Reviewing and renewing Biblical faith through story and study

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Secret of our Strength

          From the Sabbath School Section of this blog
 
 There is nothing more destructive for a household than a strongman who has lost his vision. From personal experience, I have witnessed this truth in all its desperate agony. I have also experienced the rediscovery of vision and rebuilding of strength that comes through the restorative beauty of a Christ-like family.
   While I’m happy to tell you my own story over a hot drink; in this article, I wish to explore the journey of another strongman and his lost vision. This strongman is the church I love.

Samson's Story
   A few thousand years ago, a strongman was born. His parents were told he would be a deliverer of God’s people. He was to be set aside at birth, consecrated as special to God. As one who had taken the Nazerite vow, he was not to cut his hair, ever. His parents named him Samson.
   Samson was strong. He ripped gates off their hinges—not garden gates from a picket fence but city gates ripped up with the supporting posts still attached. He killed a thousand men with a piece of bone and a lion with his bare hands. His strength became the stuff of legend and men made sport of trying to defeat him, always to their detriment. Because of his fame, it didn’t take long for him to become full of pride. Samson lost his vision long before his eyes were gouged out.
   Samson started toying with evil. He ate honey scooped from within a lion carcass (a Nazerite was not to touch a corpse), fed some to his parents, then spun the occasion into a riddle to trick 30 men, which caused them to want him dead and him to kill 30 other men. He tortured 300 foxes, tying them in pairs by their tails and fixing lit torches to each pair of tails before releasing them in grain fields of his enemies.
   Like many a fallen strongman, Samson had a weakness for the ladies. He married a woman his parents disapproved of, slept with a prostitute and shacked up with another beautiful woman (Not all at once, mind you!).  The final woman, the beautiful Delilah, constantly tried to discover the secret of his strength. She had been promised 1100 pieces of silver for the secret by men who wished to stop Samson and the Israelites he represented.
   Samson lied to Delilah many times. Finally, wearied to the point of death by her nagging, Samson revealed that the secret to his strength was his hair. In doing so, he didn’t only ask for a haircut but recommended a shave. “I was dedicated to God as a Nazerite from birth. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as anyone else” (Judges 16:17). The next time he had a nap, Delilah shaved his head and sold him out.
   Samson had never been without his strength. He didn’t know what it was like to be normal. When he woke and was set upon by an overwhelming group of men, he punched and kicked and fought like every other time but to no avail. He was swallowed up in the brutality of the hoard.
   His captors jabbed a hot poker in his eyes and threw him in prison. Occasionally they would bring him out for entertainment. “Step right up! Take your best shot at the legendary strongman, Samson!” The laugher was inevitable as Samson swatted at blows after they made contact. “Body blow! Head shot! Come on, Samson, defend yourself!”
   Time passed. His hair grew. Samson wondered, “Would God still honour the vow even after I have treated it with such disdain?” Another party. Another call for Samson the clown. After being mocked, punched and tired out, Samson said, “Place my hands against the pillars that hold up the temple. I want to rest against them” (Judges 16:26). Once his hands were in place, Samson prayed and pushed.    And the strongman, who had lost his vision, killed himself along with every man, woman and child in the house of Dagon that day.
   An oft-quoted proverb states, “Without vision, people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). This was certainly true with Samson. One strongman without vision and thousands perished. During his lifetime, he wrecked havoc in numerous random attacks before finally, like a dragon who knows his time is short, he tore the house down. All of this would have been very different if Samson had embraced his vow and lived true to the calling placed on his life from birth.

A New View
   I recently saw something familiar from a new perspective. This unique vantage point allowed me a new view an old thing, as if seeing it again for the first time. In the town where I serve as a state high school chaplain, I have been honoured to participate in numerous church services. In the last three months of 2014, I preached at an ecumenical youth program, a Baptist church, a Lutheran church, a children’s “Messy Church” program, a Uniting church, an Anglican church and a church in a pub. I worshipped in the style of high church, low church, traditional church, contemporary church, kids church, youth church and pub church!
   In each church I met generous, loving, godly people. Every service presented heart-felt worship to God, community for His people and a listening ear to me as I spoke about chaplaincy and Jesus’ heart for each of us.
   But, I noticed something missing. Or, more accurately, I missed something in each setting—something that, for me, is integral and meaningful in church attendance. What I missed is something deeply embedded in my experience of worship, due to my Seventh-day Adventist upbringing, something present weekly in my denominational tradition.
   I missed the time of small-group discussion in which the Bible is opened, read, studied and prayed over. I missed the circle of believers listening to each other’s needs and praying together. In short, I missed Sabbath school.
   Even though I had attended Sabbath school the previous day at my own church, I missed it each Sunday because I felt a desire to know each new group of believers more fully. For me, church is about connecting to each other as well as connecting to God. I felt the need for Sabbath school because I am accustomed to knowing those to whom I will preach, even if only in a quick fashion on the day. Instead, in nearly every situation, I drove into an empty car park, walked into an empty church, watched both fill up, then preached a few minutes later. It was only after the service that I met people, and then in a casual social manner rather than a spiritually nurturing time of sharing.
   The people at each church seemed to know each other well, so there must be more going on than just the quick worship service on Sunday. What I realised, more than anything, is that I love Sabbath school and am blessed by the group togetherness it provides which leads to a feeling of knowing the people of God joined together in worship on the day.

Haircuts and Hairstyles
   Like Samson, the Seventh-day Adventist movement started with a vow. Since our beginning we have been called the “People of the Book” because of our vow to study the Bible constantly—individually and together—reviewing and revising our understanding as the Word speaks more clearly to us. We are a creedless people, relying instead on the living, breathing Word of God. Sabbath school is the place where we learn, practice and model this constant commitment to studying the Bible.
   Adventists sat in the circle of Sabbath school long before they lined pews to listen to doctrinal dissertations, lifestyle lectures or other monotonous monologues. We engaged in discussion, enlivened through private study and personal relationships. Life was brought to us and through us as we engaged with the Word of God in conversation. Engaging in Bible study together increased our spiritual maturity. We grew from small group Bible studies into church communities worshipping together.
   Like Samson’s hair, Sabbath school has always been our strength. At our strongest, we are a people in active group discussion. To reduce the strength of the Adventist people, cut Sabbath school. Focus on only one or two of the four purposes of Sabbath school and ignore the others. Tell us we don’t have time to share our stories. Tell us mission—both global and local—isn’t part of Sabbath school. Turn it into a sermon rather than a group Bible study. Teach us what to think rather than teaching us how to think.
   There’s nothing wrong with a new hairstyle. Doing Sabbath school differently demonstrates life. But failing to build our church around a robust purpose-filled Sabbath school causes our people to avoid Sabbath school, and our strength is sapped. It is easy (and almost seems wise!) to cut Sabbath school when we loose the vision of what it means to truly be a Seventh-day Adventist people. We are not just a denomination with doctrines. We are a Sabbath school class; reaching in, out, up and across.
   Sacrificing any of the four purposes of Sabbath school demonstrates that we have lost our vision, or at least are beginning to let it become blurry. What are the four purposes, you ask? They are Nurture (reaching in), Local Evangelism (reaching out), Worship (reaching up), and Global Mission (reaching across the world). These four purposes have been the foundation of Sabbath school for more than 150 years! They build a people of God individually, locally, globally and eternally.
   A church without healthy Sabbath school groups can create very cold, judgmental people who are committed to Truth more than Love. The emotional maturity gained in patiently listening to others during Sabbath school discussions shapes a Christ like people. We need more than sermons to become loving people! The relationships of church members with each other and the reputation of the church in the wider community are tied closely to the health of Sabbath school. This is because a healthy Sabbath school teaches our people how to treat others with patience, respect and love.

Regaining our Vision
   To save our house, more than anything, we need our strongmen to have clear vision. In our Sabbath school classes, we learn to listen to viewpoints that differ from our own and give the people airing those views the benefit of the doubt because we care for them. The judgmental nature of some Adventists emerges from a failure to remain in harmonious dialogue as a people. Disciples who have spent years learning through listening—in addition to private study—are inclined to show mercy.
   Unfortunately, those who practice brutal honesty usually enjoy the brutality more than the honesty. A church with clear vision and a four-pillared Sabbath school foundation does not breed this type of strongman. When our vision is healthy and clear, we are proactive and use our ever-increasing strength to build others up, empowering them to glorify God.
   When our vision is lost or blurry, we are reactive and use our ever-decreasing strength to tear down others indiscriminately. People outside our church are derided, maligned and demonised. People inside are critiqued, pigeonholed and demoralised. We do this, not because we are evil but, like a blinded warrior, because we struggle with our own usefulness and the foggy memory of a purpose that once felt sure. A regained vision will lead to healthy relationships both inside and outside the church walls.
   Samson regained his strength and used it within the confines of his sightless reality. Our sight still remains, not yet lost completely. Only through fully regained vision and a renewing of Sabbath school will the church reclaim its strength.
   For now, having not lost our vision completely, we need not tear down anything, or anyone, for we can see. Our vision of the Kingdom—a people of the Book glorifying God together in word and action—will compel and constrain our strength to be used for increase rather than decrease, for shaping rather than slaughtering, for mercy rather than might.
   Sabbath school, our strength, done with clear vision creates growth in faith, mission, purpose and passion for the growth of the Kingdom of God. With Sabbath school as our foundation—actively reaching in, out, up and across—the Seventh-day Adventist movement will be a People of the Book, changing the world as we grow into the lovely and loving image of Jesus.