The lesson this week makes me wonder if I should think of Abraham as just an average person. I typically read the story of God’s interaction with Abraham as a seminal event in human history. God reaches out to communicate with a man who thus becomes the father of three of the world’s largest religions, making a profound promise to him along the way. Of late, however, I am struck with just how normal Abraham was, a human with fears and anxieties much like my own. Perhaps we can all learn something from Abraham’s fear, anger, and frustration.
Isn’t it the case, for instance, that we all struggle with fear? Isn’t it the case that we all act out of fear sometimes, wreaking havoc on our relationships with others and with God? Allowing ourselves to act out of fear may also be a problem for our Church. Do institutions like Seventh-day Adventism reflect a collective sense of fear and anxiety? Just like individuals such as Abraham, doesn’t fear sometimes overwhelm our Church and prompt actions and statements that are destructive and debilitating? And might it be the case that God’s “shield” in the language of this week’s lesson is something so simple as realizing and developing positive ways to cope with our fears?
The Fears of Father Abraham:
Abraham was a fearful human, no surprise there. In Genesis 15:1 God apparently found reason to urge him not to be afraid. “What would Abraham have to fear?” asks the lesson on Sunday. We could rehearse all that Abraham had been through, the nature of the burden God had laid on him, and the immense emotional weight of the promised future as reasons for his fear. But seriously, all that must happen for someone to be fearful is to be human. Fear is a universal human emotion.
What was the nature of Abraham’s fear? Genesis 15:3 notes his pressing concern at the time, namely, that the promise God made to him would not come true. He was supposed to have lots of children and becoming a blessing to the entire world. At that point in his life, such a promise seemed impossible. In The Message paraphrase, Abraham is quoted as saying, “See, you’ve given me no children, and now a mere house servant is going to get it all.” Life wasn’t turning out like it was supposed to. Abraham sounds petty to me in this account, but isn’t it also a nearly universal human experience that life and its promises rarely turn out like they are supposed to? In the process of coping with our fears we routinely think and act in petty ways.
I find it very helpful to imagine God’s shield for Abraham, for me, and for us, being something rather mundane and universally available to his beloved creation. Indeed, God has a million different ways beyond a Promised Messiah to shield us from life’s ills. Mental health and well-being inspired and informed by our belief and understanding that God loves us seems like a really helpful shield in our day. Frankly, I’m not sure we need impressive biblical interpretations of who is or who isn’t the promised child; who counts, who is in, who is out? How might the world be a different (and better) place if the Abrahamic faith traditions could stop fighting over our interpretive quests and settle in on the central and common idea that God’s love for his creation, all of us, really is all encompassing? How about some concerted effort on our part to back away from our polemical defense of our prophetic Remnant identity in favor of simply being healthy people in a world that seems to need that? Of course, there is a tremendous stream of effort throughout our history as a Church focused on wholeness and health in our daily life, but one is hard pressed to hear much about it in comparison to the latest General Conference theme for evangelizing the world.
The Fears of Seventh-day Adventism:
What do we fear as the collective body of Seventh-day Adventists? Let’s try out a few ideas:
-That we really aren’t God’s end-time Remnant.
-That Jesus really isn’t coming any time soon.
-That Hiram Edson’s “corn field vision” was a second, creative effort to maintain the 2,300-day prophetic time frame through the investigative judgment doctrine.
-That our decline (in North America) reveals that our growth was never an indicator of being blessed by God as a special Remnant.
-That denominationally speaking, we’re just like any other of the 6,000+ Protestant denominations.
-That God’s salvation is not limited to the “little flock” and the conditions we’ve put on his grace are artificial after all.
-That we’ve stopped allowing the God’s Spirit to move us like a “movement” ought to move us.
-That the authority we’ve invested in, and the use we’ve made of, Ellen White’s writings, is biblically and morally inappropriate.
What do we do with our fears? How do we cope? In my own personal experience, if I fail to account for and manage these emotions well, my level of frustration and subsequent anger takes over. Abraham’s frustration and anger prompted the petty expression of the supposed horrific outcome that a “mere house servant” would be the recipient of his legacy. What are the petty expressions of our own fears that we’ll be embarrassed about later?
-Perhaps refusing women the honor of ordination?
-Perhaps refusing African Americans full integration in our early American, formative years?
-Perhaps keeping the LGBTQIA+ Adventist community at arm’s length?
-Perhaps continually giving the impression that the only marker of success is numerical growth?
God’s shield still exists, and he offers it for us today just as he did to Abraham of old. One expression of his shield is his son Jesus, who said that he came to offer us life and peace in abundance. But we have repeatedly refused to accept the fullness of Jesus on a corporate level. We often hear our leaders invoke Jesus, but for too many of us, the core of Adventism remains the three angels’ messages, interpreted through layer upon layer of scriptural secrets, biblical interpretive masterpieces, that create an almost Gnostic form of Christianity for the twenty-first century.
There is nothing secret or complicated about Jesus, particularly Jesus understood in the broadest possible context of savior to all of humankind without condition. Without condition. I’m reminded of The One Project and their ongoing effort to bring us as a church closer to recognition of Jesus as our shield. I once invited one of the leaders of The One Project, Alex Bryan, to the Adventist Society for Religious Studies annual conference when I was an officer in the Society. I invited him to offer a keynote message in which he shared the passion and essence of The One Project. His message was clear and concise; it’s about Jesus. All of our faith, our specific Seventh-day Adventist faith, is about him. As The One Project moniker says, “Jesus. Full stop.” I recall my surprise as the criticism came rolling in from the audience as we took time for questions and answers. If my memory serves me well, many in the audience asserted that Jesus was quite secondary to our faith. Lots of Churches have Jesus at their core, but we have the three angels’ messages, we have the Sabbath, we are the Remnant.
The Peace of Christ and the Renewal of Adventism
Maybe Abraham was an average human, like you and me. Maybe Seventh-day Adventism is a church like most all others. Maybe, just maybe, that’s enough. But we likely have years, decades, of transitional stress as we mature past our clenched-fist, polemical need to tear down others in order to feel good about ourselves. Remember the early days of our movement when our itinerant preachers would enter a small town, challenge the local preacher to a public debate, typically win the debate and then assume that the audience would happily become Seventh-day Adventists as a result? Perhaps there is a natural progression in the maturing of a faith tradition, from argumentative apologetics to self-assured peaceful existence.
This maturation, if we are serious about it, must be embraced by a majority if we are to avoid the stereotypical fragmentation that plagues Protestantism in general. A present-day effort to encourage renewal and re-interpretation comes from Spectrum’s own Charles Scriven. He was a professor of mine at Walla Walla College in the mid to late 1980s and I’ve benefited a great deal from his commitment to the Church, while at the same time helping me imagine an authentic growth pattern—a maturation process—for the Church. He has consistently focused on Christ as our most relevant role model and interpreter of God’s will in our time. His recent series “Time to Start Over” offers substantive material for us to focus on in this transitional time. https://spectrummagazine.org/views/2020/time-start-over-first-face-delusion
Two things are consistent in my understanding and experience of Jesus, the Christ. One, he gives me peace, and two, he then takes it away.
He gives me peace. He gives me an internal sort of peace that helps assuage my fears, ease my frustration, and thus sooth my anger. It’s not a magical relationship of the sort that Sunday’s lesson simply assumes all Christians, all humans, can easily have with him. Those who grow up within Christianity more easily perceive what it means to have a “relationship” with an unseen God. For many of us, the relationship we have with God is primarily through those whom we love and associate with. Sharing life’s vicissitudes with those whom God has inspired to love us may be as close as some of us ever come to having a relationship with him.
There remains something powerful about believing in an ever-present being whose universal presence allows me to realize deep within that regardless of how my life might turn out, my fate is sure, and it rests in God. There is a peace that comes to me when fear for my 97-year-old mother’s health creeps in. The fear that brought shudders, years ago, upon saying goodbye to my 18-year-old daughter on the streets of London as she settled into college slowly gave way to God’s assurance that ultimately all will be well, regardless of any present stresses. The fear that crouches just round the corner when my son sends another picture from 4,000 feet altitude in a small airplane barely big enough for four people doesn’t disable me.
At such times, the promise of a great day yet to come is nice, but what I need is a whole-body, physiological and psychological presence that comes from knowing he is all in all. Jesus said in John 14:27, “I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace. I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft. So don’t be upset. Don’t be distraught.”
The wonderful reality of having a community of faith with whom to share life, in and of itself helps me face my fears. It is a kind of shield. I very much need other people with whom I can walk and talk and touch and feel touched by. I need a community of people focused on the here and now, figuring out how to live life in abundance, in psychological health. Wasn’t it Paul who urged us to bear one another’s burdens? Paul, the brainy theologian, seems also to have realized that it isn’t just the coming promise that matters. Indeed, that promise seems as far away to me today as it did when I joined the Church forty years ago. The promised Messiah has different meaning for me today.
And then, he takes his peace away. By this I mean, Jesus regularly unsettles my theological and doctrinal certainties. As I survey the list of Adventist fears I noted above, allowing a sense of his peace to ease those fears, I find my past certainties lacking persuasive power. The slide into petty responses is mostly halted because of his peace. For instance, beyond our growth and Remnant identity, isn’t there more for us as a Church to mine from our past and our present? The idea that God’s Remnant is little more than a sub-set, a little flock, of God’s creation returning to him seems odd to me now. Perhaps we could someday mellow to the point of celebrating a Fundamental Belief that everything that emerged/emerges from God will return to God. Perhaps we’ll someday celebrate a belief in God’s grace that really is unconditional rather than defaulting to the hackneyed rejoinder that we all must choose him. Really, truly, how can messed up people like me and like you be held responsible for such a profound choice as eternal salvation? If God is truly responsible for creation, then let’s allow him to bear that burden rather than demanding that we carry it through our choices.
In this cycle of peace and theological disquiet my community of faith turns out to be far more important than the distant, promised Messiah. Promises are nice, but they are no match for someone with whom I can walk and talk. It is not easy to find such a group of loved ones with whom you can share your daily struggles and church doesn’t always feel safe for such intimacy. Paul, the complicated theologian of the epistles with whom we love to wrestle, routinely expresses joy in such communities. Several of his letters seem kind of ordinary, rather average. In Philippians 4, his words remind me of my opening point, namely, we humans tend to fear and worry about stuff. Paul urged the Philippians to allow “God’s wholeness” to “come and settle you down.” “It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.”
God’s shield serves us today much like it did Abraham long ago, helping calm the fears that attend our daily lives. If we can focus our energies on accepting and developing our relationship with Jesus the Christ through his universal community of grace and peace, our fears will slide into the background as we embrace the promised future.
Mark F. Carr, MDiv, PhD, is regional director of Ethics for Providence Health & Services.
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