He brought up the subject with all the tact that a minister should have in discussing a sensitive subject. But the message came through loud and clear: You haven't been a faithful tithepayer since you were baptized.
"What do you mean?" I asked defensively. "I've been putting in more than 10 percent since before I was baptized."
"Well, David, that could easily be the case, and please don't feel that I'm accusing you of being untruthful, but the church treasurer's report doesn't include any offerings from you at all." Nobody told me the church treasurer kept records on each member, and I sure didn't think he would send copies to the preacher.
"Well," I said, "I don't itemize when I do my taxes, so I don't need any receipts. I just give my tithe in cash every Sunday—I mean, Sabbath." He then told me that my unenveloped cash had been going to the church budget or to the various other offerings. Nobody had told me that before.
"Does it really make any difference?" I asked. "The Lord knows I'm tithing." True enough, I learned, but the conference and the church treasurer didn't.
Then there was my fiancee. The wed ding was still ten months away when she came to my church with me for the first time. By coincidence it was communion Sabbath. Neither of us had taken part in a foot-washing service. When we got together afterward for the bread and grape juice, I could see something was wrong. After the service she explained.
"This old lady in a pink-flowered dress asked me to be her partner. When she was washing my feet she noticed my engagement ring. She asked me what it was and I told her. Then she said Adventists don't believe in wearing wedding rings or any other type of jewelry. That's not true, is it?"
Nobody had told me that before. I asked the pastor about it the next time we met for our Bible study. I was going to be baptized in two weeks.
"I had been meaning for us to study that," he said. "It's true that we feel the Bible tells us we should refrain from wearing external ornamentation ..." And then he showed me the proof texts.
"What about my class ring?" I asked. That ring was the most treasured thing I owned. I was the first member of my family to even go to college, much less graduate. I had worked overtime to come up with enough extra bucks to buy the ring.
"And what about this?" I asked as I pulled a small golden cross out from the front of my open-collared shirt. "I bought this little cross the day after I became a Christian, and I've worn it every day since. It helps me remember that I am a Christian."
"I'm sorry, David, but I won't be able to baptize you if you insist on wearing that ring and necklace." And only two weeks before I was going to be baptized! He hadn't told me that before.
So I was baptized. My fiancee was there.
We were planning to be married in the chapel at the college where we first met, and while we had decided where and when, we had not decided who would officiate. "This preacher at my new church seems like a nice enough man—let's ask him to perform the wedding."
I could tell something was wrong the minute I asked him. From his expression, you would have thought I'd asked him to murder his mother. It took him several compound sentences to say it, but I finally got his drift: No.
"But why not?"
"Well, we Seventh-day Adventists believe in Christian marriage."
"She's more a Christian than I am!" I replied.
"Well, that may be true, but she's not an Adventist."
"Wait a minute! Am I hearing you straight? You mean you won't marry us because she's not a Seventh-day Adventist?" I was incredulous. This time he took several paragraphs to explain.
"Why didn't you tell me this before you baptized me?" I agonized. You knew what she was, and you knew I was engaged to her." I don't remember what his answer was; I just remember that I went home really depressed. No work the next day; I called in sick. I really was.
"You've got to be kidding," my fiancee said when I got the nerve to tell her. "I thought only Mennonites believed that!"
"Mormons, too," I said. "Don't forget the Mormons."
It was several days before I talked to the pastor again. "What happens," I asked him, "if we just go ahead and get married? I mean, get her preacher to do the wedding. Will I be disfellowshiped?"
Disfellowshiped. We had studied that. About how you could be thrown out of the church if you were caught drinking, taking drugs, going to bed with anyone you're not married to, working on the Sabbath. . .
"No, you won't be disfellowshiped if you marry out of the faith [I breathed easier], but [I knew there had to be a "but"] if you go ahead and marry her, the brethren will not look upon it with favor."
By now my fiancee was feeling very negative about this strange church I had gotten myself involved with, but she still accompanied me to camp meeting and went to most of the meetings that week. She talked to several Adventist pastors, too, but when it came time to make a decision, she decided that I and the Lord were asking too much.
I called off the engagement.
Both our families were highly indignant about the whole situation, but my new church came shining through. They poured their love on me while I was getting over my "ex." I had several adopted "grandmothers," as I called them—darling sisters of the church—who seemed convinced that the best way to get over a lost love is to become part of a family again. There wasn't a Sabbath for months there after when I wasn't invited out for Sabbath dinner.
I honestly believed during my first two years in the church that all Adventists were at least approaching Christian perfection and that fully half were nearly ready for translation.
I was awakened from blissful ignorance when I moved several hundred miles to a large "colony" (Ellen White's word) of Adventists
I began at once to visit each of the several Adventist churches in the area in order to decide where I would transfer my membership. The first was involved in a "throw the scoundrel out" fight centering on their pastor; the church had polarized into two hostile factions. At another I felt inundated with symbols of conspicuous wealth—brand-name, high-fashion clothes; hundred-dollar watches; jewelry; and the cars—ah, yes, the parking lot. Any car dealer would have envied the selection available on Sabbath morning. The new ones were especially obvious because their owners seemed to have forgotten to remove the price sticker on the side window.
Kahlil Gibran once said that pain comes only when someone or something you love betrays that love. I was in pain.
It was the Adventist teen-agers that really churned up my insides. The designer jeans and the Formula Firebirds were only the tip of their iceberg. I tried to become involved in the Friday-evening youth group sponsored by one church, but I had never seen spiritual apathy like theirs— not even in the "worldly" church I came out of. The few young people who did attend seemed always to be late. I would see some sitting in their cars before coming in. Others would walk in glassy-eyed and strangely detached.
There were a few that you could talk to, a few who would open up if you'd listen. From what I heard them say to me—and you have got to listen with a third ear because there is a lot more to the message than the face value of their words—I really believe many Adventist youth are trying to find God, really trying, but their defeats far exceed their victories in the environment they're in.
"I've done everything I know how to do," one of them said. "I've prayed a million prayers, but nothing ever happens. I read my Bible and it bores me to death. I've asked everybody who I think has a real connection with Jesus how I can find Him too, but all I hear are empty words I've heard a hundred times before. There's a limit to how long I'm going to keep on trying. I think I've just about reached it."
"Nobody in my church knows God," another said. "Every Sabbath it's just a fashion show when they parade in to show one another how holy they are."
There are a lot of things about Seventh-day Adventists that nobody told me. There are days when I'm really discouraged, but I know I'm not alone in that. As someone said, "God, who is the freest of all beings in the universe, endures the most pain." But there is another side to the coin, called discouragement; I've found that it can be conquered only through a relationship with Christ. Discouragement has one of two effects on a Christian: it either drives him out of the body of Christ, or it drives him to his knees.
Oh, Adventists! How often God has wanted to gather us under His wings as a hen gathers her chicks, but we're unwilling. We, who are rich and increased in goods, don't feel we need Him.
Nobody ever told me that, either.