The All-ness and Everything-ness of the Christian Journey

I’m constantly amazed at how God’s inspired Word and counsel always seems to be relevant right when I need it to be. I’ve been grappling the last few days with some issues in my life and I needed a “pick-me-up” from God – as well as a “straight testimony.” Enter, Christ’s Object Lessons.

I sometimes joke in my own mind that reading Ellen White for devotional time is “low hanging fruit.” That’s because it is always so simple and straight to the point, sometimes in a way that the Bible isn’t since, in Scripture, one has to dig a little before uncovering a gem (which is a worth-while endeavor, of course). The Spirit of Prophecy, on the other, sometimes feels like baby food that is easily digested. Either way, I am blessed.

This morning, I continued reading part of the chapter entitled “Talents,” and, boy, was it a grand slam. It was incredibly convicting. So I thought I would post it. Perhaps it is relevant to you, perhaps it isn’t.

Notice, though, especially how many times she uses the words “all” or “every.” One of the things I’ve been grappling with recently is whether I can get by with utilizing only some of my gifts, or whether God expects me to improve areas in my life that I don’t particularly enjoy doing or feel equipped to do (read: administrative duties as a pastor). So I think this speaks to that.

In the end, it’s not about what I do or do not want to do. And it’s not about what I do or do not feel equipped to do. It’s about doing everything in my power – by His grace – to bring glory to Him, vindicate Him before the world and universe, and be a part of a movement that helps wrap this great controversy up.

Without further ado, I present to you inspired counsel (pp. 328-333):

The special gifts of the Spirit are not the only talents represented in the parable. It includes all gifts and endowments, whether original or acquired, natural or spiritual. All are to be employed in Christ’s service. In becoming His disciples, we surrender ourselves to Him with all that we are and have. These gifts He returns to us purified and ennobled, to be used for His glory in blessing our fellow men.

To every man God has given “according to his several ability.” The talents are not apportioned capriciously. He who has ability to use five talents receives five. He who can improve but two, receives two. He who can wisely use only one, receives one. None need lament that they have not received larger gifts; for He who has apportioned to every man is equally honored by the improvement of each trust, whether it be great or small. The one to whom five talents have been committed is to render the improvement of five; he who has but one, the improvement of one. God expects returns “according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not.” 2 Corinthians 8:12.

In the parable he that had “received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents; and likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two.”

The talents, however few, are to be put to use. The question that most concerns us is not, How much have I received? but, What am I doing with that which I have? The development of all our powers is the first duty we owe to God and to our fellow men. No one who is not growing daily in capability and usefulness is fulfilling the purpose of life. In making a profession of faith in Christ we pledge ourselves to become all that it is possible for us to be as workers for the Master, and we should cultivate every faculty to the highest degree of perfection, that we may do the greatest amount of good of which we are capable.

The Lord has a great work to be done, and He will bequeath the most in the future life to those who do the most faithful, willing service in the present life. The Lord chooses His own agents, and each day under different circumstances He gives them a trial in His plan of operation. In each true-hearted endeavor to work out His plan, He chooses His agents not because they are perfect but because, through a connection with Him, they may gain perfection.

God will accept only those who are determined to aim high. He places every human agent under obligation to do his best. Moral perfection is required of all. Never should we lower the standard of righteousness in order to accommodate inherited or cultivated tendencies to wrong-doing. We need to understand that imperfection of character is sin. All righteous attributes of character dwell in God as a perfect, harmonious whole, and every one who receives Christ as a personal Saviour is privileged to possess these attributes.

And those who would be workers together with God must strive for perfection of every organ of the body and quality of the mind. True education is the preparation of the physical, mental, and moral powers for the performance of every duty; it is the training of body, mind, and soul for divine service. This is the education that will endure unto eternal life.

Of every Christian the Lord requires growth in efficiency and capability in every line. Christ has paid us our wages, even His own blood and suffering, to secure
our willing service. He came to our world to give us an example of how we should work, and what spirit we should bring into our labor. He desires us to study how we can best advance His work and glorify His name in the world, crowning with honor, with the greatest love and devotion, the Father who “so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16.

But Christ has given us no assurance that to attain perfection of character is an easy matter. A noble, all-round character is not inherited. It does not come to us by accident. A noble character is earned by individual effort through the merits and grace of Christ. God gives the talents, the powers of the mind; we form the character. It is formed by hard, stern battles with self. Conflict after conflict must be waged against hereditary tendencies. We shall have to criticize ourselves closely, and allow not one unfavorable trait to remain uncorrected.

Let no one say, I cannot remedy my defects of character. If you come to this decision, you will certainly fail of obtaining everlasting life. The impossibility lies in your own will. If you will not, then you can not overcome. The real difficulty arises from the corruption of an unsanctified heart, and an unwillingness to submit to the control of God.

Many whom God has qualified to do excellent work accomplish very little, because they attempt little. Thousands pass through life as if they had no definite object for which to live, no standard to reach. Such will obtain a reward proportionate to their works.

Remember that you will never reach a higher standard than you yourself set. Then set your mark high, and step by step, even though it be by painful effort, by self-denial and sacrifice, ascend the whole length of the ladder of progress. Let nothing hinder you. Fate has not woven its meshes about any human being so firmly that he need remain helpless and in uncertainty. Opposing circumstances should create a firm determination to overcome them. The breaking down of one barrier will give greater ability and courage to go forward. Press with determination in the right direction, and circumstances will be your helpers, not your hindrances.

Be ambitious, for the Master’s glory, to cultivate every grace of character. In every phase of your character building you are to please God. This you may do; for Enoch pleased Him though living in a degenerate age. And there are Enochs in this our day.

Stand like Daniel, that faithful statesman, a man whom no temptation could corrupt. Do not disappoint Him who so loved you that He gave His own life to cancel your sins. He says, “Without Me ye can do nothing.” John 15:5. Remember this. If you have made mistakes, you certainly gain a victory if you see these mistakes and regard them as beacons of warning. Thus you turn defeat into victory, disappointing the enemy and honoring your Redeemer.

A character formed according to the divine likeness is the only treasure that we can take from this world to the next. Those who are under the instruction of Christ in this world will take every divine attainment with them to the heavenly mansions. And in heaven we are continually to improve. How important, then, is the development of character in this life.

The heavenly intelligences will work with the human agent who seeks with determined faith that perfection of character which will reach out to perfection in action. To everyone engaged in this work Christ says, I am at your right hand to help you.

As the will of man co-operates with the will of God, it becomes omnipotent. Whatever is to be done at His command may be accomplished in His strength. All His biddings are enablings.

On Psychological Epistemology

I’ve recently noticed a phenomenon that seems innate to human nature: whenever we disagree philosophically with someone, or they with us, we immediately turn into psychologists and assume there are psychological reasons – rather than intellectual ones – for why a person either embraces or rejects a particular viewpoint.

I’ve noticed this particularly in Biblical scholarship recently (especially the critical variety), but it stretches into pretty much every genre of intellectual inquiry – and even daily living. For example, it is popular in Biblical scholarship today to ascribe psychological reasons as the foundation to the formation of Scripture. Leviticus, it is posited, was composed by a bunch of priests who wanted to justify their own positions of authority and their peculiar religious practices. (Even if one denies the divine origin of the Bible, is it outside the realm of possibility that the authors wrote it from a sincere belief that they were explaining their understanding of a God – whether real or imagined – and His ways?)

In my own denomination, a common refrain as a way of explaining away the “investigative judgment” teaching is that the early Adventists concocted the teaching as a way of “saving face” when Jesus didn’t return on October 22, 1844. Similarly, more recently, someone commented to me that many of the most outspoken critics of women’s ordination within the Adventist church were clearly doing so as a way of raising more money for their ministries. They thus pander to a conservative crowd that will contribute to their bottom line. (I was very impressed with how the person had a pipeline to these persons’ inner thoughts.)

Then, of course, there’s Karl Marx’s infamous words that “religion is the opium of the masses.”

These are just a few examples of many that I could cite. The underlying attitude is that there is no conceivable way that these individuals could have arrived at their perspective on purely intellectual grounds. They couldn’t have had pure or sincere motives. They were motivated by money, prestige, fame, control, insecurity, weakness.

And, of course, the converse is never assumed: no one ever assumes that they have arrived at their own (apparently) correct conclusions influenced by anything other than an objective examination of the data.

As I hinted above, this phenomenon is not limited to a single demographic or class of people. We all do it. I do it. I found myself doing it just yesterday as I was reading a summary and brief sketch of the life and views of Benedict Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher of the 18th century who is the father of modern Biblical criticism. He threw out the divine origin of the Bible, and combed through it with a highly critical eye. When I discovered that he – along with his family – was excommunicated as a young boy from the Jewish community in which he was raised, and then later forced to become a Roman Catholic, I figured I found the psychological key that unlocked his heretical philosophical views. It’s no wonder he rejected the divine origin of the Bible, I thought, he had such a bad experience with religious authority.

Why do we do this – what I guess I would label, for lack of a better term, psychological epistemology? Maybe it’s just a way of being generous with the other person’s intelligence, giving him or her the benefit of the doubt since we cannot fathom how a person could intelligently reject (what we’ve concluded is) truth. Or maybe, rightfully, it’s a way for us to hold out hope that when the other person has gotten over their psychological inhibitions, they will finally embrace the beautiful truths we’ve come to love (this is a frequent comfort as a pastor when I realize that many people have rejected an Adventism with which I am entirely unfamiliar).

Or perhaps more likely still, it’s an intellectual shortcut – either because we are lazy or because we are afraid of the possibility that we might actually be the ones wrong.

On the other hand, is it necessarily wrong to look for underlying psychological factors at play in these situations? After all, is it realistic – or preferable – to expect people to embrace or reject an idea on purely-intellectual grounds? The Bible knows no Greek dichotomy – or trichotomy – between body, mind, and soul. We live, breathe, and make decisions as a holistic totality.

And when Karl Marx says that religion is the opium of the people, I’m fine with that. Yes, Christianity makes intellectual sense to me, but it would be naive to say that I have committed to Christianity on intellectual grounds alone. I freely admit that I have psychological, emotional, and spiritual deficiencies that only Christ can cure.

So what do you think? I’m kind of thinking out loud on this topic. When a person rejects truth, do they ever do so on exclusively-intellectual grounds? How do we reconcile these questions with the Bible’s idea that some day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11) – and yet even some of these will ultimately reject Christ?

Baxter in Panorama

I just returned from one of my favorite places on earth: Baxter State Park. I spent parts of three days there backpacking with a brother-in-law from each side (my wife’s brother, and then my sister’s husband); and we joined up for part of it with a good friend of ours who’s the father of a friend that my wife grew up with.

Among other things, we hiked Katahdin (Maine’s highest peak) – which was my third time climbing this glorious mountain. The day we summitted Katahdin was a very long day. We hiked about 12 miles and most of it was either up or down some type of peak. By the time we reached the end, we were worn out completely.

In fact, my brother-in-law Duncan, who flew up from Florida, was hoping to follow up our day climbing Katahdin with another full day of backpacking. In the days prior to our trip, I had encouraged him with the idea that we might want to take the flat, easy 8.5-mile trip back to where our car was and call it a trip. But he insisted that there would be none of that. He, after all, went to college in Colorado and no doubt felt that our climbing in the northeast was kind of juvenile. Plus, he’s in very good shape.

Let’s just say that about two-thirds through our 12-mile hike, Duncan all of a sudden said, out of the blue, “I think your original plan to have an easy day tomorrow sounds good.”

Hiking in the northeast is not a cakewalk. I remember one of my seminary professors, Dr. Richard Davidson – who had almost climbed every 14,000 footer in Colorado at the time, tell me that he used to scoff at our mountains in the East. But then he actually climbed one, and realized they were every bit as tough as those in the West.

With all that introduction, I wanted a place to share some of my favorite panoramas that I took along the way with my iPhone. I hope you are blessed by God’s amazing nature via picture, as I was in person! The great outdoors truly are God’s second book.

Without further ado, these pictures will appear in chronological order (you can click on them to see them in a bigger format).

Photo Aug 28, 4 07 38 PM

(This is Basin Pond, along the way to where we camped at Chimney Pond on Thursday evening. Usually Cameron (left) and I go swimming in these cold waters on our return from summitting Katahdin. But since we didn’t return, we had to take our tradition elsewhere.)

Photo Aug 29, 8 19 39 AM

(This is probably my favorite one. Duncan is sitting on the top of Index Rock along the Dudley Trail as we summitted Katahdin on Friday morning.)

Photo Aug 29, 8 41 25 AM

(This is called the “Chimney,” which “bridges” the Dudley Trail with Knife Edge. It’s about a 40-foot notch, with walls one has to both descend and ascend on either side, going straight up and down. When we climbed it, it was like a wind alley, with probably 35-mile/hour gusts whipping through – which is by far the windiest I’d ever experienced on Katahdin.)

(Ascending Knife Edge - a very narrow mile-long trail that drops off dramatically on either side. I was especially cautious on this day with the windgusts what they were.)

(Ascending Knife Edge – a very narrow mile-long trail that drops off dramatically on either side. I was especially cautious on this day with the windgusts what they were.)

(Cameron looks back at Knife Edge, steps away from the summit.)

(Cameron looks back at Knife Edge, steps away from the summit.)

Photo Aug 29, 10 11 30 AM

(This was maybe the coolest part of the trip. Mt. Katahdin is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Thus, everyone you see in this picture – with the exception of Duncan, who’s closest in the picture – had just finished the 2,168-mile long Appalachian Trail. They all started at various times in April. The guy on the far left with the beard was quite emotional when he got to the top. He stooped real low as he looked at the sign and started fighting back tears. He had started on April 7. Though we chatted with a few of them for a little while, I wish I could have heard more of his story. Incidentally, these were the only other persons we saw on the mountain the whole time we were summitting, and we felt quite insecure about our accomplishments in light of theirs.)

Photo Aug 29, 12 22 08 PM

(We took a route neither Cameron nor I had ever done before – nor had Duncan, of course. It seems to be known by various names – North Peaks Trail, Howe’s Peak Trail, and maybe even another one. This is perhaps because the trail had just be re-opened after a decade. Cameron and Duncan didn’t really like it at all, saying it felt like we were on the moon, but the payoff at the end, before it starts the long descent down to Russell Pond, was very nice. You get a great view back towards the North Basin, Hamlin Ridge, and then Katahdin.)

Photo Aug 30, 9 16 05 AM

(This was on our 8.5-mile Sabbath-trek, returning to where we parked. We had to ford a number of streams, including here – which is the Wassataquoik Stream. This little spot quickly became one of my new favorite places in Baxter. You can’t tell from this picture, but the stream curves to the left on the lefthand side of the picture, as well as converging with the South Branch of the Wassataquoik. There is also a single lean-to that sits on the banks of the two streams on the left. I’d love to return there some day! It is just a beautiful setting; and the water was refreshing!

 

Here’s to Harry

As we ate lunch today, it suddenly occurred to me that it was Pastor Harry's (pictured left) last official meal as Director - and perhaps the legendary Eric Badillo's (third from left) as well. I'm glad we got to share it with them!

As we ate lunch today, it suddenly occurred to me that it was Pastor Harry’s (pictured left) last official meal as Director – and perhaps the legendary Eric Badillo’s (third from left) as well. I’m glad we got to share it with them!

We just returned from Camp Lawroweld today after spending three days there for our annual pastors’ retreat. Though I always get sentimental about leaving – it is, after all, my second favorite place on earth – it was especially touching today because of who we were also saying goodbye to – at least in the capacity he was in. After nearly 25 years at the camp, today was Pastor Harry’s Sabnani’s last “official” summer camp duties there as its director.

Simply put, I have been going to Camp Lawroweld in one capacity or another since 1994, and this man has been there just about every time. I owe so much to him.

It all started when I abandoned the summer camp I had been going to in my Conference my whole life, and decided to give Camp Lawroweld – in the backwoods of Maine – a shot for teen camp. I fell in love with it immediately – and it was really the catalyst in my love affair for the three states that make up northern New England (you can read a little more about that here).

A few years later, Pastor Harry graciously hired me to work as a staff member – and for the next seven years, I spent every summer working under him, making memory after memory (and eventually getting together with Camille, who is now my wife). At the end of my seventh summer, after graduating with my bachelor’s degree in Theology and without any pastoring job on the horizon (even though I had sent my resume to every Conference in North America), I was three weeks away from heading back to Andrews University to pursue my MDiv in the Seminary. But I’ll never forget it: Pastor Harry came up to me and asked if I had any interest in pastoring in Vermont. He had been talking with the Conference administration about an opening they had, and had encouraged them to pursue me on it.

A couple days later I was all of a sudden being interviewed for the position, and a day later I had a job, pastoring for the Northern New England Conference – and still do.

So it’s not an understatement to say that Pastor Harry has been one of the biggest influences in my life. I wouldn’t be living in Maine right now, pastoring for the Northern New England Conference, married to the woman I am married to (which he, along with my dad, had the privilege of solemnizing), with the kids that I have, if this man hadn’t given me a chance 16 years ago. But, then again, that’s the man he is – the best quality he has: he’s always eager to give a person a chance, thinking the best of them.

Beyond that, there are so many other memories I look back on with great fondness through the years that I cherish – too many to recount. Whether it was playing guitar alongside him during camp (which, due to his rhythm, was always an adventure!); sitting on his couch in Freeport during Camp Meeting, watching the Red Sox and shooting the breeze; or sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting for him to say something unintentionally funny, the mentorship and camaraderie he was always eager to provide has paid eternally-significant dividends.

I, of course, am not the only person he has had a huge impact on. Spending a quarter-century as a Youth Director, and Camp Director, produces a wide wake – and he has been equal to the task.

So I’ll be sad the next time I drive into Camp Lawroweld and I don’t see him perched atop the lodge porch, hunched over the railings, with radio in hand, as he quietly surveys the hallowed camp. It’s a scene that is burned into my mind.

That’s his place.

It’s his camp.

Postscript: It would be remiss of me not to mention another significant person who is also saying goodbye to Camp Lawroweld in an official capacity: Pastor Harry’s wife, Judy, who served as the cook every summer. She wasn’t at pastors’ retreat this week, so I didn’t get to enjoy one “last hurrah” with her, but her impact on the camp and on my life cannot be understated. Thank you both for dedicating so many years to young people.

The Children of Israel and Their “Theology of Fear”

I just finished reading an article entitled “Friends with God? Moses and the Possibility of Covenanted Friendship,” by Dr. Jacqueline E. Lapsley. She serves as associate professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Though the entire article was very good, I sat up in my chair toward the end when she enunciated a perspective that I have never heard articulated – ever – by a non-Adventist (and, in fact, most Adventists do not seem to understand it either). A Presbyterian, Lapsley puts her finger on the undercurrents of what was happening with the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai, especially noting the antecedents and aftermath. Instead of summarising what she wrote, I thought I would just share this very poignant and perceptive paragraph (which is long, but stick with it):

Michael Walzer makes the cogent argument that [Israel's] prior servitude inhibits the people from immediately being capable of faithfulness; they must grow into the responsibilities inherent in freedom. It is significant that Moses did not participate in his people’s servitude—his habit of mind was formed in freedom—and as such he is capable of entering into and sustaining a friendship with God over the long term. In the episode of the golden calf, the people’s theology of fear leads them to make an inert god they can get close to without fear when Moses does not immediately descend from the mountain. But Moses’ friendship with God sustains him and his faith, even in the midst of severe testing, when he is caught between God’s demands and the people’s anger and faithlessness. The people, by contrast, view God as frightening and distant, with the result that their faithlessness begins immediately. Their lack of self-assertion renders their relationship with God a one-dimensional “faith” constituted by obedience alone. This “faith” cannot sustain them over the long term. In sum, while we are informed that “never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face” (Deut 34:10), this singularity may not be because God willed it so but because no one else demonstrated the same kind of habitual interaction, reciprocity, and self-assertion necessary to maintain a divine friendship over the long term (although Elijah comes close). For the church to read Exodus as scripture today, then, there is more reason to identify with Moses than with the people, and more reason to see in his friendship with God a path of faithfulness than in the slavish (dis)obedience of the people.

What caught my eye is that Lapsley recognizes that 1) because of their prior slavery, Israel seemed unable to relate to God appropriately. 2) This resulted in a “theology of fear” (I love that term) which led to the golden calf incident, as well as 3) Israel’s inability to experience a faithful obedience toward God, instead living out an “obedience” that was based on fear (what I would call an “old covenant” experience).

As I said, I have never read any author outside of Seventh-day Adventism who has betrayed a familiarity with this concept, so it’s refreshing to see it articulated.

And, truthfully, we as Adventists need to plumb this concept for all it’s worth as well.

Laboring for the Upper Class

In going through Christ’s Object Lessons again, my reading came to this thought which reveals the importance and necessity of trying to reach those in the upper classes of society. Ellen White says that they are to be the “first” persons we try to reach.

Sadly, the reality is that they are often the last people we pursue – for the precise reasons she gives. It has brought incredible conviction to my heart, and I have been left wondering how I might be able to take an active role in pursuing these people who are “heartsore.”

Read these few paragraphs and ask the Lord how you might be used for Him in this capacity:

Those who belong to the higher ranks of society are to be sought out with tender affection and brotherly regard. Men in business life, in high positions of trust, men with large inventive faculties and scientific insight, men of genius, teachers of the gospel whose minds have not been called to the special truths for this time–these should be the first to hear the call. To them the invitation must be given.

There is a work to be done for the wealthy. They need to be awakened to their responsibility as those entrusted with the gifts of heaven. They need to be reminded that they must give an account to Him who shall judge the living and the dead. The wealthy man needs your labor in the love and fear of God. Too often he trusts in his riches, and feels not his danger. The eyes of his mind need to be attracted to things of enduring value. He needs to recognize the authority of true goodness, which says, “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls; for My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” Matt. 11:28-30.

Those who stand high in the world for their education, wealth, or calling, are seldom addressed personally in regard to the interests of the soul. Many Christian workers hesitate to approach these classes. But this should not be. If a man were drowning, we would not stand by and see him perish because he was a lawyer, a merchant, or a judge. If we saw persons rushing over a precipice, we would not hesitate to urge them back, whatever might be their position or calling. Neither should we hesitate to warn men of the peril of the soul.

None should be neglected because of their apparent devotion to worldly things. Many in high social positions are heartsore, and sick of vanity. They are longing for a peace which they have not. In the very highest ranks of society are those who are hungering and thirsting for salvation. Many would receive help if the Lord’s workers would approach them personally, with a kind manner, a heart made tender by the love of Christ.

The success of the gospel message does not depend upon learned speeches, eloquent testimonies, or deep arguments. It depends upon the simplicity of the message and its adaptation to the souls that are hungering for the bread of life. “What shall I do to be saved?”–this is the want of the soul.

Thousands can be reached in the most simple and humble way. The most intellectual, those who are looked upon as the world’s most gifted men and women, are often refreshed by the simple words of one who loves God, and who can speak of that love as naturally as the worldling speaks of the things that interest him most deeply.

Often the words well prepared and studied have but little influence. But the true, honest expression of a son or daughter of God, spoken in natural simplicity, has power to unbolt the door to hearts that have long been closed against Christ and His love.

Let the worker for Christ remember that he is not to labor in his own strength. Let him lay hold of the throne of God with faith in His power to save. Let him wrestle with God in prayer, and then work with all the facilities God has given him. The Holy Spirit is provided as his efficiency. Ministering angels will be by his side to impress hearts.

If the leaders and teachers at Jerusalem had received the truth Christ brought, what a missionary center their city would have been! Backslidden Israel would have been converted. A vast army would have been gathered for the Lord. And how rapidly they could have carried the gospel to all parts of the world. So now, if men of influence and large capacity for usefulness could be won for Christ, then through them what a work could be accomplished in lifting up the fallen, gathering in the outcasts, and spreading far and wide the tidings of salvation. Rapidly the invitation might be given, and the guests be gathered for the Lord’s table (pp. 230-232)

Robin Williams, We Hardly Knew You

Robin William's last Instagram photo, which he posted on July 31. The caption read: "“#tbt and Happy Birthday to Ms. Zelda Rae Williams! Quarter of a century old today but always my baby girl. Happy Birthday @zeldawilliams Love you!”

Robin Williams’s last Instagram photo, which he posted on July 31. The caption read: “#tbt and Happy Birthday to Ms. Zelda Rae Williams! Quarter of a century old today but always my baby girl. Happy Birthday @zeldawilliams Love you!”

Unfortunately, this script is all too familiar: Robin Williams has become the latest “star” whose life ended prematurely, apparently a victim by his own hands. He follows a long line of actors and actresses who – whether through suicide or drug overdose – seemed unable to cope with reality, joining the ranks of recent stars such as Heath Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

But this one really hurts.

This is because – confession time – I used to be addicted to movies (watching and writing scripts for them), and Robin Williams was a favorite. He entertained me in Good Morning, Vietnam, caused me to laugh in Mrs. Doubtfire, inspired me in Dead Poets Society, and gave me a lot to think about – between all the vulgarity – in Good Will Hunting (a favorite in my younger years for many reasons – not least of which because it was set in Boston).

I now, of course, question all the time I devoted to such a medium, wondering about its net effect on my overall development and character – and I certainly wouldn’t make any unqualified recommendations to anyone about any of his movies. But, whether good or bad, these movies – and Robin Williams – are a part of my history.

It is for this reason, and many others, that I am very sad this morning – along with a lot of other people. At face value, Robin Williams seemed like one of the last persons who would be plagued by grave depression, ultimately leading to his own death. He appeared to be a genuinely nice person, who loved to make people laugh – and sometimes cry.

There is a lot of discussion today about depression and suicide. These are important conversations. But what strikes me more than anything else – and this is probably a predictable target coming from someone of my ilk – is the industry to which he belonged. I can’t help but wonder how much that contributed to his beleaguered life and ultimate end.

I remember reading a provocative and stimulating article about a decade ago by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach as he reflected on the Academy Awards. The words were seminal in my own thinking on the entertainment industry, and they still reverberate in my mind. “Arguably, the biggest problem in American culture today is the fact that mere entertainers are its heroes,” Boteach started the article, “There is no precedent in any civilization in the history of the world for entertainers – actors, singers, dancers and directors – to be elevated to the highest positions of prominence in the culture. That’s why none of us can name actors and actresses from ancient Greece or Rome. They weren’t important enough to be remembered.”

The words that resonated with me the most, however, came in the fourth paragraph: “In our time, however, the incredible has happened. The court jester has become the king.”

I wonder what the net effect of all this glorification of the “court jester” has had on the psyche of these Hollywood stars. It’s amazing that any of them escape the throes of major depression – if any of them actually do.

Think about it: they get paid millions of dollars to act like someone they’re not. They are heralded, loved, and praised, not for being themselves, but for being an apparition – the projection of everyone’s fantasy worlds, including their own. They are lauded for pretending to do tremendous acts of bravery and heroism, when it’s all a mirage. They constantly live their lives as someone else – which is probably the point for many of them, utilizing the art as a way of escape. (Let’s face it: TV and movies are a pretty unhealthy form of escapism for all involved – writer, actor, audience.)

We all love to induce laughter, or to bring joy, of course. Seeking to bring levity to someone’s heart can be – I think in theory – a selfless act.

Yet there comes a time for everyone – whether actor or audience – when a person can no longer cope with trying to be someone else; when the pressure to perform – to be entertaining or evocative all the time - leaves one overwhelmed and feeling empty. And confused.

And sometimes – many times – that turns people to some pretty tragic solutions.

I didn’t know Robin Williams personally. The closest I came to knowing him was the time my brother met him in Napa Valley, while the former was attending Pacific Union College (he said he seemed like a genuinely nice guy). I don’t know all the varied and complicated factors – and there were, as always, many – that contributed to his depression and his death. And it’s probably apparent to many of us today that we hardly knew him – the real him – at all.

But I do know that, at the end of the day, Hollywood – and the fame and fortune it brings – wasn’t his saving grace.

I also know – and this is big – that each time I pay my money to the box office, it’s like saying to the court jester, “Again, again, again. Be someone you’re not. That’s how I like you.”

And if I could have somehow told Robin Williams, or today tell Tom Hanks or Will Ferrell or Miley Cyrus, something, it would be, “You don’t have to be Patch Adams or Forrest Gump or Ron Burgundy or Hannah Montana to be of value – or for us to like you. Simply listen to the words of Him who cannot lie, ‘This is My beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.'”

Broken

I went to visit a man in the hospital yesterday whom I had never met. He fell off a ladder last week, breaking every bone in his face – as well as a few others for good measure. When I arrived, his wife quickly shooed me out of his room because they had just gotten him down to sleep. But I wouldn’t have been able to talk with him anyway because he had had a tracheotomy done.

His wife said something that I found interesting, though, as we visited in the hallway for a few minutes. Trying to impress me with the magnitude of his injuries, she said her husband was a completely broken man right now. But then she quickly clarified: “I mean, he’s broken physically, not spiritually.”

I thought it was a strange addendum. No doubt, she wanted to assure me of this latter part because, from what I can tell, her husband does not attend church anywhere.

And yet, it’s a refrain I hear somewhat frequently: people – including me – don’t want to give the impression that they are spiritually broken. We want others to think we are put together spiritually (and otherwise); that we have it all figured out; that we are strong.

But maybe, just maybe, the precise thing God wants of us is the precise thing we try to avoid: brokenness.

I remember thinking the same thing after reading the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s the captivating true story of Louie Zamperini, whose plane crashed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean during World War II. After being adrift at sea for 47 days, he was finally picked up by the Japanese and run through numerous POW camps, where he was treated worse than inhumanely. Without giving the book away (and the forthcoming movie), what I found interesting is how the title seemed to give the impression that Louie persevered because he refused to be broken. Yet the opposite was true: Louie was finally victorious only after he was broken.

This is, after all, what God desperately wants for us. He wants us to be broken – continuously. The reason for this is summed up beautifully by this Martin Luther quote – which a Twitter friend alerted me to today: “God creates out of nothing. Therefore, until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him.” That quote, to me, is about as profound a quote as you can find. And yet Luther is merely echoing Paul when he recounted to the Corinthians:

And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

This is, of course, counterintuitive to our natural human psyche. To be something, we have to be nothing? To be whole, we have to be broken?

So where are we? Do we try to avoid brokenness? Or do we embrace the thing that teaches us complete reliance on God?

Every day – and perhaps every moment – we need to be broken anew so that we can embrace the wholeness that comes only through Christ.

In Support of Corporate Repentance

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(Image credits: My mom, from Dauchua Concentration Camp, Germany)

“And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10).

My brother texted me a story a few minutes ago that was eye-opening. The headline reads, “Adventist Leaders in Germany Apologize for World War I Stance.” The first paragraph summarizes this intriguing concept:

A hundred years after World War I created a split among German Seventh-day Adventists that remains to this day, the church’s two unions in Germany have apologized for the combative stance taken by church leaders during the war and for their treatment of dissidents who left to create the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement.

As I read through the article, it reminded me of another article of a similar nature that I read a few years ago – also in the Adventist Review. That time, on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Adventist churches in both Germany and Austria also apologized for the role they played during the Holocaust in both supporting the Nazi activities during the war, as well as neglecting to protect the Jews and others from genocide.

Two wars, two apologies – decades after the events occurred; in fact, in the case of World War I, it was a full century after the event, with people apologizing for events that occurred before they were even born.

What a beautiful picture of corporate repentance – a concept you need to wrap your mind around if you’ve never encountered it before.

It is, in fact, a biblical concept – and a vital one at that. Throughout Scripture, individuals and groups frequently apologized for sins they themselves had not committed. In some cases, apologies were made on behalf of others from a previous generation. One example of this is found in Nehemiah 9:2, after a remnant had returned to Jerusalem following the Babylonian captivity. “Then those of Israelite lineage,” Nehemiah records, “separated themselves from all foreigners; and they stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.

Interestingly, according to Ellen White, Jesus Himself repented on others’ behalf: “After Christ had taken the necessary steps in repentance, conversion, and faith in behalf of the human race,” she explains, “He went to John to be baptized of him in Jordan” (General Conference 1901, p. 36). Again, she writes, “Christ came not confessing His own sins; but guilt was imputed to Him as sinner’s substitute. He came not to repent on His own account; but in behalf of the sinner” (Review and Herald, January 21, 1873).

All this turns my attention to another event in the relatively-recent past whose ripple effects across the universe has been even more drastic than both World Wars. In fact, had things gone differently for this event, the bloodshed and heartache of the 20th century never would have happened.

Those who are at all familiar with Seventh-day Adventist history perhaps know what I’m talking about. It’s known simply by its four-digit number: 1888. It was then that the “Lord in His great mercy sent a most precious message to His people through Elders Waggoner and Jones,” according to Ellen White (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 91). This “most precious message” was destined by God to go to the entire world, announcing and displaying His love in a way that had – and still has – never been witnessed before. It was the “loud cry” message of Revelation 18 that would enlighten the whole world with God’s glory and usher in Christ’s Second Coming.

But something went drastically awry: “The light that is to lighten the whole earth with its glory was resisted,” Ellen White recounted in 1896 “and by the action of our own brethren has been in a great degree kept away from the world” (Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 234). Not only was the light resisted, Christ and His “delegated messengers” were treated with disdain and scorn. The Holy Spirit was “grieved” and “insulted” (Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, p. 468). And on and on these sad descriptors go.

And it leaves me wondering: is there a place to follow the example of our German and Austrian brothers and sisters and acknowledge what “we” have done in resisting, insulting, and grieving the Godhead through the events that happened in 1888 and their aftermath? Is God pouring upon His people the “Spirit of grace and supplication” that He promised through Zechariah, which leads us to look to Christ and mourn and grieve for Him because of how we’ve treated Him?

The Germans and Austrians realize something: they realize that healing can take place only when the “giant elephant” in the room is acknowledged and repented of. They realize that platitudes and warm words mean nothing in the present if hurts from the past are not dealt with – and, similarly, that events of the past are bound to be repeated if they are not confronted.

This is just a simple and humble appeal – first and foremost to myself.

So what do we have to lose when it comes to our corporate denominational history?

It could bring only healing.

And maybe even the Second Coming.

“From glory to glory”

One of my favorite passages in the Bible – which has turned into a promise I claim frequently (pretty much daily) in prayer – is 2 Corinthians 3:18. There, the Apostle Paul says, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” It’s the Bible’s way of saying: “By beholding we become changed,” which is a wonderful thought.

But one part of the verse has always perplexed me. What exactly does Paul mean by the phrase “from glory to glory”? How are we being transformed into Christ’s image from “glory to glory”? I always kind of had a vague sense that Paul meant we were going to mature in our Christian walk from one point of victory or maturity to greater victory or maturity. And this makes sense to some degree.

But yesterday, as I was praying this prayer, I became dissatisfied with this explanation. And so I came up with a “novel” idea (not really novel at all, of course): why not study Paul’s usage of the word “glory” in the preceding verses in 2 Corinthians? Ingenius!

As it turns out, it didn’t take long for me to discover what Paul meant. This is because he repeatedly uses the word “glory” in the verses that immediately precede 2 Corinthians 3:18. And the way he uses the word is incredibly enlightening and powerful.

Notice: “But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory [supplied in the English] was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory. For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels. For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious” (3:7-11).

Don’t miss Paul’s powerful point: He is in the middle of trying to justify His apostleship, saying that he and Timothy are “ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit” (3:6). He justifies their ministry by comparing and contrasting the two covenants, noting how the old covenant had glory, but the new covenant has much more glory. In light of the glorious truth about the new covenant – whose glory far exceeds the old covenant – he says that “we use great boldness of speech” (v. 12). He then explains that, just as of old, many people have a veil over their hearts when Moses is read, “but the veil is taken away in Christ” (v. 14). To take away this veil so that people can see God in all his glory is Paul’s and Timothy’s ministry. This is why, in 4:1 (right after the passage in question), he says, “Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart.”

The point in all this is that for Paul, being transformed “from glory to glory” has a very specific meaning: it means that as a person encounters Christ, and looks into His face, that person becomes progressively transformed from the glory of the old covenant to the glory of the new covenant. The Old Testament is no longer about death and condemnation, but about liberty (v. 17). A relationship with Christ changes progressively from being about trying to escape death and condemnation (which is an “old covenant” motive), to a relationship based on love (a “new covenant” motive). Instead of the law being about the letter, written on stone as an external standard that we strive to attain, the law becomes about the Spirit, written on our hearts.

Simply put, when the veil is removed from our hearts and we spend time looking at Christ and His love, our lives will be less and less characterized by externally-motivated old covenant behavior, and characterized more and more by a heart-response to the love of God in Christ – to the point that, eventually, we will reach a place of glory where “when obeying Him we shall but be carrying out our own impulses” (The Desire of Ages, p. 668).

And it was to point people to this new covenant – this greater glory – that Paul ministered.

And thus, we are being transformed “from glory to glory,” from the old covenant to the new.

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