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.

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Elves, the Orcs, and the Church

Today is my last History of Adventism in California class. We're reviewing for the exam, but of course I'm going to make a speech. My students are used to my speeches, so they'll probably shake it off, but it's a speech that's been growing in me all quarter.

The class is a new one, and my only textbook was written in the 1940s. That meant I got to decide, among the vast number of events in the last 80 years, what is important. What is California's contribution to this church's story? What, of all the things we've done, matters most?

I picked the scandals. From Loughborough's use of organ music, to 1888, to Silver vs Pacific Press, California is famous for pushing the edges. Time after time, believers on the West coast have tried new things and challenged both the theology and practices of our church. And that was good, or so I told my students. We're at our best when we're forced out of complacency. The only time we really know what we believe is when we have to examine it anew. So California's controversies have pushed Adventism to think again, to question, and--at our best moments--to grow.

But there's a cost, too. One only has to dip a toe into the past to find the sharks circling. If we're at our best when we're challenged, we're also at our worst. Over the last few weeks I've sweated through the stories of the church's bad behavior under pressure. A.T. Jones sneering at Uriah Smith, M. L. Andreason retired without his consent when leaders were ready to move past him, Merikay Silver denied the wage scale policy allowed, for fear the Press would have to pay other household-supporting women fairly. It's not all easy to confess.

To throw another log on the fire, I am not speaking to a strictly Adventist audience. Some of the class belong to other faith groups, or none. Some have Adventist backgrounds, but no very strong interest in the church. I have some real anxiety about showing them our bad side. *

Hence the speech. And it's going to go a little like this:

Now you know a lot more than the average person about our story. You know the good and the bad. You got to see people make bad choices, be slow to learn new ideas, protect their own authority or the church's reputation rather than taking care of the people in it.

It's a little like reading the facts sheet on a new prescription medication. If the side effects sound scary enough, you might decide it's no good. But it just means you're informed. You know what's in it now.

Well, this is what's in the Adventist church--people. Human beings are the dangerous ingredient in the church. We can be nasty and selfish and opportunistic--even when we think we're converted. We can totally forget our ethics when we think we're protecting our faith. And I want you to know that the same ingredient is in every Christian church. I teach general Christian History some times, and I can promise this sort of stuff has been going on since the beginning. (And, if we want to go there, Christianity isn't the only religion with this problem.)

So the real question is not "What should we do with Adventism?" It's "What should be do with the church?" I don't know what your answer is going to be, but I'm going to stick with mine. Human nature is the dangerous ingredient in the church. But, just like the medicine, it's still vital.

I like to think of us in Tolkien's terms. You all know about the orcs in Lord of the Rings, right? Tolkien made the cruelest, most repulsive creatures he could think of, and set them against the heroes in his story. But he said they weren't a real species. They were made out of tortured elves. And the elves are the best creatures in his story--they're beautiful, and wise, and magical. They're so good and pure that when the world is changing, they're too good for it, so they have to leave. The only reason orcs are so nasty is that they're made out of something so good.

The Bible says that we're made in the image of God. I can't even begin to understand what that means.That's why, when you twist us, we get so ugly. We have so much power for good, and that's why we can do so much evil.

When Jesus left the earth, he pulled together a bunch of people and he told them to keep doing his work in the world. That's where the church comes from. The New Testament says this is the body of Christ--Jesus took on human flesh to live here on earth, and now that he's gone he made us his new incarnation. The image of God. We're fallen, but we still carry his image. And that's why the church is so amazing, and so awful, both at the same time.

We are the elves and the orcs, both. All the darkest chapters of our history--the Inquisition, the Crusades, colonialism and abuse--they're a product of our potential. It's an inverted image, as in a mirror, of the power and compassion God meant us to wield. The church was designed as the peak of creation. That's why we've also been the worst.

God knew what he was doing. He knew what human beings were--we were already fallen when he forged his church. He knew what we would become, the good and evil both. And he decided the gain was worth the cost.

So I've chosen to agree with him. That's why I'm here.

You'll make your own choice, of course.

But I have to add one more thing. This class is about history. This was only the past, and the past is gone, and we can't change it. But we do have a say in the future. We can choose where to go from here. That's what I'm going to do. I hope you will, too.

Gargoyle, Cathedral, Manchester, Gothic, Statue, Demon

*I do so anyway for two reasons. 1. The class is about Adventist history--if I'm going to be honest, I have to say what actually happened, not what I wish had happened. And 2. When the church tries to gloss over its past, the backlash usually has a higher cost than the truth would have (see the 1888 revival and the Questions on Doctrine controversy).

Sunday, May 26, 2019

An Adventist Memorial Day

It's Memorial Day in the US, and Boy Twin is asking for war stories. Jim has a handful of those he likes to tell. Of course, Desmond Doss tops the list, along with the Christmas truce on the German front in WWI. It's nice to have a few stories of making peace or saving lives in the middle of the carnage. But those run out pretty quickly, and we're on to Big Moments--D-day, the Doolittle raid. He tells them carefully. There are so many ways to tell war stories, and as parents, we walk the line between glorifying human courage, and highlighting our ability to hurt each other.

Memorial day is complicated, for everyone, not just Christians. We want to honor people who died doing what they believed was right. But we also want to admit we'd rather still have them with us. Why can't we have both?

Of course there is a reason why. Because human beings are evil. Because we are constantly disagreeing on whose evil is greater. Because, try as we might, we can't find a perfect way to stop evil deeds without committing more in the process. Slavery, abuse, and tyranny have to be stopped, and few tools are effective but force. But force always comes with a price.

And that doesn't work well for us. We want simple choices, a clear right to pursue. So for the sake of the children, we invent the convenient fiction of "bad guys"--the enemy one can kill with impunity. But we are not fooled. At any moment, we know, those demons on the other side might come out of their trenches and share their cigars and whisky on a Christmas Eve. War never comes without monsters. We must either make others into monsters, or become them ourselves.

Christians have the extra burden of knowing that both are true--that we are all bad guys. We are all the same image of God corrupted by a brutal world, capable of our own brutality. And when you let human beings loose to commit violence, we have a hard time stopping, and a hard time living with ourselves after the fact.

Over the centuries since the church began, it has struggled over how to relate to violence. For every believer that goes to war for their faith, there's another that refuses for the same reason.  For every Crusader, battling his way to Jerusalem, there is an Anabaptist, refusing to take up arms against the invading Turks.

War is a moral wilderness. In our day, the modern version of the Crusader risks turning patriotism into a tenant of Christianity. The modern Anabaptist has to rely on an unconverted government to deal with violence and keep the peace.

This is the sad reality--heroism is beautiful, war is hell, and we have to live somewhere between these two truths. There is no perfect answer except the Second Coming.

So for this holiday weekend, I wish you peace. Celebrate the heroes, dead on beaches. Or mourn them, and the evil that took them away from us. Celebrate the day off, and the camping or shopping or outdoor grilling. It's not wrong. But above all remember this--that Jesus made the only sacrifice that can give us freedom and safety. Remember the Great Controversy is the only war that can "end all wars."

Love one another, and hold on to the hope of real peace.

Girl Surrounded by Gravestones