A medicine for a restless society

After my grandfather passed the age of seventy, he came to live with our family. He spent his days working a little in the garden, going for a short walk, and reading in his easy chair. My life and that of many of my peers is very different. My diary is still full of appointments and my ‘to do’ list includes a series of projects that I hope to work on in the near future: the preparation of sermons and lectures, the writing of articles and of one or more books. And then, there is a list of people I plan to visit and there is a pile of books in the living room besides my chair, that I hope to read in the near future.

I am no exception. Many pensioners say they are very ‘busy’. There are so many things they feel they have to do that they wonder how they used to have time to work. Sometimes there is some exaggeration, but the fact that the lives of many elderly people are different now from what they were one or two generations ago, is undoubtedly true. Fortunately, many older people are now much fitter than their peers in earlier times. The average life expectancy has risen considerably and the social possibilities and expectations have changed dramatically.

For those who are still fully engaged in the labor market, life has also become increasingly busy. We once thought that the ever-increasing mechanization and subsequent computerization would make life much easier. Some futurologists predicted that within a few decades we would only have to work 15-20 hours per week, and that there actually would be no more work for many people, thanks to machines, computers and robots. The average working week has indeed become shorter and the average working week is now around 40 hours, or a little less, for a large part of the working population. What strikes me most, however, about the recent protests in the Netherlands of many professional groups (especially in health care and education) is that people not only want to have more salary, but that they also complain about the ever increasing workload and the accompanying pressure. And gradually the phenomenon of ‘burn-out’ has reached epidemic proportions.

Employees are now often expected to be available at all times, and the boundary between work and leisure time has in many cases become quite blurred. Many activities may have become easier and physically less strenuous, but there is infinitely more to report, to consult and to communicate. Many processes have become far more complicated. Take the domain of health care, for example. Much more has become possible in the treatment of diseases and the rehabilitation of people, etc. These developments cause a great deal of extra work and stress for many people in caring professions.

I notice that I need a weekly rest. God foresaw that man would need such a time of rest and he created time for us human beings in units of six-plus-one days. After every six days there had to be a period of rest—-for body and spirit. Because I preach almost every Sabbath, there is often not much rest on that day. For many people—for pastors and lay people who are active in the Church–the Sabbath is often not the oasis of rest it is supposed to be. This point does not receive sufficient attention.

The biblical Sabbath has been a focal point of the Adventist principles from the beginning of our church’s history, but more than ever before it is now a ‘present truth’. The Sabbath can be a medicine against the pressures of the relentless pace of the twenty-first century. Clearly, according to the Bible, the Sabbath falls on the seventh day of the week, which we usually call Saturday. But it is no longer our greatest concern that people understand on what day the Sabbath falls on (although that is not an insignificant detail), but that we succeed in convincing people that celebrating the Sabbath is a tremendous blessing for body and soul. The Sabbath is God’s gift to man and it is important that the people of our time learn to unpack that gift and to enjoy it.

Traditions

The word ‘tradition’ has Latin roots. My Latin is quite rusty but there is enough left to remember that the word goes back to the Latin verb tradere, which means: to deliver, to pass on. So, a tradition is about passing things on from one period to the next, from one generation to the following. In itself it is a rather neutral word.

For many Protestants the term ‘tradition’ has a distinct Catholic ring to it. The reformers promoted the Sola Scriptura principle (the Bible alone), but Catholics maintain that through the centuries the church has generated a treasury of wisdom and insight (the tradition) that provides a source of revelation, besides the Bible.

Adventists usually speak in negative terms about ‘tradition. In addition to what they consider unbiblical Catholic traditions they also discovered in other Christian denominations a predilection for ‘dead forms’ and ‘unchangeable traditions’. What was said and done in various denominations, was, they said, not put to the test of Scripture, but was largely derived from documents and decisions of synods which together formed a rather cast-iron ecclesial tradition. In their condemnation of traditions, Adventists sometimes (often?) tended to forget that every institution develops traditions and that this is also true for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. And they often failed to recognize that other religious communities have, in fact, some beautiful traditions. Some of these at times make me rather envious.

Traditions are not limited to churches and to the religious domain. Countries and ethnic groups have many traditions. Many of these are good and should be preserved. Some are not so good or even morally wrong (e.g. bull fighting, female circumcision, student initiation rituals). Some traditions are imported (mainly from the USA) and are quickly adopted, as for instance: Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Black Friday. All of a sudden the Black Friday craze has captured the Dutch imagination (or is it: the lack of imagination?).

Recently some Dutch traditions have become rather controversial. On December 5/6 the Dutch celebrate St. Nicolas—the annual feast for the children. It is the time for giving presents (rather than at Christmas time, although giving Christmas presents is slowly also become a tradition in the Netherlands.) A few weeks before December 5 St. Nicolas makes his entry, accompanied by a group of black helpers. There is increasing opposition to this aspect, which, it is argued, combines the concept of servility with that of blackness. The helpers of St. Nicolas can no longer be black, some groups insist, while others feel strongly that this old tradition has nothing to do with racial discrimination and must not be diluted in any way.

This past week has seen considerable unrest in a few quarters of the city of the Hague, after the city has banned the traditional fires on New Year’s eve. Last year these fires led to dangerous situations and the regulations have therefore been tightened to the extent that, in fact, the traditional fires will be a thing of the past. Many are convinced the city has taken a wise decision, but others feel deprived of an important tradition!

I believe it is wrong to be locked into traditions that must continue-no matter what. Yes, traditions must have continuity, but there should also be the freedom to constantly adapt. I look forward to the coming weeks with many Christmas traditions. Some of these traditions may gradually disappear, while other, new traditions, will emerge. We need traditions in our personal lives, in the city, region or country where we live, and also in the faith community of which we are part. It contributes to what we call identity.

To be quite honest, if some traditions would disappear from my church, I would not miss them. But a church must definitely have traditions. If there is nothing we can hand on to those who will come after us, things that we find important and that make us what we are—and this is more than a list of 28 ‘fundamental beliefs’—we are in a sorry state indeed. Being grateful for the traditions that have been handed on to us, while feeling free to adapt them, when and where desirable, and creating new traditions ourselves and handing these on to those who come after us—this make a faith community into a living movement.

(Adapted from my blog of September 19, 2012)

Sorry, we were wrong . . .

On September 7 the College View Church in Lincoln (Nebraska, USA) celebrated its 125 years of existence. For this local church—the largest in the Mid-American Union—this was not just a time of celebration, but also an opportunity to take a critical look at the past. The leaders of this church made it very clear that in the past it had mistreated people of color. For a long time they could only sit on the balcony and at times they were even refused entry to the church.

Unfortunately, this church was no exception—and not just in the South of the United States. And even today the evil of racism has not fully disappeared, in spite of numerous apologies and statements which recognized that in many places the Adventist Church allowed discrimination and racism.

Of course, one might ask whether apologies, such as the one of the College View Church, are very meaningful. Should the current generation in a faith community, or people in society in general, apologize for what a former generation did? Must young Germans continue to say ‘sorry’ for what their grandparents did? Must I still harbor feelings of guilt for the fact that some centuries ago some of my countrymen earned a lot of money in the slave trade? Whatever one may think about this, it remains important that people know their history and are also aware of the ugly things of the past.

The fact that an Adventist church in the USA that celebrates a jubilee and uses this opportunity to openly state its regret about its racist past, is a good signal for other churches—and not just in the United States—that in the past have been guilty of discriminatory practices. Local churches do well to ask themselves from time to time whether they were perhaps times (either long ago or more recently) when they have allowed discrimination in their midst. Or whether discrimination perhaps continues to play a role—whether openly or underground. I think, for instance, about the relationship with groups of immigrants who have joined us in recent decades. Have we always welcomed them in all respects as our brothers and sisters? Of have we, at times, felt threathened by them and have we felt rather superior to them?

There is a group of people that unfortunately—also in my own country—continues to face serious discrimination. I am referring to the LGBTQ community. In many cases they do not find a ‘safe’ church, where they are truly welcome and where they can fully be what they are, and where their sexual orientation is not a serious barrier. Yes, we will have to accept that not all church members think alike about the meaning of some of the oft-quoted anti-homo texts in the Bible. But we cannot accept that this leads to discrimination of people who have a non-hetero sexual orientation. Significant numbers of men and women have left the church because they did not find a warm welcoming community, where they could be who and what they are. Are there perhaps local churches that want to say in all honesty: Yes, we were guilty of discrimination and we will do all we can to put a stop to this?

John Wesley and Ellen White

It stood already for a number of years in one of the book cases in our living room, amid numerous other biographies and autobiographies. After I bought it, I read some 50 pages, but for some reason put it aside. Last week I looked at it again and decided to give it another go. And I found it quite fascinating. I am speaking of Roy Hattersley’s biography of one of the greatest religious leaders of modern times: A Brand from the Burning: The Life of John Wesley (2003).

Wesley was one of the founders of Methodism—a movement that emerged from the Anglican Church and spread to many countries around the world. Today a number of denominations belong to the Methodist family of faith. Worldwide the movement has some 40 million members. The United Methodist Church in the USA is the largest entity with about 12 million members. Methodism is of special interest to the Adventist community, as there are many similarities in beliefs and practices. In addition, we should note that a number of early Adventist leaders, including Ellen G. White, had a Methodist background.

John Wesley, and to a lesser degree his brother Charles, defined early Methodism and remained a source of inspiration and an object of admiration for all Methodists. A certain amount of hagiography has colored the views of many Methodists regarding their early history and regarding John Wesley as the movement’s main founder. Books like that of Hattersley are needed to correct this. This particular biography is fair and, as far as I can judge, sympathetic but quite objective. Wesley is described as a ‘normal’ human being—as a man with great gifts but also with serious weaknesses. He could shift quite often in his theological views. He defended the possibility of perfection, but did certainly not achieve this goal himself. He was in many ways quite authoritarian and was less than straightforward and successful in his relationships with women. But, in spite of his weaknesses, he was a giant of faith and was able to lead tens of thousands of men and women to Christ. What strikes one more than anything else is his unbelievable capacity for work. It is estimated that he traveled (mostly on horseback) between 400.000 and 500.000 kilometer. During the 52 years of his itinerant ministry he preached about 40.000 sermons, an average of more than two sermons a day, besides many other activities, such as meetings with other leaders and writing scores of books. What may have helped him greatly was his ability to read while riding a horse!

So, when one speaks of Methodism, the name of John Wesley will inevitably be mentioned. Movements are often directly linked to the vision and leadership of their founder. This is also true in the Lutheran world. Martin Luther not only gave his name to the many religious communities that are represented in the Lutheran World Federation, but he remains in high esteem among Lutheran believers and his books remain a source of inspiration in Lutheran theology. Calvin holds a similar position in the Reformed churches. But in none of these religious movement the founder has become (and remained) the sole arbiter of what is considered sound doctrine and a true Christian lifestyle. Some of their ideas are rejected. Many have been modified as time went on.

It makes me wonder: Why can Adventists not look at Mrs. Ellen White—one of the main founders of their church—in a similar way? No one can deny her important role in early Adventism and her abiding inspiration for later generations of Adventists, until today. But, so it seems to me, we are making a mistake when we put her on a pedestal as the person who has the final answer to just about everything. I wish we could begin to look at her in a similar manner as the Methodists look at Wesley, the Lutherans at Luther and the Reformed at Calvin: as a leader used by God—to be admired for her important contribution to the founding and early development of the Adventist Church and to be valued as a continuing source of inspiration. Not as less, but also not as more than that.

Do we need Ellen White to interpret the Bible?

During the recent Autumn Council of the General Conference—the annual meeting of the full executive committee with representatives from the entire world field—a statement was voted about the role of Ellen G. White and her writings. This statement will be submitted to the delegates to the General Conference session of next year, with the intention that they, through their adoption of this statement, will reaffirm their conviction regarding the crucial role of Ellen White and her work in the Adventist Church. It has almost become a tradition that the delegates to a GC session adopt such a statement. One might well ask why it is deemed necessary to each time vote such a document about this element of our Adventist beliefs. Is there a fear that confidence in ‘the spirit of prophecy’ is slowly but surely ebbing away? But, if, so, does it really help to once again vote some official statement? Why would we then not also adopt a statement that Adventists must continue to value the seventh-day Sabbath and why is there no vote during the session which appeals to the worldwide membership not to slacken in their expectation of the second coming of the Lord?

Besides the questions whether such a statement is really needed, there is the problem of its content. The full text of the statement may be found on:
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The paragraph that for me raises a red flag is:
We believe that the writings of Ellen white were inspired by the Holy Spirit and are Christ-centered and Bible-based. Rather than replacing the Bible, they uplift the normative character of Scripture and correct the inaccurate interpretations imposed upon it. They also help us to overcome the human tendency to accept from the Bible what we like and distort and disregard what we do not like.

The first sentence of this paragraph leaves us with the question how the concept of inspiration is to be defined. However, for now I will not pursue this topic. It is, in particular, the second sentence that bothers me. It contains a most serious internal contradiction. On the one hand it states that the Bible is the norm by which all ideas must be tested. So far so good. However, it immediately ads that there is another authoritative source (i.e. the oeuvre of Ellen White) which tells us how we should interpret the Bible. With such a view we seem to ignore the fundamental protestant principle of sola scriptura (the Bible alone) and come dangerously close to the Roman Catholic teaching that only the church is capable of interpreting the Bible correctly, and that only the church can protect the believer against wrong interpretations. The idea that Ellen White has the last word in the interpretation of the Bible puts her work in fact above the Bible. This approach is totally opposed to other statements of the Adventist Church that clearly underline the principle of ‘the Bible alone’. See, for instance, point one of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. (The Holy Scriptures are the supreme, authoritative, and the infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the definitive revealer of doctrines . . .). Ellen White herself quite often emphasized that the church should not expect from her that she has the final word about issues of theology and biblical exegesis!

It is my firm conviction that this statement about the role of Ellen White (if, indeed, there must be such a statement) must go back to the desks of those who wrote it. But I would also like to see in the statement (again, if there must be such a statement) that far more attention be paid to the results of the extensive Ellen G. White research of the last few decades. Providing the church members with that information would help them to arrive at a much more balanced view as to who Ellen White was, of what she has meant for the church and what her continuing significance can be.