Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Parable of the Rich Fool

How important are things to you?  I would be the first to admit that I have lots of stuff.  Far more stuff than I need to survive, or even to live a comfortable life.  But how important is all that stuff to me?  Would it ruin my life if any of it went away?  Is there any of that stuff I would hold on to at all costs?  Is there any other stuff that I just have to have to make my life more complete?

Jesus encounters someone who would answer yes to at least that last question.  And in response, Jesus tells a parable to illustrate that there is something more important than stuff, encouraging us to focus more on the eternal and less on the perishable.
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

                         Luke 12:13-21 NIV
This parable is prompted by a request from a nameless individual that Jesus force his brother to more equitably divide his father's inheritance between them.  This must have been a younger son, otherwise he would have been happy getting the bulk of the inheritance.  But not getting his 'fair share' seemed to be grating on him and had become his top priority.  So much so that when he has the opportunity to meet with Jesus, that is all he can think about.  And Jesus responds with what we call the parable of the rich fool.

In this parable we see a rich man whose fields have produced a bumper crop come to a decision point; what to do with the abundance?  And the decision he reaches is one that many of us would make as well.  It's time to retire, kick back, and enjoy life.  At the risk of being self incriminating, why does that sound so familiar?

The problem for this man is that he does not get the opportunity to enjoy his retirement.  The night of his decision to keep everything for himself is also his last on this earth.  And everything he had accumulated went to someone else; he enjoys none of it.

Just what is it that Jesus is trying to tell the younger brother, as well as you and me?  That God will cut short the lives of greedy rich folks?  While that might have some appeal to many people, experience does not bear it out.  Lots of folks who are both greedy and rich seem to live long lives, some of them even being relatively healthy and happy.  So what is the point?

For all of us, life here will come to an end.  And what will happen to what we leave behind?  As much as we might like to take some of it with us into the life to come, that won’t happen.  All of the riches, and other stuff, that we have accumulated will be left behind for others, just like for the rich man in the parable.

At the end of the parable Jesus makes clear what lesson he is trying to get across.  It is actually very similar to what he says in Matthew 6:19-21 where he challenges us to store up our treasure in heaven, where it will last, instead of here on earth where it is only temporary.  Am I investing in the work of the kingdom, or in my own life.  If, like the rich man in the parable, I am only investing in my own life, then, when the time of accounting comes, I will have nothing.  And that is what made this rich man a fool.  He had so much he could have invested in the kingdom, but choose not to.

How does one invest in the kingdom?  Ray Boltz says it much better than I ever could in his song Thank You.

So it comes down to this.  Will I be a fool and focus on me and my stuff?  Or will I give to others, of both stuff and time, as I have opportunity?  Will I ultimately be considered foolish or wise?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Grand Valley and Lillian Lake

With the weather looking promising for the weekend, I took off for the Grand Valley in the Olympics with a buddy.  We got reservations for a couple of nights at Gladys Lake and planned to hike over to Lillian Lake on the day between those two nights.  I have seen Lillian from a distance a couple of times and knew that it was reachable, but had never headed that way before.  I was hopeful that we would be up to the challenge and be able to check off another location from my bucket list.

My buddy still has a real job and had to put in a few hours on Friday so we were late getting started, hitting the trail head at Obstruction Point about 3:30.  We discovered at the trail head that the two guys prepping next to us were heading for the same lake, and since it only had 4 spots and we needed suitable trees to hang from, the race was on.  Fortunately the old legs of our crew had more than enough life to win the race this time and had our pick of spots at Gladys Lake.

If you have never hiked Lillian Ridge from Obstruction Point I would highly recommend it.  The first couple of miles are pretty mellow and offer fantastic views of the Olympics, assuming the skies are clear.  Unfortunately on both the trip in and coming back out the sky was pretty hazy with smoke from the eastern Washington fires and visibility was limited.  At the end of the ridge walk the tail takes the express elevator down to the floor of the Grand Valley, dropping about 1400 feet in about a mile, so you need to be prepared for a serious return climb once you leave the ridge.

We scored a nice spot on Gladys overlooking the lake and the upper valley, including a great view of Low Pass, our entry point into the Lillian drainage.  We quickly setup camp, ate and cleaned up just in time for dark and bed.  Apart from a pesky deer and a visit from the ranger, the evening was quiet.  The night was a bit cold and breezy, but nestled in our down cocoons we was nice and toasty.

Saturday morning was in the low 40's with some wind, but it soon died down and the sun warmed us up.  We headed up the climb to Low Pass and took a look across the drainage to the Lillian Lake bowl, plus the long traverse over to it.  For the first half of the trip there was an intermittent trail with a few cairns over the talus fields.  But the last couple of miles were pretty much without any indication of a trail that we could see, other than a few game trails.

Apart from getting around the toe of a ridge about a mile into the journey, the going was fairly straightforward until crossing the runoff stream from Lillian Glacier, the low point of the trail.  The trail was steep and hard to find in places, but we generally felt like we knew where we were.

But about a half mile from the stream crossing we lost any semblance of a trail and were on our own.  The old trail description that I had found indicated that the valley floor was a big meadow and all we had to do was go down it until we found the outlet from Lillian Lake and then pick up the trail to the lake.  Unfortunately we did not find anything resembling a big meadow and ended up wandering through the trees along the valley wall for a while before dropping a bit and finding easier passage.  At some point we found muddy boot prints heading up for the lake and followed them until they disappeared.  We then just charged up hill and managed to come out into the bowl below the lake, hiked across it and then up to the lake itself.

Lillian Lake is a beautiful little lake nestled down in a shallow bowl with steep walls around about 1/3 of it, and snow right up to its edge in places.  It was well worth the 3.5 hour journey.  We took the opportunity to eat lunch and rest for a while before the time came to head back out.  As we were leaving we meet a trio who had crossed over after us and were planning to spend the night.

On the way out we followed the outlet creek down for a while, along an intermittent trail and then struck off along a traverse that brought us back to our original stream crossing.  One more shortcut put us back on our trail in and we followed it back to Low Pass and on to Gladys in about 2.5 hours, a big improvement from the outbound trip.

Once back to camp we took advantage of the sun and took a spit bath by the lake, because it was too cold to swim, and then lounged in the sun for the remainder of the day.  To bed at dark for another restful night hanging in the trees and then up this morning to 35 degrees and a return of the hazy conditions.  The trip out was uneventful and another wonderful weekend out in the creation was over.

This yearling and mom took a break half way up the hill to Lillian Ridge.  I knew the trip up was hard for people, but apparently we are not the only ones.

Moose Lake from the north end.

This guy had sentry duty on the trail by Gladys Lake.  

Lillian Lake

A smaller lake near Lillian.  This one still has quite a bit of snow on it.

Looking down from the Lillian Lake bowl, across to Low Pass.

Looking back to Lillian Lake from near Low Pass.  The lake is behind the clump of trees in the center of the bowl.

Gladys Lake from Low Pass.  We were camped in the trees just back of the bare spot above the  left half of the lake.

Low Pass as seen from our camp site on Gladys Lake as the sun is rising.  Beautiful setting.

The trail running along the top of Lillian Ridge back toward the trail head.  A hazy day obscures much of the distant  mountains

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Meet the Author

I have just recently finished Stephen Kings 7 volume "The Dark Tower" series.  The story concerns a gunslinger, along with some companions, who are journeying to the Dark Tower, a tower that appears to be the central hub that the universe, containing multiple parallel worlds (including ours), hangs on.  These worlds are not doing so well and the gunslingers journey is one that will hopefully fix at least some of what is wrong.

During the course of the story they occasionally move from one world to another and in one of them, ours, encounter a young author, Stephen King, who is writing the Dark Tower series.  It appears that what he writes about in this story, as well as some other ones, is what is actually happening to the gunslinger and his companions.  I would not be surprised if this plot twist has been used by anyone else, but it was a first for me.

In this story, Stephen King is actually being used by a higher power to tell this story, although he could choose not to tell it.  But should he choose not to write, or finish, the story, the future of the universe would be dramatically different, devolving into chaos.  It was interesting to see how the characters gradually came to recognize that they were dependent for their existence on the author of their story.  It is actually a bit hard to grasp how it all worked, but it got me to thinking about another author and his story.

The author of creation has spoken into existence the universe we inhabit, including me, you and all that we see around us.  But unlike Stephen King, this author is fully aware of, and quite intentional in, the story being written.  And this author wrote clues into the story that would allow the stories characters to come to know the author.

As much as I enjoy reading Stephen Kings stories, I am grateful that God is the author behind my story rather than King.  And I am thankful that he has made himself know to me.  How cool is it to know the author of the greatest story ever written.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Lost and Found Parables

Luke records 3 of Jesus' parables in the 15th chapter of his account of Jesus ministry.  These three parables, typically identified as the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son, are given in response to criticism Jesus received from the religious leadership of his day.  Seems like Jesus was hanging out with people that his denominational leadership did not approve of; scandalous behavior for a 'godly' person, eating with sinful people.

In the first of these parables, Luke 15:3-7, Jesus tells of a shepherd with 100 sheep.  One of his sheep becomes lost and he searches diligently for it until he finds it.  He then carries it home, calling on his friends to rejoice with him that the lost sheep has been found.

In the second of the three, Luke 15:8-10, Jesus tells of a woman with 10 coins who had lost one.  The significance of the coins is not told, but it is obvious they were of great value to the woman.  She lights a lamp, sweeps the house and searches until the coin is found.  And then she shares the good news with her friends, rejoicing that what had been lost was now found.

At the conclusion of both of these parables Jesus says that in the same way there is rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents and returns to God.  Do you think the religious folks got the message?  That God cares about the lost and is searching for them, rejoicing when one is found?  Or did they mist the point entirely, still only seeing Jesus hanging out with sinners?

My guess is that they missed it altogether, so Jesus laid the third in the series on them, Luke 15:11-32, a parable of a loving father and his two sons, often call the parable of the Prodigal Son.  In this parable the younger of the sons requests his inheritance and then heads out to enjoy life.  But eventually his money is gone and he becomes destitute.  In desperation he returns home, hoping to at least be accepted as a servant in his fathers house.  This son plays the role of the lost sheep or coin in the two earlier parables.

On his return we find that his father was waiting for his return, and was looking for him.  The father welcomed him back into the family with rejoicing; the son who was lost has been found.  At this point there is really little difference between this parable and the two previous ones.

But now the older son makes an appearance, and it is not a happy one.  He is angry to see his brother return and is upset with his dad for his joyful acceptance of this prodigal who had wasted so much of what the father had given to him.

Did they get it yet?  The younger son, representing the tax collectors and other sinners, found joyful acceptance when he repented and came to the father.  The older son, representing the Pharisees and teachers of the law, choose not to rejoice with God, and the angels, over those lost ones who are being found.  Instead they set themselves up as judges, criticizing God for not excluding those they considered unworthy.

So just who are these Pharisees?  In Jesus day they were a sect of the Jews who were zealous for the Law of Moses, dedicating themselves to a rigid adherence to it.  And they were critical of anyone who did not share their legalistic zeal.  Unfortunately, many of us today, who have grown up in the church and have been 'good people' all of our lives, have a lot in common with the Pharisees.  How often do we look with uncaring, or critical, hearts rather than compassion on those who are living the life of a prodigal.  It shames me to admit that the former describes me more often than the latter.  The challenge of this parable for me, as the older brother, is to choose to work with the Father in seeking the lost, and rejoicing when they are found.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Sawyer Squeeze Filter: a Review

Over the years I have mostly used either iodine or Aquamira to treat water in the back country, mostly because they were lightweight and fairly easy to use.  But I was intrigued by the Sawyer Squeeze filter, mostly because of its weight, but also because  it appeared to be fairly simple to use.  So I bought one and have used it for over 500 miles this year.  The following is a review of the filter, along with some tips for using it.

The filter itself is fairly small, weighing in at 3 3/8 oz or 96 grams, is just a shade under 6" long (with the optional cap included) and a bit under 2" in diameter at its widest.  Sawyer claims that the filter removes anything larger than .1 micron, including 99.99999% of bacteria, including Salmonella, Cholera and E. Coli, and 99.9999% of protozoa, including Cryptosporidium and Giardia.  The filter does not remove viruses however.

Unfiltered water goes into one end of the filter, through the side walls of a bunch of micro-fibrous tubes into their center, and then out the other end of the filter as clean water.  A certain amount of pressure is required to do this, provided either by gravity, or by squeezing an attached bag of untreated water.  Either way will work, although the squeezing method will generally be faster.

The filter comes out of the box with 3 squeeze bags, one each of 16, 32 and 64 oz.  You can also use a regular soda bottle or other water bottles with compatible threads.  My Platypus bottle has the correct thread size, although apparently some do not, so you would want to check that before going out on the trail with one.  The Mylar bags that come with the filter are probably the lightest option and can be bought separately, so that is probably the best option.

The most general way to use the Squeeze is to fill a bag, attach it to the filter, aim the discharge into your water bottle, and then squeeze the bag; out comes clean water.  This operation is generally fairly simple and within a couple minutes of stopping you can be drinking fresh filtered water.  The biggest challenge I have encountered with this is getting the bag filled.  It you have dripping, or cascading, water this is not a problem.  But it can be difficult from a lake or smoothly flowing river or stream.  When you put the bag into the water to fill it, the water pressure outside the bag keeps it collapsed and very little water will go into the bag.  I resolved this by cutting the top off of a soda bottle and use it as a scoop to pour water into the bag.  This works especially well when the water source is shallow, especially with a lot of sediment.  It is easy to skim water from the surface without disturbing the stuff on the bottom.

I would caution against squeezing the bag too hard.  I have heard from lots of folks who manage to bust the seams of the bag, I suspect because they clamp down too hard.  I apply gentle pressure to the bag, neatly rolling it up as it empties.  This keeps the seams laying flat all the time, reducing the chance of them popping open.  It also makes it easier to get all of the water squeezed out of the bag.  With a filled 2 liter bag, I can fill both of my quart Gatorade bottles in just a couple of minutes.

But what happens if you do manage to bust open your squeeze bag?  You could always carry a spare bag.  But if you have a soda bottle top for a scoop like I do, you can screw the top onto the input side of the filter and then use it as a gravity filter.  My scoop is about 4 inches long and, so long as I keep it nearly full, will allow me to fill a quart Gatorade bottle in about 7 1/2 minutes.  That is slow, but easy, and does give you a fall back without having to carry an extra bag.

I have also, for long dry stretches, carried the squeeze bag full of water, and then filtered it as needed when my Gatorade bottles ran dry.  You need to be a bit careful when doing this, ensuring you have the cap on good and you don't unduly stress the bag, otherwise you might have a mess.  I carry the full bag in the outside mesh pocket of my ULA pack, cap up, and have had no problems with doing so.

When not in use, I carry the bag rolled up and tucked into the soda bottle scoop along with the filter.  I have taken the remainder of the soda bottle and notched it.  It then fits over the other side of the bag and filter with the bag cap sticking out the notch, offering additional protection for the bag while tucked into the outer mesh pocket of my pack.  And then the whole thing is stuffed into a gallon Ziploc bag, holding it all together.  The filter, a 2 liter bag, the cut-up 20 oz soda bottle and the gallon Ziploc bag weigh a total of 167 grams, or 5 7/8 ozs.

I really like this filter, especially once I figured out how to use it effectively.  I have had no problems with it this year and look forward to using it for years to come.  Keep it periodically back flushed, be gentle with it, and you should be happy with it as well.
For emergency use, the soda bottle scoop can be attached to the filter  input.  If the scoop is kept filled it will take about 7.5 minutes to fill the quart Gatorade bottle.

This is my filter kit: the filter, a 2 liter bag, a cut up soda bottle and a gallon zip lock bag.

The filter and bag go into the soda bottle with the bag cap sticking out of the  notch in the bottom of the soda bottle.

And then the whole thing nestles down into a gallon Ziploc.  

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Parable of the Two Brothers

Jesus told two parables that involved pairs of brothers.  This one, directed at the priests and elders, is the less familiar of them.
“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

Matthew 21:28-32 NIV
The parable itself, as are most of them, is pretty straight forward.  A father with two sons sends the boys out into the vineyard to work.  The first declines but later goes, while the second says he will go but does not.  While we might be inclined to think poorly of both, the first ultimately does what his father wanted him to do, even though with initial reluctance.  And Jesus audience, when asked, acknowledged that this first son was the obedient one.

And then, as he sometimes did, Jesus proceeded to make a direct application of the parable to his hearers.  The first son represents those whose initial response to God's call in their lives is rejection.  They are not interested in being obedient to his call, but do at some time repent and respond to his call.  The second son represents those who render lip service to God, telling him they will do what he wants but in reality doing what they themselves want.

Jesus actually gets more specific, and personal, than this.  The first son represents those considered as 'sinners' by the Jewish religious establishment, the tax collectors and prostitutes.  The tax collectors were considered traitors because they collaborated with the Romans, while the prostitutes were simply immoral and living in disobedience to the Law.  Yet both of them, along with many others, had repented and had come into the kingdom of God.

The priests and elders of the people are represented by the second son, the one whose words do not match up with his actions.  These priests and elders, like so many today who claim the name of Christ, put on a show of piety, but it was just for show.  At heart they are living for themselves, being unwilling to die to self and live as a part of the kingdom.

Which son are you?  Are you living in obedience to the Father, our creator; or are you at best only rendering lip service?  If the later, then it's still not too late to obey his call, go out into the vineyard, and get to work.

Monday, September 10, 2012

What If There Were No God?

The title question is one that came to me while tramping along the Pacific Crest Trail last month.  I do not really have a wonderful answer to it, but do have some thoughts.  Obviously it would make a tremendous difference in our eternity if there was no God.  And it would make a difference to those of us who walk with him now.  But what about the world in general?

What would be the ramifications in our world if there really was no God?  While most people would say that things would be different, there are those who will answer that since, at least in their opinion, there is no God anyway, it would not make the slightest bit of difference.

So lets go a step further.  Suppose that humanity had never developed any kind of concept of the supernatural.  In other words, what if we all lived as if there were no God?  What kind of difference would that make in the world we live in today?  Note that this is really a different question than the first one.  It is logically possible for there to be a supernatural creator without us having any concept of him.

I think that most people would agree that our culture would be dramatically different today without at least the historical belief in God, whether he exists in reality or not.  Without thought of the supernatural, there would be no religion in the world today, or ever.  And while some might think that to be a good thing, I suspect their opinion might be different if they were to think carefully about it.

It is really hard to imagine what the US would look like today apart from the influence of religions, Christianity in particular.  So much of our culture has developed around our religious beliefs and practices, that is is difficult to imagine life without them.

While there has been evil done in our world in the name of one religion or another, there has also been much good done in the name of religious faith.  At the very least religious practice has a moderating and stabilizing influence on us.  The idea of reward/punishment after this life is going to have an impact on how I live today.  And as a religion become more wide spread, it serves to unite people who would otherwise be divided because of ethnicity, language, ancestory or any number of other things.  Yes, it does cause division between folks of differing religions, but that division likely would be there apart from religion.

So what would we be like without God?  I suspect it is likely that, at least morally, we would be very much like chimpanzees.  If you have something that I want, and I am big enough to take it from you, it is now mine.  If I am bigger, and you are a threat to me, I will remove the threat.  If I am small, and you are a threat to me, I will just have to endure the abuse.  Only the dominate guys get the girls.  Infanticide and cannibalism are accepted, if you are strong enough to get away with it.

Wait, that actually does sound like us now doesn't it.  What is it that holds down on our tendency towards 'might makes right'?  I believe it highly likely that the religious morals drilled into us for generations serve to restrain many of our more base instincts and inclinations.  And it makes me wonder how long that restraint would last if we would to completely outgrow religion and live in a completely humanistic atmosphere.  I personally don't believe I would want to be around for that.  In spite of the protestations of some, intelligence and education alone don't seem to do all that good a job at curbing the animal instincts within us.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Trail Names

Names.  We all have several.  A first name, a last name, and usually a middle name or two.  Names are useful in providing identification, distinguishing us from other people.  I have only known one other person who has the same set of names that I do, and that was my dad.  But a problem with the names given us at birth is that they are not very descriptive.  The name Edwin says nothing about me.  Nor is it really all that unique.

Many people also have nicknames.  A nickname is an alternative name that a person might use, either because they don't care for their given name, because it is easier to say, or simply because they just like it.  It is also possible that you might have a nickname hung on you by others, usually because of something you have done or what you look like. In my life I have had two nicknames, one given me by the nurses in the maternity ward when I was born, because I was very chubby, and the other just a shortened version of my first name.

In the culture of the long distance hiker the idea of a nickname has evolved into the trail name; a name usually given by others, but sometime self adopted: SkinnyD, Love Bird, Ironman, Two Hats, Wired, Half Fast, Drop & Roll, Day Breaker, Silent Joe, Tequila Jack, Butter Cup, Calf, Birdie, Moon Shine, Stride, Barracuda, Sunshine, Trail Bait.  Many of these names trigger an image of something about the person with the name.  But other times the name is just a whimsical handle that a person uses when out on the trail.

Trail names have the added advantage of generally being unique, although you might occasionally run across the same name used by multiple people: Hawkeye being an example this year.  And they also provide a bit of anonymity, which may be important to some folks.  But best of all, at least to me, is that they are fun.  I have known about trail names for a few years now, but had no real experience with them until last year, my first to hike more than a single section of the PCT.  That year I hiked the northern 160 miles of Oregon, south bound.  I met a lot of north bound thru hikers and began asking many of them for their names, something that most seemed quite happy to provide.  It became a game for me during that 8 days to collect and record these names, and was one of my favorite parts of life on the trail.

But it was always a bit of a downer when they in turn would ask for mine and the only reply I could provide was Ed.  I wanted a cool trail name.  But no one is going to give a solo south bounder a trail name (we just don't spend enough time together), and I could not come up with one on my own that I liked.

The 400+ miles on the trail in 2012 were much the same.  I enjoyed talking to the north bounders I would meet, and collected many names.  But until midway through the trip I was just Ed.  And then it hit me.

When my kids were small we all fell in love with Winnie the Pooh.  We watched the adventured of Pooh Bear by the hour, never having to worry about the message that was being passed on to the little ones.  Over time we collected quite a number of VHS tapes of the adventures of Pooh Bear, that we did our best to wear out, as well as all the stuffed characters.  Everyone had their favorite character, and mine was Eeyore.  I do not know just why I related so closely to him (and maybe I am afraid to know), but I did.  And over the years I have been given at least a dozen Eeyore's, from Christmas ornaments to windup toys.  Most of the Pooh stuff is long put away, but there are still Eeyore's hanging around, with at least 4 of them watching as I write this.

And so, I became Eeyore on the trail, a name that my wife thought was perfect.  So, in the years to come, when you see an old, tall, lanky guy moseying down the trail toward you, with Eeyore perched high on a shoulder strap, you'll know who it is.  And if you're not in too big a hurry, take a quick break and give us a howdy.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Parables of the Precious

One of the tools Jesus used in his teaching was the parable; a simple story using common every day circumstances that had something to say to his hearers, both then and now.  A parable is kind of like an object lesson, and Jesus used them often to illustrate spiritual truths.  Some of these parables were very short and to the point, while others were a bit longer.  Among these shorter parables are the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
Matthew 13:44-46 NIV
Like many of Jesus parables, both of these start off with the kingdom of heaven is like.  These two parables both express the value of the kingdom.  In both cases the man who discovers the treasure performs a Benefit Cost Analysis (BCA), decides that what he has discovered is worth more than all he currently has, and then sells all he has in order to obtain the more valuable item.  And what is that treasure?  The kingdom of heaven!

These parables are almost too easy.  Just a few words; words that all too often we are so familiar with that they have raced past before we even realize what we have just read.  But listen again to what Jesus twice tells us.  The man gave up everything he had to obtain the desired treasure.  The cost of the treasure was outweighed by its benefit.

Is the treasure of the kingdom worth my giving up everything for it?  Is it more precious to me than anything else I have?  Is there anything in this life more precious to me than the kingdom of heaven?

Jesus calls on me to give up everything to follow him.  Not just a few things.  Not just the bad things.  Not just the things I can live without.  But everything!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Doing Church, an Old Look

There is a passage in the book of Acts that I have been drawn to recently.  This passage describes the life of the church in the earliest days after Pentecost.  And I am wondering if maybe what worked for them might not also work in the church today, should we be daring enough to break from our traditions and follow what appeared to be a very successful model.
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. - Acts 2:42-47 NIV (1984)
There no doubt is more in this passage than I am capable of pulling out.  But it seems clear that there were a few simple things that this early church was doing.

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching

Verse 42 says that the members of the early church devoted themselves to four things.  And the first of these was the apostles' teaching.  For the early church, I do not believe this meant that they had constant Bible studies.  Rather they spent as much time as they could listening to what the apostles had to tell them.  They were hungry to hear what God had to say through them and were committed to applying those teachings to their own lives.

I do not believe we have any apostles living among us today.  But we do still have their teachings, as well as those of Jesus, in the words of the New Testament.  Are we devoted to it, both in our private lives and our time together?  Are we actively seeking to apply its teachings to our lives?  Or is it just something we browse through occasionally, not really finding much application or need for change in its words?

They devoted themselves to the fellowship

For many Baptists, and I assume other denominations as well, the word fellowship is almost synonymous with potluck.  But I do not believe that is the case in this passage, especially since the next phrase deals with food.

I believe instead that the fellowship here is the body of believers.  They were devoted to each other.  But not just as individuals, like I am to my wife.  But rather to the body itself.  I believe that what Jesus prayed in John 17:20-23, that we as believers might be one, just as he and the Father were one, is what this early church was devoted to; becoming one.  That means they were sharing their lives together, not just at the surface, but down in the depths where we are often afraid to go ourselves, much less let anyone else see.  That means they were looking out for the interests of the body, over their own.  That means they were spending time together, and not just an hour or two a week.  They were leaving their TV's off and hanging out together and really talking, not just about the weather, but about themselves and about God's working.

They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread

There are some who see this as referring to communion, or the Lord's Supper.  But it seems to me more likely that it is as simple as sharing meals together.  This could be communal meals, like a potluck.  But since it later says that they broke bead in their homes and ate together, it seems more likely that they were spending time together in their homes and sharing meals together.  And I do not think it is much of a reach to extend this from simple meals to other types of activities; the members of the early church were doing stuff together; meals, shopping, playing, yard work.

It would seem like this sharing of our 'outward' selves would enhance the ability to share our 'inward' lives together. As we break bread together, we are more inclined to enhance the fellowship by sharing our inward lives with each other.

They devoted themselves to prayer

In this verse, it seems to me that the second and third elements are related to relationships between members, while the first and fourth are dealing with their relationship with God.  They were devoted to prayer.  And not just to open and close their worship services and for meal blessings.  They gave themselves over to communicating with the Father.  I have no doubt their prayer included praise and adoration of the Father, as well as intercession for needs.  But it is also clear that their prayer included requests for boldness (Acts 4:23-31) and probably included request for a better understanding of God's purpose and how he equips them for more effective service (Ephesians 1:15-23).

Meeting in large groups and small groups

Verse 46 says that they met daily in the temple, and that they also met together in their homes to share meals, and likely the rest of their lives.  Coming together as a body to worship and serve is important.  We are called to be one body, and corporate worship and other full body activities are necessary if we are to be one body, bound tightly together and effectively serving (Ephesians 4:15-16).

But the small group activities are also important.  I am very limited in my ability to get to deeply know a large number of people, especially when in large scale settings.  But in the intimacy of a home with a few other people it is much easier to let down the curtains and allow others to know me, and for me to come to more intimately know them.

I am convinced that real growth within the body requires both of these elements: a time together to develop an identity as the body of Christ; and a time with smaller groups to develop relationships within the body.  I do not believe there is any magic formula for success in either large or small group settings.  But I do believe verse 42 gives a pretty good outline: time in the word, sharing our inner person, sharing the outer person, and spending real time in real prayer.

The Lord added to their number daily

And the result was two fold.  First, they were enjoying the favor of all the people.  While not all of the community joined them, they did respect them and recognized that something was going on there.  And secondly, and more importantly, the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.  The church was not only growing in spirit; they were also growing numerically as more and more people were being saved.  It is interesting that nowhere in this passage is it mentioned that they were evangelizing, although undoubtedly they were.  It appears instead that the impetus for growth was in how appealing their life was to those watching them.  People saw what they had and wanted it as well.

I wonder what would happen in my community if FBC Jerusalem from 30 A.D. was swapped out with the church I serve in.  Would what they were doing then work today?  Would they continue to grow dramatically, enjoying the favor of the surrounding neighborhood?  I have to believe they would.  Would it work for us, should we devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer?  Are we willing to try?