I grew up in fully saturated Adventist environments, with parents working within Adventist healthcare, first in Skodsborg, Denmark, later in Battle Creek, Michigan. I stayed to a 100% true course of Adventist schooling through Andrews University, which in the late sixties we affectionately called “Anxious University”.
Being young, curious, and infected by just a bit of 60’s rebellion, I was always attracted by the excitement of being where the action was, where there was a bit of controversy, and sometimes contributing to it. Rich Hannon and I edited an illegal underground student newspaper, “The Silent Majority” while at Andrews, typing the new editions while (appropriately paranoid) hiding out in the campus steam tunnels, until one day school security caught us.
The Dean of Students invited us in for a heart-to-heart talk. But when he saw the moderate tone of our latest edition, which never hit the streets, he just remarked that it was too bad that it didn’t get published. He also regretted that they hadn’t caught the publishers of the more brash “The Underdog’s Fire Hydrant” (I won’t reveal the editor). Nevertheless, President Richard Hammill decided to suspend both of us from the student senate.
Several teachers at Andrews were also then part of the “edge” of Adventism. Roy Branson, Don McAdams and Ron Numbers were perceived, in my naive and conservative Adventist eyes, to be part of the marginal “Adventist fringe”, which I to some extent was fascinated by, while remaining remarkably conservative.
Fast forwarding to 2015 and looking in my rear view mirror, I see a young kid who was looking for excitement. I see myself following the smoke to see if there was fire. I was an ambulance chaser. At the 1970 General Conference in Atlantic City, I found myself with a group of college kids in a hotel room being interviewed by Richard Ostling, Religion Editor of Time magazine. This was big time, this was exciting. I don’t remember what specifically we talked about except some controversy in the church.
Having more or less faithfully read Spectrum through the years, I decided to look at why I read it. I also looked at what subjects generated a lot of feedback and who regularly commented. Not surprisingly the articles that elicited the most comments were the controversial ones. Both from the right and the left. Both sides loved the controversy, both sides – dare I conjecture – were ambulance chasers. Sermons and Sabbath school lesson guides posted weekly drew little attention. Apparently I had plenty of company.
Now lest I offend the editors and writers of spectrum who always try to take the intellectual high ground, I nevertheless will walk straight into a minefield by offering the following conjecture: Spectrum for me was a place where I could vent my dissatisfaction with the frailties of the church and hide behind the wise writings of learned men. I could intellectualize being part of a church, which as the years went on seemed more and more out of touch with a faithful, honest reading of the Bible. As the process of “liberalization” of my own viewpoints progressed, the dissonance with church doctrines, its viewpoints on “sinful” society and, worst of all, its elevated, arrogant view of itself, became harder to swallow. But misery loves company and I could vicariously participate in the on-line debate and empathize with this or that viewpoint, while at the same time enjoy the ambulance chasing and the occasional censorship of the Spectrum moderators.
Along the way a long process proceeded in parallel. My wife got me (partially) straightened out. She saw my obsession with the controversy, the excitement of breaking news. But she lived a Christian life that instead was focused on family, friends, and helping. Taking care of each other, “feeding my sheep”. She knew the church was dysfunctional in many respects but didn’t let that get in the way of her fellowship and caring involvement. She also knew that I was dysfunctional in some respects, but didn’t let that get in the way (too much J) of our relationship. She knew that the church’s stance on women’s ordination was crazy but she didn’t let that block her relationships with fellow church members. She focused on that which was really important but generates little controversy and very few blog comments. She lived for others and helped others.
I lived more for myself, and for ambulance chasing until a little over a year ago. Then our lives were changed forever as she was diagnosed with a very aggressive triple-negative breast cancer. Suddenly things got a different perspective. This was a battle of life and death. This was a battle to maintain dignity, courage and faith against terrible odds. This was a battle for me to learn to focus my time on her needs and her endless, useless treatments that ended on Christmas day last year.
To the end her first thoughts were for others: for family and friends, our children and grandchildren, and taking care of each other. Then I saw more than ever before the observation of Christ in the gospels “by their fruit shall ye know them”. Doctrine and associated controversy was for the Pharisees.
Through that last difficult year we were held up by angels, who came just at the time we needed them. And they weren’t the angels of a Harry Anderson caricature. They were the people we met from all walks of life, churched or unchurched. People who reached out, showed care and compassion, who held our hands and lifted us up. People whose arms were extensions of God’s.
I saw the utter irrelevance of theology and doctrine. I saw how it separated people instead of bringing them together. At the same time I saw how the pain and fear of cancer brought people together, without prejudice or guilt, reaching across cultural, class, and religious chasms to help and support each other. I saw how we instantly bonded with perfect strangers in the same situation as us. I also saw well-meaning church members hide their emotions and empathy behind classic Adventist jargon, while many non-believers openly, and with deep-felt passion, would share their innermost thoughts and feelings. I saw the hypocrisy of viewing the world as Adventists and non-Adventists, a distinction which pains me to this day. I saw God bring us great blessings through all the people we met on our journey. They were all His angels. The lessons of that sad year were painful, yet incredibly valuable. But what a price.
Some lessons are harder to learn than others. Perhaps that is why Jesus had to repeat himself three times to Peter: “Feed my sheep”. Declaring his love to the Master was not enough, he had to live it out in practice.
Hans Thomsen has worked in the electronics industry all of his life both in the U.S. and Denmark.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6670