Watch your language

A series of developments in my church have made me wonder whether the church, which I have known my whole life, is not being kidnapped in broad daylight for purposes one has a hard time to fathom. Among the features of this development is a tone and a style of how views and disagreements are being expressed. A few things I believe need to be exposed and addressed.

Months before the Seventh-day Adventist World Church Session in July 2015 in San Antonio, TX, an avalanche of speculations, rumors and personal agenda items flooded conversations, publications, and social media talk. A friend asked me, Ray, why are you not saying anything? You have been around and could possibly tone down the rhetoric.

I do not see this as a noble task, I responded. There is more life to live than adding to the noise and chatter about the obvious church politics culminating in San Antonio. Besides, being a target for the lunatics that all of a sudden came out of the churchs stale woodwork, does not come close to my view of religious entertainment.

Frankly, I care more about the “pure and simple religion” than about positioning myself among the purveyors of personal agendas for the church, and react to hate, often vicious talk, laced with a sprinkle of lies here and there. Call me old-fashioned, but I care about the language we use, especially when describing matters that are associated with the culture of spiritual aesthetics. Call it spiritual formation that has a value for my life, a way of life I inherited from my upbringing and personal contact with Scripture and its Author.

Observing the Adventist blog conversations in particular, one could not miss how strategies were at play, especially when the topic of women in ministry surfaced as the churchs primary 2015 concern (again). The interlocutors, who in recent past had notable influence in church mission, all of a sudden claimed expertise is areas they were not known for. Freedom of expression notwithstanding, the cyber talk moved off center, and motives to “rule the church and rule the world” replaced unity with uniformity. All in the name of true religion.

Woman With a Scarf on Her Mouth. Replica. Wawel Castle, Krakow, Poland

In her commentary on “What Its Really Like to Be a Woman Pastor,” Alicia Johnston, a church planter from Carolina Conference, wrote: “There are independent organizations and individuals that used to be dedicated to evangelism who have made it their mission to discredit the ministry of female pastors. It saddens me deeply.” Myself, I wondered about the effect of that obvious evolution.

When comments on the blogs were laced with name calling, which included expressions of hatred in responses to views that disagreed with ones opinions, I could not help but see an image of a church that perhaps lost its balance. Some noble and notable church leaders in a matter of few strokes of the keyboard became … jesuits, servants of satan, antichrists, to list a few. When I read the Pauline admonition to “set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity,” (1 Timothy 4:12, NIV), a thought crossed my mind and a smirk appeared on my face: Judging by whom the apostle is addressing - that's for the young people. Some of the interlocutors are already seasoned so perhaps this does not apply to them anymore!

But wait a minute, have some of our fellow church members (often hiding their names behind a pseudonym) forgotten another classic comment by Peter about brotherly kindness (2 Peter 3: 5-7), or a statement by James: “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless,” (James 1:26).

After posting an article on the Rocky Mountain Conferences Facebook page, about the vote dealing with the issue of the world divisions considering, within their territories, to allow women to be ordained, a flood of reactions – thousands of comments - was syncopated by hate talk. We thought we were quite tame until then. But an invasion of the unwanted happened. Some of us reflected: We have a fringe of Hateventists among us. They also should be loved but would we want to walk hand in hand with them?

A communication colleague of mine made a brilliant suggestion to post the following statement, and see what happens. “REMINDER ON CHRISTIAN DIALOGUE: The Seventh-day Adventist Church believes in respectful, Christ-like dialogue between Christians, and indeed, all people. There is no place for disrespectful statements, unfounded accusations, and hatred to exist on our social media pages. Thank you for understanding and demonstrating respect to all. In a number of responses, if we could hear an approval, we could definitely hear people applauding.

Most of those reading these words do not belong to the hate-talking people. In case someone recognizes himself or herself as a member of Hatevenists sect, perhaps they may consider a simple request: Watch your language!


When an Identity Includes Being Slapped Across the Face

Being authentic in New Zealand, 2010

The uniqueness of who I am* is a composition of what I inherited from my ancestors. Not just my parents, but also those who influenced them, and the culture they engaged in. On reflection, I concluded that I lost much of what was a feature of small Rajmund. I was not afraid to express myself freely, not fully grasping the meaning of what being confined to what was proper and correct may mean. So, grooming and influences of the whole environment and culture tampered with some authenticity of the early days.
   But not all was lost. External influences brought out a tapestry of values that became my own, including beliefs and traditions. My convictions took root. Rajmund was as authentic as my talents, walk-and-talk were synchronized.
   When going through my library recently, a book dedication by a truly special friend caught my attention and brought back a memory or two. In a copy of Authenticity, A Biblical Theology of Discernment by Thomas Dubay, S.M., which Pam Harris sent me, she wrote: Ray, you taught me more in a conversation about authenticity than I had learned in a lifetime ... Pam. Kindness and generosity of thought is what makes Pam a special friend.
   But now, Pam made me reflect on my own, personal pedigree that propels my quest for authenticity with "every breath you take," as Sting would have it. Should I conclude that taking stock of what makes me who I am synchronizes with what others seem to see in me as valuable? Yes, I am special to my mother. I am special to Grazyna, my wife. I am special, unique to my Maker. And so on.
   Thomas Dubay explains what authenticity is all about in a Christian life. He identifies authenticity as "reality without sham." We are "authentic to the extent that [we] live the truth." The human person "conforms his mind, words, actions to what is. His mind reflects reality, and his speech reflects his mind."   It's tough to live up to it all and be called authentic. And there is more. An authentic person "is patient when suffering rejection for he knows that those who live fully in conformity to Christ Jesus are sure to be persecuted."

   A story will illustrate my coming of age as a person and a believer. Barely 14, I recall an event within a couple of weeks of being successfully enrolled in Jan Zamoyski Liceum, a well-known and historic public high school at 30 Smolna Street in Warsaw, Poland. The school had nearly 900 students and was located just across from our home and the Seventh-day Adventist church in city center, where my father worked.
   On one September Monday morning I was called-out to stand in front of a class of 35, to be questioned about my absence in school on Saturdays. Answering respectfully, I repeated my convictions about Sabbath observance. The teacher called for Mr. Jan Gad, the school principal, to come and question me, too.
   Mr. Gad, who I later found out, lived in an apartment building next to where I lived, was a tall, stocky man, and his larger-than-life presence commanded respect. For us youngsters, it exuded fear. Later, a school chronicle would refer to him as an “excellent principal,” who said that a “school is like an orchestra. You need a good conductor, good team and a good music score. A melody will then sound beautifully.” On that Monday morning he exercised his conducting skills on me, and for the benefit of others, it appeared.
   Even today, I well recall being slapped across my face. The hot tears ran on my cheeks, a reaction to this sudden and public humiliation. I experienced – first-hand – an act of violence by someone in authority. That moment is etched firmly in my memory.
   Among high-pitched, angry shouting, I still recall something said about atheism and that my unpatriotic behavior would not be tolerated.
   My parents were summoned and I was expelled.
   Thus ended my enrollment in Warsaw’s premier high school. I was kicked out of school but for a good and – in my opinion – positive outcome. My parents negotiated a move to a different high school, just a few hundred yards further, and still within a walking distance. My new lease on student life began at the Jaroslaw Dabrowski high school on 1 Swietokrzyska Street. I enjoyed the fact that a Dabrowski would be going to a school named after another Dabrowski.

   In essence, the Jan Zamoyski Liceum event was my first lesson in human rights and nonconformity. My Seventh-day Adventist culture no doubt influenced my decision to make a stand that day. Though what could one do in such a circumstance? After all, I was just 14.  This early “here I stand” position was a reminder when my future choices, and decisions, required removal of shadows and manipulations in other tough moments in my life. My DNA, however, so rich with the building blocks of those who for generations before me chose not to conform – to be authentic at whatever the cost – became my own way of life.
   The moral of the experience is – speak the truth and do not be afraid to do so, even the unpopular truth.
   Such moments like the one when I said "no" to school’s conformity, continue to allow me to be assured that in authenticity, I am a "total lover of God," as Thomas Dubay would say.
   Besides, the admonition of Jesus Himself has taken root in my life: You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong. – Gospel of Matthew 5:36-37 [The Message]

*This commentary was first published by The1Project on March 14, 2015 as part of a series entitled Identity. It included a set of Recalibrate questions: 1. Is there a place for “political correctness” in the life of a Christian? 2. What shapes your identity? Is “God’s way” the only option that makes you a child of God? 3. Do you allow “gray areas” to shape your reactions to moral and behavioral issues of life? 4. Honesty, openness, frankness – is your contribution to church and social life driven by them?


Time for a Dose of Executive Merriment

I recall two experiences from a distant past that made me laugh. A taxi ride in Beijing offered a not-for-laughter scene with several dozen elderly citizens engaged in a serious routine of Tai Chi exercises. I have seen it before, but a drive-by a park scene of such a group made me chuckle. To me they all looked funny, standing on one leg and making weaves with their arms, though engaged in a serious healthy activity.

A second story comes from India. A few years later, a drive-by Mumbai offered a destined-for-laughter scene. For thirty minutes in the morning hundreds of Mumbai business people, teachers, housewives, even doctors could be seen in numerous city parks indulging in a feast of merriment. Reporting on the phenomenon, the India Times said, laughter gurgles through the gardens of Mumbai. Twenty-five of those parks have their own laughter clubs of 60+ citizens religiously meeting daily to immerse themselves in laughter.    
         They follow a “sacred” protocol. They stand in rows - men on one side, women on the other - and start with a warm-up chant: Ha-ha, ho-ho. Then, suddenly, they break into a cackle at the groups leaders signal. The laugher routines come in variations - Silent Laugh (internal), Executive Laugh (funny faces, polite giggles), and so on.
         When interviewed - they say, “I am renewed.” One of them was not overtly philosophical when saying, “Gradually laughter turns into a natural habit, they say. It becomes a way of life.” The whole laughter movement in India started twenty years ago with a certain doctor, who laughed, and then went public with it.
         If you care to notice, in our Western world, those who are most somber-looking are often found in a church pew.
         A Facebook comment by one of my friends made me pause. Referring to an endless struggle with womens ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, he said that the upcoming San Antonio, Texas, world synod-like convocation would spend a full day debating and deciding what to do with the issue – permit more than mandate - that would stick globally. Then he said, “Maybe there will be time for a comedian or two to lighten things up a little.” 
         Actually, clergy ordination is not a funny matter. One could argue, however, that the diatribe surrounding a born-in Christianity issue had become somewhat crazy at times. There are individuals who are involved in officially addressing the issue who are passionately advocating that ministerial ordination is a game men play. Frankly, the length of research and debates on its gender-inclusive merits is centuries long and borders on farce. The recent stages of the decades long discussions paints a healthy smile on my face.
         Getting back to the “comedy” aspect raised in a Facebook comment, the funny thing is that religious communities in their serious business processes and policy creations are hardly known for any quality experience with comedy. Some religionists cannot stomach a notion that their Creator has a sense of humor.
         Though culturally diverse in form and style, comedy is nothing new anywhere. We laugh at the obvious. We look and what we see and that makes us laugh. We laugh at seriousness of life. Some of us even crave that our actions and choices are talked about, with someone having a laugh at our expense. Even at death, we acknowledge a will of the deceased to celebrate their life rather than sob and give-in to endless grief.
         As for comedy in a church setting, one can hope that it does not get lost though seriousness on someone’s conviction aims to erode freedom to respect each other’s right to differ, and to … hug each other at the same time. I wish the San Antonio convocation participants would consider hugging. Such an act makes people recognize each other’s humanity and offers a moment of comedy, which is often missed in life.
         The Millennials among us have a laugh at horse-like faces when pompous religious pronouncements are being made. Honestly, one should “never expect the Spanish Inquisition,” right? The Monty Pythons are not known to be Millennials, but they seriously inserted into our consciousness a need for healthy irreverence, sprinkled with a good laugh at human foibles and the chronic terminal seriousness that actually no one is asking for.
         Later this summer, when thousands of church synod delegates gather to give their expression to either a status quo or a vote for clergy equality, would at least some agree with an author of Psalm 126:2 (NIV) - "Our mouths were filled with laughter."
         Would there be laughter at the end of the vote – whichever way it will go – in San Antonio, Texas? Personally, I do not expect many tears of joy. But I have been mistaken before.