Music Wars: The Fringe Strikes Back

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This week, church leaders met for Annual Council at the Seventh-day Adventist World Headquarters in Silver Springs, MD. These are yearly meetings of all the high level officers of our world church and serves as the highest decision-making body between the General Conference Sessions every five years.

Because I’m weird like that, I enjoy keeping up to date with what’s going on by being an unofficial delegate through social media. I followed many of the proceedings live, or read the reports later on. There were many great field stories shared about the progress the church is making in many areas of the world. These are encouraging signs that there is much good being done.

Continue reading Music Wars: The Fringe Strikes Back

I Thought I Was a Liberal – Until I Met the Conservatives…

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Terms like “liberal” and “conservative” can have such subjective and controversial connotations within the church. Yet according to dictionary.com, “liberal” simply means “favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs.” And considering that, I thought I was a liberal. You see God had been doing a lot in my life to bring me to deeper understandings of what’s truly important. And as He brought me closer to Himself, it was interesting how things that had seemed like such big issues in my own life or in the church just didn’t seem that… important anymore. In the light of the gospel I found a security in my faith that I’d never had before. I knew the Lord – and that gave me more freedom to be okay with both those whose convictions were to the left of mine and those who were to the right. I could rock out with hands raised with the praise bands and meditate reverently on good ole’ hymns. No, I was not afraid of progress nor reform. I felt I’d finally become a “liberal” in the truer definition of the word.

 

But then I met the conservatives.

 

Yes, I thought it wouldn’t be a problem. Remember? I was secure in what mattered in my faith! But there, at the peak of my “maturity,” I found myself called to a place where I wasn’t supposed to leave my house without a skirt, there seemed to be more Ellen White study than Bible study, and people ate lots of carob – for fun! Yes, to some that may sound like heaven. But for me, well… I wasn’t quite prepared. And to be honest, it didn’t take long before my “liberal” self started becoming a bit frustrated and resentful.

 

All of a sudden I realized I wasn’t as “liberal” as I thought.

 

But in the throes of my conflict, God started to reveal a few more things to my not-so-liberal soul. And hopefully they’re ones that can apply to the larger quest for unity and a truly “liberal” spirit in our church as well.

 

1. Ask yourself: Does this bother me because it’s harming God’s glory? Or simply because it’s opposed to my preferences? Yeah… That’s been a hard question for me to answer… One of the people that really inspires me in this regard is the apostle Paul. On one hand, Paul was super willing to sacrifice his personal rights and freedoms. “Am I not an apostle? Am I not free?” Paul writes in 1 Cor. 9:1. But he continues:

“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law… I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you” (1 Cor. 9:19-23, NKJV).

 

Am I willing to do that? Am I willing to sacrifice the type of music I’d prefer in church, the type of clothes I’d prefer to wear, the type of food I’d like to eat – or whatever else – if that’s what it takes for the sake of the gospel?

 

Now on the other hand, there were some things that Paul stood very adamantly against! Speaking of circumcision for instance, Paul fumes: “But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished.  I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves” (Gal. 5:11-12, NASB).

 

Why was Paul so strong on this and not on other things? I think that Paul realized what was going to get in the way of the gospel and what wasn’t. Circumcision, the misuse of the law, or any other teachings that diminished the message of salvation by grace alone were repulsive to Paul. While he constantly challenged believers to holier lives, he wouldn’t stand for any confusion over the gospel message – nothing that might supplant the cross of Christ. And here’s where I see it boiling down to today: If it is an issue that will dangerously damage people’s picture of God’s character and understanding of the gospel, then we have a reason to lovingly, tactfully, stand up. But if it’s something that is more related to my personal convictions and preferred lifestyle, it may be time for me to sit down and grab some carob.

 

2. Remember: We all think we’re the “balanced” ones. Look, I’ve even had someone tell me that I was “the most balanced person” they knew! So of course I must have it right [Smug look]. Well much as I’d like to believe that, I’m sure there are plenty of other people that know me who would see things differently. I’ve heard it said that we automatically tend to see everyone to the spiritual left of us as not serious/advanced enough in the faith (the apostates) and everyone to the right of us as fanatics:

 

“I don’t know why John’s still eating meat. I mean doesn’t he know the counsels on vegetarianism? But now Mary on the other hand, she insists on having everything vegan – and even raw! She better learn to be more balanced!”

 

Yes, the vegetarians will blast the meat eaters while chiding the vegans for their extremism, the vegans will look down on the ovo-lacto vegetarians while secretly disdaining the raw food proponents, and so on and so forth. Our definition of “balance” tends to be wherever we currently are. But we’re all on a journey of growth. Think of areas where you personally have grown and changed in your Christian experience – if the “you” of a few years ago met the “you” of today might he/she have seen you as either fanatical or apostate? Thoughts to ponder…

 

3. They’re not necessarily judging you. We don’t like feeling judged. But thankfully perception is not always reality. People are often not what we think they are. Some of the people that I’ve at first thought would be the most straight-laced and judgmental have floored me with how kind and loving they ended up being. It’s so easy to make a surface judgment, to stereotype, to decide what people are like before we’ve really given them a chance to show us. Believe it or not, not all northerners are cold and unfriendly, not all southerners are gun-toting racists, not all liberals are out to corrupt the church, and not all conservatives are out to judge everyone. Give them a chance before you decide. In fact I’d say that most times when I feel like “everyone’s watching me” or “everyone’s judging me,” they’re not. You may be nowhere in their mind at all! And if, by chance, they turn out to be judging you after all, remember that how people act is often a reflection of how they see God and how they believe that God sees them. Don’t hate them; have compassion on them. Love them. Show them what God is truly like. Who knows, you might just change their perception.

 

4. Can we still work together for a common goal? At the end of the day, we may still realize that we are stuck in a body of believers with people that we don’t agree with or naturally gel with. But we also have to realize that God’s stuck us all together for a purpose. We have a mission, and according to Matthew 13:30, that mission is NOT to go around figuring out who’s “wheat” and who’s “tares” so we can pull out the contaminators. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not downing the need for church discipline at times. Yet ultimately, it’s God’s job to purify His church, not mine. Our job is to somehow work together to accomplish a mission – a purpose.

 

One of the beautiful things about the 1 Corinthians 12 “body of Christ” analogy is that unity does not have to equal uniformity. Legs don’t have to look like hands. Eyes don’t have to function like ears. And likewise, when we realize we are different than each other, we may want to ask: How can we work together WITH our differences for the furtherance of the gospel? How might our differences actually lend strength to the work of the body? Even though I must stand within my own personal convictions and identity, can I still find common areas in which to work with those I’m not naturally as comfortable with? Might God have put them in the same church as me for BOTH of our sanctification?

 

Yes friends, I’ve come to believe that the work we’ve been given won’t be accomplished by those on the right; nor will it be finished by those on the left. It will only be finished by all of us – together. Lord, help me to be a true liberal. Even with those who are different.

 

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The Question You Aren’t Asking About Church Authority

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Alright, Haystack readers, I want your help with this one. With all of the recent conversations on Seventh-day Adventist media outlets and blogging websites regarding women’s ordination, one of the main arguments that keeps surfacing is one that denounces the General Conference’s decision to reopen the women’s ordination question for further discussion. Many feel there’s no finality to the decisions that have been made in the past, so how can we hope for finality in decisions to be made in the future? It’s a fundamental issue that goes much deeper than the discussions on women’s ordination. At what point do we question long-held practices and traditions, and at what point do we draw a line in the sand? How much finality should there be in church decisions?

While it’s a justified question, it’s also a question that tends to make people uncomfortable. We aren’t so certain about change. And, that’s rightfully so. Change can threaten the purity of the church. By changing practices, will we eventually come to change beliefs? Too much change can even threaten the church’s very existence.

By changing practices, will we eventually come to change beliefs?

When looking at this issue, it’s hard not to think of this question in relation to the Israelites as they struggle through the wilderness and in their Promised Land. Do you know what strikes me every time I read Exodus-Judges? Each time the Israelites begin to incorporate practices from the other people groups around them, they eventually come to take steps away from God. It’s like they can’t let outsiders in without muddying their own religion. If we just had the example of the Israelites, it would be easy. We’d try to do right where they failed and never alter long-held practices. We’d steer clear of new ideas altogether.

However, on the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s difficult not to think of the Jewish leaders in the New Testament. They were so afraid of letting change in that they hardened themselves to love. They no longer looked to the needs of their fellow man. They became so focused on keeping themselves pure that they eventually took steps away from God. With two extreme examples of God’s people on both sides of the question, what is the modern Seventh-day Adventist church to do? While we certainly don’t want to change our beliefs to the extent of losing sight of our mission and message, we simultaneously don’t want to harden ourselves so much that we forget God’s calling to love both Him and our neighbors.

I believe a deep part of the human heart thirsts for a sense of finality. We want there to be an overt answer. Yes, even in a post-modern culture, we still crave absolutes. Of course we do. It’s only natural. Our world was never intended for such chaos. We prefer our answers to come in black or white. We don’t want to go near any shades of grey. Who knows what may happen in grey areas? At times, it seems preferable to just avoid the grey areas completely. But, if we always avoided grey areas, what new heights would we be able to reach? How would we ever share the incredible message that God has given us?

Pay close attention here. I’m not advocating for a lack of truth or a shifting truth. I believe in truth. I believe in absolute truth. I believe in absolute biblical truth. I’ve said it before, but I’m certainly not afraid to say it again. I am a Seventh-day Adventist Christian because I believe the truth that I find in my Bible most closely correlates with Seventh-day Adventism. As long as that remains true, I will always be a Seventh-day Adventist Christian. At the end of the day, I believe God empowers people to work for Him. I trust my church leadership. The church leaders are in the positions they are in because God allowed their placement there. However, while I believe that church leadership, structures, policies, and principles are divinely instituted, I do not believe that the church leaders, structures, policies, or principles are divine in and of themselves.

Why is that important? There’s a huge distinction between the two. If the church itself were divine, there would never be any need for it to change. It would have had all of the tools it ever needed from the onset and every decision would be final. However, the church is not divine. The church leadership is divinely established. Thus, God chooses to work through living people, present situations, and current environments. This means that though many church decisions are final, they are not all infinitely final.

Don’t believe me? Our church’s history is filled with incredible individuals who have been willing to ask difficult questions to determine what decisions are based on the Bible and what decisions are based on tradition. Martin Luther went against the grain of church tradition to reassert the Bible as sole authority. Ellen White and her family were willing to question their faith tradition in search of greater truth. After that, the disappointed Millerites were willing to take yet another look at their beliefs and their “church” to figure out what they had missed. And those were doctrines! Ordination isn’t even doctrine. How can we not be willing to even open up dialogue about it?

So, here’s the thing. Because of this distinction between being divine itself and being divinely placed, the church has to be willing to continually study and reevaluate interpretations on theological issues and ecclesiological practices. The church as an institution, a movement, and a body of believers needs to be able to grow. We have to be willing to question the way things have always been done. I’m not saying that doing so will necessarily bring us to a point where anything changes. I am saying that something is wrong if you are afraid or unwilling to open up dialogue on a particular question. We may have truth, but we don’t have all of the answers. We have to continually be willing to go to God and search for those particular answers with the truth that He has given us.

I’m not advocating for rebellion. I’m advocating for fresh, critical thinking.

Does there come a point in time when we have to go against the grain of what has always been done? I’m not advocating for rebellion. I’m advocating for fresh, critical thinking. I’m advocating for a willingness to put aside our prejudices and individual perspectives to evaluate the way it’s always been done. Though the church manual is important, the church manual is not divine. It cannot be used in place of the Bible. They are not the same. While the church manual is an authoritative source, it is not absolute. It’s open to discussion and interpretation. It’s changed and edited as the years go by. Words have to be altered. Ideas need to be expanded.

Let’s be clear here. The Bible does not change. God does not change. However, I’d like to think our capacity to understand the Bible and to know God more deeply has no limits. I’d like to think that every time I open my Bible, I’m opening myself up to learn more. I’m opening myself up to learn anything fresh that God plans on teaching me. If that were not the case, what would be the point? Why would we continue to read the Bible if we weren’t open to reevaluating our finality on certain practices?

This is the deal. It may not be time for a revolution, but it is always time for some serious rethinking. How can you deny that? The members of the church are ever-changing, and the environments that those members are living in are not the same. While some decisions are permanent, some decisions are appropriate for a period of time. With every new challenge, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but we do have to see how the wheel fits with the current model.

So, what do you think? Where do you draw the line? Right now, the question is women’s ordination. Tomorrow, an entirely different issue may arise. At what point is it rebellion and at what point is it merely standing up for what’s right?

I’d love discussion on this post, however, I do ask that we show both sides of this conversation respect. Godly people are on both sides of these discussions. Let’s not correlate our beliefs with any sense of superiority. All opinions, thoughts, and/or comments are welcome here.

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When is a Tradition Too Traditional?

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Come 12 p.m. on Thanksgiving, my holiday cheer wakes up and kicks into overdrive. I set any and all Christmas music on repeat right up until January (I even have a Christmas station on Pandora just for Sabbath). I decorate everything within reach of the ladder. I wear my classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” t-shirt. My entire year pretty much builds to the month of December.

It probably has a lot to do with the fact that my family always made Christmas a big deal. Early in the month, we’d take (what felt like) a long drive to a tree farm and cut down the perfect, full-bodied evergreen tree. We’d decorate it with lights and ornaments that my family has owned for years and year. I loved leafing through all of the memories in those Christmas boxes. My Mom would share with me the stories about each and every ornament. She’d explain to me why she picked this one out when I was born, or how I’d made this one at school in the 4th grade. I always looked forward to the one special gift that my parents would give us to open ahead of time on Christmas Eve. We’d leave milk and homemade cookies out. Christmas day was marked with exciting presents, great food, and irreplaceable time with my family.

Looking back now, I try to figure out why it meant so much to me. Undoubtedly, it was a lot of fun. However, I think there’s more to it. I think I loved all of the traditions. We had a lot of traditions. In a world filled with so much chaos, there’s something reaffirming about knowing exactly what to expect. At a time when we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, there’s an unmatched level of security when you have something to look forward to, something you can count on.

As an adult, I think I appreciate the stability that Christmas affords like I never could have as a child. Perhaps it’s silly, but to some extent, I feel like even if the world is falling apart, at least we’ll have Christmas. I know. Christmas is often materialistic and cheap, shortsighted and a bit vain, but there’s more to Christmas than that.

There’s more to Christmas than all of the glimmering lights, shiny bows, and Santa-printed paper. There’s so much discussion and controversy over the origins of Christmas, but I’ll let you in on a little realization that occurred to me several years ago. In Jerusalem, there are at least two recognized sites that claim to be the place of Jesus’ crucifixion. There’s a great deal of discussion as to which site holds the greatest claim, and to be honest, both sites have reasonable pros and cons as to why they are the true location of Jesus’ crucifixion. On my first trip to Israel, we visited both of them. While at the second site, I tried to figure out if the fact that there were two potential sites for Jesus’ death took away from the experience. You know, did the fact that there were two possibilities lessen any of the significance? And, I realized that I could honestly answer no to that question. Jesus’ death is so much larger than one physical site. The fact that there were two possible sites where this great event could have actually taken place only adds to its historical veracity.

In the same way, Jesus’ birth is so much larger than one particular day. It doesn’t matter what time of year Jesus was born as much as it matters that there is a time of year when we focus on this magnificent event. It doesn’t so much matter what ways Satan tries to detract us from focusing on Christ’s birth as long as we are aware of the methods of distractions and seek to actively keep Jesus as the focal point of our season.

Okay, now back to traditions. There’s a place for them. However, I think there comes a point where traditions can serve as more of a hindrance than a blessing. Before we even realize it, traditions can become a means to an end in and of themselves. If Christmas is all about traditions, then you are missing out on the heart of the holiday.

Let’s go a few steps past December. The same is true in our Christian walk. As Seventh-day Adventists, we have a LOT of traditions. Cultural Adventism, or a state where one practices certain lifestyle qualities of Seventh-day Adventism while largely forgoing the beliefs behind those practices is a thing. While I believe there’s merit in traditions, I also think our use of traditions can quickly turn awry. Here’s what to look out for when evaluating your use of traditions.

1) Traditions go awry when they become the end-goal and keep us from searching for deeper truth.

What is the purpose of traditions? If your purpose for the practice does not have a deeper connection than there’s probably something missing. How often do we sit down and repeat the exact same prayer verbatim before lunch? Yeah, we want to hit all the same points, however the before-meal prayer needs to sprout from an honest desire to connect with God in earnest thankfulness before our meal. Traditions can often serve to numb us from the need for more. This is precisely one of the main issues that the Pharisees had going on in the New Testament. They came right to the point of accosting Jesus for what they perceived as the apostles breaking tradition (Matthew 15:1-9, Mark 7:3-9). Jesus responds to them in Matthew 15:3, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” Jesus recognized that there was a huge issue in the way the Pharisees viewed tradition. It was all they had. They missed the commandments that the traditions were based on. The entire idea of traditions is that they are passed down. I love that about them! However, I think that can blind us. We can become so focused on the traditions that they become our crutch. Our daily or yearly practices are often exactly the same. For instance, every single morning, I wake up and read three chapters of my Bible (e.g. Joshua 1, 2, 3). It’s the start of my morning devotions. I do it because it keeps me consistent. However, at times, it keeps me too consistent. By reading three chapters in a row every morning, I’m not challenging myself to do anything different. I could read three chapters on a specific topic. I could read more chapters. I could start my day with my Sabbath School lesson or a book. While in this example all of those practices might be equal, traditions may keep us from growing. We may become so intent on our traditional approaches that we forget to search our new ones. We may become so used to how we do our devotions that we never develop deeper levels of our conviction or commitment to God. We make be so wrapped up in how Christmas is supposed to be that we forget to enjoy the extra time with our family and our God.

2) Traditions go awry when they become a substitute for passion/conviction.

While I think it’s noble to do something because it’s “the honorable thing to do,” if you are always making decisions for the sole reason that it’s “the honorable thing to do” then something is missing. Commitment is good, but commitment has to be based on something. It’s crazy to think that we can be committed without even knowing what or whom we are committed to. I know a lot of dear people in my life like this. They are so desperate for lasting commitment that they don’t always take the time to figure out what they should be committing themselves to. They just want to belong somewhere. They just want be working toward something. However, God is polarizing. Our commitments should come with feeling/conviction. I choose to love my husband (ongoing/continuous commitment), because I fell in love with my husband (feeling/conviction). James speaks to this relationship. In James 2:18, James writes, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Here, James demonstrates the mutually reciprocal relationship between conviction (faith) and visible commitment (works). We can operate solely off of commitment for a while. However, if we’re always operating solely off of commitment, we will come to the point where we burnout. If you notice that your actions are becoming more commitment-based than anything else, recognize that it’s an okay place to be. It’s not an okay place to stay. If this is the case, we have to do a major triage of our relationship with Christ to figure out what’s missing and what we need to change.

3) Traditions go awry when they stand-in for commitment.

The opposite could also be said in the spouse analogy from above. I continue to fall in love with my husband (ongoing/continuous feeling), because I chose to love him (commitment). In the same way that commitment has to come from deeper conviction, passion has to come from deeper commitment. Titus speaks to this group of people who only care about one-half of the equation. In Titus 1:16, Titus says, “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” This might be more of the struggle for the vast majority of our generation. We’ve seen so many people that we love make commitments to the wrong person or thing that we are desperately afraid of being too tied down. We don’t commit, because commitment could take us down a rabbit hole that we might not be able to escape from. I think older generations see this as being commitment phobic. However, maybe it’s not so much that we are refusing to take commitment seriously as it is that we value commitment so highly that it becomes almost sacred ground. We are so desperate not to break our commitments that we become almost obsessed with our feelings. We think our feelings will lead us to the right commitments. It’s the counter logic to the “I’m going to do this because it’s the honorable thing to do” group. For this group, the only honorable thing to do is be true to yourself above all else. It’s very postmodern, and it’s hard to blame us for the logic we’ve been culturally indoctrinated into for so long. I think the problem becomes when we use our traditions (knowingly or unknowingly) as an excuse not to commit. If you follow me, Christmas may be a religious holiday, but it shouldn’t be your religion. Basketball may be a great way to connect with a group of people over something, but that isn’t enough. We short-change ourselves when think traditions are enough without any commitments.

I greatly value traditions (both of the Christmas and Seventh-day Adventist variety), but I do think we have to be aware of their propensities. At one point in time or another, we’ve probably all fallen prey to a combination of tradition’s tendencies. I certainly don’t think we could or should throw out our traditions, but I do think it’s super helpful to find ways to balance out their shortcomings.

So, there’s some of what I’m thinking about with Christmas fast-approaching. What do you guys think? In what way are traditions good? In what other ways do they go awry? How can we balance out the tendencies that they have the potential to create in us?

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