This past weekend (October 21-22), I attended The One project gathering in Atlanta, GA. As you may know, this event is the third-to-last conference before The One project shuts down. As a student of systematic theology with particular interest in hermeneutics (biblical interpretation), I was particularly drawn to this gathering, given the theme announced–Sola Scriptura. As a result, I flew down to Atlanta and immersed myself in two full days of presentations, roundtable discussions, and personal reflection.
All of this has resulted in four articles, which will be posted on The Compass Magazine website over the coming days. The first two will summarize some of the talks given. The last two will offer some of my personal reflections, as well as impressions from the attendees, and thoughts I gathered from the roundtable discussions. Therefore, here is my best attempt at summarizing five of the seven talks given on Saturday, October 21. As noted above, my personal reflections will follow in a different article.
Taking over God’s Work (Titus 3:3-7)
Andy McDonald is the senior pastor at the Florida Hospital Church in Orlando, FL. His opening statement was that the plague of being human is being mesmerized by ourselves. Like five-year olds who believe the world revolves around them, who naturally think they are causal to everything (a reason why they often experience guilt over parents’ separation), we grow up thinking we are more in charge than it is possible to be. “Our part often doesn’t seem grand or noble enough to match who we think ourselves to be.” Thus, we remain trapped in a five-year-old mentality that we are causal, that we are the main player in the game called life. This mentality spills into our understanding of salvation. Our role seems “bland, boring, beneath us […] unflattering. So we take over daddy’s role. We take over God’s part.”
We may think we let God do his part, but we suppose that our part is to have faith, study the Scriptures, pray, commit, and get involved into different church activities. This mentality creates the “illusion and delusion” that the afore-mentioned activities are “our part” in salvation, that we actually have a part in salvation. But “being saved by God’s grace isn’t 99% God’s work and the rest our work. It is 100% God’s work.” So we need to “sink into the joy of God’s work.” Any small part we retain in salvation means that we take over God’s work. We need to stop trying to do this, and recognize that He is the one who reconciled us to Himself and Jesus. “God had this problem called sin, and He solved it 100% in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection […] God’s grace comes to us unmerited, undeserved, and unwarranted by us […] If we can buy grace, it becomes a purchase, not a gift.”
In light of the celebration of 500 years of reformation, Andy said: “I protest against taking God’s part.”
We use words like reform, restore, renew, reinvent ourselves, but the Scripture says we are worse off than the desperate condition described in the song “Amazing Grace.” We are worse off than being wretched, lost, and blind. According to Paul, we are dead, and being dead is a helpless condition. So “we get this one big moment on the stage, and our part is to play dead, because we are.” We are incapable of self-help. “Salvation is the work of the Savior, not the saved […] Our side is the dead person’s side.” We need to lay down the burden of doing God’s work, come to Jesus, walk with Him, and learn from Him. According to Paul, we are a mess, and that is our part.
Manipulated Miracles (Romans 5:3-5)
Heather Cook is an associate pastor at Atlantic Union College in South Lancaster, MA. She shared her personal experience of being absorbed in self-pity while trying to work through some overwhelming problems and dealing with family baggage. In the midst of her struggles, she prayed: “Lord, help me get out of my own head; give me perspective.”
The answer to this prayer came partly in the form of an encounter with Lindy Chamberlain, whose infant daughter was eaten by a dingo while her family was camping at Ayers Rock, Australia. “What was every mother’s greatest nightmare turned into a horror show as Lindy became not only the mother of a dead child, but a convicted murderer as well,” said Heather. In a famously unfair trial, it was determined that, in ten minutes, Lindy had killed her baby, cleaned up, and removed the evidence. Sentenced to life in prison without parole, Lindy, pregnant at the time, gave birth to a child in prison, only to have her taken away immediately. She had to deal with the shame, the public anger, the news attacks, and even cartoons vilifying her. Finally, after three years in prison, Lindy was released immediately after a tourist found the baby’s yellow jacket half-buried in a dingo den. She was free after three years of un-granted miracles.
“There is in every Christian journey the moment when the soul cries: Why?” said Heather. Lindy had truth on her side, and yet God didn’t come through earlier. Where was He? Where is He in terminal diagnoses? Where is He in a family devastated by abuse and shame? The God we grow up with in Sabbath School is the God of miracles, the God who helped the three young Hebrews survive fire. “That’s the God we want to own. But we don’t own God […] We have twisted Scripture to fit our paradigm […] We have perpetuated an elitist type of entitlement to a certain kind of God.”
Our church has built a culture of expecting miracles, which makes us uncomfortable with the silence of not knowing. We fill this silence with unbiblical platitudes, such as the belief that if we are faithful, God will come through for us. But Scripture does not present us a God who said life was going to be easy; on the contrary, it is filled with examples of people who went through pain, but served God anyway. Scripture does not say that we will not endure suffering, but that God is love, and His love will be poured into our hearts in any circumstance. This is the miracle. “We must learn to recognize that the miracle is already here, and it is that the love of God is present in our lives. It will not leave us even when life gives us more than we can handle […] When we sit with someone in their tragedy, we need not just pray for a miracle to change the circumstance. We can be the miracle. We can be the love.”
On this note, Heather shared her experience of going through her husband’s cancer diagnosis. She shared knowing first-hand what people say when they don’t know what to say, and are uncomfortable with silence–things like: “It must be his time,” or “There must be unconfessed sin,” or “Have you prayed hard enough?” She shared how shattering it was to go through this while also caring for their two babies. “People were saying they were praying for a miracle, and I would thank them, but inside I was praying for just the miracle of outliving the day.” She shared how she felt God’s love though a friend who offered to come clean her house. “And that was a miracle. A miracle not manipulated from a God who we own, but a miracle born from the response to the love of God that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”
Heather ended her talk by encouraging the attendees to “be the miracle.”
Neither Jew nor Gentile (Galatians 3:28 and Isaiah 58)
Iki Taimi is the senior pastor of Gardena Genesis Community in Gardena, CA. He began his talk by stating that racism, while pervasive, is very subtle. He likened it to a wind, which is evident when blowing against you, but when it blows from behind, it is helping you without you even realizing it. The church should not be quiet while society prescribes racism and segregation, but should instead respond with racial reconciliation. This is something we must do together, as a people. “Our theology must trump our sociology,” said Iki. Our understanding of God will affect the way we see people around us.
It is easy to get distracted by the dissonance around us. But God asks us to keep our eyes on Him, and to follow His lead. “It is a theological truism that context powerfully shapes our Christian experience,” stated Iki. “We must be able to exegete ancient text, but also the context in which we live.” If we fail to do so, we will live in an irony, thinking we understand the truth, and yet not living according to it—the same irony that turns us into a people who gathers in councils and determine that women don’t have the right to teach us, but ends the meeting with a woman’s quotes. We will become a people who applaud Daniel, but rebuke those who kneel in order to show solidarity with the oppressed.
Iki encouraged his listeners to live out the implication of the Christian profession in our daily practices. To this end, he offered a three-step solution:
- Recognize that we have a problem. We have to be real, humble ourselves, and admit the problem. Paul speaks about this type of situation in Galatians, where he addresses the problematic issue of institutional ethnic superiority. The Jews in Galatia thought that to be a Christian, one must not only follow Jesus, but also adopt the Jewish customs (such as changing the way of eating and getting circumcised). When something is institutionally wrong, it may not be apparent to those who perpetuate it. However, Paul recognized that there was something wrong, and addressed it. We must do the same. Our conferences are split, not geographically, but racially. “We are like a Starbucks, where people come to sit but they are not together.”
- Listen. Listening, said Iki, should not take place equally. It is the responsibility of those in the privileged position to listen more often and more humbly. God Himself moved from a privileged place, from the most exalted place in the universe, to the most challenging place in the universe. He is thus able to enter our world, listen, and understand. Following His example, we must go into the space of the other, be there humbly, listen much, talk little, and hear the stories of the oppressed.
- Create racial understanding. “Like life, racial understanding is not something we must find; it’s something we must create.” The ability to understand others does not come naturally to us. We tend to stick with homogeneous groups that are similar to us, but “similarity does not make community,” said Iki. God calls us to live life together, to break bread together. “The cross brings inferiority to those who feel superior, and superiority to those who feel inferior, and all meet at the feet of Jesus.”
Leaving Your Fingerprints (1 Peter 2:5-9)
Reynold Acosta is a chaplain at the Adventist University of Health Sciences in Orlando, FL. He began his talk with a few questions: “I can’t go swimming on Sabbath, or can I? I can’t wear jewelry, or can I? I can’t go to movies, or can I? Women can’t be ordained or can they? I can’t pay my tithe the way I want to, or can I?” He then spoke about Satan’s genius in placing these issues at the center of our brain. What we do leaves an impression on others.
He conveyed his conviction that his goal is not to convert people to Adventism, but to love them unconditionally. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to teach them and change them. After hurricane Irma hit Florida, nine churches cancelled their services, and the members went to sixteen different families to cut trees down. This act of service left its fingerprints on those people. “You, me, are the church,” said Reynold, quoting Matthew 5:16 (“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven,” ESV).
Reynold shared the memory of losing his father. Shortly after landing in Costa Rica for a ministry trip, he found out that his father was taken to the hospital in serious condition. He drove to the hotel praying for a good outcome, but soon after checking in, he learned that his father had passed away. Reynold broke down in his hotel room, wrestling with the question: “Why would God bring me to this place, and not say good-bye to my dad?” But he found peace, and a place where he could learn about who his dad was: the man who taught him how to love, how to believe, and who taught him to never give up on family. He wasn’t an Adventist, and he didn’t go to church, but he believed. For Reynold, his father was one of the greatest Christians he has ever met.
He closed his talk with another personal story. As a child, he used to go to a nursing home with the church youth and sing to the elderly. Bruce, a recovering alcoholic, was invited by the youth pastor, but didn’t join the group for fear of getting a disease. One day his service was requested, and Bruce joined the group, ending up in the company of an old man who put his arms around a terrified Bruce, who cleaned his hands for 45 minutes afterwards. Yet he came back every month. Seven months later, the old man was not where they usually gathered, but in his room. Bruce went to visit him there, and was told that he likely won’t make it through the night. Bruce just sat there, holding his hand, when a young girl (the dying man’s niece) came and said: “He told me last night to say good-night to Jesus. Jesus comes once a month to say good night to me.” She grabbed him, pulled him down, and kissed his forehead, saying: “I didn’t know Jesus was bald.” Bruce also left fingerprints. What are we doing?
Reynold’s closing remarks were: “I need to focus on Jesus because I don’t want to be part of Satan’s arena. What matters in the end is hearing the words: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”
But I Don’t Know You (Exodus 20:10, Matthew 25:35-36, and Revelation 3:20)
Michaela Lawrence Jeffrey is the pastor of the Athens Georgia Seventh-day Adventist Church in Athens, GA. Her opening statements raised the question of whether the biblical requirement to care for the stranger, which was a norm in biblical times, is still valid today. “The answer to this is easy,” she said, quoting Matthew 25: 35-56 (“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me,” ESV). We need to let in the refugees and the immigrants, but sometimes we go there too quickly.
As Laodicea, the Seventh-day Adventist church is noncommittal and self-sufficient. Laodicea was a wealthy place known for eye disease treatment, and the Laodiceans took pride in this. There is a reason they thought the way they did; their self-sufficiency made sense in their eyes—but not in God’s eyes. We, too, think we can get things on our own. Yet Jesus asked us to go to Him in order to get what we truly need, which are three things:
- Gold refined in the fire. God asks us to allow Him to refine us and deepen our faith.
- Clothes that cover our shame of nakedness. In the Bible, nakedness is covered in the white robe of Christ’s righteousness.
- Salve so we can see. The gift of salvation is the greatest healing we can receive.
How do we receive these things? By letting God in, by giving Him a seat at our table. It is easy to talk about immigrants and refugees as strangers—to figure out ways to let them in, to stay, or to keep them out. Whichever side we are on, most of us don’t like feeling uncomfortable or getting dirty. Saying that we are open to strangers doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus is at our table. Merely fighting for the rights of others, or accepting everyone, doesn’t necessarily mean that we are spiritually led. Jesus wants us to be open and hospitable in the sense of the deep biblical hospitality. This means more than having people over for Sabbath lunch, regardless of whether the meal is catered or home-made, processed or organic.
“Opening our gates to the strangers begins with an acceptance of the first person to knock at our door,” said Michaela, quoting Revelation 3:20 (“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me,” ESV). After God tells us to get all this from Him, He says: I am here, at your door, knocking. Let me in; let me sit at your table. “This must be our first act of hospitality, not our last. Jesus must not only be seen coming through our gates, but seated at our table, because it is in the breaking of the bread that we understand who He is.”
“As a young immigrant who moved to various places of the world, my prayer is that Jesus will never be the stranger outside our gates, and that when we have strangers within it will be the result of Jesus already spending time at our table,” said Michaela. This should not be a rushed dinner, but a time built with intentionality because we desire to be in God’s presence, because we need His peace, because we need to hear His voice as we figure out what we are to do with our life. We should spend time with Jesus at the table because we just want to talk about our day, and be willing to bring up the dirty stuff even if it’s going to get uncomfortable.
We should spend time with Jesus because we have a deep desire to grow further and deeper, to obtain a fuller understanding of Him, and to gain a clearer perception of things. “When we love each other, disagree each other in love, get mad at each other’s politics, we recognize we are in this for the long haul. So we invite Jesus to pull up a chair and break bread.” We need not just jump on a bandwagon for political or other reasons, but because we have already spent time with Jesus.