About some good and some sad things

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.

 

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Two discoveries

 

In the past seven weeks—since the publication of my recent book FACING DOUBT (and of the Dutch edition)—I have received lots of comments from readers in the Netherlands, but especially also from the United States and Great Britain, as well as from numerous other countries.

It is great to hear that so many have not only read the book and found much with which they agreed, but have also indicated that the book helps them to deal with their doubts, concerns and insecurities. It makes me grateful and it strengthens my feeling that this is a worthwhile project.

The sheer number of positive reactions has amazed me. Quite regularly I am enthusiastic about books that I read, but I must admit that I seldom write a comment (even when I know the author personally). It has truly amazed me that so many people have take the trouble to get hold of my e-mail address (reinder@bruinsmas.com), have sent me a Facebook message or posted a comment on my Facebook page or on the special page dedicated to the book (@facingdoubt), while a few also submitted a comment to the Amazon.com or Amazon.uk websites. But in the process I have discovered two things.

Discovery number 1.

I thought that my book would most of all be of interest to those who are ‘on the margins’ of the church—people who hardly ever attend church and feel increasingly uneasy about the Adventist Church. However, I discovered that this presupposition is faulty and perhaps I should consider changing the subtitle of the book! Many people who are active in the church and do not plan to leave the church any time soon, tell me that they feel the book is useful for them. They are happy that I honestly and openly deal with matters that are not just of concern to their brothers and sisters ‘on the margins’, but are also very relevant for others who are in the midst of church life. Not everybody thinks that I have a fully conclusive answer to the questions I raise (and, of course, I did not pretend that I would have all the answers), but the book, they tell me, helps them to deal more satisfactorily with their questions and concerns. It was great to discover this.

Discovery number 2

My second discovery is that the culture of fear in the Adventist Church is even more widespread that I thought. When the book appeared I sent about one hundred complimentary copies to Adventist church leaders in the US and Europe. From a a few I received a note that they received the book and intend to read it. But for the most there is deadly silence, except some things that reach me through the grapevine. Some apparently feel that, though they cannot agree with everything I say, it is good that I actually try to open the discussions about the questions and concerns many members have. I have been told that one of the top leaders mentioned to a colleague that he felt that all church leaders ought to read this book. But to publicly say something positive about the book is apparently too risky. Doing so would raise suspicion and may well endanger one’s church position. I had not expected that this would play such a major role. Of course, I realize that leaders have to be careful in what they say about controversial topics and will not easily endorse books they fear are not totally kosher. But in the past few weeks my fear has considerably increased that leaders must at all costs stick to the ‘party-line’ and must not get involved in any theological or organizational issues. And this is extremely sad. I keep hoping that in the coming months some leaders will publicly say: ‘This book deals with issues and questions that we must talk about. Let us not be afraid for genuine dialogue. Let us not ignore the large numbers of people in the church who live with doubts and who are worried about present trends in their church, and let us provide them with the pastoral care that all God’s people need.’

I wonder whether in the coming months I will make some further discoveries!

 

 

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The Bible: reading before ‘studying’

 

In the past week I spent a few days in England. It is always a pleasure to drive through the rolling South-England countryside, to visit the ancient city of St. Albans (where I have lived a number of years) and to walk through its famous cathedral. To pop into the enormous Norrington Room of Blackwell’s bookstore in Oxford is the cherry on the cake. However, my real purpose for my visit to the UK was to present the “Diversity Lecture’ at Newbold College. My topic was: Difficult Conversations within Adventism.

As is normally the case, the audience had the opportunity to ask questions after the lecture. In answering these I made a remark about the necessity of reading rather than of studying the Bible. In the following days this remark started a life of its own on Facebook. What I meant to say was also touched upon in my recent book FACING DOUBT (pp. 175, 176).  Of course the study of the Bible—by professionals as well as by ‘ordinary’ believers–remains very important. But reading the text comes first. I emphasized this in the following excerpt from my book:

Reading the Bible

Adventists like to talk (or even boast) about studying the Bible. New members usually go through a process of Bible ‘studies’ to become acquainted with the ‘truth.’ We have our weekly Bible studies in the so-called Sabbath School. Early Adventism borrowed the Sunday School model from other denominations and adapted it, as time went by, to its specific needs. The institution of the Sabbath School has certainly helped in strengthening biblical literacy among the church members. But more and more Adventists are beginning to realize that this type of Bible ‘study’ often leaves much to be desired. Most of the quarterly ‘study guides’ are of a topical nature. A particular theme is selected, and then broken down into thirteen sub-themes. The author of the study guide selects a number of Bible texts that he feels say something about these themes, together with some quotations (usually from Ellen G. White) and some further explanatory comments. Very often the Bible texts are drawn together without much regard for context. The weekly Sabbath School study shows that the traditional proof-text method is still very much alive. And even when during a quarter a particular book of the Bible is studied, relatively little attention tends to be paid to its background, context and particular theology.

I have come to the conclusion that we should perhaps stop studying the Bible, and start reading the Bible—as a story that we want to follow from the beginning to the end. When we read a novel and enjoy the plot, we will not just select a paragraph here and there and combine these bits and pieces in a random kind of order. If we read a good book, we will want to follow the entire plot and are eager to know how it ends. In a way this also applies to the Bible. It is God’s story about his interaction with us and with the world. We do well to read it from beginning to end. We may perhaps skip a few pages (for instance the long genealogies) here and there (as we sometimes also do with ordinary books), but we will want to follow the story line. And the same is true for the separate sections of the Bible we usually refer to as the Bible ‘books.’ We will only get the full benefit from our reading if we read these sections in their entirety. And some are so short that we can easily read them in one sitting.

When we use this method, we may find that certain well-known texts do not actually say what we always thought they said. When read in isolation from their context we may come to a conclusion that is not warranted when we also read what precedes and follows the text. Even if we do not understand many of the things we come across, we still benefit from our reading by catching the over-all message of the Bible or a part thereof. Consulting books about the Bible, such as a good commentary, is certainly useful but it cannot take the place of the reading of the Bible itself. Unfortunately many Christians read more about the Bible than in the Bible.

 

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Another birthday

 

During the past week I celebrated my seventy-fourth birthday. I am deeply grateful that I have completed another year—in reasonable health and together with my wife Aafje. I do not see this as a matter of fact. Many people (and couples) do not get to live that long together. And it is not just ‘normal’ that I will be given many more good years in good health—even though I hope so.  That things may be different I realized once again today, upon receiving an e-mail from a former colleague in the US, who is about the same age as I am. He wrote that he has just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. My grandfather—another Reinder Bruinsma—lived to be (only) seventy-five years old. My father died when he had reached just fifty. At the time of his death his marriage with my mother had only lasted some sixteen years. Aafje and I can now look back on almost 52 years of happy marriage. It is good to view one’s life from time to time from such a perspective. Gratefulness is the reaction that fits best with this experience.

I received numerous congratulations on my birthday–from my loved ones and relatives, but also from countless others. Of course, I realize that it has become very easy to say ‘happy birthday’ through Facebook. Every morning Facebook reminds its members who among your ‘friends’ has his/her birthday on that day. But your ‘friends’ do not have to send you a birthday greeting, with or without a picture or a few personal remarks. It truly surprised me that almost 250 of my ‘friends’ took the effort to congratulate me. This also is a reason for gratefulness, for it indicates that I continue to mean something to many people.

The past year of my life has been quite full—with assignments during travel, with almost weekly sermons, and. especially translation jobs and writing projects. Since February of this year a substantial part of my time has been absorbed by the writing and promoting of my  book FACING DOUBT: a book for Adventist Believers ‘on the Margins’,  together with a Dutch edition. It has caused a lot of discussion. I received some negative but many positive reactions from many countries. I am grateful that I had the energy needed to invest in this project.

As a new year of my life has begun, a number of activities in the Netherlands and elsewhere are already in my agenda. I suppose that within a few months I will begin to feel the urge to write another book. Several people have suggested that I should maybe venture out in writing a book about a christian view of homosexuality. It would seem that such a book is greatly needed in the Adventist Church. In the past few years I have given many presentations on this topic. A few weeks from now I hope to present a few workshops about this important theme at an Adventist youth congress in Germany. Do I have the courage to produce a book on that topic? I have found that sticking out one’s neck in the Adventist environment costs a lot of emotional energy. I will have to think it through quite carefully.

In any case—if my health keeps us, I intend to do a lot of reading in the coming twelve months. The stack of ‘to read’ books is getting higher again. And maybe, if in twelve months time, I may celebrate my seventy-fifth birthday, it would be a good idea to review where my spiritual and theological pilgrimage has taken me through the years. Maybe I will then organize a meeting with people of my generation, in particular my colleagues, where we can tell our story to each other and recount our spiritual journeys. Who knows!

A new year comes–one day at a time. I hope that I may receive a lot of inspiration and joy of life, continued health and the blessings from Above to make every day worthwhile.

 

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A return to the time of the pioneers?

 

A few days ago I saw the name of a new ‘ministry’ for the first time: DEB (=Declaring the End from the Beginning). This ministry has a special message for Adventist believers. I am not going to invest much of my time in studying this new group to acquaint myself with all the details of its message. I understand that the Old Testament prophecy of the 2520 days (=years?) plays a very important role. According to this group the correct interpretation of the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel and Revelation must conform to the ‘prophetic charts’ that were used in the nineteenth century Miller movement. Why?  Because it is claimed that Ellen White endorsed these charts!

I find it rather curious that an explanation of some 175 years ago—which clearly has many aspects that most Adventists no longer accept and which Ellen White did not follow in her own writings—must be our present-day point of departure. However, for a sizeable group of people the mere fact that a particular point of view dates from the time of the ‘pioneers’, is the ultimate guarantee of undiluted orthodoxy!

Soon the world will celebrate the fact that five hundred years ago Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the chapel of the Wittenberg castle—something that is now universally seen as the starting point of the Reformation of the church. This event will create a lot of attention for this period in church history. According to some Adventists who are interested in the Reformation period, the books by Jean-Henri Merle d’Aubigné, an eighteenth century church historian, are the best historical source. Why? Because Ellen White relied to a significant degree on this author when writing her ‘Great Controversy’ book. It seems that in the eyes of these Adventists, this invests d’Aubigné with a degree of derived infallibility. When studying church history we are supposed to  forget that since the days of Ellen White lots of new studies about the reformation period have been published; we must continue to be content with the books that the ‘pioneers’ had in their libraries!

In recent weeks I read (as I already mentioned in a previous blog) the biography of J.N. Loughborough, written by Brian E Strayer. On page 102 I found a remarkable statement which I decided to mark. Of course I knew of phenomena in early Adventist worship that most Adventists prefer not to be reminded of. This short description of a meeting, however,  brought  some frowns on my forehead. Subsequently James White described this meeting as one of the most inspiring ones he ever attended.

“As the group met for worship services, Hart, Everts and the Whites explained why the Laodicea message especially applied to Adventists als part of God’s last-day remnant church. Ellen White received three visions that week: one lasted half an hour, the other two for two minutes each. She appealed to her listeners to return to the Lord. Deeply convicted by the Holy Spirit, some shouted: ‘Glory! Hallelujah.’ Others wept, and still others spoke in tongues. J.N. Andrews and one woman present  were ‘prostrated by God’s power’, their bodies ‘limp as a piece of cloth’. . . . The meeting continued past midnight.’

This is just one illustration of how meetings of our early spiritual forbears might proceed. It may be interesting to read about it, but would we really want to go back to this kind of church, as it was established by our spiritual forebears more than a century and a half ago? There is much in our heritage that we must keep and that may continue to inspire us. But there is also a whole lot that we should definitely leave behind, if we want to be the kind of faith community that is able to communicate with people in the twenty-first century, in a relevant way. And that, after all, would be in the true spirit of the ‘pioneers’.

 

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