uring most of my childhood and early teen years I lived in a Dutch windmill. Built in the 1630s, this tall, wooden structure with its thatched roof was used, together with dozens of other such windmills, to pump the water from a lake of roughly 6,000 acres and to transform it into a fertile polder.
At ground level of the building we had our simple living quarters: four small rooms with a total of about 600 square feet. Our family of three adults and four children had moved there because my father suffered from a debilitating illness and we were dependent on a small amount of social security. The fact that the rent was dirt cheap had inspired my parents to move from a regular house into our new abode.
I have often gone back to “my” windmill, and each time I visit—alone, with relatives, or with foreign visitors—I take many pictures. They are always the same. When I visit my two sisters in Canada I see the same pictures of “our” windmill on their walls as I have at home. A few years ago I was in a bookstore in the United States and saw a calendar of Dutch windmills. Lo and behold, “my” mill was on the front cover of the calendar. I bought several copies of it.
Once in Holland, Michigan, I happened to see a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of “my” windmill. It’s still sealed in cellophane. I knew I wasn’t going to put the puzzle together, but I couldn’t resist buying the thing. Perhaps it’s not so strange that I continue to have such an intense interest in windmills.
But at times I step back and force myself to look at the reality, and not simply cherish my nostalgic memories. As I think back I often tend to forget how cramped the rooms were, and how cold it was during the winter. I somehow seem to have forgotten that we had to get our drinking water from a neighboring farm, that we had no electricity and had to use oil lamps, and that we had an outdoor toilet. Picture postcards of Dutch windmills may make them look romantic, but I can assure you they did not make for very comfortable living.
The Past Is Past
When people in the church tell me they want to go back to Adventism of the past, I must conclude that they have fallen victim to an unjustified form of nostalgia. It seems to be part of human nature to look very selectively at our past and to sift out those things that were not so pleasant. We often seem to have an uncanny way of pushing those unpleasant elements far back into the recesses of our minds.
So when people say they want to go back to the church of the past, they, in actual fact, tend to work with a heavily edited version of the past, from which uncomfortable aspects of the past have been deleted.
The past has many good things we must hold on to. There’s nothing wrong in my regular visits to the windmill to take even more pictures. The windmill is linked to my personal identity. But I do well to also remember the disadvantages under which we lived, and to be grateful for the way our comfort in life has drastically improved since.
When people tell us they want to re-create the church of the past, they actually mean that they want to go back to the nostalgic, expurgated version of the past that they have created. There are many elements in our collective Adventist past that we must cherish. If we lose them we are in grave danger of losing major chunks of our identity. But if we think about it (and do a bit of reading) we will soon see that there are also aspects that were not worth keeping. In fact, as a church, we have every reason to be grateful that we have moved away from some of them.