Acton 2012

I am at Acton University in Grand Rapids. the people here describe it as a unique, four-day exploration of the intellectual foundations of a free society. Guided by a distinguished, international faculty, Acton University is an opportunity to deepen your knowledge and integrate rigorous philosophy, Christian theology and sound economics

Network with people from diverse backgrounds who share a concern about issues at the heart of faith and freedom. The goal is that I/we will be better in articulating my understanding of the Judeo-Christian view of liberty and morality and its application in a free and virtuous society.

Acton gives me a chance to reaffirm some friendships and meet interesting new people while going to classes where I am stretched in areas I know little about. At yesterday’s reception for those of us who are Kern Fellows, I met Dr. Roland Hill, Director of Development and Stewardship for the Seventh Day Adventists of Texas. Fascinating conversation around theology and economics.

I had very much looked forward to the opening session with Michael Novak. Unfortunately it was just a personal remembering of people and events rather than a lesson from the history he has been involved in.

The geese greeted me at the end of the day as I walked back along the Grand Rapids River on the River Walk that takes me right down to water level. Beautiful!

Defining “ordain” and “pastor”

Evangelicals are wrestling with what to do with these two terms. Grace is typical of many other churches. Our by laws define “pastor” as a full time paid ministry staff who is also an elder. Since Dennis retired our only official pastor is Jay. Gerry Smith is now full time paid ministry staff and an elder, but not yet congregationally voted to be a pastor (we overlooked the congregational vote required in the bylaws). He will soon be Pastor Gerry. Then he will be Pastor Gerry though not ordained and I will only be Elder Gerry though I am ordained. 

Here is our current definition of “ordain:” When appropriate, the elders shall call for the public ordination of a pastor. Ordination means that a man (1) satisfies the biblical qualifications for an elder, (2) is considered by the elders and the church to be called by God to the ministry of the Gospel, and (3) is commissioned by the church to an appropriate avenue of such ministry. The appropriateness of ordaining a man serving in a non-pastoral ministry (e.g. missionary) will be evaluated by the elders."

At the time this definition was written ordination (an extra biblical culturally defined term) was almost always for pastors (another extra biblical culturally defined term), usually meaning a preacher, the leader of the church in our church or as missionary sent from our church. It was normal to commission chaplains who hadn’t already been ordained as pastors. The government currently recognizes both terms.

What do we do with other full time ministry staff who are shepherding people but not elders? They are not “pastor” but people are calling them “pastor.” What term do we use when we introduce them when they are doing something on stage in a Sunday service?

“Pastor” is also changing to mean a full time ministry professional who does shepherding of people in a church, not just the preacher dude. The professional norm for chaplains is now ordination. Virtually all chaplains are now ordained though most had never been or will be pastors of churches.

I want to see evangelical churches go with the current professional standard rather than the older professional standard. What makes that hard is that we still have in our minds and emotions that “ordain” means “pastor” which means a person is or could be the preacher, leader of a church. The change is wrenching because the terms have strong emotional attachments. The older definitions have almost biblical authority for people who came into leadership in the church a couple of decades ago. The emotions get all the higher in churches with a complementarian view where elder is an office reserved for men.

Wish we were going with biblical terms like elder and deacon. The God would tell us what to do and it would all be easy – well easier. There are huge cultural ramifications to those terms too!

Hebrews Warnings

I’ve been working on the warning passages in Hebrews for quite a while. But when I got asked to preach them in our series at Grace, I  had to stop thinking and produce! The sermon actually worried me because most sermons are pretty encouraging even when they call people to action or change. But the warnings are very serious (6:4-6: it is impossible to be renewed to repentance) and severe (10:26-27: nothing remains but a fury of fire that consumes). Even if that comes in an encouraging context (6:8 in your case, beloved, we think better things), it is still a warning of hard things.

A key to understanding is to put things in context.



To understand Hebrews 6 go back to Numbers 13-14 and Deuteronomy 1. To understand Hebrews 10, go back to Babylon. Kadesh Barnea tells us  Israel had seen the hand of God but refused to believe His promise that He had given them the Land. They rebelled and refused to enter the Land after sending in spies. They believed “The LORD hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us. God forgave their sin, but in His anger swore they would never enter the Land. The people “repented,” again ignoring God’s promise, and arrogantly entered the Land but were defeated. No amount of weeping or religious ritual cancelled the consequence. God protected them from enemies, provided manna, water. Even their shoes did not wear out. But they die in the desert, not in the land.

Similarly if believers who shared in His enriching provision, His enabling Spirit, His incomparable Word, His strengthening power, then fall away, it is impossible for them to be brought back to repentance. While they are still His children with His acceptance and provision, they lose specific blessing of the LORD now and forever. Who knows exactly what that lost blessing might be. It might be the intimacy with God, or the sense of His presence and comfort.

The place went serious when I suggested we might lose a level of intimacy with God forever. Somehow everyone has the view that we may mess up now, but Jesus will make it all good when we see Him. He will renew us and we will all be be equal before Him. American egalitarianism runs deep. But His life here suggests differently. There were many disciples, but only 12 were chosen to be Apostles. Among the Apostles, there were 3 who were closer, who were there for special events like the transfiguration and the Garden. Among the three Peter was the closest. Similarly the rewards passages like Luke 19 suggest that those who return more get more in the kingdom. Ten minas means 10 cities and five means 5 cities, where ruling cities refers to opportunities to do more cool things with Jesus.

Chapter 10 shows us that those who deliberately defiantly sin may have God respond with severe punishment, like that of the Israelites being sent to Babylon. The widespread lie that God does not punish His children is partly true: He does not work out his anger on His children. He does not punish people who really trying nor ones who who make mistakes. But He does punish rebellion.

The out come is that the call to all to draw near and enjoy the lavish banquet He provides freely is a wonderful opportunity. Jesus will never reject the one who comes to Him (John 3:16; 6:37; Psa. 102:17; Isa. 1:18-19; Matt. Matt. 11:28-30) But something is seriously wrong with those who don’t want His salvation, whether that’s justification or the fullness of His intimacy. It’s dangerous when we are OK with ignorance or immaturity. I think a lot of the fear of drawing near comes from Satan’s story that God isn’t trustworthy. He accuses, “what kind of God would make you lose your job?” When Satan reminds me of the trouble in my life and suggests God doesn’t care, look at the Cross and remember how much He cares. That One is God Himself. There’s no way a God who doesn’t care would do that. So we draw near to the beauty of Jesus.

The sermon is here or go to and look at the Hebrews series. 





Jesus in the Qur’an

Sherry and I were at the Jesus in the Qur’an conference (web site here) in Corvallis over the weekend. I knew some of the things the Qur’an taught about Jesus, but was amazed when we gave it careful attention. It teaches that Jesus is a miracle and a sign (Sura 2:87 and 21:91), a prophet (19:30), the only prophet born of a virgin (3:47), the only prophet who is sinless (19:19), the only prophet who was brought near to God (3:45), the only prophet who performed healings and resurrections (5:110), the only prophet who is called the word of God ((3:45, 4:171), the only prophet who was called Messiah – and called that 11 times (4:157, etc.).

In light of the wonderful prayer which makes up Sura 1, the statement in 3:50-51 is amazing: Jesus says, “fear God and obey me. This is a Straight Path.”

I am wondering if Mohammed  really was pointing to Jesus, especially in the earlier days, and his followers missed the message. Lots to think about and talk about.

Despite my role as elder at Grace Community Church and that I am officially old, I did find it hard to park in this spot:2012-04-14 07.48.09

Beirut #6

Beirut 31You Beirut 32would think that a Portlander would never trust the weather report, but somehow I did when it said it would rain (yes, that’s the Portland default). I cancelled the plans to take a tour to Baalback or some such place. Of course, the early morning shower was all alone in the world and the day was mostly sunny! We had tentative plans to go downtown for supper with a friend but a meeting and a lost passport in the group he was leading nixed those plans. The result was that our day off teaching was pretty normal. After breakfast I joined a Bible study with Daniel from India, Barnaba from South Sudan, Samar from Egypt, and Diana (not in the picture) from USA and Lebanon. It is a kick to hear the different perspectives but very sad to hear Barnaba telling about the rising conflict that’s killing South Sudan . . . again.

I got upstairs to see Mary in our room with Sherry. When we first came in 2002, she was running the dining room. She took great pains to be sure the food was to our liking and we were well taken care of in every way. Now she’s semi-retired and oversees the room service. She’s still the wonderful caring person who laughs often and bring joy to everyone.

Beirut 33I was invited to the ABTS faculty meeting. I asked what the agenda was. Coffee, snacks and sharing life. What a great agenda! After I took pictures of them, Hikmat insisted that I join and took our picture. He loaned me his book where he did the first ever cataloging of the Arabic Gospel Documents which is a huge contribution to the world of New Testament textual criticism. Along with being a first class scholar and both NT faculty member and dean, he also pastors a local church which has tripled in size to about 200 in Sunday attendance since he took over after he finished his PhD about three years ago.

We had lunch with the woman who had to flee her country after being severely persecuted for becoming a Christian. We heard more of her faith and her love for Jesus and the Muslim people. Her tears were close as she described what a wonderful hope she had now that she has her very own Bible and can read freely to learn more about her Savior. Absolutely fascinating.

Beirut 34Akram, another long time member of the ABTS service staff, enjoys Turkish coffee, an after lunch is a tradition here. I couldn’t get Sherry to try it.

We went to get snacks and Starbucks with Scott Keranen. Sherry and I both appreciated the unusual bill board. And we deeply enjoy the sunsets from our room. Beirut 35

Beirut 36


Beirut #5

Today was the first day of class so I was eager to meet my students. At breakfast, I wondered who they might be, as I did as we worshipped in chapel. Finally 10:00 came and the students began to arrive. A few have English so we talked directly. Most do not so translation slows down conversation. As they told their stories, I delighted in ministry stories from Iraq, Egypt, Syria, North and South Sudan, and Lebanon, of course. One of the exciting points is that there are three husband/wife teams in the class.

Walid is my translator. He is assistant librarian who teaches some classes and hopes to grow into a full professor after he finishes his advanced studies at the seminary in Prague. After introductions, we opened our Bibles and went to work. My questioning style is not normal at all, but they enjoy engaging with issues so they quickly got engaged. By the end of the class time, they were actively wrestling, almost arguing, about which interpretation was correct. I just stood back and smiled to see them learning actively and personally. Three hours went by very quickly.

Beirut 23After lunch, we went down to show off my portable coffee maker to Diane, one of the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies staff. She is the espresso lady but wanted to see my travel brewer. We ended up in a laugh filled reciting of international coffee stories. So like times here with the great diversity of ethnicities and cultures. We visited Marcelle to see about how to get to the airport in the extremely early hours of Sunday. The taxi will pick us up at 1:00 am. Since the taxi didn’t show up last time we had that arrangement, I wanted a backup plan. “It will be here,” Marcelle insisted. “It is Trust Taxi.”

Who is practicing a favorite activity? Beirut 21

Sunset tonight was spectacular as the clouds that will bring us showers for the next three days approach. Enjoy God’s beautiful art: Beirut 22

Beirut #4

Beirut 11SBeirut 12unday is for preaching which I got to do at Faith Baptist Church. We greeted some old friends and met many new ones. Alexy picked us up and and her fiancé, Joe wired me for sound. Rola showed her Mother’s love, Elie introduced us to his parents and grandmother, and many others came to greet us. Rudolphe prayed for the children before he introduced me. Elie was my translator. He was kind enough to ask if I wanted him to translate the nice things Rudolphe was saying about me. The sermon from Acts 3-4 seemed to go well. The audience was responsive and there were a number of nice comments after.

A woman I’d seen around ABTS came up to introduce herself. She is a Muslim from another country who decided to follow Jesus. When she told her family, they tried to persuade her to return. When she wouldn’t, her brother began to beat her, but she stayed firm in her commitment to Jesus. Finally they sent her to stay with a Sheik who locked her up and tried to persuade her. Finally she was able to escape. Though she is a very careful person, she immediately found a way to get to Lebanon. She arrived with no visa, knowing not one soul, a hotel reservation for one night, and no options. God got her connected with someone from ABTS who took her to their home. Now 25 days later, she is full of joy, hoping that somehow she will be able to live openly as a Christian.

Beirut 14After service Rudolphe and Rana took us for an exquisite Lebanese Beirut 13meal in a restaurant operated by Alexy’s aunt and her husband. There is no better place in all Lebanon. The shepherd herding the goats off the road added to the rustic feel. We ate for more than two hours, talking about the LORD’s work and the attacks on Rudolphe and his family. Within an hour of the time he was voted into the pastorate of the church, he had a horrible pain in his back. Over a very long time and assurances that it was fine, they discovered a fast growing tumor on his vertebrae. He had surgery to remove the vertebrae and replace it with a rib. The doctors still cannot explain the speed of his recovery. Then there was a blood infection that nearly killed him before his prayer healed it just before the doctor came in for a last ditch effort to stop it. The story goes on. Through it all, Rudolphe pastored the church with diligence and vulnerability. Even with all the troubles, it has grown from a dying church of 40 to a positive church of 120 in the 18 months since his pastorate began.

We drove up into the mountains where the snow was at near record levels. There was so much beauty that could not fit into any camera. The natural stone bridge intrigued me. It also intrigues me that this is a color picture. Beirut 15One point of our conversation was relations between Christians and Muslims. He told us how the war time Israeli bombing drove many Hezbollah people out of their homes in south Beirut. They found that Christians welcomed them into their homes, served them, fed them and asked for nothing. Since then there has been a deepened partnership between the peoples despite deep differences in culture and religion. It is a wonderful example of the result of Romans 12:17-21. He also told of the huge difficulties it causes them when American pastors are reported as deliberately defiling the Quran or insulting the Prophet or pronouncing “railing accusation” (2 Pet. 2:11; Jude 1:9) on Muslims. It is a mark of a Christian to treat all people with love and respect. I need to be sure I do that.

Finally, why is it that American is the ultimate draw in place of the world with amazing culture of their own?Beirut 16

Beirut #3

Beirut 11Saturday started with work highlighted by a most beautiful view of the city: preparing an exam for my Portland students, doing a bunch of email (still trying to get used to doing this off line as much as possible) but mostly working on final prep for my sermon for Sunday. I asked Rudolphe what I should preach on and he jokingly told me to preach that Christians should come to church! But that dropped me into Acts 4, Peter and John’s encounter with the officials and prayer and the response of the church: They praised and prayed, praying specifically for (#1) boldness to speak the Word with boldness and (#2) to do great miracles. I realized that we don’t pray either of these. God’s answer was to shake the place – as Mt. Sinai and Isaiah’s Temple were shaken – such that they were filled with the Spirit, spoke boldly (#1) and shared everything so that there was no need among them (#2). Interesting answer to #2. The healings come but the immediate result was the sharing. Our individualism and self-protection makes this a most unlikely outcome in the modern church. I wonder what would happen if we really prayed these prayers.

After a good nap, we went to fellowship with some long time workers in this area. He came in the taxi to fetch us and later to return us. Like the taxi driver we were deeply touched by his hospitality. The afternoon and evening was spent sharing stories and talking theology/life. While I can’t share specifics because of security, some lessons had me spending a lot of prayer time in the night.

In the Middle East, self is a corporate concept. One never thinks of himself other than as part of a family/clan. So when Jesus told his disciples to change families (Matt. 12:48-50) He was going to the core. When He called us to hate father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, even our own life to be His disciple (Luke 14:26), it feels like hyperbole. But is it? It made me think of the number of American missionaries who leave the field to take care of family and are usually congratulated by me and the church when they do it.

He showed us that prayer is typically done with eyes open, looking at the others, and speaking blessing on them in the name of Jesus. The others respond with unison “Amen” pronounced in the Arabic way, “Omeen.” And it goes on for a long time. It made sense of many of the biblical prayers so that will become a part of my life.

I continue to be troubled by the richness of the American church in light of the radical call of Jesus and the example of these folk who live with the poorest of the poor to bring blessing to them. Jesus is a most uncomfortable figure. . . . but He is the LORD of glory come to live among us to show us the Father, how to live a blessed life and bring us all the family blessings of that life.

Beirut 12The internet keeps showing me interesting stuff. Click on the picture to enlarge it and note the right side of the Yahoo home page. Would that ever happen in the USA?

Beirut Day 2

What a great day to start our time in Beirut. Jet lag was a defeated enemy for us both! We shared our first meal with Paul Sanders. He’s a long time friend and the fellow who introduced me to Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (here) back in 2002. He was provost then and working to promote theological education through out the Arabic and French speaking world. Now he’s turned the ABTS reins over to Elie Haddad who is taking it to an even higher level. They are both working with the Teach/Learn project which will deliver state of the art theological/pastoral training to seminaries and churches throughout the Arabic speaking world using satellite technology. It’s ironic that the very best in web based learning may be in Arabic!

Beirut 11Speaking of internet, getting on here is a bit of an adventure. I’m very used to unlimited time but here it is sold by the hour. So I’m careful to log on/log off (does that sound like Mr. Miyagi?). Even more challenging is that they know where I am! Yahoo has been my home page for a long time. I thought it knew me. But alas, try as I might, it always went to this screen. I asked several people for help and Elie found the button that switches the display to English. But there’s no connecting with my Portland page from Beirut.

Beirut 112After chapel (with simultaneous translation headsets) and a tour of the ABTS facilities, we had lunch with Alexy Abou Rjeilly, one of my long time friends, to catch up on her life. We have talked about many things over the years including doing some counseling with her and her former fiancé. I am very glad that she is now happily engaged to Joe. They will be married in September. Both are involved in the church I will preach in on Sunday.

Rola Salloum is the most delightful librarian you would ever want to meet and also a part of Strongholds, an outstanding Christian band (here). I was disappointed to find out that they are giving a concert shortly after we leave. But Rola invited us to their evening rehearsal in the wonderful new ABTS auditorium, so Sherry and I went down to join the fun. Though it was definitely a rehearsal the atmosphere of praise in their music was deeply moving. I was sad when we had to head up to bed.

Beirut 113Lunch was with Scot Keranen, a former student who is working with Heart for Lebanon, an agency started after the 2006 Lebanon-Israel war to bring aid to some very tragic situations. Now they are also ministering to refugees from the civil war in Syria. We went up the hill to a place where he said you can get American coffee. It wasn’t true! But we had a good time reviewing ministry, politics, and the state of the Evangelical church and next generation Christians. Sherry was impressed with the price of pizza.

Finally, can you identify Sherry’s mystery item?

Beirut 11


Beirut Dairy Day One


2012-03-22 10.14.53Coming back to Beirut after six years is a joy. There are many familiar sites like the Grand Mosque in downtown. Our driver, father of one of my former students, told us that land in this area runs about $25,000 per square meter and small apartments will run $5,000,000. This is where the oil rich people live. 2012-03-22 10.15.54

Tucked away among such expensive buildings are ones that are the heritage of the twenty year civil war. This one is on the dividing line between the warring factions. It is nice that many of the destroyed buildings have been rebuilt. The civil war in Syria is just a few miles away and whole neighborhoods are being destroyed. The people here in Lebanon are grateful that their country is spared this time.

Coming up the hill and turning into the seminary drive brought back many memories of great times with friends here, staff and students alike. Most are gone to other places now. Some like Hala, who translated for me in my other visits, are in the USA or Canada. Others are in ministries around the Arab speaking world. Iskandar and Mary are in Kartoum where he is rector of the Anglican Cathedral. One other is in one of the war zones in Syria. Who knows what will happen to him and the church.

Our 20 hours in transit was very long since the most I do is sink into short periods of unconsciousness. I have deep envy for those who sleep on airplanes. Wish I knew specifics about most marvelous castle we flew over as we landed at London’s Heathrow. We had a short turn around and a very long walk there. Sherry was glad for her new knees, but pretty fatigued when we got to our gate. The “closing” notice confirmed the need for maximum pace.

I did laugh out loud at what awaited us as we exited the Beirut airport: 2012-03-22 09.57.26