Thursday, November 19, 2009

Behold the hairless wonder!

We started AWANA this fall at our church after a 10-year hiatus. Our "Commander" told those of us on the Elder Board that he was hoping for 30-35 kids on the first night. Since we normally have 20-some on Sunday morning for Children's Church, that didn't seem like a very big goal to me, and I told him that I hoping for more like 50. Well, 60 kids showed up on the first night and it has continued to grow ever since as kids bring their friends who then bring other friends. The second week, I told the kids that, if they would bring enough friends that we reached 100 kids in attendance, then I would shave my head.

Last week we had 96.

This week, 102 kids showed up and it was time to pay my debt. I'm enjoying the results, though it's a cold time of year to go bald, and I'm definitely going to have to find some warm hats to wear this winter. More than that, I'm enjoying the fact that we are sharing Christ with a large number of kids each week, many of whom have never read a Bible, been to church, heard about Jesus, or been presented with the Gospel. So for me, at the end of the day, the loss of my hair breaks down like this:
  1. New Barber Clippers: $23.99 on sale at CVS.
  2. Time to re-grow hair: 3 months.
  3. Sharing Christ with 100+ kids: Priceless

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

New friends

I made some new friends today as I went duck hunting on the Illinois River. Tom and Tony showed me the ropes of the Illinois public duck blind system and got us into a great blind. Not many ducks flying today, the bottom of the blind was filled with 2" of slick river muck, and it rained like crazy for 1/2 the hunt. We shot two ducks and I'm going to have to wash a lot of mud off of my gear. But what fun! Tom and Tony are great guys and fine hunters, and Tony's dog Camo is 75 lbs. of pure retrieving energy. Now if only I could figure out how to cook a bufflehead so that it tastes good...

Reading Ruth in a Recession

I'm currently preaching through the book of Ruth at CBC. I got started on 11/8, after finishing Philippians the previous week. I had the week off this past Sunday, since we had a visiting missionary in town to bring God's Word to us. So this Sunday, I'm back in the saddle for chapter 2. And one of the things that strikes me about the book of Ruth generally, and chapter 2 in particular, is how subtly God's provision is made. In verse 1, we read that Naomi had a relative on her husband's side, from her deceased husband's clan, who was "a man of standing" (i.e., a wealthy and powerful man). In verse 3, the author reports that "as it turned out, [Ruth] found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech." Then we read in verse 4 "Just then..." that Boaz showed up. All of these statements together form a sort of ironic hyperbole, in which the narrator of the story is emphasizing the "chance" nature of these facts to highlight the real nature of God's provision. For the point of the story is that God is always working to provide for and demonstrate love to his people, but subtly, and behind the scenes. In fact, God's provision is so subtle that a person might miss it.

It occurs to me that God often works in similar ways today in my life and in the lives of others. His provision is always there for those whom He loves, but subtly. It is visible to those with eyes to see, but might seem like coincidence to some observers. We always have "too much to deny, too little to be sure," and so we trust God, and see His hand faithfully providing. I think too that books like Ruth have marvelous applicability in these days. Ruth had no social standing, few legal rights, and little hope, but she believed God. That faith made all the difference. God provided in ways she could not have expected, foreseen or imagined.

But one must have eyes to see what God is doing and the faith to trust Him in the how and why and when.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Election 2010 wrap-up

So it turns out that rumors of the GOP's demise were greatly exaggerated after all. Bob McDonnell, the Regent University grad and "extreme" social conservative (I read in in the Washington Post, so it must be true) wound up winning the Virginia governorship by the largest margin of any governor in Virginia history, and sweeping all of the down ballot R's in on his coattails. Meanwhile Chris Christie beat Jon Corzine's re-election bid despite being outspent 5-1 and President Obama campaigning for a Corzine victory in a state which hasn't elected a Republican to statewide office in 12 years. Christie won everywhere, in the largest margin of Republican victory since 1985. Doug Hoffman the insurgent Conservative Party candidate nobody had ever heard of until August narrowly lost to Democrat Bill Owens in a district that leans center-left, with RINO Dede Scozzfava winning 5% of the vote. What does all this mean? I think it means:
  1. Obama-mania is officially over. The places where Obama campaigned (both Jersey and Virginia) both gave their votes to the Republican by historic margins, despite Obama's large margins in both places in 2008. Whatever the current state of the president's popularity, it isn't transferable and this isn't 2008 anymore.
  2. Anti-Bush fervor has run its course. Time was, a politician could win re-election by simply making the case that he was not George Bush and declaring that he hated Bush and all his works. Having had their say about Bush, voters now blame the current problems on the current occupants of political office. Last night's vote had a strong anti-incumbent flavor. Since Democrats are now the incumbent party, this does not bode well for their electoral future.
  3. The "blue dog" Democrat is an endangered species. If Republicans can win in true-blue states like New Jersey, what must a red-state Democrat be thinking this morning? There are 80 Democratic Congressmen and 20 Democtratic Senators representing states that John McCain won in 2008. Personally, I think this election fundamentally alters the health care, cap-and-tax, son-of-stimulus passing calculus substantially. Pelosi and Reid may not have the votes they think they have, massive Democratic majority or not, because while Democrats favor all of these things, they like getting re-elected more.

The newest addition

I've added someone new to the blogroll: Jean, the Aussie blogger homemaker/theologian who writes In All Honesty. This is a lady who is the real deal-an authentic follower of Christ who thinks deep thoughts about God and writes them well for others' benefit. I encourage the legions of Bullhorn addicts out there who await each of my posts with bated breath (both of you know who you are!) to add Jean to your RSS too.

Making Peace

In an earlier post, I talked about how my pastoral calling sometimes necessitates being the "responsible adult" who acts to call people back to reconciliation and peace. Not that this always works, but it does come with the territory. In fact, Paul's letters deal with church problems and conflicts virtually exclusively, teaching correct theology largely in response to the errors being spread rather than as an end in itself.

As I have preached my way through Philippians, I was certainly not unaware of these things, but I was somewhat surprised to find both a great example of pastoral peace making and good principles for peace maintaining, all wrapped up in the little section that has to do with Euodia and Syntyche (v. 4:2-7). These two ladies were engaged in a very public fight. It had become so bad that the church had exhausted itself and appealed to Paul, who was several hundred miles away and imprisoned besides, for relief and counsel. Here's the wisdom of Paul in response:

For Peacemakers:
  • Address the combatants tactfully. Paul is very kind and diplomatic as he addresses these ladies. He doesn't claim his apostolic authority, though he obviously could. He doesn't order. Instead he writes, "I plead with..."
  • Encourage reconciliation privately. In his pleading, Paul tells them "agree with one another in the Lord." Even though the situation has become public, he still encourages private peacemaking.
  • Affirm commonalities as more important. In 4:3, Paul mentions their past partnership with him (literally, "fighting alongside me") in spreading the Gospel and the fact that both of them are "in the book of life." He is reminding them of the eternal things that bind them together, and the fact that the both belong to Christ and ought to act like it.
  • Involve others if necessary. Paul asks for someone he calls "loyal yokefellow" (possibly a name, but more likely an elder or the pastor of the church) to assist these two ladies in making peace. Sometimes, a mediator has to step in. Peace in the church is more important than worship (cf. Matthew 5:23-24), so peacemaking is an essential part of church leader's task when necessary.
For Maintaining Peace:
  • Rejoice in the Lord. Generally speaking, when we're in conflict, it's not only evidence that we're failing to rejoice in the Lord, rejoicing in the Lord is the last thing on our minds! We're thinking about winning, not about how we can glorify Christ as Lord. We've got our defenses and emotions up, and we're sure of our own righteousness. But if we are rejoicing in the Lord always, it's just possible we would be in conflict less isn't it?
  • Let your gentleness be evident to all. The word that's rendered "gentleness" (Greek epieikes) is often translated "meekness" and has to do with keeping one's power under good control. Here in context it means keeping a rein on your emotions, your temper, your reactions (and even your body language), so that you deal kindly with others, even those with whom you have strong disagreements.
  • Remember that the Lord is near. I believe that is a reminder that the Lord is personally (as opposed to eschatologically) near to us. This is a healthy reminder, since when we're in the midst of a fight, we forget that God is near. And his nearness means that he is both still sovereign over our situation (meaning we neither need to win or worry) and that our conduct is happening in full view of the Lord (which ought to temper it a bit).
  • Don't worry. Instead pray and thank God. It's easy to forget at times that we don't need to worry about anything, but in everything to pray and go to God with our needs and then to thank him for his answers. It seems like Christianity 101, but it's still hard to do when we are in the center of the storm.
  • Let God's peace descend upon you. When we pray and trust God, he promises to give us his peace. It's amazing, but it is still wonderfully true.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Peterson on "new ways of doing church"

By my count, I have a dozen books about practical ministry in the local church. This is exclusive of books about pastoring, books about the theology of church, and books about evangelism, discipleship, missions, church leadership, small groups, etc. These dozen books are simply about the topic of what the local church is designed to be and do and how that should look in a contemporary context. Titles include: Simple Church, Breakout Churches, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, The Deliberate Church, The Connecting Church, Effective Church Growth Strategies, Vintage Church, and books both pro- and con on the Emerging Church (is that still around, by the way?). Many of these books have helpful information, but we do well to remember that every church is both populated with, and led by, a gaggle of sinners. Here's Peterson's Unpredictable Plant again:
A bare sixty or seventy years after Pentecost we have an account of seven churches that shows about the same quality of holiness and depth of virtue found in any ordinary parish in America today. In two thousand years of practice we haven't gotten any better. You would think we would have, but we haven't. Every time we open up a church door and take a careful, scrutinizing look inside we find them there again--sinners. Also Christ. Christ in the preaching, Christ in the sacraments, but inconveniently and embarrassingly mixed into this congregation of sinners.

It is to be expected in these situations that with some frequency certain persons will come forward with designs to improve matters. They want to purify the church. They propose to make the church something that will advertise to the world the attractiveness of the kingdom. With few exceptions these people are, or soon become, heretics, taking on only as much of the gospel as they can manage and apply to the people around them, attempting to construct a version of church that is so well behaved and efficiently organized that there will be no need for God.

They abhor the scandal of both the cross and the church. They will have nothing to do with a congregation in Nineveh. They are going to sail to Tarshish and start fresh, clean, and gloriously.

But it is the very nature of pastoral work to embrace this scandal, accept this humiliation, and daily work in it. Not despising the shame, and not denying it either.

Listening to many pastors talking to other pastors when they are away from their parishes, you would think none of this was true. Every congregation features wonderfully glowing stories about successful programs and slick conversions. I used to hear such stories and read such books and be impressed. After some years of careful Bible reading and congregation watching, I am no longer impressed. I think it far more likely that these pastors, insofar as they are telling the truth, are presiding over some form of Greek mystery religion, or Baal shrine, or Babylonian religous parade.

Fleeing to Tarshish

I've been a pastor now for almost 8 years. That impending anniversary has occasioned in me a lot of thinking about my pastoral calling in both its joys and disappointments. As I noted in the previous post, I re-discovered Eugene Peterson in this process. I can't say it better than he has, so I'll let him speak about the perennial pastoral temptation to flee to Tarshish...
And why Tarshish? For one thing, it is a lot more exciting than Nineveh. Nineveh was an ancient site with layer after layer of ruined and unhappy history. Going to Nineveh to preach was not a coveted assignment for a Hebrew prophet with good references. But Tarshish was something else. Tarshish was exotic. Tarshish was adventure. Tarshish had the appeal of the unknown furnished with baroque details from the fantasizing imagination. Tarshish in the biblical references was "a far off and sometimes idealized port." It is reported in 1 Kings 10:22 that Solomon's fleet of Tarshish fetched gold, silver, ivory, monkeys, and peacocks. Semiticis C. H. Gordon says that in the popular imagination it became "a distant paradise." Shangri-la. (p. 15-16)

It is necessary from time to time that someone stand up and attempt to get the attention of the pastors lined up at the travel agency in Joppa to purchase a ticket to Tarshish. At this moment, I am the one standing up. If I succeed in getting anyone's attention, what I want to say is that the pastoral vocation is not a glamorous vocation and that Tarshish is a lie. Pastoral work consists of modest, daily, assigned work. It is like farm work. Most pastoral work involves routines similar to cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds. This is not, any of it, bad work in itself, but if we expected to ride a glistening black stallion in daily parades and then return to the barn where a lackey grooms our steed for us, we will be severely disappointed and end up being horribly resentful (p. 16).
What can I say? Like all pastors that I know, I have felt the pull of a trip to Tarshish. I have read the "ecclesiastical pornography" (Peterson's term) books and articles of "successful" congregations, provocatively posed and the "How I Did It" books by big-time pastors. And there is that thought, however fleeting it may be at any one time, which nevertheless persistently lures and calls to you, saying, "Why not you? I will give you all the kingdoms of the world..." And it is a lie, a persistent one, but a lie nonetheless. For part of a pastor's calling consists of cotentedly working the field God has given rather than lusting, like Ahab, over another man's vineyard.

Books I read in October

I'm really behind on my blogging of late. Leaf raking, bowhunting, a friend's funeral and the rest of life have consumed a lot of time of late. So by way of catching up, here's the skinny on what I finished reading lately:

King Me by Steve Farrar. I became a fan of Farrar's back in the early '90s, the "men's movement" was just getting started and he published Point Man: How A Man Can Lead His Family. This book is an attempt to use the accounts of the Hebrew kings (the failures as well as the rare successes) to talk about how fathers train their sons to be men of God. I found it practical, helpful, and hard all at once. Bottom line: it's a good book on parenting that isn't written for women. That alone makes it a treasure in this man's estimation.

Ten Question to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health by Donald Whitney. This is the book we just finished in our Band of Brothers men's study group. The chapters are short, but the questions are hard, and force you to take a hard look at where you are growing in Christ and where you aren't. For example, "Are you a quicker forgiver?" "Do you delight in the bride of Christ?" The questions seems simple on the surface, but they are deceptively so. In reality, there is a penetrating quality to each chapter which will leave you wondering, at times, where the fruit of your Christian life is after all this time. If you really want to grow, this book will open the doors of your heart to conviction and change.

Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness
by Eugene Peterson.
This is a book for pastors. It's actually the 2nd time I've read it. The first time was back in my Spiritual Formation group at DTS though, so it didn't have the same impact ("When the student is ready..."). In it, Peterson uses Jonah as a springboard for talking about being a faithful pastor in Nineveh when all of us want to heed the siren call to go to Tarshish, fleeing both our calling and the presence of the Lord, trading in being a pastor for being "successful" like Aaron in Exodus 32. If there is a book written by a pastor that commends fellow pastors to be content with obscurity and faithfulness to Christ over methodology and marketing Jesus, this is probably it.