Suffering

 

How do you measure suffering? How do you measure the grief and the despair of the family and friends of the victims of the disaster with the MH 17.  The downing of the plane of Malaysian Airlines with almost 300 passengers—of whom 198 were Dutch—was a national disaster for the Netherlands and a national day of mourning was more than fitting. But the mourners were, first of all, those men and women who lost a partner, or lost their parents or their children. And those who will never again see their friend, their colleague, their neighbor.

The past week saw a lot of other misery in our world. In Taiwan a plane crashed which left 48 people dead and another plan disaster, in Mali, took 116 lives. During the past week hundreds of Palestinians were killed, together with dozens of Israelis, in an eruption of violence for which there appears no solution. Will will this region of the world ever see peace?

But, apart from this large-scale misery there were many men and women, also during this past week, who are struggling with the tumor and the viruses that seek to destroy their body. And this week there were also many who had to attend funerals or cremations.

When in your own situation things do not go as smoothly as you wished , the thought of al this suffering–this large-scale suffering, far off and nearby–helps to relativize your own discomfort. Almost three weeks ago my wife broke her right arm (at a nasty place and very painful) and also the little finger on her lefty hand. We had to cancel our holiday plans. We had planned to drive to Sweden this past week to be for a few weeks with our son and his family. But rather than being in Sweden my wife sits, quite immobile, in her desk chair (which she finds at present the most comfortable) and the most she can do is typing  e-mail message with two fingers on her i-Pad. And rather then enjoying the Swedish scenery, I am peeling the potatoes and attend to numerous other domestic chores that give me very little pleasure. However, even though I feel quite frustrated, I realize that my problem hardly qualifies as ‘suffering’—in comparison with the true suffering in the world.

And yet, in the midst of all the great problems and disasters we should not forget the real suffering that takes place also at a much smaller scale. For what may seem ‘small’ and ‘insignificant’ to me, may be insurmountable in the eyes of others. Earlier this week I made my customary morning walk—just a bit shorter than usual because of the circumstances I alluded to above. I met an elderly lady who walked slowly behind a walker. She clearly struggled to make her small dog,  that was tied to the walker, move along. He (I will assume the dog was male) did not feel like moving. I asked her whether she would be all right. She responded at length. I was told that the dog was already 13 years old and suffered of various ailments That morning she had not given her dog enough of his medicines. The dog would probably not live too much longer. But, she was already 83 and at that age it would hardly be responsible to get another one. So, before too long she would be totally alone . . .

The incident of the elderly lady with her elderly dog was of a totally different order than the long procession of 74 black hearses with as many coffins, making their way along the highway from  Eindhoven airport to Hilversum, where the forensic experts will do their difficult work. And yet, this was also real suffering . . .

 

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Rebecca

 

About five years ago I spent a month in Uganda, where I taught some intensives at Bugema University. Most of the students in my classes wanted to become pastors. But they were not the only ones who found their way to the guesthouse where I was staying. Dozens of  students, of various disciplines, came to me to explain their difficult financial situation. It was not so strange that they hoped that I, as a relatively rich person from the West, might myself be able to provide some help, or could perhaps find a sponsor for them.

I had been in such a position earlier. After all, I had worked in West-Africa for more than six years, and at that time there had been a constant stream of people asking me for assistance. But I knew that not all who ask for help need it equally urgently. So, when the Bugema students came to me, I asked them to put their request for help in writing and explain why they needed this help. I also wanted to know how much they could earn themselves during their study, and whether they would be able to work during the holidays and earn some extra money. I promised I would look at all the requests carefully, and would then select a few persons, for whom I would do what I could. I tried to explain that my own resources were limited. (In any case, I had paid the study books that my students needed for their classes out of my own pocket.) But I promised that for a limited number of Bugema students I would try to find sponsors.

When I wrote something about my stay in Uganda in the Dutch Adventist church paper, one of the readers offered to sponsor three students. He preferred to stay anonymous and asked me to care for all further contacts with the students.

I must admit that at times I am a bit skeptical regarding this kind of projects. But more than four years and more than ten thousand Euros later I am happy to report that it has not been in vain. One student in Business Administration has now finished his Bachelors degree and has received adequate assistance to finish his Masters. He has a good chance of employment at Bugema once he has finished his studies. When I was teaching at Bugema he was the one who brought my meals to the guest house and kept my living quarters in good shape. As the weeks went by, I got to know him better and decided that he ought to be on my shortlist for help.

Another student who made it to the list has finished his Masters and has now been working already for some time for ADRA in Mozambique as ‘monitoring and evaluation officer.’ From time to time he sends me an e-mail message, and invariably expresses his gratitude to the sponsor who made this achievement possible for him.

But then there is Rebecca Kwamboka Moses. She is a young Kenyan woman, who has a family. And yet she had the courage and the stamina to enroll at Bugema in Uganda (which is much cheaper than a college in Kenya would have been) for a theological education. At present she is back in Kenya (with her Bachelors degree)  and she has now almost finished  her Masters at a Kenyan university—all because she received help from the Netherlands. A few days ago I saw her emerge at LinkedIn: Rebecca Kwamboka: pastor at SDA Church. It is great to see how this woman reached her goal, thanks to her faith, her persistence, her intelligence, her family and her Dutch sponsor.

A few days ago I received her latest e-mail about the status of her master’s thesis (which is now almost finished). But she also reported something else. She is due to hold an evangelistic campaign in Kisii, a town in the south-western corner of Kenya, not far from Lake Victoria. Her immediate concern is to somehow raise the funds needed for her campaign. She needs a budget of between one thousand and fifteen hundred Euros.  I wonder whether there may be a reader of this blog who is able and willing to help. If so, let me know and I will share the instructions as to how the money will safely reach its destination. So far, the investment in Rebecca has borne ample fruit. I am sure that an investment in her work will also bring a rich dividend.

 

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The relative importance of penalties

 

[Thursday morning 10 July]  The Dutch dream is history. The national soccer team lost in the semi-finals against the Argentinians. Undoubtedly, there will be a lot of further scrutiny of this important match. Among the seventeen million inhabitants of the Kingdom of the Netherlands one easily finds ten million experts who can explain why the Dutch should have won.

I know very little about sports and only follow the major sportive events (such as the World Soccer Championships and the Tour de France that began a few days ago) only from afar. But inevitably one gradually learns a few things. In the past week I have finally understood what the term ‘offside’ means and why there may be a series of penalties at the end of a match that remained undecided.

However, even though I do not belong to those compatriots who drape the mirrors of their cars with orange, or wear an orange shirt, etc, or put orange banners along their balcony, I do by now know who is Arjan Robben and even began to feel some sympathy for Louis van Gaal. And, of course, I  hoped for finals between the Netherlands and Germany and a Dutch victory over the ‘Mannschaft’. Because, yes, winning against Germany remains very special . . .

Yet, it is a relief that it is almost over. The media were so dominated by the event in Brazil that there was hardly place and time for other things. (Even the Adventist media did not forget the world championship. I read a substantial article on the Adventist Review website about the ‘outreach’ activities of thousands of Adventist Brazilian volunteers, who distributed literature, meals, and drinks and hugged the soccer fans and tourists! Is this what is called ‘light evangelism’?)

From time to time during the past few weeks I watched an interview with some of the players and with commentators. One thing will remain with me from an interview with Tim Krul, the reserve-keeper whom van Gaal, quite unexpectedly, enlisted in the penalty-phase of the quarter finals between Netherlands and Costa Rica. By stopping two of the Costa Rican shots, Krul ensured a Dutch victory and became a national hero.

A day later Krul was interviewed on Dutch television. The journalist asked him what he considered the most beautiful moment of his life–suggesting that it must have been his accomplishment of the previous evening, when he gave the Dutch their victory. But no, when asked what had been the most sublime moment of his life, he  replied without hesitation: The birth of my little daughter!  I instantly turned into a fan of Tim Krul. At last, I thought, someone who is able to relativize this extravagant soccer-circus and knows what is truly important!

 

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Tolerance in practice

 

About ten years ago the Adventist Church in the Netherlands held its first ‘open day’.  Since I planned this event for the first time with my colleagues at the national head office of the church, the concept has somewhat changed, but it remains an important day in the annual church calendar.

When, last Sunday, I walked on the grounds around the office building, along the 40 or so stalls, I was once again struck by the diversity of the information, services and products that were on offer. And that was also true of the diversity of the sponsors of these market stalls.

Books have always been an important element of the ‘open day’. The official church publishers were present: the publishing department of the Netherlands Union and Stanborough Press (the Adventist publishing house in the  UK). In addition there were some independent organizations rooted in the right wing of the church, such as the Ellen White Foundation and the ‘christian book house De Haan.’  ADRA was, of course, very visible, but some other charity organizations (with or without a direct link with the church) had also rented a stall.  There was an abundance of  (mostly vegetarian) food. My wife and I left the ‘open day’ with a bag full of delicious food that the volunteers of the Adventist church in Huizen were adamant that we should accept without paying for it. Earlier in the day I had enjoyed a meat sandwich and twice I stood in line in front of the professional coffee-cart that did excellent business. The conservative Adventist Theological Society promoted its activities, while not far from their stall Kinship (the Adventist organization of homosexual people) provided information about its work.

As usual, the atmosphere was relaxed and pleasant. For most visitors it was a feast of meeting friends and acquaintances. The fact that, in spite of the pessimistic weather forecast, the sun persevered, also helped to create a nice atmosphere. But there was also another aspect—one which is perhaps not always present during similar Adventist events elsewhere in the world.

I appreciated how relaxed the organizers had been in assigning the stalls. The official church activities were given space to present themselves, but this privilege was also granted to initiatives that come from the right fringe of the church and to activities that might well have been banned in other places (such as Kinship and the coffee cart). Nowhere, however, did I hear any criticism about this. Yet, I am sure that not all visitors and participants felt (to phrase it euphemistically) affinity with all the products and initiatives that were available. But, apparently,  there is nowadays sufficient tolerance in our faith community that we can also give space to things that not all agree with–without adversely affecting the close bond that we have with one another.

I am sure there are many who, with me, are eager to further extend this climate of tolerance. It creates an atmosphere in which people can feel at home and where we can unitedly concentrate on the key elements of our message and mission.

 

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Back in Zeewolde

 

Our first week back in Zeewolde has almost ended. Our jetlag was, for some reason, probably a bit more severe than usual. It was a strange experience to skip the entire spring. We left for California when the winter had hardly ended, and now, upon our return, it is fully summer. But it is not difficult to pick up things where we left them And a not unimportant detail: our car started as soon as I turned the key. In fact, we simply transitioned from one pleasant phase to the next.

I have used the past few days to get a good grip in the things I plan to do in the coming months. I have appointments for some presentations and lectures, for a good number of sermons and have some plans for travel. But our first major project is our vacation (late July to early August) with our son and his family in Sweden. In addition, a few writing assignments are awaiting completion. All in all, quite enough to spend the rest of the year without any fear of boredom.

Today I spent most of the time working on a sermon. It gave me real satisfaction to focus once again on a new sermon. I did miss my regular Sabbath preaching appointments in my Loma Linda period. (But this was largely compensated for by the inspiring, alternative Sabbath school sessions that are initiated by dr. David Larson and dr. Roy Branson.) The sermon topic is the doubting John the Baptist, who wonders, while in Herod’s prison, whether he had been wrong all the time about who Jesus is. Then it deals with the reply of Jesus to John’s disciples and what this answer could mean for us when, at times, we wonder whether we can still rely on our faith and our church. In hope that on July 5 the church members in the Zeeland church will recognize some of their own experiences in my sermon and may find some helpful points in what I will say.

When last Monday I visited the office of the Dutch Adventist Church in Huis ter Heide, I was given a copy of a new book by Ellen White that I translated into contemporary Dutch. I would have liked to make the language even more contemporary, but I also needed to keep the expectations of the average church member in mind. Working on this book once again made me think about some aspects of Ellen White’s inspiration. This book (Christ’s Object Lessons) is a commentary on Jesus’s parables. It does not deal with any theological issues, but is of a purely devotional nature. Ellen White wrote the book in the context of a fund raising campaign that was to ease the debt burden of some of the schools of her days. While translating I often wondered in what ways this book essentially differed from the work of many other authors who have written on this topic. And at times it seemed to me that several people that I know could also have written such a book. But in that case, of course, the book would not have been inspired. Or would it? Anyway, it was good to see that the book looks attractive and that it is now available. Hopefully it will be a blessing for many readers.

I have now almost finished reading Hillary Clinton’s book (Hard Choices) about her four years as the Secretary of State of the USA. It has reinforced my feelings that she might be a good American president. However, what I think in far-away Zeewolde about her virtues and competencies will not have any influence on what happens in 2016.  I will, however, closely follow the election process, since I have always been keenly interested in American history and American politics. But, besides what I might think about Hillary and her political future, I found this book highly informative. It gives an excellent survey of trends, leaders and events around the world. Therefore I would highly recommend this book also to my fellow-Dutchmen.

 

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