Thursday, December 31, 2009

This week's lesson: Fruits of the Spirit

Every church is an experiment.

Most Christians agree that we should love God, after all -- and what's more, we'd agree that we should love His people too.

So far, so good.

But when it comes to the how of this love (not to mention the who, what, when, where, and why) . . . well, there's all kinds of ideas out there.

As a result, even the small town where I live has several dozen churches, fellowships, centers, and communities-of-faith -- all of which believe they've found the best way to produce the kind of love we all want.
  • Some are structured, and some are not.
  • Some are traditional, and some are not. 
  • Some draw their authority from the Bible, while others take their cue from last Sunday's editorial in The New York Times.
No, you name it and there's a church that's done it -- and as a result, it's easy enough to check out the results of just about any idea or practice that might come along.

Want to know what happens, for instance, when you treat the pastor as the Final Authority on Everything? Or when your statement-of-beliefs consists of little more than "Follow your bliss"? Or when you think it would be unkind, unloving, and positively unChristian to do background checks on the people who work with children?

No, you don't need to guess the answer to any of these questions -- not when there's a church nearby that's been there, done that, and has plenty of leftover T-shirts to give away.

In short, churches are like gardens -- and while they may disagree on everything else, they all see the need for a crop.

And if you check out their "fruits" . . .

Then you just might figure out a better way to grow them yourself!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Visit to Portland

I grew up in Portland, Oregon -- but every time I come back for a visit, I feel more and more like a stranger.
  • And when I discovered the Fred Meyer's store at Hawthorne now has a sushi bar, I suddenly felt very, very old.
But then Portland got a half-inch of snow, and the drivers here responded in their time-honored way of going absolutely bananas on the freeway, and I realized that nothing important had changed, after all.

Yes, you can go home again . . .

Just so long as you don't drive faster than five miles-an-hour.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Odds & Ends

  • We had awesome weather for Christmas -- blue skies, no breeze, temperatures in the mid-30s -- but now we're back to the usual murk.
  • Reading Deuteronomy, I'm increasingly puzzled by herem, i.e. the command to utterly and completely destroy Israel's enemies. The standard explanation is that "God had to meet the people where they were" -- yet the herem made no sense to them either! (NB how many times Moses, Joshua, or Samuel had to deal with someone who'd disobeyed by not destroying their enemies.) So what's going on here . . . and more to the point, how do you preach these passages?
  • The Network Advertising Initiative lets you opt-out of the data-mining that's being done on you and your use of the Web -- and even if you like the idea of somebody keeping track so they can figure out how to sell you more stuff, it's still a good idea to check out this site.
  • I know we're supposed to fuss about the commercialization of Christmas -- but if you turn off the TV and stay out of the malls, then it's really not all that bad.
  •  theCheckoutLine offers advice for the terminally ill, as well as those who are living with them. I don't like its non-judgmental stance viz. physician-assisted suicide -- mainly because I think it's wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong -- but most of the other counsel it offers is pretty good.
  • And I'll close with this quote for the New Year: "You can't turn back the clock -- but you can rewind it."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

This week's lesson: Numbers 35-36
  • Talk Radio -- 1405 B.C.
  • Okay, I'm taking calls about this new government program called "cities of refuge." Coddling criminals, or unfunded mandate -- you tell me.
    Yeah, I'm wondering what this is going to do to the whole idea of "closure?" I mean, somebody dies, the go'el tracks down the killer, and that's the end of it. But with this new system, the family needs to wait until there's been a trial . . .
    Good point -- what about the rights of the victim's family? Next caller, you're on the air:
    I live in one of those so-called "cities of refuge," and the thought of all this "riff-raff" hanging around for who knows how long does not make me a happy-camper.
    Not going to be good for your property values, I can tell you that. Next caller:
    Yes, you're on the air.
    I think you need to put this in some kind of perspective. Just because somebody's dead doesn't mean that somebody else needs to die. What if it was an accident?
    Oh, yeah -- right . . . like no killer ever says "it was an accident." 
     Yes, but sometimes it is an accident.
    The real question here is who you trust to make these kind of decisions: the people who were there, or a bunch of strangers on some government "death panel" who don't know any of these people. Next caller:
    I think we need to look at the real agenda here. We're talking about a government program that's a direct attack on traditional family values.
    You're talking about an attack on the role of the go'el.
    Exactly -- and once you start putting limits on who he can kill, that's just the beginning.
    We're looking at the government getting involved in something that has always been a private family matter.
    I'm saying we're just opening the door to government control of the family.
    Faceless bureaucrats deciding who lives -- and who dies. Hello, you're on the air:
    You know what really gripes me about these "death panels" is the guy behind it.
    You're talking about Moses.
     Yeah, and you know what he did when he was younger.
    You're talking about the reason he left Egypt in the first place.
     Right -- and didn't he always say that was an accident?
    Good point, good point -- though I don't think we ever saw the death certificate on that one.  Okay, we'll be right back after this break. Coming up next: The Year of Jubilee -- socialist plot, or just another unrealistic government intrusion into the rights of property owners?

    Tuesday, December 22, 2009

    Buy this book!
  • (Better yet, buy me this book!)

  • This just in: Connie Willis (whose To Say Nothing of the Dog is not only the greatest science-fiction novel ever written, but also a profound meditation on the nature of Providence) has an interview in Publisher's Weekly about her new novel, Blackout.

    Stocking Stuffers

    • Yes, I'm on Facebook. Yes, I'd be happy to be your friend. No, I don't want to help you build a dungeon in Merlin's Castle.
    • The Great Recession is causing some changes here in the Oregon Conference: they're talking about a 5% cut in pay for pastors and teachers, and maybe even no campmeeting . . . but no, I'm not seeing anything that looks like The End of Life as We Know It, or even The Beginning of Something New. Question: what kind of changes are you seeing in your Conference because of the economy -- and what kind of changes would you like to see?. 
    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 . . .
    And that is my Christmas wish for you -- that you may find time that day for "a Selute, [a] Shoute and a Song," and that you might end it "all Snugly fixed in [your] huts."

    Merry Christmas!

    Sunday, December 20, 2009

    Odds & Ends

    • Looking back through my journal, I'm noticing that a typical day in April was 50-degrees and cloudy . . . a typical day in October was 50-degrees and cloudy . . .  and today it's 50-degrees and cloudy.
    • Just a reminder to everyone out there whose blog is trying to reinvent, re-imagine, or possibly even reincarnate Adventist faith and practice: just because you're trying to be profound doesn't mean you should use the kind of obfuscating bafflegab they encourage in graduate school. I won't believe what you say, after all, if I can't understand what you say. 
    • In the past, I've avoided Facebook, believing it to be one of the tools that will be used to round up humans when the aliens land in their giant turquoise saucers . . . but now the Oregon Conference tells me it will using Facebook to disseminate news of calls and such. So I'm wondering what I should know before I set up my own page. What should I be sure to do -- and what should I be sure I avoid?
    • So you're working on a religious liberty sermon, and you're looking for news updates on all the bad things that are happening to Christians? Try BosNewsLife.
    • Speaking of which . . . I'm beginning to believe that pastors who feel they need to speak out on political issues should be required to take the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's Civic Literacy Quiz. (The average American, for what it' worth, answered half the questions wrong.)
    • And I'll close with this quote from Wendell Berry: "To have given up illusory hope is not to be hopeless."

      Thursday, December 17, 2009

      This week's lesson: Numbers 2-27

      In these chapters, Moses is doing what it takes to make his dreams come true. In fact, you can picture him with a clip-board, checking off the last few items that need to be done before his people will be able to enter the Promised Land.
      • Final report from the Census Bureau, complete with a survey of draft-age men? Check.
      • Preliminary report of the ad hoc Commission on the Distribution of Land? Check.
      • Public comments received and incorporated into the revised report of the ad hoc Commission on the Distribution of Land? Check.
      Yes, all the tedious paperwork that makes administration so boring is complete; all the wearisome planning that makes it so necessary has been done.

      Now just one task remains: finding somebody else to make it all happen.

      All the while Moses was doing these things, remember, he did so knowing that somebody else would lead God's people into the Promised Land -- not him. No, he would die before this particular job was done . . .

      Yet Moses kept on working. Kept on planning. Kept on following God -- and all this, even though Moses knew he would never live long enough to see his own, personal dreams come true.

      Yes, even though he knew that he would never taste their fruit, Moses kept on planting trees.

      Does this mean he was a failure?

      No, it just means his dreams were too big for one lifetime.

      How about yours?

      Tuesday, December 15, 2009

      Preaching Christmas

      Okay, so you've already been in your district for more than two years . . . and that means you've already preached Christmas sermons on Matthew 1:18-2:12 and Luke 2:1-20.

      What are you going to do this year?

      Six suggestions:
      • Isaiah 53 -- the humility of Christmas.
      • Daniel 7 -- the power of Christmas.
      • Matthew 1:1-17 -- the women in Christ's life
      • John 1:1-18 -- Christmas makes sense of the other 364 days of the year
      • Philippians 2:5-11 -- Christ's gift to us
      • Revelation 12 -- the danger of the manger

      Sunday, December 13, 2009

      Odds & Ends

      • Gray skies and damp -- but at least the temperature's moved above freezing. (This past week was cold!)
      • One of my newer church members startled me this Sabbath when he remarked how much he loves the Adult Sabbath School Quarterly. Given the amount of grumbling I do about some of our church's programs (such as the Quarterly), it's worth remembering that some people are still blessed by them.
      • And I'll close with a quote from Samuel Johnson, who died on this date in 1784. Having suffered the stroke that would eventually kill him, he wrote to a friend: "I will be conquered [by death]; I will not capitulate."

      Thursday, December 10, 2009

      This week's lesson: Numbers 25, 31

      Let's set aside the questions raised by holy war, ethnic cleansing, and even the reported presence of 675,000 sheep in a smallish patch of semi-arid land . . .

      Yes, set them aside for now, and ask yourself about the kind of people who thought the story in these chapters really needed to be told -- the kind of people who enjoyed hearing how the Israelites wiped out the people of Moab.

      Were they blood-thirsty primitives?

      Perhaps -- though I'm not sure an era which includes the Holocaust, the GULAG, and the firebombing of Dresden has much right to be throwing stones at others.

      In fact, most of the people who've cherished this story were not victors but victims -- smallholders and shopkeepers who whispered it to their families as they waited for yet another knock on the door at night.

      And there were always knocks on the door . . . from the Egyptians. From the Assyrians. From the Babylonians, and Persians, and Greeks, and Romans -- all of whom continually demanded that God's people hand over their money, their land, and their children.

      Sometimes, the threat was annihilation.

      And sometimes, it was assimilation.

      For every young man killed by the goyim, after all, there were a hundred who took one look at the bright lights of the big city and decided that fitting in was better than fighting back. And if fame and fortune meant leaving God behind . . .

      Well, Zimri ben-Salu wasn't the last man who tried to make good by marrying some shiksa.

      In short, the story of the Moabites in Numbers 25 and 31 is a "bookend" to the story of Pharaoh in Exodus 1; both tell how Israel was put at risk by the loss of its sons to foreigners.
      • In Exodus, the threat is annihilation, while in Numbers it is assimilation.
      • In Exodus, the threat comes from a man, while in Numbers it comes from women.
      • In Exodus, the saviors are women, while in Numbers it is a man.
      And while we'd much rather think of God's people as victims rather than victors, the fact is that both stories are stories of survival.

      To be sure, the story here in Numbers does raise all kinds of questions . . .

      But at least we're here to ask them.

      Tuesday, December 08, 2009

      Dealing with Depression

      It's that time of year when everybody runs an article on depression in the ministry -- so why should I be any different? Here's a quick list of what's helped me:
      • Prescription medicines: The good news is they worked for me. The bad news is that it took about two weeks for them to kick in -- and even at that, I was lucky. About a third of the time, after all, the meds they give you don't work, and you need to try something else. (And by the way -- talk with your doctor before you quit your meds. Coming off Effexor gave me a week's worth of panic attacks.)
      • Exercise: It took three years on Effexor before I felt like trying this -- but it's kept me going ever since. Trust me: regular exercise is the single best way I've found to prevent and treat depression.
      So what's the toughest part about dealing with depression?

      Admitting you need help -- once you've done that, things do get easier . . . in time.

      Sunday, December 06, 2009

      Odds & Ends

      • We've had clear but cold weather all week here on the Oregon Coast (and by "cold," I mean "frost in the morning with a daytime high of 40-degrees"). No wonder the dog doesn't want to go outside!
      • Putting books on the Web raises troubling ethical issues . . . but not so many that I don't use the Google Books version of The Jewish Study Bible when I'm preparing sermons and Sabbath School lessons. It gives me a perspective I don't usually get -- one that is scholarly, liberal, and (surprise!) Jewish.
      • I don't get facebook -- and the more I look at it, read about it, and talk with the people who use it, the less I understand its attraction. What am I missing here? (And does this mean I've joined the ranks of the terminally fogey?)
      • Average hours spent watching TV by 14- to 25-year-olds: 10.5 hours per week. By 62- to 75-year-olds: 21.5 hours per week. (Source: YouthWorker Journal).
      • And I'll close with this quote from John Calvin: "The chief part of the service of God consists in this, that the faithful should openly show that they acknowledge God to be the author of all good things."

      Thursday, December 03, 2009

      This week's lesson: Numbers 22-24

      Who knew Moses could do comedy?

      The story of Balaam, after all, is a burlesque -- a slapstick comedy about an utterly humorless "swell" who runs afoul of a fast-talking hustler. (Think of Margaret Dumont and Groucho Marx in Duck Soup, and you have the picture.)

      And yes, the plot is pretty much what you'd expect: king hires prophet to curse God's people; prophet learns you cannot curse what God has blessed. Cue the closing music, and discuss.

      What makes this story a joy and a thing of beauty, however, is its humor.
      • Think of the king's messengers, wearily trudging back and forth while Balaam tries to find some way he can go with them.
      • Then you have the donkey -- and to paraphrase an old saying, "It's bad enough you're talking to animals; it's even worse they're talking to you. But what's utterly unforgivable is that you should lose the argument!"
      • Finally, you have that long, Monty Python-like sketch . . . one in which an increasingly frantic king takes Balaam shopping for just the right place to curse the Israelites.
      And all through this, notice, God stays off-stage -- letting others get the laughs while He feeds them their lines.

      No, the only reason we don't see the humor in this story is that we're not used to the Bible being funny.

      But if someone tries to curse the people whom God has blessed . . .

      Then what else can you do but laugh?

      Tuesday, December 01, 2009

      How to raise perfect children

      Many people have asked how I managed to raise two wonderful, intelligent, kind, and hard-working children . . . and while I've often detected a note of incredulity in their question, I've decided it is time to pass along my tips on how to raise perfect children.

      And did I mention my children are also talented?

      Step One
      Marry the perfect spouse. This will make your task much easier.

      Step Two
      Have children who make good choices. Again, this will make your task much easier.

      Step Three
      I've also found that Starbucks Gift Cards are helpful -- don't know why, but they are.

      And did I mention that my children also have a sense of humor?