I am writing this blog in an elegant room on the third floor of the hotel in the German city of Eisenach that is run by the German Evangelical Lutheran Church. My wife and I are here, because I have been invited to give a presentation to the members of the AWA.

The acronym AWA stands for Adventistischer Wissenschaftlicher Arbeitskreis. It is an association of German Adventists who meet from time to time to study and discuss relevant topics for contemporary Adventists. AWA might be compared to the American Spectrum/Adventist Forums organization. It is an independent group, but the fact that the president of the North German Union will preach tomorrow morning, is a clear indication that the AWA is not seen as negative or as a group of rebels.

This year’s topic is the outcome of the recent General Conference in San Antonio. What were the crucial trends? What does the future look like after San Antonio? My lecture on Sunday morning will focus on this latter question.

I do not know whether it is a coincident that this year’s meeting is in Eisenach, or whether choosing this place is meant to be a signal. Eisenach is one of the famous Luther-cities in Germany. Looking from our window I se,e at a distance of a few hundred meters, the top of a high hill, with the Wartburg castle—the fortress where Luther took refuges for about a year and where he translated a major part of the New Testament into German.

Luther is seen by most Adventists in a much more favorable light than Calvin and most other reformers. Luther is the great reformer who dared to challenge the mother church. He had the courage to criticize the many things in the church that were patently wrong. After intensive study he had concluded that essential aspects of the gospel were no longer preached and practiced. Against his initial intentions, this eventually led to a tragic split in the sixteenth century church.

Now, five centuries later (the fifth centennial of the Reformation will be celebrated in the Luther Year in 2017), most Protestants not only see the great achievements of Martin Luther but also his shortcomings. And, at the same time, Luther is no longer only seen in a very negative light by all Catholics. There is a widespread consensus that lots of things in the church of Luther’s days needed urgent correction. But for a long time the opinions differed sharply. For most Protestants Luther was a hero, while most Catholics saw him as a apostate rebel who inflicted great damage on his church.

In spite of major reforms, the church is never perfect. This church is semper reformanda (it must constantly be reformed). In the past few years the leadership of the Adventist Church has been calling for ‘revival and reformation’. Simultaneously, there are many members in the pews who also want to see changes and ‘reform’ in their church. But when they speak of change, or ‘reformation’, they mean something quite different. They want to say that their church is in danger of becoming a system that in many ways resembles the system that Luther protested against. They want to emphasize their own freedom and responsibility before God, when they read their Bible and draw their  conclusions, without having to accept every syllable of an almost infallible document with 28 detailed Fundamental Beliefs. They refer to a system of church governance in which the members (all members; men and women in full equality) form the basis of authority, rather than a subservience to a strictly ordered hierarchy. I expect that in the next few days we will be talking about that kind of ‘reformation’.

It is no surprise that the call for this type of reform is not welcomed by the church’s bureaucracy. This form of criticism is usually regarded as a kind of rebellion that will damage ‘the church’. But those who keep their eyes on the Wartburg (even though not all share in my current privilege of seeing it with my physical eyes), know that bringing ‘reform’ always takes time and effort, But in the end it is liberating and will help many to more clearly see the core values of the gospel. [However, we must do all we can to ensure that the ‘reformation’ which the Adventist Church needs, will not lead to the kind of fatal split that occurred in Luther’s days.]



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The Telegraaf and the Adventist Review


Soon after getting up each morning I spend roughly ten minutes in checking a number of websites. One of these is the site of a Dutch daily newspaper, called de Telegraaf (the Telegraph). Let me say this: I am not a fervent reader of this paper. Maybe I ought to state this a bit stronger: I greatly dislike this paper and the values it proclaims. Around seven am the newspaper boy does not deliver this, admittedly quite popular, paper to our door, but another—’quality’—paper [Trouw]. However, the website of the Telegraaf does provide a quick answer to the question whether something important happened during the nightly hours. And I must admit that I am often also quite curious to see some of the readers’ comments.

Anyone who knows anything of communication and journalism knows that by comparison the media always get more negative ‘letters to the editor’ and web-comments than missives of adhesion. This seems to apply even more forcefully to the Telegraaf readers. Any ‘hot’ item—and lately there have been enough of those—hundreds of readers tend to empty their vials of wrath. Usually the comments define the government as rotten and ineffective, and the prime minister does not get a very positive press either. Half of the Netherlands (or perhaps even a bit more) consists of people who only want to line their own pockets, while they contribute nothing to society. And, of coursem there is Brussels and the EU, and . . . the thousands of Syrian fortune hunters who enter our country.  And who knows how many IS terrorists are among them.

It takes me some effort to realize that these comments do not represent the average opinion of the Dutch population. Yes, they stand for a disturbingly large group of people (who are mostly ill-informed and opinionated), but there are also other voices of people who think in a more nuanced and constructive way—although these tend to be less vocal and, unfortunately, re not speaking out as frequently!

This does not just apply to the secular media. Looking at the letters to the editor and the web-comments of the Adventist Review (the journal of the Adventist world church), I often get a kind of Telegraaf-feeling. I find it quite frightening to see how negative sentiments or simple Hallelujah-shouts that ignore the facts, often reign almost supreme. The comments often cry wolf about all kinds of tendencies that readers discern in the church. So far, so good. There must be freedom of speech. But often ideas, intentions and hidden agendas are attributed to people, and opinions that are contrary to their own are all too easily depicted as satanic. [I hasten to add that I also find many letters and web-reactions in other denominational and independent Adventist media not very uplifting.]

Reading such reader-reactions at times discourages me greatly. I must continuously tell myself that it is a ‘law’ that negative comments will greatly outnumber positive reactions. We are told that the chance that someone who disagrees will seize his pen or grab his i-pad is about ten times more likely than that someone who approves of what he reads will react.

Last week I had to remind myself several times of this. My blog of last week was not appreciated by all readers. Some comments may be found at the end of that blog (both under the Dutch and the English version). Some reactions were of such a nature that I deleted them. After all, I want my blog to retain a certain amount of ‘class’. Quite a few readers preferred to send me e-mails. Among those there were also more negative than positive ones. The most important problem was that apparently many readers did not really understand that message I wanted to convey and thought that I placed Jesus in the gay-scene of his days. Whenever I post a somewhat controversial blog it also appears that some readers are so sure of the correctness of their own views that they will not even consider any other approach.

Until yesterday I thought that this week’s blog might be about the papal visit to the USA. However, I decided against that idea, since I do not want to receive too much digital communication during the coming week. Earlier blogs about the pope or about Catholicism usually resulted in some comments that I really ought to restudy the biblical prophecies, If I did, I would know that the pope is ‘the beast’ of the book of Revelation, and would discover that even the sympathetic Francis deceives us.

For the next few days I do not welcome such reactions. Together with my wife I hope to spend a few pleasant days with friends on the coast of the south of Spain. Next week, undoubtedly, I will find again something controversial to write about.


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Jesus: refugee and gay


According to some second-century sources Jesus was married with Mary of Magdala. We read this, for instance, in the gnostic gospel of Philip. There is hardly any reason to regard this document as containing reliable historic information. If Dan Brown had not referred to it in his Da Vinci Code, this ‘marriage’ of Jesus would not have received much attention. It is very likely that some of Jesus’ disciples were married. We know for sure that this was the case for Peter, since the Bible tells us about his mother-in-law. However, there is no reason to suppose that Jesus and Mary of Magdala were an ‘item’.

I would like to suggest, however, that Jesus was gay. This may seem a daring–and for some probably a somewhat blasphemous—idea. Yet, I believe there is good reason to say this.

My conclusion is based in Matthew 25. There we read how Jesus in the final judgment does not interrogate us about our doctrinal purity, but rather confronts us with the question how we have treated people who were in difficulties, and men and women in the margin. Jesus commends certain people because they have visited him in prison, or because they gave him a meal and provided him with a roof over his head. They respond: “Lord, you are mistaken, we did not find you in such circumstances’. But Jesus replies: ‘Yes, but in fact, you did. For you cared about those who were in trouble and I count this as if you did this for me!’ In other words: He tells us that we are to see his face in every fellow-human being in the margin of society.

This is full of actuality in a time when many thousands of refugees enter our country. We cannot deny that this causes many problems. The politicians debate various possible reactions. The responsible agencies struggle with the logistics. However, for followers of Christ the issue in, in fact, quite simple. We must see Jesus in the face of every Syrian man, woman or child who crosses our path. One day Jesus will tell us: ‘I was that Syrian refugee you helped. Thank you!’

This week, once again, I was confronted with another category of people—outside but also inside our Adventist faith community: with those who continue to face enormous challenges. I was invited as a speaker by one of the German regional organizations of the Adventist Church. I was to give two lectures about aspects of homosexuality. I realize I can hardly call myself an expert in this field, but I am prepared to share my views on this issue. Besides the thirty or so pastors, an Adventist gay man and an Adventist lesbian woman had been invited to share their life story. Several pastors also told of their pastoral experiences in working with homosexual people. All together it was a fascinating and emotional experience to participate in this Hamburg meeting. I probably learned more myself from being there than others may have learned from my presentations. I travelled home with the sense: This was not about some abstract ‘problem’, or about theology and Bible passages. This was about people—men and women who often have to go through a deep and dark valley. How can we, as a faith community, ensure that these people can find a ‘safe place’ in our faith community?

When one day (see again Matthew 25) Christ says to me: ‘I was gay, and you ignored me,’ I may respond: ‘Lord, I never met you as a gay person.’  But then Jesus will reply: ‘O yes. I was gay—and you met me in those men and women with a different sexual orientation and you ignored me.’

Over the last decade or so I have come to the conclusion that there is sufficient biblical, theological and ethical ground to  warmly welcome homosexual fellow-believers in my church, and to accord tham all the rights and privileges that I myself enjoy. This does  not mean that I have a definitive and satisfying explanation for all relevant Bible texts. My own opinion is still ‘work in progress’. But I hope that one day Jesus will say to me: ‘Thank you, that you saw me and accepted me, when I met you in that man or woman who was different. Yes, I was not only the asylum seeking whom you assisted, but I was also that gay person—and you accepted me. Thank you! Come in. You have a place in my kingdom!’


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What remains . . .


When in 1996 the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann (b. 1926) celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday, he invited a few dozen other theologians to come to Tübingen—the city where he lives and taught for many years. In a full-day public meeting they discussed  how their theology had changed in the past thirty years. Some of them said they had hardly needed to adjust their views on the most important theological matters, but for most the opposite had been true. And that was certainly also true for Moltmann himself.[1]

Last week I also celebrated my birthday. It will be another two years before I (hopefully) reach the same blessed milestone as Moltmann did in 1996. But who knows what I will organize at that time? It would be exciting to hear from my Dutch colleagues how they have developed in some of their ideas and beliefs over time.

But apart from such a vague plan, I believe it is good, from time to time, to make an inventory of where you are theologically. This is even more advisable when you have entered the last phase of your life. What continues to be important for you, after having been involved with faith, theology and church for about a half century? What is the focus of your faith, as you live it at present?

I am not the only person to think about this on a somewhat regular basis. Many more illustrious persons also do this. Some of them share the results of the thinking with a larger public in the form of a book. I am thinking, in particular, of two theologians of whom I recently read a book about this topic. The name Harry Kuitert (b. 1920) is still quite well-known in a significant part of Dutch Protestantism. In 2011 a new book of his appeared, in which he pleads for less reliance on the role of knowledge.[2] When one compares this book with his many earlier publications it becomes obvious how through the years he has adapted many of his ideas. (It is, of course, marvelous that he could write another book when he was 85. I hope I may still be able to do likewise!)

I do not think I have changed as much as Kuitert has in my theology, but when he emphasizes that knowledge must be ranked lower than the reality that we are ‘in the stranglehold of grace’ (p. 238), I cannot but fully agree!

Another fascinating theologian who recently made an inventory of his theological pilgrimage, is the Roman-Catholic scholar Hans Küng (b. 1928). For many he remains controversial, but he is almost venerated (this seems a fitting Catholic term!) by many others. The (Dutch) title of one of his last books (so far) is telling: What Remains! [3] Küng has forcefully resisted many of the ideas of his church, most notably papal infallibility and celibacy. It cost him his job as a theology professor in Tübingen, when the church took away his teaching credentials in 1980. But Küng did not lose his faith and neither did he leave the church that had hurt him so terribly. And he continued to believe that people of different faiths can coexist peacefully. In the recently published third volume of his autobiography Küng devotes an extensive section to the abiding value of his faith, as he is now realizes his life may soon come to and end.

Such books inspire me to also contemplate what remains for me. I have left quite a bit behind me and my spiritual backpack has, over the years, become considerably lighter. But, fortunately,  I have not lost my faith. And in spite of some of the less pleasant things I encounter in the faith community that I call my spiritual home, I hope I will yet be able to make a constructive contribution.

[1] See  Jürgen Moltmann, How I changed: Reflections on Thirty Years of Theology (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997)

[2]  Alles behalve Kennis: afkicken van de Godgeleerdheid en Opnieuw Beginnen (Ten Have, 2011)

[3]  Dutch edition: Uitgeverij Ten Have, 2013.

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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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