•A young academic moves to another city for a position in a major state university. “Do you attend a church there?” I ask. “There’s a church not far from me, but it reminded me too much of the small depressing churches I've previously survived,” he replies. “I’ve never gone back.”
•A retired pastor and wife live in Loma Linda, where there are dozens of congregations. “We go to church twice every Sabbath,” they tell me. “We watch two church services on TV, and we don’t even have to get dressed.”
Suffering is the subjective experience of evil. Not merely a threatening external presence in nature, it is a disturbing challenge that touches us in our primordial foundations and certainties. It cruelly becomes an eroding event from within. Its universality doesn't respect age, gender, religion or ethnicity. This compels us to try to understand and make some sense of it, knowing in advance that whatever the resulting interpretation, it will always remain a precarious, fragmented and insufficient belief in the unexpected and weary path of life.
A Devastated Dream
On March 6, 1857, Dred Scott held on to a dream. Together with his wife Harriett, he stood before the highest court in the land awaiting a verdict that could change his life. Having been compelled to accompany his enslaver, John Emerson, to the so-called “free” states of Illinois and Wisconsin (then a district), he thought he would have an opportunity to taste that freedom for himself when Emerson died.
In 1905 the Spanish philosopher George Santayana published Reason in Common Sense, in which he penned the often quoted (and misquoted) phrase, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It seems we have the same problem in the Adventist Church. One of the great travesties of Adventism is that the church in America is still structurally segregated. While anyone can attend any church they want, regional conferences were specifically created for Black Adventists, and it remains so to this day.
Life is complicated and we cannot handle too much – especially complexity that is not essential in our day-to-day activities. Thus we quickly and often subconsciously search for the minimum complexity necessary to navigate daily life so we are not paralyzed in decision making. In so doing, we remember and catalogue past evaluations so we don’t have to repeat the laborious process each time we encounter sufficiently similar situations.
As I’m teaching a Sabbath School class one day, I refer in passing to the Three Angels Message. A young woman raises her hand. “I’m embarrassed to admit this,” she says. “All my life I’ve seen three angels associated with our church. I know they have something to do with the time of the end. But I don’t know what makes them important.” Some of the oldsters in the class claimed they had at least a basic grasp of the Three Angels’ Message. Most of the younger ones admitted they were in the same boat as the questioner: they knew it was eschatological, but not what the significance was.
The Sabbath and the Second Advent of Christ are God's gifts to all humanity, not only to the SDA Church. This is the reason why SDA mission shouldn't be that of defending an exclusively ecclesiocentric interpretation of both, as this presidential address does. We should never think in terms of “possessing” these truths or maniacally trying to keep them “pure”. Otherwise, as in Matthew's eschatological parable of the talents, the SDA Church would assume the role of the hoarding and obsessive-compulsive servant rather than the open-minded faithfulness of the praised servants.
I’m not really big on Christmas. I wasn’t always that way. Some of my most precious childhood memories are centered around Christmas in our small family home in South Norwood, London. Hundreds of greeting cards were neatly hung on strings that stretched from corner to corner in the living and dining rooms. These were accompanied with colorful decorations and balloons. As we got closer to Christmas day, we would be comforted each evening with the smell of roasted sweet chestnuts and other baked treats.