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Renew 2013

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We're blessed to have Doug Foster as a keynote speaker on this year's RENEW program. Doug teaches church history at Abilene Christian University, and is considered one of the foremost experts in the history of the Restoration Movement (to which Churches of Christ belong). 


Renewal has been a constant theme of Doug's work. The books he has co-authored include Renewing God's PeopleRenewal for Mission, and Renewing Christian Unity. Sounds to me as if Doug may have a few poignant things to say on the subject of renewal!
His two major talks will focus us on issues relevant to Churches of Christ on the West Coast and beyond as we explore how to renew our congregations as we partner with the mission of God in our contexts. Doug's first talk (Friday evening) will be on "Race, War & Gender: Do Churches of Christ Have a Social Conscience?" His second talk (Sunday morning) will be on "The Strengths and Temptations of Churches of Christ" as we seek t…

Almost Football Time

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Just a few more weeks till college football kicks off. The West Virginia Mountaineers will play their inaugural season in the Big 12. They're being projected to finish high, but who knows for sure how they will fare in a new landscape where there are no easy victories.

Here's a quick teaser for those who are mostly unfamiliar with WVU. They have two of the country's most electrifying players, QB Geno Smith and WR Tavon Austin. A third player, WR Stedmon Bailey, had even more receiving yards than Austin last year. Austin gets more press, however, because of his speed and versatility. He also returns kicks.


Series on the Family: Caring for the Aged

Pope John Paul II said, “A society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members, and among the most vulnerable are surely the unborn and the dying.” This excellent quote sets the stage for the first installment of a sermon series on the family. This week’s lesson looks at how we treat some of our society’s weakest members: the aged.

Throughout August, I will be preaching about the unique situations of today’s families. This won't be your typical sermon series about families. I won't propagate the stereotypes about happy mom, dad, 2 kids and a dog/cat. I have nothing against normal, happy families, and one of my sermons will talk about marriage. But the situations faced by today's families are far more complex than what stereotypes can handle.

The apostle Paul’s comments on this subject were perhaps more stark than the pope’s. He wrote, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is w…

Big Conversations about Declining Churches

In the past week, a conversation has filled Facebook walls and Tweet chats. Many have hit the blogosphere. They want to discuss an op-ed article by Ross Douthat in NY Times & a follow-up by Diana Butler Bass in the Huffington Post.

Ross Douthat wrote to pile on with those who describe the steep decline of attendance in the Episcopalian Church. Could there be complex and multiple reasons for their decline? Not according to Douthat. He views the culprit as the embrace of a social liberal agenda. He writes, "But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance." In other words, embrace liberal values and plummet in attendance.

Douthat may be right. The liberal social agenda may drive many church-goers to more conservative congregations. But…

For God So Loved -- John 3:16 in Context

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It's perhaps the most well-known verse in all of scripture. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). From the crazy colored-hair guy who always showed up at sporting events to the black strips under Tim Tebow's eyes, the shorthand for this verse is etched into our minds.



But what does it mean? How are we to understand these words?

When we step back and read the entire section of John 3, we find a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a highly placed Jewish teacher and leader. Nicodemus is in the dark (figuratively, perhaps), and he is curious about "the signs" Jesus has been performing. These signs indicate that Jesus must be from God, but Nicodemus doesn't understand who Jesus is.Jesus begins to talk about rebirth as a prerequisite for entrance into God's kingdom. Nicodemus doesn't understand spiritual rebirth--it apparently wasn't a par…

I Can Do All Things -- Phil 4:13 in Context

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In the 2011 movie Soul Surfer, 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton lies on her hospital bed. She is a prize-winning surfer who just lost her left arm in a shark attack. Fearful that she will have to give up her life's passion, she asks her father (played by Dennis Quaid) when she can get back on her surfboard. He leans toward her and begins to quote (sort of) Philippians 4:13, "You can do all things." At this point, Bethany joins in and recites it with her father, "Through him who strengthens me."

Here's a link to the movie clip.

The real life story of Bethany Hamilton is touching and inspirational. I'm all for her and her story. The movie is a great pick-me-up, and I am grateful for any film that puts a relatively good spin on Christian faith.

But something here is lost in translation (so to speak). Paul's statement in Phil 4:13 comes across as an endorsement for wishful thinking. One might get the sense that Christians think Jesus can help them do anythi…

Higgs Boson (subatomic particle) & Human Perspective

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I love this David Horsey cartoon from the LA Times. "Perspective is everything." Isn't that the truth?! Doesn't that phrase apply to so many things that are "hotly debated" or "deeply divisive" or even "incredibly important" to the future of our churches, our planet and our human race? This could describe the way some folks in our churches marvel at certain insights while others could care less. Great satire.


The Role of Ancient Narratives in Faith Development

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The Bible is full of great narratives. Writers of biblical narratives freely implemented the basic components of contemporary story-telling such as plot, tension and resolution. The biblical writers weren't just spewing out theological truths. They utilized the best literary tools available in their societies. Psalmists used parallelism, acrostics and other highly refined poetic skills. Prophets spoke with hyperbole and syllogism (of a sort) to communicate their messages. Narrators who authored books like Genesis, Exodus, and Kings did the same.

What do I mean that the Bible is full of narratives? Story (or narrative) and history are not two separate poles. Rather, people generally recall history through the means of stories. Stories necessarily include the perspectives and interpretations of the story-tellers, but this does not make stories fictional.

Theology must shape the local Christian community. I believe that ancient faith narratives are absolutely critical in development …

Studying through the Life of Moses

I'm fortunate to be in a church that values solid biblical instruction. We have adult Bible classes every Sunday following worship. About 75% of folks stay for classes.

We're currently going through a three-month-long study in which my sermons and all adult classes focus on the same material. This is the second time we've tried this approach. Last spring, we went through the gospel of Luke. It met with such a positive response that we're repeating the concept.

This time around, we're looking at the life of Moses. It allows us to highlight important material from the Pentateuch. We spent the first month in Exod 1-15. We've moved on into the wilderness. Over the final six weeks, we'll touch on material from Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. If not for this study, when would I ever preach from Leviticus?

I've learned (and said) that this study is less about the man Moses than about the formation of God's people. How God forms a people is something cr…

First Thessalonians hits home, part 2

I'm sharing a couple thoughts from the apostle Paul's first letter to the Thessalonian church. For five weeks in February and March, I had the chance to preach this short letter. I'm sharing a couple things that stood out and encouraged me as I lived in this text. Here's the second:

(2) How we live in the world makes a real difference. I've caught a few episodes of a new show on the Food Network. It's called "Restaurant Stakeout." Have you seen it?

This TV show features a restaurant expert named Willie Degel from NYC. Willie believes that cameras are a critical component of employee management. He believes that employees who know they are being watched have a better chance of living up to the expectations placed on them. The show highlights a struggling restaurant whose owners bring in Willie to advise them on how to turn things around. He places hidden cameras throughout the restaurant and watches for a day or two with the owners so that they can se…

First Thessalonians hits home

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Just finished a preaching series on First Thessalonians. I hadn't spent much time in this, the oldest of Paul's letters, since seminary. According to the first verse, he co-wrote it with Timothy and Silas. We think they probably wrote First Thess from Corinth not too long after Paul had to leave Thessalonica (also known as Thessaloniki or Salonika) because of persecution.

People have access to all kinds of commentaries and resource materials on First Thessalonians. Some of them are good. Others are not worthy of attention. As an approachable commentary, I like Beverly Gaventa's little volume from the Interpretation commentary series.

Thought I would share a couple quick reflections on Paul's letter. I was refreshed by a new look at this short letter and enjoyed sharing 5 messages with our church. I'll share a couple things that stood out and encouraged me as I lived in this text. Here's the first:

(1) God is incredibly pleased with us when we tune our ears and…

The Life of Moses

We have an upcoming series on the Life of Moses (Apr-Jun). Classes, sermons & small groups will walk through and converse about texts that track this great person of faith. I'm looking for ideas about how Moses shows up (a) in Christian art or (b) in contemporary thought. Can anyone think of anything? I'd appreciate pointers to paintings, sculptures, etc. that tie into Christian history through the centuries. And can you come up with any references to Moses or the Red Sea Crossing or Wilderness Wandering in contemporary (as in popular) music, cinematography or other art?

Taking the "Long View" in Church Growth

You know it's a wonderful January day in Fresno when you have to roll down your car window to cool off. Too nice!
For some very specific reasons, I've been reflecting on the nature of church growth. I'm fortunate to be in a situation where my leaders are not focused on short-term growth or on immediate results. Still, it's only human to measure things like attendance, giving and involvement. From there, it's natural to look for the easiest path to increase those metrics. Does the easiest path, however, really help us in the long run? 
Church leaders ought to think more than six months down the road. While there's nothing wrong with short-term growth, they need to occasionally step back and see the big picture. They need to ask themselves, "Are we laying a good foundation for those who come after us? Are we taking the long view? Or are we just focused on our immediate success?"
What would it look like to take the "long view" in church? Those who…

Harry Potter, Witchcraft & Christianity, part 2

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The rain has come to Fresno. It’s time to hit the “reset” button. May the Lord continue to water and sustain His creation!
To begin, I owe apologies to the person who (long ago) posted a question about Harry Potter that I subsequently deleted. I interpreted it as an inflammatory response from an unknown visitor to my blog and therefore deleted the comment. Upon further clarification, this person clarified that the intent was to inquire rather than accuse. It’s an excellent issue to address. So with apologies, I now launch a few posts spurred by that excellent line of questioning.
I’ll start with a glance at magic in the Old Testament world. The definition of “magic” is a source of much discussion among Old Testament scholars. Differing definitions are what often get people mad at each other. While the Old Testament seems to clearly prohibit magic, some important figures in the OT practiced magic or did things that looked like magic. Let’s look at a few examples:
Deut 18 clearly banne…