Sunday, March 29, 2015

This week's lesson (March 28 - April 3): the coming of Jesus

"[God] has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty." -- Luke 1:51-53, NIV
It's obvious that God never went to high school.

Just like any high school, after all, Luke's society is motivated by honor and shame -- a society in which you live and die by people's opinion.
  • That's why you surround themselves with a retinue -- with an entourage of people who make you look good.
  • That's why you avoid the vulgar -- the rabble who won't do you or your reputation any good.
  • And that's why you're scandalized that the angels' "good news" -- a phrase that usually refers to important news from the imperial court . . . but you're scandalized that high-status news like this is delivered to shepherds.
You see, shepherds don't count. They're not important -- as Garrison Keillor notes, they are the ancient equivalent of parking lot attendants. No, their work makes them ritually unclean; their reputation as thieves makes them unwelcome in polite society.

That's why they're not allowed to testify in court.
That's why some towns ban them altogether. 
That's why an angel appearing to a shepherd is absurd. It's ridiculous. It's like the head of the cheerleading squad going to the prom with a member of your high school Chess Club.
In short, it ain't going to happen . . . 
But it does.
Yes, God sends his angels to shepherds -- in effect, he takes his cafeteria tray to a table full of "losers," and asks if he can eat lunch with them.
Obviously, he doesn't know any better.
Or maybe . . . 
Maybe he just doesn't care?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

This week's lesson (March 21-27): women and wine

Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. -- Titus 2:3, NIV
"It's ridiculous to spend a whole Sabbath School lesson just talking about alcohol."
NO.  About one out of every six American adults has a drinking program; that's why alcohol-abuse is the third-leading cause of preventable death in this country, killing roughly 88,000 Americans every year -- in fact, it's responsible for roughly one-tenth of the deaths for working-age adults (ages 20-64 years). If that's not worth talking about, then what is?

"The Bible doesn't condemn alcohol -- just drunkenness."
SO WHAT? Roughly half the college students who drink are binge-drinking (i.e five or more drinks in two hours for men; four or more drinks in two hours for women) -- and as Baby Boomers age, they're taking their bad habits with them. What's more, perhaps a third of the senior citizens who drink may be putting their health at risk by doing so. Even if the Bible "only" condemns drunkenness, in other words, a lot of us still need to hear what it says.

"But they say moderate drinking is good for you."
MAYBE.  A recent British study suggests moderate drinking (i.e. no more than two drinks per day for men, and one drink per day for women) may benefit women over the age of 65 -- maybe . . . but there doesn't seem to be much evidence for health benefits to younger women, or to men of any age. Then too, even "moderate" drinking is too much for diabetics, pregnant or nursing women, people who've suffered Traumatic Brain Injury, anyone who's currently driving a car or operating heavy equipment . . .

"Americans are such Puritans when it comes to alcohol -- they don't have this problem in Europe."
HA! Actually, the Puritans drank like fish, downing the equivalent of three beers every day. As for Europe . . . back in 2007, one-in-three German adults binge-drank every day.  Britain's rate of binge-drinking is almost double that of this country.  And even in France this is a growing problem -- in fact, one-fifth of French 17-year-olds are now getting drunk at least three times a month.

"But talking about alcohol-abuse sounds so judgmental."
TRUE . . . but think of it as a family issue. Alcohol-abuse costs American families about $93 billion in lost wages and income every year -- more than the government spends on food stamps. And while the link between poverty and alcohol-abuse is complicated, it seems clear that, when alcohol-abuse becomes a problem, the poor don't have as much in the way of resources to make things better. If we really care about "the least of these," in other words, then maybe it's worth spending a Sabbath School lesson on this?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

This week's lesson (March 14-20): the humility of the wise

Do not be quick with your mouth,
do not be hasty in your heard to utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
and you are on earth,
so let your words be few.
     -- Ecclesiastes 5:2f (NIV)
Some things don't need to be said.

And some things shouldn't.

If you've ever listened to a small child tell a story, for instance, then you know what it means to suffer from waaaaay too much information.

I mean, you're not just going to hear about the cat that came to show-and-tell; no, you're going to hear all the gory details about where that cat sleeps . . . what it eats for breakfast . . . when it will come to school again . . . and how it set up it's retirement plan . . .

Kind of like some sermons.

There's a lot of gaps in the Bible, after all -- and lots of people trying to fill in those gaps. Yes, they try to answer all the questions that anyone might have about:
  • the first twelve-chapters of Genesis . . . 
  • or the first 30-years of Christ's life . . . 
  • or the precise sequence of events that will take place at the end of time.
And like that child with their story of the cat that came to show-and-tell, they can go on . . . and on . . . and on . . . and on . . . when you wish they'd just get to to the point.

Like the Bible gets to the point.
Which is why the Bible leaves out so much stuff we'd really like to know.
The Bible does not answer all our questions; it doesn't satisfy our curiosity about anything and everything we might like to know. No, as it says in Deuteronomy:
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.                                           -- Deuteronomy 29:29 (NIV)
That's why every believer should read the Bible with humility -- with the willingness to accept what it says, and to leave aside what it doesn't. 
In short, there's a lot of things the Bible doesn't need to say.
That's why there's some things we shouldn't.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

This week's lesson (March 7-13): living by faith

"Then [the king] will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you have me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' 
"Then they will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' 
"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' " -- Matthew 25:41-45 (NIV)
It's like going up a mountain.

Yes, you read the Book of Proverbs.

You take what you read, and put it into practice.

And like so many others who put these principles into practice -- like English Quakers, Brazilian Pentecostals, and members of the Salvation Army in Newfoundland . . . you manage to climb out of poverty.

So what do you do now?

Yes, do you stop, prepare an anchor, and get ready to belay the others who are making this climb?

Or do you cut them loose, and race to the top by yourself?

Talk to a sociologist such as Max Weber, after all, and you'll learn that Christian virtues such as sobriety, hard work, and thrift are exactly what you need to get ahead . . .

But listen to a preacher like John Wesley, and you're warned that "getting ahead" can lead you to neglect other virtues: virtues such as kindness, compassion, and generosity.

That's why the Bible continually reminds us that nobody climbs alone. No, we are all part of the same expedition -- rich and poor alike . . .

And as Jesus reminds us, no one is expendable; no, it's never safe to leave someone behind.

In short, be nice to people on your way up.

Otherwise, you might see them again . . .

On your way down.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

This week's lesson (February 28 - March 6): behind the mask

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. -- III John 9f (NIV)
It's lonely at the top.

Fortunately, lonely people don't stay there very long.

That's because bright, hard-working, ambitious people soon discover their competitors are:
  • people who are not as bright, hard-working, and ambitious as themselves,
  • and people who are.
Naturally enough, members of the first group are treated as stepping-stones . . .

While members of the second are eliminated as threats.

So when those bright, hard-working, ambitious people achieve their inevitable triumph, it's no wonder they find themselves isolated . . . cut-off . . . surrounded by nothing but flunkies, doormats, and sycophants.

Naturally enough, this kind of isolation soon leads to mistakes.

Mistakes soon lead to failure.

And failure quickly opens the door for the next bright, hard-working, ambitious person who comes along.

That's why Proverbs 25-27 spends so much time talking about the biggest need of someone in power: the need to surround yourself with honest people who who can rejoice in your success . . .

But who aren't afraid to let you know when you could do better.

Yes, "as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17, NIV) -- and if you want to stay sharp, then you need to surround yourself with people who are just as sharp (or more so).

In short, it can be lonely at the top.

But if you want to stay there?

Make sure you aren't lonely.