Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Reading Through the Bible

One of the greatest experiences of my life was reading through the entire Bible. I've only accomplished this once, sadly, but it was such a wonderful experience. I have had ambitions to do it numerous times since, but, of course, like so many others, I have been held up right around the end of Exodus or the beginning of Leviticus.

Well, I am not one for New Year's resolutions, but I do feel that God is inviting me to "taste and see" His goodness again this year. And so, I am accepting His invitation to explore the depths of His love in the Bible.

And now I am trying to come up with a plan. When I did it before, I followed the Amazing Facts plan where you read through four different sections (two in the OT, and two in the NT) at one time. I enjoyed this, but I almost feel like it was "cheating," as if I wasn't getting a true experience of reading through the Bible.

So I've been looking around the Internet for another plan, and I came across this wonderful site that has many different options. It is Bibleyear.com and they have many different ways that you can read through the Bible. The first way, of course, is simply reading straight through the Bible. Another way is to read through it chronologically (where the events are placed in chronilogical order), and yet another historically (where the books are placed in chronological sequence from when they were written). These two options are a bit subjective, of course, because no one knows when the events or books were really written, but I might try them.

Whichever way is attempted, I would encourage you to pick your Bible up and give it a try as well! As I said, it is very rewarding.

Will you join me?

Merry Christmas, and All That

I just wanted to extend warm holiday greetings to everyone. I apologize for the fact that I have not written in a while. Christmas and New Year's and all that can get pretty busy. I had a great time with family and friends, but I got sick along the way. In fact, my sister, my brother-in-law, my mother, my brother, and I have all gotten sick with a stomach bug. So far, I've thrown up the most! (Hooray for me!) The only ones who have not been stricken with this unfortunate ailment are my dad, my wife, and little niece. We're taking bets on who will be the last man/woman/girl standing.

Until I get back into the blog mode, enjoy a picture below of my litte niece going on her first sledding adventure last week in my parents' front yard.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

KJV Only, Please!

Note: The following is an e-mail I recently sent to someone who goes to one of my churches. He is a very bright young man, who has informed me that the King James Version is the only Bible we should be reading. He is not one of these typically closed-minded individuals who is just trying to cause an annoyance. I detect in him a sincere desire to know the truth. This desire recently led him to our small country church, and even though we have only 10 other persons at the church (all at least 20 years older than him) he has stuck with us. Truth matters.

He relies heavily on Dr. Walter Veith, and until I talked with him about it recently, I thought that KJV-only advocates were simply fundamentalists who closed-mindedly wanted to stick to the old English. But their arguments are a little more in-depth than that, and their main argument is that the KJV is based on better Greek manuscripts. Of course, after watching the Veith video, I am not convinced by their arguments. Below is my response to him, with my four main arguments as to why this theory does not hold water.

1. Lack of evidence.
At the beginning of Veith's video, he makes the claim that the "family" in which the Textus Receptus comes from most closely resembles the original manuscripts. However, there is just no evidence, whatsoever, to support this claim. The same can be said of the Codex Sinaiticus, of course, as well as any other manuscript that is anything other than the original. The fact is, we do not have the original manuscripts that the apostles wrote and so any claim that such and such a manuscript most closely resembles the original is pure conjecture.

The other challenge is that the Textus Receptus is anything but perfect itself. Erasmus originally created it based on two 12th century MSS. The one manuscript that he was working from on the book of Revelation was completely missing the last 6 verses of the book. So Erasmus took the Latin Vulgate version of it and translated it back into Greek. This is hardly good scholarship.

Erasmus also placed the famous Comma Johanneum in 1 John himself, even though there was not one Greek MS at the time that he consulted with that included these words. He informed others that he would place it in the TR if he could find one MS that supported this. Not surprisingly, someone came up with a MS that had this phrase, but even Erasmus was suspicious that the person placed it in there on his behalf (and he made a note of this suspicion). Since Erasmus' day, three MSS have been found with the phrase: a twelfth-century MS with it written in the margin in a sixteenth-century hand, a sixteenth-century MS copy of the Polyglot Greek text, and a fourteenth- (or as some argue a sixteenth-) century MS. The phrase seems to have originated in a fourth-century Latin work.

2. Little significance. Even if, for the sake of argument, the King James is based on "better" manuscripts, the changes that are made in the other versions are not as drastic as one would like to imply. Many in the KJV camp argue, for example, that replacing Jesus with "He" is akin to stripping Jesus of His divinity, or some other terrible thing. The problem is, no such thing results from that variant translation. Isn't the Bible allowed to use pronouns - especially when, in immediately preceeding verses, Jesus' name is explicitly mentioned?

Similarly, some modern translations are actually stronger on Jesus' divinity than the KJV. Notice this example that was cited in that article that I sent you:

In some passages, modern versions make a clearer statement about the divinity of Jesus than the KJV. This is especially true in Titus 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:1 where they adhere to Granville Sharp's rule. Sharp's rule, simply stated is, When two common, singular nouns in the same case are connected by "kai" (and) and there is an article in front of the first noun only, both nouns refer to the same person or thing.
Compare Titus 2:13 in the KJV and the RSV:
Looking for the blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ (KJV).

Awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ (RSV).

The wording of the KJV presents two Gods: (1) "the great God" and (2) "our Saviour Jesus Christ." The RSV presents only one, "our great God and Savior Jesus Christ." The RSV is following Sharp's rule of Greek grammar and thus renders a clearer statement on the deity of Jesus.
This difference can be seen again in 2 Peter 1:1:

Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ (KJV).

Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours in the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ (RSV).

The RSV is clear that Jesus is both God and Saviour, while this important truth is obscured in the KJV. Is there then a conspiracy on the part of the men who produced the KJV to minimize the divinity of Jesus? No.

As I said the other day, none of our doctrines are based on one or two passages, anyway. A person can certainly prove the divinity of Christ from the NIV or NASB or other modern translations. I think, for many zealous proponents of the KJV, they often use the Bible in a "proof-text" method. Thus, they want to be able to point to one verse - ignoring the context - and be able to prove a doctrine. The Comma Johanneum is a classic example of this. In order to proove the Trinity, it would be so convenient to just point to this one verse and say, "See! There is a Trinity." But the Bible does not always work this way. We must dig deep and put themes and ideas together. And a person can certainly establish an argument in favor of a plural godhead without using 1 John 5:7. In fact, a person can see the hints of this plurality in the first two verses of the Bible: "Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters" (NIV).

At the same time, why can't Matthew 28:19 serve as a good evidence of a Trinity? "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (NIV). If the producers of the Codex Sinaiticus, etc., were trying to conspire against the Trinity and Jesus' divinity, why wouldn't they have ommitted this clear passage?

I would also pause to say something else: the translators of the KJV were stewards of some bad theology as well! They were not Adventist. They did not believe in anhilationalism; they did not believe in soul sleep; they did not believe in the seventh-day Sabbath; they did not share our views on clean/unclean meats. Are we then to conclude that we should not read this translation because they may have had an agenda to downplay or undermine these doctrines?

No English translation is perfect. Inevitably a person's theology is going to creep into his/her translation of a given text. This is why it is good to know the original languages, keeping in mind that even the Greek/Hebrew manuscripts we do have, whether from the 12th century, or the 4th century, were copied by fallible human beings.

Which leads me to my next point . . .

3. Verbal inspiration. I think many people who push the KJV-only agenda have a somewhat skewed view of inspiration. Walter Veith quoted Jesus, saying, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God," and he thus asked, "How can we live by every Word from God's mouth, if we cannot be sure that what we are reading is completely accurate to the original letters/epistles, etc." Such a question reveals to me that Veith believes that every single word that Paul or Peter or Moses or Jeremiah wrote was dictated by God to be written. This is called "verbal inspiration" and it is what many fundamentalist Christians (including some Adventists) subscribe to. The other extreme, of course, is that God didn't inspire any of the biblical writers to write anything, but that they were just writing from their own perspective. Neither of these is a healthy view of the Bible, and it denies the reality of how the biblical authors wrote.

Except where there are direct quotations from God, and God explicitly instructs a certain person to write something exactly, the Bible was written under "thought inspiration." So, for example, if Paul was writing to the Corinthians, God wasn't telling Him the exact words to write (this would deny the human element of the Bible and would make the need for a human being to write it unnecessary. If God simply wanted to deliver a dictated Bible, He could have delivered it by an angel, much like Joseph Smith allegedly received the Morman Bible from the hands of the angel Moroni), but impressing him with the thoughts to share with his audience. To some extent there is mystery surrounding how the Bible was written as we realize that it is both human and divine.

This is much like Jesus Himself. We cannot fully comprehend how He was both fully human and fully divine. So, too, with the Bible. God chose to reveal Himself through the pen of godly men, but He chose to reveal Himself through "their armor," so to speak. This is why we can see sylistic differences between Paul's letters, say, and Peter's, or Moses'. If the writers wrote only what God had explicitly dictated to them, then we would not see any stylistic differences.

The reason I bring this up is because if a person believes in verbal inspiration, then they have to figure out some way to make the claim that this particular Bible, and this particular Bible alone, is "the Word of God." Every word that this Bible contains is directly from God. But such an idea has weaknesses, because unless a person wants to maintain that the translators of the KJV were also themselves verbally inspired by God (and that God was dictating to them exactly the word he/she should use in translating from the Greek), then believing in verbal inspiration is somewhat challenging. After all, even if the original Greek manuscripts were verbally inspired and dictated by God, I doubt anyone would like to claim that the translators of the KJV, or versions in other languages, have the same status.

Thus, inevitably, our desire to live by "every word" that proceeds from God's mouth, is going to be somewhat veiled.

Instead, I can rest in the assurance that God has miraculously preserved the Bible insofar as He needed it to be preserved, in order for us, living the 21st century, to be edified by it.

4. Ad hominum attacks. As so often happens in the courtroom, people try to do a "character assisination" on the individual that they are trying to build a case against. And when a person does not have a strong case based on the facts alone, they must spend a great deal of time using ad hominum tactics. Thus, according to Veith; Westcott and Hort are two of the worst people in the world, it seems. Nevermind the fact that the quotes he uses from them are totally devoid of their context (which I would be hard-pressed to check myself), but if we are wanting to use such tactics, then no person would be qualified to even touch the Bible, let alone preach, translate, or teach from it. King James I, who commissioned our wonderful KJV translation, may or may not have been gay. And he certainly didn't share our sentiments on the Sabbath, the state of the dead, the sanctuary, etc. Martin Luther seems to have been antisemitic. And on and on it goes.

Aside from this, I am not even convinced, based on Veith's claims and quotes, that Wescott and Hort had an agenda to simply demolish the TR because they wanted to undermine the authority of scripture. When he quotes them as saying that they wanted to "subtly" change a verse here and there, so as not to rock the boat all at once, that is a legitimate method - for good or bad - when trying to bring about change. Abraham Lincoln didn't abolish slavery all at once. And if Westcott and Hort felt as though the TR was not completely legitimate and that there were some textual challenges, why would they make these changes all at once - especially since the KJV is so highly revered (and almost worshiped).

At the same time, Westcott and Hort's Greek NT is not even the used text today anymore, anyway. The Nestle-Aland NT, which has some considerable changes from Westcott and Hort's NT, is the prevailing Greek NT that is used among scholars today. Of course, even with this as the prevailing Greek NT, it is very exhaustive in its margins as to variant readings, and how many MSS have a certain alternate reading, etc. They are not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Bible on Slavery

I am hoping to return to this subject sometime in the future when I have more time to revisit it, but I have to give a little primer before then. I am currently reading Newsweek's cover article called, "Gay Marriage: Our Mutual Joy," and, in the middle of the article, the author makes a bold claim that I have heard ad nauseum recently. Proponents of gay marriage, or any other lifestyle that they want to justify, make this assertion: "The Bible endorses slavery." There it is, right in the middle of the article.

I may be embarrassing myself, considering that my job requires me to be informed on biblical issues, but for the life of me, I cannot figure out where the Bible "endorses," "commands," or "promotes" slavery. This idea comes up over and over again, and I don't know where it's coming from. Does it "condemn" slavery? It doesn't seem to. But does it "endorse" it (the kind of slavery, at least, that went on in this country 150 years ago)? I plan to do an exhaustive study on the Bible's treatment of slavery sometime soon, but until then, can someone help me out here?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Preaching Mozart

I had an "aha!" moment last week during Prayer Meeting at one of my churches. I don't lead out in this particular Prayer Meeting for the time being, so it gives me a little more time for reflection. And as we were talking about the Holy Spirit and prayer, the fellow who was leading quoted Romans 10:17, "So then faith comes by hearing . . . " And that's when the "aha!" moment came.

This verse lays out the divine imperative of the preacher. As Paul writes just a few verses earlier, "How shall they hear without a preacher?" (10:14). Thus, the pastor's primary responsibility is not to be a counselor, not to create a board agenda, not to be a visionary. The pastor's primary job is to draw faith from the heart of his people.

This, of course, speaks especially to our preaching. When I stand up each week and deliver my message, what does that message chiefly elicit from my audience? Guilt? Boredom? Fear? A sense of duty or responsibility? I am afraid, far too often, that this is what my audience feels after too many of my sermons. And if that is the case, then I have failed to a large degree in performing my chief goal: drawing faith from their hearts.

The truth is, maybe God places more responsibility into the hands of the preacher than we realize. While everyone is ultimately responsible for his or her own salvation and the implementation of faith, Paul unabashedly tells us that the way this faith is exercised is by "hearing," and the way that a person hears is by listening to a preacher. Of course, in Paul's day, very few people actually had access to the written Word. Their primary encounter with the Bible was through the weekly readings that took place in the synagogue.

But is it all that different these days? For most people, though they have access to the Bible on their bookshelves, their only encounter with the Bible from week to week is what they hear from the preacher on Sabbath or Sunday morning. This causes the burden to fall all the more on the preacher to make sure that the one time that person meets the Word, that Word is drawing upon the faith that God has placed into every heart.

And that faith, of course, is nothing more than a heart-experience with God. Faith, as Paul tells us elsewhere, "works through love" (Gal 5:5). So I am trying to raise the appreciation in the hearts of my listener's for Christ and His agape love. And by so doing, I am drawing a faith-response from them.

This cannot be done by preaching a 45-minute sermon on how we should all be "prayer warriors." If it is devoid of the truth about God's saving love, then I am simply giving a humanistic sermon, and rather than drawing faith from my listeners, I am trying to play off their sense of duty. Which doesn't work in the end.

Some may not realize that Albert Einstein was an accomplished violinist. He would often pick up his violin when he was stumped by a certain mathematical problem, and begin to strum the instrument profusely, trying to work through the problem in his head. He would create melodies as he strummed, and then he would, all of a sudden, put his violin down and return to his math problem, having figured out the solution as he was playing.

But Einstein didn't always love the violin. In fact, he didn't like it at all when he first started playing. His mother, as so many other mothers have done throughout the ages (just like my mother), insisted that he take lessons and practice. He was on the verge of giving up the instrument altogether when, one day, he came across Mozart's sonatas. He instantly fell in love with the instrument, and could hardly put it down. And reflecting on that experience, he later observed, "I believe that love is a better teacher than a sense of duty" (Walter Issacson, Einstein, p. 14).

His experience and subsequent observations are poignant. How often do we try to coax people into a "faith-experience" by trying to elicit a sense of duty and responsibility from them? Instead, we should be preaching Mozart to them, and drawing faith from their hearts.

Do our parishioners hear Mozart when we preach? "So then faith comes by hearing. . . "

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Spiritual Abuse and Church Polity

In the span of about ten minutes this morning, two friends shared with me three or four examples of people they knew who had suffered "spiritual abuse" at the hands of certain church leaders. The examples given were outside my particular faith community, and though the Seventh-day Adventist church certainly sees its share of "spiritual abusers," something suddenly dawned on me.

I know there are many within our ranks who lament over our church structure. They want more independence on the local level, with less involvement from the higher levels. More money should stay locally, etc., etc. But I don't know how many times I have been extremely appreciative for the fact that the Seventh-day Adventist church is organized the way that it is. Among other things, I believe our church structure does a fairly good job of weeding out spiritual abusers.

This is not meant to be arrogant back-slapping on my part. As I said earlier, I do recognize that there are problems that inherently surface in any church. Adventism is, by no means, immune from these problems. But I believe that our structure is set up in a way so as not to perpetuate the ever present component in the human heart to covet power. Hear me out for a second. . .

There are basically three types of church structures (and please forgive me for simplifying this). There is the Episcopal structure, which places much of the power in the hands of a bishop or bishops. The Roman Catholic church, Anglicans, and Lutherans are examples of this type of church governance.

More relevant to many Evangelical churches, there is the Congregational model, and the Presbyterian model - of which the Seventh-day Adventist church subscribes. Most Evangelical churches have some type of congregational government, and I believe this is largely to blame for much of the "spiritual abuse" that takes place (as was the case with all of these examples that my friends shared with me). Essentially, although there is a local board that ultimately governs a congregational church, if the local pastor can coax enough people to his side, he can, for all intense and purposes, "control" the church. Thus, the pastor's goal is far too often to learn how to manipulate, cajole, or do anything he can to gain power for himself.

This is even easier for the pastor who starts his own church. Because he is autonomous, and is not really accountable to any other human being, he figures out what he needs to do to control the masses that are coming to worship at his new church. The pastor becomes the arbiter and final authority on what can and cannot happen. Coupled with the fact that the more people he can get to attend his church, then the more money he can pad his wallet with, and one can see how dangerous a congregational model can be.

I don't think that it is a coincidence that all of the megachurches are non-denominational, congregationally-based churches. The pastor is the church. Bill Hybels is Willow Creek. Rick Warren is Saddleback. Joel Osteen is Lakewood. This is not to say that these men are wicked or they have bad intentions. It is to say that they know what they are doing. Neither is it to say that many pastors, when they set out to start a new church, have these motives in mind. But the heart is deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9), and the more a person tastes a little bit of power, the more power he wants. And when such a person abuses others "spiritually," it is a devestating fall (Jim Jones, anyone?).

I am glad that in the Seventh-day Adventist church, it doesn't matter how many members I have; how many churches I pastor; or whatever else is involved. I get paid what I am going to get paid, and it doesn't change based on how many people I impress or don't impress, or other circumstances. And, on many levels, my success in the minstry is not necessarily based upon how many people I can make happy or influence, or which big church I can convince to take me as pastor. Granted, this does happen. But, at least hypothetically, my ministry is based more upon external circumstances; about other men and women prayerfully considering where I should be placed as a minister next.

Congregational churches inherently attract a "maverick" mentality, and there are no true checks-and-balances that can address some of these challenges. If a pastor in the congregational model ruffles enough feathers in his present church, he might be driven out of town, but he can still go somewhere else and start pastoring another church, or perhaps even start his own (if all else fails). This, of course, happens sometimes within Adventism, but structurally, I don't believe that it is the inherent byproduct that it is in a congregational model.

This is why I think it would be a grave mistake for Adventism to become more congregationally oriented. Yes, the ultimate "power" is in the local congregation, but if we were to go down that route we would be setting ourselves up for more spiritual abuse, more power grabbing, more irresponsible autonomy. And, more than that, we would lose site of the fact that this is, indeed, a global movement. Just as democracy, though not perfect, is the best model of secular government we have, so, too, the Presbyterian/democratic model is the best model we have of church governance.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Why Art Thou Secular, Ye Olde New England?

I mentioned yesterday that secularism in New England runs deep. Anyone who has ever worked for the church here knows the challenges that this region presents when trying to spread the Gospel. I can think of numerous individuals who have come here from afar, hoping to take this region by storm, only to retreat to a more receptive part of the country after a few years.

Naturally, one wonders why New Englanders are apparently so hostile to the Gospel and Christianity. And why, somewhat related to this, the region seems to be so liberal politically. One faithful reader wondered that very thing yesterday, in response to my post.

I do not pretend to have all the answers. But I would like to - very informally - offer a few reflections on why this might be the case. This is not exhaustive, of course, and it is nowhere close to being a scientific treatment of the issues. But, as someone who was born in New England, and has lived here my whole life (with a few hiatuses to Michigan and Scotland), I have been able to brood over this issue a bit over the years. And, hopefully, it will eventually help me turn the tide here in this wonderful region.

Another small caveat: my New England roots may not go back as far as some others. On my dad's side, his family was originally from New Brunswick, Canada, and they moved to Massachusetts when he was just a kid. Similarly, my maternal Grandfather was originally from Nova Scotia, Canada. His family eventually moved to Massachusetts as well. The furthest my roots go back in New England is my maternal Grandmother, who was born and raised on Cape Cod, Mass. Her mother is German, however, who, I believe, was born in the motherland. I am not sure where my great-grandfather was born, however, but it is probably safe to say that the longest line of New England heritage goes through him.

So my New England-ness may not be as deeply rooted as others, but, as at least a third generation New Englander (through my grandmother), I am at least somewhat "qualified" to speak on the subject!

And now, these are the issues that I believe contribute to the secular nature of New Englanders.

1. Independence. New Englanders have always been independently minded. The pilgrims came to this land because they wanted to get out from underneath the religious oppression that they were experiencing in Europe. Of course, the early New England Puritans then proceeded to set up their own oppressive religious climate, which ultimately led Roger Williams to establish Rhode Island - which, for the first time in America, promoted the separation of church and state.

Williams was extremely progressive religiously - maybe even more so than any other churchman in history. Although he established the first Baptist church in America, he soon split off from that group, saying that "God is too large to be housed under one roof."

Vermont is also a classic example of this independent thinking as well. Although there is some debate as to its political independence throughout history, Vermont first seemed to be a republic before it joined the union. Even today, there are many within the state who would like to make Vermont an independent republic again. Such people have banded together and called themselves "The Second Vermont Republic," describing themselves as "a nonviolent citizens' network and think tank opposed to the tyranny of Corporate America and the U.S. government, and committed to the peaceful return of Vermont to its status as an independent republic and more broadly the dissolution of the Union."

Old time Vermonters can be very traditional, and yet they are very independent. They may be personally opposed to same-sex unions, for example, but they are not going to bug anyone else who chooses to pursue this lifestyle. And, consequently, what has happened is that the out-of-staters ("flatlanders," as they are called) have taken advantage of this independent thinking and flocked to Vermont, trying to set up their own "Utopian" society.

Thus, it is not necessarily true Vermonters who are pushing for same-sex unions, for "nudist" towns, for liberal politics. It is the "flatlanders" who have seen the vacuum in Vermont's government and moved to the state to set up their own liberal agenda. But, interestingly, there is now starting to be a backlash among old time Vermonters, who are getting frustrated with these flatlanders taking advantage of them, setting up their liberal agenda, buying all their property, privatizing their land (historically, hunters have had free reign over anyone's private land. But now flatlanders have bought up a lot of the land and posted "Private Property: No hunting" signs, and this has greatly frustrated the old timers). Because of all these issues, it was not uncommon a few years ago to see signs - whether painted on barns, or stuck beside the road - saying, "Take Back Vermont."

All this is to say that New Englanders are very independent thinkers. There is kind of this unspoken rule that says, "I'll stay out of your business, if you stay out of mine." New Hampshire's state motto is "Live Free or Die." Thus, we don't really like it when others cross the line into our private lives, supposing that they know how we should live, what we should think - at least not when it comes to religion.

2. Affluence. New England is a very affluent region. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire typically rank in the top five or ten of the wealthiest states in the country (this extends to other Northeastern states outside of New England to include New York and New Jersey). Closer to home for me, the community in which I minister was recently declared by Forbes to be "the least vulnerable town in America to the economic crisis," essentially declaring it to be "recession-proof."

Of course, everyone knows the challenges of wealth. If individuals in a community or region feel comfortable economically, there is little impetus to look outside oneself for anything else. And this is directly related to that "independent thinking" that I mentioned above. What need is there for God if all of my needs can be met by my own money, my own hard work, my own abilities?

3. Education. New England is really the epicenter of education in the United States, and maybe even the world. Four of the eight Ivy League schools (Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth) are in New England, and most of the "Little Ivies" (Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Middlebury, Tufts, Wesleyan, Williams), as well as places like MIT, Wellesley, Smith, and Mount Holyoke, are all in this small region. There are over 100 colleges and universities in the Greater Boston area alone! (This accounts for over 250,000 students in the cities of Boston and Cambridge themselves every year.) And New England is really the cradle of the "prep school" educational model as well.

All of this lends itself to a very "liberal" landscape. And, as you are well aware, college campuses are the hot bead for "progressive" and "ivory tower" thinking, and knowledge has to the tendency to "puff up" (1 Cor 8:1). There is a natural arrogance that accompanies the acquisition of knowledge, and such people often feel little need for God.

4. Catholic "backlash." As I mentioned yesterday, a large percentage of those who are religious are Catholic (besides English, the predominant ancestries in New England are Irish, Italian, and French). This has affected the religious landscape in a number of ways. First, many of those Catholics are "nominal" Catholics, and, though they do not attend Mass regularly, or have a great deal of interest in their religious heritage, would never, ever consider being anything else but Catholic. The phrase, "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic" most definitely applies.

On the other hand, there are many others who were raised in a Catholic environment, but have now become hostile towards religion because of Catholicism's abuses - both religiously and politically. There are many people who are bitter because of the sex abuse scandals, the church's views on homosexuality, divorce, and contraception, and other theological issues. As a result, these people want nothing to do with God or religion. (Admittedly, if my understanding of God was that He would burn people in hell forever, I would be turned off towards religion as well).

I just happened to pick up a book yesterday at Borders that spoke to this point beautifully. It is called, Being Catholic Now, and it was written/edited by Kerry Kennedy - one of Robert Kennedy's 11 children! She interviews 37 individuals with Catholic backgrounds (from Bill O'Reilly, to Bill Maher, to Frank McCourt, to Doris Kearns Goodwin, to Nancy Pelosi), and reveals their perspective on the present climate of the Catholic church. I was able to read some of it, and a lot of it was quite enlightening.

I think this Catholic component has a huge influence on New Englander's openness to religion and God.

Conclusion. All of these components, plus others, lend themselves to the reality that New England is a very secular and politically liberal region. In many ways, I cannot blame New Englanders for their animosity towards God and religion. If I believed some of the things they have been taught about God, I would be very hostile towards Him as well.

That's why He has called some of us here! Hopefully, by His grace, we can overcome some of these challenges and see the message spread with vigor in this part of the world. This is where the early Advent message began, and I believe, before His return, that message will return with power to this place.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Buddhism in Vermont, and Christianity in New England

I came across this interesting tidbit a few years ago, and I was recently reminded of this a few times recently. But Vermont's Buddhist population is alive and well. According to some studies: "California may have the nation's largest number of Buddhists, but Vermont, where Asian-Americans are barely 1 percent of the state's population of 621,394, has what surveys suggest is the highest concentration of Caucasian Buddhists."

I thought of this today, specifically, when replying to someone's comment that the Northwestern United States is the most "non-religious" area in the United States. I responded by saying that about 90% of those who identify themselves as "religious" in New England are Roman Catholic, and a high percentage of those individuals are beyond "nominal," but will always identify themselves as religious.

In addition to that, New England has a large percentage of Unitarians, UCC, and other Congregational churches which are, essentially, "secular" Christians (I realize this is a blanket statement, and I apologize to any who may be a part of these communities, to which this does
not apply). I live two doors away from one of the above churches, and, essentially, their idea of "religion" is getting together to listen to classical music, and have pork and bean dinners. This is nothing against them, but such individuals are not very open to the more "evangelical" understanding of Christianity. The above revelation about Buddhism, and the general oppenness to non-Judeo-Christian exploration, also lends itself to a very non-Christian landscape here in New England.

Thus, I will continue to maintain that New England is the most difficult field in the United States to spread the Gospel. The typical New England scene, complete with a white-steepled church, is very deceptive.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Surprised by N.T.

N.T. Wright is the real deal.

I had the privilege of meeting him (though I use the term very loosely, as you will see below) and listening to him speak this past Tuesday, when three of my elders and I attended lectures by him at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. For those of you who are not familiar with N.T. Wright, he is the fourth-highest ranking Bishop in the Church of England and is widely considered the leading scholar on the New Testament in the world today (so says Time and Newsweek - though I don't usually rely on those publications for my religious commentary).

Oxford trained, his latest book, Surprised by Hope, has caused a lot of commotion because he has turned the common understandings of heaven, the resurrection, and the church's mission, on their heads. Some of his "rethinking" has not shocked everyone, though. When he candidly admits that the Bible does not say that a person goes to heaven after he or she dies, Adventists have applauded.

I wanted to share some reflections on the four lectures he gave, which were entitled, "Between God and the World: Reading John in Tomorrow's Church." The day was absolutely amazing.
  • I admire the fact that Wright approaches the Bible believing that it is the Word of God. It is very common these days for people of his ilk to approach the Bible with a secular perspective (or, as he calls it: "18th century presuppositions"). And, quite often, they may put on a good show, but privately admit that they don't believe what they are saying. I did not sense this at all from him. At the beginning or end of some of the lectures, he would pause and say, "We need to pray. I just cannot proceed without soaking this concept in prayer." He seems to be the real deal to me, a completely sincere disciple of Christ.
  • His depth of knowledge is amazing and humbling. Though he is a New Testament scholar, his knowledge of the Old Testament seems exhaustless. It seems apparent that he believes the New Testament is a continuation of the Old Testament, and that the OT is the foundation of the NT. So many these days would like to divorce the two.
  • The advice that Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, gave him when he was appointed Bishop of Durham is priceless. It goes along beautifully with a previous post of mine. Williams told Wright: "You really only understand how to be a theologian when you become a bishop [pastor]." How true it is!
  • He seems to do something that I have the habit of doing: exegeting songs (especially contemporary "praise" songs). Before he spoke, some students led the audience (about 500 in attendance) in two songs. We first sang "How Great is Our God," and then "In Christ Alone." This latter song is one that I have been intending to write about for a while, and I still will in the future. But he picked up on something that I had not noticed. He got up and said, "There is something about this song that doesn't sit well with me whenever I sing it, though I do enjoy the song. The song says, 'Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.'" And then he said, "Doesn't John say that God loved the world? Maybe the words should instead read, 'Till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was satisfied.' "
  • For Jews, around Jesus time, they were anticipating the glory of God being revealed. This was what the OT prophets looked forward to, and everyone in Jesus' day was eager for God's glory to be revealed. Of course, as Wright pointed out, when Jesus showed up and revealed God's glory, it wasn't the way they were expecting it. But, quite interestingly, Wright pointed out that "God's glory was fully revealed when He went to the cross." This is a profound idea, and one that many people - who like to emphasize God's glory - seem to forget. God's glory is not necessarily about His sovereignty, His grandeur, His bigness. It is about His humility, condescension, and love.
  • Though I don't necessarily go exactly where Wright goes in his estimation of the Sabbath, he noted that when Jesus said, from the cross, "It is finished," He wasn't primarily talking about His work of salvation. Instead, this seems to be in relation to creation, when, on the sixth day (the same day of Jesus' death), God "finished" His work. Thus, Jesus' death was in fulfillment of a new creation.
  • He noted that when Jesus washed the disciples' feet, there was a profound message in this act - echoing the truth of Philippians 2:5-8. I like that connection - which I have made before myself. But he also commented that there is something wonderful about a church that takes part in the footwashing experience, saying, "Of course Jesus meant the footwashing metaphorically, but you learn the metaphor by doing it literally."
  • He also noted that John 13 - which records the account of the footwashing - is really the origin of Christian missiology. This, probably, isn't the origin we would expect. Jesus showed that serving others is the church's true mission.
  • This rethinking of the church's mission is somewhat controversial in many people's minds. Instead of focusing solely on converting and baptizing, we need to also focus on being the hands and feet of Jesus. Hope should not simply be about the future, but about the present as well. As he asked, "What does it mean to be signmakers and seedsowers for the kingdom in our day?"
  • As I've learned a little bit about N.T. Wright recently, I've come to realize that many within the "Emerging" movement cite him as an inspirational figure. Many in the emerging movement, of course, would like to take away any future hope, and imply that all we should be concerned about is the here-and-now, focusing solely on a temporal or "realized" mission. So I wanted to know, point blank, what his throughts were in relation to Christian mission. So during the Q & A session, I worked up my courage and approached the microphone. When my chance came, I asked him, "How does your 're-thinking' of the mission of the church and the kingdom compare to the traditional methods within Christianity, and specifically Evangelical Christianity?" His answer was essentially thus: "Well, if by 'traditional Christian methods,' you take it back to William Wilberforce, then my views are not a whole lot different. Wilberforce emphasized things like discipleship, and salvation, but he also talked about abolishing slavery. So he combined the future hope with the present hope." He then went on to explain that sometime in the last 200 years there has been a divide between what he labels the "Gospel Christians" and the "Epistle Christians." The "Gospel Christians" want to talk only about the here-and-now: hunger, education, equality, etc. The "Epistle Christians" want to talk only about heaven, salvation, forgiveness, etc. He said that what he sees in the Bible, and therefore, what his vision for the church is, is a combining of the two. I was very satisfied with his answer.
  • This wasn't my only interaction with him, however. During one of the breaks, I had him sign my copy of Surprised by Hope, which I have begun reading prodigiously since Tuesday. I will have a review of the book (hopefully) sometime in the future.
Let me just share a few more reflections on my experience as a whole at Gorden-Conwell. I was very impressed with the campus and the school in general. What also impressed me, and reminded me so much of my time in the seminary, was the singing before his talk. It was such a blessing. Quite often, one of my favorite parts of the seminary was chapel time, when in unison, 500 men would be singing heartily. In this instance, there seemed to be an abundance of men again. This is no put-down of ladies, but there is just something about a large group of men, singing their hearts out together in praise to God. It was wonderful.

It also reminded me of how much I enjoy academia. I love it. I could have sat at his feet all day, every day. There is nothing quite like listening to an energetic and knowledgable Biblical scholar. The insights they share are so fulfilling, and it helped me see how much I enjoy such a setting. Perhaps there is something in the future for me in this type of life.

Jesus and John

I have often wondered about the balance between the message of John the Baptist and the message of Jesus. I spent a few minutes this morning in my devotional time thinking about the seemingly different messages these two important individuals shared. At a surface level, it almost seems like a "good cop, bad cop" scenario. John was the messenger sent to prepare the way for Jesus. He preached a message of repentance. And then Jesus came along and preached a message of forgiveness.

Is such a distinction valid? Could we say that John demonstrated "tough love," and Jesus demonstrated "gentle love"?

Furthermore, how do these two messages relate to my own ministry? How does one keep a balance of "repent!" with a message of "God loves you"? Many people, it seems, would like to emphasize one or the other. And maybe it is appropriate to have various members of the church body emphasizing one, while another emphasizes the other. I, myself, get very uncomfortable with people who would like to preach "fire and brimstone," so to speak, and are very strong in their message about the need for repentance and change. But there's John, sitting smack dab in the middle of the Gospels, yelling at people and calling them "brood of vipers," and other such unflattering things. The picture to the right almost seems appropriate in relation to John's emphasis.

Of course, Jesus' message wasn't always one of "gentle love," either. He certainly took on the Pharisees with some strong language. And maybe that's just it. In the particular text I was looking at this morning, we seem to see that Jesus, as our High Priest, is "gentle" towards those who are "ignorant and going astray." This is found in Hebrews 5:2 and the word for "ignorant" (agnoeo) seems to have the connotation of sinning in ignorance (see Lev 4:13). And the word for "going astray" (planao) is in the passive form, thus literally meaning those who "have been mislead, or deceived."

Thus, these people that Jesus shows sympathy to, and is gentle with, are those who are not participating in deliberate, willful, premeditated sin, but, because of various circumstances in their lives, are participating in sin because they are mislead and ignorant. For such people, Jesus can demonstrate "gentle love," but for people such as the Pharisees, who sin out of the pride in their hearts, He has to be a little more "tough" with. Indeed, as Hebrews later says, "For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins" (Heb 10:26). Such language is quite strong.

Of course, this raises a whole other problem: how does one know if a person is sinning deliberately and willfully, or sinning out of ignorance?

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Priesthood, the Covenants, and the Gospel

Many of us fail to realize that it was never God's intention to have a "Priesthood" per se. It was never His desire to require a human being to stand as a mediator between Him and His people. And such a misunderstanding also contributes to a lot of confusion on the Old and New Covenants.

Before Sinai, God's people apparently came directly to Him. Cain and Abel brought their offerings directly to the Lord (Gen 4:3ff). Noah built an altar and sacrificed to God (Gen 8:20). Abraham, Jacob, and, of course, Moses, built altars to the Lord. All of these individuals seemed to serve as their own priests.

God wanted direct contact with all of His people. He wasn't like the pagan gods, who angrily required a human mediator to stand between him and his people. But, unfortunately, God's people did not understand His character. Having lived in Egyptian bondage for so long, they were convinced that Yahweh was vengeful, exacting, and needed to be appeased. So in the shadows of Sinai, they said to Moses, "You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die" (Exo 20:19).

Of course, since God is humble, He relented and set up a priesthood - a group of men that would intercede and mediate on behalf of the people. Instead of communicating directly with His people - which He wanted to do all along - He had "go-betweens" that relayed any communication to the Children of Israel.

Since Christ came, we now understand this more clearly. We are all "priests" (1 Peter 2:9) and Jesus is our great High Priest, Himself (Heb 6:20). We do not need another human being to stand as a mediator between God and ourselves, and any system of worship that requires a priest to stand as a mediator between us and God is based on paganism. Such are truly living under the "Old Covenant."

As I said earlier as well, such a misunderstanding of God's original intentions for the priesthood also contribute to our misunderstanding of the Old and New Covenants. The Israelite sanctuary service - with its priesthood, sacrifices, laws, and rituals - is rightly labeled the "Old Covenant," but it was not the result of God's initiative and original plan, but because of the hardness of His people's hearts. Thus, God was not necessarily setting up two systems (or "covenants") of salvation, as many in Christianity would like us to believe. Faith has always been the way by which salvation is appropriated (compare Gen 15:6 and Rom 4:3). God always wanted direct access to His people; He always wanted to write His law directly on the hearts of His people, instead of on tables of stone. It was because of His people's stubbornness that He had to humbly relent to their system.

As always, God mercifully meets us where we are.

Questions on Doctrine Discussion

Here is a discussion between Dr. Walter Martin and William Johnsson, former editor of the Adventist Review, from a number of years ago. It is the first clip from a series of 14 videos posted on Youtube that talk about the book Questions on Doctrine and whether Adventism is a "cult." You can find the rest of the videos here. I haven't yet watched all of them.

Question . . .

If I think a person is doing something wrong, does that mean that I hate him or her?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Monopoly on Tolerance

I try to steer clear of political banter on this blog, but I wanted to just briefly comment on what has been happening in California in the wake of the passing of Proposition 8. It seems to me quite odd that those on the left, and those in the homosexual community, feel as though they have a "monopoly" on tolerance, when they themselves show so much intolerance. But because they define tolerance on their terms, it is quite easy to come across as "tolerant" when they are allowed to define it.

Essentially, someone who is tolerant is a person who accepts all their views. Yet, if the liberal person acts intolerant to the person who disagrees with their views, then that liberal person is not truly intolerant because they are just trying to rid the world of intolerant people. So, what it boils down to is that you cannot be intolerant, except against so-called "intolerant" people, and since liberals get to define who is tolerant and who is intolerant, they can never be labeled as intolerant. It's nothing but circular reasoning.

Of course, they do not see it this way. I've had many discussions where I've made this point, and, again, since they are the ones who define tolerance and intolerance, they would never label their views as intolerant.

For the record, this is not a discussion of heterosexual/homosexual issues. I have had many homosexual friends, and I have family members who are homosexual. I believe many people are, in fact, born with such an orientation. But what I find unfortunate is that homosexuals have shown their true colors, in many ways, and revealed the fact that they will get downright nasty - something they have accused the other side of doing - to further their agenda.

The clip below is just one - of too many - clips that show how hate-filled and intolerant people in this community can be. Not everyone is this way, of course, and there are plenty of people on the other side who can get this way. But of all the coverage I have seen on this issue so far, I have rarely seen those who favored Proposition 8 getting so upset, violent, or intolerant. I'm sure there is some, but I have not come across it.

Whatever happened to the peaceful demonstrations of King, Ghandi and many others? Those who would like to equate homosexual oppression with that of racial oppression are falling far short of the example that the above gentlemen displayed. Watch the video below (especially around the 2 and the 7 minute marks) and tell me if the homosexual demonstrators look more like the oppressed African-Americans, or the oppressive white demonstrators. (Ant notice, especially, Eisenhower's last statement: "Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts.")

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Richard Dawkins at His Finest

Here is the clip from the movie Expelled where Richard Dawkins says he has heard from a lot of people that they feel a sense of liberation when they give up God. Ben Stein asks him out of the 8 billion people in the world, how many he has heard from. His response is priceless.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Pastoring . . .

I was talking with a friend of mine recently who is married to an evangelist, and she was saying how she was not sure she could ever envision her husband going into full-time pastoral ministry. "It's nice getting to know people while we're in town," she said, "but I can't imagine putting up with all the drama that goes with being at a place long-term."

To be sure, there is a lot of "drama" that goes on when you are a pastor. You are intimately involved with the everyday stuff of life. In my short time in the ministry, I have probably seen more drama than many other pastors have in years of pastoring. My dad told me that in his 30 years or so of ministry, he has never encountered some of the stuff I've experienced in my young ministry. This is not to say that I have bad churches. And I hope that the few of you who are from one of my churches that read my blog aren't trying to figure out if you've added to my pastoral drama!

But that is the stuff of pastoring. And it's why it is one of the most interesting - if not the most interesting - careers anyone could ever enter. When you are involved in the nitty-gritty of a hundred people's everyday existence; when they call you with some problem they have with another church member; when they criticize your sermons, or gripe about the way a board meeting went - this is the stuff of life. And it builds character. And it grounds you in reality. And it humbles you.

I've wondered quite a bit if I will ever "specialize" in an area of ministry at some point. You know, become an evangelist, or be a church planter, or become a Youth Director, or - were the opportunity ever presented - be a senior pastor of a 2000 member church, or even get into academia. (The latter option is somewhat attractive to me because I enjoy deeper study and theology.)

But some of these "specialized" positions seem to take a person away from reality. The evangelist meets people, gets to know them moderately, and then moves on. The senior pastor goes to meetings all week, prepares his sermon, and then does it all over again the next week. (The pastoral visitation is usually left to an associate pastor who is in charge of that area.) And the person in academia exegetes his texts, shares it with his students, and bids them adieu every 2-4 years.

It is the district pastor - the one who visits with the people, rolls up his sleeves, and becomes intimately acquainted with the ups-and-downs of his parishioners - who grounds himself in reality. He knows the hurts, the joys, the struggles of people. And life is really about people anyway. It's not simply ideas, or theology, or preaching, or evangelism. It's about people. And in no other calling are you so intimately tied to people as you are in pastoral ministry. Yes, it can be extremely stressful. But there is probably no more rewarding "job."

And that's why, if I do someday go on to get a PhD (as opposed to a DMin), I don't know if I would ever really want to continue on the path that most PhD's follow - that of leaving pastoring for academia. And it's why I think that people who go straight from schooling or training, straight into evangelism or academia, are at a huge disadvantage. They are not as grounded in the everyday stuff of what people are experiencing. The concepts they share are not as "practical," or relevant. And they are missing out.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Goodbye, Lincoln!

Me: Man, I was almost brought to tears reading about the last moments of Lincoln's life.
My wife: I wish you would cry about me sometimes [note: she has never seen me cry - though I did cry once when she wasn't around.]
Me: You haven't died.
My wife: Is that what it takes?

And thus ends my long interaction with Abraham Lincoln. After 757 pages, I finally completed Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals - and I can definitely say that I am a better man for having read it. What an inspiration Abraham Lincoln was! I would definitely have to say that he is, bar none, my biggest hero (outside the Bible, of course). He is such a towering figure and there is so much that I learned from reading about his life.

I don't have time to go through all of the things I learned about his life, but here are a few reflections on the latter days of his existence (here on earth, I'm hoping and praying):
  1. His assasination was one of three attempted assasinations that were taking place at the same time. His secretary of state, William Seward (another inspiring man) was almost murdered at the exact same moment. He was slashed nearly to death as he rested in bed in his Washington home. The only thing that saved him was a metal plate that was holding his broken jaw in place - which was the result of a carriage accident 9 days before that nearly took his life. He was literally saved by that carriage accident - testimony that one never knows how providence can work things out.
  2. The other assisination that was to take place at the same time was against Lincoln's vice president - Andrews Johnson. The man who was supposed to assisinate him had second thoughts, and instead of entering his hotel room, went to the bar, pondered it for 15 minutes, and decided better of it. Thus, of the three, Lincoln was the only one who didn't make it through the night.
  3. John Wilkes Booth was an actor, as many probably already know. His brother, Edwin Booth, was the pre-eminent Shakespearien actor of the day. While Edwin was a Union supporter, John Wilkes was a Confederate sympathizer, having spent quite a bit of time in the South. All this goes to show that we should be very skeptical of actors - especially in relation to politics (see Matt Damon as exhibit B).
  4. Obviously, Lincoln was one of the greatest figures in world history. But a question naturally arises in my mind about him: I wonder how history would look at him had he lived out his three score and ten years and never been assisinated. Our admiration for people inherently increases when they give their lives for a cause, and Lincoln is no exception. Had he continued his second term and lived to be an old man, who knows what our thoughts would be about him today. I'm sure very positive, but perhaps not nearly as much as has resulted from his "martyrdom."

Friday, October 24, 2008

Third Class Conditions

I spent a few minutes this morning looking at a text that often presents challenges for me. When speaking about Christ's "unconditional" forgiveness, especially in light of what He said on Calvary to the soldiers who gambled over His robe (see Luke 23:34), many people like to site 1 John 1:9 as a classic example of conditional forgiveness. And, indeed, this text has been - and continues to be - perplexing to me.

As many of us are well aware, the text reads, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (NKJV). Literally, in Greek, the passage could be translated: "If we would confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous, so that He may forgive us our sins, and He may cleanse us from all unrighteousness." This text is often sited as an example of what is called a "Third Class Conditional Clause" in Greek. In other words, it is a classic "if/then" statement and it denotes the condition as "uncertain of fulfillment, but still likely" (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 696). As one person has suggested in relation to this passage, "But the moment he confesses, God will forgive and cleanse. If the believer fulfills the protasis ["if"], then God will fulfill the apodosis ["then"]! If I do my part, God will do His part!"

But I am not sure that this text is that cut-and-dry - and that last explanation seems to place God in the respondent's chair, and us in the iniator's chair, which is nothing more than a pagan, merit-based system of salvation. To begin with, what is the apodosis (the "then" part) of the statement? Is it God's faithfulness/righteousness, or His forgiveness and cleansing? Structurally, it would seem as though God's faithfulness and righteousness are the "then" part of the statement, with the Greek word eimi ("is") as the immediately subsequent verb to the conditional "if" statement.

But this interpretation presents clear theological challenges. Is God's faithfulness and righteousness dependent upon my confession of sin? Is God not faithful and righteous independent of anything I do? Does He not send His rain on the just and the unjust; His sun on the righteous and the unrighteous (see Matt 5:45)? Indeed, the Greek word eimi is not in the future tense; John does not write that if we confess our sins, God "will be faithful." He writes that God "is" presently and actively faithful.

Of course, many could then suppose that God's forgiveness and cleansing is the "then" part of the statement. But it seems to me that the Greek word hina - which literally means "so that" or "in order that" - indicates that God's faithfulness and righteousness makes His forgiveness and cleansing possible, not our confession. This passage shows that God's forgiveness is dependent upon His faithfulness, not anything we do.

What further muddies the waters is the first verse of the next chapter. After John writes that He wishes none of His readers would sin, he then apparently shares another Third Class Conditional Clause when he writes, "And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." You can clearly see the limitations of this passage as well! Certainly, God doesn't act as an advocate (the Greek word is parakletos, which is often translated as "comforter" when describing the Holy Spirit. It literally means "one who is called alongside") alongside God, only when we sin! His role as mediator, comforter, and advocate stands independent of our actions. Does it not?

Thus, I'm not sure that the classification of Third Class Conditional Clauses is really as easily interpreted as some would like us to believe. And I am convinced that God's faithfulness, rightesouness, forgiveness, cleansing, comfort, advocacy, is not so much dependent upon what I do, but upon who He is.

*The picture is from a painting by my good friend, Norman McGuire. He is a wonderful artist who primarily paints scenes from the life of Christ.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

My Roma-Table Book

I just wanted to let everyone know that if you are interested in purchasing a "Roma/Sanka-Table" book of my photography, called New England: A Taste of Heaven, you can purchase it here. I self-published this a few years back, and it is all of my favorite pictures of New England that I have captured (as of that date! I've taken many more since then).

Sorry that it is so expensive. I am not making a penny off it. It is just the expense of printing it through the Internet publishing site. A soft-cover book is $29.95 (which is actually not terrible, since it is 90 pages long), and a hard-cover is $41.95.

If you'd like to take a sneak preview of the first 15 or so pages of the book, you can do so by clicking here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


I don't have a lot of time, and there is tons of random stuff that I could write on this subject, but I have been grappling a lot lately with what some have labeled "legal justification" (I prefer to call it "corporate justification"). For the most part, I have recognized this idea as a beautiful truth that is taught in the Bible. To explain it very simply: corporate/legal justification teaches that when Christ died, He forgave the entire human race at the cross.

But I'm having a hard time reconciling this idea with some other teachings in scripture, and I can't seem to make them complement one another in a way that makes sense to me. As I said above, there are so many different confusing questions that I could raise, but I won't take you on a wild goose chase (for now), and plus I don't have a lot of time this morning. So I've been able to pretty much boil down the conflicting ideas to two statements and then one question. The first statement is a presupposition of "legal justification," the second statement seems to be a fairly straightforward teaching that most, if not all, Christians would agree with. And then I ask a question after the two statements.

Please, I beg of you, share your feedback with me on this (especially those who have tended to subscribe to the concept of legal justification. I've heard a lot from those who are opposed to the idea. Now I want to hear from those who agree with legal justification, and how they've reconciled this tension).

All right, without further ado, this is what the issues boil down to, in very simple terms:

1. Jesus considers every human being to be sinless.
2. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin.
Question: Are Jesus and the Holy Spirit contradicting and working against one another?

I expect to have 10 responses by the time I get home from Massachusetts at 11 o'clock Eastern time (if you didn't notice, I am really trying to figure this out)!!


Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Day Off!

I'm not sure what it is, but since the beginning of September, I have been busier than ever before. Perhaps it's because I have been in my district for a year, and people are now calling or e-mailing me more, or maybe it's just because I have made myself busier. But today is the real first day since then that I've been able to "veg" out. Since the beginning of September, I have not really had any free Sundays, whether they be filled with camping, Bible studies, funerals, weddings. . . .

It seems as though Camille and I had tons of Sundays last year where we just sat around and did nothing. That isn't necessarily the funnest thing, either, but there needs to be a fine balance.

And life isn't going to be getting any less chaotic. This next week, I will be commuting back and forth to South Lancaster, where I will be speaking for the Atlantic Union Educators Aministrators' Council. Then, next week, I will be shuttling back and forth up to Central Vermont Academy, where I will be speaking for their Week of Prayer.

Of course, life is going to be getting a lot more busy come May, when life as I know it will totally disappear!!

But I have been able to bring my camera here and there, and take some pictures. Here are a couple of pictures that I've taken recently. The first two are from our beautiful little town, and the other one is from a town not too far from here. I hope you enjoy.

A Picture is Worth . . .

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Photo of the Day

I know that I have another site that is devoted purely to my photographic pursuits, but I wanted to share my "Photo of the Day" here on this site as well. Yesterday was actually probably one of the best photographic days for me of the fall, and I had no intention of taking many pictures. When I went to the library at Dartmouth College for a few hours, I noticed some amazing scenes around campus. So I had to take my camera out and start snapping away. Well . . . one thing led to another and I returned to find a $10 parking ticket on my car - which was placed there 2 minutes before I arrived. Oh, well. It was time well spent.

Later on in the day, I found a few other places where I captured some nice pictures as well. I guess oftentimes, you find the best photography opportunities when you aren't looking for them.

The picture below is a pretty typical Ivy League scene (please click on the picture for a larger view of the image). Your comments are encouraged.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Monday, October 13, 2008

"The World's Music"

Can anyone give me an objective and empirical explanation of what constitutes "the world's music"? Simply saying that certain music "sounds worldly" does not make it so, and I fear that too many people judge music based on some esoteric or gnostic intuition they feel they have.

And let me just say: music and worship "wars" have been going on for a long time, and I don't really wish to focus too much on this secondary issue, but I'm curious.

A few months ago, I talked with a man who attends a church somewhere else in the United States, and he told me that he attended a particular church, as opposed to another church nearby, because his church understood the difference between "God's music" and "the world's music" (thus implying that the neighboring church did not understand the difference). I didn't realize that God had revealed to us what His music is. Sure, He has the book of Psalms, but that only gives us the lyrics to His music, and not the music itself.

So what are we to do? Many of these people decry any song that has a drumbeat, but won't think twice about playing Mozart or Beethoven on the cello for special music during church.

Am I missing something?

Despite my thoughts in the first few paragraphs, I do not want to make it sound as though I think anything and everything should go. I get very uncomfortable with many things that go on in the name of worship. As a matter of fact, I am fairly conservative in my musical tastes when it comes to worship services (of course, the term "conservative" is very relative) and I often find myself weeping at the actions of those who are supposedly worshiping, or leading in worship. What often passes for the worship of God seems to be the worship of self.

But on what basis can I declare any music to be evil or sacred? The Bible doesn't seem to give any type of black and white explanation of such distinctions. Obviously, the lyrics go a long way towards this discussion, and I think a lot of our "praise music" is very shallow and self-centered. But beyond that, where in scripture, or even scientific evidence, has it been proven that a drum or guitar or whatever your instrument of choice is, is inherently evil? Yes, I have heard and read that a syncopated beat is "bad," but I've yet to read any objective scientific evidence about this (besides from the pens of authors who have an agenda to tear down any type of music that is different from their tastes, or people who used to be in the rock culture and, understandably, would like to distance themselves from that type of music).

And I'm being serious about these questions. I am fairly "agnostic" on the music issue. I am very uncomfortable with a lot of what goes on in our church services, but I would also like to make sure that I am not simply reacting against these things because of my own biases. And, at the same time, I don't want to be arbitrary about music, saying that certain types of music are "worldly," yet not be able to utilize an objective rule of standard to make such statements.

And simply because a certain style seems to be of a "secular form" (how something is determined to be of a "secular form," I am not sure), does this make it evil? Why is music the only artistic medium in which we make such a distinction? We don't look at a painting, and say, "The way he utilized his brush strokes here is of a secular form."

So . . . can somebody please help me!

*The picture is taken from a clever website, which is selling T-Shirts based on Adventist culture. Please check out the site: http://www.eighteenfortyfour.com/shop.html.


I don't usually single-out one sermon that I've preached that I think you must listen to. In fact, I would never be so presumptuous as to think that any of them or worth your time. I only offer them over insofar as I feel compelled by God to share the messages. Hence, if I go through the process of preparing and preaching a sermon, I obviously feel as though God is wanting me to share it.

With that huge caveat, I want to invite you to listen to the sermon I preached this last Sabbath. I believe that one of our greatest challenges today is religious plurality, and especially Christian plurality. Many Adventists do not feel as though we have a special mission, and that we are just another denomination - just like one of the hundreds of channels on your DirecTV system.

But Jesus has no room for plurality. And this is something we must grapple with if we are to maintain the authority of scripture in our lives. I was fascinated by some interesting parallels between Jesus' day and ours, and so I would invite you to download my sermon (and listen to it) "Mere Adventism: The Big Give," which is available here. And, as another reminder, you can subscribe to all my sermons, via podcast, by clicking here.

Your feedback would be welcomed!

Friday, October 10, 2008

By What Authority?

I got to talking, along with a few of my members, to a neighbor of ours at one of our churches. We have enjoyed getting to know some of our neighbors (seems like a reasonable thing to do, doesn't it?) recently, and this one neighbor, in particular, was eager to talk with us about spiritual things.

Only, his questions were not your typical questions. He immediately wanted to know about reincarnation and what we thought about that. He wondered if, perhaps, Jesus could have been Buddha reincarnated, and whether reincarnation was a good thing, so as to give people more chances to do good. He also wondered about impressions, and whether God talks to us through these impressions (ie., when we leave the kitchen, we just get this deep impression that we left the stove on, and so we return to the kitchen to find out that we did).

After a ten minute or so conversation, it was very apparent that this man, like so many others today, has a very eclectic understanding of God. He values eastern religions, Christianity, anything that has some type of value. When I told him that there were inherent contradictions between all religions, thereby making it necessary to choose one rule of authority, he said that this wasn't necessarily the case, and it could simply be a situation where people have different perspectives and views on the same thing.

I pointed to his house and said, "My friend, Peter, here, may say that the house is white. You may say it is black. But there is an objective reality about the color of the house, apart from any subjective opinion of it." Perhaps I shouldn't have used color as an example, since there is a lot of subjectivity in perceiving colors, but the point remains. There is objective reality apart from a person's subjective interpretation of it, and it is our goal - indeed, every person necessarily strives to understand reality - to come to grips with reality. We can thank the good Lord that there is objective reality, else we would be in a lot of trouble when we go to the emergency room.

When we wished our neighbor goodbye, he said to us, "Next time we'll talk about Ouija Boards. . . "

But I quickly realized something: unless two people can agree on their rule of authority, it is fairly fruitless to discuss reality, or someone's perception of reality. This also relates to other Christians I have been talking with, who don't necessarily believe that all of the Bible is inspired by God. When I asked them by what authority they have come to conclude this, they freely admitted that it was their own logic that led them to this belief.

But when we do this, we become our own authority, and we stand in judgment of the Bible. Some may be comfortable in doing this - and others covet this behavior - but total autonomy is a dangerous game to play. Ultimately, if I am my own authority, I am left to figure everything out for myself, and I am relying on my own human wisdom. If I want to pick and choose what I like from the various religions, I am doing so under my own logic and reasoning, which often tends to get me into trouble. The "God is dead" idea leads to insanity and madness. Friedrich Neitzche, who wanted nothing more than to live an autonomous life apart from God, lived the last ten years of his life insane, ultimately dying - in all likelihood - because of his condition.

When we do not humble ourselves to an authority outside of ourselves, we place ourselves in a lonely position, believing we alone are worthy of supreme adoration. And such thinking naturally leads to egotism, and I find it impossible to act in any way other than selfishness. And selfishness leads to insanity, because life's greatest joys come when I lose all self-interest and place others ahead of myself.

Of course, some may claim that they don't believe God is dead, but that He just doesn't have one religion, or one authoritative text. But if God does exist, and objective reality does exist, why would He not give us one objective revelation of Himself, so as to make it as easy as possible for us to understand Him? Yes, the Bible may have portions that seem contradictory, but if I have found any truth in it, I can't help but figure that there is more truth in the Bible, and those seeming contradictions actually complement one another - if I allow for the possibility that this is God's objective and authoritative revelation of Himself.

Until I come to that place, instead of standing up for myself, I will actually fall for everything.