August 2014 and a little history

 

I had intended to spend most of the month of August in Sweden. For the last ten year or so this has been a regular pattern, as our son lives there. But, unfortunately, we had to modify our plans. That fact that my wife fractured her shoulder and arm has made us less mobile for the time being. This also means that I presently belong to the guild of care-givers and must attend to numerous household chores.

Many are the well-intended messages from people wishing me courage in my household activities. But cooking, in particular, remains an unpleasant job, and, even after some six weeks, I am baffled by the fact that some men actually enjoy preparing a meal. Due to the many—solicited and unsolicited—pieces of advice from my wife, so far no dishes have been burned or otherwise ended in calamities. And, to my joy, we are invited from time to time by friends to share a meal with them around their table. Moreover, the local restaurants offer relief when there are moments when I do not have the energy or desire to spend time in the kitchen.

However, besides these household cares, my days are quite full. I am in the middle of a major editorial job, and have several writing assignments on my to-do list. I refresh my to-do list regularly—and I did so this morning. It includes, among other appointments, the preparations for a study weekend with German Adventists at Marienhöhe late next month, but also the sermon for the rally for senior church members in the Netherlands Union and a workshop during a Belgian ‘spiritual congress’ in October, and a four-day seminar for pastors in the South of France in January. I hope that my wife will be able to join me for these trips that do not require long travel. I have had to cancel a few things that would have required more extensive travel.

In the meantime, the stack of books-to-read, besides the couch, is growing. Not too long ago I bought a book that had been heavily discounted: a beautifully illustrated edition of prof. A. Th. Van Deursen’s book Bavianen en Slijkgeuzen. These strange Dutch words were abusive terms used by the Arminians and the strict predestinarian Calvinists for each other around the beginning of the seventeenth century. The book presents a marvelous picture of spiritual life and the state of the church in the Netherlands, in the last decade of the sixteenth and the earliest decades of the seventeenth centuries.

Although I believed that I was reasonably well informed about the establishment of the ‘reformed’ (read: Calvinist) religion in our country, this book provides a lot of new information about minute details. In his incomparable way van Deursen knows how to make a topic come alive by zooming in on the small things of a given period. He makes it abundantly clear that during this phase of our national history, Calvinism had certainly not yet conquered the hearts of the majority of the Dutch people and that the reformed church was in many ways still far from firmly established.

The chapters about my early seventeenth century colleagues in ministry are, in particular,   amusing and enjoyable. The pastoral corps contained many dubious elements and quite a few of them often failed to behave with the dignity that would have befitted their office. Often their theological training was rather inadequate and their ability to deliver a good sermon left much to be desired. Many pastors were guilty of serious moonlighting activities in order to add to their regular (and not always satisfactory) income. Visiting the sick was part of their job description, but they could hire stand-ins to give pastoral care to those who suffered from serious contagious diseases, to avoid too great personal risks. Their most important assignment was to prepare and deliver a number of weekly sermons: for the Sunday morning, the Sunday afternoon, and often the Wednesday evening.

While reading these chapters it appeared to me that nowadays the ministerial calling may perhaps have a little less social status, but it offers decidedly more variation. With that thought in mind I will finish later this morning my preparations for the sermon of tomorrow in Emmen (in the astern part of the counry). If I had been living around 1600, I would have climbed on Sunday morning a much higher pulpit in my home church, with a new sermon. But as a retired minister in the Dutch Adventist church I am free to re-cycle my sermons—as long as I keep a clear record of where I have already preached my sermons. Those who will come to listen to me tomorrow may, however, be assured: I have not preached this sermon either in Emmen or in any of the churches nearby. And, anyway, a sermon always is work-in-progress and remains subject to constant change!

 

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Yezidis

 

Until very recently I had never heard of the Yezidis. This has, however, changed in past two weeks. The news has been dominated by stories about the atrocities committed by the extreme IS-movement against the Yezidis, and we have constantly been bombarded with images of thousands of Yezidis without food and shelter in the inhospitable Sinjar mountains. The encyclopedias that I consulted have told me that there are a few million Yezidis in the world. Most of them live in Iraq and neighboring countries, but there is a colony of about 30.000 Yezidis in Germany, while there allegedly is also a group of 5.000 in the Netherlands. Most of the Yezidis are Kurds, with a religion that is a mix of Christian and Islamic elements, plus ideas derived from other ancient religions of the region. The world has every reason to worry about what is currently happening in Iraq and I was pleased to read the statement of a few days ago, issued by Pastor Ted N.C. Wilson, the president of the Adventist Church, in which he condemned the violence and the utter disregard for the human right of freedom of religion.

The way in which the Yezidis are treated is one of the most lamentable examples in our times of persecution of a religious minority. Unfortunately, there are many other areas in the world where religious freedom is seriously lacking. We know the list of countries that are mentioned again and again as places where religious liberty is totally non-existent or severely restricted: Birma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North-Korea, Pakistan, Saudi-Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The list could easily be augmented with other places where all is not well with regard to freedom of conscience and religious liberty.

There are no exact statistics of the total number of Christians and other believers who each year lose their lives because of religious persecution. In Syria alone 1200 Christians were killed in 2013—only because they were Christians. Since 1968 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been systematically persecuted in the East-African country of Malawi, with large numbers of martyrs as a result. Through the centuries anti-semitism has been the cause of death of millions of Jews, but it has not disappeared—as we saw when just a few months ago four people were killed in an attack of the Jewish Museum in Brussels.

Seventh-day Adventists attach great value to religious freedom. They do much—publicly and by means of silent diplomacy—to promote  freedom of conscience and religion and to defend the rights of the victims of intolerance. This makes me proud and I hope that my church will continue to play an important role in the war against religious intolerance.

Adventist often point to the danger that exists, also in western countries—where people enjoy a relatively large degree of freedom—that in the future religious freedom might be restricted. In this connection there is a frequent reference to attempts to give Sunday observance a higher profile, if necessary even through legislation. Each time the pope or some other high Catholic dignitary makes a remark about the sanctity of the Sunday, Adventist media—especially at the fringe of the church—warn the church members that this surely is a ‘sign’ that tells us that the time is coming when Sabbath observance will be obstructed—or worse.

It would, however, seem to me that Sabbath keepers do not yet have to worry unduly. Nonetheless, it is advisable to remain vigilant and keep our  ears to the ground with regard to what is being said and being initiated concerning the weekly day of rest. It also remains useful to keep reminding the world of the fact that, even though for a large majority of the people (that is, in the western world) the Sunday has a special importance, there is also a significant population segment that attaches great value to the Saturday.  Yet, we should always see things in the right proportions. Currently, the greatest threat to our religious freedom does not originate in the Vatican, but rather in some extremist Islamic circles. Anyone who doubts this, would be advised to check this fact with the Christians in Northern Nigeria and with the Yezidis!

 

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Turner

 

Newbold College, the Adventist institution for higher learning in the UK, is facing numerous challenges. It remains a problem to attract students in sufficient numbers and to stay afloat financially. But Newbold has every reason to be proud of its teaching staff in the theology department.  The quality of the DTS (Department of Theological Studies) at least on a par with the best of the theology departments of other Adventists colleges and universities.

One of the most inspiring members of the Newbold staff is dr Laurence Turner. He is popular with his students, and he is also a very talented speaker. I must admit that, when listening to sermons, my thoughts often tend to wonder, but that does not happen when I am among Turner’s audience.

Also as an author Turner is worth following. When, a few years ago, I was editing the Festschrift for dr Jan Paulsen, the previous president of the world church, I also asked Laurence Turner to contribute an essay. He wrote a significant piece that I see regularly quoted: The Costly Lack of Literary Imagination in Seventh-day Adventist Bible Interpretation.[1]

This week I saw a reference to a book by Turner that has, in fact, been in my book case for quite a few years. It has a short and simple title Genesis.[2] It is part of a new commentary series (Readings: A New Biblical Commentary), in which the story, the plot and the relationship to other stories hold the central place. I had read some of this book as a source of inspiration for a sermon and this week I took it from the shelf with the same purpose. As I read a few remarks about God’s covenant with Abraham stayed with me.

In the first few verses of Genesis we read about God’s command to Abraham, to set out on a journey to a destination only known to God. Next we hear of the tremendous blessings God has in store for Abraham: he will become a great nation; all nations will be jealous because of the blessings he and his decedents will receive. But Turner emphasizes another element that we should not forget: Abraham must himself be a blessing. This is not clear from most translations. Turner points out, however, that the original Hebrew has an imperative. Abraham will not only receive Gods’ blessings but is also commanded to be a blessing for others.

It seems to me that this would be a good topic for a new sermon. God blessed Abraham. He also wanted to bless the people of Israel. And today the church (including the Adventist denomination) can count on God’s blessings and can, no doubt, point to many things and experiences that are clear proof of divine blessings. As individual Christians we may ask for God’s blessings, and if we keep our eyes open we will see how God continues to bless us in many ways. But the question is: To what extent does the church heed that command once given to Abraham: Be a blessing! And I must ask myself: Am I indeed a blessing for the people I associate with? Am I not only a receiver of God’s blessings, but also a distributor?  Thanks, Laurence, for reminding me of this.

 



[1]  Laurence A. Turner, ‘The Costly Lack of Literary Imagination in Seventh-day Adventist Bible Interpretation’, in: Reinder Bruinsma en Borge Schantz, eds., Exploring the Frontiers of Faith: Festschrift in Honour of Dr. Jan Paulsen (Lüneburg, Germany: Advent Verlag, 2009), blz. 261-277.

[2] Laurence A. Turner, Genesis (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).

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The Touch of the Sacred

 

I always enjoy receiving a package with a shape that suggests it contains a book. And it gives extra pleasure if no invoice is enclosed. Just over a week ago I received a thick envelope that just fitted through the opening of my mail box. The small parcel was sent by Eerdmans Publishers, one of the most prestigious Christian publishing houses in the United States. (As the name betrays: there is a Dutch connection. The Mr. Eerdmans who started this publishing company in 1911 was of Dutch vintage, with unadulterated Dutch blood flowing through his veins. Even today this publishing house has many renowned Dutch Calvinist theologians among its authors.)

Since the early 1990’s I have had a solid connection with Eerdmans. Through the years I have translated a number of theological and church historical books for them, from Dutch into English. The most recent is a book by professor Gerrit Immink, the rector of the Protestant Theological University—the institution that was established to train the pastors of the United Protestant Church of the Netherlands.  Earlier I translated a book by Immink that was published in 2005 in English by Eerdmans under the title: Faith—a Practical-Theological Reconstruction.  At the time I enjoyed working on this translation. It happened to be a topic (What basis do we have for our faith?) that I was giving a great deal of personal thought.

The book that I recently found in my mail box–without invoice—is a translation of Immink’s latest book, that is in its third printing in the Netherlands—nowadays rather unusual for a religious book. I had the pleasure of caring for the translation into English. Both the author and Eerdmans accepted my proposal for the title: The Touch of the Sacred: the Practice, Theology and Tradition of Christian Worship.  I was pleased to hold the fruit of my hard labor, after more than a year, in my hands. The translation was, as always, a considerable job. But it made a huge difference that this time I could use the services of a theological student who located the English translations of the many German and Dutch books from which Immink quoted profusely.

I have a feeling that the book will also do well in the United States. It appears to be a welcome addition to what is already available in this domain. It is highly readable for the professional theologian as well was for the ‘lay’ person.  Admittedly, it has been written within a particular tradition, namely that of Dutch Calvinism—even though there have been some adaptations in view of the American market. It will not reflect the the practice of many non-Reformed denominations. Many Adventist readers, for instance, will find elements that have not been absorbed into their tradition, as, for instance, the ‘forms’ that are used with the Communion Service and baptism. Adventist readers may also want to quickly skip over those passages that claim a particular value for the Sunday. Nonetheless, I think the book can be extremely useful for Adventist believers. And, although my views are not always the same as those of Professor Immink, I had the distinct feeling, as I was doing the translation work, that I was involved with a useful project.

I am happy to see that nowadays many Adventist congregations give a lot more attention to the weekly worship service than they did in the past. Many churches have a worship committee that is responsible for the form and content of the service. On the other hand, there are many places where much could and should still be improved.

Those who are involved in the planning of the weekly worship would do well to study the history and theology of Christian worship. However, there is hardly any Adventist literature on this topic. A few years ago a significant book was published about music in Adventist worship (Liliane Doukhan: In  Tune with God [Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2010]), but we are still waiting for a book that deals with worship in general, in all its facets. Until we have such a book. Immink’s book might also be a good source of inspiration for Adventists!

 

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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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