“It is the work of true education. . . to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men's thought.”
– Education, Chapter 1, page 17
Ironically, the first time I came across this paean to independent thought was when feverishly memorizing quotations for a soon-coming high school exam. Flipping furiously through a thick stack of notecards, I focused on each line until the words blurred together. Every missed letter counted against my grade, and I wanted to get it exactly right.
At the time, I was a straight-A student at a tiny, 40-student, Adventist boarding academy at the end of a dust-choked road in the rural South. Part of a small cohort of educational institutions nostalgic for a Rockwellesque Adventist past, we prided ourselves in an accurate reflection of “the Blueprint,” an educational master plan dictated to Ellen White on two tablets of stone in the late 19th century (later transcribed to CD-ROMs for easier distribution). Others could claim to be “inspired by,” but we alone had implemented the Blueprint to the fullest specification, right down to a farm-grown vegan diet, half days of back-breaking physical labor, and girls in billowing denim skirts.
Eager to please and fresh off a thousand-hour flight from Guam where my parents were stationed as missionaries, I dove in like a thirsty sponge – absorbing, assimilating, regurgitating. The days were long and vigorous, and I quickly learned how to tame my animal passions and channel my hormonal urges into hymn singing and Bible memorization with only occasional masturbatory lapses. Evidently successful, I soon found myself thrust into the spotlight as a campus leader and “internationally renowned speaker” (at least that’s what they printed on the beast-filled flyers designed to entice strangers to turn off the TV and spend their evenings listening to a high school student preach).
Graduation came and went and I enrolled in the two-year nursing program on the disorienting and gleaming campus of Southern Adventist University. Because Jesus was likely returning to earth within the next five years, I needed to finish college post-haste so as to maximize the number of years I’d have to warn everyone of the carnage to come. This was a mission I took seriously, so instead of perfecting my racquetball game and going on vespers dates, I began volunteering for a new organization that had sprouted out of the feverish apocalyptic imagination of the Adventist faithful: the General Youth Conference.
GYC (changed to Generation of Youth for Christ after a dispute with the Adventist Church) was founded to counteract a perceived lack of focus from the mainstream General Conference youth department on the dissemination of Three Angel’s Messages™. If the pew warmers in churches around the world were God’s army, we were his Special Forces - battle-hardened warriors in hand-to-hand combat with the forces of Satan and other theological liberals like him. Our mission was to spread the distinctive doctrines of the Adventist church to the whole world in our generation, single-handedly bringing about the apocalypse, and cementing our place among the 144,000.
Thanks to my hard work and maniacal dedication to the cause, I was promoted as general VP of GYC, a move that further stoked the flames of egocentrism in my young mind. I was part of God’s inner circle, I had answers to the world’s problems, and I had Mark Finley on speed dial. There was nothing I couldn’t do. This was all heady stuff for a college student with self-esteem issues, and I was intoxicated.
Meanwhile, like any good red-blooded Adventist male I wanted to lose my virginity before Jesus’ imminent return when worldly pleasures would be purged from the earth with fire. The only church-sanctioned way to experience this forbidden pleasure was within the sacred confines of matrimony, so I fast-tracked my application and was married to a beautiful nursing classmate two weeks after graduation.
Weeks after returning from my honeymoon, I received a voicemail from Jay Gallimore, President of the Michigan Conference. “Luke, we’d like to talk to you about considering a pastoral calling. We’ll be in town next week interviewing. Would you be interested?” Of course I was interested. Never mind the fact that I knew more about medication dosages than systematic theology, a position as a pastor in the Michigan Conference was coveted indeed. GYC was started there, and I happened to know on good authority that the revival and reformation of the Adventist church at large was going to be commandeered from our outpost in the snowy banks of Lake Michigan.
We’d barely unwrapped the wedding gifts before we barreled up I-75 at 55 miles an hour in a U-Haul with all of our earthly possessions in tote, headed for my new job as assistant pastor of the Grand Rapids SDA Church. Little did I know that my true education was about to begin.
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One of the most impressive skills I had developed in my academy Bible class was the ability to deliver a Bible study on the 2,300 day prophecy of Daniel 8:14 in my sleep, complete with a four-color, hand-drawn, well-referenced timeline. Like a trigger-happy cop on his first beat, I was eager to show it off to anyone who cared to listen, and the first few months of ministry were glorious - filled with Bible studies, sermon preparation, hospital visits, baptisms and the Holy Spirit.In my secret fantasies, I imagined someday becoming a conference president.
But I soon began to discover that the tightly woven worldview I’d carefully nurtured on the loom of the hermetically sealed institutions of my past was no longer meshing with the reality I was experiencing. Largely insulated from interaction with everyone except those who shared my worldview, I was now rubbing shoulders for the first time with Adventists who hadn’t attended high school on a vegetable farm and was shocked to meet non-Adventists who didn’t even share my love for Big Franks.
Niggling questions began to whisper their way in. What made jewelry and makeup such a cardinal offense? They said it was a sign of pride and rebellion, but somehow the $500 diamond ring kept the foster mom out of church office on nominating week while the pompous lawyer driving the $50,000 BMW chaired the committee. Or the music issue? Every note in every musical performance was screened for reverence, but one Sabbath morning some uninitiated soul snuck a Sandi Patti track past the censors. While the angels may have been dancing, the only movement in the sanctuary that morning was God’s people squirming in their seats. I was well aware that the evils of rock ‘n’ roll must be resisted, what with the ability of a drummer on a trap set to incite every species of immorality in the hearts of the listeners with nothing more than a syncopated beat and a wicked sense of timing. But maybe this once God would overlook this offense for the sake of the sincere-hearted worshiper?
Questions blossomed into doubts one day when I delivered an airtight defense of the Mark of the Beast and the Remnant to a hapless Christian couple. Sitting back in my chair in superiority, his question braced me: “Does this mean everyone who currently attends church on Sunday is at risk of receiving the Mark of the Beast?”
It was something I’d considered before, but the usual defenses (“Not until it’s made a testing issue” or “everyone will have a chance to decide for themselves”) suddenly rang hollow in the intimacy of the moment. Dismissing the other 99% of Christendom as godforsaken Sun worshipers was a little easier when you weren’t kissing their babies and basking in the warmth of their love for Jesus. How was my command of theological trivia really making a difference in this couple’s life? My neatly delineated theories had crashed head-on into the messy nuance of life.
There were others, too. The college student who’d turned his life around on a Tibetan mountaintop, converted to Buddhism and was en-route to China as an environmental activist; the committed Adventist wrestling with her commitment to a faith and family that refused to accept her sexual identity; the beer-drinking, tattooed Christian pastor that brought me to tears with her eloquence; the hard bitten atheist who volunteered on the weekends to raise money for an AIDs orphanage in South Africa; the brilliant Christian scientist who loved both Jesus and Darwin; the chain-smoking lead singer of an eardrum-busting band who spoke truth to power – each of these people were a paradox to me. I’d believed the caricatured story I’d been told: that everyone outside my theological fortress was at best sincerely deluded, and at worst in cahoots with the devil’s apocalyptic plots. But as each of these people began to worm their way into my stifled heart, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe I was the confused one.
I tried desperately to dam the rivers of doubt with mountains of theology, spending my afternoons soaking up stacks of theological tomes from the ABC and reams of papers I’d downloaded from the Adventist Theological Society. But dry scholarly debates over prophetic esoterica did nothing to quench the hunger of my soul. A God of wonder and mystery was reduced to superficial talking points, each side lobbing grenades at the other from deep within their corner of the ivory tower. Meanwhile, a chaotic and beautiful storm of birth and death and pain and love and violence and passion and frustration and desire swirled about outside, oblivious to the self-important wars waged with ink and rhetoric on the sidelines.
The theological walls I’d inherited were beginning to crack. No longer burdened with an agenda to correct the imperfect theology of everyone I met, filtering them through the judgmental sieve of my own prejudices, I now felt that I could connect as an equal, a fellow flawed vessel on journey. We were joined together in the “the brotherhood of milk,” wrestling with God in our own way, sometimes soaring, often stumbling, nursing our wounds – yet created in His image all the same. I’d found God where I’d least expected him.
I was finally free to let God be God. In my feeble attempts to cut God down to size, I’d neutered him, pretending to understand the ways in which he moved about the world. But why was I surprised? Wasn’t this was the same God who spoke through donkeys, partied on the weekends with prostitutes, and insulted religious leaders? Jesus had inaugurated his ministry, not with a PR blitz and multi-site, worldwide, satellite-uplinked media event, but by turning water into fine wine at a raucous wedding reception. In this unexpected act, the Son of Man illustrated that he had come for all of humanity, subverting expectations and destroying barriers, unwilling to shackle himself to small-minded theologians in pompous robes. Two thousand years later, perhaps not much had changed.
The New Year was approaching, and cold with the realization that I could no longer properly reflect the image of my employer in good conscience, I nervously typed up my resignation letter and delivered it in person to the office of the president. He said he had to leave shortly for a meeting, but wanted me to know in no uncertain terms that I was forsaking my calling and that my resignation was contrary to the Will of God – after all, Jonah too had thought he could outsmart God, and look what happened to him. “I’ve known many former pastors in my day, and they’ve always regretted their decision to leave the ministry. None of them have ever found peace and success doing anything else.” He asked if he could pray; we did, awkwardly, and in a moment he was gone, leaving me to ponder the consequences of my actions in the austerity of his office.
As I pulled out of the conference parking lot, baptized in the liquid gold of the setting sun, the frustration and pain I’d felt over the past few months melted away into a sweet and giddy relief. My future was uncertain, but the freeway stretched out towards the horizon with fresh possibility. The colors washing across the sky had never been so vibrant.
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It’s been a few years since that turbulent year in Michigan, and I’m still navigating the implications. My Facebook relationship status with the church would read “It’s complicated.” I’m learning to embrace the tension and am realizing that the questions are often more important than the answers. Life is nothing if not a mystery and adventure, and I’m experiencing plenty of both while working at a tech startup and living in San Francisco.