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

Friday, April 20, 2018

It Could Lead to Dancing--Adventists and Sex

I know it's an old joke: Why don't Adventists have sex standing up? Because it could lead to dancing. It was the height of humor when I was a preteen. Oh, the uproarious irony--that your church might be more concerned over dancing than sex.

It isn't funny anymore. I'm not a preteen, and the older I get, the more concerned I am that the joke is true. As a church, we might be off-priority when we talk about dancing. But we're much worse about sex. And it's because of what we're not saying, rather than what we are.

The Adventist church knows things about humanity that the rest of Christianity doesn't, which means we know things about sexuality they don't. We could be leading a revolution in thought. Instead, we're following the mainstream, right into philosophical perdition, and lousy sex.

Sex and death

This quarter, I'm teaching a class on Adventist beliefs, and I just taught the one about Wholism. I told my students that human beings are bodies filled with God's breath of life. It takes both to make a living being. That means that the entire package that is us--thoughts, feelings, limbs, senses, and hungers--is God's creation, the one he called "good" in Genesis.

The alternative view, the one that gets top billing in the Christian world, of course comes from the Greek dualism in which Christianity was born. Dualism says that the physical and spiritual realities are opposites, in competition. Human beings are immortal souls (Plato's idea) confined in physical bodies that limit us. It was the Greeks, not the Hebrews, who said you have to suppress the body to give the advantage to the spiritual, or intellectual life. You don't find Jesus or Paul teaching this, but they (especially Paul) did use some of this imagery familiar to the Gentile converts.

Of course, Christianity took after Plato. Struggling to defend the faith to a world that scoffed at the idea that you would want your body back, once free of it, Justin Martyr mixed the immortal soul with Paul's preaching of the resurrection. And most Christians believe a hybrid today.

All but us.

Well, sort of.

In bed with Plato

I'm convinced we only half believe in wholism. We believe in the half that applies to death. In fact, that's what we call it--"the state of the dead."

But it ought to be also the state of the living. This is our failing--we haven't thought through and applied this to how we live. Instead, we adopted what every other, Greek-hybrid Christian said about sensuality, and joy, and purity. We have followed them right into bed with Plato.

We can do better. We know better.

Because, if the body is part of God's good creation, then so is sex. So is everything that gives us joy through our senses. Food, beauty, sensuality--God gives those to us as gifts, not as temptations. And the limits he puts on them are only safeguards, so that we don't harm ourselves or others, and kill the joy. The limits serve the joy, not the other way around.

In fact, a broad reading of the Bible suggests the main concern, with sex and sin, is relationships. Adultery and divorce get the biggest press time, consanguinity and other "defilement"-labelled issues trail far behind.

Christianity, of course, with its vestigial dualism, has this reversed. It glorifies the limits (and tries to invent more of them), rather than the sexuality they protect. It makes the means into the goal. The word "purity" has turned into code, either for a self-centered view of one's sexuality, or worse, as an excuse to control the dress and behavior of others.*

There is a reason the secular world caricatures Christians as priggish and patriarchal. A caricature, by definition, is an exaggeration of what's already there.

My (proposed) Adventist sexual revolution

The punchline, of course, is that we have something so much better to offer. Adventists, specifically, who believe in the state of the dead, could revolutionize this. We can--if we decide we believe, and start to teach, the state of the living.

We don't have to follow either the Platonic (yes, irony) Christian mainstream, or the sex-jaded secular world. Both of them, it turns out, denigrate sex. Because both of them have assigned it only to the body. Both have taken the human soul out of it.

What if, instead, we tell our kids that sex is about the whole person?  It's spiritual, just like every other human joy, the way God intended it to be? What if we admit that sexuality isn't something God gives us as a wedding gift, that it's a part of all of us, and we need honest and healthy ways to relate to it?

What if we started studying Song of Songs the way we do the sanctuary system? If we could embrace the depth, and beauty, and spirituality--the whole-person intimacy of a Christian marriage?

What if we told the world, not that they should have less sex, but that sex should be more?  What if we brought more beauty, more dignity, more love into the conversation?

Well, a lot of things could happen.

For one, we might feel less embarrassed by the biblical imagery that compares God's love for us to a romance. We might inspire our youth to have great, lifelong romance, instead of trying to scare them away from cheap sex. We might have a powerful point of contact with a culture already looking for meaning in their relationships. And we might, finally, find more joy in our own lives.

Maybe, just maybe, Adventists might learn to dance.

*Personally, I think we should never use the word when talking to our teens again.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Adventists, Politics, and Guns

I know I'm late to the conversation. It's been almost a week since the Valentine's day shooting at a school in Florida. But I, like everyone else, need to say something. We need to talk, because the lives of seventeen families were ripped apart, and every student in that school and community has found themselves living in a darker, more terrifying world.

And the question is--the question always is--what can we do? Can we--and should we--control the guns? Can we control the people, and how? Is there a way to cure or prevent whatever turns people into killers? And in a society in which kids can turn into killers, can we even play by the same rules anymore?

And this is where it goes bad. Because at this part of the conversation we stop talking to each other. We even stop talking to the actual problems. Somewhere in here, the train of thought jumps the rails, and the conversation turns into a meme slug-fest, and we all get to accuse one another of "politicizing this tragedy."

My church is particularly handicapped here. For very good reasons, we don't tell our members what to vote, or what party to listen to. I'm glad for that, but it means that our members end up listening to other Christian groups who don't have that scruple. Most often, it's the right wing, sometimes it's the left.

But it's always bad, because politics mistaken for faith is a horror all its own.* When the power-mongering voices whispering in our ear make us believe they have us by the conscience, there is no greater form of slavery.

So what can we do? What can Adventists, specifically, do about tragedies like this? This is what I think:

1. Grieve--There's a lot of emotion in these conversations, for good reason. The feelings are all valid--sorrow, anger, fear, bewilderment. We need a chance to feel them before we use them, or let someone else harness them, for an agenda. Grieve for the lives lost, and the countless other lives changed. Feel anger for the loss of safety and innocence. The victims of this shooting deserve to be mourned as themselves.

2. Pray--Yes, social media is jaded with the sending of "thoughts and prayers" after a tragedy. But prayer is much deeper than our own well of feelings. It is our link to the God who actually has answers. Pray for comfort, and pray for a solution. If we're going to struggle through this web of emotions and politics, and do something productive, we need help.

3. Resist the memes--I know, they work. I've read a hundred snarky memes for every thoughtful article I've click on and read. If what we want is evangelism, or just a way to vent our own feelings, snark is the way to go. But I want something better. These horrors are not partisan. These problems belong to all of us. We cannot change the world with snark. Instead of trading memes, we have to talk to real people. If we owe anything to the innocent children killed in Florida, it's this. We owe them the respect of actually trying.

Resist the political parties and the lobbies whispering in your ear. Resist the urge to share something just because it's clever. Refuse to be someone's enemy just because they're wrong. We need those people, too.

4. Be present where you are.-- I'll never forget the day, in my own teens, when my best friend's mother followed me as I was leaving to say, "I noticed you've been having a hard time lately. I care about you." She gave me a jar of homemade applesauce. It was a small thing, except to me.

Maybe legislation will help us. Maybe it won't, or maybe it won't yet. Work for what you want, but don't forget to be present where you are. Care about the people around you. Take the time to be curious, and to say something.

No, a jar of applesauce won't cure a sociopath. But a community that notices, and cares, can make a difference for most everyone else. I've realized lately that I'm failing here. I'm not curious, because I don't have time. I don't say anything, because I'm self-conscious. I need to do better.

I am an Adventist. I know the only whole solution to violence is the Second Advent, and I pray it happens soon. I also know that "soon" is not defined, and it isn't an excuse to ignore the problems here and now.

So what do I think Adventists should do about politics and guns? Simply, I hope we will live our faith.

Vote, because it's our duty as citizens, but vote your conscience, and not a party line you've been fed, even if it came in Christian language.

I hope that we will think and speak responsibly about guns, violence, and personal freedoms. That we won't be lured in by the conversation-squashing charm of snark. That we will be able to consider the problem for itself, and not because of its political implications.

And I hope we will be a force for good in our own homes and communities. I hope we care, not simply enough to argue with one another, but enough to love others.

*To be convinced of this, I recommend CS Lewis, and his article on a Christian political party in God in the Dock.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Gospel of Broken Hopes

Have you ever read something in your Bible that you knew wasn't true? Yes, I know this is an Adventist home--we're supposed to believe the whole Bible. And I do--except the stuff that's wrong.  Like this:

"And hope does not disappoint us . . ." Romans 5:5

I ran across that once, about ten years ago, when I was struggling with hope. To be exact, I was struggling not to hope. You see, we'd had our medical miracle first child, and since I wasn't getting any younger, I'd gone back to try for a sibling for her. It was supposed to be easy, since now we knew just which fertility treatment we needed. Except that it wasn't. Month after month, cycle after expensive and exhausting cycle, we came up with no viable embryos.

I was in another cycle, driving 45 minutes each morning to have my blood drawn, and it was spring in Pennsylvania. The sun was pouring back into a world of grays and blacks and cold, and the numbers weren't looking too bad, either. I could feel myself hoping, and I was fighting it.

And then I read this verse. It might not have been enough by itself, but then the green things started growing again--vines on the power poles, buds on the trees. And I knew I was lost. I was going to hope in spite of myself, and I held that verse as insurance for the consequences.

My hope disappointed me.

And I'm sure it's done the same to you, too, because it happens to all of us. Hope disappoints. We get sucker-punched. We get lumps of pain tied up in shiny red bows of anticipation. And just because Paul writes those words, "hope does not disappoint us," doesn't change our reality.

Hope is an unreliable friend. Not the kind that forgets your birthday, but the kind that sometimes cuts the ground out from under you. Happy young couples head to the hospital with diapers and baby clothes in their bags, and come back with empty arms. We practice, we audition, interview, try out, and find we didn't make the cut. We love, and we discover we aren't loved in return.

And we need hope. We can't simply write it off as not worth the trouble. It's written into our DNA, it comes as natural as our breath. It gets us out of bed in the morning, and gives meaning to our struggles. We wade through the slog because we're looking forward to something ahead.  We have to hope. And we're often disappointed.

So what do we do?

First, we go back to Paul, and figure out what he really meant.

I knew, when I read the verse that spring, that I was cheating. I'd pulled a single phrase out of a long and tangled line of reason, and hung onto it. I knew he meant a certain hope, probably something spiritual, and completely unrelated to my fertility. Something technically better, but not what I wanted.  Did it have any good news for me?

And since I'm stubborn that way, I beat my head against the verse (often needed with Paul) until I found something.

The hope that Paul means is the hope of salvation. It was pretty clear to see in the context, but it didn't make me any happier. In fact, it felt like biting into a chocolate chip cookie and finding it was carob. Sure, you can say it's better for me. It is, but it isn't what I wanted. The football is a pretty good gift, but not to the kid who wanted a Red Rider BB gun.

It took a little more unpacking to be reconciled. But verse 4 helped:

"Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope." That's what comes just before the "hope doesn't disappoint" bit. It's a strange food chain of virtues, because hope is sitting at the top. Why is hope the goal? Why not character?

I could understand, in fact, if he started with hope. As in "hope disappoints us, which leads to suffering . .. and so on to character." But God doesn't want our character the most. He wants us to hope instead. He intends to fulfill those hopes himself. It's his character, not ours, that saves us.

Christianity isn't Buddhism with a Cross. Paul isn't teaching us to be stoics and stop wanting things. Stop hoping. He's pointing us to the only hope that can make us happy. It's not chocolate, but it isn't carob, either. It's eternity.

Salvation isn't just about saving us from our sins. It's about saving us from the world that hurts us, that crushes our hopes. It's about bringing us to the perfect world we were meant for all along, the one where all the things we really wanted, the stuff we expect those hoped-for things well give us, are there. Family, love, meaning, accomplishment, value, joy. The forms of these things we spend our money and tears working for here on earth are only shadows of what God intends to give us.

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness.

It turn out that all those other hopes really are less than this one. Since the twins I did eventually have are right now wrecking my house for Sabbath, I can testify that our joys here are always mixed with some pain. I love my children. But I'm looking forward sharing eternity with them even more, and seeing what family was meant to be.

So all those broken hopes are not lost, just waiting for the resurrection. And those brightly-wrapped lumps of pain serve a purpose right now. They drive us to the one hope that cannot let us down.

"And hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts..."

Friday, January 19, 2018

What I Learned in College at 41

One year ago, Jim took me out to lunch for my birthday. It was an important lunch, because it was an important birthday. It was my 40th birthday, and I wanted to talk through what I was doing with my life, and what I wanted to do. What I wanted to do was something. That week I started writing The Other Adventist Home.

Lately I've missed a couple of weeks. It's not from lack of caring, it's because of the other something I started last week. I'm getting to contract teach, for the first time, for an Adventist college. I'm swamped with lectures to write and quizzes to grade, and giddy to have a reason to dress up each day. Of course, I'm in awe of the fact that I say things, and not only do young adults listen, they write it down.

I am not an amazing teacher. On the first day of the first class my poor Christian History students had a hard time deciphering how to take notes. I was too excited to tell them the stories, I hadn't given much thought to what might go on the test. And I got so caught up with my material on how to write a speech, I nearly forgot to have the Public Speaking students sign up to give theirs.

I'm figuring it out. Most of what I'm learning is that this is much more about them than me. I was so worried about making a poor showing, and it turns out my performance isn't all that important. I'm supposed to give useful information and clear expectations, and for some reason, looking smart enough to have this job doesn't really factor in. Who knew?

And I should have known that already. I did know that already. But it turns out the most important lessons we learn are the ones we learn over and over again. The biggest ideas take a lifetime to grow deeper and deeper in our hearts.

We perform best when our performance is the least of our concerns. It's the lesson I learned in typing class, back when there was such a thing--watch your screen, not your fingers. Because success isn't about looking like you're succeeding. It's about doing something big enough to forget yourself in.

In fact, I've decided it's another form of the gospel. The Christian life isn't a performance. It's supposed to free us from worry about ourselves, from the need to do enough or be enough. Salvation isn't about me. And it turns out, service isn't, either.

I get to tell my speech students to put their passion into their message, and not worry about looking silly. That goes for me, too. That goes for the church, too. Witnessing is about caring more for someone else's heart more than our own awkwardness* talking about spiritual things. Service is about caring more for their needs than our personal comfort.

The Christian life is about someone else. We don't have to be enough because we have a God who gives us more than enough. Who gives us enough to share.

That's what I've learned in my brief (and dizzying) two weeks. I'm going back again on Monday. Because it turns out, at 41, I still have a lot to learn.

*Not that awkwardness isn't an important social cue--only that my concern has to be if the other person feels awkward, not if I do.