Fear

 

Last week I actively participated in the bi-annual study conference of Adventist theologians in Europe. Some 75 women and men assembled at Friedensau University in Germany, not far from the city of Magdeburg. The theme of the meeting was ‘Freedom’. In this year of Luther commemorations the focus was in particular on the small book of Luther on ‘the freedom of a Christian.’

One of the speakers was Dr. Zack Plantak, who currently teaches theology and ethics at the Loma Linda University in the USA. In the first part of his challenging paper he emphasized the reality of our times in which many people do not feel free, but suffer from a threefold tyranny.  First of all, he said, there is the tyranny of the past: the feeling of guilt that keep us prisoners. The tyranny of the present is our self-centeredness. And, thirdly, our freedom is constantly threatened by a form of tyranny that concerns the future, namely fear. I suspect that some of Zack’s thoughts may surface again in one of my sermons in the near future.

It is undeniably true that many of us are burdened with fears regarding the future. Parents worry about their children, and that anxiety does not stop the moment they become independent. Young adults have many fears about their future–they worry about their job, their mortgage, their pension. Those who face old-age are afraid they will lose their physical strength and their mobility (or their mind).

Unfortunately, however, fears do not always only concern the things that may yet come, but also affect the present. And this–sad to say–is increasingly true even in the church–most definitely also in the Adventist Church. We must face the fact that our church is characterized to a major extent by a culture of fear.

I receive many comments from readers of my latest book (FACING DOUBT) who tell me that they recognize their own doubts and concerns in my book. But they also often state how difficult it is to talk about these with people around them. Many are afraid that by talking about their views that deviate in some respects from standard Adventist teachings, they may no longer be able to function within their local church.

Church members who do not belong to the heterosexual part of mankind are often afraid to talk about their sexual orientation. The truth is , indeed, that in many Adventist churches you cannot be a full member if you are gay or lesbian, let alone be elected in a church office.

I hear from many Adventist academics how they fear that their academic freedom is increasingly under threat–and this is in particular true for theologians. They must adhere to all aspects of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs and are only allowed to approach the Bible in one prescribed way. Those who voice other views easily become suspect and may even lose their job.

And then there are people in leading positions in the church who tell me that they must be ever so careful in what they say, and must often remain silent, because otherwise they may come under scrutiny and that might mean they will not be reelected in their position.

It is clear to me that this is a deplorable situation. It is not good for a human being to be afraid. And fear should not be part of the life of a Christian or of the atmosphere in a community of believers. The faith experience of a Christian is not to be characterized by fear but by love. (See 1 John 1:14: Perfect love will make all fear disappear.)

 

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On the Freedom of a Christian

 

It is Friday morning, around six o’clock. Today the conference of Adventist theology professors from all over Europe, which started here (at the campus of Friedensau University in Germany) on Wednesday evening, will continue. I am, in fact, not one of the typical participants. Not only have I now already been retired for a considerable time, but my career has largely been outside of lecture rooms. Nonetheless, I am always invited at these bi-annual events and usually I take an active part in the program. That is also the case during this year’s conference. At 9.30 it will be my turn to present a lecture. I am one of the four so-called ‘plenary’ speakers. That means that I have been given a period of about 90 minutes to speak and for the questions and discussions that follow. During other parts of the program shorter lectures will be presented by two speakers simultaneously, which means that one has a choice to attend the lectures that one finds most interesting).

The theme of the conference is: On the Freedom of a Christian– Human accountability and Liberty in the Light of the Reformation”.  Since 2017 is the year in which it is commemorated how 500 years ago Luther ‘launched’ the reformation by nailing his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the ideas and actions of Luther also play a major role in most of the lectures.

On the Freedom of the Christian is one of the best known early publications of Luther. My lecture is also inspired by that theme. The first part of what I am going to say deals with Luther’s concept of ‘freedom” and with the way in which Luther practiced ‘freedom.’ For Luther, freedom, in the first place, meant that a human being must be free from the oppression of the law. We become free by accepting in faith that we are justified by God, without contributing to this ourselves in any way. Freedom it first of all is a matter of inner freedom. This is the core of reformation theology. What also appeals to  Protestants is that Luther had the courage to protest against the many errors and unbiblical practices of the medieval church and wanted to be free from the papal tyranny of his days.

In these respects Adventists feel very much akin to Luther. But this is much less so when it concerns his further ideas regarding freedom. The reformer objected to the view that human beings have a free will. Like Calvin he taught his followers that there is a (double) predestination, in which the human will plays no role. With many other, especially evangelical, Christians Adventists firmly disagree with this.

Also with regard to other aspects of freedom Adventists are no disciples of Luther. The reformer did not support full religious freedom for all. And deviant theological view were not tolerated in the Lutheran camp. Moreover, Luther did not want a separation between church and state. In many ways Adventists are closer to the ‘radical’ reformers, who advocated a full separation between church and state and defended a much greater degree of tolerance for other ideas and of religious freedom.

In the second section of my lecture I will emphasis that in this Luther-year, we must not only pay attention to what Luther said and did in the domain of freedom, but that we must also look at ourselves. From the inception of our movement we have fought for religious freedom. Often we were confronted with the need to defend our own rights (for instance with regard to unimpeded Sabbath keeping). But we have also come to the defense (and are still prepared to do so) of others whose religious rights are denied. Unfortunately, however, we must admit that within our own church organization we find that, increasingly, the freedom to think independently is curtailed or taken away. There is a tendency to ever more define in detail what one must believe in order to be viewed as a ‘genuine’ Adventist.  And at present we see, in particular, concerted attempts by the leadership of the church to limit the academic freedom of the theologians within the Adventist Church. That is why I conclude (very carefully) my lecture with this paragraph:

In many ways Luther’s views—and those of Calvin and other magisterial reformers—remained defective. Five centuries after that momentous morning in Wittenberg, when Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the castle church, we may rejoice in the fact that today human rights are in most countries high on the agenda and that religious freedom is defended and practiced by many. It is gratifying to see that the Adventist Church has made freedom of conscience and of religion a point of major emphasis. But the time may have come that the church should consider giving a greater degree of freedom to its members and clergy to explore new ways of doing theology and of sharing their theological convictions with others. This, it would seem to me, would be an important lesson that we can draw from our study of the concept of freedom in the thinking and acting of Luther and the other Reformers.”

 

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An Adventist pastor, or a pastor in the Adventist Church?

After the worship service last Sabbath morning in the Florida Hospital Church in Orlando (Florida, USA) a few members of the pastoral staff invited me to join them for an excellent meal in a nearby Mexican restaurant. I did not only enjoy the food but also the pleasant and open conversation. Our discussion focused in particular on the way in which, anno 2017, most pastors function in their Adventist churches. My American colleagues confirmed what I had already concluded a considerable time ago. In the past many pastors had the ambition to ‘move up’ to some job in the conference or union office. Today, only few have such ambitions. The local church has increasingly become the focus of church work. Most pastors (certainly in the US) have only a very limited interest in what happens at the higher administrative church levels. If they have specific ambitions it is often a desire to be called to an ‘important’ church–for instance one that is connected to a college, a university or major health institution.

When we went into some more detail regarding the tensions that may occur between the ideas and convictions of the individual Adventist pastor, and what is expected from ‘above’, one the pastors said something that caught my special attention. She said: “I am not an Adventist pastor.  I am a pastor in an Adventist church!” If you think about it, this makes quite a difference!

When you identify yourself as an Adventist pastor, you present yourself as an extension of the Adventist Church. You indicate that in all you do and say you want to align yourself with the policies and the way of being-church of the Adventist denomination. This is what the church may expect from you and this is what you are bound to do as an Adventist pastor. This, however, leaves but little space for a more personal interpretation of your task.

When  you see yourself as a pastor who has chosen to work within the Adventist Church, you come at it from a different perspective. You first of all identify yourself as a pastor. As a Christian you have felt the calling to work ‘for God.’ This demanded a choice about the place where you would want to follow that calling, and where–at least in first instance–you would want to receive your ministerial training. You have concluded that you have good reasons to do this in the context of Adventism. But you want to retain sufficient personal space. You work as a pastor within this denomination without losing some critical distance. You feel at home in your church, but you refuse to become a prisoner of the church’s system. You have so much affinity with Adventism that you have gladly chosen to work in and for the Adventist faith community, but you continue to claim the personal space you need and will not slavishly accept all traditional and current interpretations and traditions.

I had never quite thought about my calling as an Adventist pastor in this way, but when my colleague in Florida phrased in these terms, I though: “Yes, this is, in fact, the way I have also always felt it.” And this is how I feel as I write these paragraphs–even though I had never before formulated it in these words: I am not a retired Adventist minister, but a retired minister who is happy to still function within the Adventist Church!

 

 

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Jacob’s flight

 

The Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century is an important theme throughout 2017. We are told that five centuries ago Martin Luther nailed his theses on the door of the Castle Church in the German city of Wittenberg And–somewhat arbitrarily–this event is regarded as the starting point of the Reformation. In the coming months I have various appointments–in particular in Germany–to speak about subjects that are related to the Reformation and especially about its relationship to Adventism. How much does the Adventist Church owe to the Reformation, as far as its theology and its way of being-church is concerned? And who was more important for us: Luther or Calvin? Or should our appreciation mostly go the so-called ‘Radical’ Reformation?

In the past few months many new books about Luther and his work, and about related topics, have been published. When recently visiting one of my favorite bookstores, during the annual week of book promotion, my eye fell on a book that–so we read on the cover–describes the history of three generations of a family in the Dutch Golden Age. The book reads like a novel, but it is based on an impressive amount of historical research. Is Dutch title is: Jacobs Vlucht (The Flight of Jacob). The author is Craig Harline, a professor at the Mormon Brigham Young University in Utah (USA), who is a specialist in the history of the Low Countries and who writes, more specifically, about religious life in Western Europe in Reformation times. The book centers around three main characters: ‘the old Jacob’ (Jacobsz. Roelandt–later latinized as Jacob Roelandus, his son Timotheüs and his grandson, ‘the young Jacob’.

The story has a clear message: In the period after the Reformation–in which the Reformed religion gained substantial support in the Netherlands and even became dominant in some cities and regions–religious tolerance was often much less strong than is often suggested. The family in which ‘the old Jacob’ (who eventually became one of the translators of  the Statenvertaling, the prestigious Dutch Bible translation) grew up, had to flee from the city of Delft to Antwerp because of a (temporary) persecution of the Reformed by the Catholics. His son Timotheüs, who followed in the footsteps of his father and also became a Reformed minister, suffered most from internal intolerance in the congregations where he served. The ‘young Jacob’ would later flee from his parental home in the middle of the night (when he as about 20 years old), because he wanted to convert to Catholicism.  He became a Jesuit priest and later in life left for Brazil as a missionary. There was an intermittent exchange of letters between him and his sister Mary, but any further contact between this Jacob and his Reformed family proved to be impossible.

The book describes in detail how difficult and dangerous it could be in the sixteenth and at the beginning of the seventeenth century to be a Catholic, and how risky it could be in other places to openly live as a Reformed church member. However, the book also provides an interesting view of the life of a Reformed minister in this period and of church life at that time. This aspect of the book warns ut that we must be careful not to idealize the past too much. The Protestants who in this year we read and hear about the heroic deeds of Martin Luther and of the other Reformers (and many of their deeds indeed qualify as such), will also encounter less glorious things and will have to conclude that the church that was established by the Reformers and their followers, was both a community of saints and a hospital for sinners!

Just a short paragraph to illustrate that the church in the era covered by Jacobs Vlucht was far from perfect and not always harmonious. The ‘old Jacob’ was a minister who was highly respected. He was not just active in his church in Amsterdam, but was also charged with other assignments. He was asked to deal with the problems that resulted when a drunken minister fell off his horse. He also had to intervene when a couple in his congregation were literally fighting and had to be physically separated. He was requested to find out whether a parishioner was indeed living among prostitutes, as it was rumored. And he was charged with checking whether his colleagues in the region north of Amsterdam were diligent enough in their studies and sermon preparation, and did not supplement their salary by engaging in questionable forms of commerce. And, of course, he had to find out whether his church members did not have any suspicious theological views, and were not guilty of dancing, gossiping, theft or alcohol abuse, before thy could be allowed at the Lord’s Table

This remarkable book focuses on aspects of Reformation times that are often not, or insufficiently, reported. The church of the past can often inspire us, but we must be careful not to think that in the past everything was better than it is today! The Lord had to exercise patience with the people who five centuries ago wanted to belong to his church. That gives me the confidence that he continues to be patient with the faith community to which I belong in 2017–500 years later.

 

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A letter

 

I had not heard from Hans for a long time. I know him from way back in my youth, but decades ago Hans moved to another country. I was greatly surprised when he called me a few weeks ago. It was about my book FACING DOUBT. Earlier he had already told me that reading it had been good for him. But now he wanted to share a personal experience with me.

Hans told me that years ago he had been on the point of leaving the church. But he eventually decided to stay–in spite of the conservative nature of the church in his new homeland.  A long letter he received in October 1988 played an important role in his struggle to decide whether he would stay in the church. The letter was written by a Dr. W.  Hans has now shared this letter with me and has give permission to quote from it. The letter was in reply to what Hans had earlier written to Dr. W.

. . . I want to try to answer you—to try to write something that will mean something to you. We all know how difficult this is. . . It gives us comfort that it is not urgently necessary to find the right words, as long as it communicates a warm bond! In the story of the sick woman, who had put all her hope on Jesus I find an illustration of the relativeness of the ‘correctness’ of understanding and experiencing. She believed that by touching his robe Jesus could give her what she so earnestly hoped for. We might compare her expectation with that of pilgrims to Lourdes. Jesus told her that her’ faith’ had cured her. What did this woman know about the nature of God, doctrines or church institutions? Her salvation was in a genuine desire for Jesus’ nearness. The fact that Jesus gave her more than she asked for is a miracle we all may expect. Not the intensity of our questions, but our openness to God’s coming to us in our lives is the most important thing . . .

Being a real Adventist is waiting for what God does. Condemning one another because we do not all understand this expectation in exactly the same way, is not the way of Jesus  . . . Jesus mentions this all encompassing characteristic if we want to recognize a disciple: ‘That you love one another.’ That is totally different from constantly telling others that their ideas are wrong . . .

Further on in his long letter dr. W. touches on the topic of creation and how we are to understand the biblical creation narrative. He underlines that christians should give one another the space to have their own ideas about this:

To label others as ‘believers’ or ‘unbelievers’ on the basis of whether one takes the words literally or symbolically, as also in the words of Jesus about the wine of the Last Supper: “This is my blood . . . “ . . . God is the origin of all what is. This fits better with our worldview than the idea that God put the earth in the center of the universe and glued the stars to the ‘heavens’, while the earth was already in existence. The human intellect (also that of the greatest astronomers) is not big enough to grasp what forces, speeds, clashings and fusions of heavenly bodies are involved. Jesus paid no attention to these problems. He focused our thoughts on sparrows, lilies, mountains. He adopted the way of thinking of his time, spoke to the storm and sent evil spirits in a herd of pigs . . . gave the blind their sight using spit, sand and water. . .

. . . Reading about christians who fight with other christians, because they ‘have the truth”, makes it clear to us how much patience God has had with us through the ages, and everywhere. We must be his witnesses and because we are, humanly speaking, inadequate for this, God wants us to wait for his help. This has to do with the present, not with 1844 in whatever way this is interpreted. God waits for us, hoping that we will expect everything from him. That is the path toward peace in our hearts, peace with God . . .

. . . It is not necessary to look for other human deeds. God is able to find a person where he is and we can find Him where He is. God does not to correspond to our image of him, but we must correspond to his image . . .

. . . When a dog rescues you from the water, he teeth are not the teeth of God. But the rescue is an act of God. Likewise I must leave things to God, hoping that He will use me to fill your spiritual need.’

The words of the letter may sound a little archaic, but it touched me deeply. First, because of its content. Here we meet a deeply religious man, who—in spite of all his own doubts—will do whatever he can to help someone else with his questions and doubts.

But the letter touched me also for a very different reason. I also knew the author of this letter. More than fifty years ago I visited him a number of times. At the time I saw him as a rather pedantic, cold and distant person. This letter shows me I was wrong. It seems I was too quick in my judgment. If at the time I had perhaps tried a bit harder to understand him, I might, in spite of our huge age difference, have been able to react more meaningful to his struggle with his questions and doubts.

Thank you, Hans, for sharing this touching letter with me. It inspires me to continue my attempts to help others, in my own way, in dealing with their questions and doubts.

 

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