Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Sabbath, Revisited

I have been overwhelmed since I woke up this morning and checked my e-mail to discover that my recent post on the Sabbath has all of a sudden garnered quite a response. I was shocked to see that, overnight, I had received scores of comments.

This is surprising because, although I have posted some items that have received quite a bit of feedback, it was nothing of this magnitude. After doing a little digging, I discovered that someone had posted a link to my post on the Seventh-day Adventist Facebook fanpage - and, while I usually get about 20 hits on my blog a day, there has been nearly 1500 hits with over 100 new comments between Facebook and the blog itself.

I say all this because I would like to respond all the good feedback, but I am now overwhelmed! I am just a humble pastor, living in Maine (the northeastern part of the United States, for those who are from overseas). And what started out as a status update in Facebook that I was going to share, but turned into a whole post on my blog that I was reluctant to share, has seemed to scratch where a lot of people are itching.

So with all that said, I want to share a few general thoughts in response to all the feedback, questions, and comments people have left.

1. One thing that I want to reiterate that may or may not have come out enough in the original post is the reality that the Sabbath, in my mind, is first and foremost about a responsive relationship with Christ. A number of people raised this point. And I completely agree. That is the most important element of the Sabbath. All the rules or formulas are empty if it is not about responding to God's initiative and fellowshipping with Him. And, again, if this did not come out in the original post, I am terribly sorry. That is the foundation to the whole issue.

As I have already mentioned in a previous comment, as well - there is a whole chapter in a forthcoming book of mine from Pacific Press that touches upon this beautiful truth of the Sabbath.

Again, keeping the Sabbath is about responding by faith - and, in fact, I would posit that it is the ultimate reflection of whether we are living by faith.

2. I also agree that the Sabbath is a very personal thing between us and God. Our walk with God, and how we relate to Him, is like any other relationship in life. No one can govern or dictate to us how we interact with another person. This is especially true in marriage relationships - which are a poignant reflection of our walk with Christ.

But (and there is always a "but," isn't there?) no matter how personal any relationship is - be it with God or other human beings - there are certain behaviors that are never appropriate. I could argue with you, for example, that you have no business telling me how I should interact with my wife, but such a proposition on my part would not change the fact that it is never appropriate to sleep with another woman, look at pornography, etc. There are certain universal principles that reach across all cultures, times, people, etc.

So too, I would propose with the Sabbath. While it is definitely a very personal encounter for all of us with God, God has set forth some very basic parameters in the Bible that serve as universal principles from His heart to ours. These are the expectations that He has - not because He is exacting or interested in setting arbitrary rules, but because He cares too much about our health and wellbeing and understands that these parameters can save us from a lot of grief, stress, and heartache. As I will also mention below, God is a lot smarter than us and while we may think there are certain behaviors we can get away with on the Sabbath that won't stress us out (ie., paying for something on Sabbath), He, as the builders of our bodies, knows what truly protects us from these unfortunate results.

This is not to say, as I have already stated, that there aren't a lot of personal decisions that we each need to individually make that are not spelled out plainly in the Bible, but I do see the five basic principles in the Bible that are not simply chalked up to personal decisions, but are universal in their scope. Again, those are 1. Keeping it holy 2. Refraining from work 3. No buying or selling 4. Leaving our selfish pleasures behind 5. Doing good.

So long as we can, in good conscience, determine that any specific activity falls within these parameters, we are in a good place.

3. I know that many are still uncomfortable with the idea that we would ever want to talk about what we "should" or "shouldn't do" on the Sabbath, or asking ourselves whether it is "okay" to do this particular thing or that particular thing. As a general rule, I, too, try to steer clear of the "should" or "shouldn't" mindset. Instead, I usually like to talk about what we would naturally "want" to do or naturally not want to do. When we are responding to the relational pursuit of God, we will, ideally, find ourselves wanting to do certain things and not wanting to do certain other things.

However, I also think there is a place for black-and-white principles because, as I have stated in another comment, God wants to protect us from placing us in a situation where we can deceive ourselves. As sinful human beings we are very capable of - and, in fact, accomplished at - tricking ourselves into thinking we are doing something for one reason, while we are really doing it for another reason.

Thus, God wants to rescue us from simply living completely in a subjective experience (ie., basing our behavior on what "feels" right or what we perceive to be good). This is why He gives us the law in general, and the Sabbath principles specifically. He gives these to us as objective criteria by which we can judge our behavior against to see if we are in the right place.

All of us are at a different place, of course, but what God really wants is to bring us into a deeper and richer experience - and that can only happen when He is able to reveal our hearts to us. And our hearts can only be revealed to us when we are able to judge our behavior against an objective standard. Hence, the reason for "should" or "shouldn'ts" when it comes to the Sabbath, or any other issue.

Simply put, we do not know our own hearts (nor does any other human being) so we need God to reveal them to us. But He cannot do this simply by giving us a feeling or subjective experience. He can only do this by pointing us to His objective law.

4. I recognize that, for many people, we have been bombarded with a legalistic approach to the Sabbath. For many, it's been all about "dos" and "don'ts" (though, as many have pointed out, it is usually just the "don'ts"). This is truly unfortunate.

But we need to be mature enough to recognize something: when it comes to legalism, the rules are not necessarily the problem, per se. It's the motivation and reason that is given for those rules that is the problem. Thus, just because something may have been presented in a legalistic way in the past does not mean that the problem is with the rule itself. So, for example, if our parents didn't let us swim on Sabbath when we were kids, and the only reason they gave us was because "we aren't supposed to," the problem is not necessarily the rule about swimming but the wrong motivation or reason behind the rule.

This is important as we mature in our experience with Christ in general and our Sabbath behavior in particular. The devil likes to do nothing more than to take a good principle/guideline/rule/law, wrap it in the wrong motivation, and then convince us that it is actually the rule/law/principle/guideline that is wrong. This happens over and over again with many things - both in relation to the Sabbath and in relation to God.

Thus, what we really need to be able to do is examine the principles, asking God to show us the truth of the principle itself apart from any emotional reaction we might have to it.

5. As challenged as some people might be by the this, the fact of the matter is, one of the main problems for Israel of old was their Sabbath keeping. Their lack of reverence for the Sabbath was a main cause for their exile. I would invite anyone to read Ezekiel 20 - as just one place - to encounter this reality firsthand. (For further study on this issue in Ezekiel 20, I would suggest you read this article I wrote in Ministry magazine a few years ago.)

So, as much as we want the Sabbath to be a purely subjective and personal matter, God doesn't necessarily view it that way. How we keep the Sabbath does affect other people and God. (Their desecration of the Sabbath was often linked to the exploitation of others - see Isaiah 58)

The mistake God's people made, of course, was not in recognizing that their captivity was directly linked to their desecration of the Sabbath, but was their solution to that desecration. They decided to make strict rules to govern every situation they might face on the Sabbath and, furthermore, they insisted that every Jewish person strictly adhere to them. They took the five universal principles of Sabbath observance in the Old Testament, and tried to add to them.

So the bottom line is: we need to ask ourselves whether we, too, are in danger of desecrating the Sabbath as the Jews did (as I think we might be in danger of) but also ask ourselves how we can avoid the pitfalls that they did and recognize that God is really pleading for our hearts (where He will write true Sabbath keeping).

5. I have had many people asking if I could provide a "model" of what "appropriate" or "positive" Sabbath keeping looks like. And in the midst of a lot of "don'ts" that are often listed (including by me) I think it would be a good exercise to provide some positive suggestions about what a positive Sabbath experience would look like. This is not exhaustive, it is not universal, it is not prescriptive. It is only some personal reflections that seem to fit in my mind as I reflect upon the five biblical principles of Sabbath keeping.

So here are some suggestions (beyond attending church, of course):
  • Go for a hike, enjoying God's beautiful nature
  • Sing at a nursing home
  • Have a group Bible study
  • Spend time in personal Bible reading
  • Visit shut-ins
These suggestions may not be necessarily "children" friendly (something I am going to have to explore as my children get older), but I might also suggest reading the chapter "Sabbath - The Day of Delight" (chapter 79) in Child Guidance, by Ellen White. Someone else also suggested the chapter called "Sabbath - A Day for Families" in Donna Habenicht's book How to Help Your Child to Really Love Jesus. I have not read this book personally, but as a father of growing kids, I certainly hope to read it! Apparently, the chapter on the Sabbath in that book has six pages of suggestions for Sabbath activities for families.

6. I realize that some - if not all - of the above suggestions will probably seem "boring" for many people. Truthfully, some of them were boring to me when I was a kid growing up (and still can be). And, though this will be a whole other post in the future, I hope, I have also come to the realization that some of the above suggestions may seem boring, not because of how we keep the Sabbath, but because of how we "keep" the rest of the week.

After all, if I fill up the rest of free time during the week - or the rest of my young kids' free time - with TV watching, movies, sports, and entertaining myself to death, why would nature hikes, nursing home visits, etc., not be boring? And if I hardly ever respond to Christ during the rest of my week by spending time in communion with Him through His Word, why would I want to spend my Sabbath with Him?

Again, all this is to say that the Sabbath is the ultimate revealer of where my heart's affections really lie.

7. Lastly, I was wondering if anyone would pick up on a subtle - yet important - point I made toward the end of the post. In my original post I shared that God doesn't give us the Sabbath law - or any law - to get us to keep it, but to show that we can't keep it.

This is one of the most important truths of scripture: God doesn't give the law to sinners so that we would be convicted of it and then try to obey it. This, we simply cannot do. He gives the law to sinners to point out our need for our Savior, and send us clinging to Him so that He can save us, and then He write His law on our hearts - producing the obedience for us. This could be demonstrated from a number of places in the Bible, but I think this quote in Steps to Christ sums it up most succinctly:
It was possible for Adam, before the fall, to form a righteous character by obedience to God's law. But he failed to do this, and because of his sin our natures are fallen and we cannot make ourselves righteous. Since we are sinful, unholy, we cannot perfectly obey the holy law. We have no righteousness of our own with which to meet the claims of the law of God. But Christ has made a way of escape for us. He lived on earth amid trials and temptations such as we have to meet. He lived a sinless life. He died for us, and now He offers to take our sins and give us His righteousness. If you give yourself to Him, and accept Him as your Saviour, then, sinful as your life may have been, for His sake you are accounted righteous. Christ's character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned.
More than this, Christ changes the heart. He abides in your heart by faith. You are to maintain this connection with Christ by faith and the continual surrender of your will to Him; and so long as you do this, He will work in you to will and to do according to His good pleasure (pp. 62-63).
This lays it out beautifully! You might also be interested in listening to a recent sermon I preached on this topic, based on Galatians 3:19-25. You can find the mp3 of that sermon here.

I hope I have addressed the basic questions that most people had. I am sure I left a number of unanswered unintentionally. But that's where I am going to leave it for now. And I am pressing "publish" without proof-reading this, so please excuse the typos!

May we all respond to Christ with our whole hearts and be willing to receive the counsel of the "Faithful and True Witness" (Rev 3:14), as we come face to face with our true condition.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Monday, May 16, 2011

Does Anyone Keep the Sabbath Anymore?

I have been accused by more than one person in the past of possessing a healthy dose of self-righteousness. And, truthfully, as I reflect on my zealous nature, I can't help but think that far too often the shoe fits. I am truly saddened to recognize that many times I have hurt people with my judgmental attitude, though I am glad the Lord has been working on my heart in this area.

I write this preamble because I do not want anyone to interpret what I am about to write through that lens. I know that some will, no doubt, still do so, but I want to try to bathe this post with a great deal of humility. I write, not as one who has arrived or has it all figured out, not as one who is angry or upset, but as one who is sincerely saddened by where we all are when it comes to this topic.

So with that huge caveat in place, one question often comes back to my mind, week after week. It is simply this: are there any Seventh-day Adventists left - especially young Seventh-day Adventists - who still keep the Sabbath?

I realize there are many who still do, of course, and I fully admit that I am less than perfect in this area myself. So, again, I don't write this with a judgmental attitude (at least not consciously, realizing that none of us truly knows our own hearts). But I continue to be saddened, week after week, how there seems to be so few Adventists - especially from my generation and younger - who have a love affair with the Sabbath.

One does not need to scroll down too long on Facebook to realize this. Status update after status update betrays this reality. "Going to see Harry Potter tonight," or "Girls night out!" or, "Shootin' some hoops." The list goes on and on.

A few years ago, when I was giving some young kids Bible studies in preparation for baptism, the response from one of the kids astounded me when it came to the Sabbath study. He came from a fairly "straight-laced" Adventist family, but when I told him that on the Sabbath we probably wouldn't want to play sports like soccer, etc., he responded by saying, "What's wrong with playing soccer in your backyard on Sabbath?" Even though I tried to make it sound positive, saying that when we're in love with God we will naturally want to do other things on Sabbath, I overheard him saying to one of his classmates later in the day, "Pastor Brace says we can't play soccer on Sabbath."

What amazes me even more, however, is just how unashamed people are in their openness to pastors about their Sabbath behavior. A few years ago, I was talking with a pastor friend of mine that I went to seminary with, and he was telling me about the church he was pastoring. On the very first Sabbath he was there, he had a number of his new members - who hardly knew him at all - invite him out to eat at a restaurant for Sabbath lunch. He was baffled - not so much that they actually went out to eat on Sabbath and not so much that they would invite their pastor, but that they would assume, even without knowing their new pastor at all, that he would be open to such an idea.

I, too, have had similar encounters as a pastor. It seems that the frequency of people sharing with me unashamedly about their unorthodox Sabbath practices multiplies with each passing week. And I pastor in "conservative" (at least as far as Adventism goes) northern New England!

Again, I need to reiterate this, just in case someone is feeling beat up or embarrassed: I do not write this with condemnation. I am in no way looking down upon anyone and I don't want anyone to think to themselves, "Oh, no, he will probably think I am going to hell if I tell him what I do on Sabbath." In all honesty, no such thoughts ever come through my mind.

This is because I, too, am saddened by my own Sabbath behavior, my own failure to utilize the day optimally for God's glory and responding to Christ's love. Too many times my own mind wanders on Sabbath - to the Bruins game, to the next camera lens I want to buy, to many things that are irrelevant to what God is inviting me to do.

The truth of the matter is, I have often felt that the way we enjoy the Sabbath is perhaps the most telling reflection of where we are in our walk with Christ. Think about this: God has given us an excuse to leave absolutely everything else behind and spend a whole 24 hours with Him. He actually provides a whole day for us to simply enjoy His presence in fellowship with Him. The rest of the week we are bombarded with work, competition, bills, entertainment; but on the Sabbath, we actually have an excuse to leave all that behind and respond wholeheartedly to His pursuing initiative.

But, instead, what do we do? I often hear, and sadly participate in, these types of conversations many a Sabbath afternoon during lunch: "Let's go play volleyball after this." "What do you think of Obama's chances in 2012?" "So, how is work going?" "Oh, man, my 401(k) is looking disastrous." "Hey, did you hear that so-and-so broke up with so-and-so??" (Of course, then there's the "sanctified" Sabbath conversations where we simply talk about church politics.)

All these are a reflection of where our affections truly lie. Given the opportunity to dwell upon nothing but the beautiful character of Christ, we discreetly take a pass.

Truly, it seems to me that if our hearts were overflowing with love for God - and, again, I completely include myself in this indictment - then we would feel overjoyed with the privilege of being able to saturate our conversations, our activities, our everything, with all things pertaining to God. This is why Jesus proclaimed, "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45).

Simply put, that which we love to converse about on Sabbath reflects where our hearts truly are.

Don't get me wrong: this doesn't mean God is asking us to quote Bible verses all day. But oftentimes our Sabbath deportment is akin to a young lady who goes out on a date and all she wants to do is talk about her ex-boyfriend. It would be like a Brit going through the whole of April 29, 2011 without talking at all about the Royal Wedding.

It is no wonder that Ellen White gave this rather pointed advice, "The words and thoughts should be guarded. Those who discuss business matters and lay plans on the Sabbath, are regarded of God as though they engaged in the actual transaction of business. To keep the Sabbath holy, we should not even allow our minds to dwell upon things of a worldly character" (Counsels for the Church, p. 269. Interestingly, after pointing this out, she makes this sobering claim: "Had the Sabbath always been sacredly observed, there could never have been an atheist or an idolater.").

She then goes onto say a few sentences later: "Ministers of Jesus should stand as reprovers to those who fail to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. They should kindly and solemnly reprove those who engage in worldly conversation upon the Sabbath and at the same time claim to be Sabbathkeepers. They should encourage devotion to God upon His holy day."

Of course, where does all this leave us?

Well, whenever I address the Sabbath issue I like to make sure people understand that it is not a day of do's and don'ts and that, to a large degree, how one chooses to honor the Lord during the day is a personal matter. I also recognize that, for many, the day has been presented to them simply as a day of rule-following and the relational aspect of it has been left out. Thus, as a reaction to the legalistic presentation of it that has plagued many of us, we have swung the pendulum the other direction and, in an attempt to rescue it from its rigidity, we make it all about "fun" stuff that we perceive to be relational-building (beach, anyone?).

But, sadly, when we do this, we often fall into the trap of only thinking about relationships on the horizontal level and we completely neglect the vertical relationship. Don't get me wrong: the Sabbath is about strengthening the horizontal relationships for sure, but the optimal way to strengthen the horizontal relationships is by responding corporately to the vertical. In other words, the more we respond to God and view that relationship as the top priority, the closer we come to other human beings who also perceive that to be the most important.

And that's what we're all about, isn't it?

Beyond this, however, I also like to mention that, though the Bible does not give us strict rules to follow when it comes to the Sabbath, it does lay down some basic principles that should inform those things we do engage in. It's really very simple. As far as I can tell, here are the five basic principles the Bible lays out when it comes to Sabbath keeping (these could all be expanded a lot more, but that will have to be for another day:

1. Keep it holy (Exod 20:8). The Hebrew word for "holy" is qadosh, and it means to "set apart" or to "consecrate." It is what God did at the very beginning with the Sabbath - He set it apart and consecrated it. Furthermore, in Exodus 3:5, when Moses came before the burning bush, God told him to take off his shoes because he was standing on "holy [qadosh] ground." This implied that God's presence was there and, thus, when something is "holy," it is consecrated with God's presence.

2. Refrain from work (Exod 20:8-11). There has been great debate as to what constitutes "work," but when Exodus 20:9 says that "Six days you shall labor and do all your work," the word for "labor" is 'abad, which literally means to "serve." The noun form of the word, ebed, is the word that is used for "slave" or "servant." Thus, the "labor" we are to refrain from is that which we are in servitude to. The second word for "work," mela'kah, is the more common idea of work, literally meaning "occupation" or "business." Thus, between 'abad and mela'kah, these two words cover anything from my paid occupation, to my homework as a student, to yard work at home.

Of course, some people like to then ask, "Okay, so is it all right to rake someone's lawn or paint their house as an act of service on Sabbath?" This, it is posited, is a selfless type of work that has its place. But two things: 1. Why not do it on Sunday or another day off? 2. Is this, as an act of "Community Service," just that - "serving/working" for someone other than God? These things are not bad or evil; it's just, again, God wants to give us the full blessing and benefit of Sabbath rest.

3. Leave your buying and selling for another day (Neh 13:15-22). No matter how relaxing it might be to sit in that nice restaurant, sipping an Ice T, do your server a favor and stay away from the marketplace! I realize the argument is that he/she is going to be there making money anyway, whether you go or not, but, at the very least, do not contribute to the tyranny of work and the obsession with money.

4. Leave your selfish pleasures behind (Isa 58:13-14). Isaiah 58:13 tells us to "turn" our "foot" away from "doing [our] own pleasure" on God's "holy day." This doesn't mean the Sabbath should be a drag, of course, and, admittedly, this one can be left open to a lot of interpretation. But I think that, in light of the fact that we are to "consecrate" the day and "keep it holy," this eliminates a lot of stuff, freeing us from the tendency to tickle our own fancies all the time.

5. Do good (Matt 12:12). After a number of "negative" commands, this one is very refreshing and it is one that I often like to ask myself: Jesus said that it is "lawful to do good on Sabbath." This was directly in the context of Him healing people. Thus, am I seeking, on the Sabbath, to encourage someone spiritually, to bring them joy - true joy, not the variety that comes through mindless entertainment - to point them heavenward? Am I seeking to bring happiness to someone's life other than myself?

Thus, all of these five principles must inform my Sabbath activities. I must force myself to slow down and ask, "Does this activity fall within the parameters of these five principles?"

Of course, hopefully I will not even have to force myself to slow down at all because the disposition of my heart will be such that I delight to engage in the things of God naturally - as an outgrowth of my appreciation for the love of Christ.

But I also need to share this in closing: God does not give us the Sabbath commandment that we might try to keep it. He does not lay out the parameters of "proper" Sabbath keeping so that we would become convicted that we should be doing it and then set out to do it. As sinful human beings, we cannot keep the Sabbath, no matter how convicted we are. We can simply recognize that we are helpless to really do it and we need Christ to fulfill it our in our lives.

Thus, these principles actually act as a convicting agent, showing us of our utter failures, pointing us to the fact that our hearts really aren't in the right place and that we need them changed by a supernatural Agent. And we, like Paul, can cry out, "O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24) Then, when we recognize our futility and need, we look to the cross and the tremendous sacrifice made on our behalf - the sinners that we are - and this opens our hearts to Jesus and allows Him to change them. He will then work out His good pleasure in our lives.

And the Sabbath will become a delight.

Monday, May 9, 2011

How Are We Different?

There are many Christians, and especially Seventh-day Adventist Christians, who talk about the importance of followers of Christ being "different" than the world. "We are to be in the world," the popular sentiment goes, "but not of the world."

I have no problem with this concept, in theory. I think it is a very biblical idea. It seems clear from the Bible that we are not to "love the world or the things in the world" (1 John 2:15). Similarly, in Christ's last prayer, He explicitly stated that He was not praying that His Father would take His disciples "out of the world, but that [He] should keep them from the evil one," because they were not "of the world" (John 17:15-16).

This much is clear.

But I think the popular idea as to what it means to be "different" from the world gets people a little bit on a wrong path and, when taken to the extreme, actually has people going away from the very core and center of Christianity - that of loving others and living a life of constant service to them.

And this is the crux of the matter: I have recently realized that usually, when we talk about being "different," it is within the context of behaviorism. Even more to the point, it is often within the context of Christian standards. "If we are Christians, we will refrain from watching bad movies," some might say. Others might posit that we should dress differently, we should eat differently, we should talk differently. Some of us may transfer this philosophy into the way we raise our children and thus we try to remove them from interaction with "nonbelievers" as far as possible - or, as one person put it to me recently, "righteousness by removal from temptation."

All these things are well and good and I wholeheartedly agree that our lives will be different in these areas when fully responding to Christ. And, of course, I already worry about what my children are exposed to when it comes to "outside" influences.

But is this the "different" to which Christ primarily refers?

Furthermore, is it possible to be "different" in these areas of our lives and yet be completely the same as the rest of world at the very core of who we are?

"By this shall all men know . . . "

The truth is, I think we make a huge mistake when we overemphasize these issues as those that make us different. These issues, as much as they may have their place, are merely symptoms. Far too often, however, they seem to be viewed as "ends" in themselves.

According to Christ, the primary way Christians are to be marked as "different," revolves around the orientation of our hearts - that is, are we other-centered or are we self-centered? "By this will all men know that you are My disciples," Christ said, "if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). Many of us know this passage by heart - and yet we do not take it to heart. According to Christ, the way we are distinguished as being His followers is not by what we wear, eat, drink, watch, listen to, or add-your-verb; the way people know that we are His followers is if we have a deep-routed agape love for one another.

This is, after all, what is so counter-cultural. The natural way of the human heart is to gratify self; to get one's own way; to preserve one's own interests to the detriment of others'; to take, rather than to give.

So when a person comes along who is constantly other-centered, constantly seeking to give rather than to take, constantly looking to bless others even to the detriment of self, this is a mighty impressive display of what it means to truly be "different" than the world.

The problem with the behavioristic approach is that, quite often, emphasizing these areas has the opposite effect. Oftentimes when we are zealous about personal behavior and Christian standards, we become the opposite of loving. Instead of displaying the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (see Galatians 5:22-23) - we become judgmental, impatient, unforgiving, critical; we feel "holier-than-thou," or, at the very least, we come across that way. I've personally walked down that road one too many times in my own life.

And, while we may be doing pretty well as far as being "different" outwardly, we are what Jesus calls "white washed sepulchres" who "appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness" (Matt 23:27). This was what Jesus called the Pharisees, who did a good job of paying tithe on "mint and cummin," but "neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith." (Of course, we need to recognize Christ's own balance and the fact that He did not throw the proverbial "baby out with the bathwater." He said the Pharisees should have engaged in justice, mercy, and faith, "without leaving the others [ie., tithing on their spices] undone.")

This is why three Ellen White statements intrigue me. The first one is a classic quote from The Ministry of Healing, which is much in line with Jesus' John 13:35 thought:
The badge of Christianity is not an outward sign, not the wearing of a cross or a crown, but it is that which reveals the union of man with God. By the power of His grace manifested in the transformation of character the world is to be convinced that God has sent His Son as its Redeemer. No other influence that can surround the human soul has such power as the influence of an unselfish life. The strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian. (The Ministry of Healing, p. 470, emphasis added)
Though I do not want to put words into Ellen White's mouth, I would venture to say that, within our context, she would agree that the "badge of Christianity" is not some outward sign, like whether a person is or is not dressed conservatively, or whether a person is a vegan or not. Again, these things are appropriate to talk about in the proper context, but they are not the sign of whether a person is truly responding to God or not - much like circumcision was not the sign in Paul's day, either (see Galatians 5:6).

But there is more to being a "loving and lovable Christian" than simply being nice to people when we see them. Loving people means we are proactive in our interactions with them. It means that we pursue their wellbeing just as Christ pursues their wellbeing. Being loving does not simply mean we avoid doing bad things to people; it means we are actually intentional about doing nice things for people.

This is why Jesus was so counter-cultural when He announced that we are to "do to others whatever you would like them to do to you" (Matt 7:12, NLT). The popular idea in Jesus' day was that people were not to do to others what they didn't want others to do to themselves. But Jesus took it a step further, actually saying that we are to pursue the happiness of others and proactively seek to do things for others that we wished they would do for us.

This is also why living as a hermit, as well intentioned as we might be when we are raising children, often takes us away from the very core of Christianity. We may be helping our children avoid "temptation," so to speak, but we are not teaching them how to be proactive in their love for others. If we truly behold the love of Christ, and how He lived His life in service to others - healing the sick, relieving the suffering, bringing the Gospel to hungry souls - then we will want to be "different" like Him and seek to love others optimally.

To provide balance, I am not saying that we should not live in the middle of nowhere or seek to "shelter" our children to a certain extent. It's just that we need to be very intentional about making sure we teach our children how to pursue relationships and interact with people in a proactively loving way. Jesus seemed to have perfected the ability to live between the "mountain and the multitude." As Ellen White says,
God does not mean that any of us should become hermits or monks and retire from the world in order to devote ourselves to acts of worship. The life must be like Christ’s life—between the mountain and the multitude. He who does nothing but pray will soon cease to pray, or his prayers will become a formal routine. When men take themselves out of social life, away from the sphere of Christian duty and cross bearing; when they cease to work earnestly for the Master, who worked earnestly for them, they lose the subject matter of prayer and have no incentive to devotion. Their prayers become personal and selfish. They cannot pray in regard to the wants of humanity or the upbuilding of Christ's kingdom, pleading for strength wherewith to work. (Steps to Christ, p. 101, emphasis added)
This is a very telling quote! When we remove ourselves from the "social life" and find ourselves simply worrying about personal piety, our prayers center solely around ourselves ("Dear God, please help me to learn how to eat two meals a day instead of three.") This, to me, seems to be the definition of self-centeredness and the antithesis to the core of Christianity - that of being all-consumed with the work of other-centered love.

The third quote from Ellen White addresses the issue of jewelry and adornment, specifically, and it is very telling as to how balanced Ellen White was:
There are many who try to correct the life of others by attacking what they consider are wrong habits. They go to those whom they think are in error, and point out their defects. They say, "You don't dress as you should." They try to pick off the ornaments, or whatever seems offensive, but they do not seek to fasten the mind to the truth. Those who seek to correct others should present the attractions of Jesus. They should talk of His love and compassion, present His example and sacrifice, reveal His Spirit, and they need not touch the subject of dress at all. There is no need to make the dress question the main point of your religion. There is something richer to speak of. Talk of Christ, and when the heart is converted, everything that is out of harmony with the Word of God will drop off. It is only labor in vain to pick leaves off a living tree. The leaves will reappear. The ax must be laid at the root of the tree, and then the leaves will fall off, never to return. (Evangelism, p. 272)
Jewelry, she says, is foliage that, if simply picked off from a living tree, will reappear. So let's work more on the heart than on the foliage, itself. Let's not treat the symptoms anymore, but get to the core of what is going on.

Of course, we cannot have our hearts changed, and become completely other-centered, giving, agape-filled, people through our own efforts. We cannot simply flip a switch and make ourselves loving. Neither can we make others loving simply by telling them they need to be so. We can only become loving as we behold the love of Christ. After all, "We love," John says, "because He first loved us" (1 John 4:19).

This is why Ellen White goes onto say in the next paragraph:
In order to teach men and women the worthlessness of earthly things, you must lead them to the living Fountain, and get them to drink of Christ, until their hearts are filled with the love of God, and Christ is in them, a well of water springing up into everlasting life.
So how can we become different? Is it by stripping ourselves of all "wordly" things? Is it, by sheer willpower and in a moment of haste, throwing out all our DVDs and porkchops? Doing so may help us become more loving, but that is the point: leaving these things behind are not ends in themselves - but getting rid of them is important insofar as they have prevented us from being more loving, more other-centered, more giving.

(On a personal note, this was brought home to me this morning as I sat on the floor in my living room, next to my two children, while texting someone about the NHL playoffs. A number of times as I was texting, my son, Camden, said to me, "Play toys, Daddy, play toys." What may seem like an innocent pastime - talking about hockey - was distracting me from giving my undivided attention to my son and loving him fully, even for those 20 seconds that my mind was in another world.)

Of course, we can only truly become "different" when we first realize that, at our very core, we are not different, and that we need to be delivered from this "body of death" (Romans 7:24). Then, and only then, can God point us to Christ's sacrifice on our behalf and ask us to behold Him. Thus, as we behold Him, our hearts will be changed and we will truly become different.

Really different.

NNEC Righteousness by Faith Rally Promo Video

NNEC Righteousness by Faith Rally Promo Video from Shawn Brace on Vimeo.

2011 Dates and Locations

June 26 & 29 - NNEC Camp Meeting (Freeport, ME)
September 23-24 - Concord SDA Church (Concord, NH)
October 13-16 - Camp Lawroweld (Weld, ME)
December 2-3 - Bangor SDA Church (Bangor, ME)

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