Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Non-compliance, Hospice, and the General Conference of SDAs

During last year's Adventist Annual Council, my dad was dying. We learned his liver was failing in September, and the meeting happened to fall on a weekend I'd flown to Portland to be with him. I spent his waking hours asking him for memories, and scanning his old picture, and when he rested, I tuned in.

The day of the pivotal vote--the one about a system of committees to enforce compliance on the world church--I only got to watch a while. The men's chorus, in which my dad had sung so many years, came to give a mini-concert for him in the living room. I watched the livestream for a while and then shut it off. For perhaps an hour, I watched my faintly-responsive father close his eyes, lay back his head, and whisper the words along with the others, old-fashioned gospel songs and dreams of heaven.

By the time it was over, and my father had gone back to the bedroom to rest, the vote was being taken. My stepmother and I watched the counting, saw the inevitable results ("yes" for the plan to punish those who ordained women as pastors), and I took a few minutes to republish my blog from the year before, encouraging progressive Adventists to stay and keep me company waiting out bad policy. Then I went back to the pictures.

He died two weeks later.

There is a kind of clarity that comes with helplessness. There was nothing I could do to influence the vote or save my father. But I have no doubt which of those losses I grieve more. Because they came together, it's easy to see their relative importance. That's why I know I'm not as helpless as it feels.

It's been over a year since those things happened. We had another General Conference Annual Council, and it was bad, too. It wasn't just the Compliance politicking again. We also got devotionals focused on the evils of coffee, emotions, and YouTube, and a treasurer arguing against financial transparency.** And I understand if you're discouraged. But it's important to know this is the GC, not the church.

The GC is a world church organization. It has a small impact on a great number of people. But it isn't the church. It doesn't feed the hungry or share the gospel with your neighbor. It doesn't put the love of Jesus into human relationships. It was never meant to do those things. It handles money, coordinates communications, deals with legal matters. But the church is you.

You are the church. Seventh-day Adventism is made of what happens in local congregations, local communities. Church is worship, and fellowship, and serving one another. That's where the power is. And that's what you do.

My dad was the church. He didn't hold church offices, but he taught me the language of grace, and his love told me I am valuable. He immunized me against perfectionism. There's no committee anywhere that can undo that.

In the same way, if we choose to be the church for one another, there's no Compliance Committee that can vote it away. If we teach our children about grace, instead of about coffee, no one can undo it. If we love our neighbors, rather than critiquing their YouTube channels, that choice is in our hands. A world organization can impact a lot of people in a small way. But only you and I can impact them deeply, meaningfully. That power is still in our hands.

I don't know how long the Compliance era is going to last. I don't know if it's getting worse or not. But I do know that the church is not held hostage to the GC. The power of the Holy Spirit and the calling of the gospel are still right here, in our hands. The culture of your local church is close enough for you to impact.

I miss my dad.* I can't bring him back, but I am not powerless. I still have the gift he gave me, and I intend to pass it on.

For now, I'm going to turn down the volume on the GC. It was never meant to do our work anyway. And I'm going to do what I can. I'm going to live the faith the way I understand it--inclusive, incredible, and freeing. I hope you will, too.

(my dad during his last concert, the day of the compliance vote)

*Note--My dad had problems. His life was a testimony to grace, not because he was so great, but because of how much he needed it. That, too, was a gift.

** Don't worry--the numbers were up on the screen anyway.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Can Adventism Save Itself?

I'm feeling hopeful for my church this week, and it's because of Annual Council. But it's not because it's going well. For the last few days, I've followed the meetings on Twitter, and sometimes tuned in to the live stream. It is . . . interesting. Sure, there's lots of good mission projects, hopes to involve youth, fascinating statistics, and the exercise breaks are entertaining. But...

This year's Annual Council theme is: "Faithfulness in Christian Lifestyle."

Yup. That's the rallying cry this year.

I am in awe of this. We're daily struggling to relate to racism, polarized politics, a worldwide refugee crisis, and our personal griefs and burdens. We live in a world growing everyday less able to dialogue or offer grace, while reeling under a deeper awareness of abuse and trauma. We are broke, anxious, and heart weary. And right now my church wants to talk about coffee.

So far this week we've heard that coffee will make us gossip, fun music hurts our brains, emotions are bad, and we can't be spiritual while observing movies and "the YouTubes." And whether those things are true or false isn't really the point. The problem is that they aren't the point. Decaffeinating won't heal our divides, and withdrawing from culture won't spread the gospel.

Add to that a statement from the front that church members should be "protected" from conversations about church finance. Lay people, the speaker said, shouldn't wonder about their money once they give it to the church, or it might destroy their faith. And top it off with a statement on abortion created by committees with less than a quarter of members who are women, and a continued press to punish those who are ordaining women.

The message coming out of these meetings is that the church is out of touch with our time and place. We don't want to change our practices, and we're more concerned with external behaviors than the power of God to make a difference in the world. Adventist Twitter is abuzz with disbelief and snark, young adults discussing their "gossip juice" and contemplating whether the church wants them or not. Whether it can be salvaged as a place to grow a living faith.

But I don't believe this is all just the GC being tone-deaf. I don't believe my church leaders don't see the news, or know what we're talking about. In fact, they're trying to solve all these problems at once.

The conservative wing of  the Adventist church is trying to save itself. They aren't taking the strategy  I would hope for--by living in context, and offering answers for today's questions. Instead, they're trying to "fix" the Adventists so that Jesus can come back and solve the rest.

The generation leading the GC now grew up in the midst of Last Generation theology. Even I heard the echoes of it in my childhood, sans the name. The theology said that we get a part to play in the act of redemption--besides receiving it. Because Satan said God's law couldn't be kept, God needs a group of people who actually keep it as proof. We aren't redeemed until we fix this last issue in the great controversy. And that means that, until we reach this feat, Jesus has to wait, and time and sin and suffering all continue.

The idea is seductive. As humans, we're hobbits facing an evil that far out-classes us. As Adventists, we're troubled by the question of why time continues. The idea of Something We Can Do offers us a ring of power--it explains our problems (we haven't done our part yet), and fixes them all in one go. It casts aside our helplessness, makes us the players rather than the ball.

I think it's important for my friends and fellow-critics to know our church leaders aren't ignoring the real problems. They're just wrong about the solutions. Because the story we're in wasn't written by Tolkien. We don't get to be the heroes in this one. We don't save ourselves. The gospel is better news than that.

The Adventist church can't save itself. And that's good new, not bad. Because no matter how much decaf we drink, we were never going to reach the goal. We have to give up the perfection plan, toss the ring into the mountain, and open our hands for help. It's good news, because God can save us.

And as for the snark on Adventist Twitter? Well that's my favorite sign of hope for the church. Because it means there are young adults who care about the church enough to criticize it. Don't forget that we have people tuning in on work days to watch church meetings. All those voices saying "I want this to be better" don't hate the church. If they did, they'd find something else to watch on "the YouTubes." And that's why I believe we have a future.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

An Adventist Tourist in Rome

I have to admit it was awkward at the Holy Stairs. The couple ahead of us were climbing on their knees. The sign above them said to walk. And there I stood, Protestant and historian, both in awe and embarrassment, staring down the ordinary-looking marble steps. It would have helped had they at least looked older. Like the well-kept Basilica we'd just exited, the shine was fresh, and a chapel and gift shop were promised at the top.

In the end, I did kneel, soaking in the moment and the touch of marble, but ascended on foot (and discovered, afterward, that these were the replica, and the truly holy ones were the identical steps beside them). In the gift shop (where everyone spoke in a whisper) I bought a tiny silver cross and tucked it in my purse.

The Holy Stairs. I really expected these to look older, or at least not like all the other marble in all the Basilicas. 

It had been a little easier in St. Peter's Basilica. Although the toe on the saint's famous statue had clearly been kissed to a high polish, none of the other tourists were baring their lips. We filed by in a line, and I had a moment to touch the amorphous foot and  stare into the copper eyes.

So how does an Adventist tour Rome?

This was our 20th anniversary trip. I'm obsessed with church history, and in love with ruins, so this is where my awesome husband took me. I needed some time to imagine the ages boiled in to the cracking stones, and touch the wonders (quietly, while no one was watching). But there is a fine line between a tourist and pilgrim, and I wasn't always sure on which side I wanted to tread.

And here is where the Adventism comes in. Because, as such, I am supposed to be above my very Catholic surroundings. I should look upon the rituals of worship with the eye of an anthropologist, respectful of the age, but untempted by the customs. The cathedrals are gaudy, overdone. I am well aware they were funded by tithes on starving peasants. The saints are conspicuous, wreathed in impossible stories. The candles and beads and relics are unnecessary.  The stairs were meant to be a cautionary tale, told through Luther's eyes, of Rome's perversion of the story of grace. And so it is. But I find it's more. I can't stop at the edge of the Adventist ethos.

The relics of St. Sebastian, martyred twice (the first didn't kill him) were presumable held near this image.

History has a kind of holiness, well known to its faithful. And ancient places of worship are more than architecture. If Bethel was holy because Jacob dreamed of God, then what happens over a hundred, or a thousand years of people seeking God in the same place? If my Sabbath School teachers wanted me to whisper in church, how can I fault the nuns for doing the same? What if the candles and rosaries aren't simple superstition, but a way to engage the senses in worship? What if this history is mine, too? My Protestantism isn't a divorce from the Christian story (any more than my good fashion sense cancels my relatedness to Great Uncle Hugo).*

So I walked through Rome straddling the line between the pilgrim and tourist. I breathed the damp underground air of the catacombs, fingertips brushing the dust where Christian bones were laid. I craned my neck to soak in the ornate ceilings of cathedrals well-calculated for awe. I wandered the fields of broken Roman stonework and read the saints stories, and tip-toed awkwardly up the Holy Stairs. And I perused the gift shops and admired the icons and rosaries, but I came home with just that little silver cross.

And I'm satisfied. I am an Adventist, and I don't regret it. All the marble and storytelling of Vatican City can't tempt me away from my heritage. But I can love it too, because it's all my heritage. Rome was intense and beautiful (although not the subway system) and exhausting. I couldn't live in that space--neither the physical nor the emotional. But I am grateful for the experience.

Some relationships are too important to give up, even when they're awkward. Some stories have to be retold, whether we identify with the characters or not. Some spaces are sacred, even if we don't personally dream of heaven there.

I am an Adventist. If I have a message for the world, I want it to make me more respectful, not less, of those who worship around me. I want to see them with the eyes of the God who holds membership in no denomination. I want to speak in a voice informed by listening. I want to be a good neighbor.

I believe my church can do the same. We will because we are bigger than Big Franks, deeper than our sectarianism, and not at all interested in becoming a relic.

*This person doesn't exist, since I can't really shame a family member for rhetorical purposes.