My Take: Adventist Stories
by Raj Attiken, April 1, 2015: At the heart of the Christian faith is a story. It is a story that extends from eternity past to eternity future. The Christian community is one that is shaped by The Story. Christian experience is about living in the God story.
Besides finding our identity in the Jesus story, we construct our identity in other stories as well. We humans are story-making machines. We live in our stories. We are shaped by our stories. We become our stories. So do our institutions. So also do our churches. We Adventists have our own stories –stories of faith, of courage, of disappointment, of resilience, and more. Some of these stories originate with our birth story. Others develop as our movement advances. Some stories are rooted in metaphors, facts or our interpretation of the facts. Some in hopes and expectations. Some even in fantasies.
One way to understand the diversity of thought, beliefs, practices, and passion among us is to recognize the stories that fuel this diversity. Stories are powerful drivers of convictions and passion. Some stories inspire hope, joy, assurance, and abundance. Others arouse fear, uncertainty, pessimism, scarcity and gloom. Some stories nudge us to make our world a better place for all; other stories make us want to escape this world. Some stories inspire us to enjoy and celebrate each day as a fresh gift from God. Other stories convey shame and guilt that we are still here on planet earth.
One phenomenon associated with stories is that when faced with disappointment, confusion, and an inability to have coherent answers to existential questions, we make up egocentric versions of what the stories mean. Often the narrative becomes about us. We become the center of the story.
The lived stories within Adventism today are of at least two types: those that are about us, and those that are about our Savior. In the former category, for example, are the stories that assert that of all the peoples in the world, Adventists are the sole target of Satan’s attacks; or that we can control God’s timetable by being the “last generation” that will achieve a standard of character perfection that will trigger the return of Jesus, or that the return of Jesus is solely dependent on Adventists “finishing the work.” These stories imply that God’s covenant with ancient Israel has been transferred exclusively to the Adventist Church (a notion only slightly removed from the idea that the covenant has been transferred to the American nation). Not only do these stories center on us, they also attempt to make us the center of God’s story. Invoking God’s name in the telling of these stories does not necessarily make them God-centered.
In the other category of story are those that acknowledge Jesus as the center of God’s story. The phenomenon of the One Project with its global reach and the Jesus 101 media ministry are two current examples of such stories. They strive to point to the supremacy of Jesus in all aspects of the Christian’s life.
In our relatively brief existence as a denomination, we have experienced many powerful moments that have become the foundation of a variety of stories. While those moments have come and gone, the stories remain. Sometimes the stories take on a life of their own. Sometimes they obscure that which gave them life. Regrettably, some of our enduring stories were born out of misunderstandings or misinterpretation of the grander story of God’s purposes. When these stories become the skin in which we experience our faith, we distort the Adventist ethos, experience, and mission.
My ministry responsibilities for over twenty-five years included worshiping with a different congregation two to three Sabbaths in most months, for each of those years – circulating among the approximately one hundred congregations in my “parish.” In such a regimen, one soon learns to recognize the dominant stories that shape each congregation. One also begins to appreciate each congregation not for its buildings, location, or programs, but for the story that it embodies in its people. Most often these are localized narratives – stories involving local congregations, families, clans, or individuals. Seldom are these stories static. They keep evolving and taking form and shape through the lived-stories of each generation. These stories exert enormous influence on how people experience their faith and life in their particular faith community. A congregation’s lived story is also almost always its lived theology – rich in grace or impoverished of grace.
The best expressions of Adventist life and faith occur when the stories we tell, and the stories we wrap our life in, are stories about God and not about us. We should, therefore, be aware and beware of our stories. That’s my take!