Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Time Has Come

This is long overdue: I have moved my blog to Wordpress. Please bookmark my new address:

Theoretically, all my old posts should be at Wordpress. That doesn't seem to be working out however as of yet. I can import the post titles and indicators as to how many comments each post has, but there is no text to the posts or comments. Not sure what I can do about that. Of course, all my old posts will still be available here, but anything new will come from them.

I will hopefully get back on the blogging bandwagon again soon. I have not written much lately. I think I will try for shorter, more frequent, thoughts.

As to why I switched, it is obvious: the design options for Blogger are terrible and tacky.

Happy reading and spread the word!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Pastor: Preacher or Comedian?

I made a decision some time ago that when I am preaching, I want to give the audience less of me and more of Jesus. I certainly have not arrived yet, of course. I know that, far too often, there is still a lot of Shawn and little of Jesus.

I am not against using humor in a sermon. I still think there is a place for a little wittiness, a little irony. But I know that in my preaching - especially when speaking to young people - the temptation is to turn the sermon into a stand-up comedy routine. And, though I am not trying to say I am in the funniest guy in the world, I certainly have the capability of running with the best of them when it comes to being humorous in a sermon.

When this happens, though, the focus turns away from Christ and onto me.

We come up with a number of reasons as to why we use so much humor in sermons - you know, breaking the ice with our audience, relating to them, meeting them where they are . . . But I think when humor is a prominent part of our preaching, it stems more from insecurities on a couple levels.

For one, it is because of personal insecurity. As a preacher, we want people to like us, we want people to think we're funny and interesting. We want to be invited to preach far and wide - and humor can go a long way in securing those invitations.

Similarly, when we look into the audience and see blank faces, we worry that we are inadequate as a preacher.

So we reach for the humor.

Ironically, many times when I have seen blank faces in the audience, I have found out later that those precise people are very much engaged and making decisions that have eternal consequences. Indeed, body language doesn't always tell the truth about a person's engagement in the listening process.

Secondly, when we rely upon humor in our preaching it betrays our insecurity when it comes to the very gospel message itself. We are not truly convinced that the power is in the gospel. So we try to make up for a weak gospel by using other gimmicks - with humor being one of them. Sadly, we have a hard time saying with Paul, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16).

The power in one's preaching is in the gospel that is proclaimed not the funny anecdotes that are related. Proclaiming Christ should be that which draws people to sit at our feet, not our personalities.

Of course, I am not trying to speak for other preachers. We are all at different places in our journey and I would never condemn anyone else for where they are in their preaching. I just know that, far too often, I try to justify a funny story or a clever anecdote by stretching the point, even though it truly has little relevance to the larger point I am trying to make. Rather, the story is about me.

But we want our preaching to be about God and His gospel.

So, if we ever hear someone say, in response to our preaching, "Oh, I love listening to him; he's so funny," or if someone were to sit through ten minutes of our sermon and not be able to tell if it's a sermon or a comedy routine, I think we would want to re-evaluate who the sermon is really about.

Let's make it all about Jesus.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Salvation Parable

There were two brothers who both had sons. Each man loved his son very, very much. One year, when the two sons came of age, the two fathers decided together that they would both give their sons a brand new car for Christmas. It would take great hard work to pay for such an expensive gift, but each father, with great love for his son, set out to do all that he could do to make the gift possible.

Throughout the year, both fathers worked extra hours to earn enough money. They denied themselves personal pleasure - all for the sake of acquiring the one goal towards which they were working.

Finally, as Christmas neared, each man had put in enough blood, sweat, and tears to earn enough extra cash to buy the brand new car. With great joy and love, the fathers picked out the cars their sons would surely want. When the two boys were not around, they drove the cars into their garages until they would be unveiled Christmas morning.

When Christmas morning came, each father had butterflies. They were so excited about the joy they would surely see on the faces of each of their sons.

Both fathers decided to place the key for the cars into a small box, wrap it in beautiful wrapping paper, and present it to their sons after all the other presents were opened.

Finally, the time arrived. At their respective homes, each father happily plodded to the Christmas tree, retrieved the small box and then handed it to his son.

As the first father handed the small box to his son, unable to contain his excitement, he joyfully explained how exciting the gift was. "You will absolutely love this gift," he exclaimed. "It is going to be the best gift you have ever gotten." He had to exert extra energy to make sure that he didn't spill the beans as to the contents of the gift before his son opened the box.

Without hesitation, and bursting with anticipation, the son ripped apart the wrapping paper, tore open the box, and saw a bright, shiny, silver key lying inside. "Is this what I think it is?" he shouted. "Yes! Yes! It's in the garage!" his father responded.

Before anyone could blink an eye, the son darted out the front door and ran around to the garage. There, in front of him, was the most beautiful car he had ever seen. He quickly jumped into the front seat, shoved the key into the ignition, and peeled out of the driveway while yelling, "I have to go show my cousin my new car!"

Meanwhile, at the second father's house, things were going a little differently. The second father took a different tactical approach. As he handed the small box to his son, he immediately began explaining to him, "Son, I spent a lot of time working overtime to buy you this gift. But you have to remember something: no matter how much I have put into the gift and how it is free, you still have to open the box." Almost bewildered, the son responded, "What do you mean?"

"Well, I did pay for it. I put in a lot of my blood, sweat and tears. But, technically, the gift is not yours until you open it. You have a part to play in this." He continued, "Granted, opening the gift does not mean you are 'earning,' it, but it isn't yours unless you do open it - you know, put in a little effort yourself. You have to take off the wrapping paper, open the box . . . "

The son was clearly confused. He was having a hard time comprehending what his father was trying to convey. He just stood in the middle of the room, box fully wrapped in hand, mouth open, puzzled by the whole scenario.

At that precise moment, his mother, standing near a window, yelled out, "Hey, there's your cousin, driving a brand new car! He must have gotten it for Christmas!"

"Oh, that must mean that he opened the present - just like you are supposed to do, son!" the father called out. "His father gave him a wonderful present too, but he couldn't enjoy it unless he first opened it."

Utterly confused, the young man sat down on the couch that was directly behind him.

He slumped down in the soft cushions and let out a great big sigh.

As his cousin drove around his new, shiny car all around the neighborhood, he just stared blankly at the ceiling.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

This is My Home

Maybe I am just feeling a little nostalgic right now, having enjoyed another beautiful Sabbath in northern New England, but it is hard to underestimate the significance of one, seemingly mundane decision. Eighteen years ago this summer, I made a decision that would change the course of my life.

I was born and raised in Massachusetts, one of the three states that comprises what is known as southern New England. For much of my childhood, the three New England states that were north of the Massachusetts border - Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine - were anything but relevant to me. Yes, I had aunts and uncles and cousins that lived there, but I had no experience in those three states that captured my imagination - or heart.

In fact, I remember that I would often snicker when I read the bottom of Maine's license plate: Vacationland. "Vacationland?" I used to think, "Who in the world is going to Maine for vacation?" To me, the state - and, to some extent, New Hampshire and Vermont as well - was comprised of remote trailer homes and beat up cars and truck stops and places one would pass through to get somewhere else.

But the summer I turned 13, everything changed.

Growing up, I used to attend Camp Winnekeag, our Seventh-day Adventist youth camp in Massachusetts, just about year-round, it seemed. I would go there for pastors' retreats with my dad, church winter retreats with our church, and summer camp in the summer. Somewhere along the line, I got Camp Winnekeag-ed out. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that when I was there as a summer camper when I was nine or ten, I came down with terrible nausea and I ended up going home early because I was so sick, vomiting everywhere. It was not a pleasant experience.

A few years later, I got the fateful invitation. My cousin, Devin, who lived - and still lives - in New Hampshire, invited me to go with him to Teen Camp at Camp Lawroweld, our Seventh-day Adventist summer camp in East Podunk, err, Weld, Maine. I don't know if I deliberated much over it, or whether I needed much convincing, but I decided to give it a shot and see if the "unsophisticated" folk in Maine could show me a good time.

My uncle Terry, Devin's Dad, drove us from their house in North Conway, New Hampshire, to Weld, Maine. I still remember the drive to this day. After passing beautiful lakes and rushing rivers, we turned onto the dirt road that led to the old camp.

And then it happened. We took the right-hand turn into the entrance of Camp Lawroweld, and it was like a virus was injected into my bloodstream. Northern New England had instantly stolen my heart.

No longer was northern New England trailer homes and trucks stops. It was the sound of a crying, lonely loon, echoing through the night sky across a serene lake. It was singalongs beside a crackling campfire. It was whitewater rafting down daring rivers. It was magnificent views from breathtaking mountaintops.

It was home.

For the next few summers, I returned as a camper to Camp Lawroweld. And then, when I was old enough, I was granted the privilege of working there. It turned into a seven year affair, coupled with trips north for Music Clinics and Camp Meetings and any event I could participate in.

I soon discovered the even greater charm of Maine and northern New England. Lighthouses along the rocky coast. Old fishing villages, lined with lobster traps. White-steepled churches, surrounded by the most brilliant fall colors. Mountaintop lakes, that felt blissful after strenuous hikes. It was nothing but charm and beauty and near-heavenly scenery and experiences.

My senior year of college, I sent my resume to every single Seventh-day Adventist conference in North America. The dozen or so conferences that actually responded all had the same message: thanks, but we're not hiring. I worked that following summer at camp, once again, and then I was prepared to return to Andrews University to enter into the Seminary.

But about a week before camp was over, I got an interesting question from our camp director. He said he got a call from the conference, and they wanted to know how committed I was to going to the Seminary. What started as an innocent question turned into an interview to serve as an interim pastor in Vermont. A few days later, as I was driving with Camille to our place in Nova Scotia, I got the phone call from the conference secretary, asking me if I would be willing to accept the invitation (I still remember the exact spot I turned off route 9 - also affectionately called the "airline" - to field the call on my cell phone. It is, ironically, just a hop, skip, and a jump from where I now pastor).

Since that fateful day 18 years ago, I have wedded my Maine girlfriend, had two children in these northern woods (though not literally, of course), and pastored seven churches. Over the last few years, I have had opportunities to move on; to pastor West or South or somewhere else. But the Lord hasn't nudged me away from this heaven on earth.

It is, after all, the greatest mission field in America as well. And it is mine to conquer.

All because I made a seemingly insignificant decision to attend summer camp at a place I had never heard of.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

It's About a Person

The New Testament phrase "in Christ" (Greek, en christo) has been the topic of much debate throughout its history. Ever since Paul (or Peter, depending on who wrote his epistle first) coined the phrase in the first century AD, the meaning of the phrase has been greatly contested.

I am not necessarily interested in the larger debate, nor am I interested in discussing the nuanced-Adventist debate about whether all were "in Christ" at the cross, etc. That is a discussion for another day. What has piqued my interest is borne out of personal study that I was doing this morning in Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians.

In 1 Corinthians 1:4, Paul writes, "I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus." This is how the New King James Version renders it, at least. The phrase "by Christ" is a translation of the Greek en christo, however, which has caused most other major translations to render it "in Christ Jesus."

The difference may seem nuanced and minor but the theological distinction is interesting - however subtle it may seem. What Paul is thankful for is that the Corinthians have been given the "grace of God." But how has that grace been given? One way renders it "by," the other "in."

Is there a difference?

Does it make a difference?

The first way, "by," seems to imply agency or means. In other words, God gave the Corinthians grace, and the instrument by which He gave that grace was through Jesus. Thus, Jesus simply becomes a vehicle by which God gives us something. God "uses" Jesus, in some ways, to accomplish an end. Subsequently, the Corinthians also "use" Jesus to receive that which God wants to give them.

This almost makes Jesus an impersonal instrument. He is simply a go-between, a middle Man.

While there may be some truth to the overall concept, it seems to betray our attitudes more than Paul's intent. We seem to use Jesus more as a means to an end rather than as an end itself. Jesus went to the cross to die for our sins, we essentially think, so that God could give us grace, be happy with us, and we can live forever. Then we go to Jesus so we can receive something from God through Him.

And Jesus is only good insofar as He provides something for us.

But I don't think this is what Paul meant when he used the phrase en christo. I think many versions are correct when they translate the phrase "in Christ," which is its most natural rendering. When Paul says that the Corinthians were given the "grace of God . . . in Christ," I believe that Paul was saying that Christ, Himself, was the grace. Though I am probably not on strong syntactical grounds, the Greek construct that is used (a dative) perhaps could be that of content or material. Thus, we do not go to Jesus to receive grace; we go to Jesus because He essentially consists of grace.

So instead of going to Jesus to receive grace, we go to Jesus Himself because He is grace. When God gave grace, He gave us Jesus - not as an instrument to deliver that grace to us, but as the grace itself.

Let us, therefore, not go to Jesus to receive something, but to receive someone - namely, Christ Himself.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

More Grace-Oriented Than Jesus

(While searching through the archives of our magazine New England Pastor, I came across this editorial I wrote in May 2009. I thought it might scratch where someone is itching today.)

I don’t know about you, but I continue to grapple with the balance between emphasizing the so-called “positive” elements of the Gospel and the not-so-glorious components of it. There is a constant tension in my mind between calling sin by its right name and yet uplifting the love and forgiveness of the Savior. This tension plays out in the sermons I preach, the articles I write, the interactions I share with members and non-members alike.

This tension also finds its way into the conversations I have with some of my parishioners. I find that some of the saints want stronger messages against sin and the follies of this world, while others are quite uncomfortable with anything other than a “grace-oriented” sermon coming from my lips. Such individuals have openly told me that they will not invite their non-Adventist friends so long as they do not feel it is “safe” to bring them, in fear that they will hear a sermon that talks about the negatives of the Gospel.

This sentiment is shared by many, of course. I’ve heard of numerous churches that have moved more towards a “grace-oriented” style of church, hoping to be more “seeker-friendly” and welcoming to visitors. And, truth be told, if it were left up to me, I would prefer this type of approach completely. My personality and interests are such that I enjoy uplifting Christ’s love and forgiveness and grace more than dwelling on the “negatives” of Christianity.

The problem is, when we pursue such an approach exclusively, we may find that we are actually acting a little more grace-oriented than Christ Himself did. It’s funny how selective we are when it comes to the Gospel story. After all, the same Jesus who said, “Neither do I condemn you,” to the woman caught in adultery, also said, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).[i]  The same Christ who declared, “My peace I give to you,” (John 14:27) also curiously stated, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword,” (Matthew 10:34).  This is also the same Guy, by the way, who pulled no punches when He called the Pharisees “snakes” and a “brood of vipers,” (Matthew 23:33) and gave no greater endorsement to any human being than to John the Baptist, whose ministry probably wouldn’t exactly be considered “PC,” were he alive today.

The other problem is that such an approach is also incredibly imbalanced. And in an age when the buzz word is “balance,” we cannot afford to be anything but. Thus, in order to be balanced, we must be willing to share the good and the bad. A physician’s career would be short-lived if he or she only gave out positive diagnoses and nice, red lollipops to all of his or her patients. Similarly, merely dwelling on forgiveness all the time doesn’t do a whole lot of good if people don’t recognize that they need to be forgiven in the first place.

Perhaps the biggest problem of all, however, is that such an emphasis on grace is not really giving a full picture of grace at all. The truth is, this five-letter word has been incredibly watered-down throughout its history. You see, grace involves forgiveness and pardon, yes, but that is not it. Grace is also about power to leave the life of sin and selfishness behind. “When God goes about providing grace to men and women of faith, it is an ethical matter and not merely a judicial act leading to legal fiction,” Hebert Douglass writes. “The gospel is concerned about redemption, not legal transactions. Grace liberates men and women of faith from their sins by helping them to overcome them, not cover them by some kind of theological magic or legal fiction—and then call all this ‘righteousness by faith.’ ”[ii]

This is, after all, certainly what Paul meant when he talked about grace. “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men,” he informed Titus. “It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11, 12, NIV). For Paul, God’s grace could accomplish much more than simply overlooking past mistakes. It could actually take root in the believer’s life and teach him or her how to be transformed into the image of Christ from glory to glory.[iii]

So here’s a call to truly be “grace-oriented.” Let’s give our parishioners and “seekers” the full picture of grace. Let’s show them a picture of a Savior who not only pardons their sins, but tells them that they have a problem to begin with, and can give them the power to overcome. Such will be the most refreshing picture of grace they have ever seen.

[i] Scriptures taken from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.
[ii] Herbert E. Douglass, Should We Ever Say, “I Am Saved”? (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 2003), 71.
[iii] See 2 Corinthians 3:18.