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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Recession and religion

Just read an interesting article on the long-term impact of the recession on religious institutions. It's always fun to see how the press deals with churches (and in this case schools) that are in trouble of one kind or another. This article is actually fairly generous.

What strikes me, though, is the doom-and-gloom that so often infects even Christian commentators when we start looking at national trends. As a part of a declining mainline denomination, I've lived with this mentality for decades. Church leaders often remind me of Eeyore, grimly hanging our heads and saying, "Thanks for noticin' me."

I can find no excuse for this mentality in the Bible. Biblically speaking, the church is growing, both in numbers and in spiritual depth. If we are not growing in these two ways, my guess is that we have missed some fundamental part of being the church.

So what do we do when financial cutbacks are required? What do we do when congregations close? What do we do when denominations have to cut back, lay off staff, sell buildings? Or on a personal level, as a Christian how do I deal with these same kinds of difficulties in my own life?

Here's one possibility. Ask yourself, "What is God up to?" God is not surprised by a recession, cutbacks, layoffs, or plummeting real estate prices. He is not wringing his hands saying, "What will happen to all my religious schools?" Maybe churches in this part of the world have gotten too enamored of our buildings, programs, endowments, and bottom lines. Maybe as individuals we have given in to the temptation to measure our success by how much stuff we've accumulated. When we start to see those material things drift away, what is God up to?

Same thing he's always doing. He's drawing people to himself, and sometimes that means kicking out the props people have been relying on instead of turning to him. The Old Testament image of God bothers a lot of people, but there's a lot of truth in it. God is still "a jealous God" who, because he loves us, will not allow any other god to take first place in our lives for very long. He will expose those idols for what they really are -- lies that will destroy us if we keep relying on them. In order to save us, he may have to strip away some of the garbage we've been relying on for so long.

What is God up to? His love is limitless, and he will not let anything -- wealth or poverty, fear or recession or anything else -- keep you away from him for long.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Iron sharpens iron

I attended a class yesterday on prayer ministry. No, I didn't drive myself to it, and yes, I had two cups of decaf coffee during the course of the six-hour class. I honestly don't miss coffee that much, which is a truly amazing thing for those of you who know of my former addiction. I had backup plans in case my endurance level wasn't up to sitting in class that long, but it worked out fine.

The most amazing thing, though, for me yesterday: I came away from that class so impressed with the Bible. I have read and studied the Bible my whole life. Spent two years in a college devoted to biblical studies. I have taught more Bible studies and preached more Bible-based sermons than I can remember. I have read the entire Bible at least a dozen times and parts of it I'm sure a thousand times. I've studied Hebrew (all of which I've forgotten, though I can still sing the song with the names of the alphabet characters) and Greek (which I still remember and use after a fashion) to understand the Bible better. More often than not each of my days starts with reading something out of the Bible. So this is familiar territory for me, right?

But yesterday I heard Bible verses used, interpreted and applied in ways I've not heard before. Now sometimes that means you're listening to heresy -- someone takes a verse out of context and applies their own meaning to it. But this wasn't like that. As the teachers went through the Bible asking the question, what does God desire for the inner life of his people, they found answers right there in the Bible that I have read and re-read for decades without seeing what they saw. And it's right there. It just convinces me again that there is so much depth in this book. It's a collection of ancient manuscripts, yes, and fascinating to study from that point of view -- but it's also somehow the Word of God, and it has depth and richness beyond my ability to grasp. I keep going back to that well and I continually find things that I have not seen before.
And it's nearly impossible to find this depth on your own. I believe it's important to read and study the Bible individually. (If you haven't done much of this, try just reading through the gospel of John like a story, asking yourself, "Who is this Jesus guy?" It's a great way to get started.) But to truly start getting at the depth of the Bible, you need to listen to others who are studying it. Hear their insights, because I guarantee that the way God speaks to them through this word will be different than the way he speaks to you. Hear what they see and share what you see. Listening to the teachers yesterday I wanted to pause the whole scene each time they pulled out a new verse of the Bible and say, "Wait a minute! I want to dig into this!" So now I have homework.

One of the most helpful ways I know of coming at a Bible story or some other section of the Bible is to ask three questions.

First, what is it saying? Don't look for deeper meanings, just see the basic content of what this text is saying. Don't read your own meaning into it, don't apply it to a particular situation. At this level, just read the text. "It says Jesus healed a blind man" (this might be your answer if you just read John 9) or, "Jesus tells his disciples to remain in him like a branch remains in a tree" (if you are reading John 15:1-11).

Second, what does it mean? Now try to use the figures of speech to get at the meaning behind the words. So if you're reading John 10, what is Jesus saying when he says, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Dig into the meaning (this is different from applying it to yourself, which will come in step three.) So Jesus isn't talking about herding sheep, he's talking about his relationship with his followers. He's like a shepherd and he's "good" because he's willing to sacrifice himself for his followers. The Bible is full of figurative language like this, and it's important to ask, "What does this text mean?"

Third, how does it apply? Once you know what a text says, and what the meaning of the words is, at least at some level, you can begin to apply it. So maybe you're going through a rough patch and you read about Jesus calming the storm in Mark 4. What it says is that Jesus was going across the sea in a boat with his disciples and a storm came up, and Jesus spoke to the wind and made the waves stop. What it means is that Jesus has authority over storms and he is strong enough to save his disciples. How it applies might be that you begin to see that Jesus has authority over the turmoil in your own life, and he is strong enough to save you.

So when you hear a sermon, or listen to someone teaching, don't just sit passive like a bump waiting for them to inspire you. After church take that Bible passage and dig into it. Or better yet, get the text ahead of time and spend time digging into it on your own. You'll find that the sermons become a lot more interesting because you've spent time working through that text and letting God speak to you. Then as the preacher deals with the same verses, iron sharpens iron -- the preacher's interpretation runs up against your own studying, and there's some friction and some agreement and some interesting intersections. And you grow. And you learn.

According to the neurologist I'm not ready to go back to work yet, so I won't be at Central Lutheran this morning. That day is coming soon (October 11th -- woo hoo!) But I know that Sonja Dixon, our pastoral associate, will be preaching and her text is from Matthew 28, what is often called the Great Commission. So I've been pondering those words this week and once the sermon is online I'll take time and listen to it -- because I know Sonja's heart and mind are sunk deep into God's word and she will do a great job of opening up that text this morning.

Wherever you are this morning, I hope you make time to open a Bible for a bit. Dig in. Let God talk through these ancient words that seem to be new every morning.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Big day ...

Good morning! Today is a landmark day in a couple ways for me.

First off, today I'll finish taking nimodipine, which is the two-horse-pills-every-four-hours-rain-or-shine medicine I've been on for a couple weeks. Two more doses! Woo hoo! So after today, I should be back to just my "normal" medications. No more 12 am and 4 am alarms. I'm excited.

The other big step is that today marks the first prayer ministry class in a course Julie took last year and I'm trying out this year. I'm hoping I've got the endurance for it -- class goes from early morning to late afternoon. I'm excited to dig deeper into this material that formed the basis for a class we did at Central last spring called "Making Change." (If I've overestimated and the day gets to be too much, Julie's sister and her family live just a few blocks away so I can crash at their place if need be.)

Third, and this is outside my current sphere of influence but still very exciting is that tonight marks the first "Intro to Alpha" meal at Central for this fall's Alpha experiences. I won't be there, but I'm excited for all those who have put so much energy and time into it. You are all in my prayers!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Catching Up

Many of you know this story already, but I thought it would be helpful to take a quick look at the circumstances that got me started on this blog.

September 4th (three weeks ago today) I had a "sub arachnoid hemorrhage" (SAH) -- a brain bleed -- that came on like lightning, out of the blue. (I was leaning over to pick up a pen off the coffee table when it happened, so I don't think it was the strain that did it!) A terrible headache, vomiting, and profuse sweating were enough to convince Julie, my wife, that we should visit the ER in Princeton, MN. From there I got to take a helicopter ride to North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale, just outside Minneapolis, where I spent the next two weeks -- a day and a half in ICU and the rest of the time out on the floor.

Statistically, a SAH kills about a third of the people who get it. Another roughly third are seriously debilitated by it. And the rest are pretty much unscathed. I am very blessed to be in this latter third. I never lost consciousness, and never had any "neurological deficits" -- memory loss, weakness, loss of cognitive or physical ability.

So basically I had a pretty harsh wakeup call. I've always tried to live with the knowledge that my existence in this world is not permanent. The last three weeks have brought a new sharpness to that reality. I had lots of time in the hospital for sitting and reflecting. (I know many of you have followed this experience on my Caring Bridge site.) Now I'm home, and I have another couple weeks of restricted duty. So I still have lots of time for sitting and reflecting.

Partly because I'd been thinking about it for a long time, and partly because many of you encouraged me to do it, this blog seems like a good way to share some of that reflection time with others. Physically I'm pretty much recovered -- though for another week or two I'm still at some higher risk for a random recurrence, so that's a little weird. This seems like a better venue than the Caring Bridge site as a place to share my thoughts. While I'm on restricted duty I have time to play with this, and as life goes back to "normal" -- whatever that is -- one of my goals is to make this part of the new routine.

Hope you enjoy it -- and if you like, you can comment on these posts (as so many of you have done on Caring Bridge -- thanks!)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Timing is everything.

I say this a lot. Timing is Everything. It applies to jokes, to sermons, to conversation, to bowhunting, to lots of stuff.

I've debated about starting a blog many, many times. But the timing never seemed quite right. Things have changed. The timing is different.

The Greeks had two words for time. "Chronos" meant time measured by the clock and calendar. Days, weeks, hours. In Chronos, there's no such thing as "the right time." It's just a commodity, a measured flow. "Kairos" meant time measured by opportunity. Kairos is when God brings things together at exactly the right time. In Kairos time, things flow together and opportunities arise. Doors open and close.

So here we are. I've spent the last couple weeks thinking, talking, and praying about this and it seems like there's an opportunity not to be missed. The door is open.

My plan (sic) is to post at least 2-3 times a week. Topics will range across a variety of stuff, but most of them will have to do with trying to figure out what this life is all about, and that will mostly revolve around a relationship with God in some form. Feel free to comment if you like, or just to read. I look forward to the dialogue part of this.

We'll see where it goes!