Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The burden of Shrove Tuesday

Today is Shrove Tuesday -- that is the traditional name for the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. For some, it is a last day of feasting before Lent. The French call it Fat Tuesday. In Britain, Ireland, Australia and Canada -- and IHOP restaurants, it is called Pancake Day or Pancake Tuesday

I like the name Shrove Tuesday. The origin of the name Shrove lies in the archaic English verb "to shrive", which means to absolve people of their sins.

There is a minister in our denomination, Joanna Adams, who tells the story of a Methodist colleague she knew well.

The Methodist minister and his wife were walking on the streets of downtown Atlanta when they saw a man collapse nearby.

While his wife called 911, the Methodist minister leaned over the man to comfort him.

"Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ve called for help and they will be here any moment. Just hang on.”

Suddenly the stranger reached up and grabbed the minister by the coat and pulled him close to him so they were eye to eye – “Charlie,” the stranger said.

“I’m not Charlie,” said the minister. “But don’t worry. I’m with you and we’ve called for help. Just hang on.”

The stranger ignored him.

“Charlie, forgive me.”

“I’m not Charlie. Charlie isn’t here. But we’ve called for help.”

“Charlie, listen to me, forgive me!”

"I’m not Charlie.”

“Charlie, listen to me. Forgive me.”

And seeing the desperation in his eyes, the Methodist minister said, “I forgive you.”

And those were the last words the stranger would ever here before his death.

The minister later thought about how arrogant he had been to offer forgiveness. “Who am I,” he would later ask, “to speak for this Charlie and to offer a word of forgiveness.”

But then he realized he did that every Sunday in worship, and ever day of his life.

We are called to forgive. God means for us to be forgiving to others and to receive and enjoy forgiveness. There are a couple of frightening passages in Scripture that are related to our responsibility to forgive others.

One is from Matthew's Gospel. Jesus is teaching the disciples the Lord's Prayer (Matt 6:14-15), and he explains about the line, "Forgive us our debts/sins/trespasses," by telling his followers, "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

Wow -- our ability to receive forgiveness is connected with our ability to forgive others!

The flip side of this forgiveness comes in John's Gospel (John 20:23), where Jesus said, "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."

What a delightfully incredible burden we have!

Friends, forgive the slimballs, ass holes and jerks in your midst. Your soul, and theirs, depends on it.

Monday, February 20, 2006

A Sudden Flash Of Insight

I walked through the doorway of the nursing home completely unnoticed. No one was at the front desk. I passed the nurses station, manned only by what seemed to be a custodian enjoying a game show on television.

I went into William's room and found him in the bed.

"Good morning, William," I told him, introducing myself as if he would have no clue that I was the pastor of his church. Indeed, William had no clue at all who I was. Or who his wife was. Or who he was.

I chatted away about meaningless things -- the birds at his window. The blue sky. The palm tree swaying in the wind. The youth group's trip to Montreat coming up this Summer, and how he used to take the kids each year.

He understood nothing.

As I talked, William talked back to me in mumbling sounds that I could not comprehend.

As I left I told William I wanted to have a prayer. I held his hand and prayed a simple prayer.

When I opened my eyes I saw William looking straight at me with a clear expression. "Thank you, pastor," he told me.

And as suddenly as clarity had come for William, it left just as suddenly.

But in that brief moment, he had a glimpse that God loved him and that the church was with him.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Pastoral Visits

I went to see a parishioner today.

Nothing formal. No appointment. No elder to accompany me. Just me and a 93 year old man sitting in his den, chatting away.

Of all I do as a minister, I think the one thing that has changed most is the pastoral visit.

I was ordained 26 years ago, and I could get in my car and drive to Elm Street and visit seven homes in an afternoon. No appointment. No worrying about having another elder with me. We'd sit and chat, have prayer, and I'd leave to visit the next home.

Today I have to call ahead -- two or three days ahead of time. I have to get a passcode to be allowed into the gated community (I think everyone in South Florida lives in these gated communities). With luck I can visit 1 family each week.

Most of my visits today are over the telephone or via email. The real face to face visits are at lunch. This year the church gave me an extra $1,000 in my expense budget to provide for more of these meals. After church on Sundays, my wife and I can often take a visiting family out to lunch. Visitors like that -- but woe be to me if I call and ask if I can stop by their home.

Is it just South Florida, are is the whole world cocooning in their homes?

Even hospital visits have changed.

I clearly remember in the 1980s people who were having surgery would go in the day before. I'd see them in their hospital room late in the afternoon. After surgery, it would be several days before they returned home. In a church of 100 people I was at the hospital almost daily.

Nowadays, with 700 members in my church, I visit the hospital about once each month. Right now I have two in Intensive Care, but that is rare. Usually someone goes into the hospital the day of the surgery, around 6 AM, and they are out by the end of the day. I rarely see the parishioners in the hospital unless they are, as my two church members are now, in life-treatening conditions.

I miss the pastoral visits I used to do. I could get to know the parishioners and they could get to know me.

Can't sleep

I've been tagged :)

It is 1:07 AM and I'm having a hard time sleeping because I am distressed and pissed at something going on in the church. It's one of those political things that detracts a pastor from the work of being a pastor. I seem to spend half my week in conflict management.

So, this is the way it works. Knock the top name off the list below. Add yours to the bottom.

Topmost Apple
Rebel Without a Pew
The Apostle John

Tag five people for this meme

The next five people who visit here -- it's an honor system folks :) You know who you are -- and if you don't figure it out.

What were you doing 10 years ago?
According to my diary, my new Associate Pastor and I had just gotten back from the Bahamas on a weekend cruise the church gave us as a retreat. Remember, where I live it is not that expensive and there are cruise connections in the congregation.

What were you doing a year ago?
I was spending the day in prayer for my student assistant pastor, who was taking her ordination exams.

5 snacks you enjoy
A hot dog

5 Songs to which you know all the word
The Theme of Gilligan's Island
Row, Row, Row your boat
Take me out to the ball game
(Now is that sad or what?)

5 things I'd do if I were a millionare
Pay off my mortgage
Take a small membership church - part of me misses those days in my ministry
Buy my wife a new car
Spend some money for our church's missions in Haiti

5 bad habits
Eating M&Ms and all those other snack foods
Staying up too late (it's now 1:17 AM)
Not exercising enough
Saying yes to too many evening meetings
Leaving newspapers on the floor

5 things you enjoy doing
Being with my family
Going to the movies

5 things you would not wear again
leisure suits from the 1970s.
a see through brief that I wore on Valentines' Day 1976. My bod was better back then.
a tie someone brought me from New York -- man that was ugly !
neru shirts
a cheap alb

5 favorite toys

Thanks Rebel Without A Pew, for the tag :)

It's now 1:23 AM and I suppose I can go to sleep now.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Secret Indentity of the Apostle John

Here is a great statement from FISHBOWL at http://dctoo.blogspot.com/. He talks about me :)

"He is a newish presbyterian pastor down in florida. One of the things I'm thinking through as a new pastor is how to blog authentically my thoughts/musings/feelings while being pastoral to the church at the same time. I'm not sure, but I don't think that apostle john identifies which church he pastors in his blog: it is psuedo-anonymous by my quick glance. I wonder if his church knows about it."

Newish? I love it. I told dctoo, the writer of Fishbowl, that I am nothing more than an old fart with bad breath, a big pot belly, an enough grey hair in my black beard that I look like I've slobbered my milk.

So how much is true in my blog?

I had a commenter named RG -- I really miss him, as he had great comments about my posts. Very critical, but his writing kept me on my toes. He thought he knew who I was -- that I was a pastor in another state. Then he figured out that I wasn't really a minister at all.

So who am I?

I am a minister.

I am a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

I'm in South Florida -- and I used to say which city, but decided I should be a bit more vague.

My church is multicultural and includes people of every race. There are over 30 nationalities in my congregation.

I was ordained in 1980.

I'm in my 50's.

I wish I was in my 20's.

I've been married 31 years.

One of my sons is in the Air Force Reserves and will soon be going overseas. It is the power of his parent's prayer that he is going to England rather than Iraq.

The things I write about are basically true. Many things I do not write about at the time they happen, and a careful reading will reveal that some posts are about things that I say happened "not long ago."

My name is not John. I don't know how I came up with the name "Apostle John" other than to say he is my favorite biblical author.

Originally the name of the blog was "A Christian Minister." It was started by another minister in Georgia, and then he and I and another kept it up together. That didn't last for long, and now I am the sole owner and writer of the blog.

I change the names of people in my church -- ever notice that many people appear in alphabetical order during a post.

I don't think anyone in my church has ever stumbled on my blog.

I think it would be really neat if I stumbled on one of theirs :) Then I could really know what they are thinking in the pews.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

There are churches I remember, in my life, though some have changed.

One of the great seminarian blogs I read is Serenitipity.

Something on her blog got me to thinking. Seminary students today seem to graduate after three years with only a handful of sermons. My last associate pastor graduated from Princeton Seminary having preached only 3 sermons.

I preached 140 times in seminary. One year I preached every single Sunday for a solid year -- which will never happen again. Since graduation, I get this thing called "vacation" :)

I preached for pastors who were on vacation, for churches that were vacant, and for churches that out of their goodness and graciousness allowed a seminarian to visit the pulpit.

Bethia had services once each month. The town had long since died, but the church remained. My wife and I arrived one Sunday and found the place empty. We waited and waited, and finally the congregation pulled up. They were all in one car -- all 7 of them. One of them got out of the car and went to a rock near the steps, picked it up and found the key to the church hidden beneath it.

We went inside and it was freezing. One of the elders went to the wood stove and built a fire to warm us, and all the congregation sat near the stove.

When no one was looking, I took a deep breath and blew onto the big pulpit Bible. A cloud of dust flew up around me.

One of the ladies asked my wife, "Do you play the piano?"

"Yes," she said.

"Good. We can have music this Sunday."

My wife had already learned at that point to bring some music along. She began to play a prelude on an old, out-of-tune upright piano. I was the only one who even tried to sing.

During the Lord's Prayer, the one little girl who was with the rest of the 70 year olds in the church began to join with me in the prayer. She said the prayer louder and faster than I was able to, and when I was in the middle of the prayer, she said, "Amen."

Since I was still praying, "Forgive us our debts..." she continued to pray, but prayed a different prayer --- "Now I lay me down to sleep."

That's when I learned to always have a laminated copy of the Lord's Prayer with me in the pulpit. At that point I completely forgot what came after "our debts."

At one little church in Georgia, I stood up to give the Call to Worship and to begin worship. An elder jogged down the center aisle and asked, "Son, please don't forget to announce that this is soil stewardship Sunday."

Not being a farmer, I had no idea what that meant, so I said, "Friends, let us not forget that today is soil stewardship Sunday. Therefore, let us worship God and stand and sing hymn number 1."

I went back to that same church again a few months later, and during the first hymn, that same elder jogged down the same center aisle. He leaned over and whispered, "Son, do you have the same hymnbook as everyone else?"

"Yes," I said, "And I'm even on the same page."

From then on, all my singing was done in the shower. In church, I learned to lip-sinc.

While I might not have a great singing voice, I've always felt that most hymns should be sung in their entirety. ALL stanzas! I developed a habit of saying, "Let us stand and sing all stanzas of hymn number whatever."

I stopped doing that when I went to a tiny Presbyterian Church in North Carolina. They used a Psalter, singing only metrically arranged psalms.

The pianist began playing, and the congregation stood up. I opened the book to find the song, and much to my dismay found a psalm that had 17 stanzas.

Pity my wife was not the musician that day -- she would have been looking at me at one point and I could have gestured a "let's stop right here."

Some churches just did things differently than I was accustomed to. At Rocky River, the offering was taken before the sermon. During the sermon, an elder or deacon would change a board that would declare what the offering was for that day. If it wasn't enough, then after the sermon they would take up another offering.

In one African American Church, I noticed a large poster in the narthex. It listed every member's name, and on a chart you could see what each person gave week to week that year. You'd never see that in a White congregation.

Actually, I wasn't supposed to go to that church. Will and I were assigned churches on the preaching circuit for one particular Sunday, and each of us had been to our assignments before. He and I always enjoyed going to new places. Will is Black and I am White, so we decided to trade. He went to a White congregation and I to a Black one.

The next day, we were both in the Dean's office. Remember, that was in 1977 or 1978. Schools had only been integrated for about 10 years. We had known we were going to upset some folks in both churches, but Will and I also believed that someday churches would need to integrate. We figured we were in deep trouble and might be excluded from future preaching assignments. The Dean simply said, "I've had lots of complaints about what you two did on Sunday. If you two want to be prophets, then you need to know what it is like to be martyred. I'm assigning you to go back to the same churches this Sunday. Good luck. You'll need it."

So Will went back to the White congregation and I to the Black one. He and I both decided we would make the same announcement. "The Dean says he received a lot of comments on my preaching here last week. I'm not sure what you folks said, but it must have been real nice because the Dean said that as long as he receives such comments, I'll be coming back here every Sunday y'all are without a pastor."

Apparently there were no further comments and Will and I were never sent back to those churches.

I'm glad things have changed. I now preach in a congregation that is about 50/50 black and white. Will is an Army Chaplain, and has been for many years.

The seminarians would share our experiences on Monday as we sat around in the coffee room. We were always anxious to find out the directions to these churches -- remember, there was no mapquest back then. Just as important, we wanted to know if which churches had indoor plumbing.

At the Mountville Church, there was not even an outhouse. The men went in the woods on the left of the church, and the women at the right of the church.

We went to Mountville a few times, and once I felt we were headed in the wrong direction. My wife was navigating and assured me, "It's right up here, near some damn Baptist Church." I was shocked -- my wife never cussed. But there it was, right near the Beaver Dam Baptist Church.

Some of the churches we went to simply could not afford an ordained pastor. After one service, an elder came to me with the offering plate and handed me half the contents -- $7.50 and a check. The check was my offering. Oh well, "cast your bread on the waters and it will come back to you."

I took it -- we were always in need in seminary. Once I cooked a pizza, using the last bit of flour, pasta sauce and cheese in the apartment. My wife and I were so looking forward to that pizza that we didn't preheat the oven. We just fired it up and put in the pie.

Little did we know that a roach had been crawling on the stove's ceiling. When we checked the pizza, there it was in the middle of our meal.

"Let's cut the middle out and eat the rest," my wife suggested.

So we did.

That was a Saturday night and we were hoping the next day's church would be generous.

Thankfully they were!

One couple took us out to lunch after church and fed us well.

"Let me take ya'll for a drive -- I want to show you my store," our host insisted.

It was a grocery store. He grabbed a buggy and said, "I want you to fill this buggy up and the food is on the house." He wouldn't let us be stingy. If we put in one box of cereal, he'd put in another. He insisted that we load up on steaks and a turkey.

We didn't have to worry about eating the roach's left overs for a long time after that.

In one church there must have been almost 700 people. At the end of the service, there would often be one or two who would quietly slipped me a check. I would thank them and put the folded check in my pocket to look at later, thankful that so many wanted to support me in preparing for the ministry.

At lunch on that day, I pulled out 8 checks -- far more than I usually received. One was the "official honorarium." That would sometimes be $20. Sometimes $50. I looked at the other checks, only to discover that not a single one of them was a check I could cash -- they were notes offering advice about my sermon and preaching.

"Shave the beard" was one.

Having a beard was a problem in the late 1970s, and my professors advised me to shave it, but I never did. I went in one church and sat behind the pulpit, waiting for the prelude to end. A child in the congregation yelled out, "Look, Jesus has come to preach today."

Someone else -- an adult -- said, "That ain't no Jesus. It's not even a real preacher yet."

True, but these Sundays helped me to become a preacher and I'm grateful.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Getting a Raise, Part II

I think the post about how Presbyterian ministers get raises prompted more responses than any other recent post -- other than one a few post months ago about how Christians should pray for their ememies, inlcuding Osama.

Lots of folks made suggestions, such as having an elder preside, but in the Presbyterian Church (USA) the Book of Order, says "The pastor shall be the moderator of all meetings of the congregation."

I've never had anyone offer any real discussion about the raise. It just strikes me as odd that I moderate the meeting. The chair of the Personnel Committee presents the motion, but there I stand having to ask, "Any discussion?" As I say, there never is.

By and large, these meetings are dull.

An annual report is mailed out a week prior to the meetings, and people never have any questions about them.

We elect elders to a three year term of the Session -- and that goes smoothly also.

Well, there was this ONE time.

It was my first year in my current church. The church had been in conflict for several years, which is one of the reasons I went to this particular church. Conflicted churches seem to have become my specialty.

At any rate, the people in the congregation did not trust the elders at all.

Fortunately someone warned me about what was about to happen.

You see, normally the Nominating Committee would come up with 1 name for each vacany on the Session and would present these names to the congregation as possible elders. The Book of Order requires that the floor be open for nominations from the congregation, but no one EVER makes such a nomination. Then the nominees are elected.

Not that year.

There were 7 openings on the Session.

The congregation named 14 from the floor! So there we were with 21 nominees for 7 openings.

Now we don't just take the top 7.

The Book of Order requires that each elder have a clear mandate to serve -- meaning a majority of those present and voting.

One elder, who had been the chair of my Pastor Nominating Committee, was furious that he had not won on the first ballot. He rose to give a speech, which was basically, "You can't run this church without me. I hold this place together!"

On the next ballot he received 3 votes out of over 200.

I figure the votes were his, his wife's and one of his sons -- hmmm, he had two sons there. Wonder which of his family didn't vote for him?

Anyway, he walked out and never returned.

I called all of the nominees afterward to thank them for their willingness to serve. Most were humble and accepting of the congregation's decision.

Not that one fellow.

He demanded that I apologize for not publically telling the congregation to elect him.

It never occurred to me to "campaign" for a nominee.

Neither one of us saw the other's point of view.

The bottom line is he never returned to church after that.

Well, it seemed to work out best for everyone.

The church began its long road to recovery and healing that day. It took about 2 years of pure hell, but then the church became a delightful place to serve.

As for me, the congregation seemed to understand that I was not going to be anyone's puppet. I'd already pissed off the leader of the other faction -- quite by accident. So they looked at me as neuteral. Go figure.

As for that fellow, he's attending a community church down the road and seems very happy where he is.

So I guess there can be some surprises at these meetings after all.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

I Hate Getting A Raise

Actually it is not the raise I hate getting, it is the process.

Do 12 year old kids vote on your salary?

Is your salary public?

For me, my salary raise has to go through the Personnel Committee, then to the Session (or governing body of elders), but then it has to go to the congregation for approval. In our Presbyterian system, there are only five things the whole congregation votes on -- everything else is in the hands of the elders.

Changing the amount of salary the pastor receives is one of them. If you work for the church and are not ordained, the session changes it. But if you are ordained, all active members get to vote on it --

Including your wife and kids.

Including the teenagers who just finished confirmation classes.

And you know the worst thing about the congregational meeting?

The pastor moderates the meeting.

I have met a couple of ministers who would start the meetings, walk out, and then let an elder conduct the rest of the meeting. That is mostly symbolic, since the pastor's family is still in the meeting. As a member of the Committee on Ministry or our Presbytery (a geographic group of Presbyterian Churches), that arrangement has often led to unnecessary problems for pastors.

So there I am, conducting a meeting in which my salary is to be approved.

The meetings are always peaceful and routine -- who would get up and speak against a motion like this unless I was really having problems with the church?

So that is what I did this Sunday after church -- moderating a meeting in which I was being given a raise. I find it all humiliating and embarrassing :(

Still, at the end of the day, I'm left wondering if this was worth it.

I hate these meetings!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Ain't Gonna Study War No More

Years ago, when I lived "up north" in Georgia, I had a house with a fig tree and a grape vine.

I loved sitting in the shade of the fig tree. It was a living reminder of God's promise to me and to all people. You can find that promise in the Old Testament book of Micah (chapter 4, verses 1-4).

Micah tells me that there will come a day of peace.

People will come from all nations, living together in a multicultural community. God will be our judge and will settle disputes among nations.

And the people "will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Every person will sit under his or her own vine and under his or her own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken."

I long for that day of peace.

I have added a counter at the left. It shows the cost of war. The National Priorities Project maintains the counter.

The cost is beyond my ability to understand or comprehend.

You can compare the cost. What else could we have done with that money? The National Priorities Project gives suggestions.

We could have ensured that every child in the world was given basic immunizations for 79 years.

We could have hired 4,135,284 additional public school teachers for one year.

We could have built 2,148,534 additional housing units.

We could have fully funded global anti-hunger efforts for 9 years.

e could have fully funded world-wide AIDS programs for 23 years.

I sometimes wonder, will the world forgive us for what we have done?

Will the future generations of our country forgive us for what was left undone?

Will God forgive?

I wonder if fig trees and grape vines grow in Miami?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Day Dreaming During Sermons

Does your mind wander while you are sitting in church trying to listen to the sermon?

Yep, my mind wanders, too.

Which is not good, because I'm the preacher!

Long time readers may remember that I consider sex to be one of my favorite hobbies. When we were younger, I had to make a rule that there would be no sex after 6 PM on Saturdays. If it was really good, I kept thinking during the sermon about just how good it was. That worked for a while, until I would begin thinking about how I looked forward to getting through the service and going home to hop in the sack.

I still think about sex during the sermon sometimes, but not so often. It's one of the gifts of aging. You become more in control of your sexuality.

Sometimes I look out at the congregation and see someone who needs to hear this particular sermon. I think of changing the sermon to fit that person's life. For a moment I'm tempted to ignore the rest of the congregation, but I continue as planned.

Sometimes I'm in the middle of an illustration and it occurs to me -- "this ain't working."

Sometimes I am making a well planned point, and suddenly realize -- "this is really lame."

Sometimes I think about how my back hurts.

Sometimes I see my son's face and worry about why he looks so sad.

Sometimes I see my son's face and think about how happy he looks.

Sometimes I think about how slim the attendance is, and I worry about where we are headed.

Sometimes I think about how full the pews are, and I get excited about where we are headed.

Sometimes I think about "where's Joe? I haven't seen him in worship in months."

Sometimes I see someone familiar and think, "Who is he? Someone I met at the Senior Citizen's center? Oh wait -- that's my buddy from high school -- gee did he get old!"

Sometimes I think about what movie I want to see on Sunday afternoon.

Sometimes I think about what to eat for lunch, and I wonder if we can get out in time to beat the Southern Baptist crowds.

These day dreams last only a moment or so. They are very fleeting and never hinder the message.

So what do you think about during the sermon? Yep, you probably just think about the sermon, which puts me to shame :)

Great New Way To Study Bible and Theology

This is straight from the Presbyterian Church's news service...

Presbyterian officials have launched a Web site they describe as the "next generation" in adult Christian study resources.

TheThoughtfulChristian.com offers lessons in theology and the Bible, popular culture, spirituality, Christian living and contemporary issues that can be downloaded (for a fee), printed, photocopied and emailed for use in classes and retreats and for personal study and devotion.

The new site - officially called The Thoughtful Christian: Faithful Living in a Complex World - is an imprint of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation (PPC), the trade-publishing arm of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The online resource "represents the most exciting and innovative publishing initiative PPC has undertaken in recent times," said David Perkins, PPC's president and publisher. "I believe it will prove to be one of the most creative programs in all religious publishing."

The studies consist of one to four sessions each. Every session is designed to take 45 minutes to an hour. Each includes a three- to four-page handout and a two- to five-page leader's guide with lesson plans and resources. The site is meant to be ecumenical.

It already has more than 50 units on topics ranging from same-sex marriage and the war in Iraq to a study of the popular book, The DaVinci Code. Additional studies will be added each month, including "rapid-response" sessions on news events.

The Thoughtful Christian was officially launched on Feb. 1 during the annual meeting of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE), which opened on the same day in St. Louis, MO.

The site has a fan in the Rev. Barbara Tesorero, of Sycamore Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH.

"Adult-education ... classes have always been a difficult animal to corral," she said. "The Thoughtful Christian site offers the variety and depth that our adult learners often seek. From stem-cell research to Reformed spirituality, our class facilitators are sure to discover material that will enable our adult learners to explore their faith on a variety of levels."

Individuals, churches and other organizations have three options for buying materials:

For subscribers who sign up by Sept. 30, 2006, the first-year cost will be $250 and annual renewals will be $225. After Sept. 30, the cost will increase.

Individual studies can be downloaded at a cost of $5 for one session, $9 for two and $12 for three. Each additional session beyond three costs $3.

For information log on to www.TheThoughtfulChrisitan.com to sign up for updates and for a chance to win free downloads.