Zeewolde and the kingdom of God

 

Since roughly eight years I live in Zeewolde, a village/town in the Flevopolder in the center of the Netherlands, where until some 50 years ago there was nothing but water, Zeewolde was the most recent village/town to be built. It now has some 22.000 inhabitants.

Most mornings I take a walk of about one hour. Usually I walk six to seven kilometers. An interesting side-effect of this activity is that I can closely follow the further developments of the place where I live. Between the area where my wife and I have our home and the center of the village a substantial new section is being built. It is fascinating to see how clusters of homes are gradually emerging. When we arrived  eight years ago there was nothing but grass, but now there are hundreds of homes in all sizes and shapes.  Gradually also new streets have been built and paved, and the area is beginning to look really green. Before too long a beginning will be made with the construction of a new supermarket. As I take my walks, I will in the future therefore remain up to date on the special JUMBO offers of the week. There are also plans to built a new set of locks, which will make it possible for small boats to move from the inside of the polder to the larger lake adjacent to it.

Zeewolde is a good place to live, but it is not perfect. Local politics are often far from harmonious and decision making tends to be a rather protracted process. As to the spiritual side: Zeewolde has churches of a dozen or so different denominations. I guess that church attendance is above the national average, with the rather conservative Calvinistic churches showing the most favorable statistics.

Opinions differ as to how our village should be further developed in the future. And although there are many attempts to organize all sorts of activities, a major part of the population remains rather passive. We could also use some more cafés and restaurants of various tastes, and a good book shop would welcome me as a regular customer.

When yesterday I walked my regular distance, it occurred to me that the development of the place where I live in many ways resembles the kingdom of God in this world. It is good to see that there also new ‘mansions’ continue to be built, with new roads and new facilities. That project is also far from completed. It is good to see how in the kingdom the new constructions show a great variety. It must also be admitted that in this stage of the building of the kingdom opinions often differ–with many sticking to the conservative side–about strategies for growth and maintenance. Frequently many ‘inhabitants’ find life not very exciting and wishe for some new facilities that are more to their taste.

Just as I continually get to know Zeewolde better and better, I also try to see where and how the kingdom of God is developing in this world, and which sections lag behind in growth or show extraordinary growth patterns. And then, of course, I think of the church in my country to which I belong—a ‘section’ in the kingdom that is now over one hundred years old and could use some serious updating and refreshing in many areas.

I also find that not every citizen in the kingdom is actively involved in its life and ‘ministry’. The further development of Zeewolde, the place where I live, will require vision and courage. That is just as true for those who want to be actively involved in the further development of the divine kingdom in our world and around us. It will require vision, faith in the future and firm commitment to ensure that Gods kingdom in our world—in our country and our more immediate environment—will remain a place where people feel at home, where things continue to ‘happen’ en where many will continue to find a spiritual roof over their heads, now and in the future.

 

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A book for Adventists ‘in the margin’

 

Recently I received an e-mail message from someone I have known for a very long time. He retired years ago, after having working during his entire career in the Adventist Church in a number of important assignments. He wrote me that, after careful consideration, he had decided to cancel his membership in the Adventist Church. He could not in all honesty remain a member of a church that ignores vital ethical norms, such as full gender equality.

Another message I received the other day was just as shocking. It was about a young woman who simply found it unbearable to remain in the Adventist Church. Having been brought up in a very conservative home and having grown up with a faith that she experienced primarily as a set of commands and interdictions, she became increasingly fed up with the many way Adventists around her regard other christians as the enemies, who will be the spiritual villains of he future. She did no longer want to be part of such a group.

About a week ago I saw this post on Facebook. Here is part of the text: ‘This is my last Sabbath as a Seventh Day Adventist. Come sunset tomorrow I am no longer an SDA. I love my SDA family and friends (and that won’t change). I know that those who care about me will continue to do so. I hope to continue healthy and rewarding connections with the people I have grown to love over my whole life as an SDA.To call this a difficult decision would be an understatement. I have been a fourth generation SDA. To disconnect feels like a surgical procedure. But I can no longer align myself to this denomination . . .’

About a thousans people ‘liked’ this message!

Three messages in just a few days. They convinced me even more than I already was that I am engaged in an important project. After having read and received many similar stories in the past few years, and particularly, in recent months, I decided early in the year to write a book that would target people (and especially Adventists) who struggle with doubts regarding their faith and their church.

Some have doubts about God and whether he truly cars for them. Others wonder whether some of the things the Adventist Church expects of its members are truly Bible-based and whether you must indeed believe all 28 Fundamental Beliefs to be considered a ‘true’ Adventist. Many deplore recent trends in the church and the manner in which the church’s leadership steers (or forces?) the world church in a particular direction. In the Western world in particular many have already left the church. For others that process has not been finalized, but they constantly ask themselves: Shall I remain or do I leave?

I recognize in myself in much of this doubt and deep disappointment about trends and events in my church. That is why I wanted to write an honest book in an attempt to provide support to many who are in doubt and uncertainty, and to suggest a few possible ways of dealing creatively and constructively with one’s doubts. The manuscript of the book is now almost ready. The (preliminary) title is: Facing Doubt. The subtitle is: A Book for (Adventist) Believers in the Margin. The book will first be published in English, but hopefully a Dutch version will follow.

I hope the English language edition will be available just after the summer. At that point the enormous challenge will be to promote the book, so that the target audience will know of its existence and will get the information as to where to order it. I hope many of my blog readers will assist me in getting the word out. I will utilize various channels, such as Amazon.com and other sites, and especially also the social media.

I will keep you posted!

 

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Ellen and Linda

 

In the past ten days or so I read two significant books that touch on my church—the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. The first of these two is published by Pacific Press, in California and is about Ellen G. White. [1] Yet another book about her? many might ask. Has not everything  what there is to say about Ellen White already been said? Apparently not. In this book the reader finds a series of essays written in defense of Ellen White. The initiative to produce this book lies with the Ellen G. White Estate, the institution that is responsible for the literary heritage of Mrs. White.

Unfortunately, the authors do not directly deal with the issues that were quite recently discussed in a book that looked at the ‘prophet’ from a somewhat greater distance and more critically. [2] Yet, this new book is considerably more objective than we often see in official Adventist publications about Mrs. White. For instance, there is much more attention for Ellen White’s role in the development of Adventist doctrine, her extensive ‘borrowing’ from historical and other sources in her books and articles, and the role of her assistants. It is acknowledged that Ellen White was a child of her times, also with regard to her (dated) scientific insights. Even though many questions remain, I found this book quite refreshing. Those who want to follow the ongoing discussion about the person and work of Mrs. White should get the book!

The second book is about another woman: Linda Shelton, the co-founder of the Adventist television and radio empire of 3ABN. This ‘independent ministry’, is the largest of the many independent ministries that claim to support (and at times to correct) the church in its task to proclaim the gospel in its Adventist packaging, as effectively as possible. The 3ABN organization has its studios and its offices in the southern part of the state of Illinois (USA). Its programs are broadcast worldwide by satellite, the Internet and a large number of cable stations. 3ABN is financed through gifts of viewers and listeners to the tune of some 15 million dollar per year.

Linda Shelton has written her autobiography which was published a few months ago. [3] In this book of over 500 pages Linda tells the story of how, after her first failed marriage, she met Danny Shelton, the founder of 3ABN, became intensely involved with the organization, and, after some time, married with Danny, whose first wife had died in a car crash. The book paints a very disturbing picture of the egocentric, megalomaniac president of the 3ABN organization and of the ugly manner in which he often treats people and the way in which he provides his relatives with jobs in 3ABN. Linda described Danny’ jealousy, when he saw the popularity of her programs and the way in which, as time went by, her marriage with Danny began to unravel.

A major part of the book deals with the unscrupulous way in which she was fired in 2004 from her functions in 3ABN, and with Danny’s attempts to divorce her. Needing to find ‘biblical grounds’ for a divorce, he accused Linda of adultery (he used the term ‘virtual adultery, whatever that may mean) with the Norwegian doctor who was treating Nathan (Linda’s son from her first marriage) for his drug addiction.  Danny never succeeded in providing any form of convincing evidence of Linda’s alleged misdoings. However, Danny secured a divorce with maximum speed and soon re-married with a person called Brandy, who by now was also a 3ABN employee. Whether the son  she brought with her from her previous marriage resulted from an earlier extramarital affair with Danny, has remained a mystery.

Indeed, it is a very ugly saga that still continues, for even today (eleven years later) the divorce settlement between Danny and Linda has not been finalized. The troubles around Mr. Shelton did, however, caused so much unrest that for a number of years he was barred by the 3ABN board from the organization’s presidency. However, in 2014 he was reinstated in his role—be it without Brandy, who left him a few years earlier. In the meantime all kinds of unpleasant things continue to happen that are intended to make life for Linda as difficult as possible.

For quite some time I had been aware of the problems surrounding the Sheltons and 3ABN, but this book fills in many of the details. I continue to be amazed that so many people are still willing to support 3ABN, often with large amounts of money, without worrying (of without knowing?) about the hundreds of thousands of dollars Danny must spend to pay for his lawyers in the many court cases he must face, and about the fact that 3ABN has its own jet, while leasing another one. It also greatly amazes me that the South-England Conference recently entered into an evangelistic alliance with Shelton c.q. 3ABN.

What I find more amazing than anything else is that the top leadership of the church does not clearly distance itself from Danny Shelton and the clique around him. Does life style and the way you treat other people not matter as long as your theology is conservative? It is hard to escape  that impression!

(If you want to purchase Linda Shelton’s book, you may order it via her website (www.lindashelton.org) or through Amazon.com.)



[1]  Merlin D. Burt, ed., Ellen White: The life and work of the most influential voice in Adventist history (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2015).

[2]  Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land en Ronald L. Numbers, red., Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet (Oxford UK/New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[3]  Linda Shelton, Adventures in Forgiveness: an Autobiography (LLS Publishers, 2015).

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Gut feelings

 

Last week the Netherlands held its first referendum. A number of groups used the new law that says that a referendum must be organized if more than 400.000 people sign a petition to that effect. Of course, there are a few other conditions, and you cannot simply let the people decide about all and sundry. Last week a petition to hold another referendum was refused. It concerned a Dutch citizen who wanted the be crowned the Pharaoh of the Netherlands. He was sure a majority of the nation would see this as a good idea if asked in a referendum!

Anyhow, the referendum that was held a few days ago was not intended to satisfy a person with Pharaoh-ambitions, but was about a treaty between the European Union and the Ukraine. Twenty-seven of the twenty-eight countries of the EU have already ratified this treaty, and the Dutch goverment was planning to do likewise, but the initiators of the referendum wanted to throw a wrench in the works. They succeeded. For most of the day it seemed that their attempt would fail, as it appeared that the number of voters did not reach the election threshold of thirty percent, but when the voting stations closed it became clear that just over thirty-two percent had cast their votes. Over sixty percent voted ‘Nee’. So, a majority felt that the Ukraine should not be allowed to benefit from such a treaty. My  strong ‘yes’ vote did not change the end result.

Listening to the debates of the past weeks between those who wanted the treaty to go through and those who thought it was wrong to go that way, made me conclude that both groups had some valid arguments. But weighing things carefully, I decided that there were solid enough reasons to vote ‘yes’. However, it cannot have escaped the onlookers that many of the people who voted also had other hidden agendas. For most of the ‘no’-voters this referendum was a way of venting their anti-EU frustrations. For large groups in Dutch society ‘Brussels’ has become a scary thing. Many may not be able to put their objections into reasoned arguments, but they have become convinced that it is high time to retrieve our endangered national sovereignty. And, they say, ‘Europe’ costs each Dutch citizen buckets full of money. This was, for instance, the case when recently the Euro had to be saved and the Netherlands had to contribute billions of Euros. I am sure that last week many voters let their gut feelings, that somehow we must have ‘less Europe,’ determine their vote.

Moreover, the government failed to convince the voters that this treaty did not imply that the Ukraine would be allowed full membership in the EU any time soon. The majority believes that this would be the first step to full EU-membership, however strongly this was denied.

There is, I believe, much reason to be worried, The referendum clearly showed the enormous distrust in the country towards the government. The people somehow have this gut feeling that we may soon become totally subject to ‘Brussels.’ This was the main reason why something that was positive for all, was voted down.

In many ways this resembles a process that is also visible in the Adventist Church. During the world congress in San Antonio, now almost a year ago, a majority of the delegates voted against a proposal that would allow for more participation of women in the church, in a major part of the world. In theory the vote was about a proposal to allow for some regional autonomy with regard to this issue, but other things played out in the background. A widespread gut feeling—a sense of deep unease—that this would simply lead to some other undesirable developments, led many (in an atmosphere of deep distrust) to vote ‘no’.

We currently see something similar in the Dutch Adventist Church. Next June a special session will be held. On the agenda is the question whether the Dutch church does sufficiently follow the rules of the world church. The constitution of the Netherlands Union allows for the possibility that a special session be convened when at least six hundred people sign a petition to that effect. This recently happened. Among these 600-plus people who gave their signature  certainly is a group that knows exactly what the issues are, but many have signed because they  just have a vague sense of unease—a gut feeling—that some things must be terribly wrong in the governance of the church in Holland.

The referendum law was accepted by a majority in the Dutch parliament. I did not think this was a good iea, and I still think that way. We choose leaders to govern the country. If we feel, after some time, that they do not do a good job, we can replace them in the next election. That is a democratic model that, I believe, in the end works best. Likewise for the church. We must trust our leaders and let them do their work. If we feel they do not do a proper job, we can replace them with other leaders at a next regular session. However, as long as the rules also allow for a different way of decision making (referendums or special sessions), everything possible must be done to ensure that reasoned arguments and facts, rather than gut feelings, dominate the process.

 

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Looking back at Easter

 

Once more Easter is in the past. I look back on the Easter weekend with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I found it quite inspiring. On Friday evening I participated in a Communion service in my local church. On Saturday morning I was the guest speaker in the Adventist Church in Utrecht, where I preached about the good news of the resurrection after the church members had enjoyed an Easter breakfast together.

Participating in a communion service is quite special for me, since I rather seldom have the opportunity to do so. I preach almost every week and fill the gaps in the preaching schedule in many different churches. It stands to reason that in most churches their ‘own’ pastor takes the communion service rather than someone who is flown in from Zeewolde.

On Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter) a spectacular theater/musical production was brought to the stage in the city of Amersfoort: the Passion. It told the story of the suffering and death of Christ in a modern way. It was the seventh time that the Passion was brought to the (open-air) stage. More than 20.000 people had come to Amersfoort, in spite of all the  security measure, which were deemed advisable after the terrorist attacks in Brussels just a few days earlier. More than four million people watched the television registration, i.e. one in every four men, women and children in the Netherlands.

However, the Easter event is all too easily eclipsed by other things. I was greatly disappointed when (as I do every do) I visited the website of the Netherlands union on Easter Sunday. The least I had expected was a short Easter meditation. But no.  The most important news for this site was apparently the 2016 budget for the church organization. How sad!

In the Dutch national arena the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was overshadowed by the passing of Johan Cruyff at  age 68. He is seen by many as one of the best soccer players of all times. I am prepared to accept that judgment, when soccer experts tell me so. I know nothing about soccer and I am quite happy to stay in  that state of ignorance. I do, however, realize that Cruyff was a real icon for lots of people and that in many ways he was a great ambassador for his country. It was, therefore, quite understandable that the media paid a lot of attention to his death. It had been known for some time that Cruyff suffered from lung cancer and the media had been able to prepare for the news of his passing. But I had not expected that my newspaper (with a supposedly Christian signature) would fill the entire front page with a picture of Johan Cruyff and dedicate no less than twelve (!) pages to him. In the Dutch media many voices were heard that compared the two JC’s—Jesus Christ and  Johan Cruyff. It was clear that the soccer player JC was far more popular that the Man of Sorrows.

Let’s for a moment return to the Passion. The interest for this theatrical production was both encouraging and remarkable. The recently published report God in the Netherlands—that appears once every ten years—was very pessimistic about the current state of faith and of the church in the Netherlands. And this is most certainly true for the kind of religion that is channeled through the churches. At the same time there is still an enormous amount of spirituality and God is not ‘dead’ by any means. The big question is how the churches (and that includes ‘my’ church) can connect with these new forms of faith and spirituality. The traditional churches may no longer be able to do that and new forms of being and doing church will have to ‘emerge’. I  hesitate to even use the term ‘emerging church’, since it is a red flag for many that only gives rise to negative sentiments. But I am more and more convinced that we must allow the Spirit to let new forms of ‘being-church’ emerge, where people of 2016 can find answers for their questions and where the risen Lord can appear to those people who can no longer recognize him in the midst of the traditions of the past.

 

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