A tale that has achieved the status of urban legend has professional gemologist Roy Whetstine strolling through an amateur rock collectors’ exhibit when he was stopped by the collection of a rockhound from Idaho.
On the card table amid the prized and polished rocks sat a Tupperware bowl containing a menagerie of rocky duplicates and discards. The masking tape on the front of the bowl read “For Sale—$15 Each.” Whetstine reached into the dusty bowl and fingered the rocks. One felt strange. He lifted a potato-shaped gray violet rock into the air, twisting it before his trained eye. “You want $15 for this?”
The collector grabbed the rock and looked at it closely. “No,” he finally replied. “You can have this one for $10.”
Whetstine pulled out a wrinkled $10 bill and walked away with, according to the legend, the world’s largest star sapphire—700 more carats than the previous record holder, the Black Star of Queensland, Australia. Estimated value? $1.7 million. Marked down to $10!
Just a fictional story? Nothing more than a parable? But have we in the church done the same thing? Or worse: relegating the star sapphire of the universe to our dusty Tupperware bowl of doctrines, creeds, and other such collector’s items? Do we tote them about, touting their value to the world, when all the while the infinite treasure of Jesus lies unnoticed, buried beneath our dusty accumulations of orthodoxy?
Make no mistake. Choosing between Jesus and doctrine is a false dichotomy. Although given our culture’s distaste for creed and doctrine, for the notion of capital-T Truth at all, it’s hardly surprising that we might be tempted by the opinion, “Jesus—Yes! Doctrine—No!”
But that would be patently illogical. Because by very definition a doctrine is a belief or set of beliefs held by a church. How could the star sapphire truth of Jesus not rank as the doctrine extraordinaire? Yet no matter how you cast it, “doctrine” doesn’t feel very warm and friendly, certainly not as friendly and inviting as Jesus. So must we choose between them?
Jesus didn’t. Just hours away from His execution, He declared without equivocation, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). He was not only the incarnation of God; He was—and still is—the personification of truth, capital-T Truth. Thus by definition any biblical doctrine, any scriptural truth and belief, must ultimately be Christocentric, Christ-centered. A point Jesus sprang on the ecclesiastical hierarchy one unforgettable afternoon.
Jesus had just had the temerity to heal a man paralyzed for 38 years—done it with a simple command, and done it on the Sabbath.
The guardians of tradition and orthodoxy descend on the young Teacher-Healer with fury. But Jesus doesn’t flinch. It’s another one of His “need versus creed” showdowns, in which He elevates human need above prevailing creed. Challenged by Scripture He quietly responds: “You studythe Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39, 40). Catch His point?
You can’t miss it here in Eugene Peterson’s Message rendition of Jesus’ words: “You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.’”1
“These Scriptures are all about me!” Christocentric, Christ-centered, all about Jesus—that is the compelling truth about all Bible doctrines—they are all about Jesus.
Wouldn’t you love to have a YouTube clip of that moment? Two heartbroken followers of Jesus are returning to their village home—grown men crying, so disappointed they are over the tragic death of their Leader. A stranger catches up to them, slips into their tearful conversation, and begins a recitation of Old Testament passages and promises: “He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).
There it is again from the lips of our Lord Himself—the gospel truth that all truth is the truth as it is in Jesus in “all the Scriptures.” Period. No surprise: when Jesus returns to heaven a few weeks after His Emmaus walk, He leaves behind an embryonic but genuinely Christocentric faith community. Just listen to His disciples:
Peter: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Paul: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
Paul again: “Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11).
John: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16).
Jesus through John: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 22:13).
Who can deny the Bible depiction of this Christ-centered church founded on Christ-centered doctrines taught by Christ-centered leaders? The record is clear. But all of that was 2,000 years ago. What about the third millennial church today? How is it with us?
All about Jesus—that is the compelling truth about all Bible doctrines—they are all about Jesus.
May I be candid with you? I love my church, this faith community into which I was born. I’m a fifth-generation Seventh-day Adventist and a fourth-generation preacher. But I have this gnawing sense that in spite of all the good we read about and hear about, something is still missing.
I’m not so worried about my church losing its hold on Christ-centered proclamation. Although I’ll be the first to admit that even Christ-centered preaching can sometimes feel sterile and heartless, even Jesus-less. I plead guilty. But we pastors and preachers know our marching orders.
Ellen White is clear: “Of all professing Christians, Seventh-day Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world. The proclamation of the third angel’s message calls for the presentation of the Sabbath truth. This truth, with others included in the message, is to be proclaimed; but the great center of attraction, Christ Jesus, must not be left out.”2 You cannot get any more Christ-centered than “the great center of attraction.” Christ’s church must preach Christ. Must proclaim the truth as it is in Jesus.
I’m also confident that the church’s theologians will continue in their duty to keep this faith community focused on Christ-centered proclamation and orthodoxy (“right believing”).
But to be honest, I am much more concerned about Christ-centered orthopraxy (“right behaving”) or the lack of it in our church. At least in my life, if not in yours.
A woman called our church one day. I didn’t recognize her voice. She said she’d been listening on the radio and knew if she called me I would help her. I admit: my immediate reaction to her word “help” was “she’s going to ask for money.” Sure enough, she did.
In that split second I’d tried to think of a place I could send her for a handout—United Way or the police station, maybe. But before I could speak, the Holy Spirit clamped my mouth shut as she went on. She had $1,000 waiting for her in Chicago, but after listening on the radio, she felt she should abandon that easy money. Turns out she was a prostitute with two little children—and out of money. So I made arrangements for her to anonymously pick up some emergency aid from the church.
Several weeks later an attractive woman came up to me after worship and asked if I remembered her. I didn’t. She spoke about that phone call and immediately, of course, I remembered it all. “I hope you don’t mind my children and me worshipping here.” I assured her she was always welcome.
Some months later when I saw her face radiant with joy as she came up from the baptistry waters, I realized how close I’d come to spoiling the work of Jesus in that woman’s heart.
Wasn’t that Jesus’ point that night before He died? “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34, 35, NKJV).3
Jesus’ point is inescapable: The only way the world will know we are His people is by our love. Are we a loving people? Or are we, as Mark Twain cynically quipped, “good . . . in the worst sense of the word”? Like the little English girl prayed: “O God, make the bad people good . . . and the good people nice.”4
“By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” How could we possibly be a Christ-centered church if we are not a loving people? Doesn’t Christ-centered mean Jesus in the middle—in the middle of our friendships, in the middle of our marriages, in the middle of our studying, in the middle of our careers, in the middle of our everywhere and everything? Are we a Jesus people?
H.M.S. Richards, Sr., the beloved preacher who founded the Voice of Prophecy, once was asked, “What is the Adventist message?” His reply was two words long: “Jesus only.” Yes, but what about these “Jesus freaks” (it was the 1960s)? His answer: “Sounds like a good idea. I’ve been one all my life.”5
Isn’t that to be the truth about you and me, too? Jesus freaks—people known for their Jesus kind of living, Jesus kind of loving?
John Stott is right: “The cross is a revelation of God’s justice as well as of his love. That is why the community of the cross should concern itself with social justice as well as loving philanthropy. It is never enough to have pity on the victims of injustice, if we do nothing to change the unjust situation.”6
God asks: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isa. 58:6, 7).
Given the state of our nation and world, shouldn’t Jesus’ people, Jesus’ church, be just like Him in defending the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the alien and the alienated? “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” What are we waiting for?
For Jesus to come? Be careful what you look forward to! “When the nations are gathered before [Christ the judge], there will be but two classes, and their eternal destiny will be determined by what they have done or have neglected to do for Him in the person of the poor and the suffering.”7
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). “I want to know Christ” (Phil. 3:10). Christ-centered people, such as Paul, have always had a passion for Him. Nikolaus von Zinzendorf penned: “I have one passion—it is He and He alone.”8
Ellen White was no different: “In the long weary hours of the night,. . . when every nerve seemed to be shrieking with pain, when if I considered myself, it seemed I should go frantic, the peace of Christ has come into my heart in such measure that I have been filled with gratitude and thanksgiving. I know that Jesus loves me, and I love Jesus.”9
That’s the church I want to belong to—a people who know Jesus loves them, who love Him back, and move into the world to love it back to Him.
Dwight K. Nelson is lead pastor of Pioneer Memorial church, on the campus of Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
It all began last February  with a three-and-a-half-minute video clip posted on social media. I saw it Sunday night. By the end of the week so had 150,000 others. #ItIsTimeAU featured eight Black Andrews University students and their campus pastor issuing an earnest appeal for this Seventh-day Adventist university to apologize “for the systemic racism it has perpetuated on its campus.”
When it was announced that the university president, Andrea Luxton, would respond to that appeal at our Thursday morning chapel service, the congregation at Pioneer Memorial church was standing room only. A campus-wide day of fasting and prayer (Wednesday, 7:00 p.m., to Thursday, 7:00 p.m.) only heightened the expectancy as students and faculty streamed into the church.
There is no need to rehearse the 50 minutes of that worship service (it has been documented elsewhere). But when President Luxton in her address to the campus and alumni not only spoke the words “I apologize,” but also pledged “this ongoing journey toward reconciliation, healing, and transformation,” the ovation in response to her candor and compassion seemed an expression of both agreement and commitment. It was truly a Holy Spirit moment.
But what about life beyond that moment? What about the rest of us in the wider Seventh-day Adventist Church? What sort of next step is God waiting for
us to take in this journey toward racial reconciliation and healing in our own church, in our own country?
A day before the president’s address, I wrote a blog that began with the question: How can you
heal someone’s pain when you can’t feel someone’s pain? That our nation is fractured by the pain of racial brokenness is a given—so is our church. Yet the truth is many of us can’t feel it. How could we possibly feel it? We’re White.
Years ago a friend gave me a book I never got around to reading, until last February. It’s Paul Kivel’s exploration,
Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice. One glance at the title, and I knew that this wouldn’t be for me, since I’m not a racist, since I see little if any racism around me. So why should I worry? That was more than 20 years ago. Now the book speaks volumes:
“It is not necessarily a privilege to be White, but it certainly has its benefits. . . . Privileges are economic ‘extras’ that those of us who are middle class and wealthy gain at the expense of poor and working-class people of all races. Benefits, on the other hand, are the advantages that all White people gain at the expense of people of color regardless of economic position. . . . Just because we don’t have the economic privileges of those with more money doesn’t mean we haven’t enjoyed some of the benefits of being White.”1
Kivel runs through a checklist of such privileges: (1) we’re able to count on police protection rather than harassment; (2) we’re able to choose where we want to live with safe neighborhoods and decent schools; (3) we’re “given more attention, respect and status in conversations than people of color”; (4) in news, music, history books, and media “we see people who look like us” in a positive light; (5) we have more access, credibility, and recourse with lawyers and courts; (6) “nothing that we do is qualified, limited, discredited, or acclaimed simply because of our racial background.”2
Our journey toward obedience of Christ’s eleventh commandment has to begin with you and me, with all of us sitting at the same table.
White privilege begins in childhood: (1) people around us have higher expectations for us as children; (2) more money will be spent on our schools; (3) we’ll get called on more times in class; (4) we will see people who look like us in our textbooks; (5) and “if we get into trouble, adults will expect us to be able to change and improve and therefore will discipline or penalize us less or differently than children of color.”3
Kivel concludes: “All else being equal, it pays to be White. We will be accepted, acknowledged, and given the benefit of the doubt. Since all else is not equal we each receive different benefits or different levels of the same benefits from being White.”4
How can we possibly heal someone’s pain when we can’t feel someone’s pain? Ask the good Samaritan. The crime victim was a Jew, and Jews hated Samaritans. Why did the Samaritan bother at all? He couldn’t feel the victim’s pain. But as Martin Luther King, Jr., observed about Jesus’ parable: Whereas the priest and the Levite fretted, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” the Samaritan asked, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”5
What will happen to her, what will happen to them, if I don’t stop and pour myself into their pain? It’s the Golden Rule hammered out in the crucible of another person’s pain. The Samaritan knelt beside the victim and administered (ministered) the emotional and physical intervention the brutalized man desperately needed.
In the Samaritan’s self-sacrificial love for his “neighbor,” we see not only the truth about Christ who knelt beside us, but the truth Christ calls His radical followers to embrace: As you would have others treat you, you treat them.
My blog ended with these words: “There is a pain deep within our faith community and our nation. It may not be your pain, but until it becomes your business, the pain—plain and simple—cannot and will not be healed. In the school. In the church. In the nation. In our own hearts.”6
A friend of mine, an African American attorney, read the blog and e-mailed me a few hours after the president’s address:
“I was deeply moved by your blog yesterday. What I connected with most was the genuine Spirit behind it. . . . As you prepare to minister this coming Sabbath, I feel impressed to simply say, ‘Don’t hold back.’ I don’t know what God is impressing upon you to say, but I implore you to let the Spirit lead as you help shepherd Pioneer Memorial church, the Andrews University campus, and the surrounding community through this process of transparency and healing.
“We are at a critical point in our church’s history . . . a time in which we will no longer be able to hide from these questions. . . . Regardless of how folks may feel about the method chosen by the #ItIsTimeAU team, it has brought us to this critical moment—and there is no turning back. No going back to the old, passive, nonconfrontational fairy tale of postracial harmony that we have tried to convince ourselves is true knowing all along it was a lie. It is time for us . . . all of us . . . to take a look in the mirror, and start getting unapologetically real with ourselves and each other. . . .
“We are stronger together, and we will make it through these difficult days with our eyes fixed on the promise that He will be with us, guide us, hold us, carry us, and empower us until our faith is made sight.”7
So how can we pursue racial reconciliation, you and I and this faith community we love? We don’t have to ask, What would Jesus do? We already know. His “eleventh commandment” is unequivocal.
After serving as a slave to the Twelve by washing their dirty feet, Jesus rejoins them at the table and instructs us: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34, 35, KJV).8 This “eleventh commandment” is all about racial reconciliation, don’t you think?
So how do we intersect White privilege, the eleventh commandment, and racial reconciliation? What if we took these two steps?
Our journey toward obedience of Christ’s eleventh commandment has to begin with you and me. I need to hear your story, or I will never feel your pain. We need to listen to one another to really hear each other. Once I hear your story, once I feel your pain, then and only then can we together heal that pain, and open wide our doors to a fractured, wounded nation desperately needing to be healed. But I repeat, until they see us as a place of healing, why would others ever come to us?
The best way for us to step away from our White privilege is to devote our lives to making certain everyone enjoys the same privilege we do—since privileges, blessings, and benefits are never fairly defined or distributed on the basis of skin color. Never. Not even in church.
But while the church may have some undoing to do at the national level, my concern is the local congregation. Take the privilege we enjoy at Pioneer Memorial church of a very spacious sanctuary. All the while our friends at New Life Fellowship, a predominantly African American worship community on campus, are packed into the seminary chapel, spilling out to wherever they can find space. It’s the “I have two dollies and you have none” children’s Sabbath School lesson.
Ellen White wrote: “Walls of separation have been built up between the whites and the blacks. These walls of prejudice will tumble down of themselves as did the walls of Jericho, when Christians obey the Word of God, which enjoins on them supreme love to their maker and impartial love to their neighbors.”9
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this [the whole world] will know that you are[ My people], if you have love for one another.” Jesus’ command could hardly be clearer.
One of the previous century’s great Christian apologists, C. S. Lewis, received a letter from an American woman who had had a positive experience with an Adventist somewhere, and wrote Lewis to ask what he knew about us.
Here is his reply: “What you say about the VII Day Adventists interests me extremely. If they have so much charity there must be something very right about them.”10
A bright mind intrigued by an uncommon love. “If they have that much love, there must be something very right about them.”
“By this [the whole world] will know that you are [My people].”
Black and White Seventh-day Adventists. It really
is time, is it not?
Dwight K. Nelson is senior pastor of Pioneer Memorial church, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.