Walking with God

Years ago I met the now deceased Bill Shea in the Adventist center in Jerusalem. Bill trained as a medical doctor, but later switched to theology and became an accomplished and much appreciated theological scholar. He had a keen sense of humor. We talked about the tourists who visit Israel en masse, and about the many guests who stay at the church center. Bill remarked that the tempo of these tourists is often very high. He said: Most people ran today in the places where Jesus walked.

I am a keen walker. In the past week I made two substantial walks. One was about sixteen kilometers and the other almost twenty. I like to walk at a brisk pace, but try not to make it a race. It is good for my physical condition, but the main thing for me is to enjoy it.

In the Dutch language wandelen (walking) is quite different from going. Dutchmen do not often say that they walk to the bus or to the train station, whereas in English walking and going are, it seems to me, often used almost synonymously. The Germans have two distinct words for walking and goingspazieren and geheh/laufen. Likewise in French: se promener has a different feel to it than aller.

Walking has the connotation of sports and recreation. I was thinking of this when I read in Genesis 5 about Enoch. In many Bible translation we read that Enoch walked with God. Other translations describe Enoch’s relationship in other words as very inimate.

Walking with God—how do we do this? Many Christians (and this certainly applies to Seventh-day Adventist) are with regard to their relationship with God perhaps more inspired by Paul’s counsel to run the race, so that we, in the end, may receive the crown of victory, than by the metaphor of walking with God. Adventists tend to be do-ers rather than thinkers. The church organisation keeps coming with all kinds activities, that push us from one project to the next. At present it is called Total Member Involvement. Soon it will be something else again.

Perhaps we should be more intent on walking with God, rather than on always running for him. Perhaps we should put more emphasis on the development and on the nurturing of our spiritual life than on constant activity. Walking with God means relaxing in the rest that he provides.

 

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Adventist of the year

 

At the end of each year Time magazine features the man or woman of the year. Last year the honor went to Angela Merkel. This time, almost inevitably, Donald Trump was chosen. A few weeks ago the independent Adventist journal Spectrum took the initiative to choose an ‘Adventist of the Year’. A list with a dozen or so names was published on the Spectrum website, and the readers were invited to choose their favorite or to suggest additional names. Dr. Sandra Roberts, the president of the Southeast California Conference, was the winner. She is the only female conference president in the Adventist Church, for the simple reason that church policies do not (yet) allow women in that office. She is not recognized in her role by the General Conference leadership and is mostly ignored by them. But in the few years that she has now been in this role, she has proven herself as an inspiring spiritual leader, who is greatly valued in her conference.

Other names with a high score were Dan Jackson, the president of the Adventist Church in North-America, Dr. Andrea Luxton, the new ‘boss’ of Andrews University, her predecessor Dr. Niels Erik Andreasen and Desmond Doss. I was not on the list, but, lo and behold, I got some votes (about as many as Ted Wilson).

There are, I think, reasons for criticizing the way in which the election of the ‘Adventist of the Year’ took place. The list consisted mostly of people in North-America. And, of course, the Spectrum-crowd is not representative of the average Adventist population. Moreover, the total number of people who cast their vote in this first election of the ‘Adventist of the Year’ amounted to no more than a few hundred. Nonetheless, it was a good initiative and I hope it will become a tradition.

I am very comfortable with the choice of Sandra Roberts. I follow her on the social media and am impressed by the way she performs her job. But, after considerable thought, I myself went for Dan Jackson. He is a man who combines a lot of courage with great wisdom in the way he deals with the differences of opinion between the North-American Division and the General Conference. He remains loyal to the world church, while at the same time carefully steering the church in his territory in a different direction.

But in retrospect I would like to plead for another choice.  Perhaps Spectrum should place ‘the Adventist church pastor’ high on the list of candidates for the next ‘Adventist of the Year’ election. I realize that ‘the’ Adventist church pastor does not exist. The 20.000 or so pastors worldwide do not neatly fit into one box. But, in general, it would be fair to say that they have a tough job. No wonder a considerable percentage suffers from a burnout, find their work very stressful, or quit altogether.

Most pastors must care for more than one congregation. Only a relatively small part of all Adventists belong to a large church that has its own minister or even a staff with several pastors. Many pastors—especially in the developing world—lead a district with ten or even up to twenty churches. In the western world two to four churches per pastor has become the norm. Church pastors are expected to be spiritual leaders with good preaching skills, who know how to inspire their parishioners.  But they must also have organizational and leadership qualities, and must have experience in conflict resolution. They are expected to foster church growth, while retaining the youth.

A major problem lies in the theological sphere. Often a pastor lives in a kind of split world, when his/her churches are quite unlike each other—in ethic composition and/or theological orientation. In addition, there often is a personal challenge. How does the pastor deal with his own questions and doubts, and with his worries about trends in his denomination? It is usually rather difficult to discuss these things with church members. And how does a pastor provide the church members with information and insight regarding important theological and organizational issues, without running too far ahead of his people and contributing to the already alarming degree of polarization? And, last but not least (or better: first and foremost) how does a pastor fit enough time into his/her schedule for study and personal spiritual nourishment?

When I think about it a bit further, it seems a miracle to me that, in spite of everything, so many men and women still feel called to the ministry. And chapeau for all those who, year after year, continue their work with commitment and satisfaction. So, therefore I suggest: Put ‘the Adventist pastor’ at the top of the list of candidates for next year’s election of ‘the Adventist of the Year.’

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For such a time as this . .

 

A few weeks ago I reread the Bible book of Esther. It is a novella that has all the ingredients of a good story: beautiful women, power, treason and a happy ending, when the bad boys are eliminated and the people with courage triumph. At the same time it is a very unusual story. In a Bible book we would expect to see the name of God, but in the Esther saga God is never mentioned, at least not directly. And Esther may be the heroine of the story, but that does not take away from the fact that she agrees to participate in a beauty contest and to become part of the royal harem, before she receives the status of queen.

But there is more in this fascinating story. A high official (Haman) almost succeeds in pushing the king to satisfy his anti-Semitic sentiments and to rid the Persian Empire of all Jewish inhabitants. However, Mordecai and Esther find a way to prevent this. That requires great courage. Esther must approach the king and confess to him that she, in fact, is also Jewish. And she is to tell king about the evil plans of Haman. Mordecai instructs his niece and he suggests that events went the way they did so that Esther would get the opportunity to do something really important. He says: ‘Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?’ (Esther 4:14).

It seems to me that this text fits perfectly with the beginning of a new year. We live in a time that is no less exciting than that of Esther. That raises the question: ‘How then should I live in ‘such a time as this’?  Will we be clear about our Christian identity at moments when it really counts? Do we dare to show the same courage as Esther did, and make it crystal clear where we stand?

Many countries will hold their national elections in 2017—the Netherlands is one of them. Do we make our political choices ‘in a time such as this’ on the basis of our Christian worldview and values? And will we be courageous enough in our daily life and our activities in society to show that we are inspired and led by our Christian beliefs?  And do we, also within our faith community, have the guts to follow our biblically informed conscience, even if that will not be appreciated by all? How do I live my Adventist Christian faith in 2017—‘in such a time as this?’

In short: How do we profile ourselves as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ in 2017—‘un sich a time as this?’ This is not just a general question—it is a question that I must also personally respond to.

 

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Hopes and plans for 2017

 

Of course, I, first of all, have my personal wishes for 2017: health and personal happiness for my loved ones and myself. 

As far as the world around me is concerned, I sincerely hope that world leaders will be able to agree on ways to reduce war, sickness, poverty, and misery. I hope that we will see fewer outburts of populism, and less polarization, and that somehow the Trumps of this world will listen to the more reasonable voices in society.

I hope that in 2017 my church (the Seventh-day Adventist denomination) will be able to get on with its mission—playing its important role in bringing the message of Christ to an ever more secular world—without being distracted and disrupted by radical conservativism. I hope that, more than in the recent past, church leadership will focus on a hopeful and inspiring future, striving for unity in diversity, rather than placing its emphasis on selectively re-creating nineteenth century Adventism.

2017 is now around the corner. I have a habit of making to-do lists in my black Moleskin notebook. Usually, at the beginning of a month I write a to-do-list for the major projects I hope to be working on for the next 4-5 week: sermons, articles, chapters in book, sections of translations, meetings to attend and people to visit. But I also list the topics of lectures that will be coming up in the next 4-6 months, so that  I can start thinking and reading about these. I do not always succeed in doing everything that is on the list, and things sometimes get pushed to the next month. But the system works for me, and by-and-large- keeps me ‘on schedule’, while I am flexible enough to adapt if necessary. However, by working in this way I hardly ever have to struggle to meet a looming deadline.

But at the beginning of the year I also make a list of the major projects I hope to realize in that coming year. My mission with the book FACING DOUBT – A Book for Adventist Believers ‘on the Margin’ will continue. Work is under way on French, Danish, and Russian editions. There may be possibilities for German and Czech translations. (And, by the way, we are also looking for someone who would be able and willing to translate the book into Portuguese! Suggestions are more than welcome).

Most likely I will be working on some translation project for a non-SDA publisher. In the spring of this year Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI) will publish the English edition of a rather substantial book (782 pages), written by two theologians of the Free University in Amsterdam:  Gijsbert van den Brink and Cornelis van der Kooi: Christian Dogmatics. I spent many hours on the translation of this book from Dutch into English. It feels good to see in the publisher’s announcement that is hook ‘is written in a student-friendly tone and is expertly translated!’

A major new project I hope to undertake in 2017 is writing a thorough, yet easily accessible, book about an issue that figures quite prominently in current Adventism: Last Generation Theology. Although it has never been recognized as the church’s official teaching, it has its roots in traditional Adventism and has the support of large groups in the more conservative segment of the church and also among today’s top church leaders. I am convinced that the LGT is based on a number of false premises and has some serious implications. Whether or not I will be able to complete this project in 2017 remains to be seen. I have begun thinking and reading about the topic. I have a lot of relevant material in my own book cases and much is available on line,  but I realize that I will also need to spend at least some weeks in a good Adventist library.

And what else? There promises to be a fair amount of travel in the next twelve months, also outside of the Netherlands.  A dozen or so appointments for study conferences, lectures and sermons are already either fixed or being considered. However, when all is said and done, I do also plan to read—for my own spiritual nourishment and for entertainment—and there are museums to be visited! And there must be time for family and friends . . . and fun.

I realize that all plans are tentative—depending on good health and many other factors. Therefore, I end this blog with the same words that I put at the end of my previous blog—Deo Volente!

I wish all my blog readers blessed Christmas days and a good 2017!

 

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Looking back: 2016

 

Once we have passed the middle of December, we reach the moment when we start looking back on the year that was. For me this looking back always has three dimensions: the world, the church and my personal life.

Well, what can I say about the world at the end of 2016? Our world has not become any better. We live with the enormous uncertainty of what the coming Trump-era will bring us. And nobody can predict what the Brexit will mean for Europe. In many places in the world we see a disastrous degree of polarization that totally divides nations and population groups . The move towards ‘the right’ and the populistich trends are, to my dismay, factors that increasingly determine the Dutch political arena. And names like Aleppo, Mosul and IS have dominated the international landscape.

And what about the church? The crisis in Christianity continues, and this is also true for the crisis in worldwide Adventism. The Adventist Church continues to be successful in recruiting millions of new members, but at the same time experiences an unprecedented exodus of people who no longer feel a home in Adventism. Church leadership at the highest level has in 2016 done what it could  to call rebelling church entities (as for instance the Netherlands Union) to order. The world leaders are obsessed with the idea that these ‘illegal’ ordination of female pastors must stop. But gradually this war begins to develop into a rearguard action. Yes, top leadership may still count on a numerical majority in crucial votes to push their ideas–due to the large non-Western support. But the authority of the General Conferences is gradually diminishing elsewhere in the world and it appears to me that in 2016 we have been gradually moving towards a situation in which the ‘rebellion’ will be grudgingly tolerated, without any concrete disciplinary actions.

And how was 2016 for me personally? First of all, I am thankful that I can look back on a years in which I have remained reasonably healthy and energetic. And I realize that I cannot take it just as a matter of course that, after having now been married for 52 years, my wife and I are still able to enjoy life together and to do lots of things together. I have remained quite active in many church activities. I have preached almost every week, given many other presentations, and my pen (i.e. Apple notebook) has been intensely used. I crossed the Dutch border many times in response to invitations. At times this was together with my wife, as for instance when we spent a month early this year in Australia, and on trips to Sweden, England, Belgium and Germany. But in most cases I went alone, as the inviting organizations will normally send just one ticket! Already quite a few things are lined up for 2017.

The publication of my book FACING DOUBT: A Book for Adventist Believers ‘on the Margins’ and its Dutch edition, have to a major extent put a stamp on the second part of the past year. Some people have felt that the book clearly shows that I no longer have the right to call myself a ‘real Adventist, and that I should hand in my ministerial credentials. But I have received so many positive, and often moving, comments from readers in the Netherlands, the United States and the United Kingdom, and from dozens of other countries, that I have the sense of having provided an important service to many people. And, therefore, I will with conviction continue to promote the book and to prepare editions in other languages. I continue to count on the support of many kindred spirits (especially through their social networks). And I will try to respond as well as I can to the many reactions—even if that consumes a major portion of my time.

In 2016 I have been focused especially on the theme of ‘doubt’. This has not harmed my faith. Better than before I have been able to define more precisely what I, in actual fact, believe. And it has given me increased peace of mind to have bidden farewell to many earlier ideas and convictions. It has given me a clearer view of what is really crucial in my relationship to God, and to my church and fellow-believers. This makes my commitment to support others who go through a similar process stronger rather than weaker. This a an important gain in 2016, for which I thank my Lord.

In next week’s blog I want to mention a few things that I hope to be involved in in 2017. However, I keep in mind what used to be an important slogan in conservative Christian circles in the Netherlands: Deo Volente.

 

 

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