During my sophomore year at Weimar Academy, I struggled with geometry. No matter how much I studied, I didn’t get it. One morning, I told a lie. My palms were sweating and my lips trembled as I said to my dorm mom, Mrs. Jones, “I think I have the flu.”
She felt my forehead. “Kind of clammy, but no temperature.” She gave me a long look. “If you’re sick, stay in bed.” I nodded and glanced away quickly.
When the van left for school, guilt burned its way down to my stomach, like a hot ember melting fabric. Mrs. Jones checked on me later that morning. She carried a bottle of charcoal and a spoon the size of a ladle. “This’ll help your stomach,” she said.
Charcoal, a natural remedy for absorbing poison, would hopefully soak up the guilt I was feeling too.
I grimaced as the black sludge coated my mouth. It tasted like burnt campfire mixed with sand. Just when I thought I’d washed it down, I’d feel a crunch between my teeth, a gritty reminder of my lie.
I’d like to say that was the last time I lied–but I’d be lying.
In Romans 3:23, the Bible says, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” I gave myself the label of Adventist, Christian, and, I admitted, sinner. Everyone sinned. I discounted my sins because they were normal, acceptable, even common. We prayed for each other when we fell short of perfection.
We also judged each other for certain choices. There were people who wore earrings and broke the Sabbath. One kid was even caught smoking! Those choices were a different level of sin. I compared my shortcomings with others, and felt pretty good about myself. Sure, I was still a sinner, but I wasn’t like them.
After I left the uniquely sheltered environment of Weimar, I met people who did things much worse than wear jewelry or smoke. A good Christian wouldn’t make those choices. I patted myself on the back and continued to feel superior because I knew I’d never make those bad decisions.
About a year later, I became pregnant. I was young and unmarried. Being Adventist and not Catholic, I couldn’t claim immaculate conception. My choices were exposed for others to judge. Suddenly, I wasn’t the one perched in the front of the church. I was the one sitting in the back with my head down. I saw the glances, and I could feel the criticism as they gave me a new label: Sinner with a capital S.
At Weimar, I was still the kind of sinner who could hide their choices. No one knew I wasn’t really sick that day (except Mrs. Jones; I think she knew). No one knew that I listened to secular music while hiking the trails behind the school. I discounted those choices because they were invisible; they had no external consequences. Those choices did not come with a neon label.
It made me realize how wrong I’d been all those years. I felt superior to the town girls because the sins I cataloged were vanilla. After all, everyone falls short. It was normal.
Jesus said, “Come unto me…” All people. Not just Christians, not just people who chose to wrap their life in an acceptable label, not just people who are living without visible sin. Jesus championed a woman wearing the label of a prostitute, an outcast. He invited anyone without sin to cast the first stone. No one did.
His message included women and children while current ideology believed they were property. He touched lepers, He loved the unlovable, He went against tradition and taught acceptance without judgement. He disregarded mainstream teachings that some people were not worthy of the message. He did not label sinners with special distinctions. There were no capital S’s.
Adventists have a long history of being on the cutting edge of social movements. The 19th-century church was inclusive of race and gender. Founding leaders respected Ellen White while women were fighting to be heard in the secular world. The message was one of love, unity, and preparation for the second coming.
Our message must continue to be label-free. In Signs of the Times, Ellen White said, “Talk unbelief, and you will have unbelief; but talk faith, and you will have faith. According to the seed sown will be the harvest.”
What is the collective conversation of the Adventist church? Are we sowing seeds of love and acceptance? Or are we discussing how to chastise and label our members? Do we see the open minds and hearts of our young people? Or are we focused on their lifestyle choice, their piercings or their tattoos?
Instead of sowing the seeds of Christ-like acceptance, we find ourselves praying on behalf of people who sin differently than us–not to have a conversation with our Heavenly Father, but to make sure He knows there are certain brothers and sisters who are not behaving correctly. Dear Father, please show them the error of their ways.
We raise our brows at the same-sex couples who walk through our church doors. We smile and nod at them, “Welcome, welcome,” every week. But are they truly welcome?
Non-verbal cues are the first thing we learn to recognize. No matter how wide we smile, if our internal dialog is busy labeling and judging, our body language shows it. Our eyes and expressions show our true feelings. Do all church members know they are loved and accepted? Or do we glance sideways, and wonder why they’ve made the lifestyle choices they have?
The times in my life I found myself on the wrong side of the line, I didn’t need church members to catalogue my sins. My shortcomings, lifestyle choices, and failings were in high relief. Anyone who has spent time in the Bible understands the church’s position on sin. We strive for perfection, understanding we will never achieve it.
We have the ability to accept people without condoning their lifestyle choices. I propose it is our duty to focus on our own lives, our own journey to perfection, our own relationship with God. It is not our place to assign relative values to sin. We are not in a position to cast the first stone. Our mission is to love everyone, where they are, just as we are loved.
The Adventist community is facing a test. The test is how to embrace those who are different, how to love the ones who live outside the lines of what is considered proper. We are called to minister, but how do we do that when we know what the Bible says? There is no easy answer. A good place to start is to remember that our faith is not diminished by loving the sinner. We are not diminished as a church by welcoming sinners.
Mrs. Jones loved me despite my lie. She didn’t demand that I confess. She didn’t accuse me. She loved me. She let the spirit work. Almost thirty years later, I remember the lesson.
What’s your opinion? As Seventh-day Adventists how can we demonstrate God’s love for those He is trying to reach without condoning sinful behavior? Share your thoughts in the comments below.