Does prayer make any difference?

Last week, the President of the Adventist Church sent a message to all members around the world, asking them to pray for the people who are suffering as a result of the forest fires in Australia. He called on the church to ask God to stop the fires that have now reduced large parts of Australia to ashes. A few days ago the President sent a similar call for collective prayer, this time on behalf of those in the Philippines who are threatened by the Taal Volcano in the Bantangas province, which is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in Asia. He added that the church’s regional office in Southeast Asia and a university that is operated by the church, at a short distance from the volcano, are also under threat.

It raised a question that I have asked myself many times: Do such prayer initiatives really help? And is there a greater chance of ‘success’ if large numbers participate? This is a complicated issue. Believers usually assume that God is omnipotent, and is therefore able to answer such prayers. They also usually agree that God is the personification of loving goodness. On that basis it is, they feel, to be expected that God will be happy to respond positively to prayers that beg Him to stop terrible situations such as in Australia and in the Philippines.
Moreover, if we are dealing with a loving God who can do anything, shouldn’t we expect him to simply prevent all these kinds of disasters from happening in the first place?

Prayer plays an important role in my faith experience, but not in the way I sometimes see with many fellow believers. I regularly pray to God for protection, but I do not have the habit of always saying a short prayer before I start the car to run an errand. And I don’t expect God to find a parking space for me when I arrive in the center of Amsterdam.
I trust in the words of the apostle James that it is important to pray for seriously ill people, but I do wonder if the apostle could not have been a bit more reluctant with his assurance that: “Prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up” (James 5:15). After all, we all know that many prayers for healing remain without the desired result. There is, of course, the escape clause that we must always end our prayers with the statement that not our will, but God’s will must prevail. And yes, very often the divine will turns out to be rather unfathomable (or some might say: capricious).

For many people, this is a reason to abandon their faith. They cannot believe in a God who apparently may help somebody get rid of his cold or to find her keychain, but looks the other way when the holocaust takes place or an atomic bomb falls on Hiroshima. When people talk to me about this and ask me why God allows all sorts of terrible things to happen, and why he apparently answers some prayers but ignores others, I must admit I have no real answer.

Still, the problems surrounding prayer are no reason for me not to pray anymore. One of the books that have helped me to continue praying, despite the many questions, is that of the well-known American writer Philip Yancey: Prayer: Does it Make any Difference? (2006). Yancey emphasizes that God is there for us, whether or not we experience him and feel his presence. In our prayers we acknowledge God’s presence and respond to it. Praying means that we know our place in the grand scheme of things; that we realize our limitations and smallness, and are willing to do what we can but ultimately leave everything to God. Prayer is a time for expressing our gratitude for all the good things that we experience every new day. It also includes thinking about what we did wrong and asking for forgiveness. Whatever else it may do, praying for others helps us to take our responsibility for others more seriously. Prayer is being silent before the God who–even though it often doesn’t seem to be that way–somehow knows what is happening and why it is happening. The apostle Paul wrote to the members of the church in Rome that we often don’t actually know what to say to God in our prayers, but that somehow even our wordless sighs are of value to God (Romans 8:26). That in itself is reason enough to keep praying.

Studying the book of Daniel

During the first quarter of this year, the Seventh-day Adventist Church will once again study the bible book Daniel. In recent years we have had a number of Sabbath School quarterlies about the prophecies, and especially about the so-called apocalyptic parts of the Bible. Each time we were presented with the traditional Adventist interpretations. The explanations invariably followed the historicist approach, i.e. that the fulfilment of the prophecies of Daniel’s and Revelation was found in the course of historical events. An important part of this was the emergence of apostate religious systems which, in the end times, will cause more and more problems for the relatively small group that remains faithful to God and his Word. We also find this approach in the study guide of the quarter that has just begun.

One could ask why it is necessary to focus on these topics again and again for a full quarter. Is it because the originators of the study material for the weekly Bible study are afraid that these topics have gradually ceased to interest many church members? That might indeed be the case. I suspect there are a number of reasons for this.

Unfortunately, the focus on Bible reading and Bible study among Adventists is no longer what it once was. And there also appears to be a certain fatigue, due to the fact that the treatment of the content of Daniel and of Revelation hardly brings any new points of view. But the most important thing, in my opinion, is the fact that many traditional interpretations, also of the book of Daniel, no longer sound so convincing to many of us. Many church members have gradually become aware that other approaches to this book of the Bible are also possible. According to the vast majority of Bible scholars in our time, the book of Daniel was written, or compiled, in the second century BC and not in the sixth century BC. The book reflects the time when Israel was in the power of the Seleucids (one of the powers that arose from the Greek world empire). Scholars are quite generally of the opinion that King Antiochus Epiphanes was the great evildoer (the ‘little horn’). He had caused the Jerusalem temple to be defiled in a gruesome way!

The new quarterly does not address this problem. By the way, other things about which there are serious questions are not mentioned either. I might mention the year-day principle as an example. The quarterly presents it as if it is an established fact that in ‘time prophecies’ a day symbolically represents a year. It is essential to accept this idea if we want to arrive, via Daniel 8 and 9, at the year 1844. But the basis for this theory is quite weak. More and more Adventist theologians, who teach in our colleges and universities, agree. But they don’t get the space to openly admit that we have a problem that needs to be addressed.

When the seven-volume Seventh-day Adventist Biblical Commentary was produced, now some sixty years ago, the writers and editors were struggling with a number of difficult issues, including the question of the day-year principle. Raymond Cottrell, one of the most important persons behind this major project, later admitted that there were a number of issues that could no longer be defended (including the day-year principle), but that had become so much part of the Adventist tradition that pastoral considerations made them decide not to tinker with these!

I don’t have an answer for all the problems that arise from a study of the book Daniel. But I am convinced that concealing these and other very real problems does not serve the Church. It’s time to explain in a responsible, open way where the bottlenecks are. And even if certain sacred cows will have to die, we can still continue to draw a lot of inspiration from the book of Daniel.

Entering a new decade . . .

On the penultimate day of the year 2019 The Christian daily Dagblad Trouw published an article with the following headline: 2019: More burn-out, more atheists and more electric cars. The growing number of electric cars in the Netherlands is a welcome contribution to combat the serious climate change that threatens many facets of our existence. Opinions on the increase in the number of atheists in the Netherlands (by about eight percent in ten years) differ. On the one hand, there are still large groups of believers who view this trend with regret, while on the other hand many think this is a very positive development. For many, religion is a curse rather than a blessing. The increase of the burn-out phenomenon is extremely worrying. What can be done to reduce the workload of a large part of the working population, so that burn-out can be prevented.

Of course, many other things have changed in the second decade of this century, in a positive or negative way. The feeling of security has decreased among the Dutch population, while crime has in fact decreased! The population has increased by about 700,000 people. For a considerable part (over 400,000) this is due to the arrival of migrants. This increase is much less significant than many populist politicians want us to believe, with their claims that the country is flooded with fortune seekers from all over the world. Their alarmist messages that Islam is becoming stronger and stronger are also premature, to say the least. In the past ten years several religious communities have shrunk, but the United Protestant Church in the Netherlands and Islam have remained virtually at the same level. Among others changes in the past ten years are the enormously increased use of smartphones and the use of the social media, and shopping on the internet! And then, of course, there is the exploding concern about climate change.

But at the turn of the year – and this time at the transition from one decade to the next – we are not only looking at what has happened, but also at what the coming years will bring us. We hope for more peace, and less global polarization. Above all, I, for one, hope there will be a change in the upcoming presidential elections in the United States. And in our own lives we hope for health and energy for ourselves and our loved ones, and for joy and satisfaction in our activities.

It goes without saying that I am also thinking about the future of the Church to which I belong and which is dear to me. Will we see the changes that many, with me, are longing for during the world congress in July in Indianapolis? Will we get new leaders who will let go of the stifling approach of the past ten years and who will give the church the breathing space that is needed for a healthy development of our faith community? I am referring to space for the regions of the world to color Adventism within the culture and world view of their part of the world (this alone can offer a solution to the ongoing impasse surrounding the role of women in the church). And I am referring to space for the individual believers, to be allowed to think independently, to ask questions and to find their own answers within the contours of a common tradition.

This is my last blog of this year. I managed to post a new blog every week. Not every piece was equally profound, but it is nice that every day there are still dozens, and often a few hundred, readers. A warm thank-you to all of you, and God’s blessing for the new year!

Enjoying Christmas

It’s Boxing Day—seven thirty in the morning. I am sitting in the living room and just made myself a cup of tea. Everything is quiet. The Christmas tree and other Christmas lights create extra atmosphere in the room. A great background for writing a blog.

We have enjoyed Christmas so far, and expect that this 26th of December will also be a nice day. Unfortunately, in the Netherlands, the “second Christmas Day” (as we call it) is also increasingly assumed the character of ‘boxing day’, on which the religious character of Christmas is pretty much pushed into the background.

We started on the path to Christmas with an interdenominational Sing-In on December 21 in the interconfessional church building in the center of our village. We thoroughly enjoyed it, and were happily surprised that the mayor read the Christmas gospel. On Christmas Eve the Advent congregation in Harderwijk had a beautiful Christmas service, which was entirely organized by the teenagers of the local church. Chapeau! On Christmas Day we enjoyed a beautiful concert of the West German Broadcasting Company (WDR) on TV and, of course. we did not want to miss the message of the Pope and his Urbi et Orbi blessing, as well as the speech of the Dutch king. I was happy to see on Facebook a short Christmas message from Pastor Ted Wilson, the president of the Adventist World Church.

I realize that in our denomination the church leaders often have to maneuver very carefully around Christmas. After all, there are quite a few fellow-believers who are opposed to Christmas celebrations. It is, they say, a pagan feast and Bible-believing Christians should have nothing to do with it. It struck me that the message of Pastor Wilson on Facebook, in addition to many positive reactions, also received a lot of negative comments. Many of these comments went something like this: Shame on the president of our church that he sends such a wrong signal and leads the church down the wrong path.

Is Christmas of dubious origin? Yes, it certainly is. But is that a problem? In and around the Christian church many elements can be traced back to non-Christian traditions and customs. But if those things have been ‘christianized’, and have been given a totally new content, it doesn’t really matter where those customs originated. One could even argue that one of the characteristic aspects of the Adventist church service also has a very dubious origin. The Sabbath School is not an Adventist invention but was copied from the Sunday School, as it developed in various Protestant churches in nineteenth century America. Sunday school was, of course, linked to the Sunday and the celebration of that day was associated with the worship of the sun god. Is this a reason to abolish the sabbath school?

I was alerted to the example of the dubious origin of the Sabbath School in an extremely informative article that I found on the website of Adventist Today. Here is the link: https://atoday.org/paganisms-gift-to-us/

It is curious that many conservative church members object to celebrating Christmas. They generally appreciate Ellen White’s opinion, but when it comes to Christmas, they set her positive statements about celebrating Christmas aside. For her, it was especially important that we celebrate Christmas in a way that echoes, loudly and clearly, the message of the feast, namely that the Savior was born. Yet, for her the social aspects were not taboo either. For example, her son Willy even seems at least once to have dressed up as Santa Claus, with his mother’s approval. (See: http://www.truthorfables.com/EGW_Santa.htm)

I’m sorry so many of my fellow believers don’t enjoy Christmas. Of course, the message of Christmas must be central to everything we do on and around Christmas. And that message should not only be in our minds as we enjoy the Christmas tree, the the candle lights and the beautiful carols. It is the message that we must take with us, into the last week of the year and into 2020.

The “Hondsrug” and the “Hunebedden”

Last week I preached in the Adventist church in Emmen. The group of Adventists in Emmen is a relatively small but stable congregation, where I like to preach. The distances in the Netherlands are relatively small, but for someone who lives in the west or in the center of the country, the province of Drenthe feels like far away. Because there was a special offer for two nights with breakfast in the Van der Valk Hotel, just outside Emmen, my wife and I decided to leave for Emmen on Thursday and spend two days exploring the largely unknown surroundings. On Thursday we visited the new zoo, Wildlands, in Emmen. The fact that we had free tickets was an extra enticement. We were happily surprised by what we got to see. The way this zoo is designed makes it very worthwhile to visit!

On Thursday we decided to follow a route along a number of villages in the Hondsrug area. The Hondsrug is a region in the province of Drenthe that is so geologically interesting that UNESCO has chosen it as a geological nature park. It is a narrow strip of about 70 kilometres in length, which is a little hilly and is also considerably more wooded than the surrounding parts of the province. It is also home to most of the 52 or so ‘hunebedden’ –the oldest monuments in the Netherlands.

I don’t know anything about geology, but a little reading gave me some background knowledge about the origin of this special type of landscape. Allow me to quote a paragraph from a Wikipedia article: ‘During the penultimate glacial period, the north-western ice flow plowed through the northern part of the Netherlands, resulting in the straight and parallel ridges, the so-called megaflues’. The article goes on to mention that this unique process, some examples of which can also be found in Canada, took place some 150,000 years ago. It was a nice experience to get better acquainted with this interesting part of our country.

Large boulders came along with the enormous ice mass that was propelled from Scandinavia. Much later, in the so-called New Stone Age, these were used by the ‘Hunen’ to make elongated tombs–sometime with a length of some 20 meters–in which they could bury their dead. These ‘Hunen” were part of the funnelbeaker culture, which lasted from about 3400 to 2850 BC.

Our visit to the Hondsrug made us think about a number of things. It is rather difficult to fit the dates mentioned for the ice age that created the Hondsrug, and even for activities of the hunebed-builders, into the time scheme of a creation that supposedly took place in the recent past, between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. However, to be honest, I am not overly concerned about this.

How the ice ages of the past fit into modern climate research does raise some more questions for me. According to the geologists, their research has shown that in the course of tens of millions of years there have been about 23 ice ages – a very long process in which a number of times the earth (or at least a large part of it) became a lot colder and then considerably warmer again.

While I was thinking about this on the Hondsrug, thousands of climate experts and politicians were meeting in Madrid to discuss the recent global warming of our planet. They tried to agree on measures that could limit this warming to around 2 degrees Celsius. According to most of the Madrid participants, mankind is to blame for our current climate change and there is therefore an urgent need for mankind to take action on a global scale. As far as I have followed the discussions (and as far as I am able to follow them), it is indeed important that we realize that we are stewards – at least to some extent – of our climate. Like Donald Trump (and also some horrible Dutch populist politicians), we cannot claim that the climate issue is a huge (left-wing) hoax. But at the same time we should perhaps also realize that in the past there have been major fluctuations in the earth’s temperatures and that there may also be factors at stake that we do not know or understand, and that are not under our control. Unfortunately, many things are often much more complicated than they appear to be at first glance or are described in media reports such as De Telegraaf (a Dutch newspaper that I tend to compare with the FOX news channel).