Saturday, April 29, 2017

Secret Siblings

Sermon manuscript for Sabbath, April 29, 2017, for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Genesis 16:1-11, Matthew 2:1-11.

The Bible reports that Abraham, the “father of the faithful,” had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael quickly recedes into the background (along with six other sons born in his old age to a concubine) and the Bible becomes the story of the Isaac branch of the family of Abraham. The Hebrew people (grandchildren of Isaac) emigrate to Egypt, are enslaved, then rescued by God. The Hebrew people become a kingdom with David as its most illustrious monarch. Among Hebrews prophets arise—Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel. And from the Hebrew royal line comes the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, father of the Christians. This is the story that features in our worship. It is the story we rehearse and claim as our own. But what about the descendants of Abraham through Ishmael? God had promised Abraham that Ishmael, too, would father a great nation. God would honor his friendship with Abraham by showing kindness to Abraham's “other son.” Did God forget his promise? Skip forward in time to one of the greatest Hebrew prophets, Isaiah. In one of his visions of the New Earth, the prophet writes regarding the descendants of Ishmael, “They shall ascend with acceptance on My altar,
And I will glorify the house of My glory.” When the vision of God reaches its glorious climax, the hidden siblings of Israel are publicly welcomed and honored. God keeps his promises, even to the second class family members, even to those who appear lost beyond recall, distant to the point of invisibility. As children of God we are invited to partner with God in welcoming our secret siblings.

As Karin and I were planning our move to Green Lake Church, we knew one thing would be different from every other church we had pastored. We would have relatives in the church. Erik and Katrina and Brian and Naomi. Never before had any one in our churches had connections with our families or even with our pasts.

Shortly after we arrived I was greeting people at the door and I met a woman named Edith Burden. I did a double take. Burden? Are you related to H. O. Burden? She was. Another relative.

Then I met with a woman whose husband was in a Seattle hospital with a scary diagnosis. I had heard about her because some people were critical of a specialized ministry she was involved in. I visited her at the hospital. We talked for a long time. I was fascinated by the potential of her ministry. At some point she said, “You do know we are related right?”

I felt like an idiot. We had been talking for an hour. I did not recall we had ever met, much less that we were cousins. I try to say nice things about everybody I meet because who knows—they might be relatives!

Family is special. We carry a special sense of responsibility for our relatives. If one of our nieces or nephews flies into town, they know they have free airport shuttle service and a free hotel room at our place. Some people in this congregation have taken this family responsibility to great extremes. You have literally saved the lives of relatives. If I ask why you do it, you shrug your shoulders and say, “What else could we do.” Help was needed. Help was provided. That's part of the way family works—when it works the way it's supposed to.

Family connection is central to the Bible story. The book of Genesis features genealogies, family histories. And the most important genealogy is the record of the ancestors of Abraham and the record of the descendants of Abraham's grandson Jacob. You are in the story if you are part of that family. You are peripheral to the story if you are not in that family.

This story of the family of Abraham's grandson plays out through the rest of the Old Testament. The descendants of Jacob split into two nations. The Bible keeps track of both nations until the northern kingdom goes extinct.

The story continues and sets up the story of Jesus. Jesus is the descendant of David, and Abraham and Adam . . . who is the Son of God.

This is the story that stands at the center of our worship. We claim the Bible story as our story. We claim the promises to the Jewish people as promises to us. We imagine ourselves as part of the beloved family. When God talks of never forgetting Israel, we read those words as applying to us: God will never forget me. When God promises to forgive Israel, we apply those promises to ourselves. We are “spiritual Israel.” we say. We claim this connection because of the Apostle Paul.

Clearly, God’s promise to give the whole earth to Abraham and his descendants was based not on his obedience to God’s law, but on a right relationship with God that comes by faith. Rom 4:13 NLT

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. Rom 4:16

Abraham is the father of all who believe—the spiritual father. We are spiritual children of Abraham. This is nice. It allows us to apply to ourselves all the good promises of mercy and protection God gave to the ancient Jewish people. We are in the family.

This is wonderful. It also carries a risk. Sometimes we who have been taken into the family appoint ourselves as custodians and guardians of the purity of the family. We imagine there is only one family of God and we are it. And the only way for anyone to be part of the family of God is to submit to the name and identity of our particular family.

I remember reading an encyclical by Pope John Paul II in which he carefully explained that while the Catholic Church had charitable feelings toward other Christian bodies, those other Christian bodies were not really churches. Because there was only one church and the church of Rome was it. It reminded me of Adventist literature which makes exactly the same claim. We—our denomination—we are the one true church, the one actual, visible church of God, and everyone else is a spiritual outsider.

We base these notions of “one true people of God” on the Bible story of the Jewish people. The Jews were the people of God. Jerusalem was the city of God. Now we—Adventists or Catholics or Missouri Synod Lutherans or Jehovah's Witnesses or Church of Christ—we are the new people of God. Our denomination is the New Jerusalem.

But let's look a little closer at the Bible story.

Abraham had no children and he was getting old. Sarah, his wife, suggested he take her maid, Hagar, as a concubine so he would have an heir. Abraham agreed and Hagar got pregnant. But things didn't go so well. Hagar got uppity and Sarah got mad. The abuse from Sarah was so bad, Hagar ran away. An angel found her out in the desert and sent her back home with this promise: Your son will be great. His descendants will become an uncountable multitude.

When Ishmael was a teenager, God appeared to Abraham and announced that Sarah was going to have a son, and this son was going to be the one to inherit the promises God had made to Abraham. Abraham protested: What about my son Ishmael?

“I will bless him to,” God said. “I will make his descendants into a great nation.” With that Ishmael pretty much disappears from the Bible story. He reappears when Abraham dies, participating in the funeral honoring his father. Then silence. Decades, centuries of story roll on with no record of Ishmael and his descendants. Until we come to the prophet Isaiah. In chapter 60, this great gospel prophet is describing how it will be in the New Earth and he writes:

“They shall ascend with acceptance on My altar,
And I will glorify the house of My glory.”

Ishmael is the secret sibling, the unknown relative. When God's vision reaches it grand fulfillment, the entire family will be gathered including the secret siblings, the brothers and sisters we did not know we had, the cousins that were completely invisible to us.

This idea of secret children of God pops up all through the Bible story and features especially in the stories of Jesus.

When Jesus is born the royalty that shows up to pay homage are strangers from the East. We have no idea who they were. We don't know their fathers. We don't know their religion. We don't know their nationality. These mysterious royal figures echo the person Melchesideck whom Abraham honored as his spiritual superior. Both the Kings from the East who honored Jesus and Melchesidek who received tithes from Abraham highlight the fact that there is a spiritual reality completely independent of the “people of God,” the corporate body that is the focus of any particular holy story.

Jesus repeatedly made a point of “expanding” the holy family.

The Centurion who had more faith than any Jewish person Jesus had met.
Jesus made the most unveiled assertion of his identity as the Messiah to a Samaritan woman.
Jesus pointed to the Good Samaritan as a premier example of what it meant to be obedient to God.
Out of a group of ten men healed of leprosy only the Samaritan returned to give thanks.
Jesus challenged his Jewish audience: Many will come from the east and west and sit down at the heavenly banquet, but you will be left out.
It was a crippled woman, someone who bore the external marks of divine disapproval that Jesus called “a daughter of Abraham.
Zacchaeus had divided loyalties. He collaborated with the Roman occupiers and was dishonest to boot. Upon his repentance, Jesus announced this man, too, was a son of Abraham.
Luke 4, Jesus preached a sermon in his home town. The audience loved it until Jesus pointedly highlighted God's favor to a couple of foreigners, the Widow of Nain and Naaman. The audience got so mad they tried to kill him.

So what? What does all this have to do with our lives?

First, we think of ourselves as special. We find a special place in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. That's us, we say, pointing to certain passages. This is a good thing. If we are special, it will help us act like special people. We are the Jesus people. We can count on the special favor of God

Then what? Part of being Jesus people is learning to see our secret siblings, learning to recognize our family connection with all sorts of people.

The Bible centers its story on the family of Jacob, more specifically, the part of that family which is connected with the lineage of Jesus. Those people are supposed to remember they are family and show each other the kinds of mutual respect and support that is appropriate in a family.

Then the Bible points us outward. The circle of family gets wider and wider. We discover more and more secret siblings until we come to the Gospel of Luke.

Luke traces the genealogy of Jesus back to King David and to Abraham—the greatest heroes of the Jewish story. Then Luke keeps going. According to the Gospel of Luke Jesus' family is not only the family of Abraham and David. Luke traces the genealogy all the way to Adam the Son of God.

Our family is the family of humanity. Every human is part of our clan.

We are special. And we are called to extend the benefits and privileges we enjoy as widely as possible.

Our house is a house of prayer for all nations.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Juvenile Heroes

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, April 22, 1017

Texts: 2 Kings 5 and Matthew 14, Mark 6, John 6, and Matthew 18

Two stories. Two of my favorite stories.

The girl was a maid-in-waiting for a wealthy woman in Damascus. I don't know her name, so I'll call her Deborah. I'm going to guess she was twelve years old. What is that—sixth grade? Already she was working full time. Her job was to be instantly responsive to every wish of the Lady of the House. Fetch her slippers. Serve her tea. Scratch her back. Comb her hair. Remember where she left stuff. Day and night, seven days a week. That was the life of a domestic slave. At twelve years old Deborah was already doing what she would do for the rest of her life.

Maybe sometimes she dreamed of her old life, the life before slavery. Back when she lived with her parents and her brothers and sisters on a farm in Israel. But that seemed like ancient history now. Even if she could escape and find her way back to the town where she grew up, it's possible there would have been no home to go to. Her parents may well have been killed when the Syrian army invaded and captured a bunch of people as slaves.

But here's the crazy thing. In this story, Deborah is not a victim. She is the hero. She changed her world.

Her mistress' husband was the chief general of the army of Syria, one of the most powerful men in the nation. He was very successful. Under his leadership, the army had won many victories. But he was doomed. He had leprosy.

Leprosy was a slow disease, but it was crippling. And there was no treatment. Naaman was going to lose his ability to function. The nation was going to lose his service, his expertise. And there was nothing any one could do about it.

If we turned this story into a movie, we would see the king and Naaman talking. The king asking, “What are we going to do? I don't know how we are going to manage without you. Do you have any one in the army who can take your place? How long can you hang on?”

We would watch scenes where his wife is crying, asking, “What's going to happen to us?”

Then the scene would change. Mrs. Naaman is in her bedroom. Deborah is helping her undress and get into her night clothes. Mrs. Naaman sits on a stool while Deborah massages her shoulders. Mrs. Naaman is talking, as usual. “What am I going to do? What is going to happen to us? Why did this happen? What made the gods angry with us?”

Deborah continued kneading her shoulders and listening. Finally, Mrs. Naaman runs out of words, and Deborah speaks.

“You know what I wish? I wish Mr. Naaman could go see the prophet in Israel. Elisha is the most amazing prophet in the whole world. You would not believe the miracles he has performed. If Mr. Naaman could see the prophet, the prophet would heal him. I'm sure of it.”

“You really believe that?”

“For sure. Once, one of our neighbors couldn't get pregnant. Elisha blessed her and they had a son. Then a few years later when the boy had a sun stroke and died, Elisha raised him back to life.”

“For real?”

“For real. That boy was a friend of my older brother.”

Mrs. Naaman told her husband about the conversation. Naaman did some discrete investigation, and sure enough, there were credible stories of amazing miracles. This prophet, Elisha, was truly amazing.

Naaman talked to his king. The king of Damascus wrote a letter to the king in Samaria and sent Naaman south.

There was lots of drama. But in the end, Naaman was healed of his leprosy and came back to Damascus a devotee of the God of Elisha. For the rest of his life, the commander of the army of Syria knew that his life was a gift from the God of Israel and his wife's maid.

Girls matter.

The second story.

Jesus and his disciples headed out of town for a bit of rest and recuperation. They were way out in the country, miles from anywhere. They thought they would be able to camp in peace. Enjoy a little down time. But they couldn't keep themselves a secret. People found out where they were and crowds began gathering. Jesus didn't have the heart to tell them he was on vacation. The crowd was there, so he went to work. He spent the entire day healing and teaching. And all the time more people were arriving.

Late in the afternoon, Jesus told his disciples. “These people must be getting hungry. It's time to serve supper.”

“Serve supper?” the disciples protested. Even if you authorized us to spend all the money we have, there's no where to buy food for this many. There is no Costco, no Safeway. How on earth are we going to serve supper without any food?”

“Well,” Jesus said, “just how much food do you have?”

“Five loaves and two fish. That's it. To feed this crowd???? No way.”

“Nevertheless, bring it here,” Jesus said.

This is the way the story is told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The gospel of John adds one more fact. When Jesus asked how much food do you have, it was the disciple Andrew who announced the five loaves and two fish. More specifically, Andrew said, “There is a boy here with a lunch. His lunch is five loaves and two fish.”

So, when Jesus says “bring it here,” the “it” is a boy's lunch. Jesus takes the boy's lunch, blesses it and begins pulling fish and bread out of the basket.

Fish, fish, fish, fish. Bread, bread, bread, bread, bread. Jesus pulled fish and bread out of the boy's basket and dropped them into other baskets which the disciples used for distribution.
It was a miracle! A fantastic miracle. Built on the generosity of that boy. He could tell his friends for the rest of his life about the afternoon when his lunch fed 5000 people. Wow! How cool is that.

In that culture children did not count for much. In both of these stories the men in the story are named. Naaman the general and Elisha the prophet. Jesus, Philip, Peter, and Andrew are named. But the girl and the boy—no names. They did not count to the historians. But they counted to God. God accomplished his great miracle through the faithfulness and goodness of a nameless girl and a nameless boy.

Kids matter. Kids mattered back in Bible times and they still matter. Jesus showed a decided preference for kids.

About that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?"
Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, "I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. "And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me.
But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. Matthew 18:1-6

Who is great? We can start a good argument. Money maker? Because money is the foundation of the systems we depend on—health care, transportation, environmental protection, social services, grocery stores, gas stations, electricity—every one of these systems depends on a steady flow of money. So, maybe the greatest people are those who generate the most wealth.

But then we could argue teachers are the most important. If you're going to generate wealth it is very helpful to be able to read and count.

No, no, no, someone else protests. The most important people are farmers and fishing crews. Money is useless if there is no food to buy. Your kids can't learn if they are hungry. So surely, farmers are the most important.

Who is the greatest? Who is most important, most significant, most worthy of honor? Jesus said, children.

Kids we need you. God needs you. Thanks for being here.

Since it's earth day, I found a couple of examples of young people who are making a difference in the world in connection with the environment.

In 1997, a sailing captain, Charles Moore, discovered a vast swath of ocean littered with plastic junk. Lots of it. Subsequent research mapped the garbage. It covered tens of thousands of square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean. One estimate I saw, said there was 100 million tons of trash in this Pacific Garbage Patch or Vortex. When I first read about it, I was very discouraged. We are ruining the ocean and the problem is so huge there is nothing that can be done about it.

Then two or three years ago, I read about a Dutch teenager, Boyan Slat. He was working on a plan to begin cleaning up some of the hundred million tons of plastic trash. My first reaction was skepticism. How could a 19-year old clean up the oceans? But he paid no attention to all the people who said it couldn't be done. He developed a system to collect the plastic. He created a foundation and raised money. He has already tested a prototype in the North Sea and hopes to deploy the first pilot project in the Pacific this year.

Not bad for a kid. All the adults, the experienced engineers and environmentalists thought the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was so impossibly huge there was no point in even thinking about it. Now, a kid is well on his way to doing something about it.

Kids matter.

Deepika Kurup, was born in Nashua, New Hampshire, but her family was from India. She remembers their summer visits to India when she was a kid. She saw children drink water that was so dirty she not have even touched it. Back home in the US she read about water problems all over the world. 760 million people lack access to clean water. When she was in 8th grade she began working on a solution. Current water treatment processes were slow and expensive or required large infrastructures.

She invented a process that harnessed solar energy to remove bacteria, organics, and other classes of contaminants from drinking water.

Kurup's initial idea that won her the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist in 2012 is based on using a photocatalytic compound for water purification. This project involved a photocatalytic composite made up of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, hollow glass microspheres, and Portland cement. In 2012 Kurup's photocatalytic composite was able to reduce the amount of total coliform from 8000 colony-forming units to 50. In addition, it oxidised Methylene blue at a faster rate than standard solar disinfection methods.[7]
She improved her method and after 3 years developed a pervious photocatalytic composite using sand, TiO2, Portland cement and silver nitrate.This photocatalytic pervious composite showed 98% reduction in total coliform bacteria immediately after filtration. Exposure of the filtered water to sunlight with a photocatalytic composite disc resulted in 100% inactivation of total coliform bacteria in just 15 minutes.[8] This project won her the 2014 United States Stockholm Junior Water Prize. She also is the National Geographic winner in the 2015 Google Science Fair. --Wikipedia

She has created a nonprofit aimed at deploying the technology in the real world where people are dying for clean water.

Way to go, Deepika!

Girls matter.

Kids, the world needs you. It needs your brains, your hands, your heart, your character. God is calling you to great things. We, the church, pledge ourselves to do all we can to support you in responding to the call of God and the great need of the world.

You are the greatest citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

He Is Risen

First draft of sermon for Sabbath, April 15, 2017 at Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

Texts: Isaiah 25:1-9; Luke 24

When I walked outside on Thursday morning, there was color in the sky, a bit of blue decorated with wisps of pink and orange and salmon and peach. But by the time I finished my chores and exercises, and sat on my stool for a time of meditation and prayer, the sky had gone monochrome. Shades of grey. I was disappointed, then I noticed the trees. Below the sky, to the east stands a solid wall of trees. A backdrop of dark, towering Doug firs. In front of the firs stand alders and maples and a few cottonwoods. For months I have noted dull gray of their trunks and branches. Thursday morning, as my eyes dropped from the monochrome sky to this wall of trees, my heart skipped a beat. I almost got up from my stool in excitement. The maples and alders and cottonwoods were not gray. They were green, a light, almost iridescent, green. I imagined I could feel the throb of new life rising in the sap.

It is the magic time of year. The time when even nature itself seems to whisper hope and resurrection.

In the Bible story of Abraham is a wanderer, a pilgrim. God promises that someday he (through his descendants) will possess the entire land of Palestine. But for Abraham, the land is always a foreign country. He is a wanderer, a stateless pilgrim, an undocumented alien.

Decades pass. Abraham's wife, Sarah, dies, and for the first time Abraham owns a piece of his promise. He purchases a field and a cave as a burial place. Now he owns it. It is a dramatic act of faith. This purchase of the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite is Abraham's way of saying, yes, I believe the promise. This land will be my country, my people's country. There is a future here, a long future, a bright future.

This confidence in the power and good intentions of God becomes more fully developed in the writings of the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Let's hear again this morning's Old Testament reading:

O LORD, I will honor and praise your name, for you are my God.
You do such wonderful things! . . .
You turn mighty cities into heaps of ruins.
Cities with strong walls are turned to rubble.
Beautiful palaces in distant lands disappear and will never be rebuilt.

This is a celebration of God's power. At this point in history, Israel was a smallish nation. Like Taiwan or the Philippines next door to China or Mexico next door to the United States. They were an independent nation but always at risk of domination or subjugation by their powerful neighbors, Egypt, Babylon, Assyria. They were constantly afraid of being squashed.

But not to worry, the prophet assured them. God was more powerful than Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria combined. Those beautiful palaces in Babylon—gone in an instant if God so decreed. The great cities along the Nile River in Egypt—turned into rubble at the mere whisper of Yahweh.

God was mighty. Stronger than every enemy, every foreign nation. Take heart.

But sometimes the enemies are not across the border. Sometimes the enemy does not speak with an accent and wave a different flag. Sometimes the enemy is here. Sometimes the enemy is our own people, our own system. Even when the oppressor and the victim share the same accents and same passports, the oppressed can count on God, the prophet says.

You, O Lord, are a tower of refuge to the poor,
a tower of refuge to the needy in distress.
You are a refuge from the storm and a shelter from the heat.
For the oppressive acts of ruthless people are like a storm beating against a wall,
or like the relentless heat of the desert. . . .
As the shade of a cloud cools relentless heat, so the boastful songs of ruthless people are stilled.

Because we are a church, because we see ourselves as the people of God, we aim to order our lives in harmony with the principles of God's kingdom.

But even if we learn to cooperate perfectly with God, even if we are able to eliminate every act of injustice and every systematic unfairness, even if we organize help for every poor person, provide adequate help for every person with mental illness, even if we were able to remedy every problem caused by human blindness and immorality, we would still face the dark truth that life is fleeting. Here on earth, love and life are temporary.

Which brings us to the final paragraph of this prophetic message:

In Jerusalem, the LORD of Heaven's Armies will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet . . .
There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shroud of death that hangs over the earth.
He will swallow up death forever!
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away all tears. . . .
In that day the people will proclaim, "This is our God!
We trusted in him, and he saved us!
This is the LORD, in whom we trusted.
Let us rejoice in the salvation he brings!"

Hope is a constant theme in the Old Testament. God will vanquish enemies. God will topple oppressors. God will rescue the poor and widows and orphans and immigrants and even eunuchs and residents of Babylon, Egypt, and Philistia. Then there are the few passages that say God will even one day triumph over death.

It is this final triumph that forms the very center of our faith as Christians.

Jesus, the rabbi, teacher, healer, prophet, Messiah. Jesus who had raised people from the dead, was himself dead. Buried in a tomb closed with a solid rock door and an official Roman seal.

Then very early on Sunday morning the women went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.
They found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. So they went in, but they didn't find the body of the Lord Jesus.
As they stood there puzzled, two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes.
The women were terrified and bowed with their faces to the ground. Then the men asked, "Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive?
He isn't here! He is risen!

The women--Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and several others--rushed back from the tomb to tell the disciples what had happened.

But the story sounded like nonsense to the men, so they didn't believe it.

That same day two of Jesus' followers were walking to the village of Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem. As they walked along they were talking about everything that had happened. Jesus himself suddenly came and began walking with them. But God kept them from recognizing him.

He asked them, "What are you discussing so intently as you walk along?" They stopped short, sadness written across their faces.
Then one of them, Cleopas, replied, "You must be the only person in Jerusalem who hasn't heard about all the things that have happened there the last few days."
"What things?" Jesus asked.
"The things that happened to Jesus, the man from Nazareth," they said. "He was a prophet who did powerful miracles, and he was a mighty teacher in the eyes of God and all the people. But our leading priests and other religious leaders handed him over to be condemned to death, and they crucified him.
We had hoped he was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel. This all happened three days ago.

"Then some women from our group of his followers were at his tomb early this morning, and they came back with an amazing report. They said his body was missing, and they had seen angels who told them Jesus is alive! Some of our men ran out to see, and sure enough, his body was gone, just as the women had said."

Then Jesus said to them, "You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn't it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?" Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

By this time they were nearing Emmaus and the end of their journey. Jesus acted as if he were going on, but they begged him, "Stay the night with us, since it is getting late." So he went home with them.
As they sat down to eat, he took the bread and blessed it. Then he broke it and gave it to them.
Suddenly, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And at that moment he disappeared!
They said to each other, "Didn't our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?"
And within the hour they were on their way back to Jerusalem. There they found the eleven disciples and the others who had gathered with them. The two from Emmaus told their story of how Jesus had appeared to them as they were walking along the road, and how they had recognized him as he was breaking the bread. And just as they were telling about it, Jesus himself was suddenly standing there among them. "Peace be with you," he said.

But the whole group was startled and frightened, thinking they were seeing a ghost!
"Why are you frightened?" he asked. "Why are your hearts filled with doubt?
Look at my hands. Look at my feet. You can see that it's really me. Touch me and make sure that I am not a ghost, because ghosts don't have bodies, as you see that I do."
As he spoke, he showed them his hands and his feet.
Still they stood there in disbelief, filled with joy and wonder. Then he asked them, "Do you have anything here to eat?"
They gave him a piece of broiled fish,
and he ate it as they watched.
Then he said, "When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled."
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
And he said, "Yes, it was written long ago that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day.

Beneath the dark clouds of war and atrocities, beneath the dark clouds of illness and disability, beneath the cacophony and clamor that demands our attention, we focus our eyes on the vivid green radiance of the story of Jesus and the divine promise.

Death will.

We will rise.

He is risen. He is risen, indeed.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Law and Love, Text and Mercy

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for April 1, 2017
Texts: Deuteronomy 15:7-11, Luke 18:18-22

Thursday, I listened to a speech by an old lawyer to a group of lawyers. He began by reminding them of their core values--law and justice—and then told stories of times when brave lawyers had used the law to provide justice for the vulnerable and disadvantaged. I was reminded of our core values—Law and Love. The very best stories in Christian history feature brave people who have used the Bible (divine law) in support of love. The Fernando and Anna Stahl, Adventist missionaries who stood on the Bible to fight for justice for the miserably oppressed Indians in the Andes. Martin Luther King, Jr. who cited the Old Testament prophets in fighting against the oppression of his people and American brutality in Vietnam. The Quakers who listened to the inner voice of God and cited the words of the Bible in their struggle to secure better treatment for the insane and liberty for slaves. It is never enough to be only “people of the Book.” We must also be people of God—whose most noteworthy attribute is love. The highest form of obedience to the commandments is mercy.

Thursday morning I was in a room with a thousand lawyers. The annual breakfast of the King County Bar Foundation to raise money in support of pro bono work. The speaker was Morris Dees. One of the co-founders of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. One of his great accomplishments was bankrupting the KKK.

He began his by reminding his audience of their core values—law and justice. He remembered standing in the school yard as a kid in the rural south. Every day he stood there with his hand over his heart and pledged,

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,
One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

(Dees is old enough that his schools pre-date the addition of the phrase “under God.”)

Liberty and justice for all. Dees says that his teacher, even then, even in that place, the rural south where segregation was beyond question, his teacher quietly insisted that “colored folks” to use the polite language of that time and place, the “colored folks” did not enjoy liberty and justice. And that wasn't right.

She did what she could. She could not change the system. She could not single-handedly change the culture. But she could speak the truth. She could plant the seed of truth in her students.

Dees says he went to law school just to escape working on the farm. Somewhere along the way he became deeply infected with a vision of justice. Justice for all. That vision has shaped the rest of his life. He has been a master of using the law as a weapon for fighting injustice. He is a master craftsman using the tool of law to fashion a more just world. One of his greatest accomplishments was bankrupting the KKK. In another landmark case he made it possible for Vietnamese immigrant to fish in peace off the coast of Texas.

Sitting there listening to Mr. Dees talk I was reminded of our twin commitments as Seventh-day Adventists. We have long prided ourselves on being people of the Book. We are Bible people. We teach our children to memorize Bible passages. We pride ourselves on reading through the entire Bible. Our most prominent distinctive trait—Sabbath keeping—flows directly from a fierce loyalty to the literal, concrete words of the Bible. The Bible says “the Sabbath is the seventh day,” and that Jesus rose on the first day. So, we start at Easter Sunday and count, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven—Saturday. That's the seventh day so it must be Sabbath. It is simple, straighforward application of the words of the Bible to actual life.

We are people of the Book.

But there is another pillar in our life. That is a bedrock conviction that God is love.

For 1800 years Christians took the words of Paul very literally. Paul wrote that God arbitrarily loved Jacob and hated his older brother, Esau. The theological label for this is predestination. For 1800 years most Christians believed in predestination, that is, that God picked some people to be saved and other people to be lost. This was especially prominent among the Protestants—people like Martin Luther and John Calvin who insisted that theology must be based on the Bible and the Bible only. There are a number of passages in the Bible that talk about God's sovereignty. God does what God wants—even going so far as to arbitrarily decide, even before they are born, that some people are going to be saved and some are going to be damned.

Adventists looked at that and said, “That's not right. That cannot be right. How could a loving God create people for the very purpose of torturing them in hell? No way.” Recognizing the profound contradiction between this doctrine and our conviction that God is love, we searched out other Bible passages that support a different interpretation. Instead of using the Bible to support the immoral doctrine of predestination, we used the Bible to support the moral doctrine of freedom and choice.

It was the same with the doctrine of eternal hell fire. For 1800 years most Christians believed that people who did not go to heaven would be tortured alive in the fires of hell for ever and ever and ever. Preachers would cite Bible verses in support of this horrible idea. They still do.

Adventists said, “No way. A loving God could not do that.” No amount of explaining could ever bring us to agree with a just and loving God could practice eternal torture. And we found Bible verses to support our conviction.

Law is a necessary, good thing. Bible texts are necessary and good things. But none of that can overturn the dictates of love. Instead, we read the Bible through the lens of love. When we confront injustice that seems to be supported by the Bible, we look for other texts, counter principles in the Book. When we read through the lens of love, the Bible becomes a priceless tool in our effort to cooperate with God in the cause of mercy and humanity.

In Luke 10, a theologian asks Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“That's easy,” Jesus answered. “What does the law say?”

“Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Right, Jesus said. “Do that and you will live.”

But it can't be that simple, can it? In my mind, I can hear the theologian protesting, But what about circumcision and Sabbath-keeping and sacrifices and avoiding adultery and not stealing? What about the sabbatical and jubilee years? I could imagine a theologian in that time and place asking those kinds of questions. But he doesn't. Instead, he asks the kind of question I would ask. “Who is my neighbor?”

I know the Bible tells me to love, to love God and to love my neighbor. And I understand loving God. But this neighbor thing. Who is my neighbor? How far are you going to push?

This is where the parallel between civic law and the Bible shows up.

If you search the Old Testament looking for an answer to this question you can easily find support for two very different answers to this question.

There are many passages that warn about the dangers of foreigners and outsiders and even Jewish people with wrong ideas. A couple of weeks ago we read here in this church, the passage in Deuteronomy 13 that says if you hear anyone suggest participation in false worship, it is your solemn obligation to out them and then to join the entire community in stoning them to death. You must do this even if the person in error is your spouse or your child or your best friend. The point of this command was to keep Israel pure, to prevent any contamination from outsiders. If we take this passage as definitive, our neighbors are only those who share with us in pure, true theology. Everyone else is an enemy.

On the other hand, we have passages like our Old Testament reading today. “You will always have poor people among you. So always be generous.”

The people of Israel were directed to set up six cities as special court cities. These courts were to provide ready access to judicial protection to any one—Jews and non-Jews, foreigners who had settled in the land and foreigners just passing through. Everyone was to have equal access to justice. (See Numbers 35).

So who is my neighbor? Whom am I obligated to love? Jewish people with pure lives and proper theology? Or all the people in the land—including poor people and foreigners? Which is it?

Jesus answered the theologian with a famous story.

A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. Somewhere along the road, thieves jump the man, rob him, beat him, and leave him for dead. Two Jewish people pass, both clergy. They do not render aid. They do not stop.

Then a Samaritan stops.

For his Jewish audience, this is a surprise. Samaritans are a despised people.

The Samaritan dresses the victim's wounds, loads him onto his donkey, and carries him to Jericho where he cares for him through the night and pays for his ongoing care at the inn.

When the theologian asked who is my neighbor, he was acknowledging the weight of the commandment. The divine law obliges us to love our neighbors as ourselves. True religion obliges us to devote ourselves to God in worship and to devote ourselves to our neighbors in service. But how far are we supposed to take that? It is a reasonable question.

On one of my desert trips, my car developed a heating problem when I was fifty miles from the nearest pavement. I could go only four or five miles before it would overheat. I had plenty of water with me. I would drive until the engine got hot, then stop and wait for it to cool off, then go again.

In the hours it took to reach the pavement, seven or eight cars passed me. Every car stopped. “You okay?” I laughed and explained. “You sure you have enough water?” they would always ask. “Yes. I'll be okay. I just have to take it slow.”

Now let's imagine this same problem developed on a busy highway. How many cars would stop? How many cars would pass? If we see a car stopped, we know we can't stop for every stop car or we would never get any where.

We cannot save everybody. So the theologian's question is reasonable. Who is my neighbor? Whom am I obliged to love?

It is a reasonable question, but it is not spiritually transformative.

The transforming question is: whom can I help? What can I do to help? Can I be a neighbor?

This applies to church. Who is worthy to be part of our church? It is a reasonable question. But it is not transformative.

A better question is how far can we go in extending the welcome of God? Whom can we serve, given our vision of love and our loyalty to the book. Are we going to use the book as a tool to exclude unworthy people or will we use the book to stretch ourselves, to be more radical as partners of God.

When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, the early Adventists faced the reality that sometimes law can be used to further injustice. The fugitive slave act required people in the north, both local law enforcement officials and ordinary citizens to assist in the apprehension of slaves who escaped from bondage in the South. The Bible supported slavery. The official law of the land defended slavery. But the principle of love said otherwise. What would Adventists do? I'm pleased to say Adventists publicly declared their intention to defy the law. They aided the slaves in their escapes. They refused to cooperate with the law and law enforcement officials in the practice of injustice.

May God give us courage and wisdom to continue to push forward in our twin devotions to the book and to God, to the law and to love. Let's pledge ourselves to cooperate with God in his radical generosity. Let's use law and the Bible as instruments of righteousness and never as weapons against the vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Secret Place

Manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, March 25, 2017

Texts: A Secret Place Psalm 91:1-12, 2 Samuel 22:2-3, Psalm 61:2-4,
Revelation 3:7-12

The LORD is my rock and my fortress.
He is my savior and my rock,
in him I find protection.
God is my shield,
the power that saves me.
He is my stronghold,
my refuge,
my savior.
2 Samuel 22:2-3

God is my rock.

Imagine a vast desert plain. Sand and rock fragments stretching away for miles. It's two in the afternoon. The air temperature is over a hundred degrees. The ground temperature—who knows? We've been trekking since sunrise. The water in our packs is warm. Our muscles are aching. But just a half mile away jutting up from the vast, bleak plain is an immense, angular bulk of limestone. We know that on the far side, facing north, there is a shallow cave and at the back of the cave there is a seep, a tiny spring.

We talk to our legs. We can do this. Come on boys. Don't fail us now. Fifteen minutes max and we will be there.

We make it to rock. We trudge around the west side, then into the shade on the north side, and finally step into the little cave. Ah! Loveliness beyond words. All the heat of the morning, the relentless glare, the desperate weariness in our legs--for now, gone. We rest in the shelter of the rock.

Safe. Secure. Okay. This is the vision of God, our rock.

I like the KJV language at the beginning of Psalm 91:
He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

I imagine that secret cave on the dark side of the rock. In that secret place there is always a cool shadow, protection from the fierce heat of desert sun. It's always there. It may take effort to find it. It may take struggle to get ourselves to that secret place, that hidden sanctuary. But we know it is there. Waiting. Hope for the rest in that place sustains us in our journey.

God is our rock and fortress.
God is our secret place, our sanctuary.

Another Psalm:

From the ends of the earth, I cry to you for help when my heart is overwhelmed.
Lead me to the towering rock of safety,
for you are my safe refuge, a fortress where my enemies cannot reach me.
Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings! Psalm 61:2-4

The towering rock of safety. A fortress where my enemies cannot reach me.

Let's imagine again that great rock surrounded by vast miles of hot sand and jagged rocks. In this vision, the sun is till beating down. The heat is oppressive like it was in the first vision. But now let's add salt bush and creosote bushes and rattlesnakes lurking in the bushes and behind rocks. We have to watch every step. If we sit down we have to keep our eyes open for scorpions. Then there are the flies. Big, biting flies. We are constantly on the alert. We slap your neck if there is the slightest wrinkle of breeze on our skin, thinking it is a fly landing.

Enemies. This desert place is actively hostile. This is no leisurely Sabbath afternoon walk. It is a daring traverse of a terrifying landscape.

We dream of the shade of the rock. And of the dark cave away from the flies. We dream of the smooth bare slick rock where there are no hiding places for scorpions, no danger of unseen snakes.

Finally, we are there. We clamber up the toe of the massive limestone and into the secret place, the sanctuary. And sure enough, there are no flies. No scorpions. No rattlesnakes. The cave is a clean, cool alcove. We drop our packs and rest.

Keep that picture in mind as we read again the words of Psalm 61.

From the ends of the earth, I cry to you for help when my heart is overwhelmed.
Lead me to the towering rock of safety,
for you are my safe refuge, a fortress where my enemies cannot reach me.
Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings! Psalm 61:2-4

Sitting there safe and secure in the sanctuary in the rock we never want to leave. “Let me live here forever!”

The LORD is my rock and my fortress.
He is my savior and my rock,
in him I find protection.
God is my shield,
the power that saves me.
He is my stronghold,
my refuge,
my savior.

This is faith. This is our song, the foundation of our worship. God is our rock. Our refuge. Our fortress providing shelter from the enemies. Our sanctuary.

I have friends whose lives are touching testimonies to power of this faith. People who stubbornly practice compassion and integrity and do so out of the strength they cultivate by frequenting the secret place in the Rock of God. The service they give in this world is fueled by their connection with another world. They regularly take refuge in God and from that refuge go again and again into the real world to offer aid and service.

I'm reading a book now by a writer whose focus is social justice—or I should say, social injustice. Frequently, he reminds his readers that he rejects all magic—and he means by that  primarily religion. His parents were not religious. He is not religious. He sees religion as mere fancy, as magic in the dismissive sense of the word.

While there is much to admire in his hardheaded, clear-eyed confrontation with the reality of human failing, human evil, I am struck with the bleakness of his world. He measures his strength against the magnitude of injustice and oppression and the comparison leaves him puny, vulnerable, impotent.

This bleak vision is understandable. Even reasonable.

I imagine him trudging across the vast, barren desert populated by rattlesnakes, scorpions, and biting flies. Pushing forward is the only option. There is no resting place. And he has no certain goal, no confidence that there even is a refuge, a shelter. I respect his courage. But it seems to me the trip is better with hope.

Many of us have also found ourselves trudging across a bleak, hostile landscape. It's tough. I do not, for one second make light of the difficulties. I don't make light of the pain. Still, I honor those who have found fresh courage precisely because of their certainty that

The LORD is my rock and my fortress.
He is my savior and my rock,
in him I find protection.
God is my shield,
the power that saves me.
He is my stronghold,
my refuge,
my savior.

It is our privilege as the community of Jesus, as a fellowship devoted to the kingdom of heaven to keep alive this hope.

As I was writing this on Thursday afternoon, Karin called from home with news about one of our neighbors. The husband is a logger. He and I joke together about our women's—our wives' and daughters' obsession with horses. And work together to enable their obsession. He is strong and competent. He earns a good living. . . .

Or did. . . .

A few weeks ago he was diagnosed with an aggressive, incurable cancer. The prognosis is dark and brief. Already he is unable to work.

Suddenly, they have entered a desert. The wife has always gotten her health insurance through her husband's employment. But now, he is unemployed, unemployable. Their life has been based on two incomes. Now there is only one. They had plans for the future that included good health for both of them. That future no longer exists.

They have entered a vast, bleak landscape where navigation is uncertain and the risks are large and menacing.

The wife is a person of faith. She thanks God for a few blessings that have come her way in this catastrophe. She is going to need more blessings. She is sure God will sustain her—and them. She's going to need the help, no doubt about it. The earthly rock in her life—her husband—is not a rock any more.

The rock of financial security is gone.

The rock of health insurance is gone.

The rock of an expected future is gone.

Our friends are facing a difficult traverse. She will do better because she has learned to take refuge in the secret place. Her life is conditioned by sweet communion with God.

God is not a substitute for health insurance and income and living people. We need to do what we can to care for one another, to make sure all have access to ordinary necessities. Still, no matter how well we arrange our personal lives and our life together as a society, we come to the end of our resources and we find ourselves in the desert.

In the last few weeks I've participated in funerals for people who died too soon, people who had not lived out their years. Families thrust suddenly into the desert of grief and loss.

In both cases, the families found a measure of help in navigating this stark, bleak desert in the Great Rock of God.

I am reminded of the words of Isaiah 25:

You, O Lord, are a tower of refuge for the poor,
a tower of refuge for the needy in distress.
You are a refuge from the storm and a shelter from the heat.
You are as the shade of a cloud cooling relentless.

In Jerusalem, the LORD of Heaven's Armies will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet. God he will remove the shroud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth.
He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign LORD will wipe away all tears.

There are many small places of refuge in our world.

Money in a savings account.
A happy marriage.
Healthy kids.
A good job, a solid career.
Good health.
Health insurance for those times when our health fails.

These are all wonderful assets. We are glad for them. But the day will come when every one of these wonderful assets will fail. Money, health, happiness, friends—nothing lasts forever in this world. Our lives end. Or the lives of those we love and count on.

That is when it is most precious to have the words of the prophets alive in our minds.

God will remove the shroud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth.

God is my rock and fortress
He is my savior and my rock
in him I find protection
God is my shield
the power that saves me.
God is my stronghold
my refuge
my savior.

I will add a gentle word of exhortation here.

One implication of this picture of God as the Rock is the reality that to enjoy the benefit, we have to move. When we speak of God as shepherd, we imagine God out in the wilderness searching for the lost sheep. When we picture God as father or mother, we imagine God actively anticipating or providing for the needs of the children—like any good parent would. The focus in these metaphors is divine initiative, divine intention. God moves. God goes searching.

When we picture God as a Rock, it is clear that we must take initiative. We must hike across the vast open plain to taste the bliss of that secret cave with the hidden spring. We must climb up onto the smooth, blessed heights of the great limestone monolith. There is something for us to do.

We can bring ourselves closer to the solace and wisdom available in God. There are concrete, specific actions we can take. I will even go so far as to say, we MUST take, if we want to taste fully the blessings available to us in the divine rock.

If we want the richest available communion with God, a communion that will guide us and sustain us even through loss and disappointment and catastrophe, there are necessary habits: Sabbath-keeping, worship, Bible reading, music, prayer, meditation, contemplation, acts of generosity and compassion. The consolation of faith and the energy of hope is most richly available to those who build habits of communion with God.

These habits do not draw God to us. We don't imagine that if we engage in some particular religious practice that God will become more kindly disposed to us. But we know that these habits do bring us closer to God. They open us to the sustaining power of God. These habits make a difference for us. They become the secret places of rest and renewal as we traverse the world.

When we make these behaviors habitual, when we come back to them over and over and over again, we take ourselves ever deeper into the sheltered place in the lee of the Great Rock. We become more and more at ease in the company of God.

As we practice these habits of communing with God, the Rock will become our home, sweet home.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Damn My Son

Damn My Son

This story is fiction

And it is true.

Chapter One

Tomorrow, I will damn my son. It will be the worst moment of my life. Even worse than last Thursday. That's when we got the phone call. Eric was on his way home from work. A tree fell. Crushed his car. He was dead instantly. How do you think about living when your oldest son is dead? Every time I push my grandson in the swing, I'll think about his daddy who isn't there. Every time Sienna crawls into my lap, I'll be reminded of the father she'll know only through photos and stories. Thursday was the worst day of my life. But tomorrow will be worse. Infinitely worse. Tomorrow I will have to acknowledge there is no hope. Eric is damned.

I won't say the words, “Damn you, Eric!” Of course not. I won't even say the more polite version, “Eric is lost.” It will be unspoken. My parishioners are unlikely to hear it. I'm sure my relatives and friends won't. But Tom will be there. And he will hear. He will know what sits behind every word I say or don't say. I wish he were not going to be there. But he can no more stay away than I can ask him not to come. With him listening I cannot escape. Either I confirm that Eric is lost—excluded from eternal life, barred from heaven, consigned to hell, damned—or admit that what I have preached in this congregation for the past twenty years, and believed in the core of my being for the past forty, is unsure. I will have to deny the gospel or damn my son.

Eric was not a believer. He no longer no longer believed the truth that he was a hell-bound sinner and that had Jesus died for his sins and offered him salvation. My son rejected the words of Scripture that declared there is eternal life only for those who “believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Absent that belief humans, including my son, are lost—or to use the older, bolder word—damned.

I lived in hope all those years. When Eric told us he did not believe, I resolved to love him more richly than ever. I would show him God's love. I would win him back for God through the richest, sweetest demonstration of grace I could provide. Every morning, every evening, Margie and I prayed for our kids and then for our grandkids, claiming them for Jesus. We knew it was just a matter of time. Jesus would win. Eric would recover his faith. He had always been such a good kid. I remember when he was eight years old. In front of the church, he recited recited the Sabbath School memory verses for an entire quarter, thirteen selected passages from the Bible. As he got older, his teachers at school loved him. Well, most of the time. In high school we used to talk about what he heard in Bible class. I didn't always agree with his Bible teachers. Some of them had fuzzy concepts of the gospel. But Eric got it. He understood the truth of the Cross. He knew there was salvation only in Jesus, that it was through faith in his name that we stand righteous in the sight of a holy God. Eric knew that. Eric knew we do not earn our way to heaven. We don't work our way out of damnation. Salvation, heaven, eternal life—they are the gifts of God, given generously to all who believe. And Eric believed.

My son left home for college a believer. He went to Walla Walla University, an Adventist college. During his college years he became more aware of intellectual challenges to faith. Of course. He read Christian authors who implied that Paul contradicted Jesus. He was exposed to skeptical critiques of the authority of the Bible. But through all this he was supported in his faith by devout, competent teachers. He and his friends went to church, at least most of the time. He didn't have the fiery confidence in the gospel he had as a kid, but still he was in church and, I was confident, still a believer in the gospel. He was saved.

Then he was out of school, living in Seattle. He and his girlfriend moved in together. I was shocked. This was my Eric? He knew what Margie and I thought about this, but we were careful not to say too much. We just loved them. God was bigger than this. In addition to “living in sin,” they didn't go to church. I asked about church, thinking if I could just get him connected with the right congregation, he and Jenn would reconnect. No, he said. There was nothing wrong with the local congregations. Church didn't speak to him. It didn't add any value to their lives. The way he saw it, church was an artificial environment designed to keep alive outdated ways of thinking that couldn't survive on their own in the real world. He figured God was more concerned with justice than with doctrine. And the church people had the other way round. That hurt. I've been committed to social justice all my life.

Once when I pressed him a bit, pointing out the role of Christians in the fight for abolition and the effort to save unborn babies that are being killed by the millions through abortion, he blurted out, “Look, Dad, it's not just church. God just doesn't make sense anymore.”

“Are you saying you're an atheist?” I asked.

He didn't want to talk about it. So what could I do?

I did what any parent would do. I loved him. I hoped. I prayed. He was still the same good son I had always known. At work people admired him. He was smart, honest, and cared about people. He and Jenn married. She's a good woman. She, too, grew up in the church. She went to the Adventist university in Walla Walla. She was smart. Maybe even smarter than Eric. And she didn't believe. They weren't mad at the church. They were just not interested. They didn't feel any need. She was a social worker and served the homeless at an agency in Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle. She had a soft heart. I figured when they had kids, they would come back to church.

But they didn't. Brayden was now four years old and Sienna was two. The kids were completely irreligious. They heard about Jesus only when we read to them. Eric and Jenn let me say grace at meals when we visited them. But God walked out the door of their house with us.

Still I hoped. We hoped. We prayed morning and evening. Confident. Some day, Eric would come back to faith. God would bring him back. God would save my son. How could he not?

Chapter Two

I'm still replaying the phone call over and over. Jenn was on the phone. “Dad,” she said, “Eric is dead.” He had picked up Sienna from day care and they were headed home. Wind was toppling trees and snapping power lines all over the Seattle. Eric and Sienna were three blocks from home when the tree came down and crushed the roof of their Hyundai over the front seats. The paramedics said he was killed instantly. Sienna in the back seat was unscathed. Weird. I can still hear Jenn's voice. Her words sounded so normal. But what she said was so bizarre, so unreal. There should be a different set of words for saying things like that, maybe an entirely different language. Regular words seemed to mock the very facts they were announcing. I keep thinking regular reality is going to wake me up. I'm going hear words that will set the world back in order.

And now, tomorrow, I'm supposed to put together words for the funeral. I'm supposed to use regular words, the language we all understand, to make sense of this—what? Tragedy? Cruelty? Accident? Random event? Act of God? What words can I possibly use that will not become lies simply by saying them out loud?

I wish I could have someone else do the service. Let someone who still lives in the regular world struggle with putting words together. But I know my congregation expects me to preach. It's what I do--putting words around the big events—births and marriages, catastrophes and holidays, and farewells, deaths. For twenty years my people have counted on me to proclaim the truth, God's truth, in the face of all the ups and downs of life, through catastrophes and times of blessing. My job—no, my calling—is to proclaim the Word. Above all, I am called to preach The Gospel. This has been the one constant, the immovable anchor, the grand and noble fact that dwarfs all other concerns, all other claims for forty years. Since the day God appeared to me like Paul on the Road to Damascus.

It was the summer after my junior year at the University of Maryland. The Vietnam War was on. The world was crazy. We were crazy. I joined a few marches. I made noises about justice and peace. But really, I was just doing my own thing. I wasn't doing “seriously bad stuff.” Nothing worth talking about. Nothing remarkable for that time and place. Playing women for my pleasure. A little alcohol, a little pot. A lot of me. I didn't want to hurt anyone. It was just that I was smack in the center of my own little universe. I took care of ME [should be name].

If you had asked me, I would have told you I was a Christian. Of course. I had gone to church all my life. My friends were Christian. We all believed in God and the Bible and salvation and the Ten Commandments. I was even Christian enough to have twinges of conscience occasionally. Especially when a girl cried when I broke up with her. I didn't like hurting people.

Then on an afternoon in July, I was at the Smithsonian Museum of Art. I was struck by the incongruity of the classical artists painting with equal passion and mastery scenes of Greek gods and Mary and the crucified Christ. Did art make no distinction between myth and truth? Was the Bible just one more word, one more story, in the vast library of human tales?

I walked out into blinding sun, crossed to the mall and sat looking down toward Lincoln's tomb. Suddenly out of nowhere, I saw a vision. I saw Jesus hanging on the cross. He looked right at me and asked, “Why did you do it?” I was puzzled. Then I saw myself pounding the nails into his hands. I felt the hammer in my hands. I was shaking. First with rage at this man who had so troubled me, then with tears. I looked at my hands. These hands? These lifted the hammer? I knew it was true. Jesus did not just die for me. I killed him. But it was necessary. It was either him or me. And when it came down to that, well, I would always do whatever it took to take care of myself. If one of us had to be nailed, it would have to be him. I don't know how the choice became so suddenly stark that afternoon on the Mall. It was as real as the trees in my front yard, as real as the desk in my office. I was there. I felt the hammer. I heard his voice. His eyes held mine. I could either own my sin and guilt, acknowledge the hammer in my hand, and then let it go into the grace that flowed from the cross or I could deny it. I could protest my innocence and keep the hammer in my hand.

I can't tell this story. People would think I'm crazy. It's not credible. No one else at the mall that afternoon saw and heard. It was completely subjective, inward. But to speak honestly of my experience—it was real. And my entire life since then is the outworking of that moment.

I have friends who preach the gospel because they have clearly understood the writings of the Apostle Paul. They know that Jesus Christ died for sinners. They know that our guilt has been laid on the Lamb of God, that through faith in the name of Jesus we are freed from guilt and condemnation and brought into eternal life. They know this from the text of the Bible. They are scholars. In seminary they mastered Greek and became knowledgeable in systematic theology. They are well-schooled in the Gospel, well-equipped to preach the Word. I am honored to be part of their company.

I, too, know the words of Paul in English and in Greek. I, too, have read the works of the Protestant reformers and of modern scholars like Stott and Piper and Platinga and Wright. I appreciate scholarship. I pay supreme respect to the text of the Bible, God's Word. But my gospel is not the fruit of scholarship alone. Jesus appeared to me personally. My skeptical friends can offer all kinds of psychological explanations of what happened that day. But I know in the very core of my being, I know in a place deeper than words can reach, that Jesus came to me, Jesus called me that day. And I have been true to that calling. I have been true to the gospel. It is the treasure which has defined my life.

Against all the modern dilutions and distortions, I have insisted that God meant what he said when he spoke through the Apostle Paul, “It is by grace through faith that you are saved.” “There is none righteous, no not one.” “Other than Jesus, there is no other name under heaven which brings salvation.” “If a man believes in his heart and confesses with his mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord he will be saved.” I did not invent these words. I received them. God spoke them in the Good Book by the Apostle Paul, yes, and God confirmed them to me personally in that almost unspeakable vision on the Mall.

So tomorrow, like I have so many times before in rooms full of grieving people, I will preach the gospel, the good news that Jesus offers eternal life to all who believe. Death is not the end for those who believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord. Resurrection is coming. Death will die.

But where does that leave my son? I have not pretended my family was perfect. My congregation and I together have prayed for the salvation of our children. They have known that Eric was not a believer. They assured me they, too, were praying for his return to faith. Like they prayed for their own children. They, too, have joined me in loving him and hoping. But in our hope and love we have never denied the gospel. We have never pretended faith was optional, that there was some other way of salvation besides faith in the name of Jesus Christ. We always encouraged one another that it was God's will to save and that God was working always to rekindle faith in the heart of our children. God would win. God would bring our children back. We prayed with stubborn confidence.

But Eric died last Thursday. Unbelieving. God failed. Eric did not return. Eric did not confess. Eric was lost, damned.

Tomorrow, like any decent preacher I will speak of hope, but if I am true to the gospel, that hope is for other people. Not for me. Not for Eric. If I imply that the promise of resurrection includes Eric, I will be no different from Joel Osteen or any other preacher who has traded in the Gospel for some feel-good substitute. If I give myself hope tomorrow, it will prove that I believed the gospel only as long as I thought it would work out right for my kids. Love for my kids will have superseded the Word of God as my final authority. If Tom weren't here maybe I could waffle a little, give myself at least some room to ignore the implications of the gospel. But Tom will hear. And because he is listening, I will hear my own words and know what they mean. Tomorrow I will have to damn my son to save the Gospel. But how can I do it?

O Eric, my son, my son. If only I could be the one destined for hell and you be assured salvation, I would do it in an instant.

Chapter Three

The doorbell is ringing. It's Tom. I don't know if I have the courage to face him. With everyone else, and even with myself, I can manage a certain amount of pretending, a certain amount of ignoring. I can imagine it was all a bad dream. The phone is going to ring and it will be Eric on the line, alive, not Jenn asking about another detail of life in the aftermath of death. I tell myself that on that afternoon as Eric was driving to day care to pick up Sienna, Jesus appeared to him and in the moment of that glorious vision Eric said yes to Jesus, like I did forty years ago. Eric believed. How can a dad not hope such things? How can a preacher of the Gospel fail to hope such things? But I know when I open the front door all that fantasy will vanish.

Tom hugged me. Long. I could feel his own agony in our embrace. With his hand he pulled my head onto his shoulder like I was a woman. And I sobbed. Still he held me. Then we wandered into the kitchen. He embraced Margie. Held her. After long minutes we sat. Margie asked if she could get him something to drink. Some tea maybe? She put water on. We chitchatted. Margie asked about his kids and grandkids. He asked about our other kids, deliberately avoiding Eric. But even those questions were delicate. It's not been easy. Sometimes believing children go places with their faith that seem unwise, unbalanced. And when faith—whatever its formal language—when faith walls off grandkids, it hurts. Still, with living children we have the solace of hope. There is time to fix things. Time for healing. The stories are not finished.

Margie set cups on the table for Tom and me, and a box of tea bags and honey and spoons, then excused herself. “I'll leave you guys to talk.”

We sat. Forty years of friendship between us. Forty years of connection. Every time I had been in the hospital he had been there. When I nearly left Margie, he was there screaming, No! When he lost William at birth, he called me. When he considered leaving the ministry, or was simply frustrated, he called me. When he got too big for his britches, when he became too infatuated with himself, it was my job to hint that maybe he was a naked emperor. (I've heard him say this to other people about me a dozen times, mocking himself, honoring me.) I was the voice in his head arguing against the arrogance of liberalism and scientism. (Again, this is what he says.)

I knew his mind. He knew everything I thought. What was there to say? What words could possibly be adequate for this? We sipped our tea. And sat. Together.

After awhile he asked me to tell him the story. He had heard bits and pieces, he said. But he couldn't get his head around it. What happened?

I told him. About the storm, which he already knew. It knocked down trees in his yard. About the drive to day care. About the tree: one hundred twenty-three feet tall, thirty-eight inches in diameter, five tons of weight. About the car. About the surgical precision, front seat crushed, back seat untouched. How quickly aid arrived. The impossibility of resuscitation. Jenn's call from the hospital.

He didn't say a word. He sat, head in his hands, listening.

“My grandkids didn't have God,” I said. “And now they don't have Dad.” My story ended. He glanced up. Shook his head, then dropped it again into his hands. “My God, my God,” he murmured, “why have you forsaken us?”

We sat silent.

“What am I supposed to say tomorrow?” I asked. “Do I turn my own son into one of those freaky sermon illustrations--he could have been saved, he was going to be saved, he was almost saved but then he was hit by a car, well, or by a tree, and now it's too late. So, listen up, everybody. Repent before it is too late. Don't leave this funeral without accepting Jesus as your Savior. Don't leave without believing in your heart and confessing with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord. Do I turn the tragedy of Eric's death into a triumph of the gospel by using his damnation as inspiration for some other sinner to repent and believe?”

It was a stupid question. I would never do such a thing. We both knew that. But it was the question my heart kept asking.

Tom said nothing.

“How do I live without hope? I've preached the gospel for 40 years. It is God's word. Paul's word. And my own experience. But the gospel has always included hope. Yes, there were the hard edges of truth, there is no other name, he who does not believe is condemned already, but those truths were addressed to people who could yet say yes to the Gospel. How do I live with no hope?”

Tom sat. Listened. Carried the weight of all this craziness. He raised his head, looked at me. I'm sorry friend, his eyes said. Then again he dropped his head into his hands. Keeping me company.

“My son, Eric. Oh my son, Eric. Would to God I had died in your place.” It was his mouth speaking, voicing aloud the cry of my heart, echoing the three-thousand-year-old lament of King David. He meant them as words for me, but they were his words, too. He would have willingly taken the tree in Eric's place, if God would offer such an exchange. He would have taken the tree to spare Eric. He would have taken the tree to spare me. His own hold on life is more tenuous than mine. He would have made the trade. Maybe he would have even taken Eric's damnation, but that confronted me with the question I had dreaded from the moment I thought about Tom showing up at my door, the question he had not once hinted at since he arrived, but which had screamed louder in my own head every minute that he said nothing, every minute he kept company with me in my grief.

“You don't think Eric is lost, do you?”

Chapter Four

Tom is messed up. I love him. But he's messed up. Going way back he has always had questions. He argued with professors in seminary. He argued with his friends. He fretted about problems in the Bible.
I remember just a few years after seminary talking to him about creation. He loved rocks. Was always reading about creation and evolution and the age of the earth and stuff like that. He had come back from a geology field trip saying our creation doctrine could not stand up to close scrutiny. I remember thinking if he can't believe it we're doomed. If with all his study he couldn't find enough evidence to allow for the Bible story of creation, what hope was there for regular people?

But then he was always troubled about something. Even the Gospel. He was always worrying about the exceptional people, severely disabled people—how could they believe? How could they be condemned for not believing? He wanted to save everybody, the pagans in Asia before the missionaries got there, people with mental problems, babies who died in infancy, atheists whose lack of faith could be attributed to abuse they experienced from church people. I admire his heart, but I worry about his—what should I call it—irreverence? Lack of faith? Arrogance?

A year with a homosexual housemate, was the foundation of another set of questions. How could it be right to require of others something—celibacy—that we—ordinary married clergy—could never contemplate for ourselves. When I asked him if he really trusted human stories more than the word of God, that stopped him. He wasn't willing to go that far. Not then. But that was decades ago. I'm not sure how he would answer now. I think he has less faith now. More questions. When we talk, he asks questions. He listens. He agrees with me when I protest against examples of extreme liberal thinking, but I can't think of when I last heard him express a straightforward theological opinion. Well, except for last summer.

I was fretting over Eric and Jenn. How could they raise my grandkids without Jesus, without any religion, any spiritual sense at all? I worried my grandkids would not be in heaven. Tom acknowledged my grief, but something in the way he responded made me question him. “You don't think atheists will be lost?”

“I'm a lawyer for the defense,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I can get them off. If I were admitted to the court on judgment day, I could get them off. At least I could make an argument that would get a hearing in court. And if it didn't get a hearing, I think I would prefer hell to any place where my case would not be heard.”

“You think people can be saved even if they have rejected faith?” I couldn't believe what I just heard him say.

“Five times in the Bible humans argue with God and win. Five times deity bends to the will and words of humanity. And four out of the five, the human argument is ratified by the subsequent story. The way the Bible tells it, the humans not only get their way, they are right. Abraham argued to save Sodom from the destruction God announced. The old man failed to save the city, but God bent to the heart of Abraham's argument and sent angels to rescue the four “good people” that could be identified.

“God announced his decision to annihilate Israel after they worshiped the golden calf. God ordered Moses to step aside so the annihilation could begin. Moses bluntly refused, and God backed down. Then there's the curious case of the Gibbeonites. God included them in a general decree of annihilation for all Canaanites. They tricked Joshua into making a treaty with them. When the deception became public, Joshua's army insisted he obey the divine decree and obliterate them. Joshua withstood his army. He protected the Gibbeonites. And a later story in the Bible emphatically declares God's approval of Joshua's defense. Then my favorite. The Canaanite woman who came to Jesus asking for help for her daughter. Jesus and the disciples tried to get rid of her. Jesus explicitly told her that he was not authorized to help her. She was outside his divinely-appointed mission. She said, 'Do it any way.' And Jesus acquiesced, saying, 'Okay woman, may it be as you will.' As Christians, we can read this passage as God saying, Not my will but yours be done.

“Sodom was a bad town. The Israelites were idolaters. The Gibbeonites were under a highly publicized divine order of extinction. Jesus himself said God had not authorized him to help the Canaanite woman. But four Sodomites were saved. The nation of Israel and the Gibeonites were spared. The woman received the help she wanted. All good precedents for a defense lawyer.

“Classic Christianity can cite chapter and verse in their prosecution of unbelievers. It's easy to make the case for damnation. But I am a lawyer for the defense. The only plea bargain I will accept is one that leaves my clients alive. Our kids are damnable unbelievers according to the religion of Luther and Augustine and Paul and our church. I defy them all. God will not damn our children. If he does, I go with them. I have no interest in heaven if it is not large enough for our kids.”

I still remember the shock of his words. He blew off the heart of the gospel, two thousand years of Christian theology. No interest in heaven unless heaven included his children? No bowing to God unless God welcomed his children? It was blasphemy. But even in his arrogance, Tom wasn't really capable of blasphemy. He wasn't shaking his fist at God, he just would not let go of his kids. And “his kids” included my Eric. But wasn't that idolatry?

I didn't know what to say. I think Margie came into the room and we used that as an excuse to break our conversation and talk of other, safer stuff.

A week or so later I asked about the idolatry thing. “Tom, you said you had no interest in being in heaven with God unless your children were there. Forgive me for asking, but isn't that idolatry?”

“Yes.” He wrote back. “You could say that. But again, as a lawyer for the defense, let me offer a different take. The dominant metaphor in the Bible for God is father. In the synoptics, every use of the word “father” evokes the picture of a provident, generous, competent daddy. God the Father is the one you run to not away from. In the story of the Prodigal Son, in the end the father has welcomed both sons, and his final words to the older son who is resisting his welcome are, 'Son everything that I have is yours.' Not will be or might be or could be. There is no “if.” Simply, everything I have is yours. This father would rather die than lose his son. So when I say I prefer damnation with my kids to salvation without them, how am I acting any different from the divine Father as pictured in the stories of Jesus? I know the other passages, the Bible texts cited in support of the idea that the God will ultimately fail to save most of his children. All my life I've listened to good people explain how it is that the God of love will be forced by “justice” or “the sovereignty of human choice” to damn most of his children. I've made those arguments myself. But that was before I signed on as a lawyer for the defense. What kind of defense attorney would I be if I took only cases that were easy? If standing with my kids all the way through the verdict is idolatry, then I will accept condemnation as an idolater. What kind of father would I be if I accepted a salvation that excluded my kids? If we are all damned, so be it. But I will never stand in heaven and agree to the damnation of my kids.”

Chapter Five

That was two years ago. We have talked less since then. There's no animosity, but I have been uncertain how to talk. How do you stretch a friendship as close as ours across a chasm this wide? When push comes to shove Tom will choose his kids over God. He will choose an emotional affection over the truth of the gospel. How do you discuss theology after that?

Oh sure, we still talk occasionally. Keep up on what the kids and grandkids are doing. He has sympathized with us as our Nashville kids have wrapped themselves deeper and deeper in the cult they joined. I am deeply perplexed. I was so pleased when our son-in-law began providing real spiritual leadership in their family. They were going to a church where the Gospel was preached. God's word was taken seriously. Grace was exalted. Sin was rebuked. He became an elder and devoted hours to Bible study. Then his church wasn't pure enough. They joined another, smaller congregation. Then the preacher there wasn't careful enough in his exegesis. Then we, Margie and I, became suspect. The son-in-law did not want us to spend time in their home. If we visited, we stayed in a motel and came for dinner when both parents were present (and he could monitor and dilute our influence). It broke our hearts. Tom cried with us. He listened and sympathized without condemning our kids or second guessing us.

Margie and I fretted with him over one of his grandsons. His muscles were refusing to develop properly. They had taken him to every possible specialist, run every test. Still, no firm diagnosis. No prognosis. Just worry. Endless wondering and fretting. Shared pain among friends.

But we stayed away from theology. And for preachers not to be able to talk theology puts a strain on things. Sometimes I couldn't help myself and I would share with him some of my concerns about the swelling secularity of American culture, about the assimilation of the Christian church to the values and mores of left-falling America. He usually agreed with my concerns, but I couldn't tell what he actually thought. It sounded to me like he was simply being agreeable, finding something in my words he could affirm. And all time I was wondering does he still have greater loyalty to his kids than to God?

Is he a Christian? Is he saved?

But, of course, this evening that's not what I'm worried about. Tom is not the center of the service tomorrow.

“You don't think Eric is lost, do you?”

There. I said it.

“Dave, I know the gospel has saved your life and given you your ministry.” Tom said. “I know God called you. I don't want to take away from that. In your hands, the Gospel is a tool for giving hope, an instrument of healing and peace. You have blessed hundreds, thousands, with your preaching. You are a beautiful man, a beautiful preacher.

“Still, I don't think God will damn his grandchildren. Especially, if their only fault is failing to believe the correct theory regarding the death of Jesus. I regard Paul's gospel as a metaphor, one picture people can use to help themselves imagine God forgiving and embracing them. But I think God is bigger than the Gospel. God's hands are not tied by the Gospel—as we understand it or even as the Apostle Paul understood it. I think mercy and justice are greater than the theories of the Apostle. I think God is very much like you. You would unhesitatingly give your life to save your son or grandkids from some earthly calamity. And which of your kids would you damn, if the judgment were placed completely in your hands? If God set up an execution—an electrocution—and put the switch in your hands and told you to push it when you were ready to damn you son, how soon could you bring yourself to push the button?”

In the story of Job, there is this curious bit right at the beginning of the tale. Job had ten kids. They had regular parties. When a party was over, the Bible says that Job would offer sacrifices to purify his kids, just in case they had secretly committed a sin in their heart during the feast. The plain reading of the text means that Job's actions were efficacious. When he was done with the sacrifice, his children were, in fact, pure in the eyes of God. The kids themselves did nothing. They did not confess or repent or believe. They were purified by the magnanimous competence of their father. Is God any less magnanimous? And less competent? I think God will find a way to save our children.

Tom looked at the clock. “I better get out here. You have a terrible day ahead of you.” He hugged me again. Fiercely. Long. Then was gone.

Chapter Six

It's midnight. Eleven hours till the service begins.

Oh Eric, Eric. Would to God I had died in your place. How can I let you go? What good is heaven without you? How will I learn to look at your mother and without seeing your eyes and tasting again the bitterness of your absence? How will I learn to look at my hands and not see your hands? How long will it take for heaven to quit torturing me every time I am reminded you are not there?

Damn Tom! He makes it so alluring. Heresy. Cheap grace. Watered down gospel. Human wisdom above the word of God. Tom makes it all sound so possible, so believable. But aren't all his fine words just sweet fantasy? The Bible is so clear.

Tom can't be right. Lawyer for the defense? Take all the best lawyers in the world and add them together; they are no match for the simple words of the Bible. It is by faith we are saved. There is no other name under heaven, given among men.

But then I replay Tom's words in my head. Of all the people in the gospels who were possessed by demons not one ever asked for help or expressed the least hint of faith. And not one was ever left unhelped. Jesus saved every one of them anyway. Why, Tom had asked, why would not God similarly cure atheists of their unfaith, in the great transformation, at the end when all are changed? Doesn't the Bible promise that everyone will be changed? Fixed? Who is so far gone that God cannot or will not fix them?
Could I be the Canaanite mother demanding help for my child who is not even present except in my demands for help? Would heaven bend to my will the way Jesus bent to that mother? Could I offer sacrifice for my son?

Oh Jesus, save my son. He could not save himself. He did not ask. So I am asking. Imploring. Begging. Insisting. Save my son. Damnation looms. Damnation is only word I know how to say, but please, save my son.