Monday, December 31, 2007

One more reason I love this country

A 29-year-old man from Wenatchee, Washington man drove his car into a light pole last Thursday night. Asked by the police why he'd done this, the man blamed a pterodactyl.

(Click on the title of this post for the link.)

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Thou shalt not covet another church -- but if thou does . . .

Over the years, I've had a number of friends ask why they don't get more respect in this conference.

"Maybe you're getting all the respect you deserve?" I'll say.

"Then why do I get all kinds of calls to pastor big churches in other conferences?" they'll reply. "It's only in this conference I get calls to small or middling-size churches -- the kind of churches I'm already pastoring. So why does everybody else see all kinds of potential in me that they don't see here in Oregon?"

It's a good question -- though it's not an easy one to answer. The Office Brethren have never made it clear just exactly what criteria they use in selecting pastors. Then too, pastors are not supposed to admit they've ever lusted after a bigger church.

(And for the record: I'm happy with the church I'm pastoring now. I've never been tempted to pastor another church. I've never wanted to pastor a bigger church. And I know for a fact that the moon is made of green cheese.)

But with another pastors' meeting coming up soon, I'm sure to get asked this question again -- so here's my best answer:

Reason #1: Most calls in this conference are for small to middling churches because most of the churches in this conference are small to middling churches. There are roughly 140 churches in the Oregon Conference. Roughly a third have an average attendance between 100 and 200; only 10% have an average attendance greater than that. If you want to pastor a big church in Oregon, in other words, the odds are against you.

Reason #2: Most calls to big churches will be to churches outside this conference because most big churches are outside this conference. I'm too lazy to do a similar analysis of church sizes in other conferences -- but even if the conferences in this division only average five big churches each (i.e. churches with more than 200 in attendance) . . . well, even that means there's at least twenty big churches out there for every one here in Oregon.

Reason #3: Most calls to big churches go to pastors who aren't so well known as you. I'm moving out on a limb here -- but over the years, I've seen how one strong objection by anyone is usually enough to get you thrown off the list of candidates for a big church pastorate. Now the more people who know you, the more likely it is that somebody will take exception to you . . . which is another way of saying that people from out of conference have an built-in advantage: nobody local knows them well enough to dislike them, and nobody who dislikes them is local.

Okay, so does all this mean you have absolutely no hope of pastoring a big church in this conference?

Yes, it does -- so stop your complaining and learn to enjoy the church you have.

But if you're still hankering after a bigger church, then let me suggest four things -- any one of which might help:
  1. Baptize a lot of people (i.e. more than twenty in a year).
  2. Serve as an associate pastor in a big church.
  3. Get a doctorate in ministry (though this will probably be more helpful in getting calls outside this conference).
  4. Take that call to the big church in another conference . . . then hope something similar opens up here in Oregon, ten to twenty years from now.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Thoughts on this week's Sabbath School lesson: Blessed is Jesus

As we come to the end of this quarter's lessons, you might want to review the Beatitudes (i.e. Matthew 5:1-12 and Luke 6:20-23).

To be sure, we often view them as a burden -- as a long list of commands that would be impossible to keep in the best of times, much less in the face of troubles. ("Gotta be meek. Gotta be humble. Gotta be pure in heart.")

Yet as John Calvin pointed out, there is really only one command in the Beatitudes: the command to "rejoice and be glad!"

That is because the Beatitudes are best read as a survival manual -- as a guide that shows us three ways to endure suffering.

First, they list the tools that help us cope with adversity: meekness, humility, mercy, purity, and all the rest.

Second, they list the rewards that follow adversity -- rewards summed up in Christ's phrase, "the kingdom of heaven," then explained in terms of "finding comfort," "seeing God," and "being shown mercy."

Third, they describe the One who endured adversity -- both in terms of his character (i.e. humble, meek, and pure in heart), and his reward (i.e. the kingdom of heaven).

In short, the Beatitudes are:
  • ethical ("This is what we should do now!")
  • apocalyptic ("This is what God will do in the future!")
  • and salvific ("That is what Christ has done in the past!")
What more do you need to rejoice?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The BOB Awards

Here are this year's BOB Awards -- the best books I read in 2007. (And yes, the judge's decisions are final):

The Tears of a Clown Award goes to Ron Power's Mark Twain: a life -- it was funny. It was sad. And it left me wondering what Twain would have been like if he'd fulfilled his lifelong dream and become a Baptist preacher.

The Guilty Pleasures Award goes to all seven volumes of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, which I knocked off in a month thanks to a bad head cold. And maybe it's the cough syrup talking here, but how could anyone read her books and come away thinking that magic is a good thing? It doesn't make you smart, happy, wealthy, or popular -- and while the wizards and witches of Rowling's books may have plumbed the mysteries of time and space, not a single, solitary one of them seem to have heard of Lasik eye surgery (or even contact lenses).

The "Aha! So That's What's Wrong!" Award goes to J. Stewart Black and Hal Gregersen's thin, little book, Leading Strategic Change. Read it, and you'll never view a pastors' meeting in the same way again.

The Best Biblical Commentary for Pastors Who Are Doing a Long Preaching Series on the Book of Acts Award goes to . . . whoa! It's a four-way tie!
  1. John Stott's The Message of Acts in the Bible Speaks Today series is great for background and structure.
  2. William Willimon's Acts in the Interpretation series shows you what a great preacher can do if he's not bound too closely by the text.
  3. Jaroslav Pelikan's Acts in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible is the go-to book for patristics.
  4. And while nobody is going to give Ajith Fernando a prize for profundity, his commentary on Acts in the NIV Application Commentary series comes from the perspective of someone who actually does the kind of stuff this book talks about.
The "Definitely Need to Read This Book Again" Award goes to Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Read it the first time, and it's an alternate-history science-fiction novel about a Jewish homeland in Alaska. Read it again, and it's a bitter commentary on the State of Israel's relations with Palestinians and the USA. Read it another time, and it retells the story of Christ's life in a whole new way.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The first Christmas in Oregon

Nobody knows who celebrated the first Christmas in Oregon. I suspect it was the crew of a fur-trading ship -- or possibly a shipwrecked sailor from the Manila galleon that ran aground near Nehalem around 1640 or so.

But the first recorded Christmas goes back to 1805 -- back when the Lewis & Clark Expedition spent a hungry, soggy, and thoroughly uncomfortable winter at their new-built Fort Clatsop. William Clark wrote in his journal for that day:
at day light morning we we[re] awoke by the discharge of the fire arm of all our party & a Selute, Shoute and a Song which the whole party joined in under our windows, after which they retired to their rooms were Chearfull all the morning -- after breakfast we divided our Tobacco which amounted to 12 carrots one half of which we gave to the men of the party who used tobacco, and to those who doe not use it we make a present of a handkerchief. The Indians leave us in the evening all the party Snugly fixed in their huts.
  • I received a present of Capt. L. a fleece hosrie Shirt Draws and Socks,
  • a pr. mockersons of Whitehouse,
  • a Small Indian basket of Gutherich,
  • two dozen white weazils tails of the Indian woman [Sacagawea],
  • and some black root of the Indians before their departure . . .
we would have Spent this day the nativity of Christ in feasting had we any thing either to raise our Sperits or even gratify our appetites, our Diner concisted of pore Elk, So much Spoiled that we eate it thro' mear necessity, Some Spoiled pounded fish and a fiew roots.
Private Joseph Whitehouse was more sanguine (and a better speller):
We had no ardent spirit of any kind among us; but are mostly in good health, A blessing, which we esteem more than all the luxuries this life can afford, and the party are all thankful to the Supreme Being, for his goodness towards us. hoping he will preserve us in the same, & enable us to return to the United States again in safety.
And that is my Christmas wish for you -- that you may find time this day for "a Selute, Shoute and a Song" . . . and that God may preserve you and bring you safely home (wherever that home may be).

Monday, December 24, 2007

And "Figgy Pudding" turns out to have been the alias of a notorious London gangster, back in the time of Queen Victoria.

For the past several years, I have been urging our school to run a "Fruitcake Protection Racket," i.e. give us $10 and we will NOT sell you a fruitcake -- and if you give us $25, then we will NOT sell you three fruitcakes. (I've also suggested we sell "un-tickets" to the Christmas Program . . . but let it go, let it pass.)

Anyway, you can read the New York Times history of the fruitcake just by clicking on the title of this post.

Believing is seeing

Good article on Toronto's National Post that uses belief (or the lack thereof) in the Virgin Birth as a springboard to discuss the nature of faith.
. . . belief acts like a set of headlights to guide us through a foggy universe that "is far more complicated than we are smart." . . . [That is why faith is necessary,] because there will never be a time when we know everything.
(Click on the title of this post to link with the article.)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Eleven things I've learned in ten years

Today marks the 10th anniversary of my stay here in Lincoln City. Lessons learned include:
  1. Funerals always come in batches.
  2. If you can't be right, at least try to be kind.
  3. Nothing is more difficult to staff than children's Sabbath School classes -- and nothing is more important.
  4. There's always somebody who doesn't get the word.
  5. The more they know about your church's finances, the more they will give.
  6. People who eat together don't usually stay mad at each other.
  7. Take written minutes at every meeting -- not only will this save you a lot of arguments later on, but it will result in better decisions at the meeting itself.
  8. Problems that don't get solved don't go away.
  9. You need to preach that sermon to yourself before you preach it to others.
  10. There's never enough time to exercise, study, or pray; do it anyway.
  11. Things always look better in the morning.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Bet this is one "top ten" list that won't be on Letterman.

Doctors Without Borders (a.k.a Médecins Sans Frontières for all you Francophones out there) just released its list of the Ten Top Crises That Didn't Get Anywhere Near the Attention They Would Have Received If We Weren't All So Busy Smirking at Britney Spears. The list includes:
  • War refugees in Somalia face humanitarian crisis.
  • Drug-resistant tuberculosis spreads.
  • Conditions worsen in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
(Click on the title of this post for a link to the list.)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

No, last month's Business Meeting did not make the list.

Fortune magazine has just published its list of the "101 Dumbest Moments in Business for 2007." My favorite?
Disneyland announces plans to close the "It's a Small World" attraction to deepen its water channel after the ride's boats start getting stuck under loads of heavy passengers. Employees ask larger passengers to disembark - and compensate them with coupons for free food.
To link with the article, click on the title of this post -- you can always claim you're looking for sermon illustrations.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"Black helicopters" still didn't make the list.

Foreign Policy just came out with its list of the ten top foreign news stories that got overlooked in 2007; it includes items such as:
  • the US Air Force forms a "Cyberspace Command,"
  • the US Army deploys "killer robots,"
  • Dengue fever's on the move,
  • and the State of Israel loses support among young American Jews.
And if you want to know how long the US will be in Iraq, check out the US Navy's plans for the Persian Gulf.

(Click on the title of this post for the link to this article.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Happy, Shiny People

The emagazine GOOD just did a profile of Joel Osteen -- the smiling pastor who's turned the Prosperity Gospel into this country's largest church (not to mention a $13 million book deal AND a TV audience of 7 million).

And yes, it's pretty even-handed. On the one hand, it quotes fans like Jennifer Lee -- a Jewish agnostic who says:
"I look at him like a motivational speaker. I don’t think people get that until they see [him on television]. Yes, he’s a pastor and does it in a church, but the underlying [message] is just to live a good life, love yourself, and be happy. He pretty much doesn’t preach religion."
And then you have critics such as Ole Anthony. The founder and president of the Trinity Foundation -- a religious-fraud watchdog group -- Anthony says:
"The reason [Osteen is] so popular is because of the spiritual infantilism of America. Not just spiritual, the infantilism of American culture. And he feeds the Paris Hilton, Britney Spears culture. It’s all me. Benefit me. What can I do for me? How can I feel better? What can I do about me? How you can get the best of your life? It’s all me-centered."
(Click on the title of this post for the link.)

Time to dig out that Foghat t-shirt

Just got word from our church's Social Committee -- it's sponsoring a "1970s Retro-Bowling Night" this February.

Which brings to mind those long discussion my friends and I used to have back in high school -- back in the days when Happy Days was popular, and no school Spirit Week was complete without a "Nifty Fifties" dress-up day.

You know -- poodle skirts for the women; black leather jackets and an attitude for the men.

So we're watching all this happen, and we're speculating about the possibility that our children will actually feel some kind of nostalgia for the Seventies -- that the day will come when the sponsors of Spirit Week encourage students to dress up for a day in leisure suits, puka-shell bracelets, and the kind of hairdo that made Farrah Fawcett famous.

"Nah," we said. "It will never happen."

Monday, December 17, 2007

One more reason I love this country

Just picked up a free calendar for 2008 from one of my favorite restaurants -- it advertises "Portland's best authentic Mexican food: Burritos, Tacos, Tamales, Pastrami."

Friday, December 14, 2007

Thoughts on this week's Sabbath School lesson: putting muscle on your good intentions

Three predictions:

Prediction #1:
During the first few weeks of 2008, each and every gym and fitness center near you will all be full of people -- and each and every one of those people will all be working out. How do I know this? It's called "New Year's Resolutions," and I've been there, done that.

Prediction #2:
After those first few weeks have passed, each and every one of those gyms, spas, and fitness centers will empty out -- and almost each and every one of those people who bought themselves all those expensive memberships for the new year will mumble and change the subject if you bring up this subject. How do I know this? Once again, been there and done that.

Prediction #3:
If those people had just stuck with it for two weeks -- just two lousy weeks! -- then most of them would have gotten themselves into the habit of exercise . . . and yes, they probably would have stuck with it for most of the coming year.

How do I know this?

Because nothing worth doing comes easy. This is true of exercise; it is also true of playing the piano, training a dog, or even learning to appreciate anchovies on your pizza.

No, it takes time to build habits. It takes persistence to learn skills. And even though your good intentions got you through the door of that gym (or church, or rehab center) . . .

You still need to go back tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The gift that keeps on giving

Hurricane-force winds? No problem.

Massive flooding? No problem.

Roads closed, trees down, and power out for anywhere from three-days to a week? Hey, this is the Oregon Coast; we deal with this all the time.

But last Sunday's Christmas Potluck sent home at least eleven members of the Nestucca Church with food poisoning (and trust me -- you don't want to know what it was like). So once again, it's time to repeat what we already know, i.e. when it comes to church potlucks:
  • Keep hot foods hot.
  • Keep cold foods cold.
  • Make sure everybody washes their hands before they handle food.
  • Don't eat the potato salad. Or the stuffing. Or the pumpkin pie. (If I were you, as a matter of fact, I'd stick with the whole-wheat rolls and the olives.)
  • And remember: a shot of the vaccine for Hepatitis A makes a wonderful Christmas gift!

Friday, December 07, 2007

This week's Sabbath School lesson: "Friends may come and friends may go -- but enemies accumulate."

If you think it's tough to be meek, then consider the alternative.

Consider Ahithophel and Absalom.

Both had been wronged by David:
  • Ahithophel by a sin of commission – by David’s seduction of his grand-daughter Bathsheba, and the subsequent murder of Ahithophel’s son-in-law, Uriah the Hittite.
  • Absalom by a sin of omission – by David’s refusal to punish his son for the rape of Absalom’s sister, Tamar.

And both had their revenge against David – revenge in a revolt that was privately directed by Ahithophel, and publicly led by Absalom . . .

Both of whom thought David was getting exactly what he deserved.

But by the time this revolt is over, we’ve lost all sympathy for these two conspirators. Maybe it’s the way they nurse their outrage through years of careful planning. Maybe it’s the way their outrage leads to outrages of their own. Or maybe it’s the fact that David does not respond to their anger with anger of his own.

Instead, David forgives his son. David tries to protect his son. And much to the disgust of Joab and the shame of his men, David is impolitic enough to mourn the loss of his son – the same son who did his best to kill David . . .

In a righteous cause.

No, it is not easy to be meek. It is not easy to forgive. It is not easy to let a grudge die when we would much rather plot our revenge.

But if you want to know where that road leads, then think of Ahithophel and Absalom: two men who did a terrible wrong to others.

And all because they’d been wronged themselves.

Actually, I'm not sure it has much to do with the talents required to build and run a small church.

So . . . what kind of pastor were you trained to be?

That's the question I'm currently working through, thanks to a recent article in The New Yorker. Over the past few years, it's been working hard to explain Evangelical Christianity to its readers. The result can be an overly-earnest statement-of-the-obvious ("They read from a book called The Bible, and talk to God in a ritual known to them as prayer"), but in a recent article on a megachurch in New England, it dropped this bombshell:
Scott Thumma, at the Hartford Institute, says that megachurch pastors need to have a very different set of skills than those required of small-church pastors. According to his data, a third of all megachurch pastors do not have seminary degrees; and in younger churches the less formal religious training a pastor has, the higher the growth rate of his church is likely to be.

Thumma thinks there are two reasons for this. First, pastors without seminary training are less removed from secular life, and less liable to speak "churchese." Second, and just as important, religious training has nothing to do with the entrepreneurial and managerial talents required to build and run a very large church.
Which brings me back to my question. When I was in seminary (lo, these many years ago), the assumption was:
  • If you were smart, you'd end up as a college professor.
  • If you were sincere, you'd end up as an evangelist.
  • If you were ambitious, you'd end up in a conference office.
But pastoring a church was mainly for "none of the above."

Has this changed? Should it change? And meanwhile, where do we learn to be good pastors?

(The article is not yet available on-line -- but you can click on the title of this post for a slide-show about that megachurch in New England.)