The events in June engraved in my memory a lasting and thought-provoking question of what matters most in life when I visited my now-retired administrative assistant at Sydney Adventist Hospital. During our 12-year work-related association in the Ellen G. White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre at Avondale University, I watched Marian’s unreserved commitment to mundane office tasks, commendable support of students, and creative engagement in research projects. She was a joy to work with, a fun-loving person, and a committed Christian.
Soon after her retirement in 2017—amid a later life worthy of peaceful, restful, and enjoyable years of well-deserved rest—she was diagnosed with cancer. I recalled when Marian asked me to anoint her, seeking God’s intervention and healing. For the next five years, I watched her struggle with the wretched disease, praying and hoping for a miracle. Then one day, I was standing in front of her hospital room, trembling with anticipation, not knowing what to expect.
After moments of waiting, a nurse asked me to enter the room. Marian greeted me with her usual gentle, yet mischievous smile; the same smile routinely welcomed my arrival in the office. But now, there was something different about her demeanor, perhaps stemming from pain, frustration, fear—and hope to hang on a little longer to the breath of life. After a few moments of silence, I said, “Marian, how lovely to see you.” In return, she looked at me and said, “John, I am here to die. Would you conduct my burial service?” The unexpected and upfront request stopped the flow of my thoughts. Spontaneously, I replied, “Of course, Marian, it will be my honor.” However, the momentary silence that followed our cordial, but emotionally loaded, greeting raised a question in my mind. After all is said and done, what truly matters in life when the music stops playing?
This sad encounter challenged the entire construct of my theological worldview. Momentarily, my thoughts drifted to the most essential elements of my faith expressed in the language that explains the mystery of God, defines the purpose and meaning of life, and articulates convictions about the future. No doubt, a clear understanding of set beliefs is indispensable. Erikson argues that it is “needful because of the large number of alternatives and challengers abroad at the present time.” 1
Immediately, our conversation shifted to the hope of the resurrection at Christ’s Second Coming (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Marian believed in the event, as did Martha during her dialogue with Jesus (John 11: 17-27). In response to His reassuring promise, Your brother will rise again, referring to Lazarus, Martha replied, I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day (John 11:23-24). But faith as a conviction immersed in definable expressions of hope may be very distant from the unexpected reality that interrupts the joy of life. However, it is essential, for like a bridge, it spans the abyss of the unknown, unforeseen, unhoped-for, and unwelcomed circumstances—the world of doubts, fear, and emotional turmoil amid the ongoing pace of life. The tension is fittingly wrapped in Martha and Mary’s experience during the death of their brother.
The sisters yearned for more than a definable construct of a logically outlined hope concerning a distant future event. The pain of loss invoked an urge for a different quality of faith embedded securely in relational trust, evidenced in the presence of a trustworthy friend, one who cared and was capable of healing. Thus, they both cried, If you had been here, my brother would not have died (John 11:21, 32).
I sensed the same pain in Marian’s voice. Her faith in Jesus resting on the foundation of His promised return, but her trembling voice seeming to say, “Jesus, why was I not healed? Where were you when I needed you most? Why do I have to depart from my husband, children, and grandchildren?” In this experience, Marian stood on the edge of the precipice, moments of perplexing tensions in life’s journey between faith so often conceptualized in logically defined doctrines and simultaneously experiencing the assumed silence of God’s abandonment. Luxton refers to such moments as “Living with Silence,” a space in which one longs for the comfort of God’s presence.2 The described tension in Marian’s crucial moments prompted me to examine the anchor of my faith and what truly matters in life.
So, What Truly Matters?
The Seventh-day Adventist Church meanders between varied perspectives on what constitutes the essential anchor of one’s faith in God. William Johnsson describes it as the fragmenting of Adventism. He reasoned, “We face pressures and factors today that would rip us apart as never before in our history. We face the possibility of schism more than any time since the Kellogg crisis ninety years ago. And these pressures of fragmentation will continue to increase.” 3
It seems that the complexity of life, embraced by existing fear and uncertainty, positions the church on the edge of the spiritual precipice. On one hand, the ambiance of the unknown and the need to adjust to the conditions caused by the rapidly changing world generate a reversed reaction, a need to express beliefs in clear doctrinal statements as a set of protective boundaries of security. On the other hand, the described milieu encourages a search for a meaningful adjustment to life and an understanding of faith as an implicit trust and confidence in God’s presence.
Discussions with my colleagues highlight the existing polarized tensions’ veracity. One responded, “What truly matters is that while I feel my life experience within Adventism has been toxic, and in many ways, destructive, there have been positives.” He connects the positiveness primarily with the essence of the Gospel, but “feels deeply distressed about how my lifelong faith community approaches that reality.”
Furthermore, what truly matters is “how to maintain a vital conscious connection with God and what I believe He is trying to say to me through a fog of my own making. What truly matters to me is the assurance that He doesn’t give up on me … . He is unmovable and persistent.” 4 A response from another colleague fascinated me: “My connection to God is independent of religion, doctrine, and theology.” He continues. “In the end, God is in control, and I trust the outcome. I don’t know how this will hold up under tragedy or trial, where my trust has not been tested, but I want to be faithful.” 5
Both examples demonstrate the existing tension between faith grounded in the purity of defined beliefs and the need for intimate relational connectivity with God, a relationship that generates a bridge of implicit trust in His presence. Erickson defines it as theology in which “truth and experience are related.” 6
The Anchor of My Faith
The story of Martha and Mary’s experience speaks to my heart as to what, in the context of my faith tradition, matters most in life. Both sisters stood on the edge of a confronting precipice, the struggle of faith in a time of need––the loss of a loved brother and the longing for the presence of a trustworthy friend. In such circumstances, movement toward the future is slow, painful, and emotionally draining. During that climb, one needs much more than a linguistically defined expression of hope; one needs an anchor that helps sustain the climb through the moments of living with silence.
So, how does Martha and Mary’s narrative impact my view of what matters most in my life of faith? First, Martha’s experience reminds me that my faith in Jesus must be anchored in a person, not just a descriptive event. I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies. And whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:25-26). In this context, my faith requires ongoing interactive relational implicit trust in Jesus. He is the bridge that carries my life over the troubled waters of life.
Second, Jesus knows when my faith undergoes moments of doubt, discouragement, and a seeming loss of His presence. Through Martha, Jesus sent a message to Mary:
Martha went back to her sister and said, “The Teacher is here and is asking for you” (John 11:28).
Third, Jesus empathized with the pain of human life and wept with the weeping (John 11: 33-37). He then demonstrated that our hope lies not in the descriptive details of the resurrection but in Him, the one who is the Creator of Life, the Conqueror over death, the Bridge of Hope and Restoration. He needs to be the center of all the doctrines. So, what matters most in my life of faith is my implicit trust in JESUS.
Soon afterward, I conducted Marian’s funeral. She loved Jesus. During our conversations, we focused on our hope in Jesus. In the last difficult moments of her journey, Marian anchored her faith in Jesus to hope for the resurrection.
John Skrzypaszek, DMin, a retired director of the Ellen White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre, is an adjunct senior lecturer at Avondale University College, Coranboong, NSW, Australia. Polish by birth, John takes a keen interest in heritage, spirituality, and identity studies. He is married to Brenda and has two sons Raphael and Luke. Email him at: [email protected]
1 Erickson, Millard J. (1985). Christian Theology. Baker Book House. p. 29.
2 Luxton, Andrea (2002). “Jesus and Ourselves.” The Essential Jesus, Eds. Bryan W. Ball and William G Johnsson. Pacific Press. p. 226.
3 Johnson, William G. (1995). The Fragmenting of Adventism. Pacific Press. p. 17.
4 Email Correspondence, 9/27/2023.
5 Email Correspondence, 9/28/2023.
6 Erickson, Millard J. (2013). Christian Theology, Baker Academic. p. 29.