adventist

Listen, I know there are some of you who are already disgruntled at the title. Yes, this isn’t going to be a glowing advertisement for Adventist culture. If you want that, I made a blog post a month or so ago about the things I love about my church. Because I do love it, deeply. But although God is perfect, his people, including me, are imperfect and so are the systems and cultures we create.

I read a research paper a few months ago about the common problems that crop up when engaging in psychotherapy and counselling with Adventists. It stated that some of the common problems were rigid perfectionism, unintegrated sexuality and problems of self worth/esteem. As I sat there on the bed in my onesie, bag of sweet and salty popcorn in one hand, I started laughing and crying at the same time. Laughing because there was something almost hysterical about how pointedly accurate it was and crying because it resonated with me personally.

I thought twice about writing this. Once because I didn’t want to get too critical. Twice because I didn’t want to get too personal.

I’ve always been a perfectionist whilst at the same time having a tendency towards being quite far from perfect in a lot of ways. Understandably, that poses a lot of problems.

I can’t blame it all on Adventism. I can partially blame it on the burden of being a naturally smart kid. The sort of kid who had an existential crisis in when she got her results for the year 5 end of year exams. 82% in science. What happened to the other 18%? And if I I could get 18% wrong, what if the next time, another 18% went missing?

I can also probably partially blame it on having a Mother who despite her flaws, is probably as close to a perfect person as anyone I’ve met. And I can definitely put some of it down to my own neurosis and unchecked thought processes.

I can’t however, let Adventist culture get off scott free.

Adventism, like any other denomination of Christianity, is a fairly broad church. Pun intended. There are liberals and conservatives. There are those who are fully committed and those who are non-committal. There are nice people and nasty people (on both the liberal and conservative side). The conservative or liberal labels are sometimes applied lazily because of our desperate need to categorise each other, but they aren’t entirely without merit.

I grew up in what would be considered by some accounts, a fairly conservative family. (Liberal to those who were left of us and conservative to those who were right of us – see how labels are problematic?). During my teenage years I found myself drawn to a brand of Adventism that was even more conservative than what my parents brought me up in. I was sincere in my efforts to be like Jesus. I honestly just wanted to do the right thing and I didn’t care how extreme that looked to anyone else. I went to conferences, I watched sermons online, and I studied avidly. One thing that was emphasised over and over again was the high standard that God called us to as Christians. We weren’t supposed to be like everyone else. We spoke differently, we dressed differently, we ate differently, we used our free time differently – with God’s strength, we could be perfect. My skirt length increased and my Bible highlighting became more creative. My virginity was firmly intact, powered by fail-proof curfews and myriad books on purity. I demanded excellence of myself in every facet of my life. And didn’t always succeed.

The central tenet wasn’t in and of itself theologically incorrect. The idea that Christianity is supposed to be a radically transformative experience that affects every aspect of your life is one that I hold to and one that I believe many churches and denominations have lost in an age of feel-good spirituality and blurry TED talk-esque sermons. Intent and outcome though, are often two very different things, and although the intent may have been to challenge young people to live lives that were dedicated to their faith, the outcome of constant messages that emphasised high standards was often young people who became obsessive about avoiding ‘sin’ whilst forgetting the  principle of love that is supposed to underpin our faith.

You could argue that it’s unfair to blame a preacher or conference for my failure to find the perfect marriage of love and high standards, but when so many young people I know experienced similar struggles with feeling unworthy, unloved and unforgiven, there has to be some self-examination on the part of the leaders sharing these messages.

The acknowledgement that along the way to becoming the person we want to be there will probably be a plethora of wrong turns and false starts was nodded to quietly but quickly dismissed with the exhortation that God’s grace and personal effort meant that those wrong turns could and should be minimised. And isn’t that true? Don’t I believe that my faith is a sat nav that gives me instructions for my journey? I do. But I’ve also come to accept that as the driver in this complicated and sometimes tiring journey we call life, sometimes I get distracted and don’t listen to the sat nav. Sometimes the music is too loud or there are other people in the back that I listen to when really I should be listening to the sat nav. And so I take a wrong turn. But as long as the sat nav is still charged, switched on and in front, it will keep telling me to u-turn or try another route to make sure I get to my destination. One thing I know for sure about sat navs is that they never give up.My route might be different to someone else because of the times I didn’t listen to the sat nav, but the most important thing is that I’m trying my best to listen and that just like the sat nav, I’m not abandoning the journey.

The journey is difficult enough without people adding extra baggage that  you don’t really need. There is no doubt that God requires a certain way for us to live as Christians,  but sometimes I’ve found that humans are really good at adding and taking away things and encouraging others to do the same. People’s intentions might be good, but the effect it can have on your spiritual path can be disastrous.

I’m not here to make a case for low standards or tell you that mistakes don’t have consequences. I’m not here either to make a case for specific lifestyle choices (although I believe in them and will happily share them in person). I’m definitely not here to suggest that sin is anything less than it is or that we can’t overcome it. I am here though to make a case for grace, forgiveness and a little bit more self love. I’m here to make a case for defining yourself by the love of an all forgiving and willingly forgetful (of our mistakes) God. I’m here to speak to the other very imperfect perfectionists.

Someone reading this blog has been beating themselves up because they’re not ‘there’ yet. Beloved, the person you look at that you think is ‘there’ wasn’t always ‘there’. They probably aren’t even ‘there’ now. I’m definitely not.Becoming like Jesus is the work of a lifetime. Be open to the fact that you will make mistakes and so will others. Know that you are loved and essential despite your mistakes. Keep listening to the sat nav. You’ll get there.

P.S. If anyone wants to know more about my particular theological leanings on certain things (from what I’ve studied), shoot me a line in the comment section, facebook, twitter etc.

michelle o

As far back as I can remember, my dream life has included an old Edwardian house with a massive back garden, 2 very cute children, and a very tall husband with kind eyes. The recurring image is generally of us, in the garden, him making mud pies with the kids and me pouring glasses of homemade lemonade into tiny plastic cups for them. It’s all very idyllic and archaic. Nowhere in this image is me hurriedly pouring the lemonade with a pair of A and E scrubs on, kissing my husband on the cheek and grabbing a child in each arm to hug them as I rush out the house to work.

The probability is that my future life is far more likely to be similar  to the second image, than the first.

The working mum isn’t a really a ‘thing’ anymore, is it?
Not many people raise their eyebrows  at the idea of a working woman having a couple of little ones at home. In a lot of circles, it’s assumed that you will go back to work after pregnancy, possibly take a year or two at the most.
All except conservative Christian (or other religious) circles.

Recently my denomination voted against women being ordained as ministers. It was a controversial vote mostly split along cultural lines. Many of  those in the West tended to be more in favour, and non- Western countries tended to be opposed to it. I haven’t studied it enough to make any informed commentary and so maintained a fairly neutral position although my natural tendencies lean towards being pro-ordination.

Aside from discussions about ordination, I was interested in the conversations about the different roles of women and men in the home and society. I’ve found Christian men have much more of a tendency to be in favour of my 1950’s daydream than other men. In fact, one of the women who spoke against women’s ordination stated that despite her current leadership position in a church organisation, that (loosely quoting from our denomination’s most important female leader) ‘her highest calling will be when she is a wife or mother’. Although I agree with the quote she used in it’s correct context –  I found it firstly, dismissive of those women who will never be called to be a wife or mother, and secondly, rooted less in sound theology and more in Victorian idealism.

The idea that your most important life work is to love and influence your immediate family is one that I subscribe to – but this is equally true of men and women. Interestingly enough, this argument is never used to prevent married men from occupying positions of leadership or demanding jobs even though the Biblical imperative to take care of your home first is actually directed at men and not women.

The concept of men going out to work and women staying at home is fairly modern concept. In times past, especially the time period  in which the Bible was written, men, women and children often worked alongside each other in the family business, women sold their wares at the market, and the concept of a ‘stay at home mum’ vs ‘working mum’ was non-existent. Women often worked from home, or took their children with them as they worked outside the home. Everyone pitched in to make enough money or produce for the family to survive – the family was a working unit.

My Mum worked in a demanding and fairly high powered job  for most of my childhood and I don’t feel like I missed out because she wasn’t “there” as much as she would have been if she had stayed at home. Like most Mums she’d managed the art of being ever present even in her absences. Sometimes she would bring me into work with her during school holidays and seeing her as a black woman in a senior management position was extremely empowering for me. I would sit at her desk in her office, spin around in her big chair and pretend that I was the boss.  I have no doubt that a major part of my confidence and success came from seeing my Mum at work. Also, I was fortunate enough to have great nannies who looked after me and my brother and my experience of the world was enriched by my time with them – I consider them to be part my family.

If I’m honest, if  I ever do have children  I do want to be at home, at least when my children are young. I’m even warming to the idea of home schooling. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a stranger spending more time with my children at a young age than me, even if my own childhood experience of that was great. But if I am called to work outside of the home, that does not make me less ‘virtuous’ than if I stay at home.

I refuse to believe that God wanted me to get a medical degree simply to pass time while I wait for the right man to whisk me off my feet and provide me with an expensive set of cooking utensils to facilitate his fabulous career. I’m also very confused as to why women who are significantly more intelligent, innovative and able than some men shouldn’t share this with the world but instead should feel some sort of moral burden to stay at home, concocted from a hodgepodge mixture of Victorian ethics and misused Bible texts, instead of discovering the cure for sickle cell. Lastly, the idea that being a stay at home Mum isn’t a job in itself, is insulting. If a woman stays at home both parents are working – one is working inside the home and one is working outside. Both are equally viable choices that families should make for themselves – without being made to feel guilty for either.

What do you guys think?