Searching the archive

The Adventist Church has recently embarked on a number of ambitious projects. A group of theological scholars is working on the Seventh-day Adventist International Bible Commentary. The first volume (Genesis) has appeared, so that people may have a taste of what is to come. All the other volumes will be published at the same time. Work has also begun on a new SDA Bible Dictionary and on a new SDA Encyclopedia. I have been asked to write a number of articles for both the Dictionary and the Encyclopedia. Last week I submitted three of my five articles for the Dictionary, and this week I have been working on six of the articles that I have promised to contribute to the Encyclopedia.

In preparation for my Encyclopedia articles I spent a considerable amount of time in the archives of the Netherlands Union. I needed to find certain details of the history of the (now no longer existing) Netherlands theological seminary and secondary school “Oud Zandbergen”, of the history of the publishing activities in the Netherlands, and of the biographies of a number of past union presidents. Some of the things I was looking for were easy to find. In recent years a lot has been done to preserve and catalogue the documents of the past, but some details were not so easy to discover. I decided to go through all the issues of the official Dutch church paper (Advent, formerly Adventbode) of a few decades, looking for some obituaries and for reports of specific events, etc.   I made significant progress but still have some work to do.

Going through the issues of the church paper of the 1960’s 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s was an interesting exercise. During part of this period I served as the editor of this journal. I was rather surprised to see how many articles I had actually written over the years. Some of them I remembered, of some of them I have copies in my own private “archive”, but some I had completely forgotten. It was a special experience to see the names of many people I had known, but who are no longer with us. Suddenly I saw the short obituary for my mother, reminding me that I had given a short biographical sketch of her at her funeral.

What struck me as I went through the months, years, and decades, was to see how many things have remained the same. Some problems tend to stay with us without ever being solved. But, on the other hand, it is startling to see how much has actually changed. New local churches have been  organized, while other churches disappeared. Institutions grew and prospered, but also faced challenges and in some cases ceased to operate. Leaders came and moved off the scene. I read the reports of ordinations of colleagues who are now dead or long retired. Period of financial strengths were followed by periods of financial drought. From time to time theological unrest—either homebred or imported—caused confusion, but eventually the focus shifted again to other matters. New slogans for evangelism and new initiatives found support, but usually only had a limited lifespan.

In some ways, this exercise made me sad. In spite of all the hard work of so many people; in spite of the tens of millions of guilders and euros that were invested; in spite of the many publications; in spite of all the energy invested by clergy and lay members—the church in the Netherlands is still a small community that, after all these years, continues to struggle with many issues, and has not really made a significant impact on Dutch society. On the other hand, this exercise encourages me and gives me hope. The church has survived countless difficulties. Thousands of men and women found a spiritual haven in our, admittedly far from perfect, spiritual community. And though change has often been difficult and slow, many things did changed over time. Perhaps (so I said to myself) I need a bit more patience. Things do change. I am committed to my church, even though there are quite a few things I do not like in my church, but change is possible. That is one of the lessons the history of my church teaches me.