Monday, November 5, 2007

Maintaining the Temple

Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple. -- 1 Corinthians 3:16–17 (NIV)
We commonly see this as a call to care for our bodies, but it can also refer to caring for the church body. We are the church, the body of Christ, and in this passage Paul calls us to care for the church.

Most people who look into such things seem to think that church attendance is declining. Here are a couple of references to look at (not all aligned with Christian beliefs, so be wary!):
Special Report: The American Church in Crisis
The Barna Group
Did You Really Go To Church This Week?

So, the church in America (that's us) seems to be facing some difficulties. We have a responsibility to care for the health of the body. The question is, "What do we do?"

Here are my questions...

  1. Why does our church exist? Not just in general terms (to spread the gospel, reach the lost, etc.), but specifically our church, in our location, in our time. Why is this church here?
  2. What does our church need to become in order to fulfill its reason for existence? Which areas of ministry need to be sustained, and what new areas of growth need to be addressed?
  3. Why are you and I here as a part of this body of believers? Again, the details are important. What part do I play in this body? Why am I here?
  4. Finally, What must I become in order to maintain this church and keep it healthy? What areas do I need to apply my gifts or grow new talents?

These are difficult questions if you try to answer them thoughtfully. It may require more from us than we had expected!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Rewards in Heaven

I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. -- Luke 16:9 (NIV)

The parable of the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1-13) has got to be the most puzzling parable in the Bible. Jesus seems to be telling us that we ought to use any worldly riches we get to curry favor with those who can welcome us in heaven. In short, we ought to help others so they will have a good word to say about us later.

Parables are clearly intended to be more than puzzling little stories. Matthew Henry says it well, "...the divine revelation of both these in the gospel is intended to engage and quicken us to the practice of Christian duties..." We are supposed to learn something about how to live our lives properly.

The manager was about to be fired for failing to carry out his duties properly. Jesus commends him for taking the resources he had temporary control over (his master's) and applying them to his own benefit. To make it worse, he says that his followers are not this shrewd and implies they need to be more clever!

I have long been reluctant to even accept the idea of heavenly "rewards" that were contingent on earthly performance. It seems to cheapen the gospel to think that I would do good here on earth in order to get something for myself. Where is the selflessness of the gospel in this idea? However, the notion of heavenly rewards is clearly taught in the Bible.

Maybe the best I can do at this point is to understand that there's more to proper living than salvation. We tend to behave as if the only thing that really matters is accepting Jesus as Savior. It seems there is more to it than that. How we live our lives here on earth will have an impact on how we will live in heaven. More study is in order on this one!

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Romans 7:21-23 (NIV)
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.
I've had a question rolling around in my mind for the past few weeks, and perhaps it's an appropriate topic for the first post after this long silence. The question is this, "Why do I fail to do the things I know I should, and instead do the things I probably shouldn't?"

Here's a simple list:
Things I Should DoThings I Shouldn't Do
Update the blogWatch TV
PrayPlay games
Read the BibleRandom web surfing
ExerciseRead sci-fi novels
Lose weightEat junk food

As near as I can tell, I pretty much avoid the left side and concentrate on the right. Why is that?

...more to come on this topic.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Does Prayer Change God?

This is the title of a chapter in Philip Yancey's book "Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference" and a question I have fretted over for a long time.

Here's the basic problem, as stated by Origen, one of the early fathers of the Christian church.
"First, if God foreknows what will come to be and if it must happen, then prayer is in vain. Second, if everything happens according to God's will and if what He wills is fixed and none of the things He wills can be changed, then prayer is in vain."
Origen is focusing on the changeless nature of God, His complete knowledge of everything, and His complete power over creation. God knows everything, can do anything, and never changes. What possible place is there for prayer?

Yancey spends a whole chapter (and more) on this conundrum, putting forward a number of ideas. My favorite by far is a quote from C.S.Lewis responding to the question, "If God knows what is best and always does good, then won't He do it whether we pray or not?" Lewis responds,
"Why wash your hands? If God intends them to be clean, they'll come clean without you washing them... Why ask for the salt? Why put on your boots? Why do anything?"
Why indeed. I suppose it's an obvious line of thinking, but one I have never really thought about. The question is not so much, "Why does God want me to pray?" as "Why did God arrange creation so that I can manipulate reality at all?"

God doesn't need me to do anything. He is able to do what ever he chooses without my help, and in fact that seems to me to be a more efficient way to get things done. Yet, God consistently chooses to involve me in his world. C.S. Lewis writes, "For He seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures."

Monday, June 25, 2007

What's Church for Anyway?

Our church has recently chartered a "5-Year Vision" task force to look at what we need to be doing over the next five years and where the church should be focusing it's efforts. It's got me thinking about the reason for the existence of the church, and what a church needs to be in this rapid-paced, partly-virtual, totally-connected world of ours.

It seems to me that the traditional answers of fellowship, worship, and instruction are lacking something in the time of the Internet. People used to find community by physical association with other people...going to the same place and interacting face-to-face. Even the telephone was considered somewhat impersonal. In my experience, that is becoming less and less common. More people interact by email, chat, or IM. The telephone has become an intimate communication medium. We still write letters, but only for "social formula" reasons like thank you notes and wedding invitations. Everyone is too busy to actually spend the time to travel to a common physical location and interact. It seems so wasteful and inefficient.

So, what does the church look like in this society? If we persist in seeing the church as a place we all meet to do spiritual things, then I fear the institution is doomed to decline. How do we take the gospel message and Paul's admonition in Hebrews 10:25 -
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

We clearly must continue to "meet," but how and why and where? Is this the church?

Friday, June 1, 2007

Living a Choreographed Life

This week we're starting a new series called "Life is a Highway," which seems to call up the tune from the Disney movie Cars. I confess to having not made the connection myself, perhaps because I haven't felt compelled to see the movie.

In any case, we're starting out talking about 2 Peter 1:1-11. Peter uses a fascinating Greek word twice in this passage. Without knowing Greek, I don't know how you would ever find this, but it's an interesting idea. The word is "epichoregeo," which means to supply or to furnish. The word comes from the word for leading and furnishing a band of dancers and singers.

The fascinating bit (I know you're dying to know) is that this is where we get our word "choreograph." Peter uses the word in verse 5:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge;
and again in verse 11:
and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
(italics are translated from epichoregeo)

When we apply our usage of the word "choreograph" to the passage it yields an interesting insight. If we arrange our lives so as to follow the pattern of the dance Jesus has shown us, then we will also dance into the eternal kingdom!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

A Picture of Jesus

I'd love to have a talent like this guy does...

Violence and the X-Rated Bible

The last three chapters of Judges (Judges 19-21) tell one of the most violent stories in the whole Bible. It's the kind of story that would get a movie rated "R" or worse, and that would cause me to avoid it and recommend others do the same.

Matthew Henry captures it well:
Into the book of the wars of the Lord the story of this chapter must be brought, but it looks as sad and uncomfortable as any article in all that history; for there is nothing in it that looks in the least bright or pleasant...

I have to wonder what purpose there is in including such a story in the Bible. What spiritual benefit is there to reading such a story? It seems to be a pointless and offensive description of appalling behavior by a bunch of mostly anonymous Israelites.

In North America we live in a pretty safe and stable society. We are mostly insulated from evil on the scale described in this story. We hear about such things on the news, but they often don't impact us directly. We are shocked when we are confronted with the things that happened at the World Trade Center, Virginia Tech, Waco, and Oklahoma City.

Our personal experience of evil is more abstract, more lightweight. It revolves around things like gossip, greed, lust, lying, overeating, and cussing. Now these things are sin, but they don't seem to rise to the level of the rape, murder, and kidnapping that we find in the Bible. We have a tendency to trivialize the evil in our lives and see our sins as mostly minor and unimportant. That's a dangerous attitude.

So, what's the point of the story of the Levite and his concubine? Perhaps it shows us what happens when we take things into our own hands and make our own decisions. We think we're good people, but then the Israelites were God's chosen people and look how they behaved when "everyone did whatever they wanted." (Judges 21:25) Left to our own desires we seem to make poor choices about moral matters. If unrestrained, there seems to be no limit to the extent to which we will allow evil to spread until we are consumed.

The only solution to the dilemma seems to be that we constantly strive to figure out what God wants us to be doing. Even this is imperfect, because we aren't able to fully understand God, and so we will regularly misunderstand his instructions. Still, this is better than simply doing what ever we want.

Here are what others have to say on the topic...
Why is there evil in the world?
Violence in the Bible
Does biblical violence cause aggressive readers?

Friday, May 4, 2007

If A Little is Good, Is More Better?

Here's another economics book for you... Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future by Bill McKibben. Now, I haven't actually read the book, but I did read all the reviews on Amazon so I can speak with authority about its contents. :-)

McKibbin argues that as a society, the West is over-consuming resources and endangering the planet as a result. To me this sounds a bit like The Limits To Growth published in the early 1970s by The Club of Rome. It made somewhat similar arguments about the coming demise of the planet due to unbridled growth. Most of those predictions have not come to pass because they did not consider the advance of technology and our increasing ability to produce. McKibbon makes a more subtle argument, but perhaps falls victim to a similar extrapolation error.

The really interesting thing that he seems to be saying is that "more" is no longer making us happy, and that perhaps there's a better way. On his web page, McKibben makes the assertion, "For the first time in human history, 'more' is no longer synonymous with 'better'—indeed, for many of us, they have become almost opposites."

This then is the riddle. Most of us would agree that the unrestrained pursuit of material riches is not good and will not ultimately make us happy. Yet as a society we seem to be doing it anyway. According to an article in Slate, "the country now possesses some 1.875 billion square feet of personal storage." This has grown by 75% in the last 10 years, and these facilities boast a 90% occupancy rate. On top of this, in the last 20 years the size of the average American home has increased by about 700 sq ft. We have bigger homes and still feel the need to lease additional storage space for our "stuff."

You you see anything wrong with this picture?

And, by the way... do YOU have a storage locker?

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Open Source Truth - The Antithesis of Absolutes?

We talked for a minute today about a new religion that developed in the 1990s around the open source idea from the software world. It's called Yoism. Here are a couple of excerpts from Wikipedia (of course!) explaining what "open source religion" is:
Open source religions attempt to employ open source methodologies in the creation of religious belief systems. As such, their systems of beliefs are created through a continuous process of refinement and dialogue among the believers themselves.
Among the first examples of this movement, Yoans (followers of a religion called Yoism) claim that their version of open source religion does not have allegiance to any spiritual guide, rather the sense of authority emerges from the group via consensus.

It seems to me that the issue here revolves notion the idea that "truth" is something that "emerges from the group via consensus." This runs contrary even to our observation of the physical world around us (which Yoans would claim as the basis for truth). The laws upon which the physical world operates are independent of our "consensus" concerning them. The whole scientific establishment is founded on the belief that things like gravity are not dependent on individual (or group) opinions.

To remove the independent source of truth is to remove it's meaning. If truth is something I or we can create ourselves, then it is arbitrary and useless as a guide or standard for behavior. Only the truth I must "discover" not "create" has value. If I must discover truth then it must have been created by something outside of me and more than me.

I come back to what I said earlier, God=Truth. If God is not the source of truth, then I feel no inclination to attempt to abide by truth's dictates.

For more on the topic, check out relativism on C.A.R.M.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Right and Wrong, Absolutely!

This week we're looking at the story in Judges 17 of a man named Micah, and his mother (unnamed, of course). The story is pretty simple:
  • Micah steals a lot of silver from his mother (about 100 years wages).
  • Micah gets worried about being cursed, and returns the silver.
  • Micah's mother praises him and consecrates the silver to God.
  • Micah's mother makes an idol of part of the silver and keeps the rest.
  • Micah makes a shrine in the house and names his son as priest.
  • An itinerant Levite wanders by and Micah hires him as priest.
  • Micah decides God will now like him because he has his own priest.
In googling (a verb?) this story I find that there is a consensus opinion and a minority view. The consensus (e.g., here and here) is that Micah and Mom are idolaters or worse, and that this is the beginning of the nation's fall. There is however, a minority view (e.g., here) that would suggest Micah was sincerely trying to do what was right.

Perhaps the question to answer here concerns what is right and wrong. Does the fact that there is some argument in this case mean that there's some doubt? Is there always a right thing to do?

I think so. There is a right and a wrong in every situation. No exceptions. If God is all-knowing, then he certainly knows about the details of every situation I face. He has a preference in every decision I make, and by definition, that preference is what we call "right."

That leaves us trying to decide what's right, but that's a topic for another post!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Do You Cheat?

Do you ever cheat on things? Ever put down deductions on your taxes that were a bit of an exaggeration? Freakonomics is a fascinating book by economist Steven Levitt that I read a few months ago. It appeals to the number-cruncher in me because Levitt draws amazing conclusions from a detailed analysis of ordinary data. On the subject of cheating, Levitt calls it "a prominent feature in just about every human endeavor." He does a remarkable analysis of student test scores in the Chicago Public School system and concludes that roughly 5% of the teachers were cheating to make their student's performance (and thus their own) seem better. Teachers!

So what about you ever cheat? Can you justify cheating?

Or perhaps, do you simply try not to get caught!

Sunday, April 22, 2007


This has nothing to do with the lesson this week, but it struck me as one of those "profound" things that appear seemingly from out of nowhere.

I was browsing (not really reading) through Philip Yancey's book Prayer - Does It Make Any Difference and came across this sentence:
"Most of my struggles in the Christian life circle around the same two themes: why God doesn't act the way we want God to, and why I don't act the way God wants me to."

I don't know about you, but for me this is akin to mind reading! How did he capture my confusion so clearly?


Monday, April 16, 2007

Getting Even

One of the most famous and least understood figures in the Bible has got to be Samson. Everybody learns as a child in Sunday school about the strongman whose strength was lost when his hair was cut, but who knocked down the temple when he recuperated.

But how many people actually ever go read Judges 14 & 15 to find out what Samson was really like. He was a nasty, dangerous man with an ego the size of Texas. He was the kind of guy who always got even. You didn't mess with Samson and live to tell about it.

There's something attractive in revenge. We really like to see the bad guys get much so that we're happy to set things right ourselves if it looks like nobody else is going to do it. To prove this all you have to do is cut somebody off, or drive too slowly in the left lane on one of Houston's freeways!

One observation from the story of Samson (especially Judges 15) is that revenge is never done. It always escalates. I take revenge on someone who then feels justified in getting even with me, then I need to get them back, and so on.

So my questions... What is it in us that wants to get even? The Bible says we are created in the image of God. Is this a part of God's character? ..."It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. - Rom 12:19 (NIV) (Of course, you need to read the first part of that verse as well where it says, "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath,...)

So which is it to be...revenge or not...and more important why? The Sunday school answers "blessed are the meek," "love everybody," and "turn the other cheek" aren't really good enough to explain why we seem to be driven to make people pay for their wrongs. Does God turn the other cheek? Samson didn't, and he was a hero, right?

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Along the road to Emmaus

In Luke 24:13-35, the Bible describes a fascinating encounter between Jesus and two of his disciples (Cleopas and another disciple). The fascinating bit is that they walked and talked for quite a while without the disciples recognizing Jesus. As disciples they must have known Jesus by sight, but something was in the way (v16).

The encounter occurred after what must have been a "big deal" event for these disciples...their leader/teacher had been arrested and executed. It's unimaginable that they would have been ignorant of the events. They would have heard everything that was to be heard about what had happened and discussed it with others (v14). Somehow they missed, or more likely, refused to believe (v23-24) the news of the resurrection! (Perhaps that's what they were arguing about in v15?) They acted as if Jesus were dead, even in the way they retold the story. There is a sense of discouragement and disappointment in the words, "We were hoping he was the One..."

"Then their eyes were opened..." Notice that they did not open their eyes. They recognized Jesus because he opened their eyes. What a great picture of how we come to belief. Jesus is right there in front of us but we don't recognize him until he opens our eyes. Nothing has really changed except us, but everything is different.

I think what happens next in the story is what's at the very core of what it is to live the Christian life. The two disciples "that very hour" got up and went back to be with other believers and to tell people of their experience. It was late in the day and travel after dark was dangerous, but they didn't care. Their lives were changed and they had to act.

That's what the resurrection means. It's the most important event in history and the most important thing for us to really understand as Christians. It changes everything for us, and it changes us. Once we grasp the truth of this one event we can't remain the same people. It compels us to personal evangelism, joyful worship, fellowship with other believers, Bible study, and prayer.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Living Forever

Do you want to live forever with a healthy mind and body? Most people would say that they would on the condition that their "quality of life" was OK. We almost universally want to live rather than die.

I went to hear a talk this week given by Ray Kurzweil. One of the topics he covered was Living Forever. His assertion is that withing a fairly short period of time (under 50 years) pervasive nanotechnology will enable us to completely eliminate disease and effectively live forever. Of course, eliminating disease doesn't really mean we'll live forever. Accidents and suicide are still threats. I did more investigating and spreadsheeting than I should have, and estimate that eliminating all disease would increase the expected lifespan for a someone living in the US from 78 years to about 1300 years (Based on data from NSC and NCHS).

The question is this, "Is it a sin to prolong our lives by artificial means?" Should we try to live here forever? When Christians say we're going to live forever we don't mean here on earth we mean in heaven after our resurrection. We agree intellectually with Paul in Philippians 1:23-24 when he says it's better to die and be with Christ, but we don't actually live that way! That would mean not going to the doctor when we got sick, not bothering to go to the hospital after an accident, etc. Nonsensical for most of us.

The resurrection means that we will live forever, but not here. Our desire to live forever is one of those "God fingerprint" things. God made us to live forever and so we desire to live forever. In that sense, prolonging life is in God's will. Whether we prolong our life here or not is mostly irrelevant, but life is clearly a "good thing."

Monday, April 2, 2007

Easter -- "The Passion"

This week's lesson is, of course, the Easter lesson and the first comment I encounter is that by now most people will have seen Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ. Except me. I'm not sure why, but the movie has never really appealed to me enough to make me either go to the theater or even rent the DVD. Maybe it's just because I tend to not be a fan of the brutally honest historical documentary style that I think Gibson has used.

I don't go to the movies to be scared, grossed out, or lectured. There's lots of that available for free in the real world. I go to the movies to see happy stories. Maybe that's why Seth and I disagree on The Ultimate Gift.

Anyway, on to the lesson... What if there had never been a resurrection?

Wow! What a question. It's at the core of who we should be as believers. The resurrection is the very thing that motivates and demands we BE different people.

I'll be back after some surfing...

The Process of Preparing

This blog is a bit of an experiment. I imagine this should be the first line in may blogs because most of us are not graced with the certain assurance that others will ever read the things we write. That’s certainly true in my case.

I teach a Sunday school class in a Baptist church in South Texas. That probably tells you something about the likely content of my writings, but perhaps not as much as you may think it does! The process of preparing to teach a lesson for me is a sometimes frustrating, always enjoyable, unstructured romp through the amazing world of the Internet. Starting from the topic-of-the-week I attempt to put together something that will change a person’s life. If this is not the purpose of Sunday school, then I don’t know what is. It’s a sure thing for me because I find I am invariably changed by the process of preparing the lesson. If I listen carefully I can sometimes hear enough of what God wants said that He can touch others as well.

So, these pages may one day contain a chronicle of these journeys I take as I prepare. You’re invited to join in and add your own thoughts and experiences as you desire. Perhaps we will see God along the way. You never know. As I said, this is a bit of an experiment!