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Warning: this is not a theological paper. If you don’t like stories, this is the place to stop!
It was a Friday evening, late in the Fall of 1980. I was in the military, drafted by the Communist regime against my will. The three months I had been there already seemed a very long time. Away from family and friends, with no Bible or any other spiritual book, praying under a blanket or in the restroom, living among those who talked endlessly of carousing and liquor, I felt so very far away, even though the military base was in my hometown not far from my own home.
But what I missed the most was the church—my own church family. That Friday, another soldier, also from my home church, came to me and said, “Would you like to go to church tonight?” (It was customary to have services Friday night). “Sure!” I said, “but how?” “We’ll just disappear and hopefully nobody will find out,” he said. “We’ll try to be back by evening roll call.”
So, that early November evening, under cover of darkness, we were able to reach the church, my church. I sought to be inconspicuous there in the back row, although I was at home. I had been active in our church, teaching Sabbath School, conducting the orchestra, and so more. This was different. Never had I realized how much I missed my church! As the service began, my eyes were very wet. I felt very close to God, His truth, His people, and to my church. I still remember that.
Why this simple story, which isn’t even that unique? You see, I was privileged to begin my spiritual journey of faith in the days when the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Romania was under substantial pressure. Parents lost jobs because of the Sabbath. Kids were mocked and laughed at because for being believers. People risked losing their freedom for printing and sharing religious materials. Youth were imprisoned for refusing to enter military service and bear arms. Others were expelled from school because of missing tests on Sabbath.
During those days I never heard my parents criticizing the pastor or the church leadership. I don’t remember hearing any gossip from them concerning other members. We loved God and His church deeply. We respected the pastor as the man of God. And, when someone from the Conference or Union would visit, that was like Christmas. There was a great feeling of brotherly love and unity. There were no theological debates or Biblical conferences where opposing points of view were presented.
We had very few books to read. The first time I saw The Desire of Ages, I was twenty-two years old. If you were an Adventist and visited another church, countryside, or town, you were a brother or a sister. You were treated like family and needing not hotel or restaurant.
The reason for such unity in teaching and in practice was clear. The fight was not inside; we had enough of it outside. The church was the city of refuge where we found warmth and strength to continue.
When I look back, many times I thank and praise God for His wonderful guidance. Someone may say: this is an idealistic description, a utopia. Possibly. But in the end we always come back to perception. And what I have described is the way I perceived the life in my church during my teenage and youth years. What would have happened had the church fought over obscurities? Interestingly enough, years later I learned that there had been some battles ongoing, the same old conflicts over power and control. But I didn’t know it.
I’m happy I didn’t.
When you are on the front lines of life’s battle, you’d like to believe that those who are in the “control tower,” those who plan the battle, are in unity and are wise enough and humble enough to stay united. It would have been very disappointing to me, as a youth, to know of discord and disunity in the church.
And so, in appealing for unity I have in mind a very specific segment of our church; those whom we are losing at an alarming rate: our youth–our sons and daughters. Harassed by the sophisticated temptations of this century, struggling with personal identity questions, and squeezed between the faith of their parents and secular pressures of the environment, our youth are the future. They are looking for hope and some direction. Sometimes I think even their rebellion is in reality a reaction to something they failed to find in us, God’s remnant church.
It is in the nature of youth to want an ideal to believe in, a dream to inspire. Humans do not live well without this. It can be very discouraging to realize that even the church of Christ that proclaims the last message, or claims to, is confused and internally engaged in battles over one issue or another. It can be very disturbing to see the “diversity” of ideas and lack of cohesion in areas like music, worship style, creation, relationships, entertainment, and all the while using “culture” to excuse those differences. When the winds of life hit you from all sides, you need strong anchors–not flexible opinions supported by “culture.”
All wise parents know that disagreements are not discussed in front of the children. It doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong; children should not be involved in the struggle. Mature adults understand this very well and hopefully their love for their children is stronger than self-love or proving themselves right. Church unity or its disunity have consequences much farther reaching than we may think.
One giant reason I was able to stand during those years, even to answer the call to pastoral ministry, and to love God and His people, was and is that in my eyes the Bride of Jesus was beautiful. She was one. She knew her groom Jesus.
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Octavian Poenaru, grew up, studied and served as a pastor in Romania before and after the fall of the communist regime. He has also ministered in Vermont and presently serves as a pastor in Washington. Wife Alina is finishing a nursing degree and their son is studying at Walla Walla University.
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