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.

And the Band Played On . . . .

Image: Bangor Daily News

I stumbled into a courtroom today that was hosting a triple-murder trial that has been an ongoing headline-grabber here in Bangor. Since I was looking for another case, I spent only a few minutes listening to the witness who was giving her testimony at the time.

When I got home, however, I found out more information about the case. It has tragedy written all over it.

Nearly two years ago, three 20-somethings were shot and killed and their car was set ablaze and abandoned in a remote parking lot, apparently the victims of a drug-deal gone bad allegedly at the hands of two out-of-staters.

What jumped out at me the most, however, was the the story of one of the victims, Nicolle Lugdon. Only 24 at the time, her life was marred by tragedy from beginning to end. The Bangor Daily News details a little bit of her story (warning: graphic description):

Lugdon overcame tragedy throughout her life, according to previous BDN reports.

When she was just 2 years old, her grandmother Leanna Lugdon and uncle Theodore “Robbie” Lugdon were killed in a house fire in Bangor.

Lugdon’s mother died of a heroin overdose in March 2002. Just five months later, Lugdon’s father, Michael Melendez, killed her grandmother Linda Melendez. Both were heroin addicts and the killing resulted from an argument over drugs.

Nicolle Lugdon was in the house and hiding in a second-floor room with her 2-year-old brother while her father stabbed her grandmother 36 times. Michael Melendez is now serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania, BDN reports state.

“Nikki really had nobody in her life,” said Sutherland, a close friend of Lugdon’s who considered her a sister. “She heard her father kill her grandmother and still came out as one of the happiest people alive.”

Sutherland first met Lugdon when they were 7.

Lugdon spent many of her teenage years in foster care, said Kristina Sprague, who said Lugdon was her best friend.

“When she was living in Fort Kent [with her foster family], she did amazing,” said Sprague, 25, of Bradford. “She was going to college, she was working with disabled children, she tried very hard to be a good person up there, but as soon as she came back down this way, she lost it all.”

Lugdon was using pharmaceutical drugs, heroin and cocaine, both Sprague and Sutherland said.

Lugdon, who had a 2-year-old daughter, lost primary custody of her daughter to the girl’s biological father last October as Lugdon became more and more involved with drugs.

“When she lost her daughter, that’s when she started losing control of things,” Sprague said of Lugdon.

Her drug use changed Lugdon, her friends said.

The word “tragedy” is an understatement – and the person who says she merely got what she deserved in dying a druggie life is not a Christian.

But this is what came home to me as I was reading Nicolle’s story: what am I doing for the Nicolle Lugdons of the world – someone whose upbringing and life circumstances are about as stark a contrast from mine? Sure, I preach my sermons. I write my books. I visit my church members who have cancer. I lead out in Prayer Meeting. I chair Board Meetings.

And when I get home, I kick up my feet and watch the Bruins play in the playoffs, feeling that I deserve a little break after dealing with all the “stress” I encountered throughout my day. After all, being a pastor is a tough job.

Meanwhile, the Nicolle Lugdons of the world go to their graves, with “nobody in their lives.”

Incidentally, I preached a sermon this past week in my continuing series on Hosea that coincides exactly with my experience today. The sermon was called “And the Band Played On” (which you can listen to here). It detailed how Israel was far from God and ignoring the needs of the people all around them, and yet the “band played on,” as though life was just business as usual. God finally had to bring their feasts and celebrations and Sabbaths and parties to an end.

What about us?

Sure, I can humor myself into thinking that raising principled children in the fear of the Lord will go a long way in curbing what ails this world. And it will. But that doesn’t do anything for the people on 1st and 2nd Streets in Bangor, or Nicolle Lugdon, whose life came to an end while looking for a high and a way to escape what plagued her.

All this reminds me of the one of the greatest opening paragraphs in all of literature, written by the eminent Abraham Heschel in his magnum opus The Prophets:

What manner of man is the prophet? A student of philosophy who turns from the discourses of the great metaphysicians to the orations of the prophets may feel as if he were going from the realm of the sublime to an area of trivialities. Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, he is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place. Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums (p. 3)

And so I again ask the question – and would encourage you to do the same: what am I doing for the Nicolle Lugdons of the world?

What is my church doing?

Corporate Guilt and Corporate Redemption

One of the reasons I love reading the Old Testament in Hebrew is because it forces me to slow down (at least at this point, since I am not yet fluent) and pay closer attention to what the text is saying. When you are more deliberate about every word, you see things you may not otherwise see.

In this case, I was reading Genesis 26 this morning and noticed something I had never noticed before. The very brief context is that Isaac, like his dad, takes refuge in the land of the Philistines because of a famine in the land. And, like his dad, he claims that his beautiful wife is his sister. But the truth comes out, and when King Abimelech discovers it, he is obviously distraught. And his words to Isaac are revealing of the ancient Near Eastern worldview (shared by God’s people). “One of the people might soon have lain with your wife,” Abimelech says, “and you would have brought guilt on us” (v. 10).

The Hebrew is clear: if someone had slept with Rebekah, he would not only have incurred guilt upon himself, but all the people would have also shared in that guilt.

This is because the ancient Near Eastern worldview thought corporately first. The group was the primary point of focus, rather than the individual. The success and failure of the group had greater significance than the success or failure of its individual members. And thus, if one person sinned, everyone sinned (we see this in the story of Achan, of course, in Joshua 7).

What Abimelech goes on to say in verse 11 is just as significant. He thus tells his people that whoever “touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.” This is not simply an attempt to punish an individual for wrongdoing, however; it would have been an act of expiation on behalf of the corporate body. To not punish the individual would have produced a continued guilt on the entire group; so one had to die for the sake of all – a thought we see still in place in the days of Jesus, when Caiaphas encouraged the Jews that “it was expedient that one man should die for the people” (John 18:14). Christ’s death, it was thought, served to expunge the guilt of all of Israel.

There are many implications of this corporate concept – an idea we, who are individualistic, have a hard time wrapping our minds around. Those implications range from how we understand our corporate responsibility toward one another, to how we understand what happened at the cross, to how we experience community together, to how we understand so-called “genocide” or mass destruction in the Old Testament, to how we relate to church discipline, to how we relate to church history. But those implications will have to be explored another day.

But I will point out what Joel Kaminsky has written in his work, Corporate Responsibility in the Hebrew Bible. It’s food for thought.

Corporate responsibility is . . .  a fundamental theological principle in ancient Israel that God relates not just to autonomous Israelites, but to the nation as a whole. Inasmuch as God relates to the community as a whole, he holds each member of the nation to some level of responsibility for the errors of any other member of that community. (12, 13)

Just as tellingly, Kaminsky posits:

Israel’s fundamental insight into the fact that we are all our ‘brother’s keeper’ could provide a corrective to many of our current philosophical and political tendencies that inform us only of our rights as individuals, but rarely of our responsibilities as members of larger communities” (13-14).

I Asked For Wonder . . .

I started reading Abraham Heschel’s classic book God In Search of Man a few weeks ago and have been captivated by the prevailing thread that is woven throughout the first pages of the book. The thread is wonder, awe, amazement – something I’ve not thought a lot about and probably taken for granted. “Life without wonder,” Heschel writes, “is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder” (p. 46). “Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin,” he adds (p. 43).

It just so happens that my reading of this book has coincided with an event that has given me opportunity to exercise that wonder and amazement of late. We welcomed our third child into the world at 3:11 AM on Wednesday morning, March 26. And though I was tired, I was overwhelmed again with awe.

The whole sublime experience elicits this wonder. The birth itself, even as messy as it is, is one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring events a person can ever experience. It’s all the more surreal when you are one of the two individuals responsible for bringing the child into the world. Truly, the miracle of life never ceases to amaze me. I said it to Camille a couple times as we sat alone in the delivery room, waiting for her contractions to get closer together, with the baby’s heart monitor echoing throughout the room at 130 beats per minute: that short journey from the womb to the doctor’s hands is truly the longest journey in life. All that time, effort, blood, tears – just to get an eight pound baby to take that six inch journey from where she’s resided for the last nine months. It’s astounding.

And yet, the awe doesn’t cease after the birth is over. I had forgotten just how amazing it is to have a newborn – to hold her in your arms and look into her little eyes and sense the helplessness, dependence, innocence, and inarticulatable trust. But not just this: to see the potential – the blank page that is a little baby. She has her whole life before her. Her story is just beginning, and it could go a thousand different ways. And yet we, her parents, have incredible influence over how the chapters are written – a thought not to be taken lightly.

Of course, it also goes beyond this. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” the Psalmist declares (Psalm 139:14). I don’t know how anyone can witness birth, or look into the eyes of a newborn, and deny the existence of God. Sure, there are scientific explanations for how it all happens, how our body works together in unison to keep our hearts beating. But such explanations don’t eliminate the awe; they simply reinforce it. The physiological and biological complexity, all working together in concert, inspires the utmost reverence.

So I thank God for this wonder, this awe, this amazement – all elicited by a tiny little 21 1/2 inch baby named Winslow Eve that I need as much as she needs me.

And like Heschel, I want my story to be: “Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and He gave it to me.”

Two Percent: On Sex and Celibacy

Here’s a little perspective:

According to research, the average American male thinks about sex approximately 18 times a day. For women, it’s about half that. And yet, research also shows that, on average, Americans have sex about twice a week. This means that males think about sex approximately 60 times more than they have it (which means that 98% of the time they’re thinking about sex, they’re not having it), while women think about it approximately 30 times more than they have it.*

So why does this matter?

It’s very simple: celibacy is something that everyone on earth experiences on a regular basis. It does not belong to any single class. There is not a single person on the planet who doesn’t have to deny his or her sexual urges and desires with regularity. Neither is there a single person who finds his or her sexual desires always fulfilled.

Or, put another way: there is not a person who exists that has sex as much as he or she would like. This applies to married people as much as single people.

All this adds up to the reality that celibacy – denying one’s sexual desires and urges – has not been designed for a single class or demographic, or even a handful of ones. It’s not simply for unmarried teenagers, or those attracted to others of the same sex. It’s not simply urged upon a few; it’s urged upon all – when circumstances dictate it.

I know this is probably a hard sell for people who aren’t presently living in an exclusive, monogamous marriage with someone from the opposite sex – a model that the Bible clearly prescribes as God’s design (both before and after sin – see Matthew 19:4-6). And I’m fully cognizant of the fact that I would have been bewildered by such a thought if a married person had presented it to me when I was single.

This is not to be dismissive of anyone who has, because of various circumstances, been called to experience a longer celibacy – perhaps even for a lifetime. It’s simply to say that gratifying one’s sexual desires all the time – or even the vast majority of the time – is enjoyed by no one, and the only difference between me, as a married man, and the single man who, attracted to other men, has been urged to choose life-long celibacy, is a mere two percent. In any given week, statistically speaking, a married man’s desires might be fulfilled two percent of the time more than his – to say nothing of the times when a husband is away from his wife for a longer period of time (a week or two – or months) and has to practice full-fledged celibacy.

Again, I don’t want to be dismissive. Sex is, of course, so much more than merely fulfilling a desire or an impulse or a whim. At its best, it is a union between two people that goes far beyond the physical act. It is, indeed, a wonderful gift from God – the expression of two lives that are joined on every level.

And yet, of course, it is, to a large extent, nothing more than merely fulfilling a desire or impulse or whim if it is pursued outside the framework of God’s original design (which, by the way, a married person can also violate, even in the very act of having sex with his or her spouse).

All this is to simply raise awareness to the fact that all of us are called to practice sexual purity – which is frequently expressed in celibacy for various lengths of time. This “yoke” is not the exclusive domain of any single person or group. We’re all in this together.

Thankfully, wonderfully, all of us also have a big God who has a lot of grace in those moments when our sexuality is being tested.

And thankfully, wonderfully, we also have a big God who has a lot of grace for those moments when we fall.

*The research I am citing was technically done with college students – who, I would presume, probably think about sex more than the average married adult. Then again, maybe my presumption is wrong! Either way, I feel fully comfortable saying that everyone thinks about sex more than he or she experiences it. And, thus, everyone has had to – and continues to have to – deny his/her sexual desires at some point.

The Jewish Idea of Vindication


I’ve been reading quite a few Jewish authors lately. Among other delightful insights I’ve been gleaning, one of the things that has jumped out at me is their willingness – in fact, eagerness – to place God in a position of greater dependence on humankind than Christians seem willing to allow.

I don’t think this is a coincidence. The modern Christian is on the wrong end of 2500 years of dependence on Plato, Augustine, and Calvin. These three, each one progressively building on the one before, has presented a God whose chiefly characterized by immutability, sovereignty, and complete independence. God is the “unmoved Mover” who cannot ultimately be affected by anyone other than Himself. What’s more, to say that God has chosen to be dependent on others implies that there is a deficiency or weakness in His character.

Though there are certainly plenty of Jewish expositors – reaching all the way back to Philo – who haven’t escaped the tentacles of Greek philosophical thinking, the ones I am reading seem to have avoided its pitfalls in this arena, allowing the worldview of Israel to have a greater impact on their thinking than the worldview of Greece; indeed, Jerusalem holds greater sway than Athens. Thus, Abraham Heschel provocatively offers, “For the accomplishment of His grand design, the Lord waits for the help of man” (The Prophets, p. 198). He echoes this sentiment frequently throughout his book on the prophets. Similarly, writing in Man Is Not Alone, he shares this: “Man can rely on God, if God can rely on man. We may trust in Him because He trusts in us. To have faith means to justify God’s faith in man. It is as essential that God believe in man as that man should believe in God” (p. 174).

Just let that sink in for a minute!

For his part, Harvard professor Jon D. Levenson, in his book Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence, writes about how we are involved in a “cosmogonic-soteriological drama” in which we are not merely “passive beneficiaries” of God’s favor, but also called to be “junior partners” in God’s ordering of the universe. Perhaps most stunning of all, however, Levenson posits that “the actualization of the full potential of God requires the testimony of his special people” (pp. xxvi, 139).

These Jews know their own Scriptures. They know how God lamented through Ezekiel, for example, that His name had been “profaned among the nations” (36:21) because of the house of Israel. Yet they also know that God would ultimately “vindicate the holiness of my great name . . . when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes” (v. 23, RSV).

They also know how Moses reminded God, in Numbers 14, that He couldn’t simply start over with a new people, instead of bringing Israel into the Promised Land, because “the nations which have heard of Your fame will speak, saying, ‘Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which He swore to give them, therefore He killed them in the wilderness” (vv. 15-16).

Just think: God’s reputation was tied into Israel’s ability – through God’s grace, of course – to get into the Promised Land. His destiny was tied into theirs!

These are largely foreign concepts to the average Christian. That’s because we are under the impression that this whole thing is largely about getting us into heaven. As N.T. Wright puts it, “It may look, from our point of view, as though ‘me and my salvation’ are the be-all and end-all of Christianity” (Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision, p. 23).

What’s more, most Christians think that if God faces any problems at all, those problems are solved exclusively by Himself, without any cooperation from us. As the sovereign and omnipotent God of the universe, He doesn’t need help from anyone else – and any hint of Him relying on others is borderline blasphemy.

Indeed, not only is the idea that we have a work of cooperation to do in “ordering the universe,” or vindicating God, considered blasphemy by some, it’s also legalism in their eyes.

And yet, to say that we have a part to play in vindicating God has no more to do with legalism than saying we still need to keep the Sabbath – which is to say, they can both be legalistic if framed improperly. If God’s acceptance of and love for me is contingent upon my vindicating Him, or my Sabbath-keeping; or if my salvation is dependent on either – then, yes, it is legalism. Yet, if either are placed within the context of a response to Calvary’s love, as the natural response of faith, then they are anything but legalistic.

What may surprise many, from a Seventh-day Adventist perspective, is that Ellen White fully understood this Jewish idea. Though she certainly placed great emphasis on Christ vindicating God, there was also a place in her thinking for us to have a part in that. “If there was ever a people in need of constantly increasing light from heaven,” she wrote, “it is the people that, in this time of peril, God has called to be the depositories of His holy law and to vindicate His character before the world. Those to whom has been committed a trust so sacred must be spiritualized, elevated, vitalized, by the truths they profess to believe” (Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 746).

Again, writing of Job, she said that “by his patient endurance he vindicated his own character, and thus the character of Him whose representative he was” (Education, p. 156).

Indeed, Ellen White wrote like a good Jew!

So let us embrace this awesome thought – not as a legalistic prison-sentence, or an idea to be feared. Let us view it for the privilege it is: an opportunity to glorify the Person who’s supposed to be the object of our deepest affections, praise, and love.

Though not himself a Jew, N.T. Wright is certainly steeped in the worldview of Hebraic thinking far more than most other contemporary Christian thinkers. So let’s allow him to have the final word: “God made humans for a purpose,” he writes, “not simply for themselves, not simply so that they could be in relationship with [God], but so that through them, as his image-bearers, he could bring his wise, glad, fruitful, order to the world” (Justification, p. 24).

We Need Another 1888

1888 GC MinneapolisIf you’ve been paying any attention at all to the present landscape of Adventism, you’ve noticed that there are various movements vying for our attention – especially the attention of our youth. These movements present their own version of what Adventism looks like at its best. There is much about these movements that can be commended – not the least of which is because they have all seemed to instill a deeper belief that Adventism can be better than its current iteration.

And yet, I want more for my church. Instead of – to use a C.S. Lewis analogy – settling for making mud pies in the slums (which can be fun), I want to enjoy a holiday at sea.

Adventism doesn’t need this conference or that conference, this project or that project; we don’t need to become more conservative or less conservative; we don’t need to become more liberal or less liberal; we don’t need more interpretive dancing or less interpretive dancing; we don’t need more Spiritual Formation or less Spiritual Formation.

The solution to what ails us is very simple.

What Adventism needs is another 1888 – the standard by which all other movements within Adventistism should be judged against; the standard that, according to Ellen White, was the “loud cry” message of Revelation that was to go to every church and the whole world; a standard that has not been equaled in the last 125 years.

Sadly, I have discovered that most Adventists don’t have the slightest clue about what is meant by “1888” – and those who do have some sense have been misinformed. To put it simply, according to Ellen White, back in 1888,

The Lord in His great mercy sent a most precious message to His people through Elders Waggoner and Jones. This message was to bring more prominently before the world the uplifted Saviour, the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It presented justification through faith in the Surety; it invited the people to receive the righteousness of Christ, which is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God. (Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 91, 92)

Ellen White said that “this is the message that God commanded to be given to the world. It is the third angel’s message, which is to be proclaimed with a loud voice, and attended with the outpouring of His Spirit in a large measure.” And, indeed, anywhere this message was given an audience over the next few years, it was attended with great power – to the point that, on one occasion, Ellen White said “we seemed to breathe in the very atmosphere of heaven” (The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, p. 268).

Unfortunately, the movement was not to last. Writing in 1896, Ellen White tragically commented how the “light that is to lighten the whole earth with its glory was resisted, and by the action of our own brethren has been in a great degree kept away from the world” (Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 235).

Though many would eagerly label me a simpleton, I am completely at ease with saying that everything since then within Adventism has been merely a footnote.

It thus behoves us to saturate ourselves in this “most precious message,” since it is the solution to what ails Adventism and what ails the world. And our eternal success will be in proportion to the degree that we emulate the blueprint that Ellen White, A.T. Jones, and E.J. Waggoner set forth in 1888 and the few years that followed.

And to the extent that any or all of these current movements within Adventism are passionately and singularly pursuing this goal, we can and must applaud them.

And, if so, I say: keep moving forward!

If you want to acquaint yourself with this “most precious message,” (which, in my opinion, isn’t optional) there are a few resources I would suggest. First is an article my dad and I wrote for the Adventist Review recently, which you can access here. I also highly recommend this dynamite sermon by my good friend, Ty Gibsonat the 2012 General Conference Annual Council meetings.

For a more in-depth – yet important - explanation of this subject, I highly recommend The Return of the Latter Rain, by Ron Duffield, which you can find here

Weak Gospel; Strong Gospel

Here are a few observations on preaching that is either strong or weak in the gospel. This stems from a Twitter conversation I got into yesterday in which my friend David Asscherick commented how in our worship of God, we should ditch the fog lights, strobes, and American-idol aspirations, and just worship. My comment was: when we preach a weak gospel, we have to dim the lights and turn up the music.

That resulted in some questions from a few people. And it led me to realize that I have, perhaps to some degree, a differing view on what constitutes preaching that is “strong in the gospel” (since the gospel has only one “strength” – ie., powerful [see Romans 1:16] – it is not entirely accurate to speak of a “weak” or “strong” gospel, but of preaching that is either weak or strong in the gospel).

As I’ve listened to a lot of sermons over the years, I have encountered a lot of sermons – too many – that were weak on the gospel and left me empty. Fortunately, I’ve also enjoyed a lot of sermons – though far fewer than the former – that were strong on the gospel, and left my heart feeling “strangely warmed.” These are thus the elements of each type of sermon. They are just one man’s subjective opinion and you may find yourself in complete disagreement. That’s fine. But what we should all agree upon is that the gospel – Christ and Him crucified – must be front-and-center of every sermon (Ellen White says that Christ is the great “center of attraction”). It thus behooves all of us to grapple with how we might pursue a richer and more cross-centered presentation of truth.

So, here goes.

Preaching that is strong in the gospel:

  • Presents everything within the context of the motivating power of the gospel
  • Presents everything within the context of God, searching for man – seeking him, initiating relationship with him, pursuing him
  • Presents everything within the context of the “everlasting covenant” – God’s whole-souled commitment to humankind, no matter the cost
  • Presents everything in the context of man’s utter inability to save himself, or keep the law – any of its facets – himself
  • Emphasizes Christ’s nearness to humankind and how He, as the “Son of Man,” can identify with us
  • Explores the multi-dimensional reality of Christ’s great self-sacrificial love as seen on Calvary – including His experience of the “second death,” and His unilateral forgiveness of all humankind
  • Describes (as opposed to prescribes) the obedience that naturally flows from a heart that encounters the gospel

This is not to say that every sermon needs to be an explicit expose on all these themes. It’s simply to say that every sermon needs to be preached “within the context” of these important realities. Thus, a sermon on the Sabbath or tithing or evangelism can – and must – be presented within this context.

Sermons that are “weak in the gospel,” are legion, and their characteristics are infinite, to a large degree; but these are some typical characteristics that I have found in sermons that are “weak in the gospel” (note that just because a sermon may be “weak in the gospel,” doesn’t mean that an attempt is not made to lift up the gospel, or that it is explicitly legalistic in tone and content):

  • Presents God’s love in very vague terms, not giving much content or explanation as to what that exactly means (e.g., “God loves all of us unconditionally,” is about as deep as it goes)
  • Detaches the gospel from doctrine or obedience (e.g., “If we are truly Christians, then we should be loving,” as opposed to a sermon that is strong in the gospel saying, “When we see God’s love as displayed on Calvary, we will love others”)
  • Relies heavily on funny anecdotes or jokes (none of these are bad in-and-of-themselves, but the gospel can be cheapened – or completely buried – if we make funniness the main thing. See this post for further thoughts on this)
  • Does not emphasize the all-consuming nature of “Christ and Him crucified”
  • Uses carrots or sticks to urge a response to Christ
  • May present a more sophisticated legalism (replaces some of the old hobby horses in former days which are anathema to this generation – e.g., entertainment choices, diet, etc. – with more trendy hobby horses – e.g., social justice and equality, openness to other faiths, etc. None of these new emphases may be bad, in-and-of-themselves, but, again, the point is that they are still subtly presented as a list of “do’s and don’ts,” instead of being presented within the context of the motivating power of the gospel)
  • May present victory over sin as the main thing – though this emphasis is not typical for most of the venues that I’m assuming David was originally talking about (fog lights and preaching about victory over sin don’t typically find themselves showing up at the same programs)

As I said, those are just a few examples.

I think, what would be most helpful, is to give you a tangible example of a sermon that is “strong” in the gospel, and one that is weak.

For the former, I have chosen a sermon by my good friend, Ty Gibson. It’s called “Get Yourself a New Husband.” Ty does a great job of combining all the powerful features of a gospel-strong presentation. You can hear it here.

For the sermon that is “weak” in the gospel, I have chosen a sermon that I have actually preached. It’s called “Silent Christians?” You can listen to it here.

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