The earth is making itself new again here in America’s heartland. As tender life sprouts from brittle branches, I am discovering hope emerging through the pages of Rachel Held Evans’s poignant spiritual memoir, “Searching For Sunday.” Since others will highlight her moving theological reflections on the seven sacraments which shape the book and still others will delight in the stories that weave through the chapters, I have chosen to explore the book title’s theme from my Adventist context. What does it mean to search for Sunday while worshipping on Saturday?
In my current Spring context, the title’s ambiguous meaning becomes clear. As Evans says, the title is, “less about searching for a Sunday church [which could leave Adventist readers out] and more about searching for Sunday resurrection [which should resonate with a denomination birthed through the death of bitter disappointment].”1
Our spectacular failure to accurately predict Jesus’s second coming way back in 1844 should have made us humble and appreciative of nuance. Instead, we doubled down on dualistic literalism and fear of error. We became hypersensitive to the motes in other’s eyes and placed them in stark contrast to our plank of “Truth.” Then, we understood ourselves called out from the others to become a pure remnant. Jesus we learned is at work on our behalf in the heavenly sanctuary and in some cases that has inspired us to create sanctuary for others here on earth. Unfortunately, all too often we instead isolated ourselves in a static, self-referential condition which has resulted in suspended animation.
The temptation for those of us who recognize that we have become the ‘frozen chosen’ is to force an instant thaw by burning down the church with flaming criticism and cynical deconstruction. Taken to its extreme, this response is equally dualistic and problematic, reducing baby, bathwater, and tub to nothing but an inert pile of readily discarded ash.
Instead, if we can humbly recognize our own moments of rigid inflexibility, apply the ashes from our cynical conflagrations to one another’s wounded foreheads, and appreciate our history of rebirth from brokenness, we might just overcome our dualistic mindset and find hope in the ongoing cycle of death and new life. Then, along with Evans, we can, “talk about growing up evangelical [Adventist], about doubting everything I [we] believed about God, about loving, leaving, and longing for church, about searching for it and finding it in unexpected places.”2
In her book, Evans describes with great care and heartbreaking beauty the failure of a church she helped plant. I can relate. Several years ago, my wife and I helped to start a small group ministry and Saturday evening praise and worship service. Seeing lives changed and reaching out to people stricken with poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse through the small groups was motivating. Gathering together on Saturday evenings was energizing. Our dream was to bring the small groups and worship service together in a church plant. We met for several weekends in a borrowed school and then everything just flamed out. Yet, as Evans noted, the beautiful memories, acts that enfleshed God’s Kingdom, and friendships forged in that crucible continue to soar through space and time like a phoenix from the church plant ashes.
Our experiences teach us that the ideal church is impossible. Which is good since the Kingdom of God is all about the possibility of the impossible. Every church is only temporary and pointing toward that which is to come. As John Caputo notes, deconstruction is the hermeneutics of the Kingdom of God which tears down the vulnerable power structures in the church to make way for Jesus’s coming.3 If the church can give way, we might imagine a better future which could impact our present. Evans invites us to do just that. “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.”4
But, for the church to give way to the Kingdom of God and create sanctuary, we must be prepared to, as Jesus and Paul suggested, die.5 Unfortunately, for a movement resurrected from deathly defeat and in the service of a risen Lord, we sure are afraid of death. Just as on an individual level we conceal any weakness or failure, flaw or defect, so on a corporate level we put on our ‘Happy Sabbath’ faces, avoid the Psalms of lament, and offer dire warnings of the slippery slope terminating in spiritual death. But, the genius of the Christian life according to William Stringfellow is, on both a personal and corporate level, the freedom to give up our own life in order to give the world new life.6 As Evans says, “Death is something empires worry about, not something gardeners worry about. It’s certainly not something resurrection people worry about.”7
But, what does it mean to be “resurrection people?” Does it only require that we check a box on a list of fundamental beliefs? Let me be clear. I am not arguing against a literal resurrection of Jesus and one day perhaps us too; but, if intellectual assent is all it means to be “resurrection people” we will have denied the power of resurrection in the present. As Peter Rollins says, “I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system. However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”8
Rollin’s active meaning of “resurrection people” finds an interesting correlate in the ambiguity of the traditional verbal response to the proclamation, “Christ is risen!” If our response is traditionally written, “He is risen indeed!” it implies certainty and only requires that Jesus is alive. But, if we create a little space for others and write our response, “He is risen in deed!” we intimate solidarity and require only that we are alive. Neither meaning excludes the other. But, adding some space allows those of us on the dying end of the faith cycle to also experience the miracle of resurrection.
Of course, to be real, in my professional medical opinion, resurrection is simply impossible. But, that certainty leaves us stuck in a hopeless impasse—frozen in fideistic faith against reason or fuming following the destruction of faith by reason. In order to move on, to hope, we need a bit of deconstruction which according to Derrida and Caputo always proceeds in love. And what does deconstruction love? It loves the impossible, the unimaginable which is to come, the event. As Caputo says, “It is only when you give yourself to, surrender to, and set out for the wholly other, for the impossible, only when you go where you cannot go, that you are really on the move.”9
Caputo’s description of a living, breathing, moving, and impossibly resurrected faith brings to mind an overused metaphor for faith in spiritual memoirs—the journey. But, this metaphor is exactly what Adventists need to renew our spiritual heritage as a movement and Evans meets it head on. “It has become cliché to talk about faith as a journey, and yet the metaphor holds. Scripture doesn’t speak of people who found God. Scripture speaks of people who walked with God. This is a keep-moving, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, who-knows-what’s-next deal, and you never exactly arrive. I don’t know if the path’s all drawn out ahead of time, or if it corkscrews with each step like in Alice’s Wonderland, or if, as some like to say, we make the road by walking, but I believe the journey is more labyrinth than maze. No step taken in faith is wasted, not by a God who makes all things new.”10
1. Evans, Searching For Sunday, xvi.
2. Ibid, xi.
3. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, 137.
4. Evans, Searching For Sunday, 73.
5. Mark 8:34-35, John 12:24, Romans 6:1-23.
6. Stringfellow, Private and Public Faith, 78.
7. Evans, Searching for Sunday, 225.
8. Rollins, http://peterrollins.net/2009/01/my-confession-i-deny-the-resurrection/
9. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, 50.
10. Evans, Searching For Sunday, 180.
Brenton Reading is a board member of Adventist Forum, the parent organization of Spectrum Magazine.