By now you’ve had scores of people (friends, family, talking heads, and online commentators) tell you what to think about the COVID-19 pandemic.
But you don’t have to be told how hugely it has interrupted society on almost every level. The simple pleasures we enjoyed until a few weeks ago—going to church, meals in restaurants, shopping without looking like doctors dressed for surgery—have all been taken from us.
Those simple pleasures have been replaced by fear, isolation, suspicion, and curiosity about whether life will ever again be “normal.”
As one who has tried to play by the rules (maintained social distancing, worked from home), I can’t help thinking of those who have it much worse than I do. I live in a comfortable home with a woman who loves me. I have friends and family who are only a computer click away. Even without hoarding, my wife and I have enough food in our pantry to survive on a desert island until help arrives.
But the number of those without jobs is steadily climbing. And it isn’t hard to imagine people who live in crowded homes and apartments whose cupboards are bare and the aroma of desperation hangs in the air. The sad reality is that this will last for months.
I can’t help but think of those who have it much worse than I do.
Perhaps you’ve noticed an interesting evolution among the screen images you’ve seen since the pandemic hijacked our normal lives. At first, sports and media figures showed themselves self-isolating in homes that often featured decorations and furnishings inspired by photo spreads in Home Beautiful. Then within a few days we saw them entertaining themselves, often performing with their peers and the assistance of Internet technology.
Then entertainers began working to raise money for various humanitarian causes: health-care supplies, meals for medical providers, support for food banks, relief for those who are unemployed.
I find comfort in these latter images. For while our lives have all been disrupted, many of us are suffering more than others. These demonstrations of awareness and support reinforce the reality of our common humanity. While some have used the current situation to sow suspicion and disunity, a greater number have joined hearts and resources to reflect our heritage as daughters and sons of God.
This is a good time to remember and put into practice Jesus’ words: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42). And because we live in a moment when people in need don’t always carry cardboard signs that say “Homeless. Please Help,” we should search out agencies in our neighborhoods where we can donate food, diapers, and money to help people until this crisis is over (or at least manageable).
The past couple months have reminded us that, while there are things we can control, many things are beyond our control. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, let alone a month from now. People have every reason to be anxious.
But this is no time to be discouraged. Caring for others is the best cure for anxiety.
Stephen Chavez is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.
When I’m not disguised as a mild-mannered assistant editor of Adventist Review, I disguise myself as chair of the administrative board of Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maryland (actually, it’s the same costume).
I usually call our monthly meetings to order with some kind of group activity designed to get board members primed to engage in the rest of the evening’s agenda.
Not long ago I wrote on the whiteboard: “Sligo church is not a welcoming church.” Then I said, “True or false: This is a true statement.”
Those present replied nearly in unison, “False!”
“What would make it a true?” I asked.
“Remove the word ‘not’” was the unanimous response.
“So Sligo church is a welcoming church,” I pressed. “Who is welcome at Sligo church?” I provided markers and asked people to come to the board and list one group or segment of the community that would be welcome at Sligo church.
One person, with John 3:16 on his mind, wrote: “Everybody!”
“Not so fast,” I interrupted. “Be specific. For whom does Sligo church have ministries or activities that would make them feel welcome?”
Soon individuals migrated to the whiteboard and began writing: “seniors,” “youth,” “immigrants,” “children,” “single parents,” “widows,” “unemployed,” “university students,” etc.
The church is Christ’s body on earth. As Christ embodied the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit when He lived on earth, today’s church—thanks to the Holy Spirit—reflects Christ’s character to its members and its community. On that we can all agree.
But what, exactly, is the character of the church?
In the two millennia since Christ ascended to heaven, His followers have used different images to describe the church’s essential characteristics. The apostle Peter set the bar pretty high when he said of the church: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession. . . . Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God” (1 Peter 2:9, 10).
Let’s see: “a chosen people,” “a royal priesthood,” “a holy nation,” “God’s special possession,” “people of God.” At the same time, it’s popular to refer to the church as “a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints.” So which is it? Are we a hotel or a hospital? Are we saints or sinners?
Jesus welcomed sinners (Luke 19:7), yet He demanded a righteousness that surpassed that of the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20). How do we, as Christ’s body on earth, demonstrate both acceptance and high standards?
The home page of the Toledo (Ohio) First Seventh-day Adventist Church has this description under “Who We Are”: “Our multiethnic congregation reminds people that God loves them like crazy by proclaiming Jesus’ everlasting gospel to ‘every nation, tribe, language, and people’ (Rev. 14:6). . . . We have become known for living and consistently emphasizing grace more unapologetically and creatively than any Adventist church in southeast Michigan or northwest Ohio.”
Adventist congregations are increasingly appreciating that they have to elevate the perception that most people have of Christianity.
So Toledo First’s introduction to its community begins by linking gospel and grace. And that, theoretically, is how it should be.
But the reality is often different; and depending where, quite different. Daniel Xisto, pastor of church operations and community engagement for the Takoma Park (Maryland) Seventh-day Adventist Church, admits: “There are many people for whom our church is not a safe place.” He cites examples such as teens who show up to services wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts; single parents who attend with unruly and disruptive children; homeless people with shabby clothes and offensive body odor.
Church members are sometimes tempted to justify exclusion with a faulty logic. “The logic usually goes something like this,” says Xisto. “If we welcome [them] . . . they might assume that we accept their behavior. And if they assume we accept their behavior, they may assume that God accepts them just the way they are. And we just cannot let that happen.”
Ron Hessel, lead pastor of Summit Northwest Ministries in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, observes: “Some of the saints see it as a badge of honor to ‘uphold the standards.’”
He tells about a deacon in one of his former parishes who told a young woman visitor that she needed to “wipe the blood off her face,” referring to her lipstick. “We never saw her again,” says Hessel. Yet the deacon often repeated the story, as if it were something of which to be proud.
Horror stories such as this are common. Begin a conversation about Adventists behaving badly, and everyone will have at least one tale to tell.
Adventist congregations throughout North America are increasingly appreciating that if they truly want to represent Christ to their communities, they have to elevate the perception that most people have of Christianity.
A survey by the Pew Research Center* shows that since 2007 the percentage of Christians in the United States has dropped from 78 percent to 65 percent in 2018/2019, while those who profess no religious affiliation (the nones) have increased from 16 percent to 26 percent. As a group, Christians seem to be declining in their influence on society.
The book UnChristian, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, begins with the words: “Christianity has an image problem.” Then it catalogs six characteristics that people use to dismiss Christianity: hypocrisy, a narrow view of salvation, intolerance of homosexuality, too sheltered, too political, too judgmental. And while we may be comfortable with those characterizations as evidence that Jesus has changed our lives and values, we still have to ask: Would people see Him as they see us?
This sometimes presents a challenge to those of us who identify as Adventists. Some suppose that emphasizing Christ’s character of grace and inclusiveness will somehow lessen their commitment to the church’s doctrines. They have to address these priorities intentionally as they attempt to engage their communities.
“We started by taking action where we had broad agreement,” says Nicholas Zork, a church leader in New York City. That action affirmed: “Everyone should be given the opportunity to participate fully in the life of our community.”
Zork continues: “While we didn’t all hold identical views, we could agree on what mattered most: our mission to love, affirm, and include all people.”
The trend in society to categorize people—liberal, conservative, believers, nonbelievers, etc.—is nothing new. Tribalism has been part of the human experience almost as long as there have been humans. Indeed, the New Testament church comprised both genders, all economic classes, ages, and ethnic backgrounds. Those differences were real, and they had to be addressed (Acts 6:1-4). The Roman Empire, in which the early Christian church gestated, was remarkably diverse. The climate in which today’s Adventist Church exists is not unique.
“Welcoming is just the beginning of a discipleship process,” says Zork, “in which we all—despite our differences—are people who share most things in common, have similar needs and challenges, and can learn from one another about . . . spirituality and life.”
Under the heading “Who We Are,” Summit Northwest Ministries describes the dream that led to its formation 16 years ago: “This dream was of a church where hurting, confused, depressed, and disenfranchised people could find hope, encouragement, love, acceptance, and salvation.
“This desire to ‘share our loving God with hurting people so that they can experience His transforming power in their lives’ has become . . . the driving force behind what we do.”
Ron Hessel, senior pastor, said that one of his members got a phone call from someone who asked if the church’s intention to be more welcoming and inclusive meant that they were “lowering their standards.”
Hessel observes: “The church was planted with the goal of being more welcoming. It is part of the congregation’s DNA.” He acknowledges that for congregations that rigidly enforce a code of what is acceptable or unacceptable, resistance to being more welcoming and inclusive may be more pronounced. “People are afraid that welcoming means accepting.”
Mike Fortune, pastor of Toledo First, puts it succinctly: “Acceptance does not equal agreement.”
Nicholas Zork uses Matthew 25 to justify welcoming marginalized populations. “By welcoming and including those we’ve wrongly pushed away, we are welcoming Jesus.” He adds, “In that process we experience more grace than we offer; we learn more than we teach; we receive more than we give.”
For more than 30 years the Glendale city church in southern California has developed an intentional ministry to marginalized individuals. At first its reputation suffered among those who saw it as heretical at worst, unorthodox at best. But those who felt unwelcome in their own congregations began gravitating to this place where they felt accepted. One of the individuals thus embraced bequeathed his modest estate to the church when he died. His donation became seed money for an endowment that now amounts to more than $2 million.
In his ministry, Daniel Xisto makes a point of developing relationships with people in his community. “Half the battle,” he says, “is that we don’t know people outside our own circle.” He says it’s harder to dismiss people when we know them as individuals, not just as members of a stereotypical group: “those people.”
As we know, society has reached a point in which people of different religious or political convictions can sometimes hardly be in the same room with each other, let alone carry on a civil conversation. In such a climate the church has to be a refuge, where love, grace, and inclusion punctuate every conversation and all behaviors.
We sometimes have to confess that some Adventist churches have been exclusive cliques, and have repelled people rather than embraced them. We have closed our doors to people who didn’t behave like us, think like us, or look like us. We have cared more about being right than about being kind. We have confused acceptance with agreement. We have turned away thirsty seekers of the free water of life. Yet Jesus’ invitation remains: “Come to me” (Matt. 11:28).
So the question: how do we create in our congregations places where people can find true sanctuary? Places where they are both forgiven sinners and aspiring saints? Where they can worship and fellowship without being judged on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity, appearance, etc.?
And isn’t living like Jesus the highest standard to which we can aspire?
Daniel Xisto wonders, “Wouldn’t it be something if not only the well-to-do but the marginalized, disenfranchised, and excluded groups could find refuge in any Seventh-day Adventist Church? That’s what I’m fighting for.”
* Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Studies (2007 and 2014). Aggregated Pew Research Center surveys conducted 2009-July 2019 on the telephone.
Stephen Chavez is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.
For more than four decades now, the month of May has featured celebrations of the culture and contributions that Asian and Pacific islanders have made to North America. This issue of Adventist Review recognizes the contributions of Adventists of Asian and Pacific Island heritage to the development and success of Adventism in the United States.—Editors
Seventh-day Adventists in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) have a rather significant profile. They operate Sahmyook University, one of the largest universities in the country, and Sahmyook Medical Center and Children’s Hospital. More than 115 years since the first Koreans were baptized, Seventh-day Adventists in the Republic of Korea now number 250,000.
Korean Seventh-day Adventists in North America aren’t as widely recognized, but they’re reaching their communities with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Sukho (Joseph) Shon is pastor of the Korean Seventh-day Adventist Church in Gilbert, Arizona (a suburb of Phoenix). Shon has pastored Adventist congregations in the Republic of Korea; Pennsylvania; and Vancouver, British Columbia.
Before describing the ministries Shon and his congregations have been involved in, mention should be made of a training experience that colors everything he does.
Before coming to the United States, Shon spent 14 months as a volunteer in the 1,000 Missionary Movement, a mission initiative started in the Republic of Korea by Jairyong Lee, then president of what was the Adventist Church’s Asia-Pacific Division, to train young people in outreach activities. After orientation and training, volunteers spend a year in voluntary mission service. Shon spent his year in the Philippines, near Mount Pinatubo, serving people who lived in mountain villages without electricity or running water.
In a classic example of understatement, Shon says, “It was not difficult to come to North America. We had a greater dream to serve God, . . . serving more people, ethnic groups, and languages.”
Shon and his wife, Sunok Esther Jung (also a pastor), received seminary training, worked for a while in Korea, then moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. Shon’s portfolio at the Vancouver Korean Adventist Church included ministry to youth and young adults, as well as to international students. One of his major challenges was engaging with second-generation Korean Americans, helping them to “be light and salt for Christ in serving the community.”
“Church is more than a location to worship. It becomes a weekly family reunion, where [members] show their gratitude to God for His grace, a place to fellowship and give and receive encouragement.”
Bridging the gap between first- and second-generation immigrants is a challenge faced in every ethnic congregation, not just those who are Korean.
Jonathan Park, executive secretary of the Southeastern California Conference, was born in the Republic of Korea and moved with his family to the United States when he was 10 years old. “I am what we call the 1.5 generation,” he says. He sees himself and others like him as a bridge between first-generation Koreans and those who are second- and third-generation immigrants.
Park first heard God’s call to ministry as a child, growing up in the Republic of Korea. His name was the same as that of the president of the Republic of Korea at the time, leading some to suggest (facetiously) that he pursue a career in politics. But he was baptized at age 9 and influenced by an uncle who was an Adventist pastor in the United States. “I thought it would be cool to have God as my boss,” he says. From then on, Park has followed God as He led him into pastoral ministry and then into administrative roles.
According to Park, first-generation Korean Adventists in North America had to operate in a “survival mode” when they first arrived in the United States, having had to establish their racial identity in a new cultural setting. What they didn’t have to learn is their identity as Christians. While today’s Republic of Korea is increasingly secular, more than 25 percent of its population practices some brand of Christianity. He points out that only the United States sends out more foreign missionaries than do Christians in the Republic of Korea. As of 2018, there were nearly 14,000 Korean Adventists in North America, worshipping in 140 churches.
When he pastored in Philadelphia, Shon used a variety of community outreach methods. They included evangelistic meetings, health seminars (in partnership with the church’s medical professionals), Vacation Bible Schools, art classes, etc. Shon chose a ministry to the community’s homeless population to bridge the cultural gap between ages, ethnicities, and immigration status.
Even though the United States is home to the largest concentration of Koreans outside of the Republic of Korea, Koreans make up less than 1 percent of its population. So the work of overcoming prejudice and being enculturated is never ending. Shon has found community engagement one of the keys to accomplishing that.
Park, who pastored Korean congregations in both Maryland and California, cites cross-generational leadership development as another reason for the vitality of Korean congregations. He refers to a “kimchi-flavored” ministry that combines a strong church community with a family-oriented atmosphere. He observes that in the church he attends, “there are three different worship groups, three different leadership teams.”
First-generation immigrants typically worship in the Korean language. Generations 1.5 and 2 often prefer to worship in English, but also worship in Korean when the service is conducted in that language. Third-generation immigrants prefer to worship in English, because they’re likely to invite friends who don’t speak Korean. When they all worship under the same roof, different segments of the congregation “own” different parts of the service, such as separate Sabbath School classes and worship services. So each group develops leaders to organize and implement each study and worship experience. They all have in common the fellowship dinners, at which every generation enjoys the same fellowship and the same great Korean food.
Sukho Shon explains his motives in reaching the community. “I led our church to serve the community, gain their trust and confidence.” Some of the activities his congregation provided in its yearly outreach calendar included classes in English as a second language; computer/smartphone classes; music lessons; art classes; citizenship classes; assistance in signing up for social security, food stamps, medical insurance, senior assistance.
Bible studies are also part of the congregation’s outreach program. Evangelistic meetings based on the NEWSTART health program were offered every spring, and evangelistic meetings featuring the gospel and prophecy were offered in the fall.
That kind of activity means more members for whom Korean is not their native language. “Synergy affected our growth and worship together, from grandparents to grandchildren,” he says. The church offered two worship services each Sabbath, one at 9:30 a.m. and the other at 11:30. The services alternate between Korean and English, with Sabbath School in between. Congregations from both services join for fellowship dinners afterward.
Two pastors, one for English-speakers and another for children and youth, joined the staff to support the congregation’s outreach to the community.
Not surprisingly, all this activity caused growing pains. After renting from other churches for several years, the congregation bought their first church building three years ago, with classrooms and 11,000 square feet of worship space. They’re building a multipurpose building for community services, and a gymnasium. “Garage sales, car washes, the sacrificial dedication of church members from children to grandparents, and the blessing of God helped fund most of the $3.3 million project,” he says.
Jonathan Park also cites the generosity of Korean Adventists. “They have the mentality: ‘Everything I have, I give to the church.’” They do it to “make sure the church is financially solvent, but they are also generous with their time and efforts for the greater good of the ch
urch.” Korean Adventists, says Park, are models of ethnic congregations that bridge the gaps between generations, cultures, and different religious traditions.
“The church is a place where first-generation Koreans find identity,” says Park. “Church is more than a place to worship. It becomes a weekly family reunion, where [members] show their gratitude to God for His grace and for a place to fellowship and to give and receive encouragement.”
This is the atmosphere they hope to share with younger generations. Park cites a survey taken among Korean American students at the University of California at Los Angeles. They were asked whether, after graduation, they intended to attend an “American” church or a Korean one. More than 80 percent indicated their preference as Korean.
In North America the number of ethnic Korean Adventist congregations is second only to Hispanic congregations. This, according to Park, is because of “the ability to adjust, grow, and remain relevant to both first- and second-generation Korean Americans, while continuing to grow a community that is welcoming to all ethnicities, with English worship services and community outreach.”
Stephen Chavez is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.
You’ve likely heard a sermon at least once in your life in which the preacher quoted Jesus’ words: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42).
It’s part of the passage that also includes this mandate: “Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well” (verses 39, 40). I’ve yet to hear a sermon in which the preacher suggested that these words are to be understood literally.
The relationship between God’s Word and God’s people has always been fraught. Jesus told the Jewish leaders: “You study the 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).
For many Christians, the Bible is like a municipal code: a really good lawyer can find a loophole or get us off on a technicality.
Was Jesus serious when He said that?
Are we obligated to obey everything in the Bible? Or just those things that we find convenient? Was Jesus serious when He said we should invite those who are poor, crippled, lame, and blind to our dinner parties, instead of our friends and relatives (see Luke 14:12-14)? Did members of the early church really sell property and possessions to make sure that everyone was clothed and fed (see Acts 2:44, 45)? Was that a model for us, or just some unrealistic ideal?
These questions are not rhetorical. What is our Christian responsibility in view of the social issues roiling our culture? What does the Bible say about serving those who are marginalized because of poverty, disease, social, racial, or religious prejudice? Who would take the Bible seriously if it meant paying higher taxes so that people in poverty can access affordable health care?
Anyone who reads the Bible sincerely knows that the claims of the Bible are not trivial or trite. While we like to quote texts reminding us that not a sparrow falls outside the notice of our heavenly Father (see Matt. 10:29-31), doesn’t that text also apply to those who sleep under overpasses, in prison cells, and in subsidized housing? If God cares about them—as He cares about us and sparrows—what are we doing to demonstrate that concern on a practical level?
In the words of twentieth-century preacher Peter Marshall: “There are aspects of the gospel that are puzzling and difficult to understand. But our problems are not centered around the things we don’t understand, but rather in the things we do understand, the things we could not possibly misunderstand. Our problem is not so much that we don’t know what we should do. We know perfectly well, but we don’t want to do it.”*
* In Peter Marshall, “By Invitation of Jesus,” Mr. Jones, Meet the Master: Sermons and Prayers of Peter Marshall.
Stephen Chavez is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.
A woman walks into church wearing her blond hair very short, dressed in black denim pants, white T-shirt, and black leather jacket. A man approaches and asks, “Are you a man or a woman?”
Caught slightly off guard, she replies,
“Uh, a woman.”
“Well, why don’t you dress like one?” the man harrumphs as he walks away, leaving her wondering why she bothered to come to church that morning.
A well-dressed African American walks into a Seventh-day Adventist church one Sabbath. One of the first people to greet him offers, “You should probably go to the church down the road; you’d feel more comfortable worshipping with your own people.”
A young woman raised in church returns after years of attending university and establishing her career. The preacher, speaking about something entirely different, notices her in the congregation, sets aside his notes, and directs a tirade against her spiritual and moral deficiencies (as he thinks he understands them).
For a movement raised up to proclaim “the hour of [God’s] judgment” (Rev. 14:7), these vignettes, for some, illustrate how we’re supposed to deal with those who deserve some sort of correction, even rebuke.
The challenge, however, is to compare the words and actions of these “defenders of the faith” with Jesus, the one who said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14, 15).
Following these are words known and loved by every Christian: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (verse 16).
And immediately following this, one of the Bible’s greatest promises, are these words: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (verse 17).
Did you notice? Jesus came to offer salvation, not condemnation. Sometimes His followers seem better at condemning than at reflecting His character of love, grace, and inclusion.
We sometimes imagine that we’re responsible for turning sinners into saints; that people attend church so they can be “straightened out.” There are those in power in the world who sometimes use their influence to abuse others—physically, sexually, emotionally. There are stories about the church of those who have been abused spiritually, too often by those who thought they were doing God’s will.
It’s unnecessary to recount all the people who experienced grace and acceptance as they came into Jesus’ orbit during His earthly ministry. But it’s useful to remember that those who benefited most from His attention included those most likely to be overlooked today: laborers, immigrants, single parents, children, sinners, the diseased, those with physical or emotional disabilities. Jesus was there to support and encourage anyone to whom life had dealt a bad hand. Matthew, quoting Isaiah, said about Jesus: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory” (Matt. 12:20).
And why is that important?
Because 2,000 years ago the common perception was that health and prosperity were directly related to God’s favor. If you were sick, impoverished, or the victim of bad choices, that was evidence of God’s judgment.
We’re more enlightened than that now. Thanks to the words and example of Jesus, we know that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). We know that “God is love,” full stop (1 John 4:8).
But that hasn’t hindered us as it should, from reflecting poorly God’s love and grace. Some of us are old enough to remember when girls in Adventist academies were required to demonstrate their modesty by showing hemlines that were appropriately close to their knees. Boys were disciplined if their hair covered their ears or touched their shirt collars. This in defense of standards of purity and godliness.
For some, unfortunately, the church is still a place where nits are picked regarding hair color as if it is a matter of orthodoxy. We readily agree that bullying and emotional abuse should not be tolerated in society and online. But have we done enough to make our congregations spiritually and emotionally safe places? If people can’t experience grace in church, where will they experience it?
In his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey tells of a woman who used prostitution to support her drug habit. As she cataloged her shameful behaviors someone asked if she had ever thought of going to church for help. “‘Church!’ she cried. ‘Why would I ever go there? They’d just make me feel worse than I already do!’”1
Can we imagine anyone saying about Jesus, “He’d only make me feel worse than I already feel”?
The church is a sanctuary in every sense of the word. People go to church to be safe, protected, encouraged, and supported. Gone are the days of eighteenth century preacher Jonathan Edwards and his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” along with “mourner’s benches” near the front of a chapel where penitents went to weep for their sins and beg for heaven’s mercy.
Most of us feel broken at some point. It may be the result of some personal or professional trauma; disease may show up as an unwelcome visitor; circumstances may conspire to destroy relationships; it may be our conscience. When those things happen, when we’re tempted to doubt that God is really on our side, when the accuser torments us about our failure, we need a place we can go to experience the power of God’s love and forgiveness; where we can be surrounded by people who know our frailties, love us just the same, and will strengthen and help us grow by the power of God’s Spirit.
Rebecca Manley Pippert, in the book Out of the Saltshaker, tells the story of “Bill,” a young man who lived in a university town and was characterized by his ragged clothes, unruly hair, and the fact that he always went around barefoot (even in winter).
One Sunday Bill entered a middle-class church across the street from campus. This was 40 years ago, when most people would have looked down at someone attending church dressed in blue jeans, a T-shirt, and . . . no shoes.
Bill began walking down the center aisle looking for a place to sit. With attendance at church that day unusually high, Bill walked closer and closer to the podium, unable to find a place to sit. Finding no available seating, he squatted on the floor and sat cross-legged in front of the pulpit.
Immediately another drama began to play out. An elderly man, dressed properly in suit, shirt, tie, and shiny dress shoes, began walking down the aisle. Suddenly the church became utterly silent as people began to imagine what they thought was going to happen next.
They never imagined that when the old man reached Bill, he slowly, with difficulty, lowered himself onto the floor and worshipped with Bill while sitting on the carpet.
Pippert writes: “The irony is that probably the only one who failed to see how great the giving had been that Sunday was Bill. But grace is always that way. It gives without the receiver realizing how great the gift really is.”2
The church in which I worship has the largest Adventist congregation on the East Coast of the United States. A friend of mine often remarks: “There are people here I’ve never seen before. When I ask if they’re visitors, they say, ‘We’ve been members here for 10, 12, 15 years.’”
This is how I’ve solved that embarrassment. My standard greeting to everyone I see—old or young; male or female; Black, White, Asian, or Hispanic; gay or straight—is: “Welcome to Sligo church. I’m glad you’re here.”
Stephen Chavez is an assistant editor of Adventist Review. He chairs the administrative board of Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church in Takoma Park, Maryland.
We all know the story of Esther: how she bravely stood up for God’s people; how, with godly cleverness, she helped to thwart Haman’s plans to destroy the Jews.
When we think of events that challenge us to stand against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, we often think of Mordecai’s question to Esther: “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).
For all the causes and activism that permeate our society, an overwhelming attitude seems to be one of apathy. (Old joke: What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy? I don’t know and I don’t care.)
Very early in the church, Christians began to put sins into categories. At the top of the list were the seven deadly sins: sins so venal that those who practiced them risked their eternal salvation.
In addition to sins such as gluttony, fornication, greed, and pride, was sloth. Sloth sounds like laziness; sounds like lying too long in the bathwater. But the original Greek word reflects the idea of apathy, a carelessness about the situations of those who live around us.
Some see society’s descent into chaos as inevitable signs of Christ’s return.
To see a child, cold, alone on the street, and say, “Well, he’s not my kid.”
To see an old man, alone on a bench in the park, and say, “Well, he’s not my dad.” To hurl one final insult at the world: “I don’t care.”*
Another way of saying it: “It’s not my problem.”
You can’t open a newspaper or see an Internet newsfeed without reading about some new atrocity: worshipers killed in a church, mosque, or synagogue; school children targets of some unbalanced person armed with a gun; police officers shot in the line of duty; unarmed individuals shot by stray bullets while sitting at home or in a café.
Invariably, politicians and members of the clergy issue bland statements to the effect: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the survivors at this sad time.” But what are we willing to do beyond that? Are we content to say “It’s not my problem”?
Every Sabbath I go to church where a police cruiser is parked next to the front steps. Every Sabbath I greet the officer who patrols the building’s hallways. Why? Because the problems that affect our society will eventually affect us.
Some see society’s descent into chaos as inevitable signs of Christ’s return. And some, unfortunately, say, “Let it burn; it’s not our problem.”
But I see the challenges that face society as things that can be mitigated by prayer, activism by voice and vote, and a willingness to be numbered with those who are victims of today’s amorality. Because one of these days we may be among those victims.
Esther thought that being queen would isolate her from the problems that affected her fellow Jews. She had to be reminded by Mordecai: “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
* I am indebted to Fred Craddock and his sermon “Who Cares?” for this thought.
Stephen Chavez, an assistant editor of Adventist Review, has become more liberal in his old age.
Robert Ellington Shurney never traveled into outer space. But he spent more than 500 hours in a weightless environment; he invented devices used by nearly every American and international astronaut in their space flights; and he helped design the tires that were used on the Falcon, the Lunar Roving Vehicle used during the United States missions to the moon.
Robert Shurney was also a Seventh-day Adventist.
Shurney, who retired in 1990 after a 28-year career with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), died in 2007. But his legacy is notable for many reasons.
Shurney, an African American, was born in Dublin, Georgia. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II, then worked as a civilian at several military bases. He graduated in 1962 from Tennessee State University in Nashville with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics and electrical engineering.
As the United States worked to build its space program in the early 1960s, Shurney was chosen by the John F. Kennedy administration as one of the first Black engineers hired by NASA. He began his career at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and earned several more academic degrees.
Shurney was on the team that worked on early versions of the Saturn V rockets. He was a flight engineer on the KC-135 zero-G simulation aircraft (which used steep dives to simulate zero-gravity). He spent more than 500 hours in microgravity, testing the design and function of equipment used in space travel.
The space equipment he helped design included the wheels of the lunar rover, a method for preserving and consuming food in space, a device used to extract soil from the moon’s surface, solar shields and retractable solar panels, and a waste management system (a space-age toilet). His many citations include the Lunar Apollo Flight Award, Apollo Achievement Award, and Skylab Achievement Award.
Shurney was also an active member of the Oakwood College Adventist Church. He served as a deacon; and he and his wife, Susie, helped establish the Huntsville Adventist Community Services Center.
Robert Ellington Shurney never traveled to outer space. But his work for NASA helped pave the way for significant advances in space travel. His hard work and creativity honored the God who is not limited to time and space.
When I left home for Caribbean Union College (CUC), I knew where I was going. CUC was my parents’ alma mater; my older sister was an alumna; lots of colporteurs from there had told me about the place.
When I arrived on campus along with the younger brother many thought was my twin, we knew we had come for much more than just becoming employable. We had come to a place of God, a school of the prophets, a nursery of character completion that aimed at heaven. More than anything else, we knew we would be part of a prayer band: participating in a prayer band was a nonnegotiable element of CUC attendance. We learned this from the colporteurs—men who traveled to far countries like ours where good people like my parents gave them lodging, where they spent their days knocking on doors and offering people wonderful medical encyclopedias and religious books, if someone opened the door when they knocked.
Soon enough my brother and I were part of a little group that met every evening after dorm worship for prayer that ministered to inner spiritual needs before we committed the rest of the evening to study, idleness, or both.
In time I modified my definition of colporteurs: they didn’t have to come from overseas, be male, or even be students. I also discovered the significance of nightly prayer band: it was explosive. With no thorough grasp of what was happening inside us and all around, we found ourselves swept up into a spiritual passion beyond our capacity to either fathom or control: the dark little corner under the college printshop could no longer accommodate the prayer group; nor could the brief quarter hour or so between dorm worship and study periods. Sometime in 1969, with quiet suddenness but without any zapped lightning or rolling thunder, the prayer band became uncontrollable: we had to continue after study periods; we had to find a larger room; night after night dozens of young men flowed quietly toward the music room when the official thing to do was resort to bed or study hall as dorm lights were switched off at 10:00 p.m. The music room prayer sessions stretched to interminability. The revival, as we came to recognize it, reached Linda Austin Hall at the other end of campus, because now young men and their girlfriends were talking about prayer. Soon enough, a tide of prayer was sweeping through Linda Austin Hall as well.
Then the prayer group’s leaders requested audience with college administration. Audience granted we came before them to explain that from now on we would be one with them in work and service. We apologized for earlier contempt of their attempts to make us better and cynicism about their rules for orderly campus life. We had been converted, though none of us has ever since been able to explain how it happened—except for the prayer band. One non-Adventist prayer band member decided for baptism. Friends on the fringes of church life became mainstream witnesses for the gospel. Some casual ministerial students decided that gospel ministry was serious business. For Lael-Jonah, the resistance of years to God’s call to pastoral ministry dissolved into “Here am I, Lord: send me.”
Lael Caesar, an Adventist Review associate editor, is still committed to that surrender, “Here am I, Lord: send me.”
During the past few weeks I’ve spent time in airports in some of the largest cities in the United States. I’m a people-watcher, and I like to create imaginary scenarios about the people I see based on what they’re wearing.
For example, a man wearing a hat with the words “Vietnam Veteran” is likely my age. He is balding and bearded with a belly that is far removed from the chiseled physique he sported when he shipped off to fight an unpopular war in a faraway country.
The woman who accompanies the aforementioned veteran looks more like a grandma than a young woman who once had long, soft, shiny hair and wore a tie-dyed skirt and sandals instead of her polyester blouse, pants, and orthopedic “grandma shoes.”
Time takes its toll.
In 1969 I was starting my senior year in high school. Although I had grown up in an Adventist home, the lure of popular culture began to have its effect.
I traded in my black, horn-rimmed glasses (think Clark Kent) for some wire-frame glasses I had picked up in an antique store (think John Lennon). I tried to grow my hair longer, like many of my friends. But often when I returned from the barbershop, my dad would send me back with the order “Have the barber do it right.”
An assignment in senior Bible class required research on a career we might consider as adults. Since my dad was an X-ray technician, that seemed an easy way to make a comfortable living. But one afternoon in my bedroom during my senior year I felt the distinct impression (not a voice, just an impression) You should study for the ministry; the idea being that I should plan to do something of eternal significance.
Now 50 years later I’m sitting in airports watching people, trying to imagine the lives they’ve lived and why they look so old, while I look so . . . well, never mind.
Here’s the thing: 50 years ago marriage was the furthest thing from my mind. I couldn’t have imagined outliving several of my friends. The idea of being a grandparent would never have occurred to me.
And those people who wore bell-bottom pants, smoked dope, and protested the war in Vietnam? They now wear Dockers, live in retirement communities, monitor their retirement portfolios, and take cruises.
Here’s the question: Did we leave our ideals behind when we started collecting academic degrees, children, real estate, and retirement funds? Or are we still passionate about the causes that animated us back in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s?
The problems we face now are every bit as intractable as the problems faced as a society back then, except that now the stakes are even higher. Violence in our communities is at epidemic levels. The income gap between those who are very rich and those who are poor is obscene. Racism and bigotry that were latent a few years ago are now overt and unapologetic.
There was a time we thought we could change the world. Do we still think so? Or are we too old?
Stephen Chavez’ start at Adventist Review is closer to 1969 than any other currently serving editor.
Those who have lived long enough have earned the luxury of looking back on various life events and recognizing them as pivotal moments when God seemed to be present in the choices set before them. They have to have lived for a while before they can recognize God’s leading. But when they do, the path is unmistakable.
Ella Smith Simmons, for the last 13 years a general vice president of the General Conference, can trace God’s activity in her life, and she has a profound sense of gratitude for the way He’s led.
After a career in education and education administration, Simmons was contacted by Jan Paulsen, then president of the General Conference, about joining the General Conference as a vice president. “I laughed in his face, like Sarah,” she remembers. “But when I realized that he was serious, and I gathered myself, I said, ‘Well, [my husband] Nord and I always try to do what God wants us to do. So if God were to call, if we believed God was calling, we would do this.’”
That was in 2005. Simmons’ responsibilities since then have been the same as her male counterparts, but they tended also to focus on education, her career specialty. Her tenure at the General Conference is groundbreaking because she is the first woman to serve in this capacity, and the first African American woman to serve at this level. “It’s all God,” she says, since at the time she had left administrative positions at Oakwood and La Sierra universities to settle into more relaxed educational roles.
“I felt that I was doing a service, a ministry to which God had called me.”
Was the pressure of breaking new ground a burden? “No, not for a moment,” she says. “There have been some difficult moments, but it’s never been a burden.”
Simmons’ sense of God’s calling motivated her. “I felt that I was doing a service, a ministry to which God had called me specifically.”
She’s also drawn strength and inspiration from the people with whom she interacts. “It has been such a blessed joy to meet God’s people all over the world,” she says. “And when I say God’s people, I have to say those of us who are members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and those who are not.”
Ella Smith Simmons grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and also across the Ohio River in New Albany, Indiana. She was the oldest child in her family, and the only female. Her family regularly attended a Baptist church.
She became an Adventist at the age of 16. Prior to that, she began noticing things in the Bible that didn’t match what they were being taught in church. “This was before Google, of course, so I read encyclopedias and any resource I could find about the Sabbath,” she says. “I could not understand why we went to church on Sunday when they all seemed to say the seventh day was the Sabbath.”
Other things troubled her as well. She remembered seeing deacons in her church performing their duties during worship services properly and with reverence, but between services she saw them standing outside smoking cigarettes. “Now, there’s nothing in the Bible that says, ‘Thou shalt not smoke,’ but I had this deep conviction that this was wrong.”
About this time an evangelistic tent effort came to town and set up right across the street from her home. “I didn’t know what was going on,” she remembers, “but my next-youngest brother was always out and about, checking on everything, and he found out what was going on.” The evangelist, Charles Graham, hired Simmons’ brother to be his “tentmaster,” to look after the tent and its equipment when there were no meetings, even spending nights sleeping in the tent.
In an era when evangelistic meetings lasted weeks or months, Simmons remembers, “I was there with my little Bible and pen or pencil in hand. I never missed a meeting.” By the time the meetings were over, “I had each one of my questions answered.”
“I had two great loves [while growing up]: education—teaching, specifically—and research science,” says Simmons. She thought being a science professor would offer the best of both worlds.
Simmons had had a second-grade teacher who influenced her toward teaching on the elementary level. “I really admired the woman. She personified everything I thought an educator should be,” she remembers. “She was a prim and proper person who was very warm and could get down on the floor with us.”
But behind those and other childhood influences, she felt something else. “I think it was just the Holy Spirit drawing me,” she says. “While social, political, mainly sociocultural circumstances deterred me from pursuing studies in science, . . . something was drawing me to education. I believe it was just my calling.”
Simmons began her teaching career at Southeastern Junior Academy in New Albany, Indiana. That was her first direct experience with Adventist education. She wouldn’t attend an Adventist school as a student until she started work on a master’s degree at Andrews University.
When Simmons and her husband, Nord, also a teacher, began their family, she became a stay-at-home mom. But not for long.
“The woman who ran the day-care/nursery school at our local church was in an accident. . . . The pastor and others realized that I was at home . . . and they asked if I would come and fill in for three weeks while she recuperated. . . . It lasted three years.”
In that role Simmons learned leadership skills that would serve her well in the decades ahead, such as building relationships with parents, staff, government agencies, and the community. Along the way she served as director of a local Head Start program, and eventually as director of Head Start for the entire county. She also served as a junior academy principal.
“I’m very tenacious,” she says. “I can be idealistic because I hold certain ideals based on my values and principles.”
Simmons admits, however, that being an administrator brings its challenges, which she sees as opportunities. “I’m a person who likes to solve puzzles,” she says. “There was a time I was a little more like Pollyanna, and I just didn’t understand why people didn’t get along.”
As Simmons grew in her administrative skills she says she learned to recognize those challenges as opportunities for growth. “I just sort of settled into the Lord,” she says. “I said, ‘I have to do my part, but the Lord will fight my battles.’”
She embraced that philosophy then, and keeps coming back to it now. “I don’t necessarily seek to win over the other person. I am victorious when I have led in the process of a win-win solution for all those involved.”
Ella Simmons has seen a lot of changes in the church and in society during her career as an educator and administrator. When Jan Paulsen nominated her to serve as the first female to serve as a vice president in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, she didn’t expect her nomination to be approved. She had in mind less-lofty goals. “I thought this was just going to be an exercise in taking a small step forward,” she remembers. “I thought that by allowing my name to go forward, this would get the conversation going.”
During the discussion about her nomination she expected to hear statements from the floor based o
n ignorance and decades of racial and gender prejudice. Her husband, concerned that what he heard might anger him, decided to stay in his hotel room. “I came alone with a good friend who sat with me,” she remembers. The vote approving her appointment “happened so quickly we couldn’t believe it.”
Simmons’ leadership as a general vice president of the General Conference is what one would expect from a vice president: capable, stable, and supportive. To the general church membership, she’s most visible when chairing one of the business meetings of a General Conference session. But she also travels around the world, chairing boards and committees, and offering counsel on a wide range of topics.
As she looks back on her life, Simmons glimpses hints of leadership at an early age. It often seemed as if neighborhood children looked to her as their childhood games were organized. In Sabbath school, and at special church events such as Bible bowls, she was asked to help organize and lead out. “I would almost reluctantly accept whatever role I was asked to take,” she says.
That willingness to serve has elevated Simmons to one of the highest levels of administration in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. From this perspective she recognizes two realities: “One, that God can use a woman to do anything He calls a woman to do.
“Two, God can use individuals whom He has prepared in His own way.” She acknowledges that not growing up in a Seventh-day Adventist home, and not going to Adventist schools, makes her unique among most of her colleagues in administration. But when her career goals led her toward education, “God would always press me into administration. God had work for me to do.”
Stephen Chavez is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.
Burst the Bubble: Finding Your Passion for Community Service, Sung K. Kwon, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2017, 153 pages. Softcover, $15.99. Reviewed by Stephen Chavez, Adventist Review.
It’s sometimes useful to ask ourselves questions regarding our identity and purpose as a church. For example, if something happened so that our churches were locked or otherwise removed from our communities, would they be missed? That’s the question asked by Sung Kwon, executive director of Adventist Community Services for the North American Division, in his book Burst the Bubble.
The premise of the book is that there is more to our role as responsible community members than faithfully showing up in the aftermath of natural disasters. Adventists can, and should, do more to be visible in our communities on a regular basis through greater community engagement in the form of carefully devised service activities.
The book’s six chapters are presented in three sections: Why, What, How.
The first section—Why Do We Do What We Do?—covers familiar territory by reminding readers that Jesus’ ministry was incarnational: He became a man and served humanity. Serving others was how He demonstrated God’s love.
The second section—What Are the Components to Revisit and Reframe?—encourages readers to remember why the church exists and what is its mission. Too many Christians seem content with simply taking up space. On that perspective the author observes: “We must overcome institutional myopia and cultural differences and see the world as the setting for our calling, commission, and commandments as Seventh-day Adventists.”
The third section—How Do We Change Our Way of Thinking and Doing?—challenges readers to evaluate their congregations’ outreach methods to see if they are still compatible with a rapidly changing society; and if not, how they can be refined to be more effective. The success of this activity, according to the author, requires that as many members be involved as possible, not just as participants but as decision-makers.
Burst the Bubble is not light material. It reads more like a classroom textbook than a devotional book about witnessing. It covers substantial topics that require deliberate, disciplined reading. To rush through it would defeat the purpose of crafting a community service model that creates buy-in from members and has a positive impact on the community. Yet the author’s writing style is accessible (reflecting his personality).
The rewards of reading books such as this may include following more closely the One who mingled with people, ministered to their needs, won their confidence, then said “Follow Me.”
Pura Vida: The Animal Encounters Movie, ARtv and Stimme Der Hoffnung, in cooperation with Esperanza TV Costa Rica and Esperanza TV InterAmerica, 2018, 1 hour, 26 minutes. Reviewed by Stephen Chavez, Adventist Review.
Pura Vida (Pure Life) bills itself as a film about second chances. It’s based on the video series Animal Encounters, two seasons of which appear on ARtvnow.com.
This movie-length feature traces the adventures of Gabi Pratz (from Germany), Cássila Carvalho (from Brazil), and Carolina Trisia (from Argentina/Mexico) as they visit several sites in Costa Rica. The purpose of their journey is to chronicle some of the rich variety of flora and fauna found in that country, to highlight the vibrant colors and exceptional diversity of the creatures they encounter, and to point out some of the dangers of human influences on the ecosystems those creatures call home.
The film is divided into 10 sections, correlating to the 10 days the trio spent on their journey. In the process viewers are taken to sanctuaries where moths, butterflies, frogs, toucans, monkeys, and dogs (yes, dogs) are protected and nurtured. Nearly every encounter reveals something about how either the animals or their environments have been harmed or threatened.
It also contains images of how, in some of these sanctuaries, some of the damage is undone: as when a toucan’s bill is repaired with a plastic prosthetic; or when monkeys, formerly held captive in horrendous conditions, are given food and shelter long denied.
Throughout the film the three travelers are filmed reflecting on the sites and sensations they experience. Their reflections often cite the creativity and genius behind what they experience, as well as the love of God that inspired it.
The photography is almost uniformly beautiful. However very little commentary is offered about the creatures pictured. Viewers are shown how adorable they are, but that are often uninformed about their names and individual habits or creature traits such as their diet, age span, or habitat.
A similar missing feature relates to the identity of the three travelers themselves. While viewers are given their names and countries of origin, nothing more about them is mentioned. Are they professionals? If so, what is their specialty? When they speak, are they speaking as lay travelers, or as the voice of experts?
Pura Vida is a visual treat for a Friday evening or Sabbath afternoon viewing, as well as a basis for meaningful reflection about life. It reminds us that humanity’s effect on nature is real and can either reflect or impair the image of God in nature’s beauty. Thanks to Pura Vida we may consider nature’s charms and challenges without ever having to travel to Costa Rica.
Pura Vida is available for iOS and Android operating systems, and on Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Roku, and at ARtvnow.com.