Friday, June 29, 2007

Analyzing Barack Obama's "Politics of Conscience"

Barack Obama's "A Politics of Conscience,"-- his vision on how faith informs politics, and delivered to his own denomination the United Church of Christ on June 23-- is getting critical notice.

Elizabeth Hamilton, a staff writer at the Hartford Courant who covered the UCC's General Synod, observed that Obama's speech was:
Part political stump speech and part religious rallying cry, the address delivered something Obama has become known for - a liberal message while borrowing from religious conservatives one of their main tools, moral outrage grounded in faith, to make his points about such topics as poverty, immigration, Guantanamo Bay and the Iraq war.
But will that strategy appeal to voters?

Michael Gerson writes in the Washington Post that while, "The Gospel of Obama" credits the work of evangelicals, it fails to account for changing trends among these Christians. Gerson gives Democrats three difficult suggestions to better reach them.

Whether Obama's strategy of reaching a broad spectrum of Christians succeeds or not, Gerson believes that any politician who seeks to baptize their agenda should beware:

The essential humanism of Christianity requires an active, political concern about human dignity and the rights of the poor and weak. But faith says little about the means to achieve those ideals. The justice of welfare reform or tax cuts or moving toward socialized medicine is measured by the outcome of these changes. And those debates cannot be short-circuited by the claim "Thus sayeth the Lord," spoken by the Christian Coalition or the United Church of Christ.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Barack Obama's Restless Conscience--and Mine

Barack Obama says his conscience cannot rest.

37 million Americans are poor. 45 million don't have health insurance. Genocide in Darfur continues unabated. Guantanamo Bay remains open. The Iraq war goes on. 12 million undocumented immigrants are in our country.

With these issues, Obama declared his presidential priorities in his speech, "A Politics of Conscience." The address is significant because Obama reestablished what Democrats have ignored for years-- the necessary relationship between faith and politics.

Obama delivered the remarks to his own liberal denomination, the United Church of Christ, at its General Synod in Hartford, Connecticut on June 23.

I think Christian Republicans and Christian Democrats, liberal or conservative, can wholeheartedly agree that the problems Obama cites are not just political issues. Rather, they are political issues with an inherent moral component that demands a response from people of faith.

However, Obama brashly asserts that the recent priorities of Christian people in the public square has been subversively rearranged:
But somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart. It got hijacked. Part of it's because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, who've been all too eager to exploit what divides us. At every opportunity, they've told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design. There was even a time when the Christian Coalition determined that its number one legislative priority was tax cuts for the rich. I don't know what Bible they're reading, but it doesn't jibe with my version.
It's kind of snide, but I like this question that Tygrrrr Express asks every democratic candidate:
You have all explicitly or implicitly stated that religious Christians have hijacked religion. Is this more or less serious than Islamofacists hijacking airplanes, and why?
Obama calls for unity among people of faith, but it won't work until you answer two very important questions: 1) what is the best way to solve these problems; and 2) why are these problems your priorities?

Obama accuses the Christian Right of leading people to believe that the faithful care only about "abortion, gay marriage, school prayer, and intelligent design."

This is clever rhetoric.

You're led to believe that Obama has a circle of "care" far more expansive than those narrow minded, callous Christians on the right. They don't "care" about the poor or universal health coverage. Obama does. And he will do something about it.

Frank Pastore makes a good reply on behalf of conservative believers:
We care a lot about these things, and we prove it through both our taxes and our donations. But, apparently we don’t care enough for the Left or Jim Wallis. We must care “more.”

Wallis is fond of saying “budgets are moral documents.” He’s right. A federal budget is a snapshot of the current moral values system of the nation...

So, when he implies “care more,” let’s translate. “We must raise your taxes..."

Raise your hand if paying around 30% is not quite your "fair share."
Yes, the faith of Obama also "cares" about abortion and gay marriage. But he certainly doesn't "care" about them in same way that religious conservatives do.

Obama says his conscience cannot rest. Neither can mine.
My conscience cannot rest until abortion is outlawed and justice is secured on behalf of 40 million babies slaughtered by Roe vs. Wade.

My conscience cannot rest until marriage is defined in our Constitution as the union of one man and one woman.

My conscience cannot rest until we secure our borders and stem the tide of illegal immigration.

My conscience cannot rest if we leave Iraq prematurely and let it become another Cambodia.

My conscience cannot rest until we defeat Islamic terrorists who hate our freedom.

My conscience cannot rest until out-of-control big government-- it's earmark spending and burdensome regulations-- are cut down to size.
Christians need to be involved in politics. And I am glad that Obama is doing his part.

But all Christians should proceed carefully.

When Obama's (and my) United Church of Christ continuously take liberal political stances, God's kingdom agenda gets reduced to a political platform. Too bad, because God's agenda is far, far bigger.

On the other hand, we shouldn't think that God's will can not be expressed in a political platform.

Politics is difficult, but necessary work for Christians who are commanded to put their faith into action.

"Would that we did not face such a choice," writes Marvin Olasky. "But we do, and given God’s rule over everything, it is a choice that God has given us. That should give us some hope, and also push us to prayer."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Did Faith Get "Hijacked" as Obama Claims?

Barack Obama claims that Christian faith got "hijacked."

In his speech, "A Politics of Conscience,"-- delivered to his own progressive denomination the United Church of Christ at its General Synod in Hartford, Connecticut on June 23-- Obama holds up a vision of liberal and conservative Christians working together for political ends, but he glosses over differences that ultimately divide the two camps.

Obama made several statements that conservatives and liberals can both affirm:
The lie ... that the separation of church and state in America means faith should have no role in public life...

People are coming together around a simple truth – that we are all connected, that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper. And that it's not enough to just believe this – we have to do our part to make it a reality.

...Our values should express themselves not just through our churches or synagogues, temples or mosques; they should express themselves through our government...

My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won't be fulfilling God's will unless I go out and do the Lord's work.
Some secular progressives contend that all religious morality should be kept out of politics. But let's be honest: everyone dips their bucket into a moral well. For some, that well is religion. For others, it's the "collective wisdom of humankind." No one should be kept out of the public square because of the source of their morality.

Obama supports his belief that faith belongs in politics with an illustration that surprisingly mirrors recent radio advertising on Rush Limbaugh's radio program by the conservative Alliance Defense Fund:

Imagine Lincoln's Second Inaugural without its reference to "the judgments of the Lord." Or King's "I Have a Dream" speech without its reference to "all of God's children." Or President Kennedy's Inaugural without the words, "here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own."
Appeals to history is a vital source Obama uses to urge on Christians today:

But my journey is part of a larger journey – one shared by all who've ever sought to apply the values of their faith to our society. It's a journey that takes us back to our nation's founding, when none other than a UCC church inspired the Boston Tea Party and helped bring an Empire to its knees. In the following century, men and women of faith waded into the battles over prison reform and temperance, public education and women's rights – and above all, abolition. And when the Civil War was fought and our country dedicated itself to a new birth of freedom, they took on the problems of an industrializing nation – fighting the crimes against society and the sins against God that they felt were being committed in our factories and in our slums.

And when these battles were overtaken by others and when the wars they opposed were waged and won, these faithful foot soldiers for justice kept marching. They stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as the blows of billy clubs rained down. They held vigils across this country when four little girls were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church. They cheered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. King delivered his prayer for our country. And in all these ways, they helped make this country more decent and more just.

With a big brush, Obama paints a broad picture of Christians long united in political struggles-- and it's this history that Obama's uses in his call for unity today--and support for his candidacy.

But this is a romanticized view of American political history. It glosses over the very real faith differences that separated our Christian ancestors.

For example, at the American Revolution, there were minority loyalists like Anglican clergyman Jonathon Boucher who argued that "obedience to government is every man's duty." During the Civil War, Mark Noll notes in his book, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, that Christians on both the north and south were: "quick to action, eager to discern the mind of God, and deeply convinced of the rightness of their cause." The civil rights movement of the 60's had its religious opponents. The Vietnam War had clergy who supported it.

I'm not saying that every opinion is equally good. Hardly.

My point is that throughout the history of American politics, a difference of opinion-- rooted in religious conviction-- has always existed among Christians. Sure, there's been unity at different points among Christians of different stripes, but the fact remains:

There has always been political differences among Christians-- differences rooted in faith.

So when Obama makes his well-publicized statement, it's based on an inaccurate portrayal of history:

But somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart. It got hijacked. Part of it's because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, who've been all too eager to exploit what divides us. At every opportunity, they've told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design. There was even a time when the Christian Coalition determined that its number one legislative priority was tax cuts for the rich. I don't know what Bible they're reading, but it doesn't jibe with my version.
Faith didn't get "hijacked."


Because faith never belonged exclusively to liberal Christians.

Indeed, change did happen "somewhere along the way." Here's a more accurate account of the last 30 years:

Conservative Christians-- primarily made up of evangelicals-- entered the political arena as a religious force. The movement started with Jerry Falwell's "Moral Majority" in the 80's and continued in the 1990's with James Dobson. These people got involved in politics for the very reasons that Obama himself states: To put their faith into action and make a difference. And with no apologies, spoke of political issues as faith issues.

Meantime, liberal Christians, whose politics were much like liberal secular progressives, failed to articulate their political values in terms of faith. To do so was embarrassing. They believed in "separation of church and state." And so, mimicking their secular allies, they kept religious references out of politics. Consequently, they abandoned their moral voice.

But now, led by professed Christian and Democrat Jim Wallis of Sojourners, whose blog is boldly titled, "God's Politics" (golly, now is that "hijacking" God's name?), liberal Christians are playing catch up-- and making the case that their political beliefs are rooted in religious ideals. Obama's speech is significant because he's the first presidential Democrat in years to reassert the link between faith and politics.

In Obama's view, one role of faith in politics is to unite. And so, Obama closed his speech with an appeal to unity, not just between liberal and conservative Christians, but people of all faiths:

So let's rededicate ourselves to a new kind of politics – a politics of conscience. Let's come together – Protestant and Catholic, Muslim and Hindu and Jew, believer and non-believer alike. We're not going to agree on everything, but we can disagree without being disagreeable. We can affirm our faith without endangering the separation of church and state, as long as we understand that when we're in the public square, we have to speak in universal terms that everyone can understand. And if we can do that – if we can embrace a common destiny – then I believe we'll not just help bring about a more hopeful day in America, we'll not just be caring for our own souls, we'll be doing God's work here on Earth.

It's quite a vision. It's a nice idea.

But I'm not sure it's not earthy enough. If politics is one thing, it's earthy-- mired and muddied by sin and the human predicament.

And I'm not sure it takes sufficient account of the fact that religious people live by strong convictions.

Hopefully in our American political system, that right will never get hijacked.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

An Overlooked Aspect of Barack Obama's "A Politics of Conscience"

Last Saturday, Illinois Senator and Presidential candidate Barack Obama articulated a "politics of conscience" before his own denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC) at their General Synod meeting in Hartford, Connecticut, June 22-26.

While the press focused on Obama's explanation of how religion and liberal politics co-exist, and his claim that right wing Christians "hijacked" the faith, there's one very interesting and overlooked aspect of Obama's speech.

He told his story.

As an evangelical in the UCC for over ten years, I've sadly never heard anyone at a United Church of Christ meeting present the Gospel message and call for a response. Somehow, it's just assumed that everyone is OK with God.

But there before 8,000+ UCC people, Barack Obama was testifying how he found life in Jesus!
[People] want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives... And this restlessness – this search for meaning – is familiar to me...

And slowly, I came to realize that something was missing as well – that without an anchor for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.

So one Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called "The Audacity of Hope." And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.
Golly, was there an altar call afterwards? Did a revival break out?

Those familiar with the DNA of liberal mainline denominations know that you never hear anyone testify how they had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ that resulted in saving faith. That's just something you don't do.

So on that level alone, Obama's speech was pretty amazing.

Some question the genuineness of Obama's conversion, due to his liberal politics. On his politics, I highly disagree.

But in regards to his relationship with Jesus, I'll take him at his word and let God do the judging, knowing that He knows the heart best and is the master fruit inspector.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Rev. Barry Lynn "Disappointed" in Barack Obama

Rev. Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, insists that Barack Obama did not illegally mix religion and politics with his June 23rd speech at the United Church of Christ's General Synod in Hartford.

And yet, he's disappointed by Obama's actions.


In his article, "No Foul Here," Lynn states:
The IRS has stated repeatedly that not all candidate appearances before houses of worship or religious groups are a violation of the Internal Revenue Code. The Code allows these kinds of appearances as long as the candidate and the religious group do not promote the candidacy.
Then a few moments later, Lynn admits:
During his speech, Obama mentioned his presidential run. He shouldn’t have done so, and I am disappointed that he made the reference. But those remarks did not transform the event into a political endorsement.
Here's a "disappointing" remark from Obama's speech, which is posted at the UCC's official website (picture above shows UCC President John Thomas [far left] and Associate General Minister Edith Guffey [center] listening to Obama's speech):
Our conscience cannot rest so long as nearly 45 million Americans don't have health insurance and the millions more who do are going bankrupt trying to pay for it. I have made a solemn pledge that I will sign a universal health care bill into law by the end of my first term as president that will cover every American and cut the cost of a typical family's premiums by up to $2500 a year. That's not simply a matter of policy or ideology – it's a moral commitment.
So according to Lynn's own understanding of IRS codes, Obama broke the law.

Plus, UCCtruths has photographs of campaign tables set up outside the facility, with staffers recruiting support.

Doesn’t that obligate the AU to take action?

Or, does Lynn's expression of personal disappointment provide sufficient atonement?

James Lord at the American Spectator muses:
Had this been a church of the "Christian Right" and the candidate a conservative, Lynn and various liberals would have been all over cable TV demanding an IRS investigation. Instead, silence.
Earlier I reported that Lynn and the AU has kept silent since the State of Connecticut underwrote the United Church of Christ's rental of the Hartford Civic Center to the tune of $100,000.

Now, Lynn sees no foul that warrants AU action against Barack Obama's campaign.

If this is the AU’s attitude toward religious liberals and politicians, fine.

Actually, I personally like it. If states want to generate business by offering financial incentives to religious groups, fine. If religious groups want to host politicians campaigning for office, fine.

Just apply the same generous standard to conservatives.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Rev. Barry Lynn's Liberal Silence

Rev. Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU), has never been bashful speaking out against religious conservatives who allegedly use government cash to further their agendas. But ever since the liberal denomination that ordained him -- the United Church of Christ (UCC) -- willingly took $100,000 from the State of Connecticut to put on its General Synod in Hartford (taking place June 22-26, 2007), Lynn has been strangely quiet.

When churches and states get seemingly too cozy, Lynn is quick to protest. In May 2006, Lynn and the AU urged Maryland's Attorney General to deny a $150,000 grant given by the Maryland General Assembly for the June 2006 annual conference of the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education (NBCCE). Lynn complained in the AU press release, "This grant is totally inappropriate and clearly unconstitutional. Religious groups should pass the collection plate to their own members, not the taxpayers."

According to the AU, the Baptists' convention plans included worship services and instructional sessions taught by clergy. Thus, AU Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee argued, “Although the NBCCE, as a private organization, is free to engage in that conduct, the State of Maryland is forbidden” by the U.S. Constitution to support it with public funds.

OK, if that's the AU's position, let's do a quick comparison.

The UCC's General Synod has the very same kind of activities planned. They're having worship services. They're having instructional sessions taught by clergy. The UCC is even hosting a speech by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama! In short--and to use Katskee's words of complaint to Maryland about the Baptists--the UCC Synod, "will encourage proselytization in one faith..." And, it's all being done, in part, with a $100,000 grant from the State of Connecticut.

So why isn't Barry Lynn complaining?

This is the observation made by James Hutchins at UCCtruths:
Although Lynn prides himself as an independent arbiter of where the line between church and state meet, his silence on his own denomination’s encroachment on Jefferson’s wall of separation is not only hypocritical, it ultimately undermines his own mission.
The silence of Lynn is ever more curious since Connecticut's grant to the UCC is far more egregious legally than Maryland's assistance to the Baptists. After laying out the evidence, Hutchins summarizes:
The distinction between the Connecticut grant and the Maryland grant couldn’t be clearer. In the Maryland case, the grant was used to help ease the burden on public transportation. In the Connecticut case, the grant is being used to defray the cost of the facilities to host a clearly religious event for the United Church of Christ.
Responding on his blog to charges that he failed to speak out against the UCC-Connecticut $100,000 arrangement, Rev. Lynn states:

Since I am an ordained UCC minister, this issue was of great concern to me. I expressed those concerns to denominational officials, and I also asked AU’s Legal Department to research the matter. AU attorneys did extensive research. They found that government officials in Connecticut give discounts to any group that brings a large crowd to town. What’s offered is a rebate, not direct aid, and thus cannot be diverted to support religion. Our lawyers’ view was that the courts would not rule against this kind of aid...

To be clear, I disagree with court opinions that allow rebates and so-called “indirect” aid. AU opposes government subsidies to religious groups. Religious groups should pay for their own endeavors. But again, we did research the matter and acted according to the facts.

Rev. Lynn says he expressed concern to UCC officials. If so, it was done privately. Nearly a year has past since the grant was announced. Why hasn't Lynn said anything publicly? Why not put public pressure on the State of Connecticut and the UCC? The fact he'd oppose his own denomination would have given him the perception of increased integrity in the public's eye.

Lynn says he opposes rebates and other "indirect" aid. Again, if so, why hasn't he publicly scolded his own liberal denomination for grabbing state cash? Is Lynn's chiding only saved for religious organizations of more conservative persuasion? Lynn's tepid protest now on his blog--which comes only because his silence was given note--is hardly indicative of the bold person of strong conviction that we often see on television.

Lynn says AU attorneys did "extensive research." To put it kindly, Rev. Lynn and the AU's research was poor. Hutchins of UCCtruths makes this rebuttal at Lynn's blog:

Candidly, your response to the Connecticut grant is inaccurate. Can you (or AU lawyers) cite a single court precedence for religious "rebates"?

As you know, the constitutional criteria, is based on the religious effect of the aid. Whether its direct or indirect aid, the religious effect is clear - the Connecticut grant was used to offset the cost of the facility for religious purposes.

In effect, what you and your lawyers are conceding is that if state's play the shell game, they can ultimately direct aid to religious groups. Is that really the message you want to communicate?
It's also significant to note that the State of Connecticut gave the $100K only and after the UCC promised to take its General Synod to another state.

When the UCC initially booked its 2007 General Synod at the newly constructed Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, the State didn't give the denomination any financial incentives. But that changed when the UCC determined that the union rights of Convention workers were being thwarted.

For this reason, in a Hartford Courant story posted at UCCtruths, UCC Associate General Minister Edith Guffey said:
We're not threatening to move; we will move if this issue is not resolved.
Consequently, UCC President John Thomas said in an email to UCC Conference Ministers:
The only other option within the city capable of accommodating General Synod, the Hartford Civic Center, initially proved too expensive. As directed by the Executive Council, UCC Associate General Minister Edith Guffey began exploring other cities as possible venues for the General Synod.
That's when Connecticut governor M. Jodi Rell intervened. Not wanting to lose the largest ever convention in Hartford--and the economic benefit of 8,000+ visitors that could bring in up to $7 million--Rell pulled some political strings. The Connecticut Economic Development Authority (REDA) awarded a $100,000 grant to the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau, who in turn applied it to the UCC's use of the Civic Center.

Responding to the grant news, Guffey said in a June 6, 2006 United Church News press release:

This type of incentive program is a common occurrence, a way of doing business. We appreciate the collaboration between the governor, CEDA, and the Hartford Visitors Bureau, and their efforts to keep the UCC meeting in Hartford.

Guffey also told the Hartford Courant:

...the governor wants very much to make this work, and that they will be taking care of the $100,000 fee for the Civic Center...It's a very generous assistance, and we're very appreciative of it.

Here's the bottom line that Rev. Lynn and the AU should note well:

It was due to the United Church of Christ's religious conviction--that it would not hold its Synod in a facility involved in a labor dispute--and the UCC's financial inability to move its event across town to the more expensive Civic Center--and the UCC's promise to move its religious event out of state--that the State of Connecticut and its governor intervened and worked out its $100,000 grant.

And after all this, Rev. Lynn still isn't complaining.

Usually, "liberal" means someone with a progressive outlook toward politics and social issues. But it can also refer to someone who is generous.

And in this case, Rev. Lynn's silence about Connecticut giving his liberal UCC $100,000 for its General Synod is ... shall we say ... generous.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Son Force Kids VBS Closing Rally Script

For those of you surfing for ideas for your Son Force Kids Vacation Bible School closing rally, here is the program we created. Our VBS had about 50 kids.

This program--which uses 2 readers--reviews what we did each day and follows with a song from that day's theme. It's almost an hour in length. The songs are in italics.

Son Force Kids VBS Closing Rally Script

Good morning and welcome to the Congregational Church for the closing rally of Little River’s Vacation Bible School—

Brought to you by the kids of Little River, the Congregational Church, and the United Methodist Church.

All this week, we’ve been training for God’s service at the Son Force Kids Special Agents Academy.

Our agents have worked hard and had lots of fun along the way.

And because of their good work, today our agents will be certified as Level 5 Agents for God. Let’s welcome our agents now! (Kids enter from back)

Son Force Kids Theme Instrumental

God's Kids (VBS theme song)

A few minutes ago, your feet were walking on ground known as Little River, Kansas. You entered a church and sat in a pew.

But as our kids were singing, top-secret Son Force Kids technology lifted this church off the ground, launched us high above the earth, and deep into space—taking us to the Son Force Satellite Headquarters.

Here at our high tech command center, our Son Force Agents have been training for their 5 missions.

Our Special Agents will now tell you the key words to each of our 5 missions.

Mission # 1: TRUST
Mission # 2: UNITE
Mission # 3: TRAIN
Mission # 4: FOLLOW
Mission # 5: LEAD

On Tuesday, Day 1, our Special Agents participated in Level 1 Training—for Mission # 1—Learning to trust in God’s plans. On this day, Agents learned the story from Exodus 1-2 about the birth of baby Moses—and how we can have courage in all situations by trusting in God’s love and plan for us.

Our key verse this day was Jeremiah 17:7—“Blessed is the man or woman who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.”

God wants all of us to trust Him with our life. In fact, on the back of today’s bulletin, there’s declassified information from the Bible on how you too can become one of God’s Special Agent—by trusting Jesus as Savior.

I Trust You With My Life

When you trust Jesus as Savior, you become a Special Agent in the service of God’s kingdom.

With that great information in their heart, all of our Special Agents successfully completed Level 1 training. And so on Wednesday, we commenced with Level 2 training for our 2nd mission—Learning to unite with God’s people.

Our key verse came from Romans 12:10, which tells us, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.”

On this day, we heard the story of Queen Esther. When an evil man plotted to destroy God’s people, Esther called on God’s people to unite in prayer to stop the evil plot.

In turn, our Special Agents discovered that we can have courage to stand up for others by uniting together with God’s people.

Come Together and Unite

All of our Special Agents took these words to heart. They united and helped one another complete Level 2 training. And they did it with love.

With Love (Young children's song)

And so, every Agent was invited back on Thursday for Level 3 training. On this day, we learned to train for God’s service.

Here, we heard the story of Daniel and how he was determined to train and live for God—even when everyone else around him was not.

Train Me Up

Our key verse for Level 3 training came from Proverbs 19:20—“Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise.”

Listen up and you’ll hear those words in our next song.

Listen to Advice

On Tuesday-Thursday, all our Special Agents did great work—trusting, uniting, and training. They were hearing God’s Word and obeying Him.

Hear the Word (Young kids song)

Having completed all requirements, all Special Agents were promoted to Level 3 Agents.

On Friday, we challenged our Special Agents to a day of double training—as we learned two lessons.

Level 4 training was this—learning to follow God’s path. We learned how Jeremiah was willing to follow God and do what He says, even when he knew others wouldn’t like it.

In turn, our Special Agents discovered that we can have courage to follow in God’s path, even when it’s difficult.

Our key verse for Level 4 training came from Jeremiah 7:23—“Obey me and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in all the ways I command you, that it may go well with you.”

Obey Me

After Level 4 Training, we were pleased to see that all of our Special Agents wanted to follow and obey Jesus. All Special Agents were promoted and became Level 4 Agents.

To celebrate and get ready for Level 5 training, all Special Agents’ stomachs were given at lunch a special mixture of the following ingredients.

Now in the next few moments, allow us to demonstrate our Special Agents ability to decipher secret codes. For lunch, our Special Agents enjoyed:

Tubular Meat—otherwise known as…(a student comes to microphone and says) Hot Dogs

Dug up from the ground, sliced, fried, and flattened carbohydrates—otherwise known as…Potato Chips

And a very cold, pyramid shaped material that is tightly compacted together—and topped with outrageously sugary syrup—otherwise known as…Snow Cones

With all our Special Agents full and fortified—we began the last and all-important Level 5 training. In this lesson, we learned to lead others to God’s promises.

We heard the story of Joshua and how he encouraged God’s people to believe and act upon God’s promises.

The key verse for this training mission was from Joshua 1:9—“Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged; for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Be Strong and Courageous

As part of our Special Agent training this week—we’ve been learning to give—just as God gave to us by sending us His Son Jesus Christ.

And one way we’ve been doing that is with a special offering contest between the boys and the girls.

Each day, the Special Agents were encouraged to bring an offering of money. All the money we’ve collected is going to help two special families who were adversely affected by the recent floods and tornadoes in Kansas.

(Families and their situations described)

Encouraging the kids with their offering this week has been a very special, high level, super secret, Special Agent.

[This is one of the church's pastors; he comes out in a secret agent costume--trench coat, sunglasses, binoculars, etc.]

Let’s welcome him now. Here is Agent DET! [His name is spelled backwards]

Mission of Love

Agent DET:
I’m here to announce the winner of the offering contest between the boys and the girls. Over the last couple of the years, the girls have won the overall offering contest. Let’s see if they can win again.

(Scrambling) I can’t find it.

(Bible Computer chimes in)

["Bible Computer" (BC) is a dishwasher box that we decorated: white paper on its front, "Bible Computer" painted in red at top, holes punched in front and Christmas lights put through the holes, also a slot cut in center for BC to pass messages through. Then, we hid a sixth grader in the back to pass messages and make noises. BC doesn't use a human voice, but the sounds of a cell phone. Bible Computer was a great hit! Young kids think he's real. Agent DET talks to Bible Computer and acts as if he understands the cell phone noises]

Oh hello Bible Computer

What’s that you say?

You’ve got the results of the offering contest?

Thank goodness! What would I do without you?

[SENDS OUT MESSAGE —“You’d Be Doing Nothing”]

OK, Bible Computer, how much was the total offering for the Boys?

[***PLAY THE ‘ESPIONAGE’*** RING TONE and NOTE with boys' total]

And now, how much is the total offering for the Girls?

[***PLAY THE ‘ESPIONAGE’*** RING TONE and NOTE with girls' total]

The winner of this year’s contest is the boys!

What’s that you say Bible Computer?

You’re right. The real winner is the families we're helping. Each will receive about $200—all because of these Special Agents. Give them a hand!

We’ve had a great week of Special Agent training here at Son Force Kids Vacation Bible School. We’ve had great training through our songs, our Bible lessons, our games, our snacks, and our crafts.

And all that Special Training costs money. Will you help us defray the costs of our Training? At this time we’re going to receive an offering to help defray the costs of this weeks VBS. As you give generously, you help us make Little River’s VBS week a great one for our kids.

(Offering received as kids sing the following)

Together in Harmony

And now, we’d like to introduce to you all the Special Agents who have qualified to be Level 5 Agents

(Each teacher introduces their students)

We’ve now reached the moment that all Special Agents have been waiting for.

Agent DET, would you please give these Special Agents the Special Announcement?

I hereby pronounce you—Son Force Kids—Level 5 Agents!

God’s Kids

(Kids dismiss--followed by everyone else)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Son Force Kids VBS--Tips and Thoughts

Lots of people are surfing the net for Son Light's "Son Force Kids" Vacation Bible School.

Since our small town community did VBS May 29-June 1, I thought I'd take one post to give more details on my experience teaching the middler lessons to 3-4th grade boys:
  • We decorated a Bible room with the two scenes suggested on p. 5 in the middler book. We bought the canvas drop clothes at Home Depot and used a thick, black magic marker. My nine year old colored in some of the objects. It took four hours to finish. Along with the space ship scene that we displayed in the sanctuary (we painted it in color and it took 2 days to complete), we spent about $90 on decorations.
  • For lesson #1--Baby Moses--I did Option B on "Set the Story" (p. 11). My 12 boys really loved seeing their names spelled backwards and saying aloud their "new" name. In fact, we used these backward names all week long; rarely did we call each other by our "regular" name. Add to the fun by asking for the student's favorite agent number. Then when you take attendance later in the week, say an agent number and see if the class can guess which student you have in mind. The backwards name really set the excitement for the week's theme. I can't commend that idea to you enough.
  • For lesson #2--Esther--This lesson is a challenge because the biblical story is ten chapters long; we're really dependent upon the curriculum to relay the basic story line. Be familiar with basics of the story; you'll find a brief outline here. When I taught it, I added some additional verses into the lesson in order to heighten the drama of the story. Since the day's theme is "unite," play up the importance of Esther calling on Mordecai and the Jews to fast and pray on her behalf. Be ready to briefly explain what fasting is. The kids really enjoyed partnering together to do the "paper under feet" game in the Set the Story section.
  • For lesson #3--Daniel--I did "Tic Tac Toe Training," option "B" for Set the Story, found on p. 44. It has mistake! It says, "Romans 19:20" instead of Proverbs 19:20. One of my sharp student agents pointed this out! Son Light now has a corrected version of this puzzle, available here.
  • For lesson #4--Jeremiah--I was thrilled to tell my kids about this little known prophet. This isn't your typical VBS lesson. If you're teaching in a room with a Bible lesson decorations, be sure to point out the king's chair and the fireplace where he tosses in bits of the scroll.
  • For lesson #5--Joshua--keep in mind that the key verse (Joshua 1:9) comes chronologically later than the lesson of the 12 spies in Numbers.
  • Since all the lessons are in the Old Testament, you'll have to make the New Testament connection on your own. Each lesson has a box for you to do that. Same thing with the evangelism message; here is where I wish Son Light included a message of salvation in the lesson plan itself--or at least one of the lessons.
  • Have you checked out Son Light's Son Force Kids website? It's neat. You can listen to the music while working on your lessons! There's also a forums for more ideas.
In the next post, I'll share what we did for our Sunday closing rally.

Overall, we had a great VBS. I hope you do too!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Free As a Bird

In the early evening of Father's Day I took my three kids to the local park so they could play and ride the swings.

As they were running around the park, I noticed a hawk flying around nearby. It wasn't flying because it had to get from one place to another.

Instead, it was flying because it wanted to--because it got joy from spreading its wings and catching the air and swirling about.

Watching the bird made me think of a quote by the 1924 Olympian Eric Liddel: "God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure."

I need to be more like that bird.

Friday, June 15, 2007


When I first served as a counselor for mentally disabled adults at my church conference camp, one of our campers was a guy named Larry. He walked with a gimp and the only thing he could say was a faint, "yes" or "no." I was told he had autism.

Years later, I've learned that autism comes in many different forms. For example, I once met a boy who has Asperger Syndrome. He loved to talk. If my friend didn't say his son had a problem, I never would have noticed in our brief meeting.

So when I came across Steve Hayes, at Cajun Roast Beef, writing about his son's struggle with autism and what the Lord is teaching him through it, I was touched:
Autistic people are in their own world and they're only capable of thinking of themselves. In light of that, it's very important to stretch them to think about others. Here's what that means for us: We have to set up our home in such a way that Pierce has to ask for anything and everything that he wants.

The reason we need Pierce to ask for stuff is because we need him to know that, in life, you can't just go around grabbing anything you want without asking. In other words, what I'm starting to learn is that it's not wrong to desire things, but it's very wrong to take action on those desires without asking. It seems to me that this is why God tells us over and over again in the Bible to ask for what we want. He says that we "have not because we ask not" (James 4:2), and states in Psalm 37:4 that we are to "Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart."
Steve has posted three stories--one, two, and three. In them, you can see the pain and struggle, but you can also sense the Lord's presence.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

To the Moon and Back

I've never quoted from a Christian fund raising letter before, but this is interesting:

Imagine something over 700,000 miles long that is growing by almost 20 miles each day. Something of that size could wrap around the earth's equator 28 could stretch from the earth to the moon, back to the earth, and then back to the moon again. That is a picture of what the unevangelized population of the world would look like if we were to stand each person side-by-side in a line.

The unevangelized population is 1,850,402,000 people in mid-2007, based on estimates from The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

People still need to hear about Jesus. Would that include anyone you know?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Purpose Statements for Us

Today I want to examine the purpose statements that pertain to us in Scripture. In the last two posts, we saw how Jesus and the Apostle Paul each articulated their purposes.

These are the purpose statements given to you and I:
  • "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness..." (Matthew 6:33)
  • "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind'...This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matthew 22:36-40)
  • "...Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you..." (Matthew 28:18-20)
  • "All things were created by him and for him." (Colossians 1:16) [him = Christ]
Promises that God will fulfill His purposes
  • "Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the LORD's purpose that prevails." (Proverbs 19:21)
  • "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)
  • "The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your love, O LORD, endures forever—do not abandon the works of your hands." (Psalm 138:8)
God's purposes are the same for every Christian. But how each Christian carries out those purposes are different--resulting from the talents and gifts God gives us, working in conjunction with the particular vision He's given each person.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Purpose Statements of Apostle Paul

Today I'm continuing to look at Biblical passages that talk about purpose.

Yesterday we looked at what Jesus said about his purpose. Today we'll look at what the Apostle Paul said about his.

A brief scan of Paul's letters reveals the following:
  • "[God] has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors..." (2 Corinthians 5:19-20).
  • "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Galatians 2:20)
  • "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." (Philippians 1:21)
  • "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead." (Philippians 3:10-11)
  • "For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle..." (2 Timothy 1:5-7)
In what manner does Paul go about living out his purpose?
He serves God, "with my whole heart." (Romans 1:9)

Why does Paul live out his purpose so passionately?
"We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me." (Colossians 1:28-29)

Where Jesus' purpose is clearly self-defined (notice how often Jesus talks about his mission saying, "I"), Paul understood his purpose as one given to him through God's calling.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Purpose Statements of Jesus

Sunday evening I watched a video presentation by Pastor Craig Groeschel of LifeChurch.TV. He makes a great point:
"Everyone ends up somewhere. Few people end up somewhere on purpose."
I haven't picked up Rick Warren's gazillon copy best seller Purpose Driven Life in some time, but Craig's statement got me thinking again about our purpose.

Consider these purpose statements of Jesus:
  • "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." (John 10:10)
  • "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45)
  • "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." (Luke 19:10)
  • "For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me." (John 6:38)
  • "For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind." (John 9:38)
  • "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." (Matthew 5:17)
  • "Jesus replied, 'Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.'" (Mark 1:38)
  • "From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life." (Matthew 16:21)
When you read the Gospels, you never get the sense that Jesus is in a rush to do anything. He never has to hurry off anywhere. And yet, Jesus isn't wandering around aimlessly. He has a mission--and fulfills it.

Now while Jesus made a conscientious decision to leave heaven and come down to earth, you and I simply "showed up" through birth. Jesus knew his purpose from the beginning. We have to learn it.

For me, that is a constant process.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Keep Reading Your Bible

I've been reading the Bible for a long time, but it never ceases to amaze me how I continue to discover new facts. Or, to re-discover what I've forgotten.

For instance:
  • Did you know that when Jesus cleansed the Temple, he made a whip to do the job? See John 2:15
  • Did you know that after Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus, the Chief Priests plotted to kill Lazarus because his testimony was causing too many people to turn to Jesus? See John 12:10-11.
  • Did you know that some people were healed when handkerchiefs and aprons, touched the Apostle Paul, were laid upon them? See Acts 19:11-12.
  • Did you know that the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah was pulled out of the bottom of a well with a rope--with "worn out rags and old clothes" under his arms for support? See Jeremiah 38:12-13.
The Scriptures weren't given to make us trivia experts, but discovering its interesting details has made me reconsider the stories again and contemplate its timeless truths.

What interesting tid-bit are you seeing in the Word?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Just Genesis

Alice Linsley recently created a blog--Just Genesis--to share a lifetime of research about her favorite book of the Bible. She doesn't post very often, but when she does, it's interesting reading.

In this entry, I learned some fascinating facts. Here, she illustrates the relationship between Jesus and three important Old Testament figures--Abraham, Isaac, and Moses:

The Person of Jesus Christ is foreshadowed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul, John, Peter and the early Church Fathers found continuity between the faith of Abraham and the revelation of Jesus Messiah. Nothing in the Scripture is extraneous to the Person of Jesus Christ.

As with Isaac, Jesus’ sacrificial journey required three days. As with Isaac, Jesus carried the wood upon which he would be sacrificed. As with Isaac, the sacrificed one is bound. As with Isaac, the Son is sacrificed on a mountain. Only with Jesus, no substitute is provided. God did not make a switch to save His Son. This is because Jesus is the real thing, not the archetype. Salvation is an embodied reality and has archetypes which point us to the True Form.

As we consider Abraham and Moses as archetypes of Christ, we begin to see a pattern. Here are some threads of the pattern:

• The Prophet Hosea tells us that God called His Son out of Egypt. Since both Abraham and Moses were led out of Egypt, this cannot apply to Israel. Were it so, the prophecy would speak of “sons.” Clearly this prophecy speaks of the Son, Jesus Christ.

• Jesus’ is revealed at his Baptism in the Jordan. Instead of the waters parting, the heavens part.

• Jesus had no progeny. (Sorry Dan Brown.)

• On earth, Jesus’ natural relationship with the Father is distorted in that moment when He cries: “Why hast Thou forsaken me?”

• Jesus victorious rose from the grave, Almighty God.

• Jesus was a Prince whose royal lineage was not recognized by his own people. John reminds us that He came into the world but the world did not recognize or “receive” him.

• Jesus was blessed by noblemen sages (priests?) at His revealing by the great star.

• Jesus met his archetypical “bride” in the woman at Jacob’s well. She was the first female evangelist, and according to tradition, Photini and all her children were martyred. Photini means “Illumined One” and she represents the Church, the Bride of Christ.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Lawn Mowing

With all the rain we've been getting, I've been mowing the lawn quite a bit.

The parsonage yard isn't too big; it takes a couple of hours with a walk behind mower. I have four sections--backyard, alley, east side, and front. I always mow the sections in the same order, though I usually change the way I mow them to keep from getting too bored.

What I enjoy most is the loud whirl of the engine. The affect is it shuts out the rest of the world and ushers me to a place where I'm alone with my thoughts.

I think about all sorts of things--church, family, silly stuff, friends, sports, books, Scripture, sermons, good thoughts, bad thoughts.

I can see the next John Deer lawn mowing ads now:

"It's not just mowing, it's therapy."

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Choking the Life Out of the Gospel

This past Saturday my wife and I attended the annual home school convention in Wichita, sponsored by the Teaching Parents Association. It's a two day weekend with dozens of speakers and a convention floor full of exhibitors.

We arrived Saturday and was able to catch the final, afternoon keynote address by Steve and Teri Maxwell, entitled, "Keeping Our Children's Hearts."

The talk's introduction was innocent enough: Christian parents should strive to nurture their children's hearts to love God and their family. We want our kids to love and follow Jesus, not the world and its passing enticements.

How do you do that? First, the audience was told, "Get rid of your TV." That's standard home school convention advice that gets said every year. Like most in the audience, I listen to it and then come home and turn on SportsCenter.

The advice continued. The speaker shared how he quit flying small airplanes because, "that wasn't something I could do with my whole family." How they pulled their kids out of a church youth group because it was "too worldly." How they quit letting their kids play sports because it put them in contact with people "who made sports their idol."

By this point, I was tuning out (TV attention deficit syndrome?). When speakers get boring, I often play a little game. I ask myself, "How could I make what I'm hearing more interesting?"

And then the speaker said, "I'm not trying to make you feel bad, but..."

At that moment, I realized the problem.

On my wife's note pad, I wrote the following:

Law & "The Costs"
Grace & "The Rewards"
What percent of each are you hearing?

My wife wrote:

Law & "The Costs" 100%
Grace & "The Rewards" 0%

Next, I wrote, "Is that the Gospel message?"

More than half a dozen times, after being told what we must do to protect our kids from the world, the speaker would say, "I'm not trying to make you feel guilty."

An honest liar. How nice.

By the end of the talk, I was fuming.

Here's the speech's problem: Too often, "sharing" avalanches into hard-sell sharing.

When that happens, the Good News gets chocked.

And becomes legalism.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Summer Begins

Yesterday was Little River's Vacation Bible School Rally. On this day, the Methodist and Congregational Church come together for one service. People who don't normally attend church get to hear the Gospel as they come to see their children perform. During our Son Force Kids program, I came out as "Agent DET" and promoted all the kids to Level 5 Agents. All in all, it was a lot of fun and I had great time with my 3-4th grade boys class.

With VBS and all of May's graduation activities completed, my summer officially begins.

Knowing you've transitioned from one season to another is a good feeling. You can look back with a sense of accomplishment knowing that good things got done.

Summer means that traditional activities around the church take a break for the summer--Bible study groups, weekly youth and children ministries, although Sunday School continues.

Around church, summer gives me time to make plans for September-May, while also taking some needed time off.

Meanwhile, local farmers are gearing up for wheat harvest. With the late April freeze we suffered--and with all the extra moisture causing disease problems--the yield is still very uncertain.

"Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons..." (Daniel 2:20-21)

Friday, June 01, 2007

Son Force Kids--Days # 2, 3, 4, 5

It's Friday afternoon and our community's VBS has come to a close. Whew, I'm exhausted.

Today we had a double lesson--Jeremiah 36 and Numbers 13-14. We served a hot dog lunch, followed by that kids' favorite--snow cones (did you know a 5 pound bag of sugar goes into each flavor?)

Tuesday's lesson was Esther. Wednesday's was Daniel 1. Then Wednesday afternoon I conducted a funeral.

It's been a busy, but rewarding week.

And now its time for nap. ZZZZZ.