An Adventist pastor, or a pastor in the Adventist Church?

After the worship service last Sabbath morning in the Florida Hospital Church in Orlando (Florida, USA) a few members of the pastoral staff invited me to join them for an excellent meal in a nearby Mexican restaurant. I did not only enjoy the food but also the pleasant and open conversation. Our discussion focused in particular on the way in which, anno 2017, most pastors function in their Adventist churches. My American colleagues confirmed what I had already concluded a considerable time ago. In the past many pastors had the ambition to ‘move up’ to some job in the conference or union office. Today, only few have such ambitions. The local church has increasingly become the focus of church work. Most pastors (certainly in the US) have only a very limited interest in what happens at the higher administrative church levels. If they have specific ambitions it is often a desire to be called to an ‘important’ church–for instance one that is connected to a college, a university or major health institution.

When we went into some more detail regarding the tensions that may occur between the ideas and convictions of the individual Adventist pastor, and what is expected from ‘above’, one the pastors said something that caught my special attention. She said: “I am not an Adventist pastor.  I am a pastor in an Adventist church!” If you think about it, this makes quite a difference!

When you identify yourself as an Adventist pastor, you present yourself as an extension of the Adventist Church. You indicate that in all you do and say you want to align yourself with the policies and the way of being-church of the Adventist denomination. This is what the church may expect from you and this is what you are bound to do as an Adventist pastor. This, however, leaves but little space for a more personal interpretation of your task.

When  you see yourself as a pastor who has chosen to work within the Adventist Church, you come at it from a different perspective. You first of all identify yourself as a pastor. As a Christian you have felt the calling to work ‘for God.’ This demanded a choice about the place where you would want to follow that calling, and where–at least in first instance–you would want to receive your ministerial training. You have concluded that you have good reasons to do this in the context of Adventism. But you want to retain sufficient personal space. You work as a pastor within this denomination without losing some critical distance. You feel at home in your church, but you refuse to become a prisoner of the church’s system. You have so much affinity with Adventism that you have gladly chosen to work in and for the Adventist faith community, but you continue to claim the personal space you need and will not slavishly accept all traditional and current interpretations and traditions.

I had never quite thought about my calling as an Adventist pastor in this way, but when my colleague in Florida phrased in these terms, I though: “Yes, this is, in fact, the way I have also always felt it.” And this is how I feel as I write these paragraphs–even though I had never before formulated it in these words: I am not a retired Adventist minister, but a retired minister who is happy to still function within the Adventist Church!

 

 

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Jacob’s flight

 

The Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century is an important theme throughout 2017. We are told that five centuries ago Martin Luther nailed his theses on the door of the Castle Church in the German city of Wittenberg And–somewhat arbitrarily–this event is regarded as the starting point of the Reformation. In the coming months I have various appointments–in particular in Germany–to speak about subjects that are related to the Reformation and especially about its relationship to Adventism. How much does the Adventist Church owe to the Reformation, as far as its theology and its way of being-church is concerned? And who was more important for us: Luther or Calvin? Or should our appreciation mostly go the so-called ‘Radical’ Reformation?

In the past few months many new books about Luther and his work, and about related topics, have been published. When recently visiting one of my favorite bookstores, during the annual week of book promotion, my eye fell on a book that–so we read on the cover–describes the history of three generations of a family in the Dutch Golden Age. The book reads like a novel, but it is based on an impressive amount of historical research. Is Dutch title is: Jacobs Vlucht (The Flight of Jacob). The author is Craig Harline, a professor at the Mormon Brigham Young University in Utah (USA), who is a specialist in the history of the Low Countries and who writes, more specifically, about religious life in Western Europe in Reformation times. The book centers around three main characters: ‘the old Jacob’ (Jacobsz. Roelandt–later latinized as Jacob Roelandus, his son Timotheüs and his grandson, ‘the young Jacob’.

The story has a clear message: In the period after the Reformation–in which the Reformed religion gained substantial support in the Netherlands and even became dominant in some cities and regions–religious tolerance was often much less strong than is often suggested. The family in which ‘the old Jacob’ (who eventually became one of the translators of  the Statenvertaling, the prestigious Dutch Bible translation) grew up, had to flee from the city of Delft to Antwerp because of a (temporary) persecution of the Reformed by the Catholics. His son Timotheüs, who followed in the footsteps of his father and also became a Reformed minister, suffered most from internal intolerance in the congregations where he served. The ‘young Jacob’ would later flee from his parental home in the middle of the night (when he as about 20 years old), because he wanted to convert to Catholicism.  He became a Jesuit priest and later in life left for Brazil as a missionary. There was an intermittent exchange of letters between him and his sister Mary, but any further contact between this Jacob and his Reformed family proved to be impossible.

The book describes in detail how difficult and dangerous it could be in the sixteenth and at the beginning of the seventeenth century to be a Catholic, and how risky it could be in other places to openly live as a Reformed church member. However, the book also provides an interesting view of the life of a Reformed minister in this period and of church life at that time. This aspect of the book warns ut that we must be careful not to idealize the past too much. The Protestants who in this year we read and hear about the heroic deeds of Martin Luther and of the other Reformers (and many of their deeds indeed qualify as such), will also encounter less glorious things and will have to conclude that the church that was established by the Reformers and their followers, was both a community of saints and a hospital for sinners!

Just a short paragraph to illustrate that the church in the era covered by Jacobs Vlucht was far from perfect and not always harmonious. The ‘old Jacob’ was a minister who was highly respected. He was not just active in his church in Amsterdam, but was also charged with other assignments. He was asked to deal with the problems that resulted when a drunken minister fell off his horse. He also had to intervene when a couple in his congregation were literally fighting and had to be physically separated. He was requested to find out whether a parishioner was indeed living among prostitutes, as it was rumored. And he was charged with checking whether his colleagues in the region north of Amsterdam were diligent enough in their studies and sermon preparation, and did not supplement their salary by engaging in questionable forms of commerce. And, of course, he had to find out whether his church members did not have any suspicious theological views, and were not guilty of dancing, gossiping, theft or alcohol abuse, before thy could be allowed at the Lord’s Table

This remarkable book focuses on aspects of Reformation times that are often not, or insufficiently, reported. The church of the past can often inspire us, but we must be careful not to think that in the past everything was better than it is today! The Lord had to exercise patience with the people who five centuries ago wanted to belong to his church. That gives me the confidence that he continues to be patient with the faith community to which I belong in 2017–500 years later.

 

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A letter

 

I had not heard from Hans for a long time. I know him from way back in my youth, but decades ago Hans moved to another country. I was greatly surprised when he called me a few weeks ago. It was about my book FACING DOUBT. Earlier he had already told me that reading it had been good for him. But now he wanted to share a personal experience with me.

Hans told me that years ago he had been on the point of leaving the church. But he eventually decided to stay–in spite of the conservative nature of the church in his new homeland.  A long letter he received in October 1988 played an important role in his struggle to decide whether he would stay in the church. The letter was written by a Dr. W.  Hans has now shared this letter with me and has give permission to quote from it. The letter was in reply to what Hans had earlier written to Dr. W.

. . . I want to try to answer you—to try to write something that will mean something to you. We all know how difficult this is. . . It gives us comfort that it is not urgently necessary to find the right words, as long as it communicates a warm bond! In the story of the sick woman, who had put all her hope on Jesus I find an illustration of the relativeness of the ‘correctness’ of understanding and experiencing. She believed that by touching his robe Jesus could give her what she so earnestly hoped for. We might compare her expectation with that of pilgrims to Lourdes. Jesus told her that her’ faith’ had cured her. What did this woman know about the nature of God, doctrines or church institutions? Her salvation was in a genuine desire for Jesus’ nearness. The fact that Jesus gave her more than she asked for is a miracle we all may expect. Not the intensity of our questions, but our openness to God’s coming to us in our lives is the most important thing . . .

Being a real Adventist is waiting for what God does. Condemning one another because we do not all understand this expectation in exactly the same way, is not the way of Jesus  . . . Jesus mentions this all encompassing characteristic if we want to recognize a disciple: ‘That you love one another.’ That is totally different from constantly telling others that their ideas are wrong . . .

Further on in his long letter dr. W. touches on the topic of creation and how we are to understand the biblical creation narrative. He underlines that christians should give one another the space to have their own ideas about this:

To label others as ‘believers’ or ‘unbelievers’ on the basis of whether one takes the words literally or symbolically, as also in the words of Jesus about the wine of the Last Supper: “This is my blood . . . “ . . . God is the origin of all what is. This fits better with our worldview than the idea that God put the earth in the center of the universe and glued the stars to the ‘heavens’, while the earth was already in existence. The human intellect (also that of the greatest astronomers) is not big enough to grasp what forces, speeds, clashings and fusions of heavenly bodies are involved. Jesus paid no attention to these problems. He focused our thoughts on sparrows, lilies, mountains. He adopted the way of thinking of his time, spoke to the storm and sent evil spirits in a herd of pigs . . . gave the blind their sight using spit, sand and water. . .

. . . Reading about christians who fight with other christians, because they ‘have the truth”, makes it clear to us how much patience God has had with us through the ages, and everywhere. We must be his witnesses and because we are, humanly speaking, inadequate for this, God wants us to wait for his help. This has to do with the present, not with 1844 in whatever way this is interpreted. God waits for us, hoping that we will expect everything from him. That is the path toward peace in our hearts, peace with God . . .

. . . It is not necessary to look for other human deeds. God is able to find a person where he is and we can find Him where He is. God does not to correspond to our image of him, but we must correspond to his image . . .

. . . When a dog rescues you from the water, he teeth are not the teeth of God. But the rescue is an act of God. Likewise I must leave things to God, hoping that He will use me to fill your spiritual need.’

The words of the letter may sound a little archaic, but it touched me deeply. First, because of its content. Here we meet a deeply religious man, who—in spite of all his own doubts—will do whatever he can to help someone else with his questions and doubts.

But the letter touched me also for a very different reason. I also knew the author of this letter. More than fifty years ago I visited him a number of times. At the time I saw him as a rather pedantic, cold and distant person. This letter shows me I was wrong. It seems I was too quick in my judgment. If at the time I had perhaps tried a bit harder to understand him, I might, in spite of our huge age difference, have been able to react more meaningful to his struggle with his questions and doubts.

Thank you, Hans, for sharing this touching letter with me. It inspires me to continue my attempts to help others, in my own way, in dealing with their questions and doubts.

 

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A happy country

The ‘greatest’ country in the world is not the happiest country, according to the World Happiness Report 2017 that was recently released by the United Nations.  Among 155 nations it ranks thirteenth.  On this year’s Happiness Index Norway scores highest.  I had the pleasure of spending last weekend in the second happiest nation on earth: Denmark.  (It was indeed a very pleasant weekend!).The places 3-10 are taken by Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden.  Lowest on the happiness ladder were some African nations and Syria.

A large number of factors is taken into consideration. Economic factors such as income and employment are important, but also social factors, such as education and social life. Mental and physical health, not surprisingly, play a crucial role.

It is, of course, very gratifying to know that I live in one of the happiest countries on earth.  Moreover, research undertaken by Unicef, indicates that Dutch children are on the average happier than children anywhere else. On the happiness index for children the USA occupy the 26th place.

The prestigious Huffington Post reported last year that religious people tend to be happier than non-religious people. Interestingly, it was found that Hindus score higher than Christians!

If all this is true than I may indeed call myself ‘happy’, as I am a Christian living in one of the happiest nations on earth.

However, we are left with some big questions.  The data of the Happiness Index tell us that the happiest countries on earth are also the most secular and least religious countries.  And even in those very happy countries lots of people lead very unhappy lives. Moreover, I know of many non-Christians who look a lot happier to me than many of the Christian believers around me. I cannot ignore that I also see many distinctly unhappy people in the faith community to which I belong.

I have travelled extensively in countries that top the list and in countries that are at the bottom of the list. I have the sense that perhaps too much weight is placed on the economic factors.  I have met many very content and happy persons in ‘poor’ countries, who do not have all the things we tend to associate with a happy life. And it would seem that religious faith often plays an important and positive role in their lives and makes them surprisingly happy.

When all is said and done, I do indeed consider myself fortunate—in spite of the worries and concerns that I do have. Together with my wife I live in reasonable comfort. We are still in relatively good health and continue to live an interesting and fulfilling life. We give and receive love and attention from people far and near. We are part of a pleasant local church community.  Yes, we are privileged and have much to be grateful for—certainly when we compare our situation with most other people—in particular in other parts of the world. But, whatever the Happiness Index says, I remain convinced that for us the religious component is and remains an essential component of our happiness.

 

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A good week

 

When I went to bed last evening at around eleven the picture was already quite clear. What many had feared did not happen. Populism did not win in the national elections. Admittedly, the far-right is still too strong, but its leader, Mr. Geert Wilders, will have to  accept the reality that he only won 13 percent of the Dutch vote. It looks like Mark Rutte will once again become the prime minister—that is, if he succeeds in putting a coalition together that has enough support in parliament. He has shown to be a capable leader. That does not take away from the fact that I would have preferred a more progressive leader from the left side of the political spectrum. Altogether, however, I am greatly relieved.  I hope that the Dutch choice will send a clear signal to other countries in Europe with upcoming elections that they can also help to stop the further rise of this dangerous populism.

Since my wife and I arrived home last Sunday evening after a conference near the German city of Frankfurt, and, immediately following, an assignment in the beautiful Belgian city of Gent, I have been very busy in preparing for other events: a sermon and a presentation, next Saturday, in Denmark (with a visit to Danish friends), for the Day of Dialogue in the Adventist Church in Utrecht on March 25, and presentations in early April in Orlando, Florida.  As the Dutch say: It keeps one off the streets! But it means, unfortunately, that right now I have no time for a long blog with some deep thoughts!

Other things also demanded attention in the past few days. DHL delivered the first boxes with the French edition of my book, entitled FACE AU DOUTE. The promotion has started and the books will be available through amazon.fr from April 3 onwards. The work on the German translation has now begun. It is in the hands of a very capable and experienced editor. In consultation with him I have revised some elements in the manuscript. This does not result in changes in the message of the book, but the order of some of the chapters has been changed and some things have been clarified. Coming Sunday or Monday I will meet with the folks in Denmark who help realize a Danish edition–which we hope will be ready within a few months from now.

So, it was a busy but very satisfying week. For myself, but also for the ‘great’ country in which I live!

 

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