Learning about being different

 

It is already some eight or nine years ago that I was invited by the Kinship organization to present a few worships to European Kinship members during a few days somewhere in the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant. I have forgotten the name of the place where we were together in a small seminar hotel. For those readers who do not know what the Kinship organization is all about: Kinship wants to provide support to (mostly) Adventist people with a ‘different’ sexual orientation.

Of course, I knew, before I went to this place, something about homosexuality. I had met gay people or persons whom I suspected of being gay or lesbian. And I was aware of the fact that there are also Adventist church members who are ‘different’. But it was during this meeting that, for the first time in my life, I was together with Adventists who were very open about their sexual orientation. These days proved to be a tremendous eye opener for me. I listened to the, often tragic, stories of men and women who had been awfully treated by their church. Some even had been denied membership in our church, even though they had been attending church and had supported their church for decades. Up to that time I had not made any in-depth study of the topic and had hardly thought about the theological aspects. I still had the idea that it might be possible for a person to change his/her orientation. And there were also other major gaps in my knowledge of what it means to be ‘different’.

Since that time I have regularly attended Kinship meetings and have been in frequent contact with Adventists who are gay or lesbian. I have read about it and at times written about it. Some of the comments I received were positive, but some were also quite critical (to phrase it very euphemistically). In recent times I have been invited in various places to explain how my views have developed over time, and why I think that my church ought to give full space for members who are gay or lesbian, so that they will not only feel welcome  but may also participate fully in the life of the church.

Last Monday, quite early in the morning, my wife and I got in our car to drive to a small town in Germany, some 50 kilometers south-east of Frankfurt-am-Main, for the annual meeting of a group of Kinship-‘allies’—people who have some influence in the church and who want to have a better understanding of what it means to be gay or lesbian and want to plead for more understanding and tolerance in the Adventist Church (considering that this still leaves much to be desired.) My week was not going to be very hectic. I was scheduled to give two 30-minute worships and to give two presentations about the theological issues around homosexuality. Most of the time I spent listening and took part in the discussions.

I must admit I still have quite a few questions for which I have no answers. As a heterosexual I still do not really understand what it means to be gay. But in recent years I have discovered that the percentage of gays and lesbians in the Adventist Church is not smaller than elsewhere in society. Quite regularly people (who sometimes have not yet come ‘out of the closet’) tell me of their experiences, or fathers (and especially mothers) tell me about their son or daughter . . . They appreciate meeting and talking to someone who knows something about the topic and does not stand ready with a judgment.  This has stimulated me to be an ‘ally’ (of ‘friend’ might be a better word) of Kinship and to continue my study of the issues—even if not all people think that this is a good idea. This week has given me an even stronger commitment to do what I can to make my church a ‘safe place’ for my brothers and sisters who are ‘different’.

 

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Rwanda and ‘the 28′

 

Rwanda is a relatively small country in Central Africa. It dominated the news headlines in 1994 because of the terrible genocide in which at least 800.000 people were brutally killed during the bloody tribal conflict between the Hutu’s and the Tutsi’s.

Rwanda is a little smaller than the Netherlands (respectively about 26.000 and 42.000 square kilometers). The current population of this fertile country, with a pleasant climate, stands at almost 12 million. The Rwandese people are very religious. A little more than half of them are Roman Catholics. About 36 percent of the population is Protestant. Seventh-day Adventists represent with 11 percent of the people (or ca. 1,3 million persons) a rather prominent section of Protestantism. The data are provided by the Rwandese government and include also non-baptized family members. According to the statistics of the Adventist Church it has a little over half a million names on its membership rolls.

A significant part of the population has had some education and is literate. The literacy percentage for adult women is between 50 and 60 percent and for adult men a bit higher.

Why did I look for these data? The reason is that the Adventist Church in Rwanda features at this moment rather prominently in the Adventist press. A big-scale, nation-wide evangelistic campaign is under way, in which even the president of the General Conference will actively participate. Everywhere in the country series of meetings are being held and in the near future a massive ‘harvest’ is expected. Until recently a baptism of some 60.000 people was projected. The Adventist Review reported a few days ago that the Rwandese church leaders now believe that in May as many as 100.000 people will be baptized.

These are incomprehensible numbers, especially for church members in the Netherlands where a baptism of five persons is considered a major ‘success’. Surely, in a country like Rwanda it is easier to persuade people to become Adventists than it is in Western Europe. But one should not have the idea that in Rwanda new members grow like ripe oranges on a tree along the waterside, and that these will automatically fall into the water as soon as someone shakes the tree just a little. I am sure an enormous amount of hard work is being done, with many pastors and others working in over-drive. And I must assume that there is an colossal amount of organization behind all of this.

It is great to see how the church grows exponentially in many parts of the world. But I do wonder to what extent it is possible the teach all these 100.000 new members—in a relatively short period of some months—all 28 Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This question is even more pressing when we assume (as seems reasonable to do) that a major percentage of these new members are people who have decided to leave the Catholic Church and are men and women who cannot read or write. Roman Catholic Christians are not particularly known for their extensive knowledge of the Bible and Adventists are expected to read their Bible and study their sabbatschool lesson faithfully!

How much will these new members, at the moment of their baptism, know of the Adventist teachings? I assume they will have heard of the Second Coming of Christ and of the Sabbath and that they have understood that baptism by immersion is the only valid form of baptism. But how many of them will know about a heavenly sanctuary? And will they be able to explain the essence of the ‘three angels’ messages’? Will they have a clue about the prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation? Have they even heard the name of Ellen White? To be honest, it does not bother me too much. If these people want to be baptized, they are—as far as I am concerned—very welcome and I believe that in the years to come they will gradually learn more about what it means to be a Seventh-day Adventist.

However, I would like to ask some church leaders why they keep emphasizing that one cannot be a good Adventists if one does not fully accept all the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. Why is there such a high threshold for people in the secularized West who have discovered the Adventist Church and not for the people in Rwanda? Maybe some day these leaders will explain it to me. But in the meantime I say to my new fellow-brothers and –sisters in Rwanda: Welcome! Or in their own Kinyarwanda languages: Karibu Sana!

 

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Bridges, no walls

 

The world was ecstatic with joy when on November 9, 1989 the Berlin wall ‘fell’. Since 1961 the wall had split the city in two parts. After World War II there were two Germany’s, and now there were also two Berlins. The city was painfully cut in two, with families and friends separated from each other. When people tried to scale the wall shots were fired, sometimes with fatal consequences. Some attempt to flee to the West were successful, for others they ended in tragedy. The Berlin wall was a construction of concrete, but it functioned also as a symbol for everything that separates humans from each other. Of one thing we were sure in 1989: this must never happen again. This is something we do not want to see again, ever!

This was just over 25 years ago. For people in Western-Europe Berlin has become a favorite destination for a long weekend, a few days away from home. Tourists look for the small portion of the wall that remains and they visit the museum, close to the former Checkpoint Charlie, that tells them about the wall and attempts to pass it. But, other than that, the wall sinks ever deeper in our collective memory.

Strangely enough, today we  once more see and hear  political leaders and political parties that want to build walls. ‘Large numbers of people in Western Europe loudly proclaim that we must ‘close our borders’. Sad to say: We hear such voices also in the Netherlands! These voices are, in fact, calling for new walls, while not so long ago we were delighted that we could travel in a large part of Europe without ever showing a passport.

We hear people about the need for physical walls, barriers of barbed wire, or high fences that will stop the movement op people flooding into Europe. The argument is that we must create a barrier to stop the tsunami of refugees. We are told that there are actually lots of fortune hunters, (economic refugees) among the asylum-seekers. The Balkan-route must no longer be an attractive option.

On the other side of the ocean Donald Trump tirelessly advocates the construction of a barrier along the Southern border of the United States, to stop the flow of Mexicans. He has said that he would also like to see a fence along the border between the United States and Canada, but he realizes this is somewhat more difficult to realize, with a border that stretches over many thousands of miles.

In some exceptional cases it may be necessary to build a wall. As long as we have prisons it may be unavoidable. And who can forbid homeowners to put a fence around their property?  But, in general, the principle should be: building bridges is much better than constructing walls. Civilized nations—certainly when they brag about their Judeo-Christian roots—must do everything they can to prevent the erection of walls between nations and people groups.

The New Testament tells us (Ephesians 2:14-16) that Jesus came to remove all walls between people. In his days there still was a barrier in the precinct of the Jerusalem temple, between the area that was reserved for the Jews and the section where others were also allowed. This wall, we are told, has been removed forever. It is a symbol for the removal of all walls between people, everywhere.

I do not deny that our political leaders face immense problems around illegal immigration and that the refugee crisis in Europe is extremely complicated. But building walls cannot be part of a solution. And, by the way, this also applies to the church. Whenever there are walls between individuals or groups, who have  diverse opinions or interests, we need builders of bridges and not of builders of walls.

 

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1 Corinthians

 

Of course, I cannot really compare myself with the apostle Paul, but there are some  similarities between us. One of these is that we both like to write. Paul was in the habit of writing letters. We do not know how many he actually wrote, but some of them we can still read today, as they have been included in our Bible. Ever since, millions of people have been able to read them. Yet, we must keep in mind that Paul’s original readers were not very numerous. He sent his letters to churches that may have consisted of a few hundred members at most, divided over a number of house churches. The letters were probably also read by neighboring churches, but the total audience was rather restricted.

Among the things I write is my weekly blog. As soon as I have written a new blog I dispatch it to the world in digital format. To my astonishment I have readers in far-away corners of the earth, even in China, South-America, Japan and Iceland. Without any exaggeration I can state that I have more readers than Paul had in his days. (Admittedly, what I write will not be read for as long a period as what Paul wrote)

Paul addressed his letters to local churches that he knew well. My blogs are primarily intended for the people in the faith community that I know well, i.e. the Adventist Church. Paul was often critical with regard to what he had heard about the way of life and the faith of the members of those churches. The readers of my blogs will have noticed that I also tend to be rather critical with respect to lots of things I see in my church. But there the parallel must end. It was only intended to introduce the ‘message’ of this week.

In recent days I re-read the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians. Once again it struck me how good it is to read a book of the Bible in its entirety, preferably in one session. That may not be feasible for such Bible books as the Psalms or Ezekiel, but reading 1 Corinthians takes at most only two hours.

Paul had quite a few unpleasant things to say to the church members in Corinth. There were lots of issues that needed to be addressed. The church suffered from major divisions, with several groups claiming their own favorite leader (1:11, 12). But there were also other problems. Paul had heard of immorality in the church, on a scale that did not even occur in ‘the world’, but had become quite common among the members (5:1). The members of the church also took each other to court (6:1). In addition, there were serious disturbances during the worship services (11) and serious deviations with regard to a few key facets of the Christian faith. Some Corinthians Christians even denied that there would be a resurrection of the dead (15:12).

I would suggest: Read or re-read this letter for yourself. After I had read the sixteen (mostly short) chapters, I concluded: Fortunately, things are not as bad in most of the local churches that I know, as they were in Corinth!

Having read the entire epistle it is important to return for a few moments to the first chapter, where we read:  ‘I am writing to God’s church in Corinth to you who have been called by God to be his own holy people. He made you holy by means of Christ Jesus, just as he did for all people everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours. May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace. I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. Through him, God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge. This confirms that what I told you about Christ is true. Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord’ (1:4-9, NLT).

Yes, Paul criticized the Corinthians. But, in spite of all the things that were wrong, they were the church of Christ and all would end well! Reading this, it seems that I have every reason to also remain positive and optimistic, and to trust that eventually things will also be well for my church—even though I often see and experienee things that I find very difficult to accept!

 

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IKEA and LEGO

 

I have a hate-love relationship with IKEA. On the one hand, I greatly admire the IKEA-concept and the founder of the worldwide IKEA-imperium. The Swede Ingvar Kamprad established his company in 1943, when he was only 17 years old. The name of his firm—IKEA—is based on a combination of Kamprad’s initials (I and K) and the first letters of Elmtaryd and Agunnaryd (E en A), the names of the farm and the village, respectively, where Kamprad grew up. The  company that had a very modest beginning, some seventy years ago, is now a mammoth-concern with 349 blue-yellow super-shops in 43 countries.

So far, nothing but praise. But a visit to an IKEA-store is a mixed blessing. The coffee is excellent and I love the small meat balls (köttbullar). The restaurant is, therefore, a good start for an IKEA-expedition. And in the separate food shop (after the cash register) you can find Europe’s best herring. (Especially the herring in mustard sauce is to be recommended.) However, between those two moments you have to embark on an long walk, through the entire store, even when you know  exactly where you want to be and what you want to buy.

This week I had to make the trip to IKEA. We were to buy a TV cabinet, with some adjoining storage space. After inspecting the possibilities we opted for something from the Bestå assortment. Fortunately, there were not too many people around and we could find a very pleasant and helpful IKEA-employee who made a list of all the items we needed, including, doors, hinges, legs, etc. My blind trust in this good man proved, however, to be somewhat premature: when we arrived home and I began to assemble our new piece of furniture, we had only eight in stead of the twelve legs we needed. And so, the next day, I had to take the same extended walk through the entire IKEA-store!

After some five hours of assemblage, the job was successfully completed, but I still feel—three days later—the stiffness in various parts of my body, due to the strange contortions I was forced to experience in performing these activities.

A job like this does, almost automatically, also give ground for some reflections. For, as I was turning the ingenious IKEA-nuts and bolts, it occurred to me that the world of IKEA in some ways resembles the Adventist Church.  For one thing: books are very important in the Adventist church, just as they are for IKEA. Who has not seen the annual IKEA-catalogue, that is printed in an edition of tens of millions of copies. In many families it is perused more diligently than the Bible.

IKEA has a very clear profile. All stores look exactly the same, both inside and outside. And all have the same product range. And although Adventist church buildings come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, the Adventist denomination also strives for a clear identity that may be recognized everywhere in the world, and it wants to offer the same product everywhere.

There is, however, an even more striking similarity. When you buy an IKEA-product and take it home, there is nothing you can do to modify what you have bought. The product has been designed for you, with certain measurements and colors, etc.—and you will have to be satisfied with the content of the packages you have brought home. Likewise, when you ‘buy’ a ‘product’ in the Adventist Church, you get a product that has been defined for you by the church, and you are not supposed to use you own imagination to modify it.

Thinking about this, I decided that I, in fact, would prefer a kind of LEGO-approach rather than the IKEA-model. The successful formula of this Danish toy-maker is splendid in its simplicity. Each person on this earth has now, on average, over one hundred LEGO-pieces. As time passed this versatile toy has also received many ‘serious’ applications. The small building blocks have a definite form and size, but you may put them together as you wish.

A church that provides the building blocks that enable you to build your own faith structure has a stronger appeal for me than a church that will only deliver a set range of products. Both IKEA and LEGO are marvelous concepts, but when I link them to the church I prefer LEGO!

 

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