Lectori salutem

Lectori Salutem. These Latin words sound like a somewhat solemn invocation–and there’s a reason for it. After much hesitation, I have come to a decision. This will be my last weekly blog. I don’t know exactly how many pieces I have written since I started, but I estimate the number to be well over 800. I began this project shortly after I became the president of the Dutch Adventist Church, in late 2002. Every week I posted a blog on the website of the Netherlands Union. It proved to be an excellent means of communicating with the church membership. After I retired at the end of 2007, I switched to my own site to put my (almost) weekly blog online. Since then, I have indeed managed to produce something almost every week–at first only in Dutch, but since 2012 also in English.

As my faithful readers know, most of my blogs were about church-related matters. Even when my active role as a church administrator ended, in many ways the church remained the center of my world. Thus far I have been blessed with fairly good health, and most of my time is still spent on activities directly or indirectly related to theology and church. My 2023 calendar is already beginning to fill up, with deadlines for articles and with appointments in the Netherlands and elsewhere for sermons, presentations and teaching. I also hope to begin work on a new book very soon. But as I recently reviewed my future activities, I felt it was time to wind down a few things. Therefore, this will be my last blog.

In my blogs I have always tried to be open and transparent with regard to my opinion on current issues and developments in the church. This was appreciated by most readers of my blogs, but inevitably some questioned my orthodoxy and sometimes my integrity. The latter group was often quite vocal, but fortunately relatively small, as the hostile critics of my blog usually faded away fairly quickly. All in all, the number of positive responses exceeded the number of cranky or downright nasty ones by at least a factor of ten.

Perhaps some of the approximately four thousand regular readers will be disappointed that I am ending what became a weekly tradition. But at some point everything comes to an end. And I must honestly admit that I sometimes lack sufficient inspiration and struggle to find a new topic. And it does at times cause a bit of stress, when after a week I still don’t know exactly what my next piece will be about.

For now, I’ll just leave the blogs on my site. [And maybe I will add another piece, now and then, when I can't resist the urge to respond to something.]

Many thanks to all my faithful readers.
And, of course, I wish all of you a blessed Christmas season and a happy, healthy and creative 2023.

Reinder Bruinsma
Zeewolde, December 14, 2022

Does God favor Argentina?

Does God favor Argentina?

I am not a soccer fan. I have never attended a soccer match in a stadium. So far, during this World Cup, I have watched maybe 20 minutes of matches on TV. And I look on with great amazement as a frenzied crowd goes wild when their favorite team scores.

Of course, I did follow the Dutch team’s performance in Qatar, and I am aware that the Dutch lost to Argentina, when it finally came down to penalties. (Actually, a strange way to decide a match. To me it looks like a lottery.) One in every three Dutch people watched the Netherlands-Argentina match. That is considerably more than will be sitting in church during Christmas. It does say something about our society. Incidentally, the question remains whether we should have participated in this tournament at all, given the history (read: corruption) surrounding the choice of Qatar, and the way in which this country treated the laborers who had to build the necessary stadiums and other infrastructure.

Disappointment all around! The Dutch did not make it. Louis van Gaal’s dream that the Dutch would become world champions was shattered. But is this disappointment justified? The Netherlands finished as one of the eight best soccer countries in the world. Surely that is a very good result in the 2022 World Cup. After all, you can’t all be the best. [I would love to be the best preacher in our little Dutch Adventist world, but I would also be very satisfied with a spot among the best eight . . . or even the best sixteen...]

Two things in particular have stuck in my mind in recent days. I have great admiration for Louis van Gaal. Not only is he a unique man, who knows how to liven up every press conference with some extradordinary remarks, but with his 71 years he is an inspiration for many older people who doubt whether they are still capable of some special achievement. Van Gaal managed to overcome his prostate cancer and went on to deliver an extraordinary performance.

And then one other thing. There was extensive mention in the newspaper that arrives in my mailbox every morning, that some of the players on the Dutch team place great value on prayer. And I also saw images on television of members of the Argentine team sending up their prayers to heaven before the match. I cannot help but think: They are giving God a hard time. After all, whose prayers will be answered by God? Does He make sure that the Netherlands will win, or does He answer the pleas for help from the Argentines? Which team does God prefer? The dilemma can be compared to praying in wartime. No doubt there are pious Russians now praying to God for victory, so that their boys can return home quickly from the front, but at the same time there are also prayers going up in the Ukraine, begging God to decide the war in their favor. To whom should God listen?

But, anyway: it is nice to see that there are soccer players for whom God still plays an important role in their lives–even if their theology of prayer probably needs some restructuring!

My smartwatch and the teleological argument for God’s existence

Since about two months I am the proud owner of an Apple Smartwatch. I got it for my birthday from my wife, at the suggestion of my son. The idea is, that for a man like me, who is somewhat advanced in age, this smartwatch can help monitor all sorts of health issues. The device not only looks smart, but can–in combination with my smartphone–also do an incredible amount of different things. Using all sorts of sensors, the smartwatch can count the number of footsteps during my daily walk, measure how many stairs I’ve climbed, the exact distance I’ve covered, and the calories I’ve consumed in these efforts. It can monitor my heart rhythm and even make an electrocardiogram (ECG). The smartwatch has an alarm clock and a GPS. It allows me to read my incoming e-mail, take pictures, check the weather forecast, make phone calls, and much more. Of course, I first bought a book to find out what my smartwatch can do. A Bible app would let me read the Bible, but I have yet to install that. [And yes, the watch also tells me what time it is].

By now, I can handle my new watch quite well, but I still have to figure out how to pay with it. Last night I managed to turn off the Siri function, because it can be annoying when the digital Siri-lady suddenly interferes. That happened this past week when, during a Zoom lecture I was giving, Siri volunteered several times that she could not find a certain term!

It is beyond me as a technical and digital ignoramus to understand how so many functions can be combined in such a small device, and then also has space left for a battery. When I look for a good term to define it, I quickly come up with the word “miracle.” And perhaps it is not so strange to think of a word with a theological association, for in the past people have regularly associated theology with watches.

The all-important theological question is, and remains, whether we can prove that God exists. Over the centuries, theologians and philosophers have come up with a number of classical proofs of God. One of these was the so-called teleological argument. The word “teleological” is derived from the Greek word for “purpose” (telos). The things we find in our world do not just happen to be there, but they have a purpose, and they were made by someone for that purpose. This type of argument for the existence of God will forever be associated with the name of William Paley (1743-1805), a British philosopher and theologian. He became best known for his treatment of the existence of God in his work Natural Theology, in which he used the analogy of the watchmaker. According to Paley, a watch is so complicated that it cannot have come about by chance. There must be a watchmaker. And that applies not only to a watch, but also to the whole world. And, therefore, we do have to assume that there is a “world maker”: God.

Many opponents of the theory of evolution still point to the fact that everything we see in nature shows evidence of “design”, and that, therefore, there must be a (divine) Designer. But nowadays, people generally don’t place much value on the classical proofs of God’s existence, and that includes Paley’s version of the teleological argument. In discussions with atheist friends, it makes little impression. I fear that if I brought up the watch argument, with reference to the “miracle” of my smartwatch, the response would be that my smartwatch does not point to God but to the miracle workers at Apple.

Even owners of miracle devices like the smartwatch will have to acknowledge that there is no “evidence” that God exists. But it is plausible that there is a Maker, and in my opinion, it is harder to believe that there is no God than to believe the opposite. The American theologian of Dutch descent, Alvin Plantinga (born 1932), wrote a book that has meant a lot to me. Its title is Warranted Beliefs. In that book Plantinga shows in a (for me) convincing way that belief in God, and in what has been revealed about Him, is entirely reasonable, even in the absence of absolute evidence. To me, it means that it is totally reasonable to assume that a supernatural Designer somehow “made” people in such a way that they would be able to develop “smart” watches.

Will the church afford the heating?

Every week I receive the digital bulletin from a number of Adventist congregations in the Netherlands. I always look through these bulletins, because I am curious to see what is happening locally, and what challenges these churches are facing. This week the Adventist church of The Hague reports that it is facing a massive increase in energy costs. From November 1 energy costs for the church building have increased from 39,920 euros to 112,960 euros per year. That converts to 310 euros in energy costs per day—-on all days of the week, not just on the Sabbath!

In today’s Nederlands Dagblad (Thursday, Nov. 24), there is a full-page article about the same issue, with the title: “Church can no longer be heated.” The article begins with the following paragraph: “In three of the six Roman Catholic churches in the region of Dordrecht, Zwijdrecht and Papendrecht, Sunday worships will no longer be held from December to March. Skyrocketing energy costs are forcing the parish board to take that measure . . .” A little further on I read a statement by the secretary of the Reformed Church in Barneveld, that he expects that the annual energy costs for their church building will soon rise by more than a hundred thousand euros. The litany continues in that same pessimistic tone.

Personally, I haven’t noticed much of an increase in energy costs yet. Our apartment is very well insulated, and heating is provided by a community heating system. The monthly amount has not (yet?) increased dramatically. Yesterday our electricity company credited the 190 euros, that were promised by the government, to our bank account. We heeded the suggestion to donate the 190 euros to someone who does suffer more substantially from the extra energy costs. Of course, we also hear from friends and acquaintances about gigantic increases when their old contract expired. For some, this is no less than a catastrophe.

We realize that our individual and collective energy problems cannot be compared to the energy drama currently taking place in Ukraine. The Russians’ energy-terror poses an enormous threat to millions of residents of Ukraine, especially as the winter is now approaching. How will the Ukrainian government supply the people with electricity, gas and water in the coming months? Hopefully, the Western world will continue to support Ukraine with concrete aid, and help the country through the winter. But in the meantime, there are the challenges at home. How do we ensure that we can go to a reasonably warm church every week, even when the temperature dips down? Will sitting in church with a thick coat become the norm? It was common in the distant past, but now it could be an additional reason for many people to forgo church attendance, at least for the time being.

That the thermostat also must be turned to about 19 degrees in most church buildings on Saturdays and Sundays is obvious. Furthermore, it does not seem unreasonable to me if not only businesses and cultural institutions, but also churches would receive a temporary government subsidy for energy costs. However, one of the things that would really help is if church attendance (and thus offerings!) increased substantially. And perhaps this is the time when churches (including the Adventist Church) should pay extra attention to this important issue.

Statistics indicate that in most Western countries at most sixty percent of Adventist Church members regularly attend church services. There is no reason to believe that the figures are more favorable in the Netherlands. Of course, there are all sorts of reasons why people stay away from weekly church services. And the Corona pandemic has not been helpful. But one of the reasons is that many find–and this is especially true of youth and young adults—that the services do not really captivate them. They don’t get enough out of them, to encourage them to come to church on a weekly basis. How to change that is a complicated matter. But we need to grapple with that question.

It’s going to take a lot of headaches in many places to heat the church building, or to pay the inevitably higher rental costs. But the all-important question remains how the content of the services can sufficiently warm the attendees on the inside, so that they keep coming to church, even if they have to keep their coats on during the service.

Unsolicited advice to the church’s administration

The following is unsolicited advice to the administrators of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands. The leaders are probably not waiting for my advice. It might even cause some irritation. But I give it anyway. Because the question of how we can reduce polarization in our church community, and promote a healthy diversity, where all can feel that they have a valuable role to play, is constantly on my mind.

Some of the things I mention below do cost a bit of money. But fortunately, the church is currently doing reasonably well financially, so that investing in restoring mutual trust in the church seems very responsible to me. I am thinking of seven points. The order is arbitrary.
1. There have in recent years been many changes in the pastoral workforce. Many colleagues hardly know each other. In many ways, the group now lacks clear cohesion. Therefore I would suggest that it would be profitable to organize, in the near future, an informal meeting of a few days, at a pleasant location, of all pastors and active retired pastors, as an opportunity to socialize and to strengthen the group feeling.
2. Organize another “Open Day” in 2023, where the church can present itself in its full scope, and members from all over the country can meet each other in a casual way. This had become a tradition in pre-Corona days, which was very much appreciated. The Open Day can show the wide variety of the activities and initiatives of the national church and of local congregations, and show what is “on offer” (also literally) in all segments of the church.
3. Encourage congregations to organize regional, multiethnic, and multicultural Sabbaths on which members from a number of different congregations (and perhaps even from neighboring congregations from across national borders) can meet and be inspired by each other.
4. Issue a special issue of ADVENT dedicated to reducing the current polarization. Honestly naming the issues and providing opportunity for dialogue can contribute to a better mutual understanding.
5. During the next administrative term, organize another national event when members from all over the country come together. It has been many years since this last happened. We have to go back a decade for the last meeting of this kind, and the fact that such meetings very expensive has greatly diminished the desire to organize such a day again. But we need such an event from time to time to experience a sense of being church together. And that may cost something.
6. After the Corona era, there is concern in many denominations about declining church attendance. For some, even after the pandemic, the digital church service has definitely replaced physically going to church. Others seem to be struggling to regain the rhythm of weekly church attendance. I have the impression that this is also the case in our church in the Netherlands–although it varies from place to place. Should we perhaps form a national working group to study what can be done to encourage stronger church attendance? In most congregations, about 40 percent of those on the membership rolls never or rarely attend church services.
7. And then there is something else. I hear many complaints that emails to “the union” are very often not answered, and also that the office is very poorly accessible. Due to employees working from home, there is often no one in the office building. (I experience this when I volunteer on Tuesday mornings for several hours in the church archives. When I arrive around 9 o’clock, there is often no one to let me in.) It will increase confidence in “the union” if this aspect is given adequate attention.

It is not difficult to give advice from the sidelines. And I could certainly name a few more things in addition the seven points mentioned above. Of course, it is easy to respond with the (sometimes justified) conclusion that the best mates are still on the shore. Besides, the points I mentioned are not brilliant ideas that no one else can come up with. But this blog simply reflects a desire to think constructively, and I hope it is seen that way.