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The Weight of Familiarity

Awhile back I took my MacBook up to the church audiovisual station and asked the technicians to show my sermon slides from it. Afterward my friend Johnny, one of our AV volunteers, said, “I really hate Macs.”

“Why?” I asked, surprised. I’ve been using Apple products for about twenty years; I think they’re the best. Johnny gave me a few reasons, and since he’s a computer genius, it had to do with stuff I’d never have thought of and could barely understand.

But finally Johnny said, “The biggest reason is that I don’t know how to do the things on them that I can on my PC.”

“Same reason I avoid Microsoft OS computers,” I said.

Both of these platforms are serviceable and do many things well. So why are we so opinionated?

Just one reason: familiarity.

I have a whole host of prejudices, loyalties, and values, inherited from family, teachers, the social class in which I was born and raised, and my church. I defend them, too, as useful and right. But I admit it is difficult to examine them very deeply. They’re familiar to me. I’ve invested much of myself in them.

I believe the best way of life is to be hardworking, sober, cautious, careful, religious. You have a long and faithful marriage, to someone of the opposite sex. You get as much education as you can, study hard, and when you make something of yourself, push your children through college, too. You save your money, drive sensible cars, live in a sensible house, and have a sensible lifestyle, keep a clean home and a yard that doesn’t embarrass your neighbors, and you don’t watch idiotic stuff on TV like American Idol. You go to church on Saturday, don’t smoke cigarettes, do read wholesome books, and eat healthy food. You shine your shoes, wear a necktie at work, remain tattoo- and piercing-free, pay your bills, and are on time for your appointments.

I married a Seventh-day Adventist wife who, even though she was from a different culture, had almost the same view of life as I did—in large part, I think, because of our common faith. Not coincidentally, most of the people in my church match that description, too (except that part about not watching American Idol). That’s why we squirm a little when someone walks into the church who, we suspect, doesn’t meet those criteria. They don’t fit in very well. It’s a little like what Johnny said about the computer: we don’t know how to do anything with them.

Someone asked me this question once: “If you hadn’t been born and raised a Seventh-day Adventist, would you have become one?” It is, of course, an impossible question, for it has to do not only with truth, but opportunity. The only possible answer is, I don’t know. But it helps me to think about why I’m here: at least one reason is familiarity. My great-grandparents attended some evangelistic meetings in Jamestown, North Dakota, and passed down their beliefs, through a couple of intervening generations, to me.

Even when I’m annoyed with my church, I’m grateful for what it’s done for me. Most of the neighbor children I grew up with didn’t get the education I did, and still live in that small community where we grew up. I credit the bigger world that the Seventh-day Adventist Church exposed me to. This church has been good to me.

Perhaps that’s why I’m so uncomfortable with those who defy what I hold dear. When someone tells me he or she is leaving the Adventist Church, it hurts.

Still, I’ve been forced to rethink some of the things I used to be so sure of. That Adventists are the best Christians, and you can invariably trust them. That our beliefs are flawless, our history untainted by doubt or change. That Seventh-day Adventists have preferred status for salvation. That the world would be better if we were all Seventh-day Adventists.

This last, it seems to me now, would make for an unusually dull world.

Back when I was a child, my best friend and I got into a mild argument because my dad had John Deere tractors, whereas his dad had International Harvesters. I wasn’t quite sure why John Deere tractors were better, but I told him, in support of my thesis, that green is a prettier color than red.

The rug was pulled out from under us later when his dad bought a John Deere and my dad bought an orange-painted Case tractor. We had to rethink our prejudices.

I’ve seen the same thing happen in families. Isn’t it perfectly clear that homosexuality is wrong? But what, then, when your child is gay? You may, if you’re thoughtful, rethink your prejudices. Or, your child leaves the Church, and joins another. Can you rethink your prejudices? Or, you get a divorce, which you always knew was wrong, and would never happen to you. Once more: can you rethink your familiar prejudices?

I’m not saying we should all throw out our values, or even our better prejudices, and hold none. But pity the parent who, like some I’ve known, can only reject the child who’s admitted he’s gay. The ex-wife who can’t forgive herself because she’s divorced. The parents who can’t quit nagging the child who’s left the Church. Our values then become those millstones Jesus referred to.

And so, some words from one of my favorite poets, Louis MacNeice:

It being in this life forbidden to move

Too lightly, people, over-cautious, contrive

To save their lives by weighting them with dead

Habits, hopes, beliefs, anything not alive,

Till all this ballast of unreality sinks

The boat and all our thinking gurgles down

Into the deep sea that never thinks.

(The Death Wish, 1940)

Loren Seibold is senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist Church. He also edits a newsletter for North American Division pastors called Best Practices for Adventist Ministry.

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