Wednesday, March 27, 2013

An Accidental Ministry: Passing 50,000



    Last month, Scribd, the webpage where I post sermons online, indicated that I had surpassed 50,000 ‘reads’ on the 187 documents that I have posted.  One sermon a week, times about 50 weeks each year (I do take time off once in a while) and we can see that I have been posting there for a little less than four years.  In fact, as I dig back through the records, I find that the first file was uploaded in September 2009.  Since then, people from around the world have found their way, by a variety of means, often through Google or other search engines, to read the words that I have written.  And it was all an accident.

    Ten years ago when I first began in ministry, I was more of an engineer than a pastor.  I knew that I could not simply open a Bible and preach without notes, or even preach from a stack of 3x5 cards.  If I was going to talk for 20 minutes and sound even remotely coherent, I knew that I would have to prepare better than that.  And so, each week, I would type my entire sermon, word for word, and then, on Sunday, deliver it from the pulpit.  I had enough experience in High School Theater and in other dramatic productions that I don’t think I ever just stood there and read to people in a monotone voice, although there have been a few folks who accused of something close to that.  I’m sure I could have done better with more training and experience, which is what happened (I hope) over my years as a student pastor, a seminary student and as a full-time pastor.

    After some time had passed, someone suggested that since the sermon was already typed up, that we could make copies and provide them outside the sanctuary for those who had missed the previous week.  From there this thing grew.  People started asking for copies to take to our shut-ins, and then email copies to college students and others, and then, finally, a friend suggested that we might launch a discussion forum on Facebook for folks to ask questions.  When we launched the discussion forum (which never really caught on) we needed a place to post copies of the sermons online and so I searched the Internet for a service that was similar to YouTube, but for text instead of video.  That is how I found Scribd.com. 

    On Scribd, I discovered an online community of readers and writers.  There, people could subscribe to what I was writing, and I could subscribe to theirs.  I had intended to create a place for the people of our community to read and discuss the weekly message but, within weeks discovered that I had subscribers from China to Africa to Pakistan.  There were people who were reading the sermon of a little country church in Ohio because there was no local church near them that spoke English, or because the message of Jesus Christ was considered subversive in the places that they lived.  Now, nearly four years later, nearly 60 people read one of these messages every day.

    I have no illusions that each of those 50,000 mouse-clicks means someone read all the way through something, but I continue to be amazed and humbled by what God is doing with the words that he has given to me. 

    I have never believed that people were reading these things because I was a great writer, nor do I think that Billy Graham or Bill Hybels have need to fear from my speaking ability.  Every time I look at these numbers I remember God’s words in Isaiah 55:10-11:

 As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

And Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:9:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

God took my weaknesses and is using them to reveal his message to the world.   

I am simply amazed and humbled at what he is doing.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Top Ten 2011 Blog Posts



    I know I’m a year late, but as I began to assemble the top ten blog posts of 2012, I realized that there were a few from 2011 that still had value and might well be worth a second look.  Here they are, more or less in order of popularity.

1) God Will Destroy the Fat Cats – November 29, 2011 – A Blog about God’s desire to destroy the rich, well, not really… but sort of.

2) Laws of Man and God - Are guns evil? Part 1 - February 9, 2011 - Part 1 of 4 – The first in a series that I wrote after the shooting of Gabriel Giffords.  Not really pro-gun or anti gun, just asking a lot of questions and thinking out loud.    The first two installments made the year’s top ten, but while part 3 was moderately popular, almost no one made it to part 4.  My lesson?  Even broken into pieces, this was just too long.

3) Happy Birthday Mr. Shea! - February 2, 2011 - A tribute to George Beverly Shea           on his 102nd birthday.  

4) Laws of Man and God - Are guns evil? Part 2– February 10, 2011 - Part 2 of 4

5) Living Together, No Harm No Foul? – April 27, 2011 – Is living together normal, healthy, moral and responsible?  I’m sure you can find lots of people who think it’s a good idea, but, well, no. 

6) Seeing God in the World Around You – March 25, 2011 - A man I never met, weeps during my talk, wondering how I knew so much about his life.  I didn’t.  But God did.

7) 20/20 Blindness - March 31, 2011 – A blind man is thrown out of a restaurant because of his guide dog.  Apparently, humans are just as blind today as the Pharisees that Jesus knew.            

8) Christmas in January – January 4, 2011- I explain why our family still leaves our Christmas decorations us until the first week in January.  Not everyone celebrates Christmas on December 25th you know.

9) Too Busy for God? – May 25, 2011 – Do you plans for the summer, or for the New Year, include church.  If church is important to you, don’t allow it to happen by accident.

    In reality, there was a three or four way tie for tenth place.  Instead of picking one of those, or using all of them, I jump to the blog that comes after the tie because, even though it was read less often, it had more comments than any other blog of the year.  That’s worth something mentioning, I think.

10) A New Digital Divide – Who wins, who loses? - January 19, 2011 – As we become an increasingly technological society, we cannot allow ourselves to forget the people who are being left behind.

Honorable Mention) The Nightmare of Democracy? – February 14, 2011 – I include this, a blog that was written at the very beginning of what we now call the Arab Spring.  In it, I worried that the revolution in Egypt might not be such a great thing.  In the two years since, attacks on Coptic Christians and on the Coptic Church have increased and the government has shown little interest in preventing it.  Events are still unfolding in the Middle East and as they do, out brothers and sisters in Christ will continue to be in need of our prayers.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Church vs. Education?



    I have a few atheist friends who seem fond of bashing religion on their Facebook pages.  While their attacks most often reflect a pitiable ignorance of what religion, specifically Christianity, is about, one meme that is often repeated irritates me more than most of the others.  The theme of these irritating (and wrongheaded) attacks revolves around a perception that religion and education are mutually exclusive or, that somehow, religion is opposed to “real” education.  Not only is this way of thinking just wrong, both historically and in a contemporary setting, but,  I find this accusation particularly offensive as a United Methodist, a church whose core DNA has always included support and encouragement of education.

    Obviously, a blog is not the place for a lengthy treatise on education, but let’s look at a few facts.  Two thousand years ago when education belonged to the rich, it was the Jewish high priest who mandated that schools should be opened (in 64 AD) because the Torah required literacy and study.  These schools were not particularly successful, but the literacy rate was still triple that of neighboring Egypt (3% vs. 1%).[1]   A thousand years after that, it was again the church, this time the Roman Catholic Church, which, in 1179 mandated that free education be provided for the poor.  In fact, until 1600 nearly all universities in Europe were built, taught, and funded by the church and, during the “Dark Ages” it was the monasteries that preserved the wisdom and knowledge of the ancient world.  Had it not been for the church, what we know of Socrates, Plato and many others would have been lost.   In the Islamic world, education was supported and funded by the government, but, Islam being a theocratic system of government, this too was, essentially the church.  Throughout the Reformation, the majority of universities remained church supported organizations.

    In the American Colonies, and then the newly birthed United States, there was little or no opportunity for higher education unless one returned to Europe.  When it became obvious that institutions of higher learning should be built, who do you suppose it was who raised the money and built them?  The church.  What schools did the church build?  You might have heard of some of them: Harvard, William & Mary, Yale, College of New Jersey (which is now Princeton), Columbia, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Oberlin, Fordham, Duke and host of others.  In fact, between 1636 and 1861 nearly 800 colleges were founded, and of these, 182 still survive.  Of the 182 surviving colleges and universities, only 21 were built by states or municipalities, the rest were built by the church through a variety of denominations. [2]

    As for us United Methodists, our founder, John Wesley, started building schools in 1739 in Bristol for the children of coal miners and in the United States we authorized the construction of our first college in 1784, eight years before we even held our first General Conference in 1792.  In 1820 and again in 1824 our General Conference instructed each Annual Conference to establish schools, literary institutions and colleges and they did.  By the time of the American Civil War, the Methodist Church had established over 200 such institutions.  Our Evangelical United Brethren brothers were a smaller church but they still managed to build eight colleges by the middle of the twentieth century.[3]  In 1968 these two churches merged to form The United Methodist Church and together we are now connected to 122 colleges and universities in the Untied States including research universities, seminaries, historically Black colleges and universities (including a medical school), and two-year colleges, as well as 358 post-secondary institutions outside the United States.  If we were to include elementary schools and others, this number would be absolutely astounding.

    I’m sorry friends, if you think that people of faith don’t believe in education you’re ignoring the facts.  But if you think that atheists can do better, I invite you to go ahead and prove it. 

But first, you have a whole lot of catching up to do.





[3] Robert A. Williams, From the Beginning: a School-Related Church, Interpreter Magazine, March/April 2013

Monday, March 11, 2013

Westboro is NOT Winsome

    I have probably mentioned this before, but the folks from Westboro Baptist Church really burn my cookies.  Last night at our youth group meeting we watched a segment of Adam Hamilton's "When Christians Get it Wrong" and were discussing how well-meaning church people often chase unbelievers away from the church instead of attracting them.  When I was much younger, we were always taught that the Christian faith should be "winsome."  I wasn't sure what that meant, but from the way it was used, it sounded as if it ought to be something that looked and sounded attractive.  According to the American Heritage online dictionary it does, in fact, mean charming. 

The followers of Jesus Christ are called upon to tell the world about the Good News of reconciliation, that God has done everything possible to repair our relationship with him and to demonstrate his love for us.  I have to think that demonstrating respect and love for others, for their religion, for their opinions, for their culture and for their existence would have to be the first step in doing that.  Showing up at a child's funeral or anywhere else with signs that say "God Hates Fags," "God Killed Your Sons," or worst of all, "God Is Your Enemy" is definitely going in completely the wrong direction.  First of all these statements tell unbelievers that the church is out of touch and that it is full of bigoted idiots that have no desire (or ability) to understand their situation.  Worse than that, these things are all lies.  There is nothing in scripture that could lead someone to believe that God hates you or that God is your enemy.  the whole point of scripture, especially the message of the Gospel, is entirely the opposite, that God loves you more than you can know.

That doesn't meant that God is making any compromises about things that he considers wrong, but that a message of love cannot be communicated by being hateful and hurtful.  In his book, When Christians Get it Wrong, Adam Hamilton, correctly, points to the Apostle Paul.  I have used Paul as an example for years, and so have many others.  Paul was a Pharisee.  He was incredibly well educated.  He had studied under some of the most noted Rabbis in history.  Paul knew sin and he wasn't afraid to point out the sins of others.  Paul had often warned the churches of the evils of idol worship, particularly in those places under the influence of the Romans and Greeks (which we, pretty much everywhere), but that isn't how he started a conversation with people who actually worshiped idols.  When Paul visited Athens, a city full of idols and temples of numerous false gods and goddesses, Luke tells us that "he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols."  Even so, Paul didn't launch into a tirade about how evil they all were.  He went into the synagogue and and into the marketplace reasoned with the people. His reasoning was sound enough that he was asked to go to Mars Hill and explain his views further and even there, he didn't condemn them.  Instead, Paul said:

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22-23)

Paul began by expressing his admiration for their care in pursuing the truth even though their worship of idols distressed him.  No one will believe you if you tell them you love them while you are beating them over the head.  Telling someone that God hates them is not winsome... or loving. 

It's just wrong.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Dream So Big




    My wife, Patti, and another member of our church first met Steve Peifer during a trip to visit Keith and Jamie Weaver, missionaries sent by our church to the people of Kenya.  There, Patti met Steve and worked with this beautiful wife Nancy in the library at Rift Valley Academy.  I first met Steve at my home church when we invited him to come and tell us about his efforts to feed hungry school children that he describes in A Dream So Big.  Since then Patti and I have answered a call to pastoral ministry and have not only followed Steve’s adventures through his regular emails, but have, on several occasions, invited him to speak in the churches where we were serving.  I don’t think that his story has ever failed to astound his listeners. 
     
    Steve is an average, middle class guy whose life was turned upside down and who, through no particular plan of his own, ended up in Kenya, Africa seeing things that most of us cannot imagine, and doing things that we would be afraid to do.  Throughout this story, Steve insists that he is not an amazing man, just a man through whom, God is doing amazing things. 
 
    In A Dream So Big, we meet Steve, Nancy, and their family before the adventure began, at home, in Texas.  We walk with them through one of the most difficult times that a parent can imagine, the loss of their child, Steven, and then follow them as they head to Africa.  At first, their African adventure is intended to be just a year away to sort things out and to process the pain and the trauma of losing a child, a time for their family to be together and to heal.  But, as Steve often points out, Africa changes a person.  After a year in Kenya, the Peifers feel called, if not compelled, to return on a more permanent basis, and it is then that the real adventure begins.  

    Not content to see children lying in the dirt at school because they are weak from hunger, Steve sets out to change the world, or at least his little corner of it.  Steve asks, and with the help of his friends and supporters in the United States, begins to provide lunches for two schools nearby.  Two schools become four, and then ten, and by the end of the book become a truly extraordinary number.  Providing food not only allows the children to be free from hunger, but gives them the strength to get an education and an incentive to stay in school.  Even with these successes, Steve is not content.  Building on the feeding program, Steve and his friends begin to build solar powered computer centers.

    Just because I said the word computer, do not be tempted to think that this is just another story about wealthy, white Americans swooping in to “rescue” Africa.  Those stories are old and they often are the picture of “Ugly Americans” with all the cultural insensitivity that you might expect.  That is not Steve’s story.  Steve builds a program in which the villages take ownership of their schools and their computer centers.  The parents know that when these children finish school and head into the city to find work, as most of them do, that they will find good paying, skilled jobs instead of living in the slums fighting with untold thousands of others for a handful of unskilled jobs.  The school children, their parents, and many others have seen Steve’s vision, and it is a vision that can break the back of poverty in Africa.  It is a vision that can change the world.

    I highly recommend A Dream So Big.  As you follow Steve, Nancy and their family on this amazing adventure, you will laugh out loud at the ridiculous situations in which Steve finds himself.  But you will also weep at the poverty and hopelessness that he sees all around him.  A Dream So Big invites you, not only to follow along, but to be a part of this incredible adventure.  I have no doubt that Steve Peifer is changing the world, one child at a time.  When you read this book, you will discover that you can too.

Steve's book, A Dream So Big will be released next week and can be found on Amazon here: A Dream So Big.

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