The tears of Sara Sidner

On January 12, something remarkable happened during a live-broadcast of CNN. During a visit to a Los Angeles hospital, the reporter broke down in tears while reporting on the “New Day” program. Sara Sidner had interviewed Juliana Jimenez Sesma. In the space of eleven days, this woman lost her mother and her stepfather to Covid-19. Her mother’s funeral service had to be conducted in a parking lot. Sara could not hold back her tears when she told the viewers that this was the tenth hospital she had visited, and that she had heard this kind of heartbreaking stories everywhere. “It’s really hard to take! Sorry!” she said between her sobs.

I must confess that it deeply touched me when I saw this. More so than other pictures that we regularly see on TV, of overcrowded ICUs in hospitals, of rows of refrigerated containers being used as temporary morgues, and of fields with hundreds of freshly dug graves. Here was someone, who was used to seeing tragedies, but was now overwhelmed by emotion. It reminded me of two moments in the life of Jesus, when he was overcome by feelings of compassion. In Matthew 14, we read how Jesus tried to find some peace in a remote place. However, a large crowd was determined to see and hear him. When Jesus saw a “large crowd,” he “had compassion on them” (verse 14). A few chapters earlier, the emotion of Jesus as he saw the people around him is described even more poignantly. After Jesus had “passed through all the towns and villages,” proclaiming the good news in the synagogues and healing “every disease and every ailment,” we read, “He saw the crowds”, he had “compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless” (Matthew 9:35, 36).

In this time of Corona many things do not leave us unaffected, even if we ourselves have not been physically affected by the virus. Events like Sara Sidner’s tearful reporting touch us deeply. And for very many people, this also, again and again, raises the question of God’s role in this Covid-19 pandemic, which has now claimed more than two million lives worldwide.

N.T. (Tom) Wright, the British theologian who for a time also served as a bishop in the Anglican Church, wrote a book about God and the pandemic. It was immediately translated into Dutch. If you expect this author to have the definitive answer to the question of the exact role of God in this and other disasters that have affected humanity, you’d better keep the 15.99 euros that the book costs in your pocket. Many things that happen in our imperfect world are inexplicable. But before we blame God for anything, we must remember that the condition of this world is the result of what we as humans have done to our planet. In doing so, we cannot ignore the fact that many epidemics belong to the category of so-called zoonotic diseases that may “jump” from animals to humans. Covid-19 is one such zoonosis. There are still many questions about what exactly happened with respect to Covid-19, but, in general, we can say that the way we keep, trade, transport and consume animals poses enormous health risks.

Of course, such an observation does not begin to settle the question of God’s part in all the misery, including during the current crisis, that afflicts the world. But, says Wright, what God does in this world should never be separated from what he has done for humanity in Christ. In his compassion, God went to great lengths to restore wholeness to our human brokenness. That process, which he began in the life and death of Christ, he is going to bring to completion. Therefore, Wright continues, we should not constantly look back at what God may have or may not have done, but we must look forward to what he is still going to do about it (p. 32).

In the meantime, it’s okay to complain. A significant portion of the Psalms are lamentations, in which the poet, full of sorrow and sometimes with anger and reproach toward God, observes that an awful lot of things in the world, and in our lives, are not as they should be. And it is significant that there is even a book in the Bible called Lamentations. It is the record of the bitter lamentations of people who had ended up as disenfranchised exiles in Babylon.

The consolation that Tom Wright holds out to us, that, while things in the world are not as they originally were and should be, they will eventually become again what they should be–isn’t that a bit too meager a consolation? Or is his message perhaps a welcome and encouraging reminder that, even in this current crisis, in which even seasoned reporters may burst out in tears, many wonderful things are still happening?

As we read the Book of Lamentations, we suddenly come across in the third chapter these wonderfully encouraging words -words that we can also add to our complaints so many centuries later:
Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed,
For his compassions never fail!
They are new every morning;
Great is your faithfulness!

The phenomenon of cognitive dissonance

The American social-psychologist Leon Festinger (1919-1989) published in 1957 his now famous book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. The book resulted from his study of a bizarre cult led by Mrs. Marian Keech. She claimed that aliens from Planet Clarion would destroy the earth on December 21, 1954 through a massive deluge. Despite the fact that this prediction did not come true, almost all of Mrs. Keech’s followers continued to believe in her alien messages. They refused to admit that they had been wrong, but now claimed that through them the calamity had been averted. Festinger tried to find an explanation for this strange phenomenon. With his theory of cognitive dissonance, he wanted to explain how people tend to deal with new information that conflicts with their previous ideas. They usually experience considerable “psychological discomfort” because of this “dissonance,” and they can deal with thin two ways. They may decide to revise their previous ideas, or they may repress them and continue to search for information that can somehow confirm their previous ideas.

An oft-cited example of “cognitive dissonance” is that of the Watchtower Society. The Jehovah’s Witnesses proclaimed that Christ would return in 1914. But 1914 passed without this happening. Subsequent predictions of the time of Christ’s return (1915, 1918, 1923, 1925, and 1975) also proved false. Yet, this did not lead to the end of this movement, as frustrated members walked away en masse, despite the “cognitive dissonance” they experienced when the course of history proved to be at odds with their earlier theological convictions. The theology of the Witnesses was adjusted by the leaders and most members agreed. An important factor in this process was that many members had invested so much time, energy, and emotion in their movement that they wanted to cling to every possible argument to save their movement!

We saw a very striking example of cognitive dissonance recently in the United States in the QAnon movement. At one point the bizarre theory emerged that there is an underground network of influential pedophile individuals, who are guilty of abducting and even murdering children, and that Q-the anonymous leader who wants to expose this movement-must be supported by all means possible. On December 4, 2016, the heavily armed Edgar Maddison Welch stormed the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, DC, because he believed that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophile ring in the basement of this restaurant. However, Welch discovered that the pizzeria did not have a basement, that there were no pedophiles and that Hillary Clinton was also missing. Welch is now in jail, but the QAnon movement has not been discouraged by this. On the contrary. New “evidence” is continually brought forward as the thousands of followers continue to propagate the pedophile conspiracy of QAnon.

Cognitive dissonance does not always lead to the same result as in the cases of QAnon and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But Seventh-day Adventists have every reason to be aware of this phenomenon. William Miller’s movement completely splintered when the prediction that Christ would return on Oct. 22, 1844, proved false. A small number of Miller’s followers, who would form the core of the later Church of the Seventh-day Adventists, did, however, feel this cognitive dissonance and developed a theological explanation for the 1844 disappointment. This is now very far behind us, and the church has recognized from the outset that the theory of Miller and his supporters was incorrect. The vast majority of church members never want to repeat the mistake of setting a date for Jesus’ return. But even among Adventists, the problem of cognitive dissonance still regularly rears its head, when it appears that earlier theological assertions–particularly regarding prophetic predictions–can no longer be defended. One clear example will have to suffice.

In the past there were attempts in many originally Christian countries to enforce strict Sunday observance by means of legislation. The expectation that the celebration of Sunday would be mandated worldwide became an integral part of the Adventist end-time scenario. Eventually, refusal to recognize Sunday as a day of rest and worship would even become life threatening. The reality is that this expectation has not been fulfilled. Quite the opposite has been the case. It is, however, proving difficult for many Adventists to accept that this mortal clash between Sunday observers and Sabbath observers is more and more unlikely to happen. This produces considerable cognitive dissonance. Numerous church members continue to search diligently for statements by spiritual leaders, or activities by often obscure organizations that are fighting a rearguard action to promote Sunday sanctification. Adventist organizations on the fringes of the church continue to warn against coming Sunday laws…. In 1983, Jan Marcussen published his booklet A NATIONAL SUNDAY LAW, which was translated into many languages (including Dutch). Marcussen’s supporters have now distributed some 47 million copies of this book. Why do they put so much energy into this? Because it is very difficult to give up a position once taken, and to which one has become so attached. If a long-held position is no longer tenable, we must, individually and collectively, have the courage to resolve the cognitive dissonance by giving up such a position rather than clinging to it, often with contrived and far-fetched arguments.

Conspiracy theories

Thursday morning, January 7. Last night (Dutch time) I watched for several hours, in horror, the siege of the Capitol complex by a mob of thousands of Trump-supporters. It was more than disconcerting to see how a US president incited his followers to take their protest to a level of vandalism and of utter disregard for the norms of decency and for the laws of the land. The conduct of the mob was a sad result of what their leader had taught them over the past four years.

At the very root of what we saw transpire in the American capital is the willingness of so many people to believe in conspiracy theories. The American president, and those around him, have been feeding the people a constant diet of lies and fabrications. Among the supporters of the outgoing American president are, sadly, millions of men and women who have come to believe that sinister powers are at work that will bring ruin to the kind of America that they want to defend, and that during the recent presidential elections a system of widespread fraud did indeed “steal” the victory from their hero. But, really, if there had been such a widespread fraud, it must have involved many thousands (or even more) people all around the country, secretly plotting their malicious plan, and executing it right under the noses of tens of thousands of observers. Regrettably, for those who passionately believe in these conspiracy theories, there are always new developments that will confirm their misgivings.

As the drama around the transition from one US presidency to the next is further unfolding, other conspiracy theories have gained the support of millions of people worldwide. The current pandemic has given rise to numerous far-fetched myths about its origin. Even in a country that prides itself with having a population of mostly very level-headed people, it seems (according to a recent report) that some ten percent of the population believes that the Covid-19 pandemic has been purposely engineered by pharmaceutical companies, in pursuit of ever more profits. (https://nltimes.nl/2020/08/17/10-percent-dutch-believe-covid-19-conspiracy-theories.) I would be the last person to defend the conduct of many of these companies, but such a theory clearly has no ground whatsoever in reality.

One of the most popular, widespread theories, which has in many respects been amalgamated with conspiracy theories concerning the dangers of vaccines and of the 5G network, is the ID2020 theory. Bill Gates, and the Microsoft company that he founded, are at the center of this wildly speculative theory. It claims that the pandemic will be used by powers which aim at creating a world government. They plan to control the people through chips with a minuscule tracking device, that will be implanted through the mass-vaccination. As could be expected, lots of conservative Christians in the USA are convinced that this is the satanic “mark of the beast” that the apostle John has written about in his Apocalypse.

I do not know how many Adventists have bought into this weird, and totally baseless, ID2020 myth. But I do know that at the fringe of the Adventist Church are a number of independent ministries and popular speakers, who have embraced (and are constantly promoting) all kinds of conspiracy theories. Of course, these theories more often than not include mischievous plans of the pope and dangerous machinations by the Jesuits. The Amazing Discoveries organization of Walter Veith has been, since a few decades, at the forefront on propagating the wildest theories about the past and present role of numerous secret societies. The problem with conspiracy theories is that there may well be some aspects that could actually be true, but these are then spun out into wild, baseless, speculations and accusations.

Lately, David Gates, an independent SDA preacher, has been travelling the world informing his Adventist audiences about the evil things that are behind the current pandemic and behind the global vaccination plans, and about how these fit into a wildly alarmist version of Adventist views of last-day events. These and similar activities on the right-wing fringe of the church have prompted the leadership of the church to issue a stern warning to the church members to reject these totally irresponsible ideas that cause widespread unrest. (“Covid-19 Vaccines: Addressing Concerns, Offering Counsel”, in Adventist Review on-line: https://www.adventistreview.org/church-news/story15816-covid-19-vaccines-addressing-concerns,-offering-counsel).

What we need in society as well in the church is capable, level-headed leadership, which will provide intelligent and transparent information about the reality of current events, and which can inspire the vast majority of the people into rejecting the populist and alarmist notions of the prophets of doom and disarray who cause so much chaos.

A Happy/Blessed New Year! What does it mean for me?

In my native Dutch language we either wish people a “happy” or a “blessed” new year. Many of my compatriots may not be aware of the origin of this difference: Those with a Protestant heritage prefer to use the term “happy”, while people with a Roman Catholic background tend to opt for “blessed.” I wished my language had a word that blends these two concepts: human happiness and divine blessing.

During the last week of the year countless good wishes are exchanged. They come in oral form as we meet people while maintaining the required social distance, or through snail mail, e-mail and the various social media, and as we Skype, Zoom, Facetime or use other techniques to get in touch with one another. Has all this new-year-wishing become a rather empty tradition? Or is it a meaningful interaction that we must not lose. I, for one, attach real significance to it. In my last blog of the year I want to briefly share what a happy and blessed New Year means for me:

1.It is easy to take for granted that I have a roof over my head, a bed to sleep in, and my “daily bread” on the table. However, just a few days ago I watched a TV-program about the dozens of homeless people in a town near where we live. Men and women told their sad story. In many cases, through no direct fault of their own, they no longer had a roof over their head, nor enough income to buy food. I realized that it would be impossible for me to feel happy and blessed without having these basic necessities of life.

2.Good heath is a blessing and a close pendant of happiness. Most of us sense this in the present Covid-19 crisis more keenly than ever before. But for me personally this has, in particular, been brought home to me by a constant stream of bad news from family and friends, and many others whom we know well, about cancers that have just been diagnosed, brain tumors that have been detected, and various serious chronic diseases and addictions, apart from broken hips and other disabilities. As I see, and feel, advanced age slowly creeping up on me, my daily dose of pills has gone up and doctors’ visits have become more frequent. To remain reasonably healthy in 2021 would certainly be a precious blessing and a source of happiness.

3.Two bloody world wars put their stamp on the twentieth century. Last year in different places in Europe it was celebrated how World War II ended 75 years ago. International organizations, as the UN, NATO and the European Union, may have their weaknesses, but they have done much to ensure peace, at least in the part of the world where I live. Elsewhere in the world wars continue to destroy the lives of millions. Reports of violence in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, various places in Africa, etc., remind me how peace is a prerequisite for a happy and blessed existence.

4.Just a week ago my wife Aafje and I celebrated our 56th wedding anniversary (because of Covid in a much more restrained manner than in previous years). As 2021 begins we have just started our 57th year of life together. We got married in our early twenties–so you can do the arithmetic. Our happiness will be closely linked to the blessing of remaining together for, hopefully, many years to come. Each time when we celebrate that we have been happily married for another year, we are reminded that many of our relatives and friends have experienced how their partner was taken away from them and how difficult it is for them to rebuild their lives with a certain degree of happiness. A happy and blessed new year is a year together with the one who is our life’s companion.

5.A happy new year will be a year in which we can enjoy the love nd companionship of family and friends. It is something that becomes more meaningful as the years go by. And as time passes it becomes more urgent to do all we can to restore relationships that have become strained or disrupted. It will give added happiness when such efforts are successful.

6.Financial security is definitely also an important aspect of happiness. It may feel as something we have earned through hard work, without always sufficiently realizing how much this is due to divine blessings. As 2021 begins I trust the monthly pension payments from state and church will keep coming. I sincerely hope I will not face any dramatic unexpected expenses, and that we will also be able and willing to share some of what we have with others. Sometimes I dream of a sudden windfall—enabling me to go with my wife on a cruise to the Arctic waters, or to put a serious amount of money in the bank accounts of our children—but a sense of gratitude for all that we have, and the comfortable way we can live, soon overrules those fantasies.

7.Being retired has many advantages. One is that you have much more freedom than before n choosing what projects to work on. For me living a happy and fulfilled life does not equal an end to all projects. I get a great deal of satisfaction from preaching and lecturing, and from writing. 2020 put severe restrictions in what I could do. Most appointments were either cancelled, postponed or transferred to Zoom. Happiness in 2021 would include the disappearance of the Covid-restrictions and a return to a “normal” active-retirement-kind-of-existence.

8.Many people are perfectly happy if they never travel outside of a 50-mile radius from their home. I have never belonged to that tribe. I thoroughly enjoy traveling, seeing new places and revisiting places that hold pleasant memories. Apart from an aborted trip to Southern California in February of this past year, we used a temporary lull in the Covid-restrictions for a ten-day trip to Denmark. That was all our foreign travel in 2020! It would increase our happiness if we could soon resume our travel, and go see our grandchildren in Sweden, pay another visit to the USA, visit family in Canada and friends in Australia, and, of course, take some long-planned trips to places in Europe.

9.An important aspect of a happy and blessed life is enjoyment of culture. One concert, with an audience of just thirty people, a few weeks ago, was the only live-concert we were able to go to in 2020. We wonder what 2021 will bring us in terms of museum visits and concerts. Will our path cross again with Herbert Blomstedt as he conducts one of his annual concerts in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw? Of course, there are lots of other ways of enjoying beautiful music and, whatever happens with Covid-19—I will have books! (And Amazon now also has a branch in the Netherlands!)

10.Finally, 2021 can become a truly blessed year only if I continue my pilgrimage of faith—ever finding new depth and inspiration, as, following in the footsteps of the eleventh-century St. Anselm of Canterbury, my “faith seeks further understanding,” helps me to find inner strength when facing the challenges that will undoubtedly also come in the new year, and allows me to support other fellow-travelers along the road of life. Moreover, it would greatly enhance my happiness if I would see my local and global Adventist faith community “grow in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” and enact some of the changes which I—together with many others—have long been hoping for.

This is what a happy and blessed new year means for me. I wish you the same happiness and divine blessing as you transfer and adapt these words to your own life situation at the beginning of 2021.

I am glad we have a Christmas tree

As a child I enjoyed the Christmas tree in the Christian-Reformed Church in our village, where the annual Christmas festivities of our elementary school were held, and the Christmas tree in the Dutch Reformed Church in the center of the village, where we celebrated Christmas with the children of the Sunday school. We were the only seventh-day adventists in the village. My parents had chosen to enroll me, my brother and my sisters in the Christian elementary school and not in the local public elementary school. And because my grandfather was Dutch Reformed and lived with us, we had a link with the Dutch Reformed Church and its Sunday school. You could say that, for Adventists in the middle of the last century, our family was quite ecumenical. But a Christmas tree in our home was taboo.

As children, we could not understand why there was no Christmas tree in our home. All other children in our class had a Christmas tree at home. My mother explained to us why having a Christmas tree was wrong. Having a Christmas tree was something pagan. And that is why Adventists did not have a Christmas tree in their church or at home. We were not satisfied with that explanation, and our continuing protests were successful over time. A few pine branches made their entrance and, I think, I was about twelve or thirteen years old when for the first time we had a small Christmas tree in the corner of the room, with a few cheap balls and some hideous garlands, and with a dozen dangerous real-life candles, as lights.

Other seventh-day adventists in the Netherlands also gradually began to have Christmas trees. (To the amazement of many it was discovered that most Adventists in the United States did not object to a Christmas tree. So, why should we?) In the Netherlands the Christmas tree also gradually made its entrance in the Christmas services in the churches. In many places this did not happen without a good deal of argument. When I had my internship as a minister in Amsterdam, a Christmas tree in the church caused quite a commotion. Our Adventist church building was rented to a Baptist congregation on Sundays. These tenants had been kind enough to leave their beautiful Christmas tree in the church after their own Christmas celebration, so that their Adventist brothers and sisters could also enjoy it during their Sabbath worship. But that was not appreciated by everyone. A few of the younger church members decided, before the service began, to dump the tree, with its decorations and all, in the canal in front of the church building.

In many countries the traditional objections to the pagan tree remained. When I visited Kuwait at the beginning of 2001, on behalf of the Trans-European Division, this once again became very clear to me. On Friday evening a special service was held in which the members of the congregation (mostly migrant workers from Pakistan and India) could ask questions that I would try to answer. After all, it did not happen so often that someone from a higher church organization came to visit them. Almost all questions during the Q and A time were about the Christmas tree. Apparently, a lot of trouble had arisen about this issue shortly before. It kept bothering me for days that our small Adventist congregation in this 99.9 percent Muslim country apparently saw having or not having a Christmas tree as their biggest problem.

I am writing this blog in our living room, at a distance of about three meters from a beautiful Christmas tree that has been decorated with great care. I do enjoy our tree. Yes, I know that having a Christmas tree goes back to a Germanic (pagan) custom that was introduced into the Christian Church in the Middle Ages. But this dubious origin plays absolutely no role anymore. Nor is it a problem for me that drinking hot chocolate is something that originated with the Aztecs. For me, the Christmas tree is now a dual symbol. For several weeks, the lights of the tree remind me in a special way of “the Light of this world” which, as one of the carols tells us, “has made its saving appearance”. But for me, the Christmas tree is also an annual confirmation of the hopeful fact that changes in the church are possible (even though we often have to wait a long time for them) and that legalistic customs and man-made rules can disappear at some point in time.

Actually, for me, the Christmas tree has become a sign of freedom. The freedom that Christ has brought us, which also frees us from human hassle and makes us happy and grateful for the pleasant things that brighten our life in the darkest weeks of the year.