Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Questions My Kids Ask

Article for Green Lake Church Gazette
August 2014

Occasionally I have the honor of conversation with people young enough to be my children. I meet these young people inside and outside the church. They ask hard questions, good questions.

Why would a good God—who knew the future and was perfectly free—create a world in which most people would be lost? Did God deliberately decide that the loss of most humanity was an acceptable price to pay to acquire the kind of world he wanted for himself?

Did God create rainbows to encourage our faith and fossils to test our faith?

How can a good God (who is omnipotent, omniscient, and ubiquitous) be reconciled with suffering which is visible, palpable and randomly distributed?

Since most religions claim we are right and all those others are wrong, why should the claims of any religion be taken seriously? How can we prove the Bible is true? How can we prove the Bible is the best (or only) source of information about God?

Would a good God really condemn to eternal hell fire people whose primary “crime” was an incomplete or incorrect opinion about Jesus?

Why should I reject science, which has demonstrably increased longevity, in favor of religion which promises eternal life (but offers no proof)?

Some of the young people asking these questions call themselves atheists. Others call themselves Christian. Whatever label they apply to themselves, the questions are significant. All these questions evince a deep regard for justice and truth. Young people ask these questions because of they care about goodness. Their questions are an expression of their active moral compasses, their lively sense of conscience. So, they deserve our respect.

Why would a good God—who knew the future and was perfectly free—create a world in which most people would be lost? Did God deliberately decide that the loss of most humanity was an acceptable price to pay to acquire the kind of world he wanted for himself?

I grew up hearing preachers quote three statements by Ellen White, the Adventist prophet, that implied more than ninety-five percent of humanity would burn in the lake of fire. Similarly gloomy opinions can be found across Christianity. When I googled “How many will go to hell?” The first piece I pulled up was titled, “Billions of People Are Going to Hell.” The author figured that at least ninety-nine percent of humanity would be burned in hell. Other sites offered similarly depressing assessments. This is not the universal conclusion of Christian preachers, but it is not rare.

As a teenager, I unhesitatingly believed what I heard about the difficulty of being saved. Getting into heaven was certainly harder than getting into Harvard (current acceptance rate >5%). I resolved to be part of that tiny remnant of good-enough people. I cultivated a devotional life. I rigorously observed Adventist rules regarding snacking, movies, caffeine, slang, flesh foods, mustard, fiction, smoking, alcohol and drugs. I am happy for the discipline and structure of that childhood religion. However, I emphatically reject its gloomy picture of God and humanity. Is it really possible that God created a system which he knew would be a disastrous failure for most of humanity? No! Not if God is good.

If I knew I carried a gene for a severe disorder that would doom ninety-five percent of my progeny, I would not have had children. You would probably make the same decision. And we are not more tenderhearted than God. When our children ask, “Would a good God accept the damnation of most of his children as an acceptable price for acquiring the world he wanted?” we know the answer is NO! We don't have to do fancy exegesis. We don't have to know Hebrew and Greek. We don't have to argue the merits of varying translations. The answer to that question is NO! When our children ask this question, we should commend them for seeing clearly.

Did God create rainbows to encourage our faith and fossils to test our faith?

Nature is not a book of tricks. Rainbows really are caused by the interplay of raindrops and sunlight. We can remember the words of Genesis and find reassurance of God's beneficence in the splendor of the rainbow, but we don't imagine that rainbows are a magic show. Fossils really the result of natural processes. They are not a tricky test given by the great teacher in the sky to see who is willing to ignore the evidence available to their senses. The God who created rainbows and inspired the Bible prophets is the same God who was present at the creation of the fossils. Physics and chemistry may seem to be more accessible to our understanding, and less controversial than geology, but the rocks don't lie. We cannot expect our kids to believe in God and God's Book and disbelieve God's rocks.

How can a good God (who is omnipotent, omniscient, and ubiquitous) be reconciled with suffering which is visible, palpable and randomly distributed?

Across the centuries Christians have offered various explanations of suffering. Adventists have given special attention to a narrative explanation called “The Great Controversy.” These explanations can be helpful, but every explanation asks us to skip lightly over huge imponderables. How do we calculate the weight of pain? Until we have lived long in that gray space where praying for the release of death is easier than asking for healing we ought to speak very humbly and quietly in our attempts to make good sense of suffering. I think our children will have greater respect for what we do say if we acknowledge there are some questions beyond any possibility of answer in this life.

Since most religions claim we are right and all those others are wrong, why should the claims of any religion be taken seriously? How can we prove the Bible is true? How can we prove the Bible is the best (or only) source of information about God?

Many Christians devote a lot of energy to insisting that our way is the only right way to speak of God. We would do better to invite people to do taste tests. Come and experience God with us. Experience for yourself the value of our religion. If someone tries our religion and finds it useless, why would we keep insisting it is the perfect religion for them. On the other hand, if we persuaded a person intellectually that our religion was the best and they never actually lived it, what would be the value of our persuasive effort? Winning arguments is difficult. In the realm of spirituality, winning is probably pointless. Instead, let's invite people into the sweetness of our life with God. Encourage them to experience God for themselves. Let's offer our testimony about what we believe and how religion works for us. If this is not attractive, there is little to be gained from argument.

The New Testament offers many anecdotes illustrating the power of direct experience: Jesus' first disciples (John 1:46), Pentecost (Acts 2), Cornelius' household (Acts 10), the Blind Man of John 9. When we invite people to make direct experiments in spirituality we are in line with the New Testament. Trying to establish a theoretical basis for the superiority and uniqueness of Christianity is misplaced effort. Rather, let's exhibit its attractiveness and invite people to test its effectiveness. If the Bible is the living Word of God, we don't need to argue the point, we can simply invite people to read it for themselves. Their experience will be far more persuasive than any words we can offer.

Would a good God really condemn to eternal hell fire people whose primary “crime” was an incomplete or incorrect opinion about Jesus?

No. God is concerned with justice more than with ritual or linguistic precision. Certainly there are texts in the Bible that could be cited in support of a very narrow view. People can be saved only if they meet certain criteria—faith, works, compassionate care for the needy, keeping the commandments. Fortunately, there are also passages that speak of the openness of God to all humanity. There are formulas for salvation in the Bible. Yes, of course. These Bible formulas are not to be construed as constraining God—as though God himself could not operate outside a simple formula he gave for our edification. Rather these Bible formula are best understood as aids to humans for cultivating spiritual and moral life.

Why should I reject science, which has demonstrably increased longevity, in favor of religion which promises eternal life (but offers no proof)?

This question offers an open door for exploring the complementary value of both religion and science. It appropriately presumes the value of life. But how do we know life is better than non-life? Science cannot even speak to that question. Scientists are humans, of course. They have human values and valuing life is a fundamental human value. Science provides tools for furthering life and for ending life, for easing pain and causing pain. But science itself offers no language or taxonomic categories for valuing life over non-life. When we talk of the value of life we have moved into the realm of religion and spirituality or at least into esthetics. When we ask how can we extend life and ease suffering, most of the time we will find our answers in the tools and insights of science, but when we ask why should we extend life and ease suffering, our answers will have the ring of religion. Appreciation of life will lead us to respect both science and religion. Neither on its own is sufficient for responding to the wonder of life.

When we give proper respect to the questions asked by our children, we are likely to gain for ourselves clearer insights into God. Together with our children we may discover better ways of speaking of God and better ways of honoring the incredible gift of life. We will learn to work together not only to extend life, but to enrich it.  

Saturday, July 26, 2014


Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Sabbath, July 26, 2014

Exodus 20:1-6. A conservative translation.
Revelation 4:1-11 (the entire chapter)

In worship we affirm and celebrate an astounding hope: God will win. Peace, well-being and happiness will triumph. This is incredible! We are not blind or unfeeling. We see tragedy and injustice. We weep at the hurt. Sometimes, we get angry at God for the mess in God's world. Then we come to worship and join the saints across the millennia and God, too, in dreaming of better things. In worship, we rekindle our hope that ultimately peace will flow like a mighty river. Beauty and goodness will be as common as beach sand and rain. In worship we savor this unbelievable truth, allowing its sweet influence to shape our souls and fuel our own participation in the purpose of God.

The first Friday night of my freshman year at Southern Adventist University I was sitting in the university church. The place was full. You could feel the electricity of a thousand, maybe 1500 students, alive with dreams and ambitions, full of confidence they could master the knowledge and skills necessary to change the world and build careers. For many of the students, all this earthy expectation was connected deeply with God. We believed God had plans for our lives.

I had my own dreams. I was going to be a doctor doing research on the unique physiological challenges divers faced when they spent a long time working at great depth. Or I was going to be a minister who help people bridge the chasm between the ordinary life and God. My dreams of making discoveries in medicine were connected to the stories of the greats of medical history—Pasteur, Fleming and Salk and Sabin. My dreams of ministerial greatness were fueled by the stories of Fernando Stahl, the Adventist missionary and social revolutionary who improved life for the indigenous people of Peru, David Livingstone, the missionary/adventurer/explorer in Africa, and Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer who broke the stranglehold of the medieval Catholic Church on the minds and souls of people in Europe.

Doctor or preacher, I would join a stream of noble humanity. My work—whether furthering knowledge of physiology or helping people experience God—would become part of this grand work of God through humanity.

Sitting there in church at the very beginning of my college life, it was easy to dream these dreams.

Then the organ began the introduction for the opening hymn for the evening worship service. Full volume. Pounding bass. A thousand college students stood and sang the words:

1. For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

2. Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might;
thou Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
thou in the darkness drear, their one true light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

3. O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
and win with them the victor's crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

4. This verse was not in the Adventist Hymnal
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

5. And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

6. From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast,
through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

As we sang I felt myself to be truly part of that countless host. I, we, the thousand students in that university church, the Adventist doctors and nurses working as missionaries in Africa, the Albert Schweitzers and Mother Teresa's of the world, the Mohammad Unases and Paul Farmers of the world—we were all part of the grand stream of humans participating in the Kingdom of Heaven. We were all part of the work of God in the world.

Singing that hymn that evening was perhaps the closest I've ever come to Pentecostal ecstasy in worship. I felt my connection with good people, God's people, all across the ages. All the doctors who have worked to ease suffering and enhance health, all preachers who have inspired people to hope and to pursue wisdom and goodness.

As I've gotten older my understanding of the value of human work has expanded. Caregivers and IT professionals, plumbers and fashion designers, biologists and electrical engineers, chemists and hair stylists, moms and dads, aunts and uncles and grandparents—all us are indispensable agents of the Kingdom of Heaven. Each of us touches life, enriches life in a unique way.

And when we gather in worship, we affirm that our work, our lives, are part of the grand dream of God of a world that will one day be free of pain and sorrow, a world where peace will flow like a river and beauty and goodness will be as common place as sand and rain. In worship we dream together of the day when the happiness of God and the happiness of humanity flow mingled in a mighty, unbroken current.

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting with a young man. We were talking about God and faith. We explored questions about who's in and who's out when it comes to God's eternal plans.

I told him I no longer worried about damnation. If I, as a father, could not imagine damning my children for their imperfections and failures, how could I imagine that the heavenly Father would damn his children because they had failed to grasp just the right idea about faith or had failed to transcend some deeply-rooted character flaw.

“But now, you're just doing anthropomorphism.” My young friend protested. “You're ascribing human characteristics to God.”

“Guilty as charged.” I said. “And that is what Christianity does. It takes the grandest, most beautiful attributes of humanity and says God is something like that, only better.”

God is like the best father who ever existed. Only better.
God is like the best mother who ever existed. Only better.
God is like the most skillful, compassionate psychiatrist who ever help people find sanity. Only better.
God is a brilliant engineer, only smarter.
God is a wise governor, only wiser.
A generous philanthropist, only more generous.
A musician, only capable of stirring our souls even more deeply.

We believe that at the heart of the universe there is goodness, wisdom and compassion. But it's unbelievable. So we come here to worship and in worship rekindle our faith.

Some of us come with a buoyant, confident faith. When we sing here, we are singing the same song our heart sings all week. Others of us come barely believing anything good. Our hearts are crushed with what we read in the news or what has happened to our friends. Our own lives are so full of pain, we vacillate between wishing for healing and praying for death.

We come here and worship.

We turn our attention once more to the incredible Christian affirmations of God. We celebrate the richest, sweetest, grandest affirmations about God imaginable. We let go of our arguments because they merely touch the front of our heads. In worship we believe with our gut, with our bodies.

We believe God would rather die than live without us.

The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor in spirit. That is the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to me. And to my friends whose mental illness whips them from sanity to insanity, from appropriate behavior to violence, from speaking blessings to spouting curses. Their situation is hopeless. Maybe medication can dampen the swings. Maybe hospitalization can contain their illness. In worship, we say theirs is the kingdom of heaven. God has good plans for them. And God is able to accomplish those plans. In worship we hope again, even for hopeless people.

And we know that our hope is the hope shared across two thousand years of Christian hoping.

And our theology, our religious theory, takes us back another two thousand years to Abraham, so that in our worship we are keeping company with the hoping saints across 4000 years of time. Adventist theology pushes our worship connection back another 2000 years to Adam and Eve. In our worship we are joining 6000 years of human hope and confidence in God.

The world is full of pain and tragedy. Yes. We are not blind. We are not unfeeling. We weep at the hurt. We get angry with God for the mess in God's world. Then we come to here to worship and join the saints across the millennia and join God, too, in dreaming of better things. We sing of hope and promise and the triumph of love.

Here, we insist God is committed to the ultimate triumph of shalom—peace, well-being, happiness. And God will finally get his way.

Here, in worship, we insist that justice ultimately looks like reconciliation and redemption.

These things are unbelievable. When we pay attention to the news, sometimes listening to the stories of our friends, this all seems like foolishness. For some of us, our own personal pain threatens to drown out this happy song. Our experience whispers hopelessness.

So we come together in worship to sing again about hope. We sing together about the triumph of the community of God—our community. We come together again and again, stubbornly fanning the flame of hope.

Yes, the struggle is fierce and long. Sometimes our arms grow weak, our hearts become faint. So we come again to worship. We join the song. Our hearts are made brave again and our arms strong as we sing Alleluia.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Bible

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
Sabbath, July 12, 2014.


Psalm 1:1-3 Blessed is the person who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers. NIV
Psalm 119:11. I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.
Psalm 119:105. Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path. NLT

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil. For forty days and forty nights he fasted and became very hungry. During that time the devilfn came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.” But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say, ‘People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ Matthew 4:1-4, NLT

Words matter. They can connect us with one another and with God. They are tools for expanding knowledge, expressing affection, and offering encouragement. The words of the Bible are the foundation for our understanding of God. Over the past couple hundred years, the leading voices of justice and peace have found in the words of the Bible their most powerful rhetoric. If we are participating in God 's mission in this world, the Bible offers wisdom and encouragement. Further, Bible reading feeds us personally, connecting us with God and giving us hope and guidance.

On First Avenue across the street from the United Nations there is a curving granite wall. The words carved into granite read:

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

For six decades these words from the Bible have voiced the highest, noblest dreams of the best people working in the buildings across the street.

Sabbath, March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address. The nation was wracked by a horrific civil war. It was a dark time. After a brief introduction and summary statement about the situation, Mr. Lincoln said,

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. . . . Each looked for an easier triumph, . . . Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Mr. Lincoln's vision of peace did not come from his surroundings. It did not come from newspapers or his associates. He looked away from the world that was obvious and immediate to the unseen world portrayed in the words of the Bible. A world of justice and peace. A world free from malice and bitter memories. A world where people made plowshares instead of swords. A world where the brightest minds and strongest arms created beauty instead of war.

Mr. Lincoln's magnanimous words of peace and reconciliation flowed from the language of the Bible.

Over the past two hundred years, repeatedly, those who have dreamed of a better world have found inspiration for their highest rhetoric in the words of the Bible.

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. In front of him were 250,000 people, hungry for hope, angry at oppression and injustice, impatient for change.
Near the end of Dr. King's speech comes the famous lines:

I have a dream

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together." [Isaiah 40:4-5]

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

In the face of centuries of slavery—often justified by Bible-toting preachers—Dr. King dared to dream of a better world. It was a dream inspired by and articulated by the words of the Bible.

Astonishingly, the world did change. Yes, we have a long way to go to reach God's dream voiced by the Prophet Isaiah. Still, the words of God's dream as voiced by Dr. King moved the nation. And still move us. Because his words, echoing the Bible gave voice to the dreams of God.

This is the power of the Bible.

Today, we honored our graduates, students who have passed milestones in their education. As a denomination and as a congregation, we give special honor to education. We value intellectual culture and accomplishment. We take great delight in our bright children and do everything we can to encourage them to excel, to achieve.

As we celebrate the accomplishments of our kids today, I want to also challenge us to make sure that all our children—our little kids, our high school students, our college and grad students—are aware of the value of educating their minds and hearts through familiarity with the words of the Bible.

I hope that our students will win Nobel prizes in chemistry and physics. I hope they will earn world fame as mathematicians and physicians, as musicians and visual artists. Yes. Yes.

And I hope that all this accomplishment will fueled by their own dreams to be part of God's work of turning swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. I hope they will join in God's mission of creating hope and healing, beauty and happiness, holiness and strength.

Young people, God has great dreams for you.

Parents, do you hope your children will join in God's mission of justice and peace? Teach them the words of the Bible.
In the home I grew up in, every night before we went to bed, each of us kids recited the memory verse of the week—the verse featured in the Sabbath School lesson. To this day, those words run in my brain. When we get into the second half of life it is far more difficult to memorize. So I encourage you to give your children the gift of good words in their memory bank. Wouldn't it be wonderful if one of our children was the next Lincoln or King? When you're working with God to make the world better, you need every possible advantage, and a deep familiarity with the words of the Bible is a major advantage.

Students, school is a busy time. Don't let it own your life, at least not all of it. Spend a few minutes every day, either before you start your day or at the end of the day. Take a few minutes to read and consider some words from the Bible. This practice will set you up for a greatness and success beyond the reach of mere money, intellectual prowess, academic credentials or beauty.

[Here are a couple of stories that will not be included in my verbal presentation at church

Some years ago, a guy named started attending the North Hill Church. For awhile, every time he showed up, he was stoned. He later explained to me that going to church was so scary that the only way he could deal with the anxiety was to smoke a joint or two before he headed out on Sabbath morning. Aaron was a meth addict. He had been living on the streets for most of 15 years, using. Meth. Heroin. And other stuff.

He had been in and out of rehab several times. It didn't work.

At some point after he had been attending church for awhile, he went to rehab again. And finally it took. He managed to stay off the drugs. He faithfully attended NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings. He read his Bible daily.

A year or two later, looking back at those crucial months when he finally managed to leave the drugs behind, he identified his daily Bible reading as one of the key elements of his sobriety. I remember him telling me of conversations with people who were skeptical of the Bible. His response was fairly simple: Do you know any treatment for meth that works? Reading the Bible helped me.

Aaron went to college, finished a degree in geology and eventually moved into the work force. Aaron is not a fundamentalist. He does not believe in 6000 years, but if you asked him for secrets to living well, he will confidently point you to the Bible. It saved his life. He's confident it will bless your life as well.

Brian was an atheist. He had grown up Christian, then lost his faith when his dad died in spite of his fervent childhood prayers. In college he had tried Buddhism, but when I met him he was a backsliding Buddhist. When we met for breakfast, he was embarrassed to realize I was a veggie and there he was eating bacon. We met occasionally to talk religion and life. I never contradicted his beliefs. When he spoke of values and ideals that lined up with something Jesus had said, I would just point out the parallel. After awhile he said, “You know, maybe I should read the gospels for myself. Just to check them out.”

I laughed and warned him. “Be careful. The gospel is a dangerous book.”

I was right.

After reading through the gospels, Brian found his faith rekindled. He found again a sense of connection with God. He found a living hope. That's the power of the Bible.]

Early in his ministry, Jesus visited his home town of Nazareth and on Sabbath preached in the synagogue where he had grown up.

He read the grand words of Isaiah 61.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me,
for the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
and to proclaim that captives will be released
and prisoners will be freed.
He has sent me to tell those who mourn
that the time of the LORD’s favor has come

Then he told his audience. Now is the time. This is what I am doing!

It is still time. This is what we are called to do. We are partners with God in working to bring hope and healing and joy to the world. Let's fill our own minds and the minds of our children and friends with glorious visions voiced by the Bible prophets. Then let us go forth to make them real.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


Preliminary manuscript for the sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For July 5, 2014
Exodus 18:8-12, KJV or NKJV or RSV
Exodus 24:9-12
Matthew 26:26-30

Worship events for the day: Baptism and Communion.

Toward the end of the day this past Monday, I was starved. I had left Washington at nine p.m. Sunday night with my daughter, Bonnie, headed for Wyoming. She drove all night. I took over about five in the morning, and we continued our drive to Laramie, Wyoming. I didn't eat breakfast because I knew a full stomach would make me even more drowsy. Same for lunch. We nibbled along the way, some chips. A few cookies, nothing substantial. Finally, we arrived in Laramie, found Bonnie's new apartment and unloaded the truck. Bonnie and her roommate were discussing the placement of the couch when I announced with some intensity. I've got to go find some real food!

I invited the roommate to join us. She declined and said she was going to finish her workout which our arrival had interrupted. Bonnie and I headed out to the truck. We were just getting ready to pull out when the roommate ran out and said, “I've changed my mind. I'd like to come.” She climbed in and guided us to a great little vegetarian restaurant.

Eventually the food arrived. After the waiter had loaded our table, I said, “It's my custom to say a blessing over my food. Are you okay with that?” The roommate nodded. I bowed my head and said, “Lord God in Heaven. Thank you for this good food and nice place. Blessed this food and our conversation. In the name of Jesus, Amen.”

Then we ate. The girls both got salads which seemed woefully lacking in substance to me. I had something the menu called a black bean tamale pie. And we talked. About music and career dreams and grand philosophies of life. This was the first time Bonnie and the roommate had met. There was the carefulness of strangers getting acquainted. There was the ease of conversation over dinner.

For Bonnie and me, it was a rehearsal of family tradition. When I ordered the black bean tamale pie, Bonnie told her it roommate, “I could have predicted that. Growing up, he served us beans and rice all the time.” And I knew that she was recalling our Friday night parties—haystacks (for those not in the cognoscenti this means a taco salad—beans, salad, corn chips) and friends and music.

That black bean tamale pie did not just fill the hole in my stomach, it recalled thousands of shared meals, shared times of laughter and conversation. The roommate couldn't know it, but I suspect our dinner this past Monday evening was her initiation into the extended McLarty clan. She's part of our family now. She protested when I paid the check, but I dismissed her protest, saying, “I'm in the habit of adopting my kids' friends.”

This is the power of shared food. For Bonnie and me it was another enactment of our shared life. For the roommate, an initiation. A first step into a circle that stretches half the world around.

That dinner was a perfect picture of what we do in worship. We gather here to celebrate again and again and again, our shared life. And our worship is the perfect occasion for welcoming others—newly adopted daughters and sons of God. Newly met sisters and brothers.

Shared life costs something. It's worth the cost, of course. Still, it's smart to acknowledge it costs. Adopting my daughter's roommate cost me a few dollars on Monday night. Adopting each other here as brothers and sisters, parents and children costs us money and time and heart. And these precious connections are worth every bit of the expense.

Today, we baptized Jennifer Buyco. When I buried her under the water and lifted her again, my hands did not belong to me alone. They were your hands, too, and the hands of God. I was acting for all of us. In obedience to Jesus, we buried her old identity rooted in heredity, family of origin, education, ethnicity and even gender and raised her into a new identity—she is now, officially, part of the royalty of heaven.

The Book of Revelation paints an astonishing picture of Jesus' plan for his people—all of them, men and women, every race and nationality—are destined to sit on the throne of heaven and share in the rule of God.

When I raised Jennifer out of the water today, I was raising her as royalty in the kingdom of heaven. She and we share a family claim to the throne of heaven.

In a few minutes, we will share “The Lord's Supper” together.

This ritual flows from the supper Jesus shared with his inner circle on the last night before he was executed. Because of the intense emotions of that evening, we remember that single meal. I tend to think of it as a single event, an “only-once” happening. We remember the words Jesus spoke to his friends gathered around the table. He took a loaf of bread, broke it and handed it around, saying, “This is my body which is broken for you.” Then he passed the wine cup and said, “Drink from it all of you, this is my blood.”

We call it the Last Supper because it was “the last one.” Yes.

It was also a repetition. It was one in a three-year long series of shared suppers. Jesus and his disciples did life together. They ate together. When we take communion we are joining that tradition. We are joining that family. As members of the fellowship of Jesus, all of our meals are opportunities for reminding ourselves again of our privileges and responsibilities.

When we say a blessing over our food, we are renewing our participation in the heavenly family. Under the light of a blessing, a piece of toast and a glass of orange juice becomes communion. Dare I say it, even coffee and a donut, as meager nutrition as that is, becomes a point of connection with the heavenly family, if we are open to receive it.

Rituals teach us the hidden meaning of ordinary life. Communion teaches us that every meal carries the potential to connect us with heaven. Baptism teaches us that every passing through the waters—every morning shower—marks our entrance in a new life blessed by God.

Rituals reveal hidden meanings in the routines of our ordinary life. Baptism teaches us that every passing through the waters—every morning shower—marks our entrance in a new life blessed by God. Communion teaches us that every meal carries the potential to connect us with God and the family of God. Our worship here on Sabbath mornings, teaches us that God is present on earth, in Seattle, in music, in words, in art, and in the faces of ordinary people. Every worship service whispers to us, that we—you and I, ordinary disciples of Jesus—are the face of God for one another and the world.

So let us gather again at the table of the Lord and renew our connection with God and one another.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A True Picture of God

Sermon Manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For June 21, 2014

Exodus 34:4-8
John 1:14-18
1 John 4:8

Twenty years ago I gave a series of lectures at the Adventist Church in Boulder, Colorado. I stayed at the home of a geologist who worked for U.S.G.S. (U. S. Geological Survey) and I was eager to talk rocks with him. How did he connect what he saw in the rocks with what he heard in church?
We must have talked rocks, but I don't remember much of what he said. Instead my sharpest memories are of Gary's care for his son.

I got in late Friday night and didn't see the son until Sabbath morning. Gary served his son breakfast, then wheeled him out to the car in his wheel chair. He helped his son into the front seat and secured him with a special harness. Gary's tenderness with his son had all the marks I associate with maternal care. Competent, gentle, attentive. And—dare I say it—sweet.

We put me and the wheel chair in the back seat and drove off to church. There I was caught up in my official duties and meeting people. I didn't see Gary with his son again until that evening when we were back at the house.

I don't remember the diagnosis. Maybe there wasn't some a tidy neurological or medical label for his constellation of physical and psychological difficulties. I do know that the tenderness and care I observed had been going on for thirty years and would continue for decades more.
Given Gary's credentials and career as a geologist it would be easy to think the significant theological questions in his neighborhood concerned radiometric dates and fossil sequences. Watching Gary care for his son it was obvious the most significant theological question was, is God really a father like that?
The Bible does not mention fossils or zircons or radioactive decay. It does speak of God as father, mother, lover, friend. Is God really a father like Gary? In later years, Gary's wife was diagnosis with Alzheimer's. Gary added her care to the care of his son. Is God a lover like Gary?

Is God as good as Gary?

Another story. Another picture of God.

My friend Karolyn has a son who is severely disabled. There is no simple medical label for Orin. He can walk. He can feed himself. And even those abilities are seen as miracles by his mother. They were giant leaps forward in development that followed an anointing service and prayer for healing more than three decades ago. “God,” Karolyn had prayed. “I think I can do this if he can just feed himself.” And it happened.

What jumps out at me when I listen to Karolyn speak about Orin is her affection. As Orin turns 40, his problems are getting worse, not better. He requires continuous, etenal care. Sometimes Karolyn talks about how wearing that is. But far more often she expresses concerns about his comfort. How do you provide adequate care for a person who cannot tell you if he has a toothache or an ear ache? What would happen to him if Karolyn could no longer care for him?

Occasionally she talks about the greatest mystery of all. She wonders what would happen to her if he died. Given his disabilities it is likely she will out live him. And then what? Where will her heart ever find ease and solace? She loves Orin.

She has devoted 40 years to Orin, 40 years of love, 40 years of service to a child who will never grow up, a child who will never provide the kind of bragging rights parents dream of.

Is God like that?

I have watched for almost 20 years. I have admired her, and wondered at the grandeur of her mother's heart. It remains a mystery, way beyond my comprehension, beckoning me to contemplate an astonishing love.

This is a picture of God. This is the truth about God.

Some of us need to take down the pictures of God that were painted by preachers, Bible teachers, parents, friends.

Of course, God dreams of human children who are beautiful, strong, holy, skinny, virtuous, shining, gracious, disciplined, honest, kind, smart, musical, artistic, etc., etc.

Jesus said that we are to be perfect like God.

Paul wrote that we should forgive like God, love like God, be patient like God.

James challenges us to practice divine generosity.

But what if you are not beautiful, strong, holy, skinny, virtuous, shining, gracious, disciplined, honest, kind, smart, musical and artistic?

What if you are bumbling, fickle, dishonest, addicted, criminal? What then? Where do you stand in the eyes of God?

We can see the answer in Gary and Karolyn. The primary locus of value in a child is found in the heart of mom and dad, not in the achievements or character of the child.

This is the grandest, deepest truth. It is the most difficult to grasp. Those of us who do not have a special needs child can know this truth only by paying deep, respectful attention to parents who have lived it. And even then we will always be outsiders, looking in wonder at a mystery that is beyond us.

When the Bible pictures God as a father or mother, it intends us to imagine these family connections in their richest, sweetest ideal. Some of us have experienced great pain because our parents did not exhibit this radical affection. For some of us, the words father or mother connect us with images of rejection, alienation, or even abuse. Our parents may have beat us or neglected us, belittled us or scorned us. The Bible offers us another vision. And we come to church to celebrate this alternative truth:

God takes delight in God's children. God prizes God's children without regard to our successes or failures, our accomplishments or deficiencies.

This is the truth. This is the way God is.

I was visiting with an old friend this week, someone I've known for decades. Kirk's son is not easy. Every story about the son is a story of struggle. Often it's a story of disappointment. But this time I heard a different story. The new pastor of their church had taken the son out for coffee a couple of times. Later the pastor remarked to Kirk, “Your son is cool. He's interesting.” Kirk then said, “No one says that about my son. He is a difficult person. He's bi-polar. Opinionated. Outspoken. Edgy. I can't believe our pastor said, 'He's cool.'”

You are the son, the daughter, God treasures. Other people wonder what on earth God sees in you. Let them wonder. Let them be bewildered. God adores you.

As we come to know this more and more deeply, we will then be able to do for one another what that pastor did for my friend, Kirk. We can brighten God's heart by saying good things about his children, especially the difficult ones.

You are precious. We are precious. God is love.  

Friday, June 13, 2014

Heavenly Vision

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church for June 14, 2014.
Psalm 87, NLT
Luke 7:36-50
Synopsis: Sometimes it takes keen vision to discern the glory residing in human beings. That glory can be obscured by mental and physical disabilities, by addictions or social dysfunction. God sees through all this obscuring fog. God sees the glory created in every human. God invites us to participate in the divine vision. Central to the mission of the church is practicing looking at people through godly eyes.

Children's Story

Some years ago, I was weeding the vegetable garden. I was working around a huge zucchini plant, scarcely looking at the little bits of green I was yanking from the ground. I reached under the spreading leaves for the few weeds that had managed to sprout there in the shade. I noticed one last weed way under the zucchini. As I reached for it, I hesitated. The weed looked like a tiny orange tree. It was no more than two inches high. I don't think I would have given it the slightest through, but we lived in Thousand Oaks, California, for a few years and had orange trees in our yard. And even at a mere two inches and three leaves, this plant reminded me of those trees.
I looked closer. The leaves had the peculiar widened stem characteristic of citrus trees. It didn't look like any other weed I had seen in Washington, so I left. I would let it grow a little longer. If it really was an orange tree, that would be really cool. It was too close to the zucchini to dig up without disturbing the zucchini's roots. So I figured I'd leave it for now. If it survived until the fall when the zucchini was finished, I'd transplant it.
Periodically, I'd check on my "weed." I didn't know how it would handle the dense shade there underneath the zucchini plant. But it survived quite nicely, adding a few more leaves. It looked more and more like an orange tree.
That fall, when the zucchini was finished, I dug up the little tree, put it in a pot and brought it inside. Over the next few years, it kept growing, eventually it was over four feet tall. It never produced flowers or fruit, but it made a lovely addition to my plant collection in the living room.
Eventually, the “weed” grew too large for the living room, and I gave it to a friend who had a large green house.

Orange trees don't sprout in Washington. I hadn't planted the tree. It was impossible that an orange tree could be growing under my zucchini plant. But it was. I figured it must have been a seed that got tossed in the compost and somehow managed to retain its viability. I'm glad for the momentary pause, that instant of hesitation, that allowed me to see the weed under the zucchini for what it really was.


I was driving in the hinterlands of Nevada. I came to a highway junction where I turned left, headed north. Standing there beside the highway, a man I guessed to be in his fifties or sixties, his thumb raised. Driving past, I noted the ragged bag at his side. His hair sticking out at all angles from under a beat-up hat and his sign, Spokane. A loser. I didn't feel like keeping company with an ex-con or shyster. I had stuff piled in the front passengers seat. The back of my car was jammed with camping gear for a month. I didn't have room without rearranging things.
A half mile down the road, I pulled over, checked for traffic and did a U-turn. I could rearrange things. I wouldn't cost me anything to let a loser ride along.
I drove back past the hitchhiker, did another U-turn and pulled over. He came up to the car and opened the door. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Let me get stuff moved.” A minute later, he climbed in, settled his bag between his feet and buckled up. We headed north. Up close he did not look cleaner or any sharper than he did in my first quick glance when I had driven past.
He said his name was Wade. He had a car in Bishop, California, he said, but it was broken, so he was hitchhiking around. He had just spent a few days in Death Valley, told me of some of the places he had explored there. Now he was headed north to Spokane, which he did every spring. I asked what was in Spokane, but could never quite make sense of what he said.
He asked what I was doing and I was equally evasive. I mentioned I had spent a week hanging out with a geologist. He asked some very specific questions about what we were doing, and I began revising my opinion of this unkempt stranger.
He made a rather light-hearted remark that he was lazy. That's why he didn't have a regular job. But I was suspicious. Most lazy people I know don't thing of themselves as lazy.
So I asked, “What do you do to keep from being bored while you're being lazy?”
He laughed off my question, but I asked it again.
“This winter I created a computer-based celestial navigation program. Using this program, if you the exact height of stars above the horizon and have precise chronometry, you could determine your position on the earth's surface with a few feet. All you would need is precise measurements of the elevations for three stars. For each of those stars' positions, there is a corresponding circle on the earth's surface. Your position is the intersection of those circles.
I was impressed, but who needs such a program in today's world when we have GPS.
Wade explained his program could provide the precision of a GPS without using satellites. In some doomsday scenario where the satellites are out of commission or out of communication, you could still determine very precise coordinates. Or maybe you would want to avoid detection by the GPS system.
This did not sound exactly like my image of a lazy person.
I mentioned a curious-looking mountain we were passing. He launched into a detailed discussion of the geology of the area. Then mentioned that another project he had been working on beside his celestial navigation computer program. Traditional classification systems group mining environments according to the familiar categories of igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks. He was reworking those traditional classifications in light of more recent work which identified many significant mineral deposits as deep sea hot spring deposits. He was almost finished creating a new guide to mineral locales in the state of Nevada.
It turned out that he had been a geology professor back east. Had met and married a beautiful woman who was also a geologist. He followed her to the west coast when she got a good job offer. It didn't work out so well for him. Eventually she divorced him. He had received an inheritance from his grandfather that gave him enough money to feed himself. So he didn't have to work, at least not in the conventional sense.
He mentioned his ex-wife a number of times. Never a hint of animus. Life had gone well for her. He was glad for her. She had been his light, his world. Without her, he could not muster the motivation to plug into regular life.
Near the end of our time together he said to me, “You want to become a billionaire?”
“Sure, of course.”
He outlined his theory about the distribution of gold. It made geological sense. “Map those deposits.” he said. “Buy the mineral rights and dig for gold.”
All I would need was a few hundred million in capital.
About this time, we reached Austin, Nevada. He was continuing on north. I was headed east. We had lunch together, his treat (his thank you for the ride) and parted company.

People are not always obvious.

Jesus and his entourage were invited to a feast by a devout religious leader. During the feast, a woman sneaked in the back door. Luke writes that she was a “sinner.” Most commentators assume this is a euphemism for prostitute or slut.
This woman had heard Jesus was in town. She had heard about the feast. She came in through the back door, found her way around to Jesus' feet and began kissing them. She was crying. Her tears fell on Jesus' feet. She then let down her hair and wiped his feet with her hair. Then she pulled out a little stone container of fabulously expensive perfume, dabbed it on his feet.
By this time Jesus was famous. He had performed miracles and changed lives and everywhere he went, he created a stir. In response to his ministry and his fame people did weird things. This was just another of those weird displays of admiration and affection that Jesus evoked. Still, it was over the top. The most scandalous thing was that Jesus did nothing to stop it. He didn't scold the woman. He didn't pull his feet away. He accepted it.
The host, someone who took religion with great seriousness was incensed. “Surely,” he muttered to people around him, “if Jesus knew who this woman was he would not tolerate any touch from her, much less, this gushing, emotional kissing and hair-wiping.”
“Simon,” Jesus said, “I have something to tell you.”
“I'm listening,” Simon said.
“A pay day lender had two customers. One owed five hundred bucks. The other owed five thousand. Both faced a payment deadline on the same day, and neither had a dime in his pockets. In gesture of grand generosity, the lender forgave the debt for both of them. Now, which of these guys do you think would have the most appreciation?”
“Well,” Simon said, “I suppose the one who had the most debt.”
“Yes, of course,” Jesus said.
Then Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?”

I love this question. “Do you see this woman?” For the last fifteen minutes, Simon had been fuming about the woman, muttering about her, fretting about her. But Jesus challenges him. “Simon, do you see her? Look! No not at me. Not at the people sitting next to you. Look at her! Do you see her?
Jesus wasn't asking if Simon was aware that a female was in the room. He was asking something far deeper.
“Simon, when I came into your house, you gave me no water for my feet (a failure in courtesy), but she has washed my feet with her tears. You gave me no ointment. She has perfumed my feet. You gave me no kiss (a really serious breach of etiquette), but she has not stopped kissing my feet.
“Her sins which were many are forgiven. Her lavish love is proof she has been forgiven. But someone who has received little forgiveness, loves little.”

Jesus saw something Simon missed. Note, in this story, Jesus did not read dark secrets. He said the woman was a sinner. But that was no secret. Simon knew all about that. Everyone in the room knew all about that. What was the special seeing Jesus demonstrated?
Jesus saw her goodness. Jesus saw she had experienced forgiveness. She had been transformed into a great lover.
Why didn't Simon see that? He wasn't looking for it.
Jesus turned to the woman and said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
She left blessed, celebrated, elevated.

Objectively, the woman's behavior was socially gauche. She was misbehaving by all social norms. She violated multiple dicta of etiquette. But by the time Jesus has finished his interaction with the woman, her behavior had been transformed from faux pas into sublime theater. Her awkwardness had been recast as one of the most artful moments in all Scripture.
That's the power of the vision of Jesus.
Some of you are wasting your lives in extravagant love. Over the past few weeks, a whole group of Green Lake members practiced seeing with the eyes of Jesus. They were made aware of a mother whose son had received a hopeless diagnosis in Peru. From somewhere she managed to scrape together enough money to buy plane tickets for herself and her children and brought her son to Children's Hospital. An Adventist friend called the church and Holly and Ellen and Veronica and Darchelle and Ken spent hours taking care of the siblings, providing spiritual and social support for the mother.
The best medicine eventually proved insufficient. John died.
So now, in the face of this heart-breaking failure to obtain healing how do we regard all the extravagant attention to this sick boy and his family? Seen through the eyes of Jesus, it was a demonstration of the very essence of heaven. John's mother's relentless drive to pursue even the most remote possibility of healing for her son perfectly mirrors the intentions of God. The service given by the care team also expresses God's purposes.
When we see through the eyes of Jesus, we see the goodness resident in people, the beauty, the value inherent in every human being.
People are certainly capable of doing evil. This month's newsletter includes an article warning against the dangers of various scams that target especially senior citizens. I beg our senior citizens, if someone calls your or emails you about a great investment opportunity or about an urgent need for financial assistance, please talk to one of the elders or one of the pastors before you give anybody, and information or any money.
It takes no special spiritual insight to spot evil. The special vision of Jesus was not insight into evil. It was insight into hidden goodness. This woman who was publicly known as a great sinner was een by Jesus as a great lover who had been transformed by forgiveness. Would you have seen that? Can we practice that kind of vision among the people we live with or associate with at school or work?
Here in our congregation we have a couple of very public, dramatic demonstrations of the vision of Kingdom of Heaven. I think of Claire's care for her son Alex and Carrie's and her girl's care for Quinn. If we looked at Alex or Quinn through the standard eyes of capitalism, they are worthless. They have no potential of producing goods and services with a significant monetary worth.
If we measure them using academic yardsticks, we will never find their value. They are not going to help any school district improve their aggregate standardized scores.
If we measure them using the common language of revivalist religion, we will never see their value. There is no realistic expectation that they will become missionaries or philanthropists or health reformers.
Alex and Quinn and their caregivers help us understand the unspeakable beauty of the vision of Jesus. Jesus sees value in people because they are people.
This applies to you. We are at the end of a school term. Some people will get their grades and experience a rich sense of validation. Others will get their grades and experience a sinking feeling. They will feel like failures. Maybe they will feel shame. If that is you, let Jesus look at you. Then watch his face as he watches you. In his smile you will see your real value.
Some of us here today struggle with a nearly crushing sense of moral inferiority or unworthiness. Watch Jesus watching you. Jesus sees what even you may not be able to see. You are forgiven. Let Jesus persuade you of that fact. Let the joy of forgiveness flow through you.
You may look like a weed. You might be famous as a sinner. You might be demonstrably incapable of contributing to the wealth or pride of society. Still, seen through eyes of the kingdom of heaven, you are priceless. And all of us are called to help one other know this. We are called to practice looking at each other and the whole world through the lenses of the kingdom of heaven.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Church Authority

I'm preaching this coming Sabbath on Acts 3 and 4. It's the story of Peter and John healing the lame man at the Beautiful Gate, their subsequent arrest and eventual arraignment before the Sanhedrin.

I love Peter's speech to the assembly: What? Do you really think it's better to obey you than God?  I cannot help speaking what i have seen and heard.

Peter and the other believers operated out of a life-changing experience. The church officials operated out of a concern to preserve the status quo. This is the eternal struggle of the church. The conservatives want to preserve all the good stuff that is the heritage from the church's past. The crazies want to honor the new thing God is doing.

It is our heritage (history, traditions) that sets us up for receiving God's new work. The new work always threatens the structures that were erected on the basis of God's past work.

This is the lens through which I view the current conservative/liberal struggle in the Adventist Church. I am unabashedly a liberal. But I acknowledge that my liberal views are a direct outgrowth my conservative Adventist heritage. (And I do not mean my views as a reaction against that heritage.) I could not have arrived at the views I have without that conservative heritage. I refuse to belief that that heritage should be preserved unchanged over time. That would be analogous to fossilizing a living organism. Fossils are cool. Living, changing organisms are cooler.

The current president of the General Conference tirelessly advocates one book above all others, The Great Controversy. It is our prophet's panoramic survey of Christianity from day one to the end of time. In this book every hero is a heretic. Every effort by the church to defend orthodoxy is shown to be wrong-headed opposition to truth. The heretics turn out to be right. So when the church president anathematizes people whose faithfulness to God causes them to diverge from "historic" or "General Conference" Adventism, he becomes another unwitting (and unfavorable) example of the central theme of his favorite book.