Ascension Day

Thursday May 10—Today is Ascension Day, which means that Dutch people do not have to go to work. In many countries Ascension Day is not a public holiday, but in the Netherlands it is. Forty days after his resurrection Jesus ascended to heaven. We read about it in in the Bible in the first chapter of the book of Acts. That event is commemorated today. A relatively small group of Dutch people, mostly of rather conservative Reformed vintage, will go to church. But it is safe to say that the vast majority of the population has no idea what Ascension Day is all about. For most it is a day for family activities and shopping, and furniture shops and garden centers will be very busy.

Celebrating Ascension Day goes far back in time. Some of the Church Fathers of the early ages already mention it and from trhe Middle Ages onwards it was an important day in the liturgical calendar. Different folkloristic customs sprung up around this day, such as the tradition of ‘dauwtrappen’ (literally: dancing on the grass that is moist because of the dew). In times past people would get up extremely early, even before sunrise, and would dance with bare feet, and sing, on the wet grass. Presumably this originated in a pagan custom. Today this tradition has developed into walks in groups or bike tours in the (not too early) morning of Ascension Day.

In general, Seventh-day Adventists do not attach great value to celebrating the Christian feast days. Some are, in fact, very much opposed to paying any attention to them. I experienced this just weeks ago, when on the Sabbath just before Easter I preached in a Dutch Adventist church. My sermon was about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. After the service I was sharply criticized by a lady, who felt that I should have preached about a truly Adventist topic, as for instance the heavenly sanctuary, and not about something she could have heard in any other church! Perhaps my sister-in-the-faith would have been more satisfied if I had preached about Jesus’ ascension, for that topic fits seamlessly with the heavenly sanctuary theme.

In several places the book of Hebrews refers to the moment when Jesus departed from the earth and ascended to heaven, where he promptly began his ‘work’ as the great heavenly High Priest. One of the prominent themes of this book of the Bible is the radical difference between the imperfect earthly high priests and the perfect heavenly High Priest, who having acquired the right to become our Mediator can assure us of our eternal salvation.

Most (?) Adventists believe that this heavenly ‘work’ of Christ our our High Priest consists of two phases. They argue that in the second phase, which began in 1844, Christ is ‘active’ in the most holy part of the heavenly sanctuary, where the ‘investigative judgment’ takes place. It is a rather complex teaching that is based on the premise that the heavenly sanctuary must be an exact parallel of the early sanctuary, since God told Moses to construct the tabernacle with two apartments (the holy and the most holy) in accordance with a heavenly model that he was shown by God.

There has been almost constant controversy among Adventists about the question whether Jeus’ work in the heavenly sanctuary consists of one single phase or of two plases. (In the book of Hebrews there is, remarkably enough, no mention of a two-phase ministry.)  Desmond Ford was the most prominent supporter of the single phase option. The controversy that erupted cost him his job in the church, and left a trail of misery across the denomination. Today many Adventist theologians and pastors agree with Ford, although they are often reluctant to admit this publicly.  To me, the one-phase option sounds quite convincing, but rather than fight about this issue I would much prefer that we simply accept that there are differences of opinion. After all, it seems that most of us agree on the core of what is at stake. Christ came to this world to die on our behalf. But he was raised from the dead. Many men and women met him during the ensuing forty days and testified that the Lord ‘was truly risen’. When Christ departed from this earth, he was fully entitled to be called the perfect Mediator / High Priest, who can ensure that all who accept him will enjoy the eternal benefits of what he accomplished on the cross. I cannot understand how this all fits together. We are dealing with a heavenly reality that far exceeds our human intellectual capacities. But the essence of this heavenly reality is ‘revealed’ to us in words and images that give us some idea of what Christ did and does for us. In any case, it tells us enough that we may rest assured that somehow the gap between God and us has been bridged. For me that is all I need to know.

2 JUNE. – Utrecht – A TIME FOR DIALOGUE

This week’s blog targets specifically my readers in the Netherlands and Flanders. It describes a program that will be presented in the afternoon of June 2 in the Adventist Church in Utrecht. A similar program was held about a year ago and many participants expressed their desire that there would be some form of follow-up. This is what the program of 2 June is intended to provide.

The program is once again especially targeting those who wonder whether the Adventist faith continues to be relevant for them and whether the Adventist Church continues to feel as their spiritual home. Like last year’s program this new event is also to a major degree inspired by my recent book FACING DOUBT: A Book for Adventist Believers ‘on the Margins’.

The program will largely consist of interviews and discussion in groups and plenary dialogue. Participants are asked to bring their smartphones. They will need those to take part in a polling about issues related to faith and church.

During the morning the Utrecht congregation will have its ‘normal’ worship, but all who plan to come in the afternoon are also invited to join this worship service in which I will preach. The Utrecht Church will serve soup, coffee, tea and soft drinks in the period between the morning service and the special program.

Everything will proceed in Dutch and we will probably not see very many who do not have a reasonable proficiency in our beautiful language, but here are the details nonetheless:

Theme            LOSLATEN EN VASTHOUDEN. (Letting go or holdeing on)

Date                2 June

Time                14.00-1700 pm

Soup, etc         from ca. 13.00 pm

Place               Adventkerk Utrecht, Marco Pololaan 185, Utrecht

More info:       gaanofblijven@gmail.com

BRING YOUR SMARTPHONE

 

No program for the children during the afternoon program. Adequate parking close to the church. Everybody is also invited to the worship service of the Utrecht Church  (10.00 Sabbath school; 11.00 divine service).

PLEASE SHARE THIS INFO WITH YOUR FRIENDS AND OTHERS WHO MAY BE INTERESTED IN THE THEME OF THIS PROGRAM

The Contours of European Adventism

I have enjoyed participating in the Symposium on the Contours of Adventism in Europe, that was held this past week at Friedensau University in Germany. It was a pleasure to present my paper on The Adventist Church and the European Unionand to listen to, and discuss, more than fifteen other presentations from scholars from many different countries in Europe, Russia and the United States.

Many of the papers that were presented were of a historical nature. And indeed, looking back at what lies behind us is important. A movement needs to know where it came from and how it developed in order to face the present and the future in a purposeful and coherent manner. A few presentations focused on the enormous difficulties that Adventist believers faced in the past. In countries with an established ‘national’ church, the emergence of newcomers like Adventists was not welcome and this often translated into fierce opposition. But these difficulties do not begin to compare with what believers in many parts of the former Soviet Union had to endure. As participants of the symposium we listened to many little-known stories of true martyrdom—the personal histories of people who faced long-term prison sentences and, in a considerable number of cases, were tortured or even lost their lives. Those of us who live today, and who are Adventists in today’s world, do well to remember their sacrifices and to treasure those shining examples of heroism, when we are confronted with ugly reaction as we share our faith.

However, looking at the past of our church also reminds us that the past is a mixed bag of good and not so good things. I referred to that in my recent blog about the biography of S.N. Haskell, one of the Adventist ‘pioneers’. His story is one of success and defeat, of acts of faith and of dubious decisions, of great achievements and of serious shortcomings. This week Dr. Gilbert Valentine, a historian who teaches at the La Sierra University in Southern California, presented an excellent paper on aspects of the person and work of John Nevil Andrews—the first official missionary sent out from the USA to Europe. We were told of the problems Andrews had to face when beginning his work from Basel, Switzerland. He knew little French and soon suffered a severe culture shock. The European missionary enterprise was a heavy drain on the church’s finances, and often the needed funds were slow in arriving. His decision to put a lot of his energy (and funding) into a monthly magazine, rather than holding a series of meetings in smaller towns (as the brethren in the US had advised him to do), was ill-received at the church’s headquarters. Andrews maintained that working in Europe was far different from working in the United States and that he had to adapt to these very different circumstances.

A most interesting aspect of Valentine’s paper on Andrews was his relationship to James and Ellen White. Andrews and James White did not get along and James was extremely critical (also in articles for the official church paper) about Andrews’ work in Europe, in particular for going against the counsel of the leaders in the USA and for not following the American model of evangelism. Ellen White, who at that time had not yet been in Europe herself and had not yet gained any first-hand knowledge of European circumstances, was at times also very critical. Her last 13-page letter that was sent to Andrews when he was terminally ill, was extremely sharp and critical and one wonders whether this was what Andrews needed when he was about to die. Later assessments of Andrews’s work were far more positive, and some time later, after making a five month visit to Europe, Haskell stated that he fully understood Andrews’ approach and probably would have done the same, had he been in Andrews’ place.

Once again, the presentations I heard this week helped me to better understand that the past should not idealized. Yes, there were many beautiful things in our denominational past, but the players were all very human and we must learn from their successes, but also learn their failures and mistakes.

(I look forward to the full biography of Andrews that Gilbert Valentine has written and will be published towards the end of the year!)

 

Plain reading?

A few days ago I was working on a new sermon, which is based in Luke 7:36-50. In this passage we read how a feast in the house of Simon the Pharisee was disturbed by a woman who had somehow gained entry, poured costly oil over Jesus’ feet and dried his feet with her hair. We also are informed that the woman was known in the city as a notorious sinner, but that Jesus’ told her that all her sins were forgiven.

It is a beautiful subject for a sermon. We all are sinners, like this woman. But at the end of the story Jesus’ regards her as a forgiven sinner. The point of the story is that Simon could only see this woman as a despicable sinner, but that Jesus changed her status in that of a sinner who had received forgiveness. This greatly encourages us. Whatever people may say about us, the only thing that really matters is how we are seen by God.

Working on this sermon I was once again made aware of the differences we notice in the descriptions of the gospel writers of particular events. This is certainly also true for this story. In this case the differences between the four versions of the gospel writers are such that most commentators have concluded that there must have been two similar occurrences. Matthew, Mark and John place this event just before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, while Luke places it towards the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

So, the question is: are we dealing with one event or two different events? In reading the book The Desire of Ages, by Ellen G. White, one quickly discovers that this author regarded it as one and the same occurrence. For many Adventists that settles the question. Many feel that Ellen White has the final say with regard to the interpretation of the Bible. Others, like myself, question this view. But whatever be the case: Those who maintain that the stories all describe the same incident, must take considerable liberties with the text and just ignore some significant differences.

It is interesting to see how Ellen White fuses the different versions of the story. Just one example of this is the description of what this woman actually did. Did she pour her oil over Jesus’ head, as Matthew and Mark tell us, or over his feet, as we are told by Luke and John. Ellen White solves this problem by simply stating that the woman poured her oil on Jesus’ head as well as over his feet.

Should something like this worry us? That depends. It is no problem for me. My definition of inspiration is broad enough to accept that the Bible writers may not have remembered every detail of the events they describe, or may have used sources that were not totally correct oreer incomplete. But those who defend a much more strict theory of inspiration and are convinced of the so-called ‘plain reading’ approach to the Bible, do have something to explain. They must face the fact that there are clear discrepancies between several biblical passages about one and the same event that cannot be simply ignored. And they will have to explain how one can, following the ‘plain reading’ method, fuse different stories without dealing with these clear differences. It seems to me that this leads to the conclusion that Ellen White took certain liberties with the text that can hardly be defended from a ‘plain reading’ perspective.

In my sermon I will not dwell on the many technical issues concerning this story from Luke. I will also leave the question of the identity of this woman aside. John is the only evangelist who mentions the name of Mary. Was she the sister of Martha and Lazarus (as the Desire of Ages tells us) or does the story in Luke perhaps point to Mary of Magdala? My sermon will emphasize the underlying message of the story for me and for the people who will listen to me, namely that we are also forgiven sinners and not just sinners. But those who push the ‘plain reading’ theory should give it considerable thought how they can reconcile the differences in the versions of the four gospels.

 

Lessons from the life of S.N. Haskell

Seeing a new book that was written by someone I happen to know always makes awakens my curiosity.  That was the case when I saw a book by Gerald Wheeler that was recently published by the Pacific Press. I first met Gerard, some forty years ago, at a convention for Adventist editors that was held in the Adventist conference center Glacier View—high in the Rocky Mountains. (This place would later achieve some notoriety in the Adventist Church as the place where a church tribunal condemned Desmond Ford.) Gerald spent his entire church career at the Review and Herald Publishing Association and was widely known as a highly skilled book editor.

Wheeler’s first biography of an Adventist leader in the early period of Adventist history appeared in 2003:  James White: Innovator and Overcomer. The book was based on meticulous research and gave an honest, and at times quite astonishing, picture of James White, the husband of Ellen G. White. Thus it was with great expectations that I started reading his newest biography: S.N. Haskell: Adventist Pioneer, Evangelst, Missionary, and Editor. I was not disappointed.

Stephen Haskell (1833-1922) did not belong to the oldest group of pioneers who had a personal involvement with the Miller movement. However, he was one of the many self-made men, who—without much formal education—grew into many-faceted and powerful church leaders. Wheeler follows Haskell through the various phases of his long life, in various roles (and often combinations of roles). He follows him to the places in the United States where he worked (first in the East, then more westward and ultimately in California), and on his many journeys to Europe and Australia, and other continents, which might take him away from home for many months or even longer than a year. It was the life of a hard-working, utterly dedicated and versatile man, but also of an individual who could be very stubborn and was not always ready to accept advice from others. He received countless letters and ‘testimonies’ from Ellen White. Although he received much criticism from her, he gradually became very close to her. He even proposed to her after she had become a widow. The book is also very valuable in that it consistently places Haskell in the time and culture in which he lived and against the background of the developments (and troubles) of the steadily growing Advent movement.

I recommend this book in particular to those who, like me, enjoy reading biographies. However, I would also strongly recommend it to those Adventists who keep on telling us that the Adventist Church should follow the patterns laid out by the pioneers of the church. It is true that in Haskell’s days many good things happened in the church, and that there were many committed people who brought great sacrifices ‘for the cause’. There is much in the history of that period that can inspire us. But the book about Haskell also clearly shows that there was much in the church that was not so good. There was rivalry between leaders. At times there were bizarre ideas that brought confusion.  Projects could fail because of mismanagement and often there was a distinct lack of unity. Many decided to join the church, but many also left again—some respected leaders among them.

In actual fact there is not that much difference between the present and the past. Today’s church is far from perfect, and that is true of the leaders as well as the members in the pew. This is no excuse to just accept whatever happens. This book is, however, a strong warning not to be too quick in assuming that the church of the past—and certainly in the days of the pioneers—was far better than it is today. And a nostalgic looking backwards to an often romanticized past is no panacea for all the problems and challenges the church must face today and will be confronted with in the future. If in doubt, allow yourself to be convinced by reading this fascinating biography of Haskell (which may be ordered at Amazon.com).