September 13, 2006

The Thing About Fortresses

2006 1525 page27 capn a rare day of sun and blue skies, I sit in a meadow surrounded by the Austrian Alps. It is my first trip outside of Salzburg, a trip recommended by Lonely Planet. I keep the guidebook hidden in my purse, sneaking glances when no one is watching. Lonely Planet states that the falcon show at Hohenwerfen fortress is an area highlight.
I’m a fan of area highlights. Earlier in the day, I took the train to the small village of Werfen. I stepped out of the station and there it was: Hohenwerfen. The fortress was white amid the green of the trees. It was fairytale-pretty with thick walls and towers and portcullises, and the Austrian flag flying from the highest point. The climb to the fortress was steep—as Lonely Planet had warned. I had to stop under a tree to catch my breath. When I finally entered the gate I was startled by the meadow. I hadn’t expected grass in a fortress.
While the fortress is now a tourist attraction, a place to sit on the grass and watch falcons, it once served a different purpose. It was built to protect the road leading to Salzburg. A painting on an inside wall carries the inscription: “Veniat Mvndvs Nvllvs Transibit Invltvs” (No one passes this point unpunished). After seeing the torture room and hearing how boiling molten was dropped out the windows, I believe it.
2006 1525 page27Fortresses do well at sheltering those inside. The Hohenwerfen protected soldiers and their families during the Thirty Years’ War. But the thing about fortresses is that they are designed to keep people out. The walls are thick and the location is difficult to reach. Outsiders are discouraged from entering.
A church should not be that kind of fortress.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the world. We are visible through hospitals, educational institutions, and our humanitarian institutions such as the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA).1 Recently, we received a lot of positive press for our health message and the long life that often accompanies it.
Still, Adventist churches can feel quite insular. Adventist children attend Adventist schools. Adventist adults have Adventist adult friends. Adventist church services use terms familiar only to Adventists, and what’s worse, we have a troubling habit of criticizing other religions.
When a Catholic friend accompanied me to my small church, I feared someone would insult her faith and sour her on Adventism. Fortunately no one did, but it was an exception rather than the norm. Why denounce Catholics?2  Why not spend Sabbath school worshipping Christ and improving our relationship with Him?
My biggest question, though, is this: How do we best represent our faith?
Many Adventist churches hold evangelistic meetings. Yet the words “Seventh-day Adventist” rarely appear on the literature we hand out, and the evangelist is usually coy about our denomination until well into the series. I’m sure there is a good reason for this, but what is it?
If we are worried that people consider us kooks, then we have some serious work ahead of us. The truth about Adventists is less scandalous than most people imagine: We love God. We follow the Bible. We find rest in keeping the Sabbath. We believe in loving our neighbor as ourselves. If that is peculiar, then I rather like it. I want to be known as someone who puts others first, whose faith gives her inner peace, who doesn’t compromise her beliefs.
As an Adventist who attends a non-Adventist university, I have opportunities to represent my church. It’s a big responsibility, and one I do imperfectly. My friends know me first as Sari—someone who laughs a lot—but they also know that being an Adventist is a large part of my identity. They keep an eye out for all things Adventist.
I’ve always been shy talking about what’s dear to my heart. But when I discuss my faith my friends listen, interested in what I have to say. They care about my beliefs because they care about me.
I firmly believe that the best way to avoid being insular is through relationships. If we are following Jesus, we must follow the example of His ministry. He made personal connections—from Zacchaeus in the tree, to the woman at the well, to Mary Magdalene.
A fortress might be safe, but it’s not known for welcoming outsiders.
1A nongovernment organization that helps those in need.
2Adventists and Catholics might have some different core beliefs—but discussions about those differences tend to be self-congratulatory, rather than spiritually uplifting. See Luke 18:9-14.
Sari Fordham is working on a postgraduate degree at the University of Minnesota.