The editor of this magazine sets the bar high for his writers. Every quarter, the dance he’s arranged comes dressed in its most beguiling colors. We writers have only to step onto the floor and take the hand of the lovely dance partner. The invitation is (almost) irresistible, but for me, to whom “graceful” is a distant adjective, this is a real challenge.

The topic, as I understood it, was how the Adventist church might engage the society and culture around it. And, thus, I tripped before even stepping foot on the dance floor.

It’s the “church” bit that throws me. A friend of mine, a former Union president and a keen analyst of the church’s political moves, has convinced me that the greatest contribution the Seventh-day Adventist Church has made to the world is its global network of hospitals. It is there, where people are the most vulnerable, that the institutional message of caring service shines the brightest.

No dispute there. I thought to add the educational system from kindergarten to advanced degrees, but that has an indirect effect on the world because it is, for the most part, a closed system built primarily for members. That’s not to say that Adventists don’t value education. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that Adventists have the highest proportion of college-educated members of any Christian denomination. We have “studied to show ourselves approved” by God and humans.

No, what doesn’t work is the notion that the official church body, the public-facing institution of Adventism, has a relative influence on the billions of people in the world. When the pope issues an encyclical or makes a comment about some current issue, it’s newsworthy. When the president of the Southern Baptist Convention speaks out against the ordination of women or the president of Liberty University hosts Donald Trump, it’s newsworthy.

When Adventists make the news it’s often for the wrong reasons: our links to the tragic debacle at Waco, Texas, or a local minister embezzling funds, or a teacher at an Adventist boarding school brought up on sexual assault charges. Granted, the “news” is often bent toward the salacious and the gratuitous, rather than the uplifting or even the commonplace, but my point is that pronouncements from official Adventism have little effect on the world.

I have noticed, over the years, that we Adventists seem to suffer from an inferiority complex. We admire celebrities, especially those who might have some link to Adventism. When I was in college at an agape feast or an informal Bible study, someone would comment that Billy Graham had read all of Ellen G. White’s books. “He’s just waiting for the right moment to come out,” they would assert confidently. The implication was that Graham’s public recognition of the Spirit of Prophecy and his subsequent joining the church would elevate Adventism and bring it into the mainstream of American religious life.

I had known that Little Richard attended Oakwood College during a period of his life when he had withdrawn from rock ‘n roll. Until his death in 2016, I did not know that Prince had been raised with Seventh-day Adventist roots. Adventist Today reported the connection in April 2016, and noted Prince was the kind of person who might embarrass the denomination but conjectured that his creative genius may have sprung in part from his Adventist faith and could have positively affected millions of young fans.

My reaction on reading this was probably typical. I was first surprised, then gratified (he was one of ours!), followed by relief that an Adventist publication thought it possible God could be at work in the life of a superstar rock musician. Then I was amused about my own reaction, sensing an electric thrill that someone famous was part of my religious tribe.

Where did that come from, I wondered. Did I really need that validation, such as it was, to be comfortable in my Adventist skin? Did it mean we Adventists weren’t as weird as we are sometimes portrayed? Or did the association, however tenuous, somehow make me cool?

It occurred to me that in living a life of meaning, subject to both reason and imagination, no question about our relation to others and to God is trivial. If I count myself as part of the Adventist Church, do I have an obligation to answer for how the official church body faces the world? Just as I, as a member of a society, cannot avoid my role in the polis and thus my attitude toward politics, do I have a responsibility toward my denomination to support its stance on public issues or to defend its avoidance of them?

The way in which I thought of these questions as a teenager in my newly awakened faith in Christ was different than how I think about them now, over fifty years later. In that first flush of excitement about my faith in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I saw the church as a slow beast which could be prodded into action, a stubborn donkey which might respond to either a carrot or a stick. I thought of myself as both: generally, a persuader holding a carrot, now and then a youthful agitator wielding the stick of righteous action. A favorite text in those days was from 2nd Timothy where the Living New Testament says, “Do not let anyone look down upon you because of your youth.”

What I could not admit in those days (and did not want to believe) was that the Church, like most institutions, was as much about self-preservation as it was about mission. Change would threaten both, but only the threat to mission would be acknowledged. Self-preservation was embedded so deeply in the structure of the church that it was part of the “peace that passeth understanding.”

Now I see those individuals in church administration, whom I regarded as obstinate donkeys as men (occasionally women) who had played the game long enough to become highly skilled at keeping their positions while in service to the ongoing mission of the church, which was to survive to the end.

I cannot unfairly judge them because, like them, I cannot see the big picture. More to the point, my voluntary association with the church calls me to be on the boundary between “the church and the world.” As an individual, I can engage with the world in ways that an institution cannot. And I would argue that the institution needs individuals who can give a reason for the hope that is within them.

In college, I held the view that the Adventist Church would play a critical role in last-day events, perhaps as the hinge of history, but surely as a doorway to salvation. I still believe in the doorway, but not the hinge of history. There are many ways Christ draws people to himself; the Church, no doubt, is one of them. But it is not the first way, nor will it be the last.

I no longer have an expectation that the Adventist Church will be publicly forthright on pressing political and social issues. It simply doesn’t have the moral authority or the deftness to navigate those troubled waters. But the many individuals guided by the Spirit within the church—that’s where spiritual life can be awakened in the lives of others. I find Jesus’s warning against an ostentatious witness to be compelling.

I was a teacher for many years, both within the church and in secular universities. It was a rewarding vocation, a privileged calling, in which I did what I loved every day and got paid for it.

Now I am retired and have returned to my first love—the arts, specifically, poetry. Now I have time to study it and the pleasure of reading and writing it. I am finding my voice, haltingly, as someone immersed in humanity made in the image of God, with all its blemishes and glories. The challenge of touching others through the poetry of faith is exhilarating.

Everyone reading this has something they do which they love. Anything that is good and true and beautiful can permeate one’s life in such a way as to create openings for the Spirit to live and move and have its being in us.

The metaphors of discipleship which Jesus gave us are many and varied. The ones most moving to me are salt, light, and a little yeast. They create an image of the fellowship of Jesus affecting the world quietly, pervasively, without fanfare, until the day that Christ becomes all in all.

Barry Casey has published in Adventist Society for the Arts, Brevity, Faculty Focus, Lighthouse Weekly, Mountain Views, Patheos, Spectrum Magazine, The Dewdrop, and The Purpled Nail. His collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, was published by Wipf and Stock in November 2019. He writes from Burtonsville, Maryland. Email him at: [email protected]