Thinking Out Loud

December 31, 2017

My Year in Review

Redeem the time - Stewardship of timeThis is certainly the year in review time for many writers. But what about my year or your year? I’m definitely not a KJV guy, but there’s a phrase in it I’ve always particularly liked.

Col 4: 5 KJV Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time.

Eph 5:16 KJV Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.

The KJV uses the term “redeeming the time” in these two verses.   The second verse appears in the NASB as,

making the most of your time, because the days are evil.

and in the Voice as

make the most of every moment and every encounter

The other verse appears in the NASB as

Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity.

Again, The Voice has

Make the most of every living and breathing moment because these are evil times

The question I ask myself is this:  Did I make the most of my time and my opportunities in 2017?   And then:  Will I endeavor to make the most of my time and my opportunities in 2018?

While some writers emphasize the importance of rest — including it among the spiritual disciplines — others talk about the “stewardship of our time.”   Time management is considered enough in scripture that it is not a stretch to say that scripture introduces a “doctrine of time usage.”

But like everything else in scripture, there is a place for balance in doctrine.   Think of a pendulum swinging back and forth.   Only when it stops swinging does it find the place of balance in the middle.

There is a time for action — The one who knows to do something right and doesn’t do it; that’s a sin.   But there’s a time for rest — Be still and know that He is God.

Time management by Biblical standards involves more than a simple “resting” or “action” theory.   It requires skill and wisdom to find the balance.

So more questions:   Did I learn to rest in God in 2017?   Will I learn more about resting in God in 2018?

How is your year in review?

Nobody said this was easy…

…To my Thinking Out Loud online community, I wish you God’s best in the New Year.

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December 30, 2017

The Mind is a Battlefield

The Mind is a Battlefield. It truly is. I’m surprised there’s never been a successful Christian book with that title. Here’s a summary of some things that have appeared here at Thinking Out Loud with the blog tag “thought life.”  Each one of the titles below is a link to a larger article.

Over-Consumption of Internet Media

5 General Principles to Guide Potential Online Addiction

(this ran in March of this year; you need to click the title to see these spelled out)

  • Self Control
  • Mind, Thoughts and Heart
  • Shifting Values
  • The Stewardship of Our Time
  • Misdirected Worship

Media to Fill Your Home

(you need to click the title to see these spelled out)

  • Bible teaching
  • Christian books
  • Christian movies
  • Christian music
  • Hearing God’s voice

Phillips – Col. 3: 16-17 Let Christ’s teaching live in your hearts, making you rich in the true wisdom. Teach and help one another along the right road with your psalms and hymns and Christian songs, singing God’s praises with joyful hearts.

What will control your thought life this week?

A Day Lived Entirely for God

Several years back, a phrase from Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps became part of popular Christian culture through the acronym WWJD?. It appeared on wristbands, bumper stickers and a host of novelties and trinkets and in the crush of popularity, a few people actually bought and read the book.

Facing everyday challenges with the question ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ is a great idea, but I wonder if it’s too focused on doing; in other words, I’m concerned that it only measures action.

I’ve written much here about temptation here with respect to our thought life. For myself, a person who doesn’t commit great transgressions of moral or spiritual law, a better question might be WWJT? or What Would Jesus Think? In a review of David Murray’s The Happy Christian, I noted the following chapter outline based on Phil. 4:8… 

[the link takes you to an overview of David’s media diet and ministry diet.]

The Fruit of Your Thoughts

…If your mind is saturated with unhealthy thoughts and ideas, it will manifest itself in several ways:

In your conversation: We all have heard the Biblical principle that out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. Even the most guarded, careful, filtered person will let something slip that betrays where their heart is wandering. Or they may lose interest in topics that would normally engage them.

Stresses: For the Christian, having made poor choices in the area of inputs and influences will result in an inner conflict that may come to the surface in being short or snappy with the people we love or people we’re close to. The inner turmoil may simply result from a feeling of personal failure.

Distractions: A mind focused on things below instead of things above will inevitably be un-ordered, resulting in forgetting to return a phone call, missing a payment deadline, forgetting the directions to an appointment. Time allocation to responsibilities may slip noticeably.

Acting Out: Experts say that people dealing with online addictions often end up taking some action as a result of the content they have been viewing, but we tend to think of that as more overt. In fact, acting out often takes places in subtle ways that are more tangential to the addiction than direct. It’s possible that only the person themselves knows that the behavior trigger.

Reticence: Other people whose mind is otherwise preoccupied will simply become withdrawn. An unhealthy mind condition will manifest itself similar to worry and anxiety. For the Christian who senses that they are moving away from The Cross instead of moving toward The Cross, they may opt to retreat from their fellowship group or simply be less animated than is typical.

What Goes into a Mind Comes Out in a Life

We are all fighting a battle within ourselves… The illustration goes like this: There is a old Indian chief telling a story about how each of us have two rival dogs, a good dog and a bad dog. Both are always fighting each other. Sometimes it seems like the good dog is winning other times it appears like the bad dog is winning.

One of the tribal members asks, “So, how do you know which one will win?”

To which the chief replies, “It depends which dog you feed.”

click image to orderRelationships and the Internet’s Dark Side

(the article contains two stories of the manifestation of over-consumption of the worst the net has to offer)

…Someone once compared the things that enter our thought life to what happens when farmers sow seeds and later reap the harvest. The little verse goes:

Sow a thought, reap an action;

Sow an action, reap a habit;

Sow a habit; reap a lifestyle.

One thing is certain, whether there’s aversion or attraction, interpersonal dynamics are changed. Someone has said, “You are what you eat.” You certainly are what you read or view on television or your computer screen…

December 16, 2017

Crossword Puzzles and Sermons

I’m told that doing crosswords keeps the mind sharp. That’s certainly a valid goal. I try to do a couple of smaller ones (where I know I can finish) each week, but will also help my wife as she wrestles through the  New York Times level of difficulty.

When we first married, I would criticize her for this indulgence, as I saw them as a bit of a time-waster. “You’re not actually learning anything;” was the thrust of my argument. And it’s true. Unless you doing research to get the answers, or something reveals itself by interpolation with the letters you’ve already written, there is not much in the way of new information.

You’re using your brain to be sure. It beats watching a 2-hour marathon of The Simpsons. You’re bringing to mind things you’ve heard before and then buried deep in the recesses of your memory waiting for this particular moment to unearth them. In those terms, it’s a nice refresher. But again, it’s only when you’ve completed all the across letters in a down clue that you might say, ‘Okay, apparently the seven-letter word meaning _______ is _______.’ Or, ‘So that’s the author who wrote _______.’

Sermons are like this in many churches.

We are often reviewing and being re-presented with information with which we are already quite familiar. Maybe it’s being said in a fresh way and we can then take that particular tact when explaining something to a friend. Perhaps it’s something that needs reinforcing because we do live at the intersection of this world and the world to come and there is a constant inner war raging between our human nature and the nature that was made for higher things.

Generally, this is a good thing. The Eucharist itself is the best example of this. It doesn’t change much from week to week. But we eat, we drink, we remember, we leave differently than we entered. The hymns or worship choruses are not necessarily new; we have sung them on other occasions.

However, there is something to be said for a sermon which imparts new information. One that informs us of things we simply did not know before. Where we say, ‘I’ve never heard that explained;’ or ‘I never knew the context of that particular story;’ or my favorite, ‘How did I grow up in church and never hear that taught?’

Second best are those who help you fill in the blanks. Like the crossword puzzle where you’ve filled in all the letters but didn’t know the word before, the speaker leads you to the moment of, ‘Okay…so if all these things are true then from that we realize that…’  I would rank sermons that contain deduction a close runner up to those providing fresh information.

Personally I gravitate to teachers giving me more background (context, word study, related passages) than I had when I arrived. It doesn’t matter if the sermon is exegetical (expository) or topical, as long as there is some depth and something I can learn that helps me better understand the ways and mind of God, and then apply this to everyday life.

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.

 

October 5, 2017

What You Don’t See Just By Looking at the Amish

I don’t know offhand if the Amish permit what’s called here “Agritourism” — in other words farm tours — but I have something that would be of greater interest than seeing the hay lofts or furniture making workshop. I’d like to sit down with an Amish elder and discuss the underlying faith, specifically their faith and how it informs their customers. It beats driving around Lancaster, PA and going, “Over there! It’s another one!” and then snapping camera-phone pictures of these precious people simply trying to live their lives in peace.

This week, I got a bit of an insight into the type of information I’m seeking. I work two days a week at a Christian bookstore that my wife and I coincidentally happen to own. When an audio book came in missing the shrink-wrap usually found on audio products1 I considered the idea of listening to a few minutes of it as, despite the various podcasts and sermons I listen to constantly, I have no personal experience with audio books.

Then I discovered the book was voiced by none other than Christian Taylor, one of the regulars at The Phil Vischer Podcast.2 I decided to see (or hear) what her vocational labor produced.

The audio was for the book Amish Peace: Simple Wisdom for a Complicated World by Susanne Woods Fisher.3 Interspersing Amish proverbs with anecdotal stores would make this a fun read, but it was probably a bit of a challenge voicing a reading of the book.

Putting it as simply as I can, there is a world here which, while it may seem strikingly different to observe as a tourist, is actually more different than you think in terms of the underlying principles which guide everyday life in an Amish family and an Amish community.  They live out an ethic which is certainly rooted in the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings of Jesus, but in many respects almost goes beyond that high standard in terms of everyday life.4

Even if I could embed myself in an Amish family for a week, I don’t know that I could ever expect to fully get it without having spent a lifetime being educated and shaped by their community values, passed on from generation to generation. They live in a world without electronic media and yet possess a wisdom many of the rest of us cannot imagine. Their formal education ends at Grade 8, yet they have better literacy rates than in other neighboring rural areas. Their children are given responsibilities that would boggle the minds of parents who bubble-wrap their kids in the cities, such as driving a team of mules to plow a field.5 And their pace of life means they see things which the rest of miss while driving Interstate freeways at 70 mph.

I enjoyed the (audio) book, but I find myself wanting more; more than I can get from simply packing up the car and heading off to Amish country or Mennonite country to simply look at them.6

I want to take a month and be them.7


1To my readers in other countries: For years records, tapes and CDs in North America have come plastic-wrapped, as we don’t want to get to get germs, at least that’s what a record vendor in England told me years ago.

2As in “…We’ll talk to Skye and Christian, too, but we’ve got no guest this week for you…” (Show theme song.) Christian is a voice actor. christiantaylorvo.com

3Oops! Fisher wrote Amish Peace in 2009. In an earlier version of this blog post, I identified the book as The Heart of the Amish which she wrote in 2015. This appears to be a different book, not a title update. My bad.

4The stories about forgiveness will break you.

5Full disclosure: The book admits this freedom results in a much higher rate of Emergency Room visits due to injuries compared to other children in rural areas.

6Pennsylvania or Ohio or Western Ontario would be the destinations of choice for such an excursion. The book notes the Ohio Amish have a lower percentage of people living in farm communities.

7I would probably not be able to give up my phone or internet connection. Today, several houses share an outdoor phone booth of sorts which is for making calls, not receiving them. That would be somewhat insufficient.


Christian responds:

Related: A 2010 article I wrote about the Amish and the concept of being separated from the world.

Photos: Daily Encouragement by Stephen & Brooksyne Weber.

May 29, 2017

An Interactive Devotional Experience

Imagine for a moment that I’ve had a particularly frustrating and upsetting week. A praying close friend, aware of all this takes a moment to send me an email with the curious subject line, “A message through me from God to you.” With a sigh, I click and read:

My child, I know the past few days have been trying. Please be assured of my continued you love for you and know that in these times I have been as close, if not closer, to you than ever.

Not at all thinking it through, I hit ‘reply’ and type:

Really, God? It would have been nice to have a sign of that love. A change in circumstances. A good night’s sleep, even.

I no sooner hit ‘send’ and then it hits me. What have I done? My friend will be upset. Will I damage our friendship by not appreciating their effort in reaching out? Has my response betrayed a total lack of faith? Am I just going to get God mad at me?

Not 60 seconds later a message comes back:

A sign? Okay. How about an encouragement note from a close friend?

I sigh, but this time it’s a different sigh, one of resignation.

Sorry, God.

Book Review • The Listening Day: Meditations on the Way – Volume 1  by Paul J. Pastor (Zeal Books, 2017)

Have you ever wanted to talk back to your devotional book? I imagine myself saying, ‘That’s easy for you to write; you don’t know my situation.’ Perhaps I’ve already done that a few times.

The Listening Day is a collection of 91 page-per-day readings by Oregon’s Paul J. Pastor (yes, real name) who is also the author of The Face of The Deep, which we reviewed here. At first look, the book appears to follow the format of several popular titles in the same genre, where the words on the page appear as a direct message to the reader from God. Consider Francis Roberts’ Come Away My Beloved, Larry Crabb’s 66 Love Letters, Sheri Rose Shepherd’s His Princess series, and Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling and Jesus Always.

I am often wary of this format. I would not presume to say, ‘Thus says the Lord’ unless I were certain that I had heard from God in the first place, and so I have what I consider a righteous skepticism toward books which run with this format. I’ve read the criticisms, most of which were directed at a highly successful title by an author who was and still is generally unknown. For many, the format is reminiscent of God Calling by A.J. Russell which is often used in conjunction with the AA program and has been criticized for the process by which it in particular was written, something called ‘automatic writing.’ 

Those situations don’t apply here. The author is well known to readers of Christianity Today, his first book was published by David C. Cook, and I’ve listened to him teach at his home church in Portland, where he is a deacon responsible for spiritual formation.

The book is different. For two reasons.

First, although each page begins with two well-paired key scripture verses for the day, there are many scripture passages alluded to and embedded in most of the daily writings. The book is thoroughly anchored in Biblical texts. I didn’t encounter anything where I thought, ‘God would not have said that.’ Rather, with my discernment radar set to its maximum setting, I felt the plausibility of God saying such things — especially to me personally — was quite high.

Second, there was the interactive factor. This was, in one sense, a dramatic encounter with God. The interjections on the part of the reader — typed out on behalf of you and me — were the things I would say. This book got very personal very quickly. With further honesty, sometimes the interruptions were followed by apparent silence on God’s part. Been there, too.

The introduction came with an admonishment not to try to binge-read the entire book, but rather to take one reading per day. Good advice, but impossible for a reviewer who has to read every word of every page before composing a review. Slowing down to 15 entries per day over 6 days, I asked myself, ‘What if this were the only thing I had time for in the morning as I started my day?’ I think it would be a most appropriate beginning because the dialogue format is a reminder of God’s presence from the moment I awake, and this is critical in a world where many Christians are spiritually defeated between the bed and the breakfast table. 

A note about the “Volume One” in the title: Without giving away too much at this point, I’m assured that there is more to come. Stay tuned.

Climb the tree of life–
the branches are wide and strong enough for all.
Reach from beauty,
stretching to understanding,
pulling up on wisdom
until you come into sight of the place where I hang,
beyond words, above the healing leaves, high above the kingdom.
There you will know me, just as you are known,
at the crown and light of the listening day.


We ran an excerpt of one of the readings a few days ago at Christianity 201.

Zeal Books is a new company from the former owner and President of Multnomah Publishing and includes among it current roster a book by Bruce Wilkinson.

May 8, 2017

Reading and Teaching for Transformation

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:03 am

I have been noticing a recurring theme lately in sermons I have listened to online and books I have been reading. Perhaps it’s personal conviction about this subject.

The idea is very simple: Many of us read the Bible and Christian books, and many of us listen to sermons in order to gain information when God is wanting to see our transformation. Perhaps you even are in a position where you give leadership or mentoring to others, or simply have occasion to speak into the lives of friends, and what you’re imparting is more informative than transformative.

I know I’m a guilty of this. Do you ever track your spiritual progress by the month, or by the year? Each day I have more knowledge and a better understanding of the ways of God and the history of his dealings with his people. But am I a different person than I was last month or last year? To ask the question bluntly, what good is all this information doing for me? What good is all that Bible knowledge and understanding of systematic theology doing for you?

Spiritual formation is not simply about building up the mind’s knowledge base. It’s about forming the character of the heart. It leads to different speech, different choices, a different mindset, and different actions.

God, help us all in this information age when we have so many Biblical resources so easily accessible; help us that we don’t track our progress simply in terms of knowledge gained but in terms of a heart changed. Amen.


I don’t usually include prayer requests here, but in my waking hours in the middle of the night I felt compelled that this space today should include something for the pray-ers out there. If intercession is part of your calling, please remember two people in my part of the world who need a special healing touch from God, Michael K. and Roslyn S.

April 17, 2017

Willow Creek Continues to Rewrite the Playbook for Weekend Services

Two weeks ago Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago’s Northwest suburbs had an “Authors Weekend.” Teaching pastor Steve Carter interviewed Anne Lamott and then went into an another exchange with Lee Strobel, the latter having been a former Willow staff member. (Later in the week Josh McDowell visited on Wednesday night.) You can watch those interviews at this link.

Doing an interview in a church service can be a hit or miss proposition. Especially if it is replacing a traditional teaching segment aka sermon. Furthermore, the reaction to any particular guest is going to be subjective. Just a week or two earlier, Willow hosted Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas. That one didn’t resonate with me so much.

But watching Carter talk with Lamott and later Strobel, I realized what they are doing has some broader implications.

First, 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.

Second, I have for a long time advocated teaching modules rather than a single focus half hour. A few of us are old enough to remember when NBC introduced the show Real People. Hailed as the first magazine format program — though I’m not sure it predated 60 Minutes — this variety-meets-information type of programming is now widely used. I always thought that the ideal solution in church would be to break up the 30 minutes into three 10 minute segments, separated by music, announcements, or scripture readings. One module might be topical. One might be exegetical. Or if you prefer, one might be light while one might go deeper. One might deal with family life. One might delve into an obscure Old Testament character. (If that last one sounds boring, remember, we’re talking ten minutes here. You don’t have time to lose people!)

What Willow and Carter did that Sunday met these objectives in the ways that follow, but I also want to add one extra point.

The interview was a nice alternative to a sermon. Key here was the fact that the two authors really had something to say. The aforementioned sports star was a good testimony, and she’s probably a role model for a lot of young girls — and they did have a sermon that week as well — but Strobel and Lamott brought a lot of substance to the table. There was also spontaneity, including an opportunity to text in questions. (I wasn’t there in person, but watching the Saturday night service live, I could have easily participated in this.)

The interviews would appeal to different people. Strobel’s was also a testimony, but also tied into an upcoming movie. A number key points in Christian apologetics were covered. Another aspect to this story is what happens in a marriage when one partner has crossed the line of faith and the other is hostile toward Christianity. I hadn’t read anything by Lamott but her personal, unaffected demeanor probably connected with people early in their Christian journey, with seniors, and also with women. In other words, a wide swath demographically.

The interviewer had done his homework. This was the thing that really impressed me. Steve Carter wasn’t just ‘winging it.’ He had spent some time studying both the literature and the biographies of his two guests. Willow had a point to all this, they were doing it for well considered reasons; otherwise they wouldn’t have done it at all. But if they were going to do it, they were going to do it well. (Their commitment to excellence shone through their Good Friday and Easter services this past weekend, also available online.)

Finally, a confession.

I’m a sermon guy. Yes, I just said it’s a dying art form, but I enjoy them. So it would be quite easy for me to feel disappointed I wasn’t going to get one from Willow that week. Truth is, I tuned in especially to see what Strobel would say, and because his connection as a former Willow Creek staffer made it especially interesting. Plus I’ve seen Carter and Bill Hybels do this sort of thing many times before and they aren’t exactly novices.

Can your church snag top name guests? You probably don’t have the budget, nor do they have a lot of availability. But there are probably some stories that Christian people in your community can tell better on a two-chair set than can be related from behind a podium. There are probably topics that can be presented with two members of the pastoral staff taking a tag team approach. There is probably preaching content that can be modified to suit a Q & A format, even if it’s not as spontaneous as you would like it to be. Finally, there’s possibly someone in your church who might, on a one-off Sunday, have something vital to share but would need the help of a more seasoned speaker to rein them in when they go off topic or off focus, or to simply keep the message moving.

I’m not advocating this for everyone; I’m just saying it deserves consideration.


 

 

March 28, 2017

When You’re Unfit to Serve at Your Church

Today’s post is a continuation of my wife’s guest post yesterday. I promised I would return to some of the issues raised to look at them objectively. So this post is a continuation of that; you really need to read it first.

1. How long does a person attend your church before they are considered for service?

Many years ago, Andy Stanley hired a Fortune 500 survey company to interview people at their church and found that in the first five weeks at NorthPoint, newcomers are already trying to “discern next steps,” and possible areas of active involvement. On the other hand, when 60’s rocker Barry McGuire came to Christ, his pastor suggested the famed composer/singer should take a seat in the back row to grow and nurture his faith — for a full year! Some say that in a small town church, “Once a visitor, always a visitor.” Where’s the balance? Of course, in my wife’s case, she wasn’t exactly a newcomer, which brings us to…

2. When someone who was a former member of your church returns, does their past experience count for anything?

Clearly, some churches expect you to jump through all the hoops as though you’d never been there before. One woman who wrote us off-the-blog put it this way, “It’s when your motives are questioned and you had thought you had enough ‘capital ‘ in years of service to be trusted…” Churches will have “Celebration Sundays” to revel in their glorious past history, but if someone who is part of that history should return, that experience, even if it involved some tough pioneering, isn’t always respected. For my wife to be classed as a “visitor” was simply equestrian feces. Which brings us to…

3. Is someone who has only been part of a church for ten years truly fit to reprimand, discipline or judge someone whose history with that church goes back twenty years?

Part of the problem in the body of Christ is that we really don’t know each other. But it gets even more complicated when people who have given years of service are being judged — or spiritually abused — by people who, despite their convictions otherwise, don’t know all there is to know. (Or worse, have been given short ‘debriefs’ by a departing pastor about individuals in the church, not unlike those student files kept in the school office.) Sometimes, this problem manifests itself where a church member finds themselves being rebuked by someone half their age. There may be Biblical precedent for that, but it’s still unnatural, and can be avoided by appointing a different mediator. Which brings us to…

4. Are the elders in your church really “elder,” or were they chosen by some other standard?

Typically, in many churches today board members are people who are successful at their vocation. Is your insurance business or car dealership doing well? Expect to be asked. Ditto teachers. But some churches really need to bring back the concept of elders and deacons. (See the story in Acts 7 on the choosing of Stephen for the nuances.) Some elders are on the church board for the wrong reasons, like, for example, their wives talked them into it. Some elders truly “represent” the congregation in a democratic sense, while others see themselves as a sub-priestly class of elite members. Again, another comment received in response to the first article; “…as I think you sense, the leadership there is like a team of soldiers walking through enemy territory with the rank and file members and adherents being ‘the enemy!’ It feels as if there are the leaders and then there are the rest of us — the leaders being a select group of others who think alike and run the show.” Which brings us to…

5. What about Church leaders who will look you right in the eye and lie through their teeth? Is that ever justified?

The conversation my wife had seven years ago revealed a number of statements which, at the very least, were absolute non sequiturs. (I’m being polite.) They told her that she was unfit to lead because people in the congregation didn’t know her, yet just three weeks before that, I had to ask four different people to find out the name of the woman who had led worship that week. (See also the footnote to yesterday’s article; turns out they brought in a guest less than a month later.) My wife was baptized there. Our children were dedicated there. Her husband served on paid staff there for four years. And nobody would know her? Maybe what this is all about is really…

6. Is the elders’ board of a church really where the heart of ministry is taking place? Or even in touch with the real ministry happening?

I doubt that. In fact, if you really want to see corporate life change (aka spiritual formation) take place and they ask you to serve on an administrative board, run as fast you can in the other direction. “Run, Forrest, run!” Just wanting to serve on one of these boards is like wanting to run for public office. And being involved in service is just as political, where you do everything you can to keep your reputation ahead of actual service. And just as in politics, these people will do everything they can to keep people off the stage who might, through raw authenticity and transparency, challenge the carefully developed status quo. People like that are, simply put, a threat. This is not where powerful, fruitful, organic ministry is taking place. Which bring us to…

7. Do people in your church get hurt or wounded or abused?

My wife was told that placing herself in profile ministry meant she was leaving herself open to hurt. Was this an admission on their part that this is a church that hurts people? The church leadership should bear ultimate responsibility for any hurting, wounding or abusing that takes place within their jurisdiction. Furthermore they should be strive to make their church a place of healing; a place of grace. Decisions taken at the board level which are simply leading to further hurt should be considered a worst-case scenario. But this is likely to happen because…

8. Can a church leader be doing “the Lord’s work” and at the same time be about “the Devil’s business?”

Absolutely. People are flawed. They are going to get caught up in what “may seem right,” but actually take perverse delight in stabbing someone and then twisting the knife. Any high school student who has studied Shakespeare knows enough about human nature to know that these personality types are out there. (As Mark Antony says, “These are honorable men.”) It’s all about building their kingdom and especially their desire for power and control. What my wife was subjected to in that hour was simply not of God. So the obvious question is…

9. Why do we keep coming back?

Small(er) towns simply don’t offer people the advantage of packing up and moving to another church. The mix of evangelism, teaching, worship, doctrinal slant, demographic composition; combined with an individual’s history in a place; plus a blind optimism that someday things will improve; all these things sometimes mean that there is literally nowhere else to go. (And trust us, we’ve done the church plant thing, too; it was a great experience; but the plants died or got put on hiatus for other reasons.) Besides, this church is our HOME. Figuratively, those are our kids’ height marks on the back of the door; that’s our kids’ artwork on the refrigerator; not so figuratively, that’s the corner where I prayed with that woman for a dramatic healing; that’s the song my wife taught the congregation just a few years ago; that’s the weekly group that we started.

10. Is it possible that it’s just time to step aside and let another generation have their turn?

If that’s the case, the people working so hard to evict us from active ministry really have only four or five years left themselves. And they are perpetuating a system which will truly come back to haunt them. (‘What goes around…’) But then again, many of the people doing worship service leadership in Canada are much older than their U.S. counterparts. So while a part of me is lamenting my wife’s loss of opportunity to do the thing she loves, and the thing she’s most gifted to do, I’m watching the horizon for that young, unshaven guy with a guitar over his shoulder who is going to bounce this crowd off the stage and, with his peers, bounce this particular collection of elders out of the church boardroom.

I guess that sounds a bit mean spirited, but honestly, things can only get better. Things can only improve. Of course I’ve said that before…

Related post: April 4, 2008 – Growing Deep RootsSometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name… and they’re always glad you came.

Related post: May 1, 2008 – Choosing a Church – This post is where I came up with the phrase, “a place where you can be comfortable being broken.” and the footnote, “When you have true spiritual family in various places, they don’t mind it when you crash!”


March 17, 2017

Currently Reading: Preparing for Easter by C. S. Lewis

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:17 am

There’s a lot going on in this collection and my intention is to offer a full review after I’ve finished reading. But I couldn’t go any further without sharing this interesting analogy of the incarnation of Christ:

Did you ever think, when you were a child, what fun it would be if your toys could come to life? Well suppose you could really have brought them to life. Imagine turning a tin soldier into a real little man. It would involve turning the tin to flesh. And suppose the in soldier did not like it. He is not interested in flesh: all he sees is that the tin is being spoilt. He thinks you are killing him. He will do everything he can to prevent you.  He will not be made into a man if he can help it.

What you would have done about that tin soldier I do not know. But what God did about us was this. The Second person in God, the Son, became human Himself: was born into the world as an actual man – a real man of a particular height, with hair of a particular colour, speaking a particular language, weighing so many stone. The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab. 

The result of this was that you now had one man who really was what all men were intended to be: one man in whom the created life, derived from His Mother, allowed itself to be completely and perfectly turned into the begotten life.  The natural human creature in Him was taken up fully into the divine Son.  Thus in one instance humanity had, so to speak, arrived: had passed into the life of Christ. And because the whole difficulty for us is that the natural life has to be, in a sense, ‘killed’, he chose an earthly career which involved the killing of His human desires at every turn – poverty, misunderstanding from His own family, betrayal by one of His intimate friends, being jeered at and manhandled by the Police, and execution by torture. And then, after being thus killed – killed every day in a sense – the human creature in Him, because it was united to the divine Son, came to life again. The Man in Christ rose again: not only the God. That is the whole point. For the first time we saw a real man. One tin soldier – real tin, just like the rest – had come fully and splendidly alive.

You can imagine that I was surprised to learn this excerpt is from Mere Christianity. How did I miss this before? He doesn’t just leave it as an analogy for incarnation, but rather overlays that with the idea of the transformation that must take place in the child of God. Brilliant!

Preparing for Easter: Fifty Devotional Readings from C. S. Lewis; HarperOne, 2017, hardcover. More information at this link.

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