More pastors, please

 

In the most recent newsletter of the North-American Division of the Adventist Church I found an important—and at the same time alarming–news item. The NAD invited church leaders from different administrative levels for a summit from 6 to 8 September, to study the threat of a major shortage of ministers in North-America. At this moment some 450 pastors are of retirement age, but are still fully employed. In the near future this number will each year grow with an additional few hundred persons. It does not demand rocket-science to conclude that this may well have some very serious consequences for the well-being of the church. Moreover, one should keep in mind that a considerable percentage of the current pastoral force has not completed the full professional training.

No doubt, lots of factors play a role. Possibly, the problem is not equally severe in all parts of the United States and Canada, and some ethnic segments of the church may have a bigger problem than others.

At the same time we must also realize that a shortage of clergy is not a specifically Adventist problem. Many other faith communities also wrestle with a future or actual shortage of priests or pastors. In some cases the main issue is a lack of finances that makes it impossible to hire the necessary people. But, more often, not enough people feel the ‘call’ to the ministry. Too few young (and not so very young) men and women feel called to start preparations for a career in the church.

Of course, this lack of ‘callings’ has many underlying reasons and raises many questions, in particular when it concerns our own church. Is it still sufficiently attractive to aspire to a job as pastor in the Adventist Church? And, I am not primarily thinking of the financial aspects, but, more specifically, of the job description. Can the pastor simply no longer live up to the many expectations? Has his task been fragmented in so many ways, that the work can only provide limited satisfaction? And does perhaps all the hassle about the absence of full equality of male and female ministers have a negative impact on the recruitment of new church workers? I suspect there are quite a few young people who hesitate to pursue a career in an organization that, as far as this is concerned, still lives in a rather distant past.

However, I believe that the shortage of people who aspire to become  ministers may, above all, have to do with something else. Does the Adventist Church of 2014 provide enough space to be who you are? Is there the space to develop and to freely form your own opinions about all sorts of things. There are, I think, but few potential ministerial candidates who in everything simply want to go their own, without any reference to the core beliefs and fundamental traditions of Adventism. Yet, many discern of late how the denomination tries to push many viewpoints on the membership, and, in particular, on those who are employed by the church. This makes many people gasp for air. And this may well be a major cause why many hesitate and wonder whether it would perhaps be advisable to opt for another career.

I have spent a major part of my working life in the church in a country where church leaders have allowed for a large degree of space. Most church workers have used this space in a responsible way. As a result most pastors have continued to enjoy their work, have felt supported by the church structure and were able to develop and discuss their opinions without fears for repercussions. Such an approach might also go a long way in North America in dealing with the impending shortage of pastors.

 

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The division office and the hereafter

 

It had been some time since I last visited the offices of the Trans-European Division in St. Albans. This week I flew across the North Sea for a short visit—to have some talks about a project of which I have been a part. Possibly I was more focussed when I looked around than I had been on previous visits over the last ten years or so. I concluded that it is still very much the same office as when I left in 2001 after having worked in this building for some  seven years. The lobby, the offices, the meeting rooms had all remained the same. The kitchen looked the same and the toilets were still in the same location. Alan Collin’s sculpture of the three angels of Revelation 14  still guards the front of the building. But almost all people I used to work with have gone and there are many I do not know. It appeared that a number of protocols in the office have  changed. Somehow the place breathes a different atmosphere. In other words: I experienced both a strong degree of continuity and of discontinuity.

Recently I was made aware of another striking example of the combination of continuity and discontinuity. If I were to step into the Rhine river today, I would step into the very same river as was used by the Batavians two millennia ago, when they entered the Low Countries. It has remained the same body of water that follows roughly the same track through the Netherlands as it did two thousand years ago. But I do not touch the same water as the Batavians did. The water has been continuously ‘refreshed’. The river is a remarkable example of continuity and discontinuity.

As believers we expect a life after this life: a new existence that replaces our current one. We look for a new world to replace this old world. What will this new world be like? If there were no continuity between what is now and what is to come, the concept of the hereafter would lose all its meaning for us. We expect to become a part of the new world and we presume that we will then somehow be able to know that we have existed before and that now, after a short interruption, we have received a totally new lease on life. Admittedly, it is a completely new mode of being, since it is perfect. But there must be something that will remind us of our previous imperfect existence. There must be a fair degree of continuity. For would it not be fully unsatisfactory to think that ‘I’ would become part of the world of the hereafter without any awareness of the fact that I did exist before?

However, there must also be a fair degree of discontinuity. Things must not change just a little, but must change drastically. There must be a much greater measure of discontinuity as  we see in institutions and organizations. The hereafter must differ in many more ways from my current life than the division office of 2014 differs from the building I left in 2001. Perhaps the discontinuity between our life today and our future existence is more like the river. But then, this is also an imperfect metaphor. For the river continues to run the same course, albeit with other water. And, perhaps, when we compare our current existence with the life to come, it is not like a river that continues to run approximately the same course, while the water keeps changing. No, it would be more like the same (purified) water that now runs along a very different track.

Well, I don’t know. But it would seem to me that we should not try to imagine a hereafter with so much discontinuity with our life in  this world, that it no longer makes sense to long for it. If, having arrived in the hereafter, we do not recognize anything that once was, and we even do not know that we are redeemed beings who once lived in a very imperfect world, belief in a life hereafter would no longer make sense. Yet, at the same time, we should not put so much stress on the aspect of continuity that the hereafter becomes almost simply more of what we are now accustomed to—with the difference that will always go on. And what reason would we have to be eager for that?

For the time being we look into a ‘glass darkly’ and are left with our many questions. But that is, in fact, what it means to have hope. It is possessing an inner certainty of a glorious future, but without having any visible proof.  Yet, that should be enough.

 

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This is my church

 

I am a natural optimist, but seeing some recent developments in my church this optimism lately has a hard time surviving. That was, in particular, true during the past two weeks as I was reading the reports of the conference about faith and science in Utah (USA), in which more than 300 Adventist leaders and teachers participated. The goal of the conference was once again to convince the participants of a literal reading of the creation story and of the theory of a ‘young earth’. This latter term indicates the belief that not only the creation of man and the other creatures, as well as the ordering of Planet Earth, took place some six thousand years ago, but that the earth itself (and perhaps even the universe) is not older than that.

I am no expert in the areas of evolution, biology, geology, etc., But so much is clear to me that these ideas are not very popular with the specialists. And personally I see no biblical or theological necessity to arrive at such conclusions. To me it rather appears that the Adventist Church is in danger of following the example of the leaders of the medieval church, who kept condemning the scientific discoveries of people like Galileo Galilei as heresies—a very unfortunate approach that was to haunt the church for centuries, until they had to humbly admit that, after all, the scientists had been right. I fear that my church runs the danger of following the same path, and that we run the risk of being accused (and justifiably so) of obscurantism and sectarian fundamentalism.

In one of his speeches the president of the General Conference stated that those who do not wholeheartedly subscribe to the teaching of a creation in six literal days, are not real Adventists and that pastors and teachers who do not fully support this point of view would do better to hand in their credentials. Earlier the president made similar statements that also denied large groups of church members the right to call themselves Seventh-day Adventists. A true Adventist, it has been repeatedly stated, has only one way of looking at the inspiration of Scripture! Whoever does not accept the ‘plain reading’ approach and who confesses to see some value in the historical-critical method is on a forbidden track. Anyone who does not appreciate Ellen G. White in the same way as is proposed by the president, would do better to leave. And that is true of those who place some question marks behind certain aspects of the traditional Adventist teaching of the heavenly sanctuary. And, surely, there can be no place for men and women who believe that gay members should be allowed to fully participate in church life.

There have been moments when I thought: Would I not do better to look for another spiritual home? For in a number of areas I do not fit the profile of a ‘real Adventist, as this has repeatedly been promoted by the president of our world church. Four years ago I wrote in a blog that with the election of the current president the church put the clock fifty years backward. I now realize that was far too optimistic. It would now rather appear that the clock was pushed backward for about a century, back to the heyday of fundamentalism of the 1920’s en 1930’s.

But, no, leaving is no option.  My church is not perfect, but in spite of the many things I do not like in my church, it continues to be my church. And, fortunately, the office in Silver Spring does not determine whether of not I am truly part of that church. There is an invisible church and a visible church organization. When it concerns the invisible church: God is the only one who knows who are his. And I have full confidence that he counts me among his children. And as to the visible organization where I hold membership, there are only two parties who have a decisive voice in this matter.  In the first place this is the local church and not some higher church organization—not even the General Conference. As long as the local church does not vote to annul my membership, I am a church member who retains all the rights connected with this membership and no one can do anything about it. Then, secondly, it is up to me to decide whether I want to be a member of the church. I can decide to stay a member or I can decide that I want to cancel my membership.  Apart from my local church and myself no one has any say in whether I am a full and regular church member or not. It is a comforting thought that some things in our church are, in fact, as they should be.

 

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August 2014 and a little history

 

I had intended to spend most of the month of August in Sweden. For the last ten year or so this has been a regular pattern, as our son lives there. But, unfortunately, we had to modify our plans. That fact that my wife fractured her shoulder and arm has made us less mobile for the time being. This also means that I presently belong to the guild of care-givers and must attend to numerous household chores.

Many are the well-intended messages from people wishing me courage in my household activities. But cooking, in particular, remains an unpleasant job, and, even after some six weeks, I am baffled by the fact that some men actually enjoy preparing a meal. Due to the many—solicited and unsolicited—pieces of advice from my wife, so far no dishes have been burned or otherwise ended in calamities. And, to my joy, we are invited from time to time by friends to share a meal with them around their table. Moreover, the local restaurants offer relief when there are moments when I do not have the energy or desire to spend time in the kitchen.

However, besides these household cares, my days are quite full. I am in the middle of a major editorial job, and have several writing assignments on my to-do list. I refresh my to-do list regularly—and I did so this morning. It includes, among other appointments, the preparations for a study weekend with German Adventists at Marienhöhe late next month, but also the sermon for the rally for senior church members in the Netherlands Union and a workshop during a Belgian ‘spiritual congress’ in October, and a four-day seminar for pastors in the South of France in January. I hope that my wife will be able to join me for these trips that do not require long travel. I have had to cancel a few things that would have required more extensive travel.

In the meantime, the stack of books-to-read, besides the couch, is growing. Not too long ago I bought a book that had been heavily discounted: a beautifully illustrated edition of prof. A. Th. Van Deursen’s book Bavianen en Slijkgeuzen. These strange Dutch words were abusive terms used by the Arminians and the strict predestinarian Calvinists for each other around the beginning of the seventeenth century. The book presents a marvelous picture of spiritual life and the state of the church in the Netherlands, in the last decade of the sixteenth and the earliest decades of the seventeenth centuries.

Although I believed that I was reasonably well informed about the establishment of the ‘reformed’ (read: Calvinist) religion in our country, this book provides a lot of new information about minute details. In his incomparable way van Deursen knows how to make a topic come alive by zooming in on the small things of a given period. He makes it abundantly clear that during this phase of our national history, Calvinism had certainly not yet conquered the hearts of the majority of the Dutch people and that the reformed church was in many ways still far from firmly established.

The chapters about my early seventeenth century colleagues in ministry are, in particular,   amusing and enjoyable. The pastoral corps contained many dubious elements and quite a few of them often failed to behave with the dignity that would have befitted their office. Often their theological training was rather inadequate and their ability to deliver a good sermon left much to be desired. Many pastors were guilty of serious moonlighting activities in order to add to their regular (and not always satisfactory) income. Visiting the sick was part of their job description, but they could hire stand-ins to give pastoral care to those who suffered from serious contagious diseases, to avoid too great personal risks. Their most important assignment was to prepare and deliver a number of weekly sermons: for the Sunday morning, the Sunday afternoon, and often the Wednesday evening.

While reading these chapters it appeared to me that nowadays the ministerial calling may perhaps have a little less social status, but it offers decidedly more variation. With that thought in mind I will finish later this morning my preparations for the sermon of tomorrow in Emmen (in the astern part of the counry). If I had been living around 1600, I would have climbed on Sunday morning a much higher pulpit in my home church, with a new sermon. But as a retired minister in the Dutch Adventist church I am free to re-cycle my sermons—as long as I keep a clear record of where I have already preached my sermons. Those who will come to listen to me tomorrow may, however, be assured: I have not preached this sermon either in Emmen or in any of the churches nearby. And, anyway, a sermon always is work-in-progress and remains subject to constant change!

 

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Yezidis

 

Until very recently I had never heard of the Yezidis. This has, however, changed in past two weeks. The news has been dominated by stories about the atrocities committed by the extreme IS-movement against the Yezidis, and we have constantly been bombarded with images of thousands of Yezidis without food and shelter in the inhospitable Sinjar mountains. The encyclopedias that I consulted have told me that there are a few million Yezidis in the world. Most of them live in Iraq and neighboring countries, but there is a colony of about 30.000 Yezidis in Germany, while there allegedly is also a group of 5.000 in the Netherlands. Most of the Yezidis are Kurds, with a religion that is a mix of Christian and Islamic elements, plus ideas derived from other ancient religions of the region. The world has every reason to worry about what is currently happening in Iraq and I was pleased to read the statement of a few days ago, issued by Pastor Ted N.C. Wilson, the president of the Adventist Church, in which he condemned the violence and the utter disregard for the human right of freedom of religion.

The way in which the Yezidis are treated is one of the most lamentable examples in our times of persecution of a religious minority. Unfortunately, there are many other areas in the world where religious freedom is seriously lacking. We know the list of countries that are mentioned again and again as places where religious liberty is totally non-existent or severely restricted: Birma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North-Korea, Pakistan, Saudi-Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The list could easily be augmented with other places where all is not well with regard to freedom of conscience and religious liberty.

There are no exact statistics of the total number of Christians and other believers who each year lose their lives because of religious persecution. In Syria alone 1200 Christians were killed in 2013—only because they were Christians. Since 1968 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been systematically persecuted in the East-African country of Malawi, with large numbers of martyrs as a result. Through the centuries anti-semitism has been the cause of death of millions of Jews, but it has not disappeared—as we saw when just a few months ago four people were killed in an attack of the Jewish Museum in Brussels.

Seventh-day Adventists attach great value to religious freedom. They do much—publicly and by means of silent diplomacy—to promote  freedom of conscience and religion and to defend the rights of the victims of intolerance. This makes me proud and I hope that my church will continue to play an important role in the war against religious intolerance.

Adventist often point to the danger that exists, also in western countries—where people enjoy a relatively large degree of freedom—that in the future religious freedom might be restricted. In this connection there is a frequent reference to attempts to give Sunday observance a higher profile, if necessary even through legislation. Each time the pope or some other high Catholic dignitary makes a remark about the sanctity of the Sunday, Adventist media—especially at the fringe of the church—warn the church members that this surely is a ‘sign’ that tells us that the time is coming when Sabbath observance will be obstructed—or worse.

It would, however, seem to me that Sabbath keepers do not yet have to worry unduly. Nonetheless, it is advisable to remain vigilant and keep our  ears to the ground with regard to what is being said and being initiated concerning the weekly day of rest. It also remains useful to keep reminding the world of the fact that, even though for a large majority of the people (that is, in the western world) the Sunday has a special importance, there is also a significant population segment that attaches great value to the Saturday.  Yet, we should always see things in the right proportions. Currently, the greatest threat to our religious freedom does not originate in the Vatican, but rather in some extremist Islamic circles. Anyone who doubts this, would be advised to check this fact with the Christians in Northern Nigeria and with the Yezidis!

 

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