I mentioned briefly in my last post that I and my entire family were in a play at church this Sabbath, along with a bunch of other people. Here we are dressed to party like it’s 1844:
I decided to save my post about this for today, since this is October 22. A date that will mean nothing to 90% of my readers, but every Adventist reading should know that this is the 164th anniversary of the Great Disappointment.
It’s a sobering thing, belonging to a church whose major inaugural event is called “The Great Disappointment.” I mean, the Lutherans get Martin Luther hammering his 95 theses to the door at Wittenberg. What do we Adventists get? A bunch of people sitting around waiting for Jesus to not show up. (Of course, the Anglicans get Henry VIII lusting after Anne Boleyn and being unable to obtain a divorce, so it could be worse. At least we have pathos).
I made the comment on a Ship of Fools discussion about church anniversaries awhile ago that in Adventist churches, any celebration of history or heritage is inevitably tinged with a sense of regret and failure. Disappointment still haunts us. I remember this very clearly from a few years back when we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Adventist church here in Newfoundland. Everytime we do an Adventist Heritage-type event, like the play I was involved in on Sabbath (which was about the Disappointment), we’re celebrating 100+ years of people declaring “Jesus is coming soon!” … and being wrong, at least according to most ordinary definitions of “soon.”
This is tough. When we celebrate the fact that our church has been in a community for 100 years, or 150 years, we can’t help reflecting on the fact that, according to our theology, we’re not supposed to still be here. A celebration of our longevity is also, on some level, a celebration of failure. Depending on your theology, you might see that as the failure of our pioneers to correctly interpret scripture, the failure of our forebears and ourselves to spread the gospel effectively enough to Jesus to return, or, most troubling of all, God’s failure to keep His promises and come back on time.
Unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also share roots in the Millerite Advent movement, Seventh-day Adventists have not gone on to set more dates for Jesus’ coming. Those who survived the Disappointment and carried on as Adventists decided that their calculations of Biblical prophecy had been correct — 1844 was indeed an important date — but that it signified a heavenly event marking the beginning of “end times” rather than the return of Jesus to this earth. So Adventists have gone on for over 150 years preaching that Jesus is returning to earth “soon,” while emphasizing that “no man knows the day nor the hour.”
These are the thoughts I can’t help thinking whenever we celebrate Adventist heritage. And this past Sabbath, standing in church in my poor semblance of period costume belting out old Advent hymns, I must have looked like I was really getting into the role, because tears were rolling down my cheeks. Now I am a sucker for crying at hymns anyway, but when we all started singing “How Sweet Are the Tidings” this week I found myself, as a fourth-generation Adventist, crying for all those generations of people who truly and earnestly believed Jesus would come in their lifetimes, who shaped their lives around that belief, and who were disappointed — not just in a single great disappointment, but in a series of them over years and decades.
What does it do to people, to live with that kind of belief and not see it realized? What does it mean to me, as the heir of those generations of belief? Does hope in the Second Coming get watered down as we get further and further from the people who believed it was imminent?
I’ve always struggled with this, more and more in recent years as my theology becomes in some ways more liberal even as my appreciation for the heritage of faith I was given deepens. I don’t know what I think about the Second Coming. Some days I think of it as a process of elimination. Despite my love for Star Trek, I don’t believe humanity is going to keep getting better and wiser and solve all our problems and someday zip into our matching jumpsuits to go and peacefully explore the universe. Our track record as a species simply doesn’t give me that kind of optimism. And I can’t be pessimistic enough to believe that we will just destory ourselves as a species and our planet without some kind of intervention from a loving God. So I guess I am left with a belief in some kind of Second Coming, that God will somehow stop the whole thing before it goes off the rails, and save us from ourselves.
The fact is that 99.5% of the time I don’t think about the end of the world. Which used to bother me, because I thought it made me a Badventist, not able to be focused all the time on “the Blessed Hope.” Then, several years ago, while mulling this over, I realized that I don’t focus on anything in the future; everything beyond about two weeks seems kind of vague and unreal to me, so I don’t invest much hope or fear or anything in the future. I try to plan for the future, but it’s always theoretical: I don’t really believe, in my heart of hearts, that I’ll retire or that my kids wil go to college or that life as we know it on earth will someday end. I’m really only capable of grasping what’s right in front of me, which leaves me blissfully free from a lot of worry but also quite short-sighted at times.
What I do find increasingly difficult to believe from the Adventist teaching I was raised with is that we, the heirs of these same people who got the date of Jesus’ coming so spectacularly wrong, have since then managed to work out a detailed understanding of Biblical prophecy that tells us, not when, but exactly HOW everything will happen, how the world will end, what it will be like when Jesus returns, what “signs” we can look for leading up to it — in other words, that our interpretation of the Bible is so secure, so certain and undeniable, that it removes every element of uncertainty from what would have to be the most uncertain event in the whole universe.
If the founding event of your church is called “The Great Disappointment,” shouldn’t that at least make you, as a community, tremendously humble? Shouldn’t it serve as a constant reminder, above all else, that we can be wrong? That when we think we have God and the Bible all figured out, we can be left staring up into empty skies? That in the end we have to admit above all else that we cannot know for sure the ways and purposes and plans of God?
With that heritage, Seventh-day Adventists ought to be the least certain, most humble, most open-to-the-possibility-of-our-own-error, denomination in the Christian world. We aren’t. We still cling to certainties. But it’s the uncertainty, that sense of knowing I could be wrong about everything, that has soaked most deeply into my bones. That’s what I’m left with when we celebrate Adventist heritage. We were wrong before. We could be wrong again.
So I live for the moment, mostly, and while rousing Advent hymns bring a tear to my eye, I also enjoy a good chorus of, “It’s the end of the world as we know it … and I feel fine.”
I do. Feel fine, that is, most of the time, which may just be because I’m not very bright, but may also be the way in which my faith in God makes itself real — not in a future hope, but in a present day experience of joy and contentment. And so far, I haven’t been disappointed.