Encounters

This blog is written while I am just outside the Australian city of Brisbane, where I am one of the main speakers during a camp meeting of the South Queensland Conference. It is a huge event with several thousands of people in attendance, housed in a large city of tents and caravans. Since I have never really enjoyed camping I am happy to report that there are also a few motel units and that my wife and I were been given one of these. The meetings and activities take place in three big tents and some smaller buildings on the camp grounds. My assignment consists of seven sermons and five seminar-type presentations. In other words: I have a significant role without being overburdened.  The conference staff is doing all it can to make our stay pleasant and comfortable.

Apart from the official duties an event like this gives the opportunity for lots of personal interactions. It is gratifying when people come to tell you that what you said resonated with them. I had that experience many times during the past week. At the same time, it is also to be expected that some will come to express their displeasure. But so far there has only been one person who told me in no uncertain terms that I am part of Babylon. Good, traditional, Adventists know exactly what that means.

Lots of things are going on during this week, with programs for many different age groups. But there is plenty of time to meet people and spend time with friends and/or make new friends. It always surprises me to meet people—in other countries and even on the other side of the worlds—whom I know. It was a real pleasure to meet up with two former colleagues, who also worked for a number of years in the division office in the UK: Roy Richardson, who served in Europe as a leader in the ADRA-network and my good friend Peter Roennfeldt, whose innovative work inspired many pastors and church members all over Europe. Presently, Peter is retired, but he is as busy as ever. People seem to think that I am still quite energetic, but I am slow and lethargic when compared with Peter Roennfeldt. It is good to see that in recent years he has written some powerful books that are well received.  We also met pastor Laurie Evans and his wife. Laurie served as the president of the church in the South Pacific and I met him at many international church meetings.

And then there are quite a few people who come to tell me that they have friends or family in the Netherlands, who are Adventists, and wonder whether I know them. In many cases I do. Others simply want to have a chat and want to tell their story. Others again want to know my opinion about certain issues. This can be tricky, as I usually do not know the context of the particular problem. By now I have had sufficient exposure to this kind of thing that I know how to handle such occasions without getting involved in some controversy.

A very special extra in this week was the possibility to visit dr. Desmond Ford and his wife in their home, some 60 km away from the camp. I had never met “Des” (as he is called by those who know him) in person. At almost ninety his mind is still as sharp as ever. He is a remarkable man. I happen to agree with many of his views, but even those who don’t see eye to eye with him theologically, will have to agree that he has manifested a truly Christian spirit in his decades-long interaction with a church that rejected him.

All in all, this week has been a remarkable experience. It showed me a side of the church that totally differs from what happens in the church elsewhere and from the kind of issues that will be discussed during the upcoming Annual Council of the General Conference. Here, at the BIG CAMP in Brisbane I see a church with an abundance of vitality and with lots of “normal”, down to earth but committed, Christians. It was a privilege to be among them and serve them.

PS 1.  The other night we saw—just about 50 meters from our accommodation a coastal carpet python. He was about 1.50 m.  A snake handler was called who picked up the snake to bring him elsewhere.

PS 2.  Should you want to hear one of the sermons that I preached in this past week, go to ca. 0.58 on this youtube film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32QO4T6v1Gk&list=PLHProf_kWWEO6JEc4h8ZdNQZekEhs6h8O

What is a real “crisis”

It is true for both Spectrum and Adventist Today that the website of these independent news and opinions journals are read by far more people than the print-editions they produce. It is also a fact that the articles on these website often result in dozens or even hundreds of reactions from readers. This was also the case with my latest article (about a week ago) on the website of Adventist Today, that was entitled: Our Turn to Fundamentalism & How it Led to the Current Crisis. I argued in this piece that our increasingly fundamentalist approach to the Bible and the fact that the administrators of the church are more and more intent on formulating “pure’ doctrine, with less and less input from professional theologians, are among the primary causes for the crisis in current Adventism.

One of the comments on this article came from my British friend Victor, who combines love for his church with a sharp analytical mind and the gift to phrase his standpoints in very clear language. He suggested that I should see things in their proper proportions. He agrees with me that Adventism is going through a rather tumultuous time. He argues, however, that I must qualify the term “crisis” somewhat further. For how serious is this “crisis” in our church in actual fact in comparison to the enormous crises that have a global impact and to some of the crises in the society in which we live? He poses the question how many of the circa twenty million Adventists worry about who is getting ordained as a pastor when they get up in the morning. He compares this with the hundreds of thousands or even millions of people who are caught in the path of destructive hurricanes. That, he says, is a real crisis. And he points to the millions of men, women and children who live in abject poverty, and the millians of Syrians who no longer have a home and have had to flee the regime that mercilessly kills its own citizens. Those, we read in his commentary, are real crises!

Of course, I enjoy reading reactions from readers who fully agree with me and who tell me my article was very good. At the same time I expect at least some reactions from people who have do not appreciate what I write. But there is little I can do with these kinds of comments. On the contrary, reactions such as the comment of the above-named Victor are valuable. I must admit that I am often so absorbed by my church-environment that I fail to see things that happen there in their proper perspective. Unfortunately we have, as a church community, elevated navel gazing to a sublime art and, as a result, often take too little notice of what occurs in the world around us. [Or many of us simply conclude that all the misery in the world is the work of the Evil One, and that the best way to do something about this is to proclaim the “three-angels’ messages” more vigorously, and thereby “hasten” the Second Coming.] As human beings—and more specifically as Seventh-day Adventist Christians—we have a responsibility in and for the world. This implies among other things that we should not invest all our energy in the (un?)spiritual internal ecclesial controversies.

Admittedly, a large majority of Adventists worldwide know very little (let alone: have a clear opinion) about the passionate discussions among leaders and theologians. And we may wel ask the question: “is this a real crisis”? We must be careful not to compare apples with pears. The crisis in the Adventist Church is not of the same order as the worldwide poverty crisis. But it is, I believe, a real crisis. For the future of our church is at stake. Is the church gradually being transformed from an organization in which the members decide on important matters (with these decisions being implemented by those who have been elected to leadership positions through a democratic process), to a system that begins to show more and more similarity with the system of governance in a church that we have always strongly criticized? Do we want to remain inactive when we see how large numbers of church members leave our ranks, because they no longer feel at home in their church, and do not feel seen and heard? Above everything else: we are dealing with issues of conscience. Is the term “crisis” too big a word when we take all of this into consideration? 

Wanted: Theologians

When attending a doctoral defense and hearing the liberating words from the jury that the doctoral candidate may now call himself/herself “doctor”, I cannot help but wondering whether it was worth all the efforts that went into the doctoral project. Last Wednesday it was no different, when I attended the ceremony for my friend Wim Altink, who successfully defended his thesis in the Faculte Universitaire de Theologie Protestante (FUTP) in Brussels (Belgium). His thesis dealt with aspects of the status of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Revelation. I have great admiration for the fact that Wim was able to complete his doctoral work while holding a full-time job and in spite of experiencing major challenges in his personal life.

I must admit that from time to time I have wondered whether my own ambition to get a PhD was worth it.  It was not an easy process. And, to be honest, I did not really need it, as I was not in an academic position and was not planning to move into full-time academics. What practical use did it have to become a doctor in theology? Looking back, I must admit that the practical use of my title has been limited.

Nonetheless, I do not hesitate to encourage others to follow people like Wim and myself and aim for a doctoral degree. The very process is extremely worthwhile. Apart from increasing one’s knowledge about the topic of the dissertation it has significant value. It demands rigorous thinking, and being extremely well organized. It develops critical thinking and tests one’s perseverance. Going through that process is an enrichment and gives great satisfaction, even if few people will ever read the dissertation.

Quite a few Christians (Adventists not excluded) express doubt about the usefulness of obtaining a doctorate in theology. Does it make the new doctor a better preacher? A better shepherd of the flock? Is there not the possibility (or even the likelihood) that all this study leads to a loss of faith rather than a strengthening of one’s personal faith? These questions are certainly relevant. But I want to briefly emphasize another aspect.

A denomination must have a good, balanced and dynamic theology. This also applies to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Theologians are servants of the church and play an important role in formulating and critically developing the church’s doctrinal understanding. The church must not depend on just a few theologians of a certain kind, but on a wide range of theologians who approach their theological task from different perspectives. They nourish the theological thinking in the church by their dialogue, their lectures and publications, and in their interaction with the church at large. In other words: they must help the members of the church to think theologically in a sound way and to grow in their understanding of the implications of their faith.

Currently, the Adventist Church faces a number of serious problems. One of the core issues the church presently struggles with is that the administrators of the church feel that they must be the protectors of “correct” theology. If they seek advice in theological matters, they look for that advice in a small circle of theologians who are known to be conservative. This process is in the way of responsible theological developments. Theology is a project of the entire church, led by theologians who represent the entire (Adventist) theological spectrum.

The church needs capable administrators. But the church needs just as much (or even more) dedicated theological minds that will guide and encourage all church members (including administrators) on their pilgrimage toward an ever better understanding of who and what God is, how He relates to us and how we may better serve Him. Therefore: We continue to need more theological specialists. It is good to see that Wim decided to join the theological brother- and sisterhood. May many more women and men follow on that path!

 

With the LGBTI in Vienna

This year I will celebrate my birthday in Vienna. No, this is not a weekend-trip to a European city that I get as a birthday present. My wife and I are a few days in Vienna as guests of the Kinship organization, which this year holds its international congress in that city. I have been asked to give a number of presentations and to preach the sermon on Saturday morning. Kinship is an international organization of (mostly) Adventist people with an “alternative” sexual orientation—thus we nowadays tend to label as LHBTI or a variance of these letters.

In actual fact, I am “second choice” as the speaker, for the person who had in first instance been invited was told by his employing (Adventist) organization that his job would be at risk if he were to accept the invitation. How tragic. But, regardless of whether I am “second choice”, I have gladly accepted the invitation to be  in Vienna with the LGBTI-particpants at this congress, and a group of “friends”. I hope the people will be blessed with what I have prepared.

Some twelve years ago a similar congress was held in a conference center in the South of the Netherlands. I had been invited by the Kinship-leaders to come and give a number of worships. They added that they would understand if I would decline the invitation. At the time I was the president of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands. I received the assurance that they did not require me to agree with all the Kindship standpoints.  This meeting became a life-changing experience for me. I knew at that point very little about homosexuality and “alternative” sexual orientations. I had not studied the topic in any depth and my (rather negative) attitude was mostly shaped by the anti-homo climate that was quite general among Christians (and certainly among Adventists) in the Netherlands of previous decades. During the days of that congress I had the first real opportunity to listen to the stories of men and women (I do not think any transgenders were present) of how their orientation impacted upon their lives and how they, more often than not, were not welcome in the Adventist Church—let alone that they could play an active role in their church. At the end of those days I still had many questions, but I did have a very different picture of the challenges the LGBTI community in my church was facing.

Now, many years later, I know a lot more about the LGBTI subject. Recently I even wrote a brochure about it.[1]I have given presentations in local churches and pastors’ meetings about the topic in a number of countries and participated in study conferences. I am still left with questions. As a heterosexual male I continue to find it very difficult to understand what it means te be attracted to another male. I still have some theological questions, but gradually I have become convinced that the Bible does not equate homosexuality with a loving, committed, permanent and exclusive relationship between two persons of the same gender, who are simply unable to enjoy a meaningful heterosexual relationship.

Unfortunately, I continue to see in my church a great lack of understanding and acceptance of “brothers” and “sisters” who are “different”. But I am happy to also see more and more positive signals. I hope to continue to make a small contribution towards a full integration of those who have an “alternative” sexual orientation. Gods fully accepts them. How can we do otherwise?



[1]Little Alphabet Theology.  Copies may be requested from: buildingsafeplaces@gmail.com. The brochure is available in English, Dutch, German, French and Swedish.

 

Inspiration in Belgrade

I was tempted to skip this week’s blog. I am at the European Pastors’ Council in Belgrade and the days are quite full. But over the past few days literally dozens of colleagues from countries all over the Trans-European Division have told me that they are faithful readers of my weekly blog, and thus it seems I must also write a short piece this week.

I am enjoying this pastors’ congress and appreciate enormously that the TED has invited me to be here, even though I have now been retired for almost eleven years. It is great to somehow still “be part of it”.  Meeting many old friends is a great joy, and getting to know others is an extra bonus. And contributing in a limited way to the program gives a lot of satisfaction. Yesterday I presented a workshop on “Criteria for a Healthy Church”, which was well attended. And since nobody walked away half-way through the presentation, I assume it was reasonably well received. This afternoon I will do two workshops, one on “Last Generation Theology” and one on “Changing the Church”. A good number of people have chosen to attend them.

I must admit that I have not attended all meetings. Early in the mornings and in between meetings I have done some writing on a new book. And there must always be moments to get away from the crowd and have a good cup of coffee with friends. But, before you get the impression that I am not overly involved with the overall-event, let me assure you that I have greatly appreciated the preaching that I have heard thus far.  On the opening night pastor Ted Wilson was the speaker. I must admit that his sermon was pretty good—much to my relief, because I found some of his sermons that I heard in the past pretty hard to digest. On Tuesday evening Wilson preached a biblical sermon that was very much in tune with the theme of the congress: Connect-Change-Inspire. There were just a few EGW quotations. My only problem with the sermon was that his words, which emphasized the fact that the church needs all of us, are not easily matched with some of his administrative initiatives.

As I write, I have also listened to pastor Ian Sweeney, the president of the British Union, pastor Gifford Rhamie, a lecturer at Newbold Colleges, Dr. Daniel Duda, a departmental leader in the Trans-European Divisions, and pastor Anne-May Müller, a pastor and departmental leader in the Danish Union. Sweeney is one of the best preachers our church has. In 1996 he won the prestigious London Times preaching award, and listening to him this week I had no difficulty understanding why he came out in first place.  I had never heard Gifford Rhamie preach; his sermon was impressive, in terms of structure, delivery and content. And, of course, Dr. Daniel Duda will always surprise with new ideas and new perspectives on old stories.

For me the entire debate about women in ministry is decisively settled when I hear how some women pastors preach the Word.  A few months ago I listened in San Diego to a worship by Dr. Kendra Haloviak, one of the first women to be (illegally) ordained in the USA. Last night I listened to Anne-May Müller, who preached a superbly crafted sermon that had a powerful message for her colleagues. When an issue arose in the early church about the status of gentile Christians in the church, Peter and Paul gave as their most powerful argument for the full inclusion of gentile Christians that the Holy Spirit made no distinction between the Jewish and gentile believers. Hearing  women as Kendra and Anne-May preach, I can only conclude that the Holy Spirit does not seem to favor male over female speakers. And that is probably the most powerful argument for having an inclusive ministry, with men and women sharing the same status.

I need events like this pastoral congress for my own spiritual benefit.  I see many things in the church that I do not like. I worry about the future of my church when I hear about General Conference plans to enforce uniformity and even punish those unions that are not fully “compliant”.  But when I talk with colleagues from all over Europe I realize that I am not alone in my fears and concerns, and that there are many who have not given up on their church but will continue to work for change and renewal. That certainly helps me to keep going and to remain hopeful!