Monthly Archives: March 2013

Baalbek and Easter



[Beirut, Saturday afternoon, March 30, 2013] Last Tuesday had a bitterly cold start for me in Zeewolde, but the day ended in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, where at the time of my arrival, around 9 pm, local temperature was still about 20 degrees Celsius. That is where this blog is written, in a not very cheery hotel room at the third floor of Hotel Eden. Why this hotel has been graced with this name is, after four days, still unclear to me.  However, the greatest part of my time I spend during this week, not in my hotel room, but in the auditorium and lecture rooms of Middle East University—the Adventist institution of higher learning that, since a few years, has the privilege of calling itself a university. [This gives me a lot of satisfaction, since I played a role in that development. At the time when I worked in the church’s regional office in England, the church in Lebanon was under the umbrella of this office. I requested, and after a long wait, received, together with a few other persons, an audience with the president of the Lebanese Republic. Our purpose was, among a few other things, to plead for university status of the institution.  And this proved to be successful!

This week the university (MEU) organizes a conference with some sixty Adventist theologians from over a dozen European countries in attendance. The theme of  the conference is: ‘The translatable gospel’. There is hardly a more suitable place for such a conference than the Middle East. How do you ‘translate’ the Christian gospel in a region of the world with millions of people who are hostile to Christianity? Or where, at most, there are some groups of Christians that are, at best, tolerated. And, of course, that is not all. A major part of the world is highly secularized. There the church finds itself in heavy water as millions turn away from the institutionalized church. How do you ‘translate’ the gospel for these people? And how do you do this for the younger generation that, as a rule, has so little interest in faith and church? And then: How do you ‘translate’ the Adventist version of the Christian faith? How does this translation process take place? How can you be sure that this ‘translation’ remains true to the original?


During the past few days I heard a number of fascinating lectures about this topic. I have made a contribution with a presentation that defended the view that not all ‘translations’ of the gospel—not even those in our own circle—need to be fully identical, since none of us can claim to posses the full Truth. The title of my presentation was: ‘Diversity as a Biblical Value.’

Yesterday we spent a major part of the day on an excursion to Baalbek in the Beka valley—the area that saw heavy fighting during the civil wars of a few decades ago. We were given a tour through the immense temple complex. Through the years I have seen quite a few ruins and reconstructions of ancient temples, but the (mostly) Roman Baalbak temple is one of the most impressive. There the Baal was worshiped, the pagan god we so frequently meet in the Old Testament.  In Roman times Baal was replaced by the Roman gods. It took as buck to the world into which the early Christians had to ‘translate’ their message. Walking through the vast remains of this ancient temple complex you realize that we, in the twenty-first century, are not the first, nor the only ones, who have this ‘translation’ challenge.

I realized this even stronger when, upon our return from the excursion, I got talking with the Lebanese guide, a young woman in (I think) her late thirties. She told me she was working on her Ph.D in social sciences. She made her living at this moment in time as a tourist guide. I must say: she was very good at that. The cross around het neck suggested a Christian connection. When I probed this a little, she told me she had also started some theological studies. She was trying to learn Syriac, the language that is still used by the Maronite Christians in their liturgy. Fortunately, I remembered that the Maronites belong to a relatively small church, that dates from the fifth century, which is ‘eastern’ in mentality and form, but recognizes the pope in Rome as the head of the church. The conversation was not long enough to find out about the depth of her interest for the faith of her parents and ancestors. But it brought the theme of our conference very closely home to me: How could I possibly ‘translate’ my version of Christianity to communicate it to this Lebanese, Maronite woman in such a way that she might understand what I would want to say and grasp the importance of it?

As conference participants we hardly realized that yesterday was ‘Good Friday’. For a few moments a Roman-Catholic procession through the streets of the Christian area of Beirut, reminded us of it.  And while we were walking through Roman temple complex in Baalbek, suddenly from the ‘new’ town of Baalbek (which is partly Christian), a hymn sung by a male voice was heard. It was amplified to the extent that it could be heard in most of the town. It was unbelievably beautiful. The guide told us that the hymn was about the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and was sung because it was good Friday, an important day for all Christians. But we, Adventist theologians, paid little attention. We were intently looking at old stones and ancient pillars!

[Fortunately, the worship service of this morning was devoted to the Easter theme. Dr. Daniel Duda, the education-coordinator of the Adventist church in a major part of Europe, preached on the topic of ‘Easter Saturday’. It was a most inspiring Easter message.]

Mixed feelings


Saturday evening, March 23, 2013] Today a phase of my life ended. It sounds more dramatic than it, in fact, is. When in September 2011 I accepted the job of president of the Adventist Church in Belgium and Luxembourg, I knew it would be for a limited period. I agreed to do it for about a year. Well, it became a period of a year and a half and I had to be firm to ensure that it would not be longer. I began with a lot of doubt. Was it wise to step into this adventure? No one could be found who was either able or willing to be the president. Would it be possible for me, as a retired foreigner, to function in this assignment and, in fact, get something accomplished?

I have been more than someone who for a short time was simply  minding the shop. I have tried to get a number of things on the rails and have done my best to improve relationships, for instance between the conference board and the pastors. I have a feeling that a few things have succeeded. But I am also aware that there are still many challenges and that, of course, I have also made my share of mistakes. It was with mixed feelings that today I said ‘good bye’ to the church in the Belgian-Luxemburg Federation. During a special festive Sabbath for all church members in the conference, I handed the responsibilities to Jeroen Tuinstra. And thus the church in this part of Europe finally has a regular new president, rather than someone who serves ad interim. And once again it is a Dutchman.

Yes, it was with mixed feelings. I must admit that it was not always easy and straightforward. My experience in church work helped me a great deal, but there were moments when the challenges were quite unique. I knew, of course, that there are differences in mentality and culture between the Netherlands and Belgium. I have, through the years, noted that dealing with other cultures can often be more difficult when those cultures are outwardly more or less the same, but are quite different beneath the surface. That is why, for instance, it can be confusing for an American to have to work together with an Australian. They look the same, but they do not always react in the same way in a particular situation. Similartly, is was surprising (and fascinating) to experience how much Belgians and Dutch people are alike, and yet differ from each other.

I noticed in the past eighteen months that I do no longer have unlimited energy, and that, as a result, the task was somewhat heavier than I had expected. However, because of the kind of person that I happen to be, I had the tendency to focus on numerous things that another ‘temporary’ president would have put on the ‘to-do’ pile of his successor.

But I also noted how surprisingly welcome I was, and how (to me somewhat unexpectedly) positive my colleagues in the office and the churches cooperated with me and were prepared to initiate new things. Of course, I do not pretend that I have become loved and appreciated by everyone. I am sure that some members of the Belgian church have not always understood my humor, and I know that there are some who think that I am a liberal rascal. Often that judgment is not made on the basis of any real attempt to understand what I have said and written. But, I am not going to lose much sleep over this. Today I could once again experience in the reactions of many people that I had been accepted and became a real part of the church in Belgium and Luxemburg.

My successor, Jeroen, ‘steps into a warm bath’. Of course, he is not a younger copy of me and he is going to have a different approach to things. He has other (and, possibly, more) talents than I have, and he is bound to make other mistakes than I have made. It will take some getting used to for him and for his colleagues, and for the church in general. He will discover how complicated the church in Belgium and Luxemburg can sometimes be, but also how much potential there is.

I have been asked to still be involved with a few issues in the coming months. And I will also have the privilege to attend the Franco-Belgian Union session as a special delegate, at the end of April. And if Jeroen wants to send me a mail from time to time, and wants to know why in the world I wrote a particular letter, or how I could possibly have made such a stupid proposal, he knows that I am rather prompt in responding to mail messages! But he does not need to be afraid that I did not really say ‘good bye’.

Now that he retire for the second time, I hope to have a bit more time ‘for myself’, for my wife and for our relatives and friends. And I sense there are some books that need to be written . . . On Monday I will be home all day (apart from a dental appointment). But on Tuesday morning I leave for Beirut (Lebanon) for about a week. I will report on this in my next blog.

Finally, Jeroen, I wish you all the best. I wish you God’s abundant blessings and a lot of inspiration. Enjoy the ‘frites’, and also the way in which the people in Belgium and Luxembourg  will (both figuratively and literally) embrace you. For a reserved Dutchman that takes a bit of getting used to!


Might God surprise us?


For a few hours I doubted last Tuesday whether, after the two-day meeting of the administrative committee of the Adventist Church in France and Belgium, I would be able to leave Paris. The massive amounts of snow in the North of France had caused an enormous chaos on the roads between Paris and Lille, and most flights and trains from the French capital were cancelled. But I was lucky. Around three p.m. a Thalys train at the Gare-du-Nord appeared from somewhere and it was announced that passengers for Brussels could board. It was not clear when the train was to depart and how long the journey would take. But, lo and behold, after a little more than a half hour the train began to move at a somewhat reduced speed and we made the trip to Brussels without any problems. As a result I was in time for my evening meeting at the conference office in Brussels.

The events of this week in Rome were, of course, a lot more interesting. When at the end of the second day of the conclave the white smoke ascended from the chimney, the journalists –some of them were clearly not great experts on the subject—were faced with the challenge to keep talking for an hour about unimportant details, and to speculate about who had been elected as the new pope. But then, there was the surprise: an Argentinian pope, who had chosen the name Franciscus I. A Jesuit!  And, once again, someone who is already quite old. [Years ago Samuele Bacchiocchi, the well known Adventist expert on Catholicism, had predicted that one day Bergoglio might have a good chance to be chosen as pope.]

I am often struck by the similarities between the Roman Catholic Church and the Adventist Church. Both denominations have a hierarchical structure, with one powerful person as the top leader. The Catholic Church has traditionally elected an Italian as its leader, with the exception (until now) of a Pole and the German Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI). The Adventists have traditionally chosen an American, with one exception: the previous general conference president (Jan Paulsen), who was a Norwegian. The Catholic Church has now opted for someone from a non-western country. It does not require much prophetic insight to predict that the next general conference president will, in all likelihood, also be a non-western person.

I am curious to see Adventist comments on this papal election. I assume that quite a few ominous conclusions will be drawn from the fact that this 266th pope is a Jesuit.  For Jesuits have never been very popular among Adventists. And, no doubt, if there will be any positive reforms or drastic changes, these will be interpreted as mere window dressings. I have seen on the internet the first reactions in that direction.

I prefer an attitude of ‘wait and see’. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was born on December 17, 1936, has in the choice of his papal name been inspired by the founder of the Franciscan Order from the 12th century, but maybe also a little by the famous Spanish Jesuit missionary Franciscus Xaverius, who went to China in the 16th century to proclaim the gospel—and who had concepts of missionary work that were rather progressive for his time.

Will this new pope surprise the world, as some fifty years ago John XXIII surprised the world by convening the Second Vatican Council? Will he cause a fresh wind to blow through his church, or must we look forward to more of the same?

Adventists must continue to critically follow the events in Rome. But it is also important not to be too sure of the all details of the end-time scenario. Almost three millenniums ago God surprised the prophet Jonah by changing his mind with regard to the city of Nineveh. Who knows how God might yet surprise us in the twenty-first century! After all, God often is a God of surprises.


Fear of death

One thought often leads to the next. That was also the case when I started writing this blog in the Thalys hi-speed train from Schiphol airport to Paris. Last Friday morning I visited a bookshop and bought a book that was published late last year. It is by someone called Ebbe Rost van Tonningen. It is a rather fascinating book by someone who needed to deal with the past. His father was a prominent pro-German politician, prior and during World War II. He died in the high security prison in Scheveningen, near the Hague, just after the end of the war. The exact circumstances of his death have never been disclosed. His mother, frequently nicknamed ‘the black widow’, remained a fervent defender of Nazism, until her death a few years ago. As a result she often was in the news—always in a very negative way. Ebbe did (and does) not share in most of the convictions of his parents, but he happens to share infamous surname.  This has greatly impacted on his entire life, and that is what the book is about. During this past weekend I read about three quarters of the book with intense interest.

As I was reading, I remembered a television interview with an elderly (retired) Dutch politician, Willem Aantjes, that I saw a few days ago. At one time he was a prominent leader in the Social-Christian party. He might have gone on to become our prime minister. But his career ended abruptly when evidence was discovered that Aantjes had been a member of a pro-German organization. Later on it appeared that things were not quite as bad as had first been suggested, but his reputation was destroyed. Instead of becoming a prime minister, he became the chief of the national Camping Organization.

The interview with Aantjes caught my attention in particular when he was asked some very personal questions. The journalist asked him whether he was afraid of death. I had expected a firm ‘no’, as Aantjes has always presented himself as a fervent believer. However, he hesitated maybe ten second before he said: ‘Yes, I am’. In reply to further questions he explained that people with his strict orthodox Calvinistic background will never lose this feeling of uncertainty about their ultimate destination. God does as he has predestined. Has he elected you to be saved? You can only hope so, but you can never be totally sure.

As I was listening to this interview, my thoughts went back to a conversation I had some months ago with a medical specialist who had treated many patients from a (religiously) very conservative region in Holland. He is not a Christian himself but did not avoid talking with me about the topic of faith. He told me that he had been utterly amazed about the fact that so many terminal patients from that region are so terribly afraid of death.

This is certainly food for thought. How does one explain the fact that people who faithfully attend church every Sunday—often twice—continue to doubt whether in the end God will accept them?  Of course, there is something they worry about, while it does not bother this doctor: the idea that you can be forever ‘lost, and may burn in an everlasting hell in stead of enjoying the eternal blessings of heaven.

I have no idea how often people around me think of death. I cannot say that it is constantly on my mind, but I cannot help but think quite often about the fact that some day my life will end. When you have become a septuagenarian, the rest is downhill. . . .  But does that really frighten me? That is not an easy question to answer. Fortunately, I am rooted in a Christian tradition that has concluded that an eternally burning hell is not a sound biblical idea. But, yes, I believe a person can be ‘lost’. However, I also believe that, if ‘deep down’ I have chosen to place my trust in God, things will be all right. Not because I am good enough. Even though I think that I am a reasonably good human being, I know that, in and of myself I am not good enough to be accepted by the Lord. Not even if I were ten times as good as I am now. But, fortunately, what counts is that God is good enough, and therefore I do not need to share in the fear of Aantjes and the people in the Dutch Bible belt.

Surely, I do not find it a pleasant idea that there comes a day when I will be no longer there. This is not a comfortable thought when you still enjoy life and are in a reasonably good physical shape. Naturally, sometimes you wonder whether you (or someone else) might one day discover the first signs of Parkinson’s Disease or whether you will have to fight against some form of ugly cancer. But, ending your life suddenly, without warning, through a massive heart attack, also has its disadvantages. Whatever happens, according to the Christian faith, death remains an enemy that is to be respected. But that same Christian faith tells Aantjes and the people in the Dutch Bible belt, that this foe has been defeated for everyone who makes a choice for Christ.

The internet in the Thalys is too slow to ‘load’ this blog. I will do this in a few hours from now, when I have arrived in Hotel Manet—about which I have written (not too positively) at some earlier occasions in this blog. But in the meantime I will try to finish the last seventy pages of the book by Ebbe Ros van Tonningen!


The papal cat


During the past week we have learned a lot more about the daily life of the pope, who by now is pope-emeritus. The media have at length reported about the pope’s physical condition, the red shoes of calf leather, the way he should henceforth be addressed, his ring, and even the amount of his pension (2,500 euros per month).

There were, however, two details that caught my eye in a special way. He will live two months in a rather nice mansion outside Rome, before he will move into a small, renovated apartment in a convent. He will take his books with him, but also his piano and his cat. I had vaguely registered at some time in the past that Benedictus loves to play the piano, but I did not know that he is also a lover of cats. I checked this last detail, and, indeed, the pope has always had one or more cats. Remarkably enough, when he wanted to bring his own piano into the Vatican, he met a lot of resistance, and that was even more so when he wanted to have a pet in the Vatican—which seems to be against a rule that all inhabitants of the Vatican must obey.

This kind of details make Joseph Ratzinger, or (emeritus)pope Benedict XVI, a real human being of flesh and blood, and not just a representative of a powerful institution, for which one may or may not have much admiration. It seems, however, that is is important to make that distinction. When I read some mails that were sent to me over the last week from Poland, it appears that some (many?) of my fellow Adventist believers, think that one should not write kind things about the pope, since this creates confusion. They feel that one cannot see the man without also seeing the institution. And we know how terrible this institution is . . . Etc., etc.

It is, of course, true that one cannot fully detach a person from the official role he/she has played, or is playing—especially when it concerns people who have been, or are, in leadership positions at whatever level.  But it remains important, I believe, to try to first of all see the persons, rather than institution they may represent.  That also applies to Benedict XVI.

History will judge the seven-year pontificate of the pope who has just resigned. Many felt he was too orthodox, too rigid. Often people said that the pope did not understand the times in which he lived and was too intolerant with regard to certain moral issues. I know enough of the history of the Catholic Church and of the way in which that church is governed; I know enough of the theology and the political aspirations of Catholicism, so that I am certainly not on the point of converting to the Church of Rome. And I doubt whether this pope will go down in the history books as a strong and effective pope.

But when I see Pope Benedict, I do not only see a man dressed in splendid liturgical garments, who says a mass on the St. Peter’s square, and who tells more than a billion believers that they should not take the pill or use condoms. I do not only see a man who officiates at beatifications or who has a warped understanding of the role of Mary.

I also see a man who is obviously sincere in what he believes. I see someone who has made big sacrifices and who has lived for his ideal. I see a man who loves his books and loves to write. And I see a man who likes to get behind his piano and who welcomes it when his black/white cat Chico jumps on his lap.  And I see a person who has friends and relatives who call him Joseph.

I hope our Lord will eventually welcome Joseph Ratzinger in his heavenly home. And I hope I will have the chance to ask Ratzinger how it was possible that he stuck to some of his ideas and did not read his Bible more carefully. And there are 1001 other things I would want to know from him.

Of course, I do not know for sure that I will then meet him. It depends on two things. Firstly, it depends on whether or not I will be accepted by God, in spite of all my shortcomings. And, secondly, it depends on whether or not Benedict will be admitted by God, in spite of his false ideas and in spite of all the mistakes he made as pope Benedict and as a man called Joseph. But one thing is sure: God does not want anything more dearly than to welcome both me and Joseph into his eternal home (whether or not my Polish fellow-believers like it or not).