Why?

 

[Kramfors, Sweden, November 22].  Among the smaller adventures of life is visiting the bathroom in a home where you happen to be visiting or staying as a guest. In many cases the walls are quite bare and one finds only the essential objects within its limited space. At home in Zeewolde the smallest room of our house has on one of its walls a tray that was once used in a print shop but now houses a collection of small, funny, but admittedly rather useless objects. On the opposite wall the visitor will find a few shelves with some twenty different-sized flower vases . These may come in handy to accommodate bunches of flowers of different dimensions, but even after many years of experience I still bump my head against the bottom shelf  about once every three weeks.

In some toilets I discover books or magazines, or a booklet with sodokus or crossword puzzles. Sometimes the walls are almost totally covered with pictures or portraits of family members, or one finds a shelf with a collection of KLM miniature houses. In the toilet in the home of my son in Sweden, where I am staying since two days, I have the opportunity to study a framed poster that depicts the fifty common insects in Sweden (among them a few that I would hate to encounter). While seated I look straight ahead at a piece of paper in A4 format that contains a host of different questions in small lettering. The questions are in English. Why are there ants?  Why are ducks called ducks? Why do testicles move? Why are there no dinosaur ghosts? Why are there male and female bikes? Why do whales jump? Why etc. This is just a random selection of the host of questions that one can read if one’s eyesight is adequate.

Most of these questions, which I have been trying to decipher already a few times, are nonsensical. Yet they inspire me towards a few philosophical thoughts. For we are constantly surrounded by questions about how?, what? and why? It does not take us too much trouble to find answers to many of these questions. Or just a few moments of googling is all we nowadays need to do. Yesterday my son explained a feature of my smart phone to me that I had not yet discovered: Siri.  I had no idea about this facility that allows me to get an instant answer to many questions. Finding answers to other questions may at times require much more effort. Yet, we should be able to get many answers, if we were just willing to invest enough time and/or possess the appropriate tools.

In the sphere of religion and worldview many questions will remain unanswered—that is, if we expect ready-made scientific answers that can be proven by the use of logic and are verifiable through the use of our senses. Confronted with the deepest questions of our existence, we must be content with the answers of faith when it concerns life’s fundamental why-questions.

There is another sphere where a ready-made logical approach will not satisfy. I am thinking specifically about the concept of ‘family.’  What exactly produces the feeling in us that is associated with the concept of ‘family’? What causes our desire to regularly see those with whom we are family-related? And why is it so special so see your grandchildren when you have not seen them for a while, because they live far away?

I am currently enjoying the company of my two little granddaughters. Why are these two small girls, of three and a half and seven years respectively, so special—and so different from all other small children I happen to meet? It is not because they never argue with each other and are never even a little obnoxious. It is not because they are better and smarter in everything than all other children of their age.  And yet . . .

So, why are grandchildren so special? This question is not among the many why-questions I have been contemplating  during my visits to the smallest room of this house. In fact, I would not know how to answer it. But who cares? These kids simply are very special. That’s all that matters.

 

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A Festschrift

 

(Budva, Montenegro, Saturday evening November 15). In February of this year a request came from England.  This is what it is about: After dr. Bertil Wiklander had been the president of the Trans-European Division of the Adventist Church for some nineteen years, he had decided to retire per July of this year. A few members of his staff thought that he deserved a special honor in the form of a Festschrift—a more or less scholarly book with contributions from people scattered over Europe (and to a limited extent also from elsewhere), with whom he had cooperated closely over the years. However, someone had to be willing to actually do the work such a project involved. Since I myself had also worked closely with Wiklander for a considerable time (six years as the executive secretary of the division and five years as president of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands—I replied that I would duly consider the request. After some hesitation I informed the initiators that I was willing to take the job on. My hesitation was caused by the realization that this would be a major undertaking, and that this should be done within a relatively short period of time. It was the intention, so I was told, to present the book mid-November during the annual winter meetings of the full executive committee of the church in this region of the world.

Today is November 15. I am writing this blog in a comfortable room in the Splendid Hotel in the small state of Montenegro (North of Albania), where the annual meeting takes place. Yesterday my wife and I flew via Rome to this beautiful place. For a few days we hope to thoroughly enjoy the marvelous view of the Mediterranean Sea. Besides, it is very pleasant to see so many old friends. But we are not just here for tourism and personal enjoyment. Together with Rafaat Kamal, Wiklander’s successor, I presented this afternoon the Festschrift to dr. Wiklander. Is has become an attractive, 520 page book with the suggestive title:  Faith in Search of Depth and Relevancy.

Early March I sent letters to potential authors with the question whether they would be prepared to contribute an essay of ca. 7,000 words about a topic in their area of expertise. The response was heartwarming. Eventually there were no fewer than 30 men and (a few) women who promised to send a contribution. So, with my own piece, this resulted in a total of 31 chapters. I had given July 15 as the deadline (knowing that some would need a bit more time), leaving me just enough time for the editorial process and the production of the book. Some 500 e-mails later and many hundreds of hours of editorial work (and in the end quite worried about getting the book ready in time!) I could yesterday hold a finished copy in my hands. Thus today, according to the original plan, we could present the Festschrift to Bertil Wiklander.

It certainly gave great satisfaction to see Wiklander’s surprised face and listen to his words of appreciation. But, fortunately this volume is more than just a present given to someone at a specific occasion, and that is then brought home to be put in a closet. The thousand or so copies that have been printed will be read by people around the world. I am almost sure that some of chapters of this book will be quoted in publications by other authors.

I must admit that it is a relief that we have succeeded in making a nice book that will prove to be worth reading (and that appeared on time!). For the last two months, since the finished manuscript went to the printer, I have been able to focus again on other projects. In the past week I have been able to resume work on a new daily devotional that is due next year, so that the Dutch people can start using it per 1 January 2016. Writing three hundred and sixty-six short devotional messages is quite a challenge. After adding this past week twenty to the fifty that I had already had written some time ago, it brings the score to seventy. Before I return home next Tuesday I hope to have added another ten. I have made a schedule for the next five months that I intend to stick to. This time it is not about pushing other people but about a little self-discipline.  As long as no other Festschrift calls for my attention, it should be doable.

 

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Kellogg—a fresh perspective

 

John Harvey Kellogg is—perhaps after Ellen White—the Adventist with the greatest international fame. But opinions vary widely. Some continue to regard him as a genius and great reformer, while others rather see him as a charlatan and quack.  Visitors to Battle Creek, a town in the American state of Michigan, immediately see the towers of the immense building that currently is in the possession of the US government but once was an important part of the Kellogg’s Sanitarium. They cannot fail to be impressed.

For the general public the name Kellogg is mostly connected with cornflakes—invented by the ingenious Dr. Kellogg, but made into a commercial success by his brother Will Keith. Even today the Kellogg Corporation is one of the most important employers of Battle Creek.  Adventist visitors to Battle Creek will, however, be especially interested in the historic homes and other buildings which form a small open-air museum featuring Adventist beginnings. [1]  There one can also find the John Harvey Kellogg Discovery Center that houses all kinds of the instruments and installations that were developed by doctor Kellogg.

Much has been written about John Harvey Kellogg. Of special interest is the biography by Richard W. Schwarz. Written as a doctoral dissertation, it was  adapted and re-published in 2006 by the Review and Herald Publishing Association.[2] The book recounts the riveting story how this protégé of James and Ellen White was appointed, at age 26, as the leader of the newly established Western Health Reform Institute. This was the beginning of a long career that brought him and the institution he built ever increasing fame.

The book also deals, however, with the tension between the doctor and his church, that grew ever more severe and eventually led to a parting of the ways. In this context special emphasis is given to the publication of his book The Living Temple,[3] in which Kellogg painted a picture of God  that soon earned him the accusation of pantheism. When one studies this episode of Kellogg’s fascinating life, one cannot escape the impression that, besides theological concerns, all kinds of other aspects were playing a role, such as a clash between personalities and power. (It is rare that theological controversies only concern theology!)

Lots of publications about John Harvey Kellogg have appeared over the years. The most popular of these may well be The Road to Wellville[4] that formed the script for a movie with the same name in which Anthony Hopkins played the part of Dr. Kellogg. The book as well as the film received very few positive reviews—and rightly so. In no way did they do justice to this admittedly peculiar, but imaginative and creative personality.

At this very moment professor Ronald Numbers is working on a new and ‘definitive’ biography of Kellogg. His experience and reputation as a historian guarantee that this will be a most interesting and reliable work.

Very recently another book about Kellogg came off the press. I happened to hear about it and ordered it straight away. A few weeks ago Amazon.com arranged for the book to slide through my letter box. I have now read it. In this book  Brian C. Wilson, professor of comparative religion at Western Michigan University, describes (in more detail than anyone did before) the religious ideas that inspired John Harvey Kellogg. Of course, Wilson also deals at length with The Living Temple. But he places it in a wider context. He shows how gradually Kellogg developed a vision that one might call the ‘religion of biologic living’ .[5]  Wilson does not belong to the Adventist church but is intimately acquainted with the Adventist environment in which Kellogg lived and worked during a major part of his career. He displays a great measure of objectivity.

For me this new book was a tremendous eye-opener with regard to the thinking of Dr. Kellogg that more and more guided him. I warmly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the history of Adventism and in the role of Kellogg in particular.  The 240 pages of this thoroughly researched and captivating book are fully worth the forty dollars or so that one must pay to acquire it.

 


[2]  Richard W. Schwartz, John Harvey Kellogg: Pioneering Health Reformer (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2006).

[3]  John Harvey Kellogg, The Living Temple (Battle Creek, MI: Good Health Publishing Company, 2003).

[4]  T.C. Boyle, The Road to Welville (Viking Penguin Books, 1993).

[5]  Daaraan is dan ook de titel van het boek ontleend:  Brian C. Wilson, John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living (Bloomingtin, IN:  Indiana University Press, 2014).

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Flanders Field

 

It was some twenty years ago that I first realized how terrible the First World War had been. In far away Australia I visited the War Memorial—a museum that pays a lot of attention to the Australian contribution to the Allied cause in the Great War (as WW I is referred to in many countries). During that visit I understood better than ever before that nations from all over the world were involved in this world-wide dispute. A few years ago I was, quite unexpectedly, also confronted with this same fact, as I was travelling with a group in Turkey. Our guide told us that near the Dardanelles more than one million soldiers lost their lives in Word War I.

There are, however, few places that are so moving, as far as the Great War is concerned, as Ieper in Belgium. In a part of southwestern Belgium and the North-West of France one finds dozens of war cemeteries, where hundreds of thousands of men and women from dozens of different nations have found their last resting place. The remains of the trenches in which the opposing armies were involved in an inhuman process of cruelty and senseless violence, still tell their macabre story. But it is, in particular, the Flanders Field Museum in Ieper that is unforgettable in its sadness. It is truly a fitting monument for the millions who lost their lives between 1914 and 1918. And, why and for what, in fact, did they die? Its subject matter would make the visitor even more downhearted, were it not for the magnificent medieval building, the famous Lakenhal, in which this museum is housed.

I have always loathed everything that has to do with war. As a boy I never liked books about war and I did not go to war movies. I was fortunate enough that I could escape the obligatory military service, since I studied theology—which at the time in the Netherlands provided a possibility to stay out of the army. But, had I been conscripted, I would have refused to bear arms. It always made me proud to belong to a church that was opposed to war and that advocated a non-combatant position.

To my deep regret, in many countries this Adventist tradition of non-violence has been watered down, or even changed into the opposite. This is especially true for Adventists in the United States, where so-called patriotic feelings have ‘inspired’ ever more men and women to serve their country by opting for a career in the military. A visit to Flanders Fields should be required for all fellow-believers who consider joining the army!

Yes, I know there are weighty arguments against radical pacifism. I must admit that I am happy that people are currently fighting the IS, and I would not want to live in a place where there is no police. But there are at least as solid arguments for resurrecting the Adventist tradition of non-violence. After all, in our world there are plenty of men and women who are prepared to take up arms. But there are always too few people who want to do everything to promote and model peace. Remember: Blessed are the peace makers. Real happiness is for those who pursue reconciliation and peace. They will be called children of God (Matthew 5:9). My visit to the Flanders Field Museum reinforced in me that long-held conviction.

 

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Intermezzo

 

As the first storms of the autumn were pounding the country, I spent, together with my wife, my sister from Canada and her husband, a few days in Friesland (Frisia), one of the northern provinces of the Netherlands. For our short family trip we had chosen an attractive arrangement in a hotel in Makkum, one of the smaller of the eleven Frisian cities. From there we explored the area. Friesland has lots of small, cozy villages and towns and offers a rich collection of small, and not so small, historic churches and a wide choice of museums, while there is no shortage of café’s and restaurants. So, all together the perfect recipe for a few nice days, in spite of wind and rain.

Every visit to Friesland inevitably awakens plenty of nostalgic feelings. This is where, in 1966, I began my career as a pastor, with responsibility for a small group of believers in Sneek, that assembled every week in a small rented room in the center of  town. I also assisted the pastor in nearby Leeuwarden, who had temporarily been incapacitated because of a fall from his roof. On my moped I sped from place to place through the wide open Frisian terrain to visit the members who lived all over the province and to check on the students of the Bible correspondence courses. It did not take long before I discovered that this can be a very unpleasant process in the midst of winter. So, I borrowed 1.600 guilders (about 750 euros) from the local bank to buy my first car: a second hand Renault Dauphine. It had already gone some 70,000 kilometers (quite a respectable amount of mileage in those days). I paid 2,000 guilders, while my salary at the time amounted to a meagre monthly sum of 600 guilders (gross).

These are the kind of nostalgic sentiments that arise whenever I visit the area of my first parish.

Having come home last night (Thursday evening), we are now, on this Friday morning, preparing for a little trip to Belgium. Tomorrow a ‘spiritual congress’ is to be held in Brussels, where Adventist church members from all over the country will meet for a day of fellowship. It will be a pleasant occasion where I will meet many people whom I got to know during my recent period of activities in Belgium.

I look forward to a good sermon tomorrow morning by Jean-Claude Verrecchia, a Frenchman, who teaches theology at Newbold College in England. In the afternoon I will present one of the workshops. My topic will be the role of doctrines. Why do we have them? How do they develop and how might they change over time? How many do we need? And: are all doctrines equally important? Fortunately, I had already prepared this presentation a few weeks ago. This leaves me today without worries.

We will stay for a few days with friends in Belgium. My readers will understand that this morning I had but little time for writing a new blog. It has therefore remained rather short. Next week there will, I hope, be a blog of ‘normal’ length—and with a little more depth.

 

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