Wednesday, February 26, 2014

This week's lesson: discipling the powerful

It's not just a question of who has the power.

It's a question of what power they have.

As Malcolm Gladwell pointed in The New Yorker, there are only so many ways to get what you want from others; they include:
  • Potluck: everybody brings what they have; everybody takes what they want. It's share and share alike. 
  • Carpool: yesterday, I drove and you got to ride; today, you drive and I get to ride. Everybody takes their turn.
  • Market: you have something I want; I have something you want . . . so we wheel and deal until we both get what we want.
  • Family: just as parents take care of their children, so too I promise that I will  take care of you. You provide loyalty, in other words, and I'll provide the leadership.
And while Gladwell doesn't discuss the overt threat of violence in his article, any discussion of power should include a fifth option:
  • Mugging: you have something I want -- so give me what I want, and I won't hurt you.
Gladwell notes that most events combine elements from each category; if you're in a Book Club, for instance, then you'll be expected to buy the book (Market) that was recommended by Oprah (Family) so that you can help with the discussion (Potluck) -- and when it's your turn, then you will host the group at your house (Carpool).
And when the host's children interrupt the meeting?
That's when you discover some parents rely heavily on Mugging.
Just saying.
Myself, I've found Gladwell's categories helpful in discussing the nature and uses of power in our church. Once upon a time, for instance, our school was seen as a family (with the Conference as paterfamilias); now many of our parents see it as a market -- a market in which they pay the bills, and so should have more say.
Likewise, you may want to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Both potlucks and carpools, after all, can be undermined by "free-riders" -- by people who are happy to take, but not to give. Markets require some kind of parity between buyers and sellers. And while the people in management may say that "we run our company like a family," the people on their staff may feel more like the victims of a mugging.
When we talk about power, after all, then we need to talk about the way we use it.
And if you want to know how we use it?
Then look at the way we treat people who don't have it.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

This week's lesson: with the rich and famous

It's not easy being rich.

Consider Philemon -- a wealthy believer who's lost a valuable piece of property. And if that wasn't bad enough, now he receives this letter from Paul:
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
"Paul says I'm his 'dear and fellow worker,'" Philemon says to himself. "I wonder if he wants something?" 
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
"He's heard about my love and faith -- and he prays that my partnership with him will deepen my understanding . . . yes, he definitely wants something.".
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do . . . 
"I'd like to see him try!"
. . . yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus . . . 
"Gulp! This makes it really difficult to turn down his request!"
. . . that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
"Onesimus! He's talking about my runaway slave . . . whom he just called his son?!?"
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel.
"Hmmm . . . Paul said he would have liked to keep Onesimus, but did not -- so where's he going with this? Why did Paul send him back?"
But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
"So . . . technically, this slave is now my brother in Christ. And in theory, I suppose I should be happy this slave is now my brother in Christ. But he's still a slave, and he ran away, and Paul knows good and well what happens to runaway slaves -- right? I mean, it's not like he's actually told me to forgive Onesimus -- right?" 
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
"Now when he says, 'even more than I ask,' is he saying . . . no, he couldn't. He wouldn't. Okay, he probably does expect me to free Onesimus -- even if he doesn't come right out and say it. Then again, how would he ever know?"
And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
"Okay, that's how he would know. And even though Paul's being really, really nice about this, it's clear this is going to cost me something."
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark,Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

No, it's not easy being rich.

There are so many people who need your help, after all.

And so many ways you can help them.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Jesus and the Social Outcasts

Herman Wouk once noted that religious groups are like people with frostbite: they tend to lose extremities.

Yes, just as fingers and toes are the first to go, so too churches and synagogues tend to lose people who stand out from the crowd.

Most groups, after all, have a pretty clear idea of who fits in (and who does not).
  • A church full of Republican, football fans who love Country-Western music, for instance, will tend to "select in" more of the same.
  • But it will tend to "select out" people who vote for different candidates, watch different sports, and listen to different kinds of music.
  • And yes, a church full of socialists who watch soccer and listen to skiffle music will do the same!
You don't need to be down-and-out, in other words, in order to feel like an outcast at church. No, all you need to do is find something that makes you different, something that makes you unusual, something that makes sure you don't fit in with the rest of the crowd.
  • Like your job.
  • Or your education.
  • Or your politics.
  • Or your taste in music.
  • Or your ethnicity.
  • Or your marital status.
  • Or your sexuality.
  • Or whatever else makes us think you are "weird."
And yes, you could try to fit in -- and there are times you may need to do this.

You could leave the church for friendlier surroundings -- and I hate to admit it, but there are times you may need to do this for your sanity (and maybe even your own safety).

But for the sake of the church, I hope you will stay weird and stick around -- that you will continue to challenge us, confront us, and help us grow.

It might be easier to leave, after all.

But we need you to give us a hand.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

This week's lesson: discipling the "ordinary"

Blessed are the poor.

But they don't stay poor.

As sociologists love to point out, the Adventist church is a powerful engine of social mobility.
  • It attracts "marginal" people -- sharecroppers and immigrants.  
  • It teaches thrift, encourages education, and stops the drinking that causes so many problems. 
  •  And that's why those sharecroppers and immigrants go on to have children who are teachers, nurses, and pastors . . . and grandchildren who are doctors, lawyers, and concert pianists.
Or as one of my teachers put it, "We attract poor Baptists, and we turn them into rich Episcopalians."

Obviously, this can create problems for all those wealthy, educated Adventist who no longer feel at home in their grandparents' church.

But this can also lead to a church where the poor and marginalized no longer feel at home.
  • That's one of the reasons early Methodists didn't wear jewelry; they didn't want people who couldn't afford "bling" to feel out of place in their churches.
  • That's one of the reasons Ellen White counseled against "high-falutin" music in our churches; she didn't want people with more common tastes to feel out of place in our churches.
  • And that's one of the reasons my church tries to put a variety of people on the platform (and doesn't include titles such as "Dr." and "Professor" in the bulletin); we want people to see that we are a church for all kinds of people.
You see, churches can be a blessing to the poor.
But we need to make sure they stay blessed.