Wednesday, December 25, 2013

This week's lesson: exhortations from the sanctuary

There are some places you just don't go.

When I was in school, for instance, the one place that was strictly off-limits in that building was the teacher's lounge. This was the places teachers hung-out when they weren't in the classroom; there they'd grade papers, drink bad coffee, and swap jokes about the School Board . . . 

Or so I was told. I'd never actually been in the teacher's lounge; no student had. And the reports of what happened to students who had even so much as knocked on its door meant that we all steered clear of that lounge!

So you can imagine my thoughts when I knocked on that door.

And you can imagine my thoughts when the door opened, and I was invited inside.

And no, I had no right to be there -- no more than we have the right to "come boldly" into the presence of God.

But my mother taught in that school. She had told me to meet her there. And because of her, I was welcomed to a place that I had no right to be.
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16, NIV).

Sunday, December 15, 2013

This week's lesson: the cosmic conflict over God's character

Think of him as a bureaucrat -- a fussy little bureaucrat in a cheap suit with a bad haircut who shuffles into your office, opens his battered briefcase, and starts asking for your receipts.

That's the literal meaning of "satan," after all; it means "auditor" -- and throughout Scripture, the Auditor continually tries to poke holes in anything good that comes along.
  • Take Eve, for instance -- as far as the Auditor's concerned, she's good only because she doesn't know what she's missing. 
  • As for Job, the Auditor's sure that he's good only because he's been bribed to follow God.
  • And with the Auditor's help, Jesus will realize there's an easier way to get what He wants than to follow God --right? 
Well, no -- though not for lack of trying.
But as Kierkegaard and C. S. Lewis have both pointed out, the Devil may be a lion in his effects -- but in his tactics, he's more of a weasel. 
Yes, he slinks, he skulks, he insinuates . . . 
He whines, he nags, he prevaricates . . . 
He points out the lemon in the lemonade, the cloud behind the silver-lining, and the bug that's floating in your half-full glass . . . 
But despite his worst efforts, it turns out that he's no match for God.
If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.
Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.
And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39, NIV).

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

This week's lesson: our prophetic message

The Bible doesn't spend a lot of time asking why bad things happen to good people.

No, with the clarity that comes from living between two aggressive empires, God's people have always assumed that Bad People are out to get us . . .

And this has led to the question the Bible does ask over and over again: why don't Bad Things happen to Bad People?

Consider the cry of Revelation 6:9-10:
When [the Lamb] opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.
And so they wait -- as we wait -- through the rest of the seals . . . and the Spanish Inquisition . . . and the Great Persecution of Revelation 12-13 . . . and the Great War of Africa . . .

And as they wait, the bodies pile up and the question remains: when will God finally do something about the people who cause so much suffering pain?

The answer comes in Revelation 14:6-12 -- an answer that warns:
  • the time has come for God to deal with injustice,
  • the powers that foster injustice have already been defeated,
  • and if you think it's tough to follow God, then just wait until you see the alternative.
The powers-that-be are doomed, in other words.
The Evil Empires that inspire so much fear are all on the wrong side of history.
And the next time somebody tries to make your life miserable, then remember the Three Angels and their subversive message: the bigger they come . . .
The harder they fall.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

This week's lesson: the Eschatological Day of Atonement

So what do you do with the 2300 days?

Our church has been remarkably consistent in our interpretation of Daniel 8:14 -- we haven't changed much on what it meant . . . 

But when it comes to our application of that text (i.e. not just what it meant, but what it means for our lives today), then we've been more than happy to change and adapt -- and you can sum up these changes and adaptations with three words: sieve, spur, and shibboleth. 


  • The problem: hypocrisy in the church.
  • Message: during the Investigative Judgment, Jesus separates the the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, the true Christians from those who only claim to be such.
  • Consequences: we should "practice what we preach" -- that is the only way to make it through the Judgment.
  • Criticism: this approach can easily turn into "salvation by works.".
  • The problem: complacency in the church
  • Message: the names of some will come up in judgment while they are still alive -- and if there is still some taint of sin in their lives when this happens, then they will be lost.
  • Consequences: we must "press on to perfection" while there is still time.
  • Criticism: this approach can leave us with the belief that we've committed the unpardonable sin.
  • The problem: disloyalty in the church.
  • Message: our view of Daniel 8:14 draws together a wide body of highly technical material -- material in which few people may claim expertise on their own.
  • Consequences: the highly technical nature of this doctrine makes it an easy way to distinguish those who trust the judgment of the Church and its leaders from those who "lean on their own understanding." 
  • Critique: reason has its limits -- but as Ellen White said:
It is important that in defending the doctrines which we consider fundamental articles of faith we should never allow ourselves to employ arguments that are not wholly sound. These may avail to silence an opposer, but they do not honor the truth. We should present sound arguments, that will not only silence our opponents, but will bear the closest and most searching scrutiny. (Testimonies for the Church, Volume 5, page 708).

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

This week's lesson: the Pre-Advent Judgment

Think of it as a circuit-breaker.

We all know how easy it is to make stupid decisions, after all -- the car that looked like such a good deal on the lot . . . the file we thought it best to delete . . . the angry words that seemed like the right thing to say at the time.

That's why we give ourselves time to pause, reflect, and maybe even reconsider.
  • Buy a used-car, for instance, and the law will give you several days to "cool off" and decide if you should keep it.  
  • Try to delete a file, and most programs will ask stop you to ask, "Are you sure you want to do this?"
  • And much as we'd like to tell somebody just exactly what we think of them and what they did, most of us have learned to count to ten before we do so . . . and sometimes, even a hundred!
Even the stock market has learned the value of this; if it starts going crazy, then a "trading curb" kicks in, shuts down trading for 15-minutes, and gives people a chance to catch their breath and figure out what's going on.

Likewise, God does not rush into the Apocalypse -- and what's more, He never punishes the wicked without taking the time to make sure this needs to be done.
  • Think of the plagues He sent before the Exodus -- plagues that showed there was no other way to free God's people.
  • Think of the Millennium that comes before the resurrection of the wicked -- a Millennium (and a resurrection) that shows there is no other way to deal with these people.
  • And when Jesus comes again in glory, we can be sure this was not a spur-of-the-moment decision -- something triggered by a whim or a momentary fit of pique. No, God has thought this through. He's "slept on it." He's made sure this is a good idea in that process we call "the pre-advent judgment."
To be sure, God doesn't need to do this. He doesn't learn anything in the process; there is no danger of "buyer's remorse" in His judgments.

But even if God doesn't need to do this, we need to know that He does -- that "the LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love, forgiving sin and rebellion, even though He does not leave the guilty unpunished" (Numbers 14:18).

In short, the pre-advent judgment is not a threat, but a promise.

Like a circuit-breaker, it is there for our protection.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

This week's lesson: Christ, our priest

When you call God . . . who picks up the phone?
You can always judge someone's importance, after all, by how difficult it is to get in touch with them.
  • Call me at work, for instance, and my secretary will answer the phone, then transfer the call to me.
  • Call my boss, and a secretary will answer the phone, transfer the call to the President's Executive Assistant, and then she will forward the call to him.
  • But call the President of the United States of America, and I suspect your message will go from a secretary, to an Executive Assistant, to a Special Executive Assistant, to the Deputy Chief of Staff in charge of Special Executive Assistants, and then to . . . 
Okay, I'm not sure where it goes from there -- but you get my point.
No, important people don't answer their own phones when somebody calls.
Important people don't open their own front doors when somebody knocks. 
And important people would never read a letter you wrote to them -- not unless that letter had already made it through a cordon of secretaries, schedulers, security guards . . .
Or priests.
That's what priests do, after all -- they control access. 
  • Like secretaries, they determine who meets with their boss.
  • Like Executive Assistants, they determine the nature of that meeting with their boss.
  • And like the retinue that surrounds the President, they serve as a reminder that we are dealing with someone who is much more important than ourselves -- someone whom we could never hope to meet without the help of all those intermediaries and go-betweens.
Yes, for God to be His own priest is akin to saying that He picks up the phone when we call . . . that He answers the door when we knock . . . then He opens every letter we send and reads it Himself.
Not something you'd expect from somebody important.
But if Jesus is our priest, then that's exactly what we're saying.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

This week's lesson: Christ, our sacrifice

The way of the cross leads down.

It was Martin Luther who pointed out that most people associate God with His glory -- with His works of power in Creation, the Exodus, or the Final Judgment.

Look at the way He's portrayed in the movies, after all; either He shows up with the full donner und blitzen . . .or He's a light, streaming down through the clouds from above.

But in his Theology of the Cross, Luther argued that we know God best, not when we look at His grandeur, but when we look at His humiliation, His suffering, and His death on the cross.

Yes, these things show us what God is really like -- and they show us how desperate He was to save us.

In the incarnation, after all, God gave us Himself. He did not hold back anything; there was nothing more that He could give.

And in the crucifixion, God Himself died. He did not spare Himself anything; there was nothing more that He could do.

In short, the cross is not a sacrifice we offer to God; it is a sacrifice He endured for us.

No, the cross is not is not a ladder we climb to God.

It is the ladder He descended to be with us.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

This week's lesson: the Day of Atonement

Even the Sanctuary needed cleaning.

364 days of the year, remember, the Sanctuary was the place where everything else got fixed -- the one place where every sin could be forgiven and every relationships restored. Yes, even in a broken world, it was a place of wholeness; even in a fallen world, it was a place of holiness.

But on one day of the year, the Sanctuary closed for repairs: spiritual repairs. And it did not open again for business until an elaborate ritual of cleansing had been finished -- the ritual we call the Day of Atonement.

Now if this was true of the Sanctuary . . .
  • Then maybe we shouldn't be surprised when our "sanctuaries" need cleaning.
  • Yes, maybe we shouldn't be surprised when we need time for rest, reflection, and repair.
  • And if the ministries of our church need to be shut down for repairs -- to be shut down until they are places of forgiveness and reconciliation, to be shut down until they are both whole and holy once more . . 
Then there's good precedent for this.
Yes, even the Sanctuary needed atonement.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

This week's lesson: atonement

Most theories of the atonement begin with two facts:
  • There is something wrong with us.
  • But God's love makes it right.
And as you study this week's lesson, you will need to remember both facts.
Unless you're Eastern Orthodox, after all, you probably think of the atonement in one of two ways:
  • Christ's death pays the price for our sins.
  • Christ's death shows how much God loves us.
The first view was developed by Anselm; the second by Abelard.
The first is often called "the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement," while the second is often called "The Moral Influence Theory."
The first says atonement is external and objective, i.e. God acts to change our status with Him so that we are declared righteous (even though we're not); the second says it is internal and subjective, i.e. we are transformed by our knowledge of God's love until we are "safe to be saved."
Unfortunately, the first raises questions about the way God makes things right . . . while the second tends to downplay the fact there's something wrong with us.
  • Unless we're careful, after all, Anselm's "Satisfaction Theory" can easily turn God into a monster -- a heavenly child abuser who forgives us only because He can punish Jesus.
  • Unfortunately, Abelard's "Moral Influence Theory" makes it all too easy to trivialize our sins -- to view them as honest mistakes of ignorance that are easily set right with a little help from Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories.  
In short, both views are models of the atonement -- and like all models, they achieve clarity only by leaving out certain facts.
That's why both views of the atonement are so popular -- and both views may be needed by you (and your Sabbath School class).
If you're naturally brash and confident, for instance, then you may want to remember the great strength of Anselm's theory, i.e. there really is something wrong with us.
But if you tend to worry and fret about your relationship with God, then remember the great strength of Abelard's theory, i.e. God's love really does make everything right.
Yes, brash or fretful, confident or fearful, you still need the atonement . . . 
Whatever that atonement may be.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

This week's lesson: the sanctuary

Let's talk about the power of 30.

By the age of 30, after all, your taste in music is pretty-much set for life -- if you're not listening to rap or grand opera by that age, in other words, then you're probably not going to start.

Likewise with smoking. Getting a tattoo. Learning to drive stick-shift.

Or following God.

Yes, some people make that choice much later in life -- sometimes, much, much later. (Our church once baptized two sisters in their 90s, so I know it happens.)

But studies suggest that most people make that decision in their teens . . .

And studies also suggest that, once we've made that decision, then our view of God doesn't change all that much. No, we tend to stick with the same-old answers to the same-old questions, just as we listen to the same-old "Golden Oldies" on the radio.

But when Stephen spoke to the Sanhedrin about the sanctuary . . .
  • He didn't talk about its presence in the center of the camp as a symbol of God's immanence.
  • He didn't talk about the Most Holy Place as a symbol of God's transcendence.
  • And he certainly didn't spend a lot of time explaining the symbolism of the lamps, the basins, the altars, and the Table of Shewbread.
No, his focus was on the fact that it moved -- that it stayed with God's people every step of the way to the Promised Land.
In much the same way, God moves with us through life. 
  • When we are 13, He leads us through all the issues of adolescence.
  • When we are 45, He leads us through all the issues of middle-age.
  • And if we should live to be 97, then we can be sure that God will lead us through all the issues that come with that age.
In short, God is not frozen in time; He is not locked in to one, particular stage of our lives . . . anymore than His sanctuary was locked in to one particular place on this earth.
No, the sanctuary moves.

So do we.
And so does God.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

This week's lesson: sacrifice

I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? (Psalm 50:9-13, NIV)
Most gods work like a vending machine.

Not the God of Israel.

Yes, most gods make you pay for what you get – an attitude embodied in the Latin phrase, "DEO ET DES" (i.e. "I give so that you might give").
  • Want a good grade on tomorrow's exam? Then you need to offer some flowers to the god of wisdom.
  • Need a sunny day for tomorrow picnic? Better light a candle for the god of weather.
  • Starting a new business? Drop a twenty in the offering plate, promise you'll pay tithe, make a big pledge to the church's building fund . . . 
And you'll discover that you can't buy God's help – not at any price.

You see, God doesn't need anything from us: not our money, not our time, not Special K loaf we brought to the last church potluck. 

What's more, God doesn't get anything from us that didn't come from Him -- and that includes our money and time (though I'm not entirely sure He's responsible for the Special K loaf).

Finally, anything we give back to God is infinitely outweighed by the gift He's already given us: the gift of Himself through Jesus Christ. 

In short, God takes this whole idea of sacrifice, and turns it upside-down.

He's not a vending machine, in other words.

No, He's a loving Father – a loving Father with a pocketful of quarters . . .

And He'd love to spend them on us.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

This week's lesson: "Heaven" on earth

Imaginary numbers are real.

And if you're like me, then this is where algebra started to get weird.
  • I mean, ordinary numbers (as in 1, 2, 3, 4) made sense.
  • Negative numbers (as in -1, -2, -3, -4) made sense.
  • The idea that ordinary numbers had square roots (as in the square root of 4 is 2) made sense.
  • But the idea that negative numbers had square roots called imaginary numbers (as in the square root of -4 is 2i) . . . 
Okay, that didn't make sense -- but it was useful. Even if I couldn't picture imaginary numbers, in other words, I could still use them to solve problems . . . and in that sense (at least), I was happy to call them "real."

Unimaginable, but real.

In much the same way, it's difficult to understand just exactly what The Adult Sabbath School Quarterly means by its insistence on "the physical reality of the heavenly sanctuary" -- and any attempt to do so quickly gets bogged down in questions of where this sanctuary is located, how it was made, and is there a souvenir stand nearby where you can buy postcards and chocolate.

Yes, the heavenly sanctuary is unimaginable.

But just like those imaginary numbers, it's still useful.

It's a sanctuary, remember. As such, it reminds us that "God has pitched His tent among us" -- and as such, it provides a useful metaphor for God's presence in Creation, the Tabernacle, the Temple, the Incarnation, and the Church.

Then again, it's a heavenly sanctuary -- and as such, it reminds us that God's presence does not depend on these things. No, Creation may disappear. The Tabernacle may be replaced. The Temple may be destroyed. Jesus may be caught up into heaven. And the Church may sorely disappoint us . . . but God is still with us; His sanctuary still remains.

In short, the heavenly sanctuary is real . . .

At least for some values of "real."

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

This week's lesson: the heavenly sanctuary

This is not heaven.

If we get nothing else from this week's lesson, it's the fact that God does not have a local address -- no, there is no place in all Creation to which you could point and say, "There, that's where He hangs out when He's not on the job."
That's because God made the Universe -- it's His creation . . . and asking where God lives in our Universe is like asking where L. Frank Baum lives in the Land of Oz. ("Does he have an apartment in the Emerald City -- or maybe an estate out in Munchkinland?")
And yes, we can talk about the incarnation, and the tabernacle, and the Temple in Jerusalem -- but for now, let's nail down the simple fact that we don't need to go any place special in order to find God.
Which is another way of saying that we can find God any place. 
No matter where we might be in all this creation, in other words, we won't be in heaven.
But no matter where we are, we can go there from here.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

This week's lesson: the latter rain

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! (James 5:7-9, NIV).
It's raining here on the Oregon Coast.

Much like Palestine, you see, we have two seasons: the wet, and the dry. The wet begins sometime in autumn and continues on through spring.

And everything here -- the trees, the fish, the osprey that lives on the baseball field near our church . . . it all needs the rain to start on time (i.e. "the early rain"), and to continue on until late in spring (i.e. "the latter rain").

The "early rain" and "latter rain" are not two distinct events, in other words. Instead, they are the bookends -- the beginning and end -- of one, long, continuous rainy season.

(And yes, the technical name for two opposites that stand for the whole is "merism." Think "near and far," for instance, or "night and day," or "alpha and omega.")

When Joel 2:23 predicted "the early rain and the latter rain," in other words, it did not say that it would begin to rain . . . then stop . . . then begin again. No, it promised that God's people would have all the rain they needed, from beginning to end.

And when Acts 2:16-21 says Joel's prophecy has been fulfilled, it is not saying that God's spirit will descend on the church . . . then stop . . . then descend again.

No, just as the promise of the remnant tells us that God will always have a people who love and follow Him, so too the promise of latter rain tells us that God will always love and lead His people.

In short, it is the promise of Matthew 28:20b -- "And surely I am with you always," said Jesus, "to the very end of the age."  

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

This week's lesson: healing broken relationships

As Jesus said in Matthew 13:47ff, God's love is a net that pulls in all kinds of fish -- and some of them are definitely not keepers!

But prayer helps.

So does empathy.

And if worse comes to worse, I always have my Personal Aggravation Index (PAI).

The PAI helps me keep things in perspective; it does this by letting me rate the people who annoy me in three different areas: pain, intent, and frequency.

Pain (i.e. just how difficult is it to deal with this person?
1: meh
2: very unpleasant
3: this person makes my eyeballs bleed
Intent (i.e. just how much are they trying to aggravate me?)
1: they can't help it -- they were raised by wolves, and don't know how to deal with people..
2: they know it aggravates me, but they do it anyway.
3. they're doing it deliberately because they know it aggravates me!
Frequency (i.e. how often do I deal with this person?)
1. Once in a while
2. Frequently
3. Even when I try to avoid them, they come looking for me!
Once I've rated the person, then I add up their score:
1-3: Eh . . . it's not as bad as I thought.
4-6: Okay, we have a problem -- but this is fixable, right?
7-9: We're going to need a bigger boat!
Try it -- and see if it helps you!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

This week's lesson: new thoughts

"I'm looking for loopholes."

That's what W. C. Fields said when he was asked why he reads the Bible -- and in truth, we all have a tendency to do the same.
  • I know that I need to lose weight, for instance . . . but we all know that calories don't count when you're on vacation.
  • I know we should obey the law . . . but who drives 55 on this stretch of road?
  • And we all know that we should love our enemies . . . but not when they've treated us the way they did!
In short, we all find it easy to rationalize our bad choices -- to convince ourselves that we really haven't done anything that was actually all that wrong.

Unfortunately, other people don't always see it that way.

No, in Matthew 5, Jesus points out that:
  • We can say we were "just looking" -- but we've still angered our spouse. 
  • We can say we were "just letting off steam" -- but we've still frightened our children.
  • And we can tell ourselves that "shading the truth" isn't the same as telling a lie . . .
But if we love someone, then we don't play these kinds of games with them. No, if we love someone, then Matthew 5:48 urges us to love them wholly and completely, just as God loves us . . .

With no loopholes.

Friday, August 30, 2013

This week's lesson: reformation (part two)


Some say it is like the North Pole; others, like the North Star.

Yes, some say perfection is like the North Pole: it is a destination that can be reached.

Others say it is like the North Star: it is a guide, but nothing more.

Myself, I say it doesn't matter which is true; no, it doesn't matter . . .

Not if you're traveling north.

And not if you know who travels with you.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

This week's lesson: reformation (part one)

There are two things I wish for my church:
1. I wish it was a church where anyone could come, and everyone was welcome -- a place where rich and poor, Republicans and Democrats, gays and straights, fundamentalists and fuzzy liberals could all gather around God's throne.  
2. I wish my church offered a radical alternative to the status quo -- that it wasn't just another social club, but a place where people could get a taste of what heaven will be like. In short, I wish it's people were holy, even as the Lord is holy. 
Unfortunately, I haven't figured out a way to get both wishes. A church that accepts everybody, after all, is a church full of hypocrites -- but a church that doesn't is full of Pharisees.

Ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda, said the Protestant Reformers -- "the church is always reformed, and always in need of reformation."

And if that's true of my church . . .

Then how much more is it true of me?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

This week's lesson: discernment

It's not always a good idea to "step out in faith."

Consider the first attempt to invade Canaan -- the one we read about Number 14:40ff.
  • Already, the spies have brought back their reports of the Promised Land.
  • Already, God's people have concluded from those reports that it's impossible for them to enter the Promised Land.
  • And already, Moses has said their lack of faith will keep them out of the Promised Land; instead, they will die in the Wilderness.
But God's people did not accept their fate; they refused to give in to negative thinking. No, they "stepped out in faith" -- and paid the price.
Early the next morning they set out for the highest point in the hill country, saying, “Now we are ready to go up to the land the Lord promised. Surely we have sinned!”

But Moses said, “Why are you disobeying the Lord’s command? This will not succeed! Do not go up, because the Lord is not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies, for the Amalekites and the Canaanites will face you there. Because you have turned away from the Lord, he will not be with you and you will fall by the sword.”

Nevertheless, in their presumption they went up toward the highest point in the hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the Lord’s covenant moved from the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and attacked them and beat them down all the way to Hormah (Numbers 14:40-45, NIV).
In short, faith gives us the courage to follow God -- but it is not enough to guarantee that we are following God. No, faith is good. Zeal is good. Enthusiasm is a wonderful thing.

But just like those Israelites, we still need to watch our step.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

This week's lesson: unity

If you want unity, then you need to find yourself some troublemakers.

Consider three examples from this week's lesson -- examples of "how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity" (Psalm 133:1).

1. "In Acts 6, a small group of disciples met together to solve the problem of distribution of food to the widows of the Greek converts. They selected deacons to solve the dilemma. Church members respected the authority of these church leaders."

Yes, they did . . . after they'd kicked up such a fuss that church leaders were forced to respond. Then too, all of the deacons chosen were Hellenistic Jews -- the very group that  charged church leaders with favoritism. In short, unity came when church leaders were asked to share power.

2. "After Paul's baptism by Ananias, the Holy Spirit directed him to meet with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem in order to confirm his ministry."

Yes, he did . . . but those same leaders would have rejected Paul if Barnabas had not stood up for him -- and even then, Paul would have returned home and disappeared if Barnabas hadn't retrieved him from Tarsus and brought him to Antioch (Acts 9:26-29; 11:25-26). In short, unity came when church leaders were asked to reconsider their mistakes.

3. "The Jerusalem Council saved the first-century church from a serious schism. . . . Members accepted the decision of the Jerusalem Council and rejoiced that the Holy Spirit had guided them to an answer to their dilemma."

Yes, they did . . . but the Council would not have met to consider the ordination of women the baptism of Gentiles if local churches hadn't already begun this practice (Acts 15:1-2). In short, unity came when church leaders recognized that the world church needed to catch up with the Spirit's leading in local churches.
Unity is not uniformity, in other words. No, it is a messy, dynamic process that leads to unity with God . . . 

Even though it may put us at odds with each other.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

This week's lesson: repentance

My dear Loosestrife:

Your suggestion that you encourage clients to repent of sins they've not committed is good in so far as it goes -- but as usual, it does not go far enough. Neurotic guilt is useful, after all, but limited in its effect.

No, you should encourage clients to repent of sins they don't commit -- but others do!
  • If a client is conservative, for instance, then make sure they lament the personal sins they'd never do themselves, viz. smoking, drinking, and watching HBO.  
  • But if a client is liberal, then encourage their attacks on the institutional sins they already abhor, viz. racism, sexism, and watching Fox News.
  • And if you are fortunate enough to have conservatives and liberals in the same Sabbath School class, then make sure both focus on the elephant in the other living room, while ignoring the elephant in their own.

In short, encourage your clients to "judge others, lest they judge themselves."

This will help them take pride in the sins they don't commit.

It will keep them from noticing the sins they do commit.

And it will help us deal with next week's lesson on unity!

Warmly yours,


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

This week's lesson: Acts 5:12-42

Nothing is more disruptive than obedience.

Consider the believers in this week's text, for instance -- believers arrested on the charge of preaching about Jesus.

"We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name," say the powers-that-be . . .

And if obedience was nothing more than sit down, shut up, and do what you're told, then that would have been the end of it.

But obedience does not always do what it's told.

Obedience does not always take orders from the status quo.

And down through the ages, trouble-makers such as Luther and Wesley and Ellen White and Dr. King have all drawn inspiration from the words of Peter in Acts 5:29 -- yes, just like him, they've said, "We must obey God rather than men."

In short, obedience is important.

But we need to remember just who we should obey.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

This week's lesson: I Peter 3:13-16

Ron Sider once noted that effectiveness and validity are two separate issues.

There's nothing wrong, for instance, with setting up a low-power radio station in Lincoln City that broadcasts in Mongolian . . . but given the lack of Mongolians on the Oregon Coast, it probably won't get much in the way of results.

Such a radio station would be valid, in other words, but ineffective.

Likewise, paying people to join the Lincoln City SDA Church would probably get lots of results . . . but it would also get me fired (and rightly so).

Paying people to join a church, in other words, would be effective, but invalid -- in fact, it's just plain wrong.

Other examples come to mind -- though some may not be so clear-cut.
  • Evangelistic brochures with scary pictures? Effective . . . but maybe not so valid.
  • Evangelistic brochures with nice pictures? Valid . . . but maybe not so effective.
  • Mass-mailing Ellen White books to the general public? Valid . . . but even though this wasn't the intent, I'd suspect its major effect has been to subsidize our publishing houses.
  • Paying people to attend an evangelistic series? The people who've tried this have told me it's effective . . . but I can't help but feel this is about as valid as paying someone to go on a date with you.
And what of the suggestion in the text for this week -- the suggestion that we live the kind of lives that make people ask questions, and give them gentle and respectful answers when they do?



And effective?

Try it, and find out!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

This week's lesson: 2 Timothy 3:14-17

The Bible isn't pretty.

Take the Book of Psalms, for instance -- a book full of songs that would never make it in the church hymnal.

I mean, try to imagine the people in your church all joining in a rousing chorus of, "strike all my enemies on the jaw; [and] break the teeth of the wicked" (Psalm 3:7, NIV).

This would be followed by the choir, singing it's arrangement of,

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks" (Psalm 137:8f, NIV).
And for special music?
Why, Lord, do you reject meand hide your face from me?From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;I have borne your terrors and am in despair.Your wrath has swept over me;your terrors have destroyed me.All day long they surround me like a flood;they have completely engulfed me.You have taken from me friend and neighbor --darkness is my closest friend (Psalm 88:14-18, NIV).
To be sure, there's some happy stuff too.

But for every round of the Hallelujah Chorus, you get another psalmist who is singing the Blues.

And just like the Blues, the Psalms sing about life in a world where it's not always easy to see God -- a world where hearts get broken (but people still fall in love) . . . a world where the bad guys win (but the good guys struggle on) . . . a world where we have every reason to give up (but we're not quite ready to throw in the towel just yet).

No, the Bible isn't pretty. 

Not even the Psalms are pretty.

But then again, neither is life.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

This week's lesson: Acts 1:12 - 2:4

You don't always get the revival you want.

Consider the believers in Jerusalem, for instance -- a nice, cozy little group of people who would have found it relatively easy to pray "with one accord."
  • And with everyone in that group from Palestine, they shared a common language.
  • What's more, the apostles were right there with them -- and that made it obvious just who were the leaders of this group.
Yes, things were a lot more simple before the Day of Pentecost -- but then the Holy Spirit came upon them, and thousands of people joined in a single day.
  • That meant you'd go to church and be surrounded by strangers -- people you don't know.
  • That meant you'd go to church and be surrounded by foreigners -- people whose language you don't speak.
  • And sure enough, it wasn't long before all those strangers and foreigners started fussing about the church's leadership -- fussing about the leadership of the very same apostles who had been chosen by Jesus himself!
In short, the Day of Pentecost brought change -- wrenching change, the kind of change that most people try to avoid.

That's because we don't always get the revival we want.

But we always get the revival we need.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

This week's lesson: Revelation 3:14-22

If you want to experience Christ's message to the church in Laodicea, then all you need to do is:
  • open a can of pop,
  • leave it on your kitchen counter for a couple of hours,
  • then take a big gulp.
A good way to induce vomiting, right?

And that's the point Jesus makes about this church: it's not that "lukewarm" equals "apathetic -- and it's certainly not the idea that an apathetic church is worse than one that actively opposes the gospel.

No, the point is that Laodicea's hypocrisy is absolutely revolting -- revolting in the same way that a big gulp of lukewarm pop makes you want to throw up.

To be sure, you could spend this week's lesson discussing just exactly why Laodicea's hypocrisy is so nasty -- nothing's more enjoyable than discussing other people's faults, after all.

But I hope you'll spend most of your time discussing Christ's invitation in verse 20 -- an invitation that he extends to a bunch of nasty, loathsome hypocrites who see no need for him.

It's one thing to eat with your friends, after all.

But Jesus is willing to eat with the very same people . . .

Who make him want to vomit.