"Less is changing than you think," explained Ryan Bell in his last sermon as pastor of the Hollywood Adventist Church. The church was close to full and it was clear that many had come because of this change—to try to understand. But the tone of the service itself, the liturgy, the multiple prayer times, the music by the band and the cellist was about much greater change than just personnel. In his remarks framing the Holy Saturday service commemorating the disciples' sadness and questions about their dead God, Pastor Ryan remarked that he prefers the Eastern Orthodox phrase: The Great Sabbath.
I sat with my tearful wife and friends and tried to understand the greatness of my tradition through this change.
There is no single reason. Each time I talk with Ryan or a board member or a conference leader it's about returning more tithe, publicly critiquing the church, discomfort with remnant theology, social justice advocacy, different generations misunderstanding each other, personal issues, tiredness, changing Adventist identity, and new opportunities.
Ryan Bell is not just leaving Hollywood Adventist Church or the employ of the Southern California Conference. He is taking a break from working as a pastor. (He's not the only pastor named Bell to do this recently.)
Less is changing than you think.
The purple church, as Hollywood Adventist is affectionately called by its members, exists as a far-reaching symbol as much as it is a small community. (It looks purple thanks to a clear glaze that has slowly changed to purple from the sun.) Ryan has ministered very locally in Los Angeles while modeling a prophetic vision in Adventism and beyond that combines social ethics, public advocacy, creative arts in worship, and community organizing.
Like a good symbol, what has happened there has often had multiple meanings elsewhere. That's why Ryan Bell's departure seems to mean more than just another burned out pastor taking a break. Does this mean that the Church is changing less than we want or that Adventists cannot bring their brains to church, much less their friends and family?
While I wrote that phrase down during the sermon, the more I think about it the more I have to disagree with my friend and pastor (we can do that constructively in our version of Adventism).
More is changing than you think.
Both at Hollywood and in the wider Adventist community—our interconnection means it's hard to predict what this change really means. But our Great Sabbath pause gives us a spiritual threshold as we look at the past and future. This idea of the liminal guided the sermon titled Sacred Imagination. According to Pastor Ryan:
Liminality describes a state of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of social rituals such as coming of age rituals in traditional societies. A young person might be sent out into the wilderness alone, for example, to accomplish a feat of manhood. In this space he is neither the child he once was, in the protection of his parents, nor the adult that he will be when he returns from this journey. During this liminal phase there are no promises, no certainties. The person stands on the threshold of something new, facing the abyss.
Holy Saturday is liminal space with a capital “L”—the terrifying pause between heartbeats, the darkest part of the night before a new day dawns.
That subversive paradox gives me hope. Ryan Bell graduated from Weimar College, a place that Ted Wilson has called the blueprint for Adventist education. I can think of hundreds of now forward-thinking Adventists who were first theologically formed by a similar fundamentalism. And the demographics show it: more change than remain the same.
Church at Hollywood came after a week of touring great cathedrals and museums in Rome, Florence, and Paris with Pacific Union College students. Much of the beauty we saw was created by one of the most morally bankrupt institutions in human history. But within its own patriarchy, sexism, racism, classism and ignorance, people subverted elements and reformed parts. And the world changed.
Those who try to vindicate Adventism through bizarre conspiracies and the politics of personal destruction or use their institutional power to shut down creativity and debate only create more of what they fear. They cannot appeal to wisdom or the fruit of the spirit so they push others out. Their certainty lies through exclusivity. Paradoxically, that's what separates and defines the human condition. Those who recognize the fundamental equality of all cannot but represent a threat to those who don't.
I watched the film Lincoln (2012) while flying back from Zurich. In it Abraham Lincoln quotes common notion number one from Euclid's Elements: "Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another." It is a powerfully subversive axiom drawn from the structure of the universe. And for those of us who believe in God, this calls us to a radical understanding of our relationships. If we are all equal in God's sight then what exactly is the problem again?
Equality wins. That's why I have hope. Love wins because equality always opens its arms wider, welcoming and affirming as Christ taught over and over.
The film did not note Euclid's fifth common notion which is that the whole is greater than the parts even though this clearly guided the preservation of the Union. And it guides Christianity. And it guides my imagination of the sacred.
The exclusivists cannot handle their truth because within the truths of the past lie the seeds of all transformation. As the head elder of the Hollywood Adventist Church said on that Great Sabbath, we're going to continue being as purple as ever.
Over time social change comes more or less to all. However, that change becomes more personally and globally transformational the more we do it together.