Attending an ‘unauthorized’ meeting

 

[Friday afternoon, June 16] Since Wednesday evening about 80 people from more than a dozen countries are meeting in a hotel near London Airport for a conference that has ‘Unity 2017’ as its theme.  There is something very special about this convention.  I have been to countless church-organized meetings, but these meetings were always officially ‘authorized’ by some level of the denominational organization.

This meeting is an exception: it is  ’unauthorized.’ In fact, it is a meeting the top leadership of the church does not want to take place. You will not read about it in the official church media, such as the Adventist Review.  The General Conference wants to ignore this meeting. What is even more serious: It has done what it could to obstruct the organization of the conference. The meeting was to be held in a denominational institution, but that institution was put under pressure ‘from above’ to withdraw the offer of hosting it. Furthermore, when comparing the list of speakers that was announced a few months ago with the actual program, there is quite a difference. A number of church-employed academics have been told it would be unwise for them to attend and to make a presentation.  In fact, that is why I am now one of the speakers. I am replacing one of the persons who has been told not to attend!  And yes, like several of the other presenters, I am retired and am relatively ‘safe’ as I do not have to fear any disciplinary measures.

This is a very serious and tragic situation. It smacks of a dictatorial mentality and it smells of fear. But, maybe it was to be expected. For the topic of the conference is closely related to the issue of gender equality and women’s ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It focuses specifically on the way the church wants to use it authority to force so-called ‘non-compliant entities’ to give up their ‘rebellion’ en desist from any further ordinations of female pastors.

This initiative taken by ten unions (from Europe, the USA and the South-Pacific region of the world), attempts to provide an opportunity for further dialogue about the explosive issue that threatens to divide the church. But was this current year not supposed to be a year of dialogue and of listening to each other? Or was this just a pious smokescreen to obscure the real message: Get in line, or else . . .?

We are now two days into our program. So far we have listened to six excellent presentations, and we have engaged in group dialogue and in a panel discussion. For me, it has been a learning experience, but also a spiritual stimulus. We are meeting in a spirit of togetherness, bound by a deep desire to see some fundamental changes in the church we all love. We hope that the conference will not only have an impact on the participants, but that the materials that are presented will be disseminated widely and that they will give a better understanding of the core issues to leaders all over the world, in preparation for some crucial decisions to be made at the Autumn Council in August. At that time the 210-plus members of the executive committee of the world church will have to decide whether or not punitive measures must be taken against the unions that have ordained women pastors or are planning to do so.

I would encourage you to go to www.adventistunity2017.com where you can find the papers of the presenters. And also to make others aware of this material, especially if you have persons in your social network that are part of the decision making process in the church. Let’s make sure that this perspective on the issues of women’s ordination and of church authority is heard, even when it will not be reported by the official media.  These media, as well as top church leadership, were invited. But only  the independent media (Spectrum and Adventist Today) have accepted to be present. They have sent people to report on this conference first-hand.  Well, I am sure they will do a good and objective job!

 

Leadership

[Friday morning, June 9) After ten days at Newbold College in England I will fly home later today. I have tried to get a good idea of the goal and structure of the MA course in Leadership that Andrews University is currently offering in Europe to people with leadership qualities in the Adventist Church.  Over a three-year period seven sessions of about two weeks will be held, mostly on the campus of Newbold College in the UK. In addition, the students will, if at all possible, meet on a monthly basis in groups in various geographical regions to discuss the projects they are working on as part of the program and to support and stimulate each other in the progress of their thesis that must be finished before they can graduate.

Over forty students enrolled for the course--rather more than was expected. Most of the participants are sponsored by their church organizations. Because every 6-7 students will have an advisor assigned to them, who will coach them during the entire course of study, the organizers were suddenly faced with a lack of mentors. That was the reason why about three weeks ago I was asked to serve as one of the advisors. Even though this means that--except in unforeseen circumstances--I must commit myself for three years to this project, and even though I am involved with a lot of other things, I decided to accept the challenge. It was gratifying to see that the students that have been assigned to me had actually told the course leaders that they would like to have me as their advisor. And so, I have accepted the role of giving all possible support to seven participants from the United Kingdom (4), Germany (2) and the Netherlands (1).

It was very important for me to understand the structure of the course and to find out what exactly was expected of me. I think I was able to do so in the past ten days. The course has a fascinating design. Admittedly, a major chunk of theory needs to be digested, but the main focus is on projects in the actual professional situation of the participants, in which this theory can be applied--whether they are leaders in a conference, a union, or are a departmental leader or a leader in a church district.

Besides having learned a lot myself in the past few days, I have enjoyed the very engaged and inspired way of teaching by, among others, Dr. Erich Baumgartner (whom I first got to know some 25 years ago when I was myself working at Andrews University). But this assignment as a mentor also gives me an unexpected chance to see from near-by what leadership in the Adventist Church is all about in 2017. It stands to reason that many leaders feel they need some very specific training, since being a leader is a much greater challenge today than it was in the period when I had to lead other people and had to (help) develop a vision for the organizations I was involved with.

I have had the privilege to be a leader during a major portion of my working life. At age 29 I was already parachuted into the post of leader of the educational institution the Adventist Church had in the Netherlands at that time. In later years I led several church institutions and als served at different denominational levels in leadership roles in various countries. In many respects it was a good and fascinating time to look back at with satisfaction. However, I am not blind to the many mistakes I made, and in retrospect there are quite a few things I would do differently today. At the time I could have greatly benefitted from the kind of course I have now become involved with.

Being a church leader has through the years become ever more difficult. More is required of our leaders than in the past. The church (as well as the society that surrounds it) has become much more diverse and more complex. Moreover, ‘authority' functions now quite differently, and today leaders are faced with widespread distrust on the part of many to whom they must provide leadership. Professional courses are extremely important to give leaders more theoretical background and to provide them with the necessary tools for their work, but support and trust from the people is at least as essential. When this trust is lacking, many leaders will soon be ‘burnt-out’ and it becomes increasingly difficult to find talented people who are willing to be leaders. I hope I can help a number of the participants in this course to retain their enthusiasm for their task and to grow in their leadership role.

 

Translations

 

Both for my wife Aafje and myself  the word ‘translating’ had always been important. Aafje was involved in translating books for a major part of her working life. When moving from place to place in the world her job as a translator went with her. In the book case in her room are more than one hundred books which she translated–mostly from English into Dutch.

My focus has been more on writing books and articles. However, throughout most of my life I have also done some translation work from time to time. I translated a number of books from English into Dutch. The last one is the devotional book by Dr. Jon Paulien: The Gospel from Patmos. The Dutch version, to be published by the Adventist Church in the Netherlands, will appear within a few months. The author offers a short meditation for each day of the year, based on one or more texts from the last book of the Bible.  However, from time to time, I have also translated theological books from Dutch into English. Just a few weeks ago the American publisher Eerdmans published a book of over 800 pages:  An Introduction to Christian Dogmatics. It is my translation of a book by two Dutch theology professors at the Free University in Amsterdam (Cornelis van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink). Some two years ago I spent a major part of my time on this exciting project. For me translation work is a kind of a hobby! To work with languages and go from one language to another is a fascinating challenge.

Recently I have become involved with translations also in a different way. After having written the book FACING DOUBT in English, it was not too difficult to translate it myself into my mother tongue Dutch. But a French translation far exceeded my expertise. In the course of my assignment in Belgium, a few years ago, I got to know my colleague Michel Mayeur quite well. He had already, at some earlier time, taken the initiative to translate into French a devotional book that I had written  and he now spontaneously offered to also translate my latest book into French. It is now available as FACE AU DOUTE (Amazon.fr).

From Belarus I received a similar spontaneous offer from a fellow-pastor to care for a Russian translation. This Russian edition has now come off the press and may be ordered through Amazon.uk (Рейндер Бруинсма). This edition is mainly intended for Russian speaking Adventists in the ‘diaspora’ (i.e. those who have migrated to countries in the West). Very soon a cheaper edition will also appear, through a Russian online publisher/bookseller: www.ridero.ru.

Walder Hartmann, a retired pastor in Denmark, whom I know very well, saw the importance of this book and wrote me that he would be happy to take on a Danish translation. Two weeks ago the visitors of the annual camp meeting of the Danish Adventist Church were able to buy the book (it can also be ordered through www.saxo.dk). The German translation is also a ‘labor of love.’ A very capable person with great linguistic skills is currently in the last phase of this work.

In the near future I will have a meeting with a Portuguese speaking colleague to discuss the possibility of a Portuguese edition, and it would be great if I could find a volunteer for a Spanish translation.  I am immensely grateful for all translators. And my appreciation also extends in a very special way to Mr. Manfred Lemke of Flanko Press, who is putting a lot of expertise and energy in this project.

PS.  Talking about translations: It is clear that a translator must have a thorough knowledge of at least two languages: the original language and the language into which  the original is to be translated. It requires knowledge and linguistic sensitivity, in addition to a lot of time and energy and a good deal of creativity. That is also what is needed when we want to communicate the Word of God–the good news–to the people around us. Whoever is involved in this work must know the language of the Bible, but also the language of the people in the twenty-first century. Without this kind of translation the gospel will remain unintelligible for all those who so far have never heard it.

 

When being a prophetess was rather common . . .

When in the United States, I always try to find an ABC–an Adventist Book Center (bookstore). I want to know whether my church has latelypublished anything significant. Usually I leave the store rather disappointed. But this time, a few weeks ago, I found a small book that I had not yet heard of, and that looked quite interesting. I bought a copy, partly also inspired by the fact that I had gotten to know the author when I lectured at Loma Linda University, some two years ago, as a ‘visiting professor.’  It was a small book of just under a hundred pages, written by Theodore N. Levterov, the director of the Ellen G,. White Estate Branch Office at Loma Linda University in California.  It is entitled: Accepting Ellen White: Early Seventh-day Adventism and the Gift of Prophecy Dilemma.

The book is a popularized and abbreviated edition of Levterov’s doctoral dissertation. The scholarly nature of the original is still visible in an abundance of endnotes. Levterov makes clear that the acceptance of Ellen White as a prophet was often quite challenging for the early Adventists. He focuses on the factors that helped them to ‘put the doctrine of spiritual gifts into a balanced perspective within their over-all theology.’

I found the first chapter the most fascinating. It describes the world into which Ellen White was born and, in particular, the religious milieu in which she grew up. As a child and adolescent she would quite often attend religious meetings in which she would witness visionary and charismatic manifestations. Levterov confirms the description of a Methodist historian who studied the Methodist surroundings that had a strong formative influence  on Ellen White.  In her book Fits, Trances and Visions, Ann Taves published her research into the activities of numerous prophetess in early 19th century Methodism. She documented how the form and content of these visionary experiences were very similar to what the early Adventists saw and heard when Ellen White was ‘taken off’ into one of her public visions.  Levterov furthermore gives a very candid description of the often chaotic and wild scenes during the meetings of the early Adventists and, especially, during their campmeetings. Ellen White would later often refer to these as evidence of ‘fanaticism.’

In this book Levterov makes an important contribution in giving twenty-first century Adventists a clearer picture of the way in which Ellen White fitted into the religious landscape of her time. Reading this first chapter one gets an amazing picture that has not often been painted in such an open and unapologetic way. It underlines that God uses methods and forms that are understood by the people he wants to address. The forms and methods that were common among the ‘shouting Methodists’ had their appeal and their use in their time, and God apparently used these forms when communicating through Ellen White, who was part of that milieu.  If he were to communicate with us in similar forms it would only lead people to wonder about our sanity, and it  would cause many around us to question whether we should be regarded as a truly Christian church.

It is encouraging that we recently see a greater willingness on the part of people who are close to the institution that is responsible for the literary heritage of Ellen White, to bring ‘the prophet’ down from her pedestal, and to distinguish myth from reality. Unfortunately, we have yet a long way to go, and large numbers of her devotees around the world continue to worship her in ways that she would herself have disapproved of. Ellen White continues to have a great importance for Seventh-day Adventists, but we owe it to ourselves–and also to her–that we do not treat her as a kind of ‘saint’, and that we always interpret her writings and actions against the background of the time in which she lived.

Kudos to the Pacific Press for publishing this frank and refreshing book, and to Levterov for his important work. I would say to the author: Please expand this first chapter into a book-length study. I would be among the first to buy such a book.

 

Fake news

 

Yesterday the office of the president of the General Conference released a statement concerning its position on the ordination of female pastors. It announced a change in the strategy of the denomination with respect to this issue. I quote: ‘The top leadership of the church will no longer pursue any possible actions against church entities that are non-compliant with the church’s policies. In stead, the leadership has agreed that it is the prerogative of the unions to determine who will be ordained to the ministry.’

I wish such a statement had indeed come from Silver Spring. But, alas, it is fake news. As I wrote these lines I realized how easy it would have been to disseminate this ‘news.’  I could have sent it to my two thousand Facebook friends, with the request to share this piece of fantastic news on their own FB page!

Just a week or so ago the Euro-Asia Division (Russia, Ukraine and a  number of other former Soviet nations) had to send out a formal declaration stating that the ‘news’ which had been widely circulated through the social media–that the Russian government had formally closed the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Russia–was, in fact, fake news!

The term ‘fake news’ has lately been on many lips and has become a major issue.  How much of what the media report can be trusted?  How do we know that what we read on Facebook is actually true?

But an even bigger problem is that much of the news that we consume is very subjective and one-sided, and that it is often very difficult to get a complete and balanced picture of what is going on. I am very interested in what happens in the United States and follow closely all the issues in which President Trump is embroiled. But I realize that the Dutch media, by and large, are quite anti-Trump. I also realize that the on-line edition of the Washington Post that I read (or at least scan) every morning is not exactly Trump-friendly. And it is clear that CNN (which is one of the foreign channels I have on my tv) would be very happy to see the president impeached in the near future.  Recently I was staying in a home in which Fox-news was quite popular. I knew that the Fox news network has a totally opposite view from that of CNN. I greatly dislike Fox, but I must admit that maybe some of the things they say have some validity, and that possibly some of the reports of CNN are somewhat skewed and praise is not always given where it may also, from time to time, be due. The question may not be: Is it ‘fake’ or ‘real’, but does what I read or see cover the different aspects of a topic in a fair, equitable way.

Denominational media, at least to some extent, are in the same boat.  How do we get a balanced picture of the things that are happening in the church? I am a daily reader of the websites of Spectrum and Adventist Today. I appreciate the fact that they are not afraid to handle some hot topics that the church is confronted with. Women’s Ordination to the ministry and issues around sexual orientation figure prominently in these media. And it is clear that the voices that speak out on these subjects are mostly on the ‘progressive’ side.  With considerable justice it might be argued that these ‘progressive’ media are rather one-sided. But the same would be true for the Adventist Review and for Adventist World in which the reader finds a great deal of ‘spin.’ It focuses mostly on the successes of the initiatives that come from on high, and on the steady growth of the church, but very little on the problems and immense challenges the church faces.  There are many dubious things we would never have heard of, if it had not been for Spectrum and Adventist Today.

Of course, it must be admitted that different media may have different missions and may target different audiences. But that admission does not eliminate the problem.  How can we get reasonably balanced and objective information about what happens in society as well as in the church?  In any case, it requires that we try to gather our information from various sources and remain alert to see where important questions are dodged and where a major dose of ‘spin’ is applied.  Only then can we have a better chance to discover what is ‘fake’ or one-sided, and what seems to be trustworthy.