Five years ago, a spiritual friend and I visited a couple of Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) churches, where Adventism piqued my curiosity. As a Friend, I knew that the quiet form of worship didn’t meet all of my spiritual needs. I had been a seeker all my life, open to other traditions. As a liberal Quaker, I was initially appalled by my continuing attraction to the fundamentalist and evangelical Adventism, but eventually I realized that this was a call from God to open up to a different way of believing, worshiping, and living. I began to read about Adventism, study the Bible, participate in Sabbath School each week, and occasionally attend the services for worship.
Feeling the need to be more grounded with Friends, I became recorded as a Minister of Ecumenism in my monthly meeting. I hoped that this would give the Adventists an indication that I was there to learn from and with them but wasn’t looking for a new church—there had been other ministers who had done the same from time to time and I was following their precedent. As a part of this ministry, I also studied the history and practice of Friends, and my study continues. I feel I have just begun to understand our tradition.
Before my study with the Adventists, I had considered myself to be a nontheist who believed that "God" was the same as "the universe." During my time in the SDA Church, I went through an overwhelming conversion. God spoke to my heart, asking, "Why do you deny me?" After that, whenever I began to doubt God’s being, I wondered how else God could speak, if not as a being. As I learned the new language of Adventism—and also of Christianity in general—I came to call myself Christian, although reluctantly at times. I had been opposed to identifying myself this way; yet, as I studied, I began to understand better how the Religious Society of Friends was part of the Christian body. I began seeking to follow the radical example of Jesus, the epitome of living out "that of God within," while acknowledging the powerful examples from other faiths as well.
I began to observe the Sabbath in the ways the Adventists do. It took a while, but gradually it began to feel more natural. It restored my soul, even though I didn’t believe its observance to be a sign identifying the "remnant" who will be resurrected in the second coming.
Adventist observance differs around the world, yet there are universal fundamentals. The Sabbath is a day to be set aside for God—this might include reading and studying the Bible or other spiritual writings, praying, spending the day ministering to others (outreach or evangelizing), and celebrating the natural world. It is essential to rest, to worship communally, to spend the day with family or church members, and not to work for payment (unless one is employed as a pastor, or in the medical field and one is called in for an emergency). It is also essential to avoid employing other people to work on this day—one should not purchase any goods or services. The Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and ends on Saturday at sunset.
I missed going to concerts and eating out in restaurants, but my friends and family were accommodating. I had to scramble to get all of my errands and chores done on other days, but I felt renewed after a day devoted to spiritual matters, contemplative walks, and rest.
I still needed meeting for worship in the manner of Friends, so Seventh Day (Saturday) did not supplant First Day (Sunday) for attending church. But Saturday did become my principal day for resting, studying, and not doing any type of work for my employer. This was how I respected the traditions of both churches and my own biorhythms. Though I thought about (even agonized over) the arguments I read on which day the Sabbath should be, in the end it came down to that which brought me the most peace. Devoting a day to rest and spiritual reading after the work-week was refreshing. It reminded me to live the commandments, to "love God" and "love thy neighbor as thyself." The Friends’ Ministry and Counsel Committee (now Ministry and Nurture) encouraged me to follow my leading and to find the right balance for myself.
I was able to articulate a thought that I had long felt: Friends meeting was hard work! It required an opening of oneself to the Spirit in the presence of others. It required patience and persistence. It took fortitude to test and follow the leadings of the Spirit. While attending Adventist Sabbath School and worship services took its own kind of hard work and courage, somehow it also seemed easier and more manageable.
he commonalities I found with Adventists that made it easy for me to worship in harmony with them included the fact that truth, integrity, simplicity, and racial equality were held to be vital, and all people were to be treated with respect; an emphasis on a unity that still allowed for diversity—without uniformity—because individuals maintained their own relationship with God; the belief that each person could access God directly, without the need for intermediaries; and a belief in peace (although formerly conscientious objectors, Adventists now referred to themselves as "non-combatants" and would serve in the military as part of a medical corps while refusing to carry arms).
The challenge I faced in keeping my outward life in harmony with my faith was figuring out how to speak up about our differing beliefs. My own beliefs were wildly different from those of the Adventists, and I struggled with representing both my own beliefs and Quaker thought and practice without giving offense when I did either. Some of the conflicting concerns involved a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. Adventists believed in a literal six-day Creation, the rightness of "Creation Science" and a "young Earth" (an Adventist was the major developer of the "flood geology" theory), evolution as evil, a standardized system of belief, and the authoritative prophecies of Ellen G. White.
However, the largest issue for me was their stance on homosexuality. In the SDA church, gays and lesbians who were sexually active were subject to church discipline, including the potential loss of their membership. Adventists believe that the Bible condemned same-sex relationships as sinful perversion. I am a lesbian who believes passionately in equality for all people. For a church that concentrates on love and racial equality, this seemed backward, and I wish that the SDA hierarchy would change its point of view on this issue. At the same time, I found the Adventist churches to be far more integrated racially than I perceived Friends meetings to be, despite the Quaker Testimony on Equality—we could learn from them in this area. When I read the prophet Ellen G. White’s writings on race, I saw that the words and phrases for homosexuality could easily be substituted. I examined the Biblical scriptures myself and wrote an essay addressing the SDA position, but I shared it with only two Adventists. I didn’t feel that as an outsider I could effect a real change, and I did not want to alienate the people with whom I was creating a relationship.
Other difficulties I faced initially with Seventh-day Adventism were not wearing jewelry, not drinking alcohol, the form of worship, and reading the Bible. However, the plainness of unadornment became normal for me. Now I consciously choose whether or not to wear jewelry, and I am more careful about alcohol. The music of both Sabbath School and worship often moved me to tears of joy, and I miss the beauty of it. I came to appreciate studying the Bible with a small group of people, who often surprised me with their intellectual insights. But some of the Adventist practices never got easier for me. Sacraments such as baptism and foot-washing, dressing up for church, and beliefs such as employing a paid clergy and allowing only men to be pastors, along with many of the other theological positions, remained troubling to me.
Nevertheless, I feel that the Adventists were gracious hosts. They were welcoming and appreciated my attempts to comprehend their faith and practice. They tried to teach me, and they probably desired my conversion but did not vocalize it. I was asked to play music for several worship services, causing more people to recognize and speak to me, thus opening additional doors. Joy and peace followed a day devoted to seeking God within.
When I entered into a relationship with the woman who became my wife, I felt less need for the Adventist community and eventually reported to the Friends’ Ministry and Counsel Committee that I felt released from this particular ministry of ecumenism.
Now, as time passes, I feel less need to observe the Sabbath as a 24-hour period of "grace" and try to remain aware of the sacred every day. I feel less hesitation about eating out and spending money on the Sabbath, and I attend professional conferences on Saturdays again. With Friends, I dress casually for worship, and I can express my political and social convictions without worrying about contradicting Quaker views and losing their companionship. I rejoice in being part of a community that accepts and celebrates loving same-sex relationships. Being able to publicly express my love for my wife brings a fierce joy into my life that wasn’t possible in the Adventist community. Now I no longer experience the heart-wrenching loneliness I felt when trying to live by SDA rules that didn’t come from my experience of God and Christ. Ultimately, it is the early Quaker testimonies that sustain me: the Light of Christ within, an emphasis on the equality of gender and sexual orientation in addition to race, simplicity lived out according to an individual perception of God’s truth, the radical devotion to principles of the Spirit rather than Old Testament law, and the insistence on examining the underlying causes of social problems and action to solve them at their core.
The journey with the Adventists helped me to cross many boundaries, in positive and healthy ways, resulting in much personal growth. Yet we cannot minimize the variations between denominations; we must honor the practices that distinguish us from each other. I would not be willing to be baptized with water, nor would I participate in communion, finding these antithetical to basic Quaker practice.
We can meet each other within Christianity, or across religions, crossing borders in order to learn about each other without violating the integrity of any of our practices. Ecumenism involves this type of learning within Christianity, and it includes working together on projects of concern to both (or all) groups involved. To my regret, I did not find an opening for a joint venture between the Adventists and Quakers—maybe a possibility will present itself in the future. The last joint venture I found publicly acknowledged was the anti-smoking campaign in the 1970s.
either ecumenism nor interfaith dialogue means blending theology and/or practice. Individuals will find themselves changed, but the aim is personal spiritual growth, not a merging of faiths. The goal is for people to get to know each other through intermingling, and to appreciate each other’s practices, not to unify distinct and unique theologies. While contemporary Friends are often willing to visit other Christian churches as well as non-Christian religious congregations, I don’t believe that Adventists would approve of this practice for their members.
The characteristics that outwardly define a group as different from the society in which they live—clothing, language or vocabulary, day of worship, simplicity of lifestyle, lack of adornment, refusal to swear oaths—all contribute to the sense of belonging to that group. Generally, the greater the differences are from society, the stronger the commitment is to the group. It is important to discover where individual and collective boundaries lie, and to respect them.
My experience with the SDA church opened my heart, helped me to be more adaptable, and provided me community when I needed it most. I learned to keep a time and space sacred. I learned to trust more and to bring up difficult matters with more courage.
The experience also brought me a different view of marriage, which I think prepared me to enter into one. My partner, Amy, and I were married on July 15, 2007, under the care of the Grand Rapids Meeting. We married legally in California on June 30, 2008.
In the summer of 2007, George Lakey wrote an article for FGConnections called "Connecting through Conflict." The following quotes sum up my thoughts:
The experience of community, it turns out, is not primarily about doing, but rather about being. . . . Quakers join other mystical traditions in knowing that spiritual union happens more through listening than talking, more through experiencing than formulating, more through surrender than control. . . . That’s what makes conflict such a powerful doorway to spiritual growth, a place where social science and spirituality come together. Conflict calls us to the moment and makes possible joyful membership in a powerful group that is deeply connected. For many of us it brings up our fears and desperate yearning for control, our wish for a procedural way around a confrontation that needs to happen. But if you want to grow, stop avoiding conflict and start embracing it.
Primarily I see my time with the Adventists as one chapter in a continuing installment of making myself available to God and committing to connection. Curiosity led me into conflict, discussions into community, community into relationship. While trying to look for the sacred in each day of the week, sometimes I observe First Day, Seventh Day, or part of each day as "set apart from the world." It all comes back to listening for the Spirit and following the whisperings I hear in my heart.
This study with a worship group so different from my own certainly led me to a different understanding of what it means to be a Quaker, and I’m grateful I had the opportunity to do so as part of a recorded ministry. Now I am glad to share the results of my experience with others.