29 Sep


By Ed Barnett — As I am writing this editorial on the last day of my work in the Rocky Mountain Conference, I gave myself into a moment of wondering what our church would be like a generation on, say in 2040. It is a random choice of a year, but a worthwhile moment of imagining the future.

Now believe me, I hope we are in heaven long before 2040! But if that is not the case, what will the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America look like? I am not a prophet, but after 42 years in ministry I have seen some trends that I believe will continue and I imagine they will have a profound effect on our church as we know it today. Let me illustrate.

First, the small congregations which have, in many ways, been the backbone for the church, will continue to dry up and eventually cease to exist. Many of the towns that they are in are already on the verge of collapse as well. The little rural towns throughout Wyoming and the eastern plains of Colorado today are not the thriving communities that they once were. The same goes for farming. The small farms will be gone. Some of my friends are farmers and they have 3,500 acres of land and these can keep up with the farm equipment available today, but the little prairie farms are simply going away.

Another trend that I am seeing is that the big churches in Denver, for instance, are struggling because as more and more people are priced out of the cities, they move out further and further away from the city centers. Some of our major churches that have, over the years, subsidized the small ones are shrinking as people are commuting to the churches out in the suburbs instead.

So, what will happen to our church? What should we expect?

First, thank goodness God oversees His Church. He will continue to guide it through the turbulent times we are living in. Ellen White, the church’s founding pioneer, says the church will look like it is going to fall apart, but it will go forward till the end. All is not bleak.

You must admit that here in the United States, we have had it pretty cushy when it comes to our church. A lot of times, the pastors just spend time taking care of the saints. They really haven’t spent a lot of time out in the world winning souls for God’s Kingdom. Many of our members feel it is the pastor’s job to do both the congregational work and the soul winning. And if he or she is not able to do it, then they recommend hiring an associate pastor or a Bible worker to do it. Someday, some way, we need to realize that every one of us is called by God to do the work of ministry. Every one of us needs to be involved in the soul winning mission.

It wouldn’t surprise me if, in many areas, we may have to hold more home churches where the faithful laity will oversee services on Sabbath morning and during the week. We may not have the fanciest music, like in some churches, but we can certainly have meaningful and heartfelt worship and fellowship which is critical to our wellbeing.

The Bible warns us that near the end of time on this earth the church will be “lukewarm.” I believe we are already there. We all need to get back to the basics, spend more time with Jesus in His Word and on our knees, get back to the strong relationship we need in Jesus.

Yes, the church, as well as how we do church, is changing all the time, but the church won’t save us; it is only Jesus Christ who can do that. My fellow believers, we have to stop playing church for a couple of hours a week and start spending time with Jesus daily to see our way through the exciting, yet difficult days that lie ahead.

May we always remember that God is in control, and that we can’t go wrong if we stay close to the captain of the ship. Jesus is coming soon, turbulent times are all around us, and church may look different in the days ahead, but keep your eyes on the prize, as heaven is not far away! The day is coming when God’s church will be triumphant, and I want to always be faithful to Him to be a part of that faithful group of people who will be in heaven soon!


–Ed Barnett, RMC president, retired on August 31. Email him at: [email protected]

Thank You


This is the last edition of Mountain Views under the editorial leadership of Ed Barnett. He retired as of the end of August. He provided editorial direction and guidelines to foster conversation in the church about issues that we usually talk about and dissect at the dinner table and in the church lobby. He often said, “There will be those who will disagree with what we publish. We need to be honest with ourselves, learn beyond what we know, stick to what the Scripture says, and be free to disagree with each other.” His guidance was appreciated over the last six years, and his interest in helping the church have a deeper understanding of what we believe and who we are was crucial to this publication.

There is no doubt that he will continue to be a faithful reader and creative critic. The Editorial Team will miss Ed’s frequent reminder that Jesus is coming soon. Mountain Views will continue under the editorial leadership of Mic Thurber, new RMC president

Rajmund Dabrowski, Editor

29 Sep


By Reinder Bruinsma — Imagination is a wonderful gift. Children use their imaginations as they play and transform a few cardboard boxes into a castle. Walt Disney once stated that Disneyland will never be completed but will continue to grow if there is imagination left in the world.

As a ten-year-old Dutch boy, my imagination worked overtime as our schoolteacher told us about his vacation trips to Hungary, and as he mentioned that very few people had ever been to Albania. Little did I know that what I imagined would just a few decades later become reality when I represented the church in numerous meetings in Hungary and Albania and in dozens of other countries.

William Blake (1757–1827), the famous English poet, painter, and printmaker, already stated in his days: “What is now proved was once only imagined.” The nineteenth century adventurer and novelist Jules Verne (1826-1905) imagined that people would one day build a vehicle that would allow them to travel through the air at great speed. As I write this article, the ultra-rich businessmen of this planet compete with their rockets and space capsules to show the world which of them can reach the farthest beyond the earth’s atmosphere. And they imagine how their expensive hobby can he turned into a money-making tourist industry.

Illusion and Imagination

Dictionaries define imagination as the faculty of the human mind to form new ideas or concepts of things that are not present to the senses. Imagination has to do with what can become reality through visionary thinking, commitment, and perseverance. It is more than mere optimism or wishful thinking. It also differs from illusion, which results from fantasy and will often mislead us rather than take us to our eagerly desired destination. Imagination provides a mental picture of what may become reality. Christians see imagination first and above all as God’s gift to successfully navigate this life, with the Holy Spirit as their compass. God created human beings with the capacity for imagination, to enable them to unlock their full potential.

The Bible uses several words for the concept of imagination. Different Bible translations employ different terms—some use the actual words “imagine” or “imagination.”

As with all God-given possibilities, men and women have not always used the gift of imagination as God intended. In the time just prior to the great flood, people had lots of imagination, but of the wrong kind. “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (KJV). The New Living Translation tells us that, what the people in Noah’s day “thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil.” The apostle Paul reports that many whom he categorized as belonging to “the wicked,” had become “vain in their imaginations” (Romans 1:21, 21, KJV). And Jeremiah refers to false prophets who “tell a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the Lord (Jeremiah 23:16, NASB). These and other texts in the Bible warn us to control our imaginations, and to direct them to whatever is positive and in line with Christian discipleship. Philippians 4:7 (NLT) is very clear: “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” This is the basis of the right kind of imagination.

Holy Imagination

In Colossians 3:1-4, Paul directs the imagination of believers in the church in Colossae to “things above.” He refers to what we might call “holy” or “sanctified” imagination: “Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:1, 2, NIV).

These words apply to all of us, but especially to those who are leaders or aspire to lead—in society at large as well as in the church. We do not need the kind of leaders who will just “look after the shop,” but leaders who have imagination—who see possibilities where others can see only challenges. The church can only flourish if it has leaders who possess a large measure of creative imagination, and who allow the Spirit to guide them in transforming their vision for the church into a blessed reality.

If there is one topic which invites the use of our sanctified imagination, it is the eternal future that God has in store for His children. There is no limit to where our imagination may lead when we contemplate the bliss of salvation: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard and no one’s heart has imagined all the things that God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9, Complete Jewish Bible).

The Church I Imagine

I remember how, in my teenage years, the pastor of our small congregation mentioned in his sermon that “our” church had now passed the one-million-member mark. I could not imagine that our small denomination (our family were the only Adventists in the village where we lived!) would in my lifetime develop into a worldwide denomination of more than twenty-two million members, who worship in some 90,000 congregations.

The Adventist Church has been my life. I have seen many wonderful things in my church. During my long denominational career, the church has been good to me and given me a very interesting and satisfying life. I acquired a large international network of colleagues and friends. But now, in my retirement years, I am realistic enough to acknowledge that the church faces many problems and that an unfortunate degree of polarization causes severe tensions. And while the denomination continues to grow in many countries, we note that the rate of growth is slowing down, and that large numbers of young, and not so young, members leave the church. At times this depresses me and makes me wonder whether the best days of Adventism are behind us. However, I keep telling myself that these thoughts of disappointment and concern must not be allowed to dominate my thinking. The church continues to have a promising future. Why? Because, when all is said and done, the church is not “my” church, or “our” church, but it is God’s church.

It is at this point that our sanctified imagination comes into play in a special way. What the church can be in the future depends to a large degree on what we imagine the church can be like. Our imaginings can inspire us to invest all our energy and spiritual power into making the church truly a place where God meets us and where the sense of being a community of Christ-followers fills what we believe and practice.

Let me share with you, who read this article, how my imagination helps me to envision the Adventist Church of the, hopefully near, future. First, I imagine a church that is able to change and to adapt in such a way that it responds with 21st century answers to 21st century questions. I long for a church where genuine fundamental unity prevails at all levels of our denominational structure, exhibiting a rich diversity in the way we express our convictions and practice our principles—in a fruitful dialogue with the cultural world in which we happen to live.

My imagination is focused on what it means to be a faith community, in which people have a sense of true belonging. I imagine a community that has a “safe” space for all, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, physical or mental handicap, profession, education, or economic status. I imagine a community that will inspire seekers for meaning and truth and welcomes doubters; that will not constantly judge the doctrinal orthodoxy of its members but recognizes that we all carry a different kind baggage and are at different stages in our spiritual pilgrimage. In my imagination I see a group of believers who want to serve the wider community, inspired by the values of justice, equality, and peace. I imagine church services that are innovative, inspiring, and deeply spiritual; that attract new believers and are meaningful for those who have never been regular churchgoers, while they are also by long-time members.

This vision may seem an unrealistic illusion to those who no longer see a future for the church. They may regard it as no more than pie in the sky. They may feel that the present condition of the church in many places around the world gives us little reason for hope that the church can change and become more relevant. But I continue to believe that God will not forsake His people. He wants us not to give up on His church, because He will not abandon it.

However, our imagination must not be built on the idea that we have the required skills and the capacities to turn our imaginings into reality. It must be based on the biblical principles of what the church is in its essence. It is the body of Christ, of which we all are members, with different roles. Together we form a “kingdom of priests”—whatever our gender or status in society may be (Galatians 3:26-28). Together we are God’s extended family.

Let’s never forget that our sanctified imagination can give us a vision of what can happen to the church if we leave enough space for the Spirit.

–Reinder Bruinsma, PhD, has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife Aafie. Among his latest books are “I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine” and “He Comes.” Email him at: [email protected]

29 Sep


By Shawn Brace — A few years ago, when we were visioning to replant our church, one particular gentleman asked if he could meet with me privately to express some concerns about our direction. Over the course of our visit, he described what was troubling him, pointing to a few proposals we’d made about our reformatted worship gathering. In particular, he was bothered by our rhythmic-guitar playing, which was apparently a little too sensual for his scruples, as well as our proposal to serve refreshments at the beginning of the service (“After all,” he said, “Adventists don’t eat in between meals”). It all left him exasperated. “Is this even an Adventist church?” he wondered incredulously.

I want to make it clear: I know this man loves Jesus and was just trying to stay true to his conscience. I don’t want to make light of that—or him—at all. He is sincere and honest. But it left me concluding that we have two diverging visions of Adventism.

It’s not that I yearn for an Adventism that is characterized by snack-eating and guitar-playing, as though that is the height of denominational achievement. Perhaps snack-eating and guitar-playing are issues that need to be curbed. But the point is this: I’m not sure I want to be a part of an Adventism where these issues are the litmus test of a person’s or church’s fidelity to the denomination’s core principles and identity. Truly, do we want—or do we think—that only those who don’t eat in between meals are the true Adventists?

Instead, what I see for Adventism, what I see for its future, is a faith that is defined by one thing and one thing only: Jesus.

Going Back to the Future

The tension I describe above is nothing new, of course. Long ago, Ellen White saw this vision for Adventism as well, when she encountered and rejoiced over the preaching of two young preachers, Alonzo T. Jones and Ellet J. Waggoner. Culminating in the denomination’s 1888 General Conference session in Minneapolis, these two young men brought the Gospel to a dry and thirsty faith. “As a people,” Ellen White recounted two years after Minneapolis, “we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa that had neither dew nor rain.” Many ministers, whom she referred to as “unconverted men,” were so zealous about the church’s recapturing of the seventh-day Sabbath teaching, as well its emphasis on other issues like diet and healthy living, that they had left out “Christ and His matchless love.” They instead presented “argumentative discourses.” But they needed “to have their eyes directed” to Christ’s “divine person, His merits, and His changeless love for the human family,” because “many had lost sight of Jesus.”

Jones and Waggoner brought exactly what the church was missing: Jesus, in all His beauty and love. When Ellen White heard them preach in Minneapolis, her whole heart leaped for joy, and “every fiber of my heart said, Amen,” she recounted. She called their presentations as a “most precious message” that God “in His great mercy” had sent. It was “the message that God commanded to be given to the world” so that “the world should no longer say, Seventh-day Adventists talk the law, the law, but do not preach or believe Christ.” What’s more, the message they proclaimed, according to White, was “the light that is to lighten the whole earth with its glory.”

But it was not to be. The old guard, believing they were protecting Adventism and the “old landmarks,” violently pushed back against this “new light” that Jones and Waggoner brought. The tragic irony is that the old guard thought they were just protecting the “old landmarks”—that is, they thought they were protecting true Adventism—when, according to Ellen White, “they knew not what the old landmarks were.”

The upshot of the whole Minneapolis episode was a great turning away from Jesus. “By exciting that opposition,” Ellen White later lamented, “Satan succeeded in shutting away from our people, in a great measure, the special power of the Holy Spirit that God longed to impart to them. . . . The light that is to lighten the whole earth with its glory was resisted, and by the action of our own brethren has been in a great degree kept away from the world.”

And we’ve been reaping the results ever since.

Reimagining Adventism

When I look at the Adventism of the future, I see Jesus. I see a Church that has fully embraced Him and fully embraced His Gospel. He is our only hope. Our future success won’t come because we’ve figured out the right evangelistic or missional formula; it won’t be the result of having nicer buildings or recapturing some sort of “historic Adventism.” It will happen because we’ve gone all in on Jesus.

This is not to create a false dichotomy or diminish the importance of missional innovation (of which I’m a big fan). When we go all in on Jesus—truly go all in on Jesus— creativity and innovation naturally follow in His train.

Neither does it mean that Jesus stands over-against Adventist theology and doctrine. Embracing Jesus does not come despite Adventist theology but results from a proper understanding of it.

Indeed, I’m not speaking of a vague and vacuous notion of Jesus. I’m talking about a full-orbed expression of Jesus that has definition and substance. I’m talking about a Jesus who literally experienced hell because He deemed our eternal existence more important than His own; a Jesus who died to prove that we are worthy and valuable; a Jesus who gives us rest, including a weekly reminder of it, so we can be liberated from our guilt, shame, fear, and constant hustling; a Jesus who looks at us with love, rather than condemnation; a Jesus who gives us principles by which to live, so we can experience optimal human flourishing; a Jesus who will one day finally vanquish all evil so we can live forever in peace and safety; a Jesus who has even put His reputation on the line, willingly being marred and maligned, believing that His love will ultimately win out and His character proven right.

That’s the Jesus I’m talking about.

And there is nothing or no one more beautiful. And there is nothing more worthy of our contemplation, nothing else around which we should organize our faith. If Adventism is to be about something, let it be Jesus. Everything else is pointless and a dead-end street.

Can Adventism get there in the future? I hope and trust and believe we can and we will. And I am committed to laboring to that end—through pen, voice, and, most importantly, action.

–Shawn Brace is a pastor and author in Bangor, Maine. His book, “There’s More to Jesus” (Signs Publishing), further expounds upon this vision for Adventism. He is also a D.Phil student at the University of Oxford, researching nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram @shawnbrace, and sign up for his weekly newsletter at shawnbrace. substack.com

29 Sep


By Lisa Diller — The country had just had a political revolution. The government was unsettled and constantly changing, and the most powerful person was a military dictator. It seemed clear that the Apocalypse, the end of the world and the return of Jesus, was at hand. It was the 1650s, in what we now call the United Kingdom, and the Protestant communities who were most dedicated to achieving a godly nation were in profound disagreement about how this best should happen. But what was clear to them was that the enemies of God (as they understood them), especially in the form of powerful Roman Catholic states, were gaining in power and influence and oppressing Protestant groups.

The response in seventeenth century England to this apocalyptic moment was a rich outburst of radical religious practice. The wild experimentation and, ultimately, a fragmentation of Protestant churches that resulted has profoundly shaped Christianity to this day—with Quakers and Baptists, prophets and judges, free love and a kind of Christian political radicalism that looked like communism and anarchism providing possible models for the modern era of how to be the Church. It was a time of confusion, fear, and fantastic imagination for these English-speaking Christians.

A razor-sharp conviction that the world is ending can cause us (even Christians) to be coercive and violent in achieving our goals. But the formation of restrictive communities forcing adherence to their ideals isn’t always, nor is it even primarily, the way a prophetic view for the End of Times shapes convicted people. Certainly, Adventists in our prophetic outlook have almost as often been as creative and experimental as we have been fear-driven and conservative. Our view of the book of Revelation and our belief in the Advent can encourage us to live into the future we want to see. But we desperately need humility alongside this vision—humility and imagination.

Imagination is crucial for living into the future. We tell stories about what we hope for, a kind of holy creative thinking, a Spirit-drenched not-strictly-true view. As we invest in the not-yet-true, we are also embracing the Mystery of God. We have hope and faith and a prophetic articulation—but we also have a sort-of mystical tradition that says we are speaking of what we cannot speak. Mystics, in the past, often told stories, wrote songs, made art, danced, and provoked a word-less imagination within their bodies. When we are apocalyptic people who have a strong faith in the world we want, the kind of humility that is required can be provided by the kinds of disciplines we associate with the mystics—a profound sense that the sweetness of God is more than we could ever digest with our minds (As Ephesians has it, we must “know the love of God which is past knowing”), the kind of truth that is provided by art.

This kind of hope and imagination is shaped by a compassion for human frailty. If we don’t take humanity seriously, we are intolerant when things don’t shape up to our great ideals. We condescend to those who don’t just get on the train of our great prophetic goals. Hope is communal and creating a humane vision with other people is hard. Perhaps this is why so many of the 20th century political utopias in Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, and North Korea, have resulted in violent and repressive regimes.

Kevin Hughes in The Future of Hope articulated it this way: Modernity has a way of “transforming vision into supervision.” This is why our prophetic hope needs the arts and humility and a strong dose of the spiritual gifts that push us to abide in the mystery of the Spirit. As a church planter and elder, when it comes to the future of my local Adventist church, I sometimes have something I hope for and want for this local body of Christ. I work for it—maybe I’m even part of a team that creates a vision, systematizes it, puts out the communication, shows up for it—and then no one else seems to want it. What allows me to stay hopeful and loving of others and to continue weaving my stories and creativity? I have found it vital to lean into the ineffable belief and unutterable understanding of who God is and rest in God’s love. I must retain humility regarding myself while telling stories that emphasize compassion for the humanity of others—and for myself.

A holy imagination allows me to have the eye of someone else. When I read a novel or memoir from the perspective of those who are different from me, when I submit to the perspective of an artist or a song that makes me feel and look different from how I want to look—I’m coming closer to having the eye of God. If I create God in my own image and assume God sees things the way I do, the limitations are troubling, and our collective vision is stunted. Art helps my own eye to not be the center—to try to see and listen as another and even be the subject of a vision that is not mine—this brings me closer to the wider vision held by God and helps me to not center myself as the arbiter of the Kingdom of God.

The clearer we are that we don’t know everything, and yet that we still have hope and work for the New Earth, the more we can handle the ups and downs of humanity. Samuel Wells, Dean of Duke Divinity School for some years, has a great meditation on the importance of “improvisation” for living into the Kingdom. I like how he words it: “Improv allows the church to remain faithful to Scripture without assuming the Bible provides a script to dictate appropriate conduct in every eventuality.”

Improv is apocalyptic, in a sense. In an improv performance, the end must come, or it is too painful and nonsense. But along the way there is fun because there is trust. I think those of us who are more prophetically than artistically gifted might need to learn from and engage in mutual submission with those who are more playful. Mystics and poets and musicians help us play. They aren’t the only leaders (poets don’t make great administrators necessarily), but a vision that isn’t informed by their flexibility is problematic. Improv cultivates humility—and integrates others. Instead of me being the center, there’s a holy vision of how others can come along and contribute to the story.

Prophecy and the apocalypse combined with improv—this allows me to Hope, to look out for the vision as I see it in Scripture, but also to deal with the unexpected bumps—and maybe to do so with a sense of humor and a wider view for who gets to be included.

The tolerance, democracy, flexibility, and apocalyptic experimentation of the 1650s didn’t last in the British Isles. In the end, the Church of England was re-established because folks wanted a strong sense of what was right, and to make sure that people actually attended church and were exposed to biblical truths through regular teaching. It was too hard to hold a view of the End of Time alongside creative spiritual formation and alternative communities. Coercion was deemed necessary for Truth to triumph. I would like to imagine a different way.

When I read Scripture, listen to the Spirit, and exercise my spiritual gifts, I often come to strong, prophetically informed views of how my community should go into the future. I work for this, and I cast vision (maybe creatively and artistically) for the community/family I lead. But what happens when humanity is weak, when things don’t go the way how I want? When that happens (and it will!), I must have a strong enough view of who God is and a value for the people who are made in His image, to improvise and be flexible about His ability to bring the kingdom of God anyway.

And the same with our church—we have a vision, we work for it, we include others in it, we adapt to new information, new visions, we retain our sense of humor, and we celebrate the way God is working at creating the beloved community on the way to the New Earth, as we live out the Kingdom here, among us.

–Lisa Clark Diller, PhD, is chair of history and political studies department at Southern Adventist University. Email her at: [email protected]


Kevin Hughes: The Future of Hope

Robert Paul Doede & Paul Edward Hughes: Future of Hope

Samuel Wells: Liturgy, Time, and the Politics of Redemption

29 Sep


By Barry Casey — I think I have always been fascinated by imagination. When I was a teenager, it seemed to be the element that separated the true artists, musicians, poets, and writers from the rest of us. It was a quality that transcended mere talent and hard work. It was mysterious.

When I listened to the singer/songwriters of my time, like James Taylor, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell, they all seemed to have imagination in abundance. So did the Beatles, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Bruce Springsteen. All of them produced music and lyrics that looked afresh at the universals of love, loss, tragedy, beauty, and the spirit.

I studied them, pulled apart their lyrics and musical structure, looking for keys to their brilliance. What they did seemed effortless, an economy of words and composition that didn’t waste a note or a syllable.

I noticed the same in some of my favorite writers, beginning with Hemingway, a master at creating a scene with as few words as possible. In different ways than Hemingway, but no less imaginative, were Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, John Gardner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joan Didion, and James Lee Burke.

All of them, writers, and musicians, drew on an inner power that expressed a more spacious vision than I found within myself. I wondered if you had to have lived a respectable number of years to write in that way. But many of these icons were doing some of their best work in their twenties and thirties. Maybe you had to travel the world on a merchant freighter, be a short-order cook, do time in a county jail, start a business, and fail at it, get married and divorced, or give up a law practice to write full time. Well, no, not really. All of that might give you experience to draw from, but it wasn’t necessary. There was something else.

Anne and Barry Ulanov’s book, The Healing Imagination, emphasizes imagination as the creative activity of the psyche and the soul. We work with the images that appear to us, often unbidden. “They just happen,” they write, “They arrive in consciousness from the unconscious, like a wisp of spirit. . . they speak of another life running in us like an underground river-current.”

I’ve come to believe that this creative impulse in all of us originates with the Holy Spirit, even if we don’t recognize it as such. No matter how it plays out and through whom it appears, imagination is critical to our humanity and to our spiritual growth.

The development of imagination, for example, in the act of creative writing, whether it be fiction, essays, drama, sermons, songs, or poetry is an exercise in dropping the barriers to one’s inner life. “Art’s desire,” comments Jane Hirshfield, in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, “is not to convey the already established but to transform the life that takes place within its presence.” The presence of an unexpected newness.

We see this newness in the parables and sayings of Jesus. They are a wellspring of wisdom, never depleted on multiple readings. I believe Jesus discovered how to listen to his unconscious, that depth which is in all of us, and how to open his mind and spirit completely to God. What he offered the disciples was a glimpse of that imaginative power.

Our reflex is to reject these images. The new breaks in upon us often without form, almost unrecognizable at times. Hirshfield comments in Ten Windows that it’s a question of how much of the random, the chaotic, and the mysterious we are willing to admit into our lives, assuming we have a choice.

We can also draw a distinction between hope and imagination. We can think of hope as an extension of present reality, but with the possibility of God breaking in to make something new. Then imagination is the seed from which hope grows. Our difficulty is in perceiving and believing that God can bring a new creation from the chaos of our situation.

Cease to dwell on days gone by
and to brood over past history.
Here and now I will do a new thing;
this moment it will break from the bud.
Can you not perceive it (Isa. 43:18,19)?

The Ulanovs note that our play as children in imaginatively creating personalities for our stuffed animals and toys, sustains our capacity as adults to enjoy and create images of God from tradition, Scripture, and experience. “Imagination digs the soil,” they write, “and brings the water so that what comes to us grows . . . In this space between our single unconscious life and our shared conscious life with others, imagination plays and heals.”

For poets, artists, and the rest of us, what really matters in life begins with questions: Who are we now? What shall we be? Where will we find healing for our souls? How can we respond to hatred and indifference with love, justice, and mercy?

Since the first thing to go in a crisis is imagination, our subversion of the status quo is plain: we must begin to imagine together the newness of what our worship, our service to our communities, and our spiritual arts could look like in the face of such global shifts as climate change, the displacement of millions, and the presence of COVID in our midst.

–Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communication for 37 years in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. His first collection of essays, “Wandering, Not Lost,” was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Email him at: [email protected]

29 Sep


By Zdravko Plantak — We can think about the church in many ways and describe it by many picturesque metaphors. But it does seem quite pertinent to think of the church in the way that Apostle Paul, at least in one of his significant descriptions of the church, thought of the community of believers as a body—a healthy, growing body. And the passage in 1 Corinthians 12:11-26 is his fullest explanation of this picture of a church as a human body. Because here, using this image, he makes four points about the communal aspects of the church. For me, it describes the church in a very imaginative way.

Firstly, he describes the church as one despite the differences. This is surely describing a church that is united. And a united church does not imply a uniform church. Paul does not disguise the differences among the faithful. For example, he has just explained in Verse 4 that people are gifted in different ways. And these gifts are used for different responsibilities within the church. There are in Verse 5, varieties of service; Verse 6, varieties of working; and then, in Verses 7-10, Paul goes on to give a list of different gifts given to individuals so that not all members of the church are gifted in the same way. So, he freely acknowledges the differences in gifts. But then he goes on in Verse 11: All these different blessings are inspired by one and the same Spirit who apportions to each one individually as the Spirit wills.

Again, Paul does not deny that there are differences in cultural background: there are Jews and Greeks; or differences of social background such as slaves and free (13). Paul would be the last person to say that differences are to be ignored. But they are nothing beside the great unifying factor which is a common experience of the Spirit—Verse 13: For by one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body, Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, and all were made to drink of one Spirit. Whatever our cultural or social background may be, we all, each one of us, has been brought into the body of Christ, into the church. And all of this is mirrored in the human body—Verse 12: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body”. The human body has many limbs but is still one entity.

The church is one despite its differences. And this, the Corinthians needed to know. They raised the gift of tongues to an importance that it never deserved. Some were jealous that they didn’t get it. They felt distant from those who had it. And Paul says: There are differences, but there is one body. How much we need to be reminded of this truth. It is easy for us to look at people more gifted than ourselves and be jealous, or feel they are miles above us. But Paul is adamant that all these gifts whatever they are, all these gifts, however seemingly humble, are inspired by one and the same Spirit (11). And it is up to Him to apportion the gifts as He chooses. Perhaps you are very conscious and aware in our church of cultural differences.

Or you are aware of social or economic differences. And yet, Paul says in Verse 13, Don’t you see that all these things pale into insignificance beside our common experience of the Spirit. And that first taste of the Spirit is like a refreshing drink which each one has access to. Yes, says Paul, the church is a motley bunch, with many very different people in it, but it is one despite the differences. United, but never uniform.

It’s a picture, secondly, of the fact that the church is made up of various members. This is the argument of Verses 14–20. Verse 14 says: For the body does not consist of one member, but many. And then Paul imagines the less prominent limb of the body feeling it has no real significance in the body: the foot feeling inferior to the hand, the ear feeling less important than the eye. And out of the inferiority complex, one begins to form the opinion that one doesn’t really matter to the body. Paul says: “That’s ridiculous!” (15). Just take for a moment any one organ in the body, however valuable it might be. If that was the only organ, the body would be infinitely impoverished. “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing, if the whole body would be an ear, where would be the sense of smell.” (17) In fact, there would be no real body at all. “If all were a single organ, where would the body be?” (19).

Indeed, an organ that feels unimportant, wasted, with no significant part to play in the body, is rebelling against God Himself. In Verse 19, as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them as He chose. And so Paul sums up the whole argument in this section: “As it is, there are many parts, yet one body” (20).

And this is a lesson much needed today: there are many in our communities who feel inferior and unimportant. And sometimes, these other body organs push their importance so much that it may be almost natural for some to feel pushed to the margins. Paul reminds us that this is a complete misunderstanding of what the ideal church should be like.

Suppose, for example, that the church consisted entirely of preachers and there was no one to make a hot drink afterwards or to collect our offerings. That would be a very great impoverishment of our life as a body. Suppose everybody was an organizer, everyone in church was running groups, and no-one had the time or ability to invite members of these groups for a meal. We would perhaps be a well-run machine, but there would be no warmth, no humanity. And, as Paul says in verse 20, there would be no body. No body of Christ. Indeed, to feel unimportant, to feel it wouldn’t matter if we did nothing and just slipped away from the church, to feel we don’t really belong to the Christian body, is to rebel against God. You did not choose your place in the body, God did. Verse 18: God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them as He chose. And Paul uses this picture of the body to urge the important truth that the church is made up of various, that is to say different, members.

Thirdly, the church must respect the contribution of each part (21-22). Now Paul turns from those who feel inferior, who think they have gifts not worth talking about, to those who know very well they are gifted, to the more prominent members of the body. And he tells them not to imagine they could do without the others. Verse 21 says: “The eye cannot say to the hand ‘I have no need of you.’ Nor again head to the feet ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. Take the hand, for example—it seems a fairly unimportant appendage to the body, much less vital than the eye. But just imagine the vast range of things that we couldn’t do if we had no hands. Or take the feet. Sometimes they seem just as like ugly lumps of flesh, very quick to sweat, prone to diseases like athlete’s foot or developing bunions. But just think how much your life would be restricted if you had no feet. No, says Paul, these parts may seem weaker or less important, but for a full healthy life they are, according to Verse 22, indispensable. We should never underestimate the power and importance of the seemingly less important limb of the body.

Finally, the interdependence is essential to flourishing in the Body of Christ. God has created the human body in such a way that it has the instinct to lavish a great deal of care on what might seem the least worthy part (vv. 23-24). And we could see this in action, in Verse 26: If one member suffers, all suffer together. If the stomach is upset, the whole body is thrown out of joint with it. If one member is honored, all rejoice together. If arms or legs have been involved in some athletic activity, and have done well, maybe lifting weights or running fast over a distance, the whole body feels good as a result. Because in the human body, all the limbs know very well that they are not independent entities, but that interdependence is a significant and necessary posture. They belong together in one body. And there are people in our communities that seem weak. They are decidedly less honored in the world’s eyes: those who will never have prestigious jobs, who might never become leaders even in a small church. There are even, in recent times, members who push for different realities of the world we live in. They are on the opposite side of the spectrum on politics or understanding the pandemic, vaccination, or other public health measures, or just disagree with us in the way we think about environmental responsibilities or social, economic, or racial justice.

But the whole point of this passage of Paul is that we belong to each other because we are one body. We are not independent entities. We belong together. Of course, we struggle with this. Of course, we may even think, should we really stay connected to that body? And yet, we are invited to think about such a community that God creates, despite vast differences within its parts, as ‘e pluribus unum’, out of many, one.

Yet, God’s priorities are exactly opposite of the world’s and are mirrored in the human body He has made. Verse 24: God has so composed the body, giving great honor to the inferior part, so that there may be no discord in the body but that they can have the same care for one another. If some weak member pours out their suffering to the group, our reaction cannot be: “Not again. We heard all this last week.” This would only be possible if we belonged to two separate worlds. But we don’t. We belong to the one and the same body.

It’s a rich picture, this picture of a church as the human body. And Paul uses it to make important points. But, in a way, it’s all summed up in Verse 20: There are many parts, yet one body. The ideal church is an extraordinary collection of different people. I have only to look around the church (or even the family) that I belong to. And in the ideal community of the faithful, we must allow people to be different, nay we must celebrate our differences, and then, especially, care for people in their weaknesses, the entire time never losing sight of this important fact that we are one body!

–Zdravko (Zack) Plantak, PhD, is professor of religion and ethics at the School of Religion at Loma Linda University. Email him at: [email protected]

29 Sep


By Andre Wang — I have been an Adventist my entire life. I’m a product of Adventist education. My church membership has been at the same church since I was fourteen years old. I’ve served on church committees and boards too numerous to mention.

Then in 2014, I was invited to apply for the position of general counsel for the North Pacific Union Conference. I really wasn’t interested. I was in a comfortable law practice and I was already serving on the union’s executive committee, participating in the governance and oversight of the six conferences in our territory. I didn’t consider myself a “church guy” but the involved layperson that sat on church boards and committees to be the voice of reason and hold my church accountable.

But instead of dismissing the invitation outright, I agreed to the greatest non-committal answer in all of Christendom: “I’ll pray about it.” And I did—earnestly. After a few days, I revealed to my wife that my ambivalence was turning into intrigue. Upon more reflection and prayer, I submitted my resume to the union personnel committee. I didn’t bother polishing it or even checking it for typos. I just went to my computer, found a file labeled “Andre Resume,” attached it to an email to the union president, and clicked “send.” I was looking for a Gideon-like signal and sending the unproofed resume was my fleece.

I met with the personnel committee twice (ironically, a committee I was a member of) and answered questions about my upbringing, my spiritual journey and my familiarity with denominational operation and policy. After a day of deliberation, they voted to offer me the position.

After another two days of further prayer and reflection, I accepted the invitation with convincing clarity. I now know what pastors mean when they talk about being called to ministry: I was called. I felt it. It was real, tangible, and unmistakable. This was what I was supposed to do.

I didn’t seek or choose this job; it sought and chose me.

Every day, I am blessed to work with people that keep the mission of the church moving forward–from pastors and teachers to treasurers and administrators. Even though we are a religious organization, the church is still a business with issues and matters that impact us legally and corporately. If you told me eight years ago that I’d be working for the church, I would have hysterically laughed at you until you sulked out of my presence. But for the last seven years, I have used my professional skills in areas that have been interesting, challenging, and rewarding—and having fun doing it.

From the perspective of a denominational employee, even though only for a brief time, I have observations—and suggestions—about the future of the church in the following areas:


According to Pew Research, 10,000 baby boomers enter retirement each day. Today, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is facing an unprecedented number of retirements from its workforce. It is estimated that 60% of the personnel in the North American Division will reach retirement age by 2023, including pastors, educators, administrators, and employees in higher ed. Today, conferences are already scrambling to fill pastoral, teaching and administrative positions.

But consider the ripple effect these mass retirements are causing throughout the denomination. When a pastor or teacher retires, that position is filled by another pastor or teacher. However, when a principal or church administrator at the conference, union or division level retires, those positions must be filled by an experienced educator or church leader. The nominating committees of these various levels of church governance must search for new leaders from people holding other leadership positions or look for emerging leaders from the field of pastors or teachers. This scenario is going to play out many times over for the next decade and beyond.

If the church is not proactive in building its “farm team” of pastors, teachers, principals, accountants, and human resource professionals, who will fill the executive leadership, treasury and education superintendent positions at the conference, union, and division levels?


At the 2019 NAD Human Resources Conference in Lexington, Kentucky, Randy Robinson, the treasurer of the North American Division, said, “We need to reform our system of remuneration to attract millennials to work for the church because someday I’ll be dead.”

Simply put, the church must pay more. While the notion of “service” to the church is noble, pastors and teachers notwithstanding, Gen X-ers, Millennials and younger generations don’t have denominational employment on their radar. In embarking on a career path, denominational work in professional areas such as finance, communication, IT, etc., are never the first option. In order to make church work attractive, wages should be commensurate with the private sector.

Generational Awareness

According to Adam Fenner, director of the Adventist Learning Community at the North American Division, the church as an employer must educate itself on the culture of character of different generations to accomplish our missional objectives and, most importantly, have operational longevity. From my observation, there is very little intergenerational interaction within the denominational workforce. Baby boomers–the ones reaching retirement age–are not generously passing down crucial institutional knowledge and skillsets to younger generations to carry the Adventist banner into the future.

Within the next decade, Gen Xer-s and Millennials will be occupying conference and union presidencies and other administrative positions. If the church is going into the future with resolve, the transfer of information must happen now. A common refrain I hear from younger generations is, “If I were in charge, I would do this . . .” Buckle up, everyone. Your conference or union may be one or two constituency sessions away from electing a millennial executive team.

Embrace Differences

There is a lot of diversity in the church today—and not just ethnic diversity, but everything from culture and worship-style preferences to political opinions and lifestyle choices. Adam Fenner again counsels that we should embrace our differences rather than resent them. We must also understand the cardinal rule of politics: one must give a little to get a little. While we are sentient, thinking human beings that hold strong viewpoints and positions and vigorously defend them, we are above all, children of God. With the diversity of all our “diversities,” that is the bond we all have in common.

I am fortunate to use my professional abilities every day to help advance the ministry of a church that is part of my DNA. Everything I do in my work is first viewed through the prism of, “How does this reveal Jesus to others and further His kingdom on earth?” In many ways, I am still the outsider I was before I entered denominational employment.

Upon reflection, I guess I still don’t consider myself a “church guy.”

–Andre M. Wang serves as general counsel and PARL director for the North Pacific Union Conference. Email him at [email protected]

29 Sep


By Nathan Brown — I was in law school in the early 1990s at the time when one of Australia’s most landmark court case was decided. Taking its name from the already deceased Indigenous plaintiff who was seeking recognition of his pre-existing native title over the traditional lands of his people, the Mabo case saw most of the judges of the High Court of Australia reject the long-held doctrine of terra nullius—the assumption that the land now known as Australia had belonged to no one before European colonization. A legal fiction more than 200 years old had finally been undone.

As an upstart law student with all of a few months of legal education behind me, I wrote a paper critical of the High Court’s decision and their “unprecedented judicial activism” in overturning such an established legal doctrine. In 30 years of writing, it is one of the few pieces that I regret. Thankfully, no one read it beyond my long-suffering professor and the paper is now long lost in my academic history—but it represents attitudes that probably have had real-world applications at different points in my life.

Of course, there is an element of humor in reflecting on my precocious railing against the legal judgment of the highest court in the land, but there is also regret that I did not recognize and celebrate this ruling for the watershed moment it was for Indigenous Australians. And I am deeply disappointed that for all my years of Adventist upbringing, worship services, Bible studies, Sabbath schools and Pathfinder classes, I did not have a theology that would have helped me respond better to an issue such as this, even in the context of my studies but more so in how this might have been lived out. In further studies in more recent years—including a postgraduate degree in justice and theology—I have become increasingly convinced of the centrality and pervasiveness of racism in many of the issues of injustice in our world today, how deep-seated, and systemic the roots and realities of racism are, and that racism is primarily a theological issue.

This growing realization of racism as a theological issue brings two immediate and profound responses. The first is a sense of shame: for those of us with a Christian heritage and confession, this is a faith issue—and we have mostly not done it well, either historically or presently. The second is a sense of hope and imagination: theology is something we can work with and the best response to bad theology is better theology.

As commentators such as Ta-Nehisi Coates have pointed out, race is primarily an invention of racism. There is no biological or other scientific basis for identifying race, and the concept as we know it is largely a creation of our modern world. While the Bible describes rivalries between families, tribes, and peoples, these are more focused on cultures, languages, and gods than they are on any physical appearance. Fast-forwarding through history, the plays of Shakespeare offer a relatively more recent literary example in which different characters are portrayed, but “without explicit value judgment, political utility, or the sort of generalizing about a people group with which we are familiar today.”

The historical reality is that racism and race developed significantly in the 15th and 16th centuries as a theological rationale for the burgeoning European expansion, exploration, and colonization of the world. The physical differences of the inhabitants of the colonized lands became a practical short-hand for implementing a theological decree issue by Pope Nicholas V issued on June 18, 1452, which gave the king of Portugal permission “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed”—meaning almost anyone non-European—“to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery” and “to convert them to his [and his successors’] use and profit.” Part of what is known as the Doctrine of Discovery, such belief was the theological basis for much of what has become the politics and economics of racism, as seen in slavery, discrimination, systemic disadvantage and disparity, and so much more in the centuries since. It was also the underlying belief of the terra nullius doctrine so recently rejected by Australia’s High Court.

Unfortunately, this innovation of late-medieval Christianity received less attention in the great reformation movements of following centuries and remains a largely unfinished, perhaps barely commenced, work of Christian reformation. So many in our world have suffered for it. Employing a second Latin term for this short article, we are called to semper reformanda—the heirs of the Reformation are always reforming. In the theology of race, there is much work yet to be done and it begins with better theology.

Our foundational understanding of what it means to be human is that all people are created in God’s image (see Genesis 1:27), loved (see John 3:16), and invited (see Revelation 14:6) by God. This ought to be particularly so in the context of the fellowship and work of the church: “Distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ, who by one Spirit has bonded us into one fellowship with Him and with one another; we are to serve and be served without partiality or reservation.” But, as the concluding comment might suggest, this should also be our posture towards those in society around us.

Here there is yet more theological work to be done. The assumptions of 550 years of theological history are not easily untangled or undone. We have followed much of the dominant Christian world in reading the Bible as a white and Western text. We perpetuate the Doctrine of Discovery in our standard interpretations of Revelation 13, and we maintain a prophetic focus that ignores much of the world, its peoples and its history. We privilege music, language, and art from a European heritage as somehow holier than other cultural expressions. We have grown our missionary and evangelistic reach on the wings of American empire across the 20th century.

A better theology and better expressions of our theology will launch us into the world around us with more to contribute to the necessary theological and systemic work of un-doing racism. Perhaps this was hinted at in the words of then-General Conference president A G Daniells in summarizing part of the life work of Ellen White at her funeral in 1915: “Slavery, the caste system, unjust racial prejudices, the oppression of the poor, the neglect of the unfortunate—these all are set forth as unchristian and a serious menace to the well-being of the human race, and as evils which the church of Christ is appointed by her Lord to overthrow.” This is the language—and faith—of reformation and revolution.

I wish this was the understanding of faith that I was taught at Sabbath school, Pathfinders, and church when I was growing up. I wish this was the faith that I held when I stepped into law school almost 30 years ago, which would have seen me much better equipped to applaud and support the slow but significant progress in recognizing Australia’s Indigenous peoples at that time. But I also imagine the difference that such a better and growing understanding of our faith could have in the church today—and in our world that so needs to be changed.

–Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing near Melbourne, Australia. His Christmas devotional book “Advent: Hearing the Good News in the Story of Jesus’ Birth” is great for seasonal reading and gifting. Email him at: [email protected]


  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “How Racism Invented Race in America,” The Atlantic, June 24, 2014.
  2. Ken Wytsma, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege, IVP, 2017, p. 33.
  3. Quoted by Mark Charles and Song-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, IVP, 2019, p. 15.
  4. Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, #14. Unity in the Body of Christ.
  5. Life Sketches of Ellen G White, p. 473.
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]

29 Sep


By Mark Johnson — A painted line ran down the middle of the sidewalk in the center of the school campus. “This line separates the boys’ side from the girls’ side,” our student guide explained. “The boys walk on that side of the sidewalk, and that is their side of the campus. The girls stay on this other side.”

Our family was visiting one of our Church’s boarding academies in the 1960s, looking at potential schools for my sister and me. “That has got to be the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” I thought to myself.

Unfortunately, it was not to remain so.

I didn’t attend that school, but over the next few years I attended four different Adventist academies and an Adventist college. Each of them had their own unique set of rules, customs and regulations. Based on those, it seemed to me that the main purpose of most Adventist schools was not necessarily to ensure a high level of education, but to safeguard their students from being “conformed to the world”, mainly by keeping the boys away from the girls* and by keeping all of them away from drugs, tobacco and alcohol.

The weirdest example of this I found at a boarding school for missionaries’ kids high in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. They had a system of one-star, two-star and three-star social events. For a one-star event, you could invite the girl of your choice. As I recall, there were only two one-star events during the entire school year. For two-star events you could invite anyone except the girl of your choice (the faculty was occasionally fooled because it was difficult to know who was dating whom in such an atmosphere), and for a three-star event, you were either assigned a date, or you rotated, and spent time with each of the girls (except your girlfriend) during the event. It was really weird.

This archaic process made more sense when I learned that there had been several student pregnancies in the preceding years, but it still felt weird. It also highlights the notorious, but not unique, problem that Christians seem to have with sex. The unchurched love to gossip about the sexual exploits of prominent, fallen Christian clergymen and women, but research in neuroscience using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) may help to explain this apparent hypocrisy. It has identified an area in the brain that activates and rewards highly emotional experiences, whether they are induced by drugs, music, sex or religion. Thus, for someone whose religious life is highly emotional, the rewards they receive from their spiritual and sexual lives may be indistinguishable. This can be problematic in relationships.

As a child, it hadn’t taken long to learn that our Church was different. We worshipped on a different day than most others, we played Rook™ instead of poker, and we went to our own separate schools. Officially, we didn’t eat many of the foods others ate, we didn’t drink many of the things others drank, we didn’t dance, we didn’t smoke, and we frowned on the use of makeup and jewelry. To top it all off, we had our own somewhat iconoclastic female prophet.

By socially clustering together, we tended to camouflage our differences, at least from ourselves. We seemed to believe that isolation would provide insulation from temptations and from “outsiders.” This produced our own cultural hierarchy and status symbols. We had our own magazines and books. We had our own television shows, record labels and recording “stars.” We had our own food companies, making many food products that only weird people seemed to enjoy. We had our own youth groups. We had rather inward-looking church congregations and we “partied” with ourselves for Saturday night entertainment.

There were some among us, however, who stood out as being particularly odd. In the church of my youth, there was a family in which the mother and girls always wore long-sleeved blouses, with pants under their skirts and dresses. There was a couple who ate so much garlic that you needed to stand upwind, and, there were rail-thin “nuts and berries” folks who seemed to be constantly dyspeptic but smugly believed they would live forever. They had a special scowl of disapproval for the young people of the congregation.

There were also those folks who just looked and talked weird. They always included a, “happy Sabbath,” or a “thank the Lord,” even if you were talking about something as secular as football. They seemed happy, and were typically friendly, with a personality that some have called “Midwest nice”, but it appeared that their highest form of humor consisted of corny stories. They seemed to feel that using painful puns made them clever. Their personae often came across as being more pleasantly plastic than human. Unfortunately, many of our pastors fell into this category.

We actually took pride in being weird. We believed we had “the truth”, so what did we care what others thought of us? We memorized Bible verses that praised those who were “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.” We lustily sang about being pilgrims in a world that was not our home. We didn’t belong here with the worldlings, we were just passing through to our glorious reward. Unfortunately, it took me years to learn that being peculiar, in the biblical sense, meant having a special, or unique, relationship with God, not being weird. I also learned that this world apparently is our home, and will be so for eternity.

Perhaps at this point I should clarify a couple of things. By its very nature, this is a critical and judgmental article. Any critic opens themselves up to receiving criticism in return. This is one reason I have included a “we” in the title, not a “you.” I wholeheartedly include myself in the weird group being examined. The truth is that every group and tribe is weird in some way. That’s one reason they’re a separate group or tribe.

I have also discovered that it is very difficult to define “weird.” Psychologists have struggled with this as well. There seems to be some consensus, however, that you are weird if you are considerably socially awkward or inappropriate; if you are significantly non-conventional; if you don’t mix well with others; if you are really naïve; if you are inappropriately hyperactive or childish; or if you have truly odd beliefs compared to the norm. While the word may be difficult to define, I believe most of us “know it when we see it,” to use the phrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart coined when attempting to define pornography.

Whether or not you believe Ellen G. White was inspired, it is undeniable that she had an enormous influence on our Church and its culture. It is also true that some of her teachings regarding diet and fashion, among others, have caused us to be different from the rest of the world, and have increased our appearance of weirdness. But a summary of her thoughts on this topic reveals that she was actually quite open-minded.

She plainly states that by believing the Bible and obeying God’s commands we will be seen as being different (“singular”) from most other people. But she then tells us not to be weird about it. It is not our duty to be out of fashion. We should not be odd in our dress or diet just to be different. We shouldn’t be any weirder than we have to be to avoid sin and to honor God. In fact, it’s wrong to be different than others unless being different is required for us to do right. Being different just to be different is “positively detestable” and damages our influence with others. God doesn’t require us to have strange, odd doctrines and theories. “There is a medium position in these things. Oh, that we all might wisely find that position and keep it.”

When I imagine the Seventh-day Adventist Church of the future, I see a people who are different from most because they are true to the principles of the Bible and they shun sin. But they are not weird. At least they’re not any weirder than they have to be, or any weirder than most people are. Through wise counsel and example, they immunize their children against using harmful substances, unhealthy sexual relationships and other destructive practices, but they do so in ways that make good sense. They mix freely with others and are not socially awkward or inappropriate. When people think of Adventists they don’t focus on their odd behaviors, doctrines and theories, they don’t tremble at their view of the judgment, but they marvel at the love and compassion they show for others, based on a most loving picture of the character of God.

And they don’t use puns.

–Mark Johnson, MD, is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Vision Board. Email him at [email protected]

*At that time there was no consideration of LGBTQ relationships in our schools, although I am aware of several that occurred, and the boarding school model actually facilitated them.