Tag Archives: choice

From Vows to Action Part II: A New Commitment

This series was originally published on the Journey Fellowship website. In Part 1 of the series, we explored the vows that Seventh-day Adventists assent to as part of their baptismal ceremony. The vows shape members’ sense of place within the denomination and the wider Christian Church; they also serve valid institutional functions. What definitions lie beneath these vows? What lies beyond them?

Defining the Church and Building the Gate

How a tradition defines itself and situates itself on the religious landscape matters: ecclesiology hammered out in seminaries has real, relational implications off-campus. Perhaps the Adventist covenant focus on the denomination’s distinctive beliefs is rooted in the fact that unlike the Roman, Orthodox, Anglican/Episcopal, and mainline denominations, Seventh-day Adventism doesn’t represent itself as a facet of the universal church. Instead it represents itself as “the remnant church of bible prophecy”—the part of the whole that emerged after multi-millennial apostasy.

From Susan Morgan Ostapkowicz's Painting "The Outsider"

From Susan Morgan Ostapkowicz’s Painting “The Outsider”

The “remnant” model surfaces explicitly in 3 of the 13 Adventist vows (8, 9a, and 13), suggesting that within the Adventist doctrinal context, one of the most important things new believers could adopt is an identity distinct from their peers beyond the walls. The individual lifestyle vows (6, 7, 9b, and 10) further highlight the differences between people inside the church and those outside it: the remnant church is a micro-community and has its own norms.

Whereas the 11th vow is a catch-all for any belief or lifestyle practice that the remnant church may teach, the 12th points to the baptism ritual itself. The final vow references “people of every nation, race, and language,” but only indicates that many kinds of people may be represented in the remnant. It doesn’t assume that the entire world is part of the Garden of God. [2] So it makes sense that the church’s vows are inward-focused. It also makes sense that as church members glimpse a world beyond these limits, this 13-vow covenant won’t adequately support them.

Eric Moon participates in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), a tradition that distrusts creedal religion in the same way that the first few generations of Seventh-day Adventists did. In a June-July article for the Friends Journal, he and other Quakers explore their community’s collected experiential wisdom and how it varies from fixed formulations.

“Human beings need words to communicate. But when we codify, make creeds, and canonize a few words, we limit our vision, as well as the possibility of God’s work through us. Walking away from such deified virtues, where might we go instead? What if we were to start with fresh, personal experiences and then shared them in a manner that was as mediated as little as possible by advance expectations?” —Eric Moon

Living Life in the Garden of God

Close-up photo of pine tree conesI talked with 12 people recently about their baptismal vow experiences. I’m still drawn to the concept of developing covenants in community that help move individuals and groups towards action and not just towards static opinions. (I’ll admit: in the last 17 years, I’ve developed some fixed beliefs and would not join in covenant with a congregation that did not share them. Fortunately, said beliefs are few!)

Several of the people I spoke with did not find their once-vowed covenants relevant to their spirituality today. So I reflected on which commitments I could agree to that would support my active journey now:

  1. I’m grateful for this body. As an expression of gratitude, I will learn what supports my whole-soul health, and I will choose each day with respect for my life.
  2. I accept that I have an irrevocable connection to the rest of the human family regardless of sex or gender, ethnicity, social class, nationality, politics, or religion. Because of this common bond, I won’t be silent in the face of dehumanization or participate in the dehumanization of others. I will uphold relationships and ethics that advance peace, justice, and grace.
  3. I share the planet with my neighbors and will not escape our common ecological fate. For our sake and our descendants’ sake, I’ll consider the sustainability of my lifestyle and shape my daily actions with respect for our collective well-being.
  4. I expect to grow in grace and knowledge—just as the early believers did. I take responsibility for my spiritual development and agree to continue to study, learn, and grow as long as I have the opportunity and the means.
  5. Accepting the principle of the Vine and the branches, I understand that I’ll grow in relationship with others and not in isolation. I will guard and honor the relationships I develop in this congregation, and, if called to a different community in the future, I’ll offer this one ample notice to adjust and fill in the gaps where I served. I value the work we do together and the joy we share together, and will not casually abandon them.
  6. I’ve studied this community’s intentions for relationship and service, and I support them. I will work with my peers and volunteer leaders to identify and use my unique gifts to advance this community’s work and improve our contributions to this world.
  7. I make this agreement freely, in faith, and without compulsion or fear.

I also drafted some more explicitly theistic comments, but began to wonder what it could mean for a faith community to be able to thrive with members who are no longer engaged in a religious life. The Unitarian Universalist tradition is one that has come to include both religious and non-religious people; Quaker meetings also sometimes include non-religious people, and I’m learning from adherents how that works in practice.

John Spong writes in his latest book on the gospel of John that “While God may not be subject to change, the human perception of God is… God cannot be possessed, nor can the ‘word’ of God ever be reduced to propositional statements.” As I read accounts of the life of Christ and the early believers in Acts and the epistles, I notice how much a living faith can vary from official religious channels, at times extending their teachings and at others overruling them to support the healing of the people. I see that when believers practice not “quenching the Spirit,” wisdom draws us beyond the walls of the familiarly systematic and helps us to grow. Perhaps we need new commitments for such a life.

Tell me in the comments: If you were to write “vows” for where you are in your journey today, what would they include? And what would they inspire in you?

“To learn from our testimonies, to make them our own, we perhaps can meet them again, not quickly via a short list but as John Woolman did: in human faces, on foot, walking.” —Eric Moon


[1] I asked my network about their baptismal covenants and whether these covenants had shaped their faith journeys. Read what they told me.
[2] Seventh-day Adventist General Conference sessions are held every five years. At the end of the session, church members from every nation-state that has an Adventist presence march into the stadium in national garb and holding their country’s flag. The Parade of Nations is an incredibly powerful visual that highlights the 13th vow’s reference to people of every nation, race, and language participating in the church. It also generates some friendly national pride among church members and builds a sense of community for those within the denominational fold.

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From Vows to Action Part I: The Agreements We Make

This series was originally published on the Journey Fellowship website. Thanks, Kymone Hinds, for the opportunity to write!

Is it possible to geek out over church liturgy? It is, and I did it a few weeks ago. Early in June, I came across this vow from the baptismal covenant reading in the Book of Common Prayer:

"Will you strive for justice & peace among all people, & respect the dignity of every human being?" —Book of Common Prayer #baptism

I loved it, and not just because of what it said but also because it was so unlike any of the vows I was invited to assent to when I was baptized.

Vowing Adherence the Seventh-day Adventist Way

Although I was raised participating in a Seventh-day Adventist congregation, I joined the denomination officially when I was 13 years old, after 9 months of weekly home study with my church’s senior minister. During this study process, I incrementally read and reported to the minister on a thin white book that outlined the church’s then-27 fundamental beliefs. The outlines included biblical references and paragraph explanations, and paired the explanations with quotes from church founder Ellen G. White and from the SDA Bible commentary. At the back of the book, and read back to us in an “examination” on baptism day, was the following list of 13 vows:

  1. Do you believe in God the Father, in His Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit?
  2. Do you accept the death of Jesus Christ on Calvary as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of men, and believe that through faith in His shed blood men are saved from sin and its penalty?
  3. Renouncing the world and its sinful ways, have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour, and do you believe that God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven your sins and given you a new heart?
  4. Do you accept by faith the righteousness of Christ, recognizing Him as your Intercessor in the heavenly sanctuary, and do you claim His promise to strengthen you by His indwelling Spirit, so that you may receive power to do His will?
  5. Do you believe that the Bible is God’s inspired word, and that it constitutes the only rule of faith and practice for the Christian?
  6. Do you accept the Ten Commandments as still binding upon Christians; and is it your purpose, by the power of the indwelling Christ, to keep this law, including the fourth commandment, which requires the observance of the seventh day of the week as the Sabbath of the Lord?
  7. Is the soon coming of Jesus the blessed hope in your heart, and are you determined to be personally ready to meet the Lord, and to do all in your power to witness to His loving salvation, and by life and word to help others to be ready for His glorious appearing?
  8. Do you accept the Biblical teaching of spiritual gifts, and do you believe that the gift of prophecy in the remnant church is one of the identifying marks of that church?
  9. Do you believe in God’s Remnant Church, and is it your purpose to support the church by your tithes and offerings, your personal effort, and influence?
  10. Do you believe that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and that you are to honor God by caring for your body, avoiding the use of that which is harmful, abstaining from all unclean foods, from the use, manufacture, or sale of alcoholic beverages, the use, manufacture, or sale of tobacco in any of its forms for human consumption, and from the misuse of, or trafficking in, narcotics or other drugs?
  11. Knowing and understanding the fundamental Bible principles as taught by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, is it your purpose, by the grace of God, to order your life in harmony with these principles?
  12. Do you accept the New Testament teaching of baptism by immersion, and do you desire to be so baptized as a public expression of your faith in Christ and in the forgiveness of your sins?
  13. Do you believe that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the remnant church of Bible prophecy, Rev. 12:17, and that people of every nation, race, and language are invited and accepted into its fellowship? Do you desire membership into this church?

Understand that the only “institutionally correct” answer to these thirteen questions is “yes”! But I haven’t heard the full list used at baptisms for several years now. The congregations I’ve worshiped with seem to prefer a shorter version that focuses less on consensus dogma and more on individuals’ belief in Jesus and intent to support the church.

Glimpsing a World Beyond the Walls

Line drawing of 8 human figures of varying ages: communityWhen I looked up the other covenantal vows in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), I found that they include consensus dogma about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, sin, evangelism, and church life like the dogma in the Adventist list. The BCP vow on striving for justice and peace is one of two that shifts the focus of the celebrant beyond the walls of the church or frames other people as more than potential church members: the other vow invites the celebrant to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.” Not one of the Adventist church’s 13 vows challenges baptismal candidates to do this.

“In my opinion the church is far more enamored with knowing doctrines than with knowing Jesus. The church therefore uses this approach in its ‘evangelism’—if it can get people to assent to 28 creedal statements, they’re ready for baptism and membership.” —Ken McFarland

These new-member covenants are ubiquitous across Christendom, so they clearly serve a purpose; McFarland describes them as a creed-support tool; I’ve described them above as a gate-keeping device. For me, this is not a slur: organizations legitimately use entry initiations to monitor their membership. I only wonder if the vows could become more than that.

What if the Seventh-day Adventist church’s baptismal vows weren’t designed to secure belief compliance or encourage members’ avoidance of certain behaviors? What if they were about more than doctrinal boundary-setting, if they went beyond intellectual constructs by offering candidates a new frame for life? What if they inspired new ways for us to act and live in the world? Could they be more relevant to believers 10, 20, 30, and 40 years post-baptism if they did?

Tell me in the comments: If you experienced adult baptism, did your ceremony include vows? If so, did those vows shape your spirituality? How?

Democracy: Expression and Decision-making

Jon Stewart’s away in Egypt filming (nice work, John Oliver). I just saw Jon talking with Bassem Youssef, host and resident satirist at Al-Bernameg. (Skip ahead to 10:11.)

Skip ahead to 10:11. Jon and Bassem start talking about the role of humor in political commentary and the differences between insults, injury, tyranny, and democracy:

“If your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don’t have a regime… A joke has never ridden a motorcycle into a crowd with a baton. A joke has never shot tear gas to a group of people in a park. It is just talk.

“What Bassem is doing… is showing that satire can still be relevant, that it can carve out space in a country for people to express themselves. Because that’s all democracy is, the ability to express yourself and be heard. You won’t always win, but you can’t confuse tyranny with losing elections. [Democracy] is just the opportunity to be heard and for the majority to respect the minority, whatever they may say, however they may do it.” —Jon Stewart (emphasis added)

A large corporation speaks through a wall of speakers at 3 small people with a bullhorn: "This 'freedom of speech' that we all enjoy is the great equalizer, wouldn't you say?"

(c) Matt Muerker | via Glogster

This comment obviously played well in its context, but I don’t think what it describes is the essence of democracy at all. Free expression is the point at which Jon’s work intersects with US culture; it may be part of the national ideal and of course it’s protected by the constitution as the first element of the Bill of Rights. Free expression may even be what US media and interests export in nation-building and culture-sharing projects elsewhere. Regarding it as the core of democracy is par for the course when thought leaders define democracy in terms of expression rights and occasional leadership selection but not in terms of routine decision-making or authority.

Why is it that popular definitions of democracy do not deal with free choice or access to decision-making, or evaluation of authority? Why do we so often stop short at the right to say as we please, however obnoxious we might be? How does the “it’s just talk” model serve the people? Another satirist, George Carlin, had some cynical thoughts about this. What are yours?


ht: Splitsider and Joi Chadwick

From Beatrice Bruteau’s The Psychic Grid.

Why the tenor of your inner world matters and why you might sometimes be your greatest nemesis:

Viktor Frankl stresses the importance of having a strong value system and a convincing worldview in one’s own interior that is life-supporting, that does not encourage weakness. We must avoid the danger of giving up. If we give in to cultural pressures and admit to weakness and helplessness, we will internalize the destructive self-images being projected upon us. In the case of socially oppressed groups, as Mary Daly points out, we will then carry the oppressor within ourselves…

The conviction of a powerlessness that is “natural,” therefore unalterable and inescapable, leaves us defenseless before the power-wielding forces of social institutions and the darker, more hidden powers of our own consciousness.

Why new habits don’t always stick and why conversions—even positive ones—are often traumatic:

There is a heavy emotional investment in our supposedly pure theoretical constructs—the images in which we perceive the world and the attitudes by which we respond to what we perceive.

Images and attitudes are emotionally based entities, not dispassionate at all, and it is they which form the warp and woof of our epistemological frame of reference. Reality for us is what is consistent with this shared (sympathetic) primitive emotional disposition of our consciousness in the midst of the interacting universe. We cannot possibly abandon it without the most extreme anxiety. Our view of the world and our whole personality and action pattern stand or fall together, being commonly rooted in our fundamentally emotional perception of being.

Link
Kevin Fury on Choice Points: “The Best Mistake I Ever Made
Every aspect of my life can be traced back to that one moment when I made a snap decision in answering the question ‘Are you sure you want _us_ to write your recommendations?’ In the short term I thought I gave the worst possible answer to that question, but in the long term it was the best mistake I ever made. — Kevin Fox