Jesus: refugee and gay

 

According to some second-century sources Jesus was married with Mary of Magdala. We read this, for instance, in the gnostic gospel of Philip. There is hardly any reason to regard this document as containing reliable historic information. If Dan Brown had not referred to it in his Da Vinci Code, this ‘marriage’ of Jesus would not have received much attention. It is very likely that some of Jesus’ disciples were married. We know for sure that this was the case for Peter, since the Bible tells us about his mother-in-law. However, there is no reason to suppose that Jesus and Mary of Magdala were an ‘item’.

I would like to suggest, however, that Jesus was gay. This may seem a daring–and for some probably a somewhat blasphemous—idea. Yet, I believe there is good reason to say this.

My conclusion is based in Matthew 25. There we read how Jesus in the final judgment does not interrogate us about our doctrinal purity, but rather confronts us with the question how we have treated people who were in difficulties, and men and women in the margin. Jesus commends certain people because they have visited him in prison, or because they gave him a meal and provided him with a roof over his head. They respond: “Lord, you are mistaken, we did not find you in such circumstances’. But Jesus replies: ‘Yes, but in fact, you did. For you cared about those who were in trouble and I count this as if you did this for me!’ In other words: He tells us that we are to see his face in every fellow-human being in the margin of society.

This is full of actuality in a time when many thousands of refugees enter our country. We cannot deny that this causes many problems. The politicians debate various possible reactions. The responsible agencies struggle with the logistics. However, for followers of Christ the issue in, in fact, quite simple. We must see Jesus in the face of every Syrian man, woman or child who crosses our path. One day Jesus will tell us: ‘I was that Syrian refugee you helped. Thank you!’

This week, once again, I was confronted with another category of people—outside but also inside our Adventist faith community: with those who continue to face enormous challenges. I was invited as a speaker by one of the German regional organizations of the Adventist Church. I was to give two lectures about aspects of homosexuality. I realize I can hardly call myself an expert in this field, but I am prepared to share my views on this issue. Besides the thirty or so pastors, an Adventist gay man and an Adventist lesbian woman had been invited to share their life story. Several pastors also told of their pastoral experiences in working with homosexual people. All together it was a fascinating and emotional experience to participate in this Hamburg meeting. I probably learned more myself from being there than others may have learned from my presentations. I travelled home with the sense: This was not about some abstract ‘problem’, or about theology and Bible passages. This was about people—men and women who often have to go through a deep and dark valley. How can we, as a faith community, ensure that these people can find a ‘safe place’ in our faith community?

When one day (see again Matthew 25) Christ says to me: ‘I was gay, and you ignored me,’ I may respond: ‘Lord, I never met you as a gay person.’  But then Jesus will reply: ‘O yes. I was gay—and you met me in those men and women with a different sexual orientation and you ignored me.’

Over the last decade or so I have come to the conclusion that there is sufficient biblical, theological and ethical ground to  warmly welcome homosexual fellow-believers in my church, and to accord tham all the rights and privileges that I myself enjoy. This does  not mean that I have a definitive and satisfying explanation for all relevant Bible texts. My own opinion is still ‘work in progress’. But I hope that one day Jesus will say to me: ‘Thank you, that you saw me and accepted me, when I met you in that man or woman who was different. Yes, I was not only the asylum seeking whom you assisted, but I was also that gay person—and you accepted me. Thank you! Come in. You have a place in my kingdom!’

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

What remains . . .

 

When in 1996 the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann (b. 1926) celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday, he invited a few dozen other theologians to come to Tübingen—the city where he lives and taught for many years. In a full-day public meeting they discussed  how their theology had changed in the past thirty years. Some of them said they had hardly needed to adjust their views on the most important theological matters, but for most the opposite had been true. And that was certainly also true for Moltmann himself.[1]

Last week I also celebrated my birthday. It will be another two years before I (hopefully) reach the same blessed milestone as Moltmann did in 1996. But who knows what I will organize at that time? It would be exciting to hear from my Dutch colleagues how they have developed in some of their ideas and beliefs over time.

But apart from such a vague plan, I believe it is good, from time to time, to make an inventory of where you are theologically. This is even more advisable when you have entered the last phase of your life. What continues to be important for you, after having been involved with faith, theology and church for about a half century? What is the focus of your faith, as you live it at present?

I am not the only person to think about this on a somewhat regular basis. Many more illustrious persons also do this. Some of them share the results of the thinking with a larger public in the form of a book. I am thinking, in particular, of two theologians of whom I recently read a book about this topic. The name Harry Kuitert (b. 1920) is still quite well-known in a significant part of Dutch Protestantism. In 2011 a new book of his appeared, in which he pleads for less reliance on the role of knowledge.[2] When one compares this book with his many earlier publications it becomes obvious how through the years he has adapted many of his ideas. (It is, of course, marvelous that he could write another book when he was 85. I hope I may still be able to do likewise!)

I do not think I have changed as much as Kuitert has in my theology, but when he emphasizes that knowledge must be ranked lower than the reality that we are ‘in the stranglehold of grace’ (p. 238), I cannot but fully agree!

Another fascinating theologian who recently made an inventory of his theological pilgrimage, is the Roman-Catholic scholar Hans Küng (b. 1928). For many he remains controversial, but he is almost venerated (this seems a fitting Catholic term!) by many others. The (Dutch) title of one of his last books (so far) is telling: What Remains! [3] Küng has forcefully resisted many of the ideas of his church, most notably papal infallibility and celibacy. It cost him his job as a theology professor in Tübingen, when the church took away his teaching credentials in 1980. But Küng did not lose his faith and neither did he leave the church that had hurt him so terribly. And he continued to believe that people of different faiths can coexist peacefully. In the recently published third volume of his autobiography Küng devotes an extensive section to the abiding value of his faith, as he is now realizes his life may soon come to and end.

Such books inspire me to also contemplate what remains for me. I have left quite a bit behind me and my spiritual backpack has, over the years, become considerably lighter. But, fortunately,  I have not lost my faith. And in spite of some of the less pleasant things I encounter in the faith community that I call my spiritual home, I hope I will yet be able to make a constructive contribution.



[1] See  Jürgen Moltmann, How I changed: Reflections on Thirty Years of Theology (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997)

[2]  Alles behalve Kennis: afkicken van de Godgeleerdheid en Opnieuw Beginnen (Ten Have, 2011)

[3]  Dutch edition: Uitgeverij Ten Have, 2013.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Billy

 

My first visit to an IKEA shop was in 1964. As newly-weds we went to Sweden to sell books, with the aim of earning enough money to realize our plan of travelling to the United States. I wanted to continue my studies at Andrews University, in order to get my MA-degree.

Somewhere South of Stockholm we saw a round building with the word IKEA. I remember spending about an hour in this shop, and also how we were totally impressed! Since then I have seen many of these blue super-shops in a range of different countries—even in Kuwait! Much of the furniture that we (and countless other Dutch families) have in our home, comes from IKEA. We have selected what we wanted, often had a hard time fitting everything in our car, and put everything together at home—not seldom with the annoying experience of missing one screw or some small bolts.

Lately I have been able to avoid visiting any Dutch IKEA-shop. But this week, there was no escape. That particular morning I had not had my morning walk of about one hour (as I try to do most days), but an IKEA-visit also implies a fair amount of walking! Following the arrows makes you meander through the giant shop (but ignoring the arrows results in getting lost). We were in search of white Billy bookcases. It means quite a pilgrimage through the shop. But, so be it. Showing your IKEA family card in the restaurant, provides you with any number of cups of coffee and the Swedish minced meat balls (kött bullar) are always very palatable (and cheap)!

Neighbors in our apartment building will soon move to Portugal. They want to get rid of quite a lot of their stuff, as, for instance, two white Billy bookcases, together with a white rack for cd’s. The price was symbolic. And thus we bought these items with a view to replacing some birch-colored Billy’s. However, to complete the project we needed to buy another white Billy.

Billy has been a grand success story of the Swedish furniture giant since 1979. Why Billy had to be ‘improved’ baffles me. The holes for the small plugs that carry the shelves have become smaller, as well as those plugs themselves. But the most worrisome thing is that the color has been somewhat adapted: the white has become a bit more white! But the job has been completed, and as a result we have a bookcase which can house a few more books—which is important since all other book cases in our home are more than full. And it takes an extraordinary pair of eyes to see the difference between old white and the new white.

The reader may perhaps have surmised that I do not really belong to the great multitude of IKEA-fans. I happen to be somewhat allergic for super-large shops. I am actually someone who would like to see the small village grocery store return, with just one brand of each article, in just one size package.

It is difficult to deny that IKEA has develop an incredibly strong concept. You recognize them anywhere in the world. They are very accessible. Your children are warmly welcome in the play area, where they are closely supervised. The IKEA shops carry so many articles that people of all ages find something to their liking. You can ask for advice, but you can also do your own research. And, there is a major restaurant, to which I already referred. You can buy your breakfast in the restaurant for just one euro, and (this is what I just read in one of their advertisement) you are welcome to use the restaurant as a place for a committee meeting. The family card shows that you belong to something big. Of course, I realize that all of this serves to sell more Billy bookcases and Kramfors lounge suits. And it appears to be a winning strategy!

Thinking a little more about the IKEA-concept, I began to wonder whether quite a few of these elements could also perhaps be applied in the setting of a local church. Many church building that are often empty during most of the week could perhaps be used for all kinds activities that could ‘entice’ people to enter our ‘shop’. Why not allow groups in the neighborhood or town/city to use the facilities of our building or invite local committees and associations to have their committee meetings in one of the church rooms? Why not use the church to provide assistance to people who take courses in Dutch citizenship or who want to learn the Dutch language? All you need are a few volunteers who open the doors and offer some assistance, and a coffee machine that serves a reasonable product. And maybe you would need a few Billy bookcases that may be filled with books that can be borrowed or simply taken away?

Perhaps I am oversimplifying things, or . . .? And then, the idea of a church where you can get a spiritual package with parts that you may assemble yourself in your own color . . . somehow seems quite appealing to me.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Nostalgia

 

During most of my childhood years and early teens I lived in a Dutch windmill. Built in the 1630′s, this tall wooden structure with its thatched roof was used, together with dozens of such windmills, to pump the water from a lake of roughly 6.000 acres and to transform it into a fertile “polder”.  At the ground level we had our simple living quarters: four small rooms with a total of about 600 square feet. Our family of  (initially) three adults and four children had moved there because my father was suffering from a debilitating illness, and we were dependent on a small amount of social security. The fact that the rent was dirt cheap had inspired my parents to move from a regular house in the village into our new abode.

I have often gone back to “my” windmill and each time I visit, alone, with relatives or with foreign visitors, I take some pictures. They are always the same! When I visit my two sisters in Canada I see the same pictures of “our” windmill on their walls as I have at home. A good number of years ago I was in a US bookshop and saw a calendar with Dutch windmills. And, lo and behold: “my” mill was on the front cover of the calendar. I bought several copies of it. I once happened to see (in Holland, Michigan, VS) a 1000-piece jig-saw puzzle with “my” windmill. For many years it stayed in its cellophane cover. It was not until quite recently that I decided to part with it and give it to a jig-saw adept.

Perhaps it is not so strange that I continue to have  an intense interest in windmills. But, at times, I step back and force myself to look at the reality and not simply cherish my nostalgic memories. As I think back, I often tend to forget how cramped the rooms were and how cold it was during the winter. I somehow seem to have forgotten that we had to get our drinking water from a neighboring farm; that we had no electricity but used oil lamps, and that we had an outdoor toilet. When looking at picture postcards the Dutch windmills may look romantic, but I can ensure you that they did not make for very comfortable living.

When people in the church tell me they want to go back to Adventism of the past, I must conclude that they have fallen victim to an unfortunate form of nostalgia. It seems to be in human nature to look very selectively at our past and to sift out those things that were not so pleasant. We often seem to have an uncanny way of pushing these elements far back into the recesses of our minds. And so, when people say, they want to go back to the church of the past, they, in actual fact, tend to work with a heavily edited version of the past, from which the uncomfortable aspects have been erased.

The past has many good things that we must hold on to. There is nothing wrong in my regular visits to the windmill, to take even more pictures. The windmill is linked to my personal identity. But I do well to also remember the disadvantages under which we lived and to be grateful for the way my comfort in life has drastically been improved since.

When people tell us they want to recreate the church of the past, they actually mean that they want to go back to the nostalgic, expurgated version of the past that they have created. There are many elements in our collective Adventist past that we must cherish. If we lose them we are in grave danger of losing major chunks of our identity. But if we think about it (and do a bit of reading) we will soon see that there are also aspects that were not worth keeping. In fact, as a church, we have every reason to be grateful that we have moved away from quite a few of them.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Where the rubber hits the road

 

There has lately been a lot of discussion in the Seventh-day Adventist Church about the place and the authority of the higher church administrative echelons (in particular concerning the role of the General Conference). This continued in the past few weeks—after the world congress of the church in San Antonio. Much of the debate focuses on the question to what extent the ‘lower’ administrative levels of the church (conferences and unions) may decide a number of important issues. Everything points to the fact that the denominational leadership in Silver Spring is doing all it can to ensure the supremacy of its own authority. This means, specifically with regard to the status of women in the church (which has recently been so much in the forefront), that unions cannot independently decide which persons they will ordain. Their authority is delegated authority, we are told!

It seems that we have now entered a phase in the dispute where the question of power has become all-important. In many respects, the administrative structure of the church—and the way in which the ‘highest’ administrative unit functions—resembles ever more the organization that we have always vehemently condemned: the church of Rome, in which the line of authority runs from the top to the bottom, and where the sense that, in fact, all authorities of ‘the top’ must be derived from what happens at the base of the church, has completely disappeared.

The importance of the ‘base’ of the church was clearly brought home to me in the past few weeks in my contacts with local churches. From July 25 onwards, I have an uninterrupted series of weekly speaking appointments in local churches: Amsterdam, Enschede, Amersfoort. Hilversum, and in the next few weeks: Huis ter Heide, Harderwijk, Meppel, and Utrecht. Invariably, my experience is that for most church members the events of Sam Antonio are already in a distant past—and that there is very little talk about events that happen in the higher regions of the world church, not even during the collective coffee hour after the church service (which has become an established custom in almost all Dutch Adventist churches).

Occasionally I find some church members who try to stay abreast of what happens in their church in far-away places, through the social media or the information that is provided by the Dutch union communication department. And, of course, the mission story during the Bible study period is still a fixed element of the service. But by far most members are first of all interested in the local church to which they belong, where they meet their fellow-believers and charge their spiritual batteries for the week to come. Everything else is, at most, of secondary importance. And that is how it should be!

In its earliest beginning the christian church consisted only of local groups of believers. Often they were so small they could meet in the home of one of them. Gradually a structure developed with elders and deacons. In addition, there were many who had some spiritual gift(s). The apostles had a special role and cared for the contacts between the churches and between them and the ‘mother-church’ in Jerusalem. All other supplementary models, which through the ages have been introduced into the church, were human inventions. Some of these have functioned quite well, and some did not.

The Adventist Church has also developed a specific organizational model. An initial strong distaste for any umbrella organization was, in the course of some 150 years, gradually replaced by an intricate hierarchical network of ecclesial structures. Many aspects have served us quite well. And some aspects are still OK. But let us never forget that, even though we have prayed and sought felt divine guidance, in final analysis our model was mostly borrowed from others and further devised by ourselves. There is nothing wrong with this, but this realization should  prompt us to relativize the enduring usefulness of our organizational model.

Many organizational patterns in the Adventist Church have from time to time been adapted. But it became ever more complex: many things were added, but existing things were seldom discontinued. The territories of some divisions were repeatedly changed, and many conferences and unions were added. In the meantime the so-called ‘working policy’ of the church (the rules that have been agreed upon to structure the work of the church) has become an steadily more voluminous book. This is understandable, for many things have become more complex and, as the church grows, new situations had to be addressed. But this does not alter the basic fact: it is and remains human work.

That is why such statements as:’ Well, this is simply how the church functions. . ., and, ‘This is what the policy says’ and, ‘This is what you find in the Church Manual’, are often totally inadequate. Things can be changed! And it is risky to ignore the many voice that clamor for change. Ignoring this will only stimulate a process where ‘the base’ is less and less interested in what happens ‘at the top.’

It seems to me, that the time has come, as never before, that we become collectively aware (including the leadership at ‘the top’) that all authority in the church rests with the local churches. The members run their own  churches and delegate certain powers to ‘higher’ administrative levels. This is what the Adventist Church still maintains in theory, but seems to be more and more forgetting in its actual practice.

When I preach tomorrow morning in one of the Dutch Adventist churches (my sermon will be on Hagar and her confession: You are the God who sees), I will be reminded of the important fact that, whatever some people may say, the rubber hits the road in the local church.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments