Thursday, April 30, 2009

This week's lesson: revelation

We believe that God speaks.

But what it would be like if He never shut up?

As this week's lesson points out, God has spoken to us "at many time and in various ways" -- and no doubt your Sabbath School class will enjoy discussing how He does this through Scripture, reason, spiritual gifts, and our consciences.

And in the course of this discussion, no doubt one of your class members will express the wish that God spoke more clearly and more often. "Wouldn't it be nice," they'll say, "if God told us exactly what to do anytime we need make a decision?"

In a word, no.

A boss who does this, after all, is scorned as a micro-manager.

A parent who does this to one of their adult children is loathed as a control-freak.

And a man who always tells his wife just exactly what to do in order to make sure there's no way she could possibly make a mistake . . . well, whenever you see this, you know it's only a matter of time before the two of them are playing hide-and-go-seek.

And she's the one with the axe.

In short, we love to hear from the ones we love -- but we don't want them always telling us what to do. We value their words, but we also value our space. And a God who never left us alone to work out things on our own would soon grow as tiresome as those TVs at the airport that are always blaring CNN.

So as you teach this week's lesson, you'll want to discuss all the things we can learn from all the ways that God speaks to us.

But don't forget: we can learn a lot from His silences too.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Review: Martin Marty's biography of Martin Luther

In just 194 pages, one of the world's top historians of religion gives you an overview of Martin Luther's life and thought that is elegant, enjoyable, and in places a real eye-opener -- having read about Luther's wedding night, for instance, I'll never think of "traditional family values" in quite the same way again.

And guess what -- right now you can get it at Amazon for $3.99!!!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Swine flu

I've already survived two flu-pandemics: one in 1957, the other in 1968.

I also remember the swine flu fiasco of 1976 -- the one that was supposed to kill a million people. (As I recall, nobody died from the flu, but the vaccine killed 25.)

So when it comes to the recent outbreak of swine flu, my initial reaction is, "been there, done that."

To be sure, flu is no joke. Even in a good year, it kills roughly 36,000 Americans. And there's no question the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention is watching this latest outbreak with a great deal of concern.

But I don't see any reason to panic just yet. And while there are steps we should take to prevent its spread, these are all things we should be doing anyway:
  • Wash your hands before and after you visit people. (Carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer makes this easy.)
  • Make it easy for church members to wash their hands. Put a big bottle of hand sanitizer on the serving table at potlucks. And you may want to put hand-sanitizer in your children's Sabbath School classrooms as well . . . though you'll want to keep the bottle someplace where the children won't be tempted to drink it.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze. Flush the tissue when you're done -- and don't forget to wash your hands.
  • Consider canceling meetings on a case-by-case basis. If you've a prayer meeting or study group that appeals mainly to people who are especially vulnerable (i.e. those who are very old, those who are very young, and those whose immune system has been compromised by drugs, illness, or diabetes), then you may need to cancel meetings during the current outbreak. And if the flu causes schools to close, then you may need to put your Sabbath-morning worship service on hold as well.
Finally, this is probably not a good time to preach on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; instead, I would suggest you base this week's sermon on Psalm 26:6.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Preaching: dare to be "good enough"

This week's sermon went better.

Maybe because I let it be "good enough."

To be sure, I had many of the problems with writing a sermon on Matthew 7:13ff that I did with Matthew 7:1-12:
  • Should I preach on verses 13f only? But what about verses 21-23 . . . which are summarized in the parable of verses 24-27? And what do I do with verses 15-20?
  • Then too, each and every one of the 17 experts I checked were happy to agree these verses were a coda to the Sermon on Mount -- one in which Christ stressed our need to obey His words. But that led them into a discussion of faith vs. works, and Paul vs. James, and the roles played by justification and sanctification in our salvation . . .
  • So when it came time to come up with a thesis, I was left with one of those horrible run-on sentences that try to say everything and end up saying nothing, i.e. "While salvation is a gift, we must open that gift in order to get the full benefit of the good things God has in store for our lives -- and yes, it would be a good thing to send Him a thank-you note as well . . . and did I mention that we need to floss every day?"
In short, I woke up at 6 AM on Sabbath with the horrible realization That It Was Going To Happen Again, i.e. my attempt to preach a great sermon had left me with a sprawling mess.

Instead, I pulled out my machete and started hacking away.
  • Verses 13-14 and 24-27 stayed; everything else went.
  • Everything the experts said about these verses got to stay; everything they did to tie in these verses with the Great Themes of Scripture got tossed over the side.
  • And even though "use it or lose it" was a trite thesis -- one that did not do justice to everything Jesus said in these verses -- it would have to do for now.
The result was a poor, withered shadow of everything I could have said about these verses . . .

But it was better than what I had at 6 AM.

And it was good enough to bless my people.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


No new links this week -- mainly because I spent this morning doing announcements at a local swim meet. (It's a long story)

Traffic was up 12% this week, mainly because of a lot of hits from Sunnyside, Washington. (You say you've never heard of it? It's about 20-miles from my birthplace of Toppenish -- and of course you know where that is!)

Inside the USA (and outside Washington and Oregon), my top three points-of-origin for visitors were California, Texas, and Michigan. (Shouldn't you seminary people be studying or something?)

Outside the USA, my top three points-of-origin for visitors were Canada, Estonia, and Finland. (And hei to you too!) I also received first-time visitors from Nepal, Indonesia, and New Zealand (though not from my wife's hometown of Palmerston North, so I can't ask you to pass along greetings to her friends).

Friday, April 24, 2009

Friday's Odds & Ends

  • Have you looked at lifehacker? It's a kind of Hints from Heloise for hackers and techies. Granted, about 95% of its links go completely over my head -- I mean, who is Ubuntu, and why does he keep getting released? -- but the other 5% are pure gold.
  • Moderate drinking may cut your risk of heart disease -- but it turns out that it may also increase the risk of cancer in women. That's why The Washington Post notes:
. . . [dietary] guidelines were never intended to recommend that anyone drink for his or her health. Yes, it's true that studies have indicated that moderate drinking may cut the risk of heart disease and other ailments. And researchers have identified a substance in red wine (remember resveratrol?) that could offer a host of benefits.

But officials have long worried about sending the wrong message, giving people who take extraordinary risks if they drink -- young people, pregnant women, those prone to alcoholism -- permission to abuse alcohol. As a result, officials have long tried to walk a fine line between acknowledging the possible benefits of alcohol and encouraging people to start drinking or to abuse it. The guidelines were intended to set an upper limit on what might be safe, not a recommended daily dose.
  • I'm thinking of adapting the Los Angeles Conservancy's driving tour of spiritual landmarks for Oregon. They promise to help you "discover five historic sites related to spiritual organizations that took root in Los Angeles in the early part of the twentieth century." Question: if you put together a similar tour for your area, what would it include?
"Let everyone understand that real love of God does not consist in tear-shedding, nor in that sweetness and tenderness for which we long just because they console us, but in serving God with justice, fortitude of soul, and humility."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

This week's lesson: life

Life is good.

But it is not the only good.

When it comes to abortion, for instance, Seventh-day Adventists are pro-choice. (Don't believe me? Read the statement here.)

And while we oppose active euthanasia (sometimes called "physician-assisted suicide"), we believe that:
Needless to say, each of these beliefs are controversial -- and many Christians would oppose them all.

That's because we all agree that life is a gift from God -- but we all disagree on how to balance that gift with others, such as free will. And when you add our uncertainty about the exact nature of that gift, i.e. when it begins, when it ends, and when we should intervene in those two events . . .

Well, we all agree that life is good.

Good and interesting.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Review: Samuel Green's The Grace of Necessity

Next to my computer is a book of poems my eldest daughter passed on to me -- the legacy of a class she took in literature of the Pacific Northwest.

So when a program is slow to load, or a website is slow to open, or a file takes its own sweet time to appear -- in short, anytime technology makes me think that maybe the Manicheans were on to something, I reach for Samuel Green's The Grace of Necessity.

Green's poems are short, reflective, and rooted in his life on a remote island in Puget Sound. For the past 30-years, he's run a small press that specializes in poetry; just now, he's also serving as Washington's Poet Laureate.

And so he writes of chainsaws, digging graves, and the sight of plums falling to the ground on September 11. A work bee inspires a meditation on death; the sight of a hawk on a telephone wire makes him realize that "sometimes, there's nothing to do but hold on."

Good advice to bear in mind as I wait for my computer.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Three wishes: Praise Bands

If praise bands gave three wishes, here's what I'd ask for:

1. Please start with a song I know.
Okay, later on you can teach me the Celtic version of "The Old Rugged Cross" as sung by Bono (and scored for bagpipes, didgeridoo, and harpsichord). But if you start with something I know, then I might sing along with you -- and once you have me singing, I might even continue.

2. Please proofread your PowerPoint presentation.
Blame my days as a magazine editor, but one typo is all it takes to throw me off my stride. (And no, you can't trust Spellcheck!) For example:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was bland, but now I see.
3. Please don't make big changes in the middle of a song.
If this was a concert, you could change key, volume, or tempo in the middle of a song, and I would applaud you for your artistry. But do this while you're leading a song service, and you'll confuse me -- and when I'm confused, I stop singing.

Oh yes -- and if I get a bonus wish, could you please not do "Here I am to worship" until you figure out how it ends? Thank you.

Monday, April 20, 2009

DIY: How to write a lousy sermon

My best sermons almost write themselves.

Last Sabbath's sermon did not -- in fact, I was up until 11:30 PM on Friday trying to hammer it into shape, and up again at 5:30 AM to finish it. The result was not one of the worst sermons I've ever preached; myself, I'd give it a a C+ . . .

But it was definitely no fun to write. No fun to preach. And no fun to discuss with my wife over Sabbath lunch. (In fact, she gave it a C+ too.)

So what went wrong?

First, I never really decided what my text should be. I'd planned to preach on Matthew 7:1-2, but that led to verses 3-5 . . . and doesn't verse 6 provide a needed corrective? Then again, verses 1 and 12 clearly form an inclusio -- and that means I need to discuss the promise of verses 7-11 as a means of achieving Christ's commands in verses 1, 5, and 12.

Or maybe not.

Which brings up my second mistake: getting bogged down in what all the experts said. Don't get me wrong: every one of the 15 authors I checked had something good to say. But I got so involved in trying to make sense of what they said, that I stinted the time needed to think about the text, pray about the text, and apply the text to our local situation.

And that was my biggest mistake of all: rushing into the sermon. In truth, it had been a busy week -- busy enough that I'd not taken the time I need for reflection and prayer. Unfortunately, sermons are like small children: you can't hurry them along without paying a price.

And my church members paid the price last Sabbath.

That doesn't mean some people weren't blessed -- the same God who spoke through Balaam's donkey, after all, may well have spoken through my sermon.

But there's got to be an easier way.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


I've added a link to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research -- you may remember it as the think-tank that issued a generally positive report on mega-churches. It also offers a number of surveys you can use to evaluate a church; I especially like the one it has developed for pastoral searches.

Traffic was down this week, due to a big drop-off in hits from Michigan. (Is the seminary on break or what?) And roughly two-thirds of the hits I got came from a group of 20 people or so.

Outside the USA, my top three countries-of-origin for visitors were Estonia, Canada, and Finland. And when it comes to Americans, roughly half my visitors came from Washington or Oregon; most of the rest came from Texas, California, or Tennessee.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Friday's Odds & Ends

  • It's been cool, gray, and damp here on the Oregon coast (duh!), but at least the azaleas in my front yard are blooming.
  • I'll close with this quote from John Bunyan: "You can do more than pray after you have prayed -- but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

This week's lesson: hope

Once upon a time, people thought they could make this world a better place.

Foolish earthlings!

And so they tried to end slavery, eradicate smallpox, eliminate discrimination against women, stop children from working in coal mines . . . and maybe even get rid of Sunday Blue Laws!

Foolish, foolish earthlings!

Today, of course, we know that all such attempts are doomed to failure. That this world will only get worse and worse. And that anyone who truly believes that Jesus will come again in glory must abandon any hope that He can make a difference here on earth.

Nothing else could be more obvious.

Foolish, foolish, foolish earthlings!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Review: Cullen Murphy's The World According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own

There are parts of the Bible I tend to avoid -- and a surprising number of them involve women.

You know what I'm talking about:
  • Jephthah's sacrifice of his daughter,
  • Amnon's rape of Tamar,
  • the laws in Leviticus about women's impurity,
  • and yes, even Paul's advice that "women should be silent in church."
That's why I'm thankful for Cullen Murphy's book. In just eleven chapters, it combines an introduction to feminist theology with a discussion of the Bible's "problematic" texts about women.

And yes, this is a lot more fun than it sounds. Murphy can write -- he's worked for Vanity Fair, The Atlantic Monthly and the comic strip Prince Valiant. What's more, he's a practicing Catholic who's faith is balanced by his concern for his daughter's future in the church.

This is the kind of book you read several times, then loan out to friends. And who knows -- it may even move you to preach on some of those texts you've been avoiding.

You know -- the ones that concern roughly half the people on this planet?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Taste and see that the Lord is good

One of the things I like about Costco is its snack bar – especially because it offers free refills on all drinks.

Not that I ever got a free refill myself. No, even though a big, blue-and-white sign promised “free refills” – and even though Costco had never broken a promise it made to me . . .

I always felt there had to a catch.

I always knew this was too good to be true.

And I always believed I would get into all kinds of trouble if I tried to get a “free” refill – no matter what kind of promises were made.

That’s why I always paid for my drink. Drank what I’d paid for. And left.

Even if I wanted more.

Last week, however, I was thirsty – really thirsty, even after I’d finished my drink. So I went back to the snack bar and looked at the sign again.

Yes, it did say “free refills.”

What’s more, I saw somebody go back for a refill – and nobody said he didn’t deserve it. Nobody asked him for to pay for it. Nobody said he was taking advantage of Costco’s generosity.No, he just went over to the fountain and got it.

So lately, I’ve been wondering: do you think that snack bar at Costco really means what it says about “free”?

And if that’s true of refills at Costco . . .

Then what else have I been missing?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Wanted: Taskforce worker

We're looking for a Taskforce worker here in Lincoln City -- someone who could:
  • teach PE classes (and maybe help with high school Bible),
  • help run a Youth program,
  • and maybe even preach a little.
We're offering room, board, Taskforce insurance, and a little money for both gas and sundries. If you're interested, contact Wayne Wentland at the Oregon Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


While my wife's busy with Easter services -- she's the organist at a local Lutheran church -- I've added a few links to this site:
  • Simply Youth Ministries: Doug Fields is the Rick Warren of youth pastors (which isn't surprising, given the fact he is the youth pastor at Rick Warren's church).
  • Religion & Ethics Newsweekly: this is the on-line companion to the half-hour PBS show by that name. A nice mix of hard-news and personality pieces -- and yes, this week's broadcast included a biography of Wintley Phipps.
  • Crunchy Con: Rod Dreher is a values conservative, an economic populist, an Orthodox Christian, and a columnist for beliefnet.
  • apocalupto: those of you wondering if seminary would change David Hamstra can find out for yourselves on his blog.
Traffic was up 12% this week -- I'm guessing that many of you were having a hard time coming up with ideas for this week's sermon. The hot spot for foreign visitors was (as always) Canada; the next three were the United Kingdom, Finland, and Australia. (What happened to Estonia?)

The top spot for domestic visitors was (as always) Washington state; the next three were Oregon, Michigan, and California.

Speaking of which . . . Google Analytics tells me there's a lot of traffic coming from Keyport, Washington -- a small town right next door to the base where the Navy keeps some of its Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. Is there any way I could talk you people into giving me a tour?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Friday's Odds & Ends

  • Once again, my family will be doing the Bloomsday Run in Spokane. (Okay, for me it's more of a "Bloomsday Stroll," but never mind, let it pass.) Anyway, let me know if you'll be there -- maybe we can wave at each other as you run past me.
  • These past few weeks, I've been mulling over Loren Seibold's article on "Sorting Out the Testaments" in Spectrum. Seibold notes that most arguments about behavior and ethics boil down to the question of how we interpret and apply the Old Testament; unfortunately, we've never come up with a consistent way to do this -- especially since we've rejected the approaches of both the Ebionites ("it's all good") and Marcion ("none of it's good"). That leaves us with what I call "the hermeneutics of Abraham Lincoln, i.e. "You can use some of the Old Testament all of the time, and you can use all of the Old Testament some of the time, but you can't use all of the Old Testament all of the time."
  • Did you notice The Oregonian's article about adolescent binge-drinking? The bottom line: it's more common in this state than most places, with 10% of eighth-graders, 22% of tenth-graders, and 26% of twelfth-graders all reporting they've five or more drinks at one sitting in the previous week.
  • And I'll close with this thought from the economist Robert Barro: "No one has ever come up with a brilliant idea while wearing a tie."

Thursday, April 09, 2009

This week's lesson: faith

You're five miles off the coast when your fishing boat hits a log and starts sinking fast -- so fast that you barely have time to radio the Coast Guard and give them your location.

"We're on the way," they say to you.

So you're floating there in your water, looking at the place in the water where your boat used to be . . . and you hear the rasp of an H-65 Dolphin moving in your direction.

You start waving.

The helicopter stops a little ways off, and there's a splash as the rescue swimmer goes into the water. He wraps the rescue strop around you, gives the signal, and the two of you are hoisted into the helicopter. There's a quick, noisy ride to the closest hospital, where they treat you for hypothermia, then send you home.

  • At which point in this story were you "saved"?
  • At which point in this story did you need faith -- and how did that faith show itself?
  • Were you saved by your faith, or by something else?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Review: W. J. Rorabaugh's The Alcoholic Republic

Okay, I was going to review W. J. Rorabaugh's The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition -- it's a terrific history of just how much Americans used to drink in the years 1790-1840 (and we're talking about the equivalent of a six-pack every day!), and the concomitant rise of the Temperance movement . . .

But the trillium that I transplanted a couple of years back is now in bloom, and that takes precedence over a book review. So read the book, but don't forget to admire the trilliums along the way.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

News: Oregon Conference's budget

Just so you know how we're weathering the financial crisis here in Oregon, here's a quick summary of the notes I took at today's Conference meeting with pastors:

What's in:
  • Pastors. (People who retire or move may not be replaced, but right now it doesn't sound as though the Conference is planning to lay off pastors for financial reasons.)
  • Campmeeting. (Yes, it's spendy -- but we're doing it anyway. And no, you're not going to save much money by making it shorter.)
  • The pastors' retreat at Twin Rocks.
  • Video conferencing.

What's out:
  • Christmas bonuses, January's meeting, pastors' camp at Big Lake, and money for continuing education. (The first three are gone, the fourth's been reduced to $300 for the year.)
  • Mandatory, across-the-board cuts in salary. (Then again, you're welcome to donate part of your salary to the Conference if you so desire.)
  • Sending money to Pacific Press for Literature Evangelist training. (That's $45,000 in savings right there.)
  • Bringing in new pastors from out-of-state. (This won't always be possible -- but cutting back on this could save the Conference as much as $500,000.)
  • Hiring new college graduates. (Sorry people!)
So . . . what's been happening in your Conference?

Monday, April 06, 2009

Two cheers for proof-texts

This week, I'll begin teaching a baptismal class for children. Eight-weeks long, it's a Bible-marking class, loosely based on Steve Case's It’s My Choice Junior Baptismal Guide.

And yes, that means I will be using proof-texts.

I know, I know . . . real pastors don’t use proof-texts. Proof-texts are tacky. Proof texts are trashy. Proof-texts are pure eisogetic evil – because “a text without its context is nothing but a pretext.”

That’s what I was taught, anyway – and that’s why I only preach textual sermons, not topical.

Then again, that means I don’t talk much about doctrine in my sermons. I don’t talk much about the way the Bible develops and redefines certain themes.And if the truth be known, there are books I avoid because they don’t lend themselves to “textual” sermons – books such as Proverbs.

In short, there are some real advantages to the kind of preaching I do . . . but there are some disadvantages too.

That’s why I’d suggest there is a place in our ministry for proof-texts. Carefully chosen, they provide a snap-shot of what the Bible says -- a snap-shot that condenses a lot of information into one, short, easily-remembered phrase.

John 3:16 may be a proof-text, after all.

But it's still good enough for my class.

Sunday, April 05, 2009


My list of links was getting a bit lush, so I'm going to be doing some pruning. Let me know if I drop a link you especially liked.

And yes, I'm still adding links; recent acquisitions include:
  • SmallChurchPROF -- it promises "everything about small churches," so we shall see.
  • Intersection -- the SDA church's official attempt to build a brand with on-line videos.
  • Church Marketing Sucks -- aimed at church communication pros, there's not much here that pastors will find useful . . . but once in a while, it comes up with a gem.
Looking at the last week, our top three states for visitors were Washington, Oregon, and New York. (Sorry Michigan!) I've also been getting a lot of traffic this month from Georgia -- what's up with you people down there?

And when it comes to international visitors, the top three were Canada, South Korea, and Finland . . . with Estonia close behind.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Friday's Odds & Ends

  • I've just added the Tacoma Book Center to my list of favorite things. Not only is it one of the best used-book stores in the Pacific Northwest (great selection, reasonable prices), but it's within walking distance of the factory-outlet store for the Brown & Haley candy company.
  • Reading evangelical blogs about alcohol, I'm struck by how status-conscious they are, i.e. wine is preferred to beer, beer is mentioned only if it is a craft-brew, while the hard stuff and alcopops are apparently much too downscale for emergents. (Meanwhile, the true hipsters are drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon -- go figure!)
  • And I'll close with this quote from Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers: "With what complacency will a young parson deduce false conclusions from misunderstood texts, and then threaten us with all the penalties of Hades of we neglect to comply with the injunctions he has given us. Yes, my too self-confident juvenile friend, I do believe in those mysteries which are so common in your mouth; I do believe in the unadulterated word which you hold there in your hand; but you must pardon me if, in some things, I doubt your interpretation."

Thursday, April 02, 2009

This week's lesson: love

For God so loved the world . . .

That he created a paradise -- a walled garden which He named "Delight" (for that is what Eden means).

And in that paradise, He placed everything that could bring joy to humanity: animals and plants, gold and jewels, meaningful work and a Companion to share it all.

And it was good.

But it was not enough.

For as anyone who has ever seen The Truman Show could tell you, a paradise with no way out is nothing more than a prison. A very nice prison, to be sure, but nothing more.

So God placed in that garden an escape-hatch. An emergency exit. An abort switch in the form of a tree -- the Tree of Know-It-All. And God said, "that tree is your ticket out; you can leave any time you are tired of being loved."

And God waited to see what humanity would do.

For God so loved the world, that He gave us a chance to love Him in return.

Or not.

It's our choice.

That's how much He loved us.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Review: Phil Vischer's Me, Myself, and Bob

Think failure is bad?

Try success.

That's the moral of Phil Vischer's Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story About Dreams, God, and Talking Vegetables. As the creator of VeggieTales, Vischer watched sales go up 3,000% in just three years -- from $1.3 million in 1996 to $44 million in 1999 -- with sales expected to double again in 2000.

It didn't happen. Instead, his company went broke, and Vischer lost all rights to his characters in a lawsuit.

And no, Vischer hasn't lost his sense of humor -- but he is brutally honest about the mistakes that put him out of business . . . mistakes that boil down to the fact there were not enough people who shared his vision, and nobody to hold him accountable.

Sound familiar?

Vischer isn't the only one who's been undone by success, after all. Just off the top of my head, I can think of half-a-dozen pastors who followed the same trajectory, i.e. dreamed big, flew high, blew up.

(Come to think of it, many of those pastors were fans of the same business book that got Vischer in trouble!)

In short, there are plenty of books that tell you how to be a success.

This one tells you why that may not be a good thing.