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.