By Warren Nelson
No, this isn’t an ode to Hunter S. Thompson’s novel about Vegas. It’s about me and my relationship to the persecution complex that came from being, for more than half of my life, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and thus one of “the elect.”
One of the things I was told I was elected to do was to suffer for my faith.
In my preteen years, I came across an amazing tome, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. My mom did a pretty good job of monitoring my voluminous book consumption, but this one made its way into the stack at my bedside. To this day, I have memories of the illustrated stories of hideous deaths of Christians at the hands of fellow Christians of another denomination.
I have a vivid recollection of sitting in a high school theater where Fordyce Detamore preached his evangelistic sermons. I was a preteen, with my red and blue pencil (one color at either end—kind of cool actually!) underlining in my free (if you attended all the meetings) blue-zippered Bible as he worked though prophecies of terror. Afterwards I received and cherished Detamore’s mimeographed sermons.
One night there was a special treat: a movie! It was set in Mexico, as I recall, and it was about a nun who escaped her convent. There was an incredible nun-hunt by priests with crucifixes in their belts, and a posse with big hats, zapata mustaches and old-fashioned brass-decorated flintlock rifles.
In the end, the nun was caught and martyred by a firing squad. What fuel for my prepubescent nightmare generator!
Run to the Hills!
In 1965, a fellow teen, Merikay McLeod, published a tiny book called Now! It was a story tailor-made for amplifying my spiritual anxiety. I first read it my freshman year in academy as it made its viral rounds through the church, and it scared the stuffing out of me! Now! was a first-person fiction of a young girl who is living out the persecution-of-Adventists scenario described in The Great Controversy. The central character sees Sunday laws enacted and has to flee into hiding to escape those who would persecute her for keeping the Seventh-day Sabbath. Eventually she ends up in court, where even her pastors and parents oppose her and beg her to give up her Sabbath belief. But when things are most hopeless, she looks up and sees Jesus coming in the clouds of glory—one of the few who remained faithful to the end when the rest had fallen away.
The original version had a foreword by Fordyce Detamore, whose meetings Merikay was attending when she wrote it. Its Amazon description says, “‘National Sunday Law? It seemed like a dream. Even though I had read about it and knew in my heart that it was coming, I just couldn’t believe that it was here…now.’ Now! is an exciting book about the end-time as Adventists have long pictured it. Even though, we cannot know exactly how the time of trouble will play out, this book offers a unique perspective.”
The lesson of Now was that it is those God loves and who hold His truth dear who get persecuted! The farther and faster you have to run to hide, the more loved ones you see slaughtered, when in the end when you yourself face the business end of a rifle, knife or burning stake—you know that God is on your side!
What a terrifying picture of God!
To Every Nation—or At Least Every Home
During the last two years of academy we youth were often taken to pass out literature door-to-door. The literature was usually about the end times. It often had pictures of beasts. Other pictures showed people staring in stark terror as Jesus and hosts of heaven descended to seal their eternal doom. In another part of the frame a group of clearly exhausted, starving souls are on their knees praying for this very event; they have finally suffered enough and Jesus is on the way!
As you might imagine, as we trudged from house to house looking like poorly-dressed Mormon missionaries, our welcome was not always warm. There were no Ring or Nest doorbells to let the house occupants scope out the who’s at the door. Someone had to get up off the couch and trudge to the door and bid you get lost. A very few were kind enough to take the garish pamphlet, and the rest provided a verbal boot to the behind to “Get off my porch!”
Upon returning to the fellowship hall we’d debrief, and inevitably the stories would flow—many of them about rejection. Oddly, this would engender soft, sad smiles and “Well done!” interjections from our teachers, preachers and elders. For in being rejected and cursed at and sent away, we had suffered willingly at the outer edges of persecution.
The Bible and Persecution
The Bible warns of persecution for faithful Christians.
Now brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end shall be saved. Mark 13:23
Let him who is on the housetop not go down into the house, nor enter to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! And pray that your flight may not be in winter. For in those days there will be tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the creation which God created until this time, nor ever shall be. And unless the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake, whom He chose, He shortened those days. Mark 13:15-20
From these texts, and the way they were explained to us, here are some of the lessons that were indelibly etched on my heart:
- God loves people deeply who suffer hideously. The more affliction, the more love.
- Learn to seek pain and rejection. It is your lot if you are going to see heaven. In fact, you may wish to seek martyrdom, as it is the ultimate get-into-heaven card.
- Fortunately, if you’re one of the elect, God may cut you some slack by shortening your “hour of torment.”
- It is acceptable to be confrontational when sharing Jesus’ love. It separates the sheep from goats—on both sides, the sharer and the one shared with.
But those lessons also led to some questions. Why oppose Sunday laws at all? Are they not a sign of Jesus’ imminent return? Why do we pray for the second coming and then resist the very events that will lead to our martyrdom and Jesus’ return? Shouldn’t we be as annoying and provocative as possible to get the whole process started?
Then there’s the question as to whether those texts were about Seventh-day Adventists—much less about a group of teens being “persecuted” for bothering people in their own homes innocently watching “The Brady Bunch.”
Then I Grew Up
I tried for years to make this work, to find a way to wrap my head, and ultimately my heart, around these expectations. It turned out that this whole question of confrontation, persecution and suffering for Jesus was a knot I couldn’t untangle. I kept finding things such as this in Psalms 91 (the Old Testament, for goodness sake!):
Because you have made the Lord, who is my refuge,
Even the Most High, your dwelling place,
No evil shall befall you,
Nor shall any plague come near your dwelling;
For he shall give His angels charge over you,
To keep you in all your ways.
In their hands they shall bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.
You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra,
The young lion and the serpent you shall trample underfoot.
This didn’t fit the picture of fear and loathing of my growing up years.
I finally accepted that I didn’t have the mental faculties to sort it all out. So I moved on.
It took awhile. There are days, even in my dotage, when I find myself resenting the indoctrination of fear I was subjected to for a lot of my life. Yes, some of it was done with good intentions, or out of sincere ignorance. Nonetheless, it was an abusive process designed to ensure compliance then and on into the future, and to make sure that I remained part of the hive.
Over time, at no small financial expense and with substantial personal work, I was able to toss bag after bag of fear and terror overboard and replace them with joy and a sense of actually living life now. Not in some fear-based “hope for a better world,” but in the world that is, with all its evil and hate and love and beauty. I decided to live with optimism and hope and kindness to others, along the lines of Micah 6:8:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
In the process, my marriage was saved when I learned to listen instead of declaim. My career took a number of interesting turns as I learned to live and work in the “real world.” There has been pain and loss, some of it significant, and yet each day I awake to new possibilities.
The barista at my morning coffee shop asks “How are you this morning?” She now repeats with me, “Great! I woke up!”
Warren Nelson is an member of the Adventist Today administrative team. He writes from Vancouver, Washington.