I recently came across a disturbing story in the New York Times. It’s about the discovery that conservative Hasidic Jews (the group written about by Chaim Potok) have a stubborn subculture of child sexual abuse, often involving highly-placed men in the community.
Years ago, at North Dakota camp meeting near the village of Harvey, a visiting speaker invited himself to my grandparents’ cabin. My grandmother received this as a tremendous compliment: pastors were always held in high esteem in my family, and this was one of her favorite speakers. As I remember the story, after Grandma served him homemade date bars, he offered to be the broker to sell them a building lot in an isolated housing development somewhere in the mountains of the American southeast.
This happened about 25 years ago, when I was still a young pastor. We’d just placed a new member, a Certified Public Accountant, on the congregation’s finance committee. One of the items on the agenda was how we could build up the lagging local church budget. I remember the new committee member said, after his first quick glance at the financial statement, “I don’t know what the problem is. This shows we received a lot of tithe.” The rest of us quickly explained his misunderstanding. “Wait a minute,” he said.
I didn’t choose to be heterosexual. I was born this way. From the time I was old enough to notice (and taking into account that at the time I was far more interested in Lego blocks and model cars) I remember thinking little girls were incredibly charming creatures. My first real exposure to homosexuality came in college, when I had friends who I learned (probably as they were learning it themselves) had attachments to people of their own gender. This was a time when homosexuality was at last being spoken of aloud among ordinary people. It even got a friendlier, non-clinical name: gay.
The teaching and practice concerning clean and unclean meats has been a remarkably enduring element of Seventh-day Adventism. I don’t know what the younger generation of Seventh-day Adventists thinks (what there is left of a younger generation to ask), but among their elders, it still has fuel. Ask most Adventists what makes us special, and diet will be on the list. It isn’t at all unusual to hear someone who’s been absent from the church for decades say, “...
I was interested to learn, a few months ago, that some folks in Silver Spring had discovered how many were "slipping out the back door" of the church. It made me think of those European explorers a few centuries back who came back from sea voyages saying they’d discovered a new land, even though that land was occupied with people who had apparently discovered it long before. We out in the congregations have been experiencing the hemorrhaging for a long time. Especially small congregations.
I needn't tell you that it's difficult for a pastor nowadays to find a place to plant his or her feet on the moral questions of the day. I'm constantly struggling with it. I know what my heart tells me to do, what I think Jesus would do. But then there's this institution to which I've devoted my life, an institution in some ways still firmly rooted in the 19th century, that has its own expectations. Most of those expectations are excellent and praiseworthy. Others are difficult to navigate.
I'm going to claim (for I get to write my own history) that my questions on this topic originated at Sheyenne River Academy when, in order to get more compliance, they suggested that the rules they gave us were not just rules but something more, something holy and right and true. Yet we knew from looking at pictures of Jesus and church pioneers that clean shaves and short haircuts weren't a moral universal. But of course, we were teenagers, and for teenagers being contrary is as natural as having spots on your face.
Growing up in the Seventh-day Adventist church I was taught that Scripture demanded perfect sexual purity before marriage. As I think back on it, the way the subject was framed made it seem almost a virtue to be ignorant about sex, naive and vulnerable. Implied (and sometimes said) was that sexual interest wasn’t compatible with faith. And believe me, we were interested! All of us, even the most pious. Some managed to keep the urge under control, or at least secret.