Sunday, June 27, 2010

GC #2: What's It All About?

Why General Conference Session?  The Constitution and Bylaws of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists gives official reasons--election of leadership, revision and adoption of our Church Manual (a HUGE project this session with 95 separate items to vote!), receiving of reports from the world divisions of the Church, and setting strategy for mission into the next five years.

But I know the core reason for this gathering in my estimation.  Let me illustrate through the lives of two people in Atlanta.  One is retiring and the other was elected today (June 27).  Both impacted me at significant points on my life's journey.  

"Mark"  had the daunting assignment of taking Seminary students from the theological seminary at Andrews University and molding them into an evangelistic force in the city of Chicago.  The Lake Union Soul Winning Institute was the practical training for us eager young ministers-to-be on the cusp of embarking into full-time employment in a church.  Day upon day, Mark (as he was called with friendship and respect by all his students) taught classes on giving Bible studies, leading people to decisions for Christ and the Bible, conducting door-to-door religious surveys, and how to answer difficult Scriptural passages.  Then at night he modeled for the school "how to do the work."  Mark was a friend to all.  Warm, kind, patient with our questions, and a master at discipling.  (It was always amazing to be able to conduct evangelistic visits with him.)  We graduated and took our notes to our churches.  I still have these in my files at the office.  

"Mark" went on to become "Pastor Mark Finley" of It Is Written, then "International Evangelist Mark Finley", and ultimately "General Vice President of the General Conference Elder Mark Finley."   But he always remains a leader and role model who loves pastors desiring to win people for Jesus.  His influence in my life was profound at the threshold of my ministry.  As he retires this Session I've been watching him around the delegate floor moving with energy.  I blink and then he's back again to 30 years ago standing on the lighted stage of the Yugoslav Hall in South Chicago giving the appeal for the Sabbath--still showing us how its done.  Mark made a difference in my life!

When "Ben" arrived at the Downers Grove, IL Church in 1973 he was fresh from the theological seminary and assigned as the assistant to Pastor Gunnar Sjoren.  Ben worked with the youth, preached, and towards the end of his short internship at the church conducted an evangelistic series in the nearby community of Bolingbrook.  A public high school freshman who had just moved with his family from Orange, CA responded to an appeal at church to help with the meetings.  On Wednesday nights this young man helped the young pastor set up the room and then sat in rapt attention as Pastor Ben Schoun took the class through his own unique materials on the book of Revelation.  The young pastor was encouraging to the high school student.  He modeled what a pastor could be to a young person.  At the close of the meetings, I reviewed the lessons and began to imagine what it would be like to help people know about God and the Bible like Pastor Ben.  He modeled a professional ministry to me that persists to this day.

Pastor Ben Schoun went on to serve a district that I would also begin my ministry in 10 years later.  The town of Bolingbrook where we had those Revelation classes would 20 years later become my district.  Often I would pass the elementary school where I sat and listened to the truth of Revelation.  Through the years "Ben" served at the Seminary, was elected Atlantic Union  President, and President of Adventist World Radio (how fun to read my youth pastor talk about sharing God's love through radio around the world by shortwave).  My heart was thrilled when today (June 27) my youth pastor was elected one of the General Vice Presidents of the General Conference.  I was proud and thankful that a man who loves God and models genuine Christianity was today one of our world leaders.  

My friend, the cynical among us think that the General Conference Session is about politics and unrelated to the "real mission" of the church.  Well, I certainly don't know everything and everyone.  But I know "Mark" and "Ben."   General Conference is about this core thing--people who love God and who He uses for the Great Good of His Kingdom.  

This is Why General Conference.  This is why I'm thankful to be a Seventh-day Adventist.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

GC #1: We Made It Through the Rain

The metaphor for our first day in Atlanta, GA for the 59th General Conference Session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church was our journey to get there.  Flying at 39,000 feet over the clouds, inside the Southwest Boeing 737 jet, I put my mind yet again into the question, "What does this General Conference session mean for me spiritually?" I had been praying about this matter for some days as this trip came closer.

Clarity came as we faced our traveling environment.

First, as we winged over Arizona the smoke of the huge fire that had been burning for several days rose up to meet us.  The pilot informed us that the elements of this fire cloud had reached all the way to Chicago.  Certainly life can become like a cloud of smoke--impossible to see through and seemingly choking off the friendly light of the sunshine.  My desire for this General Conference session is to rise above the daily "smoke" and experience the inspiration that comes from worshipping together with believers from over 200 countries.

Second, periodically we heard our pilot share information about our progress towards the airport.  Time of arrival, weather at our destination, and sites along the way.  As a Seventh-day Adventist Christian it gives me enduring hope and meaning on life's journey to have the Pilot of our Church give us his Word as we wing to our ultimate spiritual destination.  At General Conference Session in Atlanta I will be sitting with hundreds of delegates who, with me, both rejoice and cherish the "truth that sets us free."  I shook hands and visited with the undertreasurer from one of the Unions in Africa.  Our language, culture, and nationality differ.  But the object of our faith is the same--my brother in Africa trusts the same Pilot as his brother in the United States.

Finally, as we drove into Atlanta on Tuesday night we literally ran into the worst thunderstorm we'd experienced in many years.  Visibility was near zero.  It lasted for mile after mile.  What gave me encouragement in the storm was my wife, Jennifer, who calmly talked along with me and kept another set of eyes on the semi-trucks passing us by.  It was just we two--but we were a little community going through a trial--albeit a short one.  General Conference Session in Atlanta is the tangible evidence that we are a church community that spans continents and culture.  Together with the Lord we can make it through the storms.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Made in the Shade

The grove at Pacific Union College holds graduation memories of me.  Our daughter Amanda in 2006 and son Tyler and his wife, Kristin in 2008.  As I donned my regalia again on Sunday and had Jennifer drop me off at the airport parking area it was a happy stroll to the marching area.

Some things have changed since 2008 when I last marched as a Board of Trustee member.  Dr. Heather Knight is now the President of the college and is just shy of completing her first year.  Her enthusiasm for Adventist higher education is contagious and her mantra of  "Good to Great" forms the context of everything she does with students, faculty, board, and community.  Her husband, Dr. Norman Knight, is a gifted speaker and teacher. (We'll be utilizing his skills at WestPoint in December!)  A great team for Pacific Union College.

Other things are quite the same.  Familiar faculty and staff faces mill around prior to graduation.  Another bit of sameness is the excitement of graduates and their families.  I only know a couple of the names personally that are read by Dr. Nancy LeCourt (VP for Academic Affairs) as the diplomas are distributed but the singular scenes of accomplishment are readily recognizable to any parent who has been there with one of their own.

I was happy to see the theology majors that I had interviewed in February.  One in particular, Brad Gienger, was a young church member in Simi Valley when we pastored there in the 90's.  When I saw him following graduation he told me that 15 minutes before the ceremony had commenced his cell phone rang with the news that the Dakota Conference was offering him a job--either a small district of churches or sponsorship to Andrews University Theological Seminary.  I rejoiced with him.

College is a lifetime ago for me now--literally 30 years this June when I finished my B.A. in Theology at Andrews.  Now I watch hundreds of newly minted graduates--clutching their green PUC diploma covers--disperse from the grounds on this late Sunday morning in June.  They are covered with the glow of promise and possibility.  And with them I see grandparents, cousins, uncles, and siblings who could be thinking, It's never too late to embrace the joy of a limitless tomorrow.