Monday, May 30, 2011

Q & A On Church Advertisements

This is a "pet peeves" post, done in Q&A format. It applies to certain types of advertisements, and at the kind of evangelism that is more church advertisement than evangelism. After reading, it should be clear enough which types of advertisement are intended.

Q. How can I get my church's name recognized in our community?
A. If you're more interested in how people see your church's name than how they see Jesus' name, it's time to get back to basics.

Q. How can I increase our Summer Bible School's appeal to the children and their parents?
A. What if we take a risk: assume that people ultimately want to know God's holiness and goodness, Jesus' compassion, and the resurrection -- the reason for our hope. In that light, any "super cool" gimmicky pitches work against our real purpose. The greatest blessing is knowing God; build a program on that. Dare to disciple.

Q. Our evangelism team invites people to church, but so few come. What's the problem?
A. If they don't know Jesus, why would they come to church? Did you tell them about Jesus, or did you tell them about your church?

Q. What can I do to make people see our church as relevant?
A. Are you making a difference?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Another similarity between 1 Peter and the letters from Paul

The letter 1 Peter contains something we consider unsurprising in a letter from an apostle: advice on how following Christ applies for our station in life. For example, there is instruction on how to be good citizens, regardless of the country of citizenship. Peter covers the following general areas for our stations in life:
  • Citizens (1 Peter 2:13-17)
  • Servants (1 Peter 2:18-25)
  • Wives (1 Peter 3:1-6)
  • Husbands (1 Peter 3:7)
  • Together, being a good congregation and followers of Christ (1 Peter 3:8-18)

The letter contains other instruction in various places, but here we have a passage where consecutive sets of advice are intended to systematically go through different stations in life and give instruction for each.

We are used to seeing the "station in life" instructions from Paul, as some of his material is repeated in more than one letter. But what many scholars believe to be Paul's earliest letter, that to the Galatians, does not have the list of Paul's instructions for each station in life. The letters that contain it are those to the Ephesians and the Colossians, along with the first letter to Timothy. These are all reckoned to be among the later letters that he wrote, possibly dating to the 60's A.D. towards the end of Paul's life, according to those who have studied them with an eye to working out the timeline of his life and writings.

Ephesians has a specific "station in life" list (5:22 - 6:9), as does Colossians (3:18 - 4:1), both covering the same stations in life in the same order with instructions for:
  • Wives
  • Husbands
  • Children
  • Parents
  • Servants
  • Masters

The advice from 1 Peter on government is not included as a standard matter in Paul's lists, but Paul does give instruction to those in Rome (Romans 13:1-7).

At some point, "station in life" instruction was intended by Paul to become standard teaching in the church. We see Paul telling Timothy -- a man in the next generation of church leaders -- that he should make some of these things a part of not only how he leads a congregation, but also how he chooses future leaders.

These similarities are not meant as proof that Peter or Paul had seen each others' letters. What they do show is that the early church had developed some standard teachings about how people should deal with different roles they might hold in life, and that they had made a conscious effort in developing teachings on how best to fulfill each role. The lists seen in Paul's letters are more developed than the list seen in 1 Peter. That suggests the possibility that 1 Peter may have been written earlier.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Did Peter and Paul read each others' letters?

Peter and Paul were aware of each others' work in the early church. They met more than once, from what records we have. And the growing Christian community knew both of them. The epistle 2 Peter mentions Paul's letters, though there is a long history of uncertainty of whether 2 Peter was written by Peter. Paul's 2 Corinthians shows familiarity with "Cephas", and in Galatians he speaks of more than one meeting with Peter / Cephas. But in the writings that even many skeptics acknowledge from Peter and Paul, there are similarities.

Consider this passage from 1 Peter:
As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, now that you have tasted that the Lord is gracious. As you come to him, the Living Stone, rejected by men but chosen of God and precious, you also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house ... (1 Peter 2:2-5)
We find the same thoughts together in 1 Corinthians chapter 3, only a few verses separated from each other, in a passage where Peter is mentioned:
I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are you able. (I Cor 3:2)
For we are laborers together with God: you are God's workmanship, you are God's building. According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise master builder, I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let every man take heed how he builds. For no man can lay a foundation other than that which has been laid, which is Jesus Christ. (I Cor 3:9-10)
Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? (I Cor 3:16)
... Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours. And you are Christ's, and Christ is God's. (I Cor 3:22-23)
In this same passage, Paul discusses different leaders in the church building on each others' work. By now, that's enough to make me wonder whether Paul had read Peter's first letter ... or whether that was just a common preaching point of Peter's.

I also find it interesting that in 1 Peter, he mentions the name of his scribe: Silvanus (often translated Silas). Silvanus is also mentioned in Paul's letters. He is mentioned in 2 Corinthians to the same people that Paul was addressing earlier with his comments about Peter and about building on each others' teachings. He is also mentioned in both letters to the Thessalonians. Both the church in Corinth and Silvanus in particular were familiar with Peter. So we also have some ways in which Paul might have come across Peter's letter, if Silvanus had kept a copy, or one of the churches had obtained a copy. That doesn't make it certain that Paul had come across a copy; it's still possible that it was passed along through word-of-mouth. But it is enough to raise the possibility that Paul had seen Peter's letter.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Spiritual health check-up?

I was wondering if it's possible to do a general checkup on spiritual health. What would it look like?

I've seen general check-up questions at a doctor's office:

How often do you exercise?
Do you smoke?
How much do you sleep on the average night?

I've seen general check-up questions at dentists, too.

I know that even going back to the 1500's, the church body to which I belong has encouraged people to use the Ten Commandments as a spiritual checkup, to run down that list and see how we're doing by using the law as a mirror to check ourselves and recognize any trouble.

There are areas of our lives not covered by the Ten Commandments, though -- or covered only in a general sense. How about, "Is your love for any person hindered by resentments, jealousies, or wrongs?" Or, "How peaceful is your life?" Or, "Do you love your neighbors?" and "Do you love God?"

The Beatitudes could easily help us see how we're doing: "Do you show mercy to others? Are you a peacemaker?" But that might be turning the beatitudes to a lesser use, when they are meant as proclamations of blessing, promises of God's goodness and faithfulness.

The Lord's prayer is, in a way, a daily check of our own thoughts and at the same time a way to build and strengthen what is good. It has an advantage over a checklist in that it confronts our sins only by putting us in the forgiving presence of God and insisting that we pray for forgiveness.

For spiritual health, there is a lot of ground to cover. In some ways simpler is better -- otherwise a checklist could easily be the size of the Bible.

The risk of even looking at developing a spiritual checkup tool is that there are Christians who are tempted to try to self-save, and some struggle with guilt over each and every imperfection. They do not turn their mercy towards themselves even though Jesus does. Some even defend this as if it were the right thing, naming a fear of spiritual laziness or indifference to sin (to which people like this are generally not tempted) to ward off the peace of forgiveness. In hands like those, a spiritual check-up of that sort would be just a tool for spiritual abuse.

So it might be worthwhile to have that as part of the checkup:
Does it bother you that you're not perfect?
Is it difficult for you to show mercy to yourself?
Does the idea of mercy ever offend you?

Or it might be worthwhile to have different check-up questions for different sets of needs -- just like a doctor might not ask quite the same questions of a heart patient and an anorexic.

I'd be really glad to hear all of your thoughts on this.

* A checklist based on the Rudyard Kipling poem, "If"
* A first draft of a spiritual health checklist

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Everything I needed to learn about business, I learned playing Minecraft

I admit it. I like the game Minecraft. It's an oddly captivating open-ended game. The monsters are nothing special, but you are in a position to build your own homes (or fortresses, or castles, for the ambitious), your own tools, your own weapons ... The appeal of the game is exactly how open-ended it is, where the main limits are your imagination and time investment. (Ok, and CPU speed.)
  • The are a million possibilities. You just have to imagine them and work to make them happen.
  • The most valuable thing you will ever have is your workbench. It's so basic you almost don't notice it -- but very little happens until you learn how to use it.
  • Early in the game you have to make a good set of tools. You can't accomplish what you need without them.
  • The most important knowledge is how to create things.
  • The best results go to the one with the best knowledge, skills, and imagination.

Some of the people I have known are disturbingly passive about the world and how it is. They've stopped seeing possibilities, and speak only of what they can't do, what they can't accomplish, what they can't expect. Like the saying goes, "We've tried nothing and we're out of ideas." Minecraft opens up the mind again. Those who play it run the risk of seeing possibilities in their world.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Forgiveness: Recognizing some of the counterfeits

I don't recall Jesus ever saying to someone, "Don't worry about your sins. It's not really a big deal. Everybody does it." And I don't remember him saying, "Nobody's perfect" when speaking to someone who was conscious of sin. (Though he did challenge, "Who among you is without sin?" when speaking to people who were conscious only of someone else's sins.) With Jesus, forgiveness did not come with excuses or a denial that a thing was significantly wrong; it came with redemption. "Go and sin no more."

And Jesus did not forgive so that the memory of being wronged would stop bothering him -- that is, for reasons that had to do with himself. The memory of being wronged may bother us, and may send us looking for how to get rid of the memory of being wronged. But simply forgetting the wrong is one of those so-called shortcuts that doesn't really work, at least not for a wrong that is big enough to make a difference in our lives, a wrong that insists on being noticed.

Forgiveness works together with love. It is firm in its stand that the wrong should stop. It insists that the damage should be repaired as much as possible -- by the person who did the wrong. It asks some positive action or change from the offender -- something to begin to restore the soul not just of the offended but also of the offender.

Forgiveness works to restore the love and trust that were broken. The call to forgiveness is a call to repentance: it calls on the one who broke that bond to take responsibility for himself and admit wrong instead of fleeing to excuses and the blame of others. So those kinds of "forgiveness" where the wrong is excused, and the wrongdoer's actions are explained away, is more of a justification for evil, something that does not deserve the name of forgiveness. That justification of evil only serves to encourage the person in the habit of wrong and to strengthen his judgment that he is blameless for his own actions.

As for forgetting the wrongs that were done us: if the bonds of love and trust are not restored, and the wrong is not called on to stop, and the person is still around but without love or trust -- or redemption -- then it is an incomplete forgiveness, an imperfect forgiveness that has not obtained its goal.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Confirmation questions - and a liturgy responsive for confirmation

Today was a big day in my daughter's religious education: along with the rest of her confirmation class, she answered a series of questions on the Bible and the Christian faith to show that she has an understanding of what she has been taught. Next week she will be received into the congregation as an adult member.

But every year at confirmation time, I can't help but wonder: Do we ask the right questions of our youth? They have demonstrated that they know the Bible both in its books and in its main messages. They have shown understanding of the law of God, and about repentance, forgiveness, and eternal life. They have stated their understanding that the most important teaching of the Bible is God's goodness and love. They have shown knowledge of key passages of the Bible that inform the Christian view of the world. They have studied the ancient creeds and how they summarize the Bible. But what would the right confirmation questions be? What would the right "mastery" questions be for understanding, and again what would the right questions be for beginning the walk of adult membership?

Some good material is already covered in the existing confirmation service. The youths who are becoming full adult members are asked, "Do you believe in God the Father?" and respond with the first article of the Nicene Creed. They are asked again about Jesus and the Holy Spirit, responding with the second and third articles of the creed. They are asked to consciously and deliberately reject evil, to pledge to follow the Christian faith, to pledge to participate in a congregation of believers throughout their lives. It's plain that careful thought has been given to how they are received as adults into the congregation.

Still, I like the orders of worship that follow Scripture closely. So if some key questions in Scripture had been reworked into a liturgy, they might go like this:

Q: Tell me today: whom will you serve?
A: As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

Q: He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?
A. To do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Q: Jesus asks, who do you say that I am?
A: You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

Q. What is the reason for your hope?
A. Christ is risen from the dead.

As with many of my liturgy projects, this is a beginning. It's more to consider possible directions than a finished piece, at this point.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Overwhelming odds? Odds are 1 in 1,099,511,627,776

In my circle of friends and family and people I've known over the years, whether in daily life or on-line, I've known quite a few adamantly anti-Christian Jewish people. That is, they are people who take seriously all things Jewish and any thing Jewish precisely because it is Jewish, but who are determined to know nothing about Jesus, to the point of not reading the New Testament, or bragging about having thrown gift Bibles in the trash. I've read a few explanations of the fall of Jerusalem written from this mindset, and the one explanation that is completely off the table is that it had anything to do with rejecting Jesus. Any other explanation is given a fair hearing; that one is not open for discussion. This is written from the perspective of pondering ways to respond to these very adamantly anti-Christian Jews that I have known, particularly when some of them (as some of them have done) attack the faith of Christians.

According to the nearest calculator, 2 to the 40th power is 1,099,511,627,776. So the odds are 1 in 1,099,511,627,776 ... that would be the odds of flipping a coin and coming up "tails" 40 times in a row. It would also be the odds of what was reported in the Talmud about the years before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the year 70 A.D.:
Our Rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot [‘For the Lord’] did not come up in the right hand (Talmud; Yoma 39b)
The Talmud explains the casting of lots on the Day of Atonement. When the lot "For the Lord" came up in the right hand, it was considered a sign from God that the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement had been accepted by God, and that the sins of the people were atoned for by that sacrifice. This sacrifice dated back to the days of Moses, and was instituted as part of the covenant at Sinai.

So according to the Talmud, there's an overwhelming probability that something vital changed in the relations between God and man, and in the usefulness of the ancient covenant sacrificial system, and in the relevance of the Temple in Jerusalem, forty years before the destruction of the Temple. That would place this pivotal change in the year 30 A.D.

Something so vital must have left a record. What record do we have of something pivotal happening in 30 A.D. that affected Judaism as a whole, making the Temple and its sacrifices no longer recognized by God for atonement? The only candidate I'm aware of is Jesus' death and resurrection. If there's another candidate -- something that major in the history of Judaism in the year 30 A.D. -- there should be a record of it. Are there any other candidates? Because the odds that "nothing of significance happened in God's eyes" in 30 A.D. are 1,099,511,627,776 to 1 against.

Just going by the Talmud alone, the odds are overwhelming that Jesus is a deal-changer in God's eyes, making a shift of the relations between God and man that are on the level of a new covenant.

It is good news. The sacrifice, once for all, has been accepted.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Problems in forgiveness

Some things are harder to forgive than others. This year for Lent I worked on "keeping no record of wrong". The little accidental daily wrongs that don't leave much track on our lives, those are easy to forget. Here are the kinds of things I struggled with:
  • They knew it was wrong, and what effect it would have, and did it anyway.
  • They knew I was having to shoulder extra burdens that should rightfully have been theirs, and they kept on shirking.
  • They know they are making a mess that they intend for someone else to clean up, and it doesn't trouble them.
  • (In one case) They knew full well they were managing things so badly that the law was already involved, and show no inclination to change.
  • (On older wrongs that still come to mind) When an old injury still sometimes causes trouble, it's hard to forget how I got that injury.

The things that are harder to forgive are the things where we don't have to keep a record of wrong -- our lives are marked by that wrong, or our lives are still being shaped by an ongoing wrong. Every day that wrong -- or its after-effect -- is part of our daily routine. The injuries that keep on hurting, or keep being renewed by the wrongdoer, these are the ones that really challenge our love. It's only love that can keep no records of wrong, so I have to think it does not challenge my memory or my determination to forget so much as it challenges my love.

Christ is risen. I have a long, long way to go. But it comforts me that Jesus -- risen indeed! -- still bore nail marks and the mark of a spear wound after his victory over death. Some of the ancient mystics are said to have had the stigmata -- that their union with Christ was so close that the scars of his wounds imprinted on their flesh. I'm not quite sure that I believe that. But it comforts me that Christ himself may bear eternal wounds and yet still loves, and still forgives. He still forgives me.