Thursday, January 29, 2009

This week's lesson: inspiration

The question of inspiration is not one of sources so much as trust.

When it comes to sources of knowledge, after all, Augustine of Hippo points out three options:
  • reason,
  • personal experience,
  • and the testimony of others.
As we seek a knowledge of God, for instance, philosophers use reason, mystics crave experience, and the rest of us rely on Scripture.

And no, there's nothing wrong with looking for answers in a book. If I want to learn about about Thomas Jefferson, after all, I will go to the writings of those who knew him. To be sure, I must evaluate their testimony in light of both reason and experience; what's more, reason and experience may may suggest new ways to evaluate eyewitness accounts. (Think of the help archeology and DNA testing now provide Jefferson's biographers.) But ultimately, my knowledge of America's third President will come down to three questions:
  • What are the documents?
  • What do they say?
  • How much do I trust them?
Now the Bible is a collection of documents, all of which claim a knowledge of God. Some seem to have gained this knowledge through reason; think of books such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Others result from personal experience -- books such as Isaiah and the Revelation. And documents such as Samuel and Luke obviously result from their authors' study of still other documents.

Different books; different methods of composition.

But all these books are by authors who claim some knowledge of God, no matter how that knowledge may have been obtained.

In short, they all claim to be inspired, regardless of how they came to be written.

That's why the question you need to discuss with your class is not one of how God inspires Scripture. (The answer is: "Any way He wants.")

No, the question is how much we should trust it!

Answer that question, and I'll tell you what your doctrine of inspiration really is.

If you have a very "high" view of inspiration, for instance, you'll trust the Bible a lot -- and this includes giving it the benefit of the doubt when reason or experience raise questions. Even when it looks as though crime does pay, for instance, you will still believe "thou shalt not steal." And no matter what the archeologists say, you'll always believe there was some kind of Exodus.

If you have a relatively "low" view of inspiration, however, you'll generally trust it only when you have some other reason to do so -- when the experts concur that theft is wrong, for instance, or the Exodus really did take place.

And if you say you have a high view of inspiration -- that you believe every word the Bible was dictated by God and spell-checked by a band of angels -- but you continually ignore its relevance to your life . . .

Then you might think the Bible is inspired.

But it certainly doesn't seem to be inspiring you!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

MJZ for Conference President!

A tip of the hat to Mary Jane Zollbrecht at the Conference office -- she gets things done!

My most recent example of this: I needed some copies of this year's Conference directory, so I tried two other departments. Result: I couldn't even get them to answer my emails. Tried MJZ -- and the directories were in the mail that same afternoon.

Way to go!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Just so you know . . .

The idea that everybody has a guardian angel was first taught by Jerome.

-- from "Messengers in the Modern World" in the 18 December 2008 issue of The Economist.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Discussion: 18-minutes of fame

  • It stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design.
  • It's the name of an annual conference in California that brings together leaders in those three field.
  • It's a collection of 200, 18-minutes videos by the speakers at that conference -- everyone from Jane Goodall to Richard Branson.
You can watch the videos at TED -- but it would be even more fun to come up with our own version.

So . . . if you could ask any living Adventist to speak for 18-minutes and have their presentation posted on the Web, then who would you ask and why?

And if you could speak for 18-minutes to a group like this, what would you say and why?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Adventist evangelism: ask an expert.

Want pastors to get excited about evangelism?

Treat us like experts.

That's one of the ideas I picked up from Atul Gawande's Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance. When it comes to washing hands, you see, medical staff know they should do it, but don't do it as much as they should. (Sound familiar?)

And when hospitals brings in consultants to nag, cajole, and explain why everyone should wash their hands more often, medical staff smile, nod . . . and keep on doing what they've been doing all along. (Sound familiar?)

Then one hospital tried something different: instead of bringing in experts, it asked the staff members themselves how to encourage hand-washing -- and then it took those ideas and put them to work. Result? More hand-washing!

So here's my idea: let's try the same thing with pastors.
  • Let's assume we really do want to do evangelism.
  • Let's assume we have some pretty good ideas on how to make evangelism happen.
  • And while we're at it, let's assume that we also have some pretty good ideas on why there isn't more evangelism taking place right now.
So put us in a room. Ask us about evangelism. And be prepared to spend the money needed to act on our ideas.

To be sure, it's easier to ignore local pastors than some high-priced expert who's been flown in at great expense.

And maybe that "expert" will have better ideas.


But just because we work here doesn't mean we're stupid.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

This week's lesson: the spirit of prophecy

On the face of it, this week's lesson should be pretty simple:

Major premise: God's people have "the testimony of Jesus" (Revelation 12:17).

Minor premise: "The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Revelation 19:10).

Conclusion: God's people will have "the spirit of prophecy" -- and since this gift was manifest in the work of Ellen White, that is just one more sign that we are God's people.

So far, so good -- and given the fact that many of our early critics were Calvinists, this would have been a handy way to refute their belief in "the cessation of signs."

Unfortunately, the members of your Sabbath School class will probably find a way to complicate things, asking questions such as:
  • "Is the 'testimony of Jesus' the truth we have about Jesus, or is it our faithfulness in proclaiming that truth?" (Hard to say -- you'll find good commentaries on both sides of this question.)
  • "Do Revelation 12:17 and 19:10 mean that any reference to 'the testimony of Jesus' is just another way of talking about the gift of prophecy, or do these verses mean that prophecy testifies about Jesus?" (I suspect the later -- especially when you note the parallels between these texts and Revelations 1:2, 14:12, and 20:4).
  • "How does the ministry of a woman who's been dead for 93-years prove that we are still God's people? Shouldn't there be another prophet? Could there be another prophet?" (Perhaps -- though the track record on this question hasn't been so good.)
In short, this could be an "interesting" lesson!

Some suggestions:
  1. Remember the promise of a "remnant" -- a promise that God will always have people who love and follow Him. Given the way we foul up, that's a powerful promise.
  2. Remember God's promise to be with His church, even to the end of time. Whatever guidance we need, in other words, He will provide as He sees fit.
  3. Remember that the clearest way to identify God's people is our obedience to His command that we love each other (John 13:35). And yes, this includes the way we treat each other in a Sabbath School class. As Ellen White noted:
It is not earthly rank, nor birth, nor nationality, nor religious privilege, which proves that we are members of the family of God; it is love, a love that embraces all humanity (Ellen White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, 75, emphasis supplied).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Four views on Adventist evangelism

Over the years, I've noticed that discussions about Adventist evangelism tend to be:
  • long,
  • heated,
  • and predicable.
In the interests of saving time, I've boiled down most of the arguments into four views. Here they are:

"The only thing wrong with traditional, four-week evangelistic series is that we don't do enough of them. Nothing else is as effective -- and yes, that's also true of those mass-mailings some people call "lurid" and "sensationalistic." Just because they make our people uneasy doesn't mean they don't work . . . and they do work! They work because people are interested in prophecy."

"I believe in evangelism -- but I'd like to see us try a broader approach than we do now: maybe a combination of small groups, special-interest seminars, one-day events And yes, a four-week evangelistic series could be part of that mix . . . but only if we can find some brochures that don't splatter people with the beasts of Revelation!"

"I'm really uncomfortable with the whole idea of telling other people what to believe -- especially when we have so many problems in our own church that need to be addressed. First, let's get our own act together. Next, let's find a way to address the needs of our community. And if that bring in people, then well and good."

"Let's build relationships with the people around us -- through worship, service, nurture, and even just "hanging out." Only when they feel they belong will they care what we believe . . . and only through contact with believers will they learn how to behave."

  1. Which of these four best expresses your own view?
  2. Which of these four best expresses the view of your church's leadership?
  3. Which of these four have you actually tried?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Just so you know . . .

Percentage of songs in 1996 and 1997 that referred to alcohol:
  • Rap: 47%
  • Country-Western: 13%
  • Heavy metal: 4%
Source: Iain Gately, Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol (2008), page 483.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

This week's lesson: the continuing gift of God's Spirit

This week's lesson is one in which you will continually be saying, "Yes but."

Yes, we believe God's Spirit still inspires "miraculous gifts" such as prophecy, tongues, and healing . . .
And no, it's not just modern skeptics who doubt this -- John Calvin taught that such gifts ended with the close of the apostolic age. That's why many Evangelicals reject out of hand the idea that Ellen White could be a prophet . . .

And that's why a Baptist pastor here in Lincoln City -- one who suffered from a chronic illness -- was somewhat taken aback when members of our ministerial association asked if they could pray God to heal him.

"I had to struggle with that request for some time," he told us later. "As a Baptist, I'd been taught that God no longer answered such prayers."

As Adventists, we don't share this belief in "the cessation of signs."

But no, we don't believe every "miraculous gift" is from God.
And yes, early Adventists could be a pretty lively bunch -- George Knight estimates there were anywhere from 200 to 500 Millerite "prophets" in the late 1840s, with five women "prophesying" in Ellen White's home town!

Far from being unique, in other words, Ellen White was one of many who claimed the Spirit's power -- claims she spent much of her early ministry opposing. Years later, she would write:
These men and women were not bad, but they were deceived and deluded. . . . In the past they had been blessed with a consciousness that they had a knowledge of the truth, and they had accomplished much good; but [now] Satan was molding the work. -- Letter 132 (1900), quoted in Arthur White's Ellen White: the Early Years (1827-1862), page 68.
In short, Adventists have always been in two minds about the Spirit's gifts:

Yes, we've always been open to the general idea of such gifts.

But no, we've always been wary of specific claims to such gifts.

Review: Made to Stick

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
Chip & Dan Heath ($25 -- $16.50 from Amazon).

I knew I was in trouble when a church member asked what I'd preached on last week . . . and I did not know.

That's why I read Made to Stick. It's an easy-reading guide to giving speeches, writing article, and giving sermons that people will actually remember.

And yes, the Heath brothers practice what they preach. The book is a fun read, with lots of examples, and lots of acronyms to help you remember what they said.

Just the chapter on the three kinds of stories to use for illustrations is worth the price of this book. So buy it -- if my experience is any guide, it will be the best book on preaching that you read this year!

Just so you know . . .

Beethoven's favorite food was macaroni with cheese.

(h/t to The New York Times article on Charles Schulz)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Risk factors include phone calls, potlucks, and Nominating Committee

GetReligion has done a nice round-up of news article and denomination studies on the health of pastors.
  • The good news: we probably live longer than average.
  • The bad news: we seem to be at more risk for depression, diabetes, heart disease, and GI distress.
Does anybody know of any studies done on the health of Adventist pastors?

No, you probably won't need to unpack

Thinking about putting your name in the hat to be the next President of the Oregon Conference?

Just remember you'll need to do two things:
  • Cut the budget by the equivalent of 20-30 FTEs.
  • Face re-election this September.
Myself, I'm wondering if it would be best to find a "retired senior statesman" and pull him out of retirement for the next few months -- someone who could make good decisions, take the heat, and then step down in September.

At the next pastors' meeting, we're all making water-bottle rockets

Toys from Trash offers free plans for dozens of fun and educational toys you can make for next to nothing-- everything from pumps to paper helicopters. And if you don't have kids of your own, you can browse the site to get ideas for:
  • children's object lessons.
  • Vacation Bible School projects.
  • program ideas for children's divisions at Campmeeting.

Friday, January 09, 2009

This week's lesson: prophecy as conversation

Prophets do more than just talk.

Sometimes, they talk back.

Look at the prophets discussed in this week's lesson -- prophets such as Abraham and Moses. Both challenged God's plans; both succeeded in changing God's plans.

And these were not exceptions that prove the rule. The Bible is full of prophets who kvetch:
  • Habakkuk complained about God's slowness to act.
  • Ezekiel complained the ridicule he got.
  • And Jeremiah got so fed up with being a prophet that he tried to quit!
In short, prophets do more than just take notes and pass them along. Instead, they are part of a conversation -- a conversation in which both sides are free to argue, question, and challenge the other.

It's not enough to know that God speaks, in other words.

No, the prophets teach us that God also listens.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Cutting Costs, Saving the Mission

Spend some time looking through the Conference directory, and you realize just how tough it would be to cut 20-30 FTEs in this Conference -- much less do so without sacrificing our church's mission. This is not a case of taking away the olives at the salad bar. No, these cuts are going to hurt.

Here are my suggestions on what to cut -- and what to save.

  • Conference subsidies to academies: Sorry -- I love our schools and what they do . . . but it's like Willie Sutton and the reason he robbed banks: "That's where the money is."
  • Health audits: given the cost of health care, it might be useful to sit down with individuals and say, "Here's what it cost to keep you healthy last year; what can you do viz. diet & exercise to cut costs and be a healthier person? (NB: you'd need to run this past legal first -- and it would be extremely important to make sure these audits [and the people doing them] are not connected in any way with decisions viz. hiring and firing.)
  • Larger districts for small, rural churches: Small churches are like cats -- they don't need leadership so much as affection. The only things that limit the size of a district with small churches, as a matter of fact, are the amount of time the pastor is willing to spend driving, and the need to fill pulpits on Sabbath morning -- and I think you could get around this latter objection with the use of sermons on video. (It works for satellite evangelism; why not for the Sabbath morning service?)
  • More church plants for immigrant communities: This is an area where we're seeing real growth -- and given the disproportionate impact that a downturn in the economy will have on these communities, they're going to be looking for the kind of help we can provide. (And while we definitely need to plant more Hispanic churches, don't forget the 150,000 conservative Protestant Slavs who live in the Portland Metro area!)
  • Save the Youth pastors: we have a four-year window to reach any particular Youth -- and while we may save a little money now by cutting back these positions, we will never again get the chance to reach those kids.
  • Focus on the I-5 Corridor: The churches that saw real growth these past years tended to be in the bedroom communities of Portland, or the retirement communities of southern Oregon . . . and while the downturn in California's housing market will slow migration to those areas, I don't see similar growth taking place anyplace else in the near future.
Okay, those are my ideas -- what do you think?

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Further Adventures of Nad Vervent and the Pre-Emergent Church

Episode 4,289: A Startling Discovery at Workers' Meeting:

Pastor Vervent had almost dozed off during the presentation on his church's retirement fund . . .

But then he heard the speaker mention "index funds."

"Dear me!" he thought to himself. "And all these years, I thought they'd been telling me to buy index cards!"

"Ah well, at least I'll have plenty of office supplies to see me through my retirement," he told a friend later. "That's more than most investors can say."

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Think again: church organization

There are a lot of good reasons to rethink the way we've organized our church -- but there are some bad reasons too. Here are a few:

"Our church's denominational structure goes back to horse-and-buggy days."
It would be more accurate to say it goes back to the days of trains and trolley cars -- and outside of rural areas, pastors would have found it just about as easy to get around back then as they do today.

"Modern technology allows us to eliminate local conferences."
We've seen a revolution in finance and communications -- and certainly this ought to make us rethink how we handle tasks such as running payroll or training church officers. But no one has found a way for leaders to develop relationships with more than 120 people or so . . . and that means we'll always need something about the size of a conference to place, evaluate, and mentor both pastors and teachers.

"Union conferences essentially duplicate the work of local conferences."
A quick look at the NPUC directory indicates roughly a third of its employees work in finance -- and a large share of those are auditors. Another third are evangelists, or specialists in fields such as Information Technology, communications, religious liberty, or ministry to ethnic groups. As a result, there doesn't seem to be much overlap between the work of the NPUC and that of our Conference.

"We need to cut the fat and put more money into front-line workers."
The two largest departments in the Oregon Conference are Treasury, and Trust Services; together, they employ roughly the same number of people as the Children's Ministries, Community Outreach, Family Life, Ministerial, Women's Ministries, and Youth departments put together. Cutting jobs in Treasury and Trust Services could put us in a world of hurt. As for the rest . . . let's be honest: most deal with ministries that pastors know little about (not least because their local leadership is often provided by women) . Just because we don't know what
someone is doing, in other words, doesn't necessarily mean their work is un-necessary.

"Our church's organizational structure hasn't changed in a hundred years."
As Jeff Crocombe and others have pointed out, the Adventist church did not really have much in the way of local church pastors until the late-1940s. Evangelists, yes. Pastors, emphatically no. The creation of an Adventist pastorate, in other words, has been one of the biggest changes and one of the biggest forces for change in our church's structure -- all the more for the lack of notice it has received.

"Changing our church's structure puts us on the road to congregationalism."
Consider the way we hire and fire teachers -- a process that is neither top-down (hierarchical) nor bottom-up (congregational), but a little bit of both. Just because it's not Christmas, in other words, doesn't mean it has to be the 4th of July.

Friday, January 02, 2009

This Week's Lesson: Official Channels

God has a Press Officer.

That's the gist of this week's Sabbath School lesson -- a lesson you could summarize with three points:
  • God has revealed Himself to us.
  • He has done so through both General and Special Revelation.
  • This quarter, we will discuss God's Special Revelation, which is prophecy.
In short, when God has something to say, He issues a Press Release -- and it's the prophet's job to make sure that message gets into the right hands.

Now for most of this quarter, we'll be studying the details of just how a prophet gets that official message from God . . . but before we do so, it's worth remembering that God has used other ways (and other people) to get His point across.
  • God spoke to Pharaoh in a dream (Genesis 41).
  • God spoke to the sailors on Jonah's ship through casting lots (Jonah 1).
  • God led the Magi by a star (Matthew 2).
  • And God indicated His will to Israel through something called "the Urim and Thummim" (I Samuel 28).
What's more, the charismatic movement has popularized the idea that God still speaks to all of His people. That's why several of my Pentecostal friends have no problem with the idea that Adventists have a prophet; no, what bothers them is the fact that we only have one prophet!

In short, there's more to Special Revelation than the idea that God has an Official Press Officer Who Alone is Authorized to Speak for God.

No, God has spoken to His people "at many times and in various ways."

And yes, sometimes He goes through official channels; sometimes God does use a prophet.

But sometimes, God finds another way to get His point across.

In fact, you could even say there are times when God "leaks."

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Best Books: 2008

This past year, I continued a long tradition by not reading War and Peace. This makes the 51st-year in a row I have not read Tolstoy's book. Needless to say, I look forward to not reading it again in 2009.

But here are several books I'm glad I read:

Best Book on a Subject I Usually Avoid:
Prayer: A History, by Philip and Carol Zaleski.
I usually hate books on prayer; they too often resemble an instruction manual for a vending machine. But I've enjoyed Carol Zaleski's columns in Christian Century, and decided to give this book a try -- and truth to tell, it made me rethink my own prayer-life.

Best Science Fiction Based on the Liturgical Calendar:
Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis.
A Christmas story -- in more ways than one -- about an Oxford history major from 2048 who travels back in time to Merry Olde England . . . just in time for the Black Death. (And if you'd like something lighter, try To Say Nothing of the Dog.)

Best Series by Authors Who Didn't Know They Were Writing a Series:
Emerson Among the Eccentrics, A Group Portrait, by Carlos Baker . . . and The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand.
Read Baker, and you'll understand why Transcendentalists such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott were rejected as dreamers by the next generation. Read Menand, and you'll understand why Pragmatists such as Dewey and Holmes would have been a disappointment to their ancestors.

Best Book on a Subject I Thought I Knew Everything About (But Was Surprised to Learn I Did Not):
The Second World War: A Short History, by R. A. C. Parker.
One of my history professors used to call this war The Biggest Thing in History -- and in just 304-pages, Parker covers everything from its cause to its aftermath, with stops along the way to examine economics, strategies, tactics, weapons, controversies, and politics (both domestic and foreign). Not one word is wasted in this book -- and every page made me stop to rethink something I thought I'd known.