Author Archives: Reinder

Looking and seeing

The Lonely Planet Guide has recently declared the Dutch province of Friesland (Frisia) to hold third place in the top ten of European holiday destinations. At the moment the capital city of the province—Leeuwarden—is Europe’s cultural city of the year. That makes a visit to Friesland very timely, but when this year is over and the pressure of tourism has somewhat abated, it may be even more pleasant. Friesland has a rich history; it has many traditions; it has beautiful small towns with marvelous historic centers, and it offers beautiful scenery as one drives from one place to the next.

I love visiting Friesland. My name betrays that my ancestors came from there. Dutch family names that end in -sma indicate a Frisian pedigree. My first church appointment was caring for a small congregation in the picturesque Frisian city of Sneek. That is also where our son was born, now more than fifty years ago. Last Friday morning my wife and I drove to Friesland for a day of museum visits in and around Leeuwarden. We stayed the night in a reasonably comfortable three-star hotel and went to church on Sabbath morning where I was scheduled to preach. Since it was the Pentecost weekend my sermon was based on a story in Acts 19, where Paul meets twelve men who came to church of Ephesus but confessed that they knew nothing of a Holy Spirit. Well, you can easily see that this text is a good springboard for a sermon on our need for being acquainted with the Spirit.

On Friday, on our way North, we made a short stop in Heerenveen, about 30 kilometers south of Leeuwarden, where we visited a museum that we had never before been to. It proved to be a small museum, mostly dedicated to a group of regional Frisian painters. But it also has special exhibitions. The current exhibition features the paintings of the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. His specialty was painting still lives of bottles and vases. Interesting, but not something I could get very excited about. In fact, I enjoyed the museum building (and especially the coffee shop with a great view of the Frisian landscape), more than the art works.  But, entering the hall with the paintings of the Italian artist, I was struck by a statement by Morandi that was printed in large letters on the wall. It read: You can travel the world and see nothing. Understanding the world does not require a lot of travel, but it all depends on looking intently at what is before your eyes.

Morandi’s words are so true.  I still have the opportunity to do a lot of travel. I am writing this blog while I am waiting for my flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg. And, lo and behold, as I am sitting in the waiting area and checking my e-mail, I find that I am invited for a series of speaking appointments in Australia later in the year! Even though most of my travel leaves me very little time for touristic activities, I do see a lot and try to absorb the local culture and circumstances as much as I can. I believe I can truly say that the travel throughout my life has had a major influence on me and on who I am today. However, I also often meet people who have traveled much more than I have. They have visited exotic places, but have seen next to nothing. They may sit on a beach on the Seychelles for two weeks, without trying to see how the people live. They may go on a safari tour in Africa but see little more than they could have seen in a zoo in their home country.

Seeing and understanding the world does not primarily depend on constantly going to lots of places, but it has most of all to do with our curiosity, with being open to discerning and learning, with our willingness to ask questions and seek answers. And this is not only true for the sphere of faraway travel and exiting geography. It also applies to everyday life. Some people see far less than others. Some are almost blind to what happens around them—in their family, their neighborhood, their workplace and their church. Others constantly see things that enrich their life and stimulate them to form balanced opinions or to adjust their points of view.

A few years ago one hundred of my blogs were put together in a book (in Dutch).  The title was: Wie goed kijkt ziet altijd wat! Or, to put it in English: If you look intently, you will always see something worthwhile.  I still believe this is very true!

Israel

As soon as the topic of Israel comes up, I have a number of different thoughts. And in this week, in which the State of Israel celebrates its seventieth birthday, these thoughts only intensify. For me the subject of Israel has three important aspects, and each of them evokes many questions. Firstly, there is the political reality of the State of Israel that was established seventy years ago. Then there is the situation of the Palestinian people which is closely connected to the existence of Israel. And, thirdly, there is the question of the spiritual significance of Israel.

Let me begin with a paragraph or two about the reality of Israel as a nation state. Anyone who knows just a little bit of the history of the Jewish people, through the centuries, but especially during the atrocious events of the last century which culminated in the Holocaust, will understand the desire of the Jews to have a safe haven. And, from a Jewish perspective, it stands to reason that this would be located in their ancestral land. I can live with the fact that the Jews acquired their own state. However, I feel very strongly that the Palestinian people should also have their own state and I hope that I will still live to see a fair and peaceful two-state solution. Currently this seems further away than ever, and the situation has even become more complicated by the irresponsible initiative of President Trump to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

It is  no wonder that the Palestinians protest on a regular basis against the Israeli occupations of part of their territory and against the continuous construction of new settlements in these occupied Palestinian territories. Not all methods that the Palestinians use are acceptable. And the situation is made even more complex by the internal divisions and the stubbornness of Hamas. But I fail to understand why the Israeli use so much violence, as they have done once again in this past week. How can a people that has suffered so much inflict so much suffering on another people? I wished my own country would not back Israeli politics to the extent it continues to do and would be prepared to stand up for the rights of the Palestinian people (as, for instance a former Dutch prime-minister, Dries van Agt does).

A major segment of conservative Christians in the western world is very solidly pro-Israel. Many of them believe that, although the Jews may have rejected Christ when he was on earth, God has not finished with them and that in the end the Jewish people will accept the Messiah, and then the Jewish believers will enter God’s new world together with the Christians ‘from the gentiles’. It is fair to say that, as yet, we see no signs that this is about to happen!

Other Christians defend the so-called substitution theory.  They believe that the church is now the ‘spiritual Israel’, and has replaced the ‘literal’ Israel as God’s people. The promises once given through the prophets to the people of Israel, were conditional. Only if Israel would remain loyal to Jahwe these promises would be fulfilled. Since the people of Israel failed to abide by these conditions, the promises will now, at most, receive some kind of spiritual fulfilment in the church. This has long been also the traditional Adventist view.

However, the idea that the church has replaced Israel has lately not gone unchallenged. I agree with those who argue that this substitution theory is rather questionable. In his letter to the Romans the apostle Paul tells us that somehow a link will continue to exist between the Jewish ‘tree’ ands the  (Christian) ‘branches’ that have been grafted on that ‘tree’. The theologians must help us in sorting out what that means. I recognize that my faith has solid Jewish roots and realize that I can learn much from how the Jews read the Bible. But I will stay away from all kinds of Jewish rituals, such as celebrating the Jewish feasts. I see an increasing trend to do so, also among Adventists, but I want to stay away from that. I am not a Jewish Christian but a Christian from the gentiles’.

And I  certainly do not want to be part of the large group of Christians who condone just about everything the State of Israel is doing!

Ascension Day

Thursday May 10—Today is Ascension Day, which means that Dutch people do not have to go to work. In many countries Ascension Day is not a public holiday, but in the Netherlands it is. Forty days after his resurrection Jesus ascended to heaven. We read about it in in the Bible in the first chapter of the book of Acts. That event is commemorated today. A relatively small group of Dutch people, mostly of rather conservative Reformed vintage, will go to church. But it is safe to say that the vast majority of the population has no idea what Ascension Day is all about. For most it is a day for family activities and shopping, and furniture shops and garden centers will be very busy.

Celebrating Ascension Day goes far back in time. Some of the Church Fathers of the early ages already mention it and from trhe Middle Ages onwards it was an important day in the liturgical calendar. Different folkloristic customs sprung up around this day, such as the tradition of ‘dauwtrappen’ (literally: dancing on the grass that is moist because of the dew). In times past people would get up extremely early, even before sunrise, and would dance with bare feet, and sing, on the wet grass. Presumably this originated in a pagan custom. Today this tradition has developed into walks in groups or bike tours in the (not too early) morning of Ascension Day.

In general, Seventh-day Adventists do not attach great value to celebrating the Christian feast days. Some are, in fact, very much opposed to paying any attention to them. I experienced this just weeks ago, when on the Sabbath just before Easter I preached in a Dutch Adventist church. My sermon was about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. After the service I was sharply criticized by a lady, who felt that I should have preached about a truly Adventist topic, as for instance the heavenly sanctuary, and not about something she could have heard in any other church! Perhaps my sister-in-the-faith would have been more satisfied if I had preached about Jesus’ ascension, for that topic fits seamlessly with the heavenly sanctuary theme.

In several places the book of Hebrews refers to the moment when Jesus departed from the earth and ascended to heaven, where he promptly began his ‘work’ as the great heavenly High Priest. One of the prominent themes of this book of the Bible is the radical difference between the imperfect earthly high priests and the perfect heavenly High Priest, who having acquired the right to become our Mediator can assure us of our eternal salvation.

Most (?) Adventists believe that this heavenly ‘work’ of Christ our our High Priest consists of two phases. They argue that in the second phase, which began in 1844, Christ is ‘active’ in the most holy part of the heavenly sanctuary, where the ‘investigative judgment’ takes place. It is a rather complex teaching that is based on the premise that the heavenly sanctuary must be an exact parallel of the early sanctuary, since God told Moses to construct the tabernacle with two apartments (the holy and the most holy) in accordance with a heavenly model that he was shown by God.

There has been almost constant controversy among Adventists about the question whether Jeus’ work in the heavenly sanctuary consists of one single phase or of two plases. (In the book of Hebrews there is, remarkably enough, no mention of a two-phase ministry.)  Desmond Ford was the most prominent supporter of the single phase option. The controversy that erupted cost him his job in the church, and left a trail of misery across the denomination. Today many Adventist theologians and pastors agree with Ford, although they are often reluctant to admit this publicly.  To me, the one-phase option sounds quite convincing, but rather than fight about this issue I would much prefer that we simply accept that there are differences of opinion. After all, it seems that most of us agree on the core of what is at stake. Christ came to this world to die on our behalf. But he was raised from the dead. Many men and women met him during the ensuing forty days and testified that the Lord ‘was truly risen’. When Christ departed from this earth, he was fully entitled to be called the perfect Mediator / High Priest, who can ensure that all who accept him will enjoy the eternal benefits of what he accomplished on the cross. I cannot understand how this all fits together. We are dealing with a heavenly reality that far exceeds our human intellectual capacities. But the essence of this heavenly reality is ‘revealed’ to us in words and images that give us some idea of what Christ did and does for us. In any case, it tells us enough that we may rest assured that somehow the gap between God and us has been bridged. For me that is all I need to know.

2 JUNE. – Utrecht – A TIME FOR DIALOGUE

This week’s blog targets specifically my readers in the Netherlands and Flanders. It describes a program that will be presented in the afternoon of June 2 in the Adventist Church in Utrecht. A similar program was held about a year ago and many participants expressed their desire that there would be some form of follow-up. This is what the program of 2 June is intended to provide.

The program is once again especially targeting those who wonder whether the Adventist faith continues to be relevant for them and whether the Adventist Church continues to feel as their spiritual home. Like last year’s program this new event is also to a major degree inspired by my recent book FACING DOUBT: A Book for Adventist Believers ‘on the Margins’.

The program will largely consist of interviews and discussion in groups and plenary dialogue. Participants are asked to bring their smartphones. They will need those to take part in a polling about issues related to faith and church.

During the morning the Utrecht congregation will have its ‘normal’ worship, but all who plan to come in the afternoon are also invited to join this worship service in which I will preach. The Utrecht Church will serve soup, coffee, tea and soft drinks in the period between the morning service and the special program.

Everything will proceed in Dutch and we will probably not see very many who do not have a reasonable proficiency in our beautiful language, but here are the details nonetheless:

Theme            LOSLATEN EN VASTHOUDEN. (Letting go or holdeing on)

Date                2 June

Time                14.00-1700 pm

Soup, etc         from ca. 13.00 pm

Place               Adventkerk Utrecht, Marco Pololaan 185, Utrecht

More info:       gaanofblijven@gmail.com

BRING YOUR SMARTPHONE

 

No program for the children during the afternoon program. Adequate parking close to the church. Everybody is also invited to the worship service of the Utrecht Church  (10.00 Sabbath school; 11.00 divine service).

PLEASE SHARE THIS INFO WITH YOUR FRIENDS AND OTHERS WHO MAY BE INTERESTED IN THE THEME OF THIS PROGRAM

The Contours of European Adventism

I have enjoyed participating in the Symposium on the Contours of Adventism in Europe, that was held this past week at Friedensau University in Germany. It was a pleasure to present my paper on The Adventist Church and the European Unionand to listen to, and discuss, more than fifteen other presentations from scholars from many different countries in Europe, Russia and the United States.

Many of the papers that were presented were of a historical nature. And indeed, looking back at what lies behind us is important. A movement needs to know where it came from and how it developed in order to face the present and the future in a purposeful and coherent manner. A few presentations focused on the enormous difficulties that Adventist believers faced in the past. In countries with an established ‘national’ church, the emergence of newcomers like Adventists was not welcome and this often translated into fierce opposition. But these difficulties do not begin to compare with what believers in many parts of the former Soviet Union had to endure. As participants of the symposium we listened to many little-known stories of true martyrdom—the personal histories of people who faced long-term prison sentences and, in a considerable number of cases, were tortured or even lost their lives. Those of us who live today, and who are Adventists in today’s world, do well to remember their sacrifices and to treasure those shining examples of heroism, when we are confronted with ugly reaction as we share our faith.

However, looking at the past of our church also reminds us that the past is a mixed bag of good and not so good things. I referred to that in my recent blog about the biography of S.N. Haskell, one of the Adventist ‘pioneers’. His story is one of success and defeat, of acts of faith and of dubious decisions, of great achievements and of serious shortcomings. This week Dr. Gilbert Valentine, a historian who teaches at the La Sierra University in Southern California, presented an excellent paper on aspects of the person and work of John Nevil Andrews—the first official missionary sent out from the USA to Europe. We were told of the problems Andrews had to face when beginning his work from Basel, Switzerland. He knew little French and soon suffered a severe culture shock. The European missionary enterprise was a heavy drain on the church’s finances, and often the needed funds were slow in arriving. His decision to put a lot of his energy (and funding) into a monthly magazine, rather than holding a series of meetings in smaller towns (as the brethren in the US had advised him to do), was ill-received at the church’s headquarters. Andrews maintained that working in Europe was far different from working in the United States and that he had to adapt to these very different circumstances.

A most interesting aspect of Valentine’s paper on Andrews was his relationship to James and Ellen White. Andrews and James White did not get along and James was extremely critical (also in articles for the official church paper) about Andrews’ work in Europe, in particular for going against the counsel of the leaders in the USA and for not following the American model of evangelism. Ellen White, who at that time had not yet been in Europe herself and had not yet gained any first-hand knowledge of European circumstances, was at times also very critical. Her last 13-page letter that was sent to Andrews when he was terminally ill, was extremely sharp and critical and one wonders whether this was what Andrews needed when he was about to die. Later assessments of Andrews’s work were far more positive, and some time later, after making a five month visit to Europe, Haskell stated that he fully understood Andrews’ approach and probably would have done the same, had he been in Andrews’ place.

Once again, the presentations I heard this week helped me to better understand that the past should not idealized. Yes, there were many beautiful things in our denominational past, but the players were all very human and we must learn from their successes, but also learn their failures and mistakes.

(I look forward to the full biography of Andrews that Gilbert Valentine has written and will be published towards the end of the year!)