Category Archives: Uncategorized

Getting used to the ‘new normal’

During the press conferences of the Dutch prime minister and other government officials we keep hearing that we will have to get used to a completely different society. It won’t be like it used to be. Well, we’ll see.

In 1973 the then Dutch Prime Minister Joop den Uyl addressed the Dutch nation at the height of the so-called oil crisis. Because of political developments in the Middle East, the oil supply was partly cut off. This led, among other things, to the rationing of petrol and a ban on driving on Sundays. Den Uyl looked extremely serious when he said with considerable drama: ‘It will never again be like it was.’ Actually, things turned around rather quickly, and soon everything was again as it had been a few months earlier.

How will it go this time? Will we indeed have to get used to ‘the new normal’ that the bosses of our country keep talking about? Will the ‘six-feet-distance’ society’ become the established pattern for months or maybe even years to come? In any case, it seems that, for the time being, our lives will in all sorts of areas look rather different from what we were used to until some two months ago. However, the first steps towards easing the current restrictions have now been taken. Also by me.

Tuesday I could go to the barber again. I had to make an appointment, so that there would be no other people waiting. The barber wore a mask. I had to guess whether he had carefully cleaned his tools of the trade after servicing the previous client. Maybe he had, and that may have been the reason why he now asked four euros more than usual. The next day I had my first appointment again with my pedicure. Mrs. Natasha looked a bit strange behind her face mask and her protective clothing. Between her and me was a screen of transparent plastic. I was happy that the treatment could take place and accepted without any complaints that the rate had gone up a few euros.
Very carefully we will now start up our social life again. On Wednesday evening we had coffee at one of our neighbors – of course taking into account the six-feet-distance requirement! And then there were, during the week, some Zoom-meetings and on the sabbath the digital church service.

Today (Thursday) was Ascension Day. It is a national holiday, but only a small minority of the population realizes that today Christians remember that 40 days after Easter, the day Jesus Christ rose from the dead, the Lord ‘ascended’ to heaven. For most people it is simply a day off. When the weather is nice, the beaches and the terraces are full, and Ikea and the furniture boulevards are crowded. Today the weather was fantastic, but the restaurants and their terraces were still closed. Nonetheless, the Dutch people went out en masse and the six-feet-distance society of the ‘new-normal’ came under severe pressure.

My wife and I thought we needed a day out. We decided to take a ride through the Flevopolder and drove via the dike from Lelystad to Enkhuizen, and then went to explore some villages in the Kop van Noord-Holland (the rural area some 30 miles north of Amsterdam). Before we left Zeewolde we got a couple of bottles of water and some healthy crispbreads at one of three local petrol stations. Three quarters of an hour later, at the beginning of the Knardijk, we saw on a parking lot two stalls with food. Of course there were no tables and chairs -but at least we could get two cups of (rather poor quality) coffee. But, well, in the ‘new normal’ you cannot be too critical, can you? During our sightseeing in the villages in North Holland, we were looking for an establishment with sanitary facilities. At an exit to a motorway we struck luck: a petrol station had toilets that were open, and a shop that sold, among other things, raisin buns. And on our way back home we actually found a cafeteria where we could buy a bag of French fries, which of course we had to eat in the car.
This was what our day in the ‘new normal’ looked like. But we thoroughly enjoyed it.

Of course, we realize the seriousness of the current pandemic. And we are happy that thus far we have not become infected, and that we don’t live in a country where irresponsible and mentally derailed people like Trump and Bolsenaro pull the strings. In the meantime we hope that the situation in our country will develop in such a way that we will be able to use public transport again, provided we wear a mask. We are ready for it: a first pile of masks lies already on the table in our living room.

PS
Also in the church the “new normal’ is developing. Someone from the Adventist church in The Hague called me yesterday and said that they hope to have their first physical church service on 3 July, and she reminded me that I a scheduled to speak on that day. Now, that’s what I call good news!

Will there be dinosaurs on the New Earth?

Will there be dinosaurs on the New Earth? And will we be able to enjoy our cup of coffee in our eternal existence? Until last week I never asked myself those questions.

Last month I held two Zoom presentations for about a hundred members of the Sligo church in Washington, DC, who attend a special Sabbath school class which addresses all kinds of topics (without the use of the ‘quarterly’). Currently, this group does not meet physically, but uses Zoom digital technology. My presentations were based on my latest book I HAVE A FUTURE: CHRIST’S RESURRECTION AND MINE. During the discussion after the second presentation, one of the digital participants (who happened to be a fellow-students at Andrews University over 45 years ago) asked if I knew of the book entitled Heaven by a certain Dr. Randy Alcorn. He thought I would find it interesting, so I ordered it the next day in England via www.bookdepository.com. The book arrived within a week and in the meantime I’ve read parts of it.

The author of the book differs on a number of fundamental points from the Adventist view on death and life hereafter. For example, he defends the idea that man’s immortal soul goes to the ‘first’ heaven immediately after death, and will, after the bodily resurrection has taken place, live eternally in the ‘final’ heaven, which is the new earth. The writer also insists on the concept of an eternal punishment in hell!

However, that was not the reason why my friend from university days recommended this book to me. From my lecture he understood that I wanted to be very careful when sketching too concrete a picture of the new earth. Indeed, I emphasized that Bible writers could only say something about our eternal destiny in images that were part of their time and culture. For example, Isaiah tells us that we will plant vineyards and build our own houses, while John refers to a city with walls and gates like he knew in his days. And if we look at how, over the centuries, artists have portrayed the eternal paradise, we see that they invariably used motifs and images with which they were familiar.

But Randy Alcorn makes it very concrete in his book. He emphasizes that the new earth is identical to our present earth, albeit completely renewed and perfected. But the things we will experience are the same things that we are used to now–except that they are made perfect. Alcorn thinks we must read the Bible very literally. He believes it will be fantastic to live in a city with thick walls, like the Revelation describes. Of course those walls are no longer necessary, but they remind us of God’s power to protect us. Nature will not be fundamentally different from what we presently have on this earth, apart from the fact that, of course, there will be no more natural disasters. Compared to the waterfalls we will have on the new earth, the current Niagara Falls will look abysmally small.

I’m just picking a few things from the hundreds of pages this author spends on his description of our eternal future. One question particularly caught my interest: Shall we drink coffee in heaven? According to Dr. Randy Alcorn, these are the facts: God made the coffee. Coffee grows on the earth that God made for us and that man was told to cultivate. Among the trees that God created was also the coffee bush–one of the trees which God described it as ‘very good’. Moreover, we read in the Bible that all good things must be accepted under thanksgiving. We may assume that our taste buds on the new earth will function even better than they do now and that therefore the coffee will taste infinitely better than it already does in our present life! Similar reasoning leads to the conclusion that our pets will be part of our eternal future. And it gets better and better: there is no reason to think that there will be no books as we know them now! And then, a few pages further on, I find the assurance that there will undoubtedly also be dinosaurs on the new earth. After all, they were once created by God! Because things went wrong on our present earth, all kinds of animals became extinct, but it is reasonable to think that what God originally created will be recreated ‘in full glory’.

Personally I find it amusing to read this kind of things, but to me it is not very appealing. I believe in eternal life. I assume that there is continuity in the sense that we will be the same people. The mortally imperfect person I am now will be resurrected as immortal and perfect and will live in a perfect setting. What this eternal future will be like I cannot know as long as I live in the here and now. Dr. Acorn’s depiction of our eternal destiny is the speculative result of a questionable way of reading the Bible, which in my opinion has little to do with real faith. Real faith says: ‘Lord, I belong to you and trust you. I look forward to see what you have in mind for me.The Bible gives me some basic ideas, but rather than to speculate and fantasize, I want to be surprised.

The value of a human life

Some time ago a conference was held in Copenhagen about certain aspects of international development cooperation. A professor from the English city of Nottingham suggested that the economic value of an average American could be set at six million dollars. Anyone doing very dangerous work in the United States, the professor told his audience, usually asks for an extra $60,000 for every percent he is more likely to have a fatal accident. So, if a one percent chance of dying equals $60,000, then one hundred percent equals six million. On the other hand, he said, one could say that the economic value of someone in a developing country is around $22,000, because that is what such a person on average earns over the course of his life. I don’t know how the amounts would turn out if such a conference were repeated today.

Major construction projects pay a lot of attention to security safeguards, but they usually assume that human lives could be lost. How many fatalities is acceptable in a large project? When the government is considering spending money on traffic facilities that can improve safety, one cannot escape the question of how much this will cost, and whether that outweighs the number of human lives that are likely to be saved. And how will the investment in the research and development of a new drug relate to the number of patients that will benefit? Will a new drug bring in so much revenue that it is worth the investment? Can we expect health insurers to pay for very expensive cancer drugs if it is not yet known how effective these drugs are, and whether they extend a patient’s life or improve the quality of life for a patient?

This inevitably raises the question of whether one person’s life has more value than that of another. Does possessing a certain skill or our social status increase our economic value? Is a cabinet minister worth more than a cleaner? Why does a football club sometimes pay several millions (or even more) in transfer money for a player, and why does a top manager in a bank receive a huge cash bonus and options worth millions? And why, on the other hand, must an ‘ordinary’ employee, when he/she leaves that same bank after forty years, be content with an extra month’s salary?

In this time of Corona-crisis, the question of the value of a human life has taken on some extra dimensions. If there is not enough capacity in the health care system, should senior citizens be sent to the back of the queue, because their lives are almost over anyway? And how many Covid-19 deaths do we accept to get the economy going again?

The numbers of Covid-deaths are, of course, for most of us rather vague notions and they become more and more vague as the numbers continue to rise. If an airplane crashes with 200 people on board, it’s a disaster that we can somehow wrap our minds around. We see on TV the debris of the plane and the desperate people at the airport, hoping for the message that there are survivors and that their loved ones might be among them. But if there are between 80 and 100 Covid-deaths a day in the Netherlands in the past week, we are told (and believe) that things are going in the right direction, and we get hope that the pandemic will be over soon. Yet, we are talking about several plane loads of people in a week. And the American government seems willing to accept that there will be more than 100,000 deaths, as long as the factories can start running again and the economy recovers quickly. It raises the question: What is a human life worth to us?

Not to mention the question of what a human life in other parts of the world is worth to us. In the South, the crisis is likely yet to erupt in all its intensity. Are human lives in Africa and South America worth as much to us as the lives of Europeans and Americans? Add to that the millions of men and women, and especially children, who die each year from hunger or non-Corona-related diseases. Apparently, they are worth so little to us, that we hardly think about them anymore.

What value do I place on the lives of others? It is difficult to answer that question honestly. Of course, when it concerns the life of our partner or our child or grandchild, or that of a good friend, such a life has a higher value for us than the life of a homeless alcoholic in Amsterdam. This is understandable and justifiable, as long as we realize that we are talking about emotional value. Of course, it makes a difference whether we are talking about loved ones or anonymous people who are strangers to us. But from a Christian perspective it is not justifiable that we make a distinction with regard to a person’s intrinsic value. For that is the perspective from which God looks at his creatures. Every human being is equally dear to him, and every human being has the same value for him. Politicians (christians or non-chrsitians) should use that perspective as the basis for how they view the value of human life in this Corona-period: Every human being is invaluable, and so the maximum must be done to save human lives, even if it means the Dow Jones and the Dutch AEX will be diving into the red for a while longer.

Grace

One of the Dutch television programs I usually watch is De verwondering (The Wonderment) early on Sunday morning. In this program Annemiek Schrijver meets well-known and lesser-known guests, with whom she talks about their life experiences. She does that from a religious perspective. She is not only a sympathetic, but also a very skilled interviewer. She makes no secret of the fact that the Christian faith is very important to her.

Last Sunday’s episode was a repeat of an earlier conversation with Herman Finkers. Of all the Dutch comedians I admire him most. He is not just funny, but he really has something (deeply) meaningful to say. When I saw and listened to the program last Sunday, and when I watched it once more in preparation for writing this blog, I was struck by the depth of what was said. Actually, the conversation also made me a little jealous. I envied Finkers for the authentic, deep, but understandable way in which he spoke about religion. I suppose there aren’t many comedians who have read books by Schopenhauer. Finkers mentioned how he was impressed by Schopenhauer’s book Über die Religion, which appeared in English under the title Religion: A Dialogue. Schopenhauer claims that religion cannot do without ‘pious lies’. Although he himself felt he didn’t need religion, he did see the importance of it. But he assumed that religion by its very nature must contain paradoxes and even ‘absurdities’ or ‘pious lies’. Religion has to do with things of an entirely different order, and so the claims of religion con only be allegories, which are of necessity adapted to our human comprehension.

I must confess that I know much less about Schopenhauer than Herman Finkers and that I have never read any of his books. However, what Finkers said has made me curious. Of course, I cannot say it in such a profound way as a famous philosopher like Schopenhauer, but I have also come more and more to the conclusion that we as humans can only speak about God and eternity in ‘human language’, and this must therefore always be adapted to what we as limited, mortal beings can understand. So, what we say and think is always a distortion of the Reality, and strangely enough, the ‘truth’ as we understand it, is at the same time ‘a pious lie’.

However, what appealed to me even more in the interview is what Finkers said about the idea of God’s all-sufficiency–the idea that a perfect God needs no other beings, and nothing else, because he is ‘enough’ in himself. Finkers cannot accept that concept of God. If it is true that God is love, then God needs other beings, and there must be reciprocity. This means that it is not about us, human beings, who must do our best to ensure that he can get along with us. Our journey through life cannot be compared to the Dutch skating tour along the eleven Frisian cities, in which the participants must collect a stamp in each of these cities to eventually get a medal. Perhaps the most beautiful statement of Finkers in this interview was that our sins can never compete with the goodness of God. Saying that is actually uttering blasphemy!

And how right Finkers is! I also agree wholeheartedly with what he said next. It makes sense to him that we show our gratitude to God for all the good things we experience. And if things work out, or if beautiful things happen to us, some might speak of ‘luck’. But Finkers prefers to call that grace.

Many a pastor or priest cannot express the core of the gospel as well as the comedian Herman Finkers. Thank you so much!

Preaching

Sermons

In an earlier blog I already mentioned that I am currently writing a new book with 366 daily messages. This time I am mainly targeting those who have leadership roles in the church, in one way or another, at all levels. 366 is, of course, quite a large number and obviously I am trying to tap into various sources of inspiration. Last week it suddenly occurred to me to take a look at my sermon archive to get some more ideas. After all, my preaching covers a respectable period of about 55 years. Although my church work has hardly been in pastoring local congregations, I have preached almost every week throughout all those years. During the time I worked in Cameroon the frequency of my preaching declined significantly, but the only period in which I hardly preached at all were the three years I worked in the Mission Institute at Andrews University. There are so many theologians in and around Andrews that I was called upon only very rarely.

For a long time I hadn’t looked at my sermons that date from a somewhat distant past and it was therefore a special sensation to browse through the hundreds of sermons I have written over the years – almost all of them almost verbatim. In the beginning I wrote everything by hand, and it took me quite a lot of effort last week to decipher my hand writing. In many cases the ink has faded and the quality of my handwriting always left a lot to be desired. Those first sermons were mainly held in the northeast of the Netherlands, especially in Leeuwarden, Sneek, Oosterwolde, Groningen, and Bierum. Now that I read some of those sermons again, I felt a bit sorry for the people who had to listen to them!

The years that I worked at the school of Oud Zandbergen, in combination with the directorship of our church publishing house, and also the years that I worked exclusively for the publishing house, were extraordinarily intensive. Nevertheless, I preached almost every week and, as it was customary back then, most of the time twice on every Sabbath. In those days nearly half the congregations had afternoon services, which meant that after the morning service, the minister had to climb another pulpit in the afternoon as well. From my notes it appears that I preached some sermons far too often, because I simply lacked the time to study and make a new sermon.

After I left the Netherlands and worked successively in Africa, the United States and England (at the office of the Trans-European Division) I preached mainly in English, but sometimes also in French–of course often through an interpreter into a local language. Sometimes I used a sermon a dozen of times and a few times even more often, but in very different places. I estimate that I have preached in at least sixty or seventy different countries. During my years in Africa, I had the opportunity to preach in some thirty different African countries, with the unique experience of some twenty evangelistic presentations in Madagascar. On the back of a sermon from the TED period, that I happened to give a closer look, I saw that I had taken it to Budapest (Hungary), Moss (Norway), Tallin (Estonia), St. Albans (UK), Ljublijana (Slovenia), Turku (Finland), Novi Sad (Serbia) Skopje (North Macedonia), Zagreb (Croatia) and the Portuguese-speaking congregation in Brussels. But I was also privileged to preach in many places further from home, as, in various places in the US, Mexico, Pakistan, Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, etc.
Of course, from time to time, there were always sermons on special occasions – anniversaries, graduation ceremonies and, unfortunately, funerals of colleagues and friends. After my return to the Netherlands, and also during my retirement years, the national and international speaking appointment have continued fairly constantly. I hope the quality of my sermons is better now than some twenty or thirty years ago. Nowadays I seldom preach a sermon more than three or four times. Of course, it is up to others to judge whether I have improved over time (or whether my preaching skill is going downhill with age). But for five weeks now it has not been possible to go out preaching. I miss it more than I could have imagined, and I hope that this situation will change again soon and my Sabbaths will be ‘normal’ again.

The advantage of the Corona-time is that I can now hear colleagues more often. who deliver their sermons digitally. I am in fact a little jealous of those who hardly need to consult any notes. When I can go out preaching again it will be, as always, with about ten fully printed A5 sheets stuck in the back of my Bible! I am afraid that will not change.