In the distance, we can see two hills. Each is inviting us to climb it. Each will present its challenges, each its dangers. Each will leave us wondering whether we would have been better advised to put our energies into climbing the other. It will only become clear later that they are both hills of punishment and suffering.

The first is the hill of Sisyphus. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus had offended the gods and was condemned to the most severe punishment they could contrive. And so, Sisyphus’s fate was to push a huge stone endlessly up a hill. It served no purpose. When he reached the top, the rock would immediately begin to fall back to the bottom of the hill. Sisyphus then had to return to the bottom and begin pushing again—ceaselessly, throughout all eternity. Sisyphus is not the master of his stone. This is a picture of the futility of all human effort. It is the classic expression of the meaninglessness of life.

The second is the hill of Golgotha. The place of the skull. It was littered with instruments of torture. Criminals would be taken there and pinned to a cross, there to suffer an excruciating death. The dying could take days leaving the victim twisted in agony. But at least Golgotha eventually provided the relief of death. It was such a death that Jesus died. Whether Golgotha is a picture of just another futile attempt to challenge the power of empire, or of meaninglessness eventually transformed into vibrant meaning, is ours to decide.

Which picture tells the truth about human life?

For some of us the lure of the hill of Sisyphus may have been strong. So many of our human plans end in dust and disappointment. So many humans experience intolerable pain and pointless suffering. The universe seems to consist of unimaginably vast swathes of space, of void. We are like rats on a wheel which takes us precisely nowhere. Stand in any city and watch the rush hour unfold and you will see Sisyphus’s story retold. There’s no meaning to it all. It is better to face up to this brute fact and live as courageously as we can before oblivion swallows us.

It was Christian belief as embodied in Adventism which helped me to resist the magnetic force of such meaninglessness. And the attraction was strong. It was in the Adventist church that I learned that the next step was not struggling back up the hill of Sisyphus but, against my instincts, down. Down to a garden tomb where Jesus had been trapped by another stone. But He was master of His stone. He pushed it back by the power of His glory, greater than any exhibited by the Greek gods.

And so, from here it all begins.

It was from the vantage point of Seventh-day Adventism that I rejected the pull of meaninglessness. But there needs to be substance to the meaning which takes its place. And the pull of meaninglessness needs to be met with continuing resistance.

It is the Sabbath which provides space to consider what that meaning might be. That time ringfenced by God to give us the regular opportunity to get off the rat wheel, and reflect on who we are, what life is, who God is. To cultivate our knowledge of the God of all meaning. That time is so easily eroded in our lives. It is not possible to create it for yourself. The Sabbath is our moment of opportunity to discern and review the meaning of our lives. During the Sabbath we will feel our way towards life’s parameters. If we inhabit it wisely, we will in time find our direction of travel. We will find what we are called to. We will find
what we were put on this earth to become.

That will only happen if we come to sense, “in the inward parts” as the Psalmist says, that we are indeed loved by God. It is a commonplace in the church to hear that God loves us, but that idea can so easily float on the surface of our consciousness. It may become just a pious cliche. We may—God help us—take it for granted.

But stop. Listen. Know. We are loved. Loved by God. And loved by God through others. When we come to this recognition—and it may be slow in dawning—then everything changes. The need to explain and justify yourself and your actions before the watching world is gone. And with it, the demand that other people justify themselves to you. It changes the very nature of a community. It creates trust, breeds authenticity, and generates value. The Adventist church has offered us an enormous gift in the shape of a trusting community if we will only form it and sustain it.

And towards the center of that community is the communion service, the table of welcome. Its significance can so easily get lost in the formalities, but the communion table is the very expression of generosity of spirit. Everything is given. All can gather round it without qualification other than that we trust that we are loved by God. It is not ours to exclude. And this has little to do with doctrines, mission statements and all the paraphernalia of a religious organization. This is about the desire for truth to take root in our inward being; it’s about wisdom in my secret heart (Psalm 51.6).

As we sit around the welcome table of God, we see faces we do not recognize. They are not our type. In truth, they may make us feel uncomfortable or they may irritate us. These are people we would not have befriended in other circumstances. Even people we think should not be there. But they sit around God’s welcome table. It is not ours to ignore them. The Adventist church has done us the enormous favor of placing us among people we would not especially wish to associate with. They help us to know ourselves by contrast. We come to the table as family.

As the hill of Sisyphus still looms, the promise of the advent makes it clear that it will not be “business as usual” forever. No endless, pointless striving. There is some sort of end point, a focus. Our traditional ways of describing it may sometimes be rather naive, but the basic teaching remains. We do not live in an unending cycle.

This scenario of the hill of Sisyphus and the hill of Calvary is, I suppose, another way of describing what Adventists call “the Great Controversy between Christ and Satan.” Order against chaos, fertility against wilderness, relationship against aloneness, love against indifference, hope against despair.

My attempt here is to be creative, to try to make familiar theological formula come alive again in some hearts which may have become dulled by over-familiarity. Adventist teaching absolutely demands that we be creative. God was the Creator. We are made in the image of God. What else but to be creative? But the church has always been nervous about this logic because creatives threaten to become subversives.

Yet who was more subversive, more creative than Jesus? Old things made new. Ancient customs turned on their head. The marginal and despised loved. The powerful challenged. Stories which burst with meaning. For me, it is those words which ring out in the gospels which give life. It is the self-giving of Jesus which fills me.

The church responds to our desire for security and order in this chill universe. And there is every reason to be grateful for structure and direction … until it begins to constrain and oppress, as all large organizations threaten to do.

The church has many flaws, organizational, doctrinal, missional. But what it has done above all has been to give us—me at least—the assurance that my life has meaning, come what may. If only I will seek it. Above all, the church has taught me that I am loved. Loved with a passion. From that everything flows.

The second Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, knew that and it gave direction to his difficult life. Strength to do his task, a task which was monumental, impossible. And he too died climbing upwards—in an air crash. Probably assassinated. Under the weight of his stone.

Amid yet another political crisis, he wrote:

“But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone—or Something—and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.” (see Hammarskjold, Dag (1964). Markings. Alfred A. Knopf. p. XII)

The church long ago taught me that I need not be crushed by the oppressive rock of Sisyphus. I am raised by the dislodged stone in Gethsemane. I remain profoundly grateful to the church for developing in me the capacity to find meaning in a bewildering world. I remain determined not to allow the church itself to become another stone.

Michael Pearson is principal lecturer emeritus at Newbold College in the U.K. For many years he taught topics in ethics, philosophy, and spirituality. He and his wife, Helen, write a weekly blog Email him at: [email protected]