Outside the Alamo 1: Diversity University

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Published:
July 4, 2015

In the morning, they arrive. From every direction, carrying a whelming arsenal like General Santa Anna, representing every race and nearly every nation on earth, dressed modestly and crossing crosswalks in orderly confusion, masses stream toward the Adventist hive.

The Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center in San Antonio brims with contrasts. In one booth elegant bottles of free-run Vega Del Castillo grape juice from Valencia, Spain (“We have 900 years of history” the host informs me) enjoy communion with Coffig, a roasted fig beverage coffee alternative from California. The neighboring booth features oatmeal, lavender, and mint soaps. Adventist Peace Fellowship shares the floor with Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries. Production crews from Hope Channel, Voice of Prophecy, 3ABN, and Global Mission project their various voices. Targeted regional ventures such as Beehive International: God’s Mission to the Cities and Jeeva Jyothi (Living Light) Ministry to India greet visitors.

Publishers emerge: The Encyclopedia of Sermon Outlines, Pacific Press, Remnant Publications, Editorial Montemorelos, Spectrum, AdventSource, and Review and Herald Publishing Association, which occupies a space ten-feet-by-ten-feet—the perfect size for a burial plot. Victor Issa sits amid his evocative bronze sculptures. Promoting their educational benefits are Babcock University from Ilishan–Remo, Nigeria, and Holbrook Indian School; while Southwestern’s full-sized, head-pivoting, roaring Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton stands near Union’s computer-designed, hand-crafted, foot-high Lego characters.

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Domefuls of talk have been dedicated the past five years to “revival and reformation.” The question almost no one asks: What does a revived, reformed person actually look like? As it turns out, we look . . . different.

About 93 percent of the Seventh-day Adventist Church lives outside North America. In 216 of the 237 countries recognized by the United Nations we hold an established presence. We employ in publications and oral work 947 languages and dialects. Nine hundred forty-seven. That’s not even counting emoticon. ;0

On the other side of revival we are diverse, intense, intelligent people whose trust in God and in God’s community has waxed and waned. Living with sandblasted hopes and achieved dreams, we remain resilient and courageous, giving and forgiving, gracious and humble, hard-working and honest.

When our conclave meets every five years to choose our church leader, we don’t send black or white smoke up the chimney because, you know, Adventists don’t smoke.

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Overheard:
“God wants a holy people. We shouldn’t be doing that.”

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Is holiness—code for revival-and-reformation—merely avoiding sin? Jesus wasn’t known by what He didn’t do. He healed. He touched people. He befriended known sinners. He lived with and taught disciples who were as dense as longhorn cheese blocks. He challenged the existing narrative. He often walked 25 miles a day.

God’s Holy Spirit is engagingly pro-active. We do not proclaim a gospel of avoidance. Author Marilynne Robinson observes, “There’s no reason to imagine that God would choose to surround Himself into infinite time with people whose only distinction is that they fail to transgress.”

Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 12 about why His kingdom is more than being spotless. When an evil spirit is expelled, it drifts aimlessly looking for an oasis until it thinks, Hey, maybe I should try my old home. Upon returning, it finds the place perfectly clean, but empty. Great! the evil spirit muses. I’ll round up seven of my friends, all of them worse than I am, and we’ll totally trash this place. The end for the host is exponentially worse.

What is Jesus saying? Bad stuff is not so much tweezed out as it is squeezed out by good. When we concentrate on what is true and honorable and just and pure and lovely and gracious and praiseworthy there’s no room for evil, now or later. But when we focus on merely eradicating sins, endeavoring to purify and purge the flock, we become sin-centered and susceptible. Ellen White declares, “The very act of looking for evil in others develops evil in those who look.”

God’s people do stand for what is wholly good and healthful, willing to battle human trafficking and wanton violence and unrepentant greed-and-chemical-laced corporations that poison and flood our planet with spirit and body cancers, killing our oceans, our loved ones, and our bees.

Our fight is the good fight of healing, informed, authentic, trusting life in Jesus. In his book Leap Over a Wall, Eugene Peterson writes, “Holy is our best word to describe that life—the human aliveness that comes from dealing with God-Alive. We’re most human when we deal with God. Any other way of life leaves us less human, less ourselves.”

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The 2015 NBA Finals, which ended 18 days ago, provided a study in differing styles featuring Golden State guard Steph Curry and Cleveland forward LeBron James.

A marvel of balance and deftness, doe-eyed Curry is cross-over behind-the-back skippity-hop step-back rise-like-a-hummingbird quick-release three and swoop toward half court before the ball splashes through the net. By contrast, locomotive LeBron brings bent-arm power and speed, a massive g-force pushing down the lane for driving layups or drilling fade-aways. Court-savvy and disciplined, glowering and intense, he imposes his terrific will.

Ted Norman Clair Wilson, administratively speaking, is LeBron. In itself this is neither good nor bad. Many astute basketball observers consider LeBron the best player in the world. Apart from his phenomenal physical gifts, though, what makes LeBron exceptional is his willingness to listen and adapt. He has learned to appreciate, involve, and depend on his diverse teammates. He sees his job is not to purify but to unify.

So we see “King James” dishing assists to heavily tattooed journeyman Mike Miller, to undrafted Aussie guard Matthew Dellavedova, to veteran New York Knicks castoff J. R. Smith, to undrafted Russian center Timofey (Timofey?) Mozgov. Not one of these players possesses LeBron’s blend of power and speed. Yet he realizes that without their valuable contributions, imperfect though they are, there is no team.

Perfection is not the goal. The goals are teamwork and winning. And as nearly every championship team heartily professes—love.

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Pablo Picasso was once asked by a man, “Why don’t you just paint things the way they are?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Picasso responded.

Irritated, the man yanked out his wallet and extracted a photograph. “This is my wife!” he yelled, handing over the picture. “That is what she looks like.”

Picasso studied the photo for some time. At last he said, “It must be difficult to be so very small and to have no arms or legs.”

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Celebrating diversity does not imply reveling in inaccuracy. Excellence ought to be prized. For example, most Adventists cannot spell our own church name correctly. It’s Seventh-day Adventist (hyphen, small d), not Seventh Day Adventist or Seventh-Day Adventist. Nope. No matter how many of our churches spell it incorrectly, no matter that The Associated Press spells it wrong.

In fact, above the Upper Gate C entrance to the Georgia Dome in 2010, bookended with official Bible-cross-flame Adventist Church logos, you found emblazoned on a giant banner these actual words: “Welcome to the 59th General Conference Session of the Seventh-Day Adventist.”

Good grief.

Question: Is “Sabbath evening” Friday night or Saturday night? Whenever I ask this of my mostly Adventist students at Union College their answer is evenly divided. Adventists simply don’t know. If I further ask, “Is the Sabbath on Saturday or Friday?” they invariably respond, “Saturday.” Of course the correct answer is, “Both.” That’s why it’s perfectly fine for Adventists to be more precise about which part of Sabbath they are referring to by saying, for instance, “Saturday,” though the word will not often be found in official church periodicals or news releases.

Saturday, Saturday, Saturday.

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In her superb TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” author Chimamanda Adichie tells of arriving in the United States to go to university and meeting her new roommate.

“She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music,’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

“What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. . . . The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.“

“The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity.”

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God is a diversity fanatic. Look around. Every iris, every snowflake, every galaxy is unique. Not content with a firefly and a potato bug, God conjured up three hundred thousand species of beetles and weevils.

Within the cavernous halls of the Alamodome, you find melanin-impoverished ‘Muricans who know one foreign phrase: “I’d like a burrito, gracias.” Beside them stride colorful residents of other countries who speak five languages and will take home Riverwalk shopping residue and a dozen photos of the airplane wing.

But those are single stories. Beneath each person pulses a distinct heartbeat. When we entreat, “Tell me your story” and listen beyond the words, when we allow sisters and brothers to share their heartaches and dreams, it’s like the caged birds inside break out and swirl upward with beating wings.

Somehow we must remove the sin from synergy. Godly revival cannot continue wallowing in the muck of misapprehension. Truth is progressive and multifaceted—as wonderful as a squirming newborn, as bright as a welder’s arc, as calm as an alpine lake, as wild as Einstein’s hair.

Will we learn the lessons of this university? Before the bean counters take over? Before the truth squads bearing creedal checklists descend? Before the Rules and Regulations Regiment pick up rifles full of tofu bullets? We’d better check ourselves before we wreck ourselves.

And leave room for a few bean counters, too.

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The salient question of this General Conference session emerges: unity or uniformity? For life on planet Earth, the chasm between the two choices yawns infinitely wide.

Unity is based on internals. Uniformity is based on uniforms.

Uniformity is a melting pot. Unity is a fruit salad.

Unity builds a restaurant menu. Uniformity maintains, “I must like everything on the menu. Otherwise, that item is gone.”

Uniformity drives the precise speed limit—in the fast lane.

Unity is creative. Uniformity is coercive.

Uniformity wears black. Unity wears periwinkle and auburn and forest green and buttercup and fuchsia.

Unity promotes encouragement. Uniformity produces criticism.

Uniformity is one race, one gender, one age, one orientation, and one socioeconomic level. Unity is not.

Unity is a functioning body. Uniformity is all eyes.

Uniformity breeds deception and fear. Unity fosters courage and compassion.

Unity honors conscience. Uniformity erects creeds.

Uniformity works toward a goal, but the trip is riddled with suspicion and as bitter as bug spray. Unity progresses joyfully.

Unity is music. Uniformity is formulas.

Adolph Hitler demanded uniformity. Jesus of Nazareth propels unity.

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We are too good for intolerance and gossip. Instead, we are borne and nurtured by civility and respect and old-fashioned kindness. “Do you not know,” Paul asked the believers in Rome, who apparently did not, “that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (2:4). God asks the same question of us today.

Those who disagree with us are not The Enemy. It’s all We here. We who believe different things, go to different schools, work at different jobs, eat different foods, wear different clothes, listen to different music, celebrate different holidays, watch different shows, speak different languages and dialects, vote for different candidates, and live in different neighborhoods. Our diversity-fan God shows us our church can be immensely different and still be We.

We are immersed in the sublime paradox of grace, resonant with random meaning, thick with life’s marrow. Succumbing to God’s kindness, We discover ourselves and enjoy the bright journey.

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Next post: “NAD Leaves the Nest.”

Chris Blake is an associate professor of English and communication at Union College and the author of many books and hundreds of articles.

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