Last week it felt mostly like vacation. Together with my older sister from Canada and her husband, my wife and I spent a few pleasant days in Maastricht and the surrounding area (in the far South-East of the Netherlands). My Facebook followers may have read about our adventures. The week ended with a meeting with a discussion group on Saturday afternoon in Amersfoort, where I had been invited to give a presentation about my recent book FACING DOUBT.
In the past week I had to catch up with a number of things. Not only was there a substantial backlog in answering emails, but the Netherlands Union (the Adventist Church in the Netherlands) also sent me a 10.000 word document in French, with the request to produce (rather quickly) a Dutch translation.
Yesterday (Thursday) was, in several ways, a special and in emotional day. It started quite pleasantly. I had agreed to meet with a colleague in a restaurant, not far from the office of the church. This colleague wants to organize a get-together—for part of a day or a full day—for people who have a sense of being ‘on the margins’ of their church. It would be an occasion of talking together and of delivering a message to them that they also truly belong to the church and that there must be space for them—in spite of their questions and concerns. In the coming weeks and months the plans will be further worked out, with the intention of organizing the event in February at a central location in the country.
But, upon arriving home, I opened my laptop and read the sad news that the wife of Wim Altink, our union president (and friend), had died. Just a few days ago my wife and I had visited Els and Wim. Her condition had clearly deteriorated since we last saw her, but even days ago there was still the hope that a new treatment might work. That was not to be so and Els at last lost the battle of more than ten years against her vicious cancer. The rest of the day my thoughts continued to return to Els’ death and it kept me from sleeping during a substantial part of the night. What remains is the sense of powerlessness to help and the fact that words remain totally inadequate.
A second event which greatly affected the rest of my day were the rumors from Silver Spring (USA), where next week the annual meeting takes place of the full General Conference executive committee. As usual, these meetings are preceded by pre-meetings of the top leadership of the church: the officers of the General Conference and the presidents of the world divisions. In the past few days a lot of concern has been caused by two rather lengthy documents that are to be the basis of discussions next week. They deal with the unity of the church and the necessity to confront the organizational units (conferences, unions) that ignore some church policies (read: that ordain women pastors, or refuse to ordain anyone). One comes away from a reading of these documents with the clear sense that the gender issue in the church has deteriorated into a blatant struggle for power. The top leadership of the church is determined (through a long and convoluted pious reasoning) to enforce its will on the entire world church. Whatever the cost! Initial reports from Silver Spring make us fear the worst. Will there be enough committee members who have the guts to speak up against the GC dictate, or has the culture of fear grown to the extent that most will remain silent?
It would seem that at the higher levels of the church open and free communication has ceased to exist. I experienced this myself at a lower level as a retired church worker. Last week I wrote a rather lengthy email to elder Wilson, the General Conference president. I pleaded with him to be aware of, and to care for, the many people in the church (especially in the Western world) who have doubts about aspects of their faith and are very concerned with some present trends in their church. Two days later I received a reply, written by the president’s personal assistant, on behalf of pastor Wilson. He replied that Wilson had carefully read my ‘cri de coeur’. That initial hopeful sentence was immediately, however, followed by a series of pious platitudes and hollow slogans, that in no way related on the content of my letter. No reply would have been better than this kind of reply. This reply was just a small demonstration of how real communication apparently has become impossible.
At this moment (Friday morning) I am getting ready to hit the road for a four-to-five hour drive to the German city of Kassel, where the North- and South-German Unions will this weekend hold their youth congress. I feel honored—but also slightly uneasy—that at age 74 I have been invited to present a number of workshops at a youth congress. My topic is: How do we see people who are ‘different’: A Christian view of homosexuality. I look forward to the experience and hope that I can help at least some young people in forming a reasonable and informed opinion.