Why I’m a seventh-day adventist. Lowercase.

Towards a more thorough understanding of identity.

Recent events in the Seventh-day Adventist Church have left me and many others question their relationship with the organization.

But my faith is about more than just the organization, which led me to think about a way to explain the different aspects involved, and how the sum of these dimensions makes up our identity.

For this purpose, I will split religious identity into four dimensions:

  • Theological: The faith, the credo, what you believe.
  • Liturgical: The practices and traditions involved in corporate worship.
  • Ecclesiastical: The church structure and organization.
  • Socio-cultural: The habits, traditions, and common memories which define a subculture.

There may be ways to measure these in a scientific manner. For now, however, I will stick to a gut feeling. And this chart illustrates where I currently stand on each of these, on a five-point scale:

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A higher number denotes a higher level of fidelity to official or mainstream Adventism. Let me explain me reasons for each.

Theological

I believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and I share the Apostolic Creed with my fellow Christians in every other church.

Furthermore, I identify strongly with the two themes implied in the name “seventh-day adventist”: the blessing of a weekly day of rest on Saturday, and a belief in the physical return of Jesus to earth to restore humanity to a glorious future.

I also share the traditional Adventist core of the four S’s: the Sabbath, the Second coming, the Sanctuary, and the State of the dead. So far so good.

As for the 28 fundamental beliefs, I may have issues with a few, hence the score 4 and not 5. But my faith is strongly rooted in the traditions of Adventist theology, and will continue to be so.

Liturgical

My upbringing and my heritage has been shaped by the worship traditions of Adventist churches in Denmark and the US. This worship style is well-known to me, and for the most part I like going to church.

But worship style is also in upheaval. I have seen – and helped – the spread of praise worship, which is different from my childhood experiences. On the other hand, I have come to appreciate the liturgy in the Danish Lutheran Church through many years of playing and singing.

So I am not fixated on one style, hence a 3.

Ecclesiastical

This is really the pain point right now. And as I’ve stated previously, the actions of the current General Conference leadership go against their protestant roots and traditional Adventist theology on the role of the church.

If the church as an institution has a special, sacred, prophetic place, then that church is Rome. But Reformation thinking rejects that claim. There is indeed a sacred place for church – but church as in people meeting together, with every person a minister.

One strain of thought in Adventism holds that the Adventist Church has a unique position as a “remnant” of the few righteous. I do not share this thinking, and strongly reject that salvation is unique to one particular version of Christianity.

This also means that I feel no obligation to the Seventh-day Adventist Church as an institution: it is no more sacred than its actions. In the current climate, this is a 1.

Socio-economic

I know people who cling to the subculture of Adventism and eagerly support many of its activities, but only half-heartedly participate in actual worship activities, and never profess their faith publicly.

I’m probably more the opposite.

I have a lot of memories and shared experiences with people in the church subculture. But my life has moved on. I don’t talk about Vejlefjord (academy) all the time. I don’t particularly love church properties, except for their function and occasional slight nostalgia. And my close friends are not necessarily centered around the church, as they might have been previously.

I do celebrate and appreciate the Sabbath, but to me that’s not subcultural but theological, and an essential part of my faith.

So as the subculture has come to mean less for me, this is a 2.

Conclusion

This explains why, as stated in the title, I identify as a seventh-day adventist (lowercase), but not so much as a Seventh-day Adventist (uppercase).

The adventist faith and theology is important to me. But the things around it, all the man-made structures, are less important, and in times like these they are dispensable.

Where do you stand on the four dimensions?

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Vive la résistance

There is intelligent life in the White House, after all. What about Silver Spring?

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Yesterday’s op-ed in the New York Times was one of the most interesting, and heart-warming pieces of news recently. Yes, you heard me right.

nytimes_opedInteresting, sure. An anonymous senior White House official points the gun at President Trump, essentially saying: we know he’s amoral and erratic, but we are working behind the scenes to contain the damage and counter some of his worst tendencies. Trump has responded in his usual manner, shouting and threatening on Twitter. The circus continues.

But what makes this heart-warming is the fact that even Trump’s supporters are aware of the reality. Even if you blinded yourself to believing in the man, this op-ed shows us that there are still people in power who want to work for what’s best for the country.

Things may not change overnight, but this gives me hope.

Church politics gone sour

I have previously mentioned the ongoing political theatre in the Adventist Church, which I am a member of. And I have compared General Conference President Ted Wilson to Donald Trump – not for his morals, but for his ignorance of the limits of power, and lack of respect for democratic institutions.

Next month, the church’s world leadership will meet for their Annual Council, and following last year’s failed attempt at forcing unity, an inquisition-like setup of oversight committees is once again on the agenda.

Where is the op-ed from within the General Conference office?

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We probably won’t see that, but I have to believe that not everyone is happy with the president’s warmongering. It would not surprise me if – like in the White House – a large group of church officials are silently playing along, but doing their best behind the scenes to mend some of the wounds which the president’s actions are creating.

Silent majority

The president can be a Democrat or a Republican, a Conservative or a Liberal, I don’t care. But a president should not be authoritarian and despotic, whether he is president of a country or a church.

Yes, Trump got elected. But I still believe in the American people. I choose to have faith that a silent majority of Americans cannot abide this man’s values and actions.

Similarly, I choose, for now, to have faith in the Adventist Church. I have to believe that a silent majority cannot abide by the divisive, un-democratic behavior of its highest elected official, but have hopes and intentions that transcend political games.

Peace on Earth

In the spirit of Christmas, Jerusalem is once again the battle ground for world politics, while decisions made the past few weeks in Washington, New York, and Pyongyang threaten the existence of us all. What else is new?

Ironically, Jerusalem can be said to mean “The City of Peace”, bearing the same root as the word shalom (Hebrew) or salaam (Arabic). That has certainly not been the experience of the actual city.

When the angels sang over a field outside Bethlem some 2,000 years ago, they could be forgiven for hoping that things would now change for the better.

Only 70 years later Jerusalem was burned to the ground, however. And through two millennia its fate has been more hotly contested than most cities on earth.

When I was younger I had an idea that a well-placed nuke over Jerusalem would take away the root cause of many of this world’s conflicts, never mind the collateral damage. It’s probably not that simple, but the battle continues.

“Peace on earth, good will to men.” What did we miss? Why are we still celebrating the occasion, singing that same tune?

What happened to the promise of peace?

There is no peace on earth. The American poet H.W. Longfellow put it as starkly when during the Civil War he penned the tragic poem Christmas Bells:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Wasn’t Jesus supposed to put an end all that? The prophets predicting his arrival sure hoped so, calling the Messiah the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), or saying, “He will proclaim peace to the nations.” (Zechariah 9:10)

Even Jesus himself expressed a desire for a better way when he said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

But the quote above is also one of resignation. An earthly restoration of peace was not possible, even if that was what his followers initially hoped for. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” said a disillusioned disciple a few days after his death (Luke 24:21).

Killing all the children

What then remains as the legacy of the Messiah? Good teachings of how to live your life? Love thy neighbour, and all that? If that was it, was it really worth it?

Consider the massacre of Bethlehem, a detail of the Christmas story we try not to focus on too much. King Herod, in fear of a supposed usurper, orders the killing of all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem.

Just picture that for a moment. Not even Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones could muster a cruelty of that magnitude.

It would be quite understandable if this tragedy spawned a certain resentment towards the one baby who survived the massacre from the families who suffered such a terrible loss.

Shalom incarnated

In earthly terms, it makes no sense. There is no peace on earth. But what the angels meant was something different.

First of all, peace is much too narrow a term to appreciate the full meaning of shalom. Secondly, it has a person as a focal point: God’s shalom has been incarnated, sowing a seed of love in the midst of a war zone.

But the mission was not to oust the Romans. It was not a restoration of Israel’s glory. It was not even a limited peace to the city of Jerusalem. The mission of the Messiah was grander: it was a restoration of all of humanity.

In a 16th century Christmas carol, Robert Southwell writes:

This little Babe so few days old
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He Himself for cold doth shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.

On Earth as it is in Heaven

Rome is not the enemy, neither is Palestine, or North Korea for that matter. The enemy is evil itself. Concepts such as God’s Own Country, Holy City, Holy Land, and the like become obsolete with the Christmas message of the Messiah extending God’s peace to all the world.

We have not yet seen the end of this. The joy of Christmas is not peace here and now. Obviously. But what we do celebrate is the coming of hope: The First Advent gives us tangible proof, through the Son of God incarnate, that the Second Advent is more than just a fantasy. And one day there will be peace, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

The Legacy of Luther and Adventist Authority

Calling out power abuse is just as relevant today as 500 years ago.

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Anniversaries always come short of the actual event. How do you do justice to the magnitude of the Reformation, which began 500 years on this day? Answer: you don’t. Not in a single blog post, at least. Others have celebrated and commented throughout the year, for the legacy of the event is pervasive and has many threads.

The impact of the Reformation on Western thinking is indisputable, and not just in the field of religion. Max Weber’s thesis on the spirit of capitalism, while disputed, remains seminal in understanding the world we live in, for instance.

Dealing with Adventist dissent

In this post, however, I will comment more specifically on the issue of religious power. It is ironic and sad that in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which I am a member of, this issue should become one of full-blown conflict this year.

Adventists proudly see their movement as a continuation of Protestant ideals, continuing to question the status quo and search for ideas and theologies truer to the original Biblical intent and free of centuries of human degeneration.

Ellen G. White, the thought leader of the movement in the 19th century, described Luther’s adversaries with descriptions like this: “Crafty ecclesiastics, interrupted in their work of sanctioning crime, and seeing their gains endangered, were enraged, and rallied to uphold their pretensions.” And on his banishment from the Church, she penned: “Not a trace of Christian principle, or even of common justice, is to be seen in the whole document.” (GC, pp. 130, 134)

JanPaulsenThis is not far from the words of former church president Jan Paulsen, who recently stated: “I do not see the hand of God in this.”

His words came during a recent debate on how the world church deals with ‘dissent’. The apparent issue is the ordination of women, but that issue has become almost secondary to how the global leadership chooses to approach the discussion.

Matthew Quartey summarized it bluntly in the independent magazine Spectrum: “Our president’s seven-year leadership has been a continuous tugging at the seams of our togetherness.  He has prioritized his antipathy toward women in ministry over the church’s higher goal of mission. He has spent more time and resources engaged in this private campaign than focusing the church on what truly binds us.”

Open or closed leadership?

While women’s ordination is the battle ground, the overarching point here is authority. Any organization needs leadership, sure. But you can choose to lead like a dictator or like an apostle.

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The sitting president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is an American, brought up in the system, and his actions convey an overarching goal of not rocking the boat. He pursues unity at any cost, ignoring the paradox that forcing unity destroys openness, which in turn damages commitment and encourages more dissent.

Even more alarming is the apparent ignorance of any limitations to his power. You will find this tendency anywhere, but perhaps it is especially American: If you are given any position of power, you believe you have the right and mandate to do and decide anything.

Donald Trump also acts like this, neither understanding nor accepting the democratic ideal of checks and balances. If you claim to listen to the people, then you need to do it properly; otherwise call a spade a spade and eliminate the illusion of democracy altogether.

The Adventist Church has prided itself in its ‘democratic’ institutions, but there are many limits to how much the people actually decide. And these years even those institutions are under attack from a leadership who wants to centralize, dictate, and enforce.

The Lutheran Church in Denmark, for all its shortcomings, may have chosen a better path. It has a collective of bishops, but no central leadership. Its political leader has no say in matters of theology. While the church is defined as keeping to the Apostolic Creed and Luther’s writings, nobody is able to speak on behalf of the church.

I can see the Biblical and Reformation merit in this approach. Power to the people – a priesthood of all believers – nobody is exalted above others.

Pope or no pope?

George Knight, a well-known figure in the church and arguably a ‘prophet’ for our times, has given a thorough analysis of the situation in a recent paper. He describes the predicament of the church president thus:

“Obviously, what is needed is a new policy that allows the General Conference president to initiate actions against anybody deemed deserving of such attention. Such a policy, of course, would be a major step toward papalism and unrestricted kingly power. […] The October 2017 meetings may help the worldwide Adventist Church decide whether it wants to move more toward an Adventist Ecclesiology or toward a more Roman Catholic variety.”

I am no expert on the theology of the Papacy, but seen from the outside, it makes sense as a coherent system. Putting the authority of the Church over, or alongside, that of the Bible is a valid belief, and if you hold that belief you also accept that authority.

Protestants, however, have no such luxury: putting the Bible unequivocally as the highest authority does not allow for an authoritarian system. Rome claims a legitimate authority over all believers. Protestant denominations may very well represent the body of Christ, but with sola scriptura any attempts towards papal authority in these institutions are theologically void, and must be called out as human power-grabs.

I don’t really want a pope. But if I had to pick one, I would choose the one in Rome, not the one in Silver Spring, MD.

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The great convergence of fear

As Halloween transcends borders and beliefs, everyone but Rome is becoming more catholic.

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Pope Francis visits Lund, Sweden today, to ‘celebrate’ the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Ironic? Welcome to 2016.

It is no coincidence that this happens on Halloween. Because when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the All Saints’ Church (sic) in Wittenberg, breaking the Catholic Church’s monopoly on salvation, it is believed to have been on exactly this date, 499 years ago.

So what is it with Halloween? The feast has come full circle, with roots in Celtic harvest festivals as well as early Christianity, crossing the Atlantic, and now hitting Europe full force as a dumbed-down, Americanized celebration of saints, death, fear, scariness, candy, and pumpkins (at least we’re now also eating the pumpkins).

This is convergence – everything melting together. And nobody seems to remember that Danish Protestantism had actually retained an All Hallows’ Eve event in its curriculum with church services and the like.

Which in itself is strange, since the whole concept of Saints was one of the things the Reformation rebelled against. Nobody, living or dead, should have ‘special status’ according to God. And the Church should not wield its power by installing fear (of Hell) in its subjects.

As a good protestant I was brought up to fear Rome, not spirits. Halloween becomes a non-event when you don’t believe in ghosts, but await a physical resurrection of the dead at the end of time. The Catholic Church, however, was seen as a real, potential enemy, distorting the ways of God. Clergymen should not be people of power, and any human should have direct access to God.

When Catholics and Lutherans attempt to bridge the centuries-old gap today, it will be a cause for alarm for some. On the other hand, the Catholic Church has changed a lot since 1517, and burying the axe is not a bad thing.

Breaking down barriers – convergence – is true to the original meaning of the word catholic: universal; all-encompassing. Catholic uppercase has a different connotation, however.

An editorial in the usually very secular Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten has some interesting points: They note the fascination with the pope, but also remind us that “in Lutheran eyes the pope is no more, no less Christian than the congregation.” They also remind their readers that “the [Danish] Lutheran People’s Church differs from the Catholic Church  by having room for differences, and that nobody can speak on behalf of the church.”

While the Pope is reaching out across differences, my own Seventh-day Adventist Church is becoming more and more Catholic in its actions; at least at the top organizational level it is no longer a movement, but an elite of the few with the ‘correct’ views, attempting to wield undue power over their flock.

Convergence. Old fault lines disappearing, organizations becoming that which they rebelled against, and new consensuses appearing.

My reaction is not to fear, even though today is Halloween. Rather, I will quote the “Litany of fear” from Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune:

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Also that is convergence – finding inspiration in a fictional religion set in a distant future. Where will we be 500 years from now? Let’s not worry about that.

Women treated badly

On Donald Trump, women’s ordination, and basic human dignity.

Last week was not a good week for women.

Even as Poland’s government listened to the massive public outcry and backed down on their demeaning anti-abortion law, the good news did not continue.

It began with the surfacing of Donald Trump’s degrading remarks which amount to nothing short of sexual abuse. Understandably, the old radio clip caused outrage among Republicans and Democrats alike, while the nominee himself not only didn’t back down, but fanned the flame with further outbursts.

Then Nigerian President Buhari said, during a visit to Germany, that his wife belongs in the kitchen. She had had the nerve to criticise him in public.

And finally, back in Washington, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which I am (still) a member of, held its ‘annual council’, a synod of sorts. On the agenda was perceived dissent among several local constituencies, the issue being women in church leadership. The world church officially rejects the ordination of women; however churches in Northern Europe and elsewhere have tried to circumvent the decision to allow for equal rights. The end-game has yet to conclude, but there is a real fear that last week’s decision is essentially a power-grab by the elected few, which brings this movement many steps closer to the papacy they claim to reject.

It defies logic that something as random as your gender should have such a big impact on your destiny. For millennia – with varying excuses – men have felt justified in treating women as inferior, one way or another. In some countries we have come some way in rectifying the issue, but the global challenge remains in applying basic dignity to half of our fellow humans.

Last Tuesday marked the International Day of the Girl. And as the father of two, the fight is now also personal. We all want to create a society for our children that is better than the one we inherited ourselves. Let us do just that – and once and for all break away with the glaring inequalities that remain.

When Jesus said, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” he was referring to anyone wrongly deprived of their place in society. Obviously, this should also apply to gender.

It seems fitting to quote newly honored Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan: “As the present now will later be past; The order is rapidly fadin’; And the first one now will later be last: For the times they are a-changin’.”

Let’s hope so. At least Michelle Obama got it right in her speech:  “It’s about basic human decency. It’s about right and wrong. And we simply cannot endure this, or expose our children to this any – not for another minute, and let alone for four years. Now is the time for all of us to stand up and say enough is enough. This has got to stop right now.”

Rising From the Dead?

It’s Easter. Yellow bunnies, eggs, roast lamb and time off work. Great stuff. But what about that other thing? You know, God dying and all that?

In hugely secular Denmark, Easter is still the one time of year when Christianity does seem to gather some general interest, if only for the traditions. There are still people who may call themselves ‘spiritual’ or claim to believe in ‘Christian values’, whatever they are; but how many modern-day Northern Europeans believe literally in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on Sunday morning?

Does that really matter, you may ask? Can we not share the Christian message of love and peace without necessarily having to subscribe to a belief in a supernatural phenomenon that cannot be explained by rationally thinking people?

But that’s the whole point. It’s not supposed to be something we can explain. Even in the accounts from two thousand years ago, there was widespread disbelief. The closest followers of this man had given up hope. The first witnesses of the risen Christ were those with the lowest credibility at the time: women. The movement that Jesus had arguably started had died with him. What followed – the Christian church – was built solely on the belief that Jesus had in fact conquered death. Incredible, yes, but reality nonetheless.

Paul says: “If the dead aren’t raised, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless.” (1 Corinthians 15:16-17)

If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then there is no hope that we will be able to do so ourselves as humans. Without that hope, Christianity is moot. Without the hope of resurrection, the church is a bunch of traditions built on a lie, and not worth our time. There can be no church, no faith, without the resurrection.

If, however, we choose to grasp in faith that which we cannot explain rationally, then Easter morning carries a promise of hope that is without comparison. With all our advances and scientific revolutions, we are still no closer to conquering death. And nobody seriously believes that it is within our means to do so.

What happened on that morning two thousand years ago is still as unique, crazy and unbelievable today as it was then. I have chosen to believe, against the odds, in the hope that it is really true.