Thursday, January 31, 2008

Leaping to conclusions?

I came across a news item on MSNBC.com, Genetic mutation makes those brown eyes blue. It is basically how researchers have figured that all blue eyes originate from a single ancestor. This was due to a genetic mutation that occurred some 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.

The final two paragraphs in the MSNBC.com article read as follows:

That genetic switch somehow spread throughout Europe and now other parts of the world.

"The question really is, 'Why did we go from having nobody on Earth with blue eyes 10,000 years ago to having 20 or 40 percent of Europeans having blue eyes now?" Hawks said. "This gene does something good for people. It makes them have more kids." [Emphasis mine.]

If a person begins with the assumption that humans have been around for much longer than 10,000 years populating all parts of the earth in great numbers, and a priori rule out a Great Flood that could have constricted the gene pool and reduced the population down to a very small number, then how else can one explain how this single mutation in a single individual spread so quickly and so widely?

Now, since I am only basing my observations on what I read in the news item, I may have missed the fact that validates the theory, "It makes them have more kids." I suspect though, inferring from the way the statement is worded, that this was a off-the-cuff leap to a conclusion, putting forth a theory to fit both the assumed and the observed facts. Has there been any scientific study that tests the theory that blue-eyed individuals have more kids? If so, I'd have expected the news item to at least mention it.

Maybe the statement was made tongue-in-cheek, a joke. But the way it's reported, it's hard to tell. In any case, to my ears it is just a bizarre statement, and I had to share and comment on it.

Discipleship: Roles and Expectations

The first question that popped into my mind as I looked at this week's Sabbath School lesson (Lesson 5: Gender and Discipleship) was, "What does gender have to do with discipleship?" More specifically and probably fraught with dangers of misinterpretation was, "Does being a woman (because that's what this week's lesson is about) alter any aspect of discipleship? And if so, how?"

This is perhaps my single largest objection to this week's lesson. It can be taken in so many wrong ways... First, even a casual glance in the Bible shows that the women followers and believers were never called disciples, except perhaps by inference when the gospel writers imply that there were many disciples other than the chosen Twelve. The lesson, however, states that some or all of the examples given in this week's lesson are disciples. Second, this week's lesson seems to set aside for women, the requirements and forms that were given as (in my interpretation of the lesson text) fairly strict and absolute (although I personally don't accept it to be that way) in the very first lesson.

On the one hand, I do appreciate that the lesson is moving away from the rigid view of discipleship that seemed to permeate the first four lessons. However, by doing so, I just get a very schizophrenic feeling. I'm not sure how to understand and interpret the lesson's viewpoints, assumptions, and goals.

I'll make a few observations on some of the daily lesson topics before I head into my own personal application for this week.

Sunday discussed Mary, Jesus' mother. The idea (vs. the reality) of a virgin birth (and/or of gods coming to impregnate women), according to myths of the time, was actually quite common. Egypt, Persia, India, Greece, Rome, etc. all had them. It probably isn't too far of a stretch to conjecture that quite a few young women who found themselves "unexpectedly" pregnant might have used the "a god came to me in the night..." excuse. How does this affect or change the way we might view Mary and Joseph's response to Yahweh coming to Mary? Interesting thoughts...

When we look at the attitude of Mary's acceptance of what was going to happen, I think we assume she was quite submissive and passive. But if you take the time to read through Mary's Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55, I think you'll find anything but a doormat in her words. This was a young (probably 12-14 years of age) woman who knew what she wanted to see happen in the world. She was not afraid to voice her opinions. I think we see hints of that in the places where she does reappear in the Biblical narratives.

Monday's lesson discusses a number of women who might be the closest to what the first four lessons described to be true disciples. It's interesting to note that these were all outcast women. They were considered by society to have some sort of problem that made them unwelcome. Could it be that even after they were healed and restored, they felt judgmental attitudes and preferred to stay with Jesus? Was it actually easier for them to remain with Jesus than to return home?

When we turn the focus back on Jesus, what he did was just as scandalous as associating with tax collectors and "sinners." He was with these women (from what we can infer) 24/7. Here's a single man who should have been married by now, wandering about the nation with a bunch of female groupies -- or at least that's what the "respectable" establishment would have seen. Never mind that there were other men around. Jesus was known to go away by himself... What if a prominent religious leader today started wandering around the country with men and women who lived together? I'm pretty sure some interesting rumors would get started, no matter how careful everyone in the group was.

What's interesting in the gospel accounts is that women followers of Jesus are usually portrayed as more faithful and loyal than even the chosen Twelve. Perhaps there is a lesson there... Maybe a person doesn't have to be called a disciple, or necessarily exhibit the expected behaviors of a disciple in order to be a genuine and faithful follower of Jesus. Just a thought.

Skipping on to Wednesday, this is the famous "Martha in the kitchen, where is Mary?" story. I'll skip some of the more common and obvious observations and note something a bit more obscure but no less interesting. Luke 10 is the start of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem (in the so-called Jerusalem document, Bailey, Poet and Peasant). The parallel passage occurs in Luke 18:18-30. The narrative involving Mary and Martha is the third act of a three-part narrative beginning with the lawyer's question in Luke 10:25-28. The second part is Jesus' response to the question (vv. 29-37). This is the Good Samaritan parable. The Martha and Mary narrative (vv. 38-42) is part of Luke's response to the lawyer's question.

What gets interesting is when we notice the parallel in Luke 18 as noted above. The three part series starts with the rich young ruler asking Jesus a question. The second part contains the parable of the camel and the eye of the needle. The third part involves Jesus' followers, and specifically Peter. What ties both passages (Luke 10 and 18) together is the "one thing" (10:42 and 18:22) that Jesus speaks of.

Thursday discusses the Samaritan woman at the well. Many of us have read and heard so much on this that I don't think I need to go on about it other than this one bit that I heard on the radio discussion of the lesson from Walla Walla University. Towards the end one of the professors posited a theory that this woman was not immoral as is traditionally thought. Rather, the theory goes that the woman was strong-minded and independent. Because she was quite attractive, men were attracted to her. When they married her, they tried to control and subjugate her (as was the expectations and customs of the day). However, she refused and one by one, the men divorced her. She had gotten to the point where she was disillusioned with men and relationships, so she was now just living with someone. It's an interesting twist, and one that I think could bear more relevance for women of today. It's something that today's women can identify with, whereas explicit immorality is something that most people would just dismiss as not applicable to them. Anyway, I thought it was an interesting line of thought that I think deserves some serious consideration.

Now back to some personal observations and applications. In spite of the criticism with which I opened this reflection, I actually didn't have nearly as much strong feelings against it as I did the previous four. In fact I quite enjoyed it for the most part.

I think what impressed me most with this week's lesson was when I read Luke 10:40, "But Martha was distracted..." In John 11:21-22, at Lazarus' death, Martha trusted Jesus. She was not distracted. Mary, on the other hand seemed to have lost faith. I talked about this in my sermon a couple of weeks ago. We will see that in John 12, Mary is okay again and shows some of the greatest faith in and understanding of Jesus found in the gospels.

I might sound like a broken record, but this "one thing" that Martha is missing in Luke 10, and possesses it in John 11; what Mary has in Luke 10, loses it in John 11, then regains it by John 12; I believe this is trust. It's what the rich young ruler of Luke 18 could not get himself to do.

In Luke 10, Martha is working hard to get things right in her own strength. Jesus isn't criticizing her preparations, but her obsession with it. She might trust Jesus in the big things, but when it comes to the little things, it's her duty to get things worked out. I think this is a lot like many of us. I know far too well I'm that way. If I think it's within my abilities and strength to do something, then I'm going to take full ownership and responsibility. For me, I find it much more difficult to trust God to work out the little mundane things of life than it is to trust God to work out the big things for which I know I have no control.

Discipleship is 100% commitment 100% of the time. In last week's post I made the suggestion that commitment is trust. So from this week's lesson, the lesson I believe God is trying to teach me is that I need to trust him with everything in my life, including the little things that I could, if I chose to do so, have control over. Certainly easy to say but very difficult to do.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Continued cold and snow

This week has been very cold. Everyone is talking about how cold it is and how difficult it is to keep houses warm. The price of heating oil does not help at all. Electric heat is a little better, but to heat a whole house requires converting everything to electric heat -- an expensive up-front proposition.

Anyway, Monday morning saw the coldest temperatures. Officially it was 1F at the airport. Here at our house, I saw 8F register as the lowest temp. Sunday and Monday was clear which led to the extreme cold (for us anyway). I awoke early Monday morning -- about 4 a.m. -- couldn't get back to sleep so I wandered downstairs to check up on the basement temperature. It was dangerously close to freezing -- 33F. Alarmed, I quickly took the space heater we normally use in the dining area and turned it on in the basement. So we have 1500W of heat blowing down there since Monday. It is keeping the temperature down there at refrigerator levels rather than walk-in freezer levels. I've also had to use the big furnace just to keep the house at 60-62F. We might need to find an alternate method of heating if the oil prices continue to rise. Everyone is suffering from the costs, but in particular those that were in the past just barely making it.

High clouds came in yesterday, and the temperature rose to an almost tropical 21F or so. More clouds rolled in and with it came snow. The forecast said 1-inch. Ha! By the time I got out to shovel around 11 a.m. today, there was about 5-6 inches of light, fluffy snow. And it keeps coming. The driveway once again looks like it did a few hours ago.

Since it was cold, I took the bicycle to town this morning. As long as it is cold, the snow is dry so it doesn't stick to the tires or the frame, and the tire treads don't get all gummed up with the snow. It was fairly easy going, both there and back.

Shoveling was yet again a chore. And I think today, I'm going to have to shovel again before nightfall. The last couple of times I mentioned shoveling again on this blog, I actually did not because the snow stopped. But today, I don't see that happening and there is already enough that needs to be cleared away.

This weather pattern is apparently expected to continue until next week when we will finally see temperatures rise above freezing. And then we'll have several days of a royal mess of things as the snow thaws, refreezes, get really slick, and so on.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Reflection: Measuring Quality

I came across an article on Wall Street Journal Online last night that triggered a few thoughts. The article title is: Measuring a Doctor's Quality Remains an Art. (You may need to be a paid subscriber to view the whole article; I'm not sure.)

The article is basically about a recent study in which Vytorin reduced cholesterol measurably, but didn't do anything to slow the progression of heart disease. In it, the writer, a physician, muses how various agencies and insurance measures lots of things, but do these numbers really mean anything in quantifying quality of care?

Here are a few quotes that directly lead to some of my thoughts

"You can't judge the quality of a restaurant meal just by reading the grocery list. Likewise, you can't gauge the quality of a doctor's care by extrapolating from a few numbers plucked from the medical records of patients.

"Still, managed care companies and quality watchdogs have long used cholesterol values as stand-ins for physicians' performance in preventing heart disease. And that's not unusual. If a doctor's performance is judged at all, it's usually based on lab test results and insurance claims data about treatments.

"But it seems to me that government and insurance overseers seem to be interested in measuring a lot of unconnected minutiae that isn't leading us to better quality.

"Some doctors object when their compensation is tied to treatment goals decided by outsiders. I don't fear pay for performance. I fear pay for performance for measures that don't really matter."
The author goes on to name some measurements that might directly lead to quality of care, and then writes in conclusion:

"We don't improve care by blindly following the numbers. We get better outcomes by involving patients in managing their diabetes. And as more people struggle with chronic diseases, the lessons of diabetics will apply to more and more patients.

"As the quest for quality continues, we need to resist the urge to subjugate doctors to tracking minutiae at the expense of ignoring the outcomes that really matter."
Those of you that know me know that I worked in software development for some 15 years. A similar debate goes on inside that industry. The question asked is, "What does quality software mean? What characteristics does it exhibit?" We place emphasis on the easy areas: Reduction in quantity of defects, no showstopper defects, acceptable measures of execution performance, etc. (The meaning of "defect," however, was subject to interpretation, particularly between developers and testers.) What managers, and particularly executive level management, cared about most was the count of defects, and particuarly severe ones, coming down until the software was shipped out for general use.

There are many ways to massage such numbers. If severe defects couldn't be fixed and they were in an area that didn't need to absolutely ship, we might just clip it for now and try to ship it in a later release. Developers and testers might debate about the real seriousness of certain issues and try to get defects classified into a less serious category. Another solution might be "code and pray" where we do some shot-in-the-dark fixes, and then pray that the new code paths taken just might avoid whatever was causing the defect to appear. If the product was about to ship, press releases already on their way, marketing and sales already selling the product, customers expecting the product any day now, it wasn't unheard of to move everything to the "Postponed" column for an immediate hotfix or a soon-to-be-released service pack, just so we could say we made the date so that the company could book appropriate revenue before the end of the fiscal quarter. After all, the most important thing wasn't about meeting customer quality expectations, but about meeting shareholders' earnings-per-share expectations and projecting favorable revenues for the future quarters. (Yes, I'm jaded! Now you know one of the reasons I don't work in the software industry anymore.)

Our modern mindset wants to quantify everything. If there was some way of distilling all of life into a single, numerical measure, I'm sure we would do it. It wouldn't surprise me if someone was trying.

All this got me thinking about "church quality." How do we measure it? I don't know about the other denominations or congregational churches, but Adventists love to count attendance, baptisms, and tithe. If these are growing, the higher-ups are happy. If they're stagnant, this is reason for concern. And if they are going down, alarm bells go off.

Certainly these numbers are some indicators of church health. But how much do they really correlate to quality, of the congregation and of the pastor? And how accurate are they even in assessing church health?

I might suggest that in addition to these measurements, surveys of the surrounding neighborhood, community, and other churches in regards to the church, church members, and the church staff might actually provide a better picture: Do you view the church positively or negatively and why? Do you view the church as cooperative or antagonistic? In what ways are the church members and staff involved in your community? If the church were to go away, would you miss it or not? And so on.

The church is often called a hospital for the broken hearted (or sinners, if you really prefer that term). If the people that make up the church are the physicians, nurses, and other care-givers (we will set aside for the moment that we are also patients at the same time), then the WSJ article may be closer to home than we care to admit. And so I close my little essay by reiterating a few selects quotes from above and ask you to think about it in terms of your church and your ministry:
"You can't gauge the quality of a doctor's care by extrapolating from a few numbers plucked from the medical records of patients."

"I fear pay for performance for measures that don't really matter."

"We don't improve care by blindly following the numbers."

"As the quest for quality continues, we need to resist the urge to subjugate doctors to tracking minutiae at the expense of ignoring the outcomes that really matter."

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Quotes from current Willow magazine

With the current issue of Leadership came a free copy (vol. 15, iss. 1) of Willow. I found a few quotes that caused me to pause and think.

In the article, The Next 1,000 Years of Christianity, on page 17, Kevin Kelly writes:

Some of the fastest growing churches are those at the margins of Christian denominations. The Church of the Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormons, is experiencing fantastic rates of population growth, primarily outside the U.S... The Amish and other denominations out of the mainstream are also rising faster than the general Christian population. Growth at the margins has been the rule all along anyway. The Methodists, Pentecostals, and the original Protestants themselves were all margincal churches that experienced rapid initial growth. We should expect the greatest growth in the future to occur from church groups that are either at the margine or outside the mainstream. Some of these will be considered cults by insiders, or heretics by the orthodox, or at best, worrisome experiments that need to be watched carefully...
So I wonder, what does this mean for the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Does this observation and prediction provide evidence to the claims of some that say the Adventist church has become too mainstream, that we no longer emphasize the distinctives as much as we should? Does it mean that we would do better to revert to early 20th century Adventism? On the other side of the fence are individuals and groups who are "experimenting" with all sorts of non-traditional ideas. Some of these ideas are "fringe" when compared to mainstream Christianity. Rather than reverting to traditional, early 20th century Adventism, maybe we should be going to the new kind of fringe. Or perhaps there's some other message in what was observed above. Since this is just one data point, any conclusion from just this observation is fraught with problems. Perhaps the point is that to try to appear more mainstream or fringe for the sake of growth is probably seeking the wrong goal.

There is another article, an interview with the authors of unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity. I just finished reading the book and I think all Christians should read it. Even though I'm a few years outside their research population, my views closely match that expressed by them.

Anyway, in the interview, the following is found on page 21:
One of the dirty little secrets of sociological change is that we are facing a new generation among which one in five say they have essentially no faith -- and that used to be one in 20...

... We're starting to discover over the last six months or so, is that even the impulse of inviting a friend to church and people's willingness to be invited among a new generation is actually lower than ever and less effective than ever... [emphasis mine]

So all those great evangelism training that we might have had -- where we build relationships, awaken spirituality, and then invite them to church -- well, that method may be going the way of the big, public evangelism efforts. In a way, that's not a bad thing, I think.

But it does pose some questions for us. Whether we like it or not, whether we want to admit it or not, for most of us, the church building is the center of our Christian activity. When we think about our life as Christians and as Adventists, we inevitably think of what we do at the weekly church gatherings as defining it. It is still difficult for me, and probably for most of us, to get into the mindset that Christian life is not confined to a place and time. We may know that intellecutally, but actually believing it and living it is much more difficult.

When we think of worship, we think church. When we think evangelism, we think baptisms so that church attendance and tithe giving goes up. When we think social events, we think church socials. The location defines our connection to God. Come to think of it, that's not too unlike the Jews and Jerusalem and the Samaritans and Mount Gerizim. Maybe the observation made in the interview quote above is a call for us to take Jesus' message of John 4:21-24 to heart. Maybe the call is for us to stop trying to bring people to church, but to take the church (defined as the body of Christ) to the people.

The interview has some suggestions for what this "church" might look like:
... The way you are as a neighbor, the way you love other people, the way they [outsiders] see you being generous, the way they see you resolving and forgiving conflict... (p. 22)

... A Christian who's got compassion, who's kind, who has grace and knows how to walk forward in that tension of truth and grace, just like Jesus modeled for us... (p. 23)

... We want Christians to get back to the basics of the gospel, to help people mend their broken lives, to help them understand better how the world works and how Christ is always redeeming and fixing those things that are broken... (p. 23)

Bitter cold, frigid, arctic, biting, icy, windy

Wrangell Narrows

That about describes how things are today and will be for at least half the week. I think I saw the thermometer go all the way up to 19 degrees earlier this morning. It's down to about 14 now and for the next few nights, we are expected to be in the single digits. Tonight is supposed to be the coldest, going down to close to 0F.

The skies are wonderfully sunny, but it's just too cold to be outside. It isn't too bad a block up from the Narrows (that's where we live), but I went down to the beach and the wind was blustery and it was only a matter of minutes before I'd had enough and headed up the hill back home.

Some of the latest snow had slid off of the roof and onto the back porch, making the rear door almost unusable. I shoveled away that snow all the while keeping an eye on the roof and ears tuned to any noise of additional snow that might fall while I was right in the landing spot. Fortunately I did not have to take evasive maneuvers. I was worried because the sun was warming up the roof causing some melting to occur, even in these frigid temperatures.

Here are a few photos of the immediate area. I thought about strapping on a pair of snowshoes and going out on the frozen muskeg, but it's just too cold (and too tired from shoveling) to go about and look for more and better photo making opportunities.

Front of house   Petersburg Mountain from front window

Rear of house (2)  Rear of house (1)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

And the snow keeps coming down

This morning the city maintenance crews came by and plowed our street. In the process they left a bit of plowed stuff blocking the entrance of our driveway. Once I got that cleared off, Elise and I drove out to the church to see to the parking lot condition. When we got there we were pleasantly surprised to discover that the lot had been plowed. We suspected that one of our members who works at the cannery borrowed some heavy equipment to move the snow out. When he arrived, I confirmed that he did indeed come out this morning to do the job. We're quite thankful that these things get done to allow the rest of us to come and worship without physical impediment.

The temperature dipped below freezing this afternoon, and the snow increased. There were times when the wind blew strongly, it was near blizzard-like. I went out to push away more snow from the driveway. Now just an hour later, it looks like I might have to go out and push away snow again in a little while.

As always, the official forecast and what actually happens don't quite match. For example, this afternoon's forecast only calls for another inch of snow. I can tell you that we are getting about an inch every half hour.

Sermon: Murder Weapon

(Click HERE for MP3 sermon audio.)

Today is Religious Liberty Sabbath. That means that over the next few weeks we are collecting names and sponsors for complimentary Liberty magazine subscriptions. It also means that as the kick-off Sabbath, there is a Liberty video and the sermon is usually related to the topic of religious liberty in one way or another.

I couldn't identify with the supplied sermon (the General Conference Religious Liberty Dept. sends out a suggested sermon each year), so I just went ahead and continued on to the next section of John, 11:45-57, which turns out to be a strong illustration of what happens when religious and civil powers unite, when the right and left unite. The result is ultimately destructive for all involved, even for those who think they are doing the right and expedient thing. My sermon speaks out against this kind of union and the importance of all Christians, not just Seventh-day Adventists, to support religious liberty and the freedom of conscience.

Friday, January 25, 2008

How much snow will we get by morning?

(Updated content at bottom.)

The snow coming down has intensified and the air has warmed up a bit, resulting in heavier flakes.

I went out again on the bicycle this afternoon. Getting into town wasn't too much of a problem. But then I (foolishly, perhaps) decided to go UP all the way to the Post Office. I also decided to take the trails rather than the roads, thinking the risk from deeper snow was less than risk of vehicles on a main road. With the temps above freezing, what that meant was that snow just stuck and packed, on the bike, on the tires, and the path turned slick and wet as I rolled through. Level and downhill was fine, but uphill was a real bear. When I got stopped for whatever reason, it was impossible to get started again. I ended up walking most of the uphills, even the slight inclines. I was thoroughly exhausted by the time I returned home. I don't think I had exerted myself quite like that since I was in Oregon. I don't think the 40 miles I did earlier this year on the forest roads was quite that strenuous. It felt a bit like I was going up a steep slope nearly the entire way. Because the wheels sometimes start to slip out sideways in unexpected ways, the upper body also gets a bit of workout trying to stay balanced. The problem is that then I get tense when the proper thing to do is relax and let the natural balancing instincts keep me upright. So I kept trying to tell myself to just relax.

With the snow continuing, I had to shovel out the driveway. There was a good 4 inches or so that had accumulated. Twenty-five feet doesn't seem that long (I think that's about the length of our driveway), but there is a lot of snow that ends up covering it, even at just 4-5 inches deep. The little 4-wheeler ATVs with plow attachments sure looks tempting right now.

What I'm a bit concerned about is how much snow will end up by morning. If there is too much, cars won't be able to come into the church parking lot. I might hike over there earlier in the morning to guage the situation and if it's too deep, we may just cancel services tomorrow.

Elise and Amy are sitting in the hot tub. I was told that Amy did a belly flop, on the snow, in her swimsuit, and then got back in the tub. She might be ready for a polar bear dip... Hmm...

Random January Bits

Just a few bits and pieces:

I found a new blog Adventist Perspective that I find interesting and worth a look. The dominant theme is that the author, a professor, reviews each issue of a number of Adventist journals, official and otherwise, offering comments both positive and critical, of their contents. For future reference, I've added a link to this blog under the Other Blogs section way down the left column of this page.

For the past week, things were pretty much just cold and icy. Our heaters are once again working extra hard to keep the house warm. Starting overnight, we have been getting steady snow, powdery and dry. According the the forecast, we probably won't be seeing temperature go above the freezing point for a week or so. That means the snow will stick around a while. We might see close to a foot of new snow by the end of the week. It also means I'll have to go out there and shovel. Our church member with the snowplow is out this week, so I'm not sure what we will do with the church parking lot if we do indeed get that much snow. I wonder if I'll have to go purchase one of the big hand-pushed snow pushers and do the lot all by hand... It doesn't sound too pleasant.

The good thing with new snow and remaining cold is that it is much easier to bicycle around in. I went out this morning and I had no problems. Riding back home, I followed along the path in the snow that Amy left on her way over to the hospital. She doesn't take a straight path. Her path kind of meanders about the shoulder, in her shuffling sort of gait.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Discipleship: On Commitment - Absolute or Relative?

(Updated copy.)

As I go through this week's Sabbath School lesson, the message I get from the study guide is that people who can't, won't, and don't make a full commitment are not disciples of Jesus.

That leaves me with an unsettled feeling in my stomach and in my head. Something seems "off" and not quite right. Am I misinterpreting the lesson and getting the wrong message? Or maybe I'm looking at things from a very different perspective than the lesson expects. I have a strong suspicion it is the latter.

This week's lesson is definitely about the lack of commitment, as evidenced by the title: Lessons from Would-Be Disciples. So I spent some time analyzing what my presuppositions are that cause such a disconnect between my conclusions and the lesson's.

I think the disconnect revolves around the following issues:

  1. What is the definition of disciple?
  2. What is the purpose of discipleship?
  3. Is there only a one-size-fits all model of discipleship?

These questions are related, so the answer to one informs and modifies the understandings of the other two. They can't be separated. In the following discussion, all of the above are within the context of a relationship with Jesus.

What is the definition of disciple? In the broadest sense it is anyone who wants to learn from Jesus. More narrowly, at least for people today, it is someone who has come to believe and has chosen to follow him. I think the lesson and I agree on this point. The disconnect is whether all who have come to believe, and have even chosen to follow are disciples in the sense that the lesson portrays the (ideal) disciple. This is where the responses to questions 2 and 3 intertwine with the response to question 1. If the forms (the behaviors and actions) that the disciples take are fixed and absolute, then my definition of disciple would be extremely narrow; i.e., a disciple is someone who, due to their spiritual maturity and intimate walk and trust with Jesus, have been called in a unique way to learn from him to accomplish a unique purpose. (You may want to review my other blog post, Discipleship: Form vs. Function for more on this.) In this case, I would have to classify Christians into the following classifications in order of least mature to most mature: believer, follower, disciple, apostle, saint. However, I don't think this is the right way to define and classify. So we must go on to the next question...

What is the purpose of discipleship? I just glanced through the first four lessons for this quarter, and I can't find a good answer in any of them. They all talk about the importance of it, and what it supposedly looks like, but I cannot find the answer to Why? There is one small sentence in the Introduction (which most people I'm sure skip) that makes an attempt to explain the Why? of discipleship:

Disciples are committed to being responsible members of the church through active and consistent participation in mission, and they are moved by the internal motivation of God's Spirit.

But even this doesn't, at least for me, answer the deeper Why? What is the purpose of discipleship? To make better church members? To be better workers for God? I think these are results, rather than the purpose of discipleship. When I contemplated this question, I arrived at the following response: The purpose of discipleship is for believers to learn that God is trustworthy, for them to learn to trust in God, and then learn to act upon that trust and trustworthiness.

Now in my mind, related intimately to trust and trustworthiness is the idea of commitment. A person (a sane and rational one anyway) only commits (could I use the word trust as a replacement?) himself or herself to someone they've learned is trustworthy. And I think this is the key: Trust does not come all at once. It starts out small, and as a person experiences and learns that the other party is trustworthy in a small way, they become willing to take a leap of faith to trust in a bigger way. And since I believe trust and commitment are really the same thing, I would argue that commitment also occurs in stages.

And here we get to the third question: Is there only a one-size-fits all model of discipleship? Given my view that commitment comes in stages, I would argue against the one-size-fits-all model of discipleship. Unfortunately, the impression I get from the study guide is just that: There is one look to discipleship; or stated another way, a full commitment to Jesus looks the same across the board. (By the way, lest some of you think all I do is rant, I'm not the only one who has received this impression.)

The lesson goes to great lengths to explain that a disciple is one who has made a full commitment to follow Jesus. I have no disagreement with this if and only if the stages model of commitment is employed. In this model, I see as fully committed, the person taking their first tentative step by accepting and believing in Jesus; thus he or she is a true disciple. The person who has been a believer for a while and is growing, and who remains fully committed to the trustworthiness of God as shown to him or her up to that point, is also a true disciple. And so on. Full commitment looks and acts differently from one individual to another. Two individuals who have walked with Jesus for fifty years can be fully commited and yet their commitments will have differences in what we observe.

Since this week's lesson is about would-be disciples, I figure I should make a comment regarding that. I think such a thing could exist. My definition of a would-be disciple is someone who isn't trusting themselves to God to the extent that God has shown to them that He is trustworthy. So yes, it is definitely about less than full commitment. In this we have the corollary of last paragraph's summary: Less than full commitment also looks differently from one individual to another.

In regards to some of the individuals mentioned in this week's lesson, I'd like to note the following. Could it be that Jesus sent away the volunteer disciples (memory text, Sunday, Tuesday) because he realized that their growth and maturity weren't yet to the point where they could follow in the way they thought they could? Now there is the one that Jesus called to follow but refused (Monday). That is the only one that seems to fit the definition of would-be disciple that I gave above. It seems like Jesus knew that this person was ready for the next level in commitment and trust, but he wasn't willing to take it. As for Nicodemus (Wednesday), my opinion is that he was a disciple. He took a baby step that night with Jesus, and then as he continued to see and hear Jesus, his trust in Jesus grew, and so did his commitment. I don't think (again, my opinion) he was ever what the lesson calls a would-be disciple.

(I honestly don't understand quite how Thursday's topic, Herd Mentality, fits. Thus I won't discuss it here.)

Maybe the point of all this is that as we study discipleship this quarter, the worst thing we can do is to look at it as a kind of checklist and judge others or even ourselves.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Recipe: Pan-Steamed Creamed Spinach with Eggs

Honestly, I don't know what to call this particular dish. It's perhaps slightly like quiche and perhaps vaguetly reminiscent of souffle. It's not baked, but rather all the cooking takes place on the stovetop with a single skillet. If anyone has some better suggestion for a name, please put it in the comments. Thanks.

Note: The skillet should be non-stick and needs to have a cover. A glass cover that you can see through works well.

Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup whipping or heavy cream
  • 3 large eggs
  • About 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • About 1/2 tsp. salt
  • About 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
  • 1/2 large onion, chopped fine
  • 1 package frozen spinach, thawed and liquid squeezed out
  • 2 tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. In a bowl, combine milk, cream, and eggs and mix thoroughly. Add nutmeg, salt, and pepper and mix. Set aside.
  2. Heat vegetable oil in a large (12-inch) skillet over medium heat. When hot, add garlic, stiry and fry for about 30 seconds. Immediately add onions and continue to fry until onions become transluscent and begin to turn golden. Add spinach and mix to combine.
  3. Turn heat down to medium low. Pour in mixture from step 1. Stir to combine, and continue to stir for about a minute. Make sure spinach mixture is evently distributed in the skillet. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes or until the eggs have set on top.
  4. Take off heat and sprinkle with freshly grated parmesan.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Short Book Review: If I Were the Devil

If I Were the Devil: Seeing Through the Enemy's Smokescreen: Contemporary Challenges Facing Adventism (Paperback)

(Adventist Book Center link)

By George R. Knight

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I ordered this book. I couldn't just drop into an ABC and browse through it, so I went strictly on experience with the author's other books. I've found that Dr. Knight to be articulate and engaging.

This particular book, being a collection of articles, speeches, and papers, has a different "feel" than most of his other works. Since each "chapter" is a standalone work, there is repetition of arguments and themes throughout the book. By the second half of the book, I found myself skimming through a lot of the text where the material repeats earlier pieces, or where the material seems to get bogged down in details that I personally could not get interested in following.

That's not to say this book is boring. It is far from that. I found the portions that are more narrative in style, where Dr. Knight narrates Adventist history to be very interesting and worthwhile. He shows how the Adventist church got to be what it is.

Dr. Knight's passion for the Adventist church exudes through the pages of this book. His observation and conclusion is that the current Adventist structure and system are flawed, and more likely than not, severely, but he does not want to see the church die. He wants to see radical surgery performed so that the church can once again approach maximum effectiveness in accomplishing the purpose for which God chose to raise up this movement.

And what is the purpose of the Adventist church? Dr. Knight suggests that it is the Three Angels' Message of Revelation 14:6-12. Specifically, he believes that this message calls the Adventist church to a worldwide mission to proclaim (1) "the Second Advent;" (2) "the end-time importance of God's commands;" (3) "the importance of having faith in Jesus." (p. 295)

Dr. Knight additionally calls for balance: Balance between proclaiming the truth and performing acts of service; and balance between proclaiming the distinctive doctrines that make Seventh-day Adventists who they are, and proclaiming beliefs that Adventists share with other Christian groups.

Dr. Knight, in the closing pages writes, "If I were the devil I would do everything I could to unbalance church leadership. I would not be overly concerned with the direction of the imbalance, just so long as most leaders were off center in some way or other." And then Dr. Knight goes on to briefly list some of the imbalances. And then he continues, "Better still, I [the devil] would aim at getting the various factions of Adventist leadership divided and arguing with each other. With those tactics I would have very little to fear." (p. 295)

This book certainly gave me some things to think about. Do I agree or disagree with Dr. Knight's suggestions and in what way? What do I believe to be the mission of the church? How do I relate my mission to that of the church? What does it mean to be balanced? Am I balanced or imbalanced in my approach to the gospel? What does it mean to be a Seventh-day Adventist Christian? Why am I one, and why do I continue as one?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Sermon: Do You Believe This?

Full title: Do You Believe This? Then Roll Away the Stone!

(Click here for MP3 sermon audio.)

This sermon concludes the discussion of the story of Lazarus' resurrection in John 11:1-45. Today's sermon is primarily narrative, in two parts, with a bit of discussion thrown in the middle and at the end.

Snow, ice, and a church update

So what's been up with us the last few days? Honestly, not a whole lot. It's back to the routine: work, school, church, and a bit of play thrown in.

We had snow earlier in the week. I shoveled our driveway twice, got a bit sore in the upper body. Then it stopped snowing, turned into rain, all the snow turned into ice, and now it's a slippery mess. For a few moments this morning, I didn't think I'd make it up the little slope to the church entrance. My shoes had zero traction and I kept slipping and slipping. I grabbed hold of our vehicle and slid up to where there was a bit more traction. I sprinkled what we had left of some ice melt, and I think that helped a bit. But the day turned out to be dry and clear, and it's that way tonight. That means everything will freeze again.

With the ice and some people away, our church attendance was on the low side this morning. However, someone new was present. He just moved here from Idaho and is now working for the community newspaper, the Petersburg Pilot. Once he get settled a bit more, the rest of his family, with a number of y0unger children, will be joining him. We are excited and looking forward to having him and soon, the rest of the family, with us. (I'm sure he's even more eagerly awaiting the time when his family can join him here.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Discipleship: Form vs. Function

In the current quarter's Sabbath School lessons thus far, where I sense the emphases to be are in the following:

  • The immediacy with which the called follow Jesus.
  • The "giving up all" and "leaving all" to follow Jesus.
  • We should respond with the same immediacy and abandon to follow Jesus.

The remaining ten weeks may shift in perspective, but at this moment, it occurs to me that the emphasis of the lessons can result in a confusion between form vs. function.

Does discipleship have to follow the forms that it did with Jesus and the Twelve? Can the form change while preserving the function? If so, what was the function (or functions) of discipleship that Jesus was accomplishing with the Twelve?

Broadly speaking, I think that the primary function was for the disciples to come to know the truth about God by experiencing Him in their daily lives. By coming to know God through a close relationship, Jesus wanted the disciples' characters to become more like that of their Master. And as their characters became more like that of Christ, they would in turn become avenues through which God would become known to the world.

I think it is a mistake to take the experiences of the Twelve as the one and only model of discipleship. I would even suggest that it should not be used as a model, except in rare situations. The Twelve were unique in that Jesus picked them to be the future apostles, prophets, evangelists, and leaders to continue His mission. I believe there were many other followers of Jesus who probably would better fit the majority of us today. For example, we might look at Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Or perhaps Nicodemus. Or the healed demoniac who was sent back home.

Maybe the call to the kind of discipleship that the Twelve experienced is uncommon and rare. Maybe the call of Jesus to the great majority of people, to us,  is to simply be His friends (and actually we become part of His family) and to speak well of Him in and through our daily lives.

Perhaps what happens when we spend time with Jesus as a family members and friends is that some of us do receive that special call to take on a unique mission that requires much more of us. That doesn't make those that aren't called in this way inferior and those who are called better. It's just different.

I'd like to look at some of the first disciples: James, John, Peter, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael. When we read the gospel accounts superficially, their call to discipleship seems quite abrupt and sudden, and their responses equally sudden. However, when we dig deeper, we discover details that help reveal a different picture.

Nathanael was a native of Cana. Cana and Nazareth were twin villages, close together. It wouldn't be too surprising if Nathanael already had some acquaintance with Jesus since their early years.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, may have been relatives of Jesus, perhaps as close as cousins or nephews (see reference below). If that is the case, then they would certainly have known of Jesus for a considerable number of years prior to their calls.

Peter and Andrew, from what we read in the gospels, it appears that they were fishing buddies of the Zebedee family. So it is quite likely that they too, were already quite well acquainted with Jesus.

What I'm trying to point out is that it appears that these "first calls" occurred in the context of an already existing, long-term relationship of family and friends. When I look at the calls this way, it sheds a whole different light into how Jesus calls people.

It is also important to keep in mind that when individual members (or even brothers) in a family left to follow Jesus, the extended family continued to support and provide for those that were left. If, as the Encyclopedia entry below notes, Zebedee was quite wealthy, then it was no financial hardship to James, John, and their families for them to take off with Jesus.

The point of all this is that when we study discipleship and try to understand what it means for us today, we should be careful to separate the forms from the functions. The functions remain the same, but forms can, do, and should change. I just wish that the official study guide made this more clear.

 


Title:   International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
Edition:   First
Copyright:   Electronic Edition STEP Files Copyright © 1998, Parsons Technology, Inc.

That Zebedee was a man of considerable wealth may be inferred from the fact that he had “hired servants” with him (Mk 1:20), and that his wife was one of those women who ministered of their substance to Jesus and His disciples (Mt 27:55, 56). Comparison of the latter passage with Mk 15:40, 41 identifies the wife of Zebedee, John’s mother, with Salome, and it seems a fair inference from Jn 19:25, though all do not accept it, that Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Salome, the wife of Zebedee, were sisters.

Monday, January 14, 2008

In a related vein...

There is a blog post, The Quest for Relevance, that is related to my previous post regarding organizational survival.

Reflection: Judas, the Organization Man

I got to thinking earlier today that unless we are careful, we may unknowingly be following in the footsteps of Judas Iscariot. I think those who hold leadership roles within a (and any) church organization may be particularly susceptible.

What am I trying to say, you ask? Judas Iscariot is not portrayed very favorably by the gospel writers. He is portrayed as one who is scheming, thieving, conniving, and only looking out for his own interests.

However, if we take the time to look at Judas from a different angle, we might see something different. My suggestion is that Judas was a model Organization Man. He would be the kind of executive and manager that business and churches today would likely welcome. His concern was for the organization -- its growth, its viability, its survival. He had initiative. He had a vision for the organization, and he would do whatever was necessary to turn his vision into reality, even if that meant going up against his boss when the survival of the organization was at stake. Judas saw himself as an employee of Jesus. He wasn't stealing from the common pool -- he was getting paid for the services he was rendering. When it looked as if his employing organization was headed towards bankruptcy, he was simply organizing a bail-out effort. He believed in the organization, he identified with it, it was his raison d'ĂȘtre. He honestly believed his vision for the organization was the same as the vision of its leader, even though we know that he was dead wrong.

If you are reading this and you belong to a church, particularly if you are a leader in a church (and especially if you are paid by the church), ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you at all concerned about the survival of your organization?
  • Are you worried about the security of your employment?
  • Do you believe that God needs your organization in order to accomplish His mission?
  • Do you tend to identify yourself first as a member of your organization, and perhaps as one of its leaders, rather than as a servant of Christ?
  • Are you very certain about what you believe is the vision and mission of the organization?

If we think the organization is indispensable, that its survival and fulfillment of God's mission are closely related, if we are worried about the security of our employment, if we identify ourselves more with the organization than with Christ, and if we hold rigidly to what we think is our organization's vision and mission, I think we may be treading dangerously close to falling just as Judas Iscariot did.

It is my belief that if our focus is first, foremost, and solely on being a Christ-presence and a servant in our spheres of influence, God will work the organizational concerns as He sees fit. If He wants the organization to exist, He will allow it to survive and thrive. On the other hand, if the organization is a stumbling block to His purposes, He will allow it to die. Who knows, this could be another application of the dying seed Jesus talks about in John 12:23-26.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Sermon: Life is Eternal, Death is Forever

(Click HERE for MP3 sermon audio.)

This sermon continues our discussion of John 11. More specifically the themes of life, death, and resurrection are explored. What does Jesus mean when he speaks of life and when he speaks of death? When he talks about these things, does he have the same idea in his mind that people typically do? Or is it something quite different? These are some of the questions behind this sermon.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Back in Petersburg

Descent into Juneau
Descent into Juneau

Yesterday evening I made it safely back to Petersburg. The flight was was delayed 2 hours at Anchorage. The plane got off to a bad start on its initial run to Bethel. Due to the snow and cold, flights were backed up as deicer had to be sprayed onto each one.

There was time to get a bit of lunch while I waited. After boarding we backed up where a large amount of deicing fluid was sprayed onto the entire plane. The stuff is orange and has the consistency of antifreeze. I wonder if they're related.

With all that done we took off and on to Juneau. Juneau, unlike Anchorage and Petersburg, had a rather nice day with mostly sunny skies. By the time we landed, the sun was just setting.

We left Juneau for a quick hop to Petersburg. As we got closer, the snow got heavier. The clouds didn't appear to be too heavy because even in the disappearing twilight, I could still see a bit of the ocean surface below. There was enough visibility for the flight to be able to land. About 2-1/2 hours past scheduled arrival we landed in Petersburg.

It was snowing wet flakes on arrival. It pretty much continued that way through much of the night. This morning I tried to go out on my bike, but after going a block, slipping, sliding, feeling as if the wheels had their own minds, I decided the prudent thing to do was to turn back and start out again on foot.

On the way out to town (now on foot), I met someone else coming back from town on a bike. He wasn't doing much better than I was. When I mentioned that I started out on the bike before setting back out on foot, he said that previous days weren't so bad. With the air warming and everything turning to slush, things weren't too great today.

Anchorage Int'l Airport  No Aloha in Anchorage today

Icefields Near Juneau  Icefields near Juneau

Icefields near Juneau  Icefields near Juneau

Icefields near Juneau  Icefields near Juneau

Sunset over Juneau  Sunset over Juneau

Sunset over Juneau   Descent into Juneau

Sunday, January 06, 2008

A few days in Anchorage

The conditions were just perfect heading out of Petersburg this morning. The sun came out, things were dry, winds were calm. Since Elise flies back home tomorrow, I left our pickup at the "long-term" parking lot at the airport. It's a 7-day parking zone, free, of course. I doubt there are many other commercial airports in the U.S. with free parking.

I wish I had the window seat when taking off from Petersburg, because it was just that picturesque. The clouds, the sky, the sun all hitting hills and mountains of trees with fresh, new snow. A postcard-ish moment, if there ever was one.

The flight to Juneau then to Anchorage was uneventful. Pastor Dave Brown from Wrangell was on the same flight. When we arrived, there was no one to pick us up. Calling around, we finally found someone. It turns out that he had arranged for one of the other pastors who was supposed to fly in from Nome to pick us up. Well, the flight from Nome was cancelled, so that pick up didn't happen, and things fell through the cracks.

It's quite a bit colder in Anchorage -- about 6F. I did see a couple of people going in and out in short sleeves. I thought it was cold just standing about with several layers, gloves, and a hat.

But all was well and we made it to the Conference office. Elise was already here. The key that Dave picked up said room #3. This is also the room that Elise had a key to. Hmm... We did get that quickly sorted out.

I'll be here until Thursday, and as long as the weather cooperates, I'll be heading back home at that time.

Snowing again

The snow started sometime during the wee morning hours yesterday and continued all day and much of the night.

Returning home last night, coming out of a driveway and to the road, I applied the brakes and I slid, and slid... Loose powder doesn't have any traction. And what would you know, there just happens to be two -- that's two -- cars approaching. It's nighttime and even during the day there aren't that many cars on this road. So it's just my luck to encounter two of them as I slide into their paths of travel... I'm sure they had as much fright as I did. Fortunately, they were able to drive over towards the middle and avoid a crash.

I am heading out to Anchorage today and returning on Thursday. That is, if the skies remain clear enough. This morning it looks pretty good. Though covered with snow, it isn't actively snowing and there are no low clouds or fog to obscure the runway.

Backyard  Fuel tanks

Front view (from porch)  Front view (from upstairs)

Sermon: The Decisive Moment

(Click HERE for MP3 sermon audio.)

Note: If you are here because your search for the work by that name by Henri Cartier-Bresson led you here, this is probably not what you want, though I do make brief mention towards the end of the sermon.

Anyway...

We resume our spiritual walk through the gospel according to John. We begin our look into chapter 11, the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. We will be spending a few weeks here.

This week the sermon examines the critical nature of decision making. We see how Jesus chose to do what he did, in spite of what he understood as consequences for doing so.

Next week, we continue in this same story by taking a look at the theme of life and death that permeates this story.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

First Sunny Day of 2008

Muskeg and Bear Claw Mtn.

Today, we are having our first sunny day of the year. This afternoon, I decided to go to the Post Office on the bicycle and take the long loop around town. I carried along my pocket snapshot camera and here are a few sights that were along the way.

Petersburg Mountain  The Narrows

  The Narrows

Frederick Sound  Bear Claw Mountain

Ocean Beauty and PSG Mt.  Ocean Beauty and PSG Mt.

Ocean Beauty Warehouse 

Bear Claw Mt. - Middle Harbor Bear Claw Mountain

PSG Mt. and Ocean Beauty  PSG Mtn. and Ocean Beauty

Middle Harbor  Bear Claw Mountain

Middle Harbor  Bear Claw Mtn., Middle Harbor

Sons of Norway, Sing Lee Alley  Muskeg and Bear Claw Mtn.

Muskeg and Bear Claw Mtn.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Recipe: Quick Enchilada Sauce

This evening I had some left over rice from last night, plus an open can of refried beans from a few days ago. With tortillas, chili powder, onions, cheese, and some crushed tomatoes sitting about, enchiladas seemed like a pretty good solution for supper. The only problem -- no enchilada sauce (not that I care much for canned enchilada sauces anyway).

After doing a quick search for enchilada sauce recipes, I found one. The problem? It wanted whole dried and fresh chiles. This being Petersburg on New Year's Day means no grocery stores are open. Hoping for the best, I modified the recipe to use some Dark Red Chili Powder of which I have a nice big, food service size container.

To my tastebuds, the result was quite pleasing. It beats most pre-packaged sauces and it is quick enough that I would do this again in a heartbeat.

Quick Enchilada Sauce

Makes about 2-1/2 cups

Ingredients
  • 1 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tbsp. sesame seeds
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • A shake or two, ground cloves
  • A shake or two, ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/8 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 can (about 7 oz.) crushed tomatoes
  • 3 tbsp. (or more to taste) dark red chili powder
  • 1/4 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste

Directions

  1. Heat oil over medium-high heat in a medium saucepan. When hot, fry onions until they begin to turn a golden brown. Add sesame seeds and continue to fry for 30 seconds to a minute. Add garlic, cloves, and cinnamon and stir and fry for a few more seconds.
  2. Add water, vinegar, tomatoes, chili powder, and cocoa powder. Stir to mix well. Reduce heat to medium-low. Stir frequently as sauce thickens, 3 to 5 minutes. Add salt to taste. Remove from heat.
  3. Transfer sauce to blender and blend to a puree. Alternatively, use a hand blender to puree the sauce in the pan, making sure that there is sufficient depth so that the entire bottom of the blender is in the sauce. (If you don't, you run the risk of spraying the sauce all over your kitchen like I started to do.)