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Let the Children Interrupt

This past Sunday the lesson was from Luke 18:15-17, Jesus blessing the children. Saturday evening, as I was thinking about this, a local church was promoting their variety of children’s programs and how that showed their care for the children. I know it’s probably unkind of me, but I was not impressed.

Yes, having children’s programs is better than ignoring the children. Having something for the children to do while their parents carry out the activities of the older folks is better than doing nothing. When we were overseas, my mother was often asked to donate to church building projects. She would always ask to see the plans. Frequently those plans would involve a church sanctuary and no educational rooms at all. She’d ask where was the space for the children’s programs, and was told they could meet under the trees until the church had the money to build their facilities. She’d suggest instead that the adults meet under the trees and that the space be given to the children.

Yes, it’s good to provide for the children. But the interesting thing that Jesus did is this: He let the children interrupt the activities of the adults. He didn’t appoint a “children’s apostle” or create a children’s “blessing room” where appropriately gifted leaders could work with the children. No! He invited them to where he was, right to the center.

I think we are too concerned with having our busy routine interrupted. Perhaps if we let the children get involved some of the super-sacred elements of the order of service might be skipped. Perhaps some of the adults would have to listen to something simple and repetitive.

Those with special gifts for teaching and for connecting with children and young people are to be treasured and  their talents used in ministry. But children need to spend time with the adults as they learn, and not always be separated out into age segregated groups where six-year-olds learn from six-year-olds and teens learn from teens. Church should be a place where they can practice and learn. I’m in favor of having children and teens give testimonies, speak, and even present the message. Where better to learn than in their own community? Of course, all these activities should be done with the help of people of experience who can mentor and guide without controlling and suffocating.

I was visiting a small house church overseas and was asked to present a children’s story and also the message for the adults. I hadn’t tried a children’s story in many years. But I gave it a try. For the adults message I had carefully taken a passage and prepared an expository message. It was really pretty good since I say so myself! [Yeah, right.] I was uncomfortable with the children’s story. After I had presented both, and was chatting with my translator immediately after our time together, I noticed the head elder copying my illustration from the blackboard (yes, the old-fashioned slate kind). Then he asked me a few questions through the translator, all about the children’s message.

The children’s story had caught his attention and had met a need in the church. It was clear from our conversation that he was fine with my expository preaching. It just hadn’t connected. The children’s message had.

Is it possible there isn’t such a difference between our needs as older members and those of the children and young people in our churches?

Quote of the Day

Messages are only as useful as the audience they reach … — Joshua Darr, FiveThirtyEight.com

Just so! And even though that comes from a post about politics, I’m not thinking politics here.

Pastor Searches and Job Interviews

Church politics is necessary. Even those who most avoid it live with it. What we must work toward is a way of making decisions in the church that isn’t just a pale reflection of the way things are done in the world.

One of the ways we create a pale reflection is by doing what the world does, only doing it less effectively. Growing up, I was informed regularly that the church functioned democratically. I could see, however, that it was much more of an oligarchy. Why? Because while the church wanted to carry out activities by vote, they didn’t want the discussion and potential acrimony that went with it. For a church such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which I grew up in, or the United Methodist Church, of which I am a part now, this “peaceful” approach, in which members vote for what the leaders have decided, generally breaks down as you move up the chain. In that breakdown, local church members see a great divide between what they would have wanted and what their church is doing.

ThriveThe form of democracy, without a lively dialogue and exchange of ideas on issues, doesn’t really function much like democracy. There are doubtless many reasons why we might not want actual democracy in the church, though the priesthood of all believers does tend to imply that more people have influence.

Thom Rainer, in a post titled FIVE QUESTIONS PROSPECTIVE PASTORS RARELY ASK SEARCH COMMITTEES (BUT SHOULD), perhaps unintentionally highlights this problem with a pastor search. A pastor search is like a job search, only with  spiritual veneer. So we sometimes avoid talking about the things that we really should be interested in and pretend the situation is other than it really is. (I should note that businesses are also very much subject to doing the job badly, though usually for different reasons than the church.)

In her book Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, Ruth Fletcher discusses discernment frequently. She says,

In transforming congregations, leadership teams meet frequently to talk about what the Spirit seems to be doing in the congregation and to notice where the Spirit seems to be guiding the church to go. They keep their own sand moist by engaging daily in the spiritual habit of prayer, and practice the spiritual habit of discernment in their personal lives. They discipline themselves to open their minds to new understandings, to open their hearts to the plight of their neighbors, and to open their wills by setting aside their own agenda in order to seek God’s new creation. (p. 119)

Provided the church congregation believes it should have a paid pastor at all, this would seem like a good approach. Talk about what the Spirit is doing. Engage in the “spiritual habit of prayer” and the “spiritual habit of discernment.” Set aside “their own agenda.”

What would it look like in a church if the process of filling roles or offices in the church was a process jointly of congregational leaders and candidates setting aside their own agenda and discerning what the Spirit is saying to their church?

Questions and Parables: Grace in Luke 17

From openclipart.org

From openclipart.org

Today Pat Badstibner of World Prayr published a post on the World Prayr Devotional blog picturesquely titled The Law Is Not Soggy Cornflakes. In it, Pat finds a number of purposes for the law, even, and perhaps especially, for those living under grace.

If we look to the law as the means of making ourselves perfect (or even better), or perhaps as a guide to what we must be in order to win God’s favor, it’s going to be bad news. The rules don’t make one good. Making rules doesn’t cause people to live by them.

The law doesn’t change when it is seen as a mirror. It is our perspective that changes. For one living under grace, the law can be very good news indeed.

I used this in a sermon two weeks ago at my home church (Chumuckla Community Church), when I preached from Hebrews 12:1-3. I have frequently heard this passage presenting in sermons or Sunday School lessons as a sort of big stick to persuade us to work harder. In my sermon I called this the “Santa Claus gospel.” By this I don’t mean a Jesus who comes down chimneys and leaves gifts, but rather the picture of Santa who is “gonna find out who’s naughty or nice,” who “sees you when you’re sleeping, and knows when you’re awake,” “knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!” (Pardon me for ripping the song up a bit!

This view suggests that all the saints of the past are watching, and Jesus did a good job, so we should get with the program and do a good job as well. They’ll see us if we don’t! (My wife summarized some of the message in a blog post if you want more. I titled the message “How Chumuckla Community Church Can Be Perfect.”)

The very same day my Sunday School lesson was from Luke 17. When I read Pat’s post, I was struck by the viewpoint issue. I think a number of these parables are commonly read and taught in a “law as bad news” mode.

Luke 17 starts (vv. 1-3a) with talking about anyone tripping up any of these little ones. Bad news in action. But it’s followed (3b-4) with the injunction to forgive.

Next we have the request for more faith (5-6). How many times have I heard from this verse that because I cannot tell a Mulberry tree to be planted in the sea, I must have a truly minute amount of faith? You’ve heard it. Don’t worry. The preacher can’t do it either.

Then we have the “we’re worthless slaves” passage (7-9). After a whole day of working, we should call ourselves worthless. We’ve only done what we were asked to do.

Now in the Sunday School curriculum, that was the last passage for the week, but I think it’s important to note that the very next passage is the healing of the ten lepers. Luke claims to present things in some sort of order, and I think this positioning is important.

So we could summarize one set of messages as:

  1. Watch out! If you trip somebody up, God’s going to get you.
  2. You better forgive your brother or sister.
  3. Your faith is miserably small.
  4. No matter what you do, you’re just a worthless slave.

But let’s try changing our viewpoint here. Go to the cleansing of the 10 lepers and work backwards, then forwards again.

What precisely did the lepers do to receive healing/cleansing? All they did was ask. Let’s put aside what happened to the one leper for a few moments. All the lepers are cleansed.

So no matter what you do, you can’t earn God’s favor, because doing good things is just that. You’re doing what you were supposed to do. I’m surprised that we often think we should somehow earn God’s favor. If God doesn’t want to do something God doesn’t have to. In what way would it be unjust, for example, for God to create creatures whose life is limited to the frame of their mortal existence? We don’t like it, but what is inherently wrong with it?

Yet, without doing anything, the lepers were cleansed.

We have so little faith. Yet without demonstrated any more faith than was needed simply to ask, the lepers were cleansed. Perhaps Jesus was telling the disciples that the quantity of their faith wasn’t the key. (And yes, I’m aware of the cases where Jesus commends faith and of the one leper.)

We should forgive, yes, but is it not possible that our heavenly Father is capable of forgiving much more than we are able to forgive one another? God’s grace is greater than ours.

And perhaps the biggest scandal, as we’re back at the beginning of the chapter, is to push someone away from God by telling them they need more faith, greater ability to forgive, or more diligent effort in order to come to God.

All ten lepers were cleansed, even the ungrateful ones. Yet one came back to Jesus and he gained something more. Seen from within God’s grace, faith, action, gratitude, and yes, the law, can be good news. But the grace came first.

The call was to bathe in it.

No Study Tonight and an Explanation

Sunburst in clouds with faint Christ figure emanating from center

I will not be continuing my eschatology study tonight. I will be giving the final session of the eschatology series next Thursday night. At that time, I will take a break and will return June 23, 2016. I will announce what I’ll be studying as we move forward.

The reason for this hiatus is that I have become less and less happy with using Google Hangouts on Air as the basis for these studies and for the videos we do for Energion Publications. In fact, we’re taking the same hiatus for Energion. When we return, we’ll be using livestreaming, and probably using more than one outlet. We can now livestream on our content on Facebook, Periscope, and YouTube, though we have no problem with YouTube.

For my study, at a minimum, I expect I will livestream it and also provide it in a video and audio podcast.

In the final episode of my eschatology study next week I will discuss the book of Revelation, various ways of reading it, and also some valuable insight that can be gained that has nothing to do with writing or drawing end times charts.

Join me next week, May 19, at 7:00 pm central time. I’ll provide links on this blog.

Science and Replication (or not)

Credit: OpenClipart.org

Credit: OpenClipart.org

An article today on FiveThirtyEight says it’s possible that the simple awarding of badges to those who follow certain procedures (openness of data, revealing methodology, etc), may have sparked an increase in these good practices. Or not, of course. The correlation is pretty clear. The causation is somewhat less so. It could be that all the publicity regarding replication has been more conscientious scientists choose more rigorous and open approaches.

What’s interesting to me is some of the popular fallout and commentary that I’ve heard on this. Completely unscientific quacks and nuts use the errors made by scientists as a cover for their own ridiculous claims, while ordinary people decide they can ignore scientific evidence because it might be wrong. If it might be wrong, why should I bother?

Projects such as the one awarding badges for certain practices can help with the public perception as well as the actual practice of science, and that will be a good thing.

What bothers me about the frequent response is that people who are actually much less careful and accountable than the scientific community use the misbehavior as some to both denigrate science as an enterprise and to open the door to completely untested ideas and theories.

Even though the scientific community has its problems—and I strongly commend those organizations working for greater transparency—your odds are still better working with material produced by a community that at least aims for sound methodology. Sure, some science may be wrong, but I’m willing to bet my life on my doctor’s views over those of someone who guesses and goes by their feelings.

They’re Bad so We’re Good

Conflict

Credit: openclipart.org

Recent political discourse reminds me of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Lk 18:9–14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

It has been interesting to read articles by partisans of one party or the other explaining how unelectable the candidate of the other party is, and how that party is truly in trouble and going down in flames. “They’re so bad that we’re good,” seems to be the subtext.

I’m not primarily interested in the politics, however, but in some things in shows about human nature. These articles and conversations point to a dangerous, perhaps even fatal way of measuring ourselves. We do it in church just like we do it in the broader society. If I can point out enough negatives about a church or a group, I will surely have demonstrated the value of my preferred group or position.

Thus comes the Pharisee. Now I think we should be careful about how we talk about the Pharisees. In many ways they would make excellent Christians. They were good people trying to fulfill God’s law. Nonetheless they suffered from one of the many failures of the righteous—self-righteousness. It’s interesting that when we look down on the Pharisees for their flaws, we generally are participating in the same ones. We’re not Pharisees. Aren’t we special?

Jesus is here bringing in a character who will be considered righteous by his audience and putting him up against one who will be considered wicked. Note the prayer. “I thank you that I am not like other people.” Face it! We thank God that we are not like other people on a regular basis. We may pretend to be the tax collector who went home justified. But more often we’re looking for the position of the Pharisee. However much contempt we may put into saying the word “Pharisee,” it’s his position we long for. It’s just that we want to thank God that we “are not like other people … or even like this Pharisee.”

I believe the root, however, is our bad approach to measurement. We want to be “better than.” We want a church that is less unfriendly, more mission minded, more biblical, better structured. If we can say with any justification, even just enough to convince ourselves, that we are better than the church down the street, then we can be happy. As a Methodist, I can give thanks to God that I’m not the frozen chosen as are the Presbyterians or self-righteous like the Baptists.

I’ve been on the receiving end of this, as someone points out to me the flaws of the United Methodist Church, which are doubtless legion. How can I be a member of a United Methodist congregation? Surely all of these flaws mean that I should instead be a [Baptist, Presbyterian, Reformed (some variety), charismatic, pentecostal, house church, high church, etc.].

Here’s what experience has taught me: Don’t look at the church down the street. Ask this question: Am I doing God’s will by being where I am? Where can I best do God’s will?

Every church I have been in has had flaws. If it didn’t have them before I got there, it definitely did after! One of the most dangerous things we can do is determine our value before God by comparing ourselves to other churches. This works in many ways. The church down the street can provide us with an excuse for continuing to behave badly. My Methodist congregation may be comforting itself by noting that it’s better than the Baptists while the Baptists are comforting themselves that they are doing better than we are. We can follow that spiral right to perdition as our errors give others an excuse for theirs.

On the other hand, we can become extremely discouraged by comparing our performance to others. If the church down the road is growing by 10% per year, what’s our problem? If they have money to build  a new Family Life Center why can’t we?

We need instead to take the parable to heart. What is God’s will for us? Let’s seek God’s will and God’s mercy as we work that out.

Here’s a video of a sermon I preached many years ago. I wonder if it’s still relevant.

No Eschatology Study Tonight

Sunburst in clouds with faint Christ figure emanating from center

I will not be presenting my study on eschatology via Google Hangouts on Air this evening. I will continue on May 12 and May 19 which will conclude this study. I still haven’t decided what my next topic will be. I’m open to suggestions.

No, I Really Don’t

Vote?

Vote?

… have to vote for one of the major party candidates come November.

I’m going to take a break from not posting anything political. I haven’t stayed away from political posting because I think politics is bad and Christians shouldn’t be involved. I welcome the involvement of everyone in politics. For me, it is a matter of priorities. I choose to post about the gospel and about dialogue, especially but not exclusively among Christians. I’m still not going to tell you how I will vote, but rather about how I make the decision.

I have been registered as independent, not a member of either major party, for about 28 years. I honestly can’t remember (and have no records), whether it was 1986, 1988, or 1990 when I changed my registration from Republican to Independent, but it was one of those. The reason was that I could not accept being counted as a supporter of either of the major parties. I could say that my hope was to get the two parties removed from their privileged legal position. I do wish that, but “hope” is too strong a word. I have been told that I have given up much of my ability to influence the course of politics by this decision.

I have been told that I have given up much of my ability to influence the course of politics by this decision. I’m told by the same people that my one “vote” in changing my party affiliation is no sufficient to be meaningful. I find that oddly contradictory.

Each presidential election I have been told that I need to vote for one or the other of the major candidates, because one of them would become president (or holder of some other office), and indeed this is right. In all the elections in which I have voted, one of the major party candidates has won. In most cases, I voted for one or the other of them, though I have voted for other candidates on occasion.

And you know what? One of the major candidates won, no matter what I did. That was expected. I probably had an impact on that by taking away my vote from whichever major party candidate I would have voted for had I not voted third party or independent. In each case, I fully accepted that result.

The reason for all this is that I don’t belong to any of the political tribes into which we seem to be divided. I would never pledge to support the nominee, whoever that is, in either major party. I cannot call myself a conservative, a liberal, or even a libertarian, though I have some affinities for positions held by each.

Let me illustrate.

I am strongly opposed to foreign military intervention in almost all circumstances. I think that trying to occupy other countries and do “nation building” is especially unproductive—no, make that destructive—because for some reason other countries are not as enthusiastic about being made into the nation we think they should be as we are about “building” their nation. There simply aren’t enough troops out there to occupy all the countries where terrorists might hide and be overlooked by the local government.

At the same time, I favor a strong national defense, with the emphasis on intelligence, special operations, and technology, especially developing new technology to detect and deal with 21st-century threats.

I am fundamentally a capitalist, not pro-business, but capitalist. That means I oppose subsidies, corporate bailouts, protectionism, and governmental barriers to entry, such as most licensing laws.

At the same time, I believe in a safety net. The problem with our existing welfare system is not that it gives too much money to people who need it, but rather that it is so complex and unwieldy that it requires a good lawyer to sort out the requirements and an army of bureaucrats to manage it. And I do mean by this that we should not have children starving, we should not have people depending on the emergency room for their medical care, and we shouldn’t have people involuntarily in the street. Of course, there will always be some that we cannot reach, but those that can, should be helped.

I am very conservative in my lifestyle and in my personal ethics and morals.

I am libertarian about what choices others should be allowed to make.

I could go on and on and doubtless bore you to death. Every candidate will, if elected, do things that I consider wrong. When I vote, it’s not a matter of finding a candidate that agrees with me, but of choosing which wrong things I think should take place.

I don’t find this very surprising. That’s politics. I often have the same problem in church. That’s how living as a community, even a fractured community, works. What I refuse to do is tie myself to any party, and I wish more people would do so as well.

Don’t become disengaged, but at the same time don’t feel that you have to support everything because you support something, or nothing, because you can’t support everything. (I put that sentence in there to test your parsing ability!)

I will vote. After I vote, things will happen that I don’t like. That’s also part of living in community.

But I may vote for someone that has no chance of winning. Friends will tell me I threw away my vote. Some of them will think I hurt one major candidate, some the other. Then during the term of office to follow they’ll explain to me that one shouldn’t support any of the minor parties because they didn’t get enough votes.

Well, they got mine.

(Clipart source: Openclipart.org)

Overthinking

20160502_083329I sometimes tend to overthink things. I know this will shock my family and friends. I just experienced the downside of this.

Our yard is full of trees. I have nowhere to park my car that doesn’t result in it being covered with tree sap. Now doubtless friends by the dozens will know how to wash this off. I, on the other hand, had to go complicated. I have tried different car washes. Then I tried a pressure washer, which started to damage the paint.

Today I decided (finally) to just get the water hose I use for the garden and a rag. I intended to have some soap, but forgot to buy it. In 15 minutes with the rag and the hose, the car looks just fine.

Overthinking … I could have done this last year and saved time and money on car washes. It hardly takes as long as running through the machine!