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Does the church have a free press?

It is now almost a week ago since the Mid-America Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists took the final step in a process that will allow for women pastors in their territory to become ordained ministers. Already in 2012 its executive committee voted that it supported the “ordination of women in pastoral ministry, but it took nine more years before this in-principle-decision has received concrete form. On September 12, the constituency meeting of the Mid-America Union approved with an 82 percent majority that in the future all names that the conferences will propose to the union for ordination will be considered, without consideration of gender.

With this historic decision the Mid-America Union, which comprises the states of Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and part pf New Mexico, joins the Pacific Union and the Columbia Union as pro-WO unions—in spite of the continuing opposition of the General Conference against ordaining female pastors. The union president, who was re-elected, strongly supported this move towards implementing full equality between male and female ministers. The president of the North-American Division, who attended the meeting, indicated that he was “challenged” by this vote, but was personally supportive of it!

It now remains to be seen what this new development will do to the dynamics of the women’s ordination debate. Will it encourage some of the other six unions in the USA to also take a similar step? Will it help unions elsewhere in the world (including my own union, the Netherlands Union of Churches) to do what many feel should have been done a long time ago? Will the “compliance” issue flare up during the upcoming Autumn Council of the GC executive committee? Or will the GC president realize that this will only bring further commotion?

The media-people of one of the conferences–de Rocky Mountain Conference–reported in “real time” op hun Facebook page as the debate was taking place and the vote was taken.Shortly after the Mid-America vote was taken, the first comments by others were posted on Facebook. It did not take long before the independent Adventist media channel ADVENTIST TODAY placed the story on its website, soon followed by the other prominent independent media channel SPECTRUM. Both published a short article, reporting the facts. Both organizations are known to be fiercely pro-women-ordination, but their reporting was factual without become overly jubilant and triumphalist. This could also be said for the reporting on the Mid-America Union’s website. As could be expected, Fulcrum7, the critical website on the right side of the church, was quick to denounce the Mid-America decision as terrible rebellion!

However, until the moment that I write these lines—some five days later—the official news channels of the denomination have maintained a deafening silence. Neither the Adventist News Network (ANN), nor the Adventist Review website, have even mentioned the pro-WO decision of the Mid-America Union. One may wonder why. . . Have they perhaps been instructed from above not to give any publicity to this development? Must they be part of an effort to down-play the importance of what happened a few days ago during the Nebraska constituency meeting? Is this yet another indication that the official news agencies of the church cannot “tell it as it is”, but must be selective in what they report and howAdventist Today and Spectrum. They may be too liberal in the eyes of many church members, but at least they keep us informed when the official news media choose (or are forced) to remain quiet.

ABBA’s rejuvenation

ABBA is back! After 39 years,! The members of this highly successful Swedish group are now between 71 and 76 years old. The first letters of the first names of Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson yielded the name ABBA. Their popularity skyrocketed after they won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974. Since then, you may wonder which is Sweden’s most famous trademark: Volvo or ABBA?

Why is the group making its unexpected comeback now? The Swedish foursome is not in financial distress. They have sold some 350 million records and the royalties still keep coming in. Is it pure nostalgia? Can’t they resist the urge to taste the success of yesteryear one more time? Is it a question of now or never (again)?

There is something special about their come-back. Not only are they recording a number of songs for a new album in the studio, but there will also be a concert on a stage in London. This will be a very special concert. Because the stage will not be taken by four elderly people. The audience will get to see a rejuvenated version of their idols. A kind of holograms will be made of the four of them. With a large number of cameras, every movement and mannerism was captured, with the result that the three-dimensional virtual avatars will give the audience the illusion that they are taking a trip back in time, and attend a concert of a group of thirty-somethings.

Many peers of the ABBA group might also want to undergo a radical rejuvenation treatment. That thought did cross my mind for a moment as I celebrate my birthday today. And yes, it would be nice to be able to relive certain things from the past. And especially to be able to visit certain places and meet people again whom I have not seen for many years. However, the reality is that the clock keeps ticking away, and even the ABBA members cannot stop the passage of time with their technical feats.
None of us knows how much time is given to us. We do know that when we–just like Agnetha, Björn, Anni-Frid and Benny—are in our seventies, we are well past the halfway mark. For some at that age, a considerable number of healthy years may still lie ahead.

My wife and I had the great pleasure of attending a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with Herbert Blomstedt conducting, at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw last night. Since over the years we have become friends of his, he had invited us to come to the conductor’s room after the concert to have a short visit. He is now 94 years old, still with a wonderful vitality and with a full concert schedule. When I see him standing on the podium I think: How fantastic would it be to reach such an age in such good health.

However, life comes one day at a time. And it is important to be grateful for every day that is given to us, and this is even more true as we can look back upon another year. I begin a new year with a sense of gratitude, with the hope that I may remain healthy and be able to do something meaningful for others–for my immediate loved-ones, but for others as well, and especially for the church of which I am a part. When I stand in the pulpit, the audience must accept that I will not undergo an ABBA-like rejuvenation process. Hopefully that will be somewhat compensated by the fact that I still have something meaningful to say.

Should infant baptism be forbidden?

I am glad that in the Netherlands wearing a mask is now mostly a thing of the past. I find it inconvenient and unpleasant, but I do realize that there may be circumstances in which the government can oblige me to wear a mask if there is a scientific consensus that it can prevent a lot of misery. I don’t think my personal rights are so seriously in jeopardy that I would join a demonstration against it. Where compulsory vaccination is concerned, the matter is more sensitive. This involves being forced to allow some substance to be injected into your body. For some people, it involves a serious medical problem. Those people should of course be exempted. But what about the people who have religious objections to vaccination? There are groups of believers who think they should trust God rather than Pfizer, Astra-Zeneca or Moderna. I am thankful to God that some good vaccines were developed so quickly, and was glad when it was my turn to be vaccinated.

If people do not want to be vaccinated, that is their right. It is a decision they should be free to make. I believe it’s wise that, as a precaution to others, non-vaccinated people are not allowed at certain events if they can’t show proof that they have been vaccinated, have recently been tested, or already have had Covid-19. People who do not want to be vaccinated must be prepared to face certain restrictions as a result of their decision. Whether an employer can require an employee to be vaccinated is another matter. I must confess that I am not totally sure about that, but I am inclined to think that it depends on where someone works. It seems to me that people who work in healthcare or education, and who have no urgent medical reason why they cannot be vaccinated, should be expected to show proof of vaccination.

The last argument about this has not been heard, even within the Adventist Church, where there is also (certainly in the USA) considerable polarization on this issue, partly of a religious nature, but partly also as a result of political allegiance. But the issue of freedom versus coercion is at play in a lot of other areas as well. This morning I read in the newspaper that Die Linke, a German political party on the left side of the political spectrum-the fifth in size in the country, with 69 seats in the Bundestag- believes that children should not by birth automatically become members of a religious group . Infant baptism and circumcision, this political party believes, should disappear. One can only join a religion when one is “religiously mature”. It was not clear in the newspaper article what age they were thinking of.

For those who reject infant baptism and the circumcision of newborns as unbiblical, this idea may not sound so dramatic. But no doubt the so-called “dedication” of children is also considered wrong. That formally joining or not joining a church or religious group should happen freely, and not under parental coercion, is fortunately endorsed by most people in our time in our part of the world.

But the fact remains that most parents hope that their offspring will make the same religious choice as they once made themselves. And many parents are intensely saddened when their children choose a different religious path. Parents often do everything they can to raise their children within their own religious sphere. This often determines the choice of school and of leisure activities. Often this also manifests itself in prohibiting all kinds of activities that are seen as contrary to “our faith.”

No doubt, in many cases there is coercion. Children must attend church. They are not allowed to do certain things on the day of rest. They are not allowed to participate in certain social activities or sports. Many parents wonder afterwards if their rules have not rather achieved the opposite of what they intended. Undoubtedly, the coercion they experienced made many young people dislike everything associated with faith and church.

That each person should be able to decide freely, at the time of their choosing, whether to join a religious group, is for me beyond question. Whether the rejection of infant baptism is a sensible point in this regard is debatable. But more discussion in religious circles and within families, about the question at what point example and encouragement turn into pressure and coercion, and how a free choice of every “mature” child can be guaranteed–even if that choice is intensely regretted by the parents–is certainly desirable. Perhaps, however, Die Linke could still use some advice from religious experts in elaborating the relevant program points in their political manifesto.

Some thoughts about climate change

Anyone who visits Dutch museums that feature paintings of Dutch Masters from earlier centuries quickly discovers that many artists depicted winter scenes, with lots of skaters and others who enjoy the snow and ice. While many winters in our country now pass with hardly any snow, and at most a few days of skating on canals and ditches, there were apparently also times with “real” winters. Those who dive a little into climate history soon discover that Europe experienced a so-called “little ice age” from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, during which the average temperature in our region was about two degrees lower than before and after that period. However, as we also know from our current climate debates, two degrees higher or lower is enough to bring about drastic changes.

The “ice age” of a few centuries ago is called “little” because there have been much more extensive ice ages in the past. Science tells us that there were numerous ice ages in the past three million years. During two of those ice ages, the ice sheet also reached the Netherlands. The ice sheet carried with it an enormous amount of rocky material. From large boulders left behind in the eastern Netherlands, when the ice had melted again due to climate change, early inhabitants of the province of Drenthe built the so-called hunebeds, of which 52 have been preserved in this province and 2 in the province of Groningen. Around 3,000 B.C. the earliest farmers of this region used the boulders that came from Scandinavia to build their communal tombs–the so-called “hunebeds” (or: dolmens).

The “great” ice ages of several hundred thousand years ago, which left behind the material for the dolmens, were thus of a completely different order than the “little ice age” of which we get a glimpse when admiring the wintery paintings of which the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum has a fine selection. See:

I will leave aside for now the fact that the “great” ice ages are difficult to fit into the time frame used by the so-called young creationists, who allow at most 10,000 years for creation and everything since. I believe that we are unable to give a date for the “the beginning” of Genesis 1:1. But a visit to the Hunebed-center in Borger in the province of Drenthe makes it clear in an attractive–and convincing way—that in the course of earth’s history there have been enormous climate changes with very far-reaching consequences for mankind.

This fact places our current climate discussion in a broader context. After all, some climate changes in the past were much more drastic than what we are experiencing today. It also places man’s influence on our climate in a different light. How big is that influence, really? Are there perhaps also—-perhaps even more important—-factors that play a role? How much influence did the early inhabitants of the earth have on the changes in the climate that took place in their time?

I am a total layman in this field, but I follow as closely as I can the news coverage of the issues of global warming, and the consequences thereof that the experts foresee. I have faith in science and it seems irresponsible to close our eyes to the ever-increasing capriciousness of nature. The big difference between the time in which we live today and the time of the Vikings and the dolmen builders and other people of days gone by is that the planet has now become much more crowded. Today we have 7.7 billion fellow human beings. A thousand years ago, the world population was estimated to be less than 300 million. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the global population grew from 1 to 7 billion people! In addition, the large number of people who have populated the world in the last few centuries have used the earth and its resources in very different ways. That makes it very plausible (at least for me) that the influence of humans on the development of our climate is now very significant. And if we begin from the proposition that humans in many respects have initiated and promoted processes that, among other things, cause accelerated global warming, we must also be open to the idea that we, with more than seven billion others, can jointly do something to counteract these harmful processes. This happens partly through political will–national and international–but also through individual action. How much it helps we don’t know, but doing nothing is not an option for those who consider themselves stewards of the earth. And that is certainly the case for people who live in a country where the majority of the population lives below sea level.

A one-billion book project

I felt frustrated and unbelievably sad when I read about the plan to distribute in the coming years a billion copies of the Great Controversy by Ellen G. White. The president of the General Conference made the announcement at a meeting of the ASI—the independent organization of Adventist Services and Industries. The organization is known for its conservative tendencies, but has among its members quite a few people with deep pockets, who may be expected to make large donations to pet projects of the president.

It is no secret that pastor Wilson and a number of his strong supporters have a special relationship with this particular book by Ellen White. Her own instruction that this book should be distributed as widely as possible provides the marching orders. One wonders about the timing of this project, however, less than a year before the leadership of the church is up for (re)election. Do they want to be seen as the kind of strong leaders that make such daring plans? But, really, is this the best they can think of when it comes to letting the world know what the Adventist message is all about?

The plan to distribute one billion (free, unsolicited) books raises all kinds of questions. How many of these free books will actually be appreciated by the recipients? How many will actually be read? (And I am not just referring to the hundreds of millions who are illiterate.)

And, do we really want the entire world to read this 19th century book, that was written against a background that totally differs from today’s world. Apart from the fact that the book is very Euro- and America-centered, and does not address situations in other regions of the world, it also contains the kind of language about other faith communities (Roman Catholics in particular) that many would nowadays consider offensive or even hate-speech.

Do we really want to launch this project at a time when, more than ever before, a significant percentage of our membership wonders about the credibility of Ellen White as an inspired modern-day prophet? Will this one-billion-book plan not put further fuel on the fire? What does it tell those church members who have serious doubts about the ministry of Ellen White, that all issues around her inspiration are so blatantly ignored?

What does it say about the stewardship principles of the church to mass-produce such a huge quantity of books that results in an enormous amount of waste that will end up in landfills around the globe? Is that giving an example of a careful use of the earth’s resources? Going through with this plan could cause a terrible PR disaster for the Adventist Church. This danger may well lead many church entities around the world to be very reticent in promoting the plan. Speaking about stewardship: whoever will foot the bill, is this a responsible way to spend so much money? If the project would succeed, hundreds of millions of dollars would be involved. Millions of people, who live at the margins of their societies, could receive food and medical help if these funds would be made available for that purpose. Millions in developing countries could be vaccinated against Covid-19. If that were done, it would make me proud of my church!

It gives me some comfort to think that the project will probably fail or not succeed in the measure that the initiators envisage. It will be difficult to “sell” the project to the leaders of many of the “lower” organizations. The General Conference and other sponsors may also face much adverse publicity and even some legal obstacles. Moreover, the logistical problems are immense. How likely is it that the book can be widely distributed in large parts of Africa, China, India, the former Soviet Republics, the slums in the megacities of South- and Inter-America, etc.?

We must become much better in presenting our message in ways that radiate world-wide relevancy, and that respond to the needs and issues of people in the twenty-first century. Saturating mail boxes everywhere with an unsolicited 600-page 19th century religious book, that is mostly focused on past developments in North America and Europe, with conjectures about the future, may give a feel-good sense to the planners of this project, but will do little beyond that. It makes me frustrated and sad.