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Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Process, Not the Product

Let me show you some Scriptures:
So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).
And whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Col. 3:17).
Do everything without grumbling or arguing (Phil. 2:14).
All these Scriptures assert that how we do what we do—for the glory of God, in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks, not grumbling or arguing—is at least as important as what we do, or in other words, the process is at least as important as the product.  We could multiply similar texts to underscore the point.  God isn't only interested in Point B.  He cares how we get there.

I was reminded of this principle a week ago when we at FBC had our annual meeting.  We had a number of important items on the agenda, but what I found more important was how we handled them.  By and large, it was a really good time.  People generally remained focused on the issues without getting sucked into personal baggage.  People spoke with passion but not anger, and their passion was received as such by others.  People spoke their minds without trying to force agreement and disagreed without being disagreeable.  And at critical moments, some folks cracked some jokes which kept us all loose and prevented us from taking ourselves too seriously.

Now typically when I've gone into church meetings in the last five years of pastoral ministry, I have focused on the product—what I hope to "get done" as a result of the meeting.  But lately I've come to see my role more and more to do with nurturing the process, which I'm increasingly seeing as a better barometer of our spiritual condition than the product.  By that measurement, I think our meeting was a real success, and I am very encouraged by what God is doing among us.  Some of the product was not what I would have favored going in, but I was so pleased with the process that I came to have confidence in all of it.

So to FBCers: great job!  I'm very proud of you and thank God for you!

To non-FBCers, I encourage you to join me in learning the lesson that I am learning, especially if you have a major meeting coming up in your church.  You might have a big issue that you have strong feelings about, something you desperately hope to pass or fail.  But why not take a step back and focus on the process, not the product?  You never know: the Holy Spirit might have a third option to reveal that only a church with a good process can hear.

When a church focuses on the product—well, it might turn out good, but it might not.  But when a church that wants to obey God gets the process the way God wants—which starts with you processing right individually—the product is almost always in line with his will too.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Institutions, Leaders, and Scriptures We Don't Want to Hear

We live in an anti-institutional age.  When you ask Americans whether they trust almost any institutional complex—government, the military, organized religion, business, organized labor, medicine, the legal system, academia, Hollywood, etc.—almost invariably less than half do, and usually far less (like in the 20% range).  This seems to pervade the entire West: when George W. Bush was getting approval ratings in the 20s, he was still more popular than many of his peers in Europe and Japan.

In this post-post-Watergate/Vietnam era of extreme skepticism toward anything without a residential address, the apostles' orders regarding those in social authority are shockingly counter-cultural.  I'm not talking about how the New Testament orders those in power to humble themselves to be servants of those in their care.  That is indeed (permanently!) counter-cultural, and much has rightly been made of that.  But I am talking about the flip side: how people are to defer to those in authority in every way that does not deny the supreme authority of God.

How else are we to understand passages like these: "In the same way, wives, be subject to your own husbands" (1 Pet. 3:1); "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right" (Eph. 6:1); "Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are perverse" (1 Pet. 2:18); (get ready for this:) "Be subject to every human institution for the Lord's sake, whether to a king as supreme or to governors as those he commissions to punish wrongdoers and praise those who do good" (1 Pet. 2:13-14)?  This even applies in the church: "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls and will give an account for their work.  Let them do this with joy and not with complaints, for this would be no advantage to you" (Heb. 13:17).

Is it just me or do these Scriptures sound like nails on a chalkboard?  They are totally discordant with the spirit of our age, a defiant, cynical spirit that we bring with us right into the church and our Christian families, where we gather with those we love.  To show how grating these verses are, consider that one can hardly quote them today even among Christians without adding the obligatory, "But leaders are to love their followers," etc., even though it is easy for us to quote Scriptures about loving subordinates without mentioning submitting to leaders at all.  Does not our preference for any Scripture over another show how unbiblical and infected by the world our minds are?

Though I can't say for sure, I am inclined to believe that the people of the might-makes-right 1st-century Roman Empire had at least as much reason to be skeptical of authority as we do.  But these commands were written to those very people, specifically those who had submitted themselves first of all to Christ.  Indeed, we are able to be calm, rational, patient, and voluntarily submissive to the institutions that we reflexively distrust if we truly believe that Christ is "the head over every ruler and authority" (Col. 2:10).  If we really think that Jesus is ultimately in charge, then respecting and deferring to nincompoops who report to him for a while is really no big deal.  If on the other hand we are constantly suspicious and antagonistic toward institutions, maybe that is a sign that our faith in Christ the King is not what it ought to be.  (It is also true that those who place idolatrous trust in human institutions have a faith-problem as well, but that's for some other post.)

But here's another thing: if we give institutional leaders a hard time, not only does it suggest that our faith in Christ (i.e., love of God) is askew, but our love of neighbor is out of whack too.  It ought to be obvious why: that leader is your neighbor.  He or she is an actual, flesh-and-blood human being, not merely a business card, title, amalgamation of odious viewpoints, symbol, or talking head.  Are you doing to such persons as you would have them do to you?  Are you showing them the grace and forbearance that you need to be shown?  Is your conversation about them full of grace, always "seasoned with salt"?  If you happen to be standing next to such a one before the throne of judgment on the last day, and everything you have ever said is revealed, are you going to be ashamed in the presence of God?

Lord, have mercy on us!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation

Hundreds of thousands of Americans had already died in the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln made this proclamation of a day of national thanksgiving, drafted by his Secretary of State William H. Seward.  We Americans have celebrated it every year since.

October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth. ABRAHAM LINCOLN

By the President:

WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Christmas and Getting Ready

Around this time of year there are always lots of Christian messages about how the greedy materialism of our culture has perverted the true meaning of Christmas.  And all of them are true.  But there is at least one way that the worldly aspect of this season actually focuses us on the gospel.

Like many of you, in late November, as I begin to see municipal Christmas decorations and commercials for Christmas movies and when I hear Christmas music playing at the bank or the grocery store, I find myself saying, “Is it really that time of year already?”  And then I think about all that I have to do at church, like decorating and caroling and preparing the Christmas Eve service and figuring out my Advent messages.  And then I think about all I have to do at home, like buying gifts and getting a Christmas tree (that’s if I can finish raking leaves first).  And then I think about all that the people around me (at church and at home) have to do, and how their actions (or inactions) affect me . . . you get the idea.

In short, given the nearness of the Big Day and all the preparations that need to be made for it, I don’t feel ready.

Which is exactly the point of Advent.

When the Son of God took on human flesh, some were ready for him, and some were not.  Mary and Joseph were ready, having been warned by angels.  Simeon and Anna in the temple were ready when Jesus was brought in to be dedicated, because they were “looking for the restoration of Israel” (Luke 2:25).  But the inn at Bethlehem wasn’t ready for the birth of a new King; there was no room for him.  Herod wasn’t ready for a new King to displace him either, so he unsuccessfully tried killing him off.

The church has traditionally observed Advent season with eyes backward to Christ’s first coming and forward to his second.  As with the one, so with the other: some people are ready and some are not.  With one voice Jesus and the apostles urge us to get ready for the Lord’s coming: “Therefore you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Matt. 24:44); “Therefore, get your minds ready for action by being fully sober, and set your hope completely on the grace that will be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Pet. 1:13); “Therefore, remember what you received and heard, and obey it, and repent.  If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will never know at what hour I will come against you” (Rev. 3:3).

What would you do if you knew that Jesus was coming back on December 25 this year?  Would those preparations take priority over the other items on your to-do list?  For all we know Jesus will come back this Christmas, or even before.  By repentance, faith, and obedience, we had better get ready!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

He Who Made the Eye Sees

Does the one who makes the human ear not hear?
Does the one who forms the human eye not see? (Ps. 94:9)

God is near you.  He knows all your thoughts, words, and actions.  He is ready to discipline.  Go in the fear of that today.

God is near you.  He knows all your needs, all your desires, and all your circumstances.  He is ready to supply.  Go in the peace of that today.

God is near you.  He knows all the harm your enemies and the ignorant inflict on you.  He is ready to avenge.  Go in the hope of that today.

God is near you.  He knows all your perversity and all your hidden glory.  He already loves.  Go in the wonder of that today.
How blessed is the one whom you instruct, O LORD,
the one whom you teach from your law,
in order to protect him from times of trouble,
until the wicked are destroyed.
Certainly the LORD does not forsake his people;
he does not abandon the nation that belongs to him.
For justice will prevail,
and all the morally upright will be vindicated (Ps. 94:12-15).

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Does al Qaeda Have Faith?

I admit it: I have a man-crush on former British prime minister Tony Blair.  That's right; I said it.  It's not that I agree with everything he's ever said or done; it's just that . . . well, this blog post isn't supposed to be about how dreamy Tony Blair is (and he is).  It's about a comment he made in his first lecture in a course on faith and globalization that he co-taught at Yale in 2008 with systematic theologian Miroslav Volf.
"So what I sometimes say to people about globalization and about politics today is that, you know, distinctions between Left and Right matter, but actually as important as anything else today is the distinction between what I would call 'open' versus 'closed.'  Because globalization is an opening-up process, the question is, is your attitude to that, 'Yes, that's good; now how do we make it work?', or your attitude to that is, 'That's bad; that's taking away something of my identity, something of what defines me, and I want to stop it'?  Now religion in those circumstances therefore and religious faith, that can be a means either of saying, 'Well, let us open up to one another and reach out across our different faiths, respecting our own faith and identity but being prepared to reach out to the faith and identity of others,' or it can be a means of saying, 'This is how I'm going to define myself and in distinction to you, because your coming into the space that I'm inhabiting is actually threatening my religious belief and my faith.' "
So many things to reflect on here (and in the whole lecture with Volf's outstanding introduction, which you can watch below), but I'm going to try to limit myself.

It has almost become a commonplace that 9/11 was emblematic of the intersection of faith and the centuries-long yet lately accelerating process called globalization, in which what used to be many local, isolated societies are getting jammed together and the world itself seems to be shrinking.  I believe that Blair means to imply that al Qaeda exhibits a "closed" faith-stance in the face of this jamming-together, particularly with respect to Jews getting jammed into Palestinians and Americans jamming in through the Jews (and in another way through the Saudis, and more lately the Iraqis and the Afghans), and therefore 9/11 is at one level the response of certain faithful to their faith being threatened by the too-close-for-comfort proximity of alien neighbors.

To which I respond, "How much faith is in their faith?"

On the one hand, the 9/11 attackers clearly had faith.  They had faith that killing the people they killed that day, killing themselves in the process, was both objectively righteous and personally rewarding in the afterlife.  They proved that faith by their actions.  On the other hand, I believe, the very defensiveness of their ideology and their utterly desperate, suicidal actions revealed a lack of faith.  At a deep level, they lacked faith that their side was right or that right (as they understood it) would prevail, that evil (as they understood it) would crumble, that a righteous Creator-God would judge justly and order things for good.  Their extreme, chronic anxiety, in which all options are limited to "kill indiscriminately" or "lose everything of permanent value" (i.e., identity) shows that they lack faith in a God who has the whole world in his hands.  They have to do the job for him.

Can we Christians not learn a lesson from this?  Think about a time that some symbol of Christian cultural heritage in America is threatened or removed—a public display of the Ten Commandments for example—because of the pressures of globalization (diverse identities and interests, in this case religions, being forced together to share a small common space, in this case our civic institutions).  What drives Christians' responses?  One of the responses that reflects what Blair called "open" is, "This country is becoming more religiously diverse so that we Christians can win many more unbelievers by proclaiming the truth rather than making false converts through mere social pressure."  A "closed" response is, "Those ungodly, secular liberals are taking our Christian nation away from us and giving it to all those other religions."

Which of these two responses (and of course there are others—these are simplistic options) is derived from faith?  In two senses they are both faith-responses: (1) they have to do with religion, and therefore (2) they reflect beliefs about ultimate reality.  But in an authentically Christian sense only the former is the response of faith.  The "open" response is a response of hope based on the belief that God is at work in this situation.  We are on his side and therefore can't lose; the whole game is rigged by him for his kingdom and glory no matter what his enemies might do, and we get to participate in it.  The "closed" response is a response of fear that silently assumes that God has lost his ability to preserve his territory (our nation, obviously), and so we have to grit our teeth and fight for it for him.  Which response exhibits more faith in the God described in the Bible?

I'm not suggesting that true faith means that we shrug and never engage in spiritual battle against evil that sometimes spills into the public square.  What I'm saying is that how we battle and where we battle (for example, for the heart of an American Muslim via friendly dialogue or for a piece of architecture via legal action) frequently comes as a result of our faith or lack thereof.  Shrill battle-cries—whether "Allahu akbar" or picketing before the Supreme Court building—might actually exhibit more doubt in a sovereign God than faith in him.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Big Brother, Meet the Slot Machine

The following is from an article in First Things by Maura J. Casey.  If it doesn't give you chills—well, I don't know what to tell you.
Along the way, the casinos paid for considerable research into how to increase the length of time gamblers stay at the machine—since the longer that patrons play, the more they lose and the more casinos profit. The chairs at slot machines are ergonomically designed to be comfortable, with no hard edges that could decrease leg circulation, Schull observes. Screens slant at 38 degrees to prevent slouching. Game controls are within easy reach, as are computerized menus to have food and drink delivered without leaving the machine. Some have television monitors to keep players from exiting the area to catch their favorite shows. Slot machines have many different themes, mimicking game shows, cartoons, or favorite sitcoms. The sound of jingling coins, the bells, the volume of noise, the flashing lights are all designed to encourage patrons to play, and play, and play. . . . 

The real genius of the gambling industry was to combine B.F. Skinner’s work on operant conditioning with intense research on how and why gamblers play on the machines. Every casino has a rewards card (Foxwoods’ was once called the Wampum Card, but now it is called the Dream Card), which the gamblers insert into machines at the beginning of play. The gimmick is that, when customers use the cards, the casinos pay them a small amount for every hour they gamble and send them special offers, the value of which escalates the more they bet. In the process, casinos gain a treasure trove of information. The data culled from customer cards at Harrah’s, for example, helped the gambling chain amass a staggering database on 16 million gamblers. The casinos set calendars and budgets that predicted when certain gamblers would show up, how much they would spend, and their “lifetime value” to the company, according to Winner Takes All: Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman and the Race to Own Las Vegas, the 2008 book by Christina Binkley. Company computers produced “behavior modification reports,” suggesting which gamblers would respond to the offer of a free hotel room and which ones would prefer free gambling chips. The computers measured the “velocity” of gambling based on how often gamblers hit the buttons on slot machines, and Harrah’s used the data to entice them to gamble even more. The company measured how often casino patrons visited, and it called them with free offers if the research indicated they were “overdue.” High rollers had always gotten such careful attention, but Harrah’s showed that paying attention to the low-rolling majority of gamblers would make casinos even more lucrative. 

Slot machines have long been programmed to show “near misses” and give gamblers the impression that they came this close to winning, the better to encourage them to keep playing. The machines give back enough money in the process to make gamblers feel like winners even when they are losing. But Harrah’s developed the technique of intervening when reality began to dawn on gamblers—when they lost so much the experience was becoming negative. The company tracked, in real time, customers’ losing streaks and would send “luck ambassadors” to perk them up, give them a token gift—free lunch or some free credits on the machine—to reduce their perception of losing and keep them gambling longer. . . . 

Those who defend gambling say that it should be a matter of free will, just like any other adult habit. But when a customer is pitted against researchers armed with psychological techniques, marketing studies, and computer analyses of a patron’s own behavior for the express purpose of extracting ever larger amounts of money, how much choice is really involved?

(Thanks to Kevin DeYoung for quoting this on his blog today.)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ignatius, Multi-Site, and the "New Episcopalianism"


What do these guys have in common?  (A little church history experiment.)

There is a good bit of controversy about how "church government" worked in the New Testament, and it seems that within certain limits and along certain general themes, there may have been a good bit of diversity.  But it also seems pretty clear to most that in the various 1st-century churches scattered among the cities of the Roman Empire, the leaders were people alternately called elders (Grk.: presbyteroi) or pastors/shepherds or bishops/overseers.  (See for example 1 Pet. 5:1-2, where you find all the terms in one place.)  In the second century, that began to change.  The office of bishop (Grk.: episkopoi) emerged as the individual leader of the church in a particular city, and he was assisted by a number of elders/pastors, a.k.a. priests (an English word derived from presbyteroi).  You begin to see this pattern emerging in the very edifying epistles of Ignatius, for example (that's him in the picture above on the left getting eaten by lions), and perhaps also as early as the careers of Timothy and Titus.

Some have speculated that one reason for the development of a hierarchy with a bishop on top in each town is that it mirrored the organization of provincial Roman governments.  But another reason is quite simply that the church grew beyond its primitive structure.  The churches Paul planted, for instance, started out with enough people to cram into a few large houses, or just one.  But these "house-churches" (which were probably a lot like what we call "small groups" today) conceived of themselves as being one collective church in a city.  (See for example the letters to the churches in the province of Asia in Revelation.)  As there became more and more house-groups in a given city, the new structure emerged to give them some kind of organizational cohesion and keep them connected to the tradition of the apostles and the church throughout the world.

And that leads us to the guy on the right, Dave Ferguson, the pastor of Community Christian Church in the Chicagoland suburbs.  Ferguson is a pioneer and guru of "multi-site" churches.  A multi-site church is a single church that "meets" in multiple locations with a single sermon preached in all the locations either by multiple preachers or by a single broadcast message.  These things are pretty cool these days, and they're popping up all over the place—that is, if you define "all over the place" as generally affluent urban/suburban areas of large metropolises, which also happen to be the sort of places where early Christianity first gained a foothold, I think.

So it occurred to me the other day that a guy like Ignatius in the second century (or Augustine in the 5th, or for all I know my local Catholic bishop today, or maybe even John Calvin running the show in Geneva) must have thought of his church exactly the way Dave Ferguson thinks of his: multi-site.  (What do you think the lectionary is but a way of getting all priests to read and preach on the same text at the same time?)  And if he had videoconferencing technology, he probably would have used it (drawing the line at the Lord's Supper, I think).

And that made me wonder what will happen to these multi-site churches over the next 100 years or so.  Are we seeing a "New Episcopalianism"?  I don't mean a new Anglicanism (i.e., Church-of-England-ism, from which the U.S. Episcopal Church is derived) but a revived episcopal (from episkopos) church government style with what we now call the "lead pastor" as the bishop over a whole virtual "city" with simultaneous meetings in multiple places.  We might even include in this category such "networks" and "associations" as are centered at Willow Creek and Saddleback, overseen by Bill Hybels and Rick Warren respectively.

Will this New Episcopalianism take over everything and dominate the church scene in the next century or two so that there will be no independent congregations or traditional denominational structures of any sort left?  I doubt it.  But what if it did?  Mightn't that set the stage for a new evangelical "ecumenical council" attended by many or most of these new "bishops" such as that which give birth to the Nicene Creed?  And would that not enable true peer-to-peer engagement with the other bishop-led wings of the faith, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, not to mention fast-growing black churches already led by guys called "bishop"?

Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

Friday, November 13, 2009

The WikiPastor

In the Golden Age of Science Fiction (1950s-60s), authors like Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick wrote stories and TV programs like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits produced episodes that said, in effect, "If ________ existed or occurred, what would happen?"  Here's an idea that some colleagues and I came up with yesterday.  Is there anyone out there who would write it?  Jot your notes in the comments section for us all to enjoy!

(Note: Don't interpret this as a veiled statement of some sort.  This is just a thought-experiment.  Have fun with it!)
WikiPros, Inc. markets a new product to churches struggling to maintain a full-time pastor due to the rising cost of health insurance: the WikiPastor, a synthetic being with an artificial intelligence capable of high-performance ministerial output for up to 60 hours per week.  When Faith Community Church purchases a WikiPastor after a lengthy and unsuccessful pastoral search process, WikiPros gives the church its own private page on the company's website.  The page is a wiki (like an article on Wikipedia) with a generic description of the church's new WikiPastor.  The WikiPastor's temperament, decision-making matrix, simulated emotions, communication style, activity priorities, "belief system," and so forth are all determined by the description written on the wiki.  And like any wiki, each church member gets unrestricted access to revise it.
What happens next?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Where's Your Trust?

There is a great, soul-searching lesson about faith to be learned from the Army's new truck.  Check it out.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pray for the Salvadoran Victims of Hurricane Ida

I know it's hard to believe, but sometimes horribly destructive and violent hurricanes occur that don't threaten the U.S.  (Have you ever noticed the almost audible, collective sigh of relief when the news reports that a powerful hurricane headed to American shores has changed course and now is about to blast Cuba or Jamaica or Mexico instead, and then all word of that storm drops from the headlines?  That should make us shiver.)

On Sunday, heavy flooding along the Pacific coast in El Salvador caused by Hurricane Ida brought mudslides that killed 120 people and destroyed many buildings.  That includes the building of the First Baptist Church of San Vicente; after its destruction eight people, including seven children, were missing.  (Read more here.)

Please pray for the victims of this catastrophe, that both spiritually and physically they would be rescued by the true Salvador (Savior), and consider if he is summoning you to be employed by him somehow in that process.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Doing God's Best

My wife Kelly and I were married by one of her two pastor-grandfathers.  I have never forgotten one thing he said in his sermon that day: "And Kelly, when Cory says to you some Sunday, 'How many really good preachers are there in this town?', don't you say, 'One less than you think.' "  (I guess I should have remembered the part addressed to me, eh?)

Last week as I was preparing my message on John 5:1-9a ("The Requirements of Healing"), I didn't get very far.  Not only did I have many obligations pressing in on me, but the Lord impressed me that this message didn't require preparation as much as it required prayer.  I shared this with folks in the church asking them to join me in prayer for the message also.

So then yesterday I preached this rambling sermon, and when the Lord led me on the spur of the moment to invite people forward to be prayed for, five came plus others who came to join me in praying.  After the service ended, we had a little prayer meeting for about 25 minutes, people were committing to walk with God in a fresh way, and the Holy Spirit was clearly present among us.  It was great.

So I get in the car afterwards and enthusiastically say, "Now that was church!"

This is the part where Kelly typically tells me what an awesome preacher I am.  But this time she said, "Yeah, I wasn't really into the message.  I eventually just closed my notebook.  But when you gave the invitation the Spirit started to get me really excited."  (She was mighty in prayer after the service, I might add.)

So at this point, humbled, I was faced with an interesting dilemma.  Do I choose to remain thrilled at the exhibited power of God?  Or do I feel glum at someone not thinking I'm fantastic that particular morning?  Or another way to say it is, if, hypothetically, I could either be nothing special and see God change people's lives or amaze everyone with my oratory and there be no spiritual fruit, which would I choose?

I think that generally God prefers to exert his power through us when in submission to him we try to do things with excellence.  Though it's kind of simplistic, I basically agree with the lyrics of the old Keith Green song: "Do your best, and pray that it's blessed.  He'll take care of the rest."  But what if God's definition of "best" in a given situation doesn't mesh with the world's, and doing one's best his way looks like mediocrity to human eyes?

The apostle Paul faced this situation.  He deliberately chose not to emulate the flashy orators of 1st-century Greece, and so the church at Corinth—people who owed their very souls to Paul, by the way—didn't hesitate to look down on him as a pretty poor preacher.  But Paul was unapologetic about his actions and his rationale:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God.  For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  And I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling.  My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Cor. 2:1-5).
You too might enter a situation in ministry or in your secular employment when doing things in a way that makes you a channel for the Holy Spirit's power means that people won't think you're hot stuff.  Are you willing to take Paul's route, the route shared by John the Baptist, who said, "[Jesus] must become greater, and I must become less"?  At the end of the day, is your service to the Lord about your glory or his?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Couple of Veterans

There are two residents of the Hollidaysburg Veterans Home whose names are familiar to FBCers: Clair Yingling and Bob Mulhollen.  Both are long-time members of First Baptist Church.  Both served in the Navy during World War II.  (Bob suffered a severe injury in an accident and was transferred off the U.S.S. Arizona just days before it sank in Pearl Harbor.)  And both love Jesus like nobody I've ever seen.

Both men are conscious of being near death, and both are eager for it, though each has concluded that since the Lord seems in no hurry to take them home they must still have some use down here.  They're right.  I know they're useful, because their faith is infectious.  God is so real to them as to be almost physically tangible; they talk about heaven as if they are sitting in its waiting room.  Their certainty is so supernatural that every time I visit one of them I walk away with the same thought: "Now I know that what I preach is true."  Their faith is my sight.

When I'm with Clair or Bob, I find myself truly humbled that here, concealed from all the world in utter weakness, is one of the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, someone far greater than myself.  What an honor it will be in eternity when they receive their public reward, and I, anonymous, will turn to the saint next to me in the teeming crowd and say, "He used to talk with me and let me pray for him."

I hope that now or in the near future you get to spend time with some such holy one close to his or her homegoing.

I visited Clair today.  With the familiar sparkle in his crystal blue eyes he urged me to "pound into them that they can never get too much of Jesus."  I told him as I have before that when I grow up I want to be just like him.  With typical humility he replied, "No, you just be yourself."  I want to be myself, of course.  But when I'm Clair's age I want Clair's faith.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What Viruses, Rogue Regimes, and Your Intrusive Neighbor Have in Common

I'm currently reading a provocative book by Edwin Friedman entitled A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

There's a lot that I might say to comment on it (and who knows, maybe I will), but today I just want to talk about a fascinating theory that I read last night.

Friedman maintains that all "malignant life processes"—from viruses to cancer cells (to pest species transplanted from their native ecosystem, I might add—starlings, I'm talking about you) to bad-behaving humans (addicts, chronic complainers/troublemakers, etc.) to terrorists to crime syndicates to dysfunctional institutions to totalitarian nations—have two characteristics in common, regardless of size or scale:

(1) They are un-self-regulated.  They have no specialized, individual contribution to the system of which they are a part.  They are impulsive and seem driven entirely by reactions to those around them—both perceived opportunities and perceived threats.  They don't know when to quit.  They don't naturally mature/evolve.  They have no purpose other than their own boundless, gluttonous existence.

(2) They are invasive.  Lacking any independent sense of self, they make up for it by taking over and living through everything around them (whether cells, family members, or neighboring nations).  Other entities' "stuff" becomes their own, and they act unthinkingly as if entitled to it.  In so doing they control those around them (often unwittingly) and end up destroying the very system that gave them life in the first place.  This is not so much because they are so driven to conquer as it is their neighbors are not driven to maintain their own boundaries (whether a cell wall or a line on a map).

So far, I can't think of any biblical text or concept that perfectly mirrors what Friedman maintains.  But I can think of some biblical examples of the principles in action.

Take hypocrisy, for example.  Jesus tells us not to try to take the speck out of the other's eye (invade) but to take the log out of our own (self-regulate).  And likewise Paul paradoxically points out that in order to effectively bear our brother's burden, we have to "watch ourselves" and focus on carrying our own.

I also recall problems in early churches that reflect the principle.  Paul orders mooching believers in Thessalonica to get a job and stop taking advantage of and meddling in other people's lives.  Likewise he tells young widows in Ephesus to get married and raise their own family so they don't invest themselves in gossipping and messing with other people's families.  (He even calls such behavior Satanic.)

I even think about the tragedy of the human race itself with respect to the earth.  God created Adam to cultivate and guard his "garden" (which I think may represent all of God's glorious creation).  But when Adam sinned, the earth reacted viciously toward us, and we reacted right back.  Now, though we have glimmers of our primeval caretaking, guarding, and even beautifying (see: art, broadly defined) role, our default setting is failing to regulate ourselves and a bent toward invading the natural world for all we can take from it for no other purpose than our own unbounded existence.

Lesson?  Selfishness is evil, but ironically the most selfish people are the ones who are most focused on those around them—how they've been "hurt" by them, what they can get from them, and even how they can help them.  I know people who are obsessed with "helping" others not primarily as a free response to a call from their Maker but rather in order to fill up what is lacking in themselves, and they generally do at least as much harm as good to the people they are trying to "help."  The irony appears to be that a person's first step to loving her neighbor is to ignore the demands of the world around her and focus like a laser on how she stands before a righteous God and on what he made her and saved her to be.  (Obviously, that goes for guys too.)

Monday, November 2, 2009

With the Sharks

A few weeks ago I was flipping through channels and I landed on a short documentary on PBS about American painter Winslow Homer (1836-1910).  I couldn't look away.  I'm not hyperliterate when it comes to art, but I had bumped into a Homer work here or there before and liked him.  But there's something wonderful about having a gut-level attraction to something, and you don't know why, and then someone who knows what they're talking about comes alongside and tells you why you like what you like.  That's what this documentary was.  For about 45 minutes, I felt like I had never seen before.

Anyway, one of Homer's greatest works is The Gulf Stream (1899).

Before reading on, just stare at this thing for a bit.  Let your eyes rove over the individual elements, then get the full perspective.  (Click to enlarge.)

This painting is made to disturb.  It is a moment in a story whose beginning and ending we don't know.  It doesn't have an obvious "meaning" and eludes our probing questions (as did the artist himself, if I understand correctly).  But the painting brought to my mind two opposite ways of looking at it, and the Bible speaks to each.

The question I ask every time I look at this is, "What is going through the sailor's head?"  One answer is hopeless resignation.  He's going to die of starvation or thirst or sunstroke or drowning (see the bad weather on the horizon) or shark attack, and he's given himself up to it.  There's a ship a great distance away that can't see him and won't get him, and he turns his head away in a stony, "screw-you" gesture.  This sailor may represent all of us in the face of our inevitable, approaching death, but in particular those who have no hope for rescue—those without the hope of resurrection in Jesus Christ.  (See the book of Ecclesiastes for details.)

But that brings us to the opposite interpretation.  What if the sailor isn't displaying hopeless resignation but the peace that passes understanding?  What if the ship in the distance is the tantalizing mirage of eternal life by earthly means (achievement, being ultra-health-conscious, bearing children, etc.), and the sailor is rejecting it as a chimera, a fantasy?  Instead, he is serene because he knows that his certain death will be followed by an equally certain life.

Obviously I'm reading a lot more into this painting than seems to be there, but I do so today for this point: we are all on a boat that is about to capsize, and we are all going to die, and the difference between facing it with hopeless resignation and incomprehensible peace is salvation through Jesus Christ.