Billy

 

My first visit to an IKEA shop was in 1964. As newly-weds we went to Sweden to sell books, with the aim of earning enough money to realize our plan of travelling to the United States. I wanted to continue my studies at Andrews University, in order to get my MA-degree.

Somewhere South of Stockholm we saw a round building with the word IKEA. I remember spending about an hour in this shop, and also how we were totally impressed! Since then I have seen many of these blue super-shops in a range of different countries—even in Kuwait! Much of the furniture that we (and countless other Dutch families) have in our home, comes from IKEA. We have selected what we wanted, often had a hard time fitting everything in our car, and put everything together at home—not seldom with the annoying experience of missing one screw or some small bolts.

Lately I have been able to avoid visiting any Dutch IKEA-shop. But this week, there was no escape. That particular morning I had not had my morning walk of about one hour (as I try to do most days), but an IKEA-visit also implies a fair amount of walking! Following the arrows makes you meander through the giant shop (but ignoring the arrows results in getting lost). We were in search of white Billy bookcases. It means quite a pilgrimage through the shop. But, so be it. Showing your IKEA family card in the restaurant, provides you with any number of cups of coffee and the Swedish minced meat balls (kött bullar) are always very palatable (and cheap)!

Neighbors in our apartment building will soon move to Portugal. They want to get rid of quite a lot of their stuff, as, for instance, two white Billy bookcases, together with a white rack for cd’s. The price was symbolic. And thus we bought these items with a view to replacing some birch-colored Billy’s. However, to complete the project we needed to buy another white Billy.

Billy has been a grand success story of the Swedish furniture giant since 1979. Why Billy had to be ‘improved’ baffles me. The holes for the small plugs that carry the shelves have become smaller, as well as those plugs themselves. But the most worrisome thing is that the color has been somewhat adapted: the white has become a bit more white! But the job has been completed, and as a result we have a bookcase which can house a few more books—which is important since all other book cases in our home are more than full. And it takes an extraordinary pair of eyes to see the difference between old white and the new white.

The reader may perhaps have surmised that I do not really belong to the great multitude of IKEA-fans. I happen to be somewhat allergic for super-large shops. I am actually someone who would like to see the small village grocery store return, with just one brand of each article, in just one size package.

It is difficult to deny that IKEA has develop an incredibly strong concept. You recognize them anywhere in the world. They are very accessible. Your children are warmly welcome in the play area, where they are closely supervised. The IKEA shops carry so many articles that people of all ages find something to their liking. You can ask for advice, but you can also do your own research. And, there is a major restaurant, to which I already referred. You can buy your breakfast in the restaurant for just one euro, and (this is what I just read in one of their advertisement) you are welcome to use the restaurant as a place for a committee meeting. The family card shows that you belong to something big. Of course, I realize that all of this serves to sell more Billy bookcases and Kramfors lounge suits. And it appears to be a winning strategy!

Thinking a little more about the IKEA-concept, I began to wonder whether quite a few of these elements could also perhaps be applied in the setting of a local church. Many church building that are often empty during most of the week could perhaps be used for all kinds activities that could ‘entice’ people to enter our ‘shop’. Why not allow groups in the neighborhood or town/city to use the facilities of our building or invite local committees and associations to have their committee meetings in one of the church rooms? Why not use the church to provide assistance to people who take courses in Dutch citizenship or who want to learn the Dutch language? All you need are a few volunteers who open the doors and offer some assistance, and a coffee machine that serves a reasonable product. And maybe you would need a few Billy bookcases that may be filled with books that can be borrowed or simply taken away?

Perhaps I am oversimplifying things, or . . .? And then, the idea of a church where you can get a spiritual package with parts that you may assemble yourself in your own color . . . somehow seems quite appealing to me.

 

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Nostalgia

 

During most of my childhood years and early teens I lived in a Dutch windmill. Built in the 1630′s, this tall wooden structure with its thatched roof was used, together with dozens of such windmills, to pump the water from a lake of roughly 6.000 acres and to transform it into a fertile “polder”.  At the ground level we had our simple living quarters: four small rooms with a total of about 600 square feet. Our family of  (initially) three adults and four children had moved there because my father was suffering from a debilitating illness, and we were dependent on a small amount of social security. The fact that the rent was dirt cheap had inspired my parents to move from a regular house in the village into our new abode.

I have often gone back to “my” windmill and each time I visit, alone, with relatives or with foreign visitors, I take some pictures. They are always the same! When I visit my two sisters in Canada I see the same pictures of “our” windmill on their walls as I have at home. A good number of years ago I was in a US bookshop and saw a calendar with Dutch windmills. And, lo and behold: “my” mill was on the front cover of the calendar. I bought several copies of it. I once happened to see (in Holland, Michigan, VS) a 1000-piece jig-saw puzzle with “my” windmill. For many years it stayed in its cellophane cover. It was not until quite recently that I decided to part with it and give it to a jig-saw adept.

Perhaps it is not so strange that I continue to have  an intense interest in windmills. But, at times, I step back and force myself to look at the reality and not simply cherish my nostalgic memories. As I think back, I often tend to forget how cramped the rooms were and how cold it was during the winter. I somehow seem to have forgotten that we had to get our drinking water from a neighboring farm; that we had no electricity but used oil lamps, and that we had an outdoor toilet. When looking at picture postcards the Dutch windmills may look romantic, but I can ensure you that they did not make for very comfortable living.

When people in the church tell me they want to go back to Adventism of the past, I must conclude that they have fallen victim to an unfortunate form of nostalgia. It seems to be in human nature to look very selectively at our past and to sift out those things that were not so pleasant. We often seem to have an uncanny way of pushing these elements far back into the recesses of our minds. And so, when people say, they want to go back to the church of the past, they, in actual fact, tend to work with a heavily edited version of the past, from which the uncomfortable aspects have been erased.

The past has many good things that we must hold on to. There is nothing wrong in my regular visits to the windmill, to take even more pictures. The windmill is linked to my personal identity. But I do well to also remember the disadvantages under which we lived and to be grateful for the way my comfort in life has drastically been improved since.

When people tell us they want to recreate the church of the past, they actually mean that they want to go back to the nostalgic, expurgated version of the past that they have created. There are many elements in our collective Adventist past that we must cherish. If we lose them we are in grave danger of losing major chunks of our identity. But if we think about it (and do a bit of reading) we will soon see that there are also aspects that were not worth keeping. In fact, as a church, we have every reason to be grateful that we have moved away from quite a few of them.

 

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Where the rubber hits the road

 

There has lately been a lot of discussion in the Seventh-day Adventist Church about the place and the authority of the higher church administrative echelons (in particular concerning the role of the General Conference). This continued in the past few weeks—after the world congress of the church in San Antonio. Much of the debate focuses on the question to what extent the ‘lower’ administrative levels of the church (conferences and unions) may decide a number of important issues. Everything points to the fact that the denominational leadership in Silver Spring is doing all it can to ensure the supremacy of its own authority. This means, specifically with regard to the status of women in the church (which has recently been so much in the forefront), that unions cannot independently decide which persons they will ordain. Their authority is delegated authority, we are told!

It seems that we have now entered a phase in the dispute where the question of power has become all-important. In many respects, the administrative structure of the church—and the way in which the ‘highest’ administrative unit functions—resembles ever more the organization that we have always vehemently condemned: the church of Rome, in which the line of authority runs from the top to the bottom, and where the sense that, in fact, all authorities of ‘the top’ must be derived from what happens at the base of the church, has completely disappeared.

The importance of the ‘base’ of the church was clearly brought home to me in the past few weeks in my contacts with local churches. From July 25 onwards, I have an uninterrupted series of weekly speaking appointments in local churches: Amsterdam, Enschede, Amersfoort. Hilversum, and in the next few weeks: Huis ter Heide, Harderwijk, Meppel, and Utrecht. Invariably, my experience is that for most church members the events of Sam Antonio are already in a distant past—and that there is very little talk about events that happen in the higher regions of the world church, not even during the collective coffee hour after the church service (which has become an established custom in almost all Dutch Adventist churches).

Occasionally I find some church members who try to stay abreast of what happens in their church in far-away places, through the social media or the information that is provided by the Dutch union communication department. And, of course, the mission story during the Bible study period is still a fixed element of the service. But by far most members are first of all interested in the local church to which they belong, where they meet their fellow-believers and charge their spiritual batteries for the week to come. Everything else is, at most, of secondary importance. And that is how it should be!

In its earliest beginning the christian church consisted only of local groups of believers. Often they were so small they could meet in the home of one of them. Gradually a structure developed with elders and deacons. In addition, there were many who had some spiritual gift(s). The apostles had a special role and cared for the contacts between the churches and between them and the ‘mother-church’ in Jerusalem. All other supplementary models, which through the ages have been introduced into the church, were human inventions. Some of these have functioned quite well, and some did not.

The Adventist Church has also developed a specific organizational model. An initial strong distaste for any umbrella organization was, in the course of some 150 years, gradually replaced by an intricate hierarchical network of ecclesial structures. Many aspects have served us quite well. And some aspects are still OK. But let us never forget that, even though we have prayed and sought felt divine guidance, in final analysis our model was mostly borrowed from others and further devised by ourselves. There is nothing wrong with this, but this realization should  prompt us to relativize the enduring usefulness of our organizational model.

Many organizational patterns in the Adventist Church have from time to time been adapted. But it became ever more complex: many things were added, but existing things were seldom discontinued. The territories of some divisions were repeatedly changed, and many conferences and unions were added. In the meantime the so-called ‘working policy’ of the church (the rules that have been agreed upon to structure the work of the church) has become an steadily more voluminous book. This is understandable, for many things have become more complex and, as the church grows, new situations had to be addressed. But this does not alter the basic fact: it is and remains human work.

That is why such statements as:’ Well, this is simply how the church functions. . ., and, ‘This is what the policy says’ and, ‘This is what you find in the Church Manual’, are often totally inadequate. Things can be changed! And it is risky to ignore the many voice that clamor for change. Ignoring this will only stimulate a process where ‘the base’ is less and less interested in what happens ‘at the top.’

It seems to me, that the time has come, as never before, that we become collectively aware (including the leadership at ‘the top’) that all authority in the church rests with the local churches. The members run their own  churches and delegate certain powers to ‘higher’ administrative levels. This is what the Adventist Church still maintains in theory, but seems to be more and more forgetting in its actual practice.

When I preach tomorrow morning in one of the Dutch Adventist churches (my sermon will be on Hagar and her confession: You are the God who sees), I will be reminded of the important fact that, whatever some people may say, the rubber hits the road in the local church.

 

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What is really ‘fundamental’?

 

In last week’s blog I suggested that many of the things we refer to as ‘fundamental’ are not really so very ‘fundamental’. I referred among other things to the 28 so-called Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I asked the question: How in the world can 28 points all be truly ‘fundamental’? Moreover, these are not only 28 short sentences, but each of these is developed in quite a bit of detail, and those details, presumably, also get the label of ‘fundamental.’ That many take this view, was clearly illustrated a few weeks ago during the World Congress of the church, when a full day was spent on the precise rewording of some of ‘the 28’, and 2500-plus delegates were asked to vote even on the sequence in which the supporting biblical passages are listed.

I promised to draw up a list of those aspect of my beliefs that are ‘fundamental’ for my personal faith. Please note: I am not thereby saying that all other elements in ‘the 28’ are not correct or totally unimportant. But if I have to summarize my beliefs—as these currently function for me—my statement of beliefs will look something like this:

I believe

-       in God—three in one: Father, Son and holy Spirit.

-       that God is the creator of everything, and that I, therefore, am a created being with the privileges and responsibilities this iimplies.

-       that Jesus Christ came to our earth and has radically solved the sin problem through his death and resurrection—for the world and for me.

-       that the holy Spirit guides my conscience and equips me with certain gifts, as he sees fit.

-       that the Bible is an inspired book that tells God’s history with mankind, and provides me with basic guiding principles, so that I can live as God intended.

-       that, as a human being, I am subject to death, but that, when I die, my identity is safe with God; he will give me a new start in an eternal existence.

-       that our present world is infected by  evil of demonic proportions, so that a solution is needed from on high; to realize this Christ will come once again to this earth and create a ‘new heaven and a new earth.’

-       that as a follower of Christ I can only live authentically if I consciously seek to shape my life after the principles he has modeled for me.

-       that every seventh-day Sabbath I have the unique opportunity to find true rest in the rest that God provides.

-       that I am responsible for how I treat this earth and use my time, my material means, my talents and my body.

-       that, together with all true christians, I can be a member of God’s church.

-       that the faith community to which I belong has an important part in the worldwide proclamation of the gospel and has the task to place a number of important accents.

-       that through my baptism I may be part of God’s church and can, in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, be regularly reminded of Christ’s suffering and death; and that I may experience spiritual growth together with those in the community of which I feel a part.

Of course, such a list can never be final. And what I have listed is ‘fundamental’ for me–others will have to reflect on what is ‘fundamental’ for them, and will probably use different words, add certain points, or leave out certain points.

This is the crux of the matter: It is good to reflect from time to time on what is really ‘fundamental’. It helps to differentiate between primary and secondary things and not to treat secondary things as if they are the most important. That, unfortunately, is all too often done by us—individually and collectively as a faith community.

 

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Is everything equally important?

 

No, not all things in life are equally important. We often say: ‘ The main thing is to be healthy!’ And, fortunately, most people rate family and friends higher than all sort of material things. Life becomes very difficult if one does not know how to differentiate between things that are really important and the things that have a lower priority.

The same applies to the sphere of church and spiritual life. The ‘higher’ church organization (in the Adventist church: General Conference, divisions, unions, conferences) certainly have a role to play, but the local church is the place where the rubber hits the road. A good understanding of theological issues is important, but a close tie with God and a faith that keeps you going in daily life is much more essential.

Is everything in the Bible equally important. It may be risky to ask that question, for who am I to say what parts of the Bible are more or less essential. In times past church leaders and scholars decided what writings to include in the Bible and what not to include. Catholics (and also Lutherans) made a decision that differs from what Protestants have agreed upon.

Protestants tend to be satisfied with a biblical canon without the apocryphal books. The Bible is an authoritative book for them. But even most of those who claim to take everything in the Bible literally (as it ‘plainly’ reads), tend to have something like a canon within the canon. Not everything in the Bible carries the same weight. Many Bible readers feel (to mention just one example) that they get more out of the Gospel of John than from the book Ecclesiastes, and that they find the Psalms more helpful than the book of the prophet Ezekiel. This is also try for me. There are parts of the Bible that I read and re-read, but I must confess that there are also segments in the Bible that I have not read in recent years.

But, are we allowed to extend his argument even further? May we, for instance, say that some doctrines are more important than other doctrines? Adventists recognize ’28 Fundamental Beliefs’. Are all of these equally ‘fundamental’? How in the world can they all be really fundamental, i.e. foundational? Often I hear people say: It is all part of the truth, so we cannot say that something is unimportant or less important than the rest. But, let’s be honest: that is not how reality functions. Most (maybe all) Adventists sense that particular points define their being-Adventist, while other points do not fall in that same category. I believe it is useful for all of us to draw up a short list of what is really ‘fundamental’ for us, and what might, in fact, be more in the periphery. Next week I intend to say more about this and will share my own short-list of what I consider truly ‘fundamental’.

P.S.

A few years ago I did a presentation for fellow Adventist theologians about the question whether all doctrines are equally important. A little later I rewrote the text of this presentation and submitted it as a chapter in a Festschrift for Dr. Jon Dybdahl—a much valued friend and colleague, with whom I worked closely together at Andrews University for a number of years. Jon (now retired) was (and is) a gifted teacher and for some time served as the president of the Adventist Walla Walla University in Washington State (US).

For those who are interested: the text of this chapter, entitled ‘Is all Truth Truth? may be found on my website: http://reinderbruinsma.com/are-all-truths-truth-2/

 

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