Thinking Out Loud

June 11, 2020

Cookie-Cutter Book Recommendations

Two days ago I watched a YouTube video with a title something like, “Top Ten Books Every Christian Should Read” that had been posted two or three years back by a popular Christian blogger. It came up in the YouTube/Google algorithm as something recommended for me, but I also considered the possibility that Google is being paid for search engine optimization.

As I scrolled through the list, my reaction, to use the words of a well-known climate activist was, “How dare you!”

As someone who has been blessed by Christian books since my pre-teen years — which is a long time ago — I have books that I’ve enjoyed on a personal level. They’re part of my story, and if people ask, I share what some of them were, but not to the degree of recommending that they need to read them.

And as someone who has spend a lifetime working in Christian publishing at both the wholesale and retail level (and on the fringes of the acquisitions and author development level) I don’t think I have ever recommended any of these books to the people with whom I’ve been in contact.

Mind you, seasoned Christians, veteran Christ followers, whatever you call them, usually know what they’re looking for. The people looking for advice are often wanting to get started at going deeper and for that I have suggestions. (As I’ve stated recently, keeping up with those means there were times my own reading wasn’t as deep as it could have been. If starting over, my library would be more InterVarsity Press and less Thomas Nelson/Zondervan, but what do you do if the former isn’t cooperating and the latter actually knows how to market books?)

My wife suggested I simply publish my own list.

I also know that any ‘Top Ten’ lists are considered clickbait, and when you are a very successful blogger the pressure to publish is immense. I say that as a once moderately successful blogger who felt compelled to produce new content every day for more than ten years.

I guess that, although I’ve poked at this topic repeatedly, what was printed was simply a list of ’10 Books Every Reformed Christian Should Read.’ That would describe it, right?

Wrong.

It wasn’t even that. It was a list of ’10 Books Which One Reformer Thinks Every Other Reformed Christian Ought to Read.’

1. Knowing God by J.I. Packer
2. The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul
3. Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur
4. The Disciplines of Grace by Jerry Bridges
5. Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen
6. Spurgeon by Arnold Dallimore
7. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney
8. Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey
9. The Pleasures of God by John Piper
10. The Cross of Christ by John Stott

Yes, there’s a woman on the list, but honestly, until two days ago, after the aforementioned lifetime in Christian publishing, I had never heard of her or the book, or had an inquiry about it. Perhaps she paid for search engine optimization, too.

Lists like this need to be subjective. It reminds me of an instructional article that shaped me years ago as to how to respond when someone asks what is the best Bible translation. “Best for whom?” we were taught to say.

Not knowing where this list is going to land, I would not begin to recommend these books, nor assume that the recipient fits into the “Every Christian” mold that is presumed. People are unique. Their journey with Christ is personal.

“How dare you!”

 

May 29, 2020

Those Twelve Disciples Probably Asked, “What Have We Got Ourselves Into?”

During the past ten weeks, I’ve been doing more original writing at C201, than here at Thinking Out Loud. While I don’t want this to simply be a mirror site for those Bible studies, I do want to share them here from time to time. This one appeared a few days ago…

Two weeks ago we looked at The Twelve Disciples. I’ve been continuing to think about them in the days which followed.

I wonder what I might have done in their shoes. A decade ago, a popular Christian speaker said these guys, like other Hebrew boys, might have dreamed of being selected to follow a Rabbi. Only “the best of the best of the best” were chosen. These guys were (for the most part) plying trades and weren’t on any Rabbi’s short list. Their life trajectory was headed in another direction.

Then Jesus appears. He invites them to basically ‘stop what you’re doing and follow me.’ And out of the blue,

Matt.4.20.NIV At once they left their nets and followed him. (See three different gospel accounts.)

It was an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Or could they?

Today, most of us would not consider taking a job without investigating the potential employer. What is their reputation? How is their stock price doing? What are the working conditions?

Similarly, none of us would enroll in a program of education (which is closer to what they were doing) unless we knew that upon completion, the certificate or degree was actually recognized; that it truly meant something. (The accreditation process facilitates some of that investigation for us today.)

Would they accept not knowing all the facts? Apparently so.

First, they were signing up with a peripatetic teacher.

Don’t let the big word scare you, it’s similar to itinerant and simply means “traveling from place to place.” Jesus the teacher was not attached to a synagogue. Being schooled with him didn’t mean an actual school, but rather wandering from place to place, sometimes eating on the road by biting the heads off the grain in nearby fields (and getting into arguments over so doing.) See Matthew 12 for that story, but don’t miss verse 8 where Matthew adds the phrase “Going on from that place…” to emphasize the traveling ministry. Even his long discourse in the last quarter of John’s gospel is delivered while walking from the upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane.

(A big shoutout here to anyone who has ever slept in their car, or at the side of the road. I’ve done both, but not lately. That’s the idea conveyed here, although the twelve plus Jesus were sometimes billeted in the homes of supporters in various towns.)

When one of the scribes considers following him, Jesus utters his famous “foxes have holes” line which The Message renders as,

Matt.8.20.MSG Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”

Second, Jesus wasn’t trained by a rabbi they knew.

There was a strict process here. One rabbi trains a group of students (as Jesus is doing) and then they wash, rinse and repeat. (Couldn’t resist.) But you always know, at least in name, the person your rabbi sat under for his training.

So Jesus commences his ministry, and the crowd (specifically, elders, scribes and chief priests) ask him who has commissioned him in ministry; who has authorized him to preach. In our day, being ordained or being a commended minister carries with it the concept of accountability.

Mark.11.28.NLT They demanded, “By what authority are you doing all these things? Who gave you the right to do them?”

repeated in Luke,

Luke.20.1-2.NASB On one of the days while He was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders confronted Him, and they spoke, saying to Him, “Tell us by what authority You are doing these things, or who is the one who gave You this authority?”

Most readers here would quickly say that Jesus’ ministry is confirmed by his Father. More than once in the gospel accounts we find the “voice from heaven” speaking. (A good topic for another study!) But the disciples would be risking their own reputation following a teacher whose own schooling doesn’t have earthly verification.

In balance however, we need to remind ourselves that the miracles Jesus performs validate his teaching. Things ‘no one could do unless…’ Nicodemus gets this when he says,

John.3.2b.NIV “…For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Third, there are lingering questions as to the legitimacy of Christ’s birth.

In a world without user names and passwords, people would have a longer memory for stories, and while Joseph and Mary weren’t celebrities, their story is the hard-to-forget type which would make great fodder for the tabloids and TMZ.

So when Jesus begins teaching, they ask

Mark.6.3a Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son…?”

they don’t simply mean, ‘Isn’t this the boy next door?’ but rather are dredging up a host of other memories which would recall the earlier scandalous story where Mary finds herself pregnant.

In another story where the authority or power of Jesus’ teaching is questioned, the Jews to which he is speaking come back with an indirect, but hard-hitting shot at Jesus

John.8.41b.NIV We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”

Commentators have been so bold to suggest that this phrase can be translated, “We’re not bastards!” It’s a direct allusion to Jesus’ parentage.

Knowing these three things, would we accept the call?

I will leave that question open.

There are three applications we can take from this:

  1. Following Jesus may take us to unexpected places, it might involve sacrifice, and may result in experiencing less than optimal conditions.
  2. The path of discipleship may mean unconventional employment, perhaps even contradicting the norms of standard vocational ministry.
  3. Following Jesus the Nazarene may impact our own personal reputation; we will need to simply not care what people think of us or Him.



March 21, 2020

Parents: Don’t Assume Kids Will Automatically ‘Catch’ Your Faith

Just take them to Church each weekend and your kids will ‘catch’ it, right? In a sense, that may have been more true in previous generations than it is today. But many parents are finding they singularly can’t take anyone spiritually beyond where they are themselves without help.

Some good input for parents comes from Canada’s Natalie Frisk in her book, Raising Disciples: How to Make Faith Matter to our Kids (Herald Press). After her undergrad work at Redeemer University in Hamilton, she completed her Master’s degree at the same city’s McMaster Divinity School.

In a recent interview with Redeemer’s Resound magazine, the story unfolds as to how the book came to be:

Throughout her time as a youth pastor, Frisk would get a lot of questions from parents about having their kids follow Jesus. “I started to keep track of that with no real plan for what to do with it at the time,” she says.

It wasn’t until later, when an editor from a publishing company asked to meet with her, that she realized she had some great material for her book.

“It is the shared wisdom of so many people who have been part of my spiritual community,” she said. “It’s kind of crowdsourced from people who are rockstar parents. There was a lot of community involvement. I just got to write it down.”

Today she is a curriculum developer for The Meeting House family of churches and that curriculum is being adopted by churches all over the world, including many in the newly-formed Jesus Collective.

Her publisher, Herald Press summarizes the book,

Children and youth will just “catch” the faith of their parents, right?

Not necessarily. Talking with kids about Jesus no longer comes naturally to many Christian parents. In Raising Disciples, pastor Natalie Frisk helps us reconnect faith and parenting, equipping parents to model what following Jesus looks like in daily life. Filled with authenticity, flexibility, humor, and prayer, Frisk outlines how parents can make openings for their children to experience God in their daily lives.

As curriculum pastor at The Meeting House, one of the largest churches in Canada, Frisk calls parents who follow Christ to ask the big questions about the spiritual formation of children and teens. In practical and thoughtful ways, she equips parents to disciple their kids in various stages of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Raising Disciples will awaken parents to the possibly of Jesus-centered parenting and encourage us to engage in the lost art of discipling our own kids.

Redeemer’s Shannon McBride continues Natalie’s story,

…[T]here are two parts to how parents can model faith to their kids: intentional practices and unintentional lived moments.

Intentional practices are things like praying with and in front of your kids and reading your Bible. “They see you doing it, so they know you value it,” she says.

Unintentional lived moments are things like modelling forgiveness to your kids. Frisk says parents should apologize to their kids when they do something wrong. “Get down to their level and ask for forgiveness. And forgive them when they apologize. That offers a glimpse of the heart of our Father God.”

October 29, 2019

MacArthur: A Lesson for the Boys and Men

Filed under: Christianity, current events, theology, women — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:30 am

This is about the 8th or 9th time I’ve found a Twitter thread that I felt was worthy of a wider forum or a different media. This time around the author is Tish Warren Harrison, author of Liturgy of the Ordinary (InterVarsity). I know as I’m typing this that some of you are weary of this subject, but I believe she offers a fresh perspective.

When everyone was talking about John MacArthur and “Go home,” I was busy having a human being, so I haven’t been online. But do I care? Of course I care. I care because I’m a female priest and care about Beth Moore. And because I care about the church. And here’s what I thought:

I have often said that I keep having this conversation — not just about women’s ordination/roles but about women’s catechesis/discipleship, institutional empowerment and accountability, theological training, leadership, and depth — for my daughters, but this week, I had a son.

And I have realized that we need this conversation just as much for him and every boy of the next generation. Because it is hard to be a faithful, orthodox Christian in the world. I think it is getting harder.

If boys and men can’t learn from and value the gifts, insight, teaching, knowledge, writing, ministries, and works of God in 50%+ of the church, it will be all the harder for them to walk with Jesus.

Sexism is a sin. We don’t often speak of it in those terms, but it’s not just “problematic.” It’s a principality and power. It is idolatry. And like all sin, it diminishes us as a church, not just those sinned against, but those who are in sin.

(And note I’m not talking about complementarianism as a biblical conviction, which is not what any of this is about — Beth isn’t ordained even. This is about if women can speak about God.)

September 26, 2019

Local Church Initiatives: More Isn’t Better

Some background: On Tuesday I posted a brief article contrasting those churches which are programmed to death with those not offering enough avenues for engagement. You can read that article here.

That promoted this reader comment:

I’ve been involved as a leader in both “kinds” of churches…at one church, we had the philosophy that MORE ministries were better, in other words, it was like a smorgasbord of ministries that were available every week. The calendar HAD to be full. I constantly felt the pressure as a leader to fill positions, fund initiatives, provide space, and pressure people to be involved.

Then I started leading a church where the only ministries we had were the ones that “surfaced” within the Body itself…in other words, people who felt the leading of the Lord to begin a ministry, started them and “staffed” them with like-minded people they knew who shared their passion, I found so much freedom in that…and I found that the ministries took care of themselves better over the long haul.

I am now a firm believer in “less is more”…in fact, in most of the churches I’ve led since my “smorgasbord” days, the church has been healthier because we have allowed the Lord to lead us in birthing ministries instead of having a busy “template” for what church should look like. In fact, I think for most churches, they could let about 1/2 of their ministries “die” and they would be happier and healthier. The issue is giving people the freedom and encouragement to build their lives in the Lord IN the midst of their lives instead of forcing them to live the life we think they should live…one built around church activities instead of simply living for Jesus in the spheres of influence that is their daily life. That’s been my experience…

The comment came from Rev. Dr. Robin J. Dugall who describes himself as “Pastor, Professor, Musician, Teacher and follower of Jesus;” and writes at Spiritual Regurgitations. (see more below*)

Because of his insights with this, I invited him to expand on this…

More isn’t better: It’s exhausting and counter-productive

The editor of this blog started “thinking out loud” and, in the process, requested a bit more from a reply that I posted to “Volunteers Wanted.” This issue has been the story of much of my professional life in the Church. Without bringing up at all any thoughts regarding the differentiation between “volunteers” and those using their gifts in ministry as an expression of their unique Kingdom calling, I’ll wade into the invitational waters.

I never thought I would say this much less write it, but I’ve lived a good majority of my 65 years of life involved in some manner or form of “Church.” From parachurch ministries to outdoor ministries…from small congregational ministries to what used to be regarded as “large” church settings. Thanks to the Lord, I’ve never had the opportunity to live my Kingdom life within the sphere of the megachurch. There is a part of me that cringes simply imagining the intensity of financial and organizational pressure that goes along with the management of any large “company.”

As a “churchworld” (I’ll define that term below) leader, my responsibilities have ranged from that which would be regarded by some as the sphere of the Senior Pastor to the leadership of a plethora of “sub-ministries” including children’s, youth, music, small groups, leadership and theological/biblical development. So, in regard to this issue of “Volunteerism” and what it takes these days to not only “do” ministry but enable and equip Jesus following people to be responsive to the call of God upon their lives, I’ve had my share of experience.

I must say that I’ve made some drastic, strategic and, in my mind, God-honoring changes in my ministry philosophy over the past two decades. Much of those changes have occurred because of witnessing the futility and counter-productivity of the “more is better” mentality. I’ve been involved as a leader in both “kinds” of churches…at one church, we had the philosophy that MORE ministries were better, in other words, it was like a smorgasbord of ministries that were available every week. We operated under with the mindset that the “calendar HAD to be full.” Subsequently, it was. It wasn’t simply the fact that I was out of my home probably five to six out of seven nights per week, but we constantly felt the overwhelming pressure as leaders to fill positions, fund initiatives, provide space, and pressure people to be involved. The key aspect of the previous phrase is “pressure people”…and, trust me, that’s what happened.

When Christendom ruled, the belief stood that the Church should be the center of life. And, in some respects, Christendom did appropriately draw one’s faith journey into a rich life of worship, fellowship and encouragement in faithfulness. Yet what has occurred over time as many Christians have bemoaned Christendom’s demise is that a form of institutional tyranny arose in its place. The Church was no longer the center of culture, so Church people formed a hybrid (more of a mutation) of Christendom to take its place – something I call, “churchworld.” When I talk about “churchworld” I am attempting to put into approachable language some way to clarify the overwhelming, insatiable “hunger” of religious institutionalism to demand the whole of a person’s life and attention.

“Churchworld” is one-part theme park and one-part assembly line…one part “money pit” and one-part shopping mall. It is built upon the values of consumerism and utilitarianism – in other words, how can we get the most out of people in order to give back to people what we perceive they need. In my humble opinion, that’s what “churchworld” does…just as the price of a ticket to any Disney park has insanely and prohibitively increased in cost for day’s excursion, so has the “cost” in time, energy, money, and “personnel” of feeding the demands of “churchworld.”

My wife and I have adult children that are involved in “churchworld” ministries. They constantly give witness to the increasing demands for the totality of their lives to be focused on sustaining the institution’s strategy of ministry. They have shared with me the fact that many people who are their friends in the Lord have made it a habit to leave churches after a year or so simply because of the increasing burdens and demands of involvement. Once involved in feeding the “beast,” it is hard to back away graciously without risking the subsequent woes and grief given by overwhelmed staff. I would never coin myself as a predictive prophesy individual, yet it doesn’t take much forethought to see the coming fall of “churchworld.”

One of my favorite authors, John Kavanaugh compares Ancient Rome’s adherence to “bread and circus” (the book, Following Christ in a Consumer Society; John Drane says the same in his books on the McDonaldization of the Church) to that of “churchworld’s” fascination with entertainment and feeding/attracting the masses.

Contrast that experience with what happened in my life as a leader and fellow disciple when I started leading a church where the only ministries we had were the ones that “surfaced” within the Body itself…in other words, people who felt the leading of the Lord to begin a ministry, started them and “staffed” them with like-minded people they knew who shared their passion and sense of calling for that ministry. Some call this ministry strategy, “Organic.” Truthfully, that kind of language aptly describes what occurs in reality. The kingdom of God that Jesus described is viral, organic and, by nature, a movement. It grows where no apparent strategy or potential can be found…and it lives, not by human energy and ingenuity, but by spiritual mystery.

In the organic ministry realm, we are much more apt to be praising God for his leadership and fruitfulness in people’s lives than praising ourselves for the plethora of activities that we can effectively manage and multiply by sheer effort and relational intimidation. Personally, I found so much freedom living as a living “organism.” With that mindset, with a renewed embrace of the dynamic spiritual nature of the Body of Christ, I found that the ministries took care of themselves better over the long haul. For example, in my current congregational setting, we have a few teenagers who would benefit from a good youth ministry program. Now, I could for a ministry team, hire a youth worker and build an entire infrastructure to handle that ministry need…that’s the programmatic approach. Even so, we have no one in the church who is sensing the “call” of God to form another program.

In the past, I would have beaten down people in an attempt to build another program. I chose not to do that. Instead, I called a pastor friend of mine who leads another church in town. They have an amazing youth ministry program and have built a solid ministry strategy to disciple teens. I talked to the pastor; told him I was interested in “investing” the kids in our church into their youth ministry program. I felt that partnership was more important than simply duplicating what is happening right down our street (so to speak). I talked to the parents of the teens, the youth themselves and now they are loving what God is doing in their lives as they participate in that other church’s ministry.

Some might say, “well, aren’t you fearful that you will lose that family to that other church?” No, I’m not and if they did leave, I would bless them on their way. I’m not going to try to be “all things to all people” any longer. I’m not going to fear ministry partnerships…in fact, I want so desperately to affirm them.

Church, at least in what I read in the New Testament, has more to do with organic living than most people want to admit. I am now a firm believer in “less is more”…in fact, in most of the churches I’ve led since my “smorgasbord” days, the church has been healthier because we have allowed the Lord to lead us in birthing ministries instead of having a busy “template” for what church should look like. In fact, I think for most churches, they could let about half of their ministries “die” and they would be happier and healthier.

The issue is giving people the freedom and encouragement to build their lives in the Lord IN the midst of their lives instead of forcing them to live the life we think they should live…one built around church activities instead of simply living for Jesus in the spheres of influence that is their daily life. This explains why Jesus did not ask us to go and “make gatherings or churches or home groups or…” He did not ask us to go and “make house churches.” He said, “go and make disciples.” Discipling viral disciplers is the end game. This places YOU and ME squarely in the midst of reproductive life that the kingdom is intrinsically about. We become movement-starters not church-starters. We release disciples who will influence the world throughout their lifetime and beyond.

When we start “churches, communities, meetings, etc.”, our focus tends to be on the communal gathering—what to do, how to do it, what it looks like, etc. We may say to ourselves that we are learning to “be” the church but often our priority remains on developing the structure/form/institution. When following Jesus and inviting others to follow him becomes our focus (discipling viral disciples), we have to shift from the “gathering” mentality to the “lifestyle-going” mentality. This shift will propel us from being church-starters to movement starters (where churches and gatherings spring up along the way).

One more thought – consider “wiki-based ministry.” In other words, I desire to build a “Collaboration based” ministry environment. I believe that God is active in EVERY person so that our community creates meaning – our ministry partnership is a reflection of a descriptive process with no prescribed meaning; we fix us, no experts are needed; leadership teams and pastors are good but only one of the gifts of community. We believe in a distinctly relational ecclesiology. That is organic…that is a celebration of less is more.

 


*From his About page: “Currently, in addition to being an Adjunct Professor in Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific University, he is a pastor of a faith community, Adjunct Professor at Concordia University (Portland, OR) and an instructor/mentor of the Missional Training Team for the Lutheran denomination.”

September 24, 2019

Volunteers Wanted: A Tale of Two Churches

Ted and Tom are twin brothers. In their early 40s. Living at opposite ends of a large city. Both attend churches with weekly attendance in the four-to-five hundred range.

volunteers needed 2At Tom’s church, the Sunday announcements are fairly predictable. More people are needed to serve in the nursery. And the food pantry. And the middle-school boys Sunday School class. And the tenor section of the choir. And a drummer for the contemporary worship team. And the facilities committee. And now they’re asking for people to serve as parking lot attendants.

“Why do we need parking lot attendants with only 250 parking spots?” said Tom aloud to no one in particular.

“Shhhh!” said his wife, as the couple in front turned around and scowled.

“Did I say that out loud?” Tom asked.

…Across town at Ted’s church the situation is much reversed. There are not as many ministry initiatives, and Ted who happens to be a drummer and a tenor and a fairly competent pre-teen Sunday School teacher has nothing to do on Sunday morning. He shows up. He gives money. He has meaningful conversations with people during the coffee time between services. But he always feels a little lost on Sunday mornings and to his credit, he helps out on Monday nights at The Salvation Army and on Saturday mornings he is committed to a men’s group at another church. There just aren’t any pressing needs for anything Ted has to offer.

Ted and Tom often compare notes. While there’s nothing new about churches asking for assistance in various departments, Tom wishes his church was more like Ted’s (and that there were fewer announcements.) On the other hand, Ted his envious of Tom’s situation; he’d like to feel he was needed even if it was the superfluous task of welcoming cars in the parking lot.

volunteers neededSo which is the more healthy situation? What would the church metrics people say about these churches? Is a healthy church one in which there are always needs because lots of exciting things are happening, or is a healthy church one in which people are stepping up and filling volunteer ministry positions as quickly as they become available?

And what about Ted? Should there be some avenue of service for him to continue to develop his spiritual gifts? Should Ted’s church be creating some new ministry initiatives so that people like Ted can feel more involved or plugged-in?

Where on the continuum does your church lie?

September 13, 2019

Now That You’re A Christian, You Need to Find Another Church

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:27 am

I spent my formative years in The Peoples Church in Toronto, Canada at a time when we didn’t have the term “megachurch” but if it had existed, Peoples was the first and only one in Canada during those years. We also didn’t have the term “seeker sensitive,” but Peoples, under the ministry of Dr. Paul B. Smith, defined that completely.

There was always the hint that a person who found Christ in that environment might reach a point where they want to step out either (a) to serve, or (b) to come under deeper teaching in an another church.

Steven Furtick

So I wasn’t totally alarmed when I started to read this profile of Steven Furtick:

Furtick is charismatic in the pulpit, and he is eager to share his desire to reach the lost. But he seems to believe that once the lost are “found” his work is done. “If you know Jesus Christ, I’m sorry to break it to you, this church is not for you,” Furtick says. This applies even if you’ve only known Christ for as little as a week.  “Last week was the last week that Elevation Church existed for you,” Furtick declares.

Furtick forgets that Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” And we know the entire point of a pastor is to shepherd the flock under his care (John 21:17; 1 Peter 5:2-3)…

At least not alarmed at first.

Over the years, I’ve gone through stages of affection and concern for the Elevation pastor. But Furtick is given to hyperbole, and while hyperbole is by definition an excess, his “Last week” statement above could be shattering to a person who has crossed the line of faith and wants to know determine — as another megachurch terms it — “next steps.”

We don’t ask newborns to take the elevator to the lobby and catch a taxi to their next station in life.

In the field that was once called “Personal Evangelism” it was called “Follow Up.” The quotation marks and capital letters are intentional. I’m trying to make a point here, and the point is that if nothing else, the parable of the soils (or seeds, if you prefer) tells us what happens if the seeds are not well-planted; not well-nurtured.

It reminds me of the girl who, on completing her Confirmation, told me “The day I joined the church is the day I left the church;” treating it as if it was some type of graduation ceremony.

Nothing could be further from the truth…

…I’ve used these charts before in various forms, and I apologize for not knowing the source of these particular graphics, but they illustrate that the work of the church continues both before and after. The original black-and-white version I have is from Contemporary Christian Communication: Its Theory and Practice, by James K. Engle (1979)

 

September 9, 2018

Awkward But Perfect Spiritual Formation Metaphor

This summer a local church ran a VBS program which had a mining theme, so I don’t know if the advertising tag line originated with the publisher or with the church, but it’s stuck in my head:

Come like a carbon
Leave like a diamond.

It’s definitely not a Biblical phrase, but it aptly describes God working to form us, shape us, mold us into the image of His Son.

And carbon, at least in the form of charcoal with which we’re more familiar, is messy. You touch it and your hands get dirty. But that’s what we hand God to work with when we ask him to assume Lordship of our lives.

On the other hand, there is nothing like the brilliance of light being reflected and refracted in a diamond. That’s the image of God’s completing His work in us, though we won’t fully see ourselves as perfected this side of eternity. That comes later.  

We all want this. But the crushing pressure of true diamond formation is unimaginable. Really, that is the metaphor. That becoming a diamond is sometimes going to be painful.

But it’s going to be worth it.

Come like a carbon
Leave like a diamond!

 

 

June 28, 2018

Choosing Kingdom Over Empire

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:59 am

Several years back, I got to know Canadian Baptist pastor Clarke Dixon. As I read his blog, Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon (where he takes his weekly sermon and shrinks it) I realized it was an absolutely perfect fit for Christianity 201 (our sister blog) and so his writing appears there most Thursdays. Today, I wanted to give readers here a taste for what Clarke writes there, and as this is today’s C201 post, many of you get to read it here first for a change! You can also read it at Clarke’s blog.

Will we ever wake up in a world with no violence or conflict? We see it on the news, we hear about it in the lives of people around us, maybe we experience it personally. Yes, there will be a day there will be no more conflict. Christ will return and there will be

a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away . . . And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’” (Revelation 21:1,5 NRSV)

But are we to just wait for that day, putting up with all this conflict until then? The prophet Nahum will help us find our way.

Nahum points us in the right direction by pointing out what happens when we get on the wrong track. Nahum is a prophecy to a people who had been on the wrong track. The Assyrians were on the track to empire. Nahum had the task of telling them that they had reached the end of the line. There are three problems with the track to empire.

First problem with the empire track; empire is temporary. Much of the history of the world is a history of the empire after empire seeking to become the biggest and best. The history of the world teaches us that they all fall in the end. Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, it doesn’t matter, empire is always temporary.

There is a better track; the track that leads to the Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is eternal. We may struggle to understand the book of Revelation, but the main message is really quite simple; empires rise and fall, but the Kingdom of God is eternal.

So are we building towards empire, or Kingdom? Are we building for things that are temporary? Are our time, talents, and treasures going toward things that last?

Second problem with the empire track: empire destroys relationships. In empire living, there are only allies or enemies. The peoples within and around an empire are either going to help the empire get bigger, or they are going to get in the way and be a threat.

There is a better track, one that leads to the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God, there are only neighbours. Jesus taught us to “love thy neighbour as thyself” and then went on to define our neighbor as anyone and everyone.

When we meet people, do we see them as either allies of enemies? Do we see them as either being useful to us, or in our way, and even a threat? Or do we simply see them as neighbours to be loved?

Third problem with the empire track; empires are built through brute force and brutality. Nahum tells of this, for example:

1 Ah! City of bloodshed,
utterly deceitful, full of booty—
no end to the plunder!
2 The crack of whip and rumble of wheel,
galloping horse and bounding chariot!
3 Horsemen charging,
flashing sword and glittering spear,
piles of dead,
heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without end—
they stumble over the bodies! Nahum 3:1-3 (NRSV)

Yet she became an exile,
she went into captivity;
even her infants were dashed in pieces
at the head of every street;
lots were cast for her nobles,
all her dignitaries were bound in fetters. Nahum 3:10 (NRSV)

In building empires, countless of people were killed. For those who lived, eyes were often gouged out, tongues cut off, people sold off and removed far from home. So brutal were some empires that even unborn babies were ripped from their mother’s wombs, and orphaned infants dashed to the ground. This is how empires struck fear in their enemies. Better to surrender to the power of a “better” empire, than experience it firsthand. Nahum’s prophecy is about the Assyrian empire experiencing what it dished out to others.

All who hear the news about you
clap their hands over you.
For who has ever escaped
your endless cruelty? Nahum 3:19 (NRSV)

There is, thankfully, a better track, the track that leads to the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is built with a different kind of force: “not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit” Zechariah. 4:9 (NKJV).

Jesus said “those who draw the sword, will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:62-54 NRSV). Jesus was doing two things when he refused to use violence at his arrest in Gethsemane. He was taking the Kingdom track for our sake, so that we might be forgiven rather than destroyed. But he was also giving us an example to follow, an example of Kingdom thinking, Kingdom living, Kingdom dying. Jesus call us to pick up the cross and follow, which means to trade empire for Kingdom. We are to become Kingdom people, good news people.

We are empire people when we show up with swords and guns and bombs. We are Kingdom people when we show up with the Spirit of God: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Galatians 5:22,23 (NRSV). Do we show up to our relationships with swords or the Spirit? Do we show up on Facebook, Twitter and other social media with swords or Spirit? Do we show up ready ready to fight people? Or to fight with people against the evil in their lives? Do we show up as empire people or Kingdom people?

You might perceive a problem with the Kingdom track. It does not seem to take into account your suffering at the hands of another. It is unfair. You deserve vengeance. And perhaps you are right. It is unfair. However, the prophecy of Nahum, though addressed to the Assyrians, was for the encouragement of Israel when they experienced what seemed to be very unfair treatment. Having been on the wrong track for a long time, Assyria has reached the end of the line. However, nowhere in the prophecy of Nahum is there a call for Israel to take up arms. There is no need. We can think of Paul’s word to the Christians in Rome who also knew a thing or two about being treated unfairly:

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17-21 (NRSV)

Every day we wake up to violence and conflict. Every day is an opportunity to live as God’s good news people. Every day is an opportunity for Kingdom rather than empire. While we may not feel we have much influence in conflicts around the globe, the ones close to home are opportunities for Kingdom building.

November 9, 2017

The Essential Art of Concision

I debated between calling this “The Lost art of Concision” versus “The Developing Art of Concision.” First, a definition is in order:

Therefore, when I speak of the concision as a developing art, I mean the necessity of being able to put ideas across in a short-and-to-the-point manner; something you need in a world of soundbites. Last year I wrote,

It was Noam Chomsky who introduced me to the idea of concision. I’ve taught it as, “You’re selling your car through a media which is charging you $1.50 per word. How do you describe your vehicle persuasively, but keep the cost down?”

But when I speak of it as a dying art, I’m thinking specifically of the migration of many bloggers from what I’m doing now — typing/writing words — to podcasting; and to Twitter’s decision to gift everyone with 140 additional characters on Tuesday evening.

Twitter is obsessed with the number 140. (Originally videos were limited to 2 minutes and 20 seconds, which is 140 seconds.)  The new length, 280 characters, doubles this even though 160 would have been a nice gift in itself. Or 180 or 200. 280 seems long, it seems to rob Twitter of it’s basic character, heretofore. But I didn’t always feel that way. When I joined, I wrote:

I can’t say what I have to say in 140 characters.

In case you missed it, I tend to write long.

But the word concision has come up on this blog somewhat frequently. Earlier this year I wrote,

I have for a long time questioned how much time sermon has left.  With all due respect to those of you currently honing your homiletic craft at either the undergraduate or graduate level, I really think that this particular form is destined to go the way of the CD or the land line phone. I’m not saying there aren’t some great preachers out there; I spend my evening hours listening to sermon after sermon online. But that’s me. For others there are a host of reasons why sermon doesn’t work. ADD or ADHD comes to mind. Some sermons are simply too long. Some say it’s just not how they learn. Some claim that high profile Christian pastors have simply set the bar too high and average pastors can’t achieve the quality that is now widely available online. Others would argue that we’ve become accustomed to media bursts, sound bites, and increased concision.

The Bible itself is amazingly concise. Readers are often fascinated to learn how narratives they had heard about — Creation, Jonah, The Prodigal Son — when they actually got around to reading them, were expressed in a very limited fashion. In an article about Christ’s ascension the subject was raised (pun intended):

A reader wrote, “We’re told… at his ascension that he will come again in like manner as they have seen him go.” But what do we know about that manner? How long were the disciples staring as he rose into the sky? Was there a low cloud ceiling that day? The Bible’s tendency to brevity and concision makes me think that perhaps God didn’t just beam Jesus up, but his ascension may have have been more prolonged; a vertical processional to heaven.

It also came up in a piece on diminishing attention spans:

You see this in the way books and articles in periodicals are written now; in fact you’re seeing it in the piece you’re presently reading. Pick up an older book — say 60 years or more old — and you might find an entire page consisting of a single paragraph. You might even find several consecutive pages consisting of a single paragraph. (I’m told that some chapters of Paul’s epistles were often a single sentence in the original Greek, no doubt a weaving of dominant and subordinate clauses that the reader of that time would follow easily.)

Today we use paragraph breaks to keep the content flowing; to keep the eyes moving on the page; to force us writers to adopt a greater degree of concision. Our writing is also broken up by more numbered or alphanumeric lists, by bullet points, by sub-headers and by pull quotes. (We use them often at Christianity 201, where the devotions are by definition somewhat longer, and we want to make what would otherwise be an entire page of text more interesting.)

The trend towards podcasting is actually surprising, given the push toward brevity in a bullet-point world. Have you ever thought of what a full transcript of your favorite podcast would look like printed out? It would run for pages and pages. A blog post on a similar topic would be less than 2,000 words, and easily digested in under 7 minutes. (Or spoken in 15 minutes. Compare word length to spoken time at this speech minutes converter.)  We wrote about podcasts on an article on the trend from literacy to orality:

Inherent in podcasting is the right to ramble. Listeners get the nuance that’s missing in a traditional blog post (and this is one of the great liabilities of email) but they have to take the time to wade through the host(s) stream-of-consciousness narration. There’s no concision, a quality that decades ago Noam Chomsky had predicted would be, moving forward, a key asset in communications. A great concept that’s probably a seven or eight paragraph blog post instead becomes a 53 minute podcast.  Andy Warhol’s comment that “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes;” might be modified to, “In the 21st century, everyone will have their own talk show or be the host of their own radio station.” 

As Christian communicators however, we have to be careful when we try to reduce to mystery or complexity of the gospel to a concise motto, slogan, tag line or formula. In an article titled What is the Gospel, I wrote,

I also think that, when considered in the light of the Jewish appreciation of the scriptures as a great jewel that reflects and refracts the light in infinite ways each time we look at it, the idea of trying to formulate a precis of the Bible is to venture into an endless and perhaps even frustrating mission. What would Jesus think of trying to consolidate something so great, so wide, so high, so deep into a finite number of words?  Concision is great, but maybe it doesn’t work here.

Anyway Twitter, thanks for the extra characters; but I earnestly hope I have the wisdom to not overuse them. Readers, it’s a busy world out there; keep it short!


Yes, today I basically quoted myself throughout this article. To further embellish Chomsky’s teaching on concision would have made the article…well…not so concise.

For those mystified by the final graphic image, TL/DR stands for Too long, didn’t read.

For further reference in thinking about the difference between podcasting and blogging, this article is less than 1,100 words; you can halve the minutes in the above example.

 

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