In the latest issue of SPECTRUM–the independent journal published by the Adventist Forum organization–I was given the opportunity to tell of my theological and spiritual pilgrimage. The fact that this week I am turning eighty seems a good opportunity to look back and consider whether my thinking about faith and church might have changed over time. Many theologians and church leaders have taken stock toward the end of their lives and asked themselves, ‘How has my thinking matured and what have ultimately proven to be the most important things?’ I do not pretend to belong to that category of prominent theologians, but it seems to me that such a self-critical retrospective should not be the exclusive right of the great ones among us.
It became a rather long article, and I expected SPECTRUM to return it to me with the request to delete about half (or even more) of it. Except for a few points that they thought I should clarify a bit, my piece was accepted as I wrote it. Anyone who wants to read it should go to the latest issue of the journal–either in print or the digital version-and start at page 56: My Pilgrimage of Theology and Faith: What Remains.
To my great surprise, my article was followed by comments from no fewer than twelve colleagues/friends: Andreas Bochman (Friedensau University), Denis Fortin (Andrews University), Stefan Höschele (Friendensau), Robert Johnston (emeritus Andrews University), David Larson (emeritus Loma Linda University), Johannes Naether (president North German Union), Jan Paulsen (former General Conference president), Helen Pearson (Newbold College), Mike Pearson (Newbold College emeritus), Rolf Pöhler (emeritus Friedensau), Laurence Turner (Newbold College emeritus), and Jean-Clause Verrecchia (Collonges Seminary and Newbold College emeritus). Their comments are printed on pages 71-79 under the heading “Tributes.” Reading what they said about me was an humbling experience. I realize that not everyone will have an equally positive view of me. But people who matter to me wanted to let it be known that they have seen my commitment to my work in the church and that, in with all my flaws and shortcomings, I have always shown commitment and integrity.
I believe it is good to tell your story and I wish many more of my colleagues at home and abroad would do this. It may have gone a little out of fashion, but once upon a time people wrote their life story, sometimes already at a relatively young age. Ellen White and James White wrote autobiographies. The first edition of Ellen’s Life Sketches appeared in 1860, when she was 23. And James White wrote his Life Incidents when he was 47. I have quite a few books on the history of Adventism in my library and among them numerous biographies, but the number of autobiographies is very limited. There are only a few, e.g. Pilgrimage (1992) by Richard L. Hammill, a church leader in the 1960s and 1970s, and Ambassadors for Liberty (2012), in which Bert B. Beach describes his fascinating career. Both books are inspiring and well worth reading.
Recently, I read Edwin Zachrison’s Profile of a Religious Man (2020). In it, a theology professor/pastor tells his story, which is not all about progress and success. It is the story of someone who has also seen the ugly sides of the church. It is good that such stories are also told. Things that went well and had success should be told. That inspires and provides the church and society with important role models. But the things that hurt and made people unhappy should not be ignored. Reading about these things helps to stay critical and to see the all-too-human element in the church. It makes us realize that the church does not always succeed in creating an atmosphere where people can thrive spiritually.
Recently I spoke with someone who was a pastor in a congregation (not in the Netherlands, but elsewhere in Western Europe) for a number of years. During the conversation, his career switch came up. Why had he left the ministry, and chosen another profession? It was not a decision that suddenly emerged. The decisive moment had come when, at a meeting of pastors, he heard from of a division leader that as a pastor you are an employee of the church. For that you are paid your salary. This means that you have to follow the denominational guidelines in everything, and you must in your preaching in everything follow official church doctrine. If you don’t want to do that, the pastors were told, you should leave. And so he did. I said to him, You have to tell your story. People need to know that sometimes an atmosphere is created in which people who work for the church can no longer breathe.
I was able to tell my story in SPECTRUM. I’m grateful for that. I am also grateful (yes, I was really moved) by the tributes that accompanied my article. I hope it encourages others to also tell their stories. It will benefit themselves and many others.