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Desmond Ford (1929-2019)

In October last year I was one of the main speakers during the “Big Camp” event, which the South Queensland Conference organizes annually on its campsite just outside Brisbane, Australia. During the first Sabbath of this major event, shortly before I was due to go onto the platform to preach, I was approached by a lady, who introduced herself as “Gill”, the wife of Desmond Ford. She told me that “Des” would like to meet me, but that, unfortunately, his health did not allow him to come to the campmeeting in person. Would I be willing to come and visit them in their home, some forty kilometers from the site, if she arranged for my transportation? I visited Desmond Ford that very same afternoon.

I had seen Dr. Ford once before, from a distance, in the early 1990’s, near Andrews University. The university authorities had refused to let him speak on the university campus, and therefore a venue was arranged at a short distance from the university. Ford had become persona non grata in the Adventist Church. He had lost his credentials, after he had become embroiled in a serious conflict with the church’s leadership over some of his theological insights. During the infamous Glacier View Conference in August 1980, the church leaders there assembled had in majority concluded that the standpoints of dr. Ford were a danger for the stability and the future of the church. Looking back at the proceedings, now almost forty years ago, one can hardly avoid the conclusion that Ford had no chance to survive this ‘tribunal.’ His condemnation was mostly based on ecclesial-political grounds.

Desmond Ford came from Australia, where he had become a very popular speaker and theology teachers at Avondale College—the institution of higher learning of the church in Australia. He then moved to the United States—at the urge of church leadership in his home country—where he was appointed as theology professor at Pacific Union College in California. Soon the theological problems for Dr. Ford began to escalate. He became known as a fierce opponent of any form of perfectionism and emphasized untiringly that our salvation is through grace alone. However, his ideas about apocalyptic prophecy became increasingly suspect. The most important controversial issue was his assertion that the so-called ‘investigative judgment’–which according to traditional Adventist teachings had been going on in the heavenly sanctuary since 1844—missed a solid biblical foundation.

Ford’s condemnation, however, was not the end of the matter. The conflict and its aftermath caused a worldwide upheaval. In Australia alone it lead to the—voluntary or forced—exodus of hundreds of pastors. And Ford remained active as speaker and writer—almost until his death a few days ago. Regrettably, the church has not shown the generosity to rehabilitate him at some point. The reality, anno 2019, is that many theologians and pastors in the church agree with a good deal of Ford’s views. Unfortunately there are at present many places in the church whether it is not ‘safe’ to talk about this. Many, in particular, place—just as Ford did—question marks after the traditional Adventist position regarding the ‘investigative judgment.’

I already believed in some form of the so-called apotelesmatic principle, long before I ever heard this technical term. Ford introduced the term for his view that an apocalyptic prophecy often has a provisional fulfilment, or more of these partial fulfillments, before the final fulfilment takes place. And since a few dozen years I have shared in his views of the investigative judgment. Why can this issue not be openly debated, and why would it be so worrisome if there is diversity of opinion with regard to this point? It does in no way demean the fact that there is a heavenly high priest who has provided us with direct access to our Father in heaven. And, really, does an infinite God need a few centuries to go through heavenly books in order to decide who can be admitted to eternity?

The Dutch theologian Johannes van der Ven wrote in one of his books that a church needs conflicts. Only a church that is no longer alive does not have any controversies. Theological controversies force a faith community to re-assess its theological identity. And that is why a denomination must provide for channels through which this dissent can be communicated.

Ford did not get that opportunity within the confines of the church he loved, But also without his church credentials he remained an utterly committed Seventh-day Adventist. He did not become bitter, but continued to challenge all who came to listen to him, or was willing to read his books, to totally rely on God’s grace. I am thankful that I still had the chance to meet him in person. In our conversation of about an hour and a half he never said a negative word about the church. It was clear that I met with a real Christian.

Desmond Ford did the church a tremendous service by prompting many to think more profoundly about their faith. The way he was removed from his position remains a sad example opf how not to deal with doctrinal dissent. Shortly after ‘Des’ celebrated his ninetieth birthday, he closed his eyes forever. He has been a great blessings to untold thousands and his influence will continue, even now, when he is no longer in our midst.

Help, thank, ‘wow’

I realize that prayer is an essential part of being a Christian. If there is a God (and I believe there is), and if he somehow is at the root of our existence (as I believe he is), it makes sense to believe that he communicates with us, and that we are supposed to respond to this communication and to his presence. We do this through prayer.

Sometimes I am touched by the prayers I hear others pray and by some of the classical prayers that are a beautiful part of the Christian tradition. And at times praying gives me a sense of somehow connecting with the Beyond. But I must confess that I am not a prayer warrior, who spends countless hours on his knees. I have found many of the prayer sessions I have attended quite tedious, and I have never gotten used to the praxis of saying a short prayer any time I get in a car to drive even a short distance—as I have often experienced with drivers in other countries. I wonder what God thinks about this pious habit. (As I write this, I am aware of the fact that I, inevitably, use very human language when referring to God). And what about all the prayers that are continuously offered around the world for a change in the weather? How does God decide which prayer he will answer when the farmer asks for rain and the holidaymaker prays simultaneously for a day without rain and plenty of sunshine?

I read in Philip Yancey’s book on Prayer the following statement that someone made who doubted the efficacy of prayer. In many ways it echoes what I also have often thought: “If God can influence the course of events, then a God who is willing to cure colds and provide parking spaces, but is not willing to prevent Auschwitz or Hiroshima is morally repugnant. Since Hiroshima and Auschwitz did occur, one must infer that God cannot (or has a policy never to) influence the course of worldly events.”

Yes, prayer (and how God deals with it) remains a great mystery to me. We plead with God to heal someone who is dear to us. Of course, we include a sentence like: “If it is your will”, or: “Not our will but your will be done.” But really, why should it not be God’s will that a sick person would recover?  Ok, I realize that God did not make the gas ovens of Auschwitz, but the Nazis did. And God did not throw the bomb on Hiroshima, but an American bomber did. And God does not make people sick, but all kinds of natural and environmental processes do, and in many cases a person’s stupid life style choices do. However, it does not answer the question why an all-powerful and loving God does not intervene and prevent the suffering of mankind in past and present.

I have concluded that I will have to live with this dilemma. And, in spite of my questions I will continue to pray. Yesterday I received an advertisement of a new book that has been published by the Dutch publishing firm J.H. Kok. It is the Dutch translation of a book by the American bestseller author Anne Lamott. She writes fiction and non-fiction and some of her books are about the Christian faith. Her latest book is about prayer and is entitled: Help, Thank, Wow. I plan to order the book. The title is intriguing and the book may well provide inspiration for a sermon. Perhaps the title is the best summary of what our prayers should be: Relating to God and asking for his help (regardless of some of the problems I hinted to above), show appreciation for the many good things we experience, and showing respect and wonder for the world around us.

The Danish theologian/philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote these often-quoted words: Prayer does not change God, but it changes us. I agree that prayer can influence us, for engaging in prayer is not first of all uttering some (often quite predictable) words, but it is an attitude—an admission that there is more than us. Someone (I have forgotten who) said that prayer is an attitude of perpetual metanoia. This Greek word means: remorse, repentance. It signifies that we sense our shortcomings and incompleteness and our need to grow—for which we need inspiration and power from Someone beyond us.  It indicates that we know our place. So, I will keep asking for help with some difficult issues I face. I will keep thanking for all the good things in my life and in the world (in spite of all tge bad things), and will try to more often say: “Wow.”

 

Blogs

Since more than a decade I have been writing my (almost) weekly blog. I knew I was not the only blogger in this world, but had no idea how many people are regular bloggers. After some Googling I learned that there are now an astounding number of ca. 152 million bloggers worldwide. And around the globe some 3 billion people are daily reading one or more blogs. My weekly blog is thus only one among very many. Some bloggers invest so much time in their blog that it is of commercial interest for businesses to sponsor them. I do not belong to that category, but I feel very honored that a few thousand people, spread all around the world, regularly read my digital column. If I sometimes happens to be a day later than usual, I actually get some concerned messages, such as: “You are not sick, I hope.”

I also follow a few blogs myself on a regular basis. One of these is Pearson Perspectives (https://www.pearsonsperspectives.com/blog), a product of Helen and Mike Pearson. Before their retirement both were connected with Newbold College in England. Mike taught ethics during almost all of his professional career, while Helen has considerable expertise in the areas of communication and counseling. Both are also gifted speakers. Their blog manifests a great concern, from an Adventist-Christian perspective, for issues in society and has a strong emphasis on living according to our Christian values.

Besides blogs, some newsletters and other digital messages enter my in-box automatically. I am, however, quite selective in what I want to accept, for there is no end to open and more hidden requests to be allowed to bombard me with all kinds of materials. But some thingds are very welcome. A few days ago I mentioned on my Facebook page that a good friend of mine (Rudy van Moere) has started a website with the title Bijbellezen met Rudy van Moere (Reading the Bible with Rudy van Moere). He worked for a considerable number of years as an Adventist pastor and departmental director in the Netherlands and Belgium, was a professor at Avondale College of Higher Education in Australia, and served as a professor in Old Testament for over a decade, until his recent retirement, at the Protestant Theological Faculty in Brussels. He remains extremely active as a guest lecturer and with church-related activities. He is now busy putting much of the fascinating material that he has developed on-line, after adapting it to a larger public (without compromising its depth). Anyone can subscribe to the regular instalments. It means that you get an e-mail each time a new document is added to the website. So far, the site is only in Dutch, but Google Translate will help those who are truly interested to get acquainted with this marvelous resource of knowledge, information and inspiration. The address is: www.bijbellezenmetvanmoere.nl.

Since a few months I read a daily meditation by Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), a Catholic priest of Dutch origin. He became a prominent professor at the American Harvard University, lectured around the world and wrote quite a few books. But eventually he concluded that this kind of life did not satisfy his soul. In 1986 he joined the L’Arche Daybreak community near Toronto. There he gave, until his death in 1996, new meaning to his life as the pastor of the mentally handicapped and their caregivers who live in this community. A foundation cares for his spiritual heritage and ensures that a new meditation is put on-line on a daily basis. This is available in a number of languages: https://henrinouwen.org/1/ or https://www.nouwen.org/nl/rdfle.php.  I warmly recommend this as a good way to start the day!

Solidified faith

During her interview with Annemiek Schrijver, in her Sunday morning program on Dutch television, pastor Christian Crouwel—the new general secretary of the Dutch Council of Churches—referred to a creed or confession of faith as a “solidified faith tradition.”  Crouwel has served for many years as a minister in the United Protestant Church in the Netherlands, which stands in the Reformed tradition, with John Calvin as the most important forefather. This tradition cherishes a number of confessional documents, as the Dutch Confession of Faith (Confessio Belgica) and the Heidelberger Catechism. When the Dutch Reformed Church united with the Christian Reformed Church and the Lutheran Church, the Lutheran confessional documents were added. These documents may have a long and revered history, but they reflect in many ways the time in which they were written. I can understand perfectly well why Crouwel called these documents “solidified”.

All faith communities carry such “solidified” faith traditions with them. This is also true for communities that have a shorter history than the “established” churches, such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Adventist Church claims officially that it has no confession of faith or creed. But in reality the statement of the Fundamental Beliefs functions as such, and every church member—and certainly every minister—is expected to agree with all 28 points. In addition, the books of Ellen G. White have acquired a significant degree of authority. The early Adventist leaders warned against “solifdiied” faith traditions, in which all things would be set in concrete. Initially, they flatly refused to compile a list of teachings, because of the danger that such a list would evolve into a “solidified” creed. And Ellen White gave repeated warnings that what she had written carried no absolute authority but was always to be tested by the Bible.

In her interview Crouwel suggested that a believer must compose his/her own confession of faith, that is a genuine reflection of one’s own faith experience and convictions. Of course, a believer is inspired by the faith tradition of his/her church, but the believer’s individual confession of faith must be more and go deeper than being just a repetition of what the church corporately believes.

I find that thought very appealing. Your faith tradition you have received—either by birth and upbringing and/or by a later conscious choice—is important. It determines to a major extent your identity as a Christian. It makes clear in what “packaging” you want to be a Christian. For me the Adventist “packaging” is valuable. I see more than enough reasons to remain a Seventh-day Adventist. But, like pastor Crouwel, I must admit that the faith tradition of my church has to a large extent become “solidified.”  Just repeating what the Fundamental Beliefs telll me I should believe, is not the kind of faith that comes from the heart. I must develop my own confession of faith. What a group of people to which I belong officially states as their beliefs is not of primary importance, but what I personally believe is crucial. Being part of a faith tradition will naturally  “color” my personal confession of faith, but believing must be more than giving assent to a list of doctrines that happens to be agreed upon by my church. True faith is based on a “credo” (literally: I believe) that has been internalized. It must be the result of my continuous quest for answers and of my search for what is truly “fundamental” in my faith, rather than being content with repeating a “solidified” faith tradition.

 

The art of making complicated things simple

Researchers have analyzed some 380,000 speeches of politicians in ten European countries over the 1946-2017 period and have concluded that the language of the left-oriented politicians is considerably more complicated that that of their colleagues more to the right of the political spectrum. From reading my daily newspaper and watching several news broadcasts every day, I tend to agree. President Trump is probably at present the clearest example. His messages are very direct and easy to understand. He offers simple solutions for complex problems. Is there a global warming of the earth? No way, just think of the recent sub-zero temperatures in a major part of the US. Does America face an immigration crisis? No, just give me enough money to build a wall on our border with Mexico and we will stop the drug smugglers and criminals from entering our country. Whether or not you agree with the president he is easy to understand. In the Netherlands people like Geert Wilders have a similar approach. Having fewer Moroccan immigrants would be a major step towards solving the crime problem in the big cities. Abandoning the Euro and going back to the guilder would be a financial bonus for every Dutch citizen. Stop all aid to developing countries. That is a major saving and, after all, all the money just disappears in the pockets of the corrupt African leaders.

Politicians who want to tell a more nuanced story—and they are often found more towards the left of the political spectrum—tend to face a major challenge in getting their message across. Climate change, and all the issues related to it, is a complex topic and the influx of refugees likewise has numerous difficult aspects. Creating a more just society is not simply a matter of lowering taxes for some and raising them for others. Cutting the sales tax would be a very popular measure, but the funding for education and security must come from somewhere. To explain such things requires more than a few populist slogans, which fail to impress the people who are looking for solid arguments.

We see something similar in the church. What I am going to say may be a bit too general, but I believe there is at least a kernel of truth in it. Many “conservative” voices in the church find it quite easy to express their opinion in rather straightforward language. We must take the Bible as it is and adopt the “plain reading” approach. The six days of creation are six literal days of 24 hours. If the Bible tells us that Daniel lived and worked in the sixth century BC, that is what it is. If the Bible calls homosexuality an “abomination” nothing else needs to be said. The Roman Catholic Church manifests all the characteristics of the “little horn” and of the “beast from the sea” that we meet in the Revelation. Therefore, no further discussion is needed. Etcetera.

For those who are a bit more “liberal” in their thinking it is often more difficult to explain their thinking. They try to show that things are often considerably more complicated than they appear to be at first sight, and they offer alternatives to traditional positions that, they believe, should also be considered. And at times they simply have no answers, for the simple reason that we are finite human beings who cannot know everything.

When push comes to shove, it would seem to me that left-wing politicians and “liberal” Christians may have to make a much greater effort in explaining difficult issues in a simple (note, I am not saying “simplistic) manner. At times, one meets or hears people who have mastered that art, but my wife frequently tells me that I continue to use too much theological jargon and difficult terms.  Indeed, it presents a major challenge, but what good is a well thought-through message if it cannot be communicated in a transparent and easy to understand manner? In this regard there is still a lot of room for improvement for many “progressive” politicians as well for many “progressive” Seventh-day Adventist.