Building Safe Places

 

Once again I spent the major part of the week in Germany—this time in a ‘seminar-hotel’ in a small village called Hassenroth, at about 50 kilometers from Frankfurt. The theme of the conference, that was organized by representatives of the Kinship organization, was: Building Safe Places. The Kinship organization offers support to (mostly) Adventist men and women who have a ‘different’ sexual orientation. These people are often referred to as the ‘alphabet’ people: LGTBI – Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals, Bisexuals and Intersexuals. The invitation for this three-day seminar was extended to a group of people, from Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, who are regarded as ‘allies’ of Kinship. The purpose of this think-tank-like meeting was to share the most recent scientific information about the issue of alternative sexual orientations, and to search for ways in which local Adventist churches may became ‘safe places’—in other words: places where gays and lesbians and others in the LGTBI-group may feel safe and fully accepted as they are.

My own share in the program was limited to a (sermon-length) worship, in which I talked about the meaning of serving/loving God with all our mind. It means, I believe, among other things, that we should always continue to ask questions and that, from time to time, we may have to change our minds. And also that we must always guard our intellectual integrity—whatever the price that we may have to pay for this.

I listened with particular interest to two lectures of dr. Dr. Arlene Taylor, a brain specialist from the USA, who provided fascinating up-to-date information about the hardware of our brain and referred to some small differences between the way the brains of straight and of gay people are constructed. One of the topics that was also touched on was the impossibility to ‘heal’ gay people. If there are at time people who exchange a gay lifestyle for a straight lifestyle, we can almost be one hundred percent sure that these people are in fact bisexual, who, in popular terms, may choose to go either way.

Also after this meeting, I continue to have lots of unanswered questions. The biggest underlying problem, of course, is that as a straight man I cannot imagine how it would be to feel attracted to someone of the same sex.  But I also still have some questions about the biblical/theological aspect. Some so-called anti-homo texts clearly do not apply to monogamous loving en enduring same-sex relationships. They often rather concern other abuses, such as prostitution, or deal—as in the case of Sodom—with issues that are not primarily related to same-sex relationships. I have read extensively on this topic and I would love to attend, some time in the near future, a study conference where homo-theologians and hetero-theologians can discuss together what Scripture does say and what it does not say—and how we should apply any conclusions that would be arrived at in our circumstances in 2015.

But, whatever the result might be of such a process, I am absolutely convinced that all men and women with a ‘different’ (that is: non-hetero) orientation must be (and must feel) welcome in our faith community and must be able to participate fully in church life. Therefore, Building Safe Places remains a big priority. And I shall be happy to do the little I personally can do, to help realize that ideal. (The date for the 2016 Building Safe Places conference is already in my diary.)

 

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Twice to Germany

 

Last week I was in what until 1989 was referred to as the DDR or Eastern Germany. I stayed a few days in a small village (Zwochau), a half-hour car ride from the main railway station in Leipzig, where—after a comfortable train journey of almost seven hours—I was met by the secretary of the conference of the Adventist churches in the northeastern part of Germany.

I was invited to give a number of presentations for the circa 65 Adventist pastors who work in this part of Germany. Almost all were also originally from this part that of the country that was ‘East-Germany’. If there is any difference in mentality and general approach to things in comparison to pastors in the west of the (now united) country, I did not discover this!

I was listed for three parts of the program. In my first presentation I gave a survey of the most important theological and ethical issues that are being discussed and cause a significant diversity of opinion in the Adventist world. I had drawn up a list of some sixteen subjects that Adventists talk about and are quite divided about, and then gave special attention to the four underlying basic issues: (a) What is truth? Is there something like absolute Trust? (b) Hermeneutics: How do we read the Bible? (c) Authority: Who tells us what to believe? and (d) Identity; who can claim to be a ‘real’ Adventist?

In the second presentation I focused on the role of doctrine. Why do we have doctrines? Hoe many do we need? How many of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs must one accept before we may be baptized?  Or to be, and remain, a church member? I also dealt with the question whether all doctrines are equally important, and, if not, how we might grade them. This lecture, in particular, led to intense discussion, in which many examples from actual church praxis were mentioned.

And, finally, in my third presentation the spotlight was on the question how our doctrines can be—or  can be made to be—relevant. What difference does it make in my daily life whether I believe certain things? How can I, as a minister, translate our message in such a way that what I say relates to actual life? This also led to much discussion.

All in all it was a full and stimulating week.  I was back home just in time to attend, on Friday, the funeral of Pierre van Vollenhoven. In his long working life Pierre had a number of important functions in the Dutch Adventist Church, e.g. 12 years as union treasurer. I worked closely with him for extended periods of time, and I would have regretted not to be at his farewell.

Then I had a ‘free’ Sabbath. I had made sure that I was not scheduled to preach somewhere, to that I could listen in my home church, Harderwijk, to a great sermon by my Belgian colleague and good friend, dr. Rudy van Moere. It was an inspiring morning! His sermon was a sublime example of a combination of deep knowledge of the Scriptures and pastoral concern.

And now, on Sunday morning, I am preparing for a stay of some days in a small place in Germany, somewhere between Darmstadt and Frankfurt, where in the next few days I will join others in talking and thinking about the theme of homosexuality, and, more specifically, about ways in which this topic may be fruitfully explained and discussed in the Adventist Church. It is an annual conference of some leaders of Kinship—the organization of, and for, (mostly Adventist) people with a ‘different’ sexual orientation—with a few dozen people mean and women who have some influence in the church in Western-Europe and support the Kinship mission. I am certainly among the supporters, but whether I continue to have any influence may be more questionable! Anyway, I am glad I have been invited.

I look forward to the next few days with great interest and hope I can in some way contribute to the conference!

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What shall we sing?

 

When I am scheduled to preach somewhere on Saturday morning, I expect to be called or to receive an e-mail approximately in the middle of the week asking me to send information about my choice of Scripture reading(s) and of the hymns for the congregational singing. Sometimes I am also asked whether my sermon has a title, or what might be the theme that I intend to preach about. And, in addition, there is from time to time the question whether I am ready to tell the children’s story. When it comes to telling stories for the children, I will usually do my utmost to avoid this. I find it awkward not to know the children and to have to guess their approximate ages. Often enough this has given me trouble:  I may have found a story that is suitable for children age 6-8, and then find that the first row is occupied by infants and toddlers, age 0-3.

But choosing hymns is another matter. More and more Dutch Adventist churches have a strong preference for popular praise songs and songs that are found in the so-called ‘blue’ hymn book (originally compiled for the youth). Apart from the fact that I do not like the wording of many praise songs and also do not think too highly of the quality of many of the songs in the ‘blue’ hymnal, I have a very personal reason for preferring the ‘red’ hymnal – the official hymnal of the Dutch Seventh-day Adventist Church.

When this hymnal was created, some thirty years ago, I had an important role in the project. This was not the intention when the project was first planned. But there initially rose so much unpleasant debate that many of those who had been asked as contributors, declined the opportunity to get involved. A very major part of the job was therefore done by Rob Schouten and myself.  Rob is an accomplished poet and author, who has his roots in Adventism.  In those years, three decades ago, his income from his poetry and other activities was still quite modest and some extra income from working on the new hymnal of the Adventist church was very welcome. Today he has an established reputation as a literary critic and as one of the columnists of the daily newspaper Trouw, in which he publishes his pieces three times a week. I have very pleasant memories of our intense collaboration.

If any reader would want to know more of the hymnal (Liedboek voor de Adventkerk), I would suggest that he/she reads its preface (which most users have probably never read). I hold this hymnal still very dear.  I found special satisfaction in translating a fair number of beautiful English hymns into Dutch. If someone would analyze my choice of hymns for the Saturday mornings, he/she would discover that I tend to choose some of these hymns quite regularly.

Of course, my close tie with this hymnal  make me rather prejudiced. But, apart from this I hope hat the ‘classic; christians hymns will not be totally replaced by by these ‘blue’ sing-alongs’ and popular spiritual tear-jerkers.

It may be time, after these thirty years, to start planning for a thorough revision of the ‘red’ hymnal or for developing a completely new one. However, it might also be a good option to take a good look at the newest version (2013) of the Dutch ecumenical hymnal. Maybe this hymnal (Liedboek door de Kerken) can provide a new injection to hymn singing in Dutch Adventist churches. I would recommend this wholeheartedly.

 

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Elections

 

In another three weeks the Dutch people will once again have an election. This time it is about three different entities: the composition of the provincial governments, and, indirectly, also the Senate (which is chosen by the newly elected provincial leaders) ,and also the ‘water boards’.  Unfortunately, I am not in the country on March 18 and will have to ask my wife to vote on my behalf.

Yes, I always take part in elections, but this time I find it more complicated than usually. I try to stay reasonably informed about what happens in our province Flevoland. But what party should get my vote? I consulted the website ‘Kieswijzer’ that is supposed to show which party is closest to my standpoints. In the case of our province there are some key issues: a major development of our regional airport, a number of nature projects and various infrastructural projects. It appears that I am closest to the CDA (Christian Democratic party). However, I would hesitate to vote for them, as I do not like the CDA position on massive farms for pigs and other animals. It is tempting to also think of national politics and  consider the national consequences, if the composition of the Senate would alter significantly. (Whether of not we actually need the Senate and whether the provinces still play an important role is another matter.)

But what about the election of the members of the water boards? There is no doubt that these water boards are extremely important. I have no issue with the fact that I must pay a few hundred euros annually in a special tax to pay for their activities. Certainly, people like me who live in one of the polders of Flevoland, realize that it takes a lot of effort to ensure that our feet remain dry by keeping the water of the IJsselmeer on the other side of our dykes. We also know of the many smaller differences in the water level inside the polders that need constant attention. Through numerous fusions the number of water boards has been strongly reduced. A century ago there were about 3000 water boards in the Netherlands. Now there are 24.  On March 18 the people who are in charge of these 24 water boards must be elected.

That a water board must have people who are in charge, with representatives from various shareholders, is beyond question and in 2015 it is also rather logical to ensure that there is broad participation in the decision who will be entrusted with this task. But how can I, as a citizen who knows nothing about the problems these water boards must cope with, have any idea who might be suitable for such a function? Does someone’s political color, for instance, say anything about that person’s suitability? It would seem to me that there must be a different way to find the people who can bear the responsibilities in these important public entities. But, well, as long as there is no better system, we will have to make the best of it. In the coming days I will try to find out a bit more about the candidates and on that basis I will make up my mind.

Democracy and participation are important values. But whether or not this must always take a form whereby every individual should have a vote with equal weight may be questionable. And this would not only be true of Dutch water boards, but may also apply to other areas.  Students should have a vote in the way in which their university is governed, but must the voice of each individual student be equal to those of the members of the boards of governors and the professors? If so, the students (through their numbers) would be able to have all things their way, Employees, likewise, must have a major input in the affairs of their company, but not all strategies of their company can depend on what the majority of the employees prefer.

In church organizations democracy is also good and necessary. It seems quite OK to let the majority of members decide certain things. But is this form of democracy truly the best (i.e. the majority decides, irrespective of whether all, or most, voters have a clear idea of the issues involved)? This applies, in particular when spiritual issues are at stake, such the (re-)formulation of doctrinal positions or with regard to judging a particular development in church practice (as, e.g., the ordination of female pastors).  Should not, above everything else space and time be given to the Spirit of God to lead the church? Can we not wait and see where the Spirit leads us without forcing an issue by taking a majority vote?

 

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Also on Sunday? Or: also on Saturday?

 

An Adventist church in Huntsville, in the American state of Alabama, has recently launched a remarkable initiative. From now onwards there will also be a church service on Sunday mornings. But Adventists should to worry unduly: the members of the First Seventh-day Adventist Church in Huntsville have not apostatized and have not done away with the Sabbath. On Saturday mornings it will be business as usual in the church that seats about 1.200 people: the Bible study followed by a traditional worship service.

The service on Sunday morning does not target the regular Adventist church goers. The aim is to attract non-Adventist, in particular ‘non-churched,’  fellow citizens to a short church service—people who may find it strange to go to church on a Saturday. The initiators emphasize the informal character of the service, and those who come are encouraged to ‘dress down’.

The leader of the pastoral team indicated that he expects there may be some Adventist church members who may now prefer the Sunday service. However, that is a possible side-effect he is willing to accept. He has received strong support from some: Here is an Adventist congregation that is willing to think ‘outside the box’ and is prepared to try unconventional things to get in touch with people they did not reach until now. Others see only huge dangers. They feel that the Sabbath is the Adventist trade mark par excellence and offering services on Sunday may only create a lot of confusion. Is the Sabbath not that important after all . . . ? And, so the argument continues: before you know it, the Sunday service increases in importance, and the services on Sabbath will become secondary . . .

I have never visited the First Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Huntsville. I have never met its pastoral team and have no idea of the atmosphere in this congregation. However, I am strongly inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt—and, in particular, to trust their judgment. Yet, it immediately occurs to me that the time slot for a service is not the only factor that determines whether or not one will ‘reach’ the people. Most important remains the challenge that the gospel and the Adventist perspective is translated in such a way that people will understand it and see its relevancy. I will follow the Huntsville experiment with keen interest!

In the meantime I have a suggestion for the United Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN). This faith community is seriously concerned about the future of the Dutch church. It is therefore launching a broad survey in an attempt to find out what the members of the church expect from their church. It is hoped that many ideas may emerge that will give local congregations a new lease on life. It is a praiseworthy initiative. Of course, one may also pose the question whether the church leaders should not, above all, wonder what God expects of their church, rather than to zoom in on the question what the people want. But yet . . .

The average town and village in the Netherlands differs greatly from Huntsville, Alabama. Many Dutch people no longer regard ten o’clock on a Sunday morning the most suitable time for going to church. Many—especially the younger generation– prefer to sleep in, after having partied on Saturday evening. Might the PKN perhaps experiment with services on Saturdays (for instance, late in the morning, with a good breakfast), as people are on their way to go shopping) in some centrally located buildings? Or on Saturday afternoon, with coffee and tea, after the shopping had been done? Perhaps this may be a method to reach a public that is less and less inclined to visit a church on Sunday morning . . . ?

In any case, I am keenly interested in the results of the PKN survey. Other faith communities may probably also learn a lot from its outcome.

 

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