Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Hidden Acres Camp in Dayton, Iowa

Yesterday my wife and I crashed the first day of a pastors and wives retreat at Hidden Acres Camp in Dayton, Iowa. At Hidden Acres there is a special cabin (called the 'Wester Cabin') which is available, for free, for any full-time ministry worker looking for some rest and relaxation.

We had such a wonderful stay. I think we drove down imagining we would be staying in the kind of camp cabins we've seen at other locations, with a few bunk-beds and a simple bathroom, no kitchen. We were not expecting king-size bed, full kitchen, fireplace, bath-tub with spa jets, etc.

Plus, the cabin is tucked away from the main buildings of camp which gives it a peaceful, secluded feel. I kept daydreaming about taking a writer's retreat there for an extended period, either a few days or a full week. Oh, that would be incredible.

But this stay was just a quick overnight, to visit with my grandparents, get a tour of the Wester cabin (and the rest of camp), and sit-in on what ended up being the best sermon on the feeding of the 5000 that I have ever heard, yeah-ah.

Another big highlight was learning the game Qwirkle. Have you heard of this game? It is like Scrabble but there are 6 shapes and 6 colors, and you fill a grid with sudoku-style strategy. When you get a full row of six (a complete set), you get bonus points. My wife got a triple-set at one point, which must be a big deal because my grandma excitedly grabbed the camera to document the occassion:

If you work in ministry, remember to give yourself a break. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking we need to be in all places for all people. That's God's job; and we are most effective when we take our Sabbath rest, trusting Him to provide strength, and seeking His will. So be blessed, be a blessing.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Free Bible Curriculum

We live in strange times. It used to be that if something was labeled "free" then it was either terrible quality or there was some catch somewhere. For many of us, we still think in that mode and we are cynical of any offer that seems too good to be true.

Yet right now I am using a free curriculum for my Middle School and High School youth groups and I have to say, it is one of the most engaging video series I have ever seen.

How is that possible? The short answer is that a pastor, Craig Groeschel, used to be a stingy, greedy individual. As he grew in his relationship with Jesus, he realized that God could help turn his weakness into a strength. Now he steps out of his comfort zone, giving generously and depending on God for sustenance.

His church offers a wealth of free resources. I recommend you give his church a quick look or check out this library of resources I mentioned. Here is a youtube of one of these free Bible lessons I'm using.

And what I love about Jon Acuff [author of Stuff Christians Like] is that this is really who he is, a guy who uses phrases like "that was my jam." The humor keeps the students engaged, which helps me bridge the gap between their lives and the Gospel, which ultimately brings God glory.

Update: Jon recently resigned from the Dave Ramsay team. His resignation letter can be found online. It will be interesting to see where he ends up next.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Youtube Study Bible

Photo Credit: tartanpodcast via Flickr

When I was young we walked uphill to school, both ways, and we liked it. Oh, and we also read the Bible from a physical book. Yes, like actual paper that you could hold in your hands.

Nowadays the idea of "text" has shifted. We watch movies on our phones, television on our computers, and satellite broadcast one-time events on our movie screens.

Online text is patched together between video clips and images. We have no problem going through a text in a nonlinear way, clicking hyperlinks and traveling in and out of textual jumps. Or reading a text layered upon another text [one screen in sync with another].

And in all of these cultural shifts, we haven't stopped reading. If anything, we're reading more. We have no problems switching genres or mediums, we just want to read good narrative in whatever form it comes.

So while believers in the Judeo-Christian tradition will always be "people of the book," is it so wrong for our biblical commentaries to evolve? I have seen e-reader Bibles (or Bible apps) where I can add my personal commentary. Or read scholarly commentaries. That's a start.

But what I have yet to see is a digital Bible that links to quality multimedia. How amazing if I could click on a verse and see youtube clips of artistic expressions inspired by that passage? How encouraging if I could share a link of an amazing sermon clip with a friend who is currently reading through that same passage?

In a way, a multimedia commentary would draw us back to the oral cultures of ancient times. Those first century listeners heard Scripture read out loud. We could too.

I know the multimedia exists out there. I know the technology exists. Yet we don't have an aesthetically pleasing, easy-to-use platform that would appeal to an average High Schooler. I just think it would be amazing if a platform like that existed. Maybe those who waste time surfing Youtube would be persuaded to spend time surfing the Bible.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Front Page News

A month ago I started submitting a column to our local paper, the Algona Upper Des Moines newspaper. It's been a thrill to share with my community this way and I'm thankful for the opportunity. The column gives spiritual encouragement and if I can help even a single person to take a step closer to God in faith, then the column is worth it.

So I'm grateful for the column space and it really is an excellent newspaper. But there are times I'm strongly reminded that I don't live in a big city anymore. Consider this: here are the stories that made it to the front page of today's paper:

Sump pump inspections coming

The article gives a detailed account of our waste water treatment facility after a heavy rain, the public meetings held on the issue, and some quotes from city administrators. It's a well written article but I can't imagine NYC, Chicago, or Phoenix making their sump pumps the leading story.

Not the McD's you grew up with

Our McDonalds in town is closed for construction right now. If you work somewhere in Algona, you've had at least a dozen conversations about this with a dozen different people. It's been a big deal. Seriously.

What will the visiting marching bands eat on band day? Will the McDonalds or the KMart fix the large pothole in the parking lot? Will the construction be done before Christmas?

I told someone the other day that in Phoenix my nearby McDonald's was closed for a week, during which a crew ripped the whole building down, and built a new structure to accommodate more drive-thru lanes. The person thought I was lying.

Sports Section

The great thing about a "small town newspaper" is that I have yet to flip open to the sports section without seeing one of the church High School students featured. Whether it's track, volleyball, or the prom king/queen candidates, there are always stats on local achievements.

There's something profoundly nice about purchasing a newspaper, knowing that somewhere in there is going to be someone I know; whether they wrote an article or are featured in one. For all those who live in a bigger city -- you should really move to a town of 10K or less sometime in your life, it's a different way of living.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pressing the Button

I work for a church in small town Iowa and part of my job is to make regular visits to our members in local nursing homes. I wish I could say that every one of these visits was an uplifting experience but the truth is that there are tough moments, when someone is failing in health or in memory.

So why do I go? I go to simply be present and listen, knowing that my presence is a reflection of Christ's presence. And for that reason, I always walk away from the experience feeling blessed.

Blessed? Hmm. It's funny, blessing doesn't always mean happiness. Blessing can come in the midst of brokenness or heartache. And with so many of these residents, there is a common struggle that surfaces, at different moments and in different ways, "What am I doing here?"

In other words, they don't think they need the help they're getting. They express a desire to drive around town, to live at home, to be off medications. It seems unfair to lay in bed all day alongside those who are weak.

And because I form such good friendships with some of these individuals, I find myself silently agreeing and cheering them on, "Yeah! Why can't this person be off on their own? They seem clear-headed and capable to me!"

Whenever I start to fall into this mode of thinking, there is an image that keeps me grounded and anchored to the truth. That image is the button next to the exit door of the nursing home. As a guest leaves a plaque instructs, "Please press the button before you leave or alarms will sound."

Stop and think about that for a moment. The only thing preventing these desperate individuals from escaping is the ability to push a button before they exit. What a poignant reminder of their need for assistance.

I heard of one nursing home (specifically for those with memory issues) that wanted to avoid alarms at the nursing station. Instead they placed a fake bus stop outside the building. The staff would occasionally walk out to the bus stop to retrieve those who were waiting for a bus that was never going to come.

It's easy to think of ourselves as being "different" from these nursing home residents. They are weak but we are strong. But is that really true? If I'm being honest with myself, I'm far less capable than I like to pretend. I mean well but I hurt people unintentionally, I argue with my wife, I give in to temptations.

If I'm to confront my denial head-on then I have to finally admit: I need help. I need another to be my strength. I need another to take my place upon that cross. Thank you, God, that you chose to love me even in my weakest moments, and you will lift me up on wings like eagles. Amen.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

5 Reasons we Live in the Greatest Age for Bible Distribution

While it is tempting to get depressed about the decline of the North American church in recent years, we have to remember that God is still in control. His kingdom will thrive. So while we wait for revival here, we can be encouraged by vibrant church communities in South America and parts of Africa. Here are 5 reasons why we live in the greatest age for Bible distribution that the world has ever seen:

Photo Credit: Stephen Cuyos on Flickr

1. Apps

Craig Groeschel's church, lifechurch, decided 5 years ago to put out a free Bible app. Has there been any interest? Well, recently the YouVersion app passed the 100 million downloads mark and that number grows larger every day.
The app comes equipped not only with a wide range of English translations but also Bibles in an expanding list of other languages, Bible reading plans, and study tools (such as expert commentaries). Plus, there are ways to bookmark, highlight, and share verses with your friends.
I have no doubt these kinds of apps are getting the Word of God in front of individuals who would otherwise never step into a church or open a traditional Bible. After all, it only takes a whim of curiosity and a couple clicks of phone keys to access this great resource. We should praise God for the ways new technologies bring Him glory.
2. Infrastructure
In the United States we struggle with our infrastructure because we have to deconstruct, replace, and upgrade some old and broken systems. Whether it's the Internet or travel methods, we're stuck with what was once innovative. Third world countries don't have that same problem; they start with a clean slate.
No wonder we are seeing poor, hungry villagers with more advanced phones than we have! No wonder there are struggling countries who now do most of their commerce in phone-to-phone digital transactions. What this means is that the needy of the world are suddenly thrust into a new position of opportunity.
Consider this: there are individuals in this world who could more easily access a digital Bible than a physical copy. Isn't that crazy? If a digital Bible is offered at no charge, it makes sense that more people would read it.
3. Linguistics
When I was in my Senior year of college  (less than a decade ago), we dreamed of the day that software could accurately record someone's spoken voice. Most of my peers in linguistics (the study of languages) thought there would be great job security in working on these software programs the rest of their lives.
Well, technology has increased at a rapid pace. Now we have algorithms that write books, software that decodes languages, and finely-tuned programs for recording and reading language.
My recent distraction has been a site called LiveMocha where users are rewarded points for grading assignments in their native language. With those points a user can then purchase lessons in another language, which native speakers of that language will grade. So I'm teaching English to help me learn German, and vice-versa. Pretty cool, huh?
All of these advances in linguistics help us to bridge cultures and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
4. Causes
Postmodernism has spiraled our nation into a deep skepticism of metanarratives. Okay, whatever, that's fine. So young people are less likely to become members of institutions [or any source that claims to be a bastion of timeless truth] and more likely to become participants in causes. It's about meaning, not truth.
Fortunately, along with that shift has come a renewed passion for making a difference in the world (praise God we're not all like Gen-X!). Instead of lamenting paradigm shifts, we should pray that young people rediscover God. And if we're to be honest, that's how it's been since the dawn of time; every generation needs to discover Christ for themselves.
5. God
God sees the whole picture and He promises that His church will not falter. Which means God will continue to reach people, transform lives, to demonstrate mercy and justice.
If the institution of church gets too off-track, He may send a monastic order to revitalize passion for the truth. If we decide to stay well within our comfort zone, God may choose to reach our neighbors and friends with different methods.
There's no stopping it; God loves people too much, He is going to keep extending His offer of salvation to everyone who seeks Him. So that's why this age is the greatest age for Bible distribution. And I'm guessing the next age will be even better. Can't wait.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Problem with Metaphors

My pastor shared a powerful metaphor yesterday during worship service. It is taken from Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth, where the rich members of the community were mistreating the poorer members during shared Eucharist meals. Paul encouraged that group to remain united and filled with God's love:

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.

17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. (1 Corinthians 12:14-20, NRSV)

The Metaphorical Body:

What makes a metaphor effective? It's when the metaphor takes two well-known objects and places them beside each other, thus creating new insight or understanding. In this case, parts of the body are compared to members of a church.

I love this metaphor because we all get it; not all of us are gifted speakers, or skilled administrators, or gentle counselors. Constantly comparing ourselves to others will only lead to depression and burnout. But Paul assures us that a community contains a diversity of personalities and talents. What a relief that we don't have to excel in every possible role.

Just like body parts, every person serves a vital purpose. Think how silly it would be to have a kidney lying on the ground by itself. Body parts show their true value when they're participating in the larger system of the body.

My Sad Realization:

For most of the sermon I sat back, enjoying the artistry of Paul's writing and the eloquence of my pastor's preaching. But then, inevitably, I reached that always-dangerous moment when I apply the biblical truths I'm hearing to my own life. I know, I know, what was I thinking?

If only I had kept applying the truths to others lives. There's safety in looking away from oneself; and it's easy enough to identify the talents of others. She's an eyeball, able to discern the truth of things with a quick glance. He's a hand, always serving others with their physical needs. Surely I too am a noble and exalted body part, right?

Sadly, the realization hit me right there in my metaphorical twin. I am the gurgling stomach. On a good day I take large concepts and break them down into smaller, easier-to-understand bits that others gain sustenance from. I do almost all of my work behind the scenes (and actually prefer it that way, I shy away from the spotlight). And while there are times I try to get the body's attention about its need for more sustenance, it probably comes across as a gurgle or groan.

You know what, though? After sitting with this realization for a day, I think I'm okay being the stomach. It may not be glamorous. Its noise may be unwanted. But it's a vital role nonetheless.

Metaphors have their Limits:

God's love pours into the body and gives it energy. The body receives this energy. Eventually, the body decides to give a small portion back. The body... (I'm going to say it)... gives back its waste product in the form of our tithes and in the passion of our worship. Just saying! Oh well, God still loves us.