Monthly Archives: July 2019

Problems for a preacher

While last Tuesday the outside temperature was steadily increasing, my study remained reasonably cool—cool enough to work on a new sermon. For a few weeks I had been thinking of a sermon about the foolishness of the newly converted Christians in Galatia, who allowed themselves to be confused by people who had come from elsewhere, telling them that we as humans  have to do our part in ensuring that we will be saved, and that it is just too easy to simply expect that Christ will take care of everything. Paul did not beat about the bush in his approach to the Galatians. They had abandoned the gospel of sola gratia with their acceptance of the message that you cannot be saved unless you stick to certain rules. This legalistic approach continues to present a great danger to Christians of today—most definitely including Adventist Christians..

So, the sermon for my next preaching appointment is ready. Sometimes I preach a sermon just once. When I sense that the message has not ‘landed’ the sermon disappears in the digital rubbish bin. But   when I sense that the sermon ‘did’ something for the listeners, I tend to preach the sermon a number of times in different churches, hoping that there are no members who move between different churches and then might have to listen to a sermon they already heard.

Working on my sermon I was suddenly reminded of a little rhyme that I saw written on a wall in the small museum at Schokland. Schokland used to be a small island in the Zuiderzee, the body of water in the center of the Netherlands, that has now for a large part been made into dry land. So, presently, Schokland is  a small elevated area surrounded by reclaimed land. The same is true for Urk, that also was an island before the land around it was reclaimed from the water. The little four-line rhyme is about a pastor who lived in Urk, but had accepted a preaching assignment in Schokland. As he made the journey by boat, the sea was so rough, that he completely forgot the text he had planned to preach about!

In the early nineteenth century it must have been quite an adventure to travel from Urk to Schokland for a preaching appointment. As the crow flies it was no more than 10 or 12 kilometers, but in those days the only way to get there was by boat. The Zuiderzee could be quite treacherous, which made the journey sometimes even a bit perilous. This is what the pastor from Urk had experienced. He had been so worried about the weather that he had totally forgotten the text and the theme he had planned to preach about. Apparently, he had the gift of being able to preach without any notes. But in his anxiety he had fotgotten what he was to preach about.

I do not have the gift of being able to preach without notes. I must have very full notes in front of me and many of my sermons are written out almost verbatim. This always results in about nine to ten sheets of A5 paper. I have never completely forgotten my sermon notes and left them at home. But it once happened to me that I was already on the podium of the church where I was to preach when, as the hymn just before the sermon was sung, I realized that my notes were still in my car.  Fortunately, the car was parked right in front of the church and I was able to sneak away and get my notes just before the last lines of the final stanza of the hymn was sung. (The audience probably thought that I had to make an emergency sanitary stop.) This has never happened again. Ever since I check and double-check whether my sermon notes are safely stuck in my Bible.

It happened once that my small stack of A5 -format notes had somehow shifted and were no longer in the right order. As I was preaching I had to re-arrange the order of the sheets. After that unpleasant experience I have always been careful to number my sheets of notes. You can be sure that the ten A5 sheets with my notes of the Galatians-sermon are carefully numbered from one to ten!

An invitation

On Wednesday morning the bell rang. Since we are living in an apartment building, visitors and parcel deliverers must first announce themselves before they can enter. From our apartment we can see and hear the person and can decide whether we allow the individual to proceed to the front door of our apartment on the second floor. There were two ladies with a simple request. Would it be OK if they put a leaflet in our mailbox? The leaflet was about a congress (about love) that was soon to be held. I appreciated their approach, for there is a sticker besides our mailbox to indicate that we do want to have the local newspapers but do not want any advertising materials.

My thoughts were confirmed when a few hours later I checked our mailbox. The ladies were Jehovah Witnesses. The leaflet was an invitation for a congress of the Watchtower Society to be held on August 2, 3 and 4 in the huge exhibition halls in Utrecht.

I am not an expert on the strategies that the ‘witnesses’ nowadays employ in their recruiting activities. Their former, rather aggressive, tactics are definitely a thing of the past. And their witnessing on the streets has also taken on a new form. I saw in several countries how they employ a handy, foldable standard that allows them to show their products. It seemed to me that the public is only approached when they show some interest. And when, occasionally, I get a copy of the ‘Watchtower’ or ‘Awake’, I notice that the headlines of the articles are much more moderate than in the past and have lost much of their former alarmism. Likewise, the leaflet that I found in my mailbox had no reference to Armageddon or other terrible events that are about to happen!

The question is, of course, how successful the Jehovah Witnesses are nowadays in their recruiting of new members. It is difficult to find exact statistics. According to a site that seems to be reasonably objective ( the society had some 29,500 Dutch members in 2015, which was about 1,500 members less than twenty years earlier. The growth in 2015 amounted to just 15 members, while there was a loss of 18 members in 2016.

It always bothers me when Jehovah Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists are mentioned in one and the same breath. Fortunately, that happens less and less. Most people who know anything about Adventists regard them as a bona fideProtestant faith community rather than a sect. Many Jehovah Witnesses are, no doubt, sincere in their faith. Their zeal for the spreading of their convictions may have decreased, but continues to be an example for most ‘main-line’ Christians. Their search for new strategies is certainly laudable. Any religious movement that fails to do so must accept the negative consequences.

As a Seventh-day Adventist I want to see my church grow. I doubt, however, that we should go back to our former strategies of going from door to door, or that we should mobilize the church in distributing hundreds of thousands of leaflets. (If we feel that distributing leaflets can still be effective, it is a job we can with full confidence leave to one of the postal services.) Likewise, I also doubt that organizing large congresses will result in many new contacts. We will probably never find out how many non-Jehovah Witnesses will attend the Utrecht congress. The congress may inspire many members of the Watchtower Society, but I suspect it will not result in many new members. And I wonder whether their new way of presenting their publications is really effective.

Adventists must also continue to search for new ways in which to communicate with the world around them. I repeat, however, what I said in last week’s blog: The greatest priority is to be (or to become) an open and warm faith community where people truly ‘belong’—a community that binds people together and radiates that this community has something important to share, that enriches life. The reactions on my blog of last week, which I received through various channels, underline the sad reality that in this respect, in many places, our local churches still have a long way to go.

Why belonging is important

The topic of church leaving has already for some considerable time weighed heavily on my heart and mind. And thus, when I see a book that addresses this issue I am instantly interested. When during a recent visit to Blackwell in Oxford I saw a book entitled Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II(by Stephen Bullivant, published by Oxford University Press, 2019), I was interested enough to give it a thorough look-through and to buy it. The book analyses the exodus from the Roman Catholic Church in a number of dioceses in the UK and in the United States and reaches some conclusions which can safely be applied to the two countries as a whole, and even in other areas of the world. It is true that the Catholic Church has suffered some severe setbacks because of the much-publicized sexual scandals, which made may people ashamed to be Catholics. But the exodus has a number of other causes and one major element is, as this book emphasizes, the loss of community. Lapsation is not mainly caused by doctrinal dissatisfaction or intellectual doubt, but by becoming gradually detached from the community where one found one’s spiritual home.

In the Adventist context Professor Richard Rice (School of Religion, Loma Linda University) has emphasized the radical change in the religious attitudes of the postmodern generations. In his book: Believing, Behaving, Belonging: Finding New Love for the Church(2002) he explained how former generations put ‘believing’ before ‘belonging’, whereas today truly belonging to a community has priority. It is essential that people have a close tie with the church as a place where they feel at home–where they are accepted as who and what they are, with all their questions and doubts. Building and maintaining that sense of community is a two-way street. It must be treasured and nourished by the individual. But the community must also do what it can to make each church member feel truly safe and at home. It must consistently give each member the sense of being important and being valued. It must be aware of crises in the lives of individuals and ‘be there’ for them.

Last week my wife and I met with someone who told us the story of her relationship with her church community. It was not a Seventh-day Adventist faith community and I will refrain from identifying her denomination. She told us how she had grown up in her church, but as she went through life she had gradually stopped attending church and being actively involved with her church. But she was never visited and even when there was a death in the family there was hardly any real support. Because she no longer attended she was at some point contacted with the message that her membership was now being discontinued as she seemed not to be interested to be part of the church.

Through the years I have heard far too many stories of this kind. And whenever someone tells me such a story I feel ashamed. It hurts and to some extent I take it personally. Why is the church (and why is also my church?) not doing a better job in making people feel they are valued as part of the community.

I hope I have through some of the things that I write helped some people to actually stay with my church and even find a new way to (re-)connect with the church (and with their faith). A few weeks ago I was at Newbold College in the UK. When getting my meal in the cafeteria I was approached by a gentleman. He said: ‘I am so-and-so. You probably do not know me. But now that I happen to see you I want you to know that I read everything you write and that you have kept me in the Adventist Church.’ Something like this happens perhaps a few times each year. This morning someone became my ‘friend’ on Facebook for a similar reason. Such things give me a lot of satisfaction. But when I think of all the people I know, and have known, who have distanced themselves from the church, I wonder: Has the church done what it should and could have done to stay close to these people? And I realize: that question also impacts on me? Have I done what I could do to look out for these people, to make contact with them and assure them that the community is still there and, in spite of its many imperfections, it is still worthwhile to be part of it? It is a sobering thought.


Remembering Slavery

On July 1, a special ceremony was held in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam in remembrance of the abolition of slavery in the Dutch realm. Each year this Keti Koti ceremony is held at the Monument of Dutch Slavery and its Heritage to remember that slavery was abolished in 1863. Already in 1860 slavery ended in a major part of the Dutch East-Indies, but it finally also came to an end in 1863 in the Dutch Antilles and Surinam. The Netherlands was one of the last countries to abolish slavery. Ceremonies were also held on July 1 in other cities in the Netherlands, in particular in Middelburg which at one time was a major center of the Dutch slave trade.

The Netherlands did not only use slaves in its colonies to make the plantations more profitable, but also had an important part in the international slave trade. It is estimated that the Dutch share is this trade was between five and eight percent and that this concerned between 500.000 and 850.000 men and women.

Today we can only look back with disgust when we think of this horrible trade in human flesh and all the  crimes and dehumanizing procedures that were part of this. It is a good thing that our society focuses from time to time on this scandalous part of its history. And, naturally, these regular ceremonies have a profound meaning for all those who trace their ancestry to slaves.

From time to time the question arises whether the offspring of the slaves should received a financial compensation for the pain and misery that was inflicted on their ancestors. This question is perhaps extra relevant in the light of another scandalous matter from the past that is presently getting a lot of attention. I am referring to the role of the Dutch Railways Company during the Second World War in transporting Jewish compatriots to the concentration camp in the eastern part of the country. The Dutch Railways has decided the follow the advise of a special commission, chaired by Job Cohen, a former mayor of Amsterdam, to pay a compensation to the few survivors and to the families of those who did not come back alive. I do not think the two cases can be compared in all respects. The current railways company is the same legal entity as it was when it was willing, some 75 years ago, to assist the Nazis with their project of eliminating the Jews. Perhaps it is only right that this company—although rather late—accepts its responsibility. But should the government, after more than 150 years, also give some form of financial compensations to the posterity of the slaves?  I am not so sure.  Slavery was a terrible thing, but through the centuries other population segments in the Netherlands have also been treated very unfairly. Historians must make sure we do not forget this. But should this always lead to financial compensation?

My wish would rather be that these regular ceremonies in remembrance of the Dutch role in the international slave trade, and of the Dutch enthusiasm to bring slaves to the plantations in our colonies in order to make these more profitable, would lead us to the point that we will begin to treat all human beings—far and near—as fully equal. We have not fully left our past involvement with slavery behind us until all discrimination has been abolished and until all people who live in our country are treated as equals, irrespective of ethnic origin, color of skin, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Not only equal for the law, but treated as equals in everyday life and accepted as truly equal in the way we think! Giving money to the posterity of slaves may be a nice gesture. It may assuage our national sense of guilt. However, we remain guilty of a subtle form of slavery if regarding and treating all people as fully equal has not been become a reality.