I guess we all go through our lives thinking that others know what we’ve gone through, assuming that our experiences are tacked up on our faces like so many notices on a board, or at least we don’t really think about where others come from so we assume the same when it comes to them. Regardless, the time comes when we get close enough to another person that we feel the need to explain, when all the questions come, the excitement of getting to know another person’s history.
When I first met the woman who would become my wife I remember the first question was, “What exactly is Seventh-Day Adventism?” and I had a hard time answering it past the obvious “We went to church on the seventh day instead of the first.” Then I really took the time to think about it, something I realized I had never truly done before, and the answers weren’t coming easily. It made me think of that quote I’ve often used on others: “Always question everything because the answers might surprise you.” So I dug deep and I told her Seventh-Day Adventism is the belief in the second coming of Jesus Christ, in the faith that God never changed his holy day, in the confirmation of the miracle of immaculate conception, and in the promise that God will come again to save us from ourselves.
Of course that seemed like a pat answer, like one I had rehearsed more than once, like propaganda from God-fearing folk to explain Him to the unwashed masses, and it felt like mud coming from my mouth. But it was the answer, for better or for worse, because it was what I had heard time and again while going to church, the “party line,” if you would. So when I thought about it, really thought deeply, it was all I could come up with, which was a sad commentary not just on my upbringing in the church, but also on my lack of understanding and depth of something I was supposed to be expert at.
It wasn’t about others from the outside asking questions. It should have always been about me asking questions from within, so I wasn’t merely going through the motions. But I had been going through the motions, toeing the “party line,” and understanding exactly nothing. I realized I needed to do some research, some real research, not just going to the SDA website or simply listening to the pastor preach it from the pulpit. It had to be real to me so that I could make it real to someone else who hadn’t been there with me from the start, who hadn’t gone to Sabbath School, and church every Saturday, and Vespers every Saturday night, and Vacation Bible School every summer. So I went back to the beginning, for me anyway — my mother.
Say what I would about my mother, I could never deny her complete devotion to the church, but I had never asked her any of the questions that I should have growing up, back when I was blindly following the religion by rote and not by faith. When I went to visit her one time while I was back in Philadelphia we had the talk we probably should have had when I was younger, and I asked her pretty much every question I never knew the real answers to, the ones that were most difficult because they were most essential. You have to understand, it physically pained me to admit that I didn’t know, to let anyone else know that what I had in the church had been built on shaky ground, not on a true understanding of my faith.
That’s what it comes down to, she told me by way of an answer to my biggest question, the understanding that even though it’s a religion it’s at its base about the individual, not the collective. Seventh-Day Adventism, according to her, is a connection of individuals who believe in God, who believe that he will come again in glory, but who also believe that their individual connection with that God is paramount above all else. It’s not about the song and dance, and no one else need know where you stand, because God knows, and that’s all that matters. It’s not about being demonstrative, even though many Christians believe that “works” are most important. It’s about the questions and the answers, and not from you to others, but from you to God. Wow, that blew my mind, to think that the whole time I thought it had been about appearances when it should have been the exact opposite.
And I knew I had to start living what I preached, that I had to question everything, whatever I built my foundations on first and foremost though, because building on shaky ground is never a quality proposition, and not understanding where you come from and what makes you YOU is inexcusable.