Turn to metaphor and ambiguity.
Address the disappointments of others.
Don’t think we determine the time of Christ’s return.
Left out won’t do; never give up.
Late Sabbath afternoon at the Adventist Forum’s conference on “The Great Adventist Stories,” four speakers addressed the ongoing experience of a community familiar, from the very beginning, with disappointment.
Gil Valentine led off. A La Sierra University professor and historian of Adventist history whose most recent book is The Prophet and the Presidents, Valentine said we all Adventists are “the children of the disappointed.” Although William Miller, early in his study, remained a bit vague about just when Christ’s coming would occur, he moved toward great “specificity” of prediction. Followers were pressuring him into greater precision, and he came at last to naming October 22, 1844, as the exact day of Christ’s return. The Great Disappointment followed, and ten years later the Advent Movement that was left had splintered into some 25 groups.
Precise prediction sets us up for disappointment and disagreement. A certain “ambiguity” and “vagueness,” he said, would be good. The Bible used metaphor, symbol and story, and it is time for Adventists to do the same. With respect to our hopes, a “strategic” use of humbler forms of language would assist the church toward great unity and, at the same time, preserve “the essence of our conviction” about the providence of God and ultimate return of Christ.
Next Geoffrey Nelson-Blake, a young man seminary trained, experienced in the Adventist pastorate and now a “community organizer” in San Francisco, told the story of his “disappointment” over how our church relates to the wider society. In San Diego, where he began as a pastor, he noticed that conversation among Adventist ministers focused on challenges Adventists were facing, and on efforts we make to win new members to our own congregations. But when he met with pastors of others faiths, the conversation turned to problems in the wider community, and to strategies for influencing the world toward fixing of those problems.
Invoking Micah 6:8, he said that when others face disappointments—suffer violence, for example—it is our job to show mercy and to work for justice. He went on to say that if power is about money, it is also about people, about the influence they can have. When three Adventists set up a memorial service for the victim of shooting in Ferguson, MO, they scheduled it for the place where it happened exactly two weeks after the event, on Sabbath at about noon. A large, nearby Adventist congregation could have shifted the climax of its worship service toward participation in what these three other Adventists had put together, but it didn’t. Nor did Adventists in Murrieta, CA, join other Christians in speaking out against the hostility to child immigrants that boiled up in that community. Why not? Nelson-Blake wondered. Shouldn’t we be spending more of our energy on how to use the power that we have for the betterment of others?
James Londis, a former pastor of the Sligo Adventist Church in Takoma Park and recent chair of the Humanities and Social Sciences department at Kettering College, told the story of his teenage conversion under the influence of fiery apocalyptic preaching by an Adventist evangelist in New York City. Soon afterwards, he was summing up his personal religious conviction in two sentences: “Jesus is coming soon” and “You must be ready.” The experience changed his life for the better.
But as he matured in his faith, he better understood a problem that troubled even the New Testament church: the delay of Christ’s return. The New Testament reports words from both Jesus and Paul that early believers took for assurance that the Second Coming would return within their own lifetimes. As time wore on and peopled aged, anxiety about this matter arose. But the same New Testament that suggested Christ’s imminent return addressed the resulting anxiety by denying that humans can know its time. Not even the “signs” can undo the fact that the Second Coming will be as surprising as the coming of a thief in the night.
Many Adventist ministers and theologians argue for something close to biblical infallibility; they deny that prophecies about events leading up to the Second Coming are in any sense conditional. But these points, Londis argued, are dubious. If God is sovereign, Christ can return can occur at any moment, can “respond,” in other words, “to human history as it unfolds.” And as for us, we can neither predict nor control when God’s final victory will take place. The better focus, as Matthew 24’s parable of the last judgment suggests, is to dwell, through service, in the presence of Christ today. We should say, “Jesus is coming,” without adding the word “soon,” Londis said. And then pray, “Even so, Come, Lord Jesus.”
The last speaker was Rebekah Wang, an internist at Kettering Adventist Hospital who has reported on women in pastoral ministry in China. She began with stories from her own family that illustrate the experience of being “left out” or “left behind.” When, for example, her father left China to advance his education in the United States, her mother remained, running from wartime bombs, tied to demanding in-laws, rearing her children without her husband’s help.
Today women and people of color experience feelings that may be similar to her mother’s when they are left out or left behind. Whether in the U. S. Congress, or in leadership of colleges and of medical and law schools, or in the ordained ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, they are underrepresented or, as in the latter case, actually excluded. Wang did tell the story of Adventist women pastors in China who have been ordained despite church policy. That, she said, is a bright spot. But it is still an exception.
E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, remarked that upon arising in the morning he is “torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. "This," he said further, "makes it hard to plan the day." After quoting White, Wang said that it doesn’t have to be an either-or. "We can and should and must" improve people’s well-being. Then she added that her mother, who is about to turn 103, "never gave up, during the dark days of the war in China, on her own dreams of a better life.” And neither, she said, should those today who today feel left out or left behind.
Photos courtesy Rajmund Dabrowski
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6302