Monthly Archives: August 2018

Inspiration in Belgrade

I was tempted to skip this week’s blog. I am at the European Pastors’ Council in Belgrade and the days are quite full. But over the past few days literally dozens of colleagues from countries all over the Trans-European Division have told me that they are faithful readers of my weekly blog, and thus it seems I must also write a short piece this week.

I am enjoying this pastors’ congress and appreciate enormously that the TED has invited me to be here, even though I have now been retired for almost eleven years. It is great to somehow still “be part of it”.  Meeting many old friends is a great joy, and getting to know others is an extra bonus. And contributing in a limited way to the program gives a lot of satisfaction. Yesterday I presented a workshop on “Criteria for a Healthy Church”, which was well attended. And since nobody walked away half-way through the presentation, I assume it was reasonably well received. This afternoon I will do two workshops, one on “Last Generation Theology” and one on “Changing the Church”. A good number of people have chosen to attend them.

I must admit that I have not attended all meetings. Early in the mornings and in between meetings I have done some writing on a new book. And there must always be moments to get away from the crowd and have a good cup of coffee with friends. But, before you get the impression that I am not overly involved with the overall-event, let me assure you that I have greatly appreciated the preaching that I have heard thus far.  On the opening night pastor Ted Wilson was the speaker. I must admit that his sermon was pretty good—much to my relief, because I found some of his sermons that I heard in the past pretty hard to digest. On Tuesday evening Wilson preached a biblical sermon that was very much in tune with the theme of the congress: Connect-Change-Inspire. There were just a few EGW quotations. My only problem with the sermon was that his words, which emphasized the fact that the church needs all of us, are not easily matched with some of his administrative initiatives.

As I write, I have also listened to pastor Ian Sweeney, the president of the British Union, pastor Gifford Rhamie, a lecturer at Newbold Colleges, Dr. Daniel Duda, a departmental leader in the Trans-European Divisions, and pastor Anne-May Müller, a pastor and departmental leader in the Danish Union. Sweeney is one of the best preachers our church has. In 1996 he won the prestigious London Times preaching award, and listening to him this week I had no difficulty understanding why he came out in first place.  I had never heard Gifford Rhamie preach; his sermon was impressive, in terms of structure, delivery and content. And, of course, Dr. Daniel Duda will always surprise with new ideas and new perspectives on old stories.

For me the entire debate about women in ministry is decisively settled when I hear how some women pastors preach the Word.  A few months ago I listened in San Diego to a worship by Dr. Kendra Haloviak, one of the first women to be (illegally) ordained in the USA. Last night I listened to Anne-May Müller, who preached a superbly crafted sermon that had a powerful message for her colleagues. When an issue arose in the early church about the status of gentile Christians in the church, Peter and Paul gave as their most powerful argument for the full inclusion of gentile Christians that the Holy Spirit made no distinction between the Jewish and gentile believers. Hearing  women as Kendra and Anne-May preach, I can only conclude that the Holy Spirit does not seem to favor male over female speakers. And that is probably the most powerful argument for having an inclusive ministry, with men and women sharing the same status.

I need events like this pastoral congress for my own spiritual benefit.  I see many things in the church that I do not like. I worry about the future of my church when I hear about General Conference plans to enforce uniformity and even punish those unions that are not fully “compliant”.  But when I talk with colleagues from all over Europe I realize that I am not alone in my fears and concerns, and that there are many who have not given up on their church but will continue to work for change and renewal. That certainly helps me to keep going and to remain hopeful!


Anger, dismay and optimism

I started my day in a perfect mood, but that was soon to change. One of the first things I usually do after I get up is to open up my laptop and read the headlines of the news and check whether there is any church news. The article by Bonnie Dwyer, the editor-in-chief of the Adventist independent journal Spectrum, was in this last category. In this article she reported the vote of the General Conference committee to establish—even before the deliberations in the forthcoming Autumn Council—an elaborate systems of committees that must oversee whether church administrative entities and institutions, and church leaders, are in compliance with church regulations.

It is important to recognize that the GC committee that took this decision is not the full GC Executive Committee, with representatives of divisions and unions, but consists of the group of leaders who are stationed in Silver Spring and are part of the apparatus at the church’s headquarters. This immediately raises the question why such an important decision was made at this point in time, just weeks before the committee with world-wide representation has had the opportunity to discuss the document that supposedly will form the basis for the control-task these five new committees are to perform.

The five new committees must ‘oversee’ whether the official beliefs, statements and decisions of the church are adhered to. This concerns the general doctrinal teachings of the church, but in particular the areas of creation vs. evolution, homosexuality and ordination of women. Apparently, these are the topics which the leadership of the church at Silver Spring considers as having the highest priority. It has already been observed—and rightly so—that there is no mention of the Fundamental Belief of the Trinity, which is more and more under attack, and of the heretical teaching of the Last Generation Theology.

There is much that could be said—and no doubt will be said in the coming weeks and months—about these new developments. I hope and pray that during the Autumn Council a majority of the Executive Committee will have the courage to disapprove of these developments. These new measures are as much top-down as one can possibly imagine and flaunt our democratic principles. Moreover, the members of these five committees will all be, without exception, part of the administrative machinery at the church’s headquarters. The Biblical Research Institute, which is manned (!) by conservative theologians, will have an important role in these committees.

When reading this article this morning, my first reaction was one of anger. Bus as I was writing this blog my anger gradually changed into a feeling of dismay. How could our church reach this deplorable situation? How is it possible that the leadership of a faith community tries to impose with force (and threats) in such a top-down manner its views and interpretation on the entire church?

Nonetheless, also today I will try to remain optimistic. My hope is that during the Autumn Council this plan will receive severe criticism, or will disappear altogether. And I believe that, if this does not happen, this control mechanism will prove to be a paper tiger. Such an administrative control mechanism will soon suffocate in the ecclesial bureaucracy.  However, in the process some (and maybe many) people will decide to leave the church, since they feel they are no longer allowed to think for themselves and can no longer breath freely. For those who are not (or no longer) paid employees of the church all this is one more reason to continue protesting against this top-down coercion and to speak out for an Adventist church where unity may be experienced in diversity—in theology and church practice.


Beards in Battle Creek

When I was studying at Newbold College in England in the 1960’s students were not allowed to grow beards. I do not remember whether there was any clear rationale for this rule. It was simply how it was.  A little later I spent just over a year studying at Andrews University in the United States, to earn a masters degree in theology. One of the most memorable classes (Introduction to the New Testament) was team-taught by three professors: Dr. Sakae Kubo, Dr. Earl Hilgert and Dr. Herold Weiss.  Professor Weiss was the youngest of the trio and was just starting his academic career. He came under heavy criticism from some members of the university staff because his comportment supposedly lacked in dignity. He not only had a red sports car, but also grew a beard!  Imagine: a theology professor with a beard!

The beard has an interesting history in some Christian circles, including Adventism. Once upon a time most Christian leaders had beards. Just look at pictures of the Adventist pioneers and you only see heavily bearded men. Many actually believed that wearing a beard was a God-given symbol of masculinity and that there were a number of Bible texts that were explicit about not shaving off one’s beard. But times (and ideas) changed and gradually the faces of the denominational leaders became clean-shaven. However, dear reader, we  now once again seem to have reached a turning point. Turn to the Adventist Review or to some other Adventist media and find a recent picture of the world president of the church, and you will find that pastor Ted Wilson has grown a substantial beard.

What do we make of this? Did brother Ted get up one morning, look in the mirror and conclude that a beard would make him look more impressive?  Or did his wife Nancy suggest a change in his appearance? No, there is more to it.

This year’s Annual Council of the Seventh-day Adventist Church will be held in the city of Battle Creek, Michigan, the cereal capital of the United States and the headquarters of the large Kellogg corporation. But until a little more than a century ago it was also the headquarters of the Adventist movement. A historic village is an educational reminder of the denominational past. Many Adventists who visit Battle Creek make sure to also go to the Oak Hill Cemetery and pass by the graves of Ellen White and her family and of many of the early Adventist leaders. The General Conference decided that its most important annual meeting of 2018 was to be held in this city that has so much Adventist history. And Wilson suggested that it would be fitting for the men who would attend this meeting to enter into the atmosphere of the past by growing a beard and even by wearing some period costumes. (I have no idea how many of the participants will actually comply with this suggestion.)

When I first heard of this plan I could hardly believe it. I just hope the secular media will not find out about this, for they might well poke fun at a church that combines a costume party with serious church business. The whole idea, it seems to me, reflects a nostalgic desire to relive the past, as if the hope of our church is a return to the Battle Creek era. Unfortunately, there is on the part of many fellow-Adventist believers a strong feeling that early Adventism represents true Adventism and that the church must go back to its beginnings. I just hope that during the upcoming Battle Creek meetings the delegates will not only be reminded of the positive aspects of our beginnings, but will also hear about all the things that went wrong and why it was necessary to leave Battle Creek and make a new start elsewhere. And perhaps the top leadership should also be reminded that it was in Battle Creek that the erstwhile leaders were sharply criticized for their tendency to exert ‘kingly power’ rather than servant leadership. A repeat of that criticism would seem very timely in the present phase of our denominational existence.




In the book by Hans Buddingh about the history of Surinam I found I read a short statement that I  have not forgotten, even though it is some years ago that I read the book. The slaves were often treated in a beastly manner and many did not survive the punishments they received. But some reports indicate that the slaves were not afraid of death, for they believed that in the hereafter they would be served by white men! Surely, they did not want to miss that! And if you are a slave and must obey every whim of your white master, it is not so strange that your ultimate desire is that in the future the roles will be reversed. That would indeed be paradise!

Muslim warriors are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith, believing that they will be recompensed for all their suffering. In the hereafter they will enjoy the company of a good number of beautiful virgins.

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah could not think of a better future for his people than that they would enjoy the fruits of the vineyard they had planted and would live in the house they had built for themselves. Heaven for him was the place where one did no longer have to work for the benefit of others.

For many Christians heaven is the place where, immediately after their death, they continue to live as immortal souls, waiting for the resurrection of their body. I have never quite understood why you would want to get a body if your soul is already enjoying eternal bliss and singing its eternal hallelujahs.

If I try to imagine what heaven will be like, I inevitably think of the magnificent beach, some fifteen kilometers from Abidjan, the capital city of Ivory Coast, where my wife and I lived in the nineteen eighties for about four years. On Sundays we usually spent some hours under the palm trees at the beach. But when I think a bit further . . . We could enjoy our carefree time at the beach, but life was not quite as carefree and pleasant for the women who carried their baskets with pine apples on their head, and tried to sell them to the (mostly white) people on the beach in order to earn a small amount of money to buy food for their families. . .

For many Bible readers the last two chapter of the book of Revelation contain exciting information. There we read about the New Jerusalem with its golden streets and its pearly gates. To be honest, it does not mean all that much to me, but I realize that it must have been a picture that appealed to the people some 2,000 years ago: a city with high walls and strong gates that was totally secure. I am somewhat frustrated, however, when I read that there will be no more sea. No doubt, for the people of Bible times who tended to be afraid of the sea, this was good news. For the first century readers this new world was unbelievably wonderful, since all things that caused anxiety had been removed.

The problem with all human pictures about heaven is that they are human ideas. It cannot be otherwise. We only have human images for our dreams about eternity. But we must not forget that when dealing with eternity and everything associated with it, we are dealing with categories that belong to the domain of the divine. Our human words and imaginations can never be adequate. For the slaves of Surinam, heaven will even be better than a place where they will be served by white people. And, even though I find it hard to believe that this is possible, eternity will be a lot better than the beach near Abidjan. (And for the time being I will assume that the statement about the absence of  the sea, should be understood symbolically.)

When does the night end and the day begin?

This week my blog consists of a quote from a book I am currently reading. The title is Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.It is written by Thomas L. Friedman, a renowned columnist of the New York Times. It is well worth reading and I may come back to it in another blog.

On pp. 388-389 Friedman uses this touching story to make an important point:

A rabbi once asked his students: “How do we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?”  The students thought they grasped the importance of this question. There are, after all, prayers and rites and rituals that can only be done at nighttime. And there are prayers and rites and rituals that belong only to the day. So, it is important to know how we can tell when night has ended and the day has begun.

So the first and the brightest of the students offered an answer: “Rabbi, when I look out at the fields and I can distinguish between my field and the field of my neighbor, that is when the night has ended and the day has begun.” A second student offered his answer: “Rabbi, when I look at the fields and see a house, and I can tell that it is my house and not the house of my neighbor, that is when the night has ended and the day has begun.” A third student offered another answer: “Rabbi, when I see an animal in de the distance, and I can tell what kind of animal it is, whether a cow, a horse, or a sheep, that is when the night has ended and the day has begun.” Then a fourth student offered yet another answer: “Rabbi, when I see a flower and I can make out the colors of the flower, whether they are red, or yellow, or blue, that is when the night has ended and the day has begun.”

Each answer brought a sadder, more severe frown to the rabbi’s face.  Until finally he shouted: “No! None of you understands! You only divide! You divide your house from the house of your neighbor, your field from the neighbor’s field, you distinguish one kind of animal from another, you separate one color from all others. Is that all we can do—dividing, separating, splitting the world into pieces? Isn’t the world broken enough? Isn’t the world broken into enough fragments? Is that what Torah is for? No, my dear students, it is not that way, not that way at all!

The shocked students looked into the sad face of their rabbi. “Then, Rabbi, tell us. How do we know that night has ended and the day has begun?”

The rabbi stared back into the faces of his students, and with a voice suddenly gentle and imploring, he responded: “When you look into the face of the person who is beside you, and you can see that this person is your brother or your sister, then finally the night has ended and the day has begun.”