Friday, December 7, 2018

Unto Us a Contradiction is Born

[This blog was originally published in the Pacific Union Recorder, December 2018.]

The trouble with Christmas is that it’s about a baby. It might been simpler if God-with-us had shown up as a lion, ala CS Lewis, or a lamb. Instead, the lights and carols and presents of Christmas revolve around one of the most complicated creatures in our world.

There is no contradiction so poignant as a baby. As humans go, they’re small and powerless. And yet bringing home a baby, especially a first baby, is akin to dropping a bomb on one’s house and life. I remember it well. I remember how my sleep-deprived brain struggled to accept a job without even 8-hour shift breaks for sleep. I remember the whirlwind of baby things scattered through the house. I remember the nearly metaphysical change in my reality.

Babies are small, and wonderful, and terrifying, all wrapped into one. They’re fragile enough to slip away in the night, and powerful enough to turn the world upside down. Why did God-with-us come as a baby? Probably because a baby is the perfect image of faith, and therefore of Christmas.

Christmas is a contradiction. In a manger, in the cloth strips in which his impoverished parents wrapped him, is the answer to every human need. He is salvation, the extinguishing of all of our pain. And yet his infant cries are swallowed in the vast night around him. The world hasn’t changed. His parents are still poor, and Rome is crushing his people every moment that he sleeps. The kingdom of God has come to earth, but the earth looks the same.

This is Emmanuel, God with us. The baby is both the promise and the fulfillment. He is the whole picture, and yet it can’t be seen. His miracles are only a shadow, his crucifixion and resurrection a microcosm, and his newborn church is a poor reflection of it. The world is redeemed, and yet it’s still burning.

This is Christmas. The people who live in darkness have seen a great light. But the darkness is still here. We wander in the smoke of our suffering, and clutch this faith to our chests. It’s a little thing--as small as a baby--but it’s tangible. It’s God with us. God came into our world to die for our sins. But he also came to hold our hands in the darkness, to tell us we don’t have to face it alone.

So we put up lights in the face of winter. We hold candles and sing songs. We push cheer into the dark spaces, and dare to gather our relatives into the same room. It’s a contradiction, which is what every act of faith amounts to.

I believe in Christmas. Not because a Christmas movie tossed a dusting of snow over life’s problems, but because God is with us. And I’m glad he chose to come as a baby, because there is no better expression of what it means to have someone, and also be waiting for them.

I don’t know what’s in your holiday season, and I don’t know you’ve had to carry this year. Maybe you’re hanging the mistletoe, and maybe you’re still trying to see through the smoke. But I know the answer is Emmanuel. The gift is small enough to hold in your arms, and big enough to save you. Whatever your circumstance, I pray you will celebrate this season as an act of faith. Because the good news is better than it looks. Because small things grow. Because God is with us.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

If the church disappointed you today . . .

I watched the live stream of Annual Council today. Sometimes I wanted to cheer, and sometimes I wanted to chuck the TV into the next state. But most of all, I wanted to do something. All afternoon I watched my church teetering on the edge of an abyss, wishing I could yank it back. And finally I could only look away while it jumped.

I think the vote was wrong. I think we are now that much further from the church Jesus founded on his own passion for lost human beings, his overwhelming burden of love for a lost world. We have one more callus of bureaucracy, hierarchy, and institutionalism to strip away before we can feel as he feels, serve as he served. And we continue to insult millions of women who serve the church worldwide, both professionally and as volunteers.

So what can we do? What do we do now?

Since this is, in fact, the other shoe I expected to fall last year, it's only fair to revisit the bold vows I made then, in anticipation. It's time to see if I can keep them.

This is what I wrote last year. And once I get through the frustration of today, I'm going to take a deep breath, and do as I said I would:

(from October 6, 2017)

I'm going to stay here. Right here.

This is why:

1. This is my faith.-- I may not agree with church leadership--hey, I might not even follow. But it was never about policy.  I'm not here for the organization, I'm here because of the faith.  The ideas I value most are at core of Adventist doctrine--loyalty to Scripture over creeds, the God who loves us, and saves us based on his own merit, not ours. A God who offers rest (Sabbath), who values our free will enough to die for it, who has the answer to all our pain (Second Coming).

2. These are my people.-- I belong to a local community, and they are my church. In fact, I've been to a number of local communities where I have belonged.  I know there are local churches where I might not fit in. It's okay. There is no one person, not even a committee, who gets to determine what Adventists must be. The body is bigger than those voices. I won't give up a real, living community because of a committee of people I've never met.

3. This is not the end of the story--Churches change.  This one has been worse in the past, and it will be better in the future. I don't know how long it will take or how hard it will be to pick ourselves up off our faces from this crisis. It will depend on other people's choices how far in the hole we get. But we've dug ourselves out as a denomination before. We'll do it again. There are better days, and more benevolent leaders, ahead.

So I have a plan for what happens after Annual Council. This is what I'm going to do:

1. I'm going to recover.  I don't know how long it will take.  I don't know how I'll feel. Luckily,I know at least that I can recover from a bullet-wound to my church loyalty. Time helps.  So do walks outdoors, a blanket and a tea-mug, music, and time with friends.

2. I'm going to worship. My faith isn't built on the work of committees of (mostly) men in suits. It rests on the generous and profound grace of God. It's about this Jesus who loves me personally, and who's promised to come back and fix the messes. The equality of men and women is only an outworking of the gospel. I plan to spend time submerged in that gospel, to remember why it matters, as well as what matters most.

3. I'm going to love my church. It's been a stressful ride for all of us. It's now when the church family needs one another most. So I'm going to stay engaged, nurture friendships, listen, and pray. I'm going to remember that my "church" is not out there somewhere, it's right here.

4. I'm going to keep working for what I believe. This isn't the end of the story. I think the church's rosy future is still a long way out, but I can work toward it. I'm going to preach when asked (and I might go and offer). I'm going to write and speak what I believe.  The idea of equality is getting stronger, in the world as well as the church. I'm not going to give up on it.

This is my plan. I don't know the future, but I've decided to be in it. I'm choosing to control the one thing I can--my own actions. Maybe I'm a lightweight, but I'm going to swing that weight toward the better elements of my church.

That's my nuclear apocalypse--I mean, Annual Council--survival plan.  I plan to survive (and get to better days somewhere--perhaps far--on the other side).

I hope you will, too. I could use the company.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Adventist Constitutional Crisis

I once read a book of speculative fiction, in which the medical system went rabid. Health screening was involuntary, medical consent was not a thing, and ambulances roamed the streets like prowling squad cars. It was all the creepier, as the author well knew, because it was done out of love for human life. I would prefer if my church didn't take this as an operating model.

We stand in a new and alarming place as a church. From where I'm standing, it looks like a crossroads.

We have challenges. We disagree, even on points of doctrine. We come from so many cultures we can't always tell which fights are moral and which are custom. And just now, the issue of ordination has put us in a constitutional crisis, a dispute between Unions and GC over what is policy, and who has the right to interpret it.

GC administrators have a solution in mind. It's a system of compliance committees, meant to collect reports of forbidden ideas and practices by church employees and institutions, and squelch them. It's a system which will make all of the church body directly accountable to them. 

And I don't like it.

God had a point the day he told Israel that a king was a bad idea. Up until that time, people brought their problems to the judges when they needed help--the judge didn't go seeking out lawbreaking to punish. It was something like calling an ambulance. You do it when you, or someone near you sees you need help. I don't want to guess whether a government could or should work this way now, but I believe our church should. Apparently, our predecessors did, too, because that's the kind of accountability they set up in Working Policy.

The denomination already has a process for the issues addressed by the compliance committees. Problems are handled at the local level. If they can't be solved, the church entity dealing with it can ask for help from the next level of organization. But it's the local entity's call--or the next nearest to it--whether there is a problem, and whether they need intervention. It is, essentially, an ambulance model.

What the GC administration is trying to create by these compliance committees is a new structure, which puts the initiative in their hands. They want a squad-car model, where they are free to seek out non-compliance, and treat it, overruling the authority of local administrators and voting church members. They want a search warrant to look into any employee or institution of the church. They want to turn the ambulances into the police.

But there are problems with the squad-car model, and we know them from our civil government. The act of policing breaks down trust and candor. It changes the atmosphere, whether you are obeying the law or not.* And it's full of potential for abuse. To prevent this, the government has a system of checks and balances. Things like a separation of powers, a meaningful appeals process, and equal accountability—for the government as well as the citizens—keep such policing ethical. The church has no such protections. If we want a squad car model, we have to create them. The cost of this system is more than the loss of trust and collegiality in the church. It's also bureaucracy, work, and money.

And what will we get for our investment? Only compliance. The ambulances will become police. The policies which were meant to serve mission will become the masters, unable to change once we have so elevated them. 

In my sci-fi story, no one was allowed to die--life support kept them technically alive forever. In the same way, the Adventist church will live on, but not as the same creature. The spark of honest discovery, the spirit of eagerness and innovation, the living faith of our very anti-kingship pioneers, will be gone.

Or we can take the other road. We can keep the ambulance model, and the spirit of trust and respect for one another. We can use the system that's already in place. 

I know it might not get the results some administrators want on issues that are currently out of their hands. But it does have one priceless intangible benefit.

It allows us to remain Seventh-day Adventists.

It lets us remain people of the Book, who believe in conscience over conformity. People who believed no king was needed in the church, when they founded it, and so didn't make one. People who want to fulfill the words of Jesus about his church, that:

"By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."**

*as anyone knows who has ever had a police car driving directly behind them

**John 13:35