Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Start of Something Great

Left to right: Ron Nickerson, Jason Disch, Frank Donald, Brenda Johnson, Phil Johnson, Rick Kuntz, Arnet Mathers, Greg Carter, Cornell Preda, Frankie Brownell, Steve Brownell, Shawn Brace

At the risk of overstating things, I just spent the last two days experiencing what I believe is the beginning of something that will change the world. I believe it will have eternal consequences. Along with 11 other people (12 of us total - 10 pastors and two spouses), I sat in a little prayer chapel at idyllic Camp Lawroweld in Weld, Maine, surrounded by the beautiful autumn foliage, and simply studied the Word of God for about 16 hours in a two-day period. It was truly heavenly.

A few months ago, Pastor Greg Carter (who pastors the White Memorial Church in Portland, Maine) and I raised the point to our conference administrators that it would be wonderful if the pastors could get together to simply study the Word. Many times at our "workers' meetings," we discuss a lot of valuable things but hardly get a chance to open the Word for serious study. They kindly obliged and so we invited all of the pastors in the conference to join us for a voluntary two-day Bible Retreat in October.

To my thinking, I am not sure that this has ever been done in any conference in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America - at least not in the last half-century. I might be wrong, but another pastor who is quite familiar with Adventist history also agreed that it has probably been nearly a hundred years since something like this has been done within Adventism. I am quite sure this is at least the case in our conference!

With that being said, I wasn't sure if there would be much interest and I was hoping that we would get five or six to attend. But the response was overwhelming. Just about every pastor indicated they were interested in attending, but not all could attend, due to scheduling conflicts. About 15 pastors (out of the 30 or so full-time pastors) committed to it, but when it was all said and done, a few of the pastors had to bow-out last minute (due to last-minute conflicts) and we ended up with ten pastors and two spouses.

We studied the book of Galatians and our unpacking of this incredible book was truly amazing. We essentially went verse-by-verse and unpacked the Gospel from every inch of the epistle we could. The Spirit was poured out and there was great unity amongst us. This was not to say that we all agreed upon every jot and tittle, but there seemed to be a real desire to not only grapple with the Word in a profound way, but to have it change us.

Simply put, the experience far exceeded my expectations, though I was not really sure what exactly to expect to begin with. From a purely objective point of view, I'm not sure that many of us would have thought that 12 of us could sit in a small chapel (not more than 20 x 20 feet in size) and slowly and deliberately unpack a book for 16 hours without getting bored, annoyed, or frustrated. Not only did we accomplish this, but I got the feeling that many - if not most - of us could have done it for another 16 hours (especially since we only finished five of the six chapters).

Specifically as it relates to the book of Galatians, I would like to try to summarize what we discovered, and reflect upon what we all agreed on - as well as the few things we were not in complete agreement on. Some who attended may have a slightly different view of these things, so this is just one man's perspective.

Areas of Agreement
1. The Galatian problem was that they were reverting back to the old covenant way of salvation by their own efforts. Circumcision was not the problem, per se. Their problem was their motivation in getting circumcised (ie., trying to merit salvation and the favor of God).

2. A corollary to this problem was that the Galatians were taking the issue of circumcision and using it as a litmus test to determine who was really a part of God's people. They displayed a judgmental attitude towards others and "persecuted" them who were "born according to the Spirit" (4:29). We recognized this mentality is still alive and well within our churches, and even in our own thinking at times.

3. A lot of it boils down to control and pride. As human beings, we have this natural (and sinful) desire to control others and to control God. We want to be able to point to ourselves as contributing to our salvation.

4. Contrary to all this, Paul made it clear that there is absolutely nothing that human beings can do to earn, merit, or deserve salvation. It is completely a gift from God, purchased solely by the death of Christ.

5. The purpose of the law is to point out our sin and thus the need for a Savior (3:24). It cannot save us; it can simply reveal to us our desperate need for Christ's righteousness and His power to transform our lives.

6. Christ is 100% our righteousness. He places His righteousness upon us and, because of this, we stand pardoned and forgiven before God.

7. Thus, we experience justification by faith - which is a response of the heart (5:6). This heart-response is based upon an appreciation for God's initiative, sacrifice, and love. And such a response energizes our lives, pushing us forward to live by the Spirit.

8. This appreciation can only be accomplished as we dwell upon the cross, contemplating Christ and Him crucified.

9. Seventh-day Adventists have been blessed with a fuller understanding of the cross, because of our understanding of the nature of man (being naturally mortal) and the nature of hell. When we see Christ's tremendous struggle in Gethsemane, where He was becoming a "curse for us" (3:13) and experiencing the separating of His father from Himself, it gives us a much richer and deeper gratitude for just how far Christ went in redeeming us.

10. Christ has "redeemed" all of us (3:13), and the beautiful reality is that we have all been "crucified with Christ" (2:20). This was done without any request from us. Indeed, it was done even before we were born.

11. In order for Christ to have redeemed us, it was necessary for Him to come to the very point where we were/are, and thus He was "born of a woman, born under the law" (4:4-5). Thus, He took upon Himself our humanity it its weakened condition. This means that He has so closely identified with us that we can draw close to Him, recognizing that He has a heart of compassion for us.

12. In taking upon Himself our humanity in its weakened condition, Christ still retained His divine nature and His will was ever connected to His Father, even from birth. Thus, the human and divine natures were connected, and this can be our experience if we are born again and live by the Spirit.

13. God desires for all of us to be delivered from "the present evil age," (1:4) and to experience true freedom and liberty. He wants us to live by the Spirit.

14. When we live by the Spirit, we do not fulfill the "lusts of the flesh," (5:16) and the fruit of the Spirit is evident in our lives.

15. God wants us to live in a new covenant experience rather than an old covenant experience (4:21-31). These two experiences have always been present and are not speaking of the historical periods that the Bible also identifies (the Old and New Testament).

16. Someone who is living in a new covenant experience is taking God at His word, believing His promises, and cooperating with Him. Someone who is living in an old covenant experience is making promises to God and trying to "help" Him fulfill what He has promised. The actions and behavior of both the old covenant and new covenant experiences may be the same; the difference is the motivation of the heart.

17. As a part of the salvation process, God gives us grace to overcome sin and enjoy a victorious life.

18. Recognizing all these realities extinguishes human pride and results in man, laying his glory in the dust.

19. There was a fairly unified agreement that God has wanted to do more in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and pour out His Spirit in much more abundant measure, but we have resisted the true Gospel. The results of this have driven most within our church to the opposite extremes of legalism and antinomianism (lawlessness). Only a rediscovering, accepting, and embracing of the true Gospel can accomplish a balance of the law and grace, and usher in great revival among our people.

Areas of Disagreement

1. What it truly means to be "justified by faith." Some understand the word to be used in the New Testament in a strictly forensic/legal sense, while others maintain that when God declares someone to be righteous, He also "makes" them righteous.

This single area brought about the most disagreement and discussion. Though we all proceeded in Christian love and grace, it did heat up quite a bit. By God's grace, we all maintained our composure and allowed God to help us treat each other with brotherly and sisterly love.

2. At the heart of this disagreement is whether God is going to have a people who have fully matured in their faith - and learned to completely walk by the Spirit - before His Second Coming. Some felt that this necessarily implied there was a different way of salvation for those who will be translated, maintaining that these people would be earning or contributing to their salvation. Those on the opposite side did not agree that it necessarily follows that simply because God would have a people who come to full maturity and learn how to completely overcome sin by His grace, that it means they would be "earning" their salvation or that they would be living by their own righteousness.

3. The latter group proposed that this "fully mature" people would constantly be living by the merits and blood of Christ, while the former group did not see how these two concepts (reaching full maturity and yet still living by God's grace and merits) could be reconciled.

4. A corollary to this concept was a disagreement over the definition of sin and what it means to be a "sinner."

All in all, there was a great Spirit. God truly led. All seemed to be in agreement that this was the best pastors' meetings they had ever attended, and that we needed more of this. A few said they felt extremely energized by the power of God and encountering the Word. All would like to see these types of meetings happen more often, and rather than waiting for a whole year to do it again, perhaps we could meet again in the winter or early spring - maybe even before, and more regularly.

What was appreciated by all, as well, was the way in which we could disagree with one another yet maintain Christian love and humble spirits. Many shy away from digging deeply into the Word in a corporate setting like this, fearing that studying the Bible is divisive and will cause ill feelings towards one another. As one pastor said, however, doing so is only divisive if we "allow it to be."

I also came to some wonderful realizations. Firstly, it is abundantly clear that the Bible is meant to be studied, wrestled and grappled with, in community. It is not meant to be studied in isolation. I came to a much fuller and deeper understanding of Galatians by studying it with others, than I ever would be able to by studying alone. We need one another. We need everyone's perspective and understanding.

With that being said, I was also really excited about the fact that our study of Galatians did not turn into a "this is what I think, and this is how it applies to me," exercise. Too many times, when I study the Bible in a group setting, people are quick to offer their opinion on what the text is saying, and they are equally as quick to apply it to their lives. Very little wrestling with the text itself is done.

Simply put, this was not the case with our retreat. Yes, there was application and yes, of course, there were biases and opinions, but, most of all, they were was an honest unpacking of the Word of God and figuring out what the text meant, before trying to apply it to our current context.

Most significantly, perhaps, the whole two days were bathed in prayer and true Christian fellowship. We were also blessed with wonderful cooking by Lorraine Mathers, wife of Pastor Arnet Mathers.

I truly feel that God's Spirit was poured out in incredible measure, and that this small, humble gathering was the beginning of a soft voice that will crescendo into a loud cry.


Greg Carlson said...

Wow! I shouldn't have read this...now I wish even more that I would have been there. Really looking forward to the next one!

Ron said...

Ron Nickerson said ..
I for one was both deeply blessed and my faith strengthened. I find no subject more stimulating then Righteouness by faith in Jesus alone! This has got to be our message to this generation.

Matthew said...

My friend, perhaps we will be seeing more of this kind of activity (bible study and prayer) withing our leadership if the recent General conference executive counsel is any indication. Last week they spent much time in prayer and study prior to their sessions and determined that an emphasis on these two practices if necessary to usher in the latter rain. Also, a true spirit of humility seemed to reign. God bless you in your work my friend.

Renee Hernandez said...

Were there any woman pastors there? It looked like from the picture perhaps so..till woman are treated equally & participate fully in ministry I do not see Christ fully portrayed .

Shawn Brace said...

Renee: the two women in the picture were spouses. We do not have any women pastors in our conference, per se. One of our pastor's wives serves as an assistant pastor/hospital chaplain, but that is the extent of it.

Anonymous said...

Ask the Lord how you can keep it alive. I would suggest you meet on a regular basis.

Matt Kohls said...

That's exciting Shawn. Definitely see this being a catalyst in NNEC which will continue to accelerate the more you meet together. Kind of makes me think of our sunrise photo excursion on Cadillac Mtn. this summer. It's the first place that the sun hits in the U.S., and from there it continues spreading across the country. Look forward to seeing that happen!