Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Four Treasures of Adventism
A lecture series for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Lecture Four: Law
Sabbath afternoon, April 6, 2013
Text: Genesis 18:25
One of the truly distinctive elements of Adventist theology is its elevation of law. According to Adventist theology, the personal, idiosyncratic will of God is not the last word. Rather, we view God himself as subject to the grand principles of law.
You've seen the bumper sticker, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” It's a nice slogan expressing confidence in God, but in some Bible stories God's words are not necessarily the last word. Sometimes when people argue with God, the people win the argument because there is a law that God himself has to obey.
Example One: Genesis 18
God told Abraham he was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. God did not ask Abraham for his opinion. God did not invite Abraham to critique the destruction plan. God simply announced his intentions, “his will.” Instead of bowing and saying, “You are God. You must be correct,” Abraham challenged God, accusing him of injustice.
“Suppose you find fifty righteous people living there in the city—will you still sweep it away and not spare it for their sakes? Surely you wouldn't do such a thing, destroying the righteous along with the wicked. Why, you would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely you wouldn't do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” Genesis 18:24-25.
Clearly, here, Abraham is referencing a standard, a law or principle, something outside the person of God himself. Abraham emphatically does not approach this conversation with God as a sycophantic courtier. He is not the president's lawyer inventing legal justification for drone strikes or “enhanced interrogation.”
Abraham confronts God. “Whoa! Wait just a minute. You can't just willy-nilly obliterate a whole town. Just because there happen to be bad people there, that does not allow you to disregard the innocent as 'collateral damage.' You have to do what is right.” Abraham is not naïve. He acknowledges that as supreme judge God has the power to do whatever he wants. But having the power to do something does not automatically confer the right to do it. In Abraham's mind God's indisputable power does not confer indisputable authority.
Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right!
God did not rebuke Abraham for impudence. God agreed with him. God even allowed Abraham to set the conditions that had to be met if the cities were going to be destroyed. When it turned out that the cities failed to meet even Abraham's conditions for preservation—at least ten righteous inhabitants—God honored Abraham's scruples by sending angels to evacuate Abraham's four relatives before the fire fell. (Genesis 18, 19)
To summarize: God announced his intention in unmistakably clear language. Abraham judged God's declared intention to be a violation of some universal law. When Abraham challenged God, God did not tell him to shut up, God bent to meet the demands of Abraham's conscience.
Example Two: Moses' Rebellion, Exodus 32
The people of Israel were camped at Mt. Sinai. Moses was up on the mountain communing with God. After Moses had been on the mountain for weeks, the people began to fret. They worried that Moses was dead. They needed a god to lead them. So Aaron made a golden calf and the people began dancing around this idol in worship. God informs Moses of this problem and then gives Moses a direct order,
Now leave me alone so my fierce anger can blaze against them, and I will destroy them. Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation. Exodus 32:10
There was no hint of diffidence or ambiguity in God's command. Moses understood it perfectly. But instead of obeying and getting out of the way, Moses questioned God's judgment. “God, I don't think you really want to do that. If you do it, you'll be sorry.” Later, Moses upped his protest. To paraphrase, Moses said to God, “Over my dead body! I will not step aside. To kill them, you're going to have to go through me.”
God bends. He does not destroy the people en masse.
Abraham's argument against God's proposed action was: That's not right!
Moses' argument was: That's not wise. Then, I will not acquiesce.
In both instances, the human challengers are validated. Their opposition to God's words is celebrated as acts of righteousness.
Example Three, The Gibeonites, Joshua 9
The people of Israel invaded Palestine. Following God's instructions they annihilated Jericho. Every man, woman, child and animal—except Rahab and everyone she manages to squeeze into her Hotel Rwanda. It was a brutal, savage extermination, ordered by God according to the narrative in the Bible.
Next, the Israelites destroyed Ai. But this time they didn't kill the animals, just the people.
The Book of Joshua reports that when tribal groups throughout Palestine heard about Israel's success against these two cities, they formed a league to fight the Israelites. Everybody joined except for the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites sent a delegation to ask for a peace treaty with the Israelites.
When the emissaries arrived, Joshua interrogated them. “Who are you? Where do you come from?”
The ambassadors answered, “Your servants have come from a very distant country. Stories of your exploits have reached even as far as our country. We've heard about what your God did to the Egyptians. We've heard how he gave you victory over Sihon King of Heshbon and Og king of Bashan. Our elders, and in fact, all our people, commissioned us to come and offer ourselves as vassals. We're prepared to pay tribute. We just want to be on your side. We want to connect with the God who is able to do what your God does.”
Joshua was suspicious. “You do realize that God has forbidden us to make treaties with any one in this area, right? How do we know you live far enough away for us to even be able to talk about making a treaty?”
“Look at our bread,” the Gibeonites protested. “When we left home it was fresh out of the oven. See how dry and moldy it is now! These wine skins—when we filled them at home—they were brand new for the trip. Now see how cracked and weathered they are. Our sandals were new. Now, they're worn out.”
Joshua and his assistants peered at the moldy bread. They ran their hands over the rough, weathered skins. They could see the ratty clothes. No self-respecting ambassador would deliberately show up to make a treaty dressed like that. So, Joshua and the elders agreed to a treaty. Three days later the Israelites discovered they'd been fooled. The Gibeonites lived only three days away from the Israelite camp. The Israelites were outraged. They marched the three-days journey to the region of Gibeon and set up camp.
The soldiers were impatient. These people were Canaanites. It was extermination time. But Joshua refused. “We gave our word,” Joshua said. “And even when it comes to pagans, when we make a promise, we keep it. When we make a treaty, we honor it. When we sign a contract, it's binding.”
The entire army was outraged at Joshua's refusal to exterminate these worthless people. There was a threat of mutiny. But Joshua was adamant. “Yes, they are Canaanites. Yes, they fooled us. Yes, they are on God's extermination list. Yes, God forbade us to make a treaty with people like this. But, no, we are not going to break our word. A treaty is a treaty. An oath is an oath.”
The Gibeonites watched all this nervously, to put it mildly. If Jericho hadn't been able to withstand these people, the Gibeonites didn't have a chance. Their fate was in the hands of Joshua. If he blinked, they were dead.
Joshua summoned the Gibeonite leaders. He was not happy. “Why did you deceive us, saying you lived a long way away?
The Gibeonites answered, “Your servants had heard definite, detailed reports about the command your God gave you to wipe out all the inhabitants of the land. We've seen your God's power in Egypt and in the battles against Sihon, king of Hesbon, and Og, king of Bashon, and Jericho and Ai. We are helpless against you militarily. We did the only thing we could think of to save our lives. We are in your hands. Do to us whatever seems good and right.
So Joshua saved them. He imposed severe “tribute.” They were consigned in perpetuity to serve as temple slaves. But they were alive. Contrary to the explicit annihilation decree of God.
Note, God's command to wipe out the people of Canaan was so emphatic, so clear, so unmistakable, the pagan people themselves had memorized it. There was nothing fuzzy or ambiguous or uncertain in God's directions. God ordered the Israelites to exterminate these wicked people. Joshua countermanded the words of God. When his warriors urged him to implement God's command, Joshua refused. He over overruled his soldiers and God on the basis of a simple law: integrity.
There is a law that is higher than the “word of God.” There is a law that is higher than the idiosyncratic will of God.
A few generations later God demonstrated his approval of Joshua's integrity in protecting the Gibeonites. It's a macabre story: King Saul violated the treaty and tried to exterminate the Gibeonites in obedience to the historic words of God. During the reign of the next king, David, God sent a famine to punish Israel for Saul's massacres. To atone for the genocide, David executed seven of Saul's descendants. Whatever else we make of this story, it clearly endorses Joshua's adamant insistence on honoring a treaty, even though doing so meant Israel was acting directly contrary to the explicit command of God.
“Doing right is more important than obeying God.”
Of course, as believers, we would prefer to say this differently. We would say that doing right is the truest, purest interpretation of God's words. If obeying God's words leads someone to mistreat people, we would insist that the perpetrator has misunderstood God, that God's words didn't really mean what they thought they meant. But I put it the other way, because sometimes we are so sure we know what God meant by what he has said, that our conscience is anesthetized. When a parent spanks their child into unconsciousness because the child is being rebellious, the parent is not intending to do evil. The parent is simply being obedient to the Bible admonition, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” When an Arkansas Republican last year proposed legislation that would allow parents to seek the death penalty for an incorrigible child, that legislator was simply attempting to be faithful to his understanding of the words of God recorded in the Bible.
Mature religion does not ask simply, “What did God say?” Rather it asks, “What is right?” Mature religion assumes the existence of a law that is so noble, so exalted, so universal God himself is not free to violate it. And we are not free to violate it even if it seems God's words require us to do so.
If something looks unfair, even if it appears to be the will of God, mature Christians will speak up. They will join with Abraham and protest. They may even join Moses and defy the plain statement of God. Sometimes, the right thing to do is to challenge God himself. This is the real life application of the Adventist notion of the supremacy of law.
In the Bible God explicitly approved and regulated slavery. Christians, beginning in the 1600s, started asking questions of fairness. This questioning is perhaps most beautifully modeled in the life of John Woolman who traveled up and down the east coast in the late 1700s bearing witness in favor of liberty for slaves.
The Bible explicitly prescribes death by stoning for Sabbath-breakers, adulterers, rebellious sons, homosexual unions, women unable to prove their virginity at their wedding, blasphemers, witches, and rape victims if the rape occurred within the city limits. Even fundamentalists who advocate capital punishment, reject it in connection with every one of these categories. (Except for the Arkansas Republican I mentioned earlier.)
So what is this “law” that is superior even to the words of God?
In the Bible, two criteria show up as effective arguments against the “words of God.” First, is some notion of justice or integrity. Once the treaty with the Gibeonites was signed, the binding obligation of honoring that treaty, of keeping a promise, took precedence over the explicit words of God ordering their destruction. Abraham's argument regarding Sodom was along the same lines: A real judge, a just judge, cannot ignore collateral harm to innocents in his punishment of the guilty.
The second criteria, one that shows up repeatedly is mercy. In each of the instances I mentioned—Abraham pleading for Sodom, Moses defending Israel, Joshua defending the Israelites—the plea for mercy trumps the verdict of condemnation.
Example Four, the Sidonian Woman, Matthew 25
When a pagan woman from the neighborhood of Sidon asked for Jesus' help, he first ignored her, then told her that helping her would take him away from his God-given mission. He compared her to a dog. She then argued that even dogs get crumbs. Finally, Jesus, capitulates. Even though he has said helping her was contrary to God's will, he goes ahead and helps her.
To make sure I am crystal clear, I'll say it again: Jesus told the woman that it was contrary to God's will for him to help her. His God-given mission was to Israelites. She was not an Israelite. She refused to accept his words. She understood his words. She simply rejected them as “the last word.” She insisted that he help her daughter, even though doing so would be a contradiction of his words.
Jesus agreed with her. Jesus took action which he had already pronounced as contrary to the directions he had received from God. In this instance, the woman is countermanding the explicit testimony of Jesus regarding the will of God! To dramatize his capitulation, Jesus says to the woman, “May it be for you as you wish.” Notice, that if we take the words of the Bible at face value, it is the will of the mother that is done, not the will of Jesus.
With these Bible stories as a background, it is easy for Adventists to justify our rejection of eternal torment. No human being could possibly do enough evil to deserve to be tormented for billions and billions of years. Even if they could somehow manage to earn such a horrific fate, mercy would compel God to modify it. God's people in heaven would join Abraham, Moses and the Sidonian woman in begging for mercy. They could not enjoy heaven knowing that someone, somewhere was being tortured at God's direction.
Beyond our rejection of eternal torment, Adventists also reject reject classic Christian soteriology which damns to hell (however long it is) all people who do not have an explicit faith in Jesus. We believe God is capable of saving people who live outside all the traditional (and beautiful and helpful) formulas. We reject the notion that all Buddhists and Hindus and people with severe mental disabilities are automatically excluded from salvation. (For an authoritative expression of the traditional narrow, exclusionary soteriology see Albert Mohler: We dare not retreat from all that the Bible says about hell. We must never confuse the Gospel, nor offer suggestions that there may be any way of salvation outside of conscious faith in Jesus Christ. (http://www.albertmohler.com/2011/03/16/we-have-seen-all-this-before-rob-bell-and-the-reemergence-of-liberal-theology/). Without conscious faith in Jesus Christ, there is no salvation. (http://www.albertmohler.com/2009/07/08/evangelicalisms-terminal-generation/)).
Yes, we know the words of John
"There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God's one and only Son. John 3:18
But it would be unfair to condemn people for not believing something they had no knowledge of. We privilege texts like Psalm 87 and 1 John 2:2 over the texts that describe salvation in very restrictive terms.
The story of the Gibeonites has obvious implications as we think about homosexuality and the church. The Gibeonites were explicitly condemned to annihilation by God. The extermination verdict was pronounced repeatedly. They knew themselves to be under the explicit condemnation of God. Still they were drawn to God. They had to trick their way into the community of God. The community of God did not want to receive them. When the community was forced by the integrity of Joshua to include the Gibeonites, the Gibeonites were received as second class citizens. But, they were, in fact, members of the people of God. They were under the protection of God. And their official role included serving the temple! When they were mistreated by Saul, God acted in judgment against Israel. In light of this story, how can we justify continuing to exclude homosexuals from our community?
Shall we continue to act like the soldiers of Israel using the words of God as a basis for destruction or will we join Joshua (a type of Jesus) in protecting those who seek sanctuary among us?
There is a higher law than the denunciations of Leviticus and Romans.
Adventists believe that law in its most fundamental form is not an arbitrary imposition of rules by God upon humans, rather law is a description of the habits of God, or in the language of Ellen White, “law is a transcript of the character of God.”
God is not right merely because he says so. God is right because there is an absolute congruence between what he requires and what he is/does. Our inescapable human sense of right and wrong is a reflection of God. God must do right. Not simply in the sense that if God does it, it is right, but in the sense of that God is held to the norms expressed in creation and expressed in our own best thoughts and sensibilities.
One stream of Christian theology argues that human questions about divine justice are simply irrelevant. If God calls something right, it is right just because God said so. God is the legal authority. There is no higher law. There is no criteria by which the Creator can be evaluated. This is the view of the Reformers. Martin Luther and John Calvin argued for the absolute sovereignty of God. Human questions about divine justice were silly or worse because God was beyond question.
Adventists, on the other hand, believe that human questions matter. Law may be a divine creation, but having created it, God himself is defined in part by law and will not violate it.
Just as we understand God's love through a variety of earthy metaphors—father, mother, shepherd, dog owner, husband, hen—so we understand God's justice through human metaphors. If a putative action or judgment of God strikes us as unfair, especially when our sense of injustice remains after thoughtful consideration and respectful conversation and study, then it is right that we begin to question whether the putative judgment is, indeed, God's last word. Perhaps what we thought was God's last word was rather a provisional word, a word that was right for a particular situation, but subject to correction and perfection in the movement of God across time.
Four Treasures of Adventism
A lecture series for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Lecture Three: The Sweetness of Doing Right
Sabbath morning sermon, April 6, 2013
Text: Matthew 7:24-27
For forty-two years my life has been better because of Bill Shelly. When we first met, I weighed thirty pounds more than I do now. I carried a deep sense of inadequacy. I was a freshman at Southern Adventist University. Awkward. Nerdy. Uncool. Bill was also a freshman. But he was smooth, charismatic, cool. Women flocked around him. I was completely out of his league socially. But for some reason he decided I was going to be his friend. He actively drew me into his world. Hanging out with Bill meant I got to meet all sorts of cool people, big names on campus. I was flattered beyond words. Bill had a magic power to make ordinary people sparkle.
Our friendship deepened through college and seminary. His confidence in me prompted me to attempt things I would have never tried on my own. His friendship made me a larger, richer, better person. He changed my life.
Bill was a wonderful model of the transforming power of Jesus. He did not search for people worthy of his love. Bill loved people into a greatness they did not know they possessed.
If you've tracked with me so far, the term “unconditional love” might come to mind. But with Bill that got a little tricky. Bill was loyal and forgiving, yes. But if by unconditional love you imagine someone who makes no demands, well didn't quite fit the picture. Bill always had ideas about how you could improve your life.
A few months into our friendship Bill invited me to the track to go running. I laughed and said, “No way.” I hated running. Running bases in baseball or going out for a pass, that was fun, but to run hundreds of yards merely for the sake of running? That was masochism.
But Bill cajoled, teased, insisted until I joined him on the track. We did a very slow jog together. Four laps. A mile. Then I collapsed on the bleachers while he ran another mile. I remember sitting there thinking, that's incredible. I have a friend who can run two whole miles. That's almost superhuman.
Most afternoons, Bill dragged me out to the track for my one mile and his two miles. Then he decided we should try running the hills behind the university. This was sheer lunacy. Run uphill????? A long ways up hill????
I protested. Bill insisted. We started running hills. And somewhere, some afternoon on a downslope run on White Oak Mountain I experienced the secret. I was floating down the hill in sheer euphoria. I had become a runner. Over the next few years Bill I ran together on the dunes of Lake Michigan and in the hills of east Tennessee. We ran through the golden foothills of the Sierras and the mountains of southern France. Bill died twenty-five years ago. His death created a wound that is never entirely healed. But his gift of running has been a continual source of healing and happiness. When I am struggling with depression, the unfailing cure is get out of the house and run.
I mean no disrespect, but if I had to choose between the two gifts Bill gave me—affirmation and affection or the kick in the pants that got me started running—I don't know which I would rank most highly.
I used to imagine that my friendship with Bill was unique. But I've told this story in other places and several times, afterward, someone has come up to me and told their own Bill story. They were Bill's best friend. Bill used to take them running. He would run ten miles at dawn then jog a slow mile with them later in the morning. Bill added sparkle to their lives with his laughing and generous affection. Bill enriched their lives by turning them into runners.
The ministry of Jesus was a lot like Bill's. Jesus overflowed with rich affection, compassion, generosity. He couldn't let people leave a campmeeting hungry because he was afraid they might faint on the way home. He fed them. He couldn't allow a woman accurately accused of adultery to experience the customary punishment. People filled with demons screamed insults at Jesus. He paid no attention to their words. Instead he read the hidden hunger of their hearts and set them free. He publicized the astonishing richness hidden in a poor woman's two penny offering.
Like Bill, Jesus overflowed with affection and the power to see a beauty in people they did not see in themselves. This part of the Jesus story is appropriately celebrated by Christians. It is highlighted in the official mission statement of the Green Lake Church.
Our mission statement speaks of “providing ‘safe territory’ for all people.” It mentions “openness,” which “creates a healing environment where people worship, study, play, and celebrate each person’s individuality and unique expression of Divine grace.” These words capture Bill's laughing affection. If we do this well, we will be a blessing in the world. We will be carry forward a vital element of the ministry of Jesus.
However, there is a glaring omission in our mission statement. We say nothing about our obligation to one another to encourage change and growth. Jesus and Bill loved people just the way they were. They were extravagant in their affirmation and affection. But, they could not help themselves, they also pushed people to get off their couches. Jesus and Bill loved people too much not to prod them to live closer to their potential.
This is also our mission as a church.
Jesus began his “Sermon on the Mount” with the rich assurance, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are the spiritually destitute, the people who are religiously, morally, psychologically, ethically bankrupt. God's plans, God's dreams still include them. God cannot complete his manuscript of the symphony of the ages without writing their part in it.
The first beatitude is the most radical, daring statement of the graciousness of God in all of Scripture. Then without the least apology or hesitation, Jesus goes on to summon his audience to join him in a wildly audacious holiness.
Jesus assumes the validity and force of the ten commandments. That's getting chubby Johnny out of the dorm to stagger four times around the quarter mile track before collapsing on the bleachers. But when Jesus looks you, he sees the ten commandments is way below your potential. He wants you to run White Oak Mountain.
“You have heard,” Jesus said, “'Don't murder.' That's way too meager. I call you to live above anger.”
“You have heard, 'Don't commit adultery.' Stay out of the wrong bed. Is that your idea of intimacy? Come on, you can do better than that!”
“You have been told, 'Don't renege on contracts you've signed.' I challenge you to be so honest, so transparent and straightforward, that a contract is superfluous except as an aid to memory.”
Most of the ten commandments are stated as limits on our dysfunctional impulses. Jesus calls us to a vastly more exalted ethic: “Don't just resist the urge to kill, harm and steal. Love your enemies. The enemies you sleep with. The enemies you go to church with. The enemies you compete with at work. The enemies you go to school with. Love them. Seek to do them good. Pray for them.”
An essential part of the mission of the church is to prod us in the pursuit of holiness, to encourage us to run the mountains of compassion, generosity, peacemaking, world-mending. As a congregation, we welcome everyone. But we offer more than solace, consolation, acceptance. We begin there, yes. We want to extend a rich welcome to all. Then, having welcomed one another, having offered a warm embrace, we then attempt to fire dreams of holiness, visions of growth and change, ambitions to heal the world. We offer one another an occasional kick in the seat of the pants. We offer frequent affirmations of the value of pursing exalted ideals.
Especially for our younger members.
If you have been blessed by education, a strong mind, creative abilities, physical strength or attractiveness, musical abilities, the privilege of music lessons—we join Jesus in calling you to use those gifts to charm the world. To ease suffering, to increase happiness, to enlarge opportunities for people who have lived for generations in places that withered dreams.
It is not enough to graduate and join the work force, buy a house, drive a nice car or ride a three thousand dollar bicycle. That's way too small.
If you have experienced professional or academic success, we want to congratulate you. You have worked hard. That is commendable. Having blessed your success, we go on to ask, in what ways has your elevation brought beauty and healing to the world? Are you running the mountains and sand dunes of holiness or are you still on the couch watching TV?
Let's be clear, Jesus' summons to run the mountains of holiness is an invitation to joy, even to ecstasy and euphoria. Often when we first encounter the call to holiness it has all the attractiveness of Bill's initial invitation to go running on the track. It appears to be a summons to masochism, to drudgery and perpetual discomfort. If we allow Jesus to pull us off our couches and into the sustained, energetic pursuit of holiness we will eventually find ourselves caught up in the runner's high.
The summons to holy living is an invitation to joy. Doing right does not impoverish life. It enriches it.
Almolonga is famous. Not that I had ever heard of the place until last week, when it was featured in a report on NPR. But as my daughter occasionally points out, the fact that I am unaware of something likely says more about me than the particular cultural phenomenon under discussion. Almolonga is famous, at least among economists and anthropologists. It's been the subject of Ph. D. dissertations and scholarly articles.
According to the story on KUOW, Almolonga used to be your average, poor village in the Guatemala highlands. Now, it is famous for its middle class prosperity. Forty years ago, the town had four jails and they were usually full. Now the city has no jail at all. What happened?
One answer is, they changed their religion. Historically, the religion of Almolonga, like the rest of Guatemala, was Roman Catholicism tinctured strongly by folk religion rooted in the Mayan past. This traditional religion was completely integrated into the life of the community. The civic and religious calendars were the same. The annual cycle of festivities involved the entire community. The religion had centuries-deep roots. It offered an institutional way for people to pursue some measure of comfort and reassurance. It provided no effective challenge to any of the dysfunction that was endemic in the culture. A critic might argue that the religion had been reduced almost entirely to Marx's description: an opiate.
The new religion is radically different. It is Latin American charismatic Christianity. This religion makes radical demands. In the old religion, alcohol was an indispensable element of recurrent festivals. Alcoholism was rampant with all its usual accompaniments—domestic violence, dysfunctional commerce, poverty. The new religion fiercely opposed the use of alcohol. The new religion regulated dancing and entertainment. It demanded that people attend church every week, both on Sundays and during the week. Church members were expected to contribute money regularly and generously. These expectations were not just preached from the pulpit, they were reinforced by deliberately-cultivated social pressure.
Even to a casual observer, the contrast between the old religion and the new religion was stark. Quite apart from any specifically theological differences, the old religion appeared to be richest in its offer of consolation and reassurance. Through its liturgical year, it offered a sense of divine participation in the cycles of life. Against the backdrop of a hardscrabble life, it offered the promise of heaven. The new religion, by contrast, exhibited a restless, impatient drive for change, growth and improvement. In addition to ordinary religious content, the sermons of the charismatic preachers instructed the people to dream big, to work hard, to save their money, to spend strategically. God wanted his people to prosper. And an indispensable element of prosperity was hard work.
By the 1990s, most of the village population had joined one of these new churches. Alcoholism disappeared. Family incomes began rising. Farmers began exporting their produce to El Salvador and Mexico. The town became something of a distribution hub for produce. Some families began importing avocados and then distributing them regionally. Economists studying the town repeatedly invoked Max Weber's words about the “Protestant work ethic.” The jails closed.
Many of the Protestants see the present-day prosperity as a miracle, God's confirming blessing on their move from the realm of spiritual darkness into the truth. In the NPR piece, the local Catholic priest objected to this “miracle” interpretation. The prosperity, he said, was the result of hard work and fertile soil.
(A transcript of the radio program can be found here: http://www.prx.org/pieces/92206/transcripts/208030)
Of course, the priest was right about hard work. Good religion works miracles by fostering hard work. The “miraculous” impact of the Charismatic churches on the life of Almolonga has come as a natural consequence of deliberately creating a church community that prods people toward wise, energetic action. These churches do more than console people in hard times. These churches exhort their members to work to make things different.
When people live in a community that celebrates disciplined living, they are more likely to live disciplined lives. And discipline—ordering one's life according to wisdom and goals—is indispensable for living an optimal life.
God wants his children to live well.
The book of Deuteronomy is a series of sermons Moses preached at the end of his life. Near the beginning of the first sermon, Moses says:
"And now, Israel, listen carefully to these decrees and regulations that I am about to teach you. Obey them so that you may live, so you may enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. Deuteronomy 4:1
If you obey all the decrees and commands I am giving you today, all will be well with you and your children. I am giving you these instructions so you will enjoy a long life in the land the LORD your God is giving you for all time." Deuteronomy 4:40
God gave Israel laws, rules, commandments—use whatever term works best for you—to foster their well-being. God wanted them to succeed. Near the end of the last sermon, Moses says,
If you listen to these commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today, and if you carefully obey them, the LORD will make you the head and not the tail, and you will always be on top and never at the bottom. Deuteronomy 28:13.
Interestingly, researchers looking at the religious life of Almolonga noted that this is perhaps the Bible text most frequently referenced by the Charismatic Christians. They live in communities where there is a high expectation. This passage expresses profound wisdom. It is a bedrock foundation of healthy religion. God wishes you well. A central purpose of church—the household of God, as Paul calls it—is to foster human well-being. And absolutely crucial for well-being is good habits, self-control, intentional living. Life according to wise rules.
Good religion, authentic Christianity, makes an observable, measurable difference in people's lives. One way it does this is by urging people to adopt good behaviors, smart behaviors. Not to avoid damnation, but because holy living promotes happy lives.
Almolonga is a good example of the kind of effect we should expect from the religion of Jesus. If our religion is not enriching lives, we ought to reexamine it. Something's wrong.
Historically the Adventist Church has emphasized the importance of right behavior. Unfortunately, this emphasis got linked with our fear of damnation. But even with that dysfunctional connection, the emphasis on right behavior has paid rich dividends for many of us. Adventists who follow church rules live longer, healthier lives. Families that keep Sabbath together experienced a sweeter, richer home life. Kids who pick up our antipathy to drugged living are less likely to practice binge drinking in college. Kids who grow up in the church pick up our expectation that they will pursue higher education.
Young people who develop a routine of daily devotional practice are more likely to do well academically. Families that practice tithing set themselves up for the rational management of their money and thus are more likely to avoid the tyranny of debt. Good behavior pays off. Here and now. In this world. It is the key to the sweetest life. So, as a church, we welcome everyone. We honor differences and individuality. And we goad each other, from wherever we are in our lives, to take the next step in the pursuit of holiness. Laughing at our failures and our inconsistencies, being gentle with one another no matter how effective or ineffective our efforts at goodness.
We pursue holiness together because we want the best for one another. Sometimes it pays off in ways we can see and touch.
A few summers ago, I ran the Pacific Crest Trail from Norse Peak to Chinook Pass under a blue sky and puffy clouds. The trail follows the ridge line. For several hours I loped along surrounded by grandeur, euphoric with the rich physicality of the running itself. Mt. Rainier glowed in the sun off to my right. The unspoiled expanse of the William O Douglas Wilderness spread out to the east. It was like flying. It was a gift from Bill. A gift that flowed from his friendship—yes. Just as importantly it was a gift that flowed from his refusal to accept my pudgy, lethargic self as my best self. I luxuriated in hours of running trail through a glorious northwest summer day because of the discipline Bill inspired.
Holiness is not a pursuit of heaven off in the future. Heaven is a gift you cannot earn. Holiness is the best life, the wisest life, ultimately the sweetest life now. It takes effort, of course, like making music, mastering a profession, pursuing a career, making a discovery or going for a run. The effort of holiness, the work of doing good, is never wasted and sometimes leads us directly into bliss here and now. In the long run, the practice of holiness will turn out to be the smartest, best preparation for luxuriating in eternal bliss.
For those familiar with my writing about Sabbath, there is nothing new here.
Four Treasures of Adventism
A lecture series for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Lecture One: Sabbath, A Park in Time
Friday night, April 5, 2013
Text: Exodus 20:8-12
I remember Overton Park in Memphis as a magical place. In the heart of the city, it offered a taste of wildness. On Sabbath afternoons my parents took us there for walks in the woods where we explored paths that meandered among great oaks and hickories. We looked for crawdads (that's crayfish for those of you not familiar with Southern language) in the creek. We fed the ducks.
On summer evenings our family enjoyed concerts at the band shell. There was an art academy set in a sweep of lawn spotted with trees. I remember Thursday afternoons at Overton Park flying kites, swinging on the swings and eating watermelon. On the north side of the park was the zoo and my favorite animals, bears. For a city kid, there was no better place in the world than Overton Park.
I remember one other aspect of life in Memphis in the fifties and early sixties. It took forever to go anywhere. We lived downtown. My cousin, Ricky, my best friend, lived out in the suburbs. Which was a real hassle because it was difficult to talk my mother into driving all the way to Aunt Velma's house. There were no freeways. Rumor had it the commissioner of roads for Memphis had visited Los Angeles and come back to report that freeways didn’t really help anything. They had freeways out there and still had traffic jams. Fortunately, progress eventually found us and construction of freeways began. When the first section of freeway was opened to traffic, it was one of the seven wonders of the world–four lanes wide, no traffic lights. It felt like flying.
As a student in junior high I was developing an interest in politics and urban planning, and my own wonder at the luxury of a superhighway was heightened by economic facts: transportation gridlock was crippling the city's competition with Atlanta for industry and population.
The transportation master plan called for a beltway around town and a cross-town expressway as part of Interstate 40. The beltway was the easier right-of-way to acquire. The east-west route through the established neighborhoods in the heart of city progressed more slowly. The greatest challenge was finding a way through or around a band of exclusive neighborhoods running north and south in the center of town–right across the projected path of Interstate 40. (Memphis, in those days, was a typical southern city with a well-stratified aristocracy. You did not bulldoze the homes of the wealthy.) There was one obvious gap in this roadblock of fine homes: Overton Park. And fortunately for the planners, while there were exclusive neighborhoods north and south of the park, on both the east and west sides there were working class neighborhoods paralleling a defunct trolley line which ran through the park. These working class neighborhoods would present little effective opposition to expressway construction. And the old trolley right-of-way suggested an obvious route through the park. It hadn’t been used for years. It skirted the zoo, didn’t bisect the golf course and didn’t come too close to the art academy.
There was just one problem. An elderly woman in town with a lot of money didn’t want the park desecrated by an expressway. And she went to court.
Nearly everyone I knew was outraged by this woman’s opposition to the park. Memphis desperately needed an expressway. The unused trolley right-of-way through the park was the most obvious, least expensive, most politically-feasible route.
Figuring it was just a matter of time before common sense prevailed, the state moved ahead with construction. Working east to west, they built the freeway to within a couple of miles of the park, and purchased property and demolished houses right up to the park border.
The court battles dragged on for twenty years. Then to everyone's astonishment, and to the great consternation of many, the park won. Thirty years later, when I talked to people in Memphis, most of those who had originally thought the old woman was crazy, grudgingly acknowledged the wisdom of her opposition to cutting up the park with an expressway.
When people in Memphis take their grandkids to the zoo, they’re glad it’s not bordered by a thundering highway. It’s good that the view from the art academy north does not feature fences, exit signs and passing semis. And it’s right that when you golf or take your kids for a walk in the woods, the dominant sounds are bird calls not traffic.
Memphis still needs a cross-town expressway, but the city would be immeasurably poorer if it had sliced through the heart of the heart of the park with an expressway.
The idea of using the park’s open space for important civic improvements was rooted in historical precedent. When the city wanted to build an art academy, it was cheaper to site it in the park than to buy already developed property. And art seemed to fit the purpose of the park. The park had long housed the zoo. And the animals seemed an appropriate accompaniment to the woods and ponds already there. Then there was the new fire station on the southwest corner of the park. This was a blatant desecration of the park. But it was small, only half an acre. The wealthy home owners in the area had insisted on better fire coverage and they were not about to sacrifice one of their fine homes. Besides, they figured, no one would miss a bit of woods. I missed it. The fire station was across the street from our church. I watched the trees being cut. I was outraged at the violation, but I was just a kid.
The proponents of the expressway had tried to sell it as just one more, limited “wise use” of the park. The park would still exist. There would be pedestrian bridges over the expressway. The park was so large it would still have ample space.
That was then. Now there is near universal agreement that the elderly woman and her lawyers had it right.
Open space in a city must be fiercely defended or it will disappear. “Highest and best use” is not emptiness, especially in a thriving city. If no one champions the protection of open space, it will disappear. The press of development will occupy every square inch leaving the city terribly impoverished.
* * * * *
Sabbath is like a park in time. It is intended by God as a tranquil open space in the frenzy of our lives. But like open space in a city, without constant vigilance it will disappear. Nearly every adult I know needs more time--more time for work, for business, education, shopping, home and auto maintenance. We don’t have enough time for a Sabbath.
The idea of a weekly holy day (whether Sabbath or Sunday) has disappeared from American society. Sometime around 2000 (I'm not certain of the date), here in Seattle, Boeing proposed a floating work week in which work on the weekend would be treated like any other day of the week. Any set of five days would be paid as a regular work week–Monday to Friday or Wednesday to Sunday or Friday to Tuesday. It would all be the same. No more time and a half for work on Sabbath or Sunday. The social reality of a weekend would disappear.
In most Christian churches, Sunday is no longer regarded as a holy day. It is merely a convenient day for people to go to church . . . if they don't make it on Saturday night or Tuesday. I remember attending a conference of mostly main line Protestant clergy in the late nineties. The theme of the conference was spiritual practice. Dorothy Bass, a well-known theologian and author of a book on spiritual practices gave the lecture on Sabbath-keeping. Her lecture had three parts. First she talked about the profound value of a sabbath in our lives, time that is not controlled by our drive to produce and achieve. Then she talked about the sabbaths of her childhood. They cleaned the house and fixed the food on Saturday. On Sunday they went to church then returned to her parents' or grandparents' or an aunt's or uncle's home for a leisurely Sunday dinner and an afternoon of conversation, play and communal relaxation. She lamented the loss of this kind of sabbath (i.e. Sunday) tradition from American Christianity. Finally, she offered her remedy: Pastors ought to try to get their members to be regular in attending church. Christians ought to have at least one hour of Sabbath every week. And going to church was her idea of Sabbath. She figured there was no way to recover the rich tradition of her childhood, the best we could do was to teach people they ought to devote an hour to church attendance every week.
Her lament of the loss of sabbath and her wholly ineffective substitute—a weekly hour spent sitting in church—is echoed in a growing number of books being published by non-Adventists. These authors acknowledge the need for a sabbath. Then they recognize we can't really have one, so they propose all sorts of substitutes for real Sabbath. (My switch from lower case “s” to upper case “S” is deliberate.) They urge us to grab thirty minutes of relaxation here, an occasional day off there. All of this writing that I've read so far is far more eloquent and convincing in its lament for the absence of sabbath in our lives than in its prescriptions. The writers effectively portray their hunger for a sabbath, a respite, a park in time. They have almost nothing to offer concerning the experience of Sabbath. Rich writing about Sabbath-keeping experience always is written from within a Sabbath-keeping community. No one has rich Sabbath experience who has not participated in a Sabbath-keeping community. Meaningful Sabbath-keeping apparently is unsustainable apart from a community that supports it. This is one of the reasons Adventist Sabbath-keeping is so vital. We are the only major Christian group still advocating a full Sabbath experience.
The Sabbath needs a champion as much as Overton Park did. It would be silly to argue that a park is the most important need of the city. Does a city need a park more than roads, a water system, courts or fire stations? The city needs all of this and more. It would be equally silly to argue that the Sabbath is the most important need of modern life or the modern church. Is the Sabbath more important than the good news of grace, Bible reading and prayer, honesty or compassion? It’s a silly question. Healthy Christian life includes all of this and more. But while Sabbath is not “most important,” it is a vital constituent of Christian spiritual life. Sabbath is the grand, special treasure of Adventism. It is a Christian treasure that we are uniquely positioned to steward. We are guardians, defenders of the park.
Parks require community protection. We make rules: No freeways. No fire stations. No McDonalds. No flower picking. No wood gathering. In the same way, Sabbath, the park in time, requires some fairly sturdy rules to protect it from the relentless pressure to fill every minute of our lives with productive activity. Don’t work. Don’t have your family or friends work (Exodus 20). Don’t engage in commerce (Jeremiah 17). To generalize and modernize the Sabbath rules: On Sabbath quit your struggle to secure your place in the world. Instead, rest in the security God offers. Don’t strive to make money or earn grades or win the championship or beautify your home or fix your car. All these things are necessary. You have six days to do them. On Sabbath ignore your failures and inadequacies and achievements and successes. On Sabbath, deliberately disengage from the rat race.
Phrasing these ideas as rules: Do not work. Do not participate in competitive sports—as a spectator or participant. Don't change the oil in your car. Don't paint the house. Don't watch the news on TV. Don't go to the mall. Don't game.
Of course, every human rule has exceptions. The park sign reads, No flower gathering, but who will complain if a child picks a dandelion bouquet? Building a McDonalds in Overton Park would be sacrilege, but the services of an ice cream cart on the 4th of July are welcome. An expressway would destroy the park, but paved roads make it easy for families to gather in the picnic grounds.
It’s the same with the Sabbath. Don’t work. But some work must be done. Saving and protecting life is a higher value than enjoying Sabbath. (In the modern world necessary work includes more than health care. Police and fire services, public utilities, public transportation, for example, all must operate 24/7. We count on those services. It would be wrong to condemn people for providing services we use!)
No housework. But God does not call us to fast on Sabbath or to eat cold dinners. One of the congregations I served met in rented facilities. After every service we vacuumed so the building was ready for the Russian church which was also a renter and met in the building on Saturday evenings. This was necessary work.
No commerce. No shopping. For a day let's resist the seduction of consumerism.
No competition—whether we're watching or participating.
Double tips if you eat out. Eating out is not ideal. If you must, make sure the wait staff experiences something special. You're enjoying your Sabbath at their expense. So show your appreciation by tipping them appropriately—that is extravagantly.
There is no way to write a set of rules that has no exceptions. On the other hand, every community that is going to effectively transmit and communicate its “grand principles” has to be willing to make its grand principles concrete in rules, in lists of specific behaviors.
“Value This Park” is a lovely expression, but at some point, the community has to take the next step and spell out at some of the concrete ways we live this value. So: Do not litter. No discharge of firearms. No commercial collection of forest products. No motorized use of trails. Dogs on leash. Pick up after your dog.
There is an inescapable element of arbitrariness in making any set of rules. Still they are necessary. When we lived in Thousand Oaks, Karin and I became involved in a dramatic example of a community deciding to create a rule that went way beyond general principles. Our neighborhood petitioned the city to outlaw the consumption of alcohol in our park.
As an Adventist minister, my opposition to alcohol would have hardly been remarkable. But you would have been greatly puzzled at the endorsement of this rule by my neighbors. They were regular people. They were horse people—rather famous for the generous lubrication at their social events. Their very definition of a summer picnic was ice-cold beer. These folks enjoyed alcohol. So why would they sign a petition to the city council asking for alcohol to be outlawed in our park?
The reason was very specific, and very local. The park was filled with mothers with little kids. Youngsters riding their horses in the equestrian area. Kids swinging on swings. Kids playing on the ball field. Then for some reason our park became the gathering spot for a group of young men. At first they blended in with everyone else. But when this group began attracting 20 to 30 men on summer afternoons and they began to get a bit tipsy, they became a threat to tranquility and safety of the park. There was nothing illegal about the young men gathering there. And if they had remained sober, it would have probably been a cause merely of a little extra caution on the part of parents and grandparents. But adding the lubrication of alcohol turned this gathering into a threat.
So the city outlawed alcohol in the park. The police visited a couple of times and the gang disappeared. The park was restored as a welcoming open space for all. The law remained on the sign, but there was no longer any need for enforcement.
It's the same with Sabbath, the park in time. It's protection will mean creating specific, concrete rules. Almost by definition, the very specificity of these rules means they will become obsolete over time. Some rules will need to be rescinded or ignored. Other rules will need to be invented, all for the purpose of expressing the principles of sweet Sabbath observance in a way that makes sense now.
Many Adventists have appropriately moved away from a rigid, stern observance of the Sabbath that was rooted in the Puritan suspicion of anything pleasant and enjoyable. But we need to be careful in our “freedom” from old rules. If we are careful, we will wake up one day and realize that the quietness of the park exists only in our memories or imagination. The encroachment of the necessary and obligatory will have obliterated the leisurely, tranquil sacred space in our lives called Sabbath. The landscape of our lives will be completely full and dreadfully impoverished.
Fixed boundaries and consistent enforcement are a necessary condition for the preservation of the special nature of the park. And it’s the same with the Sabbath. The only way for us to enjoy its blessings is for us embrace the firm boundaries set in Scripture.
If God had merely suggested the Sabbath as a good idea, who would have the time for it? If God merely gave us permission to take some time off, most of us would say thank you, but realize that we’re just too over-committed to take any time off right now. So God commanded us to take the time off. He ordered us to stop our important tasks and take twenty-four hours for fellowship with Him and with our families.
During college, I took organic chemistry in the summer between my junior and senior years. Everyone else in the class had already taken the course during the regular school year. They were repeating it to improve their grade and their chance for admission to med school. I was taking the class for the first time, and it had been three years since my last chemistry class. Trying to keep up was tough. I studied “organic” from eight in the morning until late at night.
Before the summer was over I was literally dreaming organic chemistry. Long strings of equations stretched out across the paper in my mind as I tried futilely to balance them. There was no way I could afford to take a day off from studying. I’d fall behind my classmates who were studying seven days a week. And they had a head start anyway.
But because of God’s command to keep the Sabbath holy, late Friday afternoons I’d close my books and prepare to welcome the Sabbath. For twenty-four hours, from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday, I’d remember that I was more than a student. I was more than a cog in the machinery of education. I was more than an aspiring physician-to-be. For twenty-four hours I luxuriated in my status as a child of the king. My present and my future were in his hands.
Every week I savored this Sabbath enactment of the gospel. I rested from my labors. I rested in God’s accomplishments. I did not stop studying because I finished all my studying. I rested because of the commandment. The unyielding command and fixed boundaries of the Sabbath liberated me for special communion with God. If God had merely invited me to rest, I’d have thanked Him for His invitation and kept right on studying. But since God gave me an order, I was liberated from the tyranny of school. I was set free to savor the joy of fellowship with God and his people.
Both the park and the Sabbath are safe-guarded by firm boundaries and strict rules.
The frenzied pace of our culture is pressuring us to build multiple freeways through the park. The requirements of commerce and personal achievement threaten to completely dominate the human landscape. Don’t let it happen in your life. Keep the freeway out of the park, and not just for yourself. Our own resolve in park-tending, will insure that the woods, the zoo, the duck pond and picnic tables–and the surrounding tranquility–are still there for our children and grandchildren and our neighbors. Our Sabbath-keeping will maintain a priceless sanctuary, an irreplaceable park in time, for generations to come.
The purpose of park rules is to protect the opportunity for enjoyment. The rules are not an end in themselves. The rules are almost universally negative, because the positive experience of enjoyment cannot be meaningfully commanded. Imagine a large sign at the entrance to a park: Enjoy yourself! Then in small print underneath: failure to obey this law is subject to a $250 fine. We would laugh. It's silly.
Outlawing littering and providing sanctions for doing so, makes sense. Prohibiting wood gathering for fires makes sense. But you can't require people to enjoy a campfire.
Overton Park offers a variety of park experiences. The zoo. The woods. The picnic grounds. The golf course. The art academy. The band shell. These different features serve different functions and different people. They are united in their contrast with the routine, ordinary world of city life. They don’t make money. They don’t contribute to the industrial, political or financial stature of the city. They serve the relational, artistic, spiritual needs of the citizens.
Similarly, the Sabbath is not a single, monolithic event. It offers opportunity for individual, family and church worship. It provides an occasion for walks in the woods and for unrushed time with family and the family of faith. It offers time away from the pressure to produce, achieve, accomplish. It reminds us that to be fully human includes being in touch with God.
Let me go one step further. Classic Christianity in the tradition that runs from Paul through Augustine, Luther and Calvin to American Protestantism defined true religion as a set of carefully defined ideas. Some of you will recall intense battles about justification, sanctification, glorification, substitutionary atonement, forensic justification. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches split over the difference in meaning between two words that different by one letter. Essentially they anathamatized each other, i.e. consigned each other to hell because of the difference between “similar” and “identical.”
Adventists have battled each other, split congregations, broken friendships, fired people over differences in their understanding of the precise historical identification of the ten horns of Revelation, the correct ontological description of Jesus, whether or not a person could at least theoretically achieve perfection in this life. Etc. Etc. Ad nauseam.
There is an essential place for theological, spiritual disputation within the church. We can't help ourselves. It is as essential in the religious world as philosophy is outside the church. Participating in theological, philosophical discourse is part of being fully human. But when we define our fellowship, our sense of community, in terms of agreement with detailed theological statements, we are inevitably setting up criteria for exclusion of our own spiritual relatives. Anyone who spends a life time studying theology or philosophy will eventually develop at least an idea or two that is divergent from the ideas of his peers, his community, his church.
Sabbath creates a community space, a spiritual/social family that transcends our obsession with doctrines, beliefs, prophetic interpretations. Sabbath-keeping provides a way for non-believers to be religious, to connect with God's community and ultimately with God.
Young people argue that a religion that doesn't make an observable, palpable difference in the world is not worthy of their investment. I tend to agree with them. If our religion consists merely of coming into this building for a nice musical/social experience, that's okay as long as we're willing to pay for it. But we will have a very difficult time persuading our kids to pay the same price we pay to keep up our social club.
I'm arguing that one purpose of the Adventist Church, a purpose so large, so important for the quality of life that it appropriately deserves significant investment of energy, money, time and soul is to act as a guardian of the Sabbath, a park in time.
We are across the street from Green Lake Park. It is one of the jewels of Seattle, and certainly is a great treasure of this area of the city. Every day it is filled with people, rain or shine. People are still running around the park hours after sunset. No one imagines this area would be better if the park were any smaller. To the contrary compared with Central Park in New York or Overton Park in Memphis, I can't help but thinking how sad it is that the park is so small, basically a little doughnut of land surrounding the lake. Even that doughnut of land had to be artificially created. People had built houses right up to the edge of the lake. To create the park, engineers created a new outlet for the lake and lowered the surface of the lake several feet making accessible the little strip of land where we run today.
In the larger Protestant world, Sabbath has been almost completely lost. The only noticeable voices addressing this change are loud laments about what has been lost and hand-wringing acknowledgment that they can see no path back. Within the Adventist Church there is a rich literature celebrating the treasure we have in the Sabbath. And many of us can testify to the sweetness it has brought. It is a treasure, indeed.