Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Removing the High Places

People who have read my blog for a while or know me personally have a good idea of my continuous struggle with professional sports. My challenges are fairly well-documented - and confessed!

Over the last year or so, however, the Lord has been putting in my path other people who have seemed to recognize the downfalls of investing too much time (or any time) in this form of entertainment. And these are not just ultra-conservative people. These are individuals who many would probably consider to be fairly well-balanced. My dad, for example, has definitely had a re-thinking of the subject over the last year. Then, one of my seminary professors, out of the blue, shared with me, via e-mail, that he had felt convicted about this area and was not spending as much time worrying about his favorite teams. And just recently, a very good friend of mine, much to my surprise, told me that he has been wondering lately whether he would want his children (that are just a figment of his imagination at this point) to be concerned with sports. "There are a lot better things we could be doing for three hours on a Sunday afternoon," he shared.

I don't think my interactions with these individuals are coincidental - even if just to remind me of my own priorities. And I am also wondering if God is raising a generation of men (or a couple generations of men) who are seeing the follies of professional (and even collegiate) athletics during this important juncture in earth's history. Could our obsession with professional and collegiate athletics be our own modern "high place" or "Baal worship" that God is calling us to remove (for one explanation of the "high places" in Israel, see 2 Kings 17:11)? As I read the Bible, I am startled how, with each successive generation, idolatry got worse and worse - mainly because the previous generation refused to remove the "high places." And I know I don't want that for my children.

Yesterday, this issue was again posed to me by a balanced yet conscientious friend of mine on Facebook. He wanted my perspective on the whole issue because he knows I have shared thoughts on it before and it is something he is struggling with. Below is my very informal and off-the-cuff response to him. Perhaps it will scratch where you're itching. Or perhaps you will respond to my sentiments much the same way others have: with a great deal of ambivalence, ridicule, or feeling as though you are being judged - which is not my intention at all. This is simply where I am in my thinking (though, sadly, as you will see, not in my living) and I do not condemn anyone else for not being at the same place philosophically, spiritually, or otherwise.

Anyway, without further ado, here is how I responded to my friend on Facebook:

Boy, great question! This is something I continue to struggle with. There is what I want to do in my mind, but then there is what my flesh often allures me into doing. I am a pretty easy target when it comes to the devil tempting me with sports, though.

So let me just explain where I am in my thinking, and then where I am in my doing.

For the last ten or so years, I have been under the conviction that God doesn’t want me involved in watching professional sports (and NCAA as well, though that is not as much an issue for me). This is mostly because it is not really all that productive, nor is it edifying, and it distracts me from what is most important in life - God, family, sharing my faith. It really drains me of affections that should be fully devoted to God and family.

Thus, I came to the decision many times over that I cannot participate in sports fandom on any level - watching, reading about, listening about. For me, sports is an addiction that I cannot participate in in moderation. Either I watch a game and get fully sucked into all that surrounds it, or I don’t watch it at all. I cannot find any middle ground.

But I am not even sure that God wants me to find middle ground. I honestly don’t think that there is one single redeeming quality about watching an athletic event - with the exception of doing so with people with whom you are trying to share the gospel or foster a relationship. I am not saying that this is a moral issue on par with one of the Ten Commandments and that if anyone does watch sports he or she is lost and in danger of losing their salvation. This is just where I am in my thinking and everyone is at a different place.

The reason I don’t find there to be much that is redeeming about sports is because of the violence on some level that is usually committed in most sports - especially football and hockey. Football literally shaves years off peoples’ lives. The average NFL player, for example, who plays four years in the league, has a life expectancyof 55 years, with each additional year of playing contributing to an even shorter life expectancy. Thus, we are literally watching people kill themselves - and others - for the sake of entertainment.

Beyond that, the act of competition where people win and lose is antithetical to the gospel, where everyone wins.

Aside from these two issues, the incredible waste of time that sports naturally produces is inexcusable to me, especially at this important juncture of earth’s history, where we are called to be more interested in Christ’s honor, glory, and salvation, then our own entertainment. This does not mean we should be going at a serious pace all day, every day, but that we should choose forms of “recreation” that truly “re-create” rather than destroy our thirst for spiritual matters. Interestingly, I just heard this definition of sin recently by Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias. It is what John Wesley’s mother told him the definition of sin is when he was a boy, and it is very poignant and relevant to this discussion: “Take this rule: whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish of spiritual things; in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself.”

With all that being said, let me just briefly tell you where I am personally as far as implementation. This is an area that I have not fully surrendered over to God. I have moments of victory and periods of “dryness,” but that’s usually not during football season or it’s at times when the Patriots aren’t playing so well. I have lost much of my interest in the Red Sox, though I sometimes listen to them as I am driving during the summer, and I feel like I can do it rather innocently. But when football season comes around, or when the Bruins are playing well, that’s another story. I still have great affection towards these teams!

So pray for me, brother.

*I would encourage anyone and everyone to watch the video below. It is very poignant!!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Convergence: A New Blog

Hopefully it won't be the case, but you may be hearing from me less on this blog for a little while. That is because I have been blessed with the opportunity to share my thoughts via a new blog on the Bangor Daily News website. I have called it "Convergence," and it is geared more toward a general audience. This current blog, "New England Pastor," is more of an "in-house," Adventist-focused blog. "Convergence" is geared more toward a general non-Adventist, even non-Christian, audience.

This is an exciting opportunity to share a perspective on God with those who may not encounter it otherwise. The Bangor Daily News website is the most read online news source in Maine, so it provides great potential. I plan to post weekly (usually on Mondays, probably), so bookmark the page:

Thus far, I have shared three posts: 1. "Who Are Seventh-day Adventists?" (which, by God's grace, seems to have garnered some positive feedback - both from Adventists and non-Adventists) 2. "Thankful," and the one I just posted yesterday 3. "More Than This."

Please pray for this venture! And don't worry, I will be sharing still on here as well as the Spirit moves and as time allows.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Did Jesus Always Frown?

I have this problem. It's a terrible problem and I am approaching it with all seriousness. For some reason, for much of my life I have possessed a picture of Jesus that I am not quite sure is completely accurate. I don't know where I got this picture. Maybe it is the visual representations I have seen. Maybe it is the attitude with which people have shared the gospel story. Maybe it is the countenance many Christians have - those who are supposed to be a reflection of Christ.

But the picture I most often have of Jesus actually turns my heart away from Him, rather than drawing it closer to Him.

The picture I most often see of Jesus in my mind is a frowning, despondent, serious, and somber Jesus. It is a Jesus who rarely smiles. A Jesus who seems like He's going through a script. A Jesus who was so focused on His mission that He did not have any time to laugh and communicate joy.

I don't think this is an accurate picture of Jesus at all.

Please don't misunderstand me. I firmly believe that Jesus, when He came to earth, had a serious work to do. I firmly believe that He was, indeed, a "man of sorrows" who was "acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3). But I don't think this precluded Him from expressing and displaying pure joy. This doesn't mean that He was careless or irreverent. But I think it does mean that He displayed a pure and holy joy and happiness that caused people to long to be in His presence. After all, the fruit of the Spirit includes "joy" (Galatians 5:22), and Jesus was certainly led by the Spirit!

As I have thought about some of the people who seem to be the most Christ-like in my life, many of them are characterized by having a sincere but joyous countenance. They seem to have a genuine happiness and joy. I think they are simply reflecting their ever-loving Savior.

Ellen White hints at this in a couple places (I am sure there are many, many more quotes like this, but time does not allow me to look them up): "The Lord does not desire us to be sad and disconsolate" (Review and Herald, Sept 10, 1895). She also writes, "Nothing of the world can make sad those whom Jesus makes glad by His presence. In perfect acquiescence there is perfect peace" (Signs of the Times, July 6, 1904).

One of the most beautiful pictures of Jesus I have ever come across is the way that Bruce Marchiano portrayed Him in the "Visual Bible" series on the book of Matthew. I am usually pretty skeptical when it comes to people portraying Jesus in film, on stage, or in a "Passion Play" (I declined an invitation to play Jesus in the Passion Play in college when I was invited. It is a fearful task to take on, not to be taken lightly). I think it can be a little dangerous in presuming to try to portray Him, sometimes bordering on the irreverent. But I think Bruce Marchiano - who presented a chapel talk at Andrews University ten years ago or so when I was a student there - does a very, very good job of representing Him. I have never seen Jesus portrayed in this way. I think it is revolutionary. And whenever my mind turns to his representation of Jesus, it warms my heart. It is a Jesus my heart is attracted to - because it's a smiling Jesus.

If you've never seen any of the series before, check out this Youtube clip below. The series simply takes the gospel stories from the NIV and follows it word-for-word. There is a narrator and all the characters stick to the exact words that the Bible says.

Of course, all this causes me to evaluate my own portrayal of Christ. I think I need to smile more.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Musings, observations and the occasional insight

(Every once in a while I still read Don Banks's "Snap Judgments" about the National Football League where he shares his "Musings, observations and the occasional insight" about the week of NFL games. I don't admit this proudly - only to indicate where I got the title for this particular post.)

I want to share a few random and often unrelated thoughts that are rolling around in my mind about life, politics, the Gospel, prophecy, etc. Some of them may be the basis for future blog posts. More than likely, however, none of them will be.

And so, without further ado, here are some random thoughts:

  • I think it is a lot easier to villainize a person when you do not know him or her personally. I have experienced this far-too-often firsthand. I am a lot more likely to tone down the rhetoric if I realize the person to whom I am responding is a real person, with real feelings, and a real soul to save; a person who is precious and valuable to God.
  • With that being said, I'd like to borrow an old C.S. Lewis argument and apply it to someone/something else: either Catholicism and the Pope are exactly who they say they are (God's unerring and infallible representatives on earth), or they are "the devil of hell" (Mere Christianity, p. 43). There can be no other option. For no Church can claim to be what the Catholic Church claims to be and be anything but what it claims to be - or the Antichrist. This is very "black and white" and polarizing thinking, I know. But again, I am talking about the "system" itself, rather than the individual members. My thoughts on the issue were solidified in my mind almost ten years ago when I stood atop St. Peter's Basilica and looked down upon the Pope's quarters.
  • The same is logically true of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (though we do not claim to be "infallible").
  • I bet you will never guess - in a million years - what the population of the City of London is. Keep reading to find out the answer!! (How is that for a teaser?)
  • I have been pondering lately what would have happened had Christ not completed His salvation mission or lived a completely victorious/sinless life. Would Satan have immediately gained control of the whole universe? Would the whole universe have immediately imploded? Would the problems only have been limited to this earth? We will probably never know these answers this side of heaven.
  • It seems to me that most of us, when we reject an idea that we once subscribed to, get very cynical about the people who still subscribe to the idea and assume that there is no way the person(s) has arrived at that idea by thinking critically. We assume they are incapable of thinking independently, but have instead been "brainwashed" or are just spewing the party "talking points." And then we think we have already heard every possible argument for the particular viewpoint, and know, for certain, that it cannot be true, immediately discounting any argument that might come our way in favor of the rejected idea. Am I being ambiguous enough?
  • I think the "faith of Jesus" is one of the most foundational ideas in scripture that I am starting to understand more and more. And, by God's grace, it will be the basis for my next book - if I ever write another one (much less get it published).
  • I am surprised when I come across a committed and conscientious reader of Ellen White who doesn't believe in the idea of total victory over sin - and a completely mature generation at Christ's coming. Not only is the idea prevalent in Scripture, it is in every crack and crevice of her writings.
  • I truly believe time is short.
  • I have always been amused by the term "worship leader," as if "worship" only happened during a Saturday or Sunday morning ceremony, and that one could actually be "led" by another through this very personal experience.
  • Similarly, I have been "amused" by how churches are sometimes renaming themselves "worship centers" (like a church near where I used to live in New Hampshire did), again, for the above reasons, and as if we can only engage in "worship" within the confines of those four walls. Does 1 Samuel 15:22 mean anything to us?
  • I heard the last 15 minutes of a Mark Finley sermon a month ago, during the 3ABN Camp Meeting, and it was the best sermon I have ever heard him preach! It was full of the new covenant gospel message of "Christ our righteousness." And I e-mailed him to tell him that soon after. He graciously responded.
  • I played racquetball with my brother-in-law the other night for the first time in about eight years. He thoroughly thrashed me. Truth be told, it was the first athletics I have participated in since having ACL reconstruction over two years ago (my knee still isn't back to where it should be for a multitude of reasons - chiefly among them being my laziness). It was a blast. I forgot how fun racquetball is - and we will be playing regularly from here on out. And hopefully I can hold my own against him eventually.
  • Whoever said that you should not live close to family - or in-laws - didn't know what they were talking about. Either that, or they did not have my brother-in-law and sister-in-law living three houses away, like we do.
  • I guess I have given some people the impression in the past that I did not think my seminary training was beneficial. This could not be further from the truth. I absolutely loved my time in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and think there are many fine Christians who teach there.
  • One of my absolute favorite seminary occasions was chapel every week - especially when the 300-400 attendees (mostly men) would sing a hearty hymn. Nothing against women, but there was just something about having a predominantly-male congregation, lifting up their strong voices during chapel. There is a nostalgic feel to it.
  • I was also ecstatic whenever I would show up to chapel and see a man I greatly admire - Dr. Richard Davidson - as the scheduled speaker. He always made seemingly archaic Old Testament stories, rituals, ceremonies, and concepts come alive.
  • The population of the City of London is 11,700! (Check out this Wikipedia article for the explanation.)
  • I listened/watched my friend, Mark Cleminson's, testimony today (he, of Amazing Discoveries fame). Though there are still some unsettled questions in my mind, I think he presented a very balanced and edifying message.
  • I heard from someone else this week that the Vatican is supposedly funding Islam - the same Islam that rose up as a protest against the false Christianity of Catholicism, and the same Islam that Catholicism fought back against. And now the Vatican is funding their hated rival. I am not saying it is totally crazy, but it is almost . . . .
  • Then again, their long time nemeses - the Waldensians, Lutherans, Anglicans, etc. - have "kissed and made up" with Rome in some fashion or another over the last decade or two. So who knows?
  • I know this stuff is not breaking news for those who regularly get their diet from various conspiracy sources, but supposedly the "smoking gun" in all this was Slobodan Milosevic - the deplorable Yugoslavian dictator who was responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent lives (or so the media wants us to believe, it is alleged). Supposedly, during his trial - in which he defended himself - this genocidal man pulled back the curtain on Catholicism's funding of Islam. He seems like a very credible source to me - if, in fact, this is even what he said during his trial. (I trust you sense my sarcasm.)
  • On the other hand, someone else proposed to me the other day that, essentially, there was no way the Vatican could seize the same level of control in the world - at least in the West - because all these countries enjoy a democracy, unlike bygone eras when they were run by "hereditary monarchy systems." But these same Western countries, allegedly committed to democracy today, are becoming more and more socialist in their approach, resulting in the stripping away of freedoms - especially religious ones. Exhibit A is Canada, where it is becoming increasingly "sticky" to maintain one's commitment to religious convictions and speak out against - for example - gays, without potentially violating hate speech laws. Methinks it isn't a stretch to imagine a day when all these democracy-loving countries (including the United States) will one day strip away all our freedoms for "the common good."
  • Which is why, to me, it has become increasingly sensible to be a "libertarian" when it comes to politics.
  • I was greatly blessed by my dad's presentation on "corporate repentance" a few weeks ago at the NNEC Prayer Retreat. I don't think anyone else has ever presented it in such a powerful, balanced, practical, non-judgmental, and loving way. And I can truly say that it made a lot more sense to me than it ever has in the past. Which is why I think it is just what the Seventh-day Adventist Church needs to hear - especially at this critical juncture of earth's history.
  • I have a beautiful, loving, and gracious wife. And one of the things that amazes me the most about her is how she can stay at home all day with two crying kids, get frustrated with them, and then come back a few minutes later and seem to have boundless energy, love, and affection for them. She is able to put the stress behind her and commit herself fully to them - in a loving and caring way.
  • I am also amazed at how I grow to love and adore my kids more and more every day - constantly thinking that my love for them cannot grow any deeper or richer. But it does.
  • And I am also skeptical about the idea that I am going to love my kids even more when they are whiny, self-centered, fairly cognitively-developed teenagers, than when they are cute, innocent toddlers and infants. But people tell me this is true. Until then, I will just accept it by faith.
  • This is no criticism of any of my former churches, but I think God has my family in the right place at just the right time. I have been able to devote so much more time to my growing family in this district right now than I probably would have been able to if we had not moved. And we would have been living in a two-bedroom condo (with Acadia Belle living in our closet, or we, living in the basement, two flights of stairs away from our kids who think it makes sense to wake up frequently through the night).
  • God works in mysterious ways - or at least brings good things out of less-than-ideal circumstances.
  • If you read through my complete list of ramblings . . . congratulations!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Universe at Risk

(Note: this is the unedited version of my upcoming editorial for New England Pastor magazine.)

I am always intrigued by how much I learn about God from my kids. I know that I am no exception. These discoveries are often the result of the little headaches, heartaches, and challenges that come along when one is a parent. Sometimes they are from a Bible story I might be explaining or reading to my son, Camden. In this case, I gained profound theological insight into the great controversy as I was reading the story of “Jabel the shepherd” from the My Bible Friends series.

The story is a retelling of Jesus’ “lost sheep” parable in Luke 15. It recounts the tender care the shepherd has for his sheep, the protection and guidance he gives them. I remember the version well, sitting on my father’s lap long ago, scanning the painted pictures and listening to the reassuring words of God’s love, care, and searching heart. But as I was going through the story with Camden during this particular occasion, I was startled by a clear inaccuracy in the rendition. According to the author, when “Jabel” (as the author names him) goes out to search for the one lost sheep, he leaves the 99 in the sheep pen. But this is not how Jesus tells the story. According to Jesus, the shepherd actually leaves the 99 “in the wilderness” and goes after the one lost sheep.

The reason this jumped out at me is because I have been perplexed by Jesus’ words for a long time. The Greek word for “wilderness” is eremos and it very clearly denotes a deserted place, unprotected against any or all that might wish to cause harm. It offers no safety while the shepherd attempts his rescue-saving mission and, presumably, if the shepherd never returns, the sheep will be left to fend for themselves, dangerously vulnerable and in jeopardy of themselves getting lost.

“Why,” I had always wondered, “would Jesus imply that He leaves the 99 in danger while attempting to find the one?” Of course, I fully recognize that not every parable—nor every word in those parables—is supposed to carry deep theological insight. But neither do I want to discount such anomalies out of hand, presuming that a story, text, or word was simply arbitrarily chosen by the author.

And that’s when it hit me (I guess all I needed was a little visual aid): The reason that Jesus says that the 99 are left in the wilderness is because these represent the unfallen beings in the universe that were endangered when Christ came on His earth-bound rescue mission. Think about it: If Jesus had failed in His rescue mission, what would have happened to the unfallen universe?

Thus, not only did God risk Himself in the plan of salvation, but the entire universe was placed at risk as well.

Though not addressing this idea in its fullness, Ellen White gives credence to some of these ideas in Christ’s Object Lessons. There she writes, “The rabbis understood Christ’s parable as applying to the publicans and sinners; but it has also a wider meaning. By the lost sheep Christ represents not only the individual sinner but the one world that has apostatized and has been ruined by sin. This world is but an atom in the vast dominions over which God presides, yet this little fallen world—the one lost sheep—is more precious in His sight than are the ninety and nine that went not astray from the fold. Christ, the loved Commander in the heavenly courts, stooped from His high estate, laid aside the glory that He had with the Father, in order to save the one lost world.”[1]

With this “wider meaning” in place and recognizing that the lost sheep represents the fallen world in a corporate sense, it stands to reason that the 99 do, in fact, represent those—perhaps the other created worlds—who have never fallen. And, thus, we are able to see that we are “more precious” to God than the unfallen beings that reside in the vast reaches of the universe.

So what does all this mean? Is it simply a nice theological idea that has no relevance to our lives? Hardly. Recognizing the risk the whole universe was placed in gives me a deeper appreciation for how much God values me and the premium He places upon my redemption. It also helps me take my eyes off my own salvation and onto the broader issues that are taking place. Though God’s heart is all about me and my salvation, my heart shouldn’t be. I should have more sympathy for what God has been up to in this great controversy, and more sympathy for the unfallen universe that has been placed at risk—and been forced to wait a long time—for God’s plan of salvation to draw to its exciting zenith. Thus, I can respond to God’s grace not only for His sake, but the entire universe’s as well. After all, as Paul declares in Romans, “For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19, NKJV).

[1] Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1941), 190-191.