I live in the American West, and we are on fire. Lest we Californians and Oregonians and Washingtonians forget, wooden signs (appropriately) are planted prominently from the border of Mexico to my country’s Canadian approach: TODAY’S FIRE DANGER. The message is urgent and immediate: danger and today. There are degrees of concern on offer, a spectrum of alert, from green’s LOW to blue’s MODERATE to yellow’s HIGH to orange’s VERY HIGH to red’s EXTREME. An adjustable arrow points to the forecast’s present truth.
Lately the arrow has been stuck. We see only red.
Heat, wind, but mainly dry conditions render regional combustibility. Years of drought, long seasons of absent rain, and winters unadorned by adequate snowfall have made us arid. The globe’s greatest ocean has failed to share its stormy potential: the Pacific has been stingy in meteorological generosity. As a result, our parched forests house groves of oversized matches, trillions of evergreen and deciduous sticks susceptible to spark any second. Our trees, our land, lacking the retardant of rainfall and aquatic abatement, are primed for inferno. Combustion is imminent. Always.
TODAY’S FIRE DANGER: EXTREME.
The signs of our times.
But I’m not filling the space of this page, and your kind attention, to talk about Earth’s weather in my part of the world. The geological reality I’ve just reported is a mild prelude to a wildfire of far greater concern. The alarm that worries is the clear and present danger of human combustibility, of especially American flammability, and of an Adventist vulnerability to be incendiary. We, like the forests, are on edge. The wrong word read in print, a dissonant phrase heard in the pulpit, the general presence of someone we disagree with, the wrong election result, a social media post we find unpalatable—strike, spark, burn: our souls are on fire.
Angst. Anger. Outrage. Protest. It doesn’t take much. The torch is lit, and our present condition provides ready fuel. The blaze inside is hardly quarantined, however. We text, tweet, share, post, or pick up the phone and spread our hot contagion. Gossip is gas that turns containment into an uncontrollable explosion. The hillsides of our social network, the acres of our fellowship, the landscape of our available reach, are now threatened. They too are spoiling for a fight, are eager to go up in smoke.
Why is this the case? How is it that the sign’s arrow points to such EXTREME danger? What is it about the sociological, and perhaps theological, conditions that have us at such a low burning point? What’s happening that we are so readily kindled? And, in response and remedy, how might we enact positive climate change in our lives, our church, and our community, to change our predisposed vulnerability?
Our first critical condition is chronic: we exist as sinners, and sin dehydrates. Adam and Eve were on edge with one another moments after their fall. Cain burned at Abel’s advantage. The whole earth, Genesis reports, was soon teeming with violence. Angst went global in a hurry. Anger proved a highly hereditary and communicable disease. Irritability emerged, quickly manifest as the default human temperament. The smallest slight exposed nerves, reflexes, reactions. Disagreement, disadvantage, disappointment—taking offense became the natural way on a brittle planet. Sin’s way then, and now, lowers resistance to affective fire: we are emotionally threadbare and generally prone to rage. Sin has taken the natural moisture out of our skin.
A second condition follows the first: we have migrated from communal identity to individualism. Selfishness is our way. Self-centeredness is our prejudice. Libertarianism is our anthropological philosophy. The move our parents made—eating from an ill-advised tree in hopes of ingesting, and becoming, God—set our taste buds toward tasting life with self as deity in mind. Morning’s mirror welcomes us each new day as we stand face to face with the object of our worship, or at least our paramount concern. The project of protection, advance, and celebration of the self bakes into us a belief that the world is out to get us, to ruin us, to get in our way. Anger is threat’s response. Inflammation results when a foreign body takes up residence near or inside our own. Enemies with invasive intent lurk from all points on the compass. Hostility is our primary reality. The masses threaten me: politicians, preachers, and, well, pretty much people in general.
Condition number three, particularly in my country, the United States of America, is politics. Democratic participation in government has, I think it is fair to claim, never been so fraught. Each presidential election is “the most important contest of our lifetime.” Every four years this superlative is espoused by all candidates. Each issue is not a hill to die on, but a knoll to kill on. The other side rides with the devil. My side communes with the angels. Opponents are enemies. Alternatives are the end of civilization. “We’ve got to take our country back”—stop and think about the total toxicity and existential explosiveness of that phrase—motivates the vote. American political theater has always been bloody, but now it demands a liter or two more than a generation ago. Each new Inauguration Day is either the darkest possible apocalypse or the arrival of Jesus Christ Himself to residency in the White House. A hellish hyperbole scorches the landscape. The delta grows, divisions intensify, and anger swells as the sure sign of patriotism.
The fourth condition in our prolonged and acute fire season is our exposure to an unholy canon of “breaking news.” Mass communication, social media, and ready access to all that is wrong and awful and outrageous is overwhelming any fire barriers we might erect around our souls. The appropriately named iPhone (“me, myself, I”) and the even more appropriately named Samsung Galaxy (“I’ve got the whole world in my hands”) are a breach causing omnipresent danger. Irritants now have perpetual access. Burning issues, the hottest opinions, sizzling messages from church and state, from across the ocean, and across the street, arrive on screen and screens. Anger enjoys unlimited digital access. Corrosive opinions occupy the airwaves we breathe. 3G, 4G, 5G—faster and faster and faster the malignant messages come in. We are a baited generation in perpetual acceleration.
Condition five is ripe for religious people, and especially for Adventists. Adding to sin, self, politics, and infectious information: remnant indignation. Practitioners of the Adventist faith cannot, must not, forget that we are protesters of the protesters. Our founding mothers and fathers came along in mid-nineteenth-century America with an impulse: the Protestants themselves hadn’t protested enough. There was more protesting to be done. And the critique our forebears offered was not mild. We appropriated the language of whores and beasts. We warned of persecution, deception, counterfeits, conspiracies, and a horrific time of trouble to come. Catholics and apostate Protestants, Islam and Eastern religions, popes and kings, a new world order: the globe itself was about to be against us. The binary was stark: God’s side and Satan’s side, salvation and damnation. And yet it might be hard, in the moment, to tell the difference. At least that’s what I detected from many of the evangelists and preachers of my childhood. There were signs, but divining them would require attentiveness, and maybe special knowledge. Prophecy was not simply about cultural critique, but sophisticated prognostication. Our survival depended on prayer, study, and, it seemed to my young ears, a bit of luck.
A Different Reality
I have not told the whole truth, of course, in the preceding paragraph. There was, and is, loads of grace and goodness, of wholeness and health, in Adventist doctrine and practice. I love this church, my church. I was born into this faith tradition, and I intend to die a member of it. On the day of resurrection I expect I will rise happy to have been an Adventist anticipating the Great Advent.
The description above, however, accurately describes an incendiary ingredient in our fellowship’s thinking and being that poses a great risk. We are frequently prone to worry. We hold in our hands an unstable explosive material, which often causes us to tremble. We are hypersensitive, from time to time, about the times. And this leads to worship fights, doctrinal brawls, cultural wars, chronic insecurity, and acute susceptibility to be put to the flames by our own hand. We are, too often, afraid and angry. TODAY’S FIRE DANGER is, candidly, as often rated HIGH, VERY HIGH, and EXTREME as it is signaled LOW. Adventists live with frequency in the red zone. There are too many of our contemporary pulpiteers and parishioners who moonlight as arsonists. Perhaps we need to hold in the pew a fire extinguisher for the soul.
Beyond Chronic Inflammation
The challenge then for humans, for Americans, for Adventists—for all of us—is how we combat the torrid conditions of our times. Can we change the climate around us? Is modulating the weather even possible? Do we have the power to move the needle on the sign from red to green, from EXTREME to LOW, or at least somewhere in between? Can we, like Elijah, pray for rain? Is there a way we can find a less-flammable existence for the sake of our well-being and the shalom of those around us?
The answer is “yes.” It requires a direct confrontation with the sweltering norms.
First, we must cool the hot coals of our sinful state by watering our souls with confession and forgiveness. Confession before God and before others that we are sinners who still sin lowers the temperature. Admission eases. Forgiveness, as well, 70 times seven, lances the boil within. Forgiveness for friends, for enemies, for institutions, for any and all who wound us, is a potent anti-inflammatory. Confession and forgiveness, forgiveness and confession. A blended balm.
Second, we must break the fever of our selfishness with active service to others. Service cultivates humility. Humility shifts our focus. Diverting our eyes from the mirror relieves the fiery burden of personal protectionism and an unregulated self-defensiveness. Active engagement in care of others, and particularly of those who do not look, speak, and vote like us, thickens our skin and softens our heart.
Third, overheating on building kingdoms of this world is checked only by worship of the King of kings and Lord of lords. The kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of God. Jesus offers a compelling new alignment that demands a higher allegiance, a stronger ethic, and a platform built on kindness. Messiah and messianic musings are squarely political. Following Jesus as Christ is a theological reordering of our priorities: we now worship a Leader who gathers a constituency drawn from every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. Beyond nonpartisanship or bipartisanship, the masses are partial to an elevated partisanship called monotheism: one God who is Creator and Parent of all.
Fourth, the tyranny of incessant white-hot messages of doom is doused only through targeted fasting. There’s no stopping the bombing raid of rants and ravings, Twitter storms, acidic social media posts, and the constant barrage of outrage stories intended to outrage readers and hearers. We can only seek cover. Cooling passions that threaten to send us to the burn unit must be dealt with head-on. Turn off the noise, limit the information apt to ignite a fire. Leave at-risk, high-target areas. Navigate away from the barrage of words as weapons. Log off.
Fifth, the destructive fires embedded in our Adventist story are fought through healing theology, humble ecclesiology, and healthy eschatology. Sabbath exists as a perpetual ideology and practice for the purpose of rest, peace, cooling down, and deep shalom. A Sabbathkeeping people should be well-watered, soaking in the rains of grace, drenched in a spirit of emotional temperance. We follow Sabbath’s Lord, the One who was not enflamed by Jerusalem, by Rome, by Satan himself. Jesus is a study in steadiness. Our Savior slept in a storm. He healed an ear while under personal threat. He avoided arguments, paced His life with play, and found His Father a faithful ballast.
The Adventist vocation is Advent—First and Second. God was with us then. God will be with us again. And in between these Advents, the promised Spirit comforts, and, if we will allow, He cools. His fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control indicates a life resistant to perpetual outrage, habitual angst, and debilitating stress. His present and latter rain offer water for our combustible land. His baptism alone is our ultimate, hydrating hope.
Alex Bryan, D.Min., is chief mission officer at Adventist Health, headquartered in Roseville, California.