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.