Beards in Battle Creek

When I was studying at Newbold College in England in the 1960’s students were not allowed to grow beards. I do not remember whether there was any clear rationale for this rule. It was simply how it was.  A little later I spent just over a year studying at Andrews University in the United States, to earn a masters degree in theology. One of the most memorable classes (Introduction to the New Testament) was team-taught by three professors: Dr. Sakae Kubo, Dr. Earl Hilgert and Dr. Herold Weiss.  Professor Weiss was the youngest of the trio and was just starting his academic career. He came under heavy criticism from some members of the university staff because his comportment supposedly lacked in dignity. He not only had a red sports car, but also grew a beard!  Imagine: a theology professor with a beard!

The beard has an interesting history in some Christian circles, including Adventism. Once upon a time most Christian leaders had beards. Just look at pictures of the Adventist pioneers and you only see heavily bearded men. Many actually believed that wearing a beard was a God-given symbol of masculinity and that there were a number of Bible texts that were explicit about not shaving off one’s beard. But times (and ideas) changed and gradually the faces of the denominational leaders became clean-shaven. However, dear reader, we  now once again seem to have reached a turning point. Turn to the Adventist Review or to some other Adventist media and find a recent picture of the world president of the church, and you will find that pastor Ted Wilson has grown a substantial beard.

What do we make of this? Did brother Ted get up one morning, look in the mirror and conclude that a beard would make him look more impressive?  Or did his wife Nancy suggest a change in his appearance? No, there is more to it.

This year’s Annual Council of the Seventh-day Adventist Church will be held in the city of Battle Creek, Michigan, the cereal capital of the United States and the headquarters of the large Kellogg corporation. But until a little more than a century ago it was also the headquarters of the Adventist movement. A historic village is an educational reminder of the denominational past. Many Adventists who visit Battle Creek make sure to also go to the Oak Hill Cemetery and pass by the graves of Ellen White and her family and of many of the early Adventist leaders. The General Conference decided that its most important annual meeting of 2018 was to be held in this city that has so much Adventist history. And Wilson suggested that it would be fitting for the men who would attend this meeting to enter into the atmosphere of the past by growing a beard and even by wearing some period costumes. (I have no idea how many of the participants will actually comply with this suggestion.)

When I first heard of this plan I could hardly believe it. I just hope the secular media will not find out about this, for they might well poke fun at a church that combines a costume party with serious church business. The whole idea, it seems to me, reflects a nostalgic desire to relive the past, as if the hope of our church is a return to the Battle Creek era. Unfortunately, there is on the part of many fellow-Adventist believers a strong feeling that early Adventism represents true Adventism and that the church must go back to its beginnings. I just hope that during the upcoming Battle Creek meetings the delegates will not only be reminded of the positive aspects of our beginnings, but will also hear about all the things that went wrong and why it was necessary to leave Battle Creek and make a new start elsewhere. And perhaps the top leadership should also be reminded that it was in Battle Creek that the erstwhile leaders were sharply criticized for their tendency to exert ‘kingly power’ rather than servant leadership. A repeat of that criticism would seem very timely in the present phase of our denominational existence.

 

 

Heaven

In the book by Hans Buddingh about the history of Surinam I found I read a short statement that I  have not forgotten, even though it is some years ago that I read the book. The slaves were often treated in a beastly manner and many did not survive the punishments they received. But some reports indicate that the slaves were not afraid of death, for they believed that in the hereafter they would be served by white men! Surely, they did not want to miss that! And if you are a slave and must obey every whim of your white master, it is not so strange that your ultimate desire is that in the future the roles will be reversed. That would indeed be paradise!

Muslim warriors are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith, believing that they will be recompensed for all their suffering. In the hereafter they will enjoy the company of a good number of beautiful virgins.

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah could not think of a better future for his people than that they would enjoy the fruits of the vineyard they had planted and would live in the house they had built for themselves. Heaven for him was the place where one did no longer have to work for the benefit of others.

For many Christians heaven is the place where, immediately after their death, they continue to live as immortal souls, waiting for the resurrection of their body. I have never quite understood why you would want to get a body if your soul is already enjoying eternal bliss and singing its eternal hallelujahs.

If I try to imagine what heaven will be like, I inevitably think of the magnificent beach, some fifteen kilometers from Abidjan, the capital city of Ivory Coast, where my wife and I lived in the nineteen eighties for about four years. On Sundays we usually spent some hours under the palm trees at the beach. But when I think a bit further . . . We could enjoy our carefree time at the beach, but life was not quite as carefree and pleasant for the women who carried their baskets with pine apples on their head, and tried to sell them to the (mostly white) people on the beach in order to earn a small amount of money to buy food for their families. . .

For many Bible readers the last two chapter of the book of Revelation contain exciting information. There we read about the New Jerusalem with its golden streets and its pearly gates. To be honest, it does not mean all that much to me, but I realize that it must have been a picture that appealed to the people some 2,000 years ago: a city with high walls and strong gates that was totally secure. I am somewhat frustrated, however, when I read that there will be no more sea. No doubt, for the people of Bible times who tended to be afraid of the sea, this was good news. For the first century readers this new world was unbelievably wonderful, since all things that caused anxiety had been removed.

The problem with all human pictures about heaven is that they are human ideas. It cannot be otherwise. We only have human images for our dreams about eternity. But we must not forget that when dealing with eternity and everything associated with it, we are dealing with categories that belong to the domain of the divine. Our human words and imaginations can never be adequate. For the slaves of Surinam, heaven will even be better than a place where they will be served by white people. And, even though I find it hard to believe that this is possible, eternity will be a lot better than the beach near Abidjan. (And for the time being I will assume that the statement about the absence of  the sea, should be understood symbolically.)

When does the night end and the day begin?

This week my blog consists of a quote from a book I am currently reading. The title is Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.It is written by Thomas L. Friedman, a renowned columnist of the New York Times. It is well worth reading and I may come back to it in another blog.

On pp. 388-389 Friedman uses this touching story to make an important point:

A rabbi once asked his students: “How do we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?”  The students thought they grasped the importance of this question. There are, after all, prayers and rites and rituals that can only be done at nighttime. And there are prayers and rites and rituals that belong only to the day. So, it is important to know how we can tell when night has ended and the day has begun.

So the first and the brightest of the students offered an answer: “Rabbi, when I look out at the fields and I can distinguish between my field and the field of my neighbor, that is when the night has ended and the day has begun.” A second student offered his answer: “Rabbi, when I look at the fields and see a house, and I can tell that it is my house and not the house of my neighbor, that is when the night has ended and the day has begun.” A third student offered another answer: “Rabbi, when I see an animal in de the distance, and I can tell what kind of animal it is, whether a cow, a horse, or a sheep, that is when the night has ended and the day has begun.” Then a fourth student offered yet another answer: “Rabbi, when I see a flower and I can make out the colors of the flower, whether they are red, or yellow, or blue, that is when the night has ended and the day has begun.”

Each answer brought a sadder, more severe frown to the rabbi’s face.  Until finally he shouted: “No! None of you understands! You only divide! You divide your house from the house of your neighbor, your field from the neighbor’s field, you distinguish one kind of animal from another, you separate one color from all others. Is that all we can do—dividing, separating, splitting the world into pieces? Isn’t the world broken enough? Isn’t the world broken into enough fragments? Is that what Torah is for? No, my dear students, it is not that way, not that way at all!

The shocked students looked into the sad face of their rabbi. “Then, Rabbi, tell us. How do we know that night has ended and the day has begun?”

The rabbi stared back into the faces of his students, and with a voice suddenly gentle and imploring, he responded: “When you look into the face of the person who is beside you, and you can see that this person is your brother or your sister, then finally the night has ended and the day has begun.”

 

Update on some of my activities

I want to use this week’s blog to tell my readers about the status of some of the projects I am working on. I look forward to spending two weeks of vacation in Sweden in early August. It will be good to see our son and our two grandchildren again. Then, following this break, I will embark on a busy program that will take me to Dublin in Ireland, Belgrade in Serbia, Vienna in Austria, Brisbane in Australia, Riga in Latvia, and then to Sweden again. In all these places I will preach, give lectures, do workshops, and hopefully I will also have some time to see a few things and, of course, I hope to meet old friends and meet new friends.

In the past three months I have spent a lot of time in preparing for sermons, lectures and power point presentations.  My aim is to have everything done before we fly to Sweden. It looks like this will happen. But while I have been busy with all these preparations for future events, some writing projects of the recent past are becoming real books!

During the European Pastors’ Council (in Belgrade in the last week of August), the Stanborough Press (the Adventist Publishing House in Great Britain) will launch the English language edition of my last devotional with 366 short portraits of as many men and women in the Bible. Its title will be: Face to Face.  I wrote it originally in Dutch and then translated it also into English. I look forward to soon holding a first copy in my hands.

Last week my newest book saw the light of day. Its topic is Last Generation Theology. I believe that the theories that are found under that umbrella pose a real danger to the individual believer as well as to the church. I have tried to take a pastoral approach and hope many people will read the book and will find my arguments convincing. The book is entitled: In All Humility: Saying No to Last Generation Theology. The English language edition has been published by Oak and Acorn in the USA, which also plans a Spanish edition. I hope there will also be a French and a German version.  The English edition may be ordered from Amazon.com. It has about 200 pages and sells for $ 12,99.

I expect that within days the (Brazilian) Portuguese edition of my book FACING DOUBT: A Book for Adventist Believers ‘on the Margins’ will also be ready. Its Portuguese title is: Sair our Permanecer?Um livro para Adventistas que lidam com a dúvida. Some people in Brazil (and In Europe) felt that many Adventists in their country could benefit from this book and they have assisted with the translation, corrections, proofreading, etc.). The book can soon be ordered through Amazon.com and, no doubt, other internet book sellers will also carry it. However, one huge problem remains: How do we promote the book in Brazil and in the Brazilian/Portuguese diaspora?  We hope that we can use the social media, but further suggestions are most welcome!

And then there is a brochure with the title: Basic Alphabet Theology.  The word “alphabet” refers to the capitals that are often used in connection with people who have a non-hetero sexual orientation: LGBTI or LGBTQ. It is an attempt to help my fellow-Adventists believers to better understand what it means to be ‘different’, and to consider what the Bible says about this topic. The brochure is published and distributed by The Coracle Project—(Building Safe Places for Everyone), and is already available (or will soon be) in English, Dutch, French, German, and Swedish.  For more information:  buildingsafeplaces@gmail.com

I realize that not everyone is always happy with the stuff that I produce. However, it gives me great satisfaction to contribute to various discussions and I am truly thankful for the fact that many do appreciate my work and tell me that it has helped them on the pilgrimage.

Finally, I suspect that at some point during my vacation and travels there will be a moment of inspiration pointing me to the next book that should be written!

 

Searching the archive

The Adventist Church has recently embarked on a number of ambitious projects. A group of theological scholars is working on the Seventh-day Adventist International Bible Commentary. The first volume (Genesis) has appeared, so that people may have a taste of what is to come. All the other volumes will be published at the same time. Work has also begun on a new SDA Bible Dictionary and on a new SDA Encyclopedia. I have been asked to write a number of articles for both the Dictionary and the Encyclopedia. Last week I submitted three of my five articles for the Dictionary, and this week I have been working on six of the articles that I have promised to contribute to the Encyclopedia.

In preparation for my Encyclopedia articles I spent a considerable amount of time in the archives of the Netherlands Union. I needed to find certain details of the history of the (now no longer existing) Netherlands theological seminary and secondary school “Oud Zandbergen”, of the history of the publishing activities in the Netherlands, and of the biographies of a number of past union presidents. Some of the things I was looking for were easy to find. In recent years a lot has been done to preserve and catalogue the documents of the past, but some details were not so easy to discover. I decided to go through all the issues of the official Dutch church paper (Advent, formerly Adventbode) of a few decades, looking for some obituaries and for reports of specific events, etc.   I made significant progress but still have some work to do.

Going through the issues of the church paper of the 1960’s 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s was an interesting exercise. During part of this period I served as the editor of this journal. I was rather surprised to see how many articles I had actually written over the years. Some of them I remembered, of some of them I have copies in my own private “archive”, but some I had completely forgotten. It was a special experience to see the names of many people I had known, but who are no longer with us. Suddenly I saw the short obituary for my mother, reminding me that I had given a short biographical sketch of her at her funeral.

What struck me as I went through the months, years, and decades, was to see how many things have remained the same. Some problems tend to stay with us without ever being solved. But, on the other hand, it is startling to see how much has actually changed. New local churches have been  organized, while other churches disappeared. Institutions grew and prospered, but also faced challenges and in some cases ceased to operate. Leaders came and moved off the scene. I read the reports of ordinations of colleagues who are now dead or long retired. Period of financial strengths were followed by periods of financial drought. From time to time theological unrest—either homebred or imported—caused confusion, but eventually the focus shifted again to other matters. New slogans for evangelism and new initiatives found support, but usually only had a limited lifespan.

In some ways, this exercise made me sad. In spite of all the hard work of so many people; in spite of the tens of millions of guilders and euros that were invested; in spite of the many publications; in spite of all the energy invested by clergy and lay members—the church in the Netherlands is still a small community that, after all these years, continues to struggle with many issues, and has not really made a significant impact on Dutch society. On the other hand, this exercise encourages me and gives me hope. The church has survived countless difficulties. Thousands of men and women found a spiritual haven in our, admittedly far from perfect, spiritual community. And though change has often been difficult and slow, many things did changed over time. Perhaps (so I said to myself) I need a bit more patience. Things do change. I am committed to my church, even though there are quite a few things I do not like in my church, but change is possible. That is one of the lessons the history of my church teaches me.