How Much Does God Value Buildings?
By Loren Seibold | 1 October 2020 |
Years ago Carmen and I made our first visit to the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists building in Silver Spring, Maryland, and as first-timers, we joined a tour of the building. I found the tour pleasant, if a bit anticlimactic. You can see only so many empty offices and cubicles (most of them empty whenever I’ve visited the building) without feeling like this is like any other office building—which is pretty much a yawn.
I recognize that we probably weren’t typical visitors. Most pastors, because we’ve seen behind the scenes, are less likely to mythologize the church. (A friend told me once that nothing colors the experience of eating in a restaurant like having spent some time working in a restaurant kitchen, and I think the same thing happens to pastors with regard to the church machinery.)
But one couple on the tour had a different reaction: they seemed in awe of every space in the building. They punctuated the tour with exclamations of “So this is where it happens!” The place had an aura of holiness to them. I remember especially that when we came to the communications department, the husband said to his wife, “This is where they monitor the advance of Sunday laws all over the world”—as though we were in the war rooms under London as the Battle of Britain was being waged overhead.
I remembered this dear couple’s amazed appreciation of the General Conference building this week when I read about the fire that roared through the St. Helena, California, area, destroying thousands of homes—but sparing Elmshaven, the last home of Adventist prophet Ellen White. Even though the fire was threatening Pacific Union College, and ultimately burned down part of the Adventist elementary school in Deer Park, the most popular mention of the fires on Elder Ted Wilson’s Twitter page was to ask people to pray that Elmshaven would be spared.
The saving of Elmshaven assumed the status of a miracle story. A post on the White Estate Facebook page said, “The fires reached Elmshaven and miraculously it was spared.” Said Elmshaven manager Pastor Abner Castañón in a television news interview, “I’m feeling that an angel must have been hovering over here, guarding this place, and kept it from burning. I don’t know anything else to think.”
Some commenters on social media felt keenly the sense of the miraculous. “The Lord heard our prayers. He dispatched angels who formed a hedge of protection. The Lord said the fire may come so far and no further. Hallelujah, thank you, Father, for answered prayers.” A number felt it was a confirmation of Ellen White’s ministry: “God must have a purpose in saving this landmark of the Spirit of Prophecy.” Wrote another, “It isn’t sacred, but the angels have a vested interest in a place where they gave help to God’s messenger! And where they were seen many times!” Another: “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.”
At least one person placed it in an apocalyptic framework.
This is a reminder that when the Mark of the beast is enforced and our lives are threatened for not keeping Sunday and standing for God, be assured that though we pass through the fire it will not consume us. When the “time of trouble” begins Michael shall stand for His people.
But others asked us to put Elmshaven’s survival into perspective. Asked one, “Why would God spare an empty house and allow the houses of families all around to burn?”
I’m so happy Elmshaven was spared. … But I also graduated from Foothills School, which was destroyed. It has, and could have remained, an important tool in God’s work. Who are we to decide that God needed Elmshaven but not the school that Ellen White originally helped to establish? I have dear friends who’ve lost their homes in Deer Park and Angwin. Why would God not spare them, but spare Elmshaven? God is being misunderstood!
I’m seeing the sentiment carried a little too far here for my taste. It’s a building! Last I checked, Adventists don’t subscribe to the lifting up of buildings and stuff, seemingly putting them up as idols to be worshipped and prayed for! I’m pretty sure Ellen White would also rebuke this, as it’s off message and not important in the grand scheme of anything. What is important is the people and how their lives are being affected by these calamities! … Maybe read some Ellen White, who points to only worshiping Jesus, instead of worshiping the place where she wrote her books? Seems obvious.
I love historic sites. I enjoyed Elmshaven, as well as the William Miller home in upper New York state. I’m glad generous people assembled some of the original homes of the pioneers in Battle Creek. I appreciate the historical value of these places.
But I’ve also seen that, in a larger view, Adventists’ attachment to property sometimes hinders our mission. We seem to exalt buildings—old ones and new ones—above the work that they are meant to do.
In my lifetime I’ve seen a dozen historic boarding academies close, and either be sold or decline into disrepair, including the one I graduated from. It is sad, and naturally we grieve. I can only imagine how Atlantic Union College (AUC) alumni feel when they drive past their abandoned campus.
But what troubles me is how difficult it was to close these places, even long after it became clear that students didn’t want to attend them. In every case, the closing was accompanied by anger and blaming and futile rescue efforts. Millions of last-minute dollars were poured in to keep AUC alive, when that money could have been redirected into providing students with Adventist education elsewhere.
This may reflect the human temptation to see the church and its buildings and institutions as more valuable than people.
The early Christians worshipped in homes, or even outdoors. Yet the notion that every congregation needs its own pewed and steepled clubhouse, even when said building is mostly empty, has diverted the attention of many a congregation away from reaching and helping people. Most pastors will tell you that the main conversation of their church boards, and the main expenditure of funds, is keeping the building in repair! The conversation about how we can represent Jesus to our community may be farther down the list, after we’ve taken care of these institutional concerns.
We have to be careful of how of much value we place on property and buildings. I’m thinking of the temple cult of Jeremiah’s day, the people who thought that the physical temple was a sort of charm or fetish that would assure God’s continued protection.
Do not trust in these lying words, saying, “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these.”
Jeremiah countered that God protected them to the extent that they treated one another with kindness and justice:
For if you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings, if you thoroughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, or walk after other gods to your hurt, then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.
I fear the value people place on the Adventist church as an institution. The church is always people. It’s not that we don’t serve people—we do—but in religion, serving the traditions and the denomination seems always to push its way to the top of our list.
And, there have been some significant failings in our willingness to execute judgment on behalf of people, as God told Jeremiah—the rejection of women’s ordination being only the most recent of those.
So was the survival of Elmshaven a miracle? Or the result of the hard work of firefighters? Or a random, unpredictable meandering of flames?
I don’t know. Miracles are often in the eye of the beholder: we’re all tempted to feel that when God does something we desire, it must be a miracle.
It’s much harder to explain why God doesn’t respond to an earnest prayer for a genuine need. It tempts us to fear that perhaps we’re giving God credit for actions that God isn’t actually responsible for.
What made the Elmshaven story jarring was not the good news that the building was saved—we were all happy about that—but the context: the widespread destruction by fire all around that property that affected so many families directly. Should we be talking about the Elmshaven miracle, when there were such horrible losses of life and homes? One commenter said, “Remember all of God’s children who lost their homes, who lost everything. They’re questioning why their prayers weren’t answered right now.”
It reminds me of a conference president I knew who went around the conference bragging in his sermons about how God had done a miracle to save his wife from a fairly common operation, for a condition that threatened her life not at all. I remember thinking how that would sit with all those who, listening to his frequent recounting of this “miracle,” had prayed for a husband or wife dying of cancer, or a child dying of a disease, but who got no such miracle. What did they think? Did they suppose God saved her from a routine surgery because her husband was a conference president? That his prayers were worth more?
I don’t know the answer to the miracle question. I do know that I long for God to be with his people—in fact, with all people. I think that’s more important than that God saves the denomination’s buildings.
But I’m happy we still have Elmshaven.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today