Sunday, May 31, 2009

Housekeeping

I've added Adventist History to my list of links -- reading it is like having SDA church historian drop by every now and then with the latest news and gossip. (I just wish he dropped by more often!)

Traffic was up this week, thanks to a surge in visitors on Tuesday and Wednesday. As always, Washington topped the list, with Oregon, British Columbia, California, and Texas filling out the top five places. And there were a bunch of visitors from overseas, with Jamaica leading the pack.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Friday's Odds & Ends

  • One week of school to go – and usually, all of the students in the two high school Bible classes that I teach have mentally “checked out” by now. This week, however, they actually buckled down and started working harder. Must be the economy.
  • Just about every church for which I've ever interviewed has said it's looking for the same three things: a committed Christian who's a great preacher and good with youth. The first two make sense – but why does the third always come up? Why not "good with senior citizens," or "good with singles"?
  • And I'll close with this quote from Paul Farmer: "I have fought the long defeat and brought others on to fight the long defeat, and I'm not going to stop just because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

This week's lesson: heaven

This is not Heaven -- not yet, anyway.

As the Lord's Prayer points out, Heaven is the place where God's will is done. As such, there is no sin in Heaven -- no sin, no suffering, no sorrow, and no death. No, Heaven is a place of shalom, a place where everything is the way it should be.

And trust me: one look around Planet Earth should be enough to convince you that we do not live in Heaven.

But that doesn't mean Heaven cannot live in us.

God is with us, after all. He is at work in our lives. And we can pray that His will may be done here on Earth -- in the lives of His followers -- just as it is in Heaven.

That's why Jesus could speak of a kingdom yet to come -- yet he could also say, "the kingdom of God does not come visibly, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or "There it is,' because the kingdom of God is among [or "within"] you."

When we do God's will, in other words, we are part of God's kingdom -- and in the process, we give people a taste of what Heaven will be like.

In short, this Earth is not Heaven -- not yet.

But we can give people a chance to see it from here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Review: J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series

If you ever need proof that Magic Is A Bad Thing, then try J. K. Rowling's series of books about Harry Potter.

Really.

In her books, remember, magic is something that requires innate skill, constant practice, and a horrendous amount of expensive equipment.

Kind of like golf.

(Speaking of which: in the final showdown, Mrs. Weasley demonstrates an awesome mastery of lethal spells -- in fact, she's so good that you're left wondering how she ever escaped getting a life-sentence at Azkaban. What does this suggest about her method of raising children? Discuss.)

And in return for all this hard work and cash, magic:
  • Doesn't give you friends.
  • Doesn't give you money.
  • Doesn't give you a just and equitable society.
  • And no, it won't even put food on your table.
(Speaking of which: how do they feed all those people at Hogwarts? Am I supposed to imagine vast pumpkin plantations, presumably worked by goblins? Or does Safeway have something going that its shareholders don't know about? Discuss.)

No, magic won't give you happiness -- but it does give you a nasty bureaucracy, a judiciary that is positively medieval, and an economic system that's just one step above hiding money in your mattress.

(Speaking of which: the fact that Hermione pays the owl for her copy of The Daily Prophet suggests that its subscription department hasn't caught on to the idea of sending her a bill. What would happen if someone introduced credit-cards at Hogwarts -- or even the idea of compound interest? Discuss.)

And in return for all this, magic supposedly offers . . . what?
  • The ability to talk with snakes -- all of whom prove to be lousy conversationalists.
  • The chance to play Quidditch -- a game that combines the worst aspects of hockey and catching butterflies.
  • And a handful of remedies for magical ailments -- most of which are inflicted by other magicians.
(Speaking of which: I'm supposed to believe these people have mastered time-travel, invisibility, and the art of making beer out of butter . . . yet Harry still wears glasses. Haven't they heard of LASIK eye-surgery -- or even contact lenses? Discuss.)

No, Rowling makes it clear that magic is not an option for the likes of you and me -- and even if it was, it's not one that any sane person would choose. The costs are too high. The benefits are too small. And the society it produces is nasty, brutish, and short-tempered.

In short, J. K. Rowling may have written about wizards and witches.

But the magic is definitely gone.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

DIY: full-disclosure letter for counselees

I don't do much counseling.

Listening, yes.

Giving advice, yes.

Heavy-duty, sit-down-and-tell-me-about-your-mother-type counseling?

No -- not unless it's a problem that can be solved in four meetings or less. That's because I don't have the training. I don't have the time. And I don't have the support-structure in place to hold me accountable -- not to do counseling like that on a regular basis.

But when I do get asked to do some formal counseling, I've found it's helpful to cover the following items during the first session. And just to make sure they get covered:
  • I write down these points in the form of a letter.
  • I give the letter to the person who's asked for counseling.
  • We read it together.
  • I ask the person who's asked for counseling to sign it.
  • And then I put the letter into a locked file.
Here's what the letter says:
Thank you for giving me the chance to talk with you. Just to make sure this time together is as helpful as it can be, I'd ask you to remember:
  • I am a pastor. I am not a counselor -- and while I am trained to listen for signs of God's leading in your life, I am not able to diagnose or treat mental illness.
  • I want to help you. That's why I will refer you to someone else if I believe that meeting with them will do you more good than meeting with me. (And to be honest, if we've not solved the problem in four meetings, you're probably better off talking with someone else.)
  • I am good at keeping secrets. But I will pass on what you've said to me if I believe you pose a threat to yourself or to others, or if you tell me that you have abused a child.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Silence is golden

I have three words of advice for all you bold and visionary pastors who are practicing creative and transformational leadership that will revolutionize church as we know it:

Please shut up.

For the past 30 years, the business press has been fascinated by Maximum CEOs, i.e. bold and visionary individuals whose creative and transformative leadership have yada yada yada.

You know -- leaders such as Jack Welch at General Electric.

Or Kenneth Lay at Enron.

And for the past 20 years, the religious press has been fascinated by Maximum Pastors, i.e. bold and visionary individuals whose creative and innovative . . .

Okay, you know what I'm talking about.

And you know who I'm talking about as well.

Unfortunately, it turns out that Maximum CEOs make lousy role models -- and for every one who succeeds, there are ten who take profitable companies and run them into the ground. No, the best CEOs are usually quiet, modest men and women who look for incremental changes, not dramatic breakthroughs.

In short, they may be boring.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

I suspect the same is true of pastors -- and while I don't want to denigrate the legitimate achievements of the Maximum Pastors among us, I'm not sure they're good role models. For every Saddleback or Willow Creek, after all, there have been a hundred local churches whose pastor saw the video, read the book, tried to be a transformational leader . . .

And transformed themselves right out of a job.

No, I'm not against change. I'm not against vision. And I realize that getting fired is not necessarily a sign of failure in God's eyes.

But I've seen too many pastors make a lot of noise about all the wonderful things they're going to do in their church -- pastors who inspired other pastors to try those same, wonderful things . . . only to discover their "vision" was no match for reality.

So do good work.

Try new things.

And if God gives you a vision for your church, then yes, you might even risk "transformation."

But please, don't tell anybody about it . . .

Not until your results can speak for themselves.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Housekeeping

In my continuing effort to give this website a little class, I've added three websites to the "Arts & Entertainment" section of links:
  • Den of Geek: breathless news and reviews of trashy science-fiction movies.
Please try to be suitably impressed.

Traffic was up this week, mainly to an absolutely humungous number of visits from the Yakima valley in eastern Washington. This made up for the drop-off in the number of overseas visitors (though it was nice to see someone drop by from the town of Bromma in Sweden, which is not that far from my great-grandparents' home of Malmo.)

Here in North America, the top four locales for visitors (outside of Oregon and Washington) were: California, Texas, British Columbia, and Michigan.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Friday's Odds & Ends

  • We had several days of glorious weather this week -- blue skies, and lots of breeze for the local kite-fliers -- but now we're back to cool and gray, just in time for the Memorial Day weekend.
  • I recently got a call from a local newspaper reporter, asking me for some thoughts on a recent uptick in the number of suicides here in Lincoln City. The best I could do was refer her to this article in The New York Times.
  • And I'll close with this quote from George Herbert: "He who cannot forgive another breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

This week's lesson: rest

What would you do if God gave you an extra day in your week?

Would you fill it up with "more of the same" -- with more work, more chores, more busyness?

Or would you save it for things that are really important . . . like your family? Your friends? And maybe even God Himself?

If you chose that last option, of course, you'd need to set some limits -- and you'd need to admit there are limits to what you can do. Yes, we'd need to admit that God is the only one who ever got everything done He wanted to do in just one week.

But if God could finish His work of creation in just six days . . .

Then what would you do if He added one more day to that week?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Review: The New International Reader's Version of the Bible, narrative and illustrated edition

Over the years, I've tried a number of Bible translations in my baptismal classes -- the New International Version, the New King James Version, the Contemporary English Version -- but the one I keep coming back to is the New International Reader's Version.

Written at a fourth-grade reading level, it's easy enough for children (and most adults) to understand. It's accurate enough my purposes. And you can order it by the case from the International Bible Society.

My only complaint was the layout: double-rows of type that were just a little small for the eyes of young readers -- and no pictures.

That's been solved with a new edition of the NIRV: the narrative and illustrated version. Laid out (for the most part) like a novel with a single row of type, it's easier to read -- and the addition of color pictures does make invite new readers to look through it and see what they can find.

I've been using this edition of the NIRV for my baptismal classes this year, and the kids love it.

What's more, so does my church's treasurer -- at just $4.88 each if you buy a case of ten, this is not just one of the best Bibles out there for an evangelistic series or baptismal class, it's also the cheapest.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Question: confess or not?

I'd like your advice.

Some time ago, another pastor told me about a man who'd begun attending church again after a lapse of many years. Unknown to his wife, this man had been having an affair . . . but now he'd ended it, and wanted to make things right with God.

Should he tell his wife about his affair -- or was it best to keep this a secret?

My friend wasn't sure what to tell him. On the one hand, this couple probably has other issues they need to work through -- and would be difficult to do that without dealing with this issue as well.

Then too, this man's wife may have known more than she was letting on -- and even if she doesn't know now, she might find out later on. It would be better to volunteer a confession, in other words, then wait to be found out.

But on the other hand, his confession just might end this marriage. And even if it does not, it will cause great pain to his wife.

So . . . what should my friend have told this man?

Any advice?

Monday, May 18, 2009

DIY: Nominating Committee

This year marks (more or less) the 25th Nominating Committee I've advised as a pastor -- and over the years, I've boiled down my advice to three commands, three suggestions, and one request. Here they are:

Three Commands:
  1. What we say here, stays here. Don't pass on even the most innocuous remark, not even to your spouse.
  2. Don't promise a job to anyone until you've checked with the committee. This will save you going back to that person and saying, "Nope -- they picked somebody else."
  3. Nobody's agreed to a job until they say they've agreed to the job. I know, I know -- you were in a rush, you were sure they'd accept, so you went ahead and put down their name without checking with them. Guess what? Now you've made them so mad they'll quit.
Three suggestions:
  1. Fill the tough jobs first. And yes, I'm talking about the children's Sabbath School divisions.
  2. Pick the person in charge, then ask for that person's suggestions about assistants. This can be really helpful when it comes to picking deacons, deaconesses, and assistant leaders in the children's divisions.
  3. Don't wait until the night before our next meeting to phone the people on your list. You won't be able to get in touch with some of them -- and when we ask you what kind of luck you had, you'll hem and haw and finally say something lame like, "I've been having a hard time getting in touch with them" . . . and that will mean we need to meet again.
One request:
  1. When it comes to choosing the head elder . . . the Nominating Committee gets to pick this person -- but the pastor should get veto power.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Housekeeping

Internet service was out for most of the day, so I didn't have time to update any links . . . though I'm seriously considering adding one to Bono Fatigue: it could happen to U2.

Traffic was up 6% this week, mainly due to a lot of visitors from the State of Washington. Outside of that state and Oregon, the top three locales for North American visitors were California, Texas, and British Columbia. Outside this continent, the top three were Estonia, Australia, and Finland.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday's Odds & Ends









  • It's that time of year when the temperature of the ocean around here actually begins to drop. It's called the Oregon Upwelling, and it's caused by sunny days inland that create a strong onshore breeze. This pulls up cold water from the ocean depths -- and the result is cool, foggy days here on the Coast and a lot of bewildered tourists.
  • Monte Sahlin's demographic study of the Adventist church makes three points -- each of which should spur intense debate: 1) We are baptizing a lot of immigrants to this country -- but two-thirds of them were already Adventists when they came here. 2) Public evangelism works about as well for Anglo churches as it does for African-Americans, native-born Latinos, and anybody else who's from this country. 3) Anglos now make up only half of the Adventists in this country -- mainly because of our low birthrate (plus all those immigrant baptisms).
  • And I'll close with this quote from John Maynard Keynes: "Wordly wisdom teaches that it is better to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

This week's lesson: grace

God's grace is like falling in love.
  • It is unexpected.
  • It is undeserved.
  • And it demands a response.
'Nuff said.

Violence in the Hebrew Bible: hubris

Children love dinosaurs. As paleontologist Robert Bakker pointed out, "dinosaurs are big, scary, and dead." When you live in a world that's full of big and scary things, in other words, it's nice to know that one of them is no longer a threat.

Likewise, the Bible is full of stories -- incredibly violent stories -- about things that are big, scary, and dead. Whatever threat was posed by Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, or Greece is gone; these empires are now as dead as the dinosaurs.

But the Bible also speaks of a continuing threat to God's people: the threat that God's people themselves might try to be big and scary. When Gideon gathered 32,000 men to battle the Midianites, for instance, God warned him that:
"You have too many many for me to deliver Midian into their hands. In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her, announce now to the people, 'Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back' " (Judges 7:2f).
You remember the result: 22,000 left . . . and then God whittled down the remainder to just 300 or so. No danger of hubris there!

Unfortunately, the Bible provides many examples of Israelites who did try to boast in their own strength: the attack on Ai, Rehoboam's coronation, Hezekiah's display of riches to Babylon's ambassadors.

And then there's David -- the king who rejoiced that God "had trained his hands for war, and his fingers for battle." But even this "godly" violence left its mark on David.
David said to Solomon: "My son, I had it in my heart to build a house for the Name of the LORD my God. But this word of the LORD came to me: 'You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight' " (I Chronicles 22:7f).
If you'll forgive the pun, it would seem that violence in the Hebrew Bible is a two-edged sword.
  • It is allowed -- even commanded! -- to gain or defend a home.
  • But the "imperial values" of pride, power, and glory are all condemned.
  • And while the violent may do God's work, they do violence to themselves in the process.
In short, it may be tempting to be big and scary.

But only if we forget what happened to the dinosaurs.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Violence in the Hebrew Bible: underdogs

Good children's stories are always subversive.

Think of Aladdin. Pippi Longstocking. Or Mr. Popper's Penguins. In each of these stories, the little guy wins. And the powers-that-be end up looking foolish.

You know -- like David and Goliath.

Most of the violence in the Bible, as a matter of fact, fits into this pattern. When Gideon fights the Midianites, for instance, he's clearly the underdog. The same is true of Deborah against Sisera. Jonathan against the Philistines. And Hezekiah versus Sennacherib. In each of these stories, notice, a small group of Israelites takes on an overwhelming larger force . . . and with God's help, they win.

And yes, it's easy to see why children like these stories -- but it's worth remembering that most of the Bible's original audience was similarly powerless. If Moses wrote the Pentateuch, for instance, then he wrote it while God's people were slaves in Egypt, or nomads on the fringes of empire. Likewise, the stories of Saul, David, and all subsequent kings were written for people in exile.

Many of the Bible's violent stories, in other words, are subversive -- both in terms of their content and their context. They are not stories of power for the powerful. Instead, they tell the powerless how God:
. . . has scattered those who are proud in their innermost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53).
When you're up against a Goliath, in other words, it's nice to know that a David can win.

And one of the problems we have with violence in the Bible . . .

Well, it may be that we identify with the wrong side.

Tomorrow: warnings to the powerful

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Violence in the Hebrew Bible: limits

Children love to play house. Much of their play, after all, mimics the work we do to provide a home: cooking, cleaning, shopping, and tending small children. And given some sheets and a few chairs, they will spend hours creating elaborate shelters for themselves and their toys.

In doing this, they show they were made in God's image -- the same God who created this world as a home for all His creatures, with a place for everything and everything in its place. From that first garden in Eden to the garden-city of New Jerusalem, in other words, God promise remains the same: "I will prepare a place for you" (John 14:2).

Unfortunately, that promise led to much of the Bible's violence. God's people fought to claim their Promise Land; then they fought to defend it. And given the stakes for which they fought, it should come as no surprise that the violence of these fights was horrific.

But if God gave the land of Canaan to Israel, He also made it clear that the surrounding lands were off limits. Moab was reserved for the Moabites, in other words, just as Ammon was for the Ammonites and Edom for the Edomites. Even the Philistines had been given their land by God (Amos 9:7); when Israel went to war against them, it was only to make sure the Philistines stayed where they'd been put.

In short, the Bible's ideal remained one of "a place for everyone -- and everyone in their place." And while its people did fight "holy wars," these were not wars for empire; they were not "jihads" or "crusades" as we commonly use these terms.

No, Israel's battle-cry was, "there's no place like home."

Which is all the more remarkable when we remember one fact:

Most of the people who read these stories were homeless.

Tomorrow: an audience for violence

Monday, May 11, 2009

Violence in the Hebrew Bible

Some of the Bible's stories are not suitable for children.

Oddly enough, they're often the stories our children love.

Think of David and Goliath, for instance -- the story of a child who hits an adult with a rock, stuns him, then cuts off his head.

(Okay, kids -- you can go back to your seats now!)

Then there's the Exodus (with its slaughter of the first-born in Egypt). The fall of Jericho (with its attendant genocide). And Samson (whose lack of explosives did not stop him from becoming the world's first suicide bomber).

To be sure, sometimes we can slur over the violence and pretend it did not happen. When we tell the story of Esther, for example, how many of us mention the fate of Haman's sons?

Then too, some stories let God off the hook. When Daniel's enemies were eaten by lions, for instance, that was the fault of Darius -- not God.

Finally, some violence can be excused as the acts of people whom God used despite their flaws -- think of Jephthah or Gideon.

But in stories such as the Exodus, the fall of Jericho, or David and Goliath:
  • the violence is an essential part of the story.
  • It is enabled by God.
  • And the perpetrators of this violence are held up as examples.
In short, these stories are not suitable for children.

So what do they tell us about our Father?

Tomorrow: the limits of violence.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Housekeeping

Not much happened on the website this week, thanks to a combination of my trip to Spokane (wahoo!) and the ensuing migraine (bleh!).

Not surprisingly, traffic was down for the first part of this week (when I wasn't posting much of anything), and up for the second half (when I was). Outside of Oregon and Washington, the top three spots for North American visitors were British Columbia, Texas, and California; outside of North America, the ever-popular Estonia came in first, with a scattering of visitors from just about everyplace else (including Guatemala, Germany, and South Africa).

And yes, we even had a visitor from Saskatoon!

I'm hoping to have more luck this week than I did the last, viz. posting about violence in the Hebrew Bible. On Monday, I hope to talk about why we need to deal with this issue in our preaching.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Friday's Odds & Ends

  • The raccoons have been out in force this week -- I'm guessing we have a lot of young males away from home for the first time, so they're all out there establishing territories, checking out the females, and getting in trouble with the local police.
  • And I'll close with this quote from Major General David Fastabend (via Thomas Ricks' The Gamble): "There are two kinds of plans -- those that fail, and those that just might work."

Thursday, May 07, 2009

This week's lesson: sin

It would seem that Americans are human, after all.

Foreign visitors to this blog may smile -- but for a long time, an important part of our self-identity was the idea that some things were just plain un-American.

In the movies, for instance, it was always the character with a sinister foreign accent who would threaten that "We have ways of making you talk." Americans -- true Americans -- did not do this. No, we did not torture prisoners . . . and if prisoners were "mishandled" every now and then, this was obviously the fault of a few low-level prison guards.

Now it turns out that American officials at the highest levels of government agreed that it was time to bring back the Spanish Inquisition. These were not a few National Guardsmen running wild. No, these were important people -- people with nice suits, good manners and expensive educations --who debated just how much pain our captives should go through.

And yes, some of the people who made these decisions were people whom I admired and respected.

And yes, the people who made these decision believed they were justified by events.

That's what torturers always believe.

But whatever else we may have learned by doing this, we learned something even more important about ourselves: we learned that we may be Americans, but we are just as capable of sin as any other human being.

And no, this should not have surprised us. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn pointed out:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Or as someone else who'd also done time as a captive would say, "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God."

Even in America.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Sorry about that

No post today -- I'm feeling a bit under the weather.

Maybe tomorrow?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Housekeeping

I'm back from Spokane's Bloomsday Run (where you'll be glad to know I finished in the top 23,000) . . . and thanks to the Sabbath School class I attended in Walla Walla, I spent a large part of the long drive home in thinking about violence in the Hebrew Bible. I'll be sharing some of my thoughts about that topic this week.

Traffic this past week was down again, thanks to the nearly complete lack of visitors from Michigan. Outside of Oregon and Washington, the top three locations for the visitors who did drop by were Texas, British Columbia, and Indiana; outside of North America, the hotspots were Estonia, Finland, and Australia.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Friday's Odds & Ends

  • Gorgeous weather here on the Oregon . . . just in time for me to leave for Spokane(Remember to wave as you pass me during the Bloomsday Run!)
By 2025, there will be as many Christians in ­sub-­Saharan ­Africa —­ some 640 ­million —­ as in South America. By 2050, it is almost certain that most of the world’s Christians will live in Africa. As Kenyan scholar John Mbiti writes, “The centers of the church’s universality [are] no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, and Manila.”
  • But John Stackhouse points out that doing theology “costs money and it costs time” – neither of which the Global South has in abundance. That’s why he concludes:
So of course North-Western theologians today should seek out the wisdom of Christian thinkers in these exciting new communities. Of course we have much to learn from brothers and sisters who labor to understand and articulate the gospel in contexts wonderfully and fruitfully different from our own.

But the simple fact is that North-Western theologians will continue to benefit from the accumulated resources of centuries. They will therefore be responsible to continue to bless the world as best they can out of those riches. This is no brief for conceit, but rather a call to heightened responsibility: "To whom much is given, much will be required."
And part of that responsibility will be to invest money and time in the nascent theological institutions outside the North-West so that they can bring their own distinctive intellectual contributions to the global conversation as quickly and as bountifully as possible.
  • I’ll close with this quote from Billy Sunday: "Sinners can always repent, but stupid is forever."