Tag Archives: Teaching

Structure and Flow

In every province and in every city to which the edict of the king came, there was joy and gladness among the Jews, with feasting and celebrating.
Esther 8:17 (NIV)

Over the past few years, I have served as a mentor to a group of teachers. I will typically review outlines and provide encouragement and advice prior to their message, and then give feedback after the delivery of their messages. It’s been rewarding to watch individuals improve their preparation and presentation skills, and it’s challenged me in a number of unexpected ways. I honestly think I’ve been a better learner than I have a  teacher in the process.

One of the biggest observations I’ve made over my tenure in this role is the importance of structure. If you have a well-ordered structure then your words and ideas have flow. The hearer, almost sub-consciously, follows the flow and ends up right where you want them at the end. Without structure, there is no flow. Transitions are clunky and the hearer gets lost not being able to follow how what you’re saying now related to what you just said before. When an audience is lost they check out. Casual observers rarely appreciate how a great story, song, play, painting, building, sculpture, movie, or presentation is almost always well-structured.

Which brings us to today’s chapter of Esther in which the villain, Haman, has been dispatched. Mordecai, his nemesis, is elevated to Haman’s position and given his possessions. It’s such a good story, but the casual reader does not realize that the story-teller has carefully structured the narrative in what’s known as a “chiastic” style. The author uses the same phrasing in both introducing Haman and then describing Mordecai’s redemption to highlight the reversal of fortune. Commentators Karen Jobes and Janet Nygren help us see the structure:

In the quiet of my office this morning I find myself thinking about structure and flow. The further I get in my life journey the more aware I’ve become that everything is connected. It’s the design of creation. Even a seemingly random sight of trees in a forest has what scientists call a fractal structure. Whether it’s my work, a message I’m giving, a story I’m telling, our weekly schedule, the vacation plan, our meal plan for the week, or how our living room is arranged there is both structure and flow. If I structure things well then things flow better and the results are generally good. If things are disjointed, disconnected, and there’s no real flow, then everything feels unstable and out of whack.

And with that, I enter the structure of my day.

Flow well, my friend.

Iron-Clad Uncertainty

As for you, go your way till the end.
Daniel 12:13a (NIV)

Many years ago I was asked to lead a study with a large group of young people about prophecy and the book of Revelation.  The room was packed each week, not that this had anything to do with me or my teaching. My lessons rarely commanded such interest. Only one of my classes garnered such popularity and that was the one on the topic of sex (go figure). There’s something about the prophetic and the idea of knowing what’s going to happen in the future that intrigues people.

I thought of that class from 30 years ago as I read today’s final chapter of Daniel. There are a couple of specific and unique references in the chapter. In one, the angelic figure in Daniel’s vision tells him that the events he describes will be for “a time, times, and half a time.” In another, the angelic figure makes a specific reference to 1,290 days and then 1,335 days. In the school of thought in which I was raised and educated (and then taught 30 years ago), the phrase and days are referenced as part of a future time referenced in the book of Revelation as “The Great Tribulation,” which is said will last 3.5 years:

a time” = 1
times” = 2
half-a-time” = .5
Sum= 3.5

As I’ve progressed in my journey, experienced more life, and read other learned commentators on the subject, I’m less certain of the iron-clad interpretation with which some of my teachers pompously prognosticated and which I emphatically parrotted 30 years ago. It’s possible that the interpretation is correct, of course, and I have no problem suggesting it as such. There are just so many variables.

Daniel was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic. Hebrew is an ancient language and the definition of many words remain mysteries to the most scholarly of linguists. Aramaic is a dead language no longer even used today. Interpretations of the strange phrase the angel used vary, and the two numbers don’t seem to coincide with any particular events in the past or in prophecy. The Babylonian culture and the educational system in which Daniel was schooled was steeped in very sophisticated arithmetic that they connected to both astronomy and their native religion. So, to emphatically state that the word translated “times” absolutely means “two” and this certainly relates to 3.5 years of the seven-year Tribulation referenced in the seventh chapter of Revelation which was written almost half a millennium later, well…you catch my drift.

I also remind myself that the most learned and emphatic prophetic prognosticators of Jesus’ day believed that the Messiah was going to arrive as a warlord, wipe out the Romans, and set up a global kingdom. Even Jesus’ own followers believed that right up to the time He was hanging on a cross. Oops. The lesson I’ve tried to learn from this is simply to be humble about that which can be known and that which requires faith, defined in God’s Message as “the assurance of what we hope for and the evidence of that which we cannot see.”

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that the further I travel this earthly existence the less need I feel to be emphatically certain about some things, and the more en-joy-ment I derive from living in the mystery. I love the way the angelic being leaves Daniel scratching his head and reeling with confusion about all the mysterious prophetic numbers and phrases. I love that the angel ends the book by telling Danny Boy: “As for you, go your way until the end.”

Keep going.  Press on. Just keep going doing the things I’m doing. When it comes to the prophetic, I can have faith that things will take care of themselves.

Not Earth to Heaven, but Heaven to Earth

But our citizenship is in heaven.
Philippians 3:20a (NIV)

Since last September our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been engaged in a year-long study of the book of Acts, which starts as a history of the early Jesus Movement. The second half of the book, however, is really a history of Paul. While history records that what remained of the Twelve original disciples gave their lives in service to advancing Jesus’ message to the known world, the latter half of Acts does not mention them. The author, Luke, traveled with Paul and his focus lies there.

In case you didn’t know it, that’s why I’ve been blogging through all of Paul’s letters in, roughly, chronological order.

One of the discoveries I’ve made in my study this year is the degree to which Paul was focused on Jesus’ mission to bring God’s Kingdom to Earth.  “Your Kingdom come,” Jesus taught His disciples to pray. “Your will be done on Earth, just as it is in heaven.” This isn’t a minor point. It’s a transformative shift in paradigm.

As I look back on almost forty years of my spiritual journey the emphasis I’ve been taught by teachers and authors and commentators has been on getting to heaven. We want people to walk the aisle, get their ticket punched and their reservation made in eternity. That accomplished, we encourage spiritual growth, but in practice only a few really take the whole thing seriously on a day-t0-day basis. Most go about life without giving it much thought in daily life. But no matter, the important thing is that the sinner’s prayer was dutifully said as a child back in church camp. Your fire insurance policy is paid up. The church can breathe a sigh of relief if you get hit by a Mack truck later today. (In case you didn’t know it, Mack trucks have been unexpectedly sending people to untimely deaths in hypothetical Christian scenarios for many decades).

In today’s chapter Paul certainly has his sights on eternity. He talks about being called heavenward. He tells the Philippian believers “our citizenship is in heaven.” His emphasis, however, isn’t on getting there. His emphasis in today’s chapter is on the work in his here-and-now, Level Three journey on Earth. I paraphrase:

  • Rejoice today in your circumstances (Paul is writing from prison).
  • Watch out for those who would lead you in the wrong direction.
  • I’m giving everything I’ve got, today, to advance the Kingdom (on Earth).
  • I’m approaching everything in this Level Three earthly journey with a Level Four eternal perspective.
  • I’m following and suffering to live out Jesus’ teaching and calling.
  • There’s more to do. I’m not waiting for it. I’m pressing into it every day in every way.
  • I’m not sitting back and waiting to die, I’m doing everything I can right now.

This morning I find myself reexamining my entire life and faith journey. Mental adherence to the right set of beliefs, a muttered rote prayer, a membership certificate, or a religious habit of Sunday attendance were what Jesus’ message was about, but that’s largely been the message that I think I’ve unwittingly lived out in too many ways. I have to confess that bringing the Kingdom of Heaven here to Earth hasn’t been where my focus has been. I regret that.

Well, as Paul wrote in today’s chapter: “forgetting what lies behind, straining toward what is ahead.” I’m getting ready to head into a full day of client meetings. I don’t want to leave the Kingdom in my hotel room once I publish this post. I want to take the Kingdom with me into every meeting, conversation, word, relationship, and action.

Cooperation, not Competition

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.
1 Corinthians 3:5 (NIV)

Our local gathering of Jesus followers has two venues for worship, and each Sunday there are worship services that run in both rooms at the same time. For the past few years I have had the honor of working with a team of individuals who are developing their gifts and skills in teaching. Every season there is a rotating team of people who take turns teaching on Sundays and then meeting mid-week to discuss their experience and improve their skills. It’s a diverse group of both men and women of different ages, educational backgrounds, and vocational experiences. It’s been a fascinating experience for me to lead and participate. I’ve learned a lot.

One of the things I’ve tried to impress on our team of teachers is the reality that each week I get up to teach there will be those who are excited to see me up there, and those who who are not. As we represent a diverse cross-section of humanity, we each will appeal to different individuals within our gathering. Those who are gifted teachers and develop those gifts will naturally develop broader appeal, but no teacher enjoys universal appeal (not even Jesus). It just is what it is. I think that’s why Jesus’ followers are called a “body” and the spiritual gift of teaching is given to a diverse number of individuals across all parts of the body.

As I’ve been studying the early history of the Jesus Movement, I am repeatedly struck at how quickly the story shifts from the original twelve apostles to a host of other characters. In many cases, these almost anonymous individuals, such as Ananias (Acts 9:10-19), pop onto the scene like a bit player with a walk-on role, then make their exit never to be heard from again. Others characters are only referenced or mentioned, but nonetheless they played a large off-stage role. Apollos was one of these.

Apollos was from the city of Alexandria in Egypt, a city of great influence in the ancient world. Apollos was from the upper crust of society in those days. He was highly educated and trained in oratory, the art of speech and debate, which was arguably the most esteemed skill at that time of history. We don’t know how Apollos became a believer, but he arrives on the scene using his speaking and debate skills arguing that Jesus was the Messiah. He was such a powerful teacher and speaker, in fact, that he naturally developed broad appeal within the Jesus Movement, especially with many of the believers of Corinth. Division sprouted among the Corinthians believers as some in the local gathering there began to treat it as if it was a “The Voice” type of competition. Some were on “Team Paul” and other were on “Team Apollos.”

Paul immediately shuts down these notions of competition between the two. It’s not a competition, Paul argues, but a cooperation. Both Paul and Apollos had a role to play in the Corinthian believers faith and spiritual growth. Each brought his own unique personality, style, background, experience, and appeal. Every believer in Corinth had something to learn from both Paul and Apollos. This wasn’t “either, or” it was “both, and.”

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking of the diverse team of individuals with whom I partner to teach among my local gathering of believers. It’s been a blast for me to watch each of them develop their own voice, speak from their own unique experiences, and watch our gathering grow and learn from such a broad range of voices. It’s a weekly and constant reminder that “the church” was never to be a monument to a particular, persuasive teacher or leader. Every local gathering has both a Paul and an Apollos (and an Ananias, and a Priscilla, and an Aquila, and a Chloe and….).

It’s not competition. It’s cooperation. Or else, we’re doing it wrong.

What’s More Important than Love?

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
1 Corinthians 15:12 (NIV)

Every author and storyteller knows that you leave the best for last. The “climax” of a story is where you carefully lead your readers. Paul’s letter to the believers of Corinth was not a story or a novel, but there was definitely structure to the message he crafted. After highlighting all of the fighting, disagreements, and behavioral issues within the fledgling group of Jesus’ followers Paul leads his reader to a climactic chapter about love; Arguably the most beautiful treatise on the word that has ever been penned.

But, I still count a few chapters left in the letter. What is so important that it comes after Paul’s climactic and beautiful admonishment to love?

If love is Paul’s behavioral climactic admonishment, then the resurrection is his  climactic admonishment of belief. His point is clear: if I don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus, then all of my faith, religion, and altruistic behavior (including love) is in vain.

Resurrection was a hot topic in the days of Jesus and Paul. Even Jesus encountered it. Within the Jewish community there were different schools of thought on the subject of resurrection and life after death. One of the more powerful scholarly groups, the Sadducees, did not believe that there was a resurrection and even confronted Jesus on the subject (Mark 12:18). The Greeks and their philosophy had no concept of life after death. They were focused on meaning in this life.

It’s also important to remember that at the time of Paul’s letter it is likely that none of the four Gospels (the biographical accounts of Jesus ministry, death, and resurrection in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) had even been written. It’s likely that many of Jesus’ followers in Corinth had been attracted by the radically different world-view out of which the early believers acted as they broke down walls of social separation between gender, race, and socio-economic status. Believing that someone could die and come back to life, well that was a different story. Like many throughout the centuries, some Corinthian believers were taking the “I like the teachings of Jesus and I’ll try to follow them, but I’m not sure I can swallow the whole ‘risen from the dead’ bit.”

Paul leaves the final climactic ending of his letter to address that which he believed was most important: Jesus died and then came back to life. Paul claims that the resurrection is real and it is the critical cornerstone belief of our faith. He started his discourse on love by saying “If you do all these religious things but don’t have love then your religious deeds are hollow and bankrupt.” Now he’s using the same approach, saying “If you do all these things to follow Jesus but deny the resurrection, then all you’ve done is in vain.”

To that end, Paul offers into evidence the eyewitness testimony of Cephas (whom the Corinthians knew), the twelve, up to five hundred  others who saw the resurrected Jesus. Finally, Paul offers his own eyewitness testimony, having encountered the resurrected Jesus on a trip to Damascus. Paul also applies logic (death and resurrection are the natural order of creation) and reasoning (why would I torture myself and perpetually submit myself to death and persecution if I wasn’t convinced there was more than this earthly journey?).

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about our current season of Lent. The annual celebration of Easter is coming up in a few weeks. The resurrection of Jesus is the climax of the traditional church calendar year just as it is the climax of Paul’s letter. The resurrection of Jesus remains an audacious claim that requires faith. It remains the transformative cornerstone belief of those who would claim to be followers of Jesus.

I’m also reminded this morning of John’s eyewitness account of the resurrected Jesus’ words to his follower named Thomas. Doubtful of the truth of the resurrection, the resurrected Jesus invited Tom to examine the nail holes in His wrists and place his fingers in the spear wound in Jesus’ side. Tom was convinced and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.”

You believe because of what you’ve seen,” Jesus said, then added, “Blessed are those who have not seen and believed.”

To the latter group you can add this doubting Thomas.

Something to Say

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
1 John 1:1 (NIV)

My local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been doing something rather novel and exciting over the past couple of years. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to be a part of it.

God’s Message teaches that every follower of Jesus receives spiritual “gifts” from Holy Spirit. Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” These “manifestations” or “gifts” are specific yet diverse bents and abilities that are intended to help build up and encourage all the other believers. One of those gifts is teaching.

For the past several hundred years the prevailing paradigm in the institutional church has been that the pulpit and the Sunday morning message at my local neighborhood church is reserved for a person (typically a man) who has received a Masters Degree at a seminary approved by whatever denomination my church belongs to. This person has received a stamp of approval from the denominational board, administration, or tribunal authorizing them to teach from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

Along my journey, here’s what I’ve observed: any individual can attend seminary and get certified whether they have a teaching gift or not. And, I’ve heard some educated and approved teachers who definitely did not have the gift of teaching. By the same token, Holy Spirit can bestow the gift of teaching on any person of any age or gender despite that person never having jumped through the educational and ecclesiastical hoops dictated by  a given denominational institution.

So, our local gather of Jesus’ followers has been identifying fellow believers within our midst who may have a Holy Spirit given gift of teaching. We’re allowing them the opportunity to try out that gift on a Sunday morning in our church’s auditorium. We’re working with them to train them up and develop that gift. I’ve been asked to lead and mentor these individuals. There is, of course, a lot more to it than I have time to explain here. It’s a work in progress, but an exciting one.

As mentor of these inexperienced preachers, one of the common fears and anxieties that I hear from individuals when tasked with teaching a large group is “Who am I to teach these people?” This nagging doubt can be paralyzing during the preparation and presentation of a message.

Just last week while I was driving to Minneapolis I started listening to a series of talks called Something to Say by Rob Bell (available for download; name your own price). One of the things that Rob brings out is the fact that everyone has the authority to speak about what he or she has witnessed and experienced in their own lives. If you’ve lost a child, then you have the authority to speak about that experience. If you swam the English Channel then you’re an authority on that subject. If you’ve been a diesel mechanic your entire life then you have the authority to speak about diagnosing and fixing a diesel engine. If you were on upper Manhattan on 9/11 then you can authoritatively speak to what happened that day from your own experience.

This morning we begin a letter written by John, one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, who was writing what scholars believe was a “circular letter” intended to be copied and passed around to all believers. John begins his letter the same way he begins his biography of Jesus,  by stating clearly that he is speaking to what he heard with his own ears, saw with his own eyes, touched with his own hands. “I was there,” John says. “I was with Jesus. I saw the miracles. I heard the teaching. I witness Him die on the cross. I saw Him risen from the dead. I am a primary source witness to it all.”

As I lead and mentor our fledgling group of teachers, I try to instill within them the power of our stories. In my almost 40 years of teaching, preaching, training, and presentations I have rarely had a person tell me that they remember the arcane theological point I made in a message ten years ago. I continue to have, however, a steady stream of people who tell me that they have never forgotten the story that I told even when I’ve long forgotten what it was.

I’m reminded by John this morning that I may not have all the knowledge, education, or professional training this world offers me. Neither did he. I do, however, have my stories. I have seen things, heard things, touched things, and experienced things to which I can bear witness. That means that, like John, I have something to say.

Kingdom Economics 101: Paying it Forward

All praise to the God and Father of our Master, Jesus the Messiah! Father of all mercy! God of all healing counsel! He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (MSG)

I’ve always loved the movie Pay it Forward. It’s a bittersweet story, but the reality of life is bittersweet. Along our life journeys we all slog through deep valleys and we all have our mountain top moments. The story of Pay it Forward is predicated on the notion of people simply going out of their way to perform a random act of kindness for others, asking only that the recipient of their kindness “Pay it forward.” The whole idea is beautifully void of organization, legalism, regulation, or institutional systemization. It is organic and relational and personal and spiritual.

One of the deepest valleys of my own life journey was the period of time that I was going through the end of my first marriage and subsequent divorce. I’ll never forget meeting with a wise counselor, who also has a prophetic gift. I remember meeting with him expecting condemnation and judgment, as I’d experienced a generous dose of both during that time. This wise counselor, however, extended grace and kindness I didn’t expect.

He acknowledged the difficulty of the situation and then said, “Some day, you are going to walk along the side of another who will find themselves walking this same path. You will help them, and give them comfort.” In other words, “You will take what wisdom and comfort you experienced while traversing this valley, and you will pay it forward.”

I have been able to pay it forward more than once. In the Kingdom of God, paying it forward is Kingdom Economics 101. It’s how God operates and it underlies all of Jesus’ teaching. He gave to me so that I might give to others. He laid down for me so that I might lay down my life for others. He comforts us so that we might pay it forward.

That’s exactly what Paul is getting at with the followers of Jesus in the ancient city of Corinth in this morning’s chapter:

He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.

This morning I’m thinking simply about how I might pay it forward today. I realized long ago, but need continuous reminders, that being focused on myself and my momentary difficulties blinds me to the many opportunities I have to show random acts of kindness, generosity, and forgiveness each day. I have to stop looking inward (at my I-phone, I-pad, I-mac, and I-everything) and looking around at others if I truly and consistently want to pay it forward.