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Born in Failure

This was delivered on Friday, October 22, 2010.
That’s 166 years since the same date in 1844 when groups of Millerites expected Jesus to return to earth on that day to set up his eternal kingdom. In the aftermath of that disappointment a core of those devastated believers clung to their hope of the soon return of Jesus and end of sin and suffering. From the pain and turmoil of those early days the Seventh-day Adventist Church was born. I’ve always found it interesting that our church’s founders are among those “crazy” people who actually predicted the day of Jesus’ return. In spite of that, I grew up with a kind of reverence for those early pioneers. William Miller’s Bible study method was even praised and taught to me, in spite of the fact that it got him into so much trouble. Despite the ignominy of the event, Adventists have clung to this founding narrative.
At the same time we have tried to minimize the embarrassment. We have, in so many words, said, “We weren’t really wrong, exactly. We were just mistaken.” At least that’s how I remember hearing the story told as a child and a student going through Adventist schools. What is it about religious people that prevents them from admitting to being wrong? Why have we made being right a spiritual value? Throughout history, doing right is a virtue, but not necessarily being right. But somehow, since the Enlightenment, we have elevated being right over doing right. In fact, doing right can often mean admitting that we haven’t been right.
So there is a kind of ironic humor, it seems to me, in the fact that the church that believes itself to be the remnant church of Bible prophecy was born out of the embarrassment of being completely wrong in their interpretation of the Bible. I know, someone will still say, “They weren’t really wrong, they were just mistaken.” Sure. I see that you’re trying very hard to not be wrong. But think about it. Utter failure & weakness. Isn’t this the perfect place to start a new movement of God’s Spirit?!
But such a movement’s success will depend on learning to stay there. What if being God’s remnant somehow required us to start with this crazy episode of being radically, profoundly wrong? What if the core lessons we needed as God started a new movement of His Spirit at the tail end of the Second Great Awakening, were the lessons of humility and agility. Perhaps God values theological agility over theological stability. Perhaps God values humility over perfection. Perhaps perfection is found in humility. Perhaps God values doing right over being right.
It seems to me that at this time in our church’s history we could use to relearn these lessons of humility and agility. As the edges of our denomination seem to be hardening, let create a faithful Adventist witness which remembers our founding narratives and learns afresh that the greatest moments of hope arise from the deepest disappointments. If we listen we can hear the footsteps of God’s coming amid the noise of our apparent failure.

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