Ellen and Linda

 

In the past ten days or so I read two significant books that touch on my church—the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. The first of these two is published by Pacific Press, in California and is about Ellen G. White. [1] Yet another book about her? many might ask. Has not everything  what there is to say about Ellen White already been said? Apparently not. In this book the reader finds a series of essays written in defense of Ellen White. The initiative to produce this book lies with the Ellen G. White Estate, the institution that is responsible for the literary heritage of Mrs. White.

Unfortunately, the authors do not directly deal with the issues that were quite recently discussed in a book that looked at the ‘prophet’ from a somewhat greater distance and more critically. [2] Yet, this new book is considerably more objective than we often see in official Adventist publications about Mrs. White. For instance, there is much more attention for Ellen White’s role in the development of Adventist doctrine, her extensive ‘borrowing’ from historical and other sources in her books and articles, and the role of her assistants. It is acknowledged that Ellen White was a child of her times, also with regard to her (dated) scientific insights. Even though many questions remain, I found this book quite refreshing. Those who want to follow the ongoing discussion about the person and work of Mrs. White should get the book!

The second book is about another woman: Linda Shelton, the co-founder of the Adventist television and radio empire of 3ABN. This ‘independent ministry’, is the largest of the many independent ministries that claim to support (and at times to correct) the church in its task to proclaim the gospel in its Adventist packaging, as effectively as possible. The 3ABN organization has its studios and its offices in the southern part of the state of Illinois (USA). Its programs are broadcast worldwide by satellite, the Internet and a large number of cable stations. 3ABN is financed through gifts of viewers and listeners to the tune of some 15 million dollar per year.

Linda Shelton has written her autobiography which was published a few months ago. [3] In this book of over 500 pages Linda tells the story of how, after her first failed marriage, she met Danny Shelton, the founder of 3ABN, became intensely involved with the organization, and, after some time, married with Danny, whose first wife had died in a car crash. The book paints a very disturbing picture of the egocentric, megalomaniac president of the 3ABN organization and of the ugly manner in which he often treats people and the way in which he provides his relatives with jobs in 3ABN. Linda described Danny’ jealousy, when he saw the popularity of her programs and the way in which, as time went by, her marriage with Danny began to unravel.

A major part of the book deals with the unscrupulous way in which she was fired in 2004 from her functions in 3ABN, and with Danny’s attempts to divorce her. Needing to find ‘biblical grounds’ for a divorce, he accused Linda of adultery (he used the term ‘virtual adultery, whatever that may mean) with the Norwegian doctor who was treating Nathan (Linda’s son from her first marriage) for his drug addiction.  Danny never succeeded in providing any form of convincing evidence of Linda’s alleged misdoings. However, Danny secured a divorce with maximum speed and soon re-married with a person called Brandy, who by now was also a 3ABN employee. Whether the son  she brought with her from her previous marriage resulted from an earlier extramarital affair with Danny, has remained a mystery.

Indeed, it is a very ugly saga that still continues, for even today (eleven years later) the divorce settlement between Danny and Linda has not been finalized. The troubles around Mr. Shelton did, however, caused so much unrest that for a number of years he was barred by the 3ABN board from the organization’s presidency. However, in 2014 he was reinstated in his role—be it without Brandy, who left him a few years earlier. In the meantime all kinds of unpleasant things continue to happen that are intended to make life for Linda as difficult as possible.

For quite some time I had been aware of the problems surrounding the Sheltons and 3ABN, but this book fills in many of the details. I continue to be amazed that so many people are still willing to support 3ABN, often with large amounts of money, without worrying (of without knowing?) about the hundreds of thousands of dollars Danny must spend to pay for his lawyers in the many court cases he must face, and about the fact that 3ABN has its own jet, while leasing another one. It also greatly amazes me that the South-England Conference recently entered into an evangelistic alliance with Shelton c.q. 3ABN.

What I find more amazing than anything else is that the top leadership of the church does not clearly distance itself from Danny Shelton and the clique around him. Does life style and the way you treat other people not matter as long as your theology is conservative? It is hard to escape  that impression!

(If you want to purchase Linda Shelton’s book, you may order it via her website (www.lindashelton.org) or through Amazon.com.)



[1]  Merlin D. Burt, ed., Ellen White: The life and work of the most influential voice in Adventist history (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2015).

[2]  Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land en Ronald L. Numbers, red., Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet (Oxford UK/New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[3]  Linda Shelton, Adventures in Forgiveness: an Autobiography (LLS Publishers, 2015).

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Gut feelings

 

Last week the Netherlands held its first referendum. A number of groups used the new law that says that a referendum must be organized if more than 400.000 people sign a petition to that effect. Of course, there are a few other conditions, and you cannot simply let the people decide about all and sundry. Last week a petition to hold another referendum was refused. It concerned a Dutch citizen who wanted the be crowned the Pharaoh of the Netherlands. He was sure a majority of the nation would see this as a good idea if asked in a referendum!

Anyhow, the referendum that was held a few days ago was not intended to satisfy a person with Pharaoh-ambitions, but was about a treaty between the European Union and the Ukraine. Twenty-seven of the twenty-eight countries of the EU have already ratified this treaty, and the Dutch goverment was planning to do likewise, but the initiators of the referendum wanted to throw a wrench in the works. They succeeded. For most of the day it seemed that their attempt would fail, as it appeared that the number of voters did not reach the election threshold of thirty percent, but when the voting stations closed it became clear that just over thirty-two percent had cast their votes. Over sixty percent voted ‘Nee’. So, a majority felt that the Ukraine should not be allowed to benefit from such a treaty. My  strong ‘yes’ vote did not change the end result.

Listening to the debates of the past weeks between those who wanted the treaty to go through and those who thought it was wrong to go that way, made me conclude that both groups had some valid arguments. But weighing things carefully, I decided that there were solid enough reasons to vote ‘yes’. However, it cannot have escaped the onlookers that many of the people who voted also had other hidden agendas. For most of the ‘no’-voters this referendum was a way of venting their anti-EU frustrations. For large groups in Dutch society ‘Brussels’ has become a scary thing. Many may not be able to put their objections into reasoned arguments, but they have become convinced that it is high time to retrieve our endangered national sovereignty. And, they say, ‘Europe’ costs each Dutch citizen buckets full of money. This was, for instance, the case when recently the Euro had to be saved and the Netherlands had to contribute billions of Euros. I am sure that last week many voters let their gut feelings, that somehow we must have ‘less Europe,’ determine their vote.

Moreover, the government failed to convince the voters that this treaty did not imply that the Ukraine would be allowed full membership in the EU any time soon. The majority believes that this would be the first step to full EU-membership, however strongly this was denied.

There is, I believe, much reason to be worried, The referendum clearly showed the enormous distrust in the country towards the government. The people somehow have this gut feeling that we may soon become totally subject to ‘Brussels.’ This was the main reason why something that was positive for all, was voted down.

In many ways this resembles a process that is also visible in the Adventist Church. During the world congress in San Antonio, now almost a year ago, a majority of the delegates voted against a proposal that would allow for more participation of women in the church, in a major part of the world. In theory the vote was about a proposal to allow for some regional autonomy with regard to this issue, but other things played out in the background. A widespread gut feeling—a sense of deep unease—that this would simply lead to some other undesirable developments, led many (in an atmosphere of deep distrust) to vote ‘no’.

We currently see something similar in the Dutch Adventist Church. Next June a special session will be held. On the agenda is the question whether the Dutch church does sufficiently follow the rules of the world church. The constitution of the Netherlands Union allows for the possibility that a special session be convened when at least six hundred people sign a petition to that effect. This recently happened. Among these 600-plus people who gave their signature  certainly is a group that knows exactly what the issues are, but many have signed because they  just have a vague sense of unease—a gut feeling—that some things must be terribly wrong in the governance of the church in Holland.

The referendum law was accepted by a majority in the Dutch parliament. I did not think this was a good iea, and I still think that way. We choose leaders to govern the country. If we feel, after some time, that they do not do a good job, we can replace them in the next election. That is a democratic model that, I believe, in the end works best. Likewise for the church. We must trust our leaders and let them do their work. If we feel they do not do a proper job, we can replace them with other leaders at a next regular session. However, as long as the rules also allow for a different way of decision making (referendums or special sessions), everything possible must be done to ensure that reasoned arguments and facts, rather than gut feelings, dominate the process.

 

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Looking back at Easter

 

Once more Easter is in the past. I look back on the Easter weekend with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I found it quite inspiring. On Friday evening I participated in a Communion service in my local church. On Saturday morning I was the guest speaker in the Adventist Church in Utrecht, where I preached about the good news of the resurrection after the church members had enjoyed an Easter breakfast together.

Participating in a communion service is quite special for me, since I rather seldom have the opportunity to do so. I preach almost every week and fill the gaps in the preaching schedule in many different churches. It stands to reason that in most churches their ‘own’ pastor takes the communion service rather than someone who is flown in from Zeewolde.

On Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter) a spectacular theater/musical production was brought to the stage in the city of Amersfoort: the Passion. It told the story of the suffering and death of Christ in a modern way. It was the seventh time that the Passion was brought to the (open-air) stage. More than 20.000 people had come to Amersfoort, in spite of all the  security measure, which were deemed advisable after the terrorist attacks in Brussels just a few days earlier. More than four million people watched the television registration, i.e. one in every four men, women and children in the Netherlands.

However, the Easter event is all too easily eclipsed by other things. I was greatly disappointed when (as I do every do) I visited the website of the Netherlands union on Easter Sunday. The least I had expected was a short Easter meditation. But no.  The most important news for this site was apparently the 2016 budget for the church organization. How sad!

In the Dutch national arena the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was overshadowed by the passing of Johan Cruyff at  age 68. He is seen by many as one of the best soccer players of all times. I am prepared to accept that judgment, when soccer experts tell me so. I know nothing about soccer and I am quite happy to stay in  that state of ignorance. I do, however, realize that Cruyff was a real icon for lots of people and that in many ways he was a great ambassador for his country. It was, therefore, quite understandable that the media paid a lot of attention to his death. It had been known for some time that Cruyff suffered from lung cancer and the media had been able to prepare for the news of his passing. But I had not expected that my newspaper (with a supposedly Christian signature) would fill the entire front page with a picture of Johan Cruyff and dedicate no less than twelve (!) pages to him. In the Dutch media many voices were heard that compared the two JC’s—Jesus Christ and  Johan Cruyff. It was clear that the soccer player JC was far more popular that the Man of Sorrows.

Let’s for a moment return to the Passion. The interest for this theatrical production was both encouraging and remarkable. The recently published report God in the Netherlands—that appears once every ten years—was very pessimistic about the current state of faith and of the church in the Netherlands. And this is most certainly true for the kind of religion that is channeled through the churches. At the same time there is still an enormous amount of spirituality and God is not ‘dead’ by any means. The big question is how the churches (and that includes ‘my’ church) can connect with these new forms of faith and spirituality. The traditional churches may no longer be able to do that and new forms of being and doing church will have to ‘emerge’. I  hesitate to even use the term ‘emerging church’, since it is a red flag for many that only gives rise to negative sentiments. But I am more and more convinced that we must allow the Spirit to let new forms of ‘being-church’ emerge, where people of 2016 can find answers for their questions and where the risen Lord can appear to those people who can no longer recognize him in the midst of the traditions of the past.

 

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Easter

 

[Friday, March 25]  Today is Good Friday. Tomorrow is referred to as Holy Saturday and on Sunday Christians celebrate Easter—the most important feast in the Christian calendar. As I was contemplating what Easter sermon I was going to preach my thoughts somehow turned to a document from the early Christian church: The Mystagogical Catacheses of Saint Cyrill (the bishop of Jerusalem towards the end of the fourth century AD). The reason that I am rather well acquainted with this writing of this important church father is the fact that, in the 1970’s, I had to study the Greek text of this document as part of my studies for a degree at the University of London.

In this text Cyrill provides us with am extensive, but fascinating, picture of what happened in the church in Jerusalem during the night preceding Easter Sunday. It was considered the most suitable moment to baptize those who had been instructed in the Christian teachings. The baptism was by immersion; it was preceded and followed by a whole range of different rites—most of which gradually disappeared in the passing of time. When the night had ended the newly-baptized were allowed to participate for the very first time in the Eucharist—the Lord’s Supper. A remarkable aspect was also that the newly baptized were now given the privilege of praying ‘the Lord’s Prayer’. They had now become true children of God’s family and thus they were now entitled to address God, together with others, as ‘our Father’. Baptism was, however, the central event in this ‘holy’ night. As Christ had risen from death on Easter morning, likewise the newly-baptized now had symbolically risen with Christ from the grave, so that they could begin in new life with their risen Lord.

Reading and studying this lengthy Greek text posed, at the time, quite a challenge for me. Somehow its memory re-emerges when Easter time has come. For a moment I considered to use this document as the basis for my Easter sermon, but then I did not immediately see how I would do this. And so, I started to delve in the sermon collection of my forty-plus years of preaching, and hunted for a sermon that I might choose and adapt for this week.  When I go back to sermons I have preached in the past, I sometimes encounter some that I would not want to use again. There are some sermons that make me wonder: How did I ever dare to present something like this to the people? But occasionally it also happens that I am happily surprised and conclude (perhaps with a sense of misplaced satisfaction): This was quite a good sermon!  That was the sense I had when I found the Easter sermon that I preached once before, namely in 2009 in the church in Zeeland. I knew straight away: This is the sermon I will use again this Saturday morning.

This then is the sermon I will take along when I drive tomorrow morning to Utrecht. There is one aspect that I will emphasize even stronger than I did in 2009. After his resurrection Jesus Christ appeared a number of times to his disciples and to a number of other people. At one occasion he was seen by a few hundred people (1 Corinthians 15:6). It struck me then, and now again, that the Lord was only seen by people who already knew him. That included the 500, who are referred to as ‘brethren’. Could this perhaps explain why today so few people are able to discern an other Reality behind the eggs and the Easter bunny? Could it be that today also Christ only appears to those who already know him, and have followed him for some time, while remaining unseen by those who do not believe in him? That will be the Easter message that I take with me to Utrecht tomorrow. Thank God that Christ is willing to appear to us and to be a living presence in our lives. The sermon will be shorter and simpler than the multi-hour ceremonial in Cyrill’s days in Jerusalem, but I hope that nonetheless tomorrow the message will also ‘land’ in Utrecht.

 

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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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