Are Sunday laws coming?

Since a few weeks the supermarket close to the apartment building where we live is open on Sundays. Sunday shopping has long been a hotly debated issue in local politics. Until recently the influence of the religious parties was strong enough to frustrate the attempts by the rest of the local council to allow all shops to be open on Sundays, if the shop owners so desire. At long last, things are changing in our village of some 22.000 inhabitants. As they have been gradually changing in most places in our traditionally Calvinist country.

In the Thursday issue of my daily newspaper (one of the Christian dailies of our country) I found an interesting article about Sunday observance in the USA. For a major percentage of the population in the USA the Sunday is rapidly losing its importance. Only one third of all American avoids paid work; for only ten percent shopping on Sunday remains taboo, and only six percent feels that Sunday observance is incompatible with visiting an amusement park.

There is an ever-deepening chasm between the reality of Sunday observance in today’s western world and the message that continues to be heard in some quarters of the Adventist Church, namely that we will soon have to face severe Sunday laws, which will force every citizen to keep the Sunday and will make life extremely difficult for those who insist on keeping the seventh-day Sabbath sacred. However, the expectation that in the end of time a universal Sunday law will be enforced by the civil authorities, upon the insistence of the public and at the demand of the “apostate” churches, seems to be more and more unrealistic. Admittedly, there are a few groups and organizations that continue to urge legislation to enforce strict Sunday observance, but in reality the overall trend is towards less, rather than more, strict Sunday keeping. In the western world the Sunday of church worship is rapidly being replaced by a Sunday of amusement and shopping, and by a day when people also want to see their packages with their on-line orders delivered.

Adventists must ask themselves: Does the Bible clearly predict a time when merciless Sunday laws will be enforced?  They will have to realize that this Sunday-law scenario is mainly based on the interpretation of the prophecies of the Revelation by Ellen White in her book The Great Controversy. For some this means that, against all present appearances, the Sunday laws are coming, because “she says so!” For others it means that Ellen White was wrong and that she is thereby disqualified as a prophetic beacon for the Adventist believers. For me, it means that many must revise their concept of inspiration.

Ellen White wrote her book The Great Controversyin the late nineteenth century, against the background of the circumstances that prevailed in the United States. Her world was divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants. She belonged to a tiny Adventist sect that was not welcome. She lived in a time when politicians at the state level and the national level were doing all they could to enforce Sunday observance. She experienced how in some states Sabbath keepers were actually put in prison!  However, her world no longer exists.  The underlying “grand narrative” of the “great controversy” between the forces of good and evil is as valid as ever before. But it plays out in vastly different ways in our secular society, that has a totally different religious and cultural composition. It is up to us to discern how this “great controversy” plays out in our twenty-first century western world.

The great challenge for Sabbath-keeping Adventists is not to keep talking about an end-time scenario that is increasingly implausible, but to convince their fellow-citizens that there is an immeasurable religious, social and health benefit in respecting the God-given six plus one rhythm in time. Man has been created with an internal clock and not to respect that will be to their own detriment. The Sabbath remains our best antidote against stress and burn-out and our best channel for regaining moral strength. It is the divinely ordained instrument to charge our spiritual batteries and to (re)connect with God and the people who are dear to us.

Let us not waste energy on trying to push an unrealistic  Sunday-law scenario, but promote and model a life in which the Sabbath-rest, that is part of God’s creation, holds center stage.

Answers to the real questions

Some twenty years ago I wrote the manuscript for a book that I gave the working title “The Challenge of Change.”  It dealt with the need for some substantial changes in the Adventist Church and outlined some areas where I felt those changes would be most needed. At the time it was tentatively accepted by one of the American Adventist publishers, but the plan was abandoned due to serious criticism from “above”.  I had almost forgotten about it, but when the topic of “change” emerged in a conversation I recently had with some church leaders in the domain of communications, I was encouraged to take another look at the manuscript, and update and revise it where necessary.

I am not very good in solving computer problems and when, after I had excavated the document from the recesses of the hard disk of my laptop, it took me a lot of effort to change the ancient Word Perfect format into something I could work with in the Word program that my Apple MacBook Air is able to handle, with footnotes and page number etc. in the right shape.  But, somehow, I succeeded and during the last month or so I spent a significant amount of time in updating, revising and (hopefully) improving what I wrote two decades ago. Last week ago I submitted the revised document to a publisher. At that point the customary waiting period begins: Will it be accepted for publication? If so, is the publisher happy with the text as it stands, or will there be a request for some changes or even for the rewriting of some sections?

However, during such a process of waiting I usually start on a new writing project. For some time I have toyed with the idea of writing a book on the theme of death and resurrection. I have been in dialogue with one of our Adventist publishers and have in principle been given the green light. I have provided a tentative outline and I have begun to work on some of the chapters that I have in mind.  Yet, there is one fundamental question that still needs to be clarified: Who are the intended readers?  Is it meant to be a book for Adventists mainly, or primarily for non-Adventists? That makes quite a difference.

Another important aspect is:  What are the topics and sub-topics I should deal with and in what order? As an Adventist pastor it is not difficult for me to opt for the traditional approach and determine what I feelthe readers need to know. But a person who had read the book proposal sent me a list with questions today’s people might have with regard to death and the hereafter, but that we seldom touch upon in Adventist publications on the topic.

Yesterday I was reading the draft of a chapter a PhD candidate in the USA had asked me to review. He wanted me to be one of his readers as he plows along. His subject has to do with the presence and witness of the church in an urban setting.  In the chapter that I read yesterday he emphasizes the need for the church to respond to actual questions, rather than give answers to questions we thinkthe people have or should have. And that will be my challenge also as I write my book about death and resurrection: What real questions do real people—religious and non-religious—have about this topic that affects all of us in such an existential way? Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not I have satisfying answers. The only thing I can promise is: I will do my level best.

PS. Of course, whenever we talk about our faith, the real questions of others (and not the questions we think they have, or should have), should be the starting point.

Value

Recently a painting of David Hockney fetched the unbelievable amount of ninety million dollar. It was the highest amount (so far) ever paid for a work of a living artist. I must admit that I liked the painting and would not mind having it on one of the walls of our living room, but for the life of me I cannot understand what gives a work of art this kind of value. I do not know what the first owner paid for it, but it must have been just a very tiny percentage of this multi-million amount. When Hockney produced his painting “Pool with Two Figures” it may have taken him a few days or weeks of his time and no more than perhaps one hundred dollar in material (canvas, paint, etc.) And I remember reading that he made a trip to a specific location where he wanted to photograph the person who was to be portrayed on the edge of the swimming pool. That may have cost him a few thousand dollar at most. So, what brought the immense added value?

Several factors play a role. By now Hockney’s reputation as a renowned artist would add some zero’s to the price of anything he has made. And art dealers know how to get their share of what a buyer will ultimately pay. The buyer was rich enough to outbid all other interested parties. Was he/she motivated by an obsession to acquire this painting? Or was it to be an investment that could bring some extra tens of millions at some future date?

Clearly, many objects soon lose most, or not all, of their value, while some things never ldrop in value because of their intrinsic worth (being made of precious metal or containing precious stones, etc.), and some things only continue to increase in value. However, the kind of value we are referring to is conditioned by the human desire to possess something and on the human expertise of making an assessment that takes into account such aspects as fashion, culture, and rarity. In spite of all the experience of the experts the value of something may be either highly overrated or estimated far too low.

It becomes infinitely more difficult to put a value on human beings. We often reckon in terms of net worth. That means that people like Bill Gates and Soros would fall in the highest category. But would men like Einstein and Mozart, or contemporary equivalents, be of even more or of lower value? Is a well-educated person, with a good job, who lives in the Western world, of more value than a jobless person living in an African shanty-town? And is an octogenarian with a serious physical condition of enough value to warrant the prescription of a medicine with an annual price tag of some thirty thousand dollar?

Let’s take it one step further. What value do we as Christians attach to other people? Are all our “brothers” and “sisters” of the same value for us? Or do we have the tendency to somehow place more value on some groups or individuals than on others? And are fellow human beings, near and far, of enough value for us that we will do our utmost to assist them materially and spiritually? And are peopleof more valueto us than things? Is a fellow-church member of more value than even than a painting of Hockney?

This week I am reminded of the fact that in life some things are of far more real value than a healthy bank account. As I have flown to Canada to visit my two sisters who live there, and who are in dire straits health-wise, I realize perhaps more acutely than “normally”, that such things as health, family and love are the kind of values that truly count.

Moreover, when considering the concept of value, we must constantly remind ourselves of the fact that for God every human being is of equal worth. He does not only look after those who fit his mold of likable people. He gave us all the same status, “just a little lower than the angels.” Human beings are valuable enough in God’s sight that he was willing to risk everything—even the death of his Son—in order to make sure that we would retain our God-given value. Let’s never forget: The value of each of us human beings is determined by the price God was willing to pay for us.

 

More important than winning

In a previous blog I referred to a recently held study conference of Belgian and Dutch pastors about the theme of “Violence and Non-Violence”. In this blog I want to return to this event. One of the lectures—by a Belgian colleague—focused on Dr. Martin Luther King, one of the great pioneers of non-violent resistance. King, he said, was no saint and also had his less attractive characteristiscs, but he will remain famous as a prominent fighter for the rights of the Blacks in the United States. He  was murdered in 1968.

As part of his lecture the speaker put a slide on the screen of the “Ten Commandmands of Non-Violence”, which had been drawn up by King. Since I am, to some extent at least, someone who follows technological progress, I quickly took a picture of the slide, so that I would later be able to better remember the exact words. As commandment number two King mentioned: “Remember always that the nonviolent movement (in Birmingham) seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory.”

For me this point stood out in the lecture: When we get embroiled in a conflict we are eager to emerge as the winner. When we take someone to court we want to win the case. When we are attacked by someone we will not rest until the other party had admitted he/she was in the wrong. When countries go to war, they, of course, want the other country to lose. The victory may come at enormous costs. A few days ago we were reminded of this when the world remembered the end of the First World War, now one hundred years ago. This terrible war was about victory, whatever the cost, while reconciliation and justice were regrettable often forgotten.

The words of Martin Luther King were most appropriate. How can we end conflicts by emphasizing justice and reconciliation, rather than focusing on gaining the victory? Could it also in a conflict in the church, (such as the controversy about the ordination of women), be possible to no longer focus on who will gain the victory? This particular conflict threatens to escalate to the point that it might cause the world-wide church to split. Could we not somehow use all available means to strive for reconciliation and for a form of justice that all parties would find acceptable? Is there any hope that the top leadership of the church would begin to seek for reconciliation rather than risk further escalation in the “compliance” process? Even if that would mean that none of the parties would be able to claim a complete victory?

The words of Martin Luther King certainly also find their application is local congregations where two or more parties are at loggerheads with one another. Unfortunately, there are such cases in the Dutch church. And I fear this is also a tragic reality in many other places in the world. I call on all parties in such conflicts to remember the words of Dr. King that underline how it is not of the highest importance to be able to claim a victory, but that our concern must always be justice and reconciliation. For, if push comes to shove, this is the way of Christ.

Rescinding a decision?

During this past week the Belgian-Luxembourg Conference held a two-day pastoral meeting in the Netherlands. They also invited Dutch pastors to attend. I was glad I was able to be there. Ever since a few years ago I interrupted my retirement to serve for some 18 months as the interim-president of that conference, I enjoy meeting with my Belgian colleagues. The theme for the study-conference was “Violence and Non-violence”. A number of presentations focused on biblical issues, some on historical aspects, and the last lecture dealt with how to handle non-verbal and verbal abuse in our churches. I had been ask to give a historical overview of the position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, throughout its history, with regard to participation in the military and, in particular, regarding the long tradition of non-combatancy.

I had spent considerable time researching this topic, as this was an area of which I did not know all that much. The church was organized (in 1863) in the midst of the American Civil War, and the small denomination of just a few thousand members had to decide how to react to this situation. Although the standpoint of the leaders was not immediately crystal clear, it is fair to say that from the beginning of the Adventist movement there was a strong sense that Christians should serve their country and be loyal citizens but should first of all obey God’s law, which would not allow them to “work” on the Sabbath and to go against the sixth commandment that tells us not to kill any other human being. In many parts of the world, and especially in the United States, there has over time been a significant shift in this regard, and today a military career is a viable option for many young Seventh-day Adventists. I feel sad that in the process a significant aspect of our heritage is being lost.

As I was preparing my lecture, I was struck by two interesting facts that (I think) have a direct bearing on current issues the Adventist Church is struggling with. First of all, there is the question whether decisions that are taken by a General Conference in session must always be adhered to or may, at some later stage, be rescinded or disregarded by the church’s administration, if there is a strong conviction that the decision was not good for the church. The 1954 General Conference in session in the city of San Francisco decided that the principle of non-combatancy was of such importance that it should be included among our principal beliefs in the Church Manual. This, however, did not happen. Apparently, the editors of the Church Manual dragged their feet, and a few years later it was decided by the administration of the church that it would be unwise to put this in the Church Manual, as this would cause considerable problems for our members in different places in the world.  How interesting!  It seems that a vote by a GC session was not always sacrosanct. There is at least this precedent where such a vote was later disregarded. And the argument used is also of major significance. The consequences  for some regions of the world of that vote were thought to be serious enough to go against a decision of the world body. Could this precedent perhaps help us to see the San Antonio decision about the ordination of female pastors in a different light?  And could it also help the GC leaders to respond positively to the North American request to rescind the “compliance-document” that was approved during the recent Autumn Council?

And then, secondly, it occurred to me that the shift in our attitude towards serving in the military and towards bearing arms happened without any formal decisions during a General Conference session or Autumn Council. It simply was a gradual development that took place over time. The point is not whether or not I applaud this development. The point is that the church does not always define and re-define its positions by a process of formal world-wide debate and GC session votes. Some things just develop and change over time—not always everywhere in the same way and with the same speed. Would it not be much better to also allow the issue of the ordination of women to simply run its course and accept that changes will happen in different ways in the various regions of the world and at different speeds? Similar developments have happened in other areas without jeopardizing the world-wide unity in the church.

The recent Autumn Council paid a lot of attention to our denominational history (in some aspects in a rather bizarre way). But is would seem that this attention to the Adventist past was in many ways quite selective. I would urge the church’s administrators to also look at our past in order to find some inspiration for ways that would get us out of the present quick mire in which our church is at risk to sink ever deeper and deeper.