Friday, February 27, 2009

This week's sermon
  • Step five: grind out the sermon
  • Writing a sermon is like wrestling an alligator -- the only way to find out what it's like is to try it for yourself.

    Fortunately, I've picked up some moves that usually help; that's why most of my sermons follow this pattern:

    Page 1: introduction
    • Start with a one-sentence summary of the problem. (In this case, it's the fact that "We all hate it when nobody notices how good we've been.")
    • Spend a half-page illustrating the problem, viz. Greg Mortenson setting up 200-chairs for a fund-raiser . . . and only three people show.
    • Spend the next half-page noting the fact that scripture deals with this problem, and introduce the thesis that grows out of this scripture, i.e. "God is the only audience we need."
    Pages 2 through 3.5: the problem
    • Give some context for the scripture, and note how it states the problem, i.e. "some people try to get noticed by the wrong people."
    • Read and explain the scripture's take on this problem.
    • Make some application to our lives today.
    Pages 3.5 through 4: the solution
    • State the solution, i.e. "God sees what we do -- even if nobody else does!"
    • Half-page illustration: God is like a parent who knows what His children are getting Him for Christmas; there are no secrets from Him!
    • Take the next page to read and explain the relevant verses.
    Page 5: application and conclusion
    • Spend a half-page applying the solution to people who work without an audience -- people who may feel that "nobody knows and nobody cares" what they do.
    • Point out that God knows and God cares what we do (even if nobody else does).
    • Note that even an audience of one can be enough if it's the right one -- and illustrate this with Greg Mortenson's "failed" fund-raiser.
    • Close by restating the thesis.
    My goal is to write one page an hour -- and to help me do this, I use the usual writer's tricks:
    • If I finish a page early (i.e. before the hour is over), I take the rest of that time off as a reward.
    • I always try to write a little beyond a natural stopping place -- when I've finished page one, for instance, I'll write the first sentence of page two before I take my break.
    • If I come down with writer's block while typing my sermon, I switch to writing with a pen on a legal pad -- and vice versa.
    • And I plan for the fact that the last page will probably take twice as long to write as a "normal" page. (I don't know why -- it just does!)
    And with that, I'm done!

    Almost.

    Tomorrow: delivering the sermon.

    Thursday, February 26, 2009

    This week's sermon
  • Step four: avoid writing
  • Okay, the text is picked. The research is done. The bulletin information has been turned in . . .

    Now it's time to write that sermon.

    But first, I need to clean my office.

    And update my church's website to NetAdventist v. 3.

    And since I've found my missing copies of Christian Counter-Culture and The Cost of Discipleship, I really need to read what they say about Matthew 6:1-6 and 16-18 before I begin.

    In truth, the hardest part of writing a sermon is sitting down to do it -- and to avoid that, I will do anything (up to and including re-shelving all the books now decorating the floor of my office).

    Fortunately, I've developed some rituals to ease me into the process.

    First, I re-read the text.

    Second, I pray.

    Third, I set up the page-heading for this week's sermon -- in this case, it looks like this:

    SER 2009 FEBRUARY 28 – Matthew 6 (1-18)
    Nestucca & Lincoln City SDA Churches
    Psalm 94; Hebrews 6:10 (1187)
    Nestucca: Hymn # 435 “The Glory Song”
    Lincoln City: Hymn #421 “For All the Saints”

    This does three things:
    1. It makes me write something on paper (which is a start).
    2. It gives me the information I'll need for the bulletin if I preach this sermon again.
    3. And if the person who was supposed to photocopy the bulletin doesn't show up, I've a ready-made order of service.
    Fourth, I sit down with a yellow legal-pad and write a one-page summary of the text and it's meaning.

    That done, I turn the text inside-out, i.e. I imagine Jesus had said the exact opposite of what he did. In this case, that would be something like this:
    "If you're going to worship God, be sure that you do so where people will notice what you're doing. You never really know if God is watching, after all -- much less if He will reward you for what you've done -- so you might as well make sure you get some benefit, if only to your reputation!"

    Now there's a thought! What about all those people who who do good things, even though nobody notices what they do -- the parents of small children, for instance, or church members who care for their parents at home?

    Mulling over that gives me a thesis -- or at least, a proto-thesis. Granted, it will get polished as I write, but for now, I can go with this idea: "God is all the audience you need."

    Hmmm -- and that reminds me of Greg Mortenson's story in Three Cups of Tea -- the one where he was trying to raise money for a girl's school, but only a handful of people showed up for his lecture, and he was so discouraged until he discovered . . .

    Now where did I put my copy of that book?

    Tomorrow: Grinding out the sermon.

    This week's lesson: the prophet's integrity

    How good must you be in order to be used by God?

    That's the question this week's lesson asks about prophets -- but it's a good question to ask of anyone in authority.

    We all expect our leaders to have integrity, after all; we want them to be honest, brave, courteous, cheerful, thrifty, and clean. Anything less, and they're hypocrites who don't practice what they preach.

    But we all recognize that leaders are people too; as such, they often fall short of God's glory. And yes, this even includes prophets.
    • Moses lost his temper, remember.
    • Balaam was greedy.
    • Elijah feared Jezebel.
    • Jeremiah got discouraged.
    • Ezekiel tried to quit.
    • And Jonah tried to run away from God.
    In short, prophets are sinners who need God's grace just as much as anyone else -- and if this is true of them, then how much more is it true of teachers, pastors, TV evangelists, and the people who write blogs about Sabbath School lessons!

    That's why we should respect these people -- but we shouldn't be surprised when they fall short.

    We should expect great things from them -- but we should also expect them to be human.

    And if they object to being held accountable, then we may need to point out that God has blessed us through their ministry.

    But this only proves that God is good.

    It doesn't really say anything about them.

    Wednesday, February 25, 2009

    This week's sermon
  • Step three: find a thesis
  • In the best of all possible worlds, I would now set aside my sermon notes for a week or so -- the better to let me mull over their meaning for today.

    And in that best of all possible worlds, I would have finished my sermon before it came time for me to pick out bulletin information, i.e. my scripture, closing hymn, and sermon title for this week's church service.

    But this is not the best of all possible worlds -- and since I spent last week catching up from our church's ski trip . . . and I need to turn in bulletin information on Thursday morning . . . and I've never yet completed a sermon by Wednesday night . . .

    Well, the bottom line is that today's the day I need to get a rough idea of where this sermon is going.

    So . . .
    • Start with prayer.
    • Read the text again.
    • Look over yesterday's notes; highlight the parts that seem relevant.
    • Check out "alms," "fasting," and "prayer" in Bible dictionaries.
    • See what Ellen White says in Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing.
    • See if I can find my copy of Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship, and Stott's Christian Counter-culture. (No luck -- make a note to check the church library.)
    • And since I've been told the Epistle of James is a midrash on the Sermon on the Mount, check it for any additional light on the subject.
    • Think, think, think, think, think.
    After a couple of hours, some ideas begin to emerge from the haze. For one thing, I'm going to save verses 7-15 for next week; if I tried to include them in this week's sermon, they'd overpower anything else this text might say. (No problem -- since I don't follow a liturgical calendar, I'm free to add another sermon to my series .)

    Second, there's a tension between these verses and Matthew 5:13-16 -- "let your light shine" versus "be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men." To be sure, it's resolved by Levertoff's statement that "we should be seen to do good works, but we should not do good works to be seen." Still, I need to reflect that tension in this sermon.

    Third, both Ellen White and Eugene Peterson's The Message emphasize our need to practice the kind of mitzvoth Jesus talks about in these verses, even when it seems as though nobody is paying attention. Eugene Peterson puts it this way:
    When you help someone out, don't think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.
    Finally, I need to deal with this whole idea of "reward" -- a word that shows up seven times in these verses. To speak of a pay-off for serving God seems mercenary . . . but not to speak of it seems naive. (And if the past is any guide, the fact that this puzzles me means it's important.)

    So . . . let's fool around with the idea of reward -- secret rewards for secret people doing secret things.

    And no, I still don't have a thesis . . . but at least I have enough for the church bulletin:
    • Sermon title: "God's Secret Agents"
    • Scripture: Hebrews 6:10.
    • Closing hymn: #421 "For All the Saints"
    Tomorrow: Avoiding writing.

    Tuesday, February 24, 2009

    This week's sermon
  • Step Two: Check commentaries
  • Yesterday, it was just me and the text, mano a mano.

    Today, it's time to see what the rest of Christ's body has done with Matthew 6:1-18.

    Thanks a number of used bookstores (and a very tolerant wife), I have roughly a dozen translations of Scripture; I also own nine single-volume commentaries . . . and since I plan to do a lot of sermons on Matthew, I've used CEU money to buy another five commentaries that deal only with this gospel.

    And so it begins: first I read the text in the NIV, then I see what the evangelical New Bible Commentary has to say about it. Next comes the NRSV, which is followed with the mainline Harper's Bible Commentary. The TNIV goes with The IVP Women's Bible Commentary, the Jerusalem Bible with the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, The Message with Stanley Hauerwas' volume in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series . . . and so it goes for a couple of hours.

    Obviously, not every commentary is always helpful -- but I can never tell in advance just which commentary will unlock this particular text. That's why I try to read as many as I can . . . just in case!

    And yes, sometimes I run across something that needs to be followed up. (What does Tobit say about almsgiving, for instance, or how did the Jews pray in Christ's day?) Those questions go into the notebook too -- in red ink, so I won't forget them. Later on, I'll try looking for answers in my Bible dictionaries.

    So . . . by the end of the day, I have a text, some questions, several pages of notes -- and a sneaking suspicion that Jesus doesn't much care for those magnetic "fish" symbols that people put on the back of their cars.

    Now I need to figure out what it means.

    Tomorrow: Finding a thesis

    Monday, February 23, 2009

    This week's sermon
  • Step One: fool around with the text
  • When I first began writing sermons, I was all business: checking commentaries, doing word studies, making outlines of the text's major points.

    I still do that -- but now I like to begin by just fooling around with the text.
    • First, I look it up on BibleGateway.com.
    • Then I'll paste a copy into Microsoft Word.
    • Finally, I'll spend an hour or so highlighting whatever words or phrases just happen to catch my eye.
    And no, at this point I don't know what I'm looking for. Maybe it's a phrase that keeps popping up; maybe it's a "digression" that turns out to be the main point -- or maybe it's something I thought was the main point that turns out to be a digression!

    Whatever. In a sense, I'm just rattling the text to see what falls out.

    In fooling around with this week's text, for instance, I noticed that Matthew 6:1-18 begins with a summary statement:
    "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven" (Matthew 6:1, NIV).
    Jesus then follows this statement with three examples:
    • Giving to the needy.
    • Prayer.
    • Fasting.
    Each example follows the same pattern: a negative command, a warning, a positive command, and a promise.
    • The negative command: "Do not do ____ in such a way as to attract attention; this is what the hypocrites do."
    • The warning: "In doing so, the hypocrites have already received their reward in full."
    • The positive command: "But when you ____, do so in such a way that the only one who notices is your Father in heaven."
    • The promise: "If you do this, your Father will reward you."
    As part of this, God is twice referred to as "unseen." Just as we should do our good works in secret, in other words, it would seem that God does so too!

    At this point, I'm not sure how to handle verses 7-14.
    • This section contains the Lord's Prayer; as such, it is the most famous part of the text.
    • It also gives good advice on prayer, i.e. it's not our babbling that makes prayer powerful but God's generosity and love.
    • Then again, it seems to interrupt the train of thought Jesus has been developing here, i.e. "be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men."
    So . . . is this a digression I should deal with in a later sermon -- or does it tie in somehow with the point Jesus made in verse 1?

    We'll see what the experts say!

    Tomorrow: Checking commentaries.

    Sunday, February 22, 2009

    This week's sermon: Matthew 6:1-18

    This week, I'll try to keep you posted on the progress of next Sabbath's sermon on Matthew 6:1-18. It will be the fourth in a six-part series about The Sermon on the Mount -- and looking over the text, it's clear that it would lend itself to a really scorching sermon on the evils of hypocrisy.

    Unfortunately, I've found that people do best if I mingle a little honey with my vinegar . . . so I probably need to find something hopeful and positive in this text as well as the more obvious negatives. (And any help you can give me with this would be much appreciated!)

    Monday: fooling around with the text.

    Housekeeping

    One of the things I've noticed is that visits to this site essentially double on Fridays. Two reasons that might be true:
    • Thursday's commentary on the week's Sabbath School lesson is especially popular.
    • There's nothing more enjoyable than cruising the Web when you should be working on tomorrow's sermon.
    One link I've added under Resources for Ministry is "Greg's Sermon Stash." This let's you download copies of recent sermons I've done -- and yes, they're free. My only request would be that anyone who actually uses one of my sermons in some way would:
    • Send me an email that lets me know how you used it, and what suggestions you have for improvement.
    • Find a way (either in the sermon or in your bulletin) to let people know you've used me as a resource. (And no, don't use the phrase, "As one of my favorite authors has said . . . "!)

    Thursday, February 19, 2009

    Was that a puff of white smoke I saw?

    The Oregon Conference has asked someone to be its new President; he's asked for a week to think about it . . . and that's all I'm going to tell you for now.

    Friday AM: Okay, here's the press release:
    Oregon Conference Invites Al Reimche to Serve as President
    The Oregon Conference executive committee voted Thursday February 19, 2009, to invite Al Reimche to serve as the next Oregon Conference president.
    The Oregon Conference executive committee voted Thursday February 19, 2009, to invite Al Reimche to serve as the next Oregon Conference president. Reimche would fill the position previously held by Don Livesay, now Lake Union president. Reimche is currently serving as the Vice President of Administration at the Oregon Conference.
    Max Torkelsen II, North Pacific Union President, commented on how the day went. “I felt the meeting was Spirit led and that the process went very smoothly. We paused several times throughout the day to pray, together and silently.”
    Bryce Pascoe – North Pacific Union Executive Secretary. “I appreciated the high level of participation on the part of the committee members. The Lord has led in the outcome. If we have to lose a Secretariat member of the Northwest team, I am pleased to have him as President of the Oregon Conference.”
    David McCoy – "We saw the Lord work and His direction was truly felt. After we would have prayer and come back together, it felt as though our path was guided."
    Throughout today and last Thursday while the nominating committee met, Oregon Conference staff rotated through offering a continual season of prayer for God’s guidance and blessing on the committee members and their efforts.
    Al Reimche and wife Beth will be prayerfully considering the offer and notify the Oregon Conference of his intentions to accept or decline.
    I ask that you pray for Al and Beth that God will impress upon them His will.

    This week's lesson: the prophet's authority

    Let's say you have a question -- a question about a controversial issue (such as the whether or not it's okay to eat ice cream while riding a bicycle on the Sabbath if you're wearing a wedding ring).

    And let's say you have a prophet -- someone who speaks with God's authority on that very issue.

    This would answer your question -- right?

    It depends.

    Written context.
    For one thing, it depends on what else that prophet might have written about this topic.
    • Writing to one family, for instance, Ellen White said flat-out that "eggs should not be placed upon your table" (2T 400).
    • Yet 30-years later, she would write that "we should not consider it a violation of principle to use eggs from hens that are well cared for and suitably fed" (9T 162).
    • And no, she doesn't contradict herself -- not when we remember her statement that "foods [which] are palatable and wholesome to one person may be distasteful, and even harmful, to another" (MH 320).
    In short, we don't really know what a prophet said until we know everything that prophet said.

    Historical context.
    Then too, it helps to know why the prophet said what they did -- and this requires some knowledge of when it was said and to whom.
    In short, we really don't know what a prophet said until we know who was listening.

    God's context
    Finally, it never hurts to compare that prophet's statement with all the other ways that God has led His church. And no, I'm not arguing for the church's "magisterium" or "teaching authority." But we need a balanced approach -- one that recognizes God's promise to lead all of His people by His Spirit (John 16:13).

    Back in 1858, for instance, a church member wrote Ellen White with the news that Adventists should not eat pork. Notice the principle behind her reply -- the principle that God leads through all His people, and not just one or two:
    If God requires His people to abstain from swine's flesh, he will convict them on the matter. He is just as willing to show His honest children their duty, as to show their duty to individuals upon whom He has not laid the burden of His work. If it is the duty of the church to abstain from swine's flesh, God will discover it to more than two or three. He will teach His church their duty (1T 207, emphasis in the original).
    In short, we really don't know what a prophet said until we know what God has said through others.

    So . . . let's say you have a prophet -- someone who speaks to the issues that concern you most.

    And yes, that prophet may speak with authority.

    But that doesn't give you the authority to take that prophet's words out of context.

    Wednesday, February 18, 2009

    Review: books about hospitals

    You can't diagnose.

    You can't prescribe.

    But when you're visiting a church member in the hospital, it's nice to know what they're talking about -- especially when they tell you what they have, and how it's being treated, and even (heaven forbid) what went wrong while they were being treated.

    One book that can help is Code Blue: A Writer's Guide to Hospitals. Written by a couple of physicians, it describes the who and what and where of everything from the ER to Medical Records.

    (And if nothing else, it explains why it is so everlastingly difficult for me to visit church members who've just had a baby -- it turns out that the three things hospitals work hardest to secure are newborns, medical records, and narcotics.)

    Want to know more about specific illnesses? Try Sherwin Nuland's How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter. Winner of the National Book Award, it describes some of the most common ways to go: heart attack, stroke, trauma, Alzheimer's, cancer, and AIDS. To be sure, it's not a fun read -- and Nuland makes it clear that death is usually just as messy and painful as birth. But fore-warned is fore-armed.

    One last note: read these books for your own information -- but I'd be extremely wary of sharing any of that information with someone in the hospital or their family. Remember:
    • We're pastors -- not doctors.
    • We don't diagnose or prescribe.
    • And if we think that reading two books gives us the right to tell someone "what's happening" or "what to expect," then we are so dangerously stupid that it's a wonder we can even find a hospital -- much less visit people there.
    That said, enjoy the books.

    Tuesday, February 17, 2009

    Hospital visits: my own dis-ease

    If the truth be known, I don't like hospitals.

    And no, it's not just that people die in them.

    It's the fact -- and yes, it's really embarrassing to admit this . . . but it's the fact that hospitals are one of the few places where I regularly do ministry but I'm not in charge.

    Or even all that important.

    Hospitals are the kind of place, after all, where everybody on staff seems to have a well-defined job (and the uniform to prove it). Yes, you visit a hospital, and you see:
    • The cleaning staff all busily doing cleaning stuff.
    • The nursing staff all busily doing nursing stuff.
    • And the doctors all talking on their phones, negotiating with the insurance companies.
    Meanwhile, I'm there to do . . . what? Pray, yes. Listen, yes. Assure the person there in that hospital bed that they've not been forgotten -- most assuredly.

    And judging by the flak that comes my way when I don't visit church members in the hospital, then what I do must mean something to somebody!

    But I still leave hospitals feeling like the triangle player in symphony orchestra: not unwelcome, just not all that important.

    Maybe that's a good thing. If nothing else, it reminds me that others are doing the Lord's work (perhaps even more than me). And even if the small part I've been asked to play in someone's healing seems ill-defined (and even ineffectual), God still asks me to do it.

    In short, hospitals remind me that ministry is not about me.

    I hate that.

    Then again, nobody ever said that healing would be pain-free.

    Thursday, February 12, 2009

    This week's lesson: the prophet's work

    This week's lesson gives you the change to encourage some cross-training.

    That's because you'll be discussing a prophet's job -- a job that's been summed up as:
    • comfort the afflicted,
    • and afflict the comforable.
    Read Isaiah, for instance, and you'll notice chapters 1-39 focus on the second task, as Isaiah rails against Judah's sins of luxury, pride, and nationalism. But chapters 40-66 focus on the first task; they remind Judah that God still has blessings in store for His people.

    Likewise, Mark 3:13-15 remind us that Christians have a two-fold ministry -- we are to:
    • Preach the good news, i.e. announce that God's kingdom has arrived.
    • And cast out demons, i.e. remove anything that opposes God's kingdom.
    In short, we've been given the job of prophets; we are called to afflict and comfort as God directs.

    To be sure, some will be more comfortable with one task than the other.
    • That's because some people are naturally tender-hearted; there is nothing they enjoy more than soothing the hurts of others. As such, they find it easy to love sinners.
    • And let's be honest: some people are just natural-born scolds; there is nothing they enjoy more than pointing out the faults of others. That's why they find it so easy to hate sin.
    But both are necessary; that's why you may want to encourage your class-members to develop the skill they now lack.
    • This may include teaching your tender-hearted believers how to be more assertive in the face of evil -- how to hate sin, in other words, while still loving the sinner.
    • And it may include teaching your outspoken believers how to be more supportive of those who've fallen -- how to love the sinner while still hating the sin.
    In short, you'll be asking your class-members to set aside their strengths and develop their weaknesses.

    That's why we call it cross-training . . .

    In more ways than one.

    Wednesday, February 11, 2009

    Just so you know . . .

    "Ward Howell's executive search firm once estimated that 65 percent of executive candidates lie about their academic credentials. Forty-three percent lie about their job responsibilities. Forty-two percent lie about their previous compensation. Clearly some of the best fiction written today is on resumes."

    -- from Dr. Pierre Mornell's 45 Effective Way for Hiring Smart!, pages 21f.

    Review: Pierre Mornell's 45 Effective Ways for Hiring Smart

    Secretaries. Youth pastors. Teachers.

    Yes, part of a pastor's job is hiring other people -- and if you'd like some ideas on how to do a better job of this, try Pierre Mornell's book, 45 Effective Ways for Hiring Smart.

    A psychiatrist who has consulted with firms ranging from Intuit to Kinko's, Mornell has put together a well-organized and easy-to-read guide that offers 45 effective ways for you to . . . okay, you can probably figure out how I'm going to end this sentence.

    Unfortunately, Mornell doesn't offer much advice for recruiting volunteers; what's more, many of his suggestions won't work unless you're chairing the search committee. When it comes to hiring a new teacher, for instance, you'll probably be able to use no more than two or three of his ideas.

    But even if you're doing nothing more than picking a new Sabbath School secretary, Mornell's book is still worth a look.
    • His ideas are practical.
    • His examples are interesting.
    • His summaries are helpful -- especially when it comes to legal issues.
    I especially appreciated his insistence that everyone has weaknesses . . . and it's not enough to discover those weaknesses if we don't discuss them with applicants and give them a chance to tell their side of the story.

    And yes, this is also a good book for people who are looking for a job. Not only does Mornell cover the questions you'll likely be asked, he also lists many of the things you don't want to do in a job search -- things such as showing up late, driving a filthy car, or interrupting an interview to phone your therapist for advice.

    So buy this book -- and buy a copy for the chair of your school board. As Mornell points out, "You can hire smart, or you can manage tough . . . but it's a lot easier to do the first than the other."

    Tuesday, February 10, 2009

    Small-town churches: the fourth (and final) post

    Small-town churches can be tough on new pastors.

    Often, they won't fight your attempts at leadership so much as ignore them -- in fact, it can be a real challenge just to find out what decisions they've made without telling you. (I'd pastored one such church for three years before they started making sure I knew about church socials!)

    Add the isolation, the lack of friends your age, and the tight budgets these churches often have . . .

    And you have the chance to learn something valuable:

    Advantage #4: It will teach you how to deal with failure.

    Small-town churches are full of survivors.
    • They've seen schools consolidate and mills shut down.
    • They've watched farms get bigger as the local population grows smaller.
    • And when that new hyper-mart opened just two hours away, they mourned each and every one of those stores in their town that were forced to close.
    Yet somehow, they survived.

    In spite of all they've endured, your people are still there in church on Sabbath morning.

    And when failure comes your way -- as it surely will . . . then maybe you can benefit from their example.

    To be sure, success may come easier to you in a big-city church.

    But in a small-town church, you have a chance to learn what real success is all about.

    Monday, February 09, 2009

    Things I've learned: requests for last rites

    Since I'm the back-up for the chaplain at our hospital, that means I get calls now and then from the ICU or the Emergency Room, asking me to meet with the family of someone who's dying.

    Nine out of ten times, the family will say something like this: "Dad hasn't been in church for years . . . but he was raised Catholic, and don't they do 'last rites' or something?"

    Well, no they don't -- not any more. As I understand it, the Catholic church now prefers to call this service, 'the Anointing of the Sick,' with an emphasis on healing more than just preparation for death. And no, I can't do it myself; this service can only be performed by a Catholic priest.

    Then again, that's probably more than the family really wanted to know just then.

    That's why I've learned it's best to respond by saying: "I'd be happy to pray for you and this person -- and if you like, I could give the local priest a call and ask him to stop by."

    And generally speaking, that's all they needed right then.

    Sunday, February 08, 2009

    You are here


















    A hat-tip to boingboing for this chart from the blog of Nancy Pelosi (i.e. Speaker of the US House of Representatives).
    • The blue line represents job losses during the 1990 recession.
    • The red line represents job losses during the 2001 recession.
    • And the green line represents the loss of 3.6 million jobs over the past 13 months.
    QUESTION: What impact is this having on your church?

    Housekeeping

    Looking around the site, you'll notice I've:
    • fixed some broken links,
    • added some resources for Sabbath School teachers,
    • added some denominational news services,
    • and moved "Religion News: blogs" down by "Religion News" where it belongs.

    One item that's sorely lacking -- The Seattle Times has dropped its religion page, that means the only newspaper west of the Mississippi River that has one is The Los Angeles Times. (Okay, The Salt Lake City Tribune does have a section devoted to LDS news -- but that's a little limited for my purposes.) Any suggestions?

    Thanks to Google Analytics, I now know The Oregon Adventist Pastor is especially popular in:
    • Washington State,
    • Michigan,
    • Oregon,
    • and California.
    (And let's have a big round of applause for my reader in Ghana!)

    Small town pastors: the third post

    Out of Ur notes that small-town churches are having more and more trouble attracting pastors. Low salaries are one reason for this; more relevant to SDA pastors would be the well-known resistance of these churches to change.

    And it's true: small-town churches generally don't get excited about that nifty new program you read about in last month's Leadership magazine
    • Money is tight, after all.
    • Talent is limited.
    • And if the truth be known, you're probably just the latest in a long line of young pastors who showed up with a pocket-full of great ideas, stuck around for a few years, then got discouraged and left.
    So no, you probably won't spend a lot of time developing new programs at a small-town church.

    But that does mean you'll have more time for other things -- and this leads me to:

    Advantage #3: You learn to preach a variety of sermons.
    Many of my friends went from school to large, suburban churches where they served as associate and youth pastors. As such, they had vital, exciting ministries that blessed a lot of people . . .

    But they didn't get to do much preaching. That was handled by their senior pastor.

    In a small-town church, however, you're the one who does all the preaching.

    And you preach a lot.

    Especially if you have a multi-church district.

    And when you're preaching two or three sermons a week, plus prayer meetings, plus leading a study group at the State Prison -- and yes, your elementary school's Week of Prayer is next week. And did I mention that Mrs. Smith died, and the memorial service is Wednesday?

    Okay, you see what I'm getting at here: good preaching takes practice -- and the nice thing about small-town churches is that you get to practice your preaching.

    And since you're not spending all that much time running programs, this gives you even more time to work on your sermons!

    In short, pastoring a small-town church is a great way for you to improve your preaching.

    And that's one change even a small-town church would support.

    Monday: the last advantage

    Friday, February 06, 2009

    Just so you know . . .

    The Oregonian reports that February is "National Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month."

    (Also honored this month are chocolate, sweet potatoes, and grapefruit.)

    Thursday, February 05, 2009

    Small town pastors: the second post

    Forget Mitford.

    Forget Lake Woebegone.

    Instead, think Children of the Corn.

    Much as it pains me to say it, small towns are not quaint; neither are they are filled with simple, godly people whose homespun wisdom will see you through the hard times (and make you glad you turned down that call to Big Sur).

    No, satellite TV has brought big-city ways to even the smallest village. Meth has brought big-city crime. And changes in logging, fishing, mining, ranching, and farming have made some rural areas even more poor than the worst big-city slum.

    Still, there are good reasons to pastor in small towns. I've already mentioned the way it teaches you to deal with a variety of problems. Now I'd like to mention:

    Advantage #2: You learn to deal with a variety of people.
    I grew up in a middle-class suburb on the West Coast. I went to a college to where most of the students grew up in middle-class suburbs on the West Coast. And if I'd gone from there to pastor churches in the middle-class suburbs of the West Coast, then I would have fit right in . . .

    But I would have spent the rest of my life with a kind of "situational Asberger's," i.e. I'd know how to deal with middle-class yada yada yada -- but nothing else.

    Instead, I pastored churches where "environmentalist" was a swear-word, and latte the girl who married Sven. Often, the members and I had nothing in common -- not education, not politics, not music -- no, nothing except our faith (and often precious little of that).

    So yes, I've had to work with people who don't share my views.

    In fact, I've even had to pray with these people -- people who were way outside my comfort zone.

    But I'm not entirely sure that's a bad thing.

    Not for them.

    And maybe not even for me.

    Sunday: Advantage #3

    This week's lesson: testing the prophets

    Prophets are not the only people who claim to speak for God.

    Sometime during the second-century, for instance, an anonymous Christian compiled the church-manual we call The Didache (or "Teaching"). It includes this advice:

    But concerning the apostles and the prophets, this do ye according to the doctrine of the Gospel. Let every apostle who cometh unto you be received as the Lord.
    • He may remain one day, and if it be necessary, a second; but if he remains three days, he is a false prophet.
    • And let the apostle when departing take nothing but bread until he arrive at his resting-place; but if he ask for money, he is a false prophet. . . .
    • And every prophet who ordereth in the spirit that a table be laid shall not eat of it himself, but if he do otherwise, he is a false prophet.
    In short, it never hurts to ask Cui bono ("who benefits?") from somebody's ministry -- and if the chief beneficiary seems to be that person themself, then they're probably a fake.

    And yes, this is true of anyone who claims to speak for God.

    You don't have to be a false prophet, after all, in order to lead someone astray -- that's why The Didache warns against false prophets and apostles alike. For every believer who gets snookered by a Nostradamus or Joseph Smith, after all, there are a thousand who fall victim to ignorant pastors, misguided teachers, or religious frauds.

    So talk with your class about who they trust and why. As you do so, you'll notice that many of the ways we're supposed to test prophets also work for preachers, teachers, TV evangelists . . . and even Sabbath School teachers!

    Prophets are not the only people who claim to speak for God, after all.

    And they're not the only ones whose claims ought to be tested.

    Wednesday, February 04, 2009

    Small town pastors: the first post

    Out of Ur notes that small towns have a hard time attracting pastors -- especially small towns in the Midwest. It seems that many pastors find the members of these churches to be:
    • too old,
    • too poor,
    • and too resistant to all those nifty-new ideas they teach you in seminary.
    To be sure, pastoring in a small town can be lonely and discouraging -- as one of my colleagues told me, "We deal with all the problems of a big city (such as poverty, mental illiness, illegal drugs, and homelessness) without any of its resources."

    Then again, pastoring in a small town does have its advantages:

    Advantage #1:
    You learn how to deal with a variety of problems.

    In the early days of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, I'm told that its unofficial motto was: "One riot, one man." Whatever came your way, in other words, you dealt with it.

    Likewise, I've found that a small town pastor needs to be a generalist -- someone who can lead a study group in prison, run the PA system at a swim meet, serve on the mayor's economic development panel, and help a high school student fill out an application for college. (It also helps if you know how to run a thrift store.)

    And yes, this means I spend a lot of time feeling as though I'm in over my head.

    But when it comes to ministry, that's not always a bad thing.

    Tomorrow: Advantage #2

    Tuesday, February 03, 2009

    Just so you know . . .

    Working life of a European peasant (AD 500 to AD 1850):
    • plowing & sowing: 12 days/year.
    • harvesting grain: 28 days/year.
    • haymaking & carting: 24 days/year.
    • threshing grain: 130 days/year.
    • other work: 12 days/year.
    TOTAL: 206 days/year.

    Quoted in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success. With their work done, Gladwell says peasants would then spend most of the winter in bed, conserving calories and trying to stay warm.

    Monday, February 02, 2009

    On the Web: Marilynne Robinson

    A hat-tip to GetReligion for pointing out this interview with Marilynne Robinson in The Paris Review. Robinson is:
    • A gifted essayist. (I loved her collection in The Death of Adam.)
    • An award-winning novelist. (I hated Housekeeping, loved Gilead, and am currently being blown away by Home.)
    • And a devout Presbyterian whose writing is deeply informed by John Calvin.
    Want to know more? Try the interview -- it's an excellent introduction to Robinson and her work. And for more articles about her, try this article in GetReligion.

    Sunday, February 01, 2009

    I love Big Brother!

    Just so you know -- thanks to the Oregon Conference's workshop on church websites, I think I've figured out how to keep track of hits on this site.

    And no, I still won't know who you are or where you live . . . but if Google Analytics is correct, I should have a rough idea of how many hits are coming from which parts of the planet. (And yes, this will tell me if anyone is actually reading this blog besides my mother).