Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Health Care Debate and How Much Greater

One of the things I worry about every now and then is broaching topics that might be too "political" because I know how quickly that turns some people off. It also concerns me because I don't want to be known for what I am against, but what I am for.

Having said that, though, there are some current event topics that are so relevant and critical to the entire focus of this blog, which is seeing "HOW MUCH GREATER" we can make the world for the next generation. The economic situation and health care debate combine to form one such issue that warrants attention when it comes to the impact on children and youth.

So, regardless of which political party you favor, if any, it is good to become better and better informed about the implications of passing ObamaCare in this country. Today, I share this podcast from the Cato Institute as a source of information related to this topic. You will be able to tell there is an obvious bias in this podcast, but hopefully it opens the door to deeper reflection, research, and conversation.

How much greater America will or won't be in the decades to come will be affected by what happens with our health care, tax code, defecit problems, public education, and so much more, and therefore, these types of topics will be discussed on this blog.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

When is it Better to Be in the Minority?

It is strange, but I often wrestle with how much of my writing is for myself or for others. I would like to think that I write and teach and blog to help inform, educate, and guide others. However, there are many lessons I teach and posts I write that I can't help but admit are more about "self-therapy." Today's post is one such case. It is a reminder of how important it is to remember that God's kingdom operates by different values than our world. Seeking popularity and approval and comfort could take me on a course away from God's will rather than toward it.

Specifically, the myth I want to confront is the thinking that if something is right, then there will be consensus among the masses indicating so. Spiritually, I find it necessary to proceed with caution like a tightrope walker. On the one side, rebellious, individualistic renegades find their demise when they separate from God's ordained faith community and stand alone in pride. On the other side, though, is the much more common and subtle trap often cloaked in this positive twist: "If this is God's will, then surely the Spirit will bring agreement among the people (congregation, staff, family, etc.)." There are times to be on either side, and times to be on neither.

What prompts all this cogitation is Frank Viola's account of a part of Old Testament history that I had not considered before reading From Eternity to Here (2009). Let's go back in time to the 6th century B.C. era. Israel is taken into captivity by the Babylonians. Two million Israelites are displaced to Babylon for 70 years.

The critical piece to remember is that God's purpose and plan for Israel was to worship in one temple in Jerusalem back in the Promised Land of his people. Seventy years pass and the captivity is brought to an end. The people of Israel are allowed to return to Jerusalem where God intended for them to be. And about 50,000 of them do just that.

Look at the bold numbers again.

2,000,000 leave.
50,000 go back.

Admitting that there may be a slight change in overall numbers over seven decades, we still see that only 2-3% of the Israelites return to their homeland! A small remnant! Overwhelmingly, most decide to stay in a foreign land where they had grown comfortable, and in some cases, even prosperous. Despite confusion and mixed religious practices that profaned the worship of God, the price to pull themselves away was more than they would pay.

Sometimes doing the right thing is not backed by the majority. It is often rationalized away. And the lesson 2500 years later hasn't changed, following through with what is right in the midst of a comfortable society usually comes at a cost.

Viola's warning echoes in my head like sounds in a haunted house: "You can never satisfy the dream of God while living in Babylon" (p. 183-184).

Lord, where am I living now?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Radical Reform Without the Radical?

As I strive to promote radical reform in the Church, I often stress that "radical" actually means "of the root." In other words, radical is synonymous with original. Being radical is about returning to the original intent or purpose of something. So, it is important to ask questions like, "What did Jesus require of disciples from the start?" or "How did the church form and what does that term mean in the first century context?" Then, we can examine whether we have strayed from the root or maybe planted something new altogether.

I am aware that when most people hear the word radical they most likely equate it with extreme. The funny thing is that some changes that need to be made are, in fact, extreme when compared to our current practices only because we have gotten so far away from the "root." The result is that sometimes people think they are being radical and reforming the church substantively when, in reality, they are only tweaking things. People often claim to be radical, "outside the box," or new in their ways of doing things in the church while still leaving the overall structure of the church untouched. Today's topic is a prime example of this mentality.

In a fairly recent issue of Grace & Peace magazine, a "Dialogical Resource for Nazarene Clergy," the Executive Editor, Bryon McLaughlin, wrote a piece entitled "Charting a Course in the New Reality." This, in and of itself, gets to the point I am trying to make. While I have no problem with such an article or essay in a magazine for denominational leadership, it reveals the prevailing assumption that church reform must be directed by pastors. This would be an example of calling for major ("radical") reforms in church practices and attitudes while using the same old vehicle to bring about the change as always. In actuality, it is the hierarchical structure in place that can interfere with our ability to remain close to the root in the first place.
Now, to be clear, this is not a rant against organized pastoral leadership. I also am not slamming McLaughlin for his stance. In fact, as I stated earlier, it is appropriate to write about such things to pastors considering where we are now. It seems like a logical starting place in our current situation. It is just not how Jesus operated. That's all.

Jesus did not do leadership training. Jesus discipled followers to disciple more followers who, in turn, would disciple more, you guessed it, followers. Due to our mental pre-sets that view everything in society, including the church, in hierarchical manners, we have an obsession with the idea of becoming leaders because it inherently carrries with it the sense of progression. If we are becoming better leaders, than we are growing, improving, arriving, or so we say.

Jesus, on the other hand, was obsessed with shaping followers. The root of Christianity consists of obedience as a follower of the Head of the church. If we are not careful, then we replace the root with a desire to mold more leaders to become "heads" of the church. We convince ourselves that this is what spiritual maturity is all about. This road may be paved with good intentions, but make no mistake, it is a road that leads away from the root. It is not the path of radicals.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What Church Isn't Bible-based?

The common refrain is that "our church is 'Bible-based'." So, what exactly does that mean?

All right, (quick caveat) a moment of confession for me: I fear being labeled. Honestly, I have put off writing posts like these because I don't want to be thought of as confrontational or anti-institutional just for the sake of being those things. It is too easy to dismiss someone merely by throwing a negative label on them. To clarify, I don't mind being confrontational or anti-institutional if it can be done in the spirit of Christ and serve a greater purpose. At least, ideally that would be true of me. But it’s just that I have a genuine concern about being dismissed as crazy or ridiculous, or worse, unChristian or unspiritual, by some. That anxiety is no good reason to make decisions, so here goes...

So, with that disclaimer in place, I feel like I am in a place where it is necessary to question the long-held, popular, and usually subjective claim about "Bible-based" churches. And for my own conscience, let me reiterate strongly that I have no agenda here other than to drive us ALL back into the Scriptures a little bit more and a little bit deeper. In fact, my reason for bringing this up is because I actually think that far too many Christians are not taking the Bible seriously. We pull quotes out of it and use them for our own purposes, but we are gaining in our illiteracy of the God-inspired text. We need to be sure to read it for all it's worth - historically, contextually, socially, personally.

Without further adieu, here is my question: What do people (or you - the reader) mean when you say that your church is based on the BibleTo which doctrines, practices, beliefs, actions, etc. are you referring? And I'm serious, because when the dust settles, I am becoming convinced that really what most church-goers mean is that they mention Jesus and reference the Bible every now and then, and to them, that constitutes being Bible-based.

I make this argument because, truth be known, almost none of the common practices of typical American congregations today are really based on the Bible! Don't believe me? Check out these questions:

Does your church have a senior pastor? Or any paid staff for that matter?
Do you meet in a building for worship?
Does your church have a youth ministry? Children's department? Age-separated programs?
Do you take Communion with a small wafer and juice?
Is there a music minister or "worship leader" or band that performs?

I could go on and on, but the point is NOT that any of these things are necessarily wrong or evil. My point is that they are not based on any Scriptures or New Testament practices. We cannot defend any of these practices by saying, "We do _____ because it is what we see the early churches doing in the Bible." And if that is the case, then what do we really mean when we contend that our churches are Bible-based?

See, I don't think this is a pointless debate, but rather, I think this can be a fruitful conversation that takes the believing community back to explore our biblical roots. On the other side, I believe we will come out with a richer expression of our faith for this day and time, yet grounded in eternal truth.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Student Ownership of Learning

"Student Ownership of Learning" is a buzz-phrase in education circles these days. My Google search of this phrase turned up almost 18 million hits! Lots of people are talking about it. Now, if only they were all talking about the same thing.

What I have observed that many people mean when they talk about getting "students to own their learning" is trying to come up with clever ways to make, or sometimes "trick," students into doing more of what we want them to do. It is usually framed as a method of "making kids more responsible." The conversations I hear often center on organization, homework, keeping up with a schedule, turning in assignments on time, asking for extra help, etc. There is obviously nothing wrong with these habits. Children who develop them are likely more successful than those that do not.

However, this mindset about student ownership of learning may be the most shallow discussion of the topic, and it may miss the point altogether for two reasons. First, it has little to do with learning. What we need to be preoccupied with as educators is the process of learning itself. Our focus should be on questions like the following:

How does the brain process or retain new information?
How are students able to think critically?
What are the barriers to retention and critical thinking?
What is the role of choice in a learning environment?
How is knowledge constructed (or more accurately, "co-constructed") by people today?
Has technology literally changed the way brains operate?
What matters most when it comes to getting the brain's attention?

When I speak to educators, I define helping students own their learning as "transferring the 'brain work' to them." In other words, the talking and thinking and sharing that the teacher has traditionally done can be gradually turned over to the students so that they are now making decisions, manipulating pieces of information, connecting to previous knowledge, and teaching others. Simply, the necessary shift is about students moving from mere consumers of knowledge to producers of knowledge.

This leads to the second problem with the popular notions of student ownership of learning. Today's students demonstrate responsibility in many ways, and some of these ways are unrecognizable to the previous generation (aka. the current teachers). For example, a kid today can access resources and information about a given topic through a variety of multimedia sources in minutes. Old-fashioned study skills simply don't appeal to this kid. It doesn't necessarily mean the kid is less responsible or doesn't care about his learning. It could just be that he cares differently.

There are, of course, exceptions. Some students are unmotivated and do not take initiative. There are other factors involved. As always, with the teaching/learning dynamic, there are countless variables at work. It is difficult to isolate one of them. Still, we cannot ignore the foundational points of what we truly mean when we talk about student ownershp of learning in the early 21st century.

And, yes, it will be a different conversation in the mid-21st century. But if we don't have the right conversation now, then we will be that much further behind when that time comes.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Spirit Has Not Made Me Timid

Our focus this week has been on 2 Timothy 1:7: "For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline." (Click here for the whole chapter to see the verse in context.)

Last week, after the blessing of the service at Sagebrook, I had the words grace and forgiveness bouncing around in my head all week. "Grace" is such a sweet word; in fact, my favorite word in our language. There is something so powerful, so divinely other, so hope-generating about the idea of someone in authority pouring out favor on a wretched, dispicable character that does not deserve it in any way. It is such grace that has the ability to change people dramatically. It is such grace that transformed my life!

This week, I encounter new words like "timid" and "ashamed," and I can't help but cringe a little. While I love receiving grace and forgiveness, I loathe being still trapped in timidity and shame. I hate it because it is a reminder that I am not in step with the Spirit in all areas. "For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power...".

Whenever down on myself with these kinds of realizations, I often make the mistake of making this a matter of will power. If only I would try harder! If only I would do this one thing a little less, and this other thing a little more. If only I would think through how to fix me the right way once and for all. But the truth corrects me and frees me from this cycle of guilt and depravity. I am reminded by ancient words and good news (the gospel) that this "grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time" (2 Timothy 1:9).

This passage of Scripture goes on: 9 He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher.

It always comes back to me finding out that there is more of me that needs to die away; more of Him that needs to express life in and through me. Then, I can...then I a testimony of His power and grace. Then I will live the holy life to which He has called me! Then I will be the herald, the apostle, and the teacher that I have been appointed to be. May that day be today!

I am eager to see what God has revealed to the others in my simple church through this same inspired text.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Bible Won't Make You Sexy

Perhaps we have cheapened the Bible, actually making it less sacred in our attempt to "make" it more sacred.  So many churches and Christians, me included (bigtime!), spend our time trying to convince people that the Bible has the answers people need.  Read the Bible.  Trust the Bible.  Believe in the Bible.  These are catch phrases for us.  But Jesus never said these things (obviously because the Bible was not yet compiled).


And to "convince" the world that the Bible is relevant, we hijack the motives and meanings of the authors to say that the Bible is something that it is not - a guide for life.  (Uh oh, here it is...the heresy has begun.)  Truthfully, the Bible was not written so that you could know the three keys to a healthy marriage, or principles to financial peace, or the top five guidelines for disciplining your children.  Unfortunately, we have re-packaged the 66-book treasure as a "how-to" manual.  We tell people that they need it to be saved, to be happy, to be rich, to be safe, to be smart, to be strong, etc.  We sell the Bible very high on all the claims it never makes for itself, but we're almost silent about the one gift that it really is.  In reality, the Bible is a gift that simply presents a history, a story, a promise, a purpose...all centered on the main character, God.

The Bible will not necessarily make you happier, healthier, holier, stronger, sexier, faster, smarter, more patient, more mature, kinder, gentler, etc. (although it can certainly aid many of these attributes), but it can...and does...introduce you to the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth.  If you want to learn about Him, follow Him, worship Him, love Him, and be transformed by Him, then by all means, read and listen to the words of scripture as much as possible!!!

But don't think for a minute that the Bible ever sets out to make you a "better you." In fact, do you want in on a little secret? The Bible is not a roadmap to help you get ahead in this world. On the contrary, it is an obituary-like guide telling you to die to this world. One quick way to cheapen the Bible is to make it a "self-help" book.

Monday, March 4, 2013

How Many Monkeys Does It Take to Mess Up a Church or School?

At the risk of this sounding like my most anti-institutional post ever, could there be a better analogy for much of what goes on in the organized church or public education than this video clip?

Seriously, if we want to see how much greater we can make the church and our schools for the next generation, then we have to stop "monkeying" around!

(Disclaimer: I am not sure what point the very end of the video is trying to make. You can ignore that part as far as I'm concerned. My point in sharing it is to focus on the analogy to our own systems and personal lives. Of course, the analogy works for the government, too, but I just don't get the imagery used at the end of this video.)

Think about the things you do at your work, church, or home, and you have no good idea as to why.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Bible is Not God's Word?

Let me pose a provocative question:  What if the Bible wasn't really God's Word? 
Would you think me a heretic for even asking the question?

Well, when it comes to Divine Truth as a foundational part of what Christ's Church should be built upon, we have to take a close look at what the source of that truth is.  In reality, when there is a reference to "the Word" (as in John 1), it is indeed a reference to Jesus Himself.  So, to be precise,
the Word of God is Jesus.  This has to be the starting point of any discussion about church or ministry or mission.  We are first and foremost guided by our relationship to the supernatural Savior.

Beyond this, we have more inspired writings, the holy Scriptures, that reveal that supernatural Savior to us.  More than anything else, this is what the Bible is.  It is a revelation, an unveiling, of a divine being in a format that mere mortals can begin to comprehend.  One of my new definitions of the Bible is "God taking a risk."  It is a risky endeavor to let your personality, divinity, power, holiness, judgment, etc. be expressed through the pen of man.  It is brave to allow the words of our limited language and the thoughts of our limited minds to offer us the most important snapshots of the holy and divine.  Honestly, as we all know, this method can lead to confusion and conflict about the most important thing in the world - understanding our God - who He is, what He does, when/where/how He exists.

Yet, this is what the Bible is for us - a means of revelation - a means to an end.  The end is the relationship itself, the interplay between the holy and human, between Spirit and flesh, between God and man.  It is in the intimacy of knowing and being knownThe Bible is not the prize; it is the lens by which we view and magnify the Prize!  The Bible is not the end.  It is not the goal to know the Bible.  It is the goal to know the Christ revealed
through the Bible.  And often, no one misses this most basic and fundamental truth more than the religious folks!  Let's never forget Jesus' words in John 5:39-40.