Generous Spaciousness

 

I am currently reading a book that is entitled Generous Spaciousness[1]. Its subtitle is: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church. I am in the process of preparing some presentations for a small Kinship-sponsored convention in March in Germany, and want to read up on the theology of sexuality. Generous Spaciousness was among the books I ordered from Amazon.com, partly because of the title that sounded so intriguing. I have found the reading very rewarding.

The book is written by Wendy VanderWal-Gritter. This, and the fact that she refers to her Christian-Reformed background, gives me the suspicion that there are some Dutch connections in her family. She studied theology, and when looking for a job she found a position in the Exodus-organization. She worked for this organization a good number of years. This evangelical organization was founded in 1976 and ceased operations in 2013. One of its main activities was its ‘healing ministry’ for gay people. Gradually, however, many of its leaders and of the people active in the ministry had to conclude that they were on the wrong track and that it ministering to people with a gay orientation is far more complicated than they had thought, and that many of their ‘healing’ claims were, in fact, not based on lasting changes.  The writer of the book also gradually distanced herself more and more from her initial approach and began to increasingly question many of her ‘traditional’ Christian convictions regarding homosexuality.

Wendy VanderWal has not yet solved all biblical and theological questions in her own mind, but she has more and more understood that the biblical material is not as clear-cut anti-gay as she had long believed. She is realistic about the fact that Christians are very divided on the issue of ‘alternative’ sexualities and does not believe that any time soon there will be a consensus. But she feels that all faith communities must arrange for a continuous dialogue about this topic. In the meantime the church—in all its layers—must offer a safe place for all who—irrespective of their sexual orientation—want to belong to it and/or worship in it. For this ‘safety’ for all, she coined the beautiful phrase Generous Spaciousness. (She admits that she was inspired by the title of another book, entitled Generous Orthodoxy, in which the author, Brian McLaren, calls, in words of publisher Zondervan, ‘for a radical, Christ-centered orthodoxy of faith and practice in a missional, generous spirit.’ This book is also well worth reading.) She appeals to her readers, irrespective of how they interpret the biblical statements, not to judge but to support each other—in particular those who have a ‘different’ sexual orientation. The church—in particular the local community of Christian believers—must be a place of ‘generous spaciousness’ where, in the Spirit of Christ, there is ample room for all!

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is as divided as many other Christian denominations on the issue of homosexuality. It certainly needs continued dialogue, but reaching consensus any time soon is an unrealistic dream. We can, however, promote a ‘generous spaciousness’, in which a judgmental attitude makes place for a willingness to support each other, irrespective of our sexual orientation, as brothers and sisters in Christ.

I can personally testify to the truth of the following statement by the author of Generous Spaciousness: ‘Building relationships over the last years with gay Christians has allowed me to experience, in a very tangible way, the wideness of God’s mercy . . . I have been confronted with my own impoverished view of God, one that often expected a stinginess in God’s mercy rather than lavish acceptance’ (p. 52).



[1]  Wendy VanderWal-Gritter, Generous Spaciousness: Rsponding to Gay Christians in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2014).

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Walking with God

Years ago I met the now deceased Bill Shea in the Adventist center in Jerusalem. Bill trained as a medical doctor, but later switched to theology and became an accomplished and much appreciated theological scholar. He had a keen sense of humor. We talked about the tourists who visit Israel en masse, and about the many guests who stay at the church center. Bill remarked that the tempo of these tourists is often very high. He said: Most people ran today in the places where Jesus walked.

I am a keen walker. In the past week I made two substantial walks. One was about sixteen kilometers and the other almost twenty. I like to walk at a brisk pace, but try not to make it a race. It is good for my physical condition, but the main thing for me is to enjoy it.

In the Dutch language wandelen (walking) is quite different from going. Dutchmen do not often say that they walk to the bus or to the train station, whereas in English walking and going are, it seems to me, often used almost synonymously. The Germans have two distinct words for walking and goingspazieren and geheh/laufen. Likewise in French: se promener has a different feel to it than aller.

Walking has the connotation of sports and recreation. I was thinking of this when I read in Genesis 5 about Enoch. In many Bible translation we read that Enoch walked with God. Other translations describe Enoch’s relationship in other words as very inimate.

Walking with God—how do we do this? Many Christians (and this certainly applies to Seventh-day Adventist) are with regard to their relationship with God perhaps more inspired by Paul’s counsel to run the race, so that we, in the end, may receive the crown of victory, than by the metaphor of walking with God. Adventists tend to be do-ers rather than thinkers. The church organisation keeps coming with all kinds activities, that push us from one project to the next. At present it is called Total Member Involvement. Soon it will be something else again.

Perhaps we should be more intent on walking with God, rather than on always running for him. Perhaps we should put more emphasis on the development and on the nurturing of our spiritual life than on constant activity. Walking with God means relaxing in the rest that he provides.

 

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Adventist of the year

 

At the end of each year Time magazine features the man or woman of the year. Last year the honor went to Angela Merkel. This time, almost inevitably, Donald Trump was chosen. A few weeks ago the independent Adventist journal Spectrum took the initiative to choose an ‘Adventist of the Year’. A list with a dozen or so names was published on the Spectrum website, and the readers were invited to choose their favorite or to suggest additional names. Dr. Sandra Roberts, the president of the Southeast California Conference, was the winner. She is the only female conference president in the Adventist Church, for the simple reason that church policies do not (yet) allow women in that office. She is not recognized in her role by the General Conference leadership and is mostly ignored by them. But in the few years that she has now been in this role, she has proven herself as an inspiring spiritual leader, who is greatly valued in her conference.

Other names with a high score were Dan Jackson, the president of the Adventist Church in North-America, Dr. Andrea Luxton, the new ‘boss’ of Andrews University, her predecessor Dr. Niels Erik Andreasen and Desmond Doss. I was not on the list, but, lo and behold, I got some votes (about as many as Ted Wilson).

There are, I think, reasons for criticizing the way in which the election of the ‘Adventist of the Year’ took place. The list consisted mostly of people in North-America. And, of course, the Spectrum-crowd is not representative of the average Adventist population. Moreover, the total number of people who cast their vote in this first election of the ‘Adventist of the Year’ amounted to no more than a few hundred. Nonetheless, it was a good initiative and I hope it will become a tradition.

I am very comfortable with the choice of Sandra Roberts. I follow her on the social media and am impressed by the way she performs her job. But, after considerable thought, I myself went for Dan Jackson. He is a man who combines a lot of courage with great wisdom in the way he deals with the differences of opinion between the North-American Division and the General Conference. He remains loyal to the world church, while at the same time carefully steering the church in his territory in a different direction.

But in retrospect I would like to plead for another choice.  Perhaps Spectrum should place ‘the Adventist church pastor’ high on the list of candidates for the next ‘Adventist of the Year’ election. I realize that ‘the’ Adventist church pastor does not exist. The 20.000 or so pastors worldwide do not neatly fit into one box. But, in general, it would be fair to say that they have a tough job. No wonder a considerable percentage suffers from a burnout, find their work very stressful, or quit altogether.

Most pastors must care for more than one congregation. Only a relatively small part of all Adventists belong to a large church that has its own minister or even a staff with several pastors. Many pastors—especially in the developing world—lead a district with ten or even up to twenty churches. In the western world two to four churches per pastor has become the norm. Church pastors are expected to be spiritual leaders with good preaching skills, who know how to inspire their parishioners.  But they must also have organizational and leadership qualities, and must have experience in conflict resolution. They are expected to foster church growth, while retaining the youth.

A major problem lies in the theological sphere. Often a pastor lives in a kind of split world, when his/her churches are quite unlike each other—in ethic composition and/or theological orientation. In addition, there often is a personal challenge. How does the pastor deal with his own questions and doubts, and with his worries about trends in his denomination? It is usually rather difficult to discuss these things with church members. And how does a pastor provide the church members with information and insight regarding important theological and organizational issues, without running too far ahead of his people and contributing to the already alarming degree of polarization? And, last but not least (or better: first and foremost) how does a pastor fit enough time into his/her schedule for study and personal spiritual nourishment?

When I think about it a bit further, it seems a miracle to me that, in spite of everything, so many men and women still feel called to the ministry. And chapeau for all those who, year after year, continue their work with commitment and satisfaction. So, therefore I suggest: Put ‘the Adventist pastor’ at the top of the list of candidates for next year’s election of ‘the Adventist of the Year.’

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For such a time as this . .

 

A few weeks ago I reread the Bible book of Esther. It is a novella that has all the ingredients of a good story: beautiful women, power, treason and a happy ending, when the bad boys are eliminated and the people with courage triumph. At the same time it is a very unusual story. In a Bible book we would expect to see the name of God, but in the Esther saga God is never mentioned, at least not directly. And Esther may be the heroine of the story, but that does not take away from the fact that she agrees to participate in a beauty contest and to become part of the royal harem, before she receives the status of queen.

But there is more in this fascinating story. A high official (Haman) almost succeeds in pushing the king to satisfy his anti-Semitic sentiments and to rid the Persian Empire of all Jewish inhabitants. However, Mordecai and Esther find a way to prevent this. That requires great courage. Esther must approach the king and confess to him that she, in fact, is also Jewish. And she is to tell king about the evil plans of Haman. Mordecai instructs his niece and he suggests that events went the way they did so that Esther would get the opportunity to do something really important. He says: ‘Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?’ (Esther 4:14).

It seems to me that this text fits perfectly with the beginning of a new year. We live in a time that is no less exciting than that of Esther. That raises the question: ‘How then should I live in ‘such a time as this’?  Will we be clear about our Christian identity at moments when it really counts? Do we dare to show the same courage as Esther did, and make it crystal clear where we stand?

Many countries will hold their national elections in 2017—the Netherlands is one of them. Do we make our political choices ‘in a time such as this’ on the basis of our Christian worldview and values? And will we be courageous enough in our daily life and our activities in society to show that we are inspired and led by our Christian beliefs?  And do we, also within our faith community, have the guts to follow our biblically informed conscience, even if that will not be appreciated by all? How do I live my Adventist Christian faith in 2017—‘in such a time as this?’

In short: How do we profile ourselves as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ in 2017—‘un sich a time as this?’ This is not just a general question—it is a question that I must also personally respond to.

 

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Hopes and plans for 2017

 

Of course, I, first of all, have my personal wishes for 2017: health and personal happiness for my loved ones and myself. 

As far as the world around me is concerned, I sincerely hope that world leaders will be able to agree on ways to reduce war, sickness, poverty, and misery. I hope that we will see fewer outburts of populism, and less polarization, and that somehow the Trumps of this world will listen to the more reasonable voices in society.

I hope that in 2017 my church (the Seventh-day Adventist denomination) will be able to get on with its mission—playing its important role in bringing the message of Christ to an ever more secular world—without being distracted and disrupted by radical conservativism. I hope that, more than in the recent past, church leadership will focus on a hopeful and inspiring future, striving for unity in diversity, rather than placing its emphasis on selectively re-creating nineteenth century Adventism.

2017 is now around the corner. I have a habit of making to-do lists in my black Moleskin notebook. Usually, at the beginning of a month I write a to-do-list for the major projects I hope to be working on for the next 4-5 week: sermons, articles, chapters in book, sections of translations, meetings to attend and people to visit. But I also list the topics of lectures that will be coming up in the next 4-6 months, so that  I can start thinking and reading about these. I do not always succeed in doing everything that is on the list, and things sometimes get pushed to the next month. But the system works for me, and by-and-large- keeps me ‘on schedule’, while I am flexible enough to adapt if necessary. However, by working in this way I hardly ever have to struggle to meet a looming deadline.

But at the beginning of the year I also make a list of the major projects I hope to realize in that coming year. My mission with the book FACING DOUBT – A Book for Adventist Believers ‘on the Margin’ will continue. Work is under way on French, Danish, and Russian editions. There may be possibilities for German and Czech translations. (And, by the way, we are also looking for someone who would be able and willing to translate the book into Portuguese! Suggestions are more than welcome).

Most likely I will be working on some translation project for a non-SDA publisher. In the spring of this year Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI) will publish the English edition of a rather substantial book (782 pages), written by two theologians of the Free University in Amsterdam:  Gijsbert van den Brink and Cornelis van der Kooi: Christian Dogmatics. I spent many hours on the translation of this book from Dutch into English. It feels good to see in the publisher’s announcement that is hook ‘is written in a student-friendly tone and is expertly translated!’

A major new project I hope to undertake in 2017 is writing a thorough, yet easily accessible, book about an issue that figures quite prominently in current Adventism: Last Generation Theology. Although it has never been recognized as the church’s official teaching, it has its roots in traditional Adventism and has the support of large groups in the more conservative segment of the church and also among today’s top church leaders. I am convinced that the LGT is based on a number of false premises and has some serious implications. Whether or not I will be able to complete this project in 2017 remains to be seen. I have begun thinking and reading about the topic. I have a lot of relevant material in my own book cases and much is available on line,  but I realize that I will also need to spend at least some weeks in a good Adventist library.

And what else? There promises to be a fair amount of travel in the next twelve months, also outside of the Netherlands.  A dozen or so appointments for study conferences, lectures and sermons are already either fixed or being considered. However, when all is said and done, I do also plan to read—for my own spiritual nourishment and for entertainment—and there are museums to be visited! And there must be time for family and friends . . . and fun.

I realize that all plans are tentative—depending on good health and many other factors. Therefore, I end this blog with the same words that I put at the end of my previous blog—Deo Volente!

I wish all my blog readers blessed Christmas days and a good 2017!

 

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