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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Kangaroos and the Flood, etc.

 

No country in the world has such strange and unique animals as Australia. Of course, in this connection we immediately think of the kangaroo, who serves as the national symbol—which I also noticed on the tail of the Qantas plane that brought my wife and myself earlier this week from Melbourne to Singapore.

The kangaroo is just one of a large variety of marsupials. The koala is another popular example. The fact that these creatures are only found in Australia causes numerous problems, both for the proponents of evolution as well as for those who defend a literal creation as described in the Bible. Seeing the kangaroos and wallaby’s hopping around the hotel in Tasmania, where we stayed a night just a fortnight ago, made me wonder how these animals could have hopped to Noah’s ark, and back again, without leaving any traces anywhere.

Evolutionists tells us that tens of millions of years ago Australia was part of a supercontinent (Gondwana). At a certain point in time this land mass fell apart and Australia drifted away. Certain species of animals disappeared elsewhere (as e.g. in Africa and South America) because of natural enemies, but these were not yet present in Australia, when it separated from the rest, and therefore these categories could develop unthreatened. This supposedly explains why only Australia has marsupials. Well, I was not there to see it.

The experience of Charles Darwin comes to mind. With his Beagle he arrived at the Galapágos islands in 1835. He noticed that dozens of species of birds and many kinds of reptiles were unique to those islands. He believed that this unmistakably pointed in the direction of  evolution.

Some twenty years ago I spent about a month on church-related business in Madagascar. There I had the chance to see the great diversity in flora and fauna on this island in the Indian Ocean (that covers about the same surface as the country of France). The majority of all species of butterflies that exist worldwide are only found in Madagascar. This is also true for about a thousand kinds of orchids, 300 kinds of frogs, and numerous insects. The best known animal species that is unique to Madagascar is probably the lemur—a monkey-like mammal that most of us only know from a visit to the zoo. Here also we are confronted with questions that challenge the evolutionists and the creationists alike.

I doubt whether I will ever hear a satisfying explanation for this type of natural phenomena. I do not believe the evolutionist can provide a final answer to this kind of questions, but must admit that I also find it extremely difficult to fit all of this into a creation of six literal days, some 6.000 to 10.000 years ago, with subsequently a ‘recent’ worldwide Flood.

Many of the things we observe in nature exceed our limited understanding. Years ago, during a holiday in the USA, my wife and I drove along the Pacific Highway in California. Suddenly we saw lots of cars parked and loads of people bending over a rails and looking at something beneath. On a small piece of beach of barely a few hundred maters in length, near Priedas Blanca, hardly a square inch of sand could be seen because of the more than 15 thousands elephant seals that once again had decided to embark on this beach to have their young. These enormous animals, most of which weigh at least two tons, return each year to this tiny piece of beach. What inbuilt mechanism in their animal brain propels them again and again to exactly the same spot?

Two weeks ago we enjoyed a visit to Phillip Islands, an island with a surface of about 100 square kilometers, south-east of Melbourne. Our aim was to see the tiny blue penguins that return there every evening at just a few spots. We read the announcements that they were expected to come that evening at 20.57 hrs. I wondered how they could make this precise prediction. These tiny ‘fairy’ penguins, that catch our imagination, swim out into the sea for some 15 tot 20 kilometers, and return in the evening with their catch to feed their young. It was 20.56 hrs. when the first penguin appeared from the water and came waddling onto the beach. Soon this first one was followed by some 1500 others. They had been waiting for the most favorable circumstances (in particular the right amount of light), with the least danger of attacks by vultures. They know how to find their nests, in small holes, some of which are as much as two kilometers from the beach. It was an event we will long remember. But how in the world is it possible that each day again these creatures come ashore at a precise time and know exactly where to go?

Nature around us leaves us with many questions. But considering the number of strange and amazing things I find myself thinking more of a creative, divine, Power than of a process that is steered by mere chance. How God created all things remains something I cannot and need not explain. The Bible tell me nothing about kangaroos, lemurs and elephant seals, nor about the Australian ‘fairy penguins’ on Phillip Island. But I am happy to conclude that a Creator God was, and is, somehow involved in all of this.

 

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A remarkable conflict

I know Gilbert Valentine as a sharp historian and talented author. I am thinking in particular of his book The Prophets and the Presidents (Pacific Press, 2011), in which he offers a fascinating account of the rather complicated relationship between Ellen G. White and three of the presidents of the worldwide Adventist Church in her days. The book paints a very human picture of Ellen White, her feelings for certain person and the manner in which she often tried to influence—or even to manipulate—the decision making process of the church.

A week or so ago I saw another book of his for the first time, hidden in a corner on a shelf in the Adventist Book Center in Melbourne: The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage. The subtitle clearly defines the topic of the book: Issues in the Conflict for Control of the Ellen G. White Publications, 1930-1939. It was published in 2006 by the college in Thailand where Valentine taught theology at the time.

Gilbert Valentine details in this book the history of the conflict between church leadership and those who were responsible for the care for the literary heritage of Ellen White after her death in 1915. This did not only concern the rights of her books that were published during her life, but also a great number of letters, diaries and other, hitherto never published, documents. Some aspects of her last will were rather unclear on the question who would inherited the unpublished manuscripts and who would, therefore, make the decisions about a possible future publication of them. In any case, Willen C. White—the oldest son of Ellen White who had been named in the will as one of the trustees who were to care for the writings after her death—saw himself as the legal owner of at least part of her literary heritage. He, therefore, felt that he could make the decision about any further publication. Top church leadership vehemently disagreed and preferred that there would be no further publications besides the books, etc that had been published during Ellen White’s life.

The matter was further complicated by the fact that Ellen White had a very considerable debt at the moment of her death, which could not be covered by the assets she left behind. The leaders of the church were unwilling to take on this responsibility and forced the heirs to temporarily hand the assets (as e.g. her home in California) over into the custody of the church, until sufficient royalties from the sale of her books would have been received to clear the debt.

Those who want to read the full story of the (at times quite bitter) controversy between the trustees of Ellen White’s literary heritage and the church, should read Valentine’s book. For most readers of the blog it might be difficult to lay their hands on a copy of this book. I looked in vain for it on amazon.com and on the website of the Adventist Book Center. However, I discovered that the book may be downloaded from: http://www.restoringtheoldpaths.com/uploads/Struggle_for_the_prophetic_heritage__2_.pdf.

Some readers may find the book quite disconcerting. How was it possible that it would not be until 1939 that a satisfactory solution was found for the question what to do with the unpublished documents, since this was a major cause for conflict? Repeatedly William White emerges from the story as a rather stubborn person who had a difficulty realizing that the work of Ellen White was the communal ‘possession’ of the church, rather than the private property of his family.

I thought that I am rather well informed about most aspects of the history of Adventism, but this book filled a definite gap in my knowledge. However, it did not worry me unduly. Ellen White was not a saint, nor were her sons. And the church leaders that feature in Valentine’s account were also far from perfect. But this also applies to most of us today, and certainly to me personally. But in spite of this we may gratefully acknowledge that we are part of something bigger than us as individuals and may trust that our good Lord still wants to use us—with our gifts and talents but also with our imperfections and stubbornness.

 

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Between doubt and faith

 

[Melbourne, 29 January, 2016] I instantly mistrust people who tell me they never had (or have) any doubts. And I am not referring to the kind of doubt that they may have about what they will wear today, or what food they will put on tonight’s table. I am talking about doubt with regard to issues of faith.

Faith never offers absolute certainty. Faith is hoping, expecting, trusting. It is a strange mix of certainty and uncertainty that is not based on hard scientific evidence. It is, therefore, not so strange that many find it difficult to continue to believe or may even lose their faith at a certain point in time.

Ryan Bell, a former ministers of the Adventist Church in Hollywood (USA), decided to experiment with his faith. He wanted to live as an atheist for a year. He did not know where that might lead him or how it might change him. It was obviously not something he thought of one day and then implemented the next day. I know only snippets of his personal history, from remarks by people who know him, but I suspect that his decision came at the climax of a long and complex process. By now two years have passed since he began his experiment. He often writes about his experience and gives talks about it. Many seem to be interested in what has been happening to him. By now it is clear that he did not abrogate his experiment after twelve months. As far as I have been able to ascertain from a distance it seems to me that he has completely (and for ever?) given up on his faith.

From time to time I see the name of Ryan Bell pop up. This week, for instance, I happened to see it as I was reading the small, 120-page book Why I Try to Believe. I had bought it in the Adventist Book Center that is located in the office of the Victoria Conference of the Adventist Church in Melbourne. (I should say that I much more enjoyed my visit to another bookstore that belongs to the Kooron-chain of first class christian bookstores in Australia.) The book has been written by Nathan Brown, the editor and manager of the Adventist publishing house in Australia. I met Nathan a few years ago during another visit to Australia and I hope to see him again before my present vacation ‘down under’ comes to an end.

The preface of Nathan Brown’s book is written by Ryan Bell. Nathan and Ryan have been friends for many years. Nathan acknowledges that he also has many doubts, but he has very intentionally chosen another route than his friend Bell. He does not want to abandon his faith, but wants try to believe in spite of his many doubts and uncertainties, and he hopes that his openness and honesty will stimulate many readers to give faith a new chance in their life. I read the book with strong interest and will fondly recommend it to some of my friends!

Reading this book confirmed in me the plan that, for the past four or five weeks, has been slowly acquired a more definite form in my thinking:  to write a book that especially targets people who are in the margin of the church—those who are about to leave and those who have recently left. In the past few months I have met and talked with a significant number of people who told me about their doubts and uncertainties—concerning their faith in God or their relationship with their church. A considerable number of Adventists have told me how exceedingly troubled they are because of certain trends in the church—in the Netherlands, but also in the Adventist world church. I share with them many of the same feelings and questions, and sometimes I wonder whether I can stay with my church. So far I have (just as Nathan Brown) concluded that it continues to be worthwhile to stick to my faith in God and that I continue to have good reasons to consider the Adventist Church as my spiritual home. At times this is not easy, but I believe I may be able to help some people to also remain on the path of faith.

In the past few weeks I have created a provisional outline for such a book. It have shown the outline to a few people who have encouraged me to pursue this project. Reading Nathan Brown’s book had given me further impetus.

There are some difficulties to consider. I have yet to decide whether I will write the book in Dutch or in English. And, of course, I must embark on some intensive thinking and reading. (Writing the book may actually be the easiest part.) And I must face another important issue. Is there a publisher in the Adventist Church that will dare to publish such a book? But, as I said, the plan is getting a clearer shape. There are other projects on which I hope to work in 2016, but chances are that this project may be realized in the next 12-18 months!

 

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Merikay Silver/Lorna Tobler and Desmond Ford

 

I remember it like it was yesterday. It happened in 1986 during one of my first church-related trips to the United States. I was staying in a guestroom of Columbia Union College in Washington DC. The day before I had bought a book that left me quite confused. It was entitled Betrayal and subtitled The Shattering Sex Discrimination Case of Silver vs. Pacific Press Publishing Association. The book chronicled the story of the court case between the Pacific Press Publishing Association and two of its female employees

The book provided a shocking picture of the way workers were treated in this church-sponsored enterprise and the absolutely, and totally, unchristian way in which two female employees (Merikay Silver and Lorna Tobler) were dealt with.

The manner in which the management of this denominational publishing house handled the issue (gender equality), and the way in which the General Conference (including the president) reacted, were so far below any level of acceptability that it took me a few days to recover my spiritual equilibrium.

Perhaps I have in the meantime become somewhat more hardened with respect to this type of experience, for reading the biography of Desmond Ford has not impacted me in quite the same way. Yet this book also bothered me more than I had anticipated. I knew about the book and for some time it had been on my list to buy and read it. Now that I am spending some time in Australia, I could borrow it from my host, and I read it this past week in between our touristic activities. The name of the book is: Desmond Ford—Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist and is written by Milton Hook.  The author does not hide the fact that he is an admirer of Ford. But, although the book may have been written with a somewhat positive bias, it is very much worth reading and it offers a very detailed description of the many issues in which Desmond Ford was caught up.

Desmond Ford, an Adventist pastor in Australia, developed into one of the prominent theologians of the Adventist Church. For a good number of years he taught theology at Avondale College, some 100 kilometer outside of Sidney. He also became a popular author and speaker in Australia and beyond. From early on in his ministry he upset quite a few church leaders and members because of his insights that deviated from traditional Adventist theology. The (in many eyes) controversial views that he espoused centered on justification by faith and the nature of Christ, and on his rejection of all forms of perfectionism. In addition, many were unhappy with his approach to some of Daniel’s prophecies and with the way in which he expressed his doubts with regard to the traditional theories of the so-called heavenly sanctuary.

I must admit that I always had (and have) difficulty in getting excited about all kinds of theological controversies, and I am totally amazed about the ferocity with which many defend ‘the Truth’. Through the years I have gotten the impression that Adventism in Australia has been especially susceptible to fierce theological fights. Perhaps the commotion around Ford should be, in part, explained against this general background, and perhaps also in the context of the simultaneous issues around Robert Brinsmead. And it seems that perhaps Desmond Ford and his second wife Gill were at times too combative. However, all this in no way justifies the often vindictive and highly politicized way in which the Ford case was handled and the endless political maneuvering that ultimately cost him his job and his ministerial credentials. The Ford-story is a tragedy that has left a trail of deeply hurt victims, who often not only lost their employment, but also their spiritual home and even their faith.

Reading this book was a truly sobering experience. I have no difficulty admitting that I share many of Ford’s conclusions and I know of many colleagues and friends in ministry and church administration who also largely agree with Ford (although many are afraid to say this too openly!). However, reading this book did not impact me quite as much as the story of two lady-employees of the PPPA did over thirty years ago. Perhaps I now realize more acutely that the church is too often simply very human and that it far too often operates on the basis of human norms and values. Yet, it is important never to be satisfied with this, for—when push comes to shove—the church must be guided by the values of the gospel it preaches.

Desmond Ford is now an old man, but he continues to be active. He still has very strong ties with the church that rejected him and he is even today an author and speaker who inspires many Adventists with his gospel message of divine grace. It would be a great credit to the church if it found a way to rehabilitate him before his life comes to an end. Unfortunately, there are no signs that point it this direction, but Ford knows that, in  spite of everything that has happened, he is still appreciated, and even admired, by many Adventists!

 

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