Eye-piercings and tattoos

I cannot imagine what life would be like without the internet. I use it constantly for all kinds of searches. I use it even for publishing this blog. I use it without knowing how the internet works, how the rules are made, and who ‘owns’ it.

Unfortunately, there is, besides useful and reliable information, an immeasurable heap of cyber-rubbish.  Occasionally, I ‘google’ my own name, curious to find out what people say and write about me and my activities. On some sites I find statements and accusations in which I cannot recognize myself.  When I google on the term ‘Seventh-day Adventist, the number of sites that attack my church and spread all kinds of nonsense about it, seem to outnumber the websites that have reliable and useful information.

The number of internet sites that are initiated by ultra-conservative groups of Adventists, or by individuals that fit into that category, seems to increase daily. There are a few that I visit more or less regularly, mostly out of curiosity and to take the pulse of what is happening at the ultra-right (and sometimes not so ‘ultra’) fringe of the church. A few weeks ago I landed on a site with a discussion forum and read a rather loaded question: ‘Do you think that someone with an eye-piercing can be an Adventist pastor?’ Apparently, this was about a real-life situation in which an Adventist youth pastor had a small ring through his brow. I was so foolish to post a reaction and asked: ‘Does this pastor preach good sermons?’

For days the discussion went on with dozens of replies. Some suggested that my counter-question was irrelevant. Surely, having an eye-piercing would immediately disqualify a person for the pulpit.  After some time the discussion swerved to the issue of having a tattoo. Could someone with a tattoo be a pastor? Again I was so foolish to respond and asked a counter-question: ‘What if he acquired the tattoo before he was converted?’  There were numerous unkind and even abusive reactions.  And it did not take long before the topic shifted again. Someone suggested that the real issue was, of course, that the persons we were talking about were gay!  And that would naturally answer once and for all the question whether they could be pastors!

Let me be clear: I do not like eye-piercings, nor tattoos. And I would certainly counsel pastors not to acquire them. For one thing: these adornments would easily become a matter of controversy in their church(es) and thus impede their ministry. But I was very unpleasantly struck by the harsh words and by this judging of people by their appearance!  Whatever one may think about the esthetical aspect of such things as piercing and tattoos, no one gives us the right to judge people by their outwards appearance. The strongest argument for this is the fact that God has clearly indicated that he does not judge people from the way they look but by taking stock of their heart (1 Samuel 16:7).  A judgment based on appearance has driven many people away from the church!

But the shift from piercings and tattoos to homosexuality upset me most. Gay and lesbian people apparently, in the minds of at least some of the people who were active on this site, are immoral men and women who play loose with anything. You may expect them to behave in ways that are unchristian and deplorable!  This attitude manifests a tendency of passing judgment on a category of people, that displays an immense degree of ignorance and prejudice.  And the sad thing is that this attitude is not limited to just the (ultra-) conservative fringe of the church.


[Thursday, September 7) Celebrating your birthday may not make all that much sense. For how does that particular day differ from the day before or the day after that date? But, nonetheless, most of us would find it rather unpleasant if our birthday would pass without anyone, not even those closest to you, noticing. The time that we received fancy birthday cards is mostly in the past. These have to a large extent been replaced by e-cards, and, of course, by posts on Facebook. It is no longer necessary to check our birthday calendar, since the Facebook computer will warn us in good time when our ‘friends’ have their birthday. Last year some 150 ‘friends’ took the trouble to send me their digital good wishes. I wonder how many will do so this year. Admittedly, I do enjoy getting a bit of attention on my birthday.

Some birthdays are experienced as a kind of milestone. The eighteenth and twenty-first are considered important points on the road towards adulthood. Many people see becoming thirty or forty as quite special, and even more so turning fifty. Then, somehow, one is no longer young. In the Netherlands the magic moment of turning sixty-five has lost most of its special meaning, as the age for getting our first state pension payment is gradually being moved to sixty-seven. Tomorrow I hope to celebrate my seventy-fifth birthday. It stirs some special sentiments. In fact, it is a kind of milestone for me.

I realize that with my seventy-five years I have outlived my paternal grandfather after whom I was named. And I am now already about a quarter of a century older than my father was when he died. I remember well that I saw my grandfather, when he was in his early seventies, as quite old.  I have no idea how I am looked upon by children. Perhaps they see me as terribly ancient, even though I certainly do not have that feeling myself. However, I must admit that lately it happens, when I am in a crowded tram or train, that someone offers his/her seat to me . . . What does that tell me?

At reaching the 75-milestone a sense of real gratitude dominates all other feelings.  I have reason to be grateful: being in reasonable health; being still together with my wife after 52 years of happy marriage; having two great children; having the energy and opportunity to continue with activities that I enjoy and that give a lot of satisfaction. In retrospect there are, of course, things in the past that I could have done differently and, undoubtedly, better. But the balance is quite positive.

Besides gratitude there is also a sense of wonder. Who could have predicted what would happen to this boy that was born in a working-class neighborhood in Amsterdam and moved at age 5 to a small village some 20 miles north of this city? I grew up in a very small world, but my world became bigger and bigger during the past seventy-five years, as my work brought me to almost one hundred countries and gave me the chance to live and work on three different continents.

I want to thank all people, far and near, who have supported me in various ways and have enabled me to do many different things. I thank all those who have been role models for me and have inspired me--and also have allowed me in some ways to touch their lives!

I want, above all, to thank my heavenly Father, who has always been there for me.


‘Language games’

Until yesterday I had never flown with FLyBe, a relatively small company that has many domestic routes in the UK and also serves some European destinations. The price was right and I decided to book a flight with them for a 36 hour trip to Manchester, where (as their advisor) I was to meet the group of students in the special MA Leadership program offered by Andrews University through Newbold College.  I was expecting a non-eventful short trip, and the new Brazilian Embraer 175, which seats almost 100 people, is as comfortable as small planes can be. I suppose it was not the fault of the airline that the flight was first delayed for an hour and a half because of the heavy rainfall at Schiphol, and then was delayed for another half hour because the crew that was to provide the push-off from the gate had gotten tired of waiting and had disappeared.

Seated besides me in seat 19d was a young fellow–I guess of around thirty–and behind me in 20c and 20d were two middle-aged men. The three clearly worked for the same company and were engaged in intense conversation while we were waiting to depart and during the flight. I tried to read my new Grisham novel and to shut myself off from their conversation, but I was not entirely successful. As they were talking, I tried to determine what kind of firm they worked for. It was quite clearly something high-tech and they were going to some business in Manchester to talk about developing some new piece of equipment. However, I never found out what they were actually talking about. They might as well have been talking in Russian or Chinese. Their conversation was loaded with technical terms that all three were totally familiar with, but that were complete gibberish for me.  So, here you had four Dutchmen sitting close together, having Dutch as their common language, where one was totally excluded from the communication.

Language philosophers speak about ‘language games’, meaning that groups of people with similar backgrounds and interests invest many words with a particular meaning that is only readily understood within their group. I was given a small-scale demonstrations of this during my flight to Manchester. The three engineers (I guess) are part of a tribe of technicians who are involved in such a ‘language game’. For them a whole gamut of specific words has a very clear meaning, while for me these terms remain a deep mystery.

When as Christians we want to speak about our faith and use God-language, we have a similar situation.  We are involved in a ‘language game’ which leaves large groups of people guessing what we are talking about. Large groups of people have no idea what is meant by evangelists and prophets, the book or Proverbs or the Apocalypse, let alone that they understand the difference between justification and sanctification.

The communication gap between those who believe, and who use biblically inspired language, and those who do not believe and have never opened a Bible becomes ever greater.  And the problem gets even more acute when the element of denomination-specific terminology is added.

In the context of preparing for a new book I have been studying the concept of the ‘shaking’.  It is one of these mysterious terms that are part of the Adventist ‘language game.’ Not all Adventists could give you a clear definition of what the shaking is all about. Most other Christians–let alone non-Christians–would have no idea what Adventists are referring to when they say they expect a shaking.

Remnant, time of trouble, spirit of prophecy, latter rain — these are just a few terms, that would be totally mysterious to almost anyone outside our faith community. And all other denominations have their own ‘language game’.

Just as I was thinking about this topic for this week’s blog, I received an e-mail with the weekly news-update from the North American Division. Interestingly, it contained an article about a very relevant aspect of any information endeavor: a very careful strategy is needed to fit the message to a very specific audience, especially when using the social media.[1] To enter into the ‘language game’ of the intended audience, and to use concepts that will ring a bell, are absolute requirements if any real communication is to take place.  Admittedly, that is not easy. But the most difficult part is, no doubt, to faithfully ‘translate’ our sacred language into the lingo of the twenty-first century secular person we want to ‘reach’.  The extra bonus is that it forces us to rethink what we actually mean when we use the terms that are so familiar to us and may have become rather meaningless for us when we used them routinely.

[1]  See http://www.sdadata.org/blog/creating-a-persona-social-media-personas-101


Some thoughts about dying churches

Last week I preached in a small church in the university city of Umeå in the north of Sweden.  In this city of some 75.000 inhabitants each week a small core of Seventh-day Adventist members gather–with a group of mostly foreign students joining them during the academic year.  I was told that here is the most northern Swedish Seventh-day Adventist presence. When I mentioned this on my Facebook page, it was quickly pointed out to me that there is, in fact, a group of Adventist believers in Slussfors, which is some 300 kilometers North-West of Umeå. And I was told that there is an isolated church member in Kiruna, which is the northernmost town in Sweden.  However, looking at the Adventist presence in most of Sweden north of Stockholm, it seems that for years Adventism has been on a steady retreat in this region.

The former president of the Adventist world church, Dr. Jan Paulsen, grew up as a boy in the North of Norway, where he was baptized as a member of the Narvik church, some 200 kilometers north of the Arctic circle. This church no longer exists, and quite a few churches in the northern part of Norway have suffered the same fate.

But it is not only in the North of Scandinavia where Adventists are an endangered species. In many places in Western Europe (and elsewhere in the Western world) countless churches that have not experienced the (often mixed) blessings of an influx of members from developing countries, have a hard time staying alive.

In my own country, the Netherlands, quite a few churches have closed in the past few decades. To mention a few: Sneek, Veendam, Goes, Den Helder, Ede, Hengelo, Kampen. Some churches have merged.  And some churches are struggling to survive, as e.g. Haarlem and Enkhuizen. The number of Adventists in the big cities has increased, but this has been only due to immigration, while the number of ‘indigenous’ members has been steadily declining.

What can be done to revert this trend? Do we give up and just accept that ‘what goes up must also go down’?  Must we simply accept that we are not immune to the factors that also caused a drastic decline in membership in other denominations?  Must we patiently wait for the moment when the last members will turn off the light?

I refuse to believe this. And that is not only because I have invested so much of myself in this church. It is because I believe this church has some ‘unique selling points’.  However, I realize that we in many cases must do better in translating and communicating these ‘truths’ in ways that show their relevancy for this century. And that we must do better in showing that we are an open and welcoming community of Christians, that also wants to be a part of the wider community.

I believe that we should do all we can to save the small local churches that are in danger of disappearing.  That may be even more difficult in places like northern Scandinavia, where distances between population centers and Adventist churches are huge, than it might be in the Netherlands where distances are mostly small.  Sometimes, all it takes to save a small congregation is to add 5-10 active members. Can nearby, more ‘healthy], churches come to the rescue? Can they encourage some of their members to commit a number of years of their church life to one of these churches in need? Can the national umbrella organization be more pro-active in stimulating such a process?

I know that many church planting experts will say that reviving a dying church is much more difficult than planting a new one. That may be so, but it is also true that giving up on the Adventist presence in a particular place is usually permanent. We must not let that happen.

Books, and more books

During the festivities of some two weeks ago, to celebrate the 90th birthday of the Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt, I met a few friends I had not seen for quite some time. One of them was Per Bolling, a Swedish pastor, who in the past served for some years as the manager of the Adventist publishing house in Sweden, and later as the Swedish Union president. He was my translator on Saturday morning August 5, when I preached during the church service. Per wrote a number of books and brought a copy of his newest book along for me. Having already written a book on Paul’s letter to the Romans, in his most recent book Per deals with the letter to the Galatians.(1)  Per is a clear thinker and a gifted writer.

Sigve Tonstad had come, together with his wife Serena, from his current domicile in Norway to the Swedish town of Rimbo. He also brought a copy of a book for me along. As it happens it is also about one of the Pauline letters. It is a commentary on the letter to the Romans from an ecological perspective (2). The title certainly raised my curiosity. Glancing through the book and reading a few lines here and there told me that reading this 400-plus page book (with rather small print) will require a considerable (but probably very worthwhile) effort.

Sigve Tonstad and I have great respect for each other, During our meeting in Rimbo he was very appreciative of my recent book FACING DOUBT. He told me: ‘You write for the church members and what you have to say is very important for them. And I,’ he added, ‘write mostly on behalf of the church and want to present an Adventist view to a larger academic community.’ Sigve is both a medical doctor and a theologian. As an academic he is by far superior to me. I regard him as one of the most able and most creative theologians in today’s Adventism.

Leaving Rimbo I received yet another book, written by a few dozen of Blomstedt’s friends. It was presented to the maestro at this special moment in his life.  I was honored to have been asked also to contribute a chapter to this book. (3)

However, as far as reading during our holidays in Sweden is concerned, these books must wait their turn. Of course, I brought a number of books for our four weeks in Sweden. As usual, I am alternating regularly between something ‘light’ and something that is more ‘substantial.’ A novel by the Swedish crime writer Håkan Nesser falls in the first category. I am reading it in the original Swedish language, which means that my reading tempo is a little slower than it normally is. I find it remarkable to see how Scandinavia produces so many excellent crime writers. The reason for this still puzzles me.

The more ‘substantial’ book that I will probably finish later today was published just about two months ago by Boekencentrum, a prominent Dutch publisher. The author is Gijsbert van den Brink, a professor at the Free University in Amsterdam. When I translated some time ago a voluminous book on dogmatics that he co-wrote with a colleague at the same university, I got to know Van den Brink quite well and received an invitation for the book presentation. The book is entitled: En de Aarde Bracht Voort: Christelijk Geloof en Evolutie. The Dutch title indicates that it is about christian faith and evolution. One of the reasons why I was so interested in this book is the fact that Professor Van den Brink has his roots in a rather conservative section of Dutch Calvinism. Most people in this segment of Dutch Protestantism tend to be very negative towards anything that smells of evolution. They cling to a literal interpretation of the creation story. Many of them must feel very uncomfortable with the fact that Van den Brink has taken it upon himself to investigate whether christian faith and evolution can actually go together. He tries to demonstrate that there are no insurmountable hurdles for maintaining the cardinal teachings of the christian faith while also accepting evolution as a fact.

I have read the book with great interest. I have gradually come to rather similar conclusions. This does not, however, mean that Van den Brink succeeds in convincing me in everything he says. I admire him for his courage to deal with this topic so extensively and openly–even though he knew he would receive much criticism. But I also appreciate the fact that, apparently, it is now possible, even in those circles where Van den Brink has his spiritual home, to discuss topics that are controversial, without being excommunicated or totally sidelined.

The book is a must-read for those Adventists who have serious questions about the official view of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which offers  a literal six-day creation in a recent past as the only option. (A somewhat more technical edition of this book in English will appear in 2018.)  It would be great if Adventist theologians and scientists would also be able to discuss these matters openly without fear of repercussions. And how great would it be if church-related publishing houses would welcome authors who search for answers in the domain of faith and science, and would publish their writings.  I do not easily abandon my hope that one day this will happen!


[1]  De Zweedse titel is: Frihet: en Liten Bok of Galatenbrevet (Uitgegeven door Skandinaviska Bokförlaget, 2017).

[1]  Letter to the Romans: Paul among the Ecologists. (Uitgegeven in de serie: The Earth Bible Commentary, door Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2016).

[1]  Herbert Blomstedt: Nahe am Herzen der Schöpfung. De inhoud is deels in het Engels en deels in het Duits.