Friday, April 24, 2020

What I Didn't Learn on Lockdown

We're spending a lot of time inside the Other Adventist Home these days. Like most in the US, our area is under a stay-at-home order for the foreseeable future, hoping to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus. The change is admittedly surreal.

I have gone from shopping for groceries to foraging for them. Since the store shelves are unpredictable, I have a mental list of items I look for first—apples, frozen broccoli, favorite cereals, and coffee creamer. The lack of flour would be more painful if there were extra time to bake. The toilet paper is always out, but my bff in Idaho sent us some in a care package, so we're good for now.

The stress is not about finding food anymore. It's about seeing the changes happen week-to-week—acrylic shields to protect checkers, one-way aisles, often blocked by people in lines for the check-out trying to keep 6 feet apart. It's not that I begrudge the caution. But they point out just how little power we have to protect ourselves. I never expected a grocery trip to undo me. I say a quiet prayer for the cashiers as I check out.

At home, things are more normal. We didn't go out much anyway. It's cramped, of course. My usual work time is suffocating under the noise and chaos of the kids being at home. My husband and I trade days going to the office in the morning, and staying home to guide the kids through their schoolwork. I'm not getting a lot done (plus, it's super weird to do my lectures on video), but the extra family time isn't bad. I feel a little cheated that I don't have extra time to read books or take those virtual museum tours being given free online, but at least we have jobs. We're taking walks in the woods every day. I told the kids I was making them do it for their lungs, but really it's about being with them.

I've struggled over how I can help. My local hospital hasn't asked for homemade masks, but the kids did make cards for the staff. There are plenty of places to give money, and we've found a few local businesses we can patronize online. It all feels like so little. So I pray.

Every night, when the kids are in bed, we open YouTube and watch the news. I know some don't. It can be stressful. But for me, I want to stay in touch with this story we're in the middle of. Like any other story, I need to see what happens next. And I pray, while I watch. I pray for the millions of people who, unlike me, are carrying the weight of this pandemic. Those who are sick, those who are in constant danger trying to save lives, or to keep a paycheck coming, providing an essential service. I grieve, and I pray. 

I pray for unknown people on Twitter, trying to get one last conversation with a parent before they go on a ventilator. I pray for medical workers who are struggling to try something new to save their patients, or overwhelmed by the many they can't save. Every single photo of family members touching hands through a glass window because they can't be together, undoes me. I grieve for them. And I pray.

And this is where I try to say something wise, because that's usually my job here—look at life, and talk about God. There ought to be lessons—deep spiritual meaning in the discipline of staying indoors, the simple gift of supporting one another from a distance, even the hope of the Second Coming waiting around the corner of this calamity. But I can't offer any today. There's no take-away lesson I can suggest that won't be trite. There's no theology that can make this scale of suffering make sense. I have no “silver lining” I can say is worth those lives lost.

I'm sorry, friends. I have nothing for you but my prayers. I can't explain God's role in this, but I still believe he's listening. I believe he's still here, and he still hears. It's not much of a theology. It isn't eloquent or wise, but it's something to hold on to. It's what I'm holding on to.

If you need something to hold on to, I'm willing to share. Maybe you're one of the many who don't have my privilege—you're sick, or might lose someone, or can't stay at home. Maybe you're having a harder time with the changed world we live in. Maybe you're wrestling to find a theology that can encompasses all of this. I can't fix any of it.

But I will pray for you. I promise you that. And you can, too, because I promise he's listening.

And when we do come out of the Other Adventist Home, whatever world we walk out into, I believe he'll still be in it. That will have to be enough.

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.