Sunday, December 28, 2014

This week's lesson (December 27 - January 2): the call of wisdom

"I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." -- Matthew 10:16, NIV
Salvation is not enough.

That's why history is full of born-again believers who did incredibly stupid stuff -- stupid stuff that hurt a lot of people . . . and made it difficult for many, many more to believe.
  • Think of the Children's Crusade.
  • Think of Prohibition.
  • Or think of the churches that put convicted pedophiles in charge of children's ministries "because they've repented and we need to forgive them."
And you can't fault the motives of the people responsible for each of these mistakes. No, they had faith. They were sincere. And they honestly thought God was leading them to march on Jerusalem . . . ban alcoholic beverages . . . and trust people who shouldn't be trusted.

But in each case, those faithful, sincere, and honest believers did something that was dumber than a sackful of hammers.

That's why Jesus urges us to be wise.

That's why Proverbs teaches us to be wise.

That's why God's people need to be wise.

To be sure, you don't need wisdom to be saved.

But it just might keep somebody else from being lost.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

This week's lesson (December 20-26): the everlasting gospel

"It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. . . . Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." -- Acts 4:10-12, NIV.
If Jesus could have avoided the crucifixion, then he would have done so.
  • Yes, if "the blood of bulls and goats" could take away sins, then there'd be no need for the cross.
  • If virtuous pagans could be saved "by living up to the light they have" (as if anyone ever does this), then there'd be no need for Christ's death.
  • And if God says to the last generation of humanity that "everyone else was saved by grace -- but you must achieve perfection," then you have to wonder why He doesn't just require this of everyone and be done with it.
No, somehow God's love for all humanity is enabled, revealed, and mediated through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
To be sure, we don't know exactly how God saves us -- and the fact that two different theories of the atonement have existed side-by-side for the past thousand years suggests we're not likely to figure out the answer anytime soon.
Then too, we don't know exactly who God has saved; as Augustine of Hippo points out, "we don't know how grace has been offered to someone else; we don't know how graced has been received by someone else -- and that is why we dare not judge anyone else this side of Heaven."
But if you want to know what salvation means, then look at the cross.
If you want to know what salvation costs, then look at the cross.
And if you want to know how salvation is possible, then you can speculate, contemplate, meditate, cogitate, and even celebrate . . . 
But one way or another, you'll always end up at the cross.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

This week's lesson (December 3-19): prayer, healing, and restoration

Is any of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. . . . My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover a multitude of sins. -- James 5:14-16, 19-20, NIV.
Following Jesus is like baseball: yes, you can practice on your own . . .

But sooner or later, you need a team.

In the last few verses of his letter, for instance, James takes it for granted you're part of a church; what's more, he makes it clear that church is not a place where autonomous individuals arrive, enjoy the program, then go their separate ways. Instead, he says that "church" is a place where believers:
  • Pray for each other,
  • Are honest with each other,
  • And get after each other when the need arises.
None of this happens unless you hang out with other believers on a regular basis -- and no, that's that easy; that's why James spent most of his letter discussing things that can go wrong when believers hang out together.
But "just me and Jesus" is not enough.
"Spiritual but not religious" is not enough.
And while I sympathize with people who are "just not into organized religion," the fact remains: you can't play the game all by yourself.
Not unless you want to be way off-base.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

This week's lesson (December 6-12): getting ready for the harvest

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near. . . . Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job's perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. -- James 5:7-11, NIV
If you need proof of these words in James, then take a look at your garage. If it's like mine, then it's full of of toys -- bicycles, kayaks, tennis rackets, golf clubs, cross-country skies . . .
  • All of which were bought in a flush of enthusiasm.
  • All of which were used a few times.
  • And all of which are now gathering dust, rust, and spider-webs.
You see, these all have a "learning curve" . . . 
Which is another way of saying that "This is fun!" soon gives way to "This is hard . . . and my feet hurt . . . and I think I'll go back to the car now."
Likewise, we follow Jesus with zeal and gusto . . . at first.
But all too soon (and all too often), the zeal falters. The gusto fades. Bible study becomes a chore, prayer a burden, and worship just something to get through.
That's why James tells us to persevere.
That's why James tell us to stick with it.
For if we just hang in there . . . 
Things begin to click.
The pieces come together.
And all that stuff in our garage becomes a blessing.


FOOTNOTE: Sunday's lesson (December 7) gives the impression there are two rainy seasons in Palestine:
  • "The early rain, which generally falls in October and November, [and which] moistens the ground and prepares it for planting and germination.
  • "[And] the latter rain, around March or April, [which] ripens the grain for harvest."
The phrase, "autumn and spring rains," in other words, is a merism, i.e. a pair of opposites that means "everything." Just as "the tree of knowledge of good and evil" is "the tree of all knowledge," in other words, "the autumn and spring rains" is a phrase that refers to the whole rainy season. 


Sunday, November 30, 2014

This week's lesson (November 29 - December 5): weep and howl!

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you. -- James 5:1-6, NIV
Read these verses in James, and Ellen White's counsels on agriculture begin to make sense.

She lived through one of the greatest demographic transitions in history, after all -- a time when farmers dropped from 70% of the American workforce to 27%. Yes, millions and millions of people moved to the cities . . .

And all because life in a slum -- as hellish as it was -- was still better than life back home on a farm.

When Ellen White urged our schools to teach agriculture, in other words, she was not indulging some utopian fantasy of "back to the land"; neither was she simply urging that education be practical.

Instead, she was asking the church to make life better for poor farmers where they lived -- and if we did so, then maybe they wouldn't need to look for a better life in the tenements of New York and Chicago . . .

Or the shantytowns and favelas of Mumbai, Lagos, and Sao Paulo.

In short, Ellen White wanted to do more than just help the poor.

She wanted our church to address the structures that cause poverty -- the structures that allow the few to live "in luxury and self-indulgence," while the many suffer want.

In her day, that meant agriculture.

What would it mean in our own?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

This week's lesson (November 22-28): one lawgiver and judge

Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins. -- James 4:13-17, NIV.
"I never thought this would happen."

Grieving families often say this about death.

Unfortunately, so could the person who died.
  • That's why there's no will.
  • That's why there's no Power of Attorney.
  • That's why there's no Advanced Directive -- much less any conversation about end-of-life care that took place when it might have done some good.
No, we thought nothing bad would ever happen -- that death, disease, and disability may be inevitable for other people, but not for those we love . . . 
And certainly not for us!
But wishful thinking is no substitute for wisdom -- the kind of wisdom James talks about, the kind of wisdom that recognizes:
  • Stock markets don't just go up; they also fall.
  • Real estate prices don't just rise; they also go down.
  • And the what, when, where, how, and why of death may be a mystery -- but when it comes to the who, the answer so far is, "pretty much everybody."
To be sure, we can still make plans; there's nothing wrong with saying, "We will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money."
Just remember what else could happen.
And make sure you plan for that too. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

This week's lesson (November 15-21): the humility of heavenly wisdom

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven, but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. (James 3:13-16, NIV)
I love it when I'm the smartest one in the room.

When I preach or teach, after all, I should be sharing something my audience doesn't have -- something they didn't know about until I came along.

And if I do this on a regular basis, then I get used to the idea that I know more than they do . . .

Which is kind of a neat idea -- the kind of idea I could learn to enjoy.

Given enough time and practice, as a matter of fact, I could easily begin to believe that:
  • I know more than anybody about almost everything . . . 
  • And its my job to let everybody know about all the things I know so much about . . . 
  • Which is why I should have the last word in every conversation, every group discussion, and every decision that needs to be made by anyone, anywhere, at any time.
Really.
Fortunately, I've enough common sense to know this isn't true.
Really.
What's more, teachers, coaches, college professors, youth pastors, seminar leaders, and Sabbath School teachers are smart enough to know that students must learn how to learn for themselves-- that's why all they try to be "a guide from the side" rather than just "a sage on the stage."
Really.

Then too, really smart people know just how stupid they are -- just how much they don't know, and how much they still need to learn . . . even from their students.

In short, real teachers are smart.

But they know they have room to grow.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

This week's lesson (November

Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.  
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. -- James 3:5-8, NIV
It seems ironic.
When James warns us not to misuse language, after all, we expect him to set a good example -- to use words that are gentle, meek, and mild.
Instead, we get some of the most violent language in his letter. 
  • I mean, there's nothing gentle about saying, "The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body."
  • There's nothing meek about saying, "[The tongue] corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell."
  • And "mild" is not the word to describe someone who writes that "no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison."
Yes, James can be blunt: blunt as a stop-sign, and pointed as the Old Testament prophets.

That's because James knows soft-word aren't always a blessing -- not when they enable injustice.

That's because James knows silence isn't always golden -- not when it empowers sin.

That's because James is not being ironic in these verses. No, he knows there are times when the kindest, nicest, most loving thing we can say to someone . . .

It may be something they don't want to hear.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The week's lesson (November 1-7): faith that works

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead -- James 2:14-17, NIV.
One reason James talks so much about works?

Most of his people are out of a job.

When James writes this letter, remember, Jerusalem is flooded with people -- people who are desperately poor.
  • The push? Roman real-estate speculators who've driven them off the land.
  • The pull? Herod's rebuilding the Temple -- a public-works project that offers lots and lots of jobs. 
  • The problem? The usual "safety nets" of alms, public charity, and patronage can't cope with all these newcomers -- and the growing unpopularity of Christianity makes it tough for church members to get any help at all.
In short, James has too little money and too many hungry believers. 
So, like so many Jewish leaders before him, he turns to the Diaspora -- to the world-wide community of Jews who have a soft spot in their hearts for Jerusalem.
And yes, they're Christian.
Yes, they have a new-found faith that Jesus is the Messiah.
But just because they love Jesus, that doesn't mean they should ignore His children. 
No, there's still a need for mitzvoth -- for the good works of charity, compassion, and love. That's why Paul collects money for the poor in Judah (cf. Romans 15:26f, I Corinthians 16:1-4, II Corinthians 8:1-24). And that's why James points out:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world -- James 1:27, NIV.
When James warns against an "empty faith," in other words, he warns against a faith that is selfish: a faith focuses on me and my needs -- yes, even my need for salvation . . .  but ignores the needs of others.
You see, "faith without works is dead."
But if the people who read this letter don't put their faith to work -- if they don't reach out to their brothers and sisters who need help?
Then their "faith" will be deadly too.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

This week's lesson (October 25-31): love and the law

. . . as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? . . . has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? -- James 2:1-5, NIV.
Think what it's like to be Superman's cousin . . .

The one who's not-so-super.
  • You're not faster than a speeding bullet (though you can generally outrun most dogs).
  • You can't leap tall buildings in a single bound (though you're pretty good getting over a chain-link fence). 
  • And you don't get to hang around Metropolis; no, you've been assigned to Cleveland (with the occasional foray into Buffalo).
In short, you're not the biggest and the best -- and while your cousin's out there saving the planet, you're dealing with a rash of vandalism in the community gardens you've been trying to set up on the east-side of town.

So guess who gets all the attention?

Guess who gets all the praise?

And guess who gets discouraged -- who feels like quitting, who wonders why they bother doing anything when somebody else can do it faster, higher, and with super-snazzy special-effects?

Then again, little things still need to get done.

Cleveland still needs some help; Buffalo too.

And even if you're not a super-hero like your cousin -- yes, even if you don't get all the attention, all the fame, and all the endorsement contracts that he does . . .

We want you to know that we still need pretty-good-heroes like you.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

This week's lesson (October 18-24): being and doing

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead -- James 2:14-17, NIV.
Maybe I'd get more done if I cared less.

Like all good right-thinking people, you see, I am concerned -- deeply concerned -- about a number of issues.

Like nuclear proliferation.

The growing prevalence of diabetes.

The increasing fragility of blue-collar families in this country.

The acidification of our oceans.

And world peace.

Unfortunately, I've never really done anything about any of these things -- not because I don't care, you understand. No, I care about them all -- so much so, that it's difficult to pick just one; so much so that I really don't know where to begin.

Then again, the people who get stuff done -- the people who actually make things better?

They don't seem to care about all the things I do. No, they focus on one or two issues -- one or two things they really care about . . .

Like nuclear proliferation.

The growing prevalence of diabetes.

The increasing fragility of blue-collar families in this country.

The acidification of our oceans.

Or even world peace.

But whatever it is, they devote all their time and thought and money to that one, small issue . . .

And ignore all the rest.

To be sure, they don't have my breadth of concern; no, I care about about a lot more things than they do.

But when it comes to getting things done?

Who cares what I think?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

This week's lesson (October 11-17): enduring temptation

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed -- James 1:13f, NIV
I can explain.

And yes, I've made some "mistakes" -- but you need to understand that everything I've done wrong was not really my fault.

No, it was all the result of low blood sugar.

Or society.

Or maybe it was the neighbor's dog -- but at any rate, there's a perfectly logical explanation for everything I've done . . .

And once you've heard my explanation, then I'm sure you'd agree that it clears me of any guilt or blame.

Really.

You don't believe me?

Why not?

Granted, my excuses for my sins may not seem all that believable to you . . .

But how do they differ from your own?

Sunday, October 05, 2014

This week's lesson (October 4-10): the perfecting of our faith

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything -- James 1:2-4, NIV.
How difficult could it be?

I'd already done the Bloomsday Run a half-dozen times or so -- that's 7.46 miles . . . so when my eldest daughter suggested I try a half-marathon,

I agreed.
  • It was only 13.1 miles, after all.
  • That's less than twice the distance of the Bloomsday Runs I'd already done.
  • And just as everyone is brave (until they're in battle), everyone is smart (until they take Geometry), and everyone is good-looking (until they have a photo taken for their driver's license), I though I was fit enough to finish a half-marathon . . .
And I was.

Barely.

But as James notes, trials (and half-marathons) are a reality-check; they are a quick way to strip away any illusions we had about ourselves -- and as such, they have a nasty way of reminding us just how much we lack, just how much we need, and just how far we still have to go.

In short, they remind us that we still need a Savior.

And that's not always an easy thing to do.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

This week's lesson (September 27 - October 3): James, the Lord's Brother

Call him "Stretch."

All through his life, you see, James got pushed outside his comfort zone.
  • As a devout Jew, he found it difficult to believe Jesus was the Messiah (cf. Mark 3:32-35).
  • Having accepted Jesus as the Messiah, it would seem that he and his followers found it difficult to believe Gentiles could do the same (cf. Galatians 2:12).
  • And even after James brokered the compromise that let Gentile be Christians (cf. Acts 15:13-29), he still felt pressure from Jewish Christians -- Jewish Christians who followed the Law, and thought Paul should do so too (cf. Acts 21:17-25).
As a leader, in other words, James faced pressure from both sides: Jewish and Gentile, conservative and liberal . . . 
And as a leader, James did his best to bring together both sides. 
Compare the Epistle of James with his speech to the Council in Jerusalem, for instance. Both take place at roughly the same time -- and in both, James emphasizes the need for love and unity in the church.
Not an easy task, then or now.
But then as now, we need people who are willing to make the effort.
Even if it's a stretch. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

This week's lesson (September 20-26): The second coming of Jesus

Someday, I'm going to clean out that closet.

And you know the closet I'm talking about -- everybody has one. It's the closet where you put all the stuff that doesn't really belong anyplace else . . .

The hockey sticks and the umbrella stroller.

The mousetraps and the extension cords.

Your mother's wedding dress, and that giant tub of laundry-detergent you bought at Costco.

Yes, it's all been jammed in there (along with an ever-multiplying number of coat-hangers) -- and someday, you will open the door to that closet, find out what's in there, toss what need's to be tossed, and find a proper home for the rest.

Someday.

But not today.

No, it's easier to keep the door shut -- to keep it shut, and get on with the rest of your life.

In much the same way, I suppose it would be easy enough for God to treat this world like that closet. Yes, He could shut the door. Lock it. Hang a large "Keep Out" sign on it. And let the rest of Creation get on with its life.

But God is not content until every closet door has been opened. Every captive has been freed. And everything that is good and holy and "right" has been put in its proper place.

And if God will do all that at the Second Coming . . .

Then what should we be doing today?

Monday, September 01, 2014

This week's lesson (September 13-19): death and resurrection

The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me -- Galatians 2,:20, NIV.
Life?

Or death?

That was the choice given Janusz Korczak (pronounced "YA-nish KOR-chok").  A famous pediatrician and children's author, he was also the director of a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw.

When the Nazis invaded Poland, both he and the children in his orphanage were moved to the Warsaw ghetto.

But when the children were moved to the extermination camp at Treblinka, then Korczak didn't need to go. No, the Resistance gave him a chance to escape -- in fact, it repeatedly gave him the chance to live . . .  

But it couldn't do the same for all the children -- no, some would need to be left behind.

So what would you do -- would you choose life for yourself . . . or would you share the fate of those you love?

Jesus gave his answer at Gethsemane.

And Korczak gave his answer on August 5, 1942 -- for when the soldiers came, and the children were marched to the train station . . . 

Janusz Korczak marched with them.

This week's lesson (September 6-12): the Sabbath

On Sabbath, we dress up.

And no, I'm not talking about the fact that I wear a tie at church.

But just like any good costume party, the Sabbath is a day we pretend to be something else -- or rather, the day we pretend to be somewhere else.
  • Not the Old West of cowboys and cavalry officers.
  • Not the Merry Old England of knights in shining armor.
  • Not even New Jersey with its . . . okay, definitely not New Jersey.
Instead, we spend the day acting as though we are in Heaven -- as though we lived in a place where we are all God's children. That's why:
  • On Sabbath, we pretend everyone is welcome.
  • On Sabbath, we pretend that everyone is important.
  • On Sabbath, we pretend all the things that divide us -- all the differences of race, income, education, and age -- don't matter.
Like children at Halloween, in other words, we can pretend that we are the people we want to be -- that we are people God wants us to be.
And someday, by God's grace, none of this will be just make-believe.
That's why we dress up on Sabbath.
You see, it's not just a day to dress up.

It's also a dress rehearsal.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

This week's lesson (August 30-September 5): the law of God

Think of God's law as a conspiracy.

Every group has its own way of doing things, after all -- and everyone who joins that group soon starts doing things that way too.
  • If none of the other girls at school like of My Little Pony, for instance, then you learn to leave Dazzle Surprise at home.
  • If all the other guys at school wear brown Carhartt jackets, then it's easy to guess what you're going to want for Christmas.
  • If the people around you all believe that speed limits are for losers, then its only a matter of time before your car insurance rates start going up. 
And you can call it a custom, call it a law, call it "the way things ought to be" -- but you don't reject the way your group does things.
Not easily.
Not without some help.
No, you need to find other people who marches to that different drum -- other people who look at Ponyland, Carhartt jackets, and speed limits in the same, subversive way as yourself . . . 
And who encourage you to keep doing it too.
The name for such a group -- a group with an agenda that is feared, despised, or opposed by the majority?
A conspiracy.
That's why God's people get together -- yes, we huddle in our catacombs and cathedrals, and we whisper to each other the revolutionary idea that promises should be kept . . . and the elderly should be honored . . . and everyone should get a day off.
Sound reasonable?
Not to some people -- maybe not even to most.
But if God's law sounds reasonable to you . . . 
Then welcome to the conspiracy. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

This week's lesson (August 23-29): our mission

Nothing's more contagious than enthusiasm.

And yes, you may pride yourself on your ironic detachment.

You may treat every cause with an inordinate amount of sarcasm.

In fact, you may be the kind of person who can't read the Declaration of Independence without adding subversive quote marks (as in, "We hold these 'truths' to be self-evident . . .").

Fine. No problem. I applaud your post-modern sensibility.

But let the right subject come up -- something you know about, something you care about, something that could be anything from movie adaptations of Marvel comics to the finer points of local-sourced cuisine . . . 

Anyway, whatever it is, it turns you into one of those arm-waving, collar-grabbing, spittle-flying geeks WHO POST THEIR OPINIONS IN CAPITAL LETTERS.

You know -- the kind of person you'd mock if they were that committed to any other subject.  

Again, that's fine. No problem. I applaud both your enthusiasm, and your willingness to share that enthusiasm with others.

But if you're going to be enthusiastic about something (and most people are).

And if you want to share that enthusiasm with others (and most enthusiasts do).

Then why not be enthusiastic about something important?

Just saying.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

This week's lesson (August 16-22): the Church

Everyone thinks they're David.

Even Goliath.

When I teach high school, for instance, it's easy for me to see myself as the underdog, valiantly doing battle against the giants of Ignorance, Sloth, and Adolescent Brain Chemistry.

Unfortunately, my students don't see it that way -- no, in their eyes, they are the plucky (yet hopelessly outnumbered) Rebel Alliance, bravely defending themselves against the unprovoked attacks of the Evil Empire . . .

Which would be me.

In short, we tend to see ourselves as David.

We tend to see our opponent as Goliath.

And regardless of the issue -- whether its evolution, foreign policy,  or the ever-vexing question of applause in church -- we don't think we can afford to compromise, to negotiate, or even to try and understand the other's point of view.

No, we don't want to give up any advantage -- not when the fight is already unfair.

And some fights are unfair; some fights do pit the weak against the strong . . .

But the next time I'm ready to use my sling-and-stone, it's worth stopping a moment to reflect -- to ask myself why someone who's bigger and stronger and nastier than me now sees me as a threat.

I mean, I know I'm David -- that's obvious!

So why does he think I'm Goliath?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

This week's lesson: living like Christ

Love is tough.

I don't just mean that it's tough to love other people. (And if you think loving your enemies is difficult, then just try loving some of your friends!)

But if love was just a matter of thinking nice thoughts, saying nice things, and inviting people to join you in the parlor for a nice cup of comfrey tea and a digestive biscuit . . .
  • Then love would be nice . . .
  • And love would be kind . . .
  • And love would certainly be comforting . . . 
But it wouldn't be God's kind of love.

God doesn't always treat us like children, after all -- children who need to be comforted.

No, there are times God treats us like adults:
  • Adults who need to be challenged.
  • Adults who need to be confronted.
  • Adults who need to grow up.
That's why God's infinite love sometimes leads Him to ask awkward questions . . . to give awkward answers . . . and to place us in awkward situations that we would not have chosen for ourselves.

In short, there are times when God's love is not very nice -- when it stirs up all kinds of trouble that nice people would rather avoid.

And if it leads us to act that way too . . .

Then love may be tough.

But if the Cross is any guide, then it's going to be a lot tougher on us than on them.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

This week's lesson: growing up in Christ

It takes a long time to grow up.

As a child, after all, you could exercise, eat right, and "think tall" every day -- but those pencil-marks on the doorframe still didn't go up fast enough. No, aside from the occasional growth-spurt, you had to settle for a steady, slow growth to maturity.

Likewise, we can do all the right things spiritually -- we can pray, read the Bible, and serve others . . . we never seem to mature fast enough; we never seem to see the growth we'd like in wisdom, love, and joy. In fact, even our "spiritual growth-spurts" seem to leave us with little more than the awareness of just how far we have to go.

That's why quick-fixes are so popular; that's why we're fascinated by ideas such as "the Second Blessing," "the Baptism of the Holy Spirit," and "the Latter Rain." Like spiritual steroids, they promise instant growth, incredible power, and a quick fix to all our troubles.

Yes, they promise -- but do they deliver?

That's why I keep coming back to Eugene Peterson's definition of the Christian life as "a long obedience in the same direction." Sanctification is like marriage, in other words: the little things we do every day often mean more than the big things we do now and then.

To be sure, this kind of growth is slow -- painfully slow; that's why it's easy to get impatient.

But God gives me all the time I need for this kind of growth.

In fact, I have all eternity.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

This week's lesson: how to be saved

If you forgive someone . . .

Does this mean you trust them?

I struggle with this question -- not least because I've told several people in our church that:
  • God loves you, God forgives you, God accepts you just the way you are . . . 
  • But you are not working with children. Ever. End of discussion. Period.
In return, I'm usually told that:
  • God loves them, God forgives them, God accepts them just the way they are . . . 
  • And if God is willing to let bygones be bygones, then why can't I do the same (and let them work with children)?
And they'd have a point . . . if forgiveness was nothing more than the pretense nothing happened.
But sometimes, somebody does something you can't ignore -- and when that happens, you have a choice:
  • You can say, "That's it! It's over! You're out of here!"
  • Or you can say, "We need to deal with this -- but I'm willing to work with you, if you're willing to work with me."
Fortunately, God is always willing to work with us, always willing to mend what's been broken, always willing to rebuild the trust that's been lost.
But that process begins with a decision: not a decision to forget the past, but to deal with it -- and yes, we can call that decision, "forgiveness."
In short, I forgive people because I don't trust them -- not yet.
But in time, I hope I will.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

This week's lesson: salvation

It's easy to get lost.

It's staying lost that's difficult.

Just one wrong turn, after all -- just one moment's inattention -- is all it takes to send me into terra incognita . . .

But once there, I will persist for hours in the belief that:
  • I know where I'm going.
  • I recognize that landmark.
  • And no, I don't need to stop and look at a map.
It's not easy to do this, you understand. No, it takes constant effort to ignore that gnawing feeling that I'm on the wrong track, that I should turn around and start over, that my wife was right when she said we should have turned left.

But when you're a guy, you make that effort.

Likewise, turning away from God may be easy . . .

But staying away is not -- not when you have a God who is continually trying to get you back. No, you need to keep pretending that everything is going just the way you wanted it to go . . .

And you need to keep ignoring that feeling that maybe it is not.

But when the time comes that you stop making that effort -- that you stop working so hard to stay lost . . .

That's when you discover just how much God's been working to save you.

You see, we're not saved by our works.

No, we're saved by God's works.

And that's true, even before we are saved.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

This week's lesson: the Holy Spirit

Not only does God provide tech support, but He doesn't outsource.

Some companies, after all, don't provide any help; no, you buy their product and you're on your own . . .

Like the time I bought a cheap MP3 player that turned out to have no manual, no website, and no toll-free number I could for help in figuring out how to turn it on.

In consumer electronics, this is called "lousy customer service."

In philosophy, it's called "Deism" -- the idea that God made us, then kind of . . . lost interest.

Then you have the manufacturers that do provide tech support -- or rather, they've given this job to another company located somewhere in South Dakota India the Philippines that is committed to providing fast, friendly service at the lowest possible price (with an emphasis on "the lowest possible price").

In business, this is called "outsourcing."

In philosophy, it's called "Neo-Platonism" -- the idea that God does not deal directly with His creation, but does so only through a near-infinite "chain of creation."

But when we need help, our prayer does not go to an angel . . . who passes it to an archon . . . who turfs it to a saint . . . who transfers it to a call center located somewhere in South Dakota India the Philippines.

Instead, God picks up the phone Himself -- and sometimes, He doesn't even wait until we call to get in touch! No, He calls us to see how we're doing. He drops by to see how we're doing. And if He needs to be there with us all the time, then we know where you'll find Him.

In business, this is called "on-site support."

In philosophy, this is called "immanence" -- the idea that God is close to us.

But if you need a personal name for God when He does this, then you call Him, "the Holy Spirit."

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

This week's lesson: the son

God is a lousy superhero.

If there's one thing on which all the comic books agree, after all, it's that superheroes are . . . well, they're super.

Yes, they have super-powers: super-strength, super-intelligence, super-invulnerability to everything from bullets to the common cold.

And when you add their super-good-looks, then one thing is clear: superheroes are nothing like God.

No, when God showed up on this earth, then He did so as an ordinary human.
  • He wasn't omnipotent.
  • He wasn't omniscient.
  • And he was vulnerable to everything from hunger and thirst to family misunderstandings (not to mention torture and death).
In short, the best picture we have of God's true nature is not one of a man in tights who spends a lot of time at the gym.

No, it is one of "a man of sorrows who is acquainted with grief."
All of which suggests that God would not do well in comic books.
But as for the real world -- the world in which we live?

It would seem that He fits right in.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

This week's lesson: our loving heavenly Father

It's easy to make God sound like a child-abuser.

I grew up with a view of salvation, for instance, that was basically Manichaean -- a view that pitted God the Father against God the Son.
  • The Father was a God of Justice, while the Son was a God of Love.
  • Justice demands punishment for our sins -- while Love begs forgiveness.
  • And since the God of Justice needed to punish somebody, He walloped His Son -- and let us off the hook.
And yes, this is good news . . . 
But it doesn't exactly leave me with warm and fuzzy feelings about the God who treats His Son this way!
That's why our doctrine of the Trinity is important -- our belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three gods, but one. And if that's true, then . . . 
Anything Jesus suffers, the Father suffers too.
Anything Jesus offers, the Father offers too.
And anyone Jesus forgives is forgiven, not in spite of the Father. No, "if you've seen me," said Jesus, "then you've seen the Father."
So if you've been saved by Jesus, then you've been saved by the Father too.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

This week's lesson: Christ's kingdom and the law

"Another way again of using the law lawfully, is when we keep it, but as a thing superfluous. And how as a thing superfluous? As the bridle is properly used, not by the prancing horse that champs it, but by that which wears it only for the sake of appearance, so he uses the law lawfully, who governs himself, though not as constrained by the letter of it" -- John of Chrysostom (AD 347-407), homily on I Timothy. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

This week's lesson: Christ's church and the law

It's not 42.

And with all due respect to Douglas Adams, you probably don't need the world's largest computer to find the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

No, all you had to do was visit a special place on Planet Earth.

And there in that special place, you would have found a special building.

And in that special building, there was a special room.

And in that room was an even more special room.

And in that most special of all rooms, you would have seen a box made of wood, all covered in gold.

And in that box all covered in gold, there was . . .
  • And not the definitive proof that God exists, that life has meaning, and that all dogs go to heaven when they die.
No, in that box was a list: a list of ten ways to show that you love God and the people He made.

That's it.

And yes, there are a lot more things that we would have liked to know -- a lot more things that we could all wish had been in that box.

But even if the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything isn't 42 . . .

It would seem that 10 is good enough for now.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

This week's lesson: the apostles and the law

"You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him." -- Peter, speaking to Cornelius (Acts 10:28, NIV).
You might be an Adventist if you know that . . .
  • "Haystacks" aren't just for cows.
  • "Pathfinders" aren't just made by Nissan.
  • And when the pastor says he's going to quote his "favorite author," then he's probably not going to read you something by Stephen King.
No, there's more to being Adventist than just the 28 Fundamental Beliefs; there's that bundle of habits, mores, expectations, and inside jokes that make up TAL: The Adventist Lifestyle.
Or if you like, then you could call it "the Adventist Torah."
When the Bible talks about "the Law," after all, then it's talking about more than just the Ten Commandments -- and more than just the 613. No, it's talking about the bundle of habits, mores, expectations, and inside jokes that formed and defined Jewish identity.
In fact, you'd get a much more accurate view of the New Testaments's attitude towards the Law if you just took out that word every time it appeared, and substituted the phrase, "Jewish Lifestyle."
To be sure, there's nothing wrong with that lifestyle per se -- no more than there's anything wrong with our lifestyle per se.  No, it gives us a sense of identity. It fosters a sense of cohesion. And if nothing else, then it makes it a lot easier to plan meals for Saturday night.
(And just for the record: I love haystacks. Really.)
But when God's Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and the members of his household, then God made it really, really, really obvious that you could be one of His people . . . 
Even if you didn't follow the Jewish Lifestyle.
Did Peter believe this? 
With reluctance.
Did the Church in Jerusalem believe this? 
With reluctance.
Do we believe this?
Well, you're not an Adventist if you don't say, "yes."
But you wouldn't be human if you didn't say "yes" . . . 
With reluctance. 

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

This week's lesson: Christ, the Law, and the Covenants

You can't make deals with God

If you've ever driven past a dealer's lot, for instance, then you seen those rows and rows of cars, each with its own price prominently displayed on the windshield . . .

But if you've ever stopped at a dealer's lot, then you know those prices are only a suggestion, a starting point, an idea of what you could pay unless you're able to work out some kind of deal -- a deal as in, "I know you're asking $800 for this car, but I'm willing to offer $650 plus this fine collection of baseball cards."

Likewise, you spend much time in church and you're going to hear that "Jesus is the way."

But spend much time around church members, and you might start wondering if he's the only way -- if there's some way to avoid paying this particular "sticker price."
  • Maybe I could just live a good life, for instance.
  • Or maybe I could be one of those intensely "spiritual" people who collect whale songs and wind chimes . . . 
  • And if I'd lived back in the days of King Solomon, then I could have brought a lamb to the Temple and called it a day.
Yes, there must be some kind of way to make a deal with God!
But there's not.
No, if there was some other way to save us, then Jesus would not have done what He did; if there was some way to avoid the cross, then Jesus would have found it in the Garden of Gethsemane. 
But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions -- it is by grace you have been saved [Ephesians 2:4f, NIV].
And no, we don't always know how this grace works in our own lives -- much less in the lives of others. We don't know how it's been offered; we don't know how it's been received . . . and that's why we don't know who will be saved or lost.
But we know God loves everyone.
We know God wants to save everyone.
And that's why we can't make some kind of deal with God . . . 
Not when He's made the best deal He can -- through Christ -- for everyone.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

This week's lesson: Christ, the Law, and the Gospel

It's easy to forgive someone who's done nothing wrong.
The next time you need to forgive me, for instance, I will do my best to make your job easier by pointing out that:
  • you're making a lot of fuss over nothing . . . 
  • because whatever I did was really not all that bad . . . 
  • and besides, I've been sick -- sick enough that you can't blame me for my actions (which really weren't all that bad, remember?). 
And given my near-infinite capacity to justify anything and everything I've ever done, it would be easy to conclude that forgiveness itself is no big deal -- not when it involves offenses so picayune as my own.
You, however, might disagree.
Yes, you might point out that what I've done may be "no big deal" to me -- but that's because I'm not the one who got hurt.
What's more, my attempts to make myself look better have made you look worse -- that in minimizing the evil I've done, I've minimized your goodness in forgiving that evil.
In short, I've offended you three times: once in what I did, twice in denying it was wrong, and thrice in trivializing the cost of your forgiveness.
No, I don't appreciate your mercy -- not really, not until I realize my need for mercy . . . 
The same as I don't appreciate the Gospel -- not really, not until I realize how far short I've come of the Law.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

This week's lesson: the Law of God and the Law of Christ

Every church is an experiment.

No sooner did we start baptizing Gentiles, after all, then we started arguing about the extent to which they should be Jewish.
  • The Ebionites said they should be totally Jewish -- and yes, that included circumcision.
  • The Gnostics (some of them) said they should ignore Judaism -- and yes, that even included its laws against adultery.
  • And the rest of us stammered, and stuttered, and muttered that Gentiles could learn a lot from the Jews -- I mean, it was clear to one and all that nine of the Ten Commandments were still in force . . . 
Though some said the Fourth Commandment was an Eternal Principle that should be kept . . .

While others said was a Cultural Artifact that should be ignored . . .

And still others said it was a Cultural Artifact pointing to an Eternal Principle -- and so long as we remember that Eternal Principle, then we are free to keep or ignore the Sabbath as we see fit!

In short, Christians have disagreed on the Sabbath -- just as they have disagreed on polygamy, the role of women, same-sex marriage, and a host of other issues.

And in each case, the same texts that one side views as Eternal Principles that must be kept are dismissed by the other as Cultural Artifacts that no longer apply.

All of which is another way of saying that hundreds of different churches deal with God's law in hundreds of different ways . . . and that's why:
  • If you want to know what happens when a church decides that marriage is an eternal contract that cannot be broken, then you don't need to guess. No, all you need to do is look around.
  • If you want to know what happens when a church decides that marriage is a Cultural Artifact that can be discarded, then you don't need to guess. No, all you need to do is look around.
  • And if you think that some of the Bible's laws are absolutely ridiculous because nobody in their right mind would even think of doing something like that . . . then look around, and you'll find a church that didn't just allow it, but turned it into ritual.
No, you can learn about theology, just by watching what happens when that theology is turned into practice.
That's why every church is an experiment.
That's why you can learn from other church's experiments.
And that's why you may want to ask . . . 
Just what are they learning from your's?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

This week's lesson: Christ, the end of the law

It's easy enough to come up with a Utopia.

It's staying in one that's tough.

Consider the story in Genesis 2-3 -- the story Paul ponders in Romans 7. "In the beginning, everything is good. Everyone is virtuous. And nobody needs forgiveness . . .

In short, the Garden of Eden is perfect; it's a Utopia.

But then "the woman saw the fruit of the tree was good for good and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom" -- or as Paul puts it, "sin seized the opportunity afforded by the commandment, and produced every kind of coveting."

And the rest, you know . . .

For as Paul points out, the story of the Fall is now our story too. Yes, every individual, every political movement, and every religious reform begins with high hopes and shining ideals.

But every individual, every political movement, and every religious reform soon realizes it has "the desire to do what is good, but cannot carry it out. For [we] do not do the good [we] want to do, but the evil [we] do not want to do -- this [we] keep on doing."

That's why every Utopia ends up lacking one thing:

Utopians.

And that's why there's nothing Utopian about forgiveness.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

This week's lesson: Christ's death and the law

It always looks easy on the map.

Always.

Ask how to drive from my house (in Oregon) to my eldest daughter's house (in Alabama), for instance, and Google will spit out the answer in seconds: east on I-84 to I-80, I-80 get you to I-29, I-29 hands off to I-70, then add I-57, I-24, I-65 . . . and in just 40-hours, you're there.

Simple.

Likewise, it's not that difficult to come up with a "map" to a wonderful life. The Torah offers one; so does Buddhism's Noble Eight-fold Path. And grocery-store check-outs are full of magazines that promise quick and easy ways to lose weight, eliminate clutter, and raise wonderful children (who will all be thin and clutter-free).

Simple.

But if you've ever been on a road-trip, then you know that following a map can be . . . interesting. Yes, there will be detours, breakdowns, misunderstandings (both intentional and inadvertent), and long stretches of road that will make you feel like turning back.

Always.

That's why a map is not enough -- any map, whether it be AAA or the Torah.

Yes, that's why you need someone to ride along.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

This week's lesson: Christ and the Sabbath

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it . . . busy.

Look at the way Jesus spends his Sabbaths, after all.
  • He heals a demoniac (Mark 1:21-26).
  • He heals Peter's mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31).
  • He heals a man with a withered hand (Matthew 12:9-13).
  • He heals a crippled woman (Luke 13:10-17).
  • He heals a man suffering from edema (Luke 14:1-6).
  • He heals a crippled man at the Pool of Bethesda (John 15:1-15).
  • He heals a man born blind (John 9:1-41).
What's more, all of these miracles are elective procedures. They are not needed to save lives; they all address chronic conditions that could have waited until sundown to be healed.
But Jesus heals these people now. 
On the Sabbath.
In front of people who get all kinds of grief from the Gentiles -- who are continually being told they are lazy and shiftless -- because they follow God's command to rest on the seventh-day.
And no, I'm not entirely sure myself just what these miracles say about the way we keep Sabbath.
(Though I am a little nervous about parents who use them as an excuse to schedule community service activities on the Sabbath for their children -- community service activities that just happen to look good on their college applications.)
But if nothing else, it tells us something about the way God keeps Sabbath.
Yes, it tells us that God is always ready to heal us, always ready to mend us, always ready to give us a taste of what heaven is like.
We can rest in God's love, in other words -- and the Sabbath can be a reminder of that rest.
That's because God is always on the job.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

This week's lesson: Christ and the Law in the Sermon on the Mount

You can learn a lot with just two words: "Cui bono" (i.e. "Who benefits?").
  • You don't understand why the Zoning Commission okayed a new shopping mall in your neighborhood? Start with the question, "Cui bono?" 
  • You're a detective trying to figure out who shot a man the day after he signed up for a million-dollars in life insurance? The obvious question: "Cui bono?"
  • And if you're wondering why some people focus on the half-dozen texts that condemn homosexuality, but ignore the half-dozen texts that condemn charging interest on loans . . . 
Then it's worth remembering that we all look at the Bible through the lens of self-interest.

Yes, we all pick and choose the texts that make us look good.

We all ignore the texts that make us uncomfortable.

And we all find a way to redefine those uncomfortable texts that can't be ignored. Yes, we tell ourselves that:
  • We only "borrowed" the money.
  • We only "shaded" the truth.
  • And it's not really wrong if we were "just looking."
What's more, we may even convince ourselves that all these things are true!
But in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invites us to ask, "Cui bono?" -- who benefits from our reading of Scripture? 
And if the answer is always "ourselves" -- if we consistently read the Bible in a way that makes life easier for us (and more difficult for others) -- then Jesus has another phrase for us: "Caveat emptor."
Let the buyer beware.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

This week's lesson: Christ and religious tradition

Every church has its own traditions -- it's own way of doing things . . .

And what's more, these traditions are remarkably stable over time.

Yes, people may come and go at the Anytown SDA Church:
  • But the same kind of food will keep showing up at the potluck,
  • The same kind of people will keep staying after the potluck to clean up,
  • And if the person who guards the dessert table ever dies, then you can be sure that someone is ready and willing to take their place.
Not all of this is bad, of course. No, it saves time and thought to know that "we always bring baked beans to the potluck" -- and given what happened the time Mrs. Schmidt brought her prize-winning chocolate cake, perhaps it's just as well somebody makes sure that nobody takes seconds until everyone's had their chance.
  • But what happens when somebody comes with a different tradition -- when the new Samoan family, for instance, shows up at your potluck with fish?
  • What happens when somebody is tired of the old tradition -- when the people who always clean up would like some help from the people who always stand around and talk?
  • And what happens when people opt out of a tradition -- when the young mother of three isn't up to making a casserole for a dozen people . . . and so she skips the potluck and goes straight home instead?
In short, every church has its own traditions -- its own way of doing potlucks (and song services, and lesson studies, and funding student scholarships to its local Adventist school) . . . 
But how do you know when those traditions need to change?
And who changes them? 

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

This week's lesson: Christ and the law of Moses

You could say Jesus was Jewish.

You could also say he was "Jewish."

Consider the story in Matthew 9:20-22 -- the story of a woman who wanted to be healed:  
And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.
Now if Jesus has a "fringe" to his garment, then he's obviously Jewish -- Jewish enough to wear the kind of tzizit  worn by all mensch in Fiddler on the Roof. 

Yet "Jewish" as he is, Jesus isn't bothered by the fact this woman is unclean -- or that her touch has made him unclean and unfit to worship until he's been ceremonially cleansed.

No, all through the Gospels, we learn that Jesus is Jewish -- that Jesus keeps the Sabbath, that he is circumcised, and that he worships in the Temple.

Yet all through the Gospels, Jesus is criticized for doing things that "good" Jews weren't supposed to do -- things such as healing on the Sabbath. Praising the faith of Roman officer. And predicting the destruction of Jerusalem.

In short, Jesus was a reformer . . .

But he was a conservative reformer: he loved Judaism enough to try and make it better . . . 

Which is a very Jewish thing thing to do.

Likewise, the most loyal members of a nation, a school, or a church are not always the people who love the status quo. No, their loyalty is qualified by their dreams; they are committed to what could be, and not just what is.

Like Jesus, in other words, we are called to be Christians.

But sometimes, that means we need to be "Christians."

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

This week's lesson: laws in Christ's day

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened [Romans 1:18-21, NIV, emphasis supplied].
Can you figure out God on your own?
Take a group of adults, for instance, and give them amnesia -- yes, wipe out every memory, every habit, every learned ability that makes them uniquely human . . .
Then drop them on a desert island, and wait.
  • Religion? Almost certainly -- again, we seem to be hard-wired for this.
  • But will these laws and religious beliefs provide some kind of window on God and His will for our lives -- or do we need revelation (i.e. the Bible) to learn about Him?
Christians have never been sure how to answer this.
  • That's why the early church fought over the role of philosophy.
  • That's why the Reformation fought over the role of tradition.
  • And that's why we're fighting over the role of science.
In each case, some believers point to Paul's statement that "what may be known about God is plain" as proof that philosophy, tradition, and science can give us accurate information about God . . . 

While others see these things as "futile thinking" and the product of "darkened hearts."

And that's the question you'll try to answer in this week's lesson -- yes, as you talk about all the various and sundry laws, customs, mores and habits that societies develop, you want to ask yourself:
Do these things lead us to God?
Or do they lead us away from Him?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

This week's lesson: the cost of discipleship

It's amazing how often green pastures and white knuckles go together.

One of my earliest memories, for instance, is of riding in the car my Dad was driving through the Rockies. We were on one of those high, narrow, winding, mountain roads -- the kind that don't have guardrails because the tourists keep knocking them down . . .
  • And it was night.
  • And it was snowing.
  • And far down in the valley below, I could see the glimmer of lights from somebody's ranch.
I was enchanted; I felt I was the luckiest person in the world to see something so beautiful . . . 
Though I realize now that my Dad may not have felt the same way.
But that's the way life is: our greatest joys often come in the midst of danger; our most treasured memories often come from those times we were winding our way through the slippery curves of something that could have gone horribly wrong. 
And if you ask people to make two lists: one of things that make them happy, and one of things that make them sad . . . then you'll find that most of the things on those two lists are the same -- things such as family, friends, work, and church.
Yes, the "green pastures" of our lives are often one and the same as our "valleys of the shadow of death" -- and that was true in the days David too.
Both "green pastures" and "still waters" were contested ground, after all; they were sought by every shepherd, claimed by every shepherd, and defended by every shepherd against their rivals. It was only in "the presence of your enemies," in other words, that you could enjoy these things . . . 
Just as that snowy, mountain road was the best place to enjoy the view.
Sounds dangerous?
It is.
But remember who's driving the car.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

This week's lesson: the harvest and the harvesters

There's nothing more dangerous than someday.

As in: "Someday, I'll get my act together. Someday, I'll follow God. Yes, someday, I'll find a way to bless my neighbor . . .

"But not today."

And if anybody had the right to say, "someday," then it would be Jesus.

You'll find the story in John 4: Jesus is on the run from the Pharisees -- and this has led him through the kind of neighborhood where you roll-up your car's windows and lock the doors. Even his request for a drink of water is met with scorn; "I thought people like you," he's told, "don't have anything to do with people like us."

Yes, if there was ever a place where things right now weren't looking so good, it was the town of Sychar in Samaria -- and if I'd been Jesus, then I'd have said this was the kind of place that someday else should try to reach . . .

Someday.

But Jesus doesn't wait for someday; instead, he finds a way to reach people right now. That's why the people who'd been so hostile in Sychar end up begging him to stay.


And that's why, even there in Samaria, Jesus could tell his followers

Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest (John 4:35, NIV).
There's no need to wait, in other words; there's no need for delay. No, when it comes to sharing God's love . . . 

Now would be a good time.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

This week's lesson: discipling spiritual leaders

There's more to spiritual leadership than being spiritual. 

Take Paul's criteria for bishops (or "overseers") in I Timothy 3:2-7 (NIV): 
Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
And no, Paul doesn't say the overseer should be a mighty prayer-warrior (though that may be assumed).

Paul doesn't say the overseer should be a spell-binding preacher (though that's always nice).

Paul doesn't say anything about miracles, musical-ability, or advanced degrees (which may be just as well, since nobody has ever found a correlation between pastoral-effectiveness and a D.Min.).

Instead, he talks about simple, everyday, commonplace stuff -- stuff such as how the potential leader actually treats their family, handles money, and gets along with outsiders.

And maybe it's because we can fake spirituality more easily than we can human decency.

Maybe it's because the simplest test of our spirituality is just how we treat other people.

And maybe we should get a little nervous when a large number of people -- teachers, administrators, and TV preachers -- look like spiritual leaders, and act like spiritual leaders, but have little or no accountability when it comes to the way they treat others . . . 

But if nothing else, it's clear that "spiritual leaders" should be known for more than their spirituality.

No, they should also be known for their humanity.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

This week's lesson: discipling the nations

It's not easy "to make disciples of all nations."

And sometimes, it's tougher for us than it is for them.

Read the first few chapters of Acts, for instance, and you'll notice how slooooooowly the Church included those uncircumcised Gentiles.
  • The first believers, remember, were all Palestinian Jews -- Palestinian Jews whose men were all circumcised.
  • But with Pentecost came Hellenistic Jews -- and while this created all kinds of trouble about money and leadership, at least circumcision wasn't an issue.
  • Next came Samaritans -- foreign scum, to be sure, but foreign scum who were circumcised.
  • Then came an Ethiopian eunuch -- a man for whom the whole question of circumcision was . . . academic.
  • And only after all this did Peter finally baptized a God-fearing Gentile by the name of Cornelius -- and even then, it took a vision, a command from God, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a meeting with leaders in Jerusalem, and a church council (not to mention a number of letters from Paul) before the church finally decided it was okay to make disciples of people like . . . you know, people like him.
To be sure, we shouldn't be too hard on the early church. It's safer to stick with your own kind, after all -- safer, easier, and much more enjoyable.

That's why "the nations" aren't the only ones who need change.

No, if we want to change them, then we need to change ourselves.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

This week's lesson: discipling the powerful

It's not just a question of who has the power.

It's a question of what power they have.

As Malcolm Gladwell pointed in The New Yorker, there are only so many ways to get what you want from others; they include:
  • Potluck: everybody brings what they have; everybody takes what they want. It's share and share alike. 
  • Carpool: yesterday, I drove and you got to ride; today, you drive and I get to ride. Everybody takes their turn.
  • Market: you have something I want; I have something you want . . . so we wheel and deal until we both get what we want.
  • Family: just as parents take care of their children, so too I promise that I will  take care of you. You provide loyalty, in other words, and I'll provide the leadership.
And while Gladwell doesn't discuss the overt threat of violence in his article, any discussion of power should include a fifth option:
  • Mugging: you have something I want -- so give me what I want, and I won't hurt you.
Gladwell notes that most events combine elements from each category; if you're in a Book Club, for instance, then you'll be expected to buy the book (Market) that was recommended by Oprah (Family) so that you can help with the discussion (Potluck) -- and when it's your turn, then you will host the group at your house (Carpool).
And when the host's children interrupt the meeting?
That's when you discover some parents rely heavily on Mugging.
Just saying.
Myself, I've found Gladwell's categories helpful in discussing the nature and uses of power in our church. Once upon a time, for instance, our school was seen as a family (with the Conference as paterfamilias); now many of our parents see it as a market -- a market in which they pay the bills, and so should have more say.
Likewise, you may want to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Both potlucks and carpools, after all, can be undermined by "free-riders" -- by people who are happy to take, but not to give. Markets require some kind of parity between buyers and sellers. And while the people in management may say that "we run our company like a family," the people on their staff may feel more like the victims of a mugging.
When we talk about power, after all, then we need to talk about the way we use it.
And if you want to know how we use it?
Then look at the way we treat people who don't have it.