Monthly Archives: September 2021

Loyalty and Responsible Dissent

Among the people whom I have greatly admired is Dr. Roy Branson. I do not remember exactly when I first met him. It may have been at some event in the 1980’s. What I do remember is that in the 1990’s, when I regularly came to Washington DC to attend the Annual Council of the General Conference and other meetings, Roy would usually make contact with me and invite me to give a presentation in his very popular Sabbath School class in the Sligo Church. This church with a membership, at that time, of more than 2,000 people had the reputation of being rather “liberal”. It was the church where the first female Adventist pastors were ordained to the ministry—notwithstanding the heavy opposition from the denominational head office nearby. Roy’s Sabbath School was non-traditional, and, yes, possibly at times somewhat “liberal.”

Branding Roy Branson as “liberal” would, however, not do him justice. He was a unique, creative, human being. He was a scholar with broad interests—a theologian, an ethicist and an activist. He was born in 1941 in the Middle East in a missionary family. His grandfather—William Henry Branson—was president of the General Conference from 1950 to 1954. Roy’s academic career was partly within the Seventh-day Adventist educational system and partly elsewhere. The leaders of his church did not always appreciate what he had to say, and Roy did not always like what his church was saying on particular issues. This was a definite factor in his role in co-founding the Spectrum journal and serving as its editor for a number of years. But Roy continued to love and serve his church. His last assignment in the denomination was his directorship of the Center of Bioethics at Loma Linda University, while being the associate dean of the School of Religion of this same university.

Our paths crossed again when I was invited in 2014 to come to the School of Religion at Loma Linda University for three months as a visiting professor. Although I do not know the details about how this invitation came about, I have a hunch that Roy was involved in making the suggestion. I look back with great pleasure at the three months that my wife and I spent in southern California at “Loma Linda”. We treasure the warm friendships that we established with a good number of people at that time.

It was a terrible shock when about a year later we heard that Roy had quite suddenly died. One of the ways in which his name lives on is through the initiative of dr. David Larson, who made sure that the sabbath school that was led by Roy Branson was continued under the name Roy Branson Legacy Sabbath School (RBLSS). It was a great pleasure to visit and to actively participate a number of times in this class that assembled every Sabbath morning in one of the amphitheaters of the School of Religion. But then . . . Covid struck and for the past 18 months or so, the RBLSS has met on line. During that time I have made several presentations, followed by a discussion, from behind my laptop in Zeewolde. It is not quite the same as being in the amphitheater with some 60-70 people, but the digital variant has served the group quite well and will continue to do so for some time.

Next Saturday morning (California time), which is Saturday evening Dutch time, I will begin with a series of eight presentations in the SBLSS. The series is entitled: Christian Profiles in Courage: Examples of loyalty and responsible dissent. On October 2, I will begin with a general introduction to this theme, and from October 9 onwards I will discuss a number of courageous persons who, through the centuries, showed great courage and loyalty, while disagreeing with their church—beginning with Erasmus. In each case I will seek to relate the issues these people were dealing with, with parallels in Adventism. In many ways this series is also a tribute to Roy Branson, who was indeed a great example of responsible dissent and of loyalty—to himself, the people he cared for, the causes he was passionate about, and the church he served.

For those who might be interested in visiting the RBLSS, see:

In Memoriam: Robin Vandermolen

Just over five years ago I received a note on Messenger from a certain Robin Vandermolen. I had no idea who this person could be, but, looking at his name, assumed he was a Dutchman. However, the message was in English and it clearly was no fellow-countryman who wrote it. The writer stated that he was sitting in front of his home in Hawai and was for the second time reading a book that I had written and that was published a few months earlier. It is entitled: FACING DOUBT–A BOOK FOR ADVENTIST BELIEVERS ‘ON THE MARGINS.’ He had concluded that he would like to talk to the author and had somehow found a way to contact me. He indicated that a few weeks hence he would be in one of his other homes, in Eze on the French Riviera, not far from Lyon. He extended an invitation to me and my wife to stay with him for a week or longer. Just get a cheap ticket to Lyon, he wrote, and he would take care of all other expenses.

It was tempting. One does not often get an invitation for a vacation at the Riviera, in a nice villa, overlooking the Mediterranean. But we wondered: who was this Robin VanderMolen? Would it be wise to accept his invitation? Could there be some snag somewhere? I did some Googling and a bit of additional research. When I saw his name as a regular supporter of Spectrum, I decided to enquire with some Spectrum-people I happened to know. They assured me: Robin is OK. He enjoys having company. Some of them told us they had at some time or another been his guest and they encouraged us to simply accept his hospitality and book a flight to Lyon. And so we did.

It became a very unique week. It was tiring, for our hosts had a long list of things he wanted us to do—visits to a number of exquisite museums and several cultural events. He told us we should have come for two weeks rather than just one week; that would have made our program much more relaxed! But, in addition to receiving the touristic treatment, there was a lot of talking. About my book, in particular about the topic of ‘doubt” and about what to do when you feel that you are ‘on the margins” of the Adventist Church.

Before we had made final arrangements for our trip to Lyon, Robin had written us that he was gay and was living together with his partner Stephen. That might have bothered us perhaps some fifteen or twenty years ago, but gradually our views regarding sexual orientation had undergone significant changes. So, we indicated that this was not an issue for us. Neither did the fact that Stephen was at that point in time in a rather advanced state of Alzheimer.

During our week together Robin told us his life story. We talked at length about the issue of homosexuality, in particular about the lack of acceptance of gay people in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and how he had personally experienced this. He told us he would often worship on Sunday in a church where gay people were much more welcome.

Of course, I am aware of the biblical arguments of many of my fellow Adventist believers (and many other Christians) that seem to condemn homosexuality—or at the very least the practice of it. I use the word seem on purpose, since a close look at the so-called “clobber-texts” tells us that the texts about homosexuality do not exactly say what many have assumed and have made them say. At any rate, hearing Robin’s story and seeing his loving care for his Alzheimer-partner was most impressive. It reinforced my conclusion that, whatever theological questions perhaps remain, I can only admire the kind of commitment that I saw in action in Eze.

Since our visit in Eze, we met Robin once more in person, when he and Stephen and Aafje and I happened to be in Southern California at the same time and we could meet for an extended breakfast in Pasadena. He kept telling us that we should come to see him in Hawaii. He would be happy to take care of the tickets. Well, that did not happen!

Less than two weeks ago Robin sent me a birthday card and also a message through Messenger that Stephen’s situation had deteriorated to the extent that admission to a specialized care home was now inevitable. And less than a week ago we received a short but touching e-mail message. Robin’s own state of health had suddenly worsened dramatically, and he had checked himself in into a hospice. He asked us to pray for him, and to ask the Lord that his end might be swift and painless. A few days later the news reached us that God had fulfilled that last wish.

I will remember Robin for the unique person that he was—-with his faith and with his doubts, and with the personal struggles he went through. We got to know him as a warm human being, practicing love and hospitality. I am deeply sorry that the door of his church was not always wide enough to make him feel truly welcome. But I am sure that the door of the kingdom will swing wide open for Robin!

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.