It was an interesting first day of the General Conference Session. As always there were the pleasantries, the preliminaries, the working out of kinks in the the technical machinery as the voting devices were being tested. There were the procedural formalities that sometimes can go unnoticed and undervalued for their importance. And then came the first major report. At least the first report of importance in my mind. It was the addition of several new unions that were being added to the Seventh-day Adventist denomination since the last General Conference Session. The first of several came from the continent of Africa. All of the unions had memberships of 100,000 or more. Some between 250,000 – 500,000 members. I could not up keep with and did not record the exact figures, but at one point I noticed that three consecutive unions had a combined membership that was larger than the entire present membership of the North American Division; the division where the Seventh-day Adventist Church was founded in 1863. Amazing when you stop to think that they had just been formed within the past five years since the last General Conference in 2010. There was one brief interruption before the vote, but they were unanimously voted into the sisterhood of organizations with hundreds of amens and applauds, etc.
Then came the next major event of the morning session. The President of the General Conference introduced a gentleman(whose name I failed to remember-my humble apologies) who then introduced an idea of a video that was to be shown to the assembly. It was presented as a solemn historic moment for us to watch and ponder in prayerful contemplation. It was a dramatic scene from the past of the early Advent movement preparing for the 34th General Conference session in 1901. In essence it portrayed what might have happened at that General Conference, had the attendees come together and unified. Had they set aside their differences, confessed their sins and faults to each other, put aside their petty jealousies, envy, strife, back biting, etc. and come together, their unity would have ushered in the second return of Jesus Christ. At least that is what was suggested by the video. At the end of the video, the actor portraying Ellen White hears a voice who tells her what she is seeing did not actually happen. The apologies she saw and the confessions made by the delegates to each other did not actually occur and the voice, (which I presume represented the voice of God) tells her, “this ‘might’ have been.” The actor portraying Ellen then dramatically drops her head in tears realizing the great opportunity our church missed because its leaders were unwilling to confess their sins and faults to one another. The screen went dark and then a phrase appeared reading…”What might have been…can still be…” The President of the General Conference, joined by the officers of the General Conference, presented a typed statement with a message of unity that he and the General Conference officers had previously agreed to. The message said that no matter what decisions or what the outcome of this General Conference, that we as members should not allow anything to divide us. We should remain unified. We were then asked to join in groups of two or three and kneel to pray.
As I reflected on these two high points of the morning session, I had many mixed feelings. As one who is passionate about seeing new believers accepting Jesus Christ and joining His Kingdom I was excited and amazed by the phenomenal growth of our church on the continent of Africa. We in the so-called “civilized western world” have much to learn about winning people to Jesus Christ from our so-called “third-world” brothers and sisters. We get excited seeing three to five people baptized, while they are adding to the church the kind of numbers reminiscent of Pentecost. But then the film depiction of the 1901 General Conference and the suggestion that the church was one “confession session” away from heaven. Did I miss something? Was that really what was being suggested?
Never mind the poor quality of screen play and acting, (when are we going to unleash the giftedness and talents of the millennial generation to help us with projects like this), but as I reflected on the content, without analyzing whether or not Ellen White’s statements were taken out of context and/or misrepresented. As I looked at the film content itself at face value, it showed no semblance, no hint of racial, cultural, ethnic or even gender diversity among the attendees of the 34th General Conference. The only visible female attendee, who was a character with any role in the film, was the one who portrayed Ellen White, the prophet. There wasn’t any visible generational diversity depicted in the film. The confessions that were made were only made among the attendees about themselves to each other. There were no confessions about sins they may have committed because of their corporate ills. No confessions about their lack of commitment to the world at large, or their lack of involvement in the social ills of the day. No confession for their racial prejudices, or gender biases. No confessions about any sins of omission about anything they failed to do in any area of life beyond their own private circle. Is this the world we see ourselves as living in as a church? Are these the only people we are responsible to? And if we are in right relationship with our small narrow circle of friends and colleagues who look just like us, of the same race, age, socio-economic status as us; if we remain in right relationship them, is our salvation assured? Is THIS what delays the return of Jesus Christ? REALLY???
Jesus was confronted by an expert lawyer who asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus astutely responded, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer knows law. He responds, “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Correct,” Jesus responds. “Do this and you will live.” But then the lawyer asks the seminal question of life, “Who is my neighbor?” It is the question that confronts all of us. A question that is uncomfortable for us to truly answer. It confronts us in parking lots and malls, when a beggar walks up to us asking for a hand out or walks by our car window with a dirty squeegee trying to clean our windshield. We can never truly side step it or get around it and as Christians Jesus never makes it easy for us to answer. And Jesus just had to tell a parable like the Good Samaritan to illustrate it, and make it impossible for us to escape. Think about the victim for a moment. The only descriptor Jesus gives us is that the person is a male. We don’t know his race, culture, nationality, language, religious affiliation and because he is stripped naked we have no way of knowing his socio-economic status. We don’t even know his sexual orientation, uh oh…That really makes it difficult doesn’t it. But Jesus doesn’t make being His follower an easy proposition, because to LIVE is Christ and to die is GAIN. In the end, Jesus answers the lawyers question with a question, and in doing so, changes the original question. He asks, “Who WAS a neighbor to the man who fell in the hands of the robbers?” The stuttering lawyer responds, “the one who had mercy(grace) on him.” Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise!”
Do we really believe as a church that in 1901 we were only one confession session away from ushering in the return of Christ without answering the haunting question Jesus posed to the lawyer in Luke 10? If the members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1901 understood their prophetic calling as preaching the everlasting gospel of Revelation 14:6-12 to every nation, how could they have believed Christ’s return was imminent when they had not presented the gospel to all of America, let alone the entire world. The delay in Christ’s return has little to do with our inability to confess our faults to one another, as important as that is. And please do not misunderstand me, I do not want to minimize the importance of what was done by the General Conference President and the officers. We DO need to set aside all of our petty jealousies and differences and envies and ego striving and the like. And we DO need to come together as a church regardless of what decisions are made at this General Conference. But 2 Peter 3:9 is clear that God is delaying His return because He is long-suffering, not willing that any should perish but that ALL should come to repentance. And how long will that delay be? Only God in His mercy knows for sure.
So what must we do in the mean time? We must continue to be faithful in presenting the everlasting gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue and people. And while we are fulfilling that prophetic call from God, we must continue to answer the seminal Christian question that Jesus asked the lawyer. Not just, “who is my neighbor?” That’s a little too inwardly focused and exclusive. Jesus’ question is more outwardly focused and inclusive. It still challenges us all, and He’s still asking it of us. And so I leave you with the question that I live with me each day…”Have I Been A Neighbor Lately?”