Saturday, February 6, 2016

Acts of Kindness

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church, Sabbath, February 6, 2016
Texts: 1 Kings 19:1-8 and Matthew 7:7-14

Katrina gave me a book for Christmas: Humans of New York. It's a collection of portraits and very short stories. One picture that calls me back repeatedly shows a man with one weird eye. It's not obvious to me just what is wrong with his eye, but clearly it's “different.”

Here is the story that goes with the photo:

I had just lost the sight in my right eye. It was terribly disorienting. It was hard to walk. I bumped into things. I bumped into a girl out in front of an ice cream shop and knocked her ice cream cone to the sidewalk.

She hollered at me. “What? Are you blind or something?”

I felt really bad. I'm sorry, I said. Really sorry. Actually I am blind. I didn't mean to bump into you. Let me buy you another cone.

Then she was sorry for hollering at me and protested, “No. That's all right. You don't have to.”

We walked into the shop and she ordered her cone.

“I heard the whole thing.” the clerk said. “Ice cream is free.”

Stuff happens in this world. People go blind. People bump into each other and ice cream cones get knocked to the ground. People misunderstand and get angry and holler. That's life. That's plain, ordinary, regular vanilla life. That's the way it goes.

Then someone apologizes and explains. Ah, that makes things better.

Then someone offers to buy a replacement cone. That makes things even better. It brings life back to even.

Then someone offers free ice cream and the universe is better than it was before. Not just better than it was when the cone flew out of her hand and hit the sidewalk. Better than when she bought the cone. Better than when she had her first lick.

That act of kindness by the shop clerk made the universe better than when she first imagined the pleasure of an ice cream cone.

The apology was sincere, certainly. But it was also required. If the blind man had failed to apologize he would have been a jerk. Sure, he didn't mean to bump into the girl with the cone. Still, he did. He owed her something. He owed her an apology.

And he owed her more. He owed her a replacement for her lost ice cream. So he did the right thing and brought his little piece of the universe back to even.

Then the shopkeeper offered free ice cream. It was not an obligation. He owed neither the girl nor the blind man. It was a gift. It was a pure act of kindness.

And the entire universe was made a little better, a little sweeter, a little more beautiful. That shopkeeper was cooperating in the deepest desire of God.

One of the most famous passages in the teachings of Jesus was featured in our New Testament reading this morning.

Ask, and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened for you. Everyone who asks receives. The one who seeks will find. For the person who knocks, the door will be opened.

These are wildly optimistic words. What was Jesus thinking? He went on to explain the basis for this hopeful declaration.

What mom or dad among you, if the kids ask for bread will instead give them a stone? And if your kids asks for a salmon, will you give them a rattlesnake?

If you, ordinary mortals with the ordinary frailties and dysfunctions of humanity—if you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask?

If you want to understand God look into your own heart as a parent. What would you not do for your kids? Just this week I was visiting with a couple of single guys. We were talking theology—what is God like. I suggested they imagine God as the father they wished they had had. “Don't imagine God as your father,” I said. “Imagine God as the father you would aim to be if you had kids.” Their faces lit up. They are good men. They know the kind of dads they would aim to be.

And that is what God is like. God delights in doing good for his children.
Because that is what God is like, Jesus argues, that is what you should be like. Since God is so generous and kind, you, too, should be generous and kind. What does this divine kindness look like?

Therefore whatever you wish people would do for you, that is what you should do for them. This is the moral core of everything the ancient prophets have written.

We are to do for others what we wish they would do for us because that is what God is like. God is generous. God delights in doing good for his children. And God is highly pleased when we do good for his children. When we practice acts of kindness we are bringing great pleasure to the heart of God. And when we have come to know God deeply, we take pleasure with God in doing acts of kindness. We know the pleasure of God in our own pleasure in doing good.

Be kind.

I am not talking about grand, heroic actions. I'm not talking about running into burning buildings. I'm not talking about tackling a gunman. I'm talking about cultivating the habit of doing little acts of kindness.

Karin often prays in the morning, asking God to show her someone that needs a kindness that day. And, she tells me, it seems that when she prays that prayer, opportunities present themselves.

A driver ends up in the wrong lane and needs someone to all him to turn across two lanes to get where he needs to go.

Someone in front of you in the grocery line is a few dollars short and is trying to figure out which item can wait for another day.

The woman waiting your table today at lunch is working Saturdays only because her kid is sick and her insurance deductible is more than she makes in a month. So she's working extra shifts. And you double or triple her tip. It won't break your budget. You won't even remember doing it. But she will.

We can cultivate an eye for opportunities to perform small acts of kindness. And in so doing enter a deeper, richer communion with God.

Jesus does not stop with simply directing us to show kindness. He warns against failing to show kindness.

Go through the narrow gate. Wide is the gate and broad the path that heads toward destruction. Hordes of people rush that direction. But narrow is the gate and skinny the path that leads to life. Only the elite find it.

What does it mean to be a Christian, to live the Christ life? It means to do to others as you would have them do to you. It means to speak of others as you would have them speak of you.

It means ultimately joining God in regarding every human as kin.

We show kindness—the obligation of kinship—to every human. And as we do, we find ourselves partnering with God.

Our Old Testament reading today recounted a favorite story.

The prophet Elijah had done a heroic, daring exploit for God. The next day was payback time. Wicked Queen Jezebel was going to kill him. So he ran for his life. A couple of days into the run, he finally runs out of gas. He lies down exhausted physically, utterly spent emotionally.

He prays, “God let me die” and sinks into a deep sleep.

Sometime later, an angel wakes him up. To his astonishment, Elijah sees some food cooking over a fire and a jug of water. He eats the food, drains the jug of water and collapses back into sleep.

Hours later, an angel wakes him again. And again there is food on the campfire and water in a jug.

Elijah eats and drinks.

And in the strength of that food continues his run.


Years ago I read a book by a guy named Peter Jenkins, called Walk Across America. Fairly early in his walk he was in West Virginia or in the mountains of Virginia. He had gotten sick. It was cold and raining. He was miserable and exhausted. He was walking up a hill that went forever. And ever and ever. He was hungry. He was out of food and could hardly wait to get to the next town to resupply.

A car came up beside him. The driver rolled down his window and greeted him. And offered him a ride. Peter writes how tempting it was. He could see the warm air wafting out of the window. He could see the happy, comfortable people in the car. But the whole point of the project was to walk all the way. If he took this ride, why not just take rides the whole way. He had to say no. But it was hard. Finally, he thanked the driver and said no thanks.

The van started up got a hundred yards up the road and then stopped and backed up. When he came even with Peter the driver rolled down his window again and extended his arm. In his hand a big apple.

Peter took the apple. The car drove off.

Peter took a bite of the apple. It was heaven.

Peter writes how that simple act transformed that afternoon. It became a metaphor for the kindness he encountered over and over and over again as he hiked 4000 miles down the east coast then west across America.

It wasn't much in the great scheme of things. It was an apple. But that cold, hungry day on a lonely mountain road in Virginia it gave his legs and his soul new wings.

A simple act of kindness.

God give us the wisdom and the initiative to show kindness this week.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Still Our Son

I was called to the hospital by the chaplain's office. An Adventist family from far away was requesting an Adventist pastor. At the hospital, the chaplain gave me some details, and I headed to the ICU.

I met Dad and Mom and some friends of the patient. Dad gave me the barest details. Son had arrested five days earlier. The prognosis was grim. A miracle was the only hope. Would I be able to call an elder and perform an anointing. Yes, of course, I could.

Naturally, I asked questions. And learned almost nothing that I couldn't already see. The patient on life support was too young to die and too far gone not to. I searched for more, looking to add humanity to the body at the center of the machines. But Dad couldn't bring himself to say the story out loud. He did manage to tell me his son's profession. But even that was offered reluctantly. Was it because the son's profession was somehow linked with the other details? His departure from church years ago. The irreligious identities of the young people gathered in the room keeping vigil. None of this could be spoken because it seemed to lead directly to the darkest, most horrific truth : suicide. The patient had deliberately overdosed. 

Dad's religion had a category for "former Adventists" and suicides: Lost. Damned. "Not my people." I imagined Dad worrying how would this strange clergy respond to the horrible truth. Better to just leave it as a medical emergency. Standing there I longed to assure Dad that this young man was still "our son." Dad's son, yes, of course. And God's son. And therefore, the church's son. My son. The tragedy that brought us together did not break the family. Could not break the family. He's still our son.

We casually develop our theories of damnation by imagining people we don't know, human monsters--Hitler, Stalin, Jeffry Dahmer, Jezebel. We imagine humanity neatly divided into two groups: those who choose God and goodness and those who choose evil. We see people standing in the judgment as autonomous individuals. I think our opinions might change if we saw that every person remains forever a son or daughter. If we have not yet figured out which of our kids or grandkids we would burn, why do we so easily (and sometimes glibly) imagine God burning his kids.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Transfiguring Money into Spirit

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
for Sabbath, January 30, 2016

Texts:  Leviticus 27:30-34 and Matthew 25:14-30

I think it would be difficult to find a more “unspiritual” thing than a Frito bag. The very sound the bag makes when you handle it—the sharp, crinkly sound—is a bit annoying and speaks of trash, cheap, unhealthy. I once preached a sermon on the evils of food that comes in crinkly bags. The bag is not recyclable or compostable. I don't even think it burns. It's just a cheap container for corn chips.

But over the past thirty-five years, Frito bags have been transfigured. They are the containers of a sacramental food. Now, just as a communion cup suggests the Lord's Supper, so a Frito bag suggests a sacred meal. Frito bags have been transfigured from trash into spiritual treasure.

I'm doing a series of sermons on spiritual disciplines—religiously-inspired habits that help nourish our souls, help be more aware of the presence and favor of God, habits that help shape our lives, habits that help us embed holiness in the core of our being.

The impulse to goodness is a gift. God has created within us a desire to do good, to make beauty, to heal and help, to create and build. All of these gifts call for nurture. If we have a gift of music, we nurture that gift through taking lessons and spending hours practicing. If we have a gift of movement, we nourish that gift by working out in a gym or running or spending hours shooting hoops. Every gift invites investment in habits that will bring that gift to its richest flowering.

It's the same with spirituality. We can engage in habits that will strengthen our impulses toward compassion, self-control, integrity and kindness. One reason we come to church is that the social connections and worship encourage us in the right path.

Typical lists of spiritual disciplines or holy habits include things like meditation and prayer, Bible reading and listening to and a singing inspirational music. Even fasting. But Frito bags? I've never seen Frito bags on one of those lists. But for me, Frito bags have been transformed into a sacrament. (A sacrament is an earthly vehicle of God's presence and favor.)

How did Frito bags get transfigured in sacramental treasures?

For thirty years, it has been a tradition on Friday nights at our house to have “Haystacks.” As many of you know, “Haystacks” is a traditional Adventist version of a taco salad. Beans, chips, salad greens and tomatoes. Now that the kids are out of the house there is more variation in our Friday night menu because Karin is not as crazy about haystacks as I am. Still, the default menu for Friday night is haystacks. When we have haystacks, I can easily recall visions from earlier days when the kids were little. In my minds eye, I see my youngest daughter when she was two or three years old, white blond curls around her big eyes. I see my son, making too much noise, too much mess. I see my oldest daughter getting out the china and the fancy silver ware. Because on Friday night, the menu might seem inelegant, but dinner was special. Now, I have other faces to add to these Friday night memories. For a couple of months at the end of this past year, my son and his wife and their two children were with us. So now when I play the Friday night memory video, I see the face of my granddaughter, a mischievous grin on her face as she delightedly shovels beans into her mouth with her hand. Then asks for more chips! Always more chips.

And chips come in crinkly bags.

Over the decades I have experimented with the haystack recipe. Black beans instead of pinto beans. Cauliflower in addition to the typical salad greens. Rice in addition to beans. I've tried various kinds of salsa. But one item has remained constant, chips. Always chips. And the premier Haystack chip is Fritos.

The tradition of chips is so deeply rooted that if I open a bag of chips on Tuesday, I'm likely to think about the family gathered around the table on Friday night.

Our family tradition—our discipline, our habit—has transformed a crinkly bag of chips into a constant reminder of precious people and wonderful occasions around our table.

Another unlikely sacrament—a hundred dollar bill.

It's common for people to talk about money as a bad thing. We can even misquote the Bible: Money is the root of all evil. Or quote what it actually says, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Or in other translations, “all kinds of evils.” 1 Timothy 6:10

I suppose an inordinate obsession with money can lead to all kinds of evil. However, I think of money as the life-blood of goodness. Money provides us with warm, dry kitchens to cook in. Money puts shoes on our kids. Money allows us to send presents to our friends who live a continent away. Allows us to fly to Australia. Enables us to respond to emergencies thousands of miles away. Money flows in all kinds of goodness.

We can engage in disciplines that will give us a deep sense of the holiness, the goodness of money. The practice of these disciplines gives us a sense of partnership with God in doing good in the world. They heighten our enjoyment of our wealth—however meager it might be from an accounting perspective.

In the Hebrew culture there were a number or practices designed to turn ordinary commerce into an agency of spiritual life. One was a practice called “first fruits.” At the time of harvest, before beginning work, a farmer would take a sample of the first of the harvest and present it as an offering to God.

In this act of offering, the farmers were celebrating God as the ultimate source of their bounty. Of course, the farmers had worked hard. The entire family—men, women and children—all put muscle and sweat and maybe tedium into producing the harvest. Grape vines needed pruning. Vegetable gardens needed planting and watering and weeding. Grain fields required plowing and cutting and gathering and threshing. Farming, especially in the days before machinery, was labor intensive . . . to say the least.

The harvest bounty did not fall into their laps. They worked for it. Still, they offered first fruits as their recognition of the divine gifts of soil and rain and sun. The magic of life itself. The life mysteriously hiding in seeds and pouring up through the roots of the vines and trees. Even their knowledge what and how and when, times of planting methods of cultivation—this, too, was gift. And in their first fruit offering they reminded themselves of the gifts. And it made them glad.

Another practice of the Hebrews was something called tithing. Tithe” is an old English word that simply means one tenth. Faithful farmers devoted one tenth of their crops to the support of the temple and the priesthood.

We see the seriousness of this practice in the words of our Old Testament reading today.

And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed, or the fruit of the tree, is the LORD'S. It is holy unto the LORD. If a man wishes to redeem any of his tithes, he shall add to it twenty percent. Concerning the tithe of the herd or flock—any kind of animal that is passed under a rod for counting—the tenth shall be holy unto the LORD. The farmer is not to check to see whether the animal is good or bad. He is not to exchange one animal for another. Leviticus 27:30-32

Ten percent belonged to God. This was simply a given. It was to become a habitual part of their lives.
This idea has been picked by Christians and applied to income. The Adventist Church officially encourages its members to devote ten percent of their income to God. When we do this, over time we come to think of ourselves as financial partners with God. Our money is God's money. God's money is our money.

When I have talked with church people over the decades about this idea of tithing, about devoting ten percent of our income to God, I hear most two kinds of comments.

Some people explain that they cannot afford to tithe. Usually, the reason they cannot afford to tithe is because they don't have enough money. They need every last dollar they manage to scrape together just to pay rent, the VISA bill and buy shoes for their kids.

A very understandable situation.

The other set of comments I hear goes something like this: “I can't afford not to. I give ten percent or fifteen or twenty percent, and the blessing I get from my giving is irreplaceable. I couldn't manage without giving.”

People who regularly, habitually, systematically give money as part of their religious practice acquire a special relationship with money. Money becomes a vehicle of partnership with God. Money itself is felt to be holy. It's not just the money these folks give to church or to charities or to needy people directly. Money itself, the paper stuff in our wallets, the plastic, all of it is holy.

So paying the VISA bill becomes a spiritual exercise. When we are paying our bills, we are directing some of earth's bounty, some of God's gift, to cover the expenditures we made last month for food and gasoline and flowers and birthday gifts.

This is the fruit of regular, habitual tithing. We learn to see money as an abstract form of hard work and ingenuity. Money is a visual expression of the cooperation between the gift of God and our own hardwork and even good luck. Money is transfigured into spirit.

A penny, a hundred dollar bill, a check for 50,000 dollars – as we manage money, we have a sense that we are touching a stream of divine blessing. Money becomes the life of God flowing through our hands.

Our financial capacities are vastly different. Here in this beautiful house, some of us have a great abundance of money. Some of us don't know how we're going to pay next month's tuition or rent. We don't where we will find the money for a medical bill or legal bill.

To those of you with meager incomes and limited opportunities to change that, I wish to impose no obligation or burden.

But if you are a typical American with a decent job that gives you enough income to acquire credit cards and debt, I invite you to experiment with the discipline of tithing. Consider ten percent of your income as holy. Give that ten percent to God. If you have never done anything like this before, start with one percent or two percent. And some of you I know give twenty percent or thirty percent.

Wherever you are financially, I invite you to consider tasting the exquisite pleasure of transforming dollar bills into sacraments, ATM cards into vehicles of partnership and communion with God.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Revisioning Prophecy

This is a repost of something I've published here and elsewhere before.

Revisioning Prophecy
By John McLarty
For October, 2015, Gazette

The recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States occasioned a flurry of Adventist commentary. Some saw the visit as evidence of the looming end of time. A representative example of this thinking was published on the web site, Advendicate. This article gave particular attention to the pope's statement about climate change. Since President Obama and other world leaders also think climate change is a serious issue this is supposed to prove the pope is now wielding increased global power. The article also quoted a number of statements by the pope advocating Sunday-keeping. These were cited as evidence that the United States is moving toward the enactment of a National Sunday Law. The article can be readily summarized in these sentences:

Prophecy is being fulfilled. Pope Francis represents the first beast of Revelation 13:1, whereas President Obama represents the second beast (13:11). Revelation 13:11-17 informs us that in the closing moments of time, the second beast (USA) will promote the first beast (the Papacy), and finally enforce its “mark.”

Other Adventist commentary has discussed the mass mailing of 170,000 copies of The Great Controversy by Ellen White to addresses in the Philadelphia area. Some argued Adventists should similarly blanket every city in the United States with the book. Others express embarrassment because the book is very blunt in its telling of the documented abuses by the Catholic Church in the past and its assertion that the Catholic Church will again act as a persecuting power. Many of these Adventists who are embarrassed by the book nevertheless believe Last Day Events will play out just as the book describes—a union of Protestants and the papacy will foist a National Sunday Law on America that will ultimately impose the death penalty on anyone who opposes this Sunday law. But they think we should keep this belief secret.

I largely ignored the hubbub until a student asked me about a sermon preached at Andrews University detailing “The Pope's Agenda for America.” The sermon talked about the “leopard beast” of Revelation. What did I think? Here is my response to all the commotion:

Adventist concern about the pope flows from the End Time Scenario found in chapters 35-39 of The Great Controversy. The scenario outlined in The Great Controversy is in turn rooted in the interpretation of Revelation 12-13 worked out by the Reformers, especially Martin Luther. Most Adventists believe that questioning any detail of the prophecy in The Great Controversy is tantamount to rejecting the prophetic gift of Ellen White.

The specific predictions in the book assume that Protestant churches will have irresistible influence in American political life and that those churches will partner with the Roman Catholic Church in persuading the American government to enact a National Sunday Law. Ellen White believed all these events would happen within her life time. (She died in 1915.) Given the steady decline in church attendance and church influence in American life and the passage of a hundred years of American history that Ellen White did not envision, some Adventist theologians are questioning whether the scenario mapped out in The Great Controversy will ever happen. Perhaps, the enduring relevance of the prophecies in these chapters will come from the principles of spiritual life and theology elucidated through the narrative. These principles are relevant in every historical setting, in every political environment, in every religious conflict. These principles continue to offer godly wisdom even as the world described by Ellen White morphs beyond recognition.

Curiously, one of the Bible prophets, Ezekiel, also wrote a detailed End Time Scenario. Just like Ellen White in The Great Controversy, Ezekiel names the enemies of God's people, talks about the work of the Holy Spirit to purify God's people, and outlines the stratagems of the wicked. The grand climax of his prophecy is an overwhelming, supernatural intervention by God. God blasts the armies of the wicked and establishes his people in safety and righteousness forever. The final chapters of Ezekiel provide dizzying detail of the architecture of the new temple—storage rooms and worship areas. The prophet details the clothing and scheduling of the priests. He writes about the specific liturgical practices. There is even a description of land distribution for the priests and the tribes.

But none of it ever happened.

What are we to do with this? The New Testament, especially the book of Revelation, reinterprets the vision of Ezekiel. In the book of Revelation, Ezekiel's earthly Jerusalem constructed of stone in Palestine becomes the New Jerusalem which will descend from heaven. The chief enemy of God's people in Ezekiel—a local figure, “Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal”--becomes in Revelation “Gog and Magog, the nations in the four corners of the earth.” Ezekiel writes about a river that flows from the stone temple in the earthly Jerusalem. In Revelation, the river flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb. Ezekiel writes about a fusion of the Nation of Judah and the Ten Lost Tribes which had become extinct as distinct people groups two hundred years before Ezekiel's day. In Revelation this fusion is echoed in the vision of the 144,000–12,000 from every tribe (including the Lost Tribes)--which then morphs into the international multitude so immense it cannot be counted. Every detail of Ezekiel's vision is reinterpreted. No detail is fulfilled in a literal, historical sense. It turns out that it is the spiritual heart of the vision that matters.

The truth in Ezekiel that the New Testament reaffirms is the rich promise that God will finally turn the world. He will supernaturally give us new hearts that are reliably pure and holy. He will vanquish the enemies of God's people. He will save all his people—including the lost Ten Tribes, that is the people who are utterly invisible to any human system of accounting. God will visit the Valley of Dry Bones and recreate a living people. The “take away” message of Ezekiel is God wins. Righteousness wins. God carries his people to victory. The details of Gog, the architecture of the temple, the assignments of the priests and the liturgical practices of the temple prove to be unnecessary for the accomplishment of God's purposes. And so, we let them go.

Similarly with The Great Controversy. There are eternal principles in chapters 35-39. Note these quotations:

God never forces the will or the conscience; but Satan's constant resort--to gain control of those whom he cannot otherwise seduce--is compulsion by cruelty. Through fear or force he endeavors to rule the conscience and to secure homage to himself. GC 591

A religion of externals is attractive to the unrenewed heart. The pomp and ceremony of the Catholic worship has a seductive, bewitching power, by which many are deceived; and they come to look upon the Roman Church as the very gate of heaven. GC 567 (To state the obvious: “pomp and ceremony” are not copyrighted by the Roman Catholic Church. They are not even copyrighted by religion.)

It is Satan's constant effort to misrepresent the character of God, the nature of sin, and the real issues at stake in the great controversy. His sophistry lessens the obligation of the divine law and gives men license to sin. At the same time he causes them to cherish false conceptions of God so that they regard Him with fear and hate rather than with love. The cruelty inherent in his own character is attributed to the Creator; it is embodied in systems of religion and expressed in modes of worship. GC 569

These quotations articulate principles that are relevant in every era and in every political situation. To evaluate the continued applicability of Ellen White's prophecy, it's helpful to understand her historical setting. The doctrine of papal infallibility was voted at the First Vatican Council while she was at work on the book. America was in turmoil over the mass immigration to the U. S. of people from Ireland and Italy and other Catholic countries. Protestants were afraid that through these immigrants the Catholic Church would acquire in America the kind of political clout it had exercised for centuries in Europe. Given the power of Protestant churches in America and the potential power of the Catholic Church, Ellen White's caution about the dangers of a union of churches was entirely reasonable. If the Protestant churches had united with the papacy in support of an agenda for the nation, the agenda would have passed. At the time she was writing, there was legislation being pushed in Congress for a National Sunday Law. If the end had come at that time, Ellen White's scenario would have played out.

But the end did not come. The nation changed. Churches changed. Atheism has become a far greater challenge to our faith than any conceivable challenge from other Christian groups. In today's America, if the leaders of Protestant churches issued a proclamation, would it make any difference? If the pope issued an encyclical, would Americans obey?

There are contemporary threats to the integrity and authenticity of Christianity. But the pope and the errors of Catholic theology are hardly leading candidates for the greatest threats to faith. It's time for us to let go of the details of Ellen White's prophecy and give attention instead to the principles—a true understanding of the character of God, a radical commitment to religious liberty, a deep recognition of the seductive potential of pomp and ceremony, status and stardom. These principles are relevant always.

The final sentence of Ezekiel is this: “And the name of the city from then on will be: The Lord is there.” The final sentence of The Great Controversy is, “From the minutest atom to the greatest world, all things, animate and inanimate, in their unshadowed beauty and perfect joy, declare that God is love.”

In both cases, the grand final vision transcends every imaginable outcome that could be reached through natural historical process. You can't get there from here—except by a magnificent singularity, a grand divine interruption. The ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy is possible only through the direct, miraculous creative work of God. And he will do it. It is this conviction that turns up in every vision and in every reinterpretation of the vision. What the American Congress votes or the pope says is not ultimately determinative of the course of history or the fulfillment of God's dream.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Peace making instead of thundering the threats of hell

Yesterday I spent a couple hours visiting with a visionary, someone who imagines building peace as a replacement for making war, someone working to turn those ethereal dreams into palpable reality. He had enough Christianity in him to know about hell and enough humanity to reject it. What kind of dad, he wondered, would plan a conflagration as the final solution to his children's brokenness? Some of my Christian friends will be more offended by his rejection of fire than they are inspired by his embrace of peace making. But not me. And, I think, not Jesus either.

The older I get, the harder it becomes to imagine damnation. People do horrible, terrible things. People commit evil so monstrous, even the barest, vaguest telling of it turns my stomach and makes me turn away. I am not minimizing the pain, injustice, horror. It's just that I find it harder and harder to avoid asking the question: what could have possibly pushed or seduced people to do such things? How did the universe arrange itself to give these sons and daughters the DNA, life history and cultural preparation that would allow them to commit such horrors? What mother or father will be able to let their children go as irredeemable monsters for whom extermination is the best solution. 1 Corinthians asserts that every person welcomed into paradise will be changed. Every one will be changed. So who cannot be changed? Who cannot be fixed? Who is so broken that God himself cannot bend the warped bits back into shape?

With all these questions, it's easy for me to find far more admiration for those who practice peacemaking than outrage at those who deny hell.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Clear Picture of God and his Boy

Ilijah was abused by his father, brutalized would be a more apt word. His mother kicked him out when she needed his lunch money to pay for drugs. Even his body failed him--he suffered seizures. Those are true and real facts. When I saw him walking on Aurora Avenue, I could see those facts written in the tightness and awkwardness of his movement. Even up close, his real face seldom showed past the mask of necessary wariness. Life was mostly hard and unbeautiful. And his death was dark tragedy. There were moments of goodness. At his memorial service I heard stories of people who gave food on occasion, provided a couch to sleep on, a hot shower. A woman stood and told us this story: "I met Ilijah when I was coming out of prostitution. We became friends, hung out together, went to movies, drank together. Once I was siting on the couch. He was lying with his head in my lap and I was stroking his hair. He murmured, 'No one has ever touched me like that.'" She wiped tears as she remembered. And I was sure that in a service that included remarks by a couple of preachers, stories of generosity by a bunch idealistic professionals, it was the woman who "was coming out of prostitution" who gave us the most vivid picture of God and his boy, Ilijah. (Thanks to Aurora Commons for caring for Ilijah and his kin.)

This story stands at the center of my sermon this past Sabbath at Green Lake Church.

Video here:

Friday, January 8, 2016

Feeding Angels or Dragons

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church. Sabbath, January 9, 2016

Sunday morning I pulled on my snowshoes and headed up the Palisades Trail. There was about a foot and a half of snow, but for the first couple of miles the trail was nicely trampled so I didn't sink much. But there were obstacles. There was blow down on the trail, large trees, too big to step over. In places the weight of snow had bent brush and vine maples into and across the trail. Navigating these obstacles was tricky with snow shoes on my feet. It was cold.

I tramped up and up. It was slow going—a lot slower than I had planned on. I usually do this trail in shorts and running shoes. Carrying a pack and wearing boots and snow shoes made for a very different experience. After a couple of miles, I came to the end of the trampled track. I could still make out the trail beneath the blanket of snow but my pace was even slower in the soft snow. Another mile or so and suddenly I could no longer see the course of the trail. I thought I knew the way, but I could not see even the slightest hint of the trail. The area around me was forest, with not a single landmark visible. As I had climbed the air had become even colder. I had not bothered to bring a map or compass since I know the trail so well. I hesitated. I wanted to make it to the next overlook which was probably about a mile away, if I was where I thought I was, but without at least a hint of trail, I worried about getting lost. Snow was falling and potentially covering my tracks I decided it was time to turn around.

That was a smart decision.

Then I made another smart decision. I found a log, knocked the snow off, spread my pad and sat down for the sweetest part of the trip. Lunch! I pulled out my stove and heated water for hot chocolate. I pulled out a sandwich—Havarti cheese on Bonnie's homemade bread. Yum. Even with wind howling and snow swirling, the hot chocolate and my sandwich were heaven.

One of the various obvious facts about food is that it is good to eat it with some regularity, especially when you're engaged in strenuous activity. On ordinary days, when I'm riding around in my car, working on the computer, talking on the phone, visiting with people, food can seem optional. I skip meals and scarcely notice. I can go all day without eating. No problem. Eventually, it will catch up with me, of course. Sooner or later I'll get around to eating, but it's not critical. I can keep functioning on the memory of eating.

But when I'm engaged in strenuous activity, when I'm plowing up a mountain trail on snow shoes, when I'm burning miles running, eating regularly is absolutely essential. If I don't I will experience the embarrassment of collapse. Or slowness.

I remember one time hiking with a friend in the desert. It was getting late. The sun had already set, but there was still some light and we were pushing along a dry wash with a very sandy bottom. The soft sand made progress difficult. My pack felt like it weighed a hundred pounds and getting heavier. My friend, Kevin, got farther and farther ahead. I couldn't understand it. Usually I'm faster than he is. But this evening no matter how hard I tried, I just went slower and slower and slower. Then suddenly the light bulb came on. It was six hours since lunch. Back in those days I had not learned to eat on the trail. So it had been six hours since I had anything to eat. Lunch had been lentils. It had tasted good at the time. But it was long gone. My body was informing me that without food it was not going to keep hiking.

I finally shouted to Kevin. He came back. I apologized and explained I had to eat. We dropped our packs.

That's the way it is with food. Sometimes you just have to do it.

And if you're attempting some major physical activity, you're REALLY going to have to do it. And if you do, it will be a very lovely experience. After eating lunch sitting in the snow on Sunday, I headed back down the mountain. With food in my belly and gravity on my side, I jogged when the trail was smooth and clear enough. I felt almost like a bird.

That's the joy of eating regularly.

Which brings us to spiritual life. If you have any spiritual ambitions, part of your strategy must be spiritual nutrition.
Do you ever find yourself wishing you had more patience? More compassion? More self-control? Are you working to forgive someone who has wounded you deeply? Do you wish you had a greater sense of the presence and reality of God?

One answer to all these desires is “miracle.” Ask God to make you more compassionate, self-controlled, and forgiving. You can't do it. So just ask God.

The problem with this advice is that usually the person receiving this advice has already prayed at least once for the desired blessing. And the miracle didn't happen.

So the question naturally arises, what next?

The best answer is a daily habit. Develop a daily habit that feeds your, a daily habit that will fuel your spiritual success. Every day engage in a habit that feeds your desire for compassion, self-control and forgiveness. Every day engage in a habit that feeds patience and generosity, holiness and kindness. Every day do something that enhances your awareness of the goodness and nobility of God.

Pursuing holiness, goodness, nobility, a forgiving spirit is strenuous. Success requires regular spiritual nutrition to sustain the effort. So do it.

Let me be very specific. Every day, devote some time to giving intense attention to words or pictures or ideas or people that inspire you and encourage goodness.

Those who are my age or older will remember a famous Adventist preacher named Morris Venden. Every sermon had essentially the same punch line. Read your Bible every day. And pray.

I first heard him preach when I was a college student. I remember thinking it was a good idea, but I didn't have time. Then I heard other students talking about their habits of spending a half hour or even an hour every day reading their Bibles or other devotional literature, and I thought, hey, if they can do it I can. So I started. In the forty five years since then, most of the time, I've had a habit of spending daily time cultivating spiritual life. The content of that time has varied. I've followed Bible reading plans that took me through the Bible in a year. I've tried journaling my way through the New Testament. I've tried paraphrasing. I've read books other than the Bible. I have practiced meditation and contemplation.

There is no one specific approach that works for every person. And many people will find that no one approach works for them all the time. Just as you might not want to eat oatmeal every breakfast of your life, so you may find it helpful to vary the content of your devotional time. But if you aim for spiritual excellence, you cannot ignore spiritual nutrition.

Allow me to take a few minutes to draw a sharp contrast. I titled my sermon, “Feeding Angels or Dragons.” The title is a mash up of the Book of Revelation and the story I've heard told in several different versions about fighting dogs. The way the story goes, a man owns two dogs. Periodically he stages dog fights and his two dogs fight each other. Sometimes he bets on one dog, other times he bets on the other. But always, the dog he bets on wins. When a friend finally persuades the old man to explain how he can always know which dog is going to win, the old man laughs and says, “Well, the dog I feed that week always wins.

If we picture the forces of good and evil as angels and dragons and ask the question, in our lives who is going to win, the angel or the dragon, the answer is which one are we feeding? Are we feasting on angel food or dragon kibble? If you want the angel to win, it makes sense to eat angel food.

Thursday morning I sat down in Peets Coffee a couple of blocks from here to work on my sermon. I logged onto Peet's wireless internet service at access the internet Bible site that I use. When I accepted the terms of service, the next screen was a news site. My screen was filled with headlines:

10 Outrageous Police Chases
Occupiers under siege from PETA and tribe
Trump to pull $1B from UK
George Soros predicts the 2008 crisis all over again.
Father outraged by TSA pat down of his ten-year-old daughter
The diseases doctors most often misdiagnose.
Somebody famous “rips American Idol in brutal tirade”

I didn't click on any these headlines. I read nothing except the headlines themselves. Even without reading I knew where the articles would take me me if I had clicked. The more I read the angrier and more worried I would have become.

If I had read through those articles, then moved into my day, I would have been primed to see evil everywhere. When someone cut me off on the freeway, it would natural to react with outrage and anger. What a jerk! If my kid was slow getting ready for school or if he spilled his cereal, I would be ready to explode. In short, reading these news articles would have fed the dragon inside.

If you listen to Rush Limbaugh regularly you will be primed to be outraged and angry. While you may think of this as merely politics, it's not. His scorn and ridicule will shape the totality of your life. It will not feed your angels. The same is probably true for all sorts of other people who are famous now as champions of various political views—Rachel Maddow, Glenn Beck. If your goal is wisdom and compassion, you must eat more angel food. And you must limit your intake of dragon food. Fill your mind with words and images that inspire and encourage.

Our OT reading was Psalm 1. This Psalm pictures a good person as a tree planted by a river. The tree takes constant nourishment from the rich, moist soil. Let's plant our souls in places that are consistently nourishing.

I was visiting with the manager at the Starbucks near my house. She's a runner and sometimes we compare notes. I told her I was reading a book on running and it had given me a new inspiration. The author talked about running every day. He described his practice and he talked about why he thought it was indispensable if he was going to run as well as he wanted.

Kara confessed she struggled with consistency. I laughed and acknowledged I did, too. Often I would run only once a week. After reading the book I was aiming at five days a week. She said that sounded pretty good. That was her goal too, for the new year. But life—kids, work, parents—made it hard. Consistency was really hard.

I laughed and said inconsistent running was better than consistently not running. We laughed together.

I think this is a good picture for us in thinking about daily devotions. Many of us have tried to spend time daily nourishing our souls. Then life happens. Kids get sick. Emergencies interrupt. There is a crisis at work. Or we just get tired and we go days or weeks or months without any regular time with God.

It's not the end of the world. Just begin again. An inconsistent devotional life is way better than a consistent non-devotional life.

Plant yourself in a nourishing place. Feed your soul. Take time daily to feast on angel food—words of faith, hope, and love. The world will become a better place.