Monthly Archives: May 2014


A bigger difference is hardly imaginable. During the past few months I have been a faithful attendee of the Loma Linda University Church. It is the largest local Adventist Church in the world. Not quite is big as the Yoido Full Gospel Church (the Korean Pentecostal mega-church with some 800.000 members and a weekly attendance of about 250.000 people in a wide array of services), but with about 7.000 members it surpasses the membership of the entire Netherlands Union. During the first service (9.00-10.15) and the second service (11.30-13.00) almost all of its 2.300 seats are occupied. The church has concrete plans to substantially enlarge the building in the near future.

Since the services are televised, the services follow an exact time schedule. The music (either instrumental or a large choir) is of high quality. Everything is projected on large screens. During the weeks that I visited the church, the speaker was invariably the senior pastor. He knows how to captivate his audience. He preaches without any paper (Perhaps I state this with a little jealousy, since after fifty years of preaching I still take 10 sheets of A5 to the pulpit when I start my sermon.) Everything breathes professionalism.

You can enjoy your anonymity if that is what you prefer. You can choose to be a spectator, without getting personally involved in any way. I have the impression that this is true for many of the attendees. But I must be honest: there are hundreds of volunteers who ensure that the Sabbath services run smoothly and the church’s many programs are organized. I have also discovered that the church has many activities for its children and youth. Moreover, almost every week some people are baptized.

However, last Sabbath I was in a totally different church, about 100 miles North-East of Loma Linda. After a drive along a beautiful road through the Mojave desert we arrived at a rather simple church structure: a one-story building that contained a meeting hall and a few other rooms. Prior to the service I asked the pastor how many people we might expect. ‘On a good day about one hundred, or possibly one hundred twenty,’ he said. I was to be the guest speaker that morning.

My wife and I had arrived early enough to be there at the beginning of the Sabbath School, at 9.30 am. To my surprise there we just two men when we entered. To my further surprise these were two black men. During the Bible study hour gradually the number of (almost exclusively black) people increased, and when I began my sermon at about 1.15 pm (!), it appeared to be ‘a good day’, for the church hall was almost full.

I had not realized that many of the Adventist churches in California are quite small: mostly white churches, but also predominantly black churches and Spanish churches and churches with a mostly Asiatic membership. In any case, we were most warmly welcomed in the Antilope Valley SDA Church in Lancaster, CA. At the beginning of the worship service the church members were invited to greet each other, which was a much more spontaneous and physical process than I had become accustomed to in the Loma Linda University Church.  No classical music with violins and cellos, but jazz-like music with instruments I tend to associate with New Orleans. My sermon may have been a bit tamer than a sermon of the church’s regular pastor. (But there were a solid applause after I had said ‘amen’ and I do not believe this was mainly inspired by the fact that at last I was ready to sit down!)

During the past few days I have repeatedly wondered: If I were to live permanently in California, would I want to become a member of a perfectly orchestrated church as the Loma Linda University Church, where the services have many elements that agree with me as a white, well-educated, senior European? Perhaps I would, for I prefer a worship service with style, that starts on time and ends on time. Or would I rather opt for a smaller church where people know each other and you sense that they belong together; and where all, or most, people are directly and actively involved in what happens on the Sabbath morning—even though there many be some aspects that are culturally distant to me?

What ensures that a group of people is in fact a community of faith? It is a question that is not easy to answer. Of course, cultural factors play an important role. But the crucial thing is that a real ‘church’ consists of people who are determined to be ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ and behave as such—people who do not only come to church as passive receivers, but are also intent on giving from themselves to others. Well, I am beginning to look forward to returning to my home church—the Adventist church in the Dutch city of Harderwijk—where, thank God, we still have a church organ (admittedly, hardly comparable to the Casavant Freres pipe organ with 7,036 pipes in the Loma Linda university Church), with Robert as our faithful and gifted organist. It is a church that, I believe, qualifies in many ways to be called a real community of faith.


An American saint


A few weeks ago we could not miss the news that two former popes, John Paul II and John XXIII, had been officially recognized as saints by the Roman Catholic Church. But saints are not part of my world. Protestants still believe—and rightly so—that the Reformers of the sixteenth century were justified in resisting this Catholic dogma. After all, Christ is the only Mediator and he does not need the assistance of Mary or thousands of saints. Adventists have one further objection. They believe that these ‘saints’ are not in heaven but must still wait—just as billions of other people who have ever lived on earth—for the resurrection of the last day.

This explains perhaps why I hesitated before I bought a book about an American saint. But in the end my curiosity won the day and I purchased, two weeks ago, the book American Saint, the biography of Elizabeth Seton, written by Joan Barthel. Now that I have read the book, I certainly do not regret my purchase. On the contrary.

It would be an understatement to say the Elizabeth Seton was a remarkable woman. Her life started in the context of American high society in New York, in the final decades of the eighteenth century. She had a protected youth and a happy marriage that was blessed with four children. But things changed. After the bankruptcy of the firm in which her husband had a major share and, not long after this,  the death of her husband, Elizabeth went through a period of extreme poverty, in which she had take a number of boarders into her home to get some income and was largely dependent on gifts from others.

The factor that affected the rest of Elizabeth’s life most was her conversion to Catholicism. She left the Episcopal Church (the American version of Anglicanism) and eventually became the founder of the first religious order for women: the Sisters of Charity. The manner in which she succeeded in finding her way (and often pushing her will) in the Catholic male world of her time gives an extra dimension to this book.

The book is based on careful research but reads as a novel. Al in all, it is very much worth its money. But it has a special interest for an Adventist (like me) who likes reading about history. Around 1800 the total number of American Catholics was limited to about 50.000.  The anti-Catholic sentiment would reach its climax later in the nineteenth century, but Elizabeth was already experiencing how a person became a social outcast in America by embracing the Catholic faith.  The book offers an extremely interesting insight into this aspect of American history. It describes the anti-Catholic world in which Adventism originated and helps the reader to better understand the strong Anti-Catholic feeling that was to dominate Adventism ever since. This is, in particular, true for non-Americans who, two centuries later, wonder why this anti-Catholicism continues to be so strong in their faith community.

Was Elizabeth a ‘saint’? The Catholic Church officially canonized her in 1975. I cannot accept the theology behind the canonization process. But through the reading of this book I met a very special woman. She was intelligent, courageous, had some strong feminist traits, but was, most of all, an inspiring person of faith.  She was someone who lived for other people.  She was a very special woman. In short: I would call her a saint!

Separate roads?


It has been an intense week. As I am writing these lines I am on my way back to California, after I had interrupted my three-month stay at the Loma Linda University for five days, in order to participate in a symposium in Germany.

During three long days I have listened to some twenty lectures and have participated in the discussions. The central theme of the study conference was the impact of World War I on Adventism—in Germany and elsewhere. A number of aspects were on the agenda: (1) the speculative prophetic interpretations which misguided the church in its expectations of imminent events; (2) the problem of military conscription and military service in the period around WWI, and the question how Adventists, with their traditional non-combattancy standpoint, were to relate to this; (3) the attitude of the German church leaders who, at the time, were prepared to accept far-reaching compromises to ensure the survival of the church organization; (4) the protests of significant groups of members which eventually led to the origin of the Adventist Reform movement; and (5) the broader issue of war and peace and the challenges this brings to the Adventist Church. It was my task, during the final lecture, to provide an analysis of the various contributions to the conference and to outline potential strategies for the future.

The days of the conference were very interesting and highly informative. But it also was a pleasure to meet, among the presenters, quite a few persons I already knew and to get acquainted with people I had, so far, never met. The most extraordinary aspect of this conference was that it was also attended by a sizable group from the Reform movement (among them the president of its General Conference). We were privileged to listen to two lectures from leaders of this sister organization that now has some 70.000 members worldwide. In these lectures they gave their perspective on what led, now one hundred years ago, to the schism between the Adventist Church and the Reform movement.

During the past week I have gained a much better insight in the events that occurred in the German church in the years 1914-15. It was repeatedly conceded by several speakers (and confirmed by a special declaration that was read on behalf of the current Adventist leadership in Germany) that a century ago unforgivable mistakes were made. But this, at the same time, raises the question whether indeed these mistakes remain unforgivable or whether the time has perhaps come to put an end to this painful episode in the history of our church.

When I looked at the list of the more than one hundred persons who had come to listen to the experts, I saw that there was another person from the Netherlands. The name did not ring a bell. When we made contact this person introduced himself as the pastor of two of the Dutch local churches of Reform believers. He is not of Dutch origin, but, after two years in the Netherlands, has an excellent command of the Dutch language. He preaches once or twice a month in a small Reform group that meets in a rented hall (de Roef) in Harderwijk. This is at a distance of less than one kilometer from the church in Harderwijk where the Adventist church meets of which I am a member.

So, there are two small groups of Adventists meeting each Sabbath at the same time in the same small town. Without ever having any contact. Brothers and sisters who do not know each other and never see each other. It simply does not feel good.

Of course, I realize that differences between religious groups are never only a matter of theological insights. We all carry a significant amount of baggage. We have our own history. We have our own perceptions of each other. We have our own prejudices and traditions. Perhaps there are differences in mentality. But we have much more in common than there are things that separate us.

I do not know whether this meeting that brought us together in Germany will produce any lasting results. Perhaps it proves to be a tentative beginning of a gradual restoration of trust and perhaps this study of the past may help us to open ways to a new future. If this symposium had been a small step on this path, it was more than worthwhile to participate in it.


A small world


Another week has passed. I cannot complain about lack of variation. Besides my set pattern of Loma Linda activities, there continue to be unexpected encounters with people I have met somewhere in the world, or people whose names I knew or whom I have corresponded with. This happened a number of times during this past week. When visiting La Sierra University, dr. Keith Howsen approached me. Many years ago we sat together on the Newbold College executive board. I also had an interesting talk with dr. John Webster, one of the LSU theology professors. Some twenty years or so ago I had diner in the home of his parents in Capetown. His father, a New Testament scholar, is now in his upper eighties, but he still participates in marathons, and easily finishes a half marathon. Later this week, when visiting with a group of pastors in Orange County I met a young woman who told me that as a five-year old girl she had visited in our home with her parents (Gaspar and May-Ellen Colon) when we lived in Berrien Springs (MI). I also immediately recognized one of the people as Tom Nesslund, whom I had met a number of times in Latvia. And thus the big Adventist world can be surprisingly small.

On Tuesday evening I had been invited by the theology department of La Sierra University. A number of theology professors had brought their students together for a lecture that I was to give. Most members of the theology staff also appeared. I had prepared a presentation about the differences between American and European Adventism.  A day later this was also my topic for a meeting with the pastors in the Orange County district (one of the politically most conservative regions of the US).

I continue to think that there are some significant differences between American Adventists and European Adventists. Yet, I have adjusted my ideas somewhat in the past few years. The diversity among American Adventists is staggering. This makes it impossible to speak of ‘the’ American Adventist. European Adventism also exhibits a large degree (and an ever increasing measure) of diversity. The more ‘liberal’ part of American Adventism perhaps tends to think that the European Adventist are more liberal than their American brothers and sisters, but often they are only vaguely (if at all) aware of the large numbers of conservative and ultraconservative fellow-believers at the European side of the big pond. A significant factor, certainly, is  the fact that currently the American influence on European Adventism is greater than vice versa. A tsunami of dvd’s and publications by independent organizations at the fringe of the church, a collection of ‘right-wing’ speakers who are anxious to be invited for speaking tours in Europe (even if they have to pay their own ticket), and such clubs as 3ABN, GYC and ATS, are doing their utmost to strengthen or bring back an orthodox version of European Adventism. Anyway, a presentation about this topic always brings a lively discussion.

Next week I must interrupt my stay at Loma Linda for five days, in order to attend a symposium at Friedensau University in Germany. Long ago I had promised to speak during that convention and it was agreed with LLU that I would keep this appointment and that my Loma Linda program would be adapted to make this possible.

Friedensau University organizes a symposium about ‘The Impact of World War I on Adventism’. I have been assigned the last lecture and am supposed to bring the various strands of the discussion together. Fortunately, I could do most of the preparatory work before I left for Loma Linda. I look forward to the convention of next week, but I must admit I wished I could skip the long flight from LA to Berlin, and, a few days later, in the opposite direction. However, with so many bonus miles, I will soon again have enough miles in my UA account for a free round trip to the USA and that will suit me fine later this year! It is like the great soccer champion and philosopher Johan Cruyff declared many years ago:  Every disadvantage has its advantage!


Big and rich


Not so long ago the dream of the average emigrant to the US was to become rich. America was the country where newspaper boys could become millionaires. It was the land of unlimited possibilities. A few years of hard work and you had a sizable amount of dollars in the bank, a nice home and a big car. In many European countries wealth is something to remain hidden—yes for many it is almost something to be ashamed of. Most people would never talk about their very comfortable salary and most people do not like to be listed as rich persons with information about their estimated net worth.

In America these things are different. Success and wealth may be seen. A significant part of the population regards poverty and economic adversity as the result of making the wrong choices, the refusal to get a college degree, laziness or other things of people’s own making. I certainly know to appreciate the good things of life and am happy to be able to live quite comfortably, but I tend to feel a sharp uneasiness as soon I see ostentatious wealth around me and then, moments later, pass a miserable settlement of  the ‘mobile homes’ of those people who can hardly (or not at all) make ends meet. This was what I also experienced when last Sunday my wife and I paid another visit to Palm Springs—a city with over 80 golf courses. We enjoyed the Art Museum that has specialized in contemporary art. A magnificent building, a fascinating art collection, a marvelous garden-restaurant with an assortment of flowering cactuses and modern sculptures—everything demonstrating an exquisite artistic taste and, above all, breathing money and wealth. And yet, when you look around, even in Palm Springs one may see another kind of life. (After all, these golf courses must be maintained by low-paid legal or illegal Mexicans.)

America has an obsession with wealth, but also with format. Things must be big or must have the potential to become big. That is befitting for such a big country (‘our great nation’), a super power with the world’s biggest economy, and with the biggest companies of the world. It may well be that most Americans never read the book  Small is beautiful by the British economist E. F. Schumacher, but it is no coincidence that this classic was not written in the USA. Although the rise in the price of petrol (still ridiculously cheap when compared to Europe), may have stimulated many to say good bye to their big petrol-guzzling automobiles, ‘big’ remains the omnipresent adjective. The portions in most restaurants tend to be indecently big, not to mention the size of the containers in which the waiters continuously pour your water or other fluid. When in a Starbucks I ask for the smallest possible size cup for my ‘medium roast’, I must ask for ‘tall’. Strangely enough this word refers to the smallest available cup size (which will easily take the content of three average Dutch coffee cups).

Would it not create a totally different society if the focus on ‘rich’ and ‘big’ were to shift to an emphasis on ‘good’? I would not mind having  a bit more money and would not object to exchanging my Citroen C3 Picasso, that is patiently waiting for me in my garage in Zeewolde, for a car with a little more space. And many Dutch restaurants could consider serving the coffee in somewhat bigger cups. But I think that above all I would want to be a ‘good’  person.

In the meantime, the USA remains a nice country for a regular visit. This ‘big’ country has a lot of beautiful and interesting things to offer. I hope that at least for some time to come I can continue to return from time to time.

And—whether you like it or not—I remain a fan of president Barack Obama. He has his faults, but, I think, he is a ‘good’ person.