The 10 Commandments!!!

27 05 2013

10 CommandmentsBecause I’m playing catch-up after not posting for a really long time, I thought I’d share some of what we’ve done this year. During Lent, we did a 5-week series about the 10 Commandments, learning about two commandments per week. Download the series here: The Top 10 – 5 week series on the 10 Commandments.

A few things to be aware of:

1. We had some of our high school youth act as small group leaders throughout this series. They did a phenomenal job.

2.  Each week we started with a big-group review session before dividing into small groups to discuss the two commandments in depth.

3. One of our goals was for the youth to be able to remember all the 10 Commandments in order and to know where to find them in the Bible, so we taught them hand motions as a mnemonic. This worked extremely well, based on a quiz we gave at the end: all but one youth could remember the commandments, all but three knew where to find them in the Bible, and a couple offered anecdotes about how they had tried to live out the commandments. All in all, a success.

4. We had just finished a series on sexuality, so we didn’t really talk about adultery at all. Nonetheless, the 4th lesson was one of my favorites.

Mission “Because”: You’ll always have the poor…

11 03 2012

There’s a puzzling little story that appears in all four gospels about a woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume.  As the story goes, the other guests are angered by her act; after all, they reason, she’s literally poured out her entire savings in one night!  Wouldn’t it have been better to sell the perfume and donate the profits to the poor?

But Jesus comes to the woman’s defense: “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

I’ve never quite been able to explain this story away.  It does NOT jive with my image of Jesus as a tireless champion for the poor and marginalized.  In Sunday School we like to put special emphasis on John’s version of the story, which criticizes Judas’ motives (he wasn’t really concerned with the plight of the poor; he just wanted to steal the money for himself).  But as much as I hate to side with the Bible’s ultimate traitor, I still think his question is valid!

Of course, there’s the theological explanation: we can’t get so wrapped up in “helping the poor” that we forget to give honor and glory to Christ.  Christ must come first, and mission must be seen as an expression of worship.

But in light of yesterday’s post, I wonder if there may be another, missional explanation for Jesus’ words.

Jesus didn’t just care about the “poor,” he cared about individual people.  In the middle of a busy crowd, he felt the touch of one bleeding woman.  He had compassion on two blind men sitting beside the street. He took notice of a widow placing two copper coins into the Temple treasury.

Perhaps, when Jesus rebukes the skeptics, he is intentionally contrasting “the poor” (impersonal, cause-focused) and “me” (personal, people-focused).  Maybe it’s good to give to “the poor” … but it’s even better to give to the individual people whose needs you are able to recognize.

In Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne writes: “The great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.”

Sometimes, like the lawyer in Scripture, we find ourselves asking Jesus, “Just who exactly is my neighbor?”  But we’re not ready for the response…because once we know who are neighbors are supposed to be, then we’re called into the harder, messier work: of knowing our neighbors and loving them.

Planting Seeds

3 10 2011

Last fall, our youth group began an after-school ministry for middle school students who live in the neighborhood around our church.  I am long overdue for a post about the challenges and successes of this ministry, but on the whole, I believe the program has been a wonderful thing for everyone involved: the students, the volunteers, and the congregation.

From the beginning, we have involved high school students as volunteers for the program.  Last night after youth group, I ended up talking to one of our high school seniors about the impact of this program.  He wondered aloud what good we were doing, and whether our relationship with the kids will have any effect on their lives.

I said, “We see small successes all the time, but we won’t know the long-term effect for many years, if ever.  I think we have to hope that we’re planting seeds…that these kids will have a positive impression of the church, that they might one day remember their mentors or something we’ve said, or maybe they’ll be inspired to do something different with their lives.”

“There’s a parable about seeds, isn’t there?” he asked.

“Yep,” I said.

“And in the parable,” he continued, “some of the seeds fall on rocky soil and thorns, right?  So even if we plant the seeds … if a kid goes home and his parents are abusive or addicted to drugs or whatever … then it’s like the seed falling on the thorns, and it will never grow.”

I was completely taken aback by this profound insight and the implications it has for ministry and education as a whole.  Teachers, of course, can only do so much; a child’s learning is dependent on many other factors outside the classroom.  And along the way, we plant many seeds that will end up being eaten, choked by thorns, or prohibited from taking root.

But we still plant seeds, and we never stop planting seeds… because we believe that every once a while, we’ll land on good soil.  And when that happens, it will produce a harvest beyond our wildest dreams.


11 03 2011

This Tuesday, I began volunteer training to become a CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate).  I knew from the beginning that it would be a tough process: CASAs are appointed to represent the best interests of children in foster care, typically those who have been badly abused.  I’ve quickly learned that “the best interests” of these children doesn’t mean that we will find a happy, fix-all solution for any of them.  The stories are convoluted and sad; and the best solution, obviously, would be to go back in time and prevent any of the abuse from ever happening.  It is overwhelming to try and wrap your mind around how many kids — just in our city! — who have lived with abuse and neglect as their norm.

On Tuesday night, after training, I opened up my Bible in search of some Scripture that might possibly speak to this 21st-century reality.  And I ended up in the 9th chapter of Ezra.  At this point in the story, Ezra has just returned to Jerusalem from Babylon to oversee the rebuilding of the Temple.  He’s probably dreamed of this moment all his life.  He is returning to his people’s homeland…to the most holy place in all of Judaism. But shortly after he arrives, he learns that the returned exiles have disobeyed God yet again.  Here is his reaction:

“When I heard this, I tore my clothing, pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat down utterly shocked.  Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel came and sat with me because of this unfaithfulness of his people.  And I sat there utterly appalled until the time of the evening sacrifice.  At the time of the sacrifice, I stood up from where I had sat in mourning with my clothes torn.  I fell to my knees, lifted my hands to the Lord my God.  I prayed, “O my God, I am utterly ashamed.  I blush to lift my face to you.  For our sins are piled higher than our heads, and our guilt has reached to the heavens.  Our whole history has been one of great sin…and now, O our God, what can we say after all of this?  For once again we have ignored your commands!” (Ezra 9:5-7a, 10, NLT)

Of course we sin.  Of course we fall short.  It’s in our very nature, and it is written across every page of human history.  But there are moments when we catch a glimpse of just how broken we really are, and we can’t help but become overwhelmed by it.  At this point in the story, Ezra might as well be a visitor; he’s new to Jerusalem, and he certainly hasn’t had the chance to get married yet!  But instead of placing himself on a pedestal, he feels the burden of his people and takes on their guilt before God.

Ezra’s prayer is a one of brokenness, of communal confession, of compassion in the truest sense of the word, and of repentance.  As we enter into the season of Lent, I hope and pray that I would keep his words close to my heart.

P90X…Bible Edition

16 08 2010

Recently, Jordan and I decided that it might be fun to try and read the entire Bible in 90 days. That translates to roughly 16 chapters of the Bible each day…way more than we get in any regular devotional setting! We’re about two weeks into the challenge, and although we’re a little bit behind (we’ve skipped a few days here and there…oops!), it’s been a really enlightening experience and has already made for some great conversations. The last time I read the Bible straight through, I was in middle school…I would venture to say that my theology and understanding has changed a good bit since then! One really neat thing about taking in such large chunks at a time is that we’ve been able to notice and discuss big overarching themes. Here are just a few that I’ve been thinking about a lot:

1. Sustainability: from the very beginning of creation, God makes provisions for the sustainability of the world: oak trees will make acorns will become oak trees, egrets will have baby egrets, and gorillas will have baby gorillas.  When he plans to destroy the world with a big flood, he also makes sure to rescue enough humans and animals to repopulate the world.  Then, the beautiful restatement of God’s charge to humankind in Genesis 9: “Be fruitful and multiply” (this time, with the footnote that all humankind bears the image of God).  When I read God’s covenant with Noah, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the purpose God has given us, and how precious we are to Him.

2. Reunion: The story of the Prodigal Son has been very near to my heart over the past year, and for that reason I noticed hints of Jesus’ parable creeping into the narratives of Jacob and Joseph.  These stories are so human, filled with raw emotion and dysfunction and fear…but most of all, love.  Love and grace overwhelm these characters’ lives, and in a way, they give us remarkable insight into how we can seek to live out the radical love and grace to which we were called.

3. Healing: Exodus 15:26 reads “I am the LORD who heals you.” This is one of the most powerful statements that God has given so far about his own character.  And interestingly, it comes just after the devastating plagues that God brings upon Egypt.  But it is in line with the social justice-oriented character of God, who hears the cries of the oppressed and brings healing all who need it.

4. Utopia: God is surprisingly silent about the “moral issues” within the Book of Genesis .  He appears more as a bystander than an active judge.  By the time God gives his law to Moses on Mount Sinai, we as readers of the Bible are just yearning to hear exactly what it is that He thinks about the ancient customs of the Israelites.  Quite apart from the religious law, God gives the Israelites a vision of what his ideal society will look like.  There’s a law for everything.  I’m still musing over how God’s ideal society fits into our 21st century culture, or even if it should.

5. Justice…and Injustice: The Covenant Code in Exodus is very concerned over getting things “right:” reparations, justice, fairness, etc.  And from all the study notes I’ve read, the Code distinguishes itself from other legal codes by making provisions for the poor and the widow.  But then we get into the religious law, and I am still deeply disturbed by some of the texts on ritual purification and priesthood.  Why does God exclude disabled people from the priesthood?  Why are women considered unclean for nearly half their lives? I understand this text is about standards of holiness, but I really want my God’s statements of value to be more inclusive than it seems…what, really, is our takeaway from this?

Getting into the Praise Habit

1 11 2009

I love the book of Leviticus!

Sometimes when I tell people this, they sort of smile and nod, and back away slowly.

I get it.  Leviticus isn’t necessarily the most “fun” book to read, or the most approachable.  It’s filled with laws, instructions for sacrifices, prescriptions for punishment, cleanliness standards.  (and a few great one-liners).  It gets up close and personal (and just plain gross) with details about bodily discharges, scabby sores, and mildew.  It’s easy to write off the entire book as archaic, or worse, irrelevant.

I love it anyway.

In the beginning of the book, God devotes a whole seven chapters to the Israelite’s system of sacrifice.  In true Levitical form, He goes into great detail: what kind of animals to sacrifice, how to choose the animals for sacrifice, what parts to sacrifice, what parts to give to the priest.  Apparently, this is important stuff.  And if God thinks it’s important, then we certainly should be paying attention.

But later in the Bible, God starts telling his people, “I hate your sacrifices and burnt offerings.”

That’s not so shocking to us today.  After all, we don’t go around sacrificing goats and bulls; yet we manage to worship God just fine.  It seems self-evident that God doesn’t need burnt offerings.

In the Israelite culture, however, these sort of statements were a big deal.  It would be like God coming down and saying, “I really hate the music that you play in church on Sunday morning.”

Our first reaction might be defensive — “What’s wrong with the music?  Our musicians are really talented, and they practice for the service to make sure they get all of the notes right.”

But in Psalm 50, God makes clear that they weren’t doing anything wrong:

This is God, your God,
speaking to you.
I don’t find fault with your acts of worship,
the frequent burnt sacrifices you offer.

But why should I want your blue-ribbon bull,
or more and more goats from your herds?
Every creature in the forest is mine,
the wild animals on all the mountains.
I know every mountain bird by name;
the scampering field mice are my friends.
If I get hungry, do you think I’d tell you?
All creation and its bounty are mine.
Do you think I feast on venison?
or drink draughts of goats’ blood?
Spread for me a banquet of praise,
serve High God a feast of kept promises,
And call for help when you’re in trouble—
I’ll help you, and you’ll honor me.”

David Crowder reflects on the psalm as follows:
“I would be so bold as to say eating barbecue and wearing the sauce on your fingers and face and a grin as big as Texas with the knowledge that Caps Lock GOD is at the center of this can be truer praise than belting this ‘song ritual’ that we have elevated to dangerous heights…We, like, the Israelites, often find rescue in the burnt offering and not in the GOD who is the source of all.  We find comfort in the song and not in the Comforter.  It is a subtle but necessary shift.  It is more difficult to find the Creator in a barbecue sandwich than in your favorite Sunday-morning song, but when you do, when you begin to find Him in all the stuff of life, everything starts singing.  Every moment breaks into song.  Every breath becomes sacrifice, and the songs become sweetness.  This is living praise.”

(Praise Habit, page 82)

Back to Crowder: Psalm 40

11 10 2009

BK01I first discovered the 40th psalm during my sixth grade Sunday School class, and it has been one of my favorites ever since.  (Although I suspect that the reason I picked this particular psalm had less to do with its message and more with the fact that it used the word “mire,” which I thought was a great word).  So, it was fun to come back to this passage through the book’s Lectio Divina approach (although, the Message translation uses the word “ditch” instead of “mire,” which took out a little bit of the fun).

This psalm is about being rescued, and it is about waiting patiently for that rescue.  Crowder compares it to the show Gilligan’s Island (or perhaps, its modern-day equivalent??); with every episode, the viewer watches as the characters get themselves into some kind of predicament, knowing that the situation will be resolved by the end of the show.

But that’s not what keeps the viewers coming back.  Throughout the whole overarching narrative of the show, the viewers (and the characters) are waiting for a bigger kind of rescue, the kind which will finally take them back home from the shipwrecked island.

And isn’t that the story of the entire Old Testament?  From Abraham, to Joseph, to Moses, to Joshua, to Gideon, to David, to Jonah…none of these characters are perfect.  They always get into trouble, and in spite of their mistakes and flaws, God always comes to their physical rescue.  But throughout the Tanakh, there are hints of another kind of rescue that is coming, one which we recognize as being fulfilled through the person of Jesus Christ.  This rescue is of a spiritual nature, intended for all of humanity: one which will finally bring us home.

We are living out these two stories, as well.  I’m reminded of a certain exchange in John 6 between Jesus and his disciples:

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

So they asked him, “What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

This passage occurs right after Jesus finishes feeding 5,000 people with just five barley loaves and two fish.  Yes, he is able to satiate our earthly desires, and provide us with all we need to satisfy our physical hunger.  But that’s not the whole story, nor is that even the most important part of the story!  He also has the solution to our spiritual hunger, an eternal solution.  This is the “big rescue” that we have been awaiting.  This is the final episode.