Monthly Archives: January 2018

Unity: a step forward

Last week the Adventist Review—the more or less official journal of the Adventist world—published a remarkable article about the questions that continue to stir the emotions in the Adventist Church. How do we proceed with the issue of the ordination of female pastors? And, an even more pressing question: Should the church take disciplinary measure against unions and conferences that, against the will of the General Conference, have decided to ordain women to the gospel ministry?

During the Autumn Council of 2017 the executive committee of the GC (of which all union president are members) a plan that had been devised by the top leadership of the church to punish the leaders of those organizations that do not abide by the church’s policies, was rejected after a lot of commotion. The majority of the 250- member committee was dissatisfied with the process that led to the proposal and considered the proposal itself as not carefully thought-through or even totally unacceptable.

The article in the denominational journal explained the process that must now lead to a new proposal that may go on the agenda of the Autumn Council in October of this year. It is hopeful that the church’s journal was quick to publish this article, giving all the details, and also that the committee that is dealing with this matter wants to guarantee absolute openness and transparency. The previous chairman of the Unity Oversight Committee, Tom Lemon, left this position. It remains unclear whether or not he did so under pressure from ‘on high’. He has now been replaced by Michael Ryan, a veteran church administrator, whom I know reasonable well and whom I would want to characterize as a no-nonsense pragmatist (which is not the same as saying that he is not spiritual or a politician!). In the process of preparing a new proposal, in order to break the current impasse, a broad inventory will be made of how leaders at all denominational levels think that the ‘non-compliant’ unions must be dealt with. A list with six questions had already been sent to all union president. They are asked to indicate what, in their view, should happen with those ‘non-compliant’ unions.

It is too early to predict whether this new approach will bring us forward. Personally, I would have preferred if the church at the General Conference level had opted for a more relaxed attitude. Would it not be possible to allow the passage of time to do its work? In the past there have often been significant developments, without endless meetings, congresses, study committees and GC-session votes. The matter of military service is a good example. There was a time when the SDA position was clear: Adventists are willing to respect the authorities, but carrying weapons and the possibility of having to use these for killing people, was considered as contrary to our understanding of the sixth commandment: ‘You shall not kill’. In some areas in the world this is still the Adventist position, but in other places Adventists more and more consider it an honor to defend their country, also in a combat role. I regret that development, but it shows that there may be a development in a certain area that leads to a diversity of practice, which can be absorbed by the church without too much tension.

Would it not be possible to allow unions, if they so desire, the freedom to operate with a one-credential-system, in which men and women have fully equal status and rights? And could we not allow other ‘fields’ in the world that disagree with such a development to continue with the traditional ordination practices? Can we not simply decide to see how matters will develop and re-evaluate the situation in a decade or so?

Some may object and say: Must we take so much time? I realize it is in the Adventist DNA to want to do things quickly. However, church history teaches us that ecclesial processes may take a long time. In the Eastern Orthodox world that question of the correct Easter date has always been a dilemma. One committee that was set up to discuss this question held annual sessions for over fity years! I admit: that maybe too long to our taste. But it seems a good thing to me to give ourselves—and first and foremost the Spirit—a bit more time than we are accustomed to do.


The Shack

From time to time one of my books goes missing. I usually fail to write it down when someone borrows one of my books. Occasionally a borrower may forget to return it. (I must admit that I also have a few books in my library that I borrowed, and that I have forgotten whom to return them to. And from time to time some books must be recycled to make place for new books.

I do not remember what happened to The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young. Some ten years ago I bought this book in a Christian bookstore in Sidney. I may have lend it to someone after I had read it. Anyway, it was not longer there when I looked for it. But early last month I happened to see it in Barnes and Nobles bookstore in the USA, and, as I write, the book lies on my desk in front of me. Worldwide some 25 million copies of the book have been sold. The Dutch edition sold over 25 thousand copies.

The book begins with the story of a little girl that is abducted during a family camping vacation. The police finds evidence that she was murdered in a deserted shack, somewhere in Oregon. Four years later Mack, the father, who still mourns his little girl, receives a letter inviting him to return to the shack. It seems that the letter comes from God himself. Very hesitatingly Mack returns to the shack, where he finds three persons: a black woman, an Arabic-looking young man and an Asian young woman. They present themselves as the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the triune God in a totally different form from what Mack imagined God to be. In the long conversations that take up much of the book the three try to bring Mack to some new insights about God and to reconcile him with the terribly event that had happened.

The reviews of the book vary from ‘rubbish’ to ‘absolutely amazing’. Many readers felt the book was blasphemous, while many others say the book has immensely enriched their spiritual life. I am somewhere in between. I do not believe the book has significant literary qualities, but it has given me food for thought. The theme of human suffering remains relevant for all of us, and is addressed in this book in a creative and meaningful way. But the special value of this book is the way in which God is pictured.

It is perhaps not very shocking to see Jesus presented as a young Arab, even though most people are more familiar with pictures of Jesus as a white European of American young man. Of course, this is not what Jesus looked like when he was on earth. The Holy Spirit as a young Asian woman—what do we make of that? Most people do not have any mental picture of the Spirit. It remains mostly very vague who and what the Spirit is. In early Christianity the Spirit was often spoken of in female terms. However, God the Father as a beautiful black woman of about forty—for many readers this is simply a bridge too far. This is the total opposite from the way they picture God the Vader. Inspired by medieval paintings they imagine God as an old, white (!) male (!), with a long white beard. But why would it be all right to think of God as a white man, and not as a black woman?

A theology professor at an Adventist university once told me that, when he teaches a class about the Doctrine of God, and specifically about the Trinity, he tells his students that—beside several heavy theological books—they must read The Shack. He believes it is essential that students realize it is possible to picture the triune God in many different ways, but we can never get beyond human images. God is so infinitely different from us that we can never define him (?).  Even when we say that God is a ‘person’, we do not really know what we mean. The problem is that we can never describe the Indescribable One with our limited human vocabulary. We must carefully search for words and images that will lift us above our own human level, but as soon as we have said something about God we must take a step back and admit that it was no more than human stammering and that we have not penetrated into the mystery of God.

No, God the Father is not a black woman, but neither is he a gray-haired old man. He is God. He/she is my God, who in some mysterious way gives meaning and future to my life. And let us realize that, if we are looking for an image of God, as something concrete that we can hold on to, this image never represents the divine reality. For God does not live in our human ‘shack’, but in heaven (whatever that word may mean).


How will it happen?

At the end of the service in the church where I had preached last Saturday, I was greeting the people at the door. An elderly man in a wheelchair held back and waited till he was the last person in line. When I wanted to simply greet him and then move on, he told me he had a question for me. I had told him, he said, that I did not believe in a literal six-day creation some 6.000 years ago. I vaguely remembered that a year or so ago I had also met him and he had asked me questions about this.

Here was his new question: ‘Do you believe that many people will be saved and will be resurrected when Jesus comes?  Could there be billions of people who will be resurrected? Do you believe this can all happen in one day?  You told me that you believe that a long time was needed to bring everything into existence. Or do you also believe that God will need a long time to bring us back from death and to make the new world that we are waiting for?

I assured him that I firmly believe that God is the Creator, even though I do not know how and when exactly he created, and that I also believe in a life after this life and in a new creation, even though I have no precise idea how God is going to do this.

My brother in the wheelchair quoted 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and 1 Corinthians 15:52.

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. . . .

In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

So, what did I think of this? Are these texts not crystal clear? At first sight they seem straightforward but I must admit that I have many questions. How is this going to happen? OK, somehow God knows all those who are his, and somehow they will one day be re-created and live eternally in a totally new world. But what about those who do not belong to those who will “rise first”.  According to Revelation 20 they rise a thousand years later. Is “thousand” here a symbolic number? What do the trumpet and the voice of the archangel stand for? And why does God want those who rejected him to rise before they are annihilated in a second death? And what does it mean that the saints will have a role in the divine judgment? And why do those who are saved first go to heaven before they return to this planet?

I must admit: just as I have tons of questions about the creation of our world and the origin of the human race, I also have lots of questions about the future new creation. But these questions no longer worry me. I do not know how and when God made everything, and how he may have used the evolutionary process, but he is the Creator and I am a creature who owes him worship and loyalty. To know that is enough is for me.

And even though I cannot visualize and conceptualize how God is going “to make all things new”, I believe that at a given point in time God will intervene in the affairs of this world through Christ’s second coming, and because of his love and omnipotence I can entrust myself to him. It is enough to know that he is my God and that he will somehow take care of me. Being saved, I am safe with him.

My interlocutor was not totally satisfied. He clearly reads the Bible in a more literal way than I do. I have difficulty understanding the various texts as they read, and in linking them together in such a way that I can even begin to understand how God will recreate the world and bring his children back to life. But in faith I want to hold on to assurance that there is eternal life and that somehow, by his grace, that is what God also has in store for me. That conviction should be enough for me.


New Year’s Messages

For most people the entrance into a new year is accompanied by certain rituals. We watch the television clock and wait for the moment it strikes twelve and then wish one another “a happy new year.” In many countries the start of a new year is accompanied by fireworks displays. In the Netherlands the standard treat is oliebollen and appelbeignets.[1] But standard features of the first day of the year are also the new year’s messages of heads of state, political leaders and religious leaders. In our home we usually make sure that we hear the messages of the Dutch king Willem Alexander and also that of the British Queen Elisabeth. Both have usually something worthwhile to say to their ‘subjects’.  King Willem Alexander’s messages was a little more somber than in past years, but I found his emphasis on the we-focus rather than the I-focus very meaningful.

One could, of course, not miss the comments of the American President who, from his golf-resort in Florida, promised the world that the process of making America great again is even ahead of schedule!

My wife and I always make sure to watch the pope’s address on New Year’s day, followed by his blessing urbi et orbi (for the city and for the world).  As we might expect, Pope Francis spoke about the people in this world who are in need, especially the migrants and the refugees. And he touched upon one of his favorite themes—peace—pointing in particular to the plight of the Palestinians and the Syrians.

I admire the personality and the leadership qualities of Justin Welby, the current archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the Anglican faith community. He has a difficult job, somewhat comparable to that of the president of the Adventist world church. Both are leaders of a denomination that is present in many countries of the world, with a host of different cultures and traditions. Both must deal with some of the same issues, such as homosexuality and the role of women clergy. In his short televised message the archbishop spoke of the comforting role of faith when calamity strikes. He referred to the various terrorist attacks in Great Britain in 2016 and the disastrous fire in the Greenfell Tower apartment building.

What struck me in the messages of the pope as well as of the archbishop that they connected their faith and their church with the world in which we live and with the events of everyday life. I very much missed that in the message of Pastor Ted Wilson, the head of the Adventist Church. Although he briefly alluded to some of the good and the bad things that 2017 brought us, his main wish for 2018 is that the Adventist believers will continue to focus on Jesus as their High Priest, who is interceding for us in the heavenly sanctuary. He quoted a paragraph from Ellen White’s book The Great Controversy in which Mrs. White urges the believers to make the topics of the heavenly sanctuary and of the investigative judgement their main themes of study.

That the top Adventist church leader would refer to some specific Adventists beliefs was to be expected. But I was quite disillusioned that he made so little effort to connect the Adventist faith and the Adventist faith community with the world of 2018. Yes, Adventists believe in the coming, eternal kingdom. But the gospel is clear that the kingdom is also, in some ways, already among us and that the most crucial aspect of our calling as Christian believers is to live and promote the values of that kingdom in our daily lives.

[1]  For non-Dutch readers a few lines from Wikepedia: Oliebollen are traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve[1] and at funfairs. In wintertime, they are also sold in the street at mobile stalls. The dough is made from floureggsyeast, some saltmilkbaking powder and usually sultanascurrantsraisins and sometimes zest or succade (candied fruit). A notable variety is the appelbeignet which contains only a slice of apple, but different from oliebollen, the dough should not rise for at least an hour. Oliebollen are usually served with powdered sugar.