[Sermon I preached June 16, 2007, at the Houston International Seventh-day Adventist Church. Revised and updated to include what has happened since.]
This moment has been a long time coming. For nine years my wife and kids attended this church without me. I came a handful of times—and I usually didn’t say much.
Many of you were surprised when I started attending regularly at the beginning of March. And I heard more than one gasp, as well as a chorus of Amens (led by Brother Tayo), when I appeared in the baptismal tank on April 21. The culmination of this series of unexpected events came on May 5, when I was voted into membership and then immediately introduced as the new associate pastor.
My head is still spinning.
This morning is my first chance to tell a little of what Paul Harvey calls, “the Rest of the Story.”
The text I chose is the Parable of the Prodigal Son—a son who chose to leave home, taking his inheritance with him. We don’t know why he left. We don’t know if he had an argument with his father, or had great dreams of how to get rich. We only know that he asked his father for his share of his inheritance, turned his back on his family, and went off. The story goes into great detail about how he squandered that inheritance, and how, when a famine came, he was left with nothing. In that sorry state he found a job feeding the pigs—and that was when he came to his senses.
I begin reading at verse 17 of Luke 15:
And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.
I can identify with much of that story, having “left home,” as it were, when I was in my early 20s. It’s the story of many young adults who feel home to be confining, who want to stretch their wings, explore, and see if there are more satisfactory answers to the questions of life than those they learned as children.
What’s the root of such restlessness? St. Augustine put it best 1500 years ago: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O God.”
The Bible is full of restless characters, some young, some older, who leave the comfort and safety of home for reasons that are sometimes seen as rash and reckless to those who stay behind.
There’s Abraham, living in tents, wandering throughout the Middle East, never able to settle down—for even though he had been promised a land, he knew it, too, was just a temporary dwelling, “For he looked for a city which hath foundations whose builder and maker is God.”
There’s Moses, who turned his back on a life of ease to suffer with his people, who then committed murder and ran off into the desert to hide; but in that desert God prepared him for the task that God had called him to perform. And when Moses was ready, 40 years later, God appeared to him in a burning bush, told him he had not forgotten either Moses or the people of Israel, and God brought him back.
There’s Jonah, who didn’t like the task God had assigned him: “Go to Nineveh and tell them, ‘In 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed’”—and he hopped on the first boat sailing in the opposite direction. But God was with him, even in the belly of the whale, and God brought him back.
There’s Elijah, who even after he had seen fire fall from heaven on Mt. Carmel, got scared, and ran and hid in a cave on Mt. Sinai, and he cried out to God, “You’ve abandoned me!” But God was with him, and God spoke to him in a still small voice, and God brought him back.
In his novel, Brideshead Revisited, the British author Evelyn Waugh tells the story of a family named Flyte—an apt name, as many had flown the coop. But it is a story of redemption—a story of how each of them comes home in his turn.
At one point the mother is reading to the family from a story in which a detective tells how he caught a thief: “I caught him … with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” The author applies this to God’s way with us. God is the fisherman who has caught us, lets us run, and yet can bring us back “with a twitch upon the thread.”
My story begins with my dedication at the New Haven, Connecticut Seventh-day Adventist Church. My mother had become an Adventist as a teenager, and she took us faithfully to Sabbath School, church, and Vacation Bible School at a time when my father was more interested in alcohol and women. He would become a Christian when I was in high school, and an Adventist when I was in college, but during my childhood and youth he had no interest in religion.
I was the oldest of five boys, with an older sister.
I attended Adventist schools for junior high and two years of high school, and was active in Church. I was encouraged by older members who discerned a call to the ministry long before I did—I taught Sabbath school, loved Ingathering even when it was 20 below zero, and enjoyed visiting shut-ins in the nursing homes. When I was baptized as a high school freshman in 1975 the conference evangelist, Arnold Friedrich (who had baptized my mother), challenged me directly to listen to God’s call. I started thinking of serving as an Army chaplain after I heard one speak during my junior year Broadview Academy.
We had moved around a lot as I grew up, from Connecticut to Indiana to Illinois to Wisconsin, but when it came time for college I decided to return to New England, to attend Atlantic Union College.
It was the summer of 1980, and the attention of the Adventist Church was focused on Glacier View Ranch in Colorado. An Australian theologian by the name of Desmond Ford, one of the most popular speakers and writers in the 70s, would be defending his controversial teachings before a select committee of theologians and administrators.
I was only eighteen years old, with no theological training yet, but I already had strong opinions on subjects that were occupying the best minds in the church—for three years I had been immersing myself in books by folks like Jones and Waggoner, Wieland and Short, Ford and Brinsmead—with no one to warn me that I might be getting into things over my head.
I was not only over my head theologically, but was beginning to get a big head on my shoulders, too—after Glacier View the Union had a briefing for pastors and senior theology majors to tell them what happened—they had it in the chapel of the boys’ dorm—and I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t let an incoming freshman attend.
That summer at the Southern New England Conference campmeeting, a friend told me of a book called God Is in a Hurry, about people who had become Adventist pastors without the full course of college and seminary studies. In my daydreams while cleaning toilets that summer, I imagined that might happen to me. Little did I know …
I had other daydreams, too—the normal sort that fill the mind of teenage boys.
As the summer drew to a close, and students started returning to the campus, I saw a sight in the college cafeteria that took my breath away—a girl with the most beautiful smile I had ever seen. And she sat at the table I was at. Her name was Joy Cheney, and she was the daughter of a pastor in the Northern New England Conference.
She was a senior. I was going to be a freshman.
Now, freshman guys often set their sights on senior women. Sometimes the risk is worth it. Sometimes it just leads to embarrassment.
I experienced a little bit of both.
One day that fall we were standing on the steps of Preston Hall, the girls’ dorm, and I, more nervous than I had ever been in my life, managed to utter the fateful words: “I love you.” I waited. She opened her mouth: “I like you, too.” “That’s not what I said.” “I know.”
It was embarrassing—but not a show-stopper. She invited me to her house for Christmas, and when I told her parents that I would be taking the train to Chicago to see my parents in Wisconsin over New Years, they encouraged Joy to invite herself along, and said they would pay for her ticket.
We were engaged on April 19, at the end of my freshman year, and married at the end of my sophomore year. May 23, 1982. Twenty-five years ago.
Our future seemed clear and certain. I was ordained a deacon at the Village Church, taught Sabbath School, was a Sabbath School superintendent, and then began to receive invitations to preach in churches throughout New England. My father-in-law invited me to a pastors’ meeting at Camp Lawroweld, and introduced me to John Loor, the conference president, and other pastors—including Bill Menshausen, who had dedicated me as a baby in New Haven, Connecticut.
But I was still consumed by the study of controversy, and I began to be increasingly caught up by feelings of anger, as well. I became personally acquainted with several of the protagonists of the debates of that period. My writings and cartoons for the student newspaper reflected my questions—and my growing cynicism.
These were brought to the attention of leaders at the Village Church—and to my in-laws, who wrote a pair of letters to me. They expressed their concern, confessing that they’d had many sleepless nights. But they also spoke of their love for me, the prayers they were offering, and their confidence that God would take care of me.
I still have those letters. My father-in-law said:
“We are all growing — and if we grow with Christ and let him lead — the final outcome is what is important…. God isn’t finished with any of us yet. We must all stay close to him so that we can be led (not run ahead) of him and thus accept the victory over the adversary that Jesus has made possible for us.”
And my mother-in-law added:
“Perhaps this whole experience can help us to understand God better. Moses had to learn humility in the wilderness before God could use him. He had the best education that the times could provide but was too sure of himself, and God put him in a quiet spot herding sheep to learn lessons of humility and patience. Perhaps you, too, Bill, have lessons God wants you to learn before you can be a successful soul winner for him. Don’t be discouraged — be willing to let God lead you — when the time is right and our hearts are right he will lead us to just the spot on earth where we can work for him….”
Friends like Pastor George Vandeman sought to reach out to me, responding to my questions in a loving way. But at the end of my junior year I wrote to the Village Church asking that my name be stricken from the membership. I was stepping out in faith, I said, to follow the Gospel and the Gospel alone, to reject ignorance and superstition. “Here I stand, I can do no other!”
I can laugh now at my attitude in those days. I was twenty-one years old. But few were laughing then. Some friends—grey-haired pillars of the church—stopped speaking to me. Others tried to argue. Others expressed their love. John Loor, President of the Northern New England Conference, came to visit, and knelt with me in my living room for a long, heartfelt prayer that I have never forgotten.
If not for those who loved me, I might have stayed the angry ex-Adventist on the fringe. But I knew I couldn’t do that. A professor I went to for some counseling identified the feelings I was experiencing as grief. That was a critical insight. I knew I needed to quickly get connected with another worshipping community, and to be outwardly focused. I joined another church, but finished my senior year at AUC. And then I began graduate study in Church history at Loma Linda, because I wanted to stay in familiar circles for a while for the sake of Joy, who remained a faithful Adventist, then and through all the years of our marriage.
Many years later, Cardinal Bernard Law, the Catholic archbishop of Boston, would tell me, “Joy must be a saint to put up with you!” Many Adventists over the years have agreed.
After we moved to Riverside I tried out a number of other churches–Grace Brethren, Assemblies of God, but when I walked into a Lutheran church on Reformation Day I felt this was it. I loved the liturgy, the music, and the preaching on justification by faith alone. And when after a year at Loma Linda I was told they didn’t have the money to continue my teaching assistantship, I began to consider transferring to a Lutheran seminary, and one of my Adventist professors suggested Gettysburg.
In my early weeks at Gettysburg the dean, Gerhard Krodel, asked about Joy’s Adventist faith. He was from Bavaria, and was a Luftwaffe pilot in World War II. He said, “I don’t say this myself, but you will find that the members of your church will ask, ‘If you can’t convert your own wife, what business do you have preaching to us?’ So go to the book store, get Werner Elert’s book, The Structure of Lutheranism, and that will give you everything you need to convert her.”
By the end of my seminary career I was able to quote back to him from the Augsburg Confession, the primary statement of Lutheran teaching, written by Philip Melanchthon in 1530, which says: “In order that we may obtain the faith that justifies, God gave the ministry, that is, the word and the sacraments; through these, as through means, God gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the gospel.” I determined it was not my role to try to force Joy to change, that I could only be faithful to what I believed God to be saying, and let him do what he would. I would sometimes forget this over the years. But it seems God had the last laugh.
Well, over the next few years in Gettysburg I finished my M.A. in church history and then my Master of Divinity. Along the way I joined the Army Reserve as a chaplain candidate, and then, after ordination, became a chaplain. I served as pastor of Lutheran churches in Pennsylvania and Vermont.
And our family began to grow. Andrew was born a couple weeks after I graduated from seminary. It was two months before he was due to be born, and Joy had a placental abruption—the placenta started tearing away. She woke me at 2 in the morning and we rushed to the hospital, where they did an emergency c-section. Andrew was born June 1, 1989, two months early, at 3 ½ pounds. He spent the next two months in the hospital, and the effects of that early birth are still with him in many ways.
In March 1992 Aimee was born. I was pastor in Montpelier, Vermont at the time. Two months before her due date, Joy lost most of her water. She was on bed rest for a month before Aimee was born by c-section. When Aimee was 18 months old, the doctors diagnosed her with hip dysplasia, a congenital hip dislocation, and she spent a month in traction, and then months at a time in body casts between operations.
It was in the midst of this that I took a further step in my journey.
When I had left Adventism, I rejoiced in the freedom of the Gospel. I thought the Gospel alone was enough for the Church to proclaim—the Law was done away with, I was convinced. But as a young Lutheran pastor I was not prepared for how some would interpret this. A new Lutheran church was formed about a year before my ordination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Many of us feared it would be just another liberal Protestant denomination, taking neither Scripture nor Lutheran teaching seriously, and so it proved to be. Within two years it was talking about the possibility of ordaining practicing homosexuals to the ministry and of marrying homosexual couples. It said we couldn’t be bound by the Law of the Old Testament. It said we couldn’t be bound even by the commands of the apostles in the New. It said we shouldn’t pay attention to the teaching of the Christian Church through history: “Love is all you need.”
I had left Adventism to enjoy what I thought to be the freedom of the Gospel. But in the name of the Gospel’s freedom, some were suggesting we no longer needed to pay attention to very clear commands of God. I was confused. Where was I to go? Where to find a clear sense of Christian morality? Where to find a Church that was consistent through the ages? Where to find a Church that spoke with authority? Did the Reformation intend to start a new church? Hadn’t we resolved the issues that provoked the split? Shouldn’t we seek unity?
Those are the questions that led me to resign from the Lutheran ministry at the end of 1992 and enter the Catholic Church.
But there was more to it than that.
I was also hurting. I had a very difficult time as a young, inexperienced pastor. In my first district I was thrown into an old conflict that I didn’t have the skills to handle (and my predecessor kept stirring up trouble in one of the churches). In my second church, I followed a pastor who had molested a teen girl, and I had to repair the damage done to the church. I felt alone—and I found that my best support during this time, and during the hospitalization of my children and wife, came from Catholic friends, especially some who called themselves “Franciscan.” They lived out a true Christian spirit of love and simplicity modeled on the life and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. They prayed with me and taught me to pray. So I was attracted not just by the Catholic Church’s claim to authority, but by the beauty and love of many of its members, and by its rich traditions of prayer and spirituality.
I began to work full-time for the Catholic Church in 1994, as director of religious education for a church in Watertown, New York. I also did some evangelism part-time, preaching in churches around the country. In 1996 we went to California, where I was a campus minister for two years at the University of California at Santa Barbara. I finished my Doctor of Ministry degree in 1998. And that year I was hired to be the first Director of Young Adult and Campus Ministry for the Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, and we moved here.
For the past nine years I was involved in some of the most meaningful ministry I could ever have imagined. I did programming for young adults, trained others for this ministry and supervised six campus ministry centers.
Unlike the parable of the prodigal son, I wasn’t feeding hogs by any means.
Do I regret everything of these past 24 years? Not at all. You see, whenever we hand God lemons—he makes lemonade. If we try to tear some threads out of the tapestry he wants to weave with our life, he can do something different, something that is still beautiful, something that still works to accomplish his will. Think of the story of Balaam in Numbers 23; he was sent to curse Israel—but God turned his curse into a blessing.
So I can rejoice in what I experienced and learned, and in the ministry I did with soldiers, college students, and other young adults.
Nevertheless, earlier this year, I began to think about coming home.
Part of the reason lies in the fact that, despite by best intentions and efforts, I could never pull away from Adventist influence completely. My wife, my kids, and my in-laws have remained Adventist—I’ve gone to camp-meeting with them in Maine on vacation. My parents and some of my siblings are Adventist.
And there were those friends who never let go of me, who continued to love me and pray for me. Who never tried to argue, but whose example spoke louder than any argument. And at a point when I was open to it, I heard their invitation, “Come home,” and it fell on fertile soil.
It was toward the end of February that I wrote to a friend at Atlantic Union College about my thoughts. On the first of March I wrote him a letter explaining some of the specific points I’d been reflecting on. The next day I sent a copy to Pastor Kendall.
I had left in the midst of conflicts over the Gospel, but over the years I have come to a better appreciation not only of the good news of God’s forgiveness and justification, but of the call to holiness.
God forgives us and justifies us freely in Jesus Christ, and the blood of Jesus is the only thing we will ever be able to lift before him.
But that’s not all there is to his plan for us.
I was to learn in a Lutheran seminary that Ford and Brinsmead didn’t understand Luther’s teaching at all. They said the Gospel was only a declaration; it didn’t do anything to us. But I read Luther’s commentary on Genesis, where he points out the fact that God’s word is creative, it creates whatever it declares: God says, “Sun, shine,” and the sun is there, and it shines. So when God declares us righteous, that word begins to make us righteous. John Calvin said the same thing, “God doesn’t justify anyone that he doesn’t go on to sanctify.”
But do we lift that up to God? No, to him we say, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”
When I left Adventism there were debates about Ellen White. As I have studied spiritual writers through the centuries, Catholic and Protestant, I have come to better appreciate the ministry of Ellen White and the critical role that she played in guiding the fledgling church, maintaining its unity, keeping it evangelical and Trinitarian, guarding it from extremes within. I read Steps to Christ and Desire of Ages and the spirit of Christian gentleness emanating from those pages always stood in contrast to the spirit of her critics. I had a hunger for a deeper spirituality, and a longing for more meaningful prayer—but I never forgot that she had taught me that prayer isn’t all that complicated, it is simply “the opening of the heart to God as to a friend.”
When I left, I turned my back on the Sabbath. And that’s the thing that always puzzles Adventists most. How any one can leave this experience? It’s hard. Sunday just isn’t the same. The Sabbath is a time set a part, a time to rest in God, a time to entrust ourselves completely to him. I’ve been involved for many years in work in Jewish-Christian relations, and will continue to be. This work drew my attention to the role that anti-Jewish feelings in the early Church played in the abandonment of the Sabbath. It’s shocking to read some of those early Christian writings, by men revered as saints, whose hatred for Judaism and the Sabbath planted the seed for so much hostility and violence toward the Jewish people through the centuries. I asked myself, how can decisions made for such hate-filled motives have been inspired by the Spirit of God?
I’ve thought about the priestly ministry of Christ. What does it mean for Christ to intercede for us? No Christians other than Seventh-day Adventists talk about the things that are so important in the letter to the Hebrews, an epistle that tells us our hope is located “within the veil,” where Jesus intercedes for us as our high priest; he who shared the glory of the Father, yet was made like us in every respect; was tempted like we are, yet without sin; and now ever lives to make intercession for us, and will come again, to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
And my hope in his return has never wavered, and much of the Adventist scenario has always made more sense to me than the liberal reinterpretations of Lutheranism, the dispensationalism of the evangelicals, or the various things one might read in Catholic visionaries. I’ll preach on that another day.
Finally, there’s the matter of the Catholic Church itself. If you accept the authority of the Catholic Church, everything else falls in place. You will listen to her teachings and seek to conform yourself to them. Many Catholic teachings have no other foundation than the Church’s claim to teach with authority: purgatory, Marian dogmas, saints, indulgences, the papacy, etc. These are not Bible doctrines.
But as in Luther’s day, Catholics today are asked to let the Church interpret Scripture—and to listen “with docility” when it goes beyond Scripture. Never are the Gospel or the Scriptures allowed to criticize the Church and her teachings. The message is always, “Trust us.” “Trust us,” not the Jews, was the message when the Sabbath was denounced. “Trust us,” was the message when the Church justified crusades and the execution of heretics, and when it stifled criticism in the Middle Ages. “Trust us,” was the message when bishops shut their ears to the cries of abused boys and their parents; when they moved priests from place to place; when they now ask members to pay the cost of legal settlements. That has weighed very heavily on me.
The New Testament speaks a different message. Paul, didn’t say, “Trust me,” he said, “Search the scriptures.” He didn’t say, “Trust Peter”—he rebuked Peter in public, because, he said, “he was clearly in the wrong.” John didn’t say, “Trust the church,”—he could see churches whose candle stands were removed, and a woman who was unfaithful. But he also saw a remnant that will be saved, because it will trust in Jesus and keep his commandments.
Eventually the scales fell from my eyes and I asked, “How did I get here?”
Like the Prodigal Son, I looked up and realized, maybe I can go home.
And that’s when an old professor at AUC, Rick Trott, said, “Come home.”
That’s when I was here at this church, for a concert by my little brother, and Roy Chin stood in this spot and looked me in the eye and said, “Come home.”
How many times do we hear that invitation in Scripture? Come home. Turn around. Be converted.
The prophet Joel says, chapter 2 verse 13:
…Return to the LORD, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.
I started reaching out to friends tentatively, asking questions, letting them know what I was thinking. I imagined I might end up feeding hogs. I applied for some teaching jobs at Adventist academies and at Atlantic Union College.
Kendall spoke with folks at the conference, but there were no promises.
And then we started that first series of evangelistic meetings. One night, Gary Brady, the Conference Ministerial Secretary, came down to meet with Joy and me and the kids after the meeting. But there were no promises.
A few days later, the evangelist and Kendall were in my office at the Archdiocese, praying with me, urging me to step out in faith. To believe God’s promise. To trust him. I said, “That’s easy for you to say. You won’t be without a job.” They looked me in the eye and said, “Put him to the test.”
That night, as the invitation was issued, I sat in the pew squirming. The call went on and on. Kendall wasn’t about to stop. I laughed to myself. I looked at Joy and said, “You know what this could mean. Do I have your permission?” She gripped my hand and smiled and said, “Yes.”
And I went forward.
Then Andrew grabbed me and tried to hold me back.
The next day I stood before you in that tank, and was re-baptized. That afternoon, I e-mailed my superiors at the archdiocese, and resigned my position.
Three days later Gary Brady was back in town, and he and Leighton Holley, the Conference President, took us out to dinner, along with Kendall, and there they offered me this call, asking me to be associate pastor of this church.
My mind is still spinning from it all. I have only given you a sketch. I can’t explain it all. All I can do, in the end, is fall back on that phrase that Evelyn Waugh borrowed from Chesterton: “I caught him … with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”
What are the lessons for today?
Fathers, remember that Scripture promise: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
Be wary of controversy and a critical spirit—it has shipwrecked the faith of many; “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
Be persistent in prayer for loved ones who are not here today. God hasn’t let go of them. Continue to love them.
And when they return, may our response be that of the Father in the parable:
“Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
I’m happy to say that’s the welcome I’ve received from this church, from the conference, from friends and family around the country.
If you’ve been away, if you are sitting here today, or watching on the internet, and wondering if you could return, hear the good news—You can come home again. And when you do, you’ll be swept up in the arms of our loving and merciful Father.
Now, I can’t end without mentioning how the story ends. There’s an elder brother who isn’t too happy. He doesn’t want to go to the party. He won’t even call him brother. I’m sure there are some elder brothers who may be a little unsettled by my return, but I haven’t bumped into them yet. And I’m not worried about them. Don’t you worry about them either. Don’t let them get you down. It’s the Father who gets the last word.
“It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”
Epilogue: Eleven Years Later
I served as Associate Pastor at Houston International for two years. In 2009 I was called to another district, to be pastor of the North Houston and Spring Creek churches; at the same time I also reentered the National Guard as a chaplain. In early 2013 my unit, the 36th Combat Aviation Brigade, was mobilized, and I spent the next year deployed to Kuwait in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. After I returned, I was called by the North American Division to be Assistant Director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries, the chaplain endorsing agency of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Looking back, it’s amazing how all the threads of my life have been woven together. I work with chaplains in the military, healthcare, college campuses, prisons — all things I’ve had experience in. I continue to serve as a military chaplain (now in the Army Reserve), and my experiences in interfaith dialogue, teaching world religions, and ministering in different churches all serve to make me a more effective chaplain in this pluralistic setting. The lesson for me is this: Don’t be afraid to step out in faith–God knows what he is doing.