by the Terminally Ill."

Perish the thought!

But as a pastor in a retirement community, I spend a lot of time with people who aren't going to be here much longer -- and that means much of the most delicate, demanding, and emotionally-draining work I do here will have little to show for it except a headstone and an obituary.

I'm not alone in my anonymity, of course. The heroes who work in hospice face it all the time. So does anyone who works with the developmentally-disabled -- or even small children, for that matter. And nothing is more unfair than the soldier or civilian whose bravery goes unmarked because it wasn't noticed by anyone who survived.

That is why I take comfort from this week's lesson. It tells me that every kind word and generous act is cherished by the God who inspired them all. And far from being forgotten, He will see to it these things are honored for all eternity.

To be sure, God may be the only one who knows what we've done for Him.

But in the end, He's the only audience we need.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: Christ's priestly ministry

"For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence" -- Hebrews 9:24, NIV.
Ron Howard's been filming a prequel to The Da Vinci Code.

No surprise there -- he made enough money on the first movie, it's only natural he'd want to film another.

But when he asked permission to film part of his movie in a couple of Catholic churches, the Vatican turned him down.

No surprise there -- any film series based on the belief that Catholicism is run by a bunch of bloodthirsty fools, liars, and knaves cannot expect too many favors from church leaders.

What's more, we take it for granted that holy places are not always open to anyone and everyone who might want to go there.
  • No, if you want to make a movie inside a Catholic church, then you're going to need permission from Catholic leaders.
  • If you want to visit an LDS Temple, then you'd better have a temple recommend.
  • If you want to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, then you'd better be prepared to prove you're a Muslim.
Even concerts follow much the same rule -- if you want to see Bruce Springsteen's dressing room, for instance, then you're going to need a backstage pass.

That's why this week's lesson is important -- it's important, because it lays down two principles:
  1. The only holy place worth worrying about is God's temple in heaven.
  2. The only one who controls access to that temple is the same Jesus who loved us so much that he died for us.
Jesus gives us a backstage pass to the only show that's worth seeing, in other words . . .

And if you have his permission, then nothing else really matters.

No surprise there.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

This Week's Sabbath School lesson: the resurrection of Christ

Two thoughts on this week's Sabbath School lesson -- the first from Bishop N. T. Wright, and the second from John Donne.

The first is drawn from Bishop Wright's article, "Kingdom Come: the public meaning of the Gospels," which appeared in the June 17, 2008 issue of The Christian Century.
[Contemporary scholars tend to divide their attention,] focusing either on Jesus' announcement of the kingdom and the powerful deeds -- healing, feastings and so on -- in which it is instantiated, or on his death and resurrection. The Gospels have thus been seen either as a social project with an unfortunate, accidental and meaningless conclusion, or as passion narratives with extended introductions. . . .

The resurrection of Jesus is to be seen not as the proof of Jesus' uniqueness, let alone his divinity -- and certainly not as the proof there is life after death . . . but as the launching within the world of space, time and matter of that God-in-public reality of new creation called God's kingdom . . .
But perhaps John Donne said it best:
RESURRECTION, IMPERFECT.
by John Donne

SLEEP, sleep, old sun, thou canst not have repass'd,
As yet, the wound thou took'st on Friday last ;
Sleep then, and rest ; the world may bear thy stay ;
A better sun rose before thee to-day ;
Who—not content to enlighten all that dwell
On the earth's face, as thou—enlighten'd hell,
And made the dark fires languish in that vale,
As at thy presence here our fires grow pale ;
Whose body, having walk'd on earth, and now
Hasting to heaven, would—that He might allow
Himself unto all stations, and fill all—
For these three days become a mineral.
He was all gold when He lay down, but rose
All tincture, and doth not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make e'en sinful flesh like his.
Had one of those, whose credulous piety
Thought that a soul one might discern and see
Go from a body, at this sepulchre been,
And, issuing from the sheet, this body seen,
He would have justly thought this body a soul,
If not of any man, yet of the whole.

Desunt Caetera

Friday, June 06, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: the meaning of Christ's death

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (I Corinthians 2:1-2, NIV).
This week's topic reminds me of the time I went to my doctor with one of my usual maladies.

"There are several ways we could treat this," he told me.

"That's good," I said.

"No, that's bad," he replied. "If any of them actually worked, there'd only be one way to treat this!"

Likewise, the fact there are two, common ways to explain Christ's death suggests that neither of them really "works."

Keep this in mind as your class settles into its usual argument of:
  • Anselm versus Abelard,
  • objective versus subjective,
  • propitiation versus expiation,
  • Andrews versus Loma Linda,
  • and forensic versus moral influence views of the atonement.
With the expertise that comes from long practice, each side will quickly home in on the other's weakness.
  • And yes, Anselm's forensic view of the atonement can become a form of "heavenly child abuse" -- one in which a God of Wrath is persuaded to forgive us only by killing His own son.
  • Then again, Abelard's moral influence theory all too easily degenerates into what Father Guido Sarducci used to call "Disneyland Thelogy," i.e. the belief that "God ain't a gonna hurt nobody."
In short, both views have weaknesses -- and both have strengths:
  • Anselm's view correctly points out our continuing need for God's mercy; there's no nonsense here about a people who are "safe to be saved."
  • Abelard's view correctly points out God's willingness to save us; there's no nonsense here about Jesus somehow "persuading" God to love us.
That's why you need to help your class understand and appreciate both points of view. Like your fingers and thumb, in other words, neither view is enough in itself; you'll need both to grasp this subject.

Friday, May 30, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: the compassion of Christ

At dawn [Jesus] appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

"No one, sir," she said.

"Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin" (John 8:1-11, NIV).

I knew she was trouble the minute I saw her. Maybe it was the tears. Maybe it was the couple of bruisers who hustled her across the pavement toward me. And maybe it was the crowd of Highly Respectable People who followed behind at a much more dignified pace.

"We have a case for you," said the leader of that crowd when it finally arrived. "And frankly, it has us stumped. This woman's been caught in the act, if you know what I mean -- and in the old days, we'd have known what to do with her. But now . . . "

I nodded. Ever since the Occupation, capital cases were out of our hands. And the authorities took a dim view of the death penalty in situations like this.

"So you're the smart guy," he continued. "You tell us what to do: Do we follow God's law or . . . "

He kept talking -- you could tell he'd been rehearsing this speech a long time. But the more he talked, the more it looked like a put-up job. Usually, there was no way you could prove a charge like this; you needed two witnesses who'd been there and seen everything the whole time.

Not likely.

Especially when the first thing the defense would ask those two witnesses is why they didn't try to stop it -- just as the law required you to do.

No, there was no way you could claim to be a witness in a case like this -- not unless you were lying.

And everybody knew the penalty for lying in a case like this was death.

So where were the witnesses? That's what I couldn't figure out. They were supposed to stick around after the trial. In fact, they were supposed to carry out the sentence; that was the rule: the witnesses always threw the first stones.

So the man talked, and the woman sobbed, and I doodled in the dust while I thought about those missing witnesses. And the more I thought about them, the more clear it was that I faced a trap -- and this woman was just the bait.

No, the real target was me.

Play along with this crowd, in other words, and I'd get in dutch with the authorities. Tell them where to get off, and I'd look like a traitor.

Not good, either way.

Not unless I played this game even better than they did.

"Looks like an open and shut case," I said, standing up. The woman moaned a little when she heard that, and the crowd got real quiet. "Now all we have to do is find those fine, upstanding citizens who testified in this case . . . all we have to do is find them, and get on with the execution. Anybody know where they are?"

The crowd thought about that one for a bit . . . and then, one by one, they all found a good reason to be someplace else. Say you were a witness, after all, and you risked getting nailed as a liar -- and not one of the people there was willing to take that chance.

Finally, nobody was left except the woman -- still snuffling a little.

"Look around, sweetheart," I said to her. "You see any witnesses?"

"Just you," she said. "Are you going to condemn me?"

"Not my job," I said to her. "Now go on home -- and let that be a lesson to you."

Friday, May 23, 2008

New Stuff

Couple of additions to that long list on the right-hand side of this site:
  • Resources for Ministry now includes a link to Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries -- the organization of choice for ministers whose parish is a prison, hospital, or military unit.
  • I've added a section on Christian Higher Education in the Pacific Northwest, with links to every Christian college I could find.
  • And I've also added a section on SDA Radio Stations.
Check them out, and let me know what you think!

This week's Sabbath School lesson: Christ's walk with God

At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him -- Mark 1:12f (NIV).
Read Mark's account of Christ's temptation, and you're sure to be disappointed. There's nothing about the nature of that temptation -- no request that stones be turned into bread, no challenge to prove God's care, no offer to trade the kingdoms of this world for an act of worship. Instead, we have a laconic account that:
  • the Spirit sent Jesus into the eraemos -- a desert place.
  • He was there 40 days.
  • Satan tempted him.
  • There were wild animals in that desert.
  • And the angels took care of him.
That's it. Nothing more. A big disappointment all around . . .

Until you read Mark 1:35 and you realize that Peter's critique of Christ's priorities also took place in an eraemos -- a desert place.

And every time Jesus goes someplace by himself to pray, we learn a little more about the temptation Jesus faced there in the desert -- the same temptation, as a matter of fact, that Jesus faced throughout his ministry.

No, I'm not going to tell you what this temptation really was; you need to read the Gospel of Mark for yourself.

But in telling this story the way he does, Mark makes the same point that's at the heart of this week's lesson: it's the fact that following God is a process. We don't defeat temptation and move on, in other words; we don't get it over and done with so that we can get on with our lives.

No, following God is a decision we make over and over again -- and every time we do so, we learn a little more about ourselves, and a little more about God.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

We're simply going to ignore any remarks about "the shaking of the church."

If the kind of earthquake that just hit China took place in Oregon, it would knock down roughly a third of our schools and public buildings.

That's the gist of a very scary article in The New York Times -- and it raises the question: what about our schools and churches? Anybody know what we could do to prepare for this kind of quake? (And remember -- it's not a matter of if but when.)

(Click on the title of this post for a link to the article.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Seniors slower but smarter

Good news from The New York Times for those of us who are gradually gaining on geezerhood -- it turns out that old people think slower because we have more to think about. Add that to the incredible amount of data we' over a lifetime, and it means that we really do get smarter as we age.

(Click on the title of this post for the link.)

Friday, May 09, 2008

El brazo derecho del evangelio

Two pieces of information:

One is an article in The New York Times on the use of traditional healers in this country by illegal immigrants from Mexico. No sooner do they arrive, it seems, then immigrants start coming down with the same ills that plague Americans: obesity, diabetes, hypertension, etc. Add the problems that come from working long hours at tough jobs, and you have a large group of people with real health needs.

Now add this piece of news from May's Oregon Conference PresReport:
Roger Hernandez reports over 1,000 guests came through the doors of the Hillsboro Spanish Church for Healing 2008. Volunteer medical professionals provided quality care. The need was great enough that some individuals lined up at 3:30 AM to receive medical and/or dental care.
Okay, so now let's put together these two pieces of information -- what does this suggest?

This week's Sabbath School lesson: the puzzle of Christ's conduct

To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: "We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn."

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, "He has a demon." The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, "Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners." But wisdom is proved right by her actions (Matthew 11:16-19, NIV).
This week's lesson is a wrap-up of all the things we really wish Christ had never done.
  • He disobeyed his parents (Luke 2:41-51).
  • Asked to heal a demoniac, he showed signs of irritation (Matthew 17:14-20).
  • He cursed a fig tree (Matthew 21:18-22).
  • Having asked if it was right to heal on the Sabbath, he was angry when people refused to answer (Mark 3:1-5).
  • He cast out demons -- then allowed them to destroy a herd of pigs (Matthew 8:28-34).
  • He hung out with the wrong crowd (Matthew 9:10-13).
  • He cleared the Temple of money-changers and animal-sellers (Matthew 21: 12-13).
What's more, this lesson talks about two things Jesus did not do that we really wish he'd done:
As you deal with these incidents in your class, you'll want to deal with two questions:
  • Why did Jesus behave the way he did?
  • Should we do the same?
In dealing with the first question, you'll find it helpful to study the background of each text -- and to help you do this, I've linked each text to the relevant section of the InterVarsity Press New Testament Commentary .

As you study, you'll notice how Jesus was absolutely intolerant of anything that got between people and God . . . and this will lead you to the question of why we so often tolerate these things -- especially when other people are inconvenienced, and not ourselves.

When Jesus cleared the Temple, for instance, he did this so that Gentiles would have a place to worship -- one of the first examples, I suppose, of a "seeker-sensitive service." Likewise, he ate with tax collectors and "sinners," even at the risk of his own reputation -- a standing rebuke to churches that would rather look good than do good.

In short, Jesus was loving. Jesus was kind. Jesus would give his life for us.

But Jesus did not live up to our expectations of Him.

Why not?

Friday, May 02, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: Christ's miracles

A man with leprosy came and knelt down before [Jesus] and said, "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean."

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately he was cured of his leprosy. (Matthew 8:2-3, NIV)
You've studied this week's lesson.

Now make sure your class doesn't take it to its logical conclusion.

That's because any discussion of Christ's miracles inevitably leads to the question of "Why don't we see this kind of miracles today?" And that will lead class members to declare we need more faith -- and that will leave some of your people thinking it's all their fault Cousin Charley didn't survive . . . "because he would have lived if we'd had more faith."

How do I know this?

Been there. Seen that. Dealt with the aftermath.

So . . . I'd suggest you lead your class through a list of Christ's miracles -- say, the one in Matthew 8 & 9 -- and ask them a simple question: "Who had faith?"
  • In the healing of the leper, it was the leper . . . maybe.
  • In the healing of the centurion's servant, it was the centurion.
  • In the healing of Peter's mother-in-law, it was . . . okay, this one's ambiguous; nobody's faith is mentioned here.
  • In the calming of the storm, Matthew goes out of his way to point out the disciple's lack of faith.
  • The same is true of Christ healing the two demoniacs -- and no, you're not going to convince me the demons had faith!
  • In the healing of the paralytic, it was his friends who brought him to Jesus.
  • In the healing of the sick woman, Jesus goes out of his way to commend her faith.
  • But you can't tell me the little girl Jesus healed showed faith -- in fact, she was dead! As for the crowd around her, they mocked!
  • Two blind men are then healed "according to their faith" . . .
  • But a mute demoniac is also healed -- and just like the paralytic, the only sign of faith is shown by the people who brought him to Jesus.
In short, the one constant in this story is not faith. No, there are times when the person being healed might have faith -- and there are times when he or she doesn't, but other people do.

Then again, there are also times when it seems as though nobody has faith . . .

Nobody except Jesus.

And there you have the point of this week's lesson -- a point that will save your class members a lot of grief and guilt in the years ahead.

It's the fact that Jesus doesn't heal us because we have faith.

No, Jesus heals us because he is faithful.

Friday, April 25, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: Jesus the teacher

Roy Adams has been kidnapped!

Nothing else explains this week's lesson -- a lesson in which one of the Adventist Review's best writers and editors supposedly asked us to imagine "millions drooling in the palm of our hand."

As the members of my Freshman Bible class would say upon reading this, "Ewwww!!!"

Then too, Roy knows how to write a Sabbath School lesson that we can actually teach; he's proven this in previous weeks. But this week's lesson boils down to the idea that "Jesus was a great teacher -- and that means he taught a lot of great stuff."

And as any self-respecting Sabbath School teacher would say upon being asked to teach such a vapid lesson, "Arggghhh!!!"

So . . . given the discrepancy between this week's lesson and the kind of thing Roy Adams would actually write, it's clear that:
  • He's been kidnapped.
  • his attackers have attempted to conceal their perfidious crime by hiring an imposter to write this week's Sabbath School lesson,
  • and it's time to unleash the All-Adventist Ninja Strike Force so they can find Roy and bring him home to write a proper Sabbath School lesson -- one we could actually teach.
Meanwhile, I'd suggest you focus on one aspect of the Sermon on the Mount -- the Beatitudes, say, or the Lord's Prayer . . .
  • but focus on that one, specific, manageable chunk of text,
  • develop its meaning,
  • and ask the members of your class how they could apply it to their lives in the coming week.
Meanwhile, we need to pray for Roy's safe return -- and we can only hope he does so before next week's lesson!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

One nation under God

Disturbing article in The New York Times about Protestants in Russia -- a resurgent Orthodox Church is making it difficult for them to meet, own property, or even hold Sunday School classes for children. And no, it's not as bad as it was under the Communists . . . but it's getting kind of chilly over there.

(Click on the title of this post for a link to the article.)

Friday, April 18, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: the humanity of Christ

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need -- Hebrews 4:14-16, NIV.
This week's lesson would be a lot easier to teach if Jesus was like Superman, i.e.
  • If he looked human,
  • and he acted human,
  • but he really wasn't human -- not like you and me.
No, if you believed this, you'd eliminate the embarrassing idea that The God Who Created the Universe also did time as a 33-year-old Jewish male -- and as such, he ate, drank, blew his nose, and excused himself every now and then to go looking for the nearest restroom.

Sounds downright blasphemous, doesn't it?

Then too, we all know how much our choices are shaped by what's going on in our bodies. As a diabetic, for instance, my moods can vary with the amount of glucose in my blood.
  • Too much sugar, and I get sleepy.
  • Not enough sugar, and I turn cranky and irritable.
Now add all those other chemicals that affect our behavior -- hormones such as cortisol and testosterone, or neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin -- and there are times you wonder how much we really control just exactly who we are.

Yet Jesus never sinned, never slipped, never "lost it" -- not even when he was hungry, sleepy, stressed, or angry with his followers. In short, Jesus had the kind of self-control that seems . . .

Well, it seems downright "superhuman."

That's why so many church members are really Docetists -- in their heart of hearts, they believe Jesus never got hungry, never got lonely, and was never, ever tempted to doubt God the way we so often do.

Yes, it's easy to believe Jesus was some kind of Superman.

But then we'd never know what it's like to be really human.

Monday, April 14, 2008

I'm speechless

Hat-tip to Doug Clayville for pointing out this response by pastors' wives to all those times we've used them for sermon illustrations.

And yes, my wife thinks it's hilarious, though I don't know why . . .

(Click on the title of this post for the link.)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Jesus wept.

Click on the title of this post for Foreign Policy magazine's list of the World's Worst Religious Leaders.

Friday, April 11, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: the deity of Christ

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted" -- Matthew 28:16-17, NIV.
Robert Johnston once pointed out that all Christology can be boiled down to two statements:
  • Jesus prayed.
  • And Jesus' followers prayed to him.
The first statement is the basis for our belief that Jesus is human -- and as such, he was forced to rely upon God just as much as we do.

The second statement is the basis for our belief that Jesus is divine -- and as such, he is the source of every blessing in our lives.

Now obviously, we've had a difficult time explaining how both statements could be true -- and over the years, believers have tried to simplify matters by getting rid of one or the other.
  • Docetists and other Gnostics, for instance, said Jesus was divine -- but not really human,
  • While Ebionites and Arians said Jesus was human -- but not really divine.
  • And then you had Nestorians and Apollonarians, both of whom said Jesus was not fully one or the other, but a hybrid of the two.
The result is our belief in the Trinity -- and no, it is not an easy doctrine to understand.

But it beats the alternatives.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

CEU Stuff: Martin Marty & Son in Portland

Martin Marty and his son Peter will give a three-day seminar, June 18-20, at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. The cost for clergy is $180 if you register by May 25.

Myself, I'm going to try and shake loose some CEU money so that I can attend. Marty Sr. is not only the dean of American church historians, he's also a sharp observer of contemporary religion -- and an absolute hoot as a speaker.

(Click on the title of this post for a link to the Cathedral's website, and registration information.)

Friday, April 04, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: Who was Jesus?

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?"

They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"

Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" -- Mark 8:27-29, NIV.

Just prior to these words, Christ had performed one of his most puzzling miracles: the healing of a blind man in Bethsaida. Rather than heal him outright, however, Jesus had spit on the man's eyes, placed hands on him, and then asked, "Do you see anything?"

"I see people," the man replied, "but they look like trees walking around."

And so, like a TV repairman fiddling with the picture until it looks right, Jesus put his hands on the man's eyes once again -- and only then was the man's sight restored; only then does the Bible say "he saw everything clearly."

As I said, it's a strange story; it's often made me wonder why Jesus could not have healed both sight and understanding at one and the same time.

Then again, it's no more puzzling than what follows . . . for in the verses quoted above, Peter sees who Jesus really is. "You are the Christ," Peter says -- and as Matthew 16:16ff points out, this declaration was just as much a gift from God as any miracle Jesus ever performed.

Yet just like the blind man from Bethsaida, Peter sees but he does not understand; he knows Jesus is the Christ, but he has no idea of the cross.
[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. "Get behind me, Satan!" he said. "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men" -- Mark 8:31-33, NIV.

It is only with time that Peter -- like the blind man -- will both see and understand.

Likewise, this week's lesson asks, "Who is Jesus?" And just like Peter, the members of your class will be quick to answer: "He is the Christ -- the Son of the Living God."

No, they will see the right answer, sure enough.

But learning to understand this answer . . . that takes time.

And that's what this quarter's lessons are all about.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Job Opening

Friend-of-a-friend told me about a big church (400+ members) in the Midwest that's having a hard time finding a pastor -- it's a college town, and they're looking for "a young pastor who is going somewhere."

Send me your name if you're interested, and I'll pass it along.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Old sermons don't count

Looking for an Earth Day project?

Try cleaning up the toxic waste at your church.

Last Sunday's workbee in Lincoln City revealed we have a collection of pesticides, solvents, paints, and cleaning agents that goes back 50-years. Not only is this stuff a fire hazard, but some of it is genuinely bad news for the environment -- bad enough that we can't just throw it away.

The good news: with Earth Day coming up, our local recycling center is waiving its usual fees for disposing of some products.

So here's my advice:
  1. Check out your church's closets.
  2. Make a list of the toxic treasures you find.
  3. Then call your local landfill or sanitary district, and ask how you can safely get rid of these things for Earth Day.

Friday, March 28, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: the call to compassion

So I'm listening to NPR's Fresh Air from WHYY -- and Terry Gross is talking with Pico Iyer about his new book on the Dalai Lama.

Cool.

And one of the things they're talking about is the fact that the Dalai Lama is loved by a lot of people -- even people who would disagree with his views on:
  • homosexuality (he's against it),
  • divorce (he's against it),
  • and the use of both alcohol and illicit drugs. (Surprise! He's against this too!)
"Hmmmm . . . " says I to myself. "Most of Terry's listeners would go ballistic if James Dobson said something like this -- so how come the Dalai Lama gets away with it?"

Good question -- and the answer (according to Terry and Pico) is that the Dalai Lama is nice -- so nice that people don't seem to mind when he steps on their toes.

And there you have the point of this week's lesson -- it's the fact that Christ's disciples should have high standards, and preach the truth, and do a lot of other things that the people who listen to Fresh Air on WHYY would find terribly obnoxious . . .

If only we weren't so nice.

So compassionate.

And so Christ-like.

Just like the Dalai Lama.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

On your mark, get set . . .

If you're thinking this might be the year to make a move, then now is the time to start getting ready. Some suggestions:

Pray.

Given the random and arbitrary nature of the process, it's easy to stress about pastoral placement. That's why you need to remember Who Is In Charge of It All -- and there's no better way to do that than prayer. So talk with God. Be specific and honest -- and don't be afraid to tell Him about those grandiose ambitions you've never dared to share with anyone else. (Just be prepared to listen too!)

Talk over the idea of moving with your spouse -- and listen to what she says.

This is the best way I know to clarify motives, establish priorities, and find gaps in logic. When I was looking over some calls last year, for instance, my wife pointed out that:
a) moving just before our daughter's Senior year in high school was not a good idea.
b) moving in the middle of a building project was not a good idea.
c) moving a long ways from my parents (who are certainly not getting any younger) was something I've repeatedly said would not be a good idea.
Granted, I might have figured out this on my own -- but my wife certainly sped up the process.

Establish your "deal-breakers."
Flexibility is good, but you need to be honest about the things you're not ready to handle at this time. In my case, that means "not too far from my parents" and "no more building projects." In your case, that may mean "must have an elementary school" or "not more than four churches in the district."

Look in the mirror.
Sad but true -- nothing says "loser" to a search committee like someone who needs to lose 20-pounds. If you've been meaning to start exercising and eating right, in other words, now would be a good time. And yes, this is also a good time to update your wardrobe.

Brush up your resume.
To be honest, most search committees won't depend on this nearly so much as they do on word of mouth -- but it's good to be ready, just in case. (For ideas on how to do this, click here.) Then too, there's nothing like a quick review of where you've been to suggest where you might like to go from here.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Ever onward

Posts have been sparse of late -- I'm blaming extreme busyness (i.e. our church ran a CHIP, I had a sermon to write for the "Beyond the Bottom Line" conference in San Diego, I'm still teaching two sections of Bible at our local SDA high school, and the dog had knee surgery).

But with Spring Break here, I'm hoping to spend more time with the blog -- and for starters, check out Gary Land's Historical Dictionary of Seventh-day Adventists; thanks to Google, it's free!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: sharing the call

[Jesus said to his disciples,] "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" -- Matthew 28:18-20, NIV.
Most religions are like the Portland Trailblazers: they're a local thing.

That's why you don't see the Hopi going door to door, inviting their Navajo neighbors to forsake the Hero Twins for the worship of Kokopelli. No, this would be like 'Blazer fans proselytizing in Seattle; it goes against the popular assumption that "to each his own" -- and just so long as the Lakers don't make it into the playoffs, then everybody is cool with that.

Likewise, most of your class members have found some way to accommodate the differing beliefs of their friends, neighbors, and co-workers. "It's not what I believe," they'll say in effect, "but it seems to work for them. So . . . it's all good."

And yes, that certainly seems tolerant and open-minded.

The trouble comes when we run into someone whose indigenous beliefs are intolerable -- someone who has been raised to believe there is nothing wrong with slavery. Or child marriage. Or female circumcision.

(And if you don't believe such people exist, then you need to get out more!)

It's these people who test the limits of our tolerance -- and it's these people who lead us to believe there are some things that everyone, everywhere, should believe and practice at all times.

That's what you'll discuss in today's lesson -- the question of when you let it slide, and when you take a stand.

No, just because you're a fan of the 'Blazers, that doesn't mean everybody has to be a fan of the 'Blazers.

But when it comes to rooting for the Lakers . . . then sometimes, you need to draw a line.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: fumbling the call

"Do not say, 'Why were the old days better than these?' For it is not wise to ask such questions" -- Ecclesiastes 7:10, NIV.
Few myths are more popular than that of a "Golden Age," i.e. the myth of a time long-ago, when all the women were strong, all the men were good-looking, and all the children knew how to behave themselves in church.

But in this week's lesson, we learn that God's people have always behaved badly. Even the apostles were not always saints -- and at times, their behavior sounds less like the Beatitudes than like a catalog of the Seven Deadly Sins:
  • When Christ fed the five thousand, for instance, John 6 suggests the Twelve backed the crowd's attempt to make Jesus a king by force.
  • In Luke 9, they wanted Jesus to call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village.
  • John 12 tells us how the disciples criticized Mary's care for Jesus; in the process, one of the disciples is revealed to be a thief.
  • And when Jesus was arrested, John 18 says Peter denied ever following Jesus -- and he did so three times!
In short, there is hardly a sin in the church today that you won't find in its Golden Age of the Apostles -- and as a teacher, that leaves you with two options:
  • You can use this lesson to discuss Things We Should Not Do.
  • You can use this lesson to discuss God's love, even for people who do bad things.
Which of the two you emphasize will depend on the needs of your class. If your class is full of psychotics, after all, they may need a check on their behavior; if your class is full of neurotics, they may need some encouragement.

But in either case, your class needs to understand that God's love and power is not confined to some mythical Golden Age of the past.

No, the God of yesterday is still the God of today.

And God's people needed Him yesterday just as much as we do today.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

This weeks's Sabbath School lesson: called to serve

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2: 1-11, NIV).

Writing to a church marked by quarrels and power-struggles, Paul quotes a hymn -- a hymn about Christ's kenosis (or "emptying"). "Just as Christ set aside everything that kept him from serving God," says Paul, "so we should set aside everything that keeps us from serving each other."

It's this kenosis you'll be discussing in this week's lesson. Most of us have no problem with the idea of service, after all; it's just that we have a long list of reasons why we can't put this idea into practice at this time.

"I'm busy enough as it is," we say. "Besides -- I've already done my time. I'm suffering from burn-out. And isn't there something more important that I could be doing?"

No, we'll always have an excuse not to serve -- a good excuse, a legitimate excuse, an excuse that lets us off the hook every time.

Think of what happened, for instance, when somebody had to wash the feet of Christ's disciples. And yes, it needed to be done . . . but it could not be done without a serious loss of face; washing feet was so degrading that even a slave could not be told to do it -- not if that slave was Jewish.

So the disciples hemmed, and they hawed, and they muttered about their bad backs and their arthritis and their lumbago that had been acting up lately . . .

Until Jesus went ahead and did it himself.

That's the kind of God we serve -- and that's the way he wants us to serve others too.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: the waiting disciple

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. . . . So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. . . . Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour" (Matthew 24: 42 & 44, 25:13, NIV).
Once again, the Quarterly gives us a grab-bag of incidents from the life of Christ, held together by only the vaguest of themes.
  • Jesus is the Bread of Life (John 6:43-58).
  • Jesus blesses little children (Matthew 18:-14).
  • The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13).
  • The Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24 & 25).
  • Jesus tells his followers to bear their cross with him (Mark 8:27-30).
And once again, you'll probably want focus on one of these stories, rather than try to cover all five.

Now if you don't have a lot of time to prepare a Sabbath School lesson (and yes, Karl, I'm talking to you), I'd suggest you go with the Olivet Discourse, i.e. the sermon in which Christ tells his disciples how to prepare for the Judgment. That's because these chapters are both familiar and mysterious:
  • They are familiar enough that almost every member of your class will feel they have something to contribute to the discussion.
  • But they are mysterious enough that almost every member of your class will feel they need to learn more.
Then too, these chapters involve prophecy -- and that's always fun!

Now in chapter 24, Jesus discusses two events: the Fall of Jerusalem (i.e. "these things"), and the Judgment (i.e. "that day").
  • The first took place in AD 70, the second will take place at a time known only to God.
  • The first can be predicted by carefully watching "the signs"; the second cannot -- it will be completely unexpected.
  • The first can be survived only through immediate flight; the second requires us to always be ready, watchful, and prepared.
Having said we need to be ready, Jesus tells us how to do this in chapter 25.
  • In the Parable of the Talents, he tells us to use the gifts God gave us.
  • And in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, he tells us to use these gifts for the good of others.
In short, the Olivet Discourse provides a kind of User's Guide to the Apocalypse. It tells us how to make it through tough times in the future -- and it does so by reminding us to help others through their tough times today. As Ellen White said in The Ministry of Healing: "The faithful discharge of today's duties is the best preparation for tomorrow's trials."

I miss the future!

Hat-tip to boingboing for its link to postcards from the 1962 Seattle World's Fair.

I attended the fair when I was five-years-old; I remember being awed and fascinated by its predictions of "Life in the 21st-century" -- predictions of a world in which:
  • people traveled to work by monorail,
  • dined on synthetic protein,
  • and thought purple, orange, and turquoise were all perfectly normal colors to paint a house.
Sigh.

Years later, I attended a church conference that was held just a few blocks from the site of the fair -- a conference in which a famous futurist confidently predicted just exactly what the next few decades had in store for us all.

Nobody else caught the irony.

(Click on the title of this post for a link to the postcards.)

Friday, February 15, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: spiritual growth

"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" -- Matthew 5:48, NIV.
Up till now, the quarterly has been talking about the call to discipleship; now it moves on to the process of being a disciple. If the decision to follow Jesus is like a wedding, in other words, we're now talking about the marriage itself.

Unfortunately, this week's lesson doesn't offer much in the way of definitely guidance -- a few references to the Sermon on the Mount, a quick glance at the appointment of the apostles, a brief mention of Christ's commission to the Seventy . . . in short, nothing much on which to build a lesson plan for your class.

So . . . you have a choice:
  • You can review the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
  • You can review the appointment of the apostles (Mark 3:1-12).
  • You can review Christ's commission of the Seventy (Luke 10:1-23).
And in each case, you can try to determine what are the timeless principles in these verses that are meant for all disciples everywhere, and what are contingent principles meant for that specific time and place alone.

Then again, you might want to take a look at the life of one, specific disciple -- a disciple like Peter. First, review his call to be a disciple. Then discuss all the ways in which he grew and changed as a disciples:
  • his walking on the water (and subsequent failure)
  • his recognition of Jesus as the Christ (and subsequent failure).
  • his attempt to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (and subsequent failure).
  • his ministry to the Gentiles (and subsequent failure) . . .
Well, you get the idea. And as you study Peter's life, you may want to discuss with your class the question: At what point in his life would you say that Peter was "converted"? What does this say about conversion -- and what does this say about the process of discipleship?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Birthday!

Today is Oregon's 149th birthday -- and if you need a reason to celebrate it, then click here for the Oregon Encyclopedia Project.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Dealing with Controversy

It seemed like a good idea at the time . . . but now the phone lines are buzzing, the battle-lines are forming, and the Conference is sending emails that assure you of its support.

In short, you have a major controversy developing in your church -- and that means you need to:
  • Keep the Conference informed. It doesn't take much -- just short, frequent emails that keep the Brethren up to date. (Otherwise, somebody else will set the agenda.)
  • Keep your elders informed. A quick, "heads-up" phone call before meetings can save you a world of grief. (Nobody likes surprises!)
  • Keep your people informed. Phone calls, bulletin announcements, emails, websites -- you need to get out the word in as many different ways as you possibly can. (That way, they can't say you "tried to keep it secret.")
  • Keep your secretary informed. Tell her what to say when people call for information. (Oddly enough, some people are more likely to believe your secretary than they are to believe you!)
Two more pieces of advice:
  • Write it down. Keep a log of your conversations with relevant people -- one in which you list when the conversation took place, what was said, and who was present. Otherwise, the question of "who said what and when?" can turn into a major issue.
  • Don't get mad. Nothing emboldens your opponents (and embarrasses your supporters ) faster than a public display of anger. No matter how righteous your indignation may be, in other words, you don't want to go there!

Friday, February 08, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: loving the different

You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:43-48, NIV).
This week's lesson shouldn't be too controversial -- thanks to 50-years of the Civil Rights Movement, just about everyone should be willing to agree that racism is a sin. And most of your class members will be open to the idea (at least in theory) that God loves illegal immigrants just as much as He loves Americans.

But before you close this week's lesson by forming a circle, joining hands, and singing "Kumbaya," you might might want to ask what difference all this will make in the behavior of your class members. Who will they encounter in the next week, for instance, who is "different" -- and how can they reach out to that person with God's love?

And if they don't typically encounter people who are all that "different" . . . then what difference does this week's lesson really make?

Thursday, January 31, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: the call to women

After Jesus was anointed by the woman at Simon's house, he "traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene)from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means" (Luke 8:1-3, NIV).
We often picture Christ's disciples as a kind of spiritual Marine Corps -- as a lean, tough, band of twelve superheroes who bravely followed Jesus into the jaws of death.

In reality, Christ's followers probably looked like a meeting of your local PTA. If the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, for instance, then women and children were present; that's because it would have been unthinkable for the disciples to celebrate this festival without their families.

Likewise, passages such as Luke 8:1ff and Mark 15:40f indicate that women were not marginal to Christ's ministry -- in fact, they paid the bills!

And when all the other disciples had fled, who remained with Jesus?
As Jesus died, "some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there" (Mark 15:40f, NIV).
It's no wonder that Christianity proved to be so popular with women -- in fact, church historian Philip Jenkins calls it "the world's first feminist religion." As Christians, after all:
  • women gained some protection in a society that sanctioned female infanticide and divorce-at-will by men.
  • women were allowed to lead out in churches (cf. Phoebe and Junia in Romans 16).
  • And at a time when philosophers debated whether or not women had rational souls -- a time when Jewish men thanked God in their daily prayers that they had not been born a slave, a Gentile, or a woman . . .
No, even in times like those, they had a Savior who welcomed women and counted them among his closest followers.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Yesterday's buildings, tomorrow's churches.

With two pastors now planting churches in Portland, there's been some buzz out there about urban ministry. "It would be so great," people tell me, "to start a church in one of those trendy, new places like the Pearl!"

People, people, people . . . the Pearl was yesterday; it's been gentrified, yuppiefied, and priced way beyond the reach of young families and genuine creative types.

(Rule of thumb: if there's a Whole Foods in the neighborhood, then you can't afford to live there.)

No, the places to watch are those "first-generation suburbs" built in the first half of the 20th-century -- places like Hawthorne Boulevard, the Alberta neighborhood, Sandy Boulevard . . . and yes, if you hang around long enough, then you'll see "Felony Flats" on south 82nd Avenue turn into another Pearl.

(Rule of thumb: when the restaurant reviewers in The Oregonian start raving about all the really great ethnic restaurants in one particular part of town, then you know that neighborhood is going to be the next trendy place.)

Fortunately, we already have a solid church presence in those neighborhoods -- or rather, we have a solid presence of church buildings. That's why the next generation of hot, new places to worship could be churches like Stone Tower, Mount Tabor, Glendoveer, Sharon, Volunteer Park, and Lents.

Hard to believe? Yes, because those churches lost out big-time in the move to second- and third-generation suburbs in the '70s and '80s. But with people moving back into the old neighborhoods, they could get a new lease on life . . .

Maybe.

With the right leadership. And hard work. And planning. And a willingness to take risks.

But it could happen if we make it happen.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Been there. Done that. Don't want to do it again.

Many thanks to the ThinkChristian for steering me to a superb meditation on preaching while depressed -- it's in the Lutheran blog, I Trust When Dark My Road.

(Click on the title of this post for a link to the article.)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: the call refused

Many are invited, but few are chosen -- Matthew 22:14, NIV.

Jesus was not doing well -- in fact, Jesus had been rejected by just about everybody who was somebody!
  • The Pharisees and Herodians were plotting how to kill him.
  • The teachers of the law said he was possessed.
  • And even his own family thought Jesus was crazy.
No, Jesus was a failure -- and it wouldn't surprise me if this made some of his followers believe that Jesus was doing something wrong.

"Maybe we need to run a focus group," they might have said. "Maybe we need to take some polls. Survey the public. Find out where we got off track."

But Jesus did none of these things; instead, he told the Parable of the Seeds (Mark 4:1-20).

"God's love is like the seed you sow when you're planting a lawn," said Jesus. "It goes everywhere."
  • But some people just don't get it. (Think of Nicodemus in John 1-21.)
  • Some people burn out quickly. (Think of the impetuous disciple in Matthew 8:18-20.)
  • Some people aren't willing to make the changes needed. (Think of the man who wanted to "bury his father" in Matthew 18:21f.)
  • And some are a mixture of all three. (Think of the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-23.)
In short, the problem here was not Jesus, but the people who were failing to respond. That's because God's love is not a bulldozer that moves through our world with unstoppable force. Instead, it is a garden -- a garden that grows only if we tend it with care.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Leading away a 71-year-old church member in handcuffs was probably not a good move.

A tip of the hat to GetReligion for pointing out the Wall Street Journal's recent article on church discipline. Most of the cases cited were for "gossip" i.e. criticizing the church pastor; it would seem that most of the pastors involved were able to disfellowship members on their own authority.

Mind you, I have nothing against church discipline per se.
  • I have asked church officers to step down.
  • I have asked church members to withdraw their membership.
  • I have told convicted child molesters they could not attend unless certain conditions were met (i.e. signing a covenant that bans contact with children, and mandates the presence of an adult "buddy" at all times).
  • I have worked with the conference to disband a church company that was under my care.
And yes, I have even been heard to mutter that, in the course of his or her career, every pastor should be allowed to disfellowship a total of five church members for no other reason than the fact that he or she finds them to be really, really irritating.

But as the WSJ points out, there no way a pastor is going to come out of a church discipline case looking good.

That's one reason why our church in Lincoln City has voted that nobody can become a church member or be kicked out as a church member without a three-to-one majority vote of the church. If we're going to start messing with membership, in other words, we want to make sure this is something we really want to do.

(Click on the title of this post for a link to the article.)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Twenty-somethings

At the very least, I need to rethink the way I teach religion.

At the most, I need to rethink the way I do church.

That's because people today don't grow up the same way they did when I was in school.

In addition to pastoring a two-church district, you see, I also teach the religion classes at our local Adventist high school. And traditionally, the high point of the senior-year religion class was the students' chance to plan their own wedding -- I mean, they'd spend weeks pouring over bridal magazines, pricing caterers, and picking out suitably hideous dresses for the bridesmaids.

Great fun -- and in 1970, you could argue this was time well spent. Half the women in that class, after all, would be planning their own weddings for real at some point in the next three years.

But today, the median age for first marriages is 27 for men and 25 for women -- and that's not the only thing that's changed. As David Brooks noted in his column, "The Odyssey Years":
People who were born before 1964 tend to define adulthood by certain accomplishments — moving away from home, becoming financially independent, getting married and starting a family.

In 1960, roughly 70 percent of 30-year-olds had achieved these things. By 2000, fewer than 40 percent of 30-year-olds had done the same.

Obviously, this affects the way I teach religion. Does it make sense for my seniors to plan a wedding, for instance, when over half of them still won't be married in eight-years' time?

But what about the churches I lead? It's been difficult enough to reach some kind of modus vivendi with Boomers -- but as two posts in Our of Ur pointed out, the new generation of twenty-somethings is having just as much trouble with Boomer pastors as those Boomers did with their elders. And a series of articles in the National Catholic Reporter all agree that the Catholic Church is facing the same problem.

So what's happening with twenty-somethings in your church? What have you tried? What worked? What didn't work? And what do you think might have worked, if only you'd been allowed to try?

Friday, January 18, 2008

It sure sounds like a squirrel to me.

Thelog's been running a discussion on children's stories in church -- you can sum it up in the immortal words of Fozzie Bear:
Can't live with 'em.
Can't live without 'em.
There's something irresistabullish about them.
We grin and bear it 'cuz the [sermon's] long . . .
I hope that something better comes along.
(Click on the title of this post for a link to the discussion.)

This week's Sabbath School lesson: the calls

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit (John 3:8, NIV).
As part of last week's lesson, we studied the call of Peter in Mark 1:16-18 -- a call that was clear, personal, and decisive. As such, it provides a template for the way we usually think about God's work in our lives, i.e. God deals with us one-on-one -- and He demands an immediate response.

Yet the Gospel of Mark does not provide the only version of Peter's call.
  • To be sure, the account in Matthew 4:18-20 is almost identical with that of Mark.
  • But Luke 5:1-11 says Peter was fishing in a boat (and not with a hand net); what's more, Christ's call comes after he uses Peter's boat for a speaking platform, after he gives Peter a miraculous catch of fish, and after Peter begs Jesus to go away, "for I am a sinful man."
  • Finally, John 1:40-42 says nothing of fish nor fishing; neither does it say anything of Jesus reaching out to call Peter! Instead, we read how Jesus was seen by John the Baptist, John the Baptist was heard by Andrew, Andrew brought his brother to Jesus, and Jesus gave Andrew's brother the new name of "Peter."
In short, the story of Peter's "call" can be told at least three different ways . . . which is another way of saying the Bible recognizes at least three different times in Peter's life when he was "called" -- and each call comes to Peter in a different way:
  • "Out of the blue" (viz. Matthew and Mark).
  • After he'd heard Christ preach, seen Christ's power, and confessed his own sinfulness (viz. Luke).
  • And through the efforts of friends and family (viz. John).
Likewise, we should not expect God to "call" everyone in the exact, same way -- and even in our own lives, we will hear God's voice in different ways, at different times, and through different means.

In short, there is no single template for God's work in our lives. No, God's Spirit is like the wind -- "it blows wherever it pleases," and no one can predict what it will do next.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Writing this took 4 minutes and 28 seconds.

I love the Web, but it sure does soak up time. That's why I borrowed an idea from Lifehacker, and started keeping a stopwatch by my computer.
  • When I'm online, I hit the "start" button on the stopwatch.
  • When I go offline, it I hit the "stop" button.
  • When I go online again, I start the watch again.
  • And at the end of the day, I note how much time I've spent on the Web, and hit "clear."
And no, I'm not consciously trying to limit my time on the computer . . . but doing nothing more than just noting the time I spend on the Web has been an eye-opener -- and I think it's made a difference.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Wishlist: Training on the Web

I wish somebody offered training for specific tasks and skills via MP3 files and "YouTube"-type videos -- stuff that I and my church members could download from the Web at any time.

And yes, I'm sure the training events and seminars now offered by my Conference are wonderful; I'd like to see them continue.

Unfortunately, neither I nor my church members attend any of them. With a two-hour drive to Portland, after all, we've pretty much shot the whole day by attending a seminar -- and we don't have that kind of time.

Then too, we tend to wait until a problem develops before we see the need for training -- and when we do see a need, we want that training right now! If all the Conference can do is tell us it will be offering a seminar on that topic "sometime next Spring," then we've all lost a teaching moment.

Needless to say, those MP3 files and videos should be fairly short -- 15-minutes at the longest. It would also be nice if the Conference used the same format as the Pentagon, i.e. a 20-second clip that gives an overview so that I can decide if it's worth my time to click on the full-length video.

Now when it comes to topics . . . well, that's another post.

Meanwhile, you can click here for a a sample of what the Pentagon does.

Friday, January 11, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: the call

As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him.

When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him. . . .

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector's booth. "Follow me," Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him (Mark 1:16-20; 2:13-14, NIV).

In these texts, we learn three things about following Jesus:

  1. Jesus makes the first move. Andrew and Peter were not searching for enlightenment; James and John were not looking for a guru or sensei to teach them a better way. Instead, Jesus went looking for them . . . just as he goes looking for us.
  2. Jesus surprises us. Casting nets, mending nets, sitting at a tax collector's booth -- these were routine tasks, performed by men who expected nothing more from that day than "the same old thing." But Jesus made that day special for them . . . just as he does for us.
  3. Jesus is worth it. Each of these men left something behind: Andrew and Peter a hand-net, James and John a fishing boat, and Matthew his lucrative job as a tax-collector. Yet each one did so willingly in order to follow Jesus.
In short, discipleship is not like exercise; it is not a program we choose to follow at a time and a place and a cost of our own choosing.

Instead, it is more like falling in love: undeserved, unexpected, and utterly transforming.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Jesus wept.

As a follow-up to the discussions at the Oregon pastors' meetings viz. various models of the atonement -- check out the discussion at Out of Ur about Rob Bell.

As pastor of the Mars Hill church in Michigan, the 37-year-old Bell is a leader in the emergent-church movement. His videos on the NOOMA website have been extraordinarily influential. And yes, TIME magazine recently did a full-page profile of him as "the hipper-than-thou pastor."

But Bell's views of the atonement have been labeled insufficiently forensic by pastors such as Mark Driscoll, and that has created all kinds of snarky comments on the Web, both pro and con. (Don't believe me? Just google "Rob Bell vs. Mark Driscoll" and see what you get.)

Myself, I can't read this kind of thing without feeling very, very tired. And yes, I believe truth is important. But so is loving our enemies . . .

Even if we think they're heretics.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Fourth step: quit when you're done.

Good advice on preaching, quoted by Ajith Fernando in his NIV Application Commentary on Acts:
  • Study till you're full.
  • Think till you're clear.
  • Pray till you're hot.

Friday, January 04, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: discipleship

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve — designating them apostles — that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons -- Mark 3:13-15 (NIV).

In this passage, we find the three tasks given everyone who is called to follow Jesus:
  • devotional: we are called to be with him.
  • evangelistic: we are called to spread the good news about him.
  • activist: we are called to oppose evil, even in its most virulent form.
Naturally, we tend to pick one of these tasks and run with it -- dreamers love to spend time with Jesus, after all, while extroverts focus on evangelism, and idealists throw themselves into battle against the many ills of this world.

But we neglect each of these tasks at our peril.
  • Focus solely on your devotional life, and you risk narcissism and navel-gazing.
  • Focus solely on evangelism, and you risk being glib and smug.
  • Focus solely on activism, and you risk becoming shrill and self-righteous.
In short, all three tasks are needful to every disciple -- and none is sufficient in itself.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

We're back to tapping out signals on pipes.

In case you're thinking of bring a laptop to pastors' meetings next week -- I checked and no, there is no Wi-Fi at the Gladstone Adventist Convention Center.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

So why doesn't health insurance cover chocolate?

Happiness is good for you.

That's the news from the American Journal of Epidemiology. As Reuters reports:
In a study of nearly 3,000 healthy British adults, lead by Dr. Andrew Steptoe of University College London, found that those who reported upbeat moods had lower levels of cortisol -- a "stress" hormone that, when chronically elevated, may contribute to high blood pressure, abdominal obesity and dampened immune function, among other problems.
All of which suggests there may be a new niche for Adventist churches interested in health outreach. We have a Five-day Plan to Stop Smoking, after all. Why not not Five-day Plan to Be Happy?

"What we do know," Steptoe noted, "is that people's mood states are not just a matter of heredity, but depend on our social relationships and fulfillment in life. We need to help people to recognize the things that make them feel good and truly satisfied with their lives, so that they spend more time doing these things."

(Click on the title of this post for a link to the article in Reuters.)

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Top Ten from Time

It's becoming a tradition for news agencies to compile an end-of-the-year list of the "Top Ten Underreported News Stories." (You can click on the title of this post, for instance, for the one put out by Time magazine.)

This raises the question, however, of just exactly what those news organizations will do in 2008 to make sure stories such as these get the coverage they deserve.