29 Sep

What If?

By Tony Hunter — I want to ask you a bunch of questions. I’m going to just throw them out rapid fire, in whatever order they come. But I want you to do something for me. I want you to not react to them. I want you to observe whatever feelings you get, whatever reactionary thought that pops up, set it aside, and consider that reaction. I want you to honestly, and without falling back on Adventist cliché and someone else’s arguments, consider why you felt the way you did.

Then, having set your reactions aside, I want you to consider these questions again, but as if it were the first time you’ve ever thought about questions such as these. Look at them from new angles with a fresh perspective.

Here we go . . .

What if people mattered more than organizations?

What if we actually trusted God to change lives and dictate a person’s path or calling?

What if we didn’t use fear to control behavior, but instead used patience and love to encourage a person’s exploration of the divine?

What if we weren’t afraid that someone would make a choice different than our own? What if we could accept that two different, and maybe even opposing, choices from two different people could both be okay and healthy?

What if we didn’t measure our comfort by the differences between us and someone else?

What if someone else’s goodness and righteousness wasn’t measured by our own individual or organizational comfort levels?

What if we accepted that we don’t know everything, and in fact, know little more than nothing compared to what we think we know? What if it didn’t matter whether we proved someone wrong?

What if we treated everyone with the equality, we say we believe in? What if we backed it up in our organizational practice?

What if we let God be judge and jury and stopped taking those titles for ourselves?

What if love mattered?

What might we look like if any or all of those things were true? Individually? Organizationally? What might Adventism look like if any or all of that were true?

What would happen if we accepted any given context in life for what it is? What if we worked within that context, instead of trying to change every context we see to one that doesn’t exist anymore, for the sake of authoritative weakness and our personal comfort?

What could Adventism become if individually and organizationally we believed in, and were capable of, change?

What if we cared about God and people more than we do about Adventism?

That’s a lot of “ifs”.

I suspect that, on the first reading, some of you were offended. Maybe because you assumed you knew my intentions. Maybe it was because you assumed my beliefs. Maybe it was because you don’t like being questioned.

Or maybe because you didn’t like the implication of the honest reflection you gave yourself personally, and as it related to the organization that is the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Some of you were likely excited. You read questions that echoed your own. You felt in my words the pain or the hope that exists in your soul as it relates to these things.

But I’m willing to bet good money (like a good Adventist), that, no matter which category you fall into, some . . . many . . . maybe even most . . . read those questions and, at some point, immediately thought of someone specifically, or some group of someones, who either represented those questions and you don’t like it or what they represent, or . . .

. . . you thought of someone who doesn’t represent those things, and you’d love it if they would read this, and then be there just to see them cringe.

If any of that described you, or you feel it described the organization, I have two things to say to you.

One, you’ve sort of illustrated the point.

Two, don’t feel bad. I fall into one of those categories, too. I’m not an exception. I’m just as big a part of this tension as anyone else because when I reflected on my own questions, my biases and resentments and anger slapped me in the face and I realized, again for the zillionth time that I’m not better than anyone else.

Me being a white male doesn’t make me better than anyone else. Me being an Adventist doesn’t make me better than anyone else. Me being educated doesn’t make me better than anyone else. Me being a chaplain doesn’t make me better than anyone else. In the grand view, I’m not smarter, more moral, more ethical, or more righteous, than anyone else.

I’m not more saved than anyone else.

What if we all accepted that is true for all of us, and then started over from there?

Would we be able to hear people and know them better? Would we be able to hear God and know Him better? And if we could do that, what else could we do and be?

What if Adventist leaders walked with people on their journeys, no matter how different and alien, and didn’t try to convince them they are wrong? If that person felt supported and loved and had room to grow and make mistakes and never felt condemned for any of it, who might they become? Where might God take them if we got out of God’s way?

What if Adventist leaders cared less about keeping their power and instead cared more about empowering everyone they know and meet? Would that person find belonging and love with people who might be very different? Might they find the freedom they need, and the support they require, to become the best versions of themselves as God designed?

What if we as Adventists, leaders or not, did those things?

–Tony Hunter is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and a hospice chaplain working for Elevation Hospice in Northern Colorado. Tony and his wife, Nirma, live in Firestone, Colorado. Email him at: [email protected]

23 Jun

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH: ADVENTIST EDITION

By Tony Hunter … I’m going to plagiarize a few words. I suppose, technically, if I tell you that I’m plagiarizing and tell you who wrote it and from what book, it’s not plagiarizing.

You know, because of how words work.

Jim Butcher, the author of Blood Rites, opened his fictional book with these words from the main character, Harry Dresden: “The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.” It’s a great opening line.

What’s not great is that they are the words that came to my mind as I pondered the theme of this issue, that theme being the difference between profession and practice within Christianity and, more specifically, Adventism. That opening line echoed in my mind as a metaphor for the denial of our part in a large problem, even as it echoes Adam’s proclamation that it wasn’t his fault.

It’s a great metaphor because we (Christians and Adventists) built this building. We lived in it with questionable consideration, did sketchy maintenance on it, and poured the gasoline on it as we saw fit, juggled with the implements of fire, and then ran around pointing at everyone else (those not-Adventists and/or anyone who disagrees with whatever) when the whole thing burst into flames.

We either said one thing but did another or lacked any sort of consistency in the spirit of what we said or what we did. And this is important, because it is often in the difference between what we say and what we do that lies, pain, chaos, and despair often exist. And that reality itself is distressing for many because it also speaks to expectation. The expectation being that an organization declaring certain spiritual truths about itself would conduct itself according to those spiritual truths. And when that inevitably doesn’t happen, we have problems.

This is because the difference between happiness and despair is usually expectation.

But perhaps this is being unfair. How can an organization with millions of members and a lot of cooks in the kitchen exist within any sort of consistent thought and action, and have any sort of real cohesiveness in practice?

That is a much larger issue that all organizations struggle with. But I’m not sure that the more spiritual issue is actually any smaller. That’s because the problem with there being a difference between what we say and what we do is one of identity and belief.

Who do we think we are, and do we actually believe it?

I’m not talking about the details of Biblical prophecy and the inconsistent Adventist interpretations, nor the details of the equally questionable remnant theology that still floats around our churches. I’m talking about something more fundamental and foundational to who any Christian claims to be.

Our identity is as children of the Creator, siblings of Christ, who are to be known by the entire planet by our love. Who are to love their neighbors as they love themselves? Who are to be willing to give the shirts off their own back to someone in need? Who are not to think ourselves better than anyone? Whose very religion is to care for orphans and widows? Who is to welcome those different than us with open arms into our homes and lives and communities?

I’m not putting the citations for those portions of the Bible in here. Partially, because I need to conserve my word count. But also, if anyone doesn’t recognize those words from your own Bible, you’ve just illustrated the problem.

As Christian Adventists, those words are our identity. That is who we are. And I’ve rarely met anyone who would hear that and disagree. But weirdly, that identity doesn’t always, or even usually, trickle down into our doctrinal theology and practice.

We claim to be a people of love, but have spent a ludicrous amount of money, time, and energy bashing Catholics, non-Adventists, non-Christians, and anyone who doesn’t see the Sabbath as we do.

We spend more time on prophecy evangelism than we do helping our communities. And no, our hospitals and ADRA don’t count. We don’t get to hand off our spiritual duty to others just because it’s easier to give them money.

In a typical prophecy evangelistic series (the primary way new Adventists are created other than by birth), out of the 4–6 weeks that the series goes, usually only 1–2 nights are spent on the core of what it actually is to be a Christian in terms of Jesus death and resurrection. The rest is spent trying to prove through Bible prophecy why Adventists are better than everyone else and why you need to be one to be saved.

You read that correctly. Sure, no one outright says you have to be Adventist to be saved. They merely try to point out that Adventists are the most correct, and then link that with remnant theology, a theology that says only those that conform to our version of Bible truth will be God’s chosen, therefore they need to choose us. Our baptismal vows are based on this idea. But, if as we say one is saved through Christ and Christ alone, then there should only be one baptismal vow and one message of evangelism: Jesus.

We say we are all one in the eyes of God, but then create differences between gender and race in church things and argue about those rights.

And don’t get me started on gender identity. We are so busy arguing about the “right” and “wrong” of it, that few are bothering to actually care for those in one of those categories because caring for others is apparently not as important as dying on a shaky and irrelevant theological hill.

If we are to be known by our love, but don’t show the world love, then either we weren’t teaching love, or we don’t actually believe love is who we should be.

The difference between what we profess and what we practice exists because we don’t actually know who we are and who we want to be. It also exists because we, as an organization, are spending more time and money on proving we are correct than we are on being an agency of love.

Proving we are correct, and being love, are not the same thing.

The tragedy is, if we focused more on being love to all humanity, we would automatically lend much more weight to some version of correctness.

But as it stands, we care more about the nuances of Sabbath keeping than we do the suffering of another human. And while that may not be true on an individual basis, it is what our corporate behavior suggests.

Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. Those were the words of God spoken through the prophet Micah. Everything else was meaningless, it was suggested. If we actually do believe that God is love and that we should be too, that the world is supposed to know us by our love, then perhaps it’s time to just shut up entirely. Maybe the spirit of Christ can no longer rest in our words.

Perhaps it’s time to stop professing in words and let our hands speak for us.

To plagiarize and paraphrase: “Preach the gospel. And if needed, use words.”

–Tony Hunter is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and a hospice chaplain working for Elevation Hospice in Northern Colorado. Tony and his wife Nirma live in Firestone, Colorado. Email him at: [email protected]

29 Mar

ADVENTISM AND THE FEAR OF CHANGE

By Tony Hunter … What if one day you learned something new? How would you react to that? How would you incorporate that into your life? If you’re like most people, depending on how useful the new thing is, you would file it away in your mind and keep it handy for when it’s needed.

But what if that new thing you learned contradicted or disproved a previous thing you knew? What would you do then? Would you make the modifications to your knowledge base and alter your perspectives in order to incorporate this knew thing? Or would you pretend the new thing wasn’t true so that you didn’t have to change anything and, therefore, keep utilizing the old thing that you now know is false?

The question becomes, “How willing are you to change?”

This question always seems easy for Adventist Christians when it’s about someone changing to agree with the locally- accepted Adventist view. But when it’s the other way around, it becomes a serious problem. If an Adventist, or the group as a whole, were to learn something that so clearly and absolutely contradicted a previously accepted “truth,” it becomes a harder and more complicated question.

Adventists, like most people, believe they are people in search of truth. And like most people, it’s true. And also like most people, they believe the new truth as long as the new “truth” is the same as the old “truth” they already know.

Right now, some of you are saying an enthusiastic “Amen.” Others of you are unhappy with that statement and are looking for the editor’s phone number.

However, if we stop and think about it for a minute, it really does make sense. Humans tend to be resistant to change. Change implies accepting something new and letting something go. It implies an altering of our course, our minds, and our very perspective on reality in ways large or small. This is difficult because, thanks to the culture most of us were raised in, we tend to equate being correct or incorrect with being right or wrong. And we equate being right or wrong with being good or evil. Being correct or incorrect, then, becomes a statement of our own morality instead of a learning experience. And since Adventists are made up of humans, it applies to us just as much as anyone else.

This is true not just as individuals, but also on an organizational level, which makes sense since the organization is made up of those same individual humans who struggle with this dynamic. And as Christians, we get to add the concept of sin to it as well, which makes our reticence to change even stronger because once we start tying sin to it, we also start correlating it with salvation, or a lack thereof.

And suddenly, change is no longer about applying new learning and correction to our life, but about staying as rigid and unmoving as possible so that we don’t lose our salvation. Which really says a lot about how messed up our views of salvation are, but that’s a whole different article.

There is a reason that, in both Christian and non-Christian spiritual traditions, the Spirit of God is often symbolized by flowing or pouring water. Water that moves. Because water that stagnates breeds death. It’s unhealthy water. But water that moves is life giving. Water that moves adapts and alters the flow through its environment. Moving water finds a way.

One might argue that moving water, no matter how it adapts and flows, is still water and therefore unchanged. I would argue that, while the hydrogen and oxygen that make up water are unchanged, there are lots of other minerals in water that are picked up and dropped off at different times and in different places as it flows over, around, and through its environment that are part of what make quality water good for the soil and also good for the body.

If it doesn’t alter and change, water becomes damaging. And like water, if humans, including Adventist Christians, are not able to change, they will become stagnate and die, both physically and spiritually.

But let’s shift symbols. There is a story in the Gospel of John, Chapter 3, where Jesus is talking to a man named Nicodemus. During this conversation, Jesus compares being born of the Spirit to the wind. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

This implies a number of things. It implies unpredictability. You go places and learn things you didn’t expect to. It’s a life of constant change. It doesn’t conform to the rules we want for it. It’s not always clean and orderly. Where we were and what we were yesterday may not be true for today or tomorrow. What we understood yesterday may not be what we understand today or tomorrow.

The Spirit doesn’t just bring change and demand change; it IS change. Maybe that’s why we fight the Spirit so hard. We need things to stay comfortable. To stay the way we are used to them being. And even though we know we don’t know everything, and we know our perceptions are flawed and our understandings fallible, we fight to keep our views as rigid as possible in an ever-changing world.

This mindset is so powerful, we even write songs about it, songs like, “Give me that old time religion.” It’s a mindset that demands that change never happen. But it’s the very word “religion” that undermines that mindset. Religion is a compound word that comes from first century BC Latin—“re,” a prefix that means “again,” and “lego” meaning “to read.” It is a word that denotes continual study. And one does not study so that they can remain the same; otherwise, there is no point in studying.

To say that we are religious is to say that we keep studying, keep learning, and keep growing. It says we are dedicated to changing. And as Adventist Christians, we believe in transformation. Unfortunately, we only believe in transformation as it conforms to how we’ve understood things in the past. But transformation isn’t only about the past; it’s also about the present and the future. What was good for us in the past may not be good for us now. Sometimes, we are only able to accept certain things, but later we can accept others, and it is the wisdom of the Spirit to see these things and find the strength to let go of what was, even if that thing is some deeply-cherished Adventist belief. Because it is God we follow first and always. Everything else can come and go.

If we want to grow and know God more and be useful in this world in any meaningful way, we absolutely must change. Let go of what holds us back and cling to that spiritual wind as it carries us forward.

This is the whole reason the original Adventists believed in a concept called Present Truth. The idea was that God will continually reveal new things to us through the spirit. The problem, though, is that this is the only part of the concept of Present Truth that we kept. Because the other part of this concept that the early Adventists understood was that we also had to be willing to let go of things we thought we had right and were certain about.

We can be so sure we are correct and still be incorrect. And that is okay. It isn’t evil. The first Adventists understood this. They understood that being wrong wasn’t evil. It was simply a by-product of learning and growing. To be an Adventist who believes in Present Truth is to both learn and to let go. To be a true Adventist is to embrace change, not fear it, and not condemn it.

As I said at the beginning, modern Adventists don’t like change. But it’s not too late for us. It’s time to learn new things, but just as importantly, it’s time to let go of old ones. You are not bound by someone else’s fear-based rigidity. You can make a new choice. You can walk a new path. Let the Spirit flow through you. Let its winds move you. You can be changed and be change. You don’t have to fear it because God is with you.

I say, give change a try. You just might get to see God do something new. And you just might like it.

Wouldn’t that be something?

–Tony Hunter is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and a hospice chaplain working for Elevation Hospice in Northern Colorado. Tony and his wife, Nirma, live in Firestone, Colorado. Email him at: that [email protected]

05 Jan

IS SILENCE A SIN?

By Tony Hunter — Let’s start with a thought-provoking question: “Is silence a sin?” Answer: “Well, it depends . . .”

OK, that wasn’t very helpful. Great question, but a fairly unsatisfying answer. The problem is one of definition and context. Understanding what we mean when we use a word matters, and context is everything.

Question: “Tony, are you saying we can sort out both of those heavily-complex topics in less than 1500 words?”

Answer: “Um . . .” (pretends not to hear the question)

Let’s start with sin. What are we talking about when we use that word? That sounds like the correct question, but it isn’t. The correct question is: What were the original users of the word talking about when they used the word? In the New Testament, one of the main words translated as sin is hamartia (say “ha-mar-tea-uh”). It means “to miss the mark.” That seems like a reasonable definition. But here is a little contextual twist. It was a term that was used in ancient Greece for when archers missed their target.

On the surface, it’s a great metaphor. But let’s look deeper. When an archer is hitting a target, they don’t commit hamartia (sin). When they miss the target, they do commit hamartia (sin). Let me ask a question. What is the archer’s target? A paper bullseye? Or a man across a battle- field?

So, if an archer doesn’t kill someone with an arrow, he sins, but if he does kill someone with an arrow, he doesn’t sin. That seems to make the concept of sin more difficult. But you might point out that maybe I’m reading too much into the metaphor as most metaphors break down eventually.

Perhaps I am. But maybe not completely. Context is everything. There is a story in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 10:25-37 for those keeping score) where Jesus tells the story of a man beaten by robbers and left along the side of a road to die. Jesus is telling a parable, a metaphor, to answer the question that an expert in Jewish law asked Him regarding salvation that turned into a discussion about who our neighbor is. Because, to inherit eternal life, the expert of the law said, you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus liked the answer, but then the law expert asked another equally important question: Who is my neighbor? That’s when Jesus tells the story of the guy beaten and robbed. While this man is lying broken, bleeding, and dying along the side of the road, a priest walks by, sees the man, and then crosses the road to pass by as far away as he can, doing nothing to help. Then a Levite comes by and does the same, which was nothing.

It should be noted that priests served in the temple doing the most sacred and holy works, and Levites were the people that priests came from.

But then a third man, a Samaritan, came by, stopped and helped. Samaritans were looked down upon strongly by the people Jesus is speaking to. They were considered low class. They were seen as less than. But this man stopped, band- aged the man, took him to an inn, paid for his care, and saved his life.

After telling this story, Jesus asks who is the broken man’s neighbor? The expert rightly pointed out the Samaritan. Well, technically he didn’t because it seemed he couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge the Samaritan and simply said “The one who showed mercy.” And Jesus agreed.

Now, if we analyze this, I think most would agree that the Samaritan did well, and the priest and Levite missed the mark. They committed hamartia. They sinned.

Or did they?

The man is broken, bleeding, and dying. Most importantly, he’s bleeding. This is a problem for a priest and a Levite who were, as all Jewish and Israelite people were, for- bidden from touching things that are unclean. There is a whole list of unclean things, and blood is one of those things. Sure, they could do it, but there was a whole ritual and then a sequestering that would take place if they did. It was horribly inconvenient. So, the practice was—just don’t do it.

By not getting near that man, they were obeying the law. They were hitting the mark.

(Side note: What is lawful is not always just, and what is just is not always lawful. End of side note.)

But this article isn’t about what people do or don’t do. It’s about whether silence can be sin. It was bad enough that the priest and Levite didn’t choose mercy over law and act directly. But what is really more telling than what they did or didn’t do is what they didn’t say. They told no one. They didn’t get help. They didn’t find someone and tell them there was a man dying who needed help they weren’t able to provide.

They saw injustice and said nothing. It simply wasn’t convenient for them to do the right thing. From that perspective, they didn’t just miss the mark, they demonstrated they didn’t even know what the target was.

When we talk about sin, I’m curious if we know what the target even is? An equally important question is, as Adventist Christians, would you go somewhere Adventist Christianity says you shouldn’t to help a person Adventist Christianity says you shouldn’t be around because they are something Adventist Christianity doesn’t condone?

Would you get them help, or would you stay silent?

As a chaplain, I’m a mandated reporter. In fact, all pastors are technically mandated reporters. For those who don’t know, a mandated reporter is someone who is bound by law to report abuse. The abuse can come in the form of physical abuse or neglect. I’m oversimplifying this definition, so feel free to look it up for the full breadth of what that means. But the point is, if I see that someone is being abused or harmed or neglected, like children or the elderly, and I don’t report it, I can be charged by the law and be fined and/or imprisoned depending on how angry the judge is the day I’m dragged into court.

Our laws in this country tell us that if we see evil happening and say nothing, we are culpable for the evil taking place. Weirdly, the laws we use in Christianity do not usually include that caveat even though the Bible repeatedly makes the point that we are actually accountable for what we don’t do just as much as for what we do.

You might rightly agree that, obviously, if we see some- one being abused or murdered or some other horrible crime, we should be saying something. But what about the less obvious stuff? What about spiritual abuse? What about

theological abuse? What about when your pastor or elder or Sabbath School teacher stands before people putting down one group or another simply because they don’t believe the same?

When certain Adventists verbally attack Catholics and make declarations about people who believe that way, do we say, “Hey, it’s OK to not agree with them, but this is going way too far”? Do we stand up for pagans and atheists when some in our fold go on the verbal attack in Bible study? You don’t have to agree with a belief to defend the one who believes it. Are we not a people who stand for religious liberty? Or do we simply believe religious liberty only matters as it applies to Adventists?

The implication of the good Samaritan was that the Samaritan and the victim were of faiths that did not agree with each other. With that parable, Jesus implies a question. Are you willing to love everyone and stand for everyone and speak up for everyone, or only the ones like you?

Do we get so caught up in defending and distinguishing beliefs that we ignore the people on both sides? By equating the keeping of our beliefs with not sinning, do we wind up sinning by trying not to sin? By hitting one mark, do we miss another?

Are you willing to speak up for what is right, even if it makes the church look bad? Do we do what is right always, or only when it’s convenient?

The question was “Is silence a sin”? And the answer is, “Not always.” But sometimes it’s the greatest of sins. Maybe we don’t have the power on our own to stop evil and injustice. But we have a voice that is capable of exposing evil and bringing the help we can’t give.

It’s time to stop focusing on hitting marks (sin) and start focusing on showering our neighbor with all the love and mercy and justice that Christ is capable of funneling through us. Which brings us to one last question: Who is our neighbor?

Answer: Everyone.

–Tony Hunter is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and a hospice chaplain working for Elevation Hospice in Northern Colorado. Tony and his wife, Nirma, live in Firestone, Colorado. Email him at: [email protected]