Friday, September 15, 2006

Advent—Here We Come!

Wednesday I was on a conference call sponsored by Outreach, Inc. The Nativity Story, a move to be released world-wide on December 1, was the topic. Presenters for the call were:
  • Lynne Marian – Vice President of Outreach, Inc and Editor of Outreach Magazine
  • Mike Rich – Screen writer of The Nativity Story, executive producer of the movie
  • Jonathan Brock – Founder and president of Grace Hill Media (marketing the movie) and board member of Fuller Theological Seminary
  • Brock and Bodie Thoene – Authors of Why a Manger

This movie will be a great tool for our local churches IF we are willing to use it. Those behind the movie do not want Hollywood to use the church; they want the church to use this movie!

Sermon ideas (even sample sermons) and promotional items will be available on the Outreach web site by October 1 (an ambitious target date). Clips from the movie will be made available, free of charge, to go along with sermon topics. These clips WILL NOT include advertisements for the movie! There will be private screenings of the movie for pastors in various locations around the country and at the Outreach convention (check the Outreach web site as those dates and times become available).

How biblically accurate is the movie? Good question! The Bible texts of the birth narratives are very short. The screenwriter tried to be biblically accurate while adding dialog and scenes to cover the time from the conception of Christ until Mary, Joseph and Jesus flee to Egypt. The arrival of the Magi is going to be the controversial point in the movie. The movie has the Magi showing up at the manger. Lest we get too high and mighty in our indignation, take a look at the Nativity set that will be set up in your sanctuary. Does it have the Magi? My guess is that every year your church Nativity sets has the Magi at the manger!

The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem probably took ten days for Joseph and a pregnant Mary. One scene in the movie has them sitting by the fire (while on that journey) asking what in the world they are going to do as they raise GOD’S son. Imagine what you or I would do if God had asked us to raise his son. It would scare me to death!

I believe that God is giving us a great tool to use this Advent. Take advantage of this wonderful gift from Hollywood. Use this movie as an outreach tool

For Evergreen, we will turn the front of our sanctuary into a sheep-birthing stable. We will strive to be historically accurate and as close to the movie set as possible. We will seek to create a bridge for what people see and experience at the movie theater with our Advent worship. We have done this in the past year with great effectiveness. Last Advent, the front of the church was transformed into the Narnia scene of the lamp post, in the woods, in the winter (don’t panic—the communion table was still prominently placed and appropriately lighted with stage lighting). The messages fit nicely with Advent and were very powerful. We also had people come to the church specifically because we were covering the Narnia movie. For Easter we built at 16’ long and 4’ high “bridge of life” in the front of the sanctuary. The bridge led straight to the cross. Watching people walk across the bridge on Easter morning brought tears to most eyes. We expect that the Nativity experience this Advent will have similar results.

So check out The Nativity Story. It may be a great tool for Advent.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Buy and Use the Book

I am very frustrated with my attempt to blog on How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. The book is such a useful tool for people who want to get the most out of their study of scripture. There is so much in it that I am finding it difficult to blog on. My students read a chapter each week. We discuss the chapter and the portion of scripture they were to read. Intensive… yes! Helpful… definitely! Well suited to blogging? No.

We had a great Session (church board) meeting last night. One gentleman has been an elder in Presbyterian churches for over twenty years. His faith is growing faster than a Washington forest fire! This is the first church that challenged him to read his Bible and that talked about what Christians are to believe and do. He is still biblically illiterate—he is making progress. He still does not “study” the Bible. He is in my class that uses the book by Fee and Stuart.

The chapters in the book are:

  1. The Need to Interpret
  2. The Basic Tool: A Good Translation
  3. The Epistles: Learning to Think Contextually
  4. The Epistles: The Hermeneutical Questions
  5. The Old Testament narratives: Their Proper use
  6. Acts: The Question of Historical Precedent
  7. The Gospels: One Story, Many Dimensions
  8. The Parables: Do You Get the Point?
  9. The Law(s): Covenant Stipulations for Israel
  10. The Psalms: Israel’s Prayers and Ours
  11. Wisdom: Then and Now
  12. The Revelation: Images of Judgment and Hope

The authors deal with each literary genre in a way that is easily understandable for the layperson. Many Purpose Driven Presbyterian Churches have a sixteen-week rotation for their discipleship classes (this is one of those classes). This rotation is based on their local school year. Evergreen operates on a twelve-week rotation (like the quarter system in our schools). This is one class where the extra four weeks could be helpful.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) may be at a crisis point in its history like the Roman Catholic Church faced at the Reformation. The only hope for the PCUSA is a Christ-centered, biblically literate membership that demands the same for the entire denomination.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Epistles

The biblical texts are written in several distinct styles or genres. The first genre our class looks at is the New Testament Epistle.

Context is so very important in discerning the meaning of a text. The relatively short length of an epistle makes it easier for the reader to read the entire text in one sitting—shorter epistles can be read several times in one sitting. This broad overview helps the reader understand at least a part of the context. Additional contextual information can be gleaned from the Book of Acts, and even from the Revelation of John.

Epistles are by nature occasional documents. They were written at a specific point in time, to a specific person or group of people, addressing particular needs. We must always remember that the meaning of the letters were VERY CLEAR to their intended, original audience! Our challenge is that we are removed from the original situations by almost 2000 years and we are only getting one side of the issue. Therefore, the first thing that we must try and do is reconstruct the historical situation the author is writing to. Remember, a text cannot mean for today what it could never have meant to the original audience. Our context may be different but the biblical truth is eternal!

The key to getting a grasp of the literary context is to think in paragraphs. It is too easy for us to take a verse out of context and use it to proof-text a point that we want to make.

As students of the Bible we will continually be faced with the question of cultural relativity. What parts of the text are meant for the first century group that the letter was written for and what parts are for all Christians at all times? A good rule that Fee and Stuart share is, “Whenever we share comparable particulars (i.e., similar specific life situations) with the first-century hearers, God’s Word to us is the same as his Word to them.” (p.75) The difficulty comes in when our particulars are significantly different from those in the first century. The book goes into great detail as it tries to help us deal with these cultural difficulties (too much detail for this blog to go into).

The section of the book on the epistles is worth the price of the book alone.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Interpreting the Bible – A Class and a Text

The Horizons Bible Study, In the Beginning, shows why it is so important for the people in our churches to have a good grasp on scripture and its interpretation. Unfortunately, many people in the PCUSA are functionally biblically illiterate. To be sure, they love the Lord Jesus; however, their understanding of scripture is quite limited.

When Evergreen Presbyterian Church became a Purpose Driven Presbyterian Church we made some commitments to our congregation. Part of the commitment is that we would provide classes/learning situations that would assist a person as they grow in their faith and become a disciple of Jesus. A bedrock class in our discipleship series is called Interpreting the Bible Faithfully. The class will introduce the skills necessary to dig into God’s Word. The text for the class is How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.

The PCUSA is at a critical point in its history. The only hope for the PCUSA is to have a membership that is firmly rooted and grounded in scripture. For that reason we are trying to get as many of the Evergreen family into this class as possible. We average around 100 in worship each weekend. We have 43 people taking the class! I believe that this shows that people are VERY interest in digging into God’s Word.

Over the next few days this blog will look at Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.

The book encourages the reader to think seriously about the version of the Bible that they use for devotions and study. All Bibles are not equal! It is important for a person to know the strengths and weaknesses of the translation that they are currently using. There are quite a number of older folks in our congregation. Most of them drive automobiles that are less than ten years old. Their kitchens are equipped with fairly new microwaves. Many of our older folks even have cell phones and use the internet! However, when it comes to the Bible that they use they insist on using a translation with LOTS of errors. I just don’t get it… a poor translation of God’s Word is ok but a poorly running car is not ok? The Bible that we use is very important!

Fee and Douglas educate the reader on “formal equivalence,” “functional equivalence,” and free translation. The versions of the Bible that strive for formal equivalence try to be as close as possible to the exact wording of the text. That sound great, doesn’t it? The only problem is that sayings (euphemisms) in the Hebrew and Greek do not show through in formal equivalence. A great example of this is found in Ruth. Ruth 3: 14 says, “So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before anyone could be recognized…” That is what the Hebrew says—it is not what the Hebrew means! To “lay at his feet” is to say that she seduced him and had sex with him! I have heard sermons on how wonderful Boaz was because he let Ruth sleep at his feet and he never touched her sexually. That is the exact opposite of that the text means! Versions of the Bible that strive for functional equivalence stay as close to the text as possible and try to communicate clearly what the text means. A free translation/paraphrase takes great liberty with the text as it strives to communicate God’s Word in easy-to-understand contemporary English (or Spanish, French, German, etc.).

What version of the Bible do you use? Why do you use it? If it is less than accurate, why do you continue to use it? What version of the Bible is most widely used in your congregation? What version is in the pews? Why?

I don’t believe that God appreciates the answer, “Because that is the one that I’ve always used.”

PS-The “link” function on blogspot is not currently working. I will provide the appropriate links asap.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Setting the Record Straight

Just a few minutes ago I got off the phone with Charles Wiley, from the Louisville office of the PCUSA. We had a very good conversation. Part of our conversation had to do with my mentioning that he had met with Hezbollah, on that controversial trip a couple of years ago. In that posting I cited the published source from which I obtained my information.

CHARLES WAS NOT A PART OF THAT MEETING! I apologize for posting information that was not accurate. The correct story goes like this (and Charles gave me permission to post this):

Charles had been invited to go on the trip. The trip was going to be quite long (17 days) and he did not want to be away from his family for such a long time. He made arrangements to join the group in Israel. He was at an internet café in Israel, waiting to join the delegation, when he read about the Hezbollah meeting on Presbyweb!

Once again, I am sorry for any inconvenience and harm that I may have caused Charles. I am thankful that he took the time to contact me and set the record straight.

With a heavy heart,


Courage at the Top?

True leadership takes courage. A leader has to have vision and be able to have the skills and talents to carry out that vision. There will be critics. There will be hurt feelings. There will be unrest. Leading isn’t easy; however, every group needs strong leadership.

Most people in leadership (whether it is a business or church) want the best for the group they are leading. They want the business to succeed—they want the church to succeed. Many, if not most, people in leadership positions are good people. The problem is that being a “good” person does not make a person a good leader.

Anyone who follows the news knows that Ford Motor Company is in a world of hurt. Bill Ford has been directing the company that was found by his great-grandfather. The Ford Motor Company’s monetary losses are staggering! This would lead a person to ask, “Is Bill Ford a true leader?”

The Ford Motor Company’s Sustainability Report of 2004/2005 will offer up some clues as to whether Bill Ford is a true leader. In the report he says:

“Our Company faces urgent short-term challenges that we have described in our Annual Report and will discuss in this report. We're addressing these challenges by accelerating our business plans to strengthen our balance sheet, optimize our global footprint and deliver more great products faster. That includes eliminating excess capacity, reducing the size of our workforce while improving its capability, increasing our investments in fast-growing markets and speeding up our product development process.”

“Our success as a business in the near term is a prerequisite to any strategy for future growth. However, our responsibility to our customers, shareholders, employees and communities includes preparing for the future without delay. While nobody can confidently predict what the world will look like a few decades from now, it is clear that strong, profitable companies going forward will be the ones that strive for sustainable use of environmental and social capital in a rapidly growing global economy…”

“Since we see sustainability as core to our business success, we are working to develop metrics, targets and milestones to be explicitly integrated into our business plan, alongside the fundamentals of quality, cost and revenue, products and relationships. We're also working on the difficult challenge of reconciling short-term imperatives to deliver financial returns with the investments required to realize long-term opportunities.”

“New business challenges require new thinking, which in turn requires new relationships in the communities in which we operate. The history of industry is littered with the remains of companies that rigidly defended their world view through their policies, strategies, marketing and relationships.

Based on the 2004/2005 Sustainability Report it looks like Bill Ford is a true leader. Lest we jump to conclusions, let’s look at additional evidence.

Last week Bill Ford announced that he was stepping down as CEO of Ford Motor Company and bringing in Alan Mulally to lead Ford Motor Company. Ford Motor Company had continued to struggle under Bill Ford’s leadership. Bill Ford recognized that his skill set was not sufficient to turn around the struggling auto maker. So… Bill Ford fired himself and hired someone else to do the job! Alan Mulally has been the head of The Boeing Company’s commercial aircraft division. Mulally has helped transform that division into the successful powerhouse that it is today. Bill Ford’s selection of Mulally has drawn praise from round the country.

So… now I go back to the original question, “Is Bill Ford a true leader?” The only possible answer is “YES!” He was willing to do what was necessary for the success of the Ford Motor Company.

Why would a blog that focuses on the church spend so much time looking at Bill Ford and the Ford Motor Company? The reason is quite simple—the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Ford Motor Company are in the same type of situations! The PCUSA has experienced catastrophic membership losses. The PCUSA is struggling with identity issues. “Customer” loyalty is at an all time low (in my opinion). The long-term sustainability of the PCUSA is in question. The PCUSA looks a lot like the Ford Motor Company.

Will the leaders of the PCUSA be true leaders? Like Bill Ford, the “leadership” of the PCUSA has tried to turn things around. They have not been successful.

On the surface it my look like the PCUSA regularly changes its leaders. Looks can be deceiving! Many of the same people keep serving in Louisville. The same people keep working on denominational committees (when they finish their term on one committee the serve on another committee). The new moderator of the General Assembly is generally well known in the denominational structure (David Dobler was the notable exception—he was a pastor of a church in Alaska). Things never really change.

If the leaders in the PCUSA are true leaders they will serious consider what Bill Ford has done. If they truly love the PCUSA then they have to question if they are the right people to lead this denomination at this time in its history. Will they have the courage to admit that their leadership efforts have failed? Will they be willing to step down?

Lest you think that I am being overly hard on denominational leaders, hold onto your hats. I believe that same could be said for local church leaders! The main leader in a congregation (whether our polity says it or not) is the pastor or pastoral staff (I fit in this category). Will we, as pastors, be true leaders? Are we willing to resign so that better leadership can be brought in?

Wednesday night our session (for those not in the Presbyterian Church, the session is the local church’s governing board) will be meeting for the purpose of organizing for the coming year. Part of the organizational process has to include looking at the leadership at the top. As we prayerfully consider the future for Evergreen and how our leadership team will be organized to help Evergreen move into that future the pastoalr leadership will be a part of the discussion! I will have a letter of resignation ready should it be apparent that my leadership skills are not the right ones for this time in Evergreen’s history. I will not be doing this to get “pats on the back.” If I truly want the church I serve to grow and thrive then I must be willing to leave it so that it can grow. Last night I had a phone call from my daughter at the University of Hawaii. The dorm Bible study that she leads was going to being in a couple of hours. They were to the biblical text that talked about “...take up your cross daily and follow me.” She wanted to be sure to that her definition was correct. I asked her what she thought it meant. Part of her definition was that as a follower of Jesus we need to be willing die to ourselves every day so that we will be willing to follow wherever Christ leads us. Am I, as a pastor, willing to take up my cross every day? Am I willing to die to myself and be willing to leave the church I serve so that the church could grow? In a nut shell, am I a true leader? Are you?

The PCUSA needs true leaders at this time in its history.

FullCourtPresby will continue…

I would like to thank all of you for responding to my last post. Your words were encouraging and humbling! I love doing this blog and will continue to do the hard work necessary for it to help build up churches and the Kingdom of God. New topics are in the works…

Before going on to today’s official post, we must spend some time thinking about 9/11. The television and radio have been covering 9/11 since very early this morning. My words do not need to be added to this event. We need God’s words on this day. Right now, spend some time before the Lord to hear his voice and pray for all of those who’s lives were impacted by the events of 9/11…