“I don’t care about the 28 fundamentals,” my young adult close friend confided, “as much as I care about how my church treats people.”
Adventist Fundamental Beliefs often appear like the apparition of Jacob Marley, rattling chains and wagging a bony finger. Our beliefs ought to be more like Jesus of Nazareth, arms wide open in a meadow filled with waving sunflowers, beckoning our embrace. At their core, Adventist beliefs should be liberating.
A few years ago, our son, Geoffrey Nelson-Blake, wrote the following:
“This past September, I traveled to a retreat center outside New York City for the opening weekend of an interfaith Community Organizing Residency through Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice. Our cohort consisted of 25 new community organizers from across the U.S.: seven Jews, six Muslims, one Buddhist, and 11 Christians (one Adventist—me).
“Entering my room where I would be sleeping for the next three nights, I met my roommate, Rabbi Adam Greenwald, a Rabbinic Fellow at IKAR, a Jewish community in Los Angeles. As we were both situating our suitcases and hanging up our shirts and jackets, Rabbi Adam turned and asked, ‘What's your faith tradition?’
"'Seventh-day Adventist,' I answered. The rabbi raised his eyebrows.
"'Wow, I've never met an Adventist before,' he told me. ‘Can I ask you a question?’
“Oh, boy. What kind of crazy belief or lifestyle choice am I going to have to explain now?
"'Sure, no problem,' I said, keeping my (Rook) cards close to my chest.
“The rabbi leaned forward. ‘Why aren't all Christians Adventists?’
“I just stood there, contemplating his gracious question.
"'I mean,' he continued, ‘how do people breathe without the Sabbath?’ Rabbi Adam smiled and hung up his final shirt.
“It was then that I knew I was in the right place.”
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My friend John Wagner attempted for about seven years to introduce a 29th Fundamental Belief, entitled, “Biblical Social Responsibility.” Essentially it was based on Micah 6:8: “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
The paragraph John provided was eventually reduced to one line and inserted this week into Fundamental Belief 11: “Growing in Christ.” Here’s the line: “We are also called to follow Christ’s example by compassionately ministering to the physical, mental, social, emotional, and spiritual needs of humanity.”
I’m glad it’s there now. But as the Fundamental Beliefs were instituted in 1980, I’m wondering how my church neglected something so essential for so long.
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Our Fundamental Beliefs should be used as we employ multiplication tables. We don’t go around reciting the fundamentals of mathematics ad nauseam: “Six times six is 36, six times seven is 42 . . .” Knowledge of the tables is best evidenced by application— to figure life out and determine how things actually add up.
In both sports and music, one practices the fundamentals toward the game or performance. Michael Jordan shot 500 jump shots each practice session. Prior to his concerts, legendary pianist Paderewski practiced his scales.
Many years ago, my father watched from the sidelines while I shot baskets at night in an empty gym. I was feeling lazy, enjoying the echoing thud of my dribble and the squeals of my shoes, and I began carelessly, haphazardly flinging the ball at the hoop. My father, a superb basketball coach, observed a few moments before giving advice that made a lasting impression.
“Don’t practice missing,” he said. “You might get good at it.”
What we practice matters. That’s why Jesus left us examples of active learning. For instance, Chuck Scriven told me this week, “I used to feel insecure about foot-washing until I realized that I should make the first gesture. Then everything changed. I became twice blessed.”
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This week, the Alamodome showcased a mix of eloquence and mutuality, passion and compassion, rancor and shortsightedness. Genial humor and cordiality yielded at times to lining up before microphones like shrieking gulls at a dump. Prayer appeared to be a way of getting my will to be done, in heaven as it is on earth.
However, I am thankful that it was all in plain view. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.” He was speaking to transparency in the journalistic enterprise and, in the long view, to the presence of a periscope camera at a General Conference session. A shroud of secrecy is eventually a death shroud, particularly the demise of trust.
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U. S. President Lyndon Johnson once asked his press secretary, Bill Moyers, to say grace at dinner. Moyers had previously been a Baptist minister. He dutifully bent his head and began to pray.
“Speak up, Bill,” Johnson said.
Moyers replied, “I wasn’t talking to you, Mr. President.”
In communicating, the first consideration should be the question of audience. To whom are we speaking? Have we begun our conversation by listening? Often we are talking to ourselves, providing answers to questions no one is asking.
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William Wordsworth muses in his poem, “The Tables Turned”:
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.
Trapped in paper and ink, beliefs can be as moribund as specimens pinned to a board. Lacking application, our doctrinal seed encounters no soil, finds no purchase, germinates no growth. Yet through the transforming power of God’s gracious love our bodies turn into incarnational sanctuaries. God engraves His laws of love upon the holy ark of our brains. We move from propositional truth to relational healing.
In doing love, we come to believe it. Jesus proclaims, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). We believe what we do more than we do what we believe. Wherever we invest our time, energies, and money we invest our confidence and faith.
Helping people obtain financial assistance, proper housing, and adequate health care moves pro-life past pre-birth. To care for the environment, our eternal home base; to speak out against racism and the moneyed interests of tobacco; to pray for the pariahs of society; to guard the rights and lift the hopes of the downtrodden; to battle nonviolently and unceasingly for peace—this is to believe. All true Christians are activists.
An incalculable difference exists between words of love on stone and the loving Word in flesh. Love’s clearest manifestation is Jesus, who rebukes His disciples for wanting to rain fire down on enemies; who claims His Father makes the sun shine on the unrighteous; who loves everyone, everywhere; who uses kindness to bring us to repentance (Rom. 2:4); who "desires all to be saved" (1 Tim. 2:4), "not wishing that any should perish" (2 Peter 3:9).
As I wrote in Searching for a God to Love, “God is more a poet than a police officer. He’s more an acrobat than an accountant, more a midwife than an anesthetist. He values relationships more than rules. He’s more interested in our nearness than our neatness. He desires more to be loved than to be understood.”
Does that reality come through clearly in our 4,200-word Fundamental Beliefs statement? In his Spring 2015 Spectrum article “Fundamental Beliefs: Curse or Blessing?” Rolf J. Pohler allows that any Adventist credo “should be treated as descriptive and informative rather than as prescriptive and normative.”
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The following brief statement is easier on the memory.
Five Fundamentals of Discipleship
1. Aim (Jesus and joy)
2. Assurance (freedom, hope, and peace)
3. Adventure/Advocacy (love)
4. Authenticity (honesty)
5. Accountability (faithfulness: prayer, time, money, study, social)
We live by grace, in peace, for love, with joy. “For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power” (1 Cor. 4:20).
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“I can’t wait for Jesus to come.”
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Wednesday was a dismal day. After the vote I felt as if I’d been kicked in the gut by a mule. Then I felt enraged. It would be difficult to more effectively slam the door in the faces of many Adventist young adults. For them and many, many others of us this matter is not a “distraction from mission”—it is our mission: Treat all people on the margins, including females, with basic human dignity. Recognize God’s calling to everyone. Affirm and respect all spiritual gifts. Extend an open hand, not an upraised one; a microphone, not a muzzle.
Yes, I know the arguments from the other side: This is not about respect at all. Women simply have another role to play. Everyone has different gifts. We should trust God’s revealed will. But the bottom-line reality is it’s God’s ordained will that women stay just a little bit second-class.
Well, here’s my bottom line: That is not my God.
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Fundamental Belief 29 does not pronounce, “Seventh-day Adventists must 100 percent believe every syllable of these Fundamental Beliefs or they cannot be Adventists.” You also won’t find that statement in the prologue. Nope. Not there. This is why we alter our official beliefs every five years: Beliefs must change to stay alive. Otherwise they appear as lively as molasses in the freezer.
In addition, you decide your incubation for belief. No committees can compel your conscience. Paul assures at the end of Romans 8 that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. No General Conference edict will come between you and God. As Eleanor Roosevelt observed, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
We don’t have to submit to the exclusive GC version of What an Adventist Is. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” not the GC. (They are not synonyms.) Somehow we must get past believing the church is the General Conference. The church is people who are bound by our shared love for God and for one another. I care more about what my Sabbath School thinks than about what the GC thinks, no matter how long something essential is neglected.
Instead of stopping at the Holiness R Us superstore, we can realize that fellowship takes place not among perfect people but among honest ones. People who profess no allegiance to Christ can exhibit Christian behavior, just as those who claim to be Christian can misbehave in unchristian ways. But what a beautiful congruence takes place when God’s daughters and sons freely respond, “Yes, I will love as Jesus loves,” and actually do it.
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Language is the fabric of thought and action. I have written before (see here) how much clearer, more ennobling than conservative and liberal are the terms peripheral and central. As a continuing education student of Diversity University, I am learning to cherish what is central over what is peripheral. For example, those people I come in contact with are central—as is the whole of humanity, most of whom I will never meet.
You can self-determine for yourself what is central. You can be an E. G. White Adventist or a Red-Letter Adventist. You can be a guardian Adventist or a seeker Adventist. You can be a Church Manual Adventist or a biblical social justice Adventist. You can be a Netherlands Adventist or a Namibian Adventist. You can be an Advindicate Adventist or a Spectrum Adventist. You can be a headship Adventist or (yes) a women’s ordination Adventist. You choose.
As Barbara Kingsolver notes, “And then if you’re lucky, you’ll find a way to live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides.” That description illustrates the joy of living with defiant optimism.
I have decided not to be a Madventist, a Sadventist, a Dadventist (“because my parents are”), a Fadventist or a Badventist. I am a Radventist—following the radical (literally “to the root”) life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
And I’m not leaving.
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My friend and former student Melissa Howell is a pastor in the Carmichael Seventh-day Adventist Church in Sacramento, California. Shortly after the ordination-jurisdiction vote, she posted the following on Facebook.
“What will I do now? . . . I will keep talking to Jesus. I will keep reading my Bible. I will keep baptizing your children. I will keep marrying your sons and daughters. I will keep dedicating your babies. I will keep speaking the hope of Jesus into the lives of His people every single time I am given the opportunity and the honor. I will keep teaching your teenagers and I will keep wrestling with your young adults. I will keep opening the scriptures with you in study, seeking the face of Jesus and begging for His help. I will keep writing books and I will keep telling stories and I will keep encouraging my children to embrace this church I call mine. I will keep standing beside your hospital beds just minutes before you are wheeled into surgery. I will cry with you beside the gravesites of your loved ones . . . In short, no matter what you decide to call me, I know who I am, and I will keep serving those that God has placed in my path.”
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After the vote Wednesday, I saw a woman outside the Alamodome wearing a sign in bold letters that read SAD. Yes, I thought, that’s exactly how I feel. Then I realized she was from the Southern Asia Division.
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In the final assessment, the fundamentals ARE about how we treat people. What is more amazing: healing the lame, the blind, the sick, or caring for them with diligence and humility and genuine love, day after day after day? Lorne Sanny, the founder of Navigators, was once asked how you could tell if you were really a servant. He said, “By how you act when you’re treated like one.”
Some fundamentals ought to be spoken in hushed tones—incomprehensible, fathomless. This week I heard about the wedding of two lesbians, where the sweet little grandfather of one said, “I don’t know how I feel about this, but I know how I feel about you.”
Our truest fundamentals are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. The accelerating urgency of passing time cannot alter, diminish, or erase those. They are wrapped in the curve of space, the infinite miracle of now.
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Next and final post: “Surprise, Surprise”
Chris Blake is an associate professor of English and communication at Union College and the author of many books and hundreds of articles. He is a member of the Spectrum General Conference reporting team in San Antonio, Texas.
Photo Credit: Steven Norman / NAD