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.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Immigrant Children and the Adventist Conscience

This last week, lawyers visited a Texas facility where immigrant children are held. My social media feeds have exploded with reports that turn my stomach--toddlers without diapers, children without beds. Government lawyers arguing that soap and toothpaste aren't required. Filth and malnutrition and despair. I am torn up about it.

I'm torn as well. You see, on Twitter I'm "The Other Adventist Home." Whatever I say, I say as an Adventist voice, not as myself. The debacle, and the debate, are marinated in national politics, and Adventists aren't supposed to get into politics. (We'll lose our tax-exempt status if we do.)

This is why I decided to talk about it anyway, and I think you should, too:

The landscape of US politics has always been hard for Adventists to navigate. We're (typically) morally conservative, but also well-educated and serving in helping professions. And of course there's our eschatology, which says the US is prophesied--in time--to outlaw our Sabbath-keeping. So maybe we want small government, but we're also leery of legislating personal morality. In a(n effective) two-party system, there aren't many places to go.

It puts members in a quandary each election season. I remember conversations over potluck debating which candidate was going to start the religious persecution and bring in the concentration camps.* There were always concentration camps in the picture, usually claimed to be already built, ready to house us. ("Listen to this cassette recording of a speaker who's seen them in with his own eyes.")

And I wonder, as I look at today's news, read today's debates, if these same Adventist believers recognize the fulfillment of their prophecies. Are the camps still inhumane if they aren't housing Adventists? Is our country still speaking like a dragon if it isn't talking to us? Do we care if kids have beds and toothpaste if the Sabbath isn't involved?

On Twitter, my feed is full of two kinds of content--horror over the lack of soap, and concrete floors, and cheery official Adventist sources, handing out generic devotional messages. Maybe we need devotional messages in distressing times. But it would help, at least, to acknowledge the distress.

I know why the silence, of course. We have a knee-jerk fear of politics. We don't tell you what to vote (at least, not officially), and if we talk about something related to government policy, we'll be "taking sides." But not all of politics is taking sides. There are issues, like human rights, that transcend parties.

I don't care what the rhetoric is, no one's political views require them to think children don't need beds or clean clothes. It's not in any party's platform. You don't have to give up your party, or even your immigration views, to care about this. But there is a danger in not caring.

Politics, after all, isn't a separate, intellectual exercise. It's just the way we use resources and make policies. And what we think of as "politics" is just the maneuvering needed because we disagree how to do it. Politics is about our lives, and that's the place where faith is acted out. We don't hold our opinions in a vacuum. They effect the people around us. So if you feel convictions about human rights, there is no special category of "politics" that lets you off the hook about them.

Moreover, we are followers of a Messiah who said helping the needy was a reason for his anointing:

The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's 

Luke 4:18,19

And who also expects the same acts from his followers:

They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Matthew 25:44, 45

If the gospel has nothing to say about children deprived of their basic needs, it's not the gospel Jesus handed to us. If our gospel doesn't effect how we treat the vulnerable in our midst (whatever our feelings about how they got there), then it has failed. The God who reaches into our sin to redeem us--at the cost of crucifixion--cares about the suffering of children, however it came about. You don't have to profess a certain political view to care about them, too. You just have to profess faith in this God.

So you have a choice. If the reports about child detention facilities don't bother you, then I won't trouble you further. But it you mind, then say so. If you object, then object. It's not disloyal, or partisan. And if you support those leaders who are justifying the abuses, then real loyalty involves accountability.

There's never going to be a perfect world, as long as we live alongside sin. There is no party that can fix all of our ills, or serve our country with perfect selflessness. But you and I have the choice to serve God first, in our politics and outside of them, to serve one another, and to serve those in need.

Girl's White and Gray Crew-neck Top Holding Gray Wire Fence

*The favorite, laudably bi-partisan answer was both, because all politicians are bad.