Monthly Archives: March 2007

Good News About Seminary Training

I heard some good news about theological education over the weekend at the Chief Academic Officer’s Meetings of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). It seems that people are happier with seminary education than we may have thought. Barbara Wheeler of the Auburn Institute reported on data gathered from an array of comprehensive surveys over several years. It seems that the seminary experience is highly rated. Some highlights:

  • Seminary students rated the quality of their educational experience as 3.2 out of 4.0.
  • 95% of graduates said that they would encourage others to pursue ministry.
  • 4 out of 5 would encourage others to attend the same seminary that they did.
  • 4.75 out of 5 would attend the same seminary again if they had the chance.
  • 74% of seminary graduates end up in professional local church ministry. 88% end up in some form of professional ministry.

The attrition rate of Master of Divinity grads who end up in professional ministry is only 1% per year over ten years. Put another way, 90% of grads stay in ministry over 10 years. These numbers are staggering and "blow away" comparables from any other form of professional training such as law or medical school. I agree with Wheeler who said, "I don’t care what your business is, if you can deliver these kinds of results, you are doing phenomenal work." It has become common to criticize seminary as "cemetary" and to generally see it as an outdated and inefficient way of training people for ministry. The numbers say otherwise. Perhaps it’s time to stop seminary-bashing and to begin to think more creatively about how seminaries and churches can leverage this work for the benefit of people and the growth of God’s kingdom.

Secular – Is the word useful anymore?

Secular often is used in opposition to the idea of the sacred. The Latin word saeculum, meaning this age, is the etymological root for our English word “secular”. It tends to describe a view of things that ignores the reality of God and sees natural processes or human agency as the final cause of things, eliminating God from the equation. It also comes to define a way of thinking that lacks religious sensibility.

If we intend to define some idea as ‘non-Christian’, this may not mean it is secular, it may only mean it represents religious values that are not Christian.

As we look across our Canadian social landscape, we often hear it described as a secular wasteland, particularly if our viewpoint is Christian. But when we define it as secular, is this an accurate portrayal? Is religion in fact a dead or dying influence in our Canadian reality? I would suggest that the opposite is the case. All the surveys that I have seen about the values that Canadians hold indicate a deep sense of religious commitment defines us. The sacred, defined in different ways, influences Canadians significantly. Those that would claim to be atheist are a very small minority. The vast majority of Canadians are religious people, to some degree. The role that god(s) play personally or socially will vary, but god(s) are alive and well in Canada. If we colour our society as secular, we overlook this essential religious reality. The percentage of people who adhere to a religious understanding that is non-Christian is increasing, but this does not make them secular. SpringAs we seek to express the Kingdom reality of the Gospel personally and in our faith communities, perhaps we need to revise our perception of the Canadian who is our neighbour. The odds are that our neighbours are religious people. When we seek to share our religious beliefs, they can appreciate that we are religious. They may be curious about the religious ideas and practices we follow and why such things are important to us. We may discover that they are committed to similar values – family, integrity, value of life, etc. When we share our faith and encourage them to consider the claims of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, we are in fact asking them to abandon their current religious framework, something that is often deeply intertwined with their culture and sense of personal identity. To urge them to enter into a relationship with Jesus, i.e. become Christian, requires them to engage in a deep, significant transformation. We should not be surprised that they will need time to consider such matters and evaluate the implications of such a change very carefully. We would do the same.

The percentage of people who adhere to a religious understanding that is non-Christian is increasing, but this does not make them secular.

Perhaps there are some true secularists in the neighbourhood, but they probably are a rather rare breed. Some groups in our society have a secular agenda, seeking to erase any influence or effects that religious values may exercise in Canada. However, most Canadians and most of the groups in which they are involved endorse some kind of religious perspective. Our culture essentially is a religious fabric. We should use the term ‘secular’ then with some restraint. If we intend to define some idea as ‘non-Christian’, this may not mean it is secular, it may only mean it represents religious values that are not Christian. Helping the poor and seeking justice, for instance, are profoundly religious values. Advocating for good health care expresses a desire for quality of life and compassionate concern for those who suffer. Being good stewards of the environment honours the mandate God has given for us to exercise care for His creation.

The Difference Between Multi-Ethnic and Multi-Cultural

At a recent seminar a pastor posed the question: “What is the difference between multi-ethnic and multi-cultural?” Ethnicity primarily refers to group identity arising from a common history, kinship and language. Culture refers to the way members of a particular ethnic group relate to their environment and each other. This includes legends, laws, priorities, structures, customs and artifacts. Multi-ethnic, therefore, refers to members of a variety of ethnic groups interacting within a particular forum (such as a multi-ethnic church). Such forums require a common structure or format with which all members agree to conform in order for this multi-ethnic interaction to function successfully (e.g., for multi-ethnic churches in Canada this is generally the church practice of the dominant Canadian culture).

The hope is that churches will be able to clarify their own particular identity as they navigate the passage between multi-ethnic and multi-cultural that will result in healthy and liberating expressions of the church of Jesus Christ.

Multi-cultural, on the other hand, is much more complex, harder to envision and fraught with conflict. The concept is that members of a variety of ethnic groups interact while maintaining their distinct cultural practices and priorities. In reality, this is a paradox because while cultures are defined by their distinctiveness, community and interaction rely upon commonalities to establish unity. In order to have intercultural relationships, some accommodation must be made on one or both sides of the cultural divide. But the act of accommodation represents, to some degree, a compromise and loss of cultural values.

In my experience, most of our Fellowship churches that are multi-ethnic are not multi-cultural. These churches have embraced a number of ethnic groups within a culturally Canadian expression of church life. My article on setting an intercultural agenda for our churches in the recently published book by NBS, Being Church: Explorations in Christian Community, recounts a discussion of cultural issues with a Punjabi couple (p. 26). Although they attended a multi-ethnic local church, they expressed appreciation for the opportunity to occasionally attend a worship service with a mono-cultural Punjabi congregation some distance away. The attraction was the specifically Punjabi cultural elements such as singing the Psalms in Punjabi with traditional musical instruments. In order for them to participate in their multi-ethnic local church, they were required to relinquish much of their Punjabi heritage as it relates to church life.

Our Cross-cultural Think Tank has prepared a seminar on cultural diversity designed to help our Fellowship churches work through the cultural tensions that arise within our multi-ethnic churches. The hope is that churches will be able to clarify their own particular identity as they navigate the passage between multi-ethnic and multi-cultural that will result in healthy and liberating expressions of the church of Jesus Christ. For further information contact Mark via the form below.

 

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Making Health Part of a Natural Cycle…

Over the last two months, I’ve been gathering together research in preparation for the Best Practices for Church Boards: Advanced Edition workshop on the role of the Church Board in Vision Development and Strategic Planning. I’ve sorted through a number of coaching programs – from Church Central’s Church Consultancy, to Natural Church Development’s Coaching system, to Stadia’s New Church Strategies, to Outreach Canada’s Vision Renewal. [Hartford Seminary has an interesting list of consultant operations at: http://hirr.hartsem.edu/leadership/consultants.html.] telescopeOne of the things that I’ve discovered is that for the most part each system follows a similar outline: Prepare for evaluation, Evaluate, Analyze, Resolve, Act … and then Monitor a renewed Ministry Plan. When you chart out the steps, it seems so simple and direct. Yet, as I talk with the consultants who guide and coach congregations through the process, it is one of the most difficult shared tasks congregations will endure. At first, I thought that the actual work that went into building a Ministry Plan was what made it so difficult. It is a lot of work. Most of the programs estimate the cost of creating profiles, taking assessments, crafting vision statements, and creating effective communication patterns to take: an average of 6-8 months at the cost of approximately 1 month of a senior pastor’s salary. It’s hard, costly work. But the work is not the most difficult thing. One consultant revealed the greatest hurdle faced by the Church: having the courage to embrace the cold, hard facts. It’s a direct reflection of what Jim Collins defined as the third key element of Great Institutions [Good to Great]: Yes, leadership is about vision. But leadership is equally about creating a climate where the truth is heard and the brutal facts confronted … the good-to-great leaders understood this distinction, creating a culture wherein people had a tremendous opportunity to be heard and, ultimately, for the truth to be heard…to confront the brutal facts and to act on the implications [p, 74,89.] I suppose that it’s no surprise that most churches initiate the Re-Visioning process with a spirit of desperation, as a last resort. They can no longer ignore the brutal truth. And, I suppose it’s no surprise that those who work with such churches have such a sense of critical care. But, it could be different. As I continue to work with such instruments as Best Practices for Church Boards … I take great satisfaction in helping hurting congregations get healthy … but I am also resolved to help healthy churches see the process of Re-Visioning as a natural, normal, expected part of the cycle of their life.

Naïve or Sophisticated Belief?

Many people today consider the New Testament documents to be the expression of a naïve, easy believism. “After all,” they ask, “weren’t people in the first century AD quite unsophisticated and unscientific? It would have been easy to put one over on them.”

The documents actually tell quite a different story.

Jesus’ resurrection and first appearances didn’t catch all the disciples at the same time.  There were some who weren’t present and so would not necessarily have known what to make of their fellow disciples’ assertions of the resurrection of Jesus and of his bodily appearance to them.  The Gospel of John 20:24-29, for example, tells us that the disciple Thomas was one.

Notwithstanding the other disciples’ repeated and vigorous affirmations (“they kept on saying”) that they had seen the risen Lord, Thomas declared he would remain unconvinced until he himself had incontrovertible evidence. John records Thomas to have said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

He would not content himself with hearing from others; or even seeing for himself. Thomas would believe only after both visual and full tactile confirmation. This sounds both sophisticated and scientific!

John writes that “a week later,” Thomas was with the other disciples in the meeting place.  He notes further that “though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them” and at his appearing, he declared to them “Peace be with you!” Turning to Thomas, Jesus then said, “Put your finger here; see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” He was challenging Thomas to satisfy himself through physically probing the wounds in confirmation that he was indeed Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.  Jesus chided Thomas, “Stop doubting and believe.”

Seeing Jesus was apparently enough.  John says at v. 28 that Thomas declared, ‘My Lord and my God!’”  These are the titles of deity!

A “Cheating Culture”

A recent study conducted among undergraduate students at Canadian universities and colleges revealed that more than 50% of students surveyed admitted to “cheating on written work”. This included copying sentences from online or other sources, as well as cheating on exams. 22% of graduate students admitted to engaging in some forms of plagiarism. It is estimated that the web has led to a 5 to 10% increase in the amount of plagiarism occurring. Up to a quarter of undergraduate students falsify or fabricate lab data. Often students with high grade point averages cheat – to maintain their standing. A primary reason why students are doing this, by their own admission, is that they see leaders in business, sports and journalism, high profile cheaters, getting away with it. Sometimes cheating occurs because faculty are not teaching well or are grading in ways perceived to be unfair. Very few Canadian universities have codes of academic integrity that they require students to sign and faculty to follow. This kind of information shakes one’s faith in the educational system. How can we trust the credibility of degrees people earn if they are cheating their way to success? As critical as this concern should be, it led me to reflect on the ‘cheating culture’ that flourishes in churches. Jesus had another word for it – hypocrisy, i.e. pretending to be religiously sincere and genuine. We look around and see many people claiming to be Christian and not taking very seriously the words of Jesus. So we begin to adopt a similar kind of haphazard approach to our spirituality. Or we begin to excuse our failure to live obediently – little lies, little thefts, little jealousies, little frauds, little lusts. The cumulative effect of these little sins is terribly corrosive. The Spirit’s voice becomes less authoritative and compelling. What of the effect of this creeping hypocrisy on those outside of the Kingdom? How damaging our religious cheating becomes to the credibility of the Good News of Jesus. If we claim to love one another, but fail to demonstrate this sincerely, what good is our claim? As James says, without works, our faith is dead. A sincere and genuine love for God and others lies at the root of our Christian experience. Spiritual leaders should consider whether they are contributing to religious cheating by not making clear Jesus’ standards, or by not modeling and urging obedient discipleship. If we can reduce academic cheating through education and the use of pledges of academic integrity, surely we can take similar action to reduce religious cheating. Checking on whether religious cheating is occurring and naming it, may be one of the most effective strategies. Accountability is part of kingdom living, as Jesus tells us in Matthew 18:15-20. The regular involvement of Christians in the Lord’s Table provides a singular opportunity to recalibrate our spiritual lives.

Secret Spirituality

Lately I’ve been preaching through the Sermon on the Mount, particularly chapter six and Jesus’ requirement that the forms of spiritual formation be kept secret. When you give, he says, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. When you pray, go into the closet and lock the door. When you fast, have a shower and clean up so that no one knows what you have been up to. In short, spiritual formation is supposed to happen in secret. It is what we do with God and for God. It is not about making the right kind of impression on others. My struggle with all this has been that as a leader and as a parent I find myself wanting to set a good example. I find that I want to be seen to be spiritual so that I’m modeling patterns of spiritual formation for my children and for others around me. I want them to see my praying and giving and living out the disciplines of the faith because I want them to pick up on these same things. But it’s hard to get past what Jesus is saying. The forms of spiritual discipline are not to be displayed. It is the fruit of the Spirit that ought to be observable. Spiritual discipline is like the skeleton that supports the system on the inside, but it is not supposed to be visible from the outside. We must pray, we must give, we must be disciplined, it’s just that these are not the things that ought to show. Rather than being known as a person who does spiritual things, I want to be known as a person who displays the character of God. I want to be known as a person who displays the fruits of the spiritual life – displaying a love, joy, peace, and patience so profound that people want to know where it comes from and what it’s all about. Our spiritual practice is for God’s eyes only.

Checking assumptions about church

I have come to appreciate the fact that the writers of New Testament did not provide a definition of the church. There does not exist a transcultural form, liturgy or practice by which a church can be identified and classified. Instead we are given powerful metaphors such as the body of Christ, or the bride of Christ which prevents us from reducing the church to an agency, institution or organization. These metaphors stimulate our imagination to explore a myriad of communal expressions of the kingdom of God. Church exists through house churches, training institutions, mission agencies, orphanages as well as through traditional congregations, all living under God’s rule and revealing some aspect of what it means to be the body of Christ in this world. I found the following check-list taken from Postmodernity and the Emerging Church By Geoff Westlake in LausanneWorldPulse.com Feb 07 to be very helpful in challenging my assumptions concerning legitimate expressions of emerging and established churches:

  • Absence of singing does not equal absence of worship.
  • Absence of certain miracles does not mean they do not see God at work.
  • A focus beyond the assembly does not negate care within the assembly.
  • Absence of preaching does not equal absence of learning or of the ministry of the word.
  • Interactive learning does not equal theological shallowness.
  • Absence of traditional liturgy does not equal a piece-meal approach to God’s grand narrative.
  • Living with the people in the harvest does not equal syncretism.
  • Missiological flexibility does not equal theological looseness at the core.
  • Respect for individual autonomy does not equal individualistic formation.
  • Absence of tithing does not equal absence of stewardship.
  • Absence of external structures does not equal absence of internal structure.
  • Absence of denominational control does not equal absence of accountability.
  • Absence of big meetings does not mean the church is small.
  • Small does not equal ineffective.
  • Temporary does not equal ineffective.
  • Empowering others to initiate does not equal chaos.
  • One method or another does not equal righteousness.

Not Alone …

Over the last two years, through our Best Practices for Church Boards workshops, we have gathered together church leaders from all over the province. They’ve come from all directions: large churches – small churches, urban churches – rural churches. Last week, as we met with 5 churches in the Kootenays, I found my reflections moving beyond their differences to their commonalities: Is there anything specific that all church leaders share? Among the possible answers, there was one thing that stands out: Anxiety. All church leaders wrestle with anxiety. They worry about their church. They spend sleepless nights in agony over their church. In idle moments, they fret over their church. And, I wonder if there is a cure for their agony,. In Acts 20, the Apostle Paul delivers a charge to those who would lead that creates a perspective that serves as a cure. “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with His own blood. [Acts 20:28]” The fact is, while leaders serve the church – God owns it. While there is a unique sense of diligence that is woven into the words “my church” the fact remains that it is “His church.” While that reminder may not cure the causes of anxiety, it does create a perspective for leadership health. Church leaders are not alone! If it’s true that they worry and fret and fear over the life of a congregation – how much more does God carry the concerns in His heart. Church leaders are not alone! If it’s true that they serve and give to the point of exhaustion – how much more is God able to do for what belongs to Him. I shared this thought with one of the leaders at the Best Practices workshop. I just wanted to see if it would make a difference. The reaction was immediate. It didn’t remove his problems or solve his issues – but it did make a difference. “I’m not alone … Someone else owns this venture, and I’ll work it out with Him.”

The Tomb of Jesus – Empty or Still Occupied?

Has all the hype surrounding the "documentary" film The Lost Tomb of Jesus caught you off guard? The film’s website proclaims, “An incredible archaeological discovery in Israel changes history and shocks the world.” Well, what about it? The website contains a "proviso" stating that they are not disputing the resurrection of Jesus. The film makers claim, “Even if Jesus were moved from one tomb to another, this does not negate the possibility that he was resurrected from the second tomb” and then add in relation to the ascension: “If Jesus’ mortal remains have indeed been found, this would contradict only the idea of a physical ascension. However, it says nothing against the possibility of a spiritual one nor does it dispute the idea of the Ascension.” The fact remains that, if it is true that Jesus’ bones are contained in an ossuary somewhere in present day Jerusalem, then Peter’s statement in Acts 2:22-24* "Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him." (emphasis added); and Paul’s declaration in Acts 13:34 "… God raised him from the dead, never to decay…", are nothing but empty lies! If, in fact, Jesus did not rise from the dead, victorious over sin and the curse, death and the grave, then in Paul’s words, we have believed in vain! But have we? What does the New Testament record tell us? Here is what Paul wrote to the church in the city of Corinth – countering the claims of some, who even in that day were disputing the possibility of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-25 – headings and emphasis added).

The Case: (1) Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. (2) By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. The Claim: (3) For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, (4) that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, The Evidence: (5)and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. (6) After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. (7) Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, (8)and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. The Summary: (9) For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (10) But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them-yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (11) Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed. The Question: (12)But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? The Stakes: (13) If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. (14) And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (15) More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. (16) For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. (17) And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. (18) Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. (19) If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. The Fact: (20) But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. The Theology: (21) For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. (22) For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (23) But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. (24) Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. (25) For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The apostle Paul continues in Acts 13:37 “… the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay” and in Romans 6:9-10 he declares, “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” Allow the import of the necessity of the bodily resurrection, ascension and imminent return of Jesus penetrate deeply into your soul. The New Testament is replete with eye-witness accounts and public declarations of the physical resurrection of Jesus. When the disciples first saw Jesus after the resurrection they wondered if he were a ghost. Jesus told them to both look at him and touch him to assure themselves that he was the flesh and blood Jesus – and if that were not enough he asked for some food to eat in their presence (Luke 24:36-43). Later when Thomas doubted, Jesus urged him to touch the very scars and believe (John 20:27). It was Jesus’ intention that his followers have full assurance that he was physically alive. Now listen to the words of the two men to the watching disciples on the morning of the Ascension, “ ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ ” (Acts 1:11) This same physically alive Jesus has promised to return and take us to be with him (John 14) Here is the hope we have; "And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you." (Romans 8:11) Let us rejoice together with all Christians everywhere that “He is risen indeed!” *All Scripture quotations are from the NIV Bible

Unitask Living in a Multitask Universe

Christians aspire to the kind of unitasking Christian focus of the apostle Paul when he declares, “For to me, to live is Christ….” The reality, however, is that we live in a world that shouts from every corner, “Multitask!” Life is full of commitments that urgently cry out and distractions that enticingly call out for our attention. The Corinthians could identify. The good news about Jesus had caught them up in its net as they stood in the midst of the complexities of their lives—some were married and others not; some were free and others slaves; some were wealthy and well positioned and many others were not. Now they were confronted with a great question: “How does one live a unitask life in a multitask universe?” Paul advises the Corinthians that living with consummate focus to honor Christ is called for because there is urgency. Live that way because “the time is short” (1 Cor. 7:29), he says. Paul denies that time yawns out and meanders before us without end. There is an abrupt focal point—it is the second coming of Christ. And Paul sees a kind of compression in the time between our “now” and the “then” of Christ’s return. The Christian life is lived with focus because it is lived in light of the end. Paul is also realistic about multiple demands; he admits their presence and that we do have to answer to them. But he counsels an intense resolution through those multiple demands to live life “as if not.” Paul explains it this way:

“From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them.” (1 Cor. 7:29-30)

An “as if not” life is calculatingly deliberate; it is focused to honour Christ. Where others are involved, it negotiates through to permissions and synergies that free up energies and time to honour Christ. An “as if not” life goes through the great ups and downs of human existence, but returns immediately from wild emotional gyrations to the magnetic north of honouring Christ. An “as if not” life acknowledges the requirement of things but disallows entanglements to them, preferring to see things as means to honour Christ. When Christian philanthropist Maxey Jarman reflected that he had only lost what he’d kept, but that what he’d given away was safe, he was acknowledging an “as if not” life through multiple demands (Fred Smith, “What I Learned from Maxey Jarman,” Leadership 2.1 [1981]). The “as if not” life should be energized, Paul reminds, by the sober conviction that “this world in its present form is passing away.” (1 Cor. 7:31) Live in light of the end. Live “as if not.” It makes good, God-honouring, Christian sense.

Ready to Preach

Last week I was part of the examination committee for a Doctor of Ministry dissertation written by Pastor David Acree from Lethbridge, Alberta. David’s dissertation examined the matter of the preacher’s sense of readiness to preach. I’m pleased to say that he passed the exam and will graduate this spring. The question is interesting. Every pastor knows what it’s like to not quite feel ready to preach. No doubt some of this is simply human. Sometimes we’re tired and under-motivated and there isn’t much to be done for it. But perhaps, given the spiritual nature of our task, we could build a routine that might help intentionalize the process of being ready to go into the pulpit to preach. Acree thinks there is. He counsels the preacher to pay attention to things like their personal sense of identity, their expectations for the event, and the allowance of adequate time. He deals with the expected aspects of prayer and attendance to the Spirit. He challenges preachers to care about the listeners, spending time with them and helping connect them to the Word. “When God’s preacher,” Acree says, “enters the pulpit in God’s power to deliver a message from God appropriate to the people of God, that preacher is ready to preach.” In my own preaching, I would have to say that I know when I am ready and when I am not. I’m not sure the readiness formula is all that surprising. I know what it takes to prepare a solid sermon plan and when that plan is only partially cooked. I know when I’ve rushed things and when I’ve taken the time that is necessary to engage God and to engage the message from His Word. Elsewhere I have written about “assimilation” and I think that this is essentially what we are talking about. When I feel full of the message and the sermon burns inside me I am ready to preach. What God will do with it in result is up to him.

The Tomb of Jesus???

News media have posed the question “Has film crew found the DNA of Jesus?” or “Have we discovered the tomb of Jesus?” Journalist Simcha Jacobovici and producer James Cameron recently released a documentary film claiming that they had discovered Jesus’ tomb. Is this a credible claim? The tomb they refer to was discovered in 1980, located in Talpiyot, a suburb of Jerusalem. Within it the archaeologist Amos Kloner found six ossuaries, limestone chests in which the bones of deceased persons were placed. On these ossuaries were inscriptions in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, including the names Yeshua bar Yosef, Maria, Matia (Matthew), Yose, Yehuda bar Yeshua, Mariamne or Mara. The claim is that Yeshua is Jesus, Joseph was his father, Mary refers to Jesus mother, Jesus also had a son named Judah and perhaps Mariamne was Jesus’ wife. Quite a series of claims! If we accept them, it means that the stories of Jesus’ burial in the New Testament Gospels are false! However, the data does not support the claims. First, the name “Yeshua” was very common in first century Judea. Josephus the Jewish historian refers to more than fifty different people who had this name. Second, the burial details provided in the Gospels tell a different story. Joseph of Arimathea, a pious Jew, asks Pilate for Jesus’ body so that it could be buried before Sabbath began on Friday evening at sundown. He placed the body in a rock-hewn tomb, wrapping it in a shroud and placing it in one of the niches (loculi) cut into the walls of the tomb. The entrance to the tomb was sealed with a stone. Only very wealthy people could afford a tomb of this nature. Jesus’ family was poor and Joseph of Arimathea’s actions indicate they owned no rock-hewn tomb in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Normally poorer people would be buried in an earthen grave, much as we do today. The Jewish practice was to gather the bones of deceased placed in tombs, after considerable time had passed, and place them in a ossuary, making room for other bodies to be interred. However, if the body was buried in the earth, the bones would not be dug up. So ossuaries are only associated with rock-cut tombs. According to the Gospels, when Jesus’ followers went to the tomb on Sunday morning, they found it empty. Christians believe this occurred because of the resurrection. The Jewish leadership argued that Jesus’ disciples stole the body. If they had stolen it, probably they would have buried it in an earthen grave. Either way, there would be no bones to put in an ossuary! Third, studies of the ossuaries found in Israel indicate that when a person who lived outside of Jerusalem was buried in the city, the deceased’s place of origin would be noted on the ossuary, i.e. Simon of Ptolemais (this is similar to calling Jesus “Jesus of Nazareth”). However, if the person lived in Jerusalem, then his or her ancestry would be noted, i.e. Judah son of John. In the case of the Talpiyot ossuaries, if they held the remains of Jesus’ family, one would expect that some of the people would be identified by towns outside of Jerusalem, i.e. Jesus of Nazareth. The formulae used in the inscriptions point rather to a Jerusalem family. Fourth, nowhere in any of the Gospels do we read that Jesus had a brother named Matthew. Fifth, identifying Mariamne as Mary Magdalene by interpreting the word ‘Mara’ as the Aramaic term for ‘master’ and then saying this means she was a teacher and leader, goes far beyond the data. These claims contradict the Gospel details that show conformity with known burial practices in first century Judea. Further, the claims are not consistent with what we know about the way that Jewish people buried their dead in the first century, particularly people in the poorer segments of society. Jesus rose from the dead. This ‘documentary’ film should not cast any doubt on this central feature of the Good News.

Do we believe or do we know?

During my last visit to Pakistan for Bible translation I was rechecking the Psalms with our main translator, GMA. A verse that warranted a correction in the translation was Psalm 135:5 that read in part, “I know that God is great.” GMA commented that this was "weak" because a statement of knowledge or information may not have significance for the writer. Because it is presented as an objective observation, it is free of subjective interest and therefore communicates some level of ambivalence on the part of the author. Because this is not the intended impact of the verse, we changed the translation to "I have faith that God is great." In Sindhi this communicates conviction, commitment and belief on the part of the author and is thus "strong." In considering the implications of the change, I was struck by the contrast between modernist western thinking and this Sindhi perspective. For the Sindhi, it is a person’s subjective commitments and the impact in her / his life that is important and provides the foundation for life’s meaning. Objective observance of facts is simply one aspect of what we do and it doesn’t touch the core of our being. Because the writer of the Psalm was bringing out his personal relationship to the truth of God’s greatness, a translation in the Sindhi context necessitates a communication of that subjective significance in order to provide the full force of the statement. To simply state it as a fact without the personal element (such as in CEV:"God is great") is to miss the impact on the author. In the west, with its rationalistic fascination with “facts,” the thinking is very different. The objective sounding "I know" implies certainty, an expression of confidence in something true outside of ourselves upon which we can ground our faith. To translate this verse as "I have faith" in a modernist context is to weaken it significantly, reducing it to a mere subjective experience that may or may not correlate with the reality "out there." So do we believe or do we know? Sometimes it depends on the context.

Jesus’ Grave — Full or Empty?

Excuse my cynicism, but we must be nearing the Easter season! There’s another sensational docudrama in the wind. It’s about Jesus and, unsurprisingly, has profoundly negative implications for the Christian faith traditionally understood. After seeding a media frenzy as prelude to the event itself, the TV faithful have been gathered from far and wide to be awed and troubled yet again by a new “gospel.” The Garden TombAs usual, the claims of the docudrama are bold; the scripting and cinematography, as slick and convincing as any CSI episode; and the basis in fact, inconsistent with both the content of first century New Testament description and the findings of scientific archaeology. This time round it’s a TV piece by the Discovery Channel called “The Lost Tomb of Christ,” directed by Simcha Jacobovici and produced by James Cameron (of movie Titanic fame). They make a sensational claim that the tomb of Jesus’ family has been discovered in the Talpiyot suburb of Jerusalem. And it’s full! The bones of the whole family are there, including those of Jesus, his wife Mary and their son Judah. DNA proves it! The Talpiyot tomb is not a new discovery. Archaologist Amos Kloner excavated the site and published his findings some 27 years ago. Moreover, Kloner and many others in the archaeological fraternity emphatically do not reach the easy conclusions of Jacobovici and Cameron. Space forbids an extended discussion of the rather compelling reasons why the Talpiyot tomb cannot be that of Jesus. But check out the response of Jodi Magness, Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to the archaeological and biblical issues . You’ll find it quite interesting! (Click here…) Magness, for her part, has focused upon the Gospels, which is quite logical. But there is even earlier canonical tradition relating to the tomb. It’s in 1 Corinthians. Written by the apostle Paul, this New Testament letter is probably older than the Gospels. It dates to around 54/5 AD, some 25 years after the Easter events. But what Paul includes in the letter about the tomb of Jesus is even older. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is a brief and almost poetic piece of ancient Christian tradition that Paul himself had received from others. If this is what Paul received following his conversion, it dates to only a few years after the Easter events themselves. It reads thus: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles….” (NIV) Notice, “he was buried”—that means the tomb; and, “he was raised on the third day”—that means the empty tomb. The bold list of appearances of the risen Lord to various individuals and groups served confident notice to those who wished to trouble themselves, that one could conduct interviews to satisfy questions. We may agree with Jacobovici and Cameron that there is a tomb somewhere about the environs of ancient Jerusalem and in it Jesus’ lifeless body was laid; but, against Jacobovici and Cameron, Jesus’ tomb, wherever it presently is, was only briefly occupied by Jesus before his resurrection.

Taking the Heat

Recently, I preached the same sermon at two consecutive services. In between the first and second services I took some heat from an older man who suggested that “if anyone came into the service confused, I left them more confused.” I tried to offer a gentle response, hoping to clarify what may have been a misapprehension of my intent, but he wasn’t interested in a conversation. He just wanted to drop his bomb. In fact, he proved the point that I was trying to make with the sermon about the way we perpetuate the forms of spiritual life without attending to the fruit of the Spirit. For all his concern, there wasn’t much evidence of love, joy, patience… in his response to me. It’s been a long time since I’ve been hit with criticism for my preaching so directly. It just hasn’t happened to me all that often and so I don’t mind admitting that the criticism stung. Given that there was quite a bit of time between services I went for a walk in order to pray and to sort out my response. First, of course, one needs to deal with the emotional sting. Most of us like to be appreciated and it doesn’t feel good to know that we are not. Of course, I was able to balance this with the fact that multiple people had come to me offering profuse thanks for the same sermon. I remember, however, something I read in a book on Christian parenting about how every negative comment needs to be balanced by at least ten positive ones. Secondly, I needed to rehearse the sermon to see if there was any truth in the criticism. Just because the critic was angry doesn’t mean that he was wrong. In this case, however, as I went through what I had said, I concluded that I was correct in what I had said. My comments, while difficult, were warranted by the text of Scripture. The third and in this case most telling aspect was an examination of the degree to which the problem could have been avoided if I had done a better job of preaching. Here, I sensed was where I had stumbled. It’s not that the sermon was poor. It’s just that I could have done a better job of helping my critic deal with what I was saying. Not that I want to soft-peddle the struggle. Preaching the Bible leads us to say some uncomfortable things and I’m not afraid of laying it out there. At the same time, I don’t want to be unnecessarily confrontational. Where there is potential for challenge, my goal as a preacher is not just to create problems for people, but having raised the problems, find ways to help people past them. The truth is, I could have been more sensitive to the potential for difficulty and I could have done more to actually help the listener hear what God was saying. In fact, in the second service, that is exactly what I did. As a preacher, I want to own responsibility for the listener’s response. This is not to say that I can control their responses. I can’t. It is also not to say that I am accountable for their response. I’m not. Nevertheless, the more I take it upon myself to help the listener respond well to what they hear, the better my preaching is going to be and the stronger the response will be from listeners. It’s not easy, but it’s part of our job as preachers.

Mesmerized with hell

A friend of mine discovered that he was suffering from what he termed a spiritual "Stockholm syndrome", the phenomenon of kidnapped victims bonding with their captors as they look desperately for mercy or an act of kindness. In his previous evangelical faith a dark shadow of hell made my friend hungry for any indication of mercy and love from God. A believing friend was recently confronted by her son who said, "What kind of God would send people to hell just because they don’t believe in Jesus?" In a Bible study I attend one participant said that he wants to believe in a God who loves all people, but he has been brought up believing that the Bible teaches there are people God hates and who are chosen for hell. All of these perspectives are perversions of the clearest picture we have of God which is found in the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ: a Deity so determined that humanity would be redeemed to life that he suffered the indignity and pain of the cross in the person of his son rather than let us be destroyed. It is not eternal torment that is the essential truth of the universe, but the love of God. It is not hell that has the last word, but the Lord Jesus Christ who makes all things right and brings the whole universe back to God (Col 1:20). (Do not read between the lines here and label me a universalist: Jesus also taught that God does not forgive those who are unmerciful, uncaring and unrepentant ­ e.g., Matt 18 & 25). My concern is with the picture of God people are gaining from the gospel message. If our presentations of the gospel of Christ are being perceived as promoting arbitrariness, callousness and injustice on the part of God, then we are misrepresenting the salvation Christ offers. If people are hearing the love of God presented with a dark side of his satisfaction in the eternal torture of his creatures, then we are undermining the message of the cross. I am amazed at how many people exposed to evangelical messages of salvation are repulsed by the image of a God who doesn’t love the world, whose mercy is limited and who refuses to accept the meek and humble. Is there something wrong in the way we present the gospel that people fail to be confronted with the vast, unbounded grace of the Father longing to wrap his arms around the prodigal?

Webpage reflections…

What began this morning as a casual conversation has become a reflection that I just have to put into words. The subject of Community came up as Dr. Perkins mentioned his wonder of what sort of unifying symbols we have as Canadians that express our shared identity. Even more, what sort of unifying symbols do we have as Christians that allow us to recognize each other in the Canadian community. An image immediately came to mind. Last week my son and I had a chance to see the Coyotes play the Calgary Flames in Phoenix. In the parking lot we witnessed probably the most common unifying symbol of Canadian identity as a crowd of fans – all wearing Flames jerseys – discovered each other in the parking lot. By the time we were in the stadium, it was obvious that the Canadian “community” had arrived as more and more Flames fans were attracted by the gravitational pull of the jerseys. I must confess, even though I was determined to protect my interest as a Vancouver fan to cheer for a Coyote win against the hated Flames, my son and I found ourselves drawn to the Canadian crowd behind the Calgary bench as we watched the pre-game warmup. If there were a unifying Canadian symbol, it would have to have something to do with Hockey. But what about a similar symbol for the Christian community. Again, an image came to mind. The hockey game was on Thursday. On Wednesday my son and I had tickets to see the Phoenix Suns play the Boston Celtics. Different arena, different sport … but as we bumped our way into the stadium, I noticed another symbol. There was a large number of people in the crowd with smudges on their foreheads … Ash Wednesday, don’t you know. I must confess, there was a part of me that wanted a smudge on my forehead if for any other reason to be able to sense, in the crowd, that I – too – was one "of them." I realize that it’s not very Baptist of me to say it, but there is something quite compelling about the power of ritual and deep symbol. Maybe it’s part of this yearning for a tangible sense of identity and community that has animated a revival of interest in the “new Evangelicals” as named by Robert Webber toward ritual and orthodoxy. Back to this morning. As I returned to my office, I read an article by Nathan Bierma in the Christianity Today daily newsletter, The Shape of Faith. It was a review of two books, both of them historical studies of the ancient Christian practice of the sign of the cross: The Sign of the Cross: The Gesture, the Mystery, the History by Andreas Andreopoulos, and The Sign of the Cross: Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer by Bert Ghezzi. Again, I confess that I was fascinated by the study. As Bierma writes, Protestants have traditionally dismissed the act as “a Catholic thing.” But, the fact is that it has roots much deeper into the early church and practice that extend beyond the Reformation. In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther prescribed the practice because of the powerful potential for physical demonstration and the remembrance of deeper meanings. As Bierma writes, the faithful can treasure the multitude of meanings behind symbols. It is something that identifies community: the sign, as an act, small it may be, expresses the impetus of crossing the threshold between thinking in theological terms and practicing the Christian life. So, I linger on the question with a sense of wonder. How do we, as Baptists, create a sense of identity not just as a human community, but as members of a heavenly family?