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.

Friday, March 10, 2017

What to do with real people

Sermon for March 11, 2017 at Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Preliminary manuscript, subject to revision.

Acts 15:4-10
Deuteronomy 13:6-10
2 Kings 5:15-19 

In Acts 15 we read about a huge debate in the early Christian church. Did Gentiles who wanted to join the Christian community have to be circumcised and observe all the other life style rules and traditions of the Jewish people? They held a general conference, a gathering of the leaders of the church. Debate was intense. Finally, Peter stood and made a speech. “Look, you all know that God chose me to be the first to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. And God clearly demonstrated his approval by giving them the Holy Spirit the same God gave to us. God made no distinction. So why on earth are you trying the patience of God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?”

To summarize: Peter used two arguments. First, the spiritual life of new Gentile believers was just as good as the spiritual life of Jewish believers. Second, the experience of the Jewish people with their rules and regulations argued against the validity of those very rules and regulations. The Jewish people had found them burdensome and impossible. So why impose them on new believers?

Note, Peter did not quote the Bible in his argument. And for good reason. There was no biblical basis for dispensing with circumcision. In fact, to the contrary. The Bible was crystal clear. Circumcision was obligatory.

There are repeated statements in the laws of Moses, mandating kind treatment of foreigners. Foreigners were to have the same rights in court as native born people. But when it came to religious practice, there was a emphatic distinction. Foreigners were prohibited to eat the Passover. This celebration of the fantastic deliverance from Egypt belonged to the Hebrew people alone. No foreigners were permitted. If a foreigner wanted to participate in the Passover, he was required to first be circumcised. No exceptions (Exodus 12:43-49).

The early Christians understood themselves to be the “true Jews.” They were the authentic inheritors of the spiritual heritage of Abraham. So obviously, Christians had to be circumcised. That was Bible. Advocates of this belief could cite chapter and verse.

But Peter dismissed all this with a wave of the hand. In essence, Peter said, “I don't care about your Bible verses, we know from experience, both from the long experience of the Jewish people and from the immediate experience among us as Christians that it is time to let go of this circumcision rule. Let it go, and welcome the Gentiles the same way that God welcomes them."

Today, we Adventists imagine ourselves as the inheritors of the spiritual heritage of the apostles. We are the true apostolic church. And the temptation is to prove our authenticity by rigorously enforcing every rule and tradition we associate with the early Christian church. Just as for the early Christian church a rule associated with sexuality epitomized "faithfulness to all the laws of God," so now Adventists (along with other conservative Christians) focus on ancient rules associated with sexuality as a symbol of their full devotion to God.

Against the clamor of this tradition, I stand with Peter and say, God has clearly shown his disregard for our boundaries. God has demonstrably gifted people outside our boundaries. Single people, women, homosexuals, divorced people have all demonstrated noteworthy spiritual gifts. Women evangelists contradict our notions of "male-only ministry." Many homosexual musicians have served as highly effective ministers of music. All sorts of people other than married men have exhibited the generosity and kindness of God. They have demonstrated God's lack of pickiness when it comes to choosing whom he calls into service. Further, we have had long experience with trying to squeeze everyone into a particular mold. Over and over and over we have seen people damaged by our efforts to make them conform to our narrow expectations. We have seen church rules and traditions alienate our children from God. It is time to join with Peter and say, “Enough.” If God draws people who are we to turn them away in our devotion to anachronistic applications of ancient rules.

The theological justification of letting go of the requirement of circumcision we read in the writings of Paul came after the conference in Acts 15. The church moved forward because of Peter's speech which cited the evident moving God in the experience of the people of God. The theology came later. 

I am going to cite some Bible stories in support of letting go of some of our ancient rules, rules that are based on actual Bible texts just like the Bible support of circumcision. But let me be clear, I'm citing these stories in support of a truth that God has already made abundantly clear in our experience.

In the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) we read: Do not make any images. Do not bow down to any images. The command is repeated several times in the Books of Moses. Perhaps the starkest, harshest expression of this prohibition is the law that states that if a friend or relative secretly invites you to participate in worship of another god, you must report them. Even if the person is your own spouse, you must report them and then when the community comes together to stone the idolater, you must throw the very first stone.

Do not bow. If anyone even hints that they are prepared to bow, kill them. That's the law.

Then we read the story of Naaman. Naaman was commander of the army of Syria. He came to Samaria and was healed of leprosy by the prophet Elisha. In gratitude, Naaman pledged himself to worship the God of Israel from then on. “But I have one problem,” the general told the prophet. “Back in Damascus, when my king enters the temple to pray, as part of my duties, I must accompany him. And when he bows, I must also bow. Is that going to be okay?” The prophet answered, “Go in peace.”

Bowing in the temple of Rimmon was obviously not the ideal worship life. But it was the right accommodation to the real life situation of Naaman. It was holy.

The Gibeonites were a Canaanite tribe. God had ordered the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites. Completely. Obliterate them. Genocide. The divine order was crystal clear. The Gibeonites were terrified and decided to try to side step the divine order. They tricked Joshua and the Hebrew leaders into thinking they were not Canaanites and persuaded them to sign a non-aggression treaty. When Joshua's army learned they had been tricked, that the Gibeonites were, in fact, Canaanites, the army insisted that Joshua obey God and destroy the Gibeonites.

Joshua refused.

Joshua refused to obey his army. Joshua refused to obey the very clear, direct command of God. Joshua protected the Gibeonites. Joshua did not just “tolerate” the Gibeonites. When other Canaanite tribes threatened the Gibeonites, Joshua and his army protected them.

The parallel between the situation of the Gibeonites and homosexuals in the church today is obvious. Those who wish to exclude homosexual couples from church membership can cite direct statements in the Bible just as Joshua's army could cite direct statements by God ordering the exclusions and even annihilation of the Gibeonites.

But in this story, Joshua is symbolic of Jesus. Joshua and Jesus are, in fact, different forms of the same name, like Juan and John. If we are going be the church of Jesus, we will follow the inclusion of Joshua, not the holy blood lust of his army.

What was Joshua's justification for sparing the Gibeonites even though God had said to annihilate them? Joshua cited the ordinary human value of honoring his word. I signed a treaty, I will not violate it. I promised. I will keep my promise. Joshua did what any decent human being would do.

When we face the question: how shall we treat our LGBT children, we don't go first to some sentence in the book of Leviticus. We act instinctively out of our identity as mothers and fathers. We build a house that will be a safe place for our children to grow up in. That is simply what decent parents do. Good parents do not attempt to squeeze their children into some predetermined mold. They respond to the children who are actually alive right there in front of them.

Peanut butter sandwiches are perfect food. But we do not give them to children who are allergic to peanuts or have a gluten sensitivity. Tomatoes are marvelous. But if your daughter hates tomatoes, what do you do? You serve something else. That's what good parents do. We bend and adapt to the real children in our homes. We don't imagine they are the theoretical children in a book.

At our house right now, we have an illustration of the collision of Adventist tradition and taking care of a real, live person. In our kitchen, there is a whole collection of foods for Joel. High fat yogurt. High fat cookies. Heavy cream. Peanut butter. Coconut oil. Butter.

When we feed Joel vegetables, we soak them in butter. When we make cookies for him, we coconut oil. When we serve him oatmeal, we smother it with butter and heavy cream. Why? Because he is dangerously underweight and has been for a long time.

I'm not going to write a book on nutrition for children and begin advocating ice cream, heavy cream, and lots and lots of butter as an ideal diet for infants. But if someone tried to insist that “the best diet” for our grandson was a vegan diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables I would laugh in their face. Joel is different. He is not normal. So we don't treat him normally.

Since we are an outpost of the kingdom of heaven, our life together is shaped by the principles of the kingdom. Jesus gave very high moral challenges:

Do not hate. Even people who are hateful.
Do not worship while reconciliation is languishing.
Do not damage your enemies.
Practice generosity.
Practice radical honesty.
Practice radical sexual restraint.
Don't be too attached to money.
Practice regarding every human being, especially the needy, as the incarnation of God.
Be a neighbor.
Allow the needs of others to become your problem.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.

This is an exalted ethic. A challenge. A beckoning. A dare. It is far higher, and far more challenging than mere obedience to rules. It requires us to first understand one another before begin attempting to prescribe how to live. After all, that's what we would want for ourselves.

Let's embrace this radically. Let's practice listening long before we speak. Let's be careful not to prescribe for someone else a pattern of life we are not following.

When someone attempts to use ancient rules and texts in Leviticus and Romans to exclude our children, let's stand with Peter and say, “Enough.”

Let's stand with Jesus and say, “Let the children come.”

Friday, March 3, 2017

Have You Noticed Ahab's Repentance?

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For March 4, 2017
Leave comments on our Facebook page.

Wednesday morning, I was visiting with someone here in the neighborhood. Our conversation came around to the people of this congregation. I said, “I'm a fan of this church. There are good people here.”

I did not admit in that private conversation what I will tell you. I love you. I love the people of this church. The people sitting here. And the people connected with us by kinship and friendship. People scattered all over the world. You have captured my heart. You own me.

Which is hardly surprising. Just look at you. You are beautiful. And if you have a hard time seeing yourself as beautiful, just look at the kids.

Think of the beauty of the children who crowd the steps of the stage here during children's story. They are perfect. Shining eyes. Beautiful faces. Souls as large as the sky. Shy and bold. Prim and proper. Hyper and disruptive. Every week we can hardly wait to see them scurry toward the front. Every week we hold our breath. Will the story teller hold them? Which kid will create the most distraction? These kids disrupt our cool, managed liturgy reminding us that God sometimes breaks out of the boxes we build to manage his presence. These kids are beautiful. And your welcome to them is beautiful. Especially when they mess with our careful plans for order and decorous.

Several years ago, as the kids left the stage, there was a puddle here on the floor. Already I had learned to trust the welcome for children that lives here. I was not worried that anyone would throw a hissy fit. But what happened went far beyond that. Even before all the children had gotten their buckets, two elders had gone for cleaning supplies. By the time all the kids had worked they way down the aisles, it was done. No evidence.

When I laughingly asked others what they thought of our highly competent elders who managed the accident on the stage with such aplomb, they stared at me uncomprehendingly. They had seen nothing. The work of Holly and Kurt was so efficient, so smooth, that no one besides them and me and the child's mother knew anything had happened.

How can I not love a church that lets children pee on the platform and then covers the mess with such elegant finesse an entire congregation remains oblivious? Where else can a child lose control in front of two hundred people and escape with no shame, no embarrassment? How can I not love a church that loves children so skillfully?

But really, it's not that hard, is it? We expect our children to stumble as they are learning to walk. We expect accidents as they are learning to manage their bladders. We expect our kids to say inappropriate things on their way to elegance. We are not troubled when they spill their milk, when they ruin their clothes, when they break their toys. These things are the cost of the bright future we dream of for our kids. We easily forgive and life moves on.

Then our children grow up. And they still make messes. And the messes cannot be covered by the swift and surreptitious application of paper towels. The embarrassment can no longer be covered with laughter. Now we cry.

My son is in prison.

My daughter has abandoned her children.

My son is off his medication and back on the street again.

My daughter is in rehab for the fifth time. Her children are with their father's mother.

My son has committed suicide.

My baby cannot be fixed.

These things happen to us. And leave us reeling. Battered. Angry. Hurt. Bewildered. Perplexed. Outraged. Baffled.

Still, when we sit together and tell our stories, we tell stories about “our children.” That man in prison is a criminal. Yes. AND he is our son. Still. Our heart sits with him, incarcerated. Our love sleeps in fear on a hard bunk behind bars. And when, in a letter, he mentions something he read recently, a book about forgiveness and transformation, our heart leaps. It is a spark of goodness and we pray even more desperately that God will fan it into full flame in his soul. We dream once more of redemption, of restoration, of the future.

When we tell the stories of the aching tragedies in our families, we do not speak of “that man” or “that woman.” We speak of “our son,” “our daughter.” And when we speak that way, we are giving evidence of some element of the divine nature living in us. We have the heart of God.

In the Old Testament, one king stands out as the worst of the worst. He was a puerile narcissist, a puppet of a crafty foreigner whose character is even darker than his own. He ruined his nation. His final act, the event that signaled his doom, was the seizure of a property next door to the palace. Ahab wanted the property. The owner wouldn't sell. When Ahab whined to his wife, Jezebel, about this frustration of his desire, she arranged for the neighbor, a man named Naboth, to be framed for treason and blasphemy. After Naboth was executed, Ahab expropriated the property.

God directed the prophet Elijah to deliver a rebuke to the king. Elijah found the king on the grounds of the confiscated estate. When the prophet confronted him, King Ahab exclaimed:

"So, my enemy, you have found me!"
 "Yes," Elijah answered, "I have come because you have sold yourself to what is evil in the LORD's sight. Now this is what the LORD says, 'I will bring disaster on you and consume you. I will destroy every one of your male descendants, slave and free alike, anywhere in Israel!
I am going to destroy your family . . . for you have made me very angry and have led Israel into sin. As for your wife, Jezebel, dogs will eat her body here in Naboth's yard. The members of your family who die in the city will be eaten by dogs, and those who die in the field will be eaten by vultures."

The Bible writer then inserts this comment: No one else so completely sold himself to what was evil in the LORD's sight as Ahab did under the influence of his wife Jezebel.

But notice what comes next:

When Ahab heard this message, he tore his clothing, dressed in burlap, and fasted. He even slept in burlap and went about in deep mourning. God sent another message to Elijah:
"Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has done this, I will not do what I promised during his lifetime. It will happen to his sons; I will destroy his dynasty."

Who is this God? Like mothers in this congregation who have tried a thousand times to save their son. Mothers who have cried and gotten angry and scolded, and tried being nice and tried being tough. Mothers who have dreaded to go to sleep because they don't know where their son is sleeping tonight. Mothers who are afraid to wake up because who knows what bad news will come in the morning. Mothers whose hearts are numb with decades of bad news. . . . But let that son take the slighest step in the right direction. Let him merely mention going back into rehab. Let him for just one day, act like a responsible son and and do something helpful at home. Let that son for get a job and hold it for three weeks. And that numb heart leaps for joy. It's completely unreasonable, but it is the natural response of a heartbroken parent. Three decades of proof after proof after heartbreaking proof that their child is beyond fixing. Then their son shows some bit of humanity, a little bit of responsibility, an ounce of conscience, and the numb heart leaps. We tell our friends, our closest friends, the ones we can trust not to mock us, not to shake their heads, at least not while we are watching.

This is God and Ahab. For twenty years God had sent rebuke after scolding after lecture to Ahab through various prophets. Over and over Ahab showed his weakness, his inability to take even two steps away from mess he was making of things. In many ways his story reads like the story of an addiction, Ahab's drug of choice was Jezebel. We can imagine him blaming Jezebel but that would be
just another sign of his own failure. He was king. He could do what he wanted. And his desire to do right was less vital than other desires that dragged him and his nation down.

It is a miserable, heartbreaking story. Ahab is weak and evil. God is exasperated and angry.
Finally, God is finished. God announces doom. Irrevocable, total doom. And Ahab has earned it. You can imagine angels in heaven cheering when God finally says, “I've had enough. I'm through.” The angels all say, “It's about time.”

Then for a day or two Ahab acts like he's sorry. And does God do? He calls out to his prophet, “Elijah, Have you seen Ahab's repentance?”

It's a crazy question. What person in his right mind would Ahab's repentance seriously? The answer is no one. But parents are not reasonable. Our love for our kids is not reasonable. It just is. And when our wayward, perverse children give us some slight sign that maybe, finally they are turning around, our hearts leap. We hope again. We renew our prayers.

This is God.

Unreasonably, God hopes again that his son Ahab will do right. God dreams that his wandering son will come home. It's crazy.

As much as any other story in the Bible, this tale of God and Ahab connects God and us. God has hopes for Ahab. God gets frustrated, hurt, and angry. Ahab is weak. He is evil. He should do better. He could do better. He making a mess. Stop it, God screams. Stop it. Stop it. Ahab doesn't. God finally announces the ultimate tough response. Doom. Ahab's dynasty is over. His family is going to be obliterated. This is just. Ahab has used up all his chances and a million extra beyond what is reasonable.

Then for a few days, he appears to be sorry. For just a little while he repents. And God swoons with hope.

“Elijah, did you see? Have you seen Ahab?”

That's what God is like.

That is what we are like.

This is what I am like. I am a prisoner of hope.

Last week during children's story, a kid leaned over to me and announced in an excited whisper, “This week, I had dry pants three mornings!” I loved it. Not, “four days this week I failed” but “three mornings this week I was a champion.”

We handle the failures. They are non-events. Non-news. Unremarkable. We forgive them and look to a better future.

But its the successes that hold our attention. The barest, slightest, fuzziest successes. Yes! Yes!

May God grant that this light-hearted truth of ordinary childhood may penetrate deep into our souls. May we join with God in noticing even the repentance of Ahab. And find hope for ourselves and hope for our world.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Whose Side Are You On?

Sermon for Sabbath, February 25, 2017
At Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

Joshua was God's man. No doubt about it. Moses, the famous leader of the Hebrew people, the invincible leader who had led them out of slavery in Egypt and had managed this horde of uncivilized former slaves for forty years had died. Joshua was the new leader, the new chief.

The succession had been announced by Moses before he died, and now God confirmed it by appearing to Joshua. God appeared to Joshua and announced, “I was with Moses. I will be with you. Moses got the people out of Egypt. You are going to get them into the Promised Land. Moses brought them across the Red Sea. You will take them across the Jordan River.” God ended his encounter with Joshua with these words:

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9

It's hard to imagine a more rousing affirmation than this.

Joshua sent two spies across the Jordan River to check out the country ahead. In the city of Jericho they were suspected and would have been arrested except for the quick thinking of an inn-keeper named Rahab. She hid them from the police and told them that the entire population was quaking in fear. According to Rahab, everybody knew that God had promised to give the Hebrews the entire land, that God was on the side of the Hebrews. And everybody had heard about the victories the Hebrews had achieved in their fights with the Egyptians and several other nations. They appeared to be unstoppable. Rahab's own protection of the spies was motivated, at least in part, by her desire to win favor with the invaders. Look, she said, I've saved you life, now you save mine. And the spies agreed to do so.

When they finally made it back to Joshua, the spies reported.

The LORD has surely given the whole land into our hands; all the people are melting in fear because of us.” Joshua 2:24

Joshua must have been pretty pleased to hear this. It's one thing to have a high opinion of our own calling. It is something else when others, especially our enemies, confirm that God is with us, that God is on our side.

Some days later, on the morning the Hebrews were going to cross the Jordan River and enter the land of Palestine proper on the other side, God appeared to Joshua and gave this reassurance:

Today, I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of all Israel, so they may know that I am with you as I was with Moses. Joshua 3:7

It was a dramatic day. The massive crowd of Hebrews marched down to the bank of the Jordan River. At their head were priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant. The priests carried the sacred box down the slope toward the water. The river rolled on in front of them, in spring flood.

The priests finally reached the water and stepped in. At that moment the water from upstream stopped and the water began dropping away downstream. This kept on until the river bed present a bare, gravel path to Palestine.

The people poured across and began setting up camp on the other side. Joshua set up a monument to commemorate this incredible event.

The Bible offers this summary statement.

On that day the LORD magnified Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they feared him, as they feared Moses, all the days of his life. Joshua 4:14

I guess so! Moses opened the Red Sea. Joshua opened the Jordan River. Clearly, God was with Joshua. He was God's “new man.”

News of the crossing raced through the land. The local people had been following the progress of the Hebrews for four decades, ever since they escaped Egypt. Those wild people out there in the desert were a threat. What if they came toward Palestine? In recent months that potential hazard had suddenly become an acute risk. The distant threat became an immediate danger. These wild desert people were now on the wrong side of the river, on the Palestine side. Chapter Five begins:

Now when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the LORD had dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until they had crossed over, their hearts melted in fear and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites. Joshua 5:1

The Israelites were unstoppable. For the Canaanites, the future was dark. The Israelites were on a roll. And God was on their side. And Joshua was God's man.

While Israel was camped there on the west side of the Jordan, Joshua headed out of camp for a walk down by the river. At some point on the walk he suddenly finds himself face to face with a stranger, raised sword in his hand.

I imagine Joshua's hand finding the hilt of his own sword. “Whose side are you on?” Joshua demands. “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

It's a scene right out of the Prince's Bride. I couldn't help myself. As I pictured this scene this week I kept hearing, “My name is Inigo Montoya . . . Prepare to die!”

I wait to see Joshua whip out his sword and launch into a fierce duel.

But it doesn't happen.

“Whose side are you on? Are you for us or for our enemies?”


Neither??????  How can that be? Everyone has heard about the advance of the Hebrews. Everyone knows that all of Palestine is living in dread of these wild desert people. You are either with them or agin' em. There are only two sides. It's us versus them. Whose side are you on?

“I am not on anybody's side. I am the commander of the army of heaven.”

Joshua's hand fell away from his sword. He bowed himself to ground. “I am at your service, Sir. What word do you have for me?”

Take your shoes off. The ground you're on is holy ground.

Joshua removed his shoes.

Note the change of posture.

When Joshua first encountered the stranger, he was full of swagger and bluster. He imagined himself as the greatest, ready to take on every challenge, every challenger.

When Joshua realized who he was talking to, when he encountered God, he bowed.

His language changes. Instead of issuing a challenge, he now voices readiness to accept direction.

This kind of transformation is the mark of direct encounters with God. Meeting God changes us. It creates humility. It creates a readiness to listen.

Again, I want to emphasize, Joshua's idea that his world could be neatly divided into two sides—our side and the enemies—and that God was on his side . . . this was perfectly natural. And it was wrong.

It shows up repeatedly in the history of Israel. It even showed up among the disciples in Jesus' day.

Once the disciple John reported to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name. But he wasn't part of our organization, so we told him to stop. That was the right thing to tell him, right?”


Adventists believe that one of our founders, a woman named Ellen White, had a prophetic gift. We believe God spoke through her. This is wonderful. Unfortunately, fundamentalists among us have fallen into Joshua' error imagining that the spiritual realm can be divided into two camps—friends of Ellen White and enemies.  The current international president even went so far as to urge Adventist universities to invite only friends of Ellen White to speak on their campuses. (A position he has backed away from at least tacitly)

The most famous Christian story of an encounter with God is the story of Saul who became Paul. He was a young zealous conservative scholar on a crusade to protect his people from heresy. The purity of Jewish identity was being threatened by a new community that formed around the disciples of a rabbi named Jesus. This new community included non-Jews, Romans, Etiopians, Syrians, Spaniards, etc.

Saul did everything he could to exterminate this new people. When he had managed to rid Jerusalem of the last public evidences of the community—forcing them into exile or hiding—he asked for authorization to go after the Christians up in Syria. Authorization granted, he headed off with a team to Damascus.

He was on the outskirts of Damascus when God interrupted him. A blinding light stopped him in his tracks.

Who are you?

I am Jesus. The one you have been persecuting.

Saul, the Christian killer, became Paul, the Christian evangelist.

Saul switched sides.

It is generally not a good idea to ask God, are you on our side? You don't really want God on your side. If God is on anyone's side, the Bible is uniform in naming God's side: God is on the side of the loser.

The Bible never says God is on the side of the rich, the successful, the comfortable.
God is not on the side of the rich. And we are rich.

God is not in the side of America. And we are Americans.

God is not on the side of white people. And we are white.

God is not on the side of the powerful. And we are powerful.

God is on the side of foreigners and the lowly and downtrodden, the poor and sick, the blind and lame, the widow and orphan—or in our culture, the single mother abandoned by her children's father.

When we encounter God, the wise response is to bow and ask, What word do you have for me? First God will invite us to remove our shoes. To spend some time being touched, shaped, purified, invigorated by the divine presence. Then God will send us to act as his agents in helping the world take one more step in the right direction.