In the Present Tense

March 5, 2011

What’s your story?

Filed under: Uncategorized — edoutlook @ 4:54 pm

My work puts me in contact with young people on a weekly basis. In the last two days, I’ve spent hours with a variety of boys from 6-14 years of age.

One exchange really throws light on the problem Christians have in reaching people today.  A bright–too bright for the teachers to handle–young fellow, about 12, is really into Percy Jackson and the Immortals. This series of books retells the ancient Greco-Roman myths. This fellow, I’ll call him Wyatt (not his name) literally inhales these books. He gave me a machine-gun delivery of story details, caught his breath, and peppered me with questions about Zeus, Hermes –“I don’t get who he is,” “Mercury.” “Oh, yeah”– Olympus, you name it.

When he found out I have published books, he asked what about. “My last book was about Jacob.” Blank look. “Jacob and Esau?” Shake of the head. “Jacob, in the Bible”

This was met with an open mouth and raised brows of recognition. “I don’t do the Bible, much.”

I let it pass, and we went on to other things. But the more I’ve thought of it, the more it troubles me. More of the Bible is narrative than anything else. Narrative. Stories. Our theology is largely formed based on those stories. Prophecy, especially Revelation, relies on a knowledge of those stories.

And we are losing the battle of narratives. Not because the biblical narratives are poor stories. Are you kidding? Hope, sacrifice, betrayal, murder, adultery, palace plots, heroic battles– some of the most compelling stories of all time are in the Bible. Cain and Able, Samson and Delilah, Jacob and Esau, David and Jonathan– as the author of Hebrews says, “the time would fail” to tell all of the great stories.

But we are not telling them. Not telling them in compelling ways. Reducing them to moral examples ends up as lecturing. No one really wants to be lectured.

Yes, these tales have moral and theological implications. But if we want to move people with the stories, we cannot drain all the blood and sweat out of the tales, and present them with the remains.

I believe if we hope to connect with anyone under 40, we’d better learn to tell compelling stories. Yes, the Bible stories. Yes, true to the original. But retold in today’s language, addressing today’s questions.

That’s what I hope to have done with Torn, Jacob’s Story, and hope to do with more Bible stories in the future. Right now, we’re losing the battle of stories. With some of the archetypal and most compelling stories at our disposal, and we’re simply not using them.

Wyatt knows all about Zeus. Who will write the story of Jesus that he wants to read?

February 3, 2011

The Currency of All Relationships

Filed under: Uncategorized — edoutlook @ 5:51 am

Recently I heard it said that “When Christians speak of ‘A saving relationship with Jesus,’ they’re really just talking about a feel-good empty religion.” I can understand why someone would say that, and in some cases it might be true. But just because some use the phrase without serious content, does not mean that it is necessarily so.

In fact, scripture gives more than a little guidance in this. We are told that the “just shall live by faith.” The problem is that the word faith has become overused and diluted. Faith has many meanings.  But here is the pertinent one:

1)belief and trust in and loyalty to God

I submit to you that the just live by trusting in God. And I am not alone in thinking so:

Faith is absolute trust in God–

trust that could never imagine

that He would forsake us.

Oswald Chambers


Faith is trusting God–

believing that He loves us

and knows best

what is for our good.


This fits in with the larger Bible narrative. The Serpent tempted Eve to distrust God, to doubt that He had been truthful. That seed of lies, deceit, and doubt has poisoned all relationships since that time.

Anyone who thinks that “trust” is empty or easy has no knowledge or experience with real relationships. We all have difficulty with trust. I am certainly no exception.

People are imperfect. They let us down even when they wish to be loyal. Of course, God will not let us down. We can believe that we trust God completely, even though we don’t trust others. But John warns us that may not be true:

If someone says

“I [trust] God,

and [distrusts] his brother,

he is a liar,

for the one who does not trust his brother

whom he has seen

cannot [trust] God

whom he has not seen.

1 John 4:20

Apparently, if we’re going to learn to trust God, we’ll at least have to try to trust other human beings. Now, that’s a challenge.

I wrote some time ago of first principles. Well, trust fits into that category. Things which promote and encourage trust are positive, and things which discourage trust and encourage suspicion are negative. That sounds simple, and it is. But like all first principles, it has implications and consequences that may surprise us.

Trust is indeed the currency of all relationships. Even with God.

December 11, 2010

The Siren Call of the Popular Cause

Filed under: Uncategorized — edoutlook @ 5:46 am

It seems every few years someone discovers that the Bible teaches whatever the latest philosophical fad is. In some ways this is inevitable.

I believe the Bible is the source of ultimate truth–not all truth, there’s not a lot of engineering in it, for example–but ultimate truth. And if that is true, then any philosophy or understanding or movement which reflects even a small particle of that ultimate truth will, in some ways, resemble it. We will always find fragments of the original truth in every echo. And the more complete the echo, the more it resembles the original.

So it’s easy to get caught up in these movements. They are often very laudable. But for Christians, that isn’t the question. The question isn’t “Is this a worthy thing to do,” because, frankly, we are very good at rationalizing that we ought to do whatever we really want to do. Instead, the Christian should ask, “Is this what God wants me to do?”

What am I talking about? In the early 19th century, retired sea captain Joseph Bates became deeply involved, and committed his considerable energies, into two worthy causes: Temperance, and Abolition.

It’s difficult to argue that these were not among the most worthy causes of any era. Drunkenness and attendant violence had become a terrible scourge in early America. And slavery– what remains to be said about its evils? Surely, worthy causes, and in line with Bible teachings.

But Bates found two new issues–issues which were neither so obvious nor so popular: the Second Coming (in the Millerite movement), and the seventh day Sabbath. The other causes were worthy, but he was called to be a pioneer in the SDA church. Bates championed the Sabbath in the early Adventist church. Without him, it is difficult to know where that truth might have come from. For Bates, Temperance and Abolition were distractions. Others would carry those causes to fruition. God was calling Bates to something more important.

Some might argue that nothing could be more important than ending slavery. It seems impossible to contest. But we are all slaves to sin. Which of us, if faced with the choice of slavery in this life, but certain salvation for eternity, or luxury in this life, and eternal death, would not choose slavery?

Once again, we the truth that “the good is often the enemy of the best.”

And then there’s the temptation to take the good too far. John Brown wanted to end slavery. He saw its great evil. But he believed he was justified in slaughtering those who disagreed with him(see the Pottawatomie Massacre). Today’s equivalent might be the abortion clinic bomber.

Every generation has its worthy causes. But we must be careful to keep perspective. An old saying warns, “The closer something resembles God, the greater the danger that it will become an idol.” Worthy causes often become just such an evil distraction.

August 11, 2010


A young friend asks about drums, specifically a drum set in church or for worship.  I suppose we’ve made progress. No one seems to object to the guitar anymore. The short answer is that there will never be an end to people attempting to make lists of good and bad instruments, foods, books, ideas– what have you. It saves everyone the trouble of thinking about things, about making judgment calls. Just adhere to the lists, and you will be OK.

Of course, one big problem is that the lists change over time. At one point, the organ was considered taboo, since it had been associated with gladiatorial combat. Come to think of it, I’ve known quite a few churches where “Who gets to play the organ” battles were somewhat reminiscent of gladiatorial combat. But I digress.

Of course, all this,in Adventism, is predicated on one reference–although repeated in several places– to “shouting, with drums, music, and dancing,” that took place in Indiana in the Holy Flesh movement of the early 20th century.

It’s always interesting how these passages get parsed out. For example, rather than taking what happened as a whole, critics like to single out drums and dancing. It seems to me that shouting is a staple of certain types of preaching which is deemed quite acceptable. Nor have I seen any serious attempts to ban all music.

But why should that be? If all these things, “shouting, with drums, music, and dancing” were bad, why should some be banned and others accepted? I just don’t buy it.  I’ve posted this video before, but I think it bears repeating.

Does anyone seriously contend that this Nigerian carol is inappropriate? It is not the type of music I grew up with, but I cannot listen to it without being profoundly moved.

If Christ can cast demons out of human beings who were once their willing hosts, cannot inanimate objects be employed for His glory as well? Things are just things. What we do with them is what makes them a blessing or a curse.

Shouting, drums, music, and dance can be used to deaden the moral faculties and lead us into sin; or they can be used to the glory of God.

Legalism, on the other hand, is always deadly. At the GC session this summer, Pastor Paul Frederick from India addressed gathering with these words :”One of the most serious problems facing the Christian church today is legalism. It wrenches the joy of the Lord from the Christian believer. Nothing is left but cramped, somber, dull, and listless profession. Legalism is an obsessive conformity to an artificial standard for obtaining salvation. But when we are living by grace, we realize that everything we need in our Christian experience is a gift from God.”

There followed a performance of an Indian song praising God, accompanied by hand drums.

To this ear, it sounded both uniquely Indian and uniquely Adventist in the same way that “Mas Alla del Sol” sounds both uniquely Adventist and uniquely Mexican. And the drums added to that effect.

July 8, 2010

The Inward Journey

Filed under: Uncategorized — edoutlook @ 3:18 am

Resuming the stages of faith and leadership.

The “Dark night of the soul” provokes The Inward Journey. The questions of the dark night lead us to wonder about our purpose in life, about our identity. These questions are about our inmost selves.

I have seen several ministers who came up to the dark night and simply shied away. It’s too frightening. In phase II, Discipleship, we learned a the rules, al the disciplines, all the right things to do. In phase III, Success, everything worked. Now, in phase IV, we discover that the disciplines and rules don’t actually work. They seemed to in level III, but that was a shallow III. Now we must look beneath the rules, beneath the disciplines, beneath the doctrines and proof texts. This is a crisis of existence, an existential crisis. And that’s what makes it so frightening.

There is no way out except through. It feels like a long, winding tunnel. And long before we find the light at the far end of this existential tunnel, we have to leave the light of certainty and proof behind. Thus, this is also a journey of faith, not sight. For we lose sight of the light behind, and must feel our way forward. Only then does the light ahead become visible.

And this new light is a light from within. Not that we become our own light, but that the light God has put within us becomes visible to us.  And the reward for letting go of the light behind, of the certainty and proof of the early stages, is that we gradually are able to reclaim them, and make them our own.

If we are willing, we can emerge from the dark night of the soul and the resultant inward journey with a new confidence, a new and deeper sense of identity. We hear all the same texts, the same explanations, but now we see new and deeper meaning in them. That’s because we have more meaning in ourselves.

Accept, even embrace the dark night, and we emerge with a depth of understanding, a new sense of identity, a greater confidence in God’s design and purpose. Reject the dark night, out of fear or discomfort, and we reject the opportunity for growth.

The psalmist says that God “gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul.” I have seen such people. Stunted in their Christian growth, with a broad but shallow ministry. And the tragedy is . . . they almost never realize their loss. They literally don’t know what they’re missing. And they often look on those who are going or have gone through the dark night as either foolish or lacking in faith.

If you are facing a dark night of the soul, be of good courage. Like Elijah in the cave, running for his life, you will discover that after the whirlwind, after the firestorm, after the earthquake– God is there, in the silence. And you will hear His voice.

June 17, 2010

Growing in Faith IV– flood tide and heavy seas

Filed under: Uncategorized — edoutlook @ 4:03 am

A ship in a harbor is safe . . .

As I mentioned in the last post, a person can stay at level three and bask in the success. But that’s called a “hollow three,” and in the end becomes a “dying three” because things that cease to grow, die.

If, however, you continue to grow, you will encounter what psychologists call “the dark night of the soul.”

When we realize that success is not all there is, and in fact when we realize that success for its own sake is deadly, we confront a dark night indeed. At this point, something happens, or we realize/recognize something that makes us question our very existence, our purpose in life, whether or not anything we have done and been retains any meaning.

It has been my privilege to know a number of really excellent Christians, and every one who has a continuing, vibrant ministry after decades pass has encountered this dark night, this crisis of faith and even of existence.

I have also seen a number of what I can only call failed Christians, many of the pastors, who, when they collided with this darkness ran away from it. As an example, one pastor I’ll call Theodore (not his real name) had some difficult questions about inspiration and the gift of prophecy as a young minister. But his wife told him– she told me this herself– that he should not pursue those questions, as they would only lead him to discouragement. She was probably correct. He turned away from those questions, and remained as he was.

Although he possessed many gifts that could have made him an excellent pastor, his ministry and his sermons always remained shallow. Having avoided the deep waters of his own questions, he could not lead others through those doubts. Indeed, he shied away from any such questions.

It is truly sad. I never think of him without thinking of the famous lines in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

His wife wanted him not to take the risk, and he did not. He did not risk the voyage on the flood tide, and ever after his ministry was ‘bound in shallows.’

I remember a similar crossroads in my own life. I had just accepted a call to be  principal of a multi-teacher school. Upon arrival there, and settling into the new position, I liked it. I liked it a lot. And I realized that if I would just mute my questioning, and not do anything that would make any waves, I could probably stay in that school until retirement.

At the same time, I realized that my creativity and energy as a teacher were two attributes that made me an excellent teacher (my supervisors were unanimous in their positive evaluation). But that creativity and energy could often put people off. I knew my wife would prefer a quiet life, no controversy, no more moving, just ‘go along to get along.’ And one evening as we were shopping in a teacher’s supply store, I had just about resolved to do what it took. Damp down the creative fires, be more conventional, not do anything out of the ordinary.

And there, in the store, I saw a poster of a square-rigged sailing ship at anchor, the ship and land mainly a dark silhouette, the water mirroring a brilliant sunset. And on the poster, these words by John Shedd. “A ship in a harbor is safe. But that is not what ships are made for.”

The moment I saw that poster remains frozen in memory. I realized that I had been seeking to anchor in a safe harbor. But deep within my soul, I knew that was not what I was made for.

Since that day, some 35 years ago, my wife and I have weathered many rough seas together. And although there was a time when she hated that poster — she had her own dark night — today we both agree that, had I taken the easy, secure path, we would have lost much.

Everyone is tempted to avoid the dark night. Everyone wants to remain safely anchored in the haven of “Success.” But that is not what we are made for. To grow is to move beyond success, to face the dark night and heavy seas, and to find there deeper meaning in our lives.

June 6, 2010

Growing in Faith–Romance

Filed under: Uncategorized — edoutlook @ 2:56 pm

I  have been privileged to have the close friendship of Dr. Jon Paulien  for many years now. And I was privileged again to be able to spend time with him at the Iowa Missouri camp meeting this last week. On Friday morning he shared something with the pastors that I had heard fragments of before in our conversations, but had not seen fully until that point.

I believe it will be illuminating for many of my friends– and especially useful for the young adults I am so committed to. It certainly helped me. Over the next few days/weeks I will be sharing these important concepts here and at Elijah’s Run.

The first stage in growing in faith is the Romance stage. Everything is delightful, everything is beautiful, everything will always go well. We are so delighted to have discovered faith, to have encountered Christ and Christians, everything seems perfect.

This– like each of the other stages– is healthy and necessary. But in the Christian life, just as in real life, Romance cannot sustain your experience forever.

As someone married to my highschool sweetheart for more than 40 years, I can attest that Romance does not have to disappear– it can grow and flourish. When present, it is still wonderful and delightful. But it is fickle and inconstant, and often hides when troubles loom. So enjoy it whenever it is available, but recognize that it cannot sustain your Christian experience, any more than it can sustain a marriage, by itself.

It is the first stage, and a necessary one. But it is a stage, not a destination. Next time: stage 2.

May 3, 2010

The Dry Times

Filed under: Uncategorized — edoutlook @ 11:27 am

I have been going through a time of fairly intense anxiety lately. Its source matters little, but it has made me almost lose hope at times.

In such times, I wonder how it can be that I trust God so little.  Oh, I understand faith– I write and speak of faith. But there are times when it is hard to exercise it.

A number of years ago, one of my best friends was going through a time such as this. Like me, he handled the Word every day. At the time, he was doing his dissertation. But he had come to a time when his relationship with God seemed distant and dry. God seemed far away. Sad to say, I had no advice for him at that time.

Of course, I could have said, “If God seems far away, who do you think moved?” But I find bumper-sticker religion not only not helpful, but annoying. So the Golden Rule prevented me from saying it.

However, this morning, years later, in my own dry time, I have found the answer–for me, for this dry time. I began again the systematic reading of Psalms. You alll probably know of it. Read the psalm for the day– today is May 3, so psalm 3– and every 30th psalm after that: 33, 63, 93, 123. In a month, you will read all of the 150 psalms.

I began reading teh psalms this morning, and immediately hy heart felt hope.  That’s the great thing about the Psalms. They cover the spectrum of human emotions and experience. Are you angry? The Psalmist knows anger. Are you fearful? The Psalmist experienced fear? Are you on the point of despair? There are despairing psalms, too. But the Psalmisst takes every one of these emotions to God. They are not all pretty. Some are almost barbaric. But they are all authentic.

And that is where the hope comes in. When we join in with the psalmist, we realize what he realized: that God loves and accepts us, even at our worst. Scripture describes David as a man after God’s own heart. And the psalms confirm that it was not David’s perfect conduct that made him so; it was in his bringing himself, even the ugly parts, to God.

When we do that, and experience God’s love in spite of our ugliness, it is truly like springs in the desert.

April 4, 2010

21st Century Seder

Filed under: Uncategorized — edoutlook @ 4:59 pm

I will return to the question of “young fundamentalists” soon, but  I simply must share what happened yesterday.

Several years ago, I presumed to modify the traditional Jewish Seder, or Passover service.  Some of the traditional Jewish parts seemed remote, at best, to modern Christian experience. At the same time, much of it speaks to us beautifully.

I had lost the files for a while, and in fact it took me most of last week to restore the text. Yesterday we celebrated this modified Seder. We invited a number of people, and in the end had more visitors attend this service than our usual congregational attendance, including  a dozen or so children.

We combine communion with the Seder, and serve a full meal–yes, including lamb. Our presentation was far from perfect. We discovered many ways we can improve it. Yet there were many, many wonderful things that happened at this service.

One that stands out for me involves footwashing. I am amazed how important this seemingly archaic practice proves itself again and again. We practice open communion– you hear those words every time. What it usually means is that we allow anyone off the street, baptized or not, to participate– but we forbid our own young children from participating. At HomePage ( we allow children to participate. So this mother, who had brought several sons, washed their feet, and they hers. She told me “This was the most meaningful communion I’ve ever participated in.”

One of our central purposes at HomePage is “Turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.”

It is a wonderful event when we see our purpose realized. Yesterday was such a day.

March 9, 2010

Post Modern Counter Culture

Filed under: Uncategorized — edoutlook @ 5:00 am

A young friend of mine asked me some difficult questions. By now, you know that such questions delight me. After all, Jesus said, seek and you shall find, ask and it shall be given to you. We rarely find answers to questions unless we’re looking for them. And the fact that the questions are difficult simply indicates we’re really searching diligently.

The question comes down to something like this: many young adults find the church too hidebound and inelastic, unresponsive to today’s questions. But then there are those young adults who seem to revel in the most legalistic, most restrictive aspects of religion. How can that be?

Probably there is more than one answer to that question, and I cannot pretend to know what’s happening in every individual. But working with and observing young adults for more than 40 years, certain trends emerge.

We often hear that young people are ‘idealistic,’ and to some degree this is true. They like the words of Robert Kennediy (actually quoting Warren Harding, of all people), when he said. “Some people look at the world as it is and ask ‘why?’ I look at the world as it might be and ask ‘why not?'”

Surely, there is some wisdom to this. Most of us want to make the world better for our having lived in it. And this requires going against the prevailing culture at times. Or, as George Bernard Shaw said, ”

“Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.”

At the same time, there are limits that we cannot overcome– limits to our human nature, for example.

The quality we call “maturity” is learning when and how to adapt the world, and when and how to adapt ourselves to that world. Or as the Serenity Prayer puts it, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

Youth often is impatient with the idea of “knowing the difference.” If something needs to be changed, it needs to be changed, and that’s all there is to it.  Another way to put it is that Youth does not like shades of gray. They much prefer binary choices: Yes/No, Right/Wrong, Good/Bad.
And the short answer is that the more traditional approach offers a binary world, a world of certainty. Today, our post modern culture rejects such certainty. But that actually makes it more attractive to some; in a post modern world traditionalism becomes counter-culture, holds a certain appeal to young people testing boundaries.

And in an increasingly uncertain world, the certainty of categorizing everything in a binary way can be quite appealing.  One doesn’t have to evaluate whether this book or that one is good, is wholesome, helps develop our character or tear it down, if we simply declare all reading evil. The same thing holds true of movies and television.

We could go on and on. Having long checklists of what is good and what is bad, what is forbidden and what is compulsory, while it may be somewhat tedious, at the same time it saves us from the anxiety of having to decide, and perhaps make mistakes. On its face, it can be very appealing. If one is convinced that the checklists come from God, or at least from a prophet, that makes it all the more comforting for some.

I have more to say on this, but that’s a good start.

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