Book Review: The Hole in Our Gospel

I never did like writing book reports in school, so I'm hoping to keep this from sounding like one.  

The newest edition of book reviews here is The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns.  Stearns is the President of World Vision, a Christian Humanitarian organization that has made a significant impact in the third world over many years.

Stearns uses this book to tell his story and lead others to asking questions about their own lives.  It's a story that I've heard several times over, from ordinary lay-folk, but it never seems to get old.  It's a story about a successful businessman that is approached about doing something radical for God.  In Stearns' case, it's resigning from a prestigious job selling silverware to take the President's office at World Vision.  It wasn't solicited on his part and he spent quite a bit of time trying to avoid it.

In order to get a recruiter off his back, he agreed to an interview.  One thing led to another, and before he knew it, Stearns was wrestling with God's call on his life.  Ultimately, and gratefully, he left Lenox and began to travel a part of the world that was far from fine china and polished cutlery.  He went to places like Uganda where he met a 13 year-old, orphaned by AIDS, left to raise his two younger brothers.  His heart was touched and he began to come to a realization.

That realization, and the book, summed up, is "that the belief that being a Christian, or a follow of Jesus Christ, requires much more than just having a personal and transforming relationship with God.  It also entails a public and transforming relationship with the world."

As some of my colleagues like to say, "That'll preach!"  Stearns gets it.  Our world, and sadly many of our churches, teach that having Jesus in your heart is enough.  What the devoted always discover is that your faith is much stronger, deeper, more meaningful if you're living your life for the advantage of the world.

This is a good book.  Buy it.  Read it.  It may lead you to ask certain questions about your own life, or it may even lead you to help someone else ask those questions.  Someone you're close to might just be the next Richard Stearns.  


Brain Dump

I woke up in a funk today.  Even my daughter's abundant cuteness and immense sweetness couldn't crack my shell.  I was snapping at everybody and I knew why.  A late-into-the-night set of meetings left me in a funk that carried over, affected my sleep, and probably caused the overcast skies this morning.  Things sometimes just don't seem to go right and I was feeling it today.

I hate (love) when God uses me against myself though.  As a church, the people of Mt. Bethel are reading through the Gospel of Matthew over the next 7 weeks.  We started Monday and we'll wrap up at the beginning of March.  Today we're on the third chapter, but I'm ahead - reading the fourth.

In Matthew's fourth chapter, Jesus calls his first disciples and promises to make them fishers of men (people).  One commentary I'm reading comments that if Jesus had been talking to farmers, he probably would have said, "I'll make you planters of the seeds of faith," or to a carpenter, "a builder of the community of faith."  This is a reminder to us that first, Christ chooses us before we ever choose him and second, that our work is that of evangelism and reaching out.

I've been bogged down in some major distractions.  We're going through major staff changes, a process I can't say I enjoy, and we're dealing with property issues, a process I enjoy even less.  On both issues, everyone has an opinion on the matter and, without any general consensus, everyone feels VERY strong about their opinions.  Throw on the annual obligation to complete end-of-year reports and I can currently find the cloud to any silver lining.

I'm praying over what I'm reading and studying.  I'm suddenly reminded of the other conversations I've had over the last week:  a young man that wants to discuss faith openly and deal with his own skepticism, a fairly new believer that is working through a call to lay speaking ministry, another friend that is sharing his faith openly for the first time and is seeing results in his "fishing", more people sharing their faith in word and deed and asking, "what do we do now?", a couple emailing to tell me that their specific prayers were answered by a children's sermon I gave last week, and several new visitors to the church with an interest in not only becoming members, but becoming active members.  

As I fill out my end-or-year reports for 2010, I find that the system has flagged a large number of my responses because of significant increases over 2009 - increases in worship attendance, bible study participation, professions of faith, and stewardship.  There is much to be thankful for and here I am, allowing money, mold, and personalities steal my joy.

So here it is...Lord, forgive me for screwing this up.  Forgive me for being cross and stubborn.  Forgive me for not thanking you.  Forgive me for being distracted.

Thank you for blessing me and blessing this church.  What can you and will you do now?  I'm ready and watching.


A Spark

When I was growing up, I remember causing trouble for myself with the way I would speak when I was angry.  "It's not WHAT you say, but HOW you say it," my parents would tell me.  These lessons have helped me, in many cases, to tame my own tongue.  Even when I am passionately opinionated, I've learned that my rhetoric is just as important and influential, if not more so, than my position or logic when arguing.

In our world, the advice to "watch what you say" is often met with the response, "It's a free country, I'll say what I want to."  Sure, we enjoy this freedom to express ourselves, sometimes to our own self-destruction.

James wrote (James 3:5-12):
"...the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water."

This week, as tragedy struck in Arizona with the senseless shooting of Senator Giffords and those around her, pundits were quick to point out that there is the possibility that the way our politicians speak could have fueled the fire for this violence to take place.  Jon Stewart had a serious moment on his show Monday night as he addressed this possibility:

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Others responded, stating that each individual is responsible for his or her own actions and that no amount of political rhetoric could be, in any way, responsible for this kind of violence.  Sarah Palin accused Democrats and Liberals of committing "blood libel" (she borrowed the term from Glenn Reynolds, who borrowed it from the Jewish community).  [FOX Coverage] [CNN Coverage]

Did Palin and others pull the trigger?  No.  Did they play a role in inciting someone with violent tendencies who was also mentally unstable?  They certainly didn't do much to help the situation.  I grow weary how regularly we give people the platform to spew hateful language as though it accomplishes anything or even provides some level of entertainment.

I may be young, naive, and still learning how to be a better leader, but I have realized that the way I speak from the pulpit, the way I speak when counseling others, the way I speak to my wife and my kids, all has a profound effect on those lives.  

How do you speak around others?  How do you speak of others?

I recently spent some time with a family that has dealt, and is dealing, with a lot of turmoil.  It isn't the kind that's thrust upon a family.  Nobody lost a job, became the victim of a crime, or anything like that.  These tribulations have been brought on by the way that these people love and speak to each other.  

Have you ever been around someone and found yourself exhausted after listening to them talk for a while?  That person usually has an endless supply of things to complain about and they want you to know every detail.  In this particular family that I mention, one of the parents has this ability to complain ad nauseam.  In addition, whenever this parent speaks to the children, even in regular conversation, it has an air of trouble to it.  The children's names are rarely called in love or with a tone of kindness.

What's the result?  The members of this family can't ever seem to get along and they are good at making those around them miserable as well.  Misery loves company, I guess, but it sure seems to alienate those who are perpetually miserable.  Do you know anybody who's never happy unless they're unhappy?

So how do you speak when others are listening?  What kind of fires does your tongue spark?  Do you build up or tear down?

Jesus (Matthew 5:43-48) -
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.


Fall Ball

Fall is in swing and this year, we're even a little more busy than we have been before.  In August, we signed Ben up for his first baseball season.  He's one of several four-year-olds playing in a 5/6 coach-pitch league.  We're very proud of him and he's got some solid potential to be a much better ball-player than his dad.

Ben's an Ola Bulldog.  He's practicing once a week and playing games twice per week.  He's one of the few kids that hits more of the pitches the coach throws and uses the tee less.  He's got some decent power too, which is a good thing, especially since he runs like his dad (SLOW!).  

Earlier this week, Ben was presented with the game ball.  He had a night that he hit 3 for 3 and drove in a couple of runs.  His coaches decided he should take the game ball home and I have to say, it goes on the list of my proudest moments.  

To top off the great play, Ben's made me proud with his ability to show good sportsmanship.  He's competitive, but never gets down when he doesn't get a hit and encourages the other players around him too.  He's out there having fun - which I believe is the most important thing, especially at his age.

Now, I know there are parents out there who are saying, "I don't think so.  Winning is the most important thing."  I want to go on record and tell you that if you believe that winning is worth sacrificing your integrity and your character, then you disgust me.

Ben had a game this morning.  I left disgusted.  Not because Ben's team lost, but because of the attitudes of the adults in the bleachers and in the dugouts.  Early in the game, there was a dispute over when the ball is dead and whether the runners were allowed to advance or not.  An umpire changed his call at the insistence of the other team's coach (a mistake NO umpire should make), opening the door for one of Ben's coaches to protest.

Because of the protest, three of the parents for the other team verbally threatened Ben's coach.  "You better have your buddies with you when you head to your car after the game," they said.  Explicit language was used.  The young umpire, intimidated by the situation, did nothing to move things in a positive direction.

Thankfully, the threats were idle ones.  No fights broke out.  No property was damaged.  No more words were spoken.

But I still left shaking my head and asking to myself, "Really?  Who were the children at the ball park?  The short ones or the tall ones?"

Sadly, this isn't something new.  One of the leaders in my church once worked as an umpire for all levels of amateur baseball.  Bill has told me that his least favorite to umpire was little-league.  Not because the game moves slower and there aren't that many exciting plays, but because parents just don't know how to behave.  Threats and unnecessary language are a regular part of the job.  More ejections take place in little-league than in the other leagues, by far.  Misbehaving adults have prompted zero-tolerance policies to be put into place, resulting in lifetime bans for parents and coaches that get out of control.  I'm trying to understand why this is even necessary.  I'm at a loss.

We go to church.  We read our Bibles.  We hear about things like sportsmanship, love, kindness, and grace, but we act like competition transcends these things and brings out our animal-instinct and our sinful nature.  

I lament the fact that every day I see ads on TV and in the mail for our upcoming mid-term elections that do little to promote any candidate, but strive only to bring down the opposing candidate.  I'm saddened by the fact that all politicians want to do is tear each other down and tell us what's wrong with the world.  We know what's wrong with the world, we don't need to be told.  Instead, why not act like the good person you claim to be, rise above the fray and make the world a better place through sportsmanship, love, kindness, and grace?

I'm depressed when I read blog posts by pastors who are being attacked by other pastors.  Ministers stand in their pulpits and degrade the church down the road simply because they do ministry from a different philosophy (and usually because the other church is drawing and affecting more people - penis-envy for churches).  Whole churches refuse to communicate with each other or, heaven-forbid, work together to be Christ's representatives to the world.

Why can't we behave?  

Our bad behavior puts a bad taste in the mouths of people that watch from the outside.  It causes us to lose the respect of the world, and it damages younger generations.  There's a lot wrong with the world.  Last time I checked, the only ones to blame were ourselves.  We can blame, we can fight, we can take an eye for an eye, but the world won't be any better, we'll all just be blind.

Go Bulldogs!


Hey Bert!

Yesterday, Bert was our guest preacher...

No, not that Bert, this one...

Rev. Bert Neal is planting a new church in our district.  The plant that he is working on is what is commonly referred to as a "parachute drop".  These are different from a mother church "birthing" a new church.  When a pastor is "dropped", he or she is appointed to an area with a little financial support.  They spend a few months gathering contacts, forming a launch team, usually beginning some sort of regular meeting schedule, and preparing for a "launch Sunday." 

Bert has been at it since July 1st and is already ahead of the curve.  He's got a solid launch team and is prepared to begin meeting regularly with them for Bible Study and outreach opportunities.  Yesterday, Bert, his wife Denise, and several of his launch team members came to worship with us.  Bert brought the sermon and it was a powerful one that obviously came from the heart and touched several people.

Mt. Bethel has been growing, not just in numbers, but in spiritual maturity.  We have begun to reclaim our identity as a church that reaches out to the world.  In a time that so many churches seem to compete with each other for prominence, bringing Bert and his people is an effort to partner with another church to reach even more people for Christ. 

We don't have a ton to offer a new church start.  We couldn't make a $20,000 commitment to Bert, but we could do two things:  we could pray, which we did, and we could bring more awareness to the area of this new ministry and more exposure for Bert to the community.  Some folks did make financial commitments and every little bit helps.

Bert has given this new church a name: Sacred Praise United Methodist Church.  It will be in Lovejoy, Georgia (if you're close by, give it a try) and they're planning to launch sometime in March of 2011. 

Bert anticipates having close to 200 people committed to God's vision for this new church on his launch day, which will be more than we have at Mt. Bethel altogether.  It's exciting to know that such great efforts are being made to expand the Kingdom of God and I'm elated that I, and Mt. Bethel, can be a part of it all.

You can support Bert and Sacred Praise UMC too.  "Like" them on Facebook (www.facebook.com/sacredpraise) and get connected. 

Meanwhile, our North Georgia Annual Conference is working intentionally to birth new Christian communities every year.  For more information on what they've got going on, read on HERE.

Other friends of mine that are planting churches (support them too):
Stephen Walters - Connection Church (Suwannee, GA)
David Walters - The Vine (Braselton, GA)
Carter McInnis - The Way (Lawrenceville, GA)
Ken Hagler - Crossroads UMC (Acworth, GA)
Kenny Ott - Fellowship Church (Dallas, GA)
Andy Postell - The Well (Cartersville, GA)
Olu Brown - Impact Church (Atlanta, GA)
Kyle Smith - Life Springs UMC (Zebulon, GA)


Version, Part 3

Here's another version to bookmark: The Cotton Patch Gospel.

This version has been around for decades and you can still buy it from Koinonia Partners if you want it in print.  Clarence Jordan, who started the Koinonia Movement in Americus, Georgia during the Civil Rights Era was a New Testament Scholar (a farmer with a PhD) who also wrote a paraphrase of the New Testament, but in South Georgia language.  Koinonia Farm and Clarence Jordan are also the influences that led to Habitat for Humanity and many other great mission movements.

This is a fun version to read.  City names have been changed and the language is very much adapted to a specific audience.  For instance, when Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem, here's how it reads:

It happened in those days that a proclamation went out from President Augustus that every citizen must register. This was the first registration while Quirinius was Secretary of War. So everybody went to register, each going to his own home town. Joseph too went up from south Georgia from the city of Valdosta, to his home in north Georgia, a place named Gainesville, to register with his bride Mary, who by now was heavily pregnant.
When Jesus went to John to be baptized, it says that Jesus went from Albany up to the Chattahoochee.  For a South Georgian (I grew up just outside of Valdosta), I love this version, though it holds no historical or academic authority.  For a native of the South, it will cause you to read a text you thought was familiar and say, "Oh, I never saw it that way before!"  Just wanted to share.
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Version, Part 2

What version of the Bible are you reading?

I've asked that question a few times lately to newcomers to the church.  I've found that many people who struggle to keep a routine of reading their Bibles or struggle to understand what they are reading have a translation that isn't doing them any favors.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)Image via WikipediaRemember, as a high school student, being required to read Romeo and Juliet or Twelfth Night or even A Tale of Two Cities?  I do.  I remember how it felt essentially like learning a new language.  I remember having to momorize the prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in it's original, old english form.  Oddly, I still remember some of the lines, but couldn't tell you what a bit of it means - not sure how that prepared me for life beyond high school.

I mentioned in my last post that I own a King James Bible.  To be honest with you, the only two occasions I use it are at Christmas Eve when I read from Luke 2 and at a funeral when I read the 23rd Psalm because the old reading is like comfort food to some more traditional Christians.  Even those instances are becoming fewer and fewer.  Why?  Because the KJV is in Shakespearean English and it's hard to understand for the average person.  I'm waiting for the day that the Gideons wake up to this fact and start diversifying their use of translations in hotel rooms and other public places.

 So what do you do if you look at your shelf and all you have is a KJV that you haven't dusted off for some time?  You go shopping.

That process can be just as daunting as trying to understand parts of Leviticus in 17th Century English.  Stand in any Cokesbury, Lifeway, or Family Christian Bookstore and you'll find a plethora of versions and enough book covers to accessorize for the formal occasion all the way down to an early morning in the deer stand.

In some cases, it may be easier and more useful to bookmark Bible Gateway and Oremus on your web browser and have all of them at your fingertips.  But what if you want the good 'ol print copy that you can write in the margins of and overstuff wth old bulletins?  Here are some of the translations that I've found most useful:

New International Version
I'll begin here because this is the translation that I have the most copies of and one that I preach from regularly.  The NIV was created in the 1970's and is a translation of the oldest texts.  The language is easy to understand (mostly) and you can get this Bible in just about any form, from the slimmest, easiest to carry to the bulkiest, most-note-filled version.  You can find one that will meet your needs, or like in my case, 5 or 6 that meet your needs.  

These are the versions that we usually hand out to those who need a Bible and Zondervan sells them pretty cheap.  The NIV is older than I am and is hardly "New" anymore.  It's been revised a couple of times with the tNIV and others, but never successfully.  There continues to be talk of further revisions.

Growing up, my church gave Bibles to rising third graders.  The Revised Standard Version (RSV) was my first "big boy" Bible and I still have it on my shelf.  The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is the one that every United Methodist seminary graduate has at least one copy of.  It's in the same family as the KJV and is essentially the RSV with minor revisions and updated language. 

The NRSV is commonly a study Bible.  It's the one that most academics turn to for a solid translation.  It's also one of the most gender-neutral translations you will find.  When speaking of God, it reads "God."  (the Hebrew language doesn't have any gender-neutral words - even inanimate objects have gender)  They've also taken the liberty to add "and sisters" wherever Paul writes to the brothers - making sure that we understand that the message is clearly for all people.

I like this version and preach from it just as much at the NIV.

The Message
I keep a copy of this one on my shelf to, but it's like having a very specialized tool in your toolbox.  The Message is a paraphrase of the old texts, written by Eugene Peterson.  In the early 90's, Peterson was teaching a class on Galatians and saw a need for a new "translation" that would capture the emphasis of what Paul and others had written.

If you go out and buy one of these, (they tend to have the coolest, trendiest bindings) you need to understand that this is a paraphrase of Scripture and not a translation.  Peterson has taken his interpretation of the text and put that down on paper. 

Like I said, it's a specialized tool.  It's great for meditating on scripture.  It's horrible for study.  It's great for getting through difficult passages, but it's not sufficient for deep analysis.  If understanding scripture was like washing dishes, think of The Message as a good pre-rinse before putting the dishes in your dishwasher.

New American Standard Bible
This is a new one on my shelf (even though it's been around since 1971) and I haven't preached from it yet.  This is a good version for scholars that are seeking a very literal translation of the old Greek and Hebrew.  Every copy of this translation comes with standard notations.  Italics show up where they have used a word not in the original Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, but implied by it.  All caps are used where an Old Testament text has been quoted in the New Testament and an asterisk is used where the verb tense has been changed to conform to modern usage.

If I want a decent idea of what the original Greek or Hebrew says without having to learn those languages, this is a good version.  The translators have taken very few liberties with the text and, when they have, they've made every notation posssible.  With that, this translation doesn't do much to enlighten us on some of the more entangling texts of the Bible or to break up Paul's run-on sentences.

So what about versions to avoid spending money on if you're looking for a new Bible?

The King James Version - Don't buy this one unless Shakespearean English does something for you.  This translation won't do you any favors.  The New King James is better than the original, but you can do better than the NKJV.

The Living Bible - This one is a paraphrase like The Message, but with even more liberty taken.  This was the Bible that my seminary professors strictly forbid.  The New Living Bible is ok, but if you want a paraphrase, I would trust Peterson more.

The Holman Christian Standard Bible - This Bible is the unofficial Southern Baptist Bible.  Not that being Southern Baptist is bad, but having a denominationally biased Bible is dangerous.  This version annoys me because certain parts of scripture are highlighted, simply because the editorial board felt that some scripture is more important than others.  It's scripture with a political twist, if you will.

The Common English Bible - This one is just coming out and I wrote about it in my last post.  In reading parts of this new translation, I believe that the translators ventured away from traditional language to make it more readable in some cases, but in others, it feels like they did it just to be different.  I won't read this one without a more trustworthy version readily accessible.

There are dozens of different tranlations out there and you have to form your own opinions eventually.  If you already have any of these versions, don't throw them out.  Each has it's own merit, but I would suggest getting something that will serve your needs for understanding scripture so that it will inform your faith and serve as "a lamp unto [your] feet and a light unto [your] path" (Psalm 119:105).

What's in your library?

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