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April 30, 2016

Advocating Adventism: A Manifesto

I am an Adventist advocate.

When I say I am an Adventist, I mean my family history and Adventist church history have been intertwined for generations. I’m also referencing my membership in this congregation, my education in Adventist schools, my employment as a pastor, and the habits of my life. All of this makes me Adventist, but it is not enough to make me an advocate. Being an advocate comes from my conviction that being Adventist is good for you. It is a superlative way of being human. It is this conviction—that you are better off being Adventist—that makes me an advocate, a promoter, a sales person, an evangelist. I think we have something so good everyone (or at least nearly everyone) would benefit from joining with us.
Many of the treasures of Adventism are shared treasures: God, the Bible, the Gospel, the Ten Commandments, baptism, the Lord’s Prayer, the Golden Rule. These are common across Christianity. Our promotion of healthy habits and our critiques of meat, tobacco, and alcohol are shared with many non-Christians. Our extensive network of health care and educational institutions and our integrated global organization is reminiscent of the Catholic Church. Our prohibition of pork echoes the same prohibition in Judaism and Islam. Our Sabbath-keeping is a direct descendant of Jewish belief and practice.
So why be Adventist?
Sabbath-keeping is one reason. Being Adventist helps you keep Sabbath. And keeping Sabbath is a really valuable thing. There is a growing chorus of voices inside and outside Christianity lamenting the loss of Sabbath rhythm from our lives. Productivity, creativity, mastery are essential for the richest human life. But when they become unregulated drives, they become a cancer, displacing other human values like family, friendship, worship, play, wonder, compassion.
We have experienced the benefits of Sabbath-keeping in my own family. I’m a preacher. So, obviously, my professional duties interfere with the full Sabbath experience. Sabbath is my busiest, most intense day. Still, Sabbath practices—specifically the Friday night parties—comprise part of the glue that sticks our family together. Until the kids scattered, every Friday night we had haystacks or strawberry shortcake. We made music. We kept company together at the table set with our best dinnerware. Sometimes friends and neighbors joined us. We did this as part of our religion. It was not optional. It wasn’t merely “a good idea.” Our Sabbath practices were central to our identity as an Adventist family.
Sabbath-keeping is nearly impossible to maintain apart from participation in a Sabbath-keeping community. Individuals or isolated families seldom manage to sustain a rich Sabbath-keeping experience. If you want the benefits of Sabbath-keeping, you will probably have to pay the cost of participating in a Sabbath-advocating church. And most Sabbath-keeping churches are Adventist.
Given the intensity and ubiquity of demands for 24/7 production and drive, Sabbath stands as a counter reality, a sweet, steady tradition that nourishes family, soul, and body. Our communal Sabbath-keeping provides access to the blessings of Sabbath even to those who lack the ordinary faith of Adventists. While those without faith don’t enter as deeply into Sabbath rest as people with a sweet, devout faith, nevertheless, their participation in our community gives them a taste of Sabbath blessing. Even an atheist can keep Sabbath with us, and through that Sabbath-keeping experience soul-rest and a bit of the transcendent. Surely, even a mere taste of the transcendent is better than nothing at all. So be Adventist to sustain your own enjoyment of Sabbath and to join in stewarding this spiritual treasure for others.
A second treasure: Adventist theology provides resources for happily, confidently affirming the goodness of God. In contrast to much dark theology that pictures humans as repugnant to God, who condescends to pardon and save us in spite of our fundamental reality, Adventism highlights the Creation story. God delights in his human children (and the rest of creation as well). God’s saving response to human failure and sin is exactly what one would expect of the divine creator parent. The human predicament is God’s predicament. God is radically committed to human well-being just as any good parent would be. The crucifixion means at least this much: God would rather die than live without us.
God is loving. God is also lawful. God is bound by the constraints of morality. It is inconceivable that God would do evil or condone evil. If God appears to command or condone evil, humans are right to resist the divine word. Adventists have followed the Enlightenment rejection of divine right monarchy. The whim of the king is subordinate to the fundamental principles of law. This view of God has obvious implications for how we regard human authorities. When America was wrestling with the question of slavery, Adventists joined the abolitionists in rejecting centuries of Bible interpretation in favor of slavery. Slavery was immoral no matter what Abraham did or what customs were spelled out in the Levitical code. It was not possible for God to be on the side of slavery because God could not be a party to immorality. Period. This understanding of the divine character continues to serve as a guide for interpreting the Bible. It has obvious implications for responding to contemporary issues as well.
Adventists reject eternal torture in hell. Why? Because a moral, loving God could not do such a thing. Classic Christian theology was strongly influenced by elements of Greek philosophy. It was this philosophical background that allowed Christian theologians to say with a straight face that God created many humans for the express purpose of burning them in eternal hell fire. Christian theology rightly insists that God is loving and righteous. Adventism teaches that the words “loving” and “righteous” tell us something important about God. It is not possible for God (or anyone else) to be both righteous and a torture-master. Righteous authority cannot act in unrighteous ways. A government—heavenly or earthly—that practices torture loses its moral authority. If eternal torment were true, God would be an evil monster. We would not worship such a deity. So Adventists deny the notion of eternal hell fire. It is not possible. (Some of us—heretics—take this further. We deny hell fire all together.)
God is love. Among Adventists this is not one assertion among many. It is the supreme affirmation about God, an affirmation which serves as an interpretive filter or at least as a counter-balancing truth for all other theological assertions and interpretations of the Bible. The Adventist commitment to this truth is almost reason enough to claim your place among us.
Adventists are creationists. For many Adventists “creationism” has referred to the belief that all rock formations containing fossils were created 4000 years ago in Noah’s Flood. However, for some of us “creationism” refers to the theological conviction that humans (and all of nature) are the creation of God. This means the “image of God” is found in the reality of humanity. God is expressed in both men and women. God is not exclusively or even preeminently male. The essential connection between God and humanity undergirds all the divine commands. Adventists understand the Bible’s laws as descriptions of the character of God. Because humans are formed in the divine image, laws are also descriptions of the ideal human character. Laws which are good and necessary for humans also set limits on conceivable activity by God.
All the enduring commandments in the Bible are understood to be applications and developments of the character of God. Obviously life works better when people honor their parents, refrain from stealing, killing, cheating, lying. Adventist rules go beyond what is explicitly stated in the Bible. We discourage the use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs—because life works better that way. We advocate a plant-based diet. We talk about exercise and sleep, about healthy habits for parenting and marriage. We are working to create a culture of forgiveness and grace. And a culture of disciplined, structured living. We are working to create this kind of culture because life works better this way. People are happier and healthier.
Creationism also means (at least for some of us) a high regard for nature. We promote direct engagement with nature through time spent in the out-of-doors (think Sabbath afternoon hikes and camping trips) and through science. We regard science as the structured scholarship of God’s “Second Book.” We seek to pass on to our children a love of the world and a commitment to act as wise stewards of nature.
We are Jesus people. We open our hearts to the challenging words of Jesus that call us beyond revenge and retribution. We believe that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has changed the world and painted the definitive vision of God’s intentions for the future. In our worship and theology we celebrate the goodness of God. In our church culture we seek to support one another in the cultivation of patterns of living that nourish our relationships, our bodies, and our souls.
Our ambition, our aspiration is to be a people shaped by the life and words of Jesus, a community that interprets the Bible through the lens of an exalted vision of a loving God, a community that seeks to live out here in the real world the implications of that vision.
This is why I am an Adventist advocate. That is why I invite everyone to join us in this glorious quest.
(Note: If you know Adventism well, you will realize the “Adventism” I am promoting is a developmental Adventism. I am not advocating a fossil Adventism—an exact replica of the religion of the early Adventists. I do not imagine the Adventism of our ancestors is better than the Adventism of their children. Perhaps we should call this Adventism Five Point O. Or Third Adventism. Or Seattle Adventism. Whatever we call it, to me it’s obvious that the seed of a religion is not better than its fruit. And it is this mature fruit of our faith that I advocate.)
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