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A Few Random Post-Atlanta Thoughts

THE BIG QUINQUENNIAL and global session of Adventists is in the history books. Before my memory banks get overdrawn, herewith some random post-GC observations—with which you may agree or not. These are my own thoughts, none of which came down from Mt. Sinai on stone tables, so they could well be flawed and most certainly are subjective.

  • Having last attended a GC in New Orleans back in 1985, I noted some changes evident 25 years later. The attendees were far more global and less North American. Agree with me or not, but having encountered many tens of  thousands passing by my booth in the exhibit hall, my clear impression is that generally speaking, North American members truly look more stressed and less happy than their international counterparts. Also, the North Americans seem driven…many of them rushing pell mell from one place to another. Many from other countries “strolled” and stopped to chat and get acquainted. “NAD Marthas” could learn something from their international “Mary” Adventists.
  • Didn’t get a chance to take in many meetings in the Georgia Dome. For some reason, the entire event seemed planned by a gang of raging cholerics who kept the exhibits going at least ten hours a day and even much of the two Sabbaths. I heard many exhibitors complain of exhaustion and a wish they could have taken in more meetings. Evenings, I’d watch replays of some of the daily general sessions on Hope TV in my hotel room, and noticed that the crowds in the Dome itself were often sparse. Not surprising…they were jamming the aisles of the exhibit hall, where well-known music artists and preachers were just as available to hear as in the Dome. Maybe by the 2015 San Antonio GC, the planners can make some changes.
  • Another disappointment before shifting gears: The GC-appointed constables (hall security) were far too aggressive. While I enjoyed chatting with a couple of easy-going Atlanta Police officers who happened to wander by, I was repeatedly warned by Adventist sheriffs riding Segways about stepping more than a couple of feet into the aisle next to my booth to call the attention of passers-by to the product we were offering (a free book). These temp lawmen seemed quite smitten with their own authority and were far less than congenial in dispensing their directions.
  • The Big Event this time around was the election of a new world president. His second-Sabbath sermon left no question as to where he stands. Without challenge, he has a long resume of administrative experience in the church. And his election will be welcomed by those who have yearned for a return to a more conservative and traditional Adventism. Those of a more progressive outlook are already voicing their disappointment in Spectrum Magazine and Adventist Today. Just as in the political world, we’ve become a far more polarized nation, I would anticipate that polarization will become an increasing reality in the church up ahead. Whether this GC results in a post-Glacier View-style exodus of scholars and other progressives, I can’t predict. But such an outcome is possible.
  • The session theme was “Proclaiming God’s Grace.” If indeed this theme can become both the message and mission of the church, perhaps unity can yet result in this church of countless nations, cultures, and viewpoints. I personally could have wished that the phrase had been explored in depth at the session, especially in the main sermons. The words did show up, but rarely, it seemed to me, with any expansion. I’d have profited from hearing more about grace in terms of Christ’s free gift of salvation…more about the Cross as His greatest gift of grace to you and to me.
  • Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that while music and musicians in the church have never been better (Wintley Phipps, for example, holding a final note till you feared he might turn blue!), it’s harder than ever to find preaching that really stirs or nourishes. We could use a new generation of men who know how to share God’s fire from the pulpit. I’m not talking about the screechers and shouters who emulate used-car pitchmen. I’m talking about messages that go deep into the Word to place God’s gold in our hands for another week of living in this hard world.
  • While meeting old friends (the only kind I seem to have left at this stage of life!) and making some new ones is always a pleasure, I’m wondering, in this digital age of instant global communication, if some of the functions of this huge sessions could happen at greater cost savings. Could our leadership plan for more to be done via video conferencing and less in person? Could the plenary sessions take place “Net-Evangelism”-style in venues far and wide, rather than in a massive sports dome? And do our leaders really exemplify good stewardship by booking nearly everyone into the most expensive lodging in town…the Omni, the Embassy, the Hyatt, and other upscale hotels? Are we “above” discount or economy lodging here in the 21st century?
  • I was gratified that apparently the same constables about whom I reported above, did a good job of keeping the wild-eyed offshoots, time-setters, “Adventists as Babylon” promoters, and other assorted examples of fruity nuttiness off the main premises. Only a few managed to sneak into the exhibit hall to peddle their “you’re all damned” CDs and DVDs…and the denominational gendarmerie chased off the wackos in short order.
  • Atlanta in June/July is no place to be outdoors. Temps of 90-plus with humidity to match! I’d rather be in sinful Las Vegas at 115 degrees with 7 percent humidity, than in Atlanta at 90/90.

Logistics, theology, stewardship, and other considerations aside, I was personally heartened to meet many sincere Christians for whom a relationship with Jesus is paramount, trumping all else. I was heartened too to realize that God will work wherever He can, through any committed and open channel. Many amazing and inspiring things are happening in this world of ours, often unknown and unheralded. I was heartened to see the potential of young people undamaged by the cynicism of time, filled with optimism and zeal, and who—blissfully unaware that something can’t be done—proceed to just go out and do it.

I’m most heartened of all by knowing that God is bigger than any church or the sum total of its challenges…that He is an expert at winning us all with love…and that He is the one unchanging, reliable constant in a world and church in perpetual change. What might happen were Jesus Himself—His love and salvation and knowing Him—to become all-important to the church? Really…what might happen?

Who’s on Your Pedestal?

WHO ARE YOUR HEROES? YOUR HEROINES? The longer I live, the shorter my own list gets. In fact, I’m not entirely sure I have any real heroes left here on Planet Earth. People I admire, yes. Heroes, no.

In my trusty keeper of all the various lists of my life—Microsoft OneNote—I do have a list of people I admire (both past and present). Some are household names; some are people you likely never have heard of. Some of the “knowns” at present include Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Lance Armstrong, JFK, Sojourner Truth, Winston Churchill, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King.

Now, any of these are (or were) flawed human beings. For example, I can look at the life of Lance Armstrong and find plenty of choices he’s made that I don’t particular admire. But as a fellow cancer survivor, I’ve been inspired by his own fierce determination to fight back and win—to say nothing of his astonishing athletic abilities and accomplishments.

Flawed humanity is clearly on record, too, even among Bible characters I most admire: Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, Peter, or John. But who can diminish what they accomplished—and the admirable character traits they exhibited in their lives?

In the annual lists of the “Most Admired,” most of the top slots are held by politicians, entertainers, business leaders, and sports figures. These days, I personally find few in politics whom I can admire. Corruption, hypocrisy, greed, lust for power, and betrayal of trust seem to predominate. Though my boyhood heroes included the likes of Mickey Mantle and Dwight D. Eisenhower, it’s not easy these days to find public figures that call forth my admiration. And if real people don’t merit being heroes, then surely the same is true of Hollywood’s artificial, “manufactured” heroes: Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Iron Man, and others.

It’s troubling that today’s younger generation worships at the altar of self-absorbed and self-destructive celebrities and musicians—that their heroes and heroines are those demonstrating the least real character and values.

Truth is, the more one learns of human weakness, the shorter grows the list of heroes, till for many of us, only Jesus remains.

Perhaps that’s as it should be.

The Great Mistake of the Two-Faced God

Janus — Vatican Museums
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JANUARY—THE MONTH OF NEW BEGINNINGS. For so many of us, it’s a time to take stock of our lives through the past year—and to make plans and changes during the year to come.

This is the month named for Janus—the two-faced god of Roman mythology who with one face looked back—and with the other, forward. The great mistake of Janus, though, was that he did not or could not view the present.

Past, present, and future.

We each have all three. When it comes to our past, we may enjoy looking back to savor its wonderful memories (something that becomes an increasing focus as we enter life’s later years). Or, all too often, we look back and dwell on our past mistakes, pains and sufferings, disapppointments, and regrets. If, in the present, we spend too much time trying to live in the past—rehearsing what we should have done differently and obsessing over what actually did happen—we will make ourselves miserable.

When it comes to our future, we may enjoy planning for it, or to looking forward to accomplishments and milestones and happy experiences. But if, in the present, we spend too much time trying to live in the future—worrying about the awful things that may be headed our way, about possible threats to our pocketbooks, livelihoods, relationships, health, or even our continued existence—we will make ourselves miserable.

We can’t control or change the past.
We can’t control or change the future.

We can learn from the past; we can plan for the future. But we can’t live in either place.
All we have is the present. Our lives move through time so that all we can inhabit is a single moment. The present. NOW.

We are not what we WERE. We are not what we WILL BE. We are who we ARE.

No one has ever said it better for me than Helen Mallicoat:

I was regretting the past and fearing the future.
Suddenly, my Lord was speaking!
“My name is I AM”…He paused…I waited…He continued.

“When you live in the past with its mistakes and regrets,
it is hard. I am not there.
My name is not I WAS.”

“When you live in the future with its problems and fears,
it is hard. I am not there.
My name is not I WILL BE.”

“When you live in THIS moment
it is not hard. I am here.
My name is I AM.”

Forgiven

ONCE AGAIN TODAY, I pondered Thomas Blackshear’s moving art masterpiece above: “Forgiven.” And as, at this season, I reflect on why Jesus came to Earth, the artwork moved me to write the following words:

How can I do this horrific thing?

How can I raise the mallet and drive the spike?

And not just once—but every day.

And not just into wood—but through the hands and feet of the One who made me…

Who keeps my heart beating…

Who loves me no matter the darkness of my evil…

And no matter how often I’ve done this.

Who even now, in my utter sin exhaustion

Supports me in His strong arms…

And with the bleeding hands I wounded…

Yet whispers forgiveness…

And tells me that in His eyes,

I’m now as pure as the lilies that grow

Near the blood that flows from His feet.

That I’m forgiven—that my rebellion

Is once again no match for His love.

Do Any of You Live Without TV?

THIS IS EMBARRASSING: More than two years ago, I posted on this blog about my considering the “radical” step of getting rid of my TV (see “Me and My TV”). Back then, I listed four of my reasons: content, noise, mind conditioning, and time. Those should have been more than enough (and I’m speaking here only for me…no one else) to move me to unload the blinking box. But I didn’t. Thus the embarrassment.

But tonight, I’m finally packing the thing out to the dumpster. In recent months, it’s developed too many problems even to bring a few bucks at the pawn shop or be worth repairing (who wants a TV with the DVD tray stuck in the out position…and that ever more frequently locks up on one channel and refuses to change till unplugged and then plugged back in? Photo of set in better days, on my earlier post).

In the intervening couple of years since my earlier post, I’ve come to realize that in addition to the reasons I stated then for junking the TV, some others have become at least as insistent. I don’t like to be irritated and angry, and watching it is increasingly helping generate those responses.

The political and news shoutfests do not one good thing for my blood pressure (see the preceding post just below this one: “Ending the Nonstop Shouting”). And maybe I’m just becoming a “grumpy old man,” but more commercials these days irritate the ever-living dickens out of me. Like the current “Kit-Kat” ad, with a bunch of adults chomping loudly away on the bars with their mouths open and apparently, microphones right in their mouths. Like the FreeCreditReport.com “singers” (and I use that term loosely here). Like the drug ads with one benefit and four gazillion rapidly spewed side effects. Call me a curmudgeon, but I’ve had it.

I’ve contemplated what might take the place of the time previously spent at the TV. For anything truly newsworthy, these days video clips are available almost instantly online, so I won’t miss out on the next Huge Unmissable Event. If I feel some sort of entertainment withdrawal, I have good online options there too: Netflix, Hulu, whatever. Or I can slide a DVD into the computer and watch it on my large monitor.

I also envision more time playing music, more time exercising, more time pursuing some personal and professional goals, more time learning things.

But I guess my reason for this post is to ask the question at the top. Does anyone out there already live without TV? If so, how long? What figured into your decision? And I’m really interested in what changes it’s made, positive or negative. What do you do with the time you once spent in front of the box? I’d like to hear your story.

In a few months, I’ll weigh in here again with a third “TV” post and share what it’s been like for me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a trip to make to the dumpster.

Ending the Nonstop Shouting

“WE ARE PROMOTING CONFLICT in every aspect of our society,” said Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH) recently at a major education conference. He added…

“On TV, let’s get the extreme left and extreme right … to start yelling at each other. I’ve been on these shows, I know what they want. I’ve stopped going on a lot of them because I don’t have any interest in participating in screaming at somebody. That’s the society our kids are coming up in … constant stress and anxiety and conflict and fighting.”

I agree with Congressman Ryan’s summary of a major societal problem that I can’t imagine anyone could reasonably dispute. But his solution—and that of others at the conference—I’m convinced won’t work. The proposal offered is something called SEL—“social and emotional learning”—an effort to teach emotional and conflict management skills to children as part of elementary school curriculum offerings.

The polarization of society—the dialing upward of rage and combat—isn’t something I believe can be reversed through better education. The name-calling and vilifying—the hate- and fear-mongering so alarmingly prevalent—isn’t really the result of some deficiency in public education. It’s a moral and spiritual deficiency, so that if anything, it’s a shortcoming in home/parental education prior even to kindergarten.

Peace, tolerance, understanding, patience, openness to the views of others…these are skills and virtues rooted in the message of the Bible. Yet even Bible information can become the basis for conflict and argument and “generating heat instead of light.” So it must go even deeper than simply knowing the Bible message. Character—integrity, kindness, peace-seeking, genuine love and acceptance—comes from the Author of the Word and the Source of all these virtues. So only through connection with that Source can the problem of societal conflict be fundamentally changed for the better.

Yes, the war between good and evil has been going on for eons now. But in recent decades—even in the last one alone—the conflict between the two has become far more open and bitter. So increasingly, verbal and physical violence is modeled as the accepted and preferred way to settle disagreements. Civility and courtesy are virtually absent from the daily shoutfests of TV talking heads and the hate-filled bile of talk radio hosts.

The only current solution has to be a personal one—a determination to daily and increasingly connect with the Source of Good Character. That is the best we can seek, as we wait for the ultimate solution—the silencing of all conflict and shouting when the Prince of Peace returns to reclaim His hijacked Earth.

“It’s Like They’re Throwaways”

(Above: Bret Brennan, with Gail Sacco)
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BRET BRENNAN, 48, DIED LAST MONTH—one of the 42 homeless in my city (Las Vegas, Nevada) who so far this year have not survived. Suffering from cancer, he’d been living on the street until homeless activist Gail Sacco got him into a home she owns. Bret died November 17 in a hospice Gail arranged for him.

“I’ve had homeless friends who have died on the street,” Gail says. “It’s like they’re throwaways.”

Earlier this year, outreach workers from Straight From the Streets came across 61-year-old Willie Danielson, sleeping on the ground and suffering from advanced untreated lung cancer. Straight’s director, Linda Lera Randle-El, said the homeless organization arranged for housing and some medical care, but Willie’s health continued to decline, and he died in early November.

“He didn’t die lying out on the street,” Linda says. “We wanted to give him some quality of life, someone to talk to, someone to call out for.”

Of the 42 homeless who died (39 men, three women), eight accidentally overdosed on drugs. Four were beaten or shot to death. Two died for lack of food. Five died of exposure to the elements (summer temps can reach 120; winters go below freezing).  Most of them died alone, along the side of the road, in alleys, vacant lots, or on the concrete floor of a drainage tunnel.

Homeless outreach workers here hold an annual December vigil to memorialize those who died with few or no one to mourn or remember them. Similar events are taking place nationwide this month.

Like many American cities hard-hit by the current economic downturn, homelessness here has spiked, as hundreds of the formerly employed run out of jobs and benefits and are forced to live in their cars or on the streets. Our local county has an estimated 14,00o homeless, including 7,000 homeless children and 4,300 homeless veterans. But though Las Vegas has the nation’s highest rates of  homelessness, ,unemployment, and home foreclosures, this is not a friendly place toward those who are down on their luck.

  • City leaders, including the police, mayor, and local business leaders, continually support rousting the homeless from their makeshift cardboard box or tent “homes” and send them scattering to find some other area of town to “live” in. It’s not good for tourism to have the homeless anywhere in public view.
  • The city’s mayor even proposed busing  all homeless in the city to a former prison 25 miles south of the city, so the sight of them wouldn’t disturb the high rollers here to enrich the casinos.
  • In July, the city passed an ordinance making it illegal to feed the homeless in any public place, such as a city park, or on the streets or in homeless shantytowns. This includes portable soup kitchens that had been providing food. So feeding the homeless outdoors, even on the part of churches and other charitable organizations, is now criminalized in the city. In The Palms—one of the city’s upscale hotel/casinos—a suite can go for $25,000 a night. But in the same city, it’s illegal to feed the homeless—even if they are such because of the ravages of military service, mental illness, or losing one’s job.
  • In the local newspaper, some letters rail against the homeless, blaming them as lazy parasites on society who should do what others do and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

As a Christian, I am convinced that those of us who follow Jesus have a clear obligation to do all we can for those who are down on their luck. Some, of course, are in that position through no fault of their own. Weeks ago, they may have held down a paying job and been paying on a mortgage. But the economy has made paupers out of many who were not long ago “productive” members of society—people who would give anything to still be in that position.

But what about those who are on the streets because of their own bad choices—their addictions of drugs or alcohol? Aren’t we justified in letting them reap what they’ve sown, even if that means dying in an alley in 120-degree heat? If I read my Bible correctly and focus on the example of Jesus, I see no precedent for ignoring the suffering of those who are in pain because of their own bad decisions. Which ones of us, after all, even if we still have a home, have made only perfect choices all our lives?

As time closes in on the end, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Even here in America. Those who have care less and less for those who have not. It’s only going to get worse.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t do all I can to follow what I am convinced is the example Jesus left me. I can volunteer some time to help those in my area who are reaching out to the homeless. I can choose not to be the priest or the Levite, but to emulate instead the Good Samaritan and be moved with compassion by the plight of the man lying at the side of the road.

The priest and the Levite could probably advance all kinds of logical-sounding arguments for their lack of action. But something tells me those arguments matter little to the One who unfailingly helped the down-and-out—even if they were there in part because of their own bad choices.