21 Oct


The very title, “Redefining Adventism,” is provocative to some, and a “hair-on-fire” threat to others. So, let me define how I see redefining. First it is not degrading, dumping, or abandoning salvific pillars of the faith we hold and teach. It is an attempt to make present truth… well… present, and attractively applicable to contemporary people inside and outside the church.

The very name of the denomination lays out two major components of belief: Sabbath as the seventh day of the week and looking for the return of Jesus in His second advent/coming.

As Adventists, we speak and write often and passionately about “present truth.” At the same time, we tend to look back to the idealized historical “golden days” and pioneers of the church. There is a danger that we can be so focused on the methods and wrappings of the past that we make the core beliefs of the church look quaint, like the straw-brimmed hats and horse drawn buggies of the Pennsylvania Dutch. “Back to the Future” was a stellar title for a movie, but not much of a cogent mantra for a current and future movement. After all, a movement moves. It is not a static monument to the past.

The church has essentially held to core beliefs, and at the same time has been able to make a bridge between the past and the present. Things have changed. The Old Testament sacrificial rituals ceased. The Jerusalem Temple was destroyed. Past practices gave way to present realities and a focus on both the current situations and solutions, with an eye to future changes. Look at the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10, and the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. These were seismic shifts in how things were done. These shifts made truth truly present.

We need not, in fact should not, abandon pillar beliefs that are salvation related, but there is value in how we (wrap) present them to others. As an example: when I was a kid, it was fun and acceptable to wrap gifts in the colorful Sunday funny papers. The gift was encased in colorful panels of recognized cultural icons. Sometimes the gift might be wrapped in a recycled brown paper bag (we were “green” and did not know it). Today, if you gave a gift to your fiancé, or a dignitary, using those wrappings, it might evoke a seriously different response. The gift might be the same, but the presentation/wrapping could seriously detract from the gift itself.

What might a redefining of Sabbath look like?

Past truth style: “The Bible says the seventh-day is the Sabbath, and I can proof text it, so you must keep the seventh day as Sabbath!” This can look like my need to set you straight; it is information based.

Present truth style: “God is so loving and kind He designed a special down time every week so we would not burn out. It is a time when we can connect with family, and with Him in worship. He called it ‘Sabbath,’ and it happens every Saturday!” (An appeal to current needs. Relationship based, not just information based). Or “Birthdays are great celebrations! God wants to celebrate the birth of our world – not just once a year – but once a week. The seventh-day Sabbath is a celebration of His goodness and loving power. Come join me as we celebrate His creative work for, in, and through us!”

Same truth. Different presentations.

What might “redefining” the Advent look like?

Past truth style: “EARTH’S FINAL WARNING!”** There is terror and trouble ahead! You better be prepared for the wrathful return of the Almighty. If you are not ready – it is as Jonathan Edwards said – ‘God holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider…over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked…. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it.’”

Admittedly, that’s compellingly graphic, but not very appealing unless you are a masochist. It’s like Barron Von Trapp, in The Sound of Music, lining up his children for a chilling inspection to spot any defects that causes them to stand ram-rod fearful (but not lovingly) in his presence.

Present truth style: “Jesus said He would return to earth, and when He does, it will be magnificent! It is like when dad went away/deployed, and we all longed for his return. We waited and looked forward to that so we could be together again after a long absence. We looked eagerly for that time, and to a happy reunion where we could be together again, and we could invite our neighbors to rejoice with us!”

Same truth. Different presentation.

I spent a combat tour in Vietnam and did not see our children for a full year. Suppose Ardis had prepared them for my return by saying, “Dad is coming back, so you better have your hair combed – every single one in place – and be sure your shoes are polished, and that your room is without a speck of dust for his inspection. If there are any flaws, he will give you a whipping that will make you sorely sorry!” Would they eagerly anticipate my return, or dread it, and hope that my return would be delayed?

 Rephrasing Redefining

Maybe redefining would best be called reframing. Rather than focus on the negatives, focus on the positive aspects of Sabbath and the second coming, as well as other doctrines. Fear can motivate people, but fear wears off quickly. Fear is a poor long-term motivator. Positive anticipation is much more productive and long lasting.

In the Gospel of Luke 15, there are three stories of being lost. The sheep is lost: one out of a hundred. The coin is lost: one out of ten. The son is lost: one out of two. When each is found, there is positive joy and open celebration. The focus of each story is on the “found” portion, not a long lament on the “lost” negative portion.

Look at Daniel 7:22. It talks about the judgment (the very word frightens most people) and says, “…the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom.” Like the stories of the lost in Luke, the focus is on the positive reality of judgment. Oh, to be sure, there are beasts and scary things Daniel writes about, but they all lead up to a superbly positive climax for those who love and receive God. That is the Good News we are to proclaim. That is the focus we are called to share.

The whole sweep of the Great Controversy theme through history leads to one conclusion: God wins! And those who have a positive relationship with Him are winners too!

Keeping Sabbath won’t save me. Knowing all the dates, details, prophetic interpretations, and speculations about the time of Jesus’ return won’t save me. Fear, demands, and proof-texts won’t save me. The only thing that will save any of us is an abiding, positive, ongoing relationship with Jesus. Maybe we could focus more on the Son than the signs, on the relationship than the rules.

Perhaps redefining Adventism is more about reframing how we share. How we see and wrap our message. That might really be the essence of present truth: the kind of truth that reflects the incredibly good news of the Gospel–good news as an invitation, rather than band news as a threat. The kind of present truth that motivates us positively Monday morning, and every day.

Dick Stenbakken, Ed.D., retired Army Chaplain (Col.), served as director of Adventist Chaplaincy Services at the General Conference and North American Division. With his wife Ardis, he lives in Loveland, Colorado. Email him at [email protected]

**The title of a currently advertised Adventist evangelistic promotion piece.

01 Jun


The Greek words εὐαγγελίζω and εὐαγγελίζομαι sound very much like our English word “evangelism”. Even without knowing Greek, the sound of the word leaves no room for misunderstanding. The deeper challenge is to define the what and how of evangelism in 2022 and beyond.

The word itself means to “bring good news,” and connotes sharing/announcing/proclaiming the concept that Jesus is the Messiah who lived, died, was resurrected, and is returning for His people. Note these things: It is GOOD news, not scary, sketchy stuff and it is about Jesus.

When Jesus initially called the disciples, He said to them, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” See: Matthew 4:19, Mark 1:17.

Fishers of men…it sounds pretty simple. But there is more to it than meets the eye. Ask anyone who is an avid fly fisherman. They will regale you with details, stories, and data that will make your head swim. To the dedicated fly fisherman, it is more than a sport; it is an art form that has many facets.

There are two fascinating fishing stories in the New Testament that can help us understand the rather simplistic sounding idea of being a fisher of men.

The first story is in Luke 5:1-11. The setting is in the early call of the disciples as reflected by Matthew and Mark in their Gospels. Luke gives us more setting and story.

As Luke tells it, Jesus was preaching, then asked Peter to use his boat as a floating pulpit. After finishing preaching, Jesus asked Peter to go out into deeper water and cast his net to catch fish. Peter’s answer was pure Galilean fisherman: “Master, we have worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything….” The clear, but unspoken, implication is: “Look, I know what I am doing. I am a life-long fisherman. I know how to do this, I have always done it the same way, for years. I know what works and what doesn’t.” You can almost see Peter’s eyes rolling back at a suggested change in his tried-and-true fishing methodology.

In my imagination, I can hear the voice in Peter’s head mumbling, “No way will this work! Every fisherman knows when the sun comes up, the fish go deeper than the nets will reach. We have worked hard doing it the way we always have. We gave it our seriously focused best effort. This won’t work, but… (sigh) whatever.”

The results of trying something new were massive. There were so many fish, the nets were breaking. The results were so positive, they were astonishing. Peter fell to his knees, grabbed Jesus, and fearfully cried out, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” Note some interesting details here: Peter is hanging onto Jesus while telling Jesus to leave him! Peter is filled with fear because he has encountered success that was clearly not his doing. Jesus responds by telling Peter: 1. not to fear; and 2. that from now on he will “catch men.”

The second story, found in John 21:1-14, talks about Peter and six others going fishing in the Sea of Tiberius/Galilee post resurrection. They fished all night and caught nothing. Then a voice on the shore asks if they have had any luck. The answer is a brush, “No!!” The sharp, disappointed reply must have echoed off the water like the crack of a whip (no one likes to admit defeat, especially a fisherman).

The voice then makes an audacious suggestion: “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”

“Right side! You obviously know nothing about fishing,” would be Peter’s unspoken thought. “We have never done it that way.” There was an obvious reason to not fish from the right side of the boat. That’s where the rudder and rudder equipment were. Common sense would tell you that you would have a tangled mess of rope, nets, and rudder if you even tried. Besides, it’s now morning, and when the sun comes up, the fish go down. Everyone knows that!

I imagine it was with a shrug of semi-indifference combined with a dose of disbelief that they pitched the nets on the dreaded “other side of the boat.”

Then it happened. The nets went taut. “See, the nets are caught and tangled. I knew it wouldn’t work,” probably went through Peter’s mind. But the nets were not still; they were strained with literally a boatload of fish! BIG fish! One hundred and fifty-three of them! Suddenly, there was the recognition that the voice from the shore was Jesus!

“That’s the way we have always done it” netted zero. Trying something audaciously different netted 153 fish. The score is zero to 153. Maybe there is a lesson here.

There are some striking commonalities with these two stories about fishing and fishermen. In both stories, the fishermen were doing what they had always done, the same way they had always done it. They had worked hard all night. There was no lack of sincere, serious, ardent, dedicated, deliberate work. But the results were zero. Zip. Nada.

In both cases, the fishermen were following the “We have always done it that way” mantra. It had worked in the past, so the tendency was to stay with the traditional practice of history and habit. When there was a request to “Throw the net on the other side of the boat” and courageously try something audaciously different, they were shockingly successful. In the second story, they not only caught fish, but they also caught BIG ones, and plenty of them. So many they had to count them to believe it really happened.

Admittedly, I wasn’t in either boat, but my reflections on the stories teach me something about evangelistic fishing for men.

Deeply sincere effort doesn’t guarantee success.

Like the stock market, past performance is not necessarily a predictor of future performance.

It takes more courage to do something new than to repeat what worked in the past.

One definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect a different outcome. Jesus even said if what you try doesn’t work, dust off your feet, and move on. (Matthew 10:14.)

Creativity is the hallmark of Divinity. The first and last pictures of God in the Bible show Him changing the norm and being creative.

Listening to the Divine voice when He prompts us to try something different brings success.

There are some temptations in evangelism that can lead to few or to zero “fish.”

One fatal flaw is for us to focus on our favorite fallback fly (bait, spinner, technique, or topic). Success asks us to focus on the “fish,” not on what we assume will work because it appeals to us. Focusing on what I want or what I am comfortable with, can prove to be an error. Success means focusing on, and learning, what appeals to the “fish,” not what appeals to me.

Doing the same thing and not learning from what was or was not successful disallows important learning opportunities (serious post evaluation can help us here).

“These sermons worked in the 1860s (or 1960 or 2000) so they will work today!” Buggy whips were hot items in the 1860s too. Not so much today. Perhaps we need relevance, not relics.

“We already know what you need to know. You just don’t know. We will tell you what you need to know.”

“We have the truth, and we can proof-text it. Then you will join us!”

Perhaps the largest hole in our evangelistic fishing net is the assumption that people already have a basic grasp of the Bible and the plan of salvation, so all we have to do is focus on our unique doctrines.

I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance where I mentioned the name Pontius Pilate. My friend looked at me quizzically. “Pontius Pilate? Who is he?” was the response. This man is sincere, and a very new Christian, but he obviously has lots more to learn. Trying to teach him esoteric details of Bible interpretation would be like trying to teach quantum physics to someone who has never been exposed to basic math.

For a fisherman to be successful, they need to understand the fish. Fishing techniques vary widely, and differ with various species, seasons, locations, and conditions. I believe the same is true with evangelistic fishing for people. Understanding the changing tastes will inform me about changing my fly (technique). Case in point: Several years ago, I hired a fishing guide to coach me on fly fishing techniques. I had “learned” to fly fish on my own. It was an eye-opener to say the least. He selected a fly to start with because, “That is what is emerging this week.” Okay, I used that fly quite successfully up to about 3 in the afternoon when I could literally see fish come up to the fly, look at it, then turn away. Then he said, “OK, time to change the fly because that bug is done being in the air in the afternoon, so we will change to this (very different one), because that’s what the fish will be interested in until about 6 tonight.” He was aware of what interested the fish. He was not providing a fly based on what he liked. Big difference in positive results.

So, here are some “Throw the net on the other side of the boat” quotes to consider:

“If we would humble ourselves before God, and be kind and courteous and tenderhearted and pitiful, there would be one hundred conversions to the truth where now there is only one.” (Testimonies for the Church vol 9, p. 189). Or, “The strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian.” (Ministry of Healing, p. 470).

Evangelism, like the fly fisherman’s kit, needs to have multiple options to increase the potentials for success. When I hike into the back country to fly fish, you better believe I take more than one pattern of one fly. Otherwise, all the planning, effort, expense, and time, could be an exercise in futility no matter how sincere I might be.

Perhaps our greatest need is to find ways to reach the largest and fastest-growing demographic in our communities: those who list None as their religious affiliation. Our tendency is to fish for those in the most rapidly diminishing demographic: middle-age and above church attenders, where we can share distinctive doctrines and build on what (we assume) they already know biblically.

Jesus told the parable of the net, and fishing (Matthew 13:47-52). He closed the parable by saying, “…every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” The wise leader respects, values, and uses tried-and-true “old” treasures/methods, and also uses that which is “new,” creative, and fresh. There is no doing new things to be novel, nor is there clinging to the old simply because “we have always done it that way.” Jesus taught us to have an intricately positive balance.

Someone said the seven last words of the church are, “We have always done it that way.” And the cousin of that phrase, “We have never done it that way.” Maybe it would be well for us to cast the net “on the other side of the boat” with prayerful, careful, planned creativity as we ask, “What if….  Why not try….?” We just might go from zero “fish” to one hundred and fifty-three “fish.”

To quote Peter’s words (John 21:3): “I’m going out to fish.” In response, the other disciples said, “We’ll go with you.”

Will you join the “fishing trip” too? We are all invited to participate, not just watch.

Dick Stenbakken, Ed.D., retired Army Chaplain (Col.), served as director of Adventist Chaplaincy Services at the General Conference and North American Division. With his wife Ardis, he lives in Loveland, Colorado. Email him at [email protected]

28 Mar


By Dick Stenbakken … The title itself raises red flags.

It is often thought that as Adventists we, along with many other conservative Christians, adhere to theological concepts firmly rooted in biblical truth and practices that are absolute, and do not change. That means (changing) social norms and diversity of opinions (that might challenge prevailing thought) are, at best, as welcome as ants at a picnic. At worst, anathema. But is that true? Or is it an emotional reaction to the never-ending change of life and society?

Any change brings a sense of discomfort and or disequilibrium. For the most part, we are more comfortable with the familiar because, well, it is familiar. True enough, social norms do change. That is the trajectory of history. As an example, many Old Testament patriarchs had multiple wives. Not so in New Testament times, and certainly not acceptable in our congregations today. That is a change in social norms that we welcome and gladly follow.

Diversity of thought also brings the challenge of change. Ancient maps told mariners to avoid certain uncharted areas bearing the stern warning: “Here be dragons.” That would certainly not encourage exploration. And, by the way, folks were absolutely certain that the earth was flat. So, if you dared wander too far from the accepted certainty of the times, you just might fall off the edge of the earth, unless the dragons got you first.

Social norms do change. Diversity of thought, even theological thoughts, change. Does that mean there are no fixed points and we, as a church and as individuals, merely “go with the flow” in an unthinking passivity, wringing our hands in distress? Hardly. There are bed-rock realities articulated in the Bible that set out norms and thoughts that don’t change with time or location. Those are like the magnetic north for a compass which holds true, and from which we calibrate and evaluate all other directional values.

Jesus, concluding His parable of the net, says, “… every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 3:52 NIV). Jesus values the “old,” but also the “new” treasures. He is not at all “right or wrong” binary, but inclusively open. He mirrors the Old Testament concept in Proverbs 4:18: “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.” That contrasts with, “… the way of the wicked is like deep darkness: they do not know what makes them stumble.” The contrast is striking. Truth expands with growing light. Darkness stays static, with no change.

Ellen G. White put it this way: “Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do … It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train young people to be thinkers and not mere reflectors of other people’s thought.” (TEd 12)

The real challenges for us as individuals, as a denomination, or as a congregation, is when we begin to sanctify, solidify, and defend thoughts and norms that are actually opinions and interpretations. We then make hard realities out of our own interpretations and norms rather than from clear scriptural reality. The inevitable outcome is division, fracturing, and judgmentalism. If I am right (and in my own mind I certainly am!) then by sheer definition and contrast, you must be wrong. It’s simple. The next step is obvious: I am not only right but righteous. Meaning you are both wrong and evil. You might well think the same of me. Now, we have a serious problem working or worshiping together.

Binary thinking leads to an “us” and “them” polarity feeding exclusivism and strife. That kind of rigid thinking was what drove the Pharisees, Sadducees, and others to kill Jesus. After all, He broke their norms. He actually healed people on the Sabbath! He touched lepers! He ate with sinners! He spoke to heathen women!

Regarding diversity of thought, Jesus really went off the rails according to the religious leaders of His day. They were looking for a savior to deliver them from Rome. They wanted a king to re-establish the political nation to dominance and past glory. He, on the other hand, was about building a spiritual kingdom and deliverance from sin. He said that His kingdom would be open to everyone, including folks not at all like them. He welcomed all, not just one group. Radical thinking for many in His culture.

The tension between what I want and expect, and what is or could be, goes back to spiritual warfare starting in Genesis, and continues with the eternal tension through the rest of the Bible until that tension and warfare ends in Revelation.

Tension isn’t always bad. In fact, we could not live without tension and pressure. Think of your blood pressure: too much is bad. Too little is bad. If the tension/pressure is within reasonable range, all is well.

When we were at the Seminary, we inherited my aunt’s 1956 Oldsmobile 88. Not exactly my dream car, but it ran well. The suspension system was coil springs on each wheel. Driving it was like being on your couch steering your living room. If you hit a pothole or bump, the coil springs absorbed the shock then gave you a lingering, bouncing, bounding, lurching ride. Think bungee cord. It was entertaining. Ten years ago, I fulfilled a life-long dream and purchased a used Corvette. The ride is exponentially different than the Olds. The Vette will take a corner like the Olds never could. The difference is the tension rod stabilizers at the front and rear of the Vette. When you turn a corner, the inside wheels want to lift off the pavement. The torsion bars twist to keep weight, and tires, on the ground to give more traction and control.

Changing or challenging norms and diversity of thought will create tensions personally and corporately. That is inescapable. However, we can use those changing norms and diversity of thought to help us meet the curves and corners. Tension can be used to stabilize us as we navigate twists and turns of our journey, on the road or in the church.

The early church had tensions over norms and diversity of thought. Look at Paul and Barnabas, or Paul and Peter. In early Adventism, there were long and loud debates over beliefs. The Adventist pioneers were not content with “what is.” They were out-of-the-box thinkers who challenged and changed society and theology. They endorsed a woman to speak, write, and teach theology. They advocated abolition and education for people not like them. They impacted things as diverse as breakfast food, health care, and hospitals. They were bold enough to wrestle and wrangle with new ideas, concepts, and theologies. They were open enough to be surprised by, and adopt, new insights. They were not content with the mental laziness of just going along because “That’s the way we have always done/seen/believed it.”

The question is how we deal with shifting social norms and diversity in thought, here, now, in our life and church. We have options. We could take the binary, black and white thinking with no shades. We could just “go with the flow” and pretend all is well. We could be open and exploratory in thought and discussion. We could rebel and walk away. We could sit together and discuss our differing interpretations and opinions, realizing that they are, after all, interpretations and opinions, not necessarily proven facts. Doing the latter, we might all learn something new.

Perhaps an ancient saying, the attribution of which is debated, can be refreshingly instructive:

“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

It’s easy to read. Harder to do. Ah … there’s the creative tension that can keep us open, discussing, loving, accepting, and grounded. Hopefully.

–Dick Stenbakken, Ed.D., retired Army Chaplain (Col.), served as director of Adventist Chaplaincy Services at the General Conference and North American Division. With his wife Ardis, he lives in Loveland, Colorado. Email him at: [email protected]

10 Jan


By Dick Stenbakken — Picture two terrorists speeding across the bleak, dusty landscape trailing a vortex of dust. Suddenly they see a strange aircraft pop up over the horizon. The alert driver sees it first and asks his companion, “What is that strange-looking thing?”

His companion squints through the dusty windshield, concentrating on the small spot just above the horizon. “Oh, that is the A-10 Thunderbolt, sometimes called the Warthog,” he replies. “Warthog? That is a most strange name. So, what do you know about it?” the curious driver asks. “Oh, I know very much about it,” the passenger replies excitedly. “Tell me more,” the driver pleads.

“Well, the plane is built around a massive 30 mm seven-barrel cannon that can fire between 2,100 and 4,200 rounds per minute. It can carry 16,000 pounds of bombs, including anti-armor missiles, cluster bombs, and sidewinder missiles. The pilot is protected by titanium wrap-around armor and the plane can fly even though badly damaged.”

“True? That is really true?” asks the awestruck driver. “Yes, verifiably and actually true, but there is even more,” the passenger replies.

Suddenly the plane seems to be way closer and closing fast on the vehicle and its occupants.

“What are those smoke streaks headed toward us from the plane?” inquires the driver. “Oh. Those are two missiles he has fired.”

“Awesome! Quips the driver. I am glad you know so much about that plane. You have taught me much my friend! I am now enlightened, better informed, and….” The sentence is never finished as the vehicle and terrorists are erased in a blinding flash.

The passenger knew the truth, right down to many details. He was accurate, articulate, and knowledgeable. He was even excited to share the truth about the airplane to an inquisitive friend. However, even though he was dead-on accurate, the truth was only informative. It did not promote any prompt changes, nor did it provide safety.

Unless truth prompts changes, it is merely esoteric information and cerebral data displaying the understanding of the person sharing truth in all of its details. Truth does not function in a vacuum. It must lead to practical application leading to meaningful action. Truth is more than esoteric understanding, as good as that may be. Without application to life and life’s varying challenges, truth can be like a beautiful Christmas tree decoration that is pretty, or even fascinating but has no impact on changing my life.

Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life…. (John 14:6).” When He said that, the ears of the Jewish listeners began to tingle, because the phrase “I AM,” was the formal name of YHWH, the Supreme God of the universe. Jesus identified Himself as both the ultimate Truth, and as God incarnate. They got it. It was as obvious as a Warthog bearing down on you out of the blue.

Even Jesus’ statement of ultimate truth was in vain unless it led to belief, acceptance, and action. It is no different for us today.

It is too easy to mouth the phrase, “We have the truth!” The immediate (often inner) response is, “So what?” Has that truth made a change in my life, my thinking, my actions? Perhaps a more thoughtful, and humbly prayerful statement might be, “The truth has me.” The latter statement is pregnant with potentially life-changing actions and relationships. Truth applied is what changes people, deepens relationships, builds trust, and works the works of God. Truth applied puts sandals on cerebral assent.

So how do we know “truth” amid the clamor of vying voices saying they alone are true?

Go back to the statement of Jesus in John 14:6. Link it with how He stated, “I AM….” He laid the foundation of the rest of His statement on His relationship with His Father. That ongoing relationship was key to His work and to His being. He said, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves (John14:11). “I and the Father are one. (John 10:30). He said again, “…I am in the Father and…the Father is in me (John 14:10). For Jesus, truth is embedded in an ongoing relationship with the Father; it is not some sterile, stand-alone metaphysical proof-text proposition or formula.

The greatest agony Jesus suffered was not from the Roman whip or nails. It was the rasping, gasping cry out of the darkness He could not see beyond when he cried out, “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken Me!” (Matthew 27:46). His emotions told him (as did Satan) that the relationship with the Father was eternally severed. But truth is not based on emotions. Truth is built on a knowing that responds beyond the most crushing emotions. As He was dying, Jesus clung to the truth that his Father had not forsaken him, even in the darkest despair. That is why Jesus could close His life with the trusting words, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46). That’s truth applied under the most excruciating circumstances.

Jesus knew and demonstrated that truth is not merely subjective. It is based on eternal objectivity that does not change. There is no such thing as, “Well that may be your truth, but it isn’t my truth.” Something is either incontrovertibly and forever true, or it is not.

Would you trust a builder who used a rubber ruler to construct your house? You know, the kind of ruler fishermen sometimes use, where the fish gets larger with every telling. If the builder purchased his lumber by stretching the ruler (to save himself money) when purchasing, then contracted the ruler when building your home, you would have an irreparable mess. As for me and my house, I want a solid steel, unchanging, precise ruler, and an honest builder. Nothing less.

So, how does one know truth from untruth? Jesus set the stage by his relationship with the Father. He knew that God was and is Creator, Sustainer, Protector, Guide, All-Knowing, All-Powerful, Ever Present, Just Judge, Compassionate Listener, and much, much more. Knowing those aspects of God’s character in an ongoing, real relationship allowed Jesus to be Who he was/is as demonstrated in how he lived and what he did. The same will be true of those who build a living, vibrant, ongoing relationship with the Person of God, not just knowing details about Him. Jesus said to some who claim to have done great things in his name, “Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evil doers!’”

Reflect on those last devastating words: “I never knew you,” and the corollary painful truth, “You never knew Me.” The Greek word for “know” (ginosko) describes an intimate knowledge and relationship way beyond a mere cerebral recognition. To truly know God, and His Son Jesus, is to have a living, ongoing, thriving, life changing relationship with Him. That relationship is the objective yardstick to determine what is, and is not, true. That relational aspect will change everything in life, death, and eternity.

In some ways, the old saying, “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” adds clarity. To know Jesus, and the Father, to have a living relationship with them, changes my life’s direction. That relationship with both is what defines life.

And that’s the truth.

–Dick Stenbakken, Ed.D., retired Army Chaplain (Col.), served as director of Adventist Chaplaincy Services at the General Conference and North American Division. With his wife Ardis, he lives in Loveland, Colorado. Email him at: [email protected]

23 Sep


RMCNews with Dick Stenbakken – Farmington, New Mexico … The 150-member Piñon Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church in Farmington, New Mexico was front and center in the local community and surrounding area, September 7 – 11. They were initiators and sponsors of The Wall that Heals, a three-quarter-sized traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Lillian Clopine, church member, got the idea several years ago that sponsoring The Wall That Heals would be a positive way for Adventists to be involved in their community. She, and her husband, Bill, along with members of the Piñon Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church, applied to host The Wall That Heals as it traveled across the country. They were elated when the application was approved. The Wall did not travel in 2020, and few new applications were approved for 2021. In November 2020, they received word that they would be one of 37 communities across the United States where The Wall would be displayed in 2021.

The Clopines and the Piñon Hills church enlisted support from a wide range of local individuals and organizations. Jennifer Halphen, a church member and vice-chair of the Host Committee, was deeply involved from the very beginning and led site logistics. Soon, Gary Smouse, owner of the local Chick-fil-A, joined as the second Host Committee vice-chair. His meticulous planning helped bring in an additional Host Sponsor, the Blue Star Mothers of America New Mexico Chapter One.  Many community members and local businesses came forward to provide financial and other support.

“This event was both rewarding and humbling at the same time,” said Lillian Clopine. For her, as the chief organizer,“this event has clearly brought attention and increased visibility to the Piñon Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church.”

As community members, the church, and citizens, they wished to honor the veterans. They also desired “to sponsor an event that would serve the Four Corners in a meaningful way. I believe the Holy Spirit has guided us through this process, and these goals have been achieved,” Clopine added.

The Wall arrived in Durango, Colorado on the afternoon of September 7. An honor guard escort of more than 70 motorcycles assembled to accompany the Wall from Durango to Farmington. Vietnam veterans led the procession, followed by the 53-foot semi, which transportsThe Wall. The rest of the honor guard of motorcycles and vintage vehicles with flying flags, followed. Colorado State Patrol escorted the procession to the border where the New Mexico State Patrol took over the rest of the way to the San Juan College athletic fields in Farmington, where volunteers would assemble the Wall on the following day.

Dr. Dick Stenbakken, Chaplain (Colonel) U. S. Army, Retired, former Director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries at the General Conference, and a Vietnam veteran, spoke at the volunteer breakfast held at the Piñon Hills Adventist church on the day of The Wall’s arrival and was also the keynote speaker at the honors ceremony the evening of Thursday, September 9. The breakfast honored the many volunteers who were on site to assist those visiting The Wall for the duration of the event. The San Juan County sheriff’s office provided a 21-gun salute that echoed back from the large Wall following a bagpipe playing taps.

The Thursday evening Honors Ceremony hosted more than 850 people, including presentations by Rear Admiral Bruce Black, State Senator William Sharer, and Chaplain Stenbakken. The opening event closed with a spectacular, low-level helicopter fly-over from Kirtland Airforce Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They had received final approval from the FAA only 24 hours before their scheduled fly-over.

Saturday morning, a special Blessing Ceremony was provided by Navajo Nation representatives with more than 500 attending. The Navajo ceremony included the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance in Navajo, Native American drummers, and a keynote speech by Myron Lizer, Vice President of the Navajo Nation.

Volunteers were at The Wall, even overnight, to help people locate specific names from the more than 58,200 names engraved on the Wall.

For Chaplain Stenbakken, the invitation to participate in the event brought memories from the past. “Being at The Wall was very personal for me,” said Stenbakken. “The name of a young man I met two days into my first pastoral assignment is there – panel 5-E, line 5. We corresponded regularly until he was killed in action. His face, his name, and his memory have never left me. I saw him off at the local airport, and I saw his flag-draped coffin return home to the same airport. When asked about representing the Seventh-day Adventist Church as an Army chaplain, his memory played a large part in my saying yes to that call and career.”

The semi-truck that transports The Wall opens to become a Mobile Education Center, which displays the history of the Vietnam war and the story of The Wall itself.  This Mobile Education Center is a traveling museum with artifacts from the war, items left at The Wall in Washington D.C., and digital displays honoring local Hometown Heroes.

This event was a unique way for the local Seventh-day Adventist church to lead a major community event for the entire Four-Corners region and is a testimony to what can be done with prayer, planning, and hard work. “Several Host Committee members expressed the conviction that they could see God’s hand throughout the process of preparing for this event and its success,” Clopine remarked.

It is estimated that more than 3,000 individuals visited the Wall while it was in Farmington. Local schools were also involved, and nearly 800 students visited and learned about this important part of American history.

Many Vietnam veterans who attended the programs expressed appreciation for being recognized for their service and this remembrance of people they knew whose names are engraved on the black stone of The Wall That Heals. The Wall also serves as a powerful reminder of Christ, who brings ultimate healing.

–RMCNews with Dick Stenbakken Chaplain (Colonel) U. S. Army, Retired, former Director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries at the General Conference, and a Vietnam veteran, photos supplied

23 Jun


By Dick Stenbakken … Knowledge is a wonderful thing. The Bible encourages us to seek God’s knowledge above silver or gold. Knowledge, linked with wisdom, is more valuable than jewels and brings wealth and recognition when rightly used and appreciated (Proverbs 8:10-36).

Knowledge of the Bible, its doctrines and prophecies, is great, but there is something beyond knowledge: the ability to put that knowledge into practical work shoes and gloves to touch the lives of others. Paul’s thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians spells it out well. He says without love, the practical fruit of knowledge, without application of what we know, we are just making noise to no practical end. The results are zero. In fact, our noisy sharing of knowledge might just be irritatingly counterproductive.

The Scriptures challenge us to know. But beyond the cerebral sacrament of knowing, there is the reality of applying what we know to the needs of those around us: the honest, no-strings-attached life that demonstrates belief by unselfish, selfless service.

Jesus lived out what He knew. He touched lepers. He spoke to outcast women. He healed ceremonially unclean women and morally unclean men. He demonstrated His theology by his actions. His was a ministry of presence, an incarnational ministry we are invited to mirror. He ministered to people with a no-strings-attached love. He left the choice of belief up to them. There was no quid quo pro demand or expectation.

I have seen that kind of incarnational ministry, and it is winning and warming (as well as challenging!). Here are some examples:

Joe Martin was selling books when he encountered a man who said he would love to buy the books, but he didn’t even have money for shoes. Sure enough, as Joe looked, the man had no shoes. “What size do you wear?” Joe asked. When the man replied, Joe’s face lit up: “That’s the size I wear too! Here, take my shoes. They will fit you,” he said as he quickly removed his shoes and gave them to the shocked, but appreciative man. Yes, the books were “truth filled,” but Joe’s actions spoke an immediate and more readily understandable truth about God’s love than the printed pages of the books the man couldn’t afford.

Or, consider the woman who was teaching Sabbath School one winter when she saw a family come in dressed in well-worn, but clean clothes without any coats. “Did the children leave their coats in the hallway?” she asked the mother. “Well, no . . . they don’t have any coats,” was the timid response. The teacher smiled and said, “We are going to do something very different for Sabbath School today! Mom, you go to the adult class. We’ll meet you at the church service.” That day, the children’s class met at Target. When they got to the worship service, the children without coats all had new, warm winter coats and boots matched by ear-to-ear smiles. (You can debate the timing if you wish, but Jesus said something about the ox in the ditch on Sabbath. I think this equates.)

During the year I spent in Vietnam, I routinely went on convoys with the troops (remember the ministry of presence . . . incarnational being with people?). The troops started their day at 3 in the morning when their trucks would be loaded. At 7 or 8 they lined up and pulled out to deliver food, water, ammunition, supplies, and fuel to various locations. I was in an open jeep in the middle of the convoy (think “moving target in a shooting gallery”). There were safe (safer hopefully) stopping points where we would pause for lunch before going on to our destination. The drivers were young men with voracious appetites. But I never was on a convoy where I didn’t see many of the soldiers give their lunch, and extra goodies they brought along, to the ragged children who swarmed us like ants when we stopped. Somehow the news media never covered that, but I saw it time and time again.

Consider Greig, a Roman Catholic Army chaplain/priest assigned in the greater Washington, DC, area. His job was to give denominational coverage to multiple Army installations in and around DC. His schedule was brutal. He heard there was a brother priest who had been badly wounded in an Iranian IED blast and was now in Walter Reed Medical Center. He didn’t know the man, but he was a brother, so Greig went to visit him. When he got there, the man’s mother and sisters were in the room. They were haggard by the long vigil they were keeping, and by the serious injuries of their loved one. Greig visited with them, had prayer, then said, “If there is anything I can do for you, here is my home number. Feel free to call.”

When he got home, there was a message on his answering machine. The family was asking him to come sit with their loved one on Saturdays so they could get a break. Would he be willing to do that? Saturday! Saturday was Greig’s only free day. It was, essentially, his Sabbath day of rest.

Greig spent every Saturday for the next three months reading and conversing with a man who was so severely injured that there was no way of knowing if he was even aware someone was in the room with him, let alone comprehending what Greig was reading and saying to him. Greig told me he would read for up to eight hours on those days. He would read until he was so hoarse, he could speak no more.

Consider an adult Sabbath School class who was invited to help a teenager get some clothing that was appropriate for her situation: she barely had the basics. The class took up an impromptu offering, including IOUs for those who didn’t have checks or cash with them: the class raised more than $400 on the spot. Two weeks later, it was proposed that the class start a fund to help people in need and to have funds on hand to meet the needs when they arose. The class voted to do so. That was more than 10 years ago. Since then, there have been no appeals for funds. People just continue to give and meet needs as they emerge. Thus far, gifting has been more than $50,000. Funds have covered food for neighbors in need, payment for heating bills during a winter for an immigrant family, help for mission trips, and more. Recipients don’t need to be members of the church; all they must do is demonstrate a need. No strings. No hooks. Just modeling a willingness to put faith into action and theology into practice.

James, Jesus’ brother, put it well: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27, NIV).

It has been said that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Esoteric knowledge about the Bible, prophecy, and theology has a place, but meeting needs and modeling the Gospel is always appropriate. Compassionate ministry of presence opens hearts and blesses both the giver and the receiver.

We can be so absorbed in attempting to parse prophetic details that we miss needs and opportunities to bless others right around us. Beliefs that wear boots and gloves to lift others’ burdens bridges the gap between profession and practice.

The poet, Edgar Guest, said it well in “Sermons We See”:

I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day;
I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way.
The eye’s a better pupil and more willing than the ear,
Fine counsel is confusing, but example’s always clear;
And the best of all the preachers are the men who live their creeds,
For to see good put in action is what everybody needs.
I soon can learn to do it if you’ll let me see it done;
I can watch your hands in action, but your tongue too fast may run.
And the lecture you deliver may be very wise and true,
But I’d rather get my lessons by observing what you do;
For I might misunderstand you and the high advice you give,
But there’s no misunderstanding how you act and how
you live.

–Dr. Dick Stenbakken, retired army chaplain (Col.), served as director of Adventist Chaplaincy Services at the General Conference and North American Division. He lives with his wife Ardis in Loveland, Colorado. Email him at: [email protected]

01 Jul


By Dick Stenbakken . . . I knew from as far back as I can remember that I was adopted. My parents made it clear that they chose me to be their own. To me, it always seemed somewhat special —an honor— to have been adopted. It didn’t make me any better than anyone, but it created a special bond with my parents.

Paul mentions adoption in his epistles (Romans 8:15, 23; 9:4; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5). The churches to which he wrote, mentioning adoption, were all Gentile-Roman groups. While there was no practice of adoption among the Jews, the concept of adoption had very special meaning in Roman culture. Romans adopted others as adults, not as children. Adoptions were done to pass on inheritance and continue the family line. It also carried with it the responsibility of the adoptee to not only inherit, but to correctly manage the estate inherited and to bring honor to the new father and family name.

Roman adoption process was a very formalized ritual. On completion, before witnesses, the son now became officially a new person with an entirely new identity.

The new identity was more than a change of name. The adopted son now had full legal rights of inheritance as if he were a natural-born son. All past debits were gone. He was officially related to the new, not the old, family. In Roman law, and in many states today, once someone is adopted, he cannot be disowned by the adopting father. While the Roman father could disinherit a natural-born son, he could never disinherit his adopted son. Adoption was forever. The adoptee could walk away from his new father, but the father could never walk away from his adopted son.

Read that last line again. Let it sink in. No wonder Paul says, “…We wait eagerly for our adoption as sons….” (Romans 8:23 NIV). Our adoption as children of God differs from Roman adoption in that we make the choice to allow our adoption. It isn’t something done to us, it is something in which we actively participate. When we do, we are His—forever. He will not walk away from us. He invites us to be full inheritors of His name and His kingdom. We can leave the past and be a totally new person.

I was a newborn when adopted. I had no say in the process. God gives us a choice, an invitation to be adopted and be fully, freely, finally and forever His. It’s an honor to be adopted— twice.

–Dick Stenbakken, Ed. D. Chaplain (Colonel) U.S. Army, Retired