With 1,000 faces turned toward the ballroom screen, the video narrator said her last words: “He died…he rose…let that unite us.”
On Sunday in Seattle, the One Project’s twenty-third gathering (worldwide) had begun. The theme was “The Final Week,” the last days of Jesus’ troubling and irresistible life on earth. Singing followed, and for next first few minutes in the Westin Hotel, “Hosannas” were sounding forth like bells and vows to “follow Jesus” rising up like prayers.
Then Paul Dybdahl, from the faculty of Walla Walla University, strode to the podium to consider “Why It Matters,” why this man’s life, thinly documented (but for that final week) even in the Gospels, should deserve attention. The answer was the resurrection. If we don’t know everything about Jesus, said Dybdahl, “we know enough.”
These pastor-led “gatherings”—by now, for regular attendees, a kind of “campmeeting”—involve worship music, short talks and opportunities for table-seated participants to discuss what they have heard. Over day one this year, speakers read the Gospel stories as expressions of hope for the suffering, especially for those who suffer from exclusion and from misuse of power.
Raewyn Hankins, pastor of the Victorville Church in southern California, addressed Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. Inspired by the prophet Zechariah, Jesus rode on a colt, and a crowd alongside began calling him King. Nervous Pharisees, worried about how Roman authorities would respond, told Jesus to “rebuke” his followers, but he replied that “stones would cry out” if they remained silent. Then, moments later, he was weeping over Jerusalem, and at this Hankins recalled her own weeping on July 8, 2015, when at the General Conference session Adventism’s powerful repudiated the calling of women to ordained ministry. But in the story Jesus would not stop the celebration, and Hankins took this to mean that you “can’t stop the dawn.” But neither would Jesus look past the pain that others suffer. There is a time to celebrate, said Hankins, and there is a time to sob.
Iki Taimi, a pastor in Gardena, California, turned attention to Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, and his provocative quotations from Isaiah and Jeremiah: The temple was meant to be a “house of prayer for all the nations,” not a “den of thieves.” It was to be, as one scholar declares, “especially accessible” to outsiders. Jesus saw the incompatibility between temple reality and the “divine will.” That perspective remains pertinent today, and challenges our own community to change and grow. Taimi said we are meant, after all, to embody God’s will in the world.
Brandy Kirstein, a nurse from Tennessee, interpreted Jesus’ woes against the scribes and Pharisees as a matter of “spiritual inattentional blindness.” Psychological research demonstrates that the human mind misses much of what lies within its field of vision. It is especially given to overlooking its own spiritual inconsistencies, as religious leaders of that time regularly did, according to Jesus. But their problem, Kirstein suggested, is our problem: we, too, miss the truth about ourselves. And only Jesus can “clarify what we’re missing.” She closed by inviting participants to join her in singing “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.”
Emily Poole, a fundraising officer at Walla Walla University, took up the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. From God’s point of view, she suggested, the key thing is whether we embrace “Christ-like love as a way of life.” Is faith most important, or is works? That, she said invoking C. S. Lewis, is like asking which scissors blade matters most.
Karl Haffner, a pastor in Kettering, OH, reflected on the one day of the Final Week of which the Gospels appear to say nothing. Reaching for a theme, he made this a metaphor for the silence of God, and for the pain we suffer when our prayers go unanswered. What to remember, he said, is that Jesus himself underwent similar pain. His Gethsemane request that God take away his cup of suffering went unanswered. Still, from “that awful cauldron of silence,” Haffner said, was born the hope of the world. The silence is not permanent; the pain does not last forever.
With time out for two brief table discussions and a walking-around break, the morning had been busy, or perhaps over-busy. But now a lunch time of nearly two hours ensued, providing time to talk as well as eat.
After 2:30 in the afternoon, Ofa Langi, a pastor from Burlington, Washington, looked at the footwashing story. While the disciples quarreled over who would be greatest in the Kingdom, Jesus took a role reserved for slaves, and washed the disciple’s feet. The opportunity they missed we miss too when pride stops us from serving “the Jesus in our midst.”
Matthew Gamble, from the church near St. Helena Hospital in northern California, suggested that Judas the betrayer of Jesus failed for lapsing into avarice and for “putting God in a box.” By this latter he meant Judas thought too well of his concept of God, and didn’t allow revelation to be “progressive” in his own life. You have to let God “blow the lid off the box,” he said.
Following table talk, Tara VinCross, a pastor from Philadelphia, explored Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane. He wanted escape from darkness and pain, but it was not to be. So he held on to his trust and “leaned into” his pain. In such circumstances the “only way,” VinCross remarked several times,” is through.” And like Raewyn Hankins earlier, she mentioned July 8, 2015, as a day of disappointment. For the church powerful that day became, she said, a time of “drawing lines, building walls, waging war on the other.” But we who suffer as a result must “drink the cup,” she went on. We must not “run,” must not “abandon” what we hope for, any more than Jesus did.
Alex Bryan, a One Project co-chair and the pastor of the Walla Walla University Church, made explicit what seemed to have been implicit through much of day one. “Don’t give up,” he said, alluding to the perplexity many Adventists are feeling with respect to the powerful in their ommunity. “As we follow Jesus, he will lead the church into a glorious future.” Then he offered reflections on the meaning on the Last Supper. It is meant to subvert abuses and create inclusive common life. To eat and drink with Jesus is to take a stand against “generational brokenness,” and “polarizing power”; against “arrogant self-righteousness” and “endangered conversation.” “Self-worship” and “other suspicion” can no longer fit. To Jesus it is important, Bryan declared, “to invite to the banquet anyone you find.” He had learned this not only from reflection on the Final Week, but also from a childhood in which he had heard, again and again, that Adventists practice “open” communion.
The afternoon closed with the sharing of communion wine and bread. Later at a nearby, acoustically remarkable church, Walla Walla University’s select choir, I Cantori, sang the story of the Final Week. The performance, with Kraig Scott conducting, was at once elegant and inspiring.
Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.
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