Sunday, December 27, 2015

This week's lesson (December 26-January 1): Crisis in Heaven

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” -- Theodore Roosevelt
It's a dirty job.

But everyone loves to do it.


In the Hebrew Bible, remember, "the satan" functions as a kind of auditor, much like the Persian Empire's "eyes of the king" or a police department's "Internal Affairs Division." 


Yes, he roams God's kingdom in a cheap suit with a battered briefcase, looking for accounts that don't balance, policies that aren't followed, and decisions that haven't been thought through quite as well as they should.


He's a Devil's Advocate, in other words, in more ways than one.


And there's nothing wrong with this per se -- no, every organization needs its gadflies and its "murder boards," just to keep people on their toes.


Unfortunately, this particular "satan" took himself a little too seriously (which is always a temptation in staff jobs) . . . and something that began as "constructive criticism" turned into a corrosive cynicism about everything but himself.


Not that we've ever done this, of course.


Still, it's worth remembering that speaking the truth must always be done in love (Ephesians 4:15).


And yes, it may be your job to speak that truth -- to be "the Devil's Advocate," so to speak.


But try not to love it too much.

This quarter's lessons (January - March 2016): suggested reading

This quarter's lessons are drawn from Ellen White's The Great Controversy -- but some other books you might find helpful are:
  • Finally, I've not read anything by William Wink; neither do I know anyone who has . . . but N. T. Wright speaks highly of him, and his interest in "principalities and powers" certainly sounds like something that could tie-in with this quarter's lessons. Anybody know anything about him?


Sunday, December 20, 2015

This week's lesson (December 19-25): lessons from Jeremiah

"Do not trust in deceptive words and say, 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!' If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless." -- Jeremiah 7:4-8, NIV
There's nothing nicer than an idol.

Idol's give you clout with the god, after all; they give you influence with the divine.
  • Yes, post an idol in the corner of your house, and you know that god will be there for you.
  • Put some nice clothes on the idol, give it a parade -- maybe even take it out to dinner . . . treat it nice, in other words, and the god will be nice to you.
  • And if that god isn't nice to you -- if it's been slacking-off on the blessings you have a right to expect . . . then you can "lean on" that god by threatening to throw it's idol in the trash.
Best of all, idols don't require you to worship a false god -- no, you can commit idolatry with the true God of Israel!
  • Worried that He might not fight on your side? Carry His ark into battle -- that way, He doesn't have a choice! (cf. I Samuel 4-6).
  • Fearful that someone might attack your city? Point out that God would never allow His Temple to be captured -- much less destroyed (cf. Jeremiah 7).
  • And even today, you are guaranteed success if you just pray the right prayers, think the right thoughts, and belong to God's one true church.
What else can God do, after all?
He's the One who gave you the things, after all -- the ark, the Temple, even prayers and churches.
And if He didn't want you to use them as idols . . . 
Then why did He give them to you?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

This week's lesson (December 12-18): Back to Egypt

You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. -- Psalm 91:5-7, NIV
Jerusalem was not a good place to be.

That did not mean someplace else was better.

Read Jeremiah 41-43, after all, and its clear why God's people wanted to move on.
  • The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem.
  • The Babylonians had wiped out most of Jerusalem's people -- had killed them, or taken them into exile.
  • And when the Babylonians picked a puppet to rule Judah, he was assassinated by the locals -- an assassination the Babylonians were sure to avenge.
No, things weren't looking so good in Jerusalem.
That's why the smart people were all packing their bags, buying their tickets, and checking out the real estate in Egypt.
Yes, Egypt looked safe . . .
Even though God disagreed.
"If you stay in this land, [says the LORD,] I will build you up and not tear you down; I will plant you and not uproot you, for I am grieved over the disaster I have inflicted on you. Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon, whom you now fear. Do not be afraid of him," declares the LORD, "for I am with you and will save you and will deliver you from his hand. I will sho you compassion so that he will have compassion on you and restore you to your land."  
. . . [But] "if you are determined to go to Egypt and you do go to settle there, then the sword you fear will overtake you there, and the famine you dread will follow you into Egypt, and there you will die." -- Jeremiah 32:10f &15f, NIV.
And if that seems crazy, then remember all the dangerous places they'd already been with God.
  • During the Great Flood, remember, God's people were protected by nothing more than that thin, wooden eggshell we call "Noah's ark" -- yet God kept them safe.
  • During the Exodus, God's people lived in the Sinai Desert with snakes and the scorpions and the wild desert tribes for 40-years -- yet God kept them safe.  
  • And Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego would all be thrown into a fiery furnace there in Babylon -- the same Babylon that threatened God's people there in Jerusalem . . . and there they discovered that no place was safer than that fiery furnace -- not if God was with them; not if God wanted them there.
In short, Jerusalem may not have been a good place -- but it was the place God wanted them to be.
And no, God doesn't always put you in a good place.
But the place God puts you?
That's the best place you can be.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

This week's lesson (December 5-11): the covenant

"The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9, NIV).
Can you make a deal with God?

Why bother?

It's not that we don't try -- history is full of people who've promised God X if He would just do Y.

But look at the Bible, and you'll find something that's just a little disconcerting.

Yes, you'll find that God is not that good at making deals.

Consider the first deal He makes -- the one back in Genesis 1:26-28 where He creates humanity, gives them dominion over the earth, then tells them to "be fruitful and increase in number."

Pretty sweet deal.

And the rest of them are just as good.
  • Genesis 9:1ff -- "be fruitful, increase in number . . . and by the way: don't worry about another Flood."
  • Genesis 12:1ff -- "I will help you be fruitful and increase in number . . . and by the way: don't worry about your neighbors; I'm going to find a way to bless them too. "
  • Even the Ten Commandments show the same willingness to give away the store. God doesn't say ,"Be good, and then I'll save you." No, they begin with these words: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Exodus 20:2, NIV).
Yes, first He give you the reward; then maybe He asks you to do something.
Maybe.
Not always.
And it's not that God isn't smart.
It's just that you get the feeling He's really not trying all that hard.
Consider Abraham, for instance -- a man who makes three deals in His lifetimes:
  • One about real estate with his nephew Lot in Genesis 13.
  • One about the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah with God in Genesis 18.
  • And one about real estate with Ephron the Hittite in Genesis 23.
Now the experts agree that Abraham got snookered in two deals: the first, and the last.  He let Lot get away with grabbing the best land, in other words, and he paid way too much for the cave where he buried Sarah . . . 
Which suggest the only time Abraham ever got the better of someone was the time he bargained with God, i.e. the time he asked God to treat some really wicked people with mercy.
All of which suggests God does not try to get the best deal that He can for Himself.
Instead, He tries to get the best deal He can for us.
And He does this, even if He's the one who pays the price.
So don't try to make deals with God -- no, don't offer Him X if He will give you Y.
I mean, why bother . . . 
When you can get a better deal from Him?

Sunday, November 29, 2015

This week's lesson (November 28 - December 4): the Destruction of Jerusalem

"Jesus wept" --John 11:35 (NIV).

Want to know what Jeremiah really thought about the fall of Jerusalem?

Read the Book of Lamentations.
Just like its name says, Lamentation is a collection of laments -- five poems (the first four of which are acrostics) that mourn the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC.
And yes, there is hope; at the heart of these poems is this promise:
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, "The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him."
The LORD is good to those whose hope its in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young. Let him sit alone in silence, for the the LORD has laid it on him. Let him bury his face in the dust -- there may yet be hope. Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace. 
For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men -- Lamentations 3:21-33 (NIV).
But this message of hope is surrounded by grim accounts of Jerusalem's desolation -- accounts such as this one in Jeremiah 2:11f (NIV):
My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within, my heart is poured out on the ground because my people are destroyed, because children and infants faint in the streets of the city. They say to their mothers, "Where is bread and wine?" as they faint like wounded men in the streets of the city, as their lives ebb away in their mothers' arms.
Jeremiah's hope is not glib, in other words -- and his account of God's judgment is not some bloodless balancing of karma's scale.

No, there is a human cost to it all -- a human tragedy -- and his recognition of that human cost gives pathos to Jeremiah's message.

You cannot denounce sin, in other words, if you don't love the sinner.

You cannot denounce sin if you don't mourn what it does to the sinner.

No, you cannot preach judgment like Jeremiah . . .

Not unless you cry like Lamentations.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

This week's lesson (November 21-27): Jeremiah's yoke

"To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: 'We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.' For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' But wisdom is proved right by her deeds" -- Matthew 11:16-19, NIV.
It's no wonder people preferred Hananiah to Jeremiah.

Hananiah told them what they wanted to hear.

It's 594 BC, remember, and Babylon's already invaded Judah.

Twice.

"And it's not over," says Jeremiah. "In fact, it's going to get worse."

"Nonsense," says Hananiah. There's nothing but good times ahead."

Guess which prophet was most popular?

Yes, Jeremiah 28's a good example of confirmation bias, i.e. our tendency to hear the news we want to hear (and ignore anything we don't).
  • Want to know if that dress makes you look fat? Ask the people whom you know will say, "no."
  • Looking for insight on the day's news? Watch the station that supports your views on politics.
  • Holding a conference on The Great Issues of Our Day? Invite experts who support "the right side" -- and tell everyone else to stay home.
Hananiah may be dead and gone, in other words -- but his spiritual descendants are alive and well (and making more money all the time).
To be sure, reality is not always kind to the Hananiahs of this world (viz. Jeremiah 28:9).

And it can be even more unkind to the people who listen to the Hananiahs of this world.

That's because you might get the prophets you want.

But they may not be the prophets you need.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

This week's lesson (November 14-20): Josiah's reforms

"Desire without knowledge is not good -- how much more will hasty feet miss the way" (Proverbs 19:2, NIV).
Josiah was a righteous man.

Too bad that wasn't enough.

Of his righteousness, the Bible is clear:
  • He orders repairs on the Temple -- repairs that discover a Book of the Law.
  • In accordance with this Book of the Law, he orders the destruction of pagan shrines, and the celebration of a great Passover.
  • And "neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the LORD as he did -- with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses" (2 Kings 23:25, NIV).
So far, so good.
Unfortunately, Josiah gets involved in politics -- international politics. When Pharaoh Necho of Egypt sent troops to assist Assyria in its fight against Babylon . . . 
Josiah marched out to meet him in battle. But Necho sent messengers to him, saying, "What quarrel is there, king of Judah, between you and me? It is not you I am attacking at this time, but the house with which I am at war. God has told me to hurry; so stop opposing God, who is with me, or he will destroy you." 
Josiah, however, would not turn away from him, but disguised himself to engage him in battle. He would not listen to what Necho had said at God's command but went to fight him on the plains of Megiddo. 
Archers shot King Josiah, and he told his officers, "Take me away; I am badly wounded." So they took him out of his chariots, put him in his other chariot and brought him to Jerusalem, where he died. He was buried in the tombs of his ancestors, and all Judah and Jerusalem mourned for him [And] Jeremiah composed laments for Josiah . . . (II Chronicles 35:20-25, NIV).
In short, even good people can make mistakes.
Even righteous people can be wrong.
And even though Josiah led God's people in reformation and revival, that didn't mean you should always follow him.

No, there was nothing wrong with Josiah's heart.

It's his head that got him in trouble.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

This week's lesson (November 7-13): the crisis continues

Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone!
Dare to have a purpose firm!
Dare to make it known.
-- Philip P. Bliss (1873)
Jeremiah never stood alone.

And yes, it's easy to think he did -- to think of him as a solitary prophet, preaching to to an uncaring crowd, risking opprobrium with his unpopular message . . .

Just as we must do so today -- right?

But for someone with such an unpopular message, Jeremiah sure seemed to have a lot of friends.
  • Consider Baruch ben Neriah, for instance -- the aristocratic scribe who records and spreads his message (cf. Jeremiah 36).
  • Or Ahikam and Gedaliah -- both descendants of the same court secretary who delivered the Law to Josiah (cf. II Kings 22), and both officials who protect Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 26 & 40).
  • When "priests and prophets" all agreed Jeremiah should die, it's the "officials" and "elders of the land" who defend him (Jeremiah 26).
  • Then you have Ebed-Melech -- the Ethiopian eunuch who rescues Jeremiah from certain death in a cistern (Jeremiah 38).
  • And when Jeremiah is bound in chains and ready to be carried into exile, he is freed by Nebuzaradan, the commander of Babylon's imperial guard (Jeremiah 40)!
To be sure, Jeremiah faced all kinds of opposition.
But he also had friends, supporters, and protectors.
And the same should be true today. 
You may not be called to speak for God, after all, but you can support those who do.
No, you may not be called to be another Jeremiah -- but you can be another Baruch, Ahikam, Ebed-Melech, or even another Nebuzaradan.
Yes, to paraphrase an old song:
Stand with Jeremiah!
He must not stand alone!
Help to make get his message out!
Help to make it known!

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

This week's lesson (October 31 - November 6): symbolic acts

"The best way to predict your future
 is to create it." -- Peter Drucker.
True prophets predict the future.
Except, of course, when they don't.
Take Jeremiah 18, for instance -- a chapter that plays with our usual notions of "Destiny" and "Fate."
  • God is the potter and we are the clay? CHECK
  • God shapes and molds us as He thinks best? CHECK
  • Therefore, our destinies are fixed, our fates have been sealed, and everything proceeds according to the sovereign plans of an omniscient, omnipotent God? UMMMM . . . 
Sorry.
But Jeremiah 18 says God doesn't work that way.
Instead, it pictures prophecy as provisional -- as contingent upon our response.
  • If God promises something good, for instance, then that's no reason to relax.
  • And if God promises something bad, then that's no reason to despair.
  • But do good, says Jeremiah and good things will happen . . . 
Even if God didn't say they would.
Prophecy is not a parade, in other words -- a parade in which everyone marches along the route God told them to go.
Instead, it is a dance -- a dance in which God responds to us as we respond to God . . . 
Not to mention His response to our response to His response . . . 
Okay, I'll stop there.
In short, you never know what God will do -- not even if He's the one who predicted.
But you can always predict what God wants.
Yes, He wants you to be saved.
So what are you going to do about it?

Sunday, October 25, 2015

This week's lesson (October 24-30): more woes for the prophet

"In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans."                                              -- Romans 8:26, NIV.
You're not supposed to pray the way Jeremiah prays.

Imagine what would happen, for instance, if your pastor asks for prayer requests . . . and you respond with Jeremiah 18:19ff --  "Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?"

Or imagine what would happen if your pastor began the morning prayer in church with these words from Jeremiah 18:19ff:
"Listen to me, O LORD; hear what my accusers are saying . . . give their children over to famine; hand them over to the power of the sword. Let their wives be made childless and widows; let their men be put to death, their young men slain by the sword in battle."
And while I've attended many seminars on the subject, I've never heard a speaker suggest you can add more power to your prayer-life if you just quote these words from Jeremiah 20:7-9 --
"O LORD, you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long."
In short, Jeremiah's prayers are not models of faith, hope, or love -- and they are certainly not the kind of prayers I usually hear in church.

Instead, they are bitter.

Angry.

Sarcastic.

And in the Bible.

All of which suggests that we don't always need to pray the way we should.

No, sometimes we can pray the way we are.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

This week's lesson (October 17-23): rebuke and retribution

"Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people. Oh, that I had in the desert a lodging place for travelers, so that I might leave my people and go away from them; for they are all adulterers, a crowd of unfaithful people." -- Jeremiah 9:1f, NIV
Jeremiah was a true prophet.

That's why he tried to quit.

Read his book, after all, and you understand why Wikipedia defines "jeremiad" as:
a long literary work . . . in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society's imminent downfall . . . 
. . . kind of like an AM radio talkshow.

And just like those talkshows, Jeremiah has nothing good to say about his society.
  • Not its foreign policy.
  • Not its tax code.
  • Not its religious or political leaders.
  • And especially not its prospects for the future!
If you can't say something nice, in other words, then Jeremiah goes right ahead and says it . . . 
Which is nice work, if you can get it.

In fact, it's actually kind of fun.
I mean, we all know how fun it is to condemn the sins of others.
And if AM radio (and religious TV) is any guide, then doing so is both popular and profitable.
All of which suggests a lot of people would have been happy to volunteer for Jeremiah's job -- and even more would be happy to volunteer for that job today!
But not Jeremiah.
No, Jeremiah does not enjoy denouncing others.
He does not enjoy denouncing their sins.
He does not rejoice in the troubles ahead -- even though his people deserve them.
No, Jeremiah did not volunteer for this job; in fact, he repeatedly tried to quit!
Out of all the people who ever preached a jeremiad, in other words, Jeremiah may have been the most unwilling of them all.  
Maybe that's why he got the job.
And maybe that's why some people should not.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

This week's lesson (October 10-16): the last five kings of Israel

"We ought to obey God rather than men." -- Acts 5:29, KJV
A guy like Jeremiah -- you have to wonder about his loyalties.

I mean, we're God's people -- right? The remnant. The only ones around who worship the right God in the right way (and on the right day besides).

So where is Jeremiah when we need him?
  • When we had a chance to break free from Babylon, remember, Jeremiah said we shouldn't do it.
  • When Babylon attacked, Jeremiah said we should surrender.
  • And now that God's people are living in exile, Jeremiah says we should "seek the prosperity" of  Babylon "and pray for it," for "if it prospers," then we will prosper (Jeremiah 29:7).
Like I said, it kind of makes you wonder whose side he's on.
If you love your country, after all, then you support your country. 
If you love your church, then you support your church.
And even if you think God's people are wrong -- even if you think they've made some kind of mistake . . . even then, you don't go tearing them down. Not in public. Not out there where everyone can see it.
No, there's a time to speak up . . . 
And a time to shut-up and salute.
But if Jeremiah doesn't understand what it means to be loyal -- what it means to support God's people, no matter what -- then you have wonder . . . 
Just who does he thinks he is?
And who is he really following?

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

This week's lesson (October 3-9): the crisis within and without

"My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water." -- Jeremiah 2:13, NIV
Nothing is more seductive than "sunk costs," i.e. the money you've already spent (and can't get back).
  • You've already spent $500 on repairs for your junker of a car? All the more reason to spend another $500; otherwise, you've just "wasted" the money you already spent -- right?
  • You've already poured umpty-billion dollars and upmpty-thousand lives into a war of choice? All the more reason to keep pouring in those dollars (and those lives); otherwise, everything you've done is all for nothing -- right?
  • And if Judah's political, military, and religious policies don't seem be paying off just yet . . . then who's going to stand up and say, "It's time to cut our loses, admit our mistakes, and try something new"?
Jeremiah -- that's who.
And in the second-chapter of his book, Jeremiah points out that Judah's policies are more than just wrong.
No, they're also stupid.
It would be bad enough, after all, if Judah disobeyed God AND got something for it -- if disobedience made it rich, powerful, and admired.
Unfortunately, Judah's policies have done nothing of the kind.
That's why Jeremiah stands up and says, "Enough is enough."
That's why Jeremiah stands up and says, "This isn't working."
That's why we still need Jeremiahs -- Jeremiahs who kick us off the treadmill and point us in a new direction.
And no, it's not easy to do this; people always pay a price for change.
"But if we don't pay that price," says Jeremiah . . . 
"We're sunk."

Monday, September 28, 2015

This week's lesson (September 26 - October 2): the prophetic calling of Jeremiah

"You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you," declares the LORD. . . . "Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them. Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land -- against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land. They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you," declares the LORD. -- Jeremiah 1:7b-8, 17b-19, NIV, emphasis supplied.
What would you do if you weren't afraid to do it?
If the first chapter of his book is any guide, after all, Jeremiah is none too sure about being a prophet -- and with good reason.
  • He lacks experience (verses 6f).
  • He lacks support (verses 18f).
  • And his message isn't going to make anyone very happy (verses 14-16).
That's why Jeremiah's very first words in this book are an attempt to explain why he shouldn't be a prophet (verse 6) . . . 
And that's why God repeatedly tells Jeremiah not to be afraid -- a command, notice, that wouldn't be necessary unless Jeremiah was afraid!
All of which suggests another word for "faith" is "courage" . . .
  • Courage enough to follow God when you don't know how to do it.
  • Courage enough to follow God when nobody else wants to do it.
  • And courage enough to follow God when nobody else wants you to do it!
In short, there's always a good reason to say "no" to God -- and if there's not, then your fears will always help you find one.
But if God wants you to do something . . . 
Then what have you to fear?

Monday, September 21, 2015

This week's lesson (September 19-25): Must the whole world hear?

In that day, there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, "Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance." -- Isaiah 19:23-25, NIV.
So how does God save other people?

You know -- people other than me?

I know that I'm a sinner, after all -- and I suspect I'm not the only one.

(And that knocks on the head any idea that people can be saved "if they live up to the light they have." I mean, I don't live up to the light I have -- and if God can save me regardless, then why should they be any different?)

What's more, Christ's prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane suggests that his death was necessary for my salvation -- that if there was any other way to save me, then God would have done it that way.

(And if that's true of me, then why should it be different for anyone else?)

But if God can save me -- me with all my faults, all my sins, all my blindspots, all my patches of ignorance that all of eternity will not be able to erase . . .

Yes, if God can save me . . .

Then who am I to complain if He saves somebody else?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

This week's lesson (September 12-18): Paul - Mission & Message

There's more to evangelism than the Book of Acts.

Read the Book of Acts, after all, and it seems as though evangelism is nothing more than a a series of road trips -- road trips in which:
  • Paul arrives in a new town.
  • He preaches a series of sermons.
  • And having baptized the results of his preaching, Paul moves on.
But read Paul's letters, and you'll notice Paul never did move on -- not completely.
  • No, he keeps in touch -- through letters, messengers, and personal visits.
  • He counsels, rebukes, and advises church members on everything from their potlucks to their sex lives.
  • And he spends an extraordinary amount of time raising money for the poor in Jerusalem!
In short, Paul did more than more than just preach and baptize.
  • No, he also nurtures church members. 
  • He deals with their faults, their failures, and their fights with each other.
  • Yes, in today's language, he is their "pastor."
That's why it's important to look at everything Paul does -- not just his work as a traveling preacher.

Yes, take a look at everything Paul does, and you'll see there's more to evangelism . . .

Than just evangelism.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

This week's lesson (September 5-11): Paul - background and call

It's not easy to be a bridge.

Take Paul, for instance -- someone who reached both Jews and Gentiles . . .

But was often viewed with suspicion by both.
  • To the Gentiles of Ephesus, for instance, he was just too Jewish -- a man whose monotheism threatened their income from the Temple of Diana.
  • Then again, the Jews of Jerusalem thought he was just too friendly with Gentiles -- so much so, they thought he'd smuggled one into the Temple!
  •  And even the church's leaders weren't always sure what to make of Paul! Having accepted his offering from the Gentiles, for instance, they then told him to go through purification rituals at the Temple, so that "everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law" (Acts 21:24, NIV).
Likewise, the church needs people who can build a bridge between two cultures -- between faith and science, between East and West, between tradition post-modernism . . .
Yet it's not always comfortable with the people who can do this.
  • Like Paul, they don't seem to fit in either camp.
  • Like Paul, they don't seem entirely loyal to either camp.
  • And like Paul, they may face rejection by both camps -- rejection, or repeated tests of their allegiance.
We need people like Paul, in other words -- but we don't always make it easy for them to be like Paul.
No, there are times when being a bridge . . .
It's quite a stretch. 

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

This week's lesson (August 29 - September 4): Philip as missionary

If you want to make God laugh, then tell Him your plans.

Consider Philip -- a Greek-speaking Jew who was definitely not part of his church's "inner circle." No, that was reserved for the Twelve . . .
  • All of whom had been chosen by Jesus.
  • All of whom spoke Aramaic as their native-language.
  • And none of whom saw any need to share power with others.
But when a dispute over money broke down along ethnic lines, then Philip was made a "deacon." As such, he was meant to feed widows -- nothing more.
But when persecution broke out after the death of Stephen, Greek-speaking Christians had to leave the city . . . 
  • So Philip went to Samaria, where he preached the Word . . . 
  • Then he went to Gaza, where he preached the Word . . .
  •  Then he continued up the coast to Caesarea, where he preached the Word along the way.
And yes, I suspect the "Old Guard" was a bit non-plussed by all this; when they heard about the conversions in Samaria, remember, they sent Peter and John to see just what this "deacon" was doing!
Fortunately, they saw what the Spirit was doing through Philip.
They accepted what the Spirit was doing through Philip.
And even though the Spirit's plans for Philip didn't exactly coincide with their own . . . even then, they were willing to let the Spirit lead.
If you want to make God laugh, after all, then tell Him your plans.
But if you want to be amazed, then listen to His.

Monday, August 24, 2015

This week's lesson (August 22-28): Peter and the Gentiles

Then God said to Abraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between you and me. For the generations to come, every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner -- those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." -- Genesis 17:9-14, NIV (emphasis supplied).
God does not change.

If God said circumcision was "an everlasting covenant," for instance, than it was obvious to early Christians that He meant just that.

To be sure, they'd shown a certain amount of flexibility in just who they baptized.
  • Yes, Palestinian Jews had reached out to Greek-speaking Jews.
  • One of those Greek-speaking Jews had reached out to Samaritans.
  • And that same Greek-speaking Jew had even baptized an Ethiopian eunuch.
But in none of these cases had circumcision been an issue -- either the people involved already been circumcised, after all, or they were not capable of it. 
No, circumcision was still thought to be an "everlasting covenant" . . . 
All of which explains why Peter was such a reluctant missionary to the Gentiles. 
  • To be sure, God gave Peter a vision -- three times!
  • He told Peter "not to call anything impure that God has made clean" -- three times.
  • And when messengers from Cornelius came looking for Peter, God told him specifically to go with them "for I have sent them."
But when Peter arrives at the house of Cornelius, the first words out of his mouth make it clear that he's not entirely happy to be there:
"You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?" -- Acts 10:28f, NIV. 
Indeed, it's only after the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles that Peter resolves to baptize them -- and even then, he's criticized for this by the believers back home in Jerusalem!
In short, change came slow -- painfully slow . . . when it came to circumcision.
What's more, change came only because God made it obvious -- very obvious . . . that change must come.
You see, God Himself doesn't change.
But sometimes, He thinks His people should.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

This week's lesson (August 15-21): cross-cultural missions

"The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." -- John 3:8, NIV
God's love is a net that catches all kinds of fish.

Consider the Nicodemus described in John 3, for instance, with the woman at the well in the following chapter -- two people as different as night and day.
  • One is a man, the other a woman.
  • One is named, the other nameless.
  • One is Jewish, the other Samaritan.
  • One comes to Jesus, the other is approached by him.
  • One is a respected leader of his community; the other skulks out to the well at a time when she can avoid her peers.
  • Oh yes -- and one encounters Jesus by night, while the other meets him at noon.
No, these people are opposites in almost every respect; even their response to Jesus is not the same.
  • Nicodemus is slow -- even timid. It is only when Christ dies that he openly declares his faith.
  • But the woman at the well fences with Jesus a bit -- then plunges in. Her response is immediate and public; the result is the conversion of her whole village.
Two very different fish, in other words -- but one net that's big enough for both.
Yes, two very different people -- but one God who loves them all.

Monday, August 10, 2015

This week's lesson (August 8-14): Jesus, the master of mission

"Then Jesus came to [his disciples] and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.' " -- Matthew 28:18-20, NIV.
Most religions are like sports teams, i.e. your allegiance is local.

If you follow baseball in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, then you're probably a Mariners fan; if you're a fan in New England, then you probably follow the Red Sox.

Likewise, if you're Hopi then you probably follow Hopi rituals, while your Navajo neighbors follow the Navajo way.

And just as Mariner fans don't go door-to-door in Boston, asking the locals to support Félix Hernández, neither do you see the Hopi holding evangelistic series, urging the Navajo to be ready for the return of the Elder Brother.

To be sure, there are similarities -- and even a certain amount of "borrowing" going on (just as baseball teams may swap players) . . .

But by and large, the Hopi and Navajo each follow their own path and leave the other to follow their's; in a sense, you could say they each root for their own team.

And again, this is true of most religions . . . with three exceptions:
  • Buddhism,
  • Islam,
  • and Christianity.
Out of all the hundreds and thousands of religions in this world, in other words, only these three claim to be universal; only these three claim to be something that anyone, anywhere, at any time, and from any culture may follow.
Is this imperialistic -- an excuse for religious genocide? 
Maybe . . . 
But at the same time, it is also anti-imperialistic; it gives us reason to treat everyone from every culture with respect.
If anyone can be a Christian, after all, then that means no culture is intrinsically privileged, no nation is inherently holy, no group is necessarily closer to God than any other group. That means God does not love Americans more than He loves the Chinese; it also means American culture is no more "godly" than that of the Chinese.
No, we all need God.
And we can all follow God.
It doesn't matter where you live, in other words . . . 
You can still be part of the game.

Monday, August 03, 2015

This week's lesson (August 1-7): Esther & Mordecai

Try to imagine Esther as a Student Missionary.

I dare you.

Missionaries are supposed to be deeply spiritual people, after all -- in fact, they are probably the closest thing we have to officially-recognized saints in the Adventist Church.

But Esther?
  • There's no mention of her praying.
  • There's no mention of her reading the Bible.
  • And if she's keeping a kosher home (much less keeping the Sabbath), then she's found a way to do so that nobody notices!
Add to that the nature of her "job" in the Persian court and it's clear: Esther would never make it through the screening-process for a Student Missionary . . .

And it's only with careful editing that you can use her for a children's story!

No, Esther is not a spiritual super-hero; she's not even "a member in good and regular standing."

But if God could use someone as "spiritually-challenged" as Esther -- someone whom better believers would never consider an equal . . .

Yes, if God's grace is enough for Esther, then think what it can do with you.

I dare you.

Monday, July 27, 2015

This week's lesson (July 25-31): exiles as missionaries

"Remember my chains." -- Colossians 4:18, NIV
Not every missionary is a volunteer.

Certainly Daniel was not; neither were his three friends: Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego.
You see, they were captives -- Prisoners of War who had been moved to Babylon, stripped of their old identities, and forced to serve its rulers . . . 
Rulers they would not have chosen to serve -- not if it was up to them.
But sometimes, we don't get that choice.
No, sometimes life puts us someplace we don't want to go -- someplace we never thought of serving God.
For Daniel, it was Babylon.
For Esther, it was the court of Ahasuerus.
For Paul, it was a prison cell.
And if God could use them in places like that, then just think where God could use you . . . 
Yes, even if you wish it was someplace else.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

This week's lesson (July 18-24): the Jonah saga

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors 
-- Matthew 6:12, KJV

There are some people you don't want to be saved.

Not if you're like Jonah, at any rate.

Called to preach in Nineveh, Jonah refuses -- and it is only after two miracles that you learn the reason why:
  • The first miracle: Jonah is saved from the drowning he deserves.
  • The second miracle: Nineveh is saved from the destruction it deserves.
  • And yes, it's that second miracle that's the problem!
When God saves Nineveh, you see, Jonah reveals the reason why he never wanted to go there:
[For] I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. -- Jonah 4:2, NIV
Jonah wanted Nineveh to burn, in other words; he wanted its people to be lost. In fact, Jonah would literally rather die -- literally! -- than give Nineveh a chance to be saved.

The biggest barrier to evangelism, in other words, isn't always distance, language, or the beliefs of the people we're trying to reach.

No, sometimes the biggest barrier to evangelism is the way we feel about the people we're trying to reach.

Just like Jonah, after all, there may be some people we don't want to be saved.

And just like Jonah, we may need some saving ourselves.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

This week's lesson (July 11-17): the unlikely missionary

You probably know someone like Naaman.

He's one of those people "who mean well" -- "whose heart's in the right place" . . .

But he's picked up some crazy ideas along the way.

This is a man, remember, who thinks you can't worship God without the right kind of dirt.

And yes, that made sense back home -- back in Aram.

So did his belief that kings spoke for the gods . . . that healings required elaborate exorcisms . . . that payment was due for blessings given . . . and that a certain "latitude" might be allowed for something that looked like idolatry to everyone else.

In short, Naaman's beliefs have been shaped by his background; his ideas have been influenced by the way he was brought up.

Yes, he's like those people in your family whom you love . . .
  • Even though they've picked up some funny ideas about politics.
  • Even though they've picked up some funny ideas about music.
  • Even though they've picked up some funny ideas about the role of raw vegetables in the sanctified life.
Mind you, some of our own ideas may seem just as odd. We all come to God with "baggage," after all; we've all been influenced by the world around us -- just like Naaman.

That's why we all know someone like Naaman.

We see him every time we look in the mirror.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

This week's lesson (July 4-10): Abraham, the first missionary

Abraham is a mystery.

When you read God's promise to "make [Abraham] into a great nation," after all, then you naturally assume that he must be a good man, a godly man, a man who deserves such a blessing.

Then Abraham's fear of Pharaoh leads him to hide behind his wife -- something no self-respecting nomad would ever do . . . and you're left wondering:
  • Is he greedy? Then how do you account for Abraham's generosity to Lot?
  • Is he a coward? Then how do you account for Abraham's rescue of Lot?
  • Maybe God didn't know just how bad Abraham could be? Then why does He repeat His blessing -- and not just once, but several times?
No, it's a puzzle . . . 
And not until Genesis 20:12 do things snap into focus: not until Abraham off-handedly reveals that his wife "is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother." You can't pretend this doesn't matter -- not after the story of Lot and his daughters. And with that revelation, you're left wondering:
  • Why would God bless this marriage with offspring?
  • How can God bless the offspring of this marriage?
  • And what kind of God would bless someone like Abraham -- someone who clearly doesn't doesn't deserve it?
In short, the story of Abraham is a mystery.
Grace always is.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

This week's lesson (June 27 - July 3): the missionary nature of God

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, "Where are you?" 
He answered . . .
-- Genesis 3:8-10, NIV
First, God went looking for them . . . 
"How long have they been hiding?" 
"Two days," yawned the angel. "You think they'd be good at it by now." 
"Are we going to bring them in?" 
"No," said the angel. "He says they know where to find us."
 "Should we go looking for them? 
"No, He wants them make the first move."
Next, God asked them a question.
He'd been planning this speech since Eternity began . . .  
Which made it all the more annoying that Adam and Eve were not listening. 
"And another thing . . . no, don't you roll your eyes at me, young lady -- not when I'm talking to you! No, no eye-rolling. No back-talk. And stop making faces at each other. Now as I was saying. . ."
And that led to a conversation.
"Anything in the mail?" asked Eve. 
"Bills . . . more bills . . . your copy of Better Homes & Gardens," said Adam. "Oh yes, and another invitation from God." 
"You mean, 'advertisement.' Let me guess: He wants us to go listen to Him." 
"Same as always -- He talks. We listen . . ." 
"He says He's right . . ." 
"And then we get to admit we're wrong -- interested?" 
"Never was before," said Eve. "Why should I be now?"  
That's the way God did it -- so what would evangelism look like if thou went and did likewise?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

This week's lesson (June 20-26): crucified and risen

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish things behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. -- I Corinthians 13:9-12, NIV
Seeing is not believing . . .

Not at first, at any rate.

Notice what happens, for instance, when people learn that Christ rose from the dead:
  • "When [the women] came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others . . . but they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense." -- Luke 24:11, NIV
  •  "Peter, however, got up and ran to to the tomb. Being over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened." -- Luke 24:12, NIV
  • "Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emma's, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him." -- Luke 24:13-16, NIV
  • "While [the disciples] were still talking about [the report of Christ's appearance on the road to Emma's], Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, 'Peace be with you.' They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost." -- Luke 24:36-37, NIV
  • "When [Christ] had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement . . ." -- Luke 24:40-41, NIV
In fact, it is not until Christ eats with with his followers, leads them to Bethany, and ascends into heaven that we read how the disciples "worship him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy." -- Luke 24:50-52, NIV
In short, it took a long time for their feelings to catch up with the facts.
Still does.
Even after 2,000 years.

Monday, June 15, 2015

This week's lesson (June 13-19): Jesus in Jerusalem

As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name -- for men will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm -- when he comes and prays toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the people of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name" -- I Kings 8:41-43, NIV.
TO: High Council - Department of Pilgrim Services
FROM: HCDPS - Office of Vendor Relations
RE: Spring forecast
More bad news from our suppliers; three of our biggest dropped out just this week -- and right now, I've got firm delivery dates on only a third of the lambs we'll need for the spring festival. What's going on?

TO: HCDPS - Office of Vendor Relations
FROM: High Council - Department of Vendor Relations
RE: Spring forecast
Word is that "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named" is starting his own marketplace.

FROM: HCDPS - Office of Vendor Relations
TO: High Council - Department of Pilgrim Services
RE: Spring forecast rumors (ha!)
I've heard that too -- but it makes no sense. To be sure, he's been feuding with the Council for years. And yes, anything that hurts the Council's marketplace hurts the Council. But where's he going to put a new marketplace? I mean, we've locked up all the leases on the Mount of Olives!

FROM: Office of the High Priest - PR and Marketing
"New Resources for Pilgrims"
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
The High Priest is pleased to announce a new, one-stop resource shop for pilgrim to the Temple in Jerusalem. Conveniently located next to the Court of the Israelites, it will be located in the under-utilized Court of the Gentiles . . .

FROM: Office of the High Priest - legal counsel
TO: Office of the High Priest - PR & Marketing
RE: more from ARG
I'm forwarding the latest letter we've received from the so-called Alliance of Righteous Gentiles. As you can see, it's more of the same -- "blah, blah, blah . . . House of Prayer for all nations . . . blah, blah, blah." Please deal with this the way you always do.

FROM: Office of the High Priest - PR and Marketing
"Solid Support for Marketplace by God's People"
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
"It's so convenient" -- that's the verdict on the new marketplace. Located right next door to the Court of the Israelites, the marketplace is especially popular with family groups from out-of-town who can purchase what they need, then step directly into the area reserved for their worship . . .

TO: High Council - Department of Pilgrim Services
FROM: HCDPS - Office of Vendor Relations
RE: marketplace ruckus
Looks like a black-eye for "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named" -- his marketplace is in shambles!

TO: HCDPS - Office of Vendor Relations
FROM: High Council - Department of Pilgrim Services
RE: marketplace ruckus 
The enemy of our enemy is not always our friend. This Galilean is supposed to be the "King of the Jews," after all -- so why does he clear out a space in the Temple for the Gentiles?

Sunday, June 07, 2015

This week's lesson (June 6-12): the Kingdom of God

People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it" -- Luke 18:15-17, NIV.
Anyone who thinks children are "innocent" and trusting" has never tried to feed them broccoli.

And they've definitely never told a child it's their bed-time.

Or warned them to stop bothering the cat.

No, Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Blake may praise children for their "unspoiled nature -- but Jesus?

He knows full well that children don't count.

He knows they're not important -- not even to his disciples.

In short, Jesus knows they exemplify the people he's already blessed in his Sermon on the Plain:
  • "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 
  • "Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. 
  • "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
  • "Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for you, because great is your reward in heaven" -- Luke 6:20-23, NIV.
Or as we might say, "Blessed is the three-year-old who throws a temper-tantrum in the check-out line at your local grocery store -- yes, and blessed are the parents of that child when everyone gives them the look that clearly says, 'you are a bad parent' . . .

"For you are in need of a blessing."

"And God's blessing is for those who need it."

Sunday, May 31, 2015

This week's lesson (May 30-June 5): following Jesus in everyday life

Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your nick, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man.            -- Proverbs 3:3f, NIV.
"You must also be ready," said Jesus, "because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

"Yes, you are like the children whose parents gave them the job of mowing the lawn and weeding the yard and feeding the dog while the parents go into town for a day of shopping -- and it will be good for those children if their parents find them doing all these things when those parents return.

"But suppose those children says to themselves, 'Our parents delay their coming; indeed, they shall not be home again before it is night'  -- and straightaway they do text all their friends so that all those friends come over to the house, and they all do eat and drink and get drunk, and great is the noise thereof.

"I tell you the truth," said Jesus, "the parents of those children shall come home at a time when they are not expected, at an hour when it is most inconvenient, and there shall be weeping and wailing and a great gnashing of teeth.

"For you have been trusted much," said Jesus. "That is why much is now expected of you."

Sunday, May 24, 2015

This week's lesson (May 23-29): Jesus, the master teacher

This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take of hold . . . for the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me. -- Isaiah 44:24 - 45:4, NIV
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What is written in the Law?" Jesus replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' "

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply, Jesus said: "A man was teaching in a Christian school, and he did repeatedly abuse one of his students -- and when the child's parents heard of this, they did go unto their pastor, and the pastor did go unto the teacher, and he did counsel the teacher, and did pray with the teacher, so that the teacher did promise that nothing like this would ever happen again.

"But the teacher continued to abuse that student -- and many others besides . . . until the outcry of the children and their parents did reach the Superintendent of Christian Education. And the Superintendent of Christian Education did go unto that teacher, and did counsel that teacher, and did pray with that teacher. And when the teacher did promise that nothing like this would ever happen again, the Superintendent of Christian Education transferred that teacher to another school, so that he could "get a fresh start."

"But there arose a lawyer -- a lawyer who was not a member of that church or any other . . . and on behalf of the children and their parents, the lawyer filed a series of lawsuits against the teacher, and the school, and the pastor, and the church, and the Superintendent of Christian Education, and many others besides.

"And the lawyer did win those lawsuits."

"And the lawyer did collect millions upon millions of dollars in damages from those lawsuits"

"And because of those lawsuits, that teacher was fired -- fired, jailed, and not allowed to teach again . . . and policies were put in place to make sure that nothing like this would ever happen again to children (or if it did happen, then it would not be allowed to continue).

"So tell me," said Jesus, "which of the three do you think was a neighbor to the children who were harmed by this teacher: the pastor, the Superintendent of Christian Education, or the lawyer?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who did stop the abuse."

And Jesus said, "Go and do likewise."

Sunday, May 17, 2015

This week's lesson (May 16-22): the mission of Jesus

. . . This is what the Sovereign LORD says: "I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again. They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God." -- Ezekiel 11:17-20, NIV
And behold . . . 
A shepherd did have a hundred sheep, but one of them was lost. So he did lay out money for a team of professional sheep search-and-rescue personnel, and they did find the sheep that was lost, and they did bring it back to the shepherd, and great was the rejoicing of one and all . . . but soon after that, the shepherd lost it again.

And behold . . . 
A woman had ten silver coins, but lost one inside her house. So she did go outside the house, and did search carefully for it . . . and when people asked her why she did search outside the house for the coin when she had lost it inside, she did answer them and say, "The light is better here; that is why I would rather search outside than in."

And behold . . . 
There was a man who had two sons, the younger of whom did ask for his share of the estate, did receive it, and did leave for a far-off country. But when his neighbors asked the man if he was troubled by the absence of his younger son, he did speak unto them and say, "A fifty-percent retention rate is well-above average -- and besides, I'm sure he will be back when he has children."

Monday, May 11, 2015

This week's lesson (May 9-15): Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and prayer

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. -- Romans 8:26f, NIV
Prayer is not magic . . .

More's the pity.

Magic promises results, after all -- yes, all you need to do is say the right words in the proper way, and you will get what you want.
  • It's not like you're actually talking with someone, in other words.
  • There's none of the uncertainty that comes from dealing with a real person. 
  • No, magical words are like coins in a vending machine: use the right ones, and good things will happen. 
Unfortunately, God has resisted all our attempts to treat prayer this way. 
  • Use ancient languages (such as Hebrew, Latin, or Jacobean English)? No luck.
  • Use special formulae (such as Asking, Believing, and Claiming God's promises)? No luck.
  •  Recycle successful prayers of the past (such as the one by Jabez)? Good luck with that!
No, despite our best efforts, prayer remains nothing more than a conversation with God -- a God who blesses us, but who stubbornly refuses to obey our commands.

In short, prayer demands that we treat God as a person -- not as a thing to be manipulated, but as a person to be loved.

And where's the magic in that?

Sunday, May 03, 2015

This week's lesson (May 2-8): women in the ministry of Jesus

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." 
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. -- Genesis 1:26f, NIV
Let us now praise uppity women.

Consider the Canaanite woman who would not take "no" for an answer . . .

(And yes, I know her story's in Matthew 15:21ff, and not in the Gospel of Luke, but cut me some slack, okay?)

But consider the nameless woman who's daughter needs to be healed -- but whose request for that healing is met with an indifference that borders on cruelty.
  • "Send her away," say Christ's disciples, "for she keeps crying out after us."
  • "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel," Jesus tells her.
  • And when she persists, Jesus tells her that, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."
So there she is: ignored, insulted, denied . . .

And if she had been the kind of sweet, demure, and submissive woman who "knows her place," then that would have been the end of this story. Yes, the story would have ended with:
  • Her daughter not healed.
  • The disciples unchallenged.
  • And its readers puzzled (to say the least) by Christ's uncharacteristic action.
But the story does not end there.

No, like the importunate widow of Luke 181ff, she demands justice -- and she does so with the subversive humor that oppressed people have always used as a weapon.

"I may be a dog," she says, "but even puppies get crumbs from the table."

And with that, Jesus commends her faith, grants her request, and gives this story a happy ending . . .

But there's a happy ending, notice, only because this woman did not "know her place."

No, she was definitely "uppity."

So let us praise her and her sisters -- yes, let us praise the women who marched and prayed, who argued and wrote, who filed complaints with the EEOC and who majored in Theology when everybody told them they'd never get a job as a pastor . . .

Yes, let us now honor uppity women.

For just like this woman, they make God look better.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

This week's lesson (April 25 - May 1): Christ as lord of the Sabbath

When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the LORD said to Joshua, "Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan from right where the priests stood and to carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight." 
So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, "Go over before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, 'What do these stones mean?' tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever." -- Joshua 4:1-7, NIV.
You don't usually answer a legal question with, "Once upon a time."

But that's what Jesus does in Luke 6:1-5.

The Pharisees, remember, want to know why Christ's followers "are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?"

Jesus responds with a anecdote about David.

They want to discuss the rules that tell us how to follow God, in other words: the halakha.

Jesus replies with a story about someone who follows God -- about something we might call haggadah.

Like so many debates today, in other words -- debates about divorce, debates about women's ordination, debates about LGBT issues . . . it would seem that halakha is not enough; we also need haggadah.

And yes, rules are important. God's law is important. Stories alone are not enough.

But as we discuss the Sabbath (or divorce, or women's ordination, or LGBT issues), we need to make sure that we honor the stories people bring to the discussion -- stories about the way those issues have played out in their lives.

To be sure, it's easy to treat these things as "legal issues."

But even legal issues need some "testimony."

Monday, April 20, 2015

This week's lesson (April 18-24): the call to discipleship

Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. Your clothes did not wear out and your feed did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD you God disciplines you. -- Deuteronomy 8:2-5, NIV
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Unfortunately, the reverse is also true.

You can't just pick up and go, after all. No, there are bags to pack. Tickets to buy. Rooms to reserve, routes to research, and emergency back-up plans to prepare for those unexpected events that we try to expect anyway.

All of which takes time.

All of which takes effort.

All of which Jesus avoid when he sends out his followers without "a purse or bag or sandals" (Luke 10:4, NIV).

And no, he's not saying that planning isn't important -- it is, especially when you're dealing with children.

But Christ is dealing with adults:
  • Adults he's trained.
  • Adults he's given a clear mission statement.
  • Adults who need to find out just how far they can go with nothing but their wits, their training,  and God's spirit to guide.
They're like students in one of those wilderness survival courses, in other words -- the kind where they take you into the woods for your final exam, then make you find your way home with nothing but a knife, a book of matches, and a brown paper bag.

And like those students (or like anyone whose luggage has been lost by an airline), they're going to find out that you can get by with a lot less than you ever thought you could.

So don't be surprised if Jesus does the same to you.

No, don't be surprised if he asks you to jump right into a situation without all the planning and preparation you'd like to have.

Nothing wrong with planning and preparation, mind you.

But sometimes, you need to start with that first step.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

This week's lesson (April 11-17): Who is Jesus Christ?

We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. -- 2 Peter 1:16-18, NIV
They say that "seeing is believing."

Obviously, they've never met some believers.

When it comes to special effects, after all, few things beat the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36).
  • There's the same "voice from the sky" you heard at Christ's baptism.
  • There's the same announcement that Christ is God's son.
  • But this time, you also get Moses AND Elijah AND Christ himself lit up "like a flash of lightning."
All of which should have made an impression; all of which should have reinforced God's command to "Listen up!"
Unfortunately, it doesn't . . . and they don't. 
No, Peter has already dismissed Christ's prediction of suffering and death (Matthew 16:22, and Mark 8:32) -- and when Jesus repeats it after the Transfiguration, his disciples still don't believe (Luke 9:45).
When it comes to Jesus, in other words, his followers hear what they want to hear -- and if they don't want to hear something, then no amount of signs, wonders, miracles, and heavenly fireworks can make them do otherwise.
All of which suggests that seeing isn't always believing.
No, sometimes we need to believe before we can see.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

This week's lesson (April 4-10): baptism and the temptations

"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are -- yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." -- Hebrews 4:15f (NIV).
What would you do with a billion dollars?

Not enough?

Okay, we'll make it a trillion.

Understand the lure of unlimited wealth, after all, and you understand the quiz in Luke 4:1-13 . . .

And yes, it's an quiz; the word we translate as "temptation" ("peirasmos") carries with it the idea of an assay, an exam, an attempt to figure out just exactly what's going on around here.

(Come to think of it, "Satan" was originally a title given the Persian officials who were the equivalent of our "Inspectors-General" or "auditors.")

To borrow an image from Kierkegaard, in other words, the devil shows up in a cheap, brown suit . . . opens his battered briefcase . . . pulls out a notebook and a #2 pencil . . . then proceeds to ask Jesus "a few, simple questions -- just for the record."
  • "If you are the Son of God, then you can do anything you want -- am I right?"
  • "If you are the Son of God, then you must be invulnerable to any harm -- isn't that correct?"
  • "And if you could be the most powerful person on this planet, then what would you do in order to be that person?"
In short, the temptations are a personality test; they're the devil's attempt to figure out just what Jesus is really like.
Does he have unlimited powers of his own?
Would he like unlimited powers of his own?
Or does he rely on God -- does he say, "Thy will be done"?
To be sure, you don't need to be the Son of God in order to take this test.
You don't even need a trillion dollars.
No, all it takes it what you've got today.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

This week's lesson (March 28 - April 3): the coming of Jesus

"[God] has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost 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, NIV
It's obvious that God never went to high school.

Just like any high school, after all, Luke's society is motivated by honor and shame -- a society in which you live and die by people's opinion.
  • That's why you surround themselves with a retinue -- with an entourage of people who make you look good.
  • That's why you avoid the vulgar -- the rabble who won't do you or your reputation any good.
  • And that's why you're scandalized that the angels' "good news" -- a phrase that usually refers to important news from the imperial court . . . but you're scandalized that high-status news like this is delivered to shepherds.
You see, shepherds don't count. They're not important -- as Garrison Keillor notes, they are the ancient equivalent of parking lot attendants. No, their work makes them ritually unclean; their reputation as thieves makes them unwelcome in polite society.

That's why they're not allowed to testify in court.
That's why some towns ban them altogether. 
That's why an angel appearing to a shepherd is absurd. It's ridiculous. It's like the head of the cheerleading squad going to the prom with a member of your high school Chess Club.
In short, it ain't going to happen . . . 
But it does.
Yes, God sends his angels to shepherds -- in effect, he takes his cafeteria tray to a table full of "losers," and asks if he can eat lunch with them.
Obviously, he doesn't know any better.
Or maybe . . . 
Maybe he just doesn't care?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

This week's lesson (March 21-27): women and wine

Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. -- Titus 2:3, NIV
"It's ridiculous to spend a whole Sabbath School lesson just talking about alcohol."
NO.  About one out of every six American adults has a drinking program; that's why alcohol-abuse is the third-leading cause of preventable death in this country, killing roughly 88,000 Americans every year -- in fact, it's responsible for roughly one-tenth of the deaths for working-age adults (ages 20-64 years). If that's not worth talking about, then what is?

"The Bible doesn't condemn alcohol -- just drunkenness."
SO WHAT? Roughly half the college students who drink are binge-drinking (i.e five or more drinks in two hours for men; four or more drinks in two hours for women) -- and as Baby Boomers age, they're taking their bad habits with them. What's more, perhaps a third of the senior citizens who drink may be putting their health at risk by doing so. Even if the Bible "only" condemns drunkenness, in other words, a lot of us still need to hear what it says.

"But they say moderate drinking is good for you."
MAYBE.  A recent British study suggests moderate drinking (i.e. no more than two drinks per day for men, and one drink per day for women) may benefit women over the age of 65 -- maybe . . . but there doesn't seem to be much evidence for health benefits to younger women, or to men of any age. Then too, even "moderate" drinking is too much for diabetics, pregnant or nursing women, people who've suffered Traumatic Brain Injury, anyone who's currently driving a car or operating heavy equipment . . .

"Americans are such Puritans when it comes to alcohol -- they don't have this problem in Europe."
HA! Actually, the Puritans drank like fish, downing the equivalent of three beers every day. As for Europe . . . back in 2007, one-in-three German adults binge-drank every day.  Britain's rate of binge-drinking is almost double that of this country.  And even in France this is a growing problem -- in fact, one-fifth of French 17-year-olds are now getting drunk at least three times a month.

"But talking about alcohol-abuse sounds so judgmental."
TRUE . . . but think of it as a family issue. Alcohol-abuse costs American families about $93 billion in lost wages and income every year -- more than the government spends on food stamps. And while the link between poverty and alcohol-abuse is complicated, it seems clear that, when alcohol-abuse becomes a problem, the poor don't have as much in the way of resources to make things better. If we really care about "the least of these," in other words, then maybe it's worth spending a Sabbath School lesson on this?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

This week's lesson (March 14-20): the humility of the wise

Do not be quick with your mouth,
do not be hasty in your heard to utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
and you are on earth,
so let your words be few.
     -- Ecclesiastes 5:2f (NIV)
Some things don't need to be said.

And some things shouldn't.

If you've ever listened to a small child tell a story, for instance, then you know what it means to suffer from waaaaay too much information.

I mean, you're not just going to hear about the cat that came to show-and-tell; no, you're going to hear all the gory details about where that cat sleeps . . . what it eats for breakfast . . . when it will come to school again . . . and how it set up it's retirement plan . . .

Kind of like some sermons.

There's a lot of gaps in the Bible, after all -- and lots of people trying to fill in those gaps. Yes, they try to answer all the questions that anyone might have about:
  • the first twelve-chapters of Genesis . . . 
  • or the first 30-years of Christ's life . . . 
  • or the precise sequence of events that will take place at the end of time.
And like that child with their story of the cat that came to show-and-tell, they can go on . . . and on . . . and on . . . and on . . . when you wish they'd just get to to the point.

Like the Bible gets to the point.
Which is why the Bible leaves out so much stuff we'd really like to know.
The Bible does not answer all our questions; it doesn't satisfy our curiosity about anything and everything we might like to know. No, as it says in Deuteronomy:
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.                                           -- Deuteronomy 29:29 (NIV)
That's why every believer should read the Bible with humility -- with the willingness to accept what it says, and to leave aside what it doesn't. 
In short, there's a lot of things the Bible doesn't need to say.
That's why there's some things we shouldn't.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

This week's lesson (March 7-13): living by faith

"Then [the king] will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you have me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' 
"Then they will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' 
"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' " -- Matthew 25:41-45 (NIV)
It's like going up a mountain.

Yes, you read the Book of Proverbs.

You take what you read, and put it into practice.

And like so many others who put these principles into practice -- like English Quakers, Brazilian Pentecostals, and members of the Salvation Army in Newfoundland . . . you manage to climb out of poverty.

So what do you do now?

Yes, do you stop, prepare an anchor, and get ready to belay the others who are making this climb?

Or do you cut them loose, and race to the top by yourself?

Talk to a sociologist such as Max Weber, after all, and you'll learn that Christian virtues such as sobriety, hard work, and thrift are exactly what you need to get ahead . . .

But listen to a preacher like John Wesley, and you're warned that "getting ahead" can lead you to neglect other virtues: virtues such as kindness, compassion, and generosity.

That's why the Bible continually reminds us that nobody climbs alone. No, we are all part of the same expedition -- rich and poor alike . . .

And as Jesus reminds us, no one is expendable; no, it's never safe to leave someone behind.

In short, be nice to people on your way up.

Otherwise, you might see them again . . .

On your way down.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

This week's lesson (February 28 - March 6): behind the mask


I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. -- III John 9f (NIV)
It's lonely at the top.

Fortunately, lonely people don't stay there very long.

That's because bright, hard-working, ambitious people soon discover their competitors are:
  • people who are not as bright, hard-working, and ambitious as themselves,
  • and people who are.
Naturally enough, members of the first group are treated as stepping-stones . . .

While members of the second are eliminated as threats.

So when those bright, hard-working, ambitious people achieve their inevitable triumph, it's no wonder they find themselves isolated . . . cut-off . . . surrounded by nothing but flunkies, doormats, and sycophants.

Naturally enough, this kind of isolation soon leads to mistakes.

Mistakes soon lead to failure.

And failure quickly opens the door for the next bright, hard-working, ambitious person who comes along.

That's why Proverbs 25-27 spends so much time talking about the biggest need of someone in power: the need to surround yourself with honest people who who can rejoice in your success . . .

But who aren't afraid to let you know when you could do better.

Yes, "as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17, NIV) -- and if you want to stay sharp, then you need to surround yourself with people who are just as sharp (or more so).

In short, it can be lonely at the top.

But if you want to stay there?

Make sure you aren't lonely.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

This week's lesson (February 21-27): words of truth

You were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." [But] if you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. -- Galatians 5:13 (NIV)
It's easy to believe that "too much is not enough."

We've all seen this happen with alcohol or drugs. Yes, we all know how addictive these things can be . . . and we all know how destructive those addictions can be.

But wine "when it sparkles in the cup" is not the only thing that can lead to excess.
  • So can the pursuit of power.
  • So can the pursuit of money.
  • And even the desire for justice can turn you into a vindictive monster.
That's why Proverbs urges us to set limits on the good things in our lives: on the pleasures of food, sleep, sex, fame, wealth, and power. It's not that these things are wrong in themselves -- in fact, each of them can be a great blessing.

But just because something is a blessing doesn't mean more of it would be an even greater blessing.

No, we need to know when "enough is enough," even for the good things in our lives.

That's because too much of a good thing . . .

Is still too much.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

This week's lesson (February 14-20): words of wisdom

[Jesus said to his disciples], "Every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old." -- Matthew 13:52 (NIV).
Think of as it as Twitter -- Twitter for people who don't have electricity.

Read the Book of Proverbs, after all, and you'll notice:
  • It has short, punchy sayings -- just like the stuff you read on Twitter.
  • It has a definite attitude -- again, just like the stuff you read on Twitter.
  • But just like the stuff on Twitter, there's always more that could be said.
Take Proverbs 22:6 for instance: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it."

As a rule of thumb?

Great.

As a call to action?

Terrific.

As the definitive word on this subject -- an iron-clad promise that always comes true?

Well . . . the Bible itself has more to say about this.

A lot more.

But a proverb such as this is gives you a good place to start the conversation (even if it doesn't always finish it); it tells you how to take the first step (even if it doesn't tell you what the next step should be).

In short, Proverbs says a lot.

But just like Twitter, it can only say so much.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

This week's lesson (February 7-13): dealing with fights

But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips . . . [but] as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. -- Colossians 3:8, 12-15 (NIV)
I'm always amazed by just how fast a church fight can turn "spiritual."

I mean, one minute you're happily fussing about the exact shade of puce the new church carpet should be . . .

And the next, you're being told that anyone who doesn't like mauve must be one of those Muggletonian heretics condemned by the 1932 Bible Conference (or something like that).

To be sure, I know that some people are just plain cantankerous.

What's more, I know the Church has its share of people who are just plain cantankerous.

That's why I'm not surprised when a discussion about the new church carpet turn into a donnybrook -- no, I expect the occasional church fight.

But fights about privilege and power don't stop being fights about privilege and power when we dress them up in spiritual language . . .

And cantankerous people who use spiritual language are no less cantankerous than the people who don't.

That's why Proverbs reminds us that the mark of a Godly person is not their bad-temper -- and the sign of God's Spirit is not our inability to get along with others.

No, "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22f, NIV).

Just because it's a church fight, in other words, doesn't necessarily mean it's "spiritual." Sometimes, as a matter of fact, a fight about a carpet is nothing more than a fight about a carpet.

And that's why, sometimes, you just need to leave God out of it.