Monday, June 13, 2016

Are You Mad Yet?

A few years back, I heard a powerful sermon from my friend, Pastor Keith Gray. The sermon was entitled, Are You Mad Yet? Keith talked about the problems that we face in this world, bringing them up one by one, and with each one, he would ask, Are you mad yet? As he preached, he reminded us that the reason for all of the things that hurt us in this world come from one place - an enemy, whose goal is to create as much hurt and pain as he possibly can. Keith suggested that if we're going to get mad about the things we see in the world around us, we should be getting mad at the one who causes it - the enemy.

In one of my college classes that I taught at Kettering College, we used as a text the book, The Shack, by William P. Young. The book is a story that seeks to address the question, If God is good, why is there evil in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people? The book is well written, and led to many great conversations in class. The problem I have with the book, however, is that while trying to explain the existence of evil in this world, Young never once mentions the enemy, the one responsible for the evil.

Now contrast this with the accounts of the life of Jesus as written by the gospel writers. In those accounts, there is no way to miss the existence and the work of the enemy. Jesus faces him head on. We see their battle in the wilderness, after Jesus' baptism. We see Jesus casting demons out of those possessed. We see the battle as it leads to Calvary. We see Jesus rising victorious on the third day. One cannot read scripture without seeing that there is an enemy - he is real, and he hates God with all his passion.

Peter, writing about him in his epistle, says, "Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour." Satan is real, and he is working to destroy as many as he can.

He has one goal, and that is to make God look as bad as he can. He knows he has already lost the battle, but he continues to fight until the end. If he can't take God down, he'll take down as many people as he can, the objects of God's deepest love.

Now, if he were just to destroy people, it would be bad enough. But if he can get people to destroy each other, and do it in the name of God, then it's a double victory for him. He doesn't care if those people claim the name of Christians, Muslims - whatever it might be - destroying in the name of religion suits him just fine. The world looks on, and says, If that's what God is all about, I want nothing to do with Him.

With the events of the weekend in Orlando, social media is filled with conversation, seeking someone to blame. There are plenty of fingers being pointed - at Muslims, at gays, at politicians, at gun control advocates, at gun control opposers. The game can go on forever. I would suggest we need to look at this event, and the altogether too many like it that happen around the world, through different eyes. To me, I can only begin to understand what's happening when I look at it through the paradigm of this great battle between Jesus and Satan. Satan knows that his time is short. He will continue to attack as often as possible. He wants to take as many down with him as he can.

We need to recognize that there is an enemy. That enemy is not human - not Muslims, not gays, not Christians, not any of the people around us. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, said, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." There, my friends, is the enemy.

So what does that mean for us? I believe that for those who are followers of God, it means that we start by loving each other, treating all people as brothers and sisters, rather than enemies. I believe that it calls us to proclaim a different message about our God than the one the enemy wants us to believe. We need to proclaim and show His love, so the world will see the enemy for who he really is, as they see God for who He really is. I suggest we follow the example of Chick-Fil-A, as they served sandwiches on Sunday to those giving blood to help the survivors. I suggest we follow the example of the Forest Lake Seventh-day Adventist Church, who have offered their service to families of the victims, offering a place and resources for funerals and grieving at no charge. I suggest we ask ourselves, How can we show love to those the enemy wants to destroy?

I believe there is a God, and that He is love. I believe there is an enemy, and he is out to destroy. So my friend, Are you mad yet?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Response to "My Journey Away from Contemporary Worship Music"

Dan Cogan recently wrote a blog which has been posted and passed around quite a bit on social media. In his blog, Cogan tells why he has nearly stopped using contemporary music in worship, in favor of the richness of the content of the old hymns.  You can read his article here:

The root of Cogan's argument is that there is much greater depth in the theology found in the old hymns than that found in contemporary worship songs. For this reason, he suggests that our worship services should make much greater use of hymns than of contemporary songs.

I am personally blessed by the great hymns of the faith. When I sing songs like A Mighty Fortress or Great Is Thy Faithfulness, the lyrics speak to a deep place in my soul, and remind me of the greatness of our God, and the wonder of His faithfulness. Those who know me well know that I find hymns to be a wonderful part of my worship experience.

However, I find that the argument falls short in a number of areas. I recently had a conversation with a dear friend who suggested that the hymns are the cake, the contemporary songs are the icing. My friend finds that with icing on the cake, a little goes a long way. He, like Cogan, believes that there is much more theological depth in the hymnal than on the screen in our contemporary worship service.

So out of curiosity, I pulled up my SDA Hymnal app on my phone. I looked at the lyrics of the first 100 songs in the hymnal. What I saw in these first one hundred surprised me. The songs are beautiful, the words are stirring, but there truly isn't a lot of depth. Hymn number 2, All Creatures of Our God and King, for example, is an invitation to praise.

All creatures of our God and King/Lift up your voice with us and sing/Alleluia! Alleluia!/O burning sun with golden beam/And silver moon with softer gleam/Oh, praise Him! Oh praise Him!/Alelluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Beautiful? Absolutely! Theological depth? Not really. Many of these first one hundred songs are calls to worship, focused on God's character and love and our response to Him. I would suggest that these are the same themes as many contemporary worship songs that are often looked down on for lack of depth.

One of the criticisms contemporary songs receive is about repetition. So I was intrigued by the lyrics of hymn 69, Lord, Make Us More Holy:

Lord, make us more holy/Lord, make us more holy/Lord, make us more holy/Until we meet again.

The second verse continues this idea, praying: Lord, make us more faithful. Third verse: Lord, make us more humble. Final verse: Lord, make us more loving. This very repetitious hymn comes from our hymnal.

These examples show us that inclusion in a hymnal doesn't make a song good, rich, or deep. When choosing hymns, one should look carefully at the lyrics, and ask, Does this song express the truths we wish to bring forth in this service? Some will, many won't.

The same is true of contemporary worship songs. A Spirit-led worship leader will choose songs carefully for the worship service. A service may open with a song which expresses the same kind of call to worship as All Creatures of Our God and King, referenced above. This might be a song such as Matt Redman's 10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord). Later in the service, one might choose a song with more theological depth, such as In Christ Alone, by Keith and Kristyn Getty. The service may end with a song of response. In a hymn-based service, this might be something like Just As I Am. In a contemporary service, one might use a song like Jesus At the Center, by Israel Houghton.

In both old hymns and new songs, there is a wonderful variety. There are songs that call us to worship, songs about the love of God, songs about the science of salvation, songs that call us to obedience, songs of response. No matter what type of worship service, songs should be chosen because of what they say, not just because it has a catchy melody.

Having said all that, I now come to the heart of my problem with Cogan's argument. It seems to me that promoting the content of the old hymns over contemporary songs is saying that God isn't doing anything new today. It gives the impression that all the truth that can be sung was written over a hundred years ago. We must not have anything to add to it today. The problem is that this paints a very poor picture of God. It says that God was once active in His church, but isn't any longer.

I want my preacher to preach sermons based on what God is doing in his life today, and in the life of the church. I want the sermon to answer the question, What do the truths of God's words have to do with my life today? There are great old sermons that we should listen to or read, by preachers such as Spurgeon or HMS Richards. But if these were preached every week from the pulpit, we would question their relevance. We need something new, something fresh. Adventists like to use the phrase "present truth." Along the same line, I love to read old books. I'm blessed to read from Ellen White, Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, and many others. But I also want to read what today's scholars and theologians are writing. I love to read Jon Paulien and Max Lucado. Their words and thoughts are fresh, and relevant. Why shouldn't the songs I sing at church echo this? Give me the richness of the old hymns, but let's also keep writing and singing new songs, expressing what God is doing in our lives today. In too many churches, there hasn't been a new song sung in years. The service is a memorial of what God has done in the past, but not a celebration of what He's doing today. God said I AM the One who was, and is, and is to come. We too often let Him just be the One who was.

I have heard it expressed what a tragedy it is that today's kids are growing up without knowing the beauty and the richness of the old hymns. I agree with this. It is just as tragic that today's seniors are not experiencing the beauty of such current expressions of faith as How Great Is Our God and Revelation Song.

Old hymns, new songs. Our churches need both. One gives us roots, the other gives us wings.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Decision to Suspend "Rich Man and Lazarus" Comes With Strong Endorsement for Creative Outreach

Seventh-day Adventist world church leadership today announced their decision to remove "The Rich Man and Lazarus" from Luke 16, but agreed to explore the possibility of supporting similar creative storytelling.

The decision came after carefully reviewing the parable Jesus told, which dramatizes the eternal fate of two individuals. Seventh-day Adventist church leaders from different parts of the world and the world headquarters evaluated the parable, participated in the discussions and the decision-making process.

"Seventh-day Adventist world church leadership is committed to using and developing creative methods of outreach that are faithful to Scripture and Seventh-day Adventist ideals to reach segments of the population that will never be impacted by traditional evangelism," said world church president, Ted N. C. Wilson.

"The Rich Man and Lazarus" tells the story of two men who died after living very different lives on earth. In Jesus' story, the rich man goes to Hades, while Lazarus, who had been a beggar during his earthly life, lands in Heaven. A conversation follows between the two, in which the rich man begs Lazarus to send messages to his earthly family who are still alive, warning them about what is to come.

Seventh-day Adventist Church theology sees the state of the dead as an important teaching, one that is central to making sense of what happens after this life.

The church's Biblical Research Institute provided a biblical analysis of some of the problematic and theologically inaccurate matters raised in Jesus' parable. In addition, church leaders were looking for a much more accurate portrayal of the church's understanding of what happens after death

While Jesus prepared Bible studies to accompany the parable and encourage further study, according to the Biblical Research Institute, the content of "The Rich Man and Lazarus" would have put the church in the difficult position of endorsing the misrepresentation of biblical truth while at the same time offering studies which conflicted with the parable. This would invite misunderstandings and cause confusion.

Church leaders at the world headquarters expressed their continued desire to produce creative stories that would be in harmony with Scripture and capture the attention of people seeking divine truth.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Naughty or Nice?

“He’s making a list/he’s checking it twice/gonna find out who’s naughty or nice/Santa Claus is coming to town.” 

“So,” Santa asked, “what do you want for Christmas?”  I listed all the toys I’d been circling in the Sears catalog.  “Well, have you been a good boy this year?”

How do you answer that when you’re 6 years old?  I knew the answer wasn't always yes.  I’d disobeyed my folks, I’d made my little sister’s life miserable as much as I could…a whole year is an awfully long time to be good.  But if I told the truth, I knew I wouldn't get any presents.  So I lied to Santa about how good I’d been.

To my 6-year-old mind, that’s what Santa was about – be good if you want good things.  How easy is it to think that God works the same way?  If you live right, you get God’s blessings.  If you don’t, then watch out.

But the two names given in the Christmas narrative tell another story.  In Matthew 1:23, we find His name is Emmanuel, God With Us.  It’s not Us With God, but God With Us.  He takes the initiative – He comes to us.  In verse 21 we find His name is Jesus, “because He will save His people from their sins.”

These names tell me that the work is His, not mine.  He comes, He saves.  Not once in these verses does it ask if I've been good.  Instead, it assumes I haven’t, which is why He has to come in the first place.

This Christmas, I’m thankful for a God who steps into my messy world, and does for me what I cannot do for myself.  No, Jesus, I can’t say I've been good.  But I’m so thankful that You are.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Hurt by His Followers

Last night I was watching the fourth installment of Mark Burnett's mini-series, "The Bible," on The History Channel.  One scene in particular jumped out at me, one that often gets overlooked when the story of Jesus' arrest is told.

Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He asks the disciples to pray, as He goes deeper into the garden to pray Himself.  The disciples fall asleep, but Jesus agonizes in prayer, begging for "this cup to be taken from Me."  In the end, He surrenders Himself to the Father's will.  Soon after, Judas leads the crowd into the garden, and the soldiers capture Jesus.  The disciples, awakened from their slumber, see what's happening, and they're ready to fight.  They promised Jesus they would stand by Him, and now's their chance to prove it. Peter pulls out a sword, and in the melee, he cuts off Malchus' ear.  Malchus is the high priest's servant.  He falls to the ground in pain, as the fight continues.

But then Jesus speaks up:  "Peter, put away your sword.  He who lives by the sword will die by the sword." Then, in the middle of the fighting, the confusion, Jesus reaches out and touches Malchus' ear.  He heals him. There's Jesus, being arrested, about to be put to death - and He's still doing what He's spent His ministry doing:  bringing healing to others.

What jumped out at me as I watched this on the TV was who the characters were:  Peter,  follower of Christ; Malchus, servant to Jesus' enemy, the high priest.  Peter was doing what seemed like the right thing - fighting for Jesus.  In his zeal, he inflicts great pain on whoever is standing nearest, in order to protect His Lord.  But Jesus makes it clear that what seemed to Peter to be the right thing, really wasn't.  Peter, in spite of His zeal, missed what Jesus was doing.  Then Jesus stepped in and brought healing.

Maybe you've been hurt by the followers of Jesus.  So many Christians stand up for Jesus, for what is right, and though they may not swing a sword,they brandish words that create deep hurt.  They think what they are doing is the right thing, and their zeal is admirable.  But they miss what Jesus really calls us to do, to bring healing.  So, since we don't do what we should, He does.  He brings the healing to those who've been hurt, even when the hurt comes from His followers.

As I write, I realize that I'm Peter far too often.  Maybe my words have caused hurt.  I pray that God would open my eyes and let me see through His, that I might make things right, that I might be an instrument of healing.

So, for those who have been hurt by His followers, whether it was me or someone else in the church - I pray that you will see Jesus reaching out to you, with the healing touch that only He can provide, the touch that can make you whole again.

Friday, August 10, 2012


"Unity" is a hot topic in the Adventist church right now.  Church leadership has issued statements, declaring that unity is the most important thing for our church to focus on.  They quote Jesus' prayer in John 17, in which Jesus prays that His followers would all be one, as He and the Father are one.  This sounds good, until one understands the issues behind it.

The Adventist church currently does not ordain women as pastors.  Women can serve as pastors, but their title is "commissioned" pastor, rather than "ordained" pastor.  For the past 40-50 years, there have been those in the church who have felt this is inappropriate, that it is discrimination against women, as well as a refusal to recognize the work and gifts of the Holy Spirit in women.  The church has studied the issue for decades, and each study has concluded that there is no theological reason to withhold ordination.  My dear friends in the Southern Baptist denomination will disagree with that, but this is the conclusion our denomination has come to.

In spite of this conclusion from many studies, there are many Adventists around the world who still believe it is inappropriate to ordain women, opinions largely shaped by the cultures they live in.  Since these church members represent a large majority of the Adventist church membership, the General Conference has continued to withhold ordination of women, mostly through delay tactics when the subject is brought up.

Two weeks ago, however, the Columbia Union Conference, which represents a number of states in the eastern United States, voted to move forward with ordination of women.  (It is the union conferences which approve candidates for ordination.)  The membership here believes that the current practice is wrong, is discriminatory, and fails to recognize the gifts of the Spirit in some of the church's members, based on gender.  The union delegates voted to move forward, in spite of opposition from the church leadership.

In response, the General Conference president, along with the thirteen world division leaders, have issued calls for unity.  They have sent strong appeals that no other union follow the example of the Columbia Union, and that the Columbia Union reconsider its action.  They suggest that this vote threatens the unity of the church, and that this unity is more important than the union's "unilateral" decision to move separately from the official policy of the world church (though there is disagreement as to what the policy actually states.)

Much has been written about this in the last two weeks - on Facebook, blogs, and other Adventist media.  So why am I writing this today?  Because it touches on an issue I have thought about for many years - the unity of the church.  I agree with our president, Elder Wilson, that unity is extremely important.  Indeed, Jesus did pray that His followers would be one.  Paul writes to the Ephesians, "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." (Eph 4:3)

But through the years I have realized that this church is full of divisions, many of which will never be overcome. One example is the division over worship styles. There are many Adventists who find contemporary worship to be very meaningful and relevant.  They enjoy worshiping through music styles that they can relate to.  They are blessed by worship services that are interactive, and include a variety of elements, such as drama and video.  On the other hand, there are many who prefer a much more conservative and traditional worship service.  They enjoy the music of the organ and the choir, and the traditional liturgy they have been blessed by for many years.  The solution seems simple:  provide different services so people can choose.  The problem is that each of these two groups feel that the other is in the wrong.  Many of those who prefer the traditional service feel that bringing contemporary music into the service is wrong, that current music styles have no place in the church.  They would suggest that this music is from the evil one, and that using it in worship is bringing worldly elements into the church, and is the beginning of a "creeping compromise."

At the same time, many of those who prefer contemporary worship look down on the conservatives, feeling that they are stuck in their ways, living in the past, and that their worship is not relevant to the world today.  They suggest that we will never bring our unchurched neighbors into the church by using dated and worn methods and worship styles.  In the end, both sides distrust one another.  And while some may think it's just a matter of personal taste, it ends up much bigger than that, especially since one group feels that it is not about taste, but about right and wrong.

So here's an area of division that appears to me to have no way of coming to agreement.  Both sides will continue to disagree with the other side.  The question I've wondered about for years is this:  Recognizing this division, and realizing that the two sides will never agree, how do we find unity with each other?  How do we learn to love each other, to show that love, in spite of disagreement?  Do I have to demand that you agree with me in order to have unity?  Do I need to change my ways, even though I disagree, in order to have unity?

There are other examples.  Racial issues still divide our denomination.  Theological issues, such as Last Generation Theology, divide us.  There are many areas in which we don't have agreement between our members.  So how does Jesus' prayer in John 17, and Paul's counsel to the Ephesians, apply to us as a church?  Can we have unity, when we have so many divisions?

Jesus tells us in John 13 that His disciples will be recognized by the love they have for one another.  It seems that this is the only place our unity can be found.  If my fellow church member disagrees with me, can I love them anyway?  Can I have fellowship with a member of the church across town who doesn't like the way I play my guitar in church?  Can we still work together for the kingdom of God, even though we disagree?  Can we still call each other brother and sister, without demanding that the other change the way they do things?  I would suggest that this is the only way we can have unity.  Our unity is not in doing things the same way.  It's not in getting rid of all disagreement.  It comes from loving each other in Jesus in spite of our differences.  The world will not say, "Look how united these people are - one group gave up its policy for the sake of the other."  It will instead see unity when it can say, "Look how much these people love each other, even in their differences."

Lord Jesus, make us one, even as You and the Father are one...

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Halloween, good; Christmas, bad...

Halloween will be here in just a few days.  Costumes, candy, trick-or-treating...  I have great memories of going door to door as a kid, collecting bags of candy.  I loved (and still love) carving pumpkins.

Many Christians, however, feel that we shouldn't be a part of the Halloween celebration.  They point to its pagan origin, and question why we would take part in such a ritual.  And I must say, I agree with them to a point.  I'm not bothered as much by its origin as I am by the way it's celebrated today.  Basically, Halloween is a celebration of death.  People decorate their yards with tombstones.  They hang what appears to be dead bodies from trees.  They go to haunted houses where actors replay scenes from the most gruesome and violent horror movies ever made.  We celebrate death and call it entertainment.

Here's the problem - as I read scripture, death is not something to be celebrated.  Death is the tool of the enemy.  "By one man sin entered the world, and death by sin..."  "The wages of sin is death..."  Why would we celebrate something so terrible?  Death isn't part of God's plan.  He came to destroy death, to give us life.  So, quite honestly, I want nothing to do with glorifying death, giving glory to the enemy.

There's really only one death that's worth celebrating, one death that brings us life, and that's the death of Jesus.  If we're going to celebrate death, let's celebrate that one, because it purchased our salvation.  And the One who died didn't stay there, but is alive today.  For that death, I'm thankful.

So what do we do with this holiday that our neighbors are celebrating?  What do we do when the neighborhood kids are going door to door?  Do we turn out the lights and pretend we're not home?  Turning to scripture, I ask, What did Paul do with pagan celebrations?  In the book of Acts, we find Paul talking with the people of Athens.  He sees an altar with the inscription, "To an unknown god."  The people of Athens would worship anything, even things they couldn't identify.  In the midst of this pagan culture, Paul said, "Let me tell you about this unknown god."  He then proceeded to tell them about the God of Heaven, and His great salvation.  Paul took this pagan celebration, and redeemed it for Jesus.  Can we do the same with Halloween?

Author and songwriter John Fischer suggests that, as Christians, we should be out there with our neighbors on this holiday.  We should be going door to door with our kids, meeting our neighbors, building relationships.  We should be giving the best candy, the biggest candy, so that those around will say, "Go to that house - theirs is the best!" instead of, "Those Christians have nothing to do with us."  This makes sense to me.  We don't have to decorate in ways that celebrate death.  Just be willing to be part of the community, to be salt and light by simply being there, and giving the best stuff. 

So now, let's get to the title statement of this blog, "Halloween, good; Christmas, bad..."  What's this all about?

I would suggest that, as they are celebrated today by our society, Halloween is good and Christmas is bad.  Think about it: at Christmas, kids are asked, "Have you been a good boy or girl?"  If they have, then they get good presents.  If they haven't, they get a lump of coal in their stocking.  So what they get depends entirely on their behavior all year.  If they get good gifts, it's because they earned it.

Halloween, on the other hand, is all about grace.  When I come to your door trick-or-treating, I'm looking my worst.  I've put on my scariest, ugliest costume.  Then I've even threatened you - "Trick or treat!"  And what do you do?  You reach into your bowl and give me some candy.  Why?  Because you're a nice person.  I came at my worst, and you gave me your best.  That is a picture of grace.  Isn't that what God does?  We come at our worst - our scariest, our ugliest, covered in sin - and He gives His best.  He clothes us with His righteousness.  He promises us eternity.  Not because we're nice, but because He is. 

So this Halloween, I'll be sitting in my driveway with a big bowl of candy, porch lights shining, and representing God's grace to the kids in my neighborhood.  Happy Halloween!