13 December 2016: Susanna

 

With a lot of satisfaction I held a few days ago my newest devotional book in my hands. I had handed in my manuscript already in June, which means that I had already been able to take some distance from it. But it remains an exciting moment when you first see a new book that you have written. I believe it brings the total of my books to 26.

The book does not pretend to be a theological masterpiece. But then, it was not intended as such. In was written with the hope that many people will find something of value in it. If that proves to be the case (just as it was with my previous devotional) I may find the inspiration and energy to get going on a new devotional!

This blog is posted on December 12. I thought it might be fun to provide a sample of the new book in the form of the meditation of December 13, 2016. It so happens that it touches on a subject that has recently kindled an enormous amount of commotion in the Adventist Church.

Here is meditation, nr. 346.

 13 December

 Susanna (lotus flower; lily)

 Who and when?   One of Jesus’  female disciples.

More information? Read:  Luke 8:2, 3.

Today’s meditation

Many people who want to exclude women from certain offices in the church, often point out that the twelve disciples whom Jesus selected—the later twelve apostles—were all men. That is true, and that fits with the culture of that time. However, it is very remarkable to see how Jesus was often surrounded by women, and how often he chose to be in close contact with them—in spite of the objections and the criticism of his contemporaries. It is even more remarkable that the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb were women!

Luke 8 mentions a number of women.  Several of them had been healed by Jesus from physical of mental illnesses. As a result they had become grateful and loyal followers of him. Among them were women who possessed considerable means, as, for instance, Joanna. She was the wife of the ‘the steward’ of king Herod. Another of these women mentioned by name was Susanna. Together with ‘many others’ they cared out of their own pockets for Jesus. They did not accompany Jesus out of mere curiosity or from a lust for sensation. They were actively involved in Jesus’ mission and were willing to bring considerable sacrifices to do so.

The picture that New Testament paints for us is that Jesus called men and women, and was supported by men and women! There was a lot of discrimination of women in Jesus’ world, but for the Lord men and women were always fully equal.

Prayer for today

Lord, you are full of love and justice. You care for men and women, and both women and men are fully equal in your sight. I want to thank you for that.

The book is published by the Adventist Church in the Netherlands. It is available through its webshop at www.adventist.nl. The introductory price is 11 euros.

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Kendra’s book

 

I got acquainted with Bert Haloviak when, in the early nineties, I was working on my Ph.D. dissertation and spent a few weeks in the archives of the Adventist Church in the basement of the denomination’s headquarters office in Silver Springs (MD, VS). At the time Bert was (and remained so for a long time) the director of the church’s Office of Archives and Statistics. Bert, who is now retired, is a very enjoyable person with a good sense of humor. He has a phenomenal knowledge of the history of Adventism and many related historical topics.

Bert lives with his wife Mary in Southern California, not far from the Adventist La Sierra University. At the time she worked as the administrative assistant of one of the associate secretaries of the General Conference, who, among other things, served as the liaison officer for the region of the world of which Northwestern Europe was an important part. Between 1995 and 2001 I was the general secretary of the church in that region (Trans-European Division) and Mary was of great help to me in finding and processing missionaries for the areas for which we had a special responsibility. She was far more efficient than her boss, and I got in a habit of dealing directly with her. At times I mailed or called her almost on a daily basis and I got to know her quite well.

It so happens that I also know the son-in-law of Bert and Mary reasonably well: Gillbert Valentine. He is connected with the La Sierra University. A recent book for which he unearthed much information that was not or little known, is: The Prophet and the Presidents (published by Pacific Press, 2012). The book describes in much detail the often quite complex and turbulent relationship of Ellen White with three of the presidents of the world church of her days.

Gill is married to Kendra Haloviak, the daughter of Bert and Mary. I first met her in 1995 when she was a member of the pastoral team of the Sligo Church in Washington, DC—one of the largest Adventist churches in the American capital. The church board of this 1.500 member church decided to ordain Kendra as pastor, together with two other female ministers. I had the privilege of attending the ordination service. The ordination was much against the wishes of the General Conference, but the Sligo church board ignored this, convinced that there should not be any status difference between Kendra and her male colleagues.

Since 1995 Kendra has earned a Ph.D. and now, twenty years later, she is an associate professor at the La Sierra University. She still defends  equal rights for men and women in the Adventist Church as stridently as ever. In the past decade or so Kendra has developed into a prominent Adventist theologian. This is abundantly clear from her book that appeared just weeks ago: Worlds at War, Nations in Song, with the subtitle: Dialogic Imagination and Moral Vision in the Hymns in the Book of Revelation. This may sound quite complicated and it reflects that fact that people without some advanced theological training may find the reading rather heavy going.

In this book Kendra departs significantly from the road that most Adventist interpreters have travelled. She does not read the book of Revelation as a report of things that happened in the past and as a prediction of things yet to happen in the end of time. She rather wonders what reading this book of the Bible will do to you; how you react to this book in your inner being (hence the word ‘dialogic’ in the subtitle). She deals specifically in her book with the hymns that are found in the Revelation.

The book was not published by an Adventist publishing house, but by Wipf and Stock (Eugene, Oregon, VS, 2015). This is no coincidence. Unfortunately, the official denominational publishers continue to be extremely hesitant to publish books by Adventist writers who want to stimulate the discussion about theological and biblical topics that many consider sensitive. (I know this also from my own experience.) Opinions will differ about the question whether Kendra goes in the right direction with her book. Personally, I feel increasingly attracted to the kind of approach Kendra represents, and that has, no doubt, been quite clear in the seminars about Daniel and the Revelation that I have, from time to time, presented in recent years.

However, apart from the fact whether Kendra’s views are correct, interpretations (also of the books of Daniel and the Revelation) that differ from the traditional explanations must get a hearing. A denomination that lives in 2015 should not fear any open discussion. ‘Truth’ is not served by scrupulously sticking to traditional views and remaining silent about alternatives. A responsible, but free, discussion about a variety of views will help church members to form their opinion, also with regard to such (often puzzling) books as Daniel and the Revelation. Unfortunately, this is still not possible. But, in the meantime, I want to thank Kendra for a fascinating contribution to the discussion—even though it is still very difficult, and at times impossible, to have this exchange of views via the official Adventist media.

Finally, Bert and Mary and Gill can be proud of their gifted daughter and wife, respectively!

 

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Rumors of war

 

In the past few months I have done little reading. It was a very busy time with a series of events in which I participated and which often required a lot of preparation. In addition, there were writing and translation jobs which also took considerable time. Nonetheless, I recently happened to come across two remarkable books that made great reading.

When earlier this months I spent a week in Budapest I forgot to put some ‘light’ reading in my suitcase, so that I would have something relaxing in my hotel room at the end of the day. Fortunately, I discovered a shopping center at less than a mile from my hotel. Besides the shops of the main chains that one sees everywhere, there was, however, also a book store. To my surprise I found a few shelves with English paperbacks. Looking at these books I concluded that Gresham must have many fans in Hungary, for his books were very prominently present. I took my chance (for the description at the back cover did not reveal much about the content) and bought a thick paperback of a (to me) unknown author, Tom Rob Smith, entitled Child 44.

This purchase proved to be a fortunate one: the book is not only full of suspense but also very gripping. It is situated in the Russia of the Staling-era. The world of state sponsored terror, of the almighty secret services and the horror of the Gulag, are so realistically painted that the picture stayed with me for several days. Leo, the main character, is a member of one of the secret service organizations. He participates in the many unjustified arrests and cruel tortures of people who, usually without reason, are suspected of activities against the state. He is successful in his career, until he is demoted when he refuses to ‘solve’ a series of murders of young children in a manner required by his superiors. He becomes a fugitive, but somehow succeeds in solving the murders of 44 children . . .

And then there was another book that I found quite fascinating: a history of the Wadden (a string of small island in the North Sea, just above the coast of the northern part of the Netherlands). The book is written by Mathijs Deen. A review in one of the main Dutch newspapers described it as ‘fascinating and beautifully written’—and the author certainly deserves this praise. It is one of those books that makes you aware of how little you, in fact, know even about parts of your own country. Of course, I know the names of these islands: Texel, Vlieland, Terschelling, Ameland, Schiermonnikoog, and the uninhabited island of Rottum. But until a few days ago I hardly knew anything about the origin of these islands and how they developed into what they are today. To my amazement I discovered that once upon a time the island of Terschelling had even been an independent ‘nation’. And I found many other things that were totally new for me.

These islands, which are now so popular with large numbers of tourists were not always as peaceful as they are today. In 1231 two Frisian coastal villages—Eenrum and Uithuizen—started a ‘war’, since both places claimed possession of one of the nearby islands. The conflict escalated  when at a given moment the people from the area of Drenthe allied themselved with Uithuizen, while people from Groningen decided to help Eenrum. When, after a few years a settlement was reached, the death toll of the conflict had risen to several hundred persons!

Reading the first book I could not avoid thinking of the war against the IS terror. The kind of merciless violence that is committed by IS is, unfortunately, not unique. The Holocaust, the reign of Stalin  and the brutal murders of the Red Kmer, are some recent examples of large-scale terrorism that are still vivid in our collective memories. We must face the sad reality that destroying IS is no guarantee that similar atrocities will never happen again.

The second book, with its description of the war between Uithuizen and Eenrum, made me think of the many ‘forgotten’ wars that no longer worry us. At present our national and international attention is so focused on IS that we ae inclined to ‘forget’ the many smaller wars and conflicts that are still being fought in many places on our planet. That is regrettable, since it allows much senseless violence to continue unchecked, without any outside intervention.

In the coming weeks I expect to have a somewhat lighter program. It is high time to tackle a serious theological book, or to choose something that is truly relaxing—something that does not make me constantly think of these ‘rumors of war’. Yet, have we not been told in the Bible that the rumors of war will not disappear as long as this world continus to exist?

 

 

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Terrorism

 

The Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte joined a number of other political leaders in Europe and elsewhere in declaring that his country is now at war with IS. There may not have but a formal, legal declaration of war, but his statement expressed his conviction that IS is acting in a way that demands an international response, in which the Netherlands will have to play a more substantial role than providing a few F-16’s.

Recent events—in particular in the last week in France—raise many difficult questions. How can IS be dealt with? Should the solution be primarily a military one, with all the risks of unforeseen escalations? What does IS plan to do in the near future? Could the Netherlands also become a target? Is there a chance that IS might resort to the use of chemical weapons?

The secret services work overtime to discover what attacks are being planned, and by whom. However, we all know that absolute security cannot be guaranteed. It is impossible to protect all public meetings, each bus and train, and all ferries and cruise ships. As long as there are people who are willing to blow themselves up for their ideal, ‘incidents’ will happen.

We are faced with the urgent question whether recent events will greatly impact on the policies regarding asylum seekers. Do these events put the Muslims in such a negative light that, as a result of public pressure, western countries will reduce the number of people they are willing to admit? Will all this be extra ammunition for populist politicians who detest Islam? How will this influence future political relationships in Europe? Etcetera, etcetera.

There are also questions of  a different kind—questions a Christian should ask. Or, more specifically: questions that I must ask myself as an Seventh-day Adventist Christian. I am not a one hundred percent pacifist, but am very reluctant to agree with any military interventions. There are plenty of examples where violence has only provoked more violence rather than bringing peace. But I understand that something must be done when people are taken hostage and are subsequently beheaded and when people try to kill people in restaurants and concert halls at random

In addition, there are theological questions, in particular in the area of eschatology. Should Adventists consider the possibly that their traditional end-time scenario must be revised? Is Catholicism—assisted by ‘apostate’ Protestantism–the real enemy of the future, or might Islam be a greater danger? Or would it be better to keep all options open and refrain from too many predictions?

Should we perhaps concentrate all efforts on cultivating good relationships with Muslims in our environment? Must we more intently show that we are the ‘neigbors’ of all people—also of the people who live in our asylum seeker centers? Should we not do more to support projects that aim it increasing tolerance for people with other ethnicities and beliefs, and to prevent the distribution of stereotypical perceptions?  Might organizations like ADRA not pay special attention to improving the social and economic conditions in a number of Islamic countries, so that radical Islamic ideas become less attractive for the local population? Would it not be good if local Christian (including Adventist) faith communities would get more involved with social and educational projects for those who have recently migrated to Europe?

The developments in the world are complex, confusing and unpredictable. But, in any case, they demand a truly Christian reaction—individually and collectively. However, when all questions have been asked and everything that we can say has been said, we should continue to underline our conviction that somehow God is still in charge in this world.

 

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Hungarian courage

 

In those countries where the churches had to survive under a communist regime, many problems emerged. Sometimes the state demanded things that were contrary to what christians in those countries believed and practiced. At times things had to remain secret. At other times church leaders decided that, in the interest of their church, they had to make some compromises. This also was the case in some instances for the Adventist Church in Central and Eastern Europe.

In  Hungary a group of members accused the official Adventist Church that it had gone too far in some of these compromises. Forty years ago this led to an exodus of a substantial number of members, led by Oscar Egervari, one of the prominent pastors. As time went by this group organized itself as an independent faith community and called itself the Christian Adventist Community (KERAK). The new denomination hired pastors, bought some church buildings and established its own theological seminary.

In the forty years that have passed there has been a great amount of hope, prayer and talk about a possible healing of this dramatic split that has held two groups of Adventists divided and that also caused deep wounds in local churches and families. In the past small groups of ‘Egervari-members’ have returned or transferred (those who never were members of the official church), among whom a few pastors. Recently this process has greatly accelerated. Some seven hundred persons have now decided to join the Adventist Church. In this group are sixteen pastors.

With a few of their new colleagues these former ‘Egervari-pastors’ sat in front of me this past week in a meeting room in the center of the Hungarian Adventist Church in Pecel, just outside the city limits of Budapest. A process has been started to integrate these KERAK pastors into the Hungarian Union of Seventh-day Adventists. The seminary of the church in Hungary has been asked to provide the new colleagues with some special training to facilitate their ‘transfer’. I was asked to present a seminar about Adventist ecclesiology, i.e. the Biblical view of the church and the many related theological and practical issues.

Now, at the end of the week I feel tired but also satisfied. To be on your feet a number of long days and to talk for so many hours without any major breaks demands its physical toll. But it gives a lot of satisfaction to have been able to contribute to the integration of this group of pastors. But perhaps above all I feel a sense of admiration for the courage of these people to take this drastic, life changing step, and the courage of the Hungarian church leaders to provide for a place for these colleagues in the church’s structure.

The Adventist Church in Hungary is not big. A sudden influx of about 700 members and of a relatively sizable group of pastors is an adventure that demands courage. These people are Adventists, but they have lived and worshipped in a different kind of church culture, with particular ideas and prejudices, and a lot of criticism for the ‘regular’ Adventist Church. Undoubtedly there are different theological emphases. It is hard to predict what this will bring in the short term and in the longer term. But that there will be tensions from time to time seems quite probable.

The pastors who move from the KERAK to the Adventist Church must also have a substantial amount of courage. They leave   colleagues and friends behind. No doubt, some of the members of the churches they used to pastor are disappointed with their decision to leave. And their transfer has major consequences for their social life. And I assume they must feel some uncertainty about their future. What will be their role in the church in which they will now live and work?

I admire the courage of the Hungarian Adventist Church to accept these challenges and the courage of the people involved—in particular the pastors—to move to another spiritual home.

[PS: I hope someone in Hungary will—at some time in the future—chronicle the current process (maybe this could even be the basis for a dissertation for a Doctor of Minisry degree?). It may well serve as a source of inspiration in other places where there ia a more or less massive influx of new members who bring another culture with them. But, for now the Hungarian Adventist Church needs our prayers more than ever before. May God richly reward the courage that is being shown.

 

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